Danse Macabre: Egger-Lienz and the War

Existential questions about life and death permeate the entire work of painter Albin Egger-Lienz (1868–1926). Today his war images are regarded as poignant memorials, as warnings against the horrors of battle and violence. He was also deeply influenced by his experiences on the front as a war painter. From 7 March to 9 June 2014 the Belvedere is presenting the exhibition Danse Macabre: Egger-Lienz and the War at the Orangery and is thus devoting this show to one of the greatest Austrian artists from the early twentieth century. Taking the painting Der Totentanz von Anno Neun (Danse Macabre from Anno Nine) as its springboard, it incorporates other works to trace Egger-Lienz’s evolution as an artist and shed light on various references and interpretations.

In 1906 Albin Egger-Lienz was commissioned to paint an episode from the Tyrolean Wars of Liberation for the Moderne Galerie – today’s Belvedere. He presented the painting Danse Macabre from Anno Nine in 1908, in time for the diamond jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph I. “Nobody could have envisaged that this would emerge as one of the artist’s most important works, not only determining his artistic career but also evolving into an icon of the First World War,” Agnes Husslein-Arco, Director of the Belvedere stated.
Danse Macabre from Anno Nine is not just a major work in early-twentieth-century Austrian art history but was also pivotal in the oeuvre of Egger-Lienz – a turning point in his art and an image he harked back to all through his life. “It was with this work that the artist distanced himself from traditional history painting and created a general symbol of war”, Agnes Husslein-Arco continued. By choosing the Danse Macabre, Egger-Lienz was adopting an allegory that had centuries’ of tradition, which he then totally transformed.

In the painting Danse Macabre from Anno Nine, Egger-Lienz did away with the traditional subject in which Death intrudes into people’s lives, irrespective of their age or social standing. For here Death is leading five similar-looking peasants into war. “This generalization of the subject and the radical reduction of form associated with it were to be groundbreaking for all Egger-Lienz’s ‘war pictures’ to follow,” curator Helena Pereña explains, who has spent her time as Belvedere curator-in-residence developing this project with co-curator Stephan Koja. “The religious connotations in the works of Egger-Lienz are visible in the arrangement of the central exhibition room, where the exhibiton’s architecture alludes to the cemetery chapels in the Alpine region, which were often furnished with the Danse Macabre motif“, comments Stephan Koja.

In the Lower Belvedere’s Orangery – where Danse Macabre was first presented as part of the Moderne Galerie’s collection – this compelling show takes this key work as the starting point for tracing Egger-Lienz’s development as a painter, his treatment of war, yet also the contradictory reception history of his Danse Macabre. For the first time the historical sources have been analyzed in detail to reveal the circumstances behind the commission’s award, the context of the Danse Macabre motif, and the pictorial traditions in history painting upon which the artist could draw.

Egger-Lienz is also compared with other key works that addressed the First World War, for example Ernst Barlach’s The Avenger, Alfred Kubin’s War and Käthe Kollwitz’s Mothers. Against this background, Egger-Lienz clearly emerges as a truly independent artist, both conforming with and resisting prevailing tastes. He is thus placed in an international context and revealed to be an artist of trans-regional relevance – a far cry from the isolated “mountain painter” shaped by his locality. “One hundred years after the First World War began, the exhibition Danse Macabre: Egger-Lienz and the War sets out to stimulate reflection about this profound European catastrophe at a fundamental level,” Agnes Husslein-Arco stated.