Tag Archives: 1900s

Gustav Klimt’s 105th Anniversary of Death – Portrait of Emilie Flöge

6 Feb

Austrian painter Gustav Klimt died on this day, 6th February, in 1918, from a stroke. His last words were “Call Emilie”, referring to Emilie Flöge: his life-long best friend, intellectual companion, muse and possibly a lover as well.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Emilie Flöge, 1902

I have been captivated by Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Emilie Flöge” these days. It is this mesmerising blueness, at once dreamy and vivacious, and the pattern of the dress which seems to be dancing on my mind, moving almost in front of my eyes – the more I gaze at it the more it is coming alive. This is yet another one of Klimt’s wonderful portraits of the high-class Viennese ladies, but this is not just another Viennese lady. Who was Emilie Flöge and who was she to Klimt? In the simplest, or perhaps in the most complex of terms, Emilie was Klimt’s life companion. She was his muse and his best friend. Their relationship has been as much a subject of debates and gossips in their times as it is in our times.

Klimt was a notorious womaniser and a painter known for his provocative erotic themes, but in the end, Emilie was the one with whom he had exchanged more than four hundred letters and postcards, she was the one with whom he had been spending his summer holidays, she was the one with whom he collaborated artistically, and, perhaps most poignantly, she was the one he called for on his deathbed and she was the one who inherited half of his estate. Was she his lover in the physical sense of the word? Well, who knows really. The fact that Klimt has left no proof of their relationship in his letters means nothing, for he was not a man of words nor was he the man to kiss and tell. The discreet nature of their companionship doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t more under the surface. Emilie wasn’t a low-class girl or a prostitute as Klimt’s other models were. Despite her association with the bohemian circles, and mainly due to her fashion philosophies, Emilie was still part of the respectable society and had her own reputation to keep. One doesn’t need to flaunt what one has.

And how did they two meet? Well, Klimt’s younger brother and a fellow artist, Ernst, died suddenly in 1892. Klimt lost not only his brother but also his father that year and that left him with the responsibility of taking care not only of his own family but also of Ernst’s young bride Helene Flöge. Emilie was Helene’s younger sister, eighteen years old at the time, and she befriended Klimt by suggesting they both start learning French together. These innocent lessons have grown into a serious bond that laste for twenty-seven years, until Klimt’s death. From such a simple, unassuming root a beautiful golden flower of ‘Vienna Secession’ blossomed, or should I say perhaps, two flowers, intertwined yet separate, for Klimt and Emilie, despite their close bond, both had their own pursuits.

Ceiling mosaic “Garden of Eden”, barrel vault, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (died 450), daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, Ravenna, Italy. Picture found here.

Emilie was a seamstress turned couturiere, and, in 1904 she became a business woman as well, having opened her own fashion salon called “Schwestern Flöge” (Flöge Sisters) together with her sister Helene. The dresses that they were designing were in the style and spirit of the Wiener Werkstätte or “Vienna Workshop” which was a productive association in Vienna, established around the same time, in 1903, by the painter and graphic designer Koloman Moser, the architect Josef Hoffmann and the patron Fritz Waerndorfer. The association brought together architects, artists, designers and artisans working in ceramics, fashion, silver, furniture and the graphic arts. Their ideas, in terms of fashion, were unconventional and reformative, continuing perhaps where the Victorian trend of the Artistic dress and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had stopped.

The freedom in one’s clothing wasn’t merely a matter of feeling comfortable, it was a liberation from society’s restraints on a symbolic level. A lady freeing herself from the torments of the corset had made not just a practical decision, but a social statement as well. Designs of Emilie’s dresses had a loose high-waisted silhouette, flowing fabrics, billowing sleeves, comfortable in terms of form, inspired by the flowing Oriental styles of kimono and kaftan, and inspired in print by the kind of patterns that Klimt loved and often designed as well, a stunning mixture of geometrical and floral. Klimt himself loved to feel cozy and free, especially whilst painting and during his countryside holidays. He was often seen, and photographed even, in his garden wearing comfotable loose garments with no underwear and sandals on his feet.

Emilie Flöge wearing an Artistic Reform dress, photograph by D’Ora, 1907

Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt in a garden, both wearing their loose garments.

In May 1903 Klimt travelled to Ravenna and Venice, then spent the summer months pleasantly on the Attersee with the Floge familie, and in November the same year he made another trip to Italy and visited Padua, Pisa and Florence. This portrait of Emilie was painted in 1902, a year before Klimt’s Italian adventures, but, to me, it signifies a premonition of sorts, as though the fifth century mosaics of San Vitale and Galla Placidia had been calling out to him with their golds and blues, with their centuries old Byzantine charms. I do love the dress that Emilie is wearing in the portrait! It is just magnificent; flowing loose and freely as though it were a river of dreams, with those beautiful bishop sleeves, wide and then tight at the wrist, and the pattern with its blue swirls, golden circles, white dots, white ovals, then the shawl tight around her neck, like the goddes of Midnight, her pale moon-face arises from the blueness and then that voluminous hair which brings to mind the hairstyle from the portraits of the Spanish painter Velázquez. Hungarian writer and journalist Ludwig Hevesi wrote upon seeing the portrait: “another, unfinished portrait has come to us as if from a blue-mottled world of majolica and mosaic.”

I almost prefer the blueness of this portrait to Klimt’s future golden portraits, there is something ethereal, mystical and dreamy about it which brings to mind the nocturnal atmosphere of the ceiling mosaic in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the daughter of the Roman emperor Theodosius I, in Ravenna, representing the “Garden of Eden” where the deep blue circular golden decorations represent the white corollas of moonflowers. As one may physically pass from the nocturnal atmosphere of the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, where one sees nothing but blueness wherever one ganders, to the bright and golden interiors of the Basilica of San Vitale, full of lightness and life, thus it seems that Klimt has symbolically passed from the starry night of the portrait of Emilie and exploded into the bright golden day that was his Golden period.

Léon Spilliaert – The Absinthe Drinker and Other Paintings

25 Nov

Léon Spilliaert, The Absinthe Drinker (La Buveuse d’Absinthe), 1907

I have felt drawn to Léon Spilliaert’s dark, disturbing and nightmarish paintings for years now, but I always found them just a tad too disturbing to write about. I mean, just look into the eyes of the woman in the painting “The Absinthe Drinker”; two dark abysses, her pupils swirling rivers of dark, haunting absinthe laced dreams. If you look into them long enough she will suck you into her nocturnal world of nightmares and lost hopes. The woman and the space around her are both painted in the same shades of black and midnight blue, as if the woman is inseparable from the space that she resides in. Her silhouette, with the hat, flowing hair, dress and even necklace bring to mind the lovely Edwardian photographs and other portraits from that time, but Spilliaert’s absinthe drinker lives not in Edwardian world but in her own dark fantasy. Big crazy eyes, thin lips pressed together, almost comically large and dark circles around her eyes, her flesh morbidly pale; she sees something that we cannot see and the glass of absinthe hides the secret.

Léon Spilliaert was born in the Belgian coastal town of Ostend, on the 28 July 1881. Spilliaert, a reclusive child with frail health grew up into an equally sickly and reclusive young man who took solace in the world of art. Even in childhood he showed a love of doodling and drawing and this love grew into real painting. Through art his imagination flourished. Interestingly, the town of Ostend gave the art world another amazing painter; James Ensor. Skeletons that pop up in almost all of Ensor’s paintings are at once creepy and comical. Both Ensor and Spilliaert’s art have an element of eerieness, it must be something in the Ostend air. The two painters, despite the generational gap between them, actually became friends and connected over their art endeavors. If I had to chose, I would chose Ensor’s art as my favourite, but Spilliaert’s artworks are something that I gaze at half in awe and half in fear. A strange chill goes down my spine when I get immersed in his dark world.

Leon Spilliaert, Vertigo, 1908

Painting “Vertigo” shows a figure of a woman shrouded in black, her long gauzy black scarf dancing in the wind. The figure is painted in such a nightmarish way that it could also be the figure of death itself. The space around the woman, dark, empty and isolate, oozes an equally nightmarish vibe. It’s only the woman and the wind on the stairs. I can imagine her climbing up the stairs and stopping for a moment only to look into the dark abyss bellow. The contrast between the tread and the riser of the stairs is sharp and precise. The colour scheme and sharp contrats makes me think of the German Expressionist cinema. The wind as a motif appears again in the painting “The Gust of Wind” from 1904. Again, we have a figure of a woman dressed in black, save for her white petticoat revealed by the gust of the wind from the title. Her black hair and her black dress are both moving in the wind and her face is a grimace; a scream or a black hole ready to swallow you whole. She is leaning with her back on the rails behind her and the space around her is, again, devoid of all details, just an empty, isolated landscape with a beach and the sea in the background. No seagull in the sky, no passers by, no clouds… There is definitely something heavy and unsettling about these paintings which brings to mind the paintings of Munch who, interestingly, also used seascape as a background in his paintings of lonely people.

The seascape of Ostend was particularly inspiring for Spilliaert and he enjoyed strolling there at night, under the light of the street lamps. The wind, the sand, the emptiness of a beach; these natural elements are the core of his paintings where the empty space becomes a metaphore for the isolation of a human existence. In all his paintings, the figures are all alone in a big landscape, which also makes me think of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. In Friedrich’s landscapes the figures appear melancholy and lonely and the seascape or other landscape around them is painted in soft, dusky colours; blues, purples, yellows, but in Spilliaert’s art the landscape and its emptiness takes a darker, deeper shade. The female figures in Spilliaert’s art are not only melancholy and sad, but also very disturbing to look at, they truly do appear as something that inhibits nightmares; frail, thin, dressed in all black, painted in a stylised way, their faces hidden. The landscape around them is painted in darker colours and there are no romance or dreams in it.

Leon Spilliaert, The Gust of Wind, 1904

Still, this dark phase of Spilliaert’s art which was inspired by the art of Edvard Munch and Fernand Khnopff, and the writings of Nietzsche and Lautremont, withered like a picked flower after his marriage in 1916. He continued creating art, mostly illustrations and landscapes which are less known, but not with the same ardour and anguish. Perhaps the happiness of marriage and family life finally fulfilled him, but it is sad in the art context. I almost wished he spent his life in misery but continued creating wonderful art. One cannot have it all… or?

Yoshio Markino – Autumn

22 Oct

Listen! The wind is rising, and the air is wild with leaves,
We have had our summer evenings, now for October eves!”

(Humbert Wolfe)

Yoshio Markino, Autumn, 1904

I have often presented works of Western artists here on the blog, mostly Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, who were inspired, in one way or another, by the Japanese art of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Some of these artists that I have written about were Maurice Prendergast, Vincent van Gogh, Whistler, Henri Riviere, Raphael Kirchner, just to name a few. A lot of European artists have been very enthusiastic about Japanese art ever since Japan opened its borders to the world in the mid nineteenth century but in the case of the Japanese artist Yoshio Markino it is the other way around. Markino was a Japanese artist who from an early age had a fascination with the Western art and he not only took stylistic inspiration from it but actually moved to the Western world; first to USA in 1893 at the age of twenty-four and then to London in 1897. For a short while in 1908 and 1909 he even resided in Italy because of something art-related. Markino loved his life in England and he returned to Japan in 1942 after England had declared war on Japan. Markino lived a very long life and he was a very prolific artist, mostly known for his magnificent depictions of London streetscenes and foggy weather and this is known as Markino’s “fog and mist watercolours”. His art is of a peculiar kind because it is a true mix between the east and the west.

At the moment, and appropriate for these golden and misty October days, my favourite of Markino’s paintings is the one above called “Autumn”, painted in 1904. It shows a woman in the street on a windy autumn day. She cannot seem to open her umbrella and the frustration can be seen in her face expression. Autumnal colours – orange and browns – dominate the painting and the delicate sense of transience is indicated in the fall of the leaves carried away gently by the autumn wind, never to return to their branches, dancing their last dance. There is a dynamic play between foreground and background; at first glance we see the auburn haired woman in the foreground with her umbrella and a tree full of orange leaves above her, and then, painted in a more poetic and dreamy way, is the background with the carriage slowly departing. Our view is clouded from so many leaves flying in the air.

A faint church tower can be seen and also some treetops but these background elements are painted in such a delicate, hushed, and subtle way, almost ghostly or as something seen in the memory. The harsh lines of reality are subdued in Markino’s poetic brushstrokes. Not only the leaves in the air but also the woman’s clothes indicate the presence of the wind and the direction of it. While the background is imbued with a sense of dreamy stillness, the foreground is a place of where dynamic playfulness. A very interesting thing is also the face expression of the woman. It is so particular, even the way her facial features are painted. The cheeks, rosy like a rosebud, the eyebrows, the narrow eyes, all of it brings to mind the faces of the figures in the ukiyo-e art which is known for its expressivness.

Serafino Macchiati – The Break-Up

26 Sep

“But I panicked as she turned to walk awayAs she went out the door I heard her sayYes I’m in need of somethingBut it’s something you ain’t gotBut I used to love you a lot

I thought she loved me with a love that wouldn’t dieLooking at her now I can’t believe she said good-byeShe just left me standing there, I never been so shockedShe used to love me a lotShe used to love me a lot….”
(Johnny Cash, She Used to Love Me a Lot)

Serafino Macchiati, The Break-Up, 1900-05

I recently discovered this painting by the Italian painter Serafino Macchiati and I was insantly struck by its dark, murky colours and the equally dark and sad mood that they help convey. The painting is titled simply “The Break-Up” and it was painted just after Macchiati had moved to Paris. The painting shows a man and a woman in a luxurious interior. The woman is standing by the fireplace with her back turned against the man who is looking at her with a slight yearning or disbelief… The tension in the room is palpable. The space and the figures are painted in a way that makes it seem like this is a night scene and the woman’s white dress is bathed in the moonlight. The scene of this love drama, the act of breaking up, may as well have been happening at night, but perhaps the colour scheme of this painting, with its dark blues, grey and black, is more reflective of the mood in the room than than it is reflective of the actual space. It is as if the dark cloud is hanging above the room; their dark grey room is a canvas that shows their distance and tensions, and, after the lightning and thunders of the couple’s shouting and arguing, the dark cloud is now ripe and ready to release the pouring rain. What I am trying to say is that the space is more symbolic than real, and this gives it not only an aesthetical feast for the eyes, but also a variety of interpretations. Is this a real scene, or is it a distant memory? Is the woman, dressed in that gorgeous white gown, merely a ghost of a past lover, a memory of the past that is coming back to haunt the solitary man on this dreary evening. Perhaps he heard a faint ghostly rustle of a dress and all the memories suddenly came back to haunt him. There is also a curiosity as to who is breaking up with whom? I think it is the woman, for her back is turned against the man, symbolically representing her Macchiati also painted some equally dark and mystical paintings whilst in Paris titled “The Vision” and “Spiritism” and both portray the Spiritualist experiences. All in all, this painting is a visually beautiful one, and its beauty is of the poetic, lyrical kind which makes my thoughts go towards music and poetry…

Beach Scenes in Art: Maurice Prendergast, Winslow Homer, Berthe Morisot, Munch, Boudin, Joaquin Sorolla

29 Aug

“I am longing to be with you, and by the sea, where we can talk together freely and build our castles in the air.”

(Bram Stoker, Dracula)

Maurice Prendergast, Revere Beach, 1897, watercolour

These days my thoughts, like birds flying south, are going out to the sea – the wonderful blue sea that Rimbaud wrote about:

It has been found again.
What? – Eternity.
It is the sea fled away
With the sun.

I dream of pebbles on the beach, waves caressing my feet and sunsets so bright and orange that they leave me blind. Memories of past summers fill my mind; I see the wonderful blue sea trembling before my eyes, the steady yet wild waves, the silvery-white seafoam shining in the rays of sun, the salty scent of the sea tickling my nostrils and the sun warming my skin, a plethora of pebbles and parasols in many vibrant colours, the line which separates the sky and the sea is faraway and out of reach. Filled with all these memories, I thought I would write a little overview of some lovely beach scenes in art, mostly the art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. When I say “beach scenes” I mean scenes of people enjoying their time by the sea, scenes of fun, games and leisure, not the melancholy scenes of beaches by the Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich or John Constable, or those seventeenth century Dutch painters who portrayed the sea and ship in all their moodyness and wildness.

Winslow Homer, Beach Scene, circa 1869

Winslow Homer was a very prolific American painter whose watercolours of orchards and Caribbean seas I adore. In this oil on canvas painting called “Beach Scene” Homer combines his usual realistic style with some playful Impressionistic touches, especially in the way he explores the natural elements such as the sky, the sea, the seafoam… What I like a lot about this painting is the way the grey colour scheme is combined with the liveliness of the children playing; it’s a contrast which works wonderfully.

Berthe Morisot, At the Beach in Nice, 1882

The second artwork I’ve chosen is this lovely watercolour sketch by the French Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. “At the Beach in Nice” shows a mother and a child under a blue parasol enjoying the vague sketch of what we assume is a beach by the title alone. This watercolour is more like a sketch; it seems to have been painted quickly, it’s more an impression of a moment rather than a contemplative study. There is a sand colour in the lower half of the painting and some blue in the upper half, indicating the sand and the sea. The mother and the child have almost matching blue bonnets, but they seem otherwordly in a way, like a memory or a dream, ghostly a bit.

Eugene Boudin, On the Beach, Trouville 1887

Now, it would be impossible to write a post about beach scenes and the sea without including a painting by the French marine painter Eugene Boudin. This time his painting “On the Beach, Trouville” from 1887 caught my eye. It doesn’t seem to be a sunny, hot day in this scene. The tones and styles of the ladies’ dresses are almost autumnal and the sea in the background is covered in a mist.

Philip Wilson Steer, Young Woman At The Beach, 1887

Philip Wilson Steer has many wonderful beach scenes and seascapes but the one I’ve chosen to include today is a painting called “Young Woman at the Beach”, painted in 1887. I love the lyrical simplicity of this painting: a girl seen from the profile, dressed in a lovely light pink gown, her dark hair flowing in the wind, looking out towards the sea – daydreaming or reminiscing about the gone by days… Her elegant silhouette is set against the background of the glistening sea and the soft vanilla sky. The way the light is painted here, the way it blinds the eyes and makes the waves sparkle with magic is something incredible. When I gaze at the girl in this painting, I can imagine her fantasising about some dream-lover far away and thinking: “I am longing to be with you, and by the sea, where we can talk together freely and build our castles in the air.”

William Merritt Chase, On the Beach, Shinnecock, 1895, watercolour

William Merritt Chase’s lovely watercolour “One the Beach, Shinnecock” from 1895 shows two girls playing in the sand. I love the way their dresses and bonnets are painted, so intensely delicate, like butterfly’s wings. The lonely landscape behind them stretches on and on, made out of sand and grass, making it seem that the girls are all alone in the world, building their castles in the sand, until the gust of September wind blows them away and destroys the fleeting fantasy forever.

Edvard Munch, Young Woman on the Beach, 1896

The wistful and melancholy vibe of Munch’s painting “Young Woman on the Beach” reminds me more of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. I mean, there is certainly no playfulness, leisure or joy here, but I still decided to include it because it shows that the sea can be a vessel not only for merriness but also for contemplation. The sea, with its eternal, never-changing, song of the seawaves, its persistence and its moodiness and changeability can awake all sorts of emotions inside of us. No words are needed to understand how this young woman feels because the painting says it all. The young woman’s back is turned against us and we can’t see her face, but we can feel what she is feeling and thinking, whilst standing here all alone by the sea, her silhouette in a white dress set against the infinite blueness of the beach.

Maurice Prendergast, Children at the Beach, 1897, watercolour

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.

(Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls)

Now, another cheerful watercolour by Maurice Prendergast! The watercolour shows exactly what the title straightforwardly says: “Children at the Beach”. In Prendergast’s watercolour figures are often just blots of colour but this is what . No other painter can make the blue colour look so warm and cheerful; Prendergast’s blue is like yellow, it’s a sunflower or a ray of sun, he infuses it with a playful, carefree, childlike energy. I especially love the playful way the sky and the clouds are painted in this one, truly stunning way with the brush.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Niña (Girl), 1904

Joaquin Sorolla is known for his playful and realistic beach scenes were children are seen running around, chasing each other and playing, but something about his painting “Girl” from 1904 spoke to me more. While the children in the background are playing and running into the waves, she is standing in wet sand, the waves caressing her feet, and looking out to the horizon. Is she gazing at the clouds, or is a distant ship passing by? We will never know, but her dreaminess tingled with wistfulness is very poignant to me.

Denman Waldo Ross, The Beach, about 1908

The most interesting thing about Denman Waldo Ross’s painting “The Beach” is, for me, the composition: the way the sandy beach takes up most of the space on the canvas and that line of turquoise in the background indicating the sea. The figures on the beach, the ladies in white gowns, with their parasols and bonnets, are all placed in a cascade manner and this pattern is repeated in the turquoise and lilac-blue lines of the sea and the sky.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”

(KIate Chopin, The Awakening)

Wassily Kandinsky – The Singer, 1903

28 Dec

“Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

(Kandinsky)

Wassily Kandinsky, The Singer, 1903, colour woodcut

I decided to end the artistic year on this blog with a gorgeous colour woodcut by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. Earlier this month I had written about Kandinsky’s magical painting “Riding Couple” from 1906-07, and today we have another example of Kandinsky’s early artistic phase. “The Singer” is one of Kandinsky’s earliest colour woodcuts and its fluid, undulating lines and the ornamental division of the space shows the influence of Jugendstil which was popular at the time. The contours of a pianist dressed in black arise out of a dreamy blue background. His face and arms are pale as moonlight, his hair longish. Despite, or maybe because of, the stylised lines and the simple composition Kandinsky managed to convey such a deep, palpable mood which is dreamy, melancholy, poetic. Roses, piano music and moonlight. Soft, hushed tones, a whisper, a soft sigh, a rustle of red roses. Evereything watery and Neptunian; sensitive, tender, mystical…

Kandinsky deeply felt the connection between painting and music. In fact, his final decision to succumb to the voice that was luring him to become a painter was inspired, partly, by seeing Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin” in the Moscow theatre sometime in the mid 1890s. Whilst listening to the music, he saw the entire range of colours and shapes before his eyes, wild lines were creating drawings in his mind. In the end, he was a painter and not a composer, but he always sought connections between painting and music, between colours and tones. Art was a synesthetic experience for him. Many artists, such as Degas, have painted theatre and stage scenes before, but in Kandinsky’s case the choice of a motif, the singer and the pianist, is especially interesting and meaningful. And I must say, to me, this woodblock feels musical. The sounds of a melancholy Nocturne is seeping out of the black and blue tones. The lines, stylised, fluid, like water, are the medium of a melody that lives in this woodcut. There is a dynamic between the dark background and the white foreground where the singer is standing, dressed in a white dress which, strangely, brings to mind the shape of the skeleton.

I will end this post with a dreamy passage from E.T.A.Hoffmann’s essay about Beethoven’s instrumental music which first appeared in 1810 and was revised in 1813:

…(music is) the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infinite. Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing..”

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.”