Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman
As we saw in Part 1 of this series, one of the intentions of the Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte was to renew people's vision. By seeking to separate images from mundane responses to them, he used a variety of objects to dissociate the things he painted from the typical ideas about them.
By presenting objects in wholly unexpected contexts, Magritte hoped to make them visible again, present again, new again. In doing so, he sought to renew his viewers' vision again, lifting them out of the malaise of the everyday.
In this series of posts, we identify these techniques and indicate how they have been used in horror fiction and drama to effect disgust and fear. In future posts, we will take a look at how these techniques can be used to generate plot twists.
In such paintings as Polar Light and The Taste of Tears, Magritte uses images of consumption, which is characteristic of the more general category of destruction among Magritte's various techniques.
In Polar Light, mannequin-like female figures stand, one behind another, on different levels, on the left side of the painting, against a landscape of sand dunes, some of which somewhat resemble female breasts. A shell-like shape, or perhaps, a curtain, stands before the lower figure, concealing it from the thighs down. On the right side of the canvas, an odd, dark shape appears, simultaneously resembling, albeit vaguely, a bird and a hank of hair or, perhaps, a coat.
The figures have eroded. The upper figure, behind the lower one, has lost part of the left side of its face, its left shoulder and part of its chest (revealing that it is hollow), and portions of its right side and upper right thigh. The lower, forward figure, is missing part of the right side of its face, both arms, most of its left side, and a sliver of its upper right thigh. The loss of the latter's left arm reveals that the figure is hollow.
The sky above the figures and the odd shape to their left is dark and layered with gray cumuliform clouds.
As usual, Magritte offers no clues as to the meaning of his painting. There is no context beyond the images themselves, and no explanation of how the mannequins were eroded; how they came to be in the desert; what the strange object is that stands beside them; why the peculiar shell-curtain object is there; or what relationship, or “affinity” exists among the items. Mystery is piled upon mystery. Bizarre, unexplained mysteries are frightening for the very reasons that they are bizarre and unexplained.
In discussing the 1960 horror movie Eyes without a Face, Lucy Fischer sees the deterioration of Christiane Genessier's face, following a skin graft performed on her by her father, Dr. Genessier, as reminiscent of “a similar motif . . . found in his [Magritte's] painting Polar Light (1926-1927), in which destruction affects the entire body” (163).
For some, there is another cause of the fear of mannequins, statues, and dolls, the phobia known as automatonphobia, the irrational fear of “humanoid or 'human-like-but-not-quite' objects including mannequins, marionettes, ventriloquist’s dummies, wax figures, [and] animatrix or robotic figures.” A number of horror movies feature such figures, including Terror in the Wax Museum (1973), Maniac (2012), Tourist Trap (1979), Still Life (2005), The Mannequin (2015), and others. A related phobia, pediophobia, which is characterized by an irrational fear of dolls, accounts for such movies as Child's Play (1988) and its sequels.
Jacob Olesen speculates that “dolls have fixed staring eyes [or] button eyes that appear 'soulless pools devoid of any emotion akin to those of a corpse.'” The same could be said for mannequins and “marionettes, ventriloquist’s dummies, wax figures, [and] animatrix or robotic figures.”
Several horror movies, including The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), based on the 1890 novel of the same title, by Oscar Wilde, rely upon consumption or erosion. Dorian's portrait ages and withers as the corrupting effects of his many sins erode the image, rather than the man himself. Instead of consuming him, his evil deeds consume his likeness—until the end of the film, when Dorian inadvertently commits suicide when he stabs his portrait, and his shriveled corpse is found beside the painting, which now depicts a handsome young man in the bloom of health.
The Taste of Tears
The Taste of Tears makes use of two of Magritte's techniques, hybridization, a type of combination, and consumption, a type of destruction. A green shape, half bird and half plant grows among green leaves. The plant and bird grow upon the edge of a cliff, beyond which the sea and the sky, both blue, appear; a brown curtain hangs at the right edge of the canvas, to the left of the hybrid plant-bird (or, depending upon one's point of view, the hybrid bird-plant). A caterpillar crawling on the bird's breast, feeds upon the plant-bird (or bird-plant).
By combining plant and bird, Magritte ignores—indeed, obliterates—the differences between plants and animals, suggesting that, between them, exists some sort of common quality, attribute, or other element. In fact, such organisms as photosynthetic animals do exist: sea slugs, which use “stolen” chloroplasts to photosynthesize; spotted salamanders, by producing pigments known as carotenoids; oriental hornets, which convert sunlight into electricity using the pigment xanthoperin; and pea aphids, which also use carotenoids. (Actually, scientists have yet to determine whether sea aphids are truly photosynthetic animals, although they may be.)
The hybrid creature of the science fiction-horror movie Swamp Thing (1982) may not be as impossible as it might seem! The result of a bioengineering project, scientist Alec Holland is transformed into a monstrous human-plant (or plant-human) creature that lives in swamps. The movie is based on the Vertico-DC Comics character that first appeared in 1971.
Why are hybrid creatures horrific figures? My post, “The Horror of Hybrid Creatures,” offers some suggestions.
To be Continued