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Klimt, Death and Life

Gustav Klimt, Death and Life, 1910, reworked 1915, oil on canvas, 178 x 198 cm (Leopold Museum, Vienna). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

DR. BETH HARRIS: We're in the Leopold Museum in Vienna, and we're looking at Gustav Klimt's "Death and Life." DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Klimt is taking older traditional scenes and reworking them and making them wildly contemporary, wildly modern. DR. BETH HARRIS: This 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're a peasant, or a priest, or a prince. Usually Death holds an hourglass or a scythe. But here, and I think this is very unusual, Death holds a club and looks much more dangerous and menacing. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This skull is looking towards life eagerly. And when I say life, I'm referring to this accumulation, this almost architecture of human bodies, old and young and newborn. DR. BETH HARRIS: There's a sense of generations and generations of human beings who have been taken by Death. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: If you look at the overlapping of those bodies, there really is a sense of succession, of movement forward in time, but not towards anything. DR. BETH HARRIS: They do seem swept along, as though in a dream. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That idea of their eyes closed, of the dream, I think 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. We should say that 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 woman on the extreme left. She seems almost crazed, almost delusional. DR. BETH HARRIS: To me, it reads like Death on one side and pleasure or sensuality on the other. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: There is a real mirroring, and I think both figures are intensified because of the other. Their hands are even somewhat together. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's right. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: One holding the club, one clutching her breast. DR. BETH HARRIS: We see on both sides that characteristic decorative patterning that we associate with Gustav Klimt so much. On the side of death, we see very dark colors and the shape of a cross, clearly an allusion to the church and maybe the resurrection or afterlife. On the right, much brighter colors, shapes that suggest flowers, decorative patterns that suggest renewal. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That pattern, it really seems to flatten the entire image. DR. BETH HARRIS: In Europe at this time, we see an interest in the interior, in dream states, in a removal from the everyday world, a kind of reaction against the materialism and quick pace of modern industrial life. This interest in instinctive drives has particular significance in Vienna even more than the symbolist movements in other countries at this time. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It does seem to me to be a really successful solution to a problem that artists had been grappling with for some time, which is, how do you rescue the profound qualities that art had been able to achieve in history, without resorting to history painting or the traditional modes that had been so worn out by the end of the 19th century? Was it possible to find a new arena to explore? And they did, but that arena was an interior one.