Death as Confrontational and Embracing in Symbolism

Herbert R. Hartel, Jr.

Abstract


Death was hardly a new subject in the visual arts in the late-nineteenth century, having been depicted often in Christian and mythological narratives and symbolically in still lifes, portraits and landscapes.  The Symbolists of the late-nineteenth century were fascinated with death, probably more than any earlier artists, and depicted it often.  Death was part of their interest in the bizarre, frightening, morbid, and mysterious. Prior to Symbolism, depictions of death sustained a measure of emotional, spatial and physical detachment between the grim subject and the viewer.  Death was depicted with the necessary facts and details and was meant to effect the viewer emotionally, but it was still somewhat remote and safely on the other side of the picture plane.  The Symbolists often strove to eliminate this separation between the viewer and the dead, between the living and the dead, as they pondered the mysteries of what death was. They showed death as a profound and mysterious event that was inescapable and always nearby.  Death was regarded as something to be avoided and feared, or accepted, or perhaps occasionally even welcomed, depending on the circumstances of the one who was seen dying.

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