By: Gina Brandolino
When you teach a course on horror stories, as I do, people are always offering recommendations. “See this scary movie!” “Read this terrifying book!” Lately, I’ve even gotten some online horror recommendations (truth be told, these are really scary, and easily the scariest recent additions to my course). But no one has ever recommended any horrifying art to me. In my course, I teach a story by H.P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model,” that is about just that, and through that story I found the work of Henry Fuseli, Francicso Goya, Sidney Sime, and Clark Ashton Smith. I also follow a blog focusing on ephemera relating to the film The Shining from which I learned about the unsettling work of artist Alex Colville, whose paintings are featured in the film. So for a while now, thanks to this course, I’ve been thinking about art and horror.
I’m thrilled to say that my own original piece of art featuring a subject of horror (to my mind, the best, most interesting subject–a ghost!) has found its way to me. This is the art, and below is the story behind it.
My sister Amy is an art historian, and last year, she told me about the artist Vincent Serritella, who had undertaken a project–Project 365–to give away one original piece of art a day for a year. You can read all about Project 365 here. When Vincent decided to make a book about the project, Amy, who had received one of the 365 pieces, offered to write the foreward, and I lent a hand with the editing of Amy’s foreward and Vincent’s introduction. In exchange for my help, Vincent offered to make me a drawing on the subject of my choosing. I knew instantly: I wanted a ghost.
I think it’s a pretty tall order to draw a ghost. Drawing anything supernatural is tough because the artist is competing with what viewers’ imaginations can come up with. But, though there is some variation, there are clear cultural ideas of what devils are supposed to look like. Many monsters have sort of “set” appearances–werewolves, vampires, zombies–but the thing about a monster is that you can invent one, appearance and all, and no one will question its uniqueness (don’t we all do this all the time? I know I do…). But most of the time, a ghost doesn’t appear; that is, we suspect a ghost when there is movement or action but no physical presence. How do you draw that?
Of his drawing, Vincent wrote to me in a note, “I went classic with this one,” and he did. I did a little poking around online and learned that the shrouded ghost was originally an invention of theater. The shroud distinguished the ghost from other characters onstage; the character underneath it, the covering made clear, was not a living one. This convention evolved over time to emphasize the shroud more than the body–in effect, the shroud became the ghost.
This is true of Vincent’s ghost, too–the shroud is the thing. Looking at it, there appears to be a form under there–but is there? And if so, what form? Vincent’s decision not to include the bottom of the ghost leaves the question of whether there are feet or not (and hence, if there is, after all, a form under that shroud) open, eternally unanswered. And check out the right side, where you can make out the shadow of what looks like an arm. Now compare it to the other side, where there is no matching shadow, just a sheet flap. The eye holes, too: Are they vacant? Or are they deep, dark hiding places from which something’s watching? The best part of this drawing is, you don’t know.