Tag Archives: music

Darkness on the Edge of Town: Charles Burchfield and Egon Schiele

28 Jul

“You can tell her that I’m easily found
Tell her there’s a spot out ‘neath Abraham’s bridge, and tell her
There’s a darkness on the edge of town
There’s a darkness on the edge of town…..

…Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost…”

(Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town)

Charles Burchfield, New Moon, November 1917, watercolor and opaque watercolor with graphite

Egon Schiele is a painter whose artworks I have been in love with for many years now and Charles Burchfield is a painter whose work I only discovered two years ago but am getting more and more enthusiastic about. Both of these artists had a particular flair for capturing the houses and townscapes not as mere physical objects made out of wood, brick and mortar, but rather they captured their mood and character. And both artists preferred the medium of watercolour or gouache to the more traditional oil on canvas, and, as my readers here know, watercolour is my favourite medium. Charles Burchfield’s painting “New Moon” and Egon Schiele’s painting “Edge of Town (Krumau Town Crescent) are painted around the same time, in 1917 and 1918 respectively. Whilst Schiele’s painting shows the entire small town of Krumau with many houses crammed close together, Burchfield’s watercolour focuses solely on one house and a particular one indeed.

Burchfield’s watercolour “New Moon” shows a strange and twisted black wooden house which is very close to the road. There is a tree growing in front of the house and it visually disrupts the scene; the tree trunk is in the way of the scene and the black tree branches are thin and clawlike, stretching to scratch whichever intruder passes by it. The facade of the house is contorted in a surreal manner, almost as if it was laughing. A house with a grin and three windows with teeth in them. We can see only a part of the house next door on the left and it looks equally eerie. The sky is dusty pink and yellow and the colours match the blackness of the house. And we can’t even see much of that candy floss-vanilla sky because the house takes up most of the space on the paper; it domineers, almost swallows the space around it, making the scene look mysterious and claustrophobic. There is not space for anything but the house on that paper. I can only imagine what stranger Hawthorneesque characters might inhabit this Gothic abode.

Egon Schiele, Edge of Town (Krumau Town Crescent), 1918

On the other hand, Schiele focuses not on a single houses but on a cluster of houses which, strangely, seem to make up a living organism of its own, a unified skelet that would fall apart if one house was demolished. Schiele’s portrayal of the small and picturesque Czech town of Krumau (which, in Schiele’s life was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) is vibrant and dense. He uses thick brushstrokes of warm, heavy, earthy tones; brown, yellow, orange, warm purple, some muddy green. This combination of colours and brushstrokes makes the town appear old, uninviting and slightly claustrophobic. If you look up pictures of Krumau you will see that the town is as dreamy and fairytale like as can be, and this is definitely just Schiele’s vision of Krumau. This is Schiele’s portrait of the town, its character and mood and the way he perceives it. The town seems uninviting to me, and I can imagine a person walking down those narrow streets and the houses just getting closer and closer, obscuring the sky with their roofs and crushing the person to death. The town is melancholy and decaying but it doesn’t like someone to see it. In his portraits, Schiele usually focuses on the person and ignores the background, he doesn’t care to fill it with colour, but here he takes time to add brushstrokes and brushstrokes of thick, muddy brown.

Both of these artworks disturb me, but in a good way and when I hear Springsteen singing ‘darkness on the edge of town’ this is what comes to my mind… But also, seeing the way Burchfield and Schiele portrayed houses, streets and towns makes me look at houses and street with a pair of new eyes, it makes me notice the strangeness and the character that many houses and builings possess.

Edgar Degas – Russian Dancers

6 Mar

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, pastel

Without a doubt the motif of a female body, nude or dressed, in various different activities, was Degas’ favourite motif to paint. He made series of paintings portraying ballerinas, laundresses, miliners, women bathing themselves, but a very interesting little series is his pastel drawings of Russian dancers made in 1899.

These pastels are characterised by vibrancy and liveliness and that is exactly what instantly appealed to me about the pastels. The colourfully clad figures of these Russian dancers contrast strongly with the dainty and ethereal figures of ballerinas that Degas had painted previously. In all three of the pastels that I have chosen to present here we seen three or more dancers caught in the movement, dressed in their traditional Eastern European garments. The dancers are situated against a background of nature in verdant greens and yellows so it almost seems as if the dancers are peasant girls dancing on a field, or a meadow in the countryside, naturally and spontaneously, stomping on wildflowers and breathing in the fresh spring air while nearby a brook is murmuring and birds are singing. So convincing is Degas’ portrayal of the dancers that we might almost forget that he saw them at the theatre in Paris. The Eastern European dancers had an exotic appeal to Parisians who, instead of actually travelling there, could simply go to the theatres and cabarets and enjoy the vibrant costumes, strange rhythms and majestic dancing. Even though these pastels are named “Russian Dancers”, the dancers were actually from Ukraine which was at the time under the Russian Empire and Tzar Alexander II had a policy of Russification at the time. Also, to fin de siecle Parisians it was probably all the same so the generic title “Russian Dancers” stayed.

Degas does a wonderful job at both capturing the dancers in movement, and also capturing the subtle details of their wonderful and intricate exotic costumes; white blouses, skirts in orange, pink, yellow, lavender and green, their flower crowns and necklaces. We are truly able to observe the details and feast our eyes on them while at the same time feeling as though we are witnesing the dancers in action. Their volumionous skirts are swirling, their legs kicking in the air; what wild energy these pastels exude! Degas called these pastels “orgies of colour”, and it is easy to see why. I mean, just soak in the colours in the pastel bellow; the green and purple skirts, the lobster-pink of the flowers, the orange beads or the necklace, then the soft pink-yellowish tinted sunset sky in the background. The colours are so well-chosen and spectacular. It is truly a colour study of these dancing girls. In the last pastel there is a lovely contrast of the blue trimming on the pink and orange skirts. Not to mention the dazzling colourful ribbons in the dancers’ hair in the first pastel which also features a lovely, clear blue spring sky.

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, charcoal and pastel, on tracing paper, mounted on cardboard, 62.9×64.8 cm

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, pastel

Syd Barrett’s Birthday: Lazing in the foggy dew, sitting on the unicorn

6 Jan

It’s Syd Barrett’s birthday today and, as most of you know, I am a massive fan of the early Pink Floyd and Syd’s two solo albums. And it is my tradition on this blog to post something Syd-related on his birthday. “Flaming” is one of my favourite Pink Floyd songs and for a while now I had this idea of posting the song’s lyrics alongside with the appropriate paintings or pictures because the lyrics are so vivid and full of whimsical, childlike imagery which instantly bring images to my mind and makes me daydream of some fairy tale land of flowers and clouds.

Henri-Edmond Cross, The Pink Cloud, 1896

Odilon Redon, Flower Clouds (c 1903), pastel

Alone in the clouds all blue

Edouard Vuillard, The Red Eiderdown, 1894

Lying on an eiderdown.
Yippee! You can’t see me
But I can you.

Art by Nissan Engel.

Lazing in the foggy dew
Sitting on a unicorn.
No fair, you can’t hear me
But I can you.

Marianne Stokes, In the Meadow (In a Field of Buttercups) (c 1890)

Watching buttercups cup the light

Burchfield, Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon, ca. 1961-65

Ludwig Stasiak, Dandelions, 1900

Sleeping on a dandelion.
Too much, I won’t touch you
But then I might.

Wassily Kandinsky – The Singer, 1903

28 Dec

“Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

(Kandinsky)

Wassily Kandinsky, The Singer, 1903, colour woodcut

I decided to end the artistic year on this blog with a gorgeous colour woodcut by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. Earlier this month I had written about Kandinsky’s magical painting “Riding Couple” from 1906-07, and today we have another example of Kandinsky’s early artistic phase. “The Singer” is one of Kandinsky’s earliest colour woodcuts and its fluid, undulating lines and the ornamental division of the space shows the influence of Jugendstil which was popular at the time. The contours of a pianist dressed in black arise out of a dreamy blue background. His face and arms are pale as moonlight, his hair longish. Despite, or maybe because of, the stylised lines and the simple composition Kandinsky managed to convey such a deep, palpable mood which is dreamy, melancholy, poetic. Roses, piano music and moonlight. Soft, hushed tones, a whisper, a soft sigh, a rustle of red roses. Evereything watery and Neptunian; sensitive, tender, mystical…

Kandinsky deeply felt the connection between painting and music. In fact, his final decision to succumb to the voice that was luring him to become a painter was inspired, partly, by seeing Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin” in the Moscow theatre sometime in the mid 1890s. Whilst listening to the music, he saw the entire range of colours and shapes before his eyes, wild lines were creating drawings in his mind. In the end, he was a painter and not a composer, but he always sought connections between painting and music, between colours and tones. Art was a synesthetic experience for him. Many artists, such as Degas, have painted theatre and stage scenes before, but in Kandinsky’s case the choice of a motif, the singer and the pianist, is especially interesting and meaningful. And I must say, to me, this woodblock feels musical. The sounds of a melancholy Nocturne is seeping out of the black and blue tones. The lines, stylised, fluid, like water, are the medium of a melody that lives in this woodcut. There is a dynamic between the dark background and the white foreground where the singer is standing, dressed in a white dress which, strangely, brings to mind the shape of the skeleton.

I will end this post with a dreamy passage from E.T.A.Hoffmann’s essay about Beethoven’s instrumental music which first appeared in 1810 and was revised in 1813:

…(music is) the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infinite. Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing..”

George Sand: My soul ravished by the music and the beauty of the sky

17 Aug

A few days ago I started reading George Sand’s autobiography called “Story of My Life” and I am really enjoying it so far. It follows her life from birth up to the Revolution of 1848. It was originally published in 1854. I particularly enjoyed this little passage about the wonders of music that little Aurore (that was her real name) had experienced for the first time. It is written in such a way that it instantly made me daydream so I chose a painting that depicts a dreamy scene of girl gazing at the moon. Can you not feel the music in the air?

Johann Peter Hasenclever, Die Sentimentale, c. 1846-47

A memory which does date from my first four years is that of my earliest musical response. My mother had been to see someone in  village near Paris, I do not know which village. The apartment was very high up, and from the window, as I was too small to see down to the street, I could only distinguish neighboring housetops and a large expanse of sky. We spent part of the day there, but I paid attention to nothing else, so absorbed was I by the sound of a flute which played a flock of tunes that I found wondrous all the time we were there. The sound was coming from one of the highest garrets, quite far away, for my mother could hardly hear it when I asked her what it was. As for me, my hearing was apparently finer and more sensitive at this period, and I did not miss a single modulation of this little instrument—so piercing from nearby, so sweet at a distance—and was charmed by it. It seemed to me I heard it as in a dream. The sky was cloudless and a sparkling blue, and those delicate melodies seemed to soar over the rooftops as far as heaven itself. Who knows if it wasn’t an artist of superior inspiration who, for the moment, had no other attentive listener but me? It could just as well have been a cook’s helper who was learning the themes from Monaco or Les Folies d’Espagne. Whoever it was, I experienced indescribable musical pleasure, and I was truly ecstatic in front of that window, where for the first time I vaguely understood the harmony of external things, my soul being ravished alike by the music and the beauty of the sky.

Music Is the Most Romantic of All Arts

17 Sep

“Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing…

George Roux, Spirit, 1885

I read a sentence in a schoolbook a few years ago which said that “music is the most romantic of all arts” and this line stuck with me. It awoke something inside me, it inspired me at school and at home, it was the most beautiful sentence I had read. The idea that music was the most romantic of all arts enchanted me beyond belief. Later I read the entire essay by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a study of Beethoven’s instrumental music which first appeared in 1810 and was revised in 1813. Perhaps in our day and age the word “romantic” is simplified, overused and misunderstood, it stands for something shallow and sugary, but when Hoffmann used it to describe Beethoven’s music, he used it to describe the powerful, unrestrained passion, emotions and expressiveness. As much as I love paintings and enjoy reading books, I must say that only music awakens that something within me, and I imagine most of you would agree with me. When I listen to Chopin’s Nocturnes and his Waltz in A minor, Debussy’s work for flute and harp, some Ravel, and even other music such as Tindersticks or Echo and the Bunnymen, it sends me into a trance, my imagination is awakened and images appear before my eyes, sentiments I never knew I had suddenly posses me and afterwards I feel a catharsis calmness and a new found love and inspiration. Even in visual arts this romantic nature of music is portrayed. In George Roux’s painting “Spirit” a gorgeous ghostly white lady is seen playing the piano. Her thin waist and ethereal form are aesthetically pleasing and the man’s face shows both shock and awe. Perhaps he is a widow and this is the ghost of his wife playing their favourite tune. Painting is open to interpretation, but one thing is certain; only the music has such power to move us, bring us to tears, purify us, infuse us with yearning and romance, and even make us fall in love with whoever is playing it or sharing our love for it.

John William Waterhouse, Saint Cecilia, 1895

Now here are E.T.A Hoffmann’s words:

When music is discussed as an independent art, should it not be solely instrumental music that is intended, music that scorns every aid from and mixing with any other art (poetry), music that only expresses the distinctive and unique essence of this art? It is the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infinite. Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing. . . .
Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world! Romantic taste is rare, romantic talent even rarer, and perhaps for this reason there are so few who are able to sweep the lyre with tones that unveil the wonderful realm of the romantic. Haydn grasps romantically the human in human life; he is more accommodating, more comprehensible for the common man. Mozart laid claim more to the superhuman, to the marvelous that dwells in the inner spirit. Beethoven’s music wields the lever of fear, awe, horror, and pain, and it awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic. Thus he is a purely romantic composer, and if he has had less success with vocal music, is this because vocal music excludes the character of indefinite longing and represents the emotions, which come from the realm of the infinite, only by the definite affects of words? . . .

Sir William Quiller Orchardson, Her Mother’s Voice, exhibited in 1888

Monotonous beige and yellow colours and a slightly sentimental mood of this late Victorian genre scene painted by English painter William Quiller Orchardson hides a more wistful theme. Evening has fallen and a lamp is casting a yellowish glow all over the sumptuous interior and yet, despite the richness of the interior, a certain sadness hangs like a cloud over the room. An old gentleman was sitting in his armchair and reading the newspapers until something happened… A familiar voice, a very dear voice, colours the stuffy air filled with memories and hopeless wistful reveries. The voice awakens old wounds and merry memories that he can never get back “And all the money in the world couldn’t bring back those days”, to quote the song “This is the Day” by The The (and later Manic Street Preachers). His daughter, dressed in a fashionable pale pink evening gown, is sitting at the piano, playing and singing while a young man is standing by her side. She has her mother’s voice, as the title of the painting suggests. It is through music, singing, but still music, that the inexplicable yearning enters the man’s heart and soul and awakens a river of emotions which usually remain buried deep within him.

Sepulchral Cover of Joy Division’s Closer (1980)

18 May

Ian Curtis, the singer, songwriter and the front man of British post-punk band Joy Division took his life on the 18th May 1980, two months shy of his twenty-forth birthday. The second and last album of Joy Division, conveniently named “Closer” because it truly brought a sense of closure, an ending, was released on 18 July 1980; three days after Ian Curtis would have usually celebrate his birthday. In a way, for Curtis at least (other band members were still alive), this album was release posthumously. Since today is the 40th anniversary of Curtis’ death, I decided the explore the art behind the album cover of “Closer”.

Joy Division, Closer, 1980, album cover designed by Peter Saville (Factory Records)

Existence well what does it matter?
I exist on the best terms I can
The past is now part of my future,
The present is well out of hand
The present is well out of hand…

(Heart and Soul)

Life goes on, music scene goes on, even the other band members went on with their music and formed a new band, New Order, but for Joy Division the “Closer” marks an ending and the album cover is eerily appropriate. The black and white design of the album features the title “Closer” and under it there’s a sombre and gloomy photograph of a tomb. The photograph of the tomb used for the album cover was taken in 1978 by Bernard Pierre Wolff. The tomb was sculpted by Demetrio Paernio in 1910 for the Appiani family tomb in the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno in Genoa, Italy. Paernio (1851-1914) was an Italian sculptor who designed and carved a plethora of tombs for the Staglieno cemetery, but the Appiani family tomb seems especially eerie and gloomy, and therefore fitting for the album of “Closer”.

The tomb shows a man lying on a catafalque, surrounded by his grieving family members. The gestures of the figures presented truly bring the mood of melancholy and anguish; one woman has thrown herself on the ground, from agony and pain of the loss, while the other two are kneeling down, the one in the middle covered her face in her hand, unable to face sad reality of the situation. Looking at the actual, less-artistic photograph of the tomb bellow, it seems to me that the person deceased could be Giovanni who died in 1907. The tomb was designed in 1910, but I am sure that the artist’s commission takes time, especially if it’s a sculpture which requires time and effort. Paernio beautifully depicted the tragedy of the grieving family through the gestures and poses, but also through the clothes; the creases and fluid lines of their robes appear so vivid and alive. This is definitely not a stiff looking tomb, it’s full of emotions, tragedy and passion. I can imagine how morbidly beautiful and magical it would look surrounded by candles and flowers, in autumnal dusk when distant sky is a greyish with a tinge of pink.

Appiani family tomb. Picture found here.

This is a crisis I knew had to come,
Destroying the balance I’d kept.
Doubting, unsettling and turning around,
Wondering what will come next.
Is this the role that you wanted to live?
I was foolish to ask for so much.
Without the protection and infancy’s guard,
It all falls apart at first touch.

(Passover)

This is what the designer Peter Saville had to say about the process of choosing a picture for the cover: “(Saville) revealed that the photos came from a very trendy art magazine called Zoom that had been lying around his studio in London. He later told Mojo magazine: “Bernard Pierre Wolff had done a series of photographs in a cemetery in Italy. I don’t know to this day whether they were real or not – some of them you thought, he’s set that up – that’s just models, covered in dust.” Well, the image wasn’t staged, it was in fact a beautifully carved tombstone, situated in the Staglieno cemetery in Genova, Northern Italy. The tomb belongs to the Appiani family and the incredible marble work was created by sculptor Demetrio Paernio in 1910. Saville explained that Joy Division manager Rob Gretton brought the band to see him to discuss the artwork while they were making the LP: “I hadn’t heard anything they’d recorded so I said ‘I’ll show you what I’ve seen recently that has thrilled me’.” He then showed the band the spread of photos by Wolff that covered several pages in the magazine: “I thought the band would laugh, but they were enthralled. They said ‘We’ – that’s ‘we’ – ‘like that one’.” (quote found here)

All in all, I think the choice of the black and white photograph of this beautiful Appiani tomb was perfect for the album cover, sepulchral, melancholy and Gothic it fits the mood of the music, the lyrics and the overall mood surrounding the band, not to mention the coincidence that the front man of the band also committed suicide two months after the album was recorded and two months prior to its release. It’s almost like the veil of death and gloom lay over the making of “Closer”, like the fingers from another world, the ghostly world, participated in its making. Bernard Sumner, the guitarist of Joy Division and later New Order, spoke in October 2007 about the mindset of Ian Curtis during the recording sessions for “Closer”: “While we were working on Closer, Ian said to me that doing this album felt very strange, because he felt that all his words were writing themselves. He also said that he had this terrible claustrophobic feeling that he was in a whirlpool and being pulled down, drowning.

So this is permanent, love’s shattered pride.
What once was innocence, turned on its side.
A cloud hangs over me, marks every move,
Deep in the memory, of what once was love.
Oh how I realized how I wanted time,
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find,
Just for one moment, thought I’d found my way.
Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away…
(Twenty Four Hours)

David Bowie’s Moss Garden and Ukiyo-e Ladies Playing Koto

15 Mar

Chikanobu Toyohara (1838-1912), Koto Player – Azuma

David Bowie’s instrumental piece “Moss Garden”, the second of the three instrumentals on side two of album “Heroes” released in 1977, is a serene, tranquil oasis of light in the desert of darkness which makes the majority of the album’s sound. Situated between the fellow two instrumentals, dark and foreboding “Sense of Doubt” and equally grim “Neuköln”, the “Moss Garden”, strange and serene, is like a ray of sun on a moody, cloudy spring day that appears for a moment and disappears quickly behind the clouds. Bowie plays the traditional Japanese string instrument koto on the track and Brian Eno plays the synthesizer. “Moss Garden” is a delightful five minutes and three seconds of lightness and meditative, ambient ethereal sounds. So, one cannot refer to “Heroes” as to a dark album, why, one eighth of the album is uplifting. And then there’s the song “Heroes” as well.

It’s been quite some time since I discovered Bowie’s Berlin era songs, but this song lingered in my memory, and I think the reason for that is the eastern sound of the koto. I mean, how many rock songs are coloured by far-east sounds like that? Listening to this instrumental piece made me think of all the Ukiyo-e prints where beautiful Japanese ladies dressed in vibrant clothes are playing koto and I found a few lovely examples which I am sharing in this post. A lot of these Japanese woodcut prints (or Ukiyo-e prints) were made by Chikanobu, an artist who worked mostly in the 1880s and 1890s, the last fruitful decades for the art of woodcuts and in his work he mostly focused on beautiful women doing everyday things. I really enjoy the elegant simplicity of the woodcut above; how the background is clear but the lady’s purple kimono stands out and the focus is solely on her and her koto; back to bare essentials. I also really love Hasegawa Settei’s portrayal of lady playing kimono.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Preparing to Play the Koto, from the series Ladies of the Tokugawa Period, 1895

Toshikata Mizuno (1866-1914), Thirty-six Selected Beauties – Playing Koto

Hasegawa Settei, A Japanese woman playing the koto, December 1878

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Playing Koto, c 1890s

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Koto Player at 11 a.m. – Scenes of the Twenty-four Hours, c 1890s

Moss gardens are a special variety of Japanese gardens, the continuous flow of unending moss coated ground lets the person slowly fall into the dreamy and meditative state, and allows the eye to wander from one variety of moss to the other, the nostrils to inhale the rich, green, primeval scent of this old and grateful plant. I imagine it rich with water after a rainy summer afternoon. “A moss garden presents the opportunity to observe differentiations of colour that have never been seen before. The tactile and optical characteristics of the moss gardens are softness, sponginess, submarine wateriness and unfathomability. They are the exact opposite of the pebble gardens with their appointed paths, boundaries and stone islands.” (Siegfried Wichmann; Japonism)

When life gets overwhelming, one can sit for hours in such a garden and easily sink into a meditative state, thoughts drifting and problems fading. In a similar way, Bowie’s move to Berlin with Iggy Pop in 1976 was his way of finding clarity, anonymity and inspiration: “I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity.“(Bowie with Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton for Uncut Magazine) After the very depressing album “Low” released earlier the same year, 1977, album “Heroes” is the first step in the path of Bowie’s search for clarity and perhaps the song “Moss Garden” is the best expression of this new found quite, introspective feeling of serenity.

Keiko Yurimoto (1906-2000), Koto Player, c 1950

Berlin in the seventies was a grey, isolated and divided city with a world-weary self-regard. The youth suffered and junkies filled the subway stations, but a lot of bohemians, artists and musicians were drawn to that bleak, alienated and experimental atmosphere and relished in what the city had to offer. As Bowie said himself: “For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.” He was just another weirdo in the city and everyone left him alone. The product of his fascination with the city were three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – today known as Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, by far my favourite era of Bowie’s music. Bowie said himself about the Berlin Trilogy: “My complete being is within those three albums.” (Uncut magazine) Enough said. I don’t really understand or share the wild enthusiasm for Bowie’s glam rock Ziggy Stardust era, I mean those are some great songs, but the Berlin era is the real thing, it sounds as if the mood of the times and the city with its bleakness and political division is woven into the music, to me it sounds like Berlin breathing and living.

Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Hôtel Particulier and Art of Paul Delvaux

24 Feb

“All my life I’ve tried to transcribe reality to make it into a kind of dream.”

(Paul Delvaux)

Paul Delvaux, Sleeping Venus (La Venus Endormie), 1944

Serge Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album “Historie de Melody Nelson” released on 24 March 1971 has a Lolitaesque theme and in seven unique yet connected songs tells a tale of an older gentleman (Serge) who, by accident, collides his car into the red bicycle of a sweet and pretty schoolgirl called Melody Nelson (Jane Birkin). This chance seemingly unhappy encounter blossoms into a flower of seduction and romance as the gentleman takes Melody to a hotel. This part of the musical story is told in the fifth song “L’hôtel particulier“. Needless to say, I very much enjoy the variety of different musical styles on the album’s songs, and I love the innocently-sexy Jane Birkin in the videos, but it is the video for this song “L’hôtel particulier” that fascinates me in particular because it features the wondrous paintings of the Belgian Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) who was actually still alive during the time the album was made. Not only alive, but also very prolific. Even though he was the last surviving Surrealist during his life, he was a wanderer and an individualist in the Surrealist crowd who created a unique dream-like world on his canvases which feature repetitive motifs; Classical architecture, nocturnal setting, nude women whose bodies are white as snow and appear smooth as marble, skeletons, crescent moon, trains, boudoirs.

The shaping of Delvaux’s art career was a slow and steady process because at first his parents pressured him into studying architecture, it was something he didn’t enjoy but it did serve him greatly later in creating the strange, accurately depicted yet eerie spaces in his paintings. In 1934 Delvaux saw the Surrealist exhibition “Minotaure” and this inspired him to start working in the direction of Surrealism because it led him back to the imaginative state of childhood. Delvaux’s art also shows the influence of Giorgio de Chirico’s cold and enigmatic worlds where architecture is drawn with precision yet the overall effect is unsettling. In 1937 and 1939 he visited Italy and the architecture inspired him to serve as a setting for the world of his languid dead-eyed hypnotised nudes. Delvaux painted some wonderful eerie paintings even in the late 1960s and 1970s, but the paintings chosen for Gainsbourg’s video were mostly painted in the 1940s. The World War II period was a harsh one for Delvaux as it was for everyone, but it only inspired him to paint more and to retreat into the world of his imagination. The artist stated “I would like to create a fabulous painting in which I would live, in which I could live.”

As a child he was afraid of skeletons but later in life he found a way to incorporate them into his nocturnal worlds, bones glistening in moonlight, death opposing the sensuality of the women’s nude flesh. One such skeleton pops up in the painting “Sleeping Venus” painted in 1944, and unlike skeletons in James Ensor’s art (a fellow Belgian painter), Delvaux’s skeleton is unashamed of himself, he doesn’t put on a mask or hide under some garish carnival clothes. Nude Venus is sweetly asleep on a divan in front of the temple-like building while the skeleton is having a fascinating conversation with a Belle Epoque woman with a large brimmed hat and a dark red dress. The conversation is so fascinating that not even the passing couple, Serge and Jane, can interrupt it. Even though Delvaux’s paintings aren’t directly connected to the music and the song, I think they create a striking background visually which really leaves the viewer interested.

Bellow I’ve compared Delvaux’s paintings to stills from the video:

Paul Delvaux, The Echo, 1943

Paul Delvaux, Night Train, 1947

Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens, 1947

Paul Delvaux, Le nu et le mannequin (Le nu au mannequin), signed and dated ‘P.Delvaux 12-47’, December 1947

Syd Barrett and The Madcap Laughs: Madness, Solitude and Striped Floors

3 Jan

Syd Barrett’s debut album as a solo artist, “The Madcap Laughs” was released on the 3rd January 1970. The music has a bittersweet feel to it; the melodies are childlike and innocent while others take on darker sounds. The album is in many ways a musical portrayal of Syd’s state of mind at the time.

“We are all mad here.”

(Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland)

It was love at first sound with me and Pink Floyd’s early hits such as Arnold Layne, See Emily Play and Scarecrow; I intuitively felt that something very imaginative and strange was hiding underneath the exterior of your average great pop-song. Those were more than just pop songs that will be forgotten in a few years. They had the magic, the wittiness, the dreaminess that made them linger on in my mind. “Who writes stuff like this?”, I thought to myself. The genius behind the lyrics was Syd Barrett; at the time a drop-out art student from Cambridge who overnight found himself in the centre of the psychedelic underground culture. Music and art were fun for Syd, and coming up with witty lyrics and simple catchy tunes was easy for him because he seemed to have approached things in a childlike way, full of curiosity and wonder at the world around him, but the stress of the band’s success, the interviews, the popularity proved to be too much for him. The increasing consummation of the drug of the moment, LSD, did not help matters. His creative period with the Pink Floyd was short but strong, like an explosion, or a shooting star. Let me provide you with a few dates to show you just how fast it all happened; their first single “Arnold Layne” was released on 10th March 1967. And already, on 15th January 1968 Syd played his last gig with Pink Floyd.

Gustave Caillebotte, Wood Floor Planers, 1875

A new chapter in Syd’s life and musical career began. Alone in the loneliness of his Victorian pad in Wetherby Mansion in Earl’s Court Square, the Psychedelic Mad Hatter was slowly descending into a haunting state of introspection, melancholy and illusions. Into his new bohemian abode, he brought the stuff that remained after many moves around London; a small table, a mattress and a striped blanket, some scratched LPs, Penguin edition books by Shakespeare and Chaucer, barely touched canvases stacked against the wall. His room was his little imaginary world. The outside world did not matter anymore. The cheerful, fun-loving, chatty and friendly Syd was gone. The handsome young Englishman with messy black hair and velvet trousers was slowly going mad…. One morning, after having spent some time meditatively staring at his blanket, a painting by Gustave Caillebotte called “The Wood Floor Planners” suddenly came to his mind and he decided to paint the bare wooden floors of his room in stripes of orange and blue. The album cover shows Syd crouching in his room, a vase of daffodils next to him. He is sad and alone, yet his darkness intimidates me. Angry outbursts and fragmented conversation. Loneliness is seeping through the cracks on the striped floor.

Syd Barrett first entered the studio as a solo artist on 30th January 1968; just ten days after his last show with Pink Floyd, for what would be an unfruitful session. Sessions resumed in June and July produced songs Late Night, Octopus and Golden Hair; all featured on The Madcap Laughs. Peter Jenner, who had worked on these sessions claimed that they had not gone smoothly although he got on well with the singer. Shortly after July sessions Syd suddenly stopped recording, breaking up with his then girlfriend Lindsey Corner and then going off a drive around Britain in his Mini only to end up in psychiatric care in Cambridge. By the start of 1969 Barrett, somewhat recovered, resumed his music career and started working with another engineer Malcolm Jones, after both Jenner and Norman Smith (Pink Floyd’s producer at the time) had declined his request to work on the album. Over four sessions beginning on April 10th 1969. Syd had recorded songs Opel (a beautiful misty ballad that would not see the light of day until 1988), No good trying, No man’s land, Here I go and Love you. The sessions all together were not very productive because in those days recording four or five songs on just guitar in four or five hours wasn’t considered very productive. It was something the engineers tried to avoid.

“You feel me
Away far too empty, oh so alone
I want to go home
Oh find me inside of a nocturne, the blonde
How I love you to be by my side”

(Syd Barrett – Feel)

During the recording of the album Syd was also on Mandrax and he’d sit on a stool and then fall off it. Barrett and his friends were taking the infamous LSD-25, a powerful psychiatric drug still legal in UK those days. It was almost a religious-like experience for Syd, and many others who indulged. Syd really did believe the psychedelic revolution was flowing through him. The world was changing and he thought we should all be perfect beings, cool and groovy. Syd began taking acid regularly with enthusiasm many found alarming. It was in May 1967. that his eyes crazed.  At the time of The Madcap Laughs Syd had already completely surrendered.

The Madcap Laughs is an album filled with long forgotten symbolism. The songs are a mirror of Syd’s mental state of the time and in them he expressed, perhaps deliberately perhaps not, his loneliness and growing alienation. Though some of them have a cheerful rhythm like Love you, one can feel a spark of melancholy. In song Terrapin for example Syd shows his love of the blues while some of the songs sound more like a concept rather than a finished and polished song. This album features some almost child-like songs with optimistic melodies and ostensibly cute themes (Love you and Here I go) through darker and deeper subjects (Dark globe, Golden Hair and No man’s land) to melancholic cries for rescue from his loneliness and ever increasing alienation. Song Golden Hair is actually based on a poem by James Joyce.

This album and the following Barrett reflect not just his state of mind but also the atmosphere at the time, sorrowful end of the sixties whose optimism, innocence and mind-expanding ideas had faded away. By that time the hedonistic atmosphere of the Swinging London was long lost. Perhaps albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett are a remembrance of the sixties for they were created at the dusk of this beautiful era; era which Syd belonged to and sadly died with.

The striped floors are aesthetically such a fun and exciting things. Syd chose to paint his floors in vibrant contrasting colours which gives the entire room a psychedelic touch, but I noticed the motif of wooden floor in many canvases painted by nineteenth century artists. Seeing the striped wooden floor stretching vertically or horizontally on the canvas is so exciting to me. Here are a few examples by Vincent van Gogh and Degas:

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, 1888

Edgar Degas, Deux Danseuses, 1879

Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, 1879

Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1877

William Ratcliffe, Attic Room, 1918

The photo session for the album cover took place in the spring 1969. Most likely in March when daffodils were blooming and Syd had just finished painting his floor in orange and purple stripes. Proud of what he had done, Syd invited his friend Mick Rock to come over and take some photos. At that time Syd was living with Iggy The Eskimo who was a friend of Syd’s ex-girlfriend Jenny Spires. Iggy and Syd weren’t lovers but she was a good company. She answered the doors that day and welcomed Mick completely naked (not an unusual thing for hippies and free-spirited creatures of the time). When Mick arrived he found Syd in bed, still in his underpants; a moment he captured with his new camera Pentax he had just recently bought. After he’d got up, Syd donned a pair of trousers with colour stains on them; from the floor paint. Iggy, the groovy companion to this Mad Hatter of Psychedelia, added some kohl to his eyes to achieve that elegantly wasted look of a Poete Maudite.

The photos were created naturally, with no staging and posing. Mick worked with elements he had: a painted floor, a vase of daffodils, nude Iggy in the background and a huge Canadian car parked just in front of Wetherby Mansion for some outside shots. None of it was planned. Later that day, Storm Thorgerson arrived and his solo focus was the wonderful striped floor. He shoot photos in fading light placing a wide angled lens millimeters of the ground to achieve an Alice in Wonderland effect, giving the floor elastic quality. Syd just crouched by the fireplace and he looked natural; he spontaneously adapted to the background. His pose suggests defiant exhaustion and a dark edge of ‘knowing’. There was only one corner of the room that Syd hadn’t painted and that was the only clean angle if you didn’t want to expose this ‘set’ for what it was; a drab living room with a nasty electric fireplace. As long as he occupied his island-mattress surrounded by striped painted floor, reality and a world of possibilities remained outside his door. The photo that would eventually be the cover photo was also taken by Thorgerson.

I cannot put it in words how much I adore this album and the album cover and the striped floor. All of it has inspired me beyond words. I listen to “The Madcap Laughs” every time I paint my watercolours; it is such a pleasant, soothing, melancholy and dreamy music to provide background for dipping my brush in water, then in the paint… Syd’s fragile voice, his strange and witty lyrics, his yearnings for help and cries of loneliness that come out in some songs, all of it draws me into this strange ethereal world which I always occupy with one part of my mind. When I listen to this album, and also his follow-up “Barrett”, I truly feel like Alice when she found herself in the Wonderland; Syd is the psychedelic Mad Hatter and I follow him blindly, over the striped floor, crossing the yellow glow of the waning sun, to the spaces where only music remains, and I am free, free, free…

Also, grainy quality of the photo brings nostalgia and serves as a barrier between psychedelic vivid colours of the ’60s to more drab and sad reality that came with the seventies. Long gone is the multicoloured glamour of the ’60s Swinging London psychedelia and instead the cover of The Madcap Laughs suggests the ’60s decadence exposed and photos have that sad “party’s over” feel.

I have to take a moment in the end to give praise where praise is due and recommend you all the wonderful, amazing, fun and detailed book about Syd Barret called “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe” by Julius Palacios.