Tag Archives: Beautiful

József Rippl-Rónai – Haunting Faces

6 Sep

József Rippl-Rónai is considered one of the finest Hungarian painters and yet his paintings in garish colours with flat treatment of the surface cease to keep me interested. I could see them and forget them in the matter of seconds. His pastel portraits, on the other hand, are absolutely captivating and they have a rare haunting beauty.

József Rippl-Rónai, Woman’s Head with Red Bun, 1891

József Rippl-Rónai was born in the town of Kaposvár in the southern Hungary on the 23 May 1861. He attended grammar school and later, most unusually for someone who would went on to become such a fine painter, studied pharmacology. From 1881 he worked in an apothecary in his home town and as a private tutor for the family of count Zichy. He only casually attended some drawing classes, and once in a while travelled to Vienna to copy the works of old masters. In 1884 he was awarded a scholarship to study art in Munich, at last! It was common for the aspiring artists from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to study in Munich, or, if fate dealt them better cards, even in Paris; the place where everything was.

Rippl-Rónai was among those lucky students and after just two years in Munich, he got the opportunity to study in Paris with a fellow Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy who painted realist style genre scenes and whose influence, thank the providence, would not have an impact on Rippl-Rónai’s art. After settling in the big bustling city of boulevards, tree avenues, cafes, city of light and hope, he moved to Neully and briefly studied in Academie Julien. In Paris he met a lady who was to be his future wife, Lazarine, and, even more importantly for his art, he met and befriended a few progressive artists, Édouard Vuillard and later Paul Gauguin as well. In 1894, after his painting “My Grandmother” was exhibited in Parisian Salon Champ-de-Mars, the art group Les Nabis recognised him as one of their own. From then on, his artistic career only blossomed.

József Rippl-Rónai, My Grandmother, 1894

What amazes me is the fact that Rippl-Rónai’s well-known paintings are those influenced by Les Nabis, with flat space and bold colours, while his shadowy and ethereal pastel portraits are left in the shadow. A contemporary critic described his already mentioned painting “My Grandmother” as “a poem about the profound sadness of old age”, and he was very right in comparing it to a poem. All of Rippl-Rónai’s pastels have this quality of transcending the borders of arts; at times they reminds me of some Swinburne’s verses, at times they make me think of wistful violins in candle lit chambers. Undeniably, they posses a striking lyrical beauty and an eeriness that would interest even the great Edgar Allan Poe himself. Perhaps Rippl’s painting “Woman’s Head with Red Bun” shows the kind of face that Poe had in mind in his short story “The Oval Portrait”. They have a musical element about them, lyrical too, a string of a lyre, a soft hush of a violin, a fragrance of withering roses, delicacy of something passing and transitory, unearthly beauty, verses written in ink and slowly fading, these are the faces of women you see once, only for a moment, and spend your entire life fantasising about.

A little digression here. In his essay on Beethoven, E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German Romantic author, described music as “the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infinite. Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing…” Likewise, Rippl-Rónai’s pastel portraits stand on the border of different arts, soaked in music notes, whispering verses…

József Rippl-Rónai, Red-haired Parisian Girl, 1891, pastel

These pastels are something extraordinary in Rippl-Rónai’s oeuvre, the farthest he went from his Realist beginning, the closest he got to Symbolist tendencies, to aestheticism and l’art pour l’art philosophy of the late 19th century. In “Woman’s Head with Red Bun”, this delicate oval face seems to arise from darkness and appear in its smooth as ivory, pale as milk and moonlight colour just for the viewer. Distant, untouchable, delicate as a lily, she oozes fragility and gentleness, and soft perfumes and sounds of wistful violins, her lips are two rose petals, her large blue eyes, watery and soft even without the drops of belladonna, are two wells that reflect the languorous world of dreams. The transition between the strongly contrasting colours, black and white, are ever so soft, and give the appearance of something that is slowly vanishing, as if every time you blink and then open your eyes again she will be gone; she isn’t really here anyway, she is just passing through this material world without touching it, without being tainted by it.

Painting “Red-haired Parisian Girl” resides in an equally dreamy other-world as the previous maiden, but hers is the kind where you leave all your hopes before your enter. If the previous pastel showed a ghostly maiden, this one then is surely a lesbian vampire or a muse gone mad, laudanum addict, the face of Elizabeth Siddal from the other side of the grave. Distant gaze of those aqua blue eyes that also match the colour of the background are as eerie as they are fatal and inviting. Masses of her fiery red hair overwhelm the bounds of the canvas, There’s a certain masculinity in her face the strong jawline and neck, along with coppery hair, bring to mind Rossetti’s somnambulist femme fatales, beautiful and cruel, irresistible and cold. This is a face from a dandy’s opium dream.

József Rippl-Rónai, Lili Darvas Playing Lonti, 1922, pastel

The mystic shadowy beauty of these pastels reminds me of one poem in prose written by a Croatian Symbolist poet and writer Antun Gustav Matoš (1873-1914) called “Shadow”, these paintings, to me, seem to match Matoš’s lyrical dream-like visions:

I love the mournful shadow, the dozing light: light which dreams of the night. I love the shadow, twin sister of the warm sun and of the cold moon. I love the shadow, my eternal adopted sister and companion which slumbers beside me, walks near me, my dark picture and my caricature. Yes, I love the shadow, yellow, grey, black; the shadow, sad and silent as death….

O, Shadow, child of the day and the night! Shadowy morning and purple evening! Shadow, child of darkness and light, pale daughter of enigma, opening melancholy silent weary eyes, and through them life peers wonderingly into mysterious death! Last night, my love, you were trembling against my breast with the moist eyes of affection and happiness. I named you beauty, happiness, and woman, but there remained a handful of ashes in place of honey. Love, you also are a shadow….

The shade told me, the shade which grew larger and larger behind the old oak beneath the moonlight whilst awaiting the dew and the dark song of the nightingale under the shrubbery of the hawthorne and brier rose, such shady, foggy and grey fables. The shade was whispering to me this morning as well, as it walked under the fleecy cloud across the field of stubble, caressing the larks’ and the quails’ nests, and kissing the quivering tops of the field flowers.

Shadow, thou soft pillow of light: Shadow, thou black bed of life! And when once the planets extinguish, you will remain the empress of life.

I love you, Shadow, pure silent goddess: lift up your soft mantle of fog streaked with golden secrets, and cover my weary eyes, to close them to embrace my shadow.(Antun Gustav Matoš, Shadow)

József Rippl-Rónai, Woman with Red Hair, c. 1890s

József Rippl-Rónai, Green-Eyed Woman, 1901, pastel

József Rippl-Rónai, Girl on Blue Background, date unknown

József Rippl-Rónai, Sitting Nude with Red Hair, 1891, pastel

József Rippl-Rónai, Parisian Woman, 1891, oil on canvas

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John Singer Sargent – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

2 Jun

Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is one exceedingly beautiful, vivacious and dreamy painting set in a resplendent garden covered with a flimsy veil of purple dusk in late summer, August perhaps, when nature is at its most vulnerable and autumn creeps in bringing chill evenings and morning mists, and starts adorning the landscape with a melancholic beauty. Two little girls dressed in white gowns are playing with Chinese lanterns in this magical “secret” garden where lilies, carnations and roses appear enlivened by the nocturnal air and soft caresses of twilight.

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-86

This is my favourite painting at the moment and despite its, at first sight obvious, aesthetic appeal, it is much more than a visual delight. It awakens my every sense; I can almost hear the laughter of the fair-haired girls as they watch the lanterns with admiration and curiosity; and the enchanting melodies sung by the flowers; I can smell the thick and sweet fragrance of carnations, dearer to me than any perfume – I might pick a few for my vase; and I can almost feel the grass tickling my legs, oh it makes me giggle…

Gentle blades of grass seem to dance in the sweet, but fleeting melody of the dusk. White lilies laugh, their whiteness overpowering the shine of the lanterns, and relish in throwing mischievous glances around the garden, spreading gossips. Pink roses that spent their days in daydreams, have now awoken, keen not to miss all the fun that the night has to offer. Pretty yellow carnations, with thousands of little petals, each adorned with a divine perfume, are naughty little things. Girls’ white dresses, glistening in pink overtones from the dusky light, flutter in the evening breeze. Very soon, a game will begin; a game in which lanterns and moonbeams will be competing in beauty and splendour… As dusk turns into night, the lights of the moon will colour the garden in silver, secrets and dreams… When all is quiet and children are asleep, the flowers and the moon will converse. If you’re eager to know the mysteries of their language I suggest you to follow the trail of rose petals and silver all the way to one of the famous opium dens in Victorian era Limehouse, and once there, lie on the soft oriental cushions that glisten in dim lights and smokes arising and dancing in the tepid air, and wait for Morpheus to visit your soul in a slumber, for we all know that the poppy seeds never lie.

This painting is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it also reminds me of all sorts of things; first on the magical garden in the film Coraline (2009) where flowers are alive and naughty, and cat talks, then to the film Secret Garden (1993) which is based on book I’ve not yet read, and also on Syd Barrett and the lyrics to some of his song;”Flaming” and “Wined and Dined”.

John Singer Sargent, Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884

This is just an utterly beautiful and dreamy painting, but its technical aspects are equally interesting. First of all, the details and the very fine brushwork are amazing, and they irresistibly remind us of Pre-Raphaelites, and we know from the letters that Sargent was obsessed with them since the autumn of 1883, which he spent in Sienna.

The inspiration for the painting comes not from pure imagination but from a real event; one evening, in September 1885, he was sailing on a boat down the Thames with a friend and he saw Chinese lanterns glowing among trees and lilies. That special velvety pink-purplish dusky colour palette was achieved by directly gazing at nature in dusk, which meant it took him an awful lot of time to actually finish the painting. It was painted “en plein air” or “outdoors” which was typical for the Impressionists but uncommon for Sargent. He painted it in two stages; first from September to early November of 1885, and then in the late summer of 1886, and finished it sometime in October 1886. He spent only a few minutes painting each evening, at dusk, capturing its purplish glow, and then continue the next evening. He found the process of painting difficult, writing to his sister Emily: “Impossible brilliant colours of flowers and lamps and brightest green lawn background. Paints are not bright enough, & then the effect only lasts ten minutes.” And when autumn came, he would use fake flowers instead of real ones.

Two girls in the paintings are the 11-year old Dolly on the left, and her sister Polly, seven years old at the time; daughters of Sargent’s friend and an illustrator Frederick Barnard. They were chosen because of their hair colour. The original model was a 5-year old dark-haired Katherine, daughter of the painter Francis David Millet, and she was allegedly very upset that Sargent had replaced her. Poor girl! Also, the lovely title of the paintings comes from the refrain of the song “Ye Shepherds Tell Me” by Joseph Mazzinghi.

John Singer Sargent, Study for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, 1885, oil on canvas, 72.4 x 49.5 cm, Digital image courtesy of private collection (Yale 875)

“Garden Study of the Vickers Children” is a some kind of a draught, a rehearsal for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”; both paintings were painted en plein air and both show children in a garden; childhood innocence was a theme often exploited in the arts of the 19th century because it appealed to the Victorian sentiments immensely, and both show the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. However, in “Vickers Children” he uses bolder brushstrokes and the colour palette is all but magical; dull white, green and black. Sargent is said to have made more studies for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” than he did for any other of his paintings. Some of these studies you can see here, and they are simply gorgeous, they have such ardour and liveliness and there’s a real magic coming from those quick, visible brushstrokes; look at those lanterns, shaped in swift, round strokes of warm magical colours, and quick ones for the blades of grass and tints of rich red for flowers, ah…. This is the beauty that Dante must have had in mind when he said “Beauty awakens the soul to act.” These paintings awaken my soul!

Here you can listen a composition by Meilyr Jones inspired by this painting. Can you spare a second to think just how exciting it is to make a composition inspired by a painting, and such a beautiful painting?!

John Singer Sargent, Study for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, 1885, oil on canvas, 59.7 x 49.5 cm, Digital image courtesy of private collection (Yale 872)

The scene irresistibly reminds me of John Everett Millais’s beautiful painting “Autumn Leaves”; both are very detailed with fine brushstrokes, set in a fleeting moment of the day – dusk, and show girls in nature, just in different seasons. Sargent’s painting is “magic”, while Millais’s is “melancholy”. Still, I feel a touch of sadness behind Sargent’s dreamy garden scene, brought on by the understanding of its transience and the fleeting nature of everything that is beautiful and magical in this world. Dusk lasts so shortly, and for a moment its charm will be replaced by darkness and chill air of night; Summer – which gives nature vivacity, colours and joy, will fall into the decadence of autumn. Unveil this beauty, the glow of lanterns and the fragrance of flowers, and you shall see decay – the garden in its future barren winter state. First the yellow leaves, then the white snowflakes, will cover the places where roses grew and nightingales sang their songs of love and longing; to quote Heinrich Heine:

“Over my bed a strange tree gleams

And there a nightingale is loud.

 She sings of love, love only . . .

I hear it, even in dreams.”

And girls who are now innocent children will became adults, insensitive towards the beauty they once gleefully inhabited.

The very first glance at Sargent’s painting reminded me of this sentence from the book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”: “‘Wined and Dined’ has an undertow of sadness, sung in the most fragile of voices, lingering in twilight at an August garden party he never wanted to leave.” That beautiful, sad and poignant song dates from Syd’s days in Cambridge, when he was a happy man and life was idyllic, all “white lace and promises”, just like in the song of The Carpenters. This magical garden scene where flowers giggle, gossip and chatter in the purple veil of dusk, and lanterns glow ever so brightly is what I imagine Syd was in his mind; the August party he never wanted to leave… Thinking about it always makes me cry, it is so very sad. That “undertow of sadness”, this gentle fleetingness of the moment is exactly what I see in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” and in all of Syd’s songs.

In the acid-laced song “Flaming”, Syd sings of “watching buttercups cup the light, sleeping on a dandelion and screaming through the starlit sky” creating a visual scene that matches Sargent’s painting in its magic, but this childlike cheerfulness descended into a sad, wistful elegy to better days, “Wined and Dined“(version on the “Opel” sounds especially sad and poignant):

Wined and dined
Oh it seemed just like a dream
Girl was so kind
Kind of love I’d never seen

Only last summer, it’s not so long ago
Just last summer, now musk winds blow…

Move the flimsy veil from beauty, melancholy thou shall find.

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856

They are things which are so intensely beautiful that I am not sure whether they produce as much pleasure as pain. They fill the heart with delight and longings all at once – such is the effect this painting has on me; first it lures me, and then it saddens me… But hush now, hush, reality, and let me enjoy the sweetness of this magical garden for another moment… Oh yes, I can feel the softness of the grass, see the lights of the lanterns, smell the carnations, can you?

Romantic Dilemma: Beautiful and Sublime in Art (Immanuel Kant)

9 Oct

In his book ‘Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime‘, Immanuel Kant described two kinds of finer feelings; the feeling of the sublime and the feeling of beautiful. Intrigued by this ‘romantic dilemma’, I instantly thought of artworks that embody these finer feelings.

1774. The Bard - Thomas JonesThe Bard, Thomas Jones, 1774, National Museum of Wales in Cardiff

According to the dictionary, sublime is something ‘of very high quality and causing great admiration’. Something that’s beautiful is ‘pleasing to the senses or to the mind‘. Tall oaks, thunderstorms, mountain heights, shadows, the movement of storm clouds and old ruins are sublime. On the other hand, Greek vases, Venus in art, flowery alleys and trimmed hedges are beautiful. In correlation to this, then, English style gardens are sublime and French gardens are beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful. Sublime has to be something big and simple, while the beautiful can be small but flamboyant and decorated. Feeling of sublime touches the man, while the feeling of beautiful enchants him. In literature, we could compare Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights with the feeling of sublime, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with beautiful.

Furthermore, Kant explains how men have mostly feelings for the sublime, while women lean towards that which is beautiful. Friendship has mainly the character of the sublime, but love between the sexes, that of the beautiful.‘ Even with physical appearance, Kant noticed the types; people with fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair are closer to beautiful, while darker skin and dark eyes evoke a feeling of sublime.

1790. Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard - Philip James De LoutherbourgVisitor to a Moonlit Churchyard, 1790, Philip James De Loutherbourg

Moreover, in the last chapter of the book, Kant describes how different nationalities have different finer feelings. The Italians and the French are distinguished by the feeling of beautiful, while the Germans, the English and the Spaniards posses a feeling for sublime. Dutch people have no finer feeling, and put value only on that which is useful in some way. Kant explains it further, stating that the feeling of beautiful can either be: enchanting and touching – that suits the Italians, or cheerful and spicy, which suits the French.

When it comes to the feeling of sublime, Kant says that it leans towards dreadful or noble. He attributed dreadful sublime to the Spaniards, and noble sublime to the English, whose actions are guided by principles rather than impulses. He described Germans as possessing a fine blend of both sublime and beautiful, a mix which is more appropriate then the raw power of each separate feeling. Kant only cursorily touched the subject of arts. However, he did explain that the Italian geniuses specially distinguished themselves in music, painting, architecture and statuary. Pleasantry, comedy, satire saturated with laughter, flirtation of lovers, light and naturally fluid style is typical for France. On the other hand, profound thoughts, tragedy, epic poems, all found their place in English literature. I think there is some truth in this, if you only compare Molliere with Shakespeare, or gardens in France and England.

1852. Faust’s Dream by Carl Gustav Carus Faust’s Dream by Carl Gustav Carus, 1852

Kant’s theory proves the most accurate if one compares two completely opposite art movements; Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Neoclassicism, and its predecessor Rococo, was chiefly dominant in France with artists such as Ingres, Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Jacques-Louis David, and the Italian Antonio Canova, fellow lover of beautiful, all setting this style characterised by pure beauty, simplicity and symmetry of compositions. Portraits of royalty or king’s mistresses such as the portrait of Madame de Pompadour, are good examples of beauty in art. These painting evoke grandeur, richness, coquetry. Still, after a while these painting are sore to the eyes: how many cupids, elegant ladies with rosy cheeks, garden statues in knock-off Greek-Roman style and fine dresses, can a human mind put up with?

In contrast, Romanticism first appeared in Germany in works of Goethe and Schiller, and in England in works of Lake Poets, William Blake and Ann Radcliffe, exactly in those nations that valued the feeling of sublime. The difference with the French tastes is easy to see, just compare the works I’ve mentioned above with the sublime and wistful landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich or Carl Gustav Carus or William Blake’s fanciful illustrations. Beautiful could exceed into kitschy, and sublime could lead to Gothic and grotesque.

Examples of ‘Beautiful‘ in art:

1759. madame de pompadour -BoucherMadame de Pompadour, Boucher, 1759

The Progress of Love, The Confession by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), 1771-73

Vestal Virgins, by Jean Raoux (French, 1677–1734), 1727