Friday, May 28, 2010

Hearse Evolution

The hearse has evolved from the simple hand-cart or ox-cart which moved bodies to the graveyard or charnel house in centuries past. It was not originally used in a ceremonial fashion, but was a necessary function of cleaning up the city, especially during the Great Plague.

The hearse eventually evolved into an elaborately decorated carriage which gave a funeral procession some gravity and the deceased some sense of notoriety. In most cases it was the most luxurious vehicle that the deceased would have ever traveled in. Of course, the early versions were horse drawn carriages with decorations that migrated from the carriage to the horses and drivers themselves.


When the automobile entered the scene, the carriage style remained the same, but with a driver and engine stuck on the front. This 1919 Sayers and Scovill Hearse was built by the S&S Coach Company. This company has a history that dates back to 1876 and continues into modern times as a manufacturer of hearses and limousines. This 1919 Sayers & Scovill Hearse has a carrying compartment that is completely hand carved. This car has been restored to its original condition after having traveled only 19,000 miles while the car was in service.

Luxury and style were paramount. Many were over the top when it came to making an impression on the attending mourners.

Here's an odd one. This 1941 Cadillac cathedral window hearse is one of the ONLY surviving J.C. Little built hearses in existence. John Little built his coaches out of a small shop in Ontario, Canada.

From my own archive, I have some old copy negatives from a funeral home in central Canada. The hearses in the photos evolved as did the family cars of the day.

 ca 1910 -- Winnipeg, Manitoba
ca 1940's  -- Winnipeg, Manitoba
ca 1954  --  Winnipeg, Manitoba

I also bought a pair of great car models of the classic North American designs of the 20th century. A Cadillac hearse from 1938 and another Caddie from around 1950. Lots of fun. Complete with little empty caskets and the folding casket truck they ride on. The hood and all doors open. From a low camera angle, the car can be made to look fairly convincing.

A contemporary British funeral coach fleet may look like this:

....but may still offer a traditional horse drawn hearse like this:

In Japan, the Tokyo-style hearse with a Buddhist-style temple-back is one of the many local types of funeral coaches used today.

A fun website which shows how a horse-drawn carriage hearse is built as a working and accurate Halloween prop, is HERE.  Other great Hearse sites include: The Classic Hearse Register, Bennett Funeral Coaches (photo album), and a seven page article on How Stuff Works.  A good collection of hearse photos can be found HERE.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bones - Bones - Bones - For Art's Sake

Bones have been used decoratively since prehistoric times. The use of a human bone is usually linked to a ceremonial connection with the dead rather than just a pragmatic use of a hard material.

I've posted images of carved Tibetan skulls here before. These religious/ceremonial treatments are many and varied, so I won't go into that here. Instead, I want to concentrate on bones manipulated for purely aesthetic reasons, even if they are located in a religious context (as in a church or catacomb).

One of the older forms of decoration with bones could be the ossuaries and arranged catacombs found throughout the world. They seem to be a relatively recent phenomenon, a solution to overcrowded grave sites or burial vaults within the last few centuries. The Paris Catacombs are probably the most well known.

Quarries under the city of Paris were used to store the bones removed from overcrowded surface cemeteries in the 18th century. Once moved there, the bones were arranged into patterns, retaining walls, and displays complete with text plaques. These arrangements were more for expediency and tidiness than for some greater aesthetic endeavor. The Viscount of Thury, the quarries' general inspector from 1808 to 1831, was in charge of giving these anonymous residents a dark and gloomy decorum. This Daily Motion site has some good video, presented in French. A really good first hand description by Jeff Belanger can be found here in English. For visitor information go to the official (but drab) Paris Catacomb website. You can also take a virtual tour here.

One of the most well known decorative sites is the Sedlec Ossuary (a.k.a. Kostnice), a small Christian chapel decorated with human bones. It's located in Sedlec, a suburb in the outskirts of the Czech town Kutna Hora. See the Official Sedlec website or go to Frisco Ramirez's site,  where there is a great collection of images and information. There are also more photographs on this other site.

Another ossuary associated with the church is Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome, where the crypts of Capuchin monks are decorated with the bones of over 4000 friars. This site has some photos, too.

 The Atlas Obscura has a page with links to many more of these kind of sites. Well worth the exploration.

Contemporary artists who use human skeletal remains in their art are doing so fully aware that the knowledge of the bones being human makes a huge difference in how viewers respond to an art work. A good example is the sculptural work of Wayne M. Belger. He has used the human skulls to make elaborate, bejeweled, and fully operational pin-hole cameras. The idea of reactivating the third eye of a skull to create a photographic image is a powerful allusion.

Of course the most ostentatious example of a human skull used in an artwork is Damian Hurst's 2007 For The Love of God, a £50 million ($100 M) encrustation with 8601 diamonds set in platinum on an 18th Century human skull. The large diamond on the forehead is worth £4 million by itself.

What can one say.... For reviews and more information go to these links: White CubeMail Online, and Reuters. Or watch this video:

When I was in New York in 2007, I came across a small exhibition in Chelsea which included a series of similarly treated skulls, but from the 1980's. So Mr. Hurst was certainly not the first to go this route; he just carried it to the extreme. These skulls were half-covered with semi-precious stone, ball bearings, diodes, coral, and with glass eyes. Unfortunately I don't remember whose work this is. (Can anyone help me?) There were other skull and bone related pieces in the exhibition, but they were bronze casts or drawings.

This artist (below) who arranges bones into provocative assemblages is also unknown to me. (I can't find the name associated with these images ... anyone??) The politicized nature of this work makes it seem fairly recent. I am not sure that they are real bone or just casts, but the effect is the same here in reproduction. Being in front of the actual pieces to see if they were real human bone would take the work to another level.

These examples have a precedent from the 1930's, a Surrealist piece by Wolfgang Paalen. "The surrealist use of bones as material in connection with war and destruction becomes evident in Wolfgang Paalen's 1938 bone pistol Le Genie de l'Espece, dating from the eve of the Second World War (see below). In this work, chicken bones simulate the shape of the deadly weapon in the moulded trough of a velvet-lined pistol casket. Cause and effect seem to be coalesced in a matrix - the bones, arranged as a fantastic firearm, present death as the deliberate intention and inevitable result of the use of weaponry and are thus meant as an unmistakable warning of conflict resolution by force." [text by Sebastian Hackenschmidt from Image & Narrative, Issue 13, Nov. 2005; image © Stiftung Wolfgang und Isabel Paalen, Mexico]

If you are an aspiring bone artist, where can one find human bones? I mean legally...
EBay professes to not allow the sale of human parts, yet has a fair amount of human bones for sale, as long as they are "for study", or they originate "from medical/scientific collections". A commercial source outside of the expensive scientific/medical supply world is The Bone Room.

I was quite disturbed, however to see the guys in the TV show, Mythbusters making test heads cast in ballistic gelatin with real human skulls inside in order to see if everything shattered on impact when frozen with liquid nitrogen as in a popular movie. (see clip: Shattering Heads at the bottom of the list) Using human bones for fine art, memorials, or for medical or scientific study is one thing, but by being for entertainment, this seems to have crossed a line that I am not willing to cross.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mummy's Day

Today, on Mothers' Day, I thought I would explore mummies, both the traditional Egyptian type, and the naturally mummified type. There is a big difference between the ceremonial treatment of the dead through religious mummification ceremonies and the natural processes that can occur in arid or accidental situations. A case in point might be the child mummies of Peru and Chile or, as a sub category of inadvertent cadaver preservation, the bog people (and animals) found in Northwestern Europe, Britain and Ireland.

Let's start with a pair of 19th century albumen photographs taken of Ramses I, which I purchased on eBay. This mummy was stolen by grave robbers and brought to North America around 1860. It ended up in in the Niagara Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Ontario for 130 years before going to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, then in 2003, back to Egypt at the Luxor Museum. These photographs seem to have been made very near the time of discovery, since the mummy looks "fresh" and undisturbed. [click on image to enlarge]

When you compare these to a more contemporary image likely made at the Niagara Museum, there is certainly evidence that the body had been repaired or "retouched", to say the least.

In Chile and Peru and along the Andes, are found mummies of usually sacrificial offerings, often children, nestled high on mountaintops or in dry caves. Wrapped in fabrics, they are naturally dessicated and preserved with astounding naturalness. While the Egyptian mummies were eviscerated and embalmed in a warm climate, the Andean mummies were simply placed in a rocky cave to protect them from scavengers. The cold, arid mountaintop did the rest. The 15-year old "Llullaillaco Maiden" was sacrificed more than 500 years ago along with two other children on top of Mt. Llullaillaco in northern Argentina, at 22,000 feet.

The Chachapoya mummies of Peru were found in caves and are also over 500 years old (above, right).

Northwestern Europe, the British Isles and Ireland are known for their extensive peat bogs. When peat was being harvested, many cadavers and artifacts were found deep within the layers of old peat. Organic material was especially well preserved, one could say pickled. Leather, fabric, wood, animals, and people were unearthed and placed in collections throughout the region. An extensive and wonderful website about the bog people can be found HERE.

In many cases there is evidence of human sacrifice or simply murder.
Left, is the preserved corpse of the Tollund Man, with the noose used to hang him still around his neck. Many were strangled, but one unfortunate man was killed by at least three different means. The nature of his death was violent, perhaps ritualistic; after a last meal of charred bread, Lindow Man was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat was cut.

There are many examples of deliberate human preservation, such as the extensive embalming and restoration performed on Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Evita Peron. However, few are as grotesque as the preservation of Julia Pastrana (b. 1834), a Mexican First Nations circus performer with hypertrichosis. Theodor Lent managed her and eventually married her. During a tour in Moscow in 1860, Pastrana gave birth to a baby with features similar to her own. The child survived only two days, and Pastrana died of post-birth complications five days later. Lent then had his wife and son mummified and displayed them in a glass cabinet. A detailed essay on her life and horrific after-life can be found at The Human Marvels.