Oscar Wilde – Speak gently she can hear the daisies grow

22 Feb

Today I’ll share with you a poem I recently stumbled upon and loved very much: Requiescat by Oscar Wilde. I particularly loved the first stanza and the last one, and the rest in between.

The Birch Tree (1967), by Ante Babaja

Tread lightly, she is near

Under the snow,

Speak gently, she can hear

The daisies grow.

 

All her bright golden hair

Tarnished with rust,

She that was young and fair

Fallen to dust.

 

Lily-like, white as snow,

She hardly knew

She was a woman, so

Sweetly she grew.

 

Coffin-board, heavy stone,

Lie on her breast,

I vex my heart alone,

She is at rest.

 

Peace, peace, she cannot hear

Lyre or sonnet,

All my life’s buried here,

Heap earth upon it.

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Aesthetic Movement: Oriental Lyricism vs Sumptuousness of Renaissance

19 Feb

L’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake; welcome to the world of Aestheticism!

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 3, 1865-67

“Now at last the spring

draws swiftly to its finish.

How alone I am.”

(Natsume Soseki, Kusamakura)

I bet that hearing the young Chelsea bohemians and aesthetes, such as Whistler and Rossetti, boasting about their art for art’s sake motto, was like a slap in the face to all that Ruskin had achieved in his writings and life long devotion to art. The English aesthetes continued in their paintings what the French poet and a devotee of Beauty, Théophile Gautier started. Art for art’s sake principle claims that the only purpose of art is to create Beauty; art should be its own purpose, and ought to remain detached from society, politics, philosophy or science. Perfection of execution and harmony of colours were seen as important means of achieving the Beauty. In the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) Gautier wrote: “Nothing is truly beautiful except that which can serve for nothing; whatever is useful is ugly.” This view of art having merely an aesthetic value clashed with John Ruskin’s opinion that art should convey the moral truths and influence us on a spiritual level.

Representatives of this wave of aestheticism in England, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Albert Moore, Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, filled their canvases, in most cases, with beautiful women in sumptuous surroundings, wearing gorgeous clothes and evoking a mood of languor and sweetness smelling of violets and roses. This obsession with Beauty went in two different directions; the first was the Oriental-inspired musings, while the other went into the past and revisited the luxurious settings of Titian and Giorgione’s paintings.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

“The temple bell stops –

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.”

(Basho, translated by Robert Bly)

Whistler is the representative of the first path; inspired by both his fellow painter Albert Moore and Japonism or the madness for all things Japanese, Ukiyo-e prints, porcelain and fabrics that ruined the minds of Parisian artists like plague, he created delicate, serene and lyrical paintings bathed in white and lightness. His famous “Symphonies”, the third one you can see above, were admired by his fellow painters such as James Tissot, Alfred Stevens and Edgar Degas, but also highly criticised too. Model for the girl lounging on the couch was Whistler’s mistress, model and muse Joanna Hiffernan who also posed for the Symphonies in White no. 1 and 2.

A painting needn’t always have a lady dressed in a kimono, white clothes or cherry blossom tree in it, for us to say that it was Japanese-inspired, it’s more about following the principles of Ukiyo-e prints and Japanese design by observing their use of perspective, flat portrayal of space, composition and bold outlines. This is also how Edgar Degas explored Japonism, by incorporating its interesting perspectives into his ballerina scenes, unlike Monet who opted for the simpler way: painting his wife in a colourful kimono.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866

Artists who took the second path, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, partly continued the Medieval reveries, but were mostly inspired by the luxurious, richly-coloured paintings of Renaissance ladies by Titian, Veronese and dreamy idyllic world of Giorgione. Ever since he painted “Bocca Bacciata” in 1859, Rossetti continually returns to the subject of a beautiful sensual and vain woman-enchantress with bloody lips of a vampire, clad in luxurious fabrics, surrounded with objects of beauty such as fans, jewellery or flowers. Her long and lustrous hair is ready to smother every man who dares to set his eyes upon her, her eyes are cold and large gemstones. “Monna Vanna” is another beautiful example of the rich-coloured dreamy splendour that Rossetti portrays, using different models but painting the same archetypal face with heavy-lidded eyes, strong neck and large lips.

Edward Burne-Jones, Le Chant d Amour (Song of Love), 1869-77

And at springtide, when the apple-blossoms brush the burnished bosom of the dove,
Two young lovers lying in an orchard would have read the story of our love;
Would have read the legend of my passion, known the bitter secret of my heart,
Kissed as we have kissed, but never parted as we two are fated now to part.
(Oscar Wilde, Flower of Love)

Edward Burne-Jones, a young admirer of Rossetti and a follower of Pre-Raphaelite ideas, also paints idealised worlds with much beauty but little content. In those reveries inspired by the Italian High Renaissance, like the “Song of Love” time stands still and figures are sinking deeper and deeper into the sweet languor that arises from imaginary sounds. Warm glowing colours are melting and draperies are heavy, as if carved from stone. Faces are strong and gazes distant. Claustrophobia and stillness almost painful, rapture captured for eternity, the height of ecstasy, the trembling of sighs, the caressing twilight that flickers in the distant sky, cold stone of the castle, eyelids closed by the intoxicating perfume of the tired tulips in the foreground.

No breeze, no movement, no bird is heard, the hand that lightly touches the keys of an instrument produces no sound, the drapery and the fine hair not dancing in the wind but stopped in the movement, the gaze is forever fixated. The figure on the right dressed in red, seems to be whispering Oscar Wilde’s lines “Had my lips been smitten into music by the kisses that but made them bleed” from “Flower of Love”. The painting itself has a mood of a flower which, unable to bloom or wither, chooses to stay crouching for eternity in the painfully agonizing stage of the bud.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

Just by looking at Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” and Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, it is easy to see their influence on both Burne-Jones’s “Song of Love” and Rossetti’s “Monna Vanna”. The same sweet languor pervades the air, the background reveals contours of a castle and a yellowish sky, and the draperies are similar as well. In Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, people are enjoying the music and each others company as warmth and indolence hang over them like a bright soft cloud.

Giorgione, Pastoral Concert (Fête champêtre), 1508-09

So, which direction of Aesthetic movement in painting do you prefer; oriental or Renaissance? It is pretty clear that I am all for the serenity of Whistler’s Symphonies in white influenced by Japanese-influence, but both possess their beauty. Whistler’s paintings can sometimes seem distant and cold, and the intensity of Rossetti and Burne-Jones’s colours and details can sometimes be overwhelming.

James Ensor – Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man

17 Feb

Welcome to the whimsical, colourful and macabre world of the Belgian painter James Ensor.

James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man, 1891

Painting “Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man” is a perfect example of the art that Ensor remains known for. Skeletons shouting, skeletons laughing, skeletons dressed in pretty clothes and fancy hats fighting and threatening each other with brooms and umbrellas. Meanwhile, on the far left and far right ends of the canvas a group of masked faces observe in silence. Their faces, or rather the masks they are wearing reveal a whole set of different emotions; anger, curiosity, shock, malice. Ensor’s whimsically knowns no end because in some paintings it is hard to tell whether a figure is a living person or a skeleton wearing a mask in order to trick us into thinking it’s a living flesh and blood. He skilfully combines playfulness with morbidity, eerie sense of transience with joyous hedonism of the carnival. Skeletons wearing clothes, fighting and living normally amongst humans is death itself laughing to our face, it is as if she is saying: you can’t avoid me, so embrace me. Unlike Edvard Munch who had a morbid obsession with death and illness, Ensor’s view on it is neither sad nor tragic. Death is inseparable from the often pointless and often laughable, at once colourful, burdensome and boring carnival of life. He in fact paints it in shiny and vibrant colours, often with the background in white, painted in careful small brushstrokes, showing attention to detail and filing the space with light.

James Ensor (1860-1949) didn’t always paint these kind of vibrant yet twisted scenes full of intrigues. He wasted his early years on painting in a Realistic manner and painting the popular plein air scenes inspired by the Impressionists. But as he approached his thirties, he found his artistic inspiration in something that had been right in front of his nose for years – carnival masks. In his coastal home town of Ostend in Belgium, Ensor’s parents owned a shop that sold masks, mostly for tourists. So, in carnival masks in front of his eyes and skeletons in his imagination, Ensor concocted many and many whimsical paintings with just a slight macabre touch. The faces on masks are perhaps a hint to Bruegel the Elder’s grotesque faces of peasants, but Ensor adds a social critique by portraying his disillusionment in society around him. Those masked faces, for me, perfectly capture the way I see people around me and in the streets; always eager to judge and stuff noses in matters that do not concern them, hiding their true malicious motifs under a mask of smiles and nice words. With its emphasis on surreal world where skeletons and humans live in harmony, and the expressive abilities of human faces with different emotions, Ensor’s art carried a seed that would later blossom into Expressionism and Surrealism, although it’s important to note that he wasn’t as influential on the development of those art movements as Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch were.

Virginia Poe’s Valentine Poem for Edgar Allan Poe

14 Feb

Here is an acrostic poem that Edgar Allan Poe’s darling little wife Virginia wrote to him for Valentine’s Day in 1846. Less than a year later she was dead.

Virginia Poe’s handwritten Valentine poem to her husband Edgar Allan Poe, Feb 14th 1846; what a beautiful handwriting!

Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.

Edvard Munch – Maiden and the Heart

11 Feb

And “love” is just a miserable lie
You have destroyed my flower-like life
Not once – twice
You have corrupt my innocent mind
Not once – twice.

(The Smiths, Miserable Lie)

Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944), Maiden and the Heart, 1896

Edvard Munch’s etching shows a nude girl sitting outdoors, on the grass, surrounded by a few scarce flowers. She turned her back on us, showing off the beautiful line of her arching back. We cannot meet her gaze, but seen from the profile her furrowed brow allows us to assume that the feelings mounting in her soul are that of sadness or pain. Our attention immediately leads somewhere else. In her stretched hands she is holding a heart; live, bleeding, crimson red (we can imagine), pulsating, aching, painful heart. From about 1894, Munch was getting more and more interested in woodcuts and etchings, and he was skilful in those art forms as well as in standard oil on canvas.

Paintings of Edvard Munch nearly always explore deep, profound themes and states of the soul; anxiety and alienation, loneliness, death and despair, love and pain, and the crown of his themes is love as a source of anguish and pain. The sorrowful Maiden who is holding the bleeding heart in her hands is a visually simple etching, without too much detail, but the longer you gaze at it the more feelings it evokes, the more depth you see in it. Often used, and overused phrases such as “heart ache” or “broken heart” suddenly get a new exciting flair when I gaze at Munch’s interpretation of the subject. The idea of portraying pain so literally and so directly has so much of childlike straightforwardness and honesty in it. A broken heart is presented as a real bleeding thing that the Maiden can hold in her hand just as she would hold a book or a flower, and her hands and her feet are coloured with the crimson blood which drips, sweet and sticky as honey, on the grass, while the flowers listen, their petals full of worry. The trees in the background, silent and sketch-like, are mute to her pain.

Frida Kahlo, Memory (The Heart), 1937

I simply adore the idea of expressing pain so directly! In her painting “Memory (The Heart)”, Frida Kahlo did a similar thing. The oversized bleeding heart is meant to portray the pain inflicted by Diego Rivera’s affair with her younger sister.

Vincent van Gogh, Sorrow, 1882

Simple lines, expressiveness and pain of Munch’s etching reminded me of a famous drawing called “Sorrow” that Vincent van Gogh made in 1882. It shows Vincent’s friend Sien, at the time a sad, destitute pregnant woman prone to drinking, mostly likely working as a prostitute. Such simplicity of lines and depth of emotions in both works. I usually love Van Gogh’s rapturous mad yellows and Munch’s strong whirling, almost psychedelic brushstrokes but here the black line on white background is all I need. Perhaps the colour is an excess when the subject is such an intense emotion?

Edvard Munch – The Lonely Ones (Two People)

8 Feb

In this post we’ll take a look at Edvard Munch’s painting “The Lonely Ones”.

Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones (Two People), 1895

A man and a woman are standing on the shore, gazing at the sea. The waves crush on to the shore as the two of them stand there in silence, just one step away from each other, and yet emotionally distant. The whiteness of her dress stands in contrast with his sombre black suit, which visually further connects the insurmountable difference between the sexes. The murmur of the sea, louder than their loneliness, matches the turmoil that rises in their soul. Are they a couple who just had an argument, or two lovers who have, after being drunken with love, now sobered and realised that nothing, not even their love, will spare them the loneliness and feeling of isolation that they experience as individuals, that they are forced to face the world alone, that one is alone even when they are holding a loved one in their arms?

Turquoise and pink rocks on the beach and the sea waves take on psychedelic shapes as Munch swirls with his brush just as he did in the famous “Scream”. As hopes crush into bitter disappointments, the reality fails to make sense and the man and the woman gaze longingly at the sea searching answers to their inner voids. In his book about Munch, J.P. Hodin writes: “It is as if Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics of Sexual Love were represented in the medium of painting. Man and woman are like elements which come into contact, obsess one another but cannot become united. Woman is an enigma to man, a sphinx which he must always contemplate searchingly.”

Still, that disconnection, this misunderstanding between man and a woman alone on the shore reminds me more of something that Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving: “Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside.

Edvard Munch, Separation II, 1896

In “Separation” above we again see a man and a woman, together on canvas yet painfully and deeply alone, drifting into opposite directions, aimlessly like paper boats on the lake. His dark eyelids are closed, his mouth mute. Her long hair seems to be flying in the wind, caressing his shoulder, stirring the silence with its murmur, mingling with the sweet nocturnal air. The striking titles of many of Munch’s paintings point at his desire to portray the whole range of different emotions and states: separation, loneliness, fear, anguish, consolation, pain…

Connecting love with pain, and ultimately loneliness, is a theme often exploited in the world of art and poetry, but Edvard Munch and his contemporaries in the decadent and spiritually rotting society of fin de scle had a particular penchant for it, to the point of rejecting love or a lover. In his youth, Munch was shy and reticent, not much is known about his relationships with women apart from the fact that they brought bitter disappointments, and he tended to fear any signs of affection or closeness because they most certainly carried anguish with them. Holdin again writes: “Love turned into distrust of woman. When Nietzsche spoke of love he saw it as the eternal war, the mortal hatred between the sexes. ‘Man fears woman when he loves, he fears her when he hates.”

Munch was a friend with many writers of the days and he was influenced by their writings and their ideas. Swedish playwright Strindberg was similarly interested in conflicts of love, and in 1897 wrote in his diary: “What is Woman? The enemy of friendship, the inevitable scourge, the necessary evil, the natural temptation, the longed for misfortune, a never ending source of tears, the poor masterpiece of creation in an aspect of dazzling white. Since the first woman contracted with the devil, shall not her daughters do the same? Just as she was created from a crooked rib, so is her entire nature crooked and warped and inclined to evil.

Edvard Munch, Consolation, 1894

Holdin ends his thoughts about the paintings “The Lonely Ones” with a glimpse of hope: “No, Munch does not hate woman, for he realizes that she has to suffer as he suffers himself.” How splendid of him to console us!

The Night When Modigliani Stole a Stone…

5 Feb

Amedeo Modigliani, Woman’s Head, 1912, limestone

There is a beautiful bohemian chapter in André Salmon’s book about Modigliani (original title: “La Vie passionnée de Modigliani”) where the devilishly handsome sculptor and painter Amedeo goes out one night to steal a stone that he needs for his statue. The theft wasn’t a one night thing, for Amedeo had often ventured into the blue Parisian nights to steal a stone from a store or a warehouse, guided by the light of the shining stars. He dared to steal only after midnight, and often went with a friend, usually with the fellow painter Emmanuel Gondouin. What a sight the two artists must have been, roaming the empty streets: Amedeo with his raven “hair of a rebellious angel and fiery eyes”, as Salmon describes him, and Gondouin who was of robust built and whose appearance was similar to that of Beethoven. Gondouin would help him carry the heavy stone.

But that night Modigliani was alone… It wasn’t wise to go to the stone theft alone, all sorts of thoughts roamed his pretty head… but he had to carve, he had to create, nor his hands nor his mind would be at peace if he didn’t have that stone… Perhaps the night would be peaceful and the stars forgiving at this poor melancholy angel?… And so he went – alone. “I will get caught… I will end up in prison”, he thought as the darkness of the night shrouded him softly. After he stole the beautiful piece of limestone from someone’s shed, still in a haze from the alcohol and hashish of those glorious nights of Montparnasse, he carried it out and hid around the corner trying to catch his breath. His weak body, plagued with years of alcohol and illnesses, couldn’t keep up with the blazing passion of his spirit. Amedeo, at long last beholding his beauty, glanced at the stone. The beautiful piece of white limestone answered to Amedeo’s loud heartbeats with a smile and whispered promises of inspiration. It was happy to be in loving arms, at last. Then, he heard someone’s footsteps… Could it be the police? Drops of sweat slid down his forehead… No?… Good. It was a man, an anarchist and a nocturnal wanderer who worked at the Halles market, and whose intentions have proved to be kind. He helped Amedeo with the stone and chatted until they arrived to his atelier where they parted.

Modigliani would say that it doesn’t matter if the stone is soft, as long as it gives the illusion of marble. The photo above shows one of his sculptures. It is stylistically very similar to the paintings which followed; an elongated face, long slender neck and large almond-shaped eyes; eyes that seem to gaze into eternity, a face that echoes the sadness of the world, a neck of a swan, so fragile and breakable…