In one of a number of utterly fascinating conversations with an orchestral conductor over the last few weeks, he told me about one of his forthcoming conducting gigs - Rachmaninoff's symphonic poem reflecting on the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin's painting, The Isle of the Dead. You can hear the piece here. In fact, Böcklin painted five versions of this scene, of which four remain. My conductor friend had copies of two versions but had not seen them all. Given his aversion to all things electronic, I printed off copies of all five from the internet so that he could get a sense of the subtle variations in Böcklin's treatment of the subject over the six years in which he painted them. Böcklin had a keen sense of mortality and of mythology and you can see both in his self-portrait of 1872:
I find his image of the Isle of the Dead captivating. It may appear morbid to some modern tastes to depict an image of death so repeatedly, but to a culture more familiar with the reality of death and more aware of its presence and meaning in daily life, such an image would be one of hope and comfort. Here are the first and third versions, which show something of the variety of light and colour Böcklin used:
There is a serenity and a hiddenness about the place which conveys a sense of peace and security. And the arrival of the boatman represents the 'journey' metaphor of death perfectly. Those who have been bereaved often speak of the importance of having a place to go in order to remember those they have lost, usually a place of particular memories or the place of their final committal. Böcklin offers something a little different - a place in the imagination, a symbolic place that speaks both of proximity and distance, of rest and melancholy. It seems to me that our culture has become impoverished in the range of symbols it can draw on to reflect on the nature of death. I think people who experience bereavement do, in fact, find symbols to help them make some kind of sense of their loss, but it strikes me as important that societies and communities have symbols to draw on collectively in order to deal more healthily with death.