Tag Archives: Melancholy

Miklós Radnóti: You held me, my love, and then went on dreaming, of perhaps a different kind of death…

13 Sep
One of my recent poetic discoveries is a Hungarian Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944) who died very young in sad circumstances as a victim of Holocaust. During his lifetime he worked as a teacher and translated into Hungarian some works of Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean de La Fontaine. Reading Radnóti’s many lovely poems leaves a taste of sweet memories, promises and hope on my tongue. His verses are covered with a thin dusty pink veil of melancholy, a sense of transience lingers through them, and they reveal a deeply sensitive soul and gentle nature. Many of his poems were inspired by his childhood sweetheart and later his wife Fanny. It’s interesting to see the dates of the poems, written near the end of his life, in 1941 … 1943 etc. and how unburdened they are with the events of the time. One can sense death and the ending in his verses, but the themes that occupied him poetically are of a gentle introspective nature: mostly love, kindness, hope. The war and the political situation didn’t make him bitter, as it made Georg Trakl decades before, but rather it awoke the humanity inside him. His love poems such as this one seem to say “let’s love each other while we still can, come into my arms, my sweet darling, lets sink into a sweet dream until the whirlwind of horrors and change is over, lest it should sweep us away too…” But Radnóti never saw the end of horrors, having died in November 1944. As he went into death, into a long sweet dream, he left his beloved in the wasteland of this world, and a little fragment of his soul in the verses he wrote.
Laura Makabresku, Winter sleep
***

With your right hand on my neck

 

With your right hand on my neck, I lay next to

you last night,

and since the day’s woes still pained me, I did

not ask you to take it away,

but listened to the blood coursing through your

arteries and veins,

 

Then finally around twelve sleep overcame me,

as sudden and guileless as my sleep so long ago,

when in the downy time of my youth it rocked

me gently.

 

You tell me it was not yet three when I was

startled awake

and sat up terrified and screaming.

muttering strange and unintelligible words,

 

then spread out my arms like a bird ruffled with

fear

flapping its wings as a dark shadow flutters

through the garden.

Tell me, where was I going? And what kind of

death had frightened me so?

 

And you held me, my love, as I sat up half-asleep,

then lay back in silence, wondering what paths

and horrors awaited me.

And then went on dreaming. Of perhaps a

different kind of death.

Miklós and his darling wife Fanny in 1937
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Victorian Photography: Girls in Silk Cages, Pale and Fragile as Lilies

10 Jun

A friend recently reminded me of the photograph of Ellen Terry that you see below and its mood of sadness and wistfulness struck a chord with me. Naturally, I thought of many other Victorian photographs of girls in contemplation so I decided to share them all in this post; they are perfect for daydreaming.

Sadness (Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen), photo by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864

All of the photographs here were taken by female photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) who is perhaps a pandan to the Pre-Raphaelites in the field of photography because of her inclination toward the Arthurian world and medieval romances, and Clementina Maude Hawarden (1822-1865) who often took photos of her daughters and is sometimes called “the first fashion photographer” because many of her photos feature the lovely crinoline gowns from the era, full of ribbons and flounces.

What draws me to these photographs is their dream-like quality; they are like windows to the long lost worlds, they evoke as much feelings from me as a poem can, they portray beautifully the inner world of Victorian girls and young women. Gorgeous fashions and delicacy of the fabrics, dazzling play of light and shadow, a tinge of melancholy and wistfulness. In this long lost world from the other side of the mirror long haired dreamy maidens in their dazzling silk and tulle cages are shown reading or praying, or travelling the landscapes of their thoughts, sitting by the window and gazing into the outside world of freedom and strangeness; girls as fragile as lily flower, with faces pale from the moonlight, yearning hearts and silent tears that smell of jasmine, trapped in claustrophobic interiors of damask and daydreams, touching life only through veils, “seeing it dimly through tears”, drunk, not from cherry cordial, but from the heavy fragrance of roses in their vases. Caught between girlhood and adulthood, in their dreamy interiors, with mirrors and books, they are gazing through the glistening bars of their cages, in silence, for the captive birds sing no ditties.

“I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there: not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart: but really with it, and in it.” (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights)

Eugene Delacroix – Orphan Girl at the Cemetery

26 Apr

A French painter of Romanticism, Eugene Delacroix, was born on this day, 26th April, in 1798 and today we’ll take a look at one of his early works, the “Orphan Girl at the Cemetery”.

Eugène Delacroix, Orphan Girl at the Cemetery (Jeune orpheline au cimetière), 1823-24

A young girl alone at the cemetery looks up towards the sky, with a prayer mounting in her heart and not yet spoken on her lips. She sees the large white clouds moving monotonously, slowly, tiredly; she wishes to talk to God but the sky is empty, to quote Sylvia Plath. The girl is painted from the profile, with large eyes turned upwards and mouth slightly open. Her left shoulder is left bare and her right arm is resting lifelessly on her knee; all suggesting resignation and vulnerability. The graveyard in the French countryside, as it is suggested, with its wooden crosses, forgotten names, mud, flowers and candles, is a vision of loneliness. As dusk descends, not a soul is around. Her eyes and her pose tell us so much. She is seeking answers, she is unloved and confused, and contemplating over her life she sees nothing but poverty and uncertainty. Look at her eyes. This is sadness beyond tears and meaningless words. Tombstones and the trees in the background all look tiny in comparison with her rather closely-cropped figure. Mournful murmur of the distant cypress trees mingles with the heavy silence of the wooden crosses.

Since this is one of Delacroix’s early works, the colours are not of the warm and glistening kind that he used after his trip to Morocco in 1832. The limited colour palette of murky browns, greens and yellowish-white serves here to intensify the gloomy mood, and yet on her skin colour the real dynamic dance of colours begins; the warm brown base takes over red, pink and greenish shades in places. The dimly-lit vanilla coloured sky in the background is painted as romantically as it is possible and brings to mind the melancholy sunsets and skies in paintings of a German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. As a true Romanticist, Delacroix approached the subject with a lot of subjectivity, compassion and a depth of feelings. In a harmony of colours and a wonderful composition, he brought the emphasis on what is important; the girl with her pain and her solitude, successfully avoiding the sentimentalising of her position.

Reality Gives No Romance: Emma Bovary and Blanche DuBois

13 Jan

In this post I will explore the similarities between two literary characters: Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois. January seems like the best time to tackle this topic when we are waiting for blossoms, romance and promises of spring, or at least I am. “Reality brings no romance” is a line from a song “Walk me to the bridge” by Manic Street Preachers.

madame-bovary-1991Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary (1991)

In his 1857 novel “Madame Bovary”, Gustave Flaubert expressed loneliness, longings and provincial claustrophobia with eloquence that surpasses that of any other writer before or after. Flaubert found inspiration in a newspaper article, and by writing this book, he wanted to prove to his friends that style is more important than the theme itself, adding that he was himself repulsed by the subject of adultery.

Every page of this novel is wrapped in silent melancholy, and the story offers neither the happy ending nor the solution; the countryside offers nothing pure suffocating boredom, while the city brings cheap pleasures and shallowness. This book is everything Morrissey sang about; lost dreams, impossible loves, boredom, small town frustration. Where The Smiths used just three or four minutes to say what they had to say, and coated it in whimsical, cheerful catchy tunes, Flaubert fills more than three-hundred pages with longings and disappointments. Emma’s story is a real ‘from despair to where’ one, to quote the Manic Street Preachers now. From despair – to death, it seems for her. If there’s one line from a pop song that describes her life perfectly, it’s this one by The Smiths: “I was happy at the height of the drunken hour but heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

Source: here.

“Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one’s lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy.”

“Emma lost weight, her face became pale and gaunt. With her smooth black hair, her big eyes, her straight nose, her birdlike walk and the silence that had now become almost constant with her, did she not seem to be passing through life without touching it, bearing on her brow the mysterious mark of a sublime destiny?”

Who is Emma Bovary, anyway? And why is she so negatively portrayed in popular culture when she is so realistic, everyone suffers that melancholia and boredom occasionally, so why deny it? Emma Bovary is a young and beautiful woman whose exceedingly romantic, verging on sentimental, disposition is all due to reading too many sentimental novels at convent where she was schooled. Her views on life, love and marriage are shaped almost exclusively by what she has read in those novels. She marries Charles, a simple minded country doctor, because she sees in him a potential rescuer from the boredom of her life. Soon, she becomes disappointed because nothing turned out like she wanted it. Charles is happy living in a small town, while she withers and daydreams of Paris – “She wanted to die. And she wanted to live in Paris.” A sense of unfulfilled longing lingers throughout the novel.

Here are a few quotes about Emma’s boredom in marriage:

Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied that she must have been mistaken. And Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the worlds ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’ which had looked so beautiful in books.

“‘Then the appetites of the flesh, the craving for money, the melancholy of passion, all blended together in one general misery. (…) Her drab surrounding drove her to dreams of luxury; marital tenderness prompted the desire for a lover. She would have liked Charles to hit her, that she might have just cause for hatred and revenge. She was surprised sometimes at the hideous ideas that occurred to her. And all the while she must go on smiling, hearing herself insist that she was very happy, pretending to be so, acting the part.

“She was so sad and so calm, so gentle and yet so shy, that by her side you felt under the spell of a frosty charm, just as you shiver in church at the scent of flowers mingling with the feel of cold marble. … But she was filled with lust, with rage, with hatred.”

Whenever I imagine Emma Bovary, I imagine her either wistfully strolling the paths of her garden with sad apple trees, half-dry pink hydrangeas, worn out wooden fence, moss and wet soil in the morning after a rainy night; or standing by the window, dreamy and beautiful, with a look of pain, disappointment and longing all at once in her dark eyes, as rain drops slide one by one on the outer side of the window, sighing “Everyday is like Sunday, everyday is silent and grey…”

This quote explains well why Emma hated life at the countryside and never relished in natural beauties around her:

If she had passed her childhood in the back room of a shop somewhere in the middle of a town, she might now have awaken to the lyric call of Nature, which usually reaches us only through the medium of books. But she was too familiar with the country: with the bleating of the flocks, with the dairy and the plogh. Acustomed to the peaceful, she turned in reaction to the picturesque. She loved the sea only for its storms, green foliage only when it was scattered amid ruins. It was necessary for her to derive a sort of personal profit from things, she rejected as useless whatever did not minister to her heart’s immediate fulfilment – being of a sentimental rather than artistic temperament, in search of emotions, not of scenery.

And all the time, deep within her, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a shipwrecked sailor she scanned her solitude with desperate eyes for the sight of a white sail far off on the misty horizon. (…) But every morning when she woke she hoped to find it there. She listened to every sound, started out of bed, and was surprised when noting came. Then, at sunset, sadder every day, she longed for the morrow.

And so they would follow on, one after another, always the same; innumerable days that brought nothing.

She gave up playing the piano. What use, with no one to hear her? Since she could never play at concert, in a short-sleeved velvet gown, lightly caressing the keys of an Erard and feeling the murmurs of ecstasy wafting all about her like a breeze – it wasn’t worth the boredom of practising.”

She left her drawing-folios and her needlework lie in the cupboard. What was the use? What was the use? Sewing got on her nerves.

‘I’ve read everything,’ she said to herself.

So she sat there holding the tongs in the fires or watching the rain fall.

If matters had fallen out differently, she wondered might she not have met some other man? She tried to picture to herself the things she might have been – that different life, that unknown husband. For they weren’t all like this one. He might have been handsome, intelligent, distinguished, attractive, as were no doubt the men her old school friends has married… What would they be doing now? Living in town, amid the noise of the streets, the hum of the theatre crowd, the bright lights of the ballroom – the sort of life that opens the heart and sense like flowers in bloom. Whereas for her, life was cold as an attic facing north, and the silent spider boredom wove its web in all the shadowed corners of her heart.

Blanche DuBois

Tennessee Williams’s characters are known for their complexity, and his plays turned into films are wonderful. Needless to say, I am a big fan. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was published in 1947 and is an example of Southern Gothic. The main character, Blanche DuBois, an ageing southern belle, is a soft-spoken, well-mannered, polite, dreamy, theatrical, exceedingly romantic and gentle person, who, due to her own nature and personal losses in her youth, is left vulnerable, emotionally needy and slightly psychologically unstable. There’s also something childlike about her naivety and idealism. She is a wonderful literary creation, portrayed beautifully by Vivian Leigh in the film from 1951, and another one of Tennessee Williams’ fabulous, layered, mysterious and decadent characters.

The play is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans; Blanche has just arrived and takes a streetcar named “Desire” to visit her sister Stella and her husband Stanley. The contrast between Blanche’s magical aura and the poverty and roughness of Stella and Stanley’s life is immediately noticeable. Blanche with her soft blonde curls, her long flimsy gowns with thousands of shimmering flounces that play the most charming melodies of Tchaikovsky, her pearls and roses, her rouge and her old love letters, her perfumes and soft shawls. Blanche constantly insists on creating an aesthetically pleasing environment and nurturing the dreaminess that she perpetually inhabits; she takes long baths and dresses most exquisitely despite Stella’s poor situation, insists on covering the bare lamps and keeping a boudoir lightning. She says herself: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” Her well-mannered, educated and polite nature are odd compared to the brutish nature of Stanley and his friends.

There’s something so fragile, delicate, nervous about Blanche, you can’t point your finger on it, but you feel it. As if her inner life is a butterfly trapped in a jar, fluttering hopelessly and heating the glass to no avail. In the play Tennessee Williams wrote a note: “Her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.” Blanche is delusional to the end, fragile like a moth, beautiful and dreamy, refusing to open her eyes and see the world the way it really is, accepting the hand of a stranger, with an eerie smile on her face, saying: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” A moth is broken and quenched at last.

“Physical beauty is passing – a transitory possession – but beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart – I have all these things – aren’t taken away but grow! Increase with the years!”

One of my favourite lines by Blanche:

“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”

Source: here.

The rest of my days I’m going to spend on the sea. And when I die, I’m going to die on the sea. You know what I shall die of? I shall die of eating an unwashed grape. One day out on the ocean I will die–with my hand in the hand of some nice looking ship’s doctor, a very young one with a small blond moustache and a big silver watch. “Poor lady,” they’ll say, “The quinine did her no good. That unwashed grape has transported her soul to heaven.

What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.

vivien leigh as blanche 1

“I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misinterpret things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on!”

This dialogue is my particular favourite:

Stella: You needn’t be so cruel to someone as alone as she is.

Stanley: Delicate piece she is.

Stella: She is. She was. You didn’t know Blanche as a girl. Nobody, nobody, was tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her, and forced her to change.

So, what is it that, in my view, connects the two heroines? Firstly, they are both highly imaginative and prone to melancholy and self-pity. Both follow a religion of beauty, dreams and magic. They are big aesthetes, their surroundings and appearance means a lot in keeping their dreamy vision of the world. Emma initially tries to keep away her disappointment away by decorating the house and indulging in pretty fabrics and shawls, but no amount of material possessions can fill the emotional void both heroines feel inside. They are misfits, they aren’t accepted in their communities because they are different, not realistic and down to earth. And lastly, both are emotionally and psychologically unstable.

Romantic Melancholy

17 Nov

Sad; so sad, those smoky-rose, smoky-mauve evenings of late autumn, sad enough to pierce the heart…anguish of the turn of the year, the time of impotent yearning, the inconsolable season. (Angela Carter, Saints and Strangers)

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

In these lonely autumn evenings, I yearn to escape the enveloping dreariness of November through poetry, pressed flowers and scented candles. Suffocated by thick fogs and the smell of rotting corpses of daydreams and high hopes that never come true, I hear Melancholy quietly knocking on my door and silently, without disturbing the yellow roses in my vase, it wrapped my tired shoulders with a fragrant lace cloth of spring naivety and summer innocence, of silver dandelions and spider webs, white roses and kindness of strangers. I try to smile at this stranger dressed in a purple gown and jangling earrings of silver and amethyst, but my lips of a doll have become rusty. I take the imaginary book of memories in my hand and blow away the dust. A few rose petals fall on the floor, and my crystal tears join them in their fall. Memories of summer’s gold and bloom dance in my head like skeletons, memories of things that were painfully beautiful but might never return. Memories of poppy meadows and river’s cheerful murmurs, of May’s pink roses, white butterflies and forest groves, of golden sunlight and juicy pears, of stars and perpetually dreamy days of July, and long warm enchantingly golden afternoons of August. I have a withered rose instead of a heart, and it pulsates melodiously in a rhythm of yearning and anguish. I am a forgotten abbey in the oakwood; all my hopes have fallen like leaves on the trees and my soul is but a skeleton covered in moss. I take a pen and command: Melancholy, oh speak to me!

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

Melancholy is kind and generous, and since I begged her, she spoke to me in a mellifluous voice of all the places where she resides… First thou shall find me, said Melancholy, in ethereal sounds of Chopin’s Nocturnes, whose trembling ecstasies and passions lie hidden under flimsy veils of sadness. As Oscar Wilde said: “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.” When Chopin’s Nocturne turns to mute silence of dreary chambers, I dance my way to beautiful objects and inhabit them; old ballet slippers, worn out lamé dresses of 1920s, a box of old letters and photographs, empty perfume bottles, dusty cradles of children who are now adults, summer dusks with fireflies and strong scent of roses and a pale moon appearing coyly on the horizon, worn out names on tombstones and graves that no one visits any more, flowers slowly withering in a vase, unfinished charcoal drawings, drafts of letters never finished, smell of old books… Every place of beauty is my abode, ye can find me in poetry and songs too; in vocals and wistful violins of the Tindersticks and their song Travelling Light:

“There are places I don’t remember
There are times and days, they mean nothing to me
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
They don’t serve to jog my memory

I’m not waking in the morning, staring at the walls these days
I’m not getting out the boxes, spread all over the floor
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
Those faces they mean nothing to me no more”

Caspar David Friedrich, Abtei im Eichwald (Abbey in the Oakwood), 1808-1810

I closed my eyes and listened to Melancholy as it spoke to me, with a voice like flowing honey, and she said: I hide in canvases too; German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich adored me as his muse. Do not believe his landscapes, they are not at all what they seem; a tree is not a tree and fog is not simply fog as it is with John Constable. Led by his pantheistic vision of nature, he portrayed emotions and his states of mind. “Abbey in the Oakwood” is a melancholic masterpiece. An abandoned Gothic abbey is a corpse, a ruin, which speaks of happier times when it served its purpose. Tall oaks with crooked bare branches surround it. Sublime, eerie mood pervades the painting; crosses disappearing into the fog, a barely noticeable procession of monks, a freshly dug grave, and the endlessly lead coloured sky. In early 19th century Germany, Romanticism was closely associated with the National awakening, and Goethe considered Gothic architecture to be Germanic in origin. In contrast to the Classical architecture, the plans of Gothic cathedrals were done by “romantic intuition” rather than mathematical calculations. Gothic abbeys and oaks possess the same grandeur, the same melancholy when covered in deep snow or grey fogs.

I am not always obvious at first sight; do not let the screaming ecstatic yellow of Vincent van Gogh and Kirchner deceive you, for I was their friend too. I was the pencil that Egon Schiele used to sketch his nude beauties with worn out smiles and hollow cheeks, I kissed every yellow petal of the sunflowers he was obsessed with.

Egon Schiele, Sunflower, 1909

As I wipe my tears and feel my cheek’s returning rosy hue, I eagerly listen to Melancholy and her story. She says: I was the lover of John Keats, and the illness of young Werther. All artists find a muse in me, and Romanticists loved me deeply, but the idealist and dreamy escapist Keats adored me in particular, and dressed himself in my cloth of flowers, tears and beauty. In his rosy-coloured visions of the Middle Ages, he found beauty that the world of reality had denied him. Keats knew when he sang of me that Beauty is my other face, and he knew my strength well enough so he never tried to defeat me but rather embrace me and heal the sorrow I cause by contemplating things of Beauty:

“But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud;

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

*

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine…”

Percy Bysshe Shelley confided in me too, but found me too bitter at times, and yet he wrote these verses: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Photo by Laura Makabresku

John Singer Sargent, Polly Barnard (also known as study for Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose), 1885, Medium: pencil

Photo by Laura Makabresku

“There is a life and there is a death, and there are beauty and melancholy between.” (Albert Camus)

Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825-30

Caspar David Friedrich, A Walk at Dusk (detail), ca.1830-35

In November dreariness, my only consolation lies in long evening walks by the river. The Moon is my lover; I year for his caresses and weep at sunset when we must part. He greets me, smiling through the bare branches of tall trees, and I turn my face to his glow and whisperingly ask to fulfil all my longings, to kiss my cheeks and hug me. I hear the river murmuring of happier times, but the Moon is wise and he offers me a “nepenthe”. ‘What is it?’, I ask the Moon and he replies: ‘It is an ancient Greek word, defined as a medicine for sorrow. It can be a place, person or thing, which can aid in forgetting your pain and suffering.’ I follow the Moon, yearning for a more precise answer, but it disappears behind the clouds and I am left alone … yet again.

Photo by Laura Makabresku

I gaze at the river for a long time, longing to see the Moon’s whimsical silvery reflection in the dark water. I cup the dark water in my hands and the dazzling rays of moon slip through my fingers… just as every happy moment does.

Story Inspiration – Melancholy, Sea, Nocturne

22 Jul

A while ago I started writing a short story. Since I am an expert in starting things without finishing them, I eagerly hope to finish this one. These pictures are the ‘aesthetic’ of the story; they are here to inspire me, and hopefully you’ll find it interesting too. Enjoy!

Photo found here.

Photo by Molly Dean.

Photo found here.

Photo found here.

Photo found here.

Photo found here.

Photo found 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?