Cite as: Sigrid Schade, ‘Representations of Death: The European Pictorial Tradition and its Critique in the Photographic Totentanz Series by Birgit Jürgenssen’, talk presented at the lectures Art, Death, and Gender, ICI Berlin, 28 January 2010, video recording, mp4, 27:49 <>
28 Jan 2010

Representations of Death

The European Pictorial Tradition and its Critique in the Photographic Totentanz Series by Birgit Jürgenssen
By Sigrid Schade
Death, being ‘amenable to images’ (Philippe Ariès), links up with other images and texts: in the European tradition, its personifications become narratives, moral instructions for leading the right life and for dying artfully. Death is revealed in many ways and at the same time eluded. Even if there is no meaning in or after death, the living use it as a sign to mark cultural, social, ethnic, and gender-related differences. In European culture since the early modern period, ‘femininity’ has appeared as a signifier in a variety of death images, and conversely, death as a signifier of the ‘female’. Birgit Jürgenssen’s photo series thematizes the pictorial tradition of ‘death and the maiden’. Updating the theme, the series radically eliminates the possibility of carrying out gender attributions within the structure of representations of death. Upon closer inspection, the photographs in the Totentanz series do not allow for a clear reading of the depicted body in terms of its gender specificity. In Jürgenssen’s reformulation of the European tradition of death images, a utopia of abolishing the dualisms of gender difference appears, a utopia of a ‘third gender’ that is ahead of its time.

Sigrid Schade is professor for ‘Kunst- und Kulturanalyse’ and has been head of the ‘Institute for Cultural Studies in the Arts‘ of the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste since 2003. Before, she was professor for “Kunstwissenschaft und Ästhetische Theorie” at the Universität Bremen.

The talk is based on: ‘Der Leichnam lebt. Bildtradition und Geschlechterkonstruktion in den Totentanz-Serien von Birgit Jürgenssen’, in: Gabriele Schor, Abigail Solomon-Godeau (Ed.): ‘Birgit Jürgenssen. Monografie’, Ostfildern November 2009 / ‘The Corpse Lives: Pictorial Tradition and Gender Construction in the Totentanz Series by Birgit Jürgenssen’.

Video in English

Format: mp4
Length: 00:27:49
First published on:
Rights: © ICI Berlin

Part of the Lectures

Art, Death, and Gender / Sigrid Schade, Arnika Fuhrmann

The ICI event ‘Art, Death and Gender’ confronts two different ways of approaching the nexus between death and gender with means of art. The lectures will be followed by a discussion between Schade and Fuhrmann.


ICI Berlin
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Sigrid Schade
Arnika Fuhrmann

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ICI Berlin