by Sima Doctoroff

It is a common misconception that works of art are meant to be aesthetically pleasing--give the viewer a sense of calm, happiness, or just general comfort--but this is largely not the case. There is no such thing as completely visceral art. Most pieces that seem to be shallow and crowd pleasing are actually sporting some hidden meaning. For example, much of Andy Warhol's work is a critique on consumerism during the 1960's. It's not just random objects placed on top of bright colors. However, a lot of work is openly disturbing, confusing, and unsettling, and because its meaning is so utterly conspicuous, the message becomes even more poignant.
Fear, uncertainty, discomfort, and disgust can all be felt when looking at some of these disturbing pieces of art. They also sport a common theme of being comments on the state of society, in a very typical artist fashion, using their work to convey their particular feelings. For example, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in the 1920s, exposing the disgusting conditions of the meat industry. Truly, what he meant to do was argue for socialism, but, as historians may often say, “he aimed for the people’s hearts and landed in their stomachs,” as his descriptions of the conditions of meat processing plants was so graphic and ghastly that it led to federal legislation protecting the consumer from toxic meat.
While Sinclair ultimately failed in his personal goals, he managed to catch a lot of attention from people of authority through his use of disturbance. While people may hate to admit it, disgusting, unsettling, uncomfortable work is interesting, and the art world is full of horror and disgust, but every piece has some beauty to it (although the beauty may not be like Fragonard or Michelangelo). Beauty comes in many forms. Sometimes that form is social change. Sometimes that form is improved mental health of the artist or viewer. In any case, don’t be afraid of disturbing art. It shouldn’t be unwelcome just because it’s different.

Some Art Pieces, Each More Disturbing Than the Last

Art seems to fall into three categories of disturbing: the mangled remains of what once was a human, commentary on a unsavory social situations,
Study After Velazquez's Pope Innocent X, Bacon
Study After Velazquez's Pope Innocent X, Bacon
and just plain gruesome. There is a lot of overlap within these categories, but each piece is heavier in some than others. When dissected, these pieces of art reveal that at their essence, they are really the same--they're all meant to displease the viewer.

Pope Innocent X, Velazquez
Pope Innocent X, Velazquez

Deconstruction of the Human Form


Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon, painted in 1953 (pictured above, left), is an oil on canvas painting, done during the post-World War II years. It was inspired by a painting by Diego Velazquez done circa 1650 (pictured above, right). Bacon did not have the most conventional of upbringings, in fact, most of his existence was more tortured than tickled. He was homosexual, and as a result his parents kicked him out of his home at a very young age. He was very hard on himself and in a fit of rage and frustration, he destroyed most of his work at the age of 35. A notable collection of works in his oeuvre is his series of paintings featuring "screaming popes." Bacon was bitter at the Pope's lack of attentiveness to the Holocaust, and believed he could have done more to quell the genocide of millions, so he lashed out in the form of what many considered to be a dying art form--painting. There is a continued intrigue with his paintings today, with one of his works estimated to be worth $18-25 million at auction. The intriguing subject matter and the fact that he claims to never have seen Velazquez's version of Pope Innocent X make his hundreds of versions of this painting particularly engaging (Source 2).

Now, the painting itself: oil on canvas, smudged paint, complementary colors. All of these elements contribute to the fear and uneasiness that a viewer may feel upon looking at this piece. Without even knowing the subject matter, a spectator of this piece will undoubtedly feel Bacon's antagonistic depiction of the popes and his bitterness toward their actions, or in this case, lack of action. The scratched out and defiled face of Pope Innocent and the gaping black hole that is his mouth makes the painting extremely difficult to look at. The yellow bars that make up his chair cause the setting to look like a jail more than a papal palace. The pope's tense gripping of the chair he is sitting in further mimics a theme of imprisonment, and his wailing facial expression almost forces the appearance of an electric chair. His lack of feet seems to be symbolic of a lack of grounding, an underlying characteristic of depression. The blue tones of the painting are also alluding to melancholia, and are a nod to Picasso, one of Bacon's inspirations. The solitude of the figure further creates a depressing and disturbing aura around the piece, because everything is more frightening when you are alone.

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt
The Kiss, Gustav Klimt

Egon Schiele, an Austrian expressionist, was yet another very disturbed artist who made very disturbing art. He died at the age of 28 of the flu, surprisingly not by his own hand. He specialized in drawings, not paintings, and made hundreds of them over his short career, working up to the days before his death. Gustav Klimt himself, Schiele's mentor, stated that Schiele was "a much better draughtsmen than me." However, even in Klimt's most famous work, The Kiss (left) is, while beautiful, full of disturbing subject matter, showing a similarity between Schiele and his mentor. The damsel is not so much in distress as in submission, leaning away from her suitor, closing her eyes, and trying to stay calm.

Schiele's Self-Portrait is pencil with white paint and was a radical departure from typical portraiture of the time period. In fact, Schiele stressed that he wanted the viewer to look into rather than at his paintings further changing the way in which his work was viewed (Source 3).

The painting itself is very easily dissected. There is no question about why the viewer may be uncomfortable while looking at it, because it is fairly obvious. Schiele
Self-Portrait, Egon Schiele
Self-Portrait, Egon Schiele
has portrayed himself as thin, emaciated, and without hands or genitals. The color scheme of the painting makes it especially disheartening to look at, because it is very bland, yet somehow still imposing on the viewer. The lack of hands and genitals makes the figure seem much less like a human, and thus alien and disassociated. The main figure in the painting is suggestive of a crucified Christ, but it is a self-portrait, so Schiele may be suggesting his own martyrdom as an artist and deifying himself. Continued themes of narcissism are supported by the completely barren background, referring to this effect as a "dynamic estrangement". He was his own favorite model and had no problem in portraying himself as disturbingly haggard, with absolutely no regard for quelling the average spectator's appetite for the aesthetically pleasing.


Disturbing Social Commentary


Weegee, or Arthur Fellig, took a new approach to journalism. He would intentionally seek out disturbing scenes, and take pictures of them. His work was rough and direct. He was not afraid to bother the viewer, and made a point of challenging the conventional belief that art is made to make the consumer happy. Despite his pieces being, put bluntly, dead people in the street, everything appeared unmistakably living. It is obvious what the main subject of the painting is, thanks to flash photography and lack of color. The girl beneath the sheet, obviously a corpse, is painfully plain to see. Weegee was a master of connotation. Although you do not see anything but a single instant, you know what happened at the scene, and this is reminiscent of his journalistic qualities. He would capture exactly the right moment, while maintaining an aire of randomness, spontaneity, and chaos.
My Man, Weegee
My Man, Weegee

What makes Weegee's work so disturbing isn't only the subject matter. The sharp contrast of black and white, the setting in which his photographs are found, even the way he titles each piece, create an atmosphere of dread, but also intrigue while looking at his work. You don't want to look away, even though what you're looking at is tragedy. His work is universally displeasing, which in a way contributes to the mass satisfaction a society may feel while looking at it. There is mystery shrouding his work. The black and white makes everything ambiguous. It's much less easy to infer what is blood, water, or simply grime. The bluntness of human emotion is also a contributing factor. In My Man, the woman is very obviously in agony. It seems a loved one has been hurt or killed. The police officer looks earnest and helpless, while the woman is inconsolable. In Girl jumped out of car, there is a dramatic shift in human interaction. In fact it is almost opposite of that in My Man.The girl is dead, but she is also very alone. It looks like Weegee arrived on the scene after all the commotion had died down. There is a solitary police vehicle surprisingly far from the scene of the actual tragedy, and there is a man walking away as if nothing of importance has happened. Each of these images evoke a negative feeling, but one is panic while the other is loneliness.


Dalí is the ultimate embodiment of the Surrealism movement, which was entirely built on the idea that the unconscious mind should come out and manifest itself in a physical form. For example, the infamous furry cup (Object by Meret Oppenheim, seen above) is an exemplary Surrealist work. Why would a cup be furry? Dalí takes this idea and runs with it. In Soft Construction (oil on canvas, 1936) the central figure makes little if any sense. It does not look like a typical human form (making use of the theme of deconstructing the human form), but it is also very obviously meant to symbolize humanity as a whole, which Dalí has come to detest during this time at the height of the Spanish Civil War. Dalí did not hold a stake in the war, in that he did not openly side with one particular side. His thoughts weren't focused on the Republic or the Fascists--he just hated the war. His sister was tortured and imprisoned by Communists and some of his friends from art school were killed by a fascist firing squad, yet he remained without a distinctive angle. The background is the landscape of northern Spain and the limbs are an outline of a map of the country, showing the artist's belief that during this conflict, the country is the main victim, but also the main aggressor. The beans on the ground symbolize the hardships of war and the necessity of Spanish civilians to make do with what they had available, and are also a reference to a typical Catalan offering to the gods. The parenthetical part of the title refers to Dali's belief that the subconscious mind had the ability to predict the future. He stated that he had predicted the coming of the war six months before it began (Source 1).
Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), Salvador Dali
Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), Salvador Dali


The painting itself is, in a word, shocking. The skeletal body that takes up most of the space is, in Dali's words "a vast human body breaking out into monstrous excrescences of arms and legs tearing at one another in a delirium of autostrangulation." The figure is obviously sporting human elements, but is also distinctly not human. It seems to have once been a normally composed human but has since ripped its own body apart, obviously a metaphor for Spain during their Civil War. The sky in the background seems acidic due to the green hues, and the ground appears dry and desolate, not fertile enough for any life, much like the political state of Spain at this time. The tension of the body in some of its features contributes to the strained atmosphere of the painting, but the extremities that have fallen to the ground look as if they're almost melting, in contrast with the strong limbs of the main form that are tearing at its own flesh. The juxtaposition between the weakness and strength create feelings of both fear and disgust in the viewer. The figure's face seems to be basking in its own terror, glorifying its actions, but simultaneously hurting itself.


Just Sickening


Rudolf Schwarzkogler
Rudolf Schwarzkogler

In 1960s Vienna, Rudolf Schwarzkogler and three other artists dubbed themselves "Actionists". Together, Otto Muehl, Herman Kitsch Rudolph Schwarzkogler, and Guenter Brus developed this activist form of art as an explicit and violent form of performance. This group believed that Austrians were suppressing their feelings (notably guilt) and that this form of art would help people to confront their past traumas in a more blunt fashion. The group's main players were all formally trained artists (Schwarzkogler had been trained at the Graphic Training and Research Institute in Vienna) which made their actions seem far more deliberate and though out. However, they were still seen as a loosely affiliated gang than a tightly defined art movement. Together, the four members would stage (and often film and photograph) extremely graphic performances, which they called "aktions". Their main focus was defying the "uptight and bourgeois" government of post-World War II Austria, but you may not have guessed that by simply looking at their work because it happened to be so vile. Often their actions were illegal, and they all used organic materials to further their message. These materials included blood, wine, milk, and entrails. They were very interested in the natural form and likened naked bodies to typical canvases--using them both to portray their central point and literally as a canvas.

The above photograph is from Rudolf Schwarkogler's 3rd Action (the rest of the photo series was too gruesome to show in a school project). Schwarzkogler differed from other Actionists in that he wouldn't use his craft as an excuse to be disgusting in public. He didn't do public shows like his colleagues, but instead did everything on a set and meticulously placed every aspect of his composition in exactly the right place. He made use of far more formal elements than his affiliates, whom appeared sloppy in comparison to Schwarzkogler. But what makes this disturbing? First of all, the figure is completely emaciated, contrasting with the voluptuous and beautiful women in Renaissance art which was completely meant to please the viewer. He's blindfolded, already giving us a sense of uncertainty, and his blindfold is dirtied with some unknown substance, furthering that unsettled feeling. He's also chewing on wires as if they're spaghetti, taking something familiar, and turning it into something which is possibly lethal. To top it all off, the piece is in black and white, making it bleak, formal, and uncomfortable. The black and white scheme also adds to the uncertainty the viewer feels when looking at the photograph. You can't know what's on his blindfold or if the wires are active. You can only infer.

Sources:

1. Art, Philadelphia Museum of. "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)." Philadelphia Museum of Art. N.p., 2017. Web. 08 May 2017.
2. Demetrion, Jim. "Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953." N.p., n.d. Web. 08 May 2017.
3. "Egon Schiele | Self-Portrait | The Met." The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 May 2017.