Tag Archives: France

Henri Matisse – Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading)

13 Aug

“Colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

(Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art)

Henri Matisse, Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading), 1904–05

Matisse’s girl in the painting is a quiet little girl, completely absorbed in the book that she is reading. She is seated at the table, perhaps in the dining room. We are somewhat able to decipher the space around her. A bowl of fruits at the table alongside a jug of water. Clearly it wasn’t Matisse’s intention to portray this interior scene in a realistic manner. So what was his intention; playing with colour and appealing to our senses? Perhaps. Matisse is not one of my favourite painters, but when I need my dose of colours and vibrancy I go to Fauvists and their leader Matisse just as the junkie goes to his dealer at the streetcorner. Colour truly has power to uplift us; just look at all the gorgeous, vibrant shades of yellow, red, turquoise, pink, blue and green. So much life and vivacity going on in a single canvas! It’s so childlike and unpretentious. The girl in the painting is Matisse’s ten year old daughter Marguerite who was the daughter of Matisse’s model Caroline Joblaud. Portrait of a girl reading brings to mind the many portraits of children by Renoir who was Matisse’s friend and an artist he looked up to. But in Matisse’s painting the little girl isn’t just a pretty girl in a cozy bourgeoius interior, no, it seems that the colourful patchwork interior composed of contrasting and complementing pathes of colour is actually the interior of Marguerite’s playful, imaginative mind. I imagine that, as she is reading the book, the world around her is transformed accordingly and all the magic of the words and scenes described therein suddently come to life because Marguerite has the power of imagination; she has the power to transcend the ugliness of reality, its dullness and lifelessness, and paint it in all the colours her heart desires, to make it whimsical. And clearly Matisse nurtured his inner child throughout his life, for even his collage cut-outs which he was making in his old days are totally child-like and playful. Matisse transformed the ordinary into extraordinary in this painting. A simple interior scene which might have been boring if painted realistically in shades of brown and beige, is a landscape of vivacity. The space in the painting appears flat but highly decorative and buzzing with excitement. The energy of the painting, and we cannot deny that paintings have energies that directly speak to us, is that of a child’s laughter and play, bright pink ice cream melting in a summer’s day, jumping on trampoline, ribbons, bonbons and candy-floss, the world of fairy tales and make-believe. I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I gaze at this painting, I feel rejuvenated. This just might be one of my favourites by Matisse.

Foujita: La Vie – Everything Passes

11 Jul

Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness.

Everything passes.

This is the one and only thing I have thought resembled a truth in society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell.

Everything passes.”

(Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human)

Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita, La Vie, 1917

Japanese artist Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita fell in love with Western art at a very young age and in 1913, at the age of twenty-seven, he moved to Paris. The role of an exotic eccentric in Montparnasse surrounded by fellow artists, foreigners and eccentrics fit Foujita like a glove. A person as vibrant and theatrical as he was belonged there. Some of the artists from his artistic gang were Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Juan Gris, Picasso, and Henri Matisse. Foujita’s painting “La Vie” is an example of his early work in France and the style of the painting reminds me so much of Modigliani. The painting shows a woman dressed in blue, set against the background of a solitary sandy beach with a single little boat, stranded and confined in sand instead of floating freely and being carried by the waves. The woman’s oval and slightly elongated face and the shape of her eyes remind me of Modigliani’s melancholy and mysterious mask-like female faces and also of the silent marble Brancusi’s Muse. Simplified and geomentric looking, her head and also the strange position of her hands seem as though they were borrowed from some archaic scuplture, or seen in a dream. The cheeks are bright pink and the fingers slender and long. Her head leans on her right in a very exaggerated way, as if this mysterious woman is bowing her head down, not from shame, but as a gesture of both a realisation of the defeat and calm acceptance. The waves in the water behind her are breaking and hitting the sandy shore then retreating in a rhythm of nature which neither of us can stop or influence. The mood that I feel in Foujita’s painting “La Vie” resonates with me strongly and serves almost as a sacred message to a feeling that is always inside me, sometimes more hushed and sometimes awaken like a volcano, like a wound that never heals, it brings anguish wrapped up in nostalgic rosy cover of sweetness. This feeling is the painful awareness of transience of everything, the powerlesness against the fast and unpredictable currents of life, the best way I can describe the feeling that the painting awakes inside me is by sharing a much loved quote from Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”: Upset by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his marvelous sense of unreality and he ended up recommending to all of them that they leave, that they forget everything he had taught them about the world and the human heart, […], and that wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.” Everything passes, every spring and summer once gone are gone forever, a flower will bloom and wither and nothing can resurrect it, memories are pale and hushed shadows, tears cannot bring back a love once lost, and all change is inevitable, c’est la vie… So what else can we do but bow our heads down like Foujita’s silent and solemn muse and let the river of life flow, for our resistence would only bring anguish and ache.

Greuze and Diderot – Innocence Lost

27 Jun

My friend, you are laughing at me! You are making fun of a serious person who presently is consoling the child in a painting who has lost her bird, or the loss of anything that you wish? Can you see how beautiful she is! How interesting she is! I hate to trouble her.

(Diderot)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Young Girl Grieving Over Her Dead Bird, 1765

It is no secret that I have a soft spot in my heart for the wistful, pale, delicate and gentle ingénues that inhabit the canvases of Jean-Baptist Greuze. This eighteenth century painter is often overlooked and misunderstood, his paintings are often brushed off as sentimental and silly which is not true. Although, ironically, these paintings are the embodiment of the spirit that swept Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century: the Sentimetalism; a movement that emphasises the emotional appeal of art over cold reason and logic. Greuze’s girls have a way of moving the viewer and making him sympathise with their sorrow. In some paintings, the girl’s eyes are large and turned upwards, expressing sorrow and yearning, and other times, their face expressions are almost blank, and they captivate the viewer because we want to know the secret behind their face expression. The sweet oval face of the girl with a broken pitcher seems expressionless, and yet the aura around her is tinged with melancholy.

One such viewer who was very moved by a particular Greuze’s painting was the writer, philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot, who, I must add, also wrote the wonderful novel “The Nun”. On the salon of 1765, Diderot saw Greuze’s painting “The Young Girl Grieving Over Her Dead Bird”; an oval portrait of a girl lamenting the death of her beloved little bird. The girl is dressed in white, as Greuze’s girls usually are. The life of the pretty white bird surrounded by blue flowers is gone – never to be returned. Still, the subject of a painting isn’t as simple as it seems at first sight. It isn’t just about the dead bird, just as it is not about the broken eggs and broken mirrors and broken pitchers; these are the motives that you will see in the paintings bellow. Different motives here serve as metaphors that the viewers of the time surely understood. Diderot and some other critics saw these paintings as symbolic representations of the loss of innocence; a motif which had a great appeal to the buyers and collectors at the time. I can just imagine one of these girls as Marquis de Sade’s Justine, naive and easily exploited and abandoned, just like the girl in the painting “The Complaint of the Watch”; I already wrote a post about that painting which you can read here.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Dead Bird, 1800

Diderot, who was a friend of Greuze and loved his art, wrote a lenghtly monologue about the girl and the dead bird in his critic of the Salon of 1765 and here is what he wrote:

When one sees this piece, one says: Delightful! If one stops, or that one returns, one says Delightful! delightful! Soon one is surprised to find oneself speaking to the child, consoling her. This is so true that this is what I remember saying to her at dif-ferent times. “But my little one, your pain is very deep and thoughtful! What does this dreamy sadness mean! What! For a bird! You aren’t crying, you are deeply wounded; and the thoughts carry your wounds. There my little friend, open your heart, open up your heart to me; tell me the truth, is it really the death of this bird that forces you to retreat into yourself? You’ve lowered your eyes; you’re not answering me. Your tears are ready to flow. I am not a father; I am neither indiscreet nor punishing… Ah! So, I realize that he loved you, he swore his love to you and he swore it a long time ago. He suffered a great deal: the way to see suffering of those we love… Let me continue; why are you closing my mouth with your hand? … Unfortunately, that morning your mother was absent. He came; you were alone; he was so handsome, so passionate, so tender, so charming! He had so much love in his eyes! So much truth in his expressions! He spoke those words that go straight to the heart! And while saying them, he was on his knees: I can still believe it. He held one of your hands; from time to time you felt the warmth of some tears which fell from your eyes and which ran the length of your arms.

Greuze, The Complaint of the Watch, 1770

Still your mother did not return. It is not your fault; it your mother’s fault… He doesn’t want your pretty tears… But what I am saying to you is not to make you cry. Why are you crying? He made you a promise; he will not allow anything to happen to what he promised you. When one has been given the happiness to meet a charming child like you, and become one, so as to please him; it is for life…- and my bird?…- You smile”. (Oh! My friend, how pretty she is! Oh if you only could have seen how she laughed and cried!). I went on. “So! As for your bird! When one loses oneself, does one remember one’s bird? When it came time for your mother to return, the one you loved left. How happy he was, contented, and transported; how difficult it was for him to tear himself away from you! How you stare at me! I know all this. How many times he stood to leave and sat down again! How many times he said goodbye without leaving. How many times did he go only to return! I just saw him at his father’s: he is overwhelmingly happy, a happiness in which everyone participates, without putting up any resistance….”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Broken Eggs, 1756

“And my mother? – Your mother? He had just left when she returned; she found you entranced, as you were a little while ago. One is always that way. Your mother was speaking to you, and you were not listening to what she was saying; she told you to do one thing and you did another. A few tears welled in the corners of your eyes; or you held them back, or you turned your head away to wipe them away furtively. Your unending daydreams made your mother impatient, and she scolded you and that gave you the opportunity to cry without restraint and to relieve your heart… Shall I continue, my dear? I fear that what I will say will continue your pain. You want me to? Your mother was upset with herself for making you unhappy; she came to you and took your hands, she kissed your forehead and cheeks, and you cried even more.”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Head of a Young Woman, c 1780s

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Mirror, 1763

“Your head fell onto her and your face which continued to blush, there just as it is doing now, was hidden in hers. How many calming things your mother said to you, and how much these kind words hurt! Furthermore your canary wanted to screech, to warn you, to call you, to bat its wings, to complain of your forgetfulness, you didn’t see him, you didn’t hear him; you were thinking other thoughts. His water or feed went unfilled and this morning the bird was no more… You are still staring at me; is there anything left for me to say? Oh, I hear, my sweet thing; that bird, it is he who gave him to you; oh well, he will find another just as beautiful… That is not all: your eyes are fixed on me, and are filling again with tears; what else is there? Speak I can’t guess…- What insanity. Don’t worry about anything, my poor girl; it can’t be; it won’t be!”

Greuze, The Broken Pitcher, 1771

What! My friend, you are laughing at me! You are making fun of a serious person who presently is consoling the child in a painting who has lost her bird, or the loss of anything that you wish? Can you see how beautiful she is! How interesting she is! I hate to trouble her. In spite of that, it will not displease me to be the cause of her pain.The subject of this poem is so refined, that many have not heard it; they thought that this young girl was crying because of the canary. Greuze has already painted the same subject; he had placed a tall girl in white satin in front of a cracked mirror who appeared deeply saddened. Do you think that there will be as much gossip spoken about the young girl and her tears at the loss of a bird, than the sadness of the girl in the broken mirror in the last Salon? I am telling you that this child is crying over a different cause. First, you heard her, she agrees and her thoughtful pain says the rest. This pain! At her age and for a bird…

Mary Wollstonecraft’s Visit to Deserted Palace of Versailles in 1792

9 Jun

At the moment I am reading Charlotte Gordon’s book “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstoncraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley”. It’s a wonderful, informative and beautifully written dual biography about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley; a mother and daughter who never quite got to know one another as Mary Wollstonecraft died in 1797, just one month after her daughter Mary was born. Mary Godwin Shelley grew up without her mother, without even a memory of her, but the idea of her mother haunted her throughout her entire life. Both Marys were passionate and intelligent rule-breakers and so the title “Romantic Outlaws” is more than fitting. I am slowly savouring the book, chapter by chapter, and I love the rhythm of the book; one chapter is about Mary Wollstonecraft and the next about Mary Shelley and that makes the story even more exciting.

Claude-Louis Châtelet (1753-1795), The Temple of Love at Versailles, 18th century

In the chapter eighteen it’s the spring of 1792 and we find the thirty-three year old Mary Wollstonecraft living in the middle of a revolutionary Paris, witnessing the cruelty of the revolution that is taking a darker turn than anyone had anticipated, and yet, in the middle of all the riots, dangers, violence and uncertainty, she falls in love for the first time: with Gilbert Imlay. Mary decides to move to a little cottage in Neuilly, just outside Paris and, in a restless, dreamy and romantic mood Mary starts going on long walks hoping that exercise and walking will distract her mind from constant yearning and pining for her beloved. On one such walk Mary visits the lonely and abandoned palace of Versailles and this passage from the book was very atmospheric and melancholy to me:

Undeterred, Mary roamed through the nearby fields, even trekking eleven miles to Versailles. She would be one of the last to see the deserted palace before the royal furniture was auctioned off later that summer. It was still very much as it had been when the king and queen lived there, though the halls echoed with emptiness. The “air is chill,” she wrote, “seeming to clog the breath; and the wasting dampness of destruction appears to be stealing into the vast pile on every side.” It was an eerie experience, walking alone through the Hall of Mirrors, the War Salon, the Hercules Room, the queen’s chambers. She felt surrounded by ghosts: the “gigantic” portraits of kings “seem to be sinking into the embraces of death.” Outside, all of the famous grottoes and statues were still there, including Marie Antoinette’s “Temple of Love” and her infamous “farm,” the petit hameau, where she and her ladies had dressed as shepherdesses and milked the prettiest, most gentle cows the servants could find. But now the grass was overgrown and the flowerbeds unweeded. Mary was both shocked and saddened by what she saw, writing, “I weep, O France, over the vestiges of thy former oppression.” Yet while she disapproved of the opulence of Versailles, its glorification of kings and their armies, she was also appalled at the reports she heard about the Jacobins’ abuse of power, killing people “whose only crime is their name.” Hope lay in freedom, she believed, not in tyranny, whether the tyrants were republican leaders or monarchs.

I wish I could travel back in time and take a walk through a deserted palace and gardens of Versailles, oh I’d love to linger around for a while, pine for the lost times, like a true nostalgic, admire the loveliness of it all, seek for the ghosts in the deepest, darkest corners of the once great salons and halls…. This little passage truly makes it seems like Mary had witnessed an end of an era; the Rococo, with its emphasis on joys, pleasures, fun, flirtations and games, was gone. It seems that no century had such love for the sweetness and pleasures of life as much as the eighteenth century. The Revoution seems like an end of a sweet rosy dream.

Claude-Louis Châtelet, Plan du jardin et château de la Reine, before 1790

In the ninth chapter of the book Mary eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley and they went to Paris:

But when they arrived in the capital on August 2, 1814, dusty and tired, fraternité and liberté were nowhere to be found. They checked into the unprepossessing Hôtel de Vienne on the edge of the Marais and roamed through the city streets, disappointed to find most Parisians war-weary and cynical. Napoleon’s defeat earlier that year, a relief to many as it meant the end of the war, was also a blow to French honor. No one was preaching revolution anymore. Many of the people they met were royalists, eager to restore French gloire. Justice and freedom were passé. The martyred revolutionaries Madame Roland and Charlotte Corday, so inspirational to Mary when her friend Isabella had talked about them in Scotland, were long dead. And so, for that matter, was Mary Wollstonecraft.

It’s funny how in 1792 the revolutionaries were mad for blood and revenge, and in 1814 no one cared anymore about the justice and liberty. How quickly the fires of the revolution die out…

Vincent van Gogh: Sun, Heat and Vibrant Colours of Arles (from Lust for Life)

17 Mar

“The Arlesian sun smote Vincent between the eyes, and broke him wide open. It was a whirling, liquid ball of lemon-yellow fire, shooting across a hard blue sky and filling the air with blinding light. The terrific heat and intense clarity of the air created a new and unfamiliar world.”

(Irving Stone, Lust for Life)

Vincent Van Gogh, Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, August 1888

One of my greatest joys in these early spring days is noticing and gazing at the trees in bloom, the same trees which were sad-looking and bare for months, and enjoying the golden rays of sun caressing me and promising ever warmer days. The joy of feeling the warm sun on your skin cannot be put in words! When it comes to art, my mind instantly went to Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers, his delicate almond blossoms and blooming orchards, I need his yellows and blues like I need the air to breathe. I was reading some of his letter again and also I was rereading Irving Stone’s wonderful novel “Lust for Life”, first published in 1934, which is a romanticised biography of Vincent van Gogh. I really recommend the book to everyone because it’s just so beautifully written and it absolutely sweeps you away. Irving Stone was just a great writer, I also read his novel “Agony and Ecstasy” about the life of Michelangelo, and I loved it as well, and I am not even interested in the art of Michelangelo and I think that speaks for the brilliancy of Stone’s writing. So, I decided to share passages from the novel which I found particularly interesting and accompany it with Van Gogh’s paintings and my own thoughts. After spending some time in Paris and living with his brother, Vincent, a man from the drab north, felt an inexplicable aching and longing for sun and in spring of 1888 he arrived to Arles, a small town in Provence, and that is where some of his most exciting, most vibrant paintings were painted. Here is how his arrival and first impressions of Arles are described in “Lust for Life”:

He dropped out of the third-class carriage early in the morning and walked down the winding road that led from the station to the Place Lamartine, a market square bounded on one side by the embankment of the Rhône, on the other by cafés and wretched hotels. Arles lay straight ahead, pasted against the side of a hill with a neat mason’s trowel, drowsing in the hot, tropical sun. When it came to looking for a place to live, Vincent was indifferent. He walked into the first hotel he passed in the Place, the Hotel de la Gare, and rented a room. It contained a blatant brass bed, a cracked pitcher in a washbowl, and an odd chair. The proprietor brought in an unpainted table. There was no room to set up an easel, but Vincent meant to paint out of doors all day.

He threw his valise on the bed and dashed out to see the town. There were two approaches to the heart of Arles from the Place Lamartine. The circular road on the left was for wagons; it skirted the edge of the town and wound slowly to the top of the hill, passing the old Roman forum and amphitheatre on the way. Vincent took the more direct approach, which led through a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets. After a long climb he reached the sun scorched Place de la Mairie. On the way up he passed cold stone courts and quadrangles which looked as though they had come down untouched from the early Roman days. In order to keep out the maddening sun, the alleys had been made so narrow that Vincent could touch both rows of houses with outstretched fingertips. To avoid the torturing mistral, the streets wound about in a hopeless maze on the side of the hill, never going straight for more than ten yards. There was refuse in the streets, dirty children in the doorways, and over everything a sinister, hunted aspect.

Vincent van Gogh, Peach Tree in Blossom, Arles, April-May 1888

Vincent left the Place de la Mairie, walked through a short alley to the main marketing road at the back of the town, strolled through the little park, and then stumbled down the hill to the Roman arena. He leaped from tier to tier like a goat, finally reaching the top. He sat on a block of stone, dangled his legs over a sheer drop of hundreds of feet, lit his pipe, and surveyed the domain of which he had appointed himself lord and master.

The town below him flowed down abruptly to the Rhône like a kaleidoscopic waterfall. The roofs of the houses were fitted into each other in an intricate design. They had all been tiled in what was originally red clay, but the burning, incessant sun had baked them to a maze of every colour, from the lightest lemon and delicate shell pink to a biting lavender and earthy loam-brown.

The wide, rapidly flowing Rhône made a sharp curve at the bottom of the hill on which Arles was plastered, and shot downward to the Mediterranean. There were stone embankments on either side of the river. Trinquetaille glistened like a painted city on the other bank. Behind Vincent were the mountains, huge ranges sticking upward into the clear white light. Spread out before him was a panorama of tilled fields, of orchards in blossom, the rising mound of Montmajour, fertile valleys ploughed into thousands of deep furrows, all converging at some distant point in infinity.

Vincent van Gogh, Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass, 1888

But it was the colour of the country-side that made him run a hand over his bewildered eyes. The sky was so intensely blue, such a hard, relentless, profound blue that it was not blue at all; it was utterly colorless. The green of the fields that stretched below him was the essence of the colour green, gone mad. The burning lemon-yellow of the sun, the blood-red of the soil, the crying whiteness of the lone cloud over Montmajour, the ever reborn rose of the orchards… such colourings were incredible. How could he paint them? How could he ever make anyone believe that they existed, even if he could transfer them to his palette? Lemon, blue, green, red, rose; nature run rampant in five torturing shades of expression.

Vincent took the wagon road to the Place Lamartine, grabbed up his easel, paints, and canvas and struck out along the Rhône. Almond trees were beginning to flower everywhere. The glistening white glare of the sun on the water sent stabs of pain into his eyes. He had left his hat in the hotel. The sun burned through the red of his hair, sucked out all the cold of Paris, all the fatigue, discouragement, and satiety with which city life had glutted his soul.
A kilometre down the river he found a drawbridge with a little cart going over it, outlined against a blue sky. The river was as blue as a well, the banks orange, coloured with green grass. A group of washerwomen in smocks and many-coloured caps were pounding dirty clothes in the shade of a lone tree. Vincent set up his easel, drew a long breath, and shut his eyes. No man could catch such colourings with his eyes open. There fell away from him Seurat’s talk about scientific pointillism, Gauguin’s harangues about primitive decorativeness, Cezanne’s appearances beneath solid surfaces, Lautrec’s lines of colour and lines of splenetic hatred.

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

Pierre Bonnard – Street Scene

16 Feb

Pierre Bonnard, Street Scene, 1899, four panel screen, colour litograph

Pierre Bonnard was fascinated by the liveliness and vibrancy of Parisian streets and parks where nannies, dogs and children play in sunny spring days and he painted many such vibrant street scenes, but this “Street Scene” (also known as “Nannies Promenade, Frieze of Carriages”) is a special street scene because the common Impressionist and Post-Impressionist motif of a street scene is inspired by the Japanese art and it also exhibits the philosophy of the Nabis group that art should be present in everyday life, in everyday objects such as tapestries, fans, posters and decorative folding screens. A century and a half before Bonnard, the art of Rococo had already shown a fondness for folding screens which were painted in the spirit of chinoserie, but the artists who painted the screens were always anonymous and unimportant, but in the late nineteenth century the artists of Post-Impressionism and Nabis found a tremendous source of inspiration in Japanese art and works such as this street scene by Bonnard are a delightful mix of Post-Impressionist European art and the influence of Japan.

Bonnard, a young artist at the time, first painted the screen in distemper (pigment in glue) on canvas with carved wood frame in 1895. In 1894 in a letter to his mother he spoke about the idea for the painting: “I am working on a screen […]. It is of the Place de la Concorde with a young mother walking with her children, with nannies and dogs, and on top, as a border, a carriage rank, and all on a light beige background which is very like the Place de la Concorde when it’s dusty and looks like a miniature Sahara.” And in 1895-96 around a hundred and ten colour lithographs were made and the one you see here is one of them. Half of those lithographs were destroyed in a flood in Paris in 1940. They were sold either individually or in a set and could either be mounted on the screen and served as a decoration in the room, or they could have been framed and placed on the wall as a panting. It is beautiful to see it flat like a painting and also beautifully folded in zig zag way, each vertically enlongated screen is an artwork for itself and yet it created a scene for itself. This narrow vertical canvas is called “kakemono” in Japanese art, and the action in the painting is suppose to be read in Japanese way, from right to left.

Bonnard showed a great interest in the folding screens and the first one he created was “Women in the Garden” in 1891 but in that folding screen every part of the canvas was filled with pattern and colour. In contrast, “Street Scene” is beautifully empty and there is an intricate visual play between groups of figures and the empty space. The figures are flat and simple. The placement of figures seems spontaneous but is actually carefully planned and it looks beautiful when the screen is opened or flat. The group of figures in the foreground are a fashionably dressed mother with her two children who are playing with sticks and hoops, a game seen often in the art of the Impressionists. A little black dog is here too. In the background three almost identically dressed nannies, and a row of carriages with horses behind them.

 

Gustav Adolf Mossa – Symbolist Phase

7 Feb

“Then, O my beauty! You will say to the vermin,
Which will devour you with kisses,
That I have preserved the form and essence divine
Of my decayed loves!”

(Charles Baudelaire, Carcass)

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, The Dead Women (Les Mortes), 1908

Gustav Adolfo Mossa, a French painter born in Nice in 1883 to an Italian mother and an artist father, spent his late teens and most of his twenties painting in a Symbolist style and so that first artistic period in Mossa’s oeuvre is called the “Symbolist period” and it lasted from about 1900 to 1911. Later, upon moving to Bruges, he discovered Flemish paintings and his art drifted in another direction. In his Symbolist phase Mossa created a macabre and disturbing yet vibrant world littered with femme fatales and saints, heroes and heroines from Shakespeare, and just random skeletons. Mossa was introduced to the Symbolist art at the Exposition Universelle which he visited in 1900 and after that moment all the inspiration that was mounting in his teenage soul, taken from Art Nouveau and the literary works of Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Mallarmé, suddenly flourished in these watercolours which are all so captivating and full of interesting details. I always felt drown to the spirit of Symbolism, and yet the way these ideas were manifested in the visual arts wasn’t very appealing to me. Now, in the art of Mossa, I found what I was looking for. I love how the classic, well-known themes in art are transformed by Mossa into a festival of blood, bones, lust and roses. The delicacy of watercolour mixed with somewhat gruesome or eerie themes is especially entrancing. The beauty of the Symbolist phase of Mossa’s art is that it both disturbs and bewilders the soul. In “The Dead Women” we see the faces of fashionable ladies after the vermins had devoured them with their kisses; the velvet smooth skin, the rosy cheeks are now all eaten away and the grey skull appears – what a contrast to the radiant blueness of their dresses and the elegance of their hats. Tall and dark cypress trees in the background look gloomy and foreboding, as they do in real life.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Salome, 1901

In the watercolour “Salome” the severed, bloodied heads spring from the most fragrant and delicate pink roses, Salome seductively licks the blade of the very sword which had severed them. Dressed in a loose white nightgown with one breast exposed, her pale flesh is revealed, her hand adorned with rings, not a trace of remorse colours her face.

Gustave Adolphe Mossa, Hamlet and the Skull, 1909, Black chalk, pen and ink, watercolour and gouache on paper, 46.2 x 28 cm

Hamlet, a solitary figure under a grey sky and clouds as heavy as lead, his figure is elongated like the figures in early Renaissance art, he is holding an exaggaretedly large skull in his hands, a cup next to his feet with spilt wine – or is it blood? The town is sleeping in the distance, the tower looming as a threat, hundreds of little windows are like dark empty eye sockets ready to swallow who ever dares to gander upon them for too long.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, La chasse de Sainte Ursule, date unknown

Saint Ursula standing on the shore of a river with snow-white swans next to her feet. Dozens or arrows are flying her way, ready to pierce her virginal flesh, but her face reveals not a sign of worry, it is as serene and pale as can be, her golden hair makes one think more of a fairy than of a saint; she is above it all, shielded from the arrows by her heavy robe, nothing can touch her.

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, Valse Macabre, 1906

In “Valse Macabre” the fin de siecle fascination with Eros and Thanatos are united, a skeleton and a femme fatale with fashionably voluminous hair are locked in a kiss, their bodies intertwined, the breath of the death coming from the graveyard in the distance has extinguished the tall white candles, the lady’s gaze seems to say:

It is eternity when your kiss grazes me,

My heart, my heart rises,

ah! so high that it flies away.

(Remy de Gourmont, Hieroglyphs)

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Pierrot, 1906

Pierrot is wandering the old rotting town with a dagger in his hand and a mad look in his eyes, a face of sleepless night and madness, his under eye circles darker than the dark waters of the canals in Bruges. St Sebastian looks less like a saint and more like a charming boy, his poor, tortured body is convulsing in pain from the arrows while the crow is feasting on his eyes.

 

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Sebastian Martyr, 1907

Eugène Carrière – The First Communion

17 Dec

Eugène Carrière, The First Communion, 1896

Eugène Carrière’s painting “The First Communion” is the most haunting painting of a little girl dressed for her First Communions that I have seen. Quite a few examples of this motif can be found in the late nineteenth century art, but no painting I’ve seen is this ghostly. The gentle figure of a young girl arises from the surrounding darkness. All of Carrière’s paintings have this distinct atmosphere and the figures in them seem to emerge from the brown-grey fog or a muddy swamp. The girl’s hands are clasped in her lap and she seems so sombre and wraith-like; her white formal gown and veil are transformed into a sea of greys by Carrière’s brush, as if they’re made of ashes. Usually the girls painted in their white First Communion dresses look angelic, smiling and lively, but Carrière’s portrayal of this motif instantly takes away the little girl’s angelic, innocent appeal because she seems more like a ghost than a real girl; no smile, no rosy cheeks on that face.

As I gaze at the girl’s face more, a scene from the film “The Others” (2001) comes to mind; a very devout Catholic woman (played by Nicole Kidman) lives alone in a lonely, forgotten mansion surrounded with constant fog with her two children and servants, desperately awaiting her husband’s return from the war. In one scene she lets her daughter try on the new snow-white dress and veil for her First Communion. The mother leaves the room for awhile and when she returns, she finds her daughter playing with a doll, but her face isn’t her own: it’s a horrible and frightening face of an old woman. Of course, it was only an illusion, but Carrière’s girl seem to me capable of transforming into something else, it isn’t static and final in my eyes, it moves and changes; I can imagine the girl’s dress changing from perfectly white to this shade of grey; I can imagine her eyes losing shine and her face loosing form; this is but one state of melancholy decay, she will sink even more into the darkness that surrounds her.

In all of Carrière’s paintings, I feel like his figures are transitioning from the palpable, material world to a mystical, airy one, their forms are distilling, they are fading away… Odilon Redon, a fellow Symbolist artist who used colour and shapes very differently though, wrote this of Carrière’s art: “…opaque limbos where pale, morbidly human faces float like seaweed: that is Carrière’s painting. It does not have the flavor of solid reality, but remains in the muted regions of the first elaboration, which are favorable to visions, and never appears or flowers in the shining brightness of the solar prism.” My view of Carrière’s paintings varies from day to day, from painting to painting; sometimes the haunting and ghostly mood of his portraits really captivates me, and other times, his colour palette is devastatingly depressing and monotonous. Carrière’s dislike, or mistrust, of colour is truly remarkable. I really love this painting “The First Communion” because of its motif really, but some of his other paintings tend to drain me due to their lack of vibrant colour. And now, here are some other examples of the same motif but in a very different mood and style. With their white gowns and veils, the First Communion girls look like little brides.

Sir John Lavery, Eileen, Her First Communion, 1901

Elizabeth Nourse, The First Communion (La Première communion), 1895

Henri Martin, First Communion, 1891

Jules Bastien-Lepage, First Communion, 1875

Carl Frithjof Smith, After first Communion, 1892

Emile Claus, First Communion, 1893

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: Mademoiselle Rivière

6 Oct

I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.”

(Baudelaire)

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière, 1806

By the time this portrait of Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière was finished, she had already ceased to be. Some say it was soon after the portrait was finished, but nonetheless Mademoiselle Caroline was of tender age when this portrait was painted, just blooming into womanhood; in her white muslin gown she reminds me of a tender white autumnal rose killed by the first frost. Her youth, paleness and delicacy would have surely inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write his tales of death and romance. Caroline’s eyes are dark and clear and she is gazing directly at us. But still a certain shyness has coloured her cheeks in a soft pink shade. Her slightly elongated neck looks swan-like. Her figure stands out sharply against the serene landscape behind her, painted in muted tones. Even though the landscape shows nature in spring, the gentle greenness show the awakening of nature, Caroline herself possesses the eerie calmness and stillness of a winter landscape of frost and whiteness. The river in the landscape is meandering steadily and the flow of water can remind us of the flow of time and transience. The thinness and fragility of her white muslin gown, easy to tear and easy to decay in the grave, are contrasted with the strong mustard yellow colour of her gloves and the sensuous white fur. All this is suggestive of Caroline, whom the young painter called “the ravishing daughter”, blooming like a flower into womanhood, and yet this solemn coldness around her speaks of other things. And can we blame Ingres’ for being so captivated with Caroline? The painter was in his early twenties and why should he not feats his eyes on this delicate object of his painting. Caroline’s paleness and stillness of her pose is reminiscent of some older portraits, such as Parmigianino’s painting “Portrait of a Young Woman” (“Antea”) and this “Gothic”; slightly static and elongated portrayal of Caroline’s figure has also drawn comparisons to the art of Jan van Eyck and also to Piero di Cosimo’s portrait of Simonetta Vespucci who is painted with a snake wrapped around her. In the age of Neo-Classicism, the young Ingres received negative criticism for this style because Gothic revival wasn’t in style yet, but looking from our perspective today we know that this was just the beginning of Ingres’ success in the world of portraits.