Saturday, October 07, 2006

Body of Evidence

Is crime influenced by art, or, is art influenced by crime?

The most famous of all “art murders” is attracting attention again, according to ArtNews Sept. 2006. This unsolved homicide of Elizabeth Short has been the subject of numerous books and films over the past 60 years. The latest is “The Black Dahlia,” opening in theatres nationwide on Sept. 15, 2006. The movie, based on James Ellroy’s best selling 1987 book of the same name, stars Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank.

The Black Dahlia was a black-haired twenty-two year old waitress and aspiring actress who was brutally murdered in Los Angeles in 1947. The gruesome description includes “severed in two at the waist and washed clean – like a mannequin in a department store window. One breast was missing, and there were geometric shapes cut out of her torso and thigh.”

Based on that description, experts over the years have tried to tie this murder with the Surrealist art movement of the time. Cited are the segmented nudes of Man Ray (photo 1938), the fractured dolls of Hans Bellmer, or mannequins of Salvador Dali. The theory follows that the “surrealists’ fascination with violence and eroticism may help explain the bizarre and gruesome nature of the killing.” The Surrealists’ favorite game, “Exquisite Corpse,” also added support: players take turns drawing parts of a body. Another theory is that works by Marcel Duchamp in later years might have referred to the murder, Short’s body, and the true identity of the killer.

There have been other famous murders that have been tied to art as well. Several books, most recently Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait of A Killer, suggest that painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. It was believed that he made obvious sketches and paintings of the Ripper crimes. Television crime-solving series such as CSI and Cold Case occasionally refer to a painting as a solution or clue to a crime.

What do you think? Do copy-cats commit gruesome murders based on art they see? Do criminals paint their crimes? Does art lead to crime, or to criminals, or vise versa?


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