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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

Lilian Westcott Hale – Nancy and the Map of Europe

16 Oct

Lilian Westcott Hale, Nancy and the Map of Europe, 1919

American painter Lilian Westcott Hale’s paintings are a doorway to the gentle and secretive world of femininity as she mostly painted interiors with women and children. Lilian was in Connecticut, studied at the School of Fine Arts in Boston where one of her tutors was William Merritt Chase and also Philip Leslie Hale who later became her husband. She painted many delightful interiors with wistful girls, but painting “Nancy and the Map of Europe” is my faovurite at the moment because it is so very simple in composition, but very interesting and aesthetically pleasing. Nothing excessive clutters the scene; Nancy is sitting on the chair, dressed in a pretty blue gown, with a book in her lap. The little porcelain doll is sitting on the floor and is dressed in the matching blue gown. A map of Europe, painted in soothing pastel shades, covers nearly the entire wall and the entire background. The scene reminds me of those long, golden afternoons spent at school which were so sunny and bright and seemed never ending; the sun coming through the curtains would reveal the dust in the air and the shadows would dance on the map of the world on the wall. This sentence comes to mind “The late afternoon sunlight, warm as oil and sweet as childhood, slanted through the high, bright gymnasium windows.”, from Stephen King’s novel “Carrie”.

I use to spend many moments just gazing at maps; following the contours of the countries with my finger, whispering the names of the mountains and river, and imagining how beautiful all those places must be. The colours and the mood of this painting awake a certain nostalgia in me; for childhood, its simplicity, wonder and possibilities. Childhood, a time of hope, joy and possibilities. Nancy can be whoever she likes; all doors are open to her, she can visit all the countries that are shown on the map behind her. There is a mountain of books for Nancy yet to read, a plethora of experiences to gather. Nancy was eleven year old when this painting was painted, having been born in May 1908. She seems like a smart, dreamy and pretty girl in this painting, with her long hair, wistful gaze and that pretty dress. Who knows what dreams occupy her mind? What books fuels her fantasies? What secrets did she whisper to that doll on the floor? Little Nancy doesn’t yet know what a fascinating life she will have, even though the seeds of it were already planted. Nancy published her first story “The Key Glorious” at the age of eleven. A writing career,troubled marriages, emotional breakdowns, that is all ahead of her. In this lovely painting painted by her mother, Nancy is still a simple eleven year old and her head is filled with dreams.

Circus Scenes in Art – A Tightrope Between Vibrancy and Melancholy

20 Sep

Der Himmel über Berlin

Wim Wenders’ film “Wings of Desire” (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) perfectly encapsulated my vision of circus. It is a beautiful film, one of my all time favourites, and even though the circus is not its main theme, it is the most poignant to me. What’s not to like about this film; slow tempo, alienating mood, greyness of Berlin streets and buildings, everyday sadness that seems poetic seen through the eyes of the Angel, old man vainly looking for Potsdamer Platz but finding only the wall covered in graffiti, depressed people in U-Bahns, a sad young man who commits suicide by jumping from the top of the Europa Centar at Kudamm thinking to himself “The East is everywhere”, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds having a gig at a smoky club, also The Crime and the City Solution, and finally – the lonely trapeze artist Marion who “waited an eternity to hear a loving word”. The most beautiful scene in the film, for me (you can see it on YouTube) is when Marion sits on top of the car, wistful and lonely, with her angel wings, thinking about past and future because the circus, an elephant sadly trumpets, and the guy starts playing a sad melody on accordion. So beautiful, dreamy and nostalgic.

Der Himmel über Berlin

There’s this duality of circus that intoxicates me. Everything is an illusion, just like in cabarets, theatres, nightclubs, parties, Moulin Rouge etc. On one hand, there’s the cheerful vibrancy; striped red-white tent, trapeze artist in shiny pink costume, wide smiled doing acrobatics, laughter and clapping, clowns, tightrope walkers, jugglers, dancers, magicians, animals, lions, crocodiles, elephants, trained to do tricks against their will. On the other hand, there’s the grey reality after the performance. These artists seem to live for the show, but about life after it? Exhausted people returning to their trailors, doing the same thing every night to a different crowd, from one town to the next. When the audience finally leaves, when the candy-floss and popcorn have been sold, when silent night descends, what remains – solitude and melancholy.

There’s such sadness and transience in seeing posters all over the town for an event that has passed becoming paler, chipped and torn as each day passes until one day, a new set of shiny bright posters replace them. Circus theme is present in the film Coralina (2009) where the old Russian guy in the attic perseveres in teaching mice to do tricks; in reality he fails to do so, but in the “other world” his circus is the stuff that dreams are made of. In Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, Sabina is a painter and the scenes she paints always have a duality about them; red velvet curtains that reveal a different whimsical world. There’s always this duality about circus and theatre; glitter and sadness, tears and laughter, ecstasy and melancholy, all tangled together, inseparable.

Pierre-Auguste-Renoir, Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg), 1879

It is easy to understand why all those painters were drawn to the fanciful world of circus, theatre and the clowns, from Antoine Watteau who portrayed the sad, melancholy Pierrot in the most humane, poignant way, to Goya, Picasso, Renoir, Seurat, Federico Beltran Masses, Marc Chagall, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Laura Knight and many others. Firstly, the circus was a visually fascinating place, all the vibrant colours, interesting faces and shining costumes, dynamic and the movement are so easy to capture on paper, you needn’t search for a particular motif, it is right there in front of your eyes, paint a clown or a trapeze artist. Secondly, circus performers were people alienated from the rest of the “normal” society and that makes them similar to painters from Montmarte and Montparnasse. They both had the outsider appeal which drew them together, they both felt all too well the fragility and beauty of living on the margins of society. And thirdly, a painter paints a world of his own on his canvases and a circus is already a world of its own; Marc Chagall’s art is really unique in how playful and imaginative it is, we can really call it “Chagall’s world” because it doesn’t exist anywhere else but on his canvases (and first in his mind, naturally) and likewise, the world of circus only exists under the striped red and white tent, only on specific days, in certain evening hours, so it is like a dream, and dreams always end. I will not comment specifically about each painting, but I hope you enjoy this little selection of circus scenes in art which I love.

Georges Seurat, English Circus Sideshow, 1887-88

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Rider On A White Horse, 1888, pastel and gouache

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Circus Fernando, the rider, 1888

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, At the circus work in the ring, 1899

Georges Seurat, The Circus, 1891

Laura Knight, The Fair, 1919

Federico Beltran Massess, Circus (El Circo), c. 1920s

Laura Knight, Circus Matinee, 1938

Marc Chagall, The Blue Circus, 1950

Marc Chagall, The Dance and the Circus, 1950

Marc Chagall, Couple au cirque 1981

Philip Wilson Steer – Vibrant Beach Scenes

22 Aug

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)

Philip Wilson Steer, Boulogne Sands, 1888-91

Philip Wilson Steer painted some rather dull landscapes and some very atmospheric interiors with dreamy girls, but his most unique and eye-catching paintings are these vivacious and vibrant beach scenes painted in the late 1880s and first half of the 1890s. The radiant colours and the sketchy style is what makes these paintings so unique and extraordinary.

At the age of eighteen, Steer wished to work for the Civil Service but found the entrance exams too demanding. We are fortunate that didn’t occur, for he probably would not have become a painter. He proceeded to study at the Gloucester School of Art and Kensington Drawing Schools, but he wasn’t quite good enough for the Royal Academy of Art. After being rejected by the Academy, Steer went to Paris and there he studied from 1882 to 1884, first at the Academie Julian and then at the École des Beaux Arts where his teacher was Alexandre Cabanel. Despite the years spent at the academies, Steer returned to England not as a Cabanel copy-cat, rather he was more influenced by the works of the Impressionists that he had seen. Steer often visited the picturesque coastal little towns of Walberwick and Southwald in Suffolk, for he had friends there, and he painted people, mostly mothers and daughters, having their holidays in the sun. Despite being inspired by the Impressionist, Steer didn’t go full plein air, that is, he didn’t paint outdoors. Whilst on the beach, Steer would enjoy the scenery and liveliness all around him, take many sketches in his sketchbook and then later turn them into proper paintings in his studio. That way he could capture many fun scenes that happened on the beach in the same day and transform them into canvases full of dots, dashes, textures, sketchy imprecise and harsh brushstrokes.

Philip Wilson Steer, Watching Cowes Regatta, 1892

These beach scenes may appear sketchy and spontaneous, but Steer actually carefully planned each one and often took years to finish them. Each of them has a unique beauty; “Watching Cowes Regatta” has a wonderfully serene harmony of gentle blue tones and is reminiscent of some of Whistler’s paintings, in “Children Paddling” the water just shines and glimmers and the blueness is overwhelming, in “Girls Running” the two figures of girls dressed in matching dresses and matching red sashes is the most striking, and notice how they are not holding their hands, but their shadows are, in “Figures at the Beach” everything disappears in a blueish haze and the three girls in blue and white dresses are as sketchy as can be to still look recognisable, in “The Beach at Walberswick” the red is so intense and pulsating and contrasts beautifully with the blueness of the sea, and in the last painting what strikes me the most is how sketchy and nearly see-through the figures in the foreground are. A wonderful brushwork and a wonderful vibrancy of shades and colours constrasts truly make these beach scenes tangible and alive; one can hear the waves, the seagulls and the laughter of all these girls, feel the magic of the glimmering sea and feel the pebbles or sand underfoot.

“There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.” (Kate Chopin, The Awakening)

Philip Wilson Steer, Walberswick, Children Paddling, 1894

Philip Wilson Steer, Girls Running, Walberswick Pier, 1888-94

Philip Wilson Steer, Figures on the Beach, Walberswick, 1888-89

Philip Wilson Steer, The Beach at Walberswick, 1889

Philip Wilson Steer, Southwold, 1889

Frederick Carl Frieseke: Lady in the Garden in June

27 Jun

What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade.”

(Gerture Jekyll)

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Lady in the Garden in June, 1911

Painting “Lady in the Garden in June” and many other paintings by the American Impressionist painter Frederick Carl Frieseke perfectly encapsulate the lazy and indolent mood of a summer garden. Female figures in their pretty dresses and fashionable hats serve to beautify the scenes of gardens in bloom, but Frieseke paints both the flowers and the ladies with equal attentiveness and vibrancy, they seem to be a part of the landscape. Gertrude Jekyll, a British Victorian era horticulturist, writer and garden designer perfectly described this transient and illusive, yet magical and captivating mood of June when summer has revealed to us all its charms and we feel the dream will never end. John Singer Sargent encapsulated this same ethereal and dreamy mood in his painting “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose“, but with Frieseke it’s not just a single painting which speaks of summer delights, but many.

On these canvases Frieseke translates the charms of summer into an oasis of joyous, vibrant colours and countless little dabs, dots and dashes of paint. In the painting “Hollyhocks” from 1911 you can really see how a few dabs of light pink or red can create a whole hollyhock flower. The painting looks pulsating and alive with all these trembling brush strokes and all these colours and it is easy to see why a critic had referred to Frieseke’s style as “Decorative Impressionism” because he uses the same motives as the Impressionists, the wonderful outdoors with flowers and sunshine, but fills his paintings with details, patterns and shapes and some paintings, such as the one called “Hollyhocks” from 1912-13 reminds me of Gustav Klimt’s landscapes which never feature human figures but are instead made out of garish colours and filled with details leaving no space free of shapes and dabs of rich colour.

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Hollyhocks, by 1911

There is little difference between the figure of a lady and the figure of a flower in Frieseke’s garden scenes, both are here for their beauty, colour and shape, and we can see that in the painting “Hollyhocks” above, from 1911, where the woman is seen from the profile in her garden in bloom and, seen from afar, her lean, upward figure would resemble a tall, lean hollyhock flower. In “Lady in Garden” the domineering pattern are vertical dashes which linger on and on over the canvas creating a rhythm and we can hardly see the line which separates the tall, sharp blades of grass from the stripes on the fabric of the woman’s dress. Although Frieseke was an American artist, in 1898, at the age of twenty-four he moved to France and studied art at Academie Julian. He regularly spent his summers at Giverny and in 1906 he moved into a house there, previously owned by another American painter Theodore Robinson, and found himself being a neighbour of none other but the Father of Impressionism: Claude Monet. Despite this lucky coincidence, Frieseke and Monet didn’t develop a friendship. Frieseke found Renoir to be his inspiration instead, inspired by Renoir’s voluptuous women, vibrant colours and a sense of joie de vivre and sensuality lingering through his canvases. And now, speaking of flowers and lovely gardens in summer reminded me of this passage from Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women”:

As spring came on, a new set of amusements became the fashion, and the lengthening days gave long afternoons for work and play of all sorts. The garden had to be put in order, and each sister had a quarter of the little plot to do what she liked with. Hannah used to say, “I’d know which each of them gardings belonged to, ef I see ’em in Chiny,” and so she might, for the girls’ tastes differed as much as their characters. Meg’s had roses and heliotrope, myrtle, and a little orange tree in it. Jo’s bed was never alike two seasons, for she was always trying experiments. This year it was to be a plantation of sun flowers, the seeds of which cheerful land aspiring plant were to feed Aunt Cockle-top and her family of chicks. Beth had old-fashioned fragrant flowers in her garden, sweet peas and mignonette, larkspur, pinks, pansies, and southernwood, with chickweed for the birds and catnip for the pussies. Amy had a bower in hers, rather small and earwiggy, but very pretty to look at, with honeysuckle and morning-glories hanging their colored horns and bells in graceful wreaths all over it, tall white lilies, delicate ferns, and as many brilliant, picturesque plants as would consent to blossom there. Gardening, walks, rows on the river, and flower hunts employed the fine days, and for rainy ones, they had house diversions, some old, some new, all more or less original.

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Lilies, 1911

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Lady in a Garden, 1912, oil on canvas, 81 x 65.4 cm

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Hollyhocks, 1912-13

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Grey Day on the River (Two Ladies in a Boat), c 1908

John Singer Sargent: Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife

19 Apr

John Singer Sargent, Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife, 1889

I discovered this gem of a painting two months ago but I decided to save it for April because plein air paintings with such lush greenness just scream April and springtime to me. The man with a straw hat, long sharp nose and a beard is the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul César Helleu. His canvas sits in the grass, framed by noisy blades of grass. The long thin fingers of his right hand are not so dissimilar to the brushes he is holding in his left arm, and if you look at it closely, you will see that the brush is nothing more than a stroke of paint, confident and carefree. Whatever he is painting, and it must be the nature that is in front of him, is it for sure keeping him completely absorbed. Behind him, in the shadow of this great artist, is a seemingly disinterested auburn haired woman with greyish complexion; that is Helleu’s wife Alice Guérin.

The couple met in 1884 when Helleu was commissioned to paint a portrait of this graceful young lady with long red hair. They quickly fell in love and married two years later, on 28 July 1886 when she was sixteen years old and he was twenty-six. She was his favourite model, but in this painting painted by Helleu’s life-long friend John Singer Sargent, she is sitting wistfully in the grass behind him; lost in daydreams, listening to birds or just following a butterfly in its flight with her eyes. He seems so stern and so absorbed in his work, I wonder: was she bored just sitting there useless, like a captive bird, dressed in an almost matching grey jacket to that of her beloved husband? Or did she enjoy being his passive companion? Or perhaps he just seems serious, but we don’t see the jokes he might have cracked or smiles he might have sent to her in times of  little painting breaks. One thing I do know for sure: the grass in this painting is something out of this world! In so many different shades of green, from the proper grass green to being and brown tones… it is a joy to soak my eyes in this greenness! Sensuality of nature comes through in these colours. Every blade of grass has a unique life of its own. This isn’t some neat, tamed lawn, no, this is a sweetly wild grass that grows on its own accord, without man’s laws.

Bellow you can see a similar painting that John Singer Sargent painted four years before the Helleu one, and in this painting it’s the famous Impressionist Claude Monet who is shown painting plein air on the edge of the wood. Sargent sort of strikes me as a voyeur of a sort… I know that they knew they were being painted but still, it seems that Sargent was quick to capture them in their pursuit.

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of the Wood, 1885

Maurice Prendergast: Mothers and Children in the Park

13 Apr

“The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”

(William Morris)

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook: Mothers and Children in the Park, watercolor over pencil, 1895-97

This is not the first and probably not the last post I wrote about Maurice Prendergast. I already wrote about his dazzling and vibrant watercolour beach scenes and about his dreamy and radiant La Belle Epoque portrait of the Lady with a Red Sash. Today, let us take a look at this beautiful watercolour “Mothers and Children in the Park” which was painted around 1895-97, right after his return from Paris. It’s part of Prendergast’s “Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook”.

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. Along with these progressive artistic ideas of Pointilism, Japonism and rudiments of Art Nouveau (through Aubrey Beardsley’s art), Prendergast was naturally introduced to the wonders of Impressionism and the theme of this watercolour is very Impressionistic: a carefree, lazy, sunny day in the park. The world “impression” was originally used pejoratively to describe a sketchy, carefree style which differed greatly from the precise, no-brushstroke-seen style of the Academic art. In that sense, this lovely watercolour is a true “impression” of a sunny, warm, radiant afternoon in a park. A moment of quiet joy captured in a dazzling harmony of pinks, greens and yellows. Everything looks trembling and alive and colours fully contribute to this mood.

Bellow I have included an array of details of this watercolour and these details really show the true beauty of this artwork. You can see the pencil appearing under the watercolour, the soft transitions and mingling of the watercolour. Something about two different shades of watercolour mingling together in a kiss and creating another shade gives me such a thrill. Such radiance and vivacity! A watercolour “impression” of such a simple, everyday motif as is a day in the park gives an even greater immediacy and liveliness to the motif than the usual oil on canvas that the Impressionist were painting. I especially love the detail of the little girl in pink dress with puffed sleeves and wheat-coloured hair. Her lovely oval face is but a few strokes of pencil and dashes of blue for eyes, so simple and effortless, yet so lovely.

Girl with a Hat – Hommage à Renoir by John Corbet

6 Apr

“Upset by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his marvelous sense of unreality and he ended up recommending to all of them that they leave, that they forget everything he had taught them about the world and the human heart, (…), and that wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”

(Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

John Corbet, Hommage à Renoir, watercolour on paper, 2020

This lovely watercolour has been haunting me ever since I first laid my eyes on it. The warm vibrant colours and all the swirls and free, playful and spontaneous brushstrokes touch my heart. Like opening a box in the attic filled with trinkets and toys from childhood or listening to a song that brings a world back to life, this watercolour awakes all these rich feelings and memories. At once bitter and sweet, like a memory that aches and warms your heart at the same time but you can never relive it, memory of flowers and sunsets, laughter, birdsong and sea waves, the distant dreamy world that is beyond reach, the paradise lost, now only the echoes of laughter and songs remain, the memory of sunbeams dancing on the sea waves but not the hot, burning sun itself. Almost tangible, but still a memory. Memories always have that dim, rosy, foggy quality, that warmth and sugary sweet essence with just a tinge of peppermint-flavored sadness. In your thoughts, you run and run through colourful hazy corridors of memories, you follow the music that awakes them, you want to live in the chambers of happier times, but you cannot. A dried flowers cannot bring the spring back, and the old theatre ticket cannot bring back that performance. And you live and you walk and you talk in this real tangible life, but all around you the memories float like symbols, like shells and flowers in Odilon Redon’s paintings, mystic and dreamy, it touches something inside you that reason wants to suppress.

These are the thoughts that flood my mind as I gaze at this watercolour inspired by Renoir’s lovely paintings of girls in hats, but this watercolour has more ecstatic colours, more grooviness, something dreamy that Renoir’s girls do not possess. Look at her rosy face, rosy because it’s coloured by the last rays of sun in the dusk of the day, the dreamy hour of the day when shadows and colours tremble and breathe. Her eyes are closed to the real world around her, she wants to forget, she wants to be the part of the Dream world that is alive all around her. I imagine her spinning and floating on the breeze of that dreamland, rising from the ground and traveling, like Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, to that distant place of poppies and cactuses, warm sands and fragrant flowers, winds that whispers poems in your ear, and pink sunsets skies that are infinite and promising…

Something about this watercolour makes me feel so nostalgic… for everything. It makes me feel deeply the line from Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”: “the past was a line, memory has no return, and every spring gone by could never be recovered.” Bring me violins that makes the heart bleed, a sad accordion that makes the tears flow, because when I gaze at this watercolour I feel melancholy for what was and will never be, I think of blooming apple trees that suddenly lose their blossom and turn all green, magnolia blossoms and freshly cut grass, crickets chirping and seasons passing, changes that cannot be stopped, words that cannot be unspoken, escapism into domains of one’s dream and memory land. The way she closes her eyes and sensually allows herself to be kissed by the sun, there’s something so innocent and indulgent about allowing oneself such simple pleasure. Close your eyes to the world, look within and another world awaits you, one which is infinitely better. The colours have something sixties about them, orange and mauves. A touch of violet and orange on her shirt, her rosy face and wine-coloured hair, moss green painted in swirls in the background, I am seduced by these colours. This watercolour has the Beauty that makes my heart burst like a ripe fig in the Mediterranean sun.

Renoir, Etude de femme avec chapeau – fragment, date unknown

John Corbet is a contemporary artist whose wonderful, whimsical and dreamy pastels and watercolours you should definitely check out here. We are so fortunate that he is sharing these beautiful artworks, sharing little fragments of his imagination and beauty with the word. I have already written about his ghostly pastels last year, but his work continues to surprise me, it’s getting more vibrant and more lovely and I am delighted to see that he is doing more and more watercolours, exploring and experimenting without neglecting his love for pastels. Formally, this is a Hommage to Renoir, but on a spiritual level, the mood of Corbet’s watercolour is more dreamy and mystical and it brings to mind the mood of Odilon Redon and Gauguin’s paintings.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Girl with Hat (Jeune fille au chapeau), c. 1883

Renoir, Young Girl in a Flowered Hat, 1900-05

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Young Girls Reading, 1890-91

Renoir, Two Sisters, 1890

Renoir, The Little Reader (Little Girl in Blue), 1890

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.