Tag Archives: 19th century

John Everett Millais – The Vale of Rest

3 Dec

Painting ‘The Vale of Rest’ isn’t as famous as Ophelia, nor as vibrant and richly coloured as Mariana or The Blind Girl, but it is certainly one of Millais’ most atmospheric paintings, and also the one whose mystery can’t be solved despite all the details, symbols and hints, typical for early Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Roman Catholic nuns on a graveyard in the dusk of an autumn day. Mood of mystery, anxiety and secrecy.

The Vale of Rest 1858-9 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01507John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-59

Dusk of a late Autumn day. Poplar trees are looming on the horizon. Tombstones coated in moss; names of the dead nearly erased with time, their lives now mere legends. Sky dazzles with purple, vanilla yellow and pink-lavender shades as chillness descends in this walled enclosure. A contour of a low chapel with a bell. Two Roman Catholic nuns. One digging a grave, the other – observing with a worried look on her face, and clutching a rosary in her hand. Art critic Tom Lubbock said of the painting: ‘Corpses, secrets, conspiracy, fear. It’s a picture that pulls out all the stops.’ The whole scene evokes mystery. Why is the nun digging a grave? Is it a burial, or an exhumation? What secrets are they hiding, and whose body lies in the cold, dark soil. Then the subject of Catholic nuns – still an object of scepticism in Victorian Britain.

a-vale-of-rest-2

Millais intended this painting to be a pendant to Spring or The Apple Blossoms (1856-59) where the subject of death is only hinted, but here it is fully exposed. There’s a skull on the nun’s rosary, and in the sky there’s a purple cloud vaguely shaped like a coffin – a harbinger of death, according to a Scots legend. As if the sight of a graveyard in the dusk isn’t unsettling enough, Millais incorporated these little morbid details. As you can see, the Pre-Raphaelite paintings are like books, you can read them by observing the details and symbols, which can always be interpreted in a different way.

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Although he had carried the idea of painting nuns in his mind for some time, Millais ventured into painting this scene one night in late October in 1858, when the appearance of the sky, shining in gold and purple shades, was especially pleasing to him. He had to work with his brush quickly because, as it goes in autumn, sky is beautiful and vibrant for one moment, and a second later all is dark and cold once again. Still, the idea occurred to him earlier, while on his honeymoon in Scotland in 1855. His wife Effie recalled: ‘On descending the hill by Loch Awe, from Inverary, he was extremely struck with its beauty, and the coachman told us that on one of the islands were the ruins of a monastery. We imagined to ourselves the beauty of the picturesque features of the Roman Catholic religion, and transported ourselves, in idea, back to the times before the Reformation had torn down, with bigoted zeal, all that was beautiful from antiquity, or sacred from the piety or remorse of the founders of old ecclesiastical building in this country. The abbots fished and boated in the loch, the vesper bell pealed forth the ‘Ave Maria’ at sundown, and the organ notes of the Virgin’s hymn were carried by the water and transformed into a sweeter melody, caught up on the hillside and dying away in the blue air. We pictured, too, white-robed nuns in boats, singing on the water in the quiet summer evenings, and chanting holy songs, inspired by the loveliness of the world around them…‘ (source)

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Millais painted the sky, trees and shrubs sitting just outside the front door, in the garden of Effie’s family at Bowerswell, Perth. Effie said: ‘It was about the end of October, and he got on very rapidly with the trees and worked every afternoon, patiently and faithfully, at the poplar and oak trees of the background until November, when the leaves had nearly all fallen.‘ The grave and the tombstones were painted a few months later at Kinnoull old churchyard in Perth. There’s a funny story connected to it. So, as Millais was painting at the graveyard daily, two strange or ‘queer’ bachelors, known by the names ‘Sin’ and ‘Misery’, noticed him and assumed that he made a living by painting the graves of deceased persons. So, they brought him wine and cakes every day, to reward his everyday hardships.

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To end this post, I have to say that Millais is, in my opinion, the master of painting dusks and capturing moods and psychological states in a lyrical way; in Mariana, he portrayed her longing and loneliness, and even here you can sense a certain tension, or a deeper emotional connection between two nuns, even perhaps a game of power; while one is digging, tired, with rolled up sleeves, the other sits calmly, though her direct gaze at the viewer reveals anxiety and worry. Millais perfectly captured the colours of an autumn dusk; even softening the gold and purple, according to Effie. In ‘The Vale of Rest’, he perfectly captured the mood, just like he did in his painting ‘Autumn Leaves’, 1856.

Still, after analysing this painting, and observing its every detail, every symbol and every brushstroke, I can’t solve the mystery behind it. Perhaps it was never meant to be solved, but enjoyed. And I certainly did; drowned in its dusky mood and morbid, doomy beauty.

John A. Grimshaw – Dreary Victorian Streets

19 Nov

John Atkinson Grimshaw is the painter of the industrialised late Victorian Britain who captured the beauty of wet pavements, rainy cobble streets, gas lamps, hustle of carriages, grey facades and docs under moonlight. His romanticised portrayals of urban cities still possess a slight dose of dreariness, a mood of a cold and gloomy night of November when everything is damp, wet and mist descends.

1881. Shipping on the Clyde, by John Atkinson Grimshaw,John Atkinson Grimshaw, Shipping on the Clyde, 1881

In his painting ‘Shipping on the Clyde’, Grimshaw perfectly captured the atmosphere of a cold and gloomy November twilight. Beautiful night sky that seems to have been woven from teal and sea foam shades of blue and green stretches above the docs of Glasgow, carriages are passing, wet pavements are glistening on the light of gas lamps, vivid sulfate yellow shines through the shop windows, and occasional figures that ventured into this damp night are opening their umbrellas and leaving in a hurry. All of his paintings have an intoxicating nocturnal beauty about them, but I’d dare say this one is my favourite.

Grimshaw is the master of moonlight scenes, portraying cold and wet Autumn eves, and nocturnal townscapes in a style that combines realism and romanticism at once. Subject of his art are mostly grim cities of the North; Glasgow, Leeds and Liverpool, whose landscapes had been greatly changed as a result of the Industrial revolution. Some might perceive the appearance of these modern cities as dehumanising, cold and dangerous, but Grimshaw saw a certain beauty in moonlit nights over the docs, grey facades with large and luminous shop windows, damp days and misty mornings, and wet cobble streets of the North. Grimshaw’s townscenes are charmingly lyrical because he portrayed them in a romanticised way, ignoring the dirty and depressive aspects of a late Victorian city; dirt, prostitutes, poor children, thieves, bad working conditions, smog, tall chimneys of many factories.

View of Heath Street by Night 1882 Atkinson Grimshaw 1836-1893 Purchased 1963 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00626

John Atkinson Grimshaw, View of Heath Street by Night, 1882

Same bleak industrial landscape would later inspire a string of Northern bands, most notably Joy Division. Their guitarist, Bernard Sumner admitted he found Manchester ugly, adding: ‘I don’t think I saw a tree until I was about nine.’ Their song ‘Exercise One‘ has a specially brooding, grim sound which is a pure product of the grey concrete wasteland that surrounded them. Still, Grimshaw’s way of presenting things reminds me more of The Smiths; while Morrissey sang of loneliness and feeling like a misfit, Johnny Marr coated in it whimsical, jolly tunes.

1887-canny-glasgow-john-atkinson-grimshawJohn Atkinson Grimshaw, Canny Glasgow, 1887

Grimshaw (1836-1893) was completely self-taught, having left his regular job as a railway clerk at the age of twenty-four to fully devote himself to painting. His parents weren’t really impressed, but who cares what anyone thinks as long as the world of art benefits. As you can see, his style is vivid in details, almost photographic in quality, and that is all due to the Pre-Raphaelites which were his main inspiration. His early work shows us that he was always fond of moonlight, but initially he portrayed lonely country lanes with a few tall trees whose bare branches remind us of the changing seasons. Still, his reputation rests on his townscapes with gas-lit streets of late Victorian England. Another Victorian artist, Whistler, praised Grimshaw, saying: ‘I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures.’

Not much is known about him because he left no letters and documents, so it’s hard to explain why he painted what he painted. I believe his cityscapes weren’t painted to symbolise urban isolation and loneliness, but rather served to indulge his love for painting light which is present in all his paintings, whether it’s the street lamps, the moonlight, light from the carriages or the shops, he was simply fascinated with it. The introduction of gas lamps was surely a life-changing moment for many.

Yellow Stands for the Sun: Vincent van Gogh – The Sower

25 Jul

My life project is making my Mondays happy. Well, one of my life projects. Yellow is a cheerful colour and lately I’ve been fixated on artworks with yellow colour, and of course Vincent van Gogh was the first artist that came to my mind.

‘How lovely yellow is, it stands for the sun.’ (Vincent van Gogh)

1888. Vincent van Gogh, The SowerVincent van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

Vincent van Gogh loved yellow colour. He adored it. He worshipped it. After all, he said that yellow stands for the sun, and, like many artists before and after him, Vincent found his artistic haven under the sun of Provence, in Arles, where he would paint some of his most famous works such as The Sower. Whether painting stars, wheat fields or sunflowers, Vincent used yellow in abundance, but this painting in particular has that pure, intoxicating, magnificent shade of yellow that makes it so special. The painting shows a sower as a small blue figure against the vast field and sky that surrounds him. There’s a narrow path in the foreground that leads nowhere. A few crows are present. Van Gogh will reprise both of these elements in his beautifully intense and sinister painting Wheatfield with Crows, which was to be one of his last works. Mood of The Sower is different however – there’s still hope.

Vincent’s joy and ecstasy for living is woven into every tiny detail of this painting; from the soil, painted in warm brown tones with dashes of blue to the row of bright orange wheat behind the sower, crowned with magnificent, protruding amber yellow – the sun. Rays of sun are so pervading that the sky lost its blueness and became a golden oriental rug or a dress on one of Klimt’s ladies. Such is the beauty and importance of the sun in this painting. Whenever van Gogh painted in yellow or orange colour, he used blue as well. Blue and yellow were a match made in heaven according to Vincent, and you’ll see this in many of his paintings. In this painting, van Gogh switched the natural colours with his own expressionistic vision; blueness of the sky wowed itself into the soil, and the sun coloured the sky with such intensity that it seems to be burning rather than shining.

In the book Lust for Life, Irving Stone vividly describes Arles and Vincent’s thoughts upon arriving at that hot, incredibly and unbearably hot place where cruel sun and mistral drive people to madness. He describes the architecture of the town, river Rhone, and how the houses were all made with bright red tiles but their redness exceeded into light lavender, orange or brown colours under the strong rays of Provence sun. May I add that Vincent spent hours painting outdoors, in wheat fields often not even wearing a hat. The sun eventually drove him crazy too but for some time it was simply a muse that helped him create some of his finest paintings.

And now some beautiful paintings with yellow colour from various art periods:

1888. Summer Evening, Wheatfield with Setting sun, Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Summer Evening, Wheatfield with Setting sun, 1888

1839. Mary Ellen Best - Self-portrait

Mary Ellen Best, Self-portrait, 1839

1899. Max Kurzweil, Dame im gelben Kleid

Max Kurzweil, Dame im gelben Kleid, 1899

1908. The Kiss (Lovers) by Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (Lovers), 1908

1821. Portrait of Henrietta Shuckburgh Provenance by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Margaret Sarah Carpenter, Portrait of Henrietta Shuckburgh Provenance, 1821

1823. Amalie Auguste, Princess of Bavaria and Queen of Saxony

Joseph Karl Stieler, Amalie Auguste, Princess of Bavaria and Queen of Saxony, 1823

1781. Thomas Gainsborough Mrs. Peter William Baker

Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Peter William Baker, 1781

1778. Lady Grace Elliot mistress to George IV, by Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough, Lady Grace Elliot mistress to George IV, 1778

1854. L'impératrice Eugénie à la Marie-Antoinette

Winterhalten, L’impératrice Eugénie à la Marie-Antoinette, 1854

1647 Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orangea

Gerard van Honthorst, Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, 1647

1635. Anthony van Dyck - Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria

Anthony van Dyck – Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, 1635

1705. Anne, Queen of Great Britain 1

Michael Dahl, Anne, Queen of Great Britain, 1705

1833. Evening Dress, Bright Yellow, La Belle Assemblee

Evening Dress, La Belle Assemblee, 1833

1917. Starlight by Emile Vernon

Emile Vernon, Starlight, 1917

1665. Peter Lely - Diana Kirke, later Countess of Oxford

Peter Lely, Diana Kirke, later Countess of Oxford, 1665

1665. Mary Parsons later mrs Draper perh PL ely 1665

Peter Lely, Mary Parsons, 1665

1863. Helen of Troy - Dante Gabriel Rossetti (model - Annie Miller)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy – (model – Annie Miller), 1863

1867. In The Country by Alfred Stevens

Alfred Stevens, In The Country by Alfred Stevens, 1867

Reveries of Fin de Siecle

5 Jun

When boredom strikes the best thing to do is to immerse oneself into a completely different mood, place or time period. It is what I always do, and this time I chose fin de siecle.

1900s Charles Hoffbauer

Charles Hoffbauer, At the Ball, 1900s

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In the late 19th century, artists on both sides of the Channel began to question the social norms, and used art to display their radical, often perverse, opinions. They attacked capitalism and European imperialism, questioned the Victorian view on sexuality, promoted pure aestheticism, deemed Western society as hypocritical, delved into vampirism or simply longed for death. Creme de la creme of this new wave of literature includes novels such as A Rebours or Against Nature (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Oscar Wilde’s notorious The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892) by Thomas Hardy, The Triumph of Death (1894) by Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), and finally, the beautiful, bleak and disturbing Torture Garden (1899) by Octave Mirbeau.

***

L’apollonide (House of Pleasures) 1

A scene from the film L’Apollonide or The House of Tolerance (2011); it’s set in a high-class brothel in Paris at the turn of the century

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In visual arts, the decadent, pessimistic and cynical spirit of ‘fin de siecle’ was demonstrated in a more exciting and vibrant manner and painters such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Felicien Rops, Childe Hassam, Edvard Munch, Jean-Louis Forain and many others produced paintings which satirised the state of society, at the same time giving it a certain dose of glamour which continues to fascinate people even today. Welcome to fin de siecle; the age of un-innocence, where darkness and sins lure from every corner, nightclubs offer nothing but loneliness, pessimism is the meal of the day, seedy salon lights conceal the gritty reality…

***

1890. Bal au Moulin Rouge - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1890

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The glamour and vividness of fin de siecle is perhaps best captured in paintings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – the painter of cabarets, dancers, singers, circuses, and prostitutes. With miraculous ability to capture the moment, incredibly good memory, and proneness for sharp observation that spares nobody, Toulouse-Lautrec, sketched dancers, dandies and common folk at places such as Moulin Rouge; the Studio 54 of La Belle Epoque. Imagine him sitting by the small round table, dressed in a black suit, bowler hat and a pair of spectacles, perhaps in the company of the dancer Jane Avril, drinking absinthe and voraciously sketching. Moulin Rouge, the place where silk dresses rustle, glasses cling, and conversations go on through the night, reminds me of the place Morrissey sang about in the song There is a Light That Never Goes Out:

Take me out tonight
Where there’s music and there’s people
Who are young and alive…*

***

1885. At the Masked Ball by Jean-Louis Forain (French 1852 –1931)

Jean-Louis Forain (French 1852 –1931), At the Masked Ball, 1885

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I have always wanted to attend a masquerade ball; to be someone else for a night and talk to strangers without having to reveal my true identity, with each mask I could be a different person. Jean-Louis Forain painted a lavishing ‘masked ball scene’ where the lady in a purple-white dress, black opera gloves, a mask and a lace veil stands beside an unmasked gentleman, possibly her love interest for the night. The colour palette for the background, rich wine, sangria and crimson shades, is perfectly suitable for the spirit of the era. The scene itself evokes mystery. What are they talking about? Probably some tittle-tattle with a fin de siecle twist.

The grin on her face and her eyes, barely visible through the mask, suggest she’s gazing at something interesting in the background, while her ‘hunched-back, moustache, hand-in-his-pocket’ companion clutches her arm tightly. Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes is the music for the background of this scene. Roses on her dress remind me of the introduction of The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

1900s The Divine in Blue - Boldini

Giovanni Boldini, The Divine in Blue, early 1900s

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Blue blue, electric blue, dynamic brushstrokes, femme fatale – it must be a work of the Italian painter Giovanni Boldini, famous for his turn of the century portraits of aristocratic ladies. This gorgeous, protruding shade of blue, and the lady’s half-hidden gaze make this portrait a perfect representative for the fin the siecle. Boldini’s portraits, along with some female figures in the novels I’ve mentioned above, all show that a new type of woman fascinated artists and society in fin de siecle. A lady who faints and screams like a virgin in Gothic novels simply wasn’t in tune with the times. ‘A New Woman’ stepped on the scene, and Boldini quickly resorted to his brush and a clear white canvas, to capture her charms and seductiveness.

A good example of a fin de siecle goddess is Clara from Torture Garden – a sadistic, intense, hysteric and beautiful redhead who gets pleasure from seeing tortures. She’s a bit extreme, but I like Mirbeau’s description of her gaze because I think Boldini’s ‘Divine in Blue’ has a gaze similarly pierced on the viewers:

While I was speaking and weeping, Miss Clara was looking fixedly at me. Oh, that look! Never, no, never should I forget the look that adorable woman fixed me with, an extraordinary look in which amazement was mingled with joy, pity and love – yes, love – as well as malice and irony.. And everything.. A look which pierced me through, penetrating into me and overwhelming me body and soul.

***

L’apollonide

L’apollonide (House of Pleasures) 2

A scene from the film L’Apollonide or The House of Tolerance (2011); it’s set in a high-class brothel in Paris at the turn of the century

***

Another quote from Mirbeau’s Torture Garden, which is just as relevant today:

You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That’s the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.

***

1895. Childe Hassam - Rainy Night

Childe Hassam, Rainy Night, 1895

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This gorgeous painting by Childe Hassam, Rainy Night, reminds me of a dialogue in Woody Allen’s marvellous film Midnight in Paris (2011), starring Owen Wilson as Gil and Rachel McAdams as Inez:

Gil: I don’t get here often enough, that’s the problem. Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the ’20s. Paris in the ’20s, in the rain. The artists and writers!

Inez: Why does every city have to be in the rain? What’s wonderful about getting wet?” (Midnight in Paris, 2011, Woody Allen)

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the title of Hassam’s painting – Rainy Night – now, is there a better moment? I always feel such rapture and manic energy when it rains, and this painting evokes the same feelings. The scene shows people bustling in front of a nightclub, opening their umbrellas, ladies pulling up their skirts so they don’t get wet, while the golden lights and warmth and pleasure awaits them just behind the doors. What a contrast; a nightclub with all its vibrancy is a place were one can forget oneself by dancing or drinking to oblivion, and, on the outside, a dreamy velvety night over the big city. I’d forget the nightclub for a night as beautiful as this.

Hassam, as an Impressionist, tended to capture the moment, and he did it beautifully in this watercolour. He captured both the excitement and the tenderness of the night, the evening lights and gentle shades of blue that endlessly flickers and overflows into alluring yellow-golds and dark midnight blue that exceeds in onyx black.

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Jane Asher in Charley's Aunt play

Jane Asher in the play ‘Charley’s Aunt’ (2012)

When I started writing this post I was bored beyond pain, but the decadent world of fin de siecle with all its paintings, film costumes, music and books strangely pulled me in. Cure for boredom became my current obsession.

Paul Gauguin and Baudelaire: Exotic Perfume

24 Mar

”…A langorous island, where Nature abounds
With exotic trees and luscious fruit;
And with men whose bodies are slim and astute,
And with women whose frankness delights and astounds… (Charles Baudelaire, Exotic Perfume)*

1894. Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) - Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin, Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua), 1894

Throughout history some artists felt a need to physically step away from their surroundings; Eugene Delacroix travelled to North Africa, Vincent van Gogh to Arles, while his ‘friend’ Paul Gauguin sought inspiration on the other side of the world – on Tahiti. Gauguin desperately tried to escape the rotten European civilization, he said: Civilization is what makes you sick, and he first set sail for Tahiti on 1 April 1891. Vibrant-coloured landscape, voluptuous women, warm sea, sunny weather, exotic trees and luscious fruit all undoubtedly had a lasting impact on Gauguin’s art.

Painting Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) is a great example of Gauguin’s vibrant landscapes. It shows that he soaked up the atmosphere of Tahiti. Gauguin painted it in 1894, either in Paris or in the small Breton village of Pont Aven. It wasn’t the most productive year of his life; he was in poor health and in debts. However, the painting illustrates Gauguin’s thought ‘I shut my eyes in order to see‘; the landscape he painted came from the memory, and no matter how exotic and vibrant Tahiti was in reality, Gauguin’s painting is deliberately more colourful.

Subject of this painting is Polynesian religion. Central place in the background is occupied by a goddess Hina. I’m not particularly a connoisseur of Polynesian mythology and religion, so I’m going to quote Richard Brettell: ‘…idol Hina, which Gauguin derived less from Tahitian or Polynesian traditions than from Indian and Southeast Asian prototypes. For this reason, the painting can be interpreted as representing a universal, non-Christian religion.’ (source) A few more figures grace the background; two women carrying food, probably fruit, on a plate, possibly in order to offer them to the goddess, then a flute-playing woman that sits below the statue of Hina, and two dancers in red-orange tunics.Behind the scene we see a long beach with yellow sand, mountains and blue sky with clouds. Three interesting figures in the foreground symbolise the three Ages of Man — birth, life, and death, which is reminiscent of the story of Oedipus and Sphinx’s riddle. Sphinx’s question was: What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?‘ And Oedipus’ reply was: ‘Man.‘ The pool is perhaps the most interesting thing in the painting. Its surface is utterly unrelated to anything that goes on in the scene; it shows nor the reflections of the sky nor the figures on the beach, but the irregular spots of orange, indigo, light blue, red, green and yellow colour. This leads us to Gauguin’s perception of art, which is based upon symbolism, on dreams and metaphors.

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Do not copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction.* (Gauguin)

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Gauguin’s ‘getaway’ from Europe and his disgust with Western civilisation represent the sentiment shared across Europe within intellectual and artistic circles, in times of ‘fin de siecle’. Gauguin wanted to escape from ‘everything that is artificial and conventional’, and hoped to live a more pure, primitive life on Tahiti. Baudelaire embarked on a somewhat similar journey, thought not willingly. He was sent to India by his stepfather in order to break his bad habits of visiting brothels, drinking, not focusing on his studies etc. Although short, the trip infused in him a sentiment for exoticism, sea and sailing, and that resulted in poems such as ‘Exotic Perfume’. I often had similar thoughts myself; about purity of life somewhere on the island, untainted by civilisation, somewhere where one could walk barefoot all day, pick fruit off the branches and eat it, really feel the rain… But, just like Baudelaire, for me the reveries about exotic lands would be better than reality of actually living there. I’m a product of European culture, and that’s something I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to deprive myself from.

Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Art

22 Mar

These are some paintings that come to my mind when I read Baudelaire and Rimbaud’s poetry. Mostly the works of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and other artists as well.

1863. Olympia - ManetEdouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

The Jewels by Baudelaire

My darling was naked, and knowing my heart well,
She was wearing only her sonorous jewels,
Whose opulent display made her look triumphant
Like Moorish concubines on their fortunate days.

(…)

She had lain down; and let herself be loved
From the top of the couch she smiled contentedly
Upon my love, deep and gentle as the sea,
Which rose toward her as toward a cliff.

Her eyes fixed upon me, like a tamed tigress,
With a vague, dreamy air she was trying poses,
And by blending candor with lechery,
Her metamorphoses took on a novel charm…

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1862. Jeanne Duval, in a painting by Édouard ManetJeanne Duval, in a painting by Édouard Manet, 1862

To a Colonial Lady by Baudelaire

In scented countries by the sun caressed
I’ve known, beneath a tent of purple boughs,
And palmtrees shedding slumber as they drowse,
A creole lady with a charm unguessed.

She’s pale, and warm, and duskily beguiling;
Nobility is moulded in her neck;
Slender and tall she holds herself in check,
An huntress born, sure-eyed, and quiet-smiling.

Should you go, Madam, to the land of glory
Along the Seine or Loire, where you would merit
To ornament some mansion famed in story,

Your eyes would bum in those deep-shaded parts,
And breed a thousand rhymes in poets’ hearts,
Tamed like the negro slaves that you inherit.” (Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire, New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

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1886. Woman in the Bath -DegasDegas, Woman in the Bath, 1887

Venus Anadyomene by Rimbaud

Out of what seems a coffin made of tin
A head protrudes; a woman’s, dark with grease –
Out of a bathtub! – slowly; then a fat face
With ill-concealed defects upon the skin.

Then streaked and grey, a neck; a shoulder-blade,
A back – irregular, with indentations –
Then round loins emerge, and slowly rise;
The fat beneath the skin seems made of lead;

The spine is somewhat reddish; then, a smell,
Strangely horrible; we notice above all
Some microscopic blemishes in front…

Horribly beautiful! A title: Clara Venus;
Then the huge bulk heaves, and with a grunt
She bends and shows the ulcer on her anus.*

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1894. Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) - Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin, Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua)1894

Exotic Perfume by Baudelaire

When, with closed eyes in autumn’s eves of gold,
I breathe the burning odour of your breasts,
Before my eyes the hills of happy rest
Bathed in the sun’s monotonous fires, unfold.

A langorous island, where Nature abounds
With exotic trees and luscious fruit;
And with men whose bodies are slim and astute,
And with women whose frankness delights and astounds.*

Led by that perfume to these lands of ease,
I see a port where many ships have flown
With sails out wearied of the wandering seas; 
While the faint odours from green tamarisks blown,
Float to my soul and in my senses throng,
And mingle vaguely with the sailor’s song.’
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1873. Claude Monet, Autumn on the Seine, ArgenteuilClaude Monet, Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil, 1873
Autumn Song by Paul Verlaine
When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and longPale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours toll deep.
My thoughts recover
The days that are over,
And I weep.And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.*
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1900-05. Ophelia by Odilon RedonOdilon Redon, Ophelia, 1900-1905

Ophelia by Rimbaud

I

On the calm black water where the stars are sleeping
White Ophelia floats like a great lily ;
Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils…
– In the far-off woods you can hear them sound the mort.

For more than a thousand years sad Ophelia
Has passed, a white phantom, down the long black river.
For more than a thousand years her sweet madness
Has murmured its ballad to the evening breeze.

The wind kisses her breasts and unfolds in a wreath
Her great veils rising and falling with the waters ;
The shivering willows weep on her shoulder,
The rushes lean over her wide, dreaming brow.

The ruffled water-lilies are sighing around her ;
At times she rouses, in a slumbering alder,
Some nest from which escapes a small rustle of wings ;
– A mysterious anthem falls from the golden stars.

II

O pale Ophelia ! beautiful as snow !
Yes child, you died, carried off by a river !
– It was the winds descending from the great mountains of Norway
That spoke to you in low voices of better freedom.

It was a breath of wind, that, twisting your great hair,
Brought strange rumors to your dreaming mind ;
It was your heart listening to the song of Nature
In the groans of the tree and the sighs of the nights ;

It was the voice of mad seas, the great roar,
That shattered your child’s heart, too human and too soft ;
It was a handsome pale knight, a poor madman
Who one April morning sate mute at your knees !

Heaven ! Love ! Freedom ! What a dream, oh poor crazed Girl !
You melted to him as snow does to a fire ;
Your great visions strangled your words
– And fearful Infinity terrified your blue eye !

III

– And the poet says that by starlight
You come seeking, in the night, the flowers that you picked
And that he has seen on the water, lying in her long veils
White Ophelia floating, like a great lily.*

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1897. The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning by PissarroPissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning, 1897

The Seven Old Men by Baudelaire

To Victor Hugo

City swarming with people, how full you are of dreams!
Here in broad daylight, surely, the passerby may meet
A specter, — be accosted by him! Mystery seems
To move like a thick sap through every narrow street.

I thought (daybreak, it was, in a sad part of town)
“These houses look much higher in the fog!” — they stood
Like two gray quays between which a muddy stream flows down;
The setting of the play matched well the actor’s mood.

All space became a dirty yellow fog; I tried
To fight it off; I railed at my poor soul, whose feet,
Weary already, dragged and stumbled at my side.
Big wagons, bound for market, began to shake the street….*

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1859. The Absinthe Drinker ( Le Buveur d'absinthe)by Édouard ManetÉdouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker ( Le Buveur d’absinthe), 1859

Le Vin du solitaire by Baudelaire

The wildering glances of a harlot fair
seen gliding toward us like the silver wake
of undulant moonlight on the quivering lake
when Phoebe bathes her languorous beauty there;

the last gold coins a gambler’s fingers hold;
the wanton kiss of love-worn Adeline,
the wheedling songs that leave the will supine
— like far-off cries of sorrow unconsoled —

all these, o bottle deep, were never worth
the pungent balsams in thy fertile girth
stored for the pious poet’s thirsty heart;

thou pourest hope and youth and strength anew,
— and pride, this treasure of the beggar-crew,
that lifts us like triumphant gods, apart!*

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1883. Au Foyer du Théâtre, 1883, Jean-Louis ForainJean-Louis Forain, Au Foyer du Théâtre, 1883

Pagan Prayer by Baudelaire

Don’t stint the fires with which you flare.
Warm up my dull heart to delight,
O Pleasure, torture of the sprite,
O Goddess, hear my fervent prayer!

Goddess, who through the ether pass,
Flame in this subterranean hole!
Raise up a chilled and stricken soul
Who lifts to you his peal of brass.

O Pleasure, always be my queen!
In flesh and velvet to be seen,
Mask your beauty like a siren:

Or else my soul with sleep environ
Drained from the formless mystic wine,
Elastic phantom! which is thine.’ *

— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

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1910. Girl with black hair - Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

The First Evening by Rimbaud

She was very much half-dressed
And big indiscreet trees
Threw out their leaves against the pane
Cunningly, and close, quite close.

Sitting half naked in my big chair,
She clasped her hands.
Her small and so delicate feet
Trembled with pleasure on the floor.

– The colour of wax, I watched
A little wild ray of light
Flutter on her smiling lips
And on her breast, – an insect on the rose-bush.

– I kissed her delicate ankles.
She laughed softly and suddenly
A string of clear trills,
A lovely laugh of crystal.

The small feet fled beneath
Her petticoat: “Stop it, do!”
– The first act of daring permitted,
Her laugh pretended to punish me!

– Softly I kissed her eyes,
Trembling beneath my lips, poor things:
– She threw back her fragile head
“Oh! come now that’s going too far!…

Listen, Sir, I have something to say to you…”
– I transferred the rest to her breast
In a kiss which made her laugh
With a kind laugh that was willing…

– She was very much half-dressed
And big indiscreet trees threw
Out their leaves against the pane
Cunningly, and close, quite close.*

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife – Konstantin Danil

27 Jan

I stumbled upon this painting somewhere in the hazy depths of Tumblr, and its aura of gentleness, tenderness and lightness immediately attracted me.

1846. Portrait of the Artist's Wife (Portret umetnikove žene) by Konstantin DanilKonstantin Danil, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (Portret umetnikove žene), c. 1846

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife by Serbian painter Konstantin Danil remained unfinished. It wasn’t the artist’s death that stopped him from painting his wife’s delicate pale hands, it was probably the sense of completeness, the impression that every succeeding brushstroke would be overindulgence. Danil (1798-1873), was a renowned Serbian painter of the 19th century, born in a family with Serbian and Romanian roots. His father was a Russian officer who eventually settled in Banat (now western Romania). Fate dealt Danil such cards that he travelled too, and his artistic career stretched through different countries. He studied painting in Temișvar, Munich and Vienna, and also travelled throughout Banat and Transylvania, capturing the scenery along the way. Although he painted almost every subject there is to paint, he was most proficient in portraits such as the one above.

In a plain white dress, with bare shoulders, Danil’s wife Sofia Dely, who belonged to the impoverished Hungarian aristocratic family, sits leaned on the arm of the chair, gazing mournfully into the distance. Gathers on her thin white dress are painted beautifully, the dark parts being carefully accentuated with grey and soft pink tones. Technique chiaroscuro (light-dark) gives the sense of volume and emphasises the woman’s lightness against the vast dark background. Her loose white garment, bare shoulders and soft curls are evocative of the seventeenth century portraits by French and English masters, such as one of the portraits of Nell Gwyn.

Still, the focus is on the woman’s face; rosy cheeks, sad light blue eyes, thin lips, soft under chin, and thinning hair that once shone in abundance of golden curls all suggest a withered woman. This, along with a peculiar plaintive glance, gives the portrait a psychological depth; it was painted by someone who knew her well and had been married to her almost twenty years at the time. The vague definition of her right hand gives the portrait its magic. Because of this vagueness everything else looses its distinction, and the figure becomes translucent and decadently delicate. In this portrait, naturalism typical for Biedermeier gave way to truthful romantic sensibility.