Leonard Baskin once said ‘The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living’, and what better way to immortalise the deceased than in a painting.
Death has always been a prevalent theme in the art world. This is the case across all of history and every culture. Art expresses the weightiest aspects of life: love, hate, good and evil and of course life and death. The representation of death can be symbolic or literal from being celebratory to tragic, cautionary to a historical depiction of great battle. In ancient Egyptian times burial artefacts depicted death and the afterlife, in ancient Greece artists rejected the finality of death in their work.
In Christianity the image of death was a constant theme. The Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivals in Mexico employ the symbol of the skull as an affirmation of life. Clay moulded sugar skulls are painted with the names of the dead and they are placed on their headstones to encourage them to appear.
Death also remains a principal theme in the contemporary art world a good example of this being Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. An installation by Candy Chang: Before I Die, was created on the side of an abandoned house in New Orleans. Chang painted chalkboard paint on a wall and wrote the words “Before I die I want to….” and left the rest up to passers-by. The response was incredible and many people interacted with the piece. Before I Die walls have since sprung up around the world. Older work such as Hans Memling’s painting Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation and the Lamentation of Christ by Andrea Mantegna have religious undertones that are not as predominant in more contemporary pieces.
Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco de Goya not only depicts the Greek legend in which children are killed and eaten, it has been suggested that Goya’s vision of the Saturn was inspired by his own loss after the death of several of his children. Artwork provides not only personal, emotional context but historical. Such as in the 14th Century after the Black Death, plague art became popular and artwork took on a dark and desperate narrative, reflecting the suffering that was endured.
Peter Paul Rubens’ painting Massacre of the Innocents interprets Herod’s despicable order to kill every young male in Bethlehem, (Gospel of Matthew). It shows men tearing children away from their mothers and then murdering them. Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death it shows the horrors of an army of the dead attacking both the poor and rich indiscriminately, as death spares no one. Andy Warhol’s disturbing piece Big Electric Chair, was painted from a photograph and is an ominous sight to behold, since it portrays a once in use execution chamber. Warhol also painted other disturbing ‘realities’ confronting death and our own mortality, using police photos of suicides and car crash fatalities as inspiration.
Since death is something everyone will eventually experience it’s a common topic of fascination and fear, so for creatives it’s a treasure-trove. Some representations and traditions are more culturally specific but essentially depictions of death are universal, whether they are tackling grief, aging or commemorating lost loved ones.