Tag Archives: gold

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix – Love Will Tear Us Apart

14 May

Rossetti’s painting Beata Beatrix, laden with symbolism and imbued with spirituality, can be viewed in two ways: as the ultimate expression of Rossetti’s passionate love for Lizzie, a love that transcends even death, and, as a synthesis of Rossetti’s life-long fascination with Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages – Dante Alighieri.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix, ca 1864-70.Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, Oil on canvas, painted about 1863-70, 86.4 x 66cm, Tate

Rossetti, who loved Lizzie ardently but not always most faithfully, often made connections between her and Beatrice; Dante’s muse and unrequited love, so much so that is seems Lizzie’s death came as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her death and this painting erased the border between Rossetti’s own life, love and loss, and that of his idol Dante. Having lost their muses, the two artists, although separated by centuries, were finally spiritually united. Both Rossetti and Dante sought refuge in art because it transcends the short life of us mortals. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis (Art is long, life is short.) – Lizzie’s life was short, her love for Gabriel lasted even shorter, and yet this painting, along with many other, enables us, century and a half later, to feel the same grief that Rossetti felt upon Lizzie’s death.

Dante’s Vita Nuova, the subject of Beata Beatrix, was one of numerous early Italian works that Rossetti translated. Dante portrays himself in La Vita Nuova as a poet captivated by an unattainable love personified by Beatrice. After Beatrice’s death Dante, who cannot overcome his lingering love for her, resolves to express his love through his art.*

1850s Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Elizabeth Siddal, study for 'Delia' in the 'Return

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Elizabeth Siddal, study for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’ (1853)

In this painting Lizzie Siddal embodied Dante’s Beatrice. Her head, crowned by exuberant masses of coppery red hair, is tilted back. Her face expression reveals a meditative, contemplative state, perhaps indicating that Beatrice is praying and calmly anticipating her death. She’s wearing a similar, medieval-style dress that can be seen in Rossetti’s painting ‘Beatrice, Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast, Denies him her Salutation’ from 1855. Also, her face expression bears resemblance to one of Rossetti’s early studies for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’.**

Lizzie’s heavy-lidded eyes now closed could be interpreted as a symbol of her transition into the underworld, like Eurydice in Greek mythology. And just like poor, grief-stricken Orpheus, Rossetti was unable to rescue his sweet Lizzie from the eternal sleep. Knowing Lizzie’s addiction to laudanum, one could get the impression that her state is nothing more than an opium dream. Her lips, the same crimson-coloured lips that Rossetti had kissed many times, are slightly parted which brings to mind Rossetti’s poem The Kiss and these verses:

“For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay.”

Other-worldly mood of the scene is absolutely beautiful, and I think that’s the very thing that makes this painting so special. Rossetti spent seven years of his life painting it (1863-1870) and it stands as a barrier between his early years characterised by medieval subjects and infatuation with Lizzie, and the following period when he focused on female sensuality and produced the ‘femme fatale’ paintings that everyone knows and loves.

Two figures emerge from the golden haze in the background: on the left – a figure of angel representing Love, and holding a flame in his hand, symbolising the soul of Beatrice; on the right – a figure of Dante, hopelessly trying to bring Beatrice back to life. Sundial casts its shadow on the number nine; the time of Beatrice’s death on 9th June 1290. For Dante, number nine had a mystical quality because of its connection to Beatrice. Rossetti noted in a letter to Ellen Heaton in 1863:

You probably remember the singular way in which Dante dwells on the number nine in connection with Beatrice in the Vita Nuova. He meets her at nine years of age, she dies at nine o’clock on the 9th of June, 1290. All of this is said, and he declares her to have been herself ‘a nine’, that is the perfect number, or symbol of perfection.’*

Behind Dante and the figure of Love we see a vague contours of Florence; the place where Dante’s story was set. We see a red dove carrying a poppy flower into Beatrice’s open hands. All this symbolism, along with the lavishing usage of gold could be interpreted as the beginning of Symbolism. As we know, many artists after Rossetti loved using gold in abundance, whether as a colour or in the form of real leaves of gold; Gustave Moreau and Gustav Klimt to name a few. Such profusion of gold evokes the glory days of Byzantine Empire and its architectural splendours. The spiritual yet luxurious mood of this painting reminds me of the atmosphere in Eastern Orthodox Churches.

1855. Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Beatrice, Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast, Denies him her Salutation (1855)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Beatrice, Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast, Denies him her Salutation’ (1855)

In the final episode of ‘Desperate Romantics’ we see the creation of this painting; Rossetti tries to memorise her face and then starts painting furiously. Everyone is saddened by her death. Effie and John, the happy couple in their cosy home, gaze at his study of Lizzie’s face for Ophelia. Hunt is in solemn solitude, praying to god by the candlelight, Fred – alone, drinking and kissing the lock of her coppery-golden hair. Death is so idealised and glamorised as an idea, but very sad when it actually occurs. It’s ironic that some of Rossetti’s best-known and some of the greatest Pre-Raphaelite artworks were painted after Lizzie’s death.

Sadly, death marks both the beginning and the end of Lizzie Siddal’s career as a model. Ten years before her death, in 1852, she posed as Ophelia for Millais, and almost died during the process, and after she died, Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix. (Note: Ophelia is not the first painting she sat for, but it is certainly the best known.) I see this painting as Rossetti’s way of saying ‘Farewell, My Lizzie’. Also, with this painting Rossetti seems to be exploring the connection between death and eroticism, something that would go on to be very popular a subject in decadent society of fin de siecle. Rossetti – always ahead of his time.

1860. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) - Portraitof Elizabeth Siddal, ca 1860

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) – Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, ca 1860

I think that despite his selfishness and interest in other women, Rossetti deeply loved Lizzie; she was not just a muse and a lover to him, but a true soulmate. He was obsessed with drawing her when she was alive, he buried his book of poems with her when she died, and I believe that the vision of her coppery hair and heavy-lidded greenish eyes stayed etched in his mind till the end of his life. Lizzie left emptiness when she died, and Rossetti described such feelings in his poem from ‘The House of Life’:

What of her glass without her? The blank gray
   There where the pool is blind of the moon’s face.
   Her dress without her? The tossed empty space
Of cloud-rack whence the moon has passed away.
Her paths without her? Day’s appointed sway
   Usurped by desolate night. Her pillowed place
   Without her? Tears, ah me! for love’s good grace,
And cold forgetfulness of night or day...”***
Elizabeth Siddall Plaiting her Hair null by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

Elizabeth Siddal Plaiting her Hair null by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882, c. 1850s

The title is obviously a reference to Joy Division, and I chose it because I think it’s relevant to the love affair of Lizzie and Rossetti. No doubt that she was annoyed by his celebration of female sensuality and friendships with prostitutes, and that he often thought living with her brought nothing but restrictions and dullness. And yet, aside from these everyday troubles, Rossetti expressed nothing but pure beauty and adoration in his portrait of Lizzie, and what woman could possibly want more?

 ***

“When routine bites hard,

And ambitions are low,

And resentment rides high,

But emotions won’t grow,

And we’re changing our ways,

taking different roads.

Then love, love will tear us apart again.
Love, love will tear us apart again.

Why is the bedroom so cold?
You’ve turned away on your side.
Is my timing that flawed?”****

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Egon Schiele’s Nudes and Manic Street Preachers

9 Mar

Egon Schiele is known as the painter of anxiety, sexuality and death – a combination of which makes his paintings provocative, twisted, slightly morbid and trashy. Schiele was too radical for his contemporaries but later on he proved to be an inspiration for pop icons and rock stars from David Bowie to Manic Street Preachers.

NPG x87840; Manic Street Preachers (Richey James Edwards; Nicky Wire (Nick Jones)) by Kevin CumminsThe May 1991 NME cover of Nicky and Richey, photographed by Kevin Cummins

Many artists painted nudes, but Schiele’s nudes are certainty one of the most striking. Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Goya’s The Nude Maja, Manet’s Olympia – none of these masterpieces are as eye-catching, as disturbing or as decadent as any of Schiele’s nude or semi-nude women with pale skin, ribs sticking out, untamed pubic hair, dark circles underneath the eyes, overall unsettling appeal – Schiele defined ‘heroin chic’ look eighty years before it was trendy. And I’m sure Kate Moss would be more than welcomed to pose for him because Schiele’s ideal was a fragile and lean body.

Twisted body shapes and very sexualised poses typical for Schiele’s oeuvre raised the dust in conservative society of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire. Poses, more than nudity, shocked the audience. His anti-academic tendencies and subjectiveness to the core drove him to explore human body and perspectives like no one else at the time. He captured his models in bizarre movements and weird, probably uncomfortable poses. Often, he’d step on the ladders and draw the model from above. The process of sketching is interesting as well. Schiele was very skilled in drawing, had a firm hand, never used a rubber, and if he did make a mistake, which was rare, he’d simply throw the paper away. Schiele’s paintings were based on lines, just like those of Ingres. He’d always colour his drawings in the absence of the model, working from the memory. This was probably good for the models because it meant that they didn’t have to spent a lot of time in those awkward poses – sketching was quickly done, and they could get their money and go home. About his fragile, world-weary figures Schiele said: ‘They were intended to look buckled under, the bodies of those who are tired of life, suicidal.

1917. Egon Schiele - UmarmungEgon Schiele, Pair Embracing, 1917

It’s easy to see the similarities between Schiele’s expressive, twisted body shapes and Kevin Cummins’ photo of Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers. Wire is in a leopard print shirt, Edwards in a black crocheted top; they both have make-up, this, along with the gold background certainly evokes the ‘trashy glam look’ that Cummins was aiming for. Still, the position of their bodies, their hands interwoven, along with love-bites and slogans written on their chests evoke a slightly nihilistic, anxious mood of Egon Schiele’s paintings. Also, with his angular face and messy hair, Edwards does look a bit like some poor girl Schiele would pick up from the streets and use as his model.

And now a bit about the Manic Street Preachers’ first ever NME cover shoot:

The May 1991 NME cover of Nicky and Richey was photographed by Kevin Cummins. ‘This was their first NME cover’, he says, ‘I bought the gold sari cloth to give it a trashy glam look – although it’s since drawn comparisons to the paintings of Egon Schiele, with the gold backdrop and the slightly twisted bodies‘. The cover image showed the two band members on their backs, gazing up at the camera. Wire has his right arm around Edwards’ shoulders and Edwards is pressing it to his chest. Both have panda-eyed make-up. Wire is in a leopard print shirt, open to below his nipple, while Edwards has a black crocheted top. Before the shot, they’d decided that they should both have a collection of love-bites on display and so the night before they had gone nightclubbing to try and get some. Wire succeeded but Edwards didn’t, much to his own disgust. In the photo studio, Kevin Cummins wrote ‘Culture Slut’ across Nicky Wire’s upper chest in lipstick. Edwards, upset about losing the love-bite competition, was determined not to be upstaged. He produced a school geometry compass and wandered over to a mirror, where he scratched ‘HIV’ into his upper chest. But he forgot he was looking at his reflection so what he actually wrote was ‘VIH’. It still made the cover.* (A Version of Reason: The Search for Richey Edwards, by Rob Jovanovic)

1917. Kneeling Girl, Resting on Both Elbows by Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Kneeling Girl, Resting on Both Elbows, 1917

1910. Female Nude (Weiblicher Akt) by Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Female Nude (Weiblicher Akt), 1910

1910. Squatting Female - Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Squatting Female, 1910

1917. Woman - Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Woman, 1917

James McNeill Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes’

22 Dec

When James McNeill Whistler first exhibited his Nocturne series in 1877 at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, he enraged John Ruskin who wrote of the exhibition that Whistler was “asking two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge circa 1872-5 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Gold; Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-75

Whistler sued Ruskin, and their little ‘art quarrel’ reached the court in 1878. Ruskin couldn’t understand why Whistler asked for 200 guineas for a painting which needed merely two-days work. On that question Whistler cunningly replied that the amount of money wasn’t for the two-days of work, but for the knowledge he had been acquiring all his life. This is a wise thought which could easily be applied to all artist; all the emotions, memories, thoughts and associations which the artist imbued in his artwork will forever remain a mystery. What is known, what I write here, is only scratching the surface, and endless interpretations which are subjective. Just like Marcel Proust said: ‘An hour is not just an hour, it is a vessel full of perfumes, sounds, plans and atmospheres.‘ (In Search of Lost Time) A painting is all those things as well.

Another thing that angered Ruskin, and majority of art critics, were the titles of the paintings, such as ‘Nocture’ in this case. Other typical Whistler-style names were ‘harmony’, ‘symphony’, ‘study’ and ‘arrangement’. In 1872, he wrote to Frederic Leyland, an amateur musician who inspired Whistler for his musically inspired titles: I say I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me—besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish. As for the composition, it was clearly derived from Japanese woodblock prints which Whistler loved just like his contemporaries, the Impressionists.

This case symbolically represents the deep gap that divided artists in the second half of the 19th century. Ruskin, who was older, hoped he could raise an awareness of beauty among people by appealing to their morals, while Whistler, who later became the leading figure in ‘aesthetic movement’, argued that the artistic sensibility is the only thing in life that has value. As the 19th century progressed, both viewpoints gained in importance. Which viewpoint is more your cup of tea?

J.M.W. Turner and John Constable’s Approach to Landscapes

15 Oct

The importance of landscape painting changed under the influence of the Romantic movement in the late 18th century, and great artists took the job of elevating this genre of painting to new dimensions as their life goal. Tradition was both an obstacle and help. Two English artists of Romanticism approached this problem differently, though equally interesting and inspirational for generations to follow, those were J.M.W. Turner and John Constable.

Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851Peace – Burial at Sea – J.M.W. Turner, 1842

Turner was a successful artists whose paintings often caused sensation on the Royal Academy. His ambition in life was to reach, if not surpass, the glory of Claude Lorraine’s landscapes. When he died, Turner left all his paintings, drawings and sketches to the English nation, under one condition – that his painting Dido building Carthage (1815) is always exhibited next to the paintings of Claude Lorrain. His comparison is a bit unfair; while the world of Lorrain’s paintings is a world of dreams, undisturbed serenity and simplicity, Turner’s painting, which also reflect fantastical worlds bathed in gold lightness and shining with beauty, radiate not serenity but motion and excitement, his worlds are not those of simple harmonies but of astonishing grandeur. Turner deliberately painted with an aim to captive and amaze the viewer, and his landscape of turbulent seas, storms and fires imply the romantic sumptuousness of nature.

If we take a look at Turner’s painting above ‘Burial at Sea’ the sense of excitement and movement is evident, and limited amount of colours – black, yellow, white and blue were quite enough for Turner to create this dynamic rapture. Objects in Turner’s art are usually shapeless, but as Stephane Mallarme said “To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.” Turner’s sea scenes of boats, storms and waves are here to fulfill the needs of our imagination, not to teach us about boats and boat equipment. Turner’s paintings always portray an emotion.

1838. Ovid Banished from Rome - J.M.W. TurnerOvid Banished from Rome – J.M.W. Turner, 1838

Tradition was always a burden for Constable. It’s not that he lacked the admiration for old masters, but he simply wanted to paint what he saw in front of him, not what Claude Lorrain saw centuries ago. To Constable ideas weren’t of much importance, all that mattered was the truth. Fashionable landscape painters of the time admired painters such as Lorrain and invented a whole set of techniques which allowed them to easily create such works for their bourgeois customers. The formula was simple: a tree in the foreground as a contrast to the vast nature scene in the background, soft brownish and golden shades in the foreground, and the background was suppose to turn pale from blue to white shades. Constable despised all those tricks. And really, where are all those imitation of imitations of landscapes, while Constable remains an important painter of his generation.

It is said that a friend objected to Constable for not using the usual soft ‘violin’ brown shades in the foreground of his paintings, to which Constable replied by taking a violin outdoors and comparing its soft brown shade to the radiant green colour of the grass; the real colour instead of the conventional shades of brown that the audience was accustomed to. But Constable didn’t want to shock the audience, he simply wanted to paint what he saw. Green grass, such a ‘radical move’. His perhaps best known painting ‘The Hay Wain’ shows exactly what Constable wanted to achieve: paint nature with honesty and simplicity by refusing to paint landscapes more impressive than nature itself.

1821. John Constable - The Hay WainJohn Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821

Breaking with tradition left the landscape artists with two paths embodied in Turner and Constable. Painters could either become ‘poets’ in painting in search of wild, touching and dramatic effects, or, they could hold onto the real motif and explore it with all their persistence and honesty. Another representative of the first group is my darling Caspar David Friedrich and his poetic, melancholic scenes of forests at night or lovers by the shore. Camille Corot is a good example of the second path: he studied nature attentively and infused his painting with honesty, that way influencing the development of Realism in France.

Which path is more appealing to you? I know some art historians think that the second path achieved something of long-lasting value, but I support the first path because romanticised nature in art appeals to me more.