Gustav Klimt’s painting Death and Life, (1910), features not a personal death but rather merely an allegorical figure who gazes at “life” with a malicious grin. The painting is comprised of two halves: on the left, the figure of Death is the classic grim reaper, a grinning skeleton, covered in a blue robe decorated with symbols. To the right are a group of women, at various stages of life, one of whom is held by a dark, muscular man, who is not entirely noticeable at first glance. This exemplifies Klimt’s preoccupation with the female form and his celebration of women as life-givers. All generations are represented in this circle of life, from the baby to the grandmother. The women do nor cower from Death, indeed they seem oblivious to him. The painting only depicts moments of intense pleasure and calm. Perhaps this new found serenity is rooted in Klimt’s own awareness of aging and his closeness to death.
Klimt described this painting as his most important figurative work. However, in 1915, he began making changes to the painting. The background, reportedly once gold-coloured, was painted over in grey, and both Death and the circle of women were given further ornamentation.
Much of Klimt’s work incorporates themes of death and life. In his 1908 painting, Hope I, for example, a pregnant woman stares out at the viewer, behind her, masklike faces symbolising madness, sorrow and death.
Death and Life was clearly influential for Klimt’s contemporaries among them Egon Schiele.
In Schiele’s painting, the woman appears to have crawled towards the figure of Death on her bended knees, and appears relieved as he embraces her.
Klimt himself may have drawn inspiration from the artist Edvard Munch, who created numerous representations of the relationship between life and death.
Above left: Edvard Munch, (1899) The Three Stages of Woman. Above right: Edvard Munch, (1894) Death and the Maiden.
Klimt’s original painting, Death and Life won the first prize at the World Exhibition in Rome in 1911. It remains one of the iconic images associated with this great artist.