Max Klinger's etching The Dead Mother is terrifying in its hushed stillness. The corpse of a dead mother, draped in white fabric and decorated with a crown of flowers, lies in what appears to be a mausoleum. Her starkly naked baby sits on her chest and stares back at the viewer. The etching is absolutely static; Klinger gives no indication of movement. One figure is dead, the other completely motionless. And the child's face is nearly expressionless; perhaps the horror of the work pertains only to the viewer's knowledge that the mother is dead.
I believe that part of the grotesque nature of this work pertains to its twisting of Christian imagery. The traditional Christian image of death between mother and child is that of the Pietà, Mary cradling the dead body of Christ. Klinger's is a perversion of this image: the dead mother is a Christ-like figure complete with a crown of flowers instead of thorns, and the child is as small, naked, and defenseless as Christ in depictions of the Pietà.
What is the effect of the quotation of Christian imagery in The Dead Mother?
What is the message in Klinger's etching? Is it social, religious, moral? Does it even matter?
Compare The Dead Mother to Ford Madox Brown's Take Your Son, Sir. How does each painter achieve the grotesque? What is each painting's effect on the viewer?
Klinger plays with interiority and exteriority in this etching. The figures appear to be indoors, yet the mausoleum-like structure opens in the background to dark forest. The dark forest itself seems to permeate into the structure as vines crawl up the columns. Compare Klinger's ambiguous environment to Rossetti's in Lady Lilith.
Last modified 2 December 2006