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Death Can Be A Beautiful Thing

Words:

Edd Norval
January 14, 2019

Known as 'the romantic disease' amongst other names like consumption and 'the great white plague', Tuberculosis was once looked upon as a beautiful way to die. Symptoms meant that sufferers would display rosy cheeks, pale skin and sparkly eyes. It made a generation of dying women become muses to famous artists.

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Fetishizing things that are bad for us, dangerous or transgressive is part of the appeal of the thing. Fetishes are, in a sense, a riddle that solves itself (whilst opening up many other questions). Some may be easier to explain than others though. Childhood trauma or exposure, a predisposition of a partner that begins to influence your way of viewing sex and beauty are all aspects. How do you explain fetishizing a disease though?


The Victorians were a peculiar bunch. Or rather, the Victorian era was a very particular one. Science and access to knowledge was beginning to grow, yet some beliefs and behaviours were firmly rooted in the past. In some ways, we're still just as strange. Right up to this era the disease was a source of societal fascination. By that point, you could say they should have known better.


Tuberculosis is a disease that punishes your body as the bacteria usually spreads from your lungs to other organs. It is not fun, therefore it's difficult to fathom why so many artists, the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Frédéric Chopin, Rembrandt, Monet and Munch all actively tried to get it.

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Their reasoning was as good as any though. It made them better artists. Whether the aforementioned names had it or not, they undoubtedly spent a lot of time around people that did. Given that the disease is easy to spread, they had every chance of infecting themselves.


Those involved in the artistic community had a selfish relationship with the disease. It came down to either TB helping to refine their artistic skills, or that it made their subjects more aesthetically pleasing. Despite the slow deterioration of your body, the slight fever and toxaemia cause by the bacteria heightened a creative mind's ability to act decisively and to see life in a more favourable manner. Almost like having that giddy feeling from afternoon drinking, only it kills you.


Fyodor Dostoevsky used the idea of physical consumption as an extension of the philosophical consumption he explored in his nihilistic characters. Charlotte Brontë, when talking about one of her sister's condition when infected by the disease, “Consumption, I am aware, is a flattering malady,” In back-to-back years, both of her sisters died. Both from TB.


See, 'consumptive chic' had the most powerful of all persuasive attributes - beauty. It gave women everything they wanted and it gave the predominant male artists of the time everything they wanted to see in a female sitter. Their features became more vibrant, contrasting against the pale skin. If one should have the privilege of contracting the disease, they weren't thought of as dirty, rather intelligent and noble.

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Norwegian artist Edvard Munch had a particularly painful and intimate relationship with the disease. In his paintings The Dead Mother and The Sick Child he painted his mother and sister, both of whom died from the disease. His mother is portrayed as a ghostly white body lying in bed with friends and family around the bed visibly grieving. His sister's is more psychological.


The Sick Child is a series of images created by the artist documenting his sisters degradation whilst suffering with the disease. It also looks at others infected as the artist travelled around several homes with his father, a doctor. Munch referred to the works as 'a breakthrough in my art' and they can be seen as a precursor to the psychological masterpiece The Scream in 1893.


It might seem like a bizarre era that we have moved on from, but the Victorians idolised the slimming effects of the disease and even though it's as good as eradicated from developed nations, it doesn't mean that the way we see disease has. HIV/AIDS has been similarly romanticised.


The look that was desired, and achieved by the disease, had a rough renaissance when Kate Moss became a figurehead of 'heroin chic'. Looking at addiction as a disease too, we open up our horizons to the scale in which dangerous and harmful conditions are thought of as something inherently attractive. As much as we learn, evolve and develop, certain things will take a lot longer to shift in our psyche. Romanticising death, damage and destruction seems to be something we are all hopelessly complicit in.

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