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This text was presented as a lecture at the 10th Annual Conference of the German Society for Fantastic Research (Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung) from 18 to 21 September 2019 in Berlin.


In this article we would like to examine two aspects that illustrate the reception of romantic imagery and historicist architecture in modern, visual fantasy and illustrate the close interweaving of the individual arts: The reception of the Middle Ages using the example of the Gothic period and the monumentalism of buildings in the visual arts. This is done with regard to the terms sublimity and a yearning associated with it. More on this later.

From an art-historical point of view, Romanticism covers above all the visual arts, i.e. painting, illustration and engraving. What «Romanticism» did not produce, however, is built architecture. But closely related and interwoven with it, all neo-building styles can be considered: from the neo-Gothic of the Gothic Revival in England from the mid-18th century to the historicism and eclecticism of the very long 19th century, which lasted until the 1920s; in the form of Socialist Classicism even until the 1960s.

Why am I going to go so far? Because for me, from an art-historical perspective, only a joint consideration of modern, visual fantasy against the background of the romantic-historicizing trend of the 18th and 19th centuries seems meaningful. 

Here lie the roots of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror, both in literary and visual form.

The Middle Ages and Gothic as new ideals and focus of longing

Romanticism and historicism have in common that one said goodbye to the strict classicism, which stood for an orientation to antiquity with its architectural severity, with its philosophical logic and the enlightening rationalism resulting from it. 

The Middle Ages, once considered dark, even sinister and barbaric during the Renaissance and the following epochs, became the new fixed point of the arts. 

In view of the rapidly developing industrialization and the accompanying serious changes, it was transfigured as a time when the world was still in balance. The Gothic period with its cathedrals storming into the sky became an artistic ideal and stood for everything medieval.

The so-called Gothic Revival began in the middle of the 18th century in England with the mansion Strawberry Hill by Horace Walpole, who with his novel «The Castle of Otranto», published in 1764, also created one of the first works of literary romanticism.

The Gothic repertoire of forms is applied to the entire architecture and interior design, whereby of course the English Gothic style was used. This abundance of Gothic elements, such as pointed arches, tracery, eyelashes, pinnacles and crabs, is characteristic of the neo-Gothic interpretation and is being used in fantastic works. 

Particularly striking is the use of neo-Gothic in the context of horror or in relation to «evil». For the vertical, jagged and pointed shapes, best in front of a night sky, with moonlight and fog, create the right, eerie and evil mood and appear monumental, intimidating and threatening.

This grim visual reception is used to evoke an association with the «dark» Middle Ages. The terms dark, gloomy and dark are to be taken literally, because the buildings are always shown with thick, dark patina to underline this. 

The reception of Gothic architecture in fantasy seems to be ambivalent: On the other hand, there is also a radiant, bright and positively occupied Gothic and Neo-Gothic reception in the Fantastic, which emphasizes the vertical, filigree, majestic elements. This often goes hand in hand with Art Nouveau forms, which have developed from Gothic forms.

In the trading card game «Magic – The Gathering» this becomes very clear in the edition «Ravnica – City of Guilds». Created by the same artist, the illustrations for four of the five basic land types show Gothic architectural elements. 

Since each color type has certain abilities, creatures, and spell types assigned to it, the buildings on the maps are displayed brightly or darkly, threateningly or sublimely.

An important link between romantic visual art and visual fantasy are the early full-length Disney movies. Here, the fairytale-like, which has to be taken literally, is represented in particular by different forms of medieval reception. As in late Historicism, there is a mix of styles and references and, as will be elementary for visual fantasy, there is over-shaping, idealization and monumentalization.

In addition to references to Neuschwanstein Castle, the design drawings for exteriors and interiors for the castles of the fairy-tale king Ludwig II, but also scenery designs for various Wagner operas are of particular interest. Ludwig was strongly influenced by Wagner›s opulently furnished opera sets, which in turn is reflected in the buildings he erected. 

These romantic designs with their idyllic landscapes and picturesque castles are models for the Disney films. As two-dimensional works of art, they are much closer to the film in terms of image structure, mediation and representation than real buildings.

By the way, the terms we still use today, such as romantic, idyllic or picturesque, come precisely from such works of art and the picture arrangements.

Sublimity and the Marvelous

Romanticism as well as historicism are in my eyes emotional art epochs that work a lot with overwhelming, astonishing and articulating yearning in their pictures and buildings. These elements are part of what has been summarized under the concept of sublimity in Romantic art. Sublimity is meant to express that the content, motif, composition and/or dynamics of the picture contain something unknown, wonderful, beyond the real and the familiar. In other words, something fantastic.

If one remains of the opinion that sublimity is an essential aspect of romantic art, which points beyond the earthly and the finite and thus tries to represent the miraculous, the basis of Fantastic, an essential aspect must now be illuminated: Monumentality as an artistic attempt to convey exactly that.

When looking at visual works of fantastic art, be they book covers, films or video games, one notices a clear tendency towards the monumental. 

Skyscrapers in science fiction are not only very tall towers, they are often whole tower mountains. In Fantasy, castles, temples or palaces are not only representative buildings that have always been impressively designed, but also oversized building monuments with constructions that often run counter to any static.

I would like to differentiate between two forms: Monumental depictions of nature and monumental architecture. 

Of course, both forms already existed in earlier works of art, but Romanticism glorified both nature and architecture in a monumental way and raised them to a whole new, fantastic level. The intended overwhelming effect and the attempt to make something tangible through the monumental, something that goes beyond the real and human experience, is expressed here.

Let’s turn to a British artist of the 19th century who created impressive works exemplarily for both forms of the monumental and who still has an effect on fantasy today: John Martin. 

Martin is best known for his scenes full of drama and epic destruction. Common to all his designs is the overwhelming depiction of buildings, caves and divine powers.

The Galactic Senate in Star Wars, whose layout was inspired by Martin’s work, shows that this also works in computer-generated images. 

The artists involved in Lucasfilm›s work clearly followed Martin›s impressive illustration for John Milton’s «Paradise Lost» in the spatial design of the political center of the Republic.

Here Satan presides over the Council of Hell in a monumental, impressive hall whose dimensions and boundaries are barely recognizable.

Final Thoughts

This architectural monumentality can be found in many works of visual fantasy: be it video games, illustrations for books, role-playing games or trading cards, and of course in films and series. 

It does not matter which genre it is, the overpowering of the monumental and the associated rupture with our reality and our known perception or judgment of dimensions can be found everywhere.

With this wild ride through three centuries of romantic and fantastic art I hopefully was able to give an insight into the receptions of romanticism and historicism in visual fantasy. 

The sublime, and with it the emotional expression of a yearning for something supernatural or beyond the earthly, is one of the main themes of romantic art. The mostly idealized depiction of historical, religious or mythological scenes in monumental or picturesque scenery corresponds entirely to the imagery of modern fantasy. Here as there, historical styles, monumental buildings or enormous landscape scenes are used to depict the wonderful, the different, the sublime. 

For us as recipients of the fantastic, the gate between reality and fiction is made passable through the mixture of familiar and sublime elements.

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