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!


10 more scary paintings for Halloween


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.