Tag Archives: 1908

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.

Josip Račić – Watercolours: Paris Through the Eyes of a Stranger

3 May

We begin a new month – the pink, flowery and sweet May – with a new artist; Croatian painter Josip Račić (1885-1908) and the watercolours he painted during his brief stay in Paris in 1908.

Josip Račić, Park Luxembourg, 1907

On 10th February 1908, young Croatian artist Josip Račić arrived in Paris. Five months later he was found death in his room. A suicide. A mystery which gave birth to the romanticised myth of this tortured genius’s life. In his short yet turbulent artistic career, from humble beginnings to education in Munich and lastly, his short Parisian period, Račić, having died at the age of twenty-three, managed to create enough works to become a crucial figure for the development of Croatian Modern art and to pave way for the artists who followed.

Račić was born in a village near Zagreb in 1885 and attended grammar school for a short period after deciding to fully delve into lithography. In 1904 he was already studying in Munich with a well known professor Anton Ažbe, an eccentric yet generous man fighting his own demons whilst always willing to help a student in need; both financially and in motivation. While there, he became a part of the “Croatian School” formed by three fellow art students from Croatia who would later become renewed artists in the early twentieth century. Račić’s family, especially his father, never supported his artistic ambitions so we can guess that his time in Munich was a time of freedom.

There was always an air of mystery around his persona; moody and sensitive, brutally honest with himself and others, he found it hard to develop deep and sincere friendships. He undoubtedly felt misunderstood, and many have for sure mistaken his honesty with arrogance. It wasn’t long that he started being bored with Munich and longed to get acquainted with the art of Paris, to broaden his views, to learn and to create. Determined that his art will thrive if brought in contact with the new currents, in autumn of 1907 Račić decided to go to Paris.

Josip Račić, Café on the boulevard, 1908

In February 1908 he was in Paris and the world of art was opening before his eyes. A boy from the provinces lost in the light and shine of the big city; wandering the wide boulevards, observing people, instantly finding inspiration for his paintings. It’s interesting that he chose the medium of watercolours to portray this fascinating new world that was opening before his eyes, because the paintings he made in Munich and Zagreb were mostly oil on canvas works. Perhaps it’s only the watercolour that can truly capture the light of the street lamps as it spills on the dark dirty pavements, the gloominess of parks and mask-like faces of strangers. Indeed, something that connects all of Račić’s works from his Parisian phase are the shadowy figures of passers-by, often in dark colours with faces that show no individualistic characteristics, but this isn’t Kirchner’s frenzy and anticipation of catastrophe, there is more subtlety and lyrical beauty about these street scenes. There is often a voyeuristic touch to his watercolours; people chatting in parks and being watched by a pair of artistic eyes.

Josip Račić, In the Park, 1908

“In the Park” is a bit merrier than the other watercolours, in terms of colour palette. In a vertical composition, a few closely-cropped female figures are shown in middle of a conversation in the park. The perspective almost looks like photography. Underneath shades of red, light green and yellow, which are refreshingly vivid for a change, we can see Račić’s pencil sketch. How exciting! Račić often seems to ignore all the dreamy and lyrical abilities of watercolour as a medium and still retains his figures painted with stability and volume, he is still hesitant to free with brushstrokes even more. Paris is inviting him to surrender, in colour and in form, and this gives birth to a certain agitation, hopelessness, anxiety….

Josip Račić, On the Boulevard, 1908

Josip Račić, On the Boulevard, 1908

Both watercolours “One the Boulevard” are interesting street-scenes with people sitting on benches and chatting. Figures in both paintings are painted in simplified forms, dark and shadowy, and compositions are horizontal with diagonal lines on the left that divide the areas of light and shadow. People are sitting in the shadow, and just a step away from their gloomy little worlds there are vivid lights of street lamps.

Josip Račić, On the Seine, 1908

Painting “On the Seine” is such a lyrical little masterpiece; a large portion of the painting is devoted to the bridge which is painted in murky shades of blue, green and brown, and then underneath the bridge we see two human figures by the shore, painted like blots, and behind them the Seine stretches on and on, sorrowful and tired. Račić’s watercolours all have melancholy woven through them, in colours and in compositions. Scenes of isolation where people are presented but are distant, unapproachable, strangers because he was a stranger; distant because he felt distant from everyone. No place was a home and Paris didn’t offer the magic potion of happiness and artistic inspiration that he sought. These street scenes and landscapes with lonely human figures are paintings which show the interior of his soul; this was his vision of Paris because he felt that way. No trace of Fauvism or Cubism; art movements that were all the rage in Paris at the time. Just coldness, loneliness, sorrow.

Josip Račić, Pont des Arts, 1908

A curiosity amongst these delightful and sombre watercolours is this oil on canvas work “Pont des Arts” which has a mood of sadness and fatigue; a tired river that flows slowly, a bridge that leads nowhere, a shadowy figure by the shore, empty sky… Then, out of nowhere, the end of this little watercolour-Parisian Renaissance; Račić is found dead in his room in Rue abbé Gregoire number 48. That day, 20th July 1908, Račić was suppose to meet his two Croatian friends, painter Paola Broch and her friend Mrs Schmidt, for dinner. A revolver which he used was a gift from his friend in Munich and it was brand new. Ruby red roses were found still sitting languorously on the fireplace, spreading a dazzling perfume around the room, wrapping the dead body in a veil of dreams.

The reasons for this remain unclear, for at the time of his suicide his career was going well; he had just been given a scholarship, had sold a few paintings and was just about to go to a painting-trip to Brittany. However, there are many suggestions from his painter colleagues and writers of the time. The most notable suggestion being that he was in a artistic-spiritual crisis when he realised how belated his art was and how he was to old to change the course of his art, a feeling of arriving to late to Paris. Some suggested it was connected with his love life, or that he had syphilis. I certainly don’t know, but the first suggestion seems the most obvious to me; a moment of despair taken too far. He was just twenty-three and everything was in front of him.