Tag Archives: 1900s

Tomislav Krizman – Autumn

17 Oct

“Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.”

(Emily Bronte)

Tomislav Krizman, Autumn, 1904, litograph

Tomislav Krizman’s gorgeous litograph “Autumn” truly encapsulates the dual nature of autumn; its richness, ecstasy and vibrancy, and its melancholy and wistfulness. The colours, the mood, the composition; everything about this litograph is absolutely perfect to me. In a true Art Nouveau manner, the spirit of autumn is presented in the form of a woman. She is seen from the profile, clutching a cluster of autumn leaves to her chest. Her eyes are closed and her pale face oozes wistfulness and silent resignation. The white dress she is wearing contrasts beautifully with the harmony of orange and yellow in the woods in the background. The woman’s flaxen hair and the leaves are flying in the autumn breeze. The hair is captured in its dance, the leaves in their fall. Both the leaves on the trees and the leaves that the lady is holding in her arms are impervious to the gusts of wind. She is clutching them on her bosom, but she is unable to hold onto them all. Autumn is, after all, a season of nature that brings to our attention the bittersweet transient nature of everything on earth. The leaves will change colour, the trees tops, once lush and full of life and birdsong, will become bare. In the background we see a forest; thin dark tree trunks and the ground covered in the leafy carpet of orange and gold. The ground stretches all the way in the distance and this gives an illusion of depth. This manner of portraying trees and the woods is something we see often in paintings of a fellow Secessionist painter from the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Gustav Klimt. In those paintings, his fir and pine woods acquire a certain solemn silence and a strange mysticism, one almost feels as if one is entering into another world. Composition-wise, this is a stunning and beautiful contrast of the figure in the foreground and the vibrant woods in the background. The mood of autumn is beautifully captured, but another thing I love about this litograph is how poetic it is, like a poem full of onomatopoeia; I can just hear the rustle of leaves, the whisper of the wind through the trees, rain drops hitting the ground in a wonderful rhythm of nature.

Henri Matisse – Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading)

13 Aug

“Colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

(Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art)

Henri Matisse, Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading), 1904–05

Matisse’s girl in the painting is a quiet little girl, completely absorbed in the book that she is reading. She is seated at the table, perhaps in the dining room. We are somewhat able to decipher the space around her. A bowl of fruits at the table alongside a jug of water. Clearly it wasn’t Matisse’s intention to portray this interior scene in a realistic manner. So what was his intention; playing with colour and appealing to our senses? Perhaps. Matisse is not one of my favourite painters, but when I need my dose of colours and vibrancy I go to Fauvists and their leader Matisse just as the junkie goes to his dealer at the streetcorner. Colour truly has power to uplift us; just look at all the gorgeous, vibrant shades of yellow, red, turquoise, pink, blue and green. So much life and vivacity going on in a single canvas! It’s so childlike and unpretentious. The girl in the painting is Matisse’s ten year old daughter Marguerite who was the daughter of Matisse’s model Caroline Joblaud. Portrait of a girl reading brings to mind the many portraits of children by Renoir who was Matisse’s friend and an artist he looked up to. But in Matisse’s painting the little girl isn’t just a pretty girl in a cozy bourgeoius interior, no, it seems that the colourful patchwork interior composed of contrasting and complementing pathes of colour is actually the interior of Marguerite’s playful, imaginative mind. I imagine that, as she is reading the book, the world around her is transformed accordingly and all the magic of the words and scenes described therein suddently come to life because Marguerite has the power of imagination; she has the power to transcend the ugliness of reality, its dullness and lifelessness, and paint it in all the colours her heart desires, to make it whimsical. And clearly Matisse nurtured his inner child throughout his life, for even his collage cut-outs which he was making in his old days are totally child-like and playful. Matisse transformed the ordinary into extraordinary in this painting. A simple interior scene which might have been boring if painted realistically in shades of brown and beige, is a landscape of vivacity. The space in the painting appears flat but highly decorative and buzzing with excitement. The energy of the painting, and we cannot deny that paintings have energies that directly speak to us, is that of a child’s laughter and play, bright pink ice cream melting in a summer’s day, jumping on trampoline, ribbons, bonbons and candy-floss, the world of fairy tales and make-believe. I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I gaze at this painting, I feel rejuvenated. This just might be one of my favourites by Matisse.

Pablo Picasso – At the Lapin Agile

20 Jul

I am not a big fan of Picasso’s art or persona, but recently I discovered some of the paintings from his early period which I quite liked. The air of fin de siecle is still present in these early paintings and one can observe the influence of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Pablo Picasso, At the Lapin Agile, 1905

Painting “At the Lapin Agile” shows an interior of the cabaret club called “Lapin Agile” in Montmarte. A drunken, brooding harlequin clad in earthy tones in the foreground, a humble-looking guitarist in brown in the background; the two figures show the artist and the owner of the club, Frédéric Gérard. The harlequin, a motif borrowed from the eighteenth century masters such as Antoine Watteau and Goya, has lost his cheerfulness and vibrancy over the centuries. Frédéric’s guitar instantly brings to mind the wistful sounds of Francesco Tarrega’s guitar. Between two men we see a female figure that could have been transported from some seedy cabaret scene painted by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec just a decade earlier. The woman is Germaine Pichot. Just four years earlier she had been pursued relentlessly by Picasso’s best friend Carles Casagemas, a mad and passionate Catalan poet and painter who shot himself in front of Germaine in February 1901. Casagemas’ death kickstarted Picasso’s blue period, filled with sorrowful figures and dominated by the shades of blue. After exhausting his feelings of saddness and loss Picasso’s palettes drifted in landscapes painted in warm tones of pink, orange, red and brown; this was his Rose Period. The white pallor of the woman’s skin contrasts with her blood-red lips. Her face seen in profile is traced in a thick black line. She is looking in the distance. All three characters in the club are physically close to one another but distant in spirit. Everyone is lost in their own thoughts, everyone is thinking about their own problems. Visually the scene brings to mind Toulouse-Lautrec’s cabaret scenes, but the mood of the painting embodies Vincent van Gogh’s saying that a café is a place where one can ruin oneself or commit a crime. The colour palette of earthy, heavy, murky shades of brown and red contributes to the mood. The harlequin looks quite miserable and perhaps even misanthropic. Even though Picasso was devastated after the loss of his friend, it still didn’t stop him from pursuing romance with Germaine and yet, in the painting, she looks like a stranger to him. The harlequin’s face is turned away from both the woman and the guitarist, and instead he chose to reveal his face expression to us, allowing us to read it as if it were a book of emotions. Picasso was commissioned to paint this painting by the owner of the club, in exchange for food, and it is interesting that he chose to place himself in the foreground of the painting. Typical Picasso, wanting to be in the centre of everything.

Poetry of Catullus – Let Us Live and Love

25 Jun

These days I was enjoying the poetry of the Roman poet Catullus (84-54. B.C) who wrote in the neoteric style of poetry, that is, the style of his poems was emotional, intimate, relatable and full of ardour, and he chose to focus, not on heroes and gods as was the norm, but on his personal life, often mentioning his friends in his poems. Poems such as his 5th Poem are written for and about a woman he loved called Clodia Metelli whom Catulus calls “his Lesbia” out of affection. Catullus’ poems follow the path of his falling in love, from the first ardour to disappointment and bitterness. This mix of lyrical beauty and honest emotions is what gives Catullus’ poetry a lasting appeal; after he was rediscovered in the Middle Ages other poets such as Petrarca and later even the Romantics loved his poetry. As a visual companion to Catullus’ poetry, these softly sensual paintings by John William Godward come to my mind; the warm colours, the Medditeranean shrubs and flowers, the cypresses, oleanders and the sea, the curves of female body stretched on marble and fur, these indolent girls with gorgeous long hair and flimy see-through gowns and the dolce far niente mood is just captivating. I must also add how much the line “bright were the suns that shone once for you” from Poem 8 reminds me of these lines “Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast where all hearts opened and all wines flowed” from Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell”; both is a lament for the old good times.

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1906

Poem 5

“Let us live and love, my Lesbia.
Here’sa copper coin for the criticism
of elderly men with exalted morals.
Suns have the power to set and return.
Our light is brief and once it fails,
we have to sleep in the dark forever.
Give me a thousand kisses, a hundred,
another thousand, a second hundred,
a thousand again, a hundred more
until we ourselves lose track of the score,
confusing the kissing count as a sly
method of thwarting the evil eye.”

John William Godward, Girl in Yellow Drapery, 1901

Poem 8

“Poor Catullus, stop playing the fool!
Seeing that something has died, deem it dead.
Bright were the suns that shone once for you,
the times you followed the girl everywhere.
No girl will ever be loved more than she.
Many amusing things happened then,
things you wished and the girl never spurned.
Suns most certainly shone bright for you.
Now she turns her back. Do the same!
Give up your hopeless pursuit! End your grief !

Endure with a resolute mind. Steel yourself.
Girl, Catullus has now steeled himself.
Farewell! Rejected, he makes no appeal.
But you’ll be sorry when all courtship ends.
What kind of life, you whore, waits for you?
What man will come and sing beauty’s praise?
Whom will you love and whose girl be called?
Whom will you kiss? For whom bite the lips?
But you, Catullus, be firm. Steel yourself.”

Gustav Adolf Mossa – Symbolist Phase

7 Feb

“Then, O my beauty! You will say to the vermin,
Which will devour you with kisses,
That I have preserved the form and essence divine
Of my decayed loves!”

(Charles Baudelaire, Carcass)

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, The Dead Women (Les Mortes), 1908

Gustav Adolfo Mossa, a French painter born in Nice in 1883 to an Italian mother and an artist father, spent his late teens and most of his twenties painting in a Symbolist style and so that first artistic period in Mossa’s oeuvre is called the “Symbolist period” and it lasted from about 1900 to 1911. Later, upon moving to Bruges, he discovered Flemish paintings and his art drifted in another direction. In his Symbolist phase Mossa created a macabre and disturbing yet vibrant world littered with femme fatales and saints, heroes and heroines from Shakespeare, and just random skeletons. Mossa was introduced to the Symbolist art at the Exposition Universelle which he visited in 1900 and after that moment all the inspiration that was mounting in his teenage soul, taken from Art Nouveau and the literary works of Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Mallarmé, suddenly flourished in these watercolours which are all so captivating and full of interesting details. I always felt drown to the spirit of Symbolism, and yet the way these ideas were manifested in the visual arts wasn’t very appealing to me. Now, in the art of Mossa, I found what I was looking for. I love how the classic, well-known themes in art are transformed by Mossa into a festival of blood, bones, lust and roses. The delicacy of watercolour mixed with somewhat gruesome or eerie themes is especially entrancing. The beauty of the Symbolist phase of Mossa’s art is that it both disturbs and bewilders the soul. In “The Dead Women” we see the faces of fashionable ladies after the vermins had devoured them with their kisses; the velvet smooth skin, the rosy cheeks are now all eaten away and the grey skull appears – what a contrast to the radiant blueness of their dresses and the elegance of their hats. Tall and dark cypress trees in the background look gloomy and foreboding, as they do in real life.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Salome, 1901

In the watercolour “Salome” the severed, bloodied heads spring from the most fragrant and delicate pink roses, Salome seductively licks the blade of the very sword which had severed them. Dressed in a loose white nightgown with one breast exposed, her pale flesh is revealed, her hand adorned with rings, not a trace of remorse colours her face.

Gustave Adolphe Mossa, Hamlet and the Skull, 1909, Black chalk, pen and ink, watercolour and gouache on paper, 46.2 x 28 cm

Hamlet, a solitary figure under a grey sky and clouds as heavy as lead, his figure is elongated like the figures in early Renaissance art, he is holding an exaggaretedly large skull in his hands, a cup next to his feet with spilt wine – or is it blood? The town is sleeping in the distance, the tower looming as a threat, hundreds of little windows are like dark empty eye sockets ready to swallow who ever dares to gander upon them for too long.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, La chasse de Sainte Ursule, date unknown

Saint Ursula standing on the shore of a river with snow-white swans next to her feet. Dozens or arrows are flying her way, ready to pierce her virginal flesh, but her face reveals not a sign of worry, it is as serene and pale as can be, her golden hair makes one think more of a fairy than of a saint; she is above it all, shielded from the arrows by her heavy robe, nothing can touch her.

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, Valse Macabre, 1906

In “Valse Macabre” the fin de siecle fascination with Eros and Thanatos are united, a skeleton and a femme fatale with fashionably voluminous hair are locked in a kiss, their bodies intertwined, the breath of the death coming from the graveyard in the distance has extinguished the tall white candles, the lady’s gaze seems to say:

It is eternity when your kiss grazes me,

My heart, my heart rises,

ah! so high that it flies away.

(Remy de Gourmont, Hieroglyphs)

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Pierrot, 1906

Pierrot is wandering the old rotting town with a dagger in his hand and a mad look in his eyes, a face of sleepless night and madness, his under eye circles darker than the dark waters of the canals in Bruges. St Sebastian looks less like a saint and more like a charming boy, his poor, tortured body is convulsing in pain from the arrows while the crow is feasting on his eyes.

 

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Sebastian Martyr, 1907

Adrian Stokes – Sketches from Hungary

13 Jan

“Hungary is less frequented by foreign visitors than other great countries of Europe; still, it has charms beyond most In spite of modern development— in many directions—the romantic glamour of bygone times still clings about it, and the fascination of its peoples is peculiar to them.”

(Adrian Stokes, Hungary)

Adrian Stokes, View from our Windows in Vazsecz, 1905-09

As I said in my previous post about Marianne Stokes’ paintings of girls in traditional clothes, Adrian and Marianne were a painterly couple who loved to travel and in 1905 their travels took them to Hungary. While Adrian focused mostly on portraying the beauty of the landscapes, small cottages, meadows and poplar trees, his wife Marianne focused on capturing the local people with their interesting faces and vibrant traditional clothes. They returned to Hungary again in 1907 and 1908, and in October of 1909 Adrian published a book about their travels titled simply “Hungary” which is accompanied by the illustrations of both of them. Adrian Stokes’ paintings are not as interesting to me as those of Marianne Stokes because often portraits tend to delight me more than landscapes do, but in this instance, their paintings make a perfect pair because they unite the motifs of peasants and the villages they lived in. Here is a passage from the introduction to Stokes’ book “Hungary” which gives a little background information about the country:

Various races inhabit the land, but the Magyars — proud, intelligent, and full of vitality—dominate it. The entire population is about 20 millions, of which, approximately, 9 are Magyars ; 5, Slavs ; 3, Rumanians ; 2, Germans ; and 1, various others. Though these races are much interspersed, the richly fertile central plains have become the home of the Magyars ; Slavs occupy outlying parts of the country, and Croatia ; Rumanians, hills and mountains to the east and south-east; Germans, the lower slopes of the great Carpathians, a large part of Transylvania, and the neighbourhood of Styria and Lower Austria. Gipsies and Jews are to be met with nearly everywhere. The landscape is of great variety. Vast plains, bathed in hazy sunlight, where great rivers glide on their way to the East ; wooded hills and rushing streams ; lovely lakes ; sombre forests, from which grim mountains rear their huge grey shoulders in the clear air, are all to be found; and dotted about may be seen figures that recall the illustrations in an old-world Bible.

Adrian Stokes, Rumanian Cottages in Transylvania, c 1909

I enjoyed Adrian’s impressions of the travel perhaps even more than I enjoyed the paintings themselves. His writing is very poetic and he is observant for details and the world around him, both nature and interesting people. Travel from Transylvania to Tátra:

It was a long and tedious railway journey, lasting all one night and half the next day. I remember moonlit rivers and little whitewashed cots with tall thatched roofs, dark as sealskin, and here and there an orange light in a window, and, behind all, deeptoned mountains and the stars. A friendly fellow-passenger told us when we at last entered the Tatra, winding our way among hills richly wooded with beech and oak. We had passed Kassa and its beautiful Gothic church, and went on to Tatra Lomnicz, changing at Poprad, whence one can drive to the wondrous ice-caves of Dobschauer ; but, unfortunately, we did not do so. It was near Poprad that we had our first view of the mighty central range of Carpathians, rising grim and grey from a level plain. They stretch from east to west for about thirty miles, and lesser chains continue, or run parallel with them. (…)

In the Tatra the air is fresh and invigorating. Clearly defined clouds move across blue skies by day, and at sunset the great mountain formations stand sharply silhouetted against an intense light. The scent of pines is everywhere. To many of us pine-forests, with their long serrated edges, and individual trees, each very much resembling the rest, are at first unsympathetic, but by the dwellers in Central and Southern Europe they are beloved. For them they mean health and holidays. As the seaside and salt sea-breezes have from childhood been to us, so for them are pine-clad slopes and the delicious air of mountain regions.

Adrian Stokes, The Carpathian Mountains from Lucsivna-Fürdő, c 1905-1909

It is interesting how Adrian Stokes saw the nature and especially woods beneath the Carpathian Mountains as wild, untainted by civilisation; a primal heaven lost in the west, while at the same time people who lived there and experienced its isolation and harsh living conditions scarcely felt that mystical flair. Czech writer Karel Čapek’s novel “Hordubal” (1933), for example, is set in Carpathian Ruthenia and reading the novel you feel that apart from drinking there is absolutely nothing to do there because it’s such a desolate and poor area, far away from anything interesting or fun. These tall birches in Stokes’ painting above look awe inspiring and dreamy and in his book he explains the name “fürdő”:

The Hungarian word fürdő —meaning bath — seems to occur here of itself. It is usually affixed to the names of watering-places, as in Lucsivnafiirdo, a place near birch-woods, which we had seen from the train and decided to visit. We went one morning, and liked it so well that we made arrangements to stay there on leaving Vazsecz. But that was not yet to be.

Adrian Stokes, Menguszfalva, 1905-1909

Adrian Stokes, Harvest Time in Transylvania, c 1905-1909

Adrian Stokes, Haytime, Upper Hungary, c 1905-1909

Marianne Stokes, A Cottage at Zsdjar, 1905-1909

Marianne Stokes – Portraits of Girls in Traditional Clothing

8 Jan

Marianne Stokes, Young Girl of Zsdjar in Sunday Clothes, 1909

English painter Adrian Stokes and his Austrian-born wife Marianne Stokes (born as Marianne Preindlsberger) loved to paint and travel and in 1905 they made their first journey to Hungary, then part of the grand yet decaying Austria-Hungarian Empire. They traveled throughout the villages and wilderness, soaking in the beauty of nature and reveling in the richness and vibrancy of the diverse cultures in such a small geographical area. They used what they saw to fuel their artistic imagination and they captured the last shine of the Empire which collapsed soon afterwards, at the outbreak of the First World War.

While Adrian focused mostly on portraying the beauty of the landscapes, small cottages, meadows and poplar trees, his wife Marianne focused on capturing the local people with their interesting faces and vibrant traditional clothes. They returned to Hungary again in 1907 and 1908, and in October of 1909 Adrian published a book about their travels titled simply “Hungary” which is accompanied by the illustrations of both of them. The book was a fantastic read. It was truly a window into the lost world and forgotten world, veiled in nostalgia and dreams. I am not saying that Adrian romanticised their travels, no, he was quite perceptive and realistic, but in contrast to how things are today, I cherish the tradition that still existed in those days, a world before modernisation. Nowadays you couldn’t recongnise the people in the villages by the different clothes they wear, girls wouldn’t be dressed in those beautiful clothes, they would all be wearing jeans and t-shirt like the rest of the Europe.

Marianne Stokes, A Rumanian Bridesmaid, 1905

Marianne Stokes, Young Girl of Menguszfal Going to Church, 1909

Now let me give you a little outline of their journey so you can drew yourself a map in your head; they started in Marianne’s homeland Austria, travelled over Orsova to a Slovak village Vazsecz, Lucsivna-Furdo, a Hungarian cathedral town Kalocsa, across Croatia to a seaside town called Fiume, they also visited Zsdjar, Desze, Budapest, Bacs, Lake Balaton and of course Transylvania. Although people in the villages were generally nice to the painterly couple, it proved to be difficult to find peasants who would sit and be models for Marianne. How funny, in some instances it would be considered glamorous and desirable to be an artist’s model and muse, but these peasant girls couldn’t care less about it, they lead their own happy lives not even knowing what art movements are being made miles and miles away in Paris and Vienna. Here is what Adrian writes about this model-finding-problem:

Models being so difficult to obtain in Csorba-to, we determined to explore the villages down below —useless, everyone said, as it was quite impossible for civilized beings to stay there. However, we had tried the highly recommended places, from Lomnicz, * Pearl of the Tatra,’ onwards, without finding what we sought, and felt inclined to take the bit in our teeth and break away from convention on our own account. On learning our intention, the landlord most kindly gave us an introduction to three ladies living in the village of Vazsecz, and there we went on the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul. We arrived during service in the Calvinist church, and waited about to see the people leave. When they did we could hardly believe our eyes, so strange and charming were they. Had we been in China or Tibet, nothing more surprising could have appeared.

The women and girls, tall and slim, wore short, clinging, many-pleated skirts—generally of indigo colour, with a pale yellow pattern on them—which reached just below their knees ; top boots, black or white ; bright bodices ; and hugely puffed-out white linen sleeves. Their pretty caps were hidden under gaily coloured handkerchiefs, round their necks were multitudes of beads, and each carried a large prayer-book with metal clasps and a little nosegay of scented herbs. They stood in groups, amused that we should look at them, and then, like timid animals, ran away.

Marianne Stokes, Misko, 1909

I would love to know the background about the people that Marianne portrayed but unfortunately, most of these “exotic” and lovely girls remain mysterious and anonymous, their names, characters and lives were not recorded for the history even though their intricate clothes were captured on canvas, but here is a painting of an amiable blue-eyed boy called Misko and Adrian wrote a little bit about him in his book:

Among my wife’s models was a boy named Misko—a dear little fellow nine or ten years old. Babyhood seemed still to linger about his eyes and mouth, but in spirit he was a labourer and a politician, as the red feather in his hat proclaimed him. Misko was amiable when not asked to sit. He underwent the martyrdom of posing twice, but nothing would induce him to come again. He willingly consented, however, to be our guide for four or five miles over the hills to the Black Vag, where we were going for a day’s fishing, and a gallant little cavalier he was! He spread branches and leaves in wet places for my wife to walk over, and offered his help at every difficulty on her path. At lunch, when we had given him a share of our cold chicken, he remained quietly at a little distance until he had unwrapped his own food, consisting of bread and a thick piece of bacon. He then cut the best part out of the middle of the bacon and came to offer it to us. My wife found it a joy to be with him, and I was able to proceed with my fishing without feeling that she was neglected.

Marianne Stokes, Slovak Girl in Sunday Attire, 1909

Here’s another description of a Slovak girl and her attire: “How pleasingly different was the spotless appearance of the Slovak girl who burst into our room each morning without knocking, her feet bare, her neck glistening with beads, and in her hands wooden pails full of sparkling water! Every day it seemed a fresh surprise for her that we could not speak the language with which she was familiar, and she would show two rows of exquisitely white teeth in smiles which seemed to express pity combined with wonder.” All in all, I can say that Marianne beautifully captured the girls and their clothes in world now lost, and these paintings are not only an artistic achievement but are also valuable for ethnology. I must also note that the dates give to paintings are not entirely accurate, but more approximate, but that isn’t a problem in this case. I really love the “Rumanian Bridesmaid” girl painted from the profile and holding a candle, and the Rumanian girl with a garlic-necklace captivates me as well, probably because of her red hair. Which one is your favourite?

Marianne Stokes, A Rumanian Maiden, 1909

Marianne Stokes, Romania – Garlic Seller, 1909

Marianne Stokes Rumanian Children bringing Water to be Blessed in the Greek Church, Desze, 1909

Marianne Stokes, An Engaged Couple, ‘Misko and Maruska’ at Menguszfalva, 1909

Marianne Stokes, The Confirmation Wreath, 1909

Marianne Stokes, The Bridal Veil, 1909

Marianne Stokes, Slovak Woman Singing a Hymn, 1909

Marianne Stokes, A Slovak Woman at Prayer, Vazcecz, Hungary, 1907

Jakub Schikaneder – Dead Girl

27 Sep

“Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”

(Tagore)

Jakub Schikaneder, Dead Girl, 1909

Czech painter Jakub Schikaneder’s paintings are full of figures of people miserable in one way or another. He painted the poor and the lonely, the forgotten and the downtrodden, old and frail, young and – dead. Motif of death appears often in Schikaneder’s art; from a scene of murder to a melancholy figure of a drowned young girl washed a shore and in this painting, “Dead Girl”, painted in 1909 the lightness and innocence of youth are touched and torn by death’s black claws. The scene is bared to the minimum, nothing unnecessary clutters the composition, just a chair and a bed made out of dark wood; the wood is solid, dark and hard, and the girl is frail and clad in white. A humble interior. A little room filled with sickness and death, stuffy from the coughs and the burning candle. That way, the painter placed our focus on the real essence of the painting; the girl and her death. Death is an invisible and pervading, solemn and mysterious character in this poignant scene. The simplicity adds to the sorrowful mood of the painting and the colour palette of different tones of grey, the colour of fog and ashes, because the world of colours, sounds and scents means nothing to her anymore. You are fading away, sweet child, and:

….You will no longer

Distinguish what rises or falls;

Colors are closed, and tones are empty,

And you won’t even know any longer

Who brings you all the flowers.

I also stumbled upon this photograph by a Polish photographer Laura Makabresku and it is obviously inspired by this painting and is equally melancholy and poignant. Edvard Munch also painted a sick child in bed and it seems that the motif of death and children go well together because they create a contrast which makes it especially poignant and sorrowful.

Photograph by Laura Makabresku

Jakub Schikaneder, By the Girl’s Bed, 1910

All of Jakub Schikaneder’s paintings have that particular mood which is hard to put in words, but rather brings to mind other imagery; the thick and impenetrable November fog, orange autumnal sunset tinged with sadness because it seems the sun will never rise again, a soil hardened by frost, an eerie yellowish light of the lantern on the street corner. Autumnal and announcing death and the end. Schikaneder also loved the motif of autumn and winter, and is not winter the death of nature? In another painting, “By the Girl’s Bed”, painted the following year Schikaneder explores the same motif; death of a young girl. In this painting the glow of the candle is overpowering, colouring the room in warm orange shades, as if the more frail and sickly the girl is, the more strength the candle possesses.

Peter Ilsted and Hamsun’s Hunger: Ylajali Looking Out the Window

4 Feb

I recently wrote about the turn of the century Danish painter Peter Ilsted and his delightful, sunny and cozy interior scenes with girls playing or reading books and I mentioned Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger”, well today I want to focus exclusively on Hamsun’s novel and the painting which reminds me of one scene from the novel.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted (Danish artist, 1861-1933), Looking Out the Window, 1908

In “Looking Out of the Window”, a pretty young girl in a black dress and two long braids is looking out of the window. As usual with these Northern painter such as Hammershoi and Ilsted, the girl’s face is not seen, but still I know that she is pretty because she must be and I want her to be because I see her as the Ylajali from Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger”; the sweet-scented, pretty and mysterious girl that the narrator meets one day by chance in the street and later he has a very interesting conversation with her one night. In this painting Ilsted offers a somewhat voyeuristic view of the girl looking out of the window because she is in the other room, and she left the doors behind her open and that’s why we see her through the corridor. If the white doors were closed, the girl would be a mystery and all that would remain on the canvas would be the little table, a painting with shadowy figures and the door. The interior would seem cold and uninviting, but the girl with the braids adds a mysterious touch to it.

What is she looking at? Or should I say, on what strange gentleman are her eyes set? The answer lies in Hamsun novel “Hunger”; written in the first person in the stream of consciousness style, the unnamed narrator is a young aspiring journalist who, poor and hungry, wanders the streets and encounters many things on his way. This is how the novel begins: “It was during the time I wandered about and starved in Christiania: Christiania, this singular city, from which no man departs without carrying away the traces of his sojourn there.” Hungry, half-desperate and half-hopeful in a mad way, with frail nerves, empty stomach and a thin coat, he leaves his attic room in search of….something to fill his day. While on a walk in the beginning of the novel, he sees two ladies walking with their parasols, and accidentally brushes one, turning around to apologise, he sees her pale face and cheeks blushing and she is instantly lovely to him; “I feel myself seized with an odd desire to make this lady afraid; to follow her, and annoy her in some way. I overtake her again, pass her by, turn quickly round, and meet her face-to-face in order to observe her well. I stand and gaze into her eyes, and hit, on the spur of the moment, on a name which I have never heard before–a name with a gliding, nervous sound–Ylajali!

The mysterious girl whose pale face hidden under the veil cannot leave his mind is named Ylajali and he follows her to the bookstore and then to the house where she apparently lives and here is that part of the novel which reminds me of Ilsted’s painting:

Outside No. 2, a large four-storeyed house, they turned again before going in. I leant against a lamp-post near the fountain and listened for their footsteps on the stairs. They died away on the second floor.

I advanced from the lamp-post and looked up at the house. Then something odd happened. The curtains above were stirred, and a second after a window opened, a head popped out, and two singular-looking eyes dwelt on me. “Ylajali!” I muttered, half-aloud, and I felt I grew red.

Why does she not call for help, or push over one of these flower-pots and strike me on the head, or send some one down to drive me away? We stand and look into one another’s eyes without moving; it lasts a minute. Thoughts dart between the window and the street, and not a word is spoken. She turns round, I feel a wrench in me, a delicate shock through my senses; I see a shoulder that turns, a back that disappears across the floor. That reluctant turning from the window, the accentuation in that movement of the shoulders was like a nod to me. My blood was sensible of all the delicate, dainty greeting, and I felt all at once rarely glad. Then I wheeled round and went down the street.

I dared not look back, and knew not if she had returned to the window. The more I considered this question the more nervous and restless I became. Probably at this very moment she was standing watching closely all my movements. It is by no means comfortable to know that you are being watched from behind your back. I pulled myself together as well as I could and proceeded on my way; my legs began to jerk under me, my gait became unsteady just because I purposely tried to make it look well. In order to appear at ease and indifferent, I flung my arms about, spat out, and threw my head well back–all without avail, for I continually felt the pursuing eyes on my neck, and a cold shiver ran down my back. At length I escaped down a side street, from which I took the road to Pyle Street to get my pencil.

Ylajali, what a beautiful and exotic name to my ears! This scene from “Hunger” lingered in my mind for some time after finishing the novel.

Vilhelm Hammershoi, Interior, Strandgade 30, 1901

And just for comparison, here is Vilhelm Hammershoi’s painting with a similar theme, again a lady is looking out the window, her back turned against us, her face hidden, but this version of the same scene doesn’t speak to me as much as Ilsted’s version does. Hammershoi does have a mystery and a certain magic, but this strictness of elements, minimalism, and the palette of greys is painfully oppressive and I just wanna die when I gaze it for a long time.

Peter Ilsted – Two girls playing

27 Jan

Out of the three leading Danish painters in the early twentieth century; Peter Ilsted (1861-1933), Carl Holsøe (1863-1935) and Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), it was Peter Ilsted who brought the warmth, the yellow rays of sunlight, coziness and quiet cheerfulness in his interior scenes, while imbuing them with the little bit of the mystery, the kind that haunts Hammershoi’s well-known interiors. Ilsted was the oldest of the three painters, born on Valentine’s day in 1861, and his sister Ida later became Hammershoi’s wife and appears often in his interior scenes, as a mysterious figure in black.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted (Danish artist, 1861-1933), Two girls playing, c. 1900

Ilsted’s painting “Two girls playing” exudes loveliness and warmth. Sunlight is streaming into the room, pale, peachy-orange and yellowish, and suddenly the same minimalist Northern interior which would appear cold and distant in the paintings of Holsoe or Hammershoi, is filled with quiet sweetness and hopes. Two girls, perhaps sisters are playing with something. They turned their backs on us, they don’t care about us because whatever they are playing with is far more amusing. Their appearance is matching; dark dresses under white aprons, little black boots, hair in a single plait follows the line of the neck and ends in a little bow. While the lighter haired girl is kneeling on the chair, the other seems to be standing on the tips of her toes to see better that secretive toy which seems to provide them both with so much amusement. I can imagine them chatting quietly, even giggling, but all in moderation, for the children ought to be seen but not heard. An interesting detail to notice are the paintings on the wall, little paintings in a painting, figures on them are shadowy and dreamy.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted, Interior with girl reading, 1910

The painting “Interior with girl reading” from 1910, is again filled with the same Ilsted-esque sunshine, silence and tranquility. Sweet moments at home, the coziness and the safety. The future, its trials, tribulations and uncertainties are miles away from this little girl reading a book in her drawing room. How sweet and shy and modest she appears, in a simple grey dress, hair tied in a braid, completely absorbed in the book she is reading. What thoughts occupy her sweet and innocent mind? The bookshelf, the mirror and the drawer are the only pieces of furniture in this simple room, but again there is something warm and cozy about it which doesn’t appear in the paintings of Ilsted’s contemporaries Holsoe and Hammershoi. I love how Ilsted continually achieves this delightful warmth and coziness in his interiors with little girls playing, reading or chatting, without allowing his canvases to fall into the abyss of sentimentality. Far from it, these paintings are equally thrilling and mysterious as any interior painted by Hammershoi. This delicate, gentle portrayal of the home life and childhood resonated with me, the warm orange-yellowish light that colours the space in his interiors almost fills me with nostalgia. Just take a look at that golden sunlight on the floor, how yellow and tangible it appears! It makes me wanna lie there and take a nap like a cat.

It being winter; cold and dreary, and I am weary, weary of it, my thoughts go to “Northern” painters and writers. I recently read Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger” originally published in 1890, and while he isn’t a Danish but a Norwegian writer, some interior scenes by Hammershoi and Ilsted came to my mind because these cozy, quiet and sunny interiors are a stark contrast to the cold and unwelcoming outside world. “Hunger” is written in the first person by an unnamed narrator who is struggling to get his writing published, his extreme poverty brought him to the state of perpetual hunger and this hunger makes his nerves frail and his behavior somewhat eccentric. In one scene from the novel, he keeps staring at a window until a girl’s face appears, they stare at each other for a while, but then her lovely countenance disappears behind the thick white curtains, the borders between the outside world and the indoor coziness, the narrator continues staring at the window, feeling curious and slightly embarrassed.

I wonder, if the girls from Ilsted’s painting would leave their books and their toys, and if they looked through the window and saw a thin, hungry man in a tattered suit, with wild untamed hair and crazy eyes, how would they feel about him? A mix of pity and fear. Would they stare for some time, until their mother or the servant chased them away from the window because it’s inappropriate to stare at the outside world. This simple and sober middle class interior is a safe cage for the girls-birds; they are too shy, too innocent and too sweet to see the reality out there, on the other side of the curtains and windows which serve are protectors. Whatever crazy stuff is going on outside, none of it can harm them.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted, Interior, 1897

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted, Interior with two girls, 1904