ⓘ Isle of the Dead (painting)
Isle of the Dead is the best-known painting of Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Bocklin. Prints were very popular in central Europe in the early 20th century - Vladimir Nabokov observed in his novel Despair that they could be "found in every Berlin home".
Bocklin produced several different versions of the mysterious painting between 1880 and 1901, which today are exhibited in Basel, New York City, Berlin and Leipzig.
1. Description and meaning
All versions of Isle of the Dead depict a desolate and rocky islet seen across an expanse of dark water. A small rowing boat is just arriving at a water gate and seawall on shore. An oarsman maneuvers the boat from the stern. In the bow, facing the gate, is a standing figure clad entirely in white. Just behind the figure is a white, festooned object commonly interpreted as a coffin. The tiny islet is dominated by a dense grove of tall, dark cypress trees - associated by long-standing tradition with cemeteries and mourning - which is closely hemmed in by precipitous cliffs. Furthering the funerary theme are what appear to be sepulchral portals and windows on the rock faces.
Bocklin himself provided no public explanation as to the meaning of the painting, though he did describe it as" a dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door”. The title, which was conferred upon it by the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883, was not specified by Bocklin, though it does derive from a phrase in an 1880 letter he sent to the paintings original commissioner. Not knowing the history of the early versions of the painting see below, many observers have interpreted the oarsman as representing the boatman Charon, who ferried souls to the underworld in Greek mythology. The water would then be either the River Styx or the River Acheron, and his white-clad passenger a recently deceased soul transiting to the afterlife.
2. Origins and inspiration
Isle of the Dead evokes, in part, the English Cemetery in Florence, Italy, where the first three versions were painted. The cemetery was close to Bocklins studio and was also where his infant daughter Maria was buried. In all, Bocklin lost 8 of his 14 children.
The model for the rocky islet was perhaps Pontikonisi, a small, lush island near Corfu, which is adorned with a small chapel amid a cypress grove, perhaps in combination with the mysterious rocky island of Strombolicchio near the famous volcano Stromboli, Sicily. Another less likely candidate is the island of Ponza in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Michael Webber states that it was painted in the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, and that it inspired the composer Rachmaninoff. This claim is supported by the similarity between the painting and the island of St. George near Perast, which is lined by cypress groves and houses a church dedicated to Saint George.
Bocklin completed the first version of the painting in May 1880 for his patron Alexander Gunther, but kept it himself. In April 1880, while the painting was in progress, Bocklins Florence studio had been visited by Marie Berna, nee Christ widow of financier Dr. Georg von Berna. She was struck by the first version of this "dream image" now in the Kunstmuseum Basel, which sat half completed on the easel, so Bocklin painted a smaller version on wood for her now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. At Bernas request, he added the coffin and female figure, in allusion to her husbands death from diphtheria years earlier. Subsequently, he added these elements to the earlier painting. He called these works Die Graberinsel "Tomb Island". Sometimes the "Basel" version is credited as the first one, sometimes the "New York". It was acquired by the Gottfried Keller-Stiftung in 1920.
The third version was painted in 1883 for Bocklins dealer Fritz Gurlitt. Beginning with this version, one of the burial chambers in the rocks on the right bears Bocklins own initials: "A.B.".
Financial imperatives resulted in a fourth version in 1884, which was ultimately acquired by the entrepreneur and art collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen and hung at his Berliner Bank subsidiary. It was burned after a bomb attack during World War II and survives only as a black-and-white photograph.
A fifth version was commissioned in 1886 by the Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig, where it still hangs.
In 1888, Bocklin created a painting called Die Lebensinsel "Isle of Life". Probably intended as an antipole to the Isle of the Dead, it also shows a small island, but with all signs of joy and life. Together with the first version of the Isle of the Dead, this painting is part of the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel.
3.1. Versions Versions
- 1884 – Oil on copper; 81 × 151 cm; destroyed in Berlin during World War II.
- 1883 – Oil on board; 80 × 150 cm; Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
- 1886 – Oil on board; 80 × 150 cm; Museum der bildenden Kunste, Leipzig.
- June 1880 – Oil on board; 74 × 122 cm; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Reisinger Fund, New York.
- May 1880 – Oil on canvas; 111 × 155 cm; Offentliche Kunstsammlung, Kunstmuseum, Basel.
4.1. Works inspired by Isle of the Dead Paintings
- Fabrizio Clerici, the noted Italian Surrealist painter, paraphrased Bocklins seminal painting in two of his works: Le Presenze, dating from 1974, and Latitudine Bocklin, completed in 1979.
- Australian Surrealist painter James Gleeson drew a parallel with the painting and the entrance to the underworld in the Aeneid in his 1989 work Avernus Transvisioned as Bocklins Isle.
- The Swiss artist H. R. Giger created a version of the picture, Hommage à Bocklin 1977, in his typical biomechanical style.
- German artist Michael Sowa has painted Bocklin 6th version, a parody of the painting.
- Salvador Dalis 1932 painting The Real Picture of the Isle of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin at the Hour of the Angelus is inspired by Bocklins work.
- Italian comic artist Gipi did an everyday-life-version of the Island of the Dead.
4.2. Works inspired by Isle of the Dead Drama
- August Strindbergs play The Ghost Sonata 1907 ends with the image of Isle of the Dead accompanied by melancholy music. It was one of Strindbergs favourite pictures.
- It is the explicit backdrop for Norman McLarens short animated film A Little Phantasy on a 19th-century Painting 1946.
- Val Lewton used the painting in scene backgrounds for his 1943 film I Walked with a Zombie, a story about an island of the dead.
- Animator Craig Welch has stated that both the painting and McLarens film were inspirations for his 1996 short How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels.
- Val Lewtons later 1945 horror film Isle of the Dead was also inspired by the painting, which serves as a backdrop to the pictures title sequence.
- The painting has inspired two National Film Board of Canada animated shorts.
- The 2012 American computer-animated horror-comedy film "Hotel Transylvania" features several copies of the painting possibly, the third version on walls around Draculas castle, including just inside the door of Mavis bedroom.
- Alien: Covenant 2017 references the painting during a scene set in the garden
- Design elements from the painting appear in mattes and sets in the 1951 film The Tales of Hoffmann.
- The painting is featured in the Netflix comedy anime series Neo Yokio, in which the characters briefly magically enter the painting itself.
- In the manga and anime series Kuroshitsuji, is shown a place called "Island of Death", described as a sanctuary for demons. It is also the designated area to commence a formal duel between individuals of the said race.
- Bocklins painting was used in season 5 episode 3 of Pretty Little Liars "Surfing the Aftershocks", mysteriously affecting one of the main characters.
4.3. Works inspired by Isle of the Dead Literature
- Roger Zelazny used the picture as an inspiration for the meeting place of two mythological antagonists in his novel Isle of the Dead 1969.
- In J. G. Ballards 1966 novel The Crystal World, Bocklins second version of the painting is invoked to describe the gloom of the opening scene at Port Matarre.
- Graphic novel Ile des morts text: Thomas Mosdi, drawings: Guillaume Sorel has the pictures playing a key role in its gothic, Lovecraftian story.
- Bernard Cornwells The Warlord Chronicles 1995–97 associates Dorsets Isle of Portland with the paintings isle. It is described as a place of internal exile and damnation. The causeway that almost links the real-life island to the mainland was supposed to be guarded to keep the dead including the criminally insane from crossing the Fleet and escaping back into Britain.
4.4. Works inspired by Isle of the Dead Music
- Felix Woyrsch composed 3 Bocklin Phantasies, Op. 53 1910.
- The Island of the Dead 1890 is a symphonic poem by Romantic composer Heinrich Schulz-Beuthen evoking the painting.
- Dezso d’Antalffy, a Hungarian Romantic composer, wrote a symphonic poem "Die Toteninsel" in 1907.
- Visit on the Island of the Dead 2009–2010 is a symphonic poem for orchestra, composed by the Norwegian composer Kristian Oma Ronnes.
- One of the four tone poems of German composer Max Reger’s Vier Tondichtungen nach A. Bocklin Op. 128, 1913 is" Die Totensel” No. 3, based on the painting., an organ work of which No. 3 is also The Dead Island)
- The Swedish neoclassical band Arcana used an image of Isle of the Dead on the cover of their debut album Dark Age of Reason 1996.
- American songwriter and singer Rykarda Parasol wrote her song "Island of the Dead Oh Mi, Oh My" for the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museums exhibition Dreams of nature 2012, where the fifth version of the painting was on show. The song, together with Rachmaninoffs piece, was possible to listen to while watching the painting. The song is on Parasols 2013 album Against the Sun.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff also composed a symphonic poem Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 1909, inspired by a black-and-white print of the painting. He said that had he seen the colour original, he probably would not have written the music.
- French blackgaze band Alcest recorded a song, "LIle Des Morts," inspired by the paintings, for its album Spiritual Instinct, released October 25, 2019.
- The heavy metal band Atlantean Kodex used Die Toteninsel Version III as a cover for their first full-length album, The Golden Bough October 2010.
- Andreas Hallen, a Swedish Romantic composer, wrote a symphonic poem "Die Toteninsel" in 1898.
- An album by Harald Bluchel was named after the painting – Die Toteninsel Zauberberg-Trilogie Teil 1 2006. The third version of the painting is shown on the cover of this album.
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