In a picture dated 12th November 1940 it is possible to notice three characters engaged in a conversation. From the back and with some brilliantine on his hair there is the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; on his left with some rounded glasses there was the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissar Vjačeslav Molotov; finally on the right the unmistakable Führer of the Third Reich Adolf Hitler.

The three men are in the Chancellor’s office of the Reich, the reason of the meeting is the adjustment and setup of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the non-aggression treaty between the Reich and the Union Soviet Social Republics, signed in the August 1939.

It’s a pact between devils, whose purpose for both sides was taking time and expand their power before the final twist. It is gambling, an illusory balance between two totalitarianisms awaiting the first move towards the checkmate.

In the picture, the three people speak with each other. Upon their words it depends the future of millions of people. Behind their backs, stuck to the wall, a painting: it is the “Isle of the Death” by Arnold Böcklin, Hitler’s favourite one.

From the 1880 to the 1886, the artist realised 5 versions of the painting that initially was named “Die Gräberinsel”, the isle of the sepulchre. The final title “Die Toteninsel”, isle of the death, was given by the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883.

Below: first version of the painting

The painting as we know it was commissioned by a German noblewoman, Marie Berna, who asked to the painter a scene as a commemoration of her death husband Georg Von Berna, gone 15 years before for diphtheria. Mrs Berna was profoundly moved by an artwork that the painter exposed  in his studio in Florence, first version commissioned by the patron Alexander Günter. The widow Berna said she wanted a picture “to make her dream” and that painting actually had an oneiric component in it. She asked for a minor addiction, that is a coffin which was ferried towards the island.

Böcklin had certain experiences with death himself; the loss of 6 of his 12 children had made him closer to that oneiric peace that the noblewoman was looking after in the painting. The result was one of the most enigmatic paintings ever made, whose intent was the meditation on the afterlife. A rocky island in the middle of still waters, cut through a small ship transporting a coffin and a standing figure, wrapped in a shroud. Hypnosis, silence, whisper. It was the absolute masterpiece of German Symbolism. The artist decided to insert the coffin even in the first picture, the one who had moved Mrs Berna.

Below: second version of the painting

The artist wrote down a letter to his client:

“…The picture Die Gräberinsel (The Isle of Tombs) was dispatched to you last Wednesday. You will be able to dream yourself into the realm of the Shades until you believe you feel the soft, warm breeze that wrinkles the sea. Until you will shy from breaking the solemn silence with a spoken word…”

The painting, famous for having caused more than one Stendhal Syndrome, gained immediate success and the painter realised other versions on commission of privates and museums.

Many were the people fascinated by its hypnotic power.

The Italian Decadent writer Gabriele D’Annunzio once he saw the picture wanted a copy of it for his bedroom, and in the garden of his villa on the Garda lake he planted several cypresses like the ones which populate the art piece.

Sigmund Freud, supposedly owning more copies of the painting, saw in it the figurative projection of the subconscious desires like the dreams.

The painting was able to provoke different kinds of reactions, depending on the perspective the observer had about life and death.

Below: third version of the painting

The iconography digged its roots in the Greek and Roman tradition on the vision of the afterlife; Furthermore his esoteric references were linked to the theories of the occultist Swedenborg on his connections between real life and dream. The painting represented in the mind of the Nazi Germany, the symbol of the German Art.

The third version of the painting, realised in 1883 for the merchant Gürlitt, (showing the signature AB in the rocky wall on the right) ended up at the auction in 1936. To bid for it, surrounded by dismayed eyes, there was the Führer in civil clothes, obsessed by the picture and motivated to have it at any cost.

Below: the fourth version of the painting

This is the version that we see in the picture with Molotov and Ribbentrop.

At the end of April 1945 everything was gone for Germany, Berlin was on fire and in the night between the 29th and 30th of April, Hitler married his partner Eva Braun inside the Führerbunker. At 3:30 pm on the 30th of April 1945, Hitler shot himself to death in the room where it was kept the picture he so much loved.

Below: the fifth version of the painting

On the 2nd of May the Soviets occupied the Chancellor’s Office and climbed down the bunker. They saw the picture, gloomy, mysterious so they decided to seize it as spoils of war. The Isle of the Death remained in Moscow until the 1979 when it was once again purchased and taken back to Berlin. Today it can be looked at in an exposition room in the Alte Nationalgalerie.

Notes on the different versions:

First version: the one where the ship has been added subsequently. Today exhibited in the Art Museum of Basle;

Second Version: the one commissioned by Mrs Marie Berna, today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York;

Third Version: the one Hitler owned. Today in the Alte Nationalgalerie of Berlin;

Fourth Version: destroyed by the bombing during WW2;

Fifth Version: today at the Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig.

Rachele Goracci


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