Halloween is less than a week away, and while you're putting the finishing touches on your costume, take a minute to learn a bit more about things that go bump in the night. Our favorite art historian, writer, and witchy woman Angella D'Avignon is here to bless us with some insight into the history of the occult in art. So cross your heart, hope to die and open your mind to the weird, unearthly (other) world of grim imagery.
We're living in spooky times, my friends, and it's not just because of Halloween. Between this election and the impending darkness of Daylight Savings Time, October is a very haunted month. Throughout the ages, art has employed imagery surrounding the unknown and death to illustrate the darkest recesses of this mortal coil. What make these eerie works of art so compelling is that they encapsulate the fear of their respective times: from mortality, to sickness, to inner turmoil, to pestilence, plague and the list goes on. From Goya's demons to Bacon's frailty, from skulls to black cats, we have a bevy of spooky aesthetics for you and your inner witch to feast on. Bone Appetit! (Get it???)
Skulls & Death
Skulls typically symbolize death and their appearance in art dates back to ancient Rome. A memento mori, latin for "Remember you have to die," was a common motif in early Classical art and later in European medieval to Victorian era art. The presence of a skull signified death and the brevity of life and prompted the viewer to consider their mortality, for better or for worse. In the Mexican holiday Dia De Los Muertos or Day of the Dead, calaveras are used in to celebrate and memorialize loved ones who have passed. Skulls in design and illustration can be ubiquitous, but there are plenty of good ones, this one by Van Gogh for example, aptly titled "Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette".
Examples of skulls & death:
Ghosts & Hauntings
Abstraction is used as a strategy to distort figures, joining physical forms with psychological distress or parallel universes and alternate realities. This is evident in post-war painter Francis Bacon, whose work is grotesque and emotionally charged with compositions that feature twisted, blurred, and distorted portraits. Another artist, Francisco Goya, emerged from a mysterious, near-fatal illness in the 1790's and began painting deranged images of baby-eating gods and bloody war scenes.
On the more pastel-oilier side, mid-century painter Philip Guston's painting showed amorphous and humorous ghosty blobs which many interpret as mocking depictions of Ku Klux Klan members who Guston and his family, who were Jewish, were hyper-aware of in 1930's California where they lived. At age ten, Guston found the body of his father who had hung himself in the shed, and it's said that this heavily informed Guston's work.
Shapelessness and ghosts in art help to convey a sense of liminality, like purgatory. Whether it's between life and death, mental states, or between time eras, ghosts express listlessness and haunting.
Examples of ghosts and hauntings:
Witches & Black Cats
In art, witches symbolize the feminine with dark, but supernatural power. They're so often demonized in narrative because what could be scarier to most men at the time (seeking conquest and seizing resources and what not) than a woman with power? Many were accused of heresy during the Inquisition, when anyone who wasn't of the church was rounded up and promptly done away with, pagans being on the top of that list. According to this article, "Art history anthologies are filled with images of female characters endowed with magical, sometimes malevolent abilities, echoing the general long-lasting cultural obsession." And don't forget their companions, black cats (I have a total of five black stray cats living on my block making my neighborhood ~very spooky~.) They say a black cat crossing your path is bad luck, but when you're a witch, isn't that the point?
Examples of witches and black cats: