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.