SMOKE: The Art Of Torture

Originally published: 27 January 2003

Torture has been around for centuries, inspired by the will of the Church who used various excrutiating, dehumanising methods of forcing complicity from errant flocks.

Their methods of torture are well documented, despite the attempts of Church elders throughout history to cover up their fantastically evil, perverted and sadistic tendencies.

There have been too many versions of this abberant behaviour to even begin to document, but a recent discovery by a Spanish art historian puts the cap on the creative lengths torturers are prepared to go to in order to subjugate, terrify and ultimately break their fellow human beings.

According to art historian Jose Milicua modern art was used as little as 65 years ago as a deliberate form of torture, when a group of artists were commissioned during the Spanish Civil War to paint mind-bending art on the walls of prison cells.

You're probably thinking - as I was - that you'd prefer a bunch of crap art to having your joints pulled out of their sockets on the rack, or each limb progressively broken while boiling tar is poured down your throat.

But apparently this "psychotechnic" art torture drove many to madness, which supports my claim that art is - to put it mildly - simply not good for you.

But I'm not here to discuss your art pretensions or lack thereof - I was just fascinated by the story, as art and torture are usually (but not exclusively) not uttered in the same breath.

Apparently a French anarchist called Alphonse Laurencic was the driving force behind the "coloured cells", as they became known, which were his contribution to the struggle against General Franco and his right-wing forces.

He roped in fellow "Bauhaus" artists, surrealist film maker Luis Bunuel and even Salvador Dali, and in 1938 the first cell was completed.

The cells made use of geometric abstraction, surrealism and the psychological effects of colour - all designed to drive the inmates mad.

Beds were tilted at 20° which made them almost impossible to sleep on, the floor was made uneven with bricks and other geometric shapes to prevent prisoners from walking to and fro, the stone bench for sitting on was also tilted so that you slid off them, and the only alternative for the hapless victim was to stand in the corner and stare at the walls.

The walls themselves were covered with surrealist art and were curved and covered with mind-altering patterns of cubes, squares, straight lines and spirals which utilised tricks of colour, perspective and scale to cause mental confusion and distress. Lighting effects gave the impression that the dizzying patterns on the wall were moving.

Some of the cells were even painted in tar to ensure that the heat build-up in the cell finally asphyxiated the prisoner. The most common colour used was green, as it was found to produce a depressing effect on prisoners.

According to El Pais (the Spanish newspaper that broke the original story) the original creators of surrealist art probably never intended their art form to be abused in this way.

"The avant garde forms of the moment - surrealism and geometric abstraction - were thus used for the aim of committing psychological torture. The creators of such revolutionary and liberating [artistic] languages could never have imagined that they would be so intrinsically linked to repression."


By all accounts prisoners went mad in these conditions and although perhaps not as painful as thumbscrews and iron maidens, the mental agony was indescribable.

Which would explain why I am no fan of Dali and crew and why any art that I purchase usually involves months and days of the year on a backdrop of nubile, large-breasted women, and not weeping clocks or existential crises.

It all makes you wonder at how fragile the human complex is, to the extent that mere colour and angles can lead them to madness. I guess the question I would pose to Laurencic and Dali would be simple:

"Yes - but is it art?"

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

Look at me now - all the way from Uitenhage to the bright lights of the big internet.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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