Dance of Death

Photographs of the SpallArt Collection


unbekannt, L’Inconnue de la Seine, 1920s



Nikolaus Kratzer

The exhibition Totentanz (Dance of Death), curated by the SpallArt Collection, presents a selection of photographs that deal in a very wide variety of ways with the relationship between death and beauty. For example, two photos of L’Inconnue de la Seine (i.e. The Unknown Woman of the Seine, also known as La Belle Italienne) refer to the legendary fate of a young Parisienne, whose body was raised from the Seine in the fin de siècleHer face persuaded someone in the city morgue to make a death mask. The story of the young woman gripped artists from then on, due in part to the effect, both deterrent and fascinating, of unsolved crimes. In part, too, her fate was a reminder of romanticized representations of love dramas that end with the death of the heroine. Inevitably, people asked themselves whether a broken heart had led the unknown woman to accept her own death. The two photographs in the exhibition take up the myth of the unknown woman and try to make the mask come to life with a precise manipulation of the light. The fact, that the death mask (according to the narration) is a kind of relic that, at the moment of the impression, had direct contact to the face adds an additional dimension to the pictures. Because photographs can also be defined as imprint – as trace transmitted by light. In other words: as the creator of the mask must have been on site, photography testifies the presence of the authors.

The subject of a young woman who found herself in the grasp of seductive death was taken up enthusiastically by artists at the turn of the century. For example, by Egon Schiele in his monumental painting of 1916, Tod und Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), where the painter portrays himself as Death. Six years later Franz Fiedler took up this topos for his series of photographs Narre Tod mein Spielgesell (Death the Fool, My Playmate), but here the roles are reversed: it is not Death who seduces the Maiden, but the Maiden who makes a fool of Death. Furthermore, the series was published in 1921 by the Dresden Verlag der Schönheit (i.e. Publishers of Beauty). It is not surprising that photographs posed in this way in the 1920s resulted in fierce reactions: the coquettish manner of the model shatters the authority of death. Taking into account the title of the exhibition, reference is made to Charles Baudelaire’s Die Blumen des Bösen, where the author describes the macabre as well as fascinating figure of the death in the poem Totentanz. Unlike Franz Fiedler, a contemporary position ironizes death—or better: murder—in another way.

A contemporary position treats death with similar irony. Benjamin Eichhorn creates photographs showing potential instruments of murder, such as axes, claw hooks or kitchen knives. At the same time, the artist wraps the corpora delicti in fabrics covered with flower motifs, which one associates with cosy interior decorations. Just as Death, in Fiedler’s case, is robbed of its seductive power, Eichhorn’s murder weapons also lose their intimidating effect. The ornament covers the intimidating face of the objects. Simultaneously, the artist arranges the objects in ensembles that serve as template for photographs as well as build a form of an ornamental structure.


The ephemeral beauty of flowers in full bloom—one of the classic motifs in the history of art—is addressed by two flower photographs by André Kertész and Albert Renger-Patzsch. In the case of Kertész’s Melancholische Tulpe (Melancholic Tulip) the artist employs a blurring effect to transfigure the appearance of the flower. The drooping head is a reference to the artist, who had emigrated to America and was longing to return to France. As for Renger-Patzsch, by contrast, allegorical levels of meaning are left in the background. Kertész’s distortions are opposed in the exhibition room by the precise depth of field in “The New Objectivity.” The basket of withering sunflowers seems to be growing thorns. In relation to media-specific qualities, characteristic of good photographs, Renger-Patzsch wrote in 1927: “The secret of a good photograph, the artistic qualities a work of visual art can possess, lies in its realism. In order to reproduce the impressions one experiences in confronting nature, a plant, an animal, or the work of a master builder or sculptor, or the creations of engineers and technicians, we have the reliable instrument in photography.”1

Also represented in the exhibition are two visual poems of Heinz Cibulka, relating in one case to the ephemerality of beauty and in the other to the constant cycle of life. A decaying bird is juxtaposed with the naked upper body of a young man bearing a heart tattoo. The equine statue of the heroic Archduke Carl is combined with the photograph of a sculptured figure that is falling to the ground. Famous victory and fatal fall are to be seen as parts of the cycle of becoming and decay. In this way Cibulka’s combinations of snapshots evoke timelessness. At the same time, the viewer is free to enter into a process of reception and read new meanings from the poems.



1 Albert Renger-Patzsch, "Ziele", in: Wolfgang Kemp (ed.), Theorie der Fotografie II. 1912–1945, Munich 1999, S. 74.

published in Eikon #107, September 2019




S-0019, "Vierge_inconnue"
Albert Rudomine, "Vierge_inconnue", 1927
S-0146, L’Inconnue de la Seine
Anonymous, L’Inconnue de la Seine, 1920s
S-0358, untitled
Albert Renger-Patzsch, untitled, 1928
S-0449, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell"
Franz Fiedler, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell", 1921
S-0452, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell"
Franz Fiedler, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell", 1921
S-0453, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell"
Franz Fiedler, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell", 1921
S-0454, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell"
Franz Fiedler, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell", 1921
S-0455, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell"
Franz Fiedler, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell", 1921
S-0456, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell"
Franz Fiedler, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell", 1921
S-0457, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell"
Franz Fiedler, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell", 1921
S-0458, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell"
Franz Fiedler, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell", 1921
S-0459, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell"
Franz Fiedler, "Narre Tod mein Spielgesell", 1921
Heinz Cibulka, 1984
Heinz Cibulka, 1975
Benjamin Eichhorn, 2012
S-1246, "In Deckung"
Benjamin Eichhorn, "In Deckung", 2010
S-1869, "Melancholic Tulip"
André Kertész, "Melancholic Tulip", 1939
S-2290, "Terra Nova – Campingsarg"
Max Blaeulich, "Terra Nova – Campingsarg", 2006




November 8–10, 2019 

Eboran Gallery Vienna
Stumpergasse 7
1060 Wien



+43 6645596203 

8. November 2019, 19 Uhr 

opening times:
9. und 10. November, 14 bis 17 Uhr



exhibition folder


download exhibition folder, PDF