Can a painting drive a person to madness? While there is no doubt staring at something like Goya’s unnerving Black Paintings for hours might be destabilizing, the powers of derangement in art are mostly superstition. Yet at the University of London’s Royal Holloway, one painting is regularly draped in a Union Jack flag due to an old fear that its gruesome visuals could snap the sanity from a student’s brain.
Edwin Landseer’s 1864 “Man Proposes, God Disposes” has creeped people out since its debut with its dual polar bears scavenging at the wreckage of the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Northwest Passage. One creature has a human rib bone rapturously clenched in its fangs; the other lunges at a scrap of fabric drenched in a blood-red color. William Michael Rossetti mourned it as the “saddest of membra disjecta.” The widowed Lady Franklin was unsurprisingly dismayed, and some even asked if Landseer, known for his noble dogs, was getting a bit unhinged.
College Curator Laura MacCulloch explains: “No one quite knows when the tradition of covering the picture first began but according to an article published in 1984 it seems to have started in the 1970s when a rumour was spread that a student who looked directly at the painting during an exam, went mad and committed suicide.” That student reportedly scrawled “the polar bears made me do it” on an incomplete exam, although there’s no evidence that this is more than urban legend. A replica recently went on view in Calgary in the Glenbow Museum’s Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, reviving the sinister tale.
Supposedly cursed artifacts and art are in almost every museum, from a cursed amethyst held by the Natural History Museum in London, to a cursed meteorite at the Field Museum in Chicago. Myths of madness often swirl around radical art. At an 1874 Impressionism show, one visitor is said to have raged out and bit people on the street.
There’s also the curious case of a painting stabbed in 1913. Abram Balashov slashed the grisly “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan” (1885) by Ilya Repin three times, screaming “Stop the bloodshed!” before he was hauled away to a mental institution. Likely Balashov was already unstable before gazing into the horrible blood-shot eyes of Ivan, but it was reportedly just the most extreme of a series of violent responses.
Both the Repin and Landseer paintings weren’t just brutal images, they also attacked the status quo of their respective countries. Repin depicted vividly royal bloodshed, Landseer exposed the failure of infallible Victorian England. Reports of the cannibalism resorted to by the Franklin expedition riled the country with denial, and the total disappearance of the two ships haunted the following decades of exploration (one of the boats was finally found just this year). Perhaps it’s this gory evocation of total defeat that got the superstition started, an unsettling a message as anything for college students at exams.
Art Problems: How Do I Get a Public Art Commission?
Want to leave a mark on your city or town, but don’t know where to start? Paddy Johnson has some tips.
Rose B. Simpson Embeds Ancestral Histories in Clay
She has taken clay and used it to recall its ancestral roots in Pueblo culture and address the present history of postcolonial recovery and ongoing trauma.
Mondays at Pratt Institute: Weekly Openings of Work by Graduating Artists
Free and open to the public, Pratt Shows celebrate the school’s graduating students. MFA and BFA work on view this spring in Brooklyn, New York.
Quiet Paintings at a Time of Sensory Overload
Where Kim Mikyung’s process suggests an obsessive burrowing into the self, Kim Hyung-dae casts his gaze upward and outward into the sky.
Is the “Free the Nipple” Movement Too White?
Online representations of the activists lean White and thin, creating an image problem for the movement.
LSU School of Art Grants Highest MFA Stipends in the Southern US
With funded assistantships, full tuition waivers, and generous stipends, Louisiana State University helps students lay the groundwork for a successful lifelong art practice.
New “We ❤️ NYC” Campaign Misses the Mark
The recently unveiled design is meant to live alongside the iconic original and specifically address the city, but New Yorkers are not happy.
1,000+ Objects at The Met Linked to Antiquities Smugglers
A report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed hundreds of works once owned by people accused of or convicted of antiquities crimes.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago Offers Summer Art and Design Courses Online and On-Campus
Emerging and established artists can choose from over 50 Adult Continuing Education courses at one of the most influential art and design schools in the US.
Lunar Bead Necklace and Asteroid “Emoji” Head to Auction
Christie’s bizarre sale features other space rocks propped up on stands like sculptures.
Scientists Create the First Full Brain Map of a Fly
The achievement is a giant step toward understanding human neural networks.
IDSVA Offers a Non-Studio PhD in Visual Arts: Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory
With no campus, the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts is a truly nomadic institution, existing everywhere our students and faculty are.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Closes Over Climate Protest
The institution shuttered in advance of an action planned for the 33rd anniversary of its infamous art heist.
Remembering the Migrants Who Died in US Detention
Artist Jackie Amézquita will lead a caravan of trucks with the names of the deceased to LA sites representing systems of oppression and solidarity for immigrants.
That Landseer painting is incredible. Such a flipping-off of Imperial ambitions, and beautifully done. Reminds me a bit of Delacroix’ Lion Hunt, which is tamer politically but makes a similar suggestion: http://c300221.r21.cf1.rackcdn.com/eugene-delacroix-lion-hunt-186061-oil-on-canvas-30-x-38-12-in-765-x-985-cm-1345982807_org.jpg
Doubly interesting when one considers the theory advanced by feminist art historians that animals in Romantic art are metaphorically female. The possibilities are endlessly destabilizing.
Reminds of this painting done during the Crimean war (apologies for the quality), I’ve forgotten the name of the artist.
The Apotheosis of War (1871) by Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin, it took two seconds on Google to find it…
fascinating! I want to see these polar bears
Comments are closed.