Introduction to Tim Burton’s Advancement of Dark Gothic Art

Randall Chambers
Randall Chambers

Tim Burton, a director and animator, produces a continuous stream of films. While it appears the German Expressionist influences his works, they have instead advanced the traditions of Dark Gothic Art by continuing into mainstream film productions.

Gothic Art originated with architecture during the late medieval times in Europe and was ridiculed during the Renaissance period as an offensive style. Mostly found in religious buildings, the form was also seen in castles, city buildings, and colleges.

The advent of film at the turn of the twentieth-century, Gothic Art gained another attribute through the lighting of the sets and more significantly, the lighting of the architecture of the buildings. Shadows, long drawn elements, harsh contrasts, cold forms, and necessary at the time: black and white, produced the Dark Gothic effect.

The effect of shadows on the set gives the dark element to the Gothic form and evoke the feelings of terror without actually showing something horrific. Dark Gothic Art applies to films and only those that present the architecture so familiar to the style and an essential part of the Expressionist form.

The expressionist art form distorts reality to produce an emotional effect. It comes from difficult social times, usually during recessions or immediately after wars. Created to express inner emotions, Expressionism began in Germany, spread throughout Europe, and eventually reached America.

A typical example of the style would be the expressionist groups in painting. They used colours and odd compositions in order to depict how they saw their subjects. The goal was not to produce an aesthetically pleasing reproduction of life but to create a dark emotional reaction. Expressionism expanded through all mediums: painting, drawing, sculpture, and cinema and was primarily in Germany and Austria during the 1920’s to the early 1940’s.

Examples of painting and drawing are found containing pure black and white with the use of charcoal and a darker pallet of paint: browns, blacks, and blues. Oils, etchings, and lithographs all exhibited this feeling of a darker tone where politics, religion, and military governments were all subjects of the art form. A great deal of the art is portraiture and much of that self-portraits. These came about as an expression of what the artists were going through in their lives.

The effects of revolution, military defeat, and economic collapse resulted in the cities falling into the hands of the workers and soldiers. The artists’ vague confidence in the changing times to transform their world, caused them to create their own statements of life in chaos.

Portraits were constructed in such a way to yield a sense of depression. Details were not the key in the imagery but the idea and feeling of what the artist and subject were going through at the time of creation.

An example of this is Otto Dix’s self-portrait as a soldier in 1914. His painting shows morose sombre colours of black, red and yellow conveying anxiety and depression. This was created by the use of slow, elongated and expansive brush strokes found in many paintings of the time.

Etchings and lithographs created the expressionist form from line art either with the acid-etch or photographic transfer. By the lack of detailed rendering, they were able to focus on expressing their opinions and feelings by showing the subject matter without the distraction of the background.

These artists intellectually represented their ideas through this lack of detail rendering. The subject matter of these dealt more with the politics of the day and the subjective opinions on government policies. (Brandt 46)

Artists in Imperial Germany used woodcuts and engravings to create durable emotional pieces. The feeling of being lost and the direct contrast of black-and-white shows an expression of a group of people going through a struggle. In Berlin, the graphics were of stark black and white images that drew compelling compositions, many of sick and tired women. Self-portraits were typical as the artists themselves were the only available models for their work. (Barron and Dube 77)

The woodcuts created during this time had the proof of the physical work done by artists themselves, from the evidence of broad lines and hard piercing angles. The lack of detail became the style as artists sought to express their beliefs through the emotion of the piece.

Economics after WWI created an increase in woodcuts due to their low cost and availability of material, but the art form had been prevalent even before. (Barron and Dube 49) Erich Heckel in the woodcut of The Brothers in 1913 shows hand carvings of emotion in the image of a Gothic-distorted view of two men wrapped in each other’s arms for protection and comfort in a saddening time.

The sculpture took on a more abstract role but with humanistic features. Massive pieces with exaggerated shapes and limbs showed people in different stages of emotion: sadness, despair, fear, and anger. The sculpture The Fallen Man or Der Gesturzte by Wihelm Lehmbruck during 1915-16 created from the war period was of bronze metal and had a dark appearance. Gray in tone, the young man, had a uniform shape — kneeling to the ground in shame, exhaustion, depression, or forgiveness evokes a dark looming sensation.

Most expressionists were influenced by August Rodin, the French sculptor, who’s works represented inner feelings. One such follower was Ernst Barlach who later created sculptures of protest, mostly anti-war. The piece by Ernst Barlach, Magdeburg cenotaph in 1929, was requested as a heroic memorial of WWI by the city Magdeburg. When the statue instead depicted the desperation of war, it was removed and hidden until after WWII.

Sculptural architecture as well had a dark Gothic appearance. Buildings were erected during this time period in Germany and other areas of Europe that had been devastated by the first world war and were created with a surrealistic look but with functionality.

A chemical factory building in Luban, constructed in 1911-1912 by Hans Poelzig, appeared to be a three-dimensional building of a two-dimensional drawing of brick and sharp edges. The lack of ornament and ornate facades came about through the simple means of construction.

Function and art became one as architectural expressionism came into being through the Bauhaus Movement, later known as the International Style. The distorted image of the structures often communicates violent emotion. Hybrid elements or natural formations such as landforms were frequently used.

Cinema created during the first part of WWI through and slightly after had a dark reality. The stories were Gothic-horror in visual nature but had underlining romanticisms. It was a way for the public to get away to a world that was not as bad as what they were experiencing.

The producers and directors utilized these connections in order to relate both the work and the viewer together. Scenes within the films contain created buildings and sets. The set designs were similar to the architecture of the time, by having oddly shaped buildings that grew from the ground with a narrow base and then ballooned up to a significant top.

Many scenes were painterly in fashion and were not built into three dimensions but would have the illusion of depth. (Barron and Dube 105)

In the dream sequences in ‘Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire’ (1920) by Robert Wiene, the background consists of lighting bolt shaped windows, Cubist in style and yet are hand painted two-dimensionally. The sets aid the dark emotional horror by having elongated shadows and hallways which appear to tilt from one side or the other; this due to the illustrative nature and the odd triangular shapes.

Walls appear to twist like vertical standing rectangular boxes of which the top and bottom have been turned in opposite directions and contain outlined liner edges.

Backgrounds were designed to the style of the popular art movement. An example of this is in Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, Wiene hired expressionist artists, Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig, and Walter Reimann to design and build his movie background set. (Kraucer 34) As noted in the book ‘From Caligari to Hitler’, there is a quote by Hermann Warm saying, “Films must be drawings brought to life”.

The lighting in Wiene’s films reflect that of the expressionist woodcut pieces, with the harsh angles and deep strokes of the background, illustratively lit.

This film and many others, were produced in the 1920s after Germany’s devastation in WWI. America as well found the German art forms — and their own during the Great Depression of the 1930s. After WWII Great Britain followed with this artistic art style from the aftermath of that event. Yet America was to have another economic downturn, again bringing about an interest in Gothic art.

Black Monday of October 1987 occurred when the Dow Jones Industrials took a 500 point dive. The panic that followed led to a sharp recession that hit hard on not only the United States, but also Canada, Australia, and Great Britain. Other European economies plus Japan’s were also damaged.

The recession continued for over five years representing over a $120 billion loss to long term savings within the US, then slowly crawled back up to the levels of 1987 by mid-1995. The stock collapse of unprecedented size represented a loss of 25% on the US stock market and 11% on the Canadian market or $37 billion.

The effects of Black Friday in the US caused alcoholism and drug abuse to dramatically increase, along with emotional depression for a period of up to a decade after that year. Recessions like the one of 1987-1995, have a devastating impact on the affected society, bringing about a resurgence in Gothic art.

In modern-day films, the true idea of Gothic art no longer exists as a whole. Films of today that took the place of Gothic works are of those of horror, gore, and violence like the current film, ‘30 Days of Night’ (2007), a vampire film set in an isolated Alaskan town that is the night for a month.

Gothic films were more about connections, the environment and how the overall look and feel connected to an emotion, much more than entertainment. Today’s counterpart in expressionism within Gothic film is Tim Burton.

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