Sunday, 13 September 2015


“Just as it is poetry’s task to express feelings, painting must provoke them too. A picture must give the spectator as much food for thought as a poem and must make the same kind of impression as a piece of music...” - Arnold Böcklin

Arnold Böcklin (16 October 1827 – 16 January 1901) was a Swiss symbolist painter. His art has little in common with Impressionism or the academic art of his time. Instead, his depictions of demigods in naturalistic settings interpret themes from classical mythology in an idiosyncratic, often sensual manner. . In addition to imaginative, bizarre interpretations of the classical world, Böcklin painted mysterious landscapes punctuated by an occasional lone figure. These haunting later works made him an important contributor to the international Symbolist movement. They also appealed to some Surrealist artists, particularly Giorgio di Chirico, who declared, “Each of [Böcklin’s] works is a shock.”

Arnold Böcklin was born in Basle, Switzerland on October 16th 1827. The son of a merchant, he overcame his father’s opposition to following an artistic career, thanks to the support of poet Wilhelm Wackernagel and was thus able to devote himself to art. In 1845 he attended the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, where his teacher was Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, known for his heroic-panoramic style of painting.

Between 1847 and 1848 Böcklin travelled to Brussels, Antwerp, Switzerland and Paris. From the autumn of 1848 he worked in Basle, moving to Rome in 1850. In Rome he studied the work of the ancients and found the inspiration for many important works. In 1853 he married Angela Pascucci, a young Italian girl from Rome. There followed a somewhat obscure period, ending when he was appointed to the post of Professor at the Academy of Weimar in 1860. Two years later he returned to Rome to visit Naples and Pompeii and the frescos he observed had a lasting influence on his technique and his future artistic production.

In autumn 1866 he started work on the fresco that was to decorate the main staircase of the Museum of Basle. The period that followed was particularly productive and his style improved enormously in terms of colour, form and inspiration. From 1874-84 he lived in Florence, surrounded by disciples. During this period he produced his most controversial works, such as “The Island of the Dead” and “The Holy Wood”.

In 1895 he moved to his villa at San Domenico, near Fiesole. It was here that he lived the last years of his life, continuing to paint until his death on January 16th 1901. Art historians have always found it difficult to classify this original, proud, somewhat eccentric painter who, like Da Vinci, experimented in his garden with human flight. He disliked giving titles to his pictures and declared that he painted in order to make people dream.

The “Isle of the Dead” (German: Die Toteninsel) is the best-known painting Böcklin. Prints of the work were very popular in central Europe in the early 20th century—Vladimir Nabokov observed in his novel “Despair” that they were to be “found in every Berlin home”. Böcklin produced several different versions of the mysterious painting between 1880 and 1886.

All versions of “Isle of the Dead” depict a desolate and rocky islet seen across an expanse of dark water. A small rowboat is just arriving at a water gate and seawall on shore. An oarsman maneuvers the boat from the stern. In the bow, facing the gate, is a standing figure clad entirely in white. Just behind the figure is a white, festooned object commonly interpreted as a coffin. The tiny islet is dominated by a dense grove of tall, dark cypress trees (associated by long-standing tradition with cemeteries and mourning), which is closely hemmed in by precipitous cliffs. Furthering the funerary theme are what appear to be sepulchral portals and windows penetrating the rock faces.

Böcklin himself provided no public explanation as to the meaning of the painting, though he did describe it as “a dream picture: It must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.” The title, which was conferred upon it by the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883, was not specified by Böcklin, though it does derive from a phrase in an 1880 letter he sent to the painting’s original commissioner. Not knowing the history of the early versions of the painting, many observers have interpreted the oarsman as representing the boatman Charon who conducted souls to the underworld in Greek mythology. The water would then be either the River Styx or the River Acheron and his white-clad passenger a recently deceased soul transiting to the afterlife.

Above is the third version of 1883. “Isle of the Dead” evokes, in part, the English Cemetery in Florence, Italy, where the first three versions were painted. The cemetery was close to Böcklin’s studio and was also where his infant daughter Maria was buried. (In all, Böcklin lost 8 of his 14 children). The model for the rocky islet was probably Pontikonisi, a small island near Corfu which is adorned with a small chapel amid a cypress grove. (Another less likely candidate is the island of Ponza in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The third version was painted in 1883 for Böcklin’s dealer Fritz Gurlitt. Beginning with this version, one of the burial chambers in the rocks on the right bears Böcklin’s own initials. In 1933, this version was put up for sale and a noted Böcklin admirer, Adolf Hitler, acquired it. He hung it first at the Berghof in Obersalzberg and, then after 1940, in the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. It is now at the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

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