Explore Klimt's Painting of 'Death and Life'

Death and Life (1910/15) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

Klimt repeatedly dealt with topics on life's fundamental questions. In the painting "Death and Life," Klimt places the figure of death on the left, directly opposite a tightly packed group symbolizing life on the right to create a symmetrical, two-part composition.

Gustav Klimt's painting "Medicine" (nach 1901) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

The Life group is reminiscent of the figurative motifs Klimt produced in his earlier faculty painting "Medicine." Together with the two other faculty paintings, "Medicine" was intended to adorn the festival room of the University of Vienna. This never occurred, however.

Death and Life (1910/15) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

"Death and Life" was first presented under the title "Death" at the International Exhibition of Art (1911) in Rome, for which Klimt received a Gold Medal. In 1912 it was displayed at the International Art Exhibition in Dresden. By then, it already went under the title "Death and Life."

Death and Life (First Version) (1910/1911) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

For reasons unknown, Klimt decided to revise the picture in 1915, changing both the colors and the composition. A historical color photograph in an art magazine from 1913 shows the original appearance of the work.

Death and Life (1910/15) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

The background, presumably made of gold leaf, was painted over with a bluish-gray. Klimt added several more female figures to the Life group. Death now makes direct eye contact with the Life group and holds a club in his bony hands.

Klimt chose a gruesome skeleton in this depiction as the symbol for death, thereby incorporating a traditional image passed down for centuries. However, Klimt's Death wears an elegant garment richly decorated with crosses that looks almost like a costume.

In contrast to the somber Death, the Life group has a hopeful character. The people are enveloped in a colorful abundance of decorations. Naked body parts alternate with decorative islands of color as Klimt playfully hides and reveals the figures.

The pair of lovers, the mother with her young child, and the old woman all symbolize the cycle of life. They remain in a passive, sleep-like state, seemingly unwilling to accept the presence of Death. They are powerless to stop his relentlessness.

Click here to experience this artwork as part of the Klimt vs. Klimt virtual gallery in 3D and AR.

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