Can a painting drive a person to madness? While there is no doubt staring at something like Goya’s unnerving Black Paintings for hours might be destabilizing, the powers of derangement in art are mostly superstition. Yet at the University of London’s Royal Holloway, one painting is regularly draped in a Union Jack flag due to an old fear that its gruesome visuals could snap the sanity from a student’s brain.
Edwin Landseer’s 1864 “Man Proposes, God Disposes” has creeped people out since its debut with its dual polar bears scavenging at the wreckage of the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Northwest Passage. One creature has a human rib bone rapturously clenched in its fangs, the other lunges at a scrap of fabric drenched in a blood-red color. William Michael Rossetti mourned it the “saddest of membra disjecta.” The widowed Lady Franklin was not surprisingly dismayed, and some even asked if Landseer, known for his noble dogs, was getting a bit unhinged.