Rebecca Heald encounters Macbeth and the witches in Henry Fuseli's 18th-century Gothic drama
A handsome character stands astride, commanding the gaze of three murky creatures all positioned around a stuffed cauldron. Below, in the right-hand corner, is another head, its eyes also fixed firmly on the strapping hero. Henry Fuseli's "Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head" (first exhibited in 1793) is an illustration of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act IV, scene i, in which the Scottish prince has asked the three Weird Sisters to predict his future. The witches, with their supernatural powers, conjure apparitions, the first of which is an armed head which warns "Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff", invoking the thane's political rival.
This is the scenario that fuels Macbeth's fury and unleashes the finale of the bloody play. Expressive eyes dominate Fuseli's picture, protruding in the darkness. At first impression, there is something almost cartoonish or comical in the painting's staring figures. And the hugging, Lycra-like clothing in which Macbeth is clad only adds to this playful air. But when the viewer looks intently, it is possible to pick up on some of the scene's terror and trouble.
The vertical format is unusual for Fuseli; his work is more often horizontal, quasi-filmic. By the time he was making this piece, many of his pictures were already being widely printed and disseminated. The stationer James Woodmason, founder of the Shakespeare Gallery in Dublin in 1793, who commissioned this work, had dictated the shape as he wanted an image that could be easily transformed into a print and bound into a book. Yet it feels as if the vertical format also affects the painting's atmosphere: the setting is a cave, and the crowded composition seems to suggest a kind of claustrophobia - how curious that the apparition appears in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. Are such supernatural visions not usually up on high? Placing the apparition here creates an impression of the cave's interior with perilous depths.
Fuseli was passionate about literature; this is one of his 40 works on Shakespeare. He was obsessed with tales of spells, horror, magic and the supernatural terror that runs through Shakespeare's plays. However, he wanted people to be able to understand his pictures, even if they did not know the source. He said: "We turn our eye discontented from a picture of a statue whose meaning must be fetched from a book."
Fuseli uses such narrative as a starting point, but then goes beyond it. He was a master of weaving together elements from different stories and places. In this picture, it is the cauldron that best illustrates this syncretic skill. The deadly sisters' concoction is already brewing well before Macbeth's entrance. To quote part of their recipe: Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg and owlet's wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
When Macbeth appears, more is added: Pour in sow's blood, that hath eaten Her nine farrow; grease that's sweaten From the murderer's gibbet throw Into the flame.
But what the viewer actually sees in the pot is more like a medieval visualisation of the bowels of hell. What seems to be a miniature person writhes with arms outstretched in torturous agony. Though juxtaposed with red - perhaps the sow's blood mentioned in the spell - it does not dominate the scene. Fuseli seems more concerned to convey a sense of cruelty than purely illustrating a text. By the time he made this picture, most educated people had stopped believing in witches and the supernatural, but they none the less found them fascinating. That these witches derived from Shakespeare gave them an air of dignity, reassuring the public of their good taste in enjoying the painting. Writing in the St James's Chronicle, its critic (unnamed, as was the fashion) ventured that this canvas was "perhaps the very best picture he had ever painted".
Yet Fuseli believed in sticking as closely to reality as possible. For many of the flying creatures in his works he would look to his impressive collection of moths, one of which was the impressive Sphinx atropos (fatal sphinx). He was brilliant at working with such reality, mixing it with something unexpected and using dramatic lighting to transform it into something unsettling, dark and brooding.
In "Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head", Fuseli plays with the popular Gothic fashion, the raging cultural phenomenon of the late 18th century. The movement, in literature and art, tackled violence, horror and fantasy with unprecedented originality; its shocking and bizarre imagery was a response to a time of turbulent political change, war and uncertainty.
Books such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) thrived on this taste for the violent and macabre, as did many other tales of terror and the supernatural appealing to a wide range of people. Popular culture today still owes much to the Gothic fashion of the 1780s. Its influence is found in novels such as JK Rowling's Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and in TV programmes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the visual arts, it can seen in work by artists such as Glenn Brown and the Chapman brothers. Fuseli's stylised technique was highly celebrated in its day; from early on, he was known as the Wizard Painter. In this painting, as in many of his works, he was absorbed in the worlds of magic and the supernatural, fittingly since these elements are often used as metaphors for the creative act itself.
Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, edited by Martin Myrone, Tate Publishing, pound;29.99
The Gothic Reader, A Critical Anthology, edited by Martin Myrone, Tate
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Penguin, pound;1.99
Meg and Mog by Jan Pienkowski, Puffin Books, pound;4.99
www.janpienkowski.combooksmeg-and-mog The Stages of a Witch Trial (a series of articles by Jenny Simmons):
The son of a painter in Zurich, Johann Heinrich Fuessli (later Henry Fuseli), took holy orders but never practised as a priest. In 1765, encouraged by an admirer of his drawings, he came to London where the portraitist Joshua Reynolds persuaded him to paint. He spent the rest of his life there, apart from 1770-78, which he spent in Italy studying Michelangelo.
l"Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head" can be seen at Tate Britain until May 1 as part of the exhibition Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination. The painting is on loan from the Folger Library, Washington, US
"Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head" by Henry Fuseli, 1793-1794. Oil on canvas, 1630mm x 1300mm
Read some spells, such as Jan Pienkowski's in the Meg and Mog books, or the spells in Gobbolino the Witch's Cat by Ursula Moray Williams. If the children were to make a cauldron, what ingredients would they put in, one by one? What would they say as they put each thing in?
Ask pupils to make an illustrated book of spells. Will their book have a vertical or horizontal format? How does this affect the composition of their pictures?
Re-read the spell-casting scenes from Macbeth. How would your pupils stage the scene? Why? How would they position everyone? How would they create the sense of a cave and how would they light it? What would the costumes be like?
Shakespeare lived at a time when about nine million women were put to death for witchcraft. Compare and contrast the status of witches during the time in which he wrote Macbeth with the time when Fuseli painted "Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head". Did Fuseli's audience believe in witches? What factors in a society motivate a belief in witches?