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.