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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Tombstone Art

Some of the best carved sculpture to be found today resides,
largely unknown and unappreciated, in large city cemeteries.
It occurred to me today that I don't write as much as I should on sculpture, sculptors, and certainly not the old "hammer and chisel" sculpture from the past. You know, it's hard to overstate the tremendous impact Pablo Picasso had on three-dimensional art the first time he began fastening together various found objects in creating the first Cubist "built" sculptures. From that point on the old-fashioned way of carving images from wood or stone has largely bit the marble dust (or sawdust, if you prefer). It's not that such sculptors no longer exist--they do. It's just that, even with computers, they're not very economically viable artists. The quality of their work today is superb. Their messages and concepts as valid as any in the past. It's just that "subtractive" sculpture is about ten times more demanding (in time and skill) than Picasso's "additive" works utilizing modern materials.
Michelangelo's original plan for the tomb of Pope Julius II.
The tomb was to be freestanding Michelangelo's Dome of
St. Peters Basilica so there were just as many figures
populating the other side.
The tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome.
There's nothing new about that. Michelangelo fought the same battle in planning the tomb of Pope Julius II. Someone pointed out to him that in his drawings he had covered it with so many writhing figures (above), literally carved in stone, that even though he was the fastest stone carver in the world at the time, he could not possibly live long enough to complete them all (and that there was simply no other sculptor who could match his style). Moreover, Julius II would be in need of his tomb long before even two or three of Mich-elangelo's figures could be completed. Poor Julius had to settle for a single, monumental Moses flanked by a half-dozen minor figures, all relegated to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli on the Esquiline Hill in Rome.
One of the most common themes in sepulchral sculpture involves
"Waiting for the Second Coming" (resurrection).
 It's become a long wait.
Although artists, the famous, the wealthy, and all dead popes continued to be buried in churches for another three or four centuries, today the place to go to see some of the most beautiful...also the weirdest, funniest, and most touching carved (and cast in bronze) sculpture is virtually any major cemetery in the large cities in the world (few local cemeteries has much beyond sandblasted plinths). Such urban cemetery sculpture is actually some of the oldest, best-preserved art to be found in "younger" countries such as the United States (top, left). The skull and crossbones was a common motif (as to the temporal nature of life) in pre-colonial cemetery sculpture. Later, in Europe, a common theme (top, right) was "escaping" death.

For mourners also facing a similar wait for the resurrection
of the dead in the final days, this family decreed a pleasant,
living room setting carved from black stone ebony featuring the
oval headstone in place of a TV.
Although mourning and religious themes continue to dominate much of the carved stone sculpture in cemeteries today as in the past, in more recent years other such works are often designed to reflect the profession, personality, personal habits, hobbies, and image of the deceased. Headstones such as that of guitarist and songwriter Johnny Ramone (below), who died in 2004, fulfill most of these thematic elements.

Johnny Ramone's bronze headstone sculpture located in the
Hollywood Forever cemetery is neither the best nor the worst
to be found in many of today's large, park-like cemeteries.
Among spiritual or religious sculpture found in cemeteries around the world today the results range from the soaring inspiration of the young boy escaping from his wheelchair (the memorial designed by his father) to the downright maudlin figure of a weeping nymph or angel seen below at the bottom. Variations of such emotional works are quite often holdovers from the 19th and early 20th centuries before families began personalizing such grave markers.

The mournful figure just above, while reflecting a
heavily emotional theme reminiscent of the 19th-
century, the overall design of the modern seems
very 20th-century in its modern simplicity.
In exploring how far we've come in both our outlook on death, and our taste in sculpture, the two headstone below would seem to proclaim the deceased's love of crossword puzzles (on the left) and heavy-duty cycling (on the right). In case you didn't notice, that's a computer console, carved in marble, in the lower-left corner. All in all, this is heavy-duty stone carving--no sandblasted dates or pithy epitaph's here.

The crossword puzzle marker manages to impart both a personal
liking and a great deal about the one buried beneath it.
From here, things get a little weird...depending upon your taste in tombstones...perhaps a lot weird. The stone grave coverings below seem to be asking the question, "is there sex after death?" Asleep is the marble gravestone of Laurence Matheson (1930-1987), sculpted at the request of his widow by artist Peter Shipperheyn. The grave is located in the Mount Macedon Cemetery of Victoria, Australia. The "barely" clad couple below the Matheson grave appear to be lingering in the afterglow of a sexual encounter, which may be intended to say a lot about their marriage.

Sculptural works such as those above, while dedicated to
physical love relationships, also would seem to invite various
forms of vandalism.
If you think the marble idolization of love pushes the limits of good taste past
most cemetery norms, I've saved the really weird ones until last. Below, we see a late-model stone car carved from a single boulder which, in fact seems to be crushing the car. Below that, the ridiculous image of a man who, for lack of a more appropriate phrase, seems to demand only the freshest of dairy nutrients. Perhaps he was, in fact a dairy farmer; the man with the crushed car an auto dealer battling crushing debt. Or, it could be that both cemetery pieces simply refer to the two men's causes of death.

Weird, stupid, funny, or perhaps the cause of their deaths.
An expression of sympathy.


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