The Art: The Visit From Death
The Artist: Adolph von Menzel
With his keen eye for realism, and self-developed style, Adolph von Menzel enjoyed a rare distinction: he was successful enough to see himself lauded as one of the greatest German artists of his time.
What appealed to those who appreciated Menzel’s work was his obsession with realism. From his 400 piece collection on the history of Frederick the Great, to his intimate paintings of everyday life in the Prussian empire, Menzel recreated life in his art in exact detail.
It is these works by which he remains best known today, but delve a little deeper, and you will find Menzel enjoyed thematics…and had a wicked sense of humour, to boot.
There is no better example than his 1844 water colour, The Visit From Death. Menzel depicts Death as a humble professional, who is neither wrathful nor unkind. Death is simply doing its job, and has no ill will for those it visits upon. It even has a sense of respect, taking its clogs off before entering the home.
The painting’s subtitle reads “Plusquamperfectum”, a Latin tense which can be interpreted to mean that Death has arrived, and there is nothing that can be done about it.
Or is there?
Menzel followed up in 1845 with a hilarious painting that suggests that the arrival of Death isn’t so final after all!
“Plusquamperfectum” has been replaced with the subtitle “Perfectum”, which is far less fatalist. Underneath it reads “Immerdar solche Vertheidiger, u.s.w.” or “Always such defenders, etc.”.
Is Menzel reflecting on our relationship with our sense of mortality? Is he trying to remind us that we hold our fate in our own hands? Or is he simply making a joke? There’s little information on the paintings, so the answer is unclear. Whatever the case though, The Visit From Death certainly didn’t end the way we might have expected, and serves to highlight another layer of Menzel’s tremendous skill.