Exhibition | Fuseli and the Modern Woman

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on September 7, 2022

Henry Fuseli, Sophia Fuseli, Her Hair in Large Rolls, with Pink Gloves, in Front of a Brown Curtain, detail, 1790
(Kunsthaus Zürich, Collection of Prints and Drawings)

◊   ◊   ◊   ◊   ◊

From The Courtauld:

Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism
The Courtauld Gallery, London, 14 October 2022 — 8 January 2023
Kunsthaus Zürich, 24 February – 21 May 2023

One of the most original and eccentric artists of the 18th century, Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) will be the subject of a new exhibition at The Courtauld, opening 14 October 2022.

Henry Fuseli, Half-length Figure of a Courtesan with Feathered Head-dress, ca. 1800–10 (Kunsthaus Zürich, Collection of Prints and Drawings).

Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Fuseli spent a formative period in Rome in the 1770s before settling in London, where he was elected Professor of Painting at The Royal Academy and served for 21 years as Keeper of the RA Schools, working and living at Somerset House in what is now The Courtauld Gallery.

While Fuseli was famous in his lifetime for stylised paintings depicting fantastic and supernatural scenes drawn from his imagination and literature, The Courtauld’s exhibition explores an altogether different dimension to his art. Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism will reveal the artist’s secret lifelong obsession with the female figure through fifty of his strange and striking private drawings, many of which depict the spectacularly extravagant hairdos and fashions of the day. The exhibition will explore Fuseli’s fascination with female sexuality and the modern woman—as a figure of mystery, transgression, and dangerous allure—and provides an insight into late 18th- and early 19th-century anxieties about gender, identity, and sexuality during a transformative period in European history.

Organised in collaboration with the Kunsthaus Zürich, the exhibition will showcase drawings brought together from international collections. Following its presentation at The Courtauld, the exhibition will travel to Zürich, the city where Fuseli was born.

The catalogue is published by PHP and distributed by The University of Chicago Press:

David Solkin, ed., with contributions by Jonas Beyer, Mechthild Fend, and Ketty Gottardo, Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2022), 168 pages, ISBN: 978-1913645298, £30 / $40.

Best known for his notoriously provocative painting The Nightmare, Fuseli energetically cultivated a reputation for eccentricity, with vividly stylised images of supernatural creatures, muscle-bound heroes, and damsels in distress. While these convinced some viewers of the greatness of his genius, others dismissed him as a charlatan, or as completely mad.

Fuseli’s contemporaries might have thought him even crazier had they been aware that in private he harboured an obsessive preoccupation with the figure of the modern woman, which he pursued almost exclusively in his drawings. Where one might have expected idealised bodies with the grace and proportions of classical statues, here instead we encounter figures whose anatomies have been shaped by stiff bodices, waistbands, puffed sleeves, and pointed shoes, and whose heads are crowned by coiffures of the most bizarre and complicated sort. Often based on the artist’s wife Sophia Rawlins, the women who populate Fuseli’s graphic work tend to adopt brazenly aggressive attitudes, either fixing their gaze directly on the viewer or ignoring our presence altogether. Usually they appear on their own, in isolation on the page; sometimes they are grouped together to form disturbing narratives, erotic fantasies that may be mysterious, vaguely menacing, or overtly transgressive, but where women always play a dominant role. Among the many intriguing questions raised by these works is the extent to which his wife Sophia was actively involved in fashioning her appearance for her own pleasure, as well as for the benefit of her husband.

By bringing together more than fifty of these studies (roughly a third of the known total), The Courtauld Gallery will give audiences an unprecedented opportunity to see one of the finest Romantic-period draughtsmen at his most innovative and exciting. Visitors to the show and readers of the lavishly illustrated catalogue will further be invited to consider how Fuseli’s drawings of women, as products of the turbulent aftermath of the American and French Revolutions, speak to concerns about gender and sexuality that have never been more relevant than they are today.

The exhibition showcases drawings brought together from international collections, including the Kunsthaus Zürich, in Zurich, the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand, and from other European and North American institutions.

David Solkin is Emeritus Professor at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London.
Jonas Beyer is Curator of Drawings at the Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich.
Mechthild Fend is Professor of Art History at the Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main.
Ketty Gottardo is Martin Halusa Curator of Drawings at The Courtauld Gallery, London.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: