by Jordan Ogg
‘The imaginary island of happiness is an old myth’, writes Professor Richard Thomson in the catalogue to Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880 - 1910, a major exhibition presented in Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Helsinki in 2012. Indeed, it’s a myth that goes right back to The Fortunate Isles, the winterless paradise for the lucky dead of both Greek and Celtic mythology.
For the Genevan artist Albert Trachsel (1863-1929) the motif acted as a utopian locus for projecting his dreams of an ideal world. Trained in both architecture and painting, Trachsel produced drawings of imagined buildings, which, according to Thomson, resembled, ‘reconstructions of lost civilisations or megalomanic whims’, yet which were in fact, ‘designs for a utopian future society, with titles like The Temple of Justice and The Monument to Three Virtues’.
As a painter Trachsel was engaging with Symbolism, a European movement that emerged between 1880 and the First World War as landscape artists abandoned direct representations of nature for a frame of mind that put imagination at its core. Partly in reaction to the materialist urges of nineteenth century society, imaginative absorption with the natural world was identified with heightened states of emotion, spiritual purification and the sublime.
Symbolists sought to achieve almost transcendental effects through their treatment of form, colour and motifs. Trachsel is one of a few painters who chose an island as his subject, and as Thomson writes, the result is rather splendid: ‘The Island of Blossoming Trees, warm and serene, light-filled and ordered, uses the means of painting as vision of and invitation to a better world’.
Tomorrow’s Flotsam will profile another Symbolist island: Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead.