Reaktion books are exceptionally high quality both in their art reproductions and in the well researched content. Ron Brown, the author, is an academically-oriented suicidologist and although this can make for a difficult read, it was not a dry one and he did an excellent job of explaining his subject without pretension.
The book explores depictions of suicide through art from the Greco-Roman era (with the first piece being of Ajax's "heroic" suicide) to 20th century work such as the seemingly emotionless style of Andy Warhol and the actual photography of the Heaven's Gate cult's mass suicide. He also touches briefly on 21st century art.
Along with the artwork and Brown's interpretations (and that of others), he puts the pieces into historical context and comments on the legal and social opinions and reactions to suicide. What perhaps is infuriating for this reader is the long expanse of time when suicide was considered "feminine" - the woman being depicted as weak, prone to "the easy way out," and so on. And yet, throughout this period historical evidence seemed to show that men were the ones commiting self-murder the majority of the time. For women it was a solution to unrequited love or something equally as emotional. For men it was an answer to the pressures of work, status, and other "noble" pursuits. However offensive this may be from the standpoint of modern day feminism, it is a fascinating piece of history.
Also of interest is the Jesus/Judas dichotomy. Judas having commited suicide by hanging led to hanging being both a form of suicide and a punishment for criminals of the most basest character. Jesus' crucifixion on the other hand, and the suicides of martyrs, were considered forms of "good" deaths. Interpretations of this sort, and those of influential historical figures like St. Augustine, characterized the interpretations of suicide within society for far, far too long. The time period when religion dictated morality was an especially harsh time for the interpretation of suicides.
I was somewhat unhappy with the predominance of post-modernist interpretation even in those times when post-modernism had yet to surface. Foucault is often referenced and this leaves a certain skepticism about the author's opinions. I was also surprised by the detailed interpretations given some of the art pieces - the question being raised: how do you know? What appear rather explicable works of art are shown to have all sorts of hidden complexities and though they certainly made sense and were of great interest, how can we be sure this is what the artist meant to convey? I was also rather disappointed that many of the pieces of art referenced were not included in the book. I understand how difficult it would be to include each piece but, sadly, the average reader would have no other way of viewing them - especially without reference of where the pieces are to be found. How wonderful it would be if Reaktion - or Taschen or Phaidon Press would take up the task of working with Brown to reproduce every painting in one collection (without the necessity of text besides title, artist, and source.)
I also hoped to see reference to the works of Bosch (especially Mad Meg), Bruegel, Dali, and Francis Bacon.. but they weren't included.
The book is a very welcome addition to my collection on the topic and I highly recommend it to both art lovers and those intrigued by the subject matter.