Disasters, wars, plagues, death… These are the themes that artists like to express very much. The art of suffering is more contagious and closer to the essence of life. At the same time, death is also a theme that religious art likes to involve.
We can name the masterpieces with the theme of death-Michelangelo’s “Pieta”, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Triumph of Death”, David’s “The Death of Marat”, Mo Nye’s “Camille on the Dying”, Munch’s “Death in the Ward”, Picasso’s “Guernica”…
The first famous painting on the theme of death that comes to my mind is the Swiss painter Böcklin’s “Island of the Dead”. 》, it was an accidental encounter with this painting. In 2013, I traveled to Germany and found it after checking in many masterpieces in the Old National Gallery of Berlin. I didn’t mention it, so I took a photo in a hurry and kept it on file. Since then, this painting has been haunting my mind so much that I have always associated it with the Old National Gallery in Berlin. Later, I happened to see this painting in a German art book, and I realized that it was a very unusual work. The author was Böcklin, a master of symbolism.
Symbolism and Bocklin
The concept of “Symbolism” emerged in the 1880s, a term coined by the French poet Jean Moreas, who said: “Symbolism clothes abstract ideas with a corporeal sensual garment.” Symbolist painters no longer strive Instead of expressing the external world, it expresses illusory dreams through symbols, metaphors and decorative pictures to inspire people. In terms of painting techniques, it is more romantic. The theme is not the real world, but dreams and the inner world, but the form is figurative.
It is also a painting of dreams, and it is also different from the later surrealism – first of all, the periods of the two are inconsistent, so their sources of thought are also different; surrealism is influenced by Freud’s theory, and it pays great attention to expressing the subconscious. In the period when symbolism emerged, there were no related theories. They mainly paid attention to the hint and symbolism of the picture, and the expression was implicit. Therefore, the themes of symbolist paintings were often nightmares, religious emotions, and death.
The Berlin State Gallery exhibits mainly German paintings and sculptures from the 19th century.
Symbolism is of course not limited to the field of painting, there are also poets such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarme in the field of literature. Therefore, symbolist paintings will also express that kind of poetry and drama. “Symbolism” can be regarded as a “predecessor” of “Surrealism” in exploring the inner world of people.
Arnold Bocklin was born in a merchant family in Basel, Switzerland on October 16, 1827, and died in Italy on January 16, 1901. He studied landscape painting in Dusseldorf, Germany in his early years. The Düsseldorf School of Painting is an important school of painting in the transition from German classical art to Romanticism. Böcklin received rigorous training in academic modeling skills and met the philosopher Feuerbach. The two became good friends and also became friends. So influenced by German philosophy. He came to Paris in 1848. He liked the style of the French romantic master Delacroix, and tended to imaginative landscape paintings and mythological works rich in profound philosophy. Since then, he has traveled and studied everywhere, and has been to Brussels, Zurich, Geneva, Rome and the Mediterranean coast, visiting the works of Renaissance masters and the classical works of art in Rome, which provided inspiration for many of his later important works. Pompeii’s murals also had an influence on his technique and painting style. These experiences made his work style have complex allegories and mysterious colors. From 1858 to 1861, he taught at the Weimar School of Fine Arts, which became the “Bauhaus” many years later. In 1866, he returned to his hometown of Basel to settle down, and created decorative murals of mythological themes for Basel’s public art installations. Since then, he has lived in Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
Beginning in the 1880s, Böcklin’s works began to show more and more subjective colors. In his landscape paintings, he often used chiaroscuro and processed the changes of natural images, making the pictures mysterious and depressing. Because there are many themes of death and ghosts in Böcklin’s works, he likes to paint mermaids, centaurs, gods of death, monsters, etc., exuding wild power, so in the eyes of critics, Böcklin is considered too melancholy and negative . Böcklin likes poetry, and his paintings also focus on expressing poetry, but they are not leisurely and beautiful pastoral poems, but mystical poems full of inspiration. Böcklin worships nature and is full of fantasy. He once experimented with flying in his garden (Da Vinci also designed an aircraft). His works mostly draw materials from mythology and use fantasy images in his works.
During the heyday of Böcklin’s creation, Impressionism had already appeared and was gradually recognized as a fashionable art trend, but his paintings were despised for being “unfashionable”. It can be seen that although there were “Impressionists” who presented the excitement of the “revolution” in art history, there were still many people who did not paint in the way of Impressionists at that time. They have their own aesthetic views, but unfortunately, everyone likes to surround themselves with “revolutionaries”, and those painters who are not too “revolutionary” are forgotten.
Böcklin’s “Dream Paintings”
”Island of the Dead” is Bocklin’s representative work. There are at least 6 versions of this painting (one version was destroyed in World War II). I have the honor to appreciate 3 versions collected in Basel, Berlin and St. Petersburg. The version collected in the Metropolitan Museum of New York was not exhibited when I went to visit, so I passed by. These 6 editions are similar in general composition, but there are differences in details. Take the first edition as an example: In the dark night, there is an isolated island standing abruptly in the sea, and the isolated island is illuminated by the faint moonlight. This is a mysterious and ethereal gloomy island with a quiet and eerie atmosphere. On the small island, boulders surround cypress trees. The cypress tree is a plant of the underworld, which means that this isolated island is the home of the dead. There are caves and tombs on the rock wall of the island. There is a lone boat on the sea, with a white coffin at the bow, a boatman paddling, and a mourner in white standing in the middle of the boat—we see their backs, and the boat is slowly driving into the center of the isolated island narrow harbor. Obviously this was not a “grand” funeral, not even a ceremony at all, with only one person seeing him off.
When painting the first version of “Island of the Dead”, Mary Bernard, the widow of a German diplomat, wanted to order a painting to commemorate her husband who died of diphtheria, so she came to Böcklin’s studio in Florence. Seeing the first draft of this painting, I am very satisfied. So she ordered the same painting, but put forward her own special request. Bernard wanted Bocklin to paint the standing figure in white in the painting as a female figure, implying that she herself escorted her dead husband. She hopes that she can use this painting to meditate and express her grief for her husband. Böcklin painted a slightly smaller version 2 (that is, the version of the Metropolitan Museum in New York) at the request of Benner.
The difference between this version and the first version is that the edge of the stern is painted red, and there is a golden decoration on the coffin (this decoration is continued in the later versions), and a picture is painted on the mountain on the right side of the picture. To the beholder’s tomb door. In general, it is still very close to the first edition.
Böcklin seldom titled his paintings, saying that all his paintings were “dream paintings”. “Island of the Dead” is actually the name given by the art dealer. I wanted to name this painting “Island of Silence”, “Island of the Grave”, “Palace of Silence”, etc. In the end, the name “Island of the Dead” was more direct and impressive. The title of the artwork is also very important, and “Island of the Dead” is very catchy. There are many hidden symbols in this “Island of the Dead”, but the artist did not interpret the details in the painting. He believes that these connotations must be felt by everyone who thinks about life and death propositions.
Under the impetus of the art dealer, Böcklin drew several other versions one after another, and made them into printed paintings and etching copperplate pictures for sale to the public. For a time, the printed version of this painting became popular in Germany.
The third edition is collected in Berlin, and it is also the first edition I saw. Compared with the previous two editions, the frame has become wider and the brightness has increased. The color of the picture has also changed from late night to early morning water and sky. There is a feeling that the sky is beginning to be bright. In the early morning, everything is quiet and waiting for recovery, implying that “death” is the eyes of “life”, slowly opening. The rocks are tall and regular like man-made buildings, and the presentation of the tomb building is more “real”, and the meaning of “cemetery” is more obvious. At the same time, the cypress tree is no longer higher than the rock, and the part of the treetop seems to be slightly blown by the wind, and the sailing track of the stern seems to be more obvious (in the second edition, the track of the ship has already appeared), and the entrance of the isolated island (underworld) It has been completely and clearly presented, and the whole painting has a “moving” momentum.
Böcklin’s masterpiece “Isle of the Dead”.
The fourth edition was originally also in Berlin and was collected by a banker, but it was burned due to the bombing of World War II. Judging from the black and white photos left behind, it is relatively close to the third edition (some sources say that the special feature of the fourth edition is that : it was painted on a copper plate).
The fifth edition is collected in Leipzig, Germany. In the painting, the skylight increases the contrast effect and is more dramatic. The white clouds behind the cypress trees have a symbol of “life after death”. The boat was finally about to reach the entrance, and the man in white bowed slightly, as if he was ready to land on the island. Compared with the previous editions, there are more waves on the surface of the water in this painting. The lake of the underworld begins to stir slightly, and there are even fine waves hitting the reef in the foreground. The tranquility of the picture is broken, and the storyline is also enhanced.
The differences in the details of these five editions are like a “comic strip” arranged in chronological order – from the dead silence in the middle of the night, to the early morning, and finally to the island, from stillness to movement… The differences drawn by Böcklin, among them The logic behind it is intriguing.
It is rarely mentioned in the sixth edition, and I also came across it in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Look at the exhibition board, this painting was painted in 1901 when Bocklin died (Bocklin died in mid-January of that year), the author signed besides Arnold Bocklin, and Carlo Bocklin It is his son. Judging from the composition of the picture, this one is relatively close to the earliest version. I guess Bocklin Jr. copied his father’s previous work based on commercial considerations and signed it jointly. This work is not introduced in detail in the official guide of the Hermitage Museum, which shows that it is not a very important one in this series, or it may not be regarded as the “original work” painted by Böcklin himself in essence. .
Comparing several versions, although it is the third edition hidden in Berlin that made me “fall into the pit”, I personally prefer the first edition in Basel, because the sense of “dead silence” presented in the first edition is different from that of the The theme fits better. Considering the theme, it is more appropriate to paint “quiet” than “moving”. Of course, we understand and respect the painter’s exploratory interpretations on the theme of death.
Some people may be afraid of “Island of the Dead”, because its theme is terrible death, and the picture is an isolated island, a dark night, and a man in white, which looks horrifying.
But this painting gives me the exact opposite feeling, not fear but tranquility—there is no solemn funeral procession, only a quiet boat passing by, and we seem to be able to hear the sound of water. Geographically, this is an isolated island. At least from the environmental point of view, it should be a place that is less disturbed and far away from the hustle and bustle; from the structural point of view, this island forms a harbor. The feeling of “shore”, “rest” and “settlement”, and at the same time, the shape is also an “embracing” appearance, which will make people feel safe, even like returning to the arms of their mother in childhood; in terms of time, this is night, and the deceased This can sleep peacefully.
“The Holy and Majestic Forest” by Böcklin.
Human corpses will rot, and ancient cemeteries were often dirty, putrid, and filled with viruses and bacteria. But in this painting, one can clearly feel that the environment is clean and tidy, which also makes death less scary (modern cemeteries have appeared since the 19th century, and some cemeteries in Europe have now become “scenic spots”). Everything makes people feel that death is entering into a kind of tranquility and security, which is presented eternally in the atmosphere rendered by this painting.
Of course, negative people will feel that the island itself symbolizes terror, and the surface of the water itself means danger. In addition, does the harbor also look like a mouth, which means that the god of death devours life… So, even the same picture can give people completely opposite feelings. This is the charm of art, and its answers are completely changeable Yes, the chemical reaction to different people may be completely different.
In 1877, Bocklin’s youngest daughter, who was only 1 year old, died and was buried in the English Cemetery in Florence. This cemetery provided some inspiration for his later creation of “Island of the Dead”. He was 53 years old when he started painting this painting in 1880. At that time, he was at a low point in his life, when Impressionism was on the rise, and his paintings were not well received.
To be honest, I don’t really like some of the “ghosts” in his paintings, which look rough, scary and dark. Of course, I must also admit that the monsters he painted are very impactful, have a distinctive artistic style, and can be “identified at a glance”.
We all know that Germans like to think, are keen on philosophy, and are rich in philosophers, and philosophy is especially keen on thinking about death. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, great philosophers, were almost at the same age as Böcklin. Their pessimistic thoughts may have influenced Böcklin more or less, and their pessimistic thoughts prompted him to explore death in depth. Böcklin was deeply influenced by German idealism, and his later paintings became more and more subjective.
”Island of the Dead” became popular in Germany and some German-speaking countries, and the published printed matter was bought by many families to hang at home for decoration. The writer Nabokov said, “You can find “Island of the Dead” in all Berlin families. “”, which obviously fits with the German view of life and death. There is no ominous fear in people’s reaction to this painting. Instead, the dialectical thinking of life and death in this painting gives people a positive attitude, or a state of mind to face death with peace of mind. It is said that during the First World War, when soldiers corresponded with their families, many people used the postcard of the painting “Island of the Dead”. Moreover, the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century were themselves turbulent times, and people thought more about death.
It is worth mentioning that this painting later became the world’s most famous “art examination failure” – a favorite of Hitler (Berlin, third edition), he once hung this painting on his in the office. In 1940, Molotov visited Berlin. In the news pictures of Hitler meeting him, you can see the “Island of the Dead” on the wall behind Hitler. I guess, maybe he bought a print of this picture for decoration when he was a child, so if he had the opportunity to own the original, he would not be polite.
In 1909, shortly after the completion of the most successful “Second Symphony” by the Russian composer Rachmaninoff, he saw a black and white print of “Island of the Dead” in Dresden, and he liked it very much and was inspired by it , wrote the symphonic poem “Island of the Dead” of the same name. The song is magnificent and expresses the deep feeling of death. This piece of music is indeed very shocking, but the music is very different from my feeling when I look at the painting “Island of the Dead”-this painting gives me the feeling of tranquility, not the majesty of a symphony. Later, when Rachmaninoff saw the original work of “Island of the Dead”, he said with emotion: “If the original work was not the black and white print, I’m afraid the song I made would not be what it is now.” It has a greater impact on the composer and brings him a stronger feeling.
“Death” is a compulsory course
We Chinese have an idiom called “seeing death as home”. When I was a child, I always took this word to mean “brave”. I thought it was not afraid of death. Later, I was more willing to understand it literally – “see death as home”, so I think “seeing death as home” may be a kind of “realization”, it does not use “brave” to “not afraid of death”, it is to face up to Death, to truly understand the essence of death, is to see through death and belittle death. Therefore, the original meaning of “seeing death as home” may not be courage, but awareness. American writer Elizabeth Kübler-Ross is dedicated to end-of-life care. Her death psychology divides people’s attitudes towards death into five stages: “denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.” I think “seeing death as home” is It’s time to “accept”.
I watched a movie “Sunshine” a few days ago (the best film at the Golden Horse Awards in 2019). There is a line in the movie that says, “The real fairness to everyone in the world is sunshine.” In fact, I think the fairest thing is “death”, because it doesn’t matter whether you have money, power, popularity, social status, achievements in life, education, good looks… Death, and the time of death and the way of death cannot be predicted. We all have to face the departure of our close friends, relatives and friends, and eventually we have to face our own departure. Death is a homework that everyone has to do. In the face of death, we cannot be an ostrich, so we must “learn” death, “learn” death .
Wars and disasters are the best time to think about life, and birth, old age, sickness and death in daily life are also critical moments for us to perceive life in our hearts. The philosopher Heidegger mentioned the concept of “living towards death” in the book “Being and Time”. From this perspective, everyone begins to die from the moment they are born. It can also be considered It is to “die” a little bit every day, death is the ultimate destination of all people, no one is exempt, and no one can escape. “Live to death” is to look at death and the process of life in a countdown way. Some people think that “death” is a negative topic. In fact, avoiding talking about death is to avoid problems and deceive the ears. Thinking about life with the concept of “living to death” helps us live every moment well, and also allows us to have a clearer understanding and judgment of the value of life.
When I travel, I sometimes go to the cemetery. Of course, the main reason is to visit my favorite cultural idols. I want to have a sense of spiritual closeness with the person I like. This visit, thinking about death. In Chinese culture, offering sacrifices to ancestors on Ching Ming Festival also has the effect of learning and experiencing death, so it is not entirely for paying tribute to the ancestors, but more for enlightening the living, so this is also an unintentional act. death education.
Thoughts on death can be religious, philosophical, scientific, literary, and of course artistic. Healing is a “part-time job” of art, and there are many ways to heal art – it can use the so-called “positive” way to pull you back to the Utopia, live happily every day, dreaming and dying; it can pull you Go to the god of death, let you face to face with it, and let you be enlightened and liberated in the process of introspection.
A series of works such as “Island of the Dead”, “Island of Life” and “Self-Portrait with Death” directly touch the topic of “death”, which is to resolve the anxiety of life by facing death directly. At the moment when the new crown epidemic is raging all over the world, watching “Island of the Dead” will naturally have more emotions, and it will also allow us to experience the taste of being alive while watching and thinking.