Painting of the month for February 2016

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent

1790. Oil on canvas Royal Academy of Arts, London

A muscular male figure rises before us, emerging from a confusion of darkness and stormy waves. He is an idealisation beyond nature, statuesque with a god-like physique. Readying his left arm to strike the serpent, his right reins the beast in by the chain around its neck. With his head bent down to face his enemy Thor’s face is obscured by shadow, but we see the outline of his brow  and his mouth set in concentration. The monster looks up at the protagonist, and we the viewer are placed at the same level as it so that we too have to raise our eyes to the champion. Perhaps we are being challenged to weigh ourselves up, next in line to Thor’s wrath? Our hero here could be a St George or Michael, a theme of the triumph of good over evil. But instead of a Christian subject matter Fuseli has chosen an Icelandic myth.

Thor’s superhuman body is a symbol of strength and of ancient legend, and the fact that he is depicted with the solidity and idealisation of a classical sculpture only adds to his power. In contrast, an old man cowers in the back of the boat. This is Eymer the Giant, who by all accounts was of no use to Thor in his battle against the serpent. Fusili’s images are rarely without a ghostly presence, and  this one is no exception. In the top left corner of the canvas crouches an elderly bearded man, overseeing Thor’s trials (probably Odin).

When I look at this painting I hear an audiable surge of organ pipes and a clash of symbols. Full of drama, the painting is on the verge of a crecendo which will result in the beheading of the serpent. Fuseli submitted this as his diploma work to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1970. Four years later he was appointed Professor of Painting to the school. Trained mostly by his father Fusili’s name is now synonymous with the Gothic, characterised by macabre scenes from history, myth, and literature (Shakespeare and Dante in particular) mingled with his own unique nightmarish visions. I find Fuseli somewhat of an enigma; some of his contemporaries were doing a similar thing in art, but his imitators fell short of the imagination he possessed.

Henry Fuseli, R.A. (1741-1825) Thor battering the Midgard Serpent 1790 Diploma Work, accepted 1790 Oil on canvas 133.0 x 94.60 cm Photo credit: © Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: John Hammond