Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Making Music Under the Cypress Trees

Soon you will see a picture of the Encyclopedia next to the images of the BetaMax machine and the 1681 demise of the Dodo Bird.  We have several sets that people have donated to the Friends of the Library group here in Conyers, and we can't even give them away.  The reason, much like the decline of books, CDs, and Playboy magazine readers (yeah, for the sports, we know), is due to the Internet.  Wikipedia killed the Encyclopedia, and while teachers will probably never allow a Wiki reference in their research papers, it's essential to the education of kids nowadays (young whippersnappers). They can find any information they want on any subject, and it will probably be fairly accurate (and therein lies the rub).

I say this because I was remembering a painting from my college days, one that Dr. Viau and Dr. Pepetone had used in their Gothic Imagination class, and, as the years extend the tunnel further and further back, I couldn't remember the name or the artist.  So, off to the Internet I go.  It was a painting of someone rowing toward a large batch of cypress trees. So, on Google, I put "Rowing Art Cypress" and instantly, the picture of Arnold Böcklin's Isle of the Dead pops up, along with the link to the painting's article on Wikipedia.  I instantly found out what I needed to know, and learned something (again) in the process.  

Böcklin was a Swiss painter in the 19th century (1800's for those of you figuring in your head), and his style reminds me quite a bit of Caspar David Friedrich's paintings.  This, of course, comes as no surprise to me since I love Friedrich's works, and therefore this one was bound to stick in my head. Like Friedrich, Böcklin used symbolism heavily in his works, although his were more mythological in nature (while CDF used Christian imagery).  The painting mentioned above has a rower taking someone to this island filled with cypress trees, a symbol long associated with death.  The rower himself goes back to Charon, the one who would row Greeks to the hereafter, and the person standing in white, calmly looking toward the trees and the island, would be the person we would identify with. Notice how, like the Traveller, the individual stands facing away, confident that he or she will not fall while the rower rows. He (I'm a guy, it's a "he") looks toward death in a calm manner, just as the traveller does, looking out over the cliffs.   

Böcklin had a very intimate relationship with Death, as he lost 8 of his 14 children in infancy. I found it not surprising that The Isle of the Dead was painted late in his life, while perhaps he was facing his own mortality.  How do artists contemplate Death?  With the paintbrushes that have expressed their lives, of course.  And paintbrushes are metaphoric here, as the same thing applies to artists of all media.  Take a listen to Mahler's Ninth Symphony (his last) and watch the paintbrushes find dark, lonely tones, as an example.  

What interested me, as I listened to my mp3 player in the car, were the aging rockers of the 1960's, and how they are dealing with their own mortality. I've noticed on several albums by different singers tracks that deal with their own deaths, the silencing of that music.  They are haunting works, beautiful, leaving the singer exposed and vulnerable.  I really want to get to that blog, but this one had to come first.  So make sure you click on the links above and go learn some things.  We have Wikipedia here for a reason, to make up for all the education we've forgotten or never received in today's schools.  It's the one thing I refuse to do, to look back with regret, because going forward, there's so many things I can do, so much to learn and experience.  Like the traveller, it's best never to see yourself looking backwards in regret, but forward in anticipation.   

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