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A new book that brings death to life

Death: a lively visual history

A new book lifts the lid on humanity’s fascination with mortality

A new book lifts the lid on humanity’s fascination with mortality

Maggie Gray | November 29th 2017

On a wet July day in Paris in 1793, during the period now known as “The Terror”, Charlotte Corday was among the first “enemies of the revolution” to be executed by guillotine. After her head was struck from her body, the executioner picked it up and slapped it in a theatrical gesture for the crowd. Some of those watching swore, aghast, that Corday blushed at the insult. The rumour spread, fuelling debate about France’s new killing machine. Its proponents had hailed it as a swift and therefore humane method of execution. But what if the victims did not lose consciousness with the cut of the blade? Was there an awful afterlife for the condemned, in which their severed heads were forced to contemplate their own demise?

This is just one of the fascinating and macabre stories to feature in “Death: A Graveside Companion”. The delightfully dark compendium draws together images of death (many from the collection of an American art dealer, Richard Harris) with essays considering different aspects of mankind’s relationship with death, raising profound and troubling questions. What does it mean to die? What should be done with a corpse? How do we picture death, and can we poke fun at it? Is death the end? The essays are printed on paper the colour of sodden earth; drawings of grinning reapers stalk the reader from the margins.

It is a surprisingly lively book. We meet vivid characters who have put death at the centre of their lives, such as Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy American who made miniature models of murder scenes as a police training resource, or Georgiana Houghton, a Victorian artist who claimed her kaleidoscopic drawings were the work of her spirit guide, and early anatomists who raided graves for fresh cadavers.

Nowadays we try not to think too hard about death. Modern medicine keeps it at bay and hospitals, care homes and funeral parlours keep it out of sight. For many of us, death is an abstraction. But this sometimes disturbing yet unexpectedly affecting book reminds us that it is the most human thing of all.

 

“Adam and Eve” (1543) by Hans Sebald Beham

For Christians, this print depicts the moment at which death entered the life of man. Adam and Eve stand side by side in the Garden of Eden, unclothed and innocent – but not for long. With looks of mingled temptation and trepidation, they reach for the apple offered by the serpent. As soon as the couple eat from the “tree of knowledge”, they will be cast into a world of sin, sex and death. To reinforce his message, Beham has transformed the tree into a leering skeleton. Its pose echoes Adam’s, foreshadowing man’s fate.

 

“Anatomy Lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch” (1683) by Jan van Neck

As science and medicine progressed in the 17th century, the study of anatomy became increasingly important. This painting depicts Frederik Ruysch, a Dutch physician and influential anatomist, instructing his colleagues in Amsterdam. The men gesture towards the body of a newborn baby, its placenta still attached, that is being studied on the worktable. On the right, a boy holds a child’s skeleton that is paradoxically charged with life. Ruysch was famous for developing a method of preserving dead bodies, and he had a flair for public spectacle: he created bizarre works of art out of foetal skeletons and corpses to warn people about the fleeting nature of life on earth.

17th-century appliqué silk robes

The vestments of a Catholic priest may seem an unlikely place to find a skull and cross-bones, but such motifs were actually fairly common in the Church from the late Middle Ages. These robes were reserved for funerals and other ceremonies relating to death. The appliqué skull, bleached white with dark eye sockets, stands out against the crimson background. It was designed to draw the attention of the congregation. 

Portrait of an unknown child, late 19th century

At first glance this Victorian child appears to be sleeping peacefully. In fact, she is dead. Her body has been carefully dressed and posed and the photograph coloured to give the impression of health. This may have been the only likeness the family had of the child; paintings were costly and photographs, while cheaper, were not yet commonplace. The practice of photographing the deceased may seem distasteful today, but it stemmed from familiar emotions. When a loved one dies it is only natural to want to remember them in happier times.

 

A characteristic poster for the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris

Between 1897 and 1962 Parisians with a taste for the macabre could visit the Grand-Guignol. This “theatre of fear and terror” was housed in an old chapel and staged graphic plays featuring deranged characters and shocking violence. Popular titles included “The Torture Garden”, “Child Murderer” and “A Crime in the Madhouse”. Audience members would often faint, but they kept coming back – just like fans of horror films today. In this poster, Death pulls a beautiful young woman towards him while she gazes at him as though hypnotised or seduced. Death may be frightening, but it has also always been a source of fascination.

A page from “Spectropia” (1864) by J. H. Brown

In 19th-century London there was a wave of enthusiasm for spiritualism. People were convinced that it was possible to commune with the dead, and there was no shortage of mediums to act as their guides. The movement had high-profile champions such as Arthur Conan Doyle and the pre-Raphaelite painters. In 1884 a dedicated centre, the College of Psychic Studies, opened in Kensington. Not everyone was convinced. This image is from J.H. Brown’s “Spectropia” (1864), an anti-spiritualist publication which promised to reveal how the eye could be tricked into seeing “surprising spectral illusions showing ghosts everywhere and of any colour”. If you stare at it for long enough, and then look away, the image lingers as a ghostly afterglow.

Death: A Graveside Companion edited by Joanna Ebenstein (Thames & Hudson)

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