Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Isle of the Dead


All day I have been listening obsessively to Rachmaninoff's symphonic poem "The Isle of the Dead", the composer's response to the famous painting by the idiosyncratic Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin. Rachmaninoff was obsessed with and terrified by death, and his music is mournful and doom-laden enough. Böcklin's intentions were perhaps somewhat different. He did not give the painting its title, and declared that he painted in order to make people dream: “Just as it is poetry's task to express feelings, painting must provoke them too. A picture must give the spectator as much food for thought as a poem and must make the same kind of impression as a piece of music. Who would ever have been able to anticipate the effect of music before having heard it? Painting should pervade the soul in the same way, and as long as it does not do this it is nothing more than a brainless handicraft. There is no end to the poetry of the beautiful.”

I have indeed dreamt long over these depictions of what seem, in my gloomier moments, ideal places of exile. If it is not, after all, a tomb-island, it would make a perfect retreat. I have left off the customary titles so as not to impede the dreaming.



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