While 2020 has given us quite enough fear to be going on with, Halloween’s impending approach invites reflection upon the place of fabricated fear in the history of European art. Today, a plethora of art and entertainment, from horror films and roller coasters, to immersive experiences and true crime, captivates wide-reaching audiences using a popular mixture of terror and pleasure. As such, fear prevails as a pillar of 21st century creative expression. This is a position rooted in the art of 18th and 19th century Europe; a period of great theorisation on and experimentation with the power of the terrifying to captivate the public. Delving into this rich history of art and fear offers us the chance to see how our own artists incite the eerie to entice us today…
Creating the Sublime
In 1757, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke posited the idea of the ‘sublime’ in a treatise called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.1 He used the term ‘sublime’ to capture the profound emotional experience, suspension of rational thought, and perverse pleasure humans experience when they encounter fear-inducing things from a safe distance. From power, vastness and infinity, to obscurity, suddenness and loudness, Burke asserted that the sublime can arise from a plethora of feelings and experiences that simultaneously incite distress, self-preservation and also pleasure in the knowledge that the threat is, in fact, distant or fictional.
Sublime Multimedia Art
As a phenomenon rooted in the colossal, intangible, emotive and dramatic – and therefore so compatible with the imaginative – the sublime inspired the creative and technical advancement of Burke’s contemporary poets, novelists, artists and theatres. These creatives sought to experiment with innovative ways of compelling audiences through fear, whether through text, paint, immersive experience, or otherwise. In pre-cinematic Europe, it was multimedia artworks like the Eidophusikon or spectacles like the Diorama that cultivated the sublime and captivated the public.2 For a small fee, audiences would be transported through art into oceans and snow storms, amidst ravines and atop mountains. Visual forms would be accompanied by the multisensory; from sound and lighting effects, to mechanical movement, and experiences of weather and scents – to heighten the sublime experience. According to contemporary sources, it was not uncommon for some visitors to faint, scream or sob during these spectacles; their impact was visceral.
Painting & Petrifying
Throughout the 1800s, as wars and revolutions blazed across Europe, taste for the sublime in art grew ever-stronger; a cathartic apparatus for the anxious masses. Romantic painters like Turner, Delacroix and Gericault – and far more besides – channeled sublime energy into passionate imaginings of shipwrecks, uprisings and immortal worlds. Even without the multimedia immersion of the public spectacles, these artists were able to enmesh colour, form, texture and brushwork to elicit that same delicate balance of fear and pleasure. They demonstrated that, when wielded in the right way humble paint – or other two-dimensional media – could alone incite awe, shock and even fear itself.
Fear at artpistol
When we turn to consider some of our own artists, we can see that a taste for the sublime – whether consciously or not – can still be found in our contemporary art. The practitioners exhibiting at artpistol are no exception. Eerie landscapes, for instance, sustain the legacy of the scary in the Gallery today. The landscape has long since been a genre employed by artists to exercise the sublime. Natural scenes could represent extremes of height, depth, light, or darkness; exhibit the destructive forces of snow or fire; and capture humanity’s own infinitesimal scale to represent the power of nature over human-kind. Arguably, there is no more powerful way to incite fear in people than to face them with a landscape’s scale or atmosphere. As exhibited by the Gallery today, Diane Evans creates a desolate landscape reduced to grayscale layers of colour and texture in her work Arran. This piece recalls the impact of Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, who presented a landscape as dark and abyss-like, with a single human form present, reminding viewers of the insignificance of humanity when faced with the extent and power of nature. In Evans’ work there is no human figure represented. Instead, viewers directly engage with the brooding, chasmic landscape; we viewers are, at first hand, faced with nature’s unsettling temperament. Terrifying!
Within landscape scenes and beyond them, the moon has garnered a multitude of connotations; but a link that has remained firm is its reputation for eeriness. It has been held responsible for strange earthly behaviours, and its extraterrestrial position continues to stretch human minds to the point of terror. It has thus been used in art for centuries as a mechanism for producing the sublime response of pleasure-in-fear. In Joseph Wright of Derby’s famously unnerving painting An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump, for instance, a boy rushes to block the moon from watching the perverse experiment underway; as if the consequences of the moon’s judgement should be dreaded. The moon is thus conceptualised as far more powerful than humanity itself. At artpistol, Matt Jukes’ monoprint, Hey Moon recalls this sublime lunar tradition. The moon’s presence in this scene overwhelms even vast mountain tops.
In Allan Myles’ Glasgow Polar Bear, the concept of a polar bear storming the city more or less speaks for itself as a subject encapsulating the terrifying. It is a polar bear roaring from the rooftops – need we say more? And while polar bears are not exclusively the hallmark of the sublime, art that represents a loss of human control in the face of the monstrous is certainly a common theme in scary-art-history. The surreal and fantastical has a particular power to horrify because it perverts the comprehensible world, and leaves the viewer overwhelmed by their imagination. So, while Myles’ bear is an overt fiction for present-day Glasgow (although rooted in a real aspect of the City’s history…!) the fusion of the imaginative within the real, known location has a unique power to unnerve. Especially when executed in the alleged medium of truth; the photograph.
While we rarely turn to the art of our galleries to feel the fear, European art has a long, multimedia history of unsettling the masses. And many of the methods of doing so still underpin our terrifying media and arts today. So, we hope you’ve enjoyed this quick delve into the history of art and fear and its legacies in the present. Especially how the sublime and the horrifying continues to influence our own artists today. As always, thank you for reading!
- Burke, E. (1757: 2015). A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime andBeautiful. New York: OUP.
- Mathias, N. (2016). ‘Between Art Academy and Entertainment Culture: Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, John Martin, and the Sublime’. Romantik: Journal for the Study ofRomanticisms. 5(1). 57-85.