As part of a new specialist course called 'Death, autopsy and the law' for fourth-year medical students at Imperial College London, I'm thinking about a session on the representation of death in Western culture.
Daphne Todd's 'Last Portrait of Mother' has just controversially won the BP Portrait Award. The artist spent three days painting her mother after her death. In a very candid interview with the Evening Standard she revealed that members of her family were upset by the painting. For me, the portrait's fascination lies in the tension between the shock of the 'ruined body' and the intimacy of the portrait. There is a very good piece on deathbed portraits by Jonathan Jones here.
Sally Mann's new exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery is also pertinent to this theme. Photography is often characterised as being 'click and go', but Mann uses an antique camera that requires a long exposure time. Her large-scale prints are using gelatin silver, give them a highly atmospheric, 'memento mori' feel.
The exhibition, called 'The Family and the Land', includes photographs from the series 'What Remains'. These are photographs of bodies decomposing in the open air at a research facility in Tennessee where the process of decay is studied. (The 'Body Farm' is well known through Patricia Cornwell's novel of the same name, and there is also a series of Body Farm thrillers by Jefferson Bass.) I was lucky enough to see the exhibition in the company of ethicist Wing May Kong, and our reactions to the 'disturbingness' of individual photographs were very different -- tempered, no doubt, by our different experiences with corpses. Wing May has direct experience of dissection, whereas my frame of reference is mainly cultural.
Both Todd and Mann are artists who feel that we ought to be more upfront about the reality of the dead body. Although there are so many representations of death on our TV screens and in films, it is telling that these artworks still have the power to shock.