Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Der Tod als Freund

Another coincidence regarding a recent addition to the art collection (I collect Whistler's friends and pupils, can't afford the master): Music (pencil and india ink) by George du Maurier (image above is another version), who first met Whistler at the atelier of Charles Gleyre in Paris in 1856.  From the Leonee Ormond biography (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969):

'He had some facility as a translator, and his English version of Sully Prudhomme's L'Agonie was later chosen for the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse under the title 'Music'.  Du Maurier originally published  it in the English Illustrated Magazine for June 1884, without a title, accompanied by a drawing of a death-bed scene.  The first, third and fourth stanzas of the original more or less correspond to Du Maurier's, but he has taken general themes from the whole French lyric.' [pp.373-374]

In the latest issue of Folklore Gail Nina-Anderson has written an essay entitled 'Artlore; An Introduction to Recurring Motifs Generated by the Study of Art' [Folklore 125 August 2014 145-160].  In the section 'Subject and Artistic Personality' she mentions two wood engravings by the German artist Alfred Rethel (1816-1859) Der Tod als Erwurger [Death as Avenger] and Der Tod als Freund [Death as a Friend] - the latter appears on the wall behind the figure playing the keyboard instrument in Du Maurier's image.

Death as Avenger was inspired by Heinrich Heine's account of a cholera epidemic during the Paris carnival season of 1831.  A robed skeleton plays fiddle with a pair of bones while those costumed revellers not already dead flee in terror.  Its companion piece Death as a Friend similarly depicts the skeleton of Death tolling the bell for the elderly sacristan who has just died.  According to Nina-Anderson 'Details such as a crucifix, keys, bread and wine, and a pilgrim's hat and staff add to the message that this is a hallowed "good death", while a stylized sunset seen through the window of the bell tower creates a mood of fulfilment.' [p.151]

The story goes that Rethel's friends, on being shown Death as Avenger were so disturbed by the image that it haunted their dreams, so as an act of expiation Rethel produced Death as a Friend.  Both prints were published in Dresden in 1851:  'apparently intended to be a pair, the story (although in this case feasible) can hardly be true.  It not only communicates a (less supernatural) variant of the 'cursed artwork' trope, but adds a concomitant antidote in the form of a companion image designed to counteract the effect of the first.'  Rethel suffered from severe mental illness that contributed to his comparatively early death.  Another interesting example Nina-Anderson uses of a 'cursed painting' is The Hands Resist Him by Bill Stoneham, about which much can be found online.

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