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Art Treasures opened

A fortnightly focus on works at MAG's Art Treasures: 150 years on

Published on November 20th 2007.

Art Treasures opened

Name of the work:
Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent, lent by the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Oil on canvas, 1790.

The artist:
Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)

This looks a bit twisted.
It is. Eighteenth century bigwig Horace Walpole once exclaimed about Fuseli’s work, ‘shockingly mad, madder than ever.’ Fuseli liked taking it to the limit, pushing the imagination as far as it could go, literally being ‘fantastic’. Think of a little feller, swigging laudanum, waving his arms about and talking passionately and very loudy about the unknowable nature of the profound pscyhe. Most people didn't have a clue what he was on about.

A bit like Bono?
No, or maybe yes. But Fuseli was ten times more loony. His most famous work is The Nightmare: a disturbing image of a young woman asleep on a bed, head thrown back, body in a pose of disturbing abandon, with a grinning demon on her belly, and a blind horse peering down. A nightmare of sex, terror and vulnerability all mixed up.

Or maybe she'd had cheese and toast before bed.
Maybe. The picture shown here though, in Manchester Art Gallery, is Fuseli going all Viking. Romantic in mood, epic in scale, Gothic, Nordic and dark.

Ragnarok rocks sort of thing?
Exactly. I love Ragnarok. Very stirring. Fuseli was making a point though. This turbulent scene on the inky black ocean main, as they say, shows the powerfully naked figure of Thor scrapping with the serpent of Midgard. The giant Hymir, is cowering in the stern of the boat, all frightened and unhelpful.

You'd better explain that a bit more.
The serpent is the one who will, at Ragnarok, the battle at the end of the world, poison earth and sea, and it'll be goodnight Reykjavik, Vienna and everywhere else. Top left is old Odin, big cheese of the Norse belief system, looking on to see how Thor's doing. It's classic Fuseli, a storm on the canvas, a riot in the mind, light opposed to dark and nothing tranquil, peace banished.

Think you said Fuseli was making a point.
Yep. Fuseli was a bit of a bolshy. Born in Zurich, he'd settled in Britain early in his career. He was a radical and sympathised with the French Revolution. Thor, the godly yet manly hero, is a representation of the French people struggling against the aristocracy.

Liberte, egalite and lunacy then?
Sort of. But this picture's powerful enough - even silly enough - to be enjoyed without double meaning. There's action and drama enough on that crazy surface. (JS)

Art Treasures in Manchester :150 years on is the biggest exhibition Manchester Art Gallery has held since it re-opened in 2002. It marks the anniversary of the first major block-buster art exhibition, held in Old Trafford in 1857. The Exhibition runs until 27 January 2008. You'd be mad not to go.

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GordoNovember 20th 2007.

Looks a bit poncy this to me. Why has the serpent got small flappy wings? Did it eat well? Peppercorn sauce? Gordo is also pleased to note that his willie is bigger than Thors........

ThorNovember 20th 2007.

I am the great Thor and you puny Gordo have misunderstand the picture, that serpent is a representation of my immortal organ of procreation - my pet name for it is Clive.

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