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German Expressionism

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GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM THEMES: DEATH

Death

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Artists’ images of both the battlefield and the “murderous deeds” (Moritäten) committed on the home front captured the feelings of violence and unpredictability that characterized the era.
Death is inevitable. Violent or peaceful, long awaited or sudden, it eventually comes for everyone. This universal theme became even more potent and relevant for Expressionist artists in an age marked by war and social upheaval. In particular, Expressionists refigured the medieval motif of the Dance of Death, using it to allude to the cataclysmic destruction of World War I and its aftermath.
<i>Plague</i>

Max Klinger

Plague

1903 (published 1904)

In the sick ward of a hospital, a nun frantically tries to repel fantastic black ravens, allegorical carriers of the plague. Klinger reworked this image of the plague for more than 10 years. This print is from a sequence on mass death from his portfolio On Death, Part II.
<i>Death, Woman, and Child</i>

Käthe Kollwitz

Death, Woman, and Child

(1910, printed c. 1931 or after)

Kollwitz returned again and again to the theme of a mother's anxiousness for her children. As early as 1903, she used herself and her younger son, Peter, as models for images of a mother and her dead child.
<i>The Dead Woman</i>

Erich Heckel

The Dead Woman

(1912), dated 1919, (published 1920)

Just a day after she was to marry Prince Myshkin, the body of Nastasya Filippovna lies in deathly stillness in the room of Rogozhin, who stabbed her in the heart. Heckel emphasizes the psychological intensity of the climax of Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot, as the two men stand vigil over the body of the woman that neither of them can now possess.
<i>Dying Old Maid</i>

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Dying Old Maid

(1912, published 1913)

In this illustration of the final scene in Alfred Döblin's novella recounting a woman's final desires and fears in a monastery, an old maid yields to the unseen presence of Death.
<i>Death and the Artist</i> from <i>Dance of Death</i>

Lovis Corinth

Death and the Artist from Dance of Death

(1921, published 1922)

Here, the empty sockets of Death's skeletal face are trained on Corinth himself, although Death's bony grasp cannot stop Corinth from making lasting art in defiance of his own mortality—the artist holds an etching needle in his hand. On his wrist, a watch evokes the ceaseless passage of time.
<i>From a Modern Dance of Death</i> (plate, folio 23) from the periodical <i>Der Bildermann</i>, vol. 1, no. 11 (Sept 1916)

Ernst Barlach

From a Modern Dance of Death (plate, folio 23) from the periodical Der Bildermann, vol. 1, no. 11 (Sept 1916)

1916

German artists modernized the medieval motif of the Dance of Death in the face of the seemingly endless carnage of World War I. Here, Barlach envisions Death as a monumental figure swinging a hammer that destroys everything in its path.
<i>Dance of Death 1917</i> (Dead Man Heights) from <i>The War</i>

Otto Dix

Dance of Death 1917 (Dead Man Heights) from The War

(1924)

The swirl of bodies in this Dance of Death is, upon closer inspection, revealed to be corpses of soldiers impaled upon the barbed wire separating the combatants.
<i>Dead Men before the Position near Tahure</i> from <i>The War</i>
LEFT

Otto Dix

Dead Men before the Position near Tahure from The War

(1924)

Rather than depicting death in combat as a glorious sacrifice, Dix shows the terrible aftermath of battle. Maggots eat away at rotting flesh, and bodies are left to decompose in the trenches. Dix exploited the corrosive nature of etching and aquatint—mediums in which acid etches an image into a metal printing plate—to heighten the sense of decay.
<i>Morgue</i>

Max Beckmann

Morgue

(1922, published 1924)

In a makeshift morgue on the front lines, haggard attendants struggle with a dead soldier, heavy and stiff as a coffin, amid disfigured bodies. Beckmann served briefly as a medical orderly in Flanders in 1915, and the horrors of this experience still haunted him years later.
<i>The Danger of Bolshevism</i>

Rudi Feld

The Danger of Bolshevism

1919

This poster warns of the dangers of Bolshevism, which threatened to spread from Russia in the politically tumultuous period after the end of the war. A terrifying yellow skull holds a knife dripping with blood. In the background, flames lick behind a hill covered with tombstones.
<i>Workers. Famine. Death Is Approaching. Strike Destroys. Work Nourishes. Do Your Duty. Work</i>

Heinz Fuchs

Workers. Famine. Death Is Approaching. Strike Destroys. Work Nourishes. Do Your Duty. Work

1919

This poster, issued by the socialist-leaning postwar government, shows a huge figure of Death sweeping through a working-class neighborhood. The bold text warns of impending death and hunger and urges the working class to stay on the job, declaring, "Strike destroys, work nourishes."
<i>Death as a Juggler (Revolution)</i>

Christian Rohlfs

Death as a Juggler (Revolution)

(1918-19)

Horrified onlookers watch as Death juggles their future. After the war, senseless and seemingly random deaths—brought on by hunger, disease, and politically motivated violence—afflicted people from all walks of life.
<i>The Last Thing</i>

Käthe Kollwitz

The Last Thing

(1924)

In the difficult years after the end of World War I, Kollwitz focused on the despair of the most vulnerable members of society—children, widows, and the elderly. Here, in a last act of desperation, a man whose pension has been wiped out by postwar inflation hangs the noose that will end his earthly suffering.
<i>People in the Street</i>  from <i>The First George Grosz Portfolio</i>
LEFT

George Grosz

People in the Street from The First George Grosz Portfolio

(1915–16, published 1916–17)

RIGHT

George Grosz

Death on the Street

(1920–1921, published 1923)

In the postwar metropolis, there is no refuge—not at home, not on the streets. While people go about their lives outside, all manner of mayhem takes place in an apartment building; Grosz's glimpse inside shows scenes of violent struggle, love, and suicide. In another image, Death stalks a man on the street.
<i>Nocturnal Apparition</i>

Otto Dix

Nocturnal Apparition

1923

Emerging from a shadowy crowd on a street, the terrifying, skeletal face of this prostitute reveals the true cost of her services: death.
<i>Death Grabbing at a Group of Children</i>

Käthe Kollwitz

Death Grabbing at a Group of Children

(1934)

The innocent are not safe from death, either, as Kollwitz shows here in this terrifying image of Death snatching children randomly. Behind the caped figure, one child manages to escape Death's grasp.
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