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Syd Barrett and The Madcap Laughs: Madness, Solitude and Striped Floors

3 Jan

Syd Barrett’s debut album as a solo artist, “The Madcap Laughs” was released on the 3rd January 1970. The music has a bittersweet feel to it; the melodies are childlike and innocent while others take on darker sounds. The album is in many ways a musical portrayal of Syd’s state of mind at the time.

“We are all mad here.”

(Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland)

It was love at first sound with me and Pink Floyd’s early hits such as Arnold Layne, See Emily Play and Scarecrow; I intuitively felt that something very imaginative and strange was hiding underneath the exterior of your average great pop-song. Those were more than just pop songs that will be forgotten in a few years. They had the magic, the wittiness, the dreaminess that made them linger on in my mind. “Who writes stuff like this?”, I thought to myself. The genius behind the lyrics was Syd Barrett; at the time a drop-out art student from Cambridge who overnight found himself in the centre of the psychedelic underground culture. Music and art were fun for Syd, and coming up with witty lyrics and simple catchy tunes was easy for him because he seemed to have approached things in a childlike way, full of curiosity and wonder at the world around him, but the stress of the band’s success, the interviews, the popularity proved to be too much for him. The increasing consummation of the drug of the moment, LSD, did not help matters. His creative period with the Pink Floyd was short but strong, like an explosion, or a shooting star. Let me provide you with a few dates to show you just how fast it all happened; their first single “Arnold Layne” was released on 10th March 1967. And already, on 15th January 1968 Syd played his last gig with Pink Floyd.

Gustave Caillebotte, Wood Floor Planers, 1875

A new chapter in Syd’s life and musical career began. Alone in the loneliness of his Victorian pad in Wetherby Mansion in Earl’s Court Square, the Psychedelic Mad Hatter was slowly descending into a haunting state of introspection, melancholy and illusions. Into his new bohemian abode, he brought the stuff that remained after many moves around London; a small table, a mattress and a striped blanket, some scratched LPs, Penguin edition books by Shakespeare and Chaucer, barely touched canvases stacked against the wall. His room was his little imaginary world. The outside world did not matter anymore. The cheerful, fun-loving, chatty and friendly Syd was gone. The handsome young Englishman with messy black hair and velvet trousers was slowly going mad…. One morning, after having spent some time meditatively staring at his blanket, a painting by Gustave Caillebotte called “The Wood Floor Planners” suddenly came to his mind and he decided to paint the bare wooden floors of his room in stripes of orange and blue. The album cover shows Syd crouching in his room, a vase of daffodils next to him. He is sad and alone, yet his darkness intimidates me. Angry outbursts and fragmented conversation. Loneliness is seeping through the cracks on the striped floor.

Syd Barrett first entered the studio as a solo artist on 30th January 1968; just ten days after his last show with Pink Floyd, for what would be an unfruitful session. Sessions resumed in June and July produced songs Late Night, Octopus and Golden Hair; all featured on The Madcap Laughs. Peter Jenner, who had worked on these sessions claimed that they had not gone smoothly although he got on well with the singer. Shortly after July sessions Syd suddenly stopped recording, breaking up with his then girlfriend Lindsey Corner and then going off a drive around Britain in his Mini only to end up in psychiatric care in Cambridge. By the start of 1969 Barrett, somewhat recovered, resumed his music career and started working with another engineer Malcolm Jones, after both Jenner and Norman Smith (Pink Floyd’s producer at the time) had declined his request to work on the album. Over four sessions beginning on April 10th 1969. Syd had recorded songs Opel (a beautiful misty ballad that would not see the light of day until 1988), No good trying, No man’s land, Here I go and Love you. The sessions all together were not very productive because in those days recording four or five songs on just guitar in four or five hours wasn’t considered very productive. It was something the engineers tried to avoid.

“You feel me
Away far too empty, oh so alone
I want to go home
Oh find me inside of a nocturne, the blonde
How I love you to be by my side”

(Syd Barrett – Feel)

During the recording of the album Syd was also on Mandrax and he’d sit on a stool and then fall off it. Barrett and his friends were taking the infamous LSD-25, a powerful psychiatric drug still legal in UK those days. It was almost a religious-like experience for Syd, and many others who indulged. Syd really did believe the psychedelic revolution was flowing through him. The world was changing and he thought we should all be perfect beings, cool and groovy. Syd began taking acid regularly with enthusiasm many found alarming. It was in May 1967. that his eyes crazed.  At the time of The Madcap Laughs Syd had already completely surrendered.

The Madcap Laughs is an album filled with long forgotten symbolism. The songs are a mirror of Syd’s mental state of the time and in them he expressed, perhaps deliberately perhaps not, his loneliness and growing alienation. Though some of them have a cheerful rhythm like Love you, one can feel a spark of melancholy. In song Terrapin for example Syd shows his love of the blues while some of the songs sound more like a concept rather than a finished and polished song. This album features some almost child-like songs with optimistic melodies and ostensibly cute themes (Love you and Here I go) through darker and deeper subjects (Dark globe, Golden Hair and No man’s land) to melancholic cries for rescue from his loneliness and ever increasing alienation. Song Golden Hair is actually based on a poem by James Joyce.

This album and the following Barrett reflect not just his state of mind but also the atmosphere at the time, sorrowful end of the sixties whose optimism, innocence and mind-expanding ideas had faded away. By that time the hedonistic atmosphere of the Swinging London was long lost. Perhaps albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett are a remembrance of the sixties for they were created at the dusk of this beautiful era; era which Syd belonged to and sadly died with.

The striped floors are aesthetically such a fun and exciting things. Syd chose to paint his floors in vibrant contrasting colours which gives the entire room a psychedelic touch, but I noticed the motif of wooden floor in many canvases painted by nineteenth century artists. Seeing the striped wooden floor stretching vertically or horizontally on the canvas is so exciting to me. Here are a few examples by Vincent van Gogh and Degas:

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, 1888

Edgar Degas, Deux Danseuses, 1879

Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, 1879

Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1877

William Ratcliffe, Attic Room, 1918

The photo session for the album cover took place in the spring 1969. Most likely in March when daffodils were blooming and Syd had just finished painting his floor in orange and purple stripes. Proud of what he had done, Syd invited his friend Mick Rock to come over and take some photos. At that time Syd was living with Iggy The Eskimo who was a friend of Syd’s ex-girlfriend Jenny Spires. Iggy and Syd weren’t lovers but she was a good company. She answered the doors that day and welcomed Mick completely naked (not an unusual thing for hippies and free-spirited creatures of the time). When Mick arrived he found Syd in bed, still in his underpants; a moment he captured with his new camera Pentax he had just recently bought. After he’d got up, Syd donned a pair of trousers with colour stains on them; from the floor paint. Iggy, the groovy companion to this Mad Hatter of Psychedelia, added some kohl to his eyes to achieve that elegantly wasted look of a Poete Maudite.

The photos were created naturally, with no staging and posing. Mick worked with elements he had: a painted floor, a vase of daffodils, nude Iggy in the background and a huge Canadian car parked just in front of Wetherby Mansion for some outside shots. None of it was planned. Later that day, Storm Thorgerson arrived and his solo focus was the wonderful striped floor. He shoot photos in fading light placing a wide angled lens millimeters of the ground to achieve an Alice in Wonderland effect, giving the floor elastic quality. Syd just crouched by the fireplace and he looked natural; he spontaneously adapted to the background. His pose suggests defiant exhaustion and a dark edge of ‘knowing’. There was only one corner of the room that Syd hadn’t painted and that was the only clean angle if you didn’t want to expose this ‘set’ for what it was; a drab living room with a nasty electric fireplace. As long as he occupied his island-mattress surrounded by striped painted floor, reality and a world of possibilities remained outside his door. The photo that would eventually be the cover photo was also taken by Thorgerson.

I cannot put it in words how much I adore this album and the album cover and the striped floor. All of it has inspired me beyond words. I listen to “The Madcap Laughs” every time I paint my watercolours; it is such a pleasant, soothing, melancholy and dreamy music to provide background for dipping my brush in water, then in the paint… Syd’s fragile voice, his strange and witty lyrics, his yearnings for help and cries of loneliness that come out in some songs, all of it draws me into this strange ethereal world which I always occupy with one part of my mind. When I listen to this album, and also his follow-up “Barrett”, I truly feel like Alice when she found herself in the Wonderland; Syd is the psychedelic Mad Hatter and I follow him blindly, over the striped floor, crossing the yellow glow of the waning sun, to the spaces where only music remains, and I am free, free, free…

Also, grainy quality of the photo brings nostalgia and serves as a barrier between psychedelic vivid colours of the ’60s to more drab and sad reality that came with the seventies. Long gone is the multicoloured glamour of the ’60s Swinging London psychedelia and instead the cover of The Madcap Laughs suggests the ’60s decadence exposed and photos have that sad “party’s over” feel.

I have to take a moment in the end to give praise where praise is due and recommend you all the wonderful, amazing, fun and detailed book about Syd Barret called “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe” by Julius Palacios.

Egon Schiele’s Heroin Chic Look – Lipgloss and Cigarettes

17 Mar

The distinctive trashy glamour of Egon Schiele’s nudes is unsettling and alluring at the same time, provocative and eye-catching. His drawings and watercolours of skinny, fragile, starved nymphets who look like they live on lipgloss and cigarettes, made from 1910 to about 1914/15, before the war and before his marriage, encapsulate the heroin chic aesthetic decades before was defined and popularised by models such as Kate Moss. Things that connect these drawings and watercolours are the same mood and aesthetic and the same reaction from the public. Schiele’s portrayal of female form was shocking to the early twentieth century Vienna, and photographs of Kate Moss’s skinny body received the same reaction.

Kate Moss by Corinne Day

In the beginning of this year I watched a new documentary about Egon Schiele called “Egon Schiele: Dangerous Desires (2018)” made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. It which was super cool and I loved it to death, it was hard not to like it: the soundtrack was rock music and the first lines were spoken by Iggy Pop, who clearly appreciates Egon Schiele’s art. One woman says something really interesting in the first two minutes: “If someone were to show you a Schiele watercolour and ask you: ‘when do you think this was done’, I think the answer would be: yesterday.” I partly agree; as a nostalgic person who romanticises the past, I would never believe that something as great could have been painted yesterday, but I agree in that his drawings, great majority of his art, appears not modern but timeless.

I can’t really say “modern” because Schiele wouldn’t agree. In one of his watercolours from prison he wrote: “Kunst kann nicht modern sein; Kunst ist urewig.” or “Art can not be modern, art is primordially eternal.” I don’t think this can be said about all art, but Schiele truly succeeded in creating art that is eternal. When you look at it now, it doesn’t seem out of place, kitschy, or strange, on the contrary, those colours and lines on papers that he held in his hand sometime in 1912 still have so much to say – or scream. And Schiele’s art goes so well with modern music as well, rock music particularly; in his self-portraits of the tormented artist staring right at us from the canvas, you can imagine a streetwise yet vulnerable heroin addict from the song “I’m waiting for the man” by The Velvet Underground, or the raw and trashy sound of The Stooges’s “Raw Power” or the sleek sound of urban alienation from David Bowie’s Berlin-era albums.

Egon Schiele, Nude against coloured background, 1911

I like Schiele’s paintings, and I also enjoy looking at pictures of Kate Moss, particularly those from the 1990s, it’s just an aesthetic thing, I don’t care for her personality or her life choices, although her love life is interesting. I look at a picture only to get a shot of beauty in my veins and possibly a seed to inspire my future reveries. I am certain that Kate Moss would be a perfect model for Schiele. His ideal was a thin, fragile, bony body with that elegantly wasted look; protruding spine and collar bones, under eye circles, ribs peeking under thin layer of skin, strange complexion with patches of unnatural colour…. The heroin chic look that Schiele clearly painted decades before, has become synonymous with Kate Moss whose appearance at the beginning of her career was in stark difference to the perfect and unattainable looks of the supermodels of the previous decade. Calvin Klein spoke in her defense back in the day: “For them, what is real is beautiful—looking plain is beautiful. What is less than perfect is sexy.” Schiele liked strangeness and imperfections and never resorted to idealization.

Kate Moss by Bettina Rheims, 1989

Egon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

Schiele’s models were often girls from the streets, pretty prepubescent street urchins hungry for attention and amusement. He was young and poor and probably couldn’t even afford a proper model, and why would he when these little things were around, looked and behaved unpretentiously and were a good thing to draw. In his book about Egon Schiele, F. Whitford wrote: “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.” The same words could be used to described the teenage Kate Moss; thin, wide-eyed, with full lips and gorgeous high cheek bones, on the pictures taken by Corinne Day for The Face magazine in 1990 she looks innocent and vulnerable, a bit shy, hiding herself behind a straw hat. In 1990 this working class nymphet from Croydon, a drab suburb of London, had already left school, and despite being a rich and famous model today, back then the prospects were bleak and she was in a similar position as the street urchins who posed for Schiele. Her beauty wasn’t yet recognised, but she did attract the attention of some designers very early on such as John Galliano who chose her for his spring/summer collection 1990 and saw her as his “Lolita”; the half-child and half-woman appeal made her stand out.

Kate Moss for Calvin Klein

Kate Moss by Corinne Day, 1993

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

Schiele’s drawings were outrageous and provocative in his day and age just as they are now still. Viennese public had perhaps grown accustomed to Klimt’s nudes, but the vision of the female form that Schiele had presented was a tad too much. Likewise, pictures of Kate shot in the early nineties by a young and ambitious autodidact photographer Corinne Day were considered equally outrageous and accused of perplexing ideas that neither Kate nor Corinne had dreamt of; in the pictures she looked skinny and childlike, but her clothes and poses weren’t childlike at all, mingling sexuality with innocence. Kate Moss’s appearance represented the nihilistic spirit of the decade and a culture that believe in nothing. Hippies had hope, acid and belief in a better world, punks had their anger and outrageous clothes, and nineties seemingly had nothing, to quote Manic Street Preachers: “I know I believe in nothing, but it’s my nothing”.

Pictures above by Corinne Day for The Face magazine, July 1990

Over the ocean, grunge bands expressed their dissatisfaction and in Manchester the youth tuned out in the reviving sounds of psychedelia of bands such as The Stone Roses, The Charlatans and The Happy Mondays. Kate’s “elegantly waisted” look was perfect for Corinne Day’s aims in photography, for her love of realism. A new philosophy required a new look, and strong, over the top and glamorous models of the 1980s were passé. Just like Egon Schiele in his nudes and self-portraits, Corinne Day’s photographs penetrate to the bare essence and expose the truth, and what lies within. Schiele freed the women from Klimt’s suffocating gold and poisonous flowers, and focused on the psychology of their faces. In a similar way, Day freed the model from the excessiveness of shoulder pads and too much blush. Calvin Klein said “For me, Kate’s body represented closing the door on the excessiveness of the ’80s”.

Here is an expert from Maureen Callahan’s book “Champagne Supernovas“: “The culture at large didn’t see Kate that way. Up against the skyscraper supermodels of the ’80s, their very perfection a comment on American supremacy, a small-boned, flat-chested model like Kate Moss was heresy. Someone her size hadn’t been seen since Twiggy in the ’60s; suddenly, Kate and Calvin Klein were accused of promoting anorexia, heroin use, child pornography, and the downfall of Western civilization. She was on the sides of buses, kiosks, and pay phones, naked and draped across a velvet sofa in a ramshackle room, “FEED ME” often scrawled across the ad by protesters.

Under Exposure, Kate Moss by Corinne Day for Vogue UK, June 1993

Here is another interesting passage from Callahan’s book “Champagne Supernovas” about Corinne Day’s photo shoot with Kate Moss: “When British Vogue commissioned Corinne for a lingerie shoot with Kate, Corinne insisted on creative control. She shot in Kate’s London apartment and staged it to look like her own flat: modest and cold, with white walls and gray carpet, exposed wiring, a mattress on the floor. Kate had been crying after a fight with her boyfriend, and Corinne exploited the juxtaposition of distress and seduction, putting Kate in tiny cotton tanks and silk underwear, some of it from a sex shop on Brewer Street. In the finished editorial, Kate, silhouetted by a string of multicolored Christmas lights, looked frail and lost.

Egon Schiele, Nude With Blue Stockings Bending Forward, 1912

To end, here are some lyrics from the song which inspired me to write this post in the first place: “Lipgloss” by Pulp:

No wonder you’re looking thin,
When all that you live on is lipgloss and cigarettes.
And scraps at the end of the day when he’s given the rest,
To someone with long black hair.
All those nights up making such a mess of the bed.
Oh you never ever want to go home.

Egon Schiele, Sitting Female Nude with Yellow Blanket, 1910

Egon Schiele, Lovemaking, 1915

 

Kate Moss and Johnny Depp by Annie Leibovitz, 1994

Egon Schiele, Lovers – Self-Portrait With Wally, c. 1914-1915, gouache and pencil on paper

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.

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.