“Death is close enough at hand so we do not need to be afraid of life.” FREDERICH NIETZSCHE
Death and life is an oil on canvas painting by Gustav Klimt. It is one of Klimt’s central works and is regarded as one of his greatest allegories, in which he used a bold composition to address the cycle of human life. The painting measures 178 by 198 centimeters and is now housed at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Klimt called Death and Life his most important figurative work.
Gustav Klimt | Symbolist Painter
“Symbolism is defined as an artistic style that manifested itself above all in European and American painting between 1880 and 1910. Originating in France and Belgium, waves of Symbolism developed primarily in countries such as Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland, as well as Scandinavia. The central theme of Symbolist art is the visualization of aspects of human spiritual life; the conflict between feelings and passions such as joy, sorrow, fear, love, and eroticism. Often, the illustrations returned to a preformulated vocabulary via myths and poems and were created based on the repertoire of shapes and motifs found in Greek mythology and the Bible. Symbolist themes played an important role for Gustav Klimt, particularly between the years of 1895 and 1915. Many of Klimt’s pictorial motifs revolve around growth and decay in human life, experiences of love and happiness—especially involving women and their erotic aura—and finally, life-threatening, dark, sinister powers and death.” (source)
“One of the key messages in Klimt’s works is the representation of the human life cycle. From procreation through to infancy and adolescence; from a man and a woman in the prime of their lives to the frail old man and the unsightly old woman, Klimt portrays the whole range of ages and stages of development. Klimt almost always presents his characters as passive, weak-willed subjects who are evidently giving themselves up willingly to fate.”(source)
Klimt won first place in the 1911 International Art Exhibition in Rome with Death and Life. Over the next twelve years the artwork went on to be exhibited in Dresden, Budapest, Mannheim, Prague, Berlin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Zurich and Vienna. Eventually it would make its way to New York and London in the 1960’s.
Its popularity should come as no surprise. At nearly six feet tall, the entwined figures of life and statuesque reaper are life-sized and positively glittering in Klimt’s signature explosion of color and pattern. The artwork displays all the stages of human life: a baby in his mother’s arms, a child, a youth, a strong mature man and wise woman in a blue cap. Vigor and color tumbled together in a glorious messy heap, and off to the side, peeking in from the void, Death is robed in crucifixes. (source)
Klimt follows all the current trends that were popular in intellectual discourse in Vienna in the late 19th century. These were mainly the ideas of the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche’s philosophy on life regarded people less as independent individuals than as part of an almighty circle of life, to which people were forcibly committed.(Source)
“Klimt understood painting as a continuous process and for him, just like Cézanne, his pictures were never finished. His practice of constantly questioning the results of his painting and repeatedly reworking his canvases rendered the genesis of Death and Life long and arduous. Pirchan suspected that the picture was painted in 1908. Although this early dating has since been unanimously rejected, it seems likely that Klimt embarked on a series of sketches and studies for the composition at this point in time. That he then dragged his feet over the actual painting was probably the result of the artistic crisis – regularly remarked upon in the literature triggered by his trip to Paris in 1909. By 1911 the large composition was sufficiently advanced to be shown in public and was included in the Esposizione internazionale d’arte in Rome, where it was simply titled Death. An early colour reproduction in the art periodical Die Kunst documents the painting as it appeared then. Klimt later made radical changes to this first state; according to Erich Lederer, this occurred in 1916, but in fact it must have happened mainly in 19I5, since in January 1916 the picture was shown at the Berlin Secession in its final state.” (Source : 1) The background, reportedly once gold-coloured, was made grey, and both death and life were given further ornaments. Standing before the original and examining the left interior edge of Josef Hoffmann’s frame for the painting, one can still discern traces of the subsequent over-painting, which was done by Klimt himself. (Source)
Klimt’s Death and life features not a personal death but rather merely an allegorical Grim Reaper who gazes at “life” with a malicious grin. This “life” is comprised of all generations: every age group is represented, from the baby to the grandmother, in this depiction of the never-ending circle of life. Death may be able to swipe individuals from life, but life itself, humanity as a whole, will always elude his grasp. The circle of life likewise repeats itself in the diverse, wonderful, pastel-coloured circular ornaments which adorn life like a garland.(Source)
- 1 : Gustav Klimt The Complete Paintings, Tobias G. Natter (Ed.), Directed and produced by Benedikt Taschen, Taschen, 2021.
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