The Unbearable Failure of Looking

By Ivana Dizdar (@ivana_dizdar)

An Arctic seascape. A shipwreck. Polar bears devouring human flesh.

This is the scene British artist Edwin Landseer depicts in his 1864 painting Man Proposes, God Disposes. The action takes place within a landscape of glaciers and ice: cold, hard, and jagged. The environment is inhospitable and threatening, just like the feast before our eyes. A broken mast confirms the bears are scavenging the remnants of a shipwreck, where the humans they’re consuming met their death. In the painting’s bottom left corner, a telescope lies in the snow, a last trace of its owner. Commanding our attention, one of the voracious bears chews a human rib, his eyes shut, as if basking in satisfaction. He almost looks like he’s smiling.

Landseer’s masterpiece, held at Royal Holloway in the University of London, is likely familiar. The image—somewhere at the crossroads of chilling and comic—has been reproduced and circulated widely and is not easily forgotten. But here’s something you may not know: when Royal Holloway became the site of college examinations in the 1920s, an urban legend emerged, suggesting the painting was haunted and caused students to fail their exams. Since the 1970s, whenever an exam is held at Royal Holloway, Landseer’s painting is covered by a Union Jack flag—a tradition that doubles as a preventative measure.[1]

How does the painting’s mythology relate to its content? Man Proposes, God Disposes represents the Arctic as a sphere of danger, destruction, and decay. The detail of the abandoned telescope draws attention to the risks of exploration in service of knowledge, discovery, and progress. It alludes, in particular, to the danger of pursuits to look and see. Indeed, Landseer made the painting in direct reference to British explorer John Franklin’s famous quest in 1845 to find the Northwest passage—a route that would have proved hugely advantageous to Britain’s commerce, navy, and imperial project. But Franklin and his 129-man crew disappeared, never to return. In other words, the expedition failed dramatically.

Failure permeates the painting’s mythology as a haunted object. In fact, Man Proposes, God Disposes is historically said to have been the cause not only of failed exams but also of blindness, madness, and suicide. Rumors abound, but they have one thing in common: it is the very act of looking at the painting that spurs a range of consequences—from failure to illness to death. Supposedly inactive when the painting is covered, the curse functions only through sight. The detail of the telescope and the painting’s purported hauntedness, then, both tell a story about the risks of looking. Landseer’s bears act like the mythological Medusa, whose severed head would, if you looked at it, turn you into stone. Here, students are at risk of turning into ice—and if they freeze, they fail.

Images:

(1) Edwin Henry Landseer, Man Proposes, God Disposes, 1864, Royal Holloway, University of London

(2) Man Proposes, God Disposes covered by a Union Jack flag during an examination in 1984 ©Royal Holloway, University of London


[1] Apparently, a Union Jack flag was the largest thing an invigilator could find to cover the painting when a student in the 1970s outright refused to write an exam with the painting on view. However, the continued use of the Union Jack flag raises questions about the successes—and failures—of nineteenth-century British imperialism and Britain’s investments in the Arctic.

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