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Alfred Kubin

The Great-Grandmother. 1926. Ink and watercolor. The Museum of Modern Art.

EXHIBITIONS (*INDICATES SOLO EXHIBITION)

Alternate Histories

Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Galerie St. Etienne

January 15, 2015 - April 11, 2015


Alternate Histories

January 15, 2015 - April 11, 2015


Recent Acquisitions

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)

July 17, 2012 - October 13, 2012


The Lady and the Tramp

Images of Women in Austrian and German Art

October 11, 2011 - December 30, 2011


Recent Acquisitions

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)

June 5, 2007 - September 28, 2007


Who Paid the Piper?

The Art of Patronage in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna

March 8, 2007 - May 26, 2007


Fairy Tale, Myth and Fantasy

Approaches to Spirituality in Art

December 7, 2006 - February 3, 2007


More Than Coffee was Served

Café Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna and Weimar Germany

September 19, 2006 - November 25, 2006


Every Picture Tells a Story

The Narrative Impulse in Modern and Contemporary Art

April 5, 2005 - May 27, 2005


65th Anniversary Exhibition, Part I

Austrian and German Expressionism

October 28, 2004 - January 8, 2005


Recent Acquisitions

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)

June 25, 2002 - September 20, 2002


The "Black-and-White" Show

Expressionist Graphics in Austria & Germany

September 20, 2001 - November 10, 2001


Recent Acquisitions (And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)

June 26, 2001 - September 7, 2001


Art with an Agenda

Politics, Persuasion, Illustration and Decoration

April 10, 2001 - June 16, 2001


The Expressionist City

September 19, 2000 - November 4, 2000


Saved From Europe

In Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Galerie St. Etienne

November 6, 1999 - January 8, 2000


Recent Acquisitions

(And a Look at Sixty Years of Art Dealing)

June 15, 1999 - September 3, 1999


Sacred & Profane

Michel Nedjar and Expressionist Primitivism

January 13, 1998 - March 14, 1998


That Way Madness Lies

Expressionism and the Art of Gugging

January 14, 1997 - March 15, 1997


On the Brink 1900-2000

The Turning of Two Centuries

March 28, 1995 - May 26, 1995


55th Anniversary Exhibition in Memory of Otto Kallir

June 7, 1994 - September 2, 1994


Symbolism and the Austrian Avant Garde

Klimt, Schiele and their Contemporaries

November 16, 1993 - January 8, 1994


Recent Acquisitions

June 8, 1993 - September 3, 1993


The Dance of Death

Images of Mortality in German Art

January 19, 1993 - March 13, 1993


Max Klinger, Käthe Kollwitz, Alfred Kubin

A Study in Influences

March 27, 1990 - June 2, 1990


The Narrative in Art

January 23, 1990 - March 17, 1990


Galerie St. Etienne

A History in Documents and Pictures

June 20, 1989 - September 8, 1989


Fifty Years Galerie St. Etienne: An Overview

February 14, 1989 - April 1, 1989


Recent Acquisitions and Works From the Collection

June 14, 1988 - September 16, 1988


From Art Nouveau to Expressionism

April 12, 1988 - May 27, 1988


Recent Acquisitions and Works From the Collection

April 7, 1987 - October 31, 1987


Oskar Kokoschka and His Time

November 25, 1986 - January 31, 1987


Expressionist Painters

March 25, 1986 - May 10, 1986


The Art of Giving

December 3, 1985 - January 18, 1986


Expressionists on Paper

October 8, 1985 - November 23, 1985


European and American Landscapes

June 4, 1985 - September 13, 1985


Expressionist Printmaking

Aspects of its Genesis and Development

April 1, 1985 - May 24, 1985


Early and Late

Drawings, Paintings & Prints from Academicism to Expressionism

June 1, 1983 - September 2, 1983


* Alfred Kubin

Visions From The Other Side

March 22, 1983 - May 7, 1983


Aspects of Modernism

June 1, 1982 - September 3, 1982


The Human Perspective

Recent Acquisitions

March 16, 1982 - May 15, 1982


Austria's Expressionism

April 21, 1981 - May 30, 1981


* Alfred Kubin

January 30, 1968


25th Anniversary Exhibition

Part I

October 17, 1964


Austrian Expressionists

January 6, 1964


Group Show

October 15, 1962


Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Alfred Kubin

March 14, 1961


Watercolors and Drawings by Austrian Artists from the Dial Collection

May 2, 1960


* Alfred Kubin

April 3, 1957


Small, Good Art Works from the 19th and 20th Centuries

January 27, 1949


* Alfred Kubin

Master of Drawing

December 4, 1941


Modern Austrian Art

June 13, 1936


* Alfred Kubin

April 22, 1931


* Alfred Kubin

January 20, 1925


* Alfred Kubin

April 1, 1924


THE DANCE OF DEATH

Images of Mortality in German Art

January 19, 1993 - March 13, 1993

ARTISTS

Barlach, Ernst

Beckmann, Max

Beham, Hans Sebald

Corinth, Lovis

Dix, Otto

Dürer, Albrecht

Grosz, George

Holbein the Younger, Hans

Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig

Klinger, Max

Kokoschka, Oskar

Kollwitz, Käthe

Krug, Ludwig

Kubin, Alfred

Müller, Richard

Nolde, Emil

Rethel, Alfred

Schilling, Erich von

Wolgemuth, Michael

 

ESSAY

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.