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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

The Art of Darkness: A Treasury of the Morbid, Melancholic and Macabre by S. Elizabeth

As the title suggests, this is a dark book – dark in tone, and often dark in colour too. The dedication hints at what’s to come and who the target audience is:

“For the weirdos and freaks who … saw things differently, felt things deeply, daydreamed darkly. This world of strangeness and beauty has always existed for us.”

Elizabeth cautions in the introduction that some of the content might provoke distress or discomfort, with subjects such as mental illness, violence, disease, suicide (and other causes of death) covered. The single word titles of some works are stark and evocative – Sickness, Erasure, Victim, Anxiety, and Grief.

There’s very little in the book about the somewhat mysterious author S. Elizabeth, other than clues shared in the dedication and acknowledgements. Clearly she is fascinated by all things morbid, melancholic and macabre, and has done extensive research about how and why such themes have been – and continue to be – portrayed by artists over time, as well as the use of related symbolism. On her Unquiet things blog Elizabeth describes herself as “a Florida-based writer and blogger, rambling about art, music, fashion, perfume, anxiety, and grief – particularly as these subjects intersect with horror, the supernatural, and death”. The reading list provided at the back of the book includes not only material offering more information about some of the topics Elizabeth refers to, but also some of the books Elizabeth enjoyed while writing her own book.

The Art of Darkness is divided into four main parts – It’s All in Your Mind, The Human Condition, The World Around Us, and Visions from Beyond – with three chapters in each part. Over 200 artworks are featured. They range from the copy of the bronze head of Hypnos, dated as 1–2 century CE, to works created in 2020 and 2021. Quotes prefacing each chapter come from both historical and contemporary figures, drawing on their poetry, novels, lyrics and other sources. Those quoted include Plath (“Dying is an art, like everything else”), Van Gogh, Nirvana, Wilde, and Billie Eilish.

As well as works in traditional media – such as oils and watercolours – many other media are represented, including photography, digital art, crochet, sculpture, woodblocks and etchings. One artist apparently used toothpaste from time to time. There’s a resin bird knuckleduster by contemporary sculptor Darla Jackson, which Elizabeth describes as “an implement of fairy-tale violence both cute and intimidating”.

Many of the artists are well-known – Kahlo, Magritte, and Picasso, for example – others less so. Some works I expected to see were not included – Dürer's Melencolia and Knight, Death, and the Devil were surprising omissions. I didn’t recognise any New Zealand artists in the collection, although works by artists such as Bill Hammond, Ronnie van Hout or Tony Fomison would fit the key themes of the book well. Alongside many artists from the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States of America, there are also artists from other cultures and countries, including Iran, Kenya, South Africa, Japan and Argentina. Elizabeth references many influential art movements, including Existentialism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Cubism and Italian Futurism. More explanation is provided about some than others, perhaps assuming that readers have a certain familiarity with these movements already.

Elizabeth is fond of dramatic adjectives, variously describing particular artworks (and/or what they depict and likely reactions to them) as nerve-wracking, nail-biting, gore-soaked, desperate, and deeply scarring. At times I found the intense and subjective descriptions within some chapters less informative and compelling than the more succinct captions accompanying each image. Elizabeth encourages readers to carry out their own analyses of the images and to look – or ‘listen’ – to the art for a different perspective. “How would this art sound?” she asks, “How can we recognize, reconcile and reckon with … darkness within ourselves?”, “How can these works speak to inequities in accessing care, and alternatively, how can they give a voice to the sick?”

Despite the sombre focus of the book, some of the artworks are inherently beautiful, such as de Heem’s Vase of Flowers. Elizabeth explains that the “the transient beauty of flowers … was commonly used metaphorically to remind the viewer of the temporality of life”. Works such as Koson’s Crow and Blossom also have a stark beauty.

The cover image (Eckman-Lawn’s Antiquity V) is both striking and intriguing, although not repeated within the book. However, it’s a challenge for art books to replicate colour and detail faithfully – very few reproductions can compare with the scale and intensity of the original. Although many of the artworks are stunning – Hirst’s diamond encrusted platinum skull, for example – the finer details of many others are lost in the matt and sometimes dull-coloured or shadowy images throughout the book. Online searches of some works revealed ‘lost’ details that brought the works to life and gave me a greater appreciation of the artwork: I discovered the gently floating bubbles in van Kessel the Elder’s Vanitas Still Life, the eerie hooded and bowed heads of the figures in Oehme’s Procession in Nebel, and the raised frieze on the cauldron in Rosa’s Human Frailty. Yet perhaps this is one of the intentions of the book – to raise awareness and encourage readers to seek out better, higher resolution versions of an image, or even to track it down in real life. Although not all works are currently on view in the galleries, museums or other institutions that house them, it would be helpful to have their usual location included with each caption. The list of picture credits at the back of the book provides some of this information.

The captions are in small print, and some pages have thin black text on a grey background, which may prove a challenge for readers with poor eyesight or those who read in low light.

The Art of Darkness would appeal to those who share Elizabeth’s fascination with the ghoulish, as well as students of art or art history and others who appreciate thought-provoking art and analysis. It would also be a perfect gift for a Halloween party host.

Reviewer: Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Allen & Unwin


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