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PRINT May 2001

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Arnold Böcklin

Arnold Böcklin, Triton and Nereid, 1873–74, oil on canvas, ca. 41 7/16 x 65 3/8".

One of Basel’s favorite sons, Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) is up for a second survey in his hometown. The first, in 1977, marked the 150th anniversary of his birth. “Arnold Böcklin: A Retrospective” (Kunstmuseum Basel,May 5–Aug. 8), curated by Katharina Schmidt, will commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. As a student in Düsseldorf, Böcklin learned to record what was before his eyes, to give trees and family members the same no-nonsense treatment, but he soon grew dissatisfied with the mere reality embraced by so many artists of his generation and began to populate his landscapes with aliens from a remote Mediterranean world. Like his German contemporaries Anselm Feuerbach and Hans von Marées, Böcklin enjoyed long sojourns in Italy, where his imagination was fired with visions of antiquity, as if on a sunny excursion to Capri he might stumble upon no less an adversary than Polyphemus. In Böcklin’s work, the collision of classical fantasia and earthbound realism can produce quite a few giggles. His centaurs usually resemble farmers in lederhosen; his naiads, dirndled blonds from the Ratskeller next door; and his unicorns, revelers at a costume party in an Alpine barnyard.

That said, Böcklin can also creep up on you in surprising ways. We may be unconvinced that his swarthy, rock-throwing centaurs represent, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, the recurrent triumph of human brutality, but in his later work a more haunting, dreamlike mood emerges that floats into Symbolist territory, as in the many versions of his best-known painting, Isle of the Dead, where a phantom boat approaches a rocky domain of cypresses and mausoleums. De Chirico, we know, was a fan, untethering Böcklin’s flight from the material world; and Ernst, too, could reawaken the strangeness of Böcklin’s mythical figures in Germanic forests. Seen through post-Surrealist eyes, this new salute to Böcklin may reinvent him for the twenty-first century.

Robert Rosenblum is a contributing editor of Artforum.