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Art world remembers Swiss forerunner of symbolism

"The Adventurer" (1882) by Arnold Böcklin (picture: Kunst und Ausstellungshalle Deutschland)

This week is the 100th anniversary of the death of Arnold Böcklin, the influential Swiss artist who was one of the forerunners of symbolism.

Born the son of a textile merchant in Basel, Böcklin is regarded as one of the most influential painters of the 19th century. Among the artists who have acknowledged his influence on their work are Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico.

At the age of 18 Böcklin left Basel to study at the art academy in Düsseldorf. Although he was frequently to return to Switzerland, most of his working life was spent abroad in such cities as Brussels, Paris, Munich, 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.

Italy’s light and atmosphere of antiquity were decisive in his early development, as can be seen from the centaurs and naiads and other mythological figures in his paintings.

It was not until he was 50 that he began to paint the powerful and often macabre atmospheric works now associated with his name. Among these are five versions of “The Isle of the Dead” (1880-86), which he referred to as “a tranquil place”. This series inspired a symphonic poem by the composer Sergei Rachmaninov.

But Böcklin’s 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.

To mark the anniversary of Böcklin’s death, Basel’s fine arts museum (Kunstmuseum) will exhibit 90 of his paintings charting his development from late romanticism to symbolism. The exhibition opens on May 5.

by Richard Dawson

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR