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Richard Redgrave – The Sempstress

19 Mar

Work — work — work!
My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread — and rags.
That shattered roof — this naked floor —
A table — a broken chair —
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1846

In a modest interior, on a light of a single candle a poor girl is wasting her precious hours, days and nights, labouring over a blouse she will never wear, or a dress for a dance she’ll never attend. Outside the last breath of twilight colours the sky in sad streaks of yellow. Lights on the windows appear one by one. The hour is merry. The night murmurs of dreams and far-off lands, it speaks to the poets and dreamers across the grey cityscape, and softly knocks on this poor needlewoman’s window… The night invites her eyes for a dream, distant trees are whispering gentle lullabies, but she knows she cannot leave her needle and rest her hands… The work needs to be done, the bills paid, warm bread on the table would be heaven… And yet her gaze is directed upwards; tired of the wordly misery, she longs for the stars. Her own shadow on the wall is her only companion; her kindred-spirits are the birds that sing cheerfully in spring, and white snowflakes in winter. She is yearning not for idleness and luxury but rather a heaven up there with all its promised delights, for this earth is unkind. Exhausting work day by day, night by night, have coloured her young oval face in paleness of sorrow, as she daydreams of the sweetness of the countryside:

Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet —
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet.

She might be poor and starving in the countryside, but at least she would have fresh air, brooks and flowers that ease the life’s hardships in ways that the grey city cannot. In the early Victorian era, the newspapers were informing their readers about the exploitation of workers in the factories, often in the clothing trade. Still, when Richard Redgrave painted “The Sempstress”as a part of the wave of sentimentalised portrayals of working-class life, he was inspired by a poem he had read earlier, Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt“, which I already quoted above, first published on 16th December 1843. Here are some more lines that go well with the painting:

In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear its terrible shape,
It seems so like my own —
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear
And flesh and blood so cheap!

Her face expression, with large eyes turned upwards, and the way her figure is lighted in a dramatic way are reminiscent of the baroque paintings of female saints. Redgrave here portrays a realistic subject and offers a social criticism to eyes that wished to see it, but for the majority of Victorian viewers this painting offered a sentimentalized portrayal of working class reality; a life of sorrows, poverty and longing, with hope directed towards god. Is not this poor girl a martyr then? A martyr of a society blighted by the blossoming industrialisation and exploatation of cheap labour in factories.

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Aesthetic Movement: Oriental Lyricism vs Sumptuousness of Renaissance

19 Feb

L’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake; welcome to the world of Aestheticism!

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 3, 1865-67

“Now at last the spring

draws swiftly to its finish.

How alone I am.”

(Natsume Soseki, Kusamakura)

I bet that hearing the young Chelsea bohemians and aesthetes, such as Whistler and Rossetti, boasting about their art for art’s sake motto, was like a slap in the face to all that Ruskin had achieved in his writings and life long devotion to art. The English aesthetes continued in their paintings what the French poet and a devotee of Beauty, Théophile Gautier started. Art for art’s sake principle claims that the only purpose of art is to create Beauty; art should be its own purpose, and ought to remain detached from society, politics, philosophy or science. Perfection of execution and harmony of colours were seen as important means of achieving the Beauty. In the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) Gautier wrote: “Nothing is truly beautiful except that which can serve for nothing; whatever is useful is ugly.” This view of art having merely an aesthetic value clashed with John Ruskin’s opinion that art should convey the moral truths and influence us on a spiritual level.

Representatives of this wave of aestheticism in England, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Albert Moore, Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, filled their canvases, in most cases, with beautiful women in sumptuous surroundings, wearing gorgeous clothes and evoking a mood of languor and sweetness smelling of violets and roses. This obsession with Beauty went in two different directions; the first was the Oriental-inspired musings, while the other went into the past and revisited the luxurious settings of Titian and Giorgione’s paintings.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

“The temple bell stops –

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.”

(Basho, translated by Robert Bly)

Whistler is the representative of the first path; inspired by both his fellow painter Albert Moore and Japonism or the madness for all things Japanese, Ukiyo-e prints, porcelain and fabrics that ruined the minds of Parisian artists like plague, he created delicate, serene and lyrical paintings bathed in white and lightness. His famous “Symphonies”, the third one you can see above, were admired by his fellow painters such as James Tissot, Alfred Stevens and Edgar Degas, but also highly criticised too. Model for the girl lounging on the couch was Whistler’s mistress, model and muse Joanna Hiffernan who also posed for the Symphonies in White no. 1 and 2.

A painting needn’t always have a lady dressed in a kimono, white clothes or cherry blossom tree in it, for us to say that it was Japanese-inspired, it’s more about following the principles of Ukiyo-e prints and Japanese design by observing their use of perspective, flat portrayal of space, composition and bold outlines. This is also how Edgar Degas explored Japonism, by incorporating its interesting perspectives into his ballerina scenes, unlike Monet who opted for the simpler way: painting his wife in a colourful kimono.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866

Artists who took the second path, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, partly continued the Medieval reveries, but were mostly inspired by the luxurious, richly-coloured paintings of Renaissance ladies by Titian, Veronese and dreamy idyllic world of Giorgione. Ever since he painted “Bocca Bacciata” in 1859, Rossetti continually returns to the subject of a beautiful sensual and vain woman-enchantress with bloody lips of a vampire, clad in luxurious fabrics, surrounded with objects of beauty such as fans, jewellery or flowers. Her long and lustrous hair is ready to smother every man who dares to set his eyes upon her, her eyes are cold and large gemstones. “Monna Vanna” is another beautiful example of the rich-coloured dreamy splendour that Rossetti portrays, using different models but painting the same archetypal face with heavy-lidded eyes, strong neck and large lips.

Edward Burne-Jones, Le Chant d Amour (Song of Love), 1869-77

And at springtide, when the apple-blossoms brush the burnished bosom of the dove,
Two young lovers lying in an orchard would have read the story of our love;
Would have read the legend of my passion, known the bitter secret of my heart,
Kissed as we have kissed, but never parted as we two are fated now to part.
(Oscar Wilde, Flower of Love)

Edward Burne-Jones, a young admirer of Rossetti and a follower of Pre-Raphaelite ideas, also paints idealised worlds with much beauty but little content. In those reveries inspired by the Italian High Renaissance, like the “Song of Love” time stands still and figures are sinking deeper and deeper into the sweet languor that arises from imaginary sounds. Warm glowing colours are melting and draperies are heavy, as if carved from stone. Faces are strong and gazes distant. Claustrophobia and stillness almost painful, rapture captured for eternity, the height of ecstasy, the trembling of sighs, the caressing twilight that flickers in the distant sky, cold stone of the castle, eyelids closed by the intoxicating perfume of the tired tulips in the foreground.

No breeze, no movement, no bird is heard, the hand that lightly touches the keys of an instrument produces no sound, the drapery and the fine hair not dancing in the wind but stopped in the movement, the gaze is forever fixated. The figure on the right dressed in red, seems to be whispering Oscar Wilde’s lines “Had my lips been smitten into music by the kisses that but made them bleed” from “Flower of Love”. The painting itself has a mood of a flower which, unable to bloom or wither, chooses to stay crouching for eternity in the painfully agonizing stage of the bud.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

Just by looking at Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” and Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, it is easy to see their influence on both Burne-Jones’s “Song of Love” and Rossetti’s “Monna Vanna”. The same sweet languor pervades the air, the background reveals contours of a castle and a yellowish sky, and the draperies are similar as well. In Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, people are enjoying the music and each others company as warmth and indolence hang over them like a bright soft cloud.

Giorgione, Pastoral Concert (Fête champêtre), 1508-09

So, which direction of Aesthetic movement in painting do you prefer; oriental or Renaissance? It is pretty clear that I am all for the serenity of Whistler’s Symphonies in white influenced by Japanese-influence, but both possess their beauty. Whistler’s paintings can sometimes seem distant and cold, and the intensity of Rossetti and Burne-Jones’s colours and details can sometimes be overwhelming.

Francois Boucher – Resting Maiden

17 Dec

Today we are going to take a look at a famous Rococo painting by Boucher; a painter that is almost synonymous with the era. The painting of a nude girl unites luxury and eroticism, is painted in sensuous pastel shades of yellow, pink and blue, and it epitomises Rococo’s pursuit of pleasure and hedonism.

Francois Boucher, Resting Girl (also known as:L’Odalisque blonde), 1751

Plump nude beauty. Seashell pink skin. Sumptuous interior. A rich and mesmerising amber-coloured fabric: yellow was a beloved colour for Rococo artists. All these things you are likely to find in any Rococo painting, especially if the painter is Francois Boucher himself. His painting “Resting Girl” is one of the first things that come to people’s minds when they think about Rococo. I know it was for me; this painting, Fragonard’s The Swing and portraits of Madame Pompadour. In this simple interior scene with a horizontal composition details are limited and everything draws the eye to the focal point and that is the girl. The gorgeous yellow fabric surrounds her like the green leaf surrounds the fragrant white lotus flower. She is lying on a sofa; her one leg rests on a pillow whose crisp whiteness you can almost feel, the other on the yellow fabric. On the floor are two elegantly discarded pink roses. There is an open book in the lower left corner, but she doesn’t seem to be reading it. We see her only from the profile, and yet we can sense her mood. She looks a bit startled, surprised, slightly worried. She is holding her hand under her chin, her lips are just slightly parted. Perhaps she saw someone she wasn’t expecting?…

Note: There are two different versions of this painting, but I think the one above is the prettier one and I am referring to that one. Still, the blue ribbons in the painting below do entrance me. The second version was made for Madame de Pompadour’s brother.

The second version: Francois Boucher, Resting Girl, 1752

You must all be wondering right now, who is the owner of this cute Rococo ass? I shall gladly tell you: Marie-Louise O’Murphy; one of the mistresses of Louis XV. She was the youngest of the O’Murphy sisters and her family was of Irish origin, but lived in Normandy. The story goes that one day Louise was at her sister’s house and Casanova himself happened to be there and he saw her stark naked. The image of her pretty teenage body left him so entranced that he demanded a nude portrait of her to be made. Of course the painter was Boucher, for who else painted such openly licentious and unashamedly erotic scenes? Casanova wrote this about the finished portrait: “The skilled artist had drawn her legs and thighs so that the eye could not wish to see more. There I write below: O-Morphi wasn’t a Homeric or either Greek word. Was simply mean Beautiful.” Greek word for beauty, “Omorphiá” is similar to Louise’s surname “O’Murphy”. Having been born in October 1737, Louise was very young when she posed for this painting and her body does look more developed, and yet, when the king Louis XV himself demanded to see her, he concluded that she is even better looking than in the painting.

Francoise Boucher, A Female Nude Reclining on a Chaise-Longue (Graphite, red and white chalk on paper), Sketch for the painting

Louis XV’s reign practically coincides with the existence of Rococo era in art, and he himself led a life full of extravagances and many love affairs so he is a good person to represent the mood of this art movement. His most famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour, is knows as “the Godmother of Rococo” and Boucher was her official portrait painter. Pink was her favourite colour and champagne glass was allegedly made according to the shape of her breasts. Need I say more: the woman loved the art of her time. No other era in art displayed such straightforward eroticism as Rococo, in no other era did the sexual conquests fill the canvases, the novels, the gossips. After centuries of religious art holding dominance, the 18th century brought a liberation, just like the 1960s did in a way.

In art before Rococo, nudity or half-nudity was justifiable and acceptable only if it served a purpose, if it was part of a religious (St Sebastian) or mythological scene (Venus). In Rococo an artist was finally allowed to paint a nude without putting it in a context. Still nature with jugs and apples needs no context, why would a nude body need one? In “Resting Maiden”, the subject is not another Venus; it’s just an everyday girl called Louise and her adolescent beauty captured for eternity. In the 1740s, Boucher painted a similar scene, this time using his wife as a model. Diderot was particularly disgusted with the painting and Boucher was accused of “prostituting his own wife”:

François Boucher, Brown Odalisque (L’Odalisque Brune), 1740-49

These paintings by Boucher can be seen as epitomes of the Rococo spirit because they are straightforwardly hedonistic and light-hearted, sensuous and pastel coloured but things didn’t stay so pink and light-hearted for a long time. As the century progressed, things changed, flirty and frivolous guests of the Rococo party were facing a hangover; dreams and escapism gave way to reality. Pinkness and liberation descended into decadence and the French Revolution of 1789, sharp like a guillotine, cut Rococo’s timeline in a second. It seems that every pleasure has its consequence. I feel that there is such fragility and silent wistfulness hiding underneath Rococo’s shiny pink exterior. On the inside, Rococo is as gentle as porcelain or antique lace; it idealises, it fuels daydreams, it yearns for an eternally lovely world with baby blue skies, it tried so passionately to avoid reality that it got swallowed by it.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Girl with a Dog, 1770

Fragonard’s painting above is yet another example of Rococo’s naughtiness. To end the post here are a few verses from Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Spleen” that perfectly capture that fragile appeal of Rococo:

I am an old boudoir full of withered roses,

Where lies a whole litter of old-fashioned dresses,

Where the plaintive pastels and the pale Bouchers,

Alone, breathe in the fragrance from an opened phial.

***

Je suis un vieux boudoir plein de roses fanées,

Où gît tout un fouillis de modes surannées,

Où les pastelliste plaintifs et les pâles Boucher,

Seuls, respirent l’odeur d’un flacon débouché.

Romantic Melancholy

17 Nov

Sad; so sad, those smoky-rose, smoky-mauve evenings of late autumn, sad enough to pierce the heart…anguish of the turn of the year, the time of impotent yearning, the inconsolable season. (Angela Carter, Saints and Strangers)

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

In these lonely autumn evenings, I yearn to escape the enveloping dreariness of November through poetry, pressed flowers and scented candles. Suffocated by thick fogs and the smell of rotting corpses of daydreams and high hopes that never come true, I hear Melancholy quietly knocking on my door and silently, without disturbing the yellow roses in my vase, it wrapped my tired shoulders with a fragrant lace cloth of spring naivety and summer innocence, of silver dandelions and spider webs, white roses and kindness of strangers. I try to smile at this stranger dressed in a purple gown and jangling earrings of silver and amethyst, but my lips of a doll have become rusty. I take the imaginary book of memories in my hand and blow away the dust. A few rose petals fall on the floor, and my crystal tears join them in their fall. Memories of summer’s gold and bloom dance in my head like skeletons, memories of things that were painfully beautiful but might never return. Memories of poppy meadows and river’s cheerful murmurs, of May’s pink roses, white butterflies and forest groves, of golden sunlight and juicy pears, of stars and perpetually dreamy days of July, and long warm enchantingly golden afternoons of August. I have a withered rose instead of a heart, and it pulsates melodiously in a rhythm of yearning and anguish. I am a forgotten abbey in the oakwood; all my hopes have fallen like leaves on the trees and my soul is but a skeleton covered in moss. I take a pen and command: Melancholy, oh speak to me!

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

Melancholy is kind and generous, and since I begged her, she spoke to me in a mellifluous voice of all the places where she resides… First thou shall find me, said Melancholy, in ethereal sounds of Chopin’s Nocturnes, whose trembling ecstasies and passions lie hidden under flimsy veils of sadness. As Oscar Wilde said: “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.” When Chopin’s Nocturne turns to mute silence of dreary chambers, I dance my way to beautiful objects and inhabit them; old ballet slippers, worn out lamé dresses of 1920s, a box of old letters and photographs, empty perfume bottles, dusty cradles of children who are now adults, summer dusks with fireflies and strong scent of roses and a pale moon appearing coyly on the horizon, worn out names on tombstones and graves that no one visits any more, flowers slowly withering in a vase, unfinished charcoal drawings, drafts of letters never finished, smell of old books… Every place of beauty is my abode, ye can find me in poetry and songs too; in vocals and wistful violins of the Tindersticks and their song Travelling Light:

“There are places I don’t remember
There are times and days, they mean nothing to me
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
They don’t serve to jog my memory

I’m not waking in the morning, staring at the walls these days
I’m not getting out the boxes, spread all over the floor
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
Those faces they mean nothing to me no more”

Caspar David Friedrich, Abtei im Eichwald (Abbey in the Oakwood), 1808-1810

I closed my eyes and listened to Melancholy as it spoke to me, with a voice like flowing honey, and she said: I hide in canvases too; German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich adored me as his muse. Do not believe his landscapes, they are not at all what they seem; a tree is not a tree and fog is not simply fog as it is with John Constable. Led by his pantheistic vision of nature, he portrayed emotions and his states of mind. “Abbey in the Oakwood” is a melancholic masterpiece. An abandoned Gothic abbey is a corpse, a ruin, which speaks of happier times when it served its purpose. Tall oaks with crooked bare branches surround it. Sublime, eerie mood pervades the painting; crosses disappearing into the fog, a barely noticeable procession of monks, a freshly dug grave, and the endlessly lead coloured sky. In early 19th century Germany, Romanticism was closely associated with the National awakening, and Goethe considered Gothic architecture to be Germanic in origin. In contrast to the Classical architecture, the plans of Gothic cathedrals were done by “romantic intuition” rather than mathematical calculations. Gothic abbeys and oaks possess the same grandeur, the same melancholy when covered in deep snow or grey fogs.

I am not always obvious at first sight; do not let the screaming ecstatic yellow of Vincent van Gogh and Kirchner deceive you, for I was their friend too. I was the pencil that Egon Schiele used to sketch his nude beauties with worn out smiles and hollow cheeks, I kissed every yellow petal of the sunflowers he was obsessed with.

Egon Schiele, Sunflower, 1909

As I wipe my tears and feel my cheek’s returning rosy hue, I eagerly listen to Melancholy and her story. She says: I was the lover of John Keats, and the illness of young Werther. All artists find a muse in me, and Romanticists loved me deeply, but the idealist and dreamy escapist Keats adored me in particular, and dressed himself in my cloth of flowers, tears and beauty. In his rosy-coloured visions of the Middle Ages, he found beauty that the world of reality had denied him. Keats knew when he sang of me that Beauty is my other face, and he knew my strength well enough so he never tried to defeat me but rather embrace me and heal the sorrow I cause by contemplating things of Beauty:

“But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud;

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

*

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine…”

Percy Bysshe Shelley confided in me too, but found me too bitter at times, and yet he wrote these verses: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Photo by Laura Makabresku

John Singer Sargent, Polly Barnard (also known as study for Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose), 1885, Medium: pencil

Photo by Laura Makabresku

“There is a life and there is a death, and there are beauty and melancholy between.” (Albert Camus)

Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825-30

Caspar David Friedrich, A Walk at Dusk (detail), ca.1830-35

In November dreariness, my only consolation lies in long evening walks by the river. The Moon is my lover; I year for his caresses and weep at sunset when we must part. He greets me, smiling through the bare branches of tall trees, and I turn my face to his glow and whisperingly ask to fulfil all my longings, to kiss my cheeks and hug me. I hear the river murmuring of happier times, but the Moon is wise and he offers me a “nepenthe”. ‘What is it?’, I ask the Moon and he replies: ‘It is an ancient Greek word, defined as a medicine for sorrow. It can be a place, person or thing, which can aid in forgetting your pain and suffering.’ I follow the Moon, yearning for a more precise answer, but it disappears behind the clouds and I am left alone … yet again.

Photo by Laura Makabresku

I gaze at the river for a long time, longing to see the Moon’s whimsical silvery reflection in the dark water. I cup the dark water in my hands and the dazzling rays of moon slip through my fingers… just as every happy moment does.

Book Review: Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

21 Oct

I just finished reading a fascinating book: Reinaldo Arenas’s beautiful memoir Before Night Falls. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), the self proclaimed “bad poet in love with the moon” (in Spanish: “Mal poeta enamorado de la luna”) was a gay Cuban poet, novelist and playwright who fled to the United States in 1980.

The sea; turquoise blue and whispering thousands of secrets in every wave that rhythmically kisses the soft and golden sand of the beach. Photo found here.

Reinaldo Arenas… When I whisper his name, I hear the murmur of the sea, and that ‘r’ melts on my tongue like pure golden honey… Arenas… And ‘arena’ means ‘sand’ in Spanish.

How did I came to know about Arenas? Well, it all started one warm crimson night in August when I first watched the film Before Night Falls (2000) based on his autobiography, starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo. The film struck a chord with me; there was something poignant about the talented boy from the provincial area arriving to Havana to study agronomy, the boy who was at the same time naive and enraptured by the new and exciting possibilities that the big city offered. The sea, ahhh, the clear and warm sea in colours of turquoise and teal, the endless sandy beeches, and the vibrant architecture of Havana with colourful but decaying buildings with iron fences and palm trees everywhere…  And I’ll be honest, just gazing at Javier on the screen was nice too! I soon found myself daydreaming of Havana and I couldn’t get Reinaldo Arenas out of my head, so I read some of his poetry. His famous Auto-epitaph, written in New York in 1989, is just mind-blowing:

“A bad poet in love with the moon,

he counted terror as his only fortune :

and it was enough because, being no saint,

he knew that life is risk or abstinence,

that every great ambition is great insanity

and the most sordid horror has its charm.

He lived for life’s sake, which means seeing death

as a daily occurrence on which we wager

a splendid body or our entire lot.

He knew the best things are those we abandon

— precisely because we are leaving.

The everyday becomes hateful,

there s just one place to live – the impossible.

He knew imprisonment offenses

typical of human baseness ;

but was always escorted by a certain stoicism

that helped him walk the tightrope

or enjoy the morning’s glory,

and when he tottered, a window would appear

for him to jump toward infinity.

He wanted no ceremony, speech, mourning or cry,

no sandy mound where his skeleton be laid to rest

(not even after death did he wish to live in peace).

He ordered that his ashes be scattered at sea

where they would be in constant flow.

He hasn’t lost the habit of dreaming :

he hopes some adolescent will plunge into his waters.”

It’s hard to put in words what this poem meant to me in those warm afternoons of August I spent soaking in the golden rays of sun and daydreaming of the tropical sea, and what it still means to me. There is one line that’s particularly poignant to me and I dare say it’s almost burned in my mind: “Sólo hay un lugar para vivir – el imposible.” (There is just one place to live – the impossible.)

This painting by Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa (1871–1959) has absolutely nothing to do with the book, but if I had to chose one painting to describe my feelings upon reading the book, this would be it: bloom, vibrancy and ecstasy!

It took me only a few pages to realise that the book I am holding in my hands is a very special book, so I read it slowly, savouring every page. Arenas’s writing is so flowing, brutally honest and poetic despite the grittiness of his life. If I had to describe the book in short, I would say: sea, sex, madness for living and writing, and fighting Fidel Castro’s regime. The book starts with memories of his childhood; he was brought up by a single-mother and lived with her large family. He described his mother as a very beautiful and a very lonely woman. Despite their material poverty, he, along with other children, discovered beauty all around them; in the morning fogs, in silent nights in the village, and especially in soil. He writes about an almost primordial connection to the soil; he ate soil as a child, his first crib was a hole in the ground dug by his grandmother, he made mud castles, and in the end the dead body would rot in the soil and become reborn as a flower, a tree or some other plant. Still, the thing that enraptured him the most was the sea which was a constant presence in his life. The sea, with its rhythmic play of waves and its blueness, spoke of freedom. This is what he says about the sea later in the book: “The sea was like a feast and forced us to be happy, even when we did not particularly want to be. Perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.

Winslow Homer – A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Here are some quotes about his childhood fascination with the trees:

“I used to climb trees, and everything seemed much more beautiful from up there. I could embrace the world in completeness and feel a harmony that I could not experience down below.”

“Trees have a secret life that is only revealed to those willing to climb them. To climb a tree is to slowly discover a unique world, rhythmic, magical and harmonious, with its worms, insects, birds, and other living things, all apparently insignificant creatures, telling us their secrets.”

And here is one about his mother; the lingering sadness and disappointment of her life is so poignant:

“Before getting to my mother’s house, I would always think of her on the porch or even on the street, sweeping. She had a light way of sweeping, as if removing the dirt were not as important as moving the broom over the ground. Her way of sweeping was symbolic; so airy, so fragile, with a broom she tried to sweep away all the horrors, all the loneliness, all the misery that had accompanied her all her life…”

Colourful architecture of Havana. Photo found here.

At one point he moved from his little village to the city of Holguín, and in 1963 he won Fidel Castro’s scholarship and moved to Havana to study at the School of Planification. Later he studied literature and philosophy at the Unversidad de La Habana, but left the course without completing a degree. Ever since he first visited Havana, Arenas felt drawn to it, he felt it is the place to be: a big vibrant city where no one knows your name, a place far away from the poverty of the countryside. There he meets many interesting people: bohemians, painters, eccentrics and fellow writers such as Eliseo Diego and Lezama Lima. Arenas’s time spent in the sixties Havana was a vibrant and a happy period of his life, filled with sexual escapades, swimming, spending evenings at the famous cabaret Tropicana. There were three things he enjoyed in the early sixties: his typewriter, countless young men (fulfilling lust was a path to liberty because it was anti-regime), and the full discovery of the sea. Arenas wrote that sitting down and writing was a special experience and that the rhythm of his typing would inspire him and chapters would come like waves of the sea, first strong and wild then silent and slow. Many pages are devoted to descriptions of his writing and wild parties where everyone brought their notebooks, wrote poems or chapters of novels which they would then read to each other and, of course, made love. As Reinaldo said: literature and passion went hand in hand.

But things changed in the late sixties when Reinaldo’s openly gay lifestyle and his writing fell out of favour with the Communist regime. He had to hide his manuscripts and his novels were published abroad with the help of his French friends. In 1974 he was arrested and sent to prison. After he escaped from prison and tried to flee Cuba he was arrested again and sent to the notorious prison called El Morro Castle where he lived in gruesome circumstances. There’s a great scene in the film where in the middle of a dirty prison cell and loud inmates, Reinaldo is shown writing. Nothing could stop him from creating; hunger, imprisonment, illness. Creative expression was everything. While he was in prison he organised French lessons and helped his inmates by writing love letters to their girlfriends or wives. If you’re looking for self-pity, you won’t find it on any page of Before Night Falls.

Peder Severin Krøyer,Summer evening at the South Beach, 1893

Winslow Homer – Sponge Fishermen, Bahamas, 1885

And here is an explanation for the book’s title ‘Before Night Falls’ (original: Antes que anochezca: autobiografía):

‘Being a fugitive living in the woods at the time, I had to write before it got dark. Now darkness was approaching again, only more insidiously. It was the dark night of death. I really had to finish my memoirs before nightfall. I took it as a challenge.’

There is such a romanticism about Reinaldo’s life; the way he was never spiritless despite the hardships, imprisonments and betrayals of people he considered to be friends. It seems like nothing could really get him down, and he never wasted time but wrote, wrote and wrote. He lived for his writing, everything else came second, and despite his relatively short life his oeuvre proves his fruitfulness as an artist. Particularly interesting was to read about the creation of his novel “Farewell to the Sea” (Otra vez el mar). I honestly can’t even remember how many times he wrote that novel but every time the manuscript would get lost, stolen, burnt, you name it. And you know what he did? He started writing it again.

In 1987 Reinaldo was diagnosed with AIDS. On 7th December 1990 he died after an intentional overdose on alcohol and drugs. His decision to end his life instead of passively waiting for death is summed in this quote: “I have always considered it despicable to to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.”

In this photo you can see the man himself.

To close this ode to Reinaldo, here is another interesting thing, an interview from 1983 which you can read here. Here is a fragment from the beginning, the interviewer’s impression of Reinaldo: “Though I was nervous about meeting the great man, one of Cuba’s most admired writers, Arenas immediately put me at ease. “Encantado,” he said, smiling and taking my hand. Forty years old at the time, he had thick, curly black hair and enormous, sad eyes…”

I was especially interested to hear about his writing process and choosing different styles of writing for different scenes:

“If there’s a moment—as in my novel “Farewell to the Sea”—where you want to satirize all the uniforms, swords, and so forth of a dictator, you can do a caricature of the baroque. If you’re describing the characters’ nightmares, that may be the time for surrealism. All of these techniques or styles can come into play as you realize your vision. (…) But there’s a moment for every style. That’s why I advocate an eclectic technique.”

I loved this book because I felt as if I was on a journey with Arenas, through space and time. I loved it because of its wild and sincere yearning to live life to the fullest, to write and create and breathe and be excited by the sight of the sea for the thousandth time. In his last letter, Arenas wrote: “I end my life voluntarily because I cannot continue working … I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.

I see this book as a gift from Reinaldo, it gave me hope and assured me in my opinion that there is nothing more elevating than suffering and struggling for art.

Edwardian Daydreams of the 1970s – Lace, Pastel Colours, Countryside Idyll

8 Sep

Today we’ll take a look at the Edwardian influence on the fashion of the 1970s and the dreamy world it created where white lace, straw hats, floral prints and pastel colours rule.

Photo by David Hamilton, 1970s

Fashion-wise, the 1970s were an eclectic decade, a trend-driven one, especially compared to the previous ones, like the 1950s which were homogeneous. Fashions ranged from Hollywood-inspired Biba glamour, Glam rock, Yves Saint Lauren’s gypsy exoticism to disco, Studio 54 extravagances, Punk and New wave. There was also one trend that I absolutely adore at the moment – the Edwardian revival which brought a gentle, girly and romantic touch to one’s wardrobe. It is in stark contrast to the bold patterns and bright colours of sixties mini dresses.

I already wrote about the influence of the late Victorian and Edwardian era along with Art Nouveau on sixties psychedelia, both in visual art and in fashion here, but this influence is a tad different. Forget the vibrant colours and shapes of Mucha’s paintings that go perfectly with groovy sixties posters. Open your mind for something whiter, gentler, dreamier….

Jane Birkin (1970) and Edwardian lady (1900)

Photo by David Hamilton, 1970s

Left: Bette Davis, Right: Jerry Hall by David Hamilton

Wearing certain clothes can transport you to a different place in imagination, don’t you agree? Well, the mood of this Edwardian revival fantasy is that of an idealised countryside haven where a maiden in white spends her days in romantic pursuits such as pressing flowers, strolling in the meadows, picking apples, lounging on dozens of soft cushions with floral patterns and daydreaming while the gold rays of sun and gentle breeze peek through the flimsy white curtains, reading long nineteenth century novels by Turgenev or Flaubert in forest glades, Beatrix Potter’s witty innocent world of animals, illustrations by Sarah Key, all the while being dressed in beautiful pastel colours that evoke the softness of Edwardian lace, Lilian Gish and Mary Pickford’s flouncy girlish dresses, long flowing dresses with floral prints and delicate embroidery, straw hats decorated with flowers and ribbons, lace gloves, pretty stockings, and hair in a soft bun with a few locks elegantly framing the face, or all in big rag curls with a large white or blue bow, resembling a hairstyle of a Victorian little schoolgirl.

Brooke Shields in “Pretty Baby” (1978)

Left: Lillian Gish, Right: Mary Pickford, c. 1910s

As you know, films have an influence over fashion. I myself often watch a film and caught myself mentally going through my wardrobe and looking for similar outfits that a heroine is wearing. It’s beyond me. Many films from the seventies have the same romantic Edwardian revival aesthetic, such as Pretty Baby (1978) set in a New Orleans brothel at the turn of the century, women are lounging around in white undergarments and black stockings which is so typically fin de siecle, and Shield Brooks in a white dress holding a doll, adorable.

In Australian drama mystery film Picnic at the Hanging Rock (1975) set in 1900 girls from a boarding school go out in nature for an excursion and are dressed in long white gowns, have straw hats or parasols and white ribbons in their hair, Polanski’s Tess (1979) brought an emphasis on the delicate beauty of floral prints on cotton and that also inspired the designer Laura Ashley, even the film Virgin Suicides (1999) which is set in the seventies has a wardrobe of pastels and florals and all the girls wear such dresses to a school dance.

Left: Brigitte Bardot and Right: Nastassja Kinski

ELLE France, 1978, Gilles Bensimon

Left: dreamy hairstyle, Valentino Haute Couture Spring 2015, Right: photo from 1910

Virgin Suicides (1999)

Left: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Right: two Edwardian ladies, 1900s

Models of the era are also seen wearing the fashion, such as Twiggy with her straw hat with cherries and Jerry Hall in white dress. Many photos by David Hamilton also capture the mood of this Edwardian revival; there’s something dreamy and ethereal about them, a frozen moment with girls in a reverie, either lounging on bed half-naked or surrounded by trees and flower fields wearing long floral dresses and hats, looking so serene as if they belong to another world. The first picture in this post is my favourite at the moment, a girl with a straw hat with ribbons, and stocking, and those warm Pre-Raphaelite colours… mmm…

Edna May photographed by Alexander Bassano, 1907

Jane Birkin looking so Edwardian and adorable!

Even Brigitte Bardot couldn’t resist elegance in white.

Tess (1979)

Seventeen magazine, February 1974

Twiggy in Valentino by Justin de Villeneuve for Vogue Italy, June 1969

Brigitte Bardot

Wedding dress ‘Faye Dunaway’ by Thea Porter, 1970, England – All that lace!!!

Left: Abbey Lee Kershaw by Marcin Tyszka, Vogue Portugal (2008), Right: Alexis Bledel in Tuck Everlasting (2002)

As you can see in the pictures above, the Edwardian revival has found its place in contemporary fashion and cinematography as well. If you like this style, look for things that capture the mood, regardless of the decade.So, do you want to be a pretty and dreamy Edwardian lady too? Well, it is simple, you can wear a white dress, have a cup of tea, read Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” or Forster’s “A Room With a View”, stroll around wearing a straw hat, pick flowers, press flowers, chase butterflies, surround yourself with white lace and indulge in reveries!

Idea of Death in Writings of the Romantics and Morrissey

26 May

In every age there’s an artist who captures the spirit of the times and gives a voice to the generation. In the 1980s, posters of The Smith and their lead man Morrissey graced the walls of teenage bedrooms. Had the custom been around a century and a half earlier, teenage girls would probably put pictures of Lord Byron, Keats and Shelley above their beds in their exceedingly elegant Regency-era bedrooms. In the post-revolutionary and newly industrialised world, Romantic poets sang of beauty, love, nature and death, while at the same time living lives of rebellion, much to the dismay of the bourgeois class. Likewise, in the eighties which were a difficult decade for idealists*, in the era of Thatcherism, recession and miners’ strikes, pop music was an escape and individuals such as Morrissey intentionally detached themselves from the political instabilities by moving their focus to introspection and individual struggles and singing of loneliness in the nightclubs, ill-fated relationships, home town claustrophobia, dullness of everyday life, and a strong longing for death. More than a century and a half divides the poets of Romanticism and Morrissey, and yet the same melancholy, introspectiveness, ideals and views on death connect them.

I love this black and white picture of The Smiths with pink letters; it’s the perfect aesthetic for the band’s music and lyrics, or at least the way I see it – pink rose petals and a grey sky, promises and disappointments, wittiness and misery, shyness, idealism and memories…

 

Romantics and Death

A Lament

O World! O Life! O Time!

On whose last steps I climb,

Trembling at that where I had stood before;

When will return the glory of your prime?

No more -Oh, never more!

Out of the day and night

A joy has taken flight:

Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar

Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight

No more -Oh, never more!

When I say Romantics, I will focus on the second generation of English Romantics or the “groovy trio” which consisted of Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats; all three died very young in tragic circumstances, all cherished beauty in their poetry, used elaborate language, showed interest in the Classical world and Mediterranean countries, all three saw poetry as a challenge because its reward is the immortality itself; through the verses, the poet lives, long after the frail human body becomes tired from life. I will focus on Percy Shelley in particular, and then Keats, because I feel that Shelley and Morrissey have a lot in common but about that later on.

Source: Romantics who have ruined my life.

Percy Shelley; the rebel, the idealist, a ferocious promoter of free love, non-violence, atheism and vegetarianism, a young man with an insatiable hunger for knowledge who spent up to sixteen hours a day reading, at the same time attending only one lecture while at Oxford, an act which by itself carries a rebellious massage; conventions and formal education mean nothing to me. Elopements and self-pity are his forte. Suicides and unrequited loves followed him like a shadow. He was no stranger to romantic encounters at graveyards at night which irresistibly reminds me of The Smiths song “Cemetery Gates”; when Shelley and Mary proclaimed their love for each other at her mother’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard on 26th June 1814, did Shelley say: “Dear Mary, meet me at the cemetery gates… I’ll bestow a kiss upon thy sweet lips above your mother’s grave in a quiet nocturnal hour when the distant church bells announce midnight.”

In times when he met Mary, Shelley was bored with his wife Harriet (women seem to bore him easily) and he was eagerly longing for an intellectual female companionship. And Mary was a lonely teenage girl with a wild imagination; the two were a perfect match, although soon Mary bored him too. Shelley quickly abandoned Harriet, their baby daughter and their unborn child, and accused Harriet of marrying him for money.

Is he a hippie lad from the sunny South Kensington clad from head to toe in the latest groovy gear from Granny Takes a Trip? No, he is a poet, and his verses speaks of romantic rebellion, exalted and idealistic belief in the triumph of love and liberty, at the same time inviting the reader to act upon social justice as well as believing in the indestructible nature of beauty. His poems appear to be either manifestos of his political views, which were socialist and verged on anarchy; sweet and innocent verses on love, moonbeam, kisses, roses and larks; or deep, profound, honest longing for death and sighing on the idea of transience and passing of everything.

Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley

Shelley was morbidly obsessed with death; he saw it as a state of perfection, and for his self-pitying personality, it seemed to offer an alternative to the mundaneness and despairs of life – death promises all the sweet delights and mysterious, dark, ethereal pleasures that life denies us. Death equals dreams, peace, perfection and happiness. Death is mystical, otherworldly; it is an escape from all miseries.

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

Shelley’s verse above, from his poem “Ode to the Westwind”, best illustrates his view on his own life, or human life in general. He often sets his poems in an autumnal setting, in days when one feels transience the most; nature is dying slowly, vibrantly, richly, lushly, in colours of ruby and amber; in the most beautiful way. The poem shows Shelley’s view of nature as carrying both the strength of destruction and creation for after the death in autumn, a new life awakens in spring. Likewise, after death, one awakens in another world, a better world. Here are verses from Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” which speak of the unique beauty of autumn:

The day becomes more solemn and serene

When noon is past–there is a harmony

In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,                                 

Which through the summer is not heard or seen,

As if it could not be, as if it had not been!

I feel that Shelley was ruled by or tormented by two different moods, a victim of which I am myself, and they are evident in his poetry. There’s one mood when he is in darkest thoughts, drowning, not in alcohol, but in self-pity, despair and melancholy, overindulging in his miserable existence, seeing himself as a martyr, deeply and honestly longing for death, so much so that you can imagine him sighing at the moon and just thinking “I want to die…” This is the mood that produced his poems such as “A Lament”, “Death” and “Mutability”. Then there is another mood, one which is responsible for his best poems, lyrically and stylistically, such as “Ode to the Westwind” or “The Indian Serenade”: a passionate, lyrical, imaginative mood when he is especially sensitive toward beauty that surrounds him, and often very gentle too, writing verses sweeter than cotton-candy such as these:

I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden;
 Thou needest not fear mine;
My spirit is too deeply laden
 Ever to burden thine.

I fear thy mien, thy tones, thy motion;
 Thou needest not fear mine;
Innocent is the heart’s devotion
 With which I worship thine.

Even in “The Indian Serenade”, he has that passionate and theatrical flair proclaiming “I die! I faint! I fail!”:

Oh lift me from the grass!
I die! I faint! I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast;
Oh press it close to thine again,
Where it will break at last!

For Shelley, life is either a thorn which brings pain, or the lush rose blossom in whose velvety sweetness he wishes to be drowned; life is either a “dim vast vale of tears” (Hymn to Intellectual Beauty) or a “silver vision” (Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude)*. At times, his idealistic spirit seems indomitable, his fight for justice, his passion for defending his ideas, thoughts and world views seem so ardent and strong, and yet, other times, his verses witness nothing but defeatism and despair, and in such times he feels this death-urge strongly and wishes, like Rimbaud, to “fall into nothingness”.

In some moments, I feel, verses of Shelley and Morrissey carry the same bittersweet, spiritless, yet charming mood. For example, when Morrissey sings “I really don’t know and I really don’t care” in the song Hand in Glove, it is that same careless, low-spirited, verging on pathetic, no-one-understands-me and have-pity-for-me mood that possessed Shelley rather often. And then, when he grabbed a quill and a piece of paper to gather his thoughts and wrote his poem “Invocation to Misery”, did he really mean “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”? I’m sure he did. Also, the voice of calm resignation in which Morrissey sings “I’ll probably never see you again!” in the song Hand in Glove reminds me so much of Shelley’s cute lyrical moaning “No more, oh never more!”

Although a century and a half divides their artistic periods, I feel that Shelley and Morrissey are philosophical equals. They were both vegetarians who promoted non-violence; both were very self-indulgent in terms of allowing themselves to spent days drowned in self-pity, melancholy and negativism, let’s say that “being miserable” could be considered their hobby; both exercised a certain idealistic version of “purity” of some sort; Shelley by abstaining from alcohol and Morrissey being celibate, both have that unswayable obsession with death and see it in the most romantic, glamorous terms. But again, this is just my opinion.

In his poem “On Death”, Shelley deals with the subject directly, again death as bringing us mortals into an otherworldly place, a place that no one can visit and return to tell, a place which will forever be covered with thousand veils of mystery:

“(…) When all that we know, or feel, or see,
Shall pass like an unreal mystery.

The secret things of the grave are there,
Where all but this frame must surely be,
Though the fine-wrought eye and the wondrous ear
No longer will live, to hear or to see
All that is great and all that is strange
In the boundless realm of unending change.

Who telleth a tale of unspeaking death?
Who lifteth the veil of what is to come?
Who painteth the shadows that are beneath
The wide-winding caves of the peopled tomb?
Or uniteth the hopes of what shall be
With the fears and the love for that which we see?

Poppies by: Nataliya Kalinina.

Shelley continues this romantic vision of death as a state equalling sleep and dreams in his poem “Mont Blanc” whose main theme, though, is again the sublime power of nature, it’s the highest mountain in Europe, and for the second generation of Romantics nature has what man can only long for, but will never possess: eternity or immortality.

Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep,-that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live. -I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far and round and inaccessibly
Its circles?….

Equalling death with dreams brings me to the wonderful flower often connected to dreams and sleep: poppy – its bright red colour speaks of passion, while the delicate petals whisper of fragility. Shelley used opium for relief, and so did another Romanticist, Edgar Allan Poe who said: “Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.

Both Shelley and his wife Mary were interested in the supernatural, and Mary, as we all know, later wrote Frankenstein. But Shelley too shows his fascination with the otherworldly creatures in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”:

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped

Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,                    

And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing

Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.

Here are Shelley’s wonderful verses written by the hand of Richey Edwards, the great lyricist of the Manic Street Preachers, a set list for their show at the Glasgow Barrowlands, on October 15, 1994, found here. It’s not Morrissey per se, but it certainly links Romanticism with rock music.

Still, there were moments when Shelley was faced by death and mortality in real life, not just in imagination. First, there was the sad death of Fanny Imlay in October 1816, the half-sister of Mary Shelley and the out-of-wedlock daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who travelled to Swansea in Wales and overdosed on laudanum in an inn; the always quiet, sombre and modest twenty-two year old Fanny was secretly in love with Shelley and she was heartbroken when he eloped with Mary. When Shelley heard of her death and the reason, he composed these poignant verses:

Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery—O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee.

Then, in December 1816, his first wife Harriet was found drowned in a lake in Hyde Park in London, the reason was not Shelley but her death finally enabled him to make Mary Mrs Shelley. And then, the youngest and the first of the three beautiful blossoms of Romanticism to wither, John Keats, died on the 23th February 1821. This occasion inspired Shelley to write his poem “Adonais”, in which he states: “No more let life divide what death can join together.

Even though I’ve focused on Shelley because he is my favourite Romantic poet and his lyrical vision is the most similar to Morrissey’s, my musing on death in Romantic poetry wouldn’t really be complete without mentioning this beautiful poem by John Keats:

Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,

And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?

The transient pleasures as a vision seem,

And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.

 

How strange it is that man on earth should roam,

And lead a life of woe, but not forsake

His rugged path; nor dare he view alone

His future doom which is but to awake.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Morrissey and Death

I’m bereft of spiritual solutions. I do believe that there has to be a better world, but that’s rather simple. I’m quite obsessed with death. I’ve gone through periods of intense envy for people who’ve died. Yes, I have a dramatic unswayable unavoidable obsession with death. I can remember being obsessed with it from the age of eight and I often wondered whether it was quite a natural inbuilt emotion for people who’re destined to take their own lives, that they recognise it and begin to study it. If there was a magical beautiful pill that one could take that would retire you from this world, I think I would take it and I suppose that’s the extremity of the obsessiveness.” (From “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before”, interview by Len Brown in NME (20th February 1988)

Ah, Morrissey, a man so adored by the misfits in the eighties as well as now, and a man for whom the general public has such an ardent hatred; that is something I am unable to comprehend for I think he is simply a charming man or a handsome devil, as you wish. Maybe the general dislike lies in the fact that he himself doesn’t like people, that he seems to look through the society’s hypocrisies, and he says what he means and that’s not a quality people like. Whether you like the charming persona of the “son and heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar” or you’d prefer to think that he is the “son and heir to nothing in particular”; you’d have to agree that their music is just damn good, their melodies are cheerful and whimsical, they are simply magical.

It was his lyrical vision, along with Marr’s wonderful musical contribution, that made The Smiths immortal. No one knows what it’s like to be an outsider better than Morrissey, and certainly no one sang about it better than he did. Here’s a quote from a book about Pulp called “Uncommon” by Owen Hatherley describing a situation which you can just translate to Morrissey’s teenage years: “What Pulp had in common most of all with the lineage outlined at the start of this introduction was a certain ‘vengeful self-creation’; the sense that they, like Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Siouxsie Sioux, David Sylvia, Morrissey, Richey Edwards or countless legions of bored suburban stars who never made it into the spotlight, had spent their lives transforming themselves into characters, with countless hours in their terrace, semi of tower-block bedrooms devoted to achieving the exact conjunction that would make them unique, and that they could then use as a weapon against a world that had already wronged them beyond forgiveness.

On those rare occasions when my thoughts go on like this “Hmm, wouldn’t it be nice to be normal and have a friend and go out, and do whatever it is normal, sociable people do?”, I just go and listen to a few songs by The Smiths and Morrissey’s brilliant, at turns haunting, melancholic, poignant or witty, but always gorgeous lyrics such as: “Under the iron bridge we kissed“, “No, I’ve never had a job because I’m too shy“, “Hills are alive with celibate cries“, “I’ve lost my faith in womanhood“, “and though I walk home alone my faith in love is still devout“, and I laugh at my own silly thoughts. To have a social life, why – I have books. To have a real friend, why – I have a mirror.

Morrissey’s lyrics have made me feel like I belonged, like I don’t need anyone or anything as long as I hear their music. And when he proclaimed: “Throw you homework onto the fire, come out and find the one that you love and who loves you“: that’s exactly what I did on many occasions; who has time for homework when there’s evenings to be spent listening to The Smiths and dancing a lonely dance with flowers because they’re all I have. I know exactly how he felt as a teenager, oh how I do. Welcome to Morrissey’s world, shaped by the years of loneliness in his small bedroom with posters of James Dean, days spent reading Oscar Wilde, walking the grey suburban streets with dull red-brick houses that linger on and on, watching kitchen sink dramas and listening to sixties pop stars and New York Dolls. Being happy and sociable is passé and being miserable is tres chic.

Just like Shelley’s, the lyrics of The Smiths, all written by Morrissey, are a glamorous beautiful mix of lyricism and self-pity, bittersweet verses of irony filled with longings and rejections at the same time, wanting to belong and arrogantly showing the world the middle finger, his music was “so intoxicatingly melancholic, so dangerously thoughtful, so seductively funny that it lured its listeners, most of whom were not really damned, just slightly cursed, into a relationship with him and his music instead of the world. The Pop Pied Piper knows that life doesn’t imitate great art, it is destroyed by it.“*

Smiths 1984 De Montfort Hall

Look at those gorgeous red carnations that he’s swaying about, from whose garden did he snatch them, I wonder?

If you don’t want to die, go and read Oscar Wilde, or be charming and wear flowers in your pocket after listening to The Smiths, that you haven’t really listened to them. Well, maybe their music awakens other desires in you, but you are soulless and heartless if it leaves you feeling nothing. Their first album, called The Smiths (1984) is the best example of those gorgeous, witty, bedroom-years inspired lyrics which speak of “the passions and preoccupations that consumed Morrissey for years, alone in his darkened bedroom“*, and these lines, despite being from the third album, pondering on life and death, can serve to illustrate the mood – the mood I am engulfed in majority of my time:

And when I’m lying in my bed
I think about life
and I think about death
and neither one particularly appeals to me.” (Nowhere Fast)

“I’m not happy and I’m not sad” and “neither life nor death appeal to me”; how outrageously gorgeous is this ambivalent attitude towards such important matters?! Life or death, happiness or sadness, whatever, I dunno…

Death, yearning for death because you’re depressed, miserable in a humdrum town where rain falls hard all the time, rejected, unloved, tired, disappointed, and the graveyard seems a more exciting place than your bedroom, or simply because, in a manner of Oscar Wilde, it’s an aesthetically alluring idea, and to die for love, beauty or mere boredom is just original, romantic and glamorous. Wilde said himself that “The artistic life is one long lovely suicide.”

When Morrissey says: “If there was a magical beautiful pill that one could take that would retire you from this world, I think I would take it…” My thoughts exactly! The manner in which Shelley and Morrissey see death is vastly different from the way people who really take their own lives see it. Shelley and Morrissey’s view on death is not seriously depressed or suicidal, but rather “artistic”, deeply romantic and idealistic view of death as something mystical, glamorous, as a dream, and dreams are better than reality. I think it’ i that constant discord between beautiful and sad, magical and mundane aspects of life that drives the imagination to devise an escape from the prison cell of life, to fantasise about something different, something better, and sometimes all these longings turn into melancholy and an obsession for death. Death is the last step, the fulfilled longing; and only death can make beauty immortal. No other theme is greater than love, beauty and death combined.

And speaking of beauty: “To this day, there are precious few Smith songs that can’t mist my visionNot because they are “sad” or “miserable”, but because they are so unutterably, unfeasibly, unlawfully handsome. Which is the deadliest drug of all. If ever there was a proof that Keats’ assertion “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is anything more than just a trite line or simply wishful thinking, it is in The Smiths.”*

Morrissey and yellow daffodils, I love a man with flowers! Morrissey waving a bouquet of gladioli on the Top of the Pops performing This Charming Man must be the coolest thing ever! I also love something that Morrissey said in 1984 when interviewed by kids, when one boy asked “Why do you hold flowers when you sing?”, Morrissey gave a wonderful reply: “Why do I hold flowers?… I think flowers are beautiful things. Very nice and innocent things. They don’t harm anybody. They don’t burp and they don’t do anything ugly. So, why not, it’s better, I think, than waving socks about.

In his book “Dark Stuff”, Nick Kent called Marianne Fatihfull “Morrissey’s first love”, and in this interview when she was just 21 years old her view on death is as romantic as it can get, she says; “I love death!… I feel it’s important to stay in the world and do things, but on the other hand death and dreams are another thing. I’d really like to go there… into death. But it’s wrong to make your own death, death is when you get it. I think it’s a beautiful thing, death, such a relief, just imagine if there wasn’t any death….

And now some of Morrissey verses that deal with death:

What She Said

What she said:
“How come someone hasn’t noticed
that I’m dead
and decided to bury me
God knows, I’m ready”
What she said was sad
but then, all the rejections she’s had
to pretend to be happy
could only be idiocy
What she said was not for the job or
lover that she never had.

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

….time’s tide will smother you
and I will too
when you laugh about people who feel so
very lonely
their only desire is to die (…)

well, it suddenly struck me
I just might die with a smile on my
face after all.

Well I Wonder

Well I wonder

do you see me when we pass?

I half-die

Please keep me in mind

please keep me in mind

 

Gasping – but somehow still alive

this is the fierce last stand of all I am

Gasping – dying – but somehow still alive

this is the final stand of all I am

Please keep me in mind

Madame Bovary (1991)

How Soon Is Now

There’s a club if you’d like to go
you could meet somebody who really loves you
so you go, and you stand on your own
and you leave on your own
and you go home, and you cry
and you want to die…

Song Cemetery Gates always reminds me the Gothic romance of Percy and Mary Shelley and their graveyard meeting, always. And there’s also the mention of Keats and Wilde, that’s cool too:

A dreaded sunny day
So I meet you at the cemetery gates
Keats and Yeats are on your side
While Wilde is on mine

So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people all those lives
Where are they now?
With the loves and hates
And passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived and then they died
Seems so unfair
And I want to cry.

John William Waterhouse, Miranda – The Tempest, 1916

The haunting beginning of the song I Know It’s Over reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories of people buried alive. What a spooky picture for the imagination; to feel the soil falling over your head….

Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

See, the sea wants to take me

The knife wants to slit me

Do you think you can help me?….

 

Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

John William Waterhouse, Sleep and his Half-brother Death, 1874

Don’t listen to this one, Asleep, if you’re feeling depressed and vulnerable to begin with:

Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I’m tired and I
I want to go to bed
Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
And then leave me alone
Don’t try to wake me in the morning
‘Cause I will be gone
Don’t feel bad for me
I want you to know
Deep in the cell of my heart
I will feel so glad to go
(…)
There is another world
There is a better world
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
Well…Bye bye
Bye bye
Bye…
Queen cover image with model wearing a nightdress by Angela Gore. Photographed by John Hedgecoe. Scanned by Miss Peelpants from Queen, 17th July 1968.

Shakespeare’s Sister

Young bones groan
And the rocks below say :
“Throw your skinny body down, son!”
But I’m going to meet the one I love
So please don’t stand in my way
Because I’m going to meet the one I love

Pre-Raphaelite painting by John Everett Millais is perhaps the most beautiful, most romantically idealised depiction of someone dying in the art history, and Morrissey’s lyrics of the song There Is A Light That Never Goes Out are possibly the most romantic and glamorous vision of death and love combined:

 “And if a double-decker bus
Crashes in to us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die
And if a ten ton truck
Kills the both of us
To die by your side
Well the pleasure, the privilege is mine”

And here’s another quote from the same book which just perfectly describes the feeling you get from listening to The Smiths:

He cooed in my ear that, yes, adolescence, like the Smiths and pop music, might be a moment that passes, that one day you might be laughing and dancing and finally living, but that feeling of aloneness and the bittersweet prospect of a life of disappointment stretching out before you (…) is the purest, truest, noblest feeling you will ever have.“*

Apart from dealing with the subject of death in his lyrics, you can take this post as a certain “Ode to Morrissey” too because there is no other person from popular culture that I can relate to more strongly. A few days ago, I spent an amazing afternoon listening to all albums by The Smiths in a chronological order, absolutely fantastic way to waste an afternoon, fully recommend it. Also, I am neither a girl of Romanticism nor a teenager of the 1980s, and yet I have pictures of both Shelley and Morrissey on my wall; what can I say, I love charming men! So, let us all walk around with flowers and kindness, read books, be charming and die… from beauty!

_________

* Mark Simpson, Saint Morrissey: A Portrait of This Charming Man by an Alarming Fan