On Murder, Considered as Represented in the Fine Arts
By Sukayna Powell
In his satirical take on Kantian ethics and aesthetics, On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts, 1827, Thomas de Quincey lauded a club of discerning gentlemen who took it upon themselves to critique the aesthetic and artistic merits of notable murders, rating originality, taste, and bravura, amongst other things. The book lampooned Immanuel Kant’s understanding of the faculty of aesthetic judgement as the guiding principal in moral understanding by taking certain conclusions and definitions out-of-context and to their extremes. It serves as a healthy reminder that our instincts about art, beauty, truth, and goodness being somehow synonymous should be closely and consistently examined. It is also a hilarious and insightful piece of observation of the odd but inescapable truth that people find murder fascinating. But what is involved when we judge the aesthetic and artistic merits of murder – or rather, of works of art that take murder as their subject matter?
The earliest artworks to take murder as their theme were engaging with archetypal, biblical or classical stories, Cain and Abel being perhaps the most obvious example. The fraternity of the brothers standing in for the fraternity of the brotherhood of men, paintings of the murder of Abel ask some very fundamental questions of their audiences. Tintoretto’s c. 1551 The Murder of Abel, largely obscures the faces of the protagonists, rendering them both more, and less, relatable. They could be anyone; they are also no-one. Tintoretto enhances the drama by contrasting Cain’s stable, squared-off pose, full of potential power, with Abel’s flailing and disengaged musculature. The murder of Abel is not, however, one that De Quincey’s club of connoisseurs would have had much time for. After all, there was no mystery about who had done the deed or why, and no artistry in the execution. Tintoretto’s painting reflects this – all we find in the figure of Cain is mad determination.
Many early engagements with murder as a theme are similarly straightforward. Historical, mythological, and literary characters and events can be given interiority and physicality in an artwork, without encroaching disturbingly on the domain of reality. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614-20, for instance, is profoundly visceral, but it also illustrates a literary-historical narrative, which provides a degree of distance – perhaps a necessary one in the face of all that blood. As we approach modernity, however, a more personal, individualistic approach to the pathos of victimhood and the psychology of the murderer begins to emerge.
An excellent example of this is David’s Death of Marat, 1793, completed in the same year the revolutionary journalist was murdered in his medicinal bath by Charlotte Corday. David knew Marat personally, and would have been intimately acquainted with all the details of the crime. This murder and its protagonists were international news (as far as there can be said to have been international news), and there was much speculation about the psychology of Corday (a woman, no less). She and her act have remained a fertile source of inspiration and an object of curious investigation for artists and thinkers across genres, more so even than Marat himself. David’s painting, with its spartan surfaces, transposed iconography, and innovative use of flatness, was hugely influential for early modernists, not least because it took a contemporary event as its subject.
This is appropriate, given that murder as we are interested in it here is fundamentally modern. De Quincey was, in part, reacting to a series of seismic sociological shifts he observed in England during his lifetime. In 1811 the entire Marr family were brutally killed in their London home by an unknown intruder in highly mysterious and dramatic circumstances and, thanks to the burgeoning newspaper circulation, everybody in Britain was talking about the case. The country became ‘crime conscious’ practically overnight. Similar transformations were taking place across Europe, affected by migration to urban centres and increased information circulation. Suddenly the brutality contemporary man (as opposed to biblical or mythical man) could inflict on his brother was brought to the forefront of people’s imagination. People began to meditate on the darkness of the individual psyche or on a fallen human condition, or on both.
In The Murder, 1868, Cezanne engages with both. His contemporary ruffians, in all their coarse strength and misshapen villainy, murder a woman. The post-impressionist painter uses light to highlight, not the knife, but the arms of the figure (possibly also female) holding the unfortunate victim down. The relatively ‘unartistic’ (by De Quincey’s standards) crime acquires a frisson of psychological complexity by highlighting the inhumanity of the aider-and-abettor. In their pose, bent double, their figure even loses the basic anthropomorphic delineation that reads as ‘human’. The murderer merely loses his head. Cezanne is exploring the realities of a contemporary world with a large population of people who, as individuals, make choices – sometimes horrendous ones, for reasons both fascinatingly complex and shudderingly simple.
Naturally, an artist as interested in psychology as Edvard Munch had a unique take on murder and the relationship between murderer and victim – all the more so, because his treatment of the subject was inspired by personal experience. The Murderess, 1906, which has two companion pieces titled The Death of Marat I, 1907 and The Death of Marat II, 1907, is a response to his near-death experience at the hands of a woman whom he had refused to marry. His self-identification with Marat suggests that the particular psychology of the female murderer continued to fascinate and alarm people – to the extent that Charlotte Corday was still a popular point of reference. Munch’s distortion of the visual field around the smiling figure of his ‘murderess’ disturbs the otherwise sunny stability of the composition and colour palate. The blood-red hand of the victim suggests both the drama (now stilled) of clutching at a wound, and the stained hands of one who is not entirely blameless in the interpersonal drama that led to this violent act.
By the 1920s most of Europe had a police force, and most newspapers had dedicated crime and court reporters who detailed every piece of evidence and speculation. In addition to lurid narration, newspapers began featuring crime scene photographs, and portraits of the main players in whichever violent death was the subject of today’s headline. A whole literary genre dedicated to the solving of murders had established itself and a darker counterpart, dedicated to villains like the sadistic Fantômas, was making a mark on one of the most influential art movements of the century. The Surrealists saw murder as the ultimate distillation of all forms of social and individual violence, which had to be understood and exorcised if the Surrealist socio-political project was to be realised.
Magritte’s Menaced Assassin explores a society permeated with violence, where the faces of the police and the faces of the murderer are not all that differentiated, and there is a great deal of ambivalence about the roles of everyone in the picture, except the victim. As for her, her bloody neck-wound has been covered with a scarf, but her naked body has been left on view – both a sign of the Surrealist fascination with beauty as a kind of violence in and of itself, and of a social order in which only certain things need to be hidden. The gramophone and its association with pleasure in the beautiful would have pleased De Quincey, as it is the murderer, not the policemen or ambiguous figures at the window, who are engaged in aesthetic judgement. The layers of complexity present in this painting’s engagement with murder and morality are far removed from the relatively untroubled grounding of Tintoretto’s Murder of Abel in fundamental narratives of right and wrong.
Today, we have largely completed the turn (suggested in Magritte’s painting) from refining our aesthetic, ethical, and critical judgement on the object of the individual and their psychology, to the group or collective identity, and the nature of institutions and mentalities. This has resulted in depictions of murder coming under scrutiny in terms of the rights to represent trauma and collective ownership of victimhood. One of the most recent controversies, for example, was the display of Dana Schutz’s painting of the body of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial in New York. Black artists and activists campaigned against the white artist’s assumption that she had the right to depict the body of a black boy murdered in a racist hate crime. This is an interesting development, and reveals, amongst other things, the continued complexities of murder as a subject matter for a visual artist; we must still ask, with De Quincey, whether it is not somehow grotesque to subject the pure distillation of human violence to aesthetic examination and appreciation, and we must also acknowledge, again with De Quincey, that we are almost universally compelled to do so.
De Quincey, Thomas. On Murder. ed. Robert Morrison. Oxford: 2009. Print.
Eburne, Johnathan P. Surrealism and the Art of Crime. Ithaca; London: 2008. Print.
Muñoz-Alonso, Lorena. “Dana Schutz’ Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Sparks Protest” Artnet News. 21st March 2017. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/dana-schutz-painting-emmett-till-whitney-biennial-protest-897929 Accessed 9th April 2018.
Preistman, Martin ed. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Cambridge: 2003. Print.
Vaughn, William and Weston, Helen. Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Marat’. Cambridge: 2000. Print.
Woll, Gerd. Edvard Munch: Complete Paintings. London; New York: 2009. Print.