Tag Archives: art

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.

___________________________

*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.

___________________

*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford

Gustav Klimt – Valley of the Dolls

5 Mar

In a transitional period from his ‘erotic-symbolist Golden phase’ to his highly decorative and vibrant Japanese inspired phase, Klimt painted these gorgeous and aloof femme fatales: a subject so popular in fin de siecle. These two ladies are not mythical creatures, they look like real Viennese women and they’re impatient, they’re waiting, wrapped in their fur, adorned with the finest Art Nouveau jewellery, they’re glancing at you with disdain, they’re throwing darts in the eyes of their lovers.

1909-gustav-klimt-lady-with-hat-and-feather-boa-1909-4Gustav Klimt, Lady with Hat and Feather Boa, 1909

End of the first decade of the twentieth century brought some changes for Klimt; his gorgeous studies in gold with intricate details and stylised forms were slowly becoming passé. Rise of the Expressionism denoted the end of his ‘golden phase’. In his paintings such as ‘The Kiss’, Klimt painted his figures in shining yellow fabrics, decorated with tiny golden leaves, against luminous golden backgrounds, floating in a highly decorative world of his imagination. This excessive decorative element in his art prevented him from delving into psychological depth and achieving the emotional intensity of the portrayed figure, and that’s something that painters like Schiele and Kokoschka did very well . In 1909, Klimt travelled to Paris where he discovered the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fauvists. These encounters with the new streams in the artistic world, as well as his friendship with the younger artist Schiele, all inspired him to reinvent his style.

La Belle Epoque fashion looks as if it was made for femme fatales – it’s exuberant, it’s glamorous; wide-brimmed hats with feathers, fur muffs, voluminous hairstyles, large choker necklaces, long flowing dresses with lace details… Klimt was very much in tune with the fashion of the day because his life companion Emilie Flöge happened to be a fashion designer. Klimt also helped in designing the dresses by making the patterns. In this transitional period, Klimt dressed his femme fatales not in gold but in lace and perfumes and jewels and rouge; he tamed them, he made them into fashionable little dolls who are impatiently waiting to be played with, to be admired. These creatures are vain and aloof but not as sinister and destructive as Franz Stuck’s dark female figures filled with lust and anxiety. Klimt also tamed his lust for excessive ornamentation by painting the background in one colour instead of the usual vibrant kaleidoscope of shapes and patterns.

Painting Lady with Hat and Feather Boa has a strangely dark colour palette, unusual for Klimt’s typical vibrant pinks, yellows and greens. The lady has an amazing face expression; her downward tilted eyes are fixated on something on her right which we can’t see, and her eyebrows are sharp and angry. Her face has been haunting me for weeks! And that peacock blue line on her hat, and the feathers, painted in swirling, near abstract motions. Her wild red hair, and gorgeous lips peeking from that feather boa, oh she’s a real femme fatale. You can imagine her getting out of the carriage, somewhere on the streets of Vienna, opening her parasol, blind to every eye she meets, with a gaze that says: ‘You’re not fit to polish my boots!’

1910-gustav-klimt-black-feature-hat-1910Gustav Klimt, Black Feather Hat (Lady with Feather Hat), 1910

On the other hand, Black Feather Hat (Lady with Feather Hat) is somewhat different in mood and style. Our redhead beauty above looks gorgeous and vivacious like Klimt’s women usually do, but this one looks a tad different – there’s a subtle nihilism in those white-grey shades, a hint of Egon Schiele and the fin de siecle nervousness. Look at her angular face and the way her hand is painted; it looks like something you’d see on Schiele’s paintings. Truth is, Schiele was initially inspired by Klimt, but Klimt also learner something from his young independent-minded pupil. Again we see this gorgeous La Belle Epoque fashion, and again this femme fatale is looking into the distance, we don’t know what occupied her attention, or whose face lingers on her mind.

Jean-Louis Forain – Elegant Woman at the Beach

22 Feb

‘Adrift in cheap dreams don’t stop the rain.’ (Manic Street Preachers – Motown Junk)

1885-jean-louis-forain-elegant-woman-at-the-beach-1885Jean-Louis Forain, Elegant Woman at the Beach, 1885

The colours and the mood of this painting instantly attracted me. An elegant lady is trying to leave the beach as quick as possible, to avoid the upcoming storm, but the wind is not making it easy for her. Exuding sophistication and class, she must be a Parisian lady who came to the seaside on holiday, hoping to find some peace from the stresses of modern life. Instead of enjoying a picturesque sunny day at the beach, with smiling white clouds and a clear blue sky, she’s welcomed by a turbulent sea and an overcast day, oh how aggravating!

Let’s imagine her name is Celestine, and that this is a one of those sudden storms at the height of Summer, let’s imagine it’s one Thursday afternoon in July. So, Celestine is in a hurry, because she knows that even cheap dreams don’t stop the rain. It seems that just a second ago she lifted her arms and dropped her umbrella, quick not to allow the wind to take over her lovely bonnet. We can see the direction the wind is blowing because the ends of her coat are turned upwards and her red scarf, painted in just few dabs of rich cherry colour, is dancing on the wind. Her vibrant garnet red dress and a navy blue coat stand out amidst all that greyness, which irresistibly reminds me of Anna Karina’s blue and red outfits against the backdrop of grey Parisian streets in Godard’s film ‘Une Femme est Une Femme’. Swift, thick and short brushstrokes are present everywhere, but most notably on her skirt, where the black and red seem to be battling for dominance over the fabric.

I’m sure Celestine would like me to talk more about that lovely outfit that she put together for a walk at the beach, but I think the sea and the beach itself deserve a moment of attention and appreciation. As Forain was an Impressionist, and a friend of Manet and Degas who even invited him to exhibit on the Impressionist exhibitions, he wanted to capture the mood, the magic effects of light and air, rather than perfect details and realistic portrayal of landscape. His careless brushwork and the illusion that everything was painted hastily, as a sketch, all bring to life the atmosphere of that gloomy afternoon: we witness the white clouds being devoured by the dark-grey ones, with almost a purplish undertone to them, we see the wind as it tries to blow Celestine’s bonnet, and probably carries the tiny particles of sand in her eyes, and the sea – we can hear the clasps of waves, and see their strength, beauty and naughty playfulness. This is a moment captured in time, like a photograph. And do I sense a spirit of Turner or Whistler in that portrayal of sea?

It’s hard to notice the line which separates the sandy beach and the sea, but this vagueness delights me. There’s a chair next to the lady, also painted in quick brushstrokes, and two small figures in the background. Sea is painted in beautiful sea foam colour. All in all, the beauty of this painting, for me, lies in its quick, exciting, playful brushstrokes and a gorgeous colour palette in which harmony of greys meets the vibrancy of reds and blues.

Rain, storm, and a desolate beach – my idea of heaven, or at least a perfect afternoon.

J. A. M. Whistler – Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl)

16 Feb

It’s impossible not to love this painting; it has a meditative, dreamy aura, wistful lady wearing a beautifully painted white dress, and delicate pink flowers, hinting at Whistler’s appreciation of Japanese art and culture.

1864-james-abbot-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-2-the-little-white-girlJames Abbot McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl), 1864

Model for this ‘little white girl’ was an Irish beauty Joanna Hiffernan, a muse, model and a lover not only to Whistler but to Gustave Courbet as well, most famously in his painting ‘Sleep.’ Whistler’s biographers wrote of her: “She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.” Here, in Symphony in White no 2, Whistler painted her leaning against the mantelpiece in their love nest; a house they shared in Lindsey Row in Chelsea. She’s holding a Japanese fan in her hand. It’s interesting to note the ring on her left hand, but they were not married. There’s something ethereal about her; dressed in white gown that touches the ground, with long hair and a sad look in her eyes; she seems melancholic and detached from everything at the same time, as if she’s not really here, but is just passing through life without touching it, not allowing the harshness of reality to taint that beautiful whiteness of her muslin dress. If you close your eyes, you can imagine her slowly and elegantly walking across the room, then standing by the fireplace, her small hand barely touching the mantelpiece, while the other gently holds a fan. She is a silent Victorian woman living on the border of dreams and reality, like Millais’ Mariana, wrapped in the loneliness of her birdcage, longing for the imagined excitement of the real life out there. Or not. Perhaps she’s so engulfed in the sweetness of her daydreams and contemplation and doesn’t even walk to live the ‘real life’. At the same time, she knows that ‘dreams always end, they don’t rise up just descend’*, and this thought is the source of the wistfulness of her gaze that Whistler has so beautifully captured.

Here we see the typical elements of Japanese culture that can be found in many 19th century paintings; pink flowers, a fan, porcelain vase. Influence of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, which were immensely popular at the time, is visible in the composition as well; you see how the picture looks like it’s cut on the ends, her wide sleeve on the left, pink azaleas at the bottom and her hand and the vase in the upper part of the painting. That’s something you don’t see in paintings of Academic Realism. Whistler is even said to have introduced Rossetti to Japanese art as a matter of fact.

Beautiful delicate pink azaleas are almost protruding into the composition, leaning their pink blossoms and delicate little leaves, as if they’re ready to listen to her sorrows and comfort her. ‘Don’t be sad, spring will soon come, and your woes will be gone‘, they seem to whisper. Joanna ignores them, her face turned away from the viewer. It’s the mirror which reveals the sadness and wistfulness of her gaze, and also the seascape that’s opposite the fireplace. She seems to be thinking:

I am weary of days and hours,

Blown buds of barren flowers,

Desires and dreams and powers,

And everything but sleep.” (Swinburne)

Perhaps the most beautiful part of the painting, besides the flowers, is her dress which is painted in soft, almost transparent brushstrokes. Its gentle, dreamy appeal is contrasted with the strict, geometrical line of the fireplace. White is the hardest colours to paint, but Whistler shows a complete mastery over it, and the painting deserves its title ‘symphony’, for it is indeed a symphony in whites. In one painting below, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, whose beauty arrives from the subtlety of colours, you’ll see that mastery of white again, and the dress seems to flow effortlessly, like a river, decorated with the flowers that also serve as an interior decoration; it’s hard to say where reality ends and dream start because the more I look at these gorgeous studies in white, the more I am drawn into this ethereal, delicate world that Whistler has created, using just his brush and colours, not magic.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American artist, but after coming to England in 1859, he never returned to his homeland again, but instead divided his time between London and Paris, and nurtured friendships with other artists and writers on the each side of the Channel; Gaultier, Swinburne, Manet and Courbet to name a few. Whistler is famous for promoting ‘art for art’s sake philosophy’, and enraging Ruskin who emphasised the social, moralistic role of art. He was also known for giving his paintings musical names, such as ‘Symphony’ or ‘Nocturne’, which sometimes enraged the critics, but still fascinates the lovers of his art, myself included.

This painting, with Joanna’s ghost-like reflection in the mirror, inspired Swinburne to write these verses:

Glad, but not flushed with gladness,

Since joys go by;

Sad, but not bent with sadness,

Since sorrows die;

Deep in the gleaming glass

She sees all past things pass,

And all sweet life that was lie down and lie.

The critics have drawn a parallel between this painting and Ingres’ Portrait of Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville from 1845, which also has a lady standing by the mirror. Similar meditative mood, delicate whiteness, and touch of the East, can be found in many of Whistler’s paintings, here are a few:

1862-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-1-the-white-girl-girl-is-joanne-hiffernanJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862 (Note: model is Joanna again)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873 oil on canvas 77 1/8 in. x 40 1/4 in. (195.9 cm x 102.24 cm) Henry Clay Frick Bequest. Accession number: 1916.1.133James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873

1863-65-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-le-princesse-du-pays-de-la-porcelaineJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

My interest in these paintings arose because of my longing for Spring, so here’s a beautiful haiku poem for the season that’s upon us. Spring, I am anxiously awaiting you, please come quickly!

In these spring days,
when tranquil light encompasses
the four directions,
why do the blossoms scatter
with such uneasy hearts?” (Ki no Tomonori, c. 850-c. 904)

Japanese Prints – Cherry Blossoms and Moonshine

13 Feb

Watching the rain of soft pink petals of cherry blossoms, against the night sky and magical moonshine – must be one of the most profound occupations one could possibly indulge in.

1852-ukiyo-e-painting-from-the-tale-of-genji-chapter-20-hana-no-en-under-the-cherry-blossoms-by-artist-kunisada-1852Utagawa Kunisada, Ukiyo-e painting from The Tale of Genji, Chapter 8 ‘Hana no En’, Under the Cherry Blossoms, 1852

It’s winter in the real world, but it’s spring in this Ukiyo-e print. Spring: the sweetest time of the year – a time when nature offers its lushness and greenness to all souls sensitive towards its beauty, a time when even the dullest of people may find in their souls a newly awaken dreamy sentiments. Yellow bridge, court ladies in vibrant silks and lavishing kimonos. Flowers everywhere; in the sky, in their hair, on their fabrics. Large and white, the full moon is low on the horizon. Cherry tree protrudes in the composition, giving the false impression of haughtiness. Like a beautiful woman showing off her figure and shining pearls around her neck, this cherry tree stretches out its branches, one might think heavy from all those lush pink blossoms, but no – their petals are as light and delicate as the moonshine which caresses them, and their beauty is as pure as the first snow.

The most intense beauty hides in the upper right corner: dark night sky becomes darker, cherry blossoms turn a more vibrant pink, and then a rain of the gorgeous pink petals, observed by the moon, shining with stillness. There’s still chillness in spring nights, but perhaps there’s a soft warm wind announcing the Summer days. What gentleness – petals touching the porcelain skin and elaborate hairstyles of the ladies. One holds a fan, while the other tries to catch the blossoms in her golden basket – how very wise, for the next day they all might be gone, and the awareness of that transient beauty is what stirs the soul.

As you all know, ‘Hanami’ or the custom of watching cherry or plum blossoms is a very important thing in Japan, but what I find even more exciting is ‘yozakura’ (‘night sakura’); watching the cherry blossoms at night. Then, for the occasion, the trees are decorated with brightly coloured paper lanterns. Oh, how magical would it be to sit silently and admire the cherry blossoms at night, with someone who’d appreciate their beauty as much as I would. Then, I would speak nothing, think nothing, just allow myself to be fully immersed in that beauty, and these beautiful verses written by Matsuo Basho centuries ago, would come to my mind:

There is nothing you can

see that is not a flower; there

is nothing you can think that

is not the moon.

Utagawa Kunisada, Yozakura Cherry Blossom at Night, 1848. Oban triptych, photo found here.

Kunisada (1786-1864) was an Edo period artist whose Ukiyo-e prints reflect the culture of Japan just prior to its opening to the West. In his own time, he was more popular that Hiroshige and Hokusai. Stylistically, he follows the realistic approach of his teacher Toyokuni, and was specially interested in portraying kabuki actors (those prints are known as ‘Yakusha-e’) and making ‘Bijin-ga’ – pictures of beautiful women, usually courtesans, but occasionally girls from bourgeois households. This particular woodcut shows the scene from Murasaki’s novel ‘The Tale of Genji’, that is, from the Chapter 8 which is titled ‘The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms’ and you can read it here.

‘sleepless night —

the moon becomes

more familiar.‘(*)

Osamu Dazai: No Longer Human – Art and Ghost Pictures

10 Feb

Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human is a really fascinating book I’ve read recently and I’ve already reviewed it here. In this post we’ll take a look at the main character, Oba Yozo’s connection to art and the paintings of Western painters such as Modigliani and Vincent van Gogh.

1918-amedeo-modigliani-a-young-girlAmedeo Modigliani, A Young Girl, 1918

Oba Yozo was interested in art and painting since primary school and wanted to go to an art school, but his father put him into college, with an intend to make a civil servant out of him. Yozo obeyed, like he always did in his life, but he couldn’t really identify himself with the role of a student, or soak himself in the ‘college spirit’, so he often cut classes and spent days at home, painting and reading – which is totally more useful for imagination and the soul than the boredom of classrooms and patronising professors at college. He also attended art classes given by a painter in Hongo, and practised sketching for hours. He said: ‘I owned a set of oil paints and brushes from the time I entered high school. I sought to model my techniques on those of the Impressionist School, but my pictures remained flat as paper cutouts, and seemed to offer no promises of ever developing into anything.’

With the help of a friend he realised the artistic truth: sometimes it’s more important to portray the truth and work from the soul, than to create perfect, lifeless pictures with a lot of skill and precision. He also says: ‘What superficiality – and what stupidity – there is in trying to depict in a pretty manner things which one has thought pretty. The masters through their subjective perceptions created beauty out of trivialities. They did not hide their interest in things which were nauseatingly ugly, but soaked themselves in the pleasure of depicting them.’ From that moment on, he began making self-portraits, which is kept a secret, and showed one only to Takeichi, and no one else. In his free time, he painted these ‘ghost pictures’, but in school he kept his style strictly conventional. Later, at college, he meets a fellow art lover and painter, Horiki, who lures him into the ‘mysteries of drink, cigarettes, prostitutes, pawnshops and left-wing thought’.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat, March/April 1887

Here, Yozo and his friend Takeichi are discussing the so called ‘ghost pictures’, and the name itself is so intriguing to me. ‘Ghost pictures’ – what is meant by that? It puzzles me, especially since I adore both Modigliani and van Gogh, but I never thought of their art in that way. A certain fragility, melancholy and sadness lingers through Modigliani’s portraits, that’s for sure, but now I can’t help but to notice the wraith-like quality of his women, with elongated faces and sad eyes, or his nudes in ‘coppery skin’ tones.

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. When we were children the French Impressionist School was very popular in Japan, and our first introduction to an appreciation of Western painting most often begun with such works. The paintings of van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Renoir were familiar even to students at country schools, mainly through photographic reproduction. I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

1916. Modigliani 'Female Nude'Modigliani, Female Nude, 1916

Yozo later draws for comic books and magazines, and, at the very end, ends up copying pornographic drawings which he would then secretly peddle, to earn just enough money to buy gin. Still, despite leaving his original artistic intentions behind, he mentions these ‘ghost pictures’ again:

At such times the self-portraits I painted in high school – the ones Takeichi called “ghost pictures” – naturally came to mind. My lost masterpieces. These, my only really worth-while pictures, had disappeared during one of my frequent changes of address. I afterwards painted pictures of every description, but they all fell far,  far short of those splendid works as I remembered them. I was plagued by a heavy sense of loss, as if my heart had become empty.

The undrunk glass of absinthe.

A sense of loss which was doomed to remain eternally unmitigated stealthily began to take shape. Whenever I spoke of painting, that undrunk glass of absinthe flickered before my eyes. I was agonized by the frustrating thought: if only I could show them those paintings they would believe in my artistic talents.

1888-self-portrait-with-straw-hat-van-goghVincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888