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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!?

Marie Laurencin: Wistful Waifs in Pink and Greys

6 May

Why should I paint dead fish, onions and beer glasses? Girls are so much prettier.

(Marie Laurencin)

Marie Laurencin, Woman with dog and cat (Femme au chien et au chat), 1916

As it is usually the case with female artists, Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) was partly forgotten and partly misremembered. She is mostly remembered as a part of the French avant-garde, muse to Guillaume Apollinaire who poetically bestowed the name “Our Lady of Cubism” upon her. A female Cubist, a muse, just another figure in the modernist Parisian art circles. But all of these titles, as flattering as they sound, do not do the justice to the lyrical, gentle beauty of Laurencin’s paintings. Born on the last day of October in Paris in 1883, Laurencin moved to Sèvres at the age of eighteen to study porcelain painting. After that, she returned to Paris and pursued studying oil painting at the Académie Humbert. Her work stretched from the early twentieth century up until her death. She was especially successful in the 1920s, but in 1930s, due to the economic crash, besides painting she also worked as an art instructor in a private school. While it is easy to noticed the changes and developments of her style and themes, her paintings always have that certain beautiful quality that makes them so wonderful and unique, and it makes you think that no one else could have painted them but Marie Laurencin herself.

These days I am particularly captivated by the beautiful harmony of pinks and greys in Laurencin’s paintings. So many enchanting shades of grey! Grey like the sky on an autumn day, grey like the fluffy lead-coloured springs clouds full of rain, grey like a soft bunny’s fur, grey like the waters of Seine that Apollinaire mentions in one of his poem called “Marie” written for Laurencin, grey as something gentle, fading and romantical.

I was walking along the Seine

An old book under my arm

The river is like my sorrow

It flows and does not end

So when will the week be done.

(last stanza from “Marie” by Apollinaire, translation found here.)

Marie Laurencin, The Fan, 1919

“The masks are silent

And the music so distant

That it seems descended from heaven

 Yes, I want to love you, but love you barely

And my disease is delicious.”

(“Marie”, Apollinaire, found here.)

All the feminine gentleness of Laurencin’s work lies in those soft shades of grey. The girls in all these paintings, dreamy Parisian waifs, with elongated, thin, mask-like faces bring to mind the slender, gaudy ladies from Kees van Dongen’s canvases. Their skin is grey, their eyes large, silent, poetic and deep, their gazes wistful and inviting. Strange doll-like stillness, paleness, quietness lingers through these canvases. And when the soft grey shades meet the more vibrant, almost garish shades of pink, purple, blue, turquoise, then the true magic occurs. Softness, gentleness, sweetness prevail in these portraits, these girls in pinks and greys are girls seen through the feminine lens of a female painter. To call Laurencin “a female Cubist” is almost an insult to these charming, delicate paintings which posses none of the mathematical, objective, steel-coldness of the Cubist artworks. Laurencin’s portraits are like pages from a young girl’s diary, lyrical and coated in sweetness, but not shallow or sentimental because they have that something, a touch of mystery, secrecy and silent which makes one wonder. She even said herself: “Cubism has poisoned three years of my life, preventing me from doing any work. I never understood it. I get from Cubism the same feeling that a book on philosophy and mathematics gives me. Aesthetic problems always make me shiver. As long as I was influenced by the great men surrounding me I could do nothing.

Laurencin was a part of the Cubist circles but her work is certianly not. Her exploration of colours is, to me, more reminiscent of Fauvism. Look at that turquoise and bright pink the painting “Woman with Dog and Cat”! I don’t understand why the feminine element is often overlooked in her art. She is not less of an artist if she painted pretty girls in pastel colours. She is mostly remembered as just a Cubist muse, but at the same time Picasso’s Cubist guitars and violins, broken to pieces canvases, that is seen as avant-garde and revolutionary, and I don’t see why. Laurencin said something interesting about women and painting: “I conceive of a woman’s role to be of a different nature: painting to be essentially a “job” for a woman (one who sits so long quiet on a chair); and a painter’s inspiration to be life and that of natural sensibility rather than the outcome of intellect or reason. There is something incongruous to me in the vision of a strong man sitting all day… manipulating small paint brushes, something essentially effeminate.

Marie Laurencin, Femme à la colombe (Marie Laurencin et Nicole Groult), 1919

Marie Laurencin, Woman with Dog (La femme au chien), c. 1924

Marie Laurencin, The Kiss, 1927

Henry Peach Robinson – Fading Away

28 Apr

The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858

I found myself thinking about death these days, and naturally the first things that came to my mind were the poems, the paintings and this Victorian era photograph taken by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858. “Fading Away” is a very romantical and elegantly sad photograph which shows a pale and frail young girl dying from consumption, or perhaps from a broken heart. She is surrounded by her a family members, all of which play a different role in the composition of the photograph and also in expressing emotion. The male figure, presumably the father, turned his back towards the girl, unable to face the painful truth; death of his beloved daughter. Perhaps he is trying to suppress his tears, and perhaps he feels powerless because he failed to protect her from the ultimate enemy: death.  This photograph perfectly encapsulated the morbidly romantical fascination with death which came to define the Victorian era. For modern viewers the aesthetic conveyed is very Victorian, but the Victorians felt very differently about Robinson’s photograph. It received mixed reviews from the public; some found it shocking that the photographer would invade such an intimate, private moment. The Victorians knew the distinction between the private life and the outside world. And also, the photograph is actually an early example of photomontage and Robinson. was a pioneer of that. I am as shocked as the Victorians were because the final result is so realistic and I would never have assumed that these individuals weren’t in the same room at the same moment together.

Poets of Romanticism expressed an inexplicable longing for death because every day life, with its struggles and ugliness, was far from their ideal of Beauty. “Transient pleasures as a vision seem, and yet we think the greatest pain’s do die”, wrote John Keats in his poem “On Death”. Percy Bysshe Shelley was equally dramatic, utterly obsessed with death, he saw it as the state of ultimate happiness and perfection. The Victorian era romanticised death, especially the slow, staged, almost theatre-like moment of death. And what actress to play the role of a person soon to be departed than a beautiful, pale, virginal girl who had tasted none of life’s sweetness and joys and already at such a tender age death was to take her away. It’s like a rose forever preserved in its loveliest stage of bud! Never blooming fully, and thus never withering either. Poe was right: death of a young girl is indeed the most beautiful topic for art. And here is John Keats’ poem “On Death” written in 1814 in a letter to his brother Thomas who was, just like the poor girl in the photograph, suffering from consumption which would ultimately be Keats’s end as well:

On Death

Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,
And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?
The transient pleasures as a vision seem,
And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.

How strange it is that man on earth should roam,
And lead a life of woe, but not forsake
His rugged path; nor dare he view alone
His future doom which is but to awake.

Henry Peach Robinson, She Never Told Her Love, 1857

“She never told her love,

But let concealment,

like a worm i’ the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek”

(Shakespeare, Twelfth Night II,iv,111-13)

Robinson’s photograph “She Never Told Her Love”, taken in 1857, served as a study for the girl in “Fading Away”. Resting on soft big pillow, the girl truly does appear to be fading away. Her hair is spread on the pillow, her hands clasped on her lap, her lips ever so softly parted. This study’s focus is on the girl, she is alone in her pictorial space, alone with her woe, illness and that poor broken heart. In “Fading Away” she is surrounded by family, and even though the study has the intimacy of the girl alone, I feel like the characters add to the drama and the story behind the photograph.

It is interesting to think of the way poets and artists of Romanticism and the Victorians saw death, and how our culture sees it. The Victorian era attitude towards death is seen as “morbid” nowadays and I don’t quite see why. Every living thing on earth is bound to die one day, so why is death such a taboo topic, such a shocking morbid “Gothic” thing? It seems like everything is so sugarcoated nowadays; idealised, filtered, posed, set-up, and artificial and hence such a pure, dark truth such as death is hard to digest. Death comes without invitations, it cannot be ignored, postponed, sugarcoated, it changes everything, it is beyond our control. Perhaps we are too entitled today and we subconsciously feel that, along with our generally good standard of living (at least in the Western countries), immortality is also our god-given right, and it isn’t. Can’t we go back to times when death was romanticised and one could truly die of a broken heart!? I feel like I can relate to Romantic visions of the death much more, and also this beautiful poem “Goodbye, my friend, goodbye” by the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) who ended his life not by consumption or broken heart, but by suicide:

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.

Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let’s have no sadness — furrowed brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer.

The poem was written in the poet’s own blood and found in the hotel room where he had committed suicide. Still, despite the tragical ending, the poem carries a seed of hope, like a silver dandelion seed floating aimlessly in the wind, because dying is nothing new and living no newer, and the sad parting brings reunion, and could there be a more hopeful thought? Death is not the end, not the end…