Isle of the Dead – Swamp Thing

Port Arthur is the site of a notorious prison farm and village, south of Hobart on the Tasman Peninsula, established during the British colonial administration of Tasmania in the 19th century. Ironically, it was founded as a model prison derived from reformist penal strategies (stressing psychological subjugation as much as physical punishment) manifest in the famous panopticon structure devised by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The prison had closed by 1877 but the ruins of Port Arthur soon became an open-air curiosity, and by the early 20th century a focus of ‘dark tourism’, one morbid attractor of which was the small island just off shore from the prison complex that had become, between 1833 and 1877, the burial site of the convicts, who increasingly had been dying of old age as well as the hard labour they endured. Corpses would be ferried out in rowing boats that would return empty. It became known appropriately as the Isle the Dead, and looking across the channel of water towards it one can’t help but think of the enigmatically portentous Arnold B.cklin painting of the same name from 1880.

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Can we call it anachronic coincidence or an atavistic symptom? B.cklin’s Isle of the Dead, painted a few years after its Tasmanian namesake (about which he would have known nothing) took its last occupant, was the first of five versions of this subject that he produced during the 1880s. Each was barely different to its predecessor, as if he was not so much refining or repurposing but meticulously repeating the image, returning to the scenario in order to methodically duplicate it. That exacting duplication might have been due to the image’s remarkable popularity. B.cklin did these versions to satisfy a market as much as his own pathology. The first of these works had held Strindberg spellbound (he wrote the third act of his play Ghost Sonata upon it).

Ashley Crawford is a freelance cultural critic and arts journalist based in Melbourne and is the author of a number of books on Australian art, including Transformations: The Work of Sonia Payes (2016) and Spray, The Work of Howard Arkley (co-author, 1997). He is a regular contributor to The Age, The Australian, The Guardian, The Financial Review, The Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Art Collector, Art Monthly, and numerous other publications. He is also the former editor of Tension, World Art, 21•C and Photofile magazines. He trained as a journalist in the late 1970s and holds a Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne.

Edward Colless is Head of Critical and Theoretical Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Aside from education, he has in the past also worked in theatre, film, broadcasting and architecture, been a curator, occasionally worked as a travel writer, and dabbled in fiction—but mainly he writes art criticism. In this field he has been an arts reviewer for The Age and The Australian, and associate editor and features writer for Art Collector. He is currently editor of the journal Art+Australia, with its associated publishing program. He also shamelessly uses any opportunity to write on arcane topics, the more obscure the better: heretical theology, art historical marginalia, crypto-zoology, dark tourism….