Tag Archives: Matisse

Absinthe Faces: Louis Anquetin and Matisse

21 May

“Seek for the boldest colour possible, content is irrelevant.”

(Henri Matisse)

Louis Anquetin, Girl Reading a Newspaper, 1890, pastel on paper

These two paintings, Louis Anquetin’s pastel “Girl Reading a Newspaper” and Henri Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat” were painted by different artists and are fifteen years apart, but both show the same thing; a half-length portrait of a woman wearing a hat. A portrait of a woman, even a woman wearing a hat, is not an uncommon things in the art, but the thing that connects these two paintings and makes them so unique is the colour. And not just any colour, but one colour in particular: the vibrant, radiant, glowing turquoise shade which, even if present in smaller quantities on canvas, nonetheless seduces the viewer and blinds him with intensity.

Anquetin’s pastel shows a fashionably dressed woman seen from the profile reading the newspapers. Thin lips pressed together and a slightly long, pointed nose give a disdainful, uninterested appeal to her face; her newspapers are more interesting than whatever else is going on around her. Her auburn hair and eerily pale skin, almost glowingly white like moonlight are contrasting beautifully with the domineering shades of turquoise and teal. The colour seems so unbelievably radiant and glowing, like some strange tropical flower or a bug with an iridescent hard shell. When I first beheld this portrait, I thought: this seems like a world seen through an absinthe glass! Even her eyelids have a turquoise shade, her skin is slightly blueish, her newspapers are vibrantly turquoise and there’s even some turquoise on the ribbons of her hat. Interestingly, this pastel was known for many years by the title “The Absinthe Drinker” which has proved to be incorrect, but the colours would surely justify such a title. This painting was shown at the exhibition in 1906. Anquetin’s paintings usually feature scenes of night life, the wild, gaudy and gay underground of fin de siecle so the connection of this particular colour with absinth is very suitable.

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905

Nothing I have seen can surpass the vibrant, absinthe-coloured radiance of this pastel by Anquetin, but this well-known painting by Henri Matisse called “Woman with a Hat”, exhibited infamously at the Salon d’Automne in 1905, has the similar shades of untamed pure colour which doesn’t match the reality. Matisse’s wife Amélie posed for the painting and in real life she was wearing a black dress, but in the mind of her painter husband, the simple black dress was transformed into a jungle of colours which uplift the soul and excite the eyes and among them are the turquoise and teal shades which we’ve seen in Anquetin’s portrait. Matisse is dear to me and that is mostly due to his attitude towards colour. I just love to see an artist being untamed when it comes to colours; no lines, no shading, no imitating the colour in nature, just wild colours on canvas, colour for the colour’s sake. There is something so liberating about that. I love how the face, the dress and the hat in Matisse’s portrait of his wife are all just patches of colours, an expressive and exciting mosaic of shapes. There is a turquoise line contouring the woman’s nose and one on her forehead, how exciting is that!?

Gustav Klimt – The Virgin

3 Mar

Today we’ll take a look at Klimt’s painting “The Virgin”, to me, his most vibrant and psychedelic work which signifies a stylistic change in his art and deals with a theme of girl’s sensual awakening. I will start with this ode to virginity from the novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders” written in 1932 (but published in 1945) by a Czech Surrealist writer Vítězslav Nezval. Nezval was a teenage boy when Klimt and Shiele were created their works, and in those days they were all compatriots. Valerie is a seventeen year old girl who lives in this strange little village with her strange aunt, the atmosphere is reminiscent of Gothic novels and it’s more romantic than surrealist actually. One night she, along with other village virgins, goes to a sermon where a strange priest is instructing the virgins on how they should behave: “Oh virgin, do you know who you are? (…) You are an as yet uncleft pomegranate. You are a shell in which the future ages will ring. You are a bud which will burst open when the time is ripe. You are a little rose-petal floating on  the tempestuous ocean. You are a peach oozing red blood…”

Gustav Klimt, The Virgin, 1913

I am absolutely captivated by the colours, shapes and patterns in this painting. This isn’t Klimt’s “golden phase”, this is his colourful psychedelic phase, and it proved to be his last stylistic change before he died in February 1918. Klimt on acid; borrowing purples and yellows from Matisse and Bonnard, flowers and patterns from Japanese textiles and kimonos, daydreaming of the mosaics of Ravenna. The waterfall of colours is joyfully flickering, laughing, bursting with excitement, dancing and swirling around the pale maidens who are languidly floating in a dreamy kaleidoscopic world of their own; a floating island of love, a resplendent Cythera of their own. The rigor mortis of “The Kiss”, his most famous work and a representative of his golden phase, is now a thing of the past. Though the space is still flat and ornamental, it appears far more lively because there’s so much more going on; in a pyramidal composition six female figures are intertwined, their poses and face expressions differ, but they all have the same flesh; their skin is very pale with patches of blue and pink, which brings to mind Schiele’s nudes. Here and there breasts are protruding. They are not as seductive as the femme fatales in his earlier works were, here the colour is what captures all our attention. While the girls all possess similar features and doll-like faces, the pattern appears very unique and well planned. Negating the figure and giving free reign to the pattern might be a step towards abstract art.

Nonetheless, Klimt’s focus here is still on women, without a doubt his favourite thing to paint, and the face in the middle, right above that wave of purple, is the face that my mind keep coming back to. That is her – the Virgin. Her white mask-like face with closed eyes seems peaceful with a trace of anticipation in those blueish eyelids and lips pressed together; she is dreaming within her own dream. Her heart is fluttering with the anticipation of the delights that are to come, the ecstasy which is to awake her from her virginal slumber. Her eyes are closed; she doesn’t yet see and she doesn’t yet know, but the flowers blooming all around her are far less secretive about the desires awakening inside her. Her feelings are stirred, and her hopes sweet, but she patiently awaits the future. Gazing at her face and imagining her feelings made me think of this poem by a Japanese Poetess of the Heain period Ono no Komachi (c. 825-900):

Was I lost in thoughts of love
When I closed my eyes? He
Appeared, and
Had I known it for a dream
I would not have awakened.

Gustav Klimt, The Bride, 1917-18

A stylistic and symbolic continuation for the painting “The Virgin” might as well be Klimt’s unfinished work “The Bride” where the maiden figure is at the last step of her virginal life and about to enter a new phase, she is now ripe as a fig at the height of summer, bursting with sweet juices. Again, the close-eyed figure and the swirling pattern and abundance of colours is present. It’s interesting to notice that he painted pubic hair on the figure on the right, and began painting a vibrant dress over it, and I’m sure it wasn’t a sudden change of mind but rather a preference.