Art Theory – Death

As repose differs from still life in being not merely in action, but the very counterpart of action ; so death differs both from still life and from inanimate nature in being not merely the absence of life, but the actual presence of that which is most opposite to it. This presence of death in artistical representation should, moreover, be as positive as is ever the presence of life. The mere absence of life is inanimation only, such as rivers and clouds and mountains possess; but the presence of death has as strong and decisive and positive features and characteristics of its own, as have either vitality or motion. Life itself, with its activity and elasticity, is in each of the arts the most difficult of all conditions efficiently to represent; while on the other hand, inanimate nature, or nature without life, is the easiest to depict. Even in landscape it is the infusion of an air of vitality, although vitality itself is not there, that is at once the main perplexity and the principal merit. Next to life death is probably that which is the hardest to portray, inasmuch as in actual death there is a positiveness, a distinctness, and a reality, which in mere inanimate nature is not to be found. The presence of death and the mere absence of life are circumstances totally distinct and independent. In the one case it is a corpse upon which we look ; in the other, it is a mere mass of senseless matter which never possessed vitality. Whoever enters the dark and noiseless chambers of death, as he steals along silently and awe-stricken, must fain ac-knowledge that although void of actual excitement, this is of all scenes the most appalling. The vacant stare which meets our eye, is far more impressive than the most piercing gaze. The solemn stillness which here prevails, sinks deeper into the soul than the most thrilling sounds. Its utter silence appals us more than any voice by which we could be accosted. So far, indeed, from death not being a positive reality, it is, in truth, of all realities the most vivid, the most exciting, and that which comes home the nearest to our souls.

It consequently follows that almost, if not quite as much expression and vigour, alike in feeling and character, are developed by death, as by the most active life, although the mode in which the manifestation is made, and the peculiar features delineated, will in each case, of course, be very different. And the whole form and attitude and expression of the body, as well as of the countenance, and the tone of colour as well as the outline of the figure, will each here perform their part in the solemn pageant.

The description therefore of death, whether in painting, sculpture, poetry, or eloquence,—of animation fled away, of past pain and suffering, of the faded eye, the hollow cheek, the pallid face, the sunken jaw, the drooping head and limbs, the shrunk and emaciated form,—may be as striking as the strongest exhibition of present feeling and intense action. Although the object is perfectly still, its effect on the mind is most exciting.

The figure of Christ in Rubens’s noble painting of ‘ The Descent of the Cross,’ is a very fine and striking representation of death ; and every member here, as well as the inanimate body curved and shrunk up into an unnatural attitude, seems to proclaim the departure of life. Each muscle is shown to be listless, each limb torpid. The drooping head, the dimmed eyes, the fallen jaw, the inanimate countenance, the stiffened form,—all alike proclaim the presence of death, in language as positive and effective as any which might have been resorted to to represent life by the exhibition of the most vigorous and energetic action.

The most perfect representation of death, in all its reality, is, however, afforded by Raphael’s very beautiful picture of ‘ The Entombment of Christ,’ in the Borghese gallery at Rome. The exhibition of inanity and inertness and stiffness in the whole frame, and particularly in the limbs of the dead Christ, is very perfectly accomplished, and serves well to depict the presence of death; the effect of which is powerfully aided by the livid hue of the flesh, more especially as contrasted with the appearance of the persons who are carrying the body.

Death in another form, as witnessed in children, is very pathetically and perfectly represented in Guido’s ‘Massacre of the Innocents,’ which is in the collection of the Academy of Arts at Bologna. Of two children who have been slain, one is depicted as placidly reclining, with a sweet smile upon its face ; another is lying peaceably by it, just as it fell from the assassin’s gripe. In both of them the presence and the expression of death, its tranquillity and stillness and listnessness, are exquisitely portrayed.

One of the most effective and striking, and indeed harrowing representations of death is Holbein’s ‘Dead Christ,’ which is in the gallery of the museum at Basle. The form is stiff and shrunk, and the flesh is livid. The expression of past suffering is very ghastly, but most forcible. The relief too, and the resemblance to nature, are very powerfully effected.

Representations of a revolting, or directly unpleasing description should, nevertheless, be ever avoided, whatever is the quality of the subject treated; as however such exhibitions may be true to nature and appropriate to the subject, they are unfit to be attempted by art, the end of which is always at least elevating and refining, if not directly pleasurable, and appeals to our faculties and to the higher parts of our being; whereas the result of compositions of this revolting kind is degrading and degenerating, and serves to excite only our lower impulses, and to create disgust. Thus, the terrible but not the horrible, is fit to be represented in art; and scenes appalling and exciting, but never those which are loathsome and offensive. Upon the same principle also, the sensual and immoral and profane are ever to be excluded from the exalted and pure regions of art, whether in painting, sculpture, eloquence, music, or the drama.

In certain early compositions in painting and sculpture, before the principles of art were clearly defined or fully understood, this rule was occasionally transgressed. But even deformity and distortion, although found in nature, have no place in art, and are never to be admitted there except in very extraordinary emergencies. Indeed, art should correct and refine even nature herself. In nature, these defects have no legitimate station, only enter as intruders, and are not recognized as belonging to her system. So far has this principle been carried by the most celebrated artists, that our great sculptor Flaxman remarks that, “in the face of the dying Achilles and Laocoon, pain and death produce nothing like distortion; the elevation of noble minds is seen in their sufferings.”

Although the terrible may always be described as effectively as the power of the artist will admit, yet the disgusting should never be directly represented. The former, while it awes and even distresses us, excites, nevertheless, some measure of gratification along with this feeling, which, as before observed, is an essential part of art; while the result of the latter is wholly contrary to any sensation of this kind. On this account, great skill and care are requisite in the introduction of not only death and disease, but violent passion, in artistical representation. In any case, death, however hideous, should not be revolting; although it appal, it should never nauseate us. The efforts of art, though sometimes painfully exciting, ought never to be repulsive.

In that most powerful and indeed wonderful composition by Raphael, contained in our own National Gallery, representing ‘ The Murder of the Innocents,’ the agony and terror depicted are too excessive, too true to nature, to suffer the mind to dwell long upon the subject. The whole soul becomes subdued by the emotions of anguish and pity which seem to creep into it, and with which the picture as it were infects it. But with all this, there is nothing in the composition that is directly offensive or revolting.

Death should be, therefore, as moving and affecting in the representation as is life. Thorwaldsen’s monument of the ‘ Dead Lion,’ at Lucerne, is as stirring and exciting as an exhibition of death, as many of the most animated descriptions of vitality and action and passion.

But still more difficult than the representation even of death, is the forcible and adequate depicting of the action of dying, which is the active of the former condition, while death is but the passive. Indeed, dying has all the reality and all the positiveness of death, with action superadded. An effective ex-ample of the representation of dying in painting, is afforded by Raphael’s cartoon of ‘The Death of Ananias,’ in whose countenance the expression of life passing away, the relaxing features, and fading eye, and drooping form, are very powerfully portrayed.

A powerful representation of this kind has been effected in sculpture, in the celebrated statue of ‘ The Dying Gladiator;’ as also in ‘ The Mask of Alexander the Great,’ which represents the hero in the very act of expiring. The expression of in-tense suffering, and of the paralysed feature’s and frame, excite emotions as vivid as any descriptions of the most animated scenes could afford. In both these works, the design is effective and full of feeling, without being ghastly or repulsive. Canova’s statue of ‘ The Dying Magdalene,’ is another striking example of an effort of this nature in sculpture. The repose of the figure, and the exhibition of languor and exhaustion, which mainly contribute to evince her condition, are very fine and moving, and forcible, because true to nature. In sculpture, indeed, the representation both of death and of dying is more difficult to attain perfectly than it is in painting, because colour, which is here so powerful an auxiliary, is wholly wanting.

Architecture, costume, and gardening, may be said success-fully to represent death, so far as they contribute to supply apt emblems of mortality, furnish receptacles for the dead, or afford tokens of mourning for them. In this respect, however, they are suggestive, rather than descriptive or imitative. Acting is one of the most efficient of all the arts in the representation of death, and some of its greatest feats have been accomplished here.

Difficult, however, as is the due representation of death, and of ,dying still more so, as our experience of it is less ; that of returning to life, for the same reason, must necessarily be more difficult still. This has nevertheless been wonderfully and effectively achieved in certain performances by some great masters, as in ‘ The Raising of Lazarus,’ by Rembrandt, where the gradual reappearance of animation invigorating the frame, and quickening the lately dormant powers, are depicted with surprising force, and with true fidelity to nature. All this is accomplished more perfectly still in Michael Angelo’s magnificent representation of ‘ The Last Judgment.’

Many subjects of a repulsive nature may be properly described in poetry, which are not at all fitted for pictorial representation; inasmuch as while the general idea of them conveyed by poetry is but indistinct and feeble, the exact and particular minute exhibition of them afforded by painting, disgusts and nauseates. This is especially true as regards efforts where violent death, and disease, and deformity are aimed at, which in the reality are absolutely offensive, and which when they are made to appear real, necessarily retain a portion of their disagreeable effect, in proportion as they are true to nature ; but which they to a great extent lose by being viewed through the medium of an art, such as poetry, which so changes or modifies them as to relieve them from this condition; as in the description by Homer of the mangled body of Hector dragged at the chariot of Achilles, which, although in poetry it is not directly revolting, would be in a painting if portrayed with fidelity.

In poetry, however, there may be incidents so disgusting in their very nature as to be wholly unfitted to be related, which no effort of art can render decorous, and which it is unnecessary to specify. If we may presume without profanity to censure so sublime a poet, even Homer appears to be sometimes open to criticism on account of the revolting and nauseous de-tails which he occasionally introduces into his battles, describing the minute particulars of the mode in which certain of his heroes were slain ; incidents, moreover, which in the heat and turmoil of the fight would pass unobserved. This is more particularly the case in book xi. of the ‘Iliad,’ where the lopping off the hands of the brother of Pisander, and the bloody trail from his head are described; in the account of the bursting of the eyeball of young Ilioneus, at the close of book xv.; in the dashing out the brains, mingled with gore, of Demoleon; book xx. ; and in the piercing the liver of Alastor, in the same book. Virgil’s description of the death of Priam,* much as it has been praised by some critics, appears to be faulty in the same way as those of Homer. It is too much of a mere butchery, unrelieved by either beauty or pathos, to call forth any emotions except those of pain and loathing.

The same observations apply to eloquence as well as to poetry. The description of the dead ass, by Sterne, though true to nature in all respects, presents nothing which can offend the senses, or nauseate the feelings. In music, sounds of great variety are produced and imitated, but never those of a directly harsh or revolting kind.