Art. History. Culture.
Here we are at mid-October, and The Silence of the Lambs was on TV yesterday. This is about to take a turn to the freakiest. Cannibalism is the most unthinkable act; so unthinkable that it’s almost funny, because it just doesn’t seem it could ever really happen. The closest familiarity most people have with this topic is popular culture film and literary fiction. In a word, Hannibal. Well, two words: Hannibal Lecter. Actually, three words: Hannibal the Cannibal. The Silence of the Lambs, based on the novel by Thomas Harris, is one of the best horror movies ever made, in addition to being one of the best movies ever made, period. A cannibalistic serial killer, currently imprisoned, helps a young FBI trainee solve the murders by another serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. It is one of only three movies to have ever swept the five major Academy Awards categories. It taught many of us the meaning and correct use of the Latin phrase quid pro quo. To this day it inspires the repetition of certain quotes and one-liners:
“Sonofabitch ordered a second dinner. Lamb, extra rare.”
“He covets. We covet what we see every day.”
“I’d love to chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.”
And my personal favorites:
“It puts the lotion in the basket.”
“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
The “Chianti” line has been parodied often enough that it is now more comical than horrific. Exhibit A:
There is a fine line between horror and humor. The boundary is transcended often in the horror genre, giving way to the grotesque and carnivalesque. But what is more horrific than the concept of eating another human being? Nothing. It might be the most disgustingly evil sin in existence. Yet cannibalism can be seen throughout the history of art, in past centuries as a device for spiritual teaching and into the 18th century as a vehicle for powerful emotion or ridicule. Greco’s Ghosts explores some cringe-worthy examples for your October fright.
With the sixteenth century came an increase in themes of cannibalism in art. This was often a case of propaganda of a xenophobic nature. Artists would use images of cannibals to promote Christian Europe over non-Christian cultures. This was prevalent in the Crusades and into the ages of New World exploration. German explorer Hans Staden played a prominent role in perpetuating these stereotypes. He enlisted in a Portuguese expedition to Brazil in 1552, where he was captured by a tribe of the native Tupinambá peoples. He alleged that the tribe had cannibalistic practices and intended to devour him at their next festival, but he was able to win their favor by translating for them and convincing them that he had an ability to see into the future, and his life was then spared. Upon his return to Europe he published a retelling of his imprisonment including his detailed eyewitness account of the natives’ cannibalistic feasts for which they prepared and consumed the bodies of Staden’s fellow captives. His stories provided more basis for an overall belief of the practices of native peoples of perhaps the entire Western Hemisphere, that they were primitive savages. Europeans used it to justify the exploration and conquering of new lands and the conversion of Amerindians to Christianity. The use of sensationalistic images of cannibalism helped fellow Europeans support this justification.
The above illustration depicts a group of naked cannibals preparing human parts in a large cauldron around which they are gathered. A large human skull is being placed into the cauldron. Children in the bottom foreground fan and kindle the fire. Two other figures sit in the background with another skull, picking pieces out of it to nibble on.
Theodor de Bry was another illustrator who created engravings based on the accounts of various explorers. His works accompanied publications of tales of exploration and settlement. It is known that his works sold widely as they were primarily published in Latin and then translated to French and German. The below gruesome image shows the detailed preparation of human body parts for feasting. A huge grill has been set up where various human limbs lay roasting above a blazing fire. Naked figures surround the scene, many of them holding up other human parts to nibble on as they prepare the rest. As if this savagery is not sick enough, a small child can even be seen in the right foreground chewing on a human hand.
In another de Bry illustration below, a group of tribal people can again be seen preparing human parts for consumption. The foreground of this engraving shows a trio of men dismembering the torso of another male, a woman crouched over the ground to pick up the severed limbs, and a child playing with or possibly cleaning the man’s decapitated head next a pond. Behind this group, a pair of men hold down a prisoner while a third elevates a weapon to strike him down. To the right of them, another large grill is set up to roast parts while men and women in the background calmly oversee it all.
There is a true account of cannibalism that is arguably more terrifying than these sensational sixteenth century engravings, and it comes from one of my favorite artistic movements, Romanticism. In 1816 a French warship called the Medusa set sail for the port of Saint-Louis in Senegal captained by an incompetent man whose experience was sub-par at best. He won his position out of political favoritism and was thought to be acting under the authority of the newly restored French monarchy (Louis XVIII). The Medusa was navigated poorly and went hugely off course before running aground at an off-target coast. The ship could not be freed so the passengers had to use life boats. Only 250 of the 400 passengers could fit, so the remaining built a haphazard raft from the ship’s parts that barely floated once all climbed aboard. The other boats were supposed to tow the raft, but abandoned it. Their only food and drink was a box of biscuits and a few casks of water and wine. Lost adrift at sea, the passengers aboard the raft went mad from exposure, starvation and dehydration which killed many. Fights broke out and many others were killed by their companions. Some threw themselves into the sea out of despair. What is worse, in their insanity and starvation the remaining passengers turned to cannibalizing their dead companions in their desperation to survive. Then by some miracle, after 13 days of hell, the raft was spotted by another ship, called the Argus, and they were rescued. At least 147 passengers started on board the hastily put together raft, only 15 survived. Upon their return the survivors shared their ordeal and it eventually became a national scandal and a pillar of anti-royalism.
Young French painter Théodore Géricault capitalized on this dramatic narrative with his massive canvas, The Raft of the Medusa. Géricault did many preparatory drawings and oil sketches of this work, clearly not sure of which angle or which moment in the story to depict. When looking at his sketches one thing remains clear, that he was intent on having the raft and its passengers dominate the composition rather than the vastness of nature, as would be seen in other Romantic shipwreck paintings of the likes of J.M.W. Turner. The vastness of nature is of course still present in Gericault’s final work, but it comes in second to the emotional drama that was also so important in Romanticism. As a massively threatening tidal wave builds up in the left background, many of the raft’s passengers are turning to the right background, to a barely visible speck on the horizon that is their savior, the Argus. A group of figures forms a pyramid as they attempt to flag the distant Argus, and their hero is the man of African descent at the apex of said pyramid, elevated by his peers to wave a bright red piece of cloth at the Argus. The elevation of a man of African descent as a hero is in itself a reflection of the liberal, anti-royalism mindset of many of Gericault’s peers. But again, more prominent in this work is the array of intense emotion. Desperation is shown in the figures reaching out to the Argus, a glimmer of hope in the figures standing near the raft’s mast, and complete resignation in the seated figure slumped over with his head rested on his hand, clinging to the body of a dead companion. Other bodies sprawl across the foreground, intense shadow is cast over the raft, and dark clouds hover above. While there is still a streak of sunlight on the horizon, it is too distant to illuminate these men, suggesting that while we know most of them will survive, a darkness hovers over them that has changed them forever. This darkness will recall the events that passed during their will to survive, most notably the practice of cannibalism as Géricault depicted the below sketch.
Before the emotional foreshadowing of the rescue by Argus, Géricault contemplated the episode of cannibalism aboard the raft. Everything in this sketch considers the chaos of that moment in contrast to the last dramatic despair of the final painting. Not only are the passengers heaped together in a struggle of bodies, but the waters reflect their abrupt movement in undulating and ferocious waves. The raft barely balances atop the water’s movement, and is slanted so much that a body is sliding overboard at the far right. The entire composition of the raft and its passengers creates a pyramid formation repeated in the pale figure at center standing above a struggling victim whose head he appears to be pulling up by the hair. Another man crouches over the mutilated body of a dead companion and bites into his arm. This study is much darker than the final work, in theme as well as appearance. The sky is almost completely black, as are the waters which the raft floats upon.
Our friend Goya was another Romantic and he was no stranger to themes of cannibalism in his work. Late in his career he produced a pair of small paintings about this abomination, with influences tracing back to the engravings depicting Amerindians in the sixteenth century. The horror of the subject is cooled by the unknown. Why is he painting this? The novelty of exploration and settlement of earlier centuries has since worn off. These are unknown locations, the space hardly contains more than a boulder, tree, and what looks to be the mouth of a cave. Yet we don’t know what cave or where. Most likely, Goya has derived these works from the engravings he has seen by Theodor de Bry.
The composition makes these cannibals almost less frightening than the static ones of the sixteenth century engravings, perhaps because of the lack of background information. In Cannibals Preparing their Victims, a small group gathers in the dark opening of a cave, quietly going about their preparation work. One man works with a corpse being hanged to dry while another rummages through a victim’s stomach cavity. Of most interest is the evidence of the victim’s clothing which is scattered on the ground. The clothing tells us that this victim is European, and these cannibals must therefore be Amerindians just as the de Bry cannibals were. In Cannibals Beholding Human Remains, a man stands in the center of a group holding up the severed parts of a person, a hand on his right and a decapitated head on his left. His expression is that of a victorious feat, as if he is exclaiming “we are feasting tonight everyone!” His companions gathered around him, some crouching on the ground, some standing in the shadows, gaze at him like hungry dogs about to receive a treat. Yes, this is sick and horrific, but it’s also pretty ridiculous. Goya may even be poking fun at the earlier views of native peoples, showing them as people albeit primitive savages with not even a loin cloth to their names. By contrast, the well dressed European, for all the good it’s done him, is being prepared for roasting. The scene of these paintings shows Goya’s talent for negative space, conveying that the lack of compositional elements allows for a focus on only the subject itself with no clutter or distractions. The mysterious location allows for the viewer to think of this scene as far away, almost like a fairytale. Like an ogre that dwells in a distant cave, beware of the cannibals who will snatch you, roast you, and eat you if you cross their territory.
Saturn is art’s most famous cannibal. We explored the ancient myth of Saturn last year, which I invite you all to revisit so I don’t have to repeat it. You just can’t bring up a theme about cannibals without including Goya’s most well known Black Painting. It’s quite possibly one of the scariest paintings ever made, so maybe we’ll just have to make it a staple for Horror in October. Without knowing Goya’s background or that of the Titan Chronos/Saturn, one might gaze upon this painting and think it was created by a complete psycho. But there were many other artist before Goya to depict this story, most often with the familiar image of Saturn crouching over his son as bites into his flesh.
Before Goya, the image of Saturn devouring his child often incorporated a child who was still living, struggling in his crazed father’s clenches. Previous images also often included the scythe, Saturn’s attribute, as well as some type of definable space. Goya has removed all of this. Nothing can be seen of the space except darkness. Saturn’s scythe is nowhere to be found. In the ancient myth, Saturn’s children were regurgitated from him whole and revived when Zeus began his war against his Titan father to usurp him. Goya’s child has been mutilated beyond recognition. Saturn has already devoured his head and one of his arms and is in the act of devouring the other. Thick, corroded globs of blood seep from the dead child’s wounds as well as the creases between Saturn’s tightly clenched fingers. It is often suggested that the version by Rubens would have been Goya’s model, as it belonged to Madrid’s royal collection where he would have seen it. But Rubens gives the subject what dignity he can muster, by painting the figures in an celestial scene with twinkling stars above, and allowing the struggling child to at least scream for help as his father takes a bite out of him. Fioretto’s engraving, similarly, features the two figures stoically placed in a niche like an allegorical sculpture. These two more refined versions contrast highly with the abrupt and violent version by Goya, which he painted directly onto the wall in his dining room of all places. Like the abrupt and violent character of Hannibal Lector, Saturn is too far gone beyond reason. It can be seen in his eyes, wide and white with madness.