R.I.P.: On Art and Mourning
Three thousand years ago, Egyptians shaved their eyebrows and wore yellow to show that a kinsman had recently died. The Greeks would place a wreath of flowers on the head of the deceased, a cake of wheat and honey in the hands to appease the porter of hell and a coin in the mouth to pay Charon for the ferry ride across the river Styx. Much like the Greeks, the Irish famously had wakes, with one window in the home kept open for three hours after the death to allow the spirit to be freed; mirrors were turned to face the walls, and clocks were stopped at the precise moment of death. In China, it is customary to give white or yellow chrysanthemums to the family of a deceased person; the Cherokee place an eagle feather on the body before its burial. The heartbreaking scene of a riderless or caparisoned horse following the casket in a funeral procession honors cowboys, fallen soldiers, military officers and U.S. presidents alike. The rider’s boots are placed backward in the stirrups to indicate that the deceased is looking back toward his life, comrades-in-arms and loved ones.
Today, funereal customs and methods of mourning vary from one region to another, reflect different beliefs in the afterlife and range from grief-stricken to raucous. What has not changed, however, is the raw emotion that accompanies loss, and the need to find comfort through friends, natural beauty and art. Tombstones are chiseled with emotive epitaphs and topped with symbolic urns, graves are bedecked with flowers on holidays and anniversaries, evocative poetry is recited; bagpipes, “Taps,” sacred hymns and favorite songs are performed at grave sites.
Reflecting on the comforting role of the arts in dealing with loss, the Museum presents a small but moving group of seldom-seen treasures from the collections that expound on the theme of mourning. Drawing from an array of objects that span centuries and customs, this small installation includes a highly decorated Egyptian coffin of a woman named Tarutu, a singer in the Temple of Amun (c. 1100–500 BCE); an ancient Attic grave stele commemorating a young mother named Philokydis (c. 360–350 BCE); an encaustic portrait of a young unnamed man, painted in Egypt in the Greco-Roman style (second century CE); as well as the death mask of the Italian-Jewish painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, lovingly cast by his friend Jacques Lipchitz (1920).
Horace Vernet’s Soldier in the Field of Battle (1818) and Goya’s Beds of Death (1863) from the series Disasters of War take us beyond personal suffering to world-weary scenes of plague and political confrontation, whereas Andy Warhol’s Jacqueline Kennedy II (Jackie II) (1966) evokes the grief of the nation in 1963. Accompanying these are photographs and works on paper that portray the art of mourning. Fall is the season of reflection, when one ponders the meaning of life and the countless wonders of its cycles of birth and death. This small installation in the upstairs rotating gallery pays homage to those who live and the artists throughout history who have consoled us with reflection and the beauty of art.