Portraits and Guises


Content warning: references to death and dying, graphic imagery and violence

One glance suffices: it is instantly recognisable. Death cannot be mistaken, nor easily forgotten. It needs no introduction; there is the instant and uncanny sensation of familiarity.

Though an improbable muse, Death has enthralled generations the world over, captivating artists and storytellers alike. Unlike its creators, art is not hampered by the constraints of human mortality. It is perhaps this quality of endurance which renders artistic depictions of Death, in all its many guises, so compelling and impactful. This article will examine Death in three distinct portraits to illustrate how viewing and engaging with Death can evoke anxiety or, indeed, lead us to a place of comforting solace.

To come face to face with Disk of Mictlantecuhtli (Teotihuacan Culture, 1-600CE) requires a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. But for those who crafted this imposing stone sculpture, a much more arduous journey was necessary to earn the privilege of looking Death in the eye. The Aztecs believed that all souls–with the exception of those who died in battle or childbirth were subject to a brutal trial; a descent, lasting four years, through the nine levels of hell. The kind of afterlife that would make Dante and Virgil blush.

Image via Wikimedia Commons. Disk of Mictlantecuhtli at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.


Although the Aztecs understood the inextricable link between dissolution and regeneration, this particular artwork undeniably shows Death as ferocious and tyrannical. Those who braved the lacerating winds, treacherous mountains, and rivers of blood of Mictlan (the underworld), were at last received by an audience and its inscrutable arbiter, Mictlantecuhtli depicted here. Souls were granted either lasting peace or a violent demise—seemingly on a whim. There was no certainty in death. This stone icon of Mictlantecuhtli—remarkably well preserved, yet evocatively missing part of its former halo, is truly fearsome. Great courage is needed to stand alone before it, and prayers for clemency seem destined to fall upon deaf ears. 

Elsewhere, Death cloaks itself in subterfuge. The spectral musician who now completes the composition of Self-portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle (Böcklin, 1872) at first escaped detection altogether. The story goes that, upon completing the original self-portrait, Böcklin’s close friends asked what he seemed to be listening to over his shoulder. This catalysed a moment of introspective revelation: Death had always been there, whispering into his ear. It is this intimate, inner discovery which the work now conveys to the viewer. 

Image via Wikimedia Commons. Arnold Böcklin, 'Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle', 1872, oil on canvas, 75 x 61 cm (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin).


Böcklin was well acquainted with and actively drew upon the Vanitas and Totentanz traditions, both of which have a long history in Central European art. They stress the inescapability of Death, as well as its essentially indiscriminate nature: wealthy or destitute, all are equally beholden to its power. Rather than encouraging peaceful resignation to this looming fate, the message contained therein is essentially one of haste: an imperative not to squander the time before death arrives and with it, regret on account of all the days squandered on rest or quiet contemplation.

As cultures evolve over time, so too do their means of artistic expression. Breaking with the conventional axioms of the past, shaking off the fetters of tradition, enables the exploration of previously unchartered horizons of meaning. Death became no mere abstraction, nor solely a subject for portraiture. It was recognised as a real and active force in the world; what it touches seldom remains unchanged.

In his early years, Gustav Klimt—classically educated and patronised by Vienna’s elite—would have seemed an unlikely champion of radical artistic expression. In the wake of his brother’s death, the bold, distinctly modern style closely associated with the Austrian painter today gradually emerged. It is therefore unsurprising that Death makes an appearance in Klimt’s oeuvre. Perhaps no more surprising, given the depth of his bereavement, is that this emergence would take some time.

Image from Wikipedia Commons. Gustav Klimt's 'Death and Life' (1910-1915). 


Death and Life (Klimt, 1910-15) won the Golden Medal at the 1911 International Art Exhibition in Rome. The artist himself considered it his crowning figurative work. Unlike the ferocious Meso-American deity and Böcklin’s unnerving fiddler, Klimt’s figure of Death radiates vivacious energy and an unmissable, though rather inexplicable, charisma. The guise in which Death appears defies expectations, marking a point of departure. This portrayal is principally an offering of consolation; something to revive the spirit of a world accustomed to contemplating Death with fear.

Though visually separate, Death is shown to be the counterweight to Life; without the other, each would be unbearably imbalanced. Bedecked in a fetching, cross-studded blue mantle, Death surveys the unfolding scene: neither envious nor spiteful, but, it seems, faintly amused. This is as humorous as a skull-and-bone manifestation of decay can get. It is worth noting that Klimt radically revised the piece in 1915; the original gold-leafed background was replaced by a sombre sea of grey. Perhaps it is this less gaudy setting, which sharpens the contrast between the central figures, that flatters Death’s portrayal.

The creators of all three portraits have themselves returned to dust, which begs the tantalising question: when they did at last meet their end, who or what came to meet them? Was it the same Death they expected to see? Or was it something altogether different, which none of them could put into words, carve into stone or paint onto a canvas? We are left only with the meaning we can extrapolate from their artworks. In any lifetime there will indeed be trials, with each day a preparation of sorts for a final judgement in the court of Mictlantecuhtli. We will at times hear the taut melody of strings reverberating from beyond the grave. At others, we will cover our ears and eyes, desperate to preserve our blissful ignorance. And yet, we may be able to transcend our instinctive dread of death like Klimt who, in spite of a life marred by sorrow, reminds the viewer to contemplate Death with a healthy pinch of mirth. It is, after all, a prospect which need not be embodied by some nefarious Grim Reaper, but rather by a mild-mannered, navy-garbed icon of entropy; patiently awaiting its moment in the wings–ready, willing, and able to share a consolatory laugh over the beauty and absurdity of it all. 

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