Great Works: Faun Whistling to a Blackbird 1863 (48.4x 35.6 cm), Arnold Böcklin

Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich

Great patrons, secular or ecclesiastical, have often yearned to welcome the world of myth into their paintings. They have wanted to point out that there is an easy passage, an uninterrupted flow, between the majestic, timelessly repetitious, and occasionally venerable activities of the gods, and the slightly messier, more encumbered and time-harried world of the present. Yes, the presence of myth gives us a generous distance on our activities. It adds touches of gravity and some sense of timelessness. It makes us feel taller, less perishable, less discontinuous than we would otherwise experience ourselves as being. It calms us and exalts us a little to be in the company of the gods when we know and accept them, culturally, as our gods.

It came as second nature to the great painters of the Renaissance – think of Titian or Tintoretto, for example – to populate the painted world of the present with mythological beings, and thereby raise up by easy association the rulers who had commissioned these very paintings. What fearful, transient ruler, loomed over by malevolent advisors twice his age, would not want to be associated with beings who, having never lived, could never be expected to die? Yes, myths exalt the past (and even when those mythological beings were behaving disgracefully), and raise up the present on the past's coat-tails – but it is not necessarily always easy to accommodate those myths in a post-Enlightenment world.

And especially when we have entered an age of scepticism, and the gods, Christian or pagan, have been dethroned by science. Arnold Böcklin painted this delightful picture of a faun lying lazily on the ground, doing little other than taunt a blackbird, in 1863, the year that Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address as the American Civil War raged on. It is a mythological painting of sorts, in so far as it shows us a faun, and fauns are creatures of mythology. A faun was half-man and half-goat – as we see by its foot. The Latin god Faunus was the protector of shepherds. His father, according to the poet Robert Graves, was Hermes, and King Faunus was in the habit of sacrificing strangers at his father's altar. But individual fauns had – as we see in this painting – no particularly exalted status. Like dryads, they were often regarded by poets and painters alike as mischievous, fun-loving spirits of the wood, and even a touch playfully malevolent when the mood seized them. In fact, we can speculate that if the faun had been a party-political creature, its unruly grouping would have been steadfastly on the side of malevolence, mischief and a general duty to harass and harry the status quo. As we see in this painting, fauns are habitually indolent. They mock. They carouse. They are inclined to rudeness. They are perhaps a little too beastly for their own good, and they are certainly too beastly for the good of a decent, morality-strapped world. They do little that could be regarded as useful at all. Dr Johnson, writing in his great Dictionary of 1755, could scarcely have been more dismissive: "A sort of inferior heathen deity", he writes from a great moral height, "pretending to inhabit the woods". And such is the faun in this painting by Böcklin.

It is a being that is dedicated to taking and celebrating its ease, sprawling about, making the casual most of its own indolence. Its mouth is pursed in a whistle. With its left hand it is making a signal to this small blackbird on the branch. In fact, it is teasing the blackbird by opening and closing its fingers in mimicry of the opening and closing of the blackbird's beak. Quite close to faun and blackbird we can see the darkened, partially concealed opening into a grotto. Moss-covered rocks hang over its entrance. This may be where the faun lives, and from which it springs to do its bits of mischief – frightening, harrying, making music, making merry. The faun, though a mythological creature, is also powerfully present physically. There is nothing wispy or ethereal about the way that Böcklin has painted its torso, its nipples, the unruly ginger beard, the hairs on its young-mannish chest. This is not some woozily erotic dream of a faun in the manner of Debussy who, 30 years later, would give us Prélude a l'après-midi d'un faune, with its light, sweet flutings. Our faun, with that brazen leg thrown over, could scarcely be painted more realistically.

Looked at in one way, we see immediately quite how laughably inconsequential the theme of this picture is. That is why it delights us so much – precisely because it has no high theme. It is not pointing a moral. It is not even adorning a tale because there is no tale here. In fact, it is a distraction. There is not even much of a landscape. There is a bit of bosky set-apartness – that is all that this artist gives us, a marooned space within a glade. We don't know the time of day. And yet, for all its thematic understatement, this painting is also saying, as if by default, something of real importance about the relationship between painter and nature. This is an idealised landscape, an Arcadian scene. It reminds us that nature was once thought to be full of places like this, wild, sequestered nooks where the gods roamed, tutelary spirits of rivers, rocks and streams. Sometimes, according to Ovid, they even became those rocks, those streams. It is a world that is wholly set apart from the time when it was painted – there are no temporal or spatial references of any kind, no hint of a human presence, no glimpse of a cityscape. The faun is basking in nature's lap, perfectly at ease and at home here. He is the ruler, the uncrowned king, of this timeless wilderness. In fact, the painting is almost a kind of mocking reference to a pieta, with nature playing the part of the virgin, and the recumbent figure looking unusually alive, cheerful and carefree as he basks in her benign, all-enveloping lap.


Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) was a Swiss symbolist painter whose works range from landscape paintings inspired by neo-classical architecture to heady compositions that conjure up worlds of fantasy. He often introduced allegorical and mythological figures into his paintings. He had an extreme fixation with death, and many skulls populate his canvases, including a celebrated self-portrait of 1872, in which a skeleton stands at the painter's back, serenading him on the violin. His most influential work was 'Isle of the Dead', of which he did multiple versions. He was a great inspiration to such late-Romantic composers as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Max Réger.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power