It’s Halloween and, as I did a year ago, I thought I’d showcase ten more paintings and illustrations that I feel capture some of the spookiness of the season.
First up is Sangre Virgen, a blood-curdling offering from artist Ismael Alvarez, about whom I know nothing other than that he’s Spanish and commonly produces gay erotica. No doubt this explains why when I tried to track him down on Google I either stumbled across Spanish-language sites that I didn’t understand or was blocked by anti-pornography filters. However, artist John Coulthart has written about him on his website at http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2012/08/11/the-art-of-ismael-alvarez/. It was on Coulthart’s site, in fact, that I discovered this image of a blonde, rabid-eyed and possibly baby-munching youth who resembles one of the kids in Village of the Damned – after about a century in hell, that is.
Next is a more mannerly item from Virgil Finlay, best remembered as an illustrator of horror, fantasy and science-fiction stories that appeared in American pulp-fiction magazines during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, between 1937 and 1953, he supplied 19 colour covers for the greatest of the pulp magazines, Weird Tales. During the war years, Finlay also served in the US military and saw action in the Battle of Okinawa, where no doubt he witnessed things that were far more horrifying than anything he’d drawn pictures for back home in the States. I particularly like this Finlay illustration for a story entitled And not in Peace. Like the best of Finlay’s work it manages to be spooky and atmospheric, yet weirdly sensual as well. (And yes, I’ve noticed where the end of the guy’s stake is pointing.)
A week or two ago I was in the National Gallery of Scotland, in whose basement hangs The Spell, painted by the 19th-century Scottish artist Sir William Fettes Douglas. Douglas, who actually became director of the National Gallery in 1877, had a fascination for the occult and this is evident in The Spell’s depiction of a sorcerer in his laboratory attempting to summon a dead spirit from the skull that’d housed it when it was alive. As the blurb accompanying the painting explains: “The superstition was common in many countries that it was possible, by words of power and magic, to force the dead to reveal the secrets of the unseen world. The Rosicrucians and Illuminati of the Middle Ages being especially accused of violating the tombs for this unholy purpose.”
Magician’s laboratories, laden with potions, alchemic instruments, occult symbols and books of arcane knowledge, have been a popular subject for artists. Equally popular have been depictions of witches’ sabbats, those gatherings where women who’d given themselves to worship of the devil were supposed to indulge in all manner of depravity and debauchery, usually including the kissing of their master’s buttocks and worse. This painting, The Witches’ Kitchen, was produced by a member of the Francken dynasty who painted in Antwerp during the 16th and 17th centuries. (I think it may be the work of Frans Francken II, but I could be wrong.) I saw it hanging in the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam a few years back. It doesn’t show a sabbat itself, but the departure lounge for one – a kitchen where some outwardly-respectable ladies are stripping down in preparation for their flight to the sabbat. You can see the witches taking off from the kitchen’s fireplace and shooting up its chimney. I know this manoeuvre appears in the Harry Potter books and movies too, but in those it isn’t usually accompanied by the flash of bare bottoms.
Francisco Goya was also fond of painting witches’ sabbats, for example, in The Great Goat and – that name again – The Spell. However, for this Halloween selection, I have chosen The Old Ones, sometimes known as Time and the Old Women, whose figures are so ravaged that the viewer isn’t sure if they are human beings suffering the extremes of decrepitude, or supernatural beings symbolising the horrors of it. I will leave it to the late Robert Hughes, author and art critic, to summarise the painting: “The old bat on the right, a chapfallen dame in a beautifully light-struck muslin robe of pale blue and yellow, fiddles with what appears to be a powder compact… Artifacts last; their owners decay. Her companion is a horror, a death’s head, her nose eaten away by the pox, her hands like claws, her lips and eyes raddled with caked incrustations of lipstick and kohl, her teeth discolored. Rising behind them, also peering at their reflected images, is the ultimate victor of this colloquy: Father Time, with his shag of gray hair and extended wings, grasping not a scythe but a broom with which he will sweep the crones away like the dust they are so nearly are.”
Next is a black-and-white illustration for an early 20th-century edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination by the Irish artist Harry Clarke. (Much of Clarke’s work wasn’t in ink but in stained glass, including the stained-glass windows in the famous Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street in Dublin.) Over the years I’ve come across various pictures that Clarke did for Poe’s short stories, including The Black Cat, William Wilson and Descent into the Maelstrom. However, for sheer claustrophobic horror, this one for The Premature Burial – starkly showing the narrator’s deepest (literally deepest) fears – can’t be beaten.
I find something especially grotesque and sinister about horse-skeletons. Maybe it’s their long toothy skulls that, in their fleshless state, look more crocodile-like than equine. I’m a fan of the apocalyptic oil paintings of the Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski, who met a particularly tragic end in 2005 – after a traumatic few years during which he’d seen the death of his wife and the suicide of his son, he was murdered in a dispute over a small sum of money. This is perhaps the Beksinksi picture I find most disturbing, thanks no doubt to that spectral horse, whose bones are visible through gossamers of decayed hide and tissue and which has a wraith-like rider planted on its back. (I’ve hunted around on the Internet but haven’t been able to find a title for this one.)
Human skeletons, meanwhile, commonly appear in the work of the 16th / 17th-century Italian painter Jacopo Ligozzi. One example is the skeletal figure wielding a symbolic sword in this luridly yellow-hued painting from 1625, whose title says it all: Death Exterminating Mankind.
More skeletons now, courtesy of the 20th-century English artist Edward Burra – though its bony figures, white, blue and pink, dancing a jig and wearing some natty hats, are far removed from the apocalyptic characters of the previous two pictures. (The face on the glowing full moon, meanwhile, looks like something out of a Tim Burton animated movie.) I saw Burra’s Dancing Skeletons recently at the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Contemporary Art and thought it evoked Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the skeleton-obsessed festival that kicks off south of the border just as American children are packing away their Halloween masks, costumes and pumpkins lanterns for another year. However, notes I’ve read about Dancing Skeletons online suggest that the well-travelled Burra drew his inspiration for this from the sight of hanged rebels in Belgian-controlled Africa.
Finally, I thought I’d leave the worst for the end. For a glimpse of pure evil, here’s Old Nick himself – peering primordially and malevolently out of the painting Lucifer by German artist Thomas Hafner.