Tag Archives: artist

Poetic Memory, Beauty and Milan Kundera

9 Jul

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”

Picture found here. Notice how beautifully the delicate white porcelain and fresh pink roses contrast with the worn out grey surface? In one word – poetic.

As you may already know, I am a big fan of Milan Kundera’s novel “Unbearable Lightness of Being”; I think the way he explored the inner struggles of characters is wonderful, but there’s so much more to the book. Kundera tends to be very analytical and philosophical and while he often explores the ideas of other thinkers such as Nietzsche, he tends to have interesting theses and concepts himself, like this one:

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”

Kundera ends the chapter with this sentence, connecting love and poetic memory, which only emphasises the importance of poetic memory in one’s life.

“Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.”

The first sentence perfectly describes my knightly quest for Beauty in everyday life. Kundera expressed in a sentence something I felt for a long time, but had no words to describe it. I usually just say “this is beautiful” or “I like the aesthetics”, but from now on I shall call it “poetic memory”. Poetic memory is an individual thing; one can see beauty where others do not, but many things are universally beautiful such as sunsets and flowers. But it is not merely about beauty itself as much as it is about a dreamy, charming, heartbreaking sight that makes you sigh and that lingers on in your memory, reappears in your mind again, that touches you and can even brings tear to your eye. I believe one needs to develop sensitivity towards beauty in order to see it every day, and in the most random and strangest of places.

I just love pretty porcelain! Beautiful flowers on this tea cup have dazzled my imagination and stayed in my poetic memory, and so did the dreamy sight of pink magnolia blossoms, pear tree and a cardinal, photo by Molly Dean.

I am constantly fanatically and ecstatically seeking and finding, stumbling upon, beauty all around me, and when I see a sight that deserves a place in my poetic memory, I am overwhelmed by rapture that seems to me better than an acid trip. Here are some examples of scenes from my life that have charmed me, touched me and made my life more beautiful, and that I have rightfully saved to my poetic memory: cherry tree twig that adorns my vase every spring, my neighbour’s laundry drying outdoors and dancing in the breeze, bright yellow flowers in my garden, one decaying used-to-be-white-but-now-grey wall with little windows and bricks showing through and ruby red roses overgrowing it, ginkgo tree in autumn which leaves a magical gold-yellow carpet of leaves, one old grey house with two small windows and rain leaves a trail under them so that it looks like eyes crying and a damp garden with sombre pink and blue hydrangeas, three gentle and sad looking birch trees in front of an old wooden house, silence and stillness of winter afternoons and snowflakes, pink and lavender coloured sunsets as well as the orange and purple autumn sunsets tinged with melancholy with chillness descending, rose petals scattered all over my room and The Smiths in the background, morning dew on roses and white peonies in my garden, old decaying roofs, iron gates adorned with rust, old walls overgrown with moss and ivy, tree branches white and crispy from frost, red poppies near the railway, large white moon, listening to rain and Chopin at the same time; coming home from school last April accompanied by the smell of freshly mown grass, birdsong and pink magnolia blossoms. Colour combinations too; lavender and ruby red, or purple and yellow are amongst my favourites. The sight of flickering candles and old books with yellowy pages. And a special sight I saw last August on one rainy evening, coming home from a walk; apple tree and yellow sunflowers intertwined, like lovers, announcing autumn. Along with the steady beats of hard summer rain on my umbrella, it was enchanting, almost fairy tale like for me….

I imagine poetic memory as a beautiful little antique wooden box with elegant carvings and an invisible silver key that I carry around my neck, and when I see a scene of beauty, I can just unlock the box in my imagination and save it there. And later, in sad and dull moments, I can sit by my window with a cup of tea, close my eyes and enjoy the contents of my “poetic memory box”. Poetic memory isn’t limited to sights you see in your life; it can be found in photos and art as well, anything really that charms you. Here are some pictures that I recently “saved” in my poetic memory:

Seaburn, Sunderland, England by DM Allan.

Photo found here.

Wild flowers of Pacific Northwest, Images taken from around Washington State

Milldale, Staffordshire, Peak District, England, UK; isn’t the contrast between old grey stones and bright greenery around it so so dazzlingly beautiful?

So, what do you think of Kundera’s thesis? Are you building your poetic memory? What kind of scenes charm you? I should also add that it is my opinion that poetic memory is a basis for good writing; poets and artists see beauty everywhere and it later becomes part of their work. As every day, month, year passes, I see more and more beauty around me, so much so that I should probably walk around carrying a notebook and a pen and write it down, “A Book of Beauty” I should call it. Sometimes I walk the streets thinking: “Look at that lantern, look at that crack in the pavement where flowers grew, or a pine tree, how did I never notice it before!?” My point is that noticing beauty is a skill that needs to be learnt, and I’m not pretending I’m above it, in fact, I wonder what sights will charm me five or ten years from now. Perhaps I’ll notice flowers in places I never even thought of looking.

If anything, I hope this post will inspire you to see more beauty around you.

Egon Schiele – Neuelengbach Affair – Martyr for the Cause of Art: Part II

25 Apr

I do not deny that I have made drawings and watercolours of an erotic nature. But they are always works of art. Are there no artists who have done erotic pictures?” (Egon Schiele)

Egon Schiele, Prisoner (Gefangener), 24-4-1912

What are the two most important things that happened in April 1912? I shall tell you; Titanic sank and Egon Schiele was arrested. “Neulengbach Affair” is the name given to the string of events which took place in April 1912, and this affair holds an important place in the romanticised myth of Schiele as a tortured genius and a painter of perversity.

In the first part of this post, I’ve written about things that Schiele painted in Neulengbach; self-portraits, Wally, landscapes, and a very interesting Van Gogh-inspired painting of his bedroom, but he also did many erotic drawings, which was his primary subject. Schiele’s studio became a gathering place for the misfits, the delinquency, the mischievous children of Neulengbach, and he’d often paint them too. Sometimes, after he’d finished painting Wally, he’d let the children play around his house while carelessly or naively leaving his erotic drawings around the studio. Older children, who weren’t so innocent any more, started whispering things, and soon gossips and accusations started spreading through this peaceful town. All sorts of disgusting things have been said; that he invited children to his house, painted them nude and encouraged them to do improper things. While the people of Krumau disliked Schiele for no apparent reason, the inhabitants of Neulengbach at least had a motif to hate him, and soon complaints were made to the police. On 13th April 1912, Schiele was arrested and charged for seducing and abducting a minor, and exhibiting erotic paintings in front of children; only the latter has proven to be true.

Although the charges of abduction and seduction were quickly dropped when Schiele appeared in court after two weeks in prison, a large amount of erotic drawings found around the house certainly didn’t please the police, nor the town’s people, nor served good to Schiele. They confiscated more than a hundred of them and filed them under ‘pornography’.

Egon Schiele, Tür in das Offene (Doors in the Cell), 1912

The judge obviously shared the views of town’s inhabitants towards Schiele and his art because, at the end of the trial, he burned one of his drawings on a flickering candle flame, a gesture I find heartbreaking and could not watch without tears of anger. They burnt his drawing. They could have burnt all of his drawings, but the hands that made them were alive and full of vigour to produce more masterpieces, and they did. The Neulengbach affair only propelled Schiele to fame. Sometimes the ‘Neulengbach affair’ takes too much spaces in the myth of Egon Schiele, but it is important in a way that it cemented Schiele’s image as notorious figure in Vienna’s artistic circles. Just twenty-two years old and already the image of him as a dangerous and a provocative artist started spreading in Vienna. The myth of Schiele has started.

This is a fragment from “Schiele’s” prison-journal:

At the hearing one of my confiscated drawings, the one that had hung in my bedroom, was solemnly burned over a candle flame by the judge in his robes! Auto-da-fé! Savonarola! Inquisition! Middle Ages! Castration, hypocrisy! Go then to the museums and cut up the greatest works of art into little pieces. He who denies sex is a filthy person who smears in the lowest way his own parents who have begotten him.

A note: the journal is true to some extent, but it needs to be taken with reserve because it was not written by Schiele himself, rather, it was written by Arthur Roessler, an art critic and friend of Schiele.

What started as just an artist making erotic drawings, turned into sinister stories of abduction and seduction, but when it comes to the bottom of things, people of Neulengbach didn’t like him because he was different. In small towns the story goes like this: if you don’t fit in, you’re going down, if you dare to be different, you’ll get punished for that. I think that even if Schiele restricted himself to painting only landscapes and sunflowers, they’d still find something to accuse him of.

Egon Schiele, Self-portrait as prisoner, 25 April 1912

All in all, Schiele spent 24 days in prison, and while he was there, he wasted no time, but continued creating his art. Supplied by Wally with thin, bad quality paper and food, such as oranges, he drew his surroundings and many self-portraits. Don’t think he drew frantically day and night, he also spent many hours in deep thoughts and contemplation, and his self-portraits show the agony and torment the artist endured. Drawing above is a good example. In the upper right corner, Schiele wrote this: “Ich werde für die Kunst und meine Geliebten gerne ausharren” or “For my art and my loved ones I shall gladly endure.” Watercolour of greys and blue, anguished face in an agony, and yet he states he shall gladly endure. Schiele was full of such statements, elevated and full of pathos such as “I do not feel punished, but rather purified.” and my favourite “To restrict the artist is a crime. It is to murder germinating life“, which show what a drama queen he really was.

In these drawings, the cold greyness of his prison cell mingles with eloquently expressed angst and torment, and that’s what makes these prison-portraits so memorable. They are like a visual diary. Pencil lines and watercolour work in absolute harmony and the gradation of the blue-grey colour is gorgeous, like the sky and clouds on an overcast day, and the parts where the greyness mixes with orange-yellows is exquisite. I think watercolours in general are an excellent medium, I love the effect of lyricism and fragility they create, colours mixing freely, kissing one another and creating a new shade, there’s something bohemian about it. Another very interesting thing about these self-portraits is that they are the only self-portraits Schiele ever made using his memory, without a mirror. In his studio, he’d always use a mirror. But notice how old he looks in most of these drawings, he was just two months shy of his twenty-second birthday and yet he drew himself looking old, tired, worn out, and on the self-portrait down below, he almost looks dead, or at least creepy.

Egon Schiele, The Single Orange Was the Only Light, 19th April 1912

Along with self-portraits of himself as a prisoner, Schiele also drew his prison cell, and in The Single Orange Was the Only Light we see his bed and the doors of the cell. His pillow is actually his coat folded to serve the purpose of a pillow, and we see his blanket and one orange. We can understand the importance he attributes to a piece of shiny, orange-coloured fruit, given to him by Wally, if we think of his drab prison existence; the lonely hours filled with uncertainty in that cold, grey prison cell, sleeping in an uncomfortable bed, staring at barren walls, covered with a mangy blanket. It’s also great that we can know the exact dates these were made. No matter how rebellious and provocative he was, when it came to adding signatures and dates to his paintings, he was the most meticulous fellow out there.

I think Schiele himself had mixed feelings about his prison-time. One the one hand, he was worried about the outcome of his imprisonment because the prospects looked bleak in the beginning; exhibiting erotica was considered a serious offence with a maximal punishment of six month’ hard labour, while the offence of seducing a minor would result in twenty years of hard labour. From April 1912, Schiele had only six more years to spend on this earth. Imagine if he’d have to spent them all in prison. What a dreadful crime against art that would have been!? I shudder at the thought.

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait as St. Sebastian, 1914

On the other hand, for the dramatic, self-pitying side of Schiele’s personality, those three weeks spent in prison were just the thing that was needed to make him a true martyr for the cause of art. I’m sure that Serge Gainsbourg has a self-satisfied smirk on his face when he heard that the eroticism of his song ‘Je t’aime’ was deemed offensive and that the song was banned in many countries. He said himself once that provocation was his oxygen, and I think Schiele felt something similar because he was self-consciously provocative. Perhaps that’s just my view because I’d certainly enjoy being provocative. Schiele wrote himself that he feels ‘purified, not punished’, and he identified himself with St Sebastian, who is always presented in art with arrows; this is an identification that he shared with the German poet Georg Trakl, and both wrote similar poetry, full of anxiety and symbolism at the same time. Schiele’s yet another self-portrait from 1914 shows this fascination and identification with St Sebastian; he drew himself as a thin, fragile figure with half-closed eyes, almost falling down from the attack of the two arrows protruding his body. He didn’t fill in the drawing with watercolour, yet the paper and pencil lines are eloquent enough to tell us about the anguish he felt. No colour – no life. No colour because he’s fading away.

Egon Schiele, I Love Antitheses (self-portrait), 1912

All in all, the Neulengbach affair that seemed like a tragedy at first sight, turned out to be a stepping stone for Schiele’s career and it started the cult of Schiele as a tortured genius who endured suffering for his art – a martyr of art. After the darkness, followed the light. Schiele has risen from the ashes and once again he was arrogant, brazen, bursting with confidence, and the words he wrote to his mother in March 1913 confirm that a fruitful period lay in front of him: “All beautiful and noble qualities have been united in me… I shall be the fruit which will leave eternal vitality behind even after its decay. How great must be your joy, therefore, to have given birth to me!”

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

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

Book Review: No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai

2 Feb

‘Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness. Everything passes.’ – This is the first quote I’ve read from this book, and it stayed etched on my mind. I couldn’t stop myself from endlessly pondering over its meaning. And the title was intriguing as well – No Longer Human, what does that mean, I wondered. Now, after finally reading this brilliant book, I can say without exaggeration that I consider it one of my favourite books ever!!!

no-longer-human

Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) wrote his second novel, a dark and disturbing work of art – No Longer Human,  in a state of frenzy, some suggested he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The book begins with an unnamed narrator finding three photos and three notebooks written by Oba Yozo, which follow his decline from a student, to an morphine addict. It tells the story of his moral, physical and emotional degradation, and downfall into the shady life of crime, suicides, prostitutes, alcohol and morphine. It’s written in the first person which gives it a psychological depth and intimate mood. Yozo tells us all his thoughts, fears and ideas – everything that the hides from the world by wearing a ‘clownish mask’ of cheerfulness and wittiness. This sentence, for me, explains Yozo’s life the best: ‘Something impure, dark, reeking of the shady character always hovers above me.‘ He feels deeply alienated from everyone around him, and his day to day existence is tormented by this intense feeling of not belonging, not being able to show others his real self, and no being able to find out, for himself, who he really is.

The story reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and Vadim in Ageyev’s Novel with Cocaine, because it’s narrated in the first person and deals with similar themes. In all three of these books, the main characters are fully engulfed in their own dark thoughts, feel isolated from society and their real selves, and they cannot find anything of value, nothing to cling to in a world of strangers where it’s much easier to become corrupted than try and make something out of your life. This is exactly the kind of literature I love, with characters who are weak, flawed, isolated, and I can slip through the pages and witness their downfall because it’s always inevitable. Not everyone can find their Sonia – a gentle, selfless, angel-like creature, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, to save them.

osamu-dazaiOsamu Dazai

Another thing I found fascinating is the massive amount of Dazai’s autobiographical elements. Like Yozo, Dazai neglected his studies and took interest in Marxism, prostitutes and alcohol. Both were born in privileged families and felt guilt about it. Both attempted suicide by drowning off a beach in Kamakura with young bar hostesses. Both Yozo and Dazai survived, and both women died. Both became addicted to morphine-based painkillers. At the end, Dazai committed suicide by drowning. Yozo’s whereabouts remain unknown, although he might have done the same thing.

Those of you who are inclined to judge characters such as Yozo (but I don’t believe people like that read my blog anyway), well, I have a quote to share, something which Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote upon hearing the news of Yesenin’s suicide. He wrote: ‘In this life it is easy to die, to build life is hard.'(*) So what if Yozo was weak and succumbed to all these vices, what of that? It’s so hard to be good and create a genuinely fulfilling life. And we can never know what is the right way to live, because we have only one life.

I can’t relate to that specific ‘decaying’ aspect of Yozo’s life (alcohol and women), but I can empathise. I have not (yet) fallen into destruction like him, but that’s because I have art, it comforts me in a way nothing could, it’s my love, my opium… And then there’s poetry, and music, and flowers, and the moon… Maybe, if Yozo had found something of value in his life, things would have turned out differently. Still, I utterly identify with this quote: ‘All I feel are the assaults of apprehension and terror at the thought that I am the only one who is entirely unlike the rest. It is almost impossible for me to converse with other people. What should I talk about, how should I say it? – I Don’t know.‘ The more I think about this book and Yozo, the more I can relate to him, it’s almost frightening, but like him I am terribly untrusting and I can understand how he feels when he says that he can’t reveal his true self to others, it’s not that I cannot, I don’t want to, I relish in keeping myself to myself and letting others think I’m cold and reserved. This makes the book even more interesting in my eyes.

I highly recommend you to read this book! As for myself, I plan on reading more Japanese literature. I have not yet read a book by a Japanese author that I did not like, I like the characters, who are often introverted, alienated and misunderstood, and the whole sensibility. Yukio Mishima’s portrayal of Etsuko’s loneliness and unrequited sexual longing in Thirst for Love was particularly poignant to me, for example.

Shimeko Tanabe: young bar hostess who died, while Dazai was saved…

And now some of my favourite quotes:

I drank more that night than ever before in my life, more … more, my eyes swam with drink, and every time Tsuneko and I looked in each other’s face, we gave a pathetic little smile. Yes, just as Horiki had said, she really was a poverty stricken woman and nothing more. But this thought itself was accompanied by a welling-up of a feeling of comradeship for this fellow-suffered from poverty.

***

She lay down beside me. Towards dawn she pronounced for the first time the word “death.” She too seemed to be weary beyond endurance of the task of being a human being; and when I reflected on my dread of the world and its bothersomeness, on money, the movement, women, my studies, it seemed impossible that I could go on living. I consented easily to her proposal.

***

We threw ourselves into the sea at Kamakura that night. She untied her sash, saying, she had borrowed it from a friend at the cafe, and left it folded neatly on a rock. I removed my coat and put it on the same spot. We entered the sea together.

She died. I was saved.

***

I was taken aback. Horiki at heart did not treat me like a human being. He could only consider me as the living corpse of a would-be suicide, a person dead to shame, an idiot ghost.

***

At one point, Yozo and his friend are playing a game of antonyms, and start discussing Dostoyevski and the idea of crime:

If we knew the antonym of crime, I think we would know its true nature. God… salvation … love … light. But for God there is the antonym Satan, for salvation is perdition, for love there is hate, for light there is darkness, for good, evil. Crime and prayer? Crime and repentance? Crime and confession? Crime and … no, they’re all synonyms. What is the opposite of crime? (…) Crime and punishment. Dostoievski. These words grazed over a corner of my mind, startling me.

***

It was less the fact of Yoshiko’s defilement than the defilement of her trust in people which became so persistent a source of grief as almost to render my life insupportable. For someone like myself in whom the ability to trust others is cracked and broken that I am wretchedly timid and am forever trying to read the expression on people’s faces. Yoshiko’s immaculate trustfulness seemed clean and pure, like a waterfall among green leaves. One night sufficed to turn the waters of this pure cascade yellow and muddy. Yoshiko began from that night to fret over my every smile or frown.

***

From the first to the last page, Yozo feels detached from everyone around him, and ‘ceases to be a human being’. That sounds unbearably sad, but the more I think about it, the more I find it liberating. If you think of all disgusting things that ‘humans’ have done, the ‘inhumanities’ their rotten minds have come up with, all the wars, tortures, injustices, hypocrisies – ‘the centre of humanity is cruelty’ (Manic Street Preachers – Archives of Pain). If I take all of this into consideration, then, please disqualify me to, I don’t want to be a human being! I’d rather be a flower, a star, rose petal in the wind, a blade of grass floating on the surface of the lake, or simply a drop of rain. There’s another great line from the song ‘Mausoleum’ by the Manics, which is actually taken from the interview with J.G.Ballard: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit… and force it to look back in the mirror’.

And now I had become a madman. Even if released, I would be forever branded on the forehand with the word “madman”, or perhaps, “reject.”

Disqualified as a human being.

I had now ceased utterly to be a human being.‘ (p. 122)

***

I confess, I have shed a few tears at the end, and shivered as I read these lines:

Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness.

Everything passes.

This is the one and only thing I have thought resembled a truth in society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell.

Everything passes.

This year I am twenty-seven. My hair has become much greyer. Most people would take me for over forty.’

Marc Chagall – The Colour of Love

18 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: A Thing of Beauty (Is a joy for ever) by A.J. Cronin

6 Mar

A few days ago I finished reading one absolutely beautiful book – A Thing of Beauty or Crusader’s Tomb by A. J. Cronin. Perhaps a more appropriate adjective to describe a book would be ‘brilliant’ or ‘astonishing’ or ‘interesting’, but trust me, every line in this book is pure beauty, regardless of the title.

The main character is Stephen Desmonde, the son of Reverend Bertram Desmonde of Stillwater Rectory, Sussex. Novel begins with his return from Oxford, his father, mother, sister Claire and younger brother David are all expecting him. Soon there’s a dispute between Stephen and his father; Bertram wants Stephen to become a reverend as well, but Stephen wants to be an artist. Cronin leads us into the story in an interesting way: first we see the background and hear about Bertram’s wishes, and then the main character steps in. We don’t wait for his arrival too long, but still it’s enough time to spark mystery.

Something interesting about the setting: St Mary’s Church, Sullington contains traces of Saxon Work although most of the fine church you can see today dates from the early 13th century.

The church contains a well worn stone effigy of a crusader which is thought to have inspired the writer AJ Cronin to write his novel A Thing of Beauty (1956), a book which had the alternate tile Crusader’s Tomb. Cronin lived at the Old Rectory in Sullington before the Second World War.’ (westsussex.info)

I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot, but rather share my opinion about the book and Stephen as a character and as artist. If you decide to read the book, you’ll find out everything. I think Stephen is a fascinating character and it was interesting to witness his moral and artistic progress, personal growth and inevitable physical decline, and eventual death. Yes, sadly, he died in the end.

At first I had a feeling, or, I feared that Stephen would turn out to be shallow and weak, but I was so wrong. One day, abruptly, against the wishes of his family, he went to Paris. The year is about 1912. His first weeks in Paris seemed like a dream; he still had money and ‘friends’, although some people later used his naive and trustful nature. Luckily, one good soul and an artist, Richard Glyn, rescued Stephen from the company of dandies, charlatans and other money-sucker bastards. Only then did Stephen realise what does it mean to be an artist – it means work, work and work. It’s something a lot of people don’t realise, but true artists work from dawn to dusk because painting is not a job, it’s a passion, a way of life, it’s essential to their existence as much as breathing.

The book features many interesting scenes that are so worth reading such as: Stephen’s encounter with Amedeo Modigliani!, then his time spent in circus, travels to Spain and death of his friend Jerome Peyrat, a fellow painter, and a poor, kind soul, whose last words were directed to Sainte Therese of Avila… Only after he died did I realise what a gentle and unselfish man he was! All these losses and defeats left a trace on Stephen’s soul and body. In October 1920 Stephen looked like this: ‘And he had grown a beard, cropped close on cheek and chin, which somehow accentuated the length of jaw and temple hollows, gave the planes of his face bones an almost startling gauntness. (…) His face, pale and deeply shadowed beneath the eyes, wore a look of languor. His glossy black hair was parted neatly in the middle…‘ A new phase of his life began:

Yesterday saw the opening at the Maddox Galleries, New Bond Street, of an exhibition of paintings by Stephen Desmonde. Mr. Desmonde, whose controversial picture ‘Circe and her Lovers’…

Although some of his paintings were exhibited, gallery visitors didn’t appreciate them, as the story goes with many artists. Stephen decided to visit his family after eight years spent travelling and working in France and Spain – the wrong step. Oddly, he enjoyed his days at home, and after breakfast he’d bring his papers and pencil and walk around picturesque Dawns, sketching bare trees in late winter and stormy waters of Chillingham lake. (‘Bathed in moonshine, an angelic peace lay upon the downs.’)

He was soon commissioned to paint a few paintings for the church. He was inspired by Goya’s paintings of Peninsular war, and wanted to make an anti-war statement, condemn violence, greed and lust for power. Instead, reverends and judges condemned him. Irony!? Stephen’s paintings The Rape of peace, Aftermath and Hail, Armageddon were judged for their brutality and honesty. The same people who advocated violence, nationalism and victory in wars, were now appalled by his paintings. Oh, hypocrisy and its unbreakable bond with the bourgeois class! Things have not changed a bit today. This book only intensified the contempt I feel for the middle class. Fuck the conventions, shatter all conservatism, and absolute artistic freedom for artists! Descriptions of the paintings:

But when he turned to the second panel, ‘Hail, Armageddon’, with its deadly massing of guns and uniformed men, while, amidst cheering crowds, bands played and flags were waved under a darkening sky…

…amidst a scene of destruction that is far from edifying, is the naked, full-length form of a woman, which, we are informed by the accused, represents the figure of Peace.’

They even told him: ‘This is not a picture, it is a mere splattering of colours.‘ – ‘Nevertheless, it is art.‘ Stephen answered. The judge and the audience were shocked by nudity, scenes of violence and rape – well, that’s what wars are about – pointless massacres of people, propagandas of hatred, why encourage them in the first place? just the thought of agony he must have felt, really pisses me off. The scene reminds me all too well of Kafka’s The Trial. Just like its main character K., Stephen was prosecuted but wasn’t aware of his crime. Obviously, the society thinks that exposing truth is a crime. Injustices at every corner. The scene reminded me of verses from the song Faster by Manic Street Preachers:

I am an architect, they call me a butcher,

I am a pioneer, they call me primitive,

I am purity, they call me perverted.

How couldn’t they see that he was an ‘architect’ and a ‘pioneer’, not a ‘butcher’ and ‘primitive’, and they called his painting ‘perverted’, but they were nothing more than symbols of peace! Is there a thing more ‘pure’ than art and free artistic expression. After ‘the trial’, Stephen was mentally and physically exhausted. They almost drained life out of him. The story leads him to Jenny, who was a cleaner at his college, and they soon befriend. Jenny’s warm and open-hearted personality soon won him over and they eventually married. His ever-frail health and lung problems were soothed by sunny days on the beach in Margate (Kent) – the same place Delboy and Rodney Trotter visited in one episode of Only Fools and Horses. At that point it becomes clear that painting is his life, and that brushes and pencils weren’t tools but an ending of his hand. From a naive and wealthy young man in Paris before the First World War, Stephen progressed into a true artist, always carrying pencil and sketchbook with him. He spent days painting, forgetting on food on many occasions.

Every good artwork is nothing more than beauty born out of sacrifice. Is the sacrifice worth it? Is art a continuation of life, or something even greater than life? I think art is truth and moral and beauty all in once, and it is worth dying for.

Novel ‘A Thing of Beauty’ really brings the message that: ‘Not only is fame (and until recent years even liberty) denied to men of genius during their lives, but even the means of subsistence. After death they receive monuments and rhetoric by way of compensation.‘ Let’s not forget that.

I decided to write about this book because I don’t think it is as popular as it should be. I loved Cronin’s style of writing – very simple, easy to read, yet it conveys a much deeper message. I also thought that his description of art studios, lifestyle of artists and difficulties they encounter till the moment they die, were very realistic and written in a sensitive, compassionate way. Not one sentence is kitschy and melodramatic, and that’s something I appreciate. Reader feels that he is with Stephen, in all his ups and downs. Cronin also brings up an interesting thesis: that art is born of out artist’s lifestyle. Without the experiences, hunger and sadness, Stephen’s paintings wouldn’t be as beautiful. At one point he is offered money by his childhood friend Claire, but he rejects it, because financial security would ruin his art, and art is something he can’t live without. So, quite a long review, but this book deserves it. Hope you’ll read it. And now two paintings which came to my mind upon reading the book:

1920s El Circo by Federico Beltran Masses (1885–1949) Federico Beltran Masses (1885–1949), El Circo, c. 1920s -> reminds me of Stephen’s ‘Circus’ scenes

1892. Alice Pike Barney - MedusaAlice Pike Barney, Medusa, 1892 -> reminds me of Stephen’s painting ‘Circe and her Lovers’

Title of the book is a reference to Keats’s poem Endymion so I will finish my post with the poem:

Endymion by John Keats:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing….