Back when I was studying fine art and design (roughly 1991-93), part of my exam assignment was to study the work of a well known artist. I chose Edvard Munch for no other reason than I loved his painting of The Scream. I also knew a few of his other works such as his Vampire, which depicts a girl with long red hair biting the back of a guy's neck, and his very weird Self Portrait with a Skeleton Arm, and a few others. Along the way I discovered a piece of work by Munch called Death and the Maiden. It was a loose sketch of a nude female embracing a skeleton which appeared to have emaciated flesh on some parts, much like a modern Hollywood zombie. It was probably the likeness to a zombie that initially caught my attention, but being a morbid sod anyway the whole concept of this erotic, near-necrophiliac rendering captured my imagination in an unexpected way.
|Edvard Munch: Death and the Maiden. This painting literally affected my life!|
It wasn't long before I started to discover that the Death and Maiden motif was not exclusive to Munch, but that he was just one of many artists who had tackled this subject. Away from the assignment, I started to look into this motif, which seems to have a depth of meaning so intricate and complex that you could think about it for years.
And that is exactly what I did. I have thought about Death and the Maiden for literally years!
One online source claims that Death and the Maiden had its origins in Greek myth, in the story of Persephone's abduction by Hades, which was a clear preconfiguration of the conflict between Thanatos and Eros. By the 15th century, Death and the Maiden became a morbidly sensual theme based on the Medieval Danse Macabre (Dance of Death), but rather than depicting a female dancing with a robed skeletal figure, this new concept showed the two locked in an erotic embrace. The motif of Death and the Maiden was explored throughout the Renaissance, and survives to this day as a fascinating theme expressed in art, music, theatre, and literature.
Death and the Maiden can mean whatever you want it to mean. It's one of those highly unusual images which allows you to project your own subtext based on your own worldview. For some it is nothing more than a work of perverse pornography showing a healthy young woman engaged in unhealthy thanatophillia. For others it is a work of visual poetry which acts as a reminder that all beauty must die; that beauty, as life, is tragically short. Another slightly more cynical view of the theme considers that all romance is doomed, that there is no "happy ending" in life, while some view it as an expression of not wanting to let go after a bereavement. Some have even described Death and the Maiden as revealing a dark truth about life and about the unbreakable bond between sex and death - that how every act of sex and subsequent birth ends in eventual death - a perpetual cycle of life and death without end, all captured in a simple image.
What makes Death and the Maiden so impressive and important as a motif is that it is always subject to very personal and intimate interpretation, and is one of the most universal themes ever captured in art. No matter what our background or lifestyle or beliefs, we all want love and we are all guaranteed one death. When our time comes, will we embrace the Grim Reaper with such enthusiasm as the Maiden, or will we resist the dark calling into the void?
The Death and the Maiden photo shoot is one that I have been thinking about for a long time. It was possibly one of the most inevitable shoots of my life - a shoot that I just knew I had to do. The legend of Death and the Maiden has been around in my life for a very long time, so it had to come out at some point. The Grim Reaper was the difficult choice to make, whether to go back to old traditions of using a skeleton or get someone to wear a robe. I opted for the robe for the simple fact that the skeleton would only ever look like a life-size medical model and is difficult to pose (as it worked out, the robe was difficult to pose too!).
I made the robe from a decorator's dust sheet, which is made of coarse fabric that frays to hell when you rip it apart and it holds dirt and grime really well. It was dipped into buckets of water and food colouring and paint to make it black. By varying the amount of dips and the type of colourings used, I was able to achieve variety in the tones and create some "depth" in the otherwise flat colour. I didn't want this to look like "zombie cloth", I wanted to make it look ancient, so that meant giving the robes a few mud baths, kicking it through muddy puddles, emptying vacuum cleaner bags over it, and applying a few cobwebs. My wife Claire bravely wore the robe which was alive with bugs and I even spotted a spider crawling around on the hood while she was wearing it.
The scythe used in the shoot is real. It's very old, with a long black handle and an almost-black rusted blade, neither of which showed up on camera very well, so I gave the whole thing a quick spray-paint from a couple of old rattle cans just to bounce some light from it.
The Maiden was a young 19-year-old nude model named Jodie who had all the qualities needed for this image. Youth, innocence, and a slight frame were important but with so many female models sporting awesome tattoo art these days, even the fact that her skin was free of illustrations was essential. I have absolutely nothing against tattoos on females (in fact I kinda love them) but the Maiden required a "visual purity" in order to make her character work in the context of these photos. The Maiden is the muse that inspires these works, so she needs to be a "blank canvas" upon which the viewer can identify their own fears and apply their own meanings about Death.
I did a big shoot and applied a very basic narrative on the theme, based loosely on the idea that the Maiden is seduced by Death and must become Death. Within my narrative, the "old" Death had been reaping souls for many thousands of years and was finally expiring into the great void of nothingness, but in order to do this he must first recruit a new Reaper. He does this in an act of seduction which requires a beautiful, innocent young Maiden to die and fall in love with Death. Once she was bound by this love, she then took on the role of Reaper. Her appearance as the Reaper is still that of a young Maiden, and we see that over the coming millennia her beauty will crumble away as she reaps souls, until eventually she will be a skeletal figure herself. And then the cycle will repeat, as it always does.
Click here to see the full shoot of Death and the Maiden by Horrify Me