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Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom, c. 1790, oil on canvas, 2172 x 2756 mm (Tate Britain, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: The 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment was a time when rationalism was all-important. The light of the rational mind is sometimes not enough. Dr. Harris: We certainly see a reaction against the rationalism and the scientific approach of the Enlightenment in the movement we call Romanticism. Dr. Zucker: In the modern world, we found ways of thinking about the world of the dream and the world of the unconscious, but in the 18th century, this gave rise to an interest in the supernatural. Dr. Harris: And Henry Fuseli, a Swiss-born artist who worked largely in England, was known for painting the sublime and the supernatural. Dr. Zucker: He was interested in reconstructing history painting and developing a kind of history painting that was based on literary themes and that would allow for fantasy. Dr. Harris: And of course, the works of Shakespeare perfect for that, plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream, which features the king and queen of the faeries, Oberon and Titania, are perfect for visualizing the supernatural and that's what we see here in Fuseli's painting, Titania and Bottom from 1790. Dr. Zucker: This is a big painting. It's the scale of a history painting. It's the scale of a painting by Jacque-Louis David, but this is a painting that is all fantasy. Dr. Harris: It is, and in it we see Titania, the queen of the faeries. Dr. Zucker: Who looks like she's having a lot of fun. Dr. Harris: And she's instructing her faery counterparts to obey all the wishes of one of the characters in the play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom, whose head has been magically transformed into the head of a donkey. Dr. Zucker: Okay, hold on. This is already impossible to follow. Let's see if I can get this straight. We have the queen of the faeries, who is in love with this character, whose name is Bottom, whose head has been turned into a donkey, who is here instructing all of her faeries to do his bidding. Dr. Harris: Exactly, except that she's fallen in love with Bottom because of his misplaced magical spell. Dr. Zucker: Of course. (laughing) What we're seeing here is utter fabrication, utter invention, utter theatricality. Dr. Harris: In fact, it really does look as though we're looking at a stage and a performance is being enacted for us. All of the figures face in our direction. Dr. Zucker: The light is theatrical and the artist is clearly not interested in giving us too much information. He's allowing for a tremendous amount of the canvas to be dark. Dr. Harris: Titania, the queen of the faeries, is a really beautiful, idealized nude, but she looks very mischievous. Dr. Zucker: Actually, there's a lot of mischievous looks throughout this painting, but she especially looks mischievous, as does the faery who's standing on the right, who notice is holding onto a kind of leash with a small, old man with a long beard. Dr. Harris: There are lots of vignettes that surround the central two figures of Titania and Bottom. Dr. Zucker: Some of the creepiest passages, I think, are in the foreground, close to us. For instance, on the lower left we have doll-like figures. Dr. Harris: And the one on the bottom, the top of her head seems to be part of a butterfly. Dr. Zucker: She seems to be shushing something, perhaps us. On the right, you see a hooded figure that's holding in its hands another small figure, that's looking directly out at us, rather menacingly, but looks like its body has not quite been formed. Dr. Harris: Right, and art historians have identified that figure as a changeling. Dr. Zucker: Here, we see this interest in exploring the shadow, the irrational kind of occult, the dream and I find this interesting because I see a continuous thread from this sort of painting into the 19th and 20th centuries. Think, for instance, of surrealism, think of the work of Dali, think of the exploration of the unconscious there. Dr. Harris: The Victorians, throughout the 19th century, were fascinated by faeries and there's a whole genre of Victorian faery painting. Dr. Zucker: Here's fantasy that is unnerving, but Shakespeare brings us back. Shakespeare tells us not to worry, not to be too fearful of the fantasy that he's creating for us. Dr. Harris: At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream Puck, one of the primary characters in the play, says to the audience, "If we shadows have offended, "think but this and all is mended, "that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear." (jazz music)