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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Arnold Böcklin

Isle of the Dead, 1880 (first version), Arnold Bocklin.

Arnold Bocklin Self-portrait, 1872

Arnold Bocklin, AKA Art Nouveau
Sometimes, the best that can be said about an artist is that they influenced other artists. Inherent in this accolade is the disparaging implication that the artist's own work was, to put the best face on it, "forgettable." That's probably the case with Arnold Bocklin. No less an art critic than Clement Greenberg said of Bocklin: "{He}is one of the most consummate expressions of all that {is} now disliked about the latter half of the nineteenth century." In other words, influential or not, tastes change. Perhaps that's not surprising, one of Bocklin's chief admirers was the noted German art critic, Adolph Hitler. At one time, he owned eleven Bocklins. In addition to German dictators, the artist also influence composers, most notably Sergei Rachmaninoff and Heinrich Schulz-Beuthen. Both wrote symphonies based upon one of Bocklin's paintings. Moreover, it's not very many artist who can boast of having a typeface (right) named after them, one designed by Schriftgiesserei Otto Weisert in 1904. It's better known by the designation, "Art Nouveau."

Isle of the Dead, Arnold Bocklin,
Versions two through five.
Arnold Bocklin was Swiss, born in 1827. For the benefit of those having the need to categorize any artist who ever picked up a sketch pad, Bocklin was a Symbolist painter. It takes a special kind of person to like Symbolist paintings, especially Bocklin's--dictators, composers, and font designers, among a very few others. Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirco were influenced by Bocklin. Salvador Dali is said to have liked him while Marcel Duchamp named him as his favorite painter. Upon hearing the artist make such a surprising claim, a listener is said to have asked in disbelief, words to the effect, "are you kidding?" Duchamp didn't answer. Although you would find little obvious Bocklin influence in any of Duchamp's paintings, the French cubist was also into Dada (an anti-art movement) so in a twisted sort of logic, maybe he was serious.

In pop music, recording artists having only major success are known as "one hit wonders." That might well be an accurate label for Bocklin. His "one hit" came in 1880, his Isle of the Dead (top). To call the dark, forbidding island landscape "morbid" would be like calling the pyramids pointed. The painting depicts a rocky inlet in an islet across a broad, dark expanse of water. Deep within the inlet is a cemetery of towering Cypress. A rowboat bearing a coffin approaches the inlet--not exactly living room art. Yet at one time the novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, reported that a Bocklin print of this scene hung in every home in Berlin. Moreover, if you have only one major "hit" as an artist, it's best to make the most of it. Bocklin did. Over a period of six years, he painted five slightly different versions (above, right). While perhaps not a number one hit, Bocklin's 1887 The Homecoming (below) was also said to have been influential, if not exactly popular. History does not recall whether Hitler liked it.

The Homecoming, 1887, Arnold Bocklin, also said to have influenced


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