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How Does The Art World Celebrate Spooky Season?

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  • How Does The Art World Celebrate Spooky Season?

How Does The Art World Celebrate Spooky Season?

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We can be safe to assume that it’s no exaggeration if the whole of 2020 is chalked up as one big frightening experience – but that hasn’t dampened our spirits as the year comes to a close, and the festivities have only begun! Working from home or daring to venture into this apocalyptic environment has been nothing short of preparing for the invisible ghosts that are lurking around corners today. So could there be a better way can we imagine to kick off Halloween this year?

The world of art is no innocent plaything – we have our score of jump scares and devils lurking around over impressive daubs of paint. Earlier this year we took you on a journey of suspense and excitement – can art be more than what it’s portraying? Is that smile hiding something sinister? We’ve had frightful depictions on the canvas that are bound to make us feel closer to Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

In a similar fashion, Halloween has given us our fair share of frights and scare. Whether you’re standing to receive your treats or waiting to trick, we’ve not been shy of donning our best costumes and dancing with the devils. The idea of Halloween is Celtic – celebrated on the 31st of October, people used to light bonfires and dance around in costumes to ward off evil spirits. Later down the line, All Saints Day was proclaimed to be celebrated every 1st of November. All Saints Day was also called All Hallow’s Day, so naturally, All Hallow’s Eve ultimately became Halloween.

Surely, you must imagine it’d be a bit, childish, to find professional artists working with the themes of a festival which excites the young more (to the agony of their parents). Well, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Scroll down to find all the skeletons and cobwebs, and don’t let them sneak up on ya!

Up to the challenge to resist some good old-fashioned monsters lurking around? Take a cue from the stoically-calm demeanor of Saint Antony, from Michelangelo’s painting. Courtesy of Kimbell Art Museum.

Setting the mood with memento mori and Dia de Muertos

So how do we go about jumping down the stairs and frightening our mum’s with shouts of ‘boo!’? It seems that artists didn’t have a lot of problems with that, for they routinely dealt with themes of death in their works of art. Enter, memento mori – ‘remember you must die.’

Aside from the grim PSA that phrase provides, it is also an exceedingly popular genre of art. Memento mori paintings began from the medieval period which extolled the idea of impermanence of life (we can’t really blame them, not with their habitual plagues) and usually depicted symbols like a portrait with skulls, dead animals, hourglasses, candles, wilting flowers, and even fruits. These kinds of paintings became popular in the seventeenth century when religious ideas regarding the afterlife were much believed in.

Executed by Jan Fyt, this painting with its lifeless body of a hare is a prime example of memento mori. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.
Skulls were quite the party figure themselves – seen on the right with Jacques de Gheyn the Younger’s work, and on the left with Georgia O’Keeffe’s art. The flowers on the skull (left) are usually placed on graves as a mark of remembrance in Mexico. Courtesy of The Met and Art Institute of Chicago.

Dia de Muertos or the Day of the Dead is another festival that works its magic with Halloween. Deeply rooted in pre-Columbian traditions, this Mexican festival is a day of remembrance of the dead and to welcome the return of their spirits. An intangible heritage of the region, the streets are decked with flowers, paper mache models of skulls and skeletons, candles, decorative altars and tombs, and fruits – distinctly reminiscent of the memento mori culture.

Skeleton Couple Altar, kept at the Smithsonian Latino Center. Courtesy of the same.

Who’s coming to haunt us?

Now that we know the stage is set for all the frights of the night, we have to prepare ourselves for the next sighting – who’s going to jump out of the closet and fly from the chimney?

Since the earliest days of medieval life, witchcraft has attracted the central attention of humanity. Weirdly, that narrative has always been about women being the witches. Of course, this stems from the whole notion of gender roles (and conflict), religious dogmas, and the ideas of the Church, and this has certainly left an indelible impression on the art world. Roots of social evil were tied with witchcraft, and these were portrayed on easily available prints.

Executed in a style derivative of Albrecht Durer’s, Veneziano’s The Witches’ Procession details a naked witch astride on a hulking carcass. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.
It wasn’t just a medieval society – seen here with the painting An Arrest for Witchcraft by John Pettie, made in 1886. Courtesy of Art UK.

The orient also came up with fascinating examples of such themes in their art. Ghosts were very popular in Japanese artworks, as seen with the two paintings below. Omori Hikoshichi’s encounter is first seen to be with a seemingly pleasant lady, who he helps, but only later when he sees her reflection in water does he realize he’s actually carrying a ghost.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, courtesy of ukiyo-e.
There’s the famous Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre by Utagawa Kuniyoshi that deals with the spectral of a skeleton-ghost’s apparition to defeat warring soldiers. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Dressed for the occasion

It seems only logical to now decide what would be our protective layers against such apparitions. One could always go with some extra layers of knight-in-shining-armor feels, but the celebration of Halloween has always called for more imaginative costumes.

As we saw above, the Day of the Dead certainly provided us with cheerful examples of costumes that the residents wear to the celebrations, as seen in this Mexican engraving by José Guadalupe Posada. Yet costumes in art haven’t always been this morose, and people have dressed for a number of occasions.

Henry George Hoyland’s Clown Dressing Room naturally comes to mind. Courtesy of the RA.

In more recent strides, George Segal’s The Costume Party is another example that rings of the season’s jolly. The idea behind the installation came to Segal at (unsurprisingly) a Halloween party where he imagined the boundaries to experiment with the theme, limitless. Over the years, Segal has reworked the art to include an array of characters – including Cleopatra, Batman, and villains from James Bond. Can you identify some here?

Courtesy of Guggenheim.

Capturing the moment

Can’t imagine now to leave the celebrations without saving the moments for posterity, can we? In what can be seen as one of the earliest fine-art photographers – for his craft was nothing short of art – William H. Mumler left us with a treasure of curiosity when his photography skills captured ghosts.

During the 1860s, seances and the presence of ‘mediums’ (those which conversed with the spirits of the dead) was a common sight, and Mr. Mumler, being a medium himself, used to click pictures of living people and often ‘capturing’ the spirits of their dear departed ones. This clearly ticks the box of shock-and-awe that the spirit of Halloween looks for, no?

Alas, it was all to be a charlatan’s act. All Mr. Mumler did was click pictures in double exposures. However, even when it was a hoax, isn’t that what most of us be at Halloween? Conjure some tricks, provide some treats, and take off the masks the next day?

Or are there really ghosts lurking around our untrained eyes are yet to see?

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