Daniel Hopfer, Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women, circa 1500-10 (Click on all images to see larger version)
[Editors note: IMG MGMT is an artist essay series highlighting the diversity of curatorial processes within the art making practice. Today’s invited artist Saul Chernick shows at Max Protetch Gallery in New York, and maintains the website saulchernick.com].
By way of curating this post I’ve decided to focus on the Undead, images of beings that hover between the realms of life and death. You know us artists, we can’t get enough of stuff that “defies boundaries” and “resists classification”. What could be more nebulous than that space between life and death? Let’s take a journey beyond the grave and see how artists of the past conceived the not quite dead”¦
DEATH, THE ULTIMATE ZOMBIE
One might assume that the Grim Reaper is the obvious descendant of Death incarnate (pictured above), certainly he plays the same role–but as far as appearances go Death contributed much to the horror flick zombie (not to be confused with the Afro-Caribbean conception). The animated skeleton seems to have the perfect ratio of rotting flesh to exposed bone, not to mention his child molester/drifter hairdo. I’m no historian but I’d wager that Death is the physical prototype upon which all Hollywood’s living dead have been molded.
However, while today’s zombies possess an insatiable hunger for “Braaaaaaains”, Death seems to have an appetite of a much different nature”¦
Death, you certainly have been a naughty boy!
Death is not always depicted in such a salacious manner but on the other hand it’s not uncommon either. I selected the above images because I think they provide an interesting counterpoint to the contemporary Zombie whose appetites have essentially been neutered. I suppose we should all be thankful that zombie porn isn’t as popular today as it was back in the sixteenth century.
Libidinous inclinations aside Death, although dreaded and loathed, plays a morally ambiguous role compared to Zombies who seem to be purely evil. In these examples, Death is unloosed to mete out justice to those who’ve transgressed against the moral codes of the day. Yet the implied punishment, the act of rape transporting the figure through the portal of death, seems more troubling than the transgressions which summoned his appearance. Furthermore he seems just as guilty of getting off on carnality as his victims. This is especially apparent in Death and the Indecent Pair where one glimpse at Death’s mid-section lets you know his “hammer of justice” is ready to strike.
Another example of Death’s complexity is expressed through the Danse Macabre. A little background via Wikipedia:
Dance of Death, also variously called Danse Macabre (French), Danza Macabra (Italian) or Totentanz (German), is a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death: no matter one’s station in life, the dance of death unites all. La Danse Macabre consists of the personified death leading a row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave—typically with an emperor, king, youngster, beautiful girl, all skeletal. They were produced to remind people of how fragile their lives were and how vain the glories of earthly life were.
The cruel pain experienced by seeing others perish is always hard to reconcile with the idea that, whatever the tragedy, it was all meant to be. The image above offers a heartbreakingly tender and nuanced treatment of this eternal contradiction. The aged bishop seems utterly dejected upon discovering his time has run out. Overcome by exhaustion he appears deflated, his breath is literally leaving him. Death, cheerful at first glance, is leading him so gently and looking back as if to give assurance his expression seems to say “yes, I’ve come to take you home”.
Just as many horror flicks employ a certain brand of morbid humor to temper fear so too does much of Danse Macabre imagery. Our impulse to cope with fear through laughter remains intact.
THE TRAGICALLY UNDEAD
Another, truly fascinating breed of undead which belongs exclusively to the past is the living anatomical specimen. First seen early in the Sixteenth century and extinct by the end of the Eighteenth, these figures present a sharp contrast to today’s anatomical models. These early figures are charged with emotion and drama while the modern ones exist on a more theoretical plane. The living anatomical specimen by nature is narrative, presenting us with characters whose individuality and abilities to emote and communicate remain fully intact, whereas the modern versions favor a diagrammatic approach where flesh is stripped of its humanity. Today’s anatomical reproductions present schematic representations floating upon blank white fields, in the old days you had setting, backgrounds and props that kept them tethered to the world of the living.
In Human Anatomy (from the Renaissance to the Digital Age) by Benjamin A. Rifkin and Michael J. Ackerman, the authors explain that many of the figures appear humbled with gestures of modesty and shame because the gift of their cadavers constitutes a form of penance for transgressions committed before death. Most cadavers were supplied without consent from the gallows. Of the figure above they write:
Twisted beyond plausible grace on ruined pedestal, he wears the soft helmet with ear flaps, long the familiar gear of begging cripples, peasants, and occasionally, painters. Blind, he was neither peasant nor painter nor innocent; posture tells all. In Renaissance physiology, outward beauty was taken at face value, while a body so drastically unlike a temple signaled a corrupt soul.
There is something so tragic, moving, and disturbing about these figures. Who would have predicted that the unseemly side of scientific advancement as viewed through the lens of religious ethical ideology would give birth to such a strange and sorrowful being: A zombie who arouses our compassion rather than fear.
The links below are invaluable resources for avid image hunters. I could not have assembled this post were it not for the treasures I found on many of them. So if you dig this type of stuff, be sure to check them out:
- Bibliodyssey: By far the best source for visual Materia Obscura hands down!
- Monster Brains: Horrific creatures as seen through the eyes of many world cultures throughout the ages.
- Morbid Anatomy: The name says it all.
- Danse Macabre: A comprehensive photo essay by Uzi Dornai
- Virtuelle Kupferstichkabinett: The “Virtual Copperplate Cabinet” is a kick-ass German database featuring high quality images of etchings and engravings.
- Dream Anatomy: An online exhibition courtesy of United States National Library of Medicine.