While death and dying may not be popular topics of conversation today, mourning was a familiar act that developed into a social ritual in the 18th through early 20th century — particularly in the Western world — with high mortality rates and low life expectancies. The tradition of mourning produced various funerary and memorial paraphernalia, from elaborate, black attire for the bereaved to post-mortem photography, and crafting decorative arts for relatives and friends of the deceased was a lucrative business.
Such objects of mourning culture are currently on view at The Art of Mourning, the inaugural exhibition of Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, which opened its doors in June. Although the show is small, filling only one room, it presents a comprehensive introduction to how people commemorated their loved ones over a hundred years ago, featuring a wide variety of artifacts, many exhibited for the first time.
Intended for public display, commemorative works of art originally filled the rooms of homes — where certain spaces also often functioned as funeral parlors for relatives to prepare and lay out the deceased for viewing. Among such works were spirit photographs, portraits of passed loved ones commissioned by the wealthy. One of the largest known spirit portraits, dating to 1863, hangs by the exhibition’s entrance and depicts a man sitting on a wooden chair against a stark backdrop; behind him, three of his deceased ancestors appear as observant spirits, their figures a translucent white.
More conventional, painted portraits were also popular forms to remember the departed. The exhibition showcases several large paintings of infants, who were frequently victim to diseases including cholera, the measles, tuberculosis, and scarlet fever. Some artists portrayed such children floating in clouds, from the torso-up, to signify their presence in heaven, presumably offering comfort to grieving parents.
Families also prominently displayed post-mortem photographs in their private dwellings, as the practice of photographing funerals and corpses grew in popularity. One of the exhibition’s walls is devoted entirely to selections from the collection of Stanley B. Burns, who founded the extensive Burns Archive, home to many of the earliest examples of post-mortem photography. While today’s documentation of funerals may include the spontaneous — and questionable — #FuneralSelfie, 19th- and early 20th-century photographs of the dead were carefully framed captures meant to offer lasting visual representations of loved ones. Again, many of the photographs are close-ups of infants who here appear as though merely in a peaceful, deep sleep; others show caskets surrounded by flowers, sometimes with mourners posing grimly behind the memorial display — alluding to the funeral as a social occasion.
Aside from showing mourning paraphernalia in the house, people also displayed them on their bodies, incorporating them into their outfits. Small photographs were placed in brooches or lockets for constant proximity to the deceased as well as for convenient portability, sometimes accompanied by a lock of the deceased’s hair. Hair was also woven to actually form bracelets, necklaces, and rings; in fact, hairwork was incorporated into a variety of commemorative artworks, from shadowboxes to memorial dioramas. The Art of Mourning features a large sampling of hairwork, impressively manipulated to create intricate decorative objects or to embellish others. The hair is so carefully twisted that at first glance, one may not realize that such ornamental designs are crafted from delicate organic matter.
One stunning example appears in a large shadowbox one of many on display. It contains a hair wreath surrounding a mid-19th-century photograph of two young girls, the brown strands woven into flowers to give an impression of a somber but grand bouquet. Nearby, a bell jar houses a miniature obelisk commemorating a woman who died in 1885; the lonely scene features trees, plants, and chains linking the fence posts, all spun from hair (likely hers) so the entire diorama is an exquisitely detailed model of a private cemetery plot that plays on the tradition of studying scientific curiosities in glass displays.
Among the more remarkable works on view are two death masks, which are white plaster casts of the dead intended to preserve their faces, popular in the 19th-century. One, of a beautiful young woman, is a famous mask known as “L’Inconnue de la Seine” or “the unknown woman of the Seine.” It was supposedly cast from the face of an unidentified woman whose body was found floating in the Seine in the 1880s then put on public display at the Paris Morgue. Her death mask was mass-produced and sold so it hung in the parlors of many of those intrigued by her mystery — a common fate of death masks of celebrities and other notable figures.
The production of memorial objects, however, declined around the early 20th century as attitudes towards death changed, particularly as World War I led to mass deaths that could not adhere to mourning traditions designed for individual losses. In today’s society, where people largely handle the passing of a friend or relative in less conspicuous ways,The Art of Mourning serves as a reminder that loss and remembrance do not necessarily have to be kept private; instead, confronting death, especially through art, may assist in honoring the deceased and offering the living some comfort.
The Art of Mourning continues at The Morbid Anatomy Museum (424-A 3rd Avenue, Gowanus, Brooklyn) until January 5, 2015.