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Basel exhibition honours Swiss forerunner of symbolism

Toteninsel, 1883. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie

Basel Kunstmuseum is mounting a retrospective of works by Arnold Böcklin, the Swiss painter who was one of the forerunners of symbolism, on the 100th anniversary of his death.

This content was published on May 21, 2001 - 12:08

The first exhibition devoted exclusively to Böcklin's works for over two decades, it offers a representative selection of 90 pictures tracing his development from late romanticism to symbolism, focusing on his imaginatively idiosyncratic imagery.

"He was one of the most important painters of the 19th century," says museum director, Katharina Schmidt.

Born in Basel in 1827, Böcklin led an unsettled life. At the age of 18 he left home to study at the art academy in Düsseldorf, and although he was to return frequently to Switzerland, most of his working life was spent abroad in places such as Brussels, Paris, Munich, Weimar, Florence and Rome - where he married the daughter of a papal guard.

Several of their children died in infancy, and of the six who survived, three also became painters.

Böcklin began his career as a landscape artist, before creating the powerful and often macabre atmospheric works now associated with his name. He introduced the nature gods of antiquity into his motifs, which often feature centaurs, naiads and other mythological figures.

The Basel retrospective includes three versions of "Toteninsel" (island of the dead), which are being exhibited for the first time in one room.

Another painting, "Die Nacht" (the night), is being shown for the first time in public. Only five weeks ago the Kunstmuseum traced the owner of the painting, which was considered to have been lost since 1945.

Among the artists who have acknowledged Böcklin's influence on their work are Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico.

But not only other artists were inspired. Sergei Rachmaninov composed a symphonic poem based on all five versions of "Toteninsel", which Böcklin completed between 1880 and 1886.

His legacy is not confined to the symbolism in his dream-like paintings. At one stage he actually drew up plans for a flying machine and began negotiations - which came to nothing - for its manufacture.

by Richard Dawson

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