Death is inevitable. Especially on this blog. If I could write about death and botanical symbolism all day, I would be over the moon. So imagine my delight when, earlier this month, the fashion-forward U.K. beauty brand Illamasqua teamed up with a 200 year old London funeral home to offer DEATH MAKEUP services. A few voices in the woman’s interest/fashion/beauty blog circle said “tasteless!” I say “brilliant.”
Without sidetracking myself too much, I’ll say that one of the reasons the “Final Act of Self Expression” campaign is so smart is that it subverts the usual beauty pitch or advertisement. The ad itself is gorgeous and now you’re thinking about how you want to look when you’re dead. Don’t lie. You want beautifully arched brows in the afterlife. But it’s an extremely clever stray from how the psychology of many beauty campaigns play on our desire to push our mortality from our minds. “The Final Act of Self Expression (FASE, ha)” says confront that mortality…confront it fabulously.
Something else struck me about the aesthetics of Illamasqua’s ad, other than the “wow, good ad” factor. The gothic quality, the font, the carriage motifs – it was reminiscent of Victorian post- mortem photography (and tell me the blue eyeshadow and sculpted brows aren’t a nod to ancient Egyptian death masks)! Victorians might have actually been the most wonderfully death obsessed culturally since the Egyptians. Post-mortem photography often sought to capture its subject in a lifelike tableau, frozen in mundanity for all time. The photo at left shows a couple posing with their recently deceased daughter. Other photographs depicted altar-like compositions of the dead, in beautiful clothing and often surrounded by flowers. These are the type Illamasqua is (possibly unintentionally) recalling. The general idea, however, of choosing a persona to last for eternity, has stuck.
A number of contemporary artists have turned the genre of post-mortem photography on its head, to varying degrees of disturbing. For elaborate tableaux, there’s Joel-Peter Witkin, whose macabre work draws on Hieronymus Bosch, the Venetian Tradition, Balthus, Dutch still life, and the whole gamut of art history for inspiration, while keeping death in the spotlight. It’s all amazingly Grand Guignol. Andres Serrano’s “corpse” series riffs on Victoriana, but instead of preserving the beauty of the deceased’s form, uses morgue dwellers who met terribly unpretty ends. I’m sorry but it’s actually quite difficult to find good images of the series…controversy, I suppose.
The artist who best uses post-mortem photography as a springboard is American Sally Mann. Mann had previously been known for her intimate portraits of her own children. “What Remains” is partly Mann’s loving study of decaying bodies at a Forensic Anthropology “body farm.” The photos are goreously composed and very intimate, making a connection to the idea of preserving something beloved much stronger than in Witkin or Serrano’s theatrical pieces. “What Remains” is strikingly compatible with Mann’s portraits of her own family, and the comparisons go both ways. While the portraits of the dead are tender in their way, the portraits of the living are somehow creepy. I could gush for a while, but Mann seems to possess an inherent wisdom regarding the fluidity of life and death and the fine line between innocence and the loss thereof.
My use of the word cosmetology in this post’s title might seem strange, but it just means “skilled at adornment.” All of these artists are adorning – quite obviously in the nineteenth century and Witkin’s work, and sometimes even in the act of showing something unadorned. Back to Illamasqua, though. It’s a strange dilution, an interesting spot on the circle of the history of how we view death. There’s the vanity of Egypt, the Victorians’ desire to preserve, and artistically at that, and a little contemporary absurdity thrown in. It’s also the only example in this post that focuses on self expression. Illamasqua has managed to create a type of post-mortem art for the allegedly self obsessed generation.