Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Memento Mori

You might be asking yourself, why is this girl chilling with a skeleton?

Well, here’s the thing. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been attending a class at Spring Street Studio. That’s one of the places I usually go for drop-in figure drawing sessions, but this is actually a class (sorta), focusing on human anatomy. These drawings are from the first session I went to. Minerva Durham, the instructor, had us draw the full female figure posed with a skeleton, explaining to us that this type of image was called “Memento Mori.”

Memento mori is a Latin phrase which translates as “Remember you must die.” It supposedly derives from ancient Rome, when military generals would, during their victory parades, be trailed by one of their slaves who would be tasked with repeating this phrase to him as a means of reminding him that although this was his day of glory, his eventual death might come at any time. I can imagine that that would be a job a slave would secretly relish. “Remember you must die, muthafucka. Thas right.”

As an artistic genre, it initially came to prominence in Christian art and architecture, as a humbling reminder of the transience of earthly existence.  As the early Christian theologian Tertullian wrote in Apolegeticus: "Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!": "Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you'll die!" Tertullian was a real buzzkill at parties. You will see this theme in much creepy Medieval and Renaissance Christian art, including cadaver tombs, chapels made of bones, portraits of people holding skulls, and the genre of danse macabre. Here’s some examples:

Hans Holbein, 1538

Hans Memling, 1485
Thomas Smith self-portrait, ca. 1680

This class exercise did not have any theological point; it was merely to get us to visualize the placement and movement of bone structure in the figure. But I had never heard of this phrase or this whole category of artistic tradition. If only I had received training in the arts at an elite Ivy League school, then I would know these things!             Oh, wait . . . No, the visual arts program that granted me a degree didn’t teach me about momento mori. But they didn’t teach me human anatomy, either, so there you go.


By the way, she was not posing with a model skeleton. Rather, there was a second model, an older man, who we were  to visually translate into skeletal form. I believe he was the same as this model, who I drew in a sketchpad some years ago.


Speaking of Death . . .

Two days ago, Joe Kubert passed away at the age of 85. Every comic book reader must know who he is. He began drawing comics professionally at the age of 12 in 1938, the year Superman debuted, and was still working to this day. In fact, a new anthology of his work had just been announced a few weeks ago. So he had been an artistic presence in American comics for literally its entire history, and if you’ve looked at a rack of comic books at any point in the past 74 years, you’d have seen his work. There are still a few guys from the Golden Age years who show up at conventions to sell sketches and prints and memorabilia, but I can’t think of anyone else from that period who is still actively working.

Kubert had a very distinct style. Even as a child, before I was really aware of individual artists, I could identify a Kubert cover. His compositions were dynamic and fluid. His figures were classically idealized – tall and muscular men and curvaceous women – but his sketchy linework rendered them sinewy and organic. Even his superheroes seemed more grounded than those of other artists. For this reason, he seemed more at home with more realistic genres, particularly the war stories with which he became most identified. Some of the earliest comics I remember were drawn by him. I distinctly remember these covers of Tarzan, as well as the cover to the deeply weird “Super Dictionary.”

I never really had a lot of Kubert work in my collection. By the time I was really into comics, he was mostly doing war comics like Sgt. Rock and Enemy Ace, which weren’t my thing. But I always really dug his art when I saw it. In recent years, he had written and illustrated a couple of graphic novels. I thought his writing was, well, not so good, but they were still great to look at. Like I said, he was still going strong producing material, and there was no public indication that he was in poor health, so despite his age it was a surprise to hear the news of his death. Rest in peace, Joe Kubert, and momento mori, everybody.

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