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Beauty in the Everyday – Turner and Okyo (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

22 Mar

“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

(Soseki, The Three-Cornered World)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The simple plot where nothing much happens is great because the true beauty of the novel can shine through: the poetic, zen-like writing which transports the viewer in a meditative state. The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Instead of dynamic events and exciting adventures, the narrator ponders on what it actually means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration:

I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit. For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon, 1879

The narrator portrays the artist, himself included, as a person who is here to show others the beauty around them which they would otherwise be unaware of. The artist is the one who, through his art, tells people to stop and take a look at the wondrous, whimsical and beautiful things in the world around us. The narrator chose two interesting artists to illustrate his point; British Romanticist Turner and an eighteenth century Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Okyo. I love it when novels reference other things, it’s like a springboard from one source of inspiration to another. Turner’s grandiose and awe-inspiring canvases, filled with golden lightness and dreamy mists, usually portray sunsets or historical events, but in the painting referenced by the narrator, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, painted in 1844, near the very end of the painter’s life, the subject is something completely modern and everyday; a train. Just imagine the excitement, awe and fear with which the Victorians looked at trains. I dare say I look at them at the same way too, even today. Trains are fascinatingly fast and frightening in their speed and yet they also seem vintage in some way because it seems more romantical to travel by train than by bus. Turner captured the train’s speed and cloud of fog with the same brilliance that he had previously devoted himself to historical scenes, which shows that he approached two very different motifs with the same ardour and with the same patient search for beauty that any artist has. Soseki lived in England for two years, just before this novel was published and it’s very likely he had seen this painting in person. I’ve also included here a Japanese artist Kiyochika’s exploration of the train-motif in a more direct way than Turner, but still carrying its own beauty.

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), The Ghost of Oyuki, 1750

Another example the narrator gives is a painting of a ghost by the artist Maruyama Okyo. The narrator doesn’t mention a specific painting, but with a little research makes it clear that Soseki is referring to Okyo’s famous ink on silk painting which shows the female yurei or the traditional Japanese ghost of his lover Oyuki. It is a poignant portrait of a dead beloved which came from intense sadness and longing, almost a century before Poe wrote of similar themes in his poems and short stories. The ghost-girl Oyuki was Okyo’s mistress who worked in the Tominaga Geisha house and died young. Looking at the dates, I see now that Okyo was just seventeen years old at the time, wow, what a deep, profound and melancholy gesture… This sad event must have shaped his life in one way or another, and it has certainly shaped the way the Japanese, even today, see a female ghost, as a creature in white clothes, pale face, dark hair falling like weeping willow branches and ending in faint, thin lines, and lower body and feet disappearing. So simple, yet so poignant and sweetly melancholy.

Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

Another example which isn’t mentioned in the novel, but goes with the narrator’s idea; Vincent van Gogh’s “portrait” of his old, dirty, worn out shoes. The motif, when spoken out loud, seems laughable and not even remotely worthy of being painted, but van Gogh painted this pair of shoes with the same passionate approach that he had for his landscape, wheat fields and sunflowers, look at the careful brushwork and wild patches of colour. If Van Gogh didn’t paint his old shoes as his artist mission to show us beauty around us, we would never have known just what beauty lies in them.

David Bowie’s Moss Garden and Ukiyo-e Ladies Playing Koto

15 Mar

Chikanobu Toyohara (1838-1912), Koto Player – Azuma

David Bowie’s instrumental piece “Moss Garden”, the second of the three instrumentals on side two of album “Heroes” released in 1977, is a serene, tranquil oasis of light in the desert of darkness which makes the majority of the album’s sound. Situated between the fellow two instrumentals, dark and foreboding “Sense of Doubt” and equally grim “Neuköln”, the “Moss Garden”, strange and serene, is like a ray of sun on a moody, cloudy spring day that appears for a moment and disappears quickly behind the clouds. Bowie plays the traditional Japanese string instrument koto on the track and Brian Eno plays the synthesizer. “Moss Garden” is a delightful five minutes and three seconds of lightness and meditative, ambient ethereal sounds. So, one cannot refer to “Heroes” as to a dark album, why, one eighth of the album is uplifting. And then there’s the song “Heroes” as well.

It’s been quite some time since I discovered Bowie’s Berlin era songs, but this song lingered in my memory, and I think the reason for that is the eastern sound of the koto. I mean, how many rock songs are coloured by far-east sounds like that? Listening to this instrumental piece made me think of all the Ukiyo-e prints where beautiful Japanese ladies dressed in vibrant clothes are playing koto and I found a few lovely examples which I am sharing in this post. A lot of these Japanese woodcut prints (or Ukiyo-e prints) were made by Chikanobu, an artist who worked mostly in the 1880s and 1890s, the last fruitful decades for the art of woodcuts and in his work he mostly focused on beautiful women doing everyday things. I really enjoy the elegant simplicity of the woodcut above; how the background is clear but the lady’s purple kimono stands out and the focus is solely on her and her koto; back to bare essentials. I also really love Hasegawa Settei’s portrayal of lady playing kimono.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Preparing to Play the Koto, from the series Ladies of the Tokugawa Period, 1895

Toshikata Mizuno (1866-1914), Thirty-six Selected Beauties – Playing Koto

Hasegawa Settei, A Japanese woman playing the koto, December 1878

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Playing Koto, c 1890s

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Koto Player at 11 a.m. – Scenes of the Twenty-four Hours, c 1890s

Moss gardens are a special variety of Japanese gardens, the continuous flow of unending moss coated ground lets the person slowly fall into the dreamy and meditative state, and allows the eye to wander from one variety of moss to the other, the nostrils to inhale the rich, green, primeval scent of this old and grateful plant. I imagine it rich with water after a rainy summer afternoon. “A moss garden presents the opportunity to observe differentiations of colour that have never been seen before. The tactile and optical characteristics of the moss gardens are softness, sponginess, submarine wateriness and unfathomability. They are the exact opposite of the pebble gardens with their appointed paths, boundaries and stone islands.” (Siegfried Wichmann; Japonism)

When life gets overwhelming, one can sit for hours in such a garden and easily sink into a meditative state, thoughts drifting and problems fading. In a similar way, Bowie’s move to Berlin with Iggy Pop in 1976 was his way of finding clarity, anonymity and inspiration: “I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity.“(Bowie with Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton for Uncut Magazine) After the very depressing album “Low” released earlier the same year, 1977, album “Heroes” is the first step in the path of Bowie’s search for clarity and perhaps the song “Moss Garden” is the best expression of this new found quite, introspective feeling of serenity.

Keiko Yurimoto (1906-2000), Koto Player, c 1950

Berlin in the seventies was a grey, isolated and divided city with a world-weary self-regard. The youth suffered and junkies filled the subway stations, but a lot of bohemians, artists and musicians were drawn to that bleak, alienated and experimental atmosphere and relished in what the city had to offer. As Bowie said himself: “For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.” He was just another weirdo in the city and everyone left him alone. The product of his fascination with the city were three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – today known as Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, by far my favourite era of Bowie’s music. Bowie said himself about the Berlin Trilogy: “My complete being is within those three albums.” (Uncut magazine) Enough said. I don’t really understand or share the wild enthusiasm for Bowie’s glam rock Ziggy Stardust era, I mean those are some great songs, but the Berlin era is the real thing, it sounds as if the mood of the times and the city with its bleakness and political division is woven into the music, to me it sounds like Berlin breathing and living.

John Anster Fitzgerald – Fairies and Victorian Escapism

12 Mar

It turns out that escaping reality and harsh truths of it is not a new phenomenon at all; it is as old as society itself but no one escaped the grim, gruesome and gray daily life in a more imaginative, whimsical and colourful way than Victorians and they sure had a lot to escape from.

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy Hordes Attacking a Bat, c 1860

Fairy art in the Victorian era developed directly as a result of all the realism that was going on at the time; Industrialisation, child labour, poor living conditions, poverty and prostitution, Positivism, science and Darwinian theories, invention of photography, add to all that the climate of restrictions and (fake) morality and it was just too much for any normal individual to process. Jeremy Mass, the author of the book “Victorian Fairy Painting” (1997) recognised the genre as being reactionary rather than revolutionary. “No other type of painting concentrates so many of the opposing elements of the Victorian psyche: the desire to escape the drear hardships of daily existence; the stirrings of new attitudes toward sex, stifled by religious dogma; a passion for the unseen; the birth of psychoanalysis; the latent revulsion against the exactitude of the new invention of photography.” Dionysian energies need an outlet, and too much Apollonian clarity and ratio cripples the imagination. The sea of reason and harsh truths was overwhelming and the imagination had to find its way in the arts and in people’s life. Dreams, laudanum, local legends and mythology, Shakespeare, and Victorian fairy scenes were born.

While writers such as Charles Dickens chose to write about the horrible conditions, thieves, orphans and the poor, other artists chose to dip their quills and brushes into the colour of fairies and dreams and see where this new genre can take them. Through the fairy and fantasy genre they could express the inexpressible; a fairy isn’t a woman so a nude fairy in a painting isn’t really a nude, as is the case with Paton’s painting “The Quarrel of Titania and Oberon” (1849) that Queen Victoria loved and admired. John Anster Fitzgerald, mostly self-taught and no stranger to opium dens, was one such artist who provided an escape for Victorians through his whimsical paintings filled with strange looking and often grotesque tiny creatures, half-mythical half-imaginary, birds, bats, fairies and flowers. These paintings, full of details and painted in vibrant colours, appear very innocent and childlike at first glance, but their whimsicality was fueled by laudanum and chloral; Victorian drugs of the moment. He was also known as “Fairy Fitzgerald” to his friends because he painted the fairy world so obsessively, and in my opinion, the most beautifully. I prefer his work over the similar works made by other fairy painters who created at the same time such as Richard Dadd and Sir Joseph Noel Paton. Sometimes the titles of Fitzgerald’s paintings alone give me a thrill, “Fairy Hordes Attacking a Bat”, for example.

John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906), The Stuff Dreams are Made of, 1864

In Fairy Fitzgerald’s paintings, flowers, leaves and mushrooms seem large in comparison with the small fairies who bodies have luminous glow and strange attire. Dense with details and rich with colour, these paintings were really made to be gazed at for a long time, preferably right before bedtime so all these cheerful and surreal scenes can blend into ones dreams just like in the painting bellow called “The Stuff Dreams are Made of” where the sleeping girl is dreaming of her real or imagined beloved but all of a sudden these strange creatures crash the dream like uninvited party guests. The also surround her bed and play all sorts of instruments, but her rosy cheeks and closed eyes speak of undisturbed sleep.

In another painting, “Nightmare”, a similar young Victorian girl is having a nightmare, tossing and turning in her bed all because the strange beings from the fairy lands have visited her sleep, which brings to mind Fusseli’s The Nightmare painted in times when the Gothic wave swept European art in the last quarter of eighteenth century. In yet another painting, “The Artist’s Dream”, now it is the artist himself who is having strange dreams whilst dreaming about a painting a portrait. Dreams and reality mingle in these artworks and the fantasy finds a way to enter the everyday life, no matter how narrow the path for dream may be. These dream-works are often seen as portrayals of his laudanum-induced hallucinations and they just might be that, but how fun to imagine that these things go on while we are asleep.

These paintings were made to be gazed at and daydreaming over so tune in to these vibrant sparkling colours and drop out of the boring real world.

John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906), Nightmare, c 1860s

John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, The Intruder, 1865

John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, The Artist’s Dream, 1857

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Captive Robin, 1864

 

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Fairy’s Lake, c. 1866

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Faerie’s Funeral, 1860

John Anster Fitzgerald, In Fairy Land, date unknown

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy Lovers in a Bird’s Nest watching a White Mouse, 1860s

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Marriage of Oberon and Titania, unknown date

John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, The Concert, c 1860s

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairies in a bird’s nest, 1860

George Hendrik Breitner – Girl in Red Kimono

9 Mar

The same thing happens to me this time of the year when the winter is giving way to spring, the first white blooming trees are looming one the horizon in the pinkish but still chill dusk. A certain rare disease whose symptoms are hard to explain suddenly overwhelms my body and soul, leaving me fatigued, dreamy and unable to think of anything else. The disease is called madness for Japonism. My heart aches for cherry blossoms, zen gardens, mystic temples, lanterns, kimono, the vibrancy and the serenity. Unable to fully cure this madness, I can alleviate the symptoms and the only way to do so is to gaze at Ukiyo-e prints and admire their wonderful strangeness and exoticism, soak myself in Whistler’s serene paintings in white and grey and listen to Debussy’s sonata for flute, viola and harp which instantly transports me to an exotic gardens, fragrant and serene where under moonlight the cherry blossoms spill all their naughty secrets to my ears.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono, Geesje Kwak, 1893-95

Before we properly start with the post, I want us all to take a moment to fully appreciate the gorgeous red colour that Breitner used without shyness on all of these paintings, whether it’s the case of a bold glimmering red kimono with white flower print, or a grey-white kimono with tiny red flowers which look like exploding red stars, so vivacious and so powerful. The red colour on any canvas just transforms things for me, takes them on an entirely new level. It just has a mesmerising effect on me, especially when I think of the delightful contrast between the passionate bold red and the delicate soft pink-white of the newly sprung blossoms.

The main model for all these lovely paintings was a working class sixteen year old girl called Geesje Kwak who had the luck and privilege to be transformed, at least in the artist’s studio and on the canvas, to a beauty from the far east, dressed in fine soft silks and holding a Japanese doll in her hands. This series of Japonism paintings by a Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner is by far the most beautiful example of the portrayal of kimono in the nineteenth century western art. Breitner was nor the first nor the last painter who was inspired by Japanese art but he was a rare one who focused not exclusively on , but solely on kimono, the vibrancy and the patterns.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a kimono (Geesje Kwak) in Breitner’s studio on Lauriersgracht, Amsterdam, 1893

After Japan started trading with the West in 1854, almost over night the Western market was flooded with Japanese woodcut prints known as Ukiyo-e prints. These vibrant, strange and exotic woodcuts were something completely new to the western eyes and soon enough Japonism became all the rage in the artistic circles and this influence didn’t decrease as decades passed but only grew stronger and even influenced the early twentieth century art movements such as Art Nouveau. The Impressionists were the first group of artists to create works inspired by the far east. Artists such as Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Whistler, Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin were all inspired by some aspect of Ukiyo-e prints, whether it’s the perspective, the flatness or the motif.

Breitner, who was acquainted with Japonism during his visit to Paris in 1882, and then again in 1892 he visited the exhibition of Japanese art in the Hague, used a more obvious motif taken from the Japanese art: on more than a dozen canvases in this series he explored the kimono, something that all the ladies in the Ukiyo-e prints are seen wearing. The folds and the shimmer of the silk, the vibrant colours and wild prints all made the kimono an eye-catching and interesting motif to paint. Whistler painted his models in loose kimono-style garments and Monet bought a kimono for his young wife and painted her wearing it in 1876. After the wave of Japonism madness swept him too, Breitner bought a few folding screens and a few pretty kimonos. Now he only needed a delicate flower for a model to wear them and pose for him, and Geesje was in the right place at the right time.

George Hendrik Breitner Girl in Red Kimono Geesje Kwak, 1894

Geesje Kwak. Study for ‘The red kimono’, Photo by Breitner, 1893

George Hendrik Breitner, Sketch for ‘The red kimono’, 1893-95, picture found here.

Little is known about Geesje and we can assume that this mysterious girl would have been forgotten by history if she wasn’t posing for Breitner. She was born as Gezina Kwak in Zaandam on 17 April 1877 and moved to Amsterdam in 1893. She worked either as a seamstress or as a salesgirl in a hat shop. In a right place at a right time, Geesje moved to the street where Breitner’s studio was and soon started modelling for him regularly. Their relationship was strictly professional and Breitner noted down in his notebook the precise hours and duration of her sittings. Before Breitner’s Japanese phase, his passion was the portrayal of the underbelly, the poor and the miserable, and the fact that Geesje was a simple, working class girl appealed to his sense of social awareness. Geesje’s sister Anna also posed for Breitner and you can see her in resplendent red kimono down bellow, but Geesje was the main model.

Geesje would walk around the studio, as in a zen garden, or lounged on the divan, sit in front of the mirror, and Breitner sketched her and even photographed her. It’s a good thing he did because in 1895 Geesje and her sister moved to South Africa where Geesje died in 1899 from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-two. Beauty tinged with sadness is how I see all the gorgeous paintings. The blossoms of spring, cherry, plum or apple blossoms, are delicate and ephemeral, better gaze at them before they vanish, better paint them before they wither. And I feel the same could be said about Geesje, looking at her life in retrospective; it’s a great thing that Breitner painted her while she was alive and captured her delicate beauty in those gorgeous kimono.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono in Front of a Mirror, 1894

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a White Kimono, c 1894-95

George Hendrik Breitner, Anna (Girl in a Red Kimono), 1894

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a white kimono (Geesje Kwak), 1893

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono (Geesje Kwak), 1895−1896

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a White Kimono, 1894

Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Hôtel Particulier and Art of Paul Delvaux

24 Feb

“All my life I’ve tried to transcribe reality to make it into a kind of dream.”

(Paul Delvaux)

Paul Delvaux, Sleeping Venus (La Venus Endormie), 1944

Serge Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album “Historie de Melody Nelson” released on 24 March 1971 has a Lolitaesque theme and in seven unique yet connected songs tells a tale of an older gentleman (Serge) who, by accident, collides his car into the red bicycle of a sweet and pretty schoolgirl called Melody Nelson (Jane Birkin). This chance seemingly unhappy encounter blossoms into a flower of seduction and romance as the gentleman takes Melody to a hotel. This part of the musical story is told in the fifth song “L’hôtel particulier“. Needless to say, I very much enjoy the variety of different musical styles on the album’s songs, and I love the innocently-sexy Jane Birkin in the videos, but it is the video for this song “L’hôtel particulier” that fascinates me in particular because it features the wondrous paintings of the Belgian Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) who was actually still alive during the time the album was made. Not only alive, but also very prolific. Even though he was the last surviving Surrealist during his life, he was a wanderer and an individualist in the Surrealist crowd who created a unique dream-like world on his canvases which feature repetitive motifs; Classical architecture, nocturnal setting, nude women whose bodies are white as snow and appear smooth as marble, skeletons, crescent moon, trains, boudoirs.

The shaping of Delvaux’s art career was a slow and steady process because at first his parents pressured him into studying architecture, it was something he didn’t enjoy but it did serve him greatly later in creating the strange, accurately depicted yet eerie spaces in his paintings. In 1934 Delvaux saw the Surrealist exhibition “Minotaure” and this inspired him to start working in the direction of Surrealism because it led him back to the imaginative state of childhood. Delvaux’s art also shows the influence of Giorgio de Chirico’s cold and enigmatic worlds where architecture is drawn with precision yet the overall effect is unsettling. In 1937 and 1939 he visited Italy and the architecture inspired him to serve as a setting for the world of his languid dead-eyed hypnotised nudes. Delvaux painted some wonderful eerie paintings even in the late 1960s and 1970s, but the paintings chosen for Gainsbourg’s video were mostly painted in the 1940s. The World War II period was a harsh one for Delvaux as it was for everyone, but it only inspired him to paint more and to retreat into the world of his imagination. The artist stated “I would like to create a fabulous painting in which I would live, in which I could live.”

As a child he was afraid of skeletons but later in life he found a way to incorporate them into his nocturnal worlds, bones glistening in moonlight, death opposing the sensuality of the women’s nude flesh. One such skeleton pops up in the painting “Sleeping Venus” painted in 1944, and unlike skeletons in James Ensor’s art (a fellow Belgian painter), Delvaux’s skeleton is unashamed of himself, he doesn’t put on a mask or hide under some garish carnival clothes. Nude Venus is sweetly asleep on a divan in front of the temple-like building while the skeleton is having a fascinating conversation with a Belle Epoque woman with a large brimmed hat and a dark red dress. The conversation is so fascinating that not even the passing couple, Serge and Jane, can interrupt it. Even though Delvaux’s paintings aren’t directly connected to the music and the song, I think they create a striking background visually which really leaves the viewer interested.

Bellow I’ve compared Delvaux’s paintings to stills from the video:

Paul Delvaux, The Echo, 1943

Paul Delvaux, Night Train, 1947

Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens, 1947

Paul Delvaux, Le nu et le mannequin (Le nu au mannequin), signed and dated ‘P.Delvaux 12-47’, December 1947

Louis-Léopold Boilly – Two Young Women Kissing

19 Feb

Today I want to share with you all a dazzling painting by a not-so-famous French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly.

Louis-Léopold Boilly, Deux jeunes femmes s’embrassant (Two Young Women Kissing), 1790-1794

This painting, despite being painted in the late eighteenth century, is so Rococo; naughty yet innocent, provocative yet delicate. In the age of Terror, Revolution, guillotine, rage and chopped heads, the sweet spirit of Rococo, rose-scented and dressed in cotton-candy pink is fighting to survive, fighting against the changes and the steel coldness of David and Neoclassicism. All the frivolities, intimacies and secrets from the grand canvases of Boucher and Fragonard have come alive in this simple yet delightful interior scene. Two young women are portrayed in a kiss, their arms wrapped around one another, their eyes open. The white under-dress of one girl is naughtily exposing her white shoulder and some of that cleavage. The other girl is dressed in a sumptuous green, seemingly iridescent gown. I just love how the folds and creases were painted; the shine of the fabric seems so vivid, and the fabric so tangible and crunchy. I can imagine the soft echo of it rustles down the corridor after the visit is over and the lady gone. I am assuming that the chamber belongs to the girl in white, and that the girl in green is a secret visitor, a very dear friend.

Other details in the room also bring to mind the delicate rose-perfumed interiors from the age of Madame Pompadour. Simple furniture, descending into darkness on the left half of the canvas, serves like a background on a stage for the one-act play of this sweet, short, playful kiss exchanged by two girls. A bonnet with blue ribbons, an empty glass bottle, a yellow glow, silks and a pink rose are seemingly casually placed on the little desk. On the mantle, a clock and two candles are seen. The interior is adding to the mood conveyed by the sweet kiss and all the other details around the girls are here to emphasise the softness, delicacy, and femininity. The style of the interior isn’t that Rococo, but the mood definitely is. Does it seem to me, or do I see a faint reflection of the bed in the mirror above the mantle?

Boilly (1761-1845) was popular and praised in his time, he was no stranger to portrait commissions and exhibitions, but sadly he isn’t that well remembered in the art history. His art is all but dull and boring, so the lack of talent or creativity certainty aren’t the reasons behind it. I think it has more to do with the art history’s emphasis on dates, art period, and what-influenced-what mentality. Boilly’s paintings don’t usually reflect the spirit of his times, perhaps if he had been born earlier his paintings would have been as appreciated now as those of Boucher are. Looking back on past times, an artist who doesn’t match in a dominant movement of his time is an oddball, the books don’t know where to place him so it’s easier to just ignore such an artist and focus on the ones who started a new art movement or reflected the spirit of their times in their works. I know a thing of two about being an outsider and a dreamer, so Boilly and this painting appeal to me, he was clearly portraying a dream-world in his canvases, in turbulent times, daydreaming of the past elegance that he had witness.

Maurice Prendergast – Vibrant Watercolour Beach Scenes

16 Feb

American Post-Impressionist painter Maurice Prendergast seems to be my favourite painter at the moment. After sharing his beautiful painting “The Lady with a Red Sash” with you, I simply must share these vibrant, dazzling watercolours of beach scenes, bursting with life and vivacity.

Maurice Prendergast, Low Tide, Beachmont, 1900-05, watercolor over graphite and coal on off-white wove paper

A single glance at any of Maurice Prendergast’s delightful watercolours of beaches and the sea is enough to send me into a state of reverie. Memories of past summers fill my mind; I see the wonderful blue sea trembling before my eyes, the steady yet wild waves with a golden shine sparkling in the sun, salty scent tingling my nostrils and sun warming my skin, a plethora of pebbles and parasols in many vibrant colours, the line which separates the sky and the sea is faraway and out of reach. The seaside was a lingering theme in Prendergast’s career, and watercolour appears to have been his favoured medium for these scenes, although he did paint many traditional oils as well.

His watercolour “Low Tide, Beachmont” (the title was given posthumously) seems to be my favourite at the moment. I love the vibrancy and liveliness of the scene, not just the mood of a carefree, idle, leisure day spent at the beach, collecting pebbles, jumping around and laughing, and inhaling the fresh salty scent of the sea carried by the soft western breeze, but also the liveliness of all the elements on the paper. Women and children are enjoying a day at the beach. Little boats are sailing in the distance. Skirts are billowing in the wind, and some hats are eager to fly away; the little in the foreground is holding her hat with both hands. Their reflections appear in the surface of the water which the waves had brought to fill the empty space between the rocks.

This watercolour excites me not merely because of its content, the wonderful portrayal of a fun day at the beach, but also because of the way it was executed. The repetition of elements such as those brown-grey rocks creates a rhythm which is soothing and exciting both at once. It almost creates a tapestry of shapes, swirls and colours makes the painting so playful, vivacious and alive. It makes the painting appear as a decorative ornamental surface and everything seems to be trembling and breathing. In all of his watercolours, but in this one especially, the world appears as if it was painted from a child’s point of view; it’s just so very playful. Before travelling to Paris in 1891 to study in well-respected academies, Prendergast (1858-1924) was apprenticed to work in the commercial arts, and hence he grew to like the flatness and the bright colours. He painted coastal scenes in Brittany during his four-year stay in France and after returning from Paris in 1895 he settled in Boston and often ventured to the beaches north of Boston, Revere Beach and Beachmont to name a few.

As I have already stated on this blog many times, I absolutely adore watercolours. Anything painted in that medium never fails to look lively, immediate and spontaneous. This effect of watercolours being “spontaneous” and “effortless” is very deceiving because this watery medium tends to have a mind of its own; it spills, stains the paper and goes in directions one has not planned. Dates for this watercolour vary a lot; some sources state it was painted between 1902 and 1904, some state the year as 1905, and yet in the bottom right corner there is the painter’s signature and the year 1897. Strange indeed. Now, here are a few more of Prendergast’s wonderful beach scene. While I adore the playful visual rhythm of “Low Tide, Beachmont”, I also enjoy the way the colours in the painting “Children at the Beach” (1897) melt so lyrically, especially around the figures of children. And that serene blue! Ahhhh…

Maurice Prendergast, Ladies with Parasols, 1897, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Low Tide, 1897

Maurice Prendergast, Children at the Beach, 1897, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Revere Beach, 1897, watercolour