Reworking traditional themes of life and death and making them wildly contemporary and modern, Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life painting is based loosely on the dance of death depicted in medieval and renaissance times as death coming to visit people in all ranks and positions in society. Usually death holds an hourglass or a scythe implying that everything has a time to pass and be reaped off the earth. Unusually, Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life depicts death holding a club which looks much more dangerous, animalistic and menacing.
The skull of death is looking towards life eagerly, inching its neck out and head forward like a predator inspecting its prey. Life is depicted in an arrested cornucopic architecture of human bodies, like a column of flesh showing old and young, male and female alike. There is a sense of generation after generation of human beings who have been or will be taken by death.
Echoing themes of a subconscious dream-state already emerging from Sigmund Freud in this era, the figures of life all have their eyes closed as if shielding their consciousness from inevitable death, who, along with the infant and the young woman happen to be the only figures with their eyes open.
The infant in Death and Life Gustav Klimt reveals an unlearned instinctual attitude the infant has before learning to shield one’s perception to the encroaching brutality of death. The young woman, on the other hands, seems to be entranced by death, in kind of a hypnotic state.
On the one side of the painting, Death is depicted in darker blue and purple tones, covered in a decorative robe of crucifixes alluding to the church’s notion of the afterlife, but revealing the true literal brutality with the club. Opposite of death, the life side shows a much brighter pallete of colors, conjuring flowers and vibrance.
Gustav Klimt Death and Life seems to successfully renew and ressurect the huge allegoric and universal theme of life and death and give it an extremely fresh and engagingly modern flair. The difference between Klimt’s Death and Life and the worn out depiction of this theme in art history, is Klimt turns his perspective inward and expressing an interior psychological, dreamlike interpretation of the symbolist expression of life and death.
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