HP Lovecraft in his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) uses the word “weird” to describe a special quality in the works of a sub-genre of fiction that he labels, “The Weird Tale”. I’ve found it to be a useful analogy to explain what the “synthetic aesthetic” is and what makes such machine made imagery surprisingly interesting. Just as Lovecraft speaks of The Weird Tale in fiction, I would speak of The Weird Image in art.
Quotes from Lovecraft:
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space.
Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.
And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.
To sum up:
- unexplainable… outer, unknown forces
- conception of the human brain
- suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature
- creation of a given sensation
- the more completely and unifiedly… the better
- atmosphere… atmosphere… atmosphere…
The Weird Image
Lovecraft speaks of weirdness entirely in the context of horror fiction and so his weirdness is really a horrifying weirdness. But the weirdness of the Weird Image provokes a much wider type of mental sensation and isn’t oriented and defined exclusively by the disturbing themes of horror but rather is oriented around the broader theme of eccentricity. Weird images can be scenes of strange happiness. Of course horrifying weirdness may have made Lovecraft happy, too.
The weird image is one which inspires speculation and both a sense and sensation of the radically innovative. Consider if you can the visual art equivalent of: a peculiar aroma; or a strange new musical chord. One is confronted with something they can’t categorize or identify and but which creates a clear, distinct and profound impression as if it was as real and as concrete and perceptible as a fragrance or a sound.
Max Ernst was there first
Some surrealist art employs what I would consider to be “synthetic” methods. These are what the surrealists referred to as “automatist” like grattage, fumage and decalcomania (scraping, smoking, paint squished under glass). Syntheticism is not limited to computers and so it’s not surprising then that such surrealist works produced weird imagery in the same way computational methods do. They both work with the same senseless mechanical principles.
Ansel Adams’ photo Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is a weird image in keeping with my definition of a “strange new chord”.
Consider these three elements:
- the moon,
- the liquid, flowing clouds that reinforce and accentuate the eerie feeling of distance, silence and something rather hard to describe (the “weird”)
- the scattering of houses that forms the village of San Hernandez and echoes the mood of eerie peacefulness.
You see how weird a photograph can be? It’s just a landscape, pastoral landscape even, and yet as Adams surely intended, it expresses a magnificent and mysterious sensation. That’s the weirdness. But it’s not really horrifying and wouldn’t do well as a book cover to any of Lovecraft’s works. The image is surreal however and if there’s such a thing as surrealist photography this would be a good example. The “surreal image” and the “weird image” are probably pretty closely related.
As a side note about art: notice how hard it is to describe what makes Moonrise as an image “work” and what gives it the impression(s) we have. Images are complicated in ways that the written word isn’t. There may be more than one way to interpret a written work but there’s always ten or twelve ways to interpret most paintings or photographs. The visual medium is powerful as well as mysterious. I think it’s because our brains — the real canvas in all this — are a real mystery to explain.