Tag Archives: London

Egon Schiele’s Heroin Chic Look – Lipgloss and Cigarettes

17 Mar

The distinctive trashy glamour of Egon Schiele’s nudes is unsettling and alluring at the same time, provocative and eye-catching. His drawings and watercolours of skinny, fragile, starved nymphets who look like they live on lipgloss and cigarettes, made from 1910 to about 1914/15, before the war and before his marriage, encapsulate the heroin chic aesthetic decades before was defined and popularised by models such as Kate Moss. Things that connect these drawings and watercolours are the same mood and aesthetic and the same reaction from the public. Schiele’s portrayal of female form was shocking to the early twentieth century Vienna, and photographs of Kate Moss’s skinny body received the same reaction.

Kate Moss by Corinne Day

In the beginning of this year I watched a new documentary about Egon Schiele called “Egon Schiele: Dangerous Desires (2018)” made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. It which was super cool and I loved it to death, it was hard not to like it: the soundtrack was rock music and the first lines were spoken by Iggy Pop, who clearly appreciates Egon Schiele’s art. One woman says something really interesting in the first two minutes: “If someone were to show you a Schiele watercolour and ask you: ‘when do you think this was done’, I think the answer would be: yesterday.” I partly agree; as a nostalgic person who romanticises the past, I would never believe that something as great could have been painted yesterday, but I agree in that his drawings, great majority of his art, appears not modern but timeless.

I can’t really say “modern” because Schiele wouldn’t agree. In one of his watercolours from prison he wrote: “Kunst kann nicht modern sein; Kunst ist urewig.” or “Art can not be modern, art is primordially eternal.” I don’t think this can be said about all art, but Schiele truly succeeded in creating art that is eternal. When you look at it now, it doesn’t seem out of place, kitschy, or strange, on the contrary, those colours and lines on papers that he held in his hand sometime in 1912 still have so much to say – or scream. And Schiele’s art goes so well with modern music as well, rock music particularly; in his self-portraits of the tormented artist staring right at us from the canvas, you can imagine a streetwise yet vulnerable heroin addict from the song “I’m waiting for the man” by The Velvet Underground, or the raw and trashy sound of The Stooges’s “Raw Power” or the sleek sound of urban alienation from David Bowie’s Berlin-era albums.

Egon Schiele, Nude against coloured background, 1911

I like Schiele’s paintings, and I also enjoy looking at pictures of Kate Moss, particularly those from the 1990s, it’s just an aesthetic thing, I don’t care for her personality or her life choices, although her love life is interesting. I look at a picture only to get a shot of beauty in my veins and possibly a seed to inspire my future reveries. I am certain that Kate Moss would be a perfect model for Schiele. His ideal was a thin, fragile, bony body with that elegantly wasted look; protruding spine and collar bones, under eye circles, ribs peeking under thin layer of skin, strange complexion with patches of unnatural colour…. The heroin chic look that Schiele clearly painted decades before, has become synonymous with Kate Moss whose appearance at the beginning of her career was in stark difference to the perfect and unattainable looks of the supermodels of the previous decade. Calvin Klein spoke in her defense back in the day: “For them, what is real is beautiful—looking plain is beautiful. What is less than perfect is sexy.” Schiele liked strangeness and imperfections and never resorted to idealization.

Kate Moss by Bettina Rheims, 1989

Egon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

Schiele’s models were often girls from the streets, pretty prepubescent street urchins hungry for attention and amusement. He was young and poor and probably couldn’t even afford a proper model, and why would he when these little things were around, looked and behaved unpretentiously and were a good thing to draw. In his book about Egon Schiele, F. Whitford wrote: “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.” The same words could be used to described the teenage Kate Moss; thin, wide-eyed, with full lips and gorgeous high cheek bones, on the pictures taken by Corinne Day for The Face magazine in 1990 she looks innocent and vulnerable, a bit shy, hiding herself behind a straw hat. In 1990 this working class nymphet from Croydon, a drab suburb of London, had already left school, and despite being a rich and famous model today, back then the prospects were bleak and she was in a similar position as the street urchins who posed for Schiele. Her beauty wasn’t yet recognised, but she did attract the attention of some designers very early on such as John Galliano who chose her for his spring/summer collection 1990 and saw her as his “Lolita”; the half-child and half-woman appeal made her stand out.

Kate Moss for Calvin Klein

Kate Moss by Corinne Day, 1993

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

Schiele’s drawings were outrageous and provocative in his day and age just as they are now still. Viennese public had perhaps grown accustomed to Klimt’s nudes, but the vision of the female form that Schiele had presented was a tad too much. Likewise, pictures of Kate shot in the early nineties by a young and ambitious autodidact photographer Corinne Day were considered equally outrageous and accused of perplexing ideas that neither Kate nor Corinne had dreamt of; in the pictures she looked skinny and childlike, but her clothes and poses weren’t childlike at all, mingling sexuality with innocence. Kate Moss’s appearance represented the nihilistic spirit of the decade and a culture that believe in nothing. Hippies had hope, acid and belief in a better world, punks had their anger and outrageous clothes, and nineties seemingly had nothing, to quote Manic Street Preachers: “I know I believe in nothing, but it’s my nothing”.

Pictures above by Corinne Day for The Face magazine, July 1990

Over the ocean, grunge bands expressed their dissatisfaction and in Manchester the youth tuned out in the reviving sounds of psychedelia of bands such as The Stone Roses, The Charlatans and The Happy Mondays. Kate’s “elegantly waisted” look was perfect for Corinne Day’s aims in photography, for her love of realism. A new philosophy required a new look, and strong, over the top and glamorous models of the 1980s were passé. Just like Egon Schiele in his nudes and self-portraits, Corinne Day’s photographs penetrate to the bare essence and expose the truth, and what lies within. Schiele freed the women from Klimt’s suffocating gold and poisonous flowers, and focused on the psychology of their faces. In a similar way, Day freed the model from the excessiveness of shoulder pads and too much blush. Calvin Klein said “For me, Kate’s body represented closing the door on the excessiveness of the ’80s”.

Here is an expert from Maureen Callahan’s book “Champagne Supernovas“: “The culture at large didn’t see Kate that way. Up against the skyscraper supermodels of the ’80s, their very perfection a comment on American supremacy, a small-boned, flat-chested model like Kate Moss was heresy. Someone her size hadn’t been seen since Twiggy in the ’60s; suddenly, Kate and Calvin Klein were accused of promoting anorexia, heroin use, child pornography, and the downfall of Western civilization. She was on the sides of buses, kiosks, and pay phones, naked and draped across a velvet sofa in a ramshackle room, “FEED ME” often scrawled across the ad by protesters.

Under Exposure, Kate Moss by Corinne Day for Vogue UK, June 1993

Here is another interesting passage from Callahan’s book “Champagne Supernovas” about Corinne Day’s photo shoot with Kate Moss: “When British Vogue commissioned Corinne for a lingerie shoot with Kate, Corinne insisted on creative control. She shot in Kate’s London apartment and staged it to look like her own flat: modest and cold, with white walls and gray carpet, exposed wiring, a mattress on the floor. Kate had been crying after a fight with her boyfriend, and Corinne exploited the juxtaposition of distress and seduction, putting Kate in tiny cotton tanks and silk underwear, some of it from a sex shop on Brewer Street. In the finished editorial, Kate, silhouetted by a string of multicolored Christmas lights, looked frail and lost.

Egon Schiele, Nude With Blue Stockings Bending Forward, 1912

To end, here are some lyrics from the song which inspired me to write this post in the first place: “Lipgloss” by Pulp:

No wonder you’re looking thin,
When all that you live on is lipgloss and cigarettes.
And scraps at the end of the day when he’s given the rest,
To someone with long black hair.
All those nights up making such a mess of the bed.
Oh you never ever want to go home.

Egon Schiele, Sitting Female Nude with Yellow Blanket, 1910

Egon Schiele, Lovemaking, 1915

 

Kate Moss and Johnny Depp by Annie Leibovitz, 1994

Egon Schiele, Lovers – Self-Portrait With Wally, c. 1914-1915, gouache and pencil on paper

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William Orpen – The Mirror: Why live in the world when you can live in your head?

13 Feb

William Orpen, The Mirror, 1900

This painting keeps haunting me. I don’t quite know why because it’s a really simple portrait, nothing special about it at first sight. I discovered it months ago, and it just lingers in my memory. Every once in a while I remember it and then I gaze it for some time. Then I forget it, and a week passes and then I remember it again and it’s a never ending cycle. The space in the painting isn’t cluttered with many things that tire our eyes. The colours are neutral, greys, black and olive green, nothing overwhelming. The simple arrangement of objects in a painting, with a chest of drawers, a round mirror on the wall and a girl sitting on a chair makes for a simple composition. It also makes it look as if the painter didn’t just capture the space as it was, although it is accurate, but rather chose the objects to make the painting look aesthetically appealing. William Orpen, an Irish painter, was very young when he painted “The Mirror”, just twenty-two years old. He had just recently finished his schooling at the Slate School of Art in London (he studied there from 1897 to 1899), and with this painting he was paying homage to Whistler’s famous “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2” or simply A Portrait of the Artist’s Mother painted in 1871. The round mirror on the wall which shows the artist painting is an obvious reference to “The Arnolfini Portrait” painted by Jan van Eyck. But Emily seems to belong to an entirely different world to the one where Orpen is painting. As if the space around her is disappearing and she remains alone on the stage of her life, hiding from us with that hat.

“The Mirror” was painted in Orpen’s lodgings and the model was a girl called Emily Scobel who modeled at the Slade School and was at the time engaged to Orpen, but broke off the engagement the following year and eventually married someone else. She was the main model for Orpen’s early works. With the simple composition and sombre colours, Orpen put a focus on Emily’s face because that’s where the real drama takes place. Her face is very captivating to me and it seems to say so much. Half hidden in the shade of her lovely hat, the same hat you can see in a drawing of Emily that Orpen made in 1901, her eyes are full of doubt and slight disappointment; I feel like she’s come to the point where she doesn’t know what to do with her life and she’s staring into the grey future with worrying eyes that seem to say: and what now? Her shoulders are sloping and her hands are clasped in her laps. She is sitting there in her long black skirt and white blouse, but her thoughts are somewhere else. Cheeks of her round face are pink as roses, but her lips pressed together are hiding secrets that she is hesitant to tell us. When I look at her face, and I have gazed at it for quite some time on different occasions, the lyrics to the Pulp’s song “Monday Morning” comes to mind:

There’s nothing to do so you just stay in bed,

Oh poor thing,

Why live in the world when you can live in your head?

 

Mmm when you can go out late from Monday,

Till Saturday turns into Sunday,

And now you’re back here at Monday,

So we can do it all over again.

And you go aah ah ah

I want a refund,

I want a light,

I want a reason,

To make it through the night, alright.

 

And so you finally left school,

So now what are you going to do?

Now you’re so grown up,

Yeah you’re oh oh oh oh oh so mature oh.

William Orpen, A Study – Emily Scobel, 1901, red chalk, graphite and grey wash

This interesting red chalk study of Emily was used to illustrate an article written about Orpen in August 1901 in a magazine called “The Artist”. Not much is known about Emily, and if it wasn’t for her connection with Orpen and her modelling at the Slade School of Art, she would have probably been forgotten in history. She was born sometime in 1877 and in the 1901 UK census, she was listed as a twenty-four year old servant living in Lewisham, London, working for the Churchward family along with a girl called Mary Scobel, who was twenty-two years old at the time and possibly her sister or cousin.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal – Love Kept My Heart In a Song of Joy

3 Feb

In this post we’ll take a look at some drawings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of himself posing for his lover and muse Elizabeth Siddal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, D. G. Rossetti Sitting to Elizabeth Siddal, September 1853, pen and ink shaded with the finger on writing paper

It’s a well-known fact that Elizabeth Siddal posed for the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but it might surprise you that Rossetti was a model himself, not professionally though, but in this instance to his lover Elizabeth. Seems that the artist-muse relationship was a dynamic one with these two. In late 1852 Rossetti found himself a flat at 14 Chatham Place in Blackfriars in London, a place which no longer exists today. It was near the river Thames and near Southwark where Elizabeth lived. It was around the same time that Rossetti decided to become Lizzie’s art teacher. Despite coming from lower social class, Lizzie had a keen interest in the art; she read poetry that she could get her hands on and she dabbled in drawing too. From that time on, Rossetti even refers to Lizzie as his ‘pupil’ in the letters he wrote to acquaintances, making their relationship seem far more formal in nature than it was in reality as Lizzie was by that time a regular visitor at Chatham Place, even when Rossetti was away.

Still, Rossetti’s offer to tutor her in drawing killed two birds with one stone: “The offer to teach her was intended kindly and genuinely – Rossetti always believed Lizzie had a prodigious  undiscovered talent – but it had also the extra attraction for him of providing an ideal excuse for not needing to place their relationship on a more permanent, or official, footing.” (Lucinda Hawksley; Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel) Rossetti’s simple pen and ink drawing “D. G. Rossetti Sitting to Elizabeth Siddal” dates back to this early, still happy, phase of their relationship and shows a intimate moment of two artists at home at Chatham Place; Rossetti is posing and Lizzie is drawing him. it seems to have been sketched quickly, is intimate and sincere. I find it hard to imagine someone as arrogant and big-headed as Rossetti in an obedient role of an artist’s model, sitting quietly and not doing anything. And yet in the drawing he seems quite relaxed, gazing at Lizzie while she is gazing at him.

Lizzie Siddal’s love poetry is mostly sad, but some verses reveal the joy of love that she had experienced in her relationship with Rossetti, such as these verses from the poem “The Passing of Love” which might be about similar moments of quiet joy that Rossetti had captured in his drawings, just two of them alone at home, enjoying the love they have; love which keeps one warm even in the coldest winds of winter, love that makes one blind to everything else:

“Love kept my heart in a song of joy,
My pulses quivered to the tune;
The coldest blasts of winter blew
Upon me like sweet airs in June.

Love held me joyful through the day
And dreaming ever through the night;
No evil thing could come to me,
My spirit was so light.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal Seated at an Easel, 1852

Nature in Syd Barrett’s Songs

6 Jan

In lyrics Syd Barrett wrote for Pink Floyd and his two solo albums, he crated a tapestry of images, moods, fragrances and colours that change from vibrancy and childlike whimsicality of early psychedelia to more sombre, tinged with melancholy tunes that smell of withered flowers, last summer sunsets and have that after party mood when the guests are gone, the music stops and solitude remains. In many of his songs, images from nature serve to mirror the state of his soul, his emotions and his loneliness.

“Jiving on down to the beach to see the blue and the gray
Seems to be all and it’s rosy-it’s a beautiful day!”

(Gigolo Aunt)

John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894, detail

Syd Barrett was the imaginative and stylish individual behind the early Pink Floyd. He also went on to have a brief solo career and released two albums in 1970; “The Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett” which mostly feature his melancholy voice and guitar, mirroring the dark and sad waters of his soul. Although the mood of Syd’s lyrics changes from the early ones which are fun and quirky, and later ones which tend to be more mystical and introspective, there is a theme which lingers throughout Syd’s poetry – nature.

The reason behind the frequency of nature as a topic of Syd’s lyrics is tied to his childhood; where he grew up and how he grew up. Syd was part of the baby boom generation and grew up in a safe and clean middle-class neighbourhood in Cambridge where his father worked as a pathologist. Unlike Morrissey, for example, whose early memories are tied to the dark and grim streets of Manchester and a red brick house which he can never go back to, the stage of Syd’s early memories is a lovely Victorian house where mum read fairy-tales and the arts were appreciated. Despite being only an hour away from London, Cambridge was, at the time, still a quaint town where myths and reality lived in harmony.

Constant Puyo, 1903.

In the book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”, the author Julian Palacious describes the area as a”bleak land rife with myth; a land where one can see the ruins of monasteries and abbeys looming through the heavy autumn fog, the spring of the Nine Wells associated with druids and witchcraft, a place where cold winters bloom into chill and damp springs and violet flowers fill the meadow all the way to the Beechwoods, a place of fairy ring mushrooms and willow trees gently touching the surface of the river Cam with their long yellow branches; all in all a setting ideal for a psychedelic schoolgirl to explore the secrets that nature beholds and float down the river forever and ever like a modern Ophelia: Syd conjured the very thing in his song “See Emily Play”. Palacios further says that “The Fens were rumoured to be the haunt of lost souls, witches, and web-footed peasants”, thus mingling the vivid Celtic past and mystic of nature with everyday suburban reality.

Arthur Rackham illustration for The Old Woman in the Wood from The Grimm’s Fairy Tales

In his book “Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head”, Rob Chapman also comments on nature being a common theme in Syd’s lyrics “Like Lear, Syd would populate his lyrics with imagery drawn from botany , zoology and nature. Lear and Caroll influenced the clarity of his lyrics too…”, adding that Syd “grew up surrounded by Fen countryside, absorbed in pastoral pursuits and Arcadian literature, and frequently drew upon nature for the subject matter of his artwork. His father was a keen amateur botanist and the entire family were be taken for Sunday morning jaunts to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. The experience would be ingrained and absorbed from an early age.” We might say that nature was Syd’s first love, one which came before painting and music, and one which stayed much longer, even in his old age when he tended to the roses in his garden.

Photo found here.

In his early writings for Pink Floyd, nature is the setting of Syd’s psychedelic imaginings. In one song from their first album, “Flaming”, a very cheerful tune, nature comes alive and the meadow is one big playground. The lyrics bring to mind whimsicality of Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “Alone in the clouds all blue/ Lying on an eiderdown/ (…) Lazing in the foggy dew/ Sitting on a unicorn./ No fair, you can’t hear me/ But I can you./ Watching buttercups cup the light/ Sleeping on a dandelion.” Through his perceptions of nature, Syd paints us the landscapes of his soul, through the sounds we see its changing colours from yellow, gentle green and pink, to greys, dusty pinks and faded blues.

The first hint of the darkness to come can be traced in the lyrics of “The Scarecrow” where a solitary scarecrow standing in the middle of a golden barley fields brings to mind the sad landscapes that Vincent van Gogh had painted near the end of his life. Another song, “Octopus” from his first solo album, mingles the cheerfulness of his early days with a premonition of the madness that was to come: “Isn’t it good to be lost in the wood/ Isn’t it bad so quiet there, in the wood/ Meant even less to me than I thought… the seas will reach and always seep/ So high you go, so low you creep/ the wind it blows in tropical heat”. One time Syd was on holiday with his family in Wales, he was but a little boy, and he wandered off into the forest and was lost for hours.

“The land in silence stands” (Swan Lee)

And the landscape turns melancholy; the gates of childhood are closed, dandelions have withered and unicorns are nowhere to be found… the dark sea of adulthood is sad and mute as the grave, and its shore desolate and unpromising. Lost hopes and lamentation at the sudden awakening. There isn’t a song which better paints a picture of Syd’s mind at the time than “Wined and Dined” whose lyrics and melody both recall happier times and lament at the sadness that just doesn’t go away:

“Only last summer, it’s not so long ago
Just last summer, now musk winds blow…”

Melodies and lyrics of Syd’s solo albums bring to mind not the pictures of meadows and flowers, but scenes of isolation; murky waters, birds flying away, broken pier, trees are silent and lonely… Syd shows an acute awareness of what is going on around him. As a lyricist, and a poet too, Syd used images of nature as symbols for his states of mind and ways of expressing feelings imaginatively and indirectly; he is painting landscapes with his words which mirror the states of his soul.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

Here are some interesting lines from his song “She took a long cold look” from “The Madcap Laughs”, the image of the broker pier, wavy sea and water streaming over him are striking:

“a broken pier on the wavy sea
she wonders why for all she wants to see…
But I got up and I stomped around
and hid the piece where the trees touch the ground…

And looking high up into the sky
I breathe as the water streams over me…”

Picture found here.

A beautiful song “Opel” has long sad solos and a sense of isolation lingers throughout it, especially haunting are the last lines “I’m trying to find you” sang in his distant voice and accompanied by his guitar:

“On a distant shore, miles from land
Stands the ebony totem in ebony sand
A dream in a mist of grey…
On a far distant shore…

The pebble that stood alone
And driftwood lies half buried
Warm shallow waters sweep shells
So the cockles shine…

I’m trying
I’m trying to find you!
To find you
I’m living, I’m giving,
To find you, To find you…”

William John Montaigne – The Imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth

18 Nov

“She sits in her red tower – and dreams.”

(Virginia Woolf, from a letter to Ethel Smyth written c. January 1935)

William John Montaigne (1820-1902), The Imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth, 1866

A young angelic faced maiden is standing by the window in a small chamber in the Tower of London. Our eyes are instantly captivated by her gorgeous dress; so sumptuous and so vibrantly red with golden detailing on the bodice, puffed ‘Juliet’ sleeves, delicate white ruffles around her slender neck, and a shining silk petticoat which falls beautifully and creases majestically, bringing to mind the splendour of the dresses painted by Van Dyck in his portraits of the seventeenth century court ladies. Apart from the beautiful vibrant gown, our eyes are captivated by her face which reveals an inner turmoil. So pale and delicate, almost doll-like with sad pink-lidded eyes and full pouting mouth. Wistfulness of her gaze reveals her thoughts and worries. So tall, thin, elegant, and regal she seems to is in that stuffy old chamber. She seemed to have been writing something on the wooden wall, words unbeknownst to us, but something made her stop and her hand gesture, resting on her forehead, signifies this overwhelming worry. This fiery red-haired girl is the twenty year old Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, a younger Protestant sister was a thorn in the eye to the Catholic Mary, daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, and when Wyatt’s rebellion broke out early in 1554, Mary wasted not a second in trying to accuse Elizabeth of conspiracy. Elizabeth was questioned at court about her involvement with the rebellion and despite having protested her innocence, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two months. All sorts of thoughts must have been haunting her mind when she was imprisoned on the 18th March 1554. Her future was uncertain, what awaited her was a possible death, and, moreover, the Tower of London was the same place where her mother, Anne Boleyn, had spent her last days before being accused of witchcraft and adultery and then executed. Was her mother’s spirit there to comfort her, in blue velvety night when the full moon shone through the tall windows?

In this painting, young and pretty historical figure is facing the same inner drama, fear and uncertainty that some other heroines have faced; Joan of Arc and Lady Jane Grey to name a few. Romanticism loved romanticising martyrs and beautiful brave heroines facing tragedies, and Victorian painting brought this genre on an entirely new level. William John Montaigne was a Victorian era painter and such a scene is perfectly suited to Victorian tastes, but the wonderful execution and striking colours give it a lasting value, it’s not to be forgotten easily. Still, Montaigne’s painting style here has a lot in common with Pre-Raphaelites too, more than the sentimental mainstream Victorian art. The composition with the girl standing by the window, looking worries and dressed in a vibrant dress, brings to mind John Everett Millais’ “Marianna”. More similarities are found in the manner in which Montaigne’s painting was painted, using intense colours and portraying intense genuine feeling, and being attentive to detailing.

For anyone interested in the political situation behind Elizabeth’s imprisonment and even her letter, you can read an interesting article here.

John Singer Sargent – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

2 Jun

Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is one exceedingly beautiful, vivacious and dreamy painting set in a resplendent garden covered with a flimsy veil of purple dusk in late summer, August perhaps, when nature is at its most vulnerable and autumn creeps in bringing chill evenings and morning mists, and starts adorning the landscape with a melancholic beauty. Two little girls dressed in white gowns are playing with Chinese lanterns in this magical “secret” garden where lilies, carnations and roses appear enlivened by the nocturnal air and soft caresses of twilight.

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-86

This is my favourite painting at the moment and despite its, at first sight obvious, aesthetic appeal, it is much more than a visual delight. It awakens my every sense; I can almost hear the laughter of the fair-haired girls as they watch the lanterns with admiration and curiosity; and the enchanting melodies sung by the flowers; I can smell the thick and sweet fragrance of carnations, dearer to me than any perfume – I might pick a few for my vase; and I can almost feel the grass tickling my legs, oh it makes me giggle…

Gentle blades of grass seem to dance in the sweet, but fleeting melody of the dusk. White lilies laugh, their whiteness overpowering the shine of the lanterns, and relish in throwing mischievous glances around the garden, spreading gossips. Pink roses that spent their days in daydreams, have now awoken, keen not to miss all the fun that the night has to offer. Pretty yellow carnations, with thousands of little petals, each adorned with a divine perfume, are naughty little things. Girls’ white dresses, glistening in pink overtones from the dusky light, flutter in the evening breeze. Very soon, a game will begin; a game in which lanterns and moonbeams will be competing in beauty and splendour… As dusk turns into night, the lights of the moon will colour the garden in silver, secrets and dreams… When all is quiet and children are asleep, the flowers and the moon will converse. If you’re eager to know the mysteries of their language I suggest you to follow the trail of rose petals and silver all the way to one of the famous opium dens in Victorian era Limehouse, and once there, lie on the soft oriental cushions that glisten in dim lights and smokes arising and dancing in the tepid air, and wait for Morpheus to visit your soul in a slumber, for we all know that the poppy seeds never lie.

This painting is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it also reminds me of all sorts of things; first on the magical garden in the film Coraline (2009) where flowers are alive and naughty, and cat talks, then to the film Secret Garden (1993) which is based on book I’ve not yet read, and also on Syd Barrett and the lyrics to some of his song;”Flaming” and “Wined and Dined”.

John Singer Sargent, Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884

This is just an utterly beautiful and dreamy painting, but its technical aspects are equally interesting. First of all, the details and the very fine brushwork are amazing, and they irresistibly remind us of Pre-Raphaelites, and we know from the letters that Sargent was obsessed with them since the autumn of 1883, which he spent in Sienna.

The inspiration for the painting comes not from pure imagination but from a real event; one evening, in September 1885, he was sailing on a boat down the Thames with a friend and he saw Chinese lanterns glowing among trees and lilies. That special velvety pink-purplish dusky colour palette was achieved by directly gazing at nature in dusk, which meant it took him an awful lot of time to actually finish the painting. It was painted “en plein air” or “outdoors” which was typical for the Impressionists but uncommon for Sargent. He painted it in two stages; first from September to early November of 1885, and then in the late summer of 1886, and finished it sometime in October 1886. He spent only a few minutes painting each evening, at dusk, capturing its purplish glow, and then continue the next evening. He found the process of painting difficult, writing to his sister Emily: “Impossible brilliant colours of flowers and lamps and brightest green lawn background. Paints are not bright enough, & then the effect only lasts ten minutes.” And when autumn came, he would use fake flowers instead of real ones.

Two girls in the paintings are the 11-year old Dolly on the left, and her sister Polly, seven years old at the time; daughters of Sargent’s friend and an illustrator Frederick Barnard. They were chosen because of their hair colour. The original model was a 5-year old dark-haired Katherine, daughter of the painter Francis David Millet, and she was allegedly very upset that Sargent had replaced her. Poor girl! Also, the lovely title of the paintings comes from the refrain of the song “Ye Shepherds Tell Me” by Joseph Mazzinghi.

John Singer Sargent, Study for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, 1885, oil on canvas, 72.4 x 49.5 cm, Digital image courtesy of private collection (Yale 875)

“Garden Study of the Vickers Children” is a some kind of a draught, a rehearsal for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”; both paintings were painted en plein air and both show children in a garden; childhood innocence was a theme often exploited in the arts of the 19th century because it appealed to the Victorian sentiments immensely, and both show the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. However, in “Vickers Children” he uses bolder brushstrokes and the colour palette is all but magical; dull white, green and black. Sargent is said to have made more studies for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” than he did for any other of his paintings. Some of these studies you can see here, and they are simply gorgeous, they have such ardour and liveliness and there’s a real magic coming from those quick, visible brushstrokes; look at those lanterns, shaped in swift, round strokes of warm magical colours, and quick ones for the blades of grass and tints of rich red for flowers, ah…. This is the beauty that Dante must have had in mind when he said “Beauty awakens the soul to act.” These paintings awaken my soul!

Here you can listen a composition by Meilyr Jones inspired by this painting. Can you spare a second to think just how exciting it is to make a composition inspired by a painting, and such a beautiful painting?!

John Singer Sargent, Study for “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, 1885, oil on canvas, 59.7 x 49.5 cm, Digital image courtesy of private collection (Yale 872)

The scene irresistibly reminds me of John Everett Millais’s beautiful painting “Autumn Leaves”; both are very detailed with fine brushstrokes, set in a fleeting moment of the day – dusk, and show girls in nature, just in different seasons. Sargent’s painting is “magic”, while Millais’s is “melancholy”. Still, I feel a touch of sadness behind Sargent’s dreamy garden scene, brought on by the understanding of its transience and the fleeting nature of everything that is beautiful and magical in this world. Dusk lasts so shortly, and for a moment its charm will be replaced by darkness and chill air of night; Summer – which gives nature vivacity, colours and joy, will fall into the decadence of autumn. Unveil this beauty, the glow of lanterns and the fragrance of flowers, and you shall see decay – the garden in its future barren winter state. First the yellow leaves, then the white snowflakes, will cover the places where roses grew and nightingales sang their songs of love and longing; to quote Heinrich Heine:

“Over my bed a strange tree gleams

And there a nightingale is loud.

 She sings of love, love only . . .

I hear it, even in dreams.”

And girls who are now innocent children will became adults, insensitive towards the beauty they once gleefully inhabited.

The very first glance at Sargent’s painting reminded me of this sentence from the book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”: “‘Wined and Dined’ has an undertow of sadness, sung in the most fragile of voices, lingering in twilight at an August garden party he never wanted to leave.” That beautiful, sad and poignant song dates from Syd’s days in Cambridge, when he was a happy man and life was idyllic, all “white lace and promises”, just like in the song of The Carpenters. This magical garden scene where flowers giggle, gossip and chatter in the purple veil of dusk, and lanterns glow ever so brightly is what I imagine Syd was in his mind; the August party he never wanted to leave… Thinking about it always makes me cry, it is so very sad. That “undertow of sadness”, this gentle fleetingness of the moment is exactly what I see in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” and in all of Syd’s songs.

In the acid-laced song “Flaming”, Syd sings of “watching buttercups cup the light, sleeping on a dandelion and screaming through the starlit sky” creating a visual scene that matches Sargent’s painting in its magic, but this childlike cheerfulness descended into a sad, wistful elegy to better days, “Wined and Dined“(version on the “Opel” sounds especially sad and poignant):

Wined and dined
Oh it seemed just like a dream
Girl was so kind
Kind of love I’d never seen

Only last summer, it’s not so long ago
Just last summer, now musk winds blow…

Move the flimsy veil from beauty, melancholy thou shall find.

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856

They are things which are so intensely beautiful that I am not sure whether they produce as much pleasure as pain. They fill the heart with delight and longings all at once – such is the effect this painting has on me; first it lures me, and then it saddens me… But hush now, hush, reality, and let me enjoy the sweetness of this magical garden for another moment… Oh yes, I can feel the softness of the grass, see the lights of the lanterns, smell the carnations, can you?

Elizabeth Siddal – All changes pass me like a dream

23 May

Famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his beautiful melancholic muse, Elizabeth Siddal, who was the walking epitome of Pre-Raphaelite beauty with her lavish masses of coppery golden hair, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes and heavy-lidded gaze, married on the 23th May 1860 in the seaside town of Hastings. Last year on their wedding anniversary, I posted one Rossetti’s poems, and this year here’s one called “Love and Hate” by Lizzie herself.

I remember when I fell in love with Pre-Raphaelites, in August 2014, in one of those afternoons of late summer, rain had lingered for days, sky was coloured in greys, chill air in twilight seemed to whisper that autumn is coming, and every time I picked red rosebuds I treasured them as if they were the season’s last jewels, my soul already soaked in that special combination of melancholy and sweetness which occurs only in autumn when rustling leaves bring me delight and yet I feel overwhelmed by the transience of everything in nature and our lives of humans – it was in those days that I gazed for long hours at Millais’s beautiful Ophelia and idealised the image of a drowned girl, and the red-haired maiden who posed for the painting, reading about her destiny and slowly discovering her poetry, laced with sadness, its verses spoke of love and death. A particular verse has been my favourite since those days, I have it written on my wall, and I almost feel it etched into my soul:

“All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

Lizzie Siddal posed for Ophelia and died an equally tragic death (is there a non-tragic death?); she overdosed on laudanum. Onyx black poppy seeds from that fragile yet passionate red flower, lulled her to eternal sleep. Rossetti dramatically buried his book of poems with her coffin, only to have it exhumed years later. Their tumulus relationship was the main source of inspiration for her poetry. I can understand her sadness, but Rossetti’s infidelities I cannot. With that beautiful gem at home, why on earth would he ever want to spend time with other women? Wasn’t his idol Dante content with just daydreaming about Beatrice?

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52

Love and Hate

Ope not thy lips, thou foolish one,
Nor turn to me thy face;
The blasts of heaven shall strike thee down
Ere I will give thee grace.

Take thou thy shadow from my path,
Nor turn to me and pray;
The wild wild winds thy dirge may sing
Ere I will bid thee stay.

Turn thou away thy false dark eyes,
Nor gaze upon my face;
Great love I bore thee: now great hate
Sits grimly in its place.

All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.