Tag Archives: illustration

Edmund Dulac – The Entomologist’s Dream

26 Apr

Edmund Dulac, The Entomologist’s Dream, 1909, watercolour, 27.4×29.8 cm

This gorgeous watercolour by the French artist Edmund Dulac shows a scene from Gerard d’Houville’s story “Le Papillon Rouge” (The Red Butterfly) which was published in the December 1909 issue of the French art magazine L’Illustration. Typical for Edmund Dulac’s watercolours, the scene is bathed in mesmerising shades of blue which makes it alluring and mysterious; blue is the colour of dreams, as Miro’s artwork claims. An old man is seen half-lying and half-sitting up on his bed in the middle of the night. His face shows terror and torment; did he just wake up from a horrible nightmare, or has some trouble been torturing him until the early morning hours? His face almost looks comical in its state of torment; his hair is dishelleved, his eyes wide open, his nose big and long. The space around him is in disarray; the chair is knocked down on the floor and the boxes are opened, as if a thief had been there looking for something valuable to steal.

In the story, the cause of the entomologist’s torment is that he is trying to find a rare blood red butterfly to win the love of a lady he fancies. After years of searching and failing miserably, in one moment of delirium or despair, he ransacks his extensive butterfly and insects collection and – by some magic it seems – all the butterflies are freed! Once free, they fly away from their capturer, fly into the night and never look back. This brings the entomologist to the edge of despair and he is found dead in the morning. Dulac’s watercolour shows the climax of the story; the moment when the butterflies are freed and are dancing their one last dance in the entomologist’s room. Had this scene been played out during the day, it would not have had the equal charm. The nocturnal setting adds to the mystery and dreaminess of the scene and we might wonder whether the watercolour shows a real night scene in a real room, or, is it the dream that the entomologist is dreaming? Did he awake from a nightmare, or is this his nightmare? Every motif that Dulac’s brush touches turns into something magical and so it is the case with this scene. The blueness of the scene is enough to drown the viewer in its river of dreams and the ecstasy of the released butterflies vibrantly flying and dancing in the room is just stunning. The despair on the entomologist’s face adds a touch of mystery because it tells a story and it makes us wonder about the cause of his suffering; magic and sadness, a perfect combination.

Tagore: When I called you in your garden mango blooms were rich in fragrance

21 Feb

A poem I recently discovered, called “Unyielding” by the Bengali poet Tagore. The mood of the poem reminded me of many lovely illustrations by the French artist Edmund Dulac such as the one bellow from his series “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” from 1909.

Edmund Dulac, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, “Hour of Grace”, 1909

Unyielding

When I called you in your garden

Mango blooms were rich in fragrance –

Why did you remain so distant,

Keep your door so tightly fastened?

Blossoms grew to ripe fruit-clusters –

You rejected my cupped handfuls,

Closed your eyes to perfectness.

In the fierce harsh storms of Baiśākh

Golden ripened fruit fell tumbling –

‘Dust,’ I said, ‘defiles such offerings:

Let your hands be heaven to them.’

Still you showed no friendliness.

Lampless were your doors at evening,

Pitch-black as I played my vīnā.

How the starlight twanged my heartstrings!

How I set my vīnā dancing!

You showed no responsiveness.

Sad birds twittered sleeplessly,

Calling, calling lost companions.

Gone the right time for our union –

Low the moon while still you brooded,

Sunk in lonely pensiveness.

Who can understand another!

Heart cannot restrain its passion.

I had hoped that some remaining

Tear-soaked memories would sway you,

Stir your feet to lightsomeness.

Moon fell at the feet of morning,

Loosened from night’s fading necklace.

While you slept, O did my vīnā

Lull you with its heartache?

Did you Dream at least of happiness?

Arthur Rackham’s Illustration for The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe

7 Oct

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

Arthur Rackham, “The Oval Portrait,” Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1935

One of my favourite stories by Edgar Allan Poe is “The Oval Portrait”; it’s short and sweet, and its main theme is art and the artist. When, by serendipity, I found this gorgeous illustration of the story by Arthur Rackham the other day I knew that it was a sign from the universe to write about it today because today is the anniversary of Poe’s death. The doomed poet died in Baltimore on the 7th October 1849 at the age of forty; the last days of his life were as mysterious as the man himself. In a wonderful biography, Peter Ackroyd wonders: “No one knew where he had been, or what he had done. Had he been wandering, dazed, through the city? Had he been enlisted for the purposes of vote-rigging in a city notorious for its political chicanery? Had he suffered from a tumour of the brain? Had he simply drunk himself into oblivion? It is as tormenting a mystery as any to be found in his tales.”

The mystery of the story “The Oval Portrait” is, as the title suggests, about a portrait of a beautiful woman. The story starts as a Gothic tale with an unnamed narrator who seeks safe shelter form the rain in an old castle. Before falling asleep in one of the old bedroom he becomes enamored with a portrait of a beautiful young woman on the wall. The plot quickly switches from the narrator to the story about the portrait itself and its history, again there’s “the most poetic topic in the world” according to Poe himself; the death of a beautiful woman, a pale wistful bride who, adoring and obedient, died as a sacrifice for her mad artist husband who cared for nothing else but his art. Arthur Rackham was a very prolific and imaginative artist so I am not surprised that he portrayed this scene from the story so wonderfully.

Rackham portrayed the tower-chamber setting accurately and the high windows only add to the lonesome feeling of the tower. The light of the day is entering the chamber sparingly. We cannot see the forests and moors around the castle. Instead the space feels hermetic and secluded from the outside world. It’s almost like a theatre stage; the painter, the pale model and the Portrait are the only figures on this stage of life. A stone wall on one side and the draped curtains on the other are the background to the scene. Rackham depicts the background with equal detail as he does the figures; the wooden floor, the stone wall, the shadow of the easel and the gorgeous fabric are all so detailed and life-like. The portrait in Rackham’s illustration seems unfinished, but perhaps the vagueness is the desired look. Anyhow, the lady’s face in the portrait does look like the face that might haunt a man at night if he saw it on the wall of his chamber, stranded in the desolate castle while the rain is beating against the windows.

The costumes that the Painter and the damsel are wearing bring back the spirit of gone-by days. The Painter’s necklace and his hair are reminiscent of Van Dyck’s portraits, and the lady’s golden ringlets, pearl necklace and her silk dress with puffed sleeves look as if they were stolen from the royal portraits of Louis XIV’s mistresses. Rackham chose to depict the last and the most thrilling part of the story; the moment when the Painter finishes his portrait and realises that his beautiful young wife is death, or, to quote the story directly: “the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!”

Here is the last part of the story which describes the story behind it:

She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead.

But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well.

But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp.

And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!”

The Princess and the Pea – Illustrations by Felicitas Kuhn

16 Jan

My fondest childhood memories are those tied to fairy tales and my mum reading them to me. Before I could decipher the letters, read the words and know their wondrous meanings, the evening was a magical time of the day when I sat in my mum’s lap and listened to her sweet voice bringing all the fairy tales and different characters to life. While she read, I would gaze at the illustrations mesmerised, soaking in every tiny detail. This is a situation similar to the one Syd Barrett sang about in the Pink Floyd’s song “Matilda Mother”:

“Oh Mother, tell me more
Why’d’ya have to leave me there
Hanging in my infant air
Waiting?
You only have to read the lines
They’re scribbly black and everything shines”

I loved Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty and anything to do with the princesses, but the fairy tale book that lingered in my memory was “The Princess and the Pea” illustrated by Felicitas Kuhn, an Austrian illustrator born on 3rd January 1926. Her illustrations are delightful and easily recognisable for their repetitive features; the characters all have round doll-like faces with rosy cheeks and large wide-set eyes, she uses vibrant colours and flat treatment of the surface with clear outlines, the background is often minimal so that the focus stays on the character. This particular edition of a well known fairy tale was published in 1971, and Kuhn’s illustrations are mostly from the sixties and seventies, although she continued working later on too. The beloved fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea” was written by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen and originally published in May 1835 in Copenhagen. Andersen’s fairy tale was disliked by the critics at first and deemed as too ‘chatty’ and ‘lacking morals’, and likewise, Kuhn’s illustrations, although popular in many countries, have received criticism as well for being too simple and cheesy.

I highly disagree with the critics! And I am right because I gazed at those illustration with the eyes of a child and adored them, and now that I am older I am able to recall the magic of her art and write about it in a way I couldn’t have before. I think her illustrations are perfect for children and their imagination because they are whimsical, the characters appear idealised and cute and are dressed in clothes that are only partly historically accurate but also very pleasing to look at, the castles look like the place that you would wish to live it, with dozens of pink towers and little windows. She often incorporated delicate flowers as details, and just look at the dreamy soft pink roses that bloom next to Prince’s feet in the second illustration. My favourite illustrations from this book are the one where the princess gets a sponge bath from the maids, the scene where she dines with the prince, the one where she is sitting mournfully on the top of all those mattresses and feather beds, and the last one with their tender close-eyed embrace over the little pea. How rosy are their cheeks and how sweet their smiling faces?

Here is Andersen’s very short fairy tale “The Real Princess” accompanied by Kuhn’s illustrations:

There was once a Prince who wished to marry a Princess; but then she must be a real Princess. He travelled all over the world in hopes of finding such a lady; but there was always something wrong.

Princesses he found in plenty; but whether they were real Princesses it was impossible for him to decide, for now one thing, now another, seemed to him not quite right about the ladies. At last he returned to his palace quite cast down, because he wished so much to have a real Princess for his wife.

One evening a fearful tempest arose, it thundered and lightened, and the rain poured down from the sky in torrents: besides, it was as dark as pitch. All at once there was heard a violent knocking at the door, and the old King, the Prince’s father, went out himself to open it.

It was a Princess who was standing outside the door. What with the rain and the wind, she was in a sad condition; the water trickled down from her hair, and her clothes clung to her body. She said she was a real Princess.

“Ah! we shall soon see that!” thought the old Queen-mother; however, she said not a word of what she was going to do; but went quietly into the bedroom, took all the bed-clothes off the bed, and put three little peas on the bedstead. She then laid twenty mattresses one upon another over the three peas, and put twenty feather beds over the mattresses.

 

Upon this bed the Princess was to pass the night.

The next morning she was asked how she had slept. “Oh, very badly indeed!” she replied. “I have scarcely closed my eyes the whole night through. I do not know what was in my bed, but I had something hard under me, and am all over black and blue. It has hurt me so much!”

Now it was plain that the lady must be a real Princess, since she had been able to feel the three little peas through the twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. None but a real Princess could have had such a delicate sense of feeling.

The Prince accordingly made her his wife; being now convinced that he had found a real Princess. The three peas were however put into the cabinet of curiosities, where they are still to be seen, provided they are not lost.

Wasn’t this a lady of real delicacy?”

Wuthering Heights Illustrations: He Is More Myself Than I Am…

6 Oct

This is the perfect time of the year to reread your favourite Victorian novels, and Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” is definitely one of my favourites. Here are the illustrations for the novel by a contemporary Australian artist Rovina Cai. They really fit the mood of the book and linger in the memory, especially the first and the second illustrations here below; they are so dreamy, just look at the subtle shadowy ghost of Cathy above Heatcliff, and Cathy standing by the water and the reflection in the water is of Heatcliff because “she is Heatcliff”, their souls are the same.

“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

“I’m tired, tired of being enclosed here. I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there; not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart; but really with it, and in it.”

“I have not broken your heart – you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.

You said I killed you – haunt me then. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! I cannot live without my soul!