Art in Focus: The Dark Side of Art
Whether you care for Halloween or not, you cannot escape the cobwebs, bats and witches hats everywhere.
The scary is as much a part of the art tradition as the beautiful. Medieval visions of hell and the devil held their audience as captive as the newest horror flick do today’s audiences.
Often the scary does not come as easy to mind as the more pleasing artwork when prompted. But in honour of all thrill and fear seekers this Halloween, here’s a selection of horror inducing art from the depths of art history.
Francis Bacon, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953
Francis Bacon was a lovely guy who wasn’t interested in lovely paintings.
In this particular one, he takes what was a stately portrait of a Pope (Velásquez being in turn influenced by Michelangelo’s contemplative portrait of Pope Julius II) to a nightmarish, screaming version where the Pope seems to be tortured on the Holy See. What did he mean to say? Perhaps that being a Pope does not mean you are immune to the fires of hell.
Francis Bacon, Figure with Meat, 1954
Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944
Francisco Goya – Saturn Devouring His Son, 1823
In Greek mythology, the Titan Cronus (Saturn in Roman), fearing that he would be overthrown by his children as he had usurped his own father, swallowed each of them whole on birth. (They’re later saved, by Zeus.) Goya however, painted a mad-looking Cronus violently tearing into an adult looking body instead. Why the change? The work is one of the 14 Black Paintings that Goya painted directly onto the walls of his house. They were not meant to be in public eye but are now some of the most famous works in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. What went on in his mind we can only guess at.
Goya worked on his series of The Disasters of War XX – a collection of 82 prints, over 10 years at the beginning of the 19th century. These are generally understood as rally against what happens in a war and especially a protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo uprising and the subsequent Peninsular War. The prints often show gruesome treatment of war victims.
Gerard David, The Judgment of Cambyses, 1498
No, it’s not an anatomical lesson. The man is still alive. The corrupt Persian judge Sisamnes is being punished by being skinned/flayed on the order of Cambyses based on Herodotus’s Histories. The painting was used by the town burghers to encourage honesty among the magistrates.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
One of the most famous anti-war paintings, this huge monochrome work is showing the atrocities of what happened in the eponymous small town bombed by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso uses symbolism and broken, twisted imagery to show the suffering of people and animals in this cruel attack on the unsuspecting town.
John Henry Fuseli
John Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781
Marc Quinn, Self, ongoing
This artwork is made of the artist’s blood. “Self” is a frozen sculpture of the artist’s head made from 9 litres of his own blood, taken from his body over a period of five months, the first of which was made in 1991. Described by Quinn as a “frozen moment on lifesupport”, the work is carefully maintained in a refrigeration unit, reminding the viewer of the fragility of existence. Quinn makes a new version of Self every five years, each of which documents Quinn’s own aging and physical deterioration.
Unknown, Execution of Sir Thomas Armstrong in 1684
People convicted of high treason could be sentenced to be hung drawn and quartered. This punishment which was first developed in the time of Edward the first was a particularly brutal event. The term ‘drawn’ has a couple of meanings, firstly it refers to the way that the condemned persons were tied to a hurdle and drawn through the streets, usually tied head down behind the horse.
Once upon the scaffold the person was hung until nearly dead. Upon being cut down their ‘privy parts’ were cut off before their innards were ‘drawn’ from them (ideally whilst still alive) – these were thrown upon the fire and the person was then beheaded. After this the person would be cut into quarters and these parts were displayed prominently as a warning to others.
Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (Triptych). c.1510
Is another work housed in Madrid’s Prado and shows along a beautiful visions of Creation and Heaven a number of disturbing imagery on its Hell panel (above).
Art History proves time and time again that art is not about beauty only but hopes to educate, provoke, discuss, disgust in some cases and generally to deal with as many human emotions and events as can be found.
Halloween often divides people, there are those who find it pointless and commercialised and those who think it fun. The holiday itself has many variations across countries but comes always to the same thing – death in one way or another. Something that artists as well as their patrons are trying to come to terms with for millennia.