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Henry Peach Robinson – Fading Away

28 Apr

The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858

I found myself thinking about death these days, and naturally the first things that came to my mind were the poems, the paintings and this Victorian era photograph taken by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858. “Fading Away” is a very romantical and elegantly sad photograph which shows a pale and frail young girl dying from consumption, or perhaps from a broken heart. She is surrounded by her a family members, all of which play a different role in the composition of the photograph and also in expressing emotion. The male figure, presumably the father, turned his back towards the girl, unable to face the painful truth; death of his beloved daughter. Perhaps he is trying to suppress his tears, and perhaps he feels powerless because he failed to protect her from the ultimate enemy: death.  This photograph perfectly encapsulated the morbidly romantical fascination with death which came to define the Victorian era. For modern viewers the aesthetic conveyed is very Victorian, but the Victorians felt very differently about Robinson’s photograph. It received mixed reviews from the public; some found it shocking that the photographer would invade such an intimate, private moment. The Victorians knew the distinction between the private life and the outside world. And also, the photograph is actually an early example of photomontage and Robinson. was a pioneer of that. I am as shocked as the Victorians were because the final result is so realistic and I would never have assumed that these individuals weren’t in the same room at the same moment together.

Poets of Romanticism expressed an inexplicable longing for death because every day life, with its struggles and ugliness, was far from their ideal of Beauty. “Transient pleasures as a vision seem, and yet we think the greatest pain’s do die”, wrote John Keats in his poem “On Death”. Percy Bysshe Shelley was equally dramatic, utterly obsessed with death, he saw it as the state of ultimate happiness and perfection. The Victorian era romanticised death, especially the slow, staged, almost theatre-like moment of death. And what actress to play the role of a person soon to be departed than a beautiful, pale, virginal girl who had tasted none of life’s sweetness and joys and already at such a tender age death was to take her away. It’s like a rose forever preserved in its loveliest stage of bud! Never blooming fully, and thus never withering either. Poe was right: death of a young girl is indeed the most beautiful topic for art. And here is John Keats’ poem “On Death” written in 1814 in a letter to his brother Thomas who was, just like the poor girl in the photograph, suffering from consumption which would ultimately be Keats’s end as well:

On Death

Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,
And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?
The transient pleasures as a vision seem,
And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.

How strange it is that man on earth should roam,
And lead a life of woe, but not forsake
His rugged path; nor dare he view alone
His future doom which is but to awake.

Henry Peach Robinson, She Never Told Her Love, 1857

“She never told her love,

But let concealment,

like a worm i’ the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek”

(Shakespeare, Twelfth Night II,iv,111-13)

Robinson’s photograph “She Never Told Her Love”, taken in 1857, served as a study for the girl in “Fading Away”. Resting on soft big pillow, the girl truly does appear to be fading away. Her hair is spread on the pillow, her hands clasped on her lap, her lips ever so softly parted. This study’s focus is on the girl, she is alone in her pictorial space, alone with her woe, illness and that poor broken heart. In “Fading Away” she is surrounded by family, and even though the study has the intimacy of the girl alone, I feel like the characters add to the drama and the story behind the photograph.

It is interesting to think of the way poets and artists of Romanticism and the Victorians saw death, and how our culture sees it. The Victorian era attitude towards death is seen as “morbid” nowadays and I don’t quite see why. Every living thing on earth is bound to die one day, so why is death such a taboo topic, such a shocking morbid “Gothic” thing? It seems like everything is so sugarcoated nowadays; idealised, filtered, posed, set-up, and artificial and hence such a pure, dark truth such as death is hard to digest. Death comes without invitations, it cannot be ignored, postponed, sugarcoated, it changes everything, it is beyond our control. Perhaps we are too entitled today and we subconsciously feel that, along with our generally good standard of living (at least in the Western countries), immortality is also our god-given right, and it isn’t. Can’t we go back to times when death was romanticised and one could truly die of a broken heart!? I feel like I can relate to Romantic visions of the death much more, and also this beautiful poem “Goodbye, my friend, goodbye” by the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) who ended his life not by consumption or broken heart, but by suicide:

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.

Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let’s have no sadness — furrowed brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer.

The poem was written in the poet’s own blood and found in the hotel room where he had committed suicide. Still, despite the tragical ending, the poem carries a seed of hope, like a silver dandelion seed floating aimlessly in the wind, because dying is nothing new and living no newer, and the sad parting brings reunion, and could there be a more hopeful thought? Death is not the end, not the end…

Pushkin – The Flowers of Autumn Days

14 Nov

Autumn rose, picture found here.

The Flowers of Autumn Days

The flowers of autumn days

Are sweeter than the firsts of plains.

For they awaken an impression,

That’s strong, although it may be sad,

Just as the pain of separation

Is stronger than the sweet of date.

Georg F. Kersting – Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio

8 Nov

Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes are very loved and appreciated nowadays for their dreamy, dusky and contemplative beauty, but how did they came to be? Where did Friedrich find his inspiration and what was the mood in which he created his beautiful artworks?

The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him.

(Caspar David Friedrich)

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1811

In this portrait by his friend Kersting, the Romantic painter Friedrich is seen painting in his studio; a loner in his lonely cell. And look how bare, clean and ascetic the room seems, with bare wooden floors, a single window which lets in plenty of light which is important for painting, and nothing but the necessary furniture; a chair, a desk and an easel. There is no view from the window save for that of the sky. But that doesn’t even matter for this painter because his inspiration doesn’t come from gazing at nature and quickly sketching exactly what is in front of him. The way Friedrich’s landscapes came to be was firstly through walks in nature, with deep immersion into its mood and state; the way the clouds are, the very shade of pink the sky is, the way the air smells and feels.

In artist’s own words: I must stay alone and know that I am alone to contemplate and feel nature in full; I have to surrender myself to what encircles me, I have to merge with my clouds and rocks in order to be what I am. Solitude is indispensible for my dialogue with nature. And then, the painting arises on canvas after a long, solitary artistic meditation over the canvas, gathering what he had seen in nature and merging the visions of the reality with his imagination. Oh, I can so imagine Friedrich, the solitary man (not like in Johnny Cash’s song though), with his blonde sideburns and piercing gaze walking broodingly on the damp shore of the dark and cold Baltic sea, wearing a navy coat and a face expression which says ‘don’t come near me’. Despite his well-known isolated nature, Friedrich had friends, many of whom were fellow painters, but as he grew older, as times were changing and the style of his art was slowly but surely falling out of fashion, his early natural-born shyness and melancholy gradually turned to bitterness and isolation.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea, 1822

His landscapes are not portrayals of nature as he saw it, but rather – as he felt it, and that gives them their lyrical gentle beauty, the soft gradations of colours, the dusky shades, pinks, purples, dreamy blues. There is not rushed, harsh sketchiness of the plein air paintings that Impressionists painted. Each of his landscapes carries a different mood, and is open to many different interpretations because it is imbued with so much feeling and depth. Friedrich’s landscapes are particularly dreamy and some have the element of sublime, and that makes them different from the landscapes painted around the same time by the English painters J.M.W.Turner and John Constable. John Constable’s landscapes and nature studies, in contrast, are plain and simple what they are; the green meadow, the strong brown tree trunk, there’s isn’t plenty of dreaming and symbolism involved. Near the end of Friedrich’s life Romanticism and its worldviews were on the wane, and more realistic approach to things replaced the dreaminess. Ideas and movements such as positivism and Naturalism couldn’t appreciate the dreaminess of Friedrich’s landscapes and they were forgotten up until the late nineteenth century when the Symbolists, who were also more interested in the transcendent rather than material aspects of life, rediscovered them and saw in them the kind of Beauty that they also proposed. People nowadays seem to truly appreciate Friedrich’s paintings, his art is certainly more than just rediscovered, maybe it’s because it is so full of dreams and while we gaze at it, it resonated with the slumbering dreams that lie within us.

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1819

And here we have another version of Kersting’s portrait of Caspar David Friedrich painting in his studio. Kersting apparently thought that the image of Friedrich painting in his simple, bare, ascetic cell was so fascinating that eight years later he just had to paint it again. In this version, Friedrich is not actually shown painting, although we can assume that would be the next step. Here he is in a state of artistic meditation over his canvas, waiting for the perfect vision to clarify itself in his mind, waiting for the colours to pick themselves from the palette.

When Friedrich painted his wonderful landscapes everything but the Imagination was a distraction. A fellow painter of the time, Karl von Kügelgen wrote about Friedrich’s studio: “Even the things most necessary to painting – the box of paints, the bottles of linseed oil, and the oil-rag – were moved to the adjoining room, because Frederick was of the opinion that any objects would disturb his inner world of imagination…” I think I can understand things and clutter being distracting, but an empty bare room would disturb me I feel. Yet another painter and Friedrich’s pupil, Carl Gustav Carus, commented that Friedrich never made sketches: He never made sketches, cartoons, or color studies for his paintings, because he stated (and certainly he was not entirely wrong), that such aids chill the imagination somewhat. He did not begin to paint an image until it stood, living, in the presence of his soul…

Lermontov: I see a coffin, black and sole, it waits: why to detain the world?

6 Nov

A beautiful melancholy poem that the Russian Romantic writer Mikhail Lermontov wrote in 1830 when he was fifteen going on his sixteenth year. This little poem already shows Lermontov’s sadness and disillusionment in life and the world around him, and, looking back, these kind of little teenage poems were the seed which eventually grew into his novel “A Hero of Our Time” which was published in 1840.

“Years pass me by like dreams.”

Friedrich von Amerling, Young girl, 1834

Loneliness

It’s Hell for us to draw the fetters

Of life in alienation, stiff.

All people prefer to share gladness,

And nobody – to share grief.

 

As a king of air, I’m lone here,

The pain lives in my heart, so grim,

And I can see that, to the fear

Of fate, years pass me by like dreams;

 

And comes again with, touched by gold,

The same dream, gloomy one and old.

I see a coffin, black and sole,

It waits: why to detain the world?

 

There will be not a sad reflection,

There will be (I am betting on)

Much more gaily celebration

When I am dead, than – born.

Poem found here.

J.M.W. Turner – Romantic Watecolours of German Castles

23 Jul

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Klotten and Burg Coraidelstein from the East, 1840

The great British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner was not content with just painting the green English meadows and cathedrals like John Constable, or Welsh castles and mountains like Paul Sandby. His visions were grander and his spirit more insatiable for the new landscapes and new skies. Led by romantic wanderlust, Turner traveled to Germany, and visited the area of Middle Rhein ten times in years from 1817 to 1844. The area was famous even then for its pictorial and spiritual beauties; lush green hills surrounding the river were littered with castles and ruins of castles, remains of monasteries and churches which had been demolished in political wars following the Reformations and in later centuries as a result of Napoleon’s quests. And then there is the golden-haired siren, made famous through Heinrich Heine’s poem “Die Lorelei” written in 1824, who sits on the Lorelei rock, combs her long hair and with her voice alone leads wanderers and sailors to their doom.

J.M.W. Turner, Lorelei Rock, c. 1817

I know not if there is a reason
Why I am so sad at heart.
A legend of bygone ages
Haunts me and will not depart.

The air is cool under nightfall.
The calm Rhine courses its way.
The peak of the mountain is sparkling
With evening’s final ray.

The fairest of maidens is sitting
So marvelous up there,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She’s combing her golden hair.

(Read the rest of the poem here.)

An artist living in Romanticism, an era which praised nature, imagination and the past simply couldn’t have visited the Rhine area without being captivated by the eerie legends and poems surrounding the Lorelei rock. In 1817, when Turner first visited the area, he made the painting of the Lorelei rock that you can see above. As interesting this painting is, and similar to many romantic landscape paintings that I like, I much prefer Turner’s more spontaneous works made in graphite, watercolour and gouache, painted during his travels to Germany in 1839 and 1840. His focus clearly shifted from the river and the Lorelei rock to the castles on the hills around the Rhine. The sketches are less theatrical than Turner’s famed earlier seascapes glistening in yellow and gold, and the atmosphere is gentler than that of his wild shipwrecks and seas under the moonlight’s glow. As much as I enjoy those paintings for their romantic exaggeration and dramatic flair, gazing at these dreamy watercolours is perfect for drifting into a reverie.

The softness and vagueness of these castles and landscapes appears as if it was designed to be completed in one’s imagination. Here and there you can see the traces of the pencil showing under the faint layers of warm dusky colours. It seems like the sunset is colouring the castles in orange and yellow shades, while in some drawings pops of blue and sharp white awake our eyes. Vague and dreamy, somewhere rich layers of brown and yellow form the mountains, and at other places, the contours of towers and roofs simply fade… Vague, loose brushstrokes, almost Impressionistic. I think we could rightfully call these watercolours “Turner’s impressions” of old castles, hills, skies and ruins. This vagueness is precisely what draws me to these drawings, and it was the same quality that made these artworks unpopular in his times, especially in Germany. I like all of these watercolours because they make me daydream, but the one called “Burg Thurandt” from 1839 interests me especially because it’s so abstract.

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Eltz and Trutz Eltz from the North, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Bischofstein, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Eltz and Trutz Eltz from the North, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Hals from the Hillside, 1840, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Alken and Burg Thurandt, 1840, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Klotten and Burg Coraidelstein from the East, 1839

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Thurandt, 1839

J.M.W. Turner, Burg Bischofstein, 1839, Graphite, watercolour and gouache on paper

J.M.W. Turner, Alken and Burg Thurandt from the South, 1839

Théophile Gautier – The Ghost of the Rose

4 Jun

A very dreamy, romantic and eerie poem by a French Romantic poet Théophile Gautier.

Stanislaw Wyspianki, Double portrait d’Eliza Pareńska, 1905

The Ghost of the Rose

Open your eyelids now closed

That brush on a maidens dream;

I am the ghost of the rose

That you wore at the ball last night.

You plucked me still silvered with pearls

Sprinkled like tears from the hose,

And throughout the glittering scene

Paraded all night was I seen.

 

O you who have caused my death

Unable to chase it away

Throughout the night, my ghost of a rose

Will come to dance by your bed.

But have no fear, I shall claim

No mass nor De Profundis;

This faint perfume is my soul

And from paradise do I come.

 

My destiny may serve for envy;

For no better death could one have

Than thus to have given ones life.

For, I have your breast as my tomb

And there on the headstone where I repose

A poet has left me a kiss

And written: “Here lies a rose

Of which, kings are inclined to be jealous”.

(translated by David Paley)

John Keats: On the heather to lie together, with both our hearts a-beating!

26 May

A beautiful poem by John Keats (1795-1821), English poet of Romanticism.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Shepherdess, ca. 1750-52

Where be ye going, you Devon maid?

WHERE be ye going, you Devon maid?

And what have ye there i’ the basket?

Ye tight little fairy, just fresh from the dairy,

Will ye give me some cream if I ask it?

 

I love your meads, and I love your flowers,

And I love your junkets mainly,

But ‘hind the door, I love kissing more,

O look not so disdainly!

 

I love your hills, and I love your dales,

And I love your flocks a-bleating;

But O, on the heather to lie together,

With both our hearts a-beating!

 

I’ll put your basket all safe in a nook,

Your shawl I’ll hang up on this willow,

And we will sigh in the daisy’s eye,

And kiss on a grass-green pillow.