“In Room 101 is the worst thing in the world,” Winston Smith’s torturer told the defiant hero of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” Now, rooms 1-4 of the Bridgestone Museum of Art’s temporary exhibition galleries are hosting a whole array of the world’s “worst things.”
That’s because the museum is currently showing a small but intriguing exhibition titled “Kowaii: The Many Aspects of Fear,” assembled from its permanent collection. Gluttons for punishment can take their pick from “Death and Satan,” “Monstrosities” or “Fear From Within” — the themed sections into which the show is divided.
Loathing, like love, is a personal matter — what does it for me may not do it for you. It’s little surprise, then, that most of the works on show here aren’t all that scary. Generally, they say as much about the psyches of their creators, and the preoccupations of their time, as they do about the universal anxieties of humankind.
Take Picasso’s etchings, of which 12 are displayed here. Five of these depict the Minotaur, the mythical beast which obsessed the artist throughout the 1930s. The English critic (and Soviet spy) Anthony Blunt wrote that Picasso’s Minotaur is “a symbol of violence and brutality . . . at other moments it is gentle and domesticated.”
The Minotaur was also the artist’s most powerful image of himself — he frequently referred to himself as having “the eye of the bull,” and once described the Minotaur as “the line that extended throughout my career.” At the peak of Picasso’s production of Minotaur works, he was embroiled in an affair with Marie-Therese Walter, whom he bedded on her 18th birthday (at that time, below the age of consent) and prized for her sexual submissiveness.
Sexual violence is close to the surface in a number of the Picasso etchings here — and breaks through openly in “Rape” (April 1933) and “Minotaur Assaulting Girl” (May 1933). The fear inherent in such scenarios is most obviously that of the victim, but these pieces superbly convey Picasso’s conflicted self-awareness of the beast within. Here, the sexual impulse is brutal, literally monstrous, and yet is reveled in by the male — and even, some of Picasso’s unresisting women seem to suggest, by its female “victim.”
Most of the works on show date from the late 19th or early 20th century, in line with the Bridgestone’s acquisitions policy. (The museum was created in 1952 by Shojiro Ishibashi, founder of the Bridgestone Corp., to collect and exhibit Impressionist and modern European art and Western-style Japanese paintings.) Consequently, the bug-a-boos that haunted earlier Western art — skeletons, ghosts, devils and demons — are not much in evidence.
For this was the dawning age of Freud — and also the threshold of a century of bitter warfare. This generation of artists was perhaps the first to wrestle on canvas with the notion that man’s greatest horrors lie within.
“The Intruder,” an 1893 lithograph by Albert Besnard, a French Academician best known for his civic murals, is at first glance conventional enough. In this dim, heavily inked work, a cheerful family sits around a table by candlelight as the mistress of the house opens her door to . . . what? It is too dark to see — and we realize that, just perhaps, we are in the darkness of the unconscious.
Dream theory, believed to unlock the secrets of the unconscious, enjoyed popularity in bohemian society from the beginning of the 19th century, sparked off by Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” (1821). Demimonde Paris was a hotbed of such speculative thinking — it fascinated the poet Charles Baudelaire and buzzed round the city’s circles of artists and models, not least that surrounding the noted Impressionist Edouard Manet. Manet’s friend Edmond Duranty described dreams as “pure paintings” for their perfect representation of the subconscious workings of the brain. In Vienna, in 1895, Freud completed his first dream analysis.
These threads and theories swirl in a number of the works on show — “Opium” (1894) by Victor Prouve (like Besnard, best known for public works); “The Auricular Cell” by Odilon Redon; “Dream” by Theodore Pierre Wagner; and “The Source of Evil” by Georges de Feure. This last is particularly nasty: A recumbent woman (is it Eve?) seems to “leak” into the landscape around her — her hair trails off into a red river, tree roots spring from her scalp — like a toxic yet fertilizing contaminant. The palette is a queasy mixture of greens, reds and oranges.
For this visitor, de Feure’s was the most disturbing work on show. “The Source of Evil” — or perhaps the woman next to her, “The Acid-Thrower,” hand-stencilled in similar, sickish shades of orange and green by Eugene Grasset. Her eyes huge and intent, the bubbling bowl of acid in her hand — what does this vitrioleuse represent? Those supposedly feminine failings of hysteria and jealousy?
Madwomen and the Minotaur. The most frightening things of all, it seems, are what men and women see when we look at each other — and deep inside ourselves.