Gustav Klimt - Death and Life

by Alexandra Tuschka


Armed with a club, Death - here classically depicted as a skeleton - approaches an embraced group of people of all ages. He seems to be grinning and hardly noticed by the others. Only one woman has her eyes open; as if in a delusion, she looks over. Another lady with a baby catches the eye. She holds it lovingly and gently. The child, in turn, is unusually overstretched at the ribcage. Further below we see the face of an elderly lady with a headscarf; to the right, two young girls and below a pair of lovers, both burying their faces. And then - on closer inspection - another girl is hidden in the ornaments on the central axis to the left. The persons are covered - typically for Klimt - with all kinds of ornamental surfaces. This appears patchwork-like, but the friendly colours and forms convey a pleasant impression. Death, on the other hand, is dressed in a robe with lots of crosses. These are black and in different sizes. His robe is also composed of blue, purple and green tones. One could read this as a walking graveyard. The darker areas that fill the empty spaces were once executed with golden paint.

Klimt painted this work in oil in 1910, having already made sketches on the subject since 1908. Until 1911 we speak of his "golden phase", in which the painter used gold leaf often and abundantly, and which remain his trademark to this day. In Rome in 1911 he was very appropriately awarded the "golden medal" at the International Art Exhibition in Rome. Why Klimt changed his style so drastically and later largely abandoned gold is not exactly known. This work represents that change, as gold gave way to dull grey.

It is striking, but not unusual, that almost all the figures close their eyes; they are introverted - looking "inwards". The work, which was created in Vienna, could thus be related in thought to Freudian teachings, according to which our dream worlds are of tremendous importance. But we also find this motif in many other works by the artist. It does not necessarily indicate sleeping or dreaming, but in many works also a bond, intimacy and devotion - even when awake.


In the thematically related painting "The Three Ages of a Woman", for example, we see similar poses: facing each other, resting in an embrace, eyes closed. Thematically, this theme is by no means a novelty, but its tradition goes back to the Middle Ages. The "dance of death" was a popular motif in times of stark social differences to remind us that after death all people are equal. Hans Baldung Grien, born in the 15th century, also devoted himself extensively to this theme.

A beautiful young woman can be seen on the left, next to her likeness in old, a child lies on the ground and Death, with his attribute of the hourglass, reminds us of the transience of all life. His broken lance suggests that life too has the power to constrain death; through its eternal return.


As with many of the artist's other works, we find that the dimensions of 178 x 198 cm are almost a square, a quite unusual format in art. If we draw the central axis, it also becomes clear how distinct this juxtaposition looks. Is it possible to escape this death? The fact that "death and life" cannot refer to one and the same person is already ruled out by the presence of the man. He has darker skin and is also identified as such by his muscles. Therefore, the group of people can rather be symbolically summarised as "all people", which makes the message of the image universally valid. But why choose such a pictorial theme at all? While in the Middle Ages a constantly repeated admonition was "Remember that you are mortal", one must bear in mind that this work was already created in the turmoil of the First World War. Quite a few, including fellow painters, lost their health or their lives here. The insidiousness of death, which tears people apart; which is always present, even in the best hours and in love relationships; becomes drastically clear here. This may also be the interpretation of the girl looking into the darkness; she seems to be almost magically attracted to the dark being, or to welcome him. For a war euphoria was also omnipresent and not infrequently delusional. And a certain longing for death is also not alien to many people - perhaps also to Klimt? - is no stranger to it.


Gustav Klimt - Death and Life

Oil on canvas, 1915, 178 x 198 cm, Leopoldina, Vienna


Gustav Klimt - The Three Ages of Woman

Oil on canvas, 1905, 1.8 m x 1.8 m, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome


Hans Baldung Grien - Death and the Maiden

Oil on wood, between 1541 and 1544, 151.0 x 61.0 cm, Museo de Prado, Madrid