Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) did not start out as a Symbolist artist. His earlier work had more in common with the school of Classicism, and it wasn’t until he was in his fifties that he started to paint stranger, more allegorical pieces, which often had occult undertones, and centered around the theme of death. This obsession is hardly surprising, considering Bocklin had lost five of his eleven children in infancy, and had had to flee cholera epidemics on two separate occasions.
Probably the most famous of Bocklin’s works, Island of the Dead was reproduced by the artist five times before he finished with the theme. The painting was originally commissioned by a widow of Bocklin’s acquaintance who wanted something with which to contemplate the passing of her husband. The white figure in the funeral barge contrasts with the dark cypresses of the island, and a sense of profound silence pervades through the whole piece.
In contrast, The Plague portrays a scene of chaos and despair, as the monstrous figure of Death, riding backwards on a dragon, cuts down a bride who was in his path. One can only assume that Bocklin was inspired by his experiences with Cholera, and there are also suggestions of Syphilis, another common ailment of the time, which linked sex and death inextricably.
Another meditation on death. The slightly twee image of the fat babies playing in the foreground strikes a contrast with the shadowy tomb, and the unsuspecting old man being decapitated by a skeletal Death. An interesting take on the tradition of the Memento Mori.
Of all the Gods of classical mythology, Pan was the most frequently portrayed by the Decadents, possibly because he represented amorality, revelry, and creation, not to mention the fact that he inspired the popular imagery of Satan as a horned and hoofed satyr.
This was the first of Bocklin’s paintings that I ever saw, and I was immediately drawn in by the otherworldliness of the scene depicted, not to mention the themes of paganism and occult ritual.
He’s painted a leering skeleton peering over his shoulder. Of course he has!