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Maurice Prendergast – Lady with a Red Sash

9 Feb

“…I’m looking forward to the dusk with great excitement.”

(Zelda Fitzgerald in a letter to F.Scott Fitzgerald, April 1919)

Maurice Prendergast, Lady with a Red Sash, 1897

As I gaze and gaze at this gorgeous painting, I cannot pinpoint it clearly what is it about it that I love more; the wonderful dusky and dreamy colours, those shades of purple, so ephemeral, and that warm pulsating yellow of the street lamps, the rich vibrant cherry red of the lady’s sash. The yellow circles of the lantern’s glow remind me of the full yellow moon I gazed at this evening. And I love the lady in white who appears so fleeting and mysterious, with her back turned against the viewer. She is passing through the crowd, mingling with the people for a moment but remaining firmly in the rich world of her own. This very narrow canvas is only a part of her fascinating nocturnal world. This might likely be the most vertically elongated artwork that I’ve featured here on the blog. Such a strange canvas isn’t typical for Western art and it clearly shows the influence of Japanese art and Ukiyo-e prints on the Western artists in the late nineteenth century. I wonder, did the lady wait for the dust with anticipation; the sweetest moment of the day when the day surrenders to the night, the lanterns lighten, flowers are drunken with wild scents and the music colours the air in the cafes of La Belle Epoque Paris? It’s wonderful how the shape of the dress fits the narrow canvas so well, if the fin de siecle ladies wore crinolines, this kind of painting would have to be a triptych.

Maurice Prendergast studied in Paris from 1891 to 1895 at the Académie Colarossi (Modigliani’s lover and muse Jeanne Hébuterne also studied at this academy, though many years later) and Académie Julian. In Paris he met Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Sickert, Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard with whom he shared artistic ideas and these friendships inspired him to experiment with compositions and formats of his paintings. The vertically elongated shape of this painting could have been take from one of Bonnard’s paintings. Despite returning to Boston in 1895, Prendergast’s four year stay in Paris certainly left a huge impact on his art and inspired him in many ways. After all, which artist could leave Paris and not be touched by its magic or be transformed by it completely?

This painting was painted in 1897 which means Prendergast wasn’t living in Paris anymore, but the painting definitely has a Parisian feel to it and reminds me a lot of the scenes in Woody Allen’s film “Midnight in Paris” (2011) when Gil and Adriana returns to the “glory days” of Paris, as Adriana sees it, the La Belle Epoque.

Syd Barrett and The Madcap Laughs: Madness, Solitude and Striped Floors

3 Jan

Syd Barrett’s debut album as a solo artist, “The Madcap Laughs” was released on the 3rd January 1970. The music has a bittersweet feel to it; the melodies are childlike and innocent while others take on darker sounds. The album is in many ways a musical portrayal of Syd’s state of mind at the time.

“We are all mad here.”

(Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland)

It was love at first sound with me and Pink Floyd’s early hits such as Arnold Layne, See Emily Play and Scarecrow; I intuitively felt that something very imaginative and strange was hiding underneath the exterior of your average great pop-song. Those were more than just pop songs that will be forgotten in a few years. They had the magic, the wittiness, the dreaminess that made them linger on in my mind. “Who writes stuff like this?”, I thought to myself. The genius behind the lyrics was Syd Barrett; at the time a drop-out art student from Cambridge who overnight found himself in the centre of the psychedelic underground culture. Music and art were fun for Syd, and coming up with witty lyrics and simple catchy tunes was easy for him because he seemed to have approached things in a childlike way, full of curiosity and wonder at the world around him, but the stress of the band’s success, the interviews, the popularity proved to be too much for him. The increasing consummation of the drug of the moment, LSD, did not help matters. His creative period with the Pink Floyd was short but strong, like an explosion, or a shooting star. Let me provide you with a few dates to show you just how fast it all happened; their first single “Arnold Layne” was released on 10th March 1967. And already, on 15th January 1968 Syd played his last gig with Pink Floyd.

Gustave Caillebotte, Wood Floor Planers, 1875

A new chapter in Syd’s life and musical career began. Alone in the loneliness of his Victorian pad in Wetherby Mansion in Earl’s Court Square, the Psychedelic Mad Hatter was slowly descending into a haunting state of introspection, melancholy and illusions. Into his new bohemian abode, he brought the stuff that remained after many moves around London; a small table, a mattress and a striped blanket, some scratched LPs, Penguin edition books by Shakespeare and Chaucer, barely touched canvases stacked against the wall. His room was his little imaginary world. The outside world did not matter anymore. The cheerful, fun-loving, chatty and friendly Syd was gone. The handsome young Englishman with messy black hair and velvet trousers was slowly going mad…. One morning, after having spent some time meditatively staring at his blanket, a painting by Gustave Caillebotte called “The Wood Floor Planners” suddenly came to his mind and he decided to paint the bare wooden floors of his room in stripes of orange and blue. The album cover shows Syd crouching in his room, a vase of daffodils next to him. He is sad and alone, yet his darkness intimidates me. Angry outbursts and fragmented conversation. Loneliness is seeping through the cracks on the striped floor.

Syd Barrett first entered the studio as a solo artist on 30th January 1968; just ten days after his last show with Pink Floyd, for what would be an unfruitful session. Sessions resumed in June and July produced songs Late Night, Octopus and Golden Hair; all featured on The Madcap Laughs. Peter Jenner, who had worked on these sessions claimed that they had not gone smoothly although he got on well with the singer. Shortly after July sessions Syd suddenly stopped recording, breaking up with his then girlfriend Lindsey Corner and then going off a drive around Britain in his Mini only to end up in psychiatric care in Cambridge. By the start of 1969 Barrett, somewhat recovered, resumed his music career and started working with another engineer Malcolm Jones, after both Jenner and Norman Smith (Pink Floyd’s producer at the time) had declined his request to work on the album. Over four sessions beginning on April 10th 1969. Syd had recorded songs Opel (a beautiful misty ballad that would not see the light of day until 1988), No good trying, No man’s land, Here I go and Love you. The sessions all together were not very productive because in those days recording four or five songs on just guitar in four or five hours wasn’t considered very productive. It was something the engineers tried to avoid.

“You feel me
Away far too empty, oh so alone
I want to go home
Oh find me inside of a nocturne, the blonde
How I love you to be by my side”

(Syd Barrett – Feel)

During the recording of the album Syd was also on Mandrax and he’d sit on a stool and then fall off it. Barrett and his friends were taking the infamous LSD-25, a powerful psychiatric drug still legal in UK those days. It was almost a religious-like experience for Syd, and many others who indulged. Syd really did believe the psychedelic revolution was flowing through him. The world was changing and he thought we should all be perfect beings, cool and groovy. Syd began taking acid regularly with enthusiasm many found alarming. It was in May 1967. that his eyes crazed.  At the time of The Madcap Laughs Syd had already completely surrendered.

The Madcap Laughs is an album filled with long forgotten symbolism. The songs are a mirror of Syd’s mental state of the time and in them he expressed, perhaps deliberately perhaps not, his loneliness and growing alienation. Though some of them have a cheerful rhythm like Love you, one can feel a spark of melancholy. In song Terrapin for example Syd shows his love of the blues while some of the songs sound more like a concept rather than a finished and polished song. This album features some almost child-like songs with optimistic melodies and ostensibly cute themes (Love you and Here I go) through darker and deeper subjects (Dark globe, Golden Hair and No man’s land) to melancholic cries for rescue from his loneliness and ever increasing alienation. Song Golden Hair is actually based on a poem by James Joyce.

This album and the following Barrett reflect not just his state of mind but also the atmosphere at the time, sorrowful end of the sixties whose optimism, innocence and mind-expanding ideas had faded away. By that time the hedonistic atmosphere of the Swinging London was long lost. Perhaps albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett are a remembrance of the sixties for they were created at the dusk of this beautiful era; era which Syd belonged to and sadly died with.

The striped floors are aesthetically such a fun and exciting things. Syd chose to paint his floors in vibrant contrasting colours which gives the entire room a psychedelic touch, but I noticed the motif of wooden floor in many canvases painted by nineteenth century artists. Seeing the striped wooden floor stretching vertically or horizontally on the canvas is so exciting to me. Here are a few examples by Vincent van Gogh and Degas:

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, 1888

Edgar Degas, Deux Danseuses, 1879

Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, 1879

Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1877

William Ratcliffe, Attic Room, 1918

The photo session for the album cover took place in the spring 1969. Most likely in March when daffodils were blooming and Syd had just finished painting his floor in orange and purple stripes. Proud of what he had done, Syd invited his friend Mick Rock to come over and take some photos. At that time Syd was living with Iggy The Eskimo who was a friend of Syd’s ex-girlfriend Jenny Spires. Iggy and Syd weren’t lovers but she was a good company. She answered the doors that day and welcomed Mick completely naked (not an unusual thing for hippies and free-spirited creatures of the time). When Mick arrived he found Syd in bed, still in his underpants; a moment he captured with his new camera Pentax he had just recently bought. After he’d got up, Syd donned a pair of trousers with colour stains on them; from the floor paint. Iggy, the groovy companion to this Mad Hatter of Psychedelia, added some kohl to his eyes to achieve that elegantly wasted look of a Poete Maudite.

The photos were created naturally, with no staging and posing. Mick worked with elements he had: a painted floor, a vase of daffodils, nude Iggy in the background and a huge Canadian car parked just in front of Wetherby Mansion for some outside shots. None of it was planned. Later that day, Storm Thorgerson arrived and his solo focus was the wonderful striped floor. He shoot photos in fading light placing a wide angled lens millimeters of the ground to achieve an Alice in Wonderland effect, giving the floor elastic quality. Syd just crouched by the fireplace and he looked natural; he spontaneously adapted to the background. His pose suggests defiant exhaustion and a dark edge of ‘knowing’. There was only one corner of the room that Syd hadn’t painted and that was the only clean angle if you didn’t want to expose this ‘set’ for what it was; a drab living room with a nasty electric fireplace. As long as he occupied his island-mattress surrounded by striped painted floor, reality and a world of possibilities remained outside his door. The photo that would eventually be the cover photo was also taken by Thorgerson.

I cannot put it in words how much I adore this album and the album cover and the striped floor. All of it has inspired me beyond words. I listen to “The Madcap Laughs” every time I paint my watercolours; it is such a pleasant, soothing, melancholy and dreamy music to provide background for dipping my brush in water, then in the paint… Syd’s fragile voice, his strange and witty lyrics, his yearnings for help and cries of loneliness that come out in some songs, all of it draws me into this strange ethereal world which I always occupy with one part of my mind. When I listen to this album, and also his follow-up “Barrett”, I truly feel like Alice when she found herself in the Wonderland; Syd is the psychedelic Mad Hatter and I follow him blindly, over the striped floor, crossing the yellow glow of the waning sun, to the spaces where only music remains, and I am free, free, free…

Also, grainy quality of the photo brings nostalgia and serves as a barrier between psychedelic vivid colours of the ’60s to more drab and sad reality that came with the seventies. Long gone is the multicoloured glamour of the ’60s Swinging London psychedelia and instead the cover of The Madcap Laughs suggests the ’60s decadence exposed and photos have that sad “party’s over” feel.

I have to take a moment in the end to give praise where praise is due and recommend you all the wonderful, amazing, fun and detailed book about Syd Barret called “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe” by Julius Palacios.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – The Hangover

22 Apr

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Hangover, 1888

These days I am listening to Bruce Springsteen a lot, in particular the album “Born in the U.S.A.”, but I am also finding new songs that I am obsessed about. Apart from the wonderful music alone, I love how the lyrics often tell a story and romanticise the harshness of day to day working class life, but the songs also have a hopeful undertone because they show the beauty that lies in struggle. All these songs about restless youth who wants to escape the boredom of their small towns, or heartbroken men working down at the car wash, or two men talking in a bar reminiscing about their glory days, have reminded me of some nineteenth century paintings of sad-looking individuals who seem to carry the same aura around them; being lost, morally lost in the misty and confusing paths of life, tired and disappointed. We all feel like that from time to time. The first painting that came to mind was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting “The Hangover” which is really a portrait of his lover at the time Suzanne Valadon, a circus dancer and a model for many Impressionist paintings who later started painting herself. But in this painting she has seems to have a hangover, although that title was given later and not by the painter himself: “Aristide Bruant, a cabaret owner, singer, and songwriter who exhibited Toulouse-Lautrec’s work in his establishment, gave this painting its title. Bruant’s songs were often about the condition of the urban poor and the theme of excessive drinking.” (source)

She’s seen from the profile and seems uninterested and aloof. It was nothing unusual for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to paint his friends in a spontaneous setting, while they are sitting in a bar or dancing, he would sit at the table and sketch all night. A year before the “Hangover” he made a bar-portrait, also seen from the profile, of his friend Vincent van Gogh and I already wrote about that painting here. It’s interesting here that Suzanne, being a woman, is presented as a drunkard. Alcoholism among women was a growing concern around that time. And she’s drinking alone. Her head is resting in her hand, a half-full bottle of wine is on the table, there’s just a little bit left in the glass. She gazes somewhere in the distance, her vision is hazy and her thoughts astray. Who knows what is going on in her mind. The colour palette and the sketchy way the paint was applied perfectly fits the mood of the painting and Suzanne’s emotional state. When I gaze at this painting, instantly these lyrics come to mind, from Springsteen’s song “Downbound Train”:

I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going mister in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the carwash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train

She just said “Joe I gotta go
We had it once we ain’t got it any more”
She packed her bags left me behind
She bought a ticket on the Central Line
Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining
I feel her kiss in the misty rain
And I feel like I’m a rider on a downbound train…

Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1876

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, In The Restaurant La Mie, 1891

Song “Downbound Train” really makes me feel like I am in one of those paintings, the music with Springsteen’s voice, the lyrics tinged with a dream-gone-by feel and ending in resignation. It makes me see the grey skies, rain sliding down the windows, paint flaking from the window frame, and waking up in a cold room on a day which you can sense will be shitty and disappointing. Looking at the two paintings above, Degas’ famous “L’Absinthe” and another one by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec really reminds me of the intro to Springsteen’s song “Glory Days” about two people walking into a bar and just talking about life:

Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
But all he kept talking about was

Glory days well they’ll pass you by

But I must say that a lot of these songs, although they do deal with the working class life and sadness, mostly sound energetic and make you feel hopeful, and if not hopeful than they at least give you that c’est la vie feeling, ah that’s life and regardless of how you feel, you have to live it so you may as well sit in an empty bar and have a hangover morning because there ain’t no sunshiny meadow waiting for you! These paining however bring no hope.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, A la Bastille (Jeanne Wenz), 1888

This lines seems to fit Jeanne Wenz’s strange shy little smile:

She says when she feels like crying
She starts laughing thinking about

Glory days well they’ll pass you by….

Theodore Robinson – The Wedding March

11 Apr

Theodore Robinson, The Wedding March, 1892

This delightful painting by Theodore Robinson, an American painter, shows a wedding procession in the French countryside. The image of a countryside bride, instantly reminds me of Emma Bovary, hiding her disappointments under layers of gauze veils. This is how she would walk the dusty road of her village, longing to be someplace else, imagining she were walking the boulevard of Paris arm in arm with a dashing gentleman with elegant mustaches, a man more witty and romantic than her simple-minded Charles. This was indeed a countryside wedding, but not just any wedding. Robinson captured for eternity the wedding march of his friend and a fellow American painter Theodore Earl Butler (who painted this enchanting garden scene with his daughter Lili) and Suzanne Hoschedé, the step-daughter and the favourite model of Claude Monet, held on 20 July 1892. When you are a friend of an artist, there is a big chance you will be immortalized, one way or another.

The painting is full of lightness and movement; we can clearly see it is a lovely sunny day, the figures seem to be walking slowly, we can even see their shadows. Their faces aren’t detailed, but the moment is captured. The style, in particular the colour palette is typical for Robinson’s late period in France. He mainly used a palette of muted colours; greys, beige, white, green and we can see this in many of his paintings that were painted around this time. He accepted the mission of Impressionists to capture the moment and paint outdoors, but his colours weren’t never as vibrant which is a shame. Still, what I like about this painting the most is that it shows a real event, and not just some wedding march that he thought would look good on canvas. Furthermore, an image of a bride in white is always a dreamy one, and here I simply adore all those veils hiding her, shrouding her in mystery, carried just by a soft breeze of that warm summer day. Butler and Suzanne had two children; son Jimmy, born in 1893, and a daughter Lili, born in 1894. Sad but truth, this summery bride in gauze veils died in 1899, just seven years after this joyous wedding march. So naturally, Butler married her sister!

And here are some other paintings by Robinson just to see more of his work. He too sadly died not long after he painted “The Wedding March”, in April 1896.

Theodore Robinson, The Old Mills of Brookville, 1892

Theodore Robinson, The Plum Tree, c. 1890-96

Theodore Robinson, Field of Dandelions, 1881

This is what Theodore Robinson wrote about the wedding in his diary: “…a great day – The marriage of Butler and Mlle. Suzanne. Everybody nearly at the church – the peasants – many almost unrecognizable. Picard very fine, the wedding party in full dress – ceremony first at the mairie – then at the church. Monet entering first with Suzanne, then Butler and Mme. H (Hoschede). Considerable feeling on the part of the parents – a breakfast at the atelier – lasting most of the afternoon. Frequent showers, champagne and gaiety – … Dinner and evening at the Monet’s – bride and groom left at 7:3 for the Paris train.

And now a funny anecdote about Monet; he wasn’t so keep on having his step-daughter Suzanne marry this American man, but after he heard about Butler’s great financial situation, at once he changed his opinion. Also, the wedding of Suzanne and Butler was held just ten days after the wedding of Claude Monet and Suzanne’s mother Blanche. I never imagined Monet would be someone to care so much about money, especially when the matter of love is concerned.

Theodore Butler: Lili Butler in Claude Monet’s Garden

7 Apr

“Some long-forgot, enchanted, strange, sweet garden of a thousand years ago…”

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Interim“)

Theodore Earl Butler, Lili Butler in Claude Monet’s Garden, 1911, oil on canvas, 81.3 x 81.3 cm (32 x 32 in.)

This magical garden scene inspired me for the ending of my newest story, and whenever I gaze at it, even for a few seconds, I instantly hear the first sounds of Claude Debussy’s “Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp” (1915). At once I am transported into the realm of dreams, I am threading the paths of a garden in bloom, stepping through the soft grass and hearing the distant mingled murmurs of many flowers. Sweet fragrance of the lilac tree hangs in the air like a cloud. In a dream, the flowers speak in a language I can understand. The tales they tale, I dare not repeat. I am only in this magical garden as long as the music lasts, I can only observe but never truly belong; listen but not speak, see but not be seen. The girl in white in the painting is Lili, Butler’s daughter, seventeen years old at the time. but Lili is trapped there forever, and she doesn’t mind it at all. The roses told me so. Lili lives in a dream and all the flowers bloom just for her. In the sea of intense greenness, woven with white, painted all in short quick brushstrokes and dots, the whiteness of her figure stands out. I love the curvy, S-silhouette of her body against the green background. She seems to be picking a flowers, roses perhaps. Her hair is brown, but if you take a better look, you’ll notice it’s painted in a really deep nocturnal blue, which also appears in the grass growing around her feet. The dreamy, magical mood of this garden scene reminds me of John Singer Sargent’s painting “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”. Everything is so mysterious and lively in Lili’s dream garden. Every little detail here, every blade of grass and every flower look like they are flickering and bursting with excitement.

Turn around Lili, so I may see your face! Oh, please! Let me come closer so I can see your pretty white dress. I saw your white hair ribbon, do you know? It fell on a lotus flower in the pond, it must have been when you were crossing the bridge down by the weeping willow tree. Lili? Lili! …. Oh, I am afraid I cannot tell you more, for the music is fading and with it the garden’s magic is slowly disappearing for me. The greenness takes on paler shades, Lili’s figure is blurrier and I don’t feel the soft grass under my feet anymore. Flute is in the air no more, the harp’s strings are silent too… In the last seconds, Lili turned around and said that I cannot stay there because it is her magical garden, and I must find my own. And again I am in my room, the air is stale and heavy from memories, but infused with sweet scent of hopes. The afternoon is rainy and the skies are dark and low.

Monet’s garden, Giverny, France by Rick Ligthelm.

Butler was an American painter who first studied in New York City at a progressive art school Art Students League, and then, in 1885, like many American artists, he came to Europe, Paris to be more precise: the place to be for an artist. In 1888 he was fortunate enough to meet Claude Monet in his famous splendid gardens in Giverny. Meeting Monet changed two things in Butler’s life; firstly, he started painting garden scenes, or outdoor scenes, with lose brushstrokes and vibrant colour, and secondly, he met and married Suzanne Hoschedé in 1892, one of Monet’s stepdaughters and his favourite model who posed for the lovely painting “The Girl with the Parasol”. The couple had two children; Jimmy, born in 1893, and Lili, born in 1894, but sadly Suzanne died in 1899. Butler travelled to New York City to cure his sad heart, and six months later, in 1900, he married Suzanne’s younger sister Marthe who helped take care of his children. Although initially inspired by Monet, Butler developed his own style which is just a continuation of Impressionism. Flatness and vibrant colours are more similar to the works of Vuillard and Bonnet.

Peder Severin Krøyer – Summer Evening on the Skagen Beach

9 Sep

“I’m the lonely voyager standing on deck, and she’s the sea. The sky is a blanket of gray, merging with the gray sea off on the horizon. It’s hard to tell the difference between sea and sky. Between voyager and sea. Between reality and the workings of the heart.” (Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore)

Peder Severin Krøyer, Summer Evening on the Skagen Southern Beach with Anna Ancher and Marie Krøyer, 1893

What I love about this painting is that it reminds me of music, an echo of soft fairy whispers mingled with fading notes of the piano… and then silence. It has a gentleness and stillness that sends our mind into a reverie, or inspires us to contemplate on eternity in a similar way that Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes do. Here Krøyer painted the most melancholy and profound moment of the day: twilight with its endless dreamy blueness. The soft meandering line which separates the world of sea waves with the white sand of the coast is very dreamy because it suggest infinity and leads the viewer’s eye towards unknown distances. Two ladies are walking slowly right near that dreamy line, one can feel the water touching their dresses when the wave comes or see their footsteps appearing after each step in the wet sand. The colour palette is particularly dreamy as well, aerial, soft and gentle with plenty of white, grey, blue and hints of toned yellow in the sand and on the dresses. They are walking arm in arm, in intimate conversation, just two figures walking towards infinity. Without the figures, this painting would be yet another landscape, but with the figures added in, the painting gets an emotional depth, ironically, the inclusion of figures reminds us of the loneliness of the beach. Two lone figures, might as well be ghosts in white gowns, for their faces we cannot see, walking slowly and leaving barely a trace of their existence.

Skagen is Denmark’s northernmost town and is closer to the coast of Sweden than to Copenhagen. In Krøyer’s time it was a remote fishers village whose understated beauty is revealed through the eyes of the group of painter appropriately called “The Skagen Artists”. Nowadays, Krøyer is the most well-known from this group, but they were all interested in similar themes; the beauty of the cold northern sea, fishers and harvests, and, in a manner similar to the Impressionists, they meticulously devoted themselves to portraying the effects of sunlight and people having fun, mostly their families and friends. Below we have a similar painting by Michael Archer, a fellow painter from the Skagen group of artists. Again, it has that gorgeous immeasurable lightness and a long clear diagonal line between the sandy beach and the sea, how romantically it stretches on and on. Lonely mood is toned down because of the five female figures in pastel coloured dresses, but a hint of melancholy is left in the face of the girl who treads the beach first, gazing down at the sand, lost in thoughts, following the shadow that falls in front of her.

Michael Ancher, A stroll on the beach, 1896

I imagine that the seaside looks exquisite this time of the year; I imagine the soft sand untainted by human footsteps, the sky clear and grey-blue, not even a seagull is flying by. Smell of salt hangs in the melancholy air. When I gaze at these paintings, I can almost hear the waves playing Debussy’s “La Mer”, soothing my soul with each passing note… And there in the distance, the sky and the sea are becoming one in a kiss.

Josip Račić – Watercolours: Paris Through the Eyes of a Stranger

3 May

We begin a new month – the pink, flowery and sweet May – with a new artist; Croatian painter Josip Račić (1885-1908) and the watercolours he painted during his brief stay in Paris in 1908.

Josip Račić, Park Luxembourg, 1907

On 10th February 1908, young Croatian artist Josip Račić arrived in Paris. Five months later he was found death in his room. A suicide. A mystery which gave birth to the romanticised myth of this tortured genius’s life. In his short yet turbulent artistic career, from humble beginnings to education in Munich and lastly, his short Parisian period, Račić, having died at the age of twenty-three, managed to create enough works to become a crucial figure for the development of Croatian Modern art and to pave way for the artists who followed.

Račić was born in a village near Zagreb in 1885 and attended grammar school for a short period after deciding to fully delve into lithography. In 1904 he was already studying in Munich with a well known professor Anton Ažbe, an eccentric yet generous man fighting his own demons whilst always willing to help a student in need; both financially and in motivation. While there, he became a part of the “Croatian School” formed by three fellow art students from Croatia who would later become renewed artists in the early twentieth century. Račić’s family, especially his father, never supported his artistic ambitions so we can guess that his time in Munich was a time of freedom.

There was always an air of mystery around his persona; moody and sensitive, brutally honest with himself and others, he found it hard to develop deep and sincere friendships. He undoubtedly felt misunderstood, and many have for sure mistaken his honesty with arrogance. It wasn’t long that he started being bored with Munich and longed to get acquainted with the art of Paris, to broaden his views, to learn and to create. Determined that his art will thrive if brought in contact with the new currents, in autumn of 1907 Račić decided to go to Paris.

Josip Račić, Café on the boulevard, 1908

In February 1908 he was in Paris and the world of art was opening before his eyes. A boy from the provinces lost in the light and shine of the big city; wandering the wide boulevards, observing people, instantly finding inspiration for his paintings. It’s interesting that he chose the medium of watercolours to portray this fascinating new world that was opening before his eyes, because the paintings he made in Munich and Zagreb were mostly oil on canvas works. Perhaps it’s only the watercolour that can truly capture the light of the street lamps as it spills on the dark dirty pavements, the gloominess of parks and mask-like faces of strangers. Indeed, something that connects all of Račić’s works from his Parisian phase are the shadowy figures of passers-by, often in dark colours with faces that show no individualistic characteristics, but this isn’t Kirchner’s frenzy and anticipation of catastrophe, there is more subtlety and lyrical beauty about these street scenes. There is often a voyeuristic touch to his watercolours; people chatting in parks and being watched by a pair of artistic eyes.

Josip Račić, In the Park, 1908

“In the Park” is a bit merrier than the other watercolours, in terms of colour palette. In a vertical composition, a few closely-cropped female figures are shown in middle of a conversation in the park. The perspective almost looks like photography. Underneath shades of red, light green and yellow, which are refreshingly vivid for a change, we can see Račić’s pencil sketch. How exciting! Račić often seems to ignore all the dreamy and lyrical abilities of watercolour as a medium and still retains his figures painted with stability and volume, he is still hesitant to free with brushstrokes even more. Paris is inviting him to surrender, in colour and in form, and this gives birth to a certain agitation, hopelessness, anxiety….

Josip Račić, On the Boulevard, 1908

Josip Račić, On the Boulevard, 1908

Both watercolours “One the Boulevard” are interesting street-scenes with people sitting on benches and chatting. Figures in both paintings are painted in simplified forms, dark and shadowy, and compositions are horizontal with diagonal lines on the left that divide the areas of light and shadow. People are sitting in the shadow, and just a step away from their gloomy little worlds there are vivid lights of street lamps.

Josip Račić, On the Seine, 1908

Painting “On the Seine” is such a lyrical little masterpiece; a large portion of the painting is devoted to the bridge which is painted in murky shades of blue, green and brown, and then underneath the bridge we see two human figures by the shore, painted like blots, and behind them the Seine stretches on and on, sorrowful and tired. Račić’s watercolours all have melancholy woven through them, in colours and in compositions. Scenes of isolation where people are presented but are distant, unapproachable, strangers because he was a stranger; distant because he felt distant from everyone. No place was a home and Paris didn’t offer the magic potion of happiness and artistic inspiration that he sought. These street scenes and landscapes with lonely human figures are paintings which show the interior of his soul; this was his vision of Paris because he felt that way. No trace of Fauvism or Cubism; art movements that were all the rage in Paris at the time. Just coldness, loneliness, sorrow.

Josip Račić, Pont des Arts, 1908

A curiosity amongst these delightful and sombre watercolours is this oil on canvas work “Pont des Arts” which has a mood of sadness and fatigue; a tired river that flows slowly, a bridge that leads nowhere, a shadowy figure by the shore, empty sky… Then, out of nowhere, the end of this little watercolour-Parisian Renaissance; Račić is found dead in his room in Rue abbé Gregoire number 48. That day, 20th July 1908, Račić was suppose to meet his two Croatian friends, painter Paola Broch and her friend Mrs Schmidt, for dinner. A revolver which he used was a gift from his friend in Munich and it was brand new. Ruby red roses were found still sitting languorously on the fireplace, spreading a dazzling perfume around the room, wrapping the dead body in a veil of dreams.

The reasons for this remain unclear, for at the time of his suicide his career was going well; he had just been given a scholarship, had sold a few paintings and was just about to go to a painting-trip to Brittany. However, there are many suggestions from his painter colleagues and writers of the time. The most notable suggestion being that he was in a artistic-spiritual crisis when he realised how belated his art was and how he was to old to change the course of his art, a feeling of arriving to late to Paris. Some suggested it was connected with his love life, or that he had syphilis. I certainly don’t know, but the first suggestion seems the most obvious to me; a moment of despair taken too far. He was just twenty-three and everything was in front of him.