Tag Archives: night

Tsuchiya Koitsu – Teahouse at Night

11 Oct

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Teahouse at Night (Otsuya Araki Yokocho), 1935

Tsuchiya Koitsu’s art is famed for its skillful depiction of light and shade and his woodbloock print “Teahouse at Night” (sometimes also called “Teahouse Attendant”) is a wonderful example of that. The scene shows a view of the teahouse at night with two ladies dressed in kimono; one seems to be entering while the other is leaving. There is also a third figure in the scene; a shadow on the window on the upper floor which brings a touch of mystery to the artwork. Who is this mysterious woman? The way the nocturnal darkness meets the warm light of the lanterns is just stunning. The whole scene is a playful harmony of contrasts; vertical lines of doors and walls meet the horizontal lines of the floor, wooden fence and windows. There is also a dynamic play of contrasts between light and dark; the dark wooden facade and the windows full of light. These are the elements that make this scene so captivating and full of wonder. Despite there being only two, or three if you will, figures in the scene, there is a mood of fun and playfulness. This looks like the place one wants to be at, the place of tea, music and good conversation. The building of the teahouse is closely cropped and cut off on the right but we can still see a fragment of the night sky in the upper left corner. This is the interesting way in which Japanese artists frame their scenes, as if they are taking photographs.

Tsuchiya Koitsu was one of the group of the Japanese artists who brought revival to the art of the ukiyo-e prints in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The art of Koitsu and his fellow artists such as Shiro Kasamatsu, Hasui, Shotei, Yoshida and many others is prolific and full of wonderful inovations that bring to mind the glory of the original era of ukiyo-e prints. This new Renaissance period is known as “Shin Hanga” or “The New Prints”. From 1930 to his death in 1949 Koitsu made over two-hundred woodbloock prints which are considered outstanding in both quality of design, originality of composition and execution.

Childe Hassam – Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago

13 Sep

“…the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain…”

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, What Lips Have I Kissed, And When and Why)

Childe Hassam, Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago, 1893, watercolour

These rainy September evenings awake inside me an inexplicable sadness and so I sit there wistfully by the window and I pine, and whine … and, just like in Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem the rain is also full of ghosts that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply… Very fitting for the wistful mood of my rainy days is this hauntingly beautiful watercolour called “Nocturne: Railway Crossing, Chicago”, painted in 1893 by the American painter Childe Hassam. The watercolour is simple in both colour and composition, and yet rich in its lyrical beauty. The nocturnal scene in the watercolour shows a fragment of urban life; a carriage and a tram are gliding down the road on a rainy night. The motif such as this would otherwise be too urban in its ugliness or simply boring, but in Hassam’s vision the rainy night in the big city is a blue poem. Instead of bustle and noise, Hassam hears a blue sonata coming from the steady beats of the rain and the rhythm of the horse-drawn carriage. The title alone, containting the word “Nocturne”, in a proper Whistler style, is insinuating something poetic and dreamy. The watercolour is amost entirely washed away in this mesmerising blue colour, with soft touche of yellow representing the big city lights. The carriage and the coachman are elegantly painted in black, almost like a silhouette, which only adds to the poetic mysterious mood of this night scene, as the French poet Stephane Mallarme said “to define is to kill, to suggest is to create”. In this watercolour, Hassam is suggesting, rather than defining, the beauty and poetry of the night and I think this is what makes this artwork so hauntingly beautiful. There is a special kind of beauty in wandering aimelessly down the streets of a big city on a rainy night, the bright lights of streetlamps and neon lights reflected in the puddles and wet pavements, passing by life but not being in it. Ahh… as I gaze at this painting more I can see and hear in my mind the jazzy music and Robert De Niro’s monologue from the film “Taxi Driver” (1976).

Lovers are Strangers: John Atkinson Grimshaw – Lovers on a Moonlit Lane

2 Aug
“Expressing your uncertainties
Through years of anniversaries
Then five years down the line
You’ll say: she was never my type
Lovers are strangers
There’s nothing to discuss
Hearts will be faithful
While the truth is told to someone else”

(Michelle Gurevich, Lovers Are Strangers)

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Lovers on a Moonlit Lane, 1873

John Atkinson Grimshaw was a Victorian era artist who is mostly remembered for his captivating and atmospheric paintings of nocturnal urban scenes. The pompous American expatriate Whistler said: “I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures”, and this is a true testament which reveals just how captivating Grimshaw’s nocturnal paintings were back in his day. Whistler wasn’t the type of person who would give praise or credit lightly. A few years ago I wrote a post about Grimshaw’s Dreary Victorian Streets where I connected the desolate, urban mood of his paintings with the music of Joy Division, but today I want to tackle a painting which is nocturnal but less urban and more romantic than his other ones.

Painting “Lovers on a Moonlit Lane” was painted in 1873, which is a decade earlier then his more famous masterpieces, though he was already thirty-seven at the time. The painting shows two lovers meeting in the moonlit lane near a forest. The tree branches point the way and the glowing full moon casts light on the face of two beloveds. The vertical canvas suits the nocturnal foresty scene because it gives space for the trees to stretch their branches into the night sky. The night scene with the hauntingly dark and tall trees brings to mind the setting of a poem or a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, but also the motif of nature in moonlight and the figures of lovers irresistibly reminds one of the painting by Caspar David Friedrich. The muted colours, blues and greys, are helpful in conveying the mood. Romanticism, like the ghost of the past, haunts this painting and gives it beauty. Distant fog and unknown paths, uncertainty of love, like frost, bites the hands and cheeks… The motif of the trees which are mostly bare, the leaves that have fallen on the frozen muddy ground and the path leading nowhere all indicate a sense of ending. Autumn is giving way to winter, the vibrant leaves of autumn have rotten and fallen on the ground, a question lingers in the air: will the flame of their love survive the winter frost, or will it perish and be forever lost?

The painting has the Tim Burtonesque “Corpse Bride” aesthetic and that is why it came to my mind when I was listening to Michelle Gurovich’s song “Lovers are Strangers” which I recently discovered. I love the lyrics of the song, but also, the music sounds like something that belong to a macabre carnival, the film “Coraline” or that fits the imagination of Tim Burton. In my mind, all of these are connected together.

Ferdinand du Puigaudeau – Breton Girls with Chinese Lanterns in Pont-Aven

29 May

“… a land of lilies and soft blue nights…”

(Thomas Burke, Limehouse Nights: The Sign of the Lamp)

Ferdinand du Puigaudeau (1864-1930), Breton Girls with Chinese Lanterns in Pont-Aven (Bretonnes aux lampions à pont-aven), 1896

Many late nineteenth century painters such as Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, and Roderic O’Conor found their artistic haven in Pont-Aven; a commune in Brittany in the north of France. The traditional black and white costumes worn by Breton women and the local customs and traditions of the Breton people were a sort of refuge from the cold, calculated and rationalised modern world and the bustling, ever-changing streets of Paris. Many other artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Jakub Schikaneder, Willard Metcalf, Alexandre Benois, and Władysław Ślewiński had also found inspiration in the costumes of Breton woman, their black garments and white headwear, ascetic and simple, removed from time. What the Pre-Raphaelites had found in their idealised visions of the Arthurian legends and the Medieval times, the Post-Impressionist artists had found in the dreamy town of Pont-Aven.

The particular style developed there by Gauguin and Emile Bernard is referred to as the Pont-Aven School, but the painting we are talking about today is something completely different. Ferdinand du Puigaudeau’s painting “Breton Girls with Chinese Lanterns in Pont-Aven” painted in 1896 features the motif of the Breton girls in their traditional garments but this time the motif is combined with Chinoiserie; the European interpretation and imitation of Chinese and other East Asian artistic traditions. Chinoiserie is a term often connected tied with the art of Rococo. In Du Puigaudeau’s painting the Chinoiserie-motif are the Chinese lanterns and the effect is mesmerising. The overall mood of the painting is vivacious, vibrant and playful and brings the otherwise sombre motif of Breton women’s traditional garments to a whole new level. The diagonal composition that starts with the girl at the forefront of the festival parade and ends with a building in the distance with a pagoda-style roof gives a dynamic and playful mood to the painting and reveals the influence of Japanese art on Du Puigaudeau.

The girls, with their flowing garments dancing in the nocturnal breeze, look like fairies. I love the way the glow of the lanterns colours their dresses and the space around them, as if the magic of the lanterns is spilling onto the rest of the scene, as if the light of the lanters is liquid colour spilling like a river onto the space around the girls; blue, red, yellow… I cannot help but think of the stories from Thomas Burke’s short-story collection “Limehouse Nights”, such as “The Chink and the Child” which inspired the film “Broken Blossoms” (1919) starring the lovely moon-faced Lilian Gish, because the element of Chinoiserie is woven into each of these stories and motifs such as lanterns helps evoke the magical, oriental spirit that pervades Du Puigaudeau’s painting as well as Burke’s stories. Another thing that comes to mind is definitelly Debussy’s whimsical “Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp in F Major” which I absolutely adore.

Kasamatsu Shiro – Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain and The Ginza on a Spring Night

3 Apr

“That is one good thing about this world…there are always sure to be more springs.”

(L.M.Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea)

Kasamatsu Shiro, Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain, 1935

These two woodblock prints by the Japanese print maker and engraver Kasatasu Shiro (1898-1991), “Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain” and “The Ginza on a Spring Night” are very similar and contrasting at the same time. Both prints portray the scene of a spring rain and night; motives that seem to be recurring in the art of Kasamatsu Shiro, and both prints show a scene with architecture and people. Still, the moods of these prints are very different. In “Yushim Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain” the scene of the Tenjin shrine in spring rain is seen through a greyish-blue mist. We, the viewers, are observing the scene from a porch, safely hidden under a roof while the rain is drizzling. The pigeons have also found their safe haven under that same roof. The figures in the distance are all holding umbrellas. The bare tree branches, a pigeon in its flight, the puddles of rain on the ground; little details such as these help to convey the mood of tranquility and perhaps even a touch of melancholy. Here and there we can see the warm yellow light of the lanterns. The horizontal shape of the print adds to the calm, serene mood of the scene and the visual space is nicely broken up into different parts with the wooden columns on the porch; this is a detail typical for Japanese art. In contrast, the print “The Ginza on a Spring Night” shows a scene from a bustling city of Tokyo. Shiro depicts a busy street scene and the vertical format of the print really fits the mood, in the same way the horizontal format fits the meditative mood of the previous print. Women wearing kimono and dresses, men in their suits, everyone is walking down the street on a spring night. Where are they all going, I can’t help but wonder? The blueness of the night is mingling with the yellow light of the streelamps. A thin tree with blossoming branches is stretching itself towards the sky, as if it is thirsty to soak in the silvery light of the moon. It is interesting how the passersby in the foreground are drawn more in detail while the ones in the background are drawn merely as dark shadows. These two prints both depict the motif of a spring night and rain but they are full of contrasts; spiritual versus secular (one print showing the shrine and the other a city scene), tranquility versus liveliness, nature versus city, meditation versus frivolity and fun.

Kasamatsu Shiro, The Ginza on a Spring Night (Haru no yo, Ginza), 1934

Film Saawariya (2007) and Art: Carl Krenek, Maurice Prendergast, Edmund Dulac

19 Mar

“I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year.”

Carl Krenek (1880-1948), A fairy tale scene: a dark lake, boat, weeping willos, blossoms, tempera on paper, 14,3 x 17,3 cm, c 1900s-1910s

It’s been almost a decade since I’ve first seen the Hindi film “Saawariya” (2007), directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and I still find myself captivated by the songs and the setting of the film. What is especially interesting about the film’s plot is that it is inspired by Dostoyevsky’s short story “White Nights”, which was published in 1848, rather early in the writer’s career. In the story, the nameless narrator is a lonely and dreamy young man who lives in Saint Petersburg. One night, whilst wandering the cold, winter streets, he meets a pretty young girl called Nastenka who is also lonely. Of course, he is a dreamer and suddenly Nastenka is hope personified for his lovelorn, lonely existence. The two start talking but Nastenka makes it clear that she doesn’t want romance, and eventually she returns to her lover. In the film “Saawariya” the young man Ranbir Raj (played by Ranbir Kapoor) is the nameless narrator and the Dreamer from Dostoyevsky’s story. Raj’s Nastenka in the film is a young Muslim girl called Sakina (played by Sonam Kapoor) whom she meets one night. But Sakina is in love with her grandma’s tennant, a man called Imaan. Raj is also a musician and he spends a lot of time with the local prostitutes, trying to cheer them up and brings some hope to their sad lives, so he is a warm and kind-hearted man. That aspect is diffent from Dostoyevsky’s story, but the ending is, sadly, similar. Sad for the Dreamer that is.

Scenes from the film “Saawariya”

Now, another thing I love about the film was the aesthetic. The nocturnal, fantasy setting is gorgeous, with no real indication of time, place or the passing of time; a truly dream-like setting for the story because it is told from Ranbir’s memory. One of the most beautiful scenes, for me, is from the song Masha Allah when Ranbir and Sakina encounter each other at night; she is frightened and alone, her veil falls off and the moonlight reveals a beautiful face and Ranbir is instantly smitten and proclaims: Masha Allah! The scene, like the film itself, is bathed in indigo-blue light, and the two are gliding on a boat adorned with flowers over a lake and pass under a bridge where, for a mere second, Rabir can get close to Sakina. The light of the lanterns and neon signs on the buildings is showing them the way. The boat, the water, the bridge, all made me think of Venice and the nocturnal scene really has a magic about it. Here is an interesting commentary on the film’s aesthetic, from an article “The socio-political mutation of Dostoevsky’s White Nights in Hindi Cinema through the ages” written by Eshan Parikh here: “Bhansali created a real dreamscape, one that seemed to exist in a timeless space and was inspired by Indian and European architecture. There is no sense of day/night and seasons. There are shots where you see the dome of a Rajasthani fort like building inside the arch of the replica of Champs-Élysées. There are walls with graffiti in Urdu and shops with English names which were reminiscent of Colonial India. No real year is mentioned where this story may have been set and even the way people dress up is a mix of modern urban styles and more vintage styles of the Colonial era.

This scene from the film captivated me so much that I started looking for similar examples in art; paintings whose mood and motif fits the mood of the scene in the film, and I found three. The first one is a tempera on paper called “A fairy tale scene: a dark lake, boat, weeping willows, blossoms” by an Austrian painter Carl Krenek. The intense blue and green shades are absolutely stunning! In the foreground of the painting there is a row of semi-abstract flowers which look really groovy and behind them is the vibrant blue lake. I especially love the strokes of lighter blue on the dark blue background; they are so flowing and free. In the middle of the lake is a couple on a boat, gliding towards infinity. We can even see a little bit of the sky – the starry night.

Scene from the film Saawariya (2007)

Now, here is a lovely passage from Dostoyevsky’s story where the nameless narrator talks about himself and his relationship with Nastenka:

I am a dreamer. I know so little of real life that I just can’t help reliving such moments as these in my dreams, for such moments are something I have very rarely experiened.

I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year.

I feel I know you so well that I couldn’t have known you better if we’d been friends for twenty years. You won’t fail me, will you? Only two minutes, and you’ve made me happy forever. Yes, happy. Who knows, perhaps you’ve reconciled with me, resolved all my doubts.

(…) If and when you fall in love, may you be happy with her. I don’t need to wish her anything, for she’ll be happy with you. May your sky always be clear, may your dear smile always be bright and happy, and may you be forever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness that you gave to another lonely and grateful heart. Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of one’s life?

The second painting which made me think of the scene from the film was Maurice Prendergast’s watercolour “Feast of the Redemeer”, painted in 1899. I have already written a longer post about it here, but esentially what reminded me of the film was the nocturnal setting, the dark waters, the magical ambience created by the plethora of lanterns and the the boats of course. I can imagine Ranbir and Sakina on one of those boats; he is mesmerised by her beauty, she is daydreaming of her lover, both are enjoying the fleeting dream-like moments while above them is a dark cloud of unrequitedness and an inevitable separation and ending.

Maurice Prendergast, Feast of the Redeemer, c 1899, watercolour

The third and the final painting I found is Edmund Dulac’s watercolour “The Fisherman – The Nightingale”, date unknown but probably early twentieth century. The watercolour shows a nocturnal scene with a fisherman in his little boat gliding on the waters of a river or a lake. The blueness of the water is kissing the blueness of the sky and it is hard to tell the line between the water and the sky. Instead of a fisherman I imagine Raj and Sakina on that boat. The crescent moon, half hidden by the tree branches, is a romantic touch, and I also really love how the trees are almost imposing their way into the painting, forcing their branches into our sight. There is ever so soft light of the moon falling on the water but it is subtle detailing such as that one that bring magic to the scene.

“Among these trees lived a nightingale, which sang so deliciously, that even the poor fisherman, who had plenty of other things to do, lay still to listen to it, when he was out at night drawing in his nets.”

(Hans Christian Andersen, The Nightingale)

Edmund Dulac, The Fisherman – The Nightingale, no date

Maurice Prendergast – Feast of the Redeemer

2 Mar

“Spring lanterns –

colourful reincarnations

of the moon”

(haiku by Isabel Caves, found here.)

Maurice Prendergast, Feast of the Redeemer, c 1899, watercolour

Another post, another watercolour by Maurice Prendergast! In this post we are sort of continuing the theme from my previous Prendergast post where I talked about his watercolour “The Grand Canal, Venice“, also from 1899. The aforementioned watercolour is a lively scene that shows tourists, gondoliers and strollers enjoying a sunny day at the Grand Canal, but the watercolour we will be seeing today shows us a night view of the same waters and canals of Venice.

Using only three colours; blue, orange and yellow, Prendergast manages to create a fetching nocturnal scene filled with plethora of little boats decorated with garlands and glowing lanterns. The painting has depth; our view stretches on and on into the distance, so far off that it is hard to distinguish whether the distant orange and yellow dots are the lanterns or just the reflections of the lanterns in the nocturnal waters. Each boat is painted in a single thick black line which, for some reason, brings to mind the black lines in paintings of Franz Kline. I cannot decide which aspect of the watercolour is more beautiful; the glowing lanterns or the reflections of their light in the dark midnight water, the reflections which are painted in a kind of zig zag pattern in the foreground while in the distance they are vertical, like golden tears. Everyone who paints watercolours will know that it is like walking on a tightrope, a constant struggle between control and spontaneity. Sometimes the effect of letting the watercolour paint itself can be magical, but without some direction it could also be a big colourful mess. Prendergast always walks that tightrope with ease and perfection, none of his watercolours seem as if they are laboured over, as if he struggled.

At first sight this watercolour appears whimsical, playful and fantasy-like, but in reality the scene it depicts is a religious festival called “Festa del Redentore” or Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer which is celebrated every year on the third Sunday of July. It is one of the most important Venetian celebrations that binds religion and festivity. The origin of the festival started back in the sixteenth century, to commemorate the end of the plague that happened in 1577. The festival is celebrated by a sea pilgrimige to the little island of Giudecca and that is the sight that Prendergast has seen and decided to capture in watercolours. On the night of the festival the fireworks are let out and people gather on the balconies and roofs to observe the occassion.

Oda Krohg: A Japanese Lantern

6 Feb

“The true joy of a moonlit night is something we no longer understand. Only the men of old, when there were no lights, could understand the true joy of a moonlit night.”
(Yasunari Kawabata, Palm-of-the-Hand Stories)

Oda Krohg (1860–1935), A Japanese Lantern (By the Oslofjord), 1886, Pastel on paper pasted on canvas

The palpable dreaminess and delicate, lyrical nocturnal ambient is what instantly captivated me about this painting. A woman in a white gown is sitting at the balcony doors and gazing out into the beautiful summer night; the distant moonlight is painting the landscape in whimsical shadows and casting a silver light that transforms the mundaneness of this view from the window into a magical scene. The woman’s face is turned away from us which gives her a mysterious vibe but also puts us in her place; we are not gazing at her, but rather we are seeing what she is seeing. Our view stretches from the lush, murmuring treetops in the foreground to the serene lake bathed in moonlight in the background. Above the woman, a Japanese lantern is hanging from the ceiling, it almost replaces the image of the moon, and its warm, yellowish light is reflected at the ornamental glass of the door.

The title, “A Japanese Lantern”, the cropping, and the motif of a lantern all hint at the Oriental inspiration behind the painting. Alternative title, “By the Oslofjord”, puts the painting in a geographic reality and places the scene near the town of Oslo. Before seeing paintings of Edvard Munch and now this gorgeous pastel by Oda Krohg, I never thought Nordic nights and fjords could have such a magical appeal. The painting, with its hushed, nocturnal and dreamy atmosphere that matches that of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, paved a way for the revival of Romantic themes in art; romance, dreams and Symbolism instead of realism. I love how the predominant tonality is blue. The purity of using just this one colour and its different tones to achieve this nocturnal effect is mesmerising. The pastel chalk technique also adds a certain softness that is fitting for the mood.

Oda Krohg was a female Norwegian painter who lived her life like a man; she disobeyed the social norms, went to pubs and cafes unchaperoned, had children out of wedlock and had affairs with many fellow Norwegian artists, but not with Munch though. She was twenty-six years old when she painted this painting and it was her painterly debut. She married the painter Christian Krohg whose painting “The Sick Child” would later influence Munch to paint the same motif of a sickly, dying child. Christian Krohg also painted this charming portrait of his wife Oda in the same year that Oda painted her “A Japanese Lantern” painting. She does look like a cheerful, independant bohemian. With that long flowing hair, vibrant red dress, hoop earrings and the red bonnet I can picture her in a 1960s Godard film, like Anna Karina. And I love her smile.

Christian Krohg, Oda Krohg as Bohemian Princess, 1886

Vladimir Varlaj – Red House

10 Oct

Vladimir Varlaj, Red House, 1923

A lonely and mysterious pink house with red windows. Tall crooked trees. A passing train. There is an inexplicable loneliness about this autumnal scene which is very captivating to me. The loneliness is combined with vibrant, almost cheerful colours and this combination gives a sense of strangeness, uneasiness even. The contrast confuses and charms both at once. Strangeness is seeping from all sides of this canvas. Even the viewpoint is strange; we are seeing the scene as if we were standing on the hill, above the railway and the house, hidden behind the trees, or maybe we are one of them. The bare crooked trees come alive in the autumn wind, contorting and stretching their thin branches in all directions, their branches are like long arms trying to grab the stars. The soft gradience of the colours, pink mixing with orange and purple, is flying through the canvas from the unknown misty distances to the foreground, and it looks as if the colour is being carried by the wind. Varlaj transformed what might have otherwise been a drab, depressing scene into an almost magical realism landscape which is more a landscape of the soul than that of nature. The ecstatic pink colour is unsettling, like the laugh of a madman. It has the opposite effect than we might expect from dainty color pink. The red windows on the house are a nice contrast against the pink walls, but the place where the doors ought to be are a hollow space that will suck you in if you come too close, like the mouth opened in a scream in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”. And the motif of a train at night passing by without stopping through the strange landscape is perhaps a symbol of the man’s transience, of the passing of life, of the arrival of death.

Vladimir Varlaj (1895-1962) was a Croatian painter and a member of the Group of Four or the Prague Four; the four artists who worked and lived in Prague for a while during and right after the First World War. I have already written about another artist from this group Vilko Gecan here. In 1911 Varlaj started studying in the private school of the Croatian painter and graphic artist Tomislav Krizman, then he studied at the college of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb. In 1915 he was sent to the Russian front and in 1918 he was in Prague. In the 1920s he was back in Croatia, working with passion and eagerness, but sadly, after 1933 he was no longer able to paint because of his illness. The critics and art historians have had a hard time placing Varlaj into a distinct art movement, for his landscapes at times have elements of Expressionism and other times of magical realism. There is an influence of the German New Objectivity painter Alexander Kanoldt whose landscapes had a similar unsetting and strange appeal, but also, without a doubt, Varlaj was painting the state of his soul when he was painting a landscape which is something that the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich was a big proponent of. Some of Varlaj’s landscapes are more tame, continuing the tradition of Croatian landscapes. But other, such as the “Red House” are more moody and romantic, and filled with visual elements that add to the drama such as the nocturnal setting, lonely house by the railway, a passing train, bare trees; the desolation of late autumn is perfectly encapsulated in this painting, and so is the desolation of the artist’s soul. Varlaj was known for destroying his artworks in moments of depression and disillusionment so we are lucky that this amazing painting survived the painter’s madness.

Frans Masereel – Streetlights, Paris in the evening

22 Nov

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”

(Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart)

Frans Masereel (Belgian, 1889-1972), Streetlights, Paris in the evening, 1939

Belgian painter Frans Masereel’s painting “Streetlights, Paris in the Evening” really captivated me these days. I just love it so much! The mood is so dark and strange and so fitting for these dreary late autumnal November days. The more I gaze at this painting, the more I am sinking in this atmosphere of isolation and gloom which are so alluring. The buildings, so tall and so dark, with countless soulless little windows, appear threatening and cold. They don’t look inviting and friendly, they look like big ghostly figures ready to swallow up the tiny figure of a man in a red shirt. The sharp, vertical lines serve the same purpose as in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s paintings of Berlin streets; to create a sense of anxiety and looming threat. The light of the street lamps colours the pavement in warm yellow hues. The clouds, painted in dark blues and greys, look so robust and strong as if they could crush down the buildings underneath them. It seems the painter took great deal of time to paint the sky and it certainly adds to the mood of the painting. The sky in the distance is tinged with orange. Patches of red, yellow and blue on the otherwise drab facades give me goosebumps of joy because they break the icy coldness of the buildings’ appearance. Can you feel it?…. The cold, frosty breath of isolation blowing through the streets like autumnal wind. Perhaps the entire street scene is actually seen through the eyes of the man in red shirt, perhaps he is the focalizer of this painting and the reason why the street looks so alienating and empty, the buildings so threatening and gloomy, the sky heavy and dark and about to fall on him and crush him, is because he perceives the world around him that way. This is how the evening in Paris seems to this isolated small individual who is wandering the streets alone and lonely, with a mask of despair on his face and a sense of dread weighing his legs and slowing his walking pace. Every little window on every building is an abyss of darkness ready to swallow him in ….. he must hurry! Hurry before they get him.

Frans Masereel, La vespasienne sous le métro, 1926

Frans Masereel, Metro aerien (Hochbahn), 1926

To end, I decided to include these two paintings Masereel painted in 1926. I love all the bold black lines swirling and cutting the space in a very exciting way. The lines, along with the bright turquoise and yellow neon lights really create an atmosphere of a vibrant and chaotic nightlife. It’s interesting to compare the years in which the paintings were made and what was going on at the time; the roaring twenties were an exciting time and these paintings capture this excitement and glamour, and the painting above, with a very different mood, was painted in 1939; the year World War Two started.