I love the story of a conversation that took place at an English country house during a dinner party, where the host had just started up the discussion of death and asked the various guests what will happen to them after they die. Some thought about reincarnation and others though about different plains of being, and others thought that they were going to be annihilated.
All of the guests had answered the question except for sir Roderick, who was a military type, a very devout man to the church of England where he was also the church warden, chief of the vestry, in the local county of Parish. The lady said “sir Roderick you haven’t said a word, what do you think is going to happen to you when you die? ” oh he said “I am certain that I will go to heaven and enjoy everlasting bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t indulge I such a depressing conversation………”
The polarity of death; It is talked about with such anguish and fright yet portrayed through art as something that represents relief or enlightenment that all together are emotionally wrenching idea’s that have been both subject for artists and served as an incentive for artistic production throughout history, perhaps as much as, perhaps more than, any other subject since artists have dealt with death, dying, the threat of death, escape from death, thoughts of death, and preparation for death through the centuries.
For me, death in neo-classicism was the obvious choice because it so strongly reflects the change that was going through Europe at the time, where plagues, revolution and war scattered the common wasteland. Through the age of enlightenment death began to play a different role amongst artists and scientists where the interest in mortality and old age, the decayed body and the anatomical structure layered in lifelessness took new forms.
With death came the peeling back of layers, skin, muscles, organs – embalming and mummification, posing the question on whether there is an immaterial soul or whether the body is only a complicated organ capable of immense things. This is something I felt is strongly expressed in the painting that I have chosen. The Death of Marat, painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1793 is a story that relates to the French Revolution, in which a radical journalist, Marat, is murdered in his bath by Charlotte Corday, who believed that his death would end the violence throughout the country.
It has been described by T. J. Clark as the first modernist painting, for “the way it took the stuff of politics as its material, and did not transmute it”(1). However I believe that the painting also allows a portrayal of a philosophical confrontation on the subject of death. Through this essay I will argue how the painting demonstrates the struggle between the polarizations of death through a neo-classicistic point of view. Analysis The painting Death of Marat depicts the death of a murdered radical journalist during the French revolution.
Charlotte Corday, the murderer, was a Girondin(2) from a minor aristocratic family and a political enemy of Marat who blamed him for the September Massacre. She gained entrance to Marat’s rooms with a note promising details of a counter-revolutionary ring in Caen. Marat suffered from a skin condition that caused him to work from his bath. Corday stabbed Marat, who died. She did not attempt to flee, and was later trailed and executed. While the painting is done in a realistic style, it has elements of being idealized, so that Marat’s death is almost graceful.
His head is resting peacefully on the edge of the tub, and despite being stabbed in the chest he is still holding a quill in his right hand with which he was writing a letter, which he still holds in his left hand. This along with the dramatic lighting and overall calmness of the scene betrays the actually brutality of the stabbing. In fact, it’s a very peaceful painting. You could almost be forgiven for not thinking him dead. The Death of Marat is designed to commemorate a personable hero. David intended to record more than just the horror of martyrdom.
In this sense, for realistic as it is in its details, the painting, as a whole, from its start, is a methodical construction focusing on the victim, a striking set up regarded today by several critics as an “awful beautiful lie. (3)” To fully understand this artwork there are essentially two aspects to consider: first the style used by David, i. e. Neo-classicism, and secondly the artist’s purpose, i. e. turning Marat into a hero of high moral virtues according to the classical tradition. Neoclassicism as the name says was essentially a rediscovery of classical art from the Greek and Roman time.
This style prescribed rigorous contours, sculptured forms, and polished surfaces and was based on ideals of harmony and austerity. By applying such technique, death is glorified and allows further depth for the beholder, which makes the message of the decisive clash of life and death stronger. Marat is dying: his eyelids droop, his head weighs heavily on his shoulder, his right arm slides to the ground. His body, as painted by David, is that of a healthy man, still young.
The scene inevitably calls to mind a rendering of the “Descent from the Cross. (4) The face is marked by suffering, but is also gentle and suffused by a growing peacefulness as the fangs of death loosen their grip. The significance of this is the inference that Marat sacrificed himself for the good of the people, just as Christ is said to have done. Other religious elements are also prominent, the halo like turban around Marat’s head, and the heavenly light shining upon Marat’s angelic face. The portrayal of Marat in this way contrasts with other accounts describing him. Marat up until the moments before his death was a violent man who totally supported the executions of all those who opposed the government.
Marat was once known to have said, “In order to ensure public tranquility 200,000 heads must be cut off. ”(5) It was David’s aim to “construct images of a secular saint. ” David believed that Art must have a social mission (appeal to the beholder’s moral sense instead of merely giving him pleasure). “Art must contribute forcefully to the education of the public. ” However in a time when violence was so prevalent “actuality” was replaced by inaccurate images resulting in historical misrepresentations. This was partly due to the fear people experienced, due to sympathies people held.
David supported the Jacobins and so this representation is biased, giving only the Jacobins perspective, not at all representing the views of Corday or the Girondins who particularly hated Marat. All reflections in history are biased documents, but that’s another discussion. My interest with the Death of Marat lies within two philosophical notions, dualism and physicalism, Most religious views have a belief in the afterlife and the continuation of living in some other form after life has been completed.
For Christians death leads to heaven, or hell to nonbelievers. For Buddhists death restarts the life cycle in reincarnation, the person becoming another living entity in another shape. Death in this piece of art has the power to confront the viewer with their own mortality, their own livingness, in ways that surpass normal emotions. In most modern countries, death is something that is hidden away from people, separated into cemeteries and funerals. Most would agree that death is an inherently bad thing, that living surpasses death in possible everyway.
Death in culture has such wide ranging importance between nations and societies that one simple analysis does little justify the range of connotations. Conclusion The theme of death in art has been around for centuries. Death and the last living hours are present in the passion of the Christ, a subject matter that has been present strongly through art’s history. The dramatic use of neo-classicistic art techniques allowed David to capture not just a painting but also a symbolic gesture that death represents.
By taking the fundamental pillars of neoclassicism and romanticizing them he was able to gain entrance to a certain presence. If there’s ever a picture that would make you want to die for a cause, it is … Death of Marat. But that’s to separate it from the appalling moment of its creation, the French Revolution. For David, Marat wasn’t a monster, he was a saint. This was martyrdom, and part of David’s manifesto of the revolutionary virtue. When analyzing representations from the past we must recognize motivating factors behind representations.
Subsequently we must question representations of the past, such as Davids “The Death of Marat” and the validity of opposing views. However death is far from being a radically new idea, it contains a wide range of philosophical concepts, depending and varying on cultural differences. The belief that human beings survive death in some form has profoundly influenced the thoughts, emotions, arts, scripts and actions of mankind. The belief occurs in all religions, past and present, and decisively condition the evaluations of man and his place in the universe.
Courtney from Study Moose
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