Sotheby's to sell masterpiece by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin: Odysseus and Polyphemus

Arnold Böcklin, Odysseus and Polyphemus. Oil on panel, 66 by 150cm., 26 by 59in. Estimate: 800,000-1,200,000 GBP. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- A masterpiece by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin depicting a dramatic retelling of a story from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ is to headline Sotheby’s sale of European Paintings in London on Monday, 11 June 2012. Odysseus and Polyphemus, painted in 1896, is redolent of the fin-de-siècle spirit that enveloped Europe as a new century dawned. Estimated at £800,000-1,200,000 (€970,000-1,460,000), the oil on panel comes to the market from a European Private Collection and is being offered for sale at auction for the first time. The provenance of the work can be traced back directly to the artist, and the painting has featured in numerous exhibitions and monographs on Böcklin.

Odysseus and Polyphemus depicts the climax of the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus as recounted by Homer in Book 9 of his ‘Odyssey’, when Odysseus and his men flee the enraged Cyclops they have just blinded. Böcklin’s composition creates great movement and tension between the oarsmen who put all their strength against the swell in the sea that threatens to return them within the Cyclops reach, and the towering figure of the Cyclops himself, his face deliberately obscured so as not to distract the viewer’s attention from the struggle at hand. The story had fascinated artists through the centuries, from Antiquity to the Renaissance and beyond, making Böcklin’s work part of the canon of epic renditions that vividly illustrate tales associated with the eponymous Greek hero.

Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) dominated the art of German-speaking countries in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The larger than life subject and the bravura technique of Odysseus and Polyphemus are a reflection of the personality cult which surrounded him. Considered by Edvard Munch to be ‘the sacred flame’ who stood apart from German artists of the time, whose traditional works the Norwegian artist found unbearable, Böcklin was venerated among painters and the public alike. His work captivated contemporary audiences and its power remains undiminished. The escapist mythological imagery that features in his oeuvre beguiles the viewer, and to understand what drew Böcklin to his subjects when it did, and the hold his art exercised over them and us, it is necessary to look at the particular historical context in which he was working.

By the third quarter of the nineteenth century Germany and the German-speaking lands were experiencing industrialisation and social change on a rapid scale. These upheavals provoked existential questions among people of all classes and intellects, including artists. Böcklin’s choice of subject would have pleased an audience eager to escape into the past and willing to be enriched in their imaginations and emotional lives through mythology, and what Homer had to impart about the eternal universal cycle of life. There are connections between Böcklin and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: they knew each other through mutual acquaintances and Nietzsche recognised in the artist a kindred spirit. Nietzchean ideas of the two basis aesthetic principles – the Apollonian and the Dionysian –are at the very heart of Böcklin’s work.

Sotheby’s sale includes a further work by Böcklin, Der Kampf Auf Der Brücke (Römerschlacht) (Battle on the Bridge), painted in 1889 and estimated at £100,000-150,000 (€122,000-182,000). The oil on panel, inspired by Rubens’ Battle of the Amazons, comes to auction–for the first time in its history–from a Swiss Private Collection, and depicts the crescendo of a battle between a primeval fair-skinned (Germanic) tribe and a civilised and ordered (Roman) army. Böcklin’s choice of subject was influenced by philosophies current at the time, notably Nietzsche’s notion of the ‘blond beast’ expounded in his polemic, Zur Genealogie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morals), published in 1887. In this context, Nietzsche’s concept of a creative force rising up among civilisations to positive effect, equates in the present work to the slave revolt of Christian morality by the alienated, oppressed masses of the Roman Empire.

*Pre-sale estimates do not include buyer’s premium.


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