Arnold Böcklin (born in 1827) was a Swiss symbolist painter, whose work The Plague (1898) has recently emerged as the emblem of our moment in time. It seems that through his symbolist lens he managed to capture the timeless terror of epidemics. True symbolist art is able to achieve precisely that – to situate its creations in the eternal realm. The vibrant blood red colour of the woman’s dress in the foreground is juxtaposed with the blacks, browns and greens of death and decomposition. The whitish cloud of miasma behind the Death figure and the same bad air breathed out from the dragon’s mouth create a terrifying effect. Böcklin was criticized for his garish taste in colours but from the symbolist viewpoint his choices are fully justified. This emblematic image resembles a tarot card.
Death was the theme close to Böcklin’s heart – see his self-portrait with Death playing the fiddle below (1872). Not to mention that his Isle of the Dead (1880) remains his most iconic and famous work of all times. In it, a figure clad in white is standing over a coffin, also draped in white. Their boat is being solemnly rowed towards an island with cypress trees guarding the ultimate mystery.
Similar figures also clad in white are featured in The Sacred Grove (1886), which has a very special place in my heart. Who are these people walking in a sacred procession and bowing deeply before a sacred fire? Are they Druids or Ancient Greeks? Or are they simply emblematic of all silent nature worshippers of the times of Yore? There seems to be a temple behind the trees on the right as well as a white statue, which is not visible very well. I was lucky recently to see the original in a museum in Basel and indeed I was able to confirm that there is a statue behind a tree on the right-hand side. The sacred site seems to be situated on a marshland judging by the stone altar’s reflection in the water.
In The Sacred Teaching of All Ages by Manly P. Hall there is a passage describing the oracle of Jupiter in Dodona, which makes me think of the scene depicted in the painting:
“The oracle of Dodona was presided over by Jupiter, who uttered prophecies through oak trees, birds, and vases of brass. Many writers have noted the similarities between the rituals of Dodona and those of the Druid priests of Britain and Gaul. The famous oracular dove of Dodona, alighting upon the branches of the sacred oaks, not only discoursed at length in the Greek tongue upon philosophy and religion, but also answered the queries of those who came from distant places to consult it. The ‘talking’ trees stood together, forming a sacred grove. When the priests desired answers to important questions, after careful and solemn purifications they retired to the grove. They then accosted the trees, beseeching a reply from the god who dwelt therein. When they had stated their questions, the trees spoke with the voices of human beings, revealing to the priests the desired information. Some assert that there was but one tree which spoke–an oak or a beech standing in the very heart of the ancient grove. Because Jupiter was believed to inhabit this tree he was sometimes called Phegonæus, or one who lives in a beech tree.”
Giorgio de Chirico, the great Italian Surrealist, once declared that each of Böcklin’s works is a shock. One of the most shocking aspects of his oeuvre is perhaps the organic, extremely lifelike and lively nature of some of his paintings. For it was not only death that preoccupied him. His delightful Mermaids at Play (1886) are full of merriment and can be described as gently grotesque. A bewildered baby with a fishtail on the left-hand side is holding a little fish. The frolicking mermaids are not portrayed to be seductive or satisfying for the male gaze. On the contrary, they are being natural and relaxed in their bodily comfort. This puts Böcklin in contrast to many other nineteenth-century artists.
It is quite astounding that Böcklin’s artistic career developed simultaneously to that of the Impressionists. He really seems to have nothing in common with them. He must have picked his own secluded path through the dark woods. As an art critic George B. Rose wrote in 1917:
“He is no impressionist. His works are finished.”
More paintings at https://www.arnoldbocklin.org/
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