Hugo Simberg - The Garden of Death

by Alexandra Tuschka

Three skeletons lovingly tend a garden with all kinds of different plants; none of them is like the others. The skeleton on the left is watering a few small flowers in a box with a green watering can, the one in the middle is tenderly pressing a flower with blue blossoms against his chest and another figure, in the background, can only be seen as a back view. The lowered head suggests that she too is concentrating on tending the plants. Apart from the three figures, which are depicted in black and white tones, the entire work is bathed in a clear ochre yellow, which lies over it almost like a colour filter. In the background are tree trunks and a path leading into the unknown. On the left is a white towel hung up, it refers to the everydayness of the moment.

We have known since the Middle Ages that a living skeleton figure is death personified. That he is divided into three figures here is unusual, but since we are in 1896 and dealing with a symbolist artist, this of course excuses artistic licence. This death is depicted with unusual affection. The rather naive painting style, which is highly simplified, also takes away the figure's menace. Otherwise we know him differently! So he usually comes into the picture quite ruthlessly with a scythe and prospects of hell. Often he also has a stupid timing and reminds the sitter in her most beautiful hours of her transience, as for example in the picture "Dance with the Girl" by the same artist from 1899.

In general, the Finnish painter has a tendency towards morbid themes in his work. He painted the "Garden of Death" several times and gave an explanation himself: the garden is "the place where the dead go before they go to heaven"; in other words, a kind of intermediate stage. Then, when they wither, the flowers, each of which stands for a human, individual soul, are finally transplanted to paradise. This idea already existed in Greek mythology; in this particular case, it probably goes back in large part to the fairy tale "Story of a Mother" by Hans Christian Andersen. This is about a mother who loses her child and wants to seek it out in the garden of death.

"Then they went into the great greenhouse of Death, where flowers and trees grew wonderfully in confusion. There were his hyacinths under glass bells, and there were great peonies strong as trees; there grew water plants, some quite fresh, others sickly, water snakes lay upon them, and black crabs clung to the stem. There were beautiful palm trees, oaks and plane trees, there was parsley and flowering thyme, every tree and flower had its name, they were each a human life (...)"

The fairy tale ends with the mother humbly realising that she cannot stop the cycle of life. The position of the skeletons is not chosen without reason: the foremost one stands sideways to us, the middle one straight ahead and the rearmost one with its back to the viewer. The connection with the human life cycle is obvious. They also draw us in compositionally. This artwork invites the viewer to reflect on mortality, on the beauty of individuality and not to fear what happens afterwards. Death is not portrayed as an opponent of life, but as the guardian of the human soul.

Hugo Simberg - The Garden of Death

1896, watercolour and gouache, 15.8 × 17.5 cm, Ateneum, Helsinki

Hugo Simberg - The Dance with Death

1899, unknown location