Death As A Friend

In 1851 the German artist Alfred Rethel (who three years before had already signed an overtly political Danse Macabre) produced the sketches for two twin engravings: Death as an Enemy and Death as a Friend.

If his Death as an Enemy (above), although elegant and refined, is not so original as it is inspired by a long tradition of “Triumphs of Death” and skeletal figures towering over piles of dead bodies, it is instead the specular Death as a Friend which always fascinated me.
I recently managed to get a reproduction of this etching, taken from a late 19th-century book, and I was finally able to scan it properly. Much of the charm of this lithograph, in fact, derives from the attention given to the smallest details, which need to be carefully examined and interpreted; for this reason, admiring it in high quality is fundamental. At the end of this article you will find the link to download it; but I’d like to show you first why I love this image so much.

The scene takes us to the topmost room inside the bell tower of a medieval cathedral.
The environment is modest, the only discreet frieze present above the window arch is certainly nothing compared to how the church should look from the outside: we can guess it from a glimpse at the gargoyle in the upper left corner, and from the carved finials of the spire we see from the window.


Between these four walls the old sexton and bell ringer spent his whole life; we can imagine the cold of harsh winters, when the wind whistled entering from the large window, causing the snow to swirl in the room. We can feel the fatigue of those wooden stairs that the man must have climbed up and down Lord knows how many times, in order to reach the top of the tower.
Now the guardian has come to the end of his days: his horn remains silent, hanging on the handrail.


The frail limbs of the old man (his right foot turned to the side, under the leg’s weight), his sunken figure in the armchair, his hands abandoned in his lap and weakly united in one last prayer — everything tells us that his life is coming to an end.

His was a humble but pious life. We can guess it from the remains of his last poor meal, a simple piece of bread and a glass that allude to the Eucharist. We also understand it from the crucifix, the only furnishing in addition to the table and chair, and from the open book of scriptures.
The bunch of keys hanging from his belt are another element bearing a double meaning: they identify his role as a sacristan, but also reference the other bunch of keys that await him, the ones Saint Peter will use to unlock the gates of Paradise.

The real vanishing point is the sun setting behind the horizon of a country landscape. It is the evening of the day, the evening of a life that has run its course just like the river we see in the distance, the emblem of panta rei. Yet on its banks we see well-cultivated and regular fields, a sign that the flowing of that water has borne fruit.
A little bird lands on the windowsill of the large window; is she a friend of the old man, with whom he shared a few crumbs of bread? Did the bird worry when she didn’t hear the bells ringing as usual? In any case, it is a moving detail, and an indication of life carrying on.

And finally let’s take a look at Death.
This is not the Black Lady (or the Grim Reaper) we find in most classic depictions, her figure could not be further from the one that brought scourge and devastation in the medieval Triumphs of Death. Of course she is a skeleton and can inspire fear, but the hood and saddlebag are those of a traveler. Death came a long way to visit the old man, so much so that she carries a scallop on his chest, the sea shell associated with Saint James, symbol of the Pilgrim; her bony feet have trampled the Earth far and wide, since time immemorial. And this constant wandering unites her, in spirit, with the old man — not surprisingly, the same shell is also pinned on the sexton’s hat, next to his staff and a bundle of herbs that he has collected.

This Death however, as indicated by the title, is “a friend”. When facing such a virtuous man, that same Death who knows how to be a ruthless and ferocious tyrant becomes a “sister” in the Franciscan sense. Her head lowered, her empty orbits turned to the ground, she seems almost intent on a secret meditation: from the beginning of time she has carried out her task with diligence, but here we see she is not evil.
And in fact, she makes a gesture of disarming gentleness: she rings the bells one last time, to announce vespers in the place of the dying man who is no longer able to do it.

It is time for the changing of the guard, the elderly man can now leave the post he has occupied for so long. With the quiet arrival of the evening, with the last tolling of those bells he has attended to throughout his life, a simple and devoted existence ends. Everything is peaceful, everything is done.

Few other images, I believe, are able to render so elegantly the Christian ideal (but, in general, the human ideal) of the “Good Death”.
Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to afford such an idyllic end; but if Death were really so kind, caring and compassionate, who wouldn’t want to have her as a friend?

To download my high-quality scan (60Mb) of Death as Friend, click here.

Alberto Martini, The “Maudit” of Italian Art

Those who live in dream are superior beings;
those who live in reality are unhappy slaves.
Alberto Martini, 1940

Alberto Giacomo Spiridione Martini (1876-1954) was one of the most extraordinary Italian artists of the first half of the twentieth century.
He was the author of a vast graphic production which includes engravings, lithographs, ex libris, watercolors, business cards, postcards, illustrations for books and novels of various kinds (from Dante to D’Annunzio, from Shakespeare to Victor Hugo, from Tassoni to Nerval).

Born in Oderzo, he studied drawing and painting under the guidance of his father Giorgio, a professor of design at the Technical Institute of Treviso. Initially influenced by the German sixteenth-century mannerism of Dürer and Baldung, he then moved towards an increasingly personal and refined symbolism, supported by his exceptional knowledge of iconography. At only 21 he exhibited for the first time at the Venice Biennale; from then on, his works will be featured there for 14 consecutive years.
The following year, 1898, while he was in Munich to collaborate with some magazines, he met the famous Neapolitan art critic Vittorio Pica who, impressed by his style, will forever be his most convinced supporter. Pica remembers him like this:

This man, barely past twenty, […] immediately came across as likable in his distinguished, albeit a bit cold, discretion […], in the subtle elegance of his person, in the paleness of his face, where the sensual freshness of his red lips contrasted with that strange look, both piercing and abstract, mocking and disdainful.

(in Alberto Martini: la vita e le opere 1876-1906, Oderzo Cultura)

After drawing 22 plates for the historical edition of the Divine Comedy printed in 1902 by the Alinari brothers in Florence, starting from 1905 he devoted himself to the cycle of Indian ink illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, which remains one of the peaks of his art.
In this series, Martini shows a strong visionary talent, moving away from the meticulous realistic observation of his first works, and at the same time developing a cruel and aesthetic vein reminiscent of Rops, Beardsley and Redon.

During the First World War he published five series of postcards entitled Danza Macabra Europea: these consist of 54 lithographs meant as satirical propaganda against the Austro-Hungarian empire, and were distributed among the allies. Once again Martini proves to possess a grotesque boundless fantasy, and it is also by virtue of these works that he is today considered a precursor of Surrealism.

Disheartened by how little consideration he was ebjoying in Italy, he moved to Paris in 1928. “They swore — he wrote in his autobiography — to remove me as a painter from the memory of Italians, preventing me from attending exhibitions and entering the Italian market […] I know very well that my original way of painting can annoy the myopic little draftsman and paltry critics“.
In Paris he met the Surrealist group and developed a series of “black” paintings, before moving on to a more intense use of color (what he called his “clear” manner) to grasp the ecstatic visions that possessed him.

The large window of my studio is open onto the night. In that black rectangle, I see my ghosts pass and with them I love to converse. They incite me to be strong, indomitable, heroic, and they tell me secrets and mysteries that I shall perhaps reveal you. Many will not believe and I am sorry for them, because those who have no imagination vegetate in their slippers: comfortable life, but not an artist’s life. Once upon a starless night, I saw myself in that black rectangle as in a mirror. I saw myself pale, impassive. It is my soul, I thought, that is now mirroring my face in the infinite and that once mirrored who knows what other appearance, because if the soul is eternal it has neither beginning nor end, and what we are now is nothing but one of its several episodes. And this revealing thought troubled me […]. As I was absorbed in these intricate thoughts, I started to feel a strange caress on the hand I had laid on a book open under a lamp. […] I turned my head and saw a large nocturnal butterfly sitting next to my hand, looking at me, flapping its wings. You too, I thought, are dreaming; and the spell of your dull eyes of dust sees me as a ghost. Yes, nocturnal and beautiful visitor, I am a dreamer who believes in immortality, or perhaps a phantom of the eternal dream that we call life.

(A. Martini, Vita d’artista, manoscritto, 1939-1940)

In economic hardship, Martini returned to Milan in 1934. He continued his incessant and multiform artistic work during the last twenty years of his life, without ever obtaining the desired success. He died on November 8, 1954. Today his remains lie together with those of his wife Maria Petringa in the cemetery of Oderzo.

The fact that Martini never gained the recognition he deserved within Italian early-twentieth-century art can be perhaps attributed to his preference for grotesque themes and gloomy atmospheres (in our country, fantasy always had a bad reputation). The eclectic nature of his production, which wilfully avoided labels or easy categorization, did not help him either: his originality, which he rightly considered an asset, was paradoxically what forced him to remain “a peripheral and occult artist, doomed to roam, like a damned soul, the unexplored areas of art history” (Barbara Meletto, Alberto Martini: L’anima nera dell’arte).

Yet his figure is strongly emblematic of the cultural transition between nineteenth-century romantic decadentism and the new, darker urgencies which erupted with the First World War. Like his contemporary Alfred Kubin, with whom he shared the unreal imagery and the macabre trait, Martini gave voice to those existential tensions that would then lead to surrealism and metaphysical art.

An interpretation of some of the satirical allegories in the European Macabre Dance can be found here and here.
The Civic Art Gallery of Oderzo is dedicated to Alberto Martini and promotes the study of his work.

Alfred Kubin

Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) è uno dei più inquietanti e misteriosi illustratori del Novecento. Espressionista e simbolista, dopo gli anni della formazione presso l’Accademia delle belle arti di Monaco di Baviera decise di ritirarsi nel suo piccolo castello austriaco proprio al confine con la Germania, a Zwickledt. Abbandonò quasi subito la pittura ad olio per dedicarsi alle matite, ai disegni ad inchiostro, agli acquarelli e alle litografie.

I disegni di Kubin sono incubi grotteschi popolati da figure simboliche, demoniache, fantastiche; ci fanno entrare in un mondo in cui le proporzioni sono continuamente deformate, una sorta di teatro dell’anima in cui paurosi giganti si aggirano per i deserti aridi, in cui l’animale ha sempre in sé il germe del mostruoso, in cui le pulsioni sessuali si tingono di nero e di sangue.

Non sempre l’artista ha bisogno di scenari apocalittici per instillare un sentimento d’angoscia: talvolta bastano dei piccoli tocchi surreali e spiazzanti, direttamente provenienti dalla parte più scura dell’inconscio.

La figura umana è continuamente martoriata, stirata, strappata in una rappresentazione allegorica del tormento e del dolore; ma è soprattutto mentale il disagio che si prova di fronte alle sue opere. I disegni di Kubin sono una perfetta e ineguagliata rappresentazione del perturbante freudiano.

Dichiarata “arte degenere” dal regime nazista, la sua straordinaria opera gli valse nel dopoguerra diversi prestigiosi riconoscimenti. Ma è con il passare del tempo e dei decenni che ci rendiamo conto sempre di più di quanto i suoi disegni fossero in anticipo rispetto ai tempi, e quanto abbiano influito sull’immaginario collettivo. Ancora oggi moderni, geniali, e squisitamente inquietanti.

(Grazie, Norma!)

José Guadalupe Posada

José Posada è uno dei più celebri fra gli incisori messicani, e certamente precursore dei movimenti artistici e grafici nati dopo la rivoluzione del 1910. Nato ad Aguascalientes nel 1852, divenne presto maestro incisore e litografo, dapprima nella sua città natale, poi a Léon, e infine a Città del Messico.

Le sue prime opere sono praticamente impossibili da trovare, poiché vennero stampate sulla povera carta dei giornaletti sensazionalistici dell’epoca; le uniche copie rimanenti sono di proprietà di collezionisti privati, o esposte nei maggiori musei nazionali del Messico.

José Posada è celebre principalmente per le sue calaveras, icone prese a “prestito” dall’immaginario religioso e folkloristico messicano. “Reclutando” questi allegri e vitali scheletri per i suoi intenti satirici, Posada crea un originale affresco sociale, alla maniera dei famosi Capricci di Goya. Questa ironica danza macabra che non risparmia niente e nessuno è stata presa come vero e proprio manifesto da molti degli artisti messicani del ‘900.

L’innovazione posadiana è più complessa di quanto potrebbe sembrare a una prima occhiata. Da una parte, opera un connubio fra i teschi e gli scheletri che già erano presenti nell’iconografia precolombiana, e le rappresentazioni occidentali della morte di matrice cristiana (memento mori, danza macabra, ars moriendi, ecc.). Dall’altra, utilizza questi elementi per prendersi gioco, in maniera grottesca, dei valori borghesi, del progresso, delle differenze di classe. E, infine, pare ricordare comunque che, ricchi o poveri, potenti o sfruttati, non siamo nient’altro che ossa che camminano.

L’opera più famosa di José Posada è senza dubbio la Calavera Catrina. Questa nobildonna dall’imponente cappello all’ultima moda (ma ovviamente destinata, come tutti, a ritrovarsi scheletro) è divenuta nel tempo una delle più riconoscibili figure dell’immaginario messicano. Nel Giorno dei Morti vengono costruiti altari e dolci a forma di Calavera Catrina, e indossati costumi che ne ricordano le fattezze.

Posada, oltre che incisore, era anche vignettista; ancora oggi, il primo premio dell’Encuentro Internacional de Caricatura e Historieta (Incontro Internazionale di Cartoon e Fumetti) è chiamato “La Catrina”.