Count Dracula, the aristocratic bloodsucker, is not the only nocturnal visitor who likes to disturb the sleep of innocents.
“The Angel of the Odd: Dark Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst,” at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, starts with one of his most famous soul mates -- Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare,” an incubus perched over a blond woman who seems to have fainted.
The title of the show, which opened in September at Frankfurt’s Staedel Museum, has been borrowed from a story by Edgar Allan Poe, one of the grand masters of Gothic fiction, a genre that flourished in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
It was a literature full of vengeful ghosts and satanic monks, haunted castles, midnight encounters on lonely roads and madwomen in the attic.
Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818), Wilkie Collins’s “The Woman in White” (1860) and Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” (1898) are but three examples of that enormously popular form.
The exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay encompassing 180 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, is the visual equivalent of Gothic fiction.
The idea isn’t new: “Gothic Nightmares” at Tate Britain (2006) and “Ghostly Europe or The Fascination With the Occult” in Strasbourg (2011) covered more or less the same ground.
It’s easy to understand why curators love the subject. It’s a sure-fire crowd pleaser and allows them to dust off some of the melodramatic daubs that languish in their storerooms.
Not that the show lacks masterpieces and many of the usual suspects are here.
Apart from half a dozen Fuselis, you find William Blakes’s “Grand Dragon,” Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa,” Eugene Delacroix’s “Witches’ Sabbath” and Francisco de Goya’s “Caprichos” and “Desastres de la Guerra.”
“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” the title of one of the Caprichos, is the exhibition’s unofficial leitmotif.
Following the Italian literary historian Mario Praz, who coined the term “Dark Romanticism,” the show explains the glorification of the irrational and the horrible as a backlash against the Enlightenment.
The Marquis de Sade, who knew a thing or two about the unplumbed depths of the human soul, had another theory.
After the terror of the French Revolution, he wrote in the preface of “The Crimes of Love,” a hardened readership needed strong stuff to be moved: “It was necessary to conjure up Hell to arouse interest.”
The second section of the show is devoted to Symbolism. Here we meet Gustave Moreau’s and Franz von Stuck’s femmes fatales, Edvard Munch’s vampires and Odilon Redon’s strange hybrids.
Sigmund Freud, whose most famous patient was the so-called Wolf Man, would have been delighted by Eugene Grasset’s watercolor “Three Women and Three Wolves.”
Photographs of bondage scenes, shot between 1890 and 1900 by the curator of a French provincial museum, a certain Charles-Francois Jeandel, are proof that the 19th century was less Victorian than is generally presumed.
Bondage and other forms of advanced eroticism were also a specialty of 20th century German artist Hans Bellmer, who worked out his fantasies with the help of a doll. His photographs appear in the third, Surrealist section of the show.
Romanticism, Symbolism and Surrealism are notoriously vague terms. The exhibit doesn’t even try to define them. Nor does it clarify its criteria for selection. Quite a few works seem marginal to the topic.
Never mind. The horrors are great fun or, in the words of Oscar Wilde: “You need a heart of stone not to laugh.”
“L’Ange du Bizarre”, which is supported by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, runs through June 9.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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