John Keats’ death mask inspires an art installation..or does it?

virgilHmm…I have been wondering how to respond to the news from artdaily.org that artist Virgil Marti has opened his exhibition  MATRIX 167 / Ode to a Hippie at Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut. I admit I had never heard of Virgil Marti before I read the piece, but it was first sent to me by wonderful artist Amanda White and then came through on a Google Alert for John Keats. Why? Because Marti was unveiling work  ‘that examines the connections between Romanticism and the hippie culture through the tragic figures of John Keats (1795–1821), an English Romantic poet, and Paul Thek (1933–1988), an American painter, sculptor and installation artist.’

Apparently Marti’s work has been inspired by John Keats’ death mask (see centre image above). The article says Marti ‘discovered’ the mask in the  Wadsworth Atheneum’s collection, although images and reproductions of the mask are easy to find and certainly it is no new ‘discovery’, donated as it was to the museum in 1924.  The mask, according to artdaily.org is  ‘a morose plaster cast of the poet’s lifeless face’. Well I don’t think Keats really needs to apologise for being morose in death, or indeed ‘lifeless’. He had a pretty shocking time in his last weeks after all.

In the video below, Marti discusses the exhibition and why he was inspired to use Keats’ death mask alongside  Paul Thek and The Tomb, an artwork that is actually lost.

thekSeeing links between Keats and Thek is not as bizarre as it may seem. They both died relatively young (Keats died of tuberculosis aged 25 in 1821; Thek died of an Aids related illness in 1988 in his mid-50s) and both are figures that continue to seize the public’s imagination. Whether I like Marti’s work or not doesn’t matter much but what I do like is how it reaffirms Keats’ continuing relevance not only to artists but to the public in general. People are gripped by creative genius cut short by the tragedy of incurable illness or accident.

I find twentieth century art intriguing. I don’t like all of it, but try very hard to understand what boundaries the artist was testing or how he or she was working to represent a subject with originality and meaning. The trouble is, it sometimes seems hard to defend from accusations of pretentiousness, which is why Amanda sent me the article when she first saw it.  Her work is naive contemporary art; accessible and interesting and so popular it is on sale as cards and prints in museums and galleries and held in private collections. She talks about her work in very different terms, ones that are easier for the non-expert to engage with.

I don’t think art has to have a purpose, or be able to teach or tell us something to be of value, but when Whistler said…

“Art should be independent of all claptrap —should stand alone … and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like.”

…I think he was intending us to be able to enjoy art without all the jargon, pomposity and hype. He wanted people to love art for its own sake and to enjoy it with our senses, be wholly absorbed by it and take what we wanted from it without the interference of so-called experts. “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all” said John Keats.

To me, however wonderful Virgil Marti’s work might be I feel excluded from enjoyment of it by reading an article like this. Overworked and overwrought. And not, to my mind anyway, inspired by Keats.

What are your thoughts on how we should enjoy contemporary art works? Do you feel you need to be ‘instructed’ to enjoy it or can you just lose yourself in it and find your own meaning? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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4 Responses to John Keats’ death mask inspires an art installation..or does it?

  1. lindaglasto says:

    An interesting post. I loved the video and the idea of John Keats as a hippy but not so keen on the actual artworks apart from the Golden Bough which “spoke” to me as I have just been dipping into Virgil after a long absence. I don’t have to like them to appreciate what the artist had in mind and likewise there is nothing wrong with liking a piece of art without understanding an artist’s message, I used to get annoyed in our art class in school (and also in our English literature class for that matter) when I was asked “What did the artist / poet / writer mean by this?”. How are we to know? Does it matter? I think not. Enjoy it for what it is and discover your own meaning and relevance within it!

    Oops! I seem to gave gotten on to my high horse about this one! It has been one of my pet peeves for over half a century and one of the reasons that I couldn’t hack art school. I seem to remember Pablo Picasso said something like “nobody can analyse birdsong so why try to analyse a painting?” I’m with him on that one!

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

    • keatsbabe says:

      I really do agree with what you say about school art/literature lessons. It was worse when teachers said ‘what was the artist/writer/poet TRYING to say’…!An insult to everyone involved in the experience. Over analysis has killed a love of art and poetry for millions of school kids. I think many are scared to express an opinion about contemporary art because the language as used in this article is so exclusive. It doesn’t allow one to just respond to a piece without feeling a little dim…

  2. Peter Malone says:

    Actually, it’s Keats’ life mask, as taken by BR Hayden.

    • keatsbabe says:

      Interesting isn’t it? I don’t think it looks, totally, like either. I was at Keats House last weekend and this installation would suit it well. There is very little of the real poet left in anything other than his words.

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