Once again it’s the final day of October – which was known to Irish pagans as Samhain, was known to medieval Christians as All Hallow’s Eve and is known to pretty much the whole world now as Halloween. As is my custom at this time of year, I will showcase ten paintings and illustrations that I feel convey the creepy, sometimes downright macabre, vibe of the season.
Firstly, here’s something memorably eerie by American Bill Crisafi, whose Facebook page describes him as a ‘multidisciplinary artist roaming the fog-drenched New England forests’. (His website, meanwhile, is here: http://billcrisafi.bigcartel.com/.) At first glance, the figures in the picture, Keepers of the Moon, suggested to me the three witches or ‘weird sisters’ of Macbeth. At second glance, somehow, they suggested a dark version of the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men, who arrived in Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus. It’s as if they’ve popped out of an evil mirror-image universe where Halloween has usurped Christmas and taken over the Nativity.
Also American, but tackling an Italian subject, is the Milwaukee-based artist Jessica Seamans, whose work can be viewed at http://landland.net. As its title suggests, her picture here is inspired by the masterful 1976 Italian horror film Suspiria, which was directed by Dario Argento. In fact, she created it for a Halloween screening of the movie in London back in 2012. Suspiria was memorable not only for its scariness but also for its baroque, at times quite barmy, set design, something that Seamans captures nicely here. She also captures the film’s level of bloodletting with a colour scheme that’s suitably red. Suspiria, incidentally, isn’t the only movie that’s received the Jessica Seamans treatement. Her take on Gremlins (1984) is pretty good as well: https://mondotees.com/products/gremlins-poster?variant=12664541507.
Suspiria was a film about witches and a witch features at the centre of the tumultuous supernatural mayhem depicted in The Sorceress, which is now housed at the RISD Museum in New England (http://risdmuseum.org). This engraving is the work of the 17th century Dutch painter Jan van de Velde II, who was also well-known as a landscape artist and who has been cited as an influence on Rembrandt. The text accompanying The Sorceress on the RISD website identifies in the foreground some cards, die and tobacco, which serve “to warn that life is fleeting and that temporal pleasures should be avoided.”
In these Halloween entries I commonly feature something by the Irish artist Harry Clarke, largely on the strength of his acclaimed black-and-white illustrations for an early 20th-century edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. However, Clarke also made a name for himself by working in stained glass – he was responsible for the stained-glass windows in the famous Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street in Dublin. So this year I thought it would be good to celebrate Clarke’s stained-glass art. Here is a detail from the Dempsey Memorial Lancet Window of St Maculind, which Clark crafted for St MacCullin’s Church in Lusk – and yes, the nearer face looks worryingly zombie-like. The detail was photographed by Kelly Sullivan and used for an illustration for the following online article: https://publicdomainreview.org/2016/10/12/harry-clarkes-looking-glass/.
From Ireland to Norway now. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen was one of his country’s most celebrated painters. His specialities included illustrations for legends and fairy stories and he had a particular affinity for drawing that most Scandinavian of mythological creatures, the troll. No wonder his work has been much in demand as sleeve art by Norwegian heavy metal bands like Burzum and Empyrium. His foglight-eyed Water Spirit, though, has something of the panels that used to be found in 1950s American horror comics like Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt. This image comes from Kittelsen’s entry on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Kittelsen).
Someone else from the non-English-speaking world who liked to use local folklore as an inspiration for his pictures was the 19th century Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyosai, who was responsible for the following depiction of a sleeping red-robed lady surrounded by hordes of rather jolly-looking animated skeletons. It’s known as Hell Courtesan no 9 of the Kyosai Rakuga Series. Although Kyosai’s folkloric art often had a macabre tone, it was probably less stressful for him than his main line of work, which was as a caricaturist. In fiercely hierarchical Japan, his political caricatures didn’t always go down well and got him arrested on several occasions. To view more of Kyosai’s work, check out this webpage: http://wsimag.com/art/16772-from-mad-to-dawn.
Not many Halloween pictures make me think of Britain’s eternally young, wholesome, Christian and Daily Mail-approved pop singer Cliff Richard, but I can’t look at this next item without thinking of Cliff’s 1976 hit Devil Woman. (“She’s just a devil woman / With evil on her mind / Beware the devil woman / She’s gonna get you…” etc.) Even the picture’s title, La Femme de Satan, sounds like a very loose French translation of the name of Cliff’s song. Actually, Devil Woman was covered in 2004 by County Suffolk’s Goth / black metal band Cradle of Filth and I suspect La Femme de Satan is closer in spirit to that particular rendition of the song. It was painted by the Russian Nikolai Kalmakoff who, it’s said, got heavily into the occult whilst living in Paris in the mid-1930s. It’s also said that later he became a recluse and then a pitiful inmate of an indigents’ hospital, so if he made any deals with the devil he clearly got a bum deal. The macabre art blog Monster Brains devoted an entry to Kalmakoff’s works a little while ago: http://monsterbrains.blogspot.com/2015/01/nikolai-kalmakoff.html.
Mainly associated with sensual imagery that manages to be both brightly shiny and droopingly languid, the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt nevertheless produced the occasional bit of dark stuff. I like this one, Life and Death, which on one side has some of Klimt’s usual figures rippling and billowing down the canvas in the usual patchwork of summery colours; but has a rather different figure looking on, and grinning starkly, from the other side. It now resides in the Leopold Museum in Vienna: http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/leopoldcollection/masterpieces/41.
A skull also plays a prominent part in this composition which I found on a site called Tomb of Insomnia. Alas, the site no longer seems to exist and I’m afraid I don’t know who the artist is. It does, though, look like a still from the most terrifying possessed-devil-child movie never made.
And finally, here’s an illustration from Virgil Finlay, best known for his work in the American pulp-fiction magazines of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, where his handsome and atmospheric pictures accompanied many a tale of horror, fantasy and science fiction. However, this item – which I found at http://www.munchkinpress.com – was drawn for a poem by H.P. Lovecraft called Halloween in the Suburbs. And thus it brings this entry to an appropriate close.