Salvador Dalí, The Face of War, 1940

“The two most energetic motors that make the artistic and superfine brain of Salvador Dali function are, first, libido, or the sexual instinct, and, second, the anguish of death,…not a single minute of my life passes without the sublime Catholic, apostolic, and Roman specter of death accompanying me even in the least important of my most subtle and capricious fantasies.”

— Salvador Dalí

The Face of War, though one of Dalí’s lesser-known works, is, nevertheless, one of his most emotive and disturbing paintings.

Completed in 1940 between the end of the Spanish Civil War and beginning of the World War II the work features a disembodied head, floating withered and frightened, against the backdrop of a vast desert. In the rotted eye sockets and in the gaping mouth can be seen other disembodied, withered, and frightened heads, and inside those, more heads, and on and on in an infinite regression of misery and death. And all around, as if that weren’t frightening enough, there are snakes biting and slithering around the face and in and out of its open mouth and eye holes In the bottom right corner is, according to Dalí, a print of his own hand, the only one in all his work.

This painting, like all depictions of horror and macabre, tells the story of humanity. We inflict pain and cruelty on another, who suffers grief and loss, and he turns and inflicts pain and cruelty and every killer will know death at the hands of another killer who will eventually know death too in a never ending prison of suffering man makes for himself. The Face of War is a mirror that shows the worst of who we all are, and, most terrifyingly, what we may always be.

Vincent van Gogh, Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, 1888

Van Gogh’s Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette may seem chilling now but at the time of its painting it was meant to be a joke, a satire.

He completed it during his time at the art academy in Antwerp, Belgium where skeletons were often used to study anatomy a practice he found both boring and useless. His disappointment and disagreement with his curriculum coupled with illness and dark palette influence of other Dutch artists gives us what is widely considered Van Gogh’s most macabre work.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819–1823

Saturn Devouring His Son is a painting by Francisco Goya. It is part of a series of 14 painting called “The Black Paintings”—so named because of their dark pigments and somber tones—completed during the later years in his life when he had become isolated, bitter, and fearing both madness and death. These “Black Paintings” were murals he painted directly onto the walls of his home. Saturn Devouring His Son was located in his dining room.

Goya himself never named these paintings. He never discussed these painting with anyone and never intended for them to be viewed by the public.

The dark and disturbing piece depicts the myth of the Titan God Cronos, Romanized here as Saturn, who, obsessed with preventing a prophecy in which he is overthrown by his son from coming true. promptly eats each of his children moments after birth.

Most artistic renderings of the myth depict Cronus with a powerful and God-like appearance and distinctly unsympathetic disposition and the child is usually an infant as in the stories. Here Goya has painted Cronus as a dirty and dishevelled madman appearing almost ashamed of his act. Here his child in not a baby but a full-grown man headless and dripping blood.

The disturbing nature of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son is exactly what makes it such a fascinating work, and among my favorite paintings. What disturbs us about it is how human Goya has made this inhumane act. It is not a God devouring another God who will later rise to power and overthrow him as he did his own father. No, this is a God made in man’s image. This is a father murdering his child out of fear and jealousy. This is a final, disgusting, and evil act.

René Magritte, Le Seize Septembre, 1956

“I have just painted the moon on a tree in the blue-gray colors of evening. [Poet Louis] Scutenair has come up with a very beautiful title: Le seize septembre. I think it ‘fits,’ so from September 16th on, we’ll call it done.”

— Rene Magritte, Magritte: The True Art of Painting (via Austin Kleon)

Frida Kahlo, Sun and Life, 1947

“The subject of fertility appears one more time in this work. As a rather strange still life, Frida depicts plants-flowers-seeds-vaginas in process of gestation: the flowers’ pistils are drops of semen impregnating the ovum inside. A fetus is crying, just as is the third eye of the sun. Once again, Frida has had to face the loss of a child.”

(via Google Arts and Culture)

Frida Kahlo, Thinking About Death, 1943 (via

“In the painting she stares out unflinchingly against a backdrop of luxuriant foliage. In the centre of her forehead, just above the two dark bushy eyebrows, is a perfectly circular round hole, within which is a rural landscape dominated by a skull and crossbones.

The face is neither frightened nor filled with despair; it is calm. She seems to say that if death and suffering can be accepted as a natural part of life then fulfilment is possible. It is one of her many self-portraits that relentlessly lay bare her pre-occupations with death and her own physical fragility.

It demonstrates her fearlessness in confronting what lies at the centre of existence: death.

By putting death in the place of the third eye, the chakra, she makes it the source of all wisdom.”