Tag Archives: Literature

Uemura Shoen – Flames

21 May

“You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away.”

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

Uemura Shoen, Flames, 1918

The title of Uemura Shoen’s painting, “Flames”, is somewhat in a discord with the painting’s gentle, subdued appearance.The title “Flames” inplies the flames of jealousy and the woman portrayed here is Lady Rokujo; the heroine of Murasaki Shikibu’s eleventh century novel “The Tale of Genji” (Genji Monogatari). The motives of leaves and delicate spider webs speak of the tranquility of nature, but the feelings rising in Lady Rokujo’s soul are all but tranquil. The lady’s pale skin hides a scarlet coloured rage, but still waters run deep and Rokujo’s feelings are deep and passionate. She is biting the strand of her long, long black hair and this gesture speaks of the tormenting state that this lady has found herself in. The pose that she is in; stylised and contorted also adds to the tense, anguished mood that she is in. The lady’s elegance and her porcelain pale skin makes her look like a doll and that is something we see often in Shoen’s paintings of women.

Shoen specialised in the genre called bijin-ga; a genre of pictures that show beautiful women, especially popular in the Ukiyo-e prints. Often times these beautiful women were prostitutes, but that is not always the case and it is certainly not the case with Shoen’s paintings such as this one. Shoen was born in 1875 and in those times it was very unusual for a woman to be a professional painter. Women who could paint well were viewed as cultured, but it was something only to be done as a hobby, behind closed doors, not something a woman could do as a career. Shoen was born two months after the death of her father and luckily she had a supportive mother who encouraged her in her artistic pursuits. Shoen was sent to Kyoto Prefectural Painting School when she was twelve years old and there she found a great tutor alled Suzuki Shonen who was the painter of Chinese-style landscapes. He gave her freedom to paint whatever she wanted, even painting human figures which was something that was allowed only in later years of training. Indeed, painting female figures was something that Shoen loved best and this painting proves just how skilled she was at portraying the psychology of the character. Shonen also gave Shoen the first kanji “sho” to use in her name. Shoen’s original birth name was Uemura Tsune.

The topic of jealousy instantly made me think of this passage from Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre” where the dark and brooding Mr Rochester tells this to Jane:

You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away. Floating on with closed eyes and muffled ears, you neither see the rocks bristling not far off in the bed of the flood, nor hear the breakers boil at their base. But I tell you — and you may mark my words — you will come some day to a craggy pass in the channel, where the whole of life’s stream will be broken up into whirl and tumult, foam and noise: either you will be dashed to atoms on crag points, or lifted up and borne on by some master-wave into a calmer current — as I am now.

Film Saawariya (2007) and Art: Carl Krenek, Maurice Prendergast, Edmund Dulac

19 Mar

“I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year.”

Carl Krenek (1880-1948), A fairy tale scene: a dark lake, boat, weeping willos, blossoms, tempera on paper, 14,3 x 17,3 cm, c 1900s-1910s

It’s been almost a decade since I’ve first seen the Hindi film “Saawariya” (2007), directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and I still find myself captivated by the songs and the setting of the film. What is especially interesting about the film’s plot is that it is inspired by Dostoyevsky’s short story “White Nights”, which was published in 1848, rather early in the writer’s career. In the story, the nameless narrator is a lonely and dreamy young man who lives in Saint Petersburg. One night, whilst wandering the cold, winter streets, he meets a pretty young girl called Nastenka who is also lonely. Of course, he is a dreamer and suddenly Nastenka is hope personified for his lovelorn, lonely existence. The two start talking but Nastenka makes it clear that she doesn’t want romance, and eventually she returns to her lover. In the film “Saawariya” the young man Ranbir Raj (played by Ranbir Kapoor) is the nameless narrator and the Dreamer from Dostoyevsky’s story. Raj’s Nastenka in the film is a young Muslim girl called Sakina (played by Sonam Kapoor) whom she meets one night. But Sakina is in love with her grandma’s tennant, a man called Imaan. Raj is also a musician and he spends a lot of time with the local prostitutes, trying to cheer them up and brings some hope to their sad lives, so he is a warm and kind-hearted man. That aspect is diffent from Dostoyevsky’s story, but the ending is, sadly, similar. Sad for the Dreamer that is.

Scenes from the film “Saawariya”

Now, another thing I love about the film was the aesthetic. The nocturnal, fantasy setting is gorgeous, with no real indication of time, place or the passing of time; a truly dream-like setting for the story because it is told from Ranbir’s memory. One of the most beautiful scenes, for me, is from the song Masha Allah when Ranbir and Sakina encounter each other at night; she is frightened and alone, her veil falls off and the moonlight reveals a beautiful face and Ranbir is instantly smitten and proclaims: Masha Allah! The scene, like the film itself, is bathed in indigo-blue light, and the two are gliding on a boat adorned with flowers over a lake and pass under a bridge where, for a mere second, Rabir can get close to Sakina. The light of the lanterns and neon signs on the buildings is showing them the way. The boat, the water, the bridge, all made me think of Venice and the nocturnal scene really has a magic about it. Here is an interesting commentary on the film’s aesthetic, from an article “The socio-political mutation of Dostoevsky’s White Nights in Hindi Cinema through the ages” written by Eshan Parikh here: “Bhansali created a real dreamscape, one that seemed to exist in a timeless space and was inspired by Indian and European architecture. There is no sense of day/night and seasons. There are shots where you see the dome of a Rajasthani fort like building inside the arch of the replica of Champs-Élysées. There are walls with graffiti in Urdu and shops with English names which were reminiscent of Colonial India. No real year is mentioned where this story may have been set and even the way people dress up is a mix of modern urban styles and more vintage styles of the Colonial era.

This scene from the film captivated me so much that I started looking for similar examples in art; paintings whose mood and motif fits the mood of the scene in the film, and I found three. The first one is a tempera on paper called “A fairy tale scene: a dark lake, boat, weeping willows, blossoms” by an Austrian painter Carl Krenek. The intense blue and green shades are absolutely stunning! In the foreground of the painting there is a row of semi-abstract flowers which look really groovy and behind them is the vibrant blue lake. I especially love the strokes of lighter blue on the dark blue background; they are so flowing and free. In the middle of the lake is a couple on a boat, gliding towards infinity. We can even see a little bit of the sky – the starry night.

Scene from the film Saawariya (2007)

Now, here is a lovely passage from Dostoyevsky’s story where the nameless narrator talks about himself and his relationship with Nastenka:

I am a dreamer. I know so little of real life that I just can’t help reliving such moments as these in my dreams, for such moments are something I have very rarely experiened.

I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year.

I feel I know you so well that I couldn’t have known you better if we’d been friends for twenty years. You won’t fail me, will you? Only two minutes, and you’ve made me happy forever. Yes, happy. Who knows, perhaps you’ve reconciled with me, resolved all my doubts.

(…) If and when you fall in love, may you be happy with her. I don’t need to wish her anything, for she’ll be happy with you. May your sky always be clear, may your dear smile always be bright and happy, and may you be forever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness that you gave to another lonely and grateful heart. Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of one’s life?

The second painting which made me think of the scene from the film was Maurice Prendergast’s watercolour “Feast of the Redemeer”, painted in 1899. I have already written a longer post about it here, but esentially what reminded me of the film was the nocturnal setting, the dark waters, the magical ambience created by the plethora of lanterns and the the boats of course. I can imagine Ranbir and Sakina on one of those boats; he is mesmerised by her beauty, she is daydreaming of her lover, both are enjoying the fleeting dream-like moments while above them is a dark cloud of unrequitedness and an inevitable separation and ending.

Maurice Prendergast, Feast of the Redeemer, c 1899, watercolour

The third and the final painting I found is Edmund Dulac’s watercolour “The Fisherman – The Nightingale”, date unknown but probably early twentieth century. The watercolour shows a nocturnal scene with a fisherman in his little boat gliding on the waters of a river or a lake. The blueness of the water is kissing the blueness of the sky and it is hard to tell the line between the water and the sky. Instead of a fisherman I imagine Raj and Sakina on that boat. The crescent moon, half hidden by the tree branches, is a romantic touch, and I also really love how the trees are almost imposing their way into the painting, forcing their branches into our sight. There is ever so soft light of the moon falling on the water but it is subtle detailing such as that one that bring magic to the scene.

“Among these trees lived a nightingale, which sang so deliciously, that even the poor fisherman, who had plenty of other things to do, lay still to listen to it, when he was out at night drawing in his nets.”

(Hans Christian Andersen, The Nightingale)

Edmund Dulac, The Fisherman – The Nightingale, no date

Camellia: the most deceitful of all flowers (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

15 Mar

My go-to book for the late winter and early spring days is Natsume Soseki’s novel “The Three-Cornered World”; it is soothing, meditative, lyrical and inspiring. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The novel is filled with the narrator’s observations on nature, art and life. Every time I read the novel, something new catches my attention and this time it was this passage on the topic of the camellia flower so I decided to share it today. The narrator talks about the shape, the red colour of the camellia flower, the way it withers, how seductive it is… I never spend much time thinking about camellias, but now I cannot get them out of my mind! Still, there is another reference to camellias in the novel “The Lady of the Camellias” by Alexandre Dumas fils so we can conclude that camellia is a naughty flower. Enjoy the passage bellow from the novel!

Cao Jianlou, Camellia, 1981, ink and colour on paper scroll, 95.2 x 44 cm

“I was now standing beneath the spreading branches of a large tree, and suddenly felt cold. Over on the far bank camellia bushes bloomed among the shadows. Camellia leaves are too deep a green, and have no air of lightheartedness even when seen in bright sunlight. These particular bushes were in a silent huddle, set back five or six yards in an angle between the rocks, and had it not been for the blossoms I should not have known that there was anything there at all. Those blossoms! I could not of course have counted them all if I had spent the whole day at it; yet somehow their brilliance made me want to try.

The trouble with camellia blossoms is that although they are brilliant they are in no way cheerful. You find that in spite of yourself your attention is attracted by the violent blaze of colour, but once you look at them they give you an uncanny feeling. They are the most deceitful of all flowers. Whenever I see a wild camellia growing in the heart of the mountains, I am reminded of a beautiful enchantress who lures men on with her dark eyes, and then in a flash injects her smiling venom into their veins. By the time they realise that they have been tricked it is too late.

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858), Camellia and Bullfinch, c 1833

No sooner had I caught sight of the camellias opposite than I wished I had not done so. Theirs was no ordinary red. It was a colour of eye-searing intensity, which contained some indefinable quality. Pear blossoms drooping despondently in the rain only arouse in me a feeling of pity, and the cool aronia bathed in pale moonlight strikes the chords of love. The quality of camellia blossoms, however, is altogether different. It speaks of darkness and evil, and is something to be feared. It is, moreover apparent in every gaudy petal. These blossoms do not give the impression that they are flattering you, nor do they show that they are deliberately trying to entice you. They will live in perfect serenity for hundreds of years far from the eyes of man in the shadow of the mountains, flaring into bloom and falling to earth with equal suddenness. But let a man glance at them even for an instant, and for him it is the end. He will never be able to break free from the spell of the enchantress. No, theirs is no ordinary red. It is the red of an executed criminal’s blood which automatically attracts men’s gaze and fills their hearts with sorrow.

As I stood watching, a red flower hit the water, providing the only movement in the stillness of spring. After a while it was followed by another. Camellia flowers never drift down petal by petal, but drop from the branch intact. Although this in itself is not particularity unpleasant since it merely suggests an indifference to parting, the way in which they remain whole even when they have landed is both gross and offensive to the eye. If they continue like this, I thought, they will stain the whole pond red.

Already the water in the immediate vicinity of the peacefully floating blossoms seemed to have a reddish tint. Yet another flower dropped and remained as motionless as if it had come to rest on the bank. There goes another. I wondered whether this one would sink. Perhaps over the years millions of camellia blossoms would steep in the water and, having surrendered their colour, would rot and eventually turn to mud on the bottom. If that should happen, then they might imperceptibly build up the bed of this old stagnating pond until in thousands of years time the whole area would return to the plain it had been originally. Now a large bloom plunged downwards like a blood-smeared phantom. Another fell, and another, striking the water like a shower of pattering raindrops.”

Tagore: Only lips know the language of lips, know how to sip each other’s hearts

26 Feb

Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss, 1907

The Kiss

Only lips know the language of lips,
Know how to sip each other’s hearts
The two lovers leave home for goals unknown,
Setting out eagerly on Holy Communion.
Like two waves that crest at love’s pull
Lips at last melt and meld in lovers’ lips,
Viewing each other with deep desire,
Both meet at the body’s frontier.
Love weaves music from such refrains
Love’s tale is told in quivering lips!
From fowers plucked from lips that roam
Garlands surely will be woven at home!
The sweet union of two desiring lips
Climaxes in a red bridal bed of smiles!


(“Chumban,” from Kori O Komal)
Translated by Fakrul Alam)

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?

The Family Moskat: Asa Heshel had seen all of this before in a dream, or maybe in a previous existence

22 Dec

I am more than half way through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel “The Moskat Family”, originally published in 1950, and I am enjoying it tremendously, although it is very sad at parts. The novel follows the lives of the members of the Moskat family and others associated with it, in Warshaw, in the first half of the twentieth century. The character who appears very early in the beginning and quickly takes central place is Asa Heshel; a disillusioned Jew who read Spinoza’s writings a bit too much. At first he comes off as a misunderstood, moody loner but very soon reveals a lack of character and horrible moral standards. A lot of things happen as the novel progresses; Asa falls in love with Hadassah, the granddaughter of the family patriarch Meshulam Moskat, tries to elope with her unsuccesfully but later marries Meshulam’s step-daughter Adele in Switzerland, their love (or lack of it on his behalf) quickly becomes bitter and they return to Warshaw where he reunites with the now also married Haddasah and starts an affair with her, then joins the military at the outbreak of the World War One.

In the novel’s beginning Asa’s life was a blank page, a clean white piece of paper, and oh how quickly the ink stains of bad decisions, flaws, inconsistencies, and betrayals tainted the paper’s snow whiteness! The lyrics from the Joy Division song “New Dawn Fades” comes to mind: “different colours, different shades, over each mistakes were made.” In a way, the character of Asa is symbolic of the desintegration of the Jewish culture due to the process of modernisation which planted a seed of doubt in many; some characters become Christians, some move abroad and leave their traditions behind. Characters who, like Asa, were seeking freedom from old norms and traditions, instead found themselves lost, directionless, disillusioned… I can’t help but wonder then, what differentiates an experience from – a mistake?

The passage that struck me particularly and that I will share in this post is when Asa first arrives to Warshaw one warm October eve from the countryside and he is quickly enamoured by the hustle and bustle of the big city, and everything seems to him as if he had seen it before; everything is familiar yet strange both at once. This particular feeling of arriving to a new place, being young and full of dreams, is something I have experiences myself and I love reading about it in a novel. I love how vividly Singer describes the scene, I can really imagine I am there; the carriages, the red trams, the scents in the air, the large red setting sun, it is so atmospheric.

Pierre Bonnard, Rue vue d’en Haut, 1899, colour litograph

A few weeks after Meshulam Moskat returned to Warsaw another traveler arrived at the station in the northern part of the capital. He climbed down from a third-class car carrying an ob­long metal-bound basket locked with a double lock. He was a young man, about nineteen. His name was Asa Heshel Bannet. On his mother’s side he was the grandson of Reb Dan Katzenellen­bogen, the rabbi of Tereshpol Minor. He had with him a letter of recommendation to the learned Dr. Shmaryahu Jacobi, secretary of the Great Synagogue in Warsaw. In his pocket rested a worn volume, the Ethics of Spinoza in a Hebrew translation.

The youth was tall and thin, with a long, pale face, a high, prematurely creased forehead, keen blue eyes, thin lips, and a sharp chin covered with a sprouting beard. His blond, almost col­orless earlocks were combed back from his ears. He was wearing a gaberdine and a velvet cap. A scarf was wrapped around his throat. “Warsaw: he said aloud, his voice strange to himself, “War­saw at last. People milled about the station. A porter in a red hat tried to take the basket from him, but he refused to surrender it. Though the year was well into October, the day was still warm. Low clouds floated about in the sky, seeming to merge with the puffs of steam from the locomotives. The sun hung in the west, red and large. In the east the pale crescent of the moon was visible. The young man crossed to the other side of the railing that separated the railroad station from the street. On the wide thor­oughfare, paved with rectangular cobblestones, carriages bowled along, the horses seeming to charge straight at the knots of pe­destrians. Red-painted tramcars went clanging by. There was a smell of coal, smoke, and earth in the moist air. Birds flew about in the dim light, Happing their wings. In the distance could be seen row upon row of buildings, their window panes reflecting the daylight with a silver and leaden glow or glinting gold in the path of the setting sun. Bluish plumes of smoke rose from chimneys. Something long forgotten yet familiar seemed to hover about the uneven roofs, the pigeon cotes, the attic windows, the balconies, the telegraph poles with their connecting wires. It was as if Asa Heshel had seen all of this before in a dream, or maybe in a previous existence.

He took a few steps and then stood still, leaning against a street lamp as though to protect himself against the hurrying throngs. His limbs were cramped from the long hours of sitting. The ground seemed still to be shaking beneath him, the doors and windows of the houses receding as though he were still watching them from the speeding train. It had been long since he had slept.

His brain was only half awake. “Is it here I will learn the divine truths?” he thought vaguely. “Among this multitude?”

Reinaldo Arenas: There was freedom to say that there was freedom

6 Dec

“Freedom was something constantly talked about but not practiced. There was freedom to say that there was freedom or to praise the regime, but never to critize it.”

(Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls)

“Mal poeta enamorado de la luna”

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) and his wonderful autobiography “Before Night Falls”. I discovered him through the film of the same name starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo and I was instantly captivated by Reinaldo’s life story, and not just him as a person, but the political and social environment that he lived in. What I love most of all about Reinaldo is his strength, courage and a wild, drunken determination to live his life to the fullest. No one had more trials and tribulations in life, and yet no one endured all the life’s misery and defeats with more bravery, defience, and cheekiness than Reinaldo. Despite living under Castro’s oppressive regime, Reinaldo never lost his inner freedom, never bowed down to authority, never comformed or compromised himself only to gain little bread crumbs of safety, profit or convenience. Even when in prison, or on the run from the law, Reinaldo always remained free at heart. He fled to the United States in 1980 and died on the 7th December 1990. In 1989, in New York, he wrote an auto-epitaph that starts with a very beautiful line, here is an excerpt from it:

“A bad poet in love with the moon,

he counted terror as his only fortune :

and it was enough because, being no saint,

he knew that life is risk or abstinence,

that every great ambition is great insanity (…)

He knew imprisonment offenses

typical of human baseness ;

but was always escorted by a certain stoicism

that helped him walk the tightrope

or enjoy the morning’s glory,

and when he tottered, a window would appear

for him to jump toward infinity.

I really love the line that he was always escorted by a certain stoicism that helped him walk the tightrope, a really great description of Reinaldo’s life. These past days the big, yellow letters on the spine of the book “Before Night Falls” have been inviting me from my bookshelf, and I finally gave in, for I am weak when it comes to good books, especially if they are as inspiring as this one is. I have read it a few times and every time something else caught my attention because there are so many ways to approach its content. Well, what struck me the most this time, given the miserable, dystopian times we are living in, was Reinaldo’s description of Fidel Castro’s regime, its beginnings, and the slow but shocking realisation that the future isn’t as bright and victorious as Castro had promised, and that bad things are looming on the horizon:

My grandfather’s grocery store, which had been his livelihood, had already been taken over by the government, and he now spent his time on a stool next to the closed store, talking to himself. He did not read the newspaper or “Bohemia” which no longer was the liberal, irreverent, critical magazine that he used to read to us in the country. By this time it was but another instrument in the hands of Castro and his new regime. The press was now almost completely controlled. Freedom was something constantly talked about but not practiced. There was freedom to say that there was freedom or to praise the regime, but never to criticize it. (…)

Fidel Castro was (and is) not only the maximum leader but also the chief district attorney. In one instant, in which an honest court did not want to condemn a number of air force pilots accused of bombing the city of Santiago de Cuba, which they actually never did, Fidel set himself up as district attorney and judge, and sentenced them to twenty and thirty years in prison. The judge, who had a long rebel beard and had declared them innocent, shot himself. All this had already given us an inkling of what the new regime was about. There was still some hope, however. There is always some hope, especially for cowards. I was one of them, one of those cowardly or hopeful young men who still thought the government had something to offer.

Tin Ujević – Love unrequited gave no rest, so now you yearn for earth’s breast

22 Nov

Today I wanted to share a beautiful and sad poem by the Croatian poet Tin Ujević (1891-1955) called “Frailty” from his poetry collection “The Cry of a Slave” (1920), translated by Richard Berengarten. Ujević is considered by some to have been one of the last masters of European Symbolism and even the translator calls him “one of the finest South-Slavic poets”. In addition to being a poet, he was also an accomplished translator and translated the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Rimbaud, Arthur Gidé and many others. He spent his childhood living in different towns on the Croatian seaside and this love of the sea left a life-long trace on him, and it can be seen in this poem as well. In 1912 Ujević was a part of the Nationalist youth movement and was often imprisoned. From 1913 to 1919 he was in Montparnasse in Paris, where he was a notorius “anarchic bohemian” and he was a known frequenter of bars and cafes where he was often hanging out with fellow poets and artists from the Balkans, but he also moved in the art circles with artists such as Modigliani, Picasso, Cocteau and d’Annuzio. The poetry collection “The Cry of a Slave” represents the first phase in Ujević’s poetry and these poems are of intimate preocupations, woven with pessimism, a tragic sense of loneliness is intermingled with motives of metaphysical, spiritual love towards an imaginary woman.

Wilhelm Kotarbiński, Suicide’s grave, c 1900

Frailty

In this mist, in this rain –
oh drunken heart, don’t drown in pain.

Love unrequited gave no rest,
so now you yearn for earth’s breast,

And all your longing, cry of a slave,
is to find some quiet grave:

here my soul will soon expire
and here will wither my desire

on the waves of our blue, blue sea
and white, white pebbles cover me,

and my needs will all come home
under Blessed Heaven’s dome,

with sun, calm blue, and clarity,
beneath the ground that once bore me.

Eugène Delacroix – Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard

13 Oct

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839, Oil on canvas, 29,5 x 36 cm

Eugene Delacroix’s temperament, lifestyle and interests made him the perfect Romantic artist. Delacroix travelled to hot, vibrant, exotic places such as Morrocco, but he also travelled in his imagination to the romantic and alluring, dark and dramatic past eras. He was also an avid reader; words of Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and others fed his soul and fired his imagination. His ardent love of literature came with a knack for illustrating the scenes that he was reading about, he was prolific at it, and he was great at it. A theme that he found himself returning to often throughout the years was Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and especially the scene where Hamlet and Horatio are at the graveyard. Delacroix made different litographs and watercolours of the scene, but his most well-known depiction of the scene is the painting from 1839. The scene shows four figures; Horatio and Hamlet standing by the grave and two gravediggers digging the grave for Ophelia who had recently perished. This is a rather morbid, depressive chore but the gravediggers are so used to it that they are unphased. They are capable of digging a hole and talking about decomposing bodies and death as if they are exchanging recepies over tea. This makes it almost grotesque, but for Hamlet the discovery of the skull of Yorick leads to deeper thoughts, pensiveness and introspection; how transient and meaningless life is, how it passes and means nothing, how every corpse here on the graveyard was once a person with wishes, yearnings, loves. The personalities of gravediggers and Hamlet could not be more different. Here is an excerpt from their dialogue from Act V, Scene I:

Gravedigger: This skull has lain in the earth three-and-twenty years.
Hamlet: Whose was it?
Gravedigger: A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not.
Gravedigger: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! He poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.
Hamlet: This?
Gravedigger: E’en that.
Hamlet: Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.—Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, watercolour, 1827-28

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet Contemplating Yorick’s Skull, litograph, 1828

In his litographs Delacroix had depicted the scene with more details, in composition and in the clothes of the figures, everything feels more ornate and Baroque-like. The painting is stripped of all unnecessary details and ornaments. Only four figures set against a distant landscape and the stormy sky with dark clouds. This allowed Delacroix to place his focus on the analysis of the characters and the drama that is going on in the scene. The bare-chested gravedigger holding a skull is quite a sight, but all eyes are on Hamlet. Delacroix saw him through the lenses of Romanticism and he depicted him as a pale, melancholy, frail and gentle looking man dressed in black. His pale and small, almost feminine looking hands, stand out against the darkness of his clothes. His hair is flying in the wind and the stormy clouds seem to echo the stormy state of his soul. Pale and withered, in a pensive mood, reflecting on matters of life and death, and anticipating the burial of Ophelia, Hamlet is like a frail lily-flower just plucked from the ground. The watercolour version of the scene shows an equally frail, melancholy Hamlet and the whole mood is lyrical and wistful in a way that can only be accomplished with the medium of the watercolour.

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!”