Tag Archives: Literature

Egon Schiele and Kokoschka – Proletarian Lolitas

27 Mar

Friendship of Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, who were both remembered for being a thorn in the eye of the art scene in the late Art Nouveau and early Expressionism phase of Vienna, was merely an artistic one. They both soaked each others ideas and for a very short time created from the same wellspring of inspiration, only to move apart and drift into totally different directions.

Egon Schiele, Mädchen mit übereinandergeschlagenen Beinen (Girl with crossed legs), 1911

The very first thing you notice when gazing at Schiele’s portraits and nudes is their ‘elegantly wasted’ appeal mixed with some kind of twisted eroticism, smouldering melancholy and trashy glamour. There’s some subtle poetry of sadness about their worn out faces, tired eyes, sunken cheekbones, and their pale greyish skin. Completely nude, or dressed in lingerie and stockings, they gaze nervously, tiredly, forlornly at us; they provoke a response. Certain malaise pervades their smiles.

A true-blooded Expressionist, Oskar Kokoschka was the first to show interest in portraying the underprivileged, the poor, the misfits, but Egon Schiele soon followed his path, and they both worked and soaked inspiration in the gritty everyday reality of working class Vienna. Schiele’s drawings from 1910 and 1911 show resemblance to Kokoshka’s drawings from 1908 and 1909, but they are more poetical. In my view, Kokoshka’s drawings cannot even be compared to the power of his later paintings which are full of Expressionist frenzy, unsettling and distorted, painted in layers and layers of colour, as if every brushstroke brings relief. Below, you’ll see one of his drawing from this period which shows a half-nude girl. It slightly reminds me of Paul Gauguin’s way of portraying bodies, her face contour is strong, her body is kind of geometrical, overall she looks rough, stiff. This just shows that Schiele’s main method of expression was line, while in Kokoschka’s paintings colour plays a more important role. Kokoschka later even accused Schiele of ‘stealing’ his style.

Oskar Kokoschka, The juggler’s daughter, 1908, pencil, watercolour

But Schiele… Schiele’s drawings are like existentialist poems. He was an excellent draughtsman. Otto Benesh, son of Schiele’s patron Heinrich Benesh, wrote this of Schiele’s drawing technique: “Schiele drew quickly. The pencil skated over the white surface of the paper as though led by some ghostly hand… and he sometimes held the pencil in the manner of a painter from the Far East.” It’s also interesting to note that he never used an eraser; he rarely made mistakes, but when he did, he’d simply throw the paper away. And he sketched quickly, and then later, in the absence of the model, he’d fill in his drawings with watercolour or gouache.

Egon Schiele, Seated Girl Facing Front 1911

The beauty of his drawings is unsurpassed, even Klimt once admitted to him that he is better at drawing. His lines seem fragile and constricted, but their firm and controlled nature cannot be denied. Schiele employed the language of melancholy and lyricism, in a similar way to Modigliani, and used it to portray his own bewildering loneliness. In my view, all of his portraits, nudes, sunflowers and landscapes, express the same thing – melancholy, death, decay, they are windows into his soul and mind. This is just what Caspar David Friedrich said: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees in himself. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting what he sees before him.” Schiele always paints what is within him.

When he chose to paint these poor girls from the streets, he did so because he saw through their sunken cheeks and sad eyes, his artistic vision penetrated through their souls. Kokoshka is interested only in their bodies, but Schiele wants to see the world through their eyes. Kokoschka was interested in their crooked postures and inelegance because it suited his distorted visions of the world, whereas in Schiele’s drawings you see the souls behind their tired little bodies. Pale, skinny, beaten and hungry, unnoticed till that moment, these street urchins, mostly girls, always ignored, pushed into the corner, out of the way, were brought into the spotlight all of a sudden, which undoubtedly made them feel special, privileged. Someone noticed them, someone was nice towards them, someone wanted to paint them!

Egon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

A sentence which sums it all, and which inspired me to write this post in the first place:

“Physically immature, thin, wide-eyed, full-mouthed, innocent and lascivious at the same time, these Lolitas from the proletarian districts of Vienna arouse the kind of thoughts best not admitted before a judge and jury.” (Egon Schiele, by Frank Whitford)

You’ll notice how awkward they look. Girl with black hair has a look of sadness and resignation in her eyes. For a while that has been one of my favourite of Schiele’s nudes because of the discord between her cute round face with large eyes and full lips, and the awkward skinny body with skin stretched taunt over the bones, and small breasts. She looks uncomfortable with being naked, she looks shy and hopelessly sad. My more recent favourite is the one below, Sitting girl with ponytail, again, I love her body and her skin tone, which Schiele obviously enjoyed painting. His nudes always look pale and sickly, but sometimes their skin has a greyish tone and sometimes it takes yellowish shades, but you’ll notice how he paints patches of unnatural shades of colour where they should not naturally be, like adding a bit of green, blue or brown on their bodies. And look at the face of this little proletarian Lolita – it resembles that of a sad and dreamy porcelain doll, eyes gazing in the distance, lips painted in rich red colour.

This is what Schiele’s friend Gütersloh wrote of these child models:

There were always two or three small of large girls sitting about in his studio, brought there from the immediate neighbourhood, from off the street or picked up in the Schonbrunn park that was nearby. They were ugly and pretty, washed and unwashed and they did nothing – at least to the layman they might have seemed to do nothing… They slept, recovered from beatings administered by parents, lazily lounged about – something they were not allowed to do at home – combed their hair, pulled their dresses up or down, did or undid their shoes… like animals in a cage which suits them, they were left to their own devices, or at any rate believed themselves to be. (…) With the aid of little money and much charm he had managed to lull these little beasts into a false sense of security… They feared nothing from the sheet of paper which lay by Schiele on the divan.

Egon Schiele, Sitting girl with ponytail (Sitzendes Mädchen mit Pferdeschwanz), 1910

I think Schiele’s pencil and brush could have captured the appearance of Sonia Marmeladova from Crime and Punishment to utter perfection. Sonia is a pale, skinny, meek, painfully shy but deeply religious eighteen year old girl, and a prostitute who somehow manages to transcend the misery of her surroundings and remain pure at heart. And she also falls in love with Raskolnikov. Don’t they make a splendid match: a killer and a harlot. This is how Dostoevsky describes Sonia in the book:

She had a thin, very thin, pale face, rather irregular and angular, with a sharp little nose and chin.  She could not have been called pretty, but her blue eyes were so clear, and when they lighted up, there was such a kindliness and simplicity in her expression that one could not help being attracted.  Her face, and her whole figure indeed, had another peculiar characteristic.  In spite of her eighteen years, she looked almost a little girl- almost a child.

Sonia is one of my favourite literary heroines, and ever since I’ve read the book, I wondered what she looked like. Now I know that only Schiele could capture that irregular pale face, that fragile thin body, those big bright eyes. No doubt he would be attracted by her childlike figure, but would she dare to pose for him, as shy as she was? I don’t know, but maybe modelling would be better than prostitution. There’s a lot of descriptions of poverty in the book as well. Sonia’s little brothers and sisters, and her step-mother Katerina live in bad conditions; each has only one clothing garment, which Katerina washes every night, they are always hungry and frail, often ill. We can assume that the working class Vienna of Schiele’s time was no different, and that all these little innocent creatures that Schiele has painted with such zest probably lived similar lives. It was all very poignant to me. You just can’t read a book by Dostoevsky, close it, and not come out changed.

Oskar Kokoschka, Children Playing, 1909
 
As you can see by now, I can’t get Egon Schiele out of my mind. He is one of my favourite artists, and the more I read about his art, the more richness I discover. These days, I think, read, daydream about his art, various aspects of it, a lot, and I can tell you one thing – there are so many interesting fragments about his art that even a hundred posts wouldn’t be enough to explore his magic. And he has indeed woven magic over me.

Osamu Dazai: No Longer Human – Art and Ghost Pictures

10 Feb

Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human is a really fascinating book I’ve read recently and I’ve already reviewed it here. In this post we’ll take a look at the main character, Oba Yozo’s connection to art and the paintings of Western painters such as Modigliani and Vincent van Gogh.

1918-amedeo-modigliani-a-young-girlAmedeo Modigliani, A Young Girl, 1918

Oba Yozo was interested in art and painting since primary school and wanted to go to an art school, but his father put him into college, with an intend to make a civil servant out of him. Yozo obeyed, like he always did in his life, but he couldn’t really identify himself with the role of a student, or soak himself in the ‘college spirit’, so he often cut classes and spent days at home, painting and reading – which is totally more useful for imagination and the soul than the boredom of classrooms and patronising professors at college. He also attended art classes given by a painter in Hongo, and practised sketching for hours. He said: ‘I owned a set of oil paints and brushes from the time I entered high school. I sought to model my techniques on those of the Impressionist School, but my pictures remained flat as paper cutouts, and seemed to offer no promises of ever developing into anything.’

With the help of a friend he realised the artistic truth: sometimes it’s more important to portray the truth and work from the soul, than to create perfect, lifeless pictures with a lot of skill and precision. He also says: ‘What superficiality – and what stupidity – there is in trying to depict in a pretty manner things which one has thought pretty. The masters through their subjective perceptions created beauty out of trivialities. They did not hide their interest in things which were nauseatingly ugly, but soaked themselves in the pleasure of depicting them.’ From that moment on, he began making self-portraits, which is kept a secret, and showed one only to Takeichi, and no one else. In his free time, he painted these ‘ghost pictures’, but in school he kept his style strictly conventional. Later, at college, he meets a fellow art lover and painter, Horiki, who lures him into the ‘mysteries of drink, cigarettes, prostitutes, pawnshops and left-wing thought’.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat, March/April 1887

Here, Yozo and his friend Takeichi are discussing the so called ‘ghost pictures’, and the name itself is so intriguing to me. ‘Ghost pictures’ – what is meant by that? It puzzles me, especially since I adore both Modigliani and van Gogh, but I never thought of their art in that way. A certain fragility, melancholy and sadness lingers through Modigliani’s portraits, that’s for sure, but now I can’t help but to notice the wraith-like quality of his women, with elongated faces and sad eyes, or his nudes in ‘coppery skin’ tones.

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. When we were children the French Impressionist School was very popular in Japan, and our first introduction to an appreciation of Western painting most often begun with such works. The paintings of van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Renoir were familiar even to students at country schools, mainly through photographic reproduction. I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

1916. Modigliani 'Female Nude'Modigliani, Female Nude, 1916

Yozo later draws for comic books and magazines, and, at the very end, ends up copying pornographic drawings which he would then secretly peddle, to earn just enough money to buy gin. Still, despite leaving his original artistic intentions behind, he mentions these ‘ghost pictures’ again:

At such times the self-portraits I painted in high school – the ones Takeichi called “ghost pictures” – naturally came to mind. My lost masterpieces. These, my only really worth-while pictures, had disappeared during one of my frequent changes of address. I afterwards painted pictures of every description, but they all fell far,  far short of those splendid works as I remembered them. I was plagued by a heavy sense of loss, as if my heart had become empty.

The undrunk glass of absinthe.

A sense of loss which was doomed to remain eternally unmitigated stealthily began to take shape. Whenever I spoke of painting, that undrunk glass of absinthe flickered before my eyes. I was agonized by the frustrating thought: if only I could show them those paintings they would believe in my artistic talents.

1888-self-portrait-with-straw-hat-van-goghVincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888

Ryunosuke Akutagawa – The Good Faith of Wei Sheng

6 Feb

Today I’ll share with you a beautiful, lyrical short story called The Good Faith of Wei Sheng, written by ‘The Father of the Japanese short story’ – Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who, just like Osamu Dazai of whom I’ve written earlier, also committed suicide, at the age of thirty-five. I’ve accompanied the story with some equally beautiful paintings of water lilies and a Japanese bridge by Claude Monet. I can’t stop thinking whether Monet felt the same transcendental beauty in his beautiful gardens at Giverny?

1912-water-lilies-by-claude-monet-iClaude Monet, Water Lilies, 1912

Wei Sheng lingered under the bridge. He had been waiting awhile for the woman to come.

Looking up, he saw that vines had creeped halfway along the high stone bridge railing. The hems of the white garb of occasional passers-by would flash brightly into view through the railing, flapping gently in the breeze. But the woman still did not come.

Whistling softly, Wei Sheng light-heartedly looked across the sandbar beneath the bridge. The yellow mud of the sandbar extended only about four yards; beyond that was water. Between the reeds at the water’s edge were a number of round holes that must have been dwellings for crabs. A faint gurgling sound could be heard whenever a wave washed over them. But the woman stilll did not come.

Wei Sheng moved to the water’s edge, as though he was beginning to notice the passage of time, and gazed out at the quiet course of the river, where no boats were passing.

The course of the river was thickly lined with green reeds. In addition to those reeds, here and there round river willows grew luxuriently. For that reason, the surface of the river that could be seen snaking along between them did not look as wide as it actually was. The belt of clear water, however, meandered silently through the reeds, gilded with the mica-like reflection of clouds. But the woman still did not come.

1897-99-water-lilies-and-the-japanese-bridge-claude-monetClaude Monet, Water Lilies and the Japanese Bridge, 1897-99

Wei Sheng walked around at the edge of the water, going here and there on the sandbar, which was no longer as wide. Twilight advanced slowly, and he listened to the stillness around him.

There had been no sign of travelers up on the bridge for a little while. He hadn’t heard any sound of boots, or any sound of hooves, or any sound of wheels from up there. He did hear the sound of the breeze, the sound of the reeds, the sound of water, and from somewhere there came the piercing cry of a heron. So thinking, he stopped where he was, and realized that the tide was coming in. The water that washed the yellow mud sparkled nearer than it had a little earlier. But the woman still didn’t come.

Arching his eybrows sharply, Wei Sheng hurriedly started walking back up the dimly lit sandbar under the bridge. Inch by inch, foot by foot, the water of the river rose up the sandbar. At the same time the smells of duckweed and water rising from the river flowed cold across his skin. When he looked up, the gaudy rays of the setting sun had disappeared from the bridge. The stone bridge railing showed black against the barely blue evening sky. But the woman still didn’t come.

1919-le-bassin-aux-nympheas-water-lily-pond-is-one-of-the-series-of-water-lilies-paintings-by-claude-monetClaude Monet, Water Lily Pond, 1919

Finally Wei Sheng stood fixed in his place.

Soaking his boots, the water of the river spread below the bridge and shown colder than steel. His knees, his belly, and before long his chest surely would be hidden by the brutal tide soon. In fact, the water continued to rise and his shins were submerged already. But the woman still didn’t come.

As he stood in the water, Wei Sheng repeatedly turned his eyes to the sky over the bridge as his sole remaining hope.

Surrounded by mists of shadowy darkness rising from the water that immersed his knees, he heard a lonely rustle of reeds and willows through the mists. Wei Sheng’s nose was grazed by a fish, perhaps a sea bass, that flashed its white belly at him. Stars, if only a few, could be seen in the sky through which the fish leapt, and the shape of the bridge railing and its vines blended with the darkness of the night. But the woman still didn’t come . . .

1912. Water Lilies by Claude Monet IIClaude Monet, Water Lilies, 1912

Late at night when the light of the moon bathed the reeds and willows and the water of the river exchanged quiet murmers with a slight breeze, Wei Sheng’s dead body was carried softly to sea from beneath the bridge. Wei Sheng’s spirit, perhaps yearning for the light of the moon high in the lonely sky, slipped out of the body and tranquilly ascended toward the faintly glowing sky, just as the smell of water and duckweed rises silently from the river. . .

With the passage of several thousands of years from that time, this spirit had experienced countless transmigrations and had to give life to a human form again. This is the spirit that dwells in me. Therefore, even though I was born in the present time, I am unable to do any meaningful work. I spend my life in desultory dreaming, day and night, waiting for an indescribable something that is bound to come. Just as Wei Sheng stood under the bridge at the end of the day, waiting forever for a lover who would never come.

Book Review: No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai

2 Feb

‘Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness. Everything passes.’ – This is the first quote I’ve read from this book, and it stayed etched on my mind. I couldn’t stop myself from endlessly pondering over its meaning. And the title was intriguing as well – No Longer Human, what does that mean, I wondered. Now, after finally reading this brilliant book, I can say without exaggeration that I consider it one of my favourite books ever!!!

no-longer-human

Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) wrote his second novel, a dark and disturbing work of art – No Longer Human,  in a state of frenzy, some suggested he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The book begins with an unnamed narrator finding three photos and three notebooks written by Oba Yozo, which follow his decline from a student, to an morphine addict. It tells the story of his moral, physical and emotional degradation, and downfall into the shady life of crime, suicides, prostitutes, alcohol and morphine. It’s written in the first person which gives it a psychological depth and intimate mood. Yozo tells us all his thoughts, fears and ideas – everything that the hides from the world by wearing a ‘clownish mask’ of cheerfulness and wittiness. This sentence, for me, explains Yozo’s life the best: ‘Something impure, dark, reeking of the shady character always hovers above me.‘ He feels deeply alienated from everyone around him, and his day to day existence is tormented by this intense feeling of not belonging, not being able to show others his real self, and no being able to find out, for himself, who he really is.

The story reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and Vadim in Ageyev’s Novel with Cocaine, because it’s narrated in the first person and deals with similar themes. In all three of these books, the main characters are fully engulfed in their own dark thoughts, feel isolated from society and their real selves, and they cannot find anything of value, nothing to cling to in a world of strangers where it’s much easier to become corrupted than try and make something out of your life. This is exactly the kind of literature I love, with characters who are weak, flawed, isolated, and I can slip through the pages and witness their downfall because it’s always inevitable. Not everyone can find their Sonia – a gentle, selfless, angel-like creature, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, to save them.

osamu-dazaiOsamu Dazai

Another thing I found fascinating is the massive amount of Dazai’s autobiographical elements. Like Yozo, Dazai neglected his studies and took interest in Marxism, prostitutes and alcohol. Both were born in privileged families and felt guilt about it. Both attempted suicide by drowning off a beach in Kamakura with young bar hostesses. Both Yozo and Dazai survived, and both women died. Both became addicted to morphine-based painkillers. At the end, Dazai committed suicide by drowning. Yozo’s whereabouts remain unknown, although he might have done the same thing.

Those of you who are inclined to judge characters such as Yozo (but I don’t believe people like that read my blog anyway), well, I have a quote to share, something which Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote upon hearing the news of Yesenin’s suicide. He wrote: ‘In this life it is easy to die, to build life is hard.'(*) So what if Yozo was weak and succumbed to all these vices, what of that? It’s so hard to be good and create a genuinely fulfilling life. And we can never know what is the right way to live, because we have only one life.

I can’t relate to that specific ‘decaying’ aspect of Yozo’s life (alcohol and women), but I can empathise. I have not (yet) fallen into destruction like him, but that’s because I have art, it comforts me in a way nothing could, it’s my love, my opium… And then there’s poetry, and music, and flowers, and the moon… Maybe, if Yozo had found something of value in his life, things would have turned out differently. Still, I utterly identify with this quote: ‘All I feel are the assaults of apprehension and terror at the thought that I am the only one who is entirely unlike the rest. It is almost impossible for me to converse with other people. What should I talk about, how should I say it? – I Don’t know.‘ The more I think about this book and Yozo, the more I can relate to him, it’s almost frightening, but like him I am terribly untrusting and I can understand how he feels when he says that he can’t reveal his true self to others, it’s not that I cannot, I don’t want to, I relish in keeping myself to myself and letting others think I’m cold and reserved. This makes the book even more interesting in my eyes.

I highly recommend you to read this book! As for myself, I plan on reading more Japanese literature. I have not yet read a book by a Japanese author that I did not like, I like the characters, who are often introverted, alienated and misunderstood, and the whole sensibility. Yukio Mishima’s portrayal of Etsuko’s loneliness and unrequited sexual longing in Thirst for Love was particularly poignant to me, for example.

Shimeko Tanabe: young bar hostess who died, while Dazai was saved…

And now some of my favourite quotes:

I drank more that night than ever before in my life, more … more, my eyes swam with drink, and every time Tsuneko and I looked in each other’s face, we gave a pathetic little smile. Yes, just as Horiki had said, she really was a poverty stricken woman and nothing more. But this thought itself was accompanied by a welling-up of a feeling of comradeship for this fellow-suffered from poverty.

***

She lay down beside me. Towards dawn she pronounced for the first time the word “death.” She too seemed to be weary beyond endurance of the task of being a human being; and when I reflected on my dread of the world and its bothersomeness, on money, the movement, women, my studies, it seemed impossible that I could go on living. I consented easily to her proposal.

***

We threw ourselves into the sea at Kamakura that night. She untied her sash, saying, she had borrowed it from a friend at the cafe, and left it folded neatly on a rock. I removed my coat and put it on the same spot. We entered the sea together.

She died. I was saved.

***

I was taken aback. Horiki at heart did not treat me like a human being. He could only consider me as the living corpse of a would-be suicide, a person dead to shame, an idiot ghost.

***

At one point, Yozo and his friend are playing a game of antonyms, and start discussing Dostoyevski and the idea of crime:

If we knew the antonym of crime, I think we would know its true nature. God… salvation … love … light. But for God there is the antonym Satan, for salvation is perdition, for love there is hate, for light there is darkness, for good, evil. Crime and prayer? Crime and repentance? Crime and confession? Crime and … no, they’re all synonyms. What is the opposite of crime? (…) Crime and punishment. Dostoievski. These words grazed over a corner of my mind, startling me.

***

It was less the fact of Yoshiko’s defilement than the defilement of her trust in people which became so persistent a source of grief as almost to render my life insupportable. For someone like myself in whom the ability to trust others is cracked and broken that I am wretchedly timid and am forever trying to read the expression on people’s faces. Yoshiko’s immaculate trustfulness seemed clean and pure, like a waterfall among green leaves. One night sufficed to turn the waters of this pure cascade yellow and muddy. Yoshiko began from that night to fret over my every smile or frown.

***

From the first to the last page, Yozo feels detached from everyone around him, and ‘ceases to be a human being’. That sounds unbearably sad, but the more I think about it, the more I find it liberating. If you think of all disgusting things that ‘humans’ have done, the ‘inhumanities’ their rotten minds have come up with, all the wars, tortures, injustices, hypocrisies – ‘the centre of humanity is cruelty’ (Manic Street Preachers – Archives of Pain). If I take all of this into consideration, then, please disqualify me to, I don’t want to be a human being! I’d rather be a flower, a star, rose petal in the wind, a blade of grass floating on the surface of the lake, or simply a drop of rain. There’s another great line from the song ‘Mausoleum’ by the Manics, which is actually taken from the interview with J.G.Ballard: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit… and force it to look back in the mirror’.

And now I had become a madman. Even if released, I would be forever branded on the forehand with the word “madman”, or perhaps, “reject.”

Disqualified as a human being.

I had now ceased utterly to be a human being.‘ (p. 122)

***

I confess, I have shed a few tears at the end, and shivered as I read these lines:

Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness.

Everything passes.

This is the one and only thing I have thought resembled a truth in society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell.

Everything passes.

This year I am twenty-seven. My hair has become much greyer. Most people would take me for over forty.’

My Favourite Books of 2016

16 Jan

Year 2016 wasn’t a particularly good one when it comes to discovering good books, compared to the previous years. It seems that every new year of my life is nothing but a paler, duller and sadder version of the previous year. Still, there were eleven books that I thought were really good and that I highly recommend everyone to read. I hope I’ll read some really fantastic books in 2017! And I hope you will too!

1908-woman-reading-by-candlelight-peter-ilsted-danishWoman Reading by Candlelight, Peter Ilsted, 1908

1. My Life by Marc Chagall: only a painter could write such an autobiography. It’s almost psychedelic, full of beauty, dreams, love and hardships of the painter’s life. And so full of hope at the same time.

2. The Return of Philip Latinowicz by Miroslav Krleza is a novel about an artist who returns to his homeland Croatia after 23 years, set in the late 1920s/early 1930s, and it explores just about every topic there is; meaning of existence, art, childhood, sexuality, provincial claustrophobia, relationship with his mother and the puzzling question – the identity of his father. After years spent living in the decaying Western European society, Philip hoped to find inspiration by revisiting his cultural roots, but he was instead welcomed by the Panonian mud; intellectual and imaginative poverty of small-town decadence, intrigues and hypocrisies, and the petty-bourgeois mindsets of the people who live there. Here’s a quote that I utterly agree with: ‘I believe in the purity of artistic intuition as the only purity which has remained in this animal world around us!

3. A Thing of Beauty by A.J.Cronin is such a beautiful book, tells the story of a struggling painter Stefan who goes from a proper middle-class student obliging his dominant priest father, to diving fully into the bohemian and artistic life in 1910s Paris. It’s a sad, gentle book, you can empathise with the character and feel his struggles, pains and the beauty of his paintings. I wrote a long long review here.

4. Lust for Life by Irving Stone is a romanticised biography of Vincent van Gogh, beautifully written, easy to read, with a good amount of his personal life and his art because both is equally important. I liked that the chapters were divided by the places he lived in, and that the author managed to convey the personalities of van Gogh and his painter-friends so well. It was only after reading this that I understood what a desire Vincent had to help people, such as the workers in coal mines. Even now, he’s helping the humanity with the beauty of his paintings.

5. Dark Stuff by Nick Kent: This is a collection of essays about rock musicians originally written from 1972 to 1993 which explore the self-destruction and creativity of rock world. I adore the simple and honest way he writes, without patronising, but with utter love for music, and I think it’s so cool that he led that rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle himself. I want to be Nick Kent and Tony Wilson of the art world!

6. Just Kids by Patti Smith is a beautiful account of her years with Robert Mapplethorpe, Chelsea Hotel, discovering art and music, and a tender love story as well. It showed me Patti in a completely new light, maybe she looks like a boy but she has a loving and forgiving heart and is a true woman.

7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding: This books wasn’t that interesting to read, but the deeper message it carries is worth it. There’s references to it everywhere, and I just had to read it.

8. The Pillowbook by Sei Shonagon is beautiful, lyrical, gentle and witty portrayal of court life, customs and nature in Edo period written by a woman who is often called the ‘first blogger’! Shonagon won me over with her descriptions of cherry blossoms, plum trees, snow, moonshine, clothes, gossips and chatter on court. Anyone who loves nature, poetry or Eastern culture should definitely read it! Here’s a quote: ‘In Spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.’ I wrote a longer review here.

9. Return to Cardiff by John Williams: What I love about this book is that it’s a product of our day and age. I am always bitching about how boring and uncreative the 21st century world is, so I was very delighted to read something as moving and amusing. It’s a story of memories and changes for Cardiff as well as the characters. I wrote a longer review here.

10. The Key by Junichiro Tanizaki: is a novel written in a diary-form about the loss of communication between a middle-aged couple. Wife and husband are reading each other’s diaries to find out their true fantasies and desires. It’s only erotic at first reading, but its main subject – loss of communication or alienation is something that pervades our modern world. I’m realising more and more how difficult it is really to make a deep, sincere connection with another human being, and this novel really chimed with me.  I like Tanizaki’s style and I really want to read ‘Naomi’ next – it’s suppose to be the Japanese version of Nabokov’s Lolita.

11. A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney is kitchen-sink drama which I read because I knew Morrissey loved it and it was inspirational for his lyrics. And I loved it too! Set in the grim and industrial landscape of Manchester, it tells the story of a pregnant schoolgirl with a black-sailor boyfriend, careless mother and a gay friend. Delaney writes about everyday struggles and social issues with such delicacy I think. It inspired Morrissey to write his song This Night Has Opened My Eyes, do you need another reason to read it?

***

Have you read any of these books?

Kitchen Sink Dramas – Dark Side of the Sixties

10 Dec

I love the 1960s. And I think you already know that. I love Syd Barrett, early Pink Floyd and psychedelia in London, I love Twiggy’s doll-like make up, I love Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle Vague films, especially those starring Anna Karina, I love listening to young, sweet and innocent Marianne Faithfull singing ‘Come and Stay With Me’ or ‘As Tears Go By’, I love watching films with gorgeous Brigitte Bardot, I love listening to Jim Morrisson singing about L.A. – the city of light, I love looking at pictures of Jean Shrimpton shot by David Bailey, I love the student’s protests in Paris and Jane Birkin and Serge singing together, I love the mini dress. But I also love the other side of the sixties, not so glamorous and swinging aspect of the decade, I love the kitchen sink realism.

1960s-shelagh-delaneyShelagh Delaney, by Arnold Newman, 1961

Kitchen sink realism or kitchen sink drama is a cultural movement that manifested itself in films, theatre, art and television plays. It’s characteristic for late 1950s and early 1960s, but because the themes are so universal the term can be applied to artworks and films of later date, for example, Ken Loach’s film Looks and Smiles (1981) has all the characteristics of a kitchen sink drama but was made in the eighties. Also, an earlier film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) resembles kitchen sink realism very much, it deals with poverty and limited education opportunities for lower classes seen through the prism of a working class Irish-immigrant family in Brooklyn. In a way, kitchen sink realism is an aesthetic, and not just a movement.

Typical kitchen sink drama characters are working class lads and girls who all want something more and better of life, although they often can’t define just what is it they long for, live in the North of England or the Midlands in council houses, or grim attic apartments. They are young, intelligent and often good looking, but their social background, along with a string of bad decisions makes them trapped in lives of resignation, bitterness and disillusionment.

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-2A Taste of Honey, 1961, with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin

Jo from ‘A Taste of Honey (1961)’ is a fifteen year old schoolgirl who falls in love with a black sailor and gets pregnant, in ‘Room at the Top (1959)‘ a working class lad Joe has to decide between living with a woman he truly loves or marrying a pretty young middle class girl which will land him a great job, in ‘Poor Cow (1967)‘ Joy lives with an abusive husband who ends up in jail and has to take care of a small son while still craving beauty, romance and pleasure, in ‘Up the Junction (1965)’ Rube, a young girl working in a confectionery factory, gets pregnant and goes through a traumatic illegal abortion because that’s the only option, In ‘Look Back in Anger (1959)‘ dissatisfied Jimmy Carter, played by Richard Burton, has a sweet-stall in the market, plays trumpet and lives with a passive middle class wife Allison, in ‘The L-Shaped Room (1962)‘ Jane is pregnant and doesn’t want to marry the father, Cathy Come Home (1966) deals with the subject of homelessness.As you can see, every character has a deep inner turmoil and usually ends up unable to fight back the cruel reality.

Their ideals are unattainable, they are in the gutter but they are trying to look at the stars – but there’s none to be seen on that dark, bleak sky of the industrial north. What they want they cannot reach, and if they do get what they want- there’s usually a nasty price to be paid. Was it worth it, they all ask themselves after the taste of honey has vanished from their lips.

by Arnold Newman, bromide print, 1961Shelagh Delaney, by Arnold Newman, 1961

It would be impossible to write this post without mentioning Morrissey and The Smiths; it was because of Morrissey that I was introduced to Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey, and then the movement itself. Perhaps the reason I loved it so much lies in the fact that I love Morrissey’ lyrics, which often deal with similar subjects as the kitchen sink dramas; ‘small-town frustration, lost dreams and complicated loves’ (Why Pamper Life’s Complexities? Essay on The Smiths).

This quote from the book already mentioned above illustrates the connection between kitchen sink dramas and Morrissey’s lyrics:

Kitchen-sink characters such as Jo from ‘A Taste of Honey’, Arthur from ‘Saturday Night Sunday Morning’, Billy from ‘Billy Liar’ and Colin from ‘The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner’ are denied access to the ‘honey’ for most of their lives. Their moment of enlightenment – ‘the taste of honey’ in their lives – is ephemeral and comes under the risk of punishment. This essential dreamless quality of kitchen-sink world can found at the heart of many of Morrissey’s lyrics, and he himself was seen during his years with The Smiths as the official voice of gauche and disillusioned youth.

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-4A Taste of Honey (1961) with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin

Morrissey’s lyrics go hand in hand with bleak aesthetic of the North; smoke rising from the chimneys, small flats with wallpapers peeling off, endless row of red-bricked houses which all look the same just like the days which linger on bringing nothing but dullness. He articulated provincial boredom and feeling of alienation from everyone around him very well. His lyrics create poetic images that seemed to have arisen not only from his own experience of loneliness and life in the north, but also from kitchen sink dramas he loved and often borrowed lyrics from. He sang of kissing under the iron bridge, coming back to the old house (which he never will because it was demolished like a lot of houses in Manchester at the time), short-lasting loves; shyness that is criminally vulgar; going to clubs, standing alone going home alone and wanting to die.

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-6

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-5A Taste of Honey (1961) with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin; “This place stinks. That river, it’s the colour of lead.” (says Jo in Act II)

One song in particular, This Night Has Opened My Eyes, deals with kitchen-sink theme directly. Morrissey took inspiration from Shelagh Delaney’s play ‘A Taste of Honey’. In his other song ‘Reel Around the Fountain’ he even incorporated a line from the play that goes ‘I dreamt about you last night, I fell of my bed twice.’

This night has opened my eyes
And I will never sleep again
You kicked and cried like a bullied child
A grown man of twenty-five
Oh, he said he’d cure your ills
But he didn’t and he never will
Oh, save your life
Because you’ve only got one
The dream has gone
But the baby is real
Oh, you did a good thing
She could have been a poet
Or, she could have been a fool
Oh, you did a bad thing
And I’m not happy
And I’m not sad
Whereas he sang with an undertow of melancholy, in addition to songs being coated in whimsical melodies thanks to Johnny Marr, another band, Manic Street Preachers sang of similar issues, such as boredom and provincial claustrophobia with a genuine working class anger and resentment. Another northern band from Sheffield, Pulp, has a distinct kitchen-sink mood in their lyrics from 1990s, dealing with themes of provincial loneliness, sex and class struggle.

1967-poor-cow-1967-ken-loach-terence-stamp-carol-white-12

1967-poor-cow-1967-ken-loach-terence-stamp-carol-white-10

1967-poor-cow-1967-ken-loach-terence-stamp-carol-white-11Carol White in Poor Cow (1967), dir. Ken Loach

Shelagh Delaney, who wrote ‘A Taste of Honey’ when she was just eighteen years old, describes the kitchen-sink aesthetic very well in a short TV report for BBC Four in 1960. What struck me is that she loved living in Salford, and admitted she gets very homesick whenever she’s away from it. This is ironic because most of kitchen-sink characters are dying to get out of their provincial towns, but Delaney loved the atmosphere of the place, she loved the vitality of people, the language and the situations were all wellsprings of inspiration. She said: ‘And the language is alive, its viral, it lives and it breathes and you know exactly where’s it’s coming from, right out of the earth.

Delaney also called Salford a drug, explaining that even if you wanted to leave, the place hold you back and it’s impossible to say goodbye to it.

1962-the-l-shaped-room-1962-with-leslie-caron-6The L-Shaped Room (1962) with Leslie Caron

Before I sat down writing this post, I asked myself what is it exactly that I love about kitchen sink dramas. And I can’t really pin-point one particular thing, it was love at first sight I suppose. First of all, I love that it’s about the real people in real situations. I don’t like sugar-coated things, they only make you detest your own life and poison you with desires and daydreams about things that will never happen, at least not for you. But kitchen sink dramas are as real as Dostoyevsky’s novels. Characters are always faced with difficult decisions, live in a place they want to escape from, and there’s always a sense that what they want will cause their downfall. What started as ‘just a kiss’ could and probably will end up in pregnancy because characters such as Jo in A Taste of Honey, Rube in Up the Junction and Jane in The L-Shaped Room have no luck when it comes to the matters. And men are working class heroes and that’s something to be. They usually deal with limited employment opportunities, hard labour in factories and difficulty in reconciling their responsibilities and desires, along with the disdain they feel from the upper classes when they try to ‘invade’ their territory.

Watching them, and observing how they deal with these very difficult situations and decisions acts as a catharsis for me, in a way that Aristotle described it as ‘purification of emotions through art’. He thought that art (in this case film) ought to evoke feelings of compassion and fear and thereby purify the feelings of the viewer. Kitchen sink dramas definitely do that for me. When I think of Jo being pregnant with a ‘grown man of 25 who said he’d cure her ills but he didn’t and he never will’, or those girls in ‘Up the Junction’ working in a factory, living for the weekend to go out, put that eyeliner on and dance to some whimsical tunes, or Allison deciding whether she’ll stay with Jimmy or not – these situations make all my problems seem trivial, and I end up crying for them because their lives are so helpless and I don’t know what I’d do in their situations.

1959-look-back-in-anger-with-richard-burton-2Look Back in Anger (1959) with Mary Ure and Richard Burton

I also like the aesthetic of these kitchen sink dramas; everything is dark, rainy and cold, people seem to live on tea and toast, women walk around wearing petticoats and skirts all day long with their hair made for the week, children play on streets and clothes hang on the washing line, while the landscape always seems dominated by tall chimneys of factories, and red bricked houses go on and on, and people walk in the small alleyways clutching umbrellas and wondering when will that day come they’ll finally escape from their shitty town, and there’s not a single tree in the sight. And still, markets are lively, and people smile. Children play and young couples kiss. Hope lies beyond everything.

1956-kenneth-haigh-right-as-jimmy-porter-with-helena-hughes-alan-bates-and-mary-ure-in-the-original-production-of-look-back-in-anger-at-the-royal-court-in-london-in-1956Kenneth Haigh (right) as Jimmy Porter, with Helena Hughes, Alan Bates and Mary Ure in the original production of Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in London in 1956. Photograph: Charles Hewitt (source)

In this post I wanted to show you that, while the sixties are mostly loved and remembered for their swinging and glamorous qualities, there’s also a ‘darker’ side to them. Kitchen sink dramas deal with social and economic problems of post-war Britain shown through the psychological portrayal of an individual – it’s up to you to embrace their dark charms.

Now I’ll recommend you films that were my personal favourites: A Taste of Honey (1961), Poor Cow (1967), Look Back in Anger (1959), The L-Shaped Room (1962), Alfie (1966), and some of later date by Ken Loach: Kes (1969) and Looks and Smiles (1981). Mike Leigh seems to nurture a similar aesthetic in some of him films, although they are noticeably less grim, but I love them as well, particularly Naked (1993), Life is Sweet (1990) and All or Nothing (2002).

Do you like the aesthetic and themes of kitchen sink dramas?

Lermontov: It’s Boring and Sad…

9 Nov

This poem arose from the same source that inspired Lermontov to write his novel ‘A Hero of Our Time’, a fabulous literary work, especially if you like Romanticism or Russian literature. The main character, Pechorin, is a superfluous man, just like Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is a Russian version of the Byronic hero; he’s a pessimistic and cynic man prone to self-destruction who feels superior to his surroundings and yet does nothing to use his potentials, a strong sense of boredom and absurdity of life drives him to lonely wanderings, restlessly seeking oblivion. The lyrical subject of this poem shares his thoughts of sadness and boredom with life, following the path of the superfluous man, viewing life as a cruel joke. This poem is very dear to me because I have the same thoughts on life; I am a melancholic soul, and if it wasn’t for the beauty of art, poetry and rock music, I wouldn’t see any purpose of life at all. Life without art isn’t a life at all.

1830-35-sunset-brothers-or-evening-landscape-with-two-men-caspar-david-friedrichCaspar David Friedrich, Sunset (Brothers) or Evening Landscape With two Men, 1830-35

It’s boring and sad, and there’s no one around

In times of my spirit’s travail…

Desires!…What use is our vain and eternal desire?..

While years pass on by – all the best years!

 

To love…but love whom?.. a short love is vexing,

And permanent love’s just a myth.

Perhaps look within? – The past’s left no trace:

All trivial, joys and distress…

 

What good are the passions? For sooner or later

Their sweet sickness ends when reason speaks up;

And life, if surveyed with cold-blooded regard,-

Is stupid and empty – a joke…