How Rankin's ALIVE exhibition has offered a different possibility for discussing death...

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An orange post-it note left by a visitor to the Rankin exhibtion expressing emotion Visitor response to ALIVE exhibition

Here's a blog from Chrissy Partheni, Head of Museum Partnerships. Chrissy recently gave a talk to visitors about our Rankin exhibition and its connections with the Walker Art Gallery's permanent collections:

Temporary exhibitions can help us think about permanent collections and view them in a different light. When I first visited the Rankin show at the Walker I thought this is a great opportunity to get the visitors to talk about some of the permanent works in the Walker’s collections. And believe me, there is a lot of death in the different rooms of the gallery and especially in the Victorian art room.

But why consider death and even more, death in art? I would say art and death have always been eternally intertwined, art being one way of understanding and dealing with death.  Art was also born out of the desire to remember and commemorate. So when you look at portraits of Henry the VIII and Queen Elizabeth, (Room 1) death is there in the desire to be remembered through the portraiture. And when you are in Room 1 looking at the Medieval and the Renaissance paintings, death is there in the body of Christ, his suffering and pain and the promise for the eternal life.

In my talk I discussed with visitors three different paintings in Room 8, the Victorian art room: Pelagia and Philammon by Arthur Hacker, Elaine by Sophie Anderson and the Punishment of Lust by Giovanni Segantini 

 In all paintings death is about the death of women: Pelagia the sinful prostitute who converted to Christianity and retreated in the desert, and Elaine, the heroine of Tennyson’s poem Idylls of the King, who sacrificed herself and died out of her unrequited love for Lancelot. Pelagia lies, a highly sensualised body under the gaze of her brother Philammon, while Elaine is the romantic lily maiden floating on the river in her last journey. They both look asleep and they do not appear to be suffering.

Despite the promises of the Industrial Revolution, mortality was still extremely high in Victorian times.  It is interesting to think that Victorians still viewed death as transience and made romantic connotations about death.   In Segantini’s paintings the Punishment of Lust it is the bodies of the bad mothers who aborted their babies that we see floating eternally as a punishment around the Alps.

A painting of a lady floating in mid air The Punishment of Lust, also known as The Punishment of Luxury, 1891, by Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899)

The painting is one in the series of bad mothers and has been inspired by the 12th century poem of Nirvana. When viewed as one of the paintings in the series, their death is also very much about the possibility of re-union ( with the babies in the last paintings of the series ) and with nature as the eternal mother. 

What then, if drawing from the examples of these paintings, we were made to explore death not as an ending but as a condition of life and rather than an end viewed death within life?

Rankin hopes that his project will help us talk about death, something we generally avoid in Western culture. This may be not just because of our fear of death; it may also have to do with the fact that our death is almost like a blind spot in our self knowledge.

It is not something we are going to witness, yet it is going to happen to us.  We more or less experience death through the death of others and we are left with the responsibility to remember and to honour. Our inability to talk about death has also to do with the inability to communicate the pain about death, this pain is a hugely esoteric experience.

Judging from visitor responses exhibited in the introductory space to the exhibition, Rankin’s project has prompted a highly emotional response from the public and had indeed helped people talk about their experiences of death and memories of the beloved.

I am also glad my talk brought out some very interesting comments from our visitors, as well as made the connection with the permanent collections of the gallery. I also hope it offered a different possibility for discussing death.

Rankin's ALIVE: In The Face of Death runs until 15 September 2013 at the Walker Art Gallery. Entry is free.