Thursday, 15 November 2012

Slaughterhouse-Five: the Theme of Murder in Western Art

American photographer Christian Patterson’s project, Redheaded Peckerwood, follows the trail of the notorious Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate who, in late 1950s, embarked on an atrocious killing spree which resulted in eleven deaths of their beloved and acquaintances. Most of the photographs feature the remnants left by the victims or the killers. One of them shows a jack knife stuck in the crack of a wall. Around the crack are some tinctures of brownish mud stains. For a second I was even convinced that they were more like blood stains with their colour gradually fading away over time.

But it is the perverted romanticism of the killing spree that makes the story hauntingly enchanting. The love that makes one a robot which is ever-subservient to whatever the lover orders. We travel together and elope, and together we commit crimes which purpose and meaning fail our understanding. Even in the end fate tears us apart and we are forbidden to die together (Starkhouse was executed seventeen months after captured; Fugate escaped the execution to life imprisonment.) The love lives on. Artists who delve into the theme of murder are by no means merely documenting the murder scenes in their artworks. Walter Sickert, one of the individual talents in British avant-garde, took an uncanny interest in the crimes of Jack the Ripper and contributed a series of paintings in relation to the incident. In the Camden Town Murder (1908), the murderer sits beside the body, head bowed down presumably in deep penitence. Paintings like that are about the sentiments: the guilt and anger inherent in every human flesh; even in those who seem callous and claim they never feel.

But murder can never achieved without the acts of violence. Street photographer Weegee rushed promptly to the locale when a murder or any other accidents that left casualties were taken place. For modesty’s sake the lurid details of the crimes are never manifested- Weegee apparently took pictures after the police investigated the case and covered the bodies with white shrouds. But the photographer certainly knew how to captivate his viewers: from time to time a trickle of blood can be seen stealing its way out from the shrouded body, and the cars hurtle through, in complete oblivion of the affair. Weegee’s photography provided significant groundwork for the 1948 film-noir the Naked City (1948), which has the investigation of a murder case operated almost like a scientific research; nonchalance is the word defining the tones of the investigators and the suspects, giving the movie an extra chilling beauty. 

It is the absence of feelings and emotions that makes those murder scenes disturbing, and not the spill of blood, or the undue violence. The aforementioned three who followed in the wake of the murderers and documented every little remnant they dropped, if they were conscious enough to turn back and look, the shadow of a sneaky something quickly slipped away.

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