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9,000 year old Neolithic limestone mask found in the Judean desert

We are coming up to Halloween and, as always, we will have a special week of horrifying posts concerning a theme topic (like flaying, the undead, or the monstrous brood of Echidna).  Before we get there, though, let’s take a peak back through time to look at some of the other faces that our forbears decided to put on in the ages before “Joker” or “It”.  The greatest masks are astonishing sculptures, but they were more, too–masks lay at the crux of ancient cults and ancient drama.  We will never truly know what the makers of that first mask up there were doing with it 9000 years ago (human sacrifice?), nor will we know what the Etruscans wanted with their Charun-like mask (human sacrifice?).  We truly can’t know what the mysterious Moche wanted with their mostrous mask (human sacrifice?), and sadly, I couldn’t find out about the Bornean & Congolese masks.  Yet on a deeper level we do know: our hearts tell us what each of these masks is about as surely as we can read a line of emoticons on a phone or know to jump away from a striking cobra.  Some things are instinctual even for humans.  Although I am sure an ethnologist would chide me, it is hard not to look through the empty eyes of masks, both sacred and profane, and see the familiar dark places always within the human heart.

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Borneo Mask Indai-Guru Mask Borneo, Iban Dayak

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Kumu Mask: Congo/Central Africa

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Etruscan mask in Archeology Museum in Cagliari.

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Moche Mask, Peru, 6th-7th century AD, Silvered copper, shell

It is the first day of October, which means you need to start getting ready for Halloween horror coming to Ferrebeekeeper at the end of the month! Every year we have done a special theme week to highlight the monsters lurking in the many shadows of existence. As all of you know, there is darkness out there: it lurks just beneath our appetites, our skin, our mortal lives…Ye! there is a ghastly void beneath the pretty autumn flowers themselves! As a teaser of things to come later this month, I am doubling back to an earlier post which had one of my drawings in it.

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The drawing was hard to see in that post (because WordPress seemingly no longer blows images up to true size if you click on them) however it took me an enormous amount of time and it looks very ghastly and disconcerting in the real world. It is another one of my allegorical flounder drawings, but this one concerns the hunger, carnage, and obliteration which, alas, seem to be ineluctable features of all systems involving living things…perhaps of all systems, full stop.

There is a story I imagined while drawing this: what if you were wandering through the barrowlands of Europe when you found an ancient flatfish made of hammered gold? You would grab the treasure and begin to carry it off, however closer examination might give you pause, for, graven into the solid gold, are vile butchers, sorcerers, monsters, and dark gods. Assembled on the surface of the piece are a monster andrewsarchus, an underworld goddess leaping out of a well with entrails in her hand, cannibals, and a parasitic tapeworm thing. All of these frightful entities are gathered around an evil sentient tree with hanged men it its boughs, and the entire tableau is on the back of a terrible moaning flatfish which seems almost to writhe in your hand. When you look up at the sky the night is descending on the wold. The megaliths take on a sinister new aspect and the very stars seem inimical. it is all too easy to imagine the black holes eating away the center of each galaxy. With dawning fear you realize you need to put this unearthly artifact right back where you found it.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Lady on the Horse (Alfred Kubin, 1938, Pen and ink, wash, and spray on paper)

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.

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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).

 

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The North Pole (Alfred Kubin 1902)

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.

 

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The Pond (Alfred kubin, ca. 1905)

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.

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The Egg (Alfred Kubin, 1902)

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).

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The Government (Alfred Kubin)

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

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Snakes in the City (Alfred Kubin,1911, pen and ink)

 

 

A Flayed man holding his own skin (Gaspar Becerra, 1556, Etching)

A Flayed man holding his own skin (Gaspar Becerra, 1556, Etching)

It’s Halloween week already: the time when the spirit realm comes closest to the mortal world (well, according to ancient lore, anyway).   This is always a “theme week”, which Ferrebeekeeper devotes to a single topic which is sinister, magical, disquieting, and macabre.  In past year’s we have taken on dark subjects like the children of Echidna, the Flowers of the Underworld, the undead, and the realm of nightmares, but this year we are going back to the roots of civilization to examine an ancient horror.  Sadly, this ghastly topic is not a dark myth or an accursed dream, but an all-too real invention of human savagery.

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Flaying is a method of torture and execution, which was used in ancient times (and not-so-ancient times) to kill a person in the most terrible and painful way.  Of course hunters and animal farmers are familiar with flaying as stripping the skin off of a dead animal so that the hide can be cured as a pelt or a leather, and so that the animal’s meat can then be butchered for consumption (although this is more commonly known as “skinning” in English).  This is done with a knife or similar sharpened implement and farmers/hunters/chefs generally try to keep the hide as intact as possible. At some point in the depths of prehistory, some evil person first realized the same method could be used to cut the skin off of a living person.   Skinning more than a portion of a person is fatal.  Wikipedia blandly cites Ernst G. Jung, a famed dermatologist, writing:  “Dermatologist Ernst G. Jung notes that the typical causes of death due to flaying are shock, critical loss of blood or other body fluids, hypothermia, or infections, and that the actual death is estimated to occur from a few hours up to a few days after the flaying.”  How did Jung know that?  We want to know and yet clearly we also do not want to know. I found a lot of arguments online about whether modern medicine could rescue a flayed person.  I will summarize the upshot of lots of nightmarish dumbassery as “maybe… in perfect circumstances, but probably not.”

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At this point, if you are like me you are probably saying “GLAAARGH! What the hell? Why would anybody ever do such a thing? And why write about it? Why should I even think about such monstrous savagery? I am going to go look at pictures of cute little songbirds.”  That is a good point and those questions/sentiments are very pertinent, but you should not go to the cute animal site yet.

Here is a cute little bird to break the tension.

Here is a cute little bird to break the tension.

Flaying keeps cropping back up in human history, art, and myth.  It reveals something about us in a dark tale which stretches across millennia.  Mostly, of course, it reveals that we are very tragic and cruel animals, but that is a truth well worth remembering (assuming you can somehow not see it within the daily news).  Flaying also reveals some of our stagecraft for manipulating and controlling each other–which I will get into tomorrow with the story of the Neo-Assyrians.  Additionally there is a mysterious and otherworldly hint of true transformation within this topic—a suggestion of the butterfly, the cocoon, and true transcendence from the body—although admittedly this miracle which did not quite come off properly. We will get to this as we look at flaying in art and religion.

High Fashion by Jean Paul Gautier

High Fashion by Jean Paul Gautier

If you can stay with me, this week ends with a fun surprise on Halloween (which I have been working on for a long time and saving for you)…but there is some pretty dark territory to get through before then.  Gird up your loins (no seriously, you may want to tie something protective around your flesh), tomorrow we are going back to the age of chariots and horror to spend some time with the neo-Assyrians.  Aaaagh!

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l’Écorché “The Flayed Man” ( Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1767, cast)

Saint George and the Dragon (Vittore Carpaccio, 1507 AD, tempera on panel)

Saint George and the Dragon (Vittore Carpaccio, 1507 AD, tempera on panel)

 

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.

The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

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.

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Detail

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.

The illusionist and filmmaker, George Méliès (who looks exactly like one imagines)

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.

Pre-contact distribution of Algonquian languages

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.

Detail of “The Magic Circus”

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

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