“Dark Imagination” By Genevieve Franco

Imagination is vital to any sort of creativity, including art. In fact, imagination and art technically go hand in hand – it is human nature. Imagination can be innocent; it can be dark and feral and thrilling. Enjoyable myths and stories such as fairytales and many times Greek and Roman myths relate to the goodness of the Earth and nature and the fact that humans should enjoy life within certain moralities and conscience-based rules. However, the inner workings of any creative mind can also generate fierce emotions and scenarios, usually meant to depict a tangible, vivid image of said feelings. Art can be the passageway towards great rage, angst and pain as well as joy, love, and peace.

It is universally acknowledged that creativity may be associated closely with madness or some sort of other pain, like illness, a health disorder, emotional turmoil or phobias. The romanticized notion is that the artist is trying to compensate these presences in their lives by outputting amazing pieces of art. Such examples of artists that may fit the idea that there is a link between imaginative genius and mental, physical and emotional havoc include Van Gogh, Munch, and Goya.

Van Gogh had multiple problems, madness being one of them. In fact, he entered an asylum upon his own free will. He was depressed, had suffered both physically from malnutrition and poverty, as well as emotionally, from disappointments concerning his desolate desire for companionship and romantic love.

Edvard Munch led a life filled with anxiety due to neurosis, as well as the emotional upheaval of the deaths of his mother and sister Sophie from tuberculosis. He had yet another younger sister who was later diagnosed with mental illness. His artwork continued to relate back to the idea of pain and grief and illness. He suffered a profound depression in his late forties and spent eight months in a Denmark sanatorium.

Goya also suffered from illness – an inflammation of the nerves in his inner ears, called neurolabyrinthitis, or from the Vogt-Koyanagi Syndrome, which was premature aging. He became almost completely paralyzed and deaf. The only sounds that pierced his ears were “frightful buzzings that drove him close to madness.” (Schickel 97). These ideas he continually incorporated into his art.

On the other hand, Redon and Fuseli merely wanted to create depictions of the realms of darkly-themed fantasy and psychological turmoil, not because they themselves were the victims of madness, but because they were fascinated by those who were. Nightmarish visions with monsters and strange creatures belonging to unorthodox compositions were their fortes.

Each artwork depicts some fantastical idea or sense of human nature. Similar to a psychiatrist’s inkblots, paintings by these five artists let the audience interpret what they mean, with little hints of character connecting each work to their respective artist.

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889.

Van Gogh (1853-1890) was very depressed and drank excessively, while eating very little during his time living alone in Europe. He became romantically attached to a pregnant prostitute named Sien Hoomik, whom he was forbidden to live with, and which caused great disappointment amongst his family. However, he used her as a model whenever possible for his art. Their relationship was broken off shortly after he became irritable and unfulfilled, and he moved to Paris, wher he met many other artists, including Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Emile Bernard. Towards the end of 1888, the first signs of Van Gogh’s illness manifested. He suffered from various types of epilepsy, psychotic attacks, and delusions. Once, he even pursued Gauguin with a knife and threatened him. Later on that same day, Vincent returned to his house and mutilated his ear, then offered it to a prostitute as a gift. Vincent was temporarily hospitalized and released, only to find Gauguin swiftly leaving Arles. Vincent traveled to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence where he committed himself to an asylum, and that was where his paintings became the swirling, moving torrents that he is known for.

Starry Night was created during this time, around 1889, and the churning strokes and fantasy-esque representation may hint to his state of mind at the asylum. The movement present throughout Starry Night keeps the viewer’s eyes moving about the painting, and leads to a simple town below. Despite the unnerving quality of shifting, the town gives a serene, peaceful eminence, and the church steeple at the very center may signify a secure, safe place in the center of a storm. The dark mass near the center-left of the painting sets a dark undertone throughout. It represents a rising evil, perhaps, and the dark side to every beautiful scene in nature, because that’s how it is in real life – as well as in Van Gogh’s life. Maybe he wanted to have that dark undertone, to express his own emotional turmoil lying beneath the surface. The shape itself has been interpreted from a tree to a mountain, so it’s really up to the audience to decide what it is.

Madonna by Edvard Munch in 1895-1902.

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was often ill as a child, and lost his mother and older sister to tuberculosis when very young. And while his childhood was very “stimulating culturally, in his art, he turned again and again to the memory of illness, death and grief.” (Edvard Munch 1). He wanted to create impressions of the soul, and his soul was very dark. During 1908-1909, his alcohol and mental problems reached a critical point, and Munch decided to spend eight months at a clinic in Copenhagen.

His lithograph, Madonna, represents a gloomy outtake of female sexuality, almost to the point of abstraction. He portrayed her nearly covered in the shadows of the sky and her floating hair, which seems to swirl around the composition like a black, mysterious ocean. She symbolizes the anxiety in love and the angst of death, which again relates to Munch’s emotional position. A border of sperm-like organisms circulate her, but aren’t able to touch her, while a shriveled, alien-like fetus stares despondently from its corner. It is a murky, romantic dream, maybe even a nightmare that illustrates not only a real aspect of life, but an intangible soulful conception of it as well.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes in 1799.

“Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) is regarded as the most important Spanish artist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” (Francisco de Goya 1). He painted cartoons for royal palaces and etchings as well as paintings in the circles of royal patronage. He survived an extended period of illness in Cádiz, but emerged months later completely deaf, with only unearthly buzzings and whispering creaks that drove him close to insanity. (Schickel 97). Having no royal commissions during the monarchy of Ferdinand VII, Goya broke off from political and intellectual life in Madrid. Between 1820 and 1823, he completed a series of private works at his country retreat, Quinta del Sordo (the Deaf Man's House). Presently referred to as the Black Paintings, they are compelling and sinister, and have dark, imaginative undercurrents.

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters etching may show the artist himself, asleep, plagued by mythical monsters and other creatures of obscurity, possibly pecking at him to awaken and work. They might be symbols of his own pressures with commissions and the desire to be successful in life, and the reminder of what lies on the other side of ambition. It shoes that even if a person goes to sleep, their mind unveils emotions they may not even have known that they had, and morphs them into creatures sent to become pestilences.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli in 1781.

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) was a Swiss painter, poet, critic, and teacher, and a fervent admirer of Shakespeare. He was at first preordained to go into priesthood, even though his siblings all became artists. In the 1760s, he became a translator for books, and was a fervent, but unsuccessful writer. It was a fellow painter, Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) who had first suggested that Fuseli go into painting. He had a brief romantic affair with Anna Landolt, and after that failed, he left in 1779 for London. It was then that he started painting The Nightmare. He loved the gothic themes in fantasy, and is believed to me a misogynist, as he tended to depict dominant women in demeaning situations.

In The Nightmare, a young woman is mounted by a demonic incubus. The monster is perched heavily on her chest, and is literally a burden to her. She is sprawled out, with her arm hanging down. A horse, the "night mare" stares through the curtains with glowing, unsettling eyes, either observing or leering. It is difficult to determine whose nightmare it is that Fuseli illustrates. It has been said, that the picture is a “revenge for an unfulfilled desire, ultimately perhaps a manifestation of a jealous passion, in which the strange lover of the woman is reduced into a monster.” (Henry Fuseli 1).

The Marsh Flower, a Sad and Human Face by Odilon Redon in 1885.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was a French printmaker, and created many macabre lithographs of black and white subjects. He studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme and learned lithography under Henri Fantin-Latour. He was also associated with the Symbolist and Decadence painters. He dove deep into the imagination, and created outrageous creatures ranging from hybrids to plants and generated his own construction of myths and tales. He was interested in the dregs of the human psyche and mind's eye, not the practical. He reveled in the morbid, gruesome fantasies the rain came up with, and treasured that sort of dark magic in his artwork.

The Marsh Flower, a Sad and Human Face is a lithograph, and consists of a lonely little plant, with a very human and sad face, just as the title infers. It may represent the idea that society shuns those who are different, or just doesn’t care to shed light on the unnatural and absurd. It is a sad and lonely existence for the bizarre and outlandish. But in the artwork, the marsh flower-face creates its own light, and maybe Redon is telling the world that even though the rebel being may be alone and ostracized, it still has its own beliefs and power in itself. As long as it believes in itself, it will brighten up its seemingly futile survival.

Works Cited

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Høifødt, Dr. Frank. “Edvard Munch.” http://www.mnc.net/norway/munch.htm

“Odilon (Bertrand-Jean) Redon.” Art Encyclopedia. http://www.answers.com/topic/odilon-redon?cat</span>

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Schickel, Richard. The World of Goya 1746-1828. New York: Time-Life Books, 1968.

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Voorhies, James. "Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) and the Spanish Enlightenment". In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/goya/hd_goya.htm (October 2003)

Wallace, Robert. The World of Van Gogh 1853-1890. Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1969.