Tag Archives: 1891

Natsume Soseki: Spring makes one drowsy…

26 Apr

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. I already wrote a book review for this novel and also a post about the Beauty in every day life in relation to the narrator’s thoughts, but today, on this wonderful, warm, green April afternoon, I wanted to share a passage from the first chapter in which the narrator speaks of the beauties of spring, seeing the world from the poet’s point of view, sadness and sensitivity as related to being a poet. I also love the point that detaching yourself from the situation makes you see the true Beauty of it, if you observe your life from a detached point of view, it turns into a poetic experience, I do this all the time and it’s wonderful. And to accompany this spring mood, a few lovely paintings by Renoir.

Scene from Marie Antoinette (2006)

“Spring makes one drowsy. The cat forgets to chase the mouse; humans forget that they owe money. At times the presence of the soul itself is forgotten, and one sinks into a deep haze. But when I behold that distant field of mustard blossom, my eyes spring awake. When I hear the skylark’s voice, my soul grows clear and vivid within me. It is with its whole soul that the skylark sings, not merely with its throat. Surely there’s no expression of the soul’s motion in voice more vivacious and spirited than this. Ah, joy! And to think these thoughts, to taste this joy – this is poetry.

Renoir, Girls Picking Flowers in a Meadow, about 1890

“Shelley’s poem about the skylark immediately leaps to my mind. I try reciting it to myself, but I can remember only two or three verses. One of them goes

“We look before and after

And pine for what is not:

Our sincerest laughter

With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Yes indeed, no matter how joyful the poet may be, he cannot hope to sing his joy as the skylark does, with such passionate wholeheartedness, oblivious to all thought of before and after. In Chinese poetry one often finds suffering expressed as, for instance, “a hundredweight of sorrows,” and similar expressions can be seen in Western poetry too of course, but for the non-poet, the poet’s hundredweight may well be a mere dram or so. It strikes me now that poets are great sufferers; they seem to have more than double the nervous sensitivity of the average person. They may experience exceptional joys, but their sorrows too are boundless. This being the case, it’s worth thinking twice before you become a poet….

Sorrows may be the poet’s unavoidable dark companion, but the spirit with which he listens to the skylark’s song holds not one jot of suffering. At the sight of the mustard blossoms too, the heart simply dances with delight. Likewise with dandelions, or cherry blossoms—but now I suddenly realize that in fact the cherries have disappeared from sight. Yes, here among these mountains, in immediate contact with the phenomena of the natural world, everything I see and hear is intriguing for me. No special suffering can arise from simply being beguiled like this—at worst, surely, it is tired legs and the fact that I can’t eat fine food.”

Renoir, Young Woman with a Japanese Umbrella, 1876

“But why is there no suffering here? Simply because I see this scenery as a picture; I read it as a set of poems. Seeing it thus, as painting or poetry, I have no desire to acquire the land and cultivate it, or to put a railway through it and make a profit. This scenery—scenery that adds nothing to the belly or the pocket—fills the heart with pleasure simply as scenery, and this is surely why there is neither suffering nor anxiety in the experience. This is why the power of nature is precious to us. Nature instantly forges the spirit to a pristine purity and elevates it to the realm of pure poetry. Love may be beautiful, filial piety may be a splendid thing, loyalty and patriotism may all be very fine. But when you yourself are in one of these positions, you find yourself sucked into the maelstrom of the situation’s complex pros and cons—blind to any beauty or fineness, you cannot perceive where the poetry of the situation may lie.

To grasp this, you must put yourself in the disinterested position of an outside observer, who has the leisurely perspective to be able to comprehend it. A play is interesting, a novel is appealing, precisely because you are a third-person observer of the drama. The person whose interest is engaged by a play or novel has left self-interest temporarily behind. For the space of time that he reads or watches, he is himself a poet.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Girls in the Grass Arranging a Bouquet, 1890

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Girl in the Garden at Mezy, 1891

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – The Hangover

22 Apr

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Hangover, 1888

These days I am listening to Bruce Springsteen a lot, in particular the album “Born in the U.S.A.”, but I am also finding new songs that I am obsessed about. Apart from the wonderful music alone, I love how the lyrics often tell a story and romanticise the harshness of day to day working class life, but the songs also have a hopeful undertone because they show the beauty that lies in struggle. All these songs about restless youth who wants to escape the boredom of their small towns, or heartbroken men working down at the car wash, or two men talking in a bar reminiscing about their glory days, have reminded me of some nineteenth century paintings of sad-looking individuals who seem to carry the same aura around them; being lost, morally lost in the misty and confusing paths of life, tired and disappointed. We all feel like that from time to time. The first painting that came to mind was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting “The Hangover” which is really a portrait of his lover at the time Suzanne Valadon, a circus dancer and a model for many Impressionist paintings who later started painting herself. But in this painting she has seems to have a hangover, although that title was given later and not by the painter himself: “Aristide Bruant, a cabaret owner, singer, and songwriter who exhibited Toulouse-Lautrec’s work in his establishment, gave this painting its title. Bruant’s songs were often about the condition of the urban poor and the theme of excessive drinking.” (source)

She’s seen from the profile and seems uninterested and aloof. It was nothing unusual for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to paint his friends in a spontaneous setting, while they are sitting in a bar or dancing, he would sit at the table and sketch all night. A year before the “Hangover” he made a bar-portrait, also seen from the profile, of his friend Vincent van Gogh and I already wrote about that painting here. It’s interesting here that Suzanne, being a woman, is presented as a drunkard. Alcoholism among women was a growing concern around that time. And she’s drinking alone. Her head is resting in her hand, a half-full bottle of wine is on the table, there’s just a little bit left in the glass. She gazes somewhere in the distance, her vision is hazy and her thoughts astray. Who knows what is going on in her mind. The colour palette and the sketchy way the paint was applied perfectly fits the mood of the painting and Suzanne’s emotional state. When I gaze at this painting, instantly these lyrics come to mind, from Springsteen’s song “Downbound Train”:

I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going mister in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the carwash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train

She just said “Joe I gotta go
We had it once we ain’t got it any more”
She packed her bags left me behind
She bought a ticket on the Central Line
Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining
I feel her kiss in the misty rain
And I feel like I’m a rider on a downbound train…

Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1876

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, In The Restaurant La Mie, 1891

Song “Downbound Train” really makes me feel like I am in one of those paintings, the music with Springsteen’s voice, the lyrics tinged with a dream-gone-by feel and ending in resignation. It makes me see the grey skies, rain sliding down the windows, paint flaking from the window frame, and waking up in a cold room on a day which you can sense will be shitty and disappointing. Looking at the two paintings above, Degas’ famous “L’Absinthe” and another one by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec really reminds me of the intro to Springsteen’s song “Glory Days” about two people walking into a bar and just talking about life:

Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
But all he kept talking about was

Glory days well they’ll pass you by

But I must say that a lot of these songs, although they do deal with the working class life and sadness, mostly sound energetic and make you feel hopeful, and if not hopeful than they at least give you that c’est la vie feeling, ah that’s life and regardless of how you feel, you have to live it so you may as well sit in an empty bar and have a hangover morning because there ain’t no sunshiny meadow waiting for you! These paining however bring no hope.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, A la Bastille (Jeanne Wenz), 1888

This lines seems to fit Jeanne Wenz’s strange shy little smile:

She says when she feels like crying
She starts laughing thinking about

Glory days well they’ll pass you by….

James Ensor – Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man

17 Feb

Welcome to the whimsical, colourful and macabre world of the Belgian painter James Ensor.

James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man, 1891

Painting “Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man” is a perfect example of the art that Ensor remains known for. Skeletons shouting, skeletons laughing, skeletons dressed in pretty clothes and fancy hats fighting and threatening each other with brooms and umbrellas. Meanwhile, on the far left and far right ends of the canvas a group of masked faces observe in silence. Their faces, or rather the masks they are wearing reveal a whole set of different emotions; anger, curiosity, shock, malice. Ensor’s whimsically knowns no end because in some paintings it is hard to tell whether a figure is a living person or a skeleton wearing a mask in order to trick us into thinking it’s a living flesh and blood. He skilfully combines playfulness with morbidity, eerie sense of transience with joyous hedonism of the carnival. Skeletons wearing clothes, fighting and living normally amongst humans is death itself laughing to our face, it is as if she is saying: you can’t avoid me, so embrace me. Unlike Edvard Munch who had a morbid obsession with death and illness, Ensor’s view on it is neither sad nor tragic. Death is inseparable from the often pointless and often laughable, at once colourful, burdensome and boring carnival of life. He in fact paints it in shiny and vibrant colours, often with the background in white, painted in careful small brushstrokes, showing attention to detail and filing the space with light.

James Ensor (1860-1949) didn’t always paint these kind of vibrant yet twisted scenes full of intrigues. He wasted his early years on painting in a Realistic manner and painting the popular plein air scenes inspired by the Impressionists. But as he approached his thirties, he found his artistic inspiration in something that had been right in front of his nose for years – carnival masks. In his coastal home town of Ostend in Belgium, Ensor’s parents owned a shop that sold masks, mostly for tourists. So, in carnival masks in front of his eyes and skeletons in his imagination, Ensor concocted many and many whimsical paintings with just a slight macabre touch. The faces on masks are perhaps a hint to Bruegel the Elder’s grotesque faces of peasants, but Ensor adds a social critique by portraying his disillusionment in society around him. Those masked faces, for me, perfectly capture the way I see people around me and in the streets; always eager to judge and stuff noses in matters that do not concern them, hiding their true malicious motifs under a mask of smiles and nice words. With its emphasis on surreal world where skeletons and humans live in harmony, and the expressive abilities of human faces with different emotions, Ensor’s art carried a seed that would later blossom into Expressionism and Surrealism, although it’s important to note that he wasn’t as influential on the development of those art movements as Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch were.