Monday, December 12, 2011

Springs eternal

This strange picture was a highlight for me from an exhibition in the Norwegian National Gallery (from the Art Museum in Berne).

Arnold Bocklin was a Romantic painter deeply influenced by the use of symbols (and, as a result, influential on surrealism).

It is striking because caught in a moment of Spring, it implies eternity. The two central figures, often described as meeting lovers, come from different historical periods - the woman from that contemporaneous with the artist, the musician from the Renaissance. The two central figures are framed by out-liers: the man (contemporary with the artist) looks out, with his back to us, out into the still lake, standing to the right of the painting. He is painted as if transparent - you see the distant landscape through him. The woman, to the left, with children gathering flowers, is dressed in a long gown, another Renaissance figure, befitting the classical, Italianate villa behind her but plays with children in Victorian dress.

In classical Islam, paradise is an eternal spring and it is a symbolism that penetrates even the most secular of authors. William Morris, whose professed atheism is often undermined by his love of the medieval, paints his paradise of socialist harmony in the 'News of Nowhere' as a continual Spring.

Is Bocklin (whose most famous painting is The Isle of the Dead) once again presenting an image of death - an Elysium where people meet across ages of time in a new world of perpetual becoming and celebration, where histories dissolve into one another?

It is a beautiful thought - all space in a new world of continuous discovery.

The older figure looking out over the lake, towards distant towers, in his transparency, reminded me of the painter Edward Burra asking a lifelong friend whether he had noticed that people had grown more transparent with age - you see through people in paradise, they stand as themselves, without sides or secrets yet with mystery, the unfathomable nature of the divine image we all bear.

Bocklin does not proceed perhaps that far - like many late nineteenth century Symbolists you sense his search for symbolic life is the reanimation of a world that has lost transcendence. It is magical and imprecise because there is no clear underlying metaphysics - a world hoped for in the face of corroding materialist doubt rather than a quiet affirmation of vision. It haunts nonetheless because is this not our continuing quandary - breathing life in a world stripped of the animating breath of meanings revealed.

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