October 26, 2020

The Dance of Death Continues

         Looking for illustrations for last week’s Ghost of John reminded me of the Dance of Death, aka Totentanz, aka Danse Macabre, that fifteenth and sixteenth century allegory of death’s universal power.  Go back and read my previous post, focussing on Hans Holbein’s famous Totentanz…  Okay, now that you’re brushed up on the history, today I wanted to look at how artists have continued to revisit the theme in modern times.
        It shouldn’t be surprising that the Totentanz experienced its first renaissance since the Renaissance around the time of the First World War, particularly in Germany, where it was part of the cultural heritage, and where Death indeed seemed to be everywhere.  While clearly influenced by the traditional fifteenth century woodcuts, Otto Wirsching (Germany, 1889-1919) put a distinctly modern spin on his interpretation, both in content and style.  Wirsching’s series includes 9 scenes plus a title page scene, of which I have two for you today.  “Death in the Street” is more traditional in the sense of depicting Death coming for an everyday person, in this case a lower class loafer.  Death, of course, brings a gun, and in the background you can see a soldier with a bayonet and destroyed buildings.  The second piece is a little more interesting, entitled “Death with One who Stayed Behind.”  Here a wealthier man appears to be standing in a sort of museum, watching troops march by on the street while he stays safely inside.  The sign on the mounted skeleton reads “Do Not Touch,” which is clearly the man’s attitude to the war.  But Death is there with him anyway; those who thought they could keep out of it will be affected just the same.
        Working shortly after the end of World War I, Robert Budzinski (Germany, 1874-1955) goes for a comic interpretation.  In his series of 8 woodcuts, Death comes for a young woman, but when he tries to lead her away in dance, she dances with him so vigorously that she breaks him to pieces.  Budzinski seems to be both commenting on women’s new power, exemplified by wartime work, suffrage, and the “flapper” model, but also reflecting the post-war spirit of reckless exuberance in the short-lived Weimar Jazz Age.  The three pieces I have here are 4, 7, and 8 in the series.
        My next Totentanz is from 1966, by HAP Grieshaber (Germany, 1909-1981).  This portfolio includes 40 woodcuts, each of which uses at least three colors.  Although Grieshaber includes some modern scenes, he also returns to a large panoply of traditional nobility and high church dignitaries.  I’ve included a few of each.  A lot of the pieces also seem relatively straightforward in terms of iconography: simply a skeleton standing with a person.  Some, however, are more interesting.  The beige pope, for example, is kissing Death’s ring, acknowledging Death as a higher authority.  On the bottom row I get a kick out of Death dressed as a secretary or courier, no doubt saying, “Message for Mr Kaufman,” in his blandest voice.  Death is coming up to the councilor in the center row with his arms and ribcage resembling a large clock, which is interesting.  Death doesn’t care that your busy schedule is full of important places to go and things to do; when he says it’s time, it’s time.  I picked the green doctor because I especially like the background of the operating room, and I picked the orange queen just because I like the colors and patterns.  Grieshaber lived through both world wars, but this major series was undertaken as a reaction to a heart attack, giving him a reminder of his own mortality.
        Finally, I have an example from the present, by Kreg Yingst (USA).  His series includes 10 pieces, and unfortunately I don’t have titles for them.  They are clearly in modern settings (a classroom, a concert, a factory, even an ironic Halloween Party) but without titles we may lose some nuance of the artist’s intention.  At any rate, Yingst seems to be returning to the traditional motifs of people going about their lives, with Death arriving to become part of the scene.  I’ve chosen to show you a basketball game, which I enjoy because of the interesting and dramatic view from above, and an emaciated model or actress with death peering out of her dressing room mirror.
        For most of modern history we in the developed world, particularly the privileged art-patrons, have not felt the same immanence of death that originally gave rise to the Totentanz genre.  Yes, everyone will die eventually, but in fact most of us expect to live for a decent span.  During World War I, however, we were once again plunged into a world in which death was everywhere and no one was safe.  Since then the idea has been revisited by pacifists highlighting the horrors of war, cynics pointing out the hypocrisies of our modern lifestyles, and moralists reminding us of the fragility of life.  There is truth to all of these viewpoints, and it’s interesting to see that artists are still finding life in the Dance of Death.

[Pictures: Two from Vom Totentanz, portfolio of wood block prints by Otto Wirsching, 1915 (Images from 50 Watts);

Three from Totentanz, portfolio of woodcuts by Robert Budzinski, c 1920 (Images from The Annex Galleries);

Six from Totentanz von Basel, portfolio of color woodcuts by HAP Grieshaber, 1966 (Images from Lempertz and Kettererkunst);

Two from The Dance of Death, portfolio of linocuts by Kreg K. Yingst, before 2012 (Images from 50 Watts).]

No comments: