Monday, December 7, 2015

Bocklin's Mind Through His Art

Alec Mitchell

Bocklin's Mind Through His Art
            Arnold Bocklin is one of the most famous artists to come from Germany due to his innate ability to create a feeling of impending doom mixed with a calm, peacefulness.  While many struggle to put a finger to Bocklin's message behind his art, most end up with a mixed feeling of emotions on opposite spectrums.  He is able to create a piece that is so inviting and calm that it draws in the viewer; only after putting deep thought of his work does the spectator start to get an unnerving feeling.  The majority of this artist's works were created in the late 1800's, and most seem to have a Romanesque and Greek vibe.  The structures and figures he paint are similar to art of that time.  He obviously has a fascination with the mythical aspect of Greece.  However, it is important to attempt to fully understand Bocklin's message behind some of his work.  His works give off an instant sense of doom or relief, yet, the feelings often switch after a complete viewing the piece.  Furthermore, it is also important to remember that Bocklin simply painted what he enjoyed, and that style the nature of his work.  The fact that he painted the same painting, Isle of the Dead, four times, and has many painting that are similar and at least within the same universe, forces the viewer entertain the possibility that Bocklin has no message.  While this is definitely plausible, there is just too much going on when viewing some of Bocklin's work.  Seeing a work, such as Isle of the Dead, does an excellent job of taking the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster that never stops.  A painting like this exudes energy and hope while at the same time there is something that feel unsettling.  He is able to obtain this reaction with the majority of his works. 
 Edward Bocklin; Isle of the Dead; 1880; oil on wood; 29 x 48 in. Accession Number 26.90
Isle of the Dead: "Basel" version, 1880.
            Isle of the Dead is the image that gives the viewer the most unique feeling out of many of his works.  The island is warm and looks comforting surrounded by mysteriously calm, dark waters.  Cypress trees cover the middle of the island and tower above everything else.  Though the island is interesting, the eyes are drawn to the two figures on the rowboat.  They are confidently entering the cove of the island.  It is not uncommon to see a relation to Charon, the ferryman of Hades on the River Styx from Greek mythology.  The peaceful emotion stems from the warm color emanating from the island, but the idea that it could be a living space for a soul on the boat for eternity is discomforting.  It is relatable to seeing the grave of someone familiar. 
Arnold Bocklin; Spring in a Narrow Gorge; 1881; oil on canvas; 33 1/4 x 23 3/8; J. Paul Getty Museum

 Bocklin does an excellent job replicating the same emotions with Spring in a Narrow Gorge.  The center of the gorge, light escapes through a forest of cypress trees.  The trees are the interesting aspect, as Bocklin seems to love cypress trees.  This particular piece looks like it could be a different part of the island in Isle of the Dead and that would explain the trees.  However, he uses them so much that there has to be a reason.  Cypress trees were symbolic in the classical era.  It was seen as a symbol of mourning.  It has been associated with death and the underworld.  This is because a cypress will not regenerate when cut back too severely.  All in all, the tree is a stamp for death.  Having this knowledge springs a different avenue to view the painting.  Seeing the light as the central focus past the cypress trees makes the gorge look like a tunnel.  Giving the cliché "light at the end of the tunnel" feel.  While spring is a joyful time where the Earth is full of energy, this painting depicts life and death in a beautifully, morbid sense.
Arnold Bocklin; Villa by the Sea; 1871-1874; oil on canvas; 108 x 154 cm; Stadel Musem

            In his painting, Villa by the Sea, Bocklin creates a grainier environment.  It is a beautiful painting that does a good job depicting a sunrise.  It is dark in the distance and, once again, there are cypress trees next to the villa.  The woman on the beach is intriguingly ominous and is dressed moderately.  It would not be farfetched to say she is a nun bowing her head.  However, if the viewer looks closely at the figure's face, it has no specifics and leaves the imagination to create them.  It actually looks quite terrifying and unsettling.  The cypress trees again tell the viewer that this painting involves death.  The possibility arises that this could be another island for the dead. 
Arnold Bocklin; Summer Day; 1881; oil on mahogany wood; 61 x 50 cm; Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany
            Summer Day is a painting that gives off a different vibe.  At first glance, it looks like a photo of a beautiful, early summer day.  A small stream runs through the middle of the piece, and is line with cypress trees.  Several unclothed, child-like figures are playing along the river, and are not wearing clothes.  The cypress trees give an obvious hint that this may be some sort of paradise in the afterlife.  It is different than most, because there does not seem to be any somber or haunting imagery.  Until the viewer notices the lonesome child on the bank on the right side of the stream, sitting across from every other figure.  This lone child has a different look to him; almost as he is the color silver while every other child is a pure white-gold color.  It is not unfathomable to reach the conclusion that maybe this child cannot cross the river as his friends play on the other side.  The viewer does not know why he is all alone, but his demeanor and color projects a harrowing feeling that he has to sit there and watch his friends enjoy the afterlife, while he is stuck on the wrong side.  Bocklin's work here shows a more distinct happy and sad contrast than his other paintings that are more of a peaceful yet somber mix.  While these are similar emotions, the difference is noticeable and relatable, demonstrating Bocklin's ability to diversify initial and secondary emotional reaction to his work. 
Arnold Bocklin; Ruin by the Sea; 1881; oil on fabric; 111 x 82 cm; The Cleveland Museum of Art

            Bocklin does an extraordinary job recreating a similar atmosphere to Isle of the Dead with Ruin by the Sea.  This is another classic Bocklin painting; at least that is what it seems at first glance.  Yes, it demonstrates that classic ambience of warmth with the land, but it is surrounded by a dark ambience.  While this work is similar to others, there is one thing different.  This is the first painting in this collection that demonstrates the sun shining in front of the viewer.  In the other paintings, the sun is never visible.  Once again Bocklin's infatuation with cypress trees is demonstrated, and he does an unsubtle job of adding crows to the painting.  However, the sun is a rare sight to see in his work, and it gives off a more opportunistic feeling.   It is impossible to ignore the brain's hard job to understand what Bocklin is trying to tell it. 
Arnold Bocklin; Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle; 1872; 61 x 75 cm; National Museums in Berlin

            Finally, we truly understand Bocklin's fascination with death in Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle.  In this we see the artist portraying himself with Death as a skeleton playing a fiddle behind him.  Bocklin is staring off into the corner with a shocked look like he can slightly hear a song. Death seems to be laughing mockingly at Bocklin; like he knows it is just a matter of time until Bocklin is under his possession.  It would make sense that whatever tune Death is playing representative of Bocklins life.  Death is in complete control and maybe Bocklin thinks that the only way to live a sane, enjoyable life is if he accepts Death.  This would also explain the mixed emotions of the paintings in this collection.  Death is impossible to understand and nearly impossible to accept.  It seems Bocklin had these struggles, and was able to portray exactly what he was feeling into his art. 

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