Food for thought: people note this era as the “#Selfie Generation”, but the act of selfie-ing as an art form has been practiced since mid-15th century, way before the dawn of cell phones and social media.
This installment talks about the elusive and mysterious art of Portraits and Self-Portraits — and the boggling abundance of them that show up in Layers of Fear.
Pablo Picasso once said: “Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?” I truly think that, while most people see selfies and portraits as a means for instant gratification and reassurance, it is a means of a very personal and intimate pathway to self-expression.
Like I mentioned in my last installment, it’s more than just colours. It’s also more than the angles. I am a fervent believer in the importance of chiaroscuro, and while colours (or lack thereof), angles, and the like are important, light and shadow truly deliver the punchline.
(#Selfie! Humour aside, note how the light and dark vastly changes the tone of a picture.)
1.) There are a lot of spoilers in this article, so please read at your own risk if you haven’t played Layers of Fear; and 2.) The views and opinions in this article are all my own. I will be offering my own interpretations and they are, by no means, concrete, canon, or confirmed by the Bloober Team.
At first, I didn’t think that these weird paintings meant anything much — just a vehicle for a good jumpscare when they would appear suddenly behind doors, or fly off walls. They’re eerie and unsettling to look at. Now a little older and wiser, I took a look at these again and had a change of heart.
The Painter is a man with obviously many sides to him. This is evident throughout his interactions with memories and heirlooms found throughout the mansion. I also found this painting by Lavinia Fontana interesting, which hangs over The Painter’s desk in the office on the second floor:
This painting illustrates a young Antonietta with hypertrichosis, a condition where the subject grows an abnormally excessive amount of hair. In extreme cases, this was also known as “werewolf syndrome”, as the subject’s condition would render them to adopt an appearance of the mythical creature.
Obviously The Painter is not a werewolf, but what is it that werewolves experience that is similar to The Painter’s own reality? Prior to the game taking the nightmare plunge, this simple painting in the upstairs office speaks volumes as to what kind of character The Painter is — and only five minutes in the game. When someone transforms into a werewolf, they lose all sense of self, performing unspeakable acts of violence. Once the cycle is over, they wake up with no memory of the things they have done.
While the light of a full moon triggers the transformation of a werewolf though, The Painter has his own triggers that lead to his “transformation” into an aggressive, violent, and selfish “monster” of his own. After his accident and the accident that disfigured his wife, alcohol was his go-to, and also his trigger to transformation. Many memories found in the game show each aftermath when he reverts back to his sober self, clueless to any acts he committed and fearful of what each outcome was.
Other portraits in the game suggest The Painter’s fears personified in canvas form. Taking Rembrandt’s example on the right, old Jacob Tripp is seen resting his hand gently on his cane while in his nightgown, which suggests the frailty of the painting’s subject, the painting situated in a room which will later serve as an intense and particularly disturbing jumpscare scene. I think this painting serves a purpose to remind the player of how fragile — physically and mentally — they are as The Painter.
If there is one portrait I feel must be discussed, it would be this one:
Joshua Reynolds was a fervent promoter of something called the “Grand Style” or “Grand Manner“, especially in his paintings. The Grand Manner in art depends on the idealization of the imperfect, and Sir Reynolds even taught a series of lectures that emphasized the responsibility of painters to perceive and paint their subjects through generalized perfection rather than carefully creating an exact copy of nature. Said Sir Reynolds in his lectures:
“In all the pictures in which the painter has represented the apostles, he has drawn them with great nobleness; he has given them as much dignity as the human figure is capable of receiving yet we are expressly told in Scripture they had no such respectable appearance; and of St. Paul in particular, we are told by himself, that his bodily presence was mean. Alexander is said to have been of a low stature: a painter ought not so to represent him. Agesilaus was low, lame, and of a mean appearance. None of these defects ought to appear in a piece of which he is the hero. In conformity to custom, I call this part of the art history painting; it ought to be called poetical, as in reality it is.”
What do we see in each of the endings for Layers of Fear? How are each of the portraits painted — according to reality? Or perhaps the idealization of how The Painter wants to sees his family and himself — without his Wife’s disfiguration, without his disabling frailty, without his family’s sadness and fear? Perhaps The Painter was a believer in the Grand Manner himself.
And then again, what of those really screwed up paintings with the multiple faces in it, like the one I posted at the start of this piece? What are those all about?
(Click to enlarge if you want to see the details.)
I am a keeper of random knowledge and my first thought when I saw these was, “Man, Bloober is channeling some crazy Edward Mordrake imagery here.” In actuality, he might be worth bringing up for this conversation.
Edward Mordrake was an English man of noble peerage, thought to be talented in many regards as a philosopher and especially as a musician. His life’s bane, and later his undoing, was the existence of another face on the back of his head — perhaps a parasitic twin that never separated, but to him, it was his “demon twin”. The face was said to smile and sneer when Edward was in anguish, speak and think of terrifying and hellish things, keep him up at night with hateful whispers, and ultimately lead Edward into a life of seclusion. At the age of 23, Edward Mordrake committed suicide by poisoning himself.
These malformed paintings lead into another conversation, and I feel I must address the elephant in the room: mental illness.
It seems to be very, very present in this game. But that should come as no surprise if you’ve finished the game already.
One theory I have regarding the impressive general abundance of portraits in the game is that The Painter is a potential victim to Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, the overwhelming desire to be admired, and lacking empathy for others, The Painter exhibits these behaviours numerous times through written correspondence, through memories, and through the Whispers found in the game. As well, typical traits to someone with NPD also exhibit a fragile ego, the inability to tolerate criticism, and deliberately tear down others in order to validate their superiority to others — all traits that The Painter exhibits a few times in the game.
But as for the portraits with multiple faces overlaid? Well, this was also spelled out in the game, especially during one particular hallway and room, which definitely drives The Painter further into his nightmare: Schizophrenia.
Hearing voices, hallucinatory experiences, paranoia, failure to understand reality, and other characteristics are such things that define schizophrenia. It is important to note that schizophrenia does not imply the “split personality” that tends to be associated with it; however, it cannot go unsaid that The Painter exhibits a dual nature throughout his memories.
But what you experience in that mansion throughout your exploratory journey? You hear those voices. You feel that paranoia. You question what is real and what isn’t. You feebly attempt to piece together fragments of thoughts and memories, and realize that it’s more fragmented than you thought it was. In a way, The Painter is the vehicle for the player to experience and understand, at least a little, of the experiences of someone who suffers from mental illness.
Join me in “Undercoat”, the next installment, where I explore the handful of eerie religious paintings in Layers of Fear and their implications and parallels to the game’s characters and plot.
Kate Rhiannon is a Contributing Editor-at-Large and Graphics Artist for AYBOnline.com, and a producer for the Level 1 Scrubs podcast. Her opinions are her own. Feel free to follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she posts updates about her creative projects!