The Jacquemart-André Museum in the 8th arrondissement of Paris is not one of the most visited in this city populated with tourists who go to see anything, especially on a day like this, when the Johann Heinrich Füssli exhibition is presented and it is raining outside. those Parisian daggers that attack from each side, as if the wind were distributing them in eddies and the umbrella is useless. Parisians keep this secret of the ice drizzle very well.
Who knows why it is rarely visited: perhaps due to a certain amphibian nature. It is the private collection of a banker and his wife, it is also a house-museum with period rooms and has Renaissance art, Flemish and Egyptian pieces. Perhaps it looks like an embassy, one of the many pompous French institutions, anyway. More famous is its tea house, full of mounted ladies like in Las Violetas.
However, today the not so well known Jacquemart-André is packed to the point that it is difficult to walk and who are all these people coming for, despite the hostility from the outside? They do not come for Füssli, a famous unknown, born in Switzerland, who died in 1825. For those who like strange painting, Füssli is a visionary, a genius who studied theology and then learned to paint almost self-taught. In 1764 he came to London and went crazy over Shakespeare’s plays. There are many of his Shakespearean-inspired paintings in this show: Hamlet sees the specter of his father with a terrified expression, Lady Macbeth has never looked so stunning, a gray, disembodied woman. Other paintings, such as “Katie’s Folly” express mental illness in all its horror and with much compassion. “The Silent One” may be another overwhelmed woman, but instead of staring at us with despair, like Katie, her face is hidden under long hair, hands clasped, shoulders slumped. A melancholic or a shy ghost.
But it is clear that, for the majority, all these great paintings are discoveries. The fetish, the one we all know, the sought-after image, the myth, is “The Nightmare” from 1802, a huge oil painting that represents that, a terrible dream. Füssli made several versions of the work, all of which are here. They are similar, they are different. What the Swiss tried to represent is something so difficult to apprehend: the terror in the dream, those frightful passages that we go through when we want to rest. A woman in white emerges from the darkness, in bed, but not in a peaceful dream. She’s off the pillow, she’s got her knee up. A little monster, an incubus or male demon is on her chest: red, long-eared, hairy, he looks at her and smiles. Behind, but very large, the head of a ghostly horse, with blind white eyes. For the painter, who was 42 when he showed it, it was a leap in his career. It represents a nightmare, but also sleep paralysis, a more frequent disorder than is said and for which those of us who do not suffer from it should be grateful for this luck. The other versions of the work change the position elements, but it is the same scene.
It is known that Füssli played with the meaning of nightmare in English, “nightmare”, which means “mare of the night”, which explains the horse. Jorge Luis Borges was fascinated by painting and spoke about it in his famous lectures on seven nights. This is what he said about it in the one he dedicated to “The Nightmare”: “The Spanish name is not too lucky: the diminutive seems to take away its strength. In other languages the names are stronger. In Greek the word is ephialtes: Enaltes is the demon that inspires the nightmare. In Latin we have the incubus. The incubus is the demon that oppresses the sleeper and inspires nightmares. In German we have a very curious word: Alp, which would come to mean the elf and the oppression of the elf, the same idea of a demon that inspires nightmares. A Füssli painting called ‘The Nightmare’… When Füssli painted that painting he was thinking of the word Alp, of the elf’s oppression”. And he continues… “I remember a certain nightmare I had. It happened, I know, in Serrano street, I think in Serrano y Soler, except that it didn’t look like Serrano y Soler, the landscape was very different: but I knew it was in the old Serrano street, in Palermo. I was with a friend, a friend I don’t know: I saw him and he was very changed. I had never seen his face but I knew his face couldn’t be that. He was very changed, very sad. His face was crossed with sorrow, with illness, perhaps with guilt. He had his right hand inside the bag (this is important for the dream). She couldn’t see his hand, which was hiding the side of his heart. So I hugged him, I felt that he needed me to help him: “But, my poor So-and-so, what has happened to you? How changed you are!” He replied: “Yes, I am very changed.” He slowly pulled his hand out. I could see that it was the claw of a bird. The strange thing is that from the beginning the man had his hand hidden. Without knowing it, I had prepared that invention: that the man had a bird’s claw and that he saw the terrible change, the terrible misfortune of him, since he was turning into a bird.
Being in front of Füssli’s painting is shocking and inexplicable. There are few such powerful images and for this reason, I believe, we must preserve these visions, from now and before, not surrender to the flavors of Artificial Intelligence that mixes everything up. In that unconscious woman there is a soul, there is fear, there is something that only we can repeat, that should not be given away. And there are also several contemporary nightmare depictions that we can mention. I have three: the one that is related in Mulholland Drive (2001) David Lynch’s film: a friend tells another that, in the same cafe where he is having a drink, he usually goes to the parking lot and sees something, in a dream (we won’t say what). He tells it with stupor and tremors. The friend urges him to face fear. And there is no liberation: there is confirmation. You don’t play with certain things. Netflix has a documentary that is not extraordinary but it is remarkable. It’s just called “The Nightmare.” Several people who suffer from sleep paralysis tell what they suffer: they are awake and they see the nightmare before their still eyes, they cannot move, the body is still asleep, the brain is in horrible wakefulness. The most common visitor is a man in black with a hat, but there is everything, especially beings that sit on the bed or on the chest of the awake sleeper. And thirdly, the testimony of a friend who, she told me, in her own paralysis always sees the same thing: two men next to her bed, one of them bald. He knows their every trait. His terror, of course, is the apparition. But she is much more afraid of finding them on the street, in an elevator, on the subway. That they exist outside of that liminal space. Who are these beings, this duo unknown to her?
Borges says in seven nights. “What if nightmares were strictly supernatural? What if nightmares were cracks in hell? If in nightmares we were literally in hell? Why not? Everything is so weird that even that is possible.”