Tag Archives: 1910s

Edward Hopper’s The Evening Wind and Hadassah’s Sleepless Night (The Family Moskat)

22 Dec

The years had gone by like a dream.

Edward Hopper, The Evening Wind, 1921, etching

I am usually not a great fan of etchings because I love colour, but this etching by Edward Hopper called “The Evening Wind” was particularly captivating to me. I had been wanting to write about it for some time now, but the timing never felt right, the words never seemed right… And now, reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel “The Family Moskat” for the second time, in these grey winter mornings and candlelit winter evenings, the image of a naked woman in her bedroom, in the black and white form of an etching, instantly came to my mind upon reading the passage of the novel which I will share further on in the post. The etching is a portrait of a human figure in isolation, as is typical for Edward Hopper’s work. A naked woman is seen kneeling on her bed and looking towards the open window. The evening wind coming from the window is indicated by the movement of the curtains. It is a simple scene but striking visually and really atmospheric. There is a beautiful play of darkness and light in the scene. The woman is naked, but her face is hidden by her long hair. What is she looking at? And which wind opened the window, was it really the evening wind, or was it the breath of a long-lost lover, her beloved ghost still haunting her? Or was it the wind of nostalgia, bringing in a fragrance of memories and things long-lost. She seems startled as well as frozen in the moment; the wind startled her at first but then made her stop and ponder. The woman is wistful and alone, alone save for that evening wind, and this made me think of Hadassah.

The novel, published in 1950, follows the lives of the members of the Jewish Moskat family and others associated with it, in Warshaw, in the first half of the twentieth century. One of the main characters is Hadassah, the granddaughter of a wealthy family patriarch Meshulam Moskat, who is portrayed as a very shy and dreamy teenage girl in the beginning of the novel – quiet on the outside but passionate on the inside, but over time, through disappointments and love betrayals, Hadassah turns inwards and becomes as quiet and wistful as the forest that she lives nearby. “Still waters run deep” is something that comes to mind when I think of Hadassah, and someone had used that term to describe me one time. Hadassah is my favourite female character in the novel. She quickly falls in love with Asa Heshel, a disillusioned Jew who read Spinoza’s writings a bit too much. At first he comes off as a misunderstood, moody loner but very soon reveals a lack of character and horrible moral standards. I dispise him immensely, especially because of the way he treated Hadassah.

Edward Hopper, Study for Evening Wind, 1921, fabricated chalk on paper

In this passage of the novel, Hadassah is awoken from her slumber by the winter wind beating against the windows. Feeling wistful and nostalgic, she opens her old diary and starts flipping the pages (have I not been there myself…). She is not physically naked in this passage in the novel, but she is naked in spirit, in sorts, because Singer truly offers us a rare glimpse into the world of a dreamy young girl. The way her room, her diary, her thoughts and the conversation she is having with her mother about marriage are described, all feel so familar to me, as if my own. Pressed flower petals, yellowish diary pages, grammar books, dress laid over a chair, strange new feelings arising in your soul, unknown and unexplored territories of love, “the years have gone by like a dream”; this speaks to me in a language I can hear, to paraphrase the Smashing Pumpkins’ song “Thirty-Three”;

On that same night Hadassah, too, was sleepless. The wind, blowing against the window, had awakened her, and from that moment she had not been able to close an eye. She sat up in bed, switched on the electric lamp, and looked about the room. The goldfish in the aquarium were motionless, resting quietly along the bottom of the bowl, among the colored stones and tufts of moss. On a chair lay her dress, her petticoat, and her jacket. Her shoes stood on top of the table-although she did not remember having put them there. Her stockings lay on the floor. She put both hands up to her head. Had it really happened? Could it be that she had fallen in love? And with this provincial youth in his Chassidic gaberdine? What if her father knew? And her mother and Uncle Abram? And Klonya! But what would happen now? Her grandfather had already made preliminary arrangements with Fishel. She was as good as betrothed.

Beyond this Hadassah’s thoughts could not go. She got out of bed, stepped into her slippers, and went over to the table. From the drawer she took out her diary and began to turn the pages. The brown covers of the book were gold-stamped, the edges were stained yellow. Between the pages a few flowers were pressed, and leaves whose green had faded, leaving only the brittle veined skeletons. The margins of the pages were thick with scrawls of roses, clusters of grapes, adders, tiny, fanciful figures, hairy and horned, with fishes’ fins and webbed feet. There was a bewildering variety of designs-circles, dots, oblongs, keyswhose secret meaning only Hadassah knew. She had started the diary when she was no more than a child, in the third class at school,in her child’s handwriting, and with a child’s grammatical errors. Now she was grown. The years had gone by like a dream.

She turned the pages and read, skipping from page to page. Some of the entries seemed to her strangely mature, beyond her age when she had written them, others naive and silly. But every page told of suffering and yearning. What sorrows she had known! How many affronts she had suffered-from her teachers, her classmates, her cousins! Only her mother and her Uncle Abram were mentioned with affection. On one page there was the entry: “What is the purpose of my life? I am always lonely and no one understands me. If I don’t overcome my empty pride I may just as well die. Dear God, teach me humility.” On another page, under the words of a song that Klonya had written down for her, there was: “Will he come one day, my destined one? What will he look like? I do not know him and he does not know me; I do not exist for him. But fate will bring him to my door. Or maybe he was never born. Maybe it is my fate to be alone until the end.” Below the entry she had drawn three tiny fishes. ‘What they were supposed to mean she had now forgotten. She pulled a chair up to the table, sat down, dipped a pen in the inkwell, and put the diary in front of her. Suddenly she heard footsteps outside the door.

Quickly she swung herself onto the bed and pulled the cover over her. The door opened and her mother came in, wearing a red kimono. There was a yellow scarf around her head; her graying hair showed around the edges.

“Hadassah, are you asleep? Why is the light on?”

The girl opened her eyes. “I couldn’t sleep. I was trying to read a book.”

“I couldn’t sleep either. The noise of the wind-and my worries. And your father has a new accomplishment; he snores.”

“Papa always snored. (…) Mamma, come into bed with me.”

“What for? It’s too small. Anyway, you kick, like a pony.”

“I won’t kick.”

“No, I’d better sit down. My bones ache from lying. Listen, Hadassah, I have to have a serious talk with you. You know, my child, how I love you. There’s nothing in the world I have besides you. Your father-may no ill befall him-is a selfish man.”

“Please stop saying things about Papa.”

“I have nothing against him. He is what he is. He lives for himself, like an animal. I’m used to it. But you, I want to see you happy. I want to see you have the happiness that I didn’t have.”

“Mamma, what is it all about?”

“I was never one to believe in forcing a girl into marriage. I’ve seen enough of what comes of such things. But just the same you’re taking the wrong road, my child. In the first place, Fishel is a decent youth-sensible, a good businessman. You don’t find men like him every day. … ”

“Mamma, you may as well forget it. I won’t marry him.”

(…) She went out and closed the door behind her. The moment she was gone, Hadassah flung herself out of bed. She went to the table, picked up the diary, thought for a moment, and then put it away in the drawer. She turned out the light and stood quietly in the darkness. Through the window she could see a heavy snow falling, the wind driving the flakes against the window pane.”

Egon Schiele – Autumn Trees

9 Nov

When one sees a tree autumnal in summer, it is an intense experience that involves one’s whole heart and being; and I should like to paint that melancholy.”

(Egon Schiele)

Egon Schiele, Four Trees, 1918

Austrian painter Egon Schiele, at once demonised and celebrated as a genius, is mostly remembered for his provocative art infused with eroticism and his watercolours and gouache paintings of nude or semi-nude girls appear dangerous even today. Still, many of his paintings of nature and townscapes reveal to us that it wasn’t only the human figure that fascinated him so. Indeed, Schiele found trees and flowers to be equally as good mediums to capture the many emotional states. His persistent dedication to capturing the state of the soul led him to many different motives to paint. In this post we will take a look at three paintings of trees in autumn, all painted by Egon Schiele, but in different times of his life. The first one in this post which you can see above was painted in 1918, near the very end of Schiele’s rather short life – he died on the 31st October 1918 – and the other two were painted in 1911 when Schiele’s artistic career was practically just starting out and he was at the verge of breaking with the style of his teachers and idols and at the point of finding his own way of expression.

Schiele’s oil on canvas painting “Four Trees” painted in autumn of 1918 – the last autumn of his short life – shows a departure from his earlier style of portraying nature and trees. The scene shows four trees in the dusk of an autumn day. This painting is the month of November encapsulated, to me; the trees with red leaves and one almost with branches almost bare, a sense of decay, finality and a sense of inevitable ending, sky descending from warm yellow to deep red tones, and then there is the ominous red setting sun. This is how November feels to me. The setting sun in the sunset of Schiele’s own life. A bloody red sun signifying the death of the day, death of nature as autumn starts to slowly give way to winter’s coldness and desolation. Everything feels so final in November, as if it is happening for the last time because many months of cold, grey weather are before us. The leaves falling down, chestnuts hitting the pavements, evenings coming sooner, wet pavements glistening in the yellow light of the streetlights, dried cornfields seen through the morning fog; just some November imagery that comes to mind.

Egon Schiele, A Tree in Late Autumn, 1911

The two paintings of autumn trees painted in 1911 are very different from the one painted in 1918. A small oil on wood painting “Tree in Late Autumn” painted in 1911 when Schiele was only twenty-one years old is a great example of his ardour for portraying the different states of the soul through the motif he paints. The portrait of this tree is a portrait of isolation; human isolation expressed through the motif of a tree. Some have even called this series of Schiele’s painting “antrophomorphic” and that term may well be applied. The image of a lonesome tree in the middle of nowhere, all alone in the white canvas, painted in dense and heavy brushstrokes, really speaks to the viewer. The twisted, naked branches of the tree are like the arms of a skeleton protruding from the dark, barren soil.

Schiele’s main obsession were portraits and even when he paints trees, flowers or even houses and towns he is always painting portraits, not of people, but of things. Take a look at his sunflowers or his autumn trees here and you will see that without a doubt they are portraits. Schiele was fascinated by death and decay and sought it everywhere he went; in faces of his lovers, the urchins from the streets of Vienna, the roofs and facades of small town of Krumau, the heavy-headed sunflowers, and in the naked and twisted tree autumn trees. Gustav Klimt, Schiele’s early idol, also painted landscapes but they were always decorative and ornamental and their aim was not to capture moods and states of the soul, but rather Klimt painted flowers, trees and gardens as a way to relax on holidays and also to use up the left over paint he had.

These two paintings painted by Schiele in 1911 shows a distinct departure from Klimt’s influence. Schiele isn’t hesitant to leave the background almost bare and he is not eager to use colour and make the painting overflowing with detailings as if it were a Persian rug. Schiele is content with sleek simplicity here and that is the way he was convey the mood of these paintings better. The lack of colours and details allows us to focus solely on the tree and what it stands for, and if you look at it longer you will begin to feel the loneliness and coldness deep in your bones. These are not merry pictures.

Egon Schiele, Autumn Trees, 1911

The painting above, “Autumn Trees”, also from 1911, shows three little trees with leaves still on their branches. Compared to the previous painting this one is a bit more colourful. The brown-green colour of the ground and the pink tinted sky in the background may suggest playfulness, but in the end we still know that these little brown leaves will fall anytime soon and that these thin black branches will be naked and unshielded from cold winter winds. Poor little trees, so weak and frail, and so alone.

Uemura Shoen – Flames

21 May

“You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away.”

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

Uemura Shoen, Flames, 1918

The title of Uemura Shoen’s painting, “Flames”, is somewhat in a discord with the painting’s gentle, subdued appearance.The title “Flames” inplies the flames of jealousy and the woman portrayed here is Lady Rokujo; the heroine of Murasaki Shikibu’s eleventh century novel “The Tale of Genji” (Genji Monogatari). The motives of leaves and delicate spider webs speak of the tranquility of nature, but the feelings rising in Lady Rokujo’s soul are all but tranquil. The lady’s pale skin hides a scarlet coloured rage, but still waters run deep and Rokujo’s feelings are deep and passionate. She is biting the strand of her long, long black hair and this gesture speaks of the tormenting state that this lady has found herself in. The pose that she is in; stylised and contorted also adds to the tense, anguished mood that she is in. The lady’s elegance and her porcelain pale skin makes her look like a doll and that is something we see often in Shoen’s paintings of women.

Shoen specialised in the genre called bijin-ga; a genre of pictures that show beautiful women, especially popular in the Ukiyo-e prints. Often times these beautiful women were prostitutes, but that is not always the case and it is certainly not the case with Shoen’s paintings such as this one. Shoen was born in 1875 and in those times it was very unusual for a woman to be a professional painter. Women who could paint well were viewed as cultured, but it was something only to be done as a hobby, behind closed doors, not something a woman could do as a career. Shoen was born two months after the death of her father and luckily she had a supportive mother who encouraged her in her artistic pursuits. Shoen was sent to Kyoto Prefectural Painting School when she was twelve years old and there she found a great tutor alled Suzuki Shonen who was the painter of Chinese-style landscapes. He gave her freedom to paint whatever she wanted, even painting human figures which was something that was allowed only in later years of training. Indeed, painting female figures was something that Shoen loved best and this painting proves just how skilled she was at portraying the psychology of the character. Shonen also gave Shoen the first kanji “sho” to use in her name. Shoen’s original birth name was Uemura Tsune.

The topic of jealousy instantly made me think of this passage from Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre” where the dark and brooding Mr Rochester tells this to Jane:

You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away. Floating on with closed eyes and muffled ears, you neither see the rocks bristling not far off in the bed of the flood, nor hear the breakers boil at their base. But I tell you — and you may mark my words — you will come some day to a craggy pass in the channel, where the whole of life’s stream will be broken up into whirl and tumult, foam and noise: either you will be dashed to atoms on crag points, or lifted up and borne on by some master-wave into a calmer current — as I am now.

Foujita: La Vie – Everything Passes

11 Jul

Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness.

Everything passes.

This is the one and only thing I have thought resembled a truth in society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell.

Everything passes.”

(Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human)

Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita, La Vie, 1917

Japanese artist Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita fell in love with Western art at a very young age and in 1913, at the age of twenty-seven, he moved to Paris. The role of an exotic eccentric in Montparnasse surrounded by fellow artists, foreigners and eccentrics fit Foujita like a glove. A person as vibrant and theatrical as he was belonged there. Some of the artists from his artistic gang were Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Juan Gris, Picasso, and Henri Matisse. Foujita’s painting “La Vie” is an example of his early work in France and the style of the painting reminds me so much of Modigliani. The painting shows a woman dressed in blue, set against the background of a solitary sandy beach with a single little boat, stranded and confined in sand instead of floating freely and being carried by the waves. The woman’s oval and slightly elongated face and the shape of her eyes remind me of Modigliani’s melancholy and mysterious mask-like female faces and also of the silent marble Brancusi’s Muse. Simplified and geomentric looking, her head and also the strange position of her hands seem as though they were borrowed from some archaic scuplture, or seen in a dream. The cheeks are bright pink and the fingers slender and long. Her head leans on her right in a very exaggerated way, as if this mysterious woman is bowing her head down, not from shame, but as a gesture of both a realisation of the defeat and calm acceptance. The waves in the water behind her are breaking and hitting the sandy shore then retreating in a rhythm of nature which neither of us can stop or influence. The mood that I feel in Foujita’s painting “La Vie” resonates with me strongly and serves almost as a sacred message to a feeling that is always inside me, sometimes more hushed and sometimes awaken like a volcano, like a wound that never heals, it brings anguish wrapped up in nostalgic rosy cover of sweetness. This feeling is the painful awareness of transience of everything, the powerlesness against the fast and unpredictable currents of life, the best way I can describe the feeling that the painting awakes inside me is by sharing a much loved quote from Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”: Upset by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his marvelous sense of unreality and he ended up recommending to all of them that they leave, that they forget everything he had taught them about the world and the human heart, […], and that wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.” Everything passes, every spring and summer once gone are gone forever, a flower will bloom and wither and nothing can resurrect it, memories are pale and hushed shadows, tears cannot bring back a love once lost, and all change is inevitable, c’est la vie… So what else can we do but bow our heads down like Foujita’s silent and solemn muse and let the river of life flow, for our resistence would only bring anguish and ache.

Miroslav Kraljević – Paris Years (1911-1912)

16 May

Miroslav Kraljević, Rest, 1912

In September 1911 a young Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević arrived in Paris; the city which lured artists from all over Europe and gave them all a welcoming embrace. He settled in a little studio in Montparnasse; the same place where painters such as Modigliani, Foujita, Chaim Soutine and Marc Chagall lived and worked. In his vibrant and poetic autobiography Chagall describes artists of many different nationalities and  speaking all different languages painted in studios just nearby his. Miroslav Kraljević was just another stranger in the city of art. Although his stay in Paris was very brief; he had returned to his dear homeland in November 1912, the year and two months that he spent there marked the most exciting and daring phase in his career, and also the final one. He died in April 1913 from an illness; he was only twenty-seven years old.

The paintings, watercolours and sketches he created in Paris were an explosion of his creativity and even though some of his friends in Paris, fellow Croatians, had doubts about his work being well-received in artistically conservative Croatia (still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time), the critics in Croatia praised his work for being a true testimony to the spirit of modernism in Croatia. In his short life and short career, Kraljević had gone through many art transformation and his work exhibits many different influences; from that of Edouard Manet and old Spanish painters, to that of Cezanne’s paintings made in Provence, drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, Henri Valloton, paintings of Henri Forain and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Kraljević’s pastel titled “Rest” from 1912 beautifully shows how the painter was inspired by the art of Toulouse-Lautrec. A woman is seen resting, lying on the bed with her legs in over-the-knee black stockings dangling over the bed. Her beautifully shaped body dressed in a grey dress seems almost lifeless, and her eyes, looking in a distant spot on the ceiling, add to the eeriness. Her pose and her garments are something that Toulouse-Lautrec would have certainly approved of. I love how the grey colour of her dress almost transcends into soft lavender shades. There is also an exciting contrast between the sketchy part of the drawing and the beautifully painted arms and torso where Kraljević achieved the illusion of volume.

Miroslav Kraljević, Apres, 1912

Another pastel, “Apres”, shows a very similar theme; the woman lying on the sofa, again wearing black stockings, but this time nude, is seen covering her face and perhaps her blushing cheeks. Maybe she is hiding from the painter’s gaze. Again, I love the contrast between sketchy and finished. A very different work from Paris is the watercolour “In the Cafe” which shows a man and a woman, both elegantly dressed, sitting in the Parisian cafe. The contrast of he woman’s very pale face and her dark blue coat is very striking.

Even though Kraljević’s paintings such as these were almost scandalously modern and free-spirited for the art circles of the provincial Croatia, his style was actually lagging behind the art trends. In spirit, Kraljević was a man of the fin de siecle; he loved women, female beauty and perfume, eroticism; he was moody, nervous and had frail nerves, he was an aesthete, a follower of the cult of Beauty to the very end. Even on his deathbed he asked for champagne and a comb so he could, quoting him, “die beautifully and – die beautiful”. The soft curves of the female body were dearer to him than rectangles of Cubism, the golden glow of streetlamps and carriages more appealing to him than the speed and ugliness of modern life.

His love of the very recent past (at the time) was equaled with his faithful love for his homeland, it was almost a romantic and sentimental attachment to the meadows and hillsides of his country, even the streets of Zagreb were dearer to him that those of Paris. He was a man who had narrowly missed out on the age which suited his spirit more and, disappointed like a person who’s train had just left the station without him, Kraljević worked with an almost frantic determination and neuroticism, desperately trying to make up for lost times. His fire developed quickly and was extinguished equally so. In some symbolic way, his death in 1913 is very fitting because it is the year just before the First World War had started, it marked the end of an era.

Miroslav Kraljević, In the Cafe, 1912

Frederick Carl Frieseke: Lady in the Garden in June

27 Jun

What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade.”

(Gerture Jekyll)

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Lady in the Garden in June, 1911

Painting “Lady in the Garden in June” and many other paintings by the American Impressionist painter Frederick Carl Frieseke perfectly encapsulate the lazy and indolent mood of a summer garden. Female figures in their pretty dresses and fashionable hats serve to beautify the scenes of gardens in bloom, but Frieseke paints both the flowers and the ladies with equal attentiveness and vibrancy, they seem to be a part of the landscape. Gertrude Jekyll, a British Victorian era horticulturist, writer and garden designer perfectly described this transient and illusive, yet magical and captivating mood of June when summer has revealed to us all its charms and we feel the dream will never end. John Singer Sargent encapsulated this same ethereal and dreamy mood in his painting “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose“, but with Frieseke it’s not just a single painting which speaks of summer delights, but many.

On these canvases Frieseke translates the charms of summer into an oasis of joyous, vibrant colours and countless little dabs, dots and dashes of paint. In the painting “Hollyhocks” from 1911 you can really see how a few dabs of light pink or red can create a whole hollyhock flower. The painting looks pulsating and alive with all these trembling brush strokes and all these colours and it is easy to see why a critic had referred to Frieseke’s style as “Decorative Impressionism” because he uses the same motives as the Impressionists, the wonderful outdoors with flowers and sunshine, but fills his paintings with details, patterns and shapes and some paintings, such as the one called “Hollyhocks” from 1912-13 reminds me of Gustav Klimt’s landscapes which never feature human figures but are instead made out of garish colours and filled with details leaving no space free of shapes and dabs of rich colour.

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Hollyhocks, by 1911

There is little difference between the figure of a lady and the figure of a flower in Frieseke’s garden scenes, both are here for their beauty, colour and shape, and we can see that in the painting “Hollyhocks” above, from 1911, where the woman is seen from the profile in her garden in bloom and, seen from afar, her lean, upward figure would resemble a tall, lean hollyhock flower. In “Lady in Garden” the domineering pattern are vertical dashes which linger on and on over the canvas creating a rhythm and we can hardly see the line which separates the tall, sharp blades of grass from the stripes on the fabric of the woman’s dress. Although Frieseke was an American artist, in 1898, at the age of twenty-four he moved to France and studied art at Academie Julian. He regularly spent his summers at Giverny and in 1906 he moved into a house there, previously owned by another American painter Theodore Robinson, and found himself being a neighbour of none other but the Father of Impressionism: Claude Monet. Despite this lucky coincidence, Frieseke and Monet didn’t develop a friendship. Frieseke found Renoir to be his inspiration instead, inspired by Renoir’s voluptuous women, vibrant colours and a sense of joie de vivre and sensuality lingering through his canvases. And now, speaking of flowers and lovely gardens in summer reminded me of this passage from Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women”:

As spring came on, a new set of amusements became the fashion, and the lengthening days gave long afternoons for work and play of all sorts. The garden had to be put in order, and each sister had a quarter of the little plot to do what she liked with. Hannah used to say, “I’d know which each of them gardings belonged to, ef I see ’em in Chiny,” and so she might, for the girls’ tastes differed as much as their characters. Meg’s had roses and heliotrope, myrtle, and a little orange tree in it. Jo’s bed was never alike two seasons, for she was always trying experiments. This year it was to be a plantation of sun flowers, the seeds of which cheerful land aspiring plant were to feed Aunt Cockle-top and her family of chicks. Beth had old-fashioned fragrant flowers in her garden, sweet peas and mignonette, larkspur, pinks, pansies, and southernwood, with chickweed for the birds and catnip for the pussies. Amy had a bower in hers, rather small and earwiggy, but very pretty to look at, with honeysuckle and morning-glories hanging their colored horns and bells in graceful wreaths all over it, tall white lilies, delicate ferns, and as many brilliant, picturesque plants as would consent to blossom there. Gardening, walks, rows on the river, and flower hunts employed the fine days, and for rainy ones, they had house diversions, some old, some new, all more or less original.

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Lilies, 1911

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Lady in a Garden, 1912, oil on canvas, 81 x 65.4 cm

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Hollyhocks, 1912-13

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Grey Day on the River (Two Ladies in a Boat), c 1908

Marie Laurencin: More Than Dead – Forgotten

16 May

Last week I wrote about the wonderful French painter Marie Laurencin and her paintings of wistful, dreamy girls in soft pastel colours. Today I thought I’d share a poem that Laurencin wrote in 1917 and it’s called “La Calmant”, translated in English as “The Sedative”. To go with the melancholy verses I chose Laurencin’s painting of a girl called Valentine. I love her face expression, the way she placed her head on her hand, and again, those gentle, pastel shades of pink, lavender and yellow typical for Laurencin’s artworks.

Marie Laurencin, Valentine, 1924

The Sedative (La Calmant):

More than annoyed
Sad.

More than sad
Unhappy.

More than unhappy
Suffering.

More than suffering
Abandoned.

More than abandoned
Alone in the world.

More than alone
Exiled.

More than exiled
Dead.

More than dead
Forgotten.

Marie Laurencin: Wistful Waifs in Pink and Greys

6 May

Why should I paint dead fish, onions and beer glasses? Girls are so much prettier.

(Marie Laurencin)

Marie Laurencin, Woman with dog and cat (Femme au chien et au chat), 1916

As it is usually the case with female artists, Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) was partly forgotten and partly misremembered. She is mostly remembered as a part of the French avant-garde, muse to Guillaume Apollinaire who poetically bestowed the name “Our Lady of Cubism” upon her. A female Cubist, a muse, just another figure in the modernist Parisian art circles. But all of these titles, as flattering as they sound, do not do the justice to the lyrical, gentle beauty of Laurencin’s paintings. Born on the last day of October in Paris in 1883, Laurencin moved to Sèvres at the age of eighteen to study porcelain painting. After that, she returned to Paris and pursued studying oil painting at the Académie Humbert. Her work stretched from the early twentieth century up until her death. She was especially successful in the 1920s, but in 1930s, due to the economic crash, besides painting she also worked as an art instructor in a private school. While it is easy to noticed the changes and developments of her style and themes, her paintings always have that certain beautiful quality that makes them so wonderful and unique, and it makes you think that no one else could have painted them but Marie Laurencin herself.

These days I am particularly captivated by the beautiful harmony of pinks and greys in Laurencin’s paintings. So many enchanting shades of grey! Grey like the sky on an autumn day, grey like the fluffy lead-coloured springs clouds full of rain, grey like a soft bunny’s fur, grey like the waters of Seine that Apollinaire mentions in one of his poem called “Marie” written for Laurencin, grey as something gentle, fading and romantical.

I was walking along the Seine

An old book under my arm

The river is like my sorrow

It flows and does not end

So when will the week be done.

(last stanza from “Marie” by Apollinaire, translation found here.)

Marie Laurencin, The Fan, 1919

“The masks are silent

And the music so distant

That it seems descended from heaven

 Yes, I want to love you, but love you barely

And my disease is delicious.”

(“Marie”, Apollinaire, found here.)

All the feminine gentleness of Laurencin’s work lies in those soft shades of grey. The girls in all these paintings, dreamy Parisian waifs, with elongated, thin, mask-like faces bring to mind the slender, gaudy ladies from Kees van Dongen’s canvases. Their skin is grey, their eyes large, silent, poetic and deep, their gazes wistful and inviting. Strange doll-like stillness, paleness, quietness lingers through these canvases. And when the soft grey shades meet the more vibrant, almost garish shades of pink, purple, blue, turquoise, then the true magic occurs. Softness, gentleness, sweetness prevail in these portraits, these girls in pinks and greys are girls seen through the feminine lens of a female painter. To call Laurencin “a female Cubist” is almost an insult to these charming, delicate paintings which posses none of the mathematical, objective, steel-coldness of the Cubist artworks. Laurencin’s portraits are like pages from a young girl’s diary, lyrical and coated in sweetness, but not shallow or sentimental because they have that something, a touch of mystery, secrecy and silent which makes one wonder. She even said herself: “Cubism has poisoned three years of my life, preventing me from doing any work. I never understood it. I get from Cubism the same feeling that a book on philosophy and mathematics gives me. Aesthetic problems always make me shiver. As long as I was influenced by the great men surrounding me I could do nothing.

Laurencin was a part of the Cubist circles but her work is certianly not. Her exploration of colours is, to me, more reminiscent of Fauvism. Look at that turquoise and bright pink the painting “Woman with Dog and Cat”! I don’t understand why the feminine element is often overlooked in her art. She is not less of an artist if she painted pretty girls in pastel colours. She is mostly remembered as just a Cubist muse, but at the same time Picasso’s Cubist guitars and violins, broken to pieces canvases, that is seen as avant-garde and revolutionary, and I don’t see why. Laurencin said something interesting about women and painting: “I conceive of a woman’s role to be of a different nature: painting to be essentially a “job” for a woman (one who sits so long quiet on a chair); and a painter’s inspiration to be life and that of natural sensibility rather than the outcome of intellect or reason. There is something incongruous to me in the vision of a strong man sitting all day… manipulating small paint brushes, something essentially effeminate.

Marie Laurencin, Femme à la colombe (Marie Laurencin et Nicole Groult), 1919

Marie Laurencin, Woman with Dog (La femme au chien), c. 1924

Marie Laurencin, The Kiss, 1927

Alfonse van Besten: Two Girls Picking Cornflowers

8 Apr

Today I wanted to share a few of these wonderful, dreamy photographs by a Belgian painter Alfonse Van Besten (1865-1926) whose curious, inventive spirit prompted him to experiment with photography as well. In one of these photographs, you can see Van Besten painting in his beautiful garden full of flowers and greenery. Painting in one’s garden is the kind of idyll that Claude Monet knew all too well. These autochrome photographs are a real delight to gaze at, they are like nostalgic windows to a secret lost world of eternal spring, meadows with cornflowers and gardens in bloom, the kind of place that I often daydream about. “Two girls picking flowers” is my favourite photograph out of all these, there’s just something so innocent about it and I can imagine the mood of a warm, fragrant summer day, bees buzzing, crickets chirping, long thin stems of the cornflowers swaying in the soft southern breeze, the girls pick flowers oblivious to everything else. Only the cornflowers exist, nothing else matters.

“Spring comes quickly: overnight
the plum tree blossoms,
the warm air fills with bird calls.”

(Louise Gluck, Primavera)

Alfonse van Besten, Two girls picking cornflowers, c 1912

Alfonse van Besten, Young girl amidst marguerites, c 1912

Alfonse van Besten, Van Besten painting in his garden, 1912

Alfonse van Besten, Children at play, c 1912

Alfonse van Besten, Youth Idyll, 1914

Autochrome photograph by Alfonse Van Besten, “Modesty”, 1912

Alphonse van Besten, Mime in love, c 1912

Alphonse van Besten, Mime in love, c 1912

Amedeo Modigliani – 100th Death Anniversary

24 Jan

On 24th January 1920, on that sad, cold, grey, winter’s day, it was Saturday I may add, Jewish-Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani died from tubercular meningitis in the Charité Hospital in Paris. There is no beautiful death, the transition to the unknown is bound to be tinged with tragedy, but Modigliani’s death was particularly sad and tragical; so young, so in love, so talented, one step away from receiving recognition. Such an ugly, sad, inhumane way to depart; ill, frail, in a cold room in a hospital bed, the painter who was so humane and who lived for Beauty and devoted his life to it. The next day his young lover Jeanne Hébuterne, who was two months shy from her twenty-second birthday and eight months pregnant with their second child, ended her life tragically by throwing herself from the window of her parents’ flat on the fifth floor; the thought of living without her beloved was unbearable. She was his lover, his muse, his devoted and faithful companion, even in death. Her epitaph on their grave says “Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice.” Who knows what a new decade would have brought to them both?

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918

Amedeo was born in July 1884 in a Jewish family in Livorno. His family was well off but around the time he was born, they faced severe financial difficulties. Nonetheless, the dreamy and sickly boy grew up in an environment where literature and philosophy were appreciated. At the age of sixteen he contracted tuberculosis and spent some time in Naples, Capri and Rome, hoping the warm mild weather would soothe his disease. After studying art in Livorno and Florence, Modigliani moved to Venice in 1903 and there he encountered the joys of hashish. Three years later he moved to Paris and encountered the works of Cezanne; the two proved to have a lasting influence on him. His early work shows the influence of Klimt; portraits of femme fatale women with large wide brimmed hats; full, sensuous and thirsty lips and their breasts exposed, a touch of Fauvism in the garish choice of colours, green or blueish for the skin. Cezanne, Cubism and the traditional African masks from Kongo, so popular in the art circles in Paris at the time, all left an impact on his art. Angular, elongated faces with large almond eyes and long noses have found their way from the limestone sculptures to the canvases where finally, after all the influences, his pure artistic instinct, his lyricism, love and poetry emerge.

Photographs of Jeanne Hébuterne

In early 1917 Modigliani finished a series of around thirty nudes. In April 1917, Amedeo met Jeanne Hébuterne, a demure, talented and beautiful schoolgirl who was studying painting at the Académie Colarossi. Ukrainian scultpor Chana Orloff introduced them. Modigliani was no stranger to seduction and it’s easy to see why Jeanne fell for him. He was known in his younger days for his devilish good looks and charms which easily lured women, to his bed and to his canvases. But what was this shy girl from a strict family doing in the wild, free-spirited hippie crowd at Montparnasse? It was her brother André, who also aspired to be a painter, who brought her to the art circles in Montparnasse. The French writer Charles-Albert Cingria described her as “gentle, shy, quiet, and delicate”. Even in the photographs, there is an air of demureness and melancholy around Jeanne; she seems quiet yet passionate, shy but stubborn and strong. She did after all turn her back on the strict bourgeois Catholic upbringing and to the horror of her prim and proper parents moved in with Modigliani soon after meeting him. And what a meeting of souls that must have been! Like Dante and his beloved Beatrice who died young, but inspired his art. Modigliani was an avid reader and always carried his dear homeland Italy in his heart, and during painting sessions he would recite passages from the works of Dante and Petrarca which he knew by heart, and sing arias from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La traviata.

Amedeo Modigliani, Nude on a Blue Cushion, 1917, oil on linen, 65.4 x 100.9 cm

Interestingly, since meeting Jeanne, nudes appear less frequently in Modigliani’s art and her slender figure and face fill canvas after canvas. That’s not to say that Modigliani never painted nudes again, he did, but they don’t seem to dominate his art like they did in previous years. He never painted a nude of Jeanne; perhaps she was too shy to pose like that, or perhaps her body was too sacred to him to share it with the rest of the world, even if it’s on canvas. She was, after all, his future bride, as he wrote in one letter. The nudes he painted in 1917 echo the luminosity and sensuality of Renaissance nudes and the wonderful Venetian sense for colours and tones. All so similar, yet all so different. His oeuvre isn’t a repetitive string of portraits and nudes, but one great gallery of souls. It seems that Modigliani had the gift of transcending the bounds of the flesh, no matter how luminous, soft and pink it was, and painting the soul, connecting soul to soul on a deep, profound, humane level. The same quality of understanding and humanness lingers through the art of another very unique painter whose art, just like Modigliani’s cannot be placed into a specific art movement, and his name is Marc Chagall.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of a Girl, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude, 1917, oil on canvas, 60.6 x 92.7 cm

Amedeo Modigliani, Iris Tree (Seated Nude), 1916, oil on canvas, 92.4 x 59.8 cm

The painting above, “Seated Nude” from 1916 is one of my favourite nudes that Modigliani painted, looking at it now, I am once again filled with ecstasy! Such beauty of the flesh, those warm colours, that pink on her cheek, that mystery in her closed eyes, touches of blue on her eyebrows and her lips, who is this silent muse?

“On that blue velvety Parisian afternoon, Modigliani sat by the window, smoking a cigarette, lost in his thoughts, occasionally glancing at his empty canvas. A nude model is sitting on the chair, behind her a tattered wallpaper, grey wall protruding behind it. Clock is ticking. Rain is beating on the window. Time is passing…. Her long chestnut hair falls over her sunken cheeks. Her eyes are fixated on the wooden floor, but when she lifts her weary eyelids towards Modigliani, aquamarine blue shines through, overwhelming the room, piercing through the greyness of the afternoon. Yes, her eyes are as blue as cornflowers he had seen years before, on one train ride, in the south of France. Fields of cornflowers there were, blue and tender, and amongst them a red poppy was smiling…. yes, blue as cornflowers; Modigliani’s his thoughts lingered on like this…. Her eyelashes are dark, wet from tears, but her face radiates calm resignation. Her lonely blue eyes sense something dark. She looks at Modigliani for a moment, and the next moment she’s lost in her thoughts again. Dreamy veil covers this bohemian abode. Rain is still falling. ‘Modi’, as Modigliani was known, is still smoking the same cigarette. His grey-silvery smoke fills the room like some old tune. A few old, forgotten books lie on the windowsill. Wooden floor is covered with paint flakes at parts. Rain – blue and exhilarating – baths the city. He picks up his brush….

The nude lady is as sad as this rainy afternoon, but he can’t paint her eyes. He feels her sadness, but he can’t bring himself to capture that beautiful aquamarine blueness, because he does not yet know her soul.”

(An excerpt from my older post)

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu Couche, 1918

These luscious, sensuous nudes were exhibited on Monday, 3rd December 1917 in the gallery of Berthe Weill. Modigliani was thirty-three years old, and this was the first and the last exhibition of his life. Many Parisians were drawn to the gallery that evening, but unfortunately for Berthe and Modigliani, the gallery was situated opposite the police station and seeing the gregarious curious crowd in front of the gallery made the policemen curious too. They instantly showed up and were scandalized by the art they had seen and instantly demanded Berthe to remove them, or else they would be confiscated. It was the pubic hair which scandalised the policemen especially. These narrow minds judging such a wonderful artist, very sad, especially since Modigliani devoted his life to Beauty. The scandal and failure of the exhibition didn’t plague his spirit for long. Love had entered in Modigliani’s life in the form of a shy, sweet Jeanne and Modigliani was very inspired and very prolific, filling canvas after canvas with her face, serious with direct gaze and large blue eyes. Apart from Jeanne, Modigliani painted many other neighbourhood faces, pretty melancholy street-urchins, but he painted them with poetry and compassion. He spent a great deal of 1918 and 1919 in Nice where he met the old Renoir, and he painted some landscapes while there, a genre uncommon for him. Their daughter Jeanne was born in Nice on 29th November 1918. After returning to Paris in late 1919, Modigliani continued with his melancholy portraits, but sadly he died soon afterwards, on the 24th January 1920. Now let us take a look at some wonderful portraits of Jeanne and other girls!

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hebuterne, 1919

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hebuterne with Hat and Necklace, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, Seated, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne in a Hat, 1919

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Petite Lucienne, 1916

Amedeo Modigliani, Two girls, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Marie, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Paulette Jourdain, 1919

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918