Horror Vacui

comix by gary panter

In visual art, ‘horror vacui‘ [vak-yew-ee] (Latin: ‘fear of empty space,’ which might be represented by white spots; cenophobia in Greek, is the filling of the entire surface of an artwork with detail. The term is associated with the Italian critic and scholar Mario Praz, who used it to describe the suffocating atmosphere and clutter of interior design in the Victorian age. Older, and more artistically successful examples can be seen in illuminated manuscripts such as the ‘Book of Kells.’ Moving east, this feeling of meticulously filling empty spaces permeates Arabesque Islamic art from ancient times to the present. Another example comes from ancient Greece during the Geometric Age (1100 – 900 BCE), when horror vacui was considered a stylistic element of all art. The mature work of the French Renaissance engraver Jean Duvet consistently exhibits horror vacui.

Some examples of horror vacui in art come from, or are influenced by, the mentally unstable and inmates of psychiatric hospitals, such as Richard Dadd in the 19th century, and many modern examples fall under the category of Outsider Art. Horror vacui may have also had an impact, consciously or unconsciously, on graphic design by artists like David Carson or Vaughan Oliver, and in the underground comix movement in the work of S. Clay Wilson, Robert Crumb, Robert Williams, and on later comic artists such as Mark Beyer. The paintings of Williams, Faris Badwan, Joe Coleman and Todd Schorr are further examples of horror vacui in the modern Lowbrow art movement. The entheogen-inspired visionary art of certain indigenous peoples, such as the Huichol yarn paintings and the ayahuasca-inspired art of Pablo Amaringo, often exhibits this style, as does the psychedelic art movement of the 1960s counterculture.

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