Generally, when we think of art, we think of picturesque scenes of natural beauty, historic buildings, water lilies and charmingly bucolic scenes.
But some of the best, most interesting and thought-provoking work has been that which plunders the darkest depths of the imagination, those gloomier recesses of the human condition that scare, disturb and downright shock.
It’s unlikely you’ll want any of these morbidly fascinating masterpieces hanging on your wall, but when it comes to some of the most fantastical depictions of hellish and Gothic grotesquery, this selection is pretty hard to beat.
The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea – William Blake
Better known for his romantic poetry and engravings, William Blake didn’t enjoy much success while he was alive, but has generated fresh enthusiasm after his death.
Rather than being inspired by nature, Blake’s artistic creations came from the fecund virility of his imagination.
His series of watercolours inspired by the red dragon from the Book of Revelation is particularly terrifying. This masterpiece depicts the red dragon, an avatar of the Devil, towering over the seven-headed sea beast, in all its garish glory.
Study after Velzques’s Portrait of Innocent X – Francis Bacon
Bacon was unquestionably one of the most influential and controversial artists of the 20th century, and his figurative style of painting is stark and bleak. He was also known for casually destroying pieces he wasn’t happy with, but now his remaining masterpieces sell for millions.
Throughout his artistic life, he kept returning to the portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez to make variations and interpretations of his own, twisting Valzquez’s original portrait of a pensive-looking pope into something much more horrific, with his pope shrieking amidst harsh vertical brushed lines.
Dante and Virgil in Hell – William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Artists have been inspired by the scenes of twisted damnation in Dante’s Inferno since it was first published.
Bouguereau was normally associated with realistic pictures of classical tranquillity, but here he took an unexpected side-step into darker territory – the pits of Hell, to be exact – with his rendering of impersonators biting chunks out of each other to consume their identities. A demon looks on and Dante and Virgil look at the damned.
The Death of Marat – Edvard Munch
Unquestionably Norway’s most famous painter, Edvard Munch’s most unforgettable contribution to the history of terrifying art is this iconic image, The Scream.
Jean-Paul Marat was one of the most important political figures of the French Revolution, who suffered from a skin disease that left him spending most of his days in the bath writing. He was murdered there by Charlotte Corday and, while his death has been pictorially interpreted many times, Munch’s vision is an unremittingly violent and brutal one.
Heads Severed – Theodore Gericault
The Raft of the Medusa is Gericault’s most famous work, but he was determined to break free of the classical style, which was prevalent in his day, and unafraid to tackle emotional and taboo subjects.
The decapitated heads painted here were found by Gericault in hospital dissection labs and morgues. Many artists have painted the dead to better understand the living, but few paintings have depicted such grim morbidities so disturbingly.
The Temptation of St Anthony – Matthias Grunewald
Although he lived during the Renaissance period, Grunewald’s paintings of religious themes were crafted in the style of the Middle Ages. St Anthony The Great was believed to have undergone many challenges, which tested his faith while worshipping in the desert.
One legend says that he was murdered by demons living in a cave, only to be reincarnated and destroy them later. This particular painting is from the Isenheim Tryptych, with the bizarre congregation of demons similar in style to the work of Hieronymous Bosch.
Mask Still Life III – Emil Nolde
Nolde was one of the earliest exponents of Expressionism, even though his talents were overshadowed by the likes of other Expressionist painters such as Munch.
The M.O. of expressionism was to distort reality to the extent that it portrayed a subjective point of view, and Nolde’s painting was composed from a study of masks at the Berlin Museum, including a shrunken head.
Nolde was fascinated by other cultures throughout his entire artistic life, and this painting explores this interest in an unsettlingly surreal and macabre way.
Saturn Devouring His Son – Francis Goya
According to Roman myth, which was heavily based on Greek myth, the father of the Gods consumes his own offspring to ensure that no entity other than him comes into creation – and it’s this act of child murder that Goya has so vividly and unsettlingly depicted.
The painting was actually one of several pictures – known as The Black Paintings – which had been painted alongside the wall of a house, and was never actually intended to be viewed by the public.
Several psychoanalytical theories about the grimness of the paintings have been postulated – including it being an interpretation of Goya’s own fear of ageing – but, however you interpret it, this is a startling and ghoulish work.
Judith Beheading Holofernes – Caravaggio
The Old Testament’s Book of Judith tells of the daring, eponymous widow and how she saves the Israelites from the attack of an army led by Holofernes. Judith meets him and, through her charm and beauty, wins his heart, gets him drunk, then, with the help of her handmaid, decapitates him.
It’s been a favourite story and scene for a multitude of artists, but Caravaggio’s visual interpretation is the most undeniably gruesome, with the detached, almost emotionless, expression of Judith herself contrasted with the look of grim determination of her handmaid and the expression of agonised horror on the face of Helofernes himself.
Electric Chair – Andy Warhol
It’s a quietly disturbing image: the ‘silence’ sign glows in the gloom and the chair awaits the grim demise of its future incumbents, the restraints slack on the ground after the last corpse has been carried away.
Warhol once remarked that “everything I do is connected with death”, and his provocative silkscreen images are certainly representative of that, with his electric chair image accompanying other prints of skulls and car crashes.
The Nightmare – Henry Fuseli
There’s something incontrovertibly creepy about Fuseli’s most famous painting – a nightmare that causes nightmares – and a hideous depiction of the worst dream ever committed to canvas.
Even Freud would have had a field day with the image of a sleeping woman in virginal gown, sacrificial style, goaded by a squatting troll, pricked ears casting a shadow on the wall as a wild-eyed stallion looks on.
The horror of nocturnal violation has never been better represented than in Fuseli’s visual metaphor for bestiality, rape, murder and voyeurism.
In fact, the piece was so popular that Fuseli even created an equally creepy, alternative version.
Hell – Hans Memling
A grotesque and hellish hybrid of man, woman, dragon, devil, bird and dog, this malicious manifestation dances malevolently over the damned as they burn in eternal hell fire.
The horror’s amped up to an even more intense degree by the fact that the inferno bubbles away in the jaws of a giant fish, with the demon banishing the possibility of any hope by parading the banner “In hell there is no redemption”.
Conceived as part of a larger altarpiece designed to terrify 15th century churchgoers into leading better lives, it remains a totally surreal and shocking vision.