Tag Archives: darkness

Arnold Böcklin – Isle of the Dead

14 Jun

The title of this painting was apparently coined by the art dealer, while the artist himself referred to the painting only as “a picture for dreaming over”. A fascinating detail to be aware of because the morbid and mysterious allure of the painting lies half in its symbolist-laden title. I didn’t know for the painting before I discovered Rachmaninov’s composition of the same name a few years ago. The title is bewitching, and yet the painting itself looks like the world of nightmares which I inhabit in my slumber. I am drawn and repulsed by it, I fear being engulfed in its darkness, and yet I crave to unravel the mystery of those tall cypress trees.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, ‘Basel’ version, 1880

“Under ancient cypress trees, weeping dreams are harvested from sleep.” (Georg Trakl, tr. by Jay Hopler, from “Year,” published c. October 1912)

The painting shows a seemingly uninhabited little island, composed from strange massive yellowish rocks and built in classical style architecture, the purpose of which is unclear. The centre of the isle is occupied by tall and shadowy cypress trees which look, to me, as if they are corpses standing upright and decaying slowly. Their darkness exudes a nauseating scent and the way they loom over the isle silently gives their presence an ominous character. This is a place from the artist’s imagination, and all elements are subordinated to the mood which is one of dreams and death, some even say the mood is that of ‘withdrawal, of rejection of reality’ which makes sense in the context of Symbolism. Death dreamily hangs over the isle as a dark cloud heavy from rain; death hides in the soft trembling of the tired cypress trees; death lingers in the air in the rich and heavy scent of the Mediterranean. But the isle is not alone; a little rowboat is slowly gliding through the dark and still waters. On the boat we see an oarsman, a figure shrouded in white veils, resembling a statue or a mummy, and a coffin. Now, just when you thought things couldn’t get more symbolist if they wanted to! There are dozens of interpretations of this painting and its every detail offers many explanations. Some suggest the oarsman represents Charon, the boatman from Greek mythology who led souls to the underworld over the river Acheron. Perhaps defining the painting would mean stealing its richness of vague dreaminess and confining it to the genre of mythological scenes, and it’s much richer than that because its layers and layers of mystery serve to awaken the subconsciousness.

Island of Saint George

This painting is one of three versions or variations of a same theme that Böcklin painted. Even though the isle is the artist’s little fantasy, a dream-world and not a real place, it was inspired by a real place, and again, there are a few possibilities. One of them points to the islet called “Sveti Đorđe” (“Island of Saint George”) in Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. The only building on the islet is a Benedictine monastery from the 12th century and the abundance of tall and dark cypress trees are reminiscent of Böcklin’s paintings. It really is a dead isle; no one lives there apart from the wandering souls of the dead, and tourists are not allowed. Böcklin could have seen the islet on one of his travels to Italy. I am certain that in twilight it holds the same eerie spell on the observer as the isle in the painting does. Another possible inspiration is the Pontikonisi islet in Greece, again with plenty of cypress trees and a Byzantine chapel from the 12th century. I personally feel that there is a clear resemblance between the Island of Saint George and the third version of the painting “Isle of the Dead”, from 1883, where the rocky formations are sharp and grey, almost enveloping the isle, and the colour of the sea blends with that of the sky.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, The Third Version, 1883

What draws us to the painting is the eerie atmosphere, the irrational composition of the isle and its dazzling dream-like beauty, and the mystery which doesn’t have an answer. Surrealists such as Giorgio de Chirico loved the painting, precisely because of those qualities, and the similar mood of silence, eeriness and mystery pervades many of his paintings. A reference to the past might be the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich which have the same mute stillness and a spiritual mystique.

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Franz Stuck: Dark Female Figures in a World of Anxiety and Lust

6 Sep

If you gaze at dark and richly textured paintings of a German Symbolist painter Franz Stuck for too long, you become spiritually drowned in a world of ‘anxiety and lust’, to quote Carl Jung. That peculiar mood of his paintings is as intoxicating as it is heavy and suffocating, radiating the typical turn of the century claustrophobia and interest in eroticism.

1903. The Sin (Die Sünde) - Franz Stuck

Franz Stuck, The Sin (Die Sünde), 1903

Last August, while I was in Berlin, I had a chance to see Stuck’s The Sin and Circe in Alte Nationalgalerie where they are part of the museum’s permanent collection. I remember it clearly, the feeling of being completely and fully mesmerised by hypnotic power of Stuck’s vamp femme fatales; dark eyed Eve luring from the shadow, and Circe, clad in purple, offering a gold cup, and smiling lustfully with moist, half-open lips. The day was rainy and gloomy, the chamber quiet and solitary because most visitors chose to see the Im-Ex exhibition that was on at the time. Even in the middle of the day, painting The Sin seemed frightening and grandiose because of its dimensions, but how magical and sinister at the same time would it look at night, with a few tall candles as only sources of light, shining in brilliant Byzantine golden flames, and a sofa you could lie on, smoke opium and immerse into dreams, watched upon by those big, darkly oriental eyes. I think that kind of experience would be the closest to an acid trip I could possibly imagine.

If you observe Stuck’s oeuvre, you’ll notice that darkness, like heavy November fog, lurks from every corner. World that he created in his paintings is a mythical one, where anxiety and erotic fantasies emerge from every canvas. Sometimes his paintings, just like those of Edvard Munch, can be a tad difficult to digest, at least for me, as they seem to lurk the viewer to the end of the cliff; first to be amazed, and then – to fall. I feel emotionally drained and ill after looking at them for too long, that’s the power of art for you all. Stuck portrays the dark side of mythology and female dominance and images that arise from his artworks are those of suffering and agony, twisted bodies, murky colours and strong contrasts, and ever popular in Symbolism, figures of wicked and possessive femme fatales.

So, what exactly is the true subject of his art, the spiritual fall of the Western society of his own secret Freudian fantasies?

Stu-04-NatGalFranz Stuck, Tilla Durieux as Circe, c. 1913

Stuck painted the subject of Eve’s sin and the consequent Fall of Humanity many times. The version I’ve put here, from 1903, isn’t the most striking, but it is the one I saw. In The Sin, Eve looks directly at the viewer, ironically smiling. Her sickly white, yet robust body emerges from the dark background. Two large, dark, protruding almond shaped eyes resemble those of Luisa Casati, an extravagant Italian heiress and a great example of fin de sicle decadency in lifestyle. A garishly green shadow hides her face. Framed with masses of Rossettian hair so dark it seems to have been woven from darkness itself. And then, as if the painting wasn’t unsettling enough, you notice the snake wrapped around Eve’s body, with thin piercing pupils and purplish skin that distinguishes it from the pervading darkness. If you don’t move your eyes, it will draw you in too.

Circe is visually brighter, painted in three vibrant colours; auburn for the hair, dark yellow with hints of olive brown for the cup, and lastly – purple, like dried larkspur flowers. Three colours against the pitch dark background and again, that strange sickly pale skin, were enough to uplift the mood of the painting. In body sculpting, Stuck slightly reminds me of Burne-Jones. Look at her purple tunic that sensuously falls, then her earrings and the luminous cup. Who wouldn’t be tempted to drink from it, even if the price was entering the kingdom of death and running into the arms of Persephone, a fellow mythological creature that played around with fin de siecle imagination. Stuck’s Circe reminds me of silent film stars of 1920s, such as Theda Bara and Pola Negri, who often played roles of vamp femme fatales.