Max Klinger's etching Death Is Here integrates landscape with symbols of mortality and industrialization for a hybrid study that stands apart from the background context of works generated in the Pre-Raphaelite and Decadence movements. The large majority of visual arts from the period can be sorted into general categories such as character studies, landscape studies and architectural studies. That is not to say that these categories are entirely self-contained, but the overlap is limited. Ruskin's architectural studies detail deserted plazas and buildings; Turner's and Hughes' meditations on landscapes and seascapes contain either symbols of human presence — and no actual humans — or exclude humanity entirely; and the countless character studies by most painters are usually set inside or an outside environment with limited scope or detail.
Death is Here strikes a disturbing balance between the craggy, barren landscape in the background and the human skeleton on the train tracks in the foreground. Death is implicit in all aspects of the painting, and the interplay between the background and foreground symbols accentuates the tension between nature's permanence and humans' mortality. The inclusion of the train tracks — represented in nearly the starkest possible form — introduces the dimension of a human creation that outlasts its creators. The effect is a vague but unsettling sense of hopelessness and foreboding that most closely resembles, and perhaps influenced, The Grim Humour of Mr S.H. Sime and other works by Sidney Sime from a decade later.
1. Is the claim that the period's artists as often focusing their works on either human characters in the foreground or on human-free landscapes a generally accurate categorization to make? If so, how does Klinger and Sime's shift away from those categories help define the decadence period?
2. The position of the skeleton on the tracks and the fabric (or hair?) flowing from the skull implies the existence of some sort of plot or backstory. Is there one that can be inferred or imagined, or is the etching's composition strictly for symbolism and effect?
3. The etching is framed by ghoulish faces that add a haunting and supernatural accent to the piece. How does the frame transform or influence the interpretation of its contents?
4. What does the etching, as a collection of symbols and a cohesive whole, mean?
Last modified 28 April 2009