The Bruce High Quality Foundation: Isles of the Dead

An ingenious re-staging of Arnold Bocklin's famed Isle of the Dead
An ingenious re-staging of Arnold Bocklin's famed Isle of the Dead
Photo courtesy of Vito Schnabel and McClain Gallery

This is a most unusual exhibition, interesting and innovative, and also almost a demonstration of how crucial color choices are.

Arnold Bocklin's 1880 painting, Isle of the Dead, shows a white-shrouded figure being rowed to an island. Inevitably, it is perceived as Charon on the River Styx carrying souls to the afterlife. Bocklin created five variations between 1880 and 1886, and the image has become iconoclastic, even fabled, and has influenced many distinguished artists.

The enterprising Bruce High Quality Foundation ingeniously re-staged the painting in 2008 by having two of its members in a dinghy, one standing, in a white shroud, photographed as the dinghy moves toward the New York City skyline.

The exhibition at the McClain Gallery shows a number of silkscreen images of Bocklin's painting, as well as a number of silk screen images of the Bruce High Quality image. This latter is a broader panorama, while Bocklin's image is more of a close-up, and I preferred the panorama for its scope. Each one has a dramatically different color scheme, from festive to somber.

For the panorama, I especially savored silk screen #13 (all the pictures are untitled, so the number refers to their position in the gallery), which had a sky much like the opening fireworks ceremonies in China for the Olympics. It could be a welcoming salute to a warrior/hero who had died in saving his country. Another panoramic image (#4) added pink and green to the sky and generated a festive look, suggesting that this particular soul being ferried might get a favorable verdict in being judged.

The black and white version suggests that sometimes less is more
The black and white version suggests that sometimes less is more
Photo courtesy of Vito Schnabel and McClain Gallery

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I admired the simpler, mystical black-and-white version (#2), with a suggestion of branches overhead, as though being viewed from another shore. One panoramic version (#3) had a yellow sea and sky, and huge deep purple low-hanging clouds, and could be a textbook example of over-saturation of color. The clouds seemed truncated, dripping paint, deliberately amateurish. Yet, even here, there was an intriguing sense of an alien presence, a haunting sense that something was terribly wrong.

The Bocklin image has the boat closer to shore, as though the camera had moved in for a close-up. The real Bocklin images are very powerful indeed, majestic, inscrutable, intriguing, mysterious and dynamic, and believe me, the silk screens here do not do them justice; it's almost as though the dice were loaded in favor of the panoramic approach. I strongly suggest a visit online to images of the Bocklin paintings, with special attention to the one done in 1886, where the boat is closer to shore and the light reflected on the buildings seems magical.

A number of these Bocklin variations (#6 through #10) seemed simply to saturate with color, so that Bocklin's subtlety and detailing are obscured, raising in my mind a suspicion of sabotage. One silkscreen (#11) added two colors and compositional structures which detracted, but, despite this, it retained an air of majesty. And I liked #12, with two strong vertical panels added, one dark teal, one deep violet, though these of course made it a totally different painting.

The exhibition is innovative and ingenious, which is appreciated, but I felt a certain malaise about the treatment of the Bocklin image, and would have enjoyed the exhibition more if it had been confined to just the panoramic versions staged by the Foundation, this would have been a contribution by itself. The Bruce High Quality Foundation: Isles of the Dead continues through December 6 at McClain Gallery, 2242 Richmond. Open Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., 713-520-9988, mcclaingallery.com


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