How art dealt with death

How art dealt with death

Death is one of the most common, enduring and inevitable themes in art, the most trusted muse and one hell of a subject for symbolism. The artistic practice of memento mori – ‘reminder of death’ – has made its way through the centuries in a variety of different ways. Here’s some art to get you thinking about death.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch

Firstly, we’ll take a look at the underworld. Outlandish, Netherlandish and with a taste for humanity’s more evil side, the 16th century artist Hieronymous Bosch was a masterly painter of death and nightmarish sins. Consistently churning out depictions of the very worst ways to die, Bosch should be your go-to artist for when you want to spend some time with death.  

In his painting of Eden, taking pleasure-seeking to Hellish proportions, Bosch’s most famous painting The Garden of Earthly Delights is a heady mix of medieval Christianity and warped imagination.

Let’s take a closer look at the panel which deals primarily with morbid images of torture. While medieval depictions of death tend to focus on physical suffering (being boiled, burned or eaten alive are staples of the genre) Bosch’s Hell panel shows a more psychological terror.

The most interesting part of this panel is the comparison between gambling and death. It shows a motley group of unsavoury characters and creatures stabbing a man, as well as a board game involving dice. The creatures aren’t just causing pain, they’re also gambling with lives.

Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights involves people frolicking with owls and strawberries, bums tattooed with musical scores, a pig in a nun’s habit and a person wielding a flaming toad on a spear. Welcome to Hell. Take an interactive and in-depth look at Bosch’s most famous painting here.

By the Deathbed (Fever), Edvard Munch

In a kind of apology for the sheer amount of death and misery in his paintings, Munch wrote in his notes that “Illness, madness and death were the black angels that watched over my cradle and have since followed me through life.”

In an age when tuberculosis and disease were rife, Munch’s combination of realism, death and personal struggle helped to create unflinching representations of abstract emotion. While Edvard Munch’s smash-hit The Scream takes on a general sense of dread, By the Deathbed is a quiet look at private grief.

Not everyone was keen on Munch’s particular style of melancholy: when he first showed By the Death Bed, it was thought that the intensity of his painting – the simple form, the blotch of black – was too alien. 

Death and Life, Gustav Klimt

While Munch’s By the Deathbed is a personal view of death, dying and grieving, Klimt’s Death and Life features an allegorical Grim Reaper who gazes at “Life”, represented by jumble of pastel-coloured figures.

Again, unlike Munch, Klimt’s Death and Life is an example of his characteristic use of bold symbolism. Never one to shy away from striking contrasts, Klimt has been called heavy-handed.

Yet, sometimes we need a nice, big pastel reminder that death may be able to take individual lives, but humanity in general will keep going.

Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone), Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo: one of the most influential Mexican artists of the 20th century, serial self-portraitist and political surrealist. A lot of her art centres around her own grapple with illness and her own body.

In Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone) Kahlo represents a great modern example of how death can appear symbolically, wrapping it up with the anxieties she felt as a woman and what she saw as the cruel world she was born into.

Using elements from the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ festival, the young girl seems to be switching between horrible death masks. Kahlo dealt with severe pain her whole life, from a bus accident at a young age, and it seemed to her death was always round the corner or inherently linked to her everyday life.

La ViePablo Picasso

Painted during his “Blue” period, when Picasso was just 22 years old and still a relative nobody, Life is a kind of memorial to his friend Carlos Casagemas who shot himself at a similar age.

As ever, art critics have had a field day with La Vie, guessing at all that symbolism and images of motherhood. While we can guess that the blue hue of the painting suggests sadness and melancholy (get us!), it’s more interesting to think about the way Picasso contrasts the secure world of childhood with the harsh uncertainties of adulthood, always at the whim of death.

Art is a great way to start that conversation about death, and over at we’ve got a lot a more talking points. If you want to carry on the artistic theme, why not take a look at our article on modern death masks.

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