Friday, March 30, 2018

Tropes versus Lovecraft - Part 1: The Prophet's Portrait

" A really serious weird story does not depend on a plot or incident at all, but puts all its emphasis on mood or atmosphere. What it sets out to be is simply a picture of a mood, and if it weaves the elements of suggestion with sufficient skill  it matters relatively little what fictitious elements the mood is based on. Of course the more obviously worn-out clichés (in method even more than subject-matter) had better be avoided — but a true master of atmosphere and suggestion can do wonders with even the commonest sort of theme. "

– H.P. Lovecraft

I’d like to try something else here on EBD, and post a series of artworks I’ve come across online, illustrating lovecraftian scenes or conveying lovecraftian concepts.
There are certain visual stereotypes in this genre which are consciously or unconsciously repeated over and over again, so I thought it would be interesting to categorize the various tropes and perhaps even develop some kind of pop cultural art critique concerning these types of illustrations. If it would lead to a higher degree of awareness that these tropes exist and maybe some pressure to develop new ideas, that would be a welcome side effect.

However, I’m not doing this to put any particular artist down, nor to critique any specific piece of art. Some of the examples are fan art, some are professional illustrations, and some are my own work. Many are obviously well-executed and probably in most instances the individual creators were thinking they had an original idea. Or perhaps they didn't and created theirs as a personal version of a common visual trope. Which, I guess, begs the question, wether there is something inherently "wrong" with this in the first place. In other epochs it was totally ok for artists to riff on other artists work, often to the extent that the visual concept became a shared cultural topos, to use a more neutral term, with no original artist's name connected to it.
Well, I have more things to say about this but I'll save them for the following posts. I would very much be interested to hear your thoughts.

So here's the first series of images. Where best to begin than with the many portraits of HPL himself. The stereotypical tentacles jump out pretty obviously, but seeing them juxtaposed like this, it also helps appreciate the instances where artists tried to give it a more individualistic style or inject a more original idea. Of the tropes that I have come across this is by far the most common. If you google "lovecraft portrait" you'll get most of these and may more very similar ones.  So if this one seems to obvious and boring to you I hope you'll find the following ones more interesting.

FuFu Frauenwahl

David Lee Ingersoll

I don’t know most of the creators’ names but I think given the context of this post it’s perhaps not in their interest to be credited here anyhow. If any artist would like to be credited (or if they want their artwork removed) please let me know and I shall do so.

As a bonus I'll add Erik Krieks's beautiful cover illustration for his book "From Beyond", which cleverly takes the trope I've presented above and inverts it, kind of building on the fact that we've seen the stereotype so many times that we don't even need to see his face to recognize him.

Erik Kriek


alkbazz said...

sweet! good idea! That's a feeling i've since out of teenaging, when I understood my personnal & individual taste for him was shared by millions! We can say the same for many popculture cases of course. But at the end despite the fact that we'll enjoy seing what we thought, we are often back to the feeling that our vision is missing! I was reading Hyperion recently and realized that the cover was illustrating the monster of it, where my vision was totally different. But I feel that doing it will be making another version of wellknown illustration. Same as I did for Shub niggurath even if i am really not into looking at what is done in game world etc. I tried doing it without reference.
I had another experience when someone asked me "a deathmetal Cthulhu" trying to figure what was (not Cthulhu) but a deathmetal version of Cthulhu. Well i tried first my own idea, but failed to convince, so i did a new one after checking internet. Peoples need this and that, they want to recognise something, they don't care of a hyper original version, they want a common figuration. Same for let's say Vampire, Werewolf and so on, you can do whatever original peoples won't accept it. It have to fell into a certain shape.
This is what I call confronting the collective, when doing a pop character or picture with a conscious idea of doing it right the way, just adding your own style. It's like academic exercice. How do you do your Medusa? Everyone know how it look but how will you deal with it ? That's fair since all of us will have a great skill at our own work, so we need to confront a neutral field some time. Like shuting down creativity to simply enjoy the process of doing.

Marcel Ruijters said...

Tentacles are fun to draw but they're not scary. Of all the monsters from the deep, octopuses are probably the least aggressive. Graceful and intelligent, even. Of course HPL was building his mythos on old seaman's tales of the kraken, but somehow it never installed a sense of dread it needed IMO. He wrote a non-chtulhu related stories that did a better job, though. But so did Jaws and its ilk.

FuFu Frauenwahl said...

Thanks for the replies, A & M.
Yeah it's been obvious for a very long time that the Cthulhu mythos and especially old Mr. C. himself have been engulfed by pop-culture and nerddom to a degree which makes it really difficult to see it as a serious artistic effort anymore. And I personally also didn't really care for Cthulhu a lot when I first read the stories many years ago. But you have to keep in mind that the entity was never meant to be depicted at all, and is never directly described, only through its depiction on human artifacts. Similarily, in Call of Cthulhu HPL plays with the sea men's tales, and folklore in general, and reveals them to be a mere inept human way of rationalizing (or irrationalizing?) away existential horror.
Anyway, depictions of Lovecraft's creatures or ways of illustrating scenes from his stories aren't really what I'm going for here. I'm more looking for certain images which are meant to convey the spirit of the Lovecraftian weird but are simply over-used.
I'll try to make that clear in the next installment.

alkbazz said...

I'd also say that tentacles are a modern symbol of Lovecraft, not actual dominance in his books. Cth is mostly developped in post-Lovecraft books, the ones with Derleth (IF i remember correctly cause that's a longtime ago) & yes i clearly remember artefacts desriptions of it. Some of the most frightening novels to me are these in the hills, like the color out of space, and its out of creatures. Of course its not realy frightening but charged with strong and dark atmosphere. What I'd keep from entity description is some "molecular chaos" and other indescriptible mention. That's genious!

When I was checking details for my drawings i found this quote about Yog-Sottoth : "Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread"

and about Azatoth : "[O]utside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes."

this is such vocabulary & concept that's a shame to reduce to plastic figures for gaming ! I love this uncertain, moving, changing creatures, and the fact that everything melt like where you'll find goat legs into primordial chaos and so on. Noone did that before.

FuFu Frauenwahl said...

Yes, I agree those are great non-visual descriptions.

Btw, I added a fitting HPL quote to the top of this post and also just posted the second part of this series.

David Lee Ingersoll said...

I've done the HPL tentacle portrait thing myself. I knew it was a cliche but I went with it because I thought it would be fun to do my own riff on it. Musicians cover songs by other musicians. This seems like a similar thing.

And I'm happy to have my image included with these other "bad examples" :)

FuFu Frauenwahl said...

Ha, nice one David! I'll add it to the collection.
I hope I've made clear that I'm pretty ambivalent about these tropes. I mostly just found it interesting to juxtapose them and raise an awareness that they exist.

Ibrahim R. Ineke said...

This is great reading, thanks.
It makes it very clear that it's difficult to suggest 'horror'by using the
things that suggest 'horror.'
For the past year i've been working on an adaptation of Jean Ray's classic novel Malpertuis, and i binned at least two versions before arriving at something that wouldn't lazily signal 'haunted mansion' or 'creepy atmosphere.' The gothic is not gothic anymore, but cosy.

FuFu Frauenwahl said...

I love that novel, and always thought it would make a great comic. I would be very curious to see your version!

Ibrahim R. Ineke said...

It's out at the end of May, hopefully.
Leading up to it, i'll post some relevant stuff here.
(Been too long.)