The conscience of death that human have and the idea of what death means is reflected in arts in an intense, deep and painful way throughout history. Without life there is no death and without death there is no life. The two sides of the same coin.
Teodors Ūders drew this work entitled “Death” or “Death” in 1914, a skeleton walking towards the waters. See in Google Art Project.
It is about reflecting dead or the idea of death, and all the sensations, feelings and expressions that accompany it. From fear, through tragedy, through sadness, through peace, through understanding and up to acceptance, veneration and divinization.
But above all there is a feeling or thought closely linked to death and art: Obsession. Death pursues us, overtakes us and destroys us, our worlds, what we love and ours dreams, which can no longer be reality.
It is not about painting the suffering, but the death already carried out and the figure or representation of death itself.
And there are several aspects that must be analyzed before taking up this topic.
Themes related to death that we must consider before painting the theme of death
1 –Expression of death, more or less positive or negative
We want a death that expresses peace, beauty, the last journey of life. Or we want a tragic, painful, unjust and terrible death. Or maybe an innocent death, a funny death … or other expressive possibilities. It is about giving it a character or personality with a specific expression.
Lament for Icarus by Herbert Draper, you can see it in Google Art Project.
For example, this way of painting the death of Icarus is extremely beautiful. Death is tragic but melancholic and beautiful. His main character is extraordinary and is surrounded by many other beauties, with the sea in the background.
On the other hand, the painting that I show below is much sadder and bleaker.
“Great scene of death” painted by the expressionist Max Beckmann, from 1906. It measures 130 x 140 cm.
2 – The narrative. Character or characters who die or are about to die
Death makes the narrative theme, because there is already someone who dies or someone who also kills, like the example I show. So that, much more information is provided.
For example, the famous Marat death painting. The curiosity will make you investigate a little about this man murdered in the bathtub by a politically opposed woman, Charlotte Corday, whose people had been murdered by the acts of Marat.
Death of Marat, by Jacques Louis David.
And even the murderer can sometimes be painted, like we see in this picture with the same Marat theme.
Titled The Assassinated of Marat/ Charlotte Corday . Painted by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry in 1860. Marat’s death is more frightening, while the beautiful assassin is contemplating her own crime.
Image source Wikipedia.
3 – Level of beauty or ugliness.
Like two opposing themes but often very well combined. What elements will bring beauty into the painting, providing warmth, affection, nostalgia, or other feelings. And what elements will bring ugliness, horror, pain, fear, powerlessness. And what symbols (objects, characters or symbolic image fragments) or visual elements (colors, shapes, textures, light, etc.) are added to the work.
Death and Life by Klimt, where he contrasts both ideas and represents beauty and ugliness (death and life) with lights, colors, decors that this painter always added. Even death has its beauty.
Detail with the figure of death in this Klimt composition. On his clothes he has symbols with black crosses, of graves. In his hands the club to deliver the lethal blow.
4 – Lights
Although each of the visual elements could be taken into account and reasoned in relation to death, I put this as an example by the expression about “existence” that it gives.
The idea would be What is the light source? and where is the light direction? Is there a special lighting related to the theme and that enhances it, or will the light be simple?
As an example a baroque composition. Light in the Baroque was understood as the spiritual being, the soul that escapes from the body.
Finis gloriae mundi (End of the glory of the world) painted by Juan Valdez Leal. s. XVII. Contrasts of light create beauty in such a horrible subject.
And another example with very cold lighting.
Ahasuerus At The End Of The World, by the painter Hiremy-Hirschl, Adolph (1860-1933)
Contemporary artists with new ways of painting death
It is always surprising to discover new ways of painting the subject of death, so you have to look for contemporary artists who do it well. Here he left some works.
1 – Dana Schutz
Death Comes to Us All , by Dana Schutz. A character created with lines, shapes, geometries, objects, various colors … on his body and head, exposing his arms and legs. One can think that death comes in two ways: from cancer caused by the tobacco the character smokes, or from a car accident, which seems to have fallen on him.
2 – Zdzisław Beksiński
Zdzisław Beksiński he paints many works with the theme of death. This impressive figure gives us the idea but in a subtle way, together with the music of his flute.
3 – Michael Zavros
Phoebe is death / McQueen, by Michael Zavros, oil on canvas, 110 x 150 cm. A smooth and clean way to paint a dead girl.