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Bernard Hall’s “The Suicide”

Bernard Hall, The Suicide (or Despair), c. 1916-18Saturday, 5 March 2011

Bernard Hall’s “The Suicide”

Among the most remarkable pictures in the Ewing Collection is The Suicide, painted by Lindsay Bernard Hall (1859-1935), a British-born Australian painter, around c. 1916-18. The artist is well known for his depiction of female nudes, yet few other paintings can match the high degree of drama and human emotion as captured in this work.

The museum’s website does not provide us with clues as to what may have driven this woman to the greatest depths of anguish and despair. However, if we were to examine the painting through the eyes of a late nineteenth / early twentieth century viewer, we may uncover the sad narrative behind this work.

A well-cared-for body; fashionably coiffed hair; opulent fabrics; fur skin rug; elegant shoes; imposing architecture of the apartment; a bowl of fresh cut flowers: all of these details might be construed as a tale of a courtesan, a fallen woman, who is driven to suicide by the break-up of a latest love affair; perhaps the one with a rich lover who kept her in a lavish lifestyle; and where a drastic measure of taking one’s own life is the only escape from a life in penury. As such, the story takes on puritanical, moralising overtones of redemption, though certainly with further research other clues to the painting’s origins or semantics might be uncovered.

And as we stop in front of the painting to ponder about the woman’s sad tale, just like a hundred years ago we subconsciously come to absorb and admire the many wonderful technical and artistic details within this work – which perhaps may have been Hall’s intention in the first place! The boldest foreshortening of the woman’s body shows him as a skilful artist, knowledgeable about the drawing of the human figure. The limited colour palette of the interior’s background concentrates our attention on the bright yellow of the dressing gown, luscious green of the drapery, deep red of the cushion, and, of course, the warm fleshy pinks of the nude female form, richly bathed in sunlight that floods the picture from a window opening in the upper right of the painting.

In other words, the intriguing narrative of the picture draws our attention to the excellence of the artist’s workmanship, and vice versa – Hall combines his academic skills with drawing, colour, composition, and brushwork, and vivid imagination to draw the viewer’s attention to what must have been – and still is – a highly contentious, unsettling, and confronting subject matter; creating one of those iconic images that is bound to stay in the mind of the viewer.

PS: The painting’s former owner, Dr Samuel Ewing, must have been so uncomfortable with the fact that this remarkable painting depicts suicide, that he changed its name to Despair, under which title this painting is still frequently exhibited.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

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