Oct. 29, 2010

Interview by Katherine Duke ’05

Just in time for Halloween, I sat down with Natasha Staller, a professor of the history of art who is currently at work on a book called The Spanish Monster, to talk about her popular course “Witches, Vampires and Other Monsters.” Read on to find out how monsters—in different forms throughout history—have crept into disciplines ranging from art to women’s studies to medical science to political science, and why Staller finds Sharon Stone more terrifying than Nosferatu.

Natasha Staller, professor of the history of art

KD:      What was the inspiration for this course?

NS:       I started teaching it a number of years ago, because I started working on it myself. This tends to be the way that I teach—I tend to become obsessed with something, and I just don’t want to stop. I want to work on it on days that I’m not teaching, and I want to teach it. For years, while I was researching Sum of Destructions, my book on Picasso, I would go to El Prado to steep myself in earlier Spanish art, and there were  paintings by Francisco Goya, called the Pinturas Negras—the Black Paintings—that are horrific. Just terrifying, violent, nightmare images. After Picasso, I started a new book, on abstract expressionism, which I love. But I couldn’t get those Goyas out of my mind. So I just completely shifted gears. Goya also pictured witches a lot, so I became fascinated with trying to understand how witches were imagined in Goya’s time, and this brought me into a lot of primary sources. That, then, made me wonder if witches were unique as monsters, or what kinds of relationships they may have had with other monstrous forms.

KD:      What qualities make a monster?

NS:       I’m still trying to figure it out. The very first thing I have the students in the course do is see a silent film, Nosferatu.  From the very first millisecond you see this character as obviously monstrous: how he looks, how he walks, what his gestures are, the shadows, his environment. He’s extraordinarily attenuated. He moves in a very, very rigid way. Nosferatu carries the plague, the Black Death. Everything about him screams “monster,” screams “other”-ness.

But later in the semester, we’ll also see what, in many ways, to me, is one of the most terrifying films ever made: Basic Instinct, with Sharon Stone. I can’t believe I’m forcing myself to see this movie again; I just can’t bear to see the ending. But I feel morally bound to read everything again and see everything again before I teach it. I can’t stand it! She looks so angelic. She looks so clean. She’s so diabolical.

KD:      This course is cross-listed between the Departments of Art and the History of Art and Women’s and Gender Studies. What is the connection?

NS:       I always tell students that I’m a super-happily-married, eyeliner-wearing feminist, and that my work often ends up addressing powerful, dangerous women. And witches certainly were that. And some of the other forms of monsters were that.

Next week, they’re going to see a film by [Carlos] Saura—a flamenco version of Carmen, with his diabolical femme fatale. We’re then going to be discussing one of my favorite books in the world: Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture.  [This book] actually transformed my vision of history—that’s not saying it too strongly. It shows how, at the moment that women start clamoring for the right to vote, to be educated, to work outside the house, you start getting all of these images of women as sleeping. As dead!

In the 19th century, for example, let’s say you [as a woman] were with your brother or your father in downtown Paris, and you happened to stop for a moment and look at a store window and the male relative happened to mosey on. If someone saw you alone, they would immediately assume you were a whore. The whole gender was demonized, and this accelerated as the scourge of syphilis raised its head. It was ubiquitously believed that only women were carriers, and so you get the trope of the femme fatale, which then was understood to be literally a fatal woman who would kill.

KD:      There’s a current obsession with vampires in our own popular culture—and Halloween and werewolves and witches. Are students drawn to your class because they’ve started from modern American culture and they have their own ideas about witches and vampires?

NS:       Some clearly were coming out of that; some out of interest in video games; some anime; some coming out of religion—reading the Bible, the Devil; some coming out of interest in the witch trials in Salem. There are political scientists in the room, thinking about Abu Ghraib. The Inquisition didn’t end in Spain until 1834. How could people put up with these institutionalized abuses of power? There are always people from LJST—because, again, we study the Inquisition and trials. And then there are majors from women’s and gender studies, because the course has been cross-listed, and now it’s cross-listed with European studies. And then, of course, there are a lot of students who love the art.

KD:      What other artists and works and monsters do you discuss in class?

NS:       We read a superlative work of cultural history called Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany, by Lyndal Roper. We just today discussed [Pedro] Calderón de la Barca’s Life is a Dream, whose main character, Segismundo, is another form of monstrosity. The play overflows with hybrids, at that time understood as monstrous.

Then we’ll be reading The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, where Dalí presents himself as a monster. It’s a shocking book, because historically, when artists write autobiographies they believe will be read in centuries to come, they try to present themselves in an outstanding light. And Dalí, of course, does the opposite. The actions he describes—they’re grotesque; they’re insane.

We also see a [Luis] Buñuel film, Las Hurdes, about the monstrosity of the Spanish government, the Franco government, toward its own people who are starving. Tomorrow, the students will see one of the greatest silent films of all time, The Passion of Joan of Arc, by [Carl Theodore] Dreyer.

We’ve also thought about [Diego Rodríguez de Silva y] Velázquez and his paintings of dwarfs and about prodigious marvels in many domains of early modern culture—even drawing on historians of science [to learn about] what were called “monstrous births.”

The syllabus presents a cornucopia of different monsters. Baudelaire wrote a gorgeous collection of poems, Les Fleurs du MalThe Flowers of Evil. We can think of this course as a bouquet of “flowers of evil.”