Death in Art, Postcards from the Dark Side

Many artists throughout history have used sinister subjects such as death as inspiration for their work, some with the intention of explicitly disturbing the viewer and others who have had a very personal relationship to the subject.  In the spirit of Halloween, Culture Pocket celebrates those artists who’s work is frightening, macabre, and perhaps just a little on the dark side.

Imagine it’s about 500 years ago, you are living in Northern Europe at the peak of the Renaissance. The Roman Catholic Church was a dominating force at that time and most artwork was commissioned by the church; artists were effectively handling its public relations, spreading the Christian doctrine and warning of the perils of sin. Maybe you were in the high court at the time and you came to find yourself in Brussels at the town palace of the House of Nassau.  A triptych hangs on one of the walls by the painter Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

As your eyes scan the painting you make out grotesque creatures, deformed, mangled and tortured human figures being engulfed by their own sins in the pits of a flaming Inferno.  In the middle panel is a scene of an Earthly Paradise.  But the right panel of the painting is by far the most unsettling in its depiction of Hell.  Well it is still unsettling today (though perhaps not as much as it might have been at the time when most people genuinely feared the consequences of temptation.) Though critics still are not quite sure whether Hieronymus Bosch was commissioned to make this work or if it was from the darkness of his own imagination, it remains one of the most disturbing, yet incredible works of art.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Day of the Dead (or Dio de los Muertos) which is celebrated across Latin America and coincides with Halloween, might be better recognized by the iconic skull imagery that has come to characterize much of Mesoamerican artwork.  This tradition of skull paintings dates back to the Aztec people who were notorious for beheading and displaying the skulls of their enemies.  However, more recently than the Aztecs, illustrator, Jose Guadalupe Posada, created the famous drawing of La Calavera Catrina.  He depicts a comical image of a skeleton woman dressed in the typical European fashion of the day – that is the mid 19th century.  The image was meant to express the artist’s own criticism of the loss of indigenous practices in Mexico out of a growing influence from European culture.  While showing great reverence to the dead, many Latin American cultures are also able to approach the subject of death with a sense of humor.

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Jose Guadalupe Posada, La Calavera Catrina (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Today, many artists still grapple with the idea of death using the process of art-making as a way of wrapping one’s mind around our own mortality.  New Orleans-based artist, Candy Chang, did just that when she created her installation series Before I Die using the wall of an abandoned house as her canvas.  After dealing with the loss of someone very dear to her, Chang decided to start writing down all the things she wanted to do before she died.  In something of a cleansing ritual, Candy invited others to join in completing the statement “Before I die I want to….” on walls of buildings around the city.  Before I Die spawned a global movement with other walls springing up in cities around the world inviting people to share the things they aspire to do before they are met with the inevitable…death.

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Candy Chang, Before I Die (Photo Source: http://beforeidie.cc/site/about/)

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Candy Chang, Before I Die (Photo Source: http://beforeidie.cc/site/about/)

Japanese artist Ishabashi Yui chooses to look at death as an organic cycle and a part of our entanglement with nature and its decay.  Though not necessarily intended to be morbid, her sculptures still have a very disturbing effect.  Her human figures are usually kneeling, seated, or in a stance of resignation to the giant tree limbs, branches, and roots that protrude painfully from their bodies.  Are they creepy? Yes. But there is definitely something more natural to their fate than, say, Hieronymus Bosch’s poor sinners.

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Ishibashi Yui (Photo Source: http://beautifuldecay.com/)

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Ishibashi Yui (Photo Source: http://beautifuldecay.com/)