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Eugène Grasset – La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict)

23 May

“Well it just goes to show
Things are not what they seem
Please, Sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams
Oh, can’t you see I’m fading fast?
And that this shot will be my last…”

(The Rolling Stones, Sister Morphine)

Eugène Grasset, La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict), 1897, color lithograph

In one of my previous posts I wrote about Eugene Grasset’s lovely watercolour “Young Girl in the Garden”, but today I am presenting a very different work of the same artist. The heroine of the artwork is again a woman, but not a dreamy, romantic young woman standing in her garden, surrounded by flowers and birds in the sunset of the day, oh no, the heroine of this colour litograph is a morphine addict. The figure of the addict woman is portrayed from the head to the knees and this closely cropped composition makes the mood more intimate, more immediate. The fact that she is dressed in her undergarments contributes to the intimate, secretive mood. After all, injecting morphine is a private thing to do so the bedroom setting and the clothes she is wearing are both more than appropriate. We hold our breath as we watch the woman inject the morphine into her thigh. The transient pain of the needle will soon melt into sweet nothingness that the Sister Morphine offers…

“Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jim’s in this town
And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds
And everybody puttin’ everybody else down….
Then thank God that I’m good as dead
Then thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care
And I guess I just don’t know
And I guess I just don’t know.“

(Velvet Underground, Heroin)

All details are eliminated; we can partly see the green chair behind the woman and the table on the left is cut off from the space of the artwork because neither are necessarry. Even the colour scheme is simplified; yellow, white, black and green, and thus all our focus goes straight to the woman and in particular to her face which is definitely the most interesting aspect of this litograph. The painful grimace on her face, with its teeth showing and eyebrows clenched is animalistic, primal, without contraints, and how different in that regard to the reserved aloofness and coldness of the elegant upper class ladies with their stiff corsets and fixed smiles.

The injection of morphine brings a rush of pleasure, followed by a drowsiness, sleepiness and dreaminess. We are witnessing this very journey; from the initial almost orgasmic pleasure to the realm of dreams where reality can’t hurt her anymore. Pleasure and dreams as means to forget it all. The flat surface and the woman’s grimace both show the Japanese influence on Western artists.

Paul Albert Besnard, Morphine Addicts or The Plume, 1887, etching, drypoint and aquatint

Grasset was just one of the fin de siecle artists who peeked behind the velvet curtains of the supposedly respectable society and painted the garish and ugly reality that was hiding there; alcoholism, prostitution, debauchery, drug use. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Kees van Dongen, Paul Albert Besnard and many others portrayed scenes of the seedy Parisian underbelly; the world of bohemians, outcasts and degenerates. The woman in this litograph -a prostitute and a morphine addict – is a stark contrast to the elegant upper class ladies seeping tea or strolling around which can be found in the art of Mary Cassatt. Paintings by Cassatt portray the visible reality, but Grasset is the voyeur who is peeking at the hidden, forbidden aspects of the late nineteenth French society.

Uemura Shoen – Flames

21 May

“You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away.”

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

Uemura Shoen, Flames, 1918

The title of Uemura Shoen’s painting, “Flames”, is somewhat in a discord with the painting’s gentle, subdued appearance.The title “Flames” inplies the flames of jealousy and the woman portrayed here is Lady Rokujo; the heroine of Murasaki Shikibu’s eleventh century novel “The Tale of Genji” (Genji Monogatari). The motives of leaves and delicate spider webs speak of the tranquility of nature, but the feelings rising in Lady Rokujo’s soul are all but tranquil. The lady’s pale skin hides a scarlet coloured rage, but still waters run deep and Rokujo’s feelings are deep and passionate. She is biting the strand of her long, long black hair and this gesture speaks of the tormenting state that this lady has found herself in. The pose that she is in; stylised and contorted also adds to the tense, anguished mood that she is in. The lady’s elegance and her porcelain pale skin makes her look like a doll and that is something we see often in Shoen’s paintings of women.

Shoen specialised in the genre called bijin-ga; a genre of pictures that show beautiful women, especially popular in the Ukiyo-e prints. Often times these beautiful women were prostitutes, but that is not always the case and it is certainly not the case with Shoen’s paintings such as this one. Shoen was born in 1875 and in those times it was very unusual for a woman to be a professional painter. Women who could paint well were viewed as cultured, but it was something only to be done as a hobby, behind closed doors, not something a woman could do as a career. Shoen was born two months after the death of her father and luckily she had a supportive mother who encouraged her in her artistic pursuits. Shoen was sent to Kyoto Prefectural Painting School when she was twelve years old and there she found a great tutor alled Suzuki Shonen who was the painter of Chinese-style landscapes. He gave her freedom to paint whatever she wanted, even painting human figures which was something that was allowed only in later years of training. Indeed, painting female figures was something that Shoen loved best and this painting proves just how skilled she was at portraying the psychology of the character. Shonen also gave Shoen the first kanji “sho” to use in her name. Shoen’s original birth name was Uemura Tsune.

The topic of jealousy instantly made me think of this passage from Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre” where the dark and brooding Mr Rochester tells this to Jane:

You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away. Floating on with closed eyes and muffled ears, you neither see the rocks bristling not far off in the bed of the flood, nor hear the breakers boil at their base. But I tell you — and you may mark my words — you will come some day to a craggy pass in the channel, where the whole of life’s stream will be broken up into whirl and tumult, foam and noise: either you will be dashed to atoms on crag points, or lifted up and borne on by some master-wave into a calmer current — as I am now.

Eugene Grasset – Young Girl in the Garden

12 May

“Let it pass; April is over, April is over. There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.”

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Sensible Thing)

Eugene Grasset, Young Girl in the Garden, date unknown, watercolour

I recently stumbled upon this gorgeous watercolour by a Swiss turn of the century decorative artist Eugene Grasset (1845-1917) and I was instantly captivated by its lyrical beauty and the ever so slight tinge of melancholy seen in the girl’s downward gaze and the setting sun in the distance, a sense of finality and regrets.

A young brunette in a garden of orange and green tones is casting her gaze down to the pond. She is deep in her thoughts. Spring is passing and the sunset song of the birds speaks of warm summer days which are soon to come; heavy with heat and rich scents of awakened flowers. The lush, elegant garden with its marble staircases and statues brings to mind John Singer Sargent’s vibrant watercolours of the gardens of the Italian villas painted around the same time as Grasset’s watercolour or a little later. The figure of the girl, and the scenery around her and behind her, work in a beautiful harmony; our eye is not distracted by the natural setting of a garden, but the scenery isn’t too simplistic either. Just notice and admire the details on the trees in the background; how lively and wild their branches that stretch towards the heavy orange sunset clouds! With its cascade of statues and flower bushes the scene of a garden acquires a depth which makes the scene more realistic. The girl’s appearance seems to belong to two different ages; at first glance she is the turn of the century young lady, with her dress with slightly puff sleeves and her flowing hair, but also her attire makes her look like a princess from some distant time, from some far-away, enchanted land… Time has stopped; the garish orange sun is captured in its flight, but the tender breeze caressing the trees whispers of changes that are to come. The rosebud of spring is blooming into a summer rose and in this painful transience some things must be left behind. What could I have done differently, or, how fast have the spring days gone by, the young girl seems to be asking herself, in the sunset of a beautiful warm day.

Motives of girls and flowers are common in the art of the La Belle Epoque and indeed, Grasset’s own oeuvre is littered with illustrations that feature a figure of a beautiful girl in a natural setting. Usually, in those kinds of illustrations, everything is so decorative and flowery that it might be hard to tell which is the flower and which – the woman. Visually, this watercolour fits into the same type of paintings, but its mood is more lyrical and it conveys more emotions. It is not emotionally flat and merely decorative, and that is what kept luring me to this watercolour. It speaks to my soul, for sure.

Edmund Dulac – The Entomologist’s Dream

26 Apr

Edmund Dulac, The Entomologist’s Dream, 1909, watercolour, 27.4×29.8 cm

This gorgeous watercolour by the French artist Edmund Dulac shows a scene from Gerard d’Houville’s story “Le Papillon Rouge” (The Red Butterfly) which was published in the December 1909 issue of the French art magazine L’Illustration. Typical for Edmund Dulac’s watercolours, the scene is bathed in mesmerising shades of blue which makes it alluring and mysterious; blue is the colour of dreams, as Miro’s artwork claims. An old man is seen half-lying and half-sitting up on his bed in the middle of the night. His face shows terror and torment; did he just wake up from a horrible nightmare, or has some trouble been torturing him until the early morning hours? His face almost looks comical in its state of torment; his hair is dishelleved, his eyes wide open, his nose big and long. The space around him is in disarray; the chair is knocked down on the floor and the boxes are opened, as if a thief had been there looking for something valuable to steal.

In the story, the cause of the entomologist’s torment is that he is trying to find a rare blood red butterfly to win the love of a lady he fancies. After years of searching and failing miserably, in one moment of delirium or despair, he ransacks his extensive butterfly and insects collection and – by some magic it seems – all the butterflies are freed! Once free, they fly away from their capturer, fly into the night and never look back. This brings the entomologist to the edge of despair and he is found dead in the morning. Dulac’s watercolour shows the climax of the story; the moment when the butterflies are freed and are dancing their one last dance in the entomologist’s room. Had this scene been played out during the day, it would not have had the equal charm. The nocturnal setting adds to the mystery and dreaminess of the scene and we might wonder whether the watercolour shows a real night scene in a real room, or, is it the dream that the entomologist is dreaming? Did he awake from a nightmare, or is this his nightmare? Every motif that Dulac’s brush touches turns into something magical and so it is the case with this scene. The blueness of the scene is enough to drown the viewer in its river of dreams and the ecstasy of the released butterflies vibrantly flying and dancing in the room is just stunning. The despair on the entomologist’s face adds a touch of mystery because it tells a story and it makes us wonder about the cause of his suffering; magic and sadness, a perfect combination.

Kasamatsu Shiro – Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain and The Ginza on a Spring Night

3 Apr

“That is one good thing about this world…there are always sure to be more springs.”

(L.M.Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea)

Kasamatsu Shiro, Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain, 1935

These two woodblock prints by the Japanese print maker and engraver Kasatasu Shiro (1898-1991), “Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain” and “The Ginza on a Spring Night” are very similar and contrasting at the same time. Both prints portray the scene of a spring rain and night; motives that seem to be recurring in the art of Kasamatsu Shiro, and both prints show a scene with architecture and people. Still, the moods of these prints are very different. In “Yushim Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain” the scene of the Tenjin shrine in spring rain is seen through a greyish-blue mist. We, the viewers, are observing the scene from a porch, safely hidden under a roof while the rain is drizzling. The pigeons have also found their safe haven under that same roof. The figures in the distance are all holding umbrellas. The bare tree branches, a pigeon in its flight, the puddles of rain on the ground; little details such as these help to convey the mood of tranquility and perhaps even a touch of melancholy. Here and there we can see the warm yellow light of the lanterns. The horizontal shape of the print adds to the calm, serene mood of the scene and the visual space is nicely broken up into different parts with the wooden columns on the porch; this is a detail typical for Japanese art. In contrast, the print “The Ginza on a Spring Night” shows a scene from a bustling city of Tokyo. Shiro depicts a busy street scene and the vertical format of the print really fits the mood, in the same way the horizontal format fits the meditative mood of the previous print. Women wearing kimono and dresses, men in their suits, everyone is walking down the street on a spring night. Where are they all going, I can’t help but wonder? The blueness of the night is mingling with the yellow light of the streelamps. A thin tree with blossoming branches is stretching itself towards the sky, as if it is thirsty to soak in the silvery light of the moon. It is interesting how the passersby in the foreground are drawn more in detail while the ones in the background are drawn merely as dark shadows. These two prints both depict the motif of a spring night and rain but they are full of contrasts; spiritual versus secular (one print showing the shrine and the other a city scene), tranquility versus liveliness, nature versus city, meditation versus frivolity and fun.

Kasamatsu Shiro, The Ginza on a Spring Night (Haru no yo, Ginza), 1934

Film Saawariya (2007) and Art: Carl Krenek, Maurice Prendergast, Edmund Dulac

19 Mar

“I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year.”

Carl Krenek (1880-1948), A fairy tale scene: a dark lake, boat, weeping willos, blossoms, tempera on paper, 14,3 x 17,3 cm, c 1900s-1910s

It’s been almost a decade since I’ve first seen the Hindi film “Saawariya” (2007), directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and I still find myself captivated by the songs and the setting of the film. What is especially interesting about the film’s plot is that it is inspired by Dostoyevsky’s short story “White Nights”, which was published in 1848, rather early in the writer’s career. In the story, the nameless narrator is a lonely and dreamy young man who lives in Saint Petersburg. One night, whilst wandering the cold, winter streets, he meets a pretty young girl called Nastenka who is also lonely. Of course, he is a dreamer and suddenly Nastenka is hope personified for his lovelorn, lonely existence. The two start talking but Nastenka makes it clear that she doesn’t want romance, and eventually she returns to her lover. In the film “Saawariya” the young man Ranbir Raj (played by Ranbir Kapoor) is the nameless narrator and the Dreamer from Dostoyevsky’s story. Raj’s Nastenka in the film is a young Muslim girl called Sakina (played by Sonam Kapoor) whom she meets one night. But Sakina is in love with her grandma’s tennant, a man called Imaan. Raj is also a musician and he spends a lot of time with the local prostitutes, trying to cheer them up and brings some hope to their sad lives, so he is a warm and kind-hearted man. That aspect is diffent from Dostoyevsky’s story, but the ending is, sadly, similar. Sad for the Dreamer that is.

Scenes from the film “Saawariya”

Now, another thing I love about the film was the aesthetic. The nocturnal, fantasy setting is gorgeous, with no real indication of time, place or the passing of time; a truly dream-like setting for the story because it is told from Ranbir’s memory. One of the most beautiful scenes, for me, is from the song Masha Allah when Ranbir and Sakina encounter each other at night; she is frightened and alone, her veil falls off and the moonlight reveals a beautiful face and Ranbir is instantly smitten and proclaims: Masha Allah! The scene, like the film itself, is bathed in indigo-blue light, and the two are gliding on a boat adorned with flowers over a lake and pass under a bridge where, for a mere second, Rabir can get close to Sakina. The light of the lanterns and neon signs on the buildings is showing them the way. The boat, the water, the bridge, all made me think of Venice and the nocturnal scene really has a magic about it. Here is an interesting commentary on the film’s aesthetic, from an article “The socio-political mutation of Dostoevsky’s White Nights in Hindi Cinema through the ages” written by Eshan Parikh here: “Bhansali created a real dreamscape, one that seemed to exist in a timeless space and was inspired by Indian and European architecture. There is no sense of day/night and seasons. There are shots where you see the dome of a Rajasthani fort like building inside the arch of the replica of Champs-Élysées. There are walls with graffiti in Urdu and shops with English names which were reminiscent of Colonial India. No real year is mentioned where this story may have been set and even the way people dress up is a mix of modern urban styles and more vintage styles of the Colonial era.

This scene from the film captivated me so much that I started looking for similar examples in art; paintings whose mood and motif fits the mood of the scene in the film, and I found three. The first one is a tempera on paper called “A fairy tale scene: a dark lake, boat, weeping willows, blossoms” by an Austrian painter Carl Krenek. The intense blue and green shades are absolutely stunning! In the foreground of the painting there is a row of semi-abstract flowers which look really groovy and behind them is the vibrant blue lake. I especially love the strokes of lighter blue on the dark blue background; they are so flowing and free. In the middle of the lake is a couple on a boat, gliding towards infinity. We can even see a little bit of the sky – the starry night.

Scene from the film Saawariya (2007)

Now, here is a lovely passage from Dostoyevsky’s story where the nameless narrator talks about himself and his relationship with Nastenka:

I am a dreamer. I know so little of real life that I just can’t help reliving such moments as these in my dreams, for such moments are something I have very rarely experiened.

I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year.

I feel I know you so well that I couldn’t have known you better if we’d been friends for twenty years. You won’t fail me, will you? Only two minutes, and you’ve made me happy forever. Yes, happy. Who knows, perhaps you’ve reconciled with me, resolved all my doubts.

(…) If and when you fall in love, may you be happy with her. I don’t need to wish her anything, for she’ll be happy with you. May your sky always be clear, may your dear smile always be bright and happy, and may you be forever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness that you gave to another lonely and grateful heart. Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of one’s life?

The second painting which made me think of the scene from the film was Maurice Prendergast’s watercolour “Feast of the Redemeer”, painted in 1899. I have already written a longer post about it here, but esentially what reminded me of the film was the nocturnal setting, the dark waters, the magical ambience created by the plethora of lanterns and the the boats of course. I can imagine Ranbir and Sakina on one of those boats; he is mesmerised by her beauty, she is daydreaming of her lover, both are enjoying the fleeting dream-like moments while above them is a dark cloud of unrequitedness and an inevitable separation and ending.

Maurice Prendergast, Feast of the Redeemer, c 1899, watercolour

The third and the final painting I found is Edmund Dulac’s watercolour “The Fisherman – The Nightingale”, date unknown but probably early twentieth century. The watercolour shows a nocturnal scene with a fisherman in his little boat gliding on the waters of a river or a lake. The blueness of the water is kissing the blueness of the sky and it is hard to tell the line between the water and the sky. Instead of a fisherman I imagine Raj and Sakina on that boat. The crescent moon, half hidden by the tree branches, is a romantic touch, and I also really love how the trees are almost imposing their way into the painting, forcing their branches into our sight. There is ever so soft light of the moon falling on the water but it is subtle detailing such as that one that bring magic to the scene.

“Among these trees lived a nightingale, which sang so deliciously, that even the poor fisherman, who had plenty of other things to do, lay still to listen to it, when he was out at night drawing in his nets.”

(Hans Christian Andersen, The Nightingale)

Edmund Dulac, The Fisherman – The Nightingale, no date

Edgar Degas – Russian Dancers

6 Mar

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, pastel

Without a doubt the motif of a female body, nude or dressed, in various different activities, was Degas’ favourite motif to paint. He made series of paintings portraying ballerinas, laundresses, miliners, women bathing themselves, but a very interesting little series is his pastel drawings of Russian dancers made in 1899.

These pastels are characterised by vibrancy and liveliness and that is exactly what instantly appealed to me about the pastels. The colourfully clad figures of these Russian dancers contrast strongly with the dainty and ethereal figures of ballerinas that Degas had painted previously. In all three of the pastels that I have chosen to present here we seen three or more dancers caught in the movement, dressed in their traditional Eastern European garments. The dancers are situated against a background of nature in verdant greens and yellows so it almost seems as if the dancers are peasant girls dancing on a field, or a meadow in the countryside, naturally and spontaneously, stomping on wildflowers and breathing in the fresh spring air while nearby a brook is murmuring and birds are singing. So convincing is Degas’ portrayal of the dancers that we might almost forget that he saw them at the theatre in Paris. The Eastern European dancers had an exotic appeal to Parisians who, instead of actually travelling there, could simply go to the theatres and cabarets and enjoy the vibrant costumes, strange rhythms and majestic dancing. Even though these pastels are named “Russian Dancers”, the dancers were actually from Ukraine which was at the time under the Russian Empire and Tzar Alexander II had a policy of Russification at the time. Also, to fin de siecle Parisians it was probably all the same so the generic title “Russian Dancers” stayed.

Degas does a wonderful job at both capturing the dancers in movement, and also capturing the subtle details of their wonderful and intricate exotic costumes; white blouses, skirts in orange, pink, yellow, lavender and green, their flower crowns and necklaces. We are truly able to observe the details and feast our eyes on them while at the same time feeling as though we are witnesing the dancers in action. Their volumionous skirts are swirling, their legs kicking in the air; what wild energy these pastels exude! Degas called these pastels “orgies of colour”, and it is easy to see why. I mean, just soak in the colours in the pastel bellow; the green and purple skirts, the lobster-pink of the flowers, the orange beads or the necklace, then the soft pink-yellowish tinted sunset sky in the background. The colours are so well-chosen and spectacular. It is truly a colour study of these dancing girls. In the last pastel there is a lovely contrast of the blue trimming on the pink and orange skirts. Not to mention the dazzling colourful ribbons in the dancers’ hair in the first pastel which also features a lovely, clear blue spring sky.

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, charcoal and pastel, on tracing paper, mounted on cardboard, 62.9×64.8 cm

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, pastel

Maurice Prendergast – Feast of the Redeemer

2 Mar

“Spring lanterns –

colourful reincarnations

of the moon”

(haiku by Isabel Caves, found here.)

Maurice Prendergast, Feast of the Redeemer, c 1899, watercolour

Another post, another watercolour by Maurice Prendergast! In this post we are sort of continuing the theme from my previous Prendergast post where I talked about his watercolour “The Grand Canal, Venice“, also from 1899. The aforementioned watercolour is a lively scene that shows tourists, gondoliers and strollers enjoying a sunny day at the Grand Canal, but the watercolour we will be seeing today shows us a night view of the same waters and canals of Venice.

Using only three colours; blue, orange and yellow, Prendergast manages to create a fetching nocturnal scene filled with plethora of little boats decorated with garlands and glowing lanterns. The painting has depth; our view stretches on and on into the distance, so far off that it is hard to distinguish whether the distant orange and yellow dots are the lanterns or just the reflections of the lanterns in the nocturnal waters. Each boat is painted in a single thick black line which, for some reason, brings to mind the black lines in paintings of Franz Kline. I cannot decide which aspect of the watercolour is more beautiful; the glowing lanterns or the reflections of their light in the dark midnight water, the reflections which are painted in a kind of zig zag pattern in the foreground while in the distance they are vertical, like golden tears. Everyone who paints watercolours will know that it is like walking on a tightrope, a constant struggle between control and spontaneity. Sometimes the effect of letting the watercolour paint itself can be magical, but without some direction it could also be a big colourful mess. Prendergast always walks that tightrope with ease and perfection, none of his watercolours seem as if they are laboured over, as if he struggled.

At first sight this watercolour appears whimsical, playful and fantasy-like, but in reality the scene it depicts is a religious festival called “Festa del Redentore” or Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer which is celebrated every year on the third Sunday of July. It is one of the most important Venetian celebrations that binds religion and festivity. The origin of the festival started back in the sixteenth century, to commemorate the end of the plague that happened in 1577. The festival is celebrated by a sea pilgrimige to the little island of Giudecca and that is the sight that Prendergast has seen and decided to capture in watercolours. On the night of the festival the fireworks are let out and people gather on the balconies and roofs to observe the occassion.

Raphael Kirchner: Geisha, Mikado, Santoy

23 Feb

“Blossoms at night

And the faces of people

Moved by music.”

(Kobayashi Issa)

Raphael Kirchner, Santoy, 1900

Earlier this month I wrote a post about the elements of Japonisme in Raphael Kirchner’s postcard-illustrations and today I am returning to the topic of Kirchner’s postcards but this time the motif of Japan is even more directly explored. In the postcards featured in my previous post the elements of Japonisme could be seen in many different compositional formats, in the flat surface, the stylised figures and vibrant colour, but in these postcard-illustrations we still have all those stylistic elements taken from Japanese Ukiyo-e prints but now the motives themselves are Japanese with pretty geisha-inspired girls with flowers in their hair, fans, parasols, and the motif of lanterns to set the Oriental tone.

Raphael Kirchner was born in Vienna on 5th May 1875. He took music lessons, attended Conservatoire in Vienna and from 1890 to 1894 he was a student at the Vienna school of Art. He began his art career by painting portraits but quickly switched to making illustrations for magazines and newspapers. In 1897 he started drawing illustrations for a woman’s magazine “Wiener Illustrirte”. In 1900 he moved to Paris, settled in Montmartre and it was during this time that he created the most beautiful, most vibrant and captivating artworks. These illustrations were in fact postcards printed in different series with different motifs; for example the “Perfume” series features pretty La Belle Epoque ladies as allegories for different perfume smells such as patchouli or white rose.

Kirchner made three Japanese inspired series in 1900 called “Geisha”, “Mikado” and “Santoy”. These series of postcards were inspired by the plays of the same name. “The Geisha, a story of a tea house” was an Edwardian musical comedy in two acts which opened in 1896 in Daly’s Theatre in London. “The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu” was a comic opera in two acts which openend on 14 March 1885 in London at the Savoy Theatre. “San Toy, or the Emperor’s Own” is a musical comedy in two acts first performed on 21 October 1899 at the Daly’s Theatre in London. All three comedies were inspired by the dreams of the distant Orient and were immensely popular with the audiences at the time. Probably my favourite illustration is the one above, from the Santoy series, because it is just so vibrant and exciting! The composition is interesting; it feels as if we are in the middle of the path and on both sides the cascade of pretty faces of pretty girls dressed in colourful printed dresses are gazing at us, smiling, holding their bright yellow lanterns. It brings to mind the joy of warm summer nights with fireflies as the only light and the rich fragrance of roses and jasmine that fills the air. I love the colours used; red, yellow purple; really pleasing to my eyes. Also, in all of these postcards you will notice the ornamental letters “Mikado” or “Geisha” shaped in a way that it looks Oriental and exciting to our Western eyes. The illustration has that festival mood and I found an appropriate little haiku poem that matches its mood, so here it is, by Isabel Caves, found on her wordpress site here:

“Spring lanterns –

colourful reincarnations

of the moon”

Watercolours of Venice: Maurice Prendergast and John Henry Twachtman

18 Feb

Maurice Prendergast, The Grand Canal, Venice, 1899, watercolour

I recently stumbled upon these two gorgeous watercolours of Venice and I though it would be fun to compare the two because they are so different in mood. As you may know already, I am a massive fan of Maurice Prendergast’s watercolours and I have written about them on numerous occasions. They are just so vibrant, colourful, bubbly and so darn fun! Prendergast truly transformed the otherwise moody, watery and melancholy medium of watercolour into something ecstatic and playful, childlike but still skilled and refined. Colours and vivacity are two things that characterise Prendergast’s watercolours the most. In this watercolour “The Grand Canal, Venice” from 1899, we are instantly captivated by all the energy and business of the scene; people are gliding up and down the pavement, the gondoliers are on their gondolas, the seawaves are cradling the gondolas and the water is glistening in the sunlight. The way the water is painted, in little dots and dashes, really makes it seem as if it were alive. The composition is interesting because it has a lot of depth and our view stretches from the gondolas in the foreground and the little girl with her red parasol, all the way to the beige and blue houses in the background. The vertical lines of the streetlamps is echoed by the vertical lines of the canal poles. As usual, Prendergast is great at capturing people, lots of people walking down the street chatting and laughing, in a way that is seemingly detailed and sketchy both at once.

In his watercolour titled simply “Venice”, from 1881, the American Impressionist painter John Henry Twachtman offers us a rather different view of the dreamy town on many canals. Twachtman’s watercolour painted in harmony of greys and browns is a stark contrast to Prendergast’s bubbly and colourful view of the Venice canal. The moody, grey sky and the grey water with ever so slight touch of blue and green occupy the majority of the scene. The little boats with brown sails and grey toned domes of churches visually break the vastness of the water and the sky. Prendergast’s watercolours are always bursting with liveliness and are full of people, but in Twachtman’s view of Venice there are no people. This absence of human figures, further contributes to the sombre, slightly melancholy mood. The tonalist way in which the watercolour was painted, with just a few carefully selected colours, makes it feel as if this was a musical composition, a nocturne, something hushed and melancholy. Twachtman allows the colours to freely create the scene and this gives the impression of something light and effortless; we don’t feel as if the painter laboured over this watercolour, rather it feels delicate and natural, as if the sky had imprinted itself on the paper and the sea waves of Venice painted the painter in their aqua blue shades. Two different views of the same city, different in style but equal in beauty.

John Henry Twachtman, Venice, 1881, watercolour