John Constable – Cloud Studies

29 May

Yesterday afternoon I wandered lonely like a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills when all at once I saw a crowd of golden daffodils… No, wait, that was William Wordsworth. Let me commence this post again; yesterday afternoon I sat on the floor of my room and I gazed at the heavy grey and white clouds that sailed slowly through the blueish-grey sky when all at once I saw many and many birds, perhaps a hundred, flying and singing, as if they were drunken with life and ecstatic about the greenness of trees. And that moment made me think of all these beautiful and poetic studies of clouds and the sky by the English Romantic painter John Constable, in particular the one bellow because it had a few birds flying freely in the sky.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1821, Oil on Paper, Laid Down on Board

John Constable’s love of nature makes him a true Romantic painter. Unlike his contemporary J.M.W. Turner who always tried to surpass the beauty of nature with his theatrical paintings filled with lightness and glistening colour. Constable painted nature in all its simple, unassuming beauty, without romanticising it or exaggerating anything. He was born in the countryside of Suffolk, studied at the Royal Academy, but both his heart and art lured him back to the countryside which was a true fountain of inspiration. He truly felt the landscape, the sky and their beauties with his heart. “Painting is but another world for feeling”, he wrote once in a letter and these cloud studies truly show how Constable felt beauty all around him and wished to capture it somehow and thus a feeling for beauty produced a painting which we now admire and gaze upon in awe and call it beautiful. In 1821, Constable moved to Hampstead because his wife was of fragile health and the air of the country suited her better than the polluted air of the city.

In 1821 and 1822 Constable made around a hundred studies of clouds in Hampstead, capturing all sorts of shapes, sized and colours of the clouds; from serene clouds white as milk to those heavy and grey and filled with rain. Clouds are ever changing, fascinating and serene and show a transient aspect of nature because the sky never looks the same as it did a day before. Better capture the cloud before it changes! These cloud studies are one of the first plein air paintings in the art history because Constable went out into the meadow and painted with oil paints the sky he saw above him, these are sketches of nature immediately as he saw it, but in oil paint. A black and white pencil sketch would have been far more convenient, but wouldn’t have had the magic of blue, white and grey shades. I love to imagine Constable gazing above at that beautiful sky and thinking to himself “Oh yes, the clouds look majestic today, I think I shall capture them on paper!” Ahh… the good old days when people stared at the clouds and not at their phones.

John Constable, Cloud Study Stormy Sunset, 1821-22

This love of nature reminded me of a passage from Mary Shelley’s novel “Mathilda” where the heroine Mathilda describes her childhood and youth spent in isolation in a castle in Scotland, and having no family member to love her and love them back, she develops a universal sort of love for every living thing in nature and every element in it such as clouds and rain: “I rambled amidst the wild scenery of this lovely country and became a complete mountaineer: I passed hours on the steep brow of a mountain that overhung a waterfall or rowed myself in a little skiff to some one of the islands. I wandered for ever about these lovely solitudes, gathering flower after flower: Ond’ era pinta tutta la mia via, singing as I might the wild melodies of the country, or occupied by pleasant day dreams. My greatest pleasure was the enjoyment of a serene sky amidst these verdant woods: yet I loved all the changes of Nature; and rain, and storm, and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with them. When rocked by the waves of the lake my spirits rose in triumph as a horseman feels with pride the motions of his high fed steed. But my pleasures arose from the contemplation of nature alone, I had no companion: my warm affections finding no return from any other human heart were forced to run waste on inanimate objects.

The cloud study bellow which shows a rather gray and gloomy sky perfect for a sky in some Gothic novel where a heroine is sitting at her window in the castle and gazing outside was painted form eleven in the morning to noon, so it can show us approximately the time which took Constable to create one such cloud study. Of course they needed to be done quickly to be accurate and capture the moment. This immediacy gives them a diary-like quality and an intimate beauty.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822

John Constable, Clouds Sketch, 1822

John Constable, Clouds, 1822, oil on paper on cardboard, Measurements: 30.0 × 48.8 cm, Inscription inscribed in pen and ink on paper label on reverse: 5 Sepr 1822. / 10 o clock Morng. looking South-East. / very brisk wind at West. / very bright + fresh Grey (inverted v under Grey) Clouds running very fast / over a yellow bed. about half way in the sky / very appropriate for the Coast. at Osmington. (source).

Henry Kirke White – The Dance Of The Consumptives

26 May

Today I wanted to share some a beautiful and eerie fragment of an unfinished drama called “The Dance of the Consumptives” written by a rather obscure English poet Henry Kirke White (1785-1806) said to have been written n his earlier phase though I am not sure how old he would have been exactly because he died so young as it is. You can read the whole text of this eccentric unfinished drama here.

Henri Le Sidaner, Ronde des jeunes filles, crayon graphite, 1897

These lines specifically have been haunting me for some time now, but now, at last, the perfect imagery came to my mind. The drama is about death arriving dressed as consumption to flush a young girl’s cheek and take her away to the other world. Dancing young girls in drawings of the French painter Henri Le Sidaner perfectly fit the mood of the drama. With their pale attire and fluid, ghostly forms they almost looks like ghostly maidens who fell prey to the consumption and have now arrived to welcome a new soul into their eerie, ghostly circle dance:

In the dismal night air dress’d,
I will creep into her breast:
Flush her cheek, and bleach her skin,
And feed on the vital fire within.
Lover, do not trust her eyes,—
When they sparkle most, she dies!
Mother, do not trust her breath,—
Comfort she will breathe in death!
Father, do not strive to save her,—
She is mine, and I must have her!
The coffin must be her bridal bed!
The winding-sheet must wrap her head;
The whispering winds must o’er her sigh,
For soon in the grave the maid must lie:
The worm it will riot
On heavenly diet,
When death has deflower’d her eye.

Henri Le Sidaner, La Ronde, c 1900

Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare

23 May
“Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.—I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl’d
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles?…..”
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni, 1814)

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1790-91

Henry Fuseli’s masterpiece “The Nightmare” has been haunting the imagination of everyone who saw it ever since it was first exhibited in the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1781. The popularity of the painting even then was so immense that Fuseli painted a few versions of the same theme and then one I’ve chosen for this post is the one painted in 1790-91. I somewhat prefer that version because of the colours, blue and grey tones as oppose to the warmer colours in the original 1781 version, and the composition.

A few days ago I awoke on a rainy morning after a nightmare and I thought of this painting, and ever since that moment I cannot get it out of my mind. The painting is charged with eroticism and a feeling of sublime which both unsettle and excite the imagination. I adore the expressive, exaggerated and slightly melodramatic mood of the painting. The woman’s pose alone is unforgettable; there she is, the poor Gothic heroine suffering from a nightmare, trapped in the world of slumber while in reality her body is lying stretched in a vulnerable position and visions of a remoter world are indeed gathered around her bed. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. The eighteenth century physicians such as Dr John Bond saw the menstruation as the cause of such disturbing nightmares; “such dreams, suggested both by the pressure against the chest and the supine position of the sleeper, are usually about a violent sexual assault – the kind of dreams that gave rise to rumours of intercourse with the devil” (Vaughan, Romantic Art), or perhaps the true cause are all the suppressed desires and thoughts that such a young maiden dares not even think of in the waking hours. The horse’s head staring with mad eyes which resemble a lightning, may symbolise masculine principle.

Fuseli admired the muscular, dynamic figures of Michelangelo and he painted the figures in his painting in the same manner. The girl in this painting has beautifully shaped and pale, but rather muscular and strong arms that are stretched as much as it’s possible and reach the floor, making her overall position a very expressive and convulsed one. The pale lady in the painting experiencing the nightmare is not dead, she is merely asleep, though if we look at the two worlds of sleep and death as twin-sisters, as the Romantics would have seen them, then the difference isn’t so vast. My interest in Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” which I read years ago sparked again these days for many reasons, one of them being the fact I watched the film “Mary Shelley” (2017) again, and this passage reminded me so much of Fuseli’s painting. After Victor Frankenstein refused to create a female companion for the Monster, the Monster had a revenge and on the wedding night of Victor and Elizabeth he strangled the poor Elizabeth:

She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair. Everywhere I turn I see the same figure– her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on its bridal bier. Could I behold this and live? Alas! Life is obstinate and clings closest where it is most hated. For a moment only did I lose recollection; I fell senseless on the ground.

When I recovered I found myself surrounded by the people of the inn; their countenances expressed a breathless terror, but the horror of others appeared only as a mockery, a shadow of the feelings that oppressed me. I escaped from them to the room where lay the body of Elizabeth, my love, my wife, so lately living, so dear, so worthy. She had been moved from the posture in which I had first beheld her, and now, as she lay, her head upon her arm and a handkerchief thrown across her face and neck, I might have supposed her asleep. I rushed towards her and embraced her with ardour, but the deadly languor and coldness of the limbs told me that what I now held in my arms had ceased to be the Elizabeth whom I had loved and cherished. The murderous mark of the fiend’s grasp was on her neck, and the breath had ceased to issue from her lips.

Absinthe Faces: Louis Anquetin and Matisse

21 May

“Seek for the boldest colour possible, content is irrelevant.”

(Henri Matisse)

Louis Anquetin, Girl Reading a Newspaper, 1890, pastel on paper

These two paintings, Louis Anquetin’s pastel “Girl Reading a Newspaper” and Henri Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat” were painted by different artists and are fifteen years apart, but both show the same thing; a half-length portrait of a woman wearing a hat. A portrait of a woman, even a woman wearing a hat, is not an uncommon things in the art, but the thing that connects these two paintings and makes them so unique is the colour. And not just any colour, but one colour in particular: the vibrant, radiant, glowing turquoise shade which, even if present in smaller quantities on canvas, nonetheless seduces the viewer and blinds him with intensity.

Anquetin’s pastel shows a fashionably dressed woman seen from the profile reading the newspapers. Thin lips pressed together and a slightly long, pointed nose give a disdainful, uninterested appeal to her face; her newspapers are more interesting than whatever else is going on around her. Her auburn hair and eerily pale skin, almost glowingly white like moonlight are contrasting beautifully with the domineering shades of turquoise and teal. The colour seems so unbelievably radiant and glowing, like some strange tropical flower or a bug with an iridescent hard shell. When I first beheld this portrait, I thought: this seems like a world seen through an absinthe glass! Even her eyelids have a turquoise shade, her skin is slightly blueish, her newspapers are vibrantly turquoise and there’s even some turquoise on the ribbons of her hat. Interestingly, this pastel was known for many years by the title “The Absinthe Drinker” which has proved to be incorrect, but the colours would surely justify such a title. This painting was shown at the exhibition in 1906. Anquetin’s paintings usually feature scenes of night life, the wild, gaudy and gay underground of fin de siecle so the connection of this particular colour with absinth is very suitable.

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905

Nothing I have seen can surpass the vibrant, absinthe-coloured radiance of this pastel by Anquetin, but this well-known painting by Henri Matisse called “Woman with a Hat”, exhibited infamously at the Salon d’Automne in 1905, has the similar shades of untamed pure colour which doesn’t match the reality. Matisse’s wife Amélie posed for the painting and in real life she was wearing a black dress, but in the mind of her painter husband, the simple black dress was transformed into a jungle of colours which uplift the soul and excite the eyes and among them are the turquoise and teal shades which we’ve seen in Anquetin’s portrait. Matisse is dear to me and that is mostly due to his attitude towards colour. I just love to see an artist being untamed when it comes to colours; no lines, no shading, no imitating the colour in nature, just wild colours on canvas, colour for the colour’s sake. There is something so liberating about that. I love how the face, the dress and the hat in Matisse’s portrait of his wife are all just patches of colours, an expressive and exciting mosaic of shapes. There is a turquoise line contouring the woman’s nose and one on her forehead, how exciting is that!?

Sepulchral Cover of Joy Division’s Closer (1980)

18 May

Ian Curtis, the singer, songwriter and the front man of British post-punk band Joy Division took his life on the 18th May 1980, two months shy of his twenty-forth birthday. The second and last album of Joy Division, conveniently named “Closer” because it truly brought a sense of closure, an ending, was released on 18 July 1980; three days after Ian Curtis would have usually celebrate his birthday. In a way, for Curtis at least (other band members were still alive), this album was release posthumously. Since today is the 40th anniversary of Curtis’ death, I decided the explore the art behind the album cover of “Closer”.

Joy Division, Closer, 1980, album cover designed by Peter Saville (Factory Records)

Existence well what does it matter?
I exist on the best terms I can
The past is now part of my future,
The present is well out of hand
The present is well out of hand…

(Heart and Soul)

Life goes on, music scene goes on, even the other band members went on with their music and formed a new band, New Order, but for Joy Division the “Closer” marks an ending and the album cover is eerily appropriate. The black and white design of the album features the title “Closer” and under it there’s a sombre and gloomy photograph of a tomb. The photograph of the tomb used for the album cover was taken in 1978 by Bernard Pierre Wolff. The tomb was sculpted by Demetrio Paernio in 1910 for the Appiani family tomb in the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno in Genoa, Italy. Paernio (1851-1914) was an Italian sculptor who designed and carved a plethora of tombs for the Staglieno cemetery, but the Appiani family tomb seems especially eerie and gloomy, and therefore fitting for the album of “Closer”.

The tomb shows a man lying on a catafalque, surrounded by his grieving family members. The gestures of the figures presented truly bring the mood of melancholy and anguish; one woman has thrown herself on the ground, from agony and pain of the loss, while the other two are kneeling down, the one in the middle covered her face in her hand, unable to face sad reality of the situation. Looking at the actual, less-artistic photograph of the tomb bellow, it seems to me that the person deceased could be Giovanni who died in 1907. The tomb was designed in 1910, but I am sure that the artist’s commission takes time, especially if it’s a sculpture which requires time and effort. Paernio beautifully depicted the tragedy of the grieving family through the gestures and poses, but also through the clothes; the creases and fluid lines of their robes appear so vivid and alive. This is definitely not a stiff looking tomb, it’s full of emotions, tragedy and passion. I can imagine how morbidly beautiful and magical it would look surrounded by candles and flowers, in autumnal dusk when distant sky is a greyish with a tinge of pink.

Appiani family tomb. Picture found here.

This is a crisis I knew had to come,
Destroying the balance I’d kept.
Doubting, unsettling and turning around,
Wondering what will come next.
Is this the role that you wanted to live?
I was foolish to ask for so much.
Without the protection and infancy’s guard,
It all falls apart at first touch.

(Passover)

This is what the designer Peter Saville had to say about the process of choosing a picture for the cover: “(Saville) revealed that the photos came from a very trendy art magazine called Zoom that had been lying around his studio in London. He later told Mojo magazine: “Bernard Pierre Wolff had done a series of photographs in a cemetery in Italy. I don’t know to this day whether they were real or not – some of them you thought, he’s set that up – that’s just models, covered in dust.” Well, the image wasn’t staged, it was in fact a beautifully carved tombstone, situated in the Staglieno cemetery in Genova, Northern Italy. The tomb belongs to the Appiani family and the incredible marble work was created by sculptor Demetrio Paernio in 1910. Saville explained that Joy Division manager Rob Gretton brought the band to see him to discuss the artwork while they were making the LP: “I hadn’t heard anything they’d recorded so I said ‘I’ll show you what I’ve seen recently that has thrilled me’.” He then showed the band the spread of photos by Wolff that covered several pages in the magazine: “I thought the band would laugh, but they were enthralled. They said ‘We’ – that’s ‘we’ – ‘like that one’.” (quote found here)

All in all, I think the choice of the black and white photograph of this beautiful Appiani tomb was perfect for the album cover, sepulchral, melancholy and Gothic it fits the mood of the music, the lyrics and the overall mood surrounding the band, not to mention the coincidence that the front man of the band also committed suicide two months after the album was recorded and two months prior to its release. It’s almost like the veil of death and gloom lay over the making of “Closer”, like the fingers from another world, the ghostly world, participated in its making. Bernard Sumner, the guitarist of Joy Division and later New Order, spoke in October 2007 about the mindset of Ian Curtis during the recording sessions for “Closer”: “While we were working on Closer, Ian said to me that doing this album felt very strange, because he felt that all his words were writing themselves. He also said that he had this terrible claustrophobic feeling that he was in a whirlpool and being pulled down, drowning.

So this is permanent, love’s shattered pride.
What once was innocence, turned on its side.
A cloud hangs over me, marks every move,
Deep in the memory, of what once was love.
Oh how I realized how I wanted time,
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find,
Just for one moment, thought I’d found my way.
Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away…
(Twenty Four Hours)

Marie Laurencin: More Than Dead – Forgotten

16 May

Last week I wrote about the wonderful French painter Marie Laurencin and her paintings of wistful, dreamy girls in soft pastel colours. Today I thought I’d share a poem that Laurencin wrote in 1917 and it’s called “La Calmant”, translated in English as “The Sedative”. To go with the melancholy verses I chose Laurencin’s painting of a girl called Valentine. I love her face expression, the way she placed her head on her hand, and again, those gentle, pastel shades of pink, lavender and yellow typical for Laurencin’s artworks.

Marie Laurencin, Valentine, 1924

The Sedative (La Calmant):

More than annoyed
Sad.

More than sad
Unhappy.

More than unhappy
Suffering.

More than suffering
Abandoned.

More than abandoned
Alone in the world.

More than alone
Exiled.

More than exiled
Dead.

More than dead
Forgotten.