Dancing a German Death - Rachel Elizabeth Göertz 

A gallery featuring portrayals of death via works of German Expressionism incorporating motifs of the morbid, grotesque, harrowing and rueful alluding to and amid the wake of World War I. This collection explores integral pieces apart of an era defined by warfare and social upheaval, and a group of artists' feat in reworking the medieval theme of the Dance of Death.    

Kollwitz's piece depicts a woman grasping the head of an ill or deceased child in her lap; a man standing by her side is turned away, his head hidden behind his arm, as he bares a small noose in his free hand. The dominant theme of the work is death and decay- the color pallet is desaturated and minimal, the etched work done solely in Sepia stained greys and blacks. The stark contrast between the sable, negative space occupying the background and the heavily etched areas of the woman and child's faces make their figures appear particularly pale, and when considered alongside their blank expressions, encourage sentiments of shock, grief, nausea, and ultimately death.
Depicted here is an artist, a man, standing beside a human skeleton that hands from a wire, wearing a most pensive expression as he awaits to write upon the notepad he holds. Corinth, a leading artist in the German Expressionism movement, utilizes the austere sketch style distinct of the age- the series of short, parallel pen strokes pose a sense of urgency and simplicity, as if the work was created as the artist was viewing the this scene in actuality. The overall starkness may even be considered quite eerie. The skeleton bares a faint grin, an expression highly dissimilar to the deadpan artist. This juxtaposition touches on the theme of not only a personified Death, but that Death "danced" through this era: Death, even at his end, beams from his wire hanging.
In Kokoschka's piece, a woman stands holding close to her body a white veil bearing a bloodied, male face. The woman's expression is sullen and bare, and sporadic swatches of deep reds make it look as though her gown is blood-soaked. She grasps the veil in a manner similar to how a woman may hold an infant- with both arms pulled close to her torso and her hands positioned gently, and as her figure has a slight forward bend, the object appears dear to her, despite its unsettling air. There is a distinguished emptiness, however, between the veil and the space her arms appear to be accompanying for. The stricken, gory face of the veil figure too embodies themes of the harrowing and gruesome.
A core subject Corinth's works incorporated throughout this age were Biblical influences (largely a nod to the reincarnation of medieval themes, namely the Dance of Death)- this piece depicts a minimally clothed man, Samson, standing in a doorway with wrists in shackles and bloodied bandages over his eyes. The story of Samson was popularly referenced by works nodding to World War I- here, his pained expression paired with his physical restrictors pose motifs of a crusader's strife, the significance of which can be best comprehended when the figure's Biblical context is considered alongside the European social turmoil that was definitive of this time.
Rohlf's work depicts a skeleton figure, Death, bent forward as he carries on his back a black coffin. The etched piece is simplistic and cartoon-like, a prevalent style of German war-time artworks. The contours and defining lines of the figure are created in the darkened, negative spaces of the two-toned piece. This representation of death continues the thru-line of personification. Here, he is toiling to bear the coffin much like a day laborer or soldier.
Klinger's etch work portrays a young woman sitting on a shadowed beside below an opened window, looking unto an empty room. Deep shadows dominate the frame as large portions of the piece are left un-engraved, running along a similar vein as Kollwitz's works, the complexion of the female subject appears especially pale, haunting and ailing up against the shaded backdrop. The overall tone of the piece plays off of looming, ghoulish elements- note not only the shadow play, but the softness of the lines throughout the frame that help the piece appear foggy and antiquated. There is a rigidness, however, to the woman's posture which reinforces motifs of fright and, as a part of Klinger's series of works regarding rueful affairs leading up to World War I, allude to the theme of Death's lingering.
The Scream depicts a male figure standing on a bridge along a waterway, with his hands against each side of his face as his mouth and eyes set agape. Long, winding strokes of contrasting blues and reds makeup the watery horizon line and setting skyline of the background, immediately drawing the eye and sparking an initial sense of duality. The central figure, done in greenish blacks (his indistinguishable, full-bodied attire) and muddy yellows (his complexion) are a mending of unlike and disharmonious hues- there is likewise bits of sallow greens mixed throughout the frame- giving an overall grotesqueness (though subtle). There is, too, indisputable terror in the figure's expression, the most overt representation of harrowing motifs.
"Death as Juggler" depicts a personified Death juggling treasure before a pair of shocked onlookers. Rohlfs' piece is one of the more overt examples of the revamping of the medieval thread of a Dance of Death. Death is portrayed as playful, mocking and arguably satyrical as his audience, two aristocrats (often said to be the owners of the treasures Death juggles) cower beside one another with wide mouths and eyes. The work appears haphazard and incomplete- much of the "detail" draws from negative space left free of the hurried and partial brush strokes of the simplistic color pallet of black, red and yellow. Here, Death is dancing. Death is performing- Rohlf has undoubtedly reintroduced an age old theme.
Munch's 1903 work depicts a nude male figure standing before a shadowy form and an indistinct, afire backdrop. The title sentiment present in this piece is the inevitable and adverse- the expression Munch's portrayal of self wears is pained, but reserved, as a sizable form (arguably an "essence" of Death more so than an explicit representation/personification) looms behind and above him.
The etch work "Cain and Abel" depicts a further biblical scene, that of Cain (told as the first human to be born) as he holds a long-stemmed mallet overhead, and Abel (the first human to die) as he cowers below is brother. This story from which Corinth drew his inspiration is one of the foremost tales of life versus death. The crude and simplistic work, lacking extensive detail, forms an image within the un-etched negative space- the majority of medium manipulation is instead evident in the series of paralleled, horizontal marks used as a background element to bring forward the subjects' forms. The underlying motif of the work, life and death respectfully and at its most rudimentary state, are mirrored by the crudeness of the piece. Corinth's work was as unrefined as Death.
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