Since its inception by Arnold Böcklin in the late nineteenth century, the visual trope of the Island of the Dead (Todesinsel) has become as ubiquitous as it is intriguing. With various versions distributed widely in print medium through Europe in the early 1900s, the iconic stony island and seascape have emerged in artistic reinterpretations for over a century. Antje Majewski’s painting Die Insel (I love Europe and Europe loves me) pays tribute to the familiar scene, showing the island looming between sky and sea. Stripped bare of its characteristic cypress trees, the island’s immense body is a tomb that seems to have swallowed all that might have rested on its surface, echoing the sentiment of the grave chambers that are embedded within the rocky cliffs of Böcklin’s rendering. Combining this art historical cue with a poignant contemporary reference, Majewski’s work also touches upon the story of Lampedusa, the fateful island that serves as a first port of entry for many refugees from former European colonies in northern Africa. Sadly many people do not survive the treacherous crossing, and this small stretch of Italian land in the Mediterranean Sea, with its overcrowding and horrific living conditions, has morbidly become its own modern-day “island of the dead.” Quite eerily, the tragic story of Lampedusa even shares geographic commonalities with Böcklin’s own imagined place, which was said to have been modeled after Corfu and was painted in Florence, Italy. The island in Majewski’s painting takes is own unique form from a “gongshi,” or Chinese scholar’s rock. In Chinese tradition, the “gongshi” is thought to contain Qi and has often been a traditional subject for Chinese painting. Here, Majewski has created an intricate and complex reinterpretation of the story of the “Island of the Dead,” one which combines the tragic narrative of the contemporary refugee in Europe with an iconic image from Western art history and a meaningful object from the artist’s own personal collection.

Adel Halilovic