‘What is really exciting is when you create a genuinely unnerving experience’: why is the macabre such a potent subject for artists?

Macabre, a selling exhibition being staged in London until December, brings together thrilling and unsettling works that range from Hieronymous Bosch to contemporary artist Benjamin Spiers, whose studio we visit in the short film above

One day in 1900, the artist Alfred Kubin encountered a set of macabre etchings by Max Klinger which made him ‘tremble with delight’. These Gothic nightmares so disturbed him that he later had a psychological breakdown in the theatre: the audience’s faces became ‘peculiarly animal-human; all sounds were strangely alien, divorced from their sources’. Staggering into the night, he was overwhelmed by the ‘dark power which made me imagine strange animals, houses, landscapes, grotesque and ghastly situations. I felt indescribably happy in my enchanted world.’

Kubin had found his subject matter and over the next four decades conjured up a collection of macabre masterpieces from his nervous imagination. His teeming visions of giant slugs with human heads, appalling scaly apparitions and irreducibly strange scenarios taking place in empty space are evidence that many Surrealist ideas were anticipated by the Symbolists.

Alfred Kubin (1877-1959), Männliches Gesicht, circa 1908. Gouache and brush and India ink on paper. 4¾ x 3½ in (12 x 9 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

Alfred Kubin (1877-1959), Männliches Gesicht, circa 1908. Gouache and brush and India ink on paper. 4¾ x 3½ in (12 x 9 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

Follower of Hieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Oil on panel. 24½ x 18½ in (62.2 x 47 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

Follower of Hieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Oil on panel. 24½ x 18½ in (62.2 x 47 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

Some of these fantasies are featured in Macabre, a selling exhibition being held at Christie’s in London from 29 October to 9 December. The exhibition of 60 paintings and sculptures is curated by Private Sales specialist Jakob Angner and the painter Benjamin Spiers, and presents work dating from the 16th century to the present day.

‘The macabre is that moment when you rip off the veil of reality and see things from a different angle,’ says Angner. ‘Over the years it has been an incredibly potent idea for artists.’

‘It calls to mind the experience of death,’ says Spiers. ‘It is something that emerges out of the artist’s subconscious.’

Italian School (18th century), A Grotesque Carnival Procession. Oil on canvas. 18 x 15 in (45.7 x 38.2 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

Italian School (18th century), A Grotesque Carnival Procession. Oil on canvas. 18 x 15 in (45.7 x 38.2 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

The exhibition begins with a phantasmagorical painting by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch — an artist with a mind full of monsters — and ends with a grotesque masked ball by the contemporary painter Genieve Figgis and a psychologically charged work by Paula Rego.

‘It charts the history of the macabre in art, how the subject comes in and out of fashion from the Middle Ages onwards. What is remarkable is how well the paintings hang together. There is a real dialogue going on,’ says Angner.

In medieval times, this theme was most commonly represented by various iterations of the danse macabre — allegorical depictions of skeletons dancing towards the grave that reminded viewers of their mortality. In the 16th and 17th centuries, such images evolved into grotesque carnival processions and Bosch’s hellish scenes.

Paško Vučetić (1871-1925), Hatred and Insanity, circa 1898-99. Oil on canvas. 19½ x 19¾ in (49.6 x 50 cm) (octagonal). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

Paško Vučetić (1871-1925), Hatred and Insanity, circa 1898-99. Oil on canvas. 19½ x 19¾ in (49.6 x 50 cm) (octagonal). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

It was in the Romantic era, however, that the subject gained real purchase: Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein  and Paško Vučetić’s painting Hatred and Insanity (above), inspired by Il Canto dell’Odio (‘The Ballad of Hatred’) by the Italian poet Olindo Guerrini, conjured up the Gothic shadow that thrust forth the anxieties and persecutory fantasies of the 19th century into its literature and art.

George Grosz (1893-1959), Paar im Zimmer, 1915. Oil on canvas. 15⅛ x 20 in (38.4 x 50.7 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

George Grosz (1893-1959), Paar im Zimmer, 1915. Oil on canvas. 15⅛ x 20 in (38.4 x 50.7 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

It took a psychoanalyst at the end of the century to suggest an alternative reading of such visions. When Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams  in 1899, he introduced artists to the potential of the macabre in the unconscious. Painters such as Odilon Redon and Edvard Munch came to see the real world as false and to put their trust in their fears and fantasies.

‘That internal world became a huge inspiration for later modern art movements such as the German Expressionists and the Surrealists,’ says Angner. The exhibition features paintings by Otto Dix and George Grosz that reflect the macabre aspects of the Weimar Republic, while the Surrealists are represented by a dismembered torso by Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst’s troubling birds.

Paula Rego (1935-2022), Wide Sargasso Sea, 2000. Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium. (i) 70⅞ x 96 in (180 x 244 cm); (ii) 23¼ x 96 in (59 x 244 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

Paula Rego (1935-2022), Wide Sargasso Sea, 2000. Pastel on paper mounted on aluminium. (i) 70⅞ x 96 in (180 x 244 cm); (ii) 23¼ x 96 in (59 x 244 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

For a contemporary artist, however, conveying the macabre is not an easy business. The digital world is replete with schlock horror and grotesque imagery. ‘The moment you set down what you consider to be macabre, there is nothing macabre about it — and then something that doesn't seem to have any of those criteria can be as macabre as hell,’ says Spiers.

Benjamin Spiers (b. 1972), Pinkie, 2022. Oil on canvas. 46 x 34 in (117 x 86.5 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

Benjamin Spiers (b. 1972), Pinkie, 2022. Oil on canvas. 46 x 34 in (117 x 86.5 cm). Price on request. Offered in Macabre, a selling exhibition, 29 October-9 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

The artist paints pale, Rubens-like figures, distorted and twisted, hovering in an unfathomable darkness. He is like a modern-day Victor Frankenstein, playing with body parts. ‘What is really exciting is when you create a genuinely unnerving experience for the viewer,’ he says. ‘Then you are speaking to the subconscious.’

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‘I think the oddest aspect of the macabre is that it can be life-affirming,’ says Angner. ‘There is a vicarious pleasure to be had in looking at death in the mind of the living.’

Macabre, a selling exhibition at Christie’s in London, is on view from 29 October until 9 December 2022