THE BROADER PICTURE; OH! WHAT BEAUTIFUL MOURNING
Sunday 29 October 1995
Most cemetery sculpture, whether of grieving female figures, Jesus Christ in His various incarnations, angels and cherubs, heraldic crosses, obelisks, icons, urns, is a testament to mankind's obsession with mortality. These statues which Robinson's contemplative eye has isolated for us constitute an especially poignant revelation of such fantasies: the sculptures depicted are, as the photographer has noted, not standardised figures but ones representative of serious artistic expression. In these pictures we see with contemporary eyes the love objects of the previous century; icons of a church in which we no longer believe - compelling images of idealised, etherealised, and in some cases eroticised embodiments of ritual mourning.
David Robinson's study of these "graces" in European cemeteries is like a mystery in which the photographer is a kind of detective. Who are these beautiful women? Whom are they mourning? What is their symbolic significance? Classically austere and occasionally featureless, at one extreme; at the other, romantically voluptuous, barely clothed, in some cases starkly nude; lying, like the figure from Staglieno, in Genoa, in a pose of swooned, vulnerable abandon, as if grief were a form of erotic surrender. What the figures have in common, of course, is that they are female, and that they belong to another era, indeed an entirely other dimension of mythologised experience.
Though these sculptures belong to the 19th century, and the graves they adorn are, for the most part, those of European bourgeois men, we see no 19th-century Europeans depicted here. There are no grieving widows of any recognisable type, no middle-aged or older women; no mothers, or children. There are no hefty, or emaciated, or plain-faced, let alone unattractive mourners. No sons, brothers, fathers - no masculine figures at all. (The masculine, or androgynous, stone figures of representative Christian cemeteries are, of course, angels, who do not collapse in unseemly "womanly" grief. Their allegiance is to Heaven, where grief is irrelevant.) Women presumably died in as great numbers as men, yet the "saving graces" rarely mourned them; and when so publicly mourned, it would hardly have been in the eroticised images of comely young men.
These images tell us much of our collective desire that death be not mere deadness - cellular decomposition, the extinction of the human personality - but Death: mysterious, ethereal and therefore celebrated by the most attractive among us. Contemplating them, we realise how human anxiety, human vanity, human terror of the unknown, whether male or female, may well be the unacknowledged origin of our greatest artworks. !
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
- 2 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 3 Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
- 4 Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees
- 5 Refugee crisis: Aylan's life was full of fear - in death, he is part of 'humanity washed ashore'
The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl
First Look at Bryan Cranston transformed into LBJ for HBO’s ‘All the Way’ film
Idris Elba is ‘too street’ to play 007, says James Bond author
This little boy loves books so much that he cries when his mother stops reading to him
Prog rock finally comes of age with launch of the first Official Progressive Chart
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 100,000 back our campaign
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up