One of my Favorite Klimt pieces (apart from his landscapes which everyone seems to neglect) during his “mosaic” period is one that captures the essence of his enigmatic artistic style. “Death and Life” (1915) is a piece where Klimt masterfully cuts against the grain of modernism at the time by wishing to capture the grandiloquence and spiritual heft of the old masters, genre painting, and that classic style of symbolist art which fell out of favor at this time. This is a piece of reactionary art of a kind, but it does more than simply LARP the past, for even during the latter 19th century, that style of academic painting became a self-parody of sorts, at least among the in vogue art world.
What Klimt stumbles upon is a model for which even artists today who go against the ideological norms of the art world (I.E. being to the right of current woke intersectional orthodoxy) can follow. He realized that one can borrow from the past, as his staging and symbolism does here, creating a cobbled together mass of humanity one often sees in the most stunning of genre paintings. He also took inspiration from medieval manuscripts, biblical scenes and etchings of death in a skeletal form that was popular for the time. Death would take the hand of nobleman, peasants, kings, everyone. Klimt kept the past in mind, and its greatness, but chose an expressionist style that brought the piece into his contemporary age. One must not simply go back to the past, this is impossible, but one must reconcile the past with the present, and take refuge in its “eternal flame”, rather than trying to take up the impossible task of sowing back together its ashes.
We have to the left the figure of death, this time in a more menacing form, waiting in the shadows, just outside the orb of life and passionate sensuality, stalking like a waiting butler, a shadow just behind them, shrouding every step they take, etc. Death is adorned with crosses and other religious symbols, marking his eternal presence, his robe or cloak of the unknowing, the mystery and void from which we came and from which we shall all return. Interestingly, he does not carry a scythe to cut us down, but a club to beat us with.
On the right hand side (perhaps this is symbolic, right hand path, left hand path) we have the cocoon, the orb or seed-firmament of life itself, in all of its glorious vibrancy. A celebration of life takes place in a way only Klimt could envision. To begin, the whole scene is cut from its blue-black surroundings to have a much more lively and warmer color palette, filled with passages of fleshy crimsons, oranges, warmer greens instead of the cool blues and turquoises found on death. the outer layer is encased and surrounded by flowers, the garden symbolism is quite apparent, this is the spring of life, everything is fertile and growing. We then see the triangular and circular mosaic symbols Klimt often painted to denote the masculine and feminine energies in unison, the solar and lunar coming together in an almost alchecmical glyph pattern, visual language of the highest, abstract order. It is like a psychedelic blanket of life, pink flesh hues embedded in the patterns, like a blanket that the bottom woman is using to comfort herself with, life comforts us with life.
Here Klimt hopes to reconcile with the beauty and fragility of both life and death. We see in all his murals, sketches and works, the same voluptuous women, sensual, kind, inviting faces, their figure and breasts exposed, and always flanked by a strong male presence, this time in the foreground, protecting the women and children and the elderly. We see women with babies, loving and snuggling with their young, celebrating youth and fertility, while the masculine figure comforts the grieving who is effected by the cycle of life and death. If one wishes to say that all modern art is somehow “anti-trad”, then point to this piece!
We see the very old woman next to the very young, and more importantly, everyone is in deep sleep, dreaming, they are in the dream world (seeing as how Freud was popular in Vienna at the time) Klimt is denoting the importance of the dream world, giving a nod to surrealism and fantastical realism of the Vienna school.
Here we see a young mother holding her baby, surrounded in the warmth of consuming orange light, a blanket of grace, while the only figure with her eyes wide open is another captivating young women who is closest to death. She peers out with wild eyes at death, captivated by his presence on the outside, like a mania has struck her; Why i would say there is so much adoration in Klimt of the masculine and feminine coming together to celebrate life and having children, I guarantee some sardonic art critic with modern “woke” proclivities would find it fit to label as shallow and sexist (oh wait).
What we see here in Klimt (despite his bohemian personal life) is a sensuality that is nearer to the sacred then the other forms of debased sensuality going around the Germanic expressionist movements at the time. This is passionate, loving, yet strangely wholesome sensuality, the desire for children, the loving of the infinite. This is not merely empty lust, but lust driven into love, sensuality here serves a higher and NATURAL telos.
If it were done today (again, like the art critic in the link states) it would be viewed as nothing but “indulging in the male fantasy”. But why is this an immediate negative? I can go into the long and dry political reasons for this current year assessment of male-centrist artistic depictions, but of course everyone really knows why without me coming out and saying it. Klimt depicts his women as being strong and powerful, womanly not in a stereotypical way, but in an archetypal way, while still giving what is a male eye in terms of what men find attractive. What is attractive to the primal male, when one thinks of it: This depiction of a young woman and her newborn, sleeping deeply, dreaming a mutual dream, or some gaunt and exposed prostitute, rendered in the most striking and viscerally shocking of ways possible (ALA Egon Schiele, or a number of other ghastly contemporary depictions of the modern politicized female body).
Klimt painted with the timeless in mind, and urges us to celebrate life, while REMEMBERING DEATH.