“Velvet Buzzsaw” and the long history of art that terrifies

But can you look away?
But can you look away?
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
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Yesterday (Feb. 1), Netflix released Velvet Buzzsaw, an original satirical horror film centered on murderous, sentient artwork that attacks greedy art snobs.

The thriller premiered at Sundance earlier last week, and features Jake Gyllenhaal as the fussy art critic Morf Vandewalt alongside a star-studded cast including John Malkovich, Toni Collette, and Daveed Diggs. So far, reviews have been decent; in addition to its old-school, campy horror vibes, critics seem to be reveling in the gory retribution faced by the members of the film’s haughty contemporary art scene.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy is not shy about his contempt for the big-money modern art world in which the film takes place. Velvet Buzzsaw seeks to use satire to examine the danger of commodifying artists’ work, especially when that work comes from a deeply emotional or dark place. Gilroy told Vanity Fair that the idea was “to explore how, when art and commerce are dangerously out of balance, bad things can happen.” Bad things like the subjects of paintings coming to life and slaughtering people. Eek!

The supernatural paintings in question are a cache of works by a dead man named Ventril Dease (the names in this film are a whole thing). As the paintings—sinister images of goggling, demonic-looking people and animals—turn murderous, more details about the artist are uncovered: he was deeply troubled, he murdered someone, he sometimes painted with his own blood. Eek again!

In any case, Dease was a tortured fellow and, as Gilroy notes, the film is premised on the idea of scary paintings hurting people because those paintings are somehow inextricably related to an artists inner darkness.

This appears drawn largely from the history of fine art in the real world: Artists such as  Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso changed how they painted while they were mentally or physically unwell, or when they were experiencing grief. And many of these paintings were darker and more grim than their work during periods of happiness or stability.

Take the “Black Paintings” of 18th-century Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, gory phantasmagoria painted onto the walls of his own home, created during an alleged dark period of his life. “He was 73, ancient by the standards of the day, and alienated from the Spanish royal court where he had painted for half of his life,” the Guardian writes, noting that he had also been deaf for several decades. “Over the next few years, Goya conjured face-melting visions in dark oils and projected them on the plaster—wrapping hallways, staircases and living spaces in hellacious murals for his own contemplation.” The 14 works are among his most famous due to their nightmarish content, and were a radical change of style, color, and content from his previous work.

Many people read Goya’s choice to surround himself with leering monsters as indicative of deep melancholy due to physical and mental illness. While this is the common narrative—perhaps because of the associated drama and intrigue—others maintain that the artist was perfectly lucid. Manuela Mena, the Goya specialist at Madrid’s Prado museum, considers the series an expression of dark, mocking humor. “All you hear about these pictures is how he was crazy, melancholic, pessimistic when he made them,” says Mena. “But he was actually an optimist with a great sense of humor, very rational and very clear in his mind, right to the end of his life.”

Much of the work of 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi is as chilling as Goya’s, but in a markedly different way, in that much of it was inspired by a traumatic event in her youth. In 1612, 17-year-old Gentileschi publicly accused her rapist in a seven-month trial, an event that brought humiliation and ridicule upon the artist. Her violent, powerful paintings of embattled women who had been ill-treated by men are still be interpreted as a sort of vicious revenge fantasy. For instance, “Judith and Holofernes” (below) is widely believed to represent Gentileschi decapitating her rapist:

In a way, Gentileschi, like Goya, painted monsters.
In a way, Gentileschi, like Goya, painted monsters.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

While 20th-century Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is best known for her lush, floral self-portraits, some of her lesser-known works portray demonic apparitions and bound bodies sliced down the middle.

Kahlo’s 1945 piece “Without Hope,” for instance, depicts her abed in sickness. She’s surrounded by hellish visions like a grinning skull and carcasses, and covered in what appear to be colorful bacterium. The painting is a portrait of her own suffering: Kahlo was injured in a traffic accident as a teen—in her words “the handrail pierced me as the sword pierces the bull”—leading to a lifetime of pain, surgeries, and ultimately the amputation of her right leg. “The Broken Column,” which depicts Kahlo with a metallic shaft running through her middle, was a reference to the spinal surgery she underwent following the accident.

There are even artists that voluntarily impose physical pain on themselves in the name of their art; as is the case with the imaginary painter Dease in Velvet Buzzsaw, there are real-life painters who used their own blood as a medium, like American surrealist artist Vincent Castiglia, for example, who paints satanic characters and human bodies in various states of decay using his own blood:

In the 2018 documentary Bloodlines, Catiglia notes that the darkness in his work is prompted by his own dark experiences, namely a traumatic childhood and struggle with substance abuse as an adult.

When it comes to artists and their art, the tired (and largely disproved) “tortured genius” trope is fraught. As Quartz reporter Natasha Frost wrote for Atlas Obscura in 2017, the misery that artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Francisco Goya are posthumously famous for didn’t necessarily improve their work (or at least how it’s valued in the market and in art institutions). Frost highlights a 2017 study released in the journal Management Science that analyzed the sale prices of some 15,000 paintings. Of those, paintings that were created during “a period of bereavement”—in which an artist was mentally unwell or suffering from grief—were up to 35% less valuable than other pieces by the same artist. The gloomy works were also less likely to be included in major museum collections. The narrative that grief, depression, and mental illness can generate creativity may be true in some cases, but the analysis suggested that these distraught states may have no impact—or even stifle—the creative labor that goes into art.