From Leonardo Da Vinci’s graveyard excavations and anatomy observations in the morgue, to Salvador Dali’s occasionally grotesque surrealism, to Antoni Gaudi’s skeletal architecture – the morbid has always been magnetic for artists and designers. Creators like to wallow in the depths of darkness and depression; they find beauty in doom and loveliness in the lugubrious. Our reactions to their offerings have been as extreme as their subjects: either repulsed and horrified or in complete and utter awe. This Halloween, let us succumb to the spells of some wizards of the dark arts, whose works have influenced minds all over the globe.
The British artist shot to fame in the early ‘90s because of his disturbing, albeit original, compositions of dead animals preserved in formaldehyde. The first in the series was a shark; the piece was titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The style became his signature, and the zoology went on to include cows, sheep, zebras, horses and several other specimens of terrestrial and aquatic life. Maggots, bones, blood, flies and flesh were chillingly presented with instruments of slaughter and surgery. There were critics galore – many were outraged and protested his gruesome vision. But there were also numerous takers, including gallery god Charles Saatchi. Hirst went on to become one of the country’s most influential artists; his sensational artworks became viral the world over, winning him admiration from his revered peer Francis Bacon. Though death has remained a recurring theme in Hirst’s work, macabre isn’t his only aesthetic. Over the decades, he has created psychedelic artworks with ‘LSD spots’ and prescription pills. The richest living artist in the UK always keeps the words of his business advisor Frank Dunphy in mind: “Always have to make sure that you use the money to chase the art and not the art to chase the money.”
The untimely passing of fashion’s enfant terrible is still mourned; the visionary designer is missed the world over. The morbid, the sordid, the grim and the surreal were always present in McQueen’s works – whether in the form of skull prints, blood splatter effects, Gothic styling or otherworldly references. One collection was called Highland Rape, another was inspired by the deathly imagery of Joel-Peter Witkin, a third was dedicated to Tim Burton’s dark cine-sagas. The Victorian era, with its lugubrious setting, was the long-term muse; a lot of the designer’s works reinterpreted the costumes from this period, which were then stylised to make them contemporary. Bondage and dominatrix elements were widely present in the torturously elaborate creations – sometimes medieval, sometimes space-age. McQueen’s shows were never about pretty women, but powerfully intimidating creatures that were sometimes hard to accept as human. But the magnificence of his work was undeniable – the detail, the skill, the execution and the vision were exemplary. The posthumous exhibition of his works at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, titled Savage Beauty, opened in 2011 and was one of the most successful events of all time for the museum. Due to immense demand, a second one was held in mid 2015 at The Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
The Pakistani visual artist combines photography, digital imagery and graphics to create his distinctly inventive ‘pixelated’ collages that have won him recognition the world over and have made him one of the most influential South-Asian artists of the present. Rana uses the canvas to sharply satirise political and social issues in his native land, including pop culture. His works are diabolical, always with an element of dark surprise. The Veil Series appears to be a set of artworks depicting the busts of women completely covered by the burqa; upon closer inspection you find that the ‘pixels’ are actually images of nude women from pornographic films – a juxtaposition of the religious suppression and social sexualisation of the female form. The Red Carpet series depict digital recreations of the luxurious Persian carpet, but are actually made of thousands of photographs taken at a Lahore slaughterhouse; needless to say that it is actually a bloodbath. While not always gory or sexual, the underlying theme is mostly laced with irony and black humour. Rana’s aim is to make the audience see the bigger and smaller pictures together, to starkly highlight the duality of existence in the subcontinent.
The American photographer claims that his fascination with the morbid began early when he witnessed an accident that decapitated a little girl; he wanted to speak to the detached head, but was pulled away. Years later, when he started experimenting with the camera, the fixation remained. Witkin created a world where centuries collided – Rennaisance met impressionism met Dadaism in a dark, timeless space, which has extended to the present. His elaborate and painstakingly detailed compositions use real corpses and body parts that are sourced from morgues; he has been known to travel to Mexico for the completion of some of his works, due to strict US laws. Apart from the dismembered and mutilated anatomical components, his images also heavily reference religion and classical art, with a morbid twist of course. Dwarves, hermaphrodites, transsexuals and people with physical deformities – who are shunned by society – have been the central characters in many of Witkin’s works. To further authenticate the photographs, he develops them manually in the old-school dark room, often puncturing and scratching the negatives to heighten their grotesque beauty.
The Polish surrealist painter, photographer and sculptor claimed, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams.” Beautiful nightmares would be a more apt description; Beksinski’s compositions mostly looked like post-apocalyptic scenes. These aftermaths of death were excruciatingly detailed. Landscapes filled with skeletons, carcasses, decaying flesh, piled-up bones and unearthly architecture were sketched out and painted. And then there was the land of the undead – mutilated, horrifying beings that churned the viewer’s soul. Despite the subjects, the skill and dexterity of the artist created canvases of haunting loveliness. Beksinski produced his best work during his ‘fantastic period’ in the mid ‘80s, post which there was a change of style, but the gripping quality of his work did not diminish. Throughout his career, he refused to name any of his paintings, simply marking them by a number or code. He ignored art critics and did not exploit the commercial possibilities of his talent, participating in very few exhibitions and preferring to remain under the radar. In the ‘90s, once digital alteration of images was possible, he experimented with retouching and attempted to inject the surrealism of his paintings into his photographs. A decade after his death in 2005, mentions of Beksinski and his work are starting to appear all across the globe, especially on the internet, and there is a sudden arousal of interest in the art world about his paintings.