As a follow-up to my first post on Dark Inspiration, I’m continuing my musings on the relationship between art and horror this week and focusing on darkly-inclined art, and dark aesthetics. What inspired me to think about the place of darkness in the contemporary understanding of art and beauty was our very own Neil Gaiman’s documentary horror, ‘A short film about John Bolton’.  The documentary, about 20 minutes long, centres around the fictional painter, John Bolton. Bolton prepares to have his works exhibited and the excitement surrounding this event has a lot to do with the nature of his imageries.

Portraits of otherworldly, vampiric women in unconstrained poses, often pictured while feeding on the prey in a very sombre colouring is what provokes an extremely interesting mix of emotions and reactions from both the audience and press. Even the gallery owner struggles to find the words to describe Bolton’s artwork. The artist himself claims he works from nature and… well, this really is a documentary horror. I won’t include spoilers, I highly recommend you watch it.  

And so people, who come into interaction with Bolton’s art express attraction and repulsion at the same time. Some are able to appreciate the supernatural aura of the paintings despite them being ‘disturbing’, yet others are straight out scared and repulsed. The women on the pictures are seen as beautiful in a sick way, a horror beneath allure.

Now, you might say that a blood-dripping hollow-eyed vampire is quite an extreme example and no wonder people don’t want to be around it. But is it really no wonder?

Darkness, macabre, grotesque and eeriness has been present in art at least since the late Middle Ages. Just think about Hieronymus Bosch and his visions of Hell…

And while there are different interpretations of his works and what inspired him, one thing is certain – he was very popular in his times, so apparently, his art was considered attractive. These kind of ‘Postcards from Hell’ were all the rage at that time in Europe and their creepiness considered beneficial for the soul, as it had a potential to scare the soul into sainthood. So, in a way, horror was neither shunned nor treated as entertainment, but rather had its rightful place in art.

Similar was the role of the medieval dance macabre motif, the ‘terrible dance’ of death which makes equal people of all the states and paths of life, to which everyone must succumb sooner or later:

Danse Macabre by Brent Notke, 1463 – 1466

Can you imagine anyone wanting to hang that on a wall nowadays? The sister motif, memento mori (‘remember that you have to die’) was popular in the Renaissance era:

In ictu oculi (In the blink of an eye) by Juan de Valdés Leal, 1672

Along with the early modern period, grimness of art acquired new topics. From visions of Hell, artists went on to the imageries of the demonic manifestations and occurrences in this world. Slowly, ghosts, devils, and monsters started to emerge from the canvas, and kept emerging to reach the peak of popularity in the dark romanticism of the 19th century and dystopian surrealism of the 20th

Witches at Their Incantations by Salvator Rosa, c 1646

There also was a category of eerie paintings inspired by myths, legends, and literary works, all of which had their role in shaping the European culture…

Ossian Evokes the Ghosts on the Banks of the Lora by François Gérard, 1801

In our modern times, I feel, darkness has been turned into yet another face of entertainment, with some very few exceptions. However, for that to be possible, it needed to be polished and devoid of all seriousness and meaning. Everyone is excited to the BDMSque charm of Hollywood vampires (or raw gore, depending on depiction), hardly anyone wants to give some thought to existential pains or – on the contrary – demonic nature of vampiric existence.  Whether it’s pallid décolleté or buckets of blood,  it’s still glazed over to please the modern sense of aesthetics and need for entertainment. It’s a sort of aestheticised darkness, and maybe that’s why John Bolton’s artworks provoke uneasiness and lack of acceptance. They show the reality, but the reality proves to be disturbing. They are true with a truth that is hardly entertaining.

The authentic darkness can inspire and provoke a talk about things that are important, true, fascinating and often beautiful, but it won’t if we allow it to become just another brand of candyfloss. 

Lena Manka

A geek and gamer with a background in Cultural Anthropology, Lena loves all things that go bump in the night; apprentice of vampire lore, fan of cyberpunk, enthusiast of dark fantasy. Lena is blending in with the mortals working for an interior designer.