Arnold Böcklin: 3 Symbolic Paintings

Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901) was a Swiss painter working in the genre of symbolism. He was known for painting motifs from mythology, and his works often depicted otherworldly beings, mysterious places and dark allegories. In this post, I will talk about three of Böcklin’s works of art.

I. Isle of the Dead (Third Version) [1883]

This is Böcklin’s best-known painting in which he depicted “the Isle of the Dead”, a mysterious island with dense vegetation inside (cypress trees) surrounded by the white “fortress” of white rock. A lone boat approaches the island head on with the mysterious veiled white figure standing in it. In the boat, one can also see another white object, probably a coffin. The dark waters and gloomy skies build a sombre atmosphere, and the funeral motifs are also emphasised by the cypress trees since these too have been traditionally associated with cemeteries and mourning.

Continue reading “Arnold Böcklin: 3 Symbolic Paintings”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Magpie on the Gallows

This is a painting that Dutch-Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in 1568 and left to his wife before his death. This is not merely a countryside scenery. There is something unsettling in this painting and some have suggested that it hides a secret meaning. In this painting, two men are seemingly enjoying the view to the river valley, but there is something disturbing that comes into their view – a group of dancers on the left happily passing their time in front of the gallows, which stand as an ominous reminder that one day human life comes to an end. Our attention is immediately drawn to the gallows because Bruegel depicted what seems to be an “impossible object” in art. The gallows’ posts are positioned in such a way that cannot occur in real life, with the right side receding into the distance. This alone gives the gallows in the painting a special significance. At the same time, the merry people to the side of the gallows, as well as the person who is squatting on the foreground, seem to be mocking the very symbol of death and “justice”. The contrast between their merriness, and the solitary and sombre gallows could not have been more pronounced, giving a peculiar unnaturalness to the scene. Over the years, there have been a number of interpretations put out forward regarding the magpie that sits on the gallows (as well as the one near the base of the gallows), and one of the most popular ones is that the magpie represents baseless and spiteful gossip that often leads to the gallows. This painting is currently held by the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany.

René Magritte

René Magritte [1898 – 1967] was a Belgian surrealist artist known for his thought-provoking and enigmatic paintings. Many of his paintings play with the concepts of reality, identity and truth, and some of the most recognised painting are The Lovers [1928], Not to Be Reproduced [1937], Golconda [1953], The Son of Man [1964] and The Man with the Bowler Hat [1964]. In this post, I would like to draw attention to and discuss the three others: Memory, The Survivor and The Masterpiece or The Mysteries of the Horizon.

Memory MagritteI. Memory [1948]

Unlike other paintings on this list, Memory is an allegorical painting, a painting with a hidden meaning. It is a striking painting for many reasons and one of those is the contrast of the white and the red – a beautiful white bust here is tainted with blood. That “injury” on the bust may represent this woman’s traumatic and painful memory which she now has to bear. The irony here is that this blood is what makes this bust “come alive” – it gives this woman’s head the qualities of a real person, probably, a person in pain. Memory forms such an integral part of who we are, and what is our reality and daily life that, without it, we are lost. The possible “bleeding” out of “memory” in this image may hint at this person slowly being converted into a statue, which she has become – since we are looking at a bust. One trivia for film lovers here is that this painting probably served as an inspiration for one of the murder scenes in Anthony Minghella’s film The Talented Mr Ripley (1999).      
Continue reading “René Magritte”