Art Term Tuesday: Horror Vacui

Jack Cantey

I first encountered the Latin-derived term horror vacui several years ago while researching outsider art from the first half of the twentieth century. Simply put, horror vacui is the fear, or abhorrence, of empty space. In the past hundred years, this term has been used in discussions of interior design (for instance, Mario Praz’s critique of Victorian-era design) and artwork in which a two- or three-dimensional space is filled with detail or objects. The presence of horror vacui in visual art can stem from an artist’s overwhelming compulsion (perhaps related to mental illness) to leave no space vacant or from a conscious aesthetic decision to forgo negative space.

In my experience as a consumer of contemporary art and criticism, horror vacui is most frequently used in reference to outsider art (also sometimes called Art Brut, naïve art, or intuitive art) created by self-taught artists working outside the stylistic influence of the art world. The drawings of Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli are an example of outsider art featuring horror vacui. Wölfli, an untrained artist who spent much of his adult life in a psychiatric hospital, created colorful drawings packed with detail all the way to the edges of the paper; when viewing his surviving works, one can feel hypnotized, suffocated, disturbed. Horror vacui can also be seen in the paintings of Jean Dubuffet, the French artist who founded the Art Brut (“raw art”) movement in the 1940s. Dubuffet was inspired by the intricately-detailed works of Wölfli and other outsider artists.

It would be grossly inaccurate, though, to say that works displaying horror vacui are creations fueled only by a combination of isolation, compulsion, and mental illness. For centuries, trained artists have consciously crafted intensely-detailed compositions; sixteenth-century prints by Albrecht Dürer and Jean Duvet are excellent examples of this aesthetic choice. There are also works currently on display here at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art that reflect the contemporary, calculated adoption of horror vacui. In the Outlaws of Print exhibition (on display through July 8th), Ryan O’Malley’s trio of woodcuts titled Facial Recognition Technology (snapshots pictured below) feature compositions densely packed with overlapping faces and skulls, while Martin Mazorra’s large-scale linocut Flood is loaded with detailed vignettes (ranging from realistic to satirical) of a community in the midst of a natural disaster.

When you next encounter art–whether historical or contemporary–that employs horror vacui, pay attention to your initial response. Are you overwhelmed or intimidated by the sheer amount of detail? Does it repulse you or draw you in? Also, consider the artist’s possible motivations in using this kind of composition. Are there any historical or personal contexts at play? Is the artist perhaps knowingly countering the sleek sparseness of modernism and minimalism? Or are they influenced by the works of well-known contemporary artists such as Joe Coleman or Robert Williams?

Art of this kind often rewards viewers who take time to dive into the details, so do your best not to just glance and move on the next time you come face-to-face with horror vacui in a painting or print or installation.

Want to learn more? Check out our interview with Outlaw Printmaker Dennis McNett or come see the works in person at FWMoA. Outlaws of Print: the History and Artists of the Underground Collective will be on display until July 8th!

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