You can say a lot about the things people in the past refused to talk about, but they embraced one thing we fail miserably at: mourning.
Tansy Curtin says these days we do not know how to talk about death.
“It’s very sanitised. We don’t often have viewings any more, we don’t really talk about loss,” she says.
“And we don’t really know how to talk about other people’s losses, either.”
Enter the Victorians, who saw mourning as an outward sign of an inward sorrow.
Ms Curtin is one of the curators for the Bendigo Art Gallery’s Gothic Beauty exhibition, which launches Saturday and explores notions of love, loss and spirituality from Victorian times through to today.
The exhibition showcases the darkly psychological ideas and highly emotional states epitomised in Gothic visual art and literature.
“Where has that come from? What is the history of that?” Ms Curtin asked.
For artist Michael Needham, the answer is rooted firmly in the Australian landscape, which people have imbued with Gothic sensibilities since colonial times.
His piece is a towering monument with skeletal pine branches bursting from its trunk. At its base are tombstones of forgotten souls, at its top crows keep a lonely watch.
Yes, there is an element of B-grade horror movie to it – think Tales from the Crypt or the Twilight Zone – with Mr Needham saying there was enough kitsch to make death easier to talk about.
Yet those themes belie something that is far more serious.
“As much as the Australian landscape is beautiful, it has the potential to kill you,” Mr Needham said.
That danger is something that seemed intertwined with Victorians’ particular bent for large monuments and tombstones commemorating the dead, Mr Needham believed.
“The day after the announcement of the death of Burke and Wills, someone was calling for a monument,” he said.
Those monuments may have been an attempt to immortalise people, but time and nature had a way of undermining those aims.
“You go walking through any remote or rural cemetery and you are going to find a whole lot of these headstones. The names are no longer there,” Mr Needham said.
How Gothic thought found a voice
So, how did the Gothic sensibilities explored in the exhibition develop in the first place?
Much of it can be explained by the way Victorians lived their lives.
“It was a time of very, very high infant mortality rates. People were surrounded by death,” Ms Curtin said.
“It was a very tragic time, with horrible childhood diseases, bad nutrition and the industrial revolution, which changed the world so dramatically. So mourning became very important.
“Queen Victoria is a great example of that, having adopted mourning fashion for the last 40 years of her life.”
Victorians truly did wear grief on their sleeves, though it also extended to their fingers, vintage jewellery collector and writer Hayden Peters said.
He has extensively researched mourning jewellery, a small portion of which will go on display from Saturday.
The pieces are the kind people would give out to friends and family when someone died or was buried.
“If you did not have them your family was looked down upon,” Mr Peters said.
Yet funerals and mourning were about far more than social status.
Ms Curtin points to a funeral hearse on display during the exhibition. The hearse was used around Bendigo from the 1880s onwards.
“It is so evocative. It gives you a true sense of the Victorian idea of mourning, of death and of dealing with that,” she said.
“But it is also about giving people the opportunity to take part in that mourning.
“You can imagine this hearse going down the streets of Bendigo surrounded by mourners walking at a slow pace, and the beauty that would have been involved in that.”
Gothic Beauty: Victorian notions of love, loss and spirituality begins on Saturday 6 October and runs through to 10 February.
Tickets are still available for Gothic Beauty – a Gothic night out at the gallery, which takes place on 13 October and will feature a night of performances, happenings and Gothic art and design.
For more information on mourning jewellery visit Mr Peters’ website at artofmourning.com
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