Cour ouest de l'île des morts - obsession reconstitutive d'après Böcklin signed and dated 1934 (lower left) oil on canvas 66 x 54.5 cm. (26 x 21.5 in.)
Provenance: Peter Watson. Alex. Reid & Lefevre, London. Acquired from the above in 1953 by The 7th Earl Cadogan, London, father of the present owner.
Literature: Robert Descharnes & Gilles Néret, Dalí, The Paintings, Part I, 1904-1946, Cologne, 2001, p. 236, no. 534, illustrated in black and white.
In January 1934, Andre Breton (1896-1966) presented a lecture on Quest-ce-que le Surréalisme? to a selected audience of literati in the Belgian capital. Speaking at this conference as the most public member of the French Surrealist group, and principal architect of its intellectual and artistic manifesti, Breton acknowledged Salvador Dalí as a pivotal contributor to the Groups existence: This experimenting has regained momentum under the master impulse given to it by Salvador Dalí, whose exceptional interior boiling has been, during the whole of this period, an invaluable ferment for Surrealism.(1) A month later, on 5 February, Dalí was summoned to Bretons flat in Paris, rue Fontaine, and abruptly expelled from the Group. From the beginning of his membership, in 1929, Dalí had placed himself among the non-conforming elements of the French Surrealist artists. During his first years in Paris, Dalí had fully embraced the Surrealist credo, as it corresponded with many of his own general principals on art. His extreme versatility of creation within a range of fields - extending from painting to designing, from writing to illustrating, and from film producing to fashion stylising - had found a conceptual system in the theoretical outline of French Surrealism of the 1930s. However, during the same period, Dalí developed a more restraining formulation of the intellectual process driving his own artistic creation one invoking the irrational knowledge based on a delirium of interpretation. In the Brussels lecture on Surrealism, Andre Breton had explained how: Dalí has endowed Surrealism with an instrument of primary importance, specifically the paranoiac-critical method, which has immediately shown itself capable of being applied with equal success to painting, poetry, the cinema, to the construction of typical Surrealist objects, to fashions, to sculpture, and even, if necessary, to all manners of exegesis. In his scientific-ringing formula of the paranoiac-critical method, Dalí called on the powers of a hallucinatory interpretation of the subconscious to enrich the spectrum of Surrealist imagery. Sourcing his own study of images from the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and the contemporary psychoanalyst and friend Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), Dalí called for an active delusional interpretation to replace the passive states of automatism and the dream(2) - which had influenced Surrealist creativity so far. In the 1930s, Dalís visual application of his method drew extensively on the classical art repertoire. Even his technique became almost academic in clarity, meticulous and polished; indeed, he owed as much to the masters of Renaissance perspective and colour as to Giorgio De Chiricos hyper sense for poetic realism. If the tragic myth of Jean-François Millets Angelus inspired Dalí with the most profound fantasies, other iconic masterpieces were subjected to the artists hallucinatory (re-)interpretations. With Arnold Böcklins Island of the Dead, Dalí reinvented the myth.
In 1880, Arnold Böcklin (Swiss, 1827-1901) delivered what is known-today as the first 1880 version of his Island of the Dead(3) to his patron Alexander Gunther. The second 1880 version of the work(4) [figure 1] still lay unfinished in the artists studio, in Florence. Indeed, while working on the first version, Böcklin had received the visit of a young eighteen-year old widow and great admirer of the artist, Marie Berna-Christ. Upon seeing his work in progress, Berna-Christ commissioned the artist a second version of Gunthers painting, stipulating ein Bild zum Traumen a picture that makes one dream. The sombre landscape depicting an island surrounded by serene waters with a small figure rowing towards its mighty rocks, was adapted to the mourning circumstances of the young heiress; to the sole boatman of the first version, Böcklin added in the boat the slender silhouette of a draped figure - a woman? -, leading the coffin of her late husband to its last destination. The idea must have pleased Böcklin since he decided to add these details to his first version before delivering the finished painting to Alexander Gunther. The success was immediate among the burghers of Wilhelminian Germany; as a result, three more versions of the same painting were executed by 1886. In 1890, Böcklins art dealer Frits Gurlitt commissioned the artist Max Klinger with the engraving of the third version (1883), thus ensuring a wide diffusion of the image in the country, and abroad. The painting turned into the iconic representation of lost human ideals and the disillusion felt by the German upper-circles upon the foundation of the new Reich. Böcklins dark skies could carry the weight of these symbolic interpretations. As the image spread beyond the pan-Germanic borders, Böcklins haunting landscape was turned into a leitmotif of profound inspiration. Besides Dalí, Emil Nolde, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst are among the most celebrated artists to have been inspired by the multi-layered symbolism of Böcklins work. The playwright August Strindberg referred to the painting in the last scene of The Ghost Sonata (1907), while composers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff (Symphonic Poem, 1909) and Max Reger (Böcklin Suite, 1913) offered a musical counterpart to Böcklins contemplative evocation of nature.
With the Island of the Dead, Arnold Böcklin pays tribute to the Romantic tradition of landscape painting, so distinctly led in Germany by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) in the previous generation. Indeed, Böcklin did not let his profound knowledge of the classical landscape repertoire entirely succumb to the Arcadian glow of Italianate scenes. In fact, with The Island of the Dead, Böcklin extended the Germanic fascination with the idea of Mans frailty before Nature visually encapsulated in Friedrichs Romantic landscapes by assimilating the philosophical trends and aesthetics of his own time. The writings of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) helped Böcklin reach new possibilities in the interpretation of landscape painting. It is of particular interest to raise Nietzsches study of the spiritual world invented by the Ancient Greeks, which the author developed in Birth of Tragedy, of 1872. According to the historian William Vaughan in his study on Böcklins sources for his masterpiece,(5) Nietzsche stipulated that the perception of the Ancient Greeks on nature and basic human instincts was made from a clear distinction between two main aesthetic principals: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. While the Apollonian celebrated the order of formal beauty (visual arts), the Dionysian was the spirit of the emotional, the sensual (dance and music). Through the eyes of Arnold Böcklin, the interaction of these two distinct forces could be translated into an ideal landscape set in dark and moody tones. It was the Man-versus-Nature concept as perceived by German Romanticism and re-interpreted by Böcklins new symbolism that inspired Dali, nearly half a century later, to reconsider the theme and invent his own interpretation with the use of the paranoiac-critical method he has recently developed.
Dalis meditation on Böcklins Island of the Dead began in the early 1930s. The multiple layers of analysis this painting offered fascinated Dali, who, so inspired, began working towards the publication of a projected book based on these studies, Surrealist Painting through the Ages. At this time, and more precisely during his afternoon siesta of 17 October 1930, at his home in Port Llegat (Costa Brava), Dali dreamt a masturbatory fantasy prompted by the study of Böcklins painting. Dali related the shockingly obsessive experience in a piece of prose, published the following year under the title Reverie.(6) The intensely detailed narrative of the authors plan to sodomize the voluptuous little Dulita, his object of desire, unfolds in settings specific to Dalis childhood locations; the neighbours mill-tower and the Font del Soc, a spring surrounded by cypresses, both on the outskirts of Figueres (Costa Brava).(7) Four years later, Dali went to America for the first time; in New York, he saw Böcklins Island of the Dead, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art had acquired in 1926 [figure 1]. Upon his return, Dalí painted a small selection of works on the theme of Böcklins masterpiece and influenced by his earlier Reverie: Interior Court of the Isle of the Dead, Fountain of Böcklinas well as, among others, the present painting, West Side of the Isle of the Dead Reconstructed Compulsive Image after Bocklin.
In Dalís painting, the viewer has landed on the Island and climbed its rocky cliffs. Inside the Island, few elements recall Böcklins original landscape just the group of cypress trees on the left hand side. Together with the brick tower, these cypresses form an important part of the setting for Dalís composition, just as they had served in Reverie. Rather than the sombre atmosphere of Böcklins dionysian tableau, Dalí chooses to partially illuminate the composition with midday brightness, albeit rather cloudy; yet the presence of the cypresses on the left ensures an area of complete darkness. Here, Light confronts Darkness, as the Apollonian opposed the Dionysian (Böcklin), and as Man stood before Nature (Friedrich). However, with Dalí the historical development of the theme of death in painting is far from linear. The Island has been transformed into a visual revelation of Dalís passive and unconscious hallucinatory fantasy, where each element depicted coincides with the artists sexual desires and own psychoanalysis. The inside court recalls the female womb (hollow), which is surrounded/penetrated by phallic imagery - the cypresses of Dalís childhood -. The draped mannequin stands in the centre as a living being trapped in a sack, pulling and twisting blindly. There is one exit, the small door at the bottom of the brick tower. Smaller yet is the window high above, at the top of its ruined skyline. Further above, five dark birds hover in a circle, perhaps attracted by another imminent arrival of Death. Beyond, clouds cover a bright sky, its celestial blue only clearly breaking through near the zenith line.
Death was a binding preoccupation for the Surrealists and Dalí, in this instance, made no exception. In their quest for social, religious and artistic (/aesthetic) liberation, the Surrealists were interested in the cyclical relationship of Eros and Thanatos, and reverted to Freuds method of free association without always acknowledging their debt to the founder of psychoanalysis. Plunging into the realm of the unconscious by hallucinatory mediums, the Surrealists searched to re-ignite any repressed memories linked to a particular (conscious) concern, worry, problem or trauma. The outcome of the process would be expressed in their respective artistic area(s): words (prose and poetry), writing (ecriture automatique), painting and film. Dalís exploration of the unconscious covered most of these artistic fields. His partnership with Luis Buñuel in the production of Un chien andalou (16min, 1928) and of Lage dor (63min, 1930) allowed for a Surrealist experimentation of Freuds theory of free association; the great success of these two films marked the official entry of cinema into the Surrealist forum of artistic creativity. In an attempt to foil any conventional system of polite behaviour governing the bourgeois society, Dalí and Buñuel reverted to visual shock in order to free the viewers own and most inner ideas. Beyond any form of rational, the films called on pain (the eye-slitting scene) and murder (the killing of a child) - Thanatos - to expose through their principal characters the ultimate desires of human sexuality - Eros. Reality was used to trigger the unconscious desires detained within each human being. In the same instance, and preceding the films by just a few years, Dalís West Side of the Isle of the Dead Reconstructed Compulsive Image after Böcklin makes uses of the tangible extremes of our visual world light/dark, soft/hard, high/low, open/closed, solid/air, to unleash the artists subconscious self on the one hand, and to invite the viewer into a similar liberating experience on the other. Thus, the visual attraction of this painting invites the viewer to explore the meandering channels of his own id, so long superseded by the ego and super-ego of his social persona. West Side of the Isle of the Dead Reconstructed Compulsive Image after Böcklin testifies with brio Dalís absorption of contemporary theories of psychoanalysis, and the sophisticated use he made of its methods to contribute so distinctly to the aesthetics of Surrealism.
1 Andre Breton, Quest-ce que le Surréalisme?, Brussels, 24pp. The text was been reprinted and published by: Paris: Le temps quil fait, 1998. ISBN: 2868530257 2 Whitney Chadwick, Myth in Surrealist Painting, 1929-1939, Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1980, p. 63. For a wider discussion of Dalís method, see chapter IV, Dalis Mythe tragique de lAngelus de Millet and the paranoiac-Critical Method, pp.61-73 3 Oil on canvas, 111 x 155cm, Basle: Offentliche Kunstsammlung, Kunstmuseum. For an important study of the painting and its versions, see exhibition catalogue: Hans Holenweg, et al., Hommage a lîle des morts dArnold Böcklin , Paris: Somogy editions dart, c. 2001. The exhibition was held at the Musée Bossuet in Meaux, France, 13 October 2001 13 January 2002. For a history of the painting and its versions, see chapter: Lîle des morts. Histoire by Hans Holenweg, pp. 11-21. 4 Oil on board, 73.7 x 121.9cm, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. [figure 1] 5 See: William Vaughan, Spiritual Landscapes in: Ingrid Ehrhardt and Simon Reynolds (eds), Kingdom of the Soul. Symbolist Art in Germany 1870-1920, pp.81-83. 6 Published in the December 1931 issue of: Le Surréalisme au Service de la Revolution (SASDLR), no.4, pp. 31-36 7 Ian Gibson, The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí, London: Faber and Faber, 1997, pp. 295-296