Once you get to the end of the sinister plot twists in the recent thriller Midsommar it becomes clear that director Ari Aster has laid a trail of artistic breadcrumbs that, upon closer consideration, reveal how the dark final scene was there from the start.
The art “saturates the film with prophetic details,” Aster told artnet News of the film, which came out in a new director’s cut last week.
The story follows a grief-stricken young woman named Dani (played by Forence Pugh), who, after enduring a grisly family tragedy, joins her callous boyfriend Christian and his ragtag group of grad-school buddies on a summertime jaunt to a Swedish village. They arrive just in time to take part in the traditional midsommar celebration, which only comes once every 90 years.
Against the sunlit backdrop of the village, the creepy blond inhabitants wear permanent smiles and ornate floral crowns. Toward the end, Dani regains her sense of agency while seated for dinner at a long triangular tablescape that, upon reflection, looks a lot like Judy Chicago‘s feminist classic The Dinner Party—a sly bit of foreshadowing if you know the ending.
Then there’s the wreath that Dani wears while seated there, which looks like something out of Mika Rottenberg’s occasionally phantasmagoric video art, especially when the flower buds open their pursed lips and start to breathe.
Particularly influential, Aster said, were artists associated with theosophy and occultism, such as Hilma af Klint, František Kupka, and Rudolf Steiner—figures whose work often features repeated symbols and colors that coincide with a certain spiritual lexicon.
But it was just a happy accident that the Guggenheim was in the midst of its “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” show, probably the most popular museum exhibition of the year, when Aster returned to New York from filming in Sweden. The Swedish artist’s The Ten Largest series of paintings, which reflect different stages of life cycles, was “a connection made after the script was written,” Aster said.
Other artists who inspired the film include native Swedes such as the illustrator John Bauer, who is best known for dreamscapes that blur fantasy and mythology, often with a dark undercurrent, and the watercolorist Carl Larsson, as well as the French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and the macabre photographer Joel Peter Witkin, who is known to have used real corpses to inspire his nightmarish tableaux. Aster also took cues from theater, with Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty “a particularly important reference.”
One of the first images viewers see when the film begins is an intricate mural inspired by the New York-based artist Mu Pan, who Aster has described as a contemporary Hieronymus Bosch. When Aster’s production crew reached out to the artist about making a work for the film, “I didn’t hesitate to say, ‘yes,’” Mu Pan told artnet News. “I am a big fan of Hereditary,” Aster’s previous film.
“The main idea was to create a painting in my style that captured Ari’s ideas, and all of the symbols of the film. I do have a lot of influence from Bosch, Bruegel, Indian miniatures, Tibetan tanka,illuminated manuscripts, and Eastern scroll paintings,” Mu Pan said.
Below, we’ve rounded up some of the most fascinating artistic references we spotted in the movie, with the film stills above them for comparison—because while it might be closer to latesommar than midsommar, it’s always a good time for prestige art-inflected horror!
Mika Rottenberg’s Cosmic Generator (2017)
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s Death and the Maidens (1872)
John Bauer’s Lucia (1913)
19th-century illustration by John Bauer
Joel Peter Witkin’s Myself as a Dead Clown (2007)
Hilma af Klint’s Group 1, Primordial Chaos No.16 (1906-07)
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