Tag Archives: Nature

Watercolours of the Caribbean by Winslow Homer

27 May

Last summer I fell in love with Winslow Homer’s watercolours so I thought now is the right time to finally write about them.

Winslow Homer, Rest, 1885

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was an American painter from the East coast, famous for his Realist style landscapes and scenes of turbulent blue seas. He started his artistic career by studying lithography for two years, and he made illustrations for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly but this didn’t stop him from pursuing his dream of being a real artist and he made a successful transition from illustrator to oil-on-canvas painter. In 1859 he moved from Massachusetts where he lived with his family to New York City where he opened a studio and started taking classes at the National Academy of Design. He first started using the medium of watercolours in 1873 and he was instantly good at it; he successfully sailed the seas of watercolours. His mother was an amateur water-colourist so it is possible she inspired him to take up watercolours, since the two were close throughout his life.

In this post we’ll take a look at Homer’s watercolours that capture the beauty of the south and the mythical tropical lands that are perpetually so dazzling to the imagination of the Western people; a place where rains don’t fall down hard and sad, the sky isn’t a monotonous grey, a place where pink and golden sunsets play Apollonian melodies and love lingers in the air; the Caribbean. Homer was nor the first nor the last Western artist to take inspiration in lands that were exotic to them; Albrecht Durer travelled to Italy, Delacroix’s travels to Morocco changed his colour palette and brought a whole new set of subjects, Paul Gauguin’s well-known Odyssey to Tahiti resulted in many vibrantly coloured canvases. And what an experience it must have been for Homer who was so used to the grey sky and green meadows to come to a world of sunshine, light breeze and glistening blue ocean, inviting and warm. Homer travelled to Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas in winter of 1884-85 to paint the tropical heaven scenes commissioned by the Century Magazine.

Winslow Homer, Sponge Fishermen, Bahamas, 1885

“Sponge Fisherman” has such a meditative vibe, perhaps it’s because of the horizontal composition, or the dreamy way in which the sky and the ocean meet, both so serene and blue. Even though the painting shows workers and it’s probably very hot, something about it makes me so relaxed. The palm trees here look as if they are carried by a gentle breeze and the workers seem bubbling and chatty, not exhausted or sad.

The sponges in this painting reminded me of something from Márquez’s novella “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother” which I was just reading. In one scene the grandmother is talking in her sleep and she mentions sailors from foreign lands who brought sponges that were alive and crying and made children in the house cry just so they could drink in their tears! Ha ha. That wonderful magic realism.

Winslow Homer, Along the Road, Bahamas, 1885

“Along the Road” is a rather interesting example because we have a human figure again; a dark-skinned beauty dressed in white walking down the street. it seems to me that she is holding her headdress with her hand so the wind doesn’t blow it off. Behind her we see a row of houses and the ocean is glistening in the distance. The palm tree swaying its branches wildly and the sky both indicate the weather condition of strong winds and an approaching storm possibly. I hope this lady got home before rain. Homer managed to create a sense of depth in the sky and the rest of the painting despite using a limited colour palette of greys and muted tones.

Winslow Homer, A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Winslow Homer, Orange Tree, Nassau (also known as Orange Trees and Gate), 1885

The two paintings above both show gardens in Nassau and here Homer had wonderfully achieved the mood of a hot summer day. Many and many shades of green and blue seem to be playing a sonata in “A Garden in Nassau”. The tree looks ever so grandiose with those large leaves painted in intensely vibrant shades of green. A little boy stands in front of the gates and a tall white stone wall. Half-frightened, half-curious. The little red flowers in the right part giggle with curiosity as he bows his head down. The palm tree is silent, casts its shadow in the midday heat instead of a respond. Its leaves don’t sway, for the wind is having a siesta. In the painting “Orange Trees and Gate” it is the orange tree which got Homer’s spotlight. Again, everything is so luminous and bathed in lightness. Thousand little brushstrokes of green colour make an orange tree and dots of orange stand for the fruit which weighs the tree down. Ground is left in white but a sad dark shade of blue is coming from the lower right corner, from the space unknown to us.

Winslow Homer, Shark Fishing, 1885

Winslow Homer, After the Hurricane, Bahamas, 1899

Two paintings above, “Shark Fishing” and “After the Hurricane” shows us that Homer didn’t just capture the idealised notion of the Caribbean world and presented it as a world of sunshine and magic, as Gauguin had perhaps done in his Tahiti paintings. Homer didn’t hesitate to paint the everyday reality and people doing what they normally would, whether it’s a brave and dangerous act of fishing a shark, or capturing the sad reality of the fragile Caribbean world after the hurricane. Notice again what a virtuoso he is with watercolours, how gracefully he painted the transitions of colours, how he created a dynamic mood; that threatening dark cloudy sky, that unforgiving sea, the blades of grass so thin and vibrant, and the figure of a man washed up on the shore, a poignant focus of a painting that we can all empathise with. Nature is interesting, yet wild. As you may have noticed by the dates, some of the watercolours were made a decade later, in 1899, and not in 1885. It’s because Homer visited Florida and Nassau again in winter and stayed there from December 1898 to February 1899. His very colourful and vibrant watercolour “Flower Garden and Bungalow” was also painted during that trip. I didn’t even notice the bungalow at first because my eyes were so captivated by the sea of tropical red and yellow flowers in the foreground. And the view of the dreamy blue sea in the background is just mesmerising.

Winslow Homer, Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda, 1899

My infatuation with the Caribbean and Latin America started last summer when I read Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which I thought was absolutely fabulous and I intend to reread it this summer. To feed my Caribbean infatuation I read poems by Cuban authors, Latin American writers, Reinaldo Arenas, listened to Omara Portuondo and Agustin Barrios, gazed at Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and so when I discovered these gorgeous watercolours by Winslow Homer it was love at first sight. This is how I imagine the sea when Reinaldo Arenas writes about it in his memoir “Before Night Falls”. Sandy beaches, pink skies, a breeze through the palm trees, rare birds with colourful feathers, a world of exoticism and vibrancy comes to mind when I gaze at these watercolours and daydream of the Caribbean islands and seas.

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Faustine and the Beautiful Summer (1972) – A Review

23 May

A few days ago I watched a brilliant film called “Faustine and the beautiful summer” (original title: Faustine et le bel été) directed by Nina Companeez whose mood of dreams, romance, indolence and love for nature really struck a chord with me and I found a lot of things highly relatable, particularly the character of Faustine: her reveries, her carefree nature. Also, I wish I could just take her gorgeous outfits from the screen and have them in my wardrobe.

The plot is simple: a pretty sixteen year old girl called Faustine (played by Muriel Catala) is about to spent her summer holidays with her grandparents in the countryside. While there, she spends time wandering the woods and the meadows, discovering the secrets of nature as well as spying on her neighbours who are also there on holiday. She is ocassionally flirting with a fellow teenage boy from that family called Joachim, but mostly takes delight in rejecting him because she develops an interest in his uncle. She eventually befriends the entire family and visits them often, and spends time with Joachim’s female cousins who find her fascinating.

Everything is seen trough her eyes and it is almost like reading her diary, her memories of that summer. And through her eyes everything is magical and whimsical. There isn’t much that goes on in the film and it isn’t long either, only around an hour and a half, but the slow and sensuous mood that reminds me of David Hamilton’s photography from roughly the same years makes it a delight for me. Still, there is more depth to the film than it appears on the surface. For sure it is not a sugary and naive teenage romantic drama. Many conflicts linger throughout the film and surface one by one; conflicts between sensuality and innocence, real life vs dreams, observing life vs participating in it. Those are some things that anyone could relate to, but a girl of Faustine’s age and inexperience would particularly understand it, and that is another reason I loved the film. Not only do I love the aesthetic but the themes as well. And, Chopin’s music is played throughout the film as well.

There is a sweet sensuality lingering throughout the scenes; Faustine walking through the fields of poppies and pressing the golden wheat to her soft cheek, kissing the bark of a tree, the trace of milk left on Faustine’s lips as she puts down her mug, Faustine indolently lying on the bed wrapped in nothing but white lace and eating cherries and strawberries, Faustine talking to a delicate newborn poppy flower… and an ultimate feeling of being immersed in nature when she goes skinny dipping in a nearby lake while the rain is falling romantically and announcing the arrival of autumn. I adored one scene where she is running through fields of wheat and poppies, dressed in a white gown and wearing her straw hat with a long pink ribbon, running playfully as if she were a little girl and shouting “Summer isn’t over”, then throwing herself into the grass and gazing at the play of sunlight coming through the treetops and whispering: “Sunshine fills the air. Flowers of all colours. I drink you in, you make me dizzy.”

I love the coming of age theme and I can relate to Faustine feeling that everything is possible, seeing beauty all around her, and feeling rain of sadness falling on her sun-kissed skin from time to time, which are not the dark rains of autumn but the warm and transient summer showers that stir the soul but leave no scars. Throughout the film Faustine is constantly walking the tightrope between her daydreams and the real life around her. The last scene ends the film beautifully; she is dressed in a long gown, so elegant and grown-up, in an embrace with Joachim’s uncle and says: “And finally Faustine will enter the world through the blue door. Today my first kiss and in seventy years, at best, I’ll be dead.” It sounds as if she is narrating her own life, and it is unclear whether she is talking to him, herself or the trees all around them. From the world of daydreams, through a kiss, Faustine at last enters the real world and tastes its sweetness.

And now a few verses from Derek Walcott’s poem “Bleecker Street, Summer” which I discovered by serendipity last summer:

Summer for prose and lemons, for nakedness and languor,
for the eternal idleness of the imagined return,
for rare flutes and bare feet, and the August bedroom
of tangled sheets and the Sunday salt, ah violin!

When I press summer dusks together, it is
a month of street accordions and sprinklers
laying the dust, small shadows running from me.

These beautiful verses from John Keats’s “Endymion” which I loved last summer came to mind while I was watching the film:

…Now a soft kiss –
Aye, by that kiss, I vow an endless bliss,
An immortality of passion’s thine:
Ere long I will exalt thee to the shine
Of heaven ambrosial; and we will shade
Ourselves whole summers by a river glade;
And I will tell thee stories of the sky,
And breathe thee whispers of its minstrelsy,
My happy love will overwing all bounds!
O let me melt into thee! let the sounds
Of our close voices marry at their birth;
Let us entwine hoveringly!

I hope you enjoyed this review and that you decide to watch the film. I am glad I watched it now, in May, because I can look forward to another summer and hope that it is as sweet as the last one’s was, instead of pining for it once it passes.

Frank W. Benson – Children in Woods

12 Apr

“Saturday proved an ideal day for a picnic. . .a day of breeze and blue, warm, sunny, with a little rollicking wind blowing across meadow and orchard. Over every sunlit upland and field was a delicate, flower-starred green.” (L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea)

Children in Woods, Frank W. Benson, 1905

The painting shows three female figures in nature; three girls in white and pink gowns with ribbons in their soft hair are enjoying a warm sunny day of late spring or early summer. The figures are closely-cropped and take a lot of space on the almost square-shaped canvas. This enriches the scene with an intimate mood; we feel that we are close to the girls, part of their summery picnic in the woods; we can almost hear their giggles and whispers as they confide their secrets to each other. The limited colour palette of white, pink and green lulls us into this sweet and serene summery mood where the innocence of childhood, indolence of summer and freedom of the woods all become intermingled.

In this simple and lovely outdoor scene Frank Benson, an American Impressionist who was born and died in Salem, Massachusetts, managed to capture the fleeting mood of a summer day. Gazing at the painting takes you there to those woods; just look how beautifully he painted the play of sunlight on their white gowns, the trembling of the evergreen trees in the background, the breeze that plays with the girls’ soft honey-coloured hair. You can almost smell the pine and fir trees. Benson was an active, outdoorsy person, particularly in his youth; loved wildlife and sports. Many of his paintings feature wildlife themes such as birds and woods, but Benson was a family man too. When his career was established he married Ellen Peirson who appears in some of his paintings. The couple had a son George and three daughters: Eleanor (born 1890), Elisabeth (born 1892) and Sylvia (b. 1898).

Painting “Children in Woods” isn’t just a charming Impressionist scene but a work of a loving father; a memory of his girls growing up, a window to his private life. It shows his daughters in the woods near their summer retreat in North Haven, Maine. Eleanor remembers: “When we were in North Haven, Papa would often have us put on our best white dresses and then ask us to sit in the grass or play in the woods. We thought it was silly and the maids made such a fuss when they saw our clothes afterwards.” Benson’s paintings are sometimes compared to Claude Monet’s outdoor scenes, and it’s true that he was inspired by Monet, but the genteel intimate mood of this painting reminds me more of Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot’s paintings of family and children.

This beautiful summery painting reminded me of a scene from the novel “Anne of Avonlea” by L.M.Montgomery where Anne and her friends go for a picnic in the woods and here is a fragment of their delightful dreamy conversation:

“I wonder what a soul. . .a person’s soul. . .would look like,” said Priscilla dreamily.

“Like that, I should think,” answered Anne, pointing to a radiance of sifted sunlight streaming through a birch tree. “Only with shape and features of course. I like to fancy souls as being made of light. And some are all shot through with rosy stains and quivers. . .and some have a soft glitter like moonlight on the sea. . .and some are pale and transparent like mist at dawn.”

“I read somewhere once that souls were like flowers,” said Priscilla.

“Then your soul is a golden narcissus,” said Anne, “and Diana’s is like a red, red rose. Jane’s is an apple blossom, pink and wholesome and sweet.”

“And your own is a white violet, with purple streaks in its heart,” finished Priscilla.

John Singer Sargent’s Watercolours – Ladies with Parasols

9 Apr

It so happens that most of the paintings I talk about here on the blog are oil on canvas, but deep down in my heart I am an ardent lover of watercolours. I think it’s a medium full of spontaneity and feelings. So, let’s take a look at some beautiful watercolours with a mood of spring and indolence by an American Impressionist John Singer Sargent.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911, detail

A beautifully dressed woman with a parasol, in nature, enjoying the sunshine and summer breeze; not quite a foreign subject to the artists, especially not to the Impressionists; Claude Monet for one painted plenty of such scenes. Still, I feel that John Singer Sargent’s explorations of this theme are particularly interesting. Firstly because they are made in watercolours, and secondly they were made in moments when Sargent was taking a break from his highly appraised oil-on-canvas portraits of Victorian and later Edwardian nobility, therefore they are more experimental and more intimate. These show Sargent’s heart, not his business.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911

In “The Lady with the Umbrella”, a beautiful woman dressed in a beautiful white gown is lying on the grass; her umbrella has just rolled over and she has to hold it gently with her hand, lest the summer’s breeze might blow it away. There is an air of sweetness and delicacy about her, she looks like a large white anemone flower, but there is a hint of sensuality as well; her flushed cheeks and direct gaze, the way her little hand is holding the umbrella, the S-silhouette of her body, so typically Edwardian, clad in soft whiteness. The sitter is actually Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond. I like how closely cropped her body is; look how her dress and the umbrella are delightfully ‘cut-off’. The artist hesitates to show us all of her charms, but rather invited us to daydream of the nature surround this beauty and makes us believe her dress is indeed a flowing sea of white silk that goes on and on, lavish and soft. The painting reminds me of a scene you’d find in Merchant-Ivory films such as “A Room with a View” (1985) or “Howards End” (1992) with the beautiful Helena Bonham-Carter. Also, because of the woman’s gaze, pose and the way she’s closely-cropped, it almost reminds me of fashion photography, from the sixties and seventies as well as now. Example of what I mean is right below:

John Singer Sargent, Madame Roger-Jourdain, 1883-85, watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 55.8

Still, “The Lady with the Umbrella” isn’t the first painting of this kind that Sargent made. After 1900, Sargent often used the motif of woman lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but when he painted Henriette, this was a new thing for him. His watercolour portrait of Madame Roger-Jourdain made decades earlier is perhaps the painting that started it all. Henriette Roger-Jourdain was a daughter and the wife of two artists; her father was Henri Moulignon, and her husband was the artist Joseph Roger-Jourdain. Henriette was not just a society hostess but also a friend and a muse to many artists; composer Gabriel Fauré dedicated his composition “Aurore” to her in 1884, Paul Albert Besnard and Sargent both painted her. Sargent became acquainted with the Roger-Jourdain family because they were neighbours in the boulevard Berthier in Paris.

The painting is similar to the one we’ve seen above; a lady lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but here her body isn’t closely cropped and she is surrounded by grass; freedom all around her. One can imagine her laughing when tickled by the grass, stretching her arms and breathing in the fresh air, laughing at the tree tops that open before her eyes, wishing she could fly with the birds and be one with the baby blue sky… Dressed in a white dress, lying on that dark green grass she looks like a lotus flower on the flickering emerald green surface of a lake. The portrait oozes that fantastically indolent and sensuous “dolce far niente” mood.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Parasol, 1888, watercolour on paper, 17.2 x 24.1 cm

Now, this third example is a tad different; the colours are darker and the woman appears more demure. She is depriving the viewer of her coquettish gaze, choosing rather to stay hidden underneath her gauzy white scarf. I really appreciate the sketch-like brushstrokes here; look how the parasol was painted with its taupe brown shadings and details in white, then the grass in a strange moss-green colour, perhaps it was an autumn day. Again, the woman’s hat and her parasol are slightly closely-cropped which helps us imagine that we are there with her, it gives an immediacy to the scene.

All painting/drawing techniques have their strengths and beauties. Drawings with pencil exude sincerity, those with charcoal possess the gloom and the strength of a tall oak. Pastels are raw pigments and their vibrancy is so psychedelic and childlike. All yet, I adore watercolours! Painting with them is such a thrill; you dip your brush in that watery paint, press is gently to the paper and let is either sink in or mingle freely with the colour next to it… and you feel like a magician, like a witch over her cauldron creating a love potion. Pure magic! Everyone should try it, it’s really therapeutic, it feels like travelling on a rainbow and making friends with each colour. I feel that, with watercolours, the painting almost creates itself; you can make a brushstroke in blue and add a mere drop of red, when water touched the two, you’ll see purple. You can play with it and see where it takes you.

Gustav Klimt – Birch Trees: dancer of the wood

25 Mar

In his portraits of trees and flowers, Klimt conveyed a sense of lyricism and mystery that nature possesses in abundance, but holds it secret to most, choosing rather to reveal her charms to the eye capable of recognising her Beauty.

Gustav Klimt, Farm House with Birch Trees, 1900, 81 x 80 cm, oil on canvas

These four damsels on the meadow in Klimt’s painting are so beautiful and so silent. Never eager for a conversation, they hesitate to speak to me, but they are not proud, but shy, or so the swallows have told me. And how white their gowns are, how fragile their frames; eastern breeze carrying the sound of a distant flute might blow them away! What mythical land have these enchantresses escaped from, I wonder. The gentle grass is swaying on the melody of Debussy and little blue flowers are batting their eyelashes vivaciously, all that is alive and breathes is awaken at the arrival of the mischievous Faun. Oh, yes, the Faun must wander these paths for sure. The birches’ entire bodies tremble, the little green leaves sigh, as they hear the Faun approaching, for they know that, once again, his flute playing will send them into the wildest dream. Dewdrops on the grass are trembling as the sun starts shining slowly and shyly through the woods announcing the day. The birds awaken as the dawn gives birth to morning; fresh, green and glorious. In a step or two, the wild Faun leaves, biding farewell to the birches as they descend into sweet dreams. Tired from their dancing in the dawn, they enjoy indolence during the day, and so a wandered through the woods might assume that they are serious by nature.

Here is a lovely poem by Arthur Ketchum called “The Spirit of the Birch”:

I am the dancer of the wood —
I shimmer in the solitude;
Men call me Birch Tree, yet I know
In other days it was not so.
I am a Dryad slim and white
Who danced too long one summer night,
And the Dawn found and prisoned me!
Captive I moan my liberty,
But let the wood wind flutes begin
Their Elfin music, faint and thin,
I sway, I bend, retreat, advance,
And evermore — I dance! I dance!

In Vienna, Klimt’s artistic focus was on humans as he diligently painted lavish nudes and portraits for rich aristocrats, but in summer months spent in Litzlberg at Lake Attersee he gave himself to nature and painted rich orchards with apple trees, farm houses and chickens, plain and pretty garden flowers, and trees. On his holiday, Klimt would arise early in the morning, around 6 o’clock, and indulge in long walks through the meadows and nearby woods. Were the nymphs the ones to lure him, or was it the smell of wild flowers? So, just like Faun, Klimt tastes the sweetness and secrets of nature at dawn, and these moments became a part of his art. The locals there called him “Waldschrat”: “someone who lives in the woods on his own”. It seems that Klimt and I share the same idea of indolence; for me it isn’t about doing nothing, it’s to stop and ponder, gaze and breathe.

Gustav Klimt, Farm Garden (Flower Garden), 110 x 110 cm, oil on canvas

For nearly all of these “nature-paintings” he did during his holidays, Klimt chose interesting canvases; nearly all are perfectly square shaped. Usually, we tend to think of landscapes painted on rectangle shaped-canvases, with an emphasis on the horizontal line, but Klimt’s landscapes are something entirely different. He doesn’t paint nature from a viewer’s perspective, he walks right into its world, he paints it whilst surrounded by it. For this artist-Faun, nature is sensuous and alive, covered with veils and veils of mysteries… This vision of nature reminded me of a poem in prose called “Dawn” by Arthur Rimbaud:

I have kissed the summer dawn. Before the palaces, nothing moved. The water lay dead. Battalions of shadows still kept the forest road. (…) My first adventure, in a path already gleaming With a clear pale light, Was a flower who told me its name. I laughted at the blond Wasserfall That threw its hair across the pines: On the silvered summit, I came upon the goddess. Then one by one, I lifted her veils. In the long walk, waving my arms. Across the meadow, where I betrayed her to the cock. In the heart of town she fled among the steeples and domes, And I hunted her, scrambling like a beggar on marble wharves. Above the road, near a thicket of laurel, I caught her in her gathered veils, And smelled the scent of her immense body. Dawn and the child fell together at the bottom of the wood. When I awoke, it was noon.”

In “Farm House with Birch Trees” Klimt created a sense of depth; the meadow seems to stretch endlessly upwards, the birches are not painted with their tree tops and leaves but left as slim white lines, slightly crooked, and creating a rhythm in the way they are placed in a diagonal line, surrounded with different layers of flowers, reminiscent of some of Hiroshige’s plum orchards. Klimt is meticulously focused on details and his landscapes have little in common with the sketch-like laid-back styles of Monet. At the same time this painting seems to me like a moment frozen in time, still and ornamental, flickering with details and colours; and at the same time it is a portal to the world of dreams, a world where the Faun, nymphs and flowers await you to join their celebration of indolence and taste the never ending flow of honey, music and laughter. Oh, how I wish to go there! Wait, I can hear the music, how it lures me: Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun“.

The Three-Cornered World (Kusamakura) by Natsume Soseki

25 Feb

Last February I read Natsume Soseki’s book “The Thee-Cornered World” for the first time and it left a deep impression on me so I decided to read it again this month, and spread the word of its beauty.

Hashiguchi Goyo, Hot Springs Inn

The story is told in the first person. The main character is a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who set on a journey to the mountains in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, but not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The plot is simple and the story is not a dynamic one full of events and exciting adventures. Instead, Soseki fills the pages with essay-like meditations on art and nature as the narrator tries to explain to us and himself what is means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration.

Another thing, the narrator loves Percy Shelley’s poetry and is infatuated with John Everett Millais’ painting “Ophelia”, especially with her face expression which he think reveals a body not suffering, but finding serenity in death. The narrator puts an emphasis on the sensitivity to beauty around you, whether it’s a pale face of a beautiful woman, a shoji paper, crimson camellia petals on a surface of a dark lake, a cherry tree in bloom or the gentle rays of sun coming into the room. Contemplation gives birth to moments of inspiration, and throughout the novel the narrator composes haiku poems and dreams of painting a perfect painting; not on canvas but in his imagination because he thinks being an artist is a state of mind rather than a skill or an occupation. To put it simply, if you like the narrator and his world views, you will enjoy the novel as well. The book invites the reader to stillness and sweet contemplation of beauties around you.

The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Another translation of the book is “The Three-Cornered World”, which comes from this quote:

“I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit.”

The quote continues: “For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.”

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

Here is a beautiful dialogue between the narrator and Nami, in the ninth chapter:

“Where were you, in fact? The abbot was asking about it, guessing you must have gone off for a walk again.”

“Yes, I walked down to the Mirror Pool and back.”

“I’d like to go there sometime….”

“Please do.”

“Is it a good place to paint?”

“It’s a good place to drown yourself.”

“I don’t have any intention of doing that just yet.”

“I may do it quite soon.”

This joke is uncomfortably close to the bone for mere feminine banter, and I glance quickly at her face. She looks disconcertingly determined.

“Please paint a beautiful picture of me floating there – not lying there suffering, but drifting peacefully off to the other side of the world.”

“Eh?”

“Aha, that surprised you, didn’t it? I’ve surprised you, I’ve surprised you!”

She rises smoothly to her feet. Three paces take her across to the door where she turns and beams at me. I just sit there, lost in astonishment.

***

Hashiguchi Goyo, Woman at a Hot Spring Hotel, 1920

Also interesting, in one chapter the narrator is reading a Western book, but not from the first to the last page, but dipping in here and there, not following the plot but relishing in beauty of the words, and Nami finds it strange, but insists that he reads it to her out loud. The narrator says:

It’s because I’m an artist that I don’t need to read a novel from cover to cover. On the other hand, wherever I choose to dip in is interesting for me. Talking to you is interesting too. In fact, it’s so interesting that I’d like to talk to you every day while I’m staying here. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind falling in love with you. That would make it even more interesting. But we wouldn’t need to marry, no matter how in love with you I was. A world where falling in love requires marrying is a world where novels require reading from beginning to end.

Kyoto, photo by maco-nonch.

And now the quotes because, at least for me, sometimes the quote make me eager to read the book more than the plot:

As I climb the mountain path, I ponder –

If you work by reason, you grow rough-edged; if you choose to dip your oar into sentiment’s stream, it will sweep you away. Demanding your own way only serves to constrain you. However you look at it, the human world is not an easy place to live.

And when its difficulties intensify, you find yourself longing to leave that world and dwell in some easier one – and then, when you understand at last that difficulties will dog you wherever you may live, this is when poetry and art are born. (…) We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.

“Sorrows may be the poet’s unavoidable dark companion, but the spirit with which he listens to the skylark’s song holds not one jot of suffering. At the sight of the mustard blossoms too, the heart simply dances with delight. Likewise with dandelions, or cherry blossoms.”

Photo found here.

“Yes, here among these mountains, in immediate contact with the phenomena of the natural world, everything I see and hear is intriguing for me.”

“In order to regain the poetic point of view on this occasion, I have only to set up before myself my own feelings, then take a step back from them and calmly, dispassionately investigate their true nature. The poet has an obligation to dissect his own corpse and reveal the symptoms of its illness to the world.”

“While we live in this world with its daily business, forced to walk the tightrope of profit and loss, true love is an empty thing, and the wealth before our eyes mere dust. The reputation we grasp at, the glory that we seize, is surely like the honey that the cunning bee will seem sweetly to brew only to leave his sting within it as he flies. What we call pleasure in fact contains all suffering because it arises from attachment. Only thanks to the existence of the poet and the painter are we able to imbibe the essence of this dualistic world, to taste the purity of its very bones and marrow. The artist feasts on mists, he sips the dew, appraising this hue and assessing that, and he does not lament the moment of death. The delight of artists lies not in attachment to objects but in taking the object into the self, becoming one with it. Once he has become the object, no space can be found on this vast earth of ours where he might stand firmly as himself. He has cast off the dust of the sullied self and became a traveller clad in tattered robes, drinking down the infinities of pure mountain winds.”

“I am floating there aimlessly (…) when from somewhere I hear the plucked notes of a shamisen. (…) But listening idly to the sound of those distant strings makes me wonderfully happy, laying here in a hot bath in a remote mountain village, my very soul adrift in the spring water on a quiet vernal evening, with the rain adding to the delight of the occasion.”

“Yet here this young man sits, beside an artist for whom the sole value of human life lies in dreaming.”

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?