Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Pantheon for the Counts of Buenavista in Malaga: Guest Post by Felipe Trigo Redondo


Our friend Felipe Trigo Redondo (aka "Kaiser Noir")--historian, tour guide, co-organizer of the Barcelona Congress of Curious Peoples and director of Kriminal Kabarett--just sent in the following guest post about, in his own words, "the most spectacular piece of funerary art from all the Spanish Baroque era: the Pantheon for the Counts of Buenavista!" All photos by Angel Trullen; hope you enjoy!
The Pantheon for the Counts of Buenavista in Malga
By Felipe Trigo Redondo
On a journey to Andalusia, the extreme south of the Iberian peninsula, the traveler will always be surrounded by the echoes of an astounding past, between the brightness of transcendental moments for the whole humanity (the superb arts patronized by the Arabian princes and the strength of the poets from the 20th century) and the darkness of terrible cataclysms, such as the medieval wars, the coming of the Inquisition and the "last Crusade": the Spanish Civil War.

Malaga, founded by the Phoenicians and one of the oldest cities in the Mediterranean, is the paradigm of this tragic sense of life in this land praised during Antiquity as the end of the world, the country beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Indeed, the death is omnipresent in the religious beliefs and thoughts of the Andalusian people. We are going to see in depth how these people expressed this collective state of mind during the end of the 17th century, introducing the most spectacular piece of funerary art from all the Spanish Baroque era: the Pantheon for the Counts of Buenavista.

Before the catastrophic fall of Malaga in 1487 (the Christians enslaved all the Muslim inhabitants in the city) the king Fernando V settled his military quarters outside the city walls. After the defeat of the Muslims, this place was consecrated to Our Lady of Victory ("Nuestra Señora de la Victoria") and soon a sanctuary was built to commemorate this day. Malaga, would never recover its former splendor as the main port for the kingdom of Granada. Towards the middle of the 17th century, the disastrous wars for the Spanish monarchy, the economic crisis, plagues and famines devastated the country. This dramatic situation shaped the spirit of pessimism that influenced arts and literature during this time, which was paradoxically, the Golden Age for the Spanish culture.
The church of "Nuestra Señora de la Victoria," built in the Gothic style, was almost ruined in 1680. However, this religious complex would achieve its definitive glory due to the intervention of Juan Francisco Guerrero y Chavarino (1660-1699) a banker from a family of merchants. He supported the Spanish monarchy with his own funds and, for this reason, was appointed governor of Antequera and then ennobled and named count of Buenavista. With an immense fortune, he settled in Malaga to live in a luxurious palace which is today the Pablo Picasso Museum.

As a new aristocrat, he joined the tradition of the most powerful men in Andalucia, being the patron of the sanctuary of "Nuestra Señora de la Victoria," restoring the temple and building his extraordinary museum under the apotheosis of the Virgin. Following the structure of a tower, the count placed his tomb in the lowest level, an oratory in the middle and the sacred chamber for the Virgin on the top, as the church's main altar. This work forms a whole masterpiece as a total allegory of death and resurrection. It is also a political manifesto as a victory against the Devil and the enemies for the Catholic Church.
The pantheon itself is an esoteric treatise carved in stone. The vault is sustained by two massive columns, the symbolic connection between the afterlife and the Paradise. The decoration is extremely complex. The figures in plaster were executed under the direction of Felipe de Unzurrunzaga (1654-1740), the most important Baroque architect in the city of Malaga. He began this work in 1689, under the influence of the macabre art from the funerary chapels in Messina and Palermo, two cities already visited by him and then under Spanish control. A constellation of skulls and bones shines in the black ceiling, while a grotesque Spanish version of the European "Totentanz", the Dance of Death, occupies the walls. All the topics on death in the literature of the Spanish Golden age (very usual for writers as Quevedo, Calderón de la Barca, Gracián) are encircling the tombs for the count and his wife. We also can see the Roman "Parcae,” female personifications of Destiny, often called the Fates in English. The skeletons are holding mirrors to reflect the mortality and the last fate of humankind.
In the words of Juan Temboury (an historian who studied in depth this church) the pantheon for the counts of Buenavista is the definitive depiction of the three states or ages which every human being should follow, from penitence and abstinence to the absolute vision of God. The sumptuous figures in the tombs, dressed in the lavish courtesan fashion, are portraits of the young counts praying in the darkness. This is a perfect example of two literary topics: "Tempus Fugit" and "Carpe Diem" because, despite his economic power and splendorous style of life, the count died quite young, just after the completion of his mausoleum. A gilded cross was erected between the two aristocrats, symbolizing the path to salvation through the Christian alchemy, from the absolute darkness to the divine gold.
Leaving the tenebrous vault, the visitor takes the staircase to the oratory (a chapel of severe austerity) and then the Virgin’s sacred chamber, where a Gothic German sculpture of Holy Mary presides the scene. Here, the sacred trip is completed for the devout souls of the count and his wife, ascending to the ecstasy in the contemplation of God’s Mother. The decoration is an absolute catharsis in baroque style, with elements from botanic and heraldic inspiration (the imperial coat of the Spanish monarchy is also included). This is an extraordinary ensemble which has been identified as the Virgin’s garden in Heaven. The mirrors are also present, but this time reflecting the light of immortality, in an explosion of the last possibilities of baroque art, a genuine Spanish style called “churrigueresco.” This triumph over Death and the demonic forces of sin is a parallel version of Saint James enthroned in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, also in the same style “churrigueresco.”
Death was always present in the collective conscience of the Andalusian people. The pantheon for the counts of Buenavista is the last jewel of Spanish funerary baroque, preceded by the morbid paintings by Claudio Coello in the “Hospital de la Caridad” in Sevilla, also a religious foundation sustained by a wealthy merchant. Today, the pantheon is being discovered by curious travelers from around the world and they even have the possibility to visit the crypt during the night by candlelight, as did the count himself, contemplatin the realms of death. This place has been chosen as one of the marvels in the city of Malaga by art connoisseurs and photographers, as Malaga is reaching more and more notoriety for its cultural activity and its iconic museums and collections. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Collector's Cabinet Exhibition and Preview Party! The Anatomy of Hysteria! Svengali (1931) 16mm Screening with Victrola! This Week and Beyond at Morbid Anatomy



We have exciting news and many new events to announce!

Fist, please note that the exhibition space will be closed through Saturday January 24th as we install our next exhibition The Collector's Cabinet. This exhibition--on view through March 29, 2015--will be the first of a series showcasing extraordinary objects hidden in private collections, with captions written by the collectors themselves.
Our first iteration will feature a dozens of astounding, rarely scene curiosities drawn from the holdings of nearly thirty private collectors. Just a few of the artifacts you will see: a two-faced kitten prepared by eccentric Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter (top image); an enormous 16th century painting depicting a witches' gathering (second image down); The 5-volume Physica Sacra (third image down), a lavishly illustrated 18th century extravaganza of art, science, mysticism, and all worldly knowledge; sacred heart devotional artifacts; Weimar erotica; 19th century spirit photos; 19th century danse macabre figures; a human tattoo in a jar; and much, much more! To find out more, click here.
The exhibit will launch this Friday, January 23rd with a special preview party in which many collectors will be on hand to introduce and activate their incredible pieces. Joanna Ebenstein (Morbid Anatomy founder, co-author of Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy) will introduce us to Carol Holzner and her Walter Potter two-faced kitten. Evan Michelson (Obscura Antiques, Oddities) will share the surprising and inspiring tale of Georges’s prosthetic arms. Tracy Hurley Martin (Morbid Anatomy Museum Board Chair) will page through her phenomenal Physica Sacra. Mike Zohn (Obscura Antiques, Oddities) will share the fascinating history of his anthropomorphic squirrel fairground scene once on view at the Cress Funeral Home; Ryan Cohn (Oddities) will demonstrate the inner workings of an exploded (or "Beauchene") human skeletal preparation. There will also be wine and cheese, music by DJ in residence Friese Undine, and a slideshow of photos by Joanna Ebenstein of extraordinary private collections from around the world. More info--and tickets--can be found here.
 

We also have scores of other wonderful upcoming events, a full list of which follows. We very much hope to see you at one or more!
If you like what we do, please consider becoming a member (with all that entails) by clicking here, or making a tax deductible donations via our fiscal sponsor Brooklyn Arts Council here.

NEWLY ANNOUNCED EVENTS
  • Winged Rats and Guinea Pigs Taxidermy Class with Katie Innamorato. 
    Sunday, February 22nd, 12pm - 6pm, $225, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Mammal Heads Taxidermy Class with Katie Innamorato.
    Sunday, March 22nd,12pm - 6pm, $400, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Anthropomorphic Rabbit Taxidermy Class with Divya Anantharaman.
    Saturday, April 18th, 12pm - 6pm, $300, Ticket (and more info) here

IMMEDIATELY UPCOMING EVENTS
  • Shrouds Then and Now: An Affectionate History of Winding Sheets and Burial Garments. An Illustrated Lecture by Amy Cunningham 
    Monday, January 19, 8pm, $8, Tickets (and more info) 
    here
  • Miniatures, Models, and Magic in Ancient Egypt An Illustrated Lecture with Ava Forte Vitali 
    Thursday, January 22nd, 8pm, $8, Tickets (and more info) 
    here
  • 2-Faced Kittens and Exploded Human Skeletons: The Morbid Anatomy Collector's Cabinet Preview Party: Exclusive preview and wine and cheese reception with collectors and curators demonstrating and sharing their pieces 
    Friday, January 23, 8PM, $40/$25 Members, Tickets (and more info) here

HANDY LIST OF ALL UPCOMING EVNETS
  • Shrouds Then and Now: An Affectionate History of Winding Sheets and Burial Garments. An Illustrated Lecture by Amy Cunningham 
    Monday, January 19, 8pm, $8, Tickets (and more info) 
    here
  • Miniatures, Models, and Magic in Ancient Egypt An Illustrated Lecture with Ava Forte Vitali Thursday, January 22nd, 8pm, $8, Tickets (and more info) here
  • 2-Faced Kittens and Exploded Human Skeletons: The Morbid Anatomy Collector's Cabinet Preview Party: Exclusive preview and wine and cheese reception with collectors and curators demonstrating and sharing their pieces Friday, January 23, 8PM, $40/$25 Members, Tickets (and more info) here
  • The Anatomy of Hysteria: Clinical Collaborations and Coercions in 19th Century Paris  Part I: Creating the Perfect Hysterical Specimen: Illustrated Lecture with Asti Hustvedt, author of Medical Muses, Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris
    Wednesday, January 28th, 8pm, $8 ($20 for the 3 Lectures on Hysteria), Tickets (and more info) here  
  • Anthropomorphic Mouse Taxidermy Class: Night Time Edition
    Thursday, January 29th, 7pm-10.30pm, $110.00 (one-headed) / $125.00 (two-headed), Tickets (and more info)
     here
  • Diagnosis, Madness: The Photographic Physiognomy of Hugh Welch Diamond: An Illustrated Lecture with Dr. Sharrona Pearl, Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania
    Tuesday, February 3rd, 8pm, $8, Tickets (and more info) 
    here
  • The Anatomy of Hysteria: Clinical Collaborations and Coercions in 19th Century Paris  Part II: The Photographic Iconography of Hysteria: Illustrated lecture with Asti Hustvedt, author of Medical Muses, Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris
    Wednesday, February 4th, 8pm, $8 ($20 for the 3 Lectures on Hysteria), Tickets (and more info) here
  • Victorian Hair Art Workshop with Master Jeweler Karen Bachmann
    Saturday, February 7th, 11am - 6pm, $150 and includes admission to the Art of Mourning, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Chipmunk Taxidermy Class with Divya Anantharaman
    Sunday, February 8th, 12-6pm, $185, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Morbid Curiosity : A Morbid Anatomy Single's Night One Year Anniversary Party!
    Tuesday, February 10th, 8pm, $15, Tickets (and more info) here
  • The Anatomy of Hysteria: Clinical Collaborations and Coercions in 19th Century Paris  Part III: Hysterical Demons and Pathological Saints: Illustrated Lecture with Asti Hustvedt, author of Medical Muses, Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris
    Wednesday, February 11th, 8pm, $8 ($20 for the 3 Lectures on Hysteria), Tickets (and more info) 
    here
  • Tottenham Ayatollah: Screening and discussion with journalist and film-maker Jon Ronsonauthor of ThePsychopath TestNight 5 of “The Jon Ronson Adventures” 
    Thursday, February 12th, 8pm, $15, Tickets (and more info) 
    here 
  • Friday the 13th : A Celebration of Superstitions Web Series Screening, Lecture and Launch Party with Morbid Anatomy Film-maker in Residence Ronni Thomas and Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America
    Friday, February 13th, 8pm, $13, Tickets (and more info) 
    here ($20 for Double Feature with Love Cults Valentine's Day Lecture, February 14)
  • Anthropomorphic Insect Shadowbox Workshop: Valentine Day's Special with Daisy Tainton
    Saturday, February 14th, 1 – 4pm, $75, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Love Cults, Drugs and the Hypnotic Arts: A Valentine's Day Illustrated Lecture and Rare Film Screening with Mel Gordon, author of Voluptuous Panic and Grand Guiginol
    Saturday February 14th, 8pm,
     $12, Tickets (and more info) here ($20 for Double Feature with Superstition Party, February 13)
  • Fancy Chicken Taxidermy Class with Divya Anantharaman
    Sunday, February 15th, 12-6pm, $400, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Death Through the Microscope: La Bohème: A Portrait of Today’s Oceans in Peril An Illustrated Lecture and Screening with Science Artist Mara G. Haseltine
    Monday February 16th, 8pm, $8, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Abandoned NYC: A Presentation by Urban Explorer Will Ellis
    Wednesday, February 18th, 8pm, $8, Tickets (and more info) here
  • The American Tattooed Ladies: 1840-2015: An Illustrated Lecture with Anni Irish
    Thursday, February 19th, 8pm, $8, Tickets (and more info) here 
  • Boneyards: A Solo Performance by Jeffrey Stanley
    Friday February 20th, Friday February 27th, Friday March 6th, 8pm, $20, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Winged Rats and Guinea Pigs Taxidermy Class with Katie Innamorato. 
    Sunday, February 22nd, 12pm - 6pm, $225, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Ethel Spector Person: Exploring the Intersection of Love, Sex, Power and Gender: An Illustrated Lecture with Jennifer McGillan, Archivist at the Augustus C. Long Library of Columbia University Medical Center
    Tuesday, March 3rd, 8pm, $8, Tickets (and more info) 
    here
  • Whimsical Taxidermy in 19th Century Design: An Illustrated Lecture and Show and Tell with John Whiteknight, author Under Glass, introduced and Moderated by Melissa Milgrom, author of Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy
    Thursday, March 19th, 8:00 PM, $8, Tickets (and more info) 
    here 
  • Anthropomorphic Mouse Taxidermy Class with Divya Anantharaman, Taxidermist in Residence
    Saturday, March 21st, 12pm – 5pm, $110 one headed/$125 two headed, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Mammal Heads Taxidermy Class with Katie Innamorato. 
    Sunday, March 22nd,12pm - 6pm, $400, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Fancy Pigeon Taxidermy Class with Divya Anantharaman, Taxidermist in Residence
    Saturday, March 28th, 12 to 6pm, $275, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Svengali, and the Sexual Anxieties of the Anti-Semite: 16 mm Screening, with a short introduction by Filmmaker Joel Schlemowitz as well as Trilby-themed cocktails and pre- and post-screening 78 records on the Victrola 
    Tuesday, April 14th, 8pm, $8, Tickets (and more info) here
  • Anthropomorphic Rabbit Taxidermy Class with Divya Anantharaman. 
    Saturday, April 18th, 12pm - 6pm, $300, Ticket (and more info) here
Images: 
  1. Two-faced kitten prepared by the famously eccentric 19th century taxidermist Walter Potter; from the collection of Carol Holzner. Photo: Chris Bradley
  2. The Witches' Cove, Follower of Jan Mandijn (16th Century), oil on panel; from the collection of Jennifer Butkevich
  3. Homo ex Humo ('man from the ground', or 'dust'), Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer's Physica Sacra; from the collection of Tracy Hurley Martin
  4. Sacré-Coeur de Jésus, anonymous, French? 18th century, embossed metallic gold and red felt over embossed die-cut linen card, Collection of Peter N. Névraumont

Oh Santo Niño Doctor! A Guest Post by Entomologist in Residence Daisy Tainton

Following is a guest post by our entomologist in residence Daisy Tainton about one of the most enigmatic vernacular saints we encountered in Mexico: the lavishly eyelashed Santo Niño Doctor!
Oh Santo Niño Doctor!
Right my wrongs and
Forgive my sins.


This is the prayer on the back of a pamphlet about St. Dr. Baby that I found in a church in Zacatecas, Mexico.

As I write this, it has not been long since my statuette of Santo Niño Doctor flung himself from a low bookshelf in my bedroom and shattered. Was he sick of me? Was he full of my sins and wrongs, such that I no longer need him? Or should I not have put him in the bedroom, considering his youth and purity level?

During the Morbid Anatomy field trip to Mexico in 2014 for Day of the Dead, many of us noticed and were captivated by an unusual demi-saint in the pantheon. Occasionally nestled among the more typical Jesus and Virgin statues, there was a child with dark hair and wide eyes, usually seated on a particular chair with three rays of light radiating from his head, a cushion under his feet, and a Doctor's white coat.

Juarez Market in Monterey yielded a lovely molded plastic statuette of Doctor Baby, or SDB, with lovely false eyelashes and a wide, caring expression. A man with a buzz cut and tattoos all the way up to his eyeballs sold him to me, after extricating him with incredulity from a case crowded with likenesses of the Virgin, Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte(the latter two especially beloved by the criminal and marginalized elements to which this market evidently catered). Lots of neck tattoos and thick accents in these parts. An older woman with a bag of bundled herbs asked if my friend and I were scared to be there, but I believe we made it clear that nothing seemed threatening below the surface. She demanded to know why we liked Santa Muerte, and said this saint is bad. SDB on the other hand was a saint she could get behind. She nodded her approval of my little statue.

Santos of this sort, smacking of idolatry, have a long tradition in Mexican Catholicism. This spritely saint is actually an alternate Jesus, as he began as a statue of the holy infant that was taken by a nun to a hospital and eventually, in mascot-like fashion, dressed as a child-doctor. The baby Jesus, robed in white hospital garments and accessorized with a stethoscope and black doctor's bag, became a separate entity known as SDB. The infirm, their relatives and loved ones pray to him for health and swore that he provided results. Eventually a cult-like following sprang up, with a yearly procession and celebration in his honor.
Images:
  1.  Cover of Santo Niño Doctor prayer book
  2.  Santo Niño Doctor statuette in Mexico
  3. Santo Niño Doctor statuette belonging in author's home
  4.  Santo Niño Doctor statuette in Mexico City
  5. Santo Niño Doctor earrings made by the author

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Vesalius: Imagining the Body Exhibition, Leuven, Belgium: A Guest Post by Michael Sappol, National Library of Medicine


Following is another guest post by our good friend Michael Sappol--author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies, curator of Dream Anatomy, and historian at the National Library of Medicine--about an excellent looking exhibition in Leuven:
I recently had the privilege of participating in a brilliant three-day international conference on “Bodies Beyond Borders: The Circulation of Anatomical Knowledge, 1750-1950”.  The symposium — a smart mix of well-established scholars and new talent — was held in Leuven, Belgium, an ancient city full of charmingly twisted cobblestone streets and alleys. In the central square, the old town hall is covered from top to bottom with hundreds of stone figures. It’s a “where’s Waldo” exercise to spot anybody in particular, but one of the figures is the founder of modern anatomy, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). Vesalius twice studied at the University of Leuven (1530, 1536) before going on to Padua, where he performed dissections, gave lectures, wrote treatises and authored De humani corporis fabrica (1543), the first great illustrated atlas of anatomy.

Leuven also has a wonderful art museum: “M-Museum”. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of Vesalius’s birth, M has put on a brilliant show of anatomical art and objects. As one might expect, there are first editions of Vesalius, along with a register from the 1530s that lists Vesalius as one of the students enrolled in the university. But the exhibition goes from there right up to the present, and features many rare and amazing drawings, paintings, prints, models, sculptures, even the first x-ray “cinematograph” (1898). Highlights for me: Clemente Susini’s exquisite wax sculpture of a dissected cadaveric head (4th image down; 1798); Jan Wandelaar’s bigger than life-size sketches for Albinus’s Tabulae sceleti et musculorum (ca. 1726); a brilliantly hand-colored engraving of a 17th-century Dutch anatomical theater (bottom image); and… (Actually, I loved almost everything on display, and also love the way it was displayed. Congratulations to curator Geert Vanpaemel!)

You probably wish you could go to Leuven to see this show, but you can’t: it closes on January 18. (Boo-hoo.) (Sob.)
Following is more info about the exhibition, from the M-Museum website; you can find out more by clicking here.
From THU 02/10 until SUN 18/01
M-Museum Leuven
Leopold Vanderkelenstraat 28, 3000 Leuven
Curator: Geert Vanpaemel
The exhibition at M is the beating heart and the must see highlight of the citywide project, both for Vesalius experts and novices.

The exhibition highlights various and unexpected sides of Vesalius. You can admire the original version of the voluminous book 'Fabrica' or page through the digital version. Discover all about his life, work and life's work, from his humanist background to his direct influence on his contemporaries.

Discover how Greek sculpture inspired Vesalius, walk among detailed anatomical sketches and wax statues, and meet the famous Glass Man. Be amazed by the 'living' dead who candidly reveal what is concealed under their skin and experience how Vesalius' anatomical knowledge lives on in art and science. For example, even Rodin and Matisse were inspired by Vesalius' muscle men.

The exhibition presents a life-sized replica of an anatomical theatre – the place where live dissections were once performed. The exhibition also focuses on the evolution of medical imaging over the past 500 years. You can see how anatomy developed into a fully-fledged branch of medicine and how the human body gradually revealed its secrets over the centuries. Thanks to the possibilities that 3D modelling now provide, you can also explore the medical science of the future.

Vesalius will get under the skin of all the visitors to M, that much is certain. But you will also be captivated by the other cultural projects related to the world-famous anatomist. So come prepared!
Images:
  1. Franz Tschackert, De Glazen man, 1930 © Deutsches Hygiene Museum, Dresden, inv. Volker Kreidler 1962.
  2. Jacques Gautier D'Agoty , compleat Myologie color and natural size, 1746
  3. Andreas Vesalius, De Tabulae Anatomicae, ca. 1540 © Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België, inv. Imp II 42.417 C Est. 
  4. William Pink, Smugglerius, 1834 (orig. 1775)  © Isabelle Arthuis 
  5. Clemente Susini, De innervatie van het gezicht, 1798. © Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, Parijs - Direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.
  6. Waxwork by Clemente Susini and painting  Anatomy Lesson of Dr . Frederik Ruysch by Adriaen Backer © Isabelle Arthuis 
  7. Bust of a woman by André -Pierre Pinson and painting ' Anatomy Lesson of Dr . Frederik Ruysch ' from ' Adriaen Backer © Isabelle Arthuis 
  8. Installation photo, © Isabelle Arthuis 
  9. Anatomical theater, Joannes Blaeu Show Neel of the cities of the Vereenighde, Netherlands, with their descriptions 1649 © Royal Library of Belgium , III 94 530 E 1  

ALERT: The Morbid Anatomy Museum Will be Closed January 17-23 for Install of New Exhibition

Apologies, but the Morbid Anatomy Museum will be CLOSED from January 17-23 for the installation of our new exhibition "Collector's Cabinet," which will open to the public on Saturday January 24th (preview party on Friday, January 23rd; more on that here).

Apologies for any inconvenience!And hope to see you around the museum soon!

"Looking At Death:" A Conversation With Barbara Norfleet : Guest Post by Cristina Preda

We Die and See Beauty Reign by Cristina Preda on Grooveshark
Following is a guest post in which one of our beloved Morbid Anatomy docents, Cristina Preda, delves deeper into one of her favorite books in the Morbid Anatomy Library: Barbara Norfleet's fabulous Looking at Death. In the course of her interview with the author/curator, Norfleet mentioned that she had compiled a tape of death-themed songs to play as accompaniment during the exhibition at Harvard. Inspired by her idea and echoing a couple of her selections, Preda put together a playlist of her own (above); she encourages readers to add their favorite songs about death in the comments.

Looking At Death: A Conversation With Barbara Norfleet
by Cristina Preda 
Photographer, curator, lecturer, and historian Barbara Norfleet’s 1993 book, Looking at Death, which can be found in the research library at Morbid Anatomy, is a collection of black and white photographs spanning more than a century and depicting a vast spectrum of death along with the attitudes surrounding it, from staged death in theater productions and posed Victorian memento moris to crime scene photos, war reportage, and tribal rituals. She was gracious enough to take the time to speak with me from her home in Massachusetts recently just as an all-­too-­short autumn began giving way to cooler temperatures. 
Can you begin by talking a little bit about the book and what the impetus was to create it?
All my photo projects always tend to be something that is sort of new that other people haven’t thought of doing, so I think that was one motivation. But I think the reason I did it is because I was going through all these negatives to set up the archive of candids by professional photographers at Harvard when I took over the role as curator of photography, and it just happened by chance that this whole wealth of material was there for the asking. Professional photographers were just thrilled to be recognized, and they couldn’t have been happier to let me go through all their negatives and take what I wanted. It was in the process of going through negative files on weddings that I found, particularly with the older photographers or second generation photographers, that their files had more pictures of dead people than they did of weddings. If you really go back to the turn of the century I don’t think there was as horrible a feeling about death. The files just were filled with negatives that people had taken of loved ones who had died, and that was for a couple of reasons. One, they saw no reason not to. There was no barrier. And the second thing is, particularly in the beginnings of photography, they did not have a portrait of their loved one so they would take a picture when the person died just to have a memory of them. 
It doesn’t sound like it was too difficult to collect information.
No, it wasn’t difficult, particularly the memento mori pictures. It was much more difficult to collect all the other pictures. For instance, if you take the anthropological pictures of death and the medical pictures, I had to go through enormous archives to pick the ones I would use. The violent death pictures came from medical schools, and I think they had something like 120 volumes. It was the history of crime for a whole period in time.  
In the violent death chapter you talk about how many of the photos you found were a lot more horrifying than the ones that were printed.
When I was younger I used to go to the Oracle meetings for curators. It’s a group of worldwide photographers that got together once a year for three or four days and had meetings about what was going on in the curatorial world of photography. Before I did the death book I brought it up to them because it was so unusual. Nobody had really done a death book except for the one [Stanely] Burns did, and that was about beauty. It wasn’t really about death in the same way mine was in which I tried to show all kinds of death. [His] was a book that might make you sad, but it wouldn’t upset you in any way. When I brought up what I was doing and showed them some of the images I had, an awful lot of curators said that they were too disturbing and I shouldn’t do it, and the head of my department at Harvard said I couldn’t do it unless I also included life. But I did it anyway. 
How long would you say it took from the inception of this idea to actually compiling and publishing the book?
Well, I have a husband and children, and I was teaching at Harvard, running an archive, and doing shows. So, given that, it took as long as it took me to do each book I’ve ever done. It took me about three years. [For the show] what I did, and it was probably one of the most effective things I've ever done, was I made a tape of death music, everything from Bloody Sunday to Requiem to Strange Fruit and spirituals, and that played throughout the whole show. Everyone who came mentioned how important that was. I spent almost as much time making that tape as I did on the show, and a large number of people who came who had just experienced death said the show helped them tremendously. 
Is there a particular time period or historical moment, with regard to its attitudes about death, that you’d like to see explored more today?
It would be interesting to go through why the attitudes changed. When you get up to the 60s, people were still asking professional photographers to photograph everything. It was before everyone had their own camera and took their own pictures. You don’t find [death photos] after that. Those pictures stopped appearing. If you go back to the 19th century, they were much more common than wedding pictures. Wedding pictures were rare, even formal ones. Were people starting to take their own? I don’t think so. In my archive I collected a lot of family scrapbooks, and I never saw a death picture. 
But I do think that we’re beginning to speak about death openly again as a society.
I think there’s a huge movement for a decent death. My feeling is we think death in America is horrible, but we’re beginning to think people have the right to die just as they have right to free speech. 
Where would you like to see that conversation go?
I’d like to see people who were terminally ill be able to die if they wanted to and be helped just as we do with our dogs. Which brings up something you may know the answer to which really has bothered me. 
What’s that?
I’m a dog person. My dog is sitting beside me. I’ve had dogs all my life. When a dog is put to sleep, they inject it and it dies in your arms. It’s so peaceful, it’s just as if it fell asleep. Why haven’t they adopted this when we execute people? They always act like they don’t have another solution. 
I don’t think the people who are for execution intend for it to be peaceful. There’s a big guise that execution isn’t cruel and unusual, but it is cruel and unusual. People suffer greatly. It’s not a slow process.
We certainly have a way of putting people to sleep in a very peaceful way. It seems silly that we don’t use that knowledge when we’re taking somebody’s life away. You’re saying it’s vindictive. We want them to suffer. You’re probably right because the other solution is so easy.
All images from Looking at Death.