untitled (ein Totentanz)

untitled (ein Totentanz) {A Dance of Death}

approx. 115 x 690 cm (each 115 x 230 cm)

oil and graphite on raw linen


individuall photos: © Martin Wiesli, exhibition photograph: © Dominique Uldry, Kunsthalle Bern

(Triptych vailable for sale, CHF 19’000.-) inquiries contact ( a t ) reneemagana.com

In the fall of 2009 an archaeological excavation in the medieval hanging fields of Berne, Switzerland brought forth 300 year old skeletons located in individual and mass graves. The skeletons of 40 men who died between the ages of 15 to 25 where discovered. I received permission from the city Department of Archaeology to visit the excavation site and complete sketches. The excavation director, Armand Baeriswyl spoke of a veritable corpse collection located in an open mass grave. „The people buried here were certainly poor. Thieves, robbers and murderers of medieval Berne were not allowed a christian burial. The exemplary punishment was leaving the convicted to hang on the gallows until the flesh rotted from their bones and then throwing the remains of these ‚sinners’ into the mass graves (1).“

The majority of the skeletons were laid out on their stomachs with their hands still tied around their backs, and layered one on top of another. This meant that the skeletons were not in a „natural“ form. I compared these skeletal forms with sketches from the anatomical collections I previously visited. The bones from anatomical collections are mainly white, cleaned and are meant to show either natural deformities or anatomy for doctors and medical students. The bones I studied in the hanging fields reminded me of forms found in cubism. Through erosion and the natural coloring as well as fissures and breaks from the torture methods the bones took on an ornamental quality in their graves.

The Dance of Death (Totentanz) has a cultural tradition in Switzerland, especially in Berne. The Bernese Totentanz was originally painted by Niklaus Manuel from 1516 to 1519 and later copied by Albrecht Kauw in 1649, the now only existing copy we have of its existence. The Dance of Death „is an infinite round-dance in which the dead and the living alternate. The dead lead the round dance and are the only ones dancing. Every pair consists of a naked, fleshless, sexless, wild skeleton and an astonished man (later also women), dressed according to their social status. Death reaches out his hand to the chosen who have not yet obeyed him. The artwork describes the contrast between the rhythmical freedom of the dead to the paralysis of the living. The moral of the work was to present the uncertainty and indifference of men towards the hour of their death (2).“

This European tradition was lesser known to me than the satirical works of the mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada (1854 – 1913). His political, satirical images were published mostly in Mexico City, during the dictorial rule of Porfirio Díaz (president from 1876/77 until 1880 and from 1884 to 1911). He created the skeletal figure of „La Catrina“. His figures did not serve a moral-padagogic goal because death is not a taboo in Mexico. It is this satirical use of the skeletons that interested me.

The bones of the poor sinners from the hanging fields of Berne are now laid to rest in a controlled, air-conditioned environment in the Department of Archaeology in the University of Berne. The triptych consists of three raw linen canvases. The skeletal forms are based on my drawings from the Bernese hanging fields. The forms are layered, one over another, dancing. They bid defiance to eternity and are laughing and celebrating their entry into the stainless steel, air-conditioned crypts.

1 D. Vonlanthen, Die Knochen sind weggeräumt, Der Bund, 21.09.2009
2 P. Ariès, aus: Margot Pennington: Memento mori – Eine Kulturgeschichte des Todes