I often think about death. Some reasons are my father’s early death, my daily writing work and my agnostic uncertainty about the hereafter. I also suspect that it’s just the warp of my basic personality to keep mortality mounted on a prominent easel.
My hunch is that most people view most people who dwell on death as suffering from sapped ambition and pleasure, shuffling through their dank days despondent and morose. Not the best company at a dinner party.
But rarely is that the effect on me. This musing was prompted by a painting I recently stumbled on. Created in 1872 by Arnold Bocklin, a Swiss artist, it is titled “Self-Portrait with Death.”
The colors are dark, at least in reproduction, so I’ll briefly describe the work. Bocklin is showing himself at work as a painter. (It’s curious that most self-portraits of painters don’t depict themselves actually painting.) He holds a palette in his left hand and a brush in the right as he studies the canvas (positioned where we the viewer are). However his attention is divided. Besides seeing the canvas he listens to music coming from somewhere over his left shoulder. The musician is Death, who instead of shoving the artist into despair or dragging him off to another world, concentrates on playing a violin. The music is not unpleasant and Bocklin cocks an ear toward it.
Bocklin has painted Death as artistic inspiration and a spur to work. This is commonly my internal experience of reflecting on death, dying, mortality, the all too quick passing of time. I don’t know anything about this 19th century Swiss painter but when I saw this painting I felt an immediate affinity.