Tag Archives: Mediterranean

Arnold Böcklin – Isle of the Dead

14 Jun

The title of this painting was apparently coined by the art dealer, while the artist himself referred to the painting only as “a picture for dreaming over”. A fascinating detail to be aware of because the morbid and mysterious allure of the painting lies half in its symbolist-laden title. I didn’t know for the painting before I discovered Rachmaninov’s composition of the same name a few years ago. The title is bewitching, and yet the painting itself looks like the world of nightmares which I inhabit in my slumber. I am drawn and repulsed by it, I fear being engulfed in its darkness, and yet I crave to unravel the mystery of those tall cypress trees.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, ‘Basel’ version, 1880

“Under ancient cypress trees, weeping dreams are harvested from sleep.” (Georg Trakl, tr. by Jay Hopler, from “Year,” published c. October 1912)

The painting shows a seemingly uninhabited little island, composed from strange massive yellowish rocks and built in classical style architecture, the purpose of which is unclear. The centre of the isle is occupied by tall and shadowy cypress trees which look, to me, as if they are corpses standing upright and decaying slowly. Their darkness exudes a nauseating scent and the way they loom over the isle silently gives their presence an ominous character. This is a place from the artist’s imagination, and all elements are subordinated to the mood which is one of dreams and death, some even say the mood is that of ‘withdrawal, of rejection of reality’ which makes sense in the context of Symbolism. Death dreamily hangs over the isle as a dark cloud heavy from rain; death hides in the soft trembling of the tired cypress trees; death lingers in the air in the rich and heavy scent of the Mediterranean. But the isle is not alone; a little rowboat is slowly gliding through the dark and still waters. On the boat we see an oarsman, a figure shrouded in white veils, resembling a statue or a mummy, and a coffin. Now, just when you thought things couldn’t get more symbolist if they wanted to! There are dozens of interpretations of this painting and its every detail offers many explanations. Some suggest the oarsman represents Charon, the boatman from Greek mythology who led souls to the underworld over the river Acheron. Perhaps defining the painting would mean stealing its richness of vague dreaminess and confining it to the genre of mythological scenes, and it’s much richer than that because its layers and layers of mystery serve to awaken the subconsciousness.

Island of Saint George

This painting is one of three versions or variations of a same theme that Böcklin painted. Even though the isle is the artist’s little fantasy, a dream-world and not a real place, it was inspired by a real place, and again, there are a few possibilities. One of them points to the islet called “Sveti Đorđe” (“Island of Saint George”) in Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. The only building on the islet is a Benedictine monastery from the 12th century and the abundance of tall and dark cypress trees are reminiscent of Böcklin’s paintings. It really is a dead isle; no one lives there apart from the wandering souls of the dead, and tourists are not allowed. Böcklin could have seen the islet on one of his travels to Italy. I am certain that in twilight it holds the same eerie spell on the observer as the isle in the painting does. Another possible inspiration is the Pontikonisi islet in Greece, again with plenty of cypress trees and a Byzantine chapel from the 12th century. I personally feel that there is a clear resemblance between the Island of Saint George and the third version of the painting “Isle of the Dead”, from 1883, where the rocky formations are sharp and grey, almost enveloping the isle, and the colour of the sea blends with that of the sky.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, The Third Version, 1883

What draws us to the painting is the eerie atmosphere, the irrational composition of the isle and its dazzling dream-like beauty, and the mystery which doesn’t have an answer. Surrealists such as Giorgio de Chirico loved the painting, precisely because of those qualities, and the similar mood of silence, eeriness and mystery pervades many of his paintings. A reference to the past might be the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich which have the same mute stillness and a spiritual mystique.

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Federico García Lorca and Joan Miró – The olive trees are charged with cries

5 Jun

Today marks the 120th anniversary of birth of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936). Since I am enamoured by his poetry, and I’ve spent the last days of May sailing through the strange, beautiful and wild waters of his verses filled with lonely paths, gypsy wanderers, moon and olive trees, winds and oranges, I felt inspired to tackle some of Miró’s vibrant landscapes which encapsulate the spirit of Lorca’s poetry really well.

Joan Miró, The Village of Prades (Prades, el poble), 1917

I am regularly entranced by the simple and unassuming playfulness of Joan Miró’s paintings, but these two landscapes from the early days of his career, “The Village of Prades” and “Siurana, the Path” dazzle my imagination even more. Here the colour, rich, exuberant and warm, takes dominance over the drawing and the imagination wins the battle against logic and rationalism of the classic landscapes. This isn’t a landscape seen with mind, but felt with the heart.

It is little to call these paintings ‘landscapes’ when they are so much more; they are oceans of vibrant colours and psychedelic swirls and zig-zags, they are a resplendent butterfly perched on the delicate petals of a rare Mediterranean flower. Still, in formal classification, they are both landscapes and both were painted in the summer of 1917. Miró was born in Barcelona in 1893 so the period from 1907 to 1918 is usually considered as his early period. He saw himself a Fauvist at the time, something evident by the bright colours used without a trace of shyness. There is a hint of Cubism as well, in the sharp lines in the foreground of “The Village of Prades” and the way trees and bushes are broken down into cubical shapes, and there is also a spirit of Paul Cezanne’s paintings of Mount Victorie in the way distant yellowish mountains are carefully shaded in “Siurana, the path”. These were Miró’s formative years when he soaked the influences, took lessons from the art he saw in galleries, and tried to find his unique artistic language; a quest in which he succeeded.

These are the landscapes full of life and soul, landscapes which tremble and breathe, scream when the warm wind blows from the south, and laugh when the Moon brings the nocturnal caresses on solitary path and olive groves. It’s because of this heartful that my imagination connects them with the wonderful poetry of Federico García Lorca and here is his poem called “Landscape”:

The field
of olive trees
opens and closes
like a fan.
Above the olive grove
there is a sunken sky
and a dark shower
of cold stars.
Bulrush and twilight tremble
at the edge of the river.
The grey air ripples.
The olive trees
are charged
with cries.
A flock
of captive birds,
shaking their very long
tail feathers in the gloom.

Joan Miró, Siurana, el camí (Siurana, the Path), 1917

Precosia throws the tambourine
and runs away in terror.
But the virile wind pursues her
with his breathing  and burning sword.

The sea darkens and roars,
while the olive trees turn pale.
The flutes of darkness sound,
and a muted gong of the snow.

Are these swirls of yellow, these brooks of green and trembling shadows of lilac; is this a field the gypsy girl is running away from the satyr wind who yearns touch “the blue rose” of her womb in Lorca poem “The Gypsy and the Wind”? I adore these kind of landscapes which look as if the painter smoked some weed and then took his colours and started painting, and I think they fit perfectly with the mood of Lorca’s poetry because Lorca felt things with his heart, not with logic, and possessed a gift of conveying an atmosphere in a few words or a few lines. He felt Spain, the people and the nature very deeply and appraised and idealised the life of the gypsies. I love Lorca’s passion for living which comes out in his verses, and that means accepting both the joys and the sadnesses that come on the way, that passionate yet tragic perception of life is really inspiring to me. When I gaze at Miró’s landscapes, I imagine Lorca’s imagination in colours, in swirls, an explosion of beauty.

Ode to Indolence – Dolce Far Niente – Sweet Doing Nothing

10 Apr

Indolence, thou art the sweetest, most delightful thing on earth!

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente (Sweet Idleness) (or A Pompeian Fishpond), 1904

‘Dolce far niente’ is a wonderful Italian expression meaning ‘sweet doing nothing’, and it illustrates the dreamy, hedonistic, self-indulgent nature of indolence, and the enjoyment of it. In art, such paintings are rare prior to the nineteenth century, but in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the artistic climate influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetic movement with its ‘cult of beauty’, their popularity grew. Artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Godward and John William Waterhouse dared to tackle the subject and they painted numerous vibrant and beautiful paintings of this theme.

There’s a certain pattern of beauty in all of these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings: a beautiful idle woman dressed in her finery, lazing around in sumptuous surroundings, doing nothing, gazing in the distance or at the viewer. Usually they’re presented in luxurious and idealised settings, aesthetically inspired by the Roman empire, lounging on animal skin, wearing gorgeous diaphanous fabrics, perhaps holding a flower in their hand or teasing a kitten with a peacock feather, and in one painting, two women are even shown gazing at a snail and feeding it, what a way to spend an afternoon! Certain motifs appear in all of these paintings: finely painted marble balustrades or just marble in general, balconies overlooking the sea glistening underneath a perfectly blue sky with a few clouds, animal skin, clothes and hairstyles inspired by the styles of the Ancient world, flowers and flower pots, lush Mediterranean vegetation and plants such as oleander, lavender, cypresses, orange trees, even poppies, thyme, basil etc.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Silver Favourites, 1903

Godwards was the protégé of Alma-Tadema and their styles hold similarities; they both drew inspiration from the imagined luxury of the Ancient Roman Empire and the warm, rich, fragrant, mood of the Mediterranean, they both painted in a Neoclassical style with fine, elegant brushwork resembling that of Ingres, especially when the subject is that of a female body; both made paintings full of light and vibrancy. And now a glimpse of sadness in all this beauty; Godward committed suicide on 13th December 1922, at the age of 61, falsely believing that the idealised, dreamy style of his art will fall out of style with the arrival of new painters such as Picasso. In his suicide note he allegedly wrote: “the world is not big enough for myself and a Picasso”. I wonder just how many lives that devilish painter known as Picasso has ruined, having in mind the awful way he treated my poor, darling Modigliani.

These paintings exude beauty, but that is their only purpose. Well, the purpose of all art should be to present us mortals with an ideal of beauty we’ll never be able to achieve, to move our hearts and souls to react, to elevate us. But the beauty of these paintings really is all that they possess; they have no moral or social message, they are not portraits, they don’t show a mythological scene or tell a story in some way.

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1897

Also, despite the fact that these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings were at the height of their popularity in the late 19th century, the mood of indolence and hedonism can be traced in earlier art as well, especially the Rococo. If you take a look at some paintings of Fragonard or Boucher, you’ll see that most of them show pretty women doing nothing; reading love letters, waiting for a lover, daydreaming; lavishly dressed in gorgeous surrounding of eternal spring with tamed nature and marble statues. Also, the famous Winterhalter’s group portrait of the French Empress Eugenie and her ladies in waiting; technically, yes, it is a portrait – it has a purpose, but come on, doesn’t the setting and their faces evoke nothing but sweet enjoyment of indolence? Gustav Klimt’s beautiful and sinister nude femme fatales shown in a lesbian embrace, adorned with flowers, with intricate backgrounds, are also pretty indolent. My point is that it’s not necessary for a painting to bear a name ‘dolce far niente’ to be one, it’s more about the mood and the setting.

John William Godward, Summer Idleness: Day Dreams, 1909

Despite their popularity in the age of the Aesthetic movement, there’s nothing really decadent about these painting. Their lack of purpose, or a social or moral message, might have infuriated Ruskin. The dreamy, escapist nature of these paintings struck a cord with the audience of the time. Victorians were huge escapists and their tendency to be easily carried away by daydreams and fantasies about a perfect fairytale world enabled them to appreciate works of painters such as Waterhouse, Alma-Tadema and Godward who never painted reality, but instead dipped their brushes into a paint of magic and dreams and created innocent, idealised, brightly-coloured reveries which continue to capture the imagination of people today.

MY FAVOURITES:

John William Godward, When the heart is young, 1902

All of these paintings are quite similar, but still there were three which captivated me the most. The first one is When the heart is young. If you enlarge the painting, you’ll see how exquisitely the scene is painted, how detailed. I just love her face expression, and the way her hair falls and the lavishing, soft folds of her dress in colour of rose quartz. And she is one absolutely gorgeous woman; there’s a dreamy, sensual aura around her face with lips as pretty as rosebuds, cheeks blushed and eyes so dark, velvety and dreamy, gazing in the distance. Another detail which dazzles me is the fine thin yellow line above the sea, and the poppy flowers in the background.

John William Godward, Mischief and Repose, 1895

Here, I love the title Mischief and Repose, isn’t it cunning? There’s no glistening sea or trees in the background, but I think these two indolent, red-haired beauties in diaphanous dresses are eye-candies for themselves. They’re shown lazing around in an opulent interior of fine marble and animal skin. While the woman wearing a delicate gown made out of a gauzy baby blue material, I suppose the overindulgence in the sweetness of doing nothing has made her tired, I sympathise because it happens to me often, the one on the right is the epitome of mischief, teasing her friend as she sleeps. They remind me of Sappho and her ladies on the isle of Lesbos. Let’s also take a moment to appreciate the great hairstyle of the ‘mischief woman’; voluminous curly hair in a low bun with shiny ribbons. And these gauzy long gowns which reveal more than they hide are so alluring, especially on the woman on the right; how softly and gently the fabric covers her body, how delicately painted. I hope it’s not just my imagination that’s intrigued by this illusive mysteriousnesses.

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1906

In Dolce Far Niente from 1906, the rich purple and red colour of her flimsy dress really appealed to me, but also the composition: she is painted reclining on a tiger skin, on some marble balustrade, with her hand above her head, her dark hair falling in cascades, and you can’t help but notice the sensuality of her pose; you can follow the curve of her body against the background of oleander trees with lush blossoms and serene sea in the distance. I don’t know why, but it reminded me of a sentence from Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human: “I could see through the tall windows behind my bench the evening sky glowing in the sunset. Seagulls were flying by in a line which somehow suggested the curve of a woman’s body.” Another thing I love is the sky; vanilla coloured sky, and the lush Mediterranean vegetation; the gorgeous pink oleander blossoms and cypresses in the background. Sun is slowly setting in the distance, rich fragrances colour the air…

John William Godward, Idleness, 1900

I have been dazzled by these paintings for some time, and my thoughts upon gazing at these idle women are a mix of empathy and envy. I am their equal in indolence, it is my most beloved pursuit: doing nothing and doing it sweetly. I am a connoisseur in indolence! Dolce far niente should be written on my gravestone. My idea of a perfect afternoon is to wear something outrageously gorgeous, lie on my bed, listen to music and gaze at the pictures on my wall, the blue sky or tree tops through the window or flip through my art books, and then drift into daydreams. For me, a day of indolence is a day of happiness! This is how I find inspiration, then I write a post, and voila!

I shall finish the post with a great quote by the writer Jerome K. Jerome, who obviously understand indolence very well:

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.

John William Godward, Tranquillity, 1914

John William Godward, In the Days of Sappho, 1904

John William Godward, An Idle Hour, 1890

John William Godward, The quiet pet, 1906

John William Godward, Summer Flowers, 1903

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting, 1855

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – Reverie, 1771

John William Godward, Playtime, 1891

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, In the Tepidarium, 1881

Charles Edward Perugini, Dolce Far Niente, 1882

John William Waterhouse, Dolce Far Niente (The White Feather Fan), 1879

John William Waterhouse, Dolce Far Niente, 1880

William Holman Hunt, ‘Il Dolce far Niente’, 1859-66

Auguste Toulmouche, Dolce Far Niente, 1877

What are your thoughts on indolence? Was there a dolce far niente painting that particularly dazzled you?