Our 5 Favorite Spooky Works of Art

It’s that time of year: there’s a (somewhat weak) nip in the air, Halloween-minded folks are descending upon costume and craft stores, and candy corn is experiencing its annual swell in sales. To get in the spooky spirit, we put together a list of some of our favorite frightening works of art. Read more about them below, and let us know what you would add!
1. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1610

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1610. Image from Wikipedia.

Art historians believe that Artemisia Gentileschi painted this interpretation of the apocryphal tale of Judith beheading the Assyrian general, Holofernes, when she was only seventeen. In the account as recorded in the Book of Judith, the Assyrians laid siege to the biblical city of Bethulia. Judith was a beautiful widow who resided in Bethulia and, seeing her people suffering at the hands of the intruders, was determined to take matters into her own hands. Putting her trust in God, she entered the enemy camp under the pretense of providing valuable information. Holofernes was enchanted by her beauty and invited her to dine, quickly losing his inhibition: “Holofernes was so enchanted with her that he drank far more wine than he had drunk on any other day in his life” (Judith 12:20). Judith, seeing her opportunity, beheaded the stupored general and saved her city from Assyrian conquest. The story of Judith and Holofernes was a common subject matter for artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Typically, representations of women in the arts displayed ideals of beauty, domesticity, or fertility, but during the Medieval era, artists and writers began to explore subjects of mythological or biblical women conquering men. In her version, Gentileschi embraces the gruesome violence of the scene, capturing the moment that the sword cuts through Holofernes’ neck as Judith forcefully grips his head with an expression of almost casual indifference. We can see clearly that Holofernes is resigned to the fact that fighting back would be in vain. Gentileschi painted another version of the scene nearly a decade after the first in slightly brighter hues. The depiction of Judith is widely believed to be a self-portrait and Holofernes’ borrows the face of her painting tutor, Agostino Tassi. Tassi was later tried for raping Gentileschi while she was under his tutelage, bringing a different type of horror into the fold.

2. Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, c. 1819-1823

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, c. 1819–1823. Image from Wikipedia.

By 1819, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya was living in a small two-story house outside of Madrid called Quinta del Sordo, or the Villa of the Deaf Man. It was a fitting title for Goya himself was near deaf since the late 19th century after a bad bout with a fever. Over seventy years old, and in declining health, Goya produced the work above along with thirteen other paintings that are now known as the Black Paintings. They were painted directly onto the walls of the Quinta del Sordo and it is widely believed that Goya did not intend for them to be viewed by the public. While the Black Paintings all depict disturbing themes - Judith beheading the general Holofernes, a witch’s congregation presided over by Satan in goat form, an emaciated, elderly man sharing a bowl of soup with a skeleton - Saturn Devouring His Son is undoubtedly is the most violent. In Roman mythology, the Titan, Saturn, is plagued by fear and suspicion when a prophecy foretells that he will be overthrown by one of his offspring. To secure his power, he consumes his children moments after they are born. However, his wife, Ops, tricks Saturn and hides his third son, Jupiter, on the island of Crete, allowing the prophecy to eventually come to fruition. Goya’s Saturn is haunting, with desperation and mania so expertly conveyed through his deranged expression. The painting is rendered almost entirely in dark tones, with the exception of the milky corpse’s back and the vibrant blood oozing from its wounds. Even Saturn’s body is contorted and unnatural, as if he has just leapt into the frame and committed this heinous act, himself consumed by his own need to maintain power. After Goya’s death, the Black Paintings were catalogued and the murals were carefully transferred to canvas. Saturn Devouring His Son now hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where it continues to shock and disturb audiences today. 

3. Francis Bacon, Study After Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953

Francis Bacon, Study After Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. Image from The Independent.

When Diego Velazquez painted an official portrait of Pope Innocent X in 1650, he caused quite a stir by depicting the pope with a shrewd expression and relaying much more of his personality and age than was expected by tradition. When the Pope saw his portrait for the first time, he is said to have exclaimed "Troppo vero!" ("All too true!"). Three centuries later, Velazquez’s’ painting became the subject of an infamous series by the English painter, Francis Bacon. Never formally trained in art, Bacon is known for his deeply psychological portraits of himself, his friends, and his lovers. Bacon was fascinated by Velazquez’s painting, producing nearly fifty renditions of the work over the course of decades, some of which he destroyed in moments of intense self-criticism. When asked why he so frequently revisited the subject, Bacon said it was “an excuse to use these colours, and you can't give ordinary clothes that purple colour without getting into a sort of false fauve manner." In the version pictured here, from 1953, Velazquez’s dignified pope has transformed into a ghastly, haunting figure. His face is open wide in a scream that seems to physically reverberate through the canvas. The armchair has deformed into a cage-like structure, imprisoning the tortured pope - whether mentally or physically (or both). His incarceration is only heightened by Bacon’s sweeping vertical brushstrokes that enhance the dark psychological quality of the work. The series was not meant to be overtly anti-religious, and in discussion with art historians, Bacon cited the 1925 Soviet silent film, Battleship Potemkin, and the general unrest in post-war society as influential while he was creating these historic pieces. 

4. Sally Mann, Untitled (Body Farm #18), 2000

Sally Mann, Untitled (Body Farm #18), 2000. Image from The Guardian.

Sally Mann is a contemporary photographer who is best known for the intimate photographs of her children taken in the 1980s on her family farm in the hills of Virginia, which capture the joyful and, at times, unsettling moments of childhood. As she and her children aged, Mann embarked upon a new series titled What Remains, in which she regularly visited the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville Forensic Anthropology Center where researchers placed recently deceased bodies on a small plot of land to study human decomposition. Mann photographed the anonymous bodies, all at varying stages of decay, to confront mortality head on and fully stripped of the subtlety or politeness of a traditional memento mori. The human body is always very present throughout much of Mann’s photography. Her early works showing her daughters and son lounging and playing outside in the nude were the subject of controversy; some found the images too sensual and accused Mann of capitalizing off her children’s bodies. When her husband was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, she explored the complicated tension that we all know between inhabiting a physical body and coming to terms with its inevitable decline. In Untitled (Body Farm #18), Mann delivers her characteristic velvety and smooth finish so that one almost forgets that what we’re looking at is gruesome and a little frightening. Perhaps that is Mann at her best, offering a glimpse of something we don’t think we want to see, but gently coaxing us to realize that the slow process of returning the body to the earth may simply be the most natural thing there is. 

5. Jordan Wolfson, Colored Sculpture, 2016

Jordan Wolfson, Colored Sculpture, 2016. Image from The Guardian.

Despite a deceivingly harmless title, Jordan Wolfson’s Colored Sculpture is an artwork that lodges itself in your head once you’ve experienced it. First exhibited at David Zwirner Gallery in 2016, the work is comprised of a large steel framework, from which a menacing, larger-than-life figure of a boy is suspended, rigged by heavy duty chains attached to his head, foot, and hand. According to the artist, the figure was inspired by the characters Huckleberry Finn and the cheeky Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, but his scuffed face and sinister expression make him resemble more of a nightmarish version of Pinocchio. The boy’s eyes are animated and occasionally blink, and facial recognition software enables him to lock eyes with viewers as they peer at him from beyond his steel enclosure. Motors above manipulate the chains so that the limp puppet is jolted back and forth throughout the space, sometimes released violently so that his body suddenly crumples to the ground, or suspended upside down and dragged along as snippets of the 1966 hit “When A Man Loves A Woman” blast throughout the space. The whole effect is jarring, and yet strangely enough, when speaking about the work with curator Beatrix Ruf, Wolfson states “I never set out to make melancholic, sad or violent artwork. I just found that there was a kind of euphoric physical expression one could have when looking at things that carried a certain kind of movement, a certain type of spectacle. For example, with Colored sculpture, the violence isn’t simulated violence. It’s real violence, and I think that has the potential to have a euphoric effect on the viewer.” Check out the sculpture in action via video here and here.