Tag Archives: Gothic

Mary Shelley’s Mathilda: A Maiden in Love with Death

28 Aug

Ahh, gothic maidens, incest and death; three things I love in a novel! I am in such a Gothic mood these days and how convenient that Mary Shelley will be celebrating her birthday soon; this Thursday, 30th August, marks the 221st anniversary of her birth. Did you not get the invitation to her graveyard-party in your mailbox? I know I did. Percy wrote it in his gorgeous handwriting. So sweet of him.

Walking dress, Ackermann’s Repository, July 1818; a perfect attire for a Gothic heroine

Mary Shelley’s epistolary novel written in first person is a dark little masterpiece. The story starts with the heroine Mathilda who is in her early twenties lying in bed and awaiting death. What we are reading is a long letter to her friend Woodville in which she reveals to him, and to us, the sad course of her life and dark secrets that she had kept concealed while she was alive: “You have often asked me the cause of my solitary life; my tears; and above all of my impenetrable and unkind silence. In life I dared not; in death I unveil the mystery.” We find out that her mother and father were madly in love with each other, and that her mother Diana died shortly after Mathilda was born. Her father, heartbroken and mad with sadness, set off to travel to distant lands in a self-imposed exile.

Mathilda is brought up by her father’s older sister. Deprived of love and affections, she grows into a dreamy forest-maiden whose friends are birds and flowers, and whose pursuits are long walks over the moors and indulging in reverie. I enjoyed the tempo of her storytelling; little by little she is introducing us to her life and explaining her character and emotions with brilliant vibrancy of expression and elaborate language. Growing up, Mathilda idealises her father and indulges in frequent and long reveries of how her ideal life would be. One day when she is sixteen she receives a letter from her father telling her that he is returning. She is ecstatic beyond belief, and on their first meeting their get along very well and their souls connect. Months of bliss are in front of them.

Photo by Laura Makabresku, “She is dead but lately started to blossom”

“In truth I am in love with death; no maiden ever took more pleasure in the contemplation of her bridal attire than I in fancying my limbs already enwrapt in their shroud: is it not my marriage dress?”

Glencoe, Scotland, photo found here.

The plot is simple and has all the typical components of Gothic literature; an innocent maiden, loneliness and isolated setting of the Scottish castle, darkness looming over the heroine’s life… Still, the ending is very untypical of a Gothic novel of Romanticism; death beats love in this story and there is no knight to save the damsel from death’s sweet embrace. I see it as a rather sophisticated and lyrical exploration of a very dark topic, and one which could easily be tasteless. Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin didn’t enjoy the manuscript which Mary had sent him from Rome, and the novella wasn’t published until 1959.

I particularly loved the way Mary Shelley explored the themes of yearning for love, and self-imposed life in isolation; both are very dear to my heart. Mathilda’s childhood is lonely and instead of receiving love she is compelled to give it: “By degrees I became reconciled to solitude but no one supplied her place in my affections. I lived in a desolate country where there were none to praise and very few to love.“ That doesn’t turn her into a cold distant individual, quite the contrary, she gives love freely to all things of nature around her, and caries a hope in her heart that one day she would be given an opportunity to bestow these affections on her father. Apart from a short-lasting joy when her father returns, Mathilda spends nearly her entire life in isolation, but Shelley makes a distinction here; isolation doesn’t mean loneliness.

I can easily say that “Mathilda” is one of the best books I’ve read this year, a true hidden gem and the beauty lies in many reasons; throughout exploration of complex themes, beautiful elaborate language, the character of Mathilda and the fact that it’s written in the first person which gives it an extra emotional depth and intimacy.

And now plenty of beautiful quotes:

“I know that I am about to die and I feel happy–joyous.”

“I cannot say with what passion I loved every thing even the inanimate objects that surrounded me. I believe that I bore an individual attachment to every tree in our park; every animal that inhabited it knew me and I loved them. Their occasional deaths filled my infant heart with anguish.”

I wandered for ever about these lovely solitudes, gathering flower after flower, singing as I might the wild melodies of the country, or occupied by pleasant day dreams. My greatest pleasure was the enjoyment of a serene sky amidst these verdant woods: yet I loved all the changes of Nature; and rain, and storm, and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with them. When rocked by the waves of the lake my spirits rose in triumph as a horseman feels with pride the motions of his high fed steed. But my pleasures arose from the contemplation of nature alone, I had no companion: my warm affections finding no return from any other human heart were forced to run waste on inanimate objects.”

“I had acquired in my harp a companion in rainy days; a sweet soother of my feelings when any untoward accident ruffled them: I often addressed it as my only friend; I could pour forth to it my hopes and loves, and I fancied that its sweet accents answered me.“

“I was a solitary being, and from my infant years, ever since my dear nurse left me, I had been a dreamer. (…) Then I wandered from the fancies of others and formed affections and intimacies with the aerial creations of my own brain–but still clinging to reality I gave a name to these conceptions and nursed them in the hope of realization. I clung to the memory of my parents; my mother I should never see, she was dead: but the idea of [my] unhappy, wandering father was the idol of my imagination. I bestowed on him all my affections; there was a miniature of him that I gazed on continually; I copied his last letter and read it again and again.“

Scotland Fog, photos by Skyler Brown

“As I came, dressed in white, covered only by my tartan rachan, my hair streaming on my shoulders, and shooting across with greater speed that it could be supposed I could give to my boat, my father has often told me that I looked more like a spirit than a human maid. I approached the shore, my father held the boat, I leapt lightly out, and in a moment was in his arms.”

“Life was then brilliant; I began to learn to hope and what brings a more bitter despair to the heart than hope destroyed?

“I had no idea that misery could arise from love…”

“I was always happy when near my father. It was a subject of regret to me whenever we were joined by a third person, yet if I turned with a disturbed look towards my father, his eyes fixed on me and beaming with tenderness instantly restored joy to my heart. O, hours of intense delight!“

“Like Psyche I lived for awhile in an enchanted palace, amidst odours, and music, and every luxurious delight; when suddenly I was left on a barren rock; a wide ocean of despair rolled around me: above all was black, and my eyes closed while I still inhabited a universal death.“

“The few weeks that I spent in London were the most miserable of my life: a great city is a frightful habitation to one sorrowing. The sunset and the gentle moon, the blessed motion of the leaves and the murmuring of waters are all sweet physicians to a distempered mind.”

“…when I saw the wild heath around me, and the evening star in the west, then I could weep, gently weep, and be at peace.”

“Love! What had I to love? Oh many things: there was the moonshine, and the bright stars; the breezes and the refreshing rains; there was the whole earth and the sky that covers it: all lovely forms that visited my imagination, all memories of heroism and virtue. Yet this was very unlike my early life although as then I was confined to Nature and books. Then I bounded across the fields; my spirit often seemed to ride upon the winds, and to mingle in joyful sympathy with the ambient air. Then if I wandered slowly I cheered myself with a sweet song or sweeter day dreams. I felt a holy rapture spring from all I saw. I drank in joy with life; my steps were light; my eyes, clear from the love that animated them, sought the heavens, and with my long hair loosened to the winds I gave my body and my mind to sympathy and delight. But now my walk was slow–My eyes were seldom raised and often filled with tears; no song; no smiles; no careless motion that might bespeak a mind intent on what surrounded it–I was gathered up into myself–a selfish solitary creature ever pondering on my regrets and faded hopes.”

“My heart was bleeding from its death’s wound; I could live no otherwise – Often amid apparent calm I was visited by despair and melancholy; gloom that nought could dissipate or overcome; a hatred of life; a carelessness of beauty; all these would by fits hold me nearly annihilated by their powers. Never for one moment when most placid did I cease to pray for death.”

“I had already planned the situation where I would live. It should be a solitary house on a wide plain near no other habitation: where I could behold the whole horizon, and wander far without molestation from the sight of my fellow creatures. I was not mysanthropic, but I felt that the gentle current of my feelings depended upon my being alone. I
fixed myself on a wide solitude.”

“But your sad mien never alters; your pulses beat and you breathe, yet you seem already to belong to another world; and sometimes, pray pardon my wild thoughts, when you touch my hand I am surprised to find your hand warm when all the fire of life seems extinct within you.”

“You turn from me; yet before you deny me reflect, Woodville, how sweet it were to cast off the load of tears and misery under which we now labour: and surely we shall find light after we have passed the dark valley. That drink will plunge us in a sweet slumber, and when we awaken what joy will be ours to find all our sorrows and fears past. A little patience, and all will be over… Behold, my cheek is flushed with pleasure at the imagination of death; all that we love are dead. (…) Cast off this blank look of human melancholy. Oh! that I had words to express the luxury of death that I might win you. I tell you we are no longer miserable mortals; we are about to become Gods; spirits free and happy as gods. What fool on a bleak shore, seeing a flowery isle on the other side with his lost love beckoning to him from it would pause because the wave is dark and turbid?”

“Do you mark my words; I have learned the language of despair: I have it all by heart, for I am Despair; and a strange being am I, joyous, triumphant Despair…. We lie down, and close our eyes with a gentle good night, and when we wake, we are free.”

“In solitude only shall I be myself; in solitude I shall be thine.”

“I now behold the glad sun of May. It was May, four years ago, that I first saw my beloved father; it was in May, three years ago that my folly destroyed the only being I was doomed to love. May is returned, and I die.”

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5 Dreamy, Romantic, Coming of Age Films

19 Jul

I have been thinking recently about a few films that I love and I’ve noticed that a similar mood, theme and aesthetic connects them all. They’re all about young girls, all five have a romantic dreamy mood with a touch of mystery, a coming of age theme, and they are all aesthetically pleasing. If a film awakens my imagination, if it gives me delightful daydreams, then I will watch it. If I love a film, I will probably watch it many times because I love to soak all the details, gaze at the costumes and surroundings, and be a part of that dreamy world at least for an hour or two.

Faustine and the beautiful summer (1971)

Now, I already wrote a review for Faustine here, and that shows just how much I loved it! The film follows Faustine’s summer stay at her grandparents countryside house. She is a dreamy sixteen year old girl who loves nature and there are many beautiful shots of her hugging the wheat, kissing a tree, swimming nude, that mingle the love for nature with sensuality. She mostly spends time in her head, but also spies on her neighbours and eventually befriends them, and falls in love with one of them. Through a beautiful and dreamy aesthetic, the film shows Faustine’s growth and explorations, and touches topics that a girl her age could understand, such as the conflicts between daydreaming and living life, innocence and awakening sensuality etc. Chopin’s music is often in the background and there are many lovely and delicate scenes with a sensuous touch; Faustine indolently lying on the bed wrapped in nothing but white lace and eating cherries and strawberries, or Faustine running through the field of golden wheat and poppies which not only brings to mind the beautiful paintings of the Impressionists, but also the verses of young Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “Sensation”:

On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside – as happy as if I were with a woman.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

The latest dreamy-romantic-coming of age film I watched about a month ago and found it amazing to say the least! The film is based on the novel by Joan Lindsay and is set in girls school in Australia in 1900. A seemingly idyllic world of white lace, smiles, pressed flowers, and yellow haired girls goes horribly wrong one day in February, Valentine’s Day to be precise, when girls go to a picnic with their teachers. A mysterious mood and a gorgeous Edwardian aesthetic are not the only interesting aspects about the film, the soundtrack with some classical music pieces and the title music with panflute played by Gheorghe Zamfir is so so dreamy and really fits the mood of the wild Australian nature, hot burning sun and those red rocks, you can listen to it here. The intro, which you can watch here, is in my view the most beautiful part of the film, skip to 01:23 and you will see the dream begin. Oh how I love their white gowns, them lacing their corsets, washing their faces in water with roses, reading Valentine’s day cards, oh so romantic!

Virgin Suicides (1999)

A film based on a book by Jeffrey Eugenides, and both are really good in my view. It’s about five sisters living with strict and pious parents in a nice, clean, safe and boring suburb of Detroit in the 1970s. Their home life is sheltered and claustrophobic, plenty of things are forbidden; boys, rock music, nice clothes, and it gets stricter as the story goes on. Shielding them from the world has created numbness, decaying mood and a desire for death. Both the novel and the film are told from the point of view of a few adolescent boys who observe and admire the girls from afar. Just like us, they couldn’t unravel the mystery behind their death nor know for sure what was in their hearts, and this is the aspect that creates a lot of intrigue.

The Beguiled (2017)

Another film by Sophia Coppola . When I started watching it, I thought it’s too slow and unadventurous, but the atmosphere of secrets and claustrophobia, and the gorgeous costumes kept me intrigued. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas P. Cullinan and the story is set in a turbulent era of Civil War, in 1864, and revolves around pupils of a girls school in Virginia. Only five girls are left, with one teacher and headmistress, and so the atmosphere is a bit eerie. Their isolated existence is what gives the story its flair, similar as in “Virgin Suicides”, and I loved how the theme was explored. One girl saves a wounded soldier and everything intensifies from there because those pretty angelic faces and impeccable white gowns hide a lot of secrets and desires. The film beautifully captures their isolation, the are shown dreamily conjugating French verbs, clad in their white cotton dresses, alone in that big white mansion, completely unaware of what is going on in the outside world.

Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)

I put this film last on the list although it should be the first chronologically, because it is more strange than dreamy, and more surrealistic and romantic and that makes it a bit different from the previous ones. “Valerie and her Weeks of Wonders” is a Czech film based on the same-named novel written in 1935 by a Czech avant-garden writer Vítězslav Nezval, first published in 1945, and described as “part fairy-tale, part Gothic”. The film is bursting with strangeness and plenty of things don’t make sense, so you needn’t seek logic, just embrace the dream. The main character is a girl named Valerie who is thirteen years old and we follow her life in the countryside with her grandmother who looks frighteningly pale. She has a friend named Orlík and often looses her earrings, her grandma disappears and another woman comes, a local priest is a vampire-like creature with a white fan… Everything is twisted and intriguing and very dream, but I have to add that this film is a bit different, a bit more weird, to the ones I’ve talked about before so that’s why I decided to put it last in this list. Also, I have already written a review on this film here.

 

I hope you decide to watch one of these films, and if you have any to add on the list of especially dreamy films with flowers, maidens and secrets, feel free to do so in the comments.

Edgar Allan Poe – Annabel Lee

7 Oct

Edgar Allan Poe died on this day, 7th October, in 1849 in Baltimore, Maryland. “Annabel Lee” was his last completed poem, published on 9th October 1849. This beautiful and very well known poem is a real jewel and, typically for Poe, it tells the tale of a beautiful maiden and a love that transcends even death. I decided to accompany the poem with a painting by a contemporary artist Stephen Mackey because it has a similar mood as Poe’s poems and stories, macabre and romantic at the same time. Take a moment out of your evening and think of Poe, he deserves it!

Stephen Mackey (b. 1966) The Moon’s Trousseau

It was many and many a year ago,
   In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
   By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
   Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
   In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love--
   I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
   Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
   In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
   My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
   And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
   In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
   Went envying her and me--
Yes!--that was the reason (as all men know,
   In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
   Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
   Of those who were older than we--
   Of many far wiser than we--
And neither the angels in heaven above,
   Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling--my darling--my life and my bride,
   In her sepulchre there by the sea,
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Witches Round the Cauldron by Daniel Gardner (1775)

5 Nov

When shall we three meet again,

In thunder, in lighting or in rain.‘ (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene I)

by Daniel Gardner, gouache and chalk, 1775Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth, 1775

‘…something wicked this way comes.’

As the eighteenth century slowly approached its end, things were getting darker on the artistic scene. Ghosts, vampires and witches suddenly appeared on canvases of painters such as Henry Fuseli, Goya and William Blake. Dark side of the imagination began to shape works of art as well as literature, and the aesthetic of sublime slowly crept in. This was the answer to the excessive coldness, lightness and rationality of Classicism. In times when this was painted, public tastes were inclined towards the supernatural and Gothic, especially with theatre-goers who loved scenes from Macbeth. ‘Paint the witch!‘ replaced the more barbaric ‘Burn the witch!’.

Although the subject of this scene hints at the later developments of Romanticism, its execution is true to the styles of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, two artists whose style Gardner emulated, and often borrowed ideas for composition and arrangement of figures. This is an utterly charming and dreamy portrayal of three witches from Macbeth. There’s nothing scary or disturbing about it, and these three ladies are certainly prettier than Shakespeare had intended his witches to be, but these are not just three witches, oh no, Gardner actually portrayed three friends, society hostesses, art lovers and supporters of Whig party in this portrait.

The figure on the left, with long brown hair, is Elizabeth Lamb (nee Milbanke), Viscountess Melbourne. Witch on the right, dressed in splendid, sparkly black robe with zodiac symbols on it and tiny golden details, is Anne Seymour Damer (nee Conway) who was also an amateur sculptor. She has a typical black ‘witch’ hat and holds a magic wand in her right hand. In the middle is the most extravagant and well remembered out of all three; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, famous for her beauty, bold fashion statements, gambling and partying (much like Kate Moss today), her affair and an unhappy marriage. Along with a hat, her beautiful head is covered with gauze veil, and while she holds the sumptuous white silk fabric of her dress with one hand, she uses other to throw some herbs or blue flowers in the cauldron. Despite portraying a Shakespearean scene, which is a great task for the imagination, Gardner didn’t really use it, but rather chose to follow the fashion of the day; both in clothing the ‘witches’ wear and the style and composition of the painting itself.

High society lady, writer and diarist Lady Mary Coke (1727-1811) wrote in her diary of ‘the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Melburn, and Mrs Damer all being drawn in one picture in the Characters of the three Witches in Macbeth … They have chosen that Scene where they compose their Cauldron, but instead of “finger of Birth-strangled babe, etc” their Cauldron is composed of roses and carnations and I daresay they think their charmes more irresistible than all the magick of the Witches‘. (*)

Although I find the whole painting aesthetically pleasing, and very fitting for the mood of these post-Halloween days, I must say a thing or two about the brushstrokes and the play of light. Gardner beautifully portrayed their dresses, painting in soft, playful and refined strokes, using gouache and chalk. And the light; see how the bronze cauldron glistens, smoke arises like in a dream, and the reflections of the fire on the gorgeous silk dresses of the witches. I should also mention the possible allegorical meaning of the painting; since all three women were interested in politics and publicly supported the Whig party, it is possible that Gardner painted the cauldron as a symbol of ‘shadowy political machinations as leading members of the Devonshire House circle.’ (*)

Pre-Romanticism: Ruined Abbeys, Erotic Dreams and Strange Visions

29 Oct

In this post we’ll explore Pre-Romanticism through its main themes and occupations; ruined abbeys, erotic dreams and strange visions. There’s a strong Gothic vibe in early Romanticism; dreams, visions, vampires and hallucinations, and artists sought inspiration in myths and ballades of the past, Celtic and Germanic fairy tales, and everything that evoked the spirit of the Middle Ages. Compared to the flashy second generation of Romanticism, art of Pre-Romanticism is shrouded in thousands of veils, in it an insurmountable mountain, a misty lake in a desolate countryside, it’s a dream of Albion. Pre-Romanticism is a gentle plant that grew from the imagination of the people of the North; from their gloom soothed by the roaring of the sea and their melancholy which enabled them to look within and to transcend the darkness of their surroundings.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794

Romanticism developed very early in British art and literature. In the same years when fashion and interior design were ruled by Rococo exuberance, and visual arts were dominated by Classical ideas imposed by the French painter David, a new sensibility was arising from the mists of Albion. Strongly opposing the cold and rational age of Enlightenment, artists of the new generation, represented by Thomas Gray, James Macpherson and Ann Radcliffe in literature, and Henry Fuseli, Turner and William Blake in visual arts, praised imagination and strong feelings, and advocated the return to nature. ‘Sturm und Drang’ in German literature and writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were also very important in creating the new spirit.

These artists found inspiration in everything otherworldly, dreamy and shrouded in mystery. All of a sudden, the artistic and literary stage of Europe was swamped with vampires and other ‘dreadful creatures’ (a tendency further developed by Mary Shelley). Proneness towards melancholy, strange visions, thoughts of death and transience, sleep and dreams, old ruins, long forgotten castles – all these themes suddenly pervaded the artistic landscape. Interest in the cold and gloomy North revealed to early Romanticists the beauty of old Icelandic sagas, the charms of the Scottish bard, the allure of dark Germanic, Celtic and Scandinavian legends and fairy tales, and drew their attention to everything ‘Gothic’; sombre, gruesome, frightening, because that’s how the folkloric and historical legacy of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages was perceived as.

Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794

Old ruins

As I’ve already mentioned, old ruins were an interesting subject for painters to incorporate in their sublime landscapes, and for poets they served as starting points for contemplation about life and death. William Wordsworth wrote verses inspired by the famous Tintern Abbey, and J.M.W. Turner captured its delicate beauty overgrown with ivy a few time. We could say that this ‘old ruin’, a symbol of some other times, was a muse for early Romanticists. You can easily picture a young man resting in the shadow of the Abbey, thinking of his lovely maiden, treasuring a lock of her hair, and thinking of the day they will finally be together. You can also imagine the Abbey in the stillness of the night, above it the shining full moon and stars. Ruins were popular because they were perceived as ‘pictures of despair and destruction’, further developing the sensibility of sublime.

1790-91-henry-fuseli-the-nightmareHenry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1790-91

Erotic Dreams

Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote that ‘Gleams from remote world visit the soul in sleep’, and the main focus of Fuseli’s art lies in dreams. He believed they were the most unexplored areas in art, which isn’t really a surprise because, firstly – how do you paint dreams, and secondly – until Romanticism there wasn’t really a concept of artist as a genius, a visionary, and because they were considered mere craftsmans, themes of their artworks were limited.

This isn’t the original version of this painting. Due to the popularity of the original, painted in 1781, Fuseli painted a few more versions and this is one of them. It shows a young woman sleeping and experiencing a nightmare. In a restless sleep, her arms are stretching, her golden ringlets falling down. Poor maiden, as helpless in her sleep as a virgin from one of Hammer production vampire films. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. Fuseli took inspiration from Germanic folkloric beliefs that demons and witches posses people who sleep alone. Lady’s pose was considered rather erotic when it was painted, but Fuseli was known to have had a collection of erotic drawings that might have served as an inspiration.

Still, what’s so appealing about this painting isn’t the composition or the colours, but its ability to anticipate the hidden and restless world of nightmares and the unconscious.

1790s ‘The Wandring Moon.’ Watercolour by William Blake (1757-1827).

William Blake (1757-1827), The Wandering Moon, Watercolour, 1816-20

Strange Visions

Eternity is in love with the creations of time.‘ (W.Blake)

Ah, finally, the visionary, the revolutionary-mystic, the rebel, the pot-head of Romanticism – William Blake, important for poetry and paintings alike.

Madame de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine),writes that people living in the North were more prone to melancholy, at the same time naming it as the reason that made their imaginations more vivid, more restless than it was with nations in the South. I’ll quote the book: ‘The people of the North were less engaged in pleasure than in its opposite sensation; and this rendered their imagination more fertile: the prospects of nature had almost unbounded influence over them; but it affected them as it appeared in their climate, always dark and gloomy.‘ (Madame de Staël, The Influence of Literature Upon Society, Volume 1, page 271)

William Blake is one of the finest examples of fertile imagination of the people of the North, as his poems and drawings were not only original and unique, but also very strange, mystic and flamboyant in terms of colours and ideas. His lonely and unreachable imagination produced drawings and watercolours that perfectly combine themes from Milton, Dante and the Bible, made with a prophetic vigour in strong and bitter colours. As an example of Blake’s wonderful imagination I’ll mention his portrayal of a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell, Canto V, where he shows two sinful lovers, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, painted in deep blue and luminous white greyish shades. Namely, Dante reserved the second circle of hell for sinful lovers; Cleopatra, Paris, Helena, Tristan, Paolo and Francesca, who are carried away by the wind as a symbol of passion that guided them during their lives. Blake here used the motif of wind and created the composition as strange as it is imaginative.

1824-27-william-blake-the-lovers-whirlwind-francesca-da-rimini-and-paolo-malatestaWilliam Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

I love Pre-Romanticism, the mystic gloominess of it, and I have to stress this point again – it is characteristic for Northern nations; mainly England and Germany. While the playful, sweet and flowery aesthetic of Rococo ruled the court of France, British artists had already dipped their fingers in the sea of Pre-Romanticism, and later elaborated it to the finest detail because they naturally had an eye for wild and untamed nature, picturesque seashores, lovely gardens lush with greenness. Even Thomas Gainsborough added a slight romantic sensibility in his portraits by painting nature as a background, whereas his French peers preferred a salon to showcase their wealth and luxury. Even with painters such as John Constable who are a tad more traditional with landscapes, you see that romantic spirit. In his painting ‘Stonehenge’ he chose to capture the old, mysterious pagan ruins, and the wild majestic sky over them. I think with Romanticism and British art and literature, it was just a question of time when it would raise to the surface, but it was a sensibility deeply woven into the art of the island. I’ll quote Madame de Stael again, it’s a bit long citation, but I couldn’t resists adding it because it perfectly captures the spirit of Pre-Romanticism.

Melancholy poetry is that which accords best with philosophy. Depression of spirits leads us to penetrate more deeply into the character and destiny of man, than any other disposition of the mind. The English poets who succeeded the Scots bards, added to their descriptions those very ideas and reflections which those description ought to have given birth to: but they have preserved, from the fine imagination of the North that gloom which is soothed with the roaring of the sea, and the hollow blast that rages on the barren heath, and, in short, every thing dark and dismal, which can force a mind dissatisfied with its existence here, to look forward to another state. The vivid imagination of the people of the North darting beyond the boundaries of a world whose confines they inhabited, penetrated through the black cloud that obscured their horizon, and seemed to represent the dark passage to eternity.‘ (page 271)*

1835-stonehenge-john-constable-1John Constable, Stonehenge, 1835

If you survived reading this very long post, I congratulate you!

Thomas Sully and E.A.Poe – The Oval Portrait

23 Oct

In this post I’ll explore Sully’s refined portraits, their connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s pale, ghostlike and mournful literary heroines, and also Poe’s story The Oval Portrait and the way it influenced Jean-Luc Godard in his film Vivre sa Vie (1962).

1844-the-coleman-sisters-by-thomas-sully-1783-1872Thomas Sully, The Coleman Sisters, 1844

When I first set eyes on Sully’s paintings, I couldn’t help noticing a slight Gothic, eerie element to them, especially in the painting The Coleman Sisters. Three pale, raven hair beauties with large, dark velvety eyes, dressed in lavender and buttercup yellow coloured dresses seem like they came from one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. One of Coleman sisters could easily be mistaken for Poe’s Ligeia, Eleonora, Annabel Lee or Madeline Usher; pale, mournful brides, intensely beautiful and intelligent, transcending even death.

Poe actually mentions Sully in his short story ‘The Oval Portrait’, where the protagonist spends a night in a grand and gloomy castle and an old portrait on the wall captures his imagination. It is one of my favourite stories by Poe because, along with typical Poe qualities, it deals with subjects of art and life; a combination which Oscar Wilde later studied to the finest detail. And now a bit of the story which always reminds me of the painting by Sully:

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person.

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Thomas Sully, Sheet of Figure Studies, 1830-1839

Thomas Sully (1783-1872), just like Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, is one of those painters that bring something fresh, original and lasting in the world of portrait painting. He was born in England, but at the age of nine moved to the New World with his parents who were actors, first to South Carolina before finally settling in Philadelphia. His style is often compared to that of Thomas Lawrence; it’s a style of refinement, elegance and flattery so you can only guess that he was popular with rich ladies. Sully also painted that famous portrait of young Queen Victoria in 1837.

And yet, in some portraits, like the one of the Coleman sisters, there’s a hint of something darker and dreamier than in Lawrence’s portraits which are pure refinement. Although in this post I decided to focus on the connection between his portraits and Poe’s heroines, I felt a need to add Sully’s Sheet of Figure Studies because it offers an intimate insight into his art. A finished portrait can appear cold and distant, but a piece of paper where you can actually see the artists sketches, feel his brush as it touched the paper, dipped in colour – that’s something truly special and heart-warming.

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Thomas Sully, Mary and Emily McEuen, 1823

Now we’ll go back to that portrait of the Coleman sisters and Poe’s story ‘The Oval Portrait’. If you haven’t already read the story, you should because it’s really short and thought-provoking. It deals with themes of art, life and sacrifice. The unnamed young maiden of ‘rarest beauty’ is wedded to a painter who is utterly absorbed in his work, and sees his young wistful bride only as a subject of his art, not as a human being with a desire for love and companionship.

This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), a young man reads the fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time, but their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. And, oh my, I’m so glad that I finally wrote it because I’ve been carrying the idea in my mind for the third autumn now.

Harry Clarke’s Illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s Stories (1919)

10 Nov

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