Perceptions of the monstrous

Molly Innes looks at artistic representations of monstrosity and self

Edvard Munch "Vampire" (1894) (Wikipedia Commons)

Artists hold up a mirror for us to see ourselves within their frame, and we decide which bits we relate to and which we don’t. Monsters are a prevalent image within art. Yet, what constitutes monstrous is never really fixed. Monsters are not human – or so we are led to believe. However, the minute a person does something bad, they are labelled as a ‘monster’ – see Trump, or Philip Green, for example.

Definitions of ‘monster’ vary from ‘a large, ugly, and frightening imaginary creature’ to ‘an inhumanely cruel or wicked person’. If the latter creates the former, who is the real monster, and what does this reflect about society?

If you look at Leon Kossof’s ‘Self Portrait’ (1952), you do not only see the artist, but an impression of Frankenstein’s monster too, drawing from the 1931 film; a large raised forehead and similar facial features are discernible. I’m not suggesting that Kossof is ‘an inhumanely cruel or wicked person’, but in creating his image in this style, there must be an embedded sense of self that is not wholly positive. Perhaps intentional, but maybe not. Regardless, the blending of the human with the monstrous within self-portraiture is intriguing as it provides insight into the artists’ distorted sense of self. Even more intriguing is what would bring an artist to create such a depiction in the first place.

Although Andy Warhol’s ‘Self Portrait with Skull’ is not as macabre as Kossof’s, he still creates an image that intended to disturb the viewer. He places the skull next to his own head and makes the viewer examine what may be the ‘true self’ – what we will turn back into. The skull is a common motif for horror, mainly because it reminds us of our own mortality. We can all relate to Warhol’s image.

Visual depictions of monsters vary, even when they are well-known, canonical monsters. If we look at vampires, present within many art forms and images, they are often depicted as seductive temptresses. In Munch’s ‘Vampire’ (1985), it is unclear whether the vampire is biting or kissing her victim.

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Stoker’s book, Dracula, came two years later, which established a different vampirical image. The 1922 film Nosferatu depicted Count Orlok – based on Dracula – as possessing human characteristics, but still different. We can trace this depiction to present day, with Lady Gaga’s Countess in American Horror Story ‘Hotel’. Her image takes vampires back to the seductive portrayal used by Munch, recasting the vampire in modern light. Her monstrous abilities are not immediately visible, arching the modern-day monster further towards its ‘inhumane and wicked’ definition.

Some monsters don’t need to have their image adapted over time in order to remain relevant in popular culture. The clown motif remains terrifying. The influence of the clown as a monster is one of human conscience, an image that is supposed to be funny – but isn’t. That surely says something about us all. We have witnessed an image that should be joyful morph into one of terror and evil.

The painted red smile, the arched eyebrows, the dreadful star: perhaps flows are monsters because they are trying to create an image of humanity that is not realistic. We do not constantly smile, so the fact that a clown always does highlights their inhumanity. Pennywise the dancing clown from both of the 1990 adaptations and the 2017 reincarnation of Stephen King’s It highlights the terror that can be generated by recycling the same image. The 2017 adaptation was just as terrifying as the first, even if we knew what to expect with the clown.

We are exposed to images of monsters from a young age. We enjoy them, we find them funny. We dress up as them for Halloween and watch the DVDs on repeat. Perhaps it says more about humans than it does monsters that once we reach a certain age, the images we once found entertaining can be turned into horror. It feels as if the monsters are always there, waiting, until eventually we find terror within them.

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I wonder at what point a person viewing Munch’s ‘Vampire’ realises that the image is of the vampire biting, rather than a woman kissing. Or whether Kossof’s ‘Self Portrait’ would suggest connotations of Frankenstein’s monster if one hadn’t already been exposed to such a famous image: would it still be monstrous to the viewer?

Monsters are scary, but human consciousness and our ability to twist the innocent into terror is scarier.