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Egon Schiele and Kokoschka – Proletarian Lolitas

27 Mar

Friendship of Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, who were both remembered for being a thorn in the eye of the art scene in the late Art Nouveau and early Expressionism phase of Vienna, was merely an artistic one. They both soaked each others ideas and for a very short time created from the same wellspring of inspiration, only to move apart and drift into totally different directions.

Egon Schiele, Mädchen mit übereinandergeschlagenen Beinen (Girl with crossed legs), 1911

The very first thing you notice when gazing at Schiele’s portraits and nudes is their ‘elegantly wasted’ appeal mixed with some kind of twisted eroticism, smouldering melancholy and trashy glamour. There’s some subtle poetry of sadness about their worn out faces, tired eyes, sunken cheekbones, and their pale greyish skin. Completely nude, or dressed in lingerie and stockings, they gaze nervously, tiredly, forlornly at us; they provoke a response. Certain malaise pervades their smiles.

A true-blooded Expressionist, Oskar Kokoschka was the first to show interest in portraying the underprivileged, the poor, the misfits, but Egon Schiele soon followed his path, and they both worked and soaked inspiration in the gritty everyday reality of working class Vienna. Schiele’s drawings from 1910 and 1911 show resemblance to Kokoshka’s drawings from 1908 and 1909, but they are more poetical. In my view, Kokoshka’s drawings cannot even be compared to the power of his later paintings which are full of Expressionist frenzy, unsettling and distorted, painted in layers and layers of colour, as if every brushstroke brings relief. Below, you’ll see one of his drawing from this period which shows a half-nude girl. It slightly reminds me of Paul Gauguin’s way of portraying bodies, her face contour is strong, her body is kind of geometrical, overall she looks rough, stiff. This just shows that Schiele’s main method of expression was line, while in Kokoschka’s paintings colour plays a more important role. Kokoschka later even accused Schiele of ‘stealing’ his style.

Oskar Kokoschka, The juggler’s daughter, 1908, pencil, watercolour

But Schiele… Schiele’s drawings are like existentialist poems. He was an excellent draughtsman. Otto Benesh, son of Schiele’s patron Heinrich Benesh, wrote this of Schiele’s drawing technique: “Schiele drew quickly. The pencil skated over the white surface of the paper as though led by some ghostly hand… and he sometimes held the pencil in the manner of a painter from the Far East.” It’s also interesting to note that he never used an eraser; he rarely made mistakes, but when he did, he’d simply throw the paper away. And he sketched quickly, and then later, in the absence of the model, he’d fill in his drawings with watercolour or gouache.

Egon Schiele, Seated Girl Facing Front 1911

The beauty of his drawings is unsurpassed, even Klimt once admitted to him that he is better at drawing. His lines seem fragile and constricted, but their firm and controlled nature cannot be denied. Schiele employed the language of melancholy and lyricism, in a similar way to Modigliani, and used it to portray his own bewildering loneliness. In my view, all of his portraits, nudes, sunflowers and landscapes, express the same thing – melancholy, death, decay, they are windows into his soul and mind. This is just what Caspar David Friedrich said: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees in himself. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting what he sees before him.” Schiele always paints what is within him.

When he chose to paint these poor girls from the streets, he did so because he saw through their sunken cheeks and sad eyes, his artistic vision penetrated through their souls. Kokoshka is interested only in their bodies, but Schiele wants to see the world through their eyes. Kokoschka was interested in their crooked postures and inelegance because it suited his distorted visions of the world, whereas in Schiele’s drawings you see the souls behind their tired little bodies. Pale, skinny, beaten and hungry, unnoticed till that moment, these street urchins, mostly girls, always ignored, pushed into the corner, out of the way, were brought into the spotlight all of a sudden, which undoubtedly made them feel special, privileged. Someone noticed them, someone was nice towards them, someone wanted to paint them!

Egon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

A sentence which sums it all, and which inspired me to write this post in the first place:

“Physically immature, thin, wide-eyed, full-mouthed, innocent and lascivious at the same time, these Lolitas from the proletarian districts of Vienna arouse the kind of thoughts best not admitted before a judge and jury.” (Egon Schiele, by Frank Whitford)

You’ll notice how awkward they look. Girl with black hair has a look of sadness and resignation in her eyes. For a while that has been one of my favourite of Schiele’s nudes because of the discord between her cute round face with large eyes and full lips, and the awkward skinny body with skin stretched taunt over the bones, and small breasts. She looks uncomfortable with being naked, she looks shy and hopelessly sad. My more recent favourite is the one below, Sitting girl with ponytail, again, I love her body and her skin tone, which Schiele obviously enjoyed painting. His nudes always look pale and sickly, but sometimes their skin has a greyish tone and sometimes it takes yellowish shades, but you’ll notice how he paints patches of unnatural shades of colour where they should not naturally be, like adding a bit of green, blue or brown on their bodies. And look at the face of this little proletarian Lolita – it resembles that of a sad and dreamy porcelain doll, eyes gazing in the distance, lips painted in rich red colour.

This is what Schiele’s friend Gütersloh wrote of these child models:

There were always two or three small of large girls sitting about in his studio, brought there from the immediate neighbourhood, from off the street or picked up in the Schonbrunn park that was nearby. They were ugly and pretty, washed and unwashed and they did nothing – at least to the layman they might have seemed to do nothing… They slept, recovered from beatings administered by parents, lazily lounged about – something they were not allowed to do at home – combed their hair, pulled their dresses up or down, did or undid their shoes… like animals in a cage which suits them, they were left to their own devices, or at any rate believed themselves to be. (…) With the aid of little money and much charm he had managed to lull these little beasts into a false sense of security… They feared nothing from the sheet of paper which lay by Schiele on the divan.

Egon Schiele, Sitting girl with ponytail (Sitzendes Mädchen mit Pferdeschwanz), 1910

I think Schiele’s pencil and brush could have captured the appearance of Sonia Marmeladova from Crime and Punishment to utter perfection. Sonia is a pale, skinny, meek, painfully shy but deeply religious eighteen year old girl, and a prostitute who somehow manages to transcend the misery of her surroundings and remain pure at heart. And she also falls in love with Raskolnikov. Don’t they make a splendid match: a killer and a harlot. This is how Dostoevsky describes Sonia in the book:

She had a thin, very thin, pale face, rather irregular and angular, with a sharp little nose and chin.  She could not have been called pretty, but her blue eyes were so clear, and when they lighted up, there was such a kindliness and simplicity in her expression that one could not help being attracted.  Her face, and her whole figure indeed, had another peculiar characteristic.  In spite of her eighteen years, she looked almost a little girl- almost a child.

Sonia is one of my favourite literary heroines, and ever since I’ve read the book, I wondered what she looked like. Now I know that only Schiele could capture that irregular pale face, that fragile thin body, those big bright eyes. No doubt he would be attracted by her childlike figure, but would she dare to pose for him, as shy as she was? I don’t know, but maybe modelling would be better than prostitution. There’s a lot of descriptions of poverty in the book as well. Sonia’s little brothers and sisters, and her step-mother Katerina live in bad conditions; each has only one clothing garment, which Katerina washes every night, they are always hungry and frail, often ill. We can assume that the working class Vienna of Schiele’s time was no different, and that all these little innocent creatures that Schiele has painted with such zest probably lived similar lives. It was all very poignant to me. You just can’t read a book by Dostoevsky, close it, and not come out changed.

Oskar Kokoschka, Children Playing, 1909
 
As you can see by now, I can’t get Egon Schiele out of my mind. He is one of my favourite artists, and the more I read about his art, the more richness I discover. These days, I think, read, daydream about his art, various aspects of it, a lot, and I can tell you one thing – there are so many interesting fragments about his art that even a hundred posts wouldn’t be enough to explore his magic. And he has indeed woven magic over me.

British versus American Psychedelia

9 Jan

Last Summer I was intrigued to find out the differences between British and American Psychedelia. Whilst on a quest to study all the details, I listened to The Doors and Jim Morrison singing ‘Gloria’ while the last rays of sun peeked through my curtains in sunset, and I felt the gentle summer breeze, and I made these collages. But before I start, I want to say that these are my visions of psychedelia, so, if I failed to mention a particular band that’s because I didn’t listen to it. These are my observations, take it lightly.

***

British Psychedelia – Rose-Tinted Visions of the Past, Myths and Magic

“The underground exhibited a curious nostalgia, unusual in people so young. Living in tattered Victorian flats, smoking dope and rummaging for antiques on the Portobello Road, the underground pillaged their cultural history. Part romantics and part vandals, as they pulled away from their parents’ world, they embraced the shadow of their grandparents’ Victoriana, torn between an idealised future and rose-tinted visions of the past.” (Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe by Julian Palacios)

British psychedelia is more whimsical and deeply rooted in ‘cheery domesticity and a fascination with childhood as a lost age of innocence'(*). It takes inspiration from Romantics and long-haired Pre-Raphaelite beauties, William Morris prints, tea parties, fairies and magic woodlands, love of nature with mystical overtones and books such as ‘The Golden Bough’ by James George Frazer, magical worlds created by Lewis Carrol, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, songs about gnomes, fairies. It’s driven by a desire to go back to childhood and the past.

mood-board-british-psychedelia-1-text

Screaming through the starlit sky
Travelling by telephone.
Hey ho, here we go
Ever so high.‘ (Pink Floyd – Flaming)

mood-board-british-psychedelia-2-text

Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh
Float on a river forever and ever, Emily
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play.‘ (Pink Floyd – See Emily Play)

mood-board-british-psychedelia-3-text

I want to tell you a story
About a little man
If I can.
A gnome named Grimble Grumble.
And little gnomes stay in their homes.
Eating, sleeping, drinking their wine.
He wore a scarlet tunic,
A blue green hood,
It looked quite good.
He had a big adventure
Amidst the grass
Fresh air at last.
Wining, dining, biding his time.
And then one day – hooray!‘ (Pink Floyd – The Gnome)

mood-board-british-psychedelia-4-text

The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume
And fairy stories held me high on
Clouds of sunlight floating by.‘ (Pink Floyd – Matilda Mother)

mood-board-british-psychedelia-5-text

All I need is your whispered hello
Smiles melting the snow, nothing heard
Your eyes, they’re deeper than time
Say a love that won’t rhyme without words.‘ (Small Faces – Tin Soldier)

mood-board-british-psychedelia-6-text***

American Psychedelia:

‘Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light
Or just another lost angel?’ (The Doors – LA Woman)

Unlike British, American Psychedelia was driven by the anti-war protests, and teenagers wanted to have freedom and be adults, some even joined communes. As I see it, American psychedelia is all about sun, beach and rock ‘n’ roll. Colourful houses in San Francisco, whose beauty I’ve first encountered in Jack Kerouac’s writings. For me, American psychedelia is Jim Morrisson’s mystic poetry, mixing Indian shamanism and William Blake, it’s Roky Erickson screaming ‘You’re gonna miss me child yeah’ in the same named song by the 13th Floor Elevators, it’s Janis Joplin in vibrant clothes, singing about love in raw, husky voice, it’s the brightly coloured vans with peace signs, it’s The Byrds with their folk-sounds and cheerful guitars, the imagined sunsets on Ashbury Haigh.

mood-board-american-psychedelia-1-text

I see your hair is burnin’
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar
Drivin’ down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars,
The topless bars
Never saw a woman…
So alone, so alone…‘ (The Doors – L.A. Woman)

mood-board-american-psychedelia-2-text

Unhappy girl
Tear your web away
Saw thru all your bars
Melt your cell today
You are caught in a prison
Of your own devise.‘ (The Doors – Unhappy Girl)

mood-board-american-psychedelia-3-text

She lives on Love Street
Lingers long on Love Street
She has a house and garden
I would like to see what happens

She has robes and she has monkeys
Lazy diamond studded flunkies
She has wisdom and knows what to do
She has me and she has you.‘ (The Doors – Love Street)

mood-board-american-psychedelia-4-text

Hey what’s your name?
How old are you?
Where’d you go to school?
Aha, yeah
Aha, yeah
Ah, ah yeah, ah yeah
Oh haa, mmm

Well, now that we know each other a little bit better,
Why don’t you come over here
Make me feel all right!

Gloria, gloria
Gloria, gloria
Gloria, gloria
All night, all day
All right, okey, yey!‘ (The Doors – Gloria, originally by Van Morrison)

mood-board-american-psychedelia-5-text

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep.‘ (The Byrds – Turn, Turn, Turn)

mood-board-american-psychedelia-6-text

I’ve seen your face before,
I’ve known you all my life.
And though it’s new,
your image cuts me like a knife.
And now I’m home.
And now I’m home.
And now I’m home, to stay.
The neon from your eyes is splashing into mine.
It’s so familiar in a way I can’t define.‘ (The 13th Floor Elevators – Splash)

mood-board-american-psychedelia-7-text***

Which one do you prefer, British or American Psychedelia? I’d goes without saying that I’m all about fairies, childhood innocence and tea parties, so it’s British psychedelia for me. Nothing’s gonna stop me this time, I’ll make the Summer of 2017 my Summer of Love! But for now, let these psychedelic tunes warm these short but never-ending winter days.

Kitchen Sink Dramas – Dark Side of the Sixties

10 Dec

I love the 1960s. And I think you already know that. I love Syd Barrett, early Pink Floyd and psychedelia in London, I love Twiggy’s doll-like make up, I love Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle Vague films, especially those starring Anna Karina, I love listening to young, sweet and innocent Marianne Faithfull singing ‘Come and Stay With Me’ or ‘As Tears Go By’, I love watching films with gorgeous Brigitte Bardot, I love listening to Jim Morrisson singing about L.A. – the city of light, I love looking at pictures of Jean Shrimpton shot by David Bailey, I love the student’s protests in Paris and Jane Birkin and Serge singing together, I love the mini dress. But I also love the other side of the sixties, not so glamorous and swinging aspect of the decade, I love the kitchen sink realism.

1960s-shelagh-delaneyShelagh Delaney, by Arnold Newman, 1961

Kitchen sink realism or kitchen sink drama is a cultural movement that manifested itself in films, theatre, art and television plays. It’s characteristic for late 1950s and early 1960s, but because the themes are so universal the term can be applied to artworks and films of later date, for example, Ken Loach’s film Looks and Smiles (1981) has all the characteristics of a kitchen sink drama but was made in the eighties. Also, an earlier film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) resembles kitchen sink realism very much, it deals with poverty and limited education opportunities for lower classes seen through the prism of a working class Irish-immigrant family in Brooklyn. In a way, kitchen sink realism is an aesthetic, and not just a movement.

Typical kitchen sink drama characters are working class lads and girls who all want something more and better of life, although they often can’t define just what is it they long for, live in the North of England or the Midlands in council houses, or grim attic apartments. They are young, intelligent and often good looking, but their social background, along with a string of bad decisions makes them trapped in lives of resignation, bitterness and disillusionment.

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-2A Taste of Honey, 1961, with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin

Jo from ‘A Taste of Honey (1961)’ is a fifteen year old schoolgirl who falls in love with a black sailor and gets pregnant, in ‘Room at the Top (1959)‘ a working class lad Joe has to decide between living with a woman he truly loves or marrying a pretty young middle class girl which will land him a great job, in ‘Poor Cow (1967)‘ Joy lives with an abusive husband who ends up in jail and has to take care of a small son while still craving beauty, romance and pleasure, in ‘Up the Junction (1965)’ Rube, a young girl working in a confectionery factory, gets pregnant and goes through a traumatic illegal abortion because that’s the only option, In ‘Look Back in Anger (1959)‘ dissatisfied Jimmy Carter, played by Richard Burton, has a sweet-stall in the market, plays trumpet and lives with a passive middle class wife Allison, in ‘The L-Shaped Room (1962)‘ Jane is pregnant and doesn’t want to marry the father, Cathy Come Home (1966) deals with the subject of homelessness.As you can see, every character has a deep inner turmoil and usually ends up unable to fight back the cruel reality.

Their ideals are unattainable, they are in the gutter but they are trying to look at the stars – but there’s none to be seen on that dark, bleak sky of the industrial north. What they want they cannot reach, and if they do get what they want- there’s usually a nasty price to be paid. Was it worth it, they all ask themselves after the taste of honey has vanished from their lips.

by Arnold Newman, bromide print, 1961Shelagh Delaney, by Arnold Newman, 1961

It would be impossible to write this post without mentioning Morrissey and The Smiths; it was because of Morrissey that I was introduced to Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey, and then the movement itself. Perhaps the reason I loved it so much lies in the fact that I love Morrissey’ lyrics, which often deal with similar subjects as the kitchen sink dramas; ‘small-town frustration, lost dreams and complicated loves’ (Why Pamper Life’s Complexities? Essay on The Smiths).

This quote from the book already mentioned above illustrates the connection between kitchen sink dramas and Morrissey’s lyrics:

Kitchen-sink characters such as Jo from ‘A Taste of Honey’, Arthur from ‘Saturday Night Sunday Morning’, Billy from ‘Billy Liar’ and Colin from ‘The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner’ are denied access to the ‘honey’ for most of their lives. Their moment of enlightenment – ‘the taste of honey’ in their lives – is ephemeral and comes under the risk of punishment. This essential dreamless quality of kitchen-sink world can found at the heart of many of Morrissey’s lyrics, and he himself was seen during his years with The Smiths as the official voice of gauche and disillusioned youth.

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-4A Taste of Honey (1961) with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin

Morrissey’s lyrics go hand in hand with bleak aesthetic of the North; smoke rising from the chimneys, small flats with wallpapers peeling off, endless row of red-bricked houses which all look the same just like the days which linger on bringing nothing but dullness. He articulated provincial boredom and feeling of alienation from everyone around him very well. His lyrics create poetic images that seemed to have arisen not only from his own experience of loneliness and life in the north, but also from kitchen sink dramas he loved and often borrowed lyrics from. He sang of kissing under the iron bridge, coming back to the old house (which he never will because it was demolished like a lot of houses in Manchester at the time), short-lasting loves; shyness that is criminally vulgar; going to clubs, standing alone going home alone and wanting to die.

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-6

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-5A Taste of Honey (1961) with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin; “This place stinks. That river, it’s the colour of lead.” (says Jo in Act II)

One song in particular, This Night Has Opened My Eyes, deals with kitchen-sink theme directly. Morrissey took inspiration from Shelagh Delaney’s play ‘A Taste of Honey’. In his other song ‘Reel Around the Fountain’ he even incorporated a line from the play that goes ‘I dreamt about you last night, I fell of my bed twice.’

This night has opened my eyes
And I will never sleep again
You kicked and cried like a bullied child
A grown man of twenty-five
Oh, he said he’d cure your ills
But he didn’t and he never will
Oh, save your life
Because you’ve only got one
The dream has gone
But the baby is real
Oh, you did a good thing
She could have been a poet
Or, she could have been a fool
Oh, you did a bad thing
And I’m not happy
And I’m not sad
Whereas he sang with an undertow of melancholy, in addition to songs being coated in whimsical melodies thanks to Johnny Marr, another band, Manic Street Preachers sang of similar issues, such as boredom and provincial claustrophobia with a genuine working class anger and resentment. Another northern band from Sheffield, Pulp, has a distinct kitchen-sink mood in their lyrics from 1990s, dealing with themes of provincial loneliness, sex and class struggle.

1967-poor-cow-1967-ken-loach-terence-stamp-carol-white-12

1967-poor-cow-1967-ken-loach-terence-stamp-carol-white-10

1967-poor-cow-1967-ken-loach-terence-stamp-carol-white-11Carol White in Poor Cow (1967), dir. Ken Loach

Shelagh Delaney, who wrote ‘A Taste of Honey’ when she was just eighteen years old, describes the kitchen-sink aesthetic very well in a short TV report for BBC Four in 1960. What struck me is that she loved living in Salford, and admitted she gets very homesick whenever she’s away from it. This is ironic because most of kitchen-sink characters are dying to get out of their provincial towns, but Delaney loved the atmosphere of the place, she loved the vitality of people, the language and the situations were all wellsprings of inspiration. She said: ‘And the language is alive, its viral, it lives and it breathes and you know exactly where’s it’s coming from, right out of the earth.

Delaney also called Salford a drug, explaining that even if you wanted to leave, the place hold you back and it’s impossible to say goodbye to it.

1962-the-l-shaped-room-1962-with-leslie-caron-6The L-Shaped Room (1962) with Leslie Caron

Before I sat down writing this post, I asked myself what is it exactly that I love about kitchen sink dramas. And I can’t really pin-point one particular thing, it was love at first sight I suppose. First of all, I love that it’s about the real people in real situations. I don’t like sugar-coated things, they only make you detest your own life and poison you with desires and daydreams about things that will never happen, at least not for you. But kitchen sink dramas are as real as Dostoyevsky’s novels. Characters are always faced with difficult decisions, live in a place they want to escape from, and there’s always a sense that what they want will cause their downfall. What started as ‘just a kiss’ could and probably will end up in pregnancy because characters such as Jo in A Taste of Honey, Rube in Up the Junction and Jane in The L-Shaped Room have no luck when it comes to the matters. And men are working class heroes and that’s something to be. They usually deal with limited employment opportunities, hard labour in factories and difficulty in reconciling their responsibilities and desires, along with the disdain they feel from the upper classes when they try to ‘invade’ their territory.

Watching them, and observing how they deal with these very difficult situations and decisions acts as a catharsis for me, in a way that Aristotle described it as ‘purification of emotions through art’. He thought that art (in this case film) ought to evoke feelings of compassion and fear and thereby purify the feelings of the viewer. Kitchen sink dramas definitely do that for me. When I think of Jo being pregnant with a ‘grown man of 25 who said he’d cure her ills but he didn’t and he never will’, or those girls in ‘Up the Junction’ working in a factory, living for the weekend to go out, put that eyeliner on and dance to some whimsical tunes, or Allison deciding whether she’ll stay with Jimmy or not – these situations make all my problems seem trivial, and I end up crying for them because their lives are so helpless and I don’t know what I’d do in their situations.

1959-look-back-in-anger-with-richard-burton-2Look Back in Anger (1959) with Mary Ure and Richard Burton

I also like the aesthetic of these kitchen sink dramas; everything is dark, rainy and cold, people seem to live on tea and toast, women walk around wearing petticoats and skirts all day long with their hair made for the week, children play on streets and clothes hang on the washing line, while the landscape always seems dominated by tall chimneys of factories, and red bricked houses go on and on, and people walk in the small alleyways clutching umbrellas and wondering when will that day come they’ll finally escape from their shitty town, and there’s not a single tree in the sight. And still, markets are lively, and people smile. Children play and young couples kiss. Hope lies beyond everything.

1956-kenneth-haigh-right-as-jimmy-porter-with-helena-hughes-alan-bates-and-mary-ure-in-the-original-production-of-look-back-in-anger-at-the-royal-court-in-london-in-1956Kenneth Haigh (right) as Jimmy Porter, with Helena Hughes, Alan Bates and Mary Ure in the original production of Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in London in 1956. Photograph: Charles Hewitt (source)

In this post I wanted to show you that, while the sixties are mostly loved and remembered for their swinging and glamorous qualities, there’s also a ‘darker’ side to them. Kitchen sink dramas deal with social and economic problems of post-war Britain shown through the psychological portrayal of an individual – it’s up to you to embrace their dark charms.

Now I’ll recommend you films that were my personal favourites: A Taste of Honey (1961), Poor Cow (1967), Look Back in Anger (1959), The L-Shaped Room (1962), Alfie (1966), and some of later date by Ken Loach: Kes (1969) and Looks and Smiles (1981). Mike Leigh seems to nurture a similar aesthetic in some of him films, although they are noticeably less grim, but I love them as well, particularly Naked (1993), Life is Sweet (1990) and All or Nothing (2002).

Do you like the aesthetic and themes of kitchen sink dramas?

David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Expressionism – Berlin Years

26 Nov

When David Bowie and Iggy Pop came to Berlin in the late seventies, they were welcomed by a divided city, a city which flourished in its confinement, breathing and living in hustle of capitalism, at the same time suffocating in an alienation which was its own product.

wir-kinder-von-bahnhof-zoo-david-bowie

With Bowie’s arrival in Berlin, a period of cultural and artistic thriving started both for him and the city itself, which gleefully relived the glamour and decadence of its Weimar days.

Products of this fruitful, avant-garde, quite radical, sleek and modern, Europeanised, bohemian-aristocratic period of Bowie’s career were three albums; Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979), and The Idiot (1977) and Lust for Life (1977) for Iggy Pop respectively. Drawn in deeper and deeper in cocaine hell, fame and shallowness of Los Angeles, Bowie had wanted for some time a clean start, a departure from his old personas because things did took him ‘where the things are hollow’. Iggy Pop wasn’t in a good place as well. West Germany was a place to go. Bowie was drawn to Berlin; a city at the heart of the West-East ideological conflicts, with a rich yet drab cultural history.

1927-brigitte-helm-on-the-set-of-the-metropolis-1927-fritz-langBrigitte Helm on the set of the Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)

Bowie spoke himself about the reasons behind his moving to Berlin: ‘Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer anyway.‘ (Uncut magazine, 1999)

1976-david-bowie-iggy-pop-copenhagen

In order to understand Berlin as it was in the seventies, it is necessary to understand its history, especially its ‘golden era’ of the 1920s – the decadency and cultural richness of the era equals the ones in Bowie’s time in Berlin. Berlin underwent a lot of transformation and served as the background for many political events since it first became the capital of the German Reich in 1871; from the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the roaring twenties, with all the freedom and avant-garde that characterised the decade, then the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, World War II and the events after it, the beginning of the Cold War and the division itself, building of the infamous wall, heroin addicts at the Bahnhof Zoo, arrival of Western rock stars – Lou Reed, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, later Nick Cave, all the way to the fall of the Wall and today’s modern ‘clean’, commercial and capitalist face of Berlin. It’s a city that nurtured its own bleakness, greyness and almost aggressive modernity. It’s also a city that allowed Bowie his freedom and anonymity.

1908-ernst-ludwig-kirchner-street-dresdenKircher’s vibrant colours express the overwhelming bustle and frenzy of life in a big city, and the loneliness of an individual at the same time. A million people and not a single friend.

I especially felt this modernity and sense of alienation in places such as Potsdamer Platz, Bahnhof Zoo (can’t deny its legacy) and Alexanderplatz. I remember it well, last summer I was standing on Alexander Platz with greyness all around me and trams passing in different directions – I felt like I was in one of Kirchner’s paintings. I also enjoyed watching trains arriving to the Bahnhof Zoo, wondering about the boroughs they connect. Oh, I simply adore that urban Romanticism about Berlin!

1914-ernst-ludwig-kirchner-1880-1938-berlin-street-scene-1914-pastel-and-charcoal-on-beige-colored-corrugated-laid-paper-67-7-x-49-3-cm-stadel-museum-frankfurt-am-mainErnst Ludwig Kirchner, Berlin Street Scene, 1914: People crossing each other’s paths, walking directionless, waiting for tramways, chatting, gazing into distance, waiting for clients; careless, nervous, breathing an air of avant-garde.

In 1871, Berlin had only 800,000 inhabitants, in 1929 it had more than four million. Unlike London or Paris, Berlin wasn’t dotted with museums, churches and palaces, but was rather more ‘grey and uniform looking’.

Old Berlin consisted of six different boroughs: Mitte, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Kreutzberg, Tiergarten and Wedding. In 1920, seven surrounding towns were incorporated:Charlottenburg, Spandau, Schöneberg, Wilmersdorf, Lichtenberg, Neuköln and Kopenick. ‘Greater Berlin’ was thus formed by artificially uniting the existing, established eastern sector with a new area of land. The resulting caesura remained visible and tangible, both in terms of the social structure of the city and the mentality of its inhabitants.’ (Berlin in the 20s, Rainer Metzger)

This is an interesting information because we know that both Marlene Dietrich and Blixa Bargeld were born in Schöneberg – the same part of Berlin that Bowie and Iggy lived in. Bowie also named his song: Neuköln. The point is, Berlin was different, a concrete jungle half-coated in avant-garde, half in junkies, misfits and eccentrics. Paris had a romantic flair, London had a certain quirkiness, but Berlin had the legacy of Expressionists and Anita Berber, and of course – Gropiusstadt.

1923-anita-berber-photographed-by-madame-dora-1923Anita Berber, looking like one of Klimt’s muses and a Biba girl at the same time.

What Berlin also possessed, both in the 1920s and in the 1970s, was a certain fragility, awareness of its own transience. In that decadent frenzy, anxiety and excitement, the city lived, breathed and sensed its own collapse, as the Einsturzende Neubauten would later sing. Carl Zuckmayer, a German writer who lived in 1920s Berlin, writes about this feeling: ‘The arts blossomed like a field awaiting the harvest. Hence the charm of the tragic genius that characterised the epoch and the works of many poets and artists cut off in their prime… I remember well how Max Reinhardt… once said: “What I love is this taste of transience on the tongue – every year might be the last year.” Rainer Metzger further adds: ‘Today it is clear just how accurate, vigilant and prophetic this awareness of its own fragility, prior to the events of 1933, turned out to be.‘ Berlin’s artistic and cultural life at the time was a landslide, its seeming excitement, energy and a need for fun and intoxication was simply a facade that hid the unrest that lay on the inside.

1977-child-in-berlin-david-bowieDavid Bowie, Child in Berlin, 1977

Berlin in the seventies still held many of these characteristics, except it didn’t just sense the catastrophe but lived in the middle of it. Now a wall divided the West and the East, and Bowie arrived just in time to sing of lovers standing by the wall and create a new sound that would soak up the atmosphere of the city like a sponge. A sense of transience still lingered though, as we all know, Bowie’s artistic periods and personas didn’t last long, and from the moment he came it was evident that he may be gone soon. How long would Berlin continue to inspire him? One, two albums? It turned out to be three. If I may say – some of the most beautiful out of all his entire oeuvre. Bowie later ‘called “Heroes”, and his three Berlin albums, his DNA.’ (*)

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Bowie’s divine Berlin era started as early as in the summer of 1976, when he started working on The Idiot with Iggy Pop, although his previous album Station to Station hints at a change that was soon to come, especially the ten minutes long title track, Bowie said himself: As far as the music goes, Low and its siblings were a direct follow-on from the title track Station To Station. It’s often struck me that there will usually be one track on any given album of mine, which will be a fair indicator of the intent of the following album. (Uncut magazine, 1999)

Iggy Pop said in this interview that The Idiot was inspired by the idea of Berlin, not the city itself yet, although they knew it was their next destination. That is so interesting because many times in art there’s a situation that the artist painted his reveries of a certain place, idealised visions of it, and not the realistic place itself. That’s the power of imagination.

Seeking spiritual and physical purification, and turning his interest from America to Europe again, Bowie found a new wellspring of creativity, imagination and happiness. Seems like those years served him good; not only did he produce three magnificent albums, and turned Berlin into a Mecca for the world of rock music, but also – found himself. He no longer needed a mask to hide himself, but rather found a way to express himself and go on stage as David Bowie.

1925-26-farewell-by-ernst-ludwig-kirchnerErnst Ludwig Kirchner, The Farewell, 1925-26

David Bowie loved Expressionism, and often visited Die Brücke Museum in Berlin, which was opened just nine years prior to his arrival. I remember reading somewhere that he loved watching twenty hour long Expressionistic films while travelling by train. He explained his love for the art movement in one interview:

Since my teenage years I had obsessed on the angst ridden, emotional work of the expressionists, both artists and film makers, and Berlin had been their spiritual home. This was the nub of Die Brucke movement, Max Rheinhardt, Brecht and where Metropolis and Caligari had originated. It was an art form that mirrored life not by event but by mood. This was where I felt my work was going. My attention had been swung back to Europe with the release of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn in 1974. The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further.‘ (Uncut magazine, 1999)

Did Bowie have Kirchner’s painting The Farewell in mind when he wrote lyrics for Sound and Vision? Just look at that beautiful vibrant electric blue outline on Kirchner’s figures of a woman with turquoise skin and a man in a brown-reddish coat. It really pierces your vision, and it’s imbued with almost a spiritual energy, just that single line would make a painting outstanding.

Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue

Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
Blue, blue” (*)

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Covers of Bowie’s album Heroes and Iggy Pop’s Idiot both have a similar theme, which draws direct influence from artists such as Erich Heckel, mentioned by Bowie in an interview as one of his favourites at the time, and also the photographs of Egon Schiele. Bowie and Pop’s interpretations of the older artworks possess the same modernity, chic avant-garde, almost robotic poses. The titles are interesting as well, Hero and Idiot, antonyms of a sort.

Musically, I’ve always been a fan of Bowie’s Berlin era. Even though I like Bowie’s earlier stuff as well, this period endlessly captivates me, not just because the songs are so peculiar, strange and beautiful, but also because of the cult of the city itself, and also because it’s Bowie’s most-honest, most-himself phase up to that point. Songs from Low, Heroes, Lodger, The Idiot and Lust for Life are anomalies in a world of rock music, created in a specific place at a specific time. Berlin was never the same again. Back then, it was strange, unexplored and politically unstable. Then came capitalism, and they’ve created a seemingly clean and safe, but slightly soulless environment, which is just what tourists want. They don’t want to feel the real thing, or see junkies or live art, they want to take a photo standing in front of Brandenburger Tor. I can’t help it wonder, would Bowie chose Berlin as his artistic destination knowing the city as it is today?

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Musically, Bowie and Pop’s albums from their Berlin eras convey that specific atmosphere of Berlin at the time, and that grey, modern and grim appearance of the city. As if their music responded to the scenery around them. Listening to tracks such as V-Schneider or Sense of Doubt you can picture the massive monstrous building of Gropiusstadt, or U-Bahns and Strassenbahns arriving at a station, you can feel the November coldness and bare trees in Mitte, tall soulless buildings, escalators at Europa Centar, never ending traffic jams…

1917-roquairol-erich-heckel-1917-or-the-idiot-iggy-popErich Heckel, Roquairol, 1917

And now some lyrics. Iggy Pop and David Bowie co-wrote Sister Midnight:

Calling Sister Midnight
You’ve got me reaching for the moon
Calling Sister Midnight
You’ve got me playing the fool
Calling Sister Midnight
Calling Sister Midnight
Can you hear me call
Can you hear me well
Can you hear me at all
Calling Sister Midnight
I’m an Idiot for you
Calling Sister Midnight
I’m a breakage inside.

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David Bowie’s song ‘What in a World’:

You’re just a little girl with grey eyes

So deep in your room,
You never leave your room
Something deep inside of me
Yearning deep inside of me
Talking through the gloom
What in the world can you do
What in the world can you do
I’m in the mood for your love
For your love
For your love” (*)

Pre-Romanticism: Ruined Abbeys, Erotic Dreams and Strange Visions

29 Oct

In this post we’ll explore Pre-Romanticism through its main themes and occupations; ruined abbeys, erotic dreams and strange visions. There’s a strong Gothic vibe in early Romanticism; dreams, visions, vampires and hallucinations, and artists sought inspiration in myths and ballades of the past, Celtic and Germanic fairy tales, and everything that evoked the spirit of the Middle Ages. Compared to the flashy second generation of Romanticism, art of Pre-Romanticism is shrouded in thousands of veils, in it an insurmountable mountain, a misty lake in a desolate countryside, it’s a dream of Albion. Pre-Romanticism is a gentle plant that grew from the imagination of the people of the North; from their gloom soothed by the roaring of the sea and their melancholy which enabled them to look within and to transcend the darkness of their surroundings.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794

Romanticism developed very early in British art and literature. In the same years when fashion and interior design were ruled by Rococo exuberance, and visual arts were dominated by Classical ideas imposed by the French painter David, a new sensibility was arising from the mists of Albion. Strongly opposing the cold and rational age of Enlightenment, artists of the new generation, represented by Thomas Gray, James Macpherson and Ann Radcliffe in literature, and Henry Fuseli, Turner and William Blake in visual arts, praised imagination and strong feelings, and advocated the return to nature. ‘Sturm und Drang’ in German literature and writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were also very important in creating the new spirit.

These artists found inspiration in everything otherworldly, dreamy and shrouded in mystery. All of a sudden, the artistic and literary stage of Europe was swamped with vampires and other ‘dreadful creatures’ (a tendency further developed by Mary Shelley). Proneness towards melancholy, strange visions, thoughts of death and transience, sleep and dreams, old ruins, long forgotten castles – all these themes suddenly pervaded the artistic landscape. Interest in the cold and gloomy North revealed to early Romanticists the beauty of old Icelandic sagas, the charms of the Scottish bard, the allure of dark Germanic, Celtic and Scandinavian legends and fairy tales, and drew their attention to everything ‘Gothic’; sombre, gruesome, frightening, because that’s how the folkloric and historical legacy of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages was perceived as.

Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794

Old ruins

As I’ve already mentioned, old ruins were an interesting subject for painters to incorporate in their sublime landscapes, and for poets they served as starting points for contemplation about life and death. William Wordsworth wrote verses inspired by the famous Tintern Abbey, and J.M.W. Turner captured its delicate beauty overgrown with ivy a few time. We could say that this ‘old ruin’, a symbol of some other times, was a muse for early Romanticists. You can easily picture a young man resting in the shadow of the Abbey, thinking of his lovely maiden, treasuring a lock of her hair, and thinking of the day they will finally be together. You can also imagine the Abbey in the stillness of the night, above it the shining full moon and stars. Ruins were popular because they were perceived as ‘pictures of despair and destruction’, further developing the sensibility of sublime.

1790-91-henry-fuseli-the-nightmareHenry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1790-91

Erotic Dreams

Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote that ‘Gleams from remote world visit the soul in sleep’, and the main focus of Fuseli’s art lies in dreams. He believed they were the most unexplored areas in art, which isn’t really a surprise because, firstly – how do you paint dreams, and secondly – until Romanticism there wasn’t really a concept of artist as a genius, a visionary, and because they were considered mere craftsmans, themes of their artworks were limited.

This isn’t the original version of this painting. Due to the popularity of the original, painted in 1781, Fuseli painted a few more versions and this is one of them. It shows a young woman sleeping and experiencing a nightmare. In a restless sleep, her arms are stretching, her golden ringlets falling down. Poor maiden, as helpless in her sleep as a virgin from one of Hammer production vampire films. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. Fuseli took inspiration from Germanic folkloric beliefs that demons and witches posses people who sleep alone. Lady’s pose was considered rather erotic when it was painted, but Fuseli was known to have had a collection of erotic drawings that might have served as an inspiration.

Still, what’s so appealing about this painting isn’t the composition or the colours, but its ability to anticipate the hidden and restless world of nightmares and the unconscious.

1790s ‘The Wandring Moon.’ Watercolour by William Blake (1757-1827).

William Blake (1757-1827), The Wandering Moon, Watercolour, 1816-20

Strange Visions

Eternity is in love with the creations of time.‘ (W.Blake)

Ah, finally, the visionary, the revolutionary-mystic, the rebel, the pot-head of Romanticism – William Blake, important for poetry and paintings alike.

Madame de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine),writes that people living in the North were more prone to melancholy, at the same time naming it as the reason that made their imaginations more vivid, more restless than it was with nations in the South. I’ll quote the book: ‘The people of the North were less engaged in pleasure than in its opposite sensation; and this rendered their imagination more fertile: the prospects of nature had almost unbounded influence over them; but it affected them as it appeared in their climate, always dark and gloomy.‘ (Madame de Staël, The Influence of Literature Upon Society, Volume 1, page 271)

William Blake is one of the finest examples of fertile imagination of the people of the North, as his poems and drawings were not only original and unique, but also very strange, mystic and flamboyant in terms of colours and ideas. His lonely and unreachable imagination produced drawings and watercolours that perfectly combine themes from Milton, Dante and the Bible, made with a prophetic vigour in strong and bitter colours. As an example of Blake’s wonderful imagination I’ll mention his portrayal of a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell, Canto V, where he shows two sinful lovers, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, painted in deep blue and luminous white greyish shades. Namely, Dante reserved the second circle of hell for sinful lovers; Cleopatra, Paris, Helena, Tristan, Paolo and Francesca, who are carried away by the wind as a symbol of passion that guided them during their lives. Blake here used the motif of wind and created the composition as strange as it is imaginative.

1824-27-william-blake-the-lovers-whirlwind-francesca-da-rimini-and-paolo-malatestaWilliam Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

I love Pre-Romanticism, the mystic gloominess of it, and I have to stress this point again – it is characteristic for Northern nations; mainly England and Germany. While the playful, sweet and flowery aesthetic of Rococo ruled the court of France, British artists had already dipped their fingers in the sea of Pre-Romanticism, and later elaborated it to the finest detail because they naturally had an eye for wild and untamed nature, picturesque seashores, lovely gardens lush with greenness. Even Thomas Gainsborough added a slight romantic sensibility in his portraits by painting nature as a background, whereas his French peers preferred a salon to showcase their wealth and luxury. Even with painters such as John Constable who are a tad more traditional with landscapes, you see that romantic spirit. In his painting ‘Stonehenge’ he chose to capture the old, mysterious pagan ruins, and the wild majestic sky over them. I think with Romanticism and British art and literature, it was just a question of time when it would raise to the surface, but it was a sensibility deeply woven into the art of the island. I’ll quote Madame de Stael again, it’s a bit long citation, but I couldn’t resists adding it because it perfectly captures the spirit of Pre-Romanticism.

Melancholy poetry is that which accords best with philosophy. Depression of spirits leads us to penetrate more deeply into the character and destiny of man, than any other disposition of the mind. The English poets who succeeded the Scots bards, added to their descriptions those very ideas and reflections which those description ought to have given birth to: but they have preserved, from the fine imagination of the North that gloom which is soothed with the roaring of the sea, and the hollow blast that rages on the barren heath, and, in short, every thing dark and dismal, which can force a mind dissatisfied with its existence here, to look forward to another state. The vivid imagination of the people of the North darting beyond the boundaries of a world whose confines they inhabited, penetrated through the black cloud that obscured their horizon, and seemed to represent the dark passage to eternity.‘ (page 271)*

1835-stonehenge-john-constable-1John Constable, Stonehenge, 1835

If you survived reading this very long post, I congratulate you!

Art Nouveau and 1960s: A Psychedelic Dream

6 Oct

I noticed that some sixties posters and film costumes have a strong Art Nouveau and Pre-Raphaelite vibe, so naturally I turned to my art, culture and music bible when it comes to the Swinging Sixties – book ‘Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe’ by Julian Palacios, And here’s what I found. So, in this post we’ll take a look at the influence of Art Nouveau, Aesthetic movement and 19th century Orientalism on 1960s posters, designs, fashion and film costumes. I’ve also chosen some whimsical psychedelic tunes that I love and that fit very well with the mood of the post. Psychedelic Autumn, is it not?!

1967. Flower Power fashion, Photograph by Peter Knapp. Image scanned by Sweet Jane.

Flower Power fashion, Photograph by Peter Knapp, 1967, Image scanned by Sweet Jane

Donovan – Season of the Witch

Around 1966/67 there was a shift in style and mood. A change was in the air, as ‘vibrant coloured clothes and laughter’ filled the drab tube stations. Waning Mod fashion was quickly being replaced by a style more romantic and oriental. The new mood, exhibited not only in clothes but in posters, designs and music, found its inspiration in nostalgic reveries of the past and romantic daydreams about far East. Gone were the days of short skirts and fake eyelashes. Instead, young people – students, artists, musicians, groupies and dollies – traded their black and white geometrical outfits for caftans, vibrant coloured long dresses, long hair and less make up.

1960s fashion illustrations

1900. The Precious Stones (Ruby, Amethyst, Emerald, Topaz) - Alphonse Mucha

Do you notice the similarity in colours and composition between the sixties illustration (above) and Mucha’s painting ‘The Precious Stones (Ruby, Amethyst, Emerald, Topaz) from 1900.

Cosmic Sounds – The Zodiac

In late sixties, when Mod culture was starting to be looked upon as too commercial, and ‘futuristic themes gave way to exoticism, romanticism and nostalgia’ (1), young people started seeking answers and inspiration in paganism, mysticism and Eastern stuff: I Ching, Bhagavad Gita, The Golden Bough by James George Frazer which explores ‘magic, myths, Druids and Viking lore’, (p. 91), Ouija boards, tarot cards, meditation, vegetarianism and Hindu scriptures. Driven by LSD and hashish, they believed they were creating a new world, and so they delved into mysticism, found beauty in forgotten illustrations and paintings, whether it’s the sumptuous Klimt’s golden paintings or intricate William Morris wallpapers or William Blake’s drawings, laden with spirituality, hidden meanings and symbolism.

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1) Baby Doll Cosmetics 1968/ 2) Photo of Cleo de Merode, 1905; similar hairstyles.

Ravi Shankar – Sitar

A quote from the already mentioned book that sums it all:

The underground exhibited a curious nostalgia, unusual in people so young. Living in tattered Victorian flats, smoking dope and rummaging for antiques on the Portobello Road, the underground pillaged their cultural history. Part romantics and part vandals, as they pulled away from their parents’ world, they embraced the shadow of their grandparents’ Victoriana, torn between an idealised future and rose-tinted visions of the past.

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1) Flower Love, C.Keelan, 1967/ 2) Painting by Mucha

Just imagine that beautiful asceticism of the sixties; candle lit room with bare floor, mattress, incense sticks, Eastern fabrics for curtains, someone jamming on the guitar, girls in colourful clothes with flowers in their hair, resembling Mucha’s painting, laughter, optimism, mind expanding chatter… General mood of the time could be described as a combination of idealism, hedonism and optimism that eventually exceeded into decadence. Similar were the turn of the century vibes and the art movement that came to define the era – Art Nouveau.

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1) 1960s poster/ 2)Alphonse Mucha, ‘Job’, 1898

Art Nouveau demanded artistic freedom, art for art’s sake. Free the colour, the line, the beauty itself, the artists demanded. Similarly, in the sixties, after the drab post-war years were finally over and the economic situation was a bit better, artists and designers demanded the liberty of colour and design. Taking inspiration from the past, in a hope for a better artistic future, designers combined the refinement and elegance of Victorian and Edwardian art; floral prints, aestheticism and playful lines, and combined it with acid-laced colours such as magenta, aqua and bright yellow. Inspiration was often found in flamboyant turn of the century designs by Klimt, Aubrey Beardsley, Mucha and Georges de Feure.

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1) Poster for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown at UFO, 16 and 23 June, by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, 1967, London (Michael English & Nigel Waymouth / 2) 1897-98. Journal Des Ventes, Georges de Feure, Color lithograph

As you can see above, poster for the UFO designed by Michael English and Nigel Waymouth who worked under the moniker ‘Hapshash and the Coloured Coat’, is truly Art Nouveau in style; whimsical lines, fluid shapes amalgamating one into another, female figure with flowers and different ornamental detailing in her hair and on her body, the whole mood very playful and fit for the new sixties spirit and yet beautiful aesthetically.

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Psychedelic poster, Pink Floyd, 15 March 1966

A sixties touch in designs is definitely colour which is often bright, contrasting and eye-catching, whereas the turn of the century style preferred more refined colouring, jewel-like colours being popular but always combined with subtler shades. Klimt, Mucha and Georges de Feure placed the attention on ornamentation, almost Baroque in its heaviness, whereas in the sixties, the designs were made for the tuned-in folk, and colour combination such as mauve and yellow, orange and lilac, red and green appealed to the crowd. Psychedelic flamboyancy owes it all to Art Nouveau (and LSD).

Hapshash and the Coloured Coat’s posters rejected the stark formalism of graphic design in favour of referencing the 19th century illustrators William Morris and Aubrey Beardsley, with opium-laced flora and leaves drawn in interlaced patterns, hypnotic motifs and arabesques.“(p. 147)

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1) Barbra Streisand in Edwardian-inspired dress and hairstyle/ 2) Biba drawing

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1) Barbra Streisand /2) Edwardian illustration

The book also mentions illustrations by Arthur Rackham, a late Victorian and Edwardian era book illustrator who portrayed subjects from Nordic mythology to scenes from Shakespeare and Alice in Wonderland: “Art Nouveau posters by Alphonse Mucha and illustrated books by Arthur Rackham, dented silver carafes, spindly umbrellas with ivory handles, and chipped porcelain tea services formed a backdrop for an undulating mass along Portobello, Curving to Landbroke Grove…

And it seems to me that the sixties were one really long Mad Hatter’s tea party with great clothes, music and attitudes towards life and spirituality.

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1) Pattie Boyd and Twiggy for Vogue, 1969 / 2) Barbra Streisand in Edwardian dress

Influence of Art Nouveau, Pre-Raphaelites and Edwardian era can be seen not only in visual arts but also in fashion and film costumes. In 1990s there was a Jane Austen revival with films such as Sense and Sensibility. Well, films from the sixties and seventies are all about turn of the century; large hats decorated with roses, Art Nouveau interiors, Edwardian dresses in pastel colours with abundance of ruffles and lace… Some great examples of this aesthetic are films Hello, Dolly (1969) with Barbra Streisand, La Ronde (1964), Morgiana (1972), Viva Maria (1965) with Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau, Baba Yaga (1973) etc.

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1) Catherine Deneuve in Edwardian dress / Photo of Emilie de Briand, 1900s

Even in everyday fashion, it’s hard not to see the influence. No, women didn’t return to tight corsets and uncomfortable lingerie, but some designers such as Barbara Hulanicki of Biba took the best of Victorian and Edwardian fashion and incorporated it in sixties style. Think of longer dresses (compared to Mary Quant’s mini dress that ruled the Swinging London), straw hats and lace details, floral prints, velvet, bishop sleeves, heavy dark coloured fabrics, longer hair often with curls (instead of the previous strict bob hair) or soft voluminous buns that were worn by Pattie Boyd and Twiggy for Vogue in 1969, and also Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot. Jane Birkin couldn’t resist the style as well, picture below:

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Jane Birkin in Edwardian dress with lace and ruffles, 1970

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1) Biba girl with Gibson Girl Hairstyle, 2) Illustration by Alphonse Mucha, 3) Biba illustration

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.