Embodying Sin with Paul Cadmus: A Human Caricature

By Liv Leftwich

Paul Cadmus 'Seven Deadly Sins Series'

Sin. We are all guilty of it, but what if our internal flaws were represented as physical manifestations? What if we could envision exactly how vice affects us?

Well, Paul Cadmus’ series, “The Seven Deadly Sins” produced between 1945 and 1949, triumphs in doing exactly that. I first came across the series during my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Cadmus’ work is based on the cardinal sins or capital vices, that originate in Christian teachings. Collectively known as Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Sloth. Each sin conflicts directly with one of the seven Christian virtues, which are known as; humility, kindness, abstinence, chastity, patience, liberality, and diligence.

It is a subject matter that has been explored since the Middle Ages within the realms of literature and art. However, Cadmus’ work offers a new and innovative interpretation through combining the likes of satire and parody to showcase sin. Each painting represents a specific sin as a kind of caricature. Cadmus utilises bold colours, vulgar shapes, and symbolic truths to highlight vice as both a universal and individual premise.

By taking such a dark topic and remodelling it into a style that is almost comical, Cadmus creates a stark dichotomy that is bound to capture and resonate with viewers.

Each painting displays clear characteristics that are subject to the corresponding sin. For example, the ‘wrath’ or ‘anger’ piece depicts a red Hulk-like figure violently bursting through flames. The figure is not only symbolic and reminiscent of Hell, but the sharp, fragmented imagery practically exudes violence, anger, and rage.

anger painting

Contrastingly, in the ‘Lust’ painting, Cadmus uses the female form as a backdrop to outline the woman’s sexual parts. Further to this, the woman’s figure is electrified. This not only highlights her lasciviousness energy but adds an element of danger to the piece. It is as if she is on the verge of self-destruction because of her sexual appetite. Thus, Cadmus not only represents lust in the most pornographic way possible, he suggests that it is a self- destructive, strictly female temptation.

Lust- single image

By parodying sin, Cadmus satirises what it means to be ‘immoral’ while creating physical expressions of vice, that are driven by vulgarity and gore.

When discussing the series, Cadmus states, “I don’t appear as myself, but I am all of the Deadly Sins in a way, as you all are, too.”

This begs the question: to what extent can art be used as a tool to recognise human flaws?

It is easy for us to shy away from sin when it remains suppressed as an internal flaw. However, when faced with such a literal, and vibrant display of vice, it is most certainly difficult to ignore.

Cadmus forces the spectator to embrace sin as a natural part of the human condition. We all know that we are all guilty of sin, but whether we choose to acknowledge it or shy away from it is another story.

Cadmus, for one, chooses to embrace each and every sin, as the ‘wicked passions’ that are inherent in all of us.

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