Nightmarish images, supernatural happenings, ominous landscapes and the emotions of thrill, fear and melancholy: these are the tropes that we associate with the gothic. Focusing on the supernatural, aesthetic, literary and scientific aspects of this period, the University of Melbourne’s Noel Shaw Gallery is surveying artwork from Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Titled Dark Imaginings: Gothic Tales of Wonder, the exhibition spans rare books and music, and further includes prints by Henry Fuseli, Salvator Rosa, G.B. Piranesi, Francisco Goya and Charles Méryon. While the show considers how the gothic fuses medieval aesthetics with romanticism, the exhibition is also very timely. “The greatest impetus was some significant anniversaries that are happening in 2018,” explains co-curator Jen Hill. “It’s 200 years since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published and 200 years since the birth of Emily Bronte, and her only novel, Wuthering Heights, had extraordinary gothic elements in it.”
The first room, coloured bright yellow, celebrates the reading of gothic literature. It emulates an English drawing room where readers would historically have consumed gothic works. “It’s a well-ordered, well-lit and attractive space, which is juxtaposed against the morbid material people would have been reading,” says Hill.
The second room is laboratory-styled and explores the entwined history of medical advancement and illustrations, alongside the horror of ‘body snatchers’. As the co-curator explains, “It serves to illustrate the extraordinary advances in scientific understanding and thought, and how behind these medical illustrations is the grizzly fact that the bodies used to make scientific advances were procured through illegal means; by resurrectionists whose criminal business was to snatch bodies from graves.”
The room houses rare editions of poems by William Blake, which speak of the grave and mortality, as well as prints, illustrations and demonstrations of trick photography.
Meanwhile the final room explores gothic sites, places and psychological states. “This is things like castles, monasteries and wild landscapes, where nature poses an existential threat,” says Hill. “In this room we’re also looking at gothic violence, in that the gothic is inherent in human conflict, brutality and wars.”