Tag Archives: French artist

Marie Laurencin: Wistful Waifs in Pink and Greys

6 May

Why should I paint dead fish, onions and beer glasses? Girls are so much prettier.

(Marie Laurencin)

Marie Laurencin, Woman with dog and cat (Femme au chien et au chat), 1916

As it is usually the case with female artists, Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) was partly forgotten and partly misremembered. She is mostly remembered as a part of the French avant-garde, muse to Guillaume Apollinaire who poetically bestowed the name “Our Lady of Cubism” upon her. A female Cubist, a muse, just another figure in the modernist Parisian art circles. But all of these titles, as flattering as they sound, do not do the justice to the lyrical, gentle beauty of Laurencin’s paintings. Born on the last day of October in Paris in 1883, Laurencin moved to Sèvres at the age of eighteen to study porcelain painting. After that, she returned to Paris and pursued studying oil painting at the Académie Humbert. Her work stretched from the early twentieth century up until her death. She was especially successful in the 1920s, but in 1930s, due to the economic crash, besides painting she also worked as an art instructor in a private school. While it is easy to noticed the changes and developments of her style and themes, her paintings always have that certain beautiful quality that makes them so wonderful and unique, and it makes you think that no one else could have painted them but Marie Laurencin herself.

These days I am particularly captivated by the beautiful harmony of pinks and greys in Laurencin’s paintings. So many enchanting shades of grey! Grey like the sky on an autumn day, grey like the fluffy lead-coloured springs clouds full of rain, grey like a soft bunny’s fur, grey like the waters of Seine that Apollinaire mentions in one of his poem called “Marie” written for Laurencin, grey as something gentle, fading and romantical.

I was walking along the Seine

An old book under my arm

The river is like my sorrow

It flows and does not end

So when will the week be done.

(last stanza from “Marie” by Apollinaire, translation found here.)

Marie Laurencin, The Fan, 1919

“The masks are silent

And the music so distant

That it seems descended from heaven

 Yes, I want to love you, but love you barely

And my disease is delicious.”

(“Marie”, Apollinaire, found here.)

All the feminine gentleness of Laurencin’s work lies in those soft shades of grey. The girls in all these paintings, dreamy Parisian waifs, with elongated, thin, mask-like faces bring to mind the slender, gaudy ladies from Kees van Dongen’s canvases. Their skin is grey, their eyes large, silent, poetic and deep, their gazes wistful and inviting. Strange doll-like stillness, paleness, quietness lingers through these canvases. And when the soft grey shades meet the more vibrant, almost garish shades of pink, purple, blue, turquoise, then the true magic occurs. Softness, gentleness, sweetness prevail in these portraits, these girls in pinks and greys are girls seen through the feminine lens of a female painter. To call Laurencin “a female Cubist” is almost an insult to these charming, delicate paintings which posses none of the mathematical, objective, steel-coldness of the Cubist artworks. Laurencin’s portraits are like pages from a young girl’s diary, lyrical and coated in sweetness, but not shallow or sentimental because they have that something, a touch of mystery, secrecy and silent which makes one wonder. She even said herself: “Cubism has poisoned three years of my life, preventing me from doing any work. I never understood it. I get from Cubism the same feeling that a book on philosophy and mathematics gives me. Aesthetic problems always make me shiver. As long as I was influenced by the great men surrounding me I could do nothing.

Laurencin was a part of the Cubist circles but her work is certianly not. Her exploration of colours is, to me, more reminiscent of Fauvism. Look at that turquoise and bright pink the painting “Woman with Dog and Cat”! I don’t understand why the feminine element is often overlooked in her art. She is not less of an artist if she painted pretty girls in pastel colours. She is mostly remembered as just a Cubist muse, but at the same time Picasso’s Cubist guitars and violins, broken to pieces canvases, that is seen as avant-garde and revolutionary, and I don’t see why. Laurencin said something interesting about women and painting: “I conceive of a woman’s role to be of a different nature: painting to be essentially a “job” for a woman (one who sits so long quiet on a chair); and a painter’s inspiration to be life and that of natural sensibility rather than the outcome of intellect or reason. There is something incongruous to me in the vision of a strong man sitting all day… manipulating small paint brushes, something essentially effeminate.

Marie Laurencin, Femme à la colombe (Marie Laurencin et Nicole Groult), 1919

Marie Laurencin, Woman with Dog (La femme au chien), c. 1924

Marie Laurencin, The Kiss, 1927

Paul Cézanne and Katherine Mansfield: I, myself, am changing into an apple, too

19 Jan

Paul Cézanne was one of those painters who are here to show us that sometimes what is painted is less important than how something is painted. Cézanne is our birthday boy today, he was born on this day in 1839.

Paul Cezanne, Four Apples, 1881

The simple, yet striking composition you see above with four apples, ripe and idle, gracing the table, is typical for Cézanne. Unlike some Dutch Baroque master who wanted to show his skill in painting with perfect accuracy or displaying wealth symbolised by flowers and fruit, Cézanne’s motifs were of an entirely different nature. He used every motif to explore colours and shapes. Here we see four apples in different sizes and colours, we see the brushstrokes that created them but we can also feel how real and touchable they are, their red and green colours oozing life. They are placed on a grey surface, the edges of which are left unfinished, exposing the canvas and the thick brushstrokes of grey paint, leaving visible this pulsating line which visually divides the painting or “the illusion” and the bare canvas or “the reality”.

And now a small digression, since the motif of apples is present here, I will use the opportunity to share with you a very interesting fragment from a letter by Katherine Mansfield to her painter-friend Dorothy Brett.

What can one do, faced with this wonderful tumble of round bright fruits, but gather them and play with them—and become them, as it were. When I pass the apple stalls I cannot help stopping and staring until I feel that I, myself, am changing into an apple, too—and that at any moment I may produce an apple, miraculously, out of my own being like the conjurer produces the egg. When you paint apples do you feel that your breasts and your knees become apples, too? Or do you think this is the greatest nonsense. I don’t. I am sure it is not. When I write about ducks I swear that I am a white duck with a round eye, floating in a pond fringed with yellow blobs and taking an occasional dart at the other duck with the round eye, which floats upside down beneath me. (…) There follows the moment when you are more duck, more apple or more Natasha than any of these objects could ever possibly be, and so you create them anew.

What a beautiful, delightful and psychedelic idea; to imagine yourself turning into an apple, becoming the apple that you see in front of you!? But let’s get back to Cézanne. What he wanted to achieve was the illusion of depth without sacrificing the luminosity of colours. In a way, his ambivalence towards the art of proper drawing opened a gateway for many artists who followed. His brushstrokes, palette of colours and relentless interest in portraying similar scenes make Cézanne’s paintings highly recognisable. He was often repetitive in the choice of subjects and he was mainly concentrated on still lives and numerous landscapes with Mount Sainte-Victorie, but he also painted many interesting portraits of his family and imaginary figures. Unlike his contemporaries, the young bohemian artists who arrived to Paris to struggle and thrive in creating their art, Cézanne was from a well-off family and later even inherited a little fortune which allowed him to entirely devote his life to art, without any sacrifices, and to really explore his artistic visions without worrying about pleasing the possible buyers or earning for bread.

Paul Gauguin – Nevermore (O Taiti)

25 Nov

In this post we’ll take a look at one of Paul Gauguin’s famous nudes of Tahitian girls and search the deeper meaning of the painting beside the, at first sight obvious, alluring exoticism and eroticism.

Paul Gauguin, Nevermore (O Taïti), 1897

A nude woman is lying on a bed. Just another one of Gauguin’s exotic island girls, you might think, but her face expression and the mystic mood compels you to take another look. The horizontal composition of the painting is subordinated to the voluptuous body of this chocolate-skinned Tahitian girl. All of Gauguin’s island girls have this interesting skin colour: brown accentuated with green and hints of salmon pink. Her black hair is spilt on the bright lemon yellow pillow. She looks bored at first sight, her head is resting on her hand. Her lips are turned upwards, perhaps she is sulking? And how delightfully the outline of her body separates the foreground from the background. Nocturnal, dreamy mood where every colour holds a secret; browns, pale purple, green and blue. Silence of the night. In the background we see two women, a big bird and a series of abstract decorations. Notice the distinct colour palette that Gauguin uses; mostly muted tones with pops of bright colour, usually purple, pinks and aqua blues. The girl you see in the painting is Pahura, Gauguin’s second vahine (Tahitian word for ‘woman’). But why is she so sad?

Let me tell you something about Gauguin’s travels. After living a bourgeois life as a salesman and being married for eleven years to a Danish woman, he felt suffocated by this existence and, at the age of thirty seven, finally decided to devote himself to painting. But soon the escape into the world of art wasn’t enough and he felt a need to physically escape the western world which he deemed as materialistic and decadent. He first sailed to Panama, then to the Caribbean, to a little island called Martinique, then he spent some time with Vincent van Gogh in Arles which ended in the famous ear incident, from then to Brittany, then Paris again, until one day, in 1891, on a suggestion of a fellow painter Emile Bernard, he decided to sail to Tahiti, a French colony which seemed like a paradise in his imagination. In 1893 he returned to France, but in 1895 he visited Tahiti again, this time for good : he died there too. When he returned to Tahiti in 1895, he found his old wife married to a fellow native, and was looking for another wife and he soon found her. Her name was Pahura and she was fifteen years old, although Gauguin himself claimed she was thirteen, perhaps in a desire to spark more outrage. Pahura was his greatest muse and she stayed with him, on and off, for six years. Soon enough Pahura was pregnant and the baby was due around Christmas 1896. A little girl was born, which delighted Gauguin, but sadly she died soon afterwards. Gauguin’s respond to this sad situation was the painting “Nevermore” where we see Pahura in a state of sadness after the loss of her first child, her eyes are soft with sorrow, to quote Leonard Cohen. The title itself is taken from the famous poem “Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. In the poem, as you all know, a raven visits a sad lover who laments the death of his beloved maiden Lenore. The only word that the Raven ever says is “Nevermore”. And indeed, both the poem and Gauguin’s painting have a nocturnal ambience imbued with feelings of mystery and loss.

Jean-Louis Forain – Elegant Woman at the Beach

22 Feb

‘Adrift in cheap dreams don’t stop the rain.’ (Manic Street Preachers – Motown Junk)

1885-jean-louis-forain-elegant-woman-at-the-beach-1885Jean-Louis Forain, Elegant Woman at the Beach, 1885

The colours and the mood of this painting instantly attracted me. An elegant lady is trying to leave the beach as quick as possible, to avoid the upcoming storm, but the wind is not making it easy for her. Exuding sophistication and class, she must be a Parisian lady who came to the seaside on holiday, hoping to find some peace from the stresses of modern life. Instead of enjoying a picturesque sunny day at the beach, with smiling white clouds and a clear blue sky, she’s welcomed by a turbulent sea and an overcast day, oh how aggravating!

Let’s imagine her name is Celestine, and that this is a one of those sudden storms at the height of Summer, let’s imagine it’s one Thursday afternoon in July. So, Celestine is in a hurry, because she knows that even cheap dreams don’t stop the rain. It seems that just a second ago she lifted her arms and dropped her umbrella, quick not to allow the wind to take over her lovely bonnet. We can see the direction the wind is blowing because the ends of her coat are turned upwards and her red scarf, painted in just few dabs of rich cherry colour, is dancing on the wind. Her vibrant garnet red dress and a navy blue coat stand out amidst all that greyness, which irresistibly reminds me of Anna Karina’s blue and red outfits against the backdrop of grey Parisian streets in Godard’s film ‘Une Femme est Une Femme’. Swift, thick and short brushstrokes are present everywhere, but most notably on her skirt, where the black and red seem to be battling for dominance over the fabric.

I’m sure Celestine would like me to talk more about that lovely outfit that she put together for a walk at the beach, but I think the sea and the beach itself deserve a moment of attention and appreciation. As Forain was an Impressionist, and a friend of Manet and Degas who even invited him to exhibit on the Impressionist exhibitions, he wanted to capture the mood, the magic effects of light and air, rather than perfect details and realistic portrayal of landscape. His careless brushwork and the illusion that everything was painted hastily, as a sketch, all bring to life the atmosphere of that gloomy afternoon: we witness the white clouds being devoured by the dark-grey ones, with almost a purplish undertone to them, we see the wind as it tries to blow Celestine’s bonnet, and probably carries the tiny particles of sand in her eyes, and the sea – we can hear the clasps of waves, and see their strength, beauty and naughty playfulness. This is a moment captured in time, like a photograph. And do I sense a spirit of Turner or Whistler in that portrayal of sea?

It’s hard to notice the line which separates the sandy beach and the sea, but this vagueness delights me. There’s a chair next to the lady, also painted in quick brushstrokes, and two small figures in the background. Sea is painted in beautiful sea foam colour. All in all, the beauty of this painting, for me, lies in its quick, exciting, playful brushstrokes and a gorgeous colour palette in which harmony of greys meets the vibrancy of reds and blues.

Rain, storm, and a desolate beach – my idea of heaven, or at least a perfect afternoon.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – At the Moulin Rouge

16 Jan

Perhaps the most well-known and most detailed of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings, At the Moulin Rouge takes the viewer into a decadent and gaudy nightlife of Montmarte, with the glamour stripped away.

1892-95. At the Moulin Rouge by Henri Toulouse-LautrecHenri Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-95

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted this painting between 1892 and 1895. The scene depicts the infamous cabaret Moulin Rouge, which first opened just a few years earlier, in gloomy and misty October of 1889. Henri was instantly attracted to its vibrant atmosphere and energy. Imagine him, with his top hat and spectacles, sitting at the round table covered with white tablecloth, drinking cognac and drawing with charcoal, capturing movement of the dancers and their lavishing dresses, and people around him. These sketches were merely rudiments for the oil-on-canvas paintings that he later made. Moulin Rouge became his second home, and wellspring of inspiration because night life, dancers and cabaret became his main subject. There was something honest about Moulin Rouge. On one hand it was a bewitching, artificial, glamorous world, but on the other hand, it was more truthful, a straightforward place for the ‘working class heroes’, artists and eccentrics. Toulouse-Lautrec found beauty in places that other artists discarded. In spirit of Zola’s Naturalism, he relished in the aesthetics of ugliness, and meticulously studied faces of people and their individual characteristics. He stripped away the glamour of Moulin Rouge and the nightlife of Montmartre, and, at the same time painted scenes so evocative of La Belle Epoque Paris. His paintings posses a charm today still, and are entrancing for the modern viewers even though more than hundred years had passed since their creation.

(I suggest you to enlarge the painting by clicking on it)

Look at the painting. The first thing you notice is the crowd in the middle. Three men and two women are talking. They appear to be sharing the newest gossip, or discussing something important. The lady with the orange-coloured hair certainly stands out (possibly a can-can dancer Jane Avril). We see a part of her hand in black glove, perhaps she’s talking and gesticulating, but she turned her back on us so we can’t be sure. She’s dressed in a typical flamboyant La Belle Epoque manner, her wide sleeved dress and collar are trimmed with fur, her red hair is adorned with a black hat. There’s a bottle and a half full glass on the table. Across from her sits a man seen from the profile (Edouard Dujardin), clutching a walking stick and whispering something to a lady next to him (dancer La Macarona). She seems dizzy from alcohol, and there’s a sense of irony in her smile. The remaining two figures at the table are the photographer Paul Sescau and the vintner Maurice Guilbert.

Behind the crowd we see the artist himself, a short figure with a hat, walking with his cousin Gabriel Tapie de Celeyran, a tall and equally grotesque figure. In the backdrop, another can-can dancer, La Goulue and her friend are fixing their hairstyles in the mirror. The walls in the background are covered with mirrors which give the appearance of a flickering green surface, mottled with brown. Mirrors reflect the vibrancy that goes on in the scene. Even though this is a crowd scene, each figure is highly individualised. There’s a diagonal orange line in the lower left corner, a hint of Japanese Ukiyo-e style unsymmetrical compositions. The most interesting part of the painting is the lower right corner which shows a woman, an English dancer named May Milton whose face is garishly green from the lights below. Her bright yellow hair enhances the contrast. Again a hint of Ukiyo-e prints; the composition cuts her face and torso, which leaves us with a sense of incompleteness, and fires our imagination.