Tag Archives: Painting

Egon Schiele and Kokoschka – Proletarian Lolitas

27 Mar

Friendship of Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, who were both remembered for being a thorn in the eye of the art scene in the late Art Nouveau and early Expressionism phase of Vienna, was merely an artistic one. They both soaked each others ideas and for a very short time created from the same wellspring of inspiration, only to move apart and drift into totally different directions.

Egon Schiele, Mädchen mit übereinandergeschlagenen Beinen (Girl with crossed legs), 1911

The very first thing you notice when gazing at Schiele’s portraits and nudes is their ‘elegantly wasted’ appeal mixed with some kind of twisted eroticism, smouldering melancholy and trashy glamour. There’s some subtle poetry of sadness about their worn out faces, tired eyes, sunken cheekbones, and their pale greyish skin. Completely nude, or dressed in lingerie and stockings, they gaze nervously, tiredly, forlornly at us; they provoke a response. Certain malaise pervades their smiles.

A true-blooded Expressionist, Oskar Kokoschka was the first to show interest in portraying the underprivileged, the poor, the misfits, but Egon Schiele soon followed his path, and they both worked and soaked inspiration in the gritty everyday reality of working class Vienna. Schiele’s drawings from 1910 and 1911 show resemblance to Kokoshka’s drawings from 1908 and 1909, but they are more poetical. In my view, Kokoshka’s drawings cannot even be compared to the power of his later paintings which are full of Expressionist frenzy, unsettling and distorted, painted in layers and layers of colour, as if every brushstroke brings relief. Below, you’ll see one of his drawing from this period which shows a half-nude girl. It slightly reminds me of Paul Gauguin’s way of portraying bodies, her face contour is strong, her body is kind of geometrical, overall she looks rough, stiff. This just shows that Schiele’s main method of expression was line, while in Kokoschka’s paintings colour plays a more important role. Kokoschka later even accused Schiele of ‘stealing’ his style.

Oskar Kokoschka, The juggler’s daughter, 1908, pencil, watercolour

But Schiele… Schiele’s drawings are like existentialist poems. He was an excellent draughtsman. Otto Benesh, son of Schiele’s patron Heinrich Benesh, wrote this of Schiele’s drawing technique: “Schiele drew quickly. The pencil skated over the white surface of the paper as though led by some ghostly hand… and he sometimes held the pencil in the manner of a painter from the Far East.” It’s also interesting to note that he never used an eraser; he rarely made mistakes, but when he did, he’d simply throw the paper away. And he sketched quickly, and then later, in the absence of the model, he’d fill in his drawings with watercolour or gouache.

Egon Schiele, Seated Girl Facing Front 1911

The beauty of his drawings is unsurpassed, even Klimt once admitted to him that he is better at drawing. His lines seem fragile and constricted, but their firm and controlled nature cannot be denied. Schiele employed the language of melancholy and lyricism, in a similar way to Modigliani, and used it to portray his own bewildering loneliness. In my view, all of his portraits, nudes, sunflowers and landscapes, express the same thing – melancholy, death, decay, they are windows into his soul and mind. This is just what Caspar David Friedrich said: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees in himself. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting what he sees before him.” Schiele always paints what is within him.

When he chose to paint these poor girls from the streets, he did so because he saw through their sunken cheeks and sad eyes, his artistic vision penetrated through their souls. Kokoshka is interested only in their bodies, but Schiele wants to see the world through their eyes. Kokoschka was interested in their crooked postures and inelegance because it suited his distorted visions of the world, whereas in Schiele’s drawings you see the souls behind their tired little bodies. Pale, skinny, beaten and hungry, unnoticed till that moment, these street urchins, mostly girls, always ignored, pushed into the corner, out of the way, were brought into the spotlight all of a sudden, which undoubtedly made them feel special, privileged. Someone noticed them, someone was nice towards them, someone wanted to paint them!

Egon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

A sentence which sums it all, and which inspired me to write this post in the first place:

“Physically immature, thin, wide-eyed, full-mouthed, innocent and lascivious at the same time, these Lolitas from the proletarian districts of Vienna arouse the kind of thoughts best not admitted before a judge and jury.” (Egon Schiele, by Frank Whitford)

You’ll notice how awkward they look. Girl with black hair has a look of sadness and resignation in her eyes. For a while that has been one of my favourite of Schiele’s nudes because of the discord between her cute round face with large eyes and full lips, and the awkward skinny body with skin stretched taunt over the bones, and small breasts. She looks uncomfortable with being naked, she looks shy and hopelessly sad. My more recent favourite is the one below, Sitting girl with ponytail, again, I love her body and her skin tone, which Schiele obviously enjoyed painting. His nudes always look pale and sickly, but sometimes their skin has a greyish tone and sometimes it takes yellowish shades, but you’ll notice how he paints patches of unnatural shades of colour where they should not naturally be, like adding a bit of green, blue or brown on their bodies. And look at the face of this little proletarian Lolita – it resembles that of a sad and dreamy porcelain doll, eyes gazing in the distance, lips painted in rich red colour.

This is what Schiele’s friend Gütersloh wrote of these child models:

There were always two or three small of large girls sitting about in his studio, brought there from the immediate neighbourhood, from off the street or picked up in the Schonbrunn park that was nearby. They were ugly and pretty, washed and unwashed and they did nothing – at least to the layman they might have seemed to do nothing… They slept, recovered from beatings administered by parents, lazily lounged about – something they were not allowed to do at home – combed their hair, pulled their dresses up or down, did or undid their shoes… like animals in a cage which suits them, they were left to their own devices, or at any rate believed themselves to be. (…) With the aid of little money and much charm he had managed to lull these little beasts into a false sense of security… They feared nothing from the sheet of paper which lay by Schiele on the divan.

Egon Schiele, Sitting girl with ponytail (Sitzendes Mädchen mit Pferdeschwanz), 1910

I think Schiele’s pencil and brush could have captured the appearance of Sonia Marmeladova from Crime and Punishment to utter perfection. Sonia is a pale, skinny, meek, painfully shy but deeply religious eighteen year old girl, and a prostitute who somehow manages to transcend the misery of her surroundings and remain pure at heart. And she also falls in love with Raskolnikov. Don’t they make a splendid match: a killer and a harlot. This is how Dostoevsky describes Sonia in the book:

She had a thin, very thin, pale face, rather irregular and angular, with a sharp little nose and chin.  She could not have been called pretty, but her blue eyes were so clear, and when they lighted up, there was such a kindliness and simplicity in her expression that one could not help being attracted.  Her face, and her whole figure indeed, had another peculiar characteristic.  In spite of her eighteen years, she looked almost a little girl- almost a child.

Sonia is one of my favourite literary heroines, and ever since I’ve read the book, I wondered what she looked like. Now I know that only Schiele could capture that irregular pale face, that fragile thin body, those big bright eyes. No doubt he would be attracted by her childlike figure, but would she dare to pose for him, as shy as she was? I don’t know, but maybe modelling would be better than prostitution. There’s a lot of descriptions of poverty in the book as well. Sonia’s little brothers and sisters, and her step-mother Katerina live in bad conditions; each has only one clothing garment, which Katerina washes every night, they are always hungry and frail, often ill. We can assume that the working class Vienna of Schiele’s time was no different, and that all these little innocent creatures that Schiele has painted with such zest probably lived similar lives. It was all very poignant to me. You just can’t read a book by Dostoevsky, close it, and not come out changed.

Oskar Kokoschka, Children Playing, 1909
 
As you can see by now, I can’t get Egon Schiele out of my mind. He is one of my favourite artists, and the more I read about his art, the more richness I discover. These days, I think, read, daydream about his art, various aspects of it, a lot, and I can tell you one thing – there are so many interesting fragments about his art that even a hundred posts wouldn’t be enough to explore his magic. And he has indeed woven magic over me.

Egon Schiele – Portrait of Edith in a Striped Dress

21 Mar

Egon Schiele’s portrait of his wife Edith in a colourful striped dress is something quite unusual and new in his art, and her face, full of naivety, sweetness and innocence seems so out of place amongst his usual female portraits, nudes and half-nudes, with a decaying heroin chic appeal. Where did this change of style come from?

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele, the artist’s wife, 1915

When I first saw this portrait, I loved the stripes on the dress for they seemed so alive, so intricate and colourful, and yet the quality of the colour is murky and earthy, as usual in Schiele’s palette. I was also amused by her face expression, but my interest quickly turned to Schiele’s alluring nudes. What can this portrait show us, apart from the fact that Edith loved wearing striped dresses? Well, it’s a psychological study which shows us Edith’s true personality. Let’s say that her true colours shine through. Look at her – she looks awkward and artless, she is clumsy and doesn’t know what to do with her hands, her eyes are wide open and eyebrows slightly raised, her lips are stretched in a weird, shy smile, as if she’s in the spotlight but wants to get away, she’s pretty but not exceptional, timid but not gloomy. Prior to marrying Schiele, Edith led quite a sheltered life, with her sister Adele and her conservative parents.

In Spring of 1914, Schiele noticed that there were two pretty young girls living just across his flat. Naturally interested, he started thinking of ways to meet them which was hard because the girls lived under the watchful eyes of their mother. They started waving each other through the window, and sometimes Schiele would paint a self-portrait and show it to them through the window. Surely by now, both Edith and Adele had dreamt of meeting that cheeky, arrogant but charming artist across the street. Schiele started sending them little notes, the content of which must have made Edith and Adele blush and giggle, but they never replied to any of them for a year. They met with Wally’s help, and all four went to the theatre or cinema together. Needless to say that the cynical Schiele was interested in both girls, in fact, for some time he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to marry Edith or Adele. Crazy situation, but luckily for him, it turned out that Adele wasn’t really interested so he settled on Edith and they got married, despite the strong disapproval of her parents, on 17 June 1915, which was the anniversary of the marriage of Schiele’s parents.

Scenes from ‘Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment’ (1981)

I can understand why Edith liked Schiele, women always go for the bad guys; he was an artist, straightforward about what he wanted, he had a bad reputation and was once imprisoned for pornographic art, and, admit it or not, there’s something romantic about criminals. What remains a mystery to me is why Schiele liked her? What could this timid, shy, proper and frightened girl had to offer him? Most importantly, what was it so appealing about Edith that the witty, funny street-wise, experienced Wally didn’t have?

We sense here the conflicting emotions that Edith must have caused in Schiele: a quiet pleasure in her innocence, a satisfaction with her selfless loyalty mixed with frustration at her lack of of sexual energy. Schiele makes her seem passive and whilst he found vulnerability attractive he must also have longed for those quite different qualities which Wally possessed in abundance: the kind of temperament and aggressive eroticism which made Schiele himself feel vulnerable.“*

Edith was portrayed well in the film Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment (1981). If I remember well, in one scene she’s sitting in Schiele’s lap and he shows her some of his erotic drawings, and she throws a quick shy glance, giggling and blushing, and you can see that she’s at unease with the nude models in his studio, stretching in different poses. She wanted to pose for him so he wouldn’t look at other women, but she just couldn’t satisfy his artistic demands. Again, that’s something that Wally did more than well.

Where did this wish to settle down, this wish for security come from? It seems like he wanted to indulge in a bourgeois life all of a sudden. Also, his decision to marry Edith and not Wally shows the double standards typical for men of his time; Wally was an artist’s model, a position practically equal to that of a prostitute, and as much as he loved her aggressive eroticism, he still wanted his wife to be modest and chaste. In the portrait of Edith in a striped dress from the same year, again her shyness shines through. Look at her eyes, frightened like that of a delicate fawn in the forest glade, and her sloping shoulders, almost crouching under the weight of the artist’s gaze, her hands in her lap; she looks like a child forced to sit still against its wish. Schiele always painted his middle-class wife modestly dressed, with a stiff collar and long sleeves, whereas looking at the pictures of Wally we know only of her petticoats, lingerie and stockings, not of her hats and dresses. Without a doubt, Edith loved Schiele, but she couldn’t understand his art.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele with striped dress, 1915

Their marriage didn’t last long for they both died in that sad autumn of 1918. First World War had just ended, Spanish flu had taken many lives, amongst its victims were Edith who died six months pregnant on 28th October, and Schiele who died a few days later, on 31st October.

Everything that is sad, and occurs in autumn, gets imbued with an even greater sadness, but Autumn was Schiele’s favourite season, he wrote ‘I know there is much misery in our existence and because I find Autumn much more beautiful than every other season…. It fills the heart with grief and reminds us that we are but pilgrims on this earth…’ He also wrote in his short lyrical autobiography: ‘I often wept through half-closed eyes when Autumn came. When Spring arrived I dreamed of the universal music of life and then exulted in the glorious Summer and laughed when I painted the white Winter.’ The fresh, new, dreamy Spring of his art is forever tied with the image of cheerful Wally in her stockings, forever smiling from the canvas, and so the Autumn of his art is tied with Edith’s timid half smile and her striped dress. First symbolises his rapture, the latter his gloom, which Kundera later wrote in his book Slowness as two main characteristics of central European mentality. Rapture and gloom, life and death, Eros and Thanatos; all intertwined in Schiele’s paintings.

___________________________

*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford

Egon Schiele’s Muse Wally Neuzil – Woman in Black Stockings

17 Mar

In 1911, Egon Schiele met a woman. She was seventeen, bright eyed, fun, amiable, not a bit shy or innocent. Her name was Valerie ‘Wally’ Neuzil, and she was just what both Schiele and his art needed. In that short period of time, Schiele’s art blossomed, and Wally was his muse, his lover, his friend. Their story is the one of obsession, love, betrayal, erotic exploration, and death – death of an artist, death of a muse, death of a whole empire and death of an era.

Egon Schiele, Woman in Black Stockings, 1913

When you spend hours looking at portraits of people who have been dead for years, or portraits of people who never existed, you start to feel that you know them, but that’s just an illusion. Likewise, when you look at Schiele’s portrait of Wally in black stockings and white lingerie, with bare shoulder, and her head leaned on the side, with that gorgeous yellow hair, you feel that she’s so close to you, that you know her. She’s looking at you with a friendly gaze that invites you to come closer. In the portrait below, Wally’s big doll-like blue eyes seem like windows into her soul, and yet for the art world she is a woman of mystery, secrets and speculations are wrapped around her life and character like a spider’s web so the only thing that’s left is to guess and daydream.

What was Wally’s family life like, her childhood, her education? We don’t know. The circumstances surrounding their first meeting also remain shrouded in mystery. All we know is they met in 1911, when she was seventeen and he was twenty-one, already drawing his erotic Lolita-esque fantasies and provoking the public of Vienna. Wally was first Klimt’s model so it’s possible that Klimt send her to Schiele, and it’s also possible that he saw her in Schönbrunn Park or somewhere on the streets of Vienna, and approached her because her appearance suited his aesthetic visions. So young and her life already revolved around art and her artistic journey was that from Klimt’s canvas to Schiele’s, from Klimt’s bed to Schiele’s.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Wally, 1912

A first Wally lived in her own flat and Schiele paid her for her modelling services, but as their relationship progressed, she moved in with him. It’s safe to assume Wally was an amiable, good-natured, eager to help and please, but also very pretty, fun, charming, witty, close to Schiele in age and interests. She really was everything Schiele, as an artist and a man, needed; she posed for him, she did household chores, and she acted as his messenger, carrying his erotic drawings to his clients who, even though she wasn’t timid, often managed to reduce her to tears with their sharp cruel remarks. As Vienna was getting more dark and oppressive for Schiele, his thoughts wandered to the forests, meadows, morning mists and sunny afternoons of his imagined countryside paradise where his art would flourish. And so they moved to Krumau, a picturesque little town south of Prague, and later to Neulengbach, near Vienna.

Imagine their days in Krumau and Neulengbach as their little hippie getaway; a place where bright sunflowers grow by the wooden fence, grass is fresh and green, and air is exhilarating after spring rain, houses are small with little windows with flowing white curtains, letting in the sunshine and the gentle breeze, a place where birdsong is the only music, and butterflies are dancers. There, Wally would sit or lie on the bed, wide smiled, with rosy cheeks and a spark in her eyes, dressed in her lingerie and stockings, with maybe a ribbon in her hair, throwing inviting glances to Schiele and now to us viewers. These drawings of Wally seem so alive, so full or ardour, passion, adoration, they’re not as twisted and strange as his nudes tend to be, on the contrary, they seem to tactile, so full of warmth, colour and richness; you can feel the idyllic mood of their days in the countryside, you can feel Wally’s gaze filling you with warmness, you can see her eyes radiating playfulness. In the first painting, her golden hair stands out, but the one below is harmony of rich warm tones of yellow and orange which presents us with a brighter side of Schiele’s life, away from gloom and conviction of Vienna. These drawings had shifted Schiele’s role from that of an observer to that of a participant: ‘These drawings are the expression of a physical passion so unequalled in Schiele’s life. Earlier drawings of similar subjects are, by comparison, those of a voyeur. These speak with delight of participation.’* Picture of Wally wearing a red blouse, lying on her back, with her hand under her chin, looking directly at us, made quickly and then filled with colour, tells us that once, for a moment, everything was perfect.

If you enlarge the picture, you’ll notice her eyebrows painted in one single stroke, and the hints of dark blue around her eyes, which are brown all of sudden. The position of her right hand and her hair colour are just adorable to me. I wish I could tell you that this is where their happy story ends, that they dissolved into that beauty, died and became sunflowers in the garden, but the reality dipped its wicked fingers into their lives. First came the infamous Neulengbach affair; Schiele was accused of seducing a girl below the age of consent and his ‘pornographic’ drawings were condemned, but that’s for another post, and then there was another woman – Edith Harms.

Egon Schiele, Wally in a Red Blouse Lying on her Back, 1913

The end of their artistic and love affair is as bitter as it gets. Wally was the one who introduced Schiele to Edith, and now he is leaving her for that woman. Ouch… As time passed, Schiele and Edith got romantically engaged, and he planned to marry her, but what of Wally, where is her place in the story? Well, Edith wanted a ‘clean start’, as she wrote to Schiele in a letter, and demanded that he broke all connections to Wally.

Schiele and Wally met for the last time in the Café Eichberger. Schiele spoke not a word, but instead handed her a letter in which he proposed this arrangement; he marries Edith but gets to spend every Summer with Wally, alone. Wally was disgusted with the idea and declined. Schiele resigned ‘lit a cigarette and stared dreamily at the smoke. He was obviously disappointed. Wally thanked him for the kind thought… and then departed, without tears, without pathos, without sentimentality.‘*

Wally and Schiele never met again. First World War was in the full swing, and Wally, who never married, became a nurse, went to care for soldiers near Split in Dalmatia, part of today’s Croatia, where she died from scarlet fever just before Christmas 1917.

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*Egon Schiele, Frank Whitford

Gustav Klimt – Valley of the Dolls

5 Mar

In a transitional period from his ‘erotic-symbolist Golden phase’ to his highly decorative and vibrant Japanese inspired phase, Klimt painted these gorgeous and aloof femme fatales: a subject so popular in fin de siecle. These two ladies are not mythical creatures, they look like real Viennese women and they’re impatient, they’re waiting, wrapped in their fur, adorned with the finest Art Nouveau jewellery, they’re glancing at you with disdain, they’re throwing darts in the eyes of their lovers.

1909-gustav-klimt-lady-with-hat-and-feather-boa-1909-4Gustav Klimt, Lady with Hat and Feather Boa, 1909

End of the first decade of the twentieth century brought some changes for Klimt; his gorgeous studies in gold with intricate details and stylised forms were slowly becoming passé. Rise of the Expressionism denoted the end of his ‘golden phase’. In his paintings such as ‘The Kiss’, Klimt painted his figures in shining yellow fabrics, decorated with tiny golden leaves, against luminous golden backgrounds, floating in a highly decorative world of his imagination. This excessive decorative element in his art prevented him from delving into psychological depth and achieving the emotional intensity of the portrayed figure, and that’s something that painters like Schiele and Kokoschka did very well . In 1909, Klimt travelled to Paris where he discovered the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fauvists. These encounters with the new streams in the artistic world, as well as his friendship with the younger artist Schiele, all inspired him to reinvent his style.

La Belle Epoque fashion looks as if it was made for femme fatales – it’s exuberant, it’s glamorous; wide-brimmed hats with feathers, fur muffs, voluminous hairstyles, large choker necklaces, long flowing dresses with lace details… Klimt was very much in tune with the fashion of the day because his life companion Emilie Flöge happened to be a fashion designer. Klimt also helped in designing the dresses by making the patterns. In this transitional period, Klimt dressed his femme fatales not in gold but in lace and perfumes and jewels and rouge; he tamed them, he made them into fashionable little dolls who are impatiently waiting to be played with, to be admired. These creatures are vain and aloof but not as sinister and destructive as Franz Stuck’s dark female figures filled with lust and anxiety. Klimt also tamed his lust for excessive ornamentation by painting the background in one colour instead of the usual vibrant kaleidoscope of shapes and patterns.

Painting Lady with Hat and Feather Boa has a strangely dark colour palette, unusual for Klimt’s typical vibrant pinks, yellows and greens. The lady has an amazing face expression; her downward tilted eyes are fixated on something on her right which we can’t see, and her eyebrows are sharp and angry. Her face has been haunting me for weeks! And that peacock blue line on her hat, and the feathers, painted in swirling, near abstract motions. Her wild red hair, and gorgeous lips peeking from that feather boa, oh she’s a real femme fatale. You can imagine her getting out of the carriage, somewhere on the streets of Vienna, opening her parasol, blind to every eye she meets, with a gaze that says: ‘You’re not fit to polish my boots!’

1910-gustav-klimt-black-feature-hat-1910Gustav Klimt, Black Feather Hat (Lady with Feather Hat), 1910

On the other hand, Black Feather Hat (Lady with Feather Hat) is somewhat different in mood and style. Our redhead beauty above looks gorgeous and vivacious like Klimt’s women usually do, but this one looks a tad different – there’s a subtle nihilism in those white-grey shades, a hint of Egon Schiele and the fin de siecle nervousness. Look at her angular face and the way her hand is painted; it looks like something you’d see on Schiele’s paintings. Truth is, Schiele was initially inspired by Klimt, but Klimt also learner something from his young independent-minded pupil. Again we see this gorgeous La Belle Epoque fashion, and again this femme fatale is looking into the distance, we don’t know what occupied her attention, or whose face lingers on her mind.

Jean-Louis Forain – Elegant Woman at the Beach

22 Feb

‘Adrift in cheap dreams don’t stop the rain.’ (Manic Street Preachers – Motown Junk)

1885-jean-louis-forain-elegant-woman-at-the-beach-1885Jean-Louis Forain, Elegant Woman at the Beach, 1885

The colours and the mood of this painting instantly attracted me. An elegant lady is trying to leave the beach as quick as possible, to avoid the upcoming storm, but the wind is not making it easy for her. Exuding sophistication and class, she must be a Parisian lady who came to the seaside on holiday, hoping to find some peace from the stresses of modern life. Instead of enjoying a picturesque sunny day at the beach, with smiling white clouds and a clear blue sky, she’s welcomed by a turbulent sea and an overcast day, oh how aggravating!

Let’s imagine her name is Celestine, and that this is a one of those sudden storms at the height of Summer, let’s imagine it’s one Thursday afternoon in July. So, Celestine is in a hurry, because she knows that even cheap dreams don’t stop the rain. It seems that just a second ago she lifted her arms and dropped her umbrella, quick not to allow the wind to take over her lovely bonnet. We can see the direction the wind is blowing because the ends of her coat are turned upwards and her red scarf, painted in just few dabs of rich cherry colour, is dancing on the wind. Her vibrant garnet red dress and a navy blue coat stand out amidst all that greyness, which irresistibly reminds me of Anna Karina’s blue and red outfits against the backdrop of grey Parisian streets in Godard’s film ‘Une Femme est Une Femme’. Swift, thick and short brushstrokes are present everywhere, but most notably on her skirt, where the black and red seem to be battling for dominance over the fabric.

I’m sure Celestine would like me to talk more about that lovely outfit that she put together for a walk at the beach, but I think the sea and the beach itself deserve a moment of attention and appreciation. As Forain was an Impressionist, and a friend of Manet and Degas who even invited him to exhibit on the Impressionist exhibitions, he wanted to capture the mood, the magic effects of light and air, rather than perfect details and realistic portrayal of landscape. His careless brushwork and the illusion that everything was painted hastily, as a sketch, all bring to life the atmosphere of that gloomy afternoon: we witness the white clouds being devoured by the dark-grey ones, with almost a purplish undertone to them, we see the wind as it tries to blow Celestine’s bonnet, and probably carries the tiny particles of sand in her eyes, and the sea – we can hear the clasps of waves, and see their strength, beauty and naughty playfulness. This is a moment captured in time, like a photograph. And do I sense a spirit of Turner or Whistler in that portrayal of sea?

It’s hard to notice the line which separates the sandy beach and the sea, but this vagueness delights me. There’s a chair next to the lady, also painted in quick brushstrokes, and two small figures in the background. Sea is painted in beautiful sea foam colour. All in all, the beauty of this painting, for me, lies in its quick, exciting, playful brushstrokes and a gorgeous colour palette in which harmony of greys meets the vibrancy of reds and blues.

Rain, storm, and a desolate beach – my idea of heaven, or at least a perfect afternoon.

J. A. M. Whistler – Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl)

16 Feb

It’s impossible not to love this painting; it has a meditative, dreamy aura, wistful lady wearing a beautifully painted white dress, and delicate pink flowers, hinting at Whistler’s appreciation of Japanese art and culture.

1864-james-abbot-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-2-the-little-white-girlJames Abbot McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl), 1864

Model for this ‘little white girl’ was an Irish beauty Joanna Hiffernan, a muse, model and a lover not only to Whistler but to Gustave Courbet as well, most famously in his painting ‘Sleep.’ Whistler’s biographers wrote of her: “She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.” Here, in Symphony in White no 2, Whistler painted her leaning against the mantelpiece in their love nest; a house they shared in Lindsey Row in Chelsea. She’s holding a Japanese fan in her hand. It’s interesting to note the ring on her left hand, but they were not married. There’s something ethereal about her; dressed in white gown that touches the ground, with long hair and a sad look in her eyes; she seems melancholic and detached from everything at the same time, as if she’s not really here, but is just passing through life without touching it, not allowing the harshness of reality to taint that beautiful whiteness of her muslin dress. If you close your eyes, you can imagine her slowly and elegantly walking across the room, then standing by the fireplace, her small hand barely touching the mantelpiece, while the other gently holds a fan. She is a silent Victorian woman living on the border of dreams and reality, like Millais’ Mariana, wrapped in the loneliness of her birdcage, longing for the imagined excitement of the real life out there. Or not. Perhaps she’s so engulfed in the sweetness of her daydreams and contemplation and doesn’t even walk to live the ‘real life’. At the same time, she knows that ‘dreams always end, they don’t rise up just descend’*, and this thought is the source of the wistfulness of her gaze that Whistler has so beautifully captured.

Here we see the typical elements of Japanese culture that can be found in many 19th century paintings; pink flowers, a fan, porcelain vase. Influence of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, which were immensely popular at the time, is visible in the composition as well; you see how the picture looks like it’s cut on the ends, her wide sleeve on the left, pink azaleas at the bottom and her hand and the vase in the upper part of the painting. That’s something you don’t see in paintings of Academic Realism. Whistler is even said to have introduced Rossetti to Japanese art as a matter of fact.

Beautiful delicate pink azaleas are almost protruding into the composition, leaning their pink blossoms and delicate little leaves, as if they’re ready to listen to her sorrows and comfort her. ‘Don’t be sad, spring will soon come, and your woes will be gone‘, they seem to whisper. Joanna ignores them, her face turned away from the viewer. It’s the mirror which reveals the sadness and wistfulness of her gaze, and also the seascape that’s opposite the fireplace. She seems to be thinking:

I am weary of days and hours,

Blown buds of barren flowers,

Desires and dreams and powers,

And everything but sleep.” (Swinburne)

Perhaps the most beautiful part of the painting, besides the flowers, is her dress which is painted in soft, almost transparent brushstrokes. Its gentle, dreamy appeal is contrasted with the strict, geometrical line of the fireplace. White is the hardest colours to paint, but Whistler shows a complete mastery over it, and the painting deserves its title ‘symphony’, for it is indeed a symphony in whites. In one painting below, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, whose beauty arrives from the subtlety of colours, you’ll see that mastery of white again, and the dress seems to flow effortlessly, like a river, decorated with the flowers that also serve as an interior decoration; it’s hard to say where reality ends and dream start because the more I look at these gorgeous studies in white, the more I am drawn into this ethereal, delicate world that Whistler has created, using just his brush and colours, not magic.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American artist, but after coming to England in 1859, he never returned to his homeland again, but instead divided his time between London and Paris, and nurtured friendships with other artists and writers on the each side of the Channel; Gaultier, Swinburne, Manet and Courbet to name a few. Whistler is famous for promoting ‘art for art’s sake philosophy’, and enraging Ruskin who emphasised the social, moralistic role of art. He was also known for giving his paintings musical names, such as ‘Symphony’ or ‘Nocturne’, which sometimes enraged the critics, but still fascinates the lovers of his art, myself included.

This painting, with Joanna’s ghost-like reflection in the mirror, inspired Swinburne to write these verses:

Glad, but not flushed with gladness,

Since joys go by;

Sad, but not bent with sadness,

Since sorrows die;

Deep in the gleaming glass

She sees all past things pass,

And all sweet life that was lie down and lie.

The critics have drawn a parallel between this painting and Ingres’ Portrait of Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville from 1845, which also has a lady standing by the mirror. Similar meditative mood, delicate whiteness, and touch of the East, can be found in many of Whistler’s paintings, here are a few:

1862-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-1-the-white-girl-girl-is-joanne-hiffernanJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862 (Note: model is Joanna again)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873 oil on canvas 77 1/8 in. x 40 1/4 in. (195.9 cm x 102.24 cm) Henry Clay Frick Bequest. Accession number: 1916.1.133James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873

1863-65-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-le-princesse-du-pays-de-la-porcelaineJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

My interest in these paintings arose because of my longing for Spring, so here’s a beautiful haiku poem for the season that’s upon us. Spring, I am anxiously awaiting you, please come quickly!

In these spring days,
when tranquil light encompasses
the four directions,
why do the blossoms scatter
with such uneasy hearts?” (Ki no Tomonori, c. 850-c. 904)

Pablo Picasso – Oh, Those Guitars!

27 Jan

Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand. If only they would realize above all that an artist works of necessity, that he himself is only a trifling bit of the world, and that no more importance should be attached to him than to plenty of other things which please us in the world, though we can’t explain them. People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.‘ (Pablo Picasso)*

1921-pablo-picasso-still-life-with-guitar-1921Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Guitar, 1921

I’m not a particular fan of Picasso, but earlier this month I found myself absolutely besotted by his collages and guitars. Oh, those guitars! I was so inspired by them that I started making collages myself, with guitars and cut-out pieces of newspapers. Despite their seeming simplicity, I feel a strong creative energy from them and that’s why I like them.

Picasso’s art can be clearly divided into periods, some by colours he used, others by the specific motifs and themes he painted repeatedly: in his melancholic ‘blue phase’ he was interested in beggars, the homeless, prostitutes, drunk people, in his ‘rose period’ it was all about joy, carnivals and harlequins. Then, inspired by Cezanne’s theory that everything in nature and world around us can be divided into geometric objects, Picasso, along with Braque, delved into Analytical Cubism which resulted in rather confusing, dark and distorted paintings. Their alteration of reality is almost psychedelic, which is kind of cool. What followed is known as Synthetic Cubism or Crystal Cubism which followed the idea that a painter’s job is not to ‘copy’ world around him, but to ‘construct’, and so they did, discovering at the same time the power of collage as a technique. Instead of breaking an object into its essential pieces, they built objects using contrasting colours, pieces of newspapers, fragments of their own sketches. Picasso’s painting Guitar, Sheet Music, Glass made in autumn of 1912, is usually considered the first example of Synthetic Cubism. It’s so simple yet so striking. The background is actually a wallpaper, and then there’s a piece of blue paper, and a piece of black paper, all very simple, and then, out of nowhere, a piece of sheet music and a charcoal drawing of a glass made in the style of the previous Analitical Cubism. The most interesting of all, a cut out piece of newspaper with half a title showing ‘Le Jou’, shortened from ‘Le Journal’  meaning ‘Newspapers’. Picasso is playing a word game with us here, ‘le jou’ means ‘game’. Below that it says ‘Le Bataille s’est engage’ which means ‘The battle has begun’ alluding to the raging wars on Balkan, when Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro fought for the independence from the Ottoman Empire. However, this is usually interpreted not just as Picasso’s awareness of the political situation of Europe, but is seen as symbolic for the battle of Cubism and collage as new styles and methods in art.

I hate it when people say something like: ‘Oh, everyone could do that, what’s so revolutionary about it?’ My art teacher in grammar school had a good answer to these ignorant remarks, she said: ‘ Well, yes, everyone could cut out a piece of newspaper and glue it on paper, but the fact that no one did it before, that no artist dared to do it before, that’s what makes it avant-garde and revolutionary!’ This can well be applied to many more artists, like Matisse, Miro, Malevich, Mondrian, Rothko, even Pollock.

1912-pablo-picasso-guitar-sheet-music-glass-paris-autumn-1912-papers-and-newsprint-le-journal-18-november-1912-pasted-gouache-and-charcoal-on-paperPablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music, Glass, Paris, autumn, 1912. Papers and newsprint (Le Journal, 18 November 1912) pasted, gouache and charcoal on paper

1921-pablo-picasso-musicians-with-masksPablo Picasso, Musicians with masks, 1921

1916-the-guitar-pablo-picasso-synthetic-cubismPablo Picasso, The Guitar, 1916, Synthetic Cubism

1924-pablo-picasso-mandolin-and-guitar-mandoline-et-guitarePablo Picasso, Mandolin and Guitar (Mandoline et guitare), 1924