Content warning: Miscarriage, abortion, pregnancy loss and loss of a child.
From Frida Kahlo’s reproductive grief depiction to Motoi Yamamoto’s art installation made entirely out of salt – death and grief have been a main source of inspiration for many artists throughout history. Here are 5 examples:
Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate), 1890, by Vincent Van Gogh
This oil painting was based on a series of sketches Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh made of Adrianus Jacobus Zuyderland – a war veteran and Van Gogh’s favourite model during his Hague period. Van Gogh said that seeing the old man made him think about life and death. In his diary, he described the old man’s deep grief and sadness as “unutterably moving”. Of course, we know that Van Gogh experienced complex mental health battles throughout his life.
This painting was completed in early May, at a time when he was recovering from a severe relapse. This was just a few months before his death in July, aged 37.
Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate) is currently displayed at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.
Death in the Sickroom, 1895 by Edvard Munch
This painting shows the despair and anguish that Norwegian painter Edvard Munch and his family experienced as a result of losing his sister to tuberculosis in 1877. It’s just one of many of Munch’s portrayals of death, sickness and sorrow in his family.
In it, Munch portrays himself with his family. His 15-year-old sister sits on a chair, facing us. Munch said that her last request was to get out of bed and sit in a chair. Her last words were “I so much want to live… I think we have such good times together”. However, she sadly died in that chair. Munch also called the picture The Moment of Death.
Munch created two versions of Death in the Sickroom. They can be found at the National Gallery and the Munch Museum – both in Oslo, Norway.
Henry Ford Hospital, 1932 by Frida Kahlo
In 1932, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo experienced a loss that today remains a topic of contention in the art world (in that there is still uncertainty in whether one would characterise her experience as an abortion or a miscarriage in our modern times).
Regardless, Kahlo created this painting upon reflection on her pregnancy loss at Henry Ford Hospital, when she was just 24 years old and approximately 3 and a half months into her pregnancy. Depictions of childbirth, abortion and miscarriage were rare during this time, making Kahlo one of the only major artists at this time to depict her reproductive grief in this way.
Henry Ford Hospital is on display and is owned by the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico.
Return to the Sea Project, 2006 by Motoi Yamamoto
Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto is known for his famous installation artwork that he creates out of salt, which is a symbol of purification and memory in Japan. In 1994, Yamamoto’s sister died of a brain tumour at 24 years of age. In 2016, his wife who had been by his side for 25 years died of breast cancer.
He has said, “I keep creating so that I will not forget memories of my family”. In his Return to the Sea Project which began in 2006, Yamamoto uses between 400 pounds to seven tons of table salt, arranged in different patterns to resemble lace, sea form or blood vessels. Those who attend the very last exhibition viewing are invited to take handfuls of the salt and return it to the sea. Yamamoto has said that the artistic process has helped him heal from his grief, calling it ‘a rebirth’ and explaining how his art is all about “connecting the people and the ocean and continuing the process of healing.”
Since the start of the Return to the Sea Project in 2006, thousands of people have taken part, helping to return salt to seas all around the world.
Before I Die, 2011, by Candy Chang
Before I Die is a global art project that encourages people to reflect on death, and share their personal goals and aspirations on a public chalkboard – you guessed it – before they die.
The idea for the project was sparked in New Orleans when Taiwanese-American artist Candy Chang experienced the loss of a loved one. Chang painted an abandoned house in her neighbourhood with chalkboard paint, writing “Before I die I want to ______”. Passers-by could pick up a piece of chalk and write their reflections on life. The following day, the wall was filled out, and only grew from there.
Today, there are more than 5,000 walls globally. The project lives on. You can read more about the project on the Before I Die Project site.
Life’s not always fun and games. As we know, death is a part of life, and it comes for us all in the end. When we are faced with a loss, we are forced to reckon with all kinds of grief – sadness, anger, guilt – you name it. Channelling our emotions into art (or reading about other artists and their grief), can help us to process the complexities of our emotions and help us to feel less alone (and more at peace with our mortality).
If you’re looking for ways to channel your grief through creativity, discover our guide to Grief Art.