It’s Halloween and whether you believe them or not, stories of ghosts, monsters, and UFOs are flooding the internet rn.
Artists are often extraordinary, slightly perculiar, characters, so it’s no surprise that some of them are very into all things ghostly and afterlife.
There are a few paintings that urban legend have deemed “haunted”, like Bill Stoneham’s ‘The Hands Resist Him’ (where the artist recalls that both the gallery owner where the painting was first shown plus its first art critic died within a year of seeing it), Giovanni Bargolin’s ‘The Crying Boy’ (of which copies were found to mysteriously survive fires,) and ‘The Anguished Man’ (made with the blood of an artist that then committed suicide).
We’re rounding up a few spooky stories from art history to give you a fright this Halloween.
William Blake was known by those in London’s wealthy elite as a bit of an odd ball. He experienced visions from a young age, once claiming to see “God put his head to the window” when he was four which spiralled the young artist into a screaming fit. The artist claimed he was visited by a ghostly spirit in the form of a half-man half-flea, which inspired his famous miniature ‘Ghost of a Flea’. When talking to the ghost he learned that all fleas were actually the embodied souls of dead men who were “bloodthirsty to excess”. In a letter, Blake wrote that: “I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.”
Agatha was a medium and travelled internationally to “heal” people and “speak to the dead”. She was never formally trained as an artist, but spoke that she heard a spirit’s voice telling her to buy some paints one day as she got off a bus. She maintainted that “this is the work of different entities who take over and step into my body, directing my hand. I really have nothing to do with it”. While many artists made automative drawings and following their intuition, far fewer believe that the shapes they make are the direct influence of ghosts. She would draw the hands of people who came to visit her as a medium, and fill the hands with faces that the sitters would recognise as people from their lives who had died.
Richard Dadd was a Victorian painter, famous for his works of fairies. Dadd suffered with his mental health throughout his life but in the summer of 1843 he became convinced that his father, Robert, was the Devil and murdered him. Dadd fled to France and tried to kill a fellow passenger. He continued to paint while in prison and his paintings of spirits and fairies have a distinctly eerie quality to them.
Georgiana Houghton was a medium and artist, making “spirit” drawings at seances she held. She maintained that the dead were guiding her hands as she drew. For a while the only spirit guiding her was called Lenny, and then archangels and the ghosts of master painters would help her too. She worked with the photographer Frederick Hudson who used double exposure technology to create “spirit photographs” showing haunting “ghost” figures.
Witnessing the slow deaths of his mother and sister by tuberculosis was a harrowing experience that stayed with Munch for life. His painting ‘The Dead Mother’, isn’t just frightening because of the little girl screaming or the dead woman. In fact, people have claimed to hear a rustling sound coming from the painting – specifically from the mother’s blankets.
Similarly to Houghton and Wojciechowsky, Augustin Lesage believed that his work was being guided by spirits. “I never have an overview of the entire work at any point of the execution. My guides tell me; I surrender to their impulse”. He worked in a coal mine as a child and claimed that, age 35 when down a mine, a voice spoke to him from the darkness telling him that he would become a painter.
Author: Verity Babbs