I’ve just returned from the Los Angeles area, where among other things, I visited the UCLA Hammer Museum. While the permanent collection primarily features 19th Century French art, a visiting exhibition entitled “The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850-1900″ displayed a number of unusual prints and sculptures. According to the exhibit’s description, “such works of art were not an evident part of one’s day-to-day environment, like a picture on the parlor wall. Rather, they were subject to more purposeful study on chosen occasions, much like taking a book down from the shelf for quiet enjoyment.”
Why the discretion? As the exhibition’s title suggests, the subject matter of such works tended to be unusual, sometimes violent or supernatural in nature. Edvard Munch’s “Vampire II,” for example, presents a woman placing her mouth on the neck of a man–an image that might be initially perceived as a loving gesture, but whose title suggests might be a violent act.
Another striking print by Swiss artist Eugène Grasset presents a woman carrying a cup of liquid as its subject. Aside from the stoic expression of the woman, the subject matter appears innocuous, until you read the print’s title: “The Acid Thrower.”
Other images include a man struck by lightning on a country road, a skyline filled with the angels of cholera victims, and illustrations for Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” among others. Etcher Charles Méryon, who died in an asylum after years of mental illness, created this strange representation of the Paris skyline:
I appreciate the meticulous details of the etchings, which often lend these works an ethereal quality. As still images, I also enjoy imagining the events they represent in motion: what happened to prompt the woman to throw acid? Who is she targeting, and why? The medium requires imaginative work on the viewer’s part, but with such provocative images, it’s easy to get carried away.
The images also remind us that artists have always been interested in dark subject-matter, as have the collectors of such work. In other words, films–the medium I typically write about–merely carry on a tradition as old as humanity by representing supernatural horror. That’s not to say that nothing has changed; the limits of representation continue to be stretched, and the medium of film clearly requires different kinds of imaginative work from its viewers. Still, these prints represent a tradition which continues in horror films, albeit in a very different form and style.