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Fading into Innocence: Death, Sexuality and Moral Restoration in Henry Peach Robinson's FadingAway Jannie Uhre Mogensen Pain melted in tears, and was pleasure; Death tingled with blood, and was Ufe. -Swinburne1 The arts . . . can provide an invaluable entrée into the diversity of the universal experiences of death, dying, grief, and loss. -Sandra L Bertman2 The business of art, L. Tolstoy wrote, Ues in this: "to make that understood and felt which in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible".3 The didactic element is certainly present alongside the aesthetic in the works of the Victorian art photographer Henry Peach Robinson. Translating sentiment into graphic forms, his work FadingAway (1858) makes ametaphysical concept of death accessible for scrutiny and comprehension. The composite work iUustrates the romantic vision of death by tuberculosis. Its subUminal element of sexual passion makes it an interesting study in relation to the nostalgic Victorian denomination of death as restorer of innocence. Rather than restricting its purpose to photographicaUy capturing the empty sheU of the fading body, it iUustrates a moraUsing , anti-sexual standpoint. Its admonitory ideaüsm aims subUminaUy at purifying the spirit of the beholder, playing on reUgious and moral strings of sentiment recognised and valued by a Victorian audience. It finds a uterary counterpart in some of the more gothic works of the Victorian Renew (2006) J. Mogesen period. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla in particular draws expUcitly on the aUegorical equation of sex with death, with the female vampire as a sexual but salvageable aggressor/victim. As Robinson and Le Fanu both conclude, innocence can indeed be regained for females who are victims of their passions. AU they have to do is die. As long as there has been art, death has been artisticaUy represented. Craftsmen of aU times have pursued the death-theme in various forms and Victorian artists were no exception. Were one to make a Ust of Pre-RaphaeUte and similar paintings from the period depicting beautiful women in their final pose, it would include Arthur Hughes's Ophelia (1852), SirJohn Everett Muíais' Ophelia (1852),John Atkinson Grimshaw's Ekine (1877), John WiUiam Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott (1888) and Ophelia (undated), and Holman Hunt's The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) - to name a few. The dead ladies evoke the tradition of the classical female nude, going back at least to Cranach. With her languid passivity, the exposed muse has served her purpose of visual stimulation throughout the centuries with Utile change in appearance. Her horizontal figure always Ues manipulably 'open' before the spectator and her facial expression always bears witness to a resting inteUectuaUty. The tradition of depicting such females as desirable objects is reminiscent in the death portrayals. Certainly , females are at their most passive when dead. As Dijkstra has observed, "representations of beautiful women safely dead remained the late-nineteenth-century painter's favourite way of depicting the transcendent spiritual value of passive feminine sacrifice" (Ruby 37). The positive valuation of such images was a natural response given the Victorian ideal of self-assertion through selflessness - an ideal that was conspicuously EvangeUcal in its paradox and influenced many contemporary artists and men of letters. The dead maidens similarly evoke the tradition of 'innocent sleepers' in Victorian art. Sleep and death have long been equated; in classical Greece, the sons of night were Hypnos, god of sleep, and his twin Thanatos, god of death (Ruby 63). Lewis CarroU's photograph of young Xie Kitchen, covered in virginally white robes and smiUng in her sleep, is emblematic of the sighing of adult males over pasvolume 32 number 1 Fading into Innocence sive, aUegedly innocent female children at the time. From a superior position as observer, the spectator could ponder if the presence of Original Sin was indeed darkening the girl's spirits, or she was truly 'innocent.' For the dead girl, sleep has become eternal; but She occupies theUwisCarroll¡ XkKtcbinAsleep, 1873 same ethereal dreamland sphere as the sleeper. As Michael Bartram rightly concludes, many "photographs of sleeping children echo the formulae of the numberless paintings and drawings which assuaged the contemporary horror of infant mortaUty: the sick, dying, and dead young people...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 1-17
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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