The common domestic cat, or felis silvestris catus, may be primarily known as humans’ most cuddly purring, if not indifferent best friend and domestic hunter, Dutch artist Bart Jansen imagined another role, that of a feline drone. After his cat Orville was killed beneath the tires of a reckless car in 2012, Jansen decided on honoring his cat’s life by transforming it into a piece of remote-controlled art and stating, “Oh, how he loved the birds.” The final result gained stupefied looks from the public and confirmed that the strange and the artistic are often extremely closely related.
This relationship between the artist and grotesque can be observed over the centuries in the classic pictorial realm of painting. Some of the most recognized paintings in the art world have survived the passage of time due not only to their technical quality but the fascinatingly disturbing content of their violent or bizarre imagery.
This creative magic, sometimes dismissed as strange in the art world, seems to acquire more prestige in art, and continues to bring up questions on unpleasant features that leave the ordinary subject matter behind as it approaches madness. Especially as the reputation of artists of having disturbed and tragic personalities enhances the mystery. For this reason, Cultura Colectiva has gathered a number of paintings that demonstrate different circumstances in which art turns out to be frightening.
12. Saturn (1636)
Peter Paul Rubens
Created specifically for King Phillip IV of Spain, Rubens depicted the moment the god Saturn bites into the flesh of one of his sons upon learning that one of them will serve as his replacement. The painting shows Saturn in very realistic human form devouring a small child while leaning on his scythe.
11. The Nightmare (1781)
Johann Heinrich Füssli
This painting, an example of art created between the neoclassicism and romanticism periods, is based on Giulio Romano's The Dream of Hecuba. It portrays a woman possessed by an incubus, a demon associated with erotic dreams. In the background, the disconcerting head of a horse watches from behind the scene. The woman portrayed is Anna Landolt, daughter of the painter’s best friend and Füssli's impossible love.
12. Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850)
On display at the Orsay Museum in Paris, the painting alludes to a passage from Dante’s Divine Comedy. It depicts the entrance of the poet Virgil and Dante himself in the eighth circle of hell, where they encounter counterfeiters. The condemned alchemist Capocchio is bitten by Gianni Schicchi, a real person who lived in Florence in the thirteenth century, and who was condemned to the inferno for impersonating other indentities.
9. Anatomical Parts (1819)
This series of images was conceived by the French painter Theodore Géricault, who used human remains from a nearby mortuary to give his paintings a more realistic appearance. Géricault took different parts of the bodies to his house, and while they were not being painted, it was said that he kept several heads, arms and legs under his bed or up on the roof.
8. Study of the Portrait of Pope Inocencio X by Velázquez (1953)
This piece is a distorted vision of the Portrait of Inocencio X, originally painted by the Spaniard Diego Velázquez in 1650. The painting is part of a series composed of forty five variants that Bacon created over more than two decades. When the artist was questioned about his obsession for painting so many canvases of the same subject, he declared that he had nothing against the pope, and only sought an excuse to use these colors.
7. Deterioration of Mind over Matter (1973)
The scene depicts a human skull in a state of decay seemingly impaled upon or intertwined in a bird cage. With the artist’s macabre attention to detail, you can see the blood and some remains of flesh at the base of the extravagant cage. The artist shaped his vision around the loss of human reason in favor of frivolity and lack of commitment to a cause.
6. The Temptation of St. Anthony (1645)
As its name implies, the image represents the demon of temptation attacking St. Anthony. This work of Salvator Rosa is considered a tacit example of his predilection for the unnatural and magical. The bird or lizard-like figure of the devil, according to art critics, is almost anomalous to Rosa’s time, mainly by its gesture and physiognomy.
5. Judith Beheading Holofernes (1612-1613)
Painted between 1611 and 1612, this piece is exhibited in the Capodimonte Museum in Italy. The painting shows the crudity of General Holofernes' beheading at the hands of Judith, the woman who managed to seduce him and used of her charms to murder him during the night. The representation of the blood endows the canvas with an enigmatic and realistic touch. This piece was inspired by the painting done by Caravaggio 1599.
4. Punishment of Marsyas (1570-1576)
Also known as The Flaying of Marsyas, this piece incorporates a series of canvases with mythological subjects that Titian painted during his final years. The image shows, as mentioned in the title of the work, the skinning of Marsyas, a companion of Dionysius who dared to defy the god Apollo. The scene was inspired by Marcantonio Bragadin, a Venetian commander who died flayed by the Ottomans.
3. The Garden of Delights (1500-1505)
This scene belongs to a painting that is presented as a series of three images. The last of the paintings, located on the right side of the original altarpiece, is a representation of the Inferno, characterized by its highly symbolic content, and is considered one of the most fascinating and enigmatic paintings in the history of art. It is currently part of the permanent exhibition at the Prado Museum in Madrid.
2. The Massacre of the Innocent (1611-1612)
Peter Paul Rubens
Considered by critics as a piece made by the painter after his trip to Italy, between the years 1600 and 1608, Rubens painted three versions of this painting. The first, it is estimated, was made in 1611 and portrays the biblical passage recounted in the New Testament in the Gospel of Matthew, consisting of the command given by King Herod I to execute all children under the age of two.
1. Untitled (1984)
Belonging to a style that the artist himself called Baroque or Gothic (but has been categorized by critics as “fantastic realism”), Beksínski never titled any of his paintings and is the only Polish artist with exhibitions at the Osaka Museum of Art, in Japan. Here, the artist depicted the moment when two bodies embrace tightly, until they gradually become two intertwined skeletons.
The strange and the fantastic are terms that share a privileged place in the art world and its criticism. The effect and value of these paintings are not due to pastel shades or the attractive, canonically beautiful figures. These pieces portray highly symbolic and disturbing scenes painted by their creators in a way that surpasses our imagination or experience.
In more modern times artists use themselves as the subject to disturb their audience. But after all, art has proved that any subject is relevant when approached with ingenuity.
Translation by Joseph Reiter