The Masque of the Red Death II – Vania Zouravliov

Life is a funny old game isn’t it.  The old adage is that there are only two things that are certain in life and that is death and taxes.  I think that there are a few more certainties myself; like I can guarantee that if I drop a piece of toast on the floor it will land butter side down, or if someone is a true friend they will go to as much effort as needed to be there for you, as we all know that fair weather friends are easy to find and just as easy to be taken in by.

Zouravliov is a bit of an enigma as an artist.  I know that he is Russian born, and that he was internationally recognised at the age of 13, having his art work exhibited around Canterbury, Paris, Colmer and Berlin.  He then studied in the UK and now lives in London, creating illustrations for The Scotsman and comics for Fantagraphics and Dark Horse.

His art work is heavily inspired by multiple influences, which include biblical references, poetry, Disney, Japanese art and North American Indians.  There is also some heavy fantastical eroticism in his work, which can lend itself to dark and mysterious stories.

Zouravliov, hailed as a child prodigy was championed by many influence classical musicians, and had several television programmes made about him, leading him to be introduced to the Godfathers of social realism who told him that his art work was from the devil.

Zouravliov’s style almost looks like etch work, with a classical style that oozes sensuality and mysticism.   “The Masque of the Red Death” is a hand pulled screen print, which encapsulates the short story by Edgar Allen Poe of the same name.  You can see in the picture that there is a near skeletal figure, the face clouded by what initially looks like a wave.  The figures eyes are unseen and the mouth is pulled into a deathly grimace baring the jaw bone and teeth.

Within the wave itself, there appears to be glimpses of skulls, and organs, as well as clouds and water, almost as if the mask is gathering everything it comes across, much like a black hole, sucking in all around it.

The figure takes up the majority of the piece, giving the feeling of it being all encompassing, as you would think of death as being all consuming, it makes sense for it to dominate the page.  The light source for the piece seems to be coming from the bottom left, which is probably no coincidence, as the devil always takes the left hand side, and it gives the feeling of hell fire lighting upwards in this scenario.  There is nothing heavenly about this soul collector.

To truly feel the full force of the inevitability of this piece, I think it is important to be aware of the story by Poe and its symbolism.

Prince Prospero and 1000 nobles have hauled themselves up in a castle, to true and avoid the red death, a terrible plague which is sweeping over the land and has terrible symptoms.  Victims who succumb to the red death suffer sharp pains, dizziness and profuse bleeding from the pores, they then die within half an hour.

Prospero, being a selfish prince is indifferent to the suffering of the large population around him, and has the door welded shut to the castle so that he and his nobles can wait it out without disruption.

One night, to lift spirits, Prospero decides to hold a masquerade ball.  He decides to use seven rooms within the castle, six of them are decorated to a colour theme – blue, purple, green, orange, white and violet.  The last room is decorated in black and lit with a scarlet light, making the room the colour of blood.  A large ebony clock is in the black room which chimes ominously on the hour, and as the ball gets underway, many of the guests are scared to enter that room because of the way it looks.  As he clock chimes out the hours, everyone stops and waits for the chimes to cease as they echo through the rooms, picking up where they left off when it finishes.

As the clock strikes midnight, Prospero and his guests notice a figure, dressed in a blood splattered robe.  It is wearing a mask that looks like the rigid face of a corpse, and is displaying the symptoms of the red death.  Prospero is gravely insulted that someone would dare to dress like this at is ball to cheer up his buddies, so he demands to know who it is under the garb so that he can have him hung.

The guests are too afraid to approach the figure, so rather than stop him, they allow him to pass though the six brightly coloured rooms.  Prospero follows him, dagger drawn as his anger rises and finally encounters the figure in the last room.  Suddenly Prospero feels a sharp pain, and drops dead.

The onlookers surge the black room by force, and remove the mask and shroud only to find that there was nothing underneath them, and that they all had encountered death.  Each of them succumbing to the disease.  The final line by Poe in this story is “And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all”.

For a short story there really is a lot going on here.  There is so much symbolism oozing from this story that you can see why Zouravilov wanted to encompass that into his piece.

Lets talk about the rooms first, as they stand for a few things.  The colours of the first six rooms represent a prism of light, and therefore a reflection of progression.  They symbolise life.  Although the order is not that which you would find in a rainbow, which could be the representation of Prospero’s twisted take on life and the active avoidance of death. This leads on to why there are seven rooms, as it symbolises the seven stages of man – infancy, school boy, lover, solider, justice, old age and death.  Taken from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”.  The figure sequentially walks through all 7 rooms in the story, as though that is the logical path that life should take before meeting the figure.  There is also a loose link to the seven deadly sins, as Prospero displays most of them within the story (not sure where the lust comes in, but I am sure there was some debauchery going on in the castle… let’s face it – there was no Netflix at the time).

The clock symbolises the inevitability of death.  No one can stop time depleting, which is why all the nobles stop as it chimes, as though it is a subconscious understanding that while they are hauled up in the castle, eventually their time will come.

Prospero represents the end of Feudalism.  By inviting only the rich to come to the castle leaving the peasants to die, demonstrates the socioeconomic divide between landowners and workers during the feudalistic period.  Pulling in the reality of the black death and how it ended this regime, is not coincidental as that reduced the number of workers so much that the landowners had no choice but to move away from feudalism.

The red death, much like the clock symbolises the inevitability of it all, it also has a stark similarity in symptoms of tuberculosis which killed many close to Poe.

What I would really like now is that you take another look at Zouravilov picture again, with that story in mind.  You can see the deathly face and the souls of many captured in the mask, not caring who they were in life or what efforts they may have gone to, to avoid death.

I think that Zouravilov is a skilled and highly developed artist, who is a master at incorporating themes into his work.  The links can be subtle yet seen clearly, and the imagery is exciting as well as mysterious.

What do you think of “The Masque of the Red Death”?  Why not tell me in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?

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6 thoughts on “The Masque of the Red Death II – Vania Zouravliov

Add yours

  1. I see some more pareidolia in that. Thanks.

    Regarding Poe’s tale: do you think he thought out all the references that you spoke of? Or is there a post-scripto search for meaning? I consider To Kill a Mockingbird and every gradeschool teacher and their brother believes Lee deliberately imbued her story with reams of symbolism. When in fact she just sat down and wrote a story that may have had *some* intentional meaning, but sure not to the degree that scholars imply.

    I recognize the tuberculosis association which makes sense. But how many assumptions can we really hold regarding Poe’s actual intents?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well the Shakespeare reference is certainly relevant as it is about the progression of life and Poe would have known that. Also it’s not that far stretched to think he would have known about the prism colours and that the first room is blue which is a colour associated with birth. Poe was very well read and I think he would have plotted his symbolism rather than just chanced upon it

      Liked by 1 person

      1. All Poe’s work is like that. Consider them like epic poetry from the Greek era, rather than from a guy in the 1800s. I think I have read and listened to everything he has written and it is definitely something that is better to listen to than read, which is why perhaps he struggled to get his work picked up while he was alive. The Raven is the obvious one to refer you to as it is used in everything from references in films to episodes of the simpsons, along with the tell tale heart. This story is perhaps a little less known. I would still say all of his work is written with a precision that incorporates the symbolism as he was a opiate addict and an extreme over-thinker…


      2. The writing is exquisite, I’ll admit. There’s an eloquence that appeals to my programmer’s mind — the construction of complex sentences that appear to meander but are sewn up in the end. Small doses seem appropriate here; certainly not a quick read.
        Thanks for your replies.
        I happen to have a bit of my own horror recently posted over on, courtesy of LittleFears.

        Liked by 1 person

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