Updated: Feb 8, 2019
Can art dare Death to bare Life? A centennial to the untimely departure of two artists who captured the beauty of human frailty Uriel Abulof & Shirley Le Penne
The end of a year and the beginning of a new one bring together reflection and promise, looking back on what was, pondering what could have been, and thinking of what might yet become. The passage from 2018 to 2019 is no exception. The former’s strongest claim on our collective memory was 1918 - the end of the First World War, which shaped so much of the past century. We’ve already discussed national self-determination, which Woodrow Wilson first introduced to the world in 1918.
Now, shifting from politics to painting without altogether neglecting the former, we turn our attention to two remarkable artists - colleagues, friends, soulmates – both of whom died in 1918 after giving life to beauty that still lingers within us: Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
The Human Body & The Self
Klimt’s death at 55, preceded that of Schiele, who died only a few months later at the age of 28, both leaving behind them a tradition of rebellion against the artistic norms that prevailed at the time. Both artists were fascinated by the human body, especially nude and erotic. “Even erotic art has a share of sacred,” Schiele wrote. Both sought the body in order to grasp human experiences, psyches, moments of intimacy and shame. On canvas, the human body was not just an object of art, but the ultimate form of expression and distortion that life itself embodies.
Both sought the body in order to grasp human experiences, psyches, moments of intimacy and shame.
Klimt’s and Schiele’s fascination goes beyond the body to focus on the self - not merely representing but also seeking it. Their vivid focus and attraction for the self is palpable in the hundreds of portraits they painted - from family members, to children, street kids, young girls, lesbians, prostitutes and pregnant women, or simply unknown people from the dilapidated streets of Vienna.
But it was Schiele who was obsessed with self-discovery.
Easily traceable in the numerous self-portraits he depicts of himself, Schiele talked about an addiction, a compulsion and inner need to create these self-portraits, which become, in his words, “intimate monologic revelation of the personality.”
Klimt, on the contrary, never drew his own face: “I have never painted a self-portrait. I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women,” he once argued, to further claim: “Whoever wants to know something about me as an artist which alone is significant, they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want. ”
So what is it that Klimt wanted?
Life & Death
If Klimt was interested in “above all women,” it is perhaps because he saw femininity as the paragon of life’s natural cycle: from birth and blossom, through pregnancy, aging and the loss of physical beauty, to death. Throughout his career, Klimt saw, and portrayed, signs of feminine beauty and its demise. Klimt’s 1905 The Three Ages of Woman vibrantly ties the first two ages (infancy, blossom) in touch, blue aura, and beauty - to harshly contrast them with the sad, solitary third age. No longer tenderly closing her eyes, as she used to, the old woman covers her face - hides her shame - with a grim hand, but cannot veil her decaying body.
Klimt saw femininity as the paragon of life’s natural cycle
Interestingly enough, a decade earlier (1895) Edvard Munch completed his Woman in Three Stages, featuring a similar theme.
A different trio is found in Schiele’s 1917 Mother With Two Children. The mother (his own posed for this painting), dull-eyed, is old and weary, yet is there, alive enough to aid the budding life of the children (both modeled after Schiele’s newborn nephew).
In their portraits, Klimt and Schiele did not merely paint others, but what others shun: their own, inevitable, ruin. Both sought the human condition, Klimt by adding layers, Schiele by peeling them; Klimt by embellishing his subjects, Schiele - in thousands of paintings - by getting to their essence and to the essential, as if cutting to their bare bones.
Both sought the human condition, Klimt by adding layers, Schiele by peeling them
The gap between the seen and unseen, the thought and unthought (or the unthinkable) drove their fascination. Turning to their own fears, fantasies, hopes, obsessions, and shames, the two artists not only reflected themselves, but drew a universal sense of a/temporality, timelessness and eternity, embodied in life and death.
Klimt: Death and Life
Klimt reverses the typical ordering of “life and death” to paint “death and life” (Morte e Vita, 1908-1915), death on left, life on right - thanatos and eros, to borrow the terminology of Klimt’s compatriot, Freud. Is it a fight for domination or a bedrock for cohabitation? Either way, the painting seems like another link in the long tradition of the “memento mori”: remember death! Indeed, recall your own, inevitable corporal demise even - perhaps especially - amidst the spring of life.
The painting seems like another link in the long tradition of the “memento mori”: remember death!
Klimt gives life a colorful celebration, with nine figures: seven women, one, darker, man, and one infant. Life appears joyful, vibrant, and communal - it seems to truly “take a village” to raise a child, to not only birth life, but allow it to grow, and prosper. And yet, their eyes are all wide shut - all seemingly oblivious of the lurking Death. All but one, woman figure, staring at - what? Is it us, or death, she fixes her eyes upon?
What is certain, when we shift our gaze to Death’s hollow eyes, is how fiercely he stares directly at life, perhaps especially at the newborn. Death, embodied in a darkly colorful skeleton, is ready for action. Holding a menacing club in both hands, striking the budding life is just a matter of time. He’s there, always, awaiting maliciously, ravenously, to do what he must, what he craves. Death’s life - life’s death.
Schiele: Death in Life
While Klimt was working on his “Death and Life,” Schiele painted Pregnant Woman and Death (1911), which bears some striking similarities to Klimt’s painting - in both theme and composition - inviting a creative dialogue between the two (we can safely surmise both artists knew one another’s work well).
Schiele’s Death holds no club, no weapon of mass destruction, but wears a long dark trench coat that intimates a thin, fragile, spine, and reveals his skull-shaped head. Schiele summons no pedagogic “memento mori.” There’s no need to solemnly remind us of the Grim Reaper; for Schiele, and his painted protagonists, death is always well remembered, permanently etched in mind.
Schiele summons no pedagogic “memento mori"... Death is always well remembered, permanently etched in mind.
Instead, Schiele offers the reverse: Death remembers, perhaps itself. Klimt’s Death stares at the newborn; Schiele’s directs its gaze at the yet-unborn, but even more so inwards, onto itself, to remember death, in a tormented introspection. His eyes are not hollowed open, but dolefully shut, with delicate eyelash that betrays a surprising vulnerability. Death is not joyful, nor malicious, but sad and stern, recalling his role, his inevitable burden, which is so much heavier when he faces the fetus: he knows death - he himself - will come to it too.
But who is Death? Looking at his face, its familiar features and expression, could Death be Schiele himself - yet another, most devastating, self-portrait, Schiele painting himself as the harbinger of inevitable decay? “Bodies have their own light,” Schiele wrote, “which they consume to live: they burn, they are not lit from the outside.” Schiele here becomes the embodiment, and personification, of “memento mori,” of reminding people of the inevitable mortality of all living - human and non-human alike. “You golden sunflowers,” he writes, “Feelingly bowed to die.” If you ever thought van Gogh was grim...
Schiele here becomes the embodiment, and personification, of “memento mori,” of reminding people of the inevitable mortality of all living - human and non-human alike.
Some critics believe Schiele considered himself a prophet of sorts. Here, instead, we see Schiele as a seer of the obvious, the given, yet the most terrifying given; no prophecy is needed, just a painful wake-up call to the eternal sleep that awaits us all. Still that call might be the calling of not just Schiele but art itself: while creating for eternity, art can capture the evanescence.
Should it, should Schiele? After all, even if the memento mori calling of art reminds us not only of our mortality, but - because of that - of our humanity, we often don’t want to remember. Art may have begun by outlining our own shadows (think of the Cave of Hands), but ought it remind us of the realm of shadows we’re bound to enter? If we’re all prisoners in Plato’s cave, it’s horrible enough that we see shadows for truth - should we also now realize ourselves as merely passing shadows? Or is that realization, by its very bleakness, a potentially invigorating one, endowing us with enough courage to seek the fire that’s behind and beyond all shadows?
In Schiele’s Pregnant Woman and Death, we can only imagine what the woman sees behind closed eyes, whether she too - like Death - looks inside, to life budding within her, perhaps becoming too aware of its inevitable death. Is the red dwelling of the unborn a symbol of the emergent vitality, or yet another reminder of death’s omnipresence, not merely in Arcadia, but even in the womb?
In Schiele’s Pregnant Woman and Death, we can only imagine what the woman sees behind closed eye
Schiele may have felt that latter possibility all too painfully, as not long before he took his mistress to get an abortion. That same year (1910) he also painted Dead Mother, her passing likely spelling the end of her baby.
Years later, in the wake of Great War that showed Europe the face of modern death, Schiele's wife Edith, then six months pregnant, contracted the Spanish flu that was ravaging the wounded continent, and died. Schiele would die a few days later, on 31 October, at the age of 28.
Love After Life
Schiele may have seen death all around, and inside, yet dying so young, he left a legacy of love - that looks out for life, even as it goes beyond it, unto death.
That life-death coupling presents itself not only in his paintings, but in his poetic words too. Schiele wrote “I am a man, I love death and I love life,” a love that makes one an
I, eternal child,
Always watched the passage of the rutting people and did not want
To be inside them, I said—spoke and did not speak, I listened and wanted
To hear them and see into them, strongly and more strongly.
I, eternal child —
I sacrificed myself for others …
who looked and did not see me …
Everything was dear to me —
I wanted to look at the angry people
with loving eyes,
to take their eyes do likewise;
And to the jealous,
give them gifts,
telling them I am worthless.
These “loving eyes” that sought the “inside” require the highest sacrifice, Schiele willingly thought: “For art and my loved ones, I will gladly endure to the end.”
Hope After Death
Death may be the ending, but not the end - not for Klimt, who saw it as part of an endless cycle of construction-destruction-reconstruction. Refusing the ostensible birth-death paradox, Klimt created HOPE I (1903): a pregnant, nude female painting, surrounded by deathlike figures. By bounding the realms of the living and the dead, Klimt finds hope.
By bounding the realms of the living and the dead, Klimt finds hope.
And so did Schiele. In his last, unfinished, painting “The Family,” Schiele represents pyramidally himself, his wife Edith, and a child. Alain Fleischer, who wrote a book about The Family, believes it emphasizes “who appears without resemblance, and disappears without descendants.” Fleischer imagines The Family as the moment after love, the couple now contemplating the inevitable consequence of the sexual act.
Tellingly, Schiele originally titled the painting “Squatting Couple,” adding the child (again modeled after his nephew) only after realizing his wife was pregnant. If Schiele was ever a prophet of an uncertain future, not only a seer of inevitable death, it was here, in that last gasp of penetrating paint. The Family embodies the tenacity of hope: as long as one can imagine a better future, on and beyond the canvas, hope abides.
But can we imagine hope in its darkest hour, imagine Schiele beholding his last painting for the last time, shortly after Edith’s death, moments before his own - looking through his eyes, open or closed, what do we see?
Can we imagine hope in its darkest hour?
Political Epilogue: Hate After Hope?
Klimt and Schiele died at the twilight of The Great War, two decades before it became WWI, presaging the even greater carnage of WWII. Was it inevitable? Did art play a role?
In the mid-19th century Thomas Carlyle stated, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men," to which Herbert Spencer retorted, “Before he [the great man] can remake his society, his society must make him.” While contemporary historians and social scientists side plainly with Spencer, it is hard to imagine WWII without Adolf Hitler, and almost as hard to imagine Hitler without his artistic frustration.
In 1907, at the age of 18, Hitler left his hometown Linz to pursue, against his father’s will, his artistic dream, applying to the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, but was rejected twice, an experience Hitler bitterly recounted. Demanding an explanation, young Hitler was advised to opt for architecture as he lacks appreciation of the human form. Another applicant, a year younger than Hitler, with much more “appreciation of the human form” was admitted: Egon Schiele, who quickly become frustrated by the school’s conservatism, and turned to pave his own path in art.
Hitler’s frustrated hopes led elsewhere - to the politics, and art, of hate. He despised insults to classical ideals of human beauty; hated, indeed, all that Schiele cherished - the frailty of nature and the human form, and through it love, and hope. Nazism saw such images as degenerate art, opting instead for clean geometric styles.
Hitler’s frustrated hopes led elsewhere - to the politics, and art, of hate... He hated all that Schiele cherished - the frailty of the human form, and through it love, and hope
Two years after Schiele’s death, Hitler starkly delivered this coveted cleanness in his most renowned artistic piece: the Nazi flag. He recounts in Mein Kampf: “I myself, meanwhile, after innumerable attempts, had laid down a final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle. After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika.”
“We may be destroyed," Hitler said nearing his end, "but if we are, we shall drag a world with us—a world in flames.” In these twilight of the gods, entrapped in his bunker, Hitler would find a sterilized, soulless, indeed dehumanizing, artistic form one last time, staring at a tabletop model of his hometown, Linz, a mock modern Valhalla.
That, in his last moment, was his hope.
We can find a better one.