1. Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Francis Bacon. 1953.
This eerie work shows a distorted version of the Portrait of Innocent X painted by Diego Velázquez in 1650. In a style typical of Bacon, this piece uses a layering of one image upon another; the pleated curtains of the backdrop, which seem to silence the scream, are rendered transparent and appear to fall uncannily through the Pope’s face. The work is highly charged with raw and animal energy, with the harsh vertical lines reminiscent of clawing. Ultimately, it is the involuntary and almost feral scream of the Pope what catches our eye here and draws us into the deep and nightmarish space of the painting.
2. The Sin, Franz Ritter von Stuck. 1893.
Von Stuck, as a Symbolist painter, was highly interested in the interior worlds of the self, as well as the Femme Fatale figure. This particular painting explores the nature of sin and temptation. Here, the embodiment of sin is the nude woman who undoubtedly carries connotations of Eve in the Garden of Eden. She appears to look directly out at the viewer in a particularly uncanny way, engaging the viewer as if they are also complicit in the unfolding of a chilling narrative. The serpent entwined around her body, with its gruesome gargoyle-like face, half sheathed in darkness, almost goes unnoticed.
3. Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco Goya. c. 1819–1823.
The most conventionally frightening piece of the lot. The work is part of a series called the ‘Black Paintings’, which Goya painted directly onto the walls of his villa, and refer to the mental state of the artist during the end of his life. It is unsurprising then, that the series portrays morbid and fantastical imagery, and this painting is no exception to the rule. The piece shows Saturn, of Roman mythology, who, in fear that his children would one day overthrow him, feasting upon on his son at his birth. Satan’s piercing eyes are manic and wild here as he callously munches upon his own seed’s left arm.
4. Big Electric Chair, Andy Warhol. 1967.
Notably more famous for his Pop Art pictures of Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andy Warhol’s art certainly had a darkerside. Big Electric Chair is part of a series based on a photograph of the former execution chamber at Sing Sing prison, New York. If art is, as Warhol famously mused, “what you can get away with”, then this image of an unoccupied electric chair serves to reflect upon controversy surrounding the death penalty in 1960s America, but still resonates strongly today as a poignant metaphor for the brutal reduction of life to death. Warhol took an interest in the macabre and also produced artworks featuring police photographs of suicides and car accidents.
5. Medusa, Caravaggio. 1595.
Medusa, the gorgon of Greek mythology, is the subject of this freaky piece. As the story goes; anyone who looked upon her and her hair of venomous snakes would be turned to stone. Hero Perseus used a shining shield from the goddess Athena to avoid looking at Medusa directly, and then violently decapitated her. Here, her contorted facial expression, with her eyes which gaze strangely downwards and her wide-open mouth make this piece truly gruesome. If you happen to have a penchant for gory decapitation, then Caravaggio is your man. Be sure to check out his other masterpieces, including The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.