Friday, 3 January 2020

'Saving Graces' (W.W. Norton 1995) and 'Beautiful Death' (Penguin Books USA) by David Robinson (out of print)

In the mid 1990’s American photographer David Robinson published two books of cemetery photographs; Saving Graces, with a foreword by Joyce Carol Oates, in 1995 was followed by Beautiful Death in 1996. The two books are very different - Saving Grace, published by W.W. Norton   is an A5 paperback of black and white photographs of the 19th century allegorical female forms that adorned tombs in continental cemeteries. Beautiful Death, subtitled Art of the Cemetery and published by Penguin Books USA, is a large format hardback of colour photos, again almost exclusively of 19th century European cemeteries but featuring a wider range of memorials than its predecessor.  

“When I was photographing in Pere Lachaise and other European cemeteries,” Robinson says in his afterword, “I soon became aware of women all around me. We are familiar with the image of widows dressed in black bending over to tend family graves.....but these were not the women who attracted my attention. Instead I found myself transfixed by gorgeous young women who were not dressed in black. In fact many were hardly dressed at all, and although exquisitely beautiful, they were visibly distraught.” These statues which adorn the graves of the haute bourgeoisie through most of West and Central Europe Robinson dubs the ‘Saving Graces’ “because of their beauty and their beneficence”. In her introduction Joyce Carol Oates notes that these figures are “classically austere and occasionally featureless, at one extreme, at the other, romantically voluptuous, barely clothed, in some cases starkly nude, lying, like the lovely figure gracing the cover of this book, in a pose of swooned, vulnerable abandon, as if grief were a form of erotic surrender.” Staid Victorian Anglo-Saxons would have been perplexed, appalled and aroused in equal measure by these eroticised representations of grief and the fashion never caught on on this side of the English Channel.  There are just two photos from London cemeteries – one at Highgate from the classically austere end of the spectrum and the other the highly untypical memorial to Ninon Michaelis in Kensal Green by Henry Alfred Pegram. Although he was born in 1862 Pegram died in 1937 and both the Michaelis memorial and the even more spectacular statue at Golders Green Crematorium, Into The Silent Land, are early twentieth century works. Pegram would have been considered rather old fashioned in European artistic circles; it had essentially taken more than half a century for a pair of sculpted naked shoulders to be considered acceptable in a London cemetery.

The most arresting image in the book, and the one chosen for the cover, is a white marble statue from Staglieno cemetery in Genoa of a completely naked woman, a conveniently placed swag of shroud or winding sheet falling modestly across her loins in Oates “pose of swooned, vulnerable abandon, as if grief were a form of erotic surrender”. Going by the evidence of the book it is the Italians who pushed the boundaries at the erotic end of the Saving Graces spectrum. The photographs are stunning; tightly composed and beautifully lit. The decision to shoot in monochrome seems absolutely right for the subject. The book is out of print but second hand copies are easy to find and generally very modestly priced. Highly recommended.     

‘Beautiful Death’ is largely shot in the same cemeteries as ‘Saving Graces’ and even includes a number of the same monuments but the photos are in colour and cover the whole spectrum of memorials from simple headstones up to the most elaborate mausoleums and funerary sculptures. The book includes a ‘text’ by Dean Koontz the prolific American author of gothic thrillers. Koontz’s contribution to the project isn’t billed as an introduction or a foreword or preface probably because the words seem to have little connection to Robinson’s pictures of 19th century cemetery art. His 5000 word riff on death is quite interesting. “Death,” he says “is not beautiful, going  on to describe what sounds more like Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death, rather than any phenomenon that would have been recognised by the bourgeoisie of fin de siècle Paris or Milan; “he has the emotionless face of the unloving void, eyes as blank as polished granite, and a heart of maggots.” His revelations on the deaths of his parents are fascinating but completely out of place in this book. Robinson wasn’t keen on including all this but Penguin were not going to decline any involvement from a best selling author they felt so sure would help them shift large quantities of the book that they ordered an initial print run of 50,000 copies. It wasn’t the first time Robinson had had a project hijacked by a writer; his first book was to be a monograph of reflection shots taken in Italy. At the suggestion of Gore Vidal, who had declined the project, he went off to solicit help from Anthony Burgess. The author of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was then living 40 miles from Rome with his Italian wife and was enthusiastic about the work of the young American photographer. When Robinson shyly asked if he would consider writing the introduction to his proposed book Burgess roared “"No, no," before adding; "This deserves something more; this deserves a novel!" Poor Robinson just wanted a preface from a well known author to help him sell his book. What he got was ‘Beard’s Roman Women’, a novella which featured 17 of Robinson’s photographs in the first American and UK editions.  Subsequent editions “quietly dropped”  the photos he later remembered but “I ended up making more money on Beard's Roman Women than on any of my other books because I was on Burgess' pay schedule.”  

Robinson makes up for the deficiencies of Koontz’s text by supplying his own ‘Afterword’ which attempts to put his photographs in context by cantering through the history of burial practices since the middle ages and the development of the cemetery movement in Europe. He essentially rehashes Philippe Ariès’ arguments from ‘The Hour of Our Death’ but manages to make some inexcusable factual errors in the process. The old Parisian cemetery of Les Innocents closed in 1875 he says. Anyone who has read Andrew Miller’s ‘Pure’ knows that that date is at least a hundred years out – it was the closure of Les Innocents in 1780 and the subsequent exhumation and removal of the bodies to the catacombs that provided much of the impetus to open Pere Lachaise. He lists correctly the dates of the opening of the principal Paris cemeteries but for some reason completely fluffs the London ones claiming, incorrectly, that Highgate opened in 1836 and Kensall (sic) Green in 1838. Highgate actually opened in 1839 and Kensal (one ‘l’ please) Green in 1833.

But I suspect no one buys this book for the words, whether they are from Koontz or from Robinson himself. What matters are the pictures and they are very good indeed. They were shot in cemeteries all over Europe though France and Italy predominate.  There are just a handful of pictures from London cemeteries – 3 from Highgate, one from Brookwood and a single shot each from Chiswick and the catholic cemetery of St Mary’s, Kensal Green. If you discount Hogarth’s memorial in the background of the photo from Chiswick, none of the London images focuses on well known or spectacular memorials. Instead they focus on ordinary headstones, wild flowers, a bird box or a clutch of saints purchased from off the monumental mason’s shelf. London may have some spectacular memorials in it’s cemeteries but Robinson says that he was looking for the typical in the cemeteries of all the countries he visited; he is right, what is common in the Parisian or Italian cemeteries is pretty untypical in London. For me some of the best shots in the book are these quieter images – the beautifully hand coloured 19th century photos adorning Italian graves, the bizarre and brightly coloured ceramic cat with the word ‘Ricardo’ blazoned across its chest glowing amongst the mausoleums in a Spanish cemetery or snow blanketing the reclining figure on a chest tomb. Penguin’s decision to go for an initial print run of 50,000 hardbacks means that you can pick up very cheap copies of this now out of print title. They can be bought for as little as £2.99 on Abebooks. They would be cheap at 10 times the price.     

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