Tag Archives: Death

Camille Corot: Orpheus and Lot’s Wife: Don’t Look Back…

3 Dec

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861

Two paintings – one painter and one motif that binds them; looking back and disobeying the given command. “Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld” is one of those gorgeous, ethereal and dreamy landscapes that Corot (1796-1875) painted later in his career. The scene depicts the mythology tale of the musician Orpheus who loved his wife Eurydice, who had died from a snake bite, so much that he even dared to visit the Underworld just to bring her back. His music teacher was the God Apollo and he played the lyre so beautifully that it charmed everyone who heard it and even made the trees dance. After Eurydice had died, Orpheus was inconsolable and wandered around desperate and mournful, playing heart-breakingly sad songs on his lyre, music so sad that it touched the hearts of all the nymphs and gods who urged him to go look for Eurydice in the kingdom of Hades. And so he did. Hades and Persephone were touched by his story and told him that he can bring Eurydice back to the world, but he musn’t look back until the leave the Underworld. Let us remind ourselves that Persephone herself had been in a similar situation to Eurydice.

Corot’s painting shows this scene of Orpheus, with his omnipresent lyre, leading Eurydice by the hand, through the dreamy landscapes of the world of dead, undoubtedly dreamier in Corot’s version that in reality. Corot doesn’t show the horrible moment when Orpheus, out of curiosity or insecurity perhaps, turned around to look at his beloved Eurydice who then vanished forever… That would have been an interesting painting, I imagine Eurydice’s ghostly figure fading away. Was she angry or disappointed, I wonder? No need to punish Orpheus, for later on he met an equally tragic fate… Baudelaire praised Corot’s “simplicity of colour” and called his landscapes “seductive”. An interesting choice of a word, but I must agree. I mean, just look at how seductively magical his painting of Orpheus and Eurydice is! The trees look so ephemereal and dreamy, as if they truly don’t belong on this earth. Eurydice looks ghostly enough in her gauze dress. In the background forlorn souls are lamenting their state.

Camille Corot, The Burning of Sodom (formerly ‘The Destruction of Sodom’), 1843/57

In the painting “The Burning of Sodom” you can see Corot’s earlier style which is more sombre and moody, the colours are heavy and earthy, and the overall mood is not that of dreaminess and softness. Corot painted this in 1843 and made some adjustments in 1857, that is, he cut off some of the canvas. The cloudy sky used to be bigger but for some reason Corot thought it would be better to get rid of it. The scene shows an Angel leading Lot and his daughters to safety after God had decided to destroy Sodom, and we all know why. Only the righteous ones are to be saved. Paintings that depict this motif typically focus on Lot and his daughters after they had escaped, but Corot here focuses on the crucial moment. Who is that still, dark figure in the right? It is Lot’s wife, of course. God had turned her into a pillar of salt after she had disobeyed his command of not looking back.

One scene is mythological, the other is Biblical; one is Corot’s earlier work and the other is a later one, but they both deal with the motif of disobedience to God(s). The tale of Lot’s wife shows us that you cannot save people against their will, and that is something to remember in life. You cannot open their eyes to truth if they refuse to see, if they are looking without seeing and listening without hearing, then better leave then behind, leave them in their Sodom, perhaps that is a punishment enough. Out of sadness, regret or pity, Lot’s wife disobeyed the Angel’s command and she turned around to glance at the burning city for one last time. Yearning to save another soul – she lost her own. It’s a very profound and deep message for these times as well.

Tin Ujević – Love unrequited gave no rest, so now you yearn for earth’s breast

22 Nov

Today I wanted to share a beautiful and sad poem by the Croatian poet Tin Ujević (1891-1955) called “Frailty” from his poetry collection “The Cry of a Slave” (1920), translated by Richard Berengarten. Ujević is considered by some to have been one of the last masters of European Symbolism and even the translator calls him “one of the finest South-Slavic poets”. In addition to being a poet, he was also an accomplished translator and translated the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Rimbaud, Arthur Gidé and many others. He spent his childhood living in different towns on the Croatian seaside and this love of the sea left a life-long trace on him, and it can be seen in this poem as well. In 1912 Ujević was a part of the Nationalist youth movement and was often imprisoned. From 1913 to 1919 he was in Montparnasse in Paris, where he was a notorius “anarchic bohemian” and he was a known frequenter of bars and cafes where he was often hanging out with fellow poets and artists from the Balkans, but he also moved in the art circles with artists such as Modigliani, Picasso, Cocteau and d’Annuzio. The poetry collection “The Cry of a Slave” represents the first phase in Ujević’s poetry and these poems are of intimate preocupations, woven with pessimism, a tragic sense of loneliness is intermingled with motives of metaphysical, spiritual love towards an imaginary woman.

Wilhelm Kotarbiński, Suicide’s grave, c 1900

Frailty

In this mist, in this rain –
oh drunken heart, don’t drown in pain.

Love unrequited gave no rest,
so now you yearn for earth’s breast,

And all your longing, cry of a slave,
is to find some quiet grave:

here my soul will soon expire
and here will wither my desire

on the waves of our blue, blue sea
and white, white pebbles cover me,

and my needs will all come home
under Blessed Heaven’s dome,

with sun, calm blue, and clarity,
beneath the ground that once bore me.

Léon Cogniet – Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter

16 Nov

Léon Cogniet, Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter, 1843

William Michael Rossetti, the brother of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, wrote an essay about Tintoretto in 1911 in which he mentions a well-known tale about the great painter and his beloved daughter. The Italian Renaissance painter Tintoretto absolutely adored his daughter Marietta who was also known as Tintoretta and when she passed away at the age of thirty in 1590 the great painter was so grief-stricken, tormented to the point of delirious, that he decided to paint her portrait as she was lying dead in bed. He couldn’t part with her so he captured her delicate features for the last time. This dramatic, eerie scene, which may or may not be true, fired the imagination of many Romantic painters and the version that I love the most is this one by the French painter Léon Cogniet. He was also an art teacher and he even married one of his students, furthermore both his father and his sister were also painters and it is a shame that this painter from such an artistic family stopped painting in 1855 at the age of sixty-one and died practically forgotten in 1880.

As a romantic painter it is easy to see why this sublime scene captivated him so much. Tintoretto is presented as a stern and grief-stricken father who gazes at his beloved daughter’s pale face, oh how lovely she is in death. I can imagine what beautiful verses Edgar Allan Poe would have written had he seen the sight of a famous painter painting the last portrait of his daughter. Surely, the pale face of Marietta is the same face that we see in many portraits of dead women of which I have written about here and here, it’s almost a face of a martyr, pure and tender. Marietta was her father’s pupil and she painted in his workshop, she was also a great singer and played lute, harpsichord and clavichord. Tintoretto simply couldn’t part with such a treasure and so he didn’t allow her to marry far away. Instead, he arranged a marriage for her with a local jeweler and silversmith so she would always stay close to him in Venice. You can only imagine then how sad he was when death took her away, knowing how desperately he tried to keep her by his side when she lived.

I won’t comment much about the colours in the painting because both versions I have been able to find are not that great. Also, bellow you can see another version of the same scene by a British Victorian painter Henry Nelson O’Neil. In that version the dead Marietta, with flowers in her red hair, looks like a Pre-Raphaelite maiden and brings to mind the frail and ill Pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddal; Dante Gabriel Rossetti didn’t paint her as she lay on her deathbed but he did bury a book of sonnets with her.

Henry Nelson O’Neil, Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter, 1873

Teodor Axentowicz – The Old Man and the Ghost of a Young Woman

7 Nov

Polish-Armenian painter Teodor Axentowicz (1859-1938) is somewhat forgotten and neglected in today’s art history but he has many amazing painting, for example his pastel “Redhead” of which I have written about before. Today I wanted to write about a pastel and watercolour painting whose mood and colours fit this time of the year so well, that is, the mood of the painting fits the mood of nature in this moment.

Teodor Axentowicz, Vision – Memory, Old age and youth, (The old man and the ghost of a young woman, An old man with a girl) (after 1900), pastel and watercolor on paper

This painting is known under various titles, but my favourite title is “The old man and the ghost of a young woman” because it directly implies that the wistful, gentle face of a woman that appears to be gazing at the old man is a ghost. We could assume that from the way she was painted as well; her face is clear but the rest of her seems unfinished, as if she is fading away or she is not really there. She is suppose to be a simple peasant, but her facial features look more like those of a model and the classical, idealised beauty of her face contrasts with the more realistic manner in which the old man’s face was painted. The old age has coloured his hair and beard in snow white, his attire is simple and brown. Why is he sitting under a tree with a furrowed brow? Does he sense that his end will come soon? Do the memories of his youth haunt him? Does he see the face of a girl he once loved but who had died? Maybe she came to tell him: shhh, it is time to go now… But he is still scared. The girl’s face oozes patience and tenderness, surely she has come to help him in some way. Wistful, lovely and lonely female figures appear often in Axentowicz’s art; whether it’s his gorgeous pastel “Girl with a Blue Vase (Tears)” from 1900, “Portrait of a Girl Dressed in Krakow” from 1909, or his “Girl with a Candlestick”, but they are always isolated figures against a landscape. In this painting the girl’s wistful face is tied to a bigger story and every detail is imbued with a symbolism.

Another title for the painting “Memory, Old Age and Death” brings yet another meaning to the scene; the old man seeing the girl’s face in the forest must be a sign of his impending death and the girl must be a face from his memory, someone he loved. Also, it implies a vanitas theme of transience and the shortness of life. The somber, earthy, autumnal colours match the mood of the painting perfectly. The colours aren’t the gay, vibrant shades typical for early autumn, no, this is the autumn nearing its end; winter’s frost kissing the bare trees. The painting looks like it was seen from a sepia-tinted glasses, like a distant memory, something melancholy that can never be returned. The forest setting, away from people, away from everyday life, brings additional spiritual dimension to the painting. There are no more leaves to fall of those trees; the leaves rustle no more, nothing but stilness and coldness is in the air – death is near. The combined technique that Axentowicz used is also interesting; pastel over watercolour; it brings the best of both worlds.

Sándor Petőfi: Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose, not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

27 Oct

Today I wanted to share my new poetic discovery: Sándor Petőfi, a Romantic Hungarian poet and a revolutionary whose national fervour and patriotism eventually led him to his doom, but also to his glory. Romanticism arrived a bit late to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was closely tied to patriotism and national revival; each country in the vast empire sought to define its individuality; its national history and traditions. Petofi fits the theme of central European Romanticism and the two of his main poetic themes are romantic love and love for his country. He was of Slovak or Serbian ancestry, but he wrote in Hungarian and fought for the Hungarian language to be the language of the theatre and literature instead of German. As a true Romantic hero, he led a short and turbulent life and went missing at the age of twenty-six after the Battle of Segesvár in 1849; he was presumed dead but who knows when he actually died… His poems are the mirrors of the politically turbulent times he lived in and he died in the very manner he wished, as expressed in his poem “The Thought Torments Me”:

When every nation wearing chains
Shall rise and seek the battle-plains,
With flushing face shall wave in fight
Their banners, blazoned in the light:
“For liberty!” Their cry shall be;
Their cry from east to west,
Till tyrants be depressed.
There shall I gladly yield
My life upon the field;
There shall my heart’s last blood flow out,
And I my latest cry shall shout.

In 1846, in Transylvania he met an eighteen year old maiden Júlia Szendrey and, charmed by the beauty of her countenance which matched the beauty of her mind and soul, Petofi instantly fell in love and they married the same year. His parents didn’t approve and their marriage was short anyway. Like her husband, Júlia was also a poet, and a writer and translator. She spoke a few foreign languages, loved the poetry of Heinrich Heine and the writings of George Sand, loved dancing and playing the piano but she was also a private and modest person who didn’t like sharing her talents with the world. They seem like a perfect Romantic couple, with the perfectly short, intense and tragic marriage ended by a mysterious disappearance in battle and probable death. It sounds like a story one would read in a work of Schiller or Lermontov.

Giuseppe Molteni, Desolate at the Loss of her Lover, 1850

Poem “At the End of September” is written in a truly Romantic manner because it ties the themes of love and death that all Romantics loved so much. In the first stanza Petofi slowly introduces the theme of transience through a visual imagery of the changing of seasons, and even compares the arrival of winter to his hair slowly turning grave. The transience of spring and summer goes hand in hand with the passing of his youth, and the arrival of winter is tied with the impedimence of his death. I love how melancholy and melodramatic he is, wanting to know whether his beloved will weep over his grave, but then the poetic imagery turns a darker mood and we see the poet returning from the death’s vale at midnight… These poems satisfy all my poetic needs. Just seeing the words and expressions in the poem such as “broken heart”, “bleeding heart”, “tomb”, “weep”, “tears”, “death”, “mournful”, makes me swoon!

At the End of September

The garden flowers still blossom in the vale,

Before our house the poplars still are green;

But soon the mighty winter will prevail;

Snow is already in the mountains seen.

The summer sun’s benign and warming ray

Still moves my youthful heart, now in its spring;

But lo! my hair shows signs of turning gray,

The wintry days thereto their color bring.

This life is short; too early fades the rose;

To sit here on my knee, my darling, come!

Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

O, tell me, if before thee I should die,

Wilt thou with broken heart weep o’er my bier?

Or will some youth efface my memory

And with his love dry up thy mournful tear?

 

If thou dost lay aside the widow’s vail,

Pray hang it o’er my tomb. At midnight I

Shall rise, and, coming forth from death’s dark vale,

Take it with me to where forgot I lie.

And wipe with it my ceaseless flowing tears,

Flowing for thee, who hast forgotten me;

And bind my bleeding heart which ever bears

Even then and there, the truest love for thee.

Matthew James Lawless, Dead Love, 1862

“Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?”

Petofi’s poems often bring to mind romantic imagery, typically romantic themes of love and death mingle freely in his verses and I decided to illustrate the poem with the drawing “Dead Love” from 1862. Victorian era artist Matthew James Lawless is little known today because he died young, at the age of twenty-seven, and his career never had a chance to take off. The drawings that he left definitely show a talent and a romantic imagination which ties him to the Pre-Raphaelites, and therefore I think the mood of his drawing fits the mood of Petofi’s poem. And now a poem which continues with the theme of love but here love is tied with another motif Petofi loves: fighting for liberty.

My Wife and My Sword

Upon the roof a dove,
A star within the sky,
Upon my knees my love,
For whom I live and die;
In raptures I embrace
And swing her on my knees,
Just as the dewdrop sways
Upon the leaf of trees.

But why, you’ll surely ask,
Kiss not her pretty face?
It is an easy task
To kiss while we embrace!
Many a burning kiss
I press upon her lip,
For such a heavenly bliss
I cannot now let slip.

And thus we pass our day,
I and my pretty wife,
Beyond all rare gem’s ray
Is our gay wedded life.
A friend, my sword, it seems,
Does not like this at all,
He looks with angry gleams
Upon me from the wall.

Don’t look on me, good sword,
With eyes so cross and cold,
There should be no discord
Between us, friends of old.
To women leave such things,
As green-eyed jealousy:
To men but shame it brings,
And you a man must be!

But then, if you would pause
To think who is my love,
You’d see you have no cause
At all me to reprove.
She is the sweetest maid,
She is so good and true;
Like her God only made,
I know, but very few.

If thee, good sword, again
Shall need our native land,
To seek the battle-plain
Will be my wife’s command.
She will insist that I
Go forth, my sword, with thee,
To fight, if need to die,
For precious liberty!

Sandor’s wife Julia Szendrey (1828-1868).

Eugène Delacroix – Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard

13 Oct

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839, Oil on canvas, 29,5 x 36 cm

Eugene Delacroix’s temperament, lifestyle and interests made him the perfect Romantic artist. Delacroix travelled to hot, vibrant, exotic places such as Morrocco, but he also travelled in his imagination to the romantic and alluring, dark and dramatic past eras. He was also an avid reader; words of Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and others fed his soul and fired his imagination. His ardent love of literature came with a knack for illustrating the scenes that he was reading about, he was prolific at it, and he was great at it. A theme that he found himself returning to often throughout the years was Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and especially the scene where Hamlet and Horatio are at the graveyard. Delacroix made different litographs and watercolours of the scene, but his most well-known depiction of the scene is the painting from 1839. The scene shows four figures; Horatio and Hamlet standing by the grave and two gravediggers digging the grave for Ophelia who had recently perished. This is a rather morbid, depressive chore but the gravediggers are so used to it that they are unphased. They are capable of digging a hole and talking about decomposing bodies and death as if they are exchanging recepies over tea. This makes it almost grotesque, but for Hamlet the discovery of the skull of Yorick leads to deeper thoughts, pensiveness and introspection; how transient and meaningless life is, how it passes and means nothing, how every corpse here on the graveyard was once a person with wishes, yearnings, loves. The personalities of gravediggers and Hamlet could not be more different. Here is an excerpt from their dialogue from Act V, Scene I:

Gravedigger: This skull has lain in the earth three-and-twenty years.
Hamlet: Whose was it?
Gravedigger: A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not.
Gravedigger: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! He poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.
Hamlet: This?
Gravedigger: E’en that.
Hamlet: Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.—Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, watercolour, 1827-28

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet Contemplating Yorick’s Skull, litograph, 1828

In his litographs Delacroix had depicted the scene with more details, in composition and in the clothes of the figures, everything feels more ornate and Baroque-like. The painting is stripped of all unnecessary details and ornaments. Only four figures set against a distant landscape and the stormy sky with dark clouds. This allowed Delacroix to place his focus on the analysis of the characters and the drama that is going on in the scene. The bare-chested gravedigger holding a skull is quite a sight, but all eyes are on Hamlet. Delacroix saw him through the lenses of Romanticism and he depicted him as a pale, melancholy, frail and gentle looking man dressed in black. His pale and small, almost feminine looking hands, stand out against the darkness of his clothes. His hair is flying in the wind and the stormy clouds seem to echo the stormy state of his soul. Pale and withered, in a pensive mood, reflecting on matters of life and death, and anticipating the burial of Ophelia, Hamlet is like a frail lily-flower just plucked from the ground. The watercolour version of the scene shows an equally frail, melancholy Hamlet and the whole mood is lyrical and wistful in a way that can only be accomplished with the medium of the watercolour.

Vincent van Gogh – Die in the Summertime

29 Jul

“Every time I stare into the sun
Trying to find a reason to go on
All I ever get is burned and blind…”

(Chris Cornell, Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart)

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, July 1890

Exhausting heat of summerr day. Golden wheat against the electric blue sky. A crooked, brown path through the wheat that leads to nowhere. Crows flying aimlessy, low above the wheat field – without direction, without control. Their hoarse cawing disturbs the otherwise heavy silence in the field. No trace of wind. The sky is turning a darker shade of blue with each passing moment. This is not the tender, soft baby blue sky from a Monet painting. This is not a tame wheatfield. These wild, energetic, passionate brushstrokes are not for the faint of heart. Thick, quick, short strokes are a work of an artistic maniac who is led by emotions that arose from a soul as troubled and dark and deep as a waterwell. Dark clouds are pressing down down to the ground and it all feels dense and claustrophobic.

This very dramatic painting was painted on the 10th July 1890, and is, unfortunately, not the last painting Vincent van Gogh painted, although it is one of his best and one of his most emotionally raw. Vincent died on the 29th July 1890 and there is a tendency to see this painting as Vincent’s suicide note because of the obvious ominous, disturbed mood, and while I agree with that I think it also shows the very thing that Vincent strove to capture on his painting; all the life, energy and vibrancy that was inside him, despite the depression, in his own words: “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. (…) Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners…”

This brooding wheatfield was a visual expression of a huge stream of feelings swelling up inside the artist; the feeling of enormous, incurable loneliness and immense sadness. It might be unusual to use yellow to portray sadness, but this is not the cheerful, harmless yellow we might find in a painting by Fragonard. The ripeness of the field may also symbolise the ripeness of the artist’s life and after ripeness comes either death or decay. The crows add to the ominous feeling of dread and the arrival of death, or the end. As is typical for the paintings he made in the summer of 1890, he used a double-canvas and this horizontally elongated canvas helps in creating the dramatic mood because the sky is pressing down to the field whereas in a vertically elongated painting the sky would have much more space to breathe and shine. It is also important to note that the unusual long form of a painting was typical for the Japanese Ukiyo-e prints which Vincent loved, admired and took inspiration from. This form was just one of the many ways in which he experimented with his art and used the Japanese influence. The final days of Vincent’s life were days of extreme sadness and extreme creativity and this painting, although not his last one, is the explosion of this creativity.

The title of the post comes from the Manic Street Preachers’ song “Die in the Summertime” from their third album “The Holy Bible” (1994):

“Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals
Colour my hair but the dye grows out
I can’t seem to stay a fixed ideal
Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene
See myself without ruining lines
Whole days throwing sticks into streams
I have crawled so far sideways
I recognise dim traces of creation
I want to die, die in the summertime, I want to die”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Paolo and Francesca da Rimini

12 May

Love led us straight to sudden death together.”

(Dante, Inferno, Canto V)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1855, watercolour

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an English poet, painter, illustrator, translator and most importantly the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was born on this day in 1828 in London so let us use the opportunity and remember the fascinating and charismatic artist on his birthday. Rossetti had artistic aspirations from an early age and his siblings shared those aspirations as well. His maternal uncle was John William Polidori; the friend of Lord Byron and the author of the short story “The Vampyre” (1819). He died seven years before Rossetti was born, but it shows what kind of family ancestry Rossetti had and why it was perfectly natural for him to aspire to become a poet and an artist. Half-Italian and half-mad, Rossetti idealised and glorified the Italian past, especially the Medieval era and the writings of Dante Alighieri; a hero whom he worshipped. In 1848 he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood along with William Holman Hunt whose painting “The Eve of St. Agnes” Rossetti had seen on an exhibition and loved, and the young prodigy John Everett Millais. Their aim was to paint again like the old masters did; with honesty and convinction, using vibrant colours and abundance of details, and most of all; to paint from the heart.

In 1850, two very important things happened in Rossetti’s life; he met Elizabeth Siddal; a moody and melancholy redhaired damsel who was to become the main object of his adoration in decade to come, his pupil, his lover and muse; and, he focused on painting watercolours. In the 1850s Rossetti’s head wasn’t all in the clouds of love, no half of it was in the rose-tinted clouds of the past, his main artistic inspirations being the Arthurian legends and Dante.

His watercolour “Paolo and Francesca da Rimini” from 1855 is a synthesis of these two inspirations; his love Lizzy Siddal and Dante. The watercolour is a tryptich (read from left to right) in intense, rich colours portraying the tale of doomed lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini who was the wife of his brother. Paolo and Francesca were real-life historical figures, but Rossetti’s inspirations stems from Dante’s Inferno, specifically from the Canto V where Dante and Virgil, portraid in the central panel of the tryptich, enter the part of Hell where the souls of passionate and sinful lovers remain for eternity. The first tryptich shows Paolo and Francesca in a kiss. A secret, guilty, and forbidden kiss and yet Rossetti’s scene only shows a tender and passionate moment between lovers, their hands clasped together, Paolo pulling her closer. Francesca’s long red hair and face resemble the hair and face of Elizabeth Siddal, and the figure of Paolo was based on Rossetti himself. It is as if he knew that his love would be as doomed, though in a different way, just like that of Paolo and Francesca.

The interior is simple and allows the focus to be on the couple and their secret kiss. A plucked rose on the floor, an opened book with glistening illuminations is on Francesca’s lap shows the activity that bonded the pair and made the kiss inevitable, from Dante’s Inferno, Canto V:

Dante asks Francesca:

But tell me, in that time of your sweet sighing

how, and by what signs, did love allow you

to recognize your dubious desires?”

And she responds:

And she to me: “There is no greater pain

than to remember, in our present grief,

past happiness (as well your teacher knows)!

But if your great desire is to learn

the very root of such a love as ours,

I shall tell you, but in words of flowing tears.

One day we read, to pass the time away,

of Lancelot, how he had fa llen in love;

we were alone, innocent of suspicion.

Time and again our eyes were brought together

by the book we read; our fa ces flushed and paled.

To the moment of one line alone we yielded:

it was when we read about those longed-for lips

now being kissed by such a famous lover,

that this one (who shall never leave my side)

then kissed my mouth, and trembled as he did.

When I gaze at this left panel of the tryptich, a lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s song “The River” comes more and more to my mind, I wonder does the memory of the kiss come back to haunt Paolo and Francesca in hell:

“Pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry…”

When finally I spoke, I sighed, “Alas,

what sweet thoughts, and oh, how much desiring

brought these two down into this agony.”

(Dante, Inferno, Canto V)

The central part of the tryptich, as I’ve said, shows Dante and Virgil. The third or the right wing of the tryptich shows the afterlife of the doomed lovers in Hell. Just like the sould of other unfortunate and lustful lovers, Paolo and Francesca are shown being carried by the wind of passion that swept them away in their living life on earth too, in each other’s arms for eternity. Are they being mercilessly carried by the wind, or have they overpowerd it and are riding it blissfully? All around them flames of hell dance like shooting stars. Quite romantic actually, I don’t see where the punishment part comes myself. Still, there is a message and the tale of doomed lovers in hell shows how a single moment and a single step is enough to commit a sin; the kiss was the act of weakness and passion. That single moment of weakness endangered forever their possibility of eternal glory.

Unlike other artists before him who have portrayed the story of Paolo and Francesca, Rossetti convinently avoids portraying the bloody and gruesome moment when the lovers are caught by Paolo’s brother Gianciotto who is also Francesca’s husband and murders them both. I really like that Rossetti painted a tryptich whose theme isn’t religious but profane, though some, like John Keats – another Rossetti’s hero – argue that love is sacred. After all, a tryptich is just an artwork divided into three panels, telling a story, kind of like a modern comic book so there is really no need for it to be restricted to religious topics. We can view this watercolour then as a Tryptich of the Religion of Love. And to end, here is a quote from Keats’ letter to Fanny Brawne, from 13 October 1819:

“I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.”

Đorđe Krstić – Skull Tower

7 May

The mountain breeze, which was then blowing fresh, penetrated the innumerable cavities of the skulls, and sounded like mournful and plaintive sighs.….”

Đorđe Krstić, Ćele kula (Skull Tower), 1883

Serbian painter Đorđe Krstić’s painting “Skull Tower” is a mass of heavy, earthy brown shades. The tower portrayed is a vague looking building and without knowing the history behind it, we might not even sense the eeriness that is hidden behind a drab, brown facade. The Skull Tower portrayed here is a stone structure embedded with human skulls in the town of Niš, Serbia. It dates back to May 1809 when the First Serbian Uprising took place and the Serbian rebels fought the Ottoman Empire, and, sadly, lost, but not without heroism and bravery. The Serbian leader of the battle, Srđan Sinđelić, realising his side would lose, killed himself and his fellow soldiers by creating a massive gun powder explosion. After the battle, the Ottoman soldiers took the heads of the Serbian men, skinned them and sent them to the Ottoman Sultan who, after viewing them, sent them back to Niš and then the Ottoman side built this tower as a warning to all other Serbs who may be contemplating an uprising. This was a known method for the Ottoman Empire, but still, after some time had passed, they realised that the tower served only to create resentment and not fear with the locals.

This tower built of limestone and sand originally contained more than 900 skulls, but not all are there anymore. In 1878 the Ottomans left the area and a baldachin-type structur was made over the tower and eventually a chapel was made and the tower is now inside it. Đorđe Krstić’s painting doesn’t do justice to the truly eerie and disturbing sight that the tower full of skulls must have been in those days, and probably still is, but French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine left us a better, more vivid and haunting description of the tower. In 1833 the poet visited the wilderness that eastern Europe and the Balkans must have been in his eyes and he saw the Skull Tower. His impressions of it are more atmospheric and eerie than Krstić’s painting:

I saw a large tower rising in the midst of the plain, as white as Parian marble … Raising my eyes to the monument, I discovered that the walls, which I supposed to be built of marble or white stone, were composed of regular rows of human skulls; these skulls bleached by the rain and sun, and cemented by a little sand and lime, formed entirely the triumphal arch which now sheltered me from the heat of the sun. In some places portions of hair were still hanging and waved, like lichen or moss, with every breath of wind. The mountain breeze, which was then blowing fresh, penetrated the innumerable cavities of the skulls, and sounded like mournful and plaintive sighs. My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it.

Alphonse de Lamartine’s fascination with that area of Europe and with the tower shows the wild craving and yearning of the Romantic era for all things exotic, unexplored, dark and mysterious, and also touches on the Romantic love of heroism and fight for liberty.

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…”