6/29/11

Alfred Rethel, Another Dance of Death of the Year 1848 - Resurrection of Death, Plate 1



Date: 1849
Technique: Woodcut, 22 x 32 cm

Auch ein Totentanz aus dem Jahre 1848 - Auferstehung des Todes

The modern-day revival of the Dance of Death was precipitated almost single-handedly by the artist Alfred Rethel. His choice of this metaphor to depict the Revolution of 1848 was conditioned by several factors. For one thing, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, a proliferation of high-quality reproductions had increased awareness of late Medieval artists such as Holbein and Dürer. Germans, not yet citizens of a unified nation-state, sought to establish a common heritage by emulating the styles and subjects of their illustrious artistic forbears. The Totentanz, because of its reliance on seried pictures, was particularly suited to the printmaking media, and the Germanic tradition accorded unusual prestige to the graphic arts. Then, too, the circumstances of 1848 were not unlike those of the sixteenth century: the transition to an industrial economy had created gross inequities of wealth, as well as a general perception that the ruling classes were venal and inept.

Rethel had long been interested in the subject of death, and at one point even began a series of genre scenes--among them Death as Friend and Death as Enemy --that echo Holbein’s anecdotal approach. However, his Dance of Death of the Year 1848 differs from its Medieval prototypes in several key respects. Unlike Holbein’s cycle of discreet vignettes, Rethel’s six woodcuts form a cohesive narrative, wherein Death first dupes the workers into rebelling and then leads them to their doom. Far from being the great equalizer, Rethel’s Death figure reveals the ideal of equality to be illusory. Moreover, whereas Medieval depictions stressed the universality and inevitability of death, Rethel’s Death is highly selective: those who fail to heed its siren call are spared. The implication is that the victims are to blame, for they have, however inadvertently, chosen their fate.

Source 1
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