As human beings, we have always been fascinated by our own demise. From the traditions of Memento Mori and Vanitas art that present graveyard iconography as moral lessons to the balls-to-wall hedonism of skull-obsessed heavy metal bands, we’ve always been drawn to the imagery of death.
Here are 5 artists who tried to represent the unrepresentable in miniature, and in so doing created compelling works that run the gamut from the comical to the truly eerie.
Leeds mechanic John Dennison is the first recorded individual to make a living entirely through the creation of coin-operated machines. Although he began his career making machine parts and drill bits, his imaginative bent soon saw him producing an array of automata for amusement arcades. First displayed in 1875, Dennison’s machines included fortune-telling devices and miniature dioramas in which the figures would move around when a coin was inserted.
Perhaps it was his own taste, or perhaps he merely catered to the morbid whims of a ghoulish public, but many of Dennison’s machines were fixated on death. Take St. Dennistoun Mortuary, for example. At the insertion of a coin, the lights come on, doors open and a mortician begins working on one of the bodies on his slabs while two policeman observe. The bodies are labelled ‘Believed murdered’ and ‘Found stabbed’. The ‘Believed murdered’ body has died with an expression of strangled horror on its face. Outside the building, two women weep with grief.
In a slightly more jovial example, The Undertaker, a corpse rises from its coffin as the devil appears behind the terrified business owner.
In another example, Dennison chose a story ripped from the headlines. The Knaresborough Murder of 1745 captured the imaginations of people up and down England at the time. However, it was the Victorians, with their predilection for tales of gruesome murder, that really obsessed over it. In Dennison’s diorama, we see Eugene Aram beating shoemaker Daniel Clark to death with a walking stick, while his accomplice menaces Aram’s wife to ensure her silence.
Other examples of Dennison’s work had titles like Midnight in the Haunted Churchyard, The Murder in the Museum and a whole series of machines that showed prison executions. All bear signs of Dennison’s characteristic wit, inventiveness and fondness for the macabre.
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
Back in the mid 1930s, forensic investigation was a bit of a boys’ club. Like most boys’ clubs, no one involved had any idea what they were doing, but they could all talk very loudly. This all changed when Frances Glessner Lee inherited her father’s vast wealth. She used her passion for criminology, her newfound independence and her financial freedom to become the woman known as the “mother of forensic science“.
Lee had many achievements over her long career. She was the first woman ever to become a police captain in the United States and helped to establish the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. But Lee is perhaps best known now for her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
Created in the 1940s, these 20 dioramas depicted scenes of unexplained, sudden death. They were intended as teaching tools for use during week-long homicide seminars that Lee would host. Each death had a solution; some were murders, some accidents and some suicides. All were composites based on real cases.
The truly extraordinary thing about the studies is their level of detail. The rooms include working light switches, the victims wear hand-stitched clothing (Lee used pins as knitting needles) and ashtrays overflow with miniature cigarettes individually rolled with real tobacco. At the time they were constructed, each cost the equivalent of a full-sized house.
Eagle-eyed investigators perused each scene for clues, noting realistic blood spatter patterns, bruising and discolouration of the skin that could point to poison or decomposition, and contextual clues to the victim’s lives and socioeconomic status. Most of the studies depicted the marginalised: sex workers, alcoholics and prisoners, although there were one or two more affluent victims. Most victims were female.
Although rightly regarded as works of art, 18 of the studies are still used today to train detectives. Their solutions remain closely guarded secrets.
Late 19th Century Paris was a hotbed of intellectual exploration, boundless creativity and dizzying hedonism. It’s a peculiar feature of the human psyche that when we are at our most vital and creative we often find ourselves most drawn to ideas and images of our own mortality.
Theatres like the fabled Grand Guignol showcased grisly and gruesome spectacles for paying punters, while the Cabaret Du Néant (Tavern of the Dead) was the first immersive, death-themed nightclub. Wait staff dressed in funeral attire served clientele sat at coffin-shaped tables as they watched a variety of macabre entertainments. These included a woman ‘dissolving into a skeleton’.
On the more whimsical side of this death obsession sat the Diableries, postcards depicting scenes of death, destruction, judgement and hell. With a primitive 3D effect (achieved with the use of special viewing lenses and a stereoscopic camera) lending a vibrancy to their cartoonish displays, these postcards were a sensation in fin-de-siècle Paris.
Usually satirical in nature, the Diableries first appeared in the 1860s, intended to poke fun at the decadence of Paris during the second empire of Napoleon II. Borrowing imagery from Hans Holbein’s Danse Macabre, Heironymous Bosch’s hellscapes and traditional ‘Death and the Maiden’ scenes, the Diableries were chaotic and compelling. While some feature Satan himself, almost all feature an army of mischievous skeletons and/or demons singing, dancing and making merry. When backlit, the monsters would have glowing red eyes.
From his mother, a doll-maker and folk artist, Thomas Kuntz inherited a strong aesthetic sensibility and a passion for craftsmanship. Meanwhile, his father, a surgeon, provided a willingness to confront death, along with a fascination for anatomy. Although a more than accomplished painter, sculptor and animator, it was Kuntz’s abiding obsession with 18th and 19th Century automata that informed his most well-known works.
Kuntz’s eerily animated creations plunge the viewer deep into the uncanny valley. He combines a wide range of influences, from the erotic art of the Weimar Berlin clubscape to the animatronics of Walt Disney and his imagineers. Kuntz keeps his myriad influences in check with a powerful focus on the unsettling, the macabre and the occult.
Perhaps our favourite of his works is Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), based on the absinthe and opium-flavoured visions of Paul Verlaine. Animated by an unfathomably complex series of cams, Verlaine sits drinking alone in a dimly lit Parisian café. Combining his passion for automata with his talent for illusions, Kuntz then has the fabled green fairy of absinthe appear to him. Next, a spectral vision of his old lover, symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, joins him in the booth. Verlaine looks away in grief, drowning his sorrows in more liquor, and Rimbaud’s face becomes a grisly skull. The effect is literally haunting, and a testament to Kuntz’s unmatched technical skills.
The Alchemyst’s Clocktower is one of Kuntz’s most complex pieces, combining cam-driven automata with clockwork, sound and even pyrotechnics and flowing water in fountains. It comes across as a visual retelling of the Faust legend, with the Alchemyst ranting while the devil looms over him.
Jake and Dinos Chapman – Hell and Fucking Hell
Jake and Dinos Chapman, enfants terrible of the British art world, are no strangers to controversy. Their work is bold and confrontational, forcing the viewer to consider their own voyeurism and their relationship with violence, brutality and systemic oppression.
A typical chapman Brothers piece might feature members of the Klu Klux Klan wearing rainbow socks, or clowns strung up on trees in imitation of Francisco Goya‘s Disasters of War. Their most famous piece, however, is probably the epic diorama called Hell and its expanded and improved sister Fucking Hell (created when the original Hell was lost in a fire).
Pulling on imagery from the holocaust as well as other historical atrocities, Hell looks like what happens when someone in Games Workshop sniffs too much superglue.
Jake Chapman said of Hell: “It’s the same idea over and over, regurgitated. We bought 60,000 toy soldiers, chopped them up, remodelled and recast them. Toy soldiers were the most inappropriate form we could think of, because they exist within the realm of play. Also, they rob death of its magnitude.”
Clearly drawing inspiration from traditional depictions of Hell, the Chapmans’ vision is chaotic and overwhelming. Forests of decapitated heads stand vigil over literal mountains of the dead. It becomes utterly impossible to differentiate between the oppressors and the victims here. The Nazi guards are as likely to be tortured as to be the torturers, as they are churned up by the gears of their own industrial, genocidal machine. This is a surreal vision of violence without any moral categories.
Scenes of cruel medieval torture and modern, impersonal mass death are placed side-by-side. As the viewer struggles to make sense of the senselessness, they are forced to confront their own complicity in it. As Jake Chapman says: “Putting something behind glass escalates the level of voyeurism: you become implicated, just by the act of looking.”