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Beauty and the dead

Vineet Gill | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 09, 2016
Resigned to his fate: Manet’s 1864 classic ‘The Dead Toreador’ is quite similar to the many lamentation paintings that are part of the Christian tradition.

Resigned to his fate: Manet’s 1864 classic ‘The Dead Toreador’ is quite similar to the many lamentation paintings that are part of the Christian tradition.   -  Shutterstock

Selfie time: A self portrait by Paul Cézanne

Selfie time: A self portrait by Paul Cézanne   -  Shutterstock

Our cross to bear: Most representations of death from medieval and Renaissance Europe used as motif the biblical story of Crucifixion.

Our cross to bear: Most representations of death from medieval and Renaissance Europe used as motif the biblical story of Crucifixion.   -  Shutterstock

The horror of death — and sometimes, its terrible beauty — has been the preoccupation of many a painter down the years

How does one approach the great and terrifying subject of death without going bonkers? Every serious philosophical attempt to make sense of human life must begin with this, or some variant of this, question. The French thinker and essayist Montaigne was so preoccupied with this morbid line of inquiry that it became something of an idée fixe. “I have adopted the practice of always having death not only in my mind but on my lips,” he once wrote. “There is nothing I inquire about more readily than how men have died: what did they say? How did they look?”

Notice how the first part of Montaigne’s concern — what people said before they died — is not nearly as complex and impossible to register, and indeed to convey, as the second: How someone looked, both in their final hours and post-mortem.

The horror of death is centred on its visual aspects, and so giving death a visible form evokes the worst kinds of anxieties in an aspiring artist, as well as in a prospective viewer. Even in our age of the camera, death as a subject in the visual medium remains as elusive as ever. Photographing a corpse, in essence, is a self-cancelling act: it is a means of ensuring that no one will ever get to know what the dead person really looked like. If you wish to obliterate all visual evidence of a dead body, if you wish to render it invisible rather, you photograph it. When confronted with photos of death — and they are everywhere, from newspapers to social media forums — the viewer is either looking at a pixellated image (the most banal form of invisibility); or else, given that the photograph is a particularly graphic one, he is forced to look away.

It’s impossible, then, to capture death in a camera. And yet the critic Roland Barthes, in his superb study of photography Camera Lucida, suggested that all photographs, portraits in particular, are visual metaphors for mortality. He wrote that when we look at a portrait photo, we experience a “micro-version of death (of parenthesis)”. So it may be that by photographing death directly, we end up vitiating its suggestive powers.

Historically, our artistic response to mortality was marked by the most imaginative, and somewhat childish, invention of symbols. The skull and the scythe — that sort of thing. Religion, of course, had a central role to play here. Most representations of death from medieval and Renaissance Europe used as motif the biblical story of Crucifixion. The ‘Lamentation Over the Dead Christ’ by the 15th-century Italian artist Andrea Mantegna followed in the footsteps of a great tradition, according to whose aesthetic code, death is given a mythic portrayal: it punctuates, rather than terminate, existence. Mantegna’s painting really captures the brief moment of lull before the rising of the dead.

Even secular painters in later eras, like Édouard Manet, were much influenced by this style. Manet’s 1864 classic ‘The Dead Toreador’ is quite similar to the many lamentation paintings that are part of the Christian tradition. The toreador in Manet’s painting looks as peacefully resigned to his fate as Mantegna’s Christ. There are similarities in posture, too: the body quite at ease, eyelids serenely shut, head turned to the side.

Looking at Manet’s ‘Toreador’, one gets the impression, despite the tiny pool of blood congealed on the floor, that once the performance is over, the toreador will rise Christ-like from his slumber. Yet the first viewers of the painting were scandalised by it. ‘The Dead Toreador’ originally belonged to a larger work of Manet’s called ‘Incident at a Bullfight’, which the artist himself ripped in two halves, following a great wave of public criticism. Evidently, the depiction of a dead man in the work had offended the bien-pensant sensibilities of Manet’s contemporaries, and subjecting the canvas to a pair of scissors was his equivalent of pixellating death.

There was, however, another school of thought in European painting that had no room for such squeamishness, nor for the memento-mori symbolism of old. These were artists interested in death as a clinical, physiological reality. Rather than through philosophical rumination à la Montaigne, these artists wanted to understand death by exploring the human body piecemeal, as an anatomist would: bit by bit, nerve by nerve.

Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’ (1632) is the undisputed masterpiece in this genre. Such paintings were common across Europe at the time, and were often commissioned by doctors who wanted to broaden their collection of anatomical sketches. (Rembrandt’s own work was held to high anatomical standards by most experts, until in 2006, when a group of Dutch surgeons proved, by cutting open a real human cadaver, that the artist’s depiction of the dissected arm in the painting was erroneous.)

It’s worth remembering that the figure of the dead in most classical and medieval paintings was endowed with a certain spiritual purity. In these works, it is always someone great — a martyr, an angel, a god — who is shown to be, albeit provisionally, dead. The portrayals were meant to evoke respect, as well as a sense of loss. But the anatomy paintings from the 17th century onwards advanced a strange, even ironic, rejection of this old paradigm. The corpse in these paintings is almost invariably that of a common criminal, usually fresh from the gallows.

More often than not, the corpses were stolen from graveyards and sold to artists and doctors at a premium by black-marketeers. In Scotland, body snatchers, or “Resurrection Men” as they were often called, were active contributors to the country’s medico-artistic sphere. Inventive methods were used for stealing corpses that were freshly buried — like setting up tunnel networks leading to and from the graves. Usually, the job was carried out with the utmost discretion, so that most families wouldn’t even realise that the remains of their beloved departed had ended up in some anatomy lab or some sculptor’s studio. During the 1820s, in the city of Edinburgh, the general demand for corpses increased to such an extent that it far outstripped the supply. And this, shockingly, led to a series of murders. The trial and execution of the notorious duo William Burke and William Hare, grave robbers accused of killing at least 16 people only so they could sell their corpses, sent ripples across the world. It was the outrage caused by the “Burke and Hare murders” that finally led to the Anatomy Act of 1832 in Britain, which introduced measures allowing medical practitioners legal access to cadavers.

To be sure, 19th-century lawmakers realised the obvious medical advantages of allowing doctors to cut open and study the dead. But the aesthetic benefits of exploring mortality through art were far from established. Indeed, artists during the latter half of the 19th century were en masse rejecting the imprimatur of high realism for their work. They were no more interested in faithful representations, neither of life nor of death. The modernist call-to-arms pushed for a return to symbolism; it sought to undermine the scientific worldview, tout court. From this standpoint, Paul Cézanne’s ‘Pyramid of Skulls’ — perhaps the stillest of his still-life paintings — teaches us more about the meaning of human mortality than any diagram of the lymphatic system ever could.

For the most part, then, modern artists maintained a hygienic distance both from the mortuary and from the graveyard. The only lapse, in recent memory, occurred in 1998, and it concerned the British sculptor Anthony-Noel Kelly. In a case bizarrely reminiscent of the 18th-century Resurrection Men, Kelly was accused of stealing human remains from London’s Royal College of Surgeons. According to news reports, the artist worked with a paid accomplice, who “stole a large number of dismembered body parts” from the college morgue, and smuggled these out “at night in a rucksack”. Several of these parts — including, but not limited to, “three heads, three torsos, parts of a brain, six arms and an assortment of legs and feet” — were recovered from Kelly’s studio.

Kelly was arrested and had to serve three months in jail for his crime. A crime that was occasioned by his strange desire to create “exact copy” sculptures of parts of the human body. But why couldn’t he use living models as templates for his plaster casts? Perhaps he had been aiming for something greater: of capturing the stillness of death in his art. Not the kind of stillness that Cezanne’s symbolic assemblage of human skulls conveys to us. But the kind that Rembrandt had managed to give expression to in his great painting.

The dead man on the dissection table in Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ was a convict, too. He was called Aris Kindt, who was sentenced and later hanged for armed robbery. It was his peculiar fate to be immortalised in a Rembrandt painting. The world has always, and will always, know of him as an eternally lifeless being. If death masks, though made after a person’s death, were meant to preserve the living essence of the deceased, ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ does something radically different. It grants a lease of life to a cold, blue and ripped-open corpse. Montaigne would have approved of the painting, since it gives us a real sense of what Kindt actually looked like after his death — better even than a photograph would have.

Vineet Gill is a journalist with The Sunday Guardian

Published on December 09, 2016
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