Tag Archives: 1910s

Egon Schiele – Portrait of Edith in a Striped Dress

21 Mar

Egon Schiele’s portrait of his wife Edith in a colourful striped dress is something quite unusual and new in his art, and her face, full of naivety, sweetness and innocence seems so out of place amongst his usual female portraits, nudes and half-nudes, with a decaying heroin chic appeal. Where did this change of style come from?

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele, the artist’s wife, 1915

When I first saw this portrait, I loved the stripes on the dress for they seemed so alive, so intricate and colourful, and yet the quality of the colour is murky and earthy, as usual in Schiele’s palette. I was also amused by her face expression, but my interest quickly turned to Schiele’s alluring nudes. What can this portrait show us, apart from the fact that Edith loved wearing striped dresses? Well, it’s a psychological study which shows us Edith’s true personality. Let’s say that her true colours shine through. Look at her – she looks awkward and artless, she is clumsy and doesn’t know what to do with her hands, her eyes are wide open and eyebrows slightly raised, her lips are stretched in a weird, shy smile, as if she’s in the spotlight but wants to get away, she’s pretty but not exceptional, timid but not gloomy. Prior to marrying Schiele, Edith led quite a sheltered life, with her sister Adele and her conservative parents.

In Spring of 1914, Schiele noticed that there were two pretty young girls living just across his flat. Naturally interested, he started thinking of ways to meet them which was hard because the girls lived under the watchful eyes of their mother. They started waving each other through the window, and sometimes Schiele would paint a self-portrait and show it to them through the window. Surely by now, both Edith and Adele had dreamt of meeting that cheeky, arrogant but charming artist across the street. Schiele started sending them little notes, the content of which must have made Edith and Adele blush and giggle, but they never replied to any of them for a year. They met with Wally’s help, and all four went to the theatre or cinema together. Needless to say that the cynical Schiele was interested in both girls, in fact, for some time he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to marry Edith or Adele. Crazy situation, but luckily for him, it turned out that Adele wasn’t really interested so he settled on Edith and they got married, despite the strong disapproval of her parents, on 17 June 1915, which was the anniversary of the marriage of Schiele’s parents.

Scenes from ‘Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment’ (1981)

I can understand why Edith liked Schiele, women always go for the bad guys; he was an artist, straightforward about what he wanted, he had a bad reputation and was once imprisoned for pornographic art, and, admit it or not, there’s something romantic about criminals. What remains a mystery to me is why Schiele liked her? What could this timid, shy, proper and frightened girl had to offer him? Most importantly, what was it so appealing about Edith that the witty, funny street-wise, experienced Wally didn’t have?

We sense here the conflicting emotions that Edith must have caused in Schiele: a quiet pleasure in her innocence, a satisfaction with her selfless loyalty mixed with frustration at her lack of of sexual energy. Schiele makes her seem passive and whilst he found vulnerability attractive he must also have longed for those quite different qualities which Wally possessed in abundance: the kind of temperament and aggressive eroticism which made Schiele himself feel vulnerable.“*

Edith was portrayed well in the film Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment (1981). If I remember well, in one scene she’s sitting in Schiele’s lap and he shows her some of his erotic drawings, and she throws a quick shy glance, giggling and blushing, and you can see that she’s at unease with the nude models in his studio, stretching in different poses. She wanted to pose for him so he wouldn’t look at other women, but she just couldn’t satisfy his artistic demands. Again, that’s something that Wally did more than well.

Where did this wish to settle down, this wish for security come from? It seems like he wanted to indulge in a bourgeois life all of a sudden. Also, his decision to marry Edith and not Wally shows the double standards typical for men of his time; Wally was an artist’s model, a position practically equal to that of a prostitute, and as much as he loved her aggressive eroticism, he still wanted his wife to be modest and chaste. In the portrait of Edith in a striped dress from the same year, again her shyness shines through. Look at her eyes, frightened like that of a delicate fawn in the forest glade, and her sloping shoulders, almost crouching under the weight of the artist’s gaze, her hands in her lap; she looks like a child forced to sit still against its wish. Schiele always painted his middle-class wife modestly dressed, with a stiff collar and long sleeves, whereas looking at the pictures of Wally we know only of her petticoats, lingerie and stockings, not of her hats and dresses. Without a doubt, Edith loved Schiele, but she couldn’t understand his art.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele with striped dress, 1915

Their marriage didn’t last long for they both died in that sad autumn of 1918. First World War had just ended, Spanish flu had taken many lives, amongst its victims were Edith who died six months pregnant on 28th October, and Schiele who died a few days later, on 31st October.

Everything that is sad, and occurs in autumn, gets imbued with an even greater sadness, but Autumn was Schiele’s favourite season, he wrote ‘I know there is much misery in our existence and because I find Autumn much more beautiful than every other season…. It fills the heart with grief and reminds us that we are but pilgrims on this earth…’ He also wrote in his short lyrical autobiography: ‘I often wept through half-closed eyes when Autumn came. When Spring arrived I dreamed of the universal music of life and then exulted in the glorious Summer and laughed when I painted the white Winter.’ The fresh, new, dreamy Spring of his art is forever tied with the image of cheerful Wally in her stockings, forever smiling from the canvas, and so the Autumn of his art is tied with Edith’s timid half smile and her striped dress. First symbolises his rapture, the latter his gloom, which Kundera later wrote in his book Slowness as two main characteristics of central European mentality. Rapture and gloom, life and death, Eros and Thanatos; all intertwined in Schiele’s paintings.

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*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford

Egon Schiele’s Muse Wally Neuzil – Woman in Black Stockings

17 Mar

In 1911, Egon Schiele met a woman. She was seventeen, bright eyed, fun, amiable, not a bit shy or innocent. Her name was Valerie ‘Wally’ Neuzil, and she was just what both Schiele and his art needed. In that short period of time, Schiele’s art blossomed, and Wally was his muse, his lover, his friend. Their story is the one of obsession, love, betrayal, erotic exploration, and death – death of an artist, death of a muse, death of a whole empire and death of an era.

Egon Schiele, Woman in Black Stockings, 1913

When you spend hours looking at portraits of people who have been dead for years, or portraits of people who never existed, you start to feel that you know them, but that’s just an illusion. Likewise, when you look at Schiele’s portrait of Wally in black stockings and white lingerie, with bare shoulder, and her head leaned on the side, with that gorgeous yellow hair, you feel that she’s so close to you, that you know her. She’s looking at you with a friendly gaze that invites you to come closer. In the portrait below, Wally’s big doll-like blue eyes seem like windows into her soul, and yet for the art world she is a woman of mystery, secrets and speculations are wrapped around her life and character like a spider’s web so the only thing that’s left is to guess and daydream.

What was Wally’s family life like, her childhood, her education? We don’t know. The circumstances surrounding their first meeting also remain shrouded in mystery. All we know is they met in 1911, when she was seventeen and he was twenty-one, already drawing his erotic Lolita-esque fantasies and provoking the public of Vienna. Wally was first Klimt’s model so it’s possible that Klimt send her to Schiele, and it’s also possible that he saw her in Schönbrunn Park or somewhere on the streets of Vienna, and approached her because her appearance suited his aesthetic visions. So young and her life already revolved around art and her artistic journey was that from Klimt’s canvas to Schiele’s, from Klimt’s bed to Schiele’s.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Wally, 1912

A first Wally lived in her own flat and Schiele paid her for her modelling services, but as their relationship progressed, she moved in with him. It’s safe to assume Wally was an amiable, good-natured, eager to help and please, but also very pretty, fun, charming, witty, close to Schiele in age and interests. She really was everything Schiele, as an artist and a man, needed; she posed for him, she did household chores, and she acted as his messenger, carrying his erotic drawings to his clients who, even though she wasn’t timid, often managed to reduce her to tears with their sharp cruel remarks. As Vienna was getting more dark and oppressive for Schiele, his thoughts wandered to the forests, meadows, morning mists and sunny afternoons of his imagined countryside paradise where his art would flourish. And so they moved to Krumau, a picturesque little town south of Prague, and later to Neulengbach, near Vienna.

Imagine their days in Krumau and Neulengbach as their little hippie getaway; a place where bright sunflowers grow by the wooden fence, grass is fresh and green, and air is exhilarating after spring rain, houses are small with little windows with flowing white curtains, letting in the sunshine and the gentle breeze, a place where birdsong is the only music, and butterflies are dancers. There, Wally would sit or lie on the bed, wide smiled, with rosy cheeks and a spark in her eyes, dressed in her lingerie and stockings, with maybe a ribbon in her hair, throwing inviting glances to Schiele and now to us viewers. These drawings of Wally seem so alive, so full or ardour, passion, adoration, they’re not as twisted and strange as his nudes tend to be, on the contrary, they seem to tactile, so full of warmth, colour and richness; you can feel the idyllic mood of their days in the countryside, you can feel Wally’s gaze filling you with warmness, you can see her eyes radiating playfulness. In the first painting, her golden hair stands out, but the one below is harmony of rich warm tones of yellow and orange which presents us with a brighter side of Schiele’s life, away from gloom and conviction of Vienna. These drawings had shifted Schiele’s role from that of an observer to that of a participant: ‘These drawings are the expression of a physical passion so unequalled in Schiele’s life. Earlier drawings of similar subjects are, by comparison, those of a voyeur. These speak with delight of participation.’* Picture of Wally wearing a red blouse, lying on her back, with her hand under her chin, looking directly at us, made quickly and then filled with colour, tells us that once, for a moment, everything was perfect.

If you enlarge the picture, you’ll notice her eyebrows painted in one single stroke, and the hints of dark blue around her eyes, which are brown all of sudden. The position of her right hand and her hair colour are just adorable to me. I wish I could tell you that this is where their happy story ends, that they dissolved into that beauty, died and became sunflowers in the garden, but the reality dipped its wicked fingers into their lives. First came the infamous Neulengbach affair; Schiele was accused of seducing a girl below the age of consent and his ‘pornographic’ drawings were condemned, but that’s for another post, and then there was another woman – Edith Harms.

Egon Schiele, Wally in a Red Blouse Lying on her Back, 1913

The end of their artistic and love affair is as bitter as it gets. Wally was the one who introduced Schiele to Edith, and now he is leaving her for that woman. Ouch… As time passed, Schiele and Edith got romantically engaged, and he planned to marry her, but what of Wally, where is her place in the story? Well, Edith wanted a ‘clean start’, as she wrote to Schiele in a letter, and demanded that he broke all connections to Wally.

Schiele and Wally met for the last time in the Café Eichberger. Schiele spoke not a word, but instead handed her a letter in which he proposed this arrangement; he marries Edith but gets to spend every Summer with Wally, alone. Wally was disgusted with the idea and declined. Schiele resigned ‘lit a cigarette and stared dreamily at the smoke. He was obviously disappointed. Wally thanked him for the kind thought… and then departed, without tears, without pathos, without sentimentality.‘*

Wally and Schiele never met again. First World War was in the full swing, and Wally, who never married, became a nurse, went to care for soldiers near Split in Dalmatia, part of today’s Croatia, where she died from scarlet fever just before Christmas 1917.

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*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford

Pablo Picasso – Oh, Those Guitars!

27 Jan

Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand. If only they would realize above all that an artist works of necessity, that he himself is only a trifling bit of the world, and that no more importance should be attached to him than to plenty of other things which please us in the world, though we can’t explain them. People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.‘ (Pablo Picasso)*

1921-pablo-picasso-still-life-with-guitar-1921Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Guitar, 1921

I’m not a particular fan of Picasso, but earlier this month I found myself absolutely besotted by his collages and guitars. Oh, those guitars! I was so inspired by them that I started making collages myself, with guitars and cut-out pieces of newspapers. Despite their seeming simplicity, I feel a strong creative energy from them and that’s why I like them.

Picasso’s art can be clearly divided into periods, some by colours he used, others by the specific motifs and themes he painted repeatedly: in his melancholic ‘blue phase’ he was interested in beggars, the homeless, prostitutes, drunk people, in his ‘rose period’ it was all about joy, carnivals and harlequins. Then, inspired by Cezanne’s theory that everything in nature and world around us can be divided into geometric objects, Picasso, along with Braque, delved into Analytical Cubism which resulted in rather confusing, dark and distorted paintings. Their alteration of reality is almost psychedelic, which is kind of cool. What followed is known as Synthetic Cubism or Crystal Cubism which followed the idea that a painter’s job is not to ‘copy’ world around him, but to ‘construct’, and so they did, discovering at the same time the power of collage as a technique. Instead of breaking an object into its essential pieces, they built objects using contrasting colours, pieces of newspapers, fragments of their own sketches. Picasso’s painting Guitar, Sheet Music, Glass made in autumn of 1912, is usually considered the first example of Synthetic Cubism. It’s so simple yet so striking. The background is actually a wallpaper, and then there’s a piece of blue paper, and a piece of black paper, all very simple, and then, out of nowhere, a piece of sheet music and a charcoal drawing of a glass made in the style of the previous Analitical Cubism. The most interesting of all, a cut out piece of newspaper with half a title showing ‘Le Jou’, shortened from ‘Le Journal’  meaning ‘Newspapers’. Picasso is playing a word game with us here, ‘le jou’ means ‘game’. Below that it says ‘Le Bataille s’est engage’ which means ‘The battle has begun’ alluding to the raging wars on Balkan, when Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro fought for the independence from the Ottoman Empire. However, this is usually interpreted not just as Picasso’s awareness of the political situation of Europe, but is seen as symbolic for the battle of Cubism and collage as new styles and methods in art.

I hate it when people say something like: ‘Oh, everyone could do that, what’s so revolutionary about it?’ My art teacher in grammar school had a good answer to these ignorant remarks, she said: ‘ Well, yes, everyone could cut out a piece of newspaper and glue it on paper, but the fact that no one did it before, that no artist dared to do it before, that’s what makes it avant-garde and revolutionary!’ This can well be applied to many more artists, like Matisse, Miro, Malevich, Mondrian, Rothko, even Pollock.

1912-pablo-picasso-guitar-sheet-music-glass-paris-autumn-1912-papers-and-newsprint-le-journal-18-november-1912-pasted-gouache-and-charcoal-on-paperPablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music, Glass, Paris, autumn, 1912. Papers and newsprint (Le Journal, 18 November 1912) pasted, gouache and charcoal on paper

1921-pablo-picasso-musicians-with-masksPablo Picasso, Musicians with masks, 1921

1916-the-guitar-pablo-picasso-synthetic-cubismPablo Picasso, The Guitar, 1916, Synthetic Cubism

1924-pablo-picasso-mandolin-and-guitar-mandoline-et-guitarePablo Picasso, Mandolin and Guitar (Mandoline et guitare), 1924

Marc Chagall – The Colour of Love

18 Dec

“In our life there is a single colour, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the colour of love.” (Marc Chagall)

1915-marc-chagall-birthdayMarc Chagall, Birthday, 1915

Earlier this year, in February, I was mesmerised by Chagall’s paintings and wrote two posts about him, The Paris Years (1910-1914) and Mystical Seven, this post – The Colour of Love – was an idea I had but never got round to. Well, these days I found myself daydreaming about Chagall’s portraits of lovers, and the mystic blueness of his paintings again, so consider this the third part of my Chagall trilogy.

Marc Chagall is one of those people who are full of love; love for life, colours, people, nature, memories, dreams, art, love towards sky, and night, and his village, and houses and his parents, composition and form, and colours, oh, he adored colours! Chagall’s paintings are landscapes of love, dreams and poetry. With Chagall, everything starts and ends with love – it’s pervading in his choice of subject, as he was fond of paintings his wife Bella and dreamy lovers flying above Paris, and always in his approach.

There’s a hint of Romanticism in his way of thinking, he said himself: ‘If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.‘ His paintings are so whimsical, dreamy and psychedelic really, that it’s hard to place them in a specific art movement; he was neither a Cubist nor a Surrealist and even though he always painted surrealistic scenes; lovers, cows and houses flying in air, fiddler on the roof, bodies and objects painted without respect for form, he steered clear from all formal classifications and manifestos. He stood as a loner and a dreamer.

1928-les-maries-de-la-tour-eiffel-the-wedding-party-on-the-eiffel-tower-by-marc-chagallLes mariés de la Tour Eiffel (The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower) by Marc Chagall, 1928

Love at first sight that started in 1909 when a beautiful daughter of a rich jeweller met a poor aspiring painter who worked as an apprentice for Leon Bakst, lasted thirty five years. What ended their love affair was not the change of feelings, but Bella’s death. In his autobiography ‘My Life’, which I highly recommend you to read, he poetically writes about her: ‘Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her pale colouring, her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul.’

Bella, although seemingly a quiet, pale and withdrawn girl, was enthusiastic about Chagall as well, and later wrote about being mesmerised by his ethereal pale blue eyes: ‘When you did catch a glimpse of his eyes, they were as blue as if they’d fallen straight out of the sky. They were strange eyes … long, almond-shaped … and each seemed to sail along by itself, like a little boat.‘ She also wrote of their first meeting: ‘I was surprised at his eyes, they were so blue as the sky … I’m lowering my eyes. Nobody is saying anything. We both feel our hearts beating.

1917-bella-with-white-collar-by-marc-chagall-1917Marc Chagall, Bella with White Collar, 1917

After years spent in Paris, between 1910 and 1914, Chagall and Bella finally married on 25 July 1915, despite having a hard time convincing her parents that he would make a good match. They didn’t care about their love, but were more worried about his career and social status. Still, less than a year later, on 18th May 1916, their first and only child, Ida, was born and the arrival of this little bundle of joy softened the bourgeois hearts of Bella’s parents.

Chagall was absolutely besotted with Bella, he thought about her all the time while in Paris, and when they finally married, he expressed this endless amount of love and joy that suddenly overwhelmed him through his art. In painting ‘Birthday’, we see figures of Bella and Chagall in a kiss, the strength of their love allows them to defy gravity; he is already flying of happiness, while she seems ready to join him, carrying a bouquet of flowers in her hand. Chagall painted their room with religious devotion to details, and the space seems oddly real; notice the intricately woven fabric on the right, then the knife and a little purse on the table, and the view from the room. Chagall describes his new-found happiness in a way a poet would, just using colours instead of words, and he tells us: it’s real and it’s here, for the first time.

1949-marc-chagall-blue-landscapeMarc Chagall, Blue Landscape, 1949

Reading ‘My Life’ and observing his paintings from that period, you can sense his utter rapture and adoration for Bella. He even seems surprised that she could love him, this poor and clumsy boy who dreams of being a painter. He writes:

“In the mornings and evenings she would bring to my studio cakes she had baked with loving care, fried fish, boiled milk, colourful fabrics, and even boards of wood to use as an easel. All I had to do was open my window and in streamed the blueness of the sky, love and flowers with her. Dressed all in white or all in black, she has long been haunting my paintings, the great central image of my art.” (My Life)

1917-18-marc-chagall-the-promenadeMarc Chagall, The Promenade, 1917-18

You can really imagine him painting cows, fiddlers, lovers and poets in serenity all day, immersed in colour, meditating in every brushstroke, and the sparkle in his sky blue eyes when she’d enter the room. If only this beautiful dream, painted indeed in the colour of love, lasted forever. In both paintings, ‘Birthday’ and ‘Bella in White Collar’ we see Bella’s dress as he’d described it in the book. In painting ‘The Promenade’, he’s holding her hand like a balloon, with a wide smile on his face, while the town shaped in a Cubist style and painted in emerald green sleeps in the background.

It must have been wonderful to be loved by this gentle and humble dreamer with a vivid imagination. Lucky Bella.

1926-marc-chagall-lovers-with-half-moonMarc Chagall, Lovers with Half Moon, 1926

Chagall often paints lovers surrounded by a mystical blue colour, with a moon in the background, perhaps referring to his own love story with Bella again. In ‘My Life’, which is not a typical autobiography but a vibrant kaleidoscope of memories, he writes of kissing Bella at night, and also, one time, her parents locked the house and she couldn’t get outside to meet him so she got out through the window. Naturally, neighbourhood was gossiping, that’s not unusual for a small town like Vitebsk, and nobody would believe Chagall that his fiancee remained even more pure than Raphael’s Madonna, to quote Chagall himself. A reminder: this all takes place in 1909, and people tend to think that modern world is completely different, well I guess it isn’t. Love was love, and dreams were dreams – two main forces behind Chagall’s work.

1914-blue-lovers-marc-chagallMarc Chagall, Blue Lovers, 1914

Chagall’s anti-rational approach to art, typical for Surrealists, is perhaps best noticeable in his portrayals of dreamy lovers bathed in mystic blues. After his Parisian period (1910-1914) during which he flirted with Cubism, and enjoyed adding hints of geometry here and there, he suddenly freed his art even more, because it wasn’t stern to begin with. He felt an attraction for free forms, and purposefully employed the language of fantasy and games to develop a distinctively dreamy mood that still makes his paintings stand out.  It’s that playful quality of Chagall’s art that drew me to it in the first place, but it’s not a shallow playfulness because it’s always tinged with a transcending appeal of the mystical blue colour he loved using in abundance. If you take a look at the paintings ‘Blue Lovers’ or ‘Lovers in Green’, it’s hard not to feel that dreamy, ethereal quality that lingers through his paintings.

1914-15-marc-chagall-lovers-in-green-1914-1915Marc Chagall, Lovers in green, 1914-1915

After living in Vitebsk and St Petersburg, he left Russia for good in 1922 and settled in Paris, soon followed by Bella and Ida. Because of the political situation in Europe, he moved to New York in 1941. Unfortunately, a love dream that started in 1909, ended all too soon – Chagall and Bella didn’t grow old together.

A muse that filled his life and canvases with love for more than three decades vanished from this material world on 2 September 1944. When she died, Chagall turned all his canvases back to the wall and stopped painting for six months; it was the only period of his life, since he started painting, that he didn’t pick up a brush. He did remarry, in 1952 to Valentina ‘Vava’ Brodsky, but in every painting there’s a spirit of Bella’s light and warmth. She died, but she continued to pervade his thoughts and his canvases, and memories of her love guided his art like a star guiding the sailors.

1960-marc-chagall-le-bouquet-damour-c-1960Marc Chagall “Le bouquet d’amour”, c. 1960

What is the colour of love, then? It depends on the painter. For Chagall it seems to have been – blue.

Franz Stuck: Dark Female Figures in a World of Anxiety and Lust

6 Sep

If you gaze at dark and richly textured paintings of a German Symbolist painter Franz Stuck for too long, you become spiritually drowned in a world of ‘anxiety and lust’, to quote Carl Jung. That peculiar mood of his paintings is as intoxicating as it is heavy and suffocating, radiating the typical turn of the century claustrophobia and interest in eroticism.

1903. The Sin (Die Sünde) - Franz Stuck

Franz Stuck, The Sin (Die Sünde), 1903

Last August, while I was in Berlin, I had a chance to see Stuck’s The Sin and Circe in Alte Nationalgalerie where they are part of the museum’s permanent collection. I remember it clearly, the feeling of being completely and fully mesmerised by hypnotic power of Stuck’s vamp femme fatales; dark eyed Eve luring from the shadow, and Circe, clad in purple, offering a gold cup, and smiling lustfully with moist, half-open lips. The day was rainy and gloomy, the chamber quiet and solitary because most visitors chose to see the Im-Ex exhibition that was on at the time. Even in the middle of the day, painting The Sin seemed frightening and grandiose because of its dimensions, but how magical and sinister at the same time would it look at night, with a few tall candles as only sources of light, shining in brilliant Byzantine golden flames, and a sofa you could lie on, smoke opium and immerse into dreams, watched upon by those big, darkly oriental eyes. I think that kind of experience would be the closest to an acid trip I could possibly imagine.

If you observe Stuck’s oeuvre, you’ll notice that darkness, like heavy November fog, lurks from every corner. World that he created in his paintings is a mythical one, where anxiety and erotic fantasies emerge from every canvas. Sometimes his paintings, just like those of Edvard Munch, can be a tad difficult to digest, at least for me, as they seem to lurk the viewer to the end of the cliff; first to be amazed, and then – to fall. I feel emotionally drained and ill after looking at them for too long, that’s the power of art for you all. Stuck portrays the dark side of mythology and female dominance and images that arise from his artworks are those of suffering and agony, twisted bodies, murky colours and strong contrasts, and ever popular in Symbolism, figures of wicked and possessive femme fatales.

So, what exactly is the true subject of his art, the spiritual fall of the Western society of his own secret Freudian fantasies?

Stu-04-NatGalFranz Stuck, Tilla Durieux as Circe, c. 1913

Stuck painted the subject of Eve’s sin and the consequent Fall of Humanity many times. The version I’ve put here, from 1903, isn’t the most striking, but it is the one I saw. In The Sin, Eve looks directly at the viewer, ironically smiling. Her sickly white, yet robust body emerges from the dark background. Two large, dark, protruding almond shaped eyes resemble those of Luisa Casati, an extravagant Italian heiress and a great example of fin de sicle decadency in lifestyle. A garishly green shadow hides her face. Framed with masses of Rossettian hair so dark it seems to have been woven from darkness itself. And then, as if the painting wasn’t unsettling enough, you notice the snake wrapped around Eve’s body, with thin piercing pupils and purplish skin that distinguishes it from the pervading darkness. If you don’t move your eyes, it will draw you in too.

Circe is visually brighter, painted in three vibrant colours; auburn for the hair, dark yellow with hints of olive brown for the cup, and lastly – purple, like dried larkspur flowers. Three colours against the pitch dark background and again, that strange sickly pale skin, were enough to uplift the mood of the painting. In body sculpting, Stuck slightly reminds me of Burne-Jones. Look at her purple tunic that sensuously falls, then her earrings and the luminous cup. Who wouldn’t be tempted to drink from it, even if the price was entering the kingdom of death and running into the arms of Persephone, a fellow mythological creature that played around with fin de siecle imagination. Stuck’s Circe reminds me of silent film stars of 1920s, such as Theda Bara and Pola Negri, who often played roles of vamp femme fatales.

Egon Schiele – Melancholy of Suburbs and Small Towns

27 Jun

Suburbs and small towns of Middle Europe held a particular charm for Egon Schiele who often yearned to escape the ‘dark and dreadful’ city of Vienna, and venture to provinces and nature around the Czech town of Krumau.

1918. Edge of Town (Krumau Town Crescent), 1918 Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Edge of Town (Krumau Town Crescent), 1918

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Schiele’s paintings of Krumau from early 1910s offer a decaying vision of this peaceful town situated in the South Bohemia. Unlike the Impressionists who simply couldn’t resist capturing the moment and the play of sunlight on bridges or cathedrals, Schiele captured his inner turmoil while simultaneously portraying the colourful facades and narrow streets of Krumau. From the pictures I’ve seen, Krumau seems like an interesting town and its beauty reveals itself in many aspects; from the mischievous river Vltava and the illustrious Medieval castle overlooking the town, to cobble streets and classic Central European architecture. However, on Schiele’s paintings, the town holds a different appeal. Look at the painting ‘Edge of Town’; crowded houses and intermingled roofs, radiant colours and simplified brushstrokes – like a kaleidoscop of colours and shapes. Schiele himself was never a disciple of accuracy in portrayal of landscapes. And thank God for that, because the very sight of ‘normal’ veduta makes my skin crawl! In Schiele’s paintings there’s intensity, emotions and chaos.

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1915. House with Shingles by Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, House with Shingles, 1915

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Town of Krumau first caught Schiele’s attention in May 1910 when he, a month shy from his twentieth birthday, visited the place with two comrades and fellow painters; Anton Peschka and Ervin Osen. The town must have seemed like an interesting place for him because it was the birthplace of his mother, and he must have heard about the beautiful nature that surrounds it. On the whole, he settled there, in a ‘little house with a garden on the Moldau (Vltava) River’*, in May 1911, along with Wally Neuzil, his lover and model.

When painting suburbs and small town scenes, Schiele placed his focus not on details and photographic precision, but rather on the mood of the place. To understand why he liked small towns and suburbs you need to know his opinion of big towns and cities. It wasn’t just Schiele, but his whole generation, the artists and the poets, who deliberately continued in their work the fin de siecle vision of cities as places of decay and loss of humanity. For them, modern life and its reflection – the cities, along with the horrors of the First World War, were seen as the products of ‘materialistic tendencies of our civilisation’.

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1917. Egon Schiele - Summer Landscape at KrumauEgon Schiele, Summer Landscape, Krumau, 1917

1914. Egon Schiele, Houses with Laundry, SeeburgEgon Schiele, Houses with Laundry, Seeburg, 1914

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We could say that Schiele liked small towns because they were stark contrasts to his everyday life in Vienna – a city he experienced as ‘dark and full of shadows’.

He said: “I want to be alone. I want to go to the Bohemian Forest. May, June, July, August, September, October. I must see new things and investigate them. I want to taste dark water and see crackling trees and wild winds. I want to gaze with astonishment at moldy garden fences, I want to experience them all, to hear young birch plantations and trembling leaves, to see light and sun, enjoy wet, green-blue valleys in the evening, sense goldfish glinting, see white clouds building up in the sky, to speak to flowers. I want to look intently at grasses and pink people, old venerable churches, to know what little cathedrals say, to run without stopping along curving meadowy slopes across vast plains, kiss the earth and smell soft warm marshland flowers. And then I shall shape things so beautifully: fields of colour…

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1917. Egon Schiele, House with Drying LaundryEgon Schiele, House with Drying Laundry, 1917

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Paintings such as ‘House with Shingles’ and ‘House with Drying Laundry’ best evoke Schiele’s love for simplicity and peacefulness of provincial life. In them, he portrayed pell-mell built houses with drab facades, small windows, some broken some not, old roof that’s probably leaking, old chimneys, and then the colourful clothes on the washing line. I just love seeing clothes on washing line! These scenes evoke so many questions: who lived in those houses, how did they live and where are they now? Again we see the typical Egon Schiele colour palette; earthy colours of wood, sand and mud, grays and dark greens. Schiele’s houses are heavy and brown, like they grew from the earth itself, or like they descend into it.

This poem by Russian poet Alexander Blok reminds me of Schiele’s apocalyptic vision of cities:

The night. The street. Street-lamp. Drugstore.

A meaningless dull light about.

You may live twenty-five years more;

All will still be there. No way out.

 

You die. You start again and all

Will be repeated as before:

The cold rippling of a canal.

The night. The street. Street-lamp. Drugstore.

(Alexander Blok, written on 10 October 1912, translated by Vladimir Markov and Merrill Sparks*)

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1910. Egon Schiele - Houses on the Moldau, KrumauEgon Schiele, Houses on the Moldau, Krumau, 1910

Egon Schiele was born on 12th June 1890, which means I recently celebrated his birthday by fully engulfing myself into his art. Rereading about artists is the best thing ever because there’s always a new aspect of their art that I love. Schiele first lured me with his nudes, then I was crazy about his sunflowers, and now, well, you see that I’m enchanted with his Krumau scenes.

Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Silent Films and Frilly Dresses

9 Apr

America’s sweetheart, The girl with the curls, Little Mary – these are some of the nicknames for Mary Pickford, a silent film actress who recently captivated me.

1920s Mary Pickford 8

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Before I started writing this post, I gave myself a task of watching a documentary about her called Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies (2012), which is really interesting and you can watch it on YouTube. It’s a good quality documentary; amusing with plenty of information, and the narrator has a pleasant voice. I liked that the focus was not only on Mary Pickford’s personality and different stages of her career, but on the development of Hollywood as we know it today, film industry and ‘flickers’, as the early films were known back then.

I utterly recommend you to watch the documentary as it is a great introduction into the glamorous world of Hollywood – a topic which has, as I mentioned in one of my previous posts, captivated me recently. Like majority of people, I like watching films, but I’ve never been a massive ‘Old Hollywood’ fan like my mum, for example. Films of the 1930s and 1940s somehow never captured my attention, and I always wondered, with a slight dose of envy, what my mum saw in them. Then, a few weeks ago, out of nowhere, I’m ill with a disease called ‘Old Hollywood glamour’, and the only cure is to watch as many films as you can!

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1920s Mary Pickford 7***

As you might have guessed by the title, a Hollywood phase I became fixated on is the Silent era and its main star, actress Mary Pickford. Her eyes are her most charming feature; two bright stars surrounded by long eyelashes, with the ability to express every emotion; from sadness and resignation to gratitude and rapture. Then her gorgeous curls, her famous curls, which she cut off in 1928 much to the dismay of her fans. Bobbing her hair happened as a sort of ritual of transition: her mother had just died, and she found herself incapable of playing little girls now that she wasn’t anyone’s ‘little girl’. Her phase of playing child-parts was over.

That’s a personality trait I liked about Mary Pickford – she knew how to end things while they were still good. She was a woman who achieved everything she set her mind to. A remarkable person, not just a great actress. Her ‘rags to riches’ life story continues to captivate people’s imagination. ‘America’s Sweetheart’ was born as Gladys Smith in Canada, on 8th April 1892, in a poor family with an alcoholic father. Not the best starting point for someone who’d later be the first Hollywood actress to earn a million dollars.

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1917. Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)

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‘When Mary smiled, you could hear the angels sing’, said Lillian Gish, a fellow silent film actress and Mary’s lifelong friend.

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1916. Mary Pickford 1916 advertisementAdvertisement in ‘Moving Picture World’, September 1916

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Mary Pickford’s life story is interwoven with the life story of another silent film actress – Lillian Gish. In 1905, the Smith family shared quarters with the Gish family. Namely, Lillian Gish (14 Oct 1893-1993) had a younger sister Dorothy (11 March 1898-1968) who was also an actress. Similarly, Mary Pickford was the eldest sibling, her sister Charlotte ‘Lottie’ and brother Jack were actors as well, though both had succumbed to alcohol and died fairly young. Both families led bohemian lives which are as rich as they are hard to endure. Mary and Lillian became lifelong friends.

Starting in theatre, both girls quickly transferred to films or ‘flickers’. Early films were sensationalistic (does anyone sense a revival these days?), and often close to being pornographic. Targeted audience was the working class. After a long day’s work at the factory or a construction site, they could go and a watch a film, which was cheap as chips, travel in their imagination and escape the greyness of their lives.

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1920s Mary Pickford being paintedMary Pickford being painted, c. early 1920s

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Even though both were great actresses, Mary Pickford’s name stayed synonymous with the era of silent films. Early cinematography produced a great deal of actresses and icons such as Louise Brooks, Norma and Constance Talmadge, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Pola Negri – all of which played very seductive and flirtatious roles. Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford had a different quality about them – they played more virtuous, innocent and girlish characters. They looked like dolls with their large expressive eyes and lush curls.

Lillian said herself: “I played so many frail, downtrodden little virgins in the films of my youth that I sometimes think I invented that stereotype of a role.” (source)

Lillian Gish plays a ‘frail, downtrodden little virgin’ Lucy Burrows in the filmBroken Blossoms (1919). Brilliantness of the film comes from the combination of Lillian’s poignant portrayal of a ‘fragile waif’, gloomy and decaying Limehouse district of London as the setting, and the opium-laced mood and Eastern flair brought by Cheng Huan – a Chinese lad who came to London with a dream ‘to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.’ Lillian’s performance was remarkable, and the ending truly brought tears to my eyes, and I’m not someone who cries easily at films. Somehow, when watching a silent film, you focus all your attention at the face expressions, gestures, eye movements; everything is intensified. Some quotes from the title cards, Cheng Huan’s thoughts about Lucy.

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 1

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Blue and yellow silk caressing white skin – her beauty so long hidden shines out like a poem. (at 50.50 min)

Breathing in an amber flute to this alabaster cockney girl her love name – White Blossom. (at 55.18)

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 3 1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 4

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I reckon Lillian has a naturally melancholic face, perhaps it is because her eyes are large and her lips really small, I dunno, but most of the photos of her have a slightly morbid appeal, at least for me. She’s a true Ophelia.

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 11

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Mary Pickford played a variety of roles, and often performed the stunts herself as a matter of fact, but her most memorable films are those where she plays a role of a little girl, something she successfully did up until the age of thirty-something. Up to now, I’ve watched four of such films, in this order: Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) where she stars as Gwendolyn, Pollyanna (1920) as Pollyana Whittier, The Little Princess (1917) as Sara Crewe, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917) as Rebecca Randall. There’s more films where she plays child roles, but the next thing I want to watch is ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ (1929) – it’s a ‘talkie’ she performed with her then-husband Douglas Fairbanks. That should be smashing!

There’s something so appealing about Mary Pickford’s roles in these particular films; a mixture of naivety and innocence, enhanced by her costumes and curls, and a courage and generosity. Goodness always wins in the end: in Poor Little Rich Girl she unites her previously money-and-success-distracted parents, in The Little Princess she finds a wealthy foster parent and brings her friend along, in Pollyanna she brings optimism to everyone she encounters. If audiences of the time saw a hope for the better world in those films, I fully understand them.

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The Taming of the Shrew (1929)Mary Pickford in The Taming of the Shrew (1929)

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Isn’t it strange, back then, a twenty-five year old actress could play a little girl, while today fourteen year old girls are encouraged by the media to look much older and ”attractive”.

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1920s Mary Pickford 6

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Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish’s expressive eyes reminded me a great deal of Anna Karina, just because I watched her films first. I noticed a certain ‘silent film’ quality about Anna Karina’s acting. Others did too: With her expressive, luminous eyes and radiant presence she had the looks of a silent movie star while simultaneously embodying the self-confident spirit of the 60s generation.” (source) This correlation is especially prominent in Godard’s film Vivre sa Vie (1963) where Anna Karina ironically plays – an aspiring actress. Really, even if you excluded the speaking parts, her eyes would reveal everything.

Another thing I wanted to discuss was the costumes. Mary Pickford has a marvellous wardrobe in her child-roles: straw hats or flowers in her lush curly hair, knee-long white dresses with lace and frills, worn with white tights, then her cute polka-dot dress with several petticoats and a parasol as an accessory in the role Rebecca, her cute one piece pyjama in ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’. Even in others pictures I’ve shown here, she looks elegant like a spring day – in frilly white dresses, wide hats, string of pearls, empire waist for a girlish appeal, lots of lace. Is it a charming 1910s revival of Rococo and Marie Antoinette countryside style, or a prelude to modern Japanese Lolita style?

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Gaylen Studlar - Precocious Charms