The gothic art and literature from the 19th century is something completely different than the subculture we call goth of today. Since this is a blog about art through history, I am taking the liberty of ignoring the present subculture goth, and will focus on the movement of gothic literature, to then explore if the definition and language of that can be applied on visual art.
Before I start, let’s just face it – this may become a very lengthy text.
Mattias Fyhr is a Swedish professor of literature, focusing on gothic and horror. Writing my own semi-advanced essay on how the visual language in gothic literature can be used in analyzing photography, I used his PhD thesis about just those things – gothic and horror. Thus, his book is the material I have used for this specific post. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find an English translation, but the Swedish original can be bought at both Bokus, Adlibris and Akademibokhandeln (all Swedish online bookshops).
Before we get into the specifics, there are two terms that are important to keep in mind, but also to separate. These would be terror and horror. While the meaning of those words may be similar, within the gothic territory it is important to keep them apart.
The reason for this being that terror is considered to have a much wider meaning, including stronger and deeper emotions, destruction, beauty, elevated emotions created by empathy, extraordinary and tragic fates. Thus, terror was used to create a sense of safety during the experience of someone else’s pain through a book.
Horror, on the other hand, was considered raw, and was used for violence and slaughter rather than the beauty of terror. According to Fyhr, horror is what later became what we refer to as horror (movies, for example) today.
Short note; in coming posts, I’ll be discussing other terms that might be mentioned in this text. The sublime is one of those, romanticism is another.
According to Mattias Fyrh, the gothic literature needs certain components to be – gothic. Let’s go through them briefly, so we can start discussing whether or not they can be used in visual art.
Subjective worlds is the first thing Fyhr brings up. By that, he means that the story is told by the main character, through their emotional view of events. It is common that the depiction of the main characters experiences is done through descriptions of the environment. Natural disasters as rain and thunder, storms over the ocean, moonlight, shadows, et cetera, are used to describe the inner emotions of the main character.
Another component of the concept gothic is the lack of higher order. Higher order can be anything from society to personal relations to religion. What it does, is create a loneliness within the main character, who it totally out of control of the events unfolding.
Very typical to gothic literature is the atmosphere of decay, a sense of loss. This is usually done through melancholy rather than gore and disgust, as may be found in horror. What the gothic literature focus on are ruins (medieval buildings marked by time), illness and death, the connection between body and mind, symptoms of depression (both physical and psychological), handling pain and anxiety (often by aesthetic and physical activity), emotional downfall as soon as emotions become too strong. Other variations of decay are self-harm by cutting oneself, moral decay (decadence), and fragmented language – inability to find the words to describe one’s misery due to fear, or lacking the ability to use the right words (compare; He Who Cannot Be Named (Voldemort) in the Harry Potter series).
An important distinction to make is the difference between downfall and decay. Downfall is what’s happening right now, decay is a final state of being.
This sense of loss is very important in gothic literature, and main characters reflects over ruins, the decay of cultures, their own downfall, they put the past against the present and the future, the threat of coming doom (could concern buildings, history, serious illness and/or death, psychological threats such as not being able to find one’s way out, being locked into mental institutions, madness, inability to change events, lack of power, chains of events that cannot be effected, and bad endings.
Another interesting part of gothic literature is the labyrinth. Labyrinths can be a variety of things, such as an actual labyrinth, but also mirrors, paintings, secret doors leading to tunnels, secret rooms, buildings containing a secret room with secrets, boxes in boxes, stairways, and so on. Labyrinths is one aspect of the meta fiction (stories in stories) that is typical of gothic literature. Such stories are described as true/real and effects the readers sense of reality. The text presents this story as a true story witnessed by the main character and can contain real places and people only to draw the reader even deeper into the meta fictional reality.
Doppelgangers is yet another common part of gothic literature. Doppelgangers are two people looking so much like each other it’s difficult to see who is who. In gothic literature, doppelgangers are hinted to have supernatural connections, with fates, thoughts, ideas so similar they are basically the same person.
The last component I’ll bring up, is language connected to the psychological experiences, fantasy and the fine line between dream and reality. Gothic literature tends to use labyrinthic language, fragments of speech, fragments of paper, ancient manuscripts being found, et cetera. Text, in general, is a very important part of gothic literature – the story itself, the story in the story, and that which the main character writes him/herself.
So – now that we have some sort of definition of what gothic literature “is” – is this something that can be translated into visual art?
My spontaneous response to this is – yes.
Photography, in particular, but painting, sculpture and architecture as well. On this blog, I have chosen to focus on painting and photography (perhaps, in time, sculpture as well), but architecture is not my strong suit so I’ll just ignore that and pretend it’s not part of art history.
But yes. The visual language in gothic literature can be translated into visual arts. However; the gothic style used in 18th century literature seems to be contained in art through that time as well. Contemporary gothic literature and art appear to go hand in hand, expressing the same imagery. Every point in time has its own way of portraying all these themes.
Now, before we go into this too deep, let’s take a moment to discuss the difference between literature and visual art. Literature describes something and we, the readers, are given the opportunity to create our own image of what it actually looks like. Words are powerful, and they do direct us in certain ways. Thus, there’s a difference between gothic style and documentary style in literature (for example). As language is the means through which we receive a story, we are presented with certain events designed to produce certain emotions. Language is an easy way to control the perception of the audience.
Visual arts are different. Here, we are presented with an image, which may or may not tell us what we’re looking at. What I mean by that is that if we are familiar with a certain story, we may be able to tell that an image represents that exact story (or, rather, a moment from that story). Religious imagery is like that – and that’s how people who couldn’t read learned the stories through repetition from the sermons, and looking at the illustrations in church.
There are of course a couple of problems in the translation of gothic literature into gothic art. That subjectivity described earlier in this post is difficult to portray visually. The question arises – whose subjectivity are we talking about? If there is a person portrayed, is that the subject – or is it the person who is looking at the image? Here lies the problem of “truth”, which I will discuss thoroughly in another post (focused on photography).
Thus, visual art must focus on other components to be seen and perceived as gothic.
As my previous focus has been on photography, mainly, I’ll direct my aesthetic ponderings towards that and leave other kinds of visual arts for later.
In my opinion, photography is an excellent way to portray the gothic style. Especially in black and white, where we remove the element of reality due to the lack of colour. Automatically, we end up in a dreamlike state of mind. Whether this is due to our contemporary idea that black and white photographs belong to the “then” or not, I have no answer to. But the removal of colour is essential. Light and darkness is the only thing that gives shape and form to what we perceive and understand.
Since the main component of gothic is emotional, an image must express that to be perceived as gothic. How is that done?
By incorporating certain elements of what is expressed in the gothic visual language. Downfall and decay are something that exists in our own reality and can thus be shown in visual arts (photography). Labyrinths in their many shapes and forms are also fairly easy to visualize in photography and paintings. I’ll remember to write a post on what composition in photography can do for the perception of gothic-ness.
This post is already the longest blog post I’ve ever written so far, so I think it’s time to wrap it up. After all, I have plenty of time and space to write more and go more into detail of the differences between the gothic literary language and the gothic imagery in visual arts.
At least we have a starting point when it comes to the gothic movement in art grotesque. There is so much to discuss, and at the moment I’m just happy I found a place to start.