In the early Eighties an Italian family in North London was successfully prosecuted and fined £100 for putting flowers on a relative’s grave in contravention of cemetery regulations: they had impeded the cutting of council grass. The grim reaper had, it seemed, finally given way to the municipal mower as ultimate authority. It is hard to imagine the bewilderment and unhappiness the family must have felt, and impossible not to be ashamed of the nadir in English culture that this episode represents. It has become a commonplace that we no longer know how to deal with death, that it is the modern taboo about which we dissimulate as much, and in similar ways, as the Victorians did about sex.
There certainly seems to be a marked dislocation in our attitude to death. The question is whether this is a failure of faith, or of imagination, or of art. The overwhelming catastrophe of the First World War is often cited as the point at which the British, sated with memorialism, could take no more. And yet, while the dead of previous wars had been buried in communal graves and this had not been considered in any way disrespectful, the British Government decided that all the dead of the Great War, including the unidentified, should have individual graves. The same happened after 1945; altogether 1,135,645 burials. Since then there has been the hospice movement; the middle-class fashion for memorial services, once held only for national figures but now increasingly widespread, and the current attempt to legislate for a right of burial for miscarried and stillborn babies. All of this suggests a continuing, even a growing concern for the dignity of the dying and the dead which is at odds with the appalling banality of modern British memorial art.
Either there is a real contradiction here between the feelings we have and our art that lacks the means to express them, or it is in fact precisely because of our increasing insistence on individualism and democracy even in death, that we are unable to generate a shared visual language, only a repertoire of clichés. This thought was borne out by the recent compilation of a ‘crem top ten’ which revealed that the number-one crematorium tune was ‘My Way’. Maybe our inarticulateness reflects an actual absence in sensibility. In his splendidly passionate study, A Celebration of Death, James Stevens Curl blamed it all on Modernist design. It was, he implied, the fault of the architects that modern life, spent in the tower block and the motorway service station, ends with the crematorium and the black slab that are their aesthetic equivalents.
The more persuasive view – that feeling and expression are interdependent – was put by Kenneth Clark when he suggested that while an art without iconography does indeed fail to find a shape for the beliefs of a society, a satisfactory iconography actually modifies those beliefs: ‘The points of dogma for which no satisfactory image can be created tend to be dropped from popular religious exposition and episodes which have scarcely occupied the attention of theologians tend to grow in importance if they produce a compelling image.’ Modern thinking about death, you could say, is the intellectual equivalent of a block of oasis dug out to spell DAD and stuffed with forced carnations.
Howard Colvin and Nigel Llewellyn are a cut above that; more like dark suit, glass of sherry and no flowers by request. Both are scholars and their books introduce readers to many curious and beautiful artifacts and illuminate the circumstances in which they were made. And yet, although they are written from such different points of view that between them they more or less cover the current range of art-historical thinking, both give the impression that death is an interesting but long-vanished practice. If either author has ever contemplated their own death, or been affected by anyone else’s, they do not allow this to inform their writing in any way and the result in both cases is, one hesitates to say lifeless, but constrained and at moments embarrassed. The effect is also, in varying degrees, to undermine the force of their respective arguments, both of which depend on establishing a relationship between ideas and their visual expression.
The disadvantage is much less in Howard Colvin’s case. His detachment is of the Olympian sort, characteristic of conventional art history, which takes the reader on a journey from masterpiece to masterpiece. For Colvin the relationship between architecture and the after-life is essentially architectural history – and what, he implies, could be more splendid than that? His view is that architects fit their aesthetic intentions around the beliefs of their patrons and the demands of prevailing orthodoxy. The best chapters are therefore those that deal with the Romans and the Italian Renaissance, when memorial art is most gloriously secular and self-fulfilling and least concerned with death. As Colvin points out, the architect’s best client is a dead client, or at least one who will be dead by the time they move in, and will therefore not require drainage, windows, or any other facilities that might interfere with the architect’s overall vision. The patron had, though, to die in the right way and at the right time. In Rome or Renaissance Italy death could as easily mean the end of the monument as the beginning. The embellishment of the chapterhouse at S. Croce came to an abrupt halt after 1478 when most of the Pazzi family, who were commissioning the work, were executed.
That memorial art derived from loosely-held or vague religious beliefs can be outstandingly successful is demonstrated again and again, in examples ranging from the smaller-scale Roman tombs with the popular device of half-open (or half-closed) doors to Hawksmoor’s mausoleum at Castle Howard for the third Earl of Carlisle. That changing beliefs don’t always bring about immediate artistic change emerges from the most interesting part of the book, an account of the shift from paganism to Christianity and the conversion of the cult of the hero into that of the saint. With the Middle Ages and the Counter-Reformation, periods that produced memorial art more solidly based on faith and its conception of death, Colvin is less engaged.
He has no scruples about leaving out things he does not like and, faced with the mid-19th century and another religious revival, the book just fades to a close. It therefore finds no room for the Albert Memorial, the railway station built at Waterloo for the transport of coffins and funeral parties to the railhead necropolis at Rookwood near Woking, and other interesting if unsympathetic Victorian efforts to get to grips with death. More surprisingly, it omits Lutyens’s memorials to the First World War and has no comment to make on the attempts to commemorate the Holocaust, or the Washington memorial to the Vietnam War in which the Americans achieved a successful monument, despite having intensely mixed feelings about the war itself. Colvin leaves us with what he clearly intends to be the comforting thought that at Modena a new ‘sepulchral complex’ is being built ‘in the starkest spirit of the Modern Movement’.
Apart from an occasional reference to Gray’s Elegy, Colvin avoids the broader cultural after-life of memorial architecture. This is a pity, for the Medieval tomb in particular has enjoyed a wider importance in English life since the 19th century not only as an influence on the Gothic Revival architects but as a meditative focus: the note that sounds in Arnold’s ‘Church at Brou’ and continues through Betjeman to find perhaps its last echo in Larkin’s ‘Arundel Tomb’, with its reference to ‘our almost instinct, almost true’ that distils so much that is missing from these two books. It would also surely be relevant to Colvin’s analysis of the adaptation of forms and beliefs through different ages to mention that the pyramid of Caius Cestius overshadows the graves of Keats and Shelley; most visitors now see all three in a single visit. Though not artistically significant in themselves, the poets’ graves mark another point in the metamorphosis from Classical hero to saint. The Romantic artist and now the star – artistic or otherwise – have assumed the same role of individuals who live out the drama, or the dilemma, of their age and whose death, especially if it accords with the life, leads to a vogue for pilgrimages and a market in relics.
The Keats house in Rome or the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore in Some like it hot would fall outside Howard Colvin’s idea of memorial art and architecture but would probably, if they were within his period, get a place in Nigel Llewellyn’s work. He is overtly, indeed principally concerned with the question of how artifacts relate to ideas and what the art of death has to say about our understanding of mortality. A structuralist art historian, he proceeds on the opposite premise from Colvin, believing that all artifacts are revealing of their makers’ and users’ beliefs. He therefore pointedly excludes much of the work that is part of the established canon and includes the most humble objects, even gloves, which, as he grimly admits, ‘are notorious ... for their unwillingness to disclose secure data’. Llewellyn, however, has ways of making them talk. Predictably, and as so often with this kind of art history, some of the things they say are blindingly obvious. In Early Modern England, Llewellyn informs us, ‘life was a phase of experience stretching back in time to birth; death was a future point when the termination of life could be objectively determined.’ Well, not a lot of change on that one. Here, as at other moments in what is overall an enjoyable and interesting book, the reader gets the uneasy feeling that New Guineans might have when reading an anthropologist’s account of their habits. It is all absolutely accurate but curiously irrelevant. Partly this is because Llewellyn is so busy defying hierarchies and orthodoxies and sniffing out ‘dogma’ and ‘didacticism’ that he allows no real weight to religious faith as a genuine determinant of behaviour. This enables him to make comments such as that the value of mourning jewellery was in ‘stressing the positive aspects of death as a learning experience’, a remark that even the most callow tambourine-toting curate might blanch at.
The book is arranged in a sequence which follows the various stages of the ‘death ritual’ rather than in chronological order and this works well, although in concentrating more on the earlier part of his chosen period Llewellyn does not deal fully with the change of sensibility from Reformation to Enlightenment which he sets out to encompass. To the question raised by Aldous Huxley in ‘Death and the Baroque’, of why funerary art became so obsessed with the representation of physical decay, he suggests no direct answer, although his analysis of the theory of the ‘two bodies’ the physical and the social, which different ages draw into different relationships suggests a possible resolution.
The theory does not hold throughout, however. In one of the most compelling objects illustrated in the book, a ceramic model of a dead child, Lydia Dwight, made by her father in about 1674, Llewellyn asks us to contemplate the physical body while in a companion piece we see the social body, Lydia transfigured. The second is a charming but bland model of a dumpy little cherub. In the first, where the dead child lies in bed, a posy in her folded hands, the social and the physical are drawn together. The face, stiff as a child’s never is in life, showing what, physically, she was, while in the flowers and the tender scrupulousness with which her father rendered the lace on her pillow we see what she meant to the modeller. Non-symbolic, individual, it is a rare example of memorial art that is essentially private. The relationship between private and public is perhaps as important as that between physical and social life, in any discussion of the art of death.
It is on this level that we may find an explanation for the present poverty of memorial art. The lack of a shared public life is perhaps what causes Howard Colvin to draw to a tactful halt and leaves Nigel Llewellyn mumbling worthily about AIDS at the end of his book. What good death art requires is not necessarily religious faith but cultural confidence, and there hasn’t been a very great deal of that in Northern Europe since the Second World War. In raising the question of whether art reflects or actually generates concepts, Llewellyn refers to the old canard about the Eskimos having dozens of words for snow. In fact they have about the same number as the English, but the critical usefulness of the idea and the support it lends to cultural relativism have given rise to a myth. Llewellyn is careful to refer of course to the Eskimos as Inuit, in case he should offend any of them who may be among his readers. In the more likely instance of any Christian picking up the book they would find their sensibilities comprehensively battered in the interests of political correctness.
We cannot, most of us, go back to Theism. But neither do we necessarily go where scientific materialism points us. As Llewellyn says, the number of true rationalists prepared to have themselves stuffed after the example of Jeremy Bentham is remarkably small. The idea of the two bodies is still with us, our relationships with those we do not physically see, the dead, the famous, are vivid parts of everyday life, private and public. In the end art and sensibility must be mutually reflective and an age that finds few words and no images with which to mourn, console or give thanks for the dead diminishes the living.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.