It’s an intimate installation, but “R.I.P.: On Art and Mourning,” opening Friday in a small space near the Norton Simon Museum’s entrance gallery, addresses an often overwhelming fact of life: loss and mourning. Specifically, it looks at how art has been used over the centuries to help people process the event of death.
For Chief Curator Carol Togneri, who has worked at the Norton Simon for 16 years, it has been enlightening over the past several months to contemplate the placement of the collection’s disparate objects, which span the years from before 1 A.D. up through the 1960s, and imagine how the paintings, sculpture, photographs, paper works and an Egyptian sarcophagus “converse” with each other. She considered incorporating poetry and music but ultimately opted not to, in the interest of less-is-more simplicity. The 17 pieces that did make it into the final selection may seem like a modest show, but collectively they resonate with an undercurrent of meaning at a time when as a nation we are struggling to process grief over myriad losses — of lives, homes, beliefs, ideals. That was neither the inspiration nor the purpose of the decidedly nonpolitical exhibit, but it enhances its thoughtful depth and universality.
Maurice Denis’ 1893 painting “The Entombment,” for instance, depicts what at first glance seems to be a rural procession of mourners solemnly carrying a corpse to its resting place; a deeper peer into its earthy tones reveals faint halos around some of their heads, suggesting this is the entombment of Christ. In presenting such an iconic scene as “an image of everyday life,” Togneri says, Denis “tries to show that mourning is something that we’ve all experienced — the loss of someone we loved. He brings it down into a very everyday sort of quotidian moment.”
Such ritualistic gatherings are perceived very differently through Andy Warhol’s 1966 silkscreen “Jacqueline Kennedy II (Jackie II)” — which places a drained, inward-looking image taken of Kennedy’s face during her husband’s funeral procession against a pink background evocative of her blood-spattered Chanel suit— and a handsome silver print of Eugène Atget’s 1910 photograph “Funeral.” The feathered, fringed and gilded frame of its horse-drawn funeral carriage shows how people have artistically honored the dead while evoking the deliberate pace and respectful quiet of a mourners’ march. Such ritualized processions — of emotions as well as of people to memorial services and graveyards — are no longer commonly seen in our culture, which increasingly favors cremation and has injected an inorganic sterility into funeral proceedings.
“There is something remarkable about” such communal parades, even if you aren’t religious and even if you don’t know the deceased, Togneri notes. “Maybe it provides some sort of a comfort, or one needs to mark the occasion or the moment with solemnity. … It means to me that, just like in religious services, where we know when to kneel and we know when to say a prayer or bow our heads, there is some sort of comfort taken in the traditions of the rote nature of going through a burial or a funeral or dealing with the death of a loved one.
“I think there has been a great change in our fast-paced lives now that we don’t take the time to do that to mourn. … We’ve sort of been, if I can say it, relieved of the burden of sadness.”
Beauty is not incidental to the offerings on display. Henri Matisse’s 1947 stencil-collage work “Pierrot’s Funeral” uses vivid color as a metaphor for life and the circus. A painted, bronze- and glass-inlaid Egyptian coffin of a temple singer named Tarutu (circa 712-525 B.C.E.) and two gold-inlaid bronze votive images of Egyptian cats (circa 600 B.C.E.) demonstrate how reverence and care were expressed through artful tradition. British illustrator N.C. Goodnight’s 1794 etching of “Old Tabbies Attending a Favorite Cat’s Funeral” offers further whimsical evidence (as if any were needed) that love of four-legged companions is not a modern invention.
Some of the exhibit’s most striking pieces contain clues to the dramatic events that spawned them, such as Horace Vernet’s richly textured 1818 oil painting “A Soldier on the Field of Battle” and a macabre bronze death mask of Amadeo Modigliani made by his friend Jacques Lipchitz circa 1920-’22. Viewing them, it’s natural to wonder: Is art meant to celebrate the departed, or heal the souls of those left behind? It’s a provocative question with no easy answer.
“It was clear that some of these images came from the idea of war, for instance, and the fact that death and poverty and famine all take place as a result of wars,” Togneri observes. “Sometimes you’re looking at things that have a more religious connotation, but in the way they’re painted they look more like everyday life. So it was interesting to put them together in a hang that wouldn’t be too scary or depressing, but just show how in life sometimes art, whether it’s music or poetry or a painted object or a sculpture, can give one some peace and some solace.”
“R.I.P.: On Art and Mourning” opens at the Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, on Friday, Sept. 8, and runs through Nov. 27; museum admission $12 ($9 for seniors, free for children 18 and under and students with valid ID). Info: (626) 449-6840. Nortonsimon.org