When you walk into room after room of European paintings, you kind of get an expectation of what you are likely to see next. In this case, I took a double take and looked around to see if there was anything similar. There wasn’t.
This painting was by itself, possibly, not surrounded by anything that can relieve you of the unsettling visuals, maybe. In truth, I can’t say for certain if it was near other paintings. The haunting nature of it sucks you in, and suddenly, where are you? This phenomenon, this painting, is called “Inferno”, and is an oil on canvas by a German painter by the name of Franz von Stuck.
Inferno, Franz von Stuck, 1908
I think it is absolutely worth mentioning that von Stuck made all of his frames, all specific to the painting they held. In person, the frame is very eye-catching and well, impressive. Leaving only the word “Inferno” with a more simple decorative pattern, it still makes you stop. The size of this is likely a good reason to stop, as it is 50 3/4 in. x 82 1/2 in., but the frame itself demands attention. There is a lot of empty space left around the word, a word in a simple thin font, creating the importance of it. Inferno. This painting begs for your attention, and you have no choice. You have to give it. How can you walk away, take your eyes off of it, for one second? You’re glued to it, nothing else in the Metropolitan Museum exists anymore. It is you, faced with this single, uncomfortable and haunting painting. That giant column you saw on your way in? Gone. Your memory is wiped. It is you, and the Inferno. This Inferno, this representation of hell, is based off a book you may already know. This is Franz von Stuck’s interpretation of Dante’s Inferno. And the details within this work? You can no longer look away.
It is you, and the Inferno.
Perhaps that’s what we are meant to feel, that it is us against a devilish force unknown. We are forced to face the possible horrors that may await us, one day, some day, maybe. I cannot tell you for sure, but when standing in front of the Inferno, the cool colors chill you. The people in front of you, clearly suffering, don’t even look up. You can see their anguish, their pain, knotted up within their twisted muscles. The veins in their arms, their hands, they can pop at any moment. They cradle into themselves, maybe if they don’t look, it will cease to exist. There is a strong feeling of fear in the center, with the poor souls who no longer hold their future in their own hands. What are they to do? What are you to do? Nothing. You stand and you stare at their misfortune. But, do you end up in hell just due to misfortune? Are we to be expected to pity these people, or shrug our shoulder “they got what they deserve”. Who’s to tell. In this very section on the right, you see the snake. The snake, a major symbol of hell and the evil amongst us. Von Stuck has dealt with snakes before, having his own interpretation, called “The Sin” Unfortunately I did not get to see this painting in person, but it too has a snake very similar to this one, wrapped around a nude woman. Is this the very snake that created original sin? Or is it maybe just one it his subordinates, who knows. The face is unnerving, staring straight out at the viewer. Does it make you uncomfortable? It doesn’t matter, is it only you and the Inferno now. There’s no escape. The vibrant white teeth against blue and black scales create a contrast that draws you close to just how sharp those teeth are. The aggressive and piercing eyes staring into you, are you being judged? Is it your time, sucked in this vortex to be judged upon, to find out if the Inferno is your future? Maybe. Maybe not. But this snake, this ominous and threatening serpent, is itching to snap out to you. Can you run? Probably not. You’re still in the Inferno.
If you thought the snake’s face was bad, you’ll look to your left and find this woman. What happened? What did she see that all color was lost, that even her eyes have barely any blue left in them? She appears to be completely locked in her rigid position, what has her so frozen? She stares straight out of the painting, her eyes make contact with yours. You can see the demons head, almost moving into to the crook of her shoulder where it meets the arm and torso. Would you freeze too, if you were her position? This demon isn’t looking at her, it looks on to those in the center. The people from before, so tense their bodies could explode, is this why they are hunched? Are they hiding from the demon that is slipping up against this ghastly-looking woman? How can anyone face the disgusting look on it’s face and ever feel safe again? Clearly the woman is terrified, she knows all the ways in which it can traumatize her, as well as the others. She is forced to face it, she can’t move. Could you move? Another thought may run through your head, maybe she’s not human anymore. Maybe the look on her face and the lack of pigment on her can suggest something else? She only vaguely resembles the woman wrapped in the serpents body. That woman boasts a slight yellow tinge to her skin, a bit of warmth. This other woman has slight tones of lavender and grey. She very well can be the ghost of a tortured soul, already experienced the fires below. If she escaped, would a demon come looking for her? Or is the demon actually there for the humans? Who can say.
The main focal point of this painting brings a coldness to you. You may get goosebumps the closer you step to the canvas. Death is in front of you, and death brings no one any warmth. Behind all of the grey and chilling details, you’ll finally notice the final destination. The Inferno, the infamous flames of hell, rising up to meet the new arrivals. Do you feel the flicker of heat as it rises up to meet you? Has that chill, finally subsided? Has the fire danced close enough yet to cause you blisters? It rises up to meet the new arrivals, a complete contrast to what is focal in this painting. The bright orange reds flicker across the background, vivid and bold, ready to swallow up the cold grays that inhabit most of the painting. Are you ready to face the fire? Death has moved on, the punishment has begun.
Of course you’re not actually dead, or physically experiencing any of these things. You may have finally peeled yourself away from the painting, you may not have had any thoughts at all when looking at this work. That’s okay too. Fully immersing yourself into the story that is visually playing out in front of you is fascinating. You begin to ask so many questions, many that will never be answered. Stuck was a very successful painter, especially in the 1980s when symbolism was popular. Even in this painting, there were at least three symbols indicating hell, the serpent, the demon, and the hellfire. Symbolism was popular within literature at the time, and von Stuck, as a symbolism artist, walked straight into fame for his numerous dark works that contained symbolism within them. Of course, eventually that fame tapered off. He was a teacher, and helped bring up new artists that changed the trends. During this change and the end of World War 1, is when he lost traction. Unfortunately for him, he happened to be one of Hitler’s favorite artists (yikes), so he moved off to America to get a fresh view again. He continued to have exhibits and featured in galleries including Chicago and New York City. He truly is a very unique artist, his other paintings just as interesting and intense as this one. I hope to see more of them, especially “The Sin”, as it caused quite the stir when initially shown.
Dorfman, John. “Franz von Stuck: Sorcery and Sanctity.” Art & Antiques Magazine, Art & Antiques Worldwide Media, LLC, 22 Mar. 2019, http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/franz-von-stuck-retrospective/.
“Franz von Stuck: Inferno.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1 Jan. 1970, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/749639.