The exhibition also shows artistic expressions of grief, which can be very dark or very beautiful.
“The Dead Girl” by Juan Scoriano (1938) is a painting made after the artist came across the decorated body of a deceased child displayed in a large window of a house in Veracruz, Mexico, a common burial practice at the time to announce a death to the community.
Scoriano painted a seemingly serene child surrounded by marigolds, roses, and magnolia blossoms, and also with cotton in the nose to prevent post-mortem excretions.
“Grief is experienced differently by everyone,” said curator Jessica Todd Smith. “Different cultures have different methods and rituals to help people come together as a cultural group to mourn those who have passed away.”
“Elegy,” which opens Saturday, is the first of three loosely related exhibits coming to the Art Museum, which speak to the past two years of pandemic, loss and protest. In three weeks, the museum will open “Waiting for Tear Gas”, an art exhibition linked to public political protest, and “Pictures in Pictures”, featuring works of art that attempt to remember an absence by incorporating a picture in the picture.
“Elegy” was conceived before the pandemic and the subsequent loss of more than 900,000 victims in this country, but the timing is nevertheless opportune.
“While most of the works in the exhibition were made between 1900 and 2000, this historical distance – the ability to look at how artists of the last century tried to commemorate individuals and express their grief – I think helps us to look through that lens to think about the issues we face today,” Smith said.
Smith began working on this exhibit four years ago, in 2018, after the Museum acquired Clarence Lawson’s “His Reward, Emmett Till” (1955-1960), a sculptural piece resembling an Emmett death mask. Till, the 14-year-old black boy. boy whose extremely brutal murder by white men in 1955 reignited a grassroots civil rights movement.
Till’s mother in Chicago insisted on a public funeral and an open casket, to show the world how violently her son had died. About 50,000 people came to watch the viewing.
As a Chicago-based black artist, Lawson was likely one of those 50,000 attendees. His piece is not a recreation of Till’s face, but an abstraction of a face in plaster and painted black, with added paint effects suggesting distress.