From Horror to Ecstasy – Dave McKean Turns Silence into Expression

On February 26th, 2012, something rather extraordinary occurred:  The Artist, a contemporary silent film won the ‘Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of the Year‘.  Almost coinciding with this momentous occasion is the fact that a few days later, March 4th marked the 90th anniversary of what is my favorite film of all time, Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens, directed by German silent filmmaker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.  On March 4th, the film had its gala preview showing back in 1922.  The film, for those who aren’t familiar with it, has become an iconic classic among the annals of horror films and is one of the most visually poetic of the films often collectively referred to as German Expressionist cinema.

Max Schreck as Count Orlok and Greta Schröder as Ellen.  In the starkly climactic scene of the 1922 film “Nosferatu”, the vampire Count Orlok is lured to his demise with an offering of blood by the virtuous and virginal heroine, Ellen Hutter.  As she sacrifices herself to his monstrous appetite, Count Orlok is diverted and unaware of the passing time, thus rendering him helpless to the lethal first rays of sunlight.

“Nosferatu” (2010, mixed media).  Dave McKean’s marvelously expressionistic interpretation of the same scene in the film.  One of the great examples of his ongoing “Nitrate” series of paintings which are a glorious homage to classic films of the early era.  The use of tortured angles, rich textures, and chiaroscuro effects would have met with great approval from the film’s director F.W. Murnau.

Many of these silent films possess a symbolic quality and a visual poetry that most modern films lack entirely.  The filmmakers of the Expressionist movement took advantage of the environment in which the story played out and used it to serve as a visual metaphor for the emotional state of the characters.  Cinematographers and cameramen employed new techniques in moving the camera around while shooting, in addition to placing an emphasis on the contrast between light and shadow.  Meanwhile editors experimented with cutting scenes so as to create the illusion of geographical and emotional continuity from one shot to the next.

It was a new era and because no one had ever laid out the rules or guidelines for what couldn’t be done in the cinema, many filmmakers approached their craft with an experimental curiosity, both in terms of the subject matter that they explored and the way in which they went about creating the haunting imagery being shown on screen.

The ominous figure of Mephisto, played by German character actor Emil Jannings, hovers over the town as his colossal wings fan a miasma of plague on the people.  This classic scene from F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film “Faust” was a showcase not only for special effects of the day, but also a wonderful opportunity to display the operatic scale of the battle between good and evil in the cinematic medium.

“Faust” (2007, mixed media).  Dave McKean’s impressive take on the memorable scene.  The way in which he has fabricated the effect of the wind and the cloud of plague blowing over the rooftops is extremely creepy and stylistically rivals the same effect achieved in the film.

Interestingly, there has been in the past few years a growing appreciation and understanding of why silent cinema is so special.  While film scholars and cineastes have long championed silent films for their artistic merits and their technical innovation, many modern film audiences have until recently dismissed them as relics of the past, but now with the this new recognition that silent films are receiving, many movie goers are reevaluating their initial stance on these classics.  No more are they being viewed as fading relics of redundant or obsolete technologies.  Finally, more people are beginning to see their artistic value and the important part that they played in the continuing evolution of the movie industry.

Without the films of Georges Méliès, Robert Wiene, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Victor Sjöström, Paul Leni, and others, we wouldn’t even have had the wonderful European art house films of the past 50 years.  And these are but just a few of the great filmmakers from Europe.  There were many wonderful silent film directors in America and throughout other parts of the world.  Taking that into consideration, the long lasting effect of these films cannot be understated;  they are an essential part of our culture and of cinematic history.

When you think of these films and the long, rich history of cultural influence that they carry, it seems almost surprising how many of the still images have been remembered and made iconic almost more than the films themselves.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that silent cinema is so purely a visual medium and the aesthetics being projected on screen owe as much to art as they do to literature and photography.

A photographic portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, circa 1924, taken from the promotional program booklet of “Der Letzte Mann” (known in America as “The Last Laugh”).

F.W. Murnau is a perfect example of this.  Many scenes in his films were directly inspired by works of art ranging from the Dutch masters Rembrandt Van Rijn and Jan Vermeer, to Romanticists like William Blake and Caspar David Friedrich, to Symbolists like Arnold Böcklin and Félicien Rops.  His films are beautifully composed and informed by his classical art education, but also by his close circle of friends who had embraced a more liberal, bohemian lifestyle and the art of the Expressionists and Dadaists.  Murnau was very much a poet in the way that he directed, being both concise and precise in the images that he chose to show on screen, and he would often re-shoot a single scene a multitude of times until he reached just the level of nuance that his perfectionism demanded.  Despite the fact that Murnau was certainly what one would consider an auteur of films, he was also a collaborative man and he worked very closely with his set designers, cameramen, actors, and screen writers.   Yet his films remain uniquely his own as an extension of his personality, ideas, and interests.

A scene from F.W. Murnau’s “Schloß Vogelöd”, also known by its American title “The Haunted Castle”.  The film is a melodrama in which a hunting party and gathering at Castle Vogelöd results in the unveiling of a mystery involving a group of aristocrats, a murderer, and a young widow with a secret.

“Schloß Vogelöd” (2010, mixed media).  Dave McKean’s eerie evocation of the same scene from the film.  Again, McKean employs methods that Murnau would have very much appreciated, conjuring up the sense of a voice speaking in a whisper, yet where no voice can be heard.


In addition to early filmmakers like Murnau and other later filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, this could also be said of many modern artists who take their inspiration not only from other artists, but from films as well.  Dave McKean (best known for his brilliant cover art on Neil Gaiman‘s The Sandman and as the illustrator of numerous graphic novels such as Arkham Asylum, Violent Cases, and Mr. Punch, and children’s books such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book) is also fascinated with silent films and the foundation of the motion picture as an art form.

For McKean, this began when he was young and he purchased a book on horror films, which documented the progress of the genre, and featured numerous photographs.  The photographs were in black and white, were fuzzy, out of focus, or damaged by time.  Because of this, and because of their frequently ambiguous and enigmatic imagery, McKean found himself captivated by these photos.  He has since sited the imagery of these early films as one of the things that urged him to become a visual artist and then later a filmmaker (McKean’s fantasy film MirrorMask was released via The Jim Henson Company and Sony Pictures in 2005,  The Gospel of Us: The Passion of Port Talbot is currently in limited release in the UK, and he is also at work on finishing post-production on his follow-up film Luna).

In the past few years, Dave McKean has set out to pay homage to the great masterpieces of early cinema in an extraordinary creative venture which he is calling Nitrate.  The paintings in this series are a celebration of early films in which McKean has either given us his interpretation of a particular scene or encapsulated the themes, story, and characters into a singular striking image.  These paintings have been displayed at various exhibitions at different venues including Billy Shire Fine Arts and here at Century Guild, where they have been displayed alongside  original silent film posters  as part of Nitrate + Kinogeists.  They will also be gathered together in a Nitrate book at some time in the future.

Das Maschinenmensch (The Machine-Man)

Das Maschinenmensch (The Machine-Man) from Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking science-fiction epic “Metropolis”. In the film, amidst a cataclysm of social unrest, a mad scientist animates a robot, and gives it the face and form of a beautiful woman in order to cause a revolt of the workers in the lower social stratosphere against the wealthy industrialists who live in the monolithic skyscrapers above.

“Metropolis” (2010, mixed media).  Dave McKean’s extraordinary rendering of the animation of the Maschinenmensch is a stunning work that is reminiscent of the works of Ludwig Meidner and even to some extent Pablo Picasso’s Cubist paintings. Here, McKean has not only paid homage to one of the all-time classic scenes of silent films, science fiction, and cinema at large, he has placed an emphasis on certain aspects of the image, creating a subtle erotic tension.

Perhaps there is no greater example of German Expressionism on screen than Robert Wiene’s 1919 film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, a tale of murder, tragedy, and madness.  The story centers around a man relaying his tale of how a mountebank came to his small village during a fair and unleashed a hypnotically-controlled, murderous somnambulist upon the people.  The end of the film reveals a complex psychological twist that would foreshadow the psychological thrillers of Hitchcock and many other filmmakers.

“Das Cabinet des Doktor Caligari” (2009, mixed media).  Dave McKean’s painting inspired by the film takes two of the central characters of Dr. Caligari, the mountebank and Cesar, the somnambulist and juxtaposes them on the crooked path leading to the town.  You can really get the sense that the bespectacled Caligari is a master of fate, a puppeteer of the mindless automaton, Cesar.

But Dave hasn’t limited himself exclusively to interpretations of silent films.  Oh, no, he has also created wonderful works inspired by early sound films such as Fritz Lang‘s 1931 proto-Noir thriller “M”, Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s bizarre and haunting 1932 feature Vampyr, and Gustav Machatý‘s 1933 romantic melodrama Extase.  The latter film was a source of controversy due to two scenes; one in which the beautiful Hedy Lamarr goes bathing in the nude and another in which she is shown from the shoulders up during an orgasm.

“Ekstase” (2010, mixed media).  Echoing the subtle eroticism of the film in which Hedy Lamarr had her famous bathing scene, and foreshadowing the style used in his graphic novel “Celluloid”, Dave McKean creates yet another astonishing work in the “Nitrate” series that is at once an homage to the films of the past, but also a glimpse into the future of art.

Many of these paintings and others can be purchased as part of a limited series of prints (more about that below) from Century Guild.  The above painting, Ekstase, has been on display at the Century Guild gallery this month.  Other paintings in the series can also be found HERE in the exhibition catalogs for the special Nitrate + Kinogeists showings.

Printed by Transmission Atelier in 2010, the Nitrate paintings of Dave McKean are a superb addition to the collection of any cineaste or art enthusiast.  Each print is 22″ x 22″, printed on Fine Art Lustre paper with digital pigment print.  The prints are limited edition, signed, and numbered.
Numbered prints #1-10 are priced at $850.
Numbered prints #11-90 are priced at $350

There’s also a very limited edition of 36 x 36″ prints.
Digital pigment print on Archival Silver Gloss edition paper
Limited edition signed & numbered prints,
1-5 ($2150)

We have prints of the paintings inspired by the following films:
La Phrénologie Burlesque
(George Méliès, 1901)
Der müde Tod (Fritz Lang, 1920)
Schloß Vogelöd (F. W. Murnau, 1921)
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)
Orlacs Hände (Robert Wiene, 1924)
Faust (F.W. Murnau, 1926)
Der Student von Prag (Henrik Galeen, 1926)
Le Sang d’un Poete (Jean Cocteau, 1930)
M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

– Sean

5 Responses to “From Horror to Ecstasy – Dave McKean Turns Silence into Expression”

  1. […] From Horror to Ecstasy – Dave McKean Turns Silence into Expression: In the past few years, Dave McKean has set out to pay homage to the great masterpieces of early cinema in an extraordinary creative venture which he is calling Nitrate. The paintings in this series are a celebration of early films in which McKean has either given us his interpretation of a particular scene or encapsulated the themes, story, and characters into a singular striking image. […]

  2. cre8ivewisdom Says:

    A facinating blog post. Amazing to see the comparisons. As you’re a Dave McKean fan, can I ask you to join the Facebook page for his forthcoming movie Luna?

    • Indeed, we have liked the pages for both of McKean’s latest films, “The Gospel of Us” and “Luna”, and we’ll be presenting some of McKean’s works at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. More details on that and some other exciting news will also be forthcoming!

  3. […] the dialogue in works of erotica to be redundant or perhaps he went this route as a reflection of  his own love of silent cinema.  Celluloid is certainly deeply rooted within the world of films, of visual expression, and the […]

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