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Our Top 10 Death and Bereavement Inspired Art

Death has been a prominent subject in artwork for many centuries. These artworks reflect the wide range of thoughts, feelings and beliefs that people associate with death and we believe we can learn a lot about society’s mentality towards death overtime. This is why we wanted to share this blog about our favourite death inspired artworks.

 

Some artworks symbolise the grief and loss felt by the artist as they lose someone they loved, other pieces try to capture the mysterious nature of death itself, whilst others represent an empowered and peaceful acceptance of what is to come. 

 

Read more as we examine how artists throughout history have portrayed aspects of death and bereavement through art.

 

1. Death the Bride by Thomas Cooper Gotch

 

 

This Pre-Raphaelite work subverts the classic trope of Death and the Maiden. In the majority of English artworks around this topic, death is often shown as male and engages with the symbolic Maiden that represents life, youth and vitality.

 

Here Death is the Maiden. She appears soft, gentle and graceful rather than foreboding and intimidating. Perhaps highlighting the peaceful side of passing away.

 

2. Death and Life by Gustav Klimt

 

 

Gustav Klimt is best known for his colourful Art Nouveau paintings. However, earlier in his artistic career, his narrative paintings depicted heavier subjects such as anxiety, doubt and death. Death and Life by Gustav Klimt have two very clearly separated parts. To the left, we see Death. Death is depicted as the classic grim reaper, a grinning skull, covered in a dark robe. To the right, we see people, full of life, young and old, with a focus on the adults in their youth. 

 

He makes it a modern intritation of the journey of life through to death, however, there is a note of hope instead of feeling threatened by the figure of death, his human figures seem to disregard it.

 

3. Untitled by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

 

 

In 1991, the artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, began creating a series of artworks that consisted of hundreds of wrapped sweets arranged in large piles, visitors were able to take and eat the sweets as they pleased. This series was dedicated to the artist’s late boyfriend Ross Laycock who had sadly passed away from aids. The pile of sweets were carefully measured out to weigh the same amount as Ross’ body and as the visitors take away each sweet the pile slowly wastes away, which symbolises the effect that the HIV virus had on his body. 

 

However, the meaning of peace acts as a symbol of the love between the person suffering from the disease and the person who is there to support them. The sweets themselves are a representation of that love. While the sweets are eaten, while the body begins to disappear, the love remains.

 

4. Camille Monet on her Deathbed by Claude Monet

 

 

Claude Monet was a renowned Impressionist painter, and ‘Camille Monet on her Deathbed’ is one of his less-known works but one of the most poignant. The painting is a delicate portrait of Monet’s late wife, Camille, after she had passed away. She sadly died at the age of 32, due to medical complications that followed the birth of her children, leaving Monet in a state of grief which he channelled into a tender piece of art. The canvas captures a real unwavering love and tenderness between Claude and his late wife. 

 

5. Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao tupapau) by Paul Gauguin

 

 

Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao tupapau) is an 1892 oil on burlap canvas painting by Paul Gauguin, depicting a nude girl lying on her stomach. An old woman is seated behind her. 

 

Its mysteriousness and openness to interpretation has secured it among Gauguin’s key works. The title may refer to the girl imagining the ghost, she looks surely terrified, however, it is unclear if she is terrified of the ghost itself or she is terrified of another matter and the ghost is watching over her protectively. Hence the opened title “spirit of the dead watching” leaves us asking ‘are we watching the spirit or is the spirit watching us?’

 

6. Call of Death by Kathe Kollwitz

 

 

Death was one of the most persistent subjects in Käthe Kollwitz’s work. She illustrated death many times throughout her artistic career, but she became increasingly interested in the subject matter towards the end of her life.

 

Throughout her life, she regularly drew self-portraits at regular intervals. Call to death was her final piece in this series. She portrays death as a gentle hand reaching out from the top right and touches her shoulder. She draws her face shaded, turned towards this hand, she appears to be aware that it is her time. She raises her left hand to her eyes in a moving gesture of letting go. 

 

7. Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’ by Edward Collier.

 

 

Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’ by Edward Collier is a prime example of a vanitas painting. 

 

Vanitas are closely related to memento mori still lifes which are artworks that remind the viewer of the shortness and fragility of life and include symbols such as skulls, extinguished candles, and rotting fruit. However, vanitas still-lifes also include other symbols such as musical instruments, books and wine  to remind us explicitly of the vanity of worldly pleasures and material posetions. 

 

8. Thinking about death by Frida Kahlo

 

 

Frida Kahlo is one of the most famous and influential Surrealist painters of her time, as with the majority of her works her painting, ‘Thinking about death’ reflects Frida’s inner thoughts and feelings. Frida suffered from many health complications throughout her life and was often bedridden, so death is an inevitable thought which lingering over her mind. 

 

In this self-portrait, death is symbolized as a skull and crossbones that is placed upon her forehead. In ancient Mexican culture, death also symbolizes rebirth and life. For the background of the painting, there is a wall of lavish green leaves, which is a symbol of life. This represents a more empowered vision of death, it seems Frida understood that death is a path to another form of life.

 

9. Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle by Pablo Picasso

 

 

‘Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle’ is Pablo Picasso’s interpretation of a Memento mori.

 

Memento mori means ‘remember you must die’ is  Latin. The majority memento mori painting would be a portrait with a skull but other symbols commonly found are hourglasses, clocks or candles that have gone out. 

 

Memento mori paintings became popular in the seventeenth century because this was a religious age when most people believed that life on earth was merely a preparation for an afterlife. However, modern artists have continued to explore this subject matter.

 

10. ‘In America: How Could this Happen…’ by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg.

 

 

Finally, we move on to a more recent art installation by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg. 

 

As part of the installation, thousands of small white flags were placed outside the D.C. Armory. At this time, each flag represents an American who died from COVID-19. 

 

Firstenberg encourages the viewers to write the names of loved ones who died from COVID-19 on the flags. “Even in death, we need to be seen,” she says, “because it suggests value—that the person is valued.”

 

Whether you paint, write down your feelings, or tell stories to those close to you, sharing one’s experiences with death or losing a loved one can be cathartic and healing. 

 

Similarly, engaging with media that reflects an experience that one can relate to can also be very comforting at a difficult time. If you’d like to read more stories about losing a loved one, you can check out our stories section. This section acts as a platform where our clients can share their experiences, the stories are displayed alongside a special memorial portraits of the loved one who has passed away.

Holly Roseveare

Operations Associate

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