Blog: MCA DNA

Halloween, Art History-Style

By Becky Manuel

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1480-90

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Halloween may bring Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street to mind most readily, but history, and especially art history, is full of fiendish and ghoulish scenes that can still shock even a contemporary mind. This Halloween, dig into art’s past and present to create nightmarish decor for your Halloween festivities. We invited Rebecca Manuel, Community Programs Coordinator at the Art Institute of Chicago, to share some of her art history–inspired Halloween crafts.

The fascination with the macabre, grim, and deathly never gets old for artists. Despite being made centuries ago, gargoyles on cathedrals and visions of hell in Dutch paintings can possess a big fright factor, and artists today are still exploring those age-old themes. Using well-known works from the gothic to post-impressionist periods as inspiration, and with an eye to budget-friendly yet spooky decorations, this past weekend I hosted an art historical Halloween decoration-making party and shamelessly nerded out on creepy art history. Here are some highlights from what we created and instructions to create your own.

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Create a monsterpiece

This project is probably the simplest out of all three, but it gave us some of our favorite finished products. Starting with black-and-white reproductions of your favorite artworks, give the image a ghoulish transformation by using mark-making materials, like markers and colored pencils, to color it in as you see fit. Then cut it out and add extra details; we enjoyed adding monster appendages with colored paper to Vincent van Gogh's Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (La Berceuse). Creepy and nerdy!

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Collage-drawing of a seated person with a purple face, a green tail with pink spikes, and green hands with long pink nails, and wearing a brown shirt, orange-brown blanket, and a spiky, three-tiered crown

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Frankenart collages

The activity is great if you, like me, have piles of art magazines that you will (probably) never use again. Channel your inner Dr. Frankenstein by harvesting the magazines’ choicest, juiciest organs—I mean, images of artworks. Then recombine these disparate individual entrails/images to make one spooky scene or monster. If done correctly, you will never see your collage again, as it will have run away to shield itself from the ugliness of humanity.

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This colorful collage of cutout photographs and drawings includes images of a pom-pom, folded paper, black-and-white drawings, and a man wearing a half-face respirator in front of a cloudy sky.

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Disturbing detail drawings

Many works of art need no manipulation to be scary. For this project, you need to find an already creepy work of art, and create a drawing of one of its many unsettling details. I chose to use graphite and construction paper to focus on a detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s vision of hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights, seen at top. A Halloween favorite, this cautionary hellscape will not disappoint!

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Pencil drawing on blue paper of a hybrid creature with a bird head and human body ingesting a nude human as four birds fly above them