For lots of reasons, some of them obvious, I’ve since found myself thinking about this painting a lot. It’s the kind of image that stays with you. It’s shocking and disturbing, and it tackles a subject you don’t often see treated so bluntly. And a cynic could look at the painting and assume that’s the reason it won – simple shock tactics.
But I think the reason I’ve thought about Last Portrait of Mother so much is that there’s so much going on…
Daphne Todd painted her mother in the few days following her death. Todd’s mother had been living with her for 14 years before she died in hospital shortly after her 100th birthday. Todd calls it a “devotional” painting, the last in a series of portraits of her mother painted from middle age until her death. And it was a year before she even considered submitting it for the BP Award.
The painting was a way for Todd to process her mother’s death, of ending 14 years of devotion to her mother’s care with three days devoted to painting one last portrait. And as you look, I think you can see a whole range of emotions and attitudes towards death – attitudes which resonate with each of us.
In one sense, this painting fits into a series as the natural end. It seems sensible that a series of paintings capturing one woman’s life should reflect her death too. Death is just the final step of life. But there’s more going on. I think the emotion and grief Todd was feeling as she painted is clear. She says, “it was actually quite therapeutic. It gave me something to do after she died and a reason to be with her.” Even the style of painting seems emotional (particularly when you see it amongst the careful and intricate likenesses in the rest of the exhibition). Maybe there’s even a hint of anger that death has taken her mother, as if in dragging death out into polite conversation and making a spectacle of it she is getting her own back?
And then again, it’s just a body. The hospital wristband, the facial expression, the colour and shape of the body – there is no mistaking that this is a body. In the end, that is all that is left.
When faced with death, we all have to fit these ideas together. If death is a natural part of life, if everything comes to an end, then why do we react so strongly against the idea? In fact, when we try to make death a natural part of life, we remove the sting. But when death is of no consequence, aren’t we actually saying life is of no consequence either? Isn’t the only way to make death less important to make the life which is ending less important too?
In the Biblical view of the world, death is completely unnatural. It invaded God’s perfect world as a consequence of our rebellion and our alienation from God the Life-giver. Everything in us says death is wrong because it is. More than that, the Bible says that death has lost its sting – but this is the very opposite of talking ourselves into believing that death is OK. Jesus tasted the sting of death for us – and survived. Death is not the inevitable end. There’s another way, where the perishable is clothed with the imperishable, where death-deserving mortality is clothed in blood-bought immortality.
The Christian doesn’t accept death as a part of life. The Christian doesn’t even accept death for now with hope for the future. The Christian sees death for what it is – a curse and an intrusion to be hated and resisted – and the Christian looks to the victorious, living Lord Jesus who has destroyed it.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?”
“Where, O death, is your sting?”
(1 Corinthians 15v54-55)