Saturday, 17 October 2015

The silent isle.

Although very popular in his time, Arnold Böcklin is now something of an acquired taste.  He became associated with the Germanic side of Symbolism and had a strong influence on many artistic fields, not just that of painting, his influence carrying on after his death into the next century with the work of the early surrealists.

Arnold Böcklin was born in Basel Switzerland in 1827 and received his first teaching in drawing in the same city and from there went on to study landscape painting at The Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf, where he studied under Johann Wilhelm Schirmer.  In 1850, on the strong advice of the historian Jacob Burckhardt he traveled to Italy and soon after married a young Italian woman named Angela Pascucci.  He appears to have spent the rest of his life in Italy, dying at The Villa Bellagio in San Domenico di Fiesole in 1901.

Nessus and Deianeira by Arnold Böcklin (1827 - 1901) 
Böcklin was often accused of bad taste, this is the type of painting they meant.  Wikipedia Commons.
That influence I mentioned is very real; he was much favoured by the Swedish playwrite August Strindberg, who gave stage directions at the end of his play The Ghost Sonata, that Böcklin's painting The Isle of the Dead be displayed on stage as the lights go down.  This painting is by far his most famous work, and it does have a melancholy charm that seems to have appealed to a lot of people.  I note that no less than nine composers have written music inspired by the work which is impressive as music usually ignores the purely visual.  Its also ironic, as its about silence and meditation.  Böcklin said of the work 'It's a dream picture, it must produce such a stillness that one would be startled by a knock on the door.'

 Böcklin painted five different versions starting in 1880 (my favourite) the last being completed in 1886.  They're all slightly different, but only slightly.   The main difference is colour and the use of light.  I think the first is the most successful with its late afteroon storm light effect, as if a low sun had just come from behind dark cloud and lit the figures in a shaft of light.  The painting depicts a small island with two squarish crags of rock framing a stand of cypress trees which fill the centre of the isle.  It is surrounded by sea, and in the foreground a small boat can be seen in which are a rower and a standing figure draped in white.  In the boat before the standing figure is an object also covered in white which is usually identified as a coffin, but is actually quite indistinct.
The Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin.  1880 version.  Wikipedia Commons
But a coffin is probably the best assumption as the crags of rock obviously have large niches cut in them that must be meant to represent tombs.   Böcklin's own name for the paintings was 'A Tranquil Place.'  The series of paintings started out as one unfinished painting on an easel in Böcklin's studio, waiting while other tasks were accomplished, and it was seen by a visitor to the studio, a Madame Marie Berna who had been recently widowed.  She liked it immediately and possibly offered to buy it, but settled for a smaller copy on wood, which she suggested some changes to.  She wanted an 'image to dream by', and proposed that Böcklin paint in the figures in the boat to increase the mysterious effect.  He must have seen the sense of this, for when the copy was finished he added the figures to the first painting.

Self Portrait with Death Playing the Violin by Arnold Böcklin 1872  Wikipedia Commons
 So many artists in different media produce their 'bread and butter' work, and then have one big success that makes all the difference and this was Böcklin's.  It has had a life throughout the twentieth century, being paraphrased by various painters like Dali and De Chirico, and sited in many novels and plays.  It has even had its moment in the cinematic spotlight when the RKO producer Val Lewton used it in a couple of 1940's horror films, 'I Walked with a Zombie', in which it is used as a very ominous wall decoration and then as the central idea of his film 'Isle of the Dead' which starred Boris Karloff.  Even  H. R. Giger did a tribute to the painting, though it is one of his more subdued efforts.

Böcklin's work became grimmer as he moved into old age, whether this might have been the result of the deaths of about five of his children or a general outlook on the world at large I'm not sure, certainly works such as War, painted in 1896 seem more violent, angry and grotesque than the previous gentle Grecian themes.  But, seeing the title of that late painting, maybe he'd read the future.




  1. Enjoyed reading this, and liked the pictures. I must go look up some more. Looked twice at the centaur though. It's Ollie Reed! :-)

  2. Hi Madwippitt,

    You know - you're right it does look like Olly Reed. Olly Reed, after having twenty pints, thinking he's a horse, and trying to get off with the barmaid!