As part of our Monthly Reviews, Katie Watson did a review of The Art of Gothic. Katie is a third year English and Drama student.
Over recent weeks the BBC have released a series which attempts to explain the Gothic genre to an entire nation. Fortunately, we are in trustworthy hands with the shows presenter: Andrew Graham-Dixon with his Double First in English Language and Literature from Oxford University as well as his established and awarded career as an art critic. Graham-Dixon’s broad knowledge of the genre is condensed into three, one hour episodes that don’t leave you feeling as though you have missed anything. The show spans a remarkably large period of history from the Gothic themes in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1623) to the art of Francis Bacon.
The show maintains theatricality and comedy throughout, with Graham-Dixon’s exuberant gestures, at one point mimicking the flight of a bird and at another mocking Thomas Chatterton’s schoolboy attempts at tea-staining, jesting, “now you’re an old document”. The presenter is almost a caricature of the eccentric Gothic revivalists he is describing such as William Beckford or Augustus Pugin, and the episodes always conclude with his theatricality. The first ends with Graham-Dixon behind a bonfire in the dead of night as if he were an old witch reciting an incantation. The second ends with him turning from the camera, convulsing, and turning round to leap toward the camera, sporting some 99p vampire teeth as his way of telling us that Dracula will be discussed in the final episode.
Aside from all this theatricality, however, the show doesn’t lose any of the educational element. The shows embodies both entertainment and education in a fantastic duality. In fact, the show itself almost becomes a piece of Gothic work, using techniques such as symbolism when discussing Vathek (1786). The description of the plot is read over the image of a snake slithering over an abundance of Middle Eastern sheets. Vathek, the title character, becomes involved in a pact with the Devil which allows him to act out all his sexual fantasies with women. The snake is placed there to emphasise the Eastern implications but also to represent the Devil in the novel as this is the form the Devil takes in the Garden of Eden. To indulge on a further level, these Edenic images portrays Vathek as being in a sexual paradise that will inevitably crumble, just as it did for Adam and Eve.
The show takes us through Gothic from the eighteenth century revival up to the twentieth century, explaining how it never lost momentum, from anxieties about the French Revolution as in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1795), to fears about industrialisation, to the “Gothic optimists” who wanted to go back to the past and finally relating it to modern days. The show interestingly describes the way that film allows us to communicate with apparitions, with people, such as Bela Lugosi who have died but are immortalised in film. It cleverly relates art to architecture to literature; everything is interlinked in the Gothic.
Unfortunately, the critique of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817) is rather limited, mentioning only that it “poked fun at the genre”, but not how she, in fact, adheres to it to emphasise the tyranny of General Tilney and the fear of spies at the time in England. However, this is the only point at which the show seems to fail.
Andrew Graham-Dixon inspires one to believe that the Gothic will never die. It is not only immortalised in its supernatural characters, but also, there will always be causes for anxiety and stress that need the Gothic. We “yearn to be haunted” now, and so it seems Britain’s midnight hour will never end.