Whenever I google terrifying fine art paintings, or horror, or anything remotely related to Halloween, I get the usual list of Caravaggios, Hieronymous Bosch, Francis Bacon, Salvador Dali, Hans Memling, Henry Fuseli... Yes, every single one of them is painted by men. It took me a while to find a list that actually included women until I found one single entry in Mental Floss from 2012 that listed 13 women. I tried finding contemporary artists who paint horror using traditional media, and found a handful of women in digital painting and sculptures/dolls (as in those freaky jointed dolls). It was quite difficult finding women known for painting actually horribly, terrifying, bone chilling stuff until I started asking around. We don't realise how women are under represented in the fine arts until we start to search with purpose, then it becomes glaringly obvious. We become partially sighted when we spend a lot of time on Instagram, or other social media and choose to follow women who are creating incredible works of art, because we are creating our own bubble. But as soon as we start looking at gallery representation, museums, art reviews, etc, it tends to be a field dominated by men in which very few women are able to break into. Like finance, banking, engineering, etc etc etc Anyway, after much searching, here are some of the women who paint themes that will make you flinch, but not look away as they are quite fascinating.
1. Artemisia Gentileschi
This is one of Artemisia's best known works and was painted between 1612-13, approximately ten years after Caravaggio painted his version. Artemisia's artwork is more visceral with Judith's maidservant Abra actively assisting and putting her weight on the Assyrian general. We see two strong women, placid facial expressions, with determination and there's no sign of flinching or disgust. They are doing what needs to be done. There's a struggle and the hands are gripping hair, knife, clothing; blood flows down the sheets. It's a powerful piece and Artemisia was approximately twenty years old when she painted it and was influenced by Caravaggio in her early paintings, to the point that when this painting was sold by Signora Saveria de Simone in 1827 , it was sold as a Caravaggio. Unfortunately, I can't find at which point this painting was actually attributed to Artemisia. If anyone knows, please leave an answer in the comment section.
2. Frida Kahlo
When I think about Frida Kahlo's paintings, I generally imagine flowers everywhere, not this terrifying piece. Frida painted this during a time she was being force fed every two hours. After several surgeries and suffering from numerous illnesses, Frida had become malnourished and thin, so her doctor prescribed her bed rest and be fed pureed food every two hours. In this painting, Frida paints herself practically pinned to her bed, the ever present easel now being used as a support for a funnel though which she is being fed a gruesome concoction of bones, fish, poultry, vegetables and what appears to be an odd looking cat.
3. Herrad of Landsberg
Herrad of Landsberg (aka. Herrad von Hohenbourg) was born around 1130 and was an Alsatian nun and abbess of Hohenburg Abbey in the Vosges mountains, where eastern France borders Germany. In 1159 she started working on the Hortus Deliciarum, an illuminated compedium of all sciences studied at the time. It also contained teachings and philosophies the convent followed with several poems and hymns attributed to Herrad herself with the art created under her direction. It took 25 years to complete and is considered the first encyclopedia ever written by a woman. It also includes a depiction of hell which is rather gruesome. Sinners being tortured by demons who are stabbing, cutting, hanging, force feeding, and even cooking sinners as they are constantly being burnt by the fires from hell. This sort of terrifying vision of hell originated during Medieval Christian times as an art style and had become quite commonplace.
4. Maruja Mallo
Maruja Mallo once said that:
My biggest asset is solitude because it gives me everything. In solitude I am in connection with the Milky Way, with astrology, with astronomy, with Science, with Art, with the Everything. It’s wealth. Man is measured by the amount of solitude he can bear.
Antro de Fósiles was painted in 1930 and depicts broken up skeletons in a damp post-war devastated environment where reptiles are scurrying about, mushrooms are growing and humanity has lost. This painting was considered somewhat prophetic as in 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out, to end in 1939 which was soon to be followed by WW2. However, this piece was inspired by the devastation caused by WW1 and a reminder that war was not the answer. Maruja Mallo was surrealist painter and was friends with Salvador Dali, Concha Mendez, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Maria Zambrano, to name a few.
5. Remedios Varo
A contemporary of Maruja Mallo and Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo was born in Spain in 1908, she then moved to Mexico in 1941 where she remained until her death in 1963. El Encuentro was painted during Varo's last year and like most of her paintings, depicts androgynous subjects in surreal dreamscapes. There was no clear distinction of male and female, and Varo also included animals and odd creatures in her paintings. Her ppieces were generally autobiographical and she generally included herself and friends in her paintings, non-gendered, with psychoanalysis and the female agency. I quite enjoyed Varo's paintings and there's a lot to think about. Each painting is full of meaning and some are quite obvious while others, like El Encuentro, are a bit more mind boggling. I could easily sit for hours looking at it and trying to interpret every symbol and meaning within it. Is it Horror? Is it terrifying like some of the above pieces? If I were to encounter something like that in a dark forest, it would certainly make me freeze in place, or scream and run.
6. Paula Rego
Time to start covering contemporary artists and living artists! Dame Maria Paula Figueroa Rego is a Portugese born artist living in London. Her piece War was inspired by a photograph in The Guardian during the beginning of the Iraqi war, but what makes it especially creepy are the grotesque rabbits, which remind me of Watership Down, the movie that terrified a whole generation of children when it came out. The humanoid doll bodies with the rabbit masks are also reminiscent of Donnie Darko. Having seen Paula Rego's gigantic paintings in person, I can imagine this piece is painted in a similar style and would most likely be the stuff of nightmares, for me..
7. Rachael Bridge
It was hard to choose a painting because all of Rachael Bridge's artwork has deeply disturbing elements. The reason I picked this one is because it feels almost like a close-up of Millais' Ophelia. Unlike Ophelia, though, there are no distractions, no pretty scenery, here you are forced to look at her, observe the details, the blood pooled in her eyes while looking directly at the observer, the flies on her hands, fallen dead petals, the sharp vampire like nails. It feels like she could become one of the undead at any moment and make you regret staring at her and studying her with such intensity.
8. Gail Potocki
I really enjoyed discovering Gail Potocki's paintings; they are truly terrifying and quite dark. And the frames that accompany the original paintings of her Seven Deadly Sins series are absolutely wonderful! Her Symbolist paintings are full of fun details for us to discover as our eyes wonder along her paintings and it feels like you are always finding something new at every glance. This series is quite ghoulish, but also incredibly beautiful as Gail portrays the destructive nature of each sin so viscerally that it practically envelops the viewer and invites them to enter this world and feel as cursed as the characters in the paintings.
Nadezda, aka TwistedMatter, was born in Russia and is now based in the Bay Area, California. I have been following her on Instagram for quite some time and have seen her artwork take on a more dream like aspect as it evolves. More detailed and odder as she delves into the stuff of nightmares. The monsters that lurk in the dark corner of the room and under the bed at night. The dark side of the psyche and the things you'd rather nobody knew about you; the hidden secrets that come out when you think nobody is watching you, or you are surrounded by strangers you hope never to see again. Or the people who feed your worst nightmare and continue to do so because it makes them feel they have some power over you.
There are more artists out there, and they are also sculpting, doing digital art, and other creative ways of bringing nightmares to life. If there any particular female artists that captivate you, please feel free to leave their name and link to their website in the comments section, and why you love them so much!
Great Women Artists with an introductory text by Morrill, Rebecca. Published by Phaidon 2020