Frans Masereel – Streetlights, Paris in the evening

22 Nov

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”

(Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart)

Frans Masereel (Belgian, 1889-1972), Streetlights, Paris in the evening, 1939

Belgian painter Frans Masereel’s painting “Streetlights, Paris in the Evening” really captivated me these days. I just love it so much! The mood is so dark and strange and so fitting for these dreary late autumnal November days. The more I gaze at this painting, the more I am sinking in this atmosphere of isolation and gloom which are so alluring. The buildings, so tall and so dark, with countless soulless little windows, appear threatening and cold. They don’t look inviting and friendly, they look like big ghostly figures ready to swallow up the tiny figure of a man in a red shirt. The sharp, vertical lines serve the same purpose as in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s paintings of Berlin streets; to create a sense of anxiety and looming threat. The light of the street lamps colours the pavement in warm yellow hues. The clouds, painted in dark blues and greys, look so robust and strong as if they could crush down the buildings underneath them. It seems the painter took great deal of time to paint the sky and it certainly adds to the mood of the painting. The sky in the distance is tinged with orange. Patches of red, yellow and blue on the otherwise drab facades give me goosebumps of joy because they break the icy coldness of the buildings’ appearance. Can you feel it?…. The cold, frosty breath of isolation blowing through the streets like autumnal wind. Perhaps the entire street scene is actually seen through the eyes of the man in red shirt, perhaps he is the focalizer of this painting and the reason why the street looks so alienating and empty, the buildings so threatening and gloomy, the sky heavy and dark and about to fall on him and crush him, is because he perceives the world around him that way. This is how the evening in Paris seems to this isolated small individual who is wandering the streets alone and lonely, with a mask of despair on his face and a sense of dread weighing his legs and slowing his walking pace. Every little window on every building is an abyss of darkness ready to swallow him in ….. he must hurry! Hurry before they get him.

Frans Masereel, La vespasienne sous le métro, 1926

Frans Masereel, Metro aerien (Hochbahn), 1926

To end, I decided to include these two paintings Masereel painted in 1926. I love all the bold black lines swirling and cutting the space in a very exciting way. The lines, along with the bright turquoise and yellow neon lights really create an atmosphere of a vibrant and chaotic nightlife. It’s interesting to compare the years in which the paintings were made and what was going on at the time; the roaring twenties were an exciting time and these paintings capture this excitement and glamour, and the painting above, with a very different mood, was painted in 1939; the year World War Two started.

2 Responses to “Frans Masereel – Streetlights, Paris in the evening”

  1. smilla72 24th Nov 2020 at 12:01 pm #

    Hi Byron’s muse. Thanks for this beautiful essay and the pics. Again I have to admit that I did not know this Belgian painter before. So this comment will be highly « approximate «  and subjective because I’m not an art expert. I want to focus on the third painting and just assume by the word « Hochbahn » that it shows a German city. The atmosphere matches the mood that was always mine when, studying in Germany in the Nineties and traditionally burdened by loneliness, I went back to my flat after my evening walk. And the painting also matches my favorite composer’s music of that time (Arnold Schoenberg), especially his « Berlin » works from the 1920s. In his « Book of the hanging gardens » opus 15, Schoenberg transposed poems by Stefan George in a very specific, « atonal » melancholic mood close to Masereel’s painting. My mood in those years was « romantic-atonal » as well so it matched very well Schoenberg. Here a poem out of opus 15: « When we behind the flower-decked gate / at last only sensed each other’s breathing, / was our happiness what we thought? / I remember that, like weak reeds, / both mute we began to tremble / when we touched only lightly, / and that our eyes ran with tears. / So you stayed long by my side. »

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 24th Nov 2020 at 7:11 pm #

      Hello, thank you for your comment. It’s wonderful that this painting can awoke such memories and that you can connect your own mood of loneliness from the past with this artwork. It’s always a wonderful feeling when the painting speaks to you. Thank you for sharing that poem as well, I love it!


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