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Post-mortem portraits were popular in Victorian Britain
Post-mortem portraits were popular in Victorian Britain
Picture of a mother and child drawn by a child with stomach cancer
Picture of a mother and child drawn by a child with stomach cancer

Press Release - 12 September 2005

Photographing corpses and death art

Taken from life: post-mortem portraiture in Britain 1860 -1910

Ever since its invention, the bereaved have turned to photography to perpetuate the memory of our beloved dead. Victorian photographers consciously attempted to portray the dead as if sleeping. Their treatment of every element of the portrait - expression, pose, lighting and accessories - was influenced by this fundamental imperative to mitigate the uncompromising reality of death.

Post-mortem portraits recognised the right of an absent relative to keep watch at the bedside of the dying. A portrait of the dead at peace could help alleviate the anguish caused to the bereaved by a painful or tragic end. While portraits of those who had died a 'good' death could serve as an example and role model for the living.

Taken from Life explores the motives of the bereaved and the significance, role and meaning of post-mortem portraits within the context of changing attitudes to death over the period. The paper draws on surviving photographs which are preserved today in public and private collections. It also draws on articles in the photographic press, diaries and correspondence.

Audrey Linkman (The Open University)
Tel: + 44 (0)1908 659529
Mobile: +44 (0)771 952 6963

I see dead people: contemporary Danish post mortem photography and the effect of affect

Post mortem photographs have served as private memento mori since the renowned ‘birth of photography’. Although today considered part of a ‘hidden culture’, private photographs of the dead are still produced by and for the bereaved.

In Denmark, the larger hospitals offer photographs of stillborn babies to the grieving parents, the purpose being to provide them with a therapeutic tool for their healing process. The practice is, however, not limited to hospitals, where clinical photographers arrange the photo sessions and – arguably – help re-institutionalise the practice of photographing the dead.

Mourners without any preconditioned knowledge of the historical tradition, or of commonly appreciated photographic aesthetics of death, are also sometimes inspired to photograph their dead. On their own initiative they produce photographic testimonies to the deaths of their loved ones that have a striking amount of compositional elements in common, not only with the historical post mortem photographs and acknowledged works of death art, but also, in fact, with each other. Most seem to rely on common ideas and ideals of beauty and dignity, and yet they seem to stimulate different kinds of affect for their owners.

Jannie Uhre Mogensen
Tel: +45 65504178
Mobile: +45 22269145

'Trading on death': exploring the realities of artistic collaboration in palliative care contexts

In 2002 an artwork called ‘Killing Time’ won an international art prize for young artists. The artwork was made by Becky Shaw and eight palliative care patients at Warren Pearl Marie Curie Centre, Solihull. While the work was perceived as a positive testament to all the participants, it also raised the unavoidable issue of exploitation, questioning who owned the work and who benefited from it. ‘Killing Time’ was publicly perceived as a poignant work about illness or dying. However, it is difficult to know to what extent the work gained this through its visual language or through the audience’s knowledge of the identity of the participants, their status causing the work to be seen as ‘authentic’, novel and even exotic. This contrasts with the moment of making when the work was a sociable, funny and competitive manual exercise. It seems that the artwork has two distinct ‘lives’ in two distinct ‘worlds’.

Becky Shaw (University of Bath)
Tel: 020 8203 1928
Mobile: 07940 759245

The black colours died and the happy colours won - drawings by children with cancer

The core of the traumatic experience in a life-threatening disease is the feeling of intense fear, loneliness, helplessness and loss of control. Working with art materials can give the child an opportunity for creative functioning, for actively doing something.

Art can be used as a metaphor for the inner feelings without being overwhelmed by them, since artistic creation takes place on the borders of consciousness. Artistic expression can be used as a nonverbal form of communication to reflect issues that are difficult to talk about.

The researcher will present drawings that signify the beginning of the voyage, describing how children draw their own illness (sometimes even before the medical prognosis was made) and the progress of the disease. They will also examine drawings that reflect feelings of fear, anxiety and loss when the children cope with the treatment, the doctors and the side effects. It will deal with the loneliness of the sick child and the familial relationships in light of the life-threatening disease.

The paper will discuss at length the children’s drawings that deal with coping with death and parting, describing their varied attitudes towards the subject. In many cases being able to “talk” in drawing gave them a greater sense of calmness and acceptance. As they approached death, some children express their feelings of what lay ahead, some show the profound sorrow of saying good by to their loved ones, some describe the better future they believe awaits them – a future they can address only in pictures.

Nurit Shilo-Cohen (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
Tel: 972-2-6708036

Dead bodies on the net

Family homepages are growing in numbers on the Internet. Many of them show family life with wedding, pregnancies and births of children - happy life in happy families. But not all births have a happy ending, and so some of the homepages tell the story of dead newborn babies. Most of these homepages have photographs of the dead baby, sometimes in different positions: in the bed, in the arms of someone in the family, in the coffin. For the parents the pictures are important. They want to show the world their baby. But not all other parents want to see dead bodies, which has led to discussions on Community sites for parents if there should be “warnings” when you go to these sites.

After the Tsunami in Asia, the authorities in Thailand published pictures of dead bodies on the Net. Many Swedes sought for their relatives and friends among them, but there were also people who didn’t know anybody who looked at the pictures in order to “comprehend the reality of death”. The discussions about the dead bodies resembled some of the discussions about the pictures of the dead newborn babies, even if the reason for publishing them was very different. From a sociological perspective the publishing of photographs of dead persons, can be seen as something from the private sphere becoming public. It also opens up a discussion of people’s relationship to dead bodies in general.

Anna Davidsson Bremborg (Lund University, Sweden)

First UK solo exhibition by BARB HUNT Transience: Thurs 16 September to Fri 14 October Claverton Rooms Foyer, University of Bath

Award-winning Canadian artist Barb Hunt will present an installation on the rituals that surround death and mourning, particularly those of Newfoundland where she lives.

Flowers appear to cascade down the gallery walls. Made from fabric, they have been collected by the artist who is compelled to ‘rescue’ the flowers as they blow out of graveyards in the constant Newfoundland winds. In her studio, the repeated process of carefully disassembling, washing and sorting by colour and size almost becomes a ritual in itself.

Barb’s work is a response to a fast-paced society where mourning is not easily manifested. There is little place for rituals that mark the healing of wounds during times of sorrow. In Newfoundland, it is common practice to give flowers from the grave to family members to take home after a funeral. The artist echoes this by printing small cards with a single flower to take away as a ‘souvenir’ of the exhibition.

Exhibition: admission free, open weekdays 10am-5pm, ICIA Art Space 1 Exhibition Preview: Thurs 15 Sept, 6pm-7.30pm, ICIA Art Space 1 Talk by Barb Hunt: Sun 18 Sept, 2.30pm, ICIA Arts Theatre

Press contact:
Emma Gray
Tel: +44 (0)1225 386777

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