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Gustav Klimt, Death and Life, 1910, reworked 1915, oil on canvas, 178 x 198 cm (Leopold Museum, Vienna).
In Leopold Museum in Vienna, there is Gustav Klimt’s painting “Death and Life”. Klimt is taking older traditional scenes and reworking them and making them wildly contemporary, wildly modern. This painting is loosely based on the subject of the dance of Death, which is a medieval subject showing death coming to people of all ranks, the idea that Death comes to everyone, whether you are a peasant, or a priest, or a prince. Usually Death holds an hourglass or a scythe. But here, which is very unusual, Death holds a club and looks much more dangerous and menacing. This skull is looking towards life eagerly. Life is represented by an accumulation, and almost architecture of human bodies, old and young and newborn. There is a sense of generations and generations of human beings who have taken by Death. At the overlapping of those bodies, there really is a sense of succession, of movement forward in time but not towards anything. They do seem swept along, as though in a dream. That idea of their eyes closed, of their dream, is really important. This notion of the subconscious or of the dream state was something that was being developed by Freud in Vienna at this time. There are two exceptions to those eyes being closed. One is the infant, and there is a kind of instinctual aspect there. This is not yet a learned consciousness. And the other eyes that are open are those of the young women on the extreme left. She seems almost crazed, almost delusional. The viewer can see the Death on the one side and pleasure or sensuality on the other. There is a real mirroring, and both figures are intensified because of the other. Their hands are even somewhat together: one holding the club, one clutching her breast. On both sides, we see that characteristic decorative patterning that is associated to Gustav Klimt: On the side of Death, we see very dark colors and the shape of a cross, clearly an illusion to the church and maybe the resurrection or afterlife. On the right, much brighter colors, shapes that suggest flowers, decorative patterns that suggest renewal. That pattern it really seems to flatten the entire image. In Europe at this time, we see an interest in the interior, in dream states, in a removal from the everyday world, a kind a reaction against the materialism and quick pace of morn industrial life.