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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Monster Art

Medusa, 1598, Caravaggio
Those of us who are fond of movies, in our younger years at least, and especially those of the male persuasion, probably also had similar fondness for scary movies. I recall particularly one of my favourites, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. There was also The Blob and, of course, all the Godzilla and King Kong movies, as well a flock of 1950s shock schlock having to do with creatures mutating from exposure to nuclear radiation. Before that there was Dr. Frankenstein's monster, Count Dracula, and the Zombies or The Mummy, which has been remade. Also in more recent years, we have at least two werewolf movies I can think of plus Jaws, The Fly, and Arachnophobia, not to mention Steven Spielberg's Jurassic dinosaur series. If nothing else, such movies were great "date flicks" in that they guaranteed a very close, clinging relationship in the movie theatre.

The Chimera, 1867, Gustave Moreau,
a monster too gruesome to be depicted.
We might have a tendency to think that such perverse entertainment was invented by the warped minds of Hollywood producers to scare the bejeebers out of adolescent moviegoers while at the same time keep then coming back to be scared and re-scared again and again. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Such monsters have been the horror of men's minds probably since cave men first sat around campfires like prehistoric boy scouts. Greek mythology is full of them - starting with Pegasus, the relatively benign winged horse who sprang from the not so benign snake-haired gorgon Medusa (top). Pegasus was ridden by Perseus (left)  who destroyed the Chimera, a monster possessing a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail. Let's see Hollywood top that!

The Unicorns, 1887, Gustave Moreau
Not all the creatures from Greek and Roman mythology were so frightful. Painters have long given us gentle images such as Gustave Moreau's The Unicorns (1887) and Piero di Cosimo's A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (c. 1495). A satyr, by the way, is half man, half goat, not to be confused with a centaur which is half man, half horse, or a Minotaur which is half man and half bull. Picasso's 1936, Minotaur and Dead Mare paints a not so pretty picture of this breed of monster. From the Egyptians, we get the Sphinx, half man, half lion, or at least he was until English artists got hold of this particular creature and changed his sex, turning into a beguiling temptress (now that's really frightening). Add to this any number of manifestations of the ever-popular dragon starting with Paolo Uccello's St George and the Dragon (below, left, c. 1460) and ending with Ingres' Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica (below, right, 1819), and you have quite a horrific zoo of genetic crossbreeds. It's no wonder we hold in horror today even the thought of what modern mad scientists might do once they get their hands on the genetic code.
St. George and the Dragon, 1455,
Paolo Uccello
Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica, 1919,
Jean Auguste Ingres

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