Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

The Memento Mori and Jane Rainwater’s Evil Flowers

“When the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men, just remember that death is not the end.”

-Bob Dylan

“…and tell ’em to bring some of them sweet smelling roses/so they can’t smell me as we ride along.”

-old folk ballad (“St. James Hospital”)

Memento Mori roughly translates as “Remember you will die”.  While likely originating in ancient Rome and having concomitant developments in Eastern art, we find its strongest roots (not surprisingly) in Christianity, where fear of Divine Judgement and the and the ever-important salvation of the soul lay at the forefront of everybody‘s mind. This fear-driven mode of thought (which finds parallels in countless insipid, contemporary Evangelical faiths and has wormed its way into contemporary politics) served as a moralizing tool to keep the masses (poor and rich alike – though mostly poor) in line. In days when life was short and lives were cheap, one of life’s few certitudes was a vast, seemingly endless expanse of toil and woe.  With such grim prospects, death was often anticipated as a deliverance from suffering, a reminder of the brevity and meaninglessness of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, and a promise of the glories and bliss that await on the other side.  For evidence of the tenacity of of this mode of thought in popular culture, see little Todd Burbo’s book “Heaven is for Real” detailing his bullshit brief but wondrous trip to heaven – or more to the point, see the #1 spot on the New York Times best seller list the book holds as of this writing (under non-fiction no less.)   In any case, the image of the memento mori served as an invitation to meditate on the promise of the afterlife, and the importance of piety during this one.  The popularity of books such as these – an entire genre of “coming back” and “Left Behind” titles that smugly warn us to set thy house in order as the day of judgement is nigh – can be read as evidence of a new mode of old fear tactics.

In its mid millenium developments, the genre took many forms – maidens in the flush of life and beauty menaced by Death in the form of skeletons (a theme referred to as Death and the Maiden); depictions of skulls propped upon symbols of earthly wisdom with sands rushing through hourglasses (a heavy-handed reminder of time’s quick passing); scales (serving to remind us of  the balance of Earthly vs. Heavenly priorities); skeletal armies carrying off the living (a theme referred to as Danse Macabre); and less bombastic but no less obvious symbols such as clocks (tempus fugit – “time flies”), candles being snuffed out, or flowers losing their petals as the cold hand of death creeps in.

Memento Mori – Finis Coronat Opus; engraving by Matthaeus Merian 1649. This image contains numerous symbols of death and life’s brevity.

Jumping ahead through an 18th century ever-vigilant and obsessed with death and figuring out ever-more creative means of skirting true piety (Goya’s  los Caprichos probably being the crowning achievement during this time), the Romantic age saw a turn towards a more meditative, contemplative view of humanity and life’s transience by placing it in the vast, overwhelming context of the natural world and the cosmos (the work of the painter Caspar David Friedrich being a particularly good example of this).  Largely influenced by Anne Radcliff’s Romantic, proto-Victorian novels in which she seems to have single-handedly invented the trappings of modern Gothicism (locked rooms in labyrinthine castles, hidden corpses and locked-away orphans – see particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho), the Victorian age saw a return of these themes in art (among countless examples I list Edvard Munch, James Ensor and Felician Rops), literature (e.g. Dicken’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood of 1870 and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray of 1898) and music (e.g. Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden of 1824).  Speculations can abound as to the causes for this as the Age of Enlightenment and Industrial Age gave way to a regressive Puritanical fear of the afterlife.  Death held a particular fascination for the Victorians, with their morbid obsession with mourning rituals, and mortality in general.  In fin de siecle Europe, new bohemian theories of free-love brought about rampant syphilis and alcoholism,  causing a backlash both in Europe and the US turning the focus once again to the transience and futility of earthly pleasures.  The advent of psychoanalysis placed particularly heavy interest on the death instinct (thanatos), and the means by which is holds sway over every facet of our lives.

A turn of the century Edwardian photograph depicting “Death and the Maiden”

With the advent of photography, early twentieth century America saw a  proliferation of the mourning portrait photographer.  Often preformed by itinerant tradesmen, early examples of post-mortem photography attempted to divest death of its horrors and sadness, taking great pains to pose the deceased in naturalistic, life-like poses so as to make them appear alive (photographers sometimes even painted the eyes to appear open and alert.)

A Victorian era mourning portrait wherein the dead subject is propped up

Modern medicine and the funerary industry has almost entirely relegated death and dying (once the responsibility of the family, who tended from everything from washing and dressing the dead to making all of the burial arrangements), to designated venues: hospitals, funeral homes, and hospices.  Symbols have come to replace graphic, blunt images of death: sympathy cards;  photos of the deceased when alive and well; and – by far most common during the mourning stage – the ultimate embodiment of life and vitality: flowers.

And this is where the work of Jane Rainwater comes in.  She takes the subject matter of flowers and examines them in their more sinister context – as representations of death, abuse, pillage and colonialism.  Of course, the tradition of flowers as funerary adornments began as fragrant distractions to overpower the smell of decay, and, while modern morticians have obviated the need for olfactory cover-up, the tradition itself has remained, as flowers continue to embody life and rebirth, – independent of their role in death and mourning.

Jane Rainwater “Memento Mori: Spray” woodcut on bleached Thai Mulberry paper, 29 x 22″, 2011

Our contact with death today is largely through the media and entertainment.  The majority of wide-release films involve guns, quick, stun-double deaths and exploding cars that would in reality reveal charred corpses among the rubble.  Real death – particularly but not limited to our wars abroad (we can include domestic murders, suicide and accidental deaths as well) has its realities obfuscated through statistics, sterilized in news reports and sublimated in horror films and thriller fiction (which seems to be extending to a younger sector at a staggering pace.)  The new picture of death doesn’t look like death at all.  Every town newspaper has daily reports of local men and women who have died in service, and we are left with a cheery snapshot of a high school student or brand new cadet with the dates of their birth and death below it.

Jane Rainwater “Memento Mori” 2011, gouache on paper 30 x 22″

Jane Rainwater recognizes that what attracts is art that appeals to our sense of comfort or beauty.  Of her work she says “decorative objects are collected and exhibited in the home as status symbols of affluence and refinement. My work engages the viewer with its seemingly innocent decorative delight; yet upon closer examination the work challenges and questions our attraction by revealing darker truths.”  These beautiful, memento mori, initially appearing as complex floral arrangements, reveal themselves upon closer inspection to be writhing strands of barbed wire, bayonets, knives and axes, and guns of every make.  It is a fitting, ironic tribute to the lives destroyed daily in our culture of war – especially one where in the imagery we get is already heavily edited, watered down and finally sugar-coated.  Here we have a new version of Beaudelair’s Fleurs du mal – the “Flowers of Evil” and their “horrible beauty.”

Jane Rainwater “Buttercup Globe”, 2010 ink and gouache on paper

The work in her Botanical Tyranny series are often presented as traditional botanical illustrations, though again their content (grenades, bombs and guns) belie an interest in how we came to be familiar with some foreign flora, and the often violent lengths to which colonialists would go to obtain these specimens of beauty.  Once again we see the terror present in the beautiful, and how anyone, from the media strait through Rainwater’s own ironic drawings, can dress up death, war and pillage as something innocuous – or even beautiful.

A Note on the Woodcut

The woodcut (“Spray”, picture above) was carved from a single block measuring 22 x 28 inches (see the photo of the block below.)  It was printed with Graphic Chemical Perfect Palette black ink on bleached Thai Mulberry paper (the sheets measuring 29 x 22″).  The edition size is 15 with 4 artist’s proofs, printed by myself and Donna Sevastio.  They are available from ningyo editions for $450.  For more information please contact us.

ningyo editions

“Spray” block on Shina plywood


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