Review: 'The Art of Darkness: A Treasury of the Morbid, Melancholic, and Macabre' by S. Elizabeth

Last year I read The Art of the Occult by S. Elizabeth and it became on of my favourite reads. Not only is it a beautiful book, beautifully designed and laid out, it is also full of stunning art and insightful commentary. So of course I wondered whether S. Elizabeth would be able to replicate this for The Art of Darkness. I am very happy to report that yes, she did. Thanks to Quarto Publishing Group - White Lion and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/20/2022
Publisher: Quarto Publishing Group - White Lion

The Art of Darkness is a visually rich sourcebook featuring eclectic artworks that have been inspired and informed by the morbid, melancholic, and macabre.

Throughout history, artists have been obsessed with darkness – creating works that haunt and horrifymesmerise and delight, and play on our innermost fearsGentileschi took revenge with paint in Judith Slaying Holofernes while Bosch depicted fearful visions of Hell that still beguile. Victorian Britain became strangely obsessed with the dead and in Norway Munch explored anxiety and fear in one of the most famous paintings in the world (The Scream, 1893). Today, the Chapman Brothers, Damien Hirst and Louise Bourgeois, as well as many lesser known artists working in the margins, are still drawn to all that is macabre.

From Dreams & Nightmares to Matters of MortalityDepravity & Destruction to Gods & Monsters – this book introduces sometimes disturbing and often beautiful artworks that indulge our greatest fears, uniting us as humans from century to century. 

But, while these themes might scare us – can’t they also be heartening and beautiful? Exploring and examining the artworks with thoughtful and evocative text, S. Elizabeth offers insight into each artist’s influences and inspirations, asking what comfort can be found in facing our demons? Why are we tempted by fear and the grotesque? And what does this tell us about the human mind?

Of course, sometimes there is no good that can come from the sensibilities of darkness and the sickly shivers and sensations they evoke. These are uncomfortable feelings, and we must sit for a while with these shadows – from the safety of our armchairs. 

Artists covered include Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, Francisco de GoyaLeonora Carrington, John Everett MillaisTracey EminVincent van GoghBarbara Hepworth, Paul Cezanne, and Salvador Dalí, as well as scores more. With over 200 carefully curated artworks from across the centuries, The Art of Darkness examines all that is dark in a bid to haunt and hearten. 

This book is part of the Art in the Margins series, following up on The Art of the Occult, which investigates representations of the mystical, esoteric and occult in art from across different times and cultures.

Darkness is a very intriguing thing. Not to flog a dead cliché, but without darkness would we appreciate the light? Further, darkness has a way of making us confront both our inherent loneliness and the fear of not being alone. When it's just you, in the dark, there is no way to avoid yourself. But what if it is not just you, what if there is something else in the dark. What does that other look like? What shape do we give things like 'fear', 'nightmare', 'horror', 'anxiety', 'dread'? This book features all 'these anxieties and aversions, tensions and terrors that transcend time and which have long plagued our psyches' (Introduction, 9) and yet there is also a lot of beauty in these pages. The Art of Darkness shows that in many ways the dark can be as, if not more, inspiring than the light. Through her work, S. Elizabeth inspires and encourages her reader to connect with their darknes and thereby take some of its power away.

The Art of Darkness is split into four parts, which are then divided into three chapters each. The first 'It's All in Your Mind' tracks the way dreams, anxieties, and voices in the dark affect us. It features Hieronymus Bosch' terrifying The Garden of Earthly Delights but also Frida Kahlo's stunning The Wounded Deer. Our own mind can be a place of terror and beauty, and often those two go hand in hand. The second part, 'The Human Condition', considers the darkness of human life, from disease to depravity to death. Whether it is the grotesque tragedy of George Grosz' The Funeral or creeping horror of Odilon Redon's Perversity, human traits and human bodies can be a major site of darkness and distress. Part Three, 'The World Around Us', is perhaps my favourite part, specifically the chapter called 'Darkness in Bloom'. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Dorothea Tanning struck me in its straightforward yet terrifying imagery. Animals also feature, and I conitnue to be attracted and repulsed by Louise Bourgeois' sculpture Maman. Google it, seriously! Landscapes are also a major focus of darkness and I loved thepieces she selected for this chapter. Especially The Great Day of his Wrath by John Martin shook me. The final part, 'Visions from Beyond', considers the divine, the unseen but felt, the fairies and the ghouls. Marci Washington's Through the Thinnest of Veils is a stunning image of darkness brought to light by a white shroud, while the woodblock print Takiyasha the Witch nd the Skeleton Spectre by Utagawa Kuniyoshi speaks of darkness through its vivid colours.

What I continue to appreciate about S. Elizabeth's collection of art is that she looks beyond the classics, beyond the well-known works. She frequently features current and contemporary artists, as well as different mediums of art. As such, there is always something new and surprising to discover in the pages of her books, even to those relatively in-touch with art. Her introductions and discussions of the art pieces are also very direct and calm, approachable and never condescending. Through her writing it becomes clear that art is meant as a service as well, that art is not just something beautiful but also something that can assist you. While The Art of Darkness covers difficult topics and also features some art that's on the gruesome side, it is never gratuitous or sensationalist. The book also features further reading and an excellent index, which allows readers to dig a little further or return to specific pieces. The design of the physical book is also beautiful. Different page colours indicate chapter headings or introductory texts, which helps the reader navigate. The paintings, photos and sculptures are beautifully reproduced in all their vibrancy or darkness. I must also say I adore the font of the book. Masumi Briozzo has, in short, done a great job on the design. I do hope S. Elizabeth continues to create such stunning books because she has most definitely broadened my view, my understanding of art, and my appreciation of the dark.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

The Art of Darkness is a very enjoyable read. Not only is the art absolutely stunning and well-selected, but S. Elizabeth is also an excellent guide through the dark. I would recommend this to anyone with a taste for darkness or an eye for beauty. And no, that is not contradictory.


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