On The Loose /

Isle of the Dead

On Thursday, March 19, 2020, news coverage showed a convoy of lorries carrying the coffins of the dead in Italy – 475 died in a single day, twenty four hours later 627 more were dead, Saturday’s toll was a terrifying 793. The world is stunned – death might come for any of us now.
Isola di San Michele in the Venetian lagoon became a cemetery in 1807, it is the burial place of many significant figures from the arts; Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev and Ezra Pound among them. I’ve seen this island only from the safe distance of the no. 12 Vaporetto, its cyprus trees and high walled enclosure make it strangely fascinating, but always a place I choose to bypass. In my imagination Isola di San Michele is inseparable from Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Isle of the Dead. Böcklin made five different versions of it, perhaps the best known is in Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. A small boat carrying a coffin approaches the cemetery entrance, the boat might be invisible against the towering rocks if not for that single figure robed in white, standing like a pillar. Mysterious and solemn, the painting’s looming central structure engulfs the viewer – like death itself – it is inescapable. Böcklin (1827 – 1901), was born in Basel and spent his artistic career between Switzerland and Italy, death hovered over his life – eight of his fourteen children predeceased him and he too almost died of typhoid in 1859. While not well known today Böcklin’s influence was significant, especially on the Surrealists. Marcel Duchamp named him as his favourite painter. Composers too would find inspiration here, perhaps the best known is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead – symphonic poem for large orchestra on a painting by A Böcklin, Opus 29, (1909). The music has a dark slow opening which gradually builds and gathers force, it incorporates the Dies irae – the Gregorian chant from The Mass of the Dead referenced by composers across the centuries. The music surges upwards seeming to grasp at life and joy, but eventually descends into stillness and resignation. Rachmaninoff was haunted by Böcklin’s painting, even though he had only seen it as a black and white reproduction. The piece exerts a strange power and it comes as no surprise to learn that this version in its original, painted in 1883, hung on the wall of Hitler’s bunker.

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