Dark romanticism as an aesthetic trend in art and literature which delves into the darker side of human nature and the morally ambiguous has been popular since the age of enlightenment. The Spanish artist Goya explored the dark side of the human psyche with his drawings and paintings of witches and their unholy acts of depravity and William Blake the English watercolorist and lithographer explored a world of sin, damnation and torture through his faith. Of course, these themes have been re-appropriated by popular culture and are prevalent, often in a cliched teeth gnashing, fantasy art inspired frenzy of demons, vampires and werewolves. However, it may surprise you that, despite the bad press of popular penny dreadfuls the history of noir offers some disturbing and profound insights into the human condition.
The expression noir is connected in most people’s minds with a style of filmmaking. The art of noir was inspired by the German Expressionist movement and began life with cinema classics such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene in 1920. Reality is suspended as the action is played out in painted angular sets with stylised costumes and makeup. Later following the rise of the Nazis there was a wave of hard-boiled Hollywood melodramas produced by European immigrants being most recognisably noir in both style and content. The cinematic style is both graphic and dramatic offering a sharp contrast between black and white veering more towards mood and atmosphere than realism which is evident is such classics as the ’ The Maltese Falcon’ starring Humphrey Bogart in 1941.
Dark Art usually stems from the artist’s subconscious or psychological state and is sometimes in reaction to exterior issues. The effect of such work is disturbing, unsettling the observer. Occasionally this is the artist’s main objective but often it is a result of that which they wish to express. The inability to positively identify something seeps under the skin creating the feeling that things are not right together with an undercurrent of impending sadness.
The French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon had a unique, personal artistic vision favouring the variations of the imagination to that of realism and the observation of nature.
When speaking of his childhood inspiration Redon said:
“As a child, I sought out the shadows…taking a deep and unusual joy in hiding under the big curtains and in the dark corners of the house.”
The etchings and lithographs of Redon known as his ‘Noirs’ famously illustrate the nether world between nightmares and reality. They were inspired in part by the work of the 19th-century writer and exponent of dark romanticism, Edgar Allan Poe and by his dreams. The ‘Noirs’ present a bizarre and nightmarish world of strange people, situations and creatures peculiar to Redon that creep into your consciousness, like an existential melancholy. The image ’And a Skull Rang the Funeral Knell’ where a skeleton with haunted human eyes looks up at the funeral knell as it rings illustrates this well.
“My drawings inspire and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.” Odilon Redon
Japanese Manga the comic style novel based on Japanese art using a specific artistic style developed in the 19th century provides an outlet in a society for certain subjects that are taboo and must remain unspoken. In this sense noir is cathartic offering a manifestation of phobias and fears within society. A contemporary graphic artist working in a similar vein to Redon is the Manga artist Junji Ito his work is heavily based on the dark romantic themes of insanity and an all-pervading sense of tragedy. ‘Uzumaki’ or spiral is Junji Ito’s provocative graphic novel in which the inhabitants of a small town become obsessed with spirals in an escalating and grotesque fashion. This is expressed through meticulously executed drawings depicting strange and bizarre happenings and transformations as the spirals take over both people and place.
The moral ambiguity and the belief in the ability of humans to work through difficult situations despite their flaws is part of the attraction to dark romanticism. An obvious reaction perhaps to anxiety in insecure and troubled times where the boundaries are often blurred and ‘evil art’ which depicts the travails of the individual in a frightening and upside down world have more resonance.
Teresa Neal 2017
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Soleil and Noir by James F. Cooper.
The Etchings And Lithographs
Of Odilon Redon
The Art Institute Of Chicago
Uzumaki Junji Ito