How Did the Horror of Death Become Art?

by M-Gillies
Both Albrecht Drurer and modern scultpor H.R. Gigers use macabre symbols of death in their art.

Art Macabre has been around for centuries. From Albrecht Drurer’s The Knight, Death and the Devil – 1513 to H.R. Gigers’s sculpture the Birth Machine – 1967, macabre symbols of death are prevalent in their art.

The depiction of decapitated heads in paintings, the photographs of severed limbs, the usage of ashes and blood in painting pallets are among the few trends in avant-garde art, sure art has been about pushing the boundaries of the norm and shocking its viewers to interpret a deeper (and possibly a spiritual) meaning, but the question begs, when did horror become art of the beautiful-grotesque?

Gone are the distorted lines, shapes and exaggerated colours of Expressionism. No longer are artists trying to redefine the blended styles of Romanticism’s highly emotional images and vibrant colors of red, purple and yellow. As we tread further into the 21st century, artistry is seeing a change in its genre as Macabre art gains popularity.

From artists like H.R. Giger and Clive Barker, Macabre art is a medium not limited to just painting but also includes photography and literature. Taking a grim and ghastly atmosphere, Macabre art emphasizes the details and symbology of everything death and dying related.

Like horror movies, the interest in the macabre has a mystic way of feeding our inquisitive nature. Whether it is a desire to be shocked and frightened or a curiosity toward the unknown (death), we’re captivated, we’re mesmerized, we’re enthralled – and perhaps this is why an artistic expression as Macabre art is growing in infamy.

It’s no hidden secret that the medium has been around for centuries. In fact, its roots can be dated as far back as the middle of the fourteenth century, when the term Danse Macabre was attributed to a painting known as Danse Macabre au Cimetiere des Innocent, Paris.

During the years of post-Black Death, the influence on artistic views in medieval society reflected the atmosphere of melancholy. With many mourning the loss of loved ones, music, literature and art began to take on a bleaker and more morbid depiction. Paintings began to heavily incorporate imageries of death, skeletons and demons, with the subtle nuisances of symbolic representations of the passing of life, such as the hour glasses and cloaked figures holding scythes.

From Italian author and poet, Giovanni Boccaccio who wrote the Decameron, to the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Durer whose Praying Hands grace the cover of many funeral prayer cards, the influence of the macabre developed in its earliest context by these as well as other artists.

And while the medium seems to be picking up considerable interest among more modern artists, perhaps the most infamous form of Macabre art can be attributed to the 14th century painter Hieronymus Bosch. It was with his work that depicted sins and the moral failings of humans. With images of demons, half-human animals and machines plaguing every aspect of the canvas. His work evoked a sense of fear and confusion amidst a dreary backdrop of imaginative horror.

Today, many look to prominent literary authors as Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Franz Kafka as defining members of the Macabre Movement. However, while art Macabre is still not widely associated as a artistic movement, a google search and even a tumblr search online will find a worthy cult fandom of admirers.

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