In the Spanish language, viva la muerte is an expression of the both-and phenomenon in communication. For it means both the exclamation "long life to death!" and an equivocal idea, "live death!," meaning "feel it" or "die," or even "death is alive."
1. A 2008 creation by Julia deVille from New Zealand
Curiosity killed the cat. Satisfaction brought it back.
In a conversation with Peter Beard in 1975, Francis Bacon notes that discarded newspapers changing colour in the sunlight, bones and carcasses that have been in the sea or sun for a long time, gradually change into other things. There is a kind of beauty in that—a kind of magic.
The magic to which Bacon vaguely refers is the deterioration and subsequent decomposition of organic matter.
Unlike Bacon, who along his long career evoked that which once had been but no longer was, Julia deVille recovers that which was so that in a way will keep on being.
With this idea in mind, DeVille studies and practices the techniques of jewelers and taxidermists. Her creations frequently are the result of having combined both.
2. Four works by Julia deVille, showing a strange mixture of taxidermy and jewelry
Julia deVille’s work communicates a fascination with death and the solemn rites usually associated with it. The traditional theme of vanitas or the nineteenth-century funerary aesthetics are in this case important sources of inspiration.
DeVille explains that her output as a whole is like a memento mori, a reminder of the limited and transitory character of our lives. Thus, the artist uses elements and symbols having to do with death, because she believes it’s important to accept that sooner or later all of us are going to die. DeVille intends to provide her own answer to the fact that “our culture obsesses us with planning the future, but in doing so, we forget to enjoy the present.”
Throughout her work, DeVille defies us to face such a reality and in some way also denounces the hypocrisy of society and its permanent destruction of animal life. A proof of the artist opposition to the latter is her deliberate use of “animals that only have died of natural causes.”
Paradoxically, DeVille regards her creations based on dead matter are “a celebration of life, a preservation of something beautiful.”
Aesthetically, Julia deVille has something in common with Francis Bacon. Like her surprising predecessor, she also detects some kind of magic and beauty in the bones and bodies of animals that are not alive anymore. Consistent with her artistic goals and somehow disquieting aesthetical principles, Cineraria is the title of the macabre solo exhibit of Julia deVille in the Sophie Gannon Gallery of Melbourne, Australia (July-August 2009).
3. A view of Cineraria, the recent show held by Julia deVille in Melbourne – A complete cabinet of curiosities.
Heterogeneity characterizes the show, which includes dead beasts, funerary urns, Corinthian columns, feathers, necklaces, glass domes, skeletons, ornaments made in precious metals, eggs of considerable size, lace, glass eyes and some ruby hearts.
With its exquisitely suggestive character, the exhibit proves to be very interesting and hair-raising as well. Above all, it surprises and opens the valves of imagination. Despite the artist’s declarations, the ultimate raison d’être of Cineraria remains, at least in part, uncertain and equivocal. Karen Thompson aptly observes the exhibit awakes one’s curiosity and that it’s fascinating, but also a bit scary too [Figs. 1-2, 6, 9-10, 12, 14].
4. Executed in a precious metal and recalling a crow, Silver Rook displays an admirable bone structure.
5. The skeleton of the bird contains an unexpected heart of rubies.
Such mixed emotions and feelings can be linked to a certain grotesqueness in the artworks. Indeed, the Grotesque is an aesthetical phenomenon, with a long tradition in the visual arts. Importantly, it explodes all conventional categories and disorients the spectator. Symptomatically, Victoria Mason writes of having no words to describe Julia deVille’s style, one in which various incompatible elements coexist.
Visitors admire the “magical” nature of the artworks, describing them as delicate, but also disturbing. An example of this is Stillborn Angel (2009), with is movingly macabre fetal position and sparrow wings.
6. DeVille, Stillborn Angel – at once macabre and moving.
Some criticism has also been expressed concerning the [perhaps] too great diversity of materials, forms and ideas present in Cineraria, not to forget the suggestion that in the future the artist should simplify the whole thing. Marcus Bunyan quotes (in capital letters) a well-known slogan by Mies van der Rohe: “less is more.” But he seems to have forgotten Robert Venturi's powerful antidote to it, “less is a bore.”
The artwork of Julia deVille is rich, complex and even contradictory. As a show, Cineraria has unity in its diversity and also recalls a long tradition of Baroque vanities and Victorian funerary rituals (to which deVille herself often refers).
If Julia deVille’s work conveys something a bit truculent, this is due mostly to her broad knowledge on the topic she deals with, and so eloquently, not to mention its symbols and connotations, which she knows by heart.
Memento mori, ars moriendi, rigor mortis - all of them emerge in one way or another in the macabre creations of Julia deVille.
Even in Disce mori, her official website suggesting us to Learn to Die, the artist introduces her jewelry and other bizarre accessories with the help of exquisite Baroque coming from the above-mentioned vanitas tradition and its insistence on the brevity of life and the unavoidable triumph of death.
7. Michel Mosyn of Amsterdam, Cartouche in auricular style (Ohrmuschelstil or Kwabornament, Holland, seventeenth century), with an inscription added by DeVille (Disce Mori, 21.9.2009).
Such cartouches are compatible with the nature of Julia de deVille’s work: both of them are persuasive in its forms and grotesque insinuations.
Cineraria captures the attention of the public. So Leydeej, for example, appreciates the delicate, attractive appearance of each animal included in the show and prizes the DeVille’s respectful modus operandi involving a combination beauty and grace.
However, there is sometimes something unsettling and even disturbing in some of the pieces DeVille exhibits. Yet, this is often counterbalanced by playfulness and humor.
8. DeVille, Infant Funerary Urn, 2009 – Existing for a second
In this context, it is important not confusing the artist’s intentions and the effect her artwork has on us.
DeVille may have a lot of respect concerning the dead beasts she works with, but this does not necessarily neutralizes the fact that some of her pieces can engender mixed responses in the viewer.
Playful and malicious are the words DeVille uses to describe her own work, to which she refers as "peacefully dark."
Bacon comments that today all art has become a game with which artists entertain themselves, until death arrives. In Julia deVille's case, it is clear that does play with the Big Certainty Itself, which is Death.
Elegant and solemn, Cineraria suggests the monstrous. That is, the monstrosity of knowing that one day all of us will be dead.
Having maybe found inspiration in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, DeVille persistently invites us to explore the aesthetical possibilities offered by organic matter which is no longer alive.
9. Twentieth-first century unsettling taxidermy - Anatomy of a Rabbit, 2008
In Anatomy of a Rabbit, DeVille's "favourite" piece, the upper part of the rodent’s trunk seems to have been amputated brutally. The beauty of the animal’s fur is all of a sudden interrupted to display pitilessly some bones, preciously executed in silver. From the mixture of taxidermy and jewelry emerges then a sinister figure. The rabbit looks alive, although it is as if it has escaped its own vivisection.
Right below the rabbit's head, and precisely where its throat once was, the ribcage now contains a ruby heart. Somehow it seems to have got stucked there.
10. Detail from Anatomy of a Rabbit – "the only safe thing to us is insecurity" (Ortega y Gasset).
Carrying her aesthetics from the macabre towards the Grotesque, Julia deVille is adamant in transforming dead matter into accessories of personal embellishment. For that purpose, she may use a whole bird and a bone, or a featherless chick, or just a few bones.
11. Delicate - Sparrow Brooch
12. Bird Pin
13. Bones and silver - Ring of Bones is a refined piece inspired by Bacon’s Three Studies for a Crucifixion of 1962 (right-hand panel), which is preserved in The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of New York.
The fur of the once majestic Malayan tiger has today been substituted by that of some cat, possibly found dead in the neighborhood.
14. Because of its size, Cat Rug (2008) may be, among other things, an ideal bathroom mat.
Often black is the beauty of Julia deVille’s works, as can be corroborated in the equine skull or the amazing egg with three legs.
15. Superb necrophilia - Black Beauty (2008) is a artwork to those who indulge themselves in Saturday night fetishism.
16. Cinerarium - A masterpiece made of Jarrah wood and sterling silver
Cinerarium is also a magnificent memento mori. In a minimalist and effective way, it reminds the viewer of the simple fact that one is born to die.
With Cinerarium, the egg-shaped object becomes a funerary urn for keeping uncertain ashes. Grotesquely, the archetypal form of life acquires its opposite meaning and becomes a receptacle of death.
A double-silence, Cinerarium is the prima donna of the show, or, to recall Celan, the black milk that solemnly and systematically DeVille provides us with.
It is with works like this sophisticated receptacle, made of Jarrah wood and silver sterling, that DeVille celebrates life, in grotesque terms though.
From the information so far provided by DeVille and her followers online, it is hard to establish whether Cinerarium holds ashes or not. Were ashes in it, their nature would not be evident either: should they be the ashes of a cremated human being or the leftovers of some carbonized omelet?
It is almost impossible to know. But Cinerarium is a hermetic grotesque in its own right.
On Cinerarium, DeVille depicted a legend in silver hues. It looks like a curly band, but it has no inscription whatsoever. This cannot but open the valves of one’s imagination. Yet, it is impossible to determine the origin of the ashes tha are or will be inside the black urn, which now becomes ominous and disquieting.
Contradictory in this macabre creation is the dialogue DeVille establishes between the real convexity of the eggshell and the illusory depth of the band in silver painted on it.
This work in particular is an outstanding visual paradox. Having no inscription, the legend of Cinerarium proclaims nothing univocal, except from Death.
Unlike the Baroque Juan de Orozco y Covarrubias, contemporay Julia DeVille doesn't need to write any “QVOTIDIE MORIMVR” on the band to remind us that “En la vida está la muerte” (There is death in life). Cinerarium subtly conveys this and with no words at all.
With Cinerarium and her Claw Brooches, DeVille convincingly demonstrates that she is well aware of the fact that less is more.
17. Claw Brooch with Pearl – A unique taste for funerary minimalism
The rose, the beautiful rose, as Bacon liked to comment, is a dying thing.
Throughout her macabre configurations, Julia deVille recalls Bacon's observation, with grace.
18. Claw Brooch with Rose – somewhere between redundancy and variation, it's still admirably minimalist
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Cineraria is an extraordinary show. With pomp and ambiguity, it proclaims " Long life to Death ! "
19. Cineraria – An admirable variety of funerary urns, 2009
Notes and references
1. Curiosity killed the cat reminds us that being too curious can be dangerous: cats are curious animals and like to investigate, but their curiosity can lead them to places where they might get hurt (GoEnglish.com Idioms, retrieved 25.9.2009).
2. The Coe College Cosmos, Iowa, February 1933 (Gary Martin, The Phrase Finder, 1996).
3. Bacon, interview with Peter Beard, edited by Henry Geldzahler (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Francis Bacon, Recent Paintings, March-June 1975).
4. Mariano Akerman, The Grotesque in Francis Bacon’s Paintings, 1999, pp. 14-15.
5. Julia deVille, “Artist’s Statement,” declaration published in her official website, Disce mori, retrieved 23.9.2009. According to her, the title of that website has been inspired by the inscription of a sixteenth-century piece of jewlery.
6. Ibid.: “I feel strongly about the fair and just treatment of animals and to accentuate this point I only use animals that have died of natural causes.” The artist picks up the dead bodies of birds and mice that can be found in the area she lives; she later treats them so they can be incorporated in her work.
7. Ibid.: “I consider my taxidermy to be a celebration of life, a preservation of something beautiful.”
8. Cineraria means in Latin any group or collection of funerary urns. Cinerarium is the receptacle in which are kept the ashes of a cremated corpse.
9. Karen Thompson, “Julia deVille ‘Cineraria’ at Sophie Gannon Gallery,” Melbourne Jeweller, 3.8.2009
10. “I really don't have words to describe her style but it's beautiful & (for a brief moment) sad & respectful all at once.” Victoria Mason, “I have a total art-crush,” Earl & Cookie, 30.7.2009.
11. Marcus Bunyan, “Review: ‘Cineraria’ by Julia deVille at Sophie Gannon Gallery, Richmond, Melbourne,” Art Blart, Australia, 19.8.2009
12. Ibid.: “LESS IS MORE.” Talking about architecture, Van der Rohe used that maxim to give support to the so-called machine aesthetics. What he said has nothing to do with DeVille, who deals with art and organic aesthetics, facing the supreme challenge of death. The idea that less is more has its origin in Wieland, who included in the Teutsche Merkur in January 1774: „Und minder ist oft mehr.” The expression was used once again by Robert Browning in 1855: “Well, less is more, Lucrezia.” From this emerges that Bunyan is recommending DeVille no other than the quote of the quote of the quote (Bunyan quoting Van der Rohe, who was quoting Browning, who was quoting Wieland).
13. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966, chap. 2: “less is a bore.”
14. In her notes, DeVille indicates that one of her aims of Cineraria is the study of the rituals and the feeling surrounding funerary traditions from various places and times: “CINERARIA is a study of the ritual and sentiment behind funerary customs from various cultures and eras” (Art Blart). See also Disce mori, Influential Periods: “Brief History of Memento mori and Victorian Mourning Jewellery.”
15. “As I looked around the exhibition I was fascinated by the glamorous and delicate appearance of each animal in the exhibition. It seems that even in death Ms deVille can give reverence, beauty and grace to the life that the animal led.” Laydeej, “Vintage Fur & Taxidermy,” A Square Peg and a Round Hole, 29.7.2009
16. "Interview with Julia DeVille," Australian Edge, 9.1.2009; my emphasis.
17. See, for instance, Baudelaire’s poem “Une charogne” (Les Fleurs du Mal, 1857-61).
18. "Interview with DeVille," Australian Edge, 9.1.2009
19. At least one of the egg-shaped urns executed by DeVille contains real ashes: Thodey Tomb serves to preserves the actual ashes of Albert and Jean Thodey (Melbourne, Craft Victoria Gallery, Julia deVille: Ossuarium, October-November 2008).
20. Juan de Orozco y Cobarruvias, Emblemas Morales, 1589. Emblem II, IX includes the expressions “QVOTIDIE MORIMVR” and “En la vida está la muerte” (We die everyday; there is death in life).
21. See supra, text and n.10
22. For a discussion, see The Grotesque in Francis Bacon’s Paintings, pp. 47, 126 (n. 49). In Bacon’s imagery, beauty and death go pretty frequently hand in hand. See his interviews with David Sylvester (1967-68) and Melvyn Bragg (film, 1985).
23. "Vanity of vanities" has its source in the book of Ecclesiastes (הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים, HeVeL HaVaLIM; commonly translated into Latin language as Vanitas vanitatum). The poetic expression conveys the idea that nothing lasts. Vanity (or illusion) refers to everything that is empty, inconsistent and transient. It is used to stress the fragility and briefness of all human life.
Photographic credits. Disce mori, figs. 1, 4-5, 7, 9, 10-14, 17-18; Sophie Gannon Gallery, figs. 6, 14; Acidolatte, fig. 2, 8, 15-16; Art Blart, figs. 3, 6; Melbourne Jeweller, fig. 19.
For further discussion
Akerman, Mariano. "Grotesqueness in the Triptych," Efimeronte, 25.1.2008
_____. "Double-Edged" (film, 1.4.2008; clip, 17.5.2008), Imaginarium, 20.3.2009
_____. "Double-Edged" (clip, 17.5.2008), Encyclopedia.com, retrieved 30.9.2009
_____. "SER Y NO SER," Enthusiastic Despair, 1.8.2009
_____. "The Grotesque in Bacon's Paintings" (1999-2009), Enthusiastic Despair, 20.2.2009
_____. "Foam of Feeling and Existential Wasteland," Enthusiastic Despair, 21.3.2009
_____. "Resources," Imaginarium, 20.3.2009
1. Thank you. Really wonderful! It is so nice to know that my ideas can be understood through my work. Best, Julia Delville
2. Dear Mariano, Thank you for writing this. It is truly touching to see you understand my work.
A bit of information that may be of interest: Cinerarium is actually made from Jarrah (a type of wood) and is mimicking an egg. The Infant Funerary Urn however, is a real ostrich egg with ostrich plumes - in Victorian times white ostrich plumes were often used for a child's funeral.
All urns open up to place ashes inside and then hermetically seal. Thanks again - I really enjoyed reading your interpretation. Julia
3. The set of images showing artwork relating to and actually using dead animals is predominantly disconcerting and visually abhorent though no doubt, extremely creative. I am not an admirer of it - but I thank you for sharing this with me, it has expanded my horizons as far as art is concerned. Babur Kamal
4. Tu artículo, magnífico; las obras de "Cruella" de Ville, muy refinadas y sutiles. Patéticas para mí. Cómo se nota que la vida, para ella, ha perdido su sentido. Te paso una de mi autoría: "mess is lore" (para seguir el juego de los Masters). Sigue así, mi querido!
About this document. Idea, research and design: Mariano Akerman - Original text published in Knol. Initial English version: 25.9.2009 - Updated: 30.11.2011