I have long stared at the question of unrequited love and what makes this particular type of love so painful and obsessive. I started drafts. I discarded them. I came back to this question and gave it another go only to find my writing out of touch. The truth is I do not know much about love. I know even less about unrequited love.
Most of us will encounter it for brief periods in our lives either on the giving or the receiving end. In time, we will forget about it as if it was just a bad dream. Yet some of us will not be able to let go, holding onto it as if to a fantasy that, if only turned real, could make everything better. For it is so much easier to cling to the promise of hope than to face what lies ahead, and what lies within.
That much I understand.
And so I wanted to tell you about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his unrequited love for socialite Ginevra King, how it fueled his writing and begat some of the best novels in American literature. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald never got over his first love, and his writing became the gateway for his obsession, a way to soften the pain. That, and lots of alcohol.
I wanted to tell you about Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and the amazing story behind it. Although many of us will recognize the theme from A Ball, the second movement of the piece, few of us know that this symphony is built as a delirious trip that probes the highs and lows of unrequited love. Fewer people, still, know that this ambitious creative work was undertaken by 23-year-old Berlioz after falling helplessly in love with Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom he had seen playing Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Undeterred by Smithson’s lack of reciprocation, Berlioz’s unrequited love grew for years and was the drive behind one of the most famous and hallucinatory symphonies ever created. I wanted to tell you how Berlioz even got the girl in the end. Yet the fantasy turned more powerful than reality and their marriage broke apart – all the more reason to be grateful for the uplifting waltz in A Ball that defies time and personal disappointments.
I wanted to tell you about Vincent van Gogh, whose marriage proposals got rejected three times by three different women. I wanted to tell you how Van Gogh’s sunflowers, which can be viewed as the artist’s self-portraits capturing his volatile moods – sometimes bright and cheerful, other times wilting and gloomy — remind me of Clytie, the water nymph from Roman mythology. Clytie, according to Ovid in Metamorphoses, got transformed into a sunflower* after Helios, the god of sun, rejected her love, and punished her for her jealousy and efforts to win him back. Clytie was to spend eternity turning her head towards the sun – her beloved.
But, most of all, I wanted to discuss Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare.
To be honest, I’ve always had my reservations about this painting, finding it clunky and overrated. Yes, it’s grotesque, but the grotesque when done well becomes somewhat beautiful or, at the very least, intriguing. It draws you in. I had never felt intrigued by The Nightmare.
And even though I had no idea that the hairy creature sitting atop the torso of a sleeping woman was an incubus — a mythological demon in male form who visits women at night and lies on them to engage in sexual activity — the eroticism of the picture is undeniable. You do not need a PhD in folklore or psychoanalysis to get an idea of what this image hints at. Of course Sigmund Freud later hung a copy of this piece in his Vienna apartment.
The painting remains one of the most reproduced artworks in the world, its meaning still being questioned today. For instance, art historians have spilled a lot of ink just over the wordplay “nightmare/ night mare”, due to the spectral horse head popping in the background. As in, maybe the painting is about … a horse?
As far as my thinking went, nightmares weren’t meant to be understood or rationalized. But that is because I knew nothing whatsoever about Fuseli. I didn’t know how well-read and knowledgeable he was, or how often his pictures contained countless cryptic literary and artistic references. Art historians were onto something, after all.
My interest finally got stirred when I heard the most popular explanation for this piece. You guessed it – it was unrequited love. For weeks I looked at that incubus not with disdain as before, but with sympathy, and even endearment. The theory, proposed in 1962 by art history professor Horst Waldemar Janson and based on Fuseli’s life, was that the gargoyle-like creature was a self-portrait of the artist, while the woman was a former lover. The timing checked, somewhat: two years prior, during his return trip to England, Fuseli had fallen in love with a young woman called Anna Landolt, niece of his friend, the physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater. Fuseli’s advances were rejected and Landolt soon married another man.
The idea that the incubus was a self-portrait seemed to me rather outlandish at first, but that was before I came across Self-Portrait as a Faun, an earlier drawing of Fuseli’s. The faun, a Roman mythological creature half-human, half-goat, was also a symbol of fertility. Not only does the faun resemble Fuseli’s incubus, to some degree, but it also sets the precedent of self-identification with a sexual mythological being.
What a great metaphor, I thought. To love and to be rejected is to feel like a monster, a demon. And Fuseli was so acutely aware of his abject state — his shadow, as Jung would put it — that he laid it all bare, his darkest impulses, his self-perceived ugliness and worthlessness. It was fascinating to witness this courageous display of ruthless vulnerability. But it was so much more than that. It was also violence directed at the object of his affection, who lay unconscious as he took advantage of her. It was an exploration of the dark side not just of self and the subconscious, but of love.
The violent possession of the lover echoed Fuseli’s feelings for Anna Landolt as expressed in a letter to Lavater. In it Fuseli described the erotic dream he had of her, shortly before she was to marry another man:
Last night I had her in bed with me — tossed my bedclothes hugger-mugger — wound my hot and tight-clasped hands about her — fused her body and soul together with my own — poured into her my spirit, breath and strength. Anyone who touches her now commits adultery and incest! She is mine, and I am hers. And have her I will — I will toil and sweat for her, and lie alone, until I have won her.
The words seemed prophetic enough and they gave reason to believe that The Nightmare was about Landolt. To add more mystery to this affair, on the back of the picture was found the unfinished portrait of an unknown woman (see below).
And just like Berlioz had rushed to the conclusion that Harriet Smithson was the woman of his life, so did art historians rush to link this mysterious portrait to Anna Landolt. From the passionate love poems and letters Fuseli wrote throughout 1779 to his friends about her, the last woman he ever fell in love with, to the nature of the portrait that suggests it was based on previous, older sketches, H. W. Janson makes an intriguing case when pointing to Anna Landolt as the key to understanding The Nightmare. That is, if you disregard that it is all just … speculation.
In a way, this was the perfect ending to my quest of unrequited love and my research on Fuseli’s painting. It was when I realized that not even the facts could hold, that the evidence was scant; that art historians – and I – were more in love with our ideas than with reality, or with the art itself.
There are many types of unrequited love, from the childhood crush to the months or years-long imbalanced relationship, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s with Ginevra King. There are even decades-long marriages that end when one partner cannot reciprocate the love anymore. Perhaps, they never did. And then, there’s the obsessive, all-consuming unrequited love, a powerful inexplicable attraction towards someone you know nothing about, like Hector Berlioz’s infatuation with Harriet Smithson.
These instances are ordeals to varying degrees, heartaches fueled by misplaced hopes. Sometimes there’s redemption through art, other times through another love. And then there are the unexpected gifts, like the intimacy that comes from sharing one’s pain and the enduring relationships that these confessions can forge. When English poet and artist William Blake met Catherine Boucher, his future wife, in 1781, he told her about how he had just gotten rejected in love. Boucher felt so sorry for him. “Do you pity me?”, Blake asked. “Yes, I do, most sincerely.” “Then”, answered Blake, “I love you for that.” This sincere, heartfelt exchange kindled one of the most loving and nurturing partnerships in the history of art.
I wanted to write all of this, and maybe I have, to some extent. I’ll leave it to you to judge what is and what could have been.
*About Clytie. In the French translations the flower is a tournesol, meaning sunflower. The English translations adopted the same word, turnsole, which refers to the heliotrope. They’re both very different flowers. But the depictions of Clytie in art history show her with sunflower petals, so I’m going with how she’s remembered in the collective memory. It may be literarily inaccurate, depending on the language, but it’s artistically true. I also find this association to be more romantic and accessible to the public imagination.
Hey guys. It’s been such a long time since my last post. This last year has been difficult for so many of us. Let’s love a little more. Be a little kinder and more forgiving. However flawed we may think we are, we all deserve to love and to be loved.