Victory of life

When death let himself be seduced and died!

"Der Sieg des Lebens (Auch ein Totentanz)" (Victory of Life / Also a Dance of Death)
Robert Budzinski (DE, 1874–1955)
6 woodcuts, 1924

In the preoccupation with images of death from past times, one encounters, among other things, the motif of the Dance of Death. Here death shows itself – at least at first sight – from an entertaining side. In the late Middle Ages, for example, he usually appears as a musician who plays the dance and gallantly performs it with individual representatives of the estates of the time. Initially, the motif composition, which was at that time conceived as a multi-part sequence of pictures, was used as a monumental painting in public space until, with the invention of letterpress printing, it also penetrated into other forms of narration and representation. In this way, the originally Christian-motivated concern to confront mankind with the inevitable end is given a new, accelerating journalistic dynamic.

But at the latest with the beginning of the modern age, the motif of the Dance of Death changes. The dance itself no longer plays a dominant role, and the situational contexts, such as 'life' and 'death', take on a more individual character, for example through a stronger reference to everyday life. Moreover, scenarios that testify to sensuality and passion come to the fore, which greatly enhances the adaptation of the motif composition of 'Death and Girl'. From an art-historical point of view, this depiction, which is strongly supported by eroticized femininity, merges with the subject of 'Death and Eros': Charmingly, Death approaches a naked beauty and ensnares her. Although the beauty usually appears shy or even rejecting, she does not elude his proximity – because she simply cannot! Occasionally, however, motif adaptations appear that break with traditional patterns, for example by taking their core statement ad absurdum. This is precisely what the artist Robert Budzinski (1874-1955) did in his work "The Victory of Life", first published in 1924, and gave the Dance of Death motif a new caesura. The omnipotence and inescapability is negated in the picture cycle consisting of eight individual woodcuts. Although the focus is on the classical motif pair 'Death and Girl', which also takes into account the 'dance', the encounter of the two takes a highly 'unclassical' turn. It begins with Death as a musician – playing the violin – approaching a naked young woman sitting dreamily in the grass. Arriving at her, he reaches for her shoulder, which she tries to ward off discreetly. But of course Death knows how to beguile the beauty: He starts a song with his violin, and in fact this animates the young woman to take him in her arms and allow them to dance together – cheek to cheek. What begins gently becomes increasingly wild and gives death great determination. Thus he has a firm grip on the woman and certainly he will – how could it be otherwise – remain master of the situation. But far from it, for suddenly the tide turns! Death misjudges the energy and willpower of his dancing partner and cannot prevent that it will not be he who will emerge victorious from the erotic rendezvous, but she – the naked, pure life. As the dance gains momentum and picks up speed, the woman begins to tear apart his skeleton. She grabs one bone after the other and lets them all whirl high through the air. In the last picture, the dance is over: Death lies on the ground as a pitiful heap of bones. On this heap, the naked beauty finally comes to a halt, has her hands on her hips and looks self-satisfied at her destroyed dance partner lying on the floor. She has achieved the impossible – the victory of life!

Although the classical characteristic of the Dance of Death does not consist in the fact that in the end death blesses the temporal, all works of the Dance of Death are ultimately an expression of a secondary statement, as only Budzinski's special cycle of pictures is able to convey so impressively: Although the individual human being is subject to death, humanity itself, i.e. the social community of all human beings in a more abstract sense, remains alive. Furthermore, Budzinski's depiction makes it clear that death is a constant lurker, but in real life it can sometimes - at least for the time being - succeed in jumping off the hook.

Dr. Ulrike Neurath

Excerpt from „Der Sieg des Lebens“ (The victory of Life) (1924) by Robert Budzinski

© Museum für Sepulkralkultur, Kassel


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