If You Like Edvard Munch, You'll Love Arnold Böcklin

Life, death, and the pain of existence troubled these two European artists of the late 19th Century

By Google Arts & Culture

Self-Portrait (1882) by Edvard MunchThe Munch Museum, Oslo

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch was a Norwegian artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A talented artist from a young age, he's best known today for his iconic painting of existential angst, The Scream.

Self-Portrait, 1882

Munch was just eighteen years old, and a student at the Royal School of Drawing in Kristiania (now named Oslo), when he painted this - his first self-portrait.

Munch paints himself side-on, with strong facial features and dark shadows obscuring the half of his face. The mysterious, blank background focuses all attention on the man himself. It's a confident image of a young artist in his prime years.

This painting is a rare survivor. Much of Munch's early work - including a nude self portrait - was destroyed by his deeply religious father, who was enraged by what he saw as amoral imagery.

At art school, Munch had made friends with a notorious nihilist and anarchist, Hans Jæger, who urged him to break free of society and explore his soul and sexuality. Munch would dedicate the rest of his life to the examination of his mind and art.

The Scream (1910) by Edvard MunchThe Munch Museum, Oslo

Munch's exploration of humanity, and his belief in the fundamental pain of existence, would later lead to harsh, lurid paintings such as The Scream. Where the central figure seems to be trapped in a maelstrom, unable to escape.

Today, The Scream is the archetypal image of existentialism. But Munch wasn't the only, or the first, artist to explore the soul, morality, existence, and self-image. Before Munch, there was…

Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle (1872) by Arnold BöcklinAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Arnold Böcklin

Arnold Böcklin was born in Switzerland, 1827, and studied art at the Düsseldorf academy. His tutor, Johann Schirmer, recognised his talent, and sent him to Antwerp, and Brussels. From there, Böcklin set out to Paris, then Rome, expanding his knowledge of art history.

In Rome, Böcklin became enamoured by classical mythology. In 1858 he painted Nymph and Satyr and Heroic Landscape, the next year he painted Sappho. These paintings won him a professorship at the Weimar Academy.

Böcklin was also interested in Romanticism and Symbolism. He combined these philosophies with his love of Classicism to produce some of his most dramatic works. Böcklin painted mythological characters amidst fantastical landscapes - images of life, death, and morality.

Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, 1872

This dream-like self portrait is typical of Böcklin's work. It was painted in 1872, after a few years spent in Rome. He depicts himself in the act of painting, as a figure of Death leans over his shoulder, gently running a bow over a violin.

He appears to have paused momentarily. His head is turned as if searching for the noise, but his eyes remain fixed. Perhaps he's gazing at his unseen canvas, or perhaps he dare not look around and face death.

Böcklin knew death well. His first fiancé had died before their wedding. By the time this painting was made, several of his children had died. And Böcklin himself suffered a near-fatal case of typhoid in 1859.

If you look closely, you can even see that he has painted just a few grey hairs in his dark brown beard - a sign of his ageing.

Despite his own worries, he was not at Death's door. Böcklin lived until 1901. Though three more of his children would die before his time.

His artistic legacy was taken up by the Surrealists of the early Twentieth Century - Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and Giorgio de Chirico - who said "Each of Böcklin's works is a shock." In the latter half of the century, fellow Swiss artist H.R. Giger created his Homage to Boecklin.

The Isle of the Dead (1883) by Arnold BöcklinAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

If you enjoyed Arnold Böcklin's Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, then why not take a look at his other paintings, including Isle of the Dead.

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