“Death is not the opposite of life,” wrote spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle in his sublime meditation on nature and endless cycles of renewal. “Life has no opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal.”
This profound insight into two quintessential states that frame our physical time on Earth is perhaps the most elusive one for our minds to grasp and comprehend. Not because of our incapacity to do so, but because of our innate tendency to push aside anything that threatens our solid sense of self, anything that goes against our illusion of control and security. When enforced stillness descended upon our planet in 2020, faced with limitations both physical and mental, many of us realized for the first time how blind and deaf we were to the elemental truth of our mortality.
So instead of getting ambushed and feeling unprepared, it’s essential for us to meditate on this subject often and remind ourselves that our bodies are frail, the world is unpredictable, and every day is precious. And what better way to do it than to contemplate awe-inspiring art in the form of Death and Life by an Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) included in an altogether dazzling volume Gustav Klimt: Drawings and Paintings edited by art historian Tobias G. Natter.
Painted around 1910, several years before the start of World War I, the first version of Death and Life features the Grim Reaper as a felt but passive presence opposite unceasing cascade of human shapes symbolizing different stages of life, from the innocence of a newborn baby to the graceful repose of old age. Facing the endless continuity of Life, death is dormant just as the figures in front of it.
It is unknown why Klimt decided to radically rework the painting in 19151. But it can’t be a coincidence that this decision coincided with the start of the Great War, accompanied by unimaginable loss of human life on a global scale and no-less-tragic loss in his personal life when in 1915 death took his mother Anna and his daughter Charlotte2. In the second version of Death and Life, the Grim Reaper has a menacing look and ready to strike at any moment. Death’s presence and its threat can no longer be ignored; the artist’s perspective has changed, and so has the viewer’s.
“Whoever wants to know something about me — as an artist, the only notable thing — ought to look carefully at my pictures and try to see in them what I am and what I want to do,” Gustav Klimt said about his art and his life3. To get to know Gustav Klimt and immerse yourself more deeply into the details of his marvelous painting, treat yourself to this wonderful 3-minute art primer by Khan Academy’s Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Enjoy:
DEATH AND LIFE
by Gustav Klimt
We’re in the Leopold Museum in Vienna and we’re looking at Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life.
Klimt is taking older traditional scenes and reworking them and making them wildly contemporary, wildly modern.
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 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.
The skull is looking towards life eagerly. When I say life, I’m referring to this accumulation, this almost architecture of human bodies. Old and young and the newborn.
There’s this sense of generations and generations of human beings who have been taken by death.
If you look at the overlapping of those bodies, there really is a sense of a succession of movement forward in time but not towards anything.
They do seem to be swept along as though in a dream.
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 were 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.
To me, it reads like death on one side and pleasure or sensuality on the other.
There’s a real mirroring. And I think both figures are intensified because of the other. Their hands are even somewhat together. One holding the club one, one clutching her breasts.
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 resurrection or afterlife. On the right, much brighter colors, shapes that suggest flowers, decorative patterns that suggest renewal.
That pattern, it really seems to flatten the entire image.
In Europe, at this time, we see it 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.
It does seem to me to be a really successful solution to a problem that artists have 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.
Death and Life, an integral part of Gustav Klimt’s Drawings and Paintings, remains a transcendental work of art and a liberating reminder about our essential human condition. Complement this visual object of meditation with Eckhart Tolle’s audio meditation on nature, cycles of renewal, and our biggest misunderstanding about life and death.