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This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.
Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.
Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?
Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.
Alfred Kubin was born in Bohemia in 1877 (Bohemia was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Like many people, Kubin could see the direction which Austrian society was taking, and it seemed to rob him of direction. As a teenager he tried to learn photography for four pointless years from 1892 until 1896. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide on his mother’s grave. He enlisted and was promptly drummed out of the Austrian army. He joined various art schools and left without finishing. Then, in Munich, Kubin saw the works of symbolist and expressionist artists Odilon Redon, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, and Félicien Rops. His life was changed—he devoted himself to making haunting art in the same vein. His exquisite mezzotint prints are full dream monsters, spirit animals, ghosts and victims. These dark works seemed to presage the era which followed. Yet throughout the nightmare of both World Wars and the post-war reconstruction, Kubin lived in relative isolation in a small castle.
After Anschluss in 1938, Kubin’s work was labeled degenerate, yet his age and his hermit life protected him and he continued working through the war and until his death in 1958. In later life he was lionized as an artist who never submitted to the Nazis (although possibly he was too absorbed in his own dark world to notice the even darker one outside).
Kubin’s beautiful prints look like the illustrations of a children’s book where dark magical entities broke into the story and killed all of the characters and made their haunted spirits perform the same pointless rituals again and again. Great dark monuments loom over the lost undead. Death and the maiden appear repeatedly, donning their roles in increasingly abstract guise until it is unclear which is which.
My favorite aspect of the works are the shadow monsters and hybrid animals which often seem to have more personality and weight than the little albescent people they prey upon. The gloomy ink work is so heavy it seems to lack pen strokes—as though Kubin rendered these little vignettes from dark mist.
Kubin’s imagery was naturally seen through the psychosexual lens of Freudianism. He was claimed by the symbolists, and the expressionists. Yet his work seems to really exist in its own mysterious context. Kubin’s greatest works seem to involve a narrative which the viewer does not know, yet the outlines of which are instantly recognizable (like certain recurring nightmares).
Gifted in multiple ways, Kubin wrote his own novel, The Other Side, which has been compared to Kafka for its dark absurdity. I certainly haven’t read it, but if anyone knows anything about it, I would love to hear more below. In the meantime look again at this broken world of Gothic horror and wonder. Then maybe go have some candy and enjoy some flowers. There is plenty more dark art coming
Vittore Carpaccio was born around 1465 in either Venice or in Capodistria (a port in Istria which had been taken over by the Republic of Venice in the 14th century). His father was a glovemaker who was most likely from Albania. Carpaccio is one of the masters of early Venetian art, but he is not as famous as his contemporaries Bellini and Giorgione. This is because of Carpaccio’s style inclined toward the conservative and Gothic rather than towards the humanistic Renaissance style which was coming into vogue, but it is also because he did not have the same caliber of successful students as his two peers (who taught Titian).
Here is Carpaccio’s 1507 work Saint George and the Dragon which is painted in tempera on a panel and is housed in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. The Scuolo was a confraternity—a sort of early version of a corporation—which commissioned the work in the first years of the sixteenth century and it has been there ever since.
When I was a child I always wanted to go to the Medieval section of the museum to look at knights–and I was always disappointed by all the self tormenting Saints and Jesuses (which took me a while to properly appreciate). Here, however, is a painting I would have loved! The splendidly armed and armored knight is depicted at the exact moment he drives a beaked lance through the monster’s head! This incendiary action is framed by a meticulously detailed world of dizzying beauty and horror. The dragon is surrounded by the dreadful remains of his many victims. You should blow up the digital photo of the painting to get a good view of all the snakes, skulls, toads, and seashells scattered on the round around the dragon’s lair (not to mention the naked half-eaten maiden whose remains are being scavenged by a lizard). In the near background a Libyan princess in exotic Eastern headwear clasps her hands in horror. Although her vivid attire is meant to represent the exotic East, she seems like a fragment of Carpaccio’s imagination. Likewise, the fantasy city in the background is meant to be Silene of Libya, yet the trade ships of the Middle Ages and all of the Romanesque and Gothic castles, keeps, and villas in the background put one firmly in mind of the Adriatic.
All the major lines of the painting (the dragon’s head, the lance, the ocean, and the horse’s back legs) point straight at the glittering red and black knight who dominates the composition. Resplendent on his destrier, clad in sable armor, with his blond curly hair cascading behind him he is perfectly at home in his world of religion and ultraviolence. The knight is the perfect representation of the troubled world of early sixteenth century Venice (increasingly at odds with the Ottoman Empire). It was a time and place which called for violent men of action.
Here is a dark Baroque masterpiece. Using a polished shield as a mirror, Perseus has just severed the dreadful head of Medusa, a gorgon capable of turning anyone who sees her into stone. Medusa’s head was subsequently used by Perseus as a weapon to slay the sea monster sent to devour Andromeda–but the weapon proved too dangerous for him to keep so he gave the head to Athena, goddess of victory and wisdom. She set it on her shield (or sometimes her breastplate) and the Gorgoneion thus became a symbol of divine protection and luck as well as a charm for warding off evil.
Through the artist’s imagination, we are allowed to see what Perseus is not: the horrible head of the demigoddess with her countenance contorted in mortal outrage. Despite her death, the many serpents which make up her hair remain alive and infuriated. One even bites her forehead in pique. Where her blood pours on the ground, serpents and worms spring to life. Spiders, scorpions and lizards appear in order to abet the general creepy horror of the scene (as do the stormy clouds and desolate landscape.
Rubens was the master of using color and motion to express the sensual and the grotesque. The full dynamism of his style is evident in this grisly tableau which simultaneously evokes the drama of earlier Medusa paintings by Da Vinci & Carravagio while also bringing some of the detail and imagination of Flemish still life composition to play.
This blog has pursued all things gothic, as the open-ended concept has wound its way through history, the arts, literature, and other forms of culture. There is, however, a major creative genre which we have entirely overlooked—that of cinema. The melodramatic spookiness of the 19th century Gothic revival movement was born in architecture and literature, but it was the media of film which cemented the whole concept of horror as a fundamental distinctive genre. In the modern world, gothic horror (with all of its familiar trappings) is virtually synonymous with film. This characteristic milieu of ruffled clothing, vampires, ghosts, sconces, and eerie castles goes all the way back to the first horror film–which was made very early indeed, in France in 1896.
Le Manoir du Diable (“The Manor of the Devil”) was meant as a pantomime farce, but most of the familiar elements of gothic cinema appear in the three minute production. It was released on Christmas Eve of 1896 at the Theatre Robert Houdin (which was on the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris). Since the piece is well over a century old, any copyright has long expired and it is part of the public domain. So, without further ado, here it is:
Using the most sophisticated special effects of the day, the filmmakers present a sorcerous devil popping in and out of reality. The fiend creates goblins, bats, and specters out of thin air and thereby bedevils a pair of foppish noblemen who have wandered (or been summoned?) into the haunted castle. Fortunately, one of the noblemen has the presence of mind to seize a handy crucifix and banish the fiend.
Although the film’s staging—and overarching moral lesson–owe something to opera, the rapid protean transfigurations were a completely novel feature. Admittedly the special effects have not aged well, but I think you will enjoy Le Manoir du Diable, the first gothic film.
Continuing our Halloween theme of undead monsters, we visit the great northern forests of Canada and the Great Lakes. During winter, these frozen woodlands were said to be the haunt of a terrifying undead spirit of malicious appetite–the dreadful wendigo. Although the wendigo has become a mainstay of modern horror, legends of the spirit predate Europeans. The wendigo myth originated among the Algonquian people, who believed it was a manitou (powerful spirit being) associated with hunger, cold, and starvation. For these hunter-gathering people the monster was shaped out of the greatest fear in their hearts and took the form of the ultimate taboo.
The Algonquian culture consisted of hundreds of heterogeneous tribes stretching in a northern arc from New England, up through the Great Lakes to the eastern Rockies. Some of the southern tribes cultivated wild rice, pumpkins, corn, and beans, but the northern tribes were hunter gatherers. Bad hunting seasons could cause terrible winters among the northern people, and whole villages would sometimes starve to death. The wendigo myth seems to originate from such cold lean times of abject hunger when, in the extremity of desperation, starving people would resort to cannibalism.
Although different tribes had different traditions, most stories describe the primal wendigo as a gaunt humanoid giant with decayed skin and long yellow fangs. The creature’s eyes glowed in the dark and it was always hungry for human flesh. These huge monsters could be heard howling in the forest on winter nights and were said to have powerful dark magic, but wild wendigo spirits outside in the wind were only half the story. If a person broke the ultimate Algonquian taboo, and decided to prefer cannibalism to starvation, he or she would begin to turn into a Wendigo. After eating human flesh, a person’s humanity would disappear and their heart would become cold. No food could slake a wendigo’s appetite except for human meat (and even that could not be eaten in sufficient quantity to fill up). Monsters of unnatural appetite, these transformed wendigos would bring death and ruin to all other people unless they fled into the wilderness or were killed by a medicine person.
It is here that the wendigo myth is most fascinating, but most muddled. In the wilds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and central Canada, the frontier authorities of the nineteenth century sometimes ran across wendigo murders. Most famously a Cree trapper killed and ate his family although he was not far from provisions. Another shaman was tried and executed for traveling the countryside killing people suspected of being wendigos. The anthropology community of the day was fascinated by this sort of thing and proclaimed “wendigo psychosis” to be a real thing–although the fact that the “condition” was localized to a particular time and place (and has never more been seen since) makes it seem more like a made-up mental illness for popularizing horrifying stories.
If wendigo psychosis has mercifully gone away, wendigos themselves have gone mainstream. A wendigo with the power of resurrection was the (terrifying) villain of one of Steven King’s scariest novels and the hungry winter spirits have proliferated ever since in cartoons, movies, and scary literature. What could be scarier than the empty woods in winter or an empty larder?
The Magic Circus is a bizarre contemporary gothic painting created in 2001 by Mark Ryden, the king of the pop surrealist painters. Ryden was born in the Pacific Northwest and grew up in Southern California. At the beginning of his career, he was a commercial artist who created magazine illustrations, book covers, and album covers, but due to the outlandish visionary intensity of his work, he has successfully broken into the rarified top echelon of contemporary painters. His works have sold very successfully for over a decade (although he is regarded as a bizarre outsider by the unofficial “academy” of curators and critics).
The Magic Circus is an eye popping juxtaposition of cartoonlike hybrid animal/toy characters, science book illustrations, and delicate vulnerable children. The upbeat but sinister pastel circus landscape has been rendered with the precise and exacting realism of the finest illustration. As with 16th century Flemish art, dark horrors lurk among the details. Looking past the dazzling crown and jewel-like bees and cheery dancing octopus, the viewer notices a striped winged demon with a shrunken head drinking a chalice of blood. Jesus and Abraham Lincoln are rendered as toys and lifeless sculptures while a plush stuffed animal capers in the foreground with lively malice.
Many of Ryden’s works involve the idea that our icons and consumer goods are springing to malevolent life and taking over. The Magic Circus has the visceral appeal of a child’s nightmare. The toys are coming to life and putting on a show, but there is a dark and horrible side to the carnival. Within the interlocking “rings” of childlike delight, scientific materialism, and commercial exploitation, Ryden includes symbols and themes which he reuses again and again in his paintings.
Pop Surrealism takes kitsch elements from everyday life and arranges them in a way to maximize the emotional, sentimental, and psychological aspects of everyday symbols. The narrative focus, realistic technique, and psychological intensity of this diffuse school have all been disparaged by “high-brow” art schools and abstract/conceptual artists for the past few decades. Yet as the visual language of the internet becomes more pervasive (and as mainstream art languishes in a conceptual rut), Pop Surrealism has been finding broader acceptance
Every artist has favorite themes which they revisit again and again throughout their life. Rembrandt painted and repainted his own face as he went from young student to successful portraitist to sad old man. Watteau’s works often feature lovers in the lingering twilight. Picasso was drawn again and again to the Minotaur whom he painted variously as a beast, a poet, a sensualist, a murderer, and a murder victim. To some degree each artist can be swiftly summarized by his or her favorite images. These artistic leitmotifs are the touchstone to an artist’s life and work. When looking over an artist’s entire canon, one can watch certain themes wax and wane or see how the artist’s favorite subjects overlap each other. It is rather like the category cloud to the left: except played out over a lifetime and with images only (indeed, when I finally launch my art website you can compare how my blog’s categories match those of my painting).
My favorite gothic painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), had several recurrent themes. Cranach’s preferred subject was sumptuous young maidens with triangular faces who are wearing nothing but a few pieces of jewelry and the occasional wreath or transparent veil (beautiful naked people top nearly every artist’s topic list: but each artist brings his or her own unique twist!). Cranach also enjoyed painting Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise. Like me, he loved to paint animals and his works are a veritable menagerie (only a handful of his canvases lack creatures, most notably paintings in which…well we’ll get to it below). On a darker note he painted women stabbing themselves: there are several “Lucretia” paintings in his oeuvre. Cranach was from Saxony and the Saxon landscape of vivid forests punctuated by fortresses perched on crags is another major component of his work.
Most disturbing to modern sentiments, Cranach loved to paint beheadings or, more commonly, pretty women carrying severed heads. There are so many paintings like this by Cranach that it is hard to keep them separate (so please forgive any mistakes or misattributions in the following grisly gallery).
It is unclear why Cranach loved this subject so much. Many painters have portrayed the subject of Judith and Holofernes–which speaks to nationalism, bravery, and feminism. Even more artists are captivated by the death of John the Baptist with its martyred religious hero and its wanton villainess (whose incest-tinged struggle so strangely mirrors the travails of the goddess Ishtar). A fair number of medieval artists painted beheadings (which were after all much more common events back then) and Théodore Géricault sometimes painted heads fresh from the guillotine.
But nobody that I know of carried this obsession as far as Cranach. Perhaps he is evoking the ancient theme of death and the maiden: the beautiful young women in their finery with their unknowable expressions certainly contrast dramatically with the slack ruined horror of the dead heads. Cranach lived in a dark era when terrible deeds were common: these beheading paintings, like his symbolic masterpiece Melancholia might speak to the grim state of Europe as it plunged towards all-out religious war. Or maybe Cranach had a dark and troubled side. Was he afraid of women? Did he revel in the charnel house? Art provides a funhouse mirror of the human soul and who knows what monstrous yearnings can be spotted wriggling in that mysterious edifice?
Maybe a better question is why I am posting about this facet of Cranach’s art. Hmm, well for one thing I love Cranach’s painting and, even after writing about Melancholia earlier, I wanted to address his work further. Also despite their ghastly subject, these strange paintings are singularly beautiful and dramtic: I wanted to draw your attention into their haunted depths. The fact that an incredibly talented painter spent nearly a decade painting nothing but pretty young women holding severed heads is worth remarking on for its own right(also I have also always thought that Freud might have something with his theories of Eros and Thanatos). At a more primitive level, I hoped some sixteenth century violence and horror might drum up ratings during the summer doldrums. Most of all I want to use the paintings as memento mori (and I believe this was Cranach’s most pronounced intention also). Cranach and John the Baptist are long dead and turned to dust. Such is the fate of all flesh, but you are still alive and it’s a lovely June day. Stop looking at troubling art and go revel in the sunshine!
In an ongoing overview of the many different concepts of the word “gothic” we come to gothic horror fiction. This school of writing burst into popularity in 1764, with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpool and, since that time, gothic fiction has only tightened its grip on the public imagination. The influence of the style is immense. Scroll across a smattering of the prominent examples from the Wikipedia page to contemplate the debt we owe the eighteenth century authors who originated the gothic story. From the foremost figures of literature like Edgar Allen Poe, Victor Hugo, and William Faulkner to sensationalist hacks like Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Stephen King, and William Faulkner, authors have slavishly returned to Walpool’s template.
The elements of Walpool’s work will be instantly familiar to anyone who reads for pleasure (or indeed has access to moving pictures or a television set). The characters are larger-than-life stereotypes who roam through gloomy castles filled with magical portents, apparitions, frightful medieval torture devices, and monsters (both human and inhuman).
As an early Halloween treat here is a ghastly and baffling passage from Walpool’s The Castle of Otranto. By quoting only from the first paragraphs of the first chapter, I have tied not to give anything away [if you want to read the entire book on your own, however, consider this a spoiler alert]. The main character of the book, Prince Manfred, an imperious and impatient nobleman has been interrupted on the day his weakling son Conrad is to wed the lovely Isabella. This interruption takes the form of an immense helmet which has mysteriously fallen from heaven and crushed Conrad to a pulp! The terrible event is made all the more ominous (if such a thing is possible) by a prophecy that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from Manfred’s line, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it. The passage begins as Manfred rushes outside to find out where his son is and why his servants are behaving strangely:
The first thing that struck Manfred’s eyes was a group of his servants endeavouring to raise something that appeared to him a mountain of sable plumes. He gazed without believing his sight.
“What are ye doing?” cried Manfred, wrathfully; “where is my son?”
A volley of voices replied, “Oh! my Lord! the Prince! the Prince! the helmet! the helmet!”
Shocked with these lamentable sounds, and dreading he knew not what, he advanced hastily, – but what a sight for a father’s eyes! – he beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers.
The horror of the spectacle, the ignorance of all around how this misfortune had happened, and above all, the tremendous phenomenon before him, took away the Prince’s speech. Yet his silence lasted longer than even grief could occasion. He fixed his eyes on what he wished in vain to believe a vision; and seemed less attentive to his loss, than buried in meditation on the stupendous object that had occasioned it. He touched, he examined the fatal casque; nor could even the bleeding mangled remains of the young Prince divert the eyes of Manfred from the portent before him.
Walpool’s over-the top melodrama edges toward dreadful parody (a hallmark of gothic fiction ever since). Even the saturnine and glowering prince is overshadowed by random supernatural forces.
Horace Walpool drew his writing inspiration from his dilettante’s interest in antiquities and from gothic architecture, which he loved. He took particular inspiration from the picturesque ruins of the great abbeys of England (dissolved by Henry VIII) and from Westminster Abbey. In addition to inventing gothic fiction, he repopularized gothic architecture by building a new country house for himself on the outskirts of London which he named “Strawberry Hill”. The strange confabulation of turrets, towers, and hallways was instantly famous. It defined a style unto itself “rococo gothic” which left its indelible mark on the gothic revival craze which was to sweep Great Britain and the United States a generation later.