Monday, February 14, 2011

The Art of Sensual Statues in Cemeteries

Ah, Valentine’s Day, when people’s fancy turns to love and, let’s face it, sex. On walking through just about any Victorian cemetery established after 1850, one is likely to see sensual female figures, carved from a variety of material – granite, marble, bronze. This is especially true in France and England, the birthplaces of the “garden cemetery.” For the uninitiated, garden cemeteries are essentially outdoor sculpture gardens, conceived in Europe in the Victorian era (1837 – 1901) to try and dispel some of the fear and bleakness associated with death and dying. Pere Lachaise in Paris and Highgate in London are examples.

The practice carried across the Pond in 1831 with the founding of Mount Auburn Cemetery (Cambridge, MA) and then Laurel Hill in 1836 (Philadelphia, PA). Statues in these and other Victorian cemeteries hearken back to a time when these unique memorial gardens served the public as an idyllic getaway from the noisy city. Now forgotten by the public and worn by the elements, this rare artwork was enjoyed by our ancestors long before museums, galleries, and parks came into being.

Now, you’d think statues of semi-nude women would have clashed with staunch Victorian sensibilities, wouldn’t you? Especially in a cemetery – a reverent and respectful place frequented by the public! What role do these women play in the grieving process? They are symbolic, of course, but of what (besides affluence)? These typically life-sized sensual figures do give memorial parks a feeling of life, which really was the intent of the architects of early garden cemeteries.

In his book, Death: The Trip of a Lifetime, Greg Palmer offers that in many cultures, “women are the designated grievers.” Ok, but why physically attractive females? David Robinson says in his book Saving Graces, “Their gowns are revealing and they are often topless and sometimes nude.” He goes on to say that these statues were usually individually commissioned and sculpted, often by famous sculptors. In Western artistic tradition, the ability to accurately depict the female figure is what most defines artistic talent. So again, why physically attractive females? While her countenance may effectively express true sorrow and loss, even anguish, there are no ugly angels.

Besides the fact that most professional sculptors were male (we’ll assume at least some of them, like Rodin, were heterosexual) and these commissions afforded them a regular income, sensual statues provided an opportunity for them to bring their artistic fantasies to life for a noble purpose. A female friend of mine once referred to such sensual mourning statuary as “Mourn Porn.”

Whose is Bigger?

So that covers females, but what about the male nude? Why do we see no copies of Michaelangelo’s (anatomically correct) David in cemeteries? Maybe because the results would generate such public outcry, that the penises would be broken off, as was done to the Oscar Wilde monument in Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery! (Afterwards, the cemetery’s director supposedly used it as a paperweight.)

While its true that we see a male angel once in a great while, most male statues in cemeteries depict the actual deceased man, often in a formal or noble pose. The allusion to male sexuality in mourning art is a bit more subtle, usually. Maybe you have to view it from a female perspective, but don’t all those obelisks below seem a bit phallocentric? In fact the tallest funeral monument in the United States was erected (pun intended) in Philadelphia’s Woodlands Cemetery in 1897, an obelisk that stands 150 feet high (below, left)!

Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

Gee, it seems that when male sexuality is involved, the results get pretty dramatic. There was an incident in a Philadelphia suburb in 2003 that blatantly brought to light the competitive nature between two men. Rival businessmen Goodin (1836-1890) and Gallagher (1834-1915) were both buried in the St. Denis Church Cemetery in Havertown, PA. Goodin died at age 54, leaving orders to erect an imposing 20-foot-tall monolith atop a 10-foot-tall granite base. Church history offers this analysis: "He had to call attention to himself even at his own demise." Missing his friend and favorite adversary, Gallagher slyly bought the neighboring grave plot. He would wait 25 years before death let him claim final victory: an even more magnificent monolith of paler granite set atop an ornate base, the whole structure soaring to a pyramidal point about three feet higher than Goodin's highest point. In 2003, a storm toppled both monoliths.

So let's try to put all this Mourn Porn in perspective. If death is portrayed as beautiful, perhaps it will lose its sting. For Romeo and Juliet, as with the Romantic era in general (1825 – 1900), death was the focus of extreme emotion and the ultimate expression of love (Robinson, 1995). This period of time coincides with Victorian era, in which the idea of death in art and popular culture became less associated with horror and fright and more with love and desire. No other era in Western culture has ever exhibited to such an extent the artistic emphasis on death as a visible part of the consciousness of an entire population.

In her book Mourning Art and Jewelry, Maureen DeLorme tells us that the pressures of continually facing death as an intrusion (French Revolution, Napoleanic Wars, high mortality from plagues and disease, etc.) made the need to keep both the presence of the departed near at hand while at the same time bidding farewell. So the idea of sculpted sensual beings in cemeteries became a tangible realization of a new Western psychology. Their purpose? To comfort the living and soften the finality of death. While angels may epitomize the tension between freedom and confinement, the sensuals walk the tightrope between spiritual purity and earthly desire. Undeniably conflicting, yet totally human forces of nature.

Links of Interest:

Death: The Trip of a Lifetime by Greg Palmer
Read about the Woodlands Cemetery, and America's tallest cemetery monument!
Read about the competitive businessmen and their toppled obelisks!