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Childe Hassam – Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago

13 Sep

“…the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain…”

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, What Lips Have I Kissed, And When and Why)

Childe Hassam, Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago, 1893, watercolour

These rainy September evenings awake inside me an inexplicable sadness and so I sit there wistfully by the window and I pine, and whine … and, just like in Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem the rain is also full of ghosts that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply… Very fitting for the wistful mood of my rainy days is this hauntingly beautiful watercolour called “Nocturne: Railway Crossing, Chicago”, painted in 1893 by the American painter Childe Hassam. The watercolour is simple in both colour and composition, and yet rich in its lyrical beauty. The nocturnal scene in the watercolour shows a fragment of urban life; a carriage and a tram are gliding down the road on a rainy night. The motif such as this would otherwise be too urban in its ugliness or simply boring, but in Hassam’s vision the rainy night in the big city is a blue poem. Instead of bustle and noise, Hassam hears a blue sonata coming from the steady beats of the rain and the rhythm of the horse-drawn carriage. The title alone, containting the word “Nocturne”, in a proper Whistler style, is insinuating something poetic and dreamy. The watercolour is amost entirely washed away in this mesmerising blue colour, with soft touche of yellow representing the big city lights. The carriage and the coachman are elegantly painted in black, almost like a silhouette, which only adds to the poetic mysterious mood of this night scene, as the French poet Stephane Mallarme said “to define is to kill, to suggest is to create”. In this watercolour, Hassam is suggesting, rather than defining, the beauty and poetry of the night and I think this is what makes this artwork so hauntingly beautiful. There is a special kind of beauty in wandering aimelessly down the streets of a big city on a rainy night, the bright lights of streetlamps and neon lights reflected in the puddles and wet pavements, passing by life but not being in it. Ahh… as I gaze at this painting more I can see and hear in my mind the jazzy music and Robert De Niro’s monologue from the film “Taxi Driver” (1976).

Beach Scenes in Art: Maurice Prendergast, Winslow Homer, Berthe Morisot, Munch, Boudin, Joaquin Sorolla

29 Aug

“I am longing to be with you, and by the sea, where we can talk together freely and build our castles in the air.”

(Bram Stoker, Dracula)

Maurice Prendergast, Revere Beach, 1897, watercolour

These days my thoughts, like birds flying south, are going out to the sea – the wonderful blue sea that Rimbaud wrote about:

It has been found again.
What? – Eternity.
It is the sea fled away
With the sun.

I dream of pebbles on the beach, waves caressing my feet and sunsets so bright and orange that they leave me blind. Memories of past summers fill my mind; I see the wonderful blue sea trembling before my eyes, the steady yet wild waves, the silvery-white seafoam shining in the rays of sun, the salty scent of the sea tickling my nostrils and the 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. Filled with all these memories, I thought I would write a little overview of some lovely beach scenes in art, mostly the art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. When I say “beach scenes” I mean scenes of people enjoying their time by the sea, scenes of fun, games and leisure, not the melancholy scenes of beaches by the Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich or John Constable, or those seventeenth century Dutch painters who portrayed the sea and ship in all their moodyness and wildness.

Winslow Homer, Beach Scene, circa 1869

Winslow Homer was a very prolific American painter whose watercolours of orchards and Caribbean seas I adore. In this oil on canvas painting called “Beach Scene” Homer combines his usual realistic style with some playful Impressionistic touches, especially in the way he explores the natural elements such as the sky, the sea, the seafoam… What I like a lot about this painting is the way the grey colour scheme is combined with the liveliness of the children playing; it’s a contrast which works wonderfully.

Berthe Morisot, At the Beach in Nice, 1882

The second artwork I’ve chosen is this lovely watercolour sketch by the French Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. “At the Beach in Nice” shows a mother and a child under a blue parasol enjoying the vague sketch of what we assume is a beach by the title alone. This watercolour is more like a sketch; it seems to have been painted quickly, it’s more an impression of a moment rather than a contemplative study. There is a sand colour in the lower half of the painting and some blue in the upper half, indicating the sand and the sea. The mother and the child have almost matching blue bonnets, but they seem otherwordly in a way, like a memory or a dream, ghostly a bit.

Eugene Boudin, On the Beach, Trouville 1887

Now, it would be impossible to write a post about beach scenes and the sea without including a painting by the French marine painter Eugene Boudin. This time his painting “On the Beach, Trouville” from 1887 caught my eye. It doesn’t seem to be a sunny, hot day in this scene. The tones and styles of the ladies’ dresses are almost autumnal and the sea in the background is covered in a mist.

Philip Wilson Steer, Young Woman At The Beach, 1887

Philip Wilson Steer has many wonderful beach scenes and seascapes but the one I’ve chosen to include today is a painting called “Young Woman at the Beach”, painted in 1887. I love the lyrical simplicity of this painting: a girl seen from the profile, dressed in a lovely light pink gown, her dark hair flowing in the wind, looking out towards the sea – daydreaming or reminiscing about the gone by days… Her elegant silhouette is set against the background of the glistening sea and the soft vanilla sky. The way the light is painted here, the way it blinds the eyes and makes the waves sparkle with magic is something incredible. When I gaze at the girl in this painting, I can imagine her fantasising about some dream-lover far away and thinking: “I am longing to be with you, and by the sea, where we can talk together freely and build our castles in the air.”

William Merritt Chase, On the Beach, Shinnecock, 1895, watercolour

William Merritt Chase’s lovely watercolour “One the Beach, Shinnecock” from 1895 shows two girls playing in the sand. I love the way their dresses and bonnets are painted, so intensely delicate, like butterfly’s wings. The lonely landscape behind them stretches on and on, made out of sand and grass, making it seem that the girls are all alone in the world, building their castles in the sand, until the gust of September wind blows them away and destroys the fleeting fantasy forever.

Edvard Munch, Young Woman on the Beach, 1896

The wistful and melancholy vibe of Munch’s painting “Young Woman on the Beach” reminds me more of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. I mean, there is certainly no playfulness, leisure or joy here, but I still decided to include it because it shows that the sea can be a vessel not only for merriness but also for contemplation. The sea, with its eternal, never-changing, song of the seawaves, its persistence and its moodiness and changeability can awake all sorts of emotions inside of us. No words are needed to understand how this young woman feels because the painting says it all. The young woman’s back is turned against us and we can’t see her face, but we can feel what she is feeling and thinking, whilst standing here all alone by the sea, her silhouette in a white dress set against the infinite blueness of the beach.

Maurice Prendergast, Children at the Beach, 1897, watercolour

The sea was like a feast and forced us to be happy, even when we did not particularly want to be. Perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.

(Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls)

Now, another cheerful watercolour by Maurice Prendergast! The watercolour shows exactly what the title straightforwardly says: “Children at the Beach”. In Prendergast’s watercolour figures are often just blots of colour but this is what . No other painter can make the blue colour look so warm and cheerful; Prendergast’s blue is like yellow, it’s a sunflower or a ray of sun, he infuses it with a playful, carefree, childlike energy. I especially love the playful way the sky and the clouds are painted in this one, truly stunning way with the brush.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Niña (Girl), 1904

Joaquin Sorolla is known for his playful and realistic beach scenes were children are seen running around, chasing each other and playing, but something about his painting “Girl” from 1904 spoke to me more. While the children in the background are playing and running into the waves, she is standing in wet sand, the waves caressing her feet, and looking out to the horizon. Is she gazing at the clouds, or is a distant ship passing by? We will never know, but her dreaminess tingled with wistfulness is very poignant to me.

Denman Waldo Ross, The Beach, about 1908

The most interesting thing about Denman Waldo Ross’s painting “The Beach” is, for me, the composition: the way the sandy beach takes up most of the space on the canvas and that line of turquoise in the background indicating the sea. The figures on the beach, the ladies in white gowns, with their parasols and bonnets, are all placed in a cascade manner and this pattern is repeated in the turquoise and lilac-blue lines of the sea and the sky.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”

(KIate Chopin, The Awakening)

Berthe Morisot – Julie Manet, Reading in a Chaise Lounge

27 Jun

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

(C.S.Lewis)

Berthe Morisot; Julie Manet, Reading in a Chaise Lounge, 1890, watercolor on paper

I discovered this lovely watercolour the other day and for me it is a double treat; firstly because I adore the medium of watercolour, and secondly because I love Berthe Morisot’s paintings of her daughter Juliet. Berthe Morisot was an established painter from the Impressionist circle and she was married to the fellow painter Eugene Manet, the brother of the painter Edouard Manet, and had one child with him, a daughter named Julie. Morisot had painted her daughter Julie on so many ocassions during her childhood and teenage years; Julie reading, Julie with a nanny, Julie with her dog, Julie playing a violin, Julie lost in daydreams… But this is the first portrait that I have seen painted in watercolour and that is something particularly interesting to me. In a simple yet delightful manner Morisot has captured her daughter enjoying some leisure hours by reading a book. Julie was twelve years old at the time this painting was painted.

The style is sketchy and loose which gives it a fresh and spontaneous feel, but it is clear enough that we can see Julie’s delicate, slightly melancholy face and her dark blue dress. Julie’s face seems tinged with a certain wistfuness, melancholy dreaminess, in most of the portraits of her, even the photograph which you can see bellow. Perhaps that is part of the reason I am so drawn to portraits of her; Julie’s dreaminess speaks to the dreaminess that is within me. I really enjoy gazing at all the shades and strokes of Julie’s blue dress; how dark the colour blue is on the sleeves and how it finishes in a whimsical manner just as the space around Julie is fading away, it’s becoming less and less detailed. The warm yellow colour of the pillow under Julie wonderfully complements the blue of her dress; it’s just a visually pleasing aspect of the watercolour. In the background there some simply sketched plants can be seen.

Julie Manet in 1894

Still, most of the attention in the watercolour is on Julie reading her book. I wonder which book she was reading? Perhaps a fairy tale about a princess trapped in a tower, or a princess waiting for a kiss? Julie herself was like a little Impressionist princess, adored by her mother and always posing for some paintings, but sadly five years after this watercolour was painted Berthe Morisot died at the age of fifty-four. Whenever I gaze at Morisot’s portraits of Julie or think about Julie Manet, I always get overwhelmed by a certain sadness knowing that Morisot died when Julie was just seventeen… The fairytale of Julie’s childhood must have ended at that point. All these paintings and portraits that Morisot made of Julie are the beautiful and last presents from a mother to a daughter and – call me sentimental – but that is what makes these paintings particularly delicate and poignant to me.

Edgar Degas – Russian Dancers

6 Mar

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, pastel

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

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

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

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

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, pastel

Roofs Under Snow in Art: Caillebotte, Georg Pauli, Henri Martin, Edmund Dulac, Claire Carpot

23 Jan

A few weeks ago I (re)discovered Caillebotte’s painting “Roofs Under Snow” and immediatelly afterwards I started seeing more paintings of snowy roofs. This seemed to be a recurring pattern and I decied to write a post about it because the theme seemed fitting for these lonesome and cold January days. In this post we’ll take a look at five paintings that feature the motif of roofs covered by snow, by the following artists: Caillebotte, Georg Pauli, Henri Martin, Edmund Dulac and Claire Carpot.

Gustave Caillebotte, View of Roofs (Snow Effect) or Roofs Under Snow, 1878

Caillebotte painted many views of Parisian streets and balconies in his typical precise and slightly cold and detached manner, but in the painting “View of Roofs (Snow Effect)”, painted in 1878, he approached the subject in a more laid-back, sketchy, Impressionist style. Using only a few colours, white, grey, blue and just a little bit of orange-brown, Caillebotte managed to capture a view from his window that appears realistic and atmospheric both at once. I love the way the attic windows of the building in the foreground are painted in a more detailed way while at the same time the objects in the distance are fading away in a dreamy blueish mist. That’s the way winter afternoons often die; in a blueish mist. The shutters on the windows are closed and uninviting. There is no joy or vivacity or winter magic in this scene.

Georg Pauli (Swedish, 1855-1935), Winter Evening at Söder, Stockholm, 1889

Swedish painter Georg Pauli’s painting “Winter Evening at Söder” from 1889 offers a warmer and dreamier rendition of the same motif. The roofs of Stockholm are covered with a thick white layer of snow. In the foreground the snow has blueish undertones but as our eyes move on to the distance we see that the streetlamps are casting a warm, golden glow on the freshly fallen snow. See what an effect the yellow and orange colours and the light have on the mood of the painting; the serious drabness that we have seen in Caillebotte’s painting is replaced by a golden veil of magic and coziness. The view from the window is, despite the obvious winter’s coldness, warm and inviting. In contrast to Caillebotte’s painting, here a yellow and red light is coming from the windows which makes us wander: who lives there and what are they doing? Sipping tea or eating biscuits, daydreaming their winter away… The light in the window indicates the presence of people and thus the scene appear more lively and inviting, even if we don’t directly see a human figure.

Henri Martin, The Roofs of Paris in the Snow, the View from the Artist’s Studio, 1895

“The Roofs of Paris in the Snow” is a rather realistic motif for Henri Martin whose work consists of more mystical, Symbolist motifs. Even his seemingly plain landscapes are flowery, warm and bathed in soft light. Parisian roofs covered in snow is an unlikely motif for Martin but it speaks of the artist’s hommage to Caillebotte. The cityscape of snow covered roofs and trees is built entirely out of little dots and dashes of colour which is typical for Martin’s Divisionist technique. It’s interesting to see how many dots of different colour on the same area produce something seeminly incoherent but that our eyes easily translate into an object; a roof, a building, a tree. Also, this technique creates a vibrant painting surface which seems flickering and lively and this goes great with the subject matter because that is indeed how the scene would have looked like with snow falling. How else to capture snow but in little dots and dashes of white?

Edmund Dulac, The Snow Queen Flies Through the Winter Night, 1911

French artist Edmund Dulac was known for his whimsical fairy tale and Shakesperean scenes and it is no surprise then that a winter night takes on a magical character when captured by his brush. “The Snow Queen Flies Through the Winter Night” is found in a book “Stories from Hans Andersen(Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1911) and it shows a scene from the fairy tale of the same name by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. The Snow Queen is seen flying above the rooftops of a sleepy town on a winter’s night and she appears ghostly and ephemereal, the colour of her dress, hair and face is the same grey-blueish colour that the roofs are painted in. The light in the windows and the colourful glass on the cathedral add some liveliness to the scene and the effect of snow falling is stunning.

Claire Carpot (1901 – 1992), Christmas (Noel), 1949

And finally we have this very lively and very snowy painting called “Christmas” by a French painter Claire Carpot. What immediately captivated me about this painting is the way the snow was painted, and the quantity in which it was painted! I mean, there is just so much of it. So many snowflakes covering the canvas from top to bottom. Watching snow falling is definitely one of the bright sides of winter and this painting perfectly conveys this joy of seeing snow falling.

Alfred Sisley – Fog, Voisins

13 Jan

Every day the fog gets thicker and thicker around the house. It has now covered the trees whose branches brush against the edge of the terrace. Last night I dreamed that, through the cracks of the doors and windows, the fog was slowly leaking into my room, diminishing the color of the walls and the furniture, filtering into my hair, and sticking to my body, as it dissipates everything, absolutely everything…

(María Luisa Bombal, The Final Mist)

Alfred Sisley, Fog, Voisins, 1874

What a drab month January is! These lonesome and cold winter days I find myself captivated by Alfred Sisley’s dreamy and atmospheric painting called “Fog, Voisins”, painted in 1874.

In 1871, Sisley settled in the little village of Voisins which is situated near Louveciennes which, interestingly, is the place where Anain Nin had lived with her husband at the time she met Henry Miller in 1932. “Fog, Voisins” has none of the love and drama that is found in Anais Nin’s life and diary, for Sisley wasn’t the painter of intense emotions and dramatic scenes. Instead, he devoted his life to portraying landscapes in all their changing beauty. This dreamy landscape shows a garden in fog; trees, bushes and flowers all arising from the veil of mist that covers everything. The contours of objects conceal more than they reveal, they are merely hints of what is there, ghostly and ephemereal. The colours Sisley uses here are a harmony of greys and blues, with only the pink and yellow flowers in the bushes in the foreground being the only exception. The tree on the right is painted in dark grey tones but the trees on the left are painted in even paler shades of grey, fading away even more, escaping our sight, vanishing into the fog… The figure of a woman working in the garden probably wasn’t something that Sisley saw directly that day in the garden. It’s more likely that the figure was taken from his other sketches of peasants working in nature.

Fog transforms even somehing as mundane as a garden into something poetic and profound. Even in real life, walking through the fog and seeing the distant treetops or a road disappearing, adds a mystical elements to otherwise boring scenery. Bellow you can see some details from the painting. I am continually amazed how just a few careful brushstrokes can create a figure or a tree; a few simple strokes and instantly something very recognisable. Sisley here presents us a typical Impressionist motif; nature, garden, trees, but the real protagonist of this painting aren’t the trees of the peasant woman but the fog itself which envelops the garden with its silvery-blue gauzy veil, hides and distorts, coats the everyday into the magic of dreams. Alfred Sisley, the somewhat neglected Impressionist, stayed true to the spirit of the Impressionism and didn’t stray away like other Impressionists (I’m looking at you, Renoir). This painting is a wonderful exercise in capturing the atmosphere and Sisley did a great job at capturing something as vague as fog. I’m sure it’s hard to paint the effect of fog but Sisley makes it look effortless. Sisley painted many wintery snow scenes, as did other Impressionists, but paintings of fog are perhaps more rare.

James Tissot – Young Lady In A Boat

9 Jan

James Tissot, Young Lady In A Boat, 1870

James Tissot, the painter of the idle and glamorous lives of the wealthy Parisians, was popular and received critical acclaim in his time but today he is in the shadow of the more revolutionary painters from his time such as Monet or Degas. Tissot was extremenly prolific and left us many, many wonderful genre paintings of people enjoying everyday life; going for walks, sipping tea, going on balls, gossiping, children playing, reading books and lying in a hammock, spending afternoon gliding on boats or enjoing a picnic under a grand old chestnut tree… All of his paintings are very meticulous and detailed and just a joy to gaze at. Tissot put a particular emphasis on the clothing the figures in his paintings are wearing and that is no surprise, for his father was a succesful drapery merchant and his mother designed hats.

My favourite Tissot painting at the moment is “Young Lady In a Boat”, painted in 1870, just a year before Tissot’s departure for London following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. It shows a pensive young woman dressed in a sumptuous white dress with ruffles and a hat with striped ribbons. A fan in her hand. A flower bouquet in front of her and a little pug behind her. I particularly love her pose; she is holding her chin with her hand and gazing into the distance. Her pinkie finger is touching her lip, what a dainty pose. You can see it also in the drawing bellow which is one of the studies for the painting that Tissot made. Is she sad or just bored? Or both. Is she suffering from ennui? The pug on the other hand looks not pensive but perplexed and he certainly adds to the charm of the painting with his humorous face expression, the face which a critic at the time compared to a monkey. The lady’s hat with those striped ribbons and her hair bring to mind the portraits of the Directoire period (1795-1800) and this was no accident, for Tissot had purposefully tried to emulate the styles of the period and this is evident in a few of his paintings from that time period. Directoire period was a glamorous time of frivolity after the terrors of the revolution and perhaps this is why Tissot decided to emulate the style.

James Tissot, Study for Young Lady in a Boat, c.1869–70. Graphite on buff wove paper, 25.3 x 24.3 cm

Tissot’s paintings are really like a dream; beautifully dressed women lazing around in splendid gardens, gliding on boats, sipping tea in warm salons whilst the children are playing hide and seek. These are people, mostly women, that seem to have everything but there is always a hint of sadness in their faces, as if despite having everything they aren’t fully happy. There’s always a sense of something missing from their lives, perhaps they feel the weight of the contraints on them, both of their corsets and of their society, maybe too much idleness brought too little to fight for or desire, maybe they don’t know what they want but just feel a certain void inside. A void that perhaps a little pug could solve.

Manet and Emile Durkheim- The Suicide

23 Nov

the best often die by their own hand
just to get away,
and those left behind
can never quite understand
why anybody
would ever want to
get away
from
them.”

(Charles Bukowski, Cause and effect)

Edouard Manet, The Suicide, 1877-81

Painting “The Suicide” is an unusual one in Manet’s oeuvre. Scenes of murder and violence do appear here and there in his paintings, for example in the paintings “The Dead Toreador” (1864), “Bullfight – The Death of the Bull” (1865-66), and “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” (1868). What makes the painting “The Suicide”, just like Degas’ painting “Interior” (1868-69), stand out is its lack of context which makes it intriguing. We don’t know who the man in the painting is, and we don’t know why he decided to kill himself, nor what led up to that moment. We are brought to this tragic scene without knowing what had happened before. We are confused, bewildered, shocked, and saddened. The closely-cropped scene shows an interior with a bed, a painting (or half the painting) hanging over the bed and some furniture. The man’s lifeless body is lying on the bed; a gun in his hand, a bloody stain on his white shirt, and the puddle of blood on the floor are visual hints at what has happened. “Different colours, different shades/ Over each mistakes were made/ I took the blame/ Directionless so plain to see/ A loaded gun won’t set you free… so you say”, the lyrics (and the music) from Joy Division’s song “New Dawn Fades” instantly comes to mind.

Some art critics thought the painting represents Manet’s assistent who had killed himself some years before the painting was painted, and others, not knowing how to interpret the painting, simply concluded that it has no meaning, that it is merely an exercise in colour and light. I am of an opinion that even if we can’t decipher the painting, interpret it and pinpoint its symbolism or meaning, it doesn’t mean the painting has no meaning. I definitely don’t think this is just a painterly exercise. When Impressionists wanted to play with colours, and with the effect of light and shadow, or simply use the left-over paint from their palettes, they painted gardens and flowers, just like Klimt did, not suicide scenes. There are many reasons why someone might commit a suicide, but this painting made me think of the sociologist Emile Durkheim’s book “Suicide: A Study in Sociology”, published in 1897, just twenty years after this painting was painted.

In the book Durkheim explains his theory that all suicides fall under four categories: egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic. Looking at the time when the painting was painted, the French society at the time, and thinking of the books which I’ve read from that time period, I would say that the motif of the man’s sucide was either egoistic or anomic. The reason for egoistic suicides is that the person is overly individualised and is not connected to any social group, not tied to it by well-established social values, traditions and norms. The lack of integration leads to a state of apathy, pointlesness and melancholy, and this type of suicide, according to Durkheim, is most common in umarried men. Anomic suicide comes in times when society is in disorder and hence a lack of social direction, a lack of moral regulation is present. This leaves the person feeling unsure of where they belong or how they should act, they are carried by the wind of life in all directions, scattered, confused and lost. This type of suicide also occurs when a great change happens, whether in society or in the person’s personal life, and the person just cannot adapt to the new situation.

Now, just to mention the other two types of suicides: altruistic suicides happen in societies which are too integrated and the collective openly demands from the individual to sacrifice its individualism, its rights and freedoms, even to die for the collective (something we are sort of experiencing nowadays, this raging collectivism). And fatalistic suicide, according to Durkheim, exists only in theory, only as a concept. It is a type of suicide that happens when the society is so oppresive and has such control over the individual that the person feels as if his passions and his future are destroyed and he would rather die than live on. Durkheim may have thought this type of suicide exists only in theory, but later on dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s “1984”, or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, have shown that the types of societies that oppressive actually exist and our own times are revealing to us the same thing. Our world is indeed becoming more and more a place from which the only escape is death because all joys and freedoms are being crushed to dust. Now, I don’t know what the man in the painting was feeling or what was going on in his life, but I thought it was interesting to connect the painting’s theme with the sociological perspective on it.

Miroslav Kraljević – Olympia (Homage to Manet)

15 Sep

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

Miroslav Kraljević, (Great Female Nude) Olympia, 1912

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

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

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

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

Vincent van Gogh – Die in the Summertime

29 Jul

“Every time I stare into the sun
Trying to find a reason to go on
All I ever get is burned and blind…”

(Chris Cornell, Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart)

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, July 1890

Exhausting heat of summerr day. Golden wheat against the electric blue sky. A crooked, brown path through the wheat that leads to nowhere. Crows flying aimlessy, low above the wheat field – without direction, without control. Their hoarse cawing disturbs the otherwise heavy silence in the field. No trace of wind. The sky is turning a darker shade of blue with each passing moment. This is not the tender, soft baby blue sky from a Monet painting. This is not a tame wheatfield. These wild, energetic, passionate brushstrokes are not for the faint of heart. Thick, quick, short strokes are a work of an artistic maniac who is led by emotions that arose from a soul as troubled and dark and deep as a waterwell. Dark clouds are pressing down down to the ground and it all feels dense and claustrophobic.

This very dramatic painting was painted on the 10th July 1890, and is, unfortunately, not the last painting Vincent van Gogh painted, although it is one of his best and one of his most emotionally raw. Vincent died on the 29th July 1890 and there is a tendency to see this painting as Vincent’s suicide note because of the obvious ominous, disturbed mood, and while I agree with that I think it also shows the very thing that Vincent strove to capture on his painting; all the life, energy and vibrancy that was inside him, despite the depression, in his own words: “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. (…) Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners…”

This brooding wheatfield was a visual expression of a huge stream of feelings swelling up inside the artist; the feeling of enormous, incurable loneliness and immense sadness. It might be unusual to use yellow to portray sadness, but this is not the cheerful, harmless yellow we might find in a painting by Fragonard. The ripeness of the field may also symbolise the ripeness of the artist’s life and after ripeness comes either death or decay. The crows add to the ominous feeling of dread and the arrival of death, or the end. As is typical for the paintings he made in the summer of 1890, he used a double-canvas and this horizontally elongated canvas helps in creating the dramatic mood because the sky is pressing down to the field whereas in a vertically elongated painting the sky would have much more space to breathe and shine. It is also important to note that the unusual long form of a painting was typical for the Japanese Ukiyo-e prints which Vincent loved, admired and took inspiration from. This form was just one of the many ways in which he experimented with his art and used the Japanese influence. The final days of Vincent’s life were days of extreme sadness and extreme creativity and this painting, although not his last one, is the explosion of this creativity.

The title of the post comes from the Manic Street Preachers’ song “Die in the Summertime” from their third album “The Holy Bible” (1994):

“Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals
Colour my hair but the dye grows out
I can’t seem to stay a fixed ideal
Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene
See myself without ruining lines
Whole days throwing sticks into streams
I have crawled so far sideways
I recognise dim traces of creation
I want to die, die in the summertime, I want to die”