Volume 91, Issue 78
Wednesday, February 18, 1998
|ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Finding beauty in death
Montparnasse Cemetary, Paris
By Lisa Weaver
A young woman lies motionless on a platform of cold stone, her hands clasped, the muscles in her back and shoulders slack, yet well-defined. She is wrapped in a thin sheet, her hair tied with a piece of ribbon. Is she sleeping? Or under the spell of death?
Pamela Williams is the Canadian photographer who has captured this young woman's image which is actually carved in stone on print. Williams' exhibit, entitled "Death Divine," consists of numerous black and white photographs, dry mounted on white matte board and framed simply in black. The exhibit is currently on display at Western's MacIntosh Gallery until March 22.
Williams captures the extremely life-like subjects of her photographs between 1991 and 1994 in the cemeteries of Paris, Milan and Rome. These sculptures date back to the 19th century and stand as emblems of death, but also life. "Death Divine" plays with the relationship between desire and death, the conflict between the beauty of life captured in cold stone, a testament of the condition of death.
"I really wasn't intending to photograph in the cemeteries," says Williams, who was actually taking pictures of sculpture in Parisian museums and streets. "Then someone gave me The Permanent Parisian, which is a guide to who's buried where," she says. Williams' interest was captured in the cemeteries of Paris, where the sculpture stands as the French reaction against mass graves. Instead they moved towards more personalized garden cemeteries, which "celebrated life more than death," says Williams.
The photographs were shot in natural light and are full-frame, which means Williams has not cropped them before producing the final image. They have been treated, however, with a chemical which stabilizes the silver in the print, making it brighter and longer lasting. All the photos in the exhibit are archival prints museum quality which will last for hundreds of years. Williams chose to shoot the photographs with black and white film, hoping, she says, "to make them look more like real people," which she certainly succeeds in doing.
Many of the photographs depict innocently pure angelic figures and beautiful, majestic women draped in luxurious fabric. Time has touched these centuries-old sculptures and Williams uses the effect of age creatively in her pieces.
The rendering of the human body in these cemetery sculptures is so true to life that one almost expects lips to speak, hands to move and eyes to open. The placement of the figures in the cemeteries also adds to the realism, as cherubs are seen sitting solemnly alone and a cloaked figure rests wearily against the side of a building. There are reminders, however, that they are pure stone and perhaps of the mortality of the human body. Many of the sculptures depicted are imperfect, cracked and even missing noses and feet.
Williams' pieces bring to light the difference in the way the modern world treats death and mourning. In the 19th century, families commissioned artists to create cemetery sculptures which would celebrate the life of the deceased, or symbolize the family's grief. Figures of mourning angels, shrouded grievers and elaborately-detailed deathbed scenes are all depicted in these sculptures and captured by Williams' lens. The pictures provide an eye-opening view of the contrast between the funeral art of the past and the square blocks of stone used to mark graves today.
"Death Divine" is a series of emotional and moving photographs which express the beauty that can be found in the wake of death. Tomorrow at 12:15 p.m. Pamela Williams will lead a walking tour of her exhibition. Admission is free.
Cimitero di Campo Verano, Rome, Italy
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