Dark Romanticism

John Martin, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1829?











Dark Romanticism is not confined to any singular art movement as such, but is more of a mind-state that penetrates the centuries.

Brassaï, Graffiti


Romanticism is a grace, celestial or infernal, that bestows us eternal stigmata.

(Baudelaire, The Salon of 1859)

Romanticism seems to stem from a collective memory in artists, a shared human experience. It finds beauty in the banal, seeks the enigmatic in the ordinary and reaches into the core, exposing raw emotion.

Victor Hugo, Planet, 1866

It was the murky fog underneath the gloss of the Enlightenment; the sinister side of humanity revealed as the political orders and social systems cracked and dragged all of Europe into the depths of suffering. There was much dispute in intellectual circles over reason as a “universal, judgemental authority” with the release of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In questioning the verisimilitude of this concept, people who previously thought they were so fucking enlightened and progressive became shaken! Disillusionment took hold.

Jean Delville, The Idol of Perversity, 1891

Out of the black pool of the conditio humana sprung apparitions of death, spirits and demons plaguing the mind; Lady Macbeth’s and Grimm creatures; the dark shadows of the subconscious creeping and sprawling across the canvas.

The literary works of famed masters such as Milton, Victor Hugo, Byron, Shakespeare, Dante, Edgar Allan Poe, Goethe helped inform the phantasmagoria now so embedded in our brain folds. Mario Praz wrote a book in 1930 (published in English 1933) called The Romantic Agony. His analysis was on Romantic literature and in particular, it’s preoccupation with the erotic. Yet, tangled in there, he examined the cultural decline of Europe and the passion of the nocturnal psyche. It was established as a scholarly study but understood in terms of GothicismThis is not the same!

There is no true historical era for Dark Romanticism! In fact, in many ways I find a distinct parallel between the so-called Enlightenment of the late 18th century and the Now.

Städel Museum’s exhibition (September 2012 to 20 January 2013), Dark Romanticism; From Goya to Max Ernst  brought together a collection of 200 works from + seventy different artists in an attempt for some proper theoretical exploration.

And Dark Romanticism is deserving of attention.

It touches something very deep in the abyss of the human heart, no matter how buried or hidden it may seem. I think much of the paintings appeal to modern sentiments in their alarming graphic-ness. It is to shock, to puncture our little bubbles of comfortable thought in our comfortable little houses and comfortable clothes and comfortable conventions.

Aristotle’s Poetics tried to explain the human fascination with violence: something disgusting in life is pleasurable in art. And during the late eighteenth century, this occupied the minds of writers and philosophers alike. One of my faves, Edmund Burke, wrote A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in 1757.

Aaaaaahhhhhh, the Sublime; something that inspires both awe and terror inside of you. BUT apparently, you can only find enjoyment in the Sublime when you know it isn’t gonna directly affect you, (hmmm, debatable!) As it both encompasses the beautiful aka that which imprisons us in the ‘sensuous’ physical world:- so the sublime can free us from it, with its overwhelming and staggering impact. There is no gradual transition from dependency to liberation. There is one or the other.

I suppose ya’ll are wondering where the fuck is Freud in all this?

Well, notably Carl Gustav Carus and Victor Hugo kinda beat him to it. They were devoted to the galaxies of the human mind long before, but I guess not written so ‘scientifically’ … If you wanna refer to Freud as a science … Regardless! The unlocking of one’s knowledge on the world lay in knowledge of self. 

These archetypes delve into the darkest fathoms of human fears and could bring a monster to his knees in profound joyful woe.


Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814

I’m not afraid of witches, hobgoblins, apparitions, boastful giants…nor indeed any kind of being except human beings.

This masterpiece did not feature in the exhibition but should be mentioned over and over repeatedly.

It is perhaps the only work of Goya’s that illustrates the slightest ray of hope. I think it can still testify as a Dark Romantic through exposing us to the injustice and horror of war; something so repulsively unimaginable but so so real.

This was painted after Napoleon’s occupation of Spain in 1808.  Here, Goya has memorialised the Spanish resistance caught in a face-off with the French military in front of the barracks.

The Spaniards consist of farmers, labourers, countrymen! They are pinned to the side of a hill by the fierce repetition of the firing squad who remain faceless, un-relatable and robotic.  They literally merge into a dark grey killing machine, proven to be rather efficient by the pile of fresh corpses strewn across the ground. In contrast, we see the rebels in a disorganised jumble but bathed in golden light.

Goya has treated the lamp like a division between good and evil: the noble every-man and the anonymous machine in the shadows.  But most importantly it dramatically highlights the martyr of the story; on his knees, his arms flung open like Christ. (If you look very closely, his hands appear to be pierced). The steely guns also point directly towards this glowing figure.

His facial expression is somewhat difficult to decipher but the longer I try to pin it, I find Goya has attempted to convey the deepest depths of human emotion: fear, pain and suffering, yet there is an element of defiance in his stance, also illustrating the power of belief. It’s notable that if this dude stood up, he would be a gigantic figure. He is larger than life and a pretty big deal – much like the concepts of courage and faith that he represents, not only for the Spanish but for people everywhere.

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799

Goya’s most iconic etching comes from a set of eighty aquatint prints called Los Caprichos, critiquing humanity’s irrationality and various blunders, alongside his views of contemporary society/every ‘civil’ society that exists.

[Aquatints get a rich, textured and varied surface]

When approaching this, anyone can ascertain that this is one ominous image! The man (Goya himself?), slumbers amongst his papers and pens with bats and owls encroaching from all sides, while the lynx lies in wait,  eyes gleaming through the dark (- a creature both mysterious and evil in Spanish folk tradition).

It’s pretty interesting to note that sueño means both sleep and dream. We realise we have entered Goya’s nightmare as we lock eyes with some shrouded creature in the centre of the composition. He meets our gaze and forces us to actively participate in this shadowy corner of thought.

Without Reason, evil and corruption prevails. To me, the etching is best summarised in the artist’s own words

Imagination abandoned by Reason produces impossible monsters, united with her, she is the mother of the arts the source of their wonders.

This pre-enlightenment work perhaps signals the start of the ‘Sublime’ subject in Romanticism, then? This dark vision of humanity characterises Goya’s work way before the war and occupies his mind for the rest of his life. And for sure, I can empathise with his despair, and that familiar feeling when you conclude that there is no salvation in a world so fucked up.


Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781

People were actually warned to stand a fair distance from this painting when first revealed to the public. It’s impact was big and the work was received with a mixture of fascination and alarm amongst the endless crowd pleasers of the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition of 1782. Fuseli ignored the iconographic traditions of his predecessors that controlled the way dreams were supposed to look. Thus, people saw this as emotionally evocative and psychologically charged; “philosophical ideas made intuitive, or sentiment personified.”

The image draws on Germanic folklore in the depiction of what we would recognise as an incubus  and a wraith-like horse. The word nightmare has its roots in mara – a demonic creature much like an incubus, that suffocates you as you sleep (with a particular taste of salacious young women). It was also believed that mara would ermmm ‘ride’ horses which left them very unhappy, sweaty and exhausted in the morning.

With this reference to literature and the classical influence seen in the deathly sculptural figure (it ain’t easy to accomplish that wet-look drapery!), this painting was only just suitable enough for the panel at the Academy. The lusty bed of red she is splayed across heightens the emotion and is literally there to remind us of sex and death, if it wasn’t already overt enough in the heavily menacing-oppressing-voyeuristic-mood of it all.

We are stripped of extra background details; Fuseli wants us to focus on the nightmare, where passion and horror collide expressed in his figures. Kenneth Clark once remarked that Fuseli had exposed society’s ‘hidden neurosis’. Freudian ideas of sublimation also feed into Fuseli’s painting; could this simply be a sublimated sexual instinct? Note: socially unacceptable impulses are consciously transformed into socially acceptable action because the long term conversion of the initial impulse aka art/inventions serve a much greater cultural or social purpose.

The threatening scenario sent rumours flying around London that this crazy Swiss guy ate bloody pork before bed every night and took a bunch of drugs to stimulate his erotically, nightmarish visions!

Visions that solidified his place as a key player in Dark Romanticism.


Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1824

Aged thirteen, whilst ice skating, Caspar David was saved from drowning by his younger brother Johann Christoffer.

But in saving him, Christoffer took his place and fell through the frozen lake.

His life following, and many of his paintings clearly allude  to this traumatic experience.

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1824

This is the most famous of all Caspar David’s paintings.

And for me, this is the most chilling and pensive image of the post.

It is elusive, suggesting the integral connections between nature, personal experience and visions of the very complex self. Evocative of silence and solitude, many art historians immediately note the late paintings of Rothko – in the subdued and gloomy colours that hover all hazy-like. He employs something art nerds call  Rückenfigur ; the monk is our surrogate, experiencing the devastating sublimity of nature.

Dwarfed by the landscape, he raises his hands in prayer, contemplating life and all its impermanence as the black waters of infinity stretch out before him. Now, usually when I consider sublime landscapes, all I see is Turner Turner Turner  but to me, there is an understated reunion here between the spiritual self and nature.

Perhaps the monk stands, listening to the breathing of the earth as he recollects his past; his wrongdoings, his failures, his heartbreaks. Perhaps the monk laments a life without a matrix of streets and the descending smog of no return! Perhaps it is guilt, despair, uncertainty, death. Whatever it may be for Caspar David Friedrich, the beauty of this mystic image is based on the personal experience of the viewer.

We end up meditating about our own lives as we melt into the scene and take the place of the faceless monk. The open and expansive sky is awash with poignancy; no stars, no life. But Dawn peers over the clouds, offering a way out. I can imagine being caught in the midst of the elements, the wind tearing through me and releasing me of my troubles; this painting teaches me/us the art of submissionletting go, flowing with the transient nature of life.

Although a heavy silence permeates the picture, this is not dark or frightening for me. In fact it is the ultimate communication. There is something interesting about sharing silence with a painting and the complete strangers surrounding you whilst enthralled in the same, magnificent painting. You break out, look around and realise everyone is dealing with deep emotions and profound elemental insights too. And it’s insanely humbling.

If more people took the time to view and understand such works, we could flicker from hubris to humility in a second.

Thank you for providing such a well of information.


Here I am lying down to sleep;

No night-mare shall plague me

until they have swum through all the waters

that flow upon the earth,

and counted all stars

that appear in the skies.

[Thus help me God Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen!]

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