Joshua Hoffine‘s terrifying images drag us into a world of nightmares, hunting, danger, and they also contain a touch of irony and romance.
His first horror photographs, dating back to 2003, have consecrated him as the founder of a real sub-genre, which combines elements of literature and cinema to generate a new perspective for the photographic art; as he stated in an interview, unlike video games, music, etc., photography has never enjoyed a true horror conjugation before.
Hoffine’s monsters populate cellars, attics, bathrooms, all those places that are most familiar to us and that we consider safe; demons mock us from dark corners, as we try to figure out where they are. But above all, they can hide inside us.
Looking in the mirror we discover that we are only a grotesque copy of our own fears; beauty, as it often happens in romantic literature, is just the superficial layer for a corrupt and deformed soul. Nineteenth-century scenarios become the background for brutal crimes and surreal apparitions, through which Hoffine’s imagery produces silent and unprecedented stories, compressed in a single shot capable of throwing up a thousand questions.
As a lover of horror classics, Hoffine takes advantage of the immortal fame of icons such as Jack the Ripper, Dr. Jekill and Mr. Hyde, Nosferatu and Elizabeth Bathory (beautifully captured as she wears a beauty mask during her usual bath in a virgin’s blood), to revisit their spirit in a modern way, telling the story in one or more shots. Lighting, make-up and expressiveness are studied in detail to transform the image into a continuous exchange between reality and vision, which is why each picture is always something more than a simple “movie scene”. The moment he decides to immortalize is the perfect point of maximum dramatic tension.
The classics of horror are often represented in his work, as you can see in his recently published anthology, a collection that spans across his last thirteen years of work. The silent killer, Stephen King’s clown with his menacing balloon, the horde of ravenous zombies, the corpse bride: it’s a great tribute to the horror genre which, as intended by the author, by stabbing our imagination forces us to “see what we did not want to see“.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Hoffine has also ventured into taking the role of director in 2014, for his first short (yet very intense) film, Dark Lullaby.
The protagonist of Dark Lulllaby is one of Hoffine’s daughters. Starting from his very first shots, dedicated to childhood nightmares, Hoffine has often immersed his daughters (along with other relatives) in the surreal scenarios he creates; these photographs, collected in his most famous work After Dark My Sweet, are still in my opinion the best of his vast production.
The reason is that they concern us closely: the monster under the bed, the spiders entering from the window, the jaws that seem to come out of the darkness of the closet — they all belong to the oldest memories each of us has, and sometimes even to our everyday adult life. These are primordial, indelible nightmares: darkness, insects and ghosts are three things that almost all of us fear, even when there’s really no reason, even when it might feel silly to be afraid.
Combining fantastic monsters and little girls is a way to create a terribly effective contrast, one that was always dear to the horror genre. However rich the artist’s imagination and the skill of the model/actor may be, no one can represent horror better than children. In truth, through horror, we always go back to childhood, reopening our trunk of memories we left in the attic, to return to that good old pavor nocturnus. This is why a child remains the perfect protagonist of any scary scene.
One wonders what kind of memory Hoffine’s five daughters will retain from this experience.
Of course, this master of horror should be credited with having created a new kind of photography, which through the excellent use of makeup is able to show us what we did not want to see.
Those who live in dream are superior beings; those who live in reality are unhappy slaves.
Alberto Martini, 1940
Alberto Giacomo Spiridione Martini (1876-1954) was one of the most extraordinary Italian artists of the first half of the twentieth century.
He was the author of a vast graphic production which includes engravings, lithographs, ex libris, watercolors, business cards, postcards, illustrations for books and novels of various kinds (from Dante to D’Annunzio, from Shakespeare to Victor Hugo, from Tassoni to Nerval).
Born in Oderzo, he studied drawing and painting under the guidance of his father Giorgio, a professor of design at the Technical Institute of Treviso. Initially influenced by the German sixteenth-century mannerism of Dürer and Baldung, he then moved towards an increasingly personal and refined symbolism, supported by his exceptional knowledge of iconography. At only 21 he exhibited for the first time at the Venice Biennale; from then on, his works will be featured there for 14 consecutive years.
The following year, 1898, while he was in Munich to collaborate with some magazines, he met the famous Neapolitan art critic Vittorio Pica who, impressed by his style, will forever be his most convinced supporter. Pica remembers him like this:
This man, barely past twenty, […] immediately came across as likable in his distinguished, albeit a bit cold, discretion […], in the subtle elegance of his person, in the paleness of his face, where the sensual freshness of his red lips contrasted with that strange look, both piercing and abstract, mocking and disdainful.
After drawing 22 plates for the historical edition of the Divine Comedy printed in 1902 by the Alinari brothers in Florence, starting from 1905 he devoted himself to the cycle of Indian ink illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, which remains one of the peaks of his art.
In this series, Martini shows a strong visionary talent, moving away from the meticulous realistic observation of his first works, and at the same time developing a cruel and aesthetic vein reminiscent of Rops, Beardsley and Redon.
During the First World War he published five series of postcards entitled Danza Macabra Europea: these consist of 54 lithographs meant as satirical propaganda against the Austro-Hungarian empire, and were distributed among the allies. Once again Martini proves to possess a grotesque boundless fantasy, and it is also by virtue of these works that he is today considered a precursor of Surrealism.
Disheartened by how little consideration he was ebjoying in Italy, he moved to Paris in 1928. “They swore — he wrote in his autobiography — to remove me as a painter from the memory of Italians, preventing me from attending exhibitions and entering the Italian market […] I know very well that my original way of painting can annoy the myopic little draftsman and paltry critics“.
In Paris he met the Surrealist group and developed a series of “black” paintings, before moving on to a more intense use of color (what he called his “clear” manner) to grasp the ecstatic visions that possessed him.
The large window of my studio is open onto the night. In that black rectangle, I see my ghosts pass and with them I love to converse. They incite me to be strong, indomitable, heroic, and they tell me secrets and mysteries that I shall perhaps reveal you. Many will not believe and I am sorry for them, because those who have no imagination vegetate in their slippers: comfortable life, but not an artist’s life. Once upon a starless night, I saw myself in that black rectangle as in a mirror. I saw myself pale, impassive. It is my soul, I thought, that is now mirroring my face in the infinite and that once mirrored who knows what other appearance, because if the soul is eternal it has neither beginning nor end, and what we are now is nothing but one of its several episodes. And this revealing thought troubled me […]. As I was absorbed in these intricate thoughts, I started to feel a strange caress on the hand I had laid on a book open under a lamp. […] I turned my head and saw a large nocturnal butterfly sitting next to my hand, looking at me, flapping its wings. You too, I thought, are dreaming; and the spell of your dull eyes of dust sees me as a ghost. Yes, nocturnal and beautiful visitor, I am a dreamer who believes in immortality, or perhaps a phantom of the eternal dream that we call life.
(A. Martini, Vita d’artista, manoscritto, 1939-1940)
In economic hardship, Martini returned to Milan in 1934. He continued his incessant and multiform artistic work during the last twenty years of his life, without ever obtaining the desired success. He died on November 8, 1954. Today his remains lie together with those of his wife Maria Petringa in the cemetery of Oderzo.
The fact that Martini never gained the recognition he deserved within Italian early-twentieth-century art can be perhaps attributed to his preference for grotesque themes and gloomy atmospheres (in our country, fantasy always had a bad reputation). The eclectic nature of his production, which wilfully avoided labels or easy categorization, did not help him either: his originality, which he rightly considered an asset, was paradoxically what forced him to remain “a peripheral and occult artist, doomed to roam, like a damned soul, the unexplored areas of art history” (Barbara Meletto, Alberto Martini: L’anima nera dell’arte).
Yet his figure is strongly emblematic of the cultural transition between nineteenth-century romantic decadentism and the new, darker urgencies which erupted with the First World War. Like his contemporary Alfred Kubin, with whom he shared the unreal imagery and the macabre trait, Martini gave voice to those existential tensions that would then lead to surrealism and metaphysical art.
An interpretation of some of the satirical allegories in the European Macabre Dance can be found here and here.
The Civic Art Gallery of Oderzo is dedicated to Alberto Martini and promotes the study of his work.
The second edition of the Bizzarro Bazar Contest is over.
In writing this, I realized I don’t know a way to express my gratitude to all candidates that’s not boring. So just take it for granted that you’ve warmed the heart of an old seeker of oddities.
Let’s not beat around the bush, you’re here to see what the deliciously deviant minds of your fellow readers have come up with.
Like last year, the entries were so many, and of such high quality, that they made it awfully hard for me to select just three winners.
So the warning stays the same: what you’re about to see are the honorable mentions — at the incpontestable discretion of the Jury, that is me — but a round of applause should go to all those who don’t appear in this limited space. Over the next few weeks I shall find a way to make it even by sharing on social media all the submitted works, along with the info about the authors.
So, let’s kick off our weird parade!
Many classic elements — the hourglass, the withered flower, the skull, the burned-out candle — for this rather gothic version of the vanitas.
If you want to split hair, that plainly pasted logo in Giulia’s works does not fully comply with the contest rules; but hey, we’re among friends, and her collages entitled Under The Skin are so beautiful that I just couldn’t leave them out.
Gaber Ricci sumbitted an anatomical animated GIF, which would be perfect for a T-shirt. All we need now is some tech guy to figure out how to play GIFs on T-shirts, and we’ve got a business that’ll shake the world.
(Gaber shies away from social media, but he runs a highly intelligent blog in Italian: Suprasaturalanx.)
The LondoNerD is another great blogger, and for the occasion he drew a portrait of me as Jeremy Bentham‘s famous auto-icon. Apart from the fact that my head too is often somewhere else, the juxtaposition with the great philosopher is undeserved.
Elena Nisi went as far as to turn me into a comic book hero. And the detail that made my day was the allusion to my friend and BDSM expert Ayzad, whom I can only picture as the villain here: I’d give anything to read the issue in which I finally confront his deadly whips! FSHH! THUD! KA-BOOM!
This photo perfectly describes what happens when the deadline for submitting a new book to my editor is approaching.
I’ll leave it to Mala Tempora to explain his submission, created in collaboration with Viktoria Kiss:
We imagined a hypothetical article on Bizzarro Bazar regarding the Icelandic folkloric monster called Tilberi[a little monster witches can summon to steal milk from sheep, cows and occasionally human mothers – Ed.], and we created two objects to illustrate the story. In this case the collaboration with Viktoria was priceless, as these beings could only be summoned by women.
This work deserves, I think, a honorable mention.
Meewelyne’s illustration may be deceivingly simple. But carefully look at it, and a sense of uneasiness will start to creep up.
A little girl is walking hand in hand with her mother towards what looks like a circus or a fairground; the strokes are gracious and quite reminiscent of Beatrix Potter‘s illustrations. Yet, in the most calssic Freudian declination of the uncanny, some details seem to be out of place, ambiguous and confusing: the mother wears a fox’s head pinned to her waist, and the child’s backpack is made of a bear cub’s skin and bird wings (look at those robins!). Who are they? Why are they so comfortable with taxidermy? Is it a family business, does the mother teach her daughter how to skin and tan animals? Or should we infer that, in this imaginary universe, it’s OK to dress up like that?
This image — despite its delicate line drawing, straight out of a children’s book — is hiding an unsettling vein which I really loved.
After days of indecision, I decided to opt for a joint third place.
Another astounding nude self-portrait, but this time quite ironic and wild-eyed.
Chiara Toniolo’s work is deliciously loony, and it seduced me for the enthusiastic, smiling and bright way in which it presents elements that, in theory, should be upsetting.
And let’s face it. There’s the artistic nude, the skull, the kitten: that spells boost in page views.
This year’s surprise was the unexpected participation of mentalist Francesco Busani (a couple of years ago I posted a special feature about him). Being a great collection of ouija boards, Francesco created one especially for Bizzarro Bazar. The philologic attention to details is astounding, from vintage artworks to the use of the original materials (namely masonite) that were employed in the Sixties to build these psychic instruments.
Francesco created only two copies of this board: one stays in his collection, and one is already a part of mine. But I must confess I still haven’t tried to consult it, because if there’s one thing I learned from horror movies is that you don’t fiddle with some things.
The wonderful Gadiro (Gaia Di Roberto) crafts dolls, plush toys, accessories, pendants and necklaces that are both creepy and kawaii. In order for this mixture to be fresh and original, you need a lot of talent but above all a unique sensibility.
A sensibility that also appears from her words:
The existence of Bizzarro Bazar not only inspired me for my work but it urged me to take this strange path of the “sweet little creepy creatures maker”; in times when I almost felt guilty about nurturing certain interests, this blog and all the people who follow it made me feel less alone, I would say in family.
Looking at myself as a puppet among Gadiro’s dolls, I now feel part of a family, too.
A decorated skull?
But what about that kind of microscope slide on the side of the door?
Now I get it!
It’s not a skull, it’s a… Bizzarroscope!
Taking inspiration from one of my very first articles, in which I talked about the extraordinary stenoscopic cameras of Wayne Martin Belger, André Santapaola a.k.a. Elragno built this spectacular instrument which has the purpose of injecting wonder into our worldview.
Thanks to a stenopeic hole in the skull’s right eye socket it is possible to fix reality through the artifice of photography (it’s not by chance the relative viewfinder is labeled Artificialia); by inserting the slide on the left side of the skull, one can watch the world throught the filter of a butterfly wing, a dewdrop, or any other natural element — and that’s why this lens is called Naturalia.
The label on the forehead reminds us of the third classic element of any wunderkammer, as well as the inevitable result of these explorations: Mirabilia, “marvels” and “awe”.
Thus Elragno wins the 1st prize with a particurlarly well-crafted object, but above all for its very sophisticated concept: “the Bizzarroscope […], just like Ivan Cenzi’s writings, allowes us to see the world from a different perspective, in which the “observed” becomes a means for observation.”
It’s like saying: the passion for the unusual spurs from the desire to change one’s own way of looking, and Wonder is the key to discover new, unexpected horizons.
If you particularly liked some of these works, make sure you show the authors your appreciation in the comments!
Over the next few weeks I will be sharing on social media all the submitted works which do not appear here.
Once again, thanks to all contestants, you cheered me up and moved me — and I hope you had fun.
The hybrid anatomies created by Nunzio Paci,born in Bologna in 1977, encountered a growing success, and they granted him prestigious exhibitions in Europe, Asia and the US.
The true miracle this artist performs on his canvas is to turn what is still usually perceived as a taboo – the inside of our bodies – into something enchanting.
But his works are complex and multilayered: in his paintings the natural elements and creatures fuse together and as they do so, all boundaries lose their meaning, there is no more an inside and an outside; each body explodes and grows branches, becoming indefinable. Even if besides the figures there still are numbers, anatomical annotations and “keys”, these unthinkable flourishes of the flesh tend to checkmate our vision, sabotage all categories and even dismantle the concept of identity.
But rather than just writing about it, I thought it best to interview Nunzio and let our chat be an introduction to his art.
You began as a street artist, in a strictly urban environment; what was your relationship with nature back then? Did it evolve over the years?
I was born and raised in a small country town in the province of Bologna and I still live in a rural area. Nature has always been a faithful companion to me. I too did go through a rebellious phase: in those years, as I recall them, everything looked like a surface I could spray paint or write on. Now I feel more like a retired warrior, seeking a quiet and dimly lit corner where I can think and rest.
In the West, man wants to think himself separated from nature: if not a proper dominator, at least an external observer or investigator. This feeling of being outside or above natural laws, however, entails a feeling of exclusion, a sort of romantic longing for this “lost” connection with the rest of the natural world. Do you think your works express this melancholy, a need for communion with other creatures? Or are you suggesting that the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms have actually always been inertwined, and all barriers between them are a cultural construct, an illusion?
I think my work is about “longing for what we constantly lose” – voices, perfumes, memories… I often have the feeling I’m inventing those fragments of memories I had forgotten: I believe this is a form of self-defense on my part, to survive the melancholy you mention. For this reason, through my work, I try to translate what cannot be preserved through time into a visual form, so that I can retrieve these memories in my most nostalgic moments.
Yours are autoptic visions: why do you feel the need to dissect, to open the bodies you draw? As the inside of the body is still a taboo in many ways, how does the public react to the anatomical details in your works?
I need to be selfish. I never think about what the audience might feel, I don’t ask myself what others would or wouldn’t want to see. I am too busy taming my thoughts and turning my traumas into images.
I can’t recall exactly when I became interested in anatomy, but I will never forget the first time I saw somebody skin a rabbit. I was a very young child, and I was disturbed and at the same time fascinated – not by the violent scene in itself, but by what was hidden inside that animal. I immediately decided I would never harm a living being but I would try and understand their “engineering”, their inner design.
Later on, the desire to produce visionary artworks took over, and I started tracing subjects that could be expressive without offending any sensibility. But in the end what we feel when we look at something is also a product of our own background; so generally speaking I don’t think it’s possible to elicit am unambiguous sensation in the public.
You stated you’re not a big fan of colors, and in fact you often prefer earthy nuances, rusty browns, etc. Your latest woks, including those shown in the Manila exhibit entitled Mimesis, might suggest a progressive opening in that regard, as some floral arrangements are enriched by a whole palette of green, purple, blue, pink. Is this a way to add chromatic intricacy or, on the contrary, to make your images “lighter” and more pleasing?
I never looked at color as a “pleasing” or “light” element. Quite the opposite really. My use of color in the Mimesis cyle, just like in nature, is deceptive. In nature, color plays a fundamental role in survival. In my work, I make use of color to describe my subjects’ feelings when they are alone or in danger. Modifying their aspect is a necessity for them, a form of self-defense to protect themselves from the shallowness, arrogance and violence of society. A society which is only concerned with its own useless endurance.
In one of your exhibits, in 2013, you explicitly referenced the theory of “signatures”, the web of alleged correspondences among the different physical forms, the symptoms of illness, celestial mutations, etc. These analogies, for instance those found to exist between a tree, deer antlers and the artery system, were connected to palmistry, physiognomy and medicine, and were quite popular from Paracelsus to Gerolamo Cardano to Giambattista della Porta. In your works there’s always a reference to the origins of natural sciences, to Renaissance wunderkammern, to 15th-16th Century botanics. Even on a formal level, you have revisited some ancient techniques, such as the encaustic technique. What’s the appeal of that period?
I believe that was the beginning of it all, and all the following periods, including the one we live in, are but an evolution of that pioneering time. Man still studies plants, observes animal behavior, tries in vain to preserve the body, studies the mechanisms of outer space… Even if he does it in a different way, I don’t think much has really changed. What is lacking today is that crazy obsession with observation, the pleasure of discovery and the want to take care of one’s own time. In learning slowly, and deeply, lies the key to fix the emotions we feel when we discover something new.
A famous quote (attributed to Banksy, and inspired by a poem by Cesar A. Cruz) says: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. Are your paintings meant to comfort or disturb the viewer?
My way of life, and my way of being, are reflected in my work. I never felt the urge to shock or distrub the public with my images, nor did I ever try to seek attention. Though my work I wish to reach people’s heart. I want to do it tiptoe, silently, and by asking permission if necessary. If they let me in, that’s where I will grow my roots and reside forever.
Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who often addressed in his movies the difficult relationship between man and nature, claims in Grizzly Man (2006) that “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder”. Elsewhere, he describes the Amazon jungle as a never-ending “collective massacre”. As compared to Herzog’s pessimistic views, I have a feeling that you might see nature as a continuum, where any predator-pray relationship is eventually an act of “self-cannibalism”. Species fight and assault each other, but in the end this battle is won by life itself, who as an autopoietic system is capable of finding constant nourishment within itself. Decomposition itself is not bad, as it allows new germinations. What is death to you, and how does it relate to your work?
As far as I’m concerned, death plays a fundamental role, and I find myself constantly meditating on how all is slowly dying. A new sprout is already beginning to die, and that goes for all that’s living. One of the aspects of existence that most fascinate me is its decadence. I am drawn to it, both curious and scared, and my work is perhaps a way to exorcise all the slow dying that surrounds us.
Koko, the female gorilla who could use sign language, besides painting and loving kittens, died on June 19th. But Koko was not the first primate to communicate with humans; the fisrt, groundbreaking attempt to make a monkey “talk” was carried out in quite a catastrophic way, as I explained in this old post (Italian only – here’s the Wiki entry).
Do you need bugs, butterflies, cockroaches, centipedes, fireflies, bees or any other kind of insects for the movie you’re about to shoot? This gentleman creates realistic bug props, featured in the greatest Hollywood productions. (Thanks, Federico!)
If you think those enlarge-your-penis pumps you see in spam emails are a recently-invented contraption, here’s one from the 19th Century (taken from Albert Moll, Handbuch der Sexualwissenschaften, 1921).
Ghanaian funerals became quite popular over the internet on the account of the colorful caskets in the shape of tools or barious objects (I talked about it in the second part of this article — Italian only), but there’s a problem: lately the rituals have become so complicated and obsessive that the bodies of the deceased end up buried months, or even several years, after death.
1865: during the conquest of Matterhorn, a strange and upsetting apparition took place. In all probability it was an extremely rare atmospheric phenomenon, but put yourselves in the shoes of those mountain climbers who had just lost four members of the team while ascending to the peak, and suddenly saw an arc and two enormous crosses floating in the sky over the fog.
What’s so strange in these pictures of a man preparing some tacos for a nice dinner with his friends?
Nothing, apart from the fact that the meat comes from his left foot, which got amputated after an accident.
Think about it: you lose a leg, you try to have it back after the operation, and you succeed. Before cremating it, why not taste a little slice of it? It is after all your leg, your foot, you won’t hurt anybody and you will satiate your curiosity. Ethical cannibalism.
This is what a young man decided to try, and he invited some “open-minded” friends to the exclusive tasting event. Then, two years later, he decided to report on Reddit how the evening went. The human-flesh tacos were apparently quite appreciated by the group, with the exception of one tablemate (who, in the protagonist’s words, “had to spit me on a napkin“).
The experiment, conducted without braking any law since in the US there is none to forbid cannibalism, did raise some visceral reactions, as you would expect; the now-famous self-cannibal was even interviewed on Vice. And he stated that this little folly helped him to overcome his psychological thrauma: “eating my foot was a funny and weird and interesting way to move forward“.
Since we’re talking disgust: a new research determined that things that gross us out are organized in six main categories. At the first place, it’s no surprise to find infected wounds and hygiene-related topics (bad smells, excrements, atc.), perhaps because they act as signals for potentially harmful situations in which our bodies run the risk of contracting a disease.
In Sweden there is a mysterious syndrom: it only affects Soviet refugee children who are waiting to know if their parents’ residency permit will be accepted.
It’s called “resignation syndrome”. The ghost of forced repatriation, the stress of not knowing the language and the exhausting beaurocratic procedures push these kids first into apathy, then catatonia and eventually into a coma. At first this epidemic was thought to be some kind of set-up or sham, but doctors soon understood this serious psychological alteration is all but fake: the children can lie in a coma even for two years, suffer from relapses, and the domino effect is such that from 2015 to 2016 a total of 169 episodes were recorded. Here’s an article on this dramatic condition. (Thanks, David!)
Anatomy of the corset.
Nuke simulator: choose where to drop the Big One, type and kilotons, if it will explode in the air or on the ground. Then watch in horror and find out the effects.
Mari Katayama is a Japanese artist. Since she was a child she started knitting peculiar objects, incorporating seashells and jewels in her creations. Suffering from ectrodactyly, she had both legs amputated when she was 9 years old. Today her body is the focus of her art projects, and her self-portraits, in my opinion, are a thing of extraordinary beauty. Here are some of ther works.
(Official website, Instagram)
The big guy you can see on the left side in the picture below is the Irish Giant Charles Byrne (1761–1783), and his skeleton belongs to the Hunterian Museum in London. It is the most discussed specimen of the entire anatomical collection, and for good reason: when he was still alive, Byrne clearly stated that he wanted to be buried at sea, and categorically refused the idea of his bones being exhibited in a museum — a thought that horrified him.
When Byrne died, his friends organized his funeral in the coastal city of Margate, not knowing that the casket was actually full of stones: anatomist William Hunter had bribed an undertaker to steal the Giant’s valuable body. Since then, the skeleton was exhibited in the museum and, even if it certainly contributed to the study of acromegalia and gigantism, it has always been a “thorny” specimen from an ethical perspective.
So here’s the news: now that the Hunterian is closed for a 3-year-long renovation, the museum board seems to be evaluating the possibility of buring Byrne’s skeletal remains. If that was the case, it would be a game changer in the ethical exhibit of human remains in museums.
Just like a muder mystery: a secret diary written on the back of floorboards in a French Castle, and detailing crime stories and sordid village affairs. (Thanks, Lighthousely!)
The most enjoyable read as of late is kindly offered by the great Thomas Morris, who found a delightful medical report from 1852. A gentleman, married with children but secretly devoted to onanism, first tries to insert a slice of a bull’s penis into his own penis, through the urethra. The piece of meat gets stuck, and he has to resort to a doctor to extract it. Not happy with this result, he decides to pass a 28 cm. probe through the same opening, but thing slips from his fingers and disappears inside him. The story comes to no good for our hero; an inglorious end — or maybe proudly libertine, you decide.
It made me think of an old saying: “never do anything you wouldn’t be caught dead doing“.
I am delighted to present you with a project that I hold dear. In fact, when some time ago I was asked to write an essay for Claudio Romo’s Bestiario Mexicano, I immediately accepted: I never made a mystery of my unconditional admiration for the Chilean illustrator, and I talked about him on this blog on several occasions.
There are many excellent artists, who can strike you for their visionary imagination or their poetic touch; but if these elements are backed with a personal research that is not merely aesthetic, their works rise to a different level.
Such authors are rare.
For this reason, as he will be in Bologna from March 25 to 28 (all the details on Logos Edizioni‘s FB page), I strongly advise tou to go an meet Claudio in person if you have the chance.
With him, you will be able to talk history, literature, art; he will infect you with his passion for Borges and Cronenberg, Kircher and Frank Herbert, Ulisse Aldrovandi and Arcimboldo, effortlessly shifting from the philosophy of language to comic books. He will tell you why Chile is such a liquid land, that it somehow instills a fluid vision of reality in the mind of Chilean people; he will get all excited talking about alchemical etchings, or the sacrality of lucha libre. As with all real great artists, he will amaze you with his modesty and his boundless enthusiasm.
For a person who has such a vast and faceted culture, drawing is not a simple means of “expression” for his inner world, but rather resembles a tool to understand reality. It is a tile within a much larger intellectual exploration, an urgent, inevitable need.
Such authors are rare indeed.
This colorful Bestiario Mexicano Romo has been working on for several years, is now finally published in its definitive, expanded version.
The book represents his personal take on five mythological figures of the Maya tradition which are still common today in Yucatán folklore: the Sinsimito, the Aluxes, the Nahual, the Waay Pop and the Waay Chivo.
Claudio presents us with a fantastical and awe-inspiring interpretation of all these creatures, combining Pre-Colombian iconography with a modern and surrealist sensibility.
In the introduction, I addressed the concept of metamorphosis and the nature of the monstruous, trying to show how – despite these monsters’ apparent exotism vis-à-vis our own tradition – there are several interesting similarities between the Mesoamerican culture and European paganism.
Each monster also has its own in-depth information box, which integrates Claudio’s poetic descriptions of these spuernatural figures: besides defining their aspect, specific powers, behavior and regional variants, I have also tried to explain their anthropological value, the symbolic function served by the different creatures.
I think the book is a little gem (I don’t take any credit for that), packed full with wonderful imagery from start to finish, and Claudio really deserves a wider recognition; in my own small way, I hope my contribution helps clarify that his Bestiario, with all its richness, should not be confused with a simple comic book.
Unfortunately for the time being the book is out in Italian language only. If that’s no problem for you, you can still get your copy of Bestiario Mexicanoon this page.
I look above me, towards the movable hooks once used to hang the meat, and I visualize the blood and pain that these walls had to contain – sustain – for many long years. Death and pain are the instruments life has to proceed, I tell myself.
I’m standing inside Padua’s former slaughterhouse: a space specifically devised for massacre, where now animals are living a second, bizarre life thanks to Alberto Michelon’s artworks.
When I meet him, he immediately infects me with the feverish enthusiasm of someone who is lucky (and brave) enough to be following his own vocation. What comes out of his mouth must clearly be a fifth of what goes through his mind. As John Waters put it, “without obsession, life is nothing“.
Animals and taxidermy are Alberto’s obsession.
Taxidermy is traditionally employed in two main fields: hunting trophies, and didactical museum installations.
In both context, the demand for taxidermic preparations is declining. On one hand we are witnessing a drop in hunting activities, which find less and less space in European culture as opposed to ecological preoccupations and the evolution of the ethical sensitiviy towards animals. On the other hand, even great Natural History Museums already have their well-established collections and seldom acquire new specimens: often a taxidermist is only called when restoration is required on already prepared animals.
“This is why – Alberto explains – I mainly work for private customers who want to preserve their domestic pets. It is more difficult, because you have to faithfully recreate the cat or dog’s expressiveness based on their photographs; preparing a much-loved and familiar pet requires the greatest care. But I get a huge satisfaction when the job turns out well. Customers often burst into tears, they talk to the animal – when I present them with the finished work, I always step aside and leave them a bit of intimacy. It’s something that helps them coming to terms with their loss.”
What he says doesn’t surprise me: in a post on wunderkammern I associated taxidermy’s second youth (after a time in which it looked like this art had become obsolete) to the social need of reconfiguring our relationship with death.
But the reason I came here is Alberto is not just an ordinary taxidermist: he is Italy’s only real exponent of artistic taxiermy.
Until November 5, here at the ex-slaughterhouse, you can visit his exhibition Inanimus – A Contemporary Bestiary, a collection of his main works.
To a casual observer, artistic non-naturalist taxidermy could seem not fully respectful towards the animal. In realuty, most artists who use animal organic material as a medium do so just to reflect on our own relationship with other species, creating their works from ethical sources (animals who died of natural causes, collected in the wild, etc.).
Alberto too follows such professional ethics, as he began his experiment using leftovers from his workshop. “I was sorry to have to throw away pieces of skin, or specimens that wouldn’t find an arrangement“, he tells me. “It began almost like a diversion, in a very impulsive way, following a deep urge“.
He candidly confesses that he doesn’t know much about the American Rogue Taxidermy scene, nor about modern art galleries. And it’s clear that Alberto is somewhat alien to the contemporary art universe, so often haughty and pretentious: he keeps talking about instinct, about playing, but must of all – oh, the horror! – he takes the liberty of doing what no “serious” artist would ever dream of doing: he explains the message of his own works, one by one.
His installations really have much to say: rather than carrying messages, though, they are food for thought, a continuous and many-sided elaboration of the modernity, an attempt to use these animal remains as a mirror to investigate our own face.
Some of his works immediately strike me for the openness with which they take on current events: from the tragedy of migrants to GMOs, from euthanasia to the present-day fear of terrorist attacks.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other artist using taxidermy to confront the present in such a direct way.
A roe deer head covered in snake skin, wearing an orange uniform reminiscent of Islamic extremists’ prisoners, is chained to the wall. The reference is obvious: the heads of decapitated infidels are assimilated to hunting trophies.
To be honest, I find this explicit allusion to current events imagery (which, like it or not, has gained a “pop” quality) pretty unsettling, and I’m not even sure that I like it – but if something pulls the rug out from under my feet, I bless it anyways. This is what the best art is supposed to do.
Other installations are meant to illustrate Western contradictions, halfway through satire and open criticism to a capitalistic system ever harder to sustain.
A tortoise, represented as an old bejeweled lady with saggy breasts, is the emblem of a conservative society based on economic privilege: a “prehistoric” concept that, just like the reptile, has refused to evolve in any way.
A conqueror horse, fierce and rampant, exhibits a luxurious checked fur composed from several equines.
“A social climber horse: to be where he stands, he must have done away with many other horses“, Alberto tells me with a smile.
An installation shows the internal organs of a tiger, preserved in jars that are arranged following the animal’s anatomy: the eyes, tomgue and brain are placed at the extremity where the head should be, and so on. Some chimeras seem to be in the middle of a bondage session: an allusion to poaching for aphrodisiac elixirs such as the rhino horn, and to the fil rouge linking us to those massacres.
A boar, sitting on a toilet, is busy reading a magazine and searching for a pair of glass eyes to fill his empty eye sockets.
The importance of freedom of choice regarding the end of life is incarnated by two minks who hanged themselves – rather than ending up in a fur coat.
The skulls of three livestock animals are hanged like trophies, and plastic flowers come out of the hole bored by the slaughterhouse firearm (“I picked up the flowers from the graves at the cemetery, replacing them with new flowers“, Michelon tells me).
As you might have understood by now, the most interesting aspect of the Inanimus works is the neverending formal experimentation.
Every installation is extremely different from the other, and Alberto Michelon always finds new and surprising ways of using the animal matter: there are abstract paintings whose canvas is made of snake or fish skin; entomological compositions; anthropomorphic taxidermies; a crucifix entirely built by patiently gluing together bone fragments; tribal masks, phallic snakes mocking branded underwear, skeletal chandeliers, Braille texts etracted from lizard skin.
Ma gli altri tassidermisti, diciamo i “puristi”, non storcono il naso?
“Certamente alcuni non la ritengono vera tassidermia, forse pensano che io mi sia montato la testa. Non mi importa. Cosa vuoi farci? Questo progetto sta prendendo sempre più importanza, mi diverte e mi entusiasma.”
On closer inspection, there’s not a huge difference between classic and artistic taxidermy. The stuffed animals we find in natural science museums, as well as Alberto’s, are but representations, interpretations, simulachra.
Every taxidermist uses the skin, and shape, of the animal to convey a specific vision of the world; and the museum narrative (although so conventional as to be “invisible” to our eyes) is maybe no more legit than a personal perspective.
Although Alberto keeps repeating that he feels he’s a novice, still unripe artist, the Inanimus works show a very precise artistic direction. As I approach the exit, I feel I have witnessed something unique, at least in the Italian panorama. I cannot therefore back away from the ritual prosaic last question: future projects?
“I want to keep on getting better, learning, experimenting new things“, Alberto replies as his gaze wanders all around, lost in the crowd of his transfigured animals.
Inanimus – un bestiario contemporaneo Padova, Cattedrale Ex-macello, Via Cornaro 1
Until October 17, 2017 [Extended to November 5, 2017] Facebook – Instagram
The first Bizzarro Bazar Contest ended on Sunday at midnight.
In the last few weeks I found myself facing a problem I, quite naively, had not forseen: I didn’t expect the entries to be so many and of such high quality.
Nearly fifty works, all so diverse and imaginative — I assure you I’m not exaggerating, in a few lines you’ll see for yourself. Choosing just three among them to be awarded was very tough: I hesitated for days, and kept changing my mind, going through all of them over and over. But again, this is also part of the game.
And to me it was not just a game.
This blog is alive by virtue of passion, and even passions sometimes need to be revived: so I owe all of you, who spent time and energy to participate, way more than a simple thank you. The love and enthusiasm you showed during these days gave me more strength than you can imagine.
But enough talking.
Before unveiling the three awarded works, here’s a selection of the others. I cannot post all the entries, so don’t be offended if you do not see yours: in the next weeks I will publicize on social media all the works that couldn’t be included here, with links to the authors.
Alright, let the weird parade begin!
When you really need some sleep, but your parasitic twin wants to keep on reading Bizzarro Bazar.
(Greta Fantini: Facebook, Instagram)
Francesco Barbera contributed with a suggestive short story, entitled The Original Sin, which for its atmosphere reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s narrative style: you can read it here [Italian only].
Breaking news: good old Ed Gein was crazy.
Crazy about Bizzarro Bazar’s merchandise.
(Big Man Illustrator: Instagram)
Giorgia built a real homepage for this blog, complete with HTML code to click through the various categories (the code is not implemented here, this is just the picture). The result is a gorgeous wunderkammer-like collage that would certainly appeal to Terry Gilliam.
The blog as a wunderkammer is also the concept behind Eleonora’s personal artistic vision.
(Eleonora Helbones: Instagram, Facebook)
Embarassing moments: you’re about to waltz with your siamese skeleton, but you forget having hidden your collection of flying eyeballs inside the grammophone. I hate it when that happens. (Domenico Venezia: Instagram)
Sara designed the essential gadget for the stylish, who care about details and who wish to stand out even in the most trivial situations.
Never end up in the morgue again without a customized Bizzarro Bazar toe tag!
(Sara Crimilde: Facebook)
OrcheStrafottente wrote a jingle called Bizzarro Bazar, and performed it on the most unusual and weird instruments: dan moi, practice chanter, hulusi, toy piano, plastic hose, nose whistle, bird call, voices, elephant bell.
This is me, in magician mode.
This is me, in memento mori mode.
(Vicky Void: Instagram)
This is me, in Fiji mermaid mode, the most classic of sideshow gaffs. (A mermaid with a goatee, I say, what is this world coming to.)
(Esoterismo Simon Mago: Facebook)
This is me, in anatomical specimen mode, and subjected to a fitting retaliation.
(Gli inetti: Instagram)
This is me, in voodoo doll mode. Death pulls my strings, but I pull the strings of a second puppet with his features. In your face, Mr. Grim Reaper!
Like saying: we’re all puppets in the hands of death, there’s no way around that, but maybe we can learn to control fear by domesticating it and “playing” with it…. (Kiria Eternalove: Instagram, Facebook)
This is me when I’m invited to a birthday party and I didn’t have time to buy a proper present.
(Il Decimo Mese: Instagram, Facebook)
A wunderkammer necklace, to turn yourself into a walking museum of wonders.
Alice submitted an autobiographical short tale, Story of A. [Italian only], that really moved me: it’s about a moment in her life many of us can relate to — when we discover that our curiosity, often considered too “morbid”, in time can turn out to be our greatest asset.
Cecilia sends her “double” wishes for the blog’s birthday.
(Cecilia Murgia: Instagram)
Long-time reader Pina Fantozzi dedicated a spectacular acrostic to the blog (even if she had some trouble, she says, due to the “abundance of voiced alveolar sibilant affricates“).
The most colorful and psychedelic of the contest entries.
(Elena Macrelli: Instagram)
Lon Chaney, sporting a Bizzarro Bazar top hat, and an authentic little child’s skeleton are featured in this picture taken by one of the greatest human skull collectors and photographers.
(Gnat Tang: Instagram, Facebook)
A chemical-alchemical vanitas drawn by da Marco, who is a wunderkammer antique dealer by trade.
(Marco Genzanella: Instagram, Facebook)
A mysterious crate from Papua New Guinea? What’s inside?
Of course, an exclusive Bizzarro Bazar penis gourd (koteka)! Wear it at the next cocktail party to redefine the concept of ethnic style!
(Mala Tempora: Instagram, Facebook)
Third prize goes to Nicole Beffa who created this skeleton intnto on drawing the Bizzarro Bazar logo.
I was struck by the originality of the technique (pyrography) together with the unusual base material (deer scapula), but most of all by the “meta-narrative” vertigo this work entails: a bone containing a skeleton drawing a skull. Could you ask for more?
(Nicole Beffa: Facebook)
This gouache by Emanuela Cucchiarini, known professionally as Eeriette, is a feast for the eyes and conquered me for its use of color, for the choice of represented “wonders” (those seashells are just beautiful) and for the strong personality displayed throughout the whole work.
(Emanuela “Eeriette” Cucchiarini: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter)
Paola Cera’s oil painting earned the first prize for its essential elegance: the hydrocephalic skull (which has been this blog’s icon right from the start, and always looked to me like a metaphore for a mind ready to “swell” with curiosity) is placed within the picture in a perfectly contextualized way, between the two other emblems of the strange and the marvellous. Such a refined synthesis of circus references and naturalistic and macabre allusions was no easy task; Paola succeeded in creating a work that, in my opinion, is stylistically excellent.
(Paola Cera: Instagram, Facebook)
I wish to express once again my gratitude to all the entrants, and remind you that in the next few weeks I will be posting on social media the many wonderful works that did not appear here.
If you would like to congratulate some artist that in your opinion was unjustly excluded from my Top 3, feel free to do so in the comment setion below.
Imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The “City of Evil”, one of the most violent places on the entire planet. Here, in the past few years, murders have reached inconceivable numbers. More than 3000 victims only in 2010 – an average of eight to nine people killed every day.
So every day, you leave your home praying you won’t be caught in some score-settling fight between the over 900 pandillas (armed gangs) tied to the drug cartels. Every day, like it or not, you are a witness to the neverending slaughter that goes on in your town. It’s not a metaphor. It is a real, daily, dreadful massacre.
Now imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and you’re a woman aged between 15 and 25.
Your chances of not being subjected to violence, and of staying alive, drastically drop. In Juárez women like you are oppressed, battered, raped; they often disappear, and their bodies – if they’re ever found – show signs of torture and mutilations.
If you were to be kidnapped, you already know that in all probability your disappearance wouldn’t even be reported. No one would look for you anyway: the police seem to be doing anything but investigating. “She must have had something to do with the cartel – people would say – or else she somehow asked for it“.
Finally, imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, you’re a woman and you’re an artist.
How would you explain this hell to those who live outside Juárez? How can you address the burden of desperation and suffering this carnage places upon the hearts of the relatives? How will you be heard, in a world which is already saturated with images of violence? How are you going to convey in a palpable way all this anguish, the sense of constant loss, the waste of human life?
Teresa Margolles, born in 1963 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, was a trained pathologist before she became an artist. She now lives in Mexico City, but in the past she worked in several morgues across South America, including the one in Ciudad Juárez, that terrible mortuary where an endless river of bodies keeps flowing through four huge refrigerators (each containing up to 120 corpses).
“A morgue for me is a thermometer of a society. What happens inside a morgue is what happens outside. The way people die show me what is happening in the city.“
Starting from this direct experience, Margolles oriented her whole research towards two difficult objectives: one one hand she aims at sabotaging the narrative, ubiquitous in Mexican media and society, which blames the victims (the afore-mentioned “they were asking for it“); on the other, she wants to make the consequences of violence concrete and tangible to her audience, translating the horror into a physical, universal language.
But a peculiar lucidity is needed to avoid certain traps. The easiest way would be to rely on a raw kind of shock art: subjecting the public to scenes of massacre, mutilated bodies, mangled flesh. But the effect would be counter-productive, as our society is already bombarded with such representations, and we are so used to hyperreal images that we can hardly tell them apart from fiction.
It is then necessary to bring the public in touch with death and pain, but through some kind of transfer, or translation, so that the observer is brought on the edge of the abyss by his own sensitivity.
This is the complex path Teresa Margolles chose to take. The following is a small personal selection of her works displayed around the world, in major museums and art galleries, and in several Biennials.
En el aire (2003). The public enters a room, and is immediately seized by a slight euforia upon seeing dozens of soap bubbles joyfully floating in the air: the first childish reaction is to reach out and make them burst. The bubble pops, and some drops of water fall on the skin.
What the audience soon discovers, though, is those bubbles are created with the water and soap that have been used to wash the bodies of homicide victims in the morgue. And suddenly everything changes: the water which fell on our skin created an invisible, magical connection between us and these anonymous cadavers; and each bubble becomes the symbol of a life, a fragile soul that got lost in the void.
Vaporización (2001). Here the water from the mortuary, once again collected and disinfected, is vaporized in the room by some humidifiers. Death saturates the atmosphere, and we cannot help but breathe this thick mist, where every particle bears the memory of brutally killed human beings.
Tarjetas para picar cocaina (1997-99). Margolles collected some pictures of homicide victims connected with drug wars. She then gave them to drug addicts so they could use them to cut their dose of cocaine. The nonjudgemental metaphor is clear – the dead fuel narco-trafficking, every sniff implies the violence – but at the same time these photographs become spiritual objects, invested as they are with a symbolic/magic meaning directly connected to a specific dead person.
Lote Bravo (2005). Layed out on the floor are what look like simple bricks. In fact, they have been created using the sand collected in five different spots in Juárez, where the bodies of raped and murdered women were found. Each handmade brick is the symbol of a woman who was killed in the “city of dead girls”.
Trepanaciones (Sonidos de la morgue) (2003). Just some headphones, hanging from the ceiling. The visitor who decides to wear one, will hear the worldess sounds of the autopsies carried out by Margolles herself. Sounds of open bodies, bones being cut – but without any images that might give some context to these obscene noises, without the possibility of knowing exactly what they refer to. Or to whom they correspond: to what name, broken life, interrupted hopes.
Linea fronteriza (2005). The photograph of a suture, a body sewed up after the autopsy: but the detail that makes this image really powerful is the tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its two halves that do not match anymore. Tattoos are a way to express one’s own individuality: a senseless death is the border line that disrupts and shatters it.
Frontera (2011). Margolles removed two walls from Juárez and Culiacán, and exhibited them inside the gallery. Some bullet holes are clearly visible on these walls, the remnants of the execution of two policemen and four young men at the hands of the drug cartel. Facing these walls, one is left to wonder. What does it feel like to stand before a firing squad?
Furthermore, by “saving” these walls (which were quickly replaced by new ones, in the original locations) Margolles is also preserving the visual trace of an act of violence that society is eager to remove from collective memory.
Frazada/La Sombra (2016). A simple structure, installed outdoors, supports a blanket, like the tent of a peddler stand. You can sit in the shade to cool off from the sun. And yet this blanket comes from the morgue in La Paz, where it was used to wrap up the corpse of a femicide victim. The shadow stands for the code of silence surrounding these crimes – it is, once again, a conceptual stratagem to bring us closer to the woman’s death. This shroud, this murder is casting its shadow on us too.
Pajharu/Sobre la sangre (2017). Ten murdered women, ten blood-stained pieces of cloth that held their corpses. Margolles enrolled seven Aymara weavers to embroider this canvas with traditional motifs. The clotted blood stains intertwine with the floreal decorations, and end up being absorbed and disguised within the patterns. This extraordinary work denounces, on one hand, how violence has become an essential part of a culture: when we think of Mexico, we often think of its most colorful traditions, without taking notice of the blood that soaks them, without realizing the painful truth hidden behind those stereotypes we tourists love so much. On the other hand, though, Sobre la sangre is an act of love and respect for those murdered women. Far from being mere ghosts, they are an actual presence; by preserving and embellishing these blood traces, Margolles is trying to subtract them from oblivion, and give them back their lost beauty.
Lengua (2000). Margolles arranged funeral services for this boy, who was killed in a drug-related feud, and in return asked his family permission to preserve and use his tonge for this installation. So that it could speak on. Like the tattoo in Linea frontizera, here the piercing is the sign of a truncated singularity.
The theoretical shift here is worthy of note: a human organ, deprived of the body that contained it and decontextualized, becomes an object in its own right, a rebel tongue, a “full” body in itself — carrying a whole new meaning. Scholar Bethany Tabor interpreted this work as mirroring the Deleuzian concept of body without organs, a body which de-organizes itself, revolting against those functions that are imparted upon it by society, by capitalism, by the established powers (all that Artaud referred to by using the term “God”, and from which he whished “to have done with“).
37 cuerpos (2007). The remnants of the thread used to sew up the corpses of 37 victims are tied together to form a rope which stretches across the space and divides it like a border.
¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (2009). This work, awarded at the 53rd Venice Biennial, is the one that brought Margolles in the spotlight. The floor of the room is wet with the water used to wash bodies at the Juárez morgue. On the walls, huge canvases look like abstract paintings but in reality these are sheets soaked in the victims blood.
Outside the Mexican Pavillion, on a balcony overlooking the calle, an equally blood-stained Mexico flag is hoisted. Necropolitics takes over the art spaces.
It is not easy to live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to be a woman, and to be an artist who directly tackles the endless, often voiceless violence. It is even more difficult to try and find that miraculous balance between rawness and sensitivity, minimalism and incisivity, while maintaining a radical and poetic approach that can upset the public but also touch their heart.
I have wrote in the past about how plastic surgery was originally born during the Great War as reconstructive surgery. If a soldier missing an arm or a leg was indeed a familiar figure, the introduction of new weapons during the world conflict led to the appearance of a kind of wounds precedently almost unheard of: the gueules cassées, “disfigured faces”.
Helmets were able to protect the head from granade splinters, but not the face; therefore field hospitals began to receive an unimaginable number of soldier whose faces had been blown away in large portions by the explosions.
It was an injury rarely discussed in the press, where the more iconic and patriotic image of the veteran amputee was considered more suitable, but the numbers speak for themselves: within English troops alone, 41.000 amputations were carried out, as opposed to the 60.500 men who suffered head or eye injury.
One had a higher probability of finding himself without a face rather than without legs.
Practically on every front, experimental procedures were adopted to reconstruct faces destroyed by shrapnel or burned by mustard gas.
In January 1916, at the military hospital in Aldershot, England, pioneer surgeon Harold Gillies encountered doctor Henry Tonks, who was serving as a temporary lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Henry Tonks was a doctor and an artist: besides being part of the Royal College of Surgeons, he also taught drawing and anatomy at the Slade Academy.
Soldiers were sent back from the front in desperate conditions, and Tonks had the feeling that he could not handle, from a professional and humane point of view, such a catastrophe. As he himself confessed in a letter: “I have decided that I am not any use as a doctor“. And in another letter he recounted: “the wounds are horrible, and I for one will be against wars in the future, you have no right to ask men to endure such suffering. It would not matter if the wounds did well but they are practically all septic“.
And as the war progressed, things did not improve. After the Somme offensive, on July the 1st 1916, more than 2.000 patients flooded the hospital: “men without half their faces; men burned and maimed to the condition of animal“.
Thus, when Gillies asked Tonks to document his reconstructive operations by portraying the patients’ faces before and after surgery, Tonks happily accepted, as he was certainly more at ease in the artistic dimension.
To draw portraits could seem redundant, as photographs of the disfigured soldiers were already being taken, but both doctors were convinced that the cold-hearted objectiveness of film could be misleading in respect to the tactile and expressive qualities of a painting.
Thanks to his collaboration with Gillies, Henry Tonks produced a seried of facial wound portraits which still today stands unsurpassed for its emotional impact, scientific interest and subtlety of representation.
Sure, these pastel portraits had first of all a didactic intent, and the author himself did not wish them to be seen by the general public. And yet these works show a complexity that transcends their function of medical illustrations.
To understand how Tonks worked on his subjects, we have an extraordinary fortune: in some cases, the archives still have both his pastel portraits and the medical photographs. We can therefore watch, side by side, two images of the same patient, one recorded on film and the other one composed by the charcoal and colors of the artist.
Comparing Tonks’ drawings with the photographic shots, what emerges is the abstraction operated by the artist, which is meant to remove any hint at the patient’s suffering or interiority. These are accurate works, detached and at the same time compassionate, focusing mainly on the open wound, depicted with an almost “tactile” precision through the stratification of color (a consequence of the artist’s surgical training).
And yet the uncanny quality of these drawings lies in their absolutely modern ambiguity.
What could by all means be a portrait of a normal male face — ordinary traits, well-groomed hair, a knotted tie — becomes somehow “sabotaged” by the presence of the wound. It is as if our gaze, wondering over the painting’s surface, could register all these common details, just to be short-circuited the moment it meets the scandal of the injury. An inconceivable monstrosity, which appears impossible to integrate with the rest of the image.
It is then inevitable for us to fall back to the eyes of the portrayed subject, to his gaze fixed upon us, and to wonder about its impenetrable meaning.
Another peculiarity is the use of pastel, a medium considered “feminine” in respect to more virile, lively oil color or tempera; a choice that in this case allows for the lacerations of the flesh to be rendered in a softer and more tolerable way. What’s more, thanks to the lighter tone of these colors, Tonks provides his subjects with a delicate beauty and tenderness that no photograph could have ever captured.
These portraits seem as vulnerable as the mutilated youth they represent.
Suzannah Biernoff, in her wonderful essay Flesh Poems: Henry Tonks and the Art of Surgery (from which I stole most of the information for this post — you can read it in Visual Culture in Britain, n. 11, 2010) defines Henry Tonks’ works as “anti-portraits, in the sense that they stage the fragility and mutability of subjectivity rather than consolidating the self portrayed“.
Henry Tonks’ studies are set apart from classic medical illustration by virtue of this research of a particular beauty. They do not recoil from the horror they intend to portray, but cover it with a veil of elusive sensuality, in which a face becomes the sign of the uncertainty of existence, and a symbol of the cruelty Man inflicts upon himself.