Tag Archives: Literature

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!”

Book Review: Romaji Diary by Takuboku Ishikawa

27 Aug

“Alone and awake in the metropolis where the entire race of men was fast asleep, I realized, as I kept track of the breathing of others during that quiet spring night, how meaningless and trivial my life was in this narrow three and-a-half-mat room.”

Kasamatsu Shiro (1898-1991), Rainy Evening at Shinobazu Pond, Tokyo, 1938

In the beginning of August I finally started reading a book which intrigued me immensely: “Romaji Diary and Sad Toys” by Takuboku Ishikawa. A single quote compelled me to read the book because it spoke to me: “How I wished to go somewhere. I walked on with this thought in mind. I wanted to ride a train. That was my thought. I wanted to ride somewhere, anywhere, with no destination in mind and to a place I have never been before.” Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912) was a Japanese writer mostly remembered for his tanka and his free-style poems. He died in April 1912 from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, tragically too soon, so we can’t know how his literary talents would flourish had he lived longer. The “Romaji Diary” is Ishikawa’s diary written in Japanese but in Latin script (in Japanese it’s called “romaji”) so his wife couldn’t understand it. Ishikawa continues the long literary tradition of keeping a diary which originated in the ninth century.

The diary starts on 7 April and ends on 16 June 1909. We are instantly in the mind of a young person in a big bustling city of Tokyo; a person who is alienated, brooding, slightly cynical, a tad melodramatic and completely honest with himself. Ishikawa’s thoughts and writing style made me think of both Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human” which isn’t a diary but is written in the first person, and Kafka, whose letters I have read and enjoyed. Kafka in Japan; Kafka amongst cherry blossoms. Nothingness and loneliness, bring to mind the early days of Manic Street Preachers and I am sure that Richey Edwards, who appreciated Japanese literature and brooding heroes, would appreciate the Romaji Diary as well. One of the recurring topics throughout the diary is the topic of his responsibility towards his family which conflicts with his literary aspirations; I would of course chose the latter and so I can easily empathise and understand how the family and the sentimentality around it can drag an artist down. I also enjoyed that Ishikawa mentions Russian writers and characters from Russian novels because I love some of them too. But now, let me speak no more, here are the quotes which I enjoyed the most and they will show you the style of the diary and Ishikawa’s thoughts:

Alone and awake in the metropolis where the entire race of men was fast asleep, I realized, as I kept track of the breathing of others during that quiet spring night, how meaningless and trivial my life was in this narrow three and- a-half-mat room.
What will I look like when, sleeping all alone in this narrow room, I am overcome by some indescribable exhaustion? The final discovery of man is that he is far from great. Such a long time in this narrow room, nursing a weary anxiety and a foolish desire to seek out, by force if necessary, something to interest me— more than two hundred days have come and gone. When will I be able to… No!
Lying in bed, I read Turgenev’s short stories.

Hiroshima Koho – Night View of Ohashi Bridge

When I clasp a warm hand and smell the powerfuI fragrance of a woman’s hair, I am not satisfied with that: I want to embrace a soft and warm and perfectly white body. Oh, the feeling of loneliness when I go back home without fulfilling that desire! It’s not merely a loneliness stemming from unfulfilled sexual desire; it’s a deep, terrible, despairing realization which forces me to see that I am unable to obtain anything I want.”

“I’m exhausted now. And I’m searching for freedom from care. That freedom from care, what’s it like? Where is it? I can’t, even in a hundred years, return to the innocent mind free from pain that I had long ago. Where is peace of mind?
“I want to be ill.”
(…) Oh, for a life of freedom, released from all responsibility! “I wish my family would die!” Even though I’ve desired that, no one dies. “I wish my friends would regard me as their enemy.” For that I wish too, but no one regards me seriously as their foe. All my friends pity me. God! Why am I loved by others? Why can’t I hate men with all my soul? To be loved is an unbearable insult! But I’m tired. I’m a weakling!”

“I ran my fingers over the strings of a samisen I found hanging on a wall, and the upshot was I took the instrument down and clowned around with it. Why had I done such a thing? Was I in high spirits? No! Somehow the feeling overwhelmed me that there wasn’t a place in the entire world for me. “I have a headache, so just for this one night I’ll enjoy myself.” These words weren’t true. So what was I searching for? A woman’s body? Saké? Probably neither. If not, what? I myself didn’t know. My self-consciousness made my mind sink even deeper. I didn’t want to fall into the terrible abyss. Nor did I want to return to my room: it was as if some disgusting thing were waiting for me there.”

Benkei Bridge – Tsuchiya Koitsu, early 20th century, Japan

“And though I can’t endure the pain of this life, I’m unable to do anything about that life. Everything is restraint, my responsibilities heavy. What am I to do? Hamlet said, “To be or not to be.” But the question of death in today’s world has become much more complicated than in his time.”

I know now that I have no confidence, that I have no aim, that from morning till night I’m driven by vacillation and anxiety. I have no fixed point in me. What will become of me? A useless key that does not fit! That’s me! Wherever I bring myself, I can’t find the keyhole that fits me!
Dying for a smoke!”

“Everything changes according to the way you look at it,” Obara had said. “People think that day by day they are shortening the fifty or sixty years allotted to them, but I believe life means adding one more new day after each succeeding day, so the passing of time doesn’t pain me in the least.”
“When all is said and done, the happy person is someone like you. A person like you can feel assured deceiving himself in such a way,” I had replied.

George Sand: My soul ravished by the music and the beauty of the sky

17 Aug

A few days ago I started reading George Sand’s autobiography called “Story of My Life” and I am really enjoying it so far. It follows her life from birth up to the Revolution of 1848. It was originally published in 1854. I particularly enjoyed this little passage about the wonders of music that little Aurore (that was her real name) had experienced for the first time. It is written in such a way that it instantly made me daydream so I chose a painting that depicts a dreamy scene of girl gazing at the moon. Can you not feel the music in the air?

Johann Peter Hasenclever, Die Sentimentale, c. 1846-47

A memory which does date from my first four years is that of my earliest musical response. My mother had been to see someone in  village near Paris, I do not know which village. The apartment was very high up, and from the window, as I was too small to see down to the street, I could only distinguish neighboring housetops and a large expanse of sky. We spent part of the day there, but I paid attention to nothing else, so absorbed was I by the sound of a flute which played a flock of tunes that I found wondrous all the time we were there. The sound was coming from one of the highest garrets, quite far away, for my mother could hardly hear it when I asked her what it was. As for me, my hearing was apparently finer and more sensitive at this period, and I did not miss a single modulation of this little instrument—so piercing from nearby, so sweet at a distance—and was charmed by it. It seemed to me I heard it as in a dream. The sky was cloudless and a sparkling blue, and those delicate melodies seemed to soar over the rooftops as far as heaven itself. Who knows if it wasn’t an artist of superior inspiration who, for the moment, had no other attentive listener but me? It could just as well have been a cook’s helper who was learning the themes from Monaco or Les Folies d’Espagne. Whoever it was, I experienced indescribable musical pleasure, and I was truly ecstatic in front of that window, where for the first time I vaguely understood the harmony of external things, my soul being ravished alike by the music and the beauty of the sky.

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams…

3 Aug

“Night after night I lie awake,

Listening to the rustle of the bamboo leaves,

And a strange sadness fills my heart.”

(As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams)

Japan | takaphilography

A week or so ago I finished reading this wonderful little book whose title alone lured me from the bookshelf of a dimly lit library: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. How alluring is that title!? As I took the book into my hands and flipped the pages, it was as if I were instantly transported to the world of dreams, the quotes spoke to my heart and I knew right away this book was a treasure. And what a delight, in warm summer nights, with the nocturnal music of cicadas and rain, to read a diary of a young girl, later a young woman, living in the 11th century Japan. Lady Sarashina was born in 1008 at the height of the Heian Period, at the same time when Sei Shonagon was writing her “The Pillow Book” which I love, and she spent most of her life in Kyoto. As a child, she is utterly dreamy and obsessed with reading tales and daydreaming of a charming, handsome prince that she will meet one day and the wonderful life she will have.

Timid, withdrawn and hypersensitive, little Sarashina feels deep sorrow after her sister dies and her step-mother leaves, and the same poignancy is seen in her experience of nature, especially the sight of the moon and red leaves of the trees in autumn. As she grows up, she finds that she doesn’t want to participate in the world and that her dreams are more fulfilling. She tries being a court lady for awhile but is a failure because she is too dreamy to participate in the court life. Eventually, at the age of thirty-six she marries a middle-class man and has three children. It is assumed that she started writing the book at the age of forty-nine, just after her husband had died. Perhaps, with this huge loss that brought a change to her life, she started thinking about lost times and again sank into the deep, wild sea of dreams.

Maples and River by Ogata Kenzan, Edo Period, 18th century; Look at those maples leaves, falling down in the river like bright red stars!

“Though it was already the end of the Tenth month when we crossed Mount Miyaji, the maple leaves were still in their height.

So the storms have not yet come to Mount Miyaji!
For russet leaves still peacefully adorn the hills.”

Ogata Kenzan, Autumn Ivy, after 1732; Notice the gorgeous gradient colours of the leaves; from brown to green, red to orange, just mesmerising…

I lived forever in the dream world. Though I made occasional pilgrimages to temples, I could never bring myself to pray sincerely for what most people want. I know there are many who read the sutras and practice religious devotions from the age of about seventeen; but I had no interest in such things. The height of my aspirations was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in the mountain village where he would have hidden me like Lady Ukifune. There I should live my lonely existence, gazing at the blossoms and the Autumn leaves and the moon and the snow, and wait for an occasional splendid letter from him. This was all I wanted; and in time I came to believe that it would actually happen.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Autumn leaves in Sangoku, 1914

“The trees in our garden grew as thickly as those that spread their darkness at the foot of the Mount Ahigara, and in the Tenth month we had a blaze of red leaves, like a rich covering of brocade, which was far more impressive than anything on the surrounding hills. A visitor to our house mentioned that he had passed a place with some magnificent red foliage and I improvised:

What can excell this garden where I dwell
In my autumnal weariness?”

Toyohara Chikanobu, Autumn Leaves, 1897

Lady Sarashina’s disinterest in the real world around her is also evident in her descriptions of her travels; her knowledge of geography was limited and sometimes flawed, but she writes with ardour about a field of poppies, a sea of mist, or the beauty of the waves hitting the shore. She saw life through a poetic lense and real life facts and data had little meaning to her. Over time, she comes to regret wasting her life in dreams and wishes that instead she had invested more time in her spiritual growth, but in a way this is yet another escapism because monks live in the own world, away from society and its troubles. By engaging in spiritual concern, Sarashina could once again escape reality, just like Anais Nin. Needless to say that I find Lady Sarashina’s thoughts and reveries very relatable and I find it very poignant that a thousand years ago a girl lived who is so much like me and who could understand me like no one else does know. I can only imagine how lonely she felt in her reveries, since people mostly think that fantasising is a waste of time. Little do they know how pleasant it is … to cross the bridge of dreams and pass the time in that pleasant, other-world.

Shibata Zeshin, Autumn Grasses in Moonlight, 1872

“That evening we stayed in Kuroto Beach, when the white dunes stretched out far in the distance. A bright moon hung over the dense pine groves, and the wind soughed forlorny in the branches. The scene inspired us to write poems. Mine was:

Had I not stayed awake this night
When should I have seen the moon –
This Autumn moon that lights Kuroto Beach.”

Utagawa Hirshige II, Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Temple (Ishiyama shûgetsu), from the series Eight Views of Ômi (Ômi hakkei), 1859

“Late one nights towards the end of the 8th month I gazed at the wonderful dawn moon illuminating the dark cluster of trees and the mountainside, and I listened to the beautiful sound of a waterfall.

“If only I could share this moon
With one whose feelings are like mine –
This moon that lights the mountain village in the Autumn dawn!”

The Days and Nights – Short Stories by Fumiko Hayashi – Now in Paperback

20 Jun

“Obscured by the rain, Mount Fuji was not visible the entire day. But I knew that the moment the sky cleared, a massive mountain would appear before my eyes. As I looked out from the second floor, within the twilight mist a verdant, green cornfield stretched far into the distance.”

(Fumiko Hayashi, The Tryst)

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Evening Glow at Lake Sai, 1938

Last spring and this spring I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing two short story collections, “The Downfall and Other Stories” and “The Days and Nights” by a Japanese writer Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951), translated by J.D.Wisgo. All the short stories were really beautiful and thoughtful, slightly tinged with melancholy, and the atmosphere conveyed in the stories lingers in your room long after you close the pages of the book. The author’s writing style is what really appeals to me, but the choice of motives is interesting as well. Hayashi writes about themes such as loneliness, fate, love, nostalgia and desolation in a way that is both simple and yet deep and thoughtful, the heaviness and lightness of life, the main theme of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, are beautifully combined in Hayashi’s short stories as well. The lives of the characters in her stories are often set in the urban post-war Japan and this gives not only an interesting historical portrait of the times but also a haunting background for the character’s lives; their unique troubles, sadnesses and indecisivness about love and life are set against universally tragical times. When you read those stories, it is easy to see why Fumiko Hayashi is considered one of the most important twentieth-century female Japanese authors. All the stories from the short story collections I talked about above are now united in a single paper-back edition, plus an additional short story called “The Tryst”. All together nine beautiful short stories and you can check them out here. Let me end this short post with a quote from the story “The Tryst”:

We wanted to lie together like this, even for a short while, resisting the fate that was trying to leave us behind. It felt like we were gripping tightly to each other, refusing to let go. I thought that at least for this moment, god would take pity on our honest, glittering souls. (…) We had no time to really decide anything; nor did we have a desire to trick the world and stay together. (…) Believing that a happy ending would never come to two people like us, I was also comforted by the fact we were beyond the age of worrying needlessly about a dark future. I can just feel it – happiness…

All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog: Self Taught Japanese and Goodreads page.

Artists in Literature: Amy March from Little Women

4 Jun

Louise May Alcott’s coming of age novel “Little Women”, first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, is a well-known and well-loved book, especially nowadays with many film versions and series being made. The novel follows the lives of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth, from their teenage years to their adult lives. The girls’ personal trials and growing pains are intertwined with the social hardships and tribulations that came with social events such as the Civil War. Amy March, the third sister, starts the novel as a vain, self-obsessed little girl occupied with all things of elegance and beauty, and as the story progresses Amy grows up to an elegant young lady who is still occupied with Venusian things but her obsession with personal beauty transcends into a love of Beauty in art and she eventually goes to study art in Paris with her aunt. The twenty-sixth chapter from the book called “The Artistic Attempts” deals with Amy’s growing pains of being an artist and I think it is very interesting because we rarely have artists as characters in a book.

“…mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity.”

Amy March in Little Women (2017)

Here are the passages from the book:

It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius, especially ambitious young men and women. Amy was learning this distinction through much tribulation, for mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity. For a long time there was a lull in the ‘mud-pie’ business, and she devoted herself to the finest pen-and-ink drawing, in which she showed such taste and skill that her graceful handiwork proved both pleasant and profitable. But over-strained eyes caused pen and ink to be laid aside for a bold attempt at poker-sketching. While this attack lasted, the family lived in constant fear of a conflagration, for the odor of burning wood pervaded the house at all hours, smoke issued from attic and shed with alarming frequency, red-hot pokers lay about promiscuously, and Hannah never went to bed without a pail of water and the dinner bell at her door in case of fire. Raphael’s face was found boldly executed on the underside of the moulding board, and Bacchus on the head of a beer barrel. A chanting cherub adorned the cover of the sugar bucket, and attempts to portray Romeo and Juliet supplied kindling for some time.

Winslow Homer, Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine, 1883, watercolour on paper

From fire to oil was a natural transition for burned fingers, and Amy fell to painting with undiminished ardor. An artist friend fitted her out with his castoff palettes, brushes, and colors, and she daubed away, producing pastoral and marine views such as were never seen on land or sea. Her monstrosities in the way of cattle would have taken prizes at an agricultural fair, and the perilous pitching of her vessels would have produced seasickness in the most nautical observer, if the utter disregard to all known rules of shipbuilding and rigging had not convulsed him with laughter at the first glance. Swarthy boys and dark-eyed Madonnas, staring at you from one corner of the studio, suggested Murillo; oily brown shadows of faces with a lurid streak in the wrong place, meant Rembrandt; buxom ladies and dropiscal infants, Rubens; and Turner appeared intempestsof blue thunder, orange lightning, brown rain, and purple clouds, with a tomato-colored splash in the middle, which might be the sun or a bouy, asailor’s shirt or a king’s robe, as the spectator pleased.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Bow, 1887, Charcoal and graphite on off-white laid paper

Charcoal portraits came next, and the entire family hung in a row, looking as wild and crocky as if just evoked from a coalbin. Softened into crayonsketches, they did better, for the likenesses were good, and Amy’s hair, Jo’s nose, Meg’s mouth, and Laurie’s eyes were pronounced ‘wonderfully fine’. A return to clayand plaster followed, and ghostly casts of her acquaintances haunted corners of the house, or tumbled off closet shelves onto people’s heads. Children were enticed in as models, till their incoherent accounts of her mysterious doings caused Miss Amy to be regarded in the light of a young ogress. Her efforts in this line, however, were brought to an abrupt close by an untoward accident, which quenched her ardor. Other models failing her for a time, she undertook to cast her own pretty foot, and the family were one day alarmed by an unearthly bumping and screaming and running to the rescue, found the young enthusiast hopping wildly about the shed with her foot held fast in a pan full of plaster, which had hardened with unexpectedrapidity. With much difficulty and some danger she was dug out, for Jo was so overcome with laughter while she excavated that her knife went too far, cut the poor foot, and left a lasting memorial of one artistic attempt, at least.

Claude Monet, The Studio Boat, 1876

After this Amy subsided, till a mania for sketching from nature set her to haunting river, field, and wood, for picturesque studies, and sighing for ruins to copy. She caught endless colds sitting on damp grass to book ‘a delicious bit’, composed of a stone, a stump, one mushroom, and a broken mullein stalk, or ‘a heavenly mass of clouds’, that looked like a choice display of featherbeds when done. She sacrificed her complexion floating on the river in the midsummer sun to study light and shade, and got a wrinkle over her nose trying after ‘points of sight’, or whatever the squint-and-string performance is called.

If ‘genius is eternal patience’, as Michelangelo affirms, Amy had some claim to the divine attribute, for she persevered in spite of all obstacles, failures, and discouragements, firmly believing that in time she should do something worthy to be called ‘high art’.

Vincent van Gogh: Life and Art in the Face of Failure

23 Apr

“He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.”

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, October 1888

This post will be my final one (for now at least….) featuring wonderful passages from Irving Stone’s romanticised biography about the life and struggles of Vincent van Gogh: “Lust for Life”, originally published in 1934. I really love the book and I reread it this spring and I feel that it is truly too beautiful not to be shared! I already have a post about the sun, heat and vibrant colours of Arles, and posts about the art discussions that Vincent had with Gauguin while he stayed in Arles; part one and part two. Today I would like to share a passage which deals directly with the question: why? Why do I paint? What is it that drives me to persist with it, despite constant failure? Vincent is asking himself that and the answer is a very beautiful one and I think all artists should be inspired by it. Indeed, my artist friend loves the quote as well. I think inspiration for creating art should be intrinsic, it has to be the fire within that drives one to create, if one is doing it to please someone else, to gain admiration, approval, praise or popularity, then it’s just not going to work. And now here is the quote:

The hot sun built up his vitality, even though his stomach was getting little attention. In place of sane food he put absinthe, tobacco, and Daudet’s tales of Tartarin. His innumerable hours of concentration before the easel rubbed his nerves raw. He needed stimulants. The absinthe made him all the more excited for the following day, an excitement whipped by the mistral and baked into him by the sun.

As the summer advanced, everything became burnt up. He saw about him nothing but old gold, bronze and copper, covered by a greenish azure sky of blanched heat. There was sulphur-yellow on everything the sunlight hit. His canvases were masses of bright burning yellow. He knew that yellow had not been used in European painting since the Renaissance, but that did not deter him. The yellow pigment oozed out of the tubes onto the canvas, and there it stayed. His pictures were sun steeped, sun burnt, tanned with the burning sun and swept with air.

He was convinced that it was no more easy to make a good picture than it was to find a diamond or a pearl. He was dissatisfied with himself and what he was doing, but he had just a glimmer of hope that it was going to be better in the end. Sometimes even that hope seemed a Fata Morgana. Yet the only time he felt alive was when he was slogging at his work. Of personal life, he had none. He was just a mechanism, a blind painting automaton that had food, liquid, and paint poured into it each morning, and by nightfall turned out a finished canvas.

And for what purpose? For sale? Certainly not! He knew that nobody wanted to buy his pictures. Then what was the hurry? Why did he drive and spur himself to paint dozens and dozens of canvases when the space under his miserable, brass bed was already piled nearly solid with paintings?

The desire to succeed had left Vincent. He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.

Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne – A Novel by Linda Lappin

17 Apr

“My dying, I mean. I can’t change it now. But nothing could ever have kept me from loving Modi; or him, me. We were born for each other, under his lucky black star.”

(Loving Modiglian, by Linda Lappin)

Jeanne Hébuterne, c 1918

The 6th of April marked the birth anniversary of Jeanne Hébuterne; the muse, the lover, the companion, common-law wife of the great painter Amedeo Modigliani and an artist in her own right. She was born in Paris in 1898, and died on the 26th January 1920 after throwing herself from the window of the fifth floor of her parents’ flat. The Paris she left behind was a very different world from the one she was born into; it had seen the great war and it has witnessed many art movements appearing like shooting stars and disappearing into the (art) history. And most importantly of all, for Jeanne, the Paris of 1920 didn’t have Modigliani who had died on the 24 January that year. The Paris without Modi was a dreary and sad urban wilderness.

This tale of art, love and death is perhaps the most tragical and heart-breaking tale from the world of art and it is not easy to write about it in a fresh and exciting way, or find a unique and original perspective on the topic which can easily become sentimental in the hands of a bad writer. Still, I recently read a book on the topic which blew my mind; “Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne” by Linda Lappin. I was instantly drawn by the title alone and the way the novel begins in medias res, with Jeanne’s fall from the window, and the way everything was told from her point of view. Jeanne, as a ghost, leads us through the tale of her love for Modigliani whom she desperately wants to find now that they are both dead. What can be more romantic than that!?

The writting is so vibrant, exciting and captivating. The novel has a great flow and the pages just pass by like landscapes from the window of a train. Indeed, the whole book feels like a very intense, poignant and exciting journey that begins with death and ends with …. well I am not going to tell you that. From the Paris of the living and Jeanne’s burial, to the “other Paris” as the author calls it in the book where Jeanne goes through a trial, meets the Death herself and seeks Modigliani so that their souls might wonder together the promenades and the avenues of the dead. A segment of the book is set in 1981 where a young art history student comes to Paris to do a research about a painter Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, and also a part which is Jeanne’s diary. This seemingly strange composition actually works beautifully and everything falls in its place in the end. The storyline is nonlinear and that makes the reading very exciting; you feel as if you are unravelling a mystery. All in all, in my opinion this was a beautiful novel and I think it would be a great read for those who are familiar with the story of Jeanne and Modigliani, as well as for those who don’t even have an interest in the art history because in the end it is a tale of love, death and lovers separated by death and that is something everyone can connect with. Also, I must say that I found the novel very poignant, it made me feel the same way that the book “Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis” did and I already wrote a book review for it here. You can visit the author’s page for more information.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918

And now some quotes from the book which I really loved:

“Examining her past, we will see that she had always been a perverse child—moody, disobedient, quarrelsome, and stubborn. (…) Rather than follow the sensible wishes of her family to prepare herself to become a wife and mother, she badgered them to let her enroll in an academy of arts, to become an artist, a painter, as you heard her prideful boast. But has her work ever been sold by a gallery, displayed at an exhibition, represented by a dealer, reviewed in a newspaper? In the art world the name of Jeanne Hébuterne is totally unknown. And so it is likely to remain.”

I was fuming now. What right had he to judge my artwork?”

When I gaze at Jeanne’s face, the phrase “still waters run deep” comes to mind because she was seen by those around her as shy, quiet, melancholy and delicate, and yet she had all that passion hidden inside. If channeled in a different way, that passion would have made her a great artist. A quote from Jeanne’s diary (not Jeanne’s real diary, but the diary from the novel):

This is the room of a proper jeune fille, the person I am outgrowing or perhaps have never been. It is a room where Modi will never set foot, where his smile will never be caught in the mirror. Yet the thought of him fills every room, every space I go, and replaces the air in my lungs.

Jeanne Hébuterne, Self-Portrait, 1916

I can’t explain why I keep watching the horizon, but I feel that my real life is waiting for me out there somewhere across the water. Who am I? Who will I become? Maman says I am going to be beautiful—but that my hips are too round, my face too full, and when I am older I will have a double chin, like hers. But my eyes are the color of southern seas in summer, changing from green to gold to turquoise. I have seen those waters in the pictures of Gauguin, who is my favorite painter.

She was an artist, you see. Not many people knew that. A very talented artist. He was not only her lover, her husband, and the father of her children, but also her maître. He was teaching her, guiding her artistic career. He was a god in her eyes. Her passion for Modigliani was equaled only by her passion for her art. As a mother, well, she was too young to have taken on that responsibility, and he was certainly not much help.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne in a Large Hat, 1918

Jeanne Hébuterne, Death, 1919

Jeanne Hébuterne, Suicide, 1920

Jeanne Hébuterne, Self-Portrait, 1918

Jeanne Hébuterne, Portrait of Modigliani, 1919

I really enjoyed this description of Modigliani’s scent and the way it brings back memories to Jeanne who had just died:

“And then I saw his brown velvet jacket with frayed cuffs reflected behind me, hanging on a nail in the wall. (…) I went to it now, caressing the length of the sleeves, remembering the arms they once held, that once held me, and although I could not lift it from the nail, I could almost feel the smooth velvet ribs against my fingertips and cheek. Sticking my nose into the folds, I sighed deeply, and a miracle happened! I could smell again, and his scent, a ripe potpourri of tobacco, wine, turpentine, sweat, hashish, and soap, poured into my senses, and I thought I might collapse. My chest heaved with sobs, but my eyes produced no tears.”

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne with Hat and Necklace, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919

“This is the cemetery of the unborn. (…) Things that have been left undone—unspoken loves, unwritten books and symphonies, unexpressed regrets, unrealized wishes, unsolved mysteries, unsatisfied hunger… (…) Things unfinished all end up here in this graveyard, where they remain until they either disintegrate or return to life, drifting about in the wind in hopes someone will catch them.”

 

Edward Okuń, Four Strings of a Violin, 1914

Jeanne Hébuterne played the violin and I really love the motif of the violin which is repeated throughout the novel; Jeanne’s memories of taking violin classes, Jeanne taking the violin as the one thing she can bring to the other world and the ghostly sounds of violin in the air:

Nothing  I  cared  about—except  my  violin—which the gallery thieves had abandoned on my worktable. I reached for the handle of the violin case and most amazingly, lifted it up before being swept through the door. Or perhaps it was the soul of the instrument I held in my hand—for the violin case still lay on the table even as I carried it away. But I had no time to puzzle this over. (…) Caressing  the  worn  leather  case  on  my  knees,  I  thought  of  the many times I had taken the horse-drawn omnibus to go to my music lesson with old Maître Schlict on cold rainy days like this, and how I would stop for a cup of hot coffee or chocolate to warm my hands up before my lesson.

“I always loved that hour in winter and would sit  by  the  window,  gazing  out  through  the  dusk,  waiting  for  Modi  to  come  home  from  the  cafés  when  he  was  out  on  business  with  Zbo.  I would take out my violin, which I had brought from my parents’ flat in Rue Amyot and practice a little Schubert, “Death and the Maiden.”But I could never get the opening bars of the first movement to sound quite right. Maître Schlict, my old violin teacher before the war, always said that I was too hesitant in the attack. I needed to learn to be more assertive. I could almost hear that music now…”

Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin: Art Discussions in Arles II

27 Mar

“You’ll never be an artist, Vincent,” announced Gauguin, “until you can look at nature, come back to your studio and paint it in cold blood.”
“I don’t want to paint in cold blood, you idiot. I want to paint in hot blood! That’s why I’m in Arles.”
“All this work you’ve done is only slavish copying from nature. You must learn to work extempore.”
“Extempore! Good God!”

Vincent van Gogh, Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles), c. November 1888

In this post I’ll present you the continuation of the art discussions which Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin had in Arles. You can read the first part of this post here. As I have already said, Vincent van Gogh arrived to Arles in spring of 1888, and in October the same year a fellow painter Paul Gauguin joined him in sunny Provence though not without a bit of hesitation and skepticism. While Vincent admired the older painter and wanted to learn from him, Gauguin arrogantly dismissed Vincent’s ideas about art and criticised his paintings with no shyness. In the first part of their discussion, Gauguin focused on criticising Vincent’s sunflowers and here Gauguin will focus on lecturing Vincent that he will never be a true artist until he can gaze at nature, then return to studio and paint from his memory/imagination rather than directly whilst being in nature. I still cannot fathom the audacity of Gauguin to say such things, but it is interesting to read it. The passages are, as I’ve already said, from Irving Stone’s book “Lust for Life”. Vincent did indeed listen to Gauguin and tried out his advice on painting from memory and the result was the painting you can see above, “Memory of the Garden at Etten” or simply called “Ladies of Arles” which looks different from Van Gogh’s other paintings. It’s vibrant and interesting, but I still prefer his typical style of painting, exhibited in his wheat field with crows and his paintings of sunflowers and starry nights. I do like all the little dots and dashes of red on the woman’s clothes and of turquoise on the cypresses. And now here is the discussion:

The painters whom Gauguin admired, Vincent despised. Vincent’s idols were anathema to Gauguin. They disagreed on every last approach to their craft. Any other subject they might have been able to discuss in a quiet and friendly manner, but painting was the meat and drink of life to them. They fought for their ideas to the last drop of nervous energy. Gauguin had twice Vincent’s brute strength, but Vincent’s lashing excitement left them evenly matched. Even when they discussed things about which they agreed, their arguments were terribly electric. They came out of them with their heads as exhausted as a battery after it has been discharged.
“You’ll never be an artist, Vincent,” announced Gauguin, “until you can look at nature, come back to your studio and paint it in cold blood.”
“I don’t want to paint in cold blood, you idiot. I want to paint in hot blood! That’s why I’m in Arles.”
“All this work you’ve done is only slavish copying from nature. You must learn to work extempore.”
“Extempore! Good God!”
“And another thing; you would have done well to listen to Seurat. Painting is abstract, my boy. It has no room for the stories you tell and the morals you point out.”
“I point out morals? You’re crazy.”
“If you want to preach, Vincent, go back to the ministry. Painting is colour, line, and form; nothing more. The artist can reproduce the decorative in nature, but that’s all.”
“Decorative art,” snorted Vincent. “If that’s all you get out of nature, you ought to go back to the Stock Exchange.”
“If I do, I’ll come hear you preach on Sunday mornings. What do you get out of nature, Brigadier?”
“I get motion, Gauguin, and the rhythm of life.”
“Well, we’re off.”
“When I paint a sun, I want to make people feel it revolving at a terrific rate of speed. Giving off light and heat waves of tremendous power. When I paint a cornfield I want people to feel the atoms within the corn pushing out to their final growth and bursting. When I paint an apple I want people to feel the juice of that apple pushing out against the skin, the seeds at the core striving outward to their own fruition!”
“Vincent, how many times have I told you that a painter must not have theories.”
“Take this vineyard scene, Gauguin. Look out! Those grapes are going to burst and squirt right in your eye. Here, study this ravine. I want to make people feel all the millions of tons of water that have poured down its sides. When I paint the portrait of a man, I want them to feel the entire flow of that man’s life, everything he has seen and done and suffered!”
“What the devil are you driving at?”
“At this, Gauguin. The fields that push up the corn, and the water that rushes down the ravine, the juice of the grape, and the life of a man as it flows past him, are all one and the same thing. The sole unity in life is the unity of rhythm. A rhythm to which we all dance; men, apples, ravines, ploughed fields, carts among the corn, houses, horses, and the sun. The stuff that is in you, Gauguin, will pound through a grape tomorrow, because you and a grape are one. When I paint a peasant labouring in the field, I want people to feel the peasant flowing down into the soil, just as the corn does, and the soil flowing up into the peasant. I want them to feel the sun pouring into the peasant, into the field, into corn, the plough, and the horses, just as they all pour back into the sun. When you begin to feel the universal rhythm in which everything on earth moves, you begin to understand life. That alone is God.”
“Brigadier,” said Gauguin, “vous avez raison!”
Vincent was at the height of his emotion, quivering with febrile excitement. Gauguin’s words struck him like a slap in the face. He stood there gaping foolishly, his mouth hanging open.
“Now what in the world does that mean, ‘Brigadier, you are right?’”
“It means I think it about time we adjourned to the café for an absinthe.”