Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Honore Daumier

“If you shut up truth and bury it under ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”- Émile Zola
Exited Honoré Victorin Daumier, 10 February 1879, in an impoverishment that many of his contemporaries, especially his foes, would have thought was his long overdue retribution- the painter was blind, heavily in debt, and later relegated to a pauper’s grave. His friends, upon visiting his resting place, would, I imagine, see it a chance to admonish their children: “Now that’s a lesson for you cheeky devils whose tongues rattle off things that should better stay unspoken.” But Daumier devoted his life in revealing those “unspoken things.” His lithography ink proved sharper than most writers’ pens. He vented his rage and stigmatised others’ infamy in his satirical and, oftentimes, side-splitting cartoons. The tone was relentlessly acerbic but only because Daumier was exposing truths that, in the time…

Review: Gaslight (1944)

Despite its varied forms or narratives, all Gothic fictions revolve on a fundamental contrast: that between the tenuous comfort of an isolated self and the dangerous fascination of an intrusive otherness. The Victorian is an age characterised by its obsession with the supernatural – poised on the verge of modernity, with scientific advancements like Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species inspired missions to unlock the myths of the natural world, people began to take notice of what lay outside their limited knowledge of things, of anything that is external to the closed domain of humanity. This curiosity for the unknown provoked an appraisal for the known – the immutable social system was revealed as hostile to the cultivation of individual minds, and time-honoured ethics such as that dictating a woman’s role in a traditional domesticity a menace to the preservation of personal integrity.
The negotiation between the old and the new, the internal and the external, is the dominant theme of V…

Review: Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)

Every adversity in life is a test of one's fortitude, the occasion of which, as proved invariably in the past, man is capable of defying destiny, of reversing the inexorable course to which life is doomed to tend. Too often we sympathise with the travails of the dogged, indefatigable fighter, whose hard-on victory we shed tears of relief and admiration, and whose stories and examples we evoke when in need of a boost of morale or motivation, that our notion of heroism has come to be hallowed with a glow of divinity peculiar to those who triumph in their fights. Those who fail – the martyrs who labour for nothing, who die without fulfilling what they die for – they are regarded with no less sympathy, but to recount their stories we averse, refusing to be reminded of what ultimately makes us humans – our inherent and infinite capacity to fail.
To face up to one’s failures, especially with the forlorn hope that such failures can ever be remedied, requires a special kind of courage. Wil…