Tag Archives: Czech writer

Giorgio de Chirico – Melancholy and Mystery of a Street

14 May

In this post we’ll take a look at Italian Metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico’s perhaps most well-known painting called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street” and the way its portrayal of space and mood connect to some scenes from Vítězslav Nezval’s Surrealist novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders”.

Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

When we think of melancholy, mysterious and lonely streets and squares in art, Chirico must be the first painter to come to mind. He painted many such scenes with cold sharply precise architecture and a strange almost sinister mood, and a well known example is the painting above called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street”. I hesitate to call it an urban scene, even though it is a city and not countryside, because it belongs completely into a world of its own, with unique logic and moods which have nothing in common with our world. At first sight, his paintings look similar to the world we live in, but then the strangeness start lurking from the shadows and we cannot help but notice the isolated and creepy mood of the street. A white building with a repetitive row of arches, disproportions, shadows… One can almost feel a deep layer of silence and then a strange giggle coming from afar, as the shadow starts growing bigger until it covers the whole square. And yet, Chirico’s paintings manage to stay lyrical despite their coldness. Another work of art which has a world of its own is Vitezslav Nezval’s novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders” written in 1934, at the height of Surrealist movement in Czechia, and published a decade later. Partly inspired by Surrealism and the dream theory, and partly by the tradition of the Gothic novel, Nezval’s novel is a beautiful contradiction in mood and themes. While some motifs are ever so romantic and gloomy such as the vault, long corridors, crypts, burial sights, others brings an anxious mood of dreams that is more reminiscent of Chirico’s paintings, especially the beginning of the Chapter V called “Losing the Way”:

Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted. When she glanced at one of the locked gates, a missionary appeared to her standing in front of it. She left the square and entered the square. Her legs were tired and were leading her on her own, while her spirit wandered like that of someone sleeping. Over one doorway she noticed a cluster of grapes held in the beak of a dove. Then she was alarmed by four windows that seemed to have been forged from a storm. She thought she heard a groan. Her eyes settled on a tall gas lamp with moths fluttering around it. But the groan came again. Having circled the square, she suddenly found herself just a few steps from the lamp and saw to her amazement a terrifying image: tied to the lam’s base was a girl, emitting plaints from deep in her throat. As Valerie stepped up closer, she recognised her clothes, which were torn in several places.

Scene from Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)

Naturally, the small square of a picturesque Czech village that Valerie has found herself on has nothing to do architecturally with Chirico’s classical and monumental Italian squares. It’s Valerie’s inner state, her emotions, fear and curiosity which give the square a slightly nightmarish mood. It’s not what she sees in front of her, it’s how she feels within that is projected on on the outside. Space in Chirico’s paintings is illogical to the eyes of grown ups, but to Valerie it isn’t unusual because she still sees things from children’s point of view, or rather, she is in the middle; just like the girl in the painting, childhood is behind her and she is walking slowly towards the shadowy figure; the adulthood. This connects to something that Chirico himself said: “To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.

Gustav Klimt – The Virgin

3 Mar

Today we’ll take a look at Klimt’s painting “The Virgin”, to me, his most vibrant and psychedelic work which signifies a stylistic change in his art and deals with a theme of girl’s sensual awakening. I will start with this ode to virginity from the novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders” written in 1932 (but published in 1945) by a Czech Surrealist writer Vítězslav Nezval. Nezval was a teenage boy when Klimt and Shiele were created their works, and in those days they were all compatriots. Valerie is a seventeen year old girl who lives in this strange little village with her strange aunt, the atmosphere is reminiscent of Gothic novels and it’s more romantic than surrealist actually. One night she, along with other village virgins, goes to a sermon where a strange priest is instructing the virgins on how they should behave: “Oh virgin, do you know who you are? (…) You are an as yet uncleft pomegranate. You are a shell in which the future ages will ring. You are a bud which will burst open when the time is ripe. You are a little rose-petal floating on  the tempestuous ocean. You are a peach oozing red blood…”

Gustav Klimt, The Virgin, 1913

I am absolutely captivated by the colours, shapes and patterns in this painting. This isn’t Klimt’s “golden phase”, this is his colourful psychedelic phase, and it proved to be his last stylistic change before he died in February 1918. Klimt on acid; borrowing purples and yellows from Matisse and Bonnard, flowers and patterns from Japanese textiles and kimonos, daydreaming of the mosaics of Ravenna. The waterfall of colours is joyfully flickering, laughing, bursting with excitement, dancing and swirling around the pale maidens who are languidly floating in a dreamy kaleidoscopic world of their own; a floating island of love, a resplendent Cythera of their own. The rigor mortis of “The Kiss”, his most famous work and a representative of his golden phase, is now a thing of the past. Though the space is still flat and ornamental, it appears far more lively because there’s so much more going on; in a pyramidal composition six female figures are intertwined, their poses and face expressions differ, but they all have the same flesh; their skin is very pale with patches of blue and pink, which brings to mind Schiele’s nudes. Here and there breasts are protruding. They are not as seductive as the femme fatales in his earlier works were, here the colour is what captures all our attention. While the girls all possess similar features and doll-like faces, the pattern appears very unique and well planned. Negating the figure and giving free reign to the pattern might be a step towards abstract art.

Nonetheless, Klimt’s focus here is still on women, without a doubt his favourite thing to paint, and the face in the middle, right above that wave of purple, is the face that my mind keep coming back to. That is her – the Virgin. Her white mask-like face with closed eyes seems peaceful with a trace of anticipation in those blueish eyelids and lips pressed together; she is dreaming within her own dream. Her heart is fluttering with the anticipation of the delights that are to come, the ecstasy which is to awake her from her virginal slumber. Her eyes are closed; she doesn’t yet see and she doesn’t yet know, but the flowers blooming all around her are far less secretive about the desires awakening inside her. Her feelings are stirred, and her hopes sweet, but she patiently awaits the future. Gazing at her face and imagining her feelings made me think of this poem by a Japanese Poetess of the Heain period Ono no Komachi (c. 825-900):

Was I lost in thoughts of love
When I closed my eyes? He
Appeared, and
Had I known it for a dream
I would not have awakened.

Gustav Klimt, The Bride, 1917-18

A stylistic and symbolic continuation for the painting “The Virgin” might as well be Klimt’s unfinished work “The Bride” where the maiden figure is at the last step of her virginal life and about to enter a new phase, she is now ripe as a fig at the height of summer, bursting with sweet juices. Again, the close-eyed figure and the swirling pattern and abundance of colours is present. It’s interesting to notice that he painted pubic hair on the figure on the right, and began painting a vibrant dress over it, and I’m sure it wasn’t a sudden change of mind but rather a preference.