by Jacob Wingate-Bishop

Content warning: Due to the nature of the following works of art, and themes explored therein, there is mention of depression, suicide, murder, rape, sometimes graphic displays of violence and other dark subjects throughout this article. This exploration into ‘dark art’ is intended as a learning space for the curious, not somewhere to darken an already conflicted mind. Thank you.

For as long as humans have existed, darkness has never been far behind. The human psyche is, at times, a troubled and violent one; it’s only natural this would carry over into what we create. Art, for all the joy and wonder it can express, is equally the perfect instrument for showing that darker side. Death, depression, decay and despair – all find their places on the canvas, whether it be at the forefront of the artist’s design, or lingering somewhere in the background, ever present.

La Mappa dell’Inferno (The Map of Hell), Sandro Botticelli, 1480-1490

I’ve always been enraptured with this macabre side of art. From wood engravings of biblical volumes to paintings of the great Renaissance and beyond, I find illustrations which showcase the surreal and the terrifying more hypnotic than any water lily, or sun-spilled meadow. Consider this a deep dive into just some of the darkest illustrations to stem from the human psyche, the kinds that will stay with you long after your eyes have moved on. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

It seems fitting to begin our voyage into the dark artworks with where it all began. Creation. Not of all things, in this instance, but the biblical work of Dante Alighieri, who in the early 1300s finished the Divine Comedy, a narrative poem split into three parts – the most famous of which is Inferno. It tells the story of Dante being guided through the nine circles of Hell by the poet Virgil, and sometime in the 1480s, another edition of the Comedy was printed, with illustrations by Sandro Botticelli.

Of the four surviving, coloured illustrations Botticelli did for this edition of Alighieri’s epic, perhaps the most famous is The Map of Hell, a stunning parchment detailing the nine circles of Hell in all their damnation. Botticelli pours over every fiery layer, committing souls in endless torment to the coloured page. It’s an incredibly dark piece and puts into scale the sheer terror of what the Underworld would truly be like for those doomed to call it home.

The Hell section of Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych, 1495-1505

Indeed, Hell is a recurring motif in art, especially in mainland Europe. The Danish artist, Hieronymus Bosch, is best known for his hellish landscapes and depictions of fire and brimstone. Throughout the end of the 15th century, Bosch took on several masterpieces, culminating in the likes of Hell (circa 1490), The Garden of Earthly Delights (1495-1505) and The Last Judgment (1500-1505). These works exhibit surrealist ideas of tormented souls, eternal torture and elaborate punishments, illustrating the wrath of an Old Testament God. The latter is arguably Bosch’s most renowned work, and the hellish part of this triptych deals with scorned minstrels, enormous bird-things half-digesting the wicked, and strange tree-men whose cavities provide torturous shelter.

Bosch is a perfect example of Early Netherlandish painting (among the ‘Flemish Primitives’), a time in artistic history shared by the likes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who similarly drew works of hell-torn terror. His magnum opus, Dulle Griet (1563), focuses on a figure of popular Flemish folklore leading an army of women against the forces of the Underworld. The colours are dark – violent, bloodlike reds mixed with earthy browns and the orange of choking fire. Inhuman, twisted machinations of the land dot the landscape, and buildings – when viewed from a distance – become like giant faces, with mouths for doorways.

Dulle Griet, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

Hellscapes seem a popular feature among Early Netherlandish painters. Another example of this can be found in Jan van Eyck’s Crucifixion and Last Judgment diptych (c. 1430-1440). One of the panels, again, is something from a worst nightmare; a personification of Death outstretches skeletal wings over the squabbling, naked masses of the damned (many of whom can be identified as clergymen). It’s strange to think that painters, well respected in their time, could dream up such nightmarish visions, probing into the underbelly of the human mind, and what horrors might await us down the line.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the style of tenebrism saw a rise in popularity. The word refers to the dramatic use of contrasting lights and darks (also known as chiaroscuro) within the painting, something Italian painter Caravaggio became interested in. This difference of colours in the paintings could illuminate figures as angelic, almost otherworldly, and portray subjects in a more ‘epic’ scale. Nowhere is this better captured than Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1600), a depiction of the biblical tale in which Judith stays with the Assyrian general after a banquet and decapitates him in his stupor.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, c.1600

It’s far from the most horrifying or unsettling painting ever created, but still shows Holofernes’ neck contorted, fingers splayed in shock, the blade half-embedded in his neck and blood spraying across his pillow like ribbons. It’s violent, to say the least, and Caravaggio’s use of tenebrism only serves to highlight the graphic scene.

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781

Moving into the late 1700s, and the Romantic movement was beginning to make its way across Europe, giving rise to a cultural shift in the perception of sciences, intellectual pastimes, liberalism and, naturally, the arts. One such artist of this period was Henry Fuseli, who’s perhaps best known for his 1781 oil painting, The Nightmare.

The Nightmare depicts a woman deep in slumber, an imp-like demon sat upon her chest, face turned toward the imaginary camera. An equally eerie horse appears from behind the drapes of her bed in the background, adding to the piece’s supernatural quality. Some scholars see Fuseli’s masterpiece as a comment on eroticism, and its long-standing connection to the dreamworld. Others simply view the demonic entities as the contents of this woman’s nightmare. Either way, it’s an eerie look into the Romantic movement’s style, and emphasises the focus on portraying emotion in art. Many of Fuseli’s other works, such as The Shepherd’s Dream (1793), The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches (1796) and Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers (1810-1812) are examples of tenebrism, and particularly haunting scenes – fusing dark colour palettes with even darker subject matter.

The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea, William Blake, c.1805

The early 1800s also birthed a series of watercolour paintings from English poet and painter William Blake – his Great Red Dragon works, which dealt with the titular beast from the Bible’s Book of Revelations. Across four canvases, Blake detailed a godlike monster with ten horns, seven heads and seven crowns, trampling upon the earth and exacting divine justice. The paintings are as epic as they are terrifying, once more dealing with desolation on a biblical scale. The watercolours even became a prevalent part of Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel, Red Dragon, which introduced the world to the brilliant – and cannibalistic – Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

And this isn’t the last time cannibalism would be found in artwork, either. Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819) deals with shipwrecks, starvation and survival through feeding of the flesh. In this case, the ‘Medusa’ doesn’t refer to a mythological gorgon, but a real-life frigate that ran aground off the coast of Mauritania two years prior, leading to the death of most of its crew, and ultimately, cannibalism. The incident became a scandal across the world, but particularly in Géricault’s homeland of France – he chose not merely to paint something from real life, but from an incrediblyrecent, harrowing event.

The painting – 16 by 21 feet in size – exhibits fresh corpses, dying sailors and the ‘lucky’ ones left scrabbling in desperation to signal a nearby vessel. Yet, somehow, this isn’t the darkest aspect of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. He was the kind of painter who fussed over every detail, honed every rough edge – wanting to create a piece of art that not only conveyed horror, but the bitter reality of what those shipwrecked sailors faced.

The Raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault, 1818-1819

Géricault would interview several of the Medusa’s survivors, creating preparatory sketches of his finished artwork, and even constructing a detailed scale model of the raft itself. He would study the victims of the incident, studying the colours of their wounds and injuries – so that he could recreate them in oil form, as authentically as possible. He was like the Josef Mengele of Romantic painters, it seems, taking a detached curiosity in the research of his artwork. Ultimately, it would pay off, when The Raft of the Medusa earned him notoriety and praise in equal measure. It remains his best-known work.

But one can’t really write about the great, dark works of art without mentioning Francisco Goya, and in particular 14 works of his created in the waning years of his life, so horrific and so black in nature, they’re dubbed the ‘Black Paintings’. In 1819, at the age of 72, Goya moved into a two-storey house outside of Madrid, suffering from blindness and ill health. In the last, depressive years of his life, the painter constructed 14 works of art, painting them directly onto the walls of his home. These were later chipped off and transferred to canvas under expert supervision – and show old, decrepit men with twisted smiles, dark throngs of sallow faces and little in the way of colour.

Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco Goya, 1819-1823

The most famous of these paintings, and by far the most fascinating, is Saturn Devouring His Son, depicting the Greek myth of Cronos (known as Saturn in Roman mythology) consuming his own child, fearing a prophecy told to him by another deity. Saturn’s eyes bulge terrifyingly – the main focus of the image – as he clamps his hands around the half-devoured, lifeless corpse, flowing fresh and red with blood. Saturn’s hair is grey, unkempt, and he kneels on bony legs, as if kept in some dark, unlit cellar. It’s a truly grotesque image, and yet – compared to many on this list – fairly modest by some standards. There’s little to it, and yet that makes it all the more raw. Imagine scrawling Saturn… on the walls of your own home, staring back at you. Of all the ‘Black Paintings’, this one is arguably the most horrific.

Pandemonium, John Martin, 1841

In 1667, John Milton’s Paradise Lost was first printed; an epic poem exploring the biblical Fall of Man; when Adam and Eve were tempted into eating from the tree of knowledge, and were in turn cast out of Eden. Once again, all things seem to circle back to that grand Creation tale, and between the 1820s-1840s, John Martin created several engravings for a new edition of the poem. They are without a doubt the most beautiful – and stark – illustrations ever created for the story, and remain a staggering vision into the infernal.

In one of these mezzotint engravings, Martin illustrates the terrifying, sprawling citadel of Pandemonium, the capital of Milton’s depiction of Hell. Rocky crags and chasms surround its walls, great fires loom in braziers, and a strange dome rises from its centre. In another, Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council, we see the Fallen Angel himself sat atop a black orb in a council chamber, surrounded by the armies of the Underworld. Martin weaves beautifully dark – yet ornate – hellscapes, showing industry, cunning: a kind of intelligent craft to this realm of demons.

Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council, John Martin, c.1823-1827

Less than a decade later, one of the first significant American landscape painters, Thomas Cole, would create a series of five paintings entitled The Course of Empire. While far from the grotesque, they convey the inescapable fates of all empiresthe birth of a new city, how it flourishes and prospers, before succumbing to war, crumbling into ruin.

Destruction (from The Course of Empire series), Thomas Cole, 1836

They’re each striking images, and undeniably beautiful works of landscape art. But the fourth piece of the series, Destruction (1836), is chillingly dramatic in its reflection of how real-world empires collapse. There’s mindless violence woven throughout, as an army of savages sack the painted city, killing innocents and raping women, setting structures aflame. It’s a truly grandiose display, but one gruesome in nature, and once again, a piece of art inspired by the very real.

Depictions of Hell and the fall of Man were hardly going to fall out of fashion, at least as far as the arts were concerned. Once again, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy was the source for dark, but brilliant inspiration. French printmaker and artist Gustave Doré provided illustrations for many publications in his life, but those he undertook between 1861-1868 for Dante’s epic would prove breathtakingly beautiful in their capture of sin and betrayal. His clashes of Lucifer’s legions against faithful angels are flawless; there’s a righteous anger in them, and yet grace – embodying each heavenly figure with a kind of vicious elegance.

The Death, Gustave Doré, 1883

Similarly, Doré made wood-engravings for another edition of the Bible, as well as poems such as Poe’s legendary The Raven – all are captivating in their imagery, particularly one personifying Death as a lone, skeletal figure sitting upon the moon. There’s a more subtle unsettling nature to Doré’s work, and one which showcases beauty in the darkness.

Likewise, Francis Danby, an Irish painter of the Romantic era, drew heavily from scenes biblical in scope. 1840’s The Deluge, for instance, is a spectacular, 15 foot depiction of a Godsent flood. A mass of scrabbling sinners try to escape the Heavenly wrath. It’s a terrifyingly real piece of dark media, as is The Shipwreck, which Danby would unveil nineteen years later. Both are epic in scale, and show Man decimated by the absolute power of Mother Nature. Wooden hulls and naked bodies are thrown against jagged rocks, and you can feel the impact in every brushstroke.

But it’s not just hellscapes and bible stories which make dark artwork what it is. Painters don’t always need to rely on expressing cannibalism, rape or murder in pigment to create something… off. Take Richard Dadd’s The Fairy-Feller’s Master-Stroke, created over a decade in the mid-1800s. It shows a parade of fairy-folk among a dense thicket; the scene is rich in earthy browns. And yet it’s more than just a dark painting of something supernatural. There’s a strange mystique to it, an elegant spiritualism in its hues and brushstrokes.

The Deluge, Francis Danby, 1840

The same can be said for much of van Gogh’s work, particularly those concerned with night skies. In 1888, the Dutch painter embarked on a project which would later become Starry Night Over the Rhône. A year later, and he conceived one of the most famous works of art in the western world, The Starry Night. Both are instantly recognisable from the way van Gogh sculpts the night sky. Long, sweeping, tendril-like ribbons of blue slither and slide across the canvas, ending in yellow, sun-like orbs. You can tell one strand of sky from another, from the clouds, from stars, and yet they almost seem animated before our very eyes.

They look alive, in some way – like there’s a sentience in the sky above, something enchanting. Is it an infinitely ancient force, or something innocuous and mystical? We don’t know, but it shapes nature to be something larger than ourselves; that’s what van Gogh perhaps captures best of all. And thus his landscape works have something of a mystery to them, an elusiveness. They’re not ‘dark’ as such (especially in colour), but they suggest something more to the world than what rests on the surface.

The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Isle of the Dead, Third version, Arnold Böcklin, 1883

Throughout his life as an artist, Arnold Böcklin – a prime example of the symbolism movement, which rejected realism – created several versions of his magnum opus, Isle of the Dead (1880-1901). In all its incarnations, the painting shows an islet in an expanse of dark water. A small rowing boat glides toward it, thought to be carrying a coffin, and the island itself is inhabited solely by a copse of cypress trees. Bocklin produced five versions of the painting in all, and each share the same, haunting, almost nightmarish quality about them.

From the specific type of trees represented to the festooned coffin and a solitary oarsman, the connotations of death surrounding the painting – not to mention the title itself – are extensive. And yet, there are no overt depictions of violence or decay to speak of. It’s a gentle painting, ‘dream[like]’ as Böcklin himself once described it. The skies are troubled, the islet is dark, and yet there’s a stillness to everything. A quiet resignation of what comes for us all.

Yet ‘still’ is far from the nature of Edvard Munch’s expressionist masterpiece, The Scream, composed in 1893. There are multiple theories as to what prompted Munch to paint the stark image, ranging from the aftermath of the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa just a decade prior, to the real-world location’s (a fjord overlooking Oslo) proximity to an asylum, or the fact that Munch’s sister was put into a mental hospital around the same time.

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893

Whatever the influence, in the waning years of the 19th century, Munch created one of the most iconic pieces of art ever made. And how creepier could it be? It’s a striking image; a strange figure wide-eyed, screaming, against a blood red sky. In the painter’s own words, he had been taking a walk in a similar setting, when he sensed an ‘infinite scream passing through nature’. Beautiful. Poetic. Horrifying.

The fact that we don’t know the reason for this figure’s terror is all the more hypnotic. What could strike such fear into someone’s heart, and why does this person look so… inhuman? Some have interpreted the composition as a symbol of depersonalisation, the distortion of oneself and the world around them. Whether it’s internal or external, the darkness in the image is all too clear.

Salvador Dalí is, of course, known the world over for his staggering surrealist paintings – most notably, 1931’s The Persistence of Memory (or ‘melting clocks’, to use a colloquial term). And whilst a lot of his works deal with vibrant colours and seemingly disconnected, bizarre subjects, many of them show a darker side to the Spaniard’s psyche.

The Face of War, Salvador Dalí, 1940

Take one of his lesser-known works for instance, a tribute to Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (an idol of Dalí’s), The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table (1934). Dalí’s work shows the subject of Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (1666-1668), but with disturbingly long, spindly limbs, staring off into some barren wasteland. In 1936, Dalí would create Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), one of his most surrealistic works, which borders on the incomprehensible. It’s bizarre, and supposedly represents the horrors of the Spanish Civil War six years before it even began – Dalí would claim to have prophesised the conflict in his dreams.

The Burning Giraffe (1937) is another macabre piece of his, but perhaps his most terrible came in 1940, when he produced The Face of War. Dealing with the death and decay of human conflict once more, it details a withered, disembodied head in the desert, with similar faces in its eyes and mouths, continuing ad infinitum. It’s a deeply off-putting painting, but all-too poignant a reflection of war and violence.

Dalí would create more unnerving, strange works in the years ahead: spider-legged elephants carrying obelisks upon their backs (The Elephants, 1948) and a vertigo-inducing depiction of Christ upon the cross, set against a black void (Christ of Saint John of the Cross, 1951). But he certainly wouldn’t be the last creative to explore the dark side of art, indeed not even the last to use the medium to explore atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War.

The Elephants, Salvador Dalí, 1948
Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), Salvador Dalí, 1936

In the early 20th century, the artistic movement of cubism became popular. Cubism sees its subjects broken up, disassembled into smaller pieces, and then viewed within a greater context. Undeniably the most prolific figure of the period was Pablo Picasso, whose works such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Girl With a Mandolin (1910) embody all that was bold, confrontational and powerful about the cubist movement.

And yet in 1937, Picasso completed one of his most legendary pieces, and one which owes as much to Dali’s surrealism as it does to cubism. As Dali was painting burning giraffes and Soft Construction…, Picasso slaved away on Guernica, an 11-by-25-foot canvas detailing the bombing of Guernica, a country town in Spain that was left devastated by fascists on the 26th April that year. The enormous painting showcases a dying horse, screaming women, dismembered combatants, bodies of babies and raging flames. It’s a modern-day hellscape brought to life, and helped bring attention to the Spanish Civil War, which would clatter on for two more, blood-soaked years.

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937

A year later, and Frida Kahlo – a prolific painter known for her extensive portraits – would create the nightmarish Girl with Death Mask, thought to be of herself as a young child. The girl wears a skull mask (the type common in traditions like Mexico’s Day of the Dead), with another, wooden and resembling a tiger, at her feet. But there’s something deeply wrong with the painting. Though she holds a bright yellow flower in her hand, and the landscape behind her is Rockwellian, there’s no innocence to be found here.

Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Diego Velázquez, 1650

The skull mask almost looks too real to be just that. The way it clings to the girl’s cheekbones and features makes it tight, as if it’s her real face, and the wooden one by her feet is incredibly frightening for a child’s plaything. It’s a haunting composition, and an example of how when light meets dark, the effects of either can be amplified to a monstrous degree.

If Irish-born painter Francis Bacon had written an autobiography about his life’s work, it would probably be called, Screaming Popes. Fortunately for us, Bacon didn’t write books because he was too busy painting, well, screaming popes. One of Bacon’s most beloved works (though it’s worth noting he doesn’t possess the same legacy as Picasso or Dali) is the aptly named Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953).

In 1650, Diego Velázquez painted what many critics, experts and acolytes of the easel consider to be one of the finest portraits ever produced, the subject Pope Innocent X. It shows a man for exactly what he was: a figure of power, sovereignty and dignity, but one unreservedly showing his age – someone who, at that time, was in his mid-70s. At once, it portrayed the Pope for who he was, andwhat he signified.

Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Francis Bacon, 1953

In turn, one of Francis Bacon’s most revered pieces – one of his most striking – takes that worshipful figure and turns it into something unrecognisable. The once-bright, crimson vestments of Innocent X wither into delicate, darker purples. The papal figure seems trapped in some bizarre, three-dimensional cage, highlighted by harsh yellow lines. There are cracks, or folds, in the painting, obscuring some of the subject’s face. And what we can see shows a man screaming in absolute terror. We don’t know what is part of the man himself, and what is merely abstract embellishment. But everything about it is unsettling.

Study After… is just one of Bacon’s ‘Pope paintings’, in which the same figure is subject to an unseen, terrifying evil. The face would always be obscured, perhaps trailing off into the ether, surrounded by some glass cage or box. There are themes of isolation, insanity, and darker colours are favoured. It is almost the antithesis of what Velázquez was trying to do.

The motif of the screaming face, especially, is one that would become a signature of Bacon’s. He would take inspiration from a photographic still of the 1925 silent film, The Battleship Potemkin, which shows an injured nurse, mouth a gaping maw, with blood streaming down her face. Like Géricault and his pursuit of the real in Raft of the Medusa, Francis Bacon drew on some level of authentic inspiration (albeit from a movie) to create his terrifying visions. Of all the depictions of a human scream I’ve seen in media, it’s Bacon’s Study After Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X that truly petrifies me. It’s uncanny, and that’s where its darkness is born.

Untitled, Zdzisław Beksiński, c.1970s

Another painter prevalent throughout the mid-20th century was Polish dystopian surrealist Zdzisław Beksiński. His works are largely untitled, but you’d be hard-pressed to find words to accurately sum up their desolation. Rust-coloured backdrops, long, skeletal figures, snapping, multi-jointed limbs and burnt-out, hollow skylines. The natural (or unnatural, if we’re being honest) bleeds into the man-made. Bodies are indistinguishable from the landscape, a quality shared by much of H.R. Giger’s work. Giger would be renowned for his work on the 1979 classic, Alien. He even conjured up the titular creature.

Both artists’ work is undeniably dark, where figures are often stripped of any unnecessary flesh, and reduced to the bare minimum. Eyes are wide and hollow, and showcase some kind of dystopic future. Beksiński’s output especially is like something from your worst, not-fully-formed nightmare. And the machinations of both artists would go on to influence the 2022 biopunk survival horror game, Scorn.

Untitled, Zdzisław Beksiński, c.1970s

Art takes on many forms; it’s more than just the paint and the palette. All things created come under that broad umbrella, but perhaps the purest form of art is music. Everyone likes music. Everyone has that one song which evokes something incomprehensible – a feeling there isn’t any kind of word for. Music transcends the material world. So it’s no wonder that a lot of great, enduring music has interwoven itself with darkly profound artwork.

Album cover for In the Court of the Crimson King, Barry Godber, 1969

Take the album cover of King Crimson’s progressive rock staple, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969). Artist Barry Godber (a friend of the group’s lyricist, Peter Sinfield) creates this grotesquely visceral human face, mid-scream, eyes uneasy at something out of shot. The limited use of colours – blues and pale reds – add to the ephemeral nature of the whole piece. It’s an iconic album cover, and one which stays with you for all the worst reasons.

Inner gatefold art for Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, Barrington Coleby, 1971

One of my favourite pieces of artwork – that’s bleak more than gruesome or downright scary – is ‘The Hermit’, which finds itself in the inner gatefold sleeve of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album (1971), their best-selling and most renowned. Barrington Coleby’s contribution to rock music is a sparse, darkly beautiful piece, inspired by the titular card from a tarot deck, and showing an old, robed man alone on his mountain, lit solely by a lantern and looking down at the wilderness around him. It’s isolated, solitary, embodying a kind of peace, whilst at the same time showing how absolute darkness can be, and how small the light can be at times. And how can any of us forget the truly abominable artwork and animation of Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979) and it’s accompanying feature film?

As can be seen from so many entries in this short history, surrealism is one of the best ways of confronting the darker parts of the human mind, and putting it on canvas; letting others see and feel what the artist feels. Only when we break down the limiting barriers of the physical universe can we explore that which lies somewhere else, in the conceptual, where the human mind thrives.

Acclaimed film director David Lynch, responsible for defining works such as Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980) and Mulholland Drive (2001), is notorious for his strange, surrealist depictions of the world. But this translates into art away from the camera, too. Inspired in part by Francis Bacon, a lot of Lynch’s artwork – which he has worked on for as long as he’s made movies – deals with a sinister, ‘off’ perception of the real world, a cynical view on what’s really there.

Through cryptically-titled works such as Billy Sings the Tune for the Death Row Shuffle (2018) and Squeaky Flies in the Mud (2019), we see alien black pyramids, congealed pools, dismembered bodies and shadow people, with an emphasis on the dark (in both colour and content). Lynch’s creations view the world through uneasy eyes, resulting in pieces as baffling as they are strange. It’s a far cry from water lilies or sunflowers and, in my view, holds more depth than either of them.

It’s easy to see paintings – and the idea of ‘art’ in general – as something of the past. Contemporary or ‘modern’ art is easily viewed as throwaway, unambitious and pretentious for its own sake. Whilst it’s difficult to disagree with that argument at times (my mind conjures up images of sharks in formaldehyde and porcelain urinals), there’s still darkness to be found in the world, particularly in art form.

The Anguished Man, unknown painter, unknown year

Beginning in 2010, Sean Robinson went about documenting a painting he inherited from his grandmother, through various YouTube videos. The artwork, named The Anguished Man, is a truly hellish imagining of a lost soul, with an equally haunting tale. Supposedly, its original painter mixed his own blood into the pigments used, and committed suicide shortly after it was finished. It’s a far-fetched story, with Robinson claiming the work itself to be haunted, but one thing’s for sure: whoever painted it was clearly overcome with utter horror, and it shows. The figure’s scream is Bacon-esque in nature, echoing decades of downward spirals into the underbelly of the human psyche.

Are there other pieces of ‘dark artwork’ out there in the world, undiscovered, or overlooked by the wider world? Almost certainly. This is no comprehensive guide to all the ways humans have expressed fear or death upon the canvas, but it’s proof that – for as long as we have walked upon the earth – we’ve felt some inescapable need to convey the festering horrors of our minds.

We are living in a world where mental health issues are becoming commonplace, where nearly 15% of the English population are on some form of antidepressant. We feel anxiety, depression, disillusion and discontent with systems of government, with other people, with war, famine and genocide. We feel uncomfortable in our skins, and we grow paranoid with others. There’s a great malaise on all of us, a fog that just won’t lift. It’s no wonder that – whether for escape, expression or mere amusement – we use art as a way to show that, to confront those demons, and paint them for all the world to see.

There is beauty in dark art, a timelessness in it. When all flowers have wilted, beautiful landscapes choked with pollution and loved ones laid to rest, those demons will remain. That raft will carry on crashing against the tide, and popes will sit in their thrones, screaming. Darkness is eternal. It is hypnotic, it is absolute, and it can be beautiful.

But remain ever wary. Remember the words of Nietzsche, uttered many moons ago, ‘When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.’

Starry Night Over the Rhône, Vincent van Gogh, 1888