Tag Archives: 1918

Gustav Klimt – The Virgin

3 Mar

Today we’ll take a look at Klimt’s painting “The Virgin”, to me, his most vibrant and psychedelic work which signifies a stylistic change in his art and deals with a theme of girl’s sensual awakening. I will start with this ode to virginity from the novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders” written in 1932 (but published in 1945) by a Czech Surrealist writer Vítězslav Nezval. Nezval was a teenage boy when Klimt and Shiele were created their works, and in those days they were all compatriots. Valerie is a seventeen year old girl who lives in this strange little village with her strange aunt, the atmosphere is reminiscent of Gothic novels and it’s more romantic than surrealist actually. One night she, along with other village virgins, goes to a sermon where a strange priest is instructing the virgins on how they should behave: “Oh virgin, do you know who you are? (…) You are an as yet uncleft pomegranate. You are a shell in which the future ages will ring. You are a bud which will burst open when the time is ripe. You are a little rose-petal floating on  the tempestuous ocean. You are a peach oozing red blood…”

Gustav Klimt, The Virgin, 1913

I am absolutely captivated by the colours, shapes and patterns in this painting. This isn’t Klimt’s “golden phase”, this is his colourful psychedelic phase, and it proved to be his last stylistic change before he died in February 1918. Klimt on acid; borrowing purples and yellows from Matisse and Bonnard, flowers and patterns from Japanese textiles and kimonos, daydreaming of the mosaics of Ravenna. The waterfall of colours is joyfully flickering, laughing, bursting with excitement, dancing and swirling around the pale maidens who are languidly floating in a dreamy kaleidoscopic world of their own; a floating island of love, a resplendent Cythera of their own. The rigor mortis of “The Kiss”, his most famous work and a representative of his golden phase, is now a thing of the past. Though the space is still flat and ornamental, it appears far more lively because there’s so much more going on; in a pyramidal composition six female figures are intertwined, their poses and face expressions differ, but they all have the same flesh; their skin is very pale with patches of blue and pink, which brings to mind Schiele’s nudes. Here and there breasts are protruding. They are not as seductive as the femme fatales in his earlier works were, here the colour is what captures all our attention. While the girls all possess similar features and doll-like faces, the pattern appears very unique and well planned. Negating the figure and giving free reign to the pattern might be a step towards abstract art.

Nonetheless, Klimt’s focus here is still on women, without a doubt his favourite thing to paint, and the face in the middle, right above that wave of purple, is the face that my mind keep coming back to. That is her – the Virgin. Her white mask-like face with closed eyes seems peaceful with a trace of anticipation in those blueish eyelids and lips pressed together; she is dreaming within her own dream. Her heart is fluttering with the anticipation of the delights that are to come, the ecstasy which is to awake her from her virginal slumber. Her eyes are closed; she doesn’t yet see and she doesn’t yet know, but the flowers blooming all around her are far less secretive about the desires awakening inside her. Her feelings are stirred, and her hopes sweet, but she patiently awaits the future. Gazing at her face and imagining her feelings made me think of this poem by a Japanese Poetess of the Heain period Ono no Komachi (c. 825-900):

Was I lost in thoughts of love
When I closed my eyes? He
Appeared, and
Had I known it for a dream
I would not have awakened.

Gustav Klimt, The Bride, 1917-18

A stylistic and symbolic continuation for the painting “The Virgin” might as well be Klimt’s unfinished work “The Bride” where the maiden figure is at the last step of her virginal life and about to enter a new phase, she is now ripe as a fig at the height of summer, bursting with sweet juices. Again, the close-eyed figure and the swirling pattern and abundance of colours is present. It’s interesting to notice that he painted pubic hair on the figure on the right, and began painting a vibrant dress over it, and I’m sure it wasn’t a sudden change of mind but rather a preference.

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Georgia O’Keeffe – Love, Flowers and Solitude: Part II

24 Jan

In the first part of my little series, I wrote about Georgia’s early charcoal drawings, her correspondence and blooming romance with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. In this part, I will continue where I left off and focus on her fascinations with flowers.

“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus, 1939

According to Georgia, they would make love, and Stieglitz would take pictures of her afterwards. She found it difficult and tiresome to stand still for so long. Sometimes he would focus on a specific body parts such as her bosom or her pretty delicate hands. In a similar manner Georgia would later focus on the detail of something that she was painting and cropped it, particularly flowers. When I think of Georgia’s dazzling portraits of flowers, I see her as a little girl out in the meadow, running freely and led by childlike curiosity, observing them through her magnifying glass and discovering an entire new world. Georgia was just as inquisitive as Alice in Wonderland, but also a very patient person with an acute observation. She gazes at flowers, she starts understanding their language and gesture, the petals hold no more secrets to her wise eyes. Enraptured with what she had seen and discovered, Georgia takes the paint – all sorts of colours fitting for a flower – yellow, pink, red, white, blue, orange – and paints for us all that the flowers try to hide from us. Georgia applies almost Zen-like principles in her art, and life too, her focus was always on patience and observation. She says herself: “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia’s paintings of overwhelmingly large flowers confront us with something we take so little to notice or appreciate. Just think about it, how little we spend just gazing at something; meditatively gazing without anything to gain from it, without a final destination.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus with Plumeria, 1939

Georgia’s paintings of flowers are something most exquisite, no one before her painted flowers that way; huge flowers in vibrant tropical colours dominating the canvas, stretching their large petals and drawing you into their world. Fluid forms and lyrical softness are reminiscent of her early watercolours and charcoals, but the way of painting was something quite new. Inspired by Stieglitz and the photography that he introduced her to, she began painting in a very fine, precise way so that no brushstrokes are seen and the overall effect of paint on canvas is smooth. Personally, I would love to see the brushstrokes because it is like the artist is speaking to you, but perhaps without that technical segment we are able to focus on the thing Georgia is painting and not her as the creator behind it; by eliminating the heavy visible brushstrokes, she is revealing to us the flower itself, its petals, and allows it to be a world of if its own. She tricks us, feeds us illusions. Gazing at Georgia’s paintings of flowers makes me think that this is how a butterfly must feel when it lands on a flower, this is how a bumblebee must feel when he pays the beloved flower a visit and becomes one with its lush fragrant petals. We too don’t just observe Georgia’s flowers from afar, as we would a standard still life with flowers or a painting of a flowery meadow, we are engaged – we too become a part of the flower, at least for the moment. I think in some way, her paintings of flowers are really psychedelic.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Petunia and White Morning Glory, 1926

Georgia O’Keeffe, Sunflower, 1935

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Iris, 1926

Georgia O’Keeffe, Oriental Poppies, 1927

At first, I didn’t think of Georgia’s flowers as ‘romantic’ in a way Claude Monet’s flowers are, scattered in the meadow or surrounding a lady sitting in the grass, but now I am thinking: what would be more romantic than painting a flower in such an intimate way – from the point of its most ardent lover and admirer. And did the flower petals blush from too much attention when Georgia painted them?

Georgia O’Keeffe – Love, Flowers and Solitude: Part I

13 Jan

Georgia O’Keeffe is a woman I deeply admire these days. She decided she wanted to become a painter at the age of twelve, and she not only became an accomplished painter but spent nearly her entire life developing her art, constantly learning, experimenting and changing, striving to paint in a way that was completely her own, and not mimic the art that others were making around her. Hardworking and dedicated when it came to her art, O’Keeffe worked continuously every day, never waited for the perfect moment of inspiration, and rarely allowed her negative moods or emotions to rule her day or her life. She was very patient and able to gaze at something in nature, be it a flower, a cloud, a brook, then meditate over it, soak in its every last detail and then distill the essence of her experience into her artwork. This way she created abstract paintings and drawings that were inspired by what she had seen in the natural world around her, and her own visions at the same time. This is the first part of a little series I will be making about Georgia O’Keeffe, and I will focus on things which fascinated me the most about her life; her love for Stieglitz, her love of flowers and her love of solitude.

Georgia O’Keeffe photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Paintings which we today connect with Georgia O’Keeffe’s are full of colour but her early work was very different. At the academy, she painted in the realist manner which was expected of her, but privately she painted minimalist watercolours and abstract charcoal drawings which were unlike everything she had seen other artists around her painting. She was determined not to use colour until she discovers the true potential of a simple and unassuming medium such as drawing, in her own words: “I wasn’t going to use any colour until I couldn’t do what I wanted to do with charcoal or black paint.” Georgia thought that art, like music, should be inspired by nature and the real world, but separate from it and abstract in its core. She opposed copying directly what was in front of her, and her charcoals are really interesting, with repetitive shapes that seem to have been made spontaneously, without much thinking or planning before hand. Satisfied with what she has created, early in 1916, Georgia O’Keeffe sent a letter accompanied with ten of her charcoal drawings to her friend and former classmate Anita Pollitzer who then, without Georgia’s permission, proceeded to share these with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, at the time also known for being the promoter of modern art.

Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 7 Special 1915

Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 20-From Music-Special, 1915

Georgia O’Keeffe, Drawing XIII, 1915

It’s little to say that Stieglitz was captivated with what he saw; unable to utter a single word as he gazed at the drawings which seemed so fresh, exciting and new, so unlike all that he had seen before. Pollitzer wrote to Georgia about Stieglitz’s reaction: “it was a long while until his lips opened: finally a woman on paper.” Stieglitz almost instantly showed her drawing at his Midtown Manhattan art studio called “291”; the place for the scandalous and avant-garde art decades before Andy Warhol and his avant-garde at his Manhattan studio called “The Factory”. It wasn’t until May 1916 that Georgia found out that Stieglitz was showing her works at his gallery; at first she was angry about it, although she allowed the exhibition to continue, but then curiosity prevailed and she was eager to hear what it was that he loved about her drawings. From a simple letter which read: “Mr. Stieglitz, if you remember why you liked the charcoals Anita Pollitzer showed you and what they said to you, I would like to know, if you want to tell me“, they started a correspondence that lasted throughout their lives and little they knew that a seed of love was planted in those few words; love that would blossom in the years to come.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

In autumn of 1916, Georgia was teaching art at the West Texas State Normal College and living in a small town called Canyon. She wrote Stieglitz of her long walks in nature and the beauty of the night sky and stars, and she also mentioned some tall, strong and handsome young Texans. Stieglitz was more than twenty years her senior, married, although not very happily, but enjoying his life in New York City, in the bustling streets and tall skyscrapers, in the middle of a busy art community. By the end of 1916 and in the beginning of 1917, their letters were longer and of more intimate nature, they started opening up about their fears, struggles and secrets. Each letter was a little book; Stieglitz sometimes wrote to her up to three or four times a day, and Georgia said his letters would “sometimes burst open in the mail”.

Alfred Stieglitz; Georgia O’Keeffe, Hands and Breasts, 1919

They fell in love through their correspondence, and in June 1918 Georgia moved to New York City where Stieglitz provided her with a place to stay and work. He promoted her work, and in return, found in her a muse that he never had before. He took many photographs of her during their relationship, mostly lyrical nudes. On one of such photo sessions, Stieglitz’s wife Emmy walked in. She wasn’t impressed with what she had seen and demanded that he stop seeing Georgia. Completely enamored with Georgia, Stieglitz instead left his wife and the pair moved in a new flat in New York City. Days were spent in art and love. They slept separately at first but by August the passion overtook them and “they were like two teenagers in love. Several times a day they would run up the stairs to their bedroom, so eager to make love that they would start taking their clothes off as they ran.” (Richard Whelan; Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography)

Alfred Stieglitz; Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

The letters they exchanged also speak of great passion, tenderness and mutual interests that kept their relationship alive throughout the years, and they range from tender and romantic longings such as this one from Georgia’s letter to Stieglitz in May 1922: “I’ll not try to say things I can’t — you must just understand — I want to put my arms round you — kiss you — let you kiss me — it’s all very quiet — what I want is very quiet — it’s great to trust anyone enough to let them kiss you.” to those which were more passionate in nature such as this one, also written by Georgia: “Dearest — my body is simply crazy with wanting you — If you don’t come tomorrow — I don’t see how I can wait for you — I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours — the kisses — the hotness — the wetness — all melting together — the being held so tight that it hurts — the strangle and the struggle.” They married in 1924, but didn’t live together always and that’s the reason their correspondence continued even after they started living together. All together they exchanged over 5000 letters, and they never seemed to run out of things to say. Something that Stieglitz wrote to her in June 1929 struck me as very poignant and beautiful: “I’d like to die in your arms – perhaps that’s my great wish – it always was.” She indeed was with him when he died in 1946.

Wladyslaw Ślewiński – Orphan from Poronin

2 Aug

Wladyslaw Ślewiński, Orphan from Poronin, c. 1906

One gaze at Wladyslaw Ślewiński’s painting “Orphan from Poronin” is enough to make it stay etched in the memory forever because the face he painted is unforgettable, even though it didn’t belong to a person extinguished by wealth or importance in society. Gentle face of this poor orphan boy touches one right in the heart. Just look at him; in that worn-out coat which might have fitted him years before and trousers ever so slightly ripped at the knee, and that odd hat. He looks ill at ease seating at that chair, his fright and anxiety captured for eternity on canvas. The drabness of the wall behind him seems to mirror his thoughts. Upright and stiff he appears, so much so that you can imagine drops of sweat sliding down his forehead and a lump in his throat, preventing him to speak or even move.

The most interesting part of this portrait is the face because it speaks of so many feelings and gives the painting a psychological depth which separates it from a simple social realism style paintings. Firstly, that strange sickly yellowish coloured skin, hair hidden under the hat, no eyebrows, thin lips tightly together, and a pair of large grey-blue eyes, bordering on tears, which radiate fear, desperation and panic. It lingers in the memory because it touches what is human in all of us. The form of his body, that clear fluid outline of his coat, the shape of his face with a thick black line contouring the jaw, that strange sick yellowish colour of his skin, and the formless way the hands were painted reminds me so much of Edvard Munch which is somewhat strange because Ślewiński’s artistic style was often compared to that of his friend Paul Gauguin. The two met in 1889 and spent some time painting together in Brittany. Wladyslaw Ślewiński (1856-1918) was a Polish painter who was educated in Paris and spent most of his life in France. Still, this painting during his stay in Poland from 1905 to 1910, before returning to Paris again. The awkwardness of the pose also reminds me of Munch’s painting “Puberty” where a girl is sitting on the bed with an equally haunting face and doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself.

Amedeo Modigliani, The Little Peasant, c. 1918

Wladyslaw Ślewiński’s painting irresistibly reminded me of one painting by Modigliani, which might sound strange since Modi is known for his sensuous nudes. Nonetheless, the same year that Ślewiński died, Jewish-Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani who would himself be dead in two years, painted his painting “The Little Peasant”. Stylistically it is instantly recognisable as Modigliani’s work; a sad looking elongated figure in a sombre interior. This little peasant boy has the same sadness, but his gaze possesses none of the eloquence of Ślewiński’s orphan boy. He has a similar hat and his suit is equally worn out, bursting at the buttons, and look how clumsy his hands are. His motionless and mute expressionless statue-like rosy-cheeked face and his distant gaze don’t have the psychological strength as the orphan’s blue eyes have, but it has an incomparable silent and haunting beauty.

Amedeo Modigliani and Joy Division – Fragility of Existence

16 Jul

I just spent a beautiful gloomy and rainy morning immersed in Modigliani’s portraits and Joy Division’s second album Closer. I feel there’s a strange connection between lyrics of Ian Curtis and Modigliani’s portraits of wistful big-eyes Parisian beauties; they both ponder on the subject of human existence and fragility of life.

1918. Amedeo Modigliani - A Young Girl IIIAmedeo Modigliani, A Young Girl, 1918

This is a typical Modigliani’s female portrait; elongated head with a face that resembles a mask, thin and long neck, sloping shoulders, simple attire. Beautifully sculpted face with almond shaped eyes and long neck reveals Modigliani’s beginnings as a sculptor. Her cheeks and chin are rosy, one side of her lips looks like it’s trying to smile, the other can’t be bothered. One eyebrow, painted like a thin black line, is raised a bit more than the other. The whole face seems like a question mark. The background is painted in serene grey and blue-greenish shades, flickering like a surface of a lake behind a long-forgotten mansion. Her dress is coloured like pine needles. This peculiar sombre colour palette exudes fragility and sadness. There’s no rashness or raw passion you’d find in Picasso’s paintings, this is Modigliani’s world of mournful goodbyes. These gentle brushstrokes belong to a Jewish-Italian artist whose body, unfortunately, didn’t agree with his soul’s ‘lust for life’.

At this point, in 1918, he had less than two years to live. His consumption was progressing, and not even excessive drinking could cover it up. He died on 24 January 1920, in a cold hospital in Paris. It’s so sad this absolute genius, this pretty boy from Livorno, a person so full of life and capable of producing such incredible artworks had to die so suddenly and so quickly. There’s no doubt the fragility of life kept haunting him even in those seemingly joyous, extroverted moments when he behaved mischievously at the local restaurant the same as in those quiet, introspective moments when he walked home drunk and alone back to his studio where he would then paint in solitude. I’m imagining his studio in Montparnasse and the shabby chair this model sat on. Another interesting thing about this portrait; Modigliani didn’t fully paint her eyes, he just coloured the almond shape so they look like two deep, dark holes. He truly believed that eyes are the windows to the soul and he said: ‘When I know you soul, I will paint your eyes.‘ He needed to know the soul of his model before painting her eyes, though I think it more often than not meant spending the night with her. Women loved Modigliani.

It isn’t what you paint but how you paint it. Very often the subject serves only to help artist to convey a message. I often paint ballerinas, but they are always meant to represent isolation and loneliness. Antoine Watteau, for example, painted seemingly cheerful pastoral and love scenes, which were woven with sadness because he was, like Modigliani, a man of fragile health who died young. As you know, Ian Curtis took his own life on 18 May 1980, and in his lyrics he tended to explore existential subjects. I don’t think that Modigliani and Ian Curtis were similar, with this post I only wanted to say that they were two artists dealing with the same subject – fragility of existence, each in their own way.

This song was in my mind while I gazed at this portrait – Insight by Joy Division (do listen to it, it’s truly something):

I guess the dreams always end

They don’t rise up just descend

But I don’t care any more

I lost the will to want more

I’m not afraid not at all,

I watch them all as they fall…’

Jeanne Hébuterne – Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice

6 Apr

Amedeo Modigliani’s muse and the love of his life was born on 6 April 1898 in Paris. Her delicate demeanor and strange beauty quickly attracted many starving-artists, among them the handsome and charismatic Jewish Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani who turned out to be her great love and eventually the cause of her downfall. The tale of Modigliani and Jeanne’s love is perhaps the most tragic love story in the world of art.

1916. Jeanne Hebuterne at 19 Years, photoPhoto of Jeanne at the age of 19, taken in 1917.

Jeanne Hébuterne met Amedeo around her nineteenth birthday, in April 1917, in the cultural center of Paris at the time – Montparnasse. The two soon fell deeply in love and Jeanne moved in with Modigliani, despite the objections from her parents, strict middle-class Catholics. This is the beginning of the story that ends with death, on both sides.

Jeanne and her older brother André, showed artistic talents from an early age. Despite the conservativeness of her parents, Jeanne was allowed to enroll at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs and to take classes at the Académie Colarossi. The Colarossi was on the Avenue de la Grande Chaumiere; the very center of Montparnasses’ avant-garde culture. What a coincidence that the young Jewish Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, known as ‘Modi’, also lived on that street.Although it was not far from Jeanne’s home, Montparnasse was culturally and ideologically a completely different place; in the context of Jeanne’s strict and sheltered existence in which she had been raised, it was an entirely different universe. At the Académie, Jeanne befriended other female artists such as Chana Orloff and Germaine Labaye who introduced her to Cafe life, particularly at ‘La Rotonde’ where she may have met Amedeo.

Despite her own artistic aspirations, and the fact that she was a proficient painter in her own right, Jeanne’s position as a painter rather than a painter’s muse is often overlooked, as it is the case with many female artist/models. Along with Jeanne, Elizabeth Siddal and Victorine Meurent are one of the best examples of overlooked talents.

1918. Portrait of the Artist's Wife (Jeanne Hebuterne) - Amedeo Modigliani1918. Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (Jeanne Hebuterne) – Amedeo Modigliani

Jeanne possessed a strange beauty which gained her many admirers at Montparnasse. Her eyes were bright blue and her hair was long and auburn. She was nicknamed ‘Noix de Coco‘ (‘Coconut’) due to the shape of her head and her very pale skin. All together her striking features created a ‘gothic appearance’, as it was described by one sculptor who had met her.

Along with her beauty, Jeanne possessed a sedate demeanour and was described as ‘gentle, shy, quiet and delicate. Slightly depressive.‘ With her calmness and youthfulness she was a perfect balance for Amedeo; habitual drinker, drug-user and womaniser who was fourteen years her senior. Due to these contrasts, Jeanne is often seen as a ‘pure girl’ who saved Modigliani. The situation reminds me of ‘Crime and Punishment’ where the pious and self-sacrificing Sonia saved moody Raskolikov. In addition to drawing and painting, Jeanne was known for being musical; she played the violin and she also designed and sewed her own clothes which can be seen in Modigliani’s portraits of her.

It does not surprise me at all that Jeanne was Modigliani’s muse. What other demoiselle, what other face could possibly reveal to us the meaning behind Modigliani’s art?

1917. Amedeo Modigliani 'Jeanne Hebuterne with Hat and Necklace'1917. Amedeo Modigliani – Jeanne Hebuterne with Hat and Necklace

For Modigliani, the future of art was in woman’s face. He painted Jeanne no more and no less than 26 times. Every single one of those portraits is like a love letter: very delicate, lyrical, spiritual and calm. Modigliani painted her lost in her thoughts, distant from reality, place and time, and extraordinary beautiful. Claude Roy said of these portraits ‘Modigliani is speaking here almost in a whisper; he murmurs his painting as a lover murmurs endearments in the ear of his beloved.

Amedeo moved to Nice in March 1918, hoping to sell his paintings to wealthy art experts who wintered there, and that the warm climate would have soothing effect on his fragile health, burdened with heavy drinking and substance abuse. Jeanne followed him, and on 29 November their daughter was born in Nice, out of wedlock. Little girl was named Jeanne after her mother. Although very little is known about their time spent in Nice, it is known with certainty that Modigliani was planing to marry Jeanne as soon as he got his papers.

1916. Self portrait by Jeanne Hébuterne1916. Self portrait by Jeanne Hébuterne

Sadly, he had no time to fulfill his promise. Amedeo Modigiani died on 24 January 1920 of tubercular meningitis. Jeanne was deeply affected by his death, and the next day, eight months pregnant with their second child, anguished and distraught, she committed suicide by trowing herself from the window of her parents’ apartment. With deep affection for Modigliani, Jeanne could not imagine life without him. The artist and his muse were united in death. Jeanne was only twenty-one years old.

Her epitaph read ‘Devoted Companion to the Extreme Sacrifice’.