The 10 Best Scary Paintings
by Laura Cumming
6. The Flaying of Marsyas: Titian, c1570-75
Photograph: National Gallery, London
This frightening picture shows the satyr Marsyas receiving his punishment for losing a musical contest with Apollo: strung upside down, his skin flayed inch by inch, while a spaniel laps the blood and another musician – excruciatingly – accompanies on the violin. The surface of the canvas itself appears flayed, an incoherent mass, almost monochrome except for bloody streaks of crimson. Close up, every stroke blurs softly into the next, as if Titian couldn’t paint such a vision of horror without lending it a sorrowful grace. He puts himself into the painting, too (seated on the right) pondering the torture with sadness.
Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new aesthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr. Pater dwells, that makes music the type of all the arts. Of course, nations and individuals, with that healthy natural vanity which is the secret of existence, are always under the impression that it is of them that the Muses are talking, always trying to find in the calm dignity of imaginative art some mirror of their own turbid passions, always forgetting that the singer of life is not Apollo but Marsyas. Remote from reality, and with her eyes turned away from the shadows of the cave, Art reveals her own perfection, and the wondering crowd that watches the opening of the marvellous, many-petalled rose fancies that it is its own history that is being told to it, its own spirit that is finding expression in a new form. But it is not so. The highest art rejects the burden of the human spirit, and gains more from a new medium or a fresh material than she does fromany enthusiasm for art, or from any lofty passion, or from any great awakening of the human consciousness. She develops purely on her own lines. She is not symbolic of any age. It is the ages that are her symbols.
—Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying
When Marsyas was ‘torn from the scabbard of his limbs’ - DELLA VAGINA DELLA MEMBRE SUE, to use one of Dante’s most terrible Tacitean phrases - he had no more song, the Greek said. Apollo had been victor. The lyre had vanquished the reed. But perhaps the Greeks were mistaken. I hear in much modern Art the cry of Marsyas. It is bitter in Baudelaire, sweet and plaintive in Lamartine, mystic in Verlaine. It is in the deferred resolutions of Chopin’s music. It is in the discontent that haunts Burne- Jones’s women. Even Matthew Arnold, whose song of Callicles tells of ‘the triumph of the sweet persuasive lyre,’ and the ‘famous final victory,’ in such a clear note of lyrical beauty, has not a little of it; in the troubled undertone of doubt and distress that haunts his verses, neither Goethe nor Wordsworth could help him, though he followed each in turn, and when he seeks to mourn for THYRSIS or to sing of the SCHOLAR GIPSY, it is the reed that he has to take for the rendering of his strain. But whether or not the Phrygian Faun was silent, I cannot be. Expression is as necessary to me as leaf and blossoms are to the black branches of the trees that show themselves above the prison walls and are so restless in the wind. Between my art and the world there is now a wide gulf, but between art and myself there is none. I hope at least that there is none.
—Oscar Wilde, De Profundis