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Self Portrait With Masks (James Ensor, 1899)  oil on canvas

Yesterday we sure had some…fun?…looking back at the evil clowns in the literature and music of yesteryore.  Before we push through to the evil clowns of the twentieth & 21st centuries (and examine why they excite and disturb so may people), let’s take a break and check out some disturbing clown art from Belgium’s most famous artist!  This is not Ferrebeekeeper’s first post about dark clown art–we already featured a controversial evil contemporary clown painting a few years back (it is funny–and maybe meaningful–to reflect that that post was from the last Halloween when I was a drinker!). But anyway, in today’s post, we are going to try to look at art which is not contemporary (since the art world these days sometimes seems like nothing but evil clowns), yet, moving back in time to look at James Ensor’s garish & phantasmagorical artwork raises a lot of disturbing questions.

Now whereas we know whether clowns of literature and opera are evil, things become less clear when we get to visual art–since all we have are visual cues.  Clearly the wistful clowns of Picasso’ rose period, the clowns of Pigalle as seen through the eyes of Toulouse Lautrec, and the sad twilight clown of Watteau don’t belong here (gosh, artists really do like clowns!).  Instead we are going to look at the decidedly mixed nihilistic clowns of James Ensor.

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James Ensor (1860-1949) was a sort of outsider artist of the Symbolist era.  He lived in his parents’ attic much of his life and rarely traveled.  His mother owned a costume shop, so, one could argue that many of these “clowns” are really strange masks or ludicrous costumes.  What is a clown though, but a masked costumed comic performer?  Ensor’s art might be described as thriftshop existentialism: skeletal beggars and weird apparitions in fancy rags struggle through their days towards oblivion.

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Two Skeletons fighting over a Dead Man (James Ensor 1891) oil on canvas

A more cutting argument might be that Ensor’s clowns are sad rather than evil.  A lot of these clowns do look very sad indeed–like they are trapped with the three stooges in an Albert Camus novel.  One of Ensor’s paintings (immediately above) features two bedraggled skeletons fighting each other for the corpse of a hanged person as a bizarre cast of ghostly outsiders look on.  All of the figures are dressed weirdly and have peculiar makeup, but are any of them evil?  Are any of them clowns?  Are any of them living humans at all? Maybe???  It certainly doesn’t matter: the pitiable spectacle paints existence as a nihilistic and sordid tableau with such force that it doesn’t matter if I have betrayed the theme of today’s post by putting it up. It’s not like evil clowns are paying me for writing this anyway [evil clowns, if you want to pay me just drop a note in the comments and we can move the discussion to email]

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King Pest (James Ensor, 1895) etching

Ensor was also a political artist.  For some reason, he felt that the pompous masters of society were abusing and degrading the people below them in the social hierarchy.  He was not however a romantic or an idealist:  one gets the sense that the victims in these interactions would behave just as meanly if the roles were reversed.  Ensor was also famously an atheist (although he sometimes painted Jesus as a sort of ultimate moral philosopher).  The haunted queasy feeling of these works is thus a metaphor for ultimate oblivion.

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Comical Repast: Banquet of the Starved( James Ensor, ca. 1917-18) oil on canvas

Ensor painted life as a meaningless clown show where social hierarchy was a rickety ladder of betrayal and corruption.  In his world, everyone is a sad clown, but the aggressive, abusive, and domineering clowns are in command because of their mean tricks.  It is not an uplifting view of existence, but he painted it with such bravura force and ghastly energy that his work has a sublime aspect.

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Red and White Clowns Evolving (James Ensor, 1890)

There is a spirit of bitter mockery and unfulfilling vengeance which motivates these works about fin de siècle European society as it moves towards the Great Wars.  Evil clowns in literature and art are all about vituperative nonbelief!  James Ensor got that.   His clowns are a cutting metaphor for cruel existential absurdity.  And, to wrap up, here is Hop Frog again!

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Hop-Frog’s Revenge (James Ensor,1896) Oil on Canvas

Though I had my doubts when I first started writing this, I now have to say, some of these clowns are not just sad, they are definitely super evil.  Thanks James Ensor, you always come through!

 

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The Assassination (James Ensor, 1888)

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In writing about dreams and nightmares, I would be remiss not to write about the dominant dream monsters from western mythology—incubus and the succubus. Stories about these dream demons and demonesses originated in ancient Mesopotamia and have been common ever since (actually, considering that writing originated in Mesopotamia, myths about this sort of dream demon probably go back even further). As you have noticed, these demons are very prominently gendered: an incubus is male and a succubus is female (indeed the former is extravagantly male and the latter amply female). This fact explains the enduring popularity of the concept: these beings are sex demons which represent fundamental human drives and fears. According to tradition, they steal into a person’s bedroom at night and lay with him or her. The nocturnal demons are also reckoned to be spirit vampires of a sort—they steal the life force of their victims by sleeping with them.

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

While all sorts of gods, goddesses, demons, monsters, and supernatural entities were curtailed by the spread of monotheism (with its jealous single god), the incubus and succubus effortlessly jumped right into the folklore of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at the very beginning and have stubbornly remained there ever since. Lilith—the demonic first consort of Adam–came into the Babylonian Talmud directly from Babylon (although some modern Talmudists dispute this and assert that the sexual demons are an eighth century addition to the Talmud). In Islamic folklore, there is a persistant belief in the qarînah (قرينة) which are invisible demons which have relations with humans in dreams (according to superstition they can be seen by some holy/magical folk and frequently hide in animal bodies).

 

The Malleability (artist unknown)

The Malleability (artist unknown)

There is no shortage of supernatural beings analogous to incubi in other parts of the world either. An incomplete list of these demons includes the Tokoloshe of South Africa; the Trauco of Chile (which preys exclusively on unmarried women); the pink botu of the Amazon, a shape-shifting river dolphin which seduces adolescents; the Indian pori (a seductive angel whichleads men towards suicide); and the Turkish Karabasan. The Teutonic mare or mara is a heavy goblin which crouches upon the victim’s chest (straddling the line between sleep apnea and salaciousness)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

There are very obvious reasons why this myth winds through so many human cultures: the dream demon is a fairly transparent proxy for powerful erotic dreams and feelings (I probably don’t have to explain the specifics of this to anyone who has passed through puberty). I have included some “heavy metal” looking paintings and prints in this article to illustrate the dream demon as a symbol of unbridled adolescent lust and nighttime dreams of forbidden lovemaking.

 

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

All of which seems to be a part of growing up. Disturbingly, though the incubus and succubus have a much darker abusive side. In traditional cultures (and therefore probably in ancient ones as well) the incubus was often blamed for pregnancies which should have been impossible (as for young women who were secluded or kept under close chaperone). It is not unreasonable to suppose that the demon was thus as a pretext for incest or sexual abuse at home. This makes the original definition of the monster especially sad and appropriate. For too many people, abuse is indeed a life drinking demon which can not be escaped or even discussed. The happy world of people with upstanding loving families…and indeed the law itself are only beginning to find out about some of these kinds of abuses, so it is no wonder they were originally cloaked in myth. Nevertheless, this illustrates that those sanctimonious people who say stuff like “these things never used to happen in the old days” have a rather shallow grasp of history AND human behavior. Additionally it illustrates that made-up supernatural horrors are no match for actual human abuse.

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

A Bronze Statue of a Baku

A Bronze Statue of a Baku

There are two sorts of dreams. In a figurative sense, your dreams are your aspirations and hopes for the future (for example I dream of getting a paying job, becoming a world famous visual artist, and colonizing our sister-planet Venus). However, in a more literal sense, dreams are a series of unreal adventures which take place inside your head when you are sleeping. Real dreams consist of strange phantasmagoria, troubling psychosexual images, intense emotions and memories as well as and undigested mental odds-and-ends…and horrifying nightmarish fears.

A baku inhaling nightmares

A baku inhaling nightmares

To start off our Halloween week of dreams and nightmares, here is a mythical animal which embodies the tension between both meanings of the word dreams. The Baku is a supernatural entity which devours dreams and nightmares. Apparently stories of the baku originated in ancient China, but these days it is most prevalent in Japan where it plays an ever growing role in folklore and fiction. The baku is a chimera which is said to have an elephant’s trunk, a rhinoceros’ eyes, an ox’s tail, and a tiger’s paws. The creature devours dreams by inhaling them through its sinuous proboscis.

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Not surprisingly, the baku’s moral alignment is highly controversial! In traditional Japanese texts it was a pleasant and helpful spirit which ate nightmares and thus provided afflicted sleepers with peaceful & pleasant (albeit somewhat bland) dreams. However in our fractured modern world, the baku has darkened and now it sometimes eats a person’s figurative dreams (although not having aspirations, ideas, or ambitions presumably makes a person an ideal office worker).

Baku (tattoo art by hiraistrange)

Baku (tattoo art by hiraistrange)

Originally bakus were regarded as completely supernatural, however in recent times they have become conflated with the inoffensive tapirs–which certainly physically resemble the descriptions of the mythical baku. This fact makes the baku even more confusing. It is now both a supernatural dream eating monster dwelling in the ether…and an actual living mammal which can be discovered in the rainforests of Malaysia and South America. I have always liked tapirs a great deal and so I am going to insist they are in no way malevolent. They appear to live exclusively on rainforest vegetation, but even if they did decide to branch out and inhale some human dreams, I am certain they would take our nightmares and not our fondest wishes.

An adorable baby tapir!

An adorable baby tapir!

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