Archive | 4:13 pm

All Souls’ Day: Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller and Franz Skarbina

2 Nov

Franz Skarbina, All Souls’ Day (Hedwig Cemetery), 1896

The graveyard comes alive on All Souls’ Day, candles and flowers for sure brighten up the otherwise grey and lonely landscape of the graveyards. I like to visit the graveyard these days, not for tradition but to enjoy the magical mood where the vibrancy of pink, orange and yellow chrysanthemums and the flickering light of the candles create a unique atmosphere which is half-eerie and half-carnival like. Carnival of souls, I can almost imagine them dancing ethereally between the tomb stones, and the last yellow leaves falling from the trees and joining them in their macabre dance. I found two interesting, but very different examples of this motif in art history; Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’s painting “On All Souls’ Day”, painted in 1839, and Franz Skarbina’s more atmospheric portrayal of the theme painted in 1896.

Waldmüller’s painting shows two ladies, probably mother and daughter, dressed head to toe in black. Their pale round faces looks almost identical and doll-like, peeking under black bonnets adorned with black lace. The mother’s hands are clasped, as in a solemn prayer, while the daughter is reading a book, probably some verses from the Bible. The grave they are visiting, I assume it is that of the daughter’s father, is adorned with flowers, there’s even a flower wreath on the wooden cross. In comparison, the graves in the background appear cold and grey, like a modern apartment complex, alienated and somber. The ground around the graves is bare, no time had passed for new fresh grass to grow, and the mud everywhere is suffocating. The painting appears static and somewhat sentimental, the emphasis is on the women and their feelings, not on the overall graveyard mood.

Skarbina’s painting is much more vibrant and lively, the flickering candles and the murmuring trees, here and there a white cross arises from the background but it doesn’t appear eerie. The graves speak of eternity while the candles remind us of transience; their fragile lives can stop at each blow of the wind or a drop of rain. The little girl in black is using one candle to light the others while her mother is watching. The yellow light of the candles is warming their faces. The painting has depth and dynamics; we can see other people in the background, other graves are lively and candles are lighted everywhere, whereas in Waldmüller’s painting the focus is solely on that one grave and the others don’t matter. I’m not going to lie, Skarbina’s painting is the one I love more because it has that touch of magic and dreaminess. The mud on the Waldmüller’s painting seems ready to swallow another corpse and that horrid realism unsettles me. Skarbina’s painting is more romantic in spirit.

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, On All Souls’ Day, 1839