In the Tragic Series, Flávio de Carvalho devours death and regurgitates pain

Disclaimer: This is a translation of a text originally published in Portuguese at TAB UOL.

For the past four years, I have been writing my PhD thesis that I finally defended two weeks ago. It is always hard to explain what the theme is, but, briefly, it’s a historical panorama of how western societies, mainly European and Judeo-Christian, have been processing the fact and the idea of death in the creation of images (and rituals) that seek to extend human life through materialized images that carry the memory of the deceased. For that, I was mostly inspired by the work of the historian Philippe Ariès, in this case the books The Hour of Death and Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present, as well as Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.

During my defense, one of the evaluators mentioned that I didn’t use any Brazilian examples, which is true — I only studied the cases of Andy Warhol’s series “Death in America,” Gottfried Helnwein’s painting “American Prayer”, Damien Hirst’s installations and the mockumentary Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, the specific event of Michael Jackson’s funeral and a final comparison between the most recent works by Björk and Grimes.

I was mostly focused on understanding how these artists tried to transcend the entropic and finite condition of human bodies and lives — being it through the attempt to turn us into machines, a reproductible consumer product, a celebrity, or a post-human creature.

One of the suggestion from the evaluators was the work of Flávio de Carvalho, a Brazilian artist that I didn’t know before, but which made me very glad to finally meet his work that includes paintings such as “Mulher Morta com Filho” (Dead Woman With Son, 1946), but also the nine charcoal illustrations that are part of the Tragic Series — My Mother Dying (1947). I won’t provide a deeper analysis of the artist’s biographic or even about his full body of work, which is something that Veronica Stigger already exquisitely did on an essay published in the magazine Crítica Cultural, in 2009. Still, I would like to talk about this series by Carvalho.

What shocked me (or maybe moved me) at first sight was the rawness, the realism and the expressionism featured in his works. To any person who had the experience of taking care, visiting or accompanying a dying person, it is blatant the memory that arises after the artist’s wrinkled face, always with her mouth a bit open, lost somewhere between sleep and wake, between asphyxia and resignation. But this is not the way the work was perceived when it was released.

Stigger mentions that, in 1948, the series provoked a series of “howling protests of the so-called good people.” Friends and relatives were also shocked by the rawness of the images. According to the artist’s biographer, J. Toledo, “Flávio was able to raise to himself all the fury expressed by an astonished audience in face of an apparently insensible creative energy, as well as his own personal way of feeling a death so painfully experienced.”

In the comments of a post made by a former art student, anonymous commentators didn’t suppress their horror, hate and discomfort in face of the way Carvalho portrayed his mother on her deathbed. The nine illustrations keep modifying, intensifying, as if they were “frames” of a video that was recorded at the very time of death. According to Stigger, an artist’s uncle asked why Carvalho decided to portray his mother in her deathbed and, mostly, why did he choose to make it that way: “… with such a simplicity and tenderness that invaded him during peaceful moments, he [Flávio de Carvalho] answered me with fiery eyes, after spending a moment gazing the infinite: ‘I didn’t want to forget her profound suffering.’”

In the analysis made by art critic Almeida Salles, the essayist argues that right “when faces refused to look, he looked her gravely, certain that her death throes and convulsions were the concentration, in the farewell, of what was essential in her nature” (apud Stigger). This highlights the argument proposed by Carvalho himself in the book A origem animal de Deus (The animal origin of God), in which the artist describes an act of piety in testifying and sharing his mother’s death:

In The Hour of Death, Ariès mentions that from a perspective that, in Antiquity, death was something recurrent, trivial, after all, people only expected to live up to their thirties or even die during childhood. Ariès also mentions that, at that time, there was also some kind of “mysticism” towards the dying person, in a way that people were anxious for the moment of death or to hear some “prophetical” words.

Death wasn’t lonely or relegated to hospitals, which didn’t even exist back then. But, with time and for several reasons, we experienced historically moments in which death was natural to a time when it was fearful, the fascination for the cadaver, the first attempts to extend life and cure diseases that were once fatal. As medicine advanced, we finally reached the point of the “hospital death,” which occurs away from the world of the living and is confined to nursing homes and rightfully suppressed by medical terms.

For Stigger, when Carvalho registered the last moments of his mother in her deathbed, he tried to “soften this loss that is put between him and his mother.” Her essay ends with a commentary made by Georges Didi-Huberman about a passage of the book Ulysses, by James Joyce, when Stephen Dedalus sees his mother dead in the seawaves:

Instead of registering his mother after the archetype of death as rest (which is one of the most popular ways to portray death in the West), as seen in funerary art or in death masks which show the dead person as if they were sleeping, Carvalho registered in detail the expression of agony of the character that happened to be his mother.

It is curious to see Stigger quoting Didi-Huberman to end her essay, because this was one of the authors that resurfaced Aby Warburg’s theory, which encompass the concepts of post-life (Nachleben) and pathos formula (Pathosformeln), that is, how throughout the history of humanity, we were able to extend the life of images through motives, feelings (pathos), archetypes, characters that the researcher stresses, for instance, after the mythological figures of the nymphs. The “Tragic Series,” therefore, reconfigures the Pietá motive by presenting otherwise the mother dead and the son watching her, even though this doesn’t happen inside the drawing, but behind the paper and the charcoal.

Likewise, I finished my thesis concluding that it is obvious that human life is not literally extended by the images we make, even though we may gradually see more and more technological enterprises that, for instance, attempt to extend life radically or even upload someone’s mind in a machine. Consequently, the memory registered in photography, paintings, sculptures, avatars or any other image format does not equal the body and the existence of those who passed away (and, not necessarily, there is an exchange of heaviness and significance that would suppress someone’s longing and absence). As recalled by my evaluators, even images are perishable, even they can come undone with time, be destroyed by natural phenomena or human action.

Still, that doesn’t stop us from registering it, from trying to minimize this asymmetry between life and death, as diagnosed by Ivan Bystrina. This is after all one of the sources of culture: being conscious of death and attempting to overcome it being it through grief or by trying to “kill” death itself.

As argued by Ariès, we face a grave problem in contemporaneity as we renegade, reject, suppress and ignore death as a fact, even though we are constantly dealing with it — being it through the violence provoked by inequality or adjusted as a strategy of necropolitical governments. When the number of deaths surpass births, when we have over 300,000 dead due to Covid-19, we not only need to deal with the reality of losing our beloved peers, but with the fact that the social, political, and economic contexts are also responsible for shortening such lives.

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Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.