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Eros and Thanatos Meets Shunga

Love and death always have been the major topics within art. When the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) introduced his early psycho-analytical theory on human instincts he made the distinction between the life (Eros) and death (Thanatos) instinct. According to him these are the two major forces that drive us. Eros representing love, sexuality and procreation in broad sense, and the opposing force Thanatos representing death, aggression, and self destruction.

Salvador Dali

This duality of Eros and Thanatos has been the inspiration for countless artists over the centuries and Freud’s theory has influenced some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century such as Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel, and Salvador Dali.

eros and thanatos

Eros & Thanatos. A Dance of Death‘ (1921). Woodcut by Arminius Hasemann (1888-1979) (Picture from Biblio Curiosa)

Like a Mower

Recently I came across this striking woodcut print by the German artist Arminius Hasemann (1888-1979) featuring two messengers of death overwhelming a nude female.  They tower above her as she seizes desperately in the curtain next to her. The arm skeleton of one of the death angels resembles a scythe that almost seems to cut through the slender diaphragm of the submissive woman.


Hasemann’s woodcut reminded me of the two consecutive designs by Toyokuni from his ‘Mirror of the Vagina‘-series (c.1823) in which a mysterious transformation takes place. The first image shows us a lovemaking scene between a man and a woman who then turns into a skeleton when he falls asleep (the second image).

Eros and Thanatos

Love-making before transformation‘ (c.1823) from the series ‘Kaichu kagami (Mirror of the Vagina)‘ by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825)

eros and thanatos

Love-making after transformation‘ (c.1823) from the series ‘Kaichu kagami (Mirror of the Vagina)‘ by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825)

eros and thanatos

Detail of a painting featuring an ‘Old Buddhist monk penetrating a skeleton‘ (Taisho era) by an unknown artist

Click HERE for another striking design from the Mirror of the Vagina series…!!

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