Tate unveils Satan as you've never seen him

But a new exhibition of true Hallowe'en-style nightmares - opening at Tate Britain in February - looks set to prove that, on canvas, witches still exert a scary attraction.

Important works, such as Henry Fuseli's Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel's Spear, which has not been shown publicly in Britain since it was unveiled in 1780, will go on display in what the Tate claims will be the first exhibition to explore the British taste for Gothic.

Fantastic and supernatural themes dominated British culture from 1770 to 1830 and went on to inspire generations of authors, artists and film-makers from Patrick McGrath to the Chapman brothers.

This exhibition will draw upon recent research which has transformed understanding of the period and of the two artists at the heart of the show - Fuseli, a Swiss-born painter who became one of the most important figures in the Romantic movement, and William Blake, Britain's most famous artistic visionary.

Martin Myrone, curator of the show which will be called Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, said both Fuseli and Blake were often seen as eccentric one-offs.

Yet they were influenced by each other and were part of a broader movement of artists, which included Joseph Wright of Derby and George Romney, influenced by the striking mix of high and popular culture - such as shamelessly erotic works inspired by Shakespeare or Milton - that made the Gothic such a sensation.

Dr Myrone said that by the time of the Enlightenment, audiences had a different relationship with the supernatural than previous generations had enjoyed. It was as if no longer believing in the supernatural enabled the public to enjoy stories about the supernatural.

"They didn't believe in it but they could consume it and appreciate it as entertainment," he said. "It's like a guilty pleasure. There were loads of criticisms saying Fuseli's paintings were all about fairies and fantasy and weird stuff, but that's what makes them so appealing. The literature about Blake often takes him in isolation, but when you see [Fuseli and Blake's] work together, Blake's looks less eccentric."

One of the highlights of the exhibition will be The Nightmare (1781) by Fuseli which shows a sleeping woman, oppressed by foul creatures who appear to be in her nightmare. Legend has it that Fuseli was inspired to paint it after eating raw pork which gave him terrible dreams.

Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel's Spear was a work long thought lost until it re-emerged at auction in 1988 - 13 years after the last Fuseli show in Britain - and was purchased by the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. It is now owned by the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart which is lending it for the new exhibition.

Other Fuseli paintings on show include several not previously exhibited in the UK. It will be the biggest display of his art for 30 years.

Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination will run from 15 February to 1 May at Tate Britain.

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