Art pleases the human eyes. This is why artists depict nature’s most stunning sights on their canvases. Sometimes the most exquisite painting of a woman enchants us, and sometimes a painting of a starry night sky has a profound impact on us. But paying close attention reveals that there is darkness within each beautiful object in the world. While the beauty of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has us spellbound, the mystery is evoked by her mellow smile. Even Van Gogh’s most amazing works of art remind us that the artist spent his entire life in the shadow of a horrific mental illness. So, where is the existence of beauty without horror?
Episode 5 of “Cabinet of Curiosities,” titled “Pickman’s Model,” is directed by Keith Thomas and is based on a horror short story by H.P. Lovecraft that explores both artistic beauty and horror. The protagonist of the narrative was a young impressionist named Thurber, whose life was tormented by the disturbing paintings of an artist, Richard Pickman. Let’s explore why Richard Pickman’s artworks were unsettling for Thurber and tortured him to a great extent.
Set in 1909 in Arkham, Massachusetts, the story quickly introduced a young and talented art student, Thurber, who always patronized nature and the physical beauty of women in his canvases. However, a new student in their art class, Richard Pickman, had a completely different approach to his paintings. Thurber was both terrified and captivated by Pickman’s horrific style of painting. Pickman was passionate about his art and used his imagination and creativity to illustrate demonic entities and witches. Pickman was unable to find a suitable viewer to praise his artistic sensibilities. He believed that Thurber was the only person who could comprehend the inner darkness of his paintings. But Pickman’s paintings mentally traumatized Thurber and eventually led to severe delusions.
At the beginning of the 19th century, art patrons admired art, but they could not understand an artist as diverse as Pickman. From my perspective, Pickman felt connected to the horror of the demonic world because of his family’s history of witchcraft and devil worship, but he was a true artist whose skill and vision deserved recognition. In comparison to other artists, he took a distinct approach to conveying the darkness of reality.
Pickman’s artwork tells a story. While Thurber and his fellow painters wanted to impress people with their paintings, Pickman wanted to express himself (and his expression happens to be horror). Among many others, only Thurber showed an interest to see Pickman’s works despite being afraid and tormented by it. Pickman was content with Thurber’s validation which was why in the end, he didn’t give any importance to the gallery exhibition, but he yearned for Thurber’s approval.
Eventually, Pickman took Thurber to his mansion and showed him all the artwork he had kept in his basement. From the paintings, the devilish growl tormented Thurber, and he killed Pickman with a single gunshot. At the very end of his life, Pickman told Thurber that he had never created any pictures, but rather he had painted what he had seen. Before he took his last breath, he assured Thurber that one day he, too, would meet his darkness.
Pickman’s family history was very traumatizing. His mother had committed suicide, and among his ancestors, Lavinia was known as a witch. She might have been a victim of the witch trials. In Salem, a 16th-century witch trial resulted in the false confession of an enslaved woman. Therefore, about 20 people were hanged for witch slander. Women were slaughtered and tortured for this slander in other towns as well. Maybe Lavinia was a victim of torture and was burned alive. The family’s painful history and traumatizing past may have tormented Pickman from an early age, which led him to imagine a dark realm that existed outside of reality. He grotesquely painted Lavinia because he was attracted to the rumor that she was a witch.
The reason Pickman mentioned the “darkness” near the end of his life was because he believed that everyone had a devil inside them. Thurber, who labeled Pickman’s creative style as “madness,” eventually pulled the trigger and let his inner devil out. Thurber was a gentleman, but Pickman’s painting in some way brought out the darkness in him, leading him to kill Pickman.
As beauty resides in the heart of the beholder, so does inner evil. Pickman harmlessly wanted to discuss his art with Thurber, but we see all the delusion and darkness through Thurber’s eyes. Thus, this story reminds us that art, whether it be a landscape or a hellscape, only expresses creativity. Positive and negative energies coexist in reality, and both are forces that we cannot escape from. We can only keep our minds sane and avoid being personally attached to bad influences.
Every artist encounters criticism throughout their artistic career. In the past, art was evaluated by the traditional standards of beauty and joy. Still, the majority of artists adhere to that idea. The topic of artistic heterogeneity is still controversial. They argue that artists can only create works of art that will make people happy; nevertheless, art is not always meant to be comfortable. Pickman was not a well-known artist, even though he skillfully painted the dark side of the world. But why this controversy in art? Is the purpose of art to keep people away from dark realities? or to blindfold them, so they don’t want to know about the brutality of the world?
According to Pickman, Thurber eventually came to terms with his darkness. He became highly delusional and eventually discovered his wife and colleagues in a demonic state, like in Pickman’s painting. Thurber may have lost all sense of reality and killed his wife and son by himself, or it may have just been another nightmare from which he would never awaken.