Munch’s painting Death and Life from 1894 depicts a human skeleton and a shapely naked woman in a passionate embrace. The image illustrates the intimate connection between love and death, Eros and Thanathos.
On the right edge of the composition are two large, thin, embryo figures; on the left is a billowing stream of semen, as if seen through a microscope.
Munch introduced sperm in this painting; and in doing so added a modern, scientific dimension to this traditional “dance of death” motif.
The two figures on the right are strange creatures, thin and amorphous, which can easily lead one to think of corpses – or to the main figure in Scream, which also looks like both an embryo and a ghost.
Such themes, where life and death are seen as inseparably connected, were of great concern to Munch in the 1890s, and can be recognised in many of his pictures from this period. The motif with its embryos and sperm, symbols of the beginning of life, are also found in an etching from 1894 and in a lithograph of Madonna from 1895.
The painting Death and Life is in a fragile condition and we can see that the surface is damaged. The damage has occurred as a result of the way in which Munch treated the paintings; he experimented and took advantage of the opportunities and effects that cropped up during the creative process.
Munch began to experiment with painting techniques relevant to the means of expression he wanted to achieve during his stay in Berlin from 1892 to 1895. The paintings were given matt surfaces consisting of relatively thin layers of colour.
The picture is painted on thin finely-woven canvas which has become fragile over the course of time, as in Death and Life. The layers of paint are damaged in large areas of the painting, and a great deal of the canvas is visible, especially along the edges, and we also find stains several places.