Tag Archives: artist

Book Review: Romaji Diary by Takuboku Ishikawa

27 Aug

“Alone and awake in the metropolis where the entire race of men was fast asleep, I realized, as I kept track of the breathing of others during that quiet spring night, how meaningless and trivial my life was in this narrow three and-a-half-mat room.”

Kasamatsu Shiro (1898-1991), Rainy Evening at Shinobazu Pond, Tokyo, 1938

In the beginning of August I finally started reading a book which intrigued me immensely: “Romaji Diary and Sad Toys” by Takuboku Ishikawa. A single quote compelled me to read the book because it spoke to me: “How I wished to go somewhere. I walked on with this thought in mind. I wanted to ride a train. That was my thought. I wanted to ride somewhere, anywhere, with no destination in mind and to a place I have never been before.” Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912) was a Japanese writer mostly remembered for his tanka and his free-style poems. He died in April 1912 from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, tragically too soon, so we can’t know how his literary talents would flourish had he lived longer. The “Romaji Diary” is Ishikawa’s diary written in Japanese but in Latin script (in Japanese it’s called “romaji”) so his wife couldn’t understand it. Ishikawa continues the long literary tradition of keeping a diary which originated in the ninth century.

The diary starts on 7 April and ends on 16 June 1909. We are instantly in the mind of a young person in a big bustling city of Tokyo; a person who is alienated, brooding, slightly cynical, a tad melodramatic and completely honest with himself. Ishikawa’s thoughts and writing style made me think of both Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human” which isn’t a diary but is written in the first person, and Kafka, whose letters I have read and enjoyed. Kafka in Japan; Kafka amongst cherry blossoms. Nothingness and loneliness, bring to mind the early days of Manic Street Preachers and I am sure that Richey Edwards, who appreciated Japanese literature and brooding heroes, would appreciate the Romaji Diary as well. One of the recurring topics throughout the diary is the topic of his responsibility towards his family which conflicts with his literary aspirations; I would of course chose the latter and so I can easily empathise and understand how the family and the sentimentality around it can drag an artist down. I also enjoyed that Ishikawa mentions Russian writers and characters from Russian novels because I love some of them too. But now, let me speak no more, here are the quotes which I enjoyed the most and they will show you the style of the diary and Ishikawa’s thoughts:

Alone and awake in the metropolis where the entire race of men was fast asleep, I realized, as I kept track of the breathing of others during that quiet spring night, how meaningless and trivial my life was in this narrow three and- a-half-mat room.
What will I look like when, sleeping all alone in this narrow room, I am overcome by some indescribable exhaustion? The final discovery of man is that he is far from great. Such a long time in this narrow room, nursing a weary anxiety and a foolish desire to seek out, by force if necessary, something to interest me— more than two hundred days have come and gone. When will I be able to… No!
Lying in bed, I read Turgenev’s short stories.

Hiroshima Koho – Night View of Ohashi Bridge

When I clasp a warm hand and smell the powerfuI fragrance of a woman’s hair, I am not satisfied with that: I want to embrace a soft and warm and perfectly white body. Oh, the feeling of loneliness when I go back home without fulfilling that desire! It’s not merely a loneliness stemming from unfulfilled sexual desire; it’s a deep, terrible, despairing realization which forces me to see that I am unable to obtain anything I want.”

“I’m exhausted now. And I’m searching for freedom from care. That freedom from care, what’s it like? Where is it? I can’t, even in a hundred years, return to the innocent mind free from pain that I had long ago. Where is peace of mind?
“I want to be ill.”
(…) Oh, for a life of freedom, released from all responsibility! “I wish my family would die!” Even though I’ve desired that, no one dies. “I wish my friends would regard me as their enemy.” For that I wish too, but no one regards me seriously as their foe. All my friends pity me. God! Why am I loved by others? Why can’t I hate men with all my soul? To be loved is an unbearable insult! But I’m tired. I’m a weakling!”

“I ran my fingers over the strings of a samisen I found hanging on a wall, and the upshot was I took the instrument down and clowned around with it. Why had I done such a thing? Was I in high spirits? No! Somehow the feeling overwhelmed me that there wasn’t a place in the entire world for me. “I have a headache, so just for this one night I’ll enjoy myself.” These words weren’t true. So what was I searching for? A woman’s body? Saké? Probably neither. If not, what? I myself didn’t know. My self-consciousness made my mind sink even deeper. I didn’t want to fall into the terrible abyss. Nor did I want to return to my room: it was as if some disgusting thing were waiting for me there.”

Benkei Bridge – Tsuchiya Koitsu, early 20th century, Japan

“And though I can’t endure the pain of this life, I’m unable to do anything about that life. Everything is restraint, my responsibilities heavy. What am I to do? Hamlet said, “To be or not to be.” But the question of death in today’s world has become much more complicated than in his time.”

I know now that I have no confidence, that I have no aim, that from morning till night I’m driven by vacillation and anxiety. I have no fixed point in me. What will become of me? A useless key that does not fit! That’s me! Wherever I bring myself, I can’t find the keyhole that fits me!
Dying for a smoke!”

“Everything changes according to the way you look at it,” Obara had said. “People think that day by day they are shortening the fifty or sixty years allotted to them, but I believe life means adding one more new day after each succeeding day, so the passing of time doesn’t pain me in the least.”
“When all is said and done, the happy person is someone like you. A person like you can feel assured deceiving himself in such a way,” I had replied.

Vincent van Gogh – Die in the Summertime

29 Jul

“Every time I stare into the sun
Trying to find a reason to go on
All I ever get is burned and blind…”

(Chris Cornell, Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart)

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, July 1890

Exhausting heat of summerr day. Golden wheat against the electric blue sky. A crooked, brown path through the wheat that leads to nowhere. Crows flying aimlessy, low above the wheat field – without direction, without control. Their hoarse cawing disturbs the otherwise heavy silence in the field. No trace of wind. The sky is turning a darker shade of blue with each passing moment. This is not the tender, soft baby blue sky from a Monet painting. This is not a tame wheatfield. These wild, energetic, passionate brushstrokes are not for the faint of heart. Thick, quick, short strokes are a work of an artistic maniac who is led by emotions that arose from a soul as troubled and dark and deep as a waterwell. Dark clouds are pressing down down to the ground and it all feels dense and claustrophobic.

This very dramatic painting was painted on the 10th July 1890, and is, unfortunately, not the last painting Vincent van Gogh painted, although it is one of his best and one of his most emotionally raw. Vincent died on the 29th July 1890 and there is a tendency to see this painting as Vincent’s suicide note because of the obvious ominous, disturbed mood, and while I agree with that I think it also shows the very thing that Vincent strove to capture on his painting; all the life, energy and vibrancy that was inside him, despite the depression, in his own words: “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. (…) Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners…”

This brooding wheatfield was a visual expression of a huge stream of feelings swelling up inside the artist; the feeling of enormous, incurable loneliness and immense sadness. It might be unusual to use yellow to portray sadness, but this is not the cheerful, harmless yellow we might find in a painting by Fragonard. The ripeness of the field may also symbolise the ripeness of the artist’s life and after ripeness comes either death or decay. The crows add to the ominous feeling of dread and the arrival of death, or the end. As is typical for the paintings he made in the summer of 1890, he used a double-canvas and this horizontally elongated canvas helps in creating the dramatic mood because the sky is pressing down to the field whereas in a vertically elongated painting the sky would have much more space to breathe and shine. It is also important to note that the unusual long form of a painting was typical for the Japanese Ukiyo-e prints which Vincent loved, admired and took inspiration from. This form was just one of the many ways in which he experimented with his art and used the Japanese influence. The final days of Vincent’s life were days of extreme sadness and extreme creativity and this painting, although not his last one, is the explosion of this creativity.

The title of the post comes from the Manic Street Preachers’ song “Die in the Summertime” from their third album “The Holy Bible” (1994):

“Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals
Colour my hair but the dye grows out
I can’t seem to stay a fixed ideal
Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene
See myself without ruining lines
Whole days throwing sticks into streams
I have crawled so far sideways
I recognise dim traces of creation
I want to die, die in the summertime, I want to die”

Vincent van Gogh: Life and Art in the Face of Failure

23 Apr

“He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.”

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, October 1888

This post will be my final one (for now at least….) featuring wonderful passages from Irving Stone’s romanticised biography about the life and struggles of Vincent van Gogh: “Lust for Life”, originally published in 1934. I really love the book and I reread it this spring and I feel that it is truly too beautiful not to be shared! I already have a post about the sun, heat and vibrant colours of Arles, and posts about the art discussions that Vincent had with Gauguin while he stayed in Arles; part one and part two. Today I would like to share a passage which deals directly with the question: why? Why do I paint? What is it that drives me to persist with it, despite constant failure? Vincent is asking himself that and the answer is a very beautiful one and I think all artists should be inspired by it. Indeed, my artist friend loves the quote as well. I think inspiration for creating art should be intrinsic, it has to be the fire within that drives one to create, if one is doing it to please someone else, to gain admiration, approval, praise or popularity, then it’s just not going to work. And now here is the quote:

The hot sun built up his vitality, even though his stomach was getting little attention. In place of sane food he put absinthe, tobacco, and Daudet’s tales of Tartarin. His innumerable hours of concentration before the easel rubbed his nerves raw. He needed stimulants. The absinthe made him all the more excited for the following day, an excitement whipped by the mistral and baked into him by the sun.

As the summer advanced, everything became burnt up. He saw about him nothing but old gold, bronze and copper, covered by a greenish azure sky of blanched heat. There was sulphur-yellow on everything the sunlight hit. His canvases were masses of bright burning yellow. He knew that yellow had not been used in European painting since the Renaissance, but that did not deter him. The yellow pigment oozed out of the tubes onto the canvas, and there it stayed. His pictures were sun steeped, sun burnt, tanned with the burning sun and swept with air.

He was convinced that it was no more easy to make a good picture than it was to find a diamond or a pearl. He was dissatisfied with himself and what he was doing, but he had just a glimmer of hope that it was going to be better in the end. Sometimes even that hope seemed a Fata Morgana. Yet the only time he felt alive was when he was slogging at his work. Of personal life, he had none. He was just a mechanism, a blind painting automaton that had food, liquid, and paint poured into it each morning, and by nightfall turned out a finished canvas.

And for what purpose? For sale? Certainly not! He knew that nobody wanted to buy his pictures. Then what was the hurry? Why did he drive and spur himself to paint dozens and dozens of canvases when the space under his miserable, brass bed was already piled nearly solid with paintings?

The desire to succeed had left Vincent. He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.

Different Faces of Autumn; Groovy Landscapes and Wistful Faces

13 Oct

I love autumn for its richness, warm colours, falling leaves and its mystery, at the same time I loathe it because it’s the doorway to months of quiet, grey dreariness and winter’s misery. Whether you love autumn or hate it, I feel that no other season of the year has the power to touch us in such a peculiar and poignant way. Anguish of transience weighs on my soul as I gaze at the leaves falling down and the trees becoming more bare as each day passes. There’s something final about it, a sense of ending… No other season has such bittersweet duality; golden afternoons and dark overcast days, leaves rustling under foot and morbid silence of a hard, dry soil; the last ecstasy of colours and sights, and the most dreary sense of an end.

George Bellows, Romance of Autumn, 1916

George Bellows is mostly remembered in relation to the Ashcan group of artists and he was known for portraying the grim reality of the big city, but his painting “Romance of Autumn” is intensely vibrant and groovy and brings out this whimsical, warm side of autumn. The painting shows a woman in white and a man in blue climbing over the rocks and in front of their eyes a magical landscape painted int the most exquisite, intense, uplifting, electrifying magical colours; purples, electric blue, pink, orange and blue. Each colours shines and smiles as in a dream. The gesture of the girl holding the man’s hand seems symbolic; she is helping him climb up the rocks and see for himself the fantastical landscape that she is seeing, she is inviting him to step into the autumnal fantasy with her. This is the dream, this is the autumn seen through rose-tinted glasses.

O. Louis Guglielmi, Connecticut Autumn, 1937

Guglielmi was born in Cairo, spent his early childhood in Milano and Geneva, and in 1914 destiny took his over the ocean. His painting “Connecticut Autumn”, painted in the depressing decade of 1930s, shows a very different face of autumn; the face of desolation, decay and poverty. Despite of their warm orange and yellow colours, the buildings beside the road look desolate and abandoned. The whole scene reeks of alienation, as if no human foot had stepped there for a long time. Unused blocks of marble lie around idly, useless and forgotten just like the town itself. No one needs monuments any more, nothing to celebrate and glorify. The figure of the angel is the only figure out of all the marble blocks. The thin trees in the distant edges of the painting look dead and unreal, and the young boy is the only living thing in this desolate landscape. His childhood innocence and naivety are a shield from reality. Decay and depression of his surroundings cannot touch him. He is flying his kite under the mournful gaze of the forgotten marble angel. But again the hope and optimism are crushed, for his kite gets tangled in the power lines. The sky is darkening and the angel is motionless and silent.

Marco Calderini (Italian, 1850-1941), Gardens of the Palazzo Reale, Turin, c. 1890-1910

This painting by an Italian painter Marco Calderini quite realistically portrays the loneliness of parks in autumn; when rains descend, the trees are bare, the skies are grey, and you can’t even sit on a bench because it’s wet so you linger around the desolate park, like a ghost, circling the statues and avoiding the puddles, and you cannot help but fantasise of the days, not so long ago, when the grass was green, the flowers bloomed and golden sunlight was coming through the lush tree tops. You cannot help but think of mortality and transience when you see that the trees are wet, dark and bare and the air is cold as the grave. Born, lived and died in Turin, Calderini’s oeuvre is filled with romanticised landscapes with poetic moods. Painting “Gardens of the Palazzo Real” is at once realistic and poetic. This is exactly how parks and gardens look like after autumn rains, and yet no one can deny the romantic wistfulness and loneliness that the scene shows.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Autumn Regrets, 1882

John Atkinson Grimshaw was a master of portraying cold, lonely autumn streets where golden light of the street lamps falls on the damp pavements, wetness and mists. The painting “Autumn Regrets” perfectly portrays the wistfulness of autumn and that “what’s done is done” feeling. The woman is sitting on a bench, she is dressed in black and both her clothes and her pose speak of her deep thoughts and regrets. All around her the soil is being transformed into a golden-orange carpet of chestnut leaves. The wind seems to be whispering “This is the end, beautiful friend…” Regrets flood our hearts and minds so easily in autumn; we could have done more, and we could have done things better, or at least differently. But what is done is done, now the flowers bloom no more and every new leaf which falls from the tree is like a confirmation of the ending. Autumn has a way of getting under our skin, whether we like it or not. Autumn is a feeling, a state to be in, not just one of four seasons. And to end:

This is the autumn: it — just breaks your heart!
Fly away! fly away! —
The sun crawls along the mountain
And rises and rises
And rests with every step.
How the world became so withered!
Upon worn, strained threads
The wind plays its song.
Hope fled…

(Nietzsche, In the German November, 1884)

Caspar David Friedrich – Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon

13 Sep

“there is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
there is a rapture on the lonely shore,
there is society where none intrudes,
by the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.”

(Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

Caspar David Friedrich, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, 1818-24, 23 x 44 cm

Caspar David Friedrich, a German painter of Romanticism, preferred portraying nature over people. In this fairly small canvas we see three interesting figures; a man, a woman and a crooked tree with branches stretching wildly, as if they are about to snatch a poor soul who is wandering the woods at a midnight hour. This is definitely a tree that one cannot ignore and is so peculiar that it can rightfully stand as a third figure in the painting; Gothic and gloomy, it adds to the nocturnal atmosphere of mystery and dreams. In the darkness of the night trees, rocks and hills acquire strange, eerie shapes and one cannot separate what is real from what is not. While the night is enveloping the strolling couple with its velvet cloak, the woman rests her hand on the man’s shoulder and they are both fixated on the only source of light in the dark: the moon glowing low on the horizon, glowing with reassurance, hope and magic, it’s almost like a ray of light in the man’s dark path of life. It’s the very same moon that shows its pale face every night, the very same moon that we are seeing now; it is lasting and the man’s life is short. In that mystical way, the moon unites the couple and binds them together in a realisation at how tender and fragile their transient existences are, puts things into a perspective.

Echo and the Bunnymen, Crocodiles (1980), album cover

Caspar painted a similar version of the same motif which included two men contemplating the moon. And later, in 1840, a fellow painter Johan Christian Clausen Dahl suggested that the couple painted in “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” are Caspar and his young wife Caroline. It is interesting to note that the man in the painting is wearing a particular style of costume, an old German costume which was worn by German patriots to show their love of freedom and democracy. In one of my previous posts about Caspar David Friedrich I made a connection between the mood of his seascapes with the album cover for the Echo and the Bunnymen’s album “Heaven Up Here” (1981). This time I want to make a connection between Friedrich’s painting “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” and the album cover “Crocodiles” which features the band in a nocturnal woods. The picture was taken by Brian Griffin and it was suppose to represent “introspection and despair” which fits the mood of the album well. I am listening to those two albums a lot these days and I always have Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings in mind when I hear the music and some of the lyrics. I just couldn’t ignore how similar the aesthetics of the painting and the album cover seem to be; the nocturnal setting, woods, crooked trees…

John Corbet – The Tower

29 Jul

“All was moorland loneliness and midnight hush.”

(Jane Eyre)

John Corbet, The Tower, 2020, watercolour

John Corbet is one of my favourite contemporary artists; I enjoyed seeing his style develop throughout the years and I am always curious to see what wonderful and dreamy watercolours and pastels his brush and his imagination will give birth to. I already wrote about his Renoir inspired watercolour here. One of his most recent works called “The Tower” was a love at first sight for me. It’s hard to explain what particular element of the watercolour appeals to me so much because I love all of it; first of all, it’s easy to seduce me with watercolours, then I just love the colours; hushed and melancholy shades of purple, greys and blues, like a cloudy sky just moments before a rainstorm. The scene excites my imagination and the mystery compels me to further gaze at the painting. A pale young girl is seen running over the moors, her purple dress, like a fragrant and large violet petal, swamps the lower part of the paper, flowing like a deep purple river, widening down from her slender waist.

One can just feel the Gothic mood of the watercolour, the mystery and suspense, shining through in dark colours and objects that seemed to serves as symbols open to interpretation, for example the looming yellowish tower on the hill; it can symbolise the captivity, a bird cage for the young maiden, or a protection from the harsh realities symbolised by the darkness and gloom of the strange moors and meadows she found herself in, it can be a prison and a safe haven, depends on what you wish you see. Its erect shape and unbreakable strength could also bring to mind other things, in a Freudian way. Also, the motif of a tower instantly brought to mind the painting “Vejez” by a female Spanish-Mexican Surreliast painter Remedios Varo. In the painting, a pink tower is shown to be full of cracks and starting to be overgrown by ivy, and it certainly has a lot of character despite being an object.

Without a doubt, there is a secret connection between the innocent Gothic maiden and the stern face vaguely yet convincingly appearing in the grey cloud. I will imagine it is her strict guardian watching over her, in spirit, even when he is not near her in flesh. “When I’m not there, in spirit I’ll be there”, to quote Depeche Mode’s song “Disease”. Her eyes are turned upwards; she can sense his gaze upon her and she knows there is no way to escape, no matter how fast or far she ran over the meadows and moors, she knows that her guardian transcends both time and space. The girl’s hair dancing in the melody of the wind and the raspberry pink ribbons on her sleeves form a repeating pattern and add to the scene’s drama and a whirlwind of intensity.

Remedios Varo, Vejez, 1948

The stern face in the cloud and the round rosy-cheeked face of the maiden in a violet-gown brought to mind the mystical connection between Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester when they both, at the same moment, around midnight, heard each other’s voices and cries, coming from kilometers afar, more through the power of mind than physically through space:

All the house was still; for I believe all, except St. John and myself, were now retired to rest. The one candle was dying out: the room was full of moonlight. My heart beat fast and thick: I heard its throb. Suddenly it stood still to an inexpressible feeling that thrilled it through, and passed at once to my head and extremities. The feeling was not like an electric shock, but it was quite as sharp, as strange, as startling: it acted on my senses as if their utmost activity hitherto had been but torpor, from which they were now summoned and forced to wake. They rose expectant: eye and ear waited while the flesh quivered on my bones.

“What have you heard? What do you see?” asked St. John. I saw nothing, but I heard a voice somewhere cry —

“Jane! Jane! Jane!” — nothing more.

“O God! what is it?” I gasped.

I might have said, “Where is it?” for it did not seem in the room — nor in the house — nor in the garden; it did not come out of the air — nor from under the earth — nor from overhead. I had heard it — where, or whence, for ever impossible to know! And it was the voice of a human being — a known, loved, well-remembered voice — that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe, wildly, eerily, urgently.

“I am coming!” I cried. “Wait for me! Oh, I will come!” I flew to the door and looked into the passage: it was dark. I ran out into the garden: it was void.

“Where are you?” I exclaimed.

The hills beyond Marsh Glen sent the answer faintly back — “Where are you?” I listened. The wind sighed low in the firs: all was moorland loneliness and midnight hush.

Jane Eyre (2011): In spirit, I believe we must have met.

And here is what Mr Rochester tells Jane later on, when they meet again:

As I exclaimed ‘Jane! Jane! Jane!’ a voice- I cannot tell whence the voice came, but I know whose voice it was- replied, ‘I am coming: wait for me;’ and a moment after, went whispering on the wind the words- ‘Where are you?’ “I’ll tell you, if I can, the idea, the picture these words opened to my mind: yet it is difficult to express what I want to express. Ferndean is buried, as you see, in a heavy wood, where sound falls dull, and dies unreverberating. ‘Where are you?’ seemed spoken amongst mountains; for I heard a hill-sent echo repeat the words. Cooler and fresher at the moment the gale seemed to visit my brow: I could have deemed that in some wild, lone scene, I and Jane were meeting. In spirit, I believe we must have met. You no doubt were, at that hour, in unconscious sleep, Jane: perhaps your soul wandered from its cell to comfort mine; for those were your accents- as certain as I live- they were yours!” Reader, it was on Monday night- near midnight- that I too had received the mysterious summons: those were the very words by which I replied to it.

In the same way, we know the face in the cloud cannot be real but we can imagine what powerful bonds connects their spirits that the girl can feel his gaze upon her even when she is out on the meadow.

You can visit the artist’s page here.

Robert Henri: The Art Spirit and Painting a Portrait

12 Jul

Work with great speed. Have your energies alert, up and active. Finish as quickly as you can. There is no virtue in de-laying.

(Robert Henri)

Robert Henri, Mary of Connemara, 1913

Robert Henri, American artist connected with the Ashcan School, died on 12th July 1929 in New York. As I already mentioned in my previous post about Robert Henri’s “Irish Lass” painted in 1913, Henri was an amazing art teacher, along with being a brilliant and prolific artist, a rare combination, and his teachings were collected in 1923 (six years before he died in 1929) in a work called “The Art Spirit” by his students. Many of them were poor workers who would often work all day, then attend Henri’s painting classes in the evening and slept outdoors, on some bench in the park because they could not afford a room. This only shows how Henri aimed to awake the artist in all of his students and didn’t care about social class or what jobs they had during the day, for Henri the ability to be an artist was something everyone possessed and it needed to be awaken by a good teacher or something else. Here are some excerpts from “The Art Spirit” where Henri speaks of the way a portrait ought to be painted:

When later you come to the painting of the features of the face, consider well the feature’s part in relation to the idea you have to express. It will not be so much a question of painting that nose as it will be painting the expression of that nose. All the features are concerned in one expression which manifests the state of mind or the condition of the sitter. No feature should be started until you have fully comprehended its character and have established in your mind the manner of its full accomplishment. To stop in the process of drawing the lines of a feature to inquire “what next” is surely to leave a record of disconnection. No feature should be drawn except in its relation to the others. There is a dominating movement through all the features. There is sequence in their relationship. There is sequence in the leading lines of the features with the movements of the body. This spirit of related movement is very important in the drawing or painting of hair.”

Hair is beautiful in itself, this should not be forgotten, but it is the last position of importance it takes in the make-up of a portrait.The hair must draw the grace and dignity—perhaps the brains—of the head. The lights on the hair must be used to stress the construction, to vitalize, accentuate and continue movement. The outline of the hair over the face must be used as a principal agent for the drawing of the forms of the forehead and temples, and must at the same time partake of the general movement of the shoulders and of the whole body. The hair is to be used as a great drawing medium. It is to be rendered according to its nature, but it is not to be copied. Think well on this; it is very important.”

“The eyebrows are hair in the last instance. To a good draftsman they are primarily powerful evidences of the muscular actions of the forehead, which muscular actions are manifestations of the sitter’s state of being. The muscles respond instantly to such obvious sensations as surprise, horror, pain, mirth, inquiry, etc., and the actions of the muscles are most defined in their effect on that strongly marked line of hair, the eyebrow. However subtle the emotion, the eye-brow by its definiteness marks the response in the muscular movement.In certain heads, the eyebrow, while normal, still holds a very positive gesture. There are those, therefore, who carry in repose an expression of sadness, boredom, surprise, dignity, and some accentuate the force or direction in the action of looking. To a good draughtsman the eyebrow is a living thing. It develops a habit which it expresses in repose and it flashes intelligence of every changing emotion.

Robert Henri, Irish Lass, 1913

By the spring in the drawing of the eyelash the quick action of the eye may be suggested. The upper eyelid and lash generally cast a shadow scarcely observed yet very effective on the eyeball. The white of the eye is more often the same color as the flesh about it than the average painter is likely to think it to be. The pupil is larger in quiet light, becoming very small by contraction when looking into brilliant light.The highlight in the pupil is a matter of drawing although best done with one quick touch. Its direction, shape, edges,and its contrast in color and value to the pupil give shape,curve, brilliancy or mark the contrary.”

The lines and forms in the clothes should be used to draw the body in its sensitive relationship with the head.The wrinkles and forms of the clothes are building mate-rial not for tailoring in your hands but for established basic lines rising to the head. There is an orchestration through-out the whole canvas. Nothing is for itself, but each thing partaking of the other is living its greatest possibility, is surpassing itself with vitality and meaning and is part of the making of a great unity. (…)

Robert Henri, Little Irish Girl, 1913

“Do not tell me that you as students will first learn how to draw and then afterwards attend to all this. It is only through such motives that you can learn to draw. This kind of thought is drawing, the hand must obey the spirit. With motive you will become clairvoyant of means, will seize and command them. Without motive you will wabble about.

Realize that your sitter has a state of being, that this state of being manifests itself to you through form, color and gesture, that your appreciation of him has depended on your perception of these things in their significance, that they are there of your selection (others will see differently), that your work will be the statement of what have been your emotions, and you will use these specialized forms, colors and gestures to make your statement. Plainly you are to develop as a seer, as an appreciator as well as a craftsman. You are to give the craftsman in you a motive, else he cannot develop. All that I have said argues the predominant value of gesture. Gesture expresses through form and color the states of life.

Work with great speed. Have your energies alert, up and active. Finish as quickly as you can. There is no virtue in de-laying. Get the greatest possibility of expression in the larger masses first. Then the features in their greatest simplicity in concordance with and dependent on the mass. Do it all in one sitting if you can. In one minute if you can. There is no virtue in delaying.

Marie Laurencin: Wistful Waifs in Pink and Greys

6 May

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

(Marie Laurencin)

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

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

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

I was walking along the Seine

An old book under my arm

The river is like my sorrow

It flows and does not end

So when will the week be done.

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

Marie Laurencin, The Fan, 1919

“The masks are silent

And the music so distant

That it seems descended from heaven

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

And my disease is delicious.”

(“Marie”, Apollinaire, found here.)

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

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

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

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

Marie Laurencin, The Kiss, 1927

Girl with a Hat – Hommage à Renoir by John Corbet

6 Apr

“Upset by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his marvelous sense of unreality and he ended up recommending to all of them that they leave, that they forget everything he had taught them about the world and the human heart, (…), and that wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”

(Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

John Corbet, Hommage à Renoir, watercolour on paper, 2020

This lovely watercolour has been haunting me ever since I first laid my eyes on it. The warm vibrant colours and all the swirls and free, playful and spontaneous brushstrokes touch my heart. Like opening a box in the attic filled with trinkets and toys from childhood or listening to a song that brings a world back to life, this watercolour awakes all these rich feelings and memories. At once bitter and sweet, like a memory that aches and warms your heart at the same time but you can never relive it, memory of flowers and sunsets, laughter, birdsong and sea waves, the distant dreamy world that is beyond reach, the paradise lost, now only the echoes of laughter and songs remain, the memory of sunbeams dancing on the sea waves but not the hot, burning sun itself. Almost tangible, but still a memory. Memories always have that dim, rosy, foggy quality, that warmth and sugary sweet essence with just a tinge of peppermint-flavored sadness. In your thoughts, you run and run through colourful hazy corridors of memories, you follow the music that awakes them, you want to live in the chambers of happier times, but you cannot. A dried flowers cannot bring the spring back, and the old theatre ticket cannot bring back that performance. And you live and you walk and you talk in this real tangible life, but all around you the memories float like symbols, like shells and flowers in Odilon Redon’s paintings, mystic and dreamy, it touches something inside you that reason wants to suppress.

These are the thoughts that flood my mind as I gaze at this watercolour inspired by Renoir’s lovely paintings of girls in hats, but this watercolour has more ecstatic colours, more grooviness, something dreamy that Renoir’s girls do not possess. Look at her rosy face, rosy because it’s coloured by the last rays of sun in the dusk of the day, the dreamy hour of the day when shadows and colours tremble and breathe. Her eyes are closed to the real world around her, she wants to forget, she wants to be the part of the Dream world that is alive all around her. I imagine her spinning and floating on the breeze of that dreamland, rising from the ground and traveling, like Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, to that distant place of poppies and cactuses, warm sands and fragrant flowers, winds that whispers poems in your ear, and pink sunsets skies that are infinite and promising…

Something about this watercolour makes me feel so nostalgic… for everything. It makes me feel deeply the line from Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”: “the past was a line, memory has no return, and every spring gone by could never be recovered.” Bring me violins that makes the heart bleed, a sad accordion that makes the tears flow, because when I gaze at this watercolour I feel melancholy for what was and will never be, I think of blooming apple trees that suddenly lose their blossom and turn all green, magnolia blossoms and freshly cut grass, crickets chirping and seasons passing, changes that cannot be stopped, words that cannot be unspoken, escapism into domains of one’s dream and memory land. The way she closes her eyes and sensually allows herself to be kissed by the sun, there’s something so innocent and indulgent about allowing oneself such simple pleasure. Close your eyes to the world, look within and another world awaits you, one which is infinitely better. The colours have something sixties about them, orange and mauves. A touch of violet and orange on her shirt, her rosy face and wine-coloured hair, moss green painted in swirls in the background, I am seduced by these colours. This watercolour has the Beauty that makes my heart burst like a ripe fig in the Mediterranean sun.

Renoir, Etude de femme avec chapeau – fragment, date unknown

John Corbet is a contemporary artist whose wonderful, whimsical and dreamy pastels and watercolours you should definitely check out here. We are so fortunate that he is sharing these beautiful artworks, sharing little fragments of his imagination and beauty with the word. I have already written about his ghostly pastels last year, but his work continues to surprise me, it’s getting more vibrant and more lovely and I am delighted to see that he is doing more and more watercolours, exploring and experimenting without neglecting his love for pastels. Formally, this is a Hommage to Renoir, but on a spiritual level, the mood of Corbet’s watercolour is more dreamy and mystical and it brings to mind the mood of Odilon Redon and Gauguin’s paintings.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Girl with Hat (Jeune fille au chapeau), c. 1883

Renoir, Young Girl in a Flowered Hat, 1900-05

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Young Girls Reading, 1890-91

Renoir, Two Sisters, 1890

Renoir, The Little Reader (Little Girl in Blue), 1890

Beauty in the Everyday – Turner and Okyo (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

22 Mar

“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

(Soseki, The Three-Cornered World)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The simple plot where nothing much happens is great because the true beauty of the novel can shine through: the poetic, zen-like writing which transports the viewer in a meditative state. The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Instead of dynamic events and exciting adventures, the narrator ponders on what it actually means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration:

I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit. For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon, 1879

The narrator portrays the artist, himself included, as a person who is here to show others the beauty around them which they would otherwise be unaware of. The artist is the one who, through his art, tells people to stop and take a look at the wondrous, whimsical and beautiful things in the world around us. The narrator chose two interesting artists to illustrate his point; British Romanticist Turner and an eighteenth century Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Okyo. I love it when novels reference other things, it’s like a springboard from one source of inspiration to another. Turner’s grandiose and awe-inspiring canvases, filled with golden lightness and dreamy mists, usually portray sunsets or historical events, but in the painting referenced by the narrator, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, painted in 1844, near the very end of the painter’s life, the subject is something completely modern and everyday; a train. Just imagine the excitement, awe and fear with which the Victorians looked at trains. I dare say I look at them at the same way too, even today. Trains are fascinatingly fast and frightening in their speed and yet they also seem vintage in some way because it seems more romantical to travel by train than by bus. Turner captured the train’s speed and cloud of fog with the same brilliance that he had previously devoted himself to historical scenes, which shows that he approached two very different motifs with the same ardour and with the same patient search for beauty that any artist has. Soseki lived in England for two years, just before this novel was published and it’s very likely he had seen this painting in person. I’ve also included here a Japanese artist Kiyochika’s exploration of the train-motif in a more direct way than Turner, but still carrying its own beauty.

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), The Ghost of Oyuki, 1750

Another example the narrator gives is a painting of a ghost by the artist Maruyama Okyo. The narrator doesn’t mention a specific painting, but with a little research makes it clear that Soseki is referring to Okyo’s famous ink on silk painting which shows the female yurei or the traditional Japanese ghost of his lover Oyuki. It is a poignant portrait of a dead beloved which came from intense sadness and longing, almost a century before Poe wrote of similar themes in his poems and short stories. The ghost-girl Oyuki was Okyo’s mistress who worked in the Tominaga Geisha house and died young. Looking at the dates, I see now that Okyo was just seventeen years old at the time, wow, what a deep, profound and melancholy gesture… This sad event must have shaped his life in one way or another, and it has certainly shaped the way the Japanese, even today, see a female ghost, as a creature in white clothes, pale face, dark hair falling like weeping willow branches and ending in faint, thin lines, and lower body and feet disappearing. So simple, yet so poignant and sweetly melancholy.

Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

Another example which isn’t mentioned in the novel, but goes with the narrator’s idea; Vincent van Gogh’s “portrait” of his old, dirty, worn out shoes. The motif, when spoken out loud, seems laughable and not even remotely worthy of being painted, but van Gogh painted this pair of shoes with the same passionate approach that he had for his landscape, wheat fields and sunflowers, look at the careful brushwork and wild patches of colour. If Van Gogh didn’t paint his old shoes as his artist mission to show us beauty around us, we would never have known just what beauty lies in them.