This month I was inspired by William Morris prints, Kate Moss, Millais’ painting Mariana, circus, Biba girls, Babyshambles, films Edge of Love (2008) and Der Himmel über Berlin or Wings of Desire (1987); the latter is a poetic masterpiece by Wim Wenders with beautiful aesthetics, set in a cold-war era Berlin. I’ve already watched it a year ago and it’s one of my all time favourite films. I’ve read three interesting books, all by Japanese authors: The Pillowbook by Sei Shonagon, and two works by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki – firstly, an erotic novel The Key which deals with the loss of communication between a middle aged couple, and secondly – In Praise of Shadows – an essay on aestheticism.
Dusky, velvety colours, intricate detailing and that peculiar mood of yearning and melancholy that pervades paintings from Millais’ early phase, make Mariana a true Pre-Raphaelite gem, comparable by beauty and emotional intensity only to the more famous Ophelia painted around the same time.
Painting Mariana is a beautiful and psychologically stimulating example of Millais’ early work and his devotion to the values of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that is, to study nature attentively, to have genuine ideas to express and to produce thoroughly good pictures. Pre-Raphaelites had a tendency to draw inspiration from works of literature such as Dante and Lord Tennyson’s poems, and plays by William Shakespeare. This painting is no exception. Its mood and composition instantly attract the viewer. A tired lady in a gown of shiny midnight blue velvet stands by the window, supporting her aching back with hands, gazing into the distance. That’s Mariana, a character from Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure and Lord Tennyson’s poem Mariana, a young woman doomed to a life of solitude because her fiancé Angelo abandoned her after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck at sea.
In her lonely, virginal chamber time stands still. Modern, Victorian interior in carnelian brownish reds and peridot greens is contrasted with old Medieval stained glass windows that show the scene of Annunciation which perhaps serves to compare Mariana’s waiting to that of Virgin Mary. If you look closely, you’ll notice a needle pinned into a discarded embroidery. Mariana seems occupied by her pursuit while seasons change and winds roar around her lonely claustrophobic abode. The abundance and lushness of late Summer transitions in Autumn as orange and green leaves come dancing softly into her cluttered Victorian chamber. Seasons change but her longing seems infinite and still. Autumnal nature dying in rich shades could symbolise Mariana’s inner dying. The seal in the right corner of stained glass windows reads In coelo quies or In Heaven there is rest, further implying Mariana’s suicidal thoughts as she contemplates on her dreary world. These verses of Velvet Underground’s song Venus in Furs remind me of Mariana’s emotions: I am tired, I am weary/ I could sleep for a thousand years/ A thousand dreams that would awake me/ Different colours made of tears.
At first sight, this painting seems like a simple Victorian genre scene; passive and sad woman in a dark cluttered room, in a Medieval-style dress, exhibiting a typical Victorian nostalgia for the past eras. However, Millais portrays a complex psychological state underneath the aesthetically pleasing exterior, and that’s what makes this painting stand out amongst other similar Victorian artworks. Attentive to details like he was in his early artistic phase, Millais managed to evoke Mariana’s feelings – her yearning, pain, loneliness and seeming resignation, mood of dreariness and ‘changes that all pass her like a dream’, as Lizzie Siddal, another Pre-Raphaelite muse, would late wrote in her poem. This painting is so iconic in my opinion, just like the famous Ophelia. You simply can’t think of the character Mariana without imagining the scene the way Millais portrayed it and he based the painting on this particular verse by Lord Tennyson:
“She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’”
Looking at her pose and her surroundings you can feel her tiredness and desperation. You can imagine the broken thoughts running through her mind; What am I doing with my life? What awaits me? Will my life be this dreary forever? Perhaps she still feels the softness of her silk wedding dress under her fingers, but, oh, misery, all too soon she has buried it along with her dreams. Millais is quite daring in his choice of subject. In rigid Victorian world, a woman did well if she got married, and if she remained a spinster, well, that must be her fault. And here we have a dashing young artist portraying a sexually frustrated woman; a woman who is not content with being silent and doing her embroidery but wants more, from life and love equally. Almost twenty years later, a fellow Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti revisited the theme and painted his own version of Mariana; portraying her as a sensuous and arrogant femme fatale disdainfully gazing into the distance, using Jane Burden Morris as a model. I prefer Millais’ version because he, in my opinion, managed to portray Mariana’s feelings much better. I feel that in general, Millais is the poetic one, and Rossetti is the passionate one. With this subject, lyrical and poetical approach is better.
I recognise Mariana’s feelings in these lyrics written by Morrissey:
“And as I climb into an empty bed
Oh, well, enough said…” (The Smiths, I Know It’s Over)
Dream is gone, but Mariana’s loneliness is real. She could have been a bride and now she’s a fool. Oh, if only that dowry wasn’t lost at sea. If only Angelo had been more faithful. Please, save your life, Mariana, because you only got one.
Sei Shonagon (c. 966-1017/1025) was a Japanese court lady who wrote poems and lyrical observations on court life. This month I read her famous ‘Pillowbook’; a collection of the previously mentioned texts and poems which she wrote purely for her own amusement before going to sleep. Some chapters, such as those discussing politics, were a bit tedious in my opinion, but others were brilliantly poetic and lyrical, often funny as well. The book was written in 990s, and it’s something so poignant in the fact that there was a lady, both witty and intelligent, often cynical, who thought it interesting to write about things happening at court, about the change of seasons, and document her views on many topics, from having a lover to travelling in carriages made of bamboo plants. And now, more than a thousand years later, I have a privilege to read a collection of texts you could rightfully call a diary. Some people even went so far as to say that Shonagon was the first blogger!
Her observations seemed so relatable, even though cultures and time periods divide her life from mine. The book really brings the spirit of the times and I like their way of life; visiting shrines, belief in reincarnation, writing haiku poems and sending elegant letters with tree twigs attached to it, contemplating in beautiful rock (later Zen) gardens, and admiring moonshine, still lakes and gentle plum trees in spring. If I had ten lives, I wouldn’t mind spending one of them living like that. In today’s hectic and instant society such serenity seems unimaginable to me.
I will end my short review by saying that I thoroughly recommend the book, if you still haven’t realised that. Happy reading!
This is how The Pillow Book begins, with Sei Shonagon describing the beauty of four seasons:
‘In Spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.
In Summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!
In Autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sets close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild gees, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.
In Winter the early mornings. it is beautiful indeed when the snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season’s mood! But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes.‘
*As this is mainly an art blog, I am aware of the fact that Shonagon lived in Heian period and the painting by Hokusai is from Edo period or 19th century, so there’s a discord here. It would be the same as putting a painting of Queen Victoria and a Medieval text, but I really liked this painting by Hokusai and I felt it fits the mood of Shonagon’s book.
As you may have seen in my post My Inspiration for July, John Williams is an author I discovered in July. Being very enthusiastic about his book Cardiff Dead, I decided to read his book Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Night Club, and since I really loved his style in general, I decided he needs a shout out. Also, Williams is an editor and a contributor of a collection of short stories Wales, Half Welsh which I’m currently reading and enjoying it, at least stories he wrote.
John Williams (b. 1961) is a Cardiff based writer, and therefore some of his books and stories are set in Cardiff and often feature the same characters, so we could say that he really created a whole new world and aesthetic. I was blown away by his style of writing. I’m not going to lie, he is not the new Jack Kerouac, but is his prose modern, funny, honest, fast paced – yes it is. He’s not really poetic and descriptive, but somehow I instantly get the picture, so whatever he’s doing, it’s working, because his characters and their lives bring you back to 1990s Cardiff, Butetown specifically, and I kind of liked being in that little world for a while. His characters are rock and ska musicians, or ex-rock musicians, prostitutes, thieves, gangsters, ex-revolutionaries, drug dealers – people from the edge of society. Williams doesn’t portray them as malicious and dangerous, but rather as likeable people who are willing to put their past behind and start fresh.
Novel Cardiff Dead takes its title from these lyrics:
‘I’m Cardiff born and Cardiff bread
And when I dies I’ll be Cardiff dead.‘ (Frank Hennessy)
I was drawn to this novel from the first page. The introduction is nostalgic and strangely poetic. It’s 1999, and the main character, thirty-nine year old Mazz is returning to Cardiff after eighteen years. Williams slowly reveals Mazz’s past, his character and details of his life, at the same time introducing other characters such as Tyra, Charlie, Bobby, Kenny Ibadulla etc. Some chapters are set in 1981 which gives us a view of Mazz’s life when it was all at the beginning. He’s from the Valleys, and moved to Cardiff in summer of 1979 with a bag of clothes and his Fender guitar, and soon formed a ska bend called The Wurriyas. These chapters are very interesting to me because some political events such as Hunger strikes and IRA, miners crisis and death of Bob Marley form the background of their lives.
Thematically, this book is very layered. It deals with Mazz’s return and everything that goes on in Cardiff at the moment such as the building of the Millennium Stadium, but it also deals with many other things – Mazz reflects on the life he lead, search for the missing bend member Emyr (which strangely reminds me of the disappearance of Richey Edwards, and being a rock fan Williams is no doubt aware of that), Mazz and Tyra’s love story, as well as the sad disappearance of old Cardiff and its transformation upon entering the new millennium.
All in all, I truly enjoyed reading this book; it was intriguing, passionate, dynamic, warm and full of hope. I randomly picked it up at the library because I liked the title and I thought I’d enjoy reading a Welsh author and a book set in urban Wales because I love Manic Street Preachers after all.