Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pickman's Model by H.P. Lovecraft

Pickman's Model
by H.P. Lovecraft

Narrated by an author penning a book about macabre art, as if in conversation with his friend Eliot (i.e., we the reader), this tale involves a gifted subversive artist named Pickman. Pickman's paintings are so brilliant and life-like that the viewer must remind himself that he is not glimpsing through a window, but rather gazing upon a painted canvas.
"You recall that Pickman's forte was faces. I don't believe anybody since Goya could put so much of sheer hell into a set of features or a twist of expression"
The narrator is familiar with both the man and his art, and he notices that as Pickman's disposition grows darker, so do his subjects. Hideous and unspeakable monsters populate his latest works, each of them more disturbing than the last.

How does Pickman create something so unimaginable and yet so realistic at the same time? If you're patient enough, and willing to listen to his dark theories, Pickman just might show you.
"You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman's. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches' Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That's because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear — the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness."
It's fairly obvious that Lovecraft was using this story as a soapbox to discuss his own craft, with Pickman's artwork as a stand-in for his writing. In fact, many of the sentiments on display here later found their way into Lovecraft's famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature.
"It's my business to catch the overtones of the soul, and you won't find those in a parvenu set of artificial streets on made land. Back Bay isn't Boston — it isn't anything yet, because it's had no time to pick up memories and attract local spirits. If there are any ghosts here, they're the tame ghosts of a salt marsh and a shallow cove; and I want human ghosts — the ghosts of beings highly organized enough to have looked on hell and known the meaning of what they saw."
Despite being viewed by some as a rather prosaic or generic entry into the canon, I found this story to be greatly enjoyable. Maybe it's the sensibility that I was raised with--both my parents were artists of sorts--but I'm always drawn to the mad artist archtype, which I feel is the spiritual flipside to the mad scientist coin.

Pickman...Horror Hipster?

Hmm.  Could be.


1 comment:

  1. Pickman's Model is somewhat forgotten because it strayed from the Cthuhlu Mythos archetype everyone focuses on when talking Lovecraft, but it’s still one of my favorites, mostly because of the way the ghouls and even Pickman himself figure into later stories. And beyond that, ghouls are way too cool and way too underused these days.

    There was an adaptation of the story done for the TV show "Night Gallery" years ago. I've never seen it (not for lack of trying), but I'd wager it's available somewhere online.

    - Aaron


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