And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the nighttime,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry, merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
- Leonard Cohen, Who By Fire
A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 57th birthday. It recently occurred to me that my father was the same age when he lost his brother to a tragic car crash one snowy winter’s morning. I didn’t know my uncle very well since my father’s family had fractured somewhat as the years had passed and the needs of offspring took precedence over those of siblings. All the same, I was affected deeply.
The hazy years of my early childhood had been dotted with a few scattered deaths of superannuated relatives whose services I had been too young to attend, though I do recall an afternoon visit to a funeral home for the wake of one of my great uncles. Most clear in my mind is the memory of hooking up with my equally young cousins and causing a bit of a disturbance in that solemn edifice by racing through the halls, hiding behind a wall of coats on a coat rack, exploring the viewing rooms and letting out squeals of terror and laughter when confronted with a lonely corpse laid out in his coffin awaiting visitors.
|Albrecht Durer - Death and the Landsknecht- 1516|
“My name is Death, cannot you see?
Lords, dukes and ladies bow down to me
And you are one of those branches three
And you, fair maid, and you, fair maid,
And you, fair maid, must come with me.”
“I’ll give you gold and jewels rare,
I’ll give you costly robes to wear,
I’ll give you all my wealth in store
If you’ll let me live, if you’ll let me live,
If you’ll let me live a few years more.”
“Fair lady, lay your robes aside.
No longer glory in your pride.
And now, sweet maid, make no delay.
Your time is come, your time is come,
Your time is come and you must away.”
-Traditional Folk Song
|Sebald Beham - O, Die Stund ist aus - 1548|
So when my uncle died so suddenly in a senseless accident, the event had a profound impact on me – sort of like the result of dropping a stone in a placid pond. Being in my last year of high school, I was now fully capable of appreciating the gravity of the event and could empathize with the suffering his family was experiencing. Especially difficult for me to process was that my uncle’s children were of similar ages to those in my own family, his two youngest daughters being my juniors by a year or two. In a flash, “death”, that unreal concept, had become a tangible reality for me.
After the wake, funeral and burial, my family stopped by my uncle’s house to share a meal with his family before returning to our home. The place was filled to the rafters with aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends, neighbors and business acquaintances, and I felt lucky to have found a free chair in their TV room upon which to sit while I balanced a plate of food precariously on my knees and ate an uncomfortable meal. Among the folk that had sought refuge in this little annex was my father’s older brother who was nearly identical to my father in appearance but night and day as far as their personalities went, my uncle being somewhat of a gregarious joker while my father was serious and quiet. While I watched two agitated Irish setters bounding in and out of the room, my uncle stopped eating a moment, looked up at his companions sharing the room and declared with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, “Well, that’s the first of us to go!”, referring to the seven original siblings in my father’s family and seeming to suggest that now that the floodgates were open the remaining siblings would fall like a line of dominoes. His observation shocked me for being flippant and, while uncontestably factual, in spirit quite alarmist. No one was going anywhere. This death was an unforeseen blip on an otherwise clear radar screen. Or, at least, so I thought.
I came into this world with a surfeit of aunts and uncles, there being seventeen in all, both by blood and by marriage. At the time of my uncle’s declaration, I thought of my parents’ generation of relatives as rock solid, bound to be around for eons to come. Within a decade, half of them were gone, taken by a host of ailments: heart disease, cancer, diabetes… the usual. During that ten year span, I also lost my own father, an event that seemed ridiculously early and particularly avoidable. So Death, that elusive and remote figure, became a regular companion of mine. Health updates became common fare at family gatherings. Someone was almost always going into or coming out of the hospital. And there were those phone calls in the middle of the night informing our household of the latest passing. I became indoctrinated in the culture of death, attending many a wake, funeral and burial.
And how did I change over the period? Well. I can’t say that I became grim or morose, dwelling on the mortality of man throughout my average day. I was young, and, at that stage of life, troubles have a fleeting impact. Some deaths were harder to endure than others, but, for the most part, college then grad school, girlfriends and employment were my most pressing concerns during those years. But, inevitably, my perception of the human condition had to shift. My childhood belief in the reliability and constancy of the folk who populated my world gave way to the recognition that our little sitcom was performed by an ever changing cast of actors. A dip in ratings or some mischief on the set could result in the exit of even central characters. And, worse than that, it was entirely conceivable that the plug could be pulled on our show altogether. That was my new reality. In truth, I guess I should feel fairly privileged that I was able to maintain my childhood illusions for so long.
Prior generations were not so lucky. Before the advent of modern medical and sanitation practices and the development of vaccines and antibiotics, there was a vast array of serious maladies thriving that could rapidly take the life of even a healthy, robust individual. Cholera, typhus, typhoid fever and influenza epidemics routinely broke out in isolated pockets or swept across entire continents. From the 14th to the 17th century, plague outbreaks were regular occurrences in most European nations. Tuberculosis, a potentially deadly, infectious, bacterial disease of the lungs, was particularly prevalent in the nineteenth century.
Hans Holbein (1497-1543) created a series of woodcuts on the theme of The Dance of Death which presented a selection of scenarios in which “Death” stole away healthy and active individuals from their loving families or in the midst of performing a critical role in the extant social structure. In the series, the victims display no outward manifestation of illness and appear surprised and distressed to be escorted away by the skeletal figure of Death. The purpose of the series seems to be religious. Rather than explore the realities of dying, Holbein chooses to remind his audience that death could come at any moment, regardless of age or social status, and the time to repent is nigh. In one print, a duke turns away in distaste from a beggar woman and her child unaware that Death is already laying his boney hands upon him, and, in another, a judge accepts a bribe from a litigant while Death removes the staff of office from his grasp. Clearly, Holbein lived in an age when death struck indiscriminately and often. Under the circumstances, the artist felt compelled to remind his audience of their moral obligations, the fulfillment of which would determine their circumstances in a promised afterlife.
|Hans Holbein - Death Taking a Child - c1538|
|Hans Holbein - The Duke - c1538|
|Hans Holbein - The Judge - c1538|
While Holbein explores death within allegory to instruct his audience, for Edvard Munch (1863-1944) death was personal. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five years old, one of his sisters succumbing to the same disease nine years later at the age of fifteen. His only brother died of pneumonia at the age of thirty. This series of deaths experienced throughout his youth had a profound impact on Munch and colored his understanding of life. Early in his career, he sought to capture the suffering and despair experienced not by the dying but by those who remain to live with the loss. In these works, Munch pares down detail to absolute essentials: a glass of water at a bedside, the thinned and matted hair stretched across the brow of a sick girl, exaggerated floorboards spanning a barren room, a sickbed, a coffin. Eventually, the dead or dying individual becomes a secondary character positioned inconspicuously within the image or hidden altogether. We are invited to empathize with the survivors who are represented not as individuals but as emblems of the various responses to death. As a whole, these images do not delve into the artist’s particular experience but seek to transcend them to arrive at the universal. All the same, these images are extremely moving, informing us of an artistic outlook defined by a prolonged exposure to illness and death.
|Edvard Munch - The Sick Child - 1896|
|Edvard Munch - Death in the Sickroom - 1895|
|Edvard Munch - By the Deathbed - 1895|
Like Munch, Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) chooses to explore the experience of death through the eyes of mourners. She too suffered the loss of siblings during her early youth. Surely the most devastating loss she was to withstand was the death of her son, Peter, at the age of eighteen in the opening battles of World War I in 1914, an event that sent her into deep depression and transformed her into a committed pacifist. Her work often documents the impact that an untimely death effects on family members and comrades.
|Kathe Kollwitz - Woman with Dead Child - 1903|
|Kathe Kollwitz - Memorial for Karl Liebknecht - 1921|
Surely the most commonly portrayed death in European art is that of Jesus of Nazareth, the philosopher/activist who was put to death, as have many before and since, for preaching love and peace. Often artists in depicting the dying have sought to reassure their audience that dying can be a gentle passing into the afterlife.
|Carl Bloch - The Crucifixion - 1869|
This is usually not the case with the crucifixion of Jesus. Central to Christian thinking is the concept that Jesus suffered humiliation, torture and a horrific death to expiate the sins of the faithful, thereby opening the doors of heaven to them. By exposing powerfully the full extent of his sufferings, artists were reminding the people of the burden of debt which they owed to Jesus and exhorted them to ignore their own penances as they committed themselves fully to leading Christian lives. Particularly, in
Northern Europe at the
time of the Renaissance, artists took a strange delight in documenting the agonizing
death that Jesus suffered.
|Jan van Eyck - The Crucifixion - c1440|
|Matthias Grunewald - The Crucixion - 1515|
The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) provides a unique consideration of the subject of the death of Jesus. The viewer is presented with the image of Jesus’s corpse laid out upon a slab. The stigmata inflicted during his crucifixion are clearly documented, and, besides the bier, two women draped in shawls kneel in prayer. But in many ways, this image is very impersonal. In fact, if not identified by its title, this painting could be of anyone. Furthermore, this image is primarily an unemotional exploration of what were then radical theories of perspective. Unencumbered by pathos or a desire to proselytize, Mantegna selects the theme of the dead Christ as a convenient foil by which to explore technical developments in how three dimensional space is represented on a flat surface. Looking at this work, I feel little empathy with the individual portrayed; instead I become absorbed with the visual distortions imposed by the artist’s choice of an unusual vantage point, noting inevitably what he got right and what he didn’t quite pull off.
|Andrea Mantegna - The Dead Christ - c1480|
While we are addressing religious themes, I think taking a look at Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) Dying Slave might be in order. In many ways, this work is as unusual as that of Mantegna. But while Mantegna chooses to take a scientific approach to a subject matter that clearly presupposes a strong religious construction, Michelangelo’s faith determines his execution of Dying Slave, a theme not readily associated with a religious context. A first look at this sculpture suggests to the viewer anything but a dying slave. A few silken bands encircling the figure’s chest are the sole attribute that would identify this individual as a slave, and nothing in his facial expression or overall pose would suggest that he is in the throes of death – usually an exhausting and agonizing ordeal. In truth, the Dying Slave appears to be experiencing a kind of orgasmic ecstasy, which seems totally at odds with the theme of the work. Only after consideration does the viewer realize that the slave is slipping the bonds of servitude and suffering to enter another dimension free from earthly concerns. And, as such, the sculpture serves as a metaphor for the faithful, documenting the moment when an individual is released from the pains and cares of daily existence and enters the realm of heaven.
|Michelangelo - Dying Slave - 1513 to 16|
Other artists were able to find heroism in death. Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) depicts Socrates about to drink a cup of hemlock, a sentence he chose over the disgrace of exile. Socrates, undaunted by his fate, continues to philosophize to his followers who are not nearly as unemotional about his imminent death. Perhaps David, recognizing the Revolution’s propensity to execute its most ardent supporters, was exhorting its leaders to continue to work tirelessly and stay focused on the goal of creating a just and egalitarian society, in spite of the high personal risk assumed by them.
|Jacques-Louis David - The Death of Socrates - 1787|
Throughout history, War has provided most consistently the opportunity for an individual to die a heroic death. Well, maybe I should say that War provided artists the opportunity to depict a heroic death. No one can be sure exactly what really transpired in the chaos and mayhem of any battlefield, but a heroic death, especially one suffered by a commander, presented a great vehicle for inspiring patriotic zeal and served as a great recruitment tool.
|Horace Vernet - La Bataille du Pont d'Arcole - 1826|
|John Singleton Copley - The Death of Major Pierson - 1784|
|John Trumbull - The Death of General Montgomery at the Attack on Quebec - 1786|
|John Trumbull - The Death of General Warren at Bunker's Hill - 1815 to 31|
With the development of modern warfare, the battlefield experience changed. The slaughter of ever larger numbers of combatants became possible. Death became indiscriminate and impersonal. The demands of rapid deployments meant that the dead and wounded were often left on the battlefield for days before being attended to. Mathew Brady (1822-96) was one of the first photographers to document the aftermath of modern conflict, and his raw and unflinching photographs of the American Civil War dead changed the way that civilians on the homefront viewed the war. At the war’s start, Brady’s
photography studio was doing very well as
soldiers sought to secure ambrotype or albumen portrait prints of themselves
before leaving their homes and families for the front. But Brady decided that he wanted to document
the war itself and hired 23 assistants to work in the field, each of them equipped
with a traveling darkroom. The slow
speed of exposure required for these early photographs made recording active
battles nearly impossible, but the aftermath of these battles became ideal
subjects. So a large number of the over
10,000 plates used to record the war were devoted to documenting the war dead
in the field. These deaths were not
presented in a heroic or idealized manner.
The dead were recorded where they had fallen, their corpses often
contorted in agony, their flesh bloated from decomposition. Endless rows of bodies were stacked
side-by-side in open fields awaiting processing and burial. Probably for the first time ever, the public
was introduced to the unfiltered realities of death in the field, and these
realities were exceedingly gruesome.
Brady even held an exhibition in his New
York New York
gallery of The Dead of Antietam,
devoted solely to photographs of the casualties of that Civil War battle.
|Mathew Brady - Fredericksburg - 1863|
|Mathew Brady - Gettysburg - 1863|
Brady anticipated eventually selling his plates to the
government, but, once the war
was over, interest in his stark images waned as the nation preferred to leave
the painful memory of the war behind.
Brady lost his studio, went into bankruptcy and ultimately died in the
charity ward of US Presbyterian Hospital in . New
a period of liberal reform following the collapse of the government after World
War I, artists enjoyed greater freedom than ever before. A new movement called Neue Sachlichkeit or
New Objectivity flourished in the post war years, with artists documenting the
atrocities they had often experienced firsthand in the field and condemning the
social institutions that had supported and profited by the conflict. George Grosz (1893-1959) and Otto Dix
(1891-1969) depicted the war dead in a manner never permitted before. The stagnant fronts of trench warfare
resulted in the establishment of a no man’s land between enemy lines, a few
hundred yards of barren ground too dangerous to intrude upon without great risk
to life. The bodies of soldiers killed
in past assaults on enemy lines were necessarily abandoned where they had
fallen and would decompose with time.
Using exaggeration and caustic wit, Grosz and Dix exposed to the public
the horrible wounds, ignoble deaths and eventual deterioration of World War I’s
combatants in a manner that would be difficult to tolerate in most of today’s
liberal, democratic societies. Such truths
are too ugly to stomach and deny the public the comfortable illusion of noble
sacrifice in war. Weimar Republic
|George Grosz - Freedom - 1936|
|Otto Dix - Dead Man - 1924|
|Otto Dix - Dead Man in the Mud - 1924|
|Otto Dix - Dead Sentry - 1924|
|Otto Dix - Skull - 1924|
Recording the features of the dead is not a new interest. Even in Ancient Rome, a wax death mask was made of the face of the recently dead and was worn by a participant during death rites. During their Coptic period, Egyptians attached naturalistic portraits painted on wooden panels to the mummies of the dead. Throughout the centuries plaster masks were made of famous and powerful individuals at their deaths. They were also used to document the facial features of unidentified corpses before decomposition made recognition impossible. Making these masks was an involved process, requiring some preparation of the deceased and multiple applications of plaster. Often the corpse was positioned with head upright during the procedure. Even after the development of photography, this tradition continued. Why? Clearly the death mask doesn’t capture a “true” likeness of an individual. Often features are distorted by wasting, settlement and other physical changes occurring with death, and, unanimated by the spark of life, even those features accurately recorded seem artificial and vaguely unhuman. On the other hand, I guess the death mask provided a precise, dispassionate perspective of the deceased, documenting in real proportion his or her features: the length of the nose, the width of the forehead, the pockmarks left from a childhood ailment, a scar testifying to a careless fall years ago, the lines of age incised sharply about the eyes and mouth. At the most elemental level, death masks attest to the futile desire of the living to hold onto the intangible, the ephemeral and the fleeting and to deny the finiteness of human existence.
|Ludwig van Beethoven|
Damien Hirst (b1965), a British artist who throughout his career has garnered great attention presenting work overtly ghastly and macabre, created a unique work of art in 2007, For the Love of God, which addresses the theme of human mortality. From a
taxidermist he purchased a human skull, which was later determined to have come
from a man who died at about 35 years of age in the 18th
century. Hirst made a cast of the skull
in platinum which he encrusted with jewels including 8601 flawless diamonds. The teeth from the original skull were
inserted in the jaw of the platinum cast.
The resulting artwork is a strange anomaly. Hirst has violated societal norms in his
handling of these human remains, creating an object that the squeamish might as
a rule avoid. As a reminder of human
mortality, it might, like Holbein’s woodcuts, serve to warn us that we should
make good use of the time we’re allotted to strive for elevated goals, to seek
achievements of real significance, to assist and ease the suffering of our
fellow man, except that this skull is comprised of jewels and precious metals,
which render it a ridiculous bauble, a decorative piece meant to be admired and
coveted. For Hirst, Death has become a
commodity which can be packaged and marketed to the public; in fact, this work
supposedly sold for £50 million almost immediately upon completion. London
|Damien Hirst - For the Love of God - 2007|
There are some artists who have attempted to explore death with a cool inquisitiveness devoid of a social or religious agenda. Theodore Gericault (1791-1824), the same artist who painted unemotionally a series of portraits of the insane, chose in 1818 to document the severed heads of executed prisoners. Once guillotined, the heads were unceremoniously piled together waiting to be collected and discarded. Gericault captures the clean incision left by the rapidly descending blade, the gray-green pallor of each face, the final expression frozen on the features of these individuals at the moment of death. Gericault offers his viewers a detached glimpse at the moment of death, the split second when the thread of life is severed.
|Theodore Gericault - Heads of the Executed - 1818|
|Ary Scheffer - The Death of Gericault - 1824|
The Impressionists applied scientific principles concerning color theory and optics within their work. In many ways, they chose to observe their subjects dispassionately, making their works studies in light and atmosphere. Among the Impressionists, Claude Monet (1840-1926) is certainly the artist who maintained most consistently throughout his career the tenets of the movement, striving diligently to record nature as it truly is perceived rather than intellectually or technically conceived. When his wife lay dying in 1879, Monet naturally determined to record her image on her deathbed. The resulting painting does not painstakingly record the symptoms of wasting and deterioration in his wife; instead, his interest is drawn to the play of light on her body, the obfuscation effected by the lace veil draped over her form and how the mass of flowers laid upon her chest becomes visually enmeshed with the lace of her gown and veil. If the painting’s title didn’t inform us otherwise, Madame Monet could easily be taking an afternoon nap under mosquito netting. This painting reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of the Impressionist approach: the interest in light, broken brushwork, color and atmosphere is applied regardless of subject matter, but there follows an inevitable loss of context and a prettiness inappropriate to the gravitas of the situation.
|Claude Monet - Camille Monet on her Deathbed - 1879|
In a particularly moving photograph, Sally Mann (b1951) records an image of her father being treated for brain cancer in a hospital bed, her two children perched on the edge of the bed staring sullenly into the camera. While the children are in focus and properly lit, her father is bathed in harsh light, his hand grasping the bedrail, his face turned to the viewer. His features are distorted and eradicated in the strong light, suggesting that he is already slipping into another dimension, his hand on the rail a last desperate hold on life. The impossibility of finding an exposure that will permit the camera to accurately record both the children and her father declares that the void between the living and the dying is too wide to breach, that all the empathy and concern that survivors can muster will never allow them to comprehend the awful moment when consciousness ebbs from another being.
|Sally Mann - He is very sick - 1986|
Perhaps some of the most poignant works on the theme of death that I know of are the series of studies executed by Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) of his mistress, Valentine Godé-Darel, as she lay dying of cancer. Hodler produced over 70 sketches, gouaches and oil paintings documenting Godé-Darel’s decline between February 1914 and January 1915. It’s impossible to know exactly what Hodler’s motives were in recording these intimate moments. Hodler, who in his later years primarily painted landscape on location, must have made the decision to spend as much time as possible in the sickroom tending to the needs of his companion and found the need to keep busy during the tedium of his vigil. But surely a pact had to be made between the living and the dying permitting this intrusion, this unique dissection of the process of dying. Early on, communication is still possible with Godé-Darel eyeing the artist imploringly from her bed. Eventually, her wasted form no longer shares the same dimension as the artist; her eyes no longer take in her surroundings, her lips no longer speak but fall agape drawing in laboriously another breath. But even as the artist documents Godé-Darel’s decline with almost scientific detachment, somehow Hodler’s commitment to this woman and his terrible grief at losing her predominate these images.
|Ferdinand Hodler - Madame Valentine Gode-Darel Ill - 1914|
|Ferdinand Hodler - Portrait of Valentine Gode-Darel Sick - 1914|
|Ferdinand Hodler - Valentine Gode-Darel in Hospital Bed - 1914|
|Ferdinand Hodler - Portrait of Valentine Gode-Darel - 1915|
|Ferdinand Hodler - Portrait of Valentine Gode-Darel Dying - 1915|
|Ferdinand Hodler - Die Tote Valentine Gode-Darel am 26 Januar 1915 - 1915|
It is only to be expected that artists present varying perspectives on death. After all, it’s really all speculation. I mean if one is making artwork about death, then it goes without saying that one has yet to experience it. For many of the artists surveyed here, the theme of death is used as a tool to propound a sense of morality and civic duty, to proselytize a faith, to further a political agenda or instill nationalism in their audience. Conversely, other artists have asked us to consider objectively the price to be paid for unrestrainedly embracing the rhetoric of political extremism and militarism. My favorite works out of this selection are those that document the experience of death on a personal level, that permit a discomfiting glimpse into the intimate and disagreeable realities of dying, that allow us to witness through the eyes of the mourner the aftermath of loss.
|Dover Stone Church|
A week ago my youngest son and I went hiking at the
, the site not of a
church at all but a cave formed during the glacial retreat at the end of the
ice age. The cave, though shallow in
depth, is lofty in height and is graced with a waterfall whose pattering notes
fill its dark interior. Maybe it was
because this is the spot where the Pequot grand sachem, Sassacus, fled to after
his defeat by the British, only to be executed by the Mohawks. Maybe it was because my lower back was
killing me that morning, making every step a penance and reminding me that the
passing years were taking their toll on me. Or maybe it was just the autumn
season when minds naturally turn to endings.
Whatever the reason, we fell into a discussion about death. We both agreed that death is simply the end
of consciousness and, as such, offers an end to pain, suffering, desire,
responsibility, regret, boredom, shame… honestly, I could go on forever. We also agreed that death should not be
feared at all, a concept easier to embrace at the age of 15 than 57. As we hiked, we came across a sign warning of
the presence of bears and timber rattlesnakes in the park, and my son became a
little anxious, seeing a bear behind every tree and checking out the dark
crevices between rocks along the way for snakes. He practically jumped out of his socks when
he nearly trod upon a slithering garter snake sunning himself on a rock in our
path. Apparently, he wasn’t ready to
move on to the sweet hereafter just yet.
And there lies the perplexing contradiction inherent in most people’s
attitude concerning death: intellectually, we can abide with death while,
emotionally, we cling tenaciously to life. Dover Stone
As always, I encourage all to comment here, but if you prefer to do so privately, you can write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.