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Böcklin, Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle

Arnold Böcklin, Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, 1872, oil on canvas, 75 x 61 cm (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Steven: Usually, when you look at a self-portrait, you see an artist staring directly at himself in a mirror, but in Self-Portrait with Death by Böcklin, he seems not so much to be looking, as listening. Female: That menacing figure of death is not only playing the violin, but seems to be whispering something in his ear. Steven: He seems ecstatic, where you can see clearly the skull, with all of its teeth, that seems to be smiling demonically. Female: Grinning, I would say. Steven: Yeah, eager and rather excited. We see that claw-like hand of bones that clutches the bow. and the violin is being played, but it's being played on a single remaining string, as if Böcklin has only that one string to go. It seems so final. Female: Death knows he's won here. Steven: Art outlasts the life of the artist and so there's something very self-conscious about the act of making a work of art and especially about making a self-portrait. Female: That sense of death is present in portraits, generally, not just in self-portraits. Portraits can make the dead alive, so I think often when we look at portraits, we have a sense of going back in time of looking at someone who has lived. But you're right, it's certainly more poignant in self-portraits, especially in the way that Böcklin has collapsed the space here. Steven: The personification of death, that skeleton, is so intimate. It's so close. You said "whispering in his ear", it's almost as if Böcklin can literally feel his breath, if there were such a thing. Female: The artist, himself, is very close to us. His palette is half in our space. Steven: And you see the raw paint, it's a depiction of paint made of itself, that speaks to the lie of painting. The raw materials that make up this painting are made present. Female: Made honest. Steven: Made honest. That's right. Stripping away the veils of our life, the veils of society. The palette and the raw depiction of the paint is a kind of reminder of the essential. Böcklin is showing us both the flesh and blood representation of the artist of the man clothed in the fashions of his day, but then he also shows us this skeleton, in a sense this essence of what he will become. The painting as a whole is beautifully manipulated to show us the illusion of these figures, but then it's also laid bare. Female: The idea of man returning to dust, from which he was created. That's what I was reminded of when you talked about the materiality of the paint. Steven: He's holding a rag under his thumb. Female: To wipe his brush. Steven: To wipe his brush, but the way that death wipes us all away. There is this wonderful way in which the act of painting is echoed by the way in which death transforms us. (piano music playing)