Tag Archives: Degas

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – The Hangover

22 Apr

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Hangover, 1888

These days I am listening to Bruce Springsteen a lot, in particular the album “Born in the U.S.A.”, but I am also finding new songs that I am obsessed about. Apart from the wonderful music alone, I love how the lyrics often tell a story and romanticise the harshness of day to day working class life, but the songs also have a hopeful undertone because they show the beauty that lies in struggle. All these songs about restless youth who wants to escape the boredom of their small towns, or heartbroken men working down at the car wash, or two men talking in a bar reminiscing about their glory days, have reminded me of some nineteenth century paintings of sad-looking individuals who seem to carry the same aura around them; being lost, morally lost in the misty and confusing paths of life, tired and disappointed. We all feel like that from time to time. The first painting that came to mind was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting “The Hangover” which is really a portrait of his lover at the time Suzanne Valadon, a circus dancer and a model for many Impressionist paintings who later started painting herself. But in this painting she has seems to have a hangover, although that title was given later and not by the painter himself: “Aristide Bruant, a cabaret owner, singer, and songwriter who exhibited Toulouse-Lautrec’s work in his establishment, gave this painting its title. Bruant’s songs were often about the condition of the urban poor and the theme of excessive drinking.” (source)

She’s seen from the profile and seems uninterested and aloof. It was nothing unusual for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to paint his friends in a spontaneous setting, while they are sitting in a bar or dancing, he would sit at the table and sketch all night. A year before the “Hangover” he made a bar-portrait, also seen from the profile, of his friend Vincent van Gogh and I already wrote about that painting here. It’s interesting here that Suzanne, being a woman, is presented as a drunkard. Alcoholism among women was a growing concern around that time. And she’s drinking alone. Her head is resting in her hand, a half-full bottle of wine is on the table, there’s just a little bit left in the glass. She gazes somewhere in the distance, her vision is hazy and her thoughts astray. Who knows what is going on in her mind. The colour palette and the sketchy way the paint was applied perfectly fits the mood of the painting and Suzanne’s emotional state. When I gaze at this painting, instantly these lyrics come to mind, from Springsteen’s song “Downbound Train”:

I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going mister in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the carwash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train

She just said “Joe I gotta go
We had it once we ain’t got it any more”
She packed her bags left me behind
She bought a ticket on the Central Line
Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining
I feel her kiss in the misty rain
And I feel like I’m a rider on a downbound train…

Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1876

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, In The Restaurant La Mie, 1891

Song “Downbound Train” really makes me feel like I am in one of those paintings, the music with Springsteen’s voice, the lyrics tinged with a dream-gone-by feel and ending in resignation. It makes me see the grey skies, rain sliding down the windows, paint flaking from the window frame, and waking up in a cold room on a day which you can sense will be shitty and disappointing. Looking at the two paintings above, Degas’ famous “L’Absinthe” and another one by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec really reminds me of the intro to Springsteen’s song “Glory Days” about two people walking into a bar and just talking about life:

Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
But all he kept talking about was

Glory days well they’ll pass you by

But I must say that a lot of these songs, although they do deal with the working class life and sadness, mostly sound energetic and make you feel hopeful, and if not hopeful than they at least give you that c’est la vie feeling, ah that’s life and regardless of how you feel, you have to live it so you may as well sit in an empty bar and have a hangover morning because there ain’t no sunshiny meadow waiting for you! These paining however bring no hope.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, A la Bastille (Jeanne Wenz), 1888

This lines seems to fit Jeanne Wenz’s strange shy little smile:

She says when she feels like crying
She starts laughing thinking about

Glory days well they’ll pass you by….

Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Art

22 Mar

These are some paintings that come to my mind when I read Baudelaire and Rimbaud’s poetry. Mostly the works of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and other artists as well.

1863. Olympia - ManetEdouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

The Jewels by Baudelaire

My darling was naked, and knowing my heart well,
She was wearing only her sonorous jewels,
Whose opulent display made her look triumphant
Like Moorish concubines on their fortunate days.

(…)

She had lain down; and let herself be loved
From the top of the couch she smiled contentedly
Upon my love, deep and gentle as the sea,
Which rose toward her as toward a cliff.

Her eyes fixed upon me, like a tamed tigress,
With a vague, dreamy air she was trying poses,
And by blending candor with lechery,
Her metamorphoses took on a novel charm…

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1862. Jeanne Duval, in a painting by Édouard ManetJeanne Duval, in a painting by Édouard Manet, 1862

To a Colonial Lady by Baudelaire

In scented countries by the sun caressed
I’ve known, beneath a tent of purple boughs,
And palmtrees shedding slumber as they drowse,
A creole lady with a charm unguessed.

She’s pale, and warm, and duskily beguiling;
Nobility is moulded in her neck;
Slender and tall she holds herself in check,
An huntress born, sure-eyed, and quiet-smiling.

Should you go, Madam, to the land of glory
Along the Seine or Loire, where you would merit
To ornament some mansion famed in story,

Your eyes would bum in those deep-shaded parts,
And breed a thousand rhymes in poets’ hearts,
Tamed like the negro slaves that you inherit.” (Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire, New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

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1886. Woman in the Bath -DegasDegas, Woman in the Bath, 1887

Venus Anadyomene by Rimbaud

Out of what seems a coffin made of tin
A head protrudes; a woman’s, dark with grease –
Out of a bathtub! – slowly; then a fat face
With ill-concealed defects upon the skin.

Then streaked and grey, a neck; a shoulder-blade,
A back – irregular, with indentations –
Then round loins emerge, and slowly rise;
The fat beneath the skin seems made of lead;

The spine is somewhat reddish; then, a smell,
Strangely horrible; we notice above all
Some microscopic blemishes in front…

Horribly beautiful! A title: Clara Venus;
Then the huge bulk heaves, and with a grunt
She bends and shows the ulcer on her anus.*

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1894. Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) - Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin, Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua)1894

Exotic Perfume by Baudelaire

When, with closed eyes in autumn’s eves of gold,
I breathe the burning odour of your breasts,
Before my eyes the hills of happy rest
Bathed in the sun’s monotonous fires, unfold.

A langorous island, where Nature abounds
With exotic trees and luscious fruit;
And with men whose bodies are slim and astute,
And with women whose frankness delights and astounds.*

Led by that perfume to these lands of ease,
I see a port where many ships have flown
With sails out wearied of the wandering seas; 
While the faint odours from green tamarisks blown,
Float to my soul and in my senses throng,
And mingle vaguely with the sailor’s song.’
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1873. Claude Monet, Autumn on the Seine, ArgenteuilClaude Monet, Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil, 1873
Autumn Song by Paul Verlaine
When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and longPale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours toll deep.
My thoughts recover
The days that are over,
And I weep.And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.*
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1900-05. Ophelia by Odilon RedonOdilon Redon, Ophelia, 1900-1905

Ophelia by Rimbaud

I

On the calm black water where the stars are sleeping
White Ophelia floats like a great lily ;
Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils…
– In the far-off woods you can hear them sound the mort.

For more than a thousand years sad Ophelia
Has passed, a white phantom, down the long black river.
For more than a thousand years her sweet madness
Has murmured its ballad to the evening breeze.

The wind kisses her breasts and unfolds in a wreath
Her great veils rising and falling with the waters ;
The shivering willows weep on her shoulder,
The rushes lean over her wide, dreaming brow.

The ruffled water-lilies are sighing around her ;
At times she rouses, in a slumbering alder,
Some nest from which escapes a small rustle of wings ;
– A mysterious anthem falls from the golden stars.

II

O pale Ophelia ! beautiful as snow !
Yes child, you died, carried off by a river !
– It was the winds descending from the great mountains of Norway
That spoke to you in low voices of better freedom.

It was a breath of wind, that, twisting your great hair,
Brought strange rumors to your dreaming mind ;
It was your heart listening to the song of Nature
In the groans of the tree and the sighs of the nights ;

It was the voice of mad seas, the great roar,
That shattered your child’s heart, too human and too soft ;
It was a handsome pale knight, a poor madman
Who one April morning sate mute at your knees !

Heaven ! Love ! Freedom ! What a dream, oh poor crazed Girl !
You melted to him as snow does to a fire ;
Your great visions strangled your words
– And fearful Infinity terrified your blue eye !

III

– And the poet says that by starlight
You come seeking, in the night, the flowers that you picked
And that he has seen on the water, lying in her long veils
White Ophelia floating, like a great lily.*

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1897. The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning by PissarroPissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning, 1897

The Seven Old Men by Baudelaire

To Victor Hugo

City swarming with people, how full you are of dreams!
Here in broad daylight, surely, the passerby may meet
A specter, — be accosted by him! Mystery seems
To move like a thick sap through every narrow street.

I thought (daybreak, it was, in a sad part of town)
“These houses look much higher in the fog!” — they stood
Like two gray quays between which a muddy stream flows down;
The setting of the play matched well the actor’s mood.

All space became a dirty yellow fog; I tried
To fight it off; I railed at my poor soul, whose feet,
Weary already, dragged and stumbled at my side.
Big wagons, bound for market, began to shake the street….*

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1859. The Absinthe Drinker ( Le Buveur d'absinthe)by Édouard ManetÉdouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker ( Le Buveur d’absinthe), 1859

Le Vin du solitaire by Baudelaire

The wildering glances of a harlot fair
seen gliding toward us like the silver wake
of undulant moonlight on the quivering lake
when Phoebe bathes her languorous beauty there;

the last gold coins a gambler’s fingers hold;
the wanton kiss of love-worn Adeline,
the wheedling songs that leave the will supine
— like far-off cries of sorrow unconsoled —

all these, o bottle deep, were never worth
the pungent balsams in thy fertile girth
stored for the pious poet’s thirsty heart;

thou pourest hope and youth and strength anew,
— and pride, this treasure of the beggar-crew,
that lifts us like triumphant gods, apart!*

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1883. Au Foyer du Théâtre, 1883, Jean-Louis ForainJean-Louis Forain, Au Foyer du Théâtre, 1883

Pagan Prayer by Baudelaire

Don’t stint the fires with which you flare.
Warm up my dull heart to delight,
O Pleasure, torture of the sprite,
O Goddess, hear my fervent prayer!

Goddess, who through the ether pass,
Flame in this subterranean hole!
Raise up a chilled and stricken soul
Who lifts to you his peal of brass.

O Pleasure, always be my queen!
In flesh and velvet to be seen,
Mask your beauty like a siren:

Or else my soul with sleep environ
Drained from the formless mystic wine,
Elastic phantom! which is thine.’ *

— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

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1910. Girl with black hair - Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

The First Evening by Rimbaud

She was very much half-dressed
And big indiscreet trees
Threw out their leaves against the pane
Cunningly, and close, quite close.

Sitting half naked in my big chair,
She clasped her hands.
Her small and so delicate feet
Trembled with pleasure on the floor.

– The colour of wax, I watched
A little wild ray of light
Flutter on her smiling lips
And on her breast, – an insect on the rose-bush.

– I kissed her delicate ankles.
She laughed softly and suddenly
A string of clear trills,
A lovely laugh of crystal.

The small feet fled beneath
Her petticoat: “Stop it, do!”
– The first act of daring permitted,
Her laugh pretended to punish me!

– Softly I kissed her eyes,
Trembling beneath my lips, poor things:
– She threw back her fragile head
“Oh! come now that’s going too far!…

Listen, Sir, I have something to say to you…”
– I transferred the rest to her breast
In a kiss which made her laugh
With a kind laugh that was willing…

– She was very much half-dressed
And big indiscreet trees threw
Out their leaves against the pane
Cunningly, and close, quite close.*

Edgar Degas – Lost in Reveries

27 Jul

Again Degas. Again one of his lesser known works which I’ve chosen just to prove that even the most ordinary paintings have a story of their own and a deeper meaning.

1865. Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers - Degas1865 Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers

In this very interesting painting, the woman and flowers are competing for the viewer’s attention. Well, ‘competing’ is maybe a harsh word because the woman seems utterly uninterested in anything and she’s in fact looking into the distance, focused on something we cannot see, though I wonder what could it be. On the other hand, flowers, beautiful chrysanthemums if I’m not mistaken, have taken most of the space on canvas, totally pushing the woman out of the focus. Conventionally, we are taught to look at a human figure in art as the centre, but here the chrysanthemums serve as a central part of the painting, and this is not Degas’ mistake or miscalculation, it holds a significance.

By placing the woman on the side Degas actually directs our thoughts towards the true meaning and idea behind the, at the first sight, ordinary scene and subject. In addition to her corner position, the woman also hides her face with a hand. This asymmetrical composition contributes to the directness and strong impact the painting leaves on the viewer. Equalisation of woman and flowers provides an opportunity for us to compare the physical presents of chrysanthemums and the spiritual absence of the woman. This painting is a simple scene from everyday life. The woman is lost in her reveries, most likely bitter and disappointed with the banalities of everyday life, just like the tragic heroine of Flaubert’s novel ‘Madame Bovary’. She doesn’t appear to be as romantic as Emma Bovary or as idealistic, but after looking at this painting, this agonising detail of everyday life, the boredom and despair is becoming more and more visible. Look at the colours; brown, orange, grey and utterly boring. Woman’s dress and the tablecloth are almost the same colour. Everyday life is coloured in boredom. If this would be a scene from the film, you could here the monotonous clock ticks, soft light of the day on the wane, attention-seeking chrysanthemums could be a gift from a lover just like in Madame Bovary’s case. But the flowers wither, the lover is far away, and days go by nevertheless.

Degas’ portraits in general are all witnesses to the impossibility of conjuring any kind of individuality in the changeable environment of modern life.