Hello darkness, my old friend

June 15, 2024 – Sept. 22, 2024
Ominous witches, gruesome monsters, and hideous freaks: from Saturday 15 June, Kunsthal Rotterdam will be putting the spotlight on the shady depths of human imagination in the exhibition Hello darkness, my old friend. Seventy works on paper from the collection of the Leiden University Libraries confront you with the darker side of European art history. From Leonardo da Vinci’s character sketches and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s engravings, to charcoal portraits by Natasja Kensmil: these works all visualise our fascination with the macabre.

Divided into seven themes, the exhibition shows that certain convictions and fears are of all times. The theme ‘Death comes for us all’ deals with the inevitable human demise and the prominent role death plays in art history. So-called Dances of Death, in which skeletons accompany people in a dance to the grave, are masterfully brought to life in the wood carvings of Hans Holbein II (1497-1543). Typical of depictions of this theme is that death comes for everyone and does not discriminate between rich or poor, sinner or saint.

Book your tickets in advance

Biblical hellscapes

Religious depictions of Judgement Day, the Apocalypse, and hell are brought together under the title ‘Biblical hellscapes’. These works played a crucial role in the propagation and reinforcement of the Christian faith, especially at a time when many people were still unable to read. In ‘Devils and Monstrosities’, visitors are confronted with the many guises of Satan, as portrayed in prints by artists like Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), and David Humbert de Superville (1770-1849). Either depicted as a beast with horns, or seductive and mysterious, but always embodying evil.

Surrealistic and supernatural

The theme ‘Nightmares and Visions’ focuses on dreamlike and surreal depictions of the subconscious: from a fight between a jug with legs and a little headless man on a barrel in the water, to horrific plagues and monstrous figures. The fact that artists found inspiration in the collective fear and fascination for the supernatural can be explored in ‘Magic and Witchcraft’. Brooms, revolting potions, and mystical rituals are featured in the prints of artists like Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569), and Hans Baldung Grien (ca. 1484-1545).

Humorous elements

Despite their dark connotations, many of the works also contain humorous elements, resulting in an interesting paradox. ‘Everyday life at its strangest’ offers a platform to quacks, satirical depictions, and – occasionally humorous – legends. And finally, the works combined under the title ‘Allegorical madness’ at first glance mainly appear to showcase bizarre scenes, but those who look closer might also draw some important lessons from them. A print featuring sheep going to a wolf for confession, for instance, can be interpreted as a complaint against ecclesiastical power, while fighting money bags and chests are symbolic for the hypocrisy of war. In the interactions between shadow and light, humour and seriousness, you can experience the nuances of human existence.

Leiden University Libraries

The exhibition is realised in close collaboration with the Leiden University Libraries (Universitaire Bibliotheken Leiden, UBL). UBL is responsible for a number of special collections of national and international importance, including manuscripts, drawings, books, archives, photographs, maps, and letters from all over the world. UBL has an active acquisition policy to supplement these collections, which are made available to educational institutions and researchers, as well as other interested parties.


Johan Sadeler (1550-ca.1600); after Dirck Barendsz (1534-1592), The last four things: Hell, between 1572 and 1592, engraving, Leiden University Libraries
François Ragot (1638-1670), The music lesson for cats, between 1653 and 1670, engraving, Leiden University Libraries
Friday open until 22:00
On 21 June - during Friday Night LIVE - the Kunsthal will be open in the evening.
Book your tickets
Kunsthal & Cookies
For an optimal website visit, we use functional and analytical cookies. To show videos and advertisements based on your interests, your consent is required for the use of marketing cookies. You can change this at any time. View our cookie statement and privacy statement.
These cookies enables the website to work like it should. These cookies are not optional.
These cookies are set by third parties, like YouTube or Vimeo.
These cookies allow us to measure the usage of the website and improve it accordingly.
These cookies allow our advertising partners to offer content tailormade for you.
When you disable categories, some functionality in the website might not work correctly. It's possible to change your preferences at any time. More information.