Images of death recur throughout European history, but they have been especially prevalent in Germany. The quintessential Medieval exponents of the genre, Hans Holbein and Albrecht Dürer, were German, as were many lesser known artists who created similar works. In the ensuing centuries, death-oriented art never entirely vanished, and the subject underwent periodic revivals--frequently at times of social upheaval, such as the 1848 revolution or the First World War. As each successive foray into the macabre built upon its predecessors, a relatively coherent iconographic tradition developed over the course of time. The Totentanz, or Dance of Death, was probably the most compelling and versatile of the myriad variants that constituted this tradition.
In the Middle Ages, when virtually all art served a religious function, the figure of Death was typically employed to deliver a two-pronged message. If not on earth, then at least in heaven, death could be conquered through pious behavior, as depicted most famously in Dürer’s engraving Knight, Death and the Devil. An allegorical embodiment of Death --usually a corpse or skeleton-- was also often depicted in tandem with comely maidens, great riches and similar enticements in order to highlight the evanescence of such worldly pleasures. This latter approach not only informed a rich assortment of memento mori icons, but contributed most directly to the genesis of the Dance of Death. And it was, in turn, the Dance of Death which gave the allegory its enduring resonance by endowing it with political overtones.
A Dance of Death--either an actual procession or a sequence of genre scenes in which people of varying occupations, ages and economic classes confront mortality--presented Death as the great equalizer, implicitly questioning the legitimacy of the existing power structure. While the subject had surfaced sporadically throughout the Middle Ages, it achieved its greatest popularity in the sixteenth century, on the eve of the Renaissance. The breakdown of the feudal system, coupled with the Protestant revolt against the Catholic Church, helped transform the Dance of Death into a vehicle for deliberate social criticism. In the Dance’s best known incarnation, a series of woodcuts by Hans Holbein, Death punishes the mighty (particularly the corrupt clergy and the exploitative nobility) but comforts the poor and meek. Germany, which lacked the political stability of France or England and was the scene of several bloody rebellions in the 1500s, proved particularly receptive to Holbein’s message, and the woodcuts were reprinted twelve times within twenty-five years of their initial publication in 1538.
The modern-day revival of the Dance of Death was precipitated almost single-handedly by the artist Alfred Rethel. His choice of this metaphor to depict the Revolution of 1848 was conditioned by several factors. For one thing, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, a proliferation of high-quality reproductions had increased awareness of late Medieval artists such as Holbein and Dürer. Germans, not yet citizens of a unified nation-state, sought to establish a common heritage by emulating the styles and subjects of their illustrious artistic forbears. The Totentanz, because of its reliance on seried pictures, was particularly suited to the printmaking media, and the Germanic tradition accorded unusual prestige to the graphic arts. Then, too, the circumstances of 1848 were not unlike those of the sixteenth century: the transition to an industrial economy had created gross inequities of wealth, as well as a general perception that the ruling classes were venal and inept.
Rethel had long been interested in the subject of death, and at one point even began a series of genre scenes--among them Death as Friend and Death as Enemy --that echo Holbein’s anecdotal approach. However, his Dance of Death of the Year 1848 differs from its Medieval prototypes in several key respects. Unlike Holbein’s cycle of discreet vignettes, Rethel’s six woodcuts form a cohesive narrative, wherein Death first dupes the workers into rebelling and then leads them to their doom. Far from being the great equalizer, Rethel’s Death figure reveals the ideal of equality to be illusory. Moreover, whereas Medieval depictions stressed the universality and inevitability of death, Rethel’s Death is highly selective: those who fail to heed its siren call are spared. The implication is that the victims are to blame, for they have, however inadvertently, chosen their fate.
If formerly the Totentanz had focused on the manner in which Death comes to ordinary citizens in times of peace, Rethel showed how the genre could be applied to the circumstances of armed conflict. Hereafter, artists would draw upon both strands of the tradition. Max Klinger, who did much to elevate the stature of printmaking, dealt with death in numerous single images and two extended cycles (see nos. 38-41). For the most part, he followed Holbein’s example, updating the style and settings, but continuing to catalogue death’s impact on specific individuals (a poor family, a mother, a king, and so on). Käthe Kollwitz--whose devotion to printmaking was very much validated by Klinger’s precedent--would be among the first artists to fully expand on Rethel’s example as it applied to embattled groups of people.
Kollwitz’s depictions of class conflict are distinguished from Rethel’s by her profound sympathy for the struggling victims, but otherwise the views of these two artists (generally perceived as ideological opposites) are surprisingly similar. In Kollwitz’s earliest print cycles, the Weaver’s Revolt and the Peasants’ War, armed confrontation ends badly for the rebels, many of whom die. In fact, the final plate of the Peasants’ War, Battlefield, roughly paraphrases the last panel of Rethel’s Dance of Death. Kollwitz’s innate pacifism was more “politically correct” when she applied it to the horrors of World War I, but she remained an uneasy ally of the revolutionary left.
Most German artists who lived through the First World War were profoundly affected by it, though responses varied according to each individual’s personal experiences. The majority supported the war when it broke out in 1914, some naively believing that it would purge Europe of bourgeois mediocrity and the growing technocracy. By 1916, however, many of these one-time patriots were thoroughly demoralized by the harsh realities of combat and the patent senselessness of the slaughter. Ernst Barlach, who had celebrated the conflict in his 1914 lithograph The Holy War, recast the same figure as a brutal murderer two years later in A Modern Dance of Death. Whereas the victorious allies were able to retain an air of moral superiority, the Germans could preserve a semblance of dignity only by allocating blame universally. In Otto Dix’s famous War cycle, as in Rethel’s Dance of Death, there are no innocent victims. Everyone is tainted by war’s corruption, and everyone is responsible.
The Totentanz experienced its final flowering in the aftermath of Germany’s military defeat. Though the government was toppled in November 1918, the destructive collusion of industry, the army and the Church survived into the Weimar era and became a prime target for the caricaturist George Grosz. On the other hand, an older artist such as Lovis Corinth felt merely depressed by the recent cataclysmic events. His Dance of Death does not allude directly to the War, but rather confronts the all-pervasiveness of death, which visits young as well as old, not least the elderly artist himself. One of the last great Death cycles of this period was executed by the aging Kollwitz in 1934-35 (nos. 52-55). It is curious to find this artist, who had long equated death with injustice, now greeting the prospect with resignation or even eagerness. As in certain prints by Holbein, Rethel and Klinger, the death that comes at the end of a long hard life is not rejected, but welcomed “as a friend.” The Medieval prototype thus remained vital well into the twentieth century, both because it captured certain human universals, and because it provided a particularly apt metaphor for the moral ambiguities of modern warfare.