I don’t very often go for landscapy pictures, generally because either, while they are beautiful they don’t hold a lot of meaning and they act more as a document to record what the landscape looked like to the artist at the time of painting, or they are generally lacking in activity. This isn’t to say I don’t like them, they are just a little more difficult to write about without just saying – look here is a tree.
Böcklin however has elevated his landscapes to the realms of symbolism, and artists such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dali took influence from his works. For this particular painting H. R. Giger created a painting called “Hommage to Böcklin”, which is astoundingly similar:-
For an artist whose name doesn’t roll off of everyone’s tongue, he certainly presents a silent, infiltrated influence to the artists we know so well.
Böcklin was born in 1827, and comparatively to other artists I have written about, led a fairly stable life. He is associated with the Dusseldorf school of painting, where he copied Flemish and Dutch masterpieces and was marked as a student with exceptional promise. He later moved to Paris and worked at the Louvre where he created several landscapes.
He completed military service, and in 1850, when he finished this, he went to Rome, where he married Angela Rosa Lorenza Pascucci. Rome brought new inspirations to Böcklin and he started bringing allegorical and mythological figures in to his paintings.
In 1856 he returned to Munich, but he would continue to travel around Germany and Italy until 1892, at which time he settled in Zurich. He died 1901 and is buried in Florence.
“Isle of the Dead” is one of the best known paintings by Böcklin, and in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Despair” it is mentioned in passing that a print of this painting “could be found in every home in Berlin”. This painting was influenced by a stay in Ischia in 1879, and from 1880 to 1886 various iterations of this work would be created.
But what made this painting so popular? Well, firstly its composition is magnificent. Böcklin has combined a limited number of themes to concentrate the atmospherics and make the viewer’s eye focus in on the impenetrable wall of trees in the central point of the work. From there you will see a white figure on a boat, being piloted by a darker figure and bringing in to the island what looks like a decorated coffin.
Everything around the isle is calm, the water is dead still, not even a ripple, which elevates this paintings to an ethereal realm. There is a symmetry to this painting which assists in focusing the audiences line of sight. Everything has been created to pinpoint the stillness, and central point.
Version three of this painting was a commissioned piece by the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt, who with a very keen eye for business, promptly requested on its completion that Max Klinger make an etching of it, so that it could be reproduced as a print, this established the extraordinary fame of the picture in the late nineteenth century. All-pervasive in the form of photographs and prints, the Isle of the Dead mirrored the feeling of a whole epoch: people identified with it, the moment of solitude and silence that we all imagine death brings.
This has some links to mythology which I can only imagine was influenced by Böcklin’s extensive travels around Italy, as this points to the River Styx and its ferryman, bringing in the dead to the underworld, which was impenetrable to the living (well unless you were going to rescue your wife there or going to ask to borrow Hades dog).
I think that this painting is beautiful and combines landscape painting with symbolism beautifully, presenting something that his audience could identify with while still retaining an air of solemn mysticism, it is not the usual view of the underworld that e envisage which usually shows a trip through purgatory and suffering, but something much more natural to those viewing.
As a parting piece, if you are unconvinced that Böcklin influenced the great surrealists such as Dali… here is the evidence – “The Real Picture of the Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin at the Hour of the Angelus” by Dali in 1932…
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