Tag Archives: Painting

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.

Watercolours of Venice: Maurice Prendergast and John Henry Twachtman

18 Feb

Maurice Prendergast, The Grand Canal, Venice, 1899, watercolour

I recently stumbled upon these two gorgeous watercolours of Venice and I though it would be fun to compare the two because they are so different in mood. As you may know already, I am a massive fan of Maurice Prendergast’s watercolours and I have written about them on numerous occasions. They are just so vibrant, colourful, bubbly and so darn fun! Prendergast truly transformed the otherwise moody, watery and melancholy medium of watercolour into something ecstatic and playful, childlike but still skilled and refined. Colours and vivacity are two things that characterise Prendergast’s watercolours the most. In this watercolour “The Grand Canal, Venice” from 1899, we are instantly captivated by all the energy and business of the scene; people are gliding up and down the pavement, the gondoliers are on their gondolas, the seawaves are cradling the gondolas and the water is glistening in the sunlight. The way the water is painted, in little dots and dashes, really makes it seem as if it were alive. The composition is interesting because it has a lot of depth and our view stretches from the gondolas in the foreground and the little girl with her red parasol, all the way to the beige and blue houses in the background. The vertical lines of the streetlamps is echoed by the vertical lines of the canal poles. As usual, Prendergast is great at capturing people, lots of people walking down the street chatting and laughing, in a way that is seemingly detailed and sketchy both at once.

In his watercolour titled simply “Venice”, from 1881, the American Impressionist painter John Henry Twachtman offers us a rather different view of the dreamy town on many canals. Twachtman’s watercolour painted in harmony of greys and browns is a stark contrast to Prendergast’s bubbly and colourful view of the Venice canal. The moody, grey sky and the grey water with ever so slight touch of blue and green occupy the majority of the scene. The little boats with brown sails and grey toned domes of churches visually break the vastness of the water and the sky. Prendergast’s watercolours are always bursting with liveliness and are full of people, but in Twachtman’s view of Venice there are no people. This absence of human figures, further contributes to the sombre, slightly melancholy mood. The tonalist way in which the watercolour was painted, with just a few carefully selected colours, makes it feel as if this was a musical composition, a nocturne, something hushed and melancholy. Twachtman allows the colours to freely create the scene and this gives the impression of something light and effortless; we don’t feel as if the painter laboured over this watercolour, rather it feels delicate and natural, as if the sky had imprinted itself on the paper and the sea waves of Venice painted the painter in their aqua blue shades. Two different views of the same city, different in style but equal in beauty.

John Henry Twachtman, Venice, 1881, watercolour

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

Roofs Under Snow in Art: Caillebotte, Georg Pauli, Henri Martin, Edmund Dulac, Claire Carpot

23 Jan

A few weeks ago I (re)discovered Caillebotte’s painting “Roofs Under Snow” and immediatelly afterwards I started seeing more paintings of snowy roofs. This seemed to be a recurring pattern and I decied to write a post about it because the theme seemed fitting for these lonesome and cold January days. In this post we’ll take a look at five paintings that feature the motif of roofs covered by snow, by the following artists: Caillebotte, Georg Pauli, Henri Martin, Edmund Dulac and Claire Carpot.

Gustave Caillebotte, View of Roofs (Snow Effect) or Roofs Under Snow, 1878

Caillebotte painted many views of Parisian streets and balconies in his typical precise and slightly cold and detached manner, but in the painting “View of Roofs (Snow Effect)”, painted in 1878, he approached the subject in a more laid-back, sketchy, Impressionist style. Using only a few colours, white, grey, blue and just a little bit of orange-brown, Caillebotte managed to capture a view from his window that appears realistic and atmospheric both at once. I love the way the attic windows of the building in the foreground are painted in a more detailed way while at the same time the objects in the distance are fading away in a dreamy blueish mist. That’s the way winter afternoons often die; in a blueish mist. The shutters on the windows are closed and uninviting. There is no joy or vivacity or winter magic in this scene.

Georg Pauli (Swedish, 1855-1935), Winter Evening at Söder, Stockholm, 1889

Swedish painter Georg Pauli’s painting “Winter Evening at Söder” from 1889 offers a warmer and dreamier rendition of the same motif. The roofs of Stockholm are covered with a thick white layer of snow. In the foreground the snow has blueish undertones but as our eyes move on to the distance we see that the streetlamps are casting a warm, golden glow on the freshly fallen snow. See what an effect the yellow and orange colours and the light have on the mood of the painting; the serious drabness that we have seen in Caillebotte’s painting is replaced by a golden veil of magic and coziness. The view from the window is, despite the obvious winter’s coldness, warm and inviting. In contrast to Caillebotte’s painting, here a yellow and red light is coming from the windows which makes us wander: who lives there and what are they doing? Sipping tea or eating biscuits, daydreaming their winter away… The light in the window indicates the presence of people and thus the scene appear more lively and inviting, even if we don’t directly see a human figure.

Henri Martin, The Roofs of Paris in the Snow, the View from the Artist’s Studio, 1895

“The Roofs of Paris in the Snow” is a rather realistic motif for Henri Martin whose work consists of more mystical, Symbolist motifs. Even his seemingly plain landscapes are flowery, warm and bathed in soft light. Parisian roofs covered in snow is an unlikely motif for Martin but it speaks of the artist’s hommage to Caillebotte. The cityscape of snow covered roofs and trees is built entirely out of little dots and dashes of colour which is typical for Martin’s Divisionist technique. It’s interesting to see how many dots of different colour on the same area produce something seeminly incoherent but that our eyes easily translate into an object; a roof, a building, a tree. Also, this technique creates a vibrant painting surface which seems flickering and lively and this goes great with the subject matter because that is indeed how the scene would have looked like with snow falling. How else to capture snow but in little dots and dashes of white?

Edmund Dulac, The Snow Queen Flies Through the Winter Night, 1911

French artist Edmund Dulac was known for his whimsical fairy tale and Shakesperean scenes and it is no surprise then that a winter night takes on a magical character when captured by his brush. “The Snow Queen Flies Through the Winter Night” is found in a book “Stories from Hans Andersen(Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1911) and it shows a scene from the fairy tale of the same name by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. The Snow Queen is seen flying above the rooftops of a sleepy town on a winter’s night and she appears ghostly and ephemereal, the colour of her dress, hair and face is the same grey-blueish colour that the roofs are painted in. The light in the windows and the colourful glass on the cathedral add some liveliness to the scene and the effect of snow falling is stunning.

Claire Carpot (1901 – 1992), Christmas (Noel), 1949

And finally we have this very lively and very snowy painting called “Christmas” by a French painter Claire Carpot. What immediately captivated me about this painting is the way the snow was painted, and the quantity in which it was painted! I mean, there is just so much of it. So many snowflakes covering the canvas from top to bottom. Watching snow falling is definitely one of the bright sides of winter and this painting perfectly conveys this joy of seeing snow falling.

Alfred Sisley – Fog, Voisins

13 Jan

Every day the fog gets thicker and thicker around the house. It has now covered the trees whose branches brush against the edge of the terrace. Last night I dreamed that, through the cracks of the doors and windows, the fog was slowly leaking into my room, diminishing the color of the walls and the furniture, filtering into my hair, and sticking to my body, as it dissipates everything, absolutely everything…

(María Luisa Bombal, The Final Mist)

Alfred Sisley, Fog, Voisins, 1874

What a drab month January is! These lonesome and cold winter days I find myself captivated by Alfred Sisley’s dreamy and atmospheric painting called “Fog, Voisins”, painted in 1874.

In 1871, Sisley settled in the little village of Voisins which is situated near Louveciennes which, interestingly, is the place where Anain Nin had lived with her husband at the time she met Henry Miller in 1932. “Fog, Voisins” has none of the love and drama that is found in Anais Nin’s life and diary, for Sisley wasn’t the painter of intense emotions and dramatic scenes. Instead, he devoted his life to portraying landscapes in all their changing beauty. This dreamy landscape shows a garden in fog; trees, bushes and flowers all arising from the veil of mist that covers everything. The contours of objects conceal more than they reveal, they are merely hints of what is there, ghostly and ephemereal. The colours Sisley uses here are a harmony of greys and blues, with only the pink and yellow flowers in the bushes in the foreground being the only exception. The tree on the right is painted in dark grey tones but the trees on the left are painted in even paler shades of grey, fading away even more, escaping our sight, vanishing into the fog… The figure of a woman working in the garden probably wasn’t something that Sisley saw directly that day in the garden. It’s more likely that the figure was taken from his other sketches of peasants working in nature.

Fog transforms even somehing as mundane as a garden into something poetic and profound. Even in real life, walking through the fog and seeing the distant treetops or a road disappearing, adds a mystical elements to otherwise boring scenery. Bellow you can see some details from the painting. I am continually amazed how just a few careful brushstrokes can create a figure or a tree; a few simple strokes and instantly something very recognisable. Sisley here presents us a typical Impressionist motif; nature, garden, trees, but the real protagonist of this painting aren’t the trees of the peasant woman but the fog itself which envelops the garden with its silvery-blue gauzy veil, hides and distorts, coats the everyday into the magic of dreams. Alfred Sisley, the somewhat neglected Impressionist, stayed true to the spirit of the Impressionism and didn’t stray away like other Impressionists (I’m looking at you, Renoir). This painting is a wonderful exercise in capturing the atmosphere and Sisley did a great job at capturing something as vague as fog. I’m sure it’s hard to paint the effect of fog but Sisley makes it look effortless. Sisley painted many wintery snow scenes, as did other Impressionists, but paintings of fog are perhaps more rare.

James Tissot – Young Lady In A Boat

9 Jan

James Tissot, Young Lady In A Boat, 1870

James Tissot, the painter of the idle and glamorous lives of the wealthy Parisians, was popular and received critical acclaim in his time but today he is in the shadow of the more revolutionary painters from his time such as Monet or Degas. Tissot was extremenly prolific and left us many, many wonderful genre paintings of people enjoying everyday life; going for walks, sipping tea, going on balls, gossiping, children playing, reading books and lying in a hammock, spending afternoon gliding on boats or enjoing a picnic under a grand old chestnut tree… All of his paintings are very meticulous and detailed and just a joy to gaze at. Tissot put a particular emphasis on the clothing the figures in his paintings are wearing and that is no surprise, for his father was a succesful drapery merchant and his mother designed hats.

My favourite Tissot painting at the moment is “Young Lady In a Boat”, painted in 1870, just a year before Tissot’s departure for London following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. It shows a pensive young woman dressed in a sumptuous white dress with ruffles and a hat with striped ribbons. A fan in her hand. A flower bouquet in front of her and a little pug behind her. I particularly love her pose; she is holding her chin with her hand and gazing into the distance. Her pinkie finger is touching her lip, what a dainty pose. You can see it also in the drawing bellow which is one of the studies for the painting that Tissot made. Is she sad or just bored? Or both. Is she suffering from ennui? The pug on the other hand looks not pensive but perplexed and he certainly adds to the charm of the painting with his humorous face expression, the face which a critic at the time compared to a monkey. The lady’s hat with those striped ribbons and her hair bring to mind the portraits of the Directoire period (1795-1800) and this was no accident, for Tissot had purposefully tried to emulate the styles of the period and this is evident in a few of his paintings from that time period. Directoire period was a glamorous time of frivolity after the terrors of the revolution and perhaps this is why Tissot decided to emulate the style.

James Tissot, Study for Young Lady in a Boat, c.1869–70. Graphite on buff wove paper, 25.3 x 24.3 cm

Tissot’s paintings are really like a dream; beautifully dressed women lazing around in splendid gardens, gliding on boats, sipping tea in warm salons whilst the children are playing hide and seek. These are people, mostly women, that seem to have everything but there is always a hint of sadness in their faces, as if despite having everything they aren’t fully happy. There’s always a sense of something missing from their lives, perhaps they feel the weight of the contraints on them, both of their corsets and of their society, maybe too much idleness brought too little to fight for or desire, maybe they don’t know what they want but just feel a certain void inside. A void that perhaps a little pug could solve.

Stanislaw Wyspiański – Helena and Flowers

19 Dec

Stanislaw Wyspiański, Helena and Flowers, 1902

Polish painter, poet, and playwright Stanislaw Wyspiański was a very prolific artist despite his early death in 1907 at the age of thirty-eight. His mother had died of tuberculosis when he was seven, and his father was an alcoholic who was unable to take care of the family, and history repeated itself in Stanislaw’s life because his three young children were left fatherless after he died fairly young. Wyspiański’s paintings and his literary works are both seen as a bridge that succesfully connected the patriotic themes which were so popular in Romanticism and the modernist, Symbolist art currents of his times. His oeuvre mostly consists of portraits of women and girls, and some interesting landscapes. In the portraits of girls there is often an emphasis on the traditional clothing and his wife Teodora Teofila, whom he finally married in 1900, was a peasant herself which shows Wyspiański’s love for Polish countryside and the folkore tradition. His models were often his friends and family, and such is the case in this painting as well. Helena was Wyspiański’s first child and the only daughter, seven year old at the time this delightful painting was painted.

I love everything about this portrait; it is so simple and yet so stunning! Firstly, the vibrant colours. I love colours! The playful red pattern on the sleeve of the girl’s dress, the pink vase and the blue flowers; all these colours are so bubbly and fun and vibrant that the vast darkness of the table ceases to be the focus. Secondly, I love the girl’s face expression and the mood she is in. She is touching the bubble-gum pink vase with the tip of her finger and gazing at it with a calm, almost meditative curiosity. A strand of hair is partly covering her face but we can still see her sweet rosy cheeks. I can imagine Wyspianski gazing at his daughter’s sweet face gazing at the flowers and deciding to capture it in a painting. It also reminded me of a scene from Polanski’s film “Repulsion” (1965) where the shy and detached Carol (played by Catherine Deneuve) is left alone in the flat after her sister goes out on a date and she just sits in the kitchen crying because she feels lonely and left-out and suddenly she sees her reflection in the kettle. It’s an aesthetically interesting moment in the film. Similarly, little Helen here is detached from the outside world and is enamoured by the beauty of the flower pot. Lost in her world of daydreams, little did she know that her father was sketching her. The diagonal composition and the way the flowers are cropped also add to the painting’s appeal. And finally, another thing that I love is the faint reflection of the girl’s face in the surface of the table, what a wonderful little detail that makes the painting so special.

Suicide in Art: Charles Robert Leslie – A Lady Contemplating Suicide

12 Dec

In this post we’ll take a look at Charles Robert Leslie’s lovely Victorian era painting “A Lady Contemplating Suicide” from 1852, touch upon different types of suicides presented in Emile Durkheim’s book “Suicide: A Study in Sociology”, and also have a little overview of the representations of suicide in art, mostly nineteenth century examples.

Charles Robert Leslie, A Lady Contemplating Suicide (Juliet from William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Act IV, sc. 3), 1852

A solemn mood in a sombre interior. The light is falling on the pale face of a lovelorn young girl. Too young is the face upon which the misery of an impossible love had already left a trace. The girl, sitting on that chair, is a part of that interior only physically but in spirit she is elsewhere, deep in thoughts no other mortal could understand, or so she thinks. A vial in her hand and a distant gaze speak of an inner turmoil. All the drama of the scene is happening on her lovely countenance, the beauty of which had only been intensified by the wistful thoughts of doom and gloom. Juliet here brings to mind other ladies in contemplation such as the penitent Mary Magdalene by a candle in the paintings by Georges Le Tour, or some seventeenth century painting of a martyr. Victorian genre painter Charles Robert Leslie painted quite a few interesting historical and Shakespearean scenes but this depiction of Juliet contemplating suicide was the most interesting to me at the moment. The scene that Leslie decided to portray is Juliet’s monologue from the Act IV:

My dismal scene I needs must act alone.
Come, vial. (holds out the vial)
What if this mixture do not work at all?
Shall I be married then tomorrow morning?
No, no. This shall forbid it. Lie thou there.
(lays her knife down)
What if it be a poison, which the friar
Subtly hath ministered to have me dead,
Lest in this marriage he should be dishonored
Because he married me before to Romeo?
I fear it is. And yet, methinks, it should not,
For he hath still been tried a holy man.
How if, when I am laid into the tomb,
I wake before the time that Romeo
Come to redeem me? There’s a fearful point.
Shall I not, then, be stifled in the vault
To whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in,
And there die strangled ere my Romeo comes?

Without seeing the title of the painting, I wouldn’t have guessed that the painting shows Juliet but now, reading these words from the play, I do feel that the girl in the painting is indeed Juliet. Apart from the vial you can also see a dagger on the table, another visual hint to what the contemplating lady may be contemplating about. I also really love how the light falls on her; the way her brown hair turns to coppery shades in the light and how the iridescent glow of the red satin dress is also revelaed by the light.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucretia, 1627

In one of my previous posts I had written about Manet’s painting “The Suicide” and Emile Durkheim’s book “Suicide: A Study in Sociology” published in 1897. Durkheim, being a sociologist, was naturally curious to see whether a correlation could be made between an individual act of suicide with society as a whole, and he established four types of suicides. But before Durkheim, suicides were viewed through a psychological lense, as an act caused by the individual’s temperament and mental state, not as something connected to society. In the beginning of his book, Durkheim touched upon the classification of the four types of suicides described by two nineteenth century French psychiatrists, quoting the book:

The four following types, however, probably include the most important varieties. The essential elements of the classification are borrowed from Jousset and Moreau de Tours.
1. Maniacal suicide.—This is due to hallucinations or delirious conceptions. The patient kills himself to escape from an imaginary danger or disgrace, or to obey a mysterious order from on high, etc. But the motives of such suicide and its manner of evolution reflect the general characteristics of the disease from which it derives—namely, mania. The quality characteristic of this condition is its extreme mobility. The most varied and even conflicting ideas and feelings succeed each other with intense rapidity in the maniac’s consciousness. It is a constant whirlwind. One state of mind is instantly replaced by another. Such, too, are the motives of maniacal suicide; they appear, disappear, or change with amazing speed. The hallucination or delirium which suggests suicide suddenly occurs; the attempt follows; then instantly the scene changes, and if the attempt fails it is not resumed, at least, for the moment. If it is later repeated it will be for another motive.

Antoine Jean Gros, Sapho à Leucate, 1801

Jean Victor Schnetz, Sapho se laissant tomber dans la mer, c 1820s

2. Melancholy suicide.—This is connected with a general state of extreme depression and exaggerated sadness, causing the patient no longer to realize sanely the bonds which connect him with people and things about him. Pleasures no longer attract; he sees everything as through a dark cloud. Life seems to him boring or painful. As these feelings are chronic, so are the ideas of suicide; they are very fixed and their broad determining motives are always essentially the same.

A young girl, daughter of healthy parents, having spent her childhood in the country, has to leave at about the age of fourteen, to finish her education. From that moment she contracts an extreme disgust, a definite desire for solitude and soon an invincible desire to die. “She is motionless for hours, her eyes on the ground, her breast laboring, like someone fearing a threatening occurrence. Firmly resolved to throw herself into the river, she seeks the remotest places to prevent any rescue.”

However, as she finally realizes that the act she contemplates is a crime she temporarily renounces it. But after a year the inclination to suicide returns more forcefully and attempts recur in quick succession. Hallucinations and delirious thoughts often associate themselves with this general despair and lead directly to suicide. (…) The fears by which the patient is haunted, his self-reproaches, the grief he feels are always the same. If then this sort of suicide is determined like its predecessor by imaginary reasons, it is distinct by its chronic character. And it is very tenacious. Patients of this category prepare their means of self-destruction calmly; in the pursuit of their purpose they even display incredible persistence and, at times, cleverness.

William Blake, The Wood of the Self-Murderers – The Harpies and the Suicides, 1824-27, pencil, ink and watercolour on paper

3. Obsessive suicide.—In this case, suicide is caused by no motive, real or imaginary, but solely by the fixed idea of death which, without clear reason, has taken complete possession of the patient’s mind. He is obsessed by the desire to kill himself, though he perfectly knows he has no reasonable motive for doing so. It is an instinctive need beyond the control of reflection and reasoning, like the needs to steal, to kill, to commit arson, supposed to constitute other varieties of monomania. As the patient realizes the absurdity of his wish he tries at first to resist it. But throughout this resistance he is sad, depressed, with a constantly increasing anxiety oppressing the pit of his stomach. Hence, this sort of suicide has sometimes been called anxiety-suicide.

Here is the confession once made by a patient to Brierre de Boismont, which perfectly describes the condition: “I am employed in a business house. I perform my regular duties satisfactorily but like an automaton, and when spoken to, the words sound to me as though echoing in a void. My greatest torment is the thought of suicide, from which I am never free. I have been the victim of this impulse for a year; at first it was insignificant; then for about the last two months it has pursued me everywhere, yet I have no reason to kill myself. . . . My health is good; no one in my family has been similarly afflicted; I have had no financial losses, my income is adequate and permits me the pleasures of people of my age.” But as soon as the patient has decided to give up the struggle and to kill himself, anxiety ceases and calm returns. If the attempt fails it is sometimes sufficient, though unsuccessful, to quench temporarily the morbid desire.

Célestin François Nanteuil, Suicide, c 1830s, litograph

4. Impulsive or automatic suicide. – It is as unmotivated as the preceding; it has no cause either in reality or the patient’s imagination. Only, instead of being produced by a fixed idea obsessing the mind for a shorter or longer period and only gradually affecting the will, it results from an abrupt and immediately irresistible impulse. In the twinkling of an eye it appears in full force and excites the act, or at least its beginning. This abruptness recalls what has been mentioned above in connection with mania; only the maniacal suicide has always some reason, however irrational. It is connected with the patient’s delirious conceptions. Here on the contrary the suicidal tendency appears and is effective in truly automatic fashion, not preceded by any intellectual antecedent. The sight of a knife, a walk by the edge of a precipice, etc. engender the suicidal idea instantaneously and its execution follows so swiftly that patients often have no idea of what has taken place.

Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, The Suicide, 1836

Eugene Delacroix, The Death of Ophelia, 1843

I hope you have enjoyed the excerpts from Durkheim’s book as much as I have. Suicide is, more often than not, a highly romanticised idea in art and literature; it is a relief from the misery of this world, an escape from the burdens of reality’s disappointment. In Romantic poetry death is connected to the state of sleep and dream, it is mysterious and otherworldy, it’s full of sweet promises. Looking at the selection of paintings that depict suicides it is easy to see they fall into two distinct categories; some are very romantic and some are … not. If we look at the painting and drawing of the lovelorn Greek poetess Sappho jumping off the cliff, Ophelia drowning and merging with the green river and all the flowers, becoming one with nature, returning to the original source of all things, or the pale body of a redhead poet Chatterton stretched on the bed, all so young and so beautiful, escaping reality that simply couldn’t meet their demands, a wave of Romanticism flushes over us, we sigh, we daydream, we curse the fate and the world that allowed that to happen. But when we look at the other examples, such as the paintings of Manet, Decamps, Leroux, and Otto Dix, we are met with a more cold, distant and realistic portrayal of suicide. In three out of four paintings there is a gun or still in the man’s hands; even the weapon of choice itself is a cold and modern, which brings to mind another sociologist, Max Weber, and his theory about the rationalisation of the world. It’s inexplicable, but jumping off the cliff into the sea, or drowning, or drinking too much laudanum, all seem like very romantic ways to die, but a gun, it’s something rational and quick. Still, it was a preferred method for Goethe’s hero Werther, so there is a contradiction here. I will not go into detail about each of these paintings, and I hope you enjoy them, if I can use the word ‘enjoy’ because the topic is suicide in art, but it is something that is fascinating to me.

Eugene Leroux, The Suicide, 1846

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

I end this post with lyrics from the Manic Street Preacher’s song “Suicide is Painless”:

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
I can take or leave it if I please
That game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card of some delay
So this is all I have to say
That suicide is painless
….
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And you can do the same thing if you please…

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856

Edouard Manet, The Suicide, 1877-81

Albert Besnard, The Suicide (Le Suicide), c. 1886

Suicide, April 5, 1903, French illustrated newspaper Le Petit Parisien

Otto Dix, The Suicide, 1922

Wassily Kandinsky – Riding Couple

8 Dec

“Darling, it’s only the fairy tales we really live by.”
(Katherine Mansfield, Letter to J.M.Murry, 18 October 1920)

Wassily Kandinsky, Riding Couple (Couple on Horseback), 1906-07

This magical and romantical painting known under various titles such as “Riding Couple” or “Couple on Horseback” is a beautiful example of Wasily Kandinsky’s early work. The embracing couple dressed in their traditional Russian costumes bring to mind the romantic paintings by a fellow Russian painter Viktor Vasnetstov, particularly his painting “Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf” (1889) which I wrote about here. Kandinsky may be using a similar motif but his treatment of the painting’s surface is completely different. While Vasnetsov tries to evoke the mysterious and romanticised, but still realistically painted, spirit of the forest, Kandinsky transports us into a carnival of colours bursting with energy and vibrancy. Around the riding couple are a few thin elegant birches, and behind them is a scenery made up of a wide river and a townscape with many colourful domes and roofs, reminiscent of the grandeur of Moscow, a town that had a special place in Kandinsky’s heart. The description of the scene makes it sound beautiful, but then upon seeing it, ahh it is a feast for the eyes! Kandinsky here uses a Divisionist method which allows the colour to mix and mingle freely in the eye of the viewer and not on the painter’s palette. He is building the space with little dots, dashes and dabs of colour.

Just look at the outfit the couple is wearing; it’s made out of little dots of blue and pink, then the leaves on the trees just blots of brown and gold, the horse’s body is made up of grey dashes, the river is glimmering in all colours, on the right we see the landscape made up of horizontal dashes, and then the sky, those blues and the purple cloud; it’s woven with magic. The landscape is smiling and flickering like Christmas lights. The orange and red leaves that have fallen on the ground also add to the magical appeal. There is a visual contrast between the shining and inviting city across the river and the solitary, more intimate space hidden by the trees where the lovers on the horse are, as if they are hiding their love, or, the city with its lights and promises of fun and gaiety doesn’t appeal to them because they already found the heaven on earth in each other’s arms. The motif, the scenery and the manner in which it was painted all make it seem as if this is a scene from a fairy tale. Maybe the riding couple were banished from the kingdom on the other side of the river and now, shivering from the chill autumnal air and finding abode in the embrace, they will cast a last, melancholy-tinged glance at the place they use to consider their home…

Bellow you can see a painting from the same time period called “The Colourful Life” and again you see this wonderful technique; vivacious patches of vibrant colour are arising out of a dark background and glowing like gemstones; this is what makes these paintings so enchanting. It also makes me think of mosaic; church mosaics seen in the flickering light of a candle. Take a moment to appreciate the wonderful colours; just look at those gorgeous blues, teal, purple and orange in the painting bellow. It truly uplifts the soul. The characters look like they escaped from the pages of fairy tale books and we have a motif of a castle perched on the top of the hill, all of these little details bring the fairy tale spirit and that is another characteristic of Kandinsky’s early period. And it is interesting to note that even though this is Kandinsky’s early phase, he actually celebrated his fortieth birthday on 16th December 1906, so I guess it goes to show that it is never too late to start a hobby or chase your dream. Age shouldn’t be an impediment to your desires.

Wasily Kandinsky, Das Bunte Leben (The Colourful Life), 1907, tempera on canvas

Camille Corot: Orpheus and Lot’s Wife: Don’t Look Back…

3 Dec

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861

Two paintings – one painter and one motif that binds them; looking back and disobeying the given command. “Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld” is one of those gorgeous, ethereal and dreamy landscapes that Corot (1796-1875) painted later in his career. The scene depicts the mythology tale of the musician Orpheus who loved his wife Eurydice, who had died from a snake bite, so much that he even dared to visit the Underworld just to bring her back. His music teacher was the God Apollo and he played the lyre so beautifully that it charmed everyone who heard it and even made the trees dance. After Eurydice had died, Orpheus was inconsolable and wandered around desperate and mournful, playing heart-breakingly sad songs on his lyre, music so sad that it touched the hearts of all the nymphs and gods who urged him to go look for Eurydice in the kingdom of Hades. And so he did. Hades and Persephone were touched by his story and told him that he can bring Eurydice back to the world, but he musn’t look back until the leave the Underworld. Let us remind ourselves that Persephone herself had been in a similar situation to Eurydice.

Corot’s painting shows this scene of Orpheus, with his omnipresent lyre, leading Eurydice by the hand, through the dreamy landscapes of the world of dead, undoubtedly dreamier in Corot’s version that in reality. Corot doesn’t show the horrible moment when Orpheus, out of curiosity or insecurity perhaps, turned around to look at his beloved Eurydice who then vanished forever… That would have been an interesting painting, I imagine Eurydice’s ghostly figure fading away. Was she angry or disappointed, I wonder? No need to punish Orpheus, for later on he met an equally tragic fate… Baudelaire praised Corot’s “simplicity of colour” and called his landscapes “seductive”. An interesting choice of a word, but I must agree. I mean, just look at how seductively magical his painting of Orpheus and Eurydice is! The trees look so ephemereal and dreamy, as if they truly don’t belong on this earth. Eurydice looks ghostly enough in her gauze dress. In the background forlorn souls are lamenting their state.

Camille Corot, The Burning of Sodom (formerly ‘The Destruction of Sodom’), 1843/57

In the painting “The Burning of Sodom” you can see Corot’s earlier style which is more sombre and moody, the colours are heavy and earthy, and the overall mood is not that of dreaminess and softness. Corot painted this in 1843 and made some adjustments in 1857, that is, he cut off some of the canvas. The cloudy sky used to be bigger but for some reason Corot thought it would be better to get rid of it. The scene shows an Angel leading Lot and his daughters to safety after God had decided to destroy Sodom, and we all know why. Only the righteous ones are to be saved. Paintings that depict this motif typically focus on Lot and his daughters after they had escaped, but Corot here focuses on the crucial moment. Who is that still, dark figure in the right? It is Lot’s wife, of course. God had turned her into a pillar of salt after she had disobeyed his command of not looking back.

One scene is mythological, the other is Biblical; one is Corot’s earlier work and the other is a later one, but they both deal with the motif of disobedience to God(s). The tale of Lot’s wife shows us that you cannot save people against their will, and that is something to remember in life. You cannot open their eyes to truth if they refuse to see, if they are looking without seeing and listening without hearing, then better leave then behind, leave them in their Sodom, perhaps that is a punishment enough. Out of sadness, regret or pity, Lot’s wife disobeyed the Angel’s command and she turned around to glance at the burning city for one last time. Yearning to save another soul – she lost her own. It’s a very profound and deep message for these times as well.