First, let’s get the usual Halloween grumble out of the way. It’s an American import designed for mass consumption of sugar, egg pelting and stupid over-sexed witch outfits. Grumble grumble.
With the arrival of the new Bond Film Spectre with its Day of the Dead imagery – how far in advance did the screenwriters have to plan that one out?! – there’s a growing fashion for Mexican themed funky ghoules and skulls. I always feel sceptical about a diluted foreign custom interpreted here via the means of commerce. The scariest genuine work of art to come from this ‘genre’ in my opinion is Malcom Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, which is the story of a British ex-consul drinking himself to death during the Day of the Dead festival. It was written in the early twentieth century, but the vivid descriptions of death by alcoholism – including vivid hallucinations – first hand has an acute effect of terror in our heavy drinking culture that makes me put the gin down and gulp frettingly. Oh maybe one more then.
It is also fitting news for Halloween that the biggest Hieronymous Bosch exhibition to be mounted will come together in the new year in his hometown – some dinky Dutch hamlet that I can’t hope to pronounce correctly. It is interesting to remember that at one time, visual art was so scarce that actual depictions of biblical or apocryphal stories had enormous power on an age as of yet unexposed to the very concept of mass visual sensibility. Umberto Eco describes it brilliantly in The Name of the Rose where a young monk first encounters the Arabic language (described as resembling little flies and droppings), or a drawing of a lion, which absolutely petrifies him. It is hard to imagine how terrifyingly real the images of condemned souls, cackling demons and horrific monsters would have had on the contemporary viewer. They literally would have put the fear of God into you, and you’d have thought twice about drinking that flagon of mead or bedding that wench lest you end up pricked by a trident wielded by some fish monster, or playing a flute with your arse.
I am also amused to learn that Goya’s Saturn Devouring One Of His Sons – one of my most favourite paintings, of which a poster has adorned my room (and freaked out visitors/dates/flatmates) for some years now – apparently may have born an erection, before being painted out. Already a pretty horrific image, and an unforgettable one since I first laid eyes on it in the Prado, this would have sent it into a really sickening realm. Imagine what would happen now if a celebrated contemporary painter, say Jonathan Yeo, turned out anything as messed up. Incidentally, you can see an absolutely unmissable exhibition of Goya’s portraits at the National Gallery right now. Or you can pin the tail on the piñata or whatever the bastardised Halloween trend might currently be.