Tag Archives: Death

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…”

Et in arcadia ego: Guercino and Gauguin – 700th Post!

14 Apr

Paul Gauguin, Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892

Paul Gauguin’s painting “Spirit of the Dead Watching” and Guercino’s painting “Et in Arcadia Ego” have much more in common than one might assume at first sight. Guercino’s painting is a strange mix of the pastoral idyll and the dark motif of memento mori. The dark and foreboding spirit of the Baroque is seeping its darkness into the Arcadian landscapes of Giorgione. Two shepherds are seen gazing at a skull placed on a cippus. A little mouse is seen next to a skull and under it we see the words which also give the painting its enigmatic title “Et in arcadia ego” which means “Even in paradise I am”. The skull is a harrowing, spooky sight and its presence in the calm greenery of nature disturbs the peacefulness. The face expressions of the shepherds reveal their feelings; their easy going attitude was tainted by the sight of the skull which brings thoughts of transience and decay which is inevitable for all that is alive; a flower withers and so will the man. Even visually the composition is divided between the shepherds on one side and the skull on the other and between them is a thin line which they don’t want to cross, as if coming nearer to the skull will somehow taint their carefree existence.

In Gauguin’s painting a lush female nude and warm, vibrant pinks and purples serve as a cheerful facade for the dreary existential motif that lies underneath. The girl’s youthful, sensual body is contrasted with Tupau, the spirit of the dead, which is lurking from the background dressed in a black cloak. The girl can feel its presence and she feels uneasy. The young girl in the painting is Tehura, Gauguin’s thirteen year old Tahitian wife, and according to his letters one evening he came home and found her “immobile, naked, lying face downward flat on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear (…) Might she not with my frightened face take me for one of the demons and specters, one of the Tupapaus, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights?” Some art critics have interpreted her fear as the fear of Gauguin’s voracious, aggressive sexuality, but I will not go into that theory right now. Instead, I will focus on the spirit of the dead as a foreboding, eerie element in the vibrant, cheerful, hot, tropical world which is almost like a heaven on earth in some ways. The presence of Tupao is the infiltration of death and transience in this tropical paradise of vibrant colours, juicy fruit and eternal summer, it is as if his presence calmly says “Et in arcadia ego” and sooner or later, you will all die.

Also, as you can see from the title as well, this is my 700th post!

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri also known as Guercino, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1618-22

Gustav Klimt – Hope I

9 Apr

Gustav Klimt, Hope I, 1903

The redhead vixen staring straight at us from the canvas without a trace of shyness was Herma; Klimt’s favourite model. He apparently said that her ass was more beautiful and more intelligent than the faces of all other models; what a compliment! The story goes that one day Herma didn’t show up at his studio, days passed and she still didn’t show up and Klimt got worried she might be ill so he sent someone to get her. It turned out she didn’t want to come and pose because she was pregnant, but regardless Klimt insisted she must pose for him, despite her condition, and that’s how painting “Hope I” was born. There is also a painting “Hope II” painted in 1907-08 but it is very different stylistically, and I personally love “Hope I” more, especially these days. There is just so many interesting details about it that keep me captivated.

Firstly, there is the subject of a nude woman, Klimt’s preferred motif to paint, but this time the woman is heavily pregnant and we don’t see that often in art. Still, despite her huge stomach, the rest of her seems slender and girlish, just like other women in Klimt’s paintings. With masses of coppery red hair and the wreath of delicate flowers in her hair, she seems more like a bride than like a mother to be. Gazing directly at us, and unashamedly naked, with her ginger pubic hair exposed, she seems like a wild child of nature, a forest nymph, a friend of water lilies, weeping willows and reed. The very elongated format of the painting and the, at least partly ornamental background, were obviously taken from Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. The choice of using a vertical canvas goes hand in hand with the motif of a woman shown standing up.

The space around her, above her and behind her is decorative and undefined; it’s a symbolic setting not a real one. The wave of serene blue colour, adorned with golden dots and blade shaped ornaments, flowing from the woman’s hair to her legs looks like a waterfall. On the left of the woman is a strange, but lovely black creature called the sea monster; it doesn’t look like a scary monster to me, rather it reminds me of that ghost in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”. Above them we see strange, unsettling faces with grimaces and dead eyes, and also a skull. A very strange motifs considering the painting is called Hope. The eerie heads and skulls reminded me of the way Katsushika Hokusai portrayed his Lantern ghost and Kohada Koheiji’s skull appearing as a ghost at the burning mosquito net before his wife’s lover who murdered him. This painting is filled with unsettling contrasts; the sensuality of the woman’s body contrasts with her future role of a mother, the darkness of the background contrasts with the growing new life.

Katsushika Hokusai, Kohada Koheiji’s skull appears as a ghost at the burning mosquito net before his wife’s love who murdered him, 1830

Katsushika Hokusai, The Lantern Ghost, 1830

Santoka Taneda – The Sound of Waves…

14 Mar

I stumbled upon this poem by Santoka Taneda and it struck a chord with me because it is profound and touches on the topic of transience. The poet compares the constancy of the waves, caressing the sandy shore then withdrawing again, in an everlasting rhythm, with the fleeting nature of our human life and the lyrical subject wonders: how much of his life remains? Santoka Taneda (1882-1940), an eccentric drunkard turned Zen priest, wrote many meditative poems and remains famous for writing in a free verse haiku style. Regardless of Taneda’s innovative haiku style “far more important are the special Zen qualities of simplicity (wabi), solitude (sabi), and impermanence (mujo) conveyed in a modern setting by his haiku.” (Mountain Tasting, Poetry of Santoka Taneda, translated by John Stevens) I think these elements make the poem so deep and I look forward to reading more of his poetry.

Paul Gauguin, La Vague, 1888

“The sound of waves
Now distant, now close;
How much of my life remains?”

Henri Rivière – Funeral Under Umbrellas

6 Mar

“Rain down alienation
Leave this country
Leave this country….”

(Manic Street Preachers, Love’s Sweet Exile)

Henri Rivière, Funeral Under Umbrellas, 1895, etching

Rain has many faces. It is different in every season and in every place; spring rain is exhilarating, summer rain can be exciting and when you get drenched to the bone in July there is nothing that makes you feel more alive, whilst rain in November makes you wanna be – not alive anymore because it’s so depressing. Spring rain in the countryside can be so dreamy, when afterwards the grass is wet and the blossoms of the apple trees are dotted with rain drops and the air smells divine. Rain in the city can be depressing on a grey February day, but it can be also be magical in April when the pavements at night glisten in the light of streetlamps and streets are empty. Rain is two-faced and tricky because it can convey so many different moods and is equally hard to capture it in art, for how do you capture something quick and fleeting? A rain drop falls on the ground before you know it and how do you capture its fall. Other motifs can indicate its presence in the painting, such as umbrellas, puddles and ripples one the surface of a puddle, river or a lake, but rain itself is tricky to paint and throughout art history it wasn’t such a common motif.

At last, in the second half of the nineteenth century, led by the Impressionists’ desire to capture the nature and the fleeting moment, rainy days have found their place in paintings. Renoir’s painting “The Umbrellas” is the first that comes to mind when I think of rainy days in art and it is my favourite by Renoir, I just love the bustle of the street and all the blue umbrellas, and also it reminds me of the video for the song Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manic Street Preachers shot in rainy streets of Tokyo with many colourful umbrellas. Another stunning example of rainy day in art is Henri Rivière’s etching “Funeral Under Umbrellas”, c 1895, which was heavily influenced by Japanese art and when I first saw it, for a second I thought it was indeed a Japanese print. It is simple but atmospheric.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Umbrellas, 1883

There are three key artistic elements borrowed from Japanese prints that Rivière used in this painting; firstly the obvious flatness of the surface, secondly, the use of diagonal composition which makes the painting seem dynamic and it beautifully takes our eyes on a trip from the first dark silhouette with an umbrella all the way to the carriage in the background, there’s also a dynamic play of empty space on the left with the space full of figures on the right half of the painting, thirdly the way rain is painted in diagonal lines falling from right to the left part of the painting, that is exactly how rain is depicted in so many Ukiyo-e prints and it is really stunning. I like the philosophy behind such portrayal of rain; real world is one thing and art is another world for itself and so why portray something exactly like it is in nature if you can come up with a new pictorial language for the world of art.

Rain looks one way in real life, but in Ukiyo-e prints rain is a bunch of diagonal lines and it works wonderfully. You can see that in Utagawa Hiroshige’s print “Mimasaka Province: Yamabushi Valley”; the lines representing rain are even thicker and stronger than Riviere dared to make them. In Ando Hiroshige’s print you can see the diagonal composition similar to the one in Riviere’s etching. Also, the fact that Riviere didn’t paint this oil on canvas but made an etching also shows an interested in Japanese art because the effect is similar whereas oil on canvas is something Japanese artists wouldn’t use.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Mimasaka Province: Yamabushi Valley (Mimasaka, Yamabushidani), from the series Famous Places in the Sixty-odd Provinces [of Japan], 1853

Ando Hiroshige, Ama-no Hashidate in the province of Tango, 1853-56