From the Archives: 5 More Creepy Artworks for Halloween

In this spooky episode from the archives, Tim is here with 5 of his favorite paintings that can be used to celebrate Halloween. Listen as he talks about Goya, Cezanne, and Caravaggio, and also dives into literature and Greek mythology in this entertaining episode.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

All right, just a few days away is Halloween this Saturday, and as we always do around Halloween time, it is time for my favorite pastime, talking about creepy artworks from art history. Now, we did this last Halloween with Jenn Russell on the show, and it was a hit. People loved the episode. I’ve gotten a few requests over the past month as to whether I’m going to do another Halloween episode, another art history episode talking about creepy artwork, some requests to do that, so I figured, “Yeah, let’s go ahead and dive in,” because I love art history, so we are going to jump into a few more creepy artworks, a few different ones this time around.

If you didn’t listen to last year’s episode, I’ll give you a quick rundown. We talked about a handful of different artworks. We did Head of a Skeleton With a Burning Cigarette by Vincent van Gogh. We did The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp from Rembrandt. We did Salvador Dali’s The Face of War. We did Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, which for my money may be the creepiest painting of all time. We did Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Cutting off the Head of Holofernes and we did Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo and discussed those at length and kind of how our students react to them, how they view them, the things they talk about, the things they question and why we like to show them, and so it’s a good episode. We’ll link to it if you want to hear all about even more artworks that are kind of creepy, kind of fun to show in class.

There’s one that I wanted to talk about, another artwork that I thought about, but didn’t make the cut, and it’s Goya’s set of prints called The Horrors of War and they’re just a little bit too much for the classroom, a little too dark, a little too graphic, and maybe kind of dangerous to show in class, not something that I really want to talk to my kids about, not ones that I want to subject them to because they are incredibly horrific, so I don’t know. They definitely qualify as creepy artworks. If you’re into that sort of thing, definitely check them out, learn the story behind them, but not something that I probably want to share it in the classroom, so I cut those from this episode.

But before we dive into all of the artworks that I want to talk about, I wanted to share really briefly about The Art of Education University. If you need to just maybe take one graduate course this next year, if you want to earn a Master’s degree, the entire thing, or you’re anywhere between those two, make sure you check out courses from The Art of Education University. We offer over 20 online courses, including eight different hands-on studio courses, and they are designed to help art teachers at every stage of your career, no matter where you are in the profession, so whether you are looking to develop a new art curriculum, get help with some of the fundamentals in your classroom, and come up with new ideas for distance learning for when we are still doing that, or just brush up on your own art, making skills, we have courses for you. You can see what’s available, what interests you, and what you may want to sign up for at theartofeducation.edu/courses.

All right, so let’s dive into a handful of creepy artworks, ones that are exciting to share with your students when it gets to be Halloween time, or ones that are just fun to chat about and look at on your own time. ‘Kay, so the first that I’m going to go with is a simple one, but not a lot of people know about this: It’s the Pyramid of Skulls by Paul Cezanne. We’re all used to Cezanne’s work, post-impressionist masterpieces, portraits and still lifes and landscapes, but what a lot of people don’t know about Cezanne is that he did a number of paintings about death and dying in his final years. I think he died right after the turn of century, like 1905, maybe, and the last five, six, seven years, he did a lot of paintings just dealing with mortality, dealing with death, dealing with end of life.

It’s kind of different for Cezanne because we’re used to, like I said, seeing this fruit still life and this bottle still live, these simple still lives, these really interesting landscapes, just those beautiful images, his beautiful style of painting that’s associated with Cezanne and associated with post-impressionism, and it’s always fun for me to go through a lot of his old work, just show kids a lot of Cezanne’s work, what we’re used to seeing, and then break out the skulls because it literally is just this pile of skulls, a pyramid of skulls, and it’s absolutely in his style, like you look at it and you’re like, “Oh, that has to be Cezanne,” because he has such a distinct painting style, and you’re like, “The subject is weird, but it definitely has to be his.”

Somehow it still fits in with the rest of his work, but just leading up to that, when you show kids, “Oh, he’s known for these still lives, he loved this mountain and these landscapes, he had this kind of color palette, he had these kinds of interests and this style, and also, look at this pyramid of skulls,” you never know where that conversation is going to go after that, but it’s always a good one to kind of spring on the kids and it can lead to some interesting discussions about a lot of things, so yeah, check out Pyramid of Skulls by Paul Cezanne.

The second one, this takes a little bit more explanation, but it is called Picture of Dorian Gray by Ivan Albright; Ivan Albright was a famous portrait painter. He really liked dark material and these super-realistic portraits that were also a little bit creepy. He’s known for painting the macabre, just these dark, dreadful-type things, and so this portrait very much fits in with that style, and it’s based on a story, or a novel, I should say, by Oscar Wilde, which might be Oscar Wilde’s only novel, I’m not positive on that, but I know he didn’t do a lot of them, but it’s really good. I’m going to do my best to summarize the story really quickly here and then we can talk about the painting and that comes from it.

This Oscar Wilde novel, it’s called A Picture or A Portrait of Dorian Gray, I believe, and Dorian Gray is this incredibly attractive but really narcissistic character, and an artist in the story decides to paint Dorian. Dorian is the muse here. While Dorian is sitting for the portrait, he listens to another character who’s representative or just the idea of hedonism basically talk about how seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering are really the only goals that you should have in life, and so Dorian is listening to this and decides he likes the idea, so because of this conversation, Dorian decides that he wants to sell his soul, basically.

The deal that that is come up with is that Dorian can do whatever he wants in life, but his portrait, this portrait that the artist painted will be the one to bear the consequences, and so Dorian can run around town without any morals whatsoever, always stay young, always stay attractive, and it is the portrait that will age and fade, ‘kay, and you can probably guess what happens from there. A fantastic ending, too, by the way, I’m not going to spoil it here, but if you have some time to read it, if you’re looking for something to read, it’s definitely worth checking out.

But anyway, based on this Oscar Wilde story, Ivan Albright, the artist, decided to visualize this aged, creepy portrait that has borne the brunt of all of Dorian’s amoral decisions, and like I said, this seemed to be the perfect fit because Albright was known for all of these macabre paintings, and the result is exactly that: The painting is just disorienting. It’s strangely textured with just warts and scars all over the figure, and the look on Dorian’s face in this painting is one of, yeah, I don’t know how to describe it. Mania, I guess, a look of mania, and it’s fascinating and it’s revolting all at once. Let’s be honest: If there’s anything that the students like, it’s things that are both fascinating and revolting at the same time, which a lot of Ivan Albright’s paintings are. If your kids respond to those sort of dark and interesting portraits, he is an artist that is worth looking up and worth sharing, and if you want to read some Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray is definitely worth checking out.

All right, painting number three on our list today is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. I think we’re all familiar with this painting. It’s very famous from art history. If you look it up, you’re like, “Yeah, I’ve seen that.” Basically, it’s just these two young, fancy dudes. One of them has the really, really fancy coat. They’re standing in front of the green curtain. A table behind them is filled with all sorts of worldly goods, just these two very dapper young ambassadors. For some reason, there is a weirdly distorted skull at the bottom of the painting that looks like it’s been smeared onto the page. You look at this or your students will look at this and the question is: “What in the world is going on?”

Well, there’s a lot going on. First of all, it’s a huge painting. I think it’s like almost seven feet tall and seven feet wide and there is so much representative imagery, there’s so many hidden messages in the painting, simple stuff like the globe in the background representing that these guys are world travelers, they’re ambassadors, a lot of hidden imagery about the schism between church and government and there’s even little hidden messages all the way down to like the ages of the subjects are inscribed on the dagger blades, then all the way up to the objects and the paintings that represent political messages about what’s happening between France and England at the time. Also, like I said, a lot going on, and there’s also a lot of memento mori things, and it’s a great introduction for kids to teach them what memento mori is, just those objects that artists would sneak into paintings to remind us of the end of our inevitable death that was coming.

Thinking about death, that brings us back to that skull. Why is it there? Why is it at such a weird angle? It’s really interesting to show kids here this is what the strange thing is made across the bottom of the page, but then if you look at it at just the right angle, it turns into the skull. I think our best guess, art historians’ best guess is that it’s Holbein’s attempt at anamorphosis where it looks good from a particular angle or is seen from a particular perspective, and that’s a natural outgrowth from all of the prospective work over the Renaissance that was happening just before him.

Dealing with this particular painting, dealing with The Ambassadors, I’ve heard, and this might be apocryphal, but I’ve heard that the painting was commissioned to hang above this grand staircase and that the anamorphic skull was added to be seen from a particular location on the staircase, and so just showing kids how that works can be something that’s really interesting to them, really fascinating to them, especially if they haven’t seen things like that before. But in any case, kids are usually fascinated by all the details of the painting, about the concept of memento mori, and you can show how that’s done with other paintings, and like I said, they’re especially fascinated by how that image, which looks like who knows what across the bottom of the page can actually turn into a skull when you’re seeing it from the right angle.

All right, number four on our list is Medusa by Caravaggio. I mentioned this at the end of last year’s episode, it didn’t quite make the cut, but I really want to talk about it today because it’s gross, it’s fascinating, it’s super creepy because it’s this decapitated head. Caravaggio drew on the ancient Greek myth of Medusa for this painting. If you’re not familiar with the story of Medusa, I had my son give us a good explanation. He’s been reading a lot of Percy Jackson stories lately and then after reading Percy Jackson, he likes to research the Greek gods, so I had him describe this, and so this is his description:

Medusa is a monster with bronze hands and venomous snakes for hair and legend has it that anyone who looked at her would be turned into stone. ‘Kay, this is where it gets complicated, but stick with me here. Medusa was cursed by the goddess Athena who turned her into the monster that she became with the venomous snakes. I’m not sure why Athena didn’t like her, why she was cursed, I’m sure we can get that story later, but it’s probably a little much right now. But then Perseus, who’s the son of Zeus and Princess Danaë, decapitated Medusa using a shield that Athena had given to him. I’m not sure of all the drama, all the machinations there, but that’s what happened, so that’s the rundown on who Medusa is and it gives us a setup for this painting.

Like I said, this Caravaggio painting shows the severed head of Medusa. She has a look on her face that’s both angry and shocked that this happened to her. It’s very dramatic. Of course, there’s a ton of blood coming out of her neck because her head has just been cut off. I know that Caravaggio had done two paintings of this and I feel like I read somewhere that he used his own likeness for the portrait, which just adds to the disconcerting effect, but it lives in this weird middle where the character is obviously very much alive with this crazed look in her eyes, for lack of a better word, but obviously, very much dead because of the whole decapitation thing, and so it is creepy, it’s intense.

It’s a good one to talk about because inevitably, there is a student who comes along every year wanting to do something with Greek gods or Roman mythology or something along those lines, and so I love to give them this painting by Caravaggio, as well as Goya’s painting of Saturn Devouring His Son, as those are great jumping-off points to see how you can take an abstract idea or an abstract subject like mythology and really infuse it with emotion and drama and capture the viewer’s attention and I think that gives your students a lot to consider, a lot to think about, and something to look up to, so I think that’s really worthwhile.

All right, and then our final painting of the day that I want to talk about, ‘kay, it’s The Scream by Edward Munch. I mean, everybody knows this one, everybody shows this one in class. I mean, it’s maybe not even that creepy, not even that disconcerting, and I’m not sure that I even have a lot to talk about with it, but for whatever reason, as I was considering things, I was looking at this painting and it just hit me a little harder after the 2020 that we’ve lived through for the past few months, and I think that reaction, that character, I think that scream is everyone right now. The subject looks how we all feel and it seems like the perfect painting to sum up the time that we’re living in right now, so I think The Scream is worth checking out or showing to your kids and just seeing if that’s that’s their reaction to this year as well.

Well, anyway, feel free to look up any of those paintings if you’re looking for a couple of artworks to show this week, because as we all know, nothing celebrates Halloween better than some of the most creepy examples you can find from art history. Enjoy the art, enjoy your Halloween celebration, whatever that may look like this year.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. All right, thank you, as always, for listening. Stay safe this weekend, enjoy your Halloween this weekend, and we will talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.