Albin Egger-Lienz' famous "Dance of Death" motif will be offered at Dorotheum's Modern Art auction

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Albin Egger-Lienz' famous "Dance of Death" motif will be offered at Dorotheum's Modern Art auction
Albin Egger-Lienz (Stribach near Lienz 1868–1926 St. Justina near Bolzano) “Totentanz 1809”, signed, dated Egger-Lienz 1916, variant of the fourth version (property of the Leopold Museum – Kirschl M352), casein on canvas, 130 x 165 cm, estimate € 500,000 – 800,000.

VIENNA.- An exceptional highlight of the upcoming Modern Art Auction on June 22nd 2021, is a version of Albin Egger-Lienz' (1868-1926) famous anti-war painting “Dance of Death”. Egger-Lienz used the iconic motif repeatedly for a series of paintings between 1906 and 1921.

The journey of this particular version, from its conception in Tyrol in 1916 to its recent return to Austria, involved a century-long sojourn in the US. It once belonged to world-famous German opera star, Elisabeth Rethberg, who was considered in her heyday to be the best “Aida” of all times. Rethberg moved to the US in the 1920’s and lived in a stately villa in a New York neighborhood of Riverdale in the Bronx which was highly popular among singers and musicians at the time. The house was later sold to a European emigrant family, and along with it, the Egger-Lienz painting. Having been privately owned for over 100 years, the painting is now being offered for sale for the very first time – with an estimate of between 500,000 and 800,000 euros.

Rustic weapons and a spade

“Dance of Death from Anno Nine” embodies better than any other painting the essence of the Eastern Tyrolean artist's oeuvre. In the painting a skeleton is followed across a narrow stage by four men clothed in the style of Central European alpine farmers. The four men all carry rustic weapons, the skeleton, the symbol of death, is equipped with a spade. The basic outline of this peculiar parade does not change from one version to the next, but each version represents a step in the evolution of the Egger-Linz’s favoured theme, throughout the different stages of his career.

The first version in the “Dance of Death” series was commissioned by the imperial court for the 60th anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph I and was to depict the uprising of the Tyrolean people against the Bavarian occupation of 1809. The resulting artwork however turned out to be a stark anti-war statement rather than the traditional rendition of heroic courage that might have been expected. As Egger-Lienz himself wrote, the work bore no trace whatsoever of cheerful, flag-waving men as they headed into battle. He recorded the royal reaction at the official presentation at Künstlerhaus in Vienna: his Royal Highness did not apparently even notice the painting, despite its eye-catchingly large format. Egger-Lienz wrote “A war against Serbia and Russia was looming, it was the spring of 1909. Dance of Death hung, isolated and ghastly, as a forewarning on a large wall in Künstlerhaus”.

In 1915, Egger-Lienz commented on the fundamental challenge of working with historical motifs: “Only when breaking through to the essence of human nature, divorced from environment and context, will you be able to fully exploit the monumental perspective.”

A preliminary study for one of the faces in a different version of the “Dance of Death” will also be offered at auction on June 22nd, 2021, as will another, rather unusual, work by Egger-Lienz entitled “Kalvarienberg by Bozen”, an almost abstract oil painting created in 1922/23 (estimate 130,000 - 240,000 euros).

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