Balthus – Part 2 – Young girls and controversy

Self Portrait by Balthus (1940)
Self Portrait by Balthus (1940)

In my second part of my look at the life and works of Balthus I am going concentrate on his depiction of pubescent girls which were to shock both the public and critics alike when they first exhibited in 1934 at the Galerie Pierre in Paris.  I have in some earlier blogs discussed what is, to some, termed as beautiful erotic art whilst others look upon the depictions as unacceptable and pornographic.  Those paintings by the likes of Egon Schiele and Lucien Freud were depictions of adult female models but in the case of Balthus’ paintings the models he was using were pre-pubescent girls.  I leave it to each person to decide whether the depiction of these young girls was simply the work of an artist and therefore as art, was acceptable or whether there was something very offensive and disturbing about the paintings.  Everybody is entitled to their own opinion.

I need to remind you that the depiction of young girls naked or semi-naked in paintings is not just something that interested Balthus.  Many other well known artists used young girls as models and portrayed them in their works of art.

Little Girl by Otto Dix
Little Girl by Otto Dix

There was Otto Dix, the German painter, and often talked about as the most important painter of the Neue Sachlichkeit, which was an artistic style in Germany in the 1920 which set out to confront Expressionism.  It was looked on as being a return to unsentimental reality and one which concentrated on the objective world, unlike Expressionism which was more abstract, romantic, and idealistic.  His 1922 painting Little Girl in front of Curtain, which can now be seen at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, was judged to have flown in the face of morality.  This painting of a young naked girl is portrayed in a realistic style, maybe too realistic as it details the blue veins of her body.  She looks emaciated and she stares past us with a haunted expression. Her childhood is probably a thing of the past as, sadly, is her innocence.  A pink flower clings to the curtain behind her, and in her hair we see a bright red bow.   The artist himself once said:

“…I will either become notorious or famous…”

This painting probably allowed Otto Dix to achieve his first goal.

Puberty by Edvard Munch (1894)
Puberty by Edvard Munch (1894)

The great Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, who is best known for his paintings entitled Scream, also produced a painting in 1894 featuring a pre-teen naked girl.  The painting which was entitled Puberty depicts a young pubescent girl, nude, sitting with her legs together.  There is an air of shyness about her and this could be that at her age she is starting to become aware of the changes to her body.

Standing nude young girl 2 by Egon Schiele (c.1911)
Standing nude young girl 2 by Egon Schiele (c.1911)

The celebrated Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Schiele who, at the time,  was living with his lover, Valerie Neuzil, in the small country town of Neulengbach, close to Vienna.  This was a quiet suburban setting full of retired officers and snooping neighbours.  Schiele was arrested in April 1912 on suspicion of showing erotic drawings to young children who posed for him, of touching the children while he drew them and of kidnapping one of the young girls who frequented his studio.  Some of the charges were dropped and he spent three days in jail.  A year earlier he produced the work entitled Standing Nude Young Girl 2.

The reason that I featured these three paintings was not that I considered them any sort of justification for Bathus’ portrayal of young girls but simply to point out that many artists have painted scantily-clad or naked young girls.

Balthus had been earning money with his portraiture, mainly of older society women, and he was very discontented with this.  He actually hated this type of work calling his finished portraits, “his monsters”.  In October 1935 Balthus moves to a new and larger studio at 3 cour de Rohan.  Just three blocks away was the rue de Seine and it was at No. 34 that the Blanchard family lived, mother, father who worked as a waiter in a nearby bistro, daughter Thérèse and son Hubert who was two years older than his sister.  When Balthus first caught sight of Thérèse she was just eleven years of age and having approached the family Thérèse agreed to model for him.  She was not a beautiful girl but she appealed to Balthus.

Thérèse by Balthus (1936)
Thérèse by Balthus (1936)

The first painting Balthus completed of Thérèse Blanchard was in 1936 and was simply entitled Thérèse.  Balthus would go on to use her as a model more than any other person.  In this work, Balthus has captured her moody and serious look and it was that aspect of her that attracted Balthus to his young model.  Her dark dress seems to go hand in hand with her mood and it is just the bright red piping on the collar of the dress which manages to liven up the portrait

Brother and Sister by Balthus (1936)
Brother and Sister by Balthus (1936)

In that same year Balthus completed a painting of Thérèse and Hubert entitled Brother and Sister.  Once again Balthus has portrayed Thérèse’s expression as moody and sullen in contrast to the smiling happy face of her brother.  Thérèse’s arms are wrapped round the waist of her brother, not as a sign of sibling affection, but as she was trying to make him stand still for Balthus.  Their clothes are very plain.  Hubert seems to be wearing the attire of a schoolboy whilst his sister is wearing a simple plaid skirt and a red sweater with a green collar.

The Blanchard children by Balthus (1937)
The Blanchard children by Balthus (1937)

In 1937 the two Blanchard siblings appear in a painting by Balthus entitled The Blanchard Children.  Thérèse is now twelve years old and her brother is fourteen years of age.  The setting is Balthus’ studio and one notices there are no childlike accoutrements such as toys, pens or books.  It is a very stark depiction.  This was not an oversight by Balthus but his belief that the starkness would intensify the dramatic effect of the picture.  If we look under the table, we can see a bag of coal sat in the corner. Why would Balthus add this?  The answer maybe that Balthus, whilst living in Germany, remembered what happened on the eve of the Feast of St Nicholas on December 5th when children put their shoes out in the hopes of some sweets in the morning.  The story goes that, St. Nicholas does not travel on his own but with his companion, Black Peter, who places coal in the shoes of the children who had been naughty !

Wuthering Heights illustration by Balthus
Wuthering Heights illustration by Balthus

The strange posture of the two children is probably based on an illustration Balthus produced for Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights.  The illustration relates to Heathcliffe, partly kneeling on the chair, turning towards Cathy who is on her hands and knees partly under the table, writing her diary.  The painting was given to Balthus’ friend Picasso.

Thérèse with Cat by Balthus (1937)
Thérèse with Cat by Balthus (1937)

The first controversial painting Balthus did with Thérèse as his model was completed in 1937 and entitled Thérèse with Cat.  It was a small work measuring 88 x 77cms (34 x 31 in).  Here once again we see the un-smiling Thérèse seeming to look at something behind us.  She looks slightly dishevelled with one sock down to her ankle and one sleeve pushed up her arm.  The red and the turquoise colour of her clothes stand out against the dark background.   Her left leg is raised and her foot rests on a stool and this pose means that her white underpants are visible to the viewer.  She has been asked to pose in a certain way and by the look of her expression she is well aware of how the artist looks at her.  A large cat lies on the floor next to Thérèse.  It appears to be the same cat that appeared with Balthus in the painting King of the Cats (see previous blog).  The painting is now housed in The Art Institute of Chicago.

The Victim by Balthus (1939 - 1946)
The Victim by Balthus (1939 – 1946)

One of his best known works is one he started just before the onset of World War II but was not completed until March 1946.  It was entitled The Victim. It was one of his largest paintings measuring 132 x 218 cms (52 x 86in) and it was because of that size of it that he had to leave it in his Paris studio when he and his wife, Antoinette, at the onset of war, moved to Champrovent in Savoie which had not been occupied by the Germans.  They later moved to Switzerland to live with Antoinette’s parents and did not return to his Paris studio until March 1946.  We see a life-sized ashen body of a naked woman lying on a white sheet which covers a low bedstead.  Is she merely asleep or is she dead?  Does the title answer the question?  The title comes from a novella written by Balthus’ friend, the writer Pierre Jean Jouve.  His 1935 book La Scène capitale contained two novellas, La Victime and Dans les années profondes.

Below the bedstead and in the right foreground of the painting we can just make out a knife lying on the dark floor, the blade of which points directly to her heart.  Although, through the painting’s title we gather that the girl is dead, there is no sign of a wound on her body and neither blood on her body nor on the knife.  Was she strangled?  So it is up to us to decide whether the girl is dead or simply in a trance but we must remember that Balthus started to paint this before war broke out and only concluded it a year after the end of the war and the atrocities of war would be fresh in the artist’s mind.  Another question is, who sat for this painting and the answer is in some doubt.  The shape of the girls face and the cut of her hair leads many to believe it is Thérèse Blanchard, the only doubt being that she had never before posed nude for Balthus

Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus (1938)
Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus (1938)

A year later (1938) Balthus completed Thérèse Dreaming, another but similar painting to to Thérèse and the Cat, again featuring the now thirteen year old Thérèse.  The setting is once again his studio and we see her sitting before us in a similar pose.  This is a much bigger painting, measuring 150 x 130cms (59 x 51 in).  This time he added a striped wallpaper (which did not exist in his studio) as a background and this time we can see the additional still life of a vase and a canister on a table.  The cat is once again part of the picture and we see it at the side of Thérèse lapping up some of its milk.  In the previous painting Thérèse was looking almost towards us but in this painting but in this work she has looked away, with her eyes closed, as if enjoying a daydream.  Thérèse’s clothes are unadorned and unfussy.  As Sabine Rewald wrote in her book Balthus Cats and Girls :

“…she appears the epitome of dormant sexuality.  Her white lace-trimmed slip surrounds her legs like a paper cornucopia wrapped around a bunch of flowers.  The cat lapping milk from a saucer serves as another tongue in cheek erotic metaphor…”

Since 1998 the painting has been housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection.

The Guitar Lesson by Balthus (1934)
The Guitar Lesson by Balthus (1934)

By far the most controversial and notorious painting by Balthus was one he completed in 1934 entitled The Guitar Lesson.  It is a merging of sex and violence which shocked those who saw it.  It is an encounter between a dominating and tyrannical women, who is the music teacher, in her early twenties, and a young girl, her student, thought to be about twelve years old. The music lesson has been halted.  A guitar lies on the floor and the woman has thrown the girl across her lap and pulled her black dress up over her waist.  The fingers of the teacher’s left hand dig into the upper part of the girl’s inner thigh.  It is as if the teacher is strumming a human guitar.  The girl lies there, naked from her navel to her knees.  The lower parts of her legs are covered by white socks.  The music teacher has grabbed a chunk of the young girl’s long hair and is yanking her head downwards.   To save herself from falling and in an attempt to alleviate the pain caused by her hair being pulled, the girl has grabbed the collar of the music teacher’s grey dress which uncovers the woman’s full right breast.  Her nipple juts out which indicates to us that the teacher is sexually aroused by what she is doing.

Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon by Enguerrand Quarton (c.1860)
Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon by Enguerrand Quarton (c.1860)

The positioning of the girl lying across the thighs of the teacher has often been likened to the 1455 painting Balthus must have seen in the Louvre, Pietà of Villeneuve-les-Avignon by  Enguerrand Quarton.

Portrait der Schwester des Künstlers (Baladine Klossowski) by Eugen Spiro (1902)
Portrait der Schwester des Künstlers (Baladine Klossowski) by Eugen Spiro (1902)

The girl who posed for The Guitar Lesson was Laurence Bataille, the daughter of a concierge.  She would come to Balthus’ studio with her mother who acted as her chaperone.  The striped wallpaper background and the grey dress of the music teacher were the same as we see in Baladine Klossowski 1902 portrait by her older brother Eugen Spiro.  It was first shown at  Balthus’ one man exhibition in April 1934 at the Galerie Pierre in Paris.   The gallery owner, Pierre Loeb, and Balthus decided that the painting should be placed in the back room of the gallery, but covered up, so that it, in fact, became a “peep show” for a select “priveleged” number of visitors.  The provenance of the painting is quite interesting. It was bought by James Thrall Soby, an American author, critic and patron of the arts, in 1938.  He had intended to exhibit along with his other paintings at the Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut but because of the controversial nature of the painting it remained unseen in the museum vaults.  Soby realised that there was no point in owning a painting that could never be exhibited and so, in 1945, he exchanged it with the Chilean surrealist artist, Roberto Matta Echaurren, for one of his paintings.  Roberto Matta Echaurren’ wife Patricia left him and married Pierre Matisse but one of the things she took with her was this painting.  Pierre Matisse, the youngest child of  Henri Matisse owned a gallery in New York and the painting remained hidden away in the vaults.  In 1977, it appeared for a month at Pierre Matisse’s 57th Street gallery in New York. It was a sensation and the press reviews referred to the painting and the art critics of the various newspapers and magazines wrote about it but said that they could not show the painting as it would shock the readers.   After the one month long show it was never exhibited again.

When the 1977 exhibition closed the gallery offered it to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  It was accepted by the museum but it was not put on show instead it was kept hidden away for five years in the basement.  In 1982 the Chairman of the Board of the MOMA, Blanchette Rockefeller, the wife of John D Rockefeller III, saw it at a small presentation of the works of art given to the MOMA by Pierre Matisse.  She was horrified by Balthus’ depiction terming it sacrilegious and obscene and demanded that it was returned to the Pierre Matisse Gallery immediately.  The Pierre Matisse gallery took it back and then sold it in 1984 to the film director, Mike Nichols. In the late 1980’s he sold it to the Thomas Ammann Gallery in Zurich.  They sold it on to an unknown wealthy private collector who I saw in one newspaper report, was the late Stavros Niarchos.  On his death in 1996 the painting became the property of his heirs.

In my next blog I will take a last look at the life of Balthus and share with you some more of his artworkwork.

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Besides information about the life of Balthus and his art gleaned from the internet I have relied heavily on two books which I can highly recommend.

Firstly,  there is an excellent book  entitled Balthus Cats and Girls by the foremost expert on Balthus, Sabine Rewald.

Secondly, a very thick tome by Nicholas Fox Weber entitled Balthus, A Biography.

 

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Balthus. Part 1. Mitsou and the King of the Cats

Balthus aged 88
Balthus aged 88

In my next few blogs, I am looking at the life and art of the French born painter Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, more simply known as Balthus.   Some of his artwork shocked the world and I have to warn you that some of his paintings you may find disturbing, and have often been termed offensive and disgusting.  These will appear in Part 2.

So what do we know about Balthus’ life?  The answer is “very little” and that is exactly how the artist wanted it to be.  As far as his life story was concerned, he wanted to preserve his anonymity, so much so, when negotiating with the Tate Modern, which was about to launch a retrospective of his work in 1968, he sent the curator of the exhibition a telegram which read:

“..NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS.  BEGIN:  BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN.  NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES.  REGARDS.  B…”

Balthus was born in Paris at the end of February 1908.  His father Erich Klossowski was a noted German historian and painter, who had come from a family which belonged to Polish nobility, and whose coat of arms was known as the Rola, which was used by a number of szlachta families.  The szlachta was a legally institutional privileged noble class and Balthus added the title “de Rola” to his name.  Balthus’ mother was Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro, but as a painter, used the name Baladine Klossowska.  She gave birth to two sons, Pierre in 1905 and Balthus in 1908.  Pierre went on to become a much heralded writer and philosopher.  Balthus and his family lived in rue Boissonade in Paris’ 14th arrondissement.  He and his brother had a privileged upbringing as his parents were part of the cultural elite in Paris and would entertain many of the cultural icons of the time such as the French writer and playwright, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, the Nobel prizewinning writer, and the French painter, Pierre Bonnard.  The family, who held German citizenship, along with Balthus’ uncle, the painter, Eugen Spiro, had to move out of Paris at the onset of World War I and they travelled to Berlin where Balthus’ father worked at the Lessing theatre as a stage and costume designer.

In 1917, Balthus’ mother and father separated and she took her sons, Pierre and Balthus, away from Berlin and set up home in Berne.  Later she and her two sons move to Conches, a small town just south of Geneva, and stayed with friends before renting a two-room apartment in rue Pré-Jerôme in 1920.  Balthus, as a child loved to draw and it was in 1919, whilst living in Conches, that, at the age of eleven, he produced a book of forty graphite and ink drawings.  The drawings were based on the experiences he had, when he fell in love with a stray cat which he called Mitsou and through his drawings he tells of his happiness derived from his feline friend and the sadness of losing his new friend.  It was in 1919 when Balthus’ mother Elisabeth first met Rainer Maria Rilke in Geneva.  He was a writer and poet.  They quickly became lovers, a relationship which lasted until he died of leukaemia in December 1926.  It was an unusual relationship as Rilke said he needed his own space when he worked and so the couple did not live together on a permanent basis.

Mitsou
Mitsou

On one of Rilke’s visits to the Klossowski home to see Elizabeth he saw the Mitsou drawings  done by her son, Balthus,  and was he was so impressed by them that  he offered to write the preface for the book and arranged for it to be printed in 1921 under the title Mitsou, Quarante images (Mitsou, Forty Images).  The set of forty drawings were an animated tale of how he found a cat on a park bench.

Finding the cat
Finding the cat

In the opening drawing of the set we see the boy tentatively leaning towards the cat making sure he doesn’t scare it off.  Look how Balthus has given the boy an air of astonishment as he looks at the cat, by shaping the mouth, raising the thick eyebrows and the angling the chin.  In complete contrast, the cat looks out at us in a statuesque sphinx-like way, totally unfazed by the boy’s approach.  Although the story is about him and the cat, Balthus has added other elements to the drawing.  The setting is a courtyard which is separated from a house by a wall and a gate.  He has also included vines climbing up the wall as a backdrop.

Losing the cat
Losing the cat

From this time on, Balthus love of cats was shown by the number of times he depicted felines in his artwork.  Drawing number 40 of Mitsou, the last one of the set, depicts Balthus crying when he realises the cat has run off and his feline friend has gone forever.

 In the summer of 1919 the family spend time in the picturesque Swiss village of Beatenberg which lies between the Bernese Alps and the still blue waters of Lake Thun.  It is whilst here that Balthus works as an assistant to the painter, Margrit Bey.  For next four summers Balthus and his family would return to Beatenberg and work alongside Margrit.  Between 1919 and 1921, during their stay in Conches both Balthus and his brother study at the College Calvin in Geneva.  For Balthus, the years between 1919 and 1921 were some of the best times he ever had and he was always pleased to recall those days

Rilke and Elisabeth Klossowska at Chateau Muzot (1923)
Rilke and Elisabeth Klossowska at Chateau Muzot (1923)

His mother was in love with Rilke and he was devoted to her.   Balthus also bonded with Rilke and he received nothing but compliments for his artwork from the writer.  To Balthus, Rilke was almost a surrogate father.

In April 1921 Baladine and her two sons move back to Berlin and go to live with her brother Eugen and later stay with her sister, Gina Trebicky.  Elisabeth had some of her paintings accepted for an exhibition of female artists at Galerie Fleckhtheim in Berlin and it is at this time that she is persuaded to change her name as an artist to Baladine.

In 1934, Balthus produced his first large scale painting entitled The Street.  It measured 195 x 240cm (77 x 94 ins).  He had already painted another version of this five years earlier, just before he journeyed to Morocco but some of the characters had changed.  The setting in both works is the rue Bourbon-le Château.

The Street by Balthus (1929)
The Street by Balthus (1929)

In this earlier version, seen above in black and white, we see a grandfather figure in top hat and topcoat holding firmly onto two young children as they cross the road.  The boy, in shorts, wears a hat with a pom-pom whilst the young girl dressed in a skirt and flowered hat.  In the later version this trio has been replaced by two other characters, which caused the outrage!

The Street by Balthus (1933)
The Street by Balthus (1933)

The 1934 version was one of a number of his works of the time which shocked the audience at Balthus’ first solo exhibition which was held in the Galerie Pierre in Paris.  The people in the street seemed to have stopped and are frozen in mid-flow, almost trance-like.   For this work Balthus retained the baker, the workman crossing the road with a plank of wood on his shoulder along with the woman carrying a young child, albeit now looking like a little man.   In this version we also have a young girl, racquet in hand, chasing a ball across the street. Again although possessing the height of a child she seems to be more like a small woman.   Balthus was questioned about that but he simply refused to elaborate more than saying “she is simply a little girl”.  The same boy, as seen in the first version, is still strolling haughtily towards us but is set back slightly in comparison to the first version.  However the major change is the inclusion of the two figures in the left foreground.  These two replace the elderly gentleman and the two young children.  The man tries to grope the girl as she passes him by and she raises her arm maybe in shock or maybe to strike her assailant.

Pierre Loeb the owner of Galerie Pierre said that having looked at the painting described it as a scene of anguished phantoms sleepwalking in a strange dreamlike state.  Balthus believed Loeb’s comments were nonsensical and although Loeb exhibited Balthus’ art in his gallery bringing him to the notice of the public, Balthus loathed him and termed him a “typical outsider who lacked true vision of what really mattered to painters”.

The painting was bought from Galerie Pierre in 1937 by James Thrall Soby, an American author, critic and patron of the arts.  However the painting was so controversial and so many of his friends disliked the sexual connotation that Soby wrote to Balthus in 1955 and asked him to retouch the gesture of the figures on the left.  Soby was surprised when Balthus agreed and wrote:

“…I used to like shocking people, but now it bores me…”

When Soby died in 1979 this painting was bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The King of the Cats by Balthus (1935)
The King of the Cats by Balthus (1935)

I am concluding this first part of my look at the life and art of Balthazar Klossowski by showing you the painting, the title of which the artist gave himself.  This is just one of three self portraits completed by Balthus.  The title of the 1935 painting was King of the Cats. Balthus was twenty-seven years of age when he painted this work.  It was painted in his Paris studio in rue Furstenberg.  The studio, which he bought in May 1933 was a fifth floor attic room  It was also the first property he ever purchased and  he remained here until October 1935.

Balthus had always had a love of cats and in this work we see him standing in a somewhat arrogant and aloof pose, with his beloved cat lovingly rubbing itself against his leg.  Because the view of the artist is seen from below it elongates him and adds to his imperious stance.  He is dressed in saffron pants, white shirt and red tie and a black jacket.  On his feet is a pair of pointed black shoes.  On the floor, to his left, is a stone slab leaning against a high stool with the inscription:

A PORTRAIT OF

H.M.

THE KING OF THE CATS

Painted by

HIMSELF

MCMXXXV

Balthus has added a little humour to the painting by placing a lion tamer’s whip on top of the stool !

It was in that year that Balthus started to sign his letters “King of the Cats”, the first being a letter, written in January 1935, to his soon to be wife, Antoinette de Watteville.

There is an air of self confidence about the figure and this has been put down to 1935 being a good year for him after the turbulent times of 1934 when his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, featuring many depictions of pre-teen girls in erotic poses,  scandalised the critics and public alike.  The fall out over these paintings made Balthus give up painting for almost a year.

In the second part of my look at Balthus I will focus on the paintings which caused such a furore when exhibited in Galerie Pierre in Paris.

Besides information about Balthus and his art gleaned from the internet I have relied heavily on two excellent books which I can highly recommend.

Sabine Rewald, Curator for Modern Art, Dept. Of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sabine Rewald, Curator for Modern Art, Dept. Of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art standing next to Balthus painting entitled Thérèse

First there is the book Balthus Cats and Girls by the foremost expert on Balthus, Sabine Rewald.

Secondly, a very thick tome by Nicholas Fox Weber entitled Balthus, A Biography.

Arnold Böcklin. Part 3 – The latter years. Portraiture and Symbolism

Photo of Arnold Böcklin (1900) aged 73
Photo of Arnold Böcklin (1900) aged 73

In my final part of the Arnold Böcklin story I want to look at his portraiture and some of his more evocative Symbolist works.  He completed many self portraits, two of which I have shown you at the start of the last couple of blogs.  His portraits also included ones of his second wife, Angela Rosa Lorenza Pasucci and their daughter Clara.

Portrait of Angela Böcklin as muse by Arnold Böcklin (1863)
Portrait of Angela Böcklin as muse by Arnold Böcklin (1863)

In the first blog about Arnold Böcklin I mentioned his two wives.  He married Louise Schmidt in 1850 but she died a year later and then in June 1853, Böcklin married his second wife, a seventeen year old Italian girl, the daughter of a papal guard, Angela Rosa Lorenza Pasucci and she featured in a number of his works of art.  One such portrait was entitled Portrait of Angela Böcklin as a Muse which he completed in 1863.

Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil by Arnold Böcklin (1863)
Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil by Arnold Böcklin (1863)

Böcklin completed another portrait of his wife that year entitled Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil.  This was a more sombre depiction of his wife.  It was painted when she was twenty-seven years of age.  It is only a small oil on canvas work within the stretcher frame just measuring 19 x 14 cms.  This was a painting he completed for himself.  There is a certain intimacy about the work.  The artists depicts his wife with a black veil on her head and this veil serves the purpose of being a frame for his wife’s face, the colour of which is in contrast to the simple olive green background.  Angela Böcklin seems to be very thoughtful, even slightly sad.  Maybe she is in mourning for we know she and Arnold had fourteen children but only eight of them survived him.   We take it for granted that we will die before our children but in the nineteenth century that was not always the case, in fact the opposite was often true, and although it was a common occurrence for children to die young we should never underestimate its tragic consequences.

Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1872)
Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1872)

In 1872 he completed one of a number of portraits of his daughter Clara.

Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1876)
Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1876)

In 1876, when she was twenty-one years of age, Böcklin painted another portrait of her.   It was also in this year that Clara married the sculptor, Peter Bruckmann.

Böcklin became somewhat fixated by death and this is borne out with his evocative painting Die Toteninsel, which I talked about in the previous blog.  This preoccupation, which could have been because of the loss of his children, was clearly seen in yet another of his self portraits, which he completed in 1872, shortly after the death of his young daughter, and was entitled Self Portrait with Death as a Fiddler.  It was completed whilst Böcklin was in Munich having just travelled back from Italy. It was in Italy that Böcklin began to add symbols into his paintings in order to suggest ideas.  The interesting thing about Symbolism in art is that we can each come to our own conclusions about what we see in a painting and unless the artist has spoken about the painting then we have as much right to postulate about an artist’s reasoning behind their work as the next person.  So having looked at the work, what do you make of it?  Let me make a few suggestions about what I think may have been in Böcklin’s mind when he put brush to canvas.

Self portrait with Death as the Fiddler by Arnold Böcklin (1872)
Self portrait with Death as the Fiddler by Arnold Böcklin (1872)

We can see that Arnold has portrayed himself with painting brush in one hand whilst the thumb of his other hand is hooked through the hole in the palette securing a piece of cloth.  However what is more interesting is the inclusion of the skeleton playing the fiddle in the background.   The question I pose is – what was Böcklin thinking about when he decided to include the skeleton?    We know that most paintings, which include a skull or skeleton, are Vanitas paintings.  A vanitas painting contains an object or a collection of objects which symbolise the inevitability of death and the transience of life.  Such paintings urge the viewer to consider mortality and to repent !  So, Böcklin’s inclusion of a skeleton is a reminder to him that he cannot take life for granted and that there is a very fine line between life and death.

Look at the juxtaposition of the artist and the skeleton.   Look how the skeleton appears to be whispering something in Böcklin’s ear and the artist in the painting turns his head slightly and leans back to listen.   He is staring out of the painting, but not at us.  He is staring out but his full attention is on what the skeleton is saying.   Maybe the skeleton is telling the artist something about his future?  Look also at the fiddle that the skeleton is playing.  It has only one string left.  Why paint the fiddle with just one string?   Is this something to do with the length of time Böcklin has on this earth?  Is it that at birth the violin had all four strings but, as time progressed, string after string broke and so, at the time of death, there are no strings?

The painting can now be seen at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Naiads at Play by Arnold Böcklin (c.1862)
Naiads at Play by Arnold Böcklin (c.1862)

Other subjects that appeared in Böcklin’s paintings during his last period of creativity were the Naiads and Nereids or sea and water nymphs often referred to as female spirits of sea waters.  The next painting I am showcasing is entitled Naiads at Play which Böcklin completed around 1862 and now hangs in the Kunstmuseum Basel.  Böcklin’s biographer, Henri Mendelssohn described the painting, writing:

“…It fairly bubbles over with fun and merriment.  The scene represents a rock in the ocean, over which the waves dash in foam, tossing white spray high into the air.  Clinging fast to the wet rock face are the gleaming forms of naiads, their tails shining like jewels in the seething waters, as the waves dash, one on top of another, so do the creatures of the sea chase each other in their frolic, darting here and diving there, and tumbling heels over head from the rock into the ocean beneath, whose roar almost drowns their shrill laughter.  All is life and movement.  The sputtering triton and the luckless baby, holding in his convulsive clasp the prize he has captured, a little fish, rank among the inimitable creations of Böcklin’s art…”

Marie Joseph Robert Anatole, Comte de Montesquiou-Fézensac, a French Symbolist poet and art collector of the time, described Böcklin’s work, writing:

“…”This is the most astonishing of all Böcklin’s representations of the sea. The water gleams with hues as violent as those reflected by the Faraglioni, the red rocks which, seen from Capri, mirror their purple shadows in the blue waves. One of the naiads, with her back turned to us, seems to set the water on fire with the brilliancy of her orange-coloured hair, while all the naiads’ tails, wet and glistening, glow with the gorgeous hues of butterflies’ wings or the petals of brilliant flowers…”

Looking at the work one can understand the comments.  It is as if you were there, feeling the energy and almost feeling the spray on your face.  From this mythical subject, Böcklin has almost turned it into reality, such was his skill.

Plague by Arnold Böcklin (1898)
Plague by Arnold Böcklin (1898)

Another painting by the Swiss symbolist Böcklin which illustrates his fascination with nightmares, the plague and death was one he completed in 1898 entitled Plague.  It is a tempera on wood painting, which is now hanging in the Kunstmuseum Basel.   In the painting the setting is the street of a medieval town and we see the grim-faced Death, scythe in hand, riding a winged creature, which spews out miasma.  The colours Böcklin used in this painting are black and dull browns for the clothes of many of the inhabitants who desperately throw themselves out of the path of Death and shades of pale green which is often associated with death and putrefaction.  The one detail which is devoid of drab colours is that of the clothes worn by the woman in the foreground who lies across the body of the woman who has suffered at the hands of Death.  Her gold-embroidered red cloak signifies that she comes from a wealthy household and the painting reinforces the fact that Death takes both rich and poor.  The plague had ravished Europe throughout the 14th to 17th centuries.  It knew no boundaries of class or wealth.

Ruggiero and Angelica by Arnold Böcklin (c.1874)
Ruggiero and Angelica by Arnold Böcklin (c.1874)

Around 1874 Böcklin completed a painting entitled Roger and Angelica.  It can now be seen in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The scene, Roger rescuing of Angelica, is based on the 1532 epic romantic poem, Orlando Furioso by Ludivico Ariosto, which is all about the conflict between the Christians and the Saracens.  The painting depicts the main character, Ruggerio (Roger), a Saracen warrior, coming to the rescue of Angelica, the daughter of a king of Cathay.  She is chained to a rock on the shoreline and is about to be killed by the sea monster, the giant turquoise orc, which has wrapped itself around the helpless Angelica.  In the background we see Roger arriving astride his horse.  The battle with the orc is ended when Roger dazzles the sea monster with his shield allowing him the chance to place a magic ring on the finger of Angelica which protects her whilst he undoes the bonds which were tying her to the tree.

Grave of Arnold BöcklinArnold Böcklin moved around Europe, living in Munich, Florence and the small Swiss town of Hottingen which was close to Zurich but from 1892 onwards he settled down near Florence in the town of  San Domenico.  To mark his seventieth birthday a retrospective of his work was held in Basel, Berlin and Hamburg.  Böcklin died of tuberculosis, aged 73, in Fiesole, a small town northeast of Florence, in January 1902 and is buried in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori in southern Florence.

In my next blog I will be looking at the work of an artist who was known as the king of the cats as many of his paintings had an obligatory cat in the depiction.  However he was probably more remembered by his erotic paintings which featured pre pubescent girls in all manner of provocative poses.  In this day and age many of his works would struggle to be exhibited because of the age of his models.