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Sándor Petőfi: Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose, not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

27 Oct

Today I wanted to share my new poetic discovery: Sándor Petőfi, a Romantic Hungarian poet and a revolutionary whose national fervour and patriotism eventually led him to his doom, but also to his glory. Romanticism arrived a bit late to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was closely tied to patriotism and national revival; each country in the vast empire sought to define its individuality; its national history and traditions. Petofi fits the theme of central European Romanticism and the two of his main poetic themes are romantic love and love for his country. He was of Slovak or Serbian ancestry, but he wrote in Hungarian and fought for the Hungarian language to be the language of the theatre and literature instead of German. As a true Romantic hero, he led a short and turbulent life and went missing at the age of twenty-six after the Battle of Segesvár in 1849; he was presumed dead but who knows when he actually died… His poems are the mirrors of the politically turbulent times he lived in and he died in the very manner he wished, as expressed in his poem “The Thought Torments Me”:

When every nation wearing chains
Shall rise and seek the battle-plains,
With flushing face shall wave in fight
Their banners, blazoned in the light:
“For liberty!” Their cry shall be;
Their cry from east to west,
Till tyrants be depressed.
There shall I gladly yield
My life upon the field;
There shall my heart’s last blood flow out,
And I my latest cry shall shout.

In 1846, in Transylvania he met an eighteen year old maiden Júlia Szendrey and, charmed by the beauty of her countenance which matched the beauty of her mind and soul, Petofi instantly fell in love and they married the same year. His parents didn’t approve and their marriage was short anyway. Like her husband, Júlia was also a poet, and a writer and translator. She spoke a few foreign languages, loved the poetry of Heinrich Heine and the writings of George Sand, loved dancing and playing the piano but she was also a private and modest person who didn’t like sharing her talents with the world. They seem like a perfect Romantic couple, with the perfectly short, intense and tragic marriage ended by a mysterious disappearance in battle and probable death. It sounds like a story one would read in a work of Schiller or Lermontov.

Giuseppe Molteni, Desolate at the Loss of her Lover, 1850

Poem “At the End of September” is written in a truly Romantic manner because it ties the themes of love and death that all Romantics loved so much. In the first stanza Petofi slowly introduces the theme of transience through a visual imagery of the changing of seasons, and even compares the arrival of winter to his hair slowly turning grave. The transience of spring and summer goes hand in hand with the passing of his youth, and the arrival of winter is tied with the impedimence of his death. I love how melancholy and melodramatic he is, wanting to know whether his beloved will weep over his grave, but then the poetic imagery turns a darker mood and we see the poet returning from the death’s vale at midnight… These poems satisfy all my poetic needs. Just seeing the words and expressions in the poem such as “broken heart”, “bleeding heart”, “tomb”, “weep”, “tears”, “death”, “mournful”, makes me swoon!

At the End of September

The garden flowers still blossom in the vale,

Before our house the poplars still are green;

But soon the mighty winter will prevail;

Snow is already in the mountains seen.

The summer sun’s benign and warming ray

Still moves my youthful heart, now in its spring;

But lo! my hair shows signs of turning gray,

The wintry days thereto their color bring.

This life is short; too early fades the rose;

To sit here on my knee, my darling, come!

Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

O, tell me, if before thee I should die,

Wilt thou with broken heart weep o’er my bier?

Or will some youth efface my memory

And with his love dry up thy mournful tear?

 

If thou dost lay aside the widow’s vail,

Pray hang it o’er my tomb. At midnight I

Shall rise, and, coming forth from death’s dark vale,

Take it with me to where forgot I lie.

And wipe with it my ceaseless flowing tears,

Flowing for thee, who hast forgotten me;

And bind my bleeding heart which ever bears

Even then and there, the truest love for thee.

Matthew James Lawless, Dead Love, 1862

“Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?”

Petofi’s poems often bring to mind romantic imagery, typically romantic themes of love and death mingle freely in his verses and I decided to illustrate the poem with the drawing “Dead Love” from 1862. Victorian era artist Matthew James Lawless is little known today because he died young, at the age of twenty-seven, and his career never had a chance to take off. The drawings that he left definitely show a talent and a romantic imagination which ties him to the Pre-Raphaelites, and therefore I think the mood of his drawing fits the mood of Petofi’s poem. And now a poem which continues with the theme of love but here love is tied with another motif Petofi loves: fighting for liberty.

My Wife and My Sword

Upon the roof a dove,
A star within the sky,
Upon my knees my love,
For whom I live and die;
In raptures I embrace
And swing her on my knees,
Just as the dewdrop sways
Upon the leaf of trees.

But why, you’ll surely ask,
Kiss not her pretty face?
It is an easy task
To kiss while we embrace!
Many a burning kiss
I press upon her lip,
For such a heavenly bliss
I cannot now let slip.

And thus we pass our day,
I and my pretty wife,
Beyond all rare gem’s ray
Is our gay wedded life.
A friend, my sword, it seems,
Does not like this at all,
He looks with angry gleams
Upon me from the wall.

Don’t look on me, good sword,
With eyes so cross and cold,
There should be no discord
Between us, friends of old.
To women leave such things,
As green-eyed jealousy:
To men but shame it brings,
And you a man must be!

But then, if you would pause
To think who is my love,
You’d see you have no cause
At all me to reprove.
She is the sweetest maid,
She is so good and true;
Like her God only made,
I know, but very few.

If thee, good sword, again
Shall need our native land,
To seek the battle-plain
Will be my wife’s command.
She will insist that I
Go forth, my sword, with thee,
To fight, if need to die,
For precious liberty!

Sandor’s wife Julia Szendrey (1828-1868).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Venus Verticordia

24 Oct

“‘Alas! the apple for his lips,—the dart

That follows its brief sweetness to his heart,—”

(Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia, 1864-68

Painting “Venus Verticordia” is a gorgeous example of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s style of portraits from the 1860s. The original model for the goddess of love was an exceptionally beautiful cook that Rossetti had met in the street. We don’t know what she looked like; perhaps she fit Rossetti’s ideal of a woman perfectly, or perhaps with his imagination and with his brush he transformed her into his feminine ideal. Regardless,in 1867 he had altered the face on the portrait to fit the features of his favourite model Alexa Wilding who sat for many of his paintings. The goddess of Love was portrayed in so many ways and so many times throughout history, but here she takes on the typical features of Rossetti’s feminine ideal; her hair is long, lush and auburn, her eyelids heavy and langorous, her lips thick and pouty, her neck strong. This is a far cry from the weak, frail and melancholy beauty exemplified by his lover and muse Elizabeth Siddal whose face and figure domineered his art of the previous decade.

“Venus Verticordia” means “Venus, changer of the heart” and was said to change the hearts of men from lust to love, but the mood and symbolism in Rossetti’s portrait tell a different story. The eroticism isn’t subtle and subdued here, but rather the goddess’ breasts are lavishly exposed. The space around her is filled with lush, vibrant flowers, roses and honesuckles, whose symbolic connotations of passion and female sexuality would have been known to the Victorian audience. She is holding a golden arrow in her hand, a motif we usually see with her son Cupid, the god of desire erotic love. A contrasting motif to all this is a golden halo and butterflies around her head, both are symbolically connected with spiritual, not earthly or sensual matters. The halo typically graces the heads of saints and butterflies are sometimes seen as symbolic of the soul, so perhaps a soulful love and not just a carnal one.

The painting left no one speechless when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Art critic and writer John Ruskin found the painting tasteless to put it lightly while others such as the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote: “The great picture of Venus Verticordia has now been in great measure recast; the head is of a diviner type of beauty; golden butterflies hover about the halo of her hair; alight upon the apple or the arrow in her hands; her face has the sweet supremacy of a beauty imperial and immortal; her glorious bosom seems to exult and expand as the roses on each side of it. The painting of leaf and fruit and flower in this picture is beyond my praise or any man’s; but of one thing I will here take note; the flash of green brilliance from the upper leaves of the trellis against the sombre green of the trees behind. Once more it must appear that the painter alone can translate into words as perfect in music and colour the sense and spirit of his work.”

Stills from the film “Love Witch” (2016)

When I look into the eyes of this redhead Venus conjured in the imagination of the Victorian artist, poet and an aesthete, the image of Elaine Parks from the film “Love Witch” (2016) comes to mind; both have that look of indifference and power in their eyes, a certain awareness of their beauty and dominance, and they are confident about their inevitable success in love matters. It is a gaze that brings doom to a man who gazes back at it.

Eugene Delacroix – Horse Frightened by Lightning

22 Oct

Eugene Delacroix, Horse Frightened by Lightning, 1825-29, watercolour

The spirit of Romanticism is alive and intense in this wonderful and expressive watercolour by Delacroix. The simplicity of the composition contrasts the intense and dramatic mood that is conveyed. Using the combination of simple visual elements; a wild horse, a desolate landscape, and a gloomy sky with a lightning, Delacroix created a painting that encapsulated the aesthetic of the Sublime. The face expression of the horse and his pose convey his torment and fear at the sudden lightning and thunder that have appeared in the sky. He seems truly unsettled and his feelings seep into the lonely landscape around him and his fear touches the viewer too; our sympathy for the poor frightened animal mingles with the feeling of awe at the nature’s unpredictability and power. This scene seems like something I would imagine whilst reading a Gothic novel.

Delacroix inherited his love and admiration for horses from another master of French Romanticism; Theodore Gericault, who was only a few years older than Delacroix but at the time this watercolour was painted, Gericault had already been dead. But despite his short life and even shorter career his dramatic art full of feelings and dark passions set the standard for the French Romanticism. Wild and untamed, or tamed but still very beautiful, strong and awe-inspiring, horses are a motif we find often in the art of Romanticism; in Fuseli’s Nightmare, in the art of Sawrey Gilpin, Gros and Gericault. A century later Franz Marc painted vibrant and expressive paintings of horses as well. For Romanticists a horse was a symbol of something wild and unstoppable, of the fire of youth, of passion for exploration, of bravery and Delacroix chose to portray this majestic animals in numerous occasions.

In this watercolour the horse is clearly not representative of something strong and wild, but rather the opposite. Panicked and red-eyed, the horse exhibits his more emotional, vulnerable side, something one wouldn’t expect to see portrayed and this strange constrasts adds to the painting’s stunning beauty; it is not just aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but poingnant and strange all at the same time. The reason why I love this painting so much is firstly because it is a watercolour and I love watercolours, and secondly because of its simplicity, passion and expressiveness, and the colour scheme where the mystical deep shades of blue present in the sky and also as subtle touches on the horse add to the mood of the sublime. A brown colour scheme would have muted the effect of terror, strangeness and drama. Blue is the colour of the deep sea and the sky, of things infinite and mysterious. The landscape around the horse thus gets a mystical air and we might wonder whether the horse itself is but our vision or a fancy…

Tomislav Krizman – Autumn

17 Oct

“Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.”

(Emily Bronte)

Tomislav Krizman, Autumn, 1904, litograph

Tomislav Krizman’s gorgeous litograph “Autumn” truly encapsulates the dual nature of autumn; its richness, ecstasy and vibrancy, and its melancholy and wistfulness. The colours, the mood, the composition; everything about this litograph is absolutely perfect to me. In a true Art Nouveau manner, the spirit of autumn is presented in the form of a woman. She is seen from the profile, clutching a cluster of autumn leaves to her chest. Her eyes are closed and her pale face oozes wistfulness and silent resignation. The white dress she is wearing contrasts beautifully with the harmony of orange and yellow in the woods in the background. The woman’s flaxen hair and the leaves are flying in the autumn breeze. The hair is captured in its dance, the leaves in their fall. Both the leaves on the trees and the leaves that the lady is holding in her arms are impervious to the gusts of wind. She is clutching them on her bosom, but she is unable to hold onto them all. Autumn is, after all, a season of nature that brings to our attention the bittersweet transient nature of everything on earth. The leaves will change colour, the trees tops, once lush and full of life and birdsong, will become bare. In the background we see a forest; thin dark tree trunks and the ground covered in the leafy carpet of orange and gold. The ground stretches all the way in the distance and this gives an illusion of depth. This manner of portraying trees and the woods is something we see often in paintings of a fellow Secessionist painter from the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Gustav Klimt. In those paintings, his fir and pine woods acquire a certain solemn silence and a strange mysticism, one almost feels as if one is entering into another world. Composition-wise, this is a stunning and beautiful contrast of the figure in the foreground and the vibrant woods in the background. The mood of autumn is beautifully captured, but another thing I love about this litograph is how poetic it is, like a poem full of onomatopoeia; I can just hear the rustle of leaves, the whisper of the wind through the trees, rain drops hitting the ground in a wonderful rhythm of nature.

Eugène Delacroix – Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard

13 Oct

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839, Oil on canvas, 29,5 x 36 cm

Eugene Delacroix’s temperament, lifestyle and interests made him the perfect Romantic artist. Delacroix travelled to hot, vibrant, exotic places such as Morrocco, but he also travelled in his imagination to the romantic and alluring, dark and dramatic past eras. He was also an avid reader; words of Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and others fed his soul and fired his imagination. His ardent love of literature came with a knack for illustrating the scenes that he was reading about, he was prolific at it, and he was great at it. A theme that he found himself returning to often throughout the years was Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and especially the scene where Hamlet and Horatio are at the graveyard. Delacroix made different litographs and watercolours of the scene, but his most well-known depiction of the scene is the painting from 1839. The scene shows four figures; Horatio and Hamlet standing by the grave and two gravediggers digging the grave for Ophelia who had recently perished. This is a rather morbid, depressive chore but the gravediggers are so used to it that they are unphased. They are capable of digging a hole and talking about decomposing bodies and death as if they are exchanging recepies over tea. This makes it almost grotesque, but for Hamlet the discovery of the skull of Yorick leads to deeper thoughts, pensiveness and introspection; how transient and meaningless life is, how it passes and means nothing, how every corpse here on the graveyard was once a person with wishes, yearnings, loves. The personalities of gravediggers and Hamlet could not be more different. Here is an excerpt from their dialogue from Act V, Scene I:

Gravedigger: This skull has lain in the earth three-and-twenty years.
Hamlet: Whose was it?
Gravedigger: A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not.
Gravedigger: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! He poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.
Hamlet: This?
Gravedigger: E’en that.
Hamlet: Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.—Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, watercolour, 1827-28

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet Contemplating Yorick’s Skull, litograph, 1828

In his litographs Delacroix had depicted the scene with more details, in composition and in the clothes of the figures, everything feels more ornate and Baroque-like. The painting is stripped of all unnecessary details and ornaments. Only four figures set against a distant landscape and the stormy sky with dark clouds. This allowed Delacroix to place his focus on the analysis of the characters and the drama that is going on in the scene. The bare-chested gravedigger holding a skull is quite a sight, but all eyes are on Hamlet. Delacroix saw him through the lenses of Romanticism and he depicted him as a pale, melancholy, frail and gentle looking man dressed in black. His pale and small, almost feminine looking hands, stand out against the darkness of his clothes. His hair is flying in the wind and the stormy clouds seem to echo the stormy state of his soul. Pale and withered, in a pensive mood, reflecting on matters of life and death, and anticipating the burial of Ophelia, Hamlet is like a frail lily-flower just plucked from the ground. The watercolour version of the scene shows an equally frail, melancholy Hamlet and the whole mood is lyrical and wistful in a way that can only be accomplished with the medium of the watercolour.

Vladimir Varlaj – Red House

10 Oct

Vladimir Varlaj, Red House, 1923

A lonely and mysterious pink house with red windows. Tall crooked trees. A passing train. There is an inexplicable loneliness about this autumnal scene which is very captivating to me. The loneliness is combined with vibrant, almost cheerful colours and this combination gives a sense of strangeness, uneasiness even. The contrast confuses and charms both at once. Strangeness is seeping from all sides of this canvas. Even the viewpoint is strange; we are seeing the scene as if we were standing on the hill, above the railway and the house, hidden behind the trees, or maybe we are one of them. The bare crooked trees come alive in the autumn wind, contorting and stretching their thin branches in all directions, their branches are like long arms trying to grab the stars. The soft gradience of the colours, pink mixing with orange and purple, is flying through the canvas from the unknown misty distances to the foreground, and it looks as if the colour is being carried by the wind. Varlaj transformed what might have otherwise been a drab, depressing scene into an almost magical realism landscape which is more a landscape of the soul than that of nature. The ecstatic pink colour is unsettling, like the laugh of a madman. It has the opposite effect than we might expect from dainty color pink. The red windows on the house are a nice contrast against the pink walls, but the place where the doors ought to be are a hollow space that will suck you in if you come too close, like the mouth opened in a scream in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”. And the motif of a train at night passing by without stopping through the strange landscape is perhaps a symbol of the man’s transience, of the passing of life, of the arrival of death.

Vladimir Varlaj (1895-1962) was a Croatian painter and a member of the Group of Four or the Prague Four; the four artists who worked and lived in Prague for a while during and right after the First World War. I have already written about another artist from this group Vilko Gecan here. In 1911 Varlaj started studying in the private school of the Croatian painter and graphic artist Tomislav Krizman, then he studied at the college of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb. In 1915 he was sent to the Russian front and in 1918 he was in Prague. In the 1920s he was back in Croatia, working with passion and eagerness, but sadly, after 1933 he was no longer able to paint because of his illness. The critics and art historians have had a hard time placing Varlaj into a distinct art movement, for his landscapes at times have elements of Expressionism and other times of magical realism. There is an influence of the German New Objectivity painter Alexander Kanoldt whose landscapes had a similar unsetting and strange appeal, but also, without a doubt, Varlaj was painting the state of his soul when he was painting a landscape which is something that the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich was a big proponent of. Some of Varlaj’s landscapes are more tame, continuing the tradition of Croatian landscapes. But other, such as the “Red House” are more moody and romantic, and filled with visual elements that add to the drama such as the nocturnal setting, lonely house by the railway, a passing train, bare trees; the desolation of late autumn is perfectly encapsulated in this painting, and so is the desolation of the artist’s soul. Varlaj was known for destroying his artworks in moments of depression and disillusionment so we are lucky that this amazing painting survived the painter’s madness.

Arthur Rackham’s Illustration for The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe

7 Oct

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

Arthur Rackham, “The Oval Portrait,” Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1935

One of my favourite stories by Edgar Allan Poe is “The Oval Portrait”; it’s short and sweet, and its main theme is art and the artist. When, by serendipity, I found this gorgeous illustration of the story by Arthur Rackham the other day I knew that it was a sign from the universe to write about it today because today is the anniversary of Poe’s death. The doomed poet died in Baltimore on the 7th October 1849 at the age of forty; the last days of his life were as mysterious as the man himself. In a wonderful biography, Peter Ackroyd wonders: “No one knew where he had been, or what he had done. Had he been wandering, dazed, through the city? Had he been enlisted for the purposes of vote-rigging in a city notorious for its political chicanery? Had he suffered from a tumour of the brain? Had he simply drunk himself into oblivion? It is as tormenting a mystery as any to be found in his tales.”

The mystery of the story “The Oval Portrait” is, as the title suggests, about a portrait of a beautiful woman. The story starts as a Gothic tale with an unnamed narrator who seeks safe shelter form the rain in an old castle. Before falling asleep in one of the old bedroom he becomes enamored with a portrait of a beautiful young woman on the wall. The plot quickly switches from the narrator to the story about the portrait itself and its history, again there’s “the most poetic topic in the world” according to Poe himself; the death of a beautiful woman, a pale wistful bride who, adoring and obedient, died as a sacrifice for her mad artist husband who cared for nothing else but his art. Arthur Rackham was a very prolific and imaginative artist so I am not surprised that he portrayed this scene from the story so wonderfully.

Rackham portrayed the tower-chamber setting accurately and the high windows only add to the lonesome feeling of the tower. The light of the day is entering the chamber sparingly. We cannot see the forests and moors around the castle. Instead the space feels hermetic and secluded from the outside world. It’s almost like a theatre stage; the painter, the pale model and the Portrait are the only figures on this stage of life. A stone wall on one side and the draped curtains on the other are the background to the scene. Rackham depicts the background with equal detail as he does the figures; the wooden floor, the stone wall, the shadow of the easel and the gorgeous fabric are all so detailed and life-like. The portrait in Rackham’s illustration seems unfinished, but perhaps the vagueness is the desired look. Anyhow, the lady’s face in the portrait does look like the face that might haunt a man at night if he saw it on the wall of his chamber, stranded in the desolate castle while the rain is beating against the windows.

The costumes that the Painter and the damsel are wearing bring back the spirit of gone-by days. The Painter’s necklace and his hair are reminiscent of Van Dyck’s portraits, and the lady’s golden ringlets, pearl necklace and her silk dress with puffed sleeves look as if they were stolen from the royal portraits of Louis XIV’s mistresses. Rackham chose to depict the last and the most thrilling part of the story; the moment when the Painter finishes his portrait and realises that his beautiful young wife is death, or, to quote the story directly: “the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!”

Here is the last part of the story which describes the story behind it:

She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead.

But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well.

But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp.

And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!”

Thomas Hart Benton – Night Firing of Tobacco

3 Oct

“….Benton’s overwhelming love of America found its true outlet—in the streams, hills, and the mountains of the country, populated by people unsuspectingly living out their time, quietly enjoying themselves, living easily on the land, celebrating nothing more than their existence.”

Thomas Hart Benton, Night Firing of Tobacco, 1943

American painter Thomas Hart Benton is mostly remembered these days in connection to the more legendary and scandalous Jackson Pollock because he was his tutor, but Benton has many amazing works which deserve attention too. The painting “Night Firing of Tobacco” shows a lonesome figure of a farmer tending to his crop during the fire-curing process. The dusk setting gave Benton an opportunity to play with light and shadow; in the distant sky we can see the blue sky transition into yellow, and the gorgeous warm orange that is coming from the fire. The farmer’s dignity and hard-work without the help of the machinery bring to mind the countryside scenes by the French Realist painter Jean-Francois Millet; both paintings are praising the humility and simplicity of the countryside life. The different horizontal layers of the painting give a certain rhythm and playfullness to the painting and almost seem as if they were cut out from paper, made in a collage style. The robust style of painting and the exaggerated curvy lines of the landscape are present here, but even more prominent in his other works painted around the same time such as “The Hailstorm”. Benton was comissioned to paint this and some other paintings by the American Tobacco Company who wanted him to portray the different stages of the tobacco production; the planting, harvesting etc. Benton travelled to Georgia seeking inspiration which he ended up finding in the North Carolina.

The transient hour of the day; day slowly turning into night echoes the nostalgic sentiment that Benton has felt about the changing ways of life in America at the time. Just as the day is giving in to the darkness of the night the calm, the old ways were giving in to modernity; old country roads were being turned into highways, fast-paced way of life was threatening the calmess of the small towns and the ugliness of the industrial complexes was threatening to erase the slow-paced way of working. Benton travelled the countryside and wanted to capture the vitality and honesty of the people he had met, the simple, hardworking folk, and naturally he wanted his art to show this national pride and love for his country. The social value of art was important to him and in the toughest times such as the Great Depression and the World War II Benton was the most productive and in the paintings from that period he allowed his patriotism to shine in all its glory.

Jackson Pollock, Going West, 1934-35

Benton considered “A Social History of Missouri: Pioneer Days and Early Settlers” (1936) his best work but in general his countryside scenes from the World War II period are considered some of his best works: “In many ways, though, his more remarkable achievements are the landscapes of this period. In these, it would appear that Benton’s overwhelming love of America found its true outlet—in the streams, hills, and the mountains of the country, populated by people unsuspectingly living out their time, quietly enjoying themselves, living easily on the land, celebrating nothing more than their existence.” (Matthew Baigell, Thomas Hart Benton)

The figures in Benton’s paintings are always the everyday people; the same people living “out of their time” that Jack Kerouac had met on his travels in the book “On the Road”; people planting corn or picking oranges, completely unaware of the crazy things that were going on in the big cities, living by their own rhythm and enjoying it that way. The lonesome figure of a farmer in Benton’s painting reminds me of someone that Kerouac could have encountered in his travels. And speaking of travels to the West, Pollock painted a similar scene a decade earlier. This moody, robust, exaggerated painting style full of intensity, dark shadows and thick layers of paint was obviously inspired by Benton’s paintings and both paintings offer a nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the old American life.

Thomas Hart Benton, The Hallstorm, 1940

Constantin Guys – A Grisette and Other Watercolours

19 Sep

M.C.G.[Monsieur Constantin Guys]loves mixing with the crowds, loves being incognito, and carries his originality to the point of modesty.” 

(Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life)

Constantin Guys, A Grisette, 1859, Pen and ink with ink and watercolor washes on wove paper

These watercolours and drawings by Constantin Guys have caught my attention these days. I just love how brilliantly they capture the vibrant and busy social life of the mid-nineteenth century rich and posh Parisians. Guys is almost like a precursor to a paparazzi, capturing every move, every laughter, every nuance of what is going on. These works were mostly made during the Second French Empire times; from 1852 to 1870, and lucky for us viewers, those decades were the decades of the sumptous and extravagant fashion for women, mostly because of the crinoline which made the skirts excessively wide thus making the women look like giant lotus flowers walking around. These sketchy and quick yet so vivid and detailed pen and ink drawings with watercolour washes give us a sneak peek into the era that is gone by. But Guys doesn’t just paint the wealthy ladies. His drawing of a grisette from 1859 can vauch for that. A grisette is a flirtatious coquettish working class woman. Guys stunningly captures the flounces of her dress and the way he painted the black fabric makes it appear like waves on the dark waters of Venice. His use of blue is equally thrilling in the drawing “Leaving the theatre”. Guys seems always to be walking on the tightrope between sketchiness and brimming with details.

I imagine these ladies and gentlemen are the characters from Gautier’s stories, from Chopin’s concerts, maybe one of these beauties is the fatal mistress of Mr Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, stepping out of the carriage and giving a kiss to her other lover while Mr Rochester awaits her on the balcony, hidden by the roses, heartbroken and disappointed. I imagine these are the kind of ladies that Balzac wrote about in Father Goriot, the kind of ladies who know every little gossip and secret of Parisian budoirs and bedroom, they are the flies on every wall and no one is safe from their watchful eye. But little do they know that all along Monsieur Guys is gandering at them from afar, his eyes catching scenes like the camera, his hand drawing on its own. It is for a reason that the decadent poet Charles Baudelaire called him “the painter of modern life” in his essay of the same-name. In that essay he especially praises Guy’s endless curiosity about life and the world around him, the same curiosity that children have and which makes them ecstatic about everything. This curiosity, tied with perceptiveness, artistic skill and a flaneur lifestyle make Guys the brilliant painter that he was. Here are some interesting passages from Baudelaire’s essay:

“Today I want to talk to my readers about a singular man, whose originality is so powerful and clear-cut that it is self-sufficing, and does not bother to look for approval. None of his drawings is signed, if by signature we mean the few letters, which can be so easily forged, that compose a name, and that so many other artists grandly inscribe at the bottom of their most carefree sketches. But all his works are signed with his dazzling soul, and art-lovers who have seen and liked them will recognize them easily from the description I propose to give of them.

Constantin Guys, Leaving the Theatre, 1852, Pen and brown ink, brush and black, gray, red, blue, and yellow wash

M. C. G. [Monsieur Constantin Guys] loves mixing with the crowds, loves being incognito, and carries his originality to the point of modesty. (…) when he heard that I was proposing to make an assessment of his mind and talent, he begged me, in a most peremptory manner, to suppress his name, and to discuss his works only as though they were the works of some anonymous person. I will humbly obey this odd request. (…) M. G. is an old man. Jean-Jacques began writing, so they say, at the age of forty-two. Perhaps it was at about that age that M. G., obsessed by the world of images that filled his mind, plucked up courage to cast ink and colours on to a sheet of white paper. To be honest, he drew like a barbarian, like a child, angrily chiding his clumsy fingers and his disobedient tool. I have seen a large number of these early scribblings, and I admit that most of the people who know what they are talking about, or who claim to, could, without shame, have failed to discern the latent genius that dwelt in these obscure beginnings.

Constantin Guys, Two Gentlemen and a Lady, n.d., Pen and brown ink, brush and brown, green and blue wash, over graphite; touches of red chalk

Today, M. G., who has discovered unaided all the little tricks of the trade, and who has taught himself, without help or advice, has become a powerful master in his own way; of his early artlessness he has retained only what was needed to add an unexpected spice to his abundant gift. When he happens upon one of these efforts of his early manner, he tears it up or burns it, with a most amusing show of shame and indignation. In this context, pray interpret the word ‘artist’ in a very narrow sense, and the expression ‘man of the world’ in a very broad one. By ‘man of the world’, I mean a man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and legitimate reasons behind all its customs; by ‘artist’, I mean a specialist, a man tied to his palette like a serf to the soil. M. G. does not like being called an artist. Is he not justified to a small extent?

He takes an interest in everything the world over, he wants to know, understand, assess everything that happens on the surface of our spheroid. (…) With two or three exceptions, which it is unnecessary to name, the majority of artists are, let us face it, very skilled brutes, mere manual labourers, village pub-talkers with the minds of country bumpkins. (…)  Thus to begin to understand M. G., the first thing to note is this: that curiosity may be considered the starting point of his genius.

Constantine Guys, Reception, 1847, Pen and brown ink with brush and watercolor, over graphite, on ivory laid paper

Do you remember a picture (for indeed it is a picture!) written by the most powerful pen of this age and entitled The Man of the Crowd? Sitting in a café, and looking through the shop window, a convalescent is enjoying the sight of the passing crowd, and identifying himself in thought with all the thoughts that are moving around him. He has only recently come back from the shades of death and breathes in with delight all the spores and odours of life; as he has been on the point of forgetting everything, he remembers and passionately wants to remember everything. In the end he rushes out into the crowd in search of a man unknown to him whose face, which he had caught sight of, had in a flash fascinated him. Curiosity had become a compelling, irresistible passion.

Now imagine an artist perpetually in the spiritual condition of the convalescent, and you will have the key to the character of M. G. But convalescence is like a return to childhood. The convalescent, like the child, enjoys to the highest degree the faculty of taking a lively interest in things, even the most trivial in appearance. Let us hark back, if we can, by a retrospective effort of our imaginations, to our youngest, our morning impressions, and we shall recognize that they were remarkably akin to the vividly coloured impressions that we received later on after a physical illness, provided that illness left our spiritual faculties pure and unimpaired. The child sees everything as a novelty; the child is always ‘drunk’. Nothing is more like what we call inspiration than the joy the child feels in drinking in shape and colour.

Constantin Guys, Meeting in the Park, 1860, Pen and brown ink, brush and gray, blue, and black wash

I will venture to go even further and declare that inspiration has some connection with congestion, that every sublime thought is accompanied by a more or less vigorous nervous impulse that reverberates in the cerebral cortex. (…) But genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed. To this deep and joyful curiosity must be attributed that stare, animal-like in its ecstasy, which all children have when confronted with something new, whatever it may be, face or landscape, light, gilding, colours, watered silk, enchantment of beauty, enhanced by the arts of dress.”

Miroslav Kraljević – Olympia (Homage to Manet)

15 Sep

A few months ago I wrote a post about the Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević’s Parisian phase (1911-12) and today let us take a look at one particular painting from that phase called “Olympia” (1912). It is a direct homage to Edouard Manet’s controversial female nude “Olympia” (1863). Decades later, a painter from a provincial Austro-Hungary (now modern Croatia) had been so inspired by Manet’s painting that he had to paint his rendition of it. This just goes to show the immense influence of Manet on modern art.

Miroslav Kraljević, (Great Female Nude) Olympia, 1912

In 1911, after having spent awhile studying abroad in Munich where he had encountered the newest trends in art, the Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević was back home in a town called Požega. In the peaceful and idylic small-town environment, Kraljević painted many self-portraits and landscapes, but still he was restless, perhaps slightly claustrophobic as well, and there was something his heart desired, a shiny red apple of sin he wanted to grab from the branch and sink his teeth into; Paris, with its vivacity, art, and the bright lights. He turned his fantasies into a reality in September 1911 when he travelled to Paris; the it place for an artist. He had been looking forward to seeing the works of the finest French painters, especially those of Edouard Manet. Apart from museums and galleries, Kraljević visited parks, cafes, bistroes and infamous places such as Moulin Rouge. As appropriate for the city he found himself in, his favourite motif in his Parisian phase was – the woman, more often than not nude or wearing very little clothes. And of course, as a hommage to his idol, Kraljević painted his own “Olympia” in 1912.

Female nude has been a popular motif in art for a long time, but when Edouard Manet painted his nude Olympia, it was seen as brash and shocking to the audience and critics. Why? Well, firstly because Manet didn’t bother to dress his painting up in mythology and allegory, and secondly because of the manner in which he painted her; realistic rather than idealised and highly eroticised. Inspired by Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” (1532-34), Manet’s Olympia is visibly less sensuous and inviting. She looks like a dull, flat, paper doll. In fact, she looks uninterested, as if she’s saying “oh, it’s you again, ah well…” Olympia isn’t a Roman goddess that every man would desire, she is a realistic looking courtesan that was well-known to Parisian men of the upper classes. Manet stirred the waters of Parisian society by directly pointing out the hypocrisy and serving some hot realism on a platter.

Kraljević’s Olympia is equally pale and uninterested, looking directly in the viewer, without a trace of shame or shyness. She doesn’t have a waterfall of long, golden hair to sensually cover her nudity like a Baroque martyr would. Nope, she is flaunting her body, but, just like Manet’s Olympia, she is wearing dainty slippers; God forbid some madman with a foot fetish gets a thrill from looking at her feet, oh no. Kraljević painted her pale flesh in the same way he had approached his earlier portraits, with more visible brushstrokes and a sense of volume than Manet had done it. Around her are a few vibrant coloured cushions and we can see a bouquet of purple flowers on the right, echoing the flowers that the servant is presenting to Olympia, most likely a gift from a client. Colours in Kraljević’s painting are more warm and muted, which makes it seem more like a budoir scene whereas Manet’s painting shows Olympia as a doll in the shop-window. I wonder what Manet would have thought of this homage?…

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863