Between high, forbidding cliffs, where wildflowers bloom in shadow and a stream trickles among the rocks, a ray of light finds its way, touching the birch trunks and wet stone with glints of silver. Young leaves seem to flutter, brilliant green in the sunlight, but in the distance, a dark stand of trees, silhouetted against the pale sky, creates a sense of foreboding. Spring in a Narrow Gorge is a composition of deceptive simplicity, a sharply circumscribed landscape vignette that evokes something more than the rocks and trees it represents. The image is a symbolic rather than a descriptive landscape, an invented scene composed by Arnold Böcklin for maximal atmospheric effect. As a pure landscape, with no mythological or religious staffage, it is virtually unique in the artist’s mature oeuvre.1 The painting nevertheless exemplifies all that is most compelling and mysterious in the artist’s representative style: the suggestive power that made him a hero for the succeeding Symbolist generation and, years later, a source of inspiration for the Surrealists.
Born in Basel in 1827, Böcklin received his formative training at the Düsseldorfer Kunstakademie, where he studied landscape under Johann Wilhelm Schirmer (1807–1863). The scores of plein-air pencil drawings that survive from this period indicate an early and determined practice of direct nature observation (see fig. 1).2 Although for symbolic landscapes like Spring in a Narrow Gorge he abandoned his earlier methods in favor of a more inventive approach, the eerily convincing materiality of even these imaginary scenes plainly derives from a prolonged study of nature.3 A brief visit to Paris in 1848 brought the young Böcklin into contact with the work of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and the Barbizon painters, whose influence on his own practice, despite his later claims to the contrary,4 can be observed in a number of the artist’s landscapes, including the present picture with its pearly sky, dark trees, thinly painted cliff faces, and tiny flowers picked out with bright flecks of color.
Böcklin’s first visit to Italy in 1850 marked a turning point in his career. In Rome, like so many northern artists before him, Böcklin discovered classical antiquity and Renaissance art. Under the guidance of the art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897), he spent seven years in the Eternal City, painting his first mythological landscapes in a measured, Poussinist style.5 Despite several extended return visits to Germany, where he taught at the Weimarer Kunstakademie and painted for the Bavarian nobility, and to Switzerland, where he executed an important fresco cycle for Basel’s natural history museum, Böcklin had found his spiritual home in Italy and would return for three extended stays (1862–66, 1874–85, and from 1890 until his death in 1901).
He became a kind of honorary Italian, one of the so-called Deutsch-Römer (German Romans), a triumvirate of German-speaking artists who made their careers during the third quarter of the century painting Italian idylls for a northern clientele.6 Like the other members of the group, Anselm Feuerbach (1829–1880) and Hans von Marées (1837–1887), Böcklin evinced a keen interest in mythological subject matter but tended to depart from classical texts. Deutsch-Römer paintings (sometimes designated Stimmungsmalerei, or mood paintings) tend to evoke moods, rather than specific narratives, and Böcklin’s mature style, which began to emerge during his second Italian sojourn in pictures like Villa by the Sea (1864, oil on canvas, 125 x 175 cm, Munich, Schack-Galerie, inv. no. 11 528), exemplifies this tendency.
Böcklin’s most iconic work, which marked the apogee of his Deutsch-Römer style and won him international fame, was The Island of the Dead (Die Toteninsel, fig. 2).7 He painted six versions of the subject beginning in 1880, inspired by a visit to the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples. These works epitomize Böcklin’s gift for suggestion and his ability to conjure mood through landscape without clear narrative content. Completed one year before Spring in a Narrow Gorge, The Island of the Dead shares with the Getty picture a symmetrical composition of slender trees framed by towering cliffs. The relationship between the two has been often remarked: both present solemn, portentous landscapes whose silence is punctuated by the imaginary sound of water.8 Some observers have gone so far as to suggest that Spring in a Narrow Gorge offers us a view of the Toteninsel’s interior—a stream of life sprung up on the island of the dead.9 The title Island of the Dead (Die Toteninsel), like those of the Getty picture (Quell in einer Felsschlucht) and most of the artist’s other works sold after 1877, was assigned by his German dealer, Fritz Gurlitt (1854–1893), whose marketing acumen raised Böcklin from semiobscurity and perpetual debt to riches and fame during the 1880s.10 By commissioning a series of engravings after Böcklin’s works in 1882 from the young Symbolist Max Klinger (1857–1920), Gurlitt secured for the painter a mass audience, and, indeed, astonishing international celebrity. Honored with large-scale exhibitions in Berlin, Hamburg, and Basel on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Böcklin was a veritable cult figure among the Symbolists, who devoted paintings, print series, and journals to him. By the time of his death, he was among the most famous painters in the world. 11
The story of Böcklin’s fall from critical favor forms an interesting chapter in the history of taste. The prominent art critic Julius Meier-Graefe (1867–1935), initially an admirer of Böcklin’s work, published a ravaging assessment of the artist entitled “Der Fall Böcklin” (“The Böcklin Case”) in 1905.12 Modeled on Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous renunciation of Richard Wagner (Der Fall Wagner, 1888), Meier-Graefe’s study classified Böcklin as an aesthetic reactionary, comparing him unfavorably with his French Impressionist contemporaries. Böcklin’s subsequent art historical disgrace was both swift and profound. Scorned by modernist critics, Böcklin received the dubious honor of becoming Adolf Hitler’s favorite painter. The National Socialist arts administration canonized the Swiss Böcklin, alongside the Dutch Rembrandt van Rijn, as one of the great German painters. A copy of The Island of the Dead famously hung in Hitler’s apartments.13
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