Tag Archives: Death

Arnold Böcklin – Isle of the Dead

14 Jun

The title of this painting was apparently coined by the art dealer, while the artist himself referred to the painting only as “a picture for dreaming over”. A fascinating detail to be aware of because the morbid and mysterious allure of the painting lies half in its symbolist-laden title. I didn’t know for the painting before I discovered Rachmaninov’s composition of the same name a few years ago. The title is bewitching, and yet the painting itself looks like the world of nightmares which I inhabit in my slumber. I am drawn and repulsed by it, I fear being engulfed in its darkness, and yet I crave to unravel the mystery of those tall cypress trees.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, ‘Basel’ version, 1880

“Under ancient cypress trees, weeping dreams are harvested from sleep.” (Georg Trakl, tr. by Jay Hopler, from “Year,” published c. October 1912)

The painting shows a seemingly uninhabited little island, composed from strange massive yellowish rocks and built in classical style architecture, the purpose of which is unclear. The centre of the isle is occupied by tall and shadowy cypress trees which look, to me, as if they are corpses standing upright and decaying slowly. Their darkness exudes a nauseating scent and the way they loom over the isle silently gives their presence an ominous character. This is a place from the artist’s imagination, and all elements are subordinated to the mood which is one of dreams and death, some even say the mood is that of ‘withdrawal, of rejection of reality’ which makes sense in the context of Symbolism. Death dreamily hangs over the isle as a dark cloud heavy from rain; death hides in the soft trembling of the tired cypress trees; death lingers in the air in the rich and heavy scent of the Mediterranean. But the isle is not alone; a little rowboat is slowly gliding through the dark and still waters. On the boat we see an oarsman, a figure shrouded in white veils, resembling a statue or a mummy, and a coffin. Now, just when you thought things couldn’t get more symbolist if they wanted to! There are dozens of interpretations of this painting and its every detail offers many explanations. Some suggest the oarsman represents Charon, the boatman from Greek mythology who led souls to the underworld over the river Acheron. Perhaps defining the painting would mean stealing its richness of vague dreaminess and confining it to the genre of mythological scenes, and it’s much richer than that because its layers and layers of mystery serve to awaken the subconsciousness.

Island of Saint George

This painting is one of three versions or variations of a same theme that Böcklin painted. Even though the isle is the artist’s little fantasy, a dream-world and not a real place, it was inspired by a real place, and again, there are a few possibilities. One of them points to the islet called “Sveti Đorđe” (“Island of Saint George”) in Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. The only building on the islet is a Benedictine monastery from the 12th century and the abundance of tall and dark cypress trees are reminiscent of Böcklin’s paintings. It really is a dead isle; no one lives there apart from the wandering souls of the dead, and tourists are not allowed. Böcklin could have seen the islet on one of his travels to Italy. I am certain that in twilight it holds the same eerie spell on the observer as the isle in the painting does. Another possible inspiration is the Pontikonisi islet in Greece, again with plenty of cypress trees and a Byzantine chapel from the 12th century. I personally feel that there is a clear resemblance between the Island of Saint George and the third version of the painting “Isle of the Dead”, from 1883, where the rocky formations are sharp and grey, almost enveloping the isle, and the colour of the sea blends with that of the sky.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, The Third Version, 1883

What draws us to the painting is the eerie atmosphere, the irrational composition of the isle and its dazzling dream-like beauty, and the mystery which doesn’t have an answer. Surrealists such as Giorgio de Chirico loved the painting, precisely because of those qualities, and the similar mood of silence, eeriness and mystery pervades many of his paintings. A reference to the past might be the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich which have the same mute stillness and a spiritual mystique.

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Josip Račić – Watercolours: Paris Through the Eyes of a Stranger

3 May

We begin a new month – the pink, flowery and sweet May – with a new artist; Croatian painter Josip Račić (1885-1908) and the watercolours he painted during his brief stay in Paris in 1908.

Josip Račić, Park Luxembourg, 1907

On 10th February 1908, young Croatian artist Josip Račić arrived in Paris. Five months later he was found death in his room. A suicide. A mystery which gave birth to the romanticised myth of this tortured genius’s life. In his short yet turbulent artistic career, from humble beginnings to education in Munich and lastly, his short Parisian period, Račić, having died at the age of twenty-three, managed to create enough works to become a crucial figure for the development of Croatian Modern art and to pave way for the artists who followed.

Račić was born in a village near Zagreb in 1885 and attended grammar school for a short period after deciding to fully delve into lithography. In 1904 he was already studying in Munich with a well known professor Anton Ažbe, an eccentric yet generous man fighting his own demons whilst always willing to help a student in need; both financially and in motivation. While there, he became a part of the “Croatian School” formed by three fellow art students from Croatia who would later become renewed artists in the early twentieth century. Račić’s family, especially his father, never supported his artistic ambitions so we can guess that his time in Munich was a time of freedom.

There was always an air of mystery around his persona; moody and sensitive, brutally honest with himself and others, he found it hard to develop deep and sincere friendships. He undoubtedly felt misunderstood, and many have for sure mistaken his honesty with arrogance. It wasn’t long that he started being bored with Munich and longed to get acquainted with the art of Paris, to broaden his views, to learn and to create. Determined that his art will thrive if brought in contact with the new currents, in autumn of 1907 Račić decided to go to Paris.

Josip Račić, Café on the boulevard, 1908

In February 1908 he was in Paris and the world of art was opening before his eyes. A boy from the provinces lost in the light and shine of the big city; wandering the wide boulevards, observing people, instantly finding inspiration for his paintings. It’s interesting that he chose the medium of watercolours to portray this fascinating new world that was opening before his eyes, because the paintings he made in Munich and Zagreb were mostly oil on canvas works. Perhaps it’s only the watercolour that can truly capture the light of the street lamps as it spills on the dark dirty pavements, the gloominess of parks and mask-like faces of strangers. Indeed, something that connects all of Račić’s works from his Parisian phase are the shadowy figures of passers-by, often in dark colours with faces that show no individualistic characteristics, but this isn’t Kirchner’s frenzy and anticipation of catastrophe, there is more subtlety and lyrical beauty about these street scenes. There is often a voyeuristic touch to his watercolours; people chatting in parks and being watched by a pair of artistic eyes.

Josip Račić, In the Park, 1908

“In the Park” is a bit merrier than the other watercolours, in terms of colour palette. In a vertical composition, a few closely-cropped female figures are shown in middle of a conversation in the park. The perspective almost looks like photography. Underneath shades of red, light green and yellow, which are refreshingly vivid for a change, we can see Račić’s pencil sketch. How exciting! Račić often seems to ignore all the dreamy and lyrical abilities of watercolour as a medium and still retains his figures painted with stability and volume, he is still hesitant to free with brushstrokes even more. Paris is inviting him to surrender, in colour and in form, and this gives birth to a certain agitation, hopelessness, anxiety….

Josip Račić, On the Boulevard, 1908

Josip Račić, On the Boulevard, 1908

Both watercolours “One the Boulevard” are interesting street-scenes with people sitting on benches and chatting. Figures in both paintings are painted in simplified forms, dark and shadowy, and compositions are horizontal with diagonal lines on the left that divide the areas of light and shadow. People are sitting in the shadow, and just a step away from their gloomy little worlds there are vivid lights of street lamps.

Josip Račić, On the Seine, 1908

Painting “On the Seine” is such a lyrical little masterpiece; a large portion of the painting is devoted to the bridge which is painted in murky shades of blue, green and brown, and then underneath the bridge we see two human figures by the shore, painted like blots, and behind them the Seine stretches on and on, sorrowful and tired. Račić’s watercolours all have melancholy woven through them, in colours and in compositions. Scenes of isolation where people are presented but are distant, unapproachable, strangers because he was a stranger; distant because he felt distant from everyone. No place was a home and Paris didn’t offer the magic potion of happiness and artistic inspiration that he sought. These street scenes and landscapes with lonely human figures are paintings which show the interior of his soul; this was his vision of Paris because he felt that way. No trace of Fauvism or Cubism; art movements that were all the rage in Paris at the time. Just coldness, loneliness, sorrow.

Josip Račić, Pont des Arts, 1908

A curiosity amongst these delightful and sombre watercolours is this oil on canvas work “Pont des Arts” which has a mood of sadness and fatigue; a tired river that flows slowly, a bridge that leads nowhere, a shadowy figure by the shore, empty sky… Then, out of nowhere, the end of this little watercolour-Parisian Renaissance; Račić is found dead in his room in Rue abbé Gregoire number 48. That day, 20th July 1908, Račić was suppose to meet his two Croatian friends, painter Paola Broch and her friend Mrs Schmidt, for dinner. A revolver which he used was a gift from his friend in Munich and it was brand new. Ruby red roses were found still sitting languorously on the fireplace, spreading a dazzling perfume around the room, wrapping the dead body in a veil of dreams.

The reasons for this remain unclear, for at the time of his suicide his career was going well; he had just been given a scholarship, had sold a few paintings and was just about to go to a painting-trip to Brittany. However, there are many suggestions from his painter colleagues and writers of the time. The most notable suggestion being that he was in a artistic-spiritual crisis when he realised how belated his art was and how he was to old to change the course of his art, a feeling of arriving to late to Paris. Some suggested it was connected with his love life, or that he had syphilis. I certainly don’t know, but the first suggestion seems the most obvious to me; a moment of despair taken too far. He was just twenty-three and everything was in front of him.

Eugene Delacroix – Orphan Girl at the Cemetery

26 Apr

A French painter of Romanticism, Eugene Delacroix, was born on this day, 26th April, in 1798 and today we’ll take a look at one of his early works, the “Orphan Girl at the Cemetery”.

Eugène Delacroix, Orphan Girl at the Cemetery (Jeune orpheline au cimetière), 1823-24

A young girl alone at the cemetery looks up towards the sky, with a prayer mounting in her heart and not yet spoken on her lips. She sees the large white clouds moving monotonously, slowly, tiredly; she wishes to talk to God but the sky is empty, to quote Sylvia Plath. The girl is painted from the profile, with large eyes turned upwards and mouth slightly open. Her left shoulder is left bare and her right arm is resting lifelessly on her knee; all suggesting resignation and vulnerability. The graveyard in the French countryside, as it is suggested, with its wooden crosses, forgotten names, mud, flowers and candles, is a vision of loneliness. As dusk descends, not a soul is around. Her eyes and her pose tell us so much. She is seeking answers, she is unloved and confused, and contemplating over her life she sees nothing but poverty and uncertainty. Look at her eyes. This is sadness beyond tears and meaningless words. Tombstones and the trees in the background all look tiny in comparison with her rather closely-cropped figure. Mournful murmur of the distant cypress trees mingles with the heavy silence of the wooden crosses.

Since this is one of Delacroix’s early works, the colours are not of the warm and glistening kind that he used after his trip to Morocco in 1832. The limited colour palette of murky browns, greens and yellowish-white serves here to intensify the gloomy mood, and yet on her skin colour the real dynamic dance of colours begins; the warm brown base takes over red, pink and greenish shades in places. The dimly-lit vanilla coloured sky in the background is painted as romantically as it is possible and brings to mind the melancholy sunsets and skies in paintings of a German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. As a true Romanticist, Delacroix approached the subject with a lot of subjectivity, compassion and a depth of feelings. In a harmony of colours and a wonderful composition, he brought the emphasis on what is important; the girl with her pain and her solitude, successfully avoiding the sentimentalising of her position.

Vincent van Gogh’s Birthday – The Prettiest Star

30 Mar

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888

Vincent van Gogh; a passionate and eccentric individual in his time, and a well-known and beloved artist today, was born on this day, 30th March, in 1853. The date of his birth seems so fitting; it’s the time of the year when pink and white blossoms of cherry, pear and apple trees grace the landscape and invite us to dream, it’s the moment of the year when nature shows its strength by winning a battle against winter, the sun shines on the frozen soil, melts the snow and invites the little snowdrops and primroses to bloom, the birds are returning from foreign lands…

Vincent, I know you were not appreciated in your time, but I look at your paintings with ardour, I feel them; I feel rapture from those intoxicating yellows and playful blues, I love your mischievous cypresses, starry nights, blossoming trees, and lonely wheat fields, I love your letters – the windows to your soul, and above all, I love the “lust for life” energy that emerges from the canvases and speaks to my heart and soul, and to many and many hearts out there. Thank you for existing and painting, even if it was such a short time, but aren’t we all here on earth for such a short time, compared to eternity?

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the beauty that Vincent has created in his short life; gaze at his paintings, read his letters, daydream about his starry skies and trees in bloom, feel the ecstasy that he has created in those vibrant colours and think of him because his soul is the prettiest star!

Happy birthday, Vincent van Gogh!

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, repetition of the 4th version (yellow background), August 1889

Vincent, you are not forgotten!

Egon Schiele – Edith In a Striped Dress

13 Mar

This is a post from last spring, but many of my new readers probably haven’t read it yet so I decided to share it again because these paintings are dear to my heart.

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Egon Schiele’s portrait of his wife Edith in a colourful striped dress is something quite unusual and new in his art, and her face, full of naivety, sweetness and innocence seems so out of place amongst his usual female portraits, nudes and half-nudes, with a decaying heroin chic appeal. Where did this change of style come from?

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele, the artist’s wife, 1915

When I first saw this portrait, I loved the stripes on the dress for they seemed so alive, so intricate and colourful, and yet the quality of the colour is murky and earthy, as usual in Schiele’s palette. I was also amused by her face expression, but my interest quickly turned to Schiele’s alluring nudes. What can this portrait show us, apart from the fact that Edith loved wearing striped dresses? Well, it’s a psychological study which shows us Edith’s true personality. Let’s say that her true colours shine through. Look at her – she looks awkward and artless, she is clumsy and doesn’t know what to do with her hands, her eyes are wide open and eyebrows slightly raised, her lips are stretched in a weird, shy smile, as if she’s in the spotlight but wants to get away, she’s pretty but not exceptional, timid but not gloomy. Prior to marrying Schiele, Edith led quite a sheltered life, with her sister Adele and her conservative parents.

In Spring of 1914, Schiele noticed that there were two pretty young girls living just across his flat. Naturally interested, he started thinking of ways to meet them which was hard because the girls lived under the watchful eyes of their mother. They started waving each other through the window, and sometimes Schiele would paint a self-portrait and show it to them through the window. Surely by now, both Edith and Adele had dreamt of meeting that cheeky, arrogant but charming artist across the street. Schiele started sending them little notes, the content of which must have made Edith and Adele blush and giggle, but they never replied to any of them for a year. They met with Wally’s help, and all four went to the theatre or cinema together. Needless to say that the cynical Schiele was interested in both girls, in fact, for some time he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to marry Edith or Adele. Crazy situation, but luckily for him, it turned out that Adele wasn’t really interested so he settled on Edith and they got married, despite the strong disapproval of her parents, on 17 June 1915, which was the anniversary of the marriage of Schiele’s parents.

Scenes from ‘Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment’ (1981)

I can understand why Edith liked Schiele, women always go for the bad guys; he was an artist, straightforward about what he wanted, he had a bad reputation and was once imprisoned for pornographic art, and, admit it or not, there’s something romantic about criminals. What remains a mystery to me is why Schiele liked her? What could this timid, shy, proper and frightened girl had to offer him? Most importantly, what was it so appealing about Edith that the witty, funny street-wise, experienced Wally didn’t have?

We sense here the conflicting emotions that Edith must have caused in Schiele: a quiet pleasure in her innocence, a satisfaction with her selfless loyalty mixed with frustration at her lack of of sexual energy. Schiele makes her seem passive and whilst he found vulnerability attractive he must also have longed for those quite different qualities which Wally possessed in abundance: the kind of temperament and aggressive eroticism which made Schiele himself feel vulnerable.“*

Edith was portrayed well in the film Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment (1981). If I remember well, in one scene she’s sitting in Schiele’s lap and he shows her some of his erotic drawings, and she throws a quick shy glance, giggling and blushing, and you can see that she’s at unease with the nude models in his studio, stretching in different poses. She wanted to pose for him so he wouldn’t look at other women, but she just couldn’t satisfy his artistic demands. Again, that’s something that Wally did more than well.

Where did this wish to settle down, this wish for security come from? It seems like he wanted to indulge in a bourgeois life all of a sudden. Also, his decision to marry Edith and not Wally shows the double standards typical for men of his time; Wally was an artist’s model, a position practically equal to that of a prostitute, and as much as he loved her aggressive eroticism, he still wanted his wife to be modest and chaste. In the portrait of Edith in a striped dress from the same year, again her shyness shines through. Look at her eyes, frightened like that of a delicate fawn in the forest glade, and her sloping shoulders, almost crouching under the weight of the artist’s gaze, her hands in her lap; she looks like a child forced to sit still against its wish. Schiele always painted his middle-class wife modestly dressed, with a stiff collar and long sleeves, whereas looking at the pictures of Wally we know only of her petticoats, lingerie and stockings, not of her hats and dresses. Without a doubt, Edith loved Schiele, but she couldn’t understand his art.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele with striped dress, 1915

Their marriage didn’t last long for they both died in that sad autumn of 1918. First World War had just ended, Spanish flu had taken many lives, amongst its victims were Edith who died six months pregnant on 28th October, and Schiele who died a few days later, on 31st October.

Everything that is sad, and occurs in autumn, gets imbued with an even greater sadness, but Autumn was Schiele’s favourite season, he wrote ‘I know there is much misery in our existence and because I find Autumn much more beautiful than every other season…. It fills the heart with grief and reminds us that we are but pilgrims on this earth…’ He also wrote in his short lyrical autobiography: ‘I often wept through half-closed eyes when Autumn came. When Spring arrived I dreamed of the universal music of life and then exulted in the glorious Summer and laughed when I painted the white Winter.’ The fresh, new, dreamy Spring of his art is forever tied with the image of cheerful Wally in her stockings, forever smiling from the canvas, and so the Autumn of his art is tied with Edith’s timid half smile and her striped dress. Rapture and gloom, life and death, Eros and Thanatos; all intertwined in Schiele’s paintings.

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*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford

Edvard Munch – Spring

10 Mar

Edvard Munch, Spring, 1889

At last spring has won the battle against winter and now the soft breeze and mellow sunlight are coming through the open window, flowers started blooming and a little sparrow is ready to sit on the windowsill and sing a little ditty to brighten up the lonely days of this weak and ill young girl. In this simple, almost genre-scene, Edvard Munch managed to convey so much depth and emotion. The most poignant detail in the painting is the girl’s mute ghost-like pale face with eyelids almost closed. While the sun bathes the room in warm yellowish glow, she is turning her head away from it, symbolically turning away from the life and lightness, gazing in the distance with watery eyes that saw the other side of the grave. Her small head, with that sad and gentle face, resting on the white pillow awakens empathy and compassion in the viewer because you get the sense that death has started living inside her, just the same as spring has started being alive outdoors. Her face radiates calmness and spiritual beauty, but the stillness that envelops the room is illusive, for the moment of death is yet to come and the scene we are looking at is merely the calm before the storm. The end of the long struggle and pain is near, and her soul will soon be dancing with the pure white daisies in the meadow. Stylistically, it is not Munch is his full Expressionist frenzy, but thematically, his obsession with death and the awareness of it is prevalent.

Death was Munch’s silent bride and his most faithful companion since his childhood; his mother died from tuberculosis when Munch was only five years old, his dearest sister Johanne Sophie died from same malaise in 1877 at the age of fourteen, and he himself was of frail health. The death of his sister affected him deeply and he returned to this sense of loss and tragedy numerous times in his artistic career, making many versions of the painting “The Sick Child”. Here, in “Spring”, he portrayed the same event.

Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1885-86, the original version

It was with this painting, “The Sick Child”, that Munch departed from Impressionism and for the first time painted in a style which would later be called Expressionism. The theme was such that is needed depth and emotions, and a new style. It’s interesting that in “Spring”, which was painted a few years later, he returned, for a moment, to a more Realistic style of painting which looks more similar to some Victorian genre-scenes than the art Munch is known for. Where did this artistic “regression” arise from?

Oscar Wilde – Speak gently she can hear the daisies grow

22 Feb

Today I’ll share with you a poem I recently stumbled upon and loved very much: Requiescat by Oscar Wilde. I particularly loved the first stanza and the last one, and the rest in between.

The Birch Tree (1967), by Ante Babaja

Tread lightly, she is near

Under the snow,

Speak gently, she can hear

The daisies grow.

 

All her bright golden hair

Tarnished with rust,

She that was young and fair

Fallen to dust.

 

Lily-like, white as snow,

She hardly knew

She was a woman, so

Sweetly she grew.

 

Coffin-board, heavy stone,

Lie on her breast,

I vex my heart alone,

She is at rest.

 

Peace, peace, she cannot hear

Lyre or sonnet,

All my life’s buried here,

Heap earth upon it.