Tag Archives: Painting

Romantic Melancholy

17 Nov

Sad; so sad, those smoky-rose, smoky-mauve evenings of late autumn, sad enough to pierce the heart…anguish of the turn of the year, the time of impotent yearning, the inconsolable season. (Angela Carter, Saints and Strangers)

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

In these lonely autumn evenings, I yearn to escape the enveloping dreariness of November through poetry, pressed flowers and scented candles. Suffocated by thick fogs and the smell of rotting corpses of daydreams and high hopes that never come true, I hear Melancholy quietly knocking on my door and silently, without disturbing the yellow roses in my vase, it wrapped my tired shoulders with a fragrant lace cloth of spring naivety and summer innocence, of silver dandelions and spider webs, white roses and kindness of strangers. I try to smile at this stranger dressed in a purple gown and jangling earrings of silver and amethyst, but my lips of a doll have become rusty. I take the imaginary book of memories in my hand and blow away the dust. A few rose petals fall on the floor, and my crystal tears join them in their fall. Memories of summer’s gold and bloom dance in my head like skeletons, memories of things that were painfully beautiful but might never return. Memories of poppy meadows and river’s cheerful murmurs, of May’s pink roses, white butterflies and forest groves, of golden sunlight and juicy pears, of stars and perpetually dreamy days of July, and long warm enchantingly golden afternoons of August. I have a withered rose instead of a heart, and it pulsates melodiously in a rhythm of yearning and anguish. I am a forgotten abbey in the oakwood; all my hopes have fallen like leaves on the trees and my soul is but a skeleton covered in moss. I take a pen and command: Melancholy, oh speak to me!

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

Melancholy is kind and generous, and since I begged her, she spoke to me in a mellifluous voice of all the places where she resides… First thou shall find me, said Melancholy, in ethereal sounds of Chopin’s Nocturnes, whose trembling ecstasies and passions lie hidden under flimsy veils of sadness. As Oscar Wilde said: “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.” When Chopin’s Nocturne turns to mute silence of dreary chambers, I dance my way to beautiful objects and inhabit them; old ballet slippers, worn out lamé dresses of 1920s, a box of old letters and photographs, empty perfume bottles, dusty cradles of children who are now adults, summer dusks with fireflies and strong scent of roses and a pale moon appearing coyly on the horizon, worn out names on tombstones and graves that no one visits any more, flowers slowly withering in a vase, unfinished charcoal drawings, drafts of letters never finished, smell of old books… Every place of beauty is my abode, ye can find me in poetry and songs too; in vocals and wistful violins of the Tindersticks and their song Travelling Light:

“There are places I don’t remember
There are times and days, they mean nothing to me
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
They don’t serve to jog my memory

I’m not waking in the morning, staring at the walls these days
I’m not getting out the boxes, spread all over the floor
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
Those faces they mean nothing to me no more”

Caspar David Friedrich, Abtei im Eichwald (Abbey in the Oakwood), 1808-1810

I closed my eyes and listened to Melancholy as it spoke to me, with a voice like flowing honey, and she said: I hide in canvases too; German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich adored me as his muse. Do not believe his landscapes, they are not at all what they seem; a tree is not a tree and fog is not simply fog as it is with John Constable. Led by his pantheistic vision of nature, he portrayed emotions and his states of mind. “Abbey in the Oakwood” is a melancholic masterpiece. An abandoned Gothic abbey is a corpse, a ruin, which speaks of happier times when it served its purpose. Tall oaks with crooked bare branches surround it. Sublime, eerie mood pervades the painting; crosses disappearing into the fog, a barely noticeable procession of monks, a freshly dug grave, and the endlessly lead coloured sky. In early 19th century Germany, Romanticism was closely associated with the National awakening, and Goethe considered Gothic architecture to be Germanic in origin. In contrast to the Classical architecture, the plans of Gothic cathedrals were done by “romantic intuition” rather than mathematical calculations. Gothic abbeys and oaks possess the same grandeur, the same melancholy when covered in deep snow or grey fogs.

I am not always obvious at first sight; do not let the screaming ecstatic yellow of Vincent van Gogh and Kirchner deceive you, for I was their friend too. I was the pencil that Egon Schiele used to sketch his nude beauties with worn out smiles and hollow cheeks, I kissed every yellow petal of the sunflowers he was obsessed with.

Egon Schiele, Sunflower, 1909

As I wipe my tears and feel my cheek’s returning rosy hue, I eagerly listen to Melancholy and her story. She says: I was the lover of John Keats, and the illness of young Werther. All artists find a muse in me, and Romanticists loved me deeply, but the idealist and dreamy escapist Keats adored me in particular, and dressed himself in my cloth of flowers, tears and beauty. In his rosy-coloured visions of the Middle Ages, he found beauty that the world of reality had denied him. Keats knew when he sang of me that Beauty is my other face, and he knew my strength well enough so he never tried to defeat me but rather embrace me and heal the sorrow I cause by contemplating things of Beauty:

“But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud;

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

*

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine…”

Percy Bysshe Shelley confided in me too, but found me too bitter at times, and yet he wrote these verses: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Photo by Laura Makabresku

John Singer Sargent, Polly Barnard (also known as study for Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose), 1885, Medium: pencil

Photo by Laura Makabresku

“There is a life and there is a death, and there are beauty and melancholy between.” (Albert Camus)

Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825-30

Caspar David Friedrich, A Walk at Dusk (detail), ca.1830-35

In November dreariness, my only consolation lies in long evening walks by the river. The Moon is my lover; I year for his caresses and weep at sunset when we must part. He greets me, smiling through the bare branches of tall trees, and I turn my face to his glow and whisperingly ask to fulfil all my longings, to kiss my cheeks and hug me. I hear the river murmuring of happier times, but the Moon is wise and he offers me a “nepenthe”. ‘What is it?’, I ask the Moon and he replies: ‘It is an ancient Greek word, defined as a medicine for sorrow. It can be a place, person or thing, which can aid in forgetting your pain and suffering.’ I follow the Moon, yearning for a more precise answer, but it disappears behind the clouds and I am left alone … yet again.

Photo by Laura Makabresku

I gaze at the river for a long time, longing to see the Moon’s whimsical silvery reflection in the dark water. I cup the dark water in my hands and the dazzling rays of moon slip through my fingers… just as every happy moment does.

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Frida Kahlo – Love, Flowers, Pain

4 Nov

In 1938 French Surrealist poet André Breton visited Mexico and upon seeing the paintings of the young artist Frida Kahlo he classified them as works of surrealism which is something she herself denied by saying: “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” And indeed, by looking at her paintings and following the events in her life, the parallel is unmistakable. Frida used art as a diary; she used brush and paint instead of a pen and jotted down her feelings, her anguish, her memories, her sense of identity in a similar way that Anais Nin did in her diaries, and Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath did in their poems. Looking at Frida’s paintings inevitably draws us into her inner world because the two are inseparable; the viewer yearns to know more about her life and the meaning behind the symbols and motifs she painted. I see her paintings as poetic scenes, verses in vibrant colours, and although they may seem surreal, they are always sincere and woven with depths of her feelings.

Frida Kahlo With Classic Magenta Rebozo, Nickolas Muray, 1939

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

Two things that shaped the life and art of Frida Kahlo were her love for a fellow painter Diego Rivera and “the accident”. Love and pain; two sensations so intermingled that the first one can’t possibly live without the other. In her own words: “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Pain and love followed her like shadows. When she was six years old, she contracted polio and that left her with one leg shorter than the other; she would later hide this defect by wearing man’s clothes or long traditional Mexican gowns. The illness helped to create a strong bond with her father Guillermo who was also of poor health. Although her relationship with her mother was somewhat strained and distanced, Frida loved her father and described him as being tender and understanding. Guillermo was a photographer and not only did he take pictures of his daughter and talked to her about philosophy, nature and literature, but he also encouraged her to practise sport as a way of regaining her health and he inspired her artistic explorations. Little Frida filled notebooks with sketches but never considered art as a profession until “the accident” occurred: on 17 September 1925 she was riding a bus home from school with her boyfriend and the bus collided with a streetcar. A few people died and Frida suffered nearly fatal injuries; she fractured several bones and was confined to bed for three months. Her dreams of being a doctor crashed, and, in solitude, pain and fatigue, She found comfort from solitude, fatigue and pain in painting. An easel was placed specially so that she would paint laying in the bed and she had a mirror so she could see herself.

Frida Kahlo, Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931

By 1927 Frida’s health was recovered and she reconnected with her old school friends and joined the Mexican Communist Party. An old school friend introduced her to a group of artists and activists who were gathered around the Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella. On a party held in June 1928 by Mella’s lover Tina Modotti, an Italian-American photographer, Frida met Diego Rivera who was a well-known artist by that time. She had met him once before when he worked on a mural in her school “Escuela National Preparatoria”. Frida wanted to show him her paintings and longed to hear his opinion. Rivera liked what he saw and he encouraged her to pursue career as an artist, stating that her work possessed: “an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity … They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own … It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist”.

Diego and Frida married on 21 August 1929: she was twenty two years old, he was forty-two. Their love story is one of the most well known in the world of art and the double-portrait above is actually their wedding portrait made by Kahlo. It looks almost grotesque and deliberately exaggerated in proportions, but it presents the truth. Rivera, a tall and over-weight artist and a womaniser with his feet strongly on the ground is shown holding a tiny hand of his petite and fragile artist-wife; his doll, his little girl; his “muñeca”, his “niña”.

Frida painted Diego with a palette and brushes in his right hand, and herself merely as a companion to the artist. Looking at the portrait, one would never guess that this fragile, timid, gentle looking thing in a dark green dress and a long red scarf, looking so small and gentle compared to the robust and grandeurs artist, was actually an artist herself whose fame today exceeds that of her husband. It might be hard to understand what exactly Frida liked about Rivera; his temperament, his physical ugliness, his eyes that easily wandered to other women (including her younger sister), his age, and yet she adored him, worshipped him. She once wrote: Diego era todo: mi niño, mi amor, mi universo.(Diego was my everything: my child, my lover, my universe.) Frida’s parents referred to the union as the “marriage between an elephant and a dove”. Judging by the portrait and the photographs below – they were right.

“I love you more than my own skin and even though you don’t love me the same way, you love me anyways, don’t you? And if you don’t, I’ll always have the hope that you do, and I’m satisfied with that. Love me a little. I adore you.” (Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.” (Letter from Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas), 1939

Frida and Diego’s marriage was turbulent to say the least. In 1939 their divorce was being finalised. It was Diego who wanted a divorce, and Frida was very melancholic and very lonely. To hush the anguish in her heart, she drank alcohol and painted furiously because she resolved never to be financially depended on a man again. This fruitful artistic period resulted in a series of self-portraits. Painting “Two Fridas” was also made around the time they divorced and it is perhaps the most symbolic of that period in her life and her feelings at the moment. It unites the subjects of love and pain, and it’s also a psychological study of her identity and ancestry. It shows just how childlike, deep and sincere her art was because it deals with her feelings directly, without hesitation or tendency towards snobbish avant-garde, her style is at the same time inspired by naive art, and self-invented and her own.

On the left we see the European Frida: dressed in a white Edwardian gown with lace on her bodice and collar, and a living pulsating wounded heart; she has a pair of scissors in her hand. On the right we see the Mexican Frida: dressed in a traditional Tehuana dress; in her hand she’s holding a little portrait of Diego as a child. The European Frida shows her father’s ancestry who was a German Jew. The Mexican Frida shows the culture that Frida embraced and the Frida that Diego loved. The hearts of two Fridas are connected by one artery and the heart of European Frida is aching, bleeding, falling apart, dying. Diego has rejected the European Frida and she is dying. He thought that: “Mexican women who do not wear [Mexican clothing] … are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong.” And so Frida loved to emphasise her mestiza ancestry by wearing traditional Mexican peasant dresses, traditional elaborate hairstyles with braids and flowers and adorn herself with jewellery. Her exotic appearance showed quite a sensation when she was in New York in October 1938. Frida’s exoticism in the eyes of western people, her peculiar expressive self portraits with eyebrows that meet and flowers in her hair are things that first come to mind to people when they think about her.

Still, with paintings as personal as these, I feel it is almost a sacrilege to butcher their meanings and make one’s own assumptions of their meaning. Frida said for this particular painting that it represents her and her imaginary childhood friend. It is this emotional and diary-like aspect of her art that appeals to me, but the overall style and colours are not really my taste.

Frida Kahlo, Memory (The Heart), 1937

Painting “Memory (The Heart)”, painted during Diego’s affair with Frida’s younger sister, also shows her pain inflicted by love. Her heart is painted disproportionally large and shown bleeding.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego in My houghts), 1943

In the painting above, Frida shows us that Diego was always on her mind, literally so – he is tattooed on her forehead! Could it be more direct?

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, 1940

“I am that clumsy human, always loving, loving, loving. And loving. And never leaving. (Fridas’ diary entry)

John William Waterhouse and John Keats – Isabella and the Pot of Basil

31 Oct

John William Waterhouse’s portrayal of John Keats’s poem “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”, is dreamy, which is typical for his oeuvre, and, following the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites, it is rich in details, but the seemingly innocent scene hides a darker theme. In this painting, Waterhouse beautifully unites the Medieval macabre imagination of Boccaccio with the sensuous imagery created by Keats in his poem.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907

In a secluded spot of a beautiful garden somewhere in Florence, a damsel known by the name of Isabella is kneeling beside a pot of basil, embracing it with her gentle white arms and “gazing amorously upon it with all her desire”. The air is warm and fragrant, but laced with sadness. The spot seems secretive and the path that leads to it is rarely used. With no living soul around her, she must have whispered the woes of her heart to the greenery around her: the grass, the ivy, the hedge, have all become friends. The fragile red poppy that grew next to her white gown, along with a skull on the pedestal of the basil pot, could be interpreted as signs of the other world. Poppy is a flower connected to dreams, sleep and death. She is dressed in a long white gown that touches the ground with intricate Medieval-style sleeves. Her auburn hair falls on her back as she tilts her head and sighs at the inequity of her destiny. How can a maiden so young and so pretty be so sad?

Ahh, but poor Isabella is ill from sadness. In a feverish state her gaze turned blurry from tears, and yet, with wild perseverance she wraps her weak arms around the pot, pining and weeping, day upon day, night after night. Her heart aches for something she can never have, and not even a thousand tears would bring the dear face of Lorenzo back to life; the anguish that sits on her chest is heavier than a stone, and yet her face shows longing rather than pain, as if her devotion, her pining and daydreaming upon that pot of fragrant basil bring her serenity. For, what else can she do but weep her days away?

John Keats’s narrative poem “Isabella” is adapted from a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron (IV day, 5th story) which tells the tale of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. (A note: Keats changed the setting of the story from Messina to Florence, and the name from Lisbetta to Isabella.) In Decameron, Lisbetta is a fair and well-manered maiden who lives in the town of Messina with her three brothers who want her to marry a rich and respectable man, but Lisbetta falls in love with Lorenzo, the dashing young employee of her brothers. After enjoying the delights of each other’s company, the young lovers are discovered and the brothers decide to take things into their hands. On day they take Lorenzo into the deepest darkest forest and murder him. Lisbetta, not hearing from Lorenzo for so long, grows impatient and worried until one night he appears in her dream and tells her what had happened and where his body lies. After that “she awoke and giving faith to the vision, wept bitterly.” Lisbetta finds his body in the forest, and despite her woes remains cool-headed and knowing that she can’t take the whole body, she cuts his head off and wraps it in a napkin and:

“…returned home, where, shutting herself in her chamber with her lover’s head, she bewept it long and bitterly, insomuch that she bathed it all with her tears, and kissed it a thousand times in every part. Then, taking a great and goodly pot, of those wherein they plant marjoram or sweet basil, she set the head therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth, in which she planted sundry heads of right fair basil of Salerno; nor did she ever water these with other water than that of her tears or rose or orange-flower water. Moreover she took wont to sit still near the pot and to gaze amorously upon it with all her desire, as upon that which held her Lorenzo hid; and after she had a great while looked thereon, she would bend over it and fall to weeping so sore and so long that her tears bathed all the basil, which, by dint of long and assiduous tending, as well as by reason of the fatness of the earth, proceeding from the rotting head that was therein, waxed passing fair and very sweet of savour.”

To rest your eyes from Waterhouse, here is another version: Arthur Nowell, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1904

She sits and weeps over that pot of basil with mad devotion, adoringly wrapping her arms around it, as is she was enchanted or cursed like the Lady of Shalott. It arises suspicion in her brothers and one day they turn out the pot and find a head, not yet rotten, of Lorenzo. In fear that things might get revealed, they move to Naples and Lisbetta is once again separated from her lover, or this time, from his head. It is indeed a pity that they moved Lorenzo’s rotting head because it fertilised the soil in the pot and the basil grew ever so lush and fragrant. Every good gardener knows this is the secret to a healthy plant!

Lisbetta eventually dies from sadness: “The damsel, ceasing never from lamenting and still demanding her pot, died, weeping; and so her ill-fortuned love had end.”

Poor, poor Isabella! Waterhouse must have thought that too, when he chose to portray the scene of a sad tale of love first written by Boccaccio and later sang by Keats whose eloquence and melancholic disposition added the lyrical and sensuous dimension. Who knew better than Keats the ache of wanting so desperately something you cannot have? Did he not yearn for the sweet nectar of life, and was denied to taste the very drink? Having died so young from consumption, did he not feel on his own skin the transience of everything which hurts like knives piercing your chest, and therefore nurtured beauty in his verses. Her is what his beautiful poetic vision tells us of Isabella and Lorenzo falling in love:

“They could not in the self-same mansion dwell

Without some stir of heart, some malady;

They could not sit at meals but feel how well

It soothed each to be the other by;

They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep

But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

With every morn their love grew tenderer,

With every eve deeper and tenderer still…”

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but he, like many other artists, accepted their style and subject matter. He too dipped his paint brush into the paint of dreams, and painted scenes from mythology, Medieval romances, love and longing. Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from poetry and even though for Rossetti Dante was God, we could rightfully say that John Keats was placed on a pedestal. Out of all English poets of Romanticism, Keats was the most lyrical, the one who emphasised the greatness of beauty. This ideal brought him together with the Pre-Raphaelites. It is very likely that Waterhouse had Keats’s and not Boccaccio’s version of the story in mind when he painted this painting. A tale of sad love was perfect for a Pre-Raphaelite canvas; before Waterhouse, both Rossetti with his infatuations with Dante’s Beatrice and her death, and Millais’ with his paintings such as ‘A Huguenot’ tackled the subject.

Keats’s poem “Isabella” is absolutely beautiful, but these verses are perhaps my favourite and tell us about the growing love between Isabella and Lorenzo:

“Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,

 Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart

Only to meet again more close, and share      

 The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.

She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair

 Sang, of delicious love and honey’d dart…”

Keats’s verses and the Pre-Raphaelite canvases both possess sensuality in abundance: Keats’s rich, delicate yet passionate descriptions match perfectly with the vibrantly coloured, richly textured and emotionally charged paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Out of all the stories I’ve read from “Decameron” this one is my favourite because underneath the sad tale of love scenario, which always appeals my romantic whimsy, it has a strong dark and macabre mood. I mean, the girl weeps and adoringly gazes at the pot of basil, knowing that the head of her lover is buried in it. Can you imagine the head which used to belong to a beautiful man she loved slowly rotting in the pot, his hair mingling with the roots of basil… It’s eerie and kind of revolting, and I say this with a creepy smile on my face because it appeals to me at the same time. John Keats, on the other hand, focused on the sensuality of the story and its melancholy, veiling it in beauty: rose petals, zephyrs, soft lips and sad gazes, everything is ripe, warmth, fragrant, in bloom. And this is how he ends the poem:

“And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,

Imploring for her Basil to the last.

No heart was there in Florence but did mourn

In pity of her love, so overcast.

And a sad ditty of this story born

From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d:

Still is the burthen sung—“O cruelty,

“To steal my Basil-pot away from me!”

So, happy birthday, John Keats!

John William Waterhouse – Lady of Shalott: I am half-sick of shadows

3 Sep

English painter John William Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849; the same year the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in London. So, he wasn’t a member of the original Brotherhood, but his style and subject matter show that he embraced their aesthetic and continued the themes ranging from Shakespeare to Arthurian romances and mythology. He created a world of beauty and dreams that served as a refuge from grey and harsh reality for Victorians who were such escapists. Waterhouse portrayed the legend of the Lady of Shalott three times, in 1888, 1894 and 1916. Although the version from 1888 is by far the most popular, today we’ll take a look at the other two.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, 1894

“Who is that?”, Elaine stood up quickly, abandoning her tapestry, and in two-three steps approached the window of her lonely tower, with long curious, thirsty glances soaking up the beauty of the sights never before seen directly. Her long velvety hair spilt in dozens of cascades on her back, like a shimmering murmuring waterfall, reaching her waist. Yearning, fear and gentle admiration coloured her pale, beautiful face. Never before have the beams of sun, nor the moon, drops of rain or spring zephyrs caressed it. Her white gown, its flimsy sleeves and dozens of silk petticoats, shines like the moon on the night sky against the darkness of her tower, but its gentle rustling is too far from the ears of a lovely knight who happened to be passing by. “Who is he?”, wonders Elaine, stepping forward with one leg, but leaning on the chair with her hand as soon as the words of the ancient curse run through her mind. Golden thread that wrapped itself like a snake around her dress seems to warn her too about the consequences of her actions… but Elaine can’t resist! She resisted gazing for so long, relying on shadows, pale reflections of the world in her mirror, but today the temptation to look was too irresistible, for she saw a knight riding from Camelot, passing her tower by, his armour glowing in the sun, his coal-black curls flowing underneath his helmet; it was none other than Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
       She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
       The Lady of Shalott.” (*)
***

One sight was enough for this beautiful, naive, vulnerable lily-maiden to fall in love. Her heart ached not solely for the handsome and distant knight who innocently passed by her tower, unaware of her sad destiny, but for the music, lights and liveliness of Camelot, for people and their chatter, but her curse was never to feel the world, but to gaze at it passively in the mirror, a stale reflection was to replace the vibrancy of reality. The moment she left her tapestry, drawn to the window like a moth to the light, she felt her soul overwhelmed with love and the same moment her world fell apart for the curse has come upon her, and she cried.

 As I’ve already said in the introduction, Waterhouse painted three different portrayals of the sad life of the Lady of Shalott, but thematically and chronologically they go into different directions; the first painting, from 1888, shows Elaine floating to her death while the last one, from 1916, shows her contemplating over her life of isolation. I am certain that, had he painted three more, they would all be as imaginative, dreamy and original. This is the first, and the most famous 1888 version of which I wrote about here. It is a true gem indeed and a symbol of Pre-Raphaelite artistic vision:

So, in the last painting of the series, we see Elaine before her downfall; she’s sitting above her tapestry, taking a rest, her hands behind her head, staring dreamily into the void, while through the window we see the magnificent grey towered castle of Camelot whose red roofs shine in glory. Elaine looks wistful, but not determined, she’s lost in thoughts but not yet ready to act, with her rosy cheeks and rosy dress she looks like a lonely rose in a long-forgotten garden, and I can see a spider weaving a veil of silver and dew around her gentle petals, hushing her heart, lulling her to sleep and forget reality. This is what Lord Tennyon, a beloved poet of the Victorian era, tells us of Elaine’s life of isolation and longing:

She hath no loyal knight and true,
       The Lady of Shalott.
 
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
       And music, came from Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
       The Lady of Shalott.
***
Loneliness is making her tired and restless, her eyelids grow heavy, her gaze weary, while the pale face reveals that she is curious, impetuous, nervous…. but she is naive and knows nothing of the world, and yet she longs for something she can’t describe and pines for memories that not belong to her, sighing and whispering to the stale air of solitude “I am half-sick of shadows!” Oh, poor little maiden, will her life be wrapped in a pensive veil of gloom forever?

John William Waterhouse, I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott, 1916

“I watched life and wanted to be a part of it but found it painfully difficult.” (Anais Nin)

Everyone speaks of an unlived life, and through reading Jack Kerouac’s novels of wild adventures, drinking, promiscuity, and also of self-indulgences and extremes of rock stars, I’ve created in my imagination this glamorous, yet false, vision of a life lived to the fullest, but as I grow older I am more of an opinion that adult life is very sad, and that world is a confusing and scary place, one I’d rather not venture. While gazing at Elaine in her lonely tower, I can’t help but think “Don’t gaze through the window, don’t long for Camelot, there’s nothing for you there!” So, for me, the legend of the Lady of the Shalott brings to mind the conflict between living life and daydreaming. I am so fond of daydreams because they are so sweet, and life is so often so unfulfilling and sour. How to live and be truly happy when life crushes all your ideals just like the sea waves crush the rocks on the shore? And is a life spent in daydreaming a wasted one? “To be or not to be?”, Hamlet asked himself. To live or to daydream, that is the question!

How do you feel about Elaine’s destiny, and the conflict of life vs daydreams. Share your thoughts with me.

Vincent van Gogh – Road with Cypress and Star

26 Aug

When you think of cypress trees, what kind of mood do they evoke? It is a rather gloomy tree, isolated and dark, unfriendly, a tree in despair, usually gracing graveyards and ever since ancient times it was seen as a symbol of mourning, but also of hope because it stretches high up in the sky, as if wanting to touch the stars. Still, the first sight of Vincent van Gogh’s wonderful painting gives us an utterly different mood, not one of mourning but that of rapture and nocturnal magic.

Vincent van Gogh, Road with Cypress and Star (Country Road in Provence by Night), 1890

Vincent painted this in May 1890 while in Saint Rémy and finished it in June in Auvers-sur-Oise. His time spent in Provence, in Arles and Saint Remy, is the most productive period of his life; it was there that he painted the famous starry nights, sunflowers, cypresses and wheat fields. Man from the damp, dark north found his artistic haven in the sunny landscape of the south, where sun burn as intensely as the stars and one could drown in the ripe yellowness of the endless wheat fields. Road with Cypress and Star is a nocturnal scene painted in rich frantic crooked brush strokes, each one looks as if it was made with pain and passion. It shows an isolated country road in the silent hour of the night with two small figures in the lower right corner, a carriage and an inn in the background. The road looks more like a river, and the space looks like it’s sinking. The landscape is pulsating, and notice the different direction of the brushstrokes in the road, the field and the sky. In hands of Van Gogh, a seemingly ordinary landscape gets a dreamy, magical dimension. You almost wish you could join those men and roam the countryside yourself, when in reality it was probably hot and crickets would sing from the grass. He wrote that the scene itself is very romantic, but also very characteristic for Provence.

The star of the painting are two cypress trees which grew so closely together that they look like one, entwined in their darkness. They stretch and stretch, seemingly endlessly because, in a Japanese Ukiyo-e style, Vincent ‘cut’ their ends, and we are left with an impression that the cypresses are really kissing the vibrant blue night sky painted in swirls of blue and white. On one side is a big bright star, and on the other is an elegant crescent moon. Van Gogh was especially fond of cypresses; he admired their smooth line and thought they resembled Egyptian obelisks.

Vincent truly believed death would take us to another star, and this is what he wrote to Theo:

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.

Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?

Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.

To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

The last sentence reveals his passionate, impetuous nature. You can’t expect such a man to live an ordinary life, to obey society, to produce his art without wasting himself. No, he burned and burned like a shooting star, disappearing and leaving beauty behind him.

We can imagine the gloomy cypress trees being transformed by the spell of the night into loveable creatures who stretch their branches to touch that sky, to play and daydream with the stars because they are so lonely and misunderstood here on earth. They are standing on the earth with their head in the stars.

Joan Miró – Blue Is the Colour of My Dreams

20 Aug

Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró (1893-1993), whose work is usually classified as Surrealism, painted many beautiful paintings that show the vividness of his imagination, bursting with bold colours and intricate shapes. Still, his painting This is the color of my dreams has a special place in my heart: it is simple, just a blue fleck on white background, and underneath it Miró elegantly wrote the words that serve as the title of the painting, in French. Those words, the idea behind them, gives this simple blue a poetic, dreamy, mystical dimension.

Joan Miró, This is the color of my dreams, 1925

Isn’t it just a beautiful idea, to paint the colour of your dreams? And different dreams come in different colours, shades, different fragrances, melodies and moods. Miró dreamt in blue. And here’s what Jean Cocteau had to say about blue colour in “The Secret of Blue”:

The secret of blue is well kept. Blue comes from far away. On its way, it hardens and changes into a mountain. The cicada works at it. The birds assist. In reality, one doesn’t know. One speaks of Prussian blue. In Naples, the virgin stays in the cracks of walls when the sky recedes. But it’s all a mystery. The mystery of sapphire, mystery of Sainte Vierge, mystery of the siphon, mystery of the sailor’s collar, mystery of the blue rays that blind and your blue eye which goes through my heart.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Bocca Baciata

4 Aug

Dante Gabriel Rossetti spent 1850s in a mood of indolence and love; he was infatuated with Elizabeth Siddal, the beautiful red-haired Pre-Raphaelite model who famously posed for Millais’ Ophelia, and he mainly painted pencil drawings of Siddal and watercolours of idealised Medieval scenes. He wasn’t as productive in the early years of Pre-Raphaelite as he was in his later years when he filled his canvases with seductive, dreamy women with luscious full lips and voluminous hair; “Bocca Baciata” is the painting that started it all.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859

The half-length portrait shows a woman dressed in an unbuttoned black garment with gold details, while the white undergarments coyly peek through. Her neck is long and strong, her head slightly tilted, lips full and closed, eyes heavy-lidded and gazing in the distance. On her left is an apple, and she’s holding a small pot marigold in her hand. She is full, voluptuous, strong, possessing none of Siddal’s delicate, melancholic, laudanum-chic beauty, but one thing they have in common: beautiful hair. Model for the painting was Fanny Cornforth who was described as having “harvest yellow” hair colour, but here Rossetti painted it as a warm, rich coppery colour which goes beautifully with the orange marigolds and gold jewellery around her neck and in her hair. Rossetti must have borrowed the brush of Veronese himself when he painted those masses of lascivious wild hair that flows and flows, seemingly endless, ready to wrap itself around the neck of its victims. Gazing at Pre-Raphaelite paintings has taught me that the famous Victorian saying which goes: “hair is the crown of woman’s beauty” is wrong. Hair is not the crown, but the weapon, ready to seduce a man, ready to suffocate him in a matter of seconds.

What lures me about this painting are the beautiful autumnal colours and pot marigolds that grace the background; they are the flowers which fascinate me the most at the moment. They are the birth flowers for October, appropriate because their orange colour matched that of the falling leaves, and in the Victorian language of flowers they are seen as the symbols of love and jealousy, pain and grief, but this symbolism saddens me. Why bestow such a negative meaning to such an innocent, bright, whimsical flower? Marigolds are known as “summer brides” because they love the sun and I love them; they are so modest and unassuming, you’d fail to notice them in the company of extroverted roses and overwhelming sunflowers, but they hide so much beauty in their small orange petals.

The white rose in her hair symbolises innocence, and this portrait, although sensual, is indeed innocent compared to those which followed. As if the long, flowing fiery hair wasn’t enough, the title, Bocca Baciata, meaning “the mouth that has been kissed”, gives off a sensual mood. The beautiful expression comes from an Italian proverb from Boccaccio’s Decameron which Rossetti wrote on the back of the painting: “The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its savour, indeed it renews itself just as the moon does.” The line is a reference to a story from Decameron told on the second day, about a Saracen princess who, despite having numerous lovers, managed to persuade the King of Algarve that she was a virgin bride.

“Bocca Baciata” is both stylistically and technically a transitional work. It is Rossetti’s first oil painting in years, the previous one being “Ecce Ancilla Domini” from 1850. The luxurious, sensuous mood is a reference to High Italian Renaissance, more specifically, the art of Titian and Veronese and their long-haired women. The main characteristic of Venetian art is the beautiful colour; space, volume is built with colour, not with line, and Rossetti used this principle hear, using soft shadings on the skin of her neck and in building the hair, stroke by stroke. Also, inspired by Titian, he used red colour as a base of his canvas, not the usual white. “Bocca Baciata” is not just a beautiful harmony of warm colours, but it also set a pattern of a style of painting typical for the art of late Pre-Raphaelite Movement and Symbolism, where a beautiful woman occupies a canvas, exuding sensuality, vanity and indolence, dressed in luxurious fabrics and surrounded by other objects of beauty such as flowers, mirrors, fans and jewellery. These types of paintings are not portraits with individual characteristics of a person, but a never ending series of visual representations of female sexual allure.