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Syd Barrett’s Favourite Artists and Artworks

6 Jan

January is always a time of sobering up, the hangover after a wild party of colours, vibrancy and magic that is December. I hate that! I want the party to go on perpetually, I don’t want to ‘sober’ up… ever. I want to always be drunk on music, art, poetry, love and beauty. And so this drab, lonely and grey month always passes in a whimsical mood for me because I celebrate Syd Barrett’s birthday every year. Syd Barrett was born on the 6th January 1946. But the celebration doesn’t begin and end on the 6th, oh no, it lingers on and on. I devote myself these days to listening to Pink Floyd’s early work, then Syd’s solo albums, reading one of my ultimate favourites: Julian Palacios’s wonderful book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”. The book instantly transports me back in time, to some whimsical, groovy, fairy tale-like place which perhaps never even existed, or it did, but only for a moment, like a shooting star. This is a post I originally wrote six years ago to celebrate Syd’s birthday, but I thought I’d repost it today because it’s been six years, come on, and I know there are many new readers now who probably have not read it. Enjoy!

Syd Barrett with his painting, spring 1964

In this post we’ll discuss two of my favourite things in the world; Syd Barrett 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’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.

You’ve been reading some old letters, You smile and you think how much you’ve changed

29 Dec

The end of the year approaching, my thoughts naturally tend towards reflection. Bouts of a bittersweet wistfulness overwhelm me often these nights. So many different feelings mix and mingle in my soul, to quote Morrissey, “I’m not happy and I’m not sad”. Night after night, when everyone is asleep, I found myself alone in the quiet stillness of the night, flipping through the pages of my many diaries written throughout the years. I don’t even know why I have the habit of doing it, for it only leaves me shattered and in tears, but at times there shines a smile on my face and this song, not originally written but covered by the Welsh band the Manic Street Preachers comes to mind. I love how the video for the song captures the highlights of the band’s early years, especially moments with Richey who looks just stunning with his eyeliner and cool hairdo. I really love how the song combines both sentiments; the looking back at the past and all the wonderful moments that no money in the world could bring back, but also stating ‘this is the day your life will surely change’ so it’s looking cheerfully into the future and what goods things it might bring. It’s almost like the Roman God Janus who represents things such as duality, gateways, passageways, transitions, endings, beginnings, and whose face looks both ways; into the past and into the future. To be able to simply appreciate the beautiful moments of the past days without the ache of yearning in your heart, now that would be a true gift.

William Turner, Moonlight, 1841

You didn’t wake up this morning
’cause you didn’t go to bed
You were watching the whites of your eyes turn red

The calendar on your wall is ticking the days off
You’ve been reading some old letters
You smile and you think how much you’ve changed
And all the money in the world
Couldn’t bring back those days


You pull back the curtains
And the sun burns into your eyes
You watch a plane flying
Across a clear blue sky

This is the day, your life will surely change
This is the day when things fall into place

You could’ve done anything if you’d wanted
And all your friends and family think that you’re lucky
But the side of you they’ll never see
Is when you’re left alone with the memories
That hold your life together, together like glue


You pull back the curtains
And the sun burns into your eyes
You watch a plane flying
Across a clear blue sky
This is the day, your life will surely change
This is the day when things fall into place
This is the day, your life will surely change
This is the day when things fall into place
This is the day
This is the day

Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Hôtel Particulier and the Art of Paul Delvaux

20 Dec

“All my life I’ve tried to transcribe reality to make it into a kind of dream.”

(Paul Delvaux)

Paul Delvaux, Sleeping Venus (La Venus Endormie), 1944

Serge Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album “Historie de Melody Nelson” released on 24 March 1971 has a Lolitaesque theme and in seven unique yet connected songs tells a tale of an older gentleman (Serge) who, by accident, collides his car into the red bicycle of a sweet and pretty schoolgirl called Melody Nelson (Jane Birkin). This chance seemingly unhappy encounter blossoms into a flower of seduction and romance as the gentleman takes Melody to a hotel. This part of the musical story is told in the fifth song “L’hôtel particulier“. Needless to say, I very much enjoy the variety of different musical styles on the album’s songs, and I love the innocently-sexy Jane Birkin in the videos, but it is the video for this song “L’hôtel particulier” that fascinates me in particular because it features the wondrous paintings of the Belgian Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) who was actually still alive during the time the album was made. Not only alive, but also very prolific. Even though he was the last surviving Surrealist during his life, he was a wanderer and an individualist in the Surrealist crowd who created a unique dream-like world on his canvases which feature repetitive motifs; Classical architecture, nocturnal setting, nude women whose bodies are white as snow and appear smooth as marble, skeletons, crescent moon, trains, boudoirs.

The shaping of Delvaux’s art career was a slow and steady process because at first his parents pressured him into studying architecture, it was something he didn’t enjoy but it did serve him greatly later in creating the strange, accurately depicted yet eerie spaces in his paintings. In 1934 Delvaux saw the Surrealist exhibition “Minotaure” and this inspired him to start working in the direction of Surrealism because it led him back to the imaginative state of childhood. Delvaux’s art also shows the influence of Giorgio de Chirico’s cold and enigmatic worlds where architecture is drawn with precision yet the overall effect is unsettling. In 1937 and 1939 he visited Italy and the architecture inspired him to serve as a setting for the world of his languid dead-eyed hypnotised nudes. Delvaux painted some wonderful eerie paintings even in the late 1960s and 1970s, but the paintings chosen for Gainsbourg’s video were mostly painted in the 1940s. The World War II period was a harsh one for Delvaux as it was for everyone, but it only inspired him to paint more and to retreat into the world of his imagination. The artist stated “I would like to create a fabulous painting in which I would live, in which I could live.”

As a child he was afraid of skeletons but later in life he found a way to incorporate them into his nocturnal worlds, bones glistening in moonlight, death opposing the sensuality of the women’s nude flesh. One such skeleton pops up in the painting “Sleeping Venus” painted in 1944, and unlike skeletons in James Ensor’s art (a fellow Belgian painter), Delvaux’s skeleton is unashamed of himself, he doesn’t put on a mask or hide under some garish carnival clothes. Nude Venus is sweetly asleep on a divan in front of the temple-like building while the skeleton is having a fascinating conversation with a Belle Epoque woman with a large brimmed hat and a dark red dress. The conversation is so fascinating that not even the passing couple, Serge and Jane, can interrupt it. Even though Delvaux’s paintings aren’t directly connected to the music and the song, I think they create a striking background visually which really leaves the viewer interested.

Bellow I’ve compared Delvaux’s paintings to stills from the video and also added the lyrics of the song because they are really descriptive:

Paul Delvaux, The Echo, 1943

Au cinquante-six, sept, huit, peu importeDe la rue X, si vous frappezÀ la porteD’abord un coup, puis trois autresOn vous laisse entrerSeul et parfois même accompagné
*
At number fifty-six, seven, eight… who knows,
Of the unnameable street,
if you knock on the door
One knock first, then three more,
they will let you in
Alone or sometimes even not alone.

Paul Delvaux, Night Train, 1947

Une servante, sans vous dire un motVous précèdeDes escaliersDes couloirs sans fin se succèdentDécorés de bronzes baroquesD’anges dorésD’Aphrodites et de Salomés
*
Without saying a word,
a maid leads you
Through a haze of endless stairs and hallways
Adorning baroque bronzes,
gilded angels,
Aphrodites and Salomés

Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens, 1947

S’il est libre, dites que vous voulez le quarante-quatreC’est la chambre qu’ils appellent iciDe CléopâtreDont les colonnes du lit de style rococoSont des nègres portant des flambeaux
 
If it’s available, say that you want room forty-four
They call it here
the Cleopatra room,
Where ebony bodies holding torches
Cover the rococo style bed columns

Paul Delvaux, Le nu et le mannequin, December 1947

Entre ces esclaves nusTaillés dans l’ébèneQui seront les témoins muetsDe cette scèneTandis que là-haut un miroirNous réfléchitLentement j’enlace Melody
 
Among these naked slaves
carved in wood,
All silent witnesses to the scene,
While above us a mirror
reflects our image,
Slowly I embrace Melody.

Depeche Mode and Caspar David Friedrich: Pleasures Remain So Does the Pain, Words are Meaningless and Forgettable

9 Oct

Autumn is a time for wistfulness, melancholy and introspection, and also a time for one of my favourite painters Caspar David Friedrich whose Romantic landscapes perfectly fit this autumnal mood.

Caspar David Friedrich, Memories of the Giant Mountains, 1835

These days I was listening to Depeche Mode and I especially enjoyed the song “Enjoy the Silence” which is probably their most recognisable song anyway. I also enjoyed watching the video, directed by Anton Corbijn, where the singer Dave Gaham is dressed as a king and is seen walking around through fields, meadows, beaches and mountains; all the landscapes which irresistibly bring to mind the moody landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. The specific places in the video are the Scottish Highlands, the Algarve coast in Portugal and the Swiss Alps which beautifully showcases the beauties and diverities of European landscapes. All of these places in nature; forests, beaches, snow-capped mountains, can easily be found not only in paintings of Friedrich but also in paintings of other Romantic painters. Corbijn’s concept behind the video was that the King (Dave Gahan) represented “a man with everything in the world, just looking for a quiet place to sit; a king of no kingdom.” I think the video is a good representation of that.

Whilst gazing at the video, I suddenly remembered something that my friend had said. Years ago he had sent me the video to the song “Enjoy the Silence” and pointed at the similarity between the video’s aesthetic and the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. I hadn’t seen the video before he had sent it to me because I was mostly listening to Depeche Mode from my mother’s casettes, so this was something very interesting to me. These days my thoughts again turned to Depeche Mode and Friedrich and finally I felt it was the right time to tackle the topic because, as you know, I am always fond of discovering aesthetic parallels between art and rock music and poetry. I had done so previously by connecting the cover of Echo and the Bunnymen’s album “Crocodiles” (1980) and “Heaven Up Here” (1981) to Friedrich’s landscapes. I am writing this post with the memories of my friend who, although estranged from me now, will always have a place in my heart. And, interestingly, Corbijn also directed many music videos of Echo and the Bunnymen too.

Scenes from the “Enjoy the Silence” video.

In some scenes of the video, Gahan is seen as a solitary figure against the vast landscape; a transient figure passing through the ever-lasting landscapes of beauty. In some scenes he is sitting and turning his back to us, which is again something we see often in Friedrich’s art, for example in his famous painting “Moonrise Over the Sea” (1822). In the scenes filmed at the beach in Portugal the sea waves are crushing onto the sandy shore and Gahan is seen looking out at the sunset over the sea, everything painted in dusky pink and purple shades, and this romantic imagery is also seen in many of Friedrich’s beach scenes. In one scene Gahan is walking across a landscape where the tree is the only other thing in the scene and there is a tight line separating the land from the vastness of the sky. This, for example, made me think of Friedrich’s painting “Monk by the Sea” (1808-1810). I also incorporated the lyrics of the song into this post because I like them, I think they are wise and profound and they fit the mood of loneliness and isolation that Friedrich’s landscapes have.

Words like violenceBreak the silenceCome crashing inInto my little worldPainful to mePierce right through meCan’t you understand?Oh, my little girl
Caspar David Friedrich, Evening, 1821
Caspar David Friedrich, Seashore by Moonlight, 1835-36
All I ever wantedAll I ever neededIs here in my armsWords are very unnecessaryThey can only do harm
Caspar David Friedrich, Riesengebirge, 1830-35
Scenes from the “Enjoy the Silence” video.
Caspar David Friedrich, Sunset (Brothers) or Evening landscape with two men, 1830-35
Vows are spokenTo be brokenFeelings are intenseWords are trivialPleasures remainSo does the painWords are meaninglessAnd forgettable
Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808-10
Scenes from the “Enjoy the Silence” video.

Give Me The First Six Months of Love (Michelle Gurevich)

5 Aug

I recently discovered the music of the contemporary Cannadian singer-songwriter Michelle Gurevich. As you may see from her surname, she is of Russian origin and interestingly her fan base is mostly in the Eastern Europe and Berlin. She lives in Denmark at the moment. I discovered her two songs “Lovers are Strangers” and “The First Six Months of Love” one cloudy and rainy afternoon a week ago by serendipity but the lyrics instantly chimed with me and I found the music hypnotic. Needless to say, these two songs became the soundtrack for my gloomy summer afternoon and I still can’t get them out of my head. The foreboding lead-grey sky went so well with the music that I almost felt I was transported to another world. It was definitely one of my little ecstatic moments and so I wanted to share the song lyrics in this post and I hope you check out her music if you don’t know it already.

Lovers, shot by Paolo Roversi for Vogue Italia February 2000

You must know that moment
When the miserable world cracks open
You finally meet someone
Suddenly the chapter’s written
Six months with nothing other
Than a duvet and a jug of water
It’s a chemical jackpot babe
And we’ve got the winning number
Give me the first six months of love
Give me the first six months of love
Before the truth comes spilling out
Before you open your big mouth
One of the finest things in life
Gone on a serotonin ride
God knows I’ve waited long enough
Give me the first six months
First six months of love
Before begin the dissections
Before the therapy sessions
We danced the night we met
Now we need dancing lessons
Remember how it all began
We must not let habit set in
Come up the stairs, let’s recommence
The first six months over again
Give me the first six months of love
Give me the first six months of love
Before the truth comes spilling out
Before you open your big mouth
One of the finest things in life
Gone on a serotonin ride
Babe if we gonna stick it out

Give me the first six months
First six months of love
Give me the first six months of love
Give me the first six months of love
Before the truth comes spilling out
Before you open your big mouth
One of the finest things in life
Gone on a serotonin ride
Babe if we gonna stick it out
Give me the first six months
First six months of love

Lovers are Strangers: John Atkinson Grimshaw – Lovers on a Moonlit Lane

2 Aug
“Expressing your uncertainties
Through years of anniversaries
Then five years down the line
You’ll say: she was never my type
Lovers are strangers
There’s nothing to discuss
Hearts will be faithful
While the truth is told to someone else”

(Michelle Gurevich, Lovers Are Strangers)

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Lovers on a Moonlit Lane, 1873

John Atkinson Grimshaw was a Victorian era artist who is mostly remembered for his captivating and atmospheric paintings of nocturnal urban scenes. The pompous American expatriate Whistler said: “I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures”, and this is a true testament which reveals just how captivating Grimshaw’s nocturnal paintings were back in his day. Whistler wasn’t the type of person who would give praise or credit lightly. A few years ago I wrote a post about Grimshaw’s Dreary Victorian Streets where I connected the desolate, urban mood of his paintings with the music of Joy Division, but today I want to tackle a painting which is nocturnal but less urban and more romantic than his other ones.

Painting “Lovers on a Moonlit Lane” was painted in 1873, which is a decade earlier then his more famous masterpieces, though he was already thirty-seven at the time. The painting shows two lovers meeting in the moonlit lane near a forest. The tree branches point the way and the glowing full moon casts light on the face of two beloveds. The vertical canvas suits the nocturnal foresty scene because it gives space for the trees to stretch their branches into the night sky. The night scene with the hauntingly dark and tall trees brings to mind the setting of a poem or a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, but also the motif of nature in moonlight and the figures of lovers irresistibly reminds one of the painting by Caspar David Friedrich. The muted colours, blues and greys, are helpful in conveying the mood. Romanticism, like the ghost of the past, haunts this painting and gives it beauty. Distant fog and unknown paths, uncertainty of love, like frost, bites the hands and cheeks… The motif of the trees which are mostly bare, the leaves that have fallen on the frozen muddy ground and the path leading nowhere all indicate a sense of ending. Autumn is giving way to winter, the vibrant leaves of autumn have rotten and fallen on the ground, a question lingers in the air: will the flame of their love survive the winter frost, or will it perish and be forever lost?

The painting has the Tim Burtonesque “Corpse Bride” aesthetic and that is why it came to my mind when I was listening to Michelle Gurovich’s song “Lovers are Strangers” which I recently discovered. I love the lyrics of the song, but also, the music sounds like something that belong to a macabre carnival, the film “Coraline” or that fits the imagination of Tim Burton. In my mind, all of these are connected together.

Darkness on the Edge of Town: Charles Burchfield and Egon Schiele

28 Jul

“You can tell her that I’m easily found
Tell her there’s a spot out ‘neath Abraham’s bridge, and tell her
There’s a darkness on the edge of town
There’s a darkness on the edge of town…..

…Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost…”

(Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town)

Charles Burchfield, New Moon, November 1917, watercolor and opaque watercolor with graphite

Egon Schiele is a painter whose artworks I have been in love with for many years now and Charles Burchfield is a painter whose work I only discovered two years ago but am getting more and more enthusiastic about. Both of these artists had a particular flair for capturing the houses and townscapes not as mere physical objects made out of wood, brick and mortar, but rather they captured their mood and character. And both artists preferred the medium of watercolour or gouache to the more traditional oil on canvas, and, as my readers here know, watercolour is my favourite medium. Charles Burchfield’s painting “New Moon” and Egon Schiele’s painting “Edge of Town (Krumau Town Crescent) are painted around the same time, in 1917 and 1918 respectively. Whilst Schiele’s painting shows the entire small town of Krumau with many houses crammed close together, Burchfield’s watercolour focuses solely on one house and a particular one indeed.

Burchfield’s watercolour “New Moon” shows a strange and twisted black wooden house which is very close to the road. There is a tree growing in front of the house and it visually disrupts the scene; the tree trunk is in the way of the scene and the black tree branches are thin and clawlike, stretching to scratch whichever intruder passes by it. The facade of the house is contorted in a surreal manner, almost as if it was laughing. A house with a grin and three windows with teeth in them. We can see only a part of the house next door on the left and it looks equally eerie. The sky is dusty pink and yellow and the colours match the blackness of the house. And we can’t even see much of that candy floss-vanilla sky because the house takes up most of the space on the paper; it domineers, almost swallows the space around it, making the scene look mysterious and claustrophobic. There is not space for anything but the house on that paper. I can only imagine what stranger Hawthorneesque characters might inhabit this Gothic abode.

Egon Schiele, Edge of Town (Krumau Town Crescent), 1918

On the other hand, Schiele focuses not on a single houses but on a cluster of houses which, strangely, seem to make up a living organism of its own, a unified skelet that would fall apart if one house was demolished. Schiele’s portrayal of the small and picturesque Czech town of Krumau (which, in Schiele’s life was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) is vibrant and dense. He uses thick brushstrokes of warm, heavy, earthy tones; brown, yellow, orange, warm purple, some muddy green. This combination of colours and brushstrokes makes the town appear old, uninviting and slightly claustrophobic. If you look up pictures of Krumau you will see that the town is as dreamy and fairytale like as can be, and this is definitely just Schiele’s vision of Krumau. This is Schiele’s portrait of the town, its character and mood and the way he perceives it. The town seems uninviting to me, and I can imagine a person walking down those narrow streets and the houses just getting closer and closer, obscuring the sky with their roofs and crushing the person to death. The town is melancholy and decaying but it doesn’t like someone to see it. In his portraits, Schiele usually focuses on the person and ignores the background, he doesn’t care to fill it with colour, but here he takes time to add brushstrokes and brushstrokes of thick, muddy brown.

Both of these artworks disturb me, but in a good way and when I hear Springsteen singing ‘darkness on the edge of town’ this is what comes to my mind… But also, seeing the way Burchfield and Schiele portrayed houses, streets and towns makes me look at houses and street with a pair of new eyes, it makes me notice the strangeness and the character that many houses and builings possess.

Bruce Springsteen’s Blue-Collar Heroes, the Rust Belt and “My Hometown”

22 Jul

“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody
Wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks
Foreman says, “these jobs are going, boys
And they ain’t coming back
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown…”

(Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown)

Charles Burchfield, Grain Elevators (Evans), 1931-33, watercolour

Lately the things that I have been seeing, reading, and listening to have turned my thoughts towards the Rust Belt; its decaying towns and fallen industries, its sad flair of something that once was thriving and great and just isn’t anymore. Of course, the main inspiration behind this theme were songs and the lyrics of the songs by Bruce Springsteen, especially from the albums “The River” and “Born in the U.S.A.”. Then, I watched two horror films: “Don’t Breathe” (2016) and “It Follows” (2014) and both are set and (partly) shot in Detroit. In both films we can see the whole neighbourhoods of abandoned, decaying houses and that was both immensely sad and visually striking to me. I was thinking about and started rereading (for the 10th time probably!) Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America”.

She was a huge Springsteen fan and would, at times, fantasise of leading the kind of life that the heroes in his songs led: “Sometimes I lie in my own bed and listen to music for hours. Always Bruce Springsteen, which is weird, I have to admit, because I’m becoming this really urban punked-out kid, and he is kind of the spokesman of the rumpled, working-class suburbs. But I identify with him so completely that I start to wish I could be a boy in New Jersey. I try to convince my mother that we should move out there, that she should work in a factory or as a waitress in a roadside diner or as a secretary at a storefront insurance office. I want so badly to have my life circumstances match the oppressiveness I feel internally. It all starts to seem ridiculous: After all, Springsteen songs are about getting the hell out of the New Jersey grind, and here I am trying to convince my mom that we ought to get into it. I’m figuring, if I can just become poor white trash, if I can just get in touch with the blue collar blues, then there’ll be a reason why I feel this way. I will be a fucked-up Marxian worker person, alienated from the fruits of my labor. My misery will begin to make sense.

Charles Burchfield, Hot Summer Afternoon, 1919

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores…

And finally, I read “Voices from the Rust Belt”; a collection of essays by different authors, edited by Anne Trubek. Some of the themes that linger throughout the essays are urban decay, deindustralisation, white flight, school desegregation, suburban boredom, rise of crime etc. Here is what Anne Trubek writes in the Introduction “Why the Rust Belt Matters (and What It Is): (…) in the 1970s, the demand for steel, which was high during World War II, had begun to wane, and many saw their jobs disappear. Arguably the most symbolic date in Rust Belt history was Black Monday, September 19, 1977, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Ohio closed down, leading to a loss of some forty thousand jobs. Also notable: the region’s population peaked in the 1970s and has been in decline ever since. Those manufacturing jobs are never going to return to the levels seen in the 1970s. The lack of jobs and opportunity for the white working class has been an ongoing problem for over forty years now.

The essays reveal the contrasts between the American dream and the reality of life in the Rust Belt, especially in connection to the decline of the industry and the failing economy. Likewise, the heroes of Bruce Springsteen songs, especially on the albums “The River” (1980) and “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), are the blue-collar workers who often find themselves loosing their jobs due to the failing economy, or, as is the case with the hero from the song “Downbound Train”, the misery of their hard work is intertwined with the miseries outside it such as the love woes.

Max Arthur Cohn, Coal Tower, ca. 1934

The Huber Breaker in Ashley, Pennsylvania was one of the largest anthracite coal breakers in North America. It was built in the 1930s and closed in the 1970s. John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA.

While the guy from the aforementioned song has three different jobs in one song: “I had a job, I had a girl/ I had something going, mister, in this world/ I got laid off down at the lumber yard/ Our love went bad, times got hard/ Now I work down at the car wash/ Where all it ever does is rain/ (…) Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang/ Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain…”, other heroes such as the guy in the song “The River” are not as lucky; he did find a job but there hasn’t been much work because of the economy: “I got a job working construction/ For the Johnstown Company/ But lately there ain’t been much work/ On account of the economy/ Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air/ Now I just act like I don’t remember/ Mary acts like she don’t care…”

In songs such as “Youngstown” Springsteen directly mentions the town and referrenced the closing of Jeanette Blast Furnace owned by the Youngstown Sheet and Tube and closed in 1977 but uses a simple, poetic language to convey the sadness: “Here in Youngstown/ Here in Youngstown/ My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down/ Here darlin’ in Youngstown…” Songs such as “Out in the Street” deal less with the job losses and the failing of the economy and more with the everyday reality of being a blue-collar worker; the song’s hero is waiting for his shift to finish, waiting for the working week to finish just so he can out in the street, see his girl, and, talk and walk the way he wants to talk and walk:

“Put on your best dress baby
And darlin’, fix your hair up right
‘Cause there’s a party, honey
Way down beneath the neon lights
All day you’ve been working that hard line
Now tonight you’re gonna have a good time

I work five days a week girl
Loading crates down on the dock
I take my hard earned money
And meet my girl down on the block
And Monday when the foreman calls time
I’ve already got Friday on my mind
When that whistle blows
Girl, I’m down the street
I’m home, I’m out of my work clothes
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I walk the way I want to walk
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I talk the way I want to talk….
_

Perhaps the most interesting and sad reference to Rust belt’s deindustrialisation is in the song “My Hometown” where the foreman hauntingly foresees the future and says that the jobs are going and are not coming back to their hometown.

William Arthur Cooper, The Lumber Industry, 1934

In the 1920s and 1930s many artists such as Charles Sheeler, Charles Burchfield, Max Arthur Cohn, William Arthur Cooper and many others captured the glory of the industrialised landscapes in their cold and slightly bleak portrayals of the coal mines, modern machinery, lumber yards, and steel mills. Some of these artists were either inspired or directly involved with the art movement called the Precisionism; a uniquely American art movement which sought to portray the machinery and modern life in a precise, sharp and cold manner. For them, the industrialised landscapes were a sort of a victory over nature and they were fascinated by the newest inventions and the sleek appearence of these new machines. Little did they know that some thirty-fourty years after they had painted these painting those same steel mills, lumber yards and coal mines would be abandoned and destroyed. These painters captured the heigh days of the Industrial Midwest before it because the “Post-Industrial Midwest” (a synonim for “Rust belt”). Just look at the painting “Coal Tower” by Max Arthur Cohn; how dark, gloomy, powerful and intimidating the coal tower appears, its windows gandering over the landscape like the eye of the Mordor. And what a contrast this powerful building is to its decaying state to which it succumbed.

Max Arthur Cohn, Bethlehem Steel Works, 1938

And returning for a moment to the collection of essays “Voices from the Rust Belt” I have to say that I really recommend it if you are interested in the topic. I love that each essay is written by a different author. In that way we get a unique and intimate perspective on the topic, writing styles are different and most essays deal with personal experiences, memories, longings, so it is very personal and the sadness of the Rust belt is then even more palpable. My favourite essays are “The Fauxtopias of Detroit Suburbs” by James D. Griffioen, “Pretty Things to Hang on the Wall” by Eric Anderson, “The Kidnapped Children of Detroit” by Marsha Music, and “A Girl’s Youngstown” by Jacqueline Marino. I would like to end this post with a quote from the essay “Moundsville” by David Faulk: “When I first heard the term “Rust Belt” during my last year of junior high, the rust had barely formed on Moundsville. (…) The Ohio Valley in the early 1980s was marked by patterns: for every mill closure, bankers closed in on the houses, women dried their eyes with pink Kleenexes, and the belts came off. Then families moved away or fell apart.

Charles Burchfield – In a Deserted House and Bruce Springsteen’s Downbound Train

7 Jun

In the moonlight, our wedding house shone
I rushed through the yard
I burst through the front door, my head pounding hard
Up the stairs, I climbed
The room was dark, our bed was empty
Then I heard that long whistle whine
And I dropped to my knees, hung my head, and cried…”

Charles Burchfield, In a Deserted House, ca. 1918-1939

I find myself listening to Bruce Springsteen’s song “Downbound Train” a lot these days. It was in June five years ago that I first discovered it and it also happens the song was released on the 4 June 1984, so with all these little “anniversaries”, I thought it would be nice to write a little tribute to it, in a way. What instantly attracted me to the song was its sad tune and Springsteen’s wailing voice while he is singing about a love that is lost… The song’s opening lines instantly struck a chord with me: “I had a job, I had a girl/ I had something going, mister, in this world/ I got laid off down at the lumber yard/ Our love went bad, times got hard” because they express contrast of good times versus bad times; he had something good and now it’s gone. The protagonist, having lost his job and then a woman he loved, also lost a sense of security and stability. The dream is gone and now there’s a dark, rainy cloud that seems to follow him everywhere. Now he single; alone and lonely, working at miserable jobs where it always seems to rain.

After reading the lyrics, carefully, as if they were a poem, I was struck by this little tale of misery. It almost feels like a short story and not a song because it tells a tale, as Springsteen’s songs often do. The song’s protagonist, a lonely working class guy, is telling us a story of his life and its troubles from the first person; he was working at the lumber yard, then at the car wash and in the end of the song he’s “swinging a sledgehammer on the railroad”. This day to day realism is interwoven with his longing for the woman who one day “packed her bags”, bought a train ticket and left him behind. The culmination of the poem is a wonderful, nocturnal, moonlit scene where the guy hear the voice of a woman he loves calling out to him and he returns to the scene of their marital bliss, a house which is now empty and sad; “the room was dark, her bed was empty” and then he drops to his knees and cries, and later we find out he is working at the railroad now, the very same railroad where the train passed by; the train that his wife took to leave him behind.

“I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going, mister, in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the car wash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?
She just said, “Joe, I gotta go
We had it once, we ain’t got it anymore”
She packed her bags, left me behind
She bought a ticket on the Central Line
Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining
I feel her kiss in the misty rain
And I feel like I’m a rider on a downbound train
Last night I heard your voice
You were crying, crying, you were so alone
You said your love had never died
You were waiting for me at home
Put on my jacket, I ran through the woods
I ran ’til I thought my chest would explode
There in a clearing, beyond the highway
In the moonlight, our wedding house shone
I rushed through the yard
I burst through the front door, my head pounding hard
Up the stairs, I climbed
The room was dark, our bed was empty
Then I heard that long whistle whine
And I dropped to my knees, hung my head, and cried
Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang
Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain
Now, don’t it feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?”
*

This scene made me think of Charles Burchfield’s delightful watercolours of houses and abandoned places such as the room in the watercolour above “In a Deserted House”. The grey colour scheme of the watercolour gives it a gloomy, lonely mood that is further expressed in the details such as the tattered wallpapers, torn at parts, a cold fireplace; there’s no one to sit there and enjoy the fire. Now only a cold breeze visits the house and passes through it as a ghostly breath of the past. In the song there is a reference to the bed which isn’t painted in the watercolour but I feel like the mood of the watercolour matches the mood of the scene. Burchfield’s paintings are described as the “catalogue of tattered dreams: abandoned towns with their false-fronted ramshackle facades, sitting on the edge of vast prairies, decrepit Victorian rowhouses, resembling tooth-less old women, the barren wastes left by industries once robust.” (American Encounters: Art, History and Cultural Identity) Abandonment and decay, a poetic sadness, are some things that linger through Burchfield’s artworks, mostly watercolours, and I feel the same vibe from some of Springsteen’s songs such as the “Downbound Train”, “The River” or “The Stolen Car”. Watercolour “In a Deserted House” and the song “Downbound Train” both deal with the motif of what-could-have-been; the house now empty, desolate and cold could have been warm with sunlight, laughter and a fireplace, just as the dark room in the wedding house in the song could have been a place of happiness and love. Both express a sense of something lost, something gone that cannot be recaptured.

Syd Barrett’s Birthday: Lazing in the foggy dew, sitting on the unicorn

6 Jan

It’s Syd Barrett’s birthday today and, as most of you know, I am a massive fan of the early Pink Floyd and Syd’s two solo albums. And it is my tradition on this blog to post something Syd-related on his birthday. “Flaming” is one of my favourite Pink Floyd songs and for a while now I had this idea of posting the song’s lyrics alongside with the appropriate paintings or pictures because the lyrics are so vivid and full of whimsical, childlike imagery which instantly bring images to my mind and makes me daydream of some fairy tale land of flowers and clouds.

Henri-Edmond Cross, The Pink Cloud, 1896

Odilon Redon, Flower Clouds (c 1903), pastel

Alone in the clouds all blue

Edouard Vuillard, The Red Eiderdown, 1894

Lying on an eiderdown.
Yippee! You can’t see me
But I can you.

Art by Nissan Engel.

Lazing in the foggy dew
Sitting on a unicorn.
No fair, you can’t hear me
But I can you.

Marianne Stokes, In the Meadow (In a Field of Buttercups) (c 1890)

Watching buttercups cup the light

Burchfield, Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon, ca. 1961-65

Ludwig Stasiak, Dandelions, 1900

Sleeping on a dandelion.
Too much, I won’t touch you
But then I might.