Home Arts & Lit Shock and horror: Disturbing art

Shock and horror: Disturbing art


Rhi Willimont discusses how disturbing images have made their way into art.

One of my earliest memories of art is walking into the Tate Modern and being confronted by a used, framed, sanitary towel. This experience, which as a child I found unsettling and disturbing, has stayed with me for years.

The fact that after all this time, that same image is still present in my mind is arguably why disturbing images have made their way into art. Shock makes things memorable. Artists are constantly under pressure to create something new, something memorable, and as a result many resort to using shocking, or disturbing images.

'Self' by Marc Quinn Image credit: Flickr user Mark Longair
‘Self’ by Marc Quinn
Image credit: Flickr user Mark Longair

Just because the materials used, or the subject matter of the art, is disturbing, does this mean that the art itself is disturbing? One example where it does not, is Marc Quinn’s Self. A sculpture, made from 4.5 litres of the artist’s own blood sounds horrific. Although initially unsettling, it is actually eerily beautiful.

Displayed in a glass box, surrounded by light, the sculpture appears to emit its own radiance. It is mesmerizing. Walking away, the viewer is left with a profound sense of the fragility and beauty of life.

Quinn is not the only artist to create disturbing works of art, but is art created to be shocking just for the sake of it? Whilst some art undoubtedly is, many works are created for therapeutic relief. An example is the work of Frida Kahlo which explores the themes of injury and death.

Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital, 1932 Image credit: Flickr user Libbyrossof
Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital, 1932
Image credit: Flickr user Libbyrossof

After suffering serious injuries in a bus accident, Kahlo was left unable to have children. This pain came out in her art. Her painting, Henry Ford Hospital depicts Kahlo lying naked on a blood stained hospital bed, connected to elements related to her miscarriage and broken body by umbilical cords.

Although a disturbing painting, it is an expression of her pain, of the horror she felt at the point of miscarriage. Indeed, art is often used as a platform to express that which is disturbing. It forces those who see it to confront the issues represented. This art is physical, it is unapologetic.

As part of my art foundation course, we were approached by Child Soldiers International to create an exhibition centred on child soldiers. Although the subject of the exhibition, and indeed some of the artwork, was disturbing, its purpose was to educate, to create awareness.

Photographer Letizia Battaglia photographed mafia violence and its aftermath. Her work, now part of her exhibition ‘Breaking the code of Violence’ (Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, 22nd February-4th May), is her attempt to fight back against the violence of the mafia in Palermo.

Artists have recognised the value that creating a disturbing piece of art has. It not only offers something new, but it also offers a platform to explore contentious issues that are important to the artist, and indeed to society. Disturbing images have made their way into art because of their ability to create discussion, and even initiate change.


Rhi Willimont

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