Tag Archives: Joy Division

John A. Grimshaw – Dreary Victorian Streets

19 Nov

John Atkinson Grimshaw is the painter of the industrialised late Victorian Britain who captured the beauty of wet pavements, rainy cobble streets, gas lamps, hustle of carriages, grey facades and docs under moonlight. His romanticised portrayals of urban cities still possess a slight dose of dreariness, a mood of a cold and gloomy night of November when everything is damp, wet and mist descends.

1881. Shipping on the Clyde, by John Atkinson Grimshaw,John Atkinson Grimshaw, Shipping on the Clyde, 1881

In his painting ‘Shipping on the Clyde’, Grimshaw perfectly captured the atmosphere of a cold and gloomy November twilight. Beautiful night sky that seems to have been woven from teal and sea foam shades of blue and green stretches above the docs of Glasgow, carriages are passing, wet pavements are glistening on the light of gas lamps, vivid sulfate yellow shines through the shop windows, and occasional figures that ventured into this damp night are opening their umbrellas and leaving in a hurry. All of his paintings have an intoxicating nocturnal beauty about them, but I’d dare say this one is my favourite.

Grimshaw is the master of moonlight scenes, portraying cold and wet Autumn eves, and nocturnal townscapes in a style that combines realism and romanticism at once. Subject of his art are mostly grim cities of the North; Glasgow, Leeds and Liverpool, whose landscapes had been greatly changed as a result of the Industrial revolution. Some might perceive the appearance of these modern cities as dehumanising, cold and dangerous, but Grimshaw saw a certain beauty in moonlit nights over the docs, grey facades with large and luminous shop windows, damp days and misty mornings, and wet cobble streets of the North. Grimshaw’s townscenes are charmingly lyrical because he portrayed them in a romanticised way, ignoring the dirty and depressive aspects of a late Victorian city; dirt, prostitutes, poor children, thieves, bad working conditions, smog, tall chimneys of many factories.

View of Heath Street by Night 1882 Atkinson Grimshaw 1836-1893 Purchased 1963 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00626

John Atkinson Grimshaw, View of Heath Street by Night, 1882

Same bleak industrial landscape would later inspire a string of Northern bands, most notably Joy Division. Their guitarist, Bernard Sumner admitted he found Manchester ugly, adding: ‘I don’t think I saw a tree until I was about nine.’ Their song ‘Exercise One‘ has a specially brooding, grim sound which is a pure product of the grey concrete wasteland that surrounded them. Still, Grimshaw’s way of presenting things reminds me more of The Smiths; while Morrissey sang of loneliness and feeling like a misfit, Johnny Marr coated in it whimsical, jolly tunes.

1887-canny-glasgow-john-atkinson-grimshawJohn Atkinson Grimshaw, Canny Glasgow, 1887

Grimshaw (1836-1893) was completely self-taught, having left his regular job as a railway clerk at the age of twenty-four to fully devote himself to painting. His parents weren’t really impressed, but who cares what anyone thinks as long as the world of art benefits. As you can see, his style is vivid in details, almost photographic in quality, and that is all due to the Pre-Raphaelites which were his main inspiration. His early work shows us that he was always fond of moonlight, but initially he portrayed lonely country lanes with a few tall trees whose bare branches remind us of the changing seasons. Still, his reputation rests on his townscapes with gas-lit streets of late Victorian England. Another Victorian artist, Whistler, praised Grimshaw, saying: ‘I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures.’

Not much is known about him because he left no letters and documents, so it’s hard to explain why he painted what he painted. I believe his cityscapes weren’t painted to symbolise urban isolation and loneliness, but rather served to indulge his love for painting light which is present in all his paintings, whether it’s the street lamps, the moonlight, light from the carriages or the shops, he was simply fascinated with it. The introduction of gas lamps was surely a life-changing moment for many.

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Amedeo Modigliani and Joy Division – Fragility of Existence

16 Jul

I just spent a beautiful gloomy and rainy morning immersed in Modigliani’s portraits and Joy Division’s second album Closer. I feel there’s a strange connection between lyrics of Ian Curtis and Modigliani’s portraits of wistful big-eyes Parisian beauties; they both ponder on the subject of human existence and fragility of life.

1918. Amedeo Modigliani - A Young Girl IIIAmedeo Modigliani, A Young Girl, 1918

This is a typical Modigliani’s female portrait; elongated head with a face that resembles a mask, thin and long neck, sloping shoulders, simple attire. Beautifully sculpted face with almond shaped eyes and long neck reveals Modigliani’s beginnings as a sculptor. Her cheeks and chin are rosy, one side of her lips looks like it’s trying to smile, the other can’t be bothered. One eyebrow, painted like a thin black line, is raised a bit more than the other. The whole face seems like a question mark. The background is painted in serene grey and blue-greenish shades, flickering like a surface of a lake behind a long-forgotten mansion. Her dress is coloured like pine needles. This peculiar sombre colour palette exudes fragility and sadness. There’s no rashness or raw passion you’d find in Picasso’s paintings, this is Modigliani’s world of mournful goodbyes. These gentle brushstrokes belong to a Jewish-Italian artist whose body, unfortunately, didn’t agree with his soul’s ‘lust for life’.

At this point, in 1918, he had less than two years to live. His consumption was progressing, and not even excessive drinking could cover it up. He died on 24 January 1920, in a cold hospital in Paris. It’s so sad this absolute genius, this pretty boy from Livorno, a person so full of life and capable of producing such incredible artworks had to die so suddenly and so quickly. There’s no doubt the fragility of life kept haunting him even in those seemingly joyous, extroverted moments when he behaved mischievously at the local restaurant the same as in those quiet, introspective moments when he walked home drunk and alone back to his studio where he would then paint in solitude. I’m imagining his studio in Montparnasse and the shabby chair this model sat on. Another interesting thing about this portrait; Modigliani didn’t fully paint her eyes, he just coloured the almond shape so they look like two deep, dark holes. He truly believed that eyes are the windows to the soul and he said: ‘When I know you soul, I will paint your eyes.‘ He needed to know the soul of his model before painting her eyes, though I think it more often than not meant spending the night with her. Women loved Modigliani.

It isn’t what you paint but how you paint it. Very often the subject serves only to help artist to convey a message. I often paint ballerinas, but they are always meant to represent isolation and loneliness. Antoine Watteau, for example, painted seemingly cheerful pastoral and love scenes, which were woven with sadness because he was, like Modigliani, a man of fragile health who died young. As you know, Ian Curtis took his own life on 18 May 1980, and in his lyrics he tended to explore existential subjects. I don’t think that Modigliani and Ian Curtis were similar, with this post I only wanted to say that they were two artists dealing with the same subject – fragility of existence, each in their own way.

This song was in my mind while I gazed at this portrait – Insight by Joy Division (do listen to it, it’s truly something):

I guess the dreams always end

They don’t rise up just descend

But I don’t care any more

I lost the will to want more

I’m not afraid not at all,

I watch them all as they fall…’

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?”****