Liisa Lindgren 2005

Central Art Archives in the Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki, Finland

From metropolis to necropolis

My paper deals with Lutheran funerary sculpture in Finland and the modernist rejection of the 19th century cemetery culture. The emotional weight of the elaborate 19th cemetery culture was given tension by the dichotomies of time and timelessness, presence and absence, sorrow and comfort. Memorials with the popular theme of mourning represented absence sharpened by feelings of sorrow and loss that structured the modern experience of the world. The cemetery was seen as an ideal place for reflection on death, a space of melancholy. The First World War changed attitudes to mortality. Luxurious angels and mourners became inappropriate displays of wealth and status, and last but not least of femininity. Classicism gave models for new, ‘masculine’ monuments, stripped of excessive decoration and sentimentality: mourning maidens were replaced by young men carrying attributes of art that link death with freedom and aesthetic experience. The comprehensive planning of modern cemeteries, based on principles of economy and democracy, deemphasized monuments in favor of open space and unbroken scenery. As an allegory of 20th century modernism, the cemetery had a negative meaning. In the 1920s Oswald Spengler’s views of culture were characterized by a cycle of growth and decay leading from living, flexible culture to mechanical and stereotypical civilization. Vitalistic modernism saw cemeteries as horror images of a petrified culture. In the 1930s Lewis Mumford, the critic of cities, claimed that the cemetery was the end-product of erroneous development, the horror of Babylon and Nineveh, a necropolis. In the monuments was crystallized everything that is dead, obsolete and backward in society. Monuments evoke false expectations of eternity and continuity. As a living organism, the city’s vital sign is its ability to renew itself. The vitalistic life rhetoric of 20th century modernism rejected melancholic reflection of death as decadence.


The Cemetery Research Group runs two events a year: in May and in November. Follow the links and send in an abstract