The art of horror: why does it exist?


With Halloween only days away, what better way to reflect upon art’s purpose and relationship with the hideous and grotesque. What is the purpose behind art which depicts the grotesque, or the morbid? Is there something beautiful in its existence? Just because something looks aesthetic, does that mean it cannot also be horrifying?

The longer one looks at the artwork the more horrific it becomes

The scale and magnitude of horror in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Triumph of Death’ (1562) derives from the painting’s display of antagonism between life and death, in the midst of a pandemic, where death is the ultimate conqueror over life. Where the vibrant block colours of the townspeople’s clothing connote vitality, and exuberance, the juxtaposition between this and the blurred, indistinct portrayal of the undead foregrounds that the fear of death indeed stemmed from its uncertainty and inescapability. The group of townspeople to the far left of the painting, portrayed hiding under the carriage of skulls led by a skeletal horse and horseman, are visually hiding from death. They shadow the movements of the carriage, hoping to go undetected by the skeleton and its lantern, which can be assumed to be a metaphor for the idea of ‘seeing the light’. From this narrative alone, Bruegel underpins the desperate lengths people are willing to go, to avoid death. What makes this piece all the more horrific, is the multiple narratives being told through one painting. The longer one looks at the artwork, the more horrific it becomes, where a new scene of horror is to be discovered with each viewing. However, the one thing every narrative has in common is that death comes out on top.

The Triumph of Death (1562), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

What looks to be the monarch (bottom left) laying in the arms of the undead, with sceptre in hand, foregrounds humanity’s powerlessness, where even figures of ecclesiastical authority are at the mercy of death. What is even more interesting is the fact the monarch’s posture is mirrored in the bottom right-hand corner by the portrayal of two lovers, seemingly oblivious to their violent fate as they gaze only into each other’s eyes, whilst lying in the only part of the land untouched, almost as if they are part of a different timeline. Bruegel makes the horror of war all the more brutal through providing a vivid contrast between the past (the lovers) and the present (the monarch and skeleton). The lovers are symbolic of romantic memories of the past, before death was in sight, hence why they only gaze at each other. The monarch and skeleton are then symbolic of a present where meeting death is unavoidable and impending. Overall, the horror in Bruegel derives from our surface layer reading of the painting.

Transformed into balletic choreography

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s ‘Dante and Virgil in Hell’ (1850), on the other hand, contrasts with Bruegel’s by providing a vividly grotesque snapshot of a single scene rather than a variation of miniature scenes, as is the case with Bruegel. Depicting a scene from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ where Virgil and Dante (standing left of the painting) are within the eighth circle of hell; the circle dedicated to those who are guilty of fraud. Although Bouguereau is very clearly painting a scene of horror, of two eternally damned souls in conflict, there is something angelic in way they move. A vicious act like biting one’s neck is transformed into balletic choreography. The physicality of the figure on the right is exquisitely elegant with the relaxation of muscles, almost suggesting he allows himself to be taken by the dominant figure. Their rhythmic physicality compliments one another in such a controlled manner, similar to putting on a performance.

Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850), William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Though it is expected that the horror should derive from visual spectacle, Bouguereau seems to be suggesting that horror is born out of voyeurism. As Virgil and Dante stand and fixedly watch the struggle between the two men, we as the observer participate in being captivated by the brawl also. The beautifying of such violent behaviour and our attraction to it is precisely what is horrifying.

Humanity takes glory in the watching of another’s struggle

Overall, whilst for Bruegel, the horror stands out through the graphic visual spectacle on its own, for Bouguereau’s painting, it is not the painting itself which is horrifying, but why we were drawn to it to begin with; the idea that humanity takes glory in watching another’s struggle. In Bruegel, horror can be extracted from a surface layer observation of its graphic portrayal of violence; however, in Bouguereau’s work, the horror emanates from its beauty.

Image Credits: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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