Death is no sleeping beauty

An artist's use of body parts provoked horror, but we have not always been so anxious, says John Windsor
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The Independent Online
IT'S ONLY theft, after all. Nothing to do with outraging public decency. That, perhaps, is the most outrageous aspect of the Anthony- Noel Kelly "body parts" trial. Or the most gratifying, depending on your point of view. It has had its moments - the evidence of bits of cadaver being carried on the Tube and hidden at the home of an unsuspecting girlfriend - but this was not a prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. Mrs Grundy and art buffs alike were denied reading spirited speeches of mitigation in the name of art.

True, the artwork shown in court did not consist of human remains. It was but a cast, coated in silver, of the head and torso of an old man that had undergone dissection at the Royal College of Surgeons.

If it had been made of human remains - like the ear-rings made of freeze- dried human foetuses that sparked a prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act in 1989 - the issues would have been different. Those foetuses were held to outrage public decency. The perpetrators were convicted and fined.

Have public morals changed since then? The guilty verdict in this case sheds no light on that. We are left pondering mortality, and art, without guidance from the law.

We complain among ourselves that death has been sanitised. That we have, literally, buried it. But our ancestors, like Mr Kelly, made death masks of loved ones. They also, not unlike him, collected body parts: not only saints' relics, but parts of friends and relatives which they displayed artistically in caskets. It was a way - hopeless, of course - of controlling death by taking possession of it.

Margaret, daughter of Sir Thomas More, bought her father's chopped-off, parboiled head from a bridgekeeper on London Bridge in 1535, after it had been impaled on a spike following execution. Sir Walter Raleigh's head became an heirloom after he was executed in 1618. His widow kept it for nearly 30 years before passing it to her son. As late as 1822, Shelley's friends salvaged the drowned poet's heart and presented it to his widow, Mary. She carried it, wrapped in silk, everywhere she went.

Weird behaviour? Not in those days, when public executions, besides a high natural death rate in the young, made the sight of death familiar. There were plenty of body parts knocking about. Not on the Tube, perhaps, but in ladies' reticules, under beds and in pots of basil.

They were collected in a bigger way, and with more regard for their aesthetic value, by the aristocracy. From the 17th century onwards, they displayed bits of human anatomy in "cabinets of curiosities" alongside shrivelled animal and botanical specimens. Tsar Peter the Great bought up the lifetime's work of an expert embalmer, Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731). His 2,000 specimens included exquisite landscapes sculpted from human lungs and blood vessels, and an infant's arm, frilled with white lace, holding an eye socket. His baby with open eyes, still "prettily and naturally" preserved in fluid, as he described it, was a thing of wonder.

Repulsive? Sickening? To us, perhaps. But there was an aesthetic there. Ruysch's dead babies and landscapes of human tissue were intended as works of art.

Such art was not conceptual, as Mr Kelly's presumably is. It was the skill of the embalmer that amazed the tsar's friends. But Jeremy Bentham was big on concepts. The 18th-century writer and philosopher suggested in an essay, "The Auto-Icon, or the Uses of the Dead to the Living", that dead bodies should be embalmed and varnished so that they could become their own statue or auto-icon - a modern-sounding idea that might appeal to Damien Hirst. The embalmed, fully dressed Bentham attended meetings of the governing body of University College, London, for 90 years.

The dominant concept of death-art before the 19th century was the memento mori. Death was gruesome, skeletal. Palermo's catacombs of decoratively displayed, fully dressed corpses are reminders of the ever-presence of death in life. It is the decorative display that makes them art.

Today, though we may recoil from the idea, we have reverted to Ruysch's aesthetic. Pretty and natural. That is the way relatives of the deceased wish to see them. More people in Britain are asking to view open coffins, more are asking for the deceased to be dressed in everyday street clothes rather than night wear.

"Sleeping Beauty" is the ideal, according to one former embalming student. An embalmer of 30 years disagreed. Not beauty. Not too much make-up, though the Americans favour that. Instead, the deceased should look peaceful, at rest.

Peat-preserved bog men have the same life-in-death appeal. The British Museum's specimen is one of its biggest draws. On Horizon's programme about bog men this week, an archaeologist marvelled: "Beautifully preserved face, very peaceful expression. Just sleeping, as if he could awake at any time". Scientists in Copenhagen who examined six Inuit women and two children preserved since 1475 in Greenland, refused to dissect the children. They looked so perfect, like dolls, they said.

The artist Denise de Cordova, whose work was shown in the Christmas group show at Flowers East, in London - devoted last year to death - played on this bitter-sweet illusion of life in death. She submitted a 12-inch long doll cast in plaster with sweet expression and closed eyes, sprouting flowers, deliberately poised between sleep and death, between the sentimental and the macabre.

That is how people want to see the dead. And that, most likely, is how they want to see the dead represented in art. Has Mr Kelly taken that on board? It was said in court that he was trying to demystify death and that he wanted to be another Leonardo. But Leonardo was concerned not with death but with accurate life-drawing.

"I find beauty in death ... these rotting bodies," said Mr Kelly. "You look at them and remind yourself, this is how we all end up." That does make it easier to place him. "How we all end up" is straightforward memento mori. A little old-fashioned. But the silver paint? No corpse ever wore that without an artist's help. "Ceci n'est pas un cadavre," he seems to be saying. No, it's a cast. But we all know where it came from. It's very, very lifelike.