REVIEW | Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism – Courtauld Gallery, London

Fuseli and the Modern Woman at the Courtauld Gallery, London, is like a provocatively sexy catwalk.

Featuring 50 of Henry Fuseli’s private drawings of his wife Sophia and other stylish characters in society, there is a feeling that these were made as some sort of external release for the artist’s repressed interests and desires, like some kind of guilty pleasure.

In fact, I’m just going to say it; this was Fuseli’s porn stash.

He’s not even hiding it, as seen from the phallic shapes decorating one pen-and-ink drawing of a woman’s bodacious backside, arms outstretched across a dressing-table with phallic supports for legs. She looks practically ready for a spanking (please, God forgive me for writing these words).

Fuseli clearly liked the view from behind. Not only does he accentuate the way a free-flowing dress drapes over his subject’s large buttocks, practically teasing her sensuous underlying structure, the fact he rarely reveals their faces in such drawings is indicative of his approach to them as objects of sexual desire.

And in the drawings where faces are revealed, the subjects aren’t necessarily the prettiest, and often coated under layers of make-up. Their expressions vary from bored and uninterested to devilishly sinister, as if they appeared out of a satirical cartoon.

What connects all of this, however, is Fuseli’s remarkable attention to fashionable details in the subjects’ outfits and whimsical hairstyles. I guess he has a clothing fetish too? Perhaps, or rather an awareness of how clothing can elicit feelings in the observer via unique visual effects, such as sheer clothing or suggestive geometric shapes.

Unwittingly, these drawings also offer a kind of documentation of fashionable clothing in Fuseli’s time. To my untrained eyes, there were a lot of ribbons and bows, massive hats and braided hair, and overall loose dresses secured at the waist for an hourglass figure. A fair bit of freeing the nipple too when it comes to courtesans, but they also get puffy sleeves!

Additional observations of note: 1) Fuseli consciously framed his subjects as actual pictures, seen in the way he fills in the background towards clean edges and corners, and 2) it’s fun to see the occasional scribble on the side of a sheet where he was testing that his pen actually works.

Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism runs until 8 January 2023 at the Courtauld Gallery, London, https://courtauld.ac.uk/

The exhibition will then travel to the Kunsthaus Zürich, 24 February – 21 May 2023, https://www.kunsthaus.ch/en/

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