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Review: Wrestling with Demons: Fantasy and Horror in European Prints and Drawings

Leon Gaucherel's etching The Young Girl and Death (featuring actress Sarah Berndhart)
The Young Girl and Death

Now that the new Hollywood Gothique website is almost whipped into shape, I am belatedly posting images from “Wrestling with Demons: Fantasy and Horror in European Prints and Drawings” at the Huntington Library. This exhibition of art dealing with Death and Demons ran from August through December in 2014, neatly overlapping the Halloween season but also lasting long enough to give busy haunt-seekers a chance to sample its delights long after October 31 had faded.

By and large, the prints and drawings emphasized Death more than Demons. In many cases, the artistry of the work was less important than its message, which tended to emphasize the ephemeral quality of life, reminding viewers that mortal foibles (vanity, lust, greed) must ultimately yield to the inevitability of the grave. In “The Young Girl and Death,” we see a beautiful woman with a skeletal specter peering over her shoulder – a grim statement regarding the inevitable decay of her youthful beauty (the impact is augmented by the fact that the woman is popular English stage actress Sarah Bernhardt). Another drawing shows a pair of men arguing, while Death lurks in the background, arm raised to strike down either or both of them, depending on how the fight turns out.

Slightly less grim, Drurer’s “The Knight, Death, and the Devil” shows a devout knight marching forward, unperturbed by the proximity of the supernatural beings, suggesting that one could and should maintain courage and faith in the face of these adversities. “Raising Evil Spirits” is almost comical, its bearded sorcerer wearing ridiculously over-sized glasses while summoning demons for a pair of women who do not seem to be enjoying the show (luckily, they are safely inside a protective magic circle). Details, such as a cat next to the sorcerer’s arm and a crocodile floating overhead, overload the imagery to the point where the drawing resembles a modern cartoon take on the subject.

Several other works, though not part of the “Wrestling with Demons” exhibition, were certainly appropriate, such as Fuseli’s “The Three Witches” (a depiction of the characters from Macbeth). The ugly crones actually look more like weathered old men, emphasizing their repulsive quality. William Blakes “Lucifer and the Pope in Hell” gives a grim look at the afterlife for someone who expected a rather different destination. Joseph Wright’s depiction of Mount Vesuvius erupting glowed with enough heat to suggest the flames of perdition. And a fascinating torchere depicted humans ensnared in the coils of bat-winged dragons.

Unfortunately, this review comes to late to goad you attending the show; however, we have included a gallery of images to give you a sample of what you missed.

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Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.