Last week in Mixed Media, we revisited a theme that originated in 16th century Northern Europe: Death and the Maiden.
Related to earlier Medieval motifs, such as Danse Macabre or the dance of death, the Death and the Maiden theme has an added erotic element. It seems the sentiment “all life ends” shifts to “all beauty must die”. Rather than showing an old person passing away, these images classically depict a young woman in her prime, usually naked, being seduced by a death figure.
The origin of this theme is usually attributed to German artist Hans Sebald Beham.
This theme reemerged in Northern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, with the start of Expressionism. Artists such as Egon Schiele and Edward Munch sought to express this theme in terms of emotions rather than as allegorical. The figures in Schiele’s painting “Death and the Maiden” feel very human, in comparison to Beham’s figures, which are more like placeholders for an archetype. The embrace is tender and there is sorrow for death rather than horror.
This theme was later appropriated by feminist artists in the 1970’s, such as Ana Mendieta, giving the figure of the maiden a much more assertive role. The maiden embraces death and perhaps derives some mysterious and potent power from this interaction, rather than succumbing. The title of this work by Mendieta, “On Giving Life,” suggests a reversal of roles. She is bestowing life onto the death figure, rather than the skeleton bestowing death onto her. In both Mendieta and Abromovic’s performances, the role of the maiden is played by the artist herself.