'Bad to the Bone' at the MIA

Death as a Strangler, by Alfred Rethel

Death as a Strangler, by Alfred Rethel

If you're tired of all the lovey dovey Valentine's Day themed hoopla that happens around this time of year, get yourself over to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where you can check out the small, but wonderfully morbid collection of Death characterizations in the "Bad to the Bone" exhibit, located on the third floor.   [jump]

The collection is an eclectic grouping of artists spanning hundreds of years. Beginning with Renaissance master Hans Holbein, the show features mostly European artists, with a few notable exceptions such as a piece by Mexican surrealist painter Rufino Tamayo. Sometimes haunting, sometimes lighthearted, the prints all depict each artist's vision of who Death is, and how he goes about his inevitable task of taking life.  
Hans Holbein the Younger's collection of four tiny woodcuts from Dance of Death, dating back to the 1520s, show a Death character that heeds to no one, no matter how rich or powerful they are. In pieces like The Empress, The Canon, The Countess, and The Judge, Holbein playfully shows Death approaching royalty and church officials going about their daily lives, ready to take them away. None of the four collections show the characters aware that they are about to die. For example, the Empress walks haughtily down the street, accompanied by her many ladies in waiting, unaware that Death has come for her. Holbein's prints are not frightening, but rather more of a statement of fact that everyone's number gets called eventually.  

More frightening is Alfred Rethel's Death as a Strangler, a woodcut made in 1851 depicting Death playing a bone violin, lulling to sleep all the attendees of a party, while the other musicians run away in fear. According to the notes accompanying the print, Rethel disturbed his contemporaries so much with the image that he made another print, called Death as a Friend, which shows a kindlier version of Death. In the second piece, an old bell tower worker lies peacefully dead on his chair in the tower while Death pulls the ropes of the bells.  

One fascinating lithograph made in 1854 is by Rudolph Bresdin, who according to the notes, lived in a cave at one time. In The Comedy of Death, Bresdin creates an intricate world of a dense forest with a hermit--dead or asleep one can't be sure--by the riverbed. Nearby in a cave, a bald man crouches with his head in his hands. All around the two figures are bones, skeletons, and skulls, made with incredible detail. It's a disturbing work, and seems to speak more to the artist's emotional state than a pondering of death.  
In a few of the works, death becomes sexualized. For example, in August Bromse's A Dead Woman, from Death and the Maiden, shows a nude woman floating on water, her head cradled by death, her skin is illuminated by moonlight. A piece by Sir Jacob Epstein, Reclining Nude illustrating Charles Baudelaire's Poem Le Bijoux from Les Flours du Mal (The Jewel, from The Flowers of Evil), shows a skeletal figure posing seductively.  

There are some really breathtaking pieces in the exhibition, including Demons Pulling People into the Jaws of Hell by Heinrich Hey, who was reportedly an inspiration for Walt Disney's Fantasia. Rufino Tamayo's Death on a Pale Horse from Apocalypse of Saint John is a stunning color lithograph using bright colors, two dimensionality, and furious strokes.  

As a whole, the exhibition is quite intense, and is the perfect idea for art-goers looking for a place to contemplate morbid thoughts. While the museum isn't open on the actual Valentine's Day, perhaps it can be a solace for those for whom holiday doesn't go especially well.  

"Bad to the Bone" runs through June 19 in Gallery 344 of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, located at 2400 Third Avenue South in Minneapolis. See for more details.