Tag Archives: nocturnal

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.

Caspar David Friedrich – Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon

13 Sep

“there is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
there is a rapture on the lonely shore,
there is society where none intrudes,
by the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.”

(Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

Caspar David Friedrich, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, 1818-24, 23 x 44 cm

Caspar David Friedrich, a German painter of Romanticism, preferred portraying nature over people. In this fairly small canvas we see three interesting figures; a man, a woman and a crooked tree with branches stretching wildly, as if they are about to snatch a poor soul who is wandering the woods at a midnight hour. This is definitely a tree that one cannot ignore and is so peculiar that it can rightfully stand as a third figure in the painting; Gothic and gloomy, it adds to the nocturnal atmosphere of mystery and dreams. In the darkness of the night trees, rocks and hills acquire strange, eerie shapes and one cannot separate what is real from what is not. While the night is enveloping the strolling couple with its velvet cloak, the woman rests her hand on the man’s shoulder and they are both fixated on the only source of light in the dark: the moon glowing low on the horizon, glowing with reassurance, hope and magic, it’s almost like a ray of light in the man’s dark path of life. It’s the very same moon that shows its pale face every night, the very same moon that we are seeing now; it is lasting and the man’s life is short. In that mystical way, the moon unites the couple and binds them together in a realisation at how tender and fragile their transient existences are, puts things into a perspective.

Echo and the Bunnymen, Crocodiles (1980), album cover

Caspar painted a similar version of the same motif which included two men contemplating the moon. And later, in 1840, a fellow painter Johan Christian Clausen Dahl suggested that the couple painted in “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” are Caspar and his young wife Caroline. It is interesting to note that the man in the painting is wearing a particular style of costume, an old German costume which was worn by German patriots to show their love of freedom and democracy. In one of my previous posts about Caspar David Friedrich I made a connection between the mood of his seascapes with the album cover for the Echo and the Bunnymen’s album “Heaven Up Here” (1981). This time I want to make a connection between Friedrich’s painting “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” and the album cover “Crocodiles” which features the band in a nocturnal woods. The picture was taken by Brian Griffin and it was suppose to represent “introspection and despair” which fits the mood of the album well. I am listening to those two albums a lot these days and I always have Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings in mind when I hear the music and some of the lyrics. I just couldn’t ignore how similar the aesthetics of the painting and the album cover seem to be; the nocturnal setting, woods, crooked trees…