Frozen Cliffhangers: The Portrayal of Suspense in Art

Updated: Sep 10

Suspense comes in many forms, and seldom finds itself in works of art that consume it. During a gallery visit, our mind may develop a connection with any work that becomes a victim to our attention. What follows is an emotional obsession that takes both worlds, ours and theirs, through several stages.


As we take you through the six stages of a suspenseful relationship with a work of art, keep your eyes open. Pay careful attention lest the artist sways you away into their mysteries!


An Uncertain Beginning

Towards the beginning of your relationship blooms a curiosity so morbid that you cannot look away from each other. You know this is unrequited and it will not last forever, but you still take them to be someone just as kind as you. You are unafraid and free to watch pain, as you invade the privacy of stories that were meant to be a secret, and questions that were meant to be unanswered.


You listen to the imagination of Charles Burton Barber from the time he painted Suspense in 1894 and let innocence fool his spectators with its menace. Barber’s painting leaves one in not wondering about the role of the subjects within the canvas as much as the absent subject they are looking at. There is never a rest to what could exist beyond and exhaust the story he has brought to the eye.


Charles Burton Barber, Suspense (1894). Courtesy: The Famous Artists

Fleeting Moments of Ambiguity

You realize you are not used to a routine of silence. After attempts of initiating conversation or letting the silence take its course, you start thinking and dare to question whether the relationship will go somewhere. There is change creeping into your soul, but you cannot hold it back.


Time is slipping out of your hand and chaos is moving into the home you had rented for yourself and your love for art. Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory circles your surreal mind faster than the seconds hand of a clock amidst this new exchange.


Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory (1931). Courtesy: Museum of Modern Art

The dynamic with your victim, or significant other, restricts you to scream or have your own conscience back without knowing everything. You know that you can never know everything and thus, unsettling brushes will be guarding this prison for a long time.


You turn to strange ways of amusing yourself in private, expecting privacy in your thoughts after the painting has descended into a darker blanket. It is past museum hours, and you are still awake, looking for a way to make this madness end.


Spiralling into Sin

The painting has caught you!


You apologize, shower them with more spectatorship and bring them the unimaginable gift of your time, while they surprise you with just a glance. You spiral down into a never-ending illustration you made on stale paper trying to devise another idea, desperate to please them and have them take you back.


Will this painting ever feel complete?


Your life is now a tempestuous cat-and-mouse game, and you will always be the cat. You stay still as the victim, who you found a companion in, runs for their life. Creatures of despair surround you like in Francisco de Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, and a reasonable darkness shakes your emotional self from deep slumber.


Francisco de Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, No. 43 from Los Caprichos (The Caprices), (1796-1798). Courtesy: Artsy

As you take Goya’s position on the gallery floor that has become your only routine, you find wonder in despair. You need to win them back and make them stay for your own benefit: to find out what lies beneath them.


Fairytale Daydreaming

If you thought you won them back right after, you were not wrong.


What follows is a nervous restart on the canvas, which blooms into a full-grown romance. There are days full of daydreaming and nights of peaceful sleep. You believe that you have left the present and climb up to beautiful things that the future might hold if you choose to hold on.


Barry Roal Carlsen has rightly portrayed your situation in 20 Possible Futures, where he reflects on uncertainty with the very dearth of a future - impressions that you hold on to so dearly and preserve them in printed trinkets.


Barry Roal Carlsen, 20 Possible Futures (3,7, 12 and 13), 2016. Courtesy: Barry Roal Carlsen

A new world built by you contains you, the painting and a strong essence that you should not escape, in order to live. You breathe in their strokes and you can see nothing but their symbols. You let them become the survival of your psyche, which resembles Anirudh Acharya’s The Black Figure - a shining omen of space that can morph into joy or gloom at any moment.


Anirudh Acharya, The Black Figure (2019). Courtesy: Anirudh Acharya

Admiration controls the relationship, as it masks the obsession that is controlling two lives: the subject and the spectator. Like in Cecelia Beaux’s Sita and Sarita, their haunting beauty warns you of the challenge ahead, beginning with signals of disapproval from the cat’s eyes. This love is real, but you are not.


Cecelia Beaux, Sita and Sarita (1921). Courtesy: Wikidata

Are there any secrets remaining?

You decide there aren’t.


Deception Point

The painting appoints a full moon night to look after the celebration of what has become a sensation in the society of paintings. They want all the other paintings to know that they have consumed you in their incompletion.


Before you can regain control, the painting meets an accident in the sight of another spectator. Your eyes refuse to consume this sorry sight, and you let yourself be on the driver’s seat of Vito Acconci’s Crash, while they look away in a deadly, romantic fashion. Everything is colourful and broken.


Vito Acconci, Crash (1984). Courtesy: Whitney Museum of American Art

The painting hugs the new spectator, their face hidden by the command of fiction and looks at you. Their eyes are transfixed on your bleeding spirit with a devilish smile. In the final stage, the painting holds your hand and runs with you. You can only see hazy images of your own reflection, brought to life by the blotches of their purple blood. For what happens next, we are leaving you to yourself.


That is how we find ourselves in the middle of a cliffhanger today, just like the works of art that drove us all the way here.


While you try your best to cope with the climax, here is how visual arts would cope with crisis.



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