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DARK ART

A HISTORY: PART ONE
by Colleen Crary

Writers (and, more recently, filmmakers) aren't the only creatives to explore the dark, the supernatural, and the wicked. There's always been dark music, of course, but we want to focus on the haunting and provocative images visual artists have been creating for centuries -- often alongside the writers of their time.

The artists discussed in this two-part series (originally published in September 1999 in the DarkEcho Newsletter) are widely accepted by art historians as illuminators of the horror of the human condition. Their work resonates, disturbs and provokes. We have provided examples of their work (what would an article on art be without art?) on a separate page. Opening this page will give you a new browser window to view the art in while reading the text in this browser window. (It is a pretty large download.) Or you can access each artwork individually by clicking on the cropped thumbnail images in the text. The images may download a little slowly for some folks, but we've made them as "fast" as possible while still preserving respectable quality.

ImageFRANCISCO DE GOYA (1746-1828) began his career pandering to his aristocratic clients' tastes and ended it by painting bitter, scathing commentaries on the Spanish society that favored him. His later work featured venereal sores, goiters and the results of aristocratic inbreeding gleefully rendered in the portraits of his patrons. "Saturn Devouring His Children" (1823) is a graphic condemnation of the adage "the wisdom of the elders" -- fathers who would eat their progeny rather than see their own power passed on. His sardonic commentary on the foibles of civilization was unique to an age where portraiture and art was "pretty" and decorative -- status symbols for those aristocrats who could afford to have an artist on retainer. Goya's departure from acceptable norms in art in the late 18th century ushered in a number of trends in which art becomes in turns deeply personal, actively social, and dark.

ImageGoya's groundbreaking work influenced the lithographer and painter ODILON REDON (1840-1916), a founder of fantasy art and surrealism. Image Redon was greatly inspired by the work of writer Edgar Allan Poe, finding inspiration in the hallucinogenic and overwrought passion of Poe's literature. Redon was also one of the first artists to study Freud, and to employ the symbols of dreams/nightmares into his work. He spent time with Emil Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and Symbolist poets. His moody, disturbing work weaves reality and the psychological signposts of the subconscious in dense lithographs and brilliantly colored canvases.

ImageJAMES ENSOR (1860-1949) combined Redon's sense of fantasy with Goya's bitter social commentary to create his own artistic vision in which humanity is viewed as venal and grotesque. Faces are replaced with masks of leering clowns, lurid skulls and idiotic buffoons. This is humanity depicted as duplicitous, mad, despicable. His opus, "Christ's Entry into Brussels" depicts Ensor's hatred for mankind: A scenario in which Christ's return to Earth becomes a commercial circus, banners bearing ads for Colman's Mustard and political slogans dot the mob scene. The figure of Christ is lost in the melee. The painting was commissioned for an 1889 Brussels festival, and pulled from viewing by an angry city council. The public did not view it until 1929.

ImageEnsor's contemporary, EDVARD MUNCH (1863-1944) would create the defining image of our anxious age, "The Cry/The Scream". Munch's focused intensity, his obsession with sex and death in his woodcuts and paintings, would inspire future writers, artists, and even filmmakers. A strange, tortured personality, Munch immersed himself in the artistic pressure cooker of Berlin at the turn of the century. He lived and worked with other artists and writers there, most notably, the playwright Henrik Ibsen, for whom he designed sets for GHOSTS and HEDDA GABLER. Moody and erotic, his bleak vision echoes Van Gogh's later work and highlights the emerging pathos of German Expressionism.

ImageA visual resource for future cinematographers, GIORGIO DE CHIRICO (1888) absorbed Munch's dark Nordic mysticism to create frighteningly strange dreamscapes dotted with shocking juxtapositions and odd perspectives. Influenced by the writing of Nietzche, Breton, and Freud, his work is lyrical yet deeply alienating. He claimed to be exploring the metaphysical reality of inorganic objects and architecture. One can see his influence in the films of Hitchcock, Reed and Bergman. Literary movements like the stream of consciousness style of Ernest Hemingway are reflected de Chirico's art as creatives sought to express the nihilism born in the wake of WWI and the beginning of the technological age.

De Chirico's work made way for surrealism and the dada literary and art scene. Overshadowed by the cult of Dali, there are three surrealists whose dark art warrants closer inspection: Andre Masson (1896-1974), Yves Tanguy (1900-1955), and Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957).

Image ANDRE MASSON was an anarchist, spiritually and physically scarred by world war, plagued with frequent mental breakdowns, his work reflects his belief that the rational must be dominated by the irrational. Sadistic and brutal, bitterly pessimistic, his work expresses a passionate attempt to find mystical union with the universe, beyond the physical world. His work is a shattering scream for redemption in a world in which he felt damned. The work of writers like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs would echo this extreme and personal expressionism in staccato rhythms and hallucinogenic flights of fancy peppered with brutal truths and stark realities.

ImageGoya's YVES TANGUY had literary interests and close associations with the surrealist writers, but found painting to be the most effective, if nonverbal, medium for expressing himself. His style is mysterious in mood, and has a quality of luminescent darkness, of primordial awakenings. His paintings could be the settings for the fiction of J.G .Ballard -- simultaneously strange and intimate vistas that create a disorienting tension for the viewer.

ImagePAVEL TCHELITCHEW sought to express inner realities in a fantastic language of acidic color, and anatomical references. The photographic precision of rendering areas of sharp focus and blur in the same painting, combined with a stream of consciousness narrative, results in a truly nightmarish lens through which the darkness of one's inner world can be witnessed by the viewer.

These images have power. They are confrontational, and provoke questions rather than provide solutions. View them. Absorb them. Let these dark visions stimulate and inspire you.


[DARK ART: A HISTORY-PART TWO continues with those madcap funsters, the German expressionists, and a few (still living) dark gems of the modern art world.]

|| To Part 2 ||


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(Text) Copyright © 1999 by Collen Crary. Used with the permission of the author. All Rights Reserved.