Great Works: The Isle of the Dead (1880), Arnold Böcklin

Kunstmuseum, Basel

In 1945, George Orwell wrote an essay called "Good Bad Books". It was about "a type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days, but which flowered with great richness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries... that is, the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished." A prime example would be the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

In 2010, Orwell's argument looks a little shaky. Today many of his damn good reads – Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example – aren't read much at all. Conversely, many of his perishable literary books, like Virginia Woolf's, have survived. But his general point holds. "The existence of good bad literature – the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously – is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration."

And how about visual art? Is there such a thing as good bad painting? Surely there is. Take Scotland Forever (the Scots Greys at Waterloo, charging towards the viewer) or And when did you last see your father? (a Civil War interrogation scene). Nobody would call them great, but they're proverbial. You might not even be able to name the artists (Elizabeth Butler, William Frederick Yeames), but willy-nilly, these images live in the imagination.

The phenomenon has a history. Good bad painting begins, roughly, in the 19th century, though Henry Fuseli, with his gothic The Nightmare of 1781, is probably the first artist who is both stirring and trashy. Good bad painting has an unquestionable impact, but it has something overt, coercive in its means. The category isn't confined to the heroics, religiosity and melodrama of the Victorians. It could include pictures like Munch's The Scream or Klimt's The Kiss. It might even include – dare one say it? – Picasso's Guernica.

But let's retreat to safer ground. The epitome of the good bad picture is Arnold Böcklin's The Isle of the Dead. Irresistible, ridiculous, it's a painting that would hardly appear in any serious history of art, yet it retains its ability to spook.

Somewhere, in the middle of nowhere, a solitary rock rises straight up from a dead calm sea. This rock has the form of a rounded enclosure, a bay that opens towards us. The inner faces of this rock are cut with oblong portals, suggesting the openings of sepulchres. From the heart of the rock grows a grove of tall cypresses. On the water, a boat with a shrouded figure and a draped coffin is being rowed towards to the island's entrance.

The solemn mystery of this land- and seascape arises from its symmetry and uprightness and containment. Several "unknown effects" – empty water, enclosing rock, impenetrable wood – are fused. It's like a Russian doll, obscurity within obscurity. Or you might borrow Churchill's description of Russia itself: "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". But there is nothing misty in this mystical scene. It's a solid embodiment of the beyond, a lonely tomb-altar in the sea.

On the other hand, The Isle of the Dead must be the most straightfaced picture ever made. It is a world of unrelieved symbolism. Everything in it is dedicated to conjuring up a single,sombre atmosphere. And if (under the strain) its spell should break, the scene is likely to come apart and reveal itself as a series of ingredients. Sea, rock, trees: they are all props whose function is solely to make mood. Real myths have practicalities, particulars. This is a phoney myth world.

It has same weakness that Gerard Manley Hopkins criticised in an early poem by Yeats. "It was a strained and unworkable allegory about a young man and a sphinx on a rock on the sea – how did they get there? what did they eat? and so on: people think such criticisms very prosaic; but common sense is never out of place anywhere..."

The Isle of the Dead is another work set on a rock in the sea, another allegory devoid of common sense. There is one betraying detail. Look at the funerary party approaching the island. The oarsman has his back to us. He is rowing in the wrong direction. But of course! Any figure in this picture must be faceless. The unknown, the mysterious must prevail. The sight of a human face would break the atmosphere. And if that means the rower rows the wrong way, too bad.

Or too bad for people who make a fuss about such details. The good bad painting doesn't care. It just wants to get you going. And – like it or not – it does.

About the artist

Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) spent a lot of his creative energies on trying to invent and finance a flying machine. He also became, late in his life, the leading Swiss painter of the 19th century. His subjects were largely symbolic and mythological: sporting mermaids, fighting centaurs, bat-winged apocalyptic creatures – in painting, the power of flight was freely available. Out of this romantic gallimaufry, only one painting has really survived, his late dream vision 'The Isle of the Dead'. It has proved enormously popular. Freud had a reproduction in his office, so did Lenin. Strindberg used it as the final image of his play 'Ghost Sonata'. The Surrealists admired it. And Hitler owned a later version. Böcklin painted five in all.

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

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.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album