Friday, September 16, 2011

Opening reception for Annie E. Brown Tonight!

Annie E. Brown: In Loving Memory opens tonight at 7pm.
Admission is free and all are welcome!

Here is a sneak peek: 

From the full colour, softcover catalogue which will be on sale for $10 each:

"The life of an individual tells us much about who someone was and how they lived.  A detailed recipe book lets us know this person liked to cook.  An inscribed book reveals that the person read a lot and loved poetry in the same way that a decorative perfume bottle indicates a love of things that were beautiful.  Annie Brown, a Victorian woman who lived in the Muskokas and who died in 1917, is the inspiration for this exhibition.  The exhibition isn’t so much about her specifically though as it is about the lives of “typical” Victorians and in particular their attitude towards death and mourning, how it changed and what may or may not be similar today.  For the details of an individual’s life, can reveal much about the society that he or she was a part of.

At the beginning of the Victorian period the over-riding religious sensibility was that which might best be described as Evangelical.  The practices were characterized by devoutness and piety. The world of the living was understood as being fraught with temptation, sin and hardship. Suffering was expected and one was to accept it as part of God’s will.  This is reflected in the mourning practices of the time. It was hoped that one would have a “good death”.  In this case, that means that one retains one’s faculties and is able to make a confession of sin and ask for God’s blessing before passing into the next world. By the 1860s there was a change in how death was understood. Euphemisms such as “eternal sleep” began to come into common usage. Rather than focusing on mortality and the corporality of the body, these Victorians stressed the connection with and continuation of the spirit or soul beyond death.  Connections with loved ones, eternal life and the promise of redemption brought solace as did mementoes and items (including hair) associated with the person when he or she was living. 

As the Victorian era progressed and drew to a close attitudes towards death and dying shifted once again. Atheism began to rise and there was more open questioning of traditional beliefs. Scientific discoveries changed how people understood the world and its workings. Advances in medicine and health care prolonged lives and more and more people began going to hospitals rather than dying at home. World War I traumatized the European and North American continents. 

Never before had war brought about such large numbers of casualties: almost nine million dead, over twenty-one million wounded and close to eight million missing or POWs.  Coming on the heels of the war was the Spanish Influenza which is estimated to have killed between twenty to one hundred million.   The world was reeling. Some coped by clinging tightly to their faith and historical traditions: others could not find God’s presence and embraced Atheism. Spiritualism, which combined a belief in God but also the belief that one could contact spirits through mediums or spiritualists, was extremely popular, with a ground-swell of believers in World War I.

Millions died during World War I. There had never been death on such a monumental and far-reaching scale.  Across Europe and effecting North America as well, it seemed as if an entire generation of young men had been wiped out and nation upon nation was plunged into deep mourning.  A photo from 1917 at a London sporting event depicted a crowd of a few hundred people – with so many people in mourning that it was almost entirely a sea of black.  It was as if all of England was in mourning. The grief was collective and individual at one and the same time.  And it was at this point that traditional mourning began falling out of favour, being replaced by less rigid practices and conventions.  Perhaps philosophically and emotionally grief on that kind of collective scale could not be sustained and there came a realization that an entire nation could not be effective while in mourning: this is not to say that there was any lessening of feelings of loss or grief  – just different ways of making them manifest.  These days, here in Canada, soldiers who are killed in Iraq are honoured by impromptu gatherings of people on overpasses as hearses return their bodies via the “Highway of Heroes”.  December 1st marks World Aids day and on that anniversary many of us remember how AIDS became a modern day plague, robbing us of far too many talented and loved (mostly) young men in the 1980s.  Collectively and individually we still seek ways to honour our dead, to keep memories alive and to deal with our grief.

How the Victorians dealt with death and mourning gives us a vivid picture of their lives, beliefs and ideals. Likewise the works created by artists, the rituals of our contemporary society, how we remember our dead and express our grief, will tell future generations who we were.  One cannot help but feel that there are many things in the past and many people who are gone from us whose presence remains influential."

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