With all the things that have been happening in our world lately, our mortality has taken center stage in our consciousness, and many of us wonder where we're headed if we're next. And undoubtedly the religious among us have been preparing for a glorious afterlife in Heaven, determined to do right and get affairs in order so that Hell may be clearly avoided.
This is a morbid topic, but it's something many of us are deeply contemplating. And that does make me wonder, how did we conceptualize the afterlife in yesteryear? Moreover, how were these thoughts interpreted artistically?
In this article, I'd like to explore artistic visions of the afterlife in the commercial art of the last century, hopefully as a way of facilitating further contemplation and discussion, and maybe even putting a different spin on this topic so that it may be more comfortably addressed.
But first, a brief disclaimer: I am not a religious person, and I do not have any specific beliefs either way, despite the fact that I am spiritual and I do believe in an afterlife of some sort. For this reason, I'm presenting this topic from a neutral and objective standpoint. This means that I do not have any religious agenda in writing this article.
And now, let's jump right in!
1.) Crescent Bicycle Ad (1901): Of course, it goes without saying that all companies want to make their products as desirable as possible, so such universal topics as Heaven and Hell have been used in many advertisements, undoubtedly to the point where they've become a cliche. "As close as you can get to Heaven" and "sinfully good" are two sides of the same coin.
Here we see the topic of Heaven being used to sell, of all things, a bicycle. What appears to be a stained glass window showing customers with their bicycles is juxtaposed alongside a bike at the bottom with a light shining on it from Heaven above. Now we know, from recent studies, that the emotions we feel when buying a positively branded product are on par with religious fervor, but this ad seems to foreshadow that discovery by about 100 years. Maybe they already knew...
2.) Fatima Cigarette Ad (1924): By the same token, Hell and the Devil provides just the sort of drama that some ads need to sell their product. In this case, Fatima cigarettes has definitely evoked a Luciferian air with this image of a devilishly grinning young man conceitedly posing with his favorite cigarette. The lighting in this image only adds to the demonic factor, making us scratch our heads and wonder, could that really be Hell itself?
3.) Life Magazine Cover (February 23, 1911): But no matter how well you advertise, and no matter how successful you are financially, it is ultimately your character that decides whether you get into Heaven. In this poignant cover from Life magazine, a wealthy tycoon is dismayed to find that all the money in the world can't buy him a spot in Heaven. I'm sure this is on somebody's mind if not on yours, but when I saw this, I instantly thought of the Bible passage that says "'Tis easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Also, the story of Lazarus and the rich man comes to mind.
If you believe in Heaven, this might be a good reminder to always do the right thing, no matter how much you make...
4.) He Goes to Church on Sunday (1907): And then there are people who, like the main antagonist of this song, continue to do bad deeds, but think they'll be okay in the afterlife just because they go to church. The lyrics of this tune say it best:
"I know a very wicked man, I knew him when a lad
I've never met his equal telling lies.
Although he takes delight in doing everything that's bad,
He thinks he'll go to Heaven when he dies.
When but a child he robbed his dear old Grandma in her sleep.
He stole two golden teeth out of her jaws.
He's been a kleptomaniac since he began to creep,
But the neighbors think that he's alright because
He goes to church on Sunday."
As far as the design of this piece goes, it does have a very church-like appearance, with the bell design towards the middle and the biblical typography at the top. It makes no explicit reference to Heaven or Hell either way, but rather leaves it for the lyrics to judge. Where is he headed? Moreover, if we go to church, what are we doing in the meantime?
5.) I Wish There Was a Wireless to Heaven (1922): When we love someone, we can't help but believe they're going to Heaven. But, unfortunately for us, when they're there and we're here, they can't be with us any longer. So, on the one hand, we're glad they've gone to a good place, but on the other hand, we feel a void where they once were and we can never fill it in this life.
But what if we could? What if it were possible to at least briefly talk to our loved ones in Heaven? That's the question that lent itself to popular songs just after the Telephone was invented, ("Hello, Central, Give me Heaven," by Charles K. Harris is one that comes to mind,) and now the same question is being pondered anew with the invention of the wireless radio.
Stylistically, I find that this image seems a bit too playful to deal with such a somber topic, and I might have thought a photorealistic approach to be more appropriate. But it's visually interesting for this very reason. We don't expect it, and I think it's natural that we gravitate towards the unexpected.
6.) Life Magazine Cover (September 27, 1906): Do we even want to go to Heaven? This seems like a silly question, but there was one funny person back in the day who might have answered no. At least that's what this Life magazine cover seems to be suggesting. Anthony Comstock was a moral extremist and an advocate of strict censorship who, it seemed, frowned upon anything pleasurable. Thus, St. Peter turns him away from Heaven here, not as punishment, but as a favor, saying "We may have things here you would object to."
7.) "The World: Good vs. Evil" (Life Magazine Cover; July 23, 1908): I would be remiss if I didn't include my personal favorite graphic to deal with this topic. This Life magazine cover, drawn by James Montgomery Flagg, deals with a topic that is just as relevant today as it was 112 years ago. The fate of the world hangs in the balance, and it is very much a battle between good and evil. In this day and age, one can easily interpret the Devil figure as representing everything that's wrong with the world today: racism, climate change, income inequality, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the list goes on. And although good is unfortunately the minority (especially with our current political situation,) it is bravely fighting the massive figure of evil because of little more than its belief in positive change.
I have this inspiring piece hanging on my wall as a reminder to never lose hope in these trying times, and you can have it too, as it is one on our offerings. Click here to purchase.
8.) "For Heaven's Sake" (Judge Magazine Cover; October 13, 1917): For Christians, singing praises to God is a good start, although this magazine cover seems to suggest that it's all that's necessary. Many religious people would disagree with this, and obviously, as we've seen in number four above, going to church by itself isn't enough for someone who's constantly doing bad deeds outside of church. Maybe it's one of many things this couple is doing "for Heaven's sake". At least, one would hope...
9.) At the Devil's Ball (1913): Many music experts will tell you (incorrectly) that the first songs about the Devil were those by bands such as Black Sabbath in the 1970s, but that's completely untrue. Here we see one such example: a song written by Irving Berlin about a dance hosted by the Devil "in his great, big fiery hall." I've heard this song many times, and have even tried playing it on the piano, because I love how catchy it is.
Artistically, I also find the cover to be so appealing in so many ways. i especially like the bold use of red throughout, as well as the composition, where the Devil, (looking like a real Casanova,) appears to be beckoning us into his dance hall to enjoy a good time. It's a playful and ironically non-threatening depiction of what is considered by religious folk to be the biggest threat of all. In spite of ourselves, we kind of want to dance there--but as long as it's only for one night!
10.) Beautiful Star of Heaven (1905): To end on a positive note, here is a peaceful image of angels in heaven. There's no statement or spiritual interpretation. Just a tranquil image of a deep blue firmament populated by the blessed. Everything about it, including, (as hinted earlier) the color, the reassuring composition, and the happy, peaceful facial expressions of those who have "made it," makes for a compelling image of what awaits those who do good.
And that's it for this list. Do you agree with it? What other depictions of Heaven and Hell in vintage art do you like? As always, please let me know in the comments so we can get a conversation going.
Talk to you soon!