A quick look at one of the best loved works in the Scottish National Gallery as seen through the eyes of a life-long horror film enthusiast. WARNING: CONTAINS SCENES THAT SOME VIEWERS MAY FIND DISTURBING.
Like many visitors to the Scottish National Gallery I was drawn to William Dyce’s painting Francesca da Rimini by its beauty. By the graduating blue of the sky at dusk, the moon set within, the brightly glowing stars and the young lovers on which they shine.
My first impression was of young love, earnest and passionate, all encompassing. A time when everything is felt so much more deeply than it ever will again. It seemed a beautiful painting, it is a beautiful painting, but it quickly became something else.
Things began to change when I read the wall label. From it I learned that the painting depicted a scene from Dante’s Inferno and that the young lovers were Francesca and Paolo. I also learned that these young lovers, like so many lovers in literature, are doomed. Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother, the elderly and deformed Gianciotto and it is he who, upon finding them together, murders them both. This undoubtedly changed my perception of the painting. That this idyllic moment is about to come to a violent end gave it an added poignancy. What really transformed the painting, however, was when my attention was drawn to the hand.
It creeps into view from the left of the frame. The hand of Gianciotto, full of malignant and murderous intent. As a former film student and someone whose formative years were spent in darkened rooms illuminated by the flickering images of the horror films that I so loved I suddenly found myself on familiar ground.
I had seen the hand that malevolently creeps towards its victims many times before. This first image that came to mind was from the 1939 horror comedy The Cat and the Canary (1939) starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. Here the sleeping Paulette Goddard is terrorised by the hand that reaches out from behind the bed. The terror enhanced by the fact that we see the threat that the intended victim does not. In both film and painting the intended victim is blissfully unaware of the threat that the gnarled hand presents. That this scene appears in a film from 1939 parodying horror tropes shows how prevalent the image of the creeping hand had already become in horror cinema.
The creeping hand is a motif which returns again and again in horror cinema. In Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), a portmanteau film from Amicus studios, Christopher Lee plays an art critic terrorised by the severed hand of an artist (played by Michael Gough) whose work he has criticised and whose hand he has mutilated in a not-so-accidental car accident. Unable to paint, Gough’s artist takes his own life. But the severed hand is not so easily defeated and takes its revenge.
All this talk of severed hands might seem inappropriate, after all in the painting Gianciotto's hand is still attached. However, Dyce's original canvas was quite different and depicted the whole figure of Gianciotto. In 1882 the canvas was trimmed to remove damage, physically severing the hand and in doing so creating a more powerful work of art. By alluding to the figure of Gianciotto through the hand alone the painting becomes much more powerful than if we had seen his whole figure. This is another reason why the painting is reminiscent of a still from a horror film.
There is an anxiety around the edge of the frame that horror filmmakers have long exploited in order create a sense of unease that we also feel when looking at Dyce’s painting. So often a seemingly innocent scene will play out only for it to end with a fragment of a figure (or hand) entering the frame from the side. Immediately the scene changes, we know the protagonists are being watched, a threat is implied and is all the more potent for being unseen by the intended victim. This interruption is often accompanied by the film’s soundtrack which leaves us in no doubt as to the malevolent intent of the figure (or hand) entering the frame. Seeing the hand in Dyce’s painting for the first time I could almost hear an ominous chord ringing in my ears.
While it would be foolish to claim that Dyce’s painting is a precursor of the horror film, the effect that it had upon me was undoubtedly influenced by the cinematic images from my misspent childhood. Creeping hands, terror frustratingly lurking just out of frame and a pair young lovers blissfully unaware of the horrific fate that awaits them. These are all traits so recognisable from horror films as to become cliché. That they can be found in a painting from 1837 is credit to Dyce and to the conservator’s blade.