Tag Archives: Birthday

Lizzie Siddal – A Mysterious Muse

25 Jul

“All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

(Elizabeth Siddal, “Love and Hate”)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Portrait Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1850s

Elizabeth Siddal, a famous and doomed Pre-Raphaelite muse and a lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was born on 25th July 1829 in London. She died in February 1862 at the age of 32, but had she been a vampire, which I suspect she might as well be, she would have been 190 years old today, a fairly young age for a vampire. I am thinking about her these days; about her beauty, her poems and paintings, and also about the exhumation of her body led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti who wanted to get back the poems he had buried with her. An image of her coffin being opened, and her long red hair revealed by the moonlight, silence of the graveyard, the eeriness…. It is easy to imagine why this event inspired young Bram Stoker for his character Lucy in “Dracula”.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Elizabeth Siddal, study for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’, 1853

Nonetheless, the main thing on my mind these days is how mysterious the person of Elizabeth Siddal actually is. Who was she really? How little we know of her and how the rest is painted in our imaginations. When I first read about her years ago, I was met with a very idealised image of a beautiful, quiet and melancholy young woman who modeled for the Pre-Raphaelites, used laudanum and was plagued with sadness and Rossetti’s infidelities; she seemed almost like a martyr, the one who suffered, the one who was tormented. I think part of it was true, she was a struggling working class girl who wanted more from life, materially and spiritually; she wanted to rise above the circumstance that she was born into, she wanted to learn and grow intellectually, but also she wanted a finer, more comfortable life; “a servant to lay the fire in the morning, theater tickets, a paisley shawl.” (Gay Daly, Pre-Raphaelites in Love)

The promises that Rossetti gave, he did not fulfill; he was impulsive, careless with money, had a wandering eye and was strangely very hesitant to marry her, and it is easy to understand why it brought her so much anguish, especially in the Victorian era when her status of artist’s model and a lover closed many doors for her and gave her an unenviable place in society. Artistically, she was always in Rossetti’s shadow and she could never have dreamed that her paintings of her poems would be as appreciated as his were. All these things indeed make her a sufferer, but I feel like there is another side of her that no one tends to talk about, for it would ruin her untainted image of a martyr and an angel. She may be a mysterious muse, but she is not a perfect one for sure.

Regina Cordium – Rossetti’s Marriage portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, 1860

Blinded by her beauty; her long coppery red hair, pale complexion, fragile frame, and eyes that changed colour from green to grey, Rossetti was bewitched at first sight by this strange girl who worked in a hat shop. She was equally charmed, but as ideal the start of their relationship was, its course was a turbulent one with lots of drama, anger, tears and manipulation. Lizzie was known for her frail health, but it is very interesting how her health changed according to the occasion. She could feel perfectly well in the morning, but as soon as Rossetti was getting ready to head into town, hang out with other people, she would suddenly feel unwell and if she would get him to stay at home that day, her health was fine.

She was emotionally manipulative without a doubt and, to me, she seems like a very moody and miserable woman and I am not surprised that Rossetti would want to go out and spend time with merrier, more carefree women. In her book “Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel” Lucinda Hawksley writes that “both shared a destructively jealous need to be the most important figure in their – or, indeed, any relationship.” And also: “When one – or both – of them was unhappy, ill, depressed or jealous, they made one another’s lives hellish. (…) Self-destructive and self-loathing at times, as well as being arrogant about their abilities, both must have been extremely difficult to live with.” She was happy at the beginning of their relationship, in times when Ophelia was painted but as their life went on, she started using her frail health as a way of getting things she wanted, mostly from Rossetti but also from other people. Again, here is an interesting passage from Lucinda Hawksley’s book: “It is interesting to see how often Lizzie’s health coincided with Rossetti’s affections being taken up by other woman. By his refusal to marry her, Rossetti had forced her to blackmail him emotionally and she used every opportunity to do so. At the start of their relationship it seems the balance of power was very much in his favour as she struggled to prevent him from tiring of her, but by the end of her life she had become overtly manipulative and controlling, to the point that his friends claimed he shrank when she spoke to him, always expecting a rebuke or for her to sink dangerously into illness, blaming him wordlessly for its onslaught.

As if her “illnesses” weren’t enough, Lizzie would stop eating to get her point across, or sink into periods of depression and self-loathing. Mrs Siddal was also known for being aloof and quiet when in company with other people, and I can well understand that because I am somewhat similar, but I think it was just a means for her to show her disdain and disinterest, and to emphasise the mysteriousness about her that she loved nurturing. She was known for petty jealousies and acted as if she were better than other working class models who might have been prostitutes also, for example Hunt’s model Annie Miller.

John Everett Millias, Ophelia, 1852

With all that said, I will also add that I love Lizzie and I am not being hateful here, I am in fact endlessly captivated by her short tragical life, her mysteriousness, and her connection to the Pre-Raphaelites. I love her poetry and empathise with her verses. But I have to say that she is no angel and I hate people idealising her while at the same time bashing on Rossetti for being this or that. She was manipulative, jealous, strategically ill when necessary, miserable, depressed, perhaps impossible to satisfy at times, and I don’t see why that is not mentioned so often. She was an artist’s muse and a model, that position alone ought to have made her feel like she were the luckiest girl in the world. Just think of Poe’s submissive little wife Virginia and her perfect adoration for the doomed poet. I think Lizzie didn’t need an ancient curse like the Lady of Shalott to bring her death because Lizzie seems capable enough of bringing her own doom.

Now, I don’t want to judge her harshly because I have not met her, but no matter how much I read about her, I am still left with a feeling of mysteriousness. All the words said are not her own, comments from observers are still not her own. We can never know what was truly in her heart, though maybe her poems are a good clue, being so direct and so melancholy. I wonder, were her manipulative ways a character trait or just a way of getting even with Rossetti. Why was she so miserable and what could have stopped that? I honestly can’t imagine her ever being perfectly happy. I think of her often, and yet she is still mysterious to me. Maybe one night, in a dream, I will meet her and find out all that I was curious about.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1860

And for the end, here is one of her poems which I love:

Worn Out

Thy strong arms are around me, love

My head is on thy breast;

Low words of comfort come from thee

Yet my soul has no rest.

 

For I am but a startled thing

Nor can I ever be

Aught save a bird whose broken wing

Must fly away from thee.

 

I cannot give to thee the love

I gave so long ago,

The love that turned and struck me down

Amid the blinding snow.

 

I can but give a failing heart

And weary eyes of pain,

A faded mouth that cannot smile

And may not laugh again.

 

Yet keep thine arms around me, love,

Until I fall to sleep;

Then leave me, saying no goodbye

Lest I might wake, and weep.

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Frida Kahlo – Love, Flowers, Pain

6 Jul

Frida Kahlo was born on this day in 1907. Happy birthday Frida! Feliz cumpleaños!

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937

In 1938 French Surrealist poet André Breton visited Mexico and upon seeing the paintings of the young artist Frida Kahlo he classified them as works of surrealism which is something she herself denied by saying: “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” And indeed, by looking at her paintings and following the events in her life, the parallel is unmistakable. Frida used art as a diary; she used brush and paint instead of a pen and jotted down her feelings, her anguish, her memories, her sense of identity in a similar way that Anais Nin did in her diaries, and Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath did in their poems. Looking at Frida’s paintings inevitably draws us into her inner world because the two are inseparable; the viewer yearns to know more about her life and the meaning behind the symbols and motifs she painted. I see her paintings as poetic scenes, verses in vibrant colours, and although they may seem surreal, they are always sincere and woven with depths of her feelings.

Frida Kahlo With Classic Magenta Rebozo, Nickolas Muray, 1939

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

Two things that shaped the life and art of Frida Kahlo were her love for a fellow painter Diego Rivera and “the accident”. Love and pain; two sensations so intermingled that the first one can’t possibly live without the other. In her own words: “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Pain and love followed her like shadows. When she was six years old, she contracted polio and that left her with one leg shorter than the other; she would later hide this defect by wearing man’s clothes or long traditional Mexican gowns. The illness helped to create a strong bond with her father Guillermo who was also of poor health. Although her relationship with her mother was somewhat strained and distanced, Frida loved her father and described him as being tender and understanding. Guillermo was a photographer and not only did he take pictures of his daughter and talked to her about philosophy, nature and literature, but he also encouraged her to practise sport as a way of regaining her health and he inspired her artistic explorations. Little Frida filled notebooks with sketches but never considered art as a profession until “the accident” occurred: on 17 September 1925 she was riding a bus home from school with her boyfriend and the bus collided with a streetcar. A few people died and Frida suffered nearly fatal injuries; she fractured several bones and was confined to bed for three months. Her dreams of being a doctor crashed, and, in solitude, pain and fatigue, She found comfort from solitude, fatigue and pain in painting. An easel was placed specially so that she would paint laying in the bed and she had a mirror so she could see herself.

Frida Kahlo, Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931

By 1927 Frida’s health was recovered and she reconnected with her old school friends and joined the Mexican Communist Party. An old school friend introduced her to a group of artists and activists who were gathered around the Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella. On a party held in June 1928 by Mella’s lover Tina Modotti, an Italian-American photographer, Frida met Diego Rivera who was a well-known artist by that time. She had met him once before when he worked on a mural in her school “Escuela National Preparatoria”. Frida wanted to show him her paintings and longed to hear his opinion. Rivera liked what he saw and he encouraged her to pursue career as an artist, stating that her work possessed: “an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity … They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own … It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist”.

Diego and Frida married on 21 August 1929: she was twenty two years old, he was forty-two. Their love story is one of the most well known in the world of art and the double-portrait above is actually their wedding portrait made by Kahlo. It looks almost grotesque and deliberately exaggerated in proportions, but it presents the truth. Rivera, a tall and over-weight artist and a womaniser with his feet strongly on the ground is shown holding a tiny hand of his petite and fragile artist-wife; his doll, his little girl; his “muñeca”, his “niña”.

Frida painted Diego with a palette and brushes in his right hand, and herself merely as a companion to the artist. Looking at the portrait, one would never guess that this fragile, timid, gentle looking thing in a dark green dress and a long red scarf, looking so small and gentle compared to the robust and grandeurs artist, was actually an artist herself whose fame today exceeds that of her husband. It might be hard to understand what exactly Frida liked about Rivera; his temperament, his physical ugliness, his eyes that easily wandered to other women (including her younger sister), his age, and yet she adored him, worshipped him. She once wrote: Diego era todo: mi niño, mi amor, mi universo.(Diego was my everything: my child, my lover, my universe.) Frida’s parents referred to the union as the “marriage between an elephant and a dove”. Judging by the portrait and the photographs below – they were right.

“I love you more than my own skin and even though you don’t love me the same way, you love me anyways, don’t you? And if you don’t, I’ll always have the hope that you do, and I’m satisfied with that. Love me a little. I adore you.” (Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.” (Letter from Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas), 1939

Frida and Diego’s marriage was turbulent to say the least. In 1939 their divorce was being finalised. It was Diego who wanted a divorce, and Frida was very melancholic and very lonely. To hush the anguish in her heart, she drank alcohol and painted furiously because she resolved never to be financially depended on a man again. This fruitful artistic period resulted in a series of self-portraits. Painting “Two Fridas” was also made around the time they divorced and it is perhaps the most symbolic of that period in her life and her feelings at the moment. It unites the subjects of love and pain, and it’s also a psychological study of her identity and ancestry. It shows just how childlike, deep and sincere her art was because it deals with her feelings directly, without hesitation or tendency towards snobbish avant-garde, her style is at the same time inspired by naive art, and self-invented and her own.

On the left we see the European Frida: dressed in a white Edwardian gown with lace on her bodice and collar, and a living pulsating wounded heart; she has a pair of scissors in her hand. On the right we see the Mexican Frida: dressed in a traditional Tehuana dress; in her hand she’s holding a little portrait of Diego as a child. The European Frida shows her father’s ancestry who was a German Jew. The Mexican Frida shows the culture that Frida embraced and the Frida that Diego loved. The hearts of two Fridas are connected by one artery and the heart of European Frida is aching, bleeding, falling apart, dying. Diego has rejected the European Frida and she is dying. He thought that: “Mexican women who do not wear [Mexican clothing] … are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong.” And so Frida loved to emphasise her mestiza ancestry by wearing traditional Mexican peasant dresses, traditional elaborate hairstyles with braids and flowers and adorn herself with jewellery. Her exotic appearance showed quite a sensation when she was in New York in October 1938. Frida’s exoticism in the eyes of western people, her peculiar expressive self portraits with eyebrows that meet and flowers in her hair are things that first come to mind to people when they think about her.

Still, with paintings as personal as these, I feel it is almost a sacrilege to butcher their meanings and make one’s own assumptions of their meaning. Frida said for this particular painting that it represents her and her imaginary childhood friend. It is this emotional and diary-like aspect of her art that appeals to me, but the overall style and colours are not really my taste.

Frida Kahlo, Memory (The Heart), 1937

Painting “Memory (The Heart)”, painted during Diego’s affair with Frida’s younger sister, also shows her pain inflicted by love. Her heart is painted disproportionally large and shown bleeding.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego in My houghts), 1943

In the painting above, Frida shows us that Diego was always on her mind, literally so – he is tattooed on her forehead! Could it be more direct?

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, 1940

“I am that clumsy human, always loving, loving, loving. And loving. And never leaving. (Fridas’ diary entry)

Egon Schiele and Klimt: Danaë

12 Jun

Wonderful and one of a kind Austrian artist Egon Schiele was born on this day in 1890. In this post we’ll take a look at one of his very early works “Danaë”, inspired by Gustav Klimt’s painting of the name.

Egon Schiele, Danaë, 1909

Although Egon Schiele died fairly young, in 1918 at the age of twenty eight, he left an oeuvre of mostly erotic drawings and paintings, which is as provocative and captivating nowadays as it was in his time. In 1909, Schiele was a confident, self-aware and handsome nineteen year old who had already started creating the image of his art as something extraordinary and something that the world would remember. He was truly following his own path and his art already started showing the characteristics that he would develop in later years in something unique. Still, in 1909 he was still in his experimental phase and very influenced by Gustav Klimt; both share a fascination with the body and the erotic component of art.

Schiele’s painting “Danaë” is a perfect example of this young artist looking up to the older one. It shows Danaë as a nude auburn haired girl hiding from what is suppose to be a lush shower of gold, though it doesn’t quite look golden here. She looks like a dreamy child of nature, surrounded by grass and woods, a shy rosebud in hiding. Her face is rosy-cheeked and sweet, but her body appears yellowish and flat, much like the way bodies look in Japanese Ukiyo-e prints that both Klimt and Schiele admired. In contrast to the minimalist approach to painting her body, Schiele painted her hand little and bony, the same way he would continue to paint his girls; fragile, all skin and bones.

Egon Schiele, Study for Danaë, 1909, watercolour, pencil and ink

Whereas Schiele was directly inspired by Klimt’s version of “Danaë” from 1907, Klimt on the other hand was merely following a painterly tradition of portraying the mythical woman Danaë that started with Grecian vases and reached its peak in the Renaissance with renditions painted by Correggio and Titian. Danaë was the princess of Peloponnese, daughter of the King Acrisius of Argos who unfortunately didn’t have an heir to his throne but the prophecy said that his daughter Danaë will have a son and the King would be murdered by Danaë’s son. The King did the only reasonable thing he could; imprisoned his daughter in a bronze tower with no doors or windows, with just a source of light instead of a roof. She spent a long time there until Zeus started desiring her. Zeus’s lust knew no boundaries and there are many stories from Greek mythology about the different ways he seduced beautiful young girls but the way he came to Danaë is surely a very magical one; he took form of the golden shower which fell down into the tower and left her with a child, a son named Perseus.

Schiele exhibited four works in the Kunstschau of 1909, one of which was the painting “Danaë” whose decorative and erotic elements showed a frank homage to Klimt, but Schiele’s painting isn’t a pure copy of Klimt’s style, for it shows the young artist’s personal touches, the shape of the body and a slight reluctance to excessive decorative background. Klimt’s version has more sensuality; Danaë’s body is portrayed as plump and accepting of the rich stream of gold which is flowing through the canvas. Her hair is red and seems alive, her lips are parted and her eyes closed, she seems to be enjoying the moment.

Gustav Klimt, Danaë, 1907

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Alas, So long!

12 May

Half-Italian and half-mad, the Pre-Rapahelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born on this day in 1828 in London, and here is one of his poems called “Alas, So Long!”. I felt the mood of John William Waterhouse’s painting “Miranda” carries the same melancholy mood of longing and hope.

John William Waterhouse, Miranda, 1875

Alas, So Long!

AH! dear one, we were young so long,
It seemed that youth would never go,
For skies and trees were ever in song
And water in singing flow
In the days we never again shall know.
Alas, so long!
Ah! then was it all Spring weather?
Nay, but we were young and together.
Ah! dear one, I’ve been old so long,
It seems that age is loth to part,
Though days and years have never a song,
And oh! have they still the art
That warmed the pulses of heart to heart?
Alas, so long!
Ah! then was it all Spring weather?
Nay, but we were young and together.
Ah! dear one, you’ve been dead so long,—
How long until we meet again,
Where hours may never lose their song
Nor flowers forget the rain
In glad noonlight that never shall wane?
Alas, so long!
Ah! shall it be then Spring weather,
And ah! shall we be young together?

Birth Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe – The Oval Portrait

19 Jan

Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day in 1809. It must have been a cold and dreary winter’s day in Boston when his parents, traveling actors, welcomed him into this sad world. If he had been a girl, he would have been named Cordelia because his mother was a fan of William Shakespeare and often played roles from his plays. But he was a boy and they named him Edgar instead, again a theatre-inspired name from the play “King Lear”, more about it here. Now is as good opportunity as ever to indulge in his poetry or prose, and I decided to remind you all of his perhaps the shortest short story called “The Oval Portrait” (1842) which lingers in the memory long after one reads it; the shortness and the vague ending leave one wanting more, and the complex ideas about the conflict of life vs art, reality versus the world of imagination, and the idea of art feeding on life and ultimately destroying it. These ideas carried within them a seed which, long after Poe’s death in 1849, traveled over the ocean and blossomed into sumptuous flowers; the “l’art pour l’art” philosophy and later Aesthetic movement and Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray”.

This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), there is a scene where a young man is reading a fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time. Their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.

“The Oval Portrait” starts as a Gothic tale with an unnamed narrator coming into a strange castle and becoming enamored with a portrait of a beautiful young woman on the wall, but the plot soon jumps from the narrator to the story about the portrait itself and its history, again there’s “the most poetic topic in the world” according to Poe himself; the death of a beautiful woman, a pale wistful bride and her half-mad artist husband. Here is the entire story accompanied by some portraits of pretty women painted around the same time the story was originally published:

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Bildnis eines Mädchens (Portrait of a Young Girl), 1840

THE CHATEAU into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary- in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room- since it was already night- to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed- and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long- long I read- and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought- to make sure that my vision had not deceived me- to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea- must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

Henry Mundy, Martha Kermode, c. 1840

“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!

Nature in Syd Barrett’s Songs

6 Jan

In lyrics Syd Barrett wrote for Pink Floyd and his two solo albums, he crated a tapestry of images, moods, fragrances and colours that change from vibrancy and childlike whimsicality of early psychedelia to more sombre, tinged with melancholy tunes that smell of withered flowers, last summer sunsets and have that after party mood when the guests are gone, the music stops and solitude remains. In many of his songs, images from nature serve to mirror the state of his soul, his emotions and his loneliness.

“Jiving on down to the beach to see the blue and the gray
Seems to be all and it’s rosy-it’s a beautiful day!”

(Gigolo Aunt)

John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894, detail

Syd Barrett was the imaginative and stylish individual behind the early Pink Floyd. He also went on to have a brief solo career and released two albums in 1970; “The Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett” which mostly feature his melancholy voice and guitar, mirroring the dark and sad waters of his soul. Although the mood of Syd’s lyrics changes from the early ones which are fun and quirky, and later ones which tend to be more mystical and introspective, there is a theme which lingers throughout Syd’s poetry – nature.

The reason behind the frequency of nature as a topic of Syd’s lyrics is tied to his childhood; where he grew up and how he grew up. Syd was part of the baby boom generation and grew up in a safe and clean middle-class neighbourhood in Cambridge where his father worked as a pathologist. Unlike Morrissey, for example, whose early memories are tied to the dark and grim streets of Manchester and a red brick house which he can never go back to, the stage of Syd’s early memories is a lovely Victorian house where mum read fairy-tales and the arts were appreciated. Despite being only an hour away from London, Cambridge was, at the time, still a quaint town where myths and reality lived in harmony.

Constant Puyo, 1903.

In the book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”, the author Julian Palacious describes the area as a”bleak land rife with myth; a land where one can see the ruins of monasteries and abbeys looming through the heavy autumn fog, the spring of the Nine Wells associated with druids and witchcraft, a place where cold winters bloom into chill and damp springs and violet flowers fill the meadow all the way to the Beechwoods, a place of fairy ring mushrooms and willow trees gently touching the surface of the river Cam with their long yellow branches; all in all a setting ideal for a psychedelic schoolgirl to explore the secrets that nature beholds and float down the river forever and ever like a modern Ophelia: Syd conjured the very thing in his song “See Emily Play”. Palacios further says that “The Fens were rumoured to be the haunt of lost souls, witches, and web-footed peasants”, thus mingling the vivid Celtic past and mystic of nature with everyday suburban reality.

Arthur Rackham illustration for The Old Woman in the Wood from The Grimm’s Fairy Tales

In his book “Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head”, Rob Chapman also comments on nature being a common theme in Syd’s lyrics “Like Lear, Syd would populate his lyrics with imagery drawn from botany , zoology and nature. Lear and Caroll influenced the clarity of his lyrics too…”, adding that Syd “grew up surrounded by Fen countryside, absorbed in pastoral pursuits and Arcadian literature, and frequently drew upon nature for the subject matter of his artwork. His father was a keen amateur botanist and the entire family were be taken for Sunday morning jaunts to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. The experience would be ingrained and absorbed from an early age.” We might say that nature was Syd’s first love, one which came before painting and music, and one which stayed much longer, even in his old age when he tended to the roses in his garden.

Photo found here.

In his early writings for Pink Floyd, nature is the setting of Syd’s psychedelic imaginings. In one song from their first album, “Flaming”, a very cheerful tune, nature comes alive and the meadow is one big playground. The lyrics bring to mind whimsicality of Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “Alone in the clouds all blue/ Lying on an eiderdown/ (…) Lazing in the foggy dew/ Sitting on a unicorn./ No fair, you can’t hear me/ But I can you./ Watching buttercups cup the light/ Sleeping on a dandelion.” Through his perceptions of nature, Syd paints us the landscapes of his soul, through the sounds we see its changing colours from yellow, gentle green and pink, to greys, dusty pinks and faded blues.

The first hint of the darkness to come can be traced in the lyrics of “The Scarecrow” where a solitary scarecrow standing in the middle of a golden barley fields brings to mind the sad landscapes that Vincent van Gogh had painted near the end of his life. Another song, “Octopus” from his first solo album, mingles the cheerfulness of his early days with a premonition of the madness that was to come: “Isn’t it good to be lost in the wood/ Isn’t it bad so quiet there, in the wood/ Meant even less to me than I thought… the seas will reach and always seep/ So high you go, so low you creep/ the wind it blows in tropical heat”. One time Syd was on holiday with his family in Wales, he was but a little boy, and he wandered off into the forest and was lost for hours.

“The land in silence stands” (Swan Lee)

And the landscape turns melancholy; the gates of childhood are closed, dandelions have withered and unicorns are nowhere to be found… the dark sea of adulthood is sad and mute as the grave, and its shore desolate and unpromising. Lost hopes and lamentation at the sudden awakening. There isn’t a song which better paints a picture of Syd’s mind at the time than “Wined and Dined” whose lyrics and melody both recall happier times and lament at the sadness that just doesn’t go away:

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

Melodies and lyrics of Syd’s solo albums bring to mind not the pictures of meadows and flowers, but scenes of isolation; murky waters, birds flying away, broken pier, trees are silent and lonely… Syd shows an acute awareness of what is going on around him. As a lyricist, and a poet too, Syd used images of nature as symbols for his states of mind and ways of expressing feelings imaginatively and indirectly; he is painting landscapes with his words which mirror the states of his soul.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

Here are some interesting lines from his song “She took a long cold look” from “The Madcap Laughs”, the image of the broker pier, wavy sea and water streaming over him are striking:

“a broken pier on the wavy sea
she wonders why for all she wants to see…
But I got up and I stomped around
and hid the piece where the trees touch the ground…

And looking high up into the sky
I breathe as the water streams over me…”

Picture found here.

A beautiful song “Opel” has long sad solos and a sense of isolation lingers throughout it, especially haunting are the last lines “I’m trying to find you” sang in his distant voice and accompanied by his guitar:

“On a distant shore, miles from land
Stands the ebony totem in ebony sand
A dream in a mist of grey…
On a far distant shore…

The pebble that stood alone
And driftwood lies half buried
Warm shallow waters sweep shells
So the cockles shine…

I’m trying
I’m trying to find you!
To find you
I’m living, I’m giving,
To find you, To find you…”

Egon Schiele’s Birth Anniversary and Federico Garcia Lorca’s Sonnets of Dark Love

12 Jun

One of my favourite painters ever, Egon Schiele, was born on this day in 1890, so naturally, my thoughts are nearly all with him today. I have been an ardent lover and admirer of his art for years now, but another work of art, with a darkness and eroticism that matches that of Schiele’s art, has occupied me these days: Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Sonnets of Dark Love”, translated by Paul Archer here. As I was reading Lorca’s beautiful sonnets, one by one, slowly, half-soaking in the strange verses and half-daydreaming, I had Schiele’s paintings in mind, or rather, the mood that pervades his paintings; darkness, anxiety, death, eroticism and alienation, murkiness of the colours and strangeness of the pale and fragile heroin chic figures, often entwined, together yet distant. I’ve chosen the verses which I loved the most and assembled them together with Schiele’s paintings and drawings.

Egon Schiele, Cardinal and Nun (Caress), 1912

“(…) And then, together entwined,
with love-broken mouths and frayed souls
time will find us utterly destroyed.”

(Sonnet of the Garland of Roses)

Egon Schiele, Two Women, 1915

“Don’t let me lose the wondrous sight
of your sculpted eyes, or the way you have
of placing on my cheek at night
the solitary rose of your breath.”

(Sonnet of the sweet complaint)

Egon Schiele, Girl in Black, 1911

“This weeping of blood that adorns
an unplucked lyre, the lusty torch,
this weight of the sea that pounds,
this scorpion that dwells in my breast

are all a garland of love, a sickbed
where I lie awake dreaming you are here
among the ruins of my downcast heart.”

(Love’s Wounds)

Egon Schiele, Sunflower, 1909

“My gut-wrenching love, my death-in-life,
in vain I wait for you to write me a letter,
like a withered flower I think rather than to live
without being me, to lose you would be better.”

(The poet begs his beloved to write to him)

Egon Schiele, Liebende (Lovers), 1909

“I want to weep with my pain and tell
you – so you’ll love me and cry for me also
in a nightfall of nightingales
with a knifeblade, with kisses and with you.”

(The poet tells the truth)

Egon Schiele, Four Trees, 1918

“Your voice watered my heart’s dunes
in that sweet wooden telephone booth.
It was spring at my feet to the south
and north of my forehead flowered ferns.”

(The poet talks on the telephone with his beloved)

Egon Schiele, Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees, 1913

“Did you see in the transparent air
that dahlia of sorrow and pleasure
my warm heart had sent you?”

(The poet asks his beloved about the ‘Enchanted City’ of Cuenca)

Egon Schiele, Mother and Daughter, 1913

“Thus my heart all night and day through
incarcerated in its cell of dark love
cries its melancholy at not seeing you.”

(Sonnet in the style of Góngora in which the poet sends his beloved a dove)