A major artist of the late 19th century, the Swiss painter Arnnold Böcklin (1827-1901) remains little-known in France, where his art was often reduced to the fascinating icon of only one of his many masterpieces, The Isle of the Dead.
Rediscovered in the 1910s by surrealist painters – Giorgio de Chirico and Marx Ernst in particular – who found a powerful inspiration in his fantastic and iconoclastic vision of mythology, Böcklin's work has never been presented in France. This first monographic exhibition, gathering some 70 pieces, allows the French public to understand the importance of the painter and his place in modern art.
Although it was long considered as "Germanic", if Böcklin's painting draws its inspiration in the artistic, literary and esthetical German traditions, it also breaks away from it. His first landscapes, impregnated with romanticism, took stock of the lessons of Johann Wilhem Schirmer and Carl Friedrich Lessing with Castle in Ruin at Twilight, 1847 (Berlin, Nationalgalerie). His art also reflects a Nordic interpretation of the Latin character shared with the Deutsch-Römer, the German artists who settled in Rome in the middle of the century. As he travelled widely, he was also influenced by other trends in European painting: Rubens, for instance, whose memory haunts the depictions of fighting centaurs and the large fight scenes of the later years; Poussin and Le Lorrain, whose ideal landscapes are echoed in the series of Villas on the Seaside.
Böcklin spent a large part of his life in Italy, where he was strongly marked by Pompeian art – Portrait of Angela Böcklin as a Muse, 1863 (Basel, Kunstmuseum) – and by the Italian Renaissance he remembered in the sumptuous portraits and allegories of the 1870s in Munich – Self-Portrait, 1873 (Hamburg, Kunsthalle) and Anacréon's Muse, 1873 (Aarau, Aargauer Kunsthaus).
To him, the Mediterranean antiquity was a golden age for humanity living in harmony with nature. His mythological creatures – Pan in the Reeds, 1859 (Munich, Neue Pinakothek), Spring Evening, 1879 (Budapest, Szepmüveszeti Museum) – express the artist's nostalgia and his deep scepticism towards modern civilisation, with affinities with the international symbolism of the 1890s. Yet Böcklin's style, perfectly original, cannot be compared to that of any great symbolist.
Rediscovering Böcklin, the surrealists highlighted the extraordinary creativity of the artist, his iconographic invention, the scholarly and iconoclastic exploration of mythology he practised, the extreme eroticism and morbidity of some of his work, the mix of genres and repertories, all that we now associate with a surprising modernity.
This eclecticism is a characteristic of some large sea scenes, including Mermaids at Play, 1886 (Basel, Kunstmuseum) where tritons and naiads, lacking all idealisation, show the ferocious irony of the artist towards terrestrial and sensual appetites of the triumphant bourgeoisie of the first period of the Empire.
During his stay in Naples, Böcklin developed a passion for the research carried out at the zoological station (a research centre on sea animals); they were to feed the fantastical bestiary of hybrid creatures inhabiting his paintings, especially sea scenes.
Böcklin had a very high conception of the artist's destiny and of artistic creation – as testified by his impressive self-portraits, including the Self-portrait in the Workshop, 1893 (Basel, Kunstmuseum) and throughout his life he confronted, often painfully, with the fundamental questions of painting, of illusion, shape and colour.
His fellow-countryman Félix Vallotton recalls in the account in the Revue Blanche of the 50th-anniversary exhibition in Basel in 1897, how much for Böklin "to paint is a task for the elected" as he was "by turns haunted by all dreams, all ambitions: of shape, colour and expression".
This perpetual quest was reflected in his traveller's life and the continuous renewal of the form of his work. After stays in Basel, Weimar and Munich, he spent the last ten years of his life in Florence, in Italy that to him was a second homeland, where he achieved Ulysses and Calypso, 1880 (Basel, Kunstmuseum) and the first version of The Isle of the Dead (Basel, Kunstmuseum).