Quiet visualizations of evil

The genius of Alfred Hitchcock is always being talked about in connection with his mastery of suspense: his ability to create scenes that are exquisitely creepy and psychologically intense without relying on gore and button-pushing (i.e., people leaping out from behind corners and screaming their heads off). I was recently thinking about artists who have been able to pull off the same feat with static images, creating visualizations of evil that don’t rely on violence to get the point across– be it actual violence, the impending threat of violence, or the psychic violence of people screaming or leering evilly at the viewer. What does evil look like when it’s atypically shown at rest?

The first thing that came to mind was the illustrations that John Martin created for Milton’s Paradise Lost. I first saw these in an exhibit at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum in 2002 and got a little chill out of the way that Martin uses darkness and space. Consider Satan On His Throne:


[Click image for larger version]

Martin pioneered the technique of mezzotint, where the artist essentially works on an all darkness-producing plate and scrapes away areas of light. Naturally, this is a great medium for producing images that are somber, obscured, nocturnal, or lonely. Here, the sinister device of those endlessly receding chandeliers creates a suggestion of massive space that’s only dimly revealed – it’s what’s implied and yet not entirely shown that makes the space so imposing. Consider, too, that Martin was somewhat hamstrung by the poem’s depiction of Satan as an ambivalent, not-entirely-evil character (many critics, including William Blake, considered him to be the story’s hero). Therefore, Martin doesn’t get to place a leering, vile devil on the throne (I would even argue that the picture gets both more scary and more relatable if you mentally replace the Satan figure with Dick Cheney’s lolling head and bulging eyes). Rather, what we have is a depiction of awesome strength: “He call’d so loud, that all the hollow Deep / Of Hell resounded.”

Incidentally, I love the device of the throne on top of giant granite ball. Does he simply fly in and land on top, or are there stairs running up the back side? And, if you look closely at the enlarged version, there are tiny human figures inside the throne– are these his evil assistants, more random denizens of hell, or prisoners of some sort? (Maybe I would know if I’d read the poem… but no such luck).


Last week, I came across this depiction of Moloch, a god associated with numerous ancient Middle Eastern and North African cultures, reaching out to accept an infant sacrifice as he was known to do from time to time. I guess this is sort of cheating by the standards I’ve set, in that the fact that a baby is about to be sacrificed creates a clear suggestion of violence… but I would say that the awfulness of this image has more to do with its unnaturalness, the frozen quality of the profiles, the unbelievable contrast between human characters and the god, and the amazing application of color.



The Surrealist artists in general and Max Ernst in particular were adept at creating dream-like spaces – often quite empty and depopulated – that give us the unsettling feeling that something unnamable has just gone very wrong. Ernst’s The Robing Of The Bride:

Toilet of the Bride

Ernst created a lot of pieces by collaging together bits of existing Victorian steel engravings, which had been the reigning illustration style for children’s books that were still kicking around in his childhood. So, there’s a whole other psychological dimension involved when you consider that these dreamscapes were often composed of reconstituted childhood images, such as as this illustration from Une Semaine Du Bonté:



Lastly, Egon Schiele wasn’t the least bit interested in depicting evil. He was just – among other things – giving vent to a smoldering vitality, sexuality and primitivism that had no acceptable outlet in the polite Austrian society of his time. But it’s pretty clear to me in retrospect that he inspired – both with his distinctive line quality and gouache-y water color – the Frank Miller  illustrations in the Dark Knight series that thoroughly gave me the creeps when I was 10, 11 years old:




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