The Isle of the Dead
Posted on October 27, 2017
As Halloween approaches, images of death surround us. It becomes a time for remembrance of those we have lost, and inevitably a reflection on our own mortality. Between 1880 and 1886 the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin made a name for himself painting 5 versions of his painting “Isle of the Dead”. The Surrealists were influenced by his work–Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and even Duchamp–although the seriousness of his claim is still debated.
Böcklins legacy is clearly in the 5 Isle of the Dead paintings. He was considered a “symbolist”and was said to have been obsessed with themes of war, pestilence and death. His other works focused on these themes through mythological creatures and imaginary architectural locations–creating a dreamlike world. This might have had to do with his personal tragedy, he lost 8 of his 14 children, as well as the post industrial rise of disease.
Although born in Basel, Switzerland, Böcklin traveled extensively and was compelled and influenced by Rome and and Greece. His wife was Italian and he split his time between Basel and Florence. It is widely believed that his island was based on the English cemetery in Florence where one of his young daughters was buried. Other theories involve many different islands, and I think it is safe to say that something about this image resonates with people.
Regardless of what Böcklins inspiration was, his influence on other artists is undeniable. There have been books, movies, plays, paintings and literature that have referenced his works in the decades since. It is hard to imagine that Böcklin could have imagined the strange and far reaching legacy these paintings would have. Benefited by zeitgeist, prints were very popular in central Europe at the time and the prints of this series became a very popular. Freud and Lenin were said to have prints in their offices.
Their are slight variations in the 5 paintings, notably where the doors are placed in the rocks and changes to the figures on the boat. The variations in figures may have been at the bequest of one of the commissioners–seeing a version in his studio and wanting one with some detail that related to them. The 4th version was burned during WWII and now only exists as a black & white photograph.
As Halloween comes and goes, we start to celebrate more life affirming holidays–mourning and remembrance giving way to renewal. I am struck by a painting he did in the same year, “Ruins by the Sea” and wonder if he was inspired by the once grand looking building slowly wearing away, turning into rubble and returning to rocks.