Tag Archives: dead

Pretty Girls Make Graves – Beautiful Corpses in Art: Part II

5 Nov

At last, the Part II of the post about interesting and beautiful female corpses in art. You can read the part I here.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, The Lady of Shalott, 1875

I finished the first part of this post with Walter Crane’s painting “Lady of Shalott” painted in 1862, and in this post I am continuing with the theme of a beautiful and doomed Lady of Shalott with a painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Nature surrounding the poor, pale and dead Lady of Shalott seems mystical and dreamy, almost sepia coloured, like a primordial swamp with its dreamy distant trees, slow murky water and water lilies, all ready to take the poor Elaine to the castle where her knight in shining armour is. The trees tops cast shadows on the surface of the water and it creates a slightly surreal atmosphere where one doesn’t know what is real and what illusory, what is alive and what but a shadow. Grimshaw is more known for painting street scenes of towns in the Northern England where he brilliantly captured the atmosphere of wet and gloomy autumn. So this painting of Lady of Shalott is a very different theme for Grimshaw, but he painted it with equal emphasis on the atmosphere. Sweet dead Elaine looks lovely like a doll with yellow hair.

Gabriel von Max, The Anatomist, 1869

In comparison with Grimshaw’s dreamy portrayal of the Lady of Shalott floating slowly toward eternity in her little boat, painting “The Anatomist” shows a more realistic portrayal of a female corpse. The title “Anatomist” places the man in the centre; we see the world through his eyes, we see the dead woman’s pale body through his eyes. He has slowly removed the white sheet that covers her, exposing her breast, and he seems deep in thought. Behind him are skulls and books which remind us of transience and also of his scientific, intellectual occupations. She looks very still and serene, but is she really? Will she open her eyes, will her lips move and speak? I must say, that after gazing at this painting for some time, it brought to mind a short horror film called “Kissed” which I stumbled upon this summer. You can check it out here, it’s six minutes long.

 

William Frederick Yeames, The Death of Amy Robsart, 1877

In “The Death of Amy Robsart”, William Frederick Yeames took a real historic event and portrayed it in a romantic way. Poor dead body of a Elizabethan era lady Amy Robsart has just been discovered at he bottom of the stairs leading up to her bedroom; I assume because we can see the bed in the room upstairs and she is dressed in her informal attire. Amy is mostly remembered in history for being the wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; the favourite of the Queen Elizabeth, and for dying in suspicious circumstances by falling down stairs. Victorian painter William Frederick Yeames has taken this historical event and portrayed it with a very Victorian sense for tragedy; we instantly feel pity for Amy, just as we do for the poor Lady Jane Grey or Joan of Arc in other Romantic and Victorian paintings which romanticise the historical tragedies. I love the way the creases of her nightgown are painted, in that lying pose she almost looks like a sculpture.

Claude Monet, Camille Monet on her Deathbed, 1879

This painting by Monet is a really intimate portrayal of a painful moment in the painter’s life: the death of his first wife Camille. It’s almost like a visual diary entry. The painting looks as if it is covered with a thin blueish gauze, a thin line which separated the real world . The painting reminds me of a passage from María Luisa Bombal’s novel “La amortajada” or “The Shrouded Woman” where the woman is dead but she can still see and hear everything, including her burial and she remembers her entire life throughout the novel: “And after it had gotten dark, her eyes opened. But just a little, very little. It was as if she wanted to look, while she was hidden behind her long eyelashes. At the flame of the tall candles that leaned over to keep watch on her, and to observe the cleanness and transparency of the border of the eye that death had not been able to cast a pall over. Respectfully dazzled, they leaned over, not knowing that She was able to see them. Because, in fact, She could both see and feel. And that is how she looked, motionless, lying face up on the spacious bed now covered with embroidered sheets that were scented with lavender—that were always kept under lock and key—and she is wrapped in that white satin robe that always made her look so graceful. Her hands can be seen, gently crossed over her chest, pressing on a crucifix; hands that had acquired the frivolous delicacy of two peaceful doves.

Enrique Simonet Lombardo, The Autopsy (Anatomy of the Heart; She had a Heart!), 1890

Enrique Simonet’s painting “She had a heart!” is as realistic as it is poignant. The dead woman’s body and the interior of the morgue are painted with finest precision, and yet the coroner’s gesture of holding the woman’s heart makes her more humane in his eyes and in our eyes. She is not just another dead body that he is doing an autopsy on, she was a real person with a beating heart eager to love and be loved in return. Simonet gained fame and recognition with this painting and he painted it whilst studying in Rome. We can conclude that the dead woman was a prostitute because of her lavish coppery hair, red hair being symbolic of moral weakness, and also, bodies of women found in the river Tiber usually belonged to prostitutes. The real model for the woman was a dead body of an actress who committed suicide because of a heartache. The real tragedy behind the painting also adds a poignant touch to the painting.

Walter Crane, The Journey to Eternity, 1902

I am finishing this post with another very beautiful painting by Walter Crane called “The Journey to Eternity” which shows a nude angel and a beautiful redhead dead young woman lying in the boat as they both glide towards eternity. A dead lady in a little boat adorned with lilies and roses is awfully similar to the theme of the Lady of Shalott. Everything has a blueish tinge in this painting and it really adds to the mystical mood. The water looks incredibly vibrant and is painted in many shades of blue, and the blue is echoed in the angel’s wings as well. Also, the Angel’s head is covering the full moon so it almost looks as if the moon is his halo. The dead lady is comfortable on a soft pillow, she is holding a pink rose in her right hand and her journey to eternity seems as romantical as it can get. If I could die that way and travel to eternity in a boat adorned with roses, I would gladly.

Pretty Girls Make Graves – Beautiful Corpses in Art: Part I

25 Oct

“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world – and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Paul Delaroche, The Young Martyr (La jeune martyre), 1853

American poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”, and no one other writer devoted himself to writing about pale, ghostly maidens and beautiful dead women with such a feverish passion. When I think of Beauty, Love and Death in literature, I instantly think of Poe, but what about the visual arts? I envisaged this post as a part one of a little overview of dead or dying women captured not with ink on paper, but in colour on canvases. The first example I’ve chosen of a girl – beautiful, young and dead, the winning combination for the utmost beauty, is the painting “The Young Martyr” by a French painter Paul Delaroche. This is probably his most famous work and it is easy to see why; the painting’s romantical and mystical flair is just mesmerising. A young Christian martyr is floating on the surface of the river, her halo shines so strongly with such pure golden light that the gentle ripples of the water of Tiber are painted in its yellow glow. Her hands are bound with a rope and only a flimsy white gown is covering her body. Her hair looks like that of a mermaid, and as we gaze at her lovely pale face, we might believe for a moment that she is still alive. She looks angelically beautiful, without a doubt. Delaroche’s beloved, adored wife Louise died in 1845 at the age of thirty-one and the artist was deeply miserable about it, so there is a personal connection there as well.

John Everett Millais, The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl, 1847

The next example is very different in colours and style. “The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl” is a very early work by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. His famous “Ophelia” was painted only two years later and there is a stark contrast between those two artworks. This painting doesn’t have the intricate, lush details nor the gentle melancholy of Ophelia, and the colours are not vivid and clear but toned down. The shades of black and grey, along with the simple, almost bare composition, add to the realism of the painting. The now lost inscription on the back of the painting said: “The painting represents an incident in Millais’s own life when he was sent for by people unknown to him, but who knew him to be a young artist, to draw a portrait of a girl in her coffin before her burial. The scene moved him so much that when he got home he made this sketch showing himself being asked to draw the girl’s portrait.” This could explain the sketchy style of the painting; it was done from the memory, unlike Ophelia which was carefully and patiently crafted. The dead girl’s face looks like that of a doll; pale, sad doll wrapped in flimsy veils.

Found Drowned, George Frederic Watts, 1850

While Delaroche’s “The Young Martyr” was painstakingly romantical and mystical, this painting by George Frederich Watts, “Found Drowned” is all but romantic. Watts is sometimes associated with the Symbolist movement, but in this painting he focused on a social realism genre because this dead, young girl washed ashore on the murky waters of the Thames is clearly a working class girl who had committed suicide because life’s prospects were bleak and it seemed like the only option. Is she not a working class martyr then? The painting was inspired by the poem “The Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood, published in 1844 and here are a few appropriate verses:

One more Unfortunate
Weary of breath
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

Millais’ painting “Ophelia” is perhaps the visual archetype of a young and beautiful dead woman in art. No other painting quite surpasses the vibrant and melancholy beauty, intricacy and magic of Millais’ Ophelia. Even though the painting is static and flat, I can really see her sinking gently into the water, as in a dream, while the moss is sighing and the reed is murmuring. Ophelia is becoming one with nature, her hair will mingle with the river, tangle with the reed, and flowers all around her speak of bloom while she is experiencing her death. The model for Ophelia was Elizabeth Siddal, the moody anorexic redhead lover and muse of a fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her red hair, the gesture of her hands, that shimmering white dress, and not to mention the expression of ecstasy on that face and those slightly parted lips, it all adds to the ethereal magic of the painting. Ophelia’s beauty is captured forever on this canvas; she will never grow old and have wrinkles, her cheeks are feverish and rosy from the eerie and hot kiss of the Death and she longs for nothing no more.

Walter Crane, Lady of Shalott, 1862

The last example for the Part One of this post is a painting “Lady of Shalott” by a fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter Walter Crane. Seen from the profile, lying in the boat, dressed in silvery robe, her long wavy brown hair spread around her, Lady of Shalott looks like the dreamiest corpse. Her face is so pale and her eyelids closed so tenderly, as if a gentle kiss from her beloved closed them, and not death. One can almost envy her serene peacefulness. Would you not to glide down the river, towards eternity, not seeing the tree tops and birds above you, but feeling them and hearing them as if through a mist, because your senses are fading and this world means nothing to you no more.

Jakub Schikaneder – Dead Girl

27 Sep

“Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”

(Tagore)

Jakub Schikaneder, Dead Girl, 1909

Czech painter Jakub Schikaneder’s paintings are full of figures of people miserable in one way or another. He painted the poor and the lonely, the forgotten and the downtrodden, old and frail, young and – dead. Motif of death appears often in Schikaneder’s art; from a scene of murder to a melancholy figure of a drowned young girl washed a shore and in this painting, “Dead Girl”, painted in 1909 the lightness and innocence of youth are touched and torn by death’s black claws. The scene is bared to the minimum, nothing unnecessary clutters the composition, just a chair and a bed made out of dark wood; the wood is solid, dark and hard, and the girl is frail and clad in white. A humble interior. A little room filled with sickness and death, stuffy from the coughs and the burning candle. That way, the painter placed our focus on the real essence of the painting; the girl and her death. Death is an invisible and pervading, solemn and mysterious character in this poignant scene. The simplicity adds to the sorrowful mood of the painting and the colour palette of different tones of grey, the colour of fog and ashes, because the world of colours, sounds and scents means nothing to her anymore. You are fading away, sweet child, and:

….You will no longer

Distinguish what rises or falls;

Colors are closed, and tones are empty,

And you won’t even know any longer

Who brings you all the flowers.

I also stumbled upon this photograph by a Polish photographer Laura Makabresku and it is obviously inspired by this painting and is equally melancholy and poignant. Edvard Munch also painted a sick child in bed and it seems that the motif of death and children go well together because they create a contrast which makes it especially poignant and sorrowful.

Photograph by Laura Makabresku

Jakub Schikaneder, By the Girl’s Bed, 1910

All of Jakub Schikaneder’s paintings have that particular mood which is hard to put in words, but rather brings to mind other imagery; the thick and impenetrable November fog, orange autumnal sunset tinged with sadness because it seems the sun will never rise again, a soil hardened by frost, an eerie yellowish light of the lantern on the street corner. Autumnal and announcing death and the end. Schikaneder also loved the motif of autumn and winter, and is not winter the death of nature? In another painting, “By the Girl’s Bed”, painted the following year Schikaneder explores the same motif; death of a young girl. In this painting the glow of the candle is overpowering, colouring the room in warm orange shades, as if the more frail and sickly the girl is, the more strength the candle possesses.

Henry Kirke White – The Dance Of The Consumptives

26 May

Today I wanted to share some a beautiful and eerie fragment of an unfinished drama called “The Dance of the Consumptives” written by a rather obscure English poet Henry Kirke White (1785-1806) said to have been written n his earlier phase though I am not sure how old he would have been exactly because he died so young as it is. You can read the whole text of this eccentric unfinished drama here.

Henri Le Sidaner, Ronde des jeunes filles, crayon graphite, 1897

These lines specifically have been haunting me for some time now, but now, at last, the perfect imagery came to my mind. The drama is about death arriving dressed as consumption to flush a young girl’s cheek and take her away to the other world. Dancing young girls in drawings of the French painter Henri Le Sidaner perfectly fit the mood of the drama. With their pale attire and fluid, ghostly forms they almost looks like ghostly maidens who fell prey to the consumption and have now arrived to welcome a new soul into their eerie, ghostly circle dance:

In the dismal night air dress’d,
I will creep into her breast:
Flush her cheek, and bleach her skin,
And feed on the vital fire within.
Lover, do not trust her eyes,—
When they sparkle most, she dies!
Mother, do not trust her breath,—
Comfort she will breathe in death!
Father, do not strive to save her,—
She is mine, and I must have her!
The coffin must be her bridal bed!
The winding-sheet must wrap her head;
The whispering winds must o’er her sigh,
For soon in the grave the maid must lie:
The worm it will riot
On heavenly diet,
When death has deflower’d her eye.

Henri Le Sidaner, La Ronde, c 1900

Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare

23 May
“Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.—I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl’d
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles?…..”
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni, 1814)

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1790-91

Henry Fuseli’s masterpiece “The Nightmare” has been haunting the imagination of everyone who saw it ever since it was first exhibited in the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1781. The popularity of the painting even then was so immense that Fuseli painted a few versions of the same theme and then one I’ve chosen for this post is the one painted in 1790-91. I somewhat prefer that version because of the colours, blue and grey tones as oppose to the warmer colours in the original 1781 version, and the composition.

A few days ago I awoke on a rainy morning after a nightmare and I thought of this painting, and ever since that moment I cannot get it out of my mind. The painting is charged with eroticism and a feeling of sublime which both unsettle and excite the imagination. I adore the expressive, exaggerated and slightly melodramatic mood of the painting. The woman’s pose alone is unforgettable; there she is, the poor Gothic heroine suffering from a nightmare, trapped in the world of slumber while in reality her body is lying stretched in a vulnerable position and visions of a remoter world are indeed gathered around her bed. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. The eighteenth century physicians such as Dr John Bond saw the menstruation as the cause of such disturbing nightmares; “such dreams, suggested both by the pressure against the chest and the supine position of the sleeper, are usually about a violent sexual assault – the kind of dreams that gave rise to rumours of intercourse with the devil” (Vaughan, Romantic Art), or perhaps the true cause are all the suppressed desires and thoughts that such a young maiden dares not even think of in the waking hours. The horse’s head staring with mad eyes which resemble a lightning, may symbolise masculine principle.

Fuseli admired the muscular, dynamic figures of Michelangelo and he painted the figures in his painting in the same manner. The girl in this painting has beautifully shaped and pale, but rather muscular and strong arms that are stretched as much as it’s possible and reach the floor, making her overall position a very expressive and convulsed one. The pale lady in the painting experiencing the nightmare is not dead, she is merely asleep, though if we look at the two worlds of sleep and death as twin-sisters, as the Romantics would have seen them, then the difference isn’t so vast. My interest in Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” which I read years ago sparked again these days for many reasons, one of them being the fact I watched the film “Mary Shelley” (2017) again, and this passage reminded me so much of Fuseli’s painting. After Victor Frankenstein refused to create a female companion for the Monster, the Monster had a revenge and on the wedding night of Victor and Elizabeth he strangled the poor Elizabeth:

She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair. Everywhere I turn I see the same figure– her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on its bridal bier. Could I behold this and live? Alas! Life is obstinate and clings closest where it is most hated. For a moment only did I lose recollection; I fell senseless on the ground.

When I recovered I found myself surrounded by the people of the inn; their countenances expressed a breathless terror, but the horror of others appeared only as a mockery, a shadow of the feelings that oppressed me. I escaped from them to the room where lay the body of Elizabeth, my love, my wife, so lately living, so dear, so worthy. She had been moved from the posture in which I had first beheld her, and now, as she lay, her head upon her arm and a handkerchief thrown across her face and neck, I might have supposed her asleep. I rushed towards her and embraced her with ardour, but the deadly languor and coldness of the limbs told me that what I now held in my arms had ceased to be the Elizabeth whom I had loved and cherished. The murderous mark of the fiend’s grasp was on her neck, and the breath had ceased to issue from her lips.

Marie Laurencin: More Than Dead – Forgotten

16 May

Last week I wrote about the wonderful French painter Marie Laurencin and her paintings of wistful, dreamy girls in soft pastel colours. Today I thought I’d share a poem that Laurencin wrote in 1917 and it’s called “La Calmant”, translated in English as “The Sedative”. To go with the melancholy verses I chose Laurencin’s painting of a girl called Valentine. I love her face expression, the way she placed her head on her hand, and again, those gentle, pastel shades of pink, lavender and yellow typical for Laurencin’s artworks.

Marie Laurencin, Valentine, 1924

The Sedative (La Calmant):

More than annoyed
Sad.

More than sad
Unhappy.

More than unhappy
Suffering.

More than suffering
Abandoned.

More than abandoned
Alone in the world.

More than alone
Exiled.

More than exiled
Dead.

More than dead
Forgotten.

Henry Peach Robinson – Fading Away

28 Apr

The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858

I found myself thinking about death these days, and naturally the first things that came to my mind were the poems, the paintings and this Victorian era photograph taken by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858. “Fading Away” is a very romantical and elegantly sad photograph which shows a pale and frail young girl dying from consumption, or perhaps from a broken heart. She is surrounded by her a family members, all of which play a different role in the composition of the photograph and also in expressing emotion. The male figure, presumably the father, turned his back towards the girl, unable to face the painful truth; death of his beloved daughter. Perhaps he is trying to suppress his tears, and perhaps he feels powerless because he failed to protect her from the ultimate enemy: death.  This photograph perfectly encapsulated the morbidly romantical fascination with death which came to define the Victorian era. For modern viewers the aesthetic conveyed is very Victorian, but the Victorians felt very differently about Robinson’s photograph. It received mixed reviews from the public; some found it shocking that the photographer would invade such an intimate, private moment. The Victorians knew the distinction between the private life and the outside world. And also, the photograph is actually an early example of photomontage and Robinson. was a pioneer of that. I am as shocked as the Victorians were because the final result is so realistic and I would never have assumed that these individuals weren’t in the same room at the same moment together.

Poets of Romanticism expressed an inexplicable longing for death because every day life, with its struggles and ugliness, was far from their ideal of Beauty. “Transient pleasures as a vision seem, and yet we think the greatest pain’s do die”, wrote John Keats in his poem “On Death”. Percy Bysshe Shelley was equally dramatic, utterly obsessed with death, he saw it as the state of ultimate happiness and perfection. The Victorian era romanticised death, especially the slow, staged, almost theatre-like moment of death. And what actress to play the role of a person soon to be departed than a beautiful, pale, virginal girl who had tasted none of life’s sweetness and joys and already at such a tender age death was to take her away. It’s like a rose forever preserved in its loveliest stage of bud! Never blooming fully, and thus never withering either. Poe was right: death of a young girl is indeed the most beautiful topic for art. And here is John Keats’ poem “On Death” written in 1814 in a letter to his brother Thomas who was, just like the poor girl in the photograph, suffering from consumption which would ultimately be Keats’s end as well:

On Death

Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,
And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?
The transient pleasures as a vision seem,
And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.

How strange it is that man on earth should roam,
And lead a life of woe, but not forsake
His rugged path; nor dare he view alone
His future doom which is but to awake.

Henry Peach Robinson, She Never Told Her Love, 1857

“She never told her love,

But let concealment,

like a worm i’ the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek”

(Shakespeare, Twelfth Night II,iv,111-13)

Robinson’s photograph “She Never Told Her Love”, taken in 1857, served as a study for the girl in “Fading Away”. Resting on soft big pillow, the girl truly does appear to be fading away. Her hair is spread on the pillow, her hands clasped on her lap, her lips ever so softly parted. This study’s focus is on the girl, she is alone in her pictorial space, alone with her woe, illness and that poor broken heart. In “Fading Away” she is surrounded by family, and even though the study has the intimacy of the girl alone, I feel like the characters add to the drama and the story behind the photograph.

It is interesting to think of the way poets and artists of Romanticism and the Victorians saw death, and how our culture sees it. The Victorian era attitude towards death is seen as “morbid” nowadays and I don’t quite see why. Every living thing on earth is bound to die one day, so why is death such a taboo topic, such a shocking morbid “Gothic” thing? It seems like everything is so sugarcoated nowadays; idealised, filtered, posed, set-up, and artificial and hence such a pure, dark truth such as death is hard to digest. Death comes without invitations, it cannot be ignored, postponed, sugarcoated, it changes everything, it is beyond our control. Perhaps we are too entitled today and we subconsciously feel that, along with our generally good standard of living (at least in the Western countries), immortality is also our god-given right, and it isn’t. Can’t we go back to times when death was romanticised and one could truly die of a broken heart!? I feel like I can relate to Romantic visions of the death much more, and also this beautiful poem “Goodbye, my friend, goodbye” by the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) who ended his life not by consumption or broken heart, but by suicide:

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.

Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let’s have no sadness — furrowed brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer.

The poem was written in the poet’s own blood and found in the hotel room where he had committed suicide. Still, despite the tragical ending, the poem carries a seed of hope, like a silver dandelion seed floating aimlessly in the wind, because dying is nothing new and living no newer, and the sad parting brings reunion, and could there be a more hopeful thought? Death is not the end, not the end…

Egon Schiele – Death and the Maiden

31 Oct

Egon Schiele died on the 31st October 1918. Three days prior to that he witnessed the death of his pregnant wife Edith. If it wasn’t for the Spanish influenza, she could have had their child and his prodigious mind could have produced many more drawings and paintings.

Egon Schiele, Death and the Maiden, 1915

Painting “Death and the Maiden” is a very personal work and it connects and unites two themes that were a lifelong fascination to Egon Schiele; death and eroticism. It shows two figures in an embrace, apparently seen from above, not unusual at all for Schiele to use such a strange perspective. They cling to each other in despair; painfully aware of the finality and hopelessness of their love. They are lying on rumpled white sheets, their last abode before the hours of love vanish forever, which simultaneously add a touch of macabre sensuality and remind us of the burial shroud. The background is an unidentifiable space, a desolate landscape painted in colours of mud and rust.

Death is a man not so dissimilar to Schiele’s other male figures or self-portraits, without the help of the title we couldn’t even guess that is represents death. The red-haired woman hugs him tightly with her long arms and lays her head on his chest. She is not the least bit afraid of his black shroud of infinity. She holds onto him as if he were love itself, and still, her hands are not resting on his back gently, they are separate and her crooked fingers are touching themselves. We can sense their inevitable separation through their gestures and face expressions, and, at the same time, their embrace feels frozen in time, the figures feel stiff and motionless, as if the rigor mortis had already taken place and bound them in an everlasting embrace. The maiden will not die, she will be clinging to death for all eternity.

It is impossible not to draw parallels between the figures in the painting and Schiele’s personal life at the time. The figure of Death resembles Schiele, and we do all know he showed no hesitation when it came to painting and even taking a photo of himself, and the red-haired woman is then clearly Wally. To get a better perspective at the symbolism behind this painting, we need to understand the things that happened in Schiele’s life that year. In June 1915 he married Edith Harms; a shy and innocent girl next door. But first he needed to brake things off with Wally Neuzil, a lover and a muse who not only supported him during the infamous Neulengbach Affair but was also, ironically, an accomplice in introducing him to Edith.

Upon meeting Wally for what was to be the last time, Egon handed her a letter in which he proposed they spend a holiday together every summer, without Edith. It’s something that Wally couldn’t agree with. Perhaps she wasn’t a suitable woman to be his wife, but she wasn’t without standards or heart either. There, in the dreamy smoke of Egon’s cigarette, sitting at a little table in the Café Eichberger where he often came to play billiards, the two doomed lovers bid their farewells. Egon gazed at her with his dark eyes and said not a word. He was disappointed but did not appear particularly heart-broken, at least no at first sight, but surely the separation must have pained him in the moments of solitude and contemplation, the moments which gave birth to paintings such as this one.

Egon Schiele, Embrace, 1915

If we assume then that the painting indeed shows Egon and Wally, the question arises: why did he chose to portray himself as a personification of Death? He chose to end things with Wally, so why mourn for the ending? And shouldn’t Death be a possessive and remorseless figure who smothers the poor delicate Maiden in his cold deadly embrace? Schiele’s embrace in the painting seems caring and his gaze full of sadness.

On a visual level, the motif of two lovers set against a decorative background brings to mind both Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” (1907) and Oskar Kokoschka’s “The Bride of the Wind (or The Tempest)” from 1914. Although similar in composition, the mood of Schiele’s painting differs vastly to those of his fellow Viennese eccentrics. Klimt’s painting shows a couple in a kiss and oozes sensuality and beauty, the background being very vibrant and ornamental. It’s a painting made before the war, its horrors and changes. Kokoschka’s painting is, in a way, more similar to Schiele’s but they two are very different in the overall effect. Both show doomed lovers in a sad embrace, and a strange, slightly distorted background, but Kokoschka’s painting is a whirlwind of energy, brushstrokes are nervous and energetic, the space is vibrant, not breathing but screaming. Schiele’s painting exhibits stillness, stiffness, a change caught in the moment, a breeze stopped, and the space around them seems heavy, muddy and static. “Kokoschka’s is a ‘baroque’ painting, while Schiele’s relates more to the Gothic tradition. “The Tempest” is life-affirming, the Schiele is resigned to the inevitable, immobile and drained of life.” (Whitford; Egon Schiele)

Egon Schiele, Lovemaking, 1915

In this painting Schiele used the old theme of Death and the Maiden and enriched it by adding an introspective, private psychological dimension. Schiele’s rendition of the theme isn’t a meditation on transience and vanity as it was in the works of Renaissance masters such as Hans Baldung Grien; a gifted and imaginative German painter and a pupil of Albrecht Dürer. Grien revisited the theme of Death and the Maiden a few times during a single decade, at the beginning of the sixteenth century. These paintings always feature a beautiful and something vain young woman (she is looking at herself in the mirror) with smooth pale skin and long golden hair, and a grotesque figure of Death looming behind her like a shadow, reminding her with a sand clock that soon enough she too will come into his arms.

Hans Baldung Grien, from left to right: Death and the Maiden, 1510; Death and the Maiden, 1517; Death and the Maiden, 1518-20

I’ve included two more examples of this theme in this post; another version by Grien where Death is shown chowing the Maiden’s dress and the knight is literally saving his damsel not from the dragon or from danger, but from Death and mortality itself. Quite cool! And an interesting detail from Van Groningen’s “The Triumph of Death” where Death is shown as a skeleton in a cloud armed with a spear, chasing a frightened and screaming young Maiden dressed in flimsy robes who is running around hopelessly trying to escape. In these paintings, the Maiden is merely a symbol of the fragility of youth and beauty, but later artists, the Romantics and the fin-de-siecle generation, and Schiele too, had different vision of Death; they glamorised it and romanticised it. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Edward Fane’s Rosebud” the beautiful young Maiden Rose is faced with mortality for the first time and how poetically Hawthorne had described it:

She shuddered at the fantasy, that, in grasping the child’s cold fingers, her virgin hand had exchanged a first greeting with mortality, and could never lose the earthly taint. How many a greeting since! But as yet, she was a fair young girl, with the dewdrops of fresh feeling in her bosom; and instead of Rose, which seemed too mature a name for her half-opened beauty, her lover called her Rosebud.

Death was a life-long fascination for Schiele; at a very young age he witnessed his father’s madness and suffering death, possibly from syphilis, he was obsessed with the idea of doppelgänger who was seen as a foreboding of death, in his poem “Pineforest” he even wrote “How good! – Everything is living dead”. All his art is tinged with death, and with Schiele it wasn’t a fad of the times but a deep, personal morbid obsession. In the height of summer, he already senses autumn leaves, in the living flesh he already sees decay. Also, he was born in 1890, and along with other artists of his generation he witnessed the final decay of a vast empire that had lasted for centuries; “Decay, death and disaster seemed to haunt their every waking hour and to provide the substance of their nightmares.” (Whitford, Egon Schiele)

Hans Baldung Grien, The Maiden, the Knight and Death, date unknown

Jan Swart van Groningen, Der Triumph des Todes (detail), 1525-50

Life and Death contrafted or, An Essay on Woman, 1770

Richard Bergh, The Girl and Death, 1888

Henry Levi (1840-1904), La jeune fille et la mort, 1900

Marianne Stokes, The Young Girl and Death, 1900

Happy Halloween, with Schiele and Death!