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.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

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.

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