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Precisionism and Max Weber’s Process of Rationalisation

24 Nov

The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation, and intellectualisation, and above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”

(Max Weber)

Charles Demuth, Chimney and Water Tower, 1931

Precisionism was a distinctly American and distinctly modern art movement which first appeared in the early twentieth century in the paintings of Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and others. The favoured motives of Precisionist painters were the objects tied exclusively to the modern world; tall buildings, urban landscapes, industrial architecture and factories. Charles Demuth’s painting “Chimney and Water Tower” shows such a motif in its full glory. The painting is painted in tones of red and grey in its entirety, the lines are precise and clear. The red chimney stands tall and proud alongside the black water tower; they are painted in such a solemn and serious manner that they bring to mind the tall and awe-inspiring Gothic cathedrals.

The clear lines and the cold and impersonal aesthetic of these paintings bring to mind a process of Rationalisation introduced by the German sociologist Max Weber. Rationalisation is a process in which more and more aspects of life are undergoing calculation and prediction, the emphasis is on efficiency and productivity; a worker is a just a tiny piece of the machinery; anonymous and replaceable, and it this process is similar to Karl Marx’s concept of alienation. The world has lost its magic. Weber believed that Rationalisation is the main characteristic of modern society and therefore the art of Precisionism, with its frighteningly tall buildings of Manhattan and dehumanising machines of Detroit, is a product of its time and could not have been painted in earlier eras.

Charles Demuth, Modern Conveniences, 1921

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931

Charles Sheeler, River Rouge Plant, 1932

Francis Picabia, French painter active around the same time, also speaks of “machinery” being the “soul of the modern world”; “Since machinery is the soul of the modern world, and since the genius of machinery attains its highest expression in America, why is it not reasonable to believe that in America the art of the future will flower most brilliantly?” (1915) These industrial landscapes appear eerily silent, and if there is any sound, then it is the sound of the machines, not the bird song or a child’s laughter. If Kirchner’s paintings were screams of despair and revolt against the modern world, if Edward Hopper’s captured the alienating mood of the modern city, then the paintings of Demuth and Scheeler are finely crafted spaces of silence and precision where the human was at last eliminated, erased, wiped out.

Even though Precisionism was a uniquely American art movement, it did borrow from the art on the other side of the ocean. The Precisionists and Futurists share in common their admiration and emphasis on the technological triumph of man over nature, and of course the obsession with dividing space and objects into clear and precise geometrical forms is something that they borrowed from Cubism. Still, the subject matter is uniquely American; factories, machines and industrial spaces was hardly worth the attention of European avant-garde artists at the time. Traces of Cubism are more noticeable in the paintings of Charles Demuth and Sheeler, who was also a photographer, preferred the smooth surface and an almost photographic realism. Indeed, looking at his photographs and paintings, one can scarcely notice a difference in approach, save for the colour.

Charles Demuth, Aucassin and Nicolette, 1921

Sheeler painted and photographed not only factories, but also the vernacular architecture and his comment on the barns near his house give an insight into his perception of beauty: “Their builders weren’t building a work of art… If it’s beautiful to some of us afterward, it’s beautiful because it functioned.” Sheeler also loved the Quaker furniture which was simple in style and made to be useful and not pretty. This love of simplicity and utilitarianism spilled over in his paintings. In 1927, Sheeler was invited by the Ford Motor Company to capture their factory in River Rouge, Michigan; they were releasing a new Model A automobile and Sheeler’s visit was a part of the promotional campaign. You can see the paintings of the River Rouge factory bellow. Mass production of standardised products was connected with the Ford factory and this again is tied to Max Weber’s process of Rationalisation; every worker in Ford factory was working on a specific little thing and thus his work wasn’t very valued and wasn’t well paid. We know that workers existed in that Ford factory, but gazing at Sheeler’s paintings alone we might assume that the machine themselves produce all cars.

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930

Charles Sheeler, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927

Charles Demuth, End of the Parade: Coatesville, 1920

Charles Sheeler, Skyscrapers, 1922

Frans Masereel – Streetlights, Paris in the evening

22 Nov

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

(Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart)

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

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

Frans Masereel, La vespasienne sous le métro, 1926

Frans Masereel, Metro aerien (Hochbahn), 1926

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

Rainer Fetting: I Remember Standing By the Wall

19 Nov

Rainer Fetting, Yellow Wall (Luckauerstraße-Sebastianstraße), 1977

German painter and later also a sculptor Rainer Fetting was a part of an art movement called “Neue Wilde” which brought strong, bold colours, vibrancy and passion into the art scene dominated by minimal art and conceptual art. I already immersed myself in the mood of seventies Berlin through the film (and book) “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo”, musically through the three Berlin-era albums by David Bowie who found the city very stimulating artistically, and now visually through Rainer Fetting’s vibrant canvases. Fetting captured the Wall in many of his canvases from 1970s and 1980s in a particularly raw and expressive way. His brush strokes aren’t wild and strong as those of the original German Expressionists were, Fetting’s paints in a rather smooth way but his use of colour would have certainly shocked the art critic who was appalled by the paintings of the Fauvists in 1905. Still, do not let the vibrant yellow, red and purples fool you; these vibrant colours are a shiny, glamorous facade that conceal the underlying alienation. Back in the age of the original Expressionists, the Wall didn’t exist obviously, but Kirchner captured the spirit of the city in a similar way that Fetting did. In Wim Wenders’ wonderful film “Wings of Desire”, a young man, before committing suicide, laments how “the east is everywhere” and the wall that Fetting had painted here is what divides the two sides. Painting “Erstes Maurbild” shows the mystery of the other side; the windows with bars looks like a prison and one can imagine the chilling silence that lies on the other side; no tree, no birdsong, just concrete alienation which Fetting frantically transformed into a rainbow of colours. Painting “Mauer am Südstern”, with its visible brushstrokes and the subdued red and ocher shades reminds me the most of something that Ernst Ludwig Kirchner could have painted. And of course, when I think of the wall, David Bowie’s song “Heroes” comes to mind:

I, I can remember
(I remember)
Standing by the wall
(By the wall)
And the guns, shot above our heads
(Over our heads)
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
(Nothing could fall)
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes just for one day
We can be heroes
We can be heroes
We can be heroes just for one day…

Rainer Fetting, Erstes Mauerbild, 1977, tempera on canvas

Rainer Fetting, Mauer am Südstern, 1988

Rainer Fetting, Alte Fabrik (Moritzplatz) [Old Factory (Moritzplatz)], 1978, Dispersion on canvas, 165 x 196 cm

Bonnard: Rooftops and Nostalgia for the Life of Others

8 Nov

“Nostalgia for the life of others. This is because, seen from the outside, another’s life forms a unit. Whereas ours, seen from the inside, seems broken up. We are still chasing after an illusion of unity.”

(Camus, Notebook IV (August/September, 1942)

Pierre Bonnard, Rooftops, 1897

The voyeur in me delights in these two paintings by a French Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard. Gazing at the building, or a house, on the other side of the road, counting all the windows and balconies, wondering what secrets do the fancy facade and flimsy curtains hide, is there anything that awakens more curiosity and longing both at once? Painting “Rooftops” isn’t that exciting on its own; it just shows a roof of some Parisian building, roof windows and a little bit of blue sky. The scene would be much more exciting if it showed a woman undressing at the window, a couple kissing, or a murder taking place, but with the aid of our imagination we can fantasise about anything taking place in one of those flats. When I see a painting like this, I couldn’t care less about the architecture! My mind instantly starts fantasising about the people living there. Who are they and are their lives more exciting than mine? What secrets do the windows of their flats hide? What are they thinking about when they gaze at the other side of street? Gazing at other people’s windows, at the houses on the other side of the street reminds me of something that a character played by Daniel Auteuil tells a sad young girl Adele, played by Vanessa Paradis, in the film “La fille sur le pont”: “I’m going to tell you a story. Long ago, I lived on the even side of the street, at number 22. I gazed at the houses across the street thinking that people were happier, their rooms sunnier, their parties more fun. But in fact their rooms were darker and smaller. And they too gazed across the street. Because we always think that luck is what we don’t have.” Naturally, I have no curiosity or envy for the lives of people I know well because I know that their lives are as banal and boring as mine, but the mysterious faces whose names I know not, oh they are the ones about whom I can weave fantasies and project all my yearning and envy on.

Pierre Bonnard, Rue Tholozé (Montmartre in the Rain), 1897

Another Bonnard’s painting “Montmartre in the Rain”, painted in the same year as the “Rooftops”, also shows the buildings on the other side of the street with their glowing yellow windows. Each window holds a secret and even though the windows with the lights on are captivating and vibrant, the windows left in the darkness are even more mysterious; who is there in the darkness, a sad poet sitting on his bed, or secret lovers whispering secret words into each other’s ear? Bonnard must have been on a very high floor, third or fourth perhaps, to capture the scene in that perspective. I love the way Bonnard captured the magical atmosphere of glowing yellow lights and the wet pavements after rain. The strollers in the street bellow look like black blots. In “Rooftops” and “Montmartre at Night” Bonnard painted a view on the buildings on the other side of the street, but what about the inside of the flat and the people who live in it? Another Bonnard’s painting “Woman at the Window (Among the Seamstresses)”, painted in 1895, and a lovely pastel by Pissarro “At the Window, rue des Trois Frères”, painted in 1878, offer a view on what goes inside the flats, what secrets are hidden behind the curtains and windows. I bet the little girl in Pissarro’s painting would rather be exploring the parks and streets outside her house than be sitting there above the book, I bet she is eager to feel the sun and wind on her face and to taste life and not just read about it. And those drab, gloomy probably underpaid seamstresses in Bonnard’s paintings, I bet they would rather be strolling around free, roaming the streets and not sewing the dresses for evening parties that they will never attend, touching the silk fabric that they will never get to wear. They must be gazing longingly at those free passers by and wondering where they are going? And thus the circle continues, there is always the illusion, as the title of Milan Kundera’s novel says, that life is elsewhere….

Camille Pissarro, At the Window, rue des Trois Frères, 1878, Pastel on cream wove pastel paper

Pierre Bonnard, Woman at the Window (Among the Seamstresses), c. 1895

Pretty Girls Make Graves – Beautiful Corpses in Art: Part II

5 Nov

At last, the Part II of the post about interesting and beautiful female corpses in art. You can read the part I here.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, The Lady of Shalott, 1875

I finished the first part of this post with Walter Crane’s painting “Lady of Shalott” painted in 1862, and in this post I am continuing with the theme of a beautiful and doomed Lady of Shalott with a painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Nature surrounding the poor, pale and dead Lady of Shalott seems mystical and dreamy, almost sepia coloured, like a primordial swamp with its dreamy distant trees, slow murky water and water lilies, all ready to take the poor Elaine to the castle where her knight in shining armour is. The trees tops cast shadows on the surface of the water and it creates a slightly surreal atmosphere where one doesn’t know what is real and what illusory, what is alive and what but a shadow. Grimshaw is more known for painting street scenes of towns in the Northern England where he brilliantly captured the atmosphere of wet and gloomy autumn. So this painting of Lady of Shalott is a very different theme for Grimshaw, but he painted it with equal emphasis on the atmosphere. Sweet dead Elaine looks lovely like a doll with yellow hair.

Gabriel von Max, The Anatomist, 1869

In comparison with Grimshaw’s dreamy portrayal of the Lady of Shalott floating slowly toward eternity in her little boat, painting “The Anatomist” shows a more realistic portrayal of a female corpse. The title “Anatomist” places the man in the centre; we see the world through his eyes, we see the dead woman’s pale body through his eyes. He has slowly removed the white sheet that covers her, exposing her breast, and he seems deep in thought. Behind him are skulls and books which remind us of transience and also of his scientific, intellectual occupations. She looks very still and serene, but is she really? Will she open her eyes, will her lips move and speak? I must say, that after gazing at this painting for some time, it brought to mind a short horror film called “Kissed” which I stumbled upon this summer. You can check it out here, it’s six minutes long.

 

William Frederick Yeames, The Death of Amy Robsart, 1877

In “The Death of Amy Robsart”, William Frederick Yeames took a real historic event and portrayed it in a romantic way. Poor dead body of a Elizabethan era lady Amy Robsart has just been discovered at he bottom of the stairs leading up to her bedroom; I assume because we can see the bed in the room upstairs and she is dressed in her informal attire. Amy is mostly remembered in history for being the wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; the favourite of the Queen Elizabeth, and for dying in suspicious circumstances by falling down stairs. Victorian painter William Frederick Yeames has taken this historical event and portrayed it with a very Victorian sense for tragedy; we instantly feel pity for Amy, just as we do for the poor Lady Jane Grey or Joan of Arc in other Romantic and Victorian paintings which romanticise the historical tragedies. I love the way the creases of her nightgown are painted, in that lying pose she almost looks like a sculpture.

Claude Monet, Camille Monet on her Deathbed, 1879

This painting by Monet is a really intimate portrayal of a painful moment in the painter’s life: the death of his first wife Camille. It’s almost like a visual diary entry. The painting looks as if it is covered with a thin blueish gauze, a thin line which separated the real world . The painting reminds me of a passage from María Luisa Bombal’s novel “La amortajada” or “The Shrouded Woman” where the woman is dead but she can still see and hear everything, including her burial and she remembers her entire life throughout the novel: “And after it had gotten dark, her eyes opened. But just a little, very little. It was as if she wanted to look, while she was hidden behind her long eyelashes. At the flame of the tall candles that leaned over to keep watch on her, and to observe the cleanness and transparency of the border of the eye that death had not been able to cast a pall over. Respectfully dazzled, they leaned over, not knowing that She was able to see them. Because, in fact, She could both see and feel. And that is how she looked, motionless, lying face up on the spacious bed now covered with embroidered sheets that were scented with lavender—that were always kept under lock and key—and she is wrapped in that white satin robe that always made her look so graceful. Her hands can be seen, gently crossed over her chest, pressing on a crucifix; hands that had acquired the frivolous delicacy of two peaceful doves.

Enrique Simonet Lombardo, The Autopsy (Anatomy of the Heart; She had a Heart!), 1890

Enrique Simonet’s painting “She had a heart!” is as realistic as it is poignant. The dead woman’s body and the interior of the morgue are painted with finest precision, and yet the coroner’s gesture of holding the woman’s heart makes her more humane in his eyes and in our eyes. She is not just another dead body that he is doing an autopsy on, she was a real person with a beating heart eager to love and be loved in return. Simonet gained fame and recognition with this painting and he painted it whilst studying in Rome. We can conclude that the dead woman was a prostitute because of her lavish coppery hair, red hair being symbolic of moral weakness, and also, bodies of women found in the river Tiber usually belonged to prostitutes. The real model for the woman was a dead body of an actress who committed suicide because of a heartache. The real tragedy behind the painting also adds a poignant touch to the painting.

Walter Crane, The Journey to Eternity, 1902

I am finishing this post with another very beautiful painting by Walter Crane called “The Journey to Eternity” which shows a nude angel and a beautiful redhead dead young woman lying in the boat as they both glide towards eternity. A dead lady in a little boat adorned with lilies and roses is awfully similar to the theme of the Lady of Shalott. Everything has a blueish tinge in this painting and it really adds to the mystical mood. The water looks incredibly vibrant and is painted in many shades of blue, and the blue is echoed in the angel’s wings as well. Also, the Angel’s head is covering the full moon so it almost looks as if the moon is his halo. The dead lady is comfortable on a soft pillow, she is holding a pink rose in her right hand and her journey to eternity seems as romantical as it can get. If I could die that way and travel to eternity in a boat adorned with roses, I would gladly.

All Souls’ Day: Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller and Franz Skarbina

2 Nov

Franz Skarbina, All Souls’ Day (Hedwig Cemetery), 1896

The graveyard comes alive on All Souls’ Day, candles and flowers for sure brighten up the otherwise grey and lonely landscape of the graveyards. I like to visit the graveyard these days, not for tradition but to enjoy the magical mood where the vibrancy of pink, orange and yellow chrysanthemums and the flickering light of the candles create a unique atmosphere which is half-eerie and half-carnival like. Carnival of souls, I can almost imagine them dancing ethereally between the tomb stones, and the last yellow leaves falling from the trees and joining them in their macabre dance. I found two interesting, but very different examples of this motif in art history; Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’s painting “On All Souls’ Day”, painted in 1839, and Franz Skarbina’s more atmospheric portrayal of the theme painted in 1896.

Waldmüller’s painting shows two ladies, probably mother and daughter, dressed head to toe in black. Their pale round faces looks almost identical and doll-like, peeking under black bonnets adorned with black lace. The mother’s hands are clasped, as in a solemn prayer, while the daughter is reading a book, probably some verses from the Bible. The grave they are visiting, I assume it is that of the daughter’s father, is adorned with flowers, there’s even a flower wreath on the wooden cross. In comparison, the graves in the background appear cold and grey, like a modern apartment complex, alienated and somber. The ground around the graves is bare, no time had passed for new fresh grass to grow, and the mud everywhere is suffocating. The painting appears static and somewhat sentimental, the emphasis is on the women and their feelings, not on the overall graveyard mood.

Skarbina’s painting is much more vibrant and lively, the flickering candles and the murmuring trees, here and there a white cross arises from the background but it doesn’t appear eerie. The graves speak of eternity while the candles remind us of transience; their fragile lives can stop at each blow of the wind or a drop of rain. The little girl in black is using one candle to light the others while her mother is watching. The yellow light of the candles is warming their faces. The painting has depth and dynamics; we can see other people in the background, other graves are lively and candles are lighted everywhere, whereas in Waldmüller’s painting the focus is solely on that one grave and the others don’t matter. I’m not going to lie, Skarbina’s painting is the one I love more because it has that touch of magic and dreaminess. The mud on the Waldmüller’s painting seems ready to swallow another corpse and that horrid realism unsettles me. Skarbina’s painting is more romantic in spirit.

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, On All Souls’ Day, 1839

John Everett Millais – Portrait of Sophie Gray

28 Oct

“I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.”

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

John Everett Millais, Portrait of Sophie Gray, 1857

Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais painted his wife Effie Millais’ younger sister Sophie on many occasions; most notably in the beautiful painting “Autumn Leaves” and “Spring” which are both atmospheric, rich in details and colour, but this “Portrait of Sophie Gray” is by far the most beautiful portrait of Sophie that Millais has painted and perhaps one of the most beautiful portraits I have ever seen. Sophie is just gorgeous to me and her face is painted exquisitely, full of colour and emotion, poetry and music. Her rosy cheeks are like ripe crimson apples. In her blue eyes I see the sea; the sublime roaring sea with its storms and wild waves, you could drown in their blueness, so intense and so alluring, so mysterious and so enticing. And yet her lips, so cherry red, so full and so inviting of a kiss, are pressed together. She is silent and shall not speak. While her eyes intrigue the viewer, her lips make sure that all her secrets are well kept. There is a melancholy charm painted all over that face, face framed with masses of long auburn hair which seems to flow endlessly. Sophie was fifteen, going on sixteen when this portrait was painted and to me it stands as a border between her childhood and the girlhood that is before her, with all its mysteries and curiosities. There is a definite sensual touch of the portrait; her crimson lips and her slender white neck, so exposed to our eyes, and how coyly the white lace touches it. I see Sophie’s awakening when I gaze at this portrait, she is standing at the doorway and looking into the world that awaits her fills her with melancholy. Her deep blue eyes can already see into the future and anticipate the life’s woes. There is a heart woven on her dark blue dress. Who will break your heart Sophie? Who will fill your blue eyes with tears? Who will infuse you with sadness? You know you will suffer and you know it is inevitable. You cannot avoid it Sophie. When I gaze into her eyes, this quote from Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre” comes to my mind, it’s something that Mr Rochester tells to Jane when he gazes into her eyes: “I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.” Sophie, October’s child of woe, a Scorpio girl born on 28th October 1843, grew up to be a miserable woman, suffering from anorexia and melancholy. Despite the deep fear of marriage planted in her by her older sister Effie, both by words and through observation of her sister’s despair, Sophie did marry and she died at the age of thirty-eight, probably as a result from anorexia. Her daughter Beatrix died six years later at the age of fourteen.

Pretty Girls Make Graves – Beautiful Corpses in Art: Part I

25 Oct

“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world – and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Paul Delaroche, The Young Martyr (La jeune martyre), 1853

American poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”, and no one other writer devoted himself to writing about pale, ghostly maidens and beautiful dead women with such a feverish passion. When I think of Beauty, Love and Death in literature, I instantly think of Poe, but what about the visual arts? I envisaged this post as a part one of a little overview of dead or dying women captured not with ink on paper, but in colour on canvases. The first example I’ve chosen of a girl – beautiful, young and dead, the winning combination for the utmost beauty, is the painting “The Young Martyr” by a French painter Paul Delaroche. This is probably his most famous work and it is easy to see why; the painting’s romantical and mystical flair is just mesmerising. A young Christian martyr is floating on the surface of the river, her halo shines so strongly with such pure golden light that the gentle ripples of the water of Tiber are painted in its yellow glow. Her hands are bound with a rope and only a flimsy white gown is covering her body. Her hair looks like that of a mermaid, and as we gaze at her lovely pale face, we might believe for a moment that she is still alive. She looks angelically beautiful, without a doubt. Delaroche’s beloved, adored wife Louise died in 1845 at the age of thirty-one and the artist was deeply miserable about it, so there is a personal connection there as well.

John Everett Millais, The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl, 1847

The next example is very different in colours and style. “The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl” is a very early work by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. His famous “Ophelia” was painted only two years later and there is a stark contrast between those two artworks. This painting doesn’t have the intricate, lush details nor the gentle melancholy of Ophelia, and the colours are not vivid and clear but toned down. The shades of black and grey, along with the simple, almost bare composition, add to the realism of the painting. The now lost inscription on the back of the painting said: “The painting represents an incident in Millais’s own life when he was sent for by people unknown to him, but who knew him to be a young artist, to draw a portrait of a girl in her coffin before her burial. The scene moved him so much that when he got home he made this sketch showing himself being asked to draw the girl’s portrait.” This could explain the sketchy style of the painting; it was done from the memory, unlike Ophelia which was carefully and patiently crafted. The dead girl’s face looks like that of a doll; pale, sad doll wrapped in flimsy veils.

Found Drowned, George Frederic Watts, 1850

While Delaroche’s “The Young Martyr” was painstakingly romantical and mystical, this painting by George Frederich Watts, “Found Drowned” is all but romantic. Watts is sometimes associated with the Symbolist movement, but in this painting he focused on a social realism genre because this dead, young girl washed ashore on the murky waters of the Thames is clearly a working class girl who had committed suicide because life’s prospects were bleak and it seemed like the only option. Is she not a working class martyr then? The painting was inspired by the poem “The Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood, published in 1844 and here are a few appropriate verses:

One more Unfortunate
Weary of breath
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

Millais’ painting “Ophelia” is perhaps the visual archetype of a young and beautiful dead woman in art. No other painting quite surpasses the vibrant and melancholy beauty, intricacy and magic of Millais’ Ophelia. Even though the painting is static and flat, I can really see her sinking gently into the water, as in a dream, while the moss is sighing and the reed is murmuring. Ophelia is becoming one with nature, her hair will mingle with the river, tangle with the reed, and flowers all around her speak of bloom while she is experiencing her death. The model for Ophelia was Elizabeth Siddal, the moody anorexic redhead lover and muse of a fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her red hair, the gesture of her hands, that shimmering white dress, and not to mention the expression of ecstasy on that face and those slightly parted lips, it all adds to the ethereal magic of the painting. Ophelia’s beauty is captured forever on this canvas; she will never grow old and have wrinkles, her cheeks are feverish and rosy from the eerie and hot kiss of the Death and she longs for nothing no more.

Walter Crane, Lady of Shalott, 1862

The last example for the Part One of this post is a painting “Lady of Shalott” by a fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter Walter Crane. Seen from the profile, lying in the boat, dressed in silvery robe, her long wavy brown hair spread around her, Lady of Shalott looks like the dreamiest corpse. Her face is so pale and her eyelids closed so tenderly, as if a gentle kiss from her beloved closed them, and not death. One can almost envy her serene peacefulness. Would you not to glide down the river, towards eternity, not seeing the tree tops and birds above you, but feeling them and hearing them as if through a mist, because your senses are fading and this world means nothing to you no more.

Carl Spitzweg – The Intercepted Love Letter

22 Oct

Carl Spitzweg, The Intercepted Love Letter, 1855

Carl Spitzweg is a very underrated German painter of Biedermeier period. His canvases are filled with the strangest people; from fiddlers, butterfly hunters and poor poets, to hermits, gnomes and bookworms, it is as if he had an eye for the strange and the eccentric individuals. “The Intercepted Love Letter”, painted in 1855 when Spitzweg was in his late forties, shows a comical romance scene in a picturesque little town. A young student on the second floor is using a thread to lower the sealed love letter to a young maiden on the floor bellow. He reminds me of the student in Oscar Wilde’s tale “The Nightingale and the Rose”, desperately in love with a haughty young girl, prepared to sacrifice everything to have her, only to conclude in the end that love is a miserable lie, and return to science, logic and his studies. This girl bellow doesn’t seem haughty though; she is lost in her needlework, oh the tragedy, and she doesn’t even notice that the letter is arriving her way! But the older woman who is beside her is clearly shocked by what she is seeing before her eyes. She’s probably an old spinster who hasn’t received a love letter in her life, and how could she understand the young student whose heart aches with love? Two pigeons on the roofs are also there to further remind us of the love that is in the air.

Carl Spitzweg, The Garrett, 1849

Spitzweg clearly had a sense of humour and knew how to transfer it into a painting. A Romantic painter would have painted two lovers throwing themselves off of the cliff, or dying from love, but Spitzweg sees the comical side of the situation. In another painting, “The Serenade”, painted in 1854, we see a romantic scene infused with humour again. I wrote about that painting already here. It shows a man climbing up the ladder to play violin to serenade the woman he loves, but he isn’t a young raven-haired Latino lover, he is just an average guy and the setting if far from romantical. Painting “The Garrett” shows a pompous looking old man watering his plants. A young girl on the other window bellow is eyeing him with curiosity. I bet he is the kind of strange eccentric neighbour that everyone has in their street. And I don’t think I really need to point out what is particularly humorous in the painting “The Poor Poet”; everything about that painting is comical. What I am trying to show here is that Carl Spitzweg’s art may appear as “nothing special” at first, it has a humorous touch that makes it stand above the average genre scenes and sentimental Biedermeier paintings.

 

Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet, 1839

Carl Spitzweg, The Serenade, 1854

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart!

19 Oct

A poem by Nietzsche published in 1884, and the original draft written in 1877.

Antoon Van Welie, Douleur, 1895

In German November

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart!
Fly away! fly away! —
The sun crawls along the mountain
And rises and rises
And rests with every step.
How the world became so withered!
Upon worn, strained threads
The wind plays its song.
Hope fled —
He soughs to her.

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart.
Fly away! fly away!
Oh fruit of the tree,
Shaken, you fall?
What lone secret did the night
Teach you,
That icy horror upon your cheeks,
Upon your crimson cheeks? —

You are silent, do not answer?
Who still speaks? — —

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart.
Fly away! fly away! —
“I’m not beautiful”
— That’s what the starflower says —
“But I love people
And I comfort people —
They should see flowers now,
Bend down to me
Alas! and break me —
Memory then shines
In their eyes,
Memory of things more beautiful than I: —
— I see it, I see it — and thus die.” —

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart!
Fly away! fly away!

Translation and the German original both found here.