Albin Egger-Lienz (1868–1926), “Totentanz 1809“, 1916
casein on canvas, 130 x 165 cm, estimate €500,000 – 800,000
A depiction of existential pain not of war heroes: A highly important version of Albin Egger-Lienz’s “Totentanz” (Dance of Death) will be offered for sale at Dorotheum after its long-term US owners decide the time is right to part ways with the iconic painting.
„The Dance of Death“
This unique rendering of Albin Egger-Lienz’s famous anti-war painting “The Dance of Death” has been brought to Dorotheum by private collectors from the United States. The picture has never been on the art market before and will be offered for sale in the Modern Art auction in June. This large-scale painting, dated 1916, is a variant of the Austrian artist’s fourth interpretation of the iconic composition “Totentanz”, produced between 1906 and 1921.
Shortly after its creation, the picture made the trip across the Atlantic from Austria to New York in high style. It belonged to the acclaimed German opera diva, Elisabeth Rethberg (1894–1976) who was considered to be the best embodiment of Aida of her time. In the 1920s, Rethberg left Europe to live in New York, purchasing a stately villa in Riverdale, an area of the Bronx which was, in those days renowned for its high density of musicians and singers. The house was sold in the 1950s and was acquired by the family of the current owners of the painting. The family had emigrated to the US from Hungary and acquired the Rethberg house with the Egger-Lienz painting included in the deal. “The Dance of Death” has remained in the family’s possession ever since. Despite being an avid art lover and self-taught collector, spending a good deal of time at art auctions throughout his life, the new owner knew very little at first about the painting he had acquired along with his house, nor of its painter. In an interview with Dorotheum myART MAGAZINE, his daughter said it was instant love when her father first laid eyes on the Egger-Lienz painting. “It was simply love at first sight!” she said. “He had an excellent eye for quality. And good instincts too”. The Egger-Lienz painting has always been a centre piece in the family’s collection, at first, prominently displayed in the living room of the Rethberg house in the Bronx, and since then in their homes elsewhere in the wider New York metropolitan area. The reaction of their guests to the painting over the years has varied widely the owners say. “Some have ignored it altogether, but most people have been absolutely blown away.” A perhaps small family anecdote illustrates and underlines the degree of complex craftsmanship that went into the creation of the painting. “We once had our living room painted and wanted to match the colour to the picture. We picked a specific colour shade from the painting, but when we asked an artist friend for advice on exactly which pigment we should buy, he told us, to our great astonishment, that the shade we had picked consisted of not one colour, but four different ones.”
Having lived alongside the painting for so many years, one thing stands out above all, the couple say: “The Dance of Death is as potent and thematically relevant today as on the day it was painted. Just think of the corona pandemic”. “The painting represents a terrifying kind of devastation, and in that sense, it remains painfully relevant,” explains one of the owners, who, as he describes, was raised on such existentialist writings as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”. Discussing “The Dance of Death”, he highlights the parallels between Egger-Lienz’s anti-war painting and the works of another of his favourite artists, George Grosz, whose work is also inherently political. After all these years of living together, the owners have now decided the time is right to let go of “The Dance of Death” and sincerely hope, as they say, that it will end up in “loving hands” and, they add, that as many people as possible will get the chance to experience it first-hand.