Hypnotism At The Morgue

Part I: Deadly trance

November 8, 1909, Somerville Opera House, New Jersey.
Professor Arthur Everton was a man of gentle manners, with a suave voice and a nice pair of black mustaches. Hypnotism was his early passion, and after a period spent moving pianos he had recently returned to the limelight. But he hadn’t lost his shine: he was dominating the scene with grace and security.
His evening show was coming to an end; until that moment the hypnotist had amused the audience by forcing his subjects to fish onstage with an invisible fishing line, and other such amenities. But now he announced the grand finale.

There was electricity in the room as his magnetic eyes scrutinized the audience intensely, one row at a time, searching for the subject of his next experiment. And the public, as always in these cases, was torn.
There were some, among the spectators and the spectators, who timidly lowered their eyes for fear of being called on stage, having no intention of becoming the laughing stock. Others, on the other hand, secretly hoped to be chosen: either they thought they were lucid enough to challenge the Professor, to resist the hypnotist’s intense willpower… or they were unconsciously enticed by the idea of losing control for a few minutes, just for fun, with no major consequences.
Finally, a man raised his hand.
“Ah, we have a volunteer!”, shouted Everton.

35-year-old Robert Simpson, a tall, bulky man, climbed on stage. Professor Everton let the audience give a round of applause to this brave stranger, and then proceeded to induce a cataleptic state. According to the New York Times

he made a few passes, told Simpson to be rigid, and he was. Everton then had attendants lay the body on two chairs, the head resting on one and the feet on the other, and stepped up on the subject’s stomach and then down again. Two attendants, acting under his orders, lifted Simpson to a standing posture, and Everton, clapping his hands, cried out ‘Relax!’
Simpson’s body softened so suddenly that it slipped out of the hands of the attendants to the floor, his head striking one of the chairs as he slid down.

Everyone immediately understood, just by looking at the assistants’ astonished faces, that this was no set-up. Professor Everton — who was actually not a real professor — began panicking at this point. He and his collaborators tried to awaken the unfortunate man from the trance, shaking him in every way, but the man did not respond to any stimulus.
Everton, ever more hysterical, managed to squeak out a cry for help asking if there were any doctors in the room. Three physicians, who had been invited to the show by the theater manager, came to the rescue; but even their attempts to revive Simpson were unsuccessful. Dr. W. H. Long, county physician, looked up from the body and stared seriously at the hypnotist.
“This one’s gone,” he hissed.
“No, he’s still in a trance,” Everton replied, and began clapping his hands near Simpson’s ears, and shaking the man’s corpse.

When the police showed up, Professor Everton was still intent on trying to awaken his volunteer. The cops arrested him immediately on charges of manslaughter.
As they carried him out of the Opera House, handcuffed, his eyes no longer seemed so magnetic, but only terrified.

Part II: Lazarus, Come Forth

The next day, Robert Simpson’s lifeless body lay under a black shroud in Somerville’s hospital morgue, awaiting the autopsy.
Suddenly the door opened and four men entered the mortuary. Three of them were doctors.
The fourth approached the corpse and uncoverd it. Breathing deeply, he first touched the dead man’s cheeks; then he brought his head close to Simpson’s chest as if to auscultate him. No heartbeat. Finally he gently placed three fingers on the cold skin over the breastbone, put his lips to the dead man’s ear and began to speak.
“Listen, Bob, your heart action is strong, Bob, your heart begins to beat.”
Then he suddenly started screaming, “BOB, DO YOU HEAR ME?”
The three doctors exchanged a puzzled look.
The man’s voice resumed whispering: “Bob, your heart is starting …”
Simpson, lying on the table, did not move.

This strange scene continued for quite a while, until the impatient doctors decided the farce had lasted too long.
“Mr. Davenport, I’d say that’s enough.”
“But we’re almost there…”

Part III: Death Is Not The End

The man trying to resurrect the dead was named William E. Davenport, and was a friend of Professor Everton (they were both from Newark). Davenport officially held the office of secretary for the mayor, but also dabbled in hypnotism and mesmerism.
The self-proclaimed ‘Professor’, “unnerved and shaken“, remained in prison awaiting the decision of the grand jury. Everton claimed — and perhaps he desperately wanted to convince himself — that he had thrown his subject into a trance so deep as to resemble a state of apparent death. He was so sure Simpson was still in catalepsy, that he had managed to convince authorities to grant him that bizarre attempt at hypnotic resuscitation. Being confined to his cell, he had sent his friend Davenport to the morgue instead.

Unfortunately the latter (maybe because he was just an amateur?) had failed to awaken the dead. For a brief moment there was talk of summoning a third hypnotist from New York to try and bring the victim back to life, but nothing was done.
Thus it remained unclear whether Simpson had died from the weight he suffered while in a cataleptic state, as the hypnotist was climbing on his stomach, or if the whole incident was just a tragic coincidence.
The autopsy put an end to the suspense: Simpson had died of an aortic rupture, and according to the doctors he had likely been suffering from that silent aneurysm for a long time. There was no conclusive evidence that the stress endured during the hypnotism was the actual cause of death, which was eventually ruled out as natural.

Everton, now in full nervous breakdown in his cell, even after the autopsy kept claiming that Simpson was still alive. He was released on bail, and three weeks later the grand jury decided not to indict him.
It was the end of a nightmare for Professor Everton, who retired from the scenes, and the closure of a case that had kept newspaper readers with bated breath — and especially other hypnotists. After all, this could have happened to any of them.

But hypnotists were not damaged by this clamor, on the contrary; they acquired an even more sinister and provocative charm. And they continued, as they did before, to challenge each other with increasingly spectacular performances.
As early as November 11, just three days after Everton’s unfortunate act, a New York Times headline reported:

EVERTON’S RIVAL TRIUMPHS: Somerville’s Other Hypnotist Puts THREE Men on His Subject’s Chest.

The show, as they say, must go on.

A Most Unfortunate Execution

The volume Celebrated trials of all countries, and remarkable cases of criminal jurisprudence (1835) is a collection of 88 accounts of murders and curious proceedings.
Several of these anecdotes are quite interesting, but a double hanging which took place in 1807 is particularly astonishing for the collateral effects it entailed.

On November 6, 1802, John Cole Steele, owner of a lavander water deposit, was travelling from Bedfont, on the outskirts of London, to his home on Strand. It was deep in the night, and the merchant was walking alone, as he couldn’t find a coach.
The moon had just come up when Steele was surrounded by three men who were hiding in the bushes. They were John Holloway and Owen Haggerty — two small-time crooks always in trouble with the law; with them was their accomplice Benjamin Hanfield, whom they had recruited some hours earlier at an inn.
Hanfield himself would prove to be the weak link. Four years later, under the promise of a full pardon for unrelated offences, he would vividly recount in court the scene he had witnessed that night:

We presently saw a man coming towards us, and, on approaching him, we ordered him to stop, which he immediately did. Holloway went round him, and told him to deliver. He said we should have his money,
and hoped we would not ill-use him. [Steele] put his hand in his pocket, and gave Haggerty his money. I demanded his pocket-book. He replied that he had none. Holloway insisted that he had a book, and if he
did not deliver it, he would knock him down. I then laid hold of his legs. Holloway stood at his head, and swore if he cried out he would knock out his brains. [Steele] again said, he hoped we would not ill-use him. Haggerty proceeded to search him, when [Steele] made some resistance, and struggled so much that we got across the road. He cried out severely, and as a carriage was coming up, Holloway said, “Take care, I’ll silence the b—–r,” and immediately struck him several violent blows on the head and body. [Steele] heaved a heavy groan, and stretched himself out lifeless. I felt alarmed, and said, “John, you have killed the man”. Holloway replied, that it was a lie, for he was only stunned. I said I would stay no longer, and immediately set off towards London, leaving Holloway and Haggerty with the body. I came to Hounslow, and stopped at the end of the town nearly an hour. Holloway and Haggerty then came up, and said they had done the trick, and, as a token, put the deceased’s hat into my hand. […] I told Holloway it was a cruel piece of business, and that I was sorry I had any hand in it. We all turned down a lane, and returned to London. As we came along, I asked Holloway if he had got the pocketbook. He replied it was no matter, for as I had refused to share the danger, I should not share the booty. We came to the Black Horse in Dyot-street, had half a pint of gin, and parted.

A robbery gone wrong, like many others. Holloway and Haggerty would have gotten away with it: investigations did not lead to anything for four years, until Hanfield revealed what he knew.
The two were arrested on the account of Hanfield’s testimony, and although they claimed to be innocent they were both sentenced to death: Holloway and Haggerty would hang on a Monday, February 22, 1807.
During all Sunday night, the convicts kept on shouting out they had nothing to do with the murder, their cries tearing the “awful stillness of midnight“.

On the fatal morning, the two were brought at the Newgate gallows. Another person was to be hanged with them,  Elizabeth Godfrey, guilty of stabbing her neighbor Richard Prince.
Three simultaneous executions: that was a rare spectacle, not to be missed. For this reason around 40.000 perople gathered to witness the event, covering every inch of space outside Newgate and before the Old Bailey.

Haggertywas the first to walk up, silent and resigned. The hangman, William Brunskill, covered his head with a white hood. Then came Holloway’s turn, but the man lost his cold blood, and started yelling “I am innocent, innocent, by God!“, as his face was covered with a similar cloth. Lastly a shaking Elizabeth Godfrey was brought beside the other two.
When he finished with his prayers, the priest gestured for the executioner to carry on.
Around 8.15 the trapdoors opened under the convicts’ feet. Haggerty and Holloway died on the instant, while the woman convulsively wrestled for some time before expiring. “Dying hard“, it was called at the time.

But the three hanged persons were not the only victims on that cold, deadly morning: suddenly the crowd started to move out of control like an immense tide.

The pressure of the crowd was such, that before the malefactors appeared, numbers of persons were crying out in vain to escape from it: the attempt only tended to increase the confusion. Several females of low stature, who had been so imprudent as to venture amongst the mob, were in a dismal situation: their cries were dreadful. Some who could be no longer supported by the men were suffered to fall, and were trampled to death. This was also the case with several men and boys. In all parts there were continued cries “Murder! Murder!” particularly from the female part of the spectators and children, some of whom were seen expiring without the possibility of obtaining the least assistance, every one being employed in endeavouring to preserve his own life. The most affecting scene was witnessed at Green-Arbour Lane,
nearly opposite the debtors’ door. The lamentable catastrophe which took place near this spot, was attributed to the circumstance of two pie-men attending there to dispose of their pies, and one of them having his basket overthrown, some of the mob not being aware of what had happened, and at the
same time severely pressed, fell over the basket and the man at the moment he was picking it up, together with its contents. Those who once fell were never more enabled to rise, such was the pressure of the crowd. At this fatal place, a man of the name of Herrington was thrown down, who had in his hand his younger son, a fine boy about twelve years of age. The youth was soon trampled to death; the father recovered, though much bruised, and was amongst the wounded in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

The following passage is especially dreadful:

A woman, who was so imprudent as to bring with her a child at the breast, was one of the number killed: whilst in the act of falling, she forced the child into the arms of the man nearest to her, requesting him, for God’s sake, to save its life; the man, finding it required all his exertion to preserve himself, threw the infant from him, but it was fortunately caught at a distance by anotner man, who finding it difficult to ensure its safety or his own, disposed of it in a similar way. The child was again caught by a person, who contrived to struggle with it to a cart, under which he deposited it until the danger was over, and the mob had dispersed.

Others managed to have a narrow escape, as reported by the 1807 Annual Register:

A young man […] fell down […], but kept his head uncovered, and forced his way over the dead bodies, which lay in a pile as high as the people, until he was enabled to creep over the heads of the crowd to a lamp-iron, from whence he got into the first floor window of Mr. Hazel, tallow-chandler, in the Old Bailey; he was much bruised, and must have suffered the fate of his companion, if he had not been possessed of great strength.

The maddened crowd left a scene of apocalyptic devastation.

After the bodies were cut down, and the gallows was removed to the Old Bailey yard, the marshals and constables cleared the streets where the catastrophe had occurred, when nearly one hundred persons, dead or in a state of insensibility, were found in the street. […] A mother was seen to carry away the body of her dead son; […] a sailor boy was killed opposite Newgate, by suffocation; in a small bag which he carried was a quantity of bread and cheese, and it is supposed he came some distance to witness the execution. […] Until four o’clock in the afternoon, most of the surrounding houses contained some person in a wounded state, who were afterwards taken away by their friends on shutters or in hackney coaches. At Bartholomew’s Hospital, after the bodies of the dead were stripped and washed, they were ranged round a ward, with sheets over them, and their clothes put as pillows under their heads; their faces were uncovered, and there was a rail along the centre of the room; the persons who were admitted to see the shocking spectacle, and identified many, went up on one side and returned on the other. Until two o’clock, the entrances to the hospital were beset with mothers weeping for their sons! wives for their husbands! and sisters for their brothers! and various individuals for their relatives and friends!

There is however one last dramatic twist in this story: in all probability, Hollow and Haggerty were really innocent after all.
Hanfield, the key witness, might have lied to have his charges condoned.

Solicitor James Harmer (the same Harmer who incidentally inspired Charles Dickens for Great Expectations), even though convinced of their culpability in the beginning, kept on investigating after the convicts death and eventually changed his mind; he even published a pamphlet on his own expenses to denounce the mistake made by the Jury. Among other things, he discovered that Hanfield had tried the same trick before, when charged with desertion in 1805: he had attempted to confess to a robbery in order to avoid military punishment.
The Court itself was aware that the real criminals had not been punished, for in 1820, 13 years after the disastrous hanging, a John Ward was accused of the murder of Steele, then acquitted for lack of evidence (see Linda Stratmann in Middlesex Murders).

In one single day, Justice had caused the death of dozens of innocent people — including the convicts.
Really one of the most unfortunate executions London had ever seen.


I wrote about capital punsihment gone wrong in the past, in this article about Jack Ketch; on the same topic you can also find this post on ‘Bloody Murders’ pamphlets from Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (both articles in Italian only, sorry!).

La Morgue, yesterday and today

Regarding the Western taboo about death, much has been written on how its “social removal” happened approximately in conjunction with WWI and the institution of great modern hospitals; still it would be more correct to talk about a removal and medicalization of the corpse. The subject of death, in fact, has been widely addressed throughout the Twentieth Century: a century which was heavily imbued with funereal meditations, on the account of its history of unprecedented violence. What has vanished from our daily lives is rather the presence of the dead bodies and, most of all, putrefaction.

Up until the end of Nineteenth Century, the relationship with human remains was inevitable and accepted as a natural part of existence, not just in respect to the preparation of a body at home, but also in the actual experience of so-called unnatural deaths.
One of the most striking examples of this familiarity with decomposition is the infamous Morgue in Paris.

Established in 1804, to replace the depository for dead bodies which during the previous centuries was found in the prison of Grand Châtelet, the Morgue stood in the heart of the capital, on the île de la Cité. In 1864 it was moved to a larger building on the point of the island, right behind Notre Dame. The word had been used since the Fifteenth Century to designate the cell where criminals were identified; in jails, prisoners were put “at the morgue” to be recognized. Since the Sixteenth Century, the word began to refer exclusively to the place where identification of corpses was carried out.

Due to the vast number of violent deaths and of bodies pulled out of the Seine, this mortuary was constantly filled with new “guests”, and soon transcended its original function. The majority of visitors, in fact, had no missing relatives to recognize.
The first ones to have different reasons to come and observe the bodies, which were laid out on a dozen black marble tables behind a glass window, were of course medical students and anatomists.

This receptacle for the unknown dead found in Paris and the faubourgs of the city, contributes not a little to the forwarding of the medical sciences, by the vast number of bodies it furnishes, which, on an average, amount to about two hundred annually. The process of decomposition in the human body may be seen at La Morgue, throughout every stage to solution, by those whose taste, or pursuit of science, leads them to that melancholy exhibition. Medical men frequently visit the place, not out of mere curiosity, but for the purpose of medical observation, for wounds, fracturs, and injuries of every description occasionally present themselves, as the effect of accident or murder. Scarcely a day passes without the arrival of fresh bodies, chiefly found in the Seine, and very probably murdered, by being flung either out of the windows which overhang the Seine river, or off the bridges, or out of the wine and wood-barges, by which the men who sell the cargoes generally return with money in their pockets […]. The clothes of the dead bodies brought into this establishment are hung up, and the corpse is exposed in a public room for inspection of those who visit the place for the purpose of searching for a lost friend or relative. Should it not be recognised in four days, it is publicly dissected, and then buried.

(R. Sears, Scenes and sketches in continental Europe, 1847)

This descripton is, however, much too “clean”. Despite the precautions taken to keep the bodies at low temperature, and to bathe them in chloride of lime, the smell was far from pleasant:

For most of the XIX Century, and even from an earlier time, the smell of cadavers was part of the routine in the Morgue. Because of its purpose and mode of operation, the Morgue was the privileged place for cadaveric stench in Paris […]. In fact, the bodies that had stayed in the water constituted the ordinary reality at the Morgue. Their putrefaction was especially spectacular.

(B. Bertherat, Le miasme sans la jonquille, l’odeur du cadavre à la Morgue de Paris au XIXe siècle,
in Imaginaire et sensibilités au XIXe siècle, Créaphis, 2005)

What is curious (and quite incomprehensible) for us today is how the Morgue could soon become one of the trendiest Parisian attractions.
A true theatre of death, a public exhibition of horror, each day it was visited by dozens of people of all backgrounds, as it certainly offered the thrill of a unique sight. It was a must for tourists visiting the capital, as proven by the diaries of the time:

We left the Louvre and went to the Morgue where three dead bodies lay waiting identification. They were a horrible sight. In a glass case one child that had been murdered, its face pounded fearfully.

(Adelia “Addie” Sturtevant‘s diary, September 17, 1889)

The most enlightening description comes from the wonderful and terrible pages devoted to the mortuary by Émile Zola. His words evoke a perfect image of the Morgue experience in XIX Century:

In the meantime Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. […]When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of the walls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing him appeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. […] Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. […] One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing.

Zola further explores the ill-conealed erotic tension such a show could provoke in visitors, both men and women. A liminal zone — the boundaries between Eros and Thanatos — which for our modern sensibility is even more “dangerous”.

This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him. Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness. […] On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the [well-dressed ladies] standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet. She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew.

Finally, the Morgue was also an ironically democratic attraction, just like death itself:

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.
Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had beenburnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

(É. Zola, Thérèse Raquin, 1867)

In the course of its activity, the Morgue was only sporadically criticized, and only for its position, deemed too central. The curiosity in seeing the bodies was evidently not perceived as morbid, or at least it was not considered particularly improper: articles on the famous mortuary and its dead residents made regular appearance on newspapers, which gladly devoted some space to the most mysterious cases.
On March 15, 1907 the Morgue was definitively closed to the public, for reasons of “moral hygiene”. Times were already changing: in just a few years Europe was bound to know such a saturation of dead bodies that they could no longer be seen as an entertainment.

And yet, the desire and impulse to observe the signs of death on the human body never really disappeared. Today they survive in the virtual morgues of internet websites offering pictures and videos of accidents and violence. Distanced by a computer screen, rather than the ancient glass wall, contemporary visitors wander through these hyperrealistic mortuaries where bodily frailness is articulated in all its possible variations, witnesses to death’s boundless imagination.
The most striking thing, when surfing these bulletin boards where the obscene is displayed as in a shop window, is seeing how users react. In this extreme underground scene (which would make an interesting object for a study in social psychology) a wide array of people can be found, from the more or less casual visitor in search of a thrill, up to the expert “gorehounds”, who seem to collect these images like trading cards and who, with every new posted video, act smart and discuss its technical and aesthetic quality.
Perhaps in an attempt to exorcise the disgust, another constant is the recourse to an unpleasant and out-of-place humor; and it is impossible to read these jokes, which might appear indecent and disrespectful, without thinking of those “comical companions” described by Zola, who jested before the horror.

Aggregators of brutal images might entail a discussion on freedom of information, on the ethics and licitness of exhibiting human remains, and we could ask ourselves if they really serve an “educational” purpose or should be rather viewed as morbid, abnormal, pathological deviations.
Yet such fascinations are all but unheard of: it seems to me that this kind of curiosity is, in a way, intrinsic to the human species, as I have argued in the past.
On closer inspection, this is the same autoptic instinct, the same will to “see with one’s own eyes” that not so long ago (in our great-great-grandfathers’ time) turned the Paris Morgue into a sortie en vogue, a popular and trendy excursion.

The new virtual morgues constitute a niche and, when compared to the crowds lining up to see the swollen bodies of drowning victims, our attitude is certainly more complex. As we’ve said in the beginning, there is an element of taboo which was much less present at the time.
To our eyes the corpse still remains an uneasy, scandalous reality, sometimes even too painful to acknowledge. And yet, consciously or not, we keep going back to fixing our eyes on it, as if it held a mysterious secret.


Speciale: Fotografare la morte – I

Tutte le fotografie sono dei memento mori.

Scattare una foto significa partecipare alla

mortalità, vulnerabilità e mutevolezza

di un’altra persona.

(Susan Sontag)

Abbiamo deciso di proporre cinque domande, sempre le stesse, ad alcuni fra i più grandi fotografi che durante la loro carriera hanno affrontato direttamente il tema della morte e del cadavere. Alcuni hanno gentilmente declinato l’invito, come ad esempio Jeffrey Silverthorne, che già negli anni ’70 aveva rifiutato di comparire nel fondamentale saggio The Grotesque in Photography di A. D. Coleman. Altri, invece, ci hanno generosamente concesso questa breve intervista in esclusiva.


Nato a New York nel 1950, figlio unico di padre honduregno e madre afro-cubana, Andres Serrano ha passato gran parte della giovinezza a Brooklyn. La rigida educazione cattolica ricevuta da ragazzo giocherà un ruolo fondamentale nella sua ricerca artistica; affascinato dai pittori del Rinascimento, da Rembrandt così come dai surrealisti, Serrano esplora fin da subito le connessioni nascoste ed estatiche fra l’iconografia religiosa e la concretezza del corpo. Il sangue, archetipo mistico e simbolo di vita e morte al tempo stesso, diviene uno degli elementi fondamentali dei suoi lavori. Più tardi comincerà ad utilizzare altri fluidi corporei, come urina, latte e sperma, rendendoli non semplici oggetti delle sue fotografie, ma veri e propri mezzi espressivi.

Le sue due serie Body Fluids e Immersions (1985-90) fecero scoppiare una furibonda polemica che colse di sorpresa l’autore stesso. Una fotografia, in particolare, si rivelò di una forza provocatoria destinata a rimanere immutata nei decenni successivi: si tratta di Piss Christ, e mostra un crocefisso immerso nell’urina. Considerata blasfema e offensiva, nel 1989 fu oggetto di un acceso dibattito al Senato degli Stati uniti; vandalizzata in Australia e presa di mira da un gruppo di naziskin in Svezia nel 2007, nel 2011 venne distrutta da un gruppo cattolico ad Avignone. Nelle intenzioni dell’artista, la serie Immersions si prefiggeva di visualizzare la dicotomia fra la condizione umana, corporale, terrena, e la tensione mistica: Piss Christ e le altre fotografie della serie sembrano affermare che è possibile trovare la divinità perfino nella fisicità umana, nei fluidi e nella carne, perché in fondo il nostro corpo è santo in tutte le sue manifestazioni.

Nell’immaginario popolare da quel momento Serrano è divenuto un artista “maledetto”, estremo e provocatore. La sua visione non ha mai deviato a causa delle polemiche, ed egli ha sempre rifiutato di censurare le sue fotografie, anche quelle più scabrose contenute nella serie A History of Sex; ma ridurre la sua opera a pietra dello scandalo significherebbe dimenticare le sue abilità di ritrattista mostrate in Nomads (1990), Klan series (1990, che ritrae membri del KKK) o in Budapest Series (1992).

Ma le fotografie che ci interessano qui sono ovviamente quelle contenute nella celebre The Morgue (1992). Serrano ha dichiarato: “credo che sia necessario cercare la bellezza anche nei luoghi meno convenzionali o nei candidati più insospettabili. Se non incontro la bellezza non sono capace di scattare alcuna fotografia”.

In The Morgue, l’obbiettivo del fotografo si concentra sui corpi arrivati all’obitorio, talvolta ancora quasi perfetti, talvolta decomposti, mutilati, dilaniati. Ritratti in composizioni rigorose, veri e propri tableaux dall’illuminazione caravaggesca e dai colori accesi, i morti sembrano in bilico fra la reificazione ultima e una sorta di postuma soggettività.

L’intrusione della macchina di Serrano in questo luogo nascosto, il suo indugiare su questi cadaveri vulnerabili e indifesi è una violazione dell’intimità, o un commosso omaggio? Il suo occhio cede alla seduzione morbosa del macabro, oppure è alla ricerca di qualche segreto dettaglio che dia significato alla morte stessa? Impossibile, e forse inutile, risolvere questa ambiguità. La potenza delle immagini di Andres Serrano sta proprio in questa capacità di estetizzare ciò che viene normalmente reputato osceno, e nella testarda convinzione di poter mostrare la meraviglia anche nel più triste e quotidiano degli orrori.

Ecco quindi la nostra intervista ad Andres Serrano.

1. Perché hai deciso che era importante raffigurare la morte nei tuoi lavori fotografici?

La morte è una parte della vita. Esserne incuriositi è naturale. Io fotografo la morte come un’investigazione, allo stesso tempo spirituale ed estetica. È una ricerca sulla vita alla fine del suo corso.

2. Quale credi che sia lo scopo, se ce n’è uno, delle tue fotografie post-mortem? Stai soltanto fotografando i corpi, o sei alla ricerca di qualcos’altro?

Lo scopo del mio lavoro sui morti è lo stesso del mio lavoro sui vivi: creare opere d’arte potenti e avvincenti.

3. Come succede per tutto ciò che mette alla prova il nostro rifiuto della morte, il tono macabro e sconvolgente delle tue fotografie potrebbe essere visto da alcuni come osceno e irrispettoso. Ti interessa scioccare il pubblico, e come ti poni nei riguardi della carica di tabù presente nei tuoi soggetti?

Lavorando nell’obitorio, a fianco di dottori e assistenti clinici, mi sono sentito parte di un gruppo di professionisti che hanno scelto di lavorare con i cadaveri. Non c’è nulla di disgustoso o irrispettoso nel lavorare con i morti, o nel volere mostrare la bellezza che è nella morte. Non considero il mio lavoro scioccante, né tabù.

4. È stato difficile approcciare i cadaveri, a livello personale? C’è qualche aneddoto particolare o interessante riguardo le circostanze di una tua foto?

Non è mai difficile fare il lavoro che vuoi fare e che ti senti spinto a intraprendere. Non saprei dire se è successo qualcosa che potrei definire aneddotico; l’unica cosa che mi ha sorpreso è che davvero poche persone erano morte di morte naturale. La maggior parte di quei cadaveri erano morti inaspettatamente e prematuramente.

5. Riguardo alle foto post-mortem, ti piacerebbe che te ne venisse scattata una dopo che sei morto? Come ti immagini una simile foto?

Preferirei scattarmela da solo, perché nessun altro saprebbe farla come me.

Ecco un interessante saggio (PDF in inglese) su The Morgue, e il sito ufficiale di Andres Serrano.

L’atto di vedere con i propri occhi

Stan Brakhage è riconosciuto come uno dei registi più importanti del ventesimo secolo.

I suoi film sono opere d’arte di pura avanguardia. Brakhage la pellicola la viveva, la martoriava, ne provocava (e ne curava) le ferite come si trattasse del più alto atto d’amore. Per molti dei suoi corti sperimentali dipingeva direttamente sul fotogramma, con certosina precisione, lanciandoci sopra macchie di colore alla Pollock – con il risultato di poter vedere in sala 24 dipinti diversi al secondo, un’esperienza psichedelica.

Le sue tecniche salienti, oltre alla pittura direttamente sulla celluloide, sono l’abrasione della pellicola, la sua graffiatura, gli stacchi veloci, le esposizioni multiple, la macchina a spalla e il frequente uso del montaggio “in camera”, cioè realizzato al momento della ripresa, senza successive modifiche in sala di montaggio. I titoli di testa di Seven, per capirci, non sarebbero forse esistiti senza il suo stile.

Interessato alla mitologia e ispirato dalla musica, dalla poesia e dai fenomeni della percezione, Brakhage cercò di rivelare l’universale nel particolare, esplorando in maniera lirica ed emotiva temi come la nascita, la morte, la sessualità e l’innocenza.

Nel 1971 Brakhage firmò uno dei suoi film più controversi e ammirevoli: The Act Of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, vale a dire L’atto di vedere con i propri occhi. Il titolo si riferisce chiaramente all’etimologia della parola autopsia.

Realizzato in un obitorio di Pittsburgh, il film è girato in 16mm, dura 32 minuti ed è privo di sonoro. Mostra delle immagini riprese da Brakhage durante alcuni esami autoptici.


Stan Brakhage - The Act Of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971)[(040483)06-24-32]

Molti di noi sono a disagio con il proprio corpo, e la maggior parte dei tabù sociali che ci sono stati tramandati sono proprio relativi alla nostra fisicità (sesso, sangue, scatologia, ecc.). In questo film, ciò che spinge e sostiene la ricerca dell’autore è proprio la necessità di vedere cosa sia questo nostro corpo che ci spaventa e ci disgusta, di scoprirne l’intima natura, quella che rifiutiamo di accettare.

Stan Brakhage - The Act Of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971)[(043158)06-29-10]

Brakhage fa due scelte essenziali: come prima cosa, elimina il sonoro. Il film è completamente muto. Non possiamo conoscere la “musica” di quei corpi sezionati, e talvolta siamo addirittura grati di questa scelta. Sappiamo che i rumori di uno stomaco che si apre non risulterebbero gradevoli alle nostre orecchie. Eppure questa decisione si rivela ancora più forte e incisiva, perché restiamo da soli in silenzio, e possiamo ascoltare le nostre reazioni a ciò che vediamo. Il film diviene così un’esperienza fondamentale, un confronto intimo con ciò che crediamo. Possiamo ascoltarci mentre pensiamo.

Stan Brakhage - The Act Of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971)[(016299)07-07-32]

In secondo luogo, Brakhage riprende i cadaveri attraverso inquadrature per lo più molto strette: il film si compone quasi interamente di dettagli.  La scelta di limitare i piani più larghi, quelli che ci fanno comprendere senza ombra di dubbio quello che sta succedendo, ha come effetto una sorta di straniamento: dopo i primi dieci minuti, è come se assistessimo a una moltitudine di carni lacerate, una miriade di colori inusitati (il rosso del sangue, il blu delle vene, il giallo degli strati lipidici), come se stessimo spiando un paesaggio alieno. Eppure stiamo guardando dentro di noi. Siamo colpiti da una sequenza di forme strane, di geometrie impossibili, di escrescenze carnose a cui non sappiamo dare una collocazione o un nome.

Stan Brakhage - The Act Of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971)[(028774)06-26-39]

Stan Brakhage - The Act Of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971)[(027970)06-27-18]

Tutto questo pone The Act of Seeing su un piano radicalmente differente rispetto ai filmati autoptici medici: senza che una sola parola venga detta, alcuni interrogativi essenziali ci assalgono. Quello che inizialmente sembra un atto sacrilego, che viola il corpo così come lo conosciamo, diviene un momento di scoperta interiore. In un momento che sembra negare ogni individualità, può capitare di scoprire in noi stessi una pietà che credevamo perduta.

C’è una sequenza celebre che è spesso additata come la più pregna di significato: si tratta dell’attimo in cui per procedere allo scalottamento cranico e all’analisi del cervello, viene praticata un’incisione in alto sulla fronte, e la faccia dei cadaveri viene letteralmente rivoltata in avanti, sopra al mento, esponendo la carne che vi sta sotto. In quel momento, sembra quasi che qualsiasi rimasuglio di identità venga cancellato e quell’essere un tempo vivo e senziente sia divenuto pura carne, priva di qualsiasi connotato umano.


Eppure, non è tutto così semplice. Il miracolo che Brakhage compie è quello di lasciare indeterminato l’esito della sua analisi: in altre parole, essendo il film piuttosto lungo (32 minuti), nella testa dello spettatore si affastellano una quantità di sensazioni, emozioni e riflessioni, difficilmente raccontabili. Una serie infinita di domande dalla risposta nebulosa.

Stan Brakhage - The Act Of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971)[(022734)06-26-50]

Cos’è, questo corpo che abitiamo? Perché ci provoca così tanta repulsione vedere il suo interno? Perché troviamo che un corpo visto dall’esterno sia rispettabile, addirittura un’opera divina, e quello che esso racchiude sia al contrario osceno? Quale incredibile paesaggio dischiude lo spazio di materia che abbiamo in prestito?

Stan Brakhage - The Act Of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971)[(021896)07-08-29]

Ci troviamo di fronte alla morte più vera, quella ineluttabile del disfacimento della carne. Proviamo disgusto per questo corpo sconsacrato, violentato, e allo stesso tempo stupore per la complessità del nostro fisico; quello che è sostanzialmente un involucro vuoto, a volte ci sembra quasi parlarci di un disegno preciso; alla fine del film, penso che il sentimento prevalente sia quello della meraviglia.

Alla meraviglia, si sa, non c’è risposta.

Credo che ognuno di noi, almeno una volta nella vita, dovrebbe assistere a un’autopsia. Così come a una nascita.

Per vedere con i propri occhi.