GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM THEMES: DEATH
DeathBack to all Themes
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.
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.
(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.
(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.
From a Modern Dance of Death (plate, folio 23) from the periodical Der Bildermann, vol. 1, no. 11 (Sept 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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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."
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.
(1915–16, published 1916–17)
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.
Welcome to MoMA.org. To take full advantage of all the site’s features, including the option to save works in the collection, please upgrade your browser to Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, or Internet Explorer 9. See our help page for more information.