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Halloween Art Throughout History

Originally published by Corinne Furniss on October 31, 2018

Aksel Waldermar Johannessen - The Night Aksel Waldemar Johannessen was a Norwegian humanist painter who focused on working class and unfortunate subjects. He is considered Norways ‘forgotten artist’ because he only gained recognition after his death. Johannessen trained in sculpture and painting and was able to make a living first as a furniture maker and then as a painter. He suffered as an alcoholic for many years and often painted himself into his work in an autobiographical attempt. “Thematic, the images are very ambitious ranging from the grotesque to the idyllic; from depictions of sexuality, violence, prostitution, alcoholism and war to idyllic and intimate work.” In this painting, his wife posed to become ghost-like figure standing in the park at night. The use of colour (dark background colours contrast with the bright blues and yellows of the figure) make this painting seem very spooky and creepy. Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare

Henry Fuseli was born and grew up in Switzerland until he was forced to flee from a vengeful corrupt family; he explored Germany before ending up in England where he spent most of the rest of his life. Fuseli’s father, Johann Caspar Füssli, was a portrait and landscape painter. Having received a classical education in Zurich, Fuseli later paid his way by writing before Sir Joshua Reynolds advised him to pursue art. He was both Professor of Painting and Keeper at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Fuseli is famous for his supernatural imagination; although he paints in a style consistent with Romanticism, his paintings are inspired by the paranormal. He was a master of light and shadow which he utilised to emphasise the drama in his paintings. The Nightmare portrays a “dreaming woman and the content of her nightmare.” This painting is often described as “a nightmare that causes nightmares”; it is a horrible representation of some of humanity’s deepest fears. Fuseli’s powerful use of light and shadow in this painting makes it very emotive to view; I can imagine myself in the place of the sleeping woman and feel genuine fear. This painting portrays a fear as old as humanity – the fear of not being safe while sleeping. Katsushika Hokusai - The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji

Hokusai was a Japanese artist from the Edo period; his most famous artwork is The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a piece which I’m sure everyone has seen at some point in their lives. Hokusai began painting at a very early age, practicing the skills his father had as a mirror-maker for the Shōgun. During his teenage years, he was an apprentice learning wood carving, print making and painting. Throughout his career, he distinguished different artistic styles by changing his name for each one. This painting depicts a scene from a Japanese legend where a murdered actor haunts his wife and her lover. The figure is quite gruesome in is design; the skull still has some hair and skin attached. The painting is very eerie as the zombie actor peers through the mosquito net at his wife. Francisco Goya - Saturn Devouring His Son

Goya is considered simultaneously as the last of the old masters and the first of the modern masters; during his lifetime he enjoyed great success as a Spanish Romantic painter and printmaker. He trained under José Luzán y Martinez and Anton Raphael Mengs, later securing a position with the Spanish Crown as a court painter. Following a severe illness which left him deaf in 1793 his work became darker and bleaker. This painting depicts a scene from a Romanised Greek myth in which Saturn eats his children to avoid a prophecy that one of them will overthrow him. Goya painted this piece, along with thirteen others known as the “Black paintings”, with oil paints directly onto the walls of his home near Madrid. While he never intended these paintings to be seen by anyone, the painting of Saturn is particularly disturbing. Francisco Goya - The Dog

Another of Goya’s ‘Black paintings’ is this one of a drowning dog. This stark and empty painting holds so much emotion; the scared dog is trapped between two oblivions of empty space. This sad and lonely painting depicts a dog that seems to be sinking instead of swimming and is at any moment about to be caught by a huge wave. The fear portrayed in his painting is one of helplessness – perhaps reminiscent of Goya’s own struggle with deafness and old age. Francis Bacon - Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X

Francis Bacon was an Irish-British painter renowned for his raw style of painting and his typically religious subject matter. Bacon was a late-comer to painting; he drifted through most of his life as an interior decorator, bon vivant and gambler. His artwork was often focussed on a single subject for extended periods of time. After the suicide of his lover, his artwork become “more sombre, inward-looking and preoccupied with the passage of time and death.” Throughout his career, Bacon returned to Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, painting and repainting his own interpretations of the original. This study of the original is often viewed as Bacon’s “best pope.” His powerful use of a purple colour palette and lines turns Pope Innocent X into a horrific image shrieking almost ghost-like as he fades into the background. Henryk Weyssenhoff - Premonition

Henryk Weyssenhoff was a “Polish-Belarusian landscape painter, illustrator and sculptor.” He was a descendant of the Livonian nobility but grew up in the Ural Mountains from the age of four after his father was exiled to Siberia. His first art lessons were from Lucjan Kraszewski. He graduated from the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg in 1885 with a silver medal and the official title of “Artist.” This painting is very ethereal; the purple colour palette and whispy brushstrokes work well together to establish spooky scene. The fog and smoke in the painting coupled with the eerie ghost-like figure in the centre and scared howling dogs make this artwork incredibly powerful. Looking at it, you can imagine the atmosphere and fear really existing. Shawn Coss - Generalized Anxiety Disorder

While he has a background in emergency nursing, Shawn Coss is an incredible artist from Ohio who specialises in dark art. He is most popular for is work on the webcomic series Cyanide & Happiness. In 2016, he used the popular challenge Inktober to create a series of drawings which portray mental illness, Inktober Illness. The drawings all resemble alien humanoids (Doctor Who’s The Silence, anyone?) that embody the symptoms of each mental illness they are depicting. While these characters are definitely a bit creepy, the scary thing about them is how real they are in their portrayals. As someone who suffers from mental illness, being able to see my usually invisible illness validates my experiences and lets me know that I am not alone. William Blake - The Ghost of a Flea

William Blake is most famously remembered for his poems however he also made a considerable amount of paintings. Blake’s paintings have philosophical and supernatural elements while still being in the style of Romanticism. This painting was inspired by a “spiritual vision” that Blake had; fleas contain the souls of men who were greedy and bloodthirsty. Blake’s representation of the flea as a humanised character could be suggesting the idea that humans possess horrible qualities or that humans and animals are no different. By painting this piece with dark and muted earth tones, Blake manages to make the flea appear incredibly creepy. This character is the stuff of nightmares, creeping through the darkness to its victims. William Blake - The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea

Another spooky painting by Blake is this one of The Great Red Dragon and The Beast From The Sea. Blake takes his inspiration for this piece from the Bible’s Book of Revelations. This terrifying painting depicts a representation of the devil standing over a seven-headed sea beast. The dark and muted palette add to the horror and drama of this painting. I would not want to meet either of those creatures on a dark night! Emil Nolde - Mask Still Life III

Emil Nolde was a German-Danish artist who practised expressionism. He was one of the first artists to begin experimenting with colour in oil and watercolour, and is now known for his frequent use of yellows and reds along with his expressive brushwork. While he worked in creative industries throughout his early adulthood, he only began to pursue becoming an artist in his thirties. This painting is a study of masks in the Berlin Museum; the brilliant colours and bold brushwork becomes a macabre and almost surreal painting. Edvard Munch - The Scream

This artist is one of Norway’s most famous; Edvard Munch was a painter and printmaker who was inspired by psychological themes and expressionism. He was raised by his aunt and deeply religious father: "My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born." Munch suffered poor health throughout his childhood and began painting to ease his boredom as he was kept home from school. His imagination was overwhelmed by macabre visions inspired by ghost stories and religious dogma. He later attended the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania (Oslo). The Scream was inspired by a feeling he had as he was walking home one night while the sun set that nature was screaming. The blood red sky certainly heightens the horrible intensity of this painting as the figure “screams” with anxiety. Salvator Rosa - The Temptation of St Anthony

Rosa was an Italian Baroque artist known for being a bit of a rebel. He studied art with relatives until his father’s death when he had to take over the care and financial support of his family. Following the advice of Giovanni Lanfranco, Rosa moved to work in Rome. When he returned to Naples he started exploring spooky landscapes in his artwork, painting romantic picturesque pieces. While he painted in a very classical style, the subjects he chose were often far more imaginative than was usual for his time. This painting depicts a scene from St Anthony of Athanasius’ biography where he was attacked by demons in the Egyptian desert. Rosa’s portrayal of the demons is particularly horrifying and terrifying. Hans Memling - Hell

Hans Memling was a German painter working in the style of the Early Flemish painters. Memling was very successful during his lifetime; he became one of Bruges leading painters of religious portraits and diptychs. This painting depicts Memling’s interpretation of Hell and was intended to scare piety into members of the church. This terrifying painting shows a monstrous amalgamation of “man, woman, dragon, devil, bird and dog” dancing on top of its burning victims. The distinctly red colour palette lends itself to the religious imagery of hell as a place of eternal fire. This creepy painting must have certainly achieved its purpose – I definitely find the grotesque image spooky. Andy Warhol - Big Electric Chair

Andy Warhol was an incredibly successful American Pop artist. He is often considered one of the most notable people of the 1960s; his work focussed on exploring the “relationship between artistic expression, celebrity culture and advertising.” This eerie painting depicts an electric chair alone in the middle of a desolate room. A sign on the wall read ‘silence’ as though a promise for those who await the chair. This terribly disturbing artwork is an ode to the cruelty of humanity. “Everything I do is connected with death.” Théodore Géricault - Heads, Severed

This horrific painting comes from the work of French artist, Théodore Géricault. He was educated by Carl Vernet and Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in English sporting art and classical composition, respectively. While he was very talented, he was bored of Neoclassicism and instead painted in the Romantic style. What makes this particular painting so gruesome is the fact that the heads were found by Géricault in Paris Morgue. Obviously unafraid to study emotional and morbid subjects, he has tragically posed these heads as though they were simply sleeping. I think it is part of the human condition to be at once terrified and fascinated with death. Salvador Dalí - The Face of War

Salvador Dalí is one of the most famous surrealist artists the world has known. The Spanish artist practiced in a range of mediums including painting, sculpture, film and jewellery. His imaginative and eccentric style lends itself to his surrealist work. This painting was created while Dalí lived in California inspired by the trauma of war. The infinity implied by the repeating faces inside the eyes and mouth seems to suggest a feeling of being haunted by the memory of people lost in the war that is never ending. In addition the portrait is painted against a stark and desolate background which could hint at the feelings of isolation associated with depression. Almost definitely representing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, this painting is haunting and emotional; the overall feeling is of being consumed by the mental illness left from the war. Dalí himself believed his work to be premonitions of the war to come. Giovanni Boldini - Spanish Dancer at the Moulin Rouge

This Italian artist was known as the “Master of Swish” because of his loose flowing painting style. Boldini studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence and while in Florence he met the Macchiaioli painters who had a profound influence on him. Most famous for his portrait paintings, Boldini also painted a range of other subjects such as landscapes. This incredibly expressive painting of a Spanish dancer at the Moulin Rouge perfectly captures the movement of dance. What makes this painting spooky is the fact that there are too many hands – there seems to be a ghost haunting the dancer. Zdzisław Beksiński - Untitled

Zdzisław Beksiński was a Polish artist focussing on surreal dystopian art. His style is usually described as Baroque or Gothic with expressionistic elements. Beksiński trained in architecture but found that he didn’t enjoy it so he started exploring sculpture, photography and painting. His paintings often portray feelings of anxiety especially in his later more spooky artworks. This untitled ominous painting depicts two skeletons wrapped in each others’ embrace. Painted with dark earthy-red tones this powerful piece conveys a sense of the struggle between the struggle for life and the inevitability of death. I think this piece is particularly emotive because it plays into such a deep human fears. Vincent van Gogh - Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette

And to end this post on a slightly more light-hearted note: this painting by Vincent van Gogh. He is arguably one of the most famous artists ever. The Dutch Post-Impressionist painter painted everything from landscapes to still life’s and portraits; he amassed over two-thousand paintings, most in the final years of his life. Van Gogh suffered from multiple mental illnesses, including depression, psychotic episodes and delusions, which saw him in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Van Gogh painted this piece while he studied at the art academy in Antwerp where anatomical drawings were a regular exercise. Instead of taking this exercise very seriously, van Gogh painted his skeleton with a lit cigarette in its teeth. I will always appreciate this slightly rebellious humour. For more spooky art see here, here, here, here or here. I hope you all have a fantastic Halloween!

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