Death and Life by Gustav Klimt: What This Painting Shows

Death and Life by Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt and his paintings have been a subject of masterful symbolism with his use of motifs, structure, patterns, and themes. Klimt’s style is mostly known for the use of golden color and intricate patterns merging the subject and background of the painting in it yet keeping everything well-separated. One of the most important allegorical works is the painting Death and Life. 

Currently housed in the Leopold Museum in Vienna, this painting was created in 1910 and won first place in the Rome Exhibition in 1911. First, we’ll take a look at the painting and then move to the nitty-gritty parts of the painting such as the meaning, structure, and style. Here’s the painting:

Structure of the painting 

Death and Life is a huge painting, like most of Klimt’s other works. This painting measures at 5′ 10″ x 6′ 6″ or 70-inches x 78-inches. This painting is gigantic. Both the length and width is longer than the average male height in the US! 

The size indicates one sure thing; All the elements, the patterns, and even the tiniest details are meant to be seen. Nothing you see in the painting was just padding to fill the space but something the artist wanted the viewers to see.

There are two parts of the painting, one representing death and the other life. Now notice the use of colors on both sides. Death’s side is dominated by bluish tones. Blue is used to represent coldness, death, absence of life. When the blood stops running, the body turns bluish. 

The right side represents life and it is as colorful as the process it represents. The predominant colors are red and green, red representing warmth, a direct contrast with the blue and green representing the lush greenery of plants. Even the patterns and motifs are multi-colored, bright, and warm. The green and red colors, since they are complementary, enhance the look of the life side of the painting. 

Meaning of the Painting

On the side of Death, the Grim Reaper looks at life with a malicious grin, as if there is some joy in waiting for life to end. It appears that the Reaper is garbed in a cloth with patterns of the cross. It feels like the Reaper is the embodiment of the cemetery, a place where there is no life, everything is cold and still. 

The death side of the painting is easy to understand. It is the life side that is full of symbolism and allegories. At first glance, it is easy to see that life is being represented here. But dive into the subtleties and you’ll find more. 

First and the most obvious is the overwhelmingly large number of females on this side. From the background to the foreground, there are so many women. Klimt was known to work with females as his painting’s subjects but here, women represent the source of life. Their capability of creating and nurturing life.

There are some young women, perhaps virgins. Then there are some older women and finally a senile woman. This progression from young to old is another representation of life. 

We see two men in this painting, one is a baby and the other is a grown man. This is yet another allegorical element. The baby represents birth or the initiation of life, brought by a female. The man represents the phase of life when he is capable of producing life. These two phases are the most crucial phases of anyone’s life. 

The senile phase of life, represented by the old woman shows the completion of life. Life is not a still process unlike death, which can be represented just by the Grim Reaper. Life is a dynamic process and death is the lack of that dynamic process. This is why life is shown here not just by living men and women, but with the people aging, growing old, and eventually dying.

One more thing worth noting is the background of life’s portrayal is all green with circles of red. This is to represent fauna, leaves, and flowers of trees because it is not possible to think about any form of life without the presence of fauna. And since they are placed at the bottom, acting as an encapsulation of everything living shows the importance of it.

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