An artistic death

“Art has two constant, two unending concerns: It always meditates on death and thus always creates life.” – Boris Pasternak

Page from Life magazine
Page from Life magazine

My first solo exhibition, Memento Mori would have half fitted Pasternak’s description. It dealt with the Victorian’s romantic notions of death, a view that some artists still cling to, even when death is all too often the result of violence. A little while ago, I wrote an article about the cinematic destruction of New York. Researching the Empire State Building, I came across the story of Evelyn McHale, which though often told, is I think worth repeating here, particularly as today (20 September) would have been her birthday.

On May Day 1947, the 23 year old Evelyn got off a train at Penn Station in New York City, crossed the road and checked into a room at the Governor Clinton Hotel. A little later, she walked the few hundred yards to the Empire State Building and took an elevator to the 86th floor observation deck. There she laid down her purse, took off her shoes and coat, neatly folding it over the waist hight wall, and at 10:40am leapt.

In her purse were some family photographs and a folded note, which in part read:
“…I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me…”

Suicide Fallen Body Andy WarholBut Evelyn is remembered, because her death became first a curiosity, and then an art work. She achieved a kind of celebrity, for she made a beautiful corpse. She fell a thousand feet and landed on her back on the roof of a car parked on 34th Street. She lay there in a pose that made her look as if she was asleep. Her hand delicately held the string of pearls she wore around her neck. Her feet were crossed.

Hearing the impact her body made, a photography student called Robert Wiles, ran over and took a photograph of her. Life magazine ran it in their next issue. The caption described Evelyn as “reposing calmly in a grotesque bier” (a moveable frame a coffin rests on before burial or cremation).

Twenty years later Andy Warhol used the photograph in one of his ‘Death and Disasters’ series, titling the work ‘Suicide (Fallen Body’). Evelyn McHale said she wanted to be forgotten, but Warhol gave her much more than her 15 minutes of fame.


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