“The pressure which I sometimes feel at night.”

Man and Mouse is a startling tableau with only two players: a man lying on a narrow bed beneath a pillowy white duvet and a towering mouse in a meditative state sitting on the man’s chest. The contrast in tone and scale—the black on white, the normal-sized man vis-à-vis an eight-foot tall mouse—will most likely make you gasp.

It’s the work of the contemporary German artist Katharina Fritsch, who completed it in 1992. The sculpture has toured the world ever since, and when it appeared at the Tate Modern in London, this is what the Brits had to say, “Man and Mouse recalls Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare (1781) in which a male demon, known as an incubus, squats, threateningly, on a sleeping woman.” Henry who? Fuseli isn’t exactly an American household name although the painting is home at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Fuseli was a Swiss-born English painter and his Nightmare became his most famous work. Painted in 1781 the image of the demon perched on the woman became so popular that it inspired dozens and dozens of copies, including ones Fuseli himself went on to make; and it became the basis in the twentieth century for a lot of psychoanalytic debate. The curators and reviewers love to talk about The Nightmare and Man and Mouse in the same breath. One might be a niggler and ask, well where in Fritsch’s work is the horse in the painting, and why hasn’t her man moved an inch? Nevertheless finding the connection between two works of art, the way in which one informs the other in order to inform the viewer is part of a curator’s job. And Fritsch doesn’t seem to disagree; she’s spoken of “the nightmarish pressure which I sometimes feel at night.”[1] But for me the sculpture may simply be a visual admission that the sleeping man is a bad guy. In medieval times, people believed that the soul of a dying man (or woman) exits his body in his last breath in the shape of a mouse. If the soul were immoral, the mouse would be black.[2]

Putting aside such gloom and doom and the notion of a naughty man, the sculpture without context has an overall feeling of Pop art, the wit and mass appeal are hard to miss. After all how scared can you be of a gigantic plastic mouse?

[2] Barbara Walker, The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects

Additional sources: Jean-Pierre Criqui, “’This Dream is About You’: Katharina Fritsch and the Laws of Animal Attraction’,” Parkett 87 (2010); Exhibition brochure, 2001, Tate Modern; Martin Gayford, “The Rodent that Roared,” The Telegraph, September 7, 2001.

Image reproduced for non-commercial use only.

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