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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

David's Death of Marat

As we saw with the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. a few years ago, and 36 years before that, the death of his father, the news media, in its various manifestations, plays an important (some would say too important) part of our national mourning. We are tempted to see this as a recent development until we compare the loss of great men and women today with similar incidents in times past. Perhaps the greatest example of media-centered national mourning occurred with the death of Abraham Lincoln. The media circus went on for close to a year. In studying how culture handles the death of a famous individual, it becomes apparent that only the technology and time frame have changed. The emotions of the moment and the political agendas of those involved do not. Those in a leadership role are determined that the death of every important person "mean" something, and it is the job of the media, and those fueling it's voracious appetite for both facts and image, to tell us what that meaning is.

Death of Marat, 1793,
Jacques-Louis David
In 1793, a very important man died. His name was Jean Paul Marat. He was a leader of the French Revolution. He was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, who plunged a dagger into his chest while Marat while soaking in a medicinal bath. (He was combating a skin disease contracted while hiding from the royal police in the sewers of Paris before the revolution.) Before the body was even cold, the most important artist of the day was called in to sketch the crime scene. His name was Jacques-Louis David (pronounced Dah-veed). The man's body was hardly in its grave before a painting of the dastardly deed was finished and on display for the Paris populace to see. The leaders of the revolution, and David himself, had to give the death "meaning." As the leading classical painter of the day, David was "the media."

Press coverage of Lincoln's funeral, April, 1865
In his own way, David was every bit as effective as the artists who drew for the illustrated weeklies in Lincoln's day or the newsreel and television cameras that led the morning for President Kennedy and later his son. The painting is dramatic, forthright, stark, and simple. It brings to mind Michelangelo's Christ from the Vatican Pieta. The note in Marat's hand, that of his assailant, is exceedingly readable. The wound still bleeds. There is an immense emptiness occupying the entire upper half of the canvas--a voided life left unfulfilled. And just so there will be no doubt, Marat's name is carved into the side of the shipping crate which served as his desk, next to his bathtub. Beneath that is David's signature, printed in simple, Roman letters. It is pure propaganda--art sublimated to current events and political purpose, raising the question as to whether it actually Iis art.  Few of us would consider the Zapruder film, or TV coverage of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald art, yet they are cut from the same cloth as David's Death of Marat.

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