The mainstream culture of false optimism, greeting card sentiment and insincere political correctness provoked its opposite number in the form of such phenomena as heavy metal music and the Goth subculture. In visual art, the reaction to pastel-colored banality or the saturated colors of Thomas Kinkade (“The Painter of Light”) took the form of “Dark Art,” a movement born in the late 20th century but with deep roots.
Dark Art is a broad term covering photography, painting, printmaking, sculpture and commercial design. It can crop up on the cover of a Fear Factory CD or in a trendy New York gallery. Dark Art generally embraces nightmarish, unsettling, macabre, even grotesque themes. Dark Art is often inspired by horror literature and film, and can cite as precedents the disturbing visions of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (circa 1500), with its swarm of impossibly hellish creatures, and Francisco Goya’s “Saturn
Eating His Son” (circa 1819), a blood-curdling depiction of an episode in Greek mythology.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the production of other memorably disturbing paintings, including John Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” (1781) and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1895). Even the supposed era of Enlightenment and the Industrial Age were unable to dispel the shadows from the human imagination.
This genre was brought to my attention recently, through an appraisal of a pastel portrait of Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher of pessimism. It was finely executed by the hand of a pro, with precision use of shadow nuanced for mood (decidedly dark) and likely painted no more than 30 years ago. But who would want a portrait of Schopenhauer? It was signed, “Schmill,” and the owner’s father purchased it from the artist in Mexico City in 1976. I was anticipating a body of work consistent with the portrait.
My research into the artist, Jose Manuel Schmill, took me down a dark road, bombarded with images of bug-eyed ghoulish monsters with expressions that scream, smirk, cower and cry – one even smiling at the quizzical viewer who could be thinking, “What did I do? And why is this creature looking at me like that?” Compared to this stuff, my portrait of the dark Schopenhauer was looking almost pleasant. His skillful portraiture shows how well Schmill is grounded in the essentials of representational art. What he has chosen to represent, more often than not, is a violent reaction to beauty in the form of ugly, inhuman faces, seething with pain.
Born in Mexico City in 1934, Schmill spent an isolated childhood at the movies, favoring horror films the likes of “Frankenstein,” “The Wolfman” and “The Mummy.” School, classmates and sports took a backseat to a developing talent of sketching macabre and ghoulish images; wherever his imagination took him, the more horrific the better. His interest heightened as he frequented hospitals, asylums and even the morgue, where he could see the deformities and anomalies of faces ravaged by illness and death. In addition to observing autopsies, Schmill applied his singular talent for hire, illustrating facial defects for a medical book on plastic surgery which earned him a prize from the Library of Congress. Not all of his work was baleful; he earned good money as a portrait artist, gaining a reputation among wealthy patrons for his sensitive depictions of faces.
After receiving a Guggenheim scholarship in 1964, Schmill found some recognition in New York, where he lived for a year. Although for many years finding an audience for his work was difficult, Schmill is happy just to paint. In a 2008 interview in Fangoria magazine, a mouthpiece for Dark Art, Schmill acknowledged frustration in not finding a wider audience, adding, “You need a certain education, a certain knowledge or even artistic tendencies in
order to look at a picture or listen to music.”
Whatever that audience may be, the New York gallery, Last Rites, has become a showcase for Schmill and other artists of the genre. Founded in 2008, the gallery describes its works as “thought-provoking art in contemporary surrealism.”
Surrealism was always concerned with bringing the unconscious to the surface, with creating art from the stuff of dreams. Dark Art is the Surrealism of nightmare. Just for reference, the 1979 movie “Alien” and its demonic image of the title character, looks a lot like this stuff. The alien’s designer, a near contemporary of Schmill, the Swiss Surrealist artist H.R. Giger (b. 1940), won an Oscar for his monster-creature design, which was inspired by his series of paintings, “Necronomicon,” its title taken from the fictional ancient text grimoire, often referred to in the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft.
Giger’s creature creation from “Alien” is recognizable as perhaps the scariest creature this side of hell and helped fertilize the imagination of the coming generation of Dark Artists and their fans. The distinctive style of Giger’s works, which he refers to as “biomechanical,” involves a disturbing amalgamation of machine-like forms and primal human elements. “Alien’s” global popularity has opened many portals for the artist, who has executed sculpture, designed the interiors of nightclubs in Europe and worked on other films, including “Alien Resurrection” and “Poltergeist II: the Other Side.”
His paintings, mostly acrylic or mixed media, come up at auction about once a year, and can sell for as high as $40,000. Last fall, “Stadt I,” a small acrylic on paper and laid on wood, sold at Christie’s in Zurich for $37,530 (hammer). The 23-inch by 11-in
ch dark impression of a cityscape is a finely detailed example of the artist’s biomechanical style. His prints have generally sold at auction for under $1,000.
Dark Art is a genre that has only begun to find definition, but given the unsettled state of the world and the anxieties lurking in our society, it will probably only gain in popularity during the next several years. While it has attracted an avid international audience, it has only begun to gather interest among collectors.
In other words, if you are drawn to Dark Art, now is a good time to begin collecting. Prices in galleries and at auction will likely rise in the future.
About our columnist: Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.