Tag Archives: book

George Sand: My soul ravished by the music and the beauty of the sky

17 Aug

A few days ago I started reading George Sand’s autobiography called “Story of My Life” and I am really enjoying it so far. It follows her life from birth up to the Revolution of 1848. It was originally published in 1854. I particularly enjoyed this little passage about the wonders of music that little Aurore (that was her real name) had experienced for the first time. It is written in such a way that it instantly made me daydream so I chose a painting that depicts a dreamy scene of girl gazing at the moon. Can you not feel the music in the air?

Johann Peter Hasenclever, Die Sentimentale, c. 1846-47

A memory which does date from my first four years is that of my earliest musical response. My mother had been to see someone in  village near Paris, I do not know which village. The apartment was very high up, and from the window, as I was too small to see down to the street, I could only distinguish neighboring housetops and a large expanse of sky. We spent part of the day there, but I paid attention to nothing else, so absorbed was I by the sound of a flute which played a flock of tunes that I found wondrous all the time we were there. The sound was coming from one of the highest garrets, quite far away, for my mother could hardly hear it when I asked her what it was. As for me, my hearing was apparently finer and more sensitive at this period, and I did not miss a single modulation of this little instrument—so piercing from nearby, so sweet at a distance—and was charmed by it. It seemed to me I heard it as in a dream. The sky was cloudless and a sparkling blue, and those delicate melodies seemed to soar over the rooftops as far as heaven itself. Who knows if it wasn’t an artist of superior inspiration who, for the moment, had no other attentive listener but me? It could just as well have been a cook’s helper who was learning the themes from Monaco or Les Folies d’Espagne. Whoever it was, I experienced indescribable musical pleasure, and I was truly ecstatic in front of that window, where for the first time I vaguely understood the harmony of external things, my soul being ravished alike by the music and the beauty of the sky.

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams…

3 Aug

“Night after night I lie awake,

Listening to the rustle of the bamboo leaves,

And a strange sadness fills my heart.”

(As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams)

Japan | takaphilography

A week or so ago I finished reading this wonderful little book whose title alone lured me from the bookshelf of a dimly lit library: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. How alluring is that title!? As I took the book into my hands and flipped the pages, it was as if I were instantly transported to the world of dreams, the quotes spoke to my heart and I knew right away this book was a treasure. And what a delight, in warm summer nights, with the nocturnal music of cicadas and rain, to read a diary of a young girl, later a young woman, living in the 11th century Japan. Lady Sarashina was born in 1008 at the height of the Heian Period, at the same time when Sei Shonagon was writing her “The Pillow Book” which I love, and she spent most of her life in Kyoto. As a child, she is utterly dreamy and obsessed with reading tales and daydreaming of a charming, handsome prince that she will meet one day and the wonderful life she will have.

Timid, withdrawn and hypersensitive, little Sarashina feels deep sorrow after her sister dies and her step-mother leaves, and the same poignancy is seen in her experience of nature, especially the sight of the moon and red leaves of the trees in autumn. As she grows up, she finds that she doesn’t want to participate in the world and that her dreams are more fulfilling. She tries being a court lady for awhile but is a failure because she is too dreamy to participate in the court life. Eventually, at the age of thirty-six she marries a middle-class man and has three children. It is assumed that she started writing the book at the age of forty-nine, just after her husband had died. Perhaps, with this huge loss that brought a change to her life, she started thinking about lost times and again sank into the deep, wild sea of dreams.

Maples and River by Ogata Kenzan, Edo Period, 18th century; Look at those maples leaves, falling down in the river like bright red stars!

“Though it was already the end of the Tenth month when we crossed Mount Miyaji, the maple leaves were still in their height.

So the storms have not yet come to Mount Miyaji!
For russet leaves still peacefully adorn the hills.”

Ogata Kenzan, Autumn Ivy, after 1732; Notice the gorgeous gradient colours of the leaves; from brown to green, red to orange, just mesmerising…

I lived forever in the dream world. Though I made occasional pilgrimages to temples, I could never bring myself to pray sincerely for what most people want. I know there are many who read the sutras and practice religious devotions from the age of about seventeen; but I had no interest in such things. The height of my aspirations was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in the mountain village where he would have hidden me like Lady Ukifune. There I should live my lonely existence, gazing at the blossoms and the Autumn leaves and the moon and the snow, and wait for an occasional splendid letter from him. This was all I wanted; and in time I came to believe that it would actually happen.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Autumn leaves in Sangoku, 1914

“The trees in our garden grew as thickly as those that spread their darkness at the foot of the Mount Ahigara, and in the Tenth month we had a blaze of red leaves, like a rich covering of brocade, which was far more impressive than anything on the surrounding hills. A visitor to our house mentioned that he had passed a place with some magnificent red foliage and I improvised:

What can excell this garden where I dwell
In my autumnal weariness?”

Toyohara Chikanobu, Autumn Leaves, 1897

Lady Sarashina’s disinterest in the real world around her is also evident in her descriptions of her travels; her knowledge of geography was limited and sometimes flawed, but she writes with ardour about a field of poppies, a sea of mist, or the beauty of the waves hitting the shore. She saw life through a poetic lense and real life facts and data had little meaning to her. Over time, she comes to regret wasting her life in dreams and wishes that instead she had invested more time in her spiritual growth, but in a way this is yet another escapism because monks live in the own world, away from society and its troubles. By engaging in spiritual concern, Sarashina could once again escape reality, just like Anais Nin. Needless to say that I find Lady Sarashina’s thoughts and reveries very relatable and I find it very poignant that a thousand years ago a girl lived who is so much like me and who could understand me like no one else does know. I can only imagine how lonely she felt in her reveries, since people mostly think that fantasising is a waste of time. Little do they know how pleasant it is … to cross the bridge of dreams and pass the time in that pleasant, other-world.

Shibata Zeshin, Autumn Grasses in Moonlight, 1872

“That evening we stayed in Kuroto Beach, when the white dunes stretched out far in the distance. A bright moon hung over the dense pine groves, and the wind soughed forlorny in the branches. The scene inspired us to write poems. Mine was:

Had I not stayed awake this night
When should I have seen the moon –
This Autumn moon that lights Kuroto Beach.”

Utagawa Hirshige II, Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Temple (Ishiyama shûgetsu), from the series Eight Views of Ômi (Ômi hakkei), 1859

“Late one nights towards the end of the 8th month I gazed at the wonderful dawn moon illuminating the dark cluster of trees and the mountainside, and I listened to the beautiful sound of a waterfall.

“If only I could share this moon
With one whose feelings are like mine –
This moon that lights the mountain village in the Autumn dawn!”

Mary Wollstonecraft’s Visit to Deserted Palace of Versailles in 1792

9 Jun

At the moment I am reading Charlotte Gordon’s book “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstoncraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley”. It’s a wonderful, informative and beautifully written dual biography about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley; a mother and daughter who never quite got to know one another as Mary Wollstonecraft died in 1797, just one month after her daughter Mary was born. Mary Godwin Shelley grew up without her mother, without even a memory of her, but the idea of her mother haunted her throughout her entire life. Both Marys were passionate and intelligent rule-breakers and so the title “Romantic Outlaws” is more than fitting. I am slowly savouring the book, chapter by chapter, and I love the rhythm of the book; one chapter is about Mary Wollstonecraft and the next about Mary Shelley and that makes the story even more exciting.

Claude-Louis Châtelet (1753-1795), The Temple of Love at Versailles, 18th century

In the chapter eighteen it’s the spring of 1792 and we find the thirty-three year old Mary Wollstonecraft living in the middle of a revolutionary Paris, witnessing the cruelty of the revolution that is taking a darker turn than anyone had anticipated, and yet, in the middle of all the riots, dangers, violence and uncertainty, she falls in love for the first time: with Gilbert Imlay. Mary decides to move to a little cottage in Neuilly, just outside Paris and, in a restless, dreamy and romantic mood Mary starts going on long walks hoping that exercise and walking will distract her mind from constant yearning and pining for her beloved. On one such walk Mary visits the lonely and abandoned palace of Versailles and this passage from the book was very atmospheric and melancholy to me:

Undeterred, Mary roamed through the nearby fields, even trekking eleven miles to Versailles. She would be one of the last to see the deserted palace before the royal furniture was auctioned off later that summer. It was still very much as it had been when the king and queen lived there, though the halls echoed with emptiness. The “air is chill,” she wrote, “seeming to clog the breath; and the wasting dampness of destruction appears to be stealing into the vast pile on every side.” It was an eerie experience, walking alone through the Hall of Mirrors, the War Salon, the Hercules Room, the queen’s chambers. She felt surrounded by ghosts: the “gigantic” portraits of kings “seem to be sinking into the embraces of death.” Outside, all of the famous grottoes and statues were still there, including Marie Antoinette’s “Temple of Love” and her infamous “farm,” the petit hameau, where she and her ladies had dressed as shepherdesses and milked the prettiest, most gentle cows the servants could find. But now the grass was overgrown and the flowerbeds unweeded. Mary was both shocked and saddened by what she saw, writing, “I weep, O France, over the vestiges of thy former oppression.” Yet while she disapproved of the opulence of Versailles, its glorification of kings and their armies, she was also appalled at the reports she heard about the Jacobins’ abuse of power, killing people “whose only crime is their name.” Hope lay in freedom, she believed, not in tyranny, whether the tyrants were republican leaders or monarchs.

I wish I could travel back in time and take a walk through a deserted palace and gardens of Versailles, oh I’d love to linger around for a while, pine for the lost times, like a true nostalgic, admire the loveliness of it all, seek for the ghosts in the deepest, darkest corners of the once great salons and halls…. This little passage truly makes it seems like Mary had witnessed an end of an era; the Rococo, with its emphasis on joys, pleasures, fun, flirtations and games, was gone. It seems that no century had such love for the sweetness and pleasures of life as much as the eighteenth century. The Revoution seems like an end of a sweet rosy dream.

Claude-Louis Châtelet, Plan du jardin et château de la Reine, before 1790

In the ninth chapter of the book Mary eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley and they went to Paris:

But when they arrived in the capital on August 2, 1814, dusty and tired, fraternité and liberté were nowhere to be found. They checked into the unprepossessing Hôtel de Vienne on the edge of the Marais and roamed through the city streets, disappointed to find most Parisians war-weary and cynical. Napoleon’s defeat earlier that year, a relief to many as it meant the end of the war, was also a blow to French honor. No one was preaching revolution anymore. Many of the people they met were royalists, eager to restore French gloire. Justice and freedom were passé. The martyred revolutionaries Madame Roland and Charlotte Corday, so inspirational to Mary when her friend Isabella had talked about them in Scotland, were long dead. And so, for that matter, was Mary Wollstonecraft.

It’s funny how in 1792 the revolutionaries were mad for blood and revenge, and in 1814 no one cared anymore about the justice and liberty. How quickly the fires of the revolution die out…

Artists in Literature: Amy March from Little Women

4 Jun

Louise May Alcott’s coming of age novel “Little Women”, first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, is a well-known and well-loved book, especially nowadays with many film versions and series being made. The novel follows the lives of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth, from their teenage years to their adult lives. The girls’ personal trials and growing pains are intertwined with the social hardships and tribulations that came with social events such as the Civil War. Amy March, the third sister, starts the novel as a vain, self-obsessed little girl occupied with all things of elegance and beauty, and as the story progresses Amy grows up to an elegant young lady who is still occupied with Venusian things but her obsession with personal beauty transcends into a love of Beauty in art and she eventually goes to study art in Paris with her aunt. The twenty-sixth chapter from the book called “The Artistic Attempts” deals with Amy’s growing pains of being an artist and I think it is very interesting because we rarely have artists as characters in a book.

“…mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity.”

Amy March in Little Women (2017)

Here are the passages from the book:

It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius, especially ambitious young men and women. Amy was learning this distinction through much tribulation, for mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity. For a long time there was a lull in the ‘mud-pie’ business, and she devoted herself to the finest pen-and-ink drawing, in which she showed such taste and skill that her graceful handiwork proved both pleasant and profitable. But over-strained eyes caused pen and ink to be laid aside for a bold attempt at poker-sketching. While this attack lasted, the family lived in constant fear of a conflagration, for the odor of burning wood pervaded the house at all hours, smoke issued from attic and shed with alarming frequency, red-hot pokers lay about promiscuously, and Hannah never went to bed without a pail of water and the dinner bell at her door in case of fire. Raphael’s face was found boldly executed on the underside of the moulding board, and Bacchus on the head of a beer barrel. A chanting cherub adorned the cover of the sugar bucket, and attempts to portray Romeo and Juliet supplied kindling for some time.

Winslow Homer, Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine, 1883, watercolour on paper

From fire to oil was a natural transition for burned fingers, and Amy fell to painting with undiminished ardor. An artist friend fitted her out with his castoff palettes, brushes, and colors, and she daubed away, producing pastoral and marine views such as were never seen on land or sea. Her monstrosities in the way of cattle would have taken prizes at an agricultural fair, and the perilous pitching of her vessels would have produced seasickness in the most nautical observer, if the utter disregard to all known rules of shipbuilding and rigging had not convulsed him with laughter at the first glance. Swarthy boys and dark-eyed Madonnas, staring at you from one corner of the studio, suggested Murillo; oily brown shadows of faces with a lurid streak in the wrong place, meant Rembrandt; buxom ladies and dropiscal infants, Rubens; and Turner appeared intempestsof blue thunder, orange lightning, brown rain, and purple clouds, with a tomato-colored splash in the middle, which might be the sun or a bouy, asailor’s shirt or a king’s robe, as the spectator pleased.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Bow, 1887, Charcoal and graphite on off-white laid paper

Charcoal portraits came next, and the entire family hung in a row, looking as wild and crocky as if just evoked from a coalbin. Softened into crayonsketches, they did better, for the likenesses were good, and Amy’s hair, Jo’s nose, Meg’s mouth, and Laurie’s eyes were pronounced ‘wonderfully fine’. A return to clayand plaster followed, and ghostly casts of her acquaintances haunted corners of the house, or tumbled off closet shelves onto people’s heads. Children were enticed in as models, till their incoherent accounts of her mysterious doings caused Miss Amy to be regarded in the light of a young ogress. Her efforts in this line, however, were brought to an abrupt close by an untoward accident, which quenched her ardor. Other models failing her for a time, she undertook to cast her own pretty foot, and the family were one day alarmed by an unearthly bumping and screaming and running to the rescue, found the young enthusiast hopping wildly about the shed with her foot held fast in a pan full of plaster, which had hardened with unexpectedrapidity. With much difficulty and some danger she was dug out, for Jo was so overcome with laughter while she excavated that her knife went too far, cut the poor foot, and left a lasting memorial of one artistic attempt, at least.

Claude Monet, The Studio Boat, 1876

After this Amy subsided, till a mania for sketching from nature set her to haunting river, field, and wood, for picturesque studies, and sighing for ruins to copy. She caught endless colds sitting on damp grass to book ‘a delicious bit’, composed of a stone, a stump, one mushroom, and a broken mullein stalk, or ‘a heavenly mass of clouds’, that looked like a choice display of featherbeds when done. She sacrificed her complexion floating on the river in the midsummer sun to study light and shade, and got a wrinkle over her nose trying after ‘points of sight’, or whatever the squint-and-string performance is called.

If ‘genius is eternal patience’, as Michelangelo affirms, Amy had some claim to the divine attribute, for she persevered in spite of all obstacles, failures, and discouragements, firmly believing that in time she should do something worthy to be called ‘high art’.

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

23 Apr

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

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, October 1888

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne – A Novel by Linda Lappin

17 Apr

“My dying, I mean. I can’t change it now. But nothing could ever have kept me from loving Modi; or him, me. We were born for each other, under his lucky black star.”

(Loving Modiglian, by Linda Lappin)

Jeanne Hébuterne, c 1918

The 6th of April marked the birth anniversary of Jeanne Hébuterne; the muse, the lover, the companion, common-law wife of the great painter Amedeo Modigliani and an artist in her own right. She was born in Paris in 1898, and died on the 26th January 1920 after throwing herself from the window of the fifth floor of her parents’ flat. The Paris she left behind was a very different world from the one she was born into; it had seen the great war and it has witnessed many art movements appearing like shooting stars and disappearing into the (art) history. And most importantly of all, for Jeanne, the Paris of 1920 didn’t have Modigliani who had died on the 24 January that year. The Paris without Modi was a dreary and sad urban wilderness.

This tale of art, love and death is perhaps the most tragical and heart-breaking tale from the world of art and it is not easy to write about it in a fresh and exciting way, or find a unique and original perspective on the topic which can easily become sentimental in the hands of a bad writer. Still, I recently read a book on the topic which blew my mind; “Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne” by Linda Lappin. I was instantly drawn by the title alone and the way the novel begins in medias res, with Jeanne’s fall from the window, and the way everything was told from her point of view. Jeanne, as a ghost, leads us through the tale of her love for Modigliani whom she desperately wants to find now that they are both dead. What can be more romantic than that!?

The writting is so vibrant, exciting and captivating. The novel has a great flow and the pages just pass by like landscapes from the window of a train. Indeed, the whole book feels like a very intense, poignant and exciting journey that begins with death and ends with …. well I am not going to tell you that. From the Paris of the living and Jeanne’s burial, to the “other Paris” as the author calls it in the book where Jeanne goes through a trial, meets the Death herself and seeks Modigliani so that their souls might wonder together the promenades and the avenues of the dead. A segment of the book is set in 1981 where a young art history student comes to Paris to do a research about a painter Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, and also a part which is Jeanne’s diary. This seemingly strange composition actually works beautifully and everything falls in its place in the end. The storyline is nonlinear and that makes the reading very exciting; you feel as if you are unravelling a mystery. All in all, in my opinion this was a beautiful novel and I think it would be a great read for those who are familiar with the story of Jeanne and Modigliani, as well as for those who don’t even have an interest in the art history because in the end it is a tale of love, death and lovers separated by death and that is something everyone can connect with. Also, I must say that I found the novel very poignant, it made me feel the same way that the book “Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis” did and I already wrote a book review for it here. You can visit the author’s page for more information.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918

And now some quotes from the book which I really loved:

“Examining her past, we will see that she had always been a perverse child—moody, disobedient, quarrelsome, and stubborn. (…) Rather than follow the sensible wishes of her family to prepare herself to become a wife and mother, she badgered them to let her enroll in an academy of arts, to become an artist, a painter, as you heard her prideful boast. But has her work ever been sold by a gallery, displayed at an exhibition, represented by a dealer, reviewed in a newspaper? In the art world the name of Jeanne Hébuterne is totally unknown. And so it is likely to remain.”

I was fuming now. What right had he to judge my artwork?”

When I gaze at Jeanne’s face, the phrase “still waters run deep” comes to mind because she was seen by those around her as shy, quiet, melancholy and delicate, and yet she had all that passion hidden inside. If channeled in a different way, that passion would have made her a great artist. A quote from Jeanne’s diary (not Jeanne’s real diary, but the diary from the novel):

This is the room of a proper jeune fille, the person I am outgrowing or perhaps have never been. It is a room where Modi will never set foot, where his smile will never be caught in the mirror. Yet the thought of him fills every room, every space I go, and replaces the air in my lungs.

Jeanne Hébuterne, Self-Portrait, 1916

I can’t explain why I keep watching the horizon, but I feel that my real life is waiting for me out there somewhere across the water. Who am I? Who will I become? Maman says I am going to be beautiful—but that my hips are too round, my face too full, and when I am older I will have a double chin, like hers. But my eyes are the color of southern seas in summer, changing from green to gold to turquoise. I have seen those waters in the pictures of Gauguin, who is my favorite painter.

She was an artist, you see. Not many people knew that. A very talented artist. He was not only her lover, her husband, and the father of her children, but also her maître. He was teaching her, guiding her artistic career. He was a god in her eyes. Her passion for Modigliani was equaled only by her passion for her art. As a mother, well, she was too young to have taken on that responsibility, and he was certainly not much help.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne in a Large Hat, 1918

Jeanne Hébuterne, Death, 1919

Jeanne Hébuterne, Suicide, 1920

Jeanne Hébuterne, Self-Portrait, 1918

Jeanne Hébuterne, Portrait of Modigliani, 1919

I really enjoyed this description of Modigliani’s scent and the way it brings back memories to Jeanne who had just died:

“And then I saw his brown velvet jacket with frayed cuffs reflected behind me, hanging on a nail in the wall. (…) I went to it now, caressing the length of the sleeves, remembering the arms they once held, that once held me, and although I could not lift it from the nail, I could almost feel the smooth velvet ribs against my fingertips and cheek. Sticking my nose into the folds, I sighed deeply, and a miracle happened! I could smell again, and his scent, a ripe potpourri of tobacco, wine, turpentine, sweat, hashish, and soap, poured into my senses, and I thought I might collapse. My chest heaved with sobs, but my eyes produced no tears.”

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne with Hat and Necklace, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919

“This is the cemetery of the unborn. (…) Things that have been left undone—unspoken loves, unwritten books and symphonies, unexpressed regrets, unrealized wishes, unsolved mysteries, unsatisfied hunger… (…) Things unfinished all end up here in this graveyard, where they remain until they either disintegrate or return to life, drifting about in the wind in hopes someone will catch them.”

 

Edward Okuń, Four Strings of a Violin, 1914

Jeanne Hébuterne played the violin and I really love the motif of the violin which is repeated throughout the novel; Jeanne’s memories of taking violin classes, Jeanne taking the violin as the one thing she can bring to the other world and the ghostly sounds of violin in the air:

Nothing  I  cared  about—except  my  violin—which the gallery thieves had abandoned on my worktable. I reached for the handle of the violin case and most amazingly, lifted it up before being swept through the door. Or perhaps it was the soul of the instrument I held in my hand—for the violin case still lay on the table even as I carried it away. But I had no time to puzzle this over. (…) Caressing  the  worn  leather  case  on  my  knees,  I  thought  of  the many times I had taken the horse-drawn omnibus to go to my music lesson with old Maître Schlict on cold rainy days like this, and how I would stop for a cup of hot coffee or chocolate to warm my hands up before my lesson.

“I always loved that hour in winter and would sit  by  the  window,  gazing  out  through  the  dusk,  waiting  for  Modi  to  come  home  from  the  cafés  when  he  was  out  on  business  with  Zbo.  I would take out my violin, which I had brought from my parents’ flat in Rue Amyot and practice a little Schubert, “Death and the Maiden.”But I could never get the opening bars of the first movement to sound quite right. Maître Schlict, my old violin teacher before the war, always said that I was too hesitant in the attack. I needed to learn to be more assertive. I could almost hear that music now…”

Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin: Art Discussions in Arles II

27 Mar

“You’ll never be an artist, Vincent,” announced Gauguin, “until you can look at nature, come back to your studio and paint it in cold blood.”
“I don’t want to paint in cold blood, you idiot. I want to paint in hot blood! That’s why I’m in Arles.”
“All this work you’ve done is only slavish copying from nature. You must learn to work extempore.”
“Extempore! Good God!”

Vincent van Gogh, Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles), c. November 1888

In this post I’ll present you the continuation of the art discussions which Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin had in Arles. You can read the first part of this post here. As I have already said, Vincent van Gogh arrived to Arles in spring of 1888, and in October the same year a fellow painter Paul Gauguin joined him in sunny Provence though not without a bit of hesitation and skepticism. While Vincent admired the older painter and wanted to learn from him, Gauguin arrogantly dismissed Vincent’s ideas about art and criticised his paintings with no shyness. In the first part of their discussion, Gauguin focused on criticising Vincent’s sunflowers and here Gauguin will focus on lecturing Vincent that he will never be a true artist until he can gaze at nature, then return to studio and paint from his memory/imagination rather than directly whilst being in nature. I still cannot fathom the audacity of Gauguin to say such things, but it is interesting to read it. The passages are, as I’ve already said, from Irving Stone’s book “Lust for Life”. Vincent did indeed listen to Gauguin and tried out his advice on painting from memory and the result was the painting you can see above, “Memory of the Garden at Etten” or simply called “Ladies of Arles” which looks different from Van Gogh’s other paintings. It’s vibrant and interesting, but I still prefer his typical style of painting, exhibited in his wheat field with crows and his paintings of sunflowers and starry nights. I do like all the little dots and dashes of red on the woman’s clothes and of turquoise on the cypresses. And now here is the discussion:

The painters whom Gauguin admired, Vincent despised. Vincent’s idols were anathema to Gauguin. They disagreed on every last approach to their craft. Any other subject they might have been able to discuss in a quiet and friendly manner, but painting was the meat and drink of life to them. They fought for their ideas to the last drop of nervous energy. Gauguin had twice Vincent’s brute strength, but Vincent’s lashing excitement left them evenly matched. Even when they discussed things about which they agreed, their arguments were terribly electric. They came out of them with their heads as exhausted as a battery after it has been discharged.
“You’ll never be an artist, Vincent,” announced Gauguin, “until you can look at nature, come back to your studio and paint it in cold blood.”
“I don’t want to paint in cold blood, you idiot. I want to paint in hot blood! That’s why I’m in Arles.”
“All this work you’ve done is only slavish copying from nature. You must learn to work extempore.”
“Extempore! Good God!”
“And another thing; you would have done well to listen to Seurat. Painting is abstract, my boy. It has no room for the stories you tell and the morals you point out.”
“I point out morals? You’re crazy.”
“If you want to preach, Vincent, go back to the ministry. Painting is colour, line, and form; nothing more. The artist can reproduce the decorative in nature, but that’s all.”
“Decorative art,” snorted Vincent. “If that’s all you get out of nature, you ought to go back to the Stock Exchange.”
“If I do, I’ll come hear you preach on Sunday mornings. What do you get out of nature, Brigadier?”
“I get motion, Gauguin, and the rhythm of life.”
“Well, we’re off.”
“When I paint a sun, I want to make people feel it revolving at a terrific rate of speed. Giving off light and heat waves of tremendous power. When I paint a cornfield I want people to feel the atoms within the corn pushing out to their final growth and bursting. When I paint an apple I want people to feel the juice of that apple pushing out against the skin, the seeds at the core striving outward to their own fruition!”
“Vincent, how many times have I told you that a painter must not have theories.”
“Take this vineyard scene, Gauguin. Look out! Those grapes are going to burst and squirt right in your eye. Here, study this ravine. I want to make people feel all the millions of tons of water that have poured down its sides. When I paint the portrait of a man, I want them to feel the entire flow of that man’s life, everything he has seen and done and suffered!”
“What the devil are you driving at?”
“At this, Gauguin. The fields that push up the corn, and the water that rushes down the ravine, the juice of the grape, and the life of a man as it flows past him, are all one and the same thing. The sole unity in life is the unity of rhythm. A rhythm to which we all dance; men, apples, ravines, ploughed fields, carts among the corn, houses, horses, and the sun. The stuff that is in you, Gauguin, will pound through a grape tomorrow, because you and a grape are one. When I paint a peasant labouring in the field, I want people to feel the peasant flowing down into the soil, just as the corn does, and the soil flowing up into the peasant. I want them to feel the sun pouring into the peasant, into the field, into corn, the plough, and the horses, just as they all pour back into the sun. When you begin to feel the universal rhythm in which everything on earth moves, you begin to understand life. That alone is God.”
“Brigadier,” said Gauguin, “vous avez raison!”
Vincent was at the height of his emotion, quivering with febrile excitement. Gauguin’s words struck him like a slap in the face. He stood there gaping foolishly, his mouth hanging open.
“Now what in the world does that mean, ‘Brigadier, you are right?’”
“It means I think it about time we adjourned to the café for an absinthe.”

Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin: Art Discussions in Arles I

21 Mar

“Those violent yellows, for example; they’re completely disordered.”
“Is that all you find to say about my sunflowers?”
“No, my dear fellow, I can find a good many things to criticize.”

Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers – Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, 1888

Vincent van Gogh arrived to Arles in spring of 1888, and in October the same year a fellow painter Paul Gauguin joined him in sunny Provence though not without a bit of hesitation and skepticism. While Vincent admired the older painter and wanted to learn from him, Gauguin arrogantly dismissed Vincent’s ideas about art and criticised his paintings with no shyness. It seems that the two painters were already too mature to take advice and their art styles too developed to change. Their approaches to painting and their life philosophies were very different; Gauguin thought Vincent was nothing but a romantic fool and he despised his thick visible brushstrokes. At the same time, Vincent loved to paint directly from nature and didn’t agree with Gauguin’s “painting from memory” technique. The painting above is Gauguin’s portrait of Vincent van Gogh as the painter of sunflowers. Vincent didn’t like the way his face was painted because he thought it made him look like a madman, and that’s coming from a man who had cut off his own ear a month later… It is perplexing how Gauguin wasn’t impressed with Vincent, why I cannot imagine what joy and privilege it must be to sit beside Vincent and gaze at him painting sunflower, gaze at the very birth of the painting, take in all the gorgeous shades of yellow. I would have loved that. In my previous post I mentioned that I was rereading Irving Stone’s wonderful romanticised biography of Vincent van Gogh called “Lust for Life” and in this post I wanted to share a dialogue between Vincent and Gauguin about art:

“What is the matter with the colours in my pictures?”
“My dear fellow, you’re still floundering in neo-impressionism. You’d better give up your present method. It doesn’t correspond to your nature.”
Vincent pushed his bowl of soup aside.
“You can tell that at first glance, eh? You’re quite a critic.”
“Well, look for yourself. You’re not blind, are you? Those violent yellows, for example; they’re completely disordered.”
Vincent glanced up the sunflower panels on the wall.
“Is that all you find to say about my sunflowers?”
“No, my dear fellow, I can find a good many things to criticize.”
“Among them?”
“Among them, your harmonies; they’re monotonous and incomplete.”
“That’s a lie!”
“Oh, sit down, Vincent. Stop looking as though you wanted to murder me. I’m a good deal older than you, and more mature. You’re still trying to find yourself. Just listen to me, and I’ll give you some fruitful lessons.”
“I’m sorry, Paul. I do want you to help me.”
“Then the first thing you had better do is sweep all the garbage out of your mind. You’ve been raving all day about Messonier and Monticelli. They’re both worthless. As long as you admire that sort of painting, you’ll never turn out a good canvas yourself.”
“Monticelli was a great painter. He knew more about colour than any man of his time.”
“He was a drunken idiot, that’s what he was.” Vincent jumped to his feet and glared at Gauguin across the table.
The bowl of soup fell to the red tile floor and smashed.
“Don’t you call ‘Fada’ that! I love him almost as well as I do my own brother! All that talk about his being such a drinker, and off his head, is vicious gossip. No drunkard could have painted Monticelli’s pictures. The mental labour of balancing the six essential colours, the sheer strain and calculation, with a hundred things to think of in a single half hour, demands a sane mind. And a sober one. When you repeat that gossip about ‘Fada’ you’re being just as vicious as that beastly woman who started it.”
“Turlututu, mon chapeau pointu!”
Vincent recoiled, as though a glass of cold water had been thrown in his face. His words and tense emotion strangled within him. He tried to put down his rage, but could not. He walked to his bedroom and slammed the door behind him.

Petrus van Schendel – Reading by Candlelight

9 Dec

Petrus van Schendel, Reading by Candlelight, date unknown, c. 1840s-50s

I recently rediscovered the wonderful paintings of a Dutch-Belgian painter Petrus van Schendel. I say rediscovered because I remember seeing some of them before, and forgetting about them, but now my eye was truly ready to take in all their beauty and magic. Van Schendel specialised in nocturnal scenes lit by candles or lamps. A daylight scene wouldn’t provide him with an opportunity to paint such mesmerising effect of the candlelight, and in Van Schendel’s paintings the beauty of light is truly mesmerising. I really love his painting “Reading by Candlelight” painted c. 1840s or 1850s. The clear date isn’t given, by the lady’s hairstyle gives the time period away. The painting is a simple genre scene of a young girl reading a book at nighttime. The light of a single candle lightens the room and illuminates the space around her while the rest of the chamber descends into darkness. You can just feel the warmth and the coziness of that room.

The girl is seen from the profile and her face shows calmness, she doesn’t even know she is being watched. The way her head is painted and her clothes remind me of the girls from Vermeer’s, or even better Geritt ter Borch’s paintings, who are shown reading or writing a letter. But in those paintings the cold light of a grey day is falling on the girls, while here we have the light of a candle which colours this simple genre scene in warmth, dreaminess and mystery. Night is always more mysterious than day, and in the light of the flickering candle, which may extinguish at any moment, the contours of things fade away and things may seem different than they are, more enchanting or eerie. The vase full of vibrant flowers on the girl’s table is very pretty in shape and I love the detail of its shadow falling behind.

And another interesting thing is the faint, barely noticeable portrait of a bearded man on the wall above. Who is he? Her father, or perhaps old ancestor who had died. Regardless, his ghostly face is keeping an eye on the girl like a stern, yet protective father-figure. The whole scene oozes intimacy and warmth, as if we are watching into a private world of this girl without her even knowing it. The beauty of the candlelight as the main focus of the scene naturally brings to mind the French Baroque painter Georges de La Tour who is very famous for his chiaroscuro scenes where the candle is the only source of light. We are spoiled for light today and it is easy to forget just how precious the light was in the past ages when you couldn’t just press a light switch; when a candle burns out, the darkness rules again until the dawn’s faint light comes again.

Simone de Beauvoir – Brigitte Bardot and Lolita Syndrome

15 Nov

I love Brigitte Bardot; her presence on the screen is simply delightful, her face is more beautiful than any painting to me, her pouting, her hair, her gaze, the way she walks… enchanting! She doesn’t seem to be acting at all, as Roger Vadim had said, she is just there, being herself. I love her in the early films of her career; “And God Created Woman” (1956), “Love is My Profession” (or “A Case of Adversity, 1957), and La Vérité (1960) in which the handsome Sami Frey plays the role of her lover. The other day I read Simone de Beauvoir’s essay called “Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome”, originally published in 1959 and I thought I’d share some interesting passages about Brigitte Bardot as the nymphet, a woman-child, the untamed waif. Everything bellow is from de Beauvoir’s essay, not my words:

Brigitte Bardot in “Une parisienne”, 1957

“Nabokov’s “Lolita” which deals with the relations between a forty-year-old male and a ‘nymphet’ of twelve, was at the top of the best-seller list in England and America for months. The adult woman now inhabits the same world as the man, but the child-woman moves in a universe which he cannot enter. The age difference re-established between them the distance that seems necessary for desire. At least that is what those who have created a new Eve by merging the ‘green fruit’ and ‘femme fatale’ types have pinned their hopes on.

(….) Brigitte Bardot is the most perfect specimen of these ambiguous nymphs. Seen from behind, her slender, muscular, dancer’s body is almost androgynous. Femininity triumphs in her delightful bosom. The long voluptuous tresses of Mélisande flow down to her shoulders, but her hair-do is that of a negligent waif. The line of her lips forms a childish pout, and at the same time those lips are very kissable. She goes about barefooted, she turns up her nose at elegant clothes, jewels, girdles, perfumes, make-up, at all artifice. Yet her walk is lascivious and a saint would sell his soul to the devil merely to watch her dance. It has often been said that her face has only one expression. It is true that the outer world is hardly reflected in it at all and that it does not reveal great inner disturbances. But that air of indifference becomes her. BB has not been marked by experience. Even if she has lived – as in “Love is my profession” – the lessons that life has given her are too confused for her too have learned anything from them. She is without memory, without a past, and, thanks to this ignorance, she retains the perfect innocence that is attributed to a mythical childhood.

(…) Vadim presented her as a ‘a phenomenon of nature.’ ‘She doesn’t act’, he said. ‘She exists.’ (…) She was moody and capricious. (…) She was described as a creature of instinct, as yielding blindly to her impulses. She would suddenly take a dislike to the decoration of her room and then and there would pull down the hangings and start repainting the furniture. She is temperamental, changeable and unpredictable, and though she retains the limpidity of childhood, she has also preserved its mystery. A strange little creature, all in all; and this image does not depart from the traditional myth of femininity. She appears as a force of nature, dangerous so long as she remains untamed, but it is up to the male to domesticate her. She is kind, she is good-hearted. In all her films she loves animals. If she ever makes anyone suffer, it is never deliberately.

Her flightiness and slips of behaviour are excusable because she is so young and because of circumstances. Juliette had an unhappy childhood; Yvette, in ‘Love is my profession’, is a victim of society. If they ever go astray, it is because no one has ever shown them the right path, but a man, a real man, can lead them back to it. Juliette’s young husband decides to act like a male, gives her a good sharp slap, and Juliette is all at once transformed into a happy, contrite and submissive wife. Yvette joyfull accepts her lover’s demand that she be faithful and his imposing upon her a life of virtual seclusion. With a bit of luck, this experienced, middle-aged man would have brought her redemption. BB is a lost, pathetic child who needs a guide and protector. This cliché has proved its worth. It flatters masculine vanity.

(…) BB is neither perverse nor rebellious nor immoral, and that is why morality does not have a chance with her. Good and evil are part of conventions to which she would not even think of bowing.”