Progression of Art
Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle
In this early, idiosyncratic self-portrait, the artist engages the viewer's gaze almost awkwardly, pausing from his work as if half-sensing the animated skeleton playing the violin behind his left shoulder. The painting demonstrates the gothic humor that would become synonymous with Böcklin's oeuvre, while also suggesting some unexpected creative sources, perhaps especially the Realist painting of mid-nineteenth-century France.
Combining a Romantic, gothic theme with a studied informality of presentation which is especially evident in the artist's posture and clothing - perhaps influenced by the Barbizon painters whom Böcklin had admired in his youth - Böcklin offers us a reworking of the memento mori genre popular since the Northern Renaissance. Hans Holbein the Younger's extraordinary The Ambassadors (1533), and the Portrait of Sir Brian Tuke (1827) also attributed to Holbein, are likely influences; indeed, the latter was on display at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich in the early 1870s, when Böcklin was based in the city. We can also posit a connection to the medieval tradition of the danse macabre, often depicted in woodcuts, showing processions of figures led by dancing skeletons. The piece thus reveals the eclecticism of Böcklin's influences, a trait notable throughout his career.
This painting exerted a significant influence on many subsequent modern artists, notably the German Expressionist painter Lovis Corinth, who created a striking Self-Portrait with Skeleton of his own in 1896. Böcklin's work also inspired the late-romantic composer Gustav Mahler, who, according to his widow Alma, inserted a violin solo on an improperly tuned violin into his Symphony No. 4 in G Major (1900) after seeing the painting.
Oil on canvas, - Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Battle of the Centaurs
Böcklin completed this painting in Munich, where he was based for a time in the early 1870s, working partly in collaboration with his friend, the society painter Franz von Lenbach. Lenbach was then employed by the poet and art collector Adolf Friedrich von Schack, who became a major patron of Böcklin's throughout his career. The work is an explicit homage to Michelangelo's unfinished 1492 marble relief Battle of the Centaurs, but adapts the style of the piece in various ways, responding to various subsequent artistic genres. This is one of many works created by Böcklin which rework the classical mythical tropes of Renaissance Art.
Schack's art collection consisted mainly of copies of Old Masters, as well as original works by living German artists, all hung together in a private gallery. While many artists of Böcklin's era copied from the Old Masters, partly to make a living from collectors such as Shack, Böcklin took a typically frivolous approach to the task, combining a variety of painting traditions in his execution of this work. The melodramatic posturing of the centaurs, for example, seems to owe something to Romantic painting in the tradition of Delacroix, as well as the Baroque influences Böcklin had imbibed in Rome. The warmth of color is reminiscent of German Romantic landscape painters such as Caspar David Friedrich.
Battle of the Centaurs was wildly popular, selling for 6,750 francs in 1876. It was also widely exhibited, and much loved by the German public. The grandeur of the theme and mood perhaps spoke to the German nationalism of the late nineteenth century; one write-up in a contemporary magazine sums up the excitement which the painting aroused in its viewers: "high in a forbidding rocky wilderness, where heaven and earth impinge and clouds hang heavy over cliffs bare of vegetation, evidently in an era when the elemental forces still struggled wildly with one another and the earth was still held in continuous transformation by the forces of fire and water, we see living creatures of this terrible stormy period of our planet's youth who stand in amazing conformance with the Creation emerging from this Chaos."
Oil on canvas - Kunstmuseum, Basel
Isle of the Dead
Arnold Böcklin painted five versions of Isle of the Dead between 1880 and 1886. This, the third of them, was created for the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt, who also coined the title for the sequence. Executed in a Romantic style reminiscent of both Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite painting, it shows two figures, an oarsman and a woman dressed in white, approaching an island in a small rowing boat. The shape at the front of the boat is generally understood to be a coffin, while the island itself is dominated by a grove of cypress trees, with a number of crypt doorways cut into the rock. Isle of the Dead was painted in Florence, and one source for the image was the English Cemetery in that city, located close to where Böcklin buried one of his many children who died in infancy.
The power of this image lies in its thematic and stylistic ambiguity. The source for the scene may be classical - the oarsman is often interpreted as Charon, ferryman of Hades in Greek mythology, transporting his passengers across the River Styx into the underworld - but various real-life models for the island have been suggested, besides the English Cemetery, including St. George Island in Montenegro. The dramatic coloring, and the grandeur of the natural scene, owes much to German Romantic landscape painting, though we can also sense an affinity with the work of the British Pre-Raphaelites, who were much concerned with Arthurian legend, and thus with the mythical Isle of Avalon, depicted in Edward Burn-Jones monumental work The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (1881-98).
Like Battle of the Centaurs, this painting achieved enormous fame in late-nineteenth-century Germany, finding its way into many bourgeois living rooms, and also inspiring the late-Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff's 1908 work Isle of the Dead. With its emphasis on the beauty of nature and the honor of death, it is not surprising that the painting also spoke to German nationalism. Its most infamous owner was Adolf Hitler, who purchased it in 1933, later hanging it in Albert Speer's new Reich Chancellery. However, the image's enigmatic appeal has outlasted the politics for which it was coopted, and the painting continues to be popular in post-unification Germany.
Oil on panel - Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Playing in the Waves
Another painting which had achieved great fame by the time of Böcklin's death, Playing in the Waves shows the artist's irreverent approach to his classical sources. The figures in the waves seem to be modelled on Triton, the sea-god and merman of Greek mythology, but there is no mythical base for the scene depicted. Instead, the painting recalls an incident witnessed by Böcklin during a holiday on the Italian coast, when his friend, the zoologist Anton Dohrn, surprised a group of women bathers, approaching them underwater and suddenly resurfacing. It is even said that the face of the Triton, whose salacious intentions seem clear, is based on Dohrn's.
Despite this seaside-postcard take on Greek mythology, the image is not simply frivolous. The color-palette is dark and melancholic, and the fear on the woman's face seems real enough. The viewer is thus confronted with a strange mixture of sensual, frightful, and humorous energy. The comic-grotesque quality of the painting was noted by many critics during the late nineteenth century, including Cornelius Gurlitt, who expressed the enthusiasm of the German public in general in calling Playing in the Waves "one of the greatest achievements of our century".
The painting's combination of intimate viewing perspective, grand classical allusions, and low comedy, is typical of Böcklin's irreverent approach aesthetic hierarchies and categories, and to his own status as a Neoclassical painter. Prone to moody outbursts, Böcklin is known to have ranted: "to be Greeks! Us? Why were the Greeks Greeks? Because they created what they saw, as seemed right to them. (The ancients did not want to make antiquity, as far as I know - only we want to do that) ... The fresh water of life is what we want, and that is ever flowing for us, as it was for the Greeks. We will only be Greek when we grasp it in our own way." Building on the classical past, Böcklin initiated a whole tradition of the comic-grotesque in subsequent German art, evident in much work of the Expressionist movement.
Oil on canvas - Neue Pinakothek, Munich
Odysseus and Kalypso
A large part of Böcklin's oeuvre is made up of seascapes, many of them reinterpreting classical motifs with the ribald energy of Peter Paul Rubens, whose fleshy nudes - as in works like The Union of Earth and Sea (1618) - probably influenced paintings of Böcklin's such as Playing in the Waves and In the Sea (1883). In works such as Odysseus and Kalypso, however, Böcklin presents us with a more mournful, enigmatic image. In Homer's Odyssey, the nymph Calypso hypnotizes the hero Odysseus with her music, before detaining him on her island for seven years, first as her lover and then as her prisoner, as Odysseus comes to pine for his home and his wife Penelope. In Böcklin's representation of the story, Calypso plays her lyre in the foreground, gazing anxiously up at Odysseus, who seems to be staring out to see.
The mood of this piece is more somber and mysterious than much of Böcklin's work. The dark mass of rock at the center of the frame means that in visual terms, gloom and shadow dominate the scene while the physical and implied emotional detachments of the two characters suggests feelings of anxiety and isolation. The blue veil draped across the warrior's body, and the concealment of his face, as well as his oddly rigid pose, grant him something of the static quality of the rock surrounding him, as if the figure might not be quite human. The painting's impression of psychological intensity is enhanced by these subtly surreal aspects of its composition.
Works such as Odysseus and Calypso thus reveal why Böcklin's painting was so influential on twentieth-century artists such as the Metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico - who often placed isolated figures and statues in strange, desolate landscapes - as well as Surrealists such as Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst.
Oil on panel - Kunstmuseum, Basel
Throughout his career, Böcklin returned again and again to mythological subjects. The inspiration for this work is an episode from the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, when, during the course of a hunt, the hero Actaeon becomes lost, surprising the goddess Diana as she bathes nude in a pool of water. Outraged, Diana transforms Actaeon into a stag, and he is hunted down and eaten by his own hounds. Böcklin shows Diana armed with her bow, accompanied by several hunters and dogs, chasing after an already-wounded stag.
The story of Actaeon and Diana had been interpreted by a number of painters since the Renaissance, perhaps most notably Titian in works such as The Death of Actaeon (c. 1559-75). But Böcklin's interpretation of the scene is typically idiosyncratic, even bizarrely comic. The exaggerated, fairy-like delicacy of Diana's posture is not in keeping with traditional representations of the noble woodland goddess, and jars with the brutality of the scene unfolding, which comes across in the pained arch of the deer's back. It is thus a further example of the comic-grotesque aesthetic that Böcklin had honed throughout his career.
Painted a few years before his death, this work also represents a process of sentimental recollection for Böcklin, who was commissioned in his hometown of Basel to create a picture of the same scene, Heroic Landscape (Diana Hunting), in 1858. This late work can be seen as a homage both to the traditions of Renaissance and Neo-classical painting, and to the city of the artist's birth.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris