Tag Archives: Separation

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!

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Edvard Munch – The Lonely Ones (Two People)

8 Feb

In this post we’ll take a look at Edvard Munch’s painting “The Lonely Ones”.

Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones (Two People), 1895

A man and a woman are standing on the shore, gazing at the sea. The waves crush on to the shore as the two of them stand there in silence, just one step away from each other, and yet emotionally distant. The whiteness of her dress stands in contrast with his sombre black suit, which visually further connects the insurmountable difference between the sexes. The murmur of the sea, louder than their loneliness, matches the turmoil that rises in their soul. Are they a couple who just had an argument, or two lovers who have, after being drunken with love, now sobered and realised that nothing, not even their love, will spare them the loneliness and feeling of isolation that they experience as individuals, that they are forced to face the world alone, that one is alone even when they are holding a loved one in their arms?

Turquoise and pink rocks on the beach and the sea waves take on psychedelic shapes as Munch swirls with his brush just as he did in the famous “Scream”. As hopes crush into bitter disappointments, the reality fails to make sense and the man and the woman gaze longingly at the sea searching answers to their inner voids. In his book about Munch, J.P. Hodin writes: “It is as if Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics of Sexual Love were represented in the medium of painting. Man and woman are like elements which come into contact, obsess one another but cannot become united. Woman is an enigma to man, a sphinx which he must always contemplate searchingly.”

Still, that disconnection, this misunderstanding between man and a woman alone on the shore reminds me more of something that Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving: “Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside.

Edvard Munch, Separation II, 1896

In “Separation” above we again see a man and a woman, together on canvas yet painfully and deeply alone, drifting into opposite directions, aimlessly like paper boats on the lake. His dark eyelids are closed, his mouth mute. Her long hair seems to be flying in the wind, caressing his shoulder, stirring the silence with its murmur, mingling with the sweet nocturnal air. The striking titles of many of Munch’s paintings point at his desire to portray the whole range of different emotions and states: separation, loneliness, fear, anguish, consolation, pain…

Connecting love with pain, and ultimately loneliness, is a theme often exploited in the world of art and poetry, but Edvard Munch and his contemporaries in the decadent and spiritually rotting society of fin de scle had a particular penchant for it, to the point of rejecting love or a lover. In his youth, Munch was shy and reticent, not much is known about his relationships with women apart from the fact that they brought bitter disappointments, and he tended to fear any signs of affection or closeness because they most certainly carried anguish with them. Holdin again writes: “Love turned into distrust of woman. When Nietzsche spoke of love he saw it as the eternal war, the mortal hatred between the sexes. ‘Man fears woman when he loves, he fears her when he hates.”

Munch was a friend with many writers of the days and he was influenced by their writings and their ideas. Swedish playwright Strindberg was similarly interested in conflicts of love, and in 1897 wrote in his diary: “What is Woman? The enemy of friendship, the inevitable scourge, the necessary evil, the natural temptation, the longed for misfortune, a never ending source of tears, the poor masterpiece of creation in an aspect of dazzling white. Since the first woman contracted with the devil, shall not her daughters do the same? Just as she was created from a crooked rib, so is her entire nature crooked and warped and inclined to evil.

Edvard Munch, Consolation, 1894

Holdin ends his thoughts about the paintings “The Lonely Ones” with a glimpse of hope: “No, Munch does not hate woman, for he realizes that she has to suffer as he suffers himself.” How splendid of him to console us!