In The Puritan Way of Death David Stannard writes that attitudes toward death have varied in the US based on region and time period. The Puritans, for example, used death (through the threat of hell) to instill terror as a way to ensure high ethical values and a strong sense of community. For a while the US was swept by a type of Romanticism where death became something beautiful, a release of the spirit to a more fulfilling realm. Stannard argues that due to medical technology, which has reduced infant mortality and increased life spans, the current attitude toward death is one of denial. "Instead of confusion and terror...or even sentimentalization and desire," the contemporary American "...moves in a world of death avoidance and denial."
The show of several works by Ivan Albright (1897-1983) at the Art Institute of Chicago proves him to be the supreme documentarian of this contemporary denial of death. Some of his subjects are portrayed as being so decrepit as to seem as if they are falling apart, yet one sees no sense of terror, no remorse, no deep sorrow. We see folks who can live day to day with their putrefying flesh, oblivious of their own mortality despite the mounting evidence, unable to engage in the type of human development possible when one truly grasps that there is an end which demands that one confront questions of purpose and ethics.
Based on the paintings in this show, Albright played with other insights as well. One might have been an examination of the effects of monotonous, obligatory work on the human psyche and, through this, on the body. His infamous painting The Lineman presents a slope-shouldered stumble-bum with a pleasant expression on his face, as if he has been sedated to accept crawling up and down telephone poles for the rest of his work life and to accept the fact that, realistically, he is locked in to this job for various reasons and there is not a damn thing he can really do about it. We also see a commercial fisherman in the show overburdened with gear, despite an advanced age, politely smiling at the viewer in, perhaps, an attempt at reassurance that the fisherman understands that this is simply the way of the world. Implicit is the assumption that we may be carrying our own gear – the gear of being locked in to one thing for uncountable years for our livelihoods. We witness the psychological effect of gravitating to a dull and tiresome routine and the results of this on the body.
Yet, the best of Albright's mature work, to my eyes, captures the American avoidance of death and the inability for meaningful introspection concerning one's own life that results from such a life of denial. In And Man Created God in His Own Image we see a bartender and union boss, an acquaintance of Albright's, getting undressed. His head is bent forward, he is slack-jawed, his eyebrows are quizzically raised, his forehead furrowed, his eyes stare blankly at nothing. This could be a look of inebriated stupefaction or evidence of a life evincing a total lack of insight, an inability to question one's life, one's predispositions, motives and actions. He is the type of obese, petulant, self-absorbed person who has aged without sagacity, who cannot control his emotions or see things in any reasonable perspective. In his avoidance of his own mortality he becomes a part of the noxious mist that has been settling and stagnating throughout the world.
In a painting Albright did of the lineman's wife, we see that her response to the ravages of age and physical inaction is to stylishly bob her hair. Many of the subjects in this show are presented with massive amounts of evidence that they are mortal, and they simply ignore this and do what they can to retain the trappings of youth. In another painting, however, Ida seems to "get it". Ida has tried to bob her hair, but now she dolefully looks into her mirror for an honest assessment. Only in the Ida painting, in this show, do I see emotion being displayed based on some type of self-recognition. But is Ida truly confronting her mortality or merely mourning the loss of her physical beauty? Will Ida be changed by this look into her mirror? The other hero of the show could be the Catholic monk, who quietly walks in a state of apparent serenity while holding a crucifix, a traditional meditative object for reflections on mortality, self-sacrifice, forgiveness and redemption.
In the show we also see the famous portrait of Dorian Gray which Albright painted for a film production of the novel. Of course, Dorian Gray is the ultimate story of the denial of aging and death and the type of personal evil that comes from giving oneself entirely to the moment and not using an awareness of mortality to develop a sense of compassion or a sense of urgency in one's life to confront absurdity and still do the most meaningful and humane things possible.
Interestingly, there is also a display of drawings Albright did during World War I when he was commissioned to visually document various wounds of soldiers in military hospitals. Others who have commented on Albright's work feel that this led Albright to his obsession with "the flesh", but, if you look at the drawings, they are quickly sketched images of open lacerations and broken bones. Albright indicated that his war drawings had little impact on his mature work, and these drawings indicate that.
In the Book of Job God blights the righteous man with a skin disease knowing that this will isolate him from his peers and lead him to deep reflection and an experience with God. God beneficently blights many of the subjects in these paintings with fleshly decay, but these folks reject the gift and carry on as if death should have no sting.