Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde – Speak gently she can hear the daisies grow

22 Feb

Today I’ll share with you a poem I recently stumbled upon and loved very much: Requiescat by Oscar Wilde. I particularly loved the first stanza and the last one, and the rest in between.

The Birch Tree (1967), by Ante Babaja

Tread lightly, she is near

Under the snow,

Speak gently, she can hear

The daisies grow.

 

All her bright golden hair

Tarnished with rust,

She that was young and fair

Fallen to dust.

 

Lily-like, white as snow,

She hardly knew

She was a woman, so

Sweetly she grew.

 

Coffin-board, heavy stone,

Lie on her breast,

I vex my heart alone,

She is at rest.

 

Peace, peace, she cannot hear

Lyre or sonnet,

All my life’s buried here,

Heap earth upon it.

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Aesthetic Movement: Oriental Lyricism vs Sumptuousness of Renaissance

19 Feb

L’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake; welcome to the world of Aestheticism!

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 3, 1865-67

“Now at last the spring

draws swiftly to its finish.

How alone I am.”

(Natsume Soseki, Kusamakura)

I bet that hearing the young Chelsea bohemians and aesthetes, such as Whistler and Rossetti, boasting about their art for art’s sake motto, was like a slap in the face to all that Ruskin had achieved in his writings and life long devotion to art. The English aesthetes continued in their paintings what the French poet and a devotee of Beauty, Théophile Gautier started. Art for art’s sake principle claims that the only purpose of art is to create Beauty; art should be its own purpose, and ought to remain detached from society, politics, philosophy or science. Perfection of execution and harmony of colours were seen as important means of achieving the Beauty. In the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) Gautier wrote: “Nothing is truly beautiful except that which can serve for nothing; whatever is useful is ugly.” This view of art having merely an aesthetic value clashed with John Ruskin’s opinion that art should convey the moral truths and influence us on a spiritual level.

Representatives of this wave of aestheticism in England, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Albert Moore, Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, filled their canvases, in most cases, with beautiful women in sumptuous surroundings, wearing gorgeous clothes and evoking a mood of languor and sweetness smelling of violets and roses. This obsession with Beauty went in two different directions; the first was the Oriental-inspired musings, while the other went into the past and revisited the luxurious settings of Titian and Giorgione’s paintings.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

“The temple bell stops –

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.”

(Basho, translated by Robert Bly)

Whistler is the representative of the first path; inspired by both his fellow painter Albert Moore and Japonism or the madness for all things Japanese, Ukiyo-e prints, porcelain and fabrics that ruined the minds of Parisian artists like plague, he created delicate, serene and lyrical paintings bathed in white and lightness. His famous “Symphonies”, the third one you can see above, were admired by his fellow painters such as James Tissot, Alfred Stevens and Edgar Degas, but also highly criticised too. Model for the girl lounging on the couch was Whistler’s mistress, model and muse Joanna Hiffernan who also posed for the Symphonies in White no. 1 and 2.

A painting needn’t always have a lady dressed in a kimono, white clothes or cherry blossom tree in it, for us to say that it was Japanese-inspired, it’s more about following the principles of Ukiyo-e prints and Japanese design by observing their use of perspective, flat portrayal of space, composition and bold outlines. This is also how Edgar Degas explored Japonism, by incorporating its interesting perspectives into his ballerina scenes, unlike Monet who opted for the simpler way: painting his wife in a colourful kimono.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866

Artists who took the second path, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, partly continued the Medieval reveries, but were mostly inspired by the luxurious, richly-coloured paintings of Renaissance ladies by Titian, Veronese and dreamy idyllic world of Giorgione. Ever since he painted “Bocca Bacciata” in 1859, Rossetti continually returns to the subject of a beautiful sensual and vain woman-enchantress with bloody lips of a vampire, clad in luxurious fabrics, surrounded with objects of beauty such as fans, jewellery or flowers. Her long and lustrous hair is ready to smother every man who dares to set his eyes upon her, her eyes are cold and large gemstones. “Monna Vanna” is another beautiful example of the rich-coloured dreamy splendour that Rossetti portrays, using different models but painting the same archetypal face with heavy-lidded eyes, strong neck and large lips.

Edward Burne-Jones, Le Chant d Amour (Song of Love), 1869-77

And at springtide, when the apple-blossoms brush the burnished bosom of the dove,
Two young lovers lying in an orchard would have read the story of our love;
Would have read the legend of my passion, known the bitter secret of my heart,
Kissed as we have kissed, but never parted as we two are fated now to part.
(Oscar Wilde, Flower of Love)

Edward Burne-Jones, a young admirer of Rossetti and a follower of Pre-Raphaelite ideas, also paints idealised worlds with much beauty but little content. In those reveries inspired by the Italian High Renaissance, like the “Song of Love” time stands still and figures are sinking deeper and deeper into the sweet languor that arises from imaginary sounds. Warm glowing colours are melting and draperies are heavy, as if carved from stone. Faces are strong and gazes distant. Claustrophobia and stillness almost painful, rapture captured for eternity, the height of ecstasy, the trembling of sighs, the caressing twilight that flickers in the distant sky, cold stone of the castle, eyelids closed by the intoxicating perfume of the tired tulips in the foreground.

No breeze, no movement, no bird is heard, the hand that lightly touches the keys of an instrument produces no sound, the drapery and the fine hair not dancing in the wind but stopped in the movement, the gaze is forever fixated. The figure on the right dressed in red, seems to be whispering Oscar Wilde’s lines “Had my lips been smitten into music by the kisses that but made them bleed” from “Flower of Love”. The painting itself has a mood of a flower which, unable to bloom or wither, chooses to stay crouching for eternity in the painfully agonizing stage of the bud.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

Just by looking at Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” and Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, it is easy to see their influence on both Burne-Jones’s “Song of Love” and Rossetti’s “Monna Vanna”. The same sweet languor pervades the air, the background reveals contours of a castle and a yellowish sky, and the draperies are similar as well. In Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, people are enjoying the music and each others company as warmth and indolence hang over them like a bright soft cloud.

Giorgione, Pastoral Concert (Fête champêtre), 1508-09

So, which direction of Aesthetic movement in painting do you prefer; oriental or Renaissance? It is pretty clear that I am all for the serenity of Whistler’s Symphonies in white influenced by Japanese-influence, but both possess their beauty. Whistler’s paintings can sometimes seem distant and cold, and the intensity of Rossetti and Burne-Jones’s colours and details can sometimes be overwhelming.

Reveries of Fin de Siecle

5 Jun

When boredom strikes the best thing to do is to immerse oneself into a completely different mood, place or time period. It is what I always do, and this time I chose fin de siecle.

1900s Charles Hoffbauer

Charles Hoffbauer, At the Ball, 1900s

***

In the late 19th century, artists on both sides of the Channel began to question the social norms, and used art to display their radical, often perverse, opinions. They attacked capitalism and European imperialism, questioned the Victorian view on sexuality, promoted pure aestheticism, deemed Western society as hypocritical, delved into vampirism or simply longed for death. Creme de la creme of this new wave of literature includes novels such as A Rebours or Against Nature (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Oscar Wilde’s notorious The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892) by Thomas Hardy, The Triumph of Death (1894) by Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), and finally, the beautiful, bleak and disturbing Torture Garden (1899) by Octave Mirbeau.

***

L’apollonide (House of Pleasures) 1

A scene from the film L’Apollonide or The House of Tolerance (2011); it’s set in a high-class brothel in Paris at the turn of the century

***

In visual arts, the decadent, pessimistic and cynical spirit of ‘fin de siecle’ was demonstrated in a more exciting and vibrant manner and painters such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Felicien Rops, Childe Hassam, Edvard Munch, Jean-Louis Forain and many others produced paintings which satirised the state of society, at the same time giving it a certain dose of glamour which continues to fascinate people even today. Welcome to fin de siecle; the age of un-innocence, where darkness and sins lure from every corner, nightclubs offer nothing but loneliness, pessimism is the meal of the day, seedy salon lights conceal the gritty reality…

***

1890. Bal au Moulin Rouge - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1890

***

The glamour and vividness of fin de siecle is perhaps best captured in paintings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – the painter of cabarets, dancers, singers, circuses, and prostitutes. With miraculous ability to capture the moment, incredibly good memory, and proneness for sharp observation that spares nobody, Toulouse-Lautrec, sketched dancers, dandies and common folk at places such as Moulin Rouge; the Studio 54 of La Belle Epoque. Imagine him sitting by the small round table, dressed in a black suit, bowler hat and a pair of spectacles, perhaps in the company of the dancer Jane Avril, drinking absinthe and voraciously sketching. Moulin Rouge, the place where silk dresses rustle, glasses cling, and conversations go on through the night, reminds me of the place Morrissey sang about in the song There is a Light That Never Goes Out:

Take me out tonight
Where there’s music and there’s people
Who are young and alive…*

***

1885. At the Masked Ball by Jean-Louis Forain (French 1852 –1931)

Jean-Louis Forain (French 1852 –1931), At the Masked Ball, 1885

***

I have always wanted to attend a masquerade ball; to be someone else for a night and talk to strangers without having to reveal my true identity, with each mask I could be a different person. Jean-Louis Forain painted a lavishing ‘masked ball scene’ where the lady in a purple-white dress, black opera gloves, a mask and a lace veil stands beside an unmasked gentleman, possibly her love interest for the night. The colour palette for the background, rich wine, sangria and crimson shades, is perfectly suitable for the spirit of the era. The scene itself evokes mystery. What are they talking about? Probably some tittle-tattle with a fin de siecle twist.

The grin on her face and her eyes, barely visible through the mask, suggest she’s gazing at something interesting in the background, while her ‘hunched-back, moustache, hand-in-his-pocket’ companion clutches her arm tightly. Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes is the music for the background of this scene. Roses on her dress remind me of the introduction of The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

1900s The Divine in Blue - Boldini

Giovanni Boldini, The Divine in Blue, early 1900s

***

Blue blue, electric blue, dynamic brushstrokes, femme fatale – it must be a work of the Italian painter Giovanni Boldini, famous for his turn of the century portraits of aristocratic ladies. This gorgeous, protruding shade of blue, and the lady’s half-hidden gaze make this portrait a perfect representative for the fin the siecle. Boldini’s portraits, along with some female figures in the novels I’ve mentioned above, all show that a new type of woman fascinated artists and society in fin de siecle. A lady who faints and screams like a virgin in Gothic novels simply wasn’t in tune with the times. ‘A New Woman’ stepped on the scene, and Boldini quickly resorted to his brush and a clear white canvas, to capture her charms and seductiveness.

A good example of a fin de siecle goddess is Clara from Torture Garden – a sadistic, intense, hysteric and beautiful redhead who gets pleasure from seeing tortures. She’s a bit extreme, but I like Mirbeau’s description of her gaze because I think Boldini’s ‘Divine in Blue’ has a gaze similarly pierced on the viewers:

While I was speaking and weeping, Miss Clara was looking fixedly at me. Oh, that look! Never, no, never should I forget the look that adorable woman fixed me with, an extraordinary look in which amazement was mingled with joy, pity and love – yes, love – as well as malice and irony.. And everything.. A look which pierced me through, penetrating into me and overwhelming me body and soul.

***

L’apollonide

L’apollonide (House of Pleasures) 2

A scene from the film L’Apollonide or The House of Tolerance (2011); it’s set in a high-class brothel in Paris at the turn of the century

***

Another quote from Mirbeau’s Torture Garden, which is just as relevant today:

You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That’s the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.

***

1895. Childe Hassam - Rainy Night

Childe Hassam, Rainy Night, 1895

***

This gorgeous painting by Childe Hassam, Rainy Night, reminds me of a dialogue in Woody Allen’s marvellous film Midnight in Paris (2011), starring Owen Wilson as Gil and Rachel McAdams as Inez:

Gil: I don’t get here often enough, that’s the problem. Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the ’20s. Paris in the ’20s, in the rain. The artists and writers!

Inez: Why does every city have to be in the rain? What’s wonderful about getting wet?” (Midnight in Paris, 2011, Woody Allen)

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the title of Hassam’s painting – Rainy Night – now, is there a better moment? I always feel such rapture and manic energy when it rains, and this painting evokes the same feelings. The scene shows people bustling in front of a nightclub, opening their umbrellas, ladies pulling up their skirts so they don’t get wet, while the golden lights and warmth and pleasure awaits them just behind the doors. What a contrast; a nightclub with all its vibrancy is a place were one can forget oneself by dancing or drinking to oblivion, and, on the outside, a dreamy velvety night over the big city. I’d forget the nightclub for a night as beautiful as this.

Hassam, as an Impressionist, tended to capture the moment, and he did it beautifully in this watercolour. He captured both the excitement and the tenderness of the night, the evening lights and gentle shades of blue that endlessly flickers and overflows into alluring yellow-golds and dark midnight blue that exceeds in onyx black.

***

Jane Asher in Charley's Aunt play

Jane Asher in the play ‘Charley’s Aunt’ (2012)

When I started writing this post I was bored beyond pain, but the decadent world of fin de siecle with all its paintings, film costumes, music and books strangely pulled me in. Cure for boredom became my current obsession.

Materialism vs Idealism in Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and The Rose

29 May

Oscar Wilde, author of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, was ‘a flamboyant and sparklingly witty Anglo-Irish playwright, poet and critic’ (1) whose ideas and behaviour were often in stark contrast with the stale and conventional society he lived in. A dandy and an aesthete, Wilde was naturally drawn towards noble themes of beauty, sincerity and love, and his stories can be viewed as reflections of the decadent and pessimistic social landscape of fin de siècle. In ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, Wilde combined his typical eloquence with fairytale elements, interesting plot and lavishing symbolism.

One could argue that the fairytale, first published in May 1888 as a part of collection of children’s stories ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’, is a true product of its time. In this fairytale, Wilde confronted two ideas or, rather, mindsets that sparked discussions amongst intellectuals in fashionable salons, and are present throughout entire art history – materialism and idealism; the Student represents the former, while the Nightingale represents the latter.

1879. A Girl and Roses by Auguste Toulmouche

Auguste Toulmouche, A Girl and Roses, 1879

*MATERIALISM

The Student, the main character of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, is a thinker who pursues knowledge and places logic and reason above all. In the very beginning he proclaims: ‘I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine…’ This excessively confident and rather naive remark indicates the Student’s true character, and instantly connects him to realist art movement whose key features are the emphasis on modern world and belief in the power of science. He is briefly distracted from his studies by a beautiful daughter of his Professor who promised to dance with him if he brought her red roses.

From the beginning he is presented as a materialist; fixated on the rose and not questioning the worthiness of his love pursuit. His thoughts upon listening to the Nightingale’s song reveal his incapability of experiencing true emotions: ‘…she has some beautiful notes in her voice. What a pity it is that they do not mean anything, or do any practical good.’(2) In a true manner of literary realism, Wilde chose a student for his character, continuing the long line of student characters such as Balzac’s Rastignac or Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov.

1889. The Rose Of All Roses, Wilhelm Menzler

Wilhelm Menzler, The Rose Of All Roses, 1889

Professor’s Daughter, a haughty, vain, rude and ungrateful girl, is another character that represents materialism. Dr Jarlath Killeen claims: ‘As daughter of the Professor, the girl in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ is a powerful representation of the desire for knowledge allied with a profound commitment to materialism.” (3) However, the Student kept courting her, without realising her shallowness and class snobbery. When he found the rose, coloured beautifully by the Nightingale’s crimson red blood, he noticed its beauty, but only as a means of dancing with his beloved. He is incapable of appreciating beauty without expecting something material in return. When the Professor’s daughter received the rose, she stated: ‘I am afraid it will not go with my dress, (…) and, besides, the Chamberlain’s nephew has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.’ She makes it clear that she’s uninterested in love that doesn’t include wealth and social position, adding further ‘… who are you? Only a Student. Why, I don’t believe you have even got silver buckles to your shoes as the Chamberlain’s nephew has’.

Although she rejected him cruelly, he is not to be pitied because he got what he deserved. His preoccupation with reason, logic and knowledge, alongside his materialistic worldviews made him a bad judge of character. His feelings are artificial as is his character, and since his love wasn’t deep and sincere he quickly returned to his studies, proclaiming: ‘What a silly thing Love is, (…) It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not true. (…) In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics.‘ (4) The Student is doomed never to be happy because he seeks refuge in reason and is incapable of experiencing true emotions. Blinded by his pursuit of knowledge, the Student fails to notice and admire beauties around him; sweet scent of the flowers, song of the birds, fresh air and sunlight.

1880s Jeune Femme, Adolphe Etienne Piot 1

Adolphe Etienne Piot, Jeune Femme, 1880s

* IDEALISM

The Nightingale stands as a contrast to the Student. She is a true idealist and a dreamer, who ‘night after night’ sung of a true lover and ‘told his story to the stars.’ The Nightingale is a gentle and kind creature, led by intuition and feelings. Consequently she decided to sacrifice her life for love because she places love above all; above material things and social conventions. Ideas of love and beauty typical for fin de siècle, have developed as a response to materialism, rationalism and positivism of the previous era which saw the height of the bourgeois class and realism being developed as a literary genre.

In her eyes, love is something that transcends even death. Wilde described her as singing of the ‘Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb.’ (5) Although such sacrifice would seem pathetic in the age of realism, it struck a chord with decadent and disillusioned pessimists and aesthetes of fin de siècle. In this sense, Wilde spiritually takes us back to Romanticism – yet another age of idealism, when poets such as Lord Byron, John Keats and Shelley sang of love, beauty and death.

1878. Girl With a Rose by Gustave Leonard de Jonghe

Gustave Leonard de Jonghe, Girl With a Rose, 1878

Wilde’s choice of the bird nightingale as his character emphasises this symbolism even further; in his sonnets, Shakespeare compared love to the nightingale’s song, Keats compared this bird to a poet itself in ‘Ode to the Nightingale’, and Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his essay that: “A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” (6)

Dr Jarlath Killeen argues that Wilde presented the Nightingale as a secular Christ-like figure: ‘This Christian transformation of the Philomena myth would explain the clear references to the crucifixion in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, and Wilde’s association of the Nightingale with Christ who was willing to sacrifice himself for a beautiful idea the world was clearly not ready for.’ (7) Wilde presented the Nightingale as a doomed and sensitive creature rejected by the cruel world, someone who appears to be a loser, but is in truth a deeply noble individual whose sacrifice nobody understands.

In a sense, Wilde portrayed the Nightingale as an artist, and thus continued the long line of noble but lonely misunderstood individuals, ranging from Thomas Chatterton and John Keats all the way to Vincent van Gogh, and modern rock stars such as Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse. Just like those artists, the Nightingale sacrificed her life for her ‘art’ – the creation of a red rose. She gave her life for the idea. Even the Student places the Nightingale in the circle of artists, praising her song but decreeing her selfish: ‘In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish.’ (8)

Wilde continues with a distinctly artistic imagery in description of the Nightingale’s opinion of love, which is rather different from the Student’s: ‘Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in market-place. It may not be purchased of the merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold’. Judging by the way the story ends, Wilde is subtly implying that the gentle ones are always crucified for their sensibility.

1880s The Long Walk At Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire - Marie Spartali Stillman, Watercolour

Marie Spartali Stillman, The Long Walk At Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, Watercolour, 1880s

* CONCLUSION AND MY VIEW

To summarise, Oscar Wilde’s story ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ can be perceived not only as Wilde’s personal clash between “English materialism and Celtic idealism”, (9) but as a universal historical, artistic and social struggle between materialism and idealism, reason and intuition, classical and romantic, Logos and Eros, Apollonian and Dionysian etc. As every art movement is a reaction to the previous one, so these opposites took turns and shaped the world’s history from the age of Homer to now. Romanticism came as an answer to the overly rational Age of Enlightenment, then the excessive sentimentality of Romanticism had to be neutralised by realism which praised science and logic, and in fin de siècle people, already bored with it all, rebelled against materialism and rationalism, and embraced idealism and emotionalism. ‘Sad Prince’ of the aesthetes, Oscar Wilde, lived in these changing times and expressed these conflicts in his works.

In my opinion, the story perfectly captures the spirit of the times it was written, because its main themes are love, beauty and death – a trio that graced the artistic landscape at the turn of the century, and sparked conversations in opium and absinthe-laced clubs and salons of London, among intellectuals, artists and dandies. The Nightingale’s sacrifice appeals to me immensely because it’s something glamorous and rebellious. In the act of sacrifice I see a clear detachment of the artist from the ‘common people’. Thomas Chatterton committed suicide, Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear, Lord Byron fought in Greece, the Nightingale gave her life for love – everything is better than a life of blessed mediocrity. I think Oscar Wilde took the Nightingale’s side because Aestheticism and dandyism are a stark contrast to materialism and logic, and her sacrifice is very artistic. At the same time, Wilde questions the value of the artist’s life. His quote confirms this: ‘The artistic life is a long lovely suicide’.

_____________________________________________________________

(1) ”Oscar Wilde”, British Library

(2) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, n.d. Web

(3) Dr Jarlath Killeen, The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

(4) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, n.d. Web

(5) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, May 6, 1997, Web

(6) Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Literature Network, n.d. Web

(7) Killeen, Jarlath; The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

(8) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, May 6, 1997, Web

(9) Killeen, Jarlath; The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

Edgar Degas – L’Absinthe

16 Nov

After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. …” (Oscar Wilde)

1876. L'Absinthe, oil on canvas, by Edgar Degas a

What’s hiding behind this, on the first sight, simple cafe scene in Paris? Who is this gentleman and the lady sitting sadly net to him? Are they sad, or just tired and exhausted from the life in the city?

Edgar Degas painted this painting called ‘L’Absinthe’ in 1876. The critics were absolutely repelled by it; they considered it ugly and disgusting, while the characters were deemed degraded and uncouth. It does seem dull, gray and lifeless at the first sight, but there’s something so appealing about this raw representation of modern life. The painting shows two isolated individuals who sit estranged in a cafe, waiting for the gray and lonely Parisian day to turn into something better. The man with a black hat on, is smoking a pipe and distractedly watching into the distance. The lady, who is also formally dressed, sits with a glass of Green Fairy, that is, Absinthe, in front of her. Their shadows can be seen on the wall, perhaps suggesting that they are themselves shadows of life, with their beat appearance, melancholic gazes, and the overall aura of resignation around them. The two individuals obviously have nothing else to do, for they are sitting in a cafe in the middle of the day doing nothing. Their position in society is questionable as is their reputation. Painted in grey and brown tones, this painting represents not only isolation and oppressive atmosphere of the city, but also the emotional aspect of the scene; the emotional burden of boredom and the meaninglessness of life.

Model for the man was Marcellin Desboutin, a painter, printmaker and a bohemian. The model for the lady with sad eyes was an actress Ellen Andree who also posed for the other Impressionists, such as Renoir. The cafe they’re sitting in is the Cafe de la Nouvelle Athenas; a famous meeting place for the Impressionists, both Degas and Van Gogh regularly visited the cafe, and many artists after such as Matisse. At the time the painting was painted, Paris was growing rapidly, the industry was changing the landscape and a new era was on the horizon. Degas’ choice of subjects reflects his modern approach. As a painter, Degas observes the modern life and paints it as it is, without embellishments, but also without blatant judgment or false morality. He favored painting ballerinas, milliners, laundresses, cafe scenes and denizens of Parisian low life.

L’Absinthe‘ represents the increasing social isolation in Paris during its stage of rapid grow. Degas used these individuals as a symbol for the isolation and oppression many people, especially the bohemians and workers who didn’t profit of Industrialisation, suffered from. These low existences represent the boredom, emotional coldness and detachment from nature which came with the rapid development of Paris in the second half of the 19th century. Seems like the absinthe is the only cure for their sad and disappointed face expressions.