10 scary pictures for Halloween 2019


From craftshub.com


Today is October 31stSamhain as it’s known in Ireland and Halloween as it’s known elsewhere.  As is my annual custom, I will celebrate the occasion by putting on this blog ten of the creepiest or most disturbing pieces of artwork that I’ve come across during the past year.


To start this year’s round-up, here’s a haunting picture by American artist Aron Wiesenfeld, who seems to specialise in depicting frail, vulnerable-looking figures stuck in the middle of bleak, supernaturally threatening landscapes.  This one evokes the ‘trapped in the woods’ trope that’s been common in modern American horror films from The Evil Dead (1981) to The Blair Witch Project (1999), and to The Cabin in the Woods (2012).  It also gets power from its ambiguity.  We don’t know if there’s something lurking in that dark gap between the trees, but we certainly don’t want the lady to venture in and find out.


© Aron Wiesenfeld


Next, I’d like to pay tribute to an artist who passed away earlier this year.  David Palladini was well known for his ornate, colourful and imaginative versions of the Tarot cards and Zodiac figures, but the work that I’m most familiar with is this poster he designed for Werner Herzog’s stylish 1979 gothic horror movie Nosferatu the Vampyre, featuring Klaus Kinski in the role of a bald-headed and be-clawed Count Dracula.  The look of the poster is decidedly Art Nouveau, which nicely captures the sense of tragic and doomed romanticism underlying Kinski’s physical grotesqueness.


© Werner Herzog Filmproduktion / 20th Century Fox


From vampires to werewolves – and I was delighted to discover this image recently because I remember it vividly from my boyhood.  The picture, by prolific British horror / fantasy artist Les Edwards, once adorned the cover of a paperback novelisation of the 1975 British horror movie The Legend of the Werewolf.  I read the novelisation when I was 11 and too young to see the film itself in the cinema.  Three years later, I caught up with the film on TV, and even at the age of 14 I found it pretty unremarkable.  (Though it benefited from having a good cast, including Peter Cushing, Ron Moody and, in the role of the werewolf, Scottish actor David Rintoul.)  The novelisation was actually much better than the film deserved.  Not only was Edwards’ cover art memorable, but it was written by the distinguished British fantasy author Robert Holdstock under the pseudonym Robert Black.


© Les Daniels / Sphere Books


Here’s an illustration from another book, though one whose contents are rather more acclaimed than the storyline of The Legend of the Werewolf.  It’s from the 1912 Hodder and Stoughton edition of The Bells and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe.  The illustrator is French-British artist Edmund Dulac, who also applied his talents in less fantastical, more everyday areas, for example, by designing banknotes and postage stamps.  Dulac even created a stamp to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, although by a cruel irony he died just one week before the coronation took place in 1953.


© Hodder and Stoughton


I find skulls creepy, especially when juxtaposed with the living, so I have included this item by the Japanese artist Takato Yamamoto.  The positioning of the skull and the adjacent face, and the amorphous background that seems to swallow the bodies of the subjects, makes it resemble a dark and grim version of the famously spangly works of Gustav Klimt.  (Klimt actually did once produce a sinister painting featuring a skull.)  What gets me is the black, shaggy material surrounding the skull.  Is it a hairy coat?  A hairy blanket?  Is it fur covering a body and pair of arms?  Are we looking at a skull-faced, black-pelted demon from Japanese folklore?  (Yamamoto comes from Japan’s Akita prefecture, home of the famous Namahage ogres.  So I wonder if this is meant to be a zombie Namahage.)


© Takato Yamamoto


Also shaggy in places is this demonic creature beautifully drawn in black and white by Hannes Bok who, like the better-known and more prolific Virgil Finlay, illustrated the contents of American pulp-fiction sci-fi, horror and detective magazines in the 1930s and 1940s.  Obsessed with the occult, Bok became increasingly reclusive in later life and died in poverty in 1964.  But he at least had the honour of winning one of the first Hugo Awards (for best cover art) when those now-venerable awards were inaugurated in 1953.


From monsterbrains.blogspot.com


What next?  I like this detail taken from the bottom right-hand corner of The Last Judgement, painted between 1525 and 1530 by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  Cranach was apparently a mate of Martin Luther, which may explain the baleful relish with which he depicts sinners being stuffed by vile demons into a pit populated by even viler demons.


From grecosghosts.com


Here’s something I found on a now-defunct website called Tomb of Insomnia.  I have no idea what its title is, or who the artist is, or what it’s meant to represent.  But it looks hideous.


From Tomb of Insomnia


I started this blog entry with a picture of a female figure eerily contrasted with a dark space and here’s another one, courtesy of the South Korean illustrator Yoonji Lee – although there’s less ambiguity about what’s occupying that dark space.  The piece’s title, With Her Demon, gives some clue as to what we’re looking at.  I haven’t been able to find much information about Yoonji Lee and only discovered this picture on the Twitter account 41 Strange.  She’s not to be confused with wholesome-looking Korean TV actress Lee Yoon-ji, whose name kept cropping up when I tried to Google her.


© Yoonji Lee


Finally, here’s a picture to connect Halloween with the next big festival on the calendar, which is of course Christmas.  The caption, if you can’t read it, says: “Bring in another!”  It’s the work of the celebrated cartoonist, artist and author Gahan Wilson.  To me, Wilson always seemed like the missing link in the cartoon world between purveyors of classic gothic macabre-ness like Charles Adams and Edward Gorey, and the more modern oddness of Gary (The Far Side) Larson.  Sadly, Wilson is not in good health these days and his stepson recently launched a fundraiser to help pay for his care and medical bills.  Donations can be made here.


© Gahan Wilson


And that’s my ten for October 31st this year.  Happy Halloween!


10 scary pictures for Halloween 2016


From crafthub.com


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.



Happy Halloween!


Ten scary paintings


Less than a fortnight after apologising for writing a blog entry that was simply a list of things – as I said then, I hate it when music and film magazines publish ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ lists as a lazy substitute for imaginative features – I have decided to be even more of a hypocrite and compile another list.  The Review section in last weekend’s Observer newspaper had the bright idea of marking Halloween by nominating the ten scariest artworks ever painted, a list that included works by Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, Bosch, Gericault and Warhol.  In fact, so appealing was this idea that I have decided to rip off the Observer and do the same thing myself.  Although I’ve missed Halloween by one day, here are my choices for the ten most frightening paintings in the history of fine art.


First of all, however, here’s a link to the original Observer feature: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/oct/28/10-best-scary-paintings-halloween


There are two paintings on the Observer’s list that are also on mine.  One, inevitably, is The Nightmare, by the Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli.  Its hideous incubus, squatting on the bosom of a sleeping maiden, is disturbing enough – but what really spooks me about this painting is the goggle-eyed and deranged-looking horse whose head protrudes into the action.  That horse is worthy of David Lynch, in fact.  Such was the excitement generated by The Nightmare when first exhibited in 1782 that Fuseli painted several variations on it.  The original, however, now resides in the Detroit Institute of Arts.




The second painting about which I agree with the Observer is The Ghost of a Flea, a miniature work by William Blake that is now in the Tate Gallery in London.  The image of this muscular, mutant and malevolent thing supposedly came to Blake while he was participating in a séance in 1819.  Nearly 200 years have passed since then — and the last 100 or so have seen the flourishing of cinematic culture, wherein make-up artists and special-effects technicians have worked hard at populating horror movies with all manner of scary and loathsome monsters.  Yet Blake’s humanoid-flea creature still manages to be more repulsive than 90% of the monsters that have lurched across cinema screens in the 20th and 21st centuries.




Moving on to my own choices – I’d like to mention the Australian painter Peter Booth, whose bizarre, apocalyptic-feeling work I first encountered during a trip Down Under 14 years ago.  Particularly unsettling is his untitled 1977 painting, now in the National Gallery of Victoria.  Why is that nocturnal sky dominated by a blood-red sun?  What does that big albino bull terrier got to do with anything?  And why does that white-haired central figure remind me so much of Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher, a horror movie that wasn’t made until nine years later?




And now onto to Gustav Klimt.  Yes, I know in the public mind he’s now almost entirely associated with glittery, glossy and sensual paintings like The Kiss – but the dark side of me rather likes these depictions he did of some monstrous females from Greek mythology (whom many artists have been drawn to over the centuries).  His The Gorgons and Typhon, which I believe is a much reproduced detail of his Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building in Vienna, still has a Klimt-esque ornateness and sensuality about it.  But at the same time, his gorgons look vicious, rancid and decidedly unwholesome.




Edward Hopper also isn’t a name one normally associates with macabre art, but I feel he deserves inclusion here on the strength of his 1925 painting The House by the Railroad, which now hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Although the house is depicted in daylight, it is eerily lonely and still-looking and its gaunt façade even has a hint of a skull about it.  And if the house touches a deeper nerve in you, it’s perhaps because it was the inspiration for the look of the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.




For something gruesomely and apocalyptically medieval, I will pass over Hieronymus Bosch, genius though he was, and opt instead for Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  His 1562 painting The Triumph of Death does what it says on the tin – death has indeed triumphed, as evidenced by the fires burning across a razed wasteland, the leafless trees, the shipwrecks, the rotting fish, the panic-stricken crowds and the many gleeful and malevolent skeletons.  The detail that kills me (sorry) is the skeleton riding on a horse-drawn cart, who merrily plays a hurdy-gurdy whilst people disappear under his hooves and wheels.  This painting has hung in Madrid’s Museo del Prado for nearly two centuries.




For my next choice, I’ll cheat a little – for it isn’t a painting but an engraving that I’ve seen reproduced in a many books and on many websites.  Representing John Dee, the legendary 16th century magician, astronomer, astrologer, mathematician and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (needless to say, Dee fell from royal favour when the deeply witch-fearing James VI of Scotland claimed the English throne), and fellow magician Edward Kelley conjuring up a spirit in a nocturnal churchyard, the engraving isn’t particularly frightening.  But there’s a great charm in the way it depicts the traditional paraphernalia of the occult – the magic circle, the book of spells and rituals, the sword-wand, the headstones and the heaped bones and skulls.




I’m a sucker for ukiyo-e – the art of Japanese woodblock prints – so I’ll include here Takiyashi the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who, until his death in 1862, was one of the last great masters of the form.  Now to be found in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, this triptych is a gloriously ghoulish and cartoonish work, and the oversized skeleton spectre in it would not look out of place in a fairground haunted house or ghost-train ride.




Next up is perhaps the nastiest piece in my top ten.  It’s surely the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of scary art. Yes, it’s Figure with Meat by – who else? – Francis Bacon.  Supposedly based on Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, this 1954 painting unflatteringly transforms the poor old pope into a grotesque, dribbly-faced gargoyle with two halves of a cow-carcass hanging behind him.  The rows of ribs in the carcass correspond unpleasantly to the rows of teeth in the figure’s maw.  Kept in the Art Institute of Chicago, this painting appeared in a scene in Tim Burton’s 1989 version of Batman – it was the only painting that the similarly rictus-faced Joker instructed his henchmen not to vandalise, because he ‘kinda liked’ it.




And finally, this painting has certainly lost some of its impact due to over-exposure in popular culture – blame Wes Craven, for one.  But nonetheless, I was surprised that the Observer article didn’t mention the most famous work of Edvard Munch.