When an artist sets out to shock, aiming for disturbing images on purpose, it’s hard to take him seriously. Except the art world does.

The Courtauld Gallery in central London is displaying the art of 18th-century painter Henry Fuseli, freely acknowledging that this artist “deliberately courted notoriety.”

'The Modern Woman'

The Courtauld show title "Fuseli and the Modern Woman" raises a question: What does an 18th-century male sex fantasy have to do with 21st-century women?

The featured painting, Fuseli’s “The Nightmare,” is said to have upended exhibitgoers of his time.

What you see is him overemphasizing a woman’s posture of helplessness with her arms and head hanging listlessly over the edge of a bed.

Wholly without volition, this woman looks drugged. Fuseli intensified this woman’s vulnerability by pitching a harsh, white light on her passive form.

There’s more going on in the picture, but enough said. The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones acknowledges that “The Nightmare” is “an enthusiastically perverse portrayal of women.”

Reportedly, when this painting debuted at London’s Royal Academy in 1782, it upset the hell out of people. But that was then, and this is now. Why, in our #MeToo era, bring “the modern woman” into this show as if she were part of a three-century-old painter’s fantasy?

Jones seemed to overlook the “modern woman” reference, intent instead on rationalizing Fuseli’s work by saying that most painters back in the day sought the risqué. To make his point, he even cited an obscured passage in James Boswell’s diary saying that while crossing London Bridge, he stopped to arrange for a session with a sex worker.

A possible rationale for The Courtauld bringing the “modern woman” into the conversation is Fuseli’s few attempts to give women power. Sad to say, though, his efforts amounted to sadomasochist scenes. In one example, women are subjugating a nude male on a bed.

The irony in Fuseli’s fantasies is that his wife Sophie modeled for every one of them.

As for being shocked, if I am by anything having to to do with Fuseli, it would be a back story that Jones mentioned concerning Mary Wollstonecraft’s part in the artist’s life.

Women’s rights

Remember Wollstonecraft? I wrote an opinion in 2020 about a statue erected in a London Park commemorating her leadership as a women’s rights advocate.

I faulted the statue because the sculptor, Margie Hambling, stripped Wollstonecraft naked. It seemed an indignity for a commemoration of a woman who famously wrote “Vindication of the Rights of Women.”

But after reading Jones’ recap of Wollstonecraft’s relation to Fuseli, I take back my criticism of Hambling’s statue. Sculpting her in the raw, exposing her anatomy, seems fitting now (although the sculptor made no mention of what amounts to Wollstonecraft’s shameful tie to Fuseli).

As the story goes, Wollstonecraft was attracted to Fuseli and made an overture to both his wife and him to allow her to live with them in a ménage à trois, a love triangle. Supposedly, he was willing, but Sophie would have none of it and that was that.

Wollstonecraft is the woman famed for writing: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves?” Where. Mary, was your control over yourself?