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Why are artists obsessed with death?

23 October 2017

Every now and again an exhibition comes along devoted to vanitas painting or the nature morte. Beautiful shows have been staged in recent years by the Musée Maillol in Paris and Joe La Placa’s (now defunct) All Visual Arts. Michael Petry’s exhibition at the wonderful Guildhall Art Gallery follows in this tradition. The display, which features historic and contemporary art that explores ‘the problem of mortality’, contains some beautiful and surprising things. Ori Gersht’s video of a vase of flowers is mesmerizing – right up until the moment when the still life explodes into smithereens, making unsuspecting visitors jump. It was a pleasure to see one of Paul Hazelton’s sculptures, a life-sized skull made out of dust, which sports a Warhol-esque fright wig made out of a duster. I was also very taken by an Old Master painting of cheese. But perhaps the piece that I most covet is Alexander James’s photograph, which depicts a skull and flowers submerged in water and is framed in luscious black velvet.

Fright Wig

Fright Wig (2013), Paul Hazelton

I own a collection of things to do with death: skeletons, skulls, taxidermy creatures, and so on. A few years ago, I opened the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History, where many of them are on display. I am puzzled by people who have no fascination for such objects, or find them strange. But whatever an ex-lover might say, I am not in love with death, and in fact many other things interest me. Next to my desk in my library as I write this, a family of five harvest mice cavorts in a large aquarium; they are forever running around, climbing and jumping and having a lovely time. Outside, plants fill my greenhouse, though it is true that many of them are carnivorous. I can look down the slope to the orchards I am attempting to establish (while battling the fallow deer who keep eating the young trees – a curse be on them, may they all end up in a pie in my oven). On my walls hang pictures of fairies, horses, and magical scenes, rather than wall-to-wall vanitas paintings.

Gladioli and Roses (1880), Henri Fantin-Latour. Courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery

Gladioli and Roses (1880), Henri Fantin-Latour. Courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery

Last Meal on Death Row, Texas (Juan Soria) (2011), Mat Collishaw

Last Meal on Death Row, Texas (Juan Soria) (2011), Mat Collishaw

For me, death is a part of life as much as are breathing or fucking or eating. It happens, but there is no finality to it except in the case of extinction – and my dodo bones and feathers of other extinct birds are among my most prized possessions. To devote an entire show and a beautiful book exclusively to artists’ images of death – and nothing else – strikes me as a profoundly odd idea. When was it that death became so separated from life that it was deemed worthy of a show of its own?

When pondering this, I tend to imagine how our Victorian ancestors would react if they were here today. I think they would find our contemporary relationship with death obscene and troubling. In the 20th century, mankind – or at least the affluent western members of the species – divorced itself from the world at large. Men got off their horses and into strange metal contraptions for transport; they moved out of wooden and stone houses and into concrete ones. Until recently, death was a part of daily life: animals were killed in front of you or by you; friends, relatives, enemies died in plain sight.

Nature Morte II (2010), Cindy Wright. Courtesy the artist and Johan Willemen

Nature Morte II (2010), Cindy Wright. Courtesy the artist and Johan Willemen

For the most part this is now hidden. Death is ushered off into a secret place; it has become taboo, and for a Victorian the world has turned topsy-turvy. Death was at the centre of their lives: they fetishised it. Sex they hid in dark corners. They would have been astonished at our society, where all imaginable types of human (and indeed bestial) procreation can be found and watched with ease – though I’m not sure they were as prudish as some would have us believe.

The Great Leveller (2010), Alexander James

The Great Leveller (2010), Alexander James

‘Nature Morte’ is at the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, until 2 April 2018.

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One comment

  1. barbara robson Oct 24 2017 at 10:41 am

    I have seen someone killed in an almost absurd traffic accident. Death can strike very swiftly. My husband, who was that most unfashionable kind of artist (namely a society painter) by preference painted the follies of human life. As he slid into dementia we gave him art materials for as long as possible and saw his vain efforts to capture or recapture memories of earlier times. Eventually he ate any crayons or chalks we gave him and his efforts came to an end. Although he was fascinated by death in art, he did not paint it, merely surrounding himself with skulls, shells, and other objects one might find in a cabinet of curiosities. I do not think artists are different in any way from mere mortals. What worries me more are people losing themselves in an electronic fog and thereby failing to live.

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