Tag Archives: London

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…”

Advertisements

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.

Broken Blossoms (1919) – A Lyrical Tale of Love, Idealism and Death

19 May

Today I will talk about my favourite silent film ever, Broken Blossoms (1919), which tells a story of an innocent love between a beautiful waif girl Lucy and a Chinese opium-smoking dreamer Cheng, broken idealism and death, set in the seedy and decaying Limehouse district of London.

D.W. Griffith’s film “Broken Blossoms” first premiered on 13th May 1919, almost a hundred years ago. The introductory title card says: “It is a tale of temple bells, sounding at sunset before the image of Buddha; it is a tale of love and lovers; it is a tale of tears“. It was based on Thomas Burke’s short story “The Chink and the Child” from his collection of short stories called “Limehouse Nights”, first published in 1916, and it tells the story of a sad, helpless and beautiful twelve year old girl called Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish), her loutish and abusive boxer father (Donald Crisp), and a man recently arrived from China, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess), whose dream is “to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.”

I have immediately been attracted to the atmosphere of the film; seedy, dangerous streets and alleys of London’s East End, with poverty-stricken immigrants, thieves and prostitutes, and a little girl wandering the streets all alone, an untainted little blossom whose heart yearns for kindness, gentleness and flowers. The same dark gritty streets have swallowed Cheng’s idealism. He is presented as a naive and romantic opium-smoking idealist and a dreamer, who finds himself too weak to fight evils and injustices that surround him, and instead of spreading the gentle message of Buddha, he wastes time in opium-induced reverie, working in his shop or standing at the corner, lost in his thought, not just powerless against the mud of society, but lying in its dirt.

“The Yellow Man watched Lucy often. The beauty which all Limehouse missed smote him to the heart.” (32:43)

“Lucy’s starved heart aches for the flowers.” (36:38)

Thomas Burke’s literary style is described as a blend of realism and romanticism, and this is exactly the kind of mood that Griffith has created. Throughout the film, the opposites clash and meet; Lucy lives in poverty and is abused mentally and physically and yet she dreams not of wealth and power, but of flowers and kindness, and Cheng is just a shop keeper on the outside, but his mind is always in the state of sweet reverie. Their life-conditions are realistic, but their idealistic friendship and love are so naive and romantic. When the two finally meet in the street, Cheng’s kindness soon grows into innocent adoration for this pretty little thing.

Burke’s fantasy of Limehouse follows in this tradition of an alternative world-turned-upside-down … a French definition of chinoserie that neatly encapsulated the late-Victorian and Edwardian concepts of Chineseness which found expression in the staged Orientalisms of Looking-Glass worlds. (…) In Bakhtinian terms, Chinese Limenhouse presented itself as a place of carnival. The district of Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway are London streets overlaid with the trappings of an alien culture.  The shop windows are filled with arcane products, restaurants are denoted by weird hieroglyphs and serve weirder food. Stragely dressed people and the locality’s dimly lit glooms provoke an early association with theatrical spectacle and grotesquerie, Limehouse is always enveloped in transforming mists and enveloping fogs.” (Thomas Burke’s Dark Chinoiserie: Limehouse Nights and the Queer Spell of Chinatown, by Anna Veronica Witchard)

Sad little Lucy forcing a smile

Here’s a lyrical part from the story describing the moments Cheng saw Lucy and his daydreams about her from then on: “So he would lounge and smoke cheap cigarettes, and sit at his window, from which point he had many times observed the lyrical Lucy. He noticed her casually. Another day, he observed her, not casually. Later, he looked long at her; later still, he began to watch for her and for that strangely provocative something about the toss of the head and the hang of the little blue skirt as it coyly kissed her knee.

Then that beauty which all Limehouse had missed smote Cheng. Straight to his heart it went, and cried itself into his very blood. Thereafter the spirit of poetry broke her blossoms all about his odorous chamber. Nothing was the same. Pennyfields became a happy-lanterned street, and the monotonous fiddle in the house opposite was the music of his fathers. Bits of old songs floated through his mind: little sweet verses of Le Tai-pih, murmuring of plum blossom, rice-field and stream. Day by day he would moon at his window, of shuffle about the streets, lightning to a flame when Lucy would pass and gravely return his quiet regard; and night after night, too, he would dream of a pale, lily-lovely child.

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 1

A quote from the story:

Always the white face was scarred with red, or black-furrowed with tears; always in her steps and in her look was expectation of dread things. (…) Yet, for all the starved face and the transfixed air, there was a lurking beauty about her, a something that called you in the soft curve of her cheek that cried for kisses and was fed with blows, and in the splendid mournfulness that grew in eyes and lips. The brown hair chimed against the pale face, like the rounding of the verse. The blue cotton frock and the broken shoes could not break the loveliness of her slender figure or the shy grace of her movements as she flitted about the squalid alleys of the docks…

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 3

Cheng had seen Lucy many times before, but they have never conversed. Their encounter takes place one evening when Lucy, after being beaten up by her father, weak and vulnerable, aimlessly wanders the dangerous streets at night and somehow finds herself lying on the floor of his shop. When Cheng returns to his shop after going out for noodles and tea, his mind still floating in a vibrant opium dream, he think she too is a product of his altered conscience, but quickly comes to his senses and takes care of her. These are his thoughts upon that sweet unexpected encounter: “O lily-flowers and plum blossoms! O silver streams and dim-starred skies! O wine and roses, song and laughter! For there, kneeling on a mass of rugs, mazed and big-eyed, but understanding, was Lucy … his Lucy … his little maid. Through the dusk she must have felt his intense gaze upon her; for he crouched there, fascinated, staring into the now obscured corer where she knelt.

Breathing in an amber flute to this alabaster cockney girl her love name – White Blossom. (from a title card, at 55.18)

Now, for the first time in her life, Lucy feels safe and loved, and he nurtures her for three nights; showers her with kisses, gentleness and hugs, listens to her sorrows, buys her a doll and flowers, cares for her as if she were indeed a gentle flower found on a road. He dresses her up in beautiful, sumptuous gold and blue fabrics from the far East, thus turning her into a little Chinese princess, he even gives her a love-name: White Blossom. In this pale, frail Cockney girl he found an object of affection and a soul to offer nourishment to. This is where an interesting technical aspect of the film comes from; the scenes in his Oriental fairy-tale bedroom are in a pink-purple colour so they look magical indeed compared to the  which is black and white. His room is a safe haven of beauty.

What he brought to her was love and death. For he sat by her.  He looked at her – reverently, then passionately. He touched her – wistfully yet eagerly. He locked a finger in her wondrous hair. She did not start away; she did not tremble. (…) No, she was not afraid. His yellow hands, his yellow face, his smooth black hair… well, he was the first thing that had ever spoken soft words to her; the first thing that had ever laid hand on her that was not brutal; the first thing that had deferred in manner towards her as though she, too, had a right to live. She knew his words were sweet, though she did not understand them.

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 2

Slowly, softly they mounted the stairs to his room, and with almost an obeisance he entered and drew her in. A bank of cloud raced to the east and a full moon thrust a sharp sword of light upon them. Silence lay over all Pennyfields. With a bird-like movement, she looked up at him – her face alight, her tiny hands upon his coat – clinging, wondering, trusting. He took her hand and kissed it; repeated the kiss upon her cheek and lip and little bosom, twining his fingers in her hair. Docilely, and echoing the smile of his lemon lips in a way that thrilled him almost to laughter, she returned his kisses impetuously, gladly. (…) So they stood in the moonlight, while she told him the story of her father, of her beatings, and starvings, and unhappiness.

After the rapture of their encounter passes, Cheng began to redecorate his little room to make it fit for his White Blossom:

… the clock above the Millwall docks shot twelve crashing notes across the night . When the last echo died, he moved to a cupboard, and from it he drew strange things… formless masses of blue and gold, magical things of silk, and a vessel that was surely Aladdin’s lamp, and a box of spices. He took these robes, and, with tender, reverent fingers, removed from his White Blossom the besmirched rags that covered her, and robed her again, and led her then to the heap of stuff that was his bed, and bestowed her safely. For himself, he squatted on the floor before her, holding one grubby little hand. There he crouched all night, under the lyric moon, sleepless, watchful; and sweet content was his. (…) Weary and trustful, she slept, knowing that the yellow man was kind and that she might sleep with no fear of a steel hand smashing the delicate structure of her dreams.

Here is how the room of his Oriental princess is described in the story:

…and now at last his room was prepared for his princess. It was swept and garnished, and was an apartment worthy a maid who is loved by a poet-prince. There was a bead curtain. There were muslins of pink and white. There were four bowls of flowers, clean, clear flowers to gladden the White Blossom and set off her sharp beauty. And there was a bowl of water, and a sweet lotion for the bruise on her cheek. (…) Cleansed, and robed and calm, she sat before him, perched on the edge of many cushions as on a throne, with all the grace of the child princess in the story. She was a poem. The beauty hidden by neglect and fatigue shone out now more clearly and vividly, and from the head sunning over with curls to the small white feet, now bathed and sandalled, she seemed the living interpretation of a Chinese lyric. And she was his; her sweet self and her prattle, and her birdlike ways were all his own. Oh, beautifully they loved. For two days he held her. Soft caresses from his yellow hands and long, devout kisses were all their demonstration. Each night he would tend her, as might mother to child…

So far, everything seems idyllic; a tale of love, a tale of blossoms, sweet melodies and sweet words spoken in moonlight, in the seedy streets of Limehouse where the warm light of lanterns permeates the eternal mists, but after three dreamy nights, Lucy’s father found out of her whereabouts and was furious to hear that a foreigner, a yellow-man had taken his daughter, even though he himself had never loved her. When Cheng was out to buy more rice, the furious Burrows came to the chamber of White Blossom, smashed all the beautiful porcelain, ripped the muslin curtains, and dragged Lucy by hair downstairs and back to their house… To quote the story: “The temple was empty and desolate; White Blossom was gone.”

There is a famous scene from the film called “The Closet Scene”, which you can watch here, where Lucy is hiding in a closet and her father is trying to smash the door with an axe, and she’s screaming (we can’t hear her of course), but her face expressions reveal the fear she’s feeling. It is said that in reality she was screaming so convincingly that lots of people gathered outside the studio, thinking that there really was something bad going on.

Death of the White Blossom had made life impossible for Cheng too:

The sacrament of his high and holy passion had been profaned; the last sanctuary of the Oriental  – his soul dignity – had been assaulted. The love robes had been torn to ribbons; the veil of his temple cut down. Life was no longer possible; and life without his little lady, his White Blossom, was no longer desirable.

More in the state of deep sadness and despair than anger, Cheng took the frail lifeless little body of Lucy, still warm, to his home, not a soul had seen him in that night of thick velvety river mist and….

He laid her upon the bed, and covered the lily limbs with the blue and yellow silks and strewed upon her a few of the trampled flowers. Then, with more kisses and prayers, he crouched beside her. So, in the ghastly Limehouse morning, they were found – the dead child, and the Chink, kneeling beside her, with a sharp knife gripped in a vice-like hand, its blade far between his ribs.

American screen actress Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) in costume for her role in the MGM film ‘Romola’, an adaptation of George Eliot’s novel, directed by Henry King, 1924

Last spring I watched a lot of Old Hollywood films, in particular I found myself falling in love with silent films and watched a lot of those. I really loved the Gothic suspense mood of “The Sparrows” (1926) starring Mary Pickford, but “Broken Blossoms” is still my favourite silent film. I’ve fancied Lillian over all other silent film actresses for a long time. Mary Pickford is more famous, without a doubt, but she is cheerful, happy-go-lucky, like the Sun, while Lillian’s face exudes melancholy and wistfulness, she is more like the Moon. One line from Rabindranath Tagore comes to my mind whenever I think of Lillian: “Her wistful face haunts my dreams like the rain at night.

Role of the frail and gentle Lucy is typical for Lilian Gish. She said it herself: “I played so many frail, downtrodden little virgins in the films of my youth that I sometimes think I invented that stereotype of a role.” I happen to love the characters of gentle, fragile, helpless, beautiful waif-like virgins, guilty as charged. I know that silent films are not for everyone, but I see them as hidden jewels! I’ve noticed that I pay way more attention while watching a silent film, because the face expressions, gestures and title cards mean way more;  you have to read their feelings from their face, isn’t that wonderful?! I also very much love the fashion aspect of the films; Lillia Gish has the cutest hairstyle, and the same goes for the clothes both she and Mary Pickford are often wearing; hats, frilly dresses, white lace… It is amazing how they were in their twenties and still playing child-parts, while today girls of fifteen are encouraged to look older and more attractive.

In the end, they are both “Broken Blossoms”; broken idealism and broken life. Have you see the film? Read the story? Don’t you think Lillian is a pretty little thing? The film is on Youtube, as are many other silent films, and Thomas Burke’s stories you can read here. I felt so inspired after watching the film again, that I decided to read not just this story, but some other from the collection as well. They are so interesting and lyrical, and despite being set in London, the atmosphere is that of a magical Oriental world. Suddenly everything is about street lamps, mists, blossoms, perfumes, sweet melodies and roses. Here is a quote from another story, “The Sign of the Lamp”: “He talked of a land of lilies and soft blue nights which he had left that he might adventure in strange countries, and see the beauties of the white girls of other lands and learn great things… All these things he told her in successive sweet evenings of June, when Limehouse, was a city of rose and silver, and the odour of exotic spices lured every sense to the secret amiable delights of the pillow.” So alluring, can you resist not reading it?

Claude Monet: London Calling – Absinthe Coloured Weather

22 Jan

Every day in London there is beautiful, absinthe-coloured weather. Is that enough to lure you here?‘ (*) – John Singer Sargent wrote in a letter to Claude Monet, on 28 December 1894.

P.S. This is my 300th post!

1903-04-claude-monet-the-houses-of-parliament-effect-of-fogClaude Monet, The Houses of Parliament (Effect of Fog), 1903-1904

And so Claude Monet arrived to London, drawn by Sargent’s promises of the absinthe coloured weather. ‘Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river….’ – Well, that’s not really what Monet had on mind, but his artistic eyes certainly craved to discover London’s magic. And so they did. There were three sights whose beauty Monet captured on his canvases many times; the Houses of Parliament, Charing Cross Bridge and Waterloo Bridge. This dedication to the subject and endless fascination with the same thing is something I really love about the Impressionists.

This wasn’t Monet’s first stay in England though. He spent some time there from September 1870, just after the outbreak of Franco-Prussian war, to May 1871, but his stay wasn’t particularly productive; he painted only six paintings. He did, however, get acquainted with works of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, and this influenced his later work, especially Turner’s poetic yet turbulent seascapes. He visited London many times since, but this turn-of-the-visits have proven to very special for his art.

1899-1901-claude-monet-waterloo-bridge-overcast-weather-1899-1901Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather, 1899-1901

1903-claude-monet-waterloo-bridge-hazy-sunshine-1903Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, Hazy Sunshine, 1903

Monet hardly spoke a word of English, but that didn’t stop him from attending fancy parties and admiring the English culture and way of life. Even at Givery, he practically lived like an English gentleman, wearing suits made of English wool and eating English breakfast every morning. Monet simply fell in love with London in 1871 and he fantasised about painting Thames again, in a completely different manner. With years his painting style has become more whimsical, relaxed and dreamy. So, what stopped his from returning to England earlier? Well, he was occupied with painting his series of paintings portraying the Cathedral in Rouen and ‘wheatstacks’, but after the Dreyfus Affair, he became disillusioned with his homeland, and felt a need to just go away for a while. It’s interesting to note that Monet supported Zola, while Degas and Renoir, for example, became extreme anti-Dreyfusards.

1904-claude-monet-houses-of-parliament-effect-of-sunlight-in-the-fog-1904Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament, Effect of Sunlight in the Fog, 1904

In September 1899 Monet went on a six-week artistic holiday in England. He settled in the Savoy Hotel, ignoring the expenses, which provided him with great views of south London and the Thames. He went on to return to the same hotel for three months the following year, and in 1901 again. All these months spent in London resulted with his biggest ever series of paintings, and, in my opinion, it is one of the most magical of his series, comparable by beauty only to his water lilies. Claude Monet’s ‘London scenes’ are love poems to London, painted with such delicacy, extraordinary mastery of colours and beautifully captured atmospheric effects.

1903-claude-monet-1840-1926-the-houses-of-parliament-sunset-1903Claude Monet, The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, 1903

Here’s an interesting quote about Monet as a landscape painter:

Few landscape painters had been as inventive or as passionate and few had captured nature’s elusive ways with as much power and poetry. Few also were as individualistic or as moody, and few loved the sea more. Turner, therefore, was Monet’s soulmate and guide as well as a special challenge.‘ (Claude Monet – Life and Art, by Paul Hayes Tucker)

1902-claude-monet-houses-of-parliament-1902Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament, 1902

As much as I admire the beauty of ‘Charing Bridge’ and ‘Waterloo Bridge’ series, my personal favourites are Monet’s dreamy portrayals of the ‘Houses of Parliament’ scenes, I find them so romantically exuberant and Gothic, and dreamy in their fiery reds, pink and purples amalgamating one into one another. Paintings from this series in purplish and pinkish shades are my favourites. ‘Houses of Parliament at Sunset’ down below is one that I really love: the colours are so nocturnal and decadent, the Houses of Parliament are protruding from the descending darkness like wraiths, while the alluring burning orange-pink sun invites the viewer to look on the right side of the canvas. Rich atmosphere present in all these paintings is the result of the ‘smoke from the bituminous coal that Londoners burned at the time that mixed with the moist conditions of the region.’

Monet’s ‘series paintings’ were imagined as studies of objects in a way that each painting shows a variation of colour and light effects. They were based on direct observations of nature, but have turned into dreamy illusions where colour, light and texture play more important roles than capturing the reality. Monet’s painting from his late phase are almost anticipating the fantasies of Abstract Expressionism.

1903-claude-monet-houses-of-parliament-at-sunset-1903Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament at Sunset, 1903

Monet pained The Houses of Parliament in dusks, sunsets and mists, bathed in purples, pinks and blues, and some seventy years later, on 7th June 1977, The Sex Pistols played their anti-monarchy song ‘God Save the Queen’ on the boat, while passing The Houses of Parliament, singing ‘There is no future, England’s dreaming’. Many of them were arrested later.

I can’t help it wonder, if buildings could talk, what kind of stories or poems would their tell us? Culture, music and fashion changes, but they stand in silence for eternity, unless someone decides to destroy them, which sadly often happens. Buildings are witnesses to so many things; from peaks and decays of cultures, riots, gossips, kisses and whispers, laughters and shouting. They know everything, they’re worse than Daily Mail!

1899. Charing Cross Bridge - Claude MonetClaude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, 1899

I remember when I saw the painting ‘Charing Cross Bridge’ in Berlin, and I didn’t think much of it. It seemed so pale, like there’s a gauze veil over it, and I was more drawn to Kirchner’s large canvases of frenzy and anxiety, to notice the simple dreaminess and meditative quality of this painting, woven with lightness, with gorgeous pale blue and the flickering water surface. The simplicity of composition reminds me of the Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, and their way of portraying nature, bridges and rivers.

I have a feeling that, with Monet, the older he got, the better his art was. His early paintings are interesting, no doubt about that, but they look rather conventional and stiff. On the other hand, his London scenes and Water lilies are all capable of inspiring a scale of emotions. He was about sixty years old when he painted those, and older, but I feel that this is the moment his art was truly ripe. That’s the thing that saddens me immensely when I read about an artist who died young, like Modigliani, what would their art develop into?

1900-1901-houses-of-parlilament-sunlight-effect-1900-1901-claude-monetClaude Monet, Houses of Parlilament, Sunlight Effect, 1900-1901

When Monet’s London scenes were exhibited in May 1904, conservative magazine L’Action wrote: ‘In his desire to paint the most complex effects of light Monet seems to have attained the extreme limits of art… He wanted to explore the inexplorable, to express the inexpressible, to build, as the popular expression has it, on the fogs of the Thames! And worse still, he succeeded!’

1900-1901-claude-monet-houses-of-parliament-londonClaude Monet, Houses of Parliament, London, 1900-1901

Do you hear that? London is calling Monet, just like it called Joe Strummer:

London calling, yes, I was there, too
An’ you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!
London calling at the top of the dial
After all this, won’t you give me a smile?
London calling’ (The Clash)*

Witches Round the Cauldron by Daniel Gardner (1775)

5 Nov

When shall we three meet again,

In thunder, in lighting or in rain.‘ (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene I)

by Daniel Gardner, gouache and chalk, 1775Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth, 1775

‘…something wicked this way comes.’

As the eighteenth century slowly approached its end, things were getting darker on the artistic scene. Ghosts, vampires and witches suddenly appeared on canvases of painters such as Henry Fuseli, Goya and William Blake. Dark side of the imagination began to shape works of art as well as literature, and the aesthetic of sublime slowly crept in. This was the answer to the excessive coldness, lightness and rationality of Classicism. In times when this was painted, public tastes were inclined towards the supernatural and Gothic, especially with theatre-goers who loved scenes from Macbeth. ‘Paint the witch!‘ replaced the more barbaric ‘Burn the witch!’.

Although the subject of this scene hints at the later developments of Romanticism, its execution is true to the styles of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, two artists whose style Gardner emulated, and often borrowed ideas for composition and arrangement of figures. This is an utterly charming and dreamy portrayal of three witches from Macbeth. There’s nothing scary or disturbing about it, and these three ladies are certainly prettier than Shakespeare had intended his witches to be, but these are not just three witches, oh no, Gardner actually portrayed three friends, society hostesses, art lovers and supporters of Whig party in this portrait.

The figure on the left, with long brown hair, is Elizabeth Lamb (nee Milbanke), Viscountess Melbourne. Witch on the right, dressed in splendid, sparkly black robe with zodiac symbols on it and tiny golden details, is Anne Seymour Damer (nee Conway) who was also an amateur sculptor. She has a typical black ‘witch’ hat and holds a magic wand in her right hand. In the middle is the most extravagant and well remembered out of all three; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, famous for her beauty, bold fashion statements, gambling and partying (much like Kate Moss today), her affair and an unhappy marriage. Along with a hat, her beautiful head is covered with gauze veil, and while she holds the sumptuous white silk fabric of her dress with one hand, she uses other to throw some herbs or blue flowers in the cauldron. Despite portraying a Shakespearean scene, which is a great task for the imagination, Gardner didn’t really use it, but rather chose to follow the fashion of the day; both in clothing the ‘witches’ wear and the style and composition of the painting itself.

High society lady, writer and diarist Lady Mary Coke (1727-1811) wrote in her diary of ‘the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Melburn, and Mrs Damer all being drawn in one picture in the Characters of the three Witches in Macbeth … They have chosen that Scene where they compose their Cauldron, but instead of “finger of Birth-strangled babe, etc” their Cauldron is composed of roses and carnations and I daresay they think their charmes more irresistible than all the magick of the Witches‘. (*)

Although I find the whole painting aesthetically pleasing, and very fitting for the mood of these post-Halloween days, I must say a thing or two about the brushstrokes and the play of light. Gardner beautifully portrayed their dresses, painting in soft, playful and refined strokes, using gouache and chalk. And the light; see how the bronze cauldron glistens, smoke arises like in a dream, and the reflections of the fire on the gorgeous silk dresses of the witches. I should also mention the possible allegorical meaning of the painting; since all three women were interested in politics and publicly supported the Whig party, it is possible that Gardner painted the cauldron as a symbol of ‘shadowy political machinations as leading members of the Devonshire House circle.’ (*)