Tag Archives: Osamu Dazai

Ghostly Pastel Portraits by John Corbet

2 May

These ghostly pastels by a contemporary artist John Corbet recently caught my attention. I was speechless at first and captivated by these eerie and mysterious portraits which kept haunting me until I felt compelled to write about them. Their faces seem mute and haunting, but if you look at them more closely, you will know that each has a story to tell.

Pastel Ghost Bearing Flowers

In Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human”, which is one of my favourite books ever, the main character Oba Yozo revels in secretly making ghostly self-portraits which he doesn’t show to anyone, except in that one rare occasion when he shows it to his friend Takeichi, the only person he thinks could possibly understand the strangeness of his art. It was Takeichi who started the topic of “ghost pictures” in the first place:

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. (…) I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

Ghost Portrait: The Monk

The idea of “ghost pictures” immediately struck me and long after I had finished reading the novel it lingered on my mind. Since that moment, I have been searching for art that has the same ghostly quality and mood. I found it in the elongated melancholic faces of Modigliani’s women, George Seurat’s conté crayon shadowy figures, and now again in these pastel portraits by John Corbet. The pastel above called “The Monk” instantly captivated me because the face is so shadowy and undefined; it looks haunting and mute, and yet, when I gaze in those eyes and that mouth, so black and small against the yellowish face, I have a feeling that he longs to speak and that if I gazed at his face long enough, I would hear the words in a hushed lonely voice coming from some other realm, in a language unknown to my ears. Notice the soft thrilling touches of blue on his face. This deliberate vagueness of expression and the soft undefined contours give these portraits their allure and the ghostly quality because one can tell they are not just ordinary portraits of people. Unmistakably they belong to some other world, whether it’s the invisible world of the spirits all around us, or the realm of dreams. Theme of ghosts or otherworldly creatures is dear to my heart. I often have nightmares, and the world I inhabit there is dark, chilling and filled with shadowy ghostly creatures whose faces I have never seen, but something tells me they would look similar to these pastels, especially the first one.

The thing that connects the “ghost pictures” discussed in the book with these pastels is the deep and profound way in which both artists see and feel the world around them and their willingness to see beyond the borders of this visible, material world, and the ability to transcend it with the help of their imagination and come back with art that is woven with mystique and secrets. A ghost picture needn’t always be a portrayal of someone departed, it is more about the ghostly quality in a portrait; a face which appears ethereal and slightly eerie to our human eyes, a face which brings inside us the feeling of transience and the fragility of life, a face which fills us with an inexplicable melancholy and reminds us of the mysteries of the spiritual world, and ultimately, a face which haunts us, shakes us and stirs something inside us which we cannot rationally explain. Ghostly faces on John Corbet’s pastels, whether it’s the melancholy monk or the spooky girl holding flowers above, or the lavender-haired lady and the sad-eyed messy haired girl bellow, all awake these feelings inside me when I look at them.

Pastel Ghost No 2: Mama

I love the way these pastels seem to have been drawn, in a spontaneous and intuitive way, as if led by an invisible hand – a ghostly hand. My initial impression isn’t so far from the truth and the way Corbet actually created these pastels; in semi darkness, near a dim candle, in a kind of trance; letting his soul guide his hand and his pastel, not the eyes alone. I also love the dreamy softness of these faces, especially on the pastel called “Mama”. It makes the face seem as if it is seen through a veil, a flimsy curtain, or a foggy window on an autumn twilight. These languid ghostly creatures seem as if they are slowly passing through our world, unnoticed by most and captured in art by those with sharper senses. These were my impressions of these ghostly portraits, but I suggest you check out the artist’s short and lyrical posts written in a form of letters to Edgar Allan Poe which further explore the personal meaning and inspiration behind these artworks. I am sure Mr Poe himself would love these portraits and would recognise their mysterious quality, he did after all discuss one painting and the artist’s quest for perfection in his short story “The Oval Portrait”. Here is an excerpt from the post about the pastel “The Monk”, you can read the whole post here:

As you so wisely suggested, I took my box of pastels and a few sheets of paper and visited the graveyard. I sat there for sometime from twilight to midnight, but nothing appeared. I was tired so finally I decided to go back. (…) As I quickened my pace I saw a figure in a black coat, walking towards me on the other side of the bridge. It was a fine coat he wore, he was no beggar, yet his face seemed like an old tree beaten by years and years of storms. As he passed by me he did not look at me, but I saw his eyes, and in them was the poetic wisdom of sorrow and loss. He was either a monk, or a poet. I turned to watch him leave, and once he crossed the bridge the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and like magic the fog cleared and the wind calmed – and he was gone.

As soon as I got home I opened my box of pastels and got to work on drawing the ghostly apparition and the wind and rain which pursued him. For the first time, it was like the pastels took on a life of their own, as though my hand were guided by a spirit – could it have been, Mr. Poe, the spirit of the monk? It was dark for I had but one candle lit, therefore I could just barely see what I was doing; the painting seemed to paint itself. The experience brought me such peace within, as though I were bringing consolation to the sorrow within his eyes. This, in turn, brought consolation to me.

I especially like this line: the painting seemed to paint itself.

Conté crayon ghostly portrait

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Osamu Dazai: No Longer Human – Art and Ghost Pictures

10 Feb

Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human is a really fascinating book I’ve read recently and I’ve already reviewed it here. In this post we’ll take a look at the main character, Oba Yozo’s connection to art and the paintings of Western painters such as Modigliani and Vincent van Gogh.

1918-amedeo-modigliani-a-young-girlAmedeo Modigliani, A Young Girl, 1918

Oba Yozo was interested in art and painting since primary school and wanted to go to an art school, but his father put him into college, with an intend to make a civil servant out of him. Yozo obeyed, like he always did in his life, but he couldn’t really identify himself with the role of a student, or soak himself in the ‘college spirit’, so he often cut classes and spent days at home, painting and reading – which is totally more useful for imagination and the soul than the boredom of classrooms and patronising professors at college. He also attended art classes given by a painter in Hongo, and practised sketching for hours. He said: ‘I owned a set of oil paints and brushes from the time I entered high school. I sought to model my techniques on those of the Impressionist School, but my pictures remained flat as paper cutouts, and seemed to offer no promises of ever developing into anything.’

With the help of a friend he realised the artistic truth: sometimes it’s more important to portray the truth and work from the soul, than to create perfect, lifeless pictures with a lot of skill and precision. He also says: ‘What superficiality – and what stupidity – there is in trying to depict in a pretty manner things which one has thought pretty. The masters through their subjective perceptions created beauty out of trivialities. They did not hide their interest in things which were nauseatingly ugly, but soaked themselves in the pleasure of depicting them.’ From that moment on, he began making self-portraits, which is kept a secret, and showed one only to Takeichi, and no one else. In his free time, he painted these ‘ghost pictures’, but in school he kept his style strictly conventional. Later, at college, he meets a fellow art lover and painter, Horiki, who lures him into the ‘mysteries of drink, cigarettes, prostitutes, pawnshops and left-wing thought’.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat, March/April 1887

Here, Yozo and his friend Takeichi are discussing the so called ‘ghost pictures’, and the name itself is so intriguing to me. ‘Ghost pictures’ – what is meant by that? It puzzles me, especially since I adore both Modigliani and van Gogh, but I never thought of their art in that way. A certain fragility, melancholy and sadness lingers through Modigliani’s portraits, that’s for sure, but now I can’t help but to notice the wraith-like quality of his women, with elongated faces and sad eyes, or his nudes in ‘coppery skin’ tones.

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. When we were children the French Impressionist School was very popular in Japan, and our first introduction to an appreciation of Western painting most often begun with such works. The paintings of van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Renoir were familiar even to students at country schools, mainly through photographic reproduction. I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

1916. Modigliani 'Female Nude'Modigliani, Female Nude, 1916

Yozo later draws for comic books and magazines, and, at the very end, ends up copying pornographic drawings which he would then secretly peddle, to earn just enough money to buy gin. Still, despite leaving his original artistic intentions behind, he mentions these ‘ghost pictures’ again:

At such times the self-portraits I painted in high school – the ones Takeichi called “ghost pictures” – naturally came to mind. My lost masterpieces. These, my only really worth-while pictures, had disappeared during one of my frequent changes of address. I afterwards painted pictures of every description, but they all fell far,  far short of those splendid works as I remembered them. I was plagued by a heavy sense of loss, as if my heart had become empty.

The undrunk glass of absinthe.

A sense of loss which was doomed to remain eternally unmitigated stealthily began to take shape. Whenever I spoke of painting, that undrunk glass of absinthe flickered before my eyes. I was agonized by the frustrating thought: if only I could show them those paintings they would believe in my artistic talents.

1888-self-portrait-with-straw-hat-van-goghVincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888

Book Review: No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai

2 Feb

‘Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness. Everything passes.’ – This is the first quote I’ve read from this book, and it stayed etched on my mind. I couldn’t stop myself from endlessly pondering over its meaning. And the title was intriguing as well – No Longer Human, what does that mean, I wondered. Now, after finally reading this brilliant book, I can say without exaggeration that I consider it one of my favourite books ever!!!

no-longer-human

Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) wrote his second novel, a dark and disturbing work of art – No Longer Human,  in a state of frenzy, some suggested he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The book begins with an unnamed narrator finding three photos and three notebooks written by Oba Yozo, which follow his decline from a student, to an morphine addict. It tells the story of his moral, physical and emotional degradation, and downfall into the shady life of crime, suicides, prostitutes, alcohol and morphine. It’s written in the first person which gives it a psychological depth and intimate mood. Yozo tells us all his thoughts, fears and ideas – everything that the hides from the world by wearing a ‘clownish mask’ of cheerfulness and wittiness. This sentence, for me, explains Yozo’s life the best: ‘Something impure, dark, reeking of the shady character always hovers above me.‘ He feels deeply alienated from everyone around him, and his day to day existence is tormented by this intense feeling of not belonging, not being able to show others his real self, and no being able to find out, for himself, who he really is.

The story reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and Vadim in Ageyev’s Novel with Cocaine, because it’s narrated in the first person and deals with similar themes. In all three of these books, the main characters are fully engulfed in their own dark thoughts, feel isolated from society and their real selves, and they cannot find anything of value, nothing to cling to in a world of strangers where it’s much easier to become corrupted than try and make something out of your life. This is exactly the kind of literature I love, with characters who are weak, flawed, isolated, and I can slip through the pages and witness their downfall because it’s always inevitable. Not everyone can find their Sonia – a gentle, selfless, angel-like creature, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, to save them.

osamu-dazaiOsamu Dazai

Another thing I found fascinating is the massive amount of Dazai’s autobiographical elements. Like Yozo, Dazai neglected his studies and took interest in Marxism, prostitutes and alcohol. Both were born in privileged families and felt guilt about it. Both attempted suicide by drowning off a beach in Kamakura with young bar hostesses. Both Yozo and Dazai survived, and both women died. Both became addicted to morphine-based painkillers. At the end, Dazai committed suicide by drowning. Yozo’s whereabouts remain unknown, although he might have done the same thing.

Those of you who are inclined to judge characters such as Yozo (but I don’t believe people like that read my blog anyway), well, I have a quote to share, something which Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote upon hearing the news of Yesenin’s suicide. He wrote: ‘In this life it is easy to die, to build life is hard.'(*) So what if Yozo was weak and succumbed to all these vices, what of that? It’s so hard to be good and create a genuinely fulfilling life. And we can never know what is the right way to live, because we have only one life.

I can’t relate to that specific ‘decaying’ aspect of Yozo’s life (alcohol and women), but I can empathise. I have not (yet) fallen into destruction like him, but that’s because I have art, it comforts me in a way nothing could, it’s my love, my opium… And then there’s poetry, and music, and flowers, and the moon… Maybe, if Yozo had found something of value in his life, things would have turned out differently. Still, I utterly identify with this quote: ‘All I feel are the assaults of apprehension and terror at the thought that I am the only one who is entirely unlike the rest. It is almost impossible for me to converse with other people. What should I talk about, how should I say it? – I Don’t know.‘ The more I think about this book and Yozo, the more I can relate to him, it’s almost frightening, but like him I am terribly untrusting and I can understand how he feels when he says that he can’t reveal his true self to others, it’s not that I cannot, I don’t want to, I relish in keeping myself to myself and letting others think I’m cold and reserved. This makes the book even more interesting in my eyes.

I highly recommend you to read this book! As for myself, I plan on reading more Japanese literature. I have not yet read a book by a Japanese author that I did not like, I like the characters, who are often introverted, alienated and misunderstood, and the whole sensibility. Yukio Mishima’s portrayal of Etsuko’s loneliness and unrequited sexual longing in Thirst for Love was particularly poignant to me, for example.

Shimeko Tanabe: young bar hostess who died, while Dazai was saved…

And now some of my favourite quotes:

I drank more that night than ever before in my life, more … more, my eyes swam with drink, and every time Tsuneko and I looked in each other’s face, we gave a pathetic little smile. Yes, just as Horiki had said, she really was a poverty stricken woman and nothing more. But this thought itself was accompanied by a welling-up of a feeling of comradeship for this fellow-suffered from poverty.

***

She lay down beside me. Towards dawn she pronounced for the first time the word “death.” She too seemed to be weary beyond endurance of the task of being a human being; and when I reflected on my dread of the world and its bothersomeness, on money, the movement, women, my studies, it seemed impossible that I could go on living. I consented easily to her proposal.

***

We threw ourselves into the sea at Kamakura that night. She untied her sash, saying, she had borrowed it from a friend at the cafe, and left it folded neatly on a rock. I removed my coat and put it on the same spot. We entered the sea together.

She died. I was saved.

***

I was taken aback. Horiki at heart did not treat me like a human being. He could only consider me as the living corpse of a would-be suicide, a person dead to shame, an idiot ghost.

***

At one point, Yozo and his friend are playing a game of antonyms, and start discussing Dostoyevski and the idea of crime:

If we knew the antonym of crime, I think we would know its true nature. God… salvation … love … light. But for God there is the antonym Satan, for salvation is perdition, for love there is hate, for light there is darkness, for good, evil. Crime and prayer? Crime and repentance? Crime and confession? Crime and … no, they’re all synonyms. What is the opposite of crime? (…) Crime and punishment. Dostoievski. These words grazed over a corner of my mind, startling me.

***

It was less the fact of Yoshiko’s defilement than the defilement of her trust in people which became so persistent a source of grief as almost to render my life insupportable. For someone like myself in whom the ability to trust others is cracked and broken that I am wretchedly timid and am forever trying to read the expression on people’s faces. Yoshiko’s immaculate trustfulness seemed clean and pure, like a waterfall among green leaves. One night sufficed to turn the waters of this pure cascade yellow and muddy. Yoshiko began from that night to fret over my every smile or frown.

***

From the first to the last page, Yozo feels detached from everyone around him, and ‘ceases to be a human being’. That sounds unbearably sad, but the more I think about it, the more I find it liberating. If you think of all disgusting things that ‘humans’ have done, the ‘inhumanities’ their rotten minds have come up with, all the wars, tortures, injustices, hypocrisies – ‘the centre of humanity is cruelty’ (Manic Street Preachers – Archives of Pain). If I take all of this into consideration, then, please disqualify me to, I don’t want to be a human being! I’d rather be a flower, a star, rose petal in the wind, a blade of grass floating on the surface of the lake, or simply a drop of rain. There’s another great line from the song ‘Mausoleum’ by the Manics, which is actually taken from the interview with J.G.Ballard: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit… and force it to look back in the mirror’.

And now I had become a madman. Even if released, I would be forever branded on the forehand with the word “madman”, or perhaps, “reject.”

Disqualified as a human being.

I had now ceased utterly to be a human being.‘ (p. 122)

***

I confess, I have shed a few tears at the end, and shivered as I read these lines:

Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness.

Everything passes.

This is the one and only thing I have thought resembled a truth in society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell.

Everything passes.

This year I am twenty-seven. My hair has become much greyer. Most people would take me for over forty.’