Death and the Maiden: from Munch to Abramovic



Some time ago I wrote about one of the most stunning and moving themes in the work of Edward Munch: The Madonna. Following my visit to the Munch Museum in Oslo, I wrote about Munch’s fable “Alpha og (and) Omega“. 

Some of the paintings and etchings of the “Madonna” series I used in a subsequent post on poetry: “Naked heart forever.”

Munch described “Madonna” in this way: “Now life and death join hands. The chain is joined that ties the thousands of past generations to the thousands of generations to come” (qtd. in Hughes 281). He painted a woman in warm hues, her torso bare and her head tilted back, with long reddish hair flowing around her body. Her eyes are closed, her lips slightly parted in silent rapture. Her face is pale and bony, and crowned with a deep orange halo. The corpse-like face above the voluptuous, sensuous body is a strange rendition of the Madonna as virgin-especially given that the work was originally presented with a painted frame of circling sperm. The lithograph versions have the sperm border, and a fetus with its arms crossed in the corpse position looking up unhappily at the Madonna from the lower left corner. Munch is playing with opposites here: fertility and virginity, lust and chastity, and in his words, life and death. (1b)

Edward Munch, Self portrait with bottle
Edward Munch, Self portrait with bottle of wine, 1906, Munch Museum, Oslo

The “naked heart forever” post ended with an etching by Munch that sets today’s topic: “Death and the Maiden”.

But what is the origin of this theme in the western world?

I quote from “Black Calavera

Rudolph Binion argues that artist Hans Baldburg painted Death and the Maiden during the early 1500′s, which also originates from the ‘Dance of Death’.

According to Binion, the Renaissance Reformation introduced the Death and the Maiden to the public sphere. These particular paintings featured death holding or touching a woman in a suggestive and sexual manner.

In comparison Enrico De Pascale  claims that “The origin of the theme lies in Greek Mythology, in the abduction of Persephone by Hades, king of the Underworld who epitomised the eternal conflict between Eros and Thantos, between love (life) and death”

Hans Baldburg Grien: Death and the Maiden, 1518 – 1520
Hans Baldburg Grien: Death and the Maiden, 1518 – 1520

“Death and the Maiden” is an even more explicit rendition of the same themes. The woman and the skeleton clasp each other in a purely erotic pose. She is, as in the “Madonna,” very sensuous and voluptuous, while the skeleton is cold, thin, harshly white. The figures-death and sex-are thrust together within a background that is black and chasmic. They are framed by red, upward-moving sperm cells on the left, and two fetuses on the right in the same style as the “Madonna” fetus, with their arms crossed over their chests in the corpse-position. The moment of conception parades around the figures, who are taunted by the hollow stares of the fetuses. The unborn present their judgment on the nature of sex, conception, life, their own ultimate demise.(1b)

Edward Munch, Death and the Maiden, Oil on Canvas, 1893, Oslo
Edward Munch, Death and the Maiden, Oil on Canvas, 1893, Oslo

The link between Eros and Thanatos is embodied in the images-he imbeds it there so that he might reach us through our own relationship to love. He presented his paintings as packets of emotional impressions rather than as a narrative, thereby allowing us to arrange and rearrange the impressions, to create our own oppositions and links. Throughout, though, he firmly establishes the destruction inherent in creation. A creation of the union between two people results in conception, which is quite clearly the beginning of death. The idea of love involves an opposition in trying to combine with the other person, in trying to break the original barriers of communication. It is an attempt to move together towards one space while still retaining one’s own identity. (1b)

This motif dates back to the Middle Ages, but has been repeated and developed throughout the history of art thereafter. A precursor of the strong focus on the erotic that we find in Munch’s engraving Death and the Maiden is Albrecht Dürer’s portrayal of death as a skeleton, part-seducer, part-rapist. Yet in Munch the roles are reversed; it is the woman who is the seducer, and the man who allows himself to be ensnared by her, loses his integrity and his creative powers – and dies, if not physically, then figuratively. Perhaps this mirrors the man’s scepticism vis-à-vis the sexually and socially emancipated woman – the femme fatale in various guises was a popular motif in literature as well as art at this time of change and upheaval – yet above all it reflects Munch’s own horror at the fact that an all-consuming relationship with a woman should stand in the way of his artistic vocation. The link between love and death was graphically real for Munch, as it was for many other artists of the age. Woman was a creature who, by virtue of her bodily cycle, was closely bound up with life and death, and who therefore brought man face to face with his own transience. (1a)

Death and the Maiden
Edward Munch, Death and the Maiden, 1894, Private Collection

Matthias Claudius, Der Todt and das Maedchen – Death and the Maiden

Das Maedchen – The Maiden

Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!

Geh, wilder Knochenmann!

Ich bin noch jung, geh Lieber!

Und rühre mich nicht an.


Oh, pass by!

Go, wild bone man!

I’m still young, go dear!

And do not touch me.

Edward Munch, Dance of Death, 1905
Edward Munch, Dance of Death, 1905

Der Todt – Death

Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!

Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.

Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,

Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!

Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!

I am a friend, and come not to punish.

Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,

Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

P J Lynch: Death and the Maiden
P J Lynch: Death and the Maiden, 2010

Musical Interlude: Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), D.531; Op. 7, No. 3, is a lied composed by Franz Schubert in February 1817. It was published by Cappi und Diabelli in Vienna in November 1821. The text is derived from a poem written by German poet Matthias Claudius. The song is set for voice and piano.

Júlia Várady soprano sings and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau plays the piano.

Egon Schiele’s painting “Death and the Maiden” puts us in mind of the circumstances of Schiele’s own life at this moment. He is on the eve of conscription. Perhaps then the mood of this painting is being tainted and informed by the thought that he is being spirited away into the arms of death. He has also just chosen between two women in his life, with great callousness. One he has married, the other, a model of long standing, he has abandoned.

The man’s stare is blank and wild, disinterested, otherwhere engaged – look at that distended pupil. With the long and bony fingers of his left hand he appears to be caressing, as if dispassionately evaluating, the dome of the woman’s skull. The impulse of the other hand appears to suggest that he may be repulsed by the way in which she is exaggeratedly enwrapping him with the long curve of her left arm.

That curiously long arm of hers is rendered all the thinner, longer and stranger-looking by the fact that the sleeve of his coat part-conceals it. Her fingers – are they loosening their grip even as they embrace him? – are turning and twisting about. We have noticed that he appears to be disengaged from this embrace – even though it is everything that is happening here. She too looks askance, into the middle distance. There is no pleasure in that look of hers.

Meanwhile, everything behind and beneath them, all that agitated landscape, seems to be engaged in a kind of heaving, in-and-out breathing, erotic dance of sorts, coaxing the two of them into a dance of death. In this case, the last dance with death perhaps. Or the last dance with the jilted or jilting lover. (3)

Death and the Maiden (1915-16) by Egon Schiele  Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna
Death and the Maiden (1915-16) by Egon Schiele
Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Joseph Beuys, the man who can fairly be called Europe’s most influential postwar artist, was influenced by Munch.

A characteristic feature of Joseph Beuys is the identification with everything from mythological figures and historical personages to writers and artists. Edvard Munch is one of them. Beuys developed an interest in Munch towards the end of the 40s, when he was going through an existential crisis, partly attributable to splitting up with his childhood sweetheart.

In a long series of drawings from this period, Beuys explores woman, love and death, for example in Loving Couple (1948-49), Autumn of Life (1952) and Death and the Maiden (1957). We recognise Munch’s ambivalent attitude to woman in a number of these, where she is portrayed as a blend of the fascinating and fear-inspiring – as a dual symbol of eroticism and death. (1c)

Joseph Beuys, Death and the Maiden, 1957, Drawing on a manila envelope
Joseph Beuys, Death and the Maiden, 1957, Ink and Watercolor on a manila envelope

The drawing depicts the shadows of two skeletons in an intimate embrace upon the back of a manila envelope stamped ominously with the address of “Auschwitz.”

Andy Warhol Portrait of Joseph Beuys
Andy Warhol
Portrait of Joseph Beuys

In contrast to traditional iconography, Beuys changed the perspective in his watercolour of 1957, Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden) by representing the maiden, too, as dead in her encounter with Death. Death, so it seems, is communicating with his equal. In this image Beuys refers to a life that is ruled by Death. Life appears here as a strangely unfamiliar paradox: Death speaks to us, and by way of the element of death in life, the human being ultimately achieves a new awareness of life. (2)

Ana Mendieta  About giving life, 1975  Photograph, 33.65x50.8cm  Documentation of performance,  Iowa 1975
Ana Mendieta
About giving life, 1975
Photograph, 33.65×50.8cm
Documentation of performance,
Iowa 1975

Ana Mendieta and Marina Abramovic place the motif in a contemporary feminist context. By substituting their own bodies for the maiden they take on the female role that was so alarming and novel in Munch’s time. In a ritualised episode, life and death become acquainted with one another and the woman confirms the cyclical power of her sex. These two artists also reiterate Munch’s analysis of himself and his relation to his surroundings. His role as outsider in the bourgeois society of the day becomes a parallel to the female artist’s situation in a society dominated by man. (1a)


Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

Sylvia Plath

Self portrait with skeleton by Marina Abramovic 2003 Photograph: Marina Abramovic/Sean Kelly Gallery New York
Self portrait with skeleton by Marina Abramovic 2003 Photograph: Marina Abramovic/Sean Kelly Gallery New York


I need my little addiction to you.

I need that tiny voice who,

even as I rise from the sea,

all woman, all there,

says kill me, kill me.

Anne Sexton



(1a) Ana Mendieta, Marina Abramovic: Death and the Maiden 

(1b) Anna K. Norris, Ruminations on Munch

(1c) Joseph Beuys: Woman as Symbol

(2) Michael Kröger: Death keeps me awake’ The Thresholds of Life and the Consciousness of Death in the Work of Joseph Beuys

(3) The Independent: Great Works: Death and the Maiden (1915-16) by Egon Schiele, Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna