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5 Years on the Blog: Mysteries not ready to reveal, sympathies I’m ready to return…

20 Oct

My blog is 5 years old today! I am celebrating with Arthur Rimbaud because it is his birthday too today, nothing fancy, just some absinthe and poetry. Honestly, it feels as if a century has passed and not just five years. It’s funny how much can change in five years, how different everything around me is, and how it’s exactly the same in many ways. I started this blog as a place to explore topics that are dear to my heart; it started as my art journal and my best friend, and eventually led me to my real friends, and what could be better? It also led me to more art and more poetry, and it gets better and better.

Hommage a Cornell, by Colette Saint Yves, photo found here.

Today I’d like to share a song which I’ve known for quite some time and which has become especially dear to me in the last few months: Thirty-Three by Smashing Pumpkins. The music is mesmerising, gentle and melancholy, and I cannot resist listening to it over and over again. The lyrics are beautiful too, and I don’t know why, I can’t pinpoint the exact reason, but they somehow match how I feel at this point in life; Tindersticks’ song “Travelling Light” has the same effect on me. Both are wistful and remind of the passing of time. Please, read the lyrics as you would a poem and you will feel its beauty. And the video has a perfect Victorian aesthetic.

Speak to me in a language I can hear
Humour me before I have to go
Deep in thought I forgive everyone
As the cluttered streets greet me once again
I know I can’t be late, supper’s waiting on the table
Tomorrow’s just an excuse away
So I pull my collar up and face the cold, on my own
The earth laughs beneath my heavy feet
At the blasphemy in my old jangly walk
Steeple guide me to my heart and home
The sun is out and up and down again
I know I’ll make it, love can last forever
Graceful swans of never topple to the earth
And you can make it last, forever you
You can make it last, forever you
And for a moment I lose myself
Wrapped up in the pleasures of the world
I’ve journeyed here and there and back again
But in the same old haunts I still find my friends
Mysteries not ready to reveal
Sympathies I’m ready to return
I’ll make the effort, love can last forever
Graceful swans of never topple to the earth
Tomorrow’s just an excuse
And you can make it last, forever you
You can make it last, forever you

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Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena: “You are the knife I turn inside myself; that is love”

23 Dec

“You are the knife I turn inside myself; that is love. That, my dear, is love.” – this is what Kafka wrote to the mysterious Milena, and isn’t this sentence alone, with Kafka’s vibrant expressionistic definition of love, enough to lure you into reading the book?

The lucky lady: Milena Jesenská. Kafka wrote to her: “Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts.”

In 1920, Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenská began a love affair through letters. Kafka is a well-known figure in the world of literature, but who was Milena? Milena was a twenty-three year old aspiring writer and translator who lived in Vienna in a marriage that was slowly falling apart. She recognised Kafka’s writing genius before others did. Despite the distance, despite the turbulent sea with insurmountable waves between Kafka in Prague and Milena in Vienna, the two developed an intense and intimate relationship. They stripped the masks of their bourgeois identities and bared their souls. The correspondence started when Milena wrote to Kafka and asked for a permission to translate his short story “The Stoker” from German to Czech. Such a simple request and formal demand very soon turned into a series of passionate and profound letters that Milena and Franz exchanged from March to December 1920. Kafka often wrote daily, often several times a day; such was his devotion. This is what he tells her: “and write me every day anyway, it can even be very brief, briefer than today’s letters, just 2 lines, just one, just one word, but if I had to go without them I would suffer terribly.” The letters are interesting from a linguistic point of view as well; Kafka wrote his letters in German while Milena wrote most of hers in her mother tongue, Czech. I found it really interesting to know that Kafka was fluent in Czech.

Although Kafka confided to Milena about his anxieties, fears, loneliness, it wasn’t all honey and roses; Kafka’s letters revealed the extent of his anguish caused by Milena, the sleepless nights, and the futile situation of their love. Milena haunted his thoughts, but he wasn’t the only one to suffer. In the introduction to letters Williy Haas describes Milena as a caring friend inexhaustible in her kindness and a desire to help. Kafka later writes to her calling her a ‘savior’. Passionate, vivacious and courageous, Milena suffered greatly nonetheless because of him, as Kafka said himself: “Do you know, darling? When you became involved with others you quite possibly stepped down a level or two, but If you become involved with me, you will be throwing yourself into the abyss.” She must have known that herself, and yet she chose to sink because ‘lust for life’ was part of her personality, and pain and rapture go hand in hand. Haas also reminds us that Dostoyevsky was her favourite writer and that we also mustn’t forget the propensity towards pain which is so typical for Slavic women. Slavic soul is a deep and dark place, one you better not wander into out of mere curiosity. It is almost hard to imagine how two such strong, profound, dark souls could even live a simple life together. Their relationship was of a hot-cold character; intense at one moment because their minds were alike, then alienating the other because of the distance. When one side was attached, the other cooled down, and vice versa. When she yearned to see him in Vienna, he was reluctant; when he wanted her to divorce her husband and come live with him, she wasn’t keen to do so.

They were very different in age and personalities but they fit perfectly as two hands when clasped together. No other woman entranced Kafka so much, and despite the abrupt sad end of their passionate correspondence I still think Milena was just what he needed. Here are two quotes which discuss their age difference: “It took some time before I finally understood why your last letter was so cheerful; I constantly forget the fact that you’re so young, maybe not even 25, maybe just 23. I am 37, almost 38, almost older by a whole short generation, almost white-haired from all the old nights and headaches.” He also tells her: “You see, the peaceful letters are the ones that make me happy (understand, Milena, my age, the fact that I am used up, and, above all, my fear, and understand your youth, your vivacity, your courage.

“I miss you deeply, unfathomably, senselessly, terribly.”

They met only two times in real life; on the first occasion they spent four days together in Vienna in June 1920, and the second time, in August 1920, they only met briefly in Gmünd on the Austrian-Czech border. It was Kafka who broke off the relationship because the situation seemed too pointless; they lived far away and Milena wasn’t willing to abandon her husband. They exchanged a few more letters throughout 1922 and 1923, but they were more reserved in nature and fewer in number. He tells her: “Go on caring for me.” In 1924, Kafka died. Milena died twenty years later, ill and alone in a concentration camp.

And now my favourite quotes:

Yours

(now I’m even losing my name – it was getting shorter and shorter all the time and is now: Yours)”

I have spent all my life resisting the desire to end it.

It’s a little gloomy in Prague, I haven’t received any letters, my heart is a little heavy. Of course it’s impossible that a letter could be here already, but explain that to my heart.

That’s not the point, Milena, as far as I’m concerned you’re not a woman, you’re a girl, I’ve never seen anyone who was more of a girl than you, and girl that you are, I don’t dare offer you my hand, my dirty, twitching, clawlike, fidgety, unsteady, hot-cold hand.

All writing seems futile to me, and it really is. The best would probably be for me to go to Vienna and take you away; I may even do it, although you don’t want me to.” (9 July 1920)

I wanted to excel in your eyes, show my strength of will, wait before writing you, first finish a document, but the room is empty, no one is minding me – it’s as if someone said: leave him alone, can’t you see how engrossed he is in his own affairs, it’s as if he had a fist in his mouth. So I only wrote half a page and am once again with you, lying on this letter like I lay next to you back then in the forest.” (16 July 1920)

With my teeth clenched, however, and with your eyes before me I can endure anything: distance, anxiety, worry, letterlessness.” (16 July 1920)

I am caught in a tide of sorrow and love which is carrying me away from writing.” (17 July 1920)

This one is particularly beautiful and profound, straight from the heart. When I first read it, I loved the fact that he needs solitude and time to think about Milena, but then when I read it the second time, something else struck me: when he says his office job is boring, his flat is stupid, but he feels he must not complain about his everyday reality because Milena is part of it too, and the gratefulness he feels for that: this moment which belongs to you:

A slight blow for me: a telegram from Paris, informing me that an old uncle of mine (…) is arriving tomorrow evening. It is a blow because it will take time and I need all the time I have and a thousand times more than all the time I have and most of all I’d like to have all the time there is just for you, for thinking about you, for breathing in you. My apartment is making me restless, the evenings are making me restless, I’d like to be someplace different and I’d prefer it if the office didn’t exist at all; but then I think that I deserve to be hit in the face for speaking beyond the present moment, this moment, which belongs to you.” (6 July 1920)

…and I am here just like I was in Vienna and your hand is in my own as long as you leave it there.” (29th July 1920)

You’re always wanting to know, Milena, if I love you, but after all, that’s a difficult question which cannot be answered in a letter (not even in last Sunday’s letter). I’ll be sure to tell you the next time we see each other (if my voice doesn’t fail me.” (30 July 1920)

Milena among the saviors! Milena who is constantly discovering in herself that the only way to save another person is by being there and nothing else. Moreover, she has already saved me once with her presence and now, after the fact, is trying to do so with other, infinitely smaller means. Naturally, saving someone from drowning is a great deed, but what good is it if the savior then sends the saved a gift-certificate for a swimming course?” (31 July 1920)

And how can I fly if we are holding hands? And what good is it for us to both fly away? And besides – this is actually the main thought of the above – I’ll never go so far away from you again.” (31 July 1920)

I am dirty, Milena, endlessly dirty, that is why I make such a fuss about cleanliness. None sing as purely as those in deepest hell; it is their singing we take for the singing of angels.” (26 August 1920)

Why, Milena, do you write about our common future which will never be, or is it that why you write about it? (…) Few things are certain, but one is that we’ll never live together, share an apartment, body to body, at a common table, never, not even in the same city. (…) Incidentally, Milena, you must agree when you examine yourself and me and take soundings of the “sea” between “Vienna” and “Prague” with its insurmountably high waves.” (Prague, September 1920)

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Kafka’s “Letters to Milena” left a scar of Beauty on my soul. I enjoyed the book tremendously. Since Kafka as a person and his work are both pretty dark, I was amazed to see a tenderer, loving side of his personality, and to be inside his mind. I started reading the book thinking ‘this is interesting’, but as I turned the pages I felt more and more drawn in by his words. It’s hard to explain, but they touch me right in the heart even though they were not meant for me, just like a sewing needle pierces your skin and causes a sharp and burning pain which lasts for a second but leaves an echo. Kafka’s words, in the letters as well as in his stories, are simple at first reading, but they stir the waves inside me after I close the book. I hope this post inspires you to read the book. As of 2017, I have been immensely interested in letters, diaries and memoirs. The depth of feelings and the aspect of sincerity and intimacy in those literary forms just wins me over. So, if you have any suggestion about correspondences I should read, feel free to tell me.

My First Interview – Me, Myself and I

13 Jan

I have something very very very exciting to share with you today. I had the pleasure and the privilege to be interviewed by a fellow blogger John Corbet. It was a really exciting thing for me. I mean, I don’t gets asked to do interviews every day! It was my first ever interview, but hopefully not the last one.

You can read it hear:

https://1810photography.wordpress.com/2017/01/10/interview-with-byrons-muse/

For all of you who wanted to know more about me – the person behind ‘Byron’s Muse’, perhaps this interview will indulge your curiosity!

1889-the-starry-night-van-goghVincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

Syd Barrett – Favourite Artists and Artworks

6 Jan

Today would have been Syd Barrett’s birthday, and, as always, I decided to write a post to commemorate that. In 2016 I wrote about British Psychedelia and in 2015 I wrote about Syd’s fashion style. You can check those out if you like, but today we’re going to focus on two topics that I like – Syd and art. Despite having achieved fame as a musician, first with Pink Floyd, and then later with two solo-albums, Syd was a painter first and foremost. He attended the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London, and continued painting later in life. Let’s take a look at the artists and artworks Syd loved!

syd-78

Syd’s first passion was art. Some even went as far as saying that he was a better painter than a musician. Even David Gilmour said that Syd was talented at art before he did guitar. I’ve seen his paintings, and I wouldn’t agree. What could surpass the beauty that he’s created musically?

All quotes in this post are from the book ‘Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe’ by Julian Palacios, and so is this one: ‘Waters brought older, upper-class friends round to Barrett’s house after school, among them Andrew Rawlinson and Bob Klose. They found him painting, paint below his easel, newspaper as a drop cloth and brushes on the windowsill. Painting and music ran in tandem, and Barrett was good at both. (…) Barrett sketched, painted and wrote, his output prolific.

syd-80Syd holding one of his paintings.

Syd first attended the Saturday-morning classes at Homerton College, and then started a two-year programme at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology in autumn 1962. Along with his enthusiasm and skill at painting, he was good at memorising dates and authors of paintings. Here’s another quote that demonstrates Syd’s painting technique: ‘Syd drew and painted with ease, demonstrating a deft balance between shadow and light. He had a talent for portraits, though his subjects sometimes looked somewhat frozen. Best at quick drawings, Syd had a good feel for abstract art, creating bright canvases in red and blue.‘ It seems to me that Syd would have loved Rothko; an American Abstract-Expressionist artist who painted his canvases in strong colours with spiritual vibe.

Then, in autumn of 1964, Syd came to London to study at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. The curriculum at Camberwell was more rigorous than what Syd was used to at his previous college of arts: ‘At Camberwell, drawing formed the core curriculum. Tutors put Barrett through his paces working in different mediums and materials.‘ Syd’s art tutor, Christopher Chamberlain was taken with Syd’s tendency to paint in blunt, careless brushstrokes. Later in life, Barrett tended to burn his paintings, ‘psychedelic paintings, vaguely reminiscent of Jackson Pollock‘ because he believed that the point lies in creation and the finished product is unimportant. I can’t understand that at all – my paintings are my children.

Now I’ll be talking about seven artists that are in one way or another connected to Syd Barrett.

1918. Hébuterne by ModiglianiAmedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918

Modigliani

Sitting cross-legged in the cellar at Hills Road, Mick Rock was impressed as Syd rolled a joint with quick, nimble had. Nicely stoned, they listened to blues and talked about Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, until the morning light peeked through the narrow slot windows.

Amedeo Modigliani; whose name itself sounds like a sad hymn of beauty, is perhaps one of the most unsung heroes of the art world. And the story of Amedeo and Jeanne’s love is perhaps the saddest of all. When Modigliani died, she couldn’t bear life without him so she threw herself out of the window, eight months pregnant at the time, oh how engulfed in sadness that January of 1920 must have been. Modigliani painted women, he painted them nude, and he painted their heads with large sad eyes, elongated faces, long necks and sloping shoulders. I think Modigliani expressed melancholy and the fragility of life like no other painter. I can’t tell for sure that Syd loved Modigliani, but since he talked about him, I take it that he was at least interested in the story behind his art. I would really like to hear that conversation between Syd and Rock.

gustav klimt beechwood forestGustav Klimt, Beechwood forest, 1902

Klimt

Appealing to Barrett’s Cantabrigian sensibilities were paintings like Gustav Klimt’s 1903 Beechwood Forest, where dense beech trees blot the sky, each leaf captured in one golden brushstroke.

Smouldering eroticism pervades all of Gustav Klimt’s artworks. Sometimes flamboyant, at other occasions toned down, but always burning in the shadow. In ‘Beechwood Forest’, Klimt paints trees with sensuality and elegance. He always painted landscape as a means of meditation, usually on holidays spent in Litzlberg at Lake Attersee, enjoying the warm, sunny days with his life companion Emilie Flöge. Klimt approached painting landscapes the same way he painted women, with visible sensuality and liveliness. The absence of people in all of his landscapes suggest that Klimt perceived the landscape as a living being, mystical pantheism was always prevalent. The nature, in all its greenness, freshness and mystery, was a beautiful woman for Klimt.

1891. James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged ManJames Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man, 1891

James Ensor

Stephen Pyle recalled that Syd’s main interests were expressionist artist Chaim Soutine and surrealist painters Salvador Dali and James Ensor. Ensor’s surreal party of clowns with skeletons cropped up in his artwork even thirty years later.

Belgian painter James Ensor (1860-1949) was a true innovator of the late 19th century art. He was alone and misunderstood amongst his contemporaries, just like many revolutionary artists are, but he helped in clearing the path for some art movements like Surrealism and Expressions which would turn out to be more popular than Ensor himself. Painting ‘Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man’ is a good example of Ensor’s themes and style of painting: skeletons, puppets, masks and intrigues painted in thick but small brushstrokes, with just a hint of morbidness all found their place in Ensor’s art. There’s no doubt that Barrett was inspired by the twisted whimsicality and playfulness of Ensor’s canvases.

1920. Les Maisons by SoutineChaim Soutine, Les Maisons, 1920

Soutine

Art historian William Shutes noted,Barrett used large single brushstrokes, built up layer by layer, layer over layer, like relief contours.

Chaim Soutine was a wilful eccentric, an Eastern Jew, an introvert who left no diaries and only a few letters. But he left a lot of paintings, mostly landscapes that all present us with his bitter visions of the world. He painted in thick, heavy brushstrokes laden with pain, anger, resentment and loneliness. In ‘Les Maisons’ the houses are crooked, elongated, painted in murky earthy colours. Their mood of alienation and instability is ever present in Soutine’s art. He portrayed his depression and psychological instability very eloquently. Description of Barrett’s style of painting, layers and layers of colour, relief brushstrokes, reminds me very much of the way Soutine painted; in heavy brushstrokes, tormented by pain and longings, as if layering colours could release the burden off of his soul.

Ren? Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009 øðä îàâøéè, áðå ùì àãí, 1964, øñèåøöéä ò"é ùîòåï éðåáéõ, 2009Rene Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964

Rene Magritte

There’s no doubt that, as a Surrealist, Magritte was inspirational to young people in the sixties who were inclined to listening to psychedelic music or had a whimsical imagination. With Barrett, Magritte is mostly associated with his ‘Vegetable Man’ phase, in times when his LSD usage was getting out of control, just prior to being kicked out of band. Magritte is, along with Dali, another Surrealist that appealed to Barrett’s imagination. Belgian artist, Magritte meticulously painted similar, everyday objects like men in suits, clouds, pipes, umbrellas and buildings with strange compositions and shadows. In ‘The Son of Man’, some have suggested that he was dealing with the subject of one’s own identity, and that might be something that appealed to Syd when he appeared in the promotional picture with spring onions tied to his head which is an obvious wink to Magritte, not to mention Acimboldo.

1875. Les Raboteurs de parquet - Gustave CaillebotteGustave Caillebotte, Les Raboteurs de parquet, 1875

Gustave Caillebotte

Lying in bed one morning, he stared at his blanket’s orange and blue stripes and had a flashback to Gustave Caillebotte’s 1875 painting ‘The Wood Floor Planers’, which depicts workers scraping the wood floors of a sunlit room in striated patterns. Inspired, with Storm Thorgenson’s garish orange and red room at Egerton fresh in his mind, he got up, pushed his few belongings into a corner, and sauntered off to fetch paint from the Earl’s Court Road.

This is perhaps Caillebotte’s best legacy – inspiring Syd Barrett to paint his floor in stripes which later ended up gracing his first solo-album, the famously dark and whimsical ‘The Madcap Laughs’, released on 3 January 1970. Like the cover, other pictures taken that spring day in 1969 by Mick Rock and Storm Thorgenson, are all filled with light and have a transcendent mood.

1935-dali-paranoiac-visageDali, Paranoiac Visage, 1935

Dali

I believe none of you are surprised that Dali is on this list. Anyone who is familiar with his art will know that it ties very well with the music of Pink Floyd, and perhaps some other psychedelic bands. There’s no one quite like Dali in the world of art. Art he created, like Surrealism in general, is a visual portrayal of Freud’s ideas of the unconscious, and is based on irrationality, dreams, hallucinations and obsessions. His paintings are mostly hallucinogenic landscapes in the realm of dreams; realistic approach combined with deformed figures and objects which, just like in the art of Giorgio de Chirico, evokes feelings of anxiety in the viewer.

When I like an artist, musician or a writer, I always want to know what inspired them, or what they thought of something that I love. What did Barrett really think of Modigliani, for example? But, some things will forever stay a mystery. Perhaps it’s better that way.

Sei Shonagon’s Pillowbook – Lyrical Meditations on Nature and Court Life

22 Aug

Sei Shonagon (c. 966-1017/1025) was a Japanese court lady who wrote poems and lyrical observations on court life. This month I read her famous ‘Pillowbook’; a collection of the previously mentioned texts and poems which she wrote purely for her own amusement before going to sleep. Some chapters, such as those discussing politics, were a bit tedious in my opinion, but others were brilliantly poetic and lyrical, often funny as well. The book was written in 990s, and it’s something so poignant in the fact that there was a lady, both witty and intelligent, often cynical, who thought it interesting to write about things happening at court, about the change of seasons, and document her views on many topics, from having a lover to travelling in carriages made of bamboo plants. And now, more than a thousand years later, I have a privilege to read a collection of texts you could rightfully call a diary. Some people even went so far as to say that Shonagon was the first blogger!

Her observations seemed so relatable, even though cultures and time periods divide her life from mine. The book really brings the spirit of the times and I like their way of life; visiting shrines, belief in reincarnation, writing haiku poems and sending elegant letters with tree twigs attached to it, contemplating in beautiful rock (later Zen) gardens, and admiring moonshine, still lakes and gentle plum trees in spring. If I had ten lives, I wouldn’t mind spending one of them living like that. In today’s hectic and instant society such serenity seems unimaginable to me.

I will end my short review by saying that I thoroughly recommend the book, if you still haven’t realised that. Happy reading!

1800s Courtier sleeping, Katsushika Hokusai, 19th centuryCourtier sleeping, Katsushika Hokusai, 19th century

This is how The Pillow Book begins, with Sei Shonagon describing the beauty of four seasons:

In Spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.

In Summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!

In Autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sets close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild gees, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.

In Winter the early mornings. it is beautiful indeed when the snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season’s mood! But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes.

1793. Maruyana Okyo, Edo Period, Butterflies

Maruyana Okyo, Edo Period, Butterflies, 1793

*As this is mainly an art blog, I am aware of the fact that Shonagon lived in Heian period and the painting by Hokusai is from Edo period or 19th century, so there’s a discord here. It would be the same as putting a painting of Queen Victoria and a Medieval text, but I really liked this painting by Hokusai and I felt it fits the mood of Shonagon’s book.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Kiss

23 May

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet The Kiss describes his feeling on his wedding day that actually took place on 23 May 1860 at St Clement’s Church in the seaside town of Hastings – the place of Syd Barrett’s last gig with Pink Floyd by the way. It’s truly a beautiful poem, especially the second stanza.

desperate romantics 13

The Kiss – Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“What smouldering senses in death’s sick delay

Or seizure of malign vicissitude 

Can rob this body of honour, or denude

This soul of wedding-raiment worn to-day?

For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay. 

 

I was a child beneath her touch,–a man

When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,– 

A spirit when her spirit looked through me,– 

A god when all our life-breath met to fan 

Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran, 

Fire within fire, desire in deity.”

Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Silent Films and Frilly Dresses

9 Apr

America’s sweetheart, The girl with the curls, Little Mary – these are some of the nicknames for Mary Pickford, a silent film actress who recently captivated me.

1920s Mary Pickford 8

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Before I started writing this post, I gave myself a task of watching a documentary about her called Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies (2012), which is really interesting and you can watch it on YouTube. It’s a good quality documentary; amusing with plenty of information, and the narrator has a pleasant voice. I liked that the focus was not only on Mary Pickford’s personality and different stages of her career, but on the development of Hollywood as we know it today, film industry and ‘flickers’, as the early films were known back then.

I utterly recommend you to watch the documentary as it is a great introduction into the glamorous world of Hollywood – a topic which has, as I mentioned in one of my previous posts, captivated me recently. Like majority of people, I like watching films, but I’ve never been a massive ‘Old Hollywood’ fan like my mum, for example. Films of the 1930s and 1940s somehow never captured my attention, and I always wondered, with a slight dose of envy, what my mum saw in them. Then, a few weeks ago, out of nowhere, I’m ill with a disease called ‘Old Hollywood glamour’, and the only cure is to watch as many films as you can!

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1920s Mary Pickford 7***

As you might have guessed by the title, a Hollywood phase I became fixated on is the Silent era and its main star, actress Mary Pickford. Her eyes are her most charming feature; two bright stars surrounded by long eyelashes, with the ability to express every emotion; from sadness and resignation to gratitude and rapture. Then her gorgeous curls, her famous curls, which she cut off in 1928 much to the dismay of her fans. Bobbing her hair happened as a sort of ritual of transition: her mother had just died, and she found herself incapable of playing little girls now that she wasn’t anyone’s ‘little girl’. Her phase of playing child-parts was over.

That’s a personality trait I liked about Mary Pickford – she knew how to end things while they were still good. She was a woman who achieved everything she set her mind to. A remarkable person, not just a great actress. Her ‘rags to riches’ life story continues to captivate people’s imagination. ‘America’s Sweetheart’ was born as Gladys Smith in Canada, on 8th April 1892, in a poor family with an alcoholic father. Not the best starting point for someone who’d later be the first Hollywood actress to earn a million dollars.

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1917. Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)

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‘When Mary smiled, you could hear the angels sing’, said Lillian Gish, a fellow silent film actress and Mary’s lifelong friend.

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1916. Mary Pickford 1916 advertisementAdvertisement in ‘Moving Picture World’, September 1916

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Mary Pickford’s life story is interwoven with the life story of another silent film actress – Lillian Gish. In 1905, the Smith family shared quarters with the Gish family. Namely, Lillian Gish (14 Oct 1893-1993) had a younger sister Dorothy (11 March 1898-1968) who was also an actress. Similarly, Mary Pickford was the eldest sibling, her sister Charlotte ‘Lottie’ and brother Jack were actors as well, though both had succumbed to alcohol and died fairly young. Both families led bohemian lives which are as rich as they are hard to endure. Mary and Lillian became lifelong friends.

Starting in theatre, both girls quickly transferred to films or ‘flickers’. Early films were sensationalistic (does anyone sense a revival these days?), and often close to being pornographic. Targeted audience was the working class. After a long day’s work at the factory or a construction site, they could go and a watch a film, which was cheap as chips, travel in their imagination and escape the greyness of their lives.

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1920s Mary Pickford being paintedMary Pickford being painted, c. early 1920s

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Even though both were great actresses, Mary Pickford’s name stayed synonymous with the era of silent films. Early cinematography produced a great deal of actresses and icons such as Louise Brooks, Norma and Constance Talmadge, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Pola Negri – all of which played very seductive and flirtatious roles. Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford had a different quality about them – they played more virtuous, innocent and girlish characters. They looked like dolls with their large expressive eyes and lush curls.

Lillian said herself: “I played so many frail, downtrodden little virgins in the films of my youth that I sometimes think I invented that stereotype of a role.” (source)

Lillian Gish plays a ‘frail, downtrodden little virgin’ Lucy Burrows in the filmBroken Blossoms (1919). Brilliantness of the film comes from the combination of Lillian’s poignant portrayal of a ‘fragile waif’, gloomy and decaying Limehouse district of London as the setting, and the opium-laced mood and Eastern flair brought by Cheng Huan – a Chinese lad who came to London with a dream ‘to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.’ Lillian’s performance was remarkable, and the ending truly brought tears to my eyes, and I’m not someone who cries easily at films. Somehow, when watching a silent film, you focus all your attention at the face expressions, gestures, eye movements; everything is intensified. Some quotes from the title cards, Cheng Huan’s thoughts about Lucy.

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 1

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Blue and yellow silk caressing white skin – her beauty so long hidden shines out like a poem. (at 50.50 min)

Breathing in an amber flute to this alabaster cockney girl her love name – White Blossom. (at 55.18)

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 3 1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 4

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I reckon Lillian has a naturally melancholic face, perhaps it is because her eyes are large and her lips really small, I dunno, but most of the photos of her have a slightly morbid appeal, at least for me. She’s a true Ophelia.

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 11

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Mary Pickford played a variety of roles, and often performed the stunts herself as a matter of fact, but her most memorable films are those where she plays a role of a little girl, something she successfully did up until the age of thirty-something. Up to now, I’ve watched four of such films, in this order: Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) where she stars as Gwendolyn, Pollyanna (1920) as Pollyana Whittier, The Little Princess (1917) as Sara Crewe, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917) as Rebecca Randall. There’s more films where she plays child roles, but the next thing I want to watch is ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ (1929) – it’s a ‘talkie’ she performed with her then-husband Douglas Fairbanks. That should be smashing!

There’s something so appealing about Mary Pickford’s roles in these particular films; a mixture of naivety and innocence, enhanced by her costumes and curls, and a courage and generosity. Goodness always wins in the end: in Poor Little Rich Girl she unites her previously money-and-success-distracted parents, in The Little Princess she finds a wealthy foster parent and brings her friend along, in Pollyanna she brings optimism to everyone she encounters. If audiences of the time saw a hope for the better world in those films, I fully understand them.

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The Taming of the Shrew (1929)Mary Pickford in The Taming of the Shrew (1929)

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Isn’t it strange, back then, a twenty-five year old actress could play a little girl, while today fourteen year old girls are encouraged by the media to look much older and ”attractive”.

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1920s Mary Pickford 6

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Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish’s expressive eyes reminded me a great deal of Anna Karina, just because I watched her films first. I noticed a certain ‘silent film’ quality about Anna Karina’s acting. Others did too: With her expressive, luminous eyes and radiant presence she had the looks of a silent movie star while simultaneously embodying the self-confident spirit of the 60s generation.” (source) This correlation is especially prominent in Godard’s film Vivre sa Vie (1963) where Anna Karina ironically plays – an aspiring actress. Really, even if you excluded the speaking parts, her eyes would reveal everything.

Another thing I wanted to discuss was the costumes. Mary Pickford has a marvellous wardrobe in her child-roles: straw hats or flowers in her lush curly hair, knee-long white dresses with lace and frills, worn with white tights, then her cute polka-dot dress with several petticoats and a parasol as an accessory in the role Rebecca, her cute one piece pyjama in ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’. Even in others pictures I’ve shown here, she looks elegant like a spring day – in frilly white dresses, wide hats, string of pearls, empire waist for a girlish appeal, lots of lace. Is it a charming 1910s revival of Rococo and Marie Antoinette countryside style, or a prelude to modern Japanese Lolita style?

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Gaylen Studlar - Precocious Charms