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Exhibition - Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: Shadowy art from Leiden University Libraries

Ominous witches, gruesome monsters, and hideous freaks: from Saturday 15 June, Kunsthal Rotterdam will be putting the spotlight on the shady depths of human imagination in the exhibition Hello darkness, my old friend. Seventy works on paper from the collection of the Leiden University Libraries confront you with the darker side of European art history. From Leonardo da Vinci’s character sketches and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s engravings, to charcoal portraits by Natasja Kensmil: these works all visualise our fascination with the macabre.

Divided into seven themes, the exhibition shows that certain convictions and fears are of all times. The theme ‘Death comes for us all’ deals with the inevitable human demise and the prominent role death plays in art history. So-called Dances of Death, in which skeletons accompany people in a dance to the grave, are masterfully brought to life in the wood carvings of Hans Holbein II (1497-1543). Typical of depictions of this theme is that death comes for everyone and does not discriminate between rich or poor, sinner or saint.

Biblical hellscapes

Religious depictions of Judgement Day, the Apocalypse, and hell are brought together under the title ‘Biblical hellscapes’. These works played a crucial role in the propagation and reinforcement of the Christian faith, especially at a time when many people were still unable to read. In ‘Devils and Monstrosities’, visitors are confronted with the many guises of Satan, as portrayed in prints by artists like Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), and David Humbert de Superville (1770-1849). Either depicted as a beast with horns, or seductive and mysterious, but always embodying evil.

Surrealistic and supernatural

The theme ‘Nightmares and Visions’ focuses on dreamlike and surreal depictions of the subconscious: from a fight between a jug with legs and a little headless man on a barrel in the water, to horrific plagues and monstrous figures. The fact that artists found inspiration in the collective fear and fascination for the supernatural can be explored in ‘Magic and Witchcraft’. Brooms, revolting potions, and mystical rituals are featured in the prints of artists like Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569), and Hans Baldung Grien (ca. 1484-1545).

Humorous elements

Despite their dark connotations, many of the works also contain humorous elements, resulting in an interesting paradox. ‘Everyday life at its strangest’ offers a platform to quacks, satirical depictions, and – occasionally humorous – legends. And finally, the works combined under the title ‘Allegorical madness’ at first glance mainly appear to showcase bizarre scenes, but those who look closer might also draw some important lessons from them. A print featuring sheep going to a wolf for confession, for instance, can be interpreted as a complaint against ecclesiastical power, while fighting money bags and chests are symbolic for the hypocrisy of war. In the interactions between shadow and light, humour and seriousness, you can experience the nuances of human existence.

Over Kunsthal Rotterdam

Kunsthal Rotterdam is a leading cultural institution in the Netherlands, located in the Museum Park in Rotterdam. Designed by the famous architect Rem Koolhaas in 1992, the Kunsthal offers seven different exhibition spaces. Every year the Kunsthal presents a varied program of approximately 23 exhibitions. Because there are always several exhibitions on display at the same time, the Kunsthal offers an adventurous journey through different worlds and art movements. Culture for a wide audience, from modern masters and contemporary art to forgotten cultures, photography, fashion and design. An extensive program of activities is organized for the exhibitions.

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