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John William Waterhouse – Lady of Shalott: I am half-sick of shadows

3 Sep

English painter John William Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849; the same year the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in London. So, he wasn’t a member of the original Brotherhood, but his style and subject matter show that he embraced their aesthetic and continued the themes ranging from Shakespeare to Arthurian romances and mythology. He created a world of beauty and dreams that served as a refuge from grey and harsh reality for Victorians who were such escapists. Waterhouse portrayed the legend of the Lady of Shalott three times, in 1888, 1894 and 1916. Although the version from 1888 is by far the most popular, today we’ll take a look at the other two.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, 1894

“Who is that?”, Elaine stood up quickly, abandoning her tapestry, and in two-three steps approached the window of her lonely tower, with long curious, thirsty glances soaking up the beauty of the sights never before seen directly. Her long velvety hair spilt in dozens of cascades on her back, like a shimmering murmuring waterfall, reaching her waist. Yearning, fear and gentle admiration coloured her pale, beautiful face. Never before have the beams of sun, nor the moon, drops of rain or spring zephyrs caressed it. Her white gown, its flimsy sleeves and dozens of silk petticoats, shines like the moon on the night sky against the darkness of her tower, but its gentle rustling is too far from the ears of a lovely knight who happened to be passing by. “Who is he?”, wonders Elaine, stepping forward with one leg, but leaning on the chair with her hand as soon as the words of the ancient curse run through her mind. Golden thread that wrapped itself like a snake around her dress seems to warn her too about the consequences of her actions… but Elaine can’t resist! She resisted gazing for so long, relying on shadows, pale reflections of the world in her mirror, but today the temptation to look was too irresistible, for she saw a knight riding from Camelot, passing her tower by, his armour glowing in the sun, his coal-black curls flowing underneath his helmet; it was none other than Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
       She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
       The Lady of Shalott.” (*)
***

One sight was enough for this beautiful, naive, vulnerable lily-maiden to fall in love. Her heart ached not solely for the handsome and distant knight who innocently passed by her tower, unaware of her sad destiny, but for the music, lights and liveliness of Camelot, for people and their chatter, but her curse was never to feel the world, but to gaze at it passively in the mirror, a stale reflection was to replace the vibrancy of reality. The moment she left her tapestry, drawn to the window like a moth to the light, she felt her soul overwhelmed with love and the same moment her world fell apart for the curse has come upon her, and she cried.

 As I’ve already said in the introduction, Waterhouse painted three different portrayals of the sad life of the Lady of Shalott, but thematically and chronologically they go into different directions; the first painting, from 1888, shows Elaine floating to her death while the last one, from 1916, shows her contemplating over her life of isolation. I am certain that, had he painted three more, they would all be as imaginative, dreamy and original. This is the first, and the most famous 1888 version of which I wrote about here. It is a true gem indeed and a symbol of Pre-Raphaelite artistic vision:

So, in the last painting of the series, we see Elaine before her downfall; she’s sitting above her tapestry, taking a rest, her hands behind her head, staring dreamily into the void, while through the window we see the magnificent grey towered castle of Camelot whose red roofs shine in glory. Elaine looks wistful, but not determined, she’s lost in thoughts but not yet ready to act, with her rosy cheeks and rosy dress she looks like a lonely rose in a long-forgotten garden, and I can see a spider weaving a veil of silver and dew around her gentle petals, hushing her heart, lulling her to sleep and forget reality. This is what Lord Tennyon, a beloved poet of the Victorian era, tells us of Elaine’s life of isolation and longing:

She hath no loyal knight and true,
       The Lady of Shalott.
 
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
       And music, came from Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
       The Lady of Shalott.
***
Loneliness is making her tired and restless, her eyelids grow heavy, her gaze weary, while the pale face reveals that she is curious, impetuous, nervous…. but she is naive and knows nothing of the world, and yet she longs for something she can’t describe and pines for memories that not belong to her, sighing and whispering to the stale air of solitude “I am half-sick of shadows!” Oh, poor little maiden, will her life be wrapped in a pensive veil of gloom forever?

John William Waterhouse, I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott, 1916

“I watched life and wanted to be a part of it but found it painfully difficult.” (Anais Nin)

Everyone speaks of an unlived life, and through reading Jack Kerouac’s novels of wild adventures, drinking, promiscuity, and also of self-indulgences and extremes of rock stars, I’ve created in my imagination this glamorous, yet false, vision of a life lived to the fullest, but as I grow older I am more of an opinion that adult life is very sad, and that world is a confusing and scary place, one I’d rather not venture. While gazing at Elaine in her lonely tower, I can’t help but think “Don’t gaze through the window, don’t long for Camelot, there’s nothing for you there!” So, for me, the legend of the Lady of the Shalott brings to mind the conflict between living life and daydreaming. I am so fond of daydreams because they are so sweet, and life is so often so unfulfilling and sour. How to live and be truly happy when life crushes all your ideals just like the sea waves crush the rocks on the shore? And is a life spent in daydreaming a wasted one? “To be or not to be?”, Hamlet asked himself. To live or to daydream, that is the question!

How do you feel about Elaine’s destiny, and the conflict of life vs daydreams. Share your thoughts with me.

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Joan Miró – Blue Is the Colour of My Dreams

20 Aug

Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró (1893-1993), whose work is usually classified as Surrealism, painted many beautiful paintings that show the vividness of his imagination, bursting with bold colours and intricate shapes. Still, his painting This is the color of my dreams has a special place in my heart: it is simple, just a blue fleck on white background, and underneath it Miró elegantly wrote the words that serve as the title of the painting, in French. Those words, the idea behind them, gives this simple blue a poetic, dreamy, mystical dimension.

Joan Miró, This is the color of my dreams, 1925

Isn’t it just a beautiful idea, to paint the colour of your dreams? And different dreams come in different colours, shades, different fragrances, melodies and moods. Miró dreamt in blue. And here’s what Jean Cocteau had to say about blue colour in “The Secret of Blue”:

The secret of blue is well kept. Blue comes from far away. On its way, it hardens and changes into a mountain. The cicada works at it. The birds assist. In reality, one doesn’t know. One speaks of Prussian blue. In Naples, the virgin stays in the cracks of walls when the sky recedes. But it’s all a mystery. The mystery of sapphire, mystery of Sainte Vierge, mystery of the siphon, mystery of the sailor’s collar, mystery of the blue rays that blind and your blue eye which goes through my heart.

Jack Kerouac – Tristessa: Love, Frenzy and Sadness in Mexico City

13 Aug

Even though I always proclaim On the Road as my favourite novel by Jack Kerouac, it is the novella Tristessa that most often comes to mind when thinking about Kerouac because the story of his wild impossible love, decaying souls in seedy streets of Mexico City where “a soul eats another soul in a never ending void”, addiction, prostitution and poverty is so damn haunting, poignant and beautiful, from a literary point of view.

The novel starts in a chic Kerouac way, with him driving in a taxi with Tristessa, drunk, with a bottle of Juarez Bourbon in his hand, in a Mexico City on a rainy Saturday night. “Tristessa” is Kerouac’s name for a young prostitute and a morphine addict whose real name was Esperanza Villanueva.

It always puzzled me why he decided to change her name from Esperanza (“hope” in Spanish) to Tristessa (“tristeza” meaning “sadness” in Spanish), but the change, admittedly, makes the title sound cooler. Beauty of Kerouac’s writings often contrasts with the gritty reality he is describing, but he lived among that low-life and misfits and that gives his book a genuine flair. For example, he describes Tristessa as a beautiful, enchanting girl with high cheekbones and a sad face expression that speaks of resignation. In real life, she looked like a drug addict; ill, frail and weary. Other characters are also morphine addicts, pimps and thieves. In that shabby room where a hen, a dove, a rooster and a cat walk freely, a room with a leaking roof, posters of Mexican pin-ups on the wall, a dirty mattress, and candles on the little altar of virgin Mary, there Kerouac realises that birth and death are the same empty dream. There is too much restlessness in him to fully accept the idea, but Tristessa’s soul is full of beautiful resignation, she has nothing and wants nothing, choosing to walk through life mute on every suffering that comes. There’s something beautiful in that fragility, life stripped to its essence; painful and pointless without any pretending that it’s not true. Reading about Tristessa’s suffering is poignant, it makes you feel you want to reach out and help her, but you can’t. Kerouac’s novels burst with characters of sad, lost, vulnerable souls, fragile as poppy flowers that gently dance in the wind and yet, if you pick them, their petals fall, too fragile to live anywhere apart from the meadow. So, leave them there, on a vibrant green meadow, leave them to dance their short waltz and die in silence, you cannot help them.

In Tristessa, Kerouac describes with his typical vibrant, at parts poignant and sad, at parts fun and wild rock ‘n’ roll writing style a fragile period in time. Even though he returned to Mexico City two years after, nothing was the same. The mystical flair from the first few pages, that of candlelight and statue of Madonna, leaking roof, morphine and a hen, disappear quickly and turn into grey hopelessness and poverty of the slums. Kerouac drunk, Kerouac sober. Glamour stripped away. Sadness lingers. I’ve never been drunk in my life, and yet I feel “drunk” after reading Kerouac.

And now a few quotes:

It starts raining harder, I’ve got a long way to go walking and pushing that sore leg right along in the gathering rain, no chance no intention whatever of hailing a cab, the whiskey and the Morphine have made me unruffled by the sickness of the poison in my heart.

***

I play games with her fabulous eyes and she longs to be in a monastery.

***

She is giving me my life back and not claiming it for herself as so many of the women you love do claim.

***

And a wonderful, inspiring sentence to end the novel:

I’ll go to the south of Sicily in the winter, and paint memories of Arles – I’ll buy a piano and Mozart me that – I’ll write long sad tales about people in the legend of my life – This part is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours

Elizabeth Barrett Browning – I think of thee!–my thoughts do twine and bud

9 Aug

Here’s a beautiful poem by a Victorian poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning, part of her series of sonnets called “Sonnets from the Portuguese”. Composed during her secret courtship with a fellow poet Robert Browning, these poems witness their blooming love and weren’t originally intended to be published. All sonnets I’ve read are very beautiful, but this one captured my attention recently.

George Cochran Lambdin, Reverie – Sunset Musings, 1860

XXIX. I think of thee!–my thoughts do twine and bud

I think of thee!–my thoughts do twine and bud
About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,
Put out broad leaves, and soon there’s nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood
I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly
Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,
Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee,
Drop heavily down,–burst, shattered everywhere!
Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
I do not think of thee–I am too near thee,

Gabriel Garcia Márquez: Love Letters, Fresh Lilies, Tears and Dried Butterflies (One Hundred Years of Solitude)

16 Jul

A week ago I finished reading Márquez’s magnificent novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and I have fallen in love with the story, the mood, the characters, his writing style and magic realism. Art equivalent of the book must be, for me, the blue dreamy world of Marc Chagall’s lovers, flowers and psychedelic fiddlers on roofs in far-off villages of his imagination, which might as well be Márquez’s mystical Macondo, and I can also see myself listening to Pink Floyd and daydreaming of chapters from the books. Some sentences have really left me feeling high as a kite; it rains for four years, plague insomnia which leaves people not tired but nostalgic for dreams, tiny yellow flowers that cover the entire village the moment José Arcadio Buendía dies, yellow butterflies that follow the dark melancholic-eyed Mauricio at every step, Rebeca who eats earth and arrives with a sack that makes a clock-clock-clock sound of her parents’ bones; illusion upon illusion, magic upon magic, and in the end, only eternal solitude remains.

Savely Sorin, Two Women, c. 1920s

I recently discovered this painting of two women in white by the Russian artist Savely Sorin (1887-1953), and now every time I look at it, it reminds me of Amaranda and Rebeca, sitting on a begonia porch, their hands busy embroidering; both lost in their own worlds and their hearts full of woe, both lonely with an impenetrable inner life, both finding consolation in writing passionate perfumed love letters to the same man which they never send… I imagine the lady in the front to be Rebeca and the brown-haired one is Amaranta, for me.

When I started reading the book, one morning sitting on my balcony, surrounded by pots of pink begonias, I flipped through the pages wondering about their content, and this was the first sentence that I randomly saw and I was mesmerised, what a scene: “On rainy afternoon, embroidering with a group of friends on the begonia porch, she would lose the thread of the conversation and a tear of nostalgia would salt her palate when she saw the strips of damp earth and the piles of mud that the earthworms had pushed up in the garden. Those secret tastes, defeated in the past by oranges and rhubarb, broke out into an irrepressible urge when she began to weep. She went back to eating earth.

I don’t think I will ever see begonias again and not think of Márquez. I like to daydream of flowers and their different personalities and connect flowers and trees to people, real or imaginary.

Even though I loved the entire book, there is a part of that I particularly enjoyed reading, that appealed to me the most, when Buendía family was at its most lively, vibrant state, and the house was full of love: Aureliano was consumed with passion for Remedios who is described as “a pretty little girl with lily-colored skin and green eyes”, and Rebeca and Amaranda were besotted with their dance instructor, a dashing and handsome blonde Italian called Pietro Crespi. With love followed daydreams, passionate letters, tears, torments and jealousies:

The house became full of love. Aureliano expressed it in poetry that had no beginning or end. He would write it on the harsh pieces of parchment that Melquiades gave him, on the bathroom walls, on the skin of his arms, and in all of it Remedios would appear transfigured: Remedios in the soporific air of two in the afternoon, Remedios in the soft breath of the roses, Remedios in the water-clock secrets of the moths, Remedios in the steaming morning bread, Remedios everywhere and Remedios forever. Rebeca waited for her love at four in the afternoon, embroidering by the window. She knew that the mailman’s mule arrived only every two weeks, but she always waited for him, convinced that he was going to arrive on some other day by mistake. It happened quite the opposite : once the mule did not come on the usual day. Mad with desperation, Rebeca got up in the middle of the night and ate handfuls of earth in the garden with a suicidal drive, weeping with pain and fury, chewing tender earthworms and chipping her teeth on snail shells. She vomited until dawn. She fell into a state of feverish prostration, lost consciousness, and her heart went into a shameless delirium. Ursula, scandalized, forced the lock on her trunk and found at the bottom, tied together with pink ribbons, the sixteen perfumed letters and the skeletons of leaves and petals preserved in old books and the dried butterflies that turned to powder at the touch.

As soon as Amaranta found out about Rebeca’s interest in Pietro, she wanted him too:

When she discovered Rebeca’s passion, which was impossible to keep secret because of her shouts, Amaranta suffered an attack of fever. She also suffered from the barb of a lonely love. Shut up in the bathroom, she would release herself from the torment of a hopeless passion by writing feverish letters, which she finally hid in the bottom of her trunk. Ursula barely had the strength to take care of the two sick girls. (…) Finally, in another moment of inspiration, she forced the lock on the trunk and found the letters tied with a pink ribbon, swollen with fresh lilies and still wet with tears, addressed and never sent to Pietro Crespi.

Marc Chagall, Bouquet près de la fenêtre, 1959-60

Meanwhile, some things occur, Rebeca marries another man and Pietro, heartbroken, finds consolation in hours spend in Amaranta’s company. This must be the dreamiest, most romantic passage of the book, for me. I mean; suffocating smell of roses in dusk, this dashing Italian translating Petrarca’s love poetry for his sweetheart, and both sighing and daydreaming on the begonia porch of that remote village in Columbia about that famed Europe and wonders of Italy, nostalgia pervading the Columbian night:

Amaranta and Pietro Crespi had, in fact, deepened their friendship, protected by Ursula, who this time did not think it necessary to watch over the visits. It was a twilight engagement. The Italian would arrive at dusk, with a gardenia in his buttonhole, and he would translate Petrarch’s sonnets for Amaranta. They would sit on the porch, suffocated by the oregano and the roses, he reading and she sewing lace cuffs, indifferent to the shocks and bad news of the; war, until the mosquitoes made them take refuge in the parlor. Amaranta’s sensibility, her discreet but enveloping tenderness had been weaving an invisible web about her fiance, which he had to push aside materially with his pale and ringless fingers in order to leave the house at eight o’clock. They had put together a delightful album with the postcards that Pietro Crespi received from Italy. They were pictures of lovers in lonely pink. with vignettes of hearts pierced with arrows and golden ribbons held by doves. “I’ve been to this park in Florence,” Pietro Crespi would say, going through the cards. “A person can put out his hand and the birds will come to feed.” Sometimes, over a watercolor of Venice, nostalgia would transform the smell of mud and putrefying shellfish of the canals into the warm aroma of flowers. Amaranta would sigh, laugh, and dream of a second homeland of handsome men and beautiful women who spoke a childlike language, with ancient cities of whose past grandeur only the cats among the rubble remained.

Have you read the book? Have you enjoyed these passages as much as I have?

Poetic Memory, Beauty and Milan Kundera

9 Jul

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”

Picture found here. Notice how beautifully the delicate white porcelain and fresh pink roses contrast with the worn out grey surface? In one word – poetic.

As you may already know, I am a big fan of Milan Kundera’s novel “Unbearable Lightness of Being”; I think the way he explored the inner struggles of characters is wonderful, but there’s so much more to the book. Kundera tends to be very analytical and philosophical and while he often explores the ideas of other thinkers such as Nietzsche, he tends to have interesting theses and concepts himself, like this one:

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”

Kundera ends the chapter with this sentence, connecting love and poetic memory, which only emphasises the importance of poetic memory in one’s life.

“Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.”

The first sentence perfectly describes my knightly quest for Beauty in everyday life. Kundera expressed in a sentence something I felt for a long time, but had no words to describe it. I usually just say “this is beautiful” or “I like the aesthetics”, but from now on I shall call it “poetic memory”. Poetic memory is an individual thing; one can see beauty where others do not, but many things are universally beautiful such as sunsets and flowers. But it is not merely about beauty itself as much as it is about a dreamy, charming, heartbreaking sight that makes you sigh and that lingers on in your memory, reappears in your mind again, that touches you and can even brings tear to your eye. I believe one needs to develop sensitivity towards beauty in order to see it every day, and in the most random and strangest of places.

I just love pretty porcelain! Beautiful flowers on this tea cup have dazzled my imagination and stayed in my poetic memory, and so did the dreamy sight of pink magnolia blossoms, pear tree and a cardinal, photo by Molly Dean.

I am constantly fanatically and ecstatically seeking and finding, stumbling upon, beauty all around me, and when I see a sight that deserves a place in my poetic memory, I am overwhelmed by rapture that seems to me better than an acid trip. Here are some examples of scenes from my life that have charmed me, touched me and made my life more beautiful, and that I have rightfully saved to my poetic memory: cherry tree twig that adorns my vase every spring, my neighbour’s laundry drying outdoors and dancing in the breeze, bright yellow flowers in my garden, one decaying used-to-be-white-but-now-grey wall with little windows and bricks showing through and ruby red roses overgrowing it, ginkgo tree in autumn which leaves a magical gold-yellow carpet of leaves, one old grey house with two small windows and rain leaves a trail under them so that it looks like eyes crying and a damp garden with sombre pink and blue hydrangeas, three gentle and sad looking birch trees in front of an old wooden house, silence and stillness of winter afternoons and snowflakes, pink and lavender coloured sunsets as well as the orange and purple autumn sunsets tinged with melancholy with chillness descending, rose petals scattered all over my room and The Smiths in the background, morning dew on roses and white peonies in my garden, old decaying roofs, iron gates adorned with rust, old walls overgrown with moss and ivy, tree branches white and crispy from frost, red poppies near the railway, large white moon, listening to rain and Chopin at the same time; coming home from school last April accompanied by the smell of freshly mown grass, birdsong and pink magnolia blossoms. Colour combinations too; lavender and ruby red, or purple and yellow are amongst my favourites. The sight of flickering candles and old books with yellowy pages. And a special sight I saw last August on one rainy evening, coming home from a walk; apple tree and yellow sunflowers intertwined, like lovers, announcing autumn. Along with the steady beats of hard summer rain on my umbrella, it was enchanting, almost fairy tale like for me….

I imagine poetic memory as a beautiful little antique wooden box with elegant carvings and an invisible silver key that I carry around my neck, and when I see a scene of beauty, I can just unlock the box in my imagination and save it there. And later, in sad and dull moments, I can sit by my window with a cup of tea, close my eyes and enjoy the contents of my “poetic memory box”. Poetic memory isn’t limited to sights you see in your life; it can be found in photos and art as well, anything really that charms you. Here are some pictures that I recently “saved” in my poetic memory:

Seaburn, Sunderland, England by DM Allan.

Photo found here.

Wild flowers of Pacific Northwest, Images taken from around Washington State

Milldale, Staffordshire, Peak District, England, UK; isn’t the contrast between old grey stones and bright greenery around it so so dazzlingly beautiful?

So, what do you think of Kundera’s thesis? Are you building your poetic memory? What kind of scenes charm you? I should also add that it is my opinion that poetic memory is a basis for good writing; poets and artists see beauty everywhere and it later becomes part of their work. As every day, month, year passes, I see more and more beauty around me, so much so that I should probably walk around carrying a notebook and a pen and write it down, “A Book of Beauty” I should call it. Sometimes I walk the streets thinking: “Look at that lantern, look at that crack in the pavement where flowers grew, or a pine tree, how did I never notice it before!?” My point is that noticing beauty is a skill that needs to be learnt, and I’m not pretending I’m above it, in fact, I wonder what sights will charm me five or ten years from now. Perhaps I’ll notice flowers in places I never even thought of looking.

If anything, I hope this post will inspire you to see more beauty around you.

Happy Birthday, Marc Chagall!

7 Jul

A dreamer amongst artists, a poet of colours, a kind soul with a psychedelic imagination: Marc Chagall, was born on 7th July 1887. Let us dive into the beauty of his art, be high as kites for a while, and then close our eyes and become a part of his world of love, dreams, flowers and the rapturous ecstatic blue colour.

Marc Chagall, Bouquet près de la fenêtre, 1959-60

I think this is a good moment to read about Chagall’s years in Paris and the whimsicality of his art. If you are perhaps interested in the mystery behind his birthdate and the symbolism of number seven in his art, you can read about it here. And this is a post I wrote about Chagall last February:

Marc Chagall – The Paris Years (1910-1914)

‘At that time I had grasped that I had to go to Paris. The soil that had nourished my art was Vitebsk; but my art needed Paris as much as a tree needs water. I had no other reason for leaving my homeland, and I believe that in my paintings I have always remained true to it.’ (Marc Chagall, My Life)

Marc Chagall, Paris Through the Window, 1913

It’s 1910 and Marc Chagall has just arrived in Paris. After a four day journey by railway from Saint Petersburg, he settled in the first available atelier. Paris was the Mecca for young artists; dominant art form at the time was Cubism, all sorts of avant-garde movement, both in painting and poetry, were emerging and art circles of Paris had just began migrating from Montmartre to a chic area called Montparnasse which would remain a home to many artists in the years that followed.

Chagall visited ‘Salon des Indépendants’ (Society of Independent Artists), just a day after he arrived in the ‘capital of arts’. He visited Louvre as well. He realised there, in front of the canvases by Manet, Monet, Pissaro and Millet, why for all those years Russian art seemed foreign to him, why he couldn’t connect with it. Language of his paintings was foreign and bizarre to Russian artists. Chagall soon enrolled at Academie de La Palette, an avant-garde art school. Other notable pupils of the school were: Sonia Delaunay, Roger de La Fresnaye and Lyubov Popova.

Marc Chagall, Still-life (Nature morte), 1912

Still, not everything was as rose-tinted as it may seem. In addition to being penniless and not speaking French, Chagall was very lonely and often his thoughts wandered back to his home in Vitebsk, his Hasidic experiences, Russian folklore, and his beloved Bella. ‘All that prevented me from returning immediately was the distance between Paris and my home town’, he wrote in his autobiography My Life.

After living in a small atelier in Montmarte, Chagall moved into one of the studios in artist’s residence called ‘La Ruche’ (literary Bee Hive, named after the shape of the building), in Montparnasse. This atelier was more spacious than the previous one, which meant he was able to use larger canvases. Night after night he painted until dawn. Sometimes he used cut-out sheets and his nightshirts instead of proper canvases. His atelier was often disorderly; eggshells and tins of cheap soup could be found lying around. On the wooden table reproductions of El Greco and Cezanne’s painting laid scattered around. Sometimes, after a night spent painting furiously, he thought of buying warm croissants on the loan, but went to bed instead. In the market, he could only afford to buy a cucumber, as he once said. Other mornings, he hoped his friend Blaise Cendrars would come around and take him to breakfast. Also, Chagall painted naked because he despised being dressed, and he had poor taste when it came to clothing. One of his neighbours in La Ruche was Chaim Soutine, a ‘wilful and grouchy eccentric’ and a fellow Eastern Jew.

Various sounds could be heard coming from the ateliers: humiliated models wept in Russian studios, Italian ateliers echoed with songs, romance and sounds of guitar, in Jewish – discussions and quarrels, while Chagall painted in solitude and silence.

Marc Chagall, The Fiddler, 1912

Chagall couldn’t have chosen a better moment to come to Paris. Russian artists were welcomed with great enthusiasm. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, formed in 1909, sparked a passion for all things Russian and exotic. Diaghilev brought together dancers, choreographers, musicians, writers and painters. Ballets such as Scheherazade, Les Orientales and Stravinsky’s The Firebird caused sensation. Exotic mood, colourful costumes, emphasis on the individual dancer and expressive dance movements changed public’s notion of ballet, and opened doors for many young artists to express themselves. Leon Bakst, Chagall’s former teacher in Saint Petersburg, came to Paris and worked as a scene-painter for Russian Ballet.

Chagall once visited Diaghilev’s ballet, hoping to encounter Bakst and Nijinsky. Behind the scenes he stumbled upon rosy-cheeked and red-haired Bakst who smiled to him. Then Nijinsky came along, but quickly returned to the stage where he performed a dance from the ballet ‘Le spectre de la rose’ with Tamara Karsavina. Italian poet Gabrielle D’Annuzio was flirting with Ida Rubinstein. Bakst considered hiring Chagall as his helper in scene-painting, but he quickly dismissed the idea when he saw how unskilled Chagall was.

Marc Chagall, Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers, 1913

Interestingly, Marc Chagall’s circle of friends in Paris was mostly comprised of poets and writers, not merely painters. His closest friends were Guillaume Apollinaire, poet, novelist and art critic whom Chagall called ‘gentle Zeus’, and Swiss-born poet and novelist Blaise Cendrars, whom many considered as Rimbaud’s direct heir in poetry style. Sonia and Robert Delaunay were one of his painter-friends. Chagall was drawn to Sonia for various reasons: they were almost the same age, both grew up in Jewish homes and both had studied art in St. Petersburg.

Unlike Sonia, who fully delved into Orphism along with her husband Robert, Chagall’s paintings from ‘The Paris Years’ burst with motifs reminiscent of his childhood in Vitebsk. Painting ‘I and the Village’, a psychedelic Cubist fairytale, with soft, velvety colour transitions, is a whimsical kaleidoscope of colourful houses painted upside-down, Ortodox church, man’s face with a green mask, upside-down female violin-player, man carrying a scythe, and a Jewish element – The Tree of Life. Chagall’s style is unlike anything else in art history, and just like Modigliani, he is a painter whose art cannot be placed in a specific art movement. Nourishment of his art was childhood memories and imagination. This painting is a visual representation of his thought ‘The soil that had nourished my art was Vitebsk; but my art needed Paris as much as a tree needs water.

Marc Chagall, I and the Village, 1911

I just finished reading his autobiography ‘My Life’, and I can’t express how much I’m enchanted with his art and him as a person. His humanity is what I admire the most. To me, he is an embodiment of Terence’s quote ‘I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.’ (Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.)

Marc Chagall, The Drunkard (Le saoul), 1911-12

MARC CHAGALL (poem by Blaise Cendrars)

He is asleep

Now he is awake

And suddenly he is painting

He reaches for a church paints with a church

He reaches for a cow and paints with a cow

With a sardine

With skulls hands knives

Paint with a nerve of an ox

All the besmirched sufferings of little

Jewish towns

Tormented by burning love from the depth

of Russia

For France

Death heart and desires

He paints with his thighs

Has his eyes in his behind

There it is your face

It is You dear reader

It is I

It is he

His own betrothed

The grocer on the corner

The milkmaid

Midwife

Newborn babies are being washed in

buckets of blood

Heavenly madness

Mouths gush forth fashions

The Eiffel Tower is like a corkscrew

Hands heaped on each other

Christ

He himself Jesus Christ

He lived a long youth on the cross

Every new day another suicide

And suddenly he is no longer painting

He was awake

Now he is asleep

Strangles himself with a tie

Chagall astonished

Born on my immortality.’