GDT on Arnold Bocklin

Arnold Bocklin (Swiss 1827-1901)

There are three key words to understand the Symbolist movement: Paganism, Romanticism and Decadence.

Not all artists in the movement share these in equal measure. Rops fits decadence perfectly, Schwabe could embody Paganism quite well and Bocklin is, without a doubt, a Romantic. He has an almost Wagnerian sense of myth and a very theatrical, dramatic use of light.

Bocklin’s use of light has always fascinated me. The way he captures the soft dying sunlight and how he uses it to then cast deep ominous shadows in his forests and rocky outcrops. The jewel-like quality that his overcast skies confer to the green ocean waves. His creatures all have the strength and savagery that I associate with Machen or Blackwood and -in the case of his sea creatures- with Lovecraft. Look at any of Bocklin’s creature’s eyes: they are wild and stunned by instinct, the Siren’s and Triton’s wet, shiny bodies are sensual but completely animalistic; fish mouths agape and lubricated�

Bocklin was born in Basel, to a family in the silk trade but he started to travel very young. He trained formally in Basel and Dusseldorff and travelled to Antwerp, Brussels and Paris where he cultivated his art technique even further.

While he was in his thirties painted a mural of The Great God Pan for the King of Bavaria. I know, I know, Pan seems to be the thread to follow- isn’t it?

Bocklin spent most of his adult, family life in Italy, contemplating Italian ruins and the golden sun that bathed them� This may go a long way to explain how he was able to capture that sense of myth and antiquity.

Proof of this may be that only after landing in Italy did he begin to include mythological entities in his work.

His superb technique makes his creatures and landscapes seem absolutely real: hooves, roots, glazed eyes and fur- they all seem like accurate depictions of actual, living things. For some strange reason he reminds me of Magritte and his painting ‘Carte Blanche’ (1965) and has always made me feel pretty sure about the Symbolists being sort of proto-Surrealists.

If Rops excels in portraying the human form then, to me, Bocklin is the single most gifted landscape/atmospheric artist of the movement. By comparison, Rops’landscapes are quite trivial- Bocklin’s landscapes are characters themselves- full of dramatic twilight and gloom. His trees, rocks and savage seas reek of antiquity. The darkness in his woods lurks like a sentient creature and the majestic, vertical rocks and cypresses form a perfect mausoleum in his most famous painting ‘Isle of the Dead’ (1880). This painting was ‘paraphrased’ by another Swiss artist almost a century later: HR GIGER.’

Arnold Bocklin is perfect proof that art does not reproduce the world, it creates a new one. He died in Italy the 16th of January 1901.