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Sándor Petőfi: Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose, not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

27 Oct

Today I wanted to share my new poetic discovery: Sándor Petőfi, a Romantic Hungarian poet and a revolutionary whose national fervour and patriotism eventually led him to his doom, but also to his glory. Romanticism arrived a bit late to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was closely tied to patriotism and national revival; each country in the vast empire sought to define its individuality; its national history and traditions. Petofi fits the theme of central European Romanticism and the two of his main poetic themes are romantic love and love for his country. He was of Slovak or Serbian ancestry, but he wrote in Hungarian and fought for the Hungarian language to be the language of the theatre and literature instead of German. As a true Romantic hero, he led a short and turbulent life and went missing at the age of twenty-six after the Battle of Segesvár in 1849; he was presumed dead but who knows when he actually died… His poems are the mirrors of the politically turbulent times he lived in and he died in the very manner he wished, as expressed in his poem “The Thought Torments Me”:

When every nation wearing chains
Shall rise and seek the battle-plains,
With flushing face shall wave in fight
Their banners, blazoned in the light:
“For liberty!” Their cry shall be;
Their cry from east to west,
Till tyrants be depressed.
There shall I gladly yield
My life upon the field;
There shall my heart’s last blood flow out,
And I my latest cry shall shout.

In 1846, in Transylvania he met an eighteen year old maiden Júlia Szendrey and, charmed by the beauty of her countenance which matched the beauty of her mind and soul, Petofi instantly fell in love and they married the same year. His parents didn’t approve and their marriage was short anyway. Like her husband, Júlia was also a poet, and a writer and translator. She spoke a few foreign languages, loved the poetry of Heinrich Heine and the writings of George Sand, loved dancing and playing the piano but she was also a private and modest person who didn’t like sharing her talents with the world. They seem like a perfect Romantic couple, with the perfectly short, intense and tragic marriage ended by a mysterious disappearance in battle and probable death. It sounds like a story one would read in a work of Schiller or Lermontov.

Giuseppe Molteni, Desolate at the Loss of her Lover, 1850

Poem “At the End of September” is written in a truly Romantic manner because it ties the themes of love and death that all Romantics loved so much. In the first stanza Petofi slowly introduces the theme of transience through a visual imagery of the changing of seasons, and even compares the arrival of winter to his hair slowly turning grave. The transience of spring and summer goes hand in hand with the passing of his youth, and the arrival of winter is tied with the impedimence of his death. I love how melancholy and melodramatic he is, wanting to know whether his beloved will weep over his grave, but then the poetic imagery turns a darker mood and we see the poet returning from the death’s vale at midnight… These poems satisfy all my poetic needs. Just seeing the words and expressions in the poem such as “broken heart”, “bleeding heart”, “tomb”, “weep”, “tears”, “death”, “mournful”, makes me swoon!

At the End of September

The garden flowers still blossom in the vale,

Before our house the poplars still are green;

But soon the mighty winter will prevail;

Snow is already in the mountains seen.

The summer sun’s benign and warming ray

Still moves my youthful heart, now in its spring;

But lo! my hair shows signs of turning gray,

The wintry days thereto their color bring.

This life is short; too early fades the rose;

To sit here on my knee, my darling, come!

Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

O, tell me, if before thee I should die,

Wilt thou with broken heart weep o’er my bier?

Or will some youth efface my memory

And with his love dry up thy mournful tear?

 

If thou dost lay aside the widow’s vail,

Pray hang it o’er my tomb. At midnight I

Shall rise, and, coming forth from death’s dark vale,

Take it with me to where forgot I lie.

And wipe with it my ceaseless flowing tears,

Flowing for thee, who hast forgotten me;

And bind my bleeding heart which ever bears

Even then and there, the truest love for thee.

Matthew James Lawless, Dead Love, 1862

“Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?”

Petofi’s poems often bring to mind romantic imagery, typically romantic themes of love and death mingle freely in his verses and I decided to illustrate the poem with the drawing “Dead Love” from 1862. Victorian era artist Matthew James Lawless is little known today because he died young, at the age of twenty-seven, and his career never had a chance to take off. The drawings that he left definitely show a talent and a romantic imagination which ties him to the Pre-Raphaelites, and therefore I think the mood of his drawing fits the mood of Petofi’s poem. And now a poem which continues with the theme of love but here love is tied with another motif Petofi loves: fighting for liberty.

My Wife and My Sword

Upon the roof a dove,
A star within the sky,
Upon my knees my love,
For whom I live and die;
In raptures I embrace
And swing her on my knees,
Just as the dewdrop sways
Upon the leaf of trees.

But why, you’ll surely ask,
Kiss not her pretty face?
It is an easy task
To kiss while we embrace!
Many a burning kiss
I press upon her lip,
For such a heavenly bliss
I cannot now let slip.

And thus we pass our day,
I and my pretty wife,
Beyond all rare gem’s ray
Is our gay wedded life.
A friend, my sword, it seems,
Does not like this at all,
He looks with angry gleams
Upon me from the wall.

Don’t look on me, good sword,
With eyes so cross and cold,
There should be no discord
Between us, friends of old.
To women leave such things,
As green-eyed jealousy:
To men but shame it brings,
And you a man must be!

But then, if you would pause
To think who is my love,
You’d see you have no cause
At all me to reprove.
She is the sweetest maid,
She is so good and true;
Like her God only made,
I know, but very few.

If thee, good sword, again
Shall need our native land,
To seek the battle-plain
Will be my wife’s command.
She will insist that I
Go forth, my sword, with thee,
To fight, if need to die,
For precious liberty!

Sandor’s wife Julia Szendrey (1828-1868).

Eugene Delacroix – Horse Frightened by Lightning

22 Oct

Eugene Delacroix, Horse Frightened by Lightning, 1825-29, watercolour

The spirit of Romanticism is alive and intense in this wonderful and expressive watercolour by Delacroix. The simplicity of the composition contrasts the intense and dramatic mood that is conveyed. Using the combination of simple visual elements; a wild horse, a desolate landscape, and a gloomy sky with a lightning, Delacroix created a painting that encapsulated the aesthetic of the Sublime. The face expression of the horse and his pose convey his torment and fear at the sudden lightning and thunder that have appeared in the sky. He seems truly unsettled and his feelings seep into the lonely landscape around him and his fear touches the viewer too; our sympathy for the poor frightened animal mingles with the feeling of awe at the nature’s unpredictability and power. This scene seems like something I would imagine whilst reading a Gothic novel.

Delacroix inherited his love and admiration for horses from another master of French Romanticism; Theodore Gericault, who was only a few years older than Delacroix but at the time this watercolour was painted, Gericault had already been dead. But despite his short life and even shorter career his dramatic art full of feelings and dark passions set the standard for the French Romanticism. Wild and untamed, or tamed but still very beautiful, strong and awe-inspiring, horses are a motif we find often in the art of Romanticism; in Fuseli’s Nightmare, in the art of Sawrey Gilpin, Gros and Gericault. A century later Franz Marc painted vibrant and expressive paintings of horses as well. For Romanticists a horse was a symbol of something wild and unstoppable, of the fire of youth, of passion for exploration, of bravery and Delacroix chose to portray this majestic animals in numerous occasions.

In this watercolour the horse is clearly not representative of something strong and wild, but rather the opposite. Panicked and red-eyed, the horse exhibits his more emotional, vulnerable side, something one wouldn’t expect to see portrayed and this strange constrasts adds to the painting’s stunning beauty; it is not just aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but poingnant and strange all at the same time. The reason why I love this painting so much is firstly because it is a watercolour and I love watercolours, and secondly because of its simplicity, passion and expressiveness, and the colour scheme where the mystical deep shades of blue present in the sky and also as subtle touches on the horse add to the mood of the sublime. A brown colour scheme would have muted the effect of terror, strangeness and drama. Blue is the colour of the deep sea and the sky, of things infinite and mysterious. The landscape around the horse thus gets a mystical air and we might wonder whether the horse itself is but our vision or a fancy…

Eugène Delacroix – Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard

13 Oct

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839, Oil on canvas, 29,5 x 36 cm

Eugene Delacroix’s temperament, lifestyle and interests made him the perfect Romantic artist. Delacroix travelled to hot, vibrant, exotic places such as Morrocco, but he also travelled in his imagination to the romantic and alluring, dark and dramatic past eras. He was also an avid reader; words of Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and others fed his soul and fired his imagination. His ardent love of literature came with a knack for illustrating the scenes that he was reading about, he was prolific at it, and he was great at it. A theme that he found himself returning to often throughout the years was Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and especially the scene where Hamlet and Horatio are at the graveyard. Delacroix made different litographs and watercolours of the scene, but his most well-known depiction of the scene is the painting from 1839. The scene shows four figures; Horatio and Hamlet standing by the grave and two gravediggers digging the grave for Ophelia who had recently perished. This is a rather morbid, depressive chore but the gravediggers are so used to it that they are unphased. They are capable of digging a hole and talking about decomposing bodies and death as if they are exchanging recepies over tea. This makes it almost grotesque, but for Hamlet the discovery of the skull of Yorick leads to deeper thoughts, pensiveness and introspection; how transient and meaningless life is, how it passes and means nothing, how every corpse here on the graveyard was once a person with wishes, yearnings, loves. The personalities of gravediggers and Hamlet could not be more different. Here is an excerpt from their dialogue from Act V, Scene I:

Gravedigger: This skull has lain in the earth three-and-twenty years.
Hamlet: Whose was it?
Gravedigger: A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not.
Gravedigger: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! He poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.
Hamlet: This?
Gravedigger: E’en that.
Hamlet: Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.—Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, watercolour, 1827-28

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet Contemplating Yorick’s Skull, litograph, 1828

In his litographs Delacroix had depicted the scene with more details, in composition and in the clothes of the figures, everything feels more ornate and Baroque-like. The painting is stripped of all unnecessary details and ornaments. Only four figures set against a distant landscape and the stormy sky with dark clouds. This allowed Delacroix to place his focus on the analysis of the characters and the drama that is going on in the scene. The bare-chested gravedigger holding a skull is quite a sight, but all eyes are on Hamlet. Delacroix saw him through the lenses of Romanticism and he depicted him as a pale, melancholy, frail and gentle looking man dressed in black. His pale and small, almost feminine looking hands, stand out against the darkness of his clothes. His hair is flying in the wind and the stormy clouds seem to echo the stormy state of his soul. Pale and withered, in a pensive mood, reflecting on matters of life and death, and anticipating the burial of Ophelia, Hamlet is like a frail lily-flower just plucked from the ground. The watercolour version of the scene shows an equally frail, melancholy Hamlet and the whole mood is lyrical and wistful in a way that can only be accomplished with the medium of the watercolour.

Johan Christian Dahl – The Eruption of Vesuvius

8 Jul

“a smoke by day and a fire by night”

Johan Christian Dahl, The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1824

The ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered with a thick layer of volcanic ash after the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Covered in ash, forgotten and asleep for more than a thousand years Pompeii was rediscovered in the mid eighteenth century and very soon many artists, wanderers and explorers started visiting the area. One of such curious wanderers who visited the Mount of Vesuvius was the Norwegian Romantic painter Johan Christian Dahl. In 1820 the prince Christian Frederik invited Dahl to join him in Naples and Dahl, despite being busy courting a young lady called Emilia, joyously agreed. He quickly married Emilia and travelled to Italy the next day and stayed there for the next ten months. In Italy Dahl finally discovered the vibrancy of colour and the light that would forever change his approach to painting. And he arrived just in time to see the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius on Christmas Day in 1820. This must have been an awe inspiring sight, just on the edge between danger and excitement, and Dahl quickly captured what he saw in an oil sketch, a sketch he would later use to paint the big painting you can see above.

The volcanic eruption is exactly the kind of wild, raw energy of nature which the Romantics loved and Dahl beautifully captures this energy in his painting. A dull, brown rocky scenery takes up almost half the painting, but then in the upper left corner the big explosion of colours makes up for the dullness of the rocks. Hot, thick red lava and smoke are portrayed with such quickness, rapture and immediacy, even though the painting was finished four years after Dahl had actually seen the volcano erupting. The smoke is built of feathery soft shades of white and grey with a few touches of blue. In the upper right corner we see the bay of Naples, so serene and safe compared to the erupting volcano. Two men are portrayed observing the eruption, and three other, along with donkeys, are waiting on a distance. The appearance of human figures isn’t something we see often in these types of romantic landscapes but they are visually useful because they show us just how small and insignificant man is compared to the wild, and often fickle nature. Dahl’s painting is just one of many Romantic landscapes which express the sublimity of nature. A raging volcano with smoke and lava brings out that wonderful feeling of awe and terror that the romantics loved so much. One such romantic couple who also visited the Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii in 1819 were Mary and Percy Shelley:

Mary, Shelley, and Claire arrived in Naples in December, they moved into one of the most beautiful houses in the city, No. 250 Riviera di Chiaia, which Shelley had rented with the hope of pleasing Mary. It was rumored that the ruins of Cicero’s villa were right under their window. To both Shelleys, the grand old senator stood for the freedom of the Roman republic and was an icon of hope. Nestled below the slopes of Vesuvius, which, as Shelley said, was “a smoke by day and a fire by night,” Naples had public gardens and boulevards lined with palm trees. Across the sea, they could see the outline of a mysterious island drifting in and out of the mist. This was the isle of Circe, as local lore had it, the beautiful temptress who lured Odysseus into her bed and kept him there for seven years. Another legend was that Virgil had composed his gentle, pastoral poems here, The Georgics. Mary delighted in “looking at almost the same scene that he did— reading about manners little changed since his days.” Together, she, Claire, and Shelley explored the famous sites: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Lake Avernus, and the Cumean Sybil’s cave. (…) The trio climbed Vesuvius and gazed out over the city’s steeples and red roofs to the sea. “A poet could not have a more sacred burying place [than] in an olive grove on the shore of a beautiful bay,” Mary wrote in her journal that winter, looking out at the pale blue water.” (Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws)

Maybe at first sight this painting isn’t that exciting, but just look at all these details! This red, although not used in abundance, is so vivid I can just feel it.

Đorđe Krstić – Skull Tower

7 May

The mountain breeze, which was then blowing fresh, penetrated the innumerable cavities of the skulls, and sounded like mournful and plaintive sighs.….”

Đorđe Krstić, Ćele kula (Skull Tower), 1883

Serbian painter Đorđe Krstić’s painting “Skull Tower” is a mass of heavy, earthy brown shades. The tower portrayed is a vague looking building and without knowing the history behind it, we might not even sense the eeriness that is hidden behind a drab, brown facade. The Skull Tower portrayed here is a stone structure embedded with human skulls in the town of Niš, Serbia. It dates back to May 1809 when the First Serbian Uprising took place and the Serbian rebels fought the Ottoman Empire, and, sadly, lost, but not without heroism and bravery. The Serbian leader of the battle, Srđan Sinđelić, realising his side would lose, killed himself and his fellow soldiers by creating a massive gun powder explosion. After the battle, the Ottoman soldiers took the heads of the Serbian men, skinned them and sent them to the Ottoman Sultan who, after viewing them, sent them back to Niš and then the Ottoman side built this tower as a warning to all other Serbs who may be contemplating an uprising. This was a known method for the Ottoman Empire, but still, after some time had passed, they realised that the tower served only to create resentment and not fear with the locals.

This tower built of limestone and sand originally contained more than 900 skulls, but not all are there anymore. In 1878 the Ottomans left the area and a baldachin-type structur was made over the tower and eventually a chapel was made and the tower is now inside it. Đorđe Krstić’s painting doesn’t do justice to the truly eerie and disturbing sight that the tower full of skulls must have been in those days, and probably still is, but French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine left us a better, more vivid and haunting description of the tower. In 1833 the poet visited the wilderness that eastern Europe and the Balkans must have been in his eyes and he saw the Skull Tower. His impressions of it are more atmospheric and eerie than Krstić’s painting:

I saw a large tower rising in the midst of the plain, as white as Parian marble … Raising my eyes to the monument, I discovered that the walls, which I supposed to be built of marble or white stone, were composed of regular rows of human skulls; these skulls bleached by the rain and sun, and cemented by a little sand and lime, formed entirely the triumphal arch which now sheltered me from the heat of the sun. In some places portions of hair were still hanging and waved, like lichen or moss, with every breath of wind. The mountain breeze, which was then blowing fresh, penetrated the innumerable cavities of the skulls, and sounded like mournful and plaintive sighs. My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it.

Alphonse de Lamartine’s fascination with that area of Europe and with the tower shows the wild craving and yearning of the Romantic era for all things exotic, unexplored, dark and mysterious, and also touches on the Romantic love of heroism and fight for liberty.

Ernst Ferdinand Oehme – Hohnstein Castle in Saxon Switzerland

2 Oct
"I wandered under the branches 

Alone with my despair; 
Touched with a host of memories 

I fell to dreaming there."
(Heinrich Heine)
Ernst Ferdinand Oehme, Hohnstein Castle in Saxon Switzerland, 1827

This painting by a German Romantic painter Ernst Ferdinand Oehme looks so dreamlike and unreal that one would assume it is a mirage or a scene from one’s reverie, but no, it indeed shows a real castle splendidly situated on the top of the hill, vast woodland bellow it and only sky stretching on and on above it. The castle seems dream-like, and yet its forms are vividly clear and tangible. Towers and roofs stand out clear and sharp against the dreamy yellow dusk sky tinged with lavender and soft blue. The Hohnstein castle is stretched playfully over the huge rocks and the scene looks like something out of a fairy tale. One can easily fall into wild and romantical reveries about knights, damsels and troubadours. The fairy tale beauty of the castle contrasts with the rugged, raw beauty of the large rocks; man’s made architecture meets the untamed beauty of nature. In March 1825 The Crown Prince Friedrich August of Saxony informed the painter that he had bought a little property near Dresden and that he wished to fill his gallery with patriotic landscapes that encapsulate the beauty of German nature and castles. The painting was exhibited in 1827 and was criticised for its “picturesque” quality. Certainly compared to Caspar David Friedrich’s sublime landscapes that capture a whole scope of feelings, from loneliness to transience, this simple painting by Oehme isn’t so special, but I love it. Something about it makes me daydream and I think that a painting that can make you daydream is a good painting.

Music Is the Most Romantic of All Arts

17 Sep

“Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing…

George Roux, Spirit, 1885

I read a sentence in a schoolbook a few years ago which said that “music is the most romantic of all arts” and this line stuck with me. It awoke something inside me, it inspired me at school and at home, it was the most beautiful sentence I had read. The idea that music was the most romantic of all arts enchanted me beyond belief. Later I read the entire essay by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a study of Beethoven’s instrumental music which first appeared in 1810 and was revised in 1813. Perhaps in our day and age the word “romantic” is simplified, overused and misunderstood, it stands for something shallow and sugary, but when Hoffmann used it to describe Beethoven’s music, he used it to describe the powerful, unrestrained passion, emotions and expressiveness. As much as I love paintings and enjoy reading books, I must say that only music awakens that something within me, and I imagine most of you would agree with me. When I listen to Chopin’s Nocturnes and his Waltz in A minor, Debussy’s work for flute and harp, some Ravel, and even other music such as Tindersticks or Echo and the Bunnymen, it sends me into a trance, my imagination is awakened and images appear before my eyes, sentiments I never knew I had suddenly posses me and afterwards I feel a catharsis calmness and a new found love and inspiration. Even in visual arts this romantic nature of music is portrayed. In George Roux’s painting “Spirit” a gorgeous ghostly white lady is seen playing the piano. Her thin waist and ethereal form are aesthetically pleasing and the man’s face shows both shock and awe. Perhaps he is a widow and this is the ghost of his wife playing their favourite tune. Painting is open to interpretation, but one thing is certain; only the music has such power to move us, bring us to tears, purify us, infuse us with yearning and romance, and even make us fall in love with whoever is playing it or sharing our love for it.

John William Waterhouse, Saint Cecilia, 1895

Now here are E.T.A Hoffmann’s words:

When music is discussed as an independent art, should it not be solely instrumental music that is intended, music that scorns every aid from and mixing with any other art (poetry), music that only expresses the distinctive and unique essence of this art? It is the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infinite. Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing. . . .
Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world! Romantic taste is rare, romantic talent even rarer, and perhaps for this reason there are so few who are able to sweep the lyre with tones that unveil the wonderful realm of the romantic. Haydn grasps romantically the human in human life; he is more accommodating, more comprehensible for the common man. Mozart laid claim more to the superhuman, to the marvelous that dwells in the inner spirit. Beethoven’s music wields the lever of fear, awe, horror, and pain, and it awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic. Thus he is a purely romantic composer, and if he has had less success with vocal music, is this because vocal music excludes the character of indefinite longing and represents the emotions, which come from the realm of the infinite, only by the definite affects of words? . . .

Sir William Quiller Orchardson, Her Mother’s Voice, exhibited in 1888

Monotonous beige and yellow colours and a slightly sentimental mood of this late Victorian genre scene painted by English painter William Quiller Orchardson hides a more wistful theme. Evening has fallen and a lamp is casting a yellowish glow all over the sumptuous interior and yet, despite the richness of the interior, a certain sadness hangs like a cloud over the room. An old gentleman was sitting in his armchair and reading the newspapers until something happened… A familiar voice, a very dear voice, colours the stuffy air filled with memories and hopeless wistful reveries. The voice awakens old wounds and merry memories that he can never get back “And all the money in the world couldn’t bring back those days”, to quote the song “This is the Day” by The The (and later Manic Street Preachers). His daughter, dressed in a fashionable pale pink evening gown, is sitting at the piano, playing and singing while a young man is standing by her side. She has her mother’s voice, as the title of the painting suggests. It is through music, singing, but still music, that the inexplicable yearning enters the man’s heart and soul and awakens a river of emotions which usually remain buried deep within him.

Caspar David Friedrich – Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon

13 Sep

“there is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
there is a rapture on the lonely shore,
there is society where none intrudes,
by the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.”

(Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

Caspar David Friedrich, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, 1818-24, 23 x 44 cm

Caspar David Friedrich, a German painter of Romanticism, preferred portraying nature over people. In this fairly small canvas we see three interesting figures; a man, a woman and a crooked tree with branches stretching wildly, as if they are about to snatch a poor soul who is wandering the woods at a midnight hour. This is definitely a tree that one cannot ignore and is so peculiar that it can rightfully stand as a third figure in the painting; Gothic and gloomy, it adds to the nocturnal atmosphere of mystery and dreams. In the darkness of the night trees, rocks and hills acquire strange, eerie shapes and one cannot separate what is real from what is not. While the night is enveloping the strolling couple with its velvet cloak, the woman rests her hand on the man’s shoulder and they are both fixated on the only source of light in the dark: the moon glowing low on the horizon, glowing with reassurance, hope and magic, it’s almost like a ray of light in the man’s dark path of life. It’s the very same moon that shows its pale face every night, the very same moon that we are seeing now; it is lasting and the man’s life is short. In that mystical way, the moon unites the couple and binds them together in a realisation at how tender and fragile their transient existences are, puts things into a perspective.

Echo and the Bunnymen, Crocodiles (1980), album cover

Caspar painted a similar version of the same motif which included two men contemplating the moon. And later, in 1840, a fellow painter Johan Christian Clausen Dahl suggested that the couple painted in “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” are Caspar and his young wife Caroline. It is interesting to note that the man in the painting is wearing a particular style of costume, an old German costume which was worn by German patriots to show their love of freedom and democracy. In one of my previous posts about Caspar David Friedrich I made a connection between the mood of his seascapes with the album cover for the Echo and the Bunnymen’s album “Heaven Up Here” (1981). This time I want to make a connection between Friedrich’s painting “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” and the album cover “Crocodiles” which features the band in a nocturnal woods. The picture was taken by Brian Griffin and it was suppose to represent “introspection and despair” which fits the mood of the album well. I am listening to those two albums a lot these days and I always have Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings in mind when I hear the music and some of the lyrics. I just couldn’t ignore how similar the aesthetics of the painting and the album cover seem to be; the nocturnal setting, woods, crooked trees…

John Constable – Cloud Studies

29 May

Yesterday afternoon I wandered lonely like a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills when all at once I saw a crowd of golden daffodils… No, wait, that was William Wordsworth. Let me commence this post again; yesterday afternoon I sat on the floor of my room and I gazed at the heavy grey and white clouds that sailed slowly through the blueish-grey sky when all at once I saw many and many birds, perhaps a hundred, flying and singing, as if they were drunken with life and ecstatic about the greenness of trees. And that moment made me think of all these beautiful and poetic studies of clouds and the sky by the English Romantic painter John Constable, in particular the one bellow because it had a few birds flying freely in the sky.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1821, Oil on Paper, Laid Down on Board

John Constable’s love of nature makes him a true Romantic painter. Unlike his contemporary J.M.W. Turner who always tried to surpass the beauty of nature with his theatrical paintings filled with lightness and glistening colour. Constable painted nature in all its simple, unassuming beauty, without romanticising it or exaggerating anything. He was born in the countryside of Suffolk, studied at the Royal Academy, but both his heart and art lured him back to the countryside which was a true fountain of inspiration. He truly felt the landscape, the sky and their beauties with his heart. “Painting is but another world for feeling”, he wrote once in a letter and these cloud studies truly show how Constable felt beauty all around him and wished to capture it somehow and thus a feeling for beauty produced a painting which we now admire and gaze upon in awe and call it beautiful. In 1821, Constable moved to Hampstead because his wife was of fragile health and the air of the country suited her better than the polluted air of the city.

In 1821 and 1822 Constable made around a hundred studies of clouds in Hampstead, capturing all sorts of shapes, sized and colours of the clouds; from serene clouds white as milk to those heavy and grey and filled with rain. Clouds are ever changing, fascinating and serene and show a transient aspect of nature because the sky never looks the same as it did a day before. Better capture the cloud before it changes! These cloud studies are one of the first plein air paintings in the art history because Constable went out into the meadow and painted with oil paints the sky he saw above him, these are sketches of nature immediately as he saw it, but in oil paint. A black and white pencil sketch would have been far more convenient, but wouldn’t have had the magic of blue, white and grey shades. I love to imagine Constable gazing above at that beautiful sky and thinking to himself “Oh yes, the clouds look majestic today, I think I shall capture them on paper!” Ahh… the good old days when people stared at the clouds and not at their phones.

John Constable, Cloud Study Stormy Sunset, 1821-22

This love of nature reminded me of a passage from Mary Shelley’s novel “Mathilda” where the heroine Mathilda describes her childhood and youth spent in isolation in a castle in Scotland, and having no family member to love her and love them back, she develops a universal sort of love for every living thing in nature and every element in it such as clouds and rain: “I rambled amidst the wild scenery of this lovely country and became a complete mountaineer: I passed hours on the steep brow of a mountain that overhung a waterfall or rowed myself in a little skiff to some one of the islands. I wandered for ever about these lovely solitudes, gathering flower after flower: Ond’ era pinta tutta la mia via, singing as I might the wild melodies of the country, or occupied by pleasant day dreams. My greatest pleasure was the enjoyment of a serene sky amidst these verdant woods: yet I loved all the changes of Nature; and rain, and storm, and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with them. When rocked by the waves of the lake my spirits rose in triumph as a horseman feels with pride the motions of his high fed steed. But my pleasures arose from the contemplation of nature alone, I had no companion: my warm affections finding no return from any other human heart were forced to run waste on inanimate objects.

The cloud study bellow which shows a rather gray and gloomy sky perfect for a sky in some Gothic novel where a heroine is sitting at her window in the castle and gazing outside was painted form eleven in the morning to noon, so it can show us approximately the time which took Constable to create one such cloud study. Of course they needed to be done quickly to be accurate and capture the moment. This immediacy gives them a diary-like quality and an intimate beauty.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822

John Constable, Clouds Sketch, 1822

John Constable, Clouds, 1822, oil on paper on cardboard, Measurements: 30.0 × 48.8 cm, Inscription inscribed in pen and ink on paper label on reverse: 5 Sepr 1822. / 10 o clock Morng. looking South-East. / very brisk wind at West. / very bright + fresh Grey (inverted v under Grey) Clouds running very fast / over a yellow bed. about half way in the sky / very appropriate for the Coast. at Osmington. (source).

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…