Tag Archives: Painting

Sabina as an Artist (Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

25 Jan

“And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it Behind the Scenes. Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract. After pausing for a moment, she added, On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.

Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, written in 1982 and published in 1984, is one of my favourite novels, as many of you probably know by now because I have written about it before. I love the simplicity with which this novel, and other Kundera’s novels, are written. Kundera never writes to fill the paper with words, he never wastes time on unnecessary descriptions and digressions, every sentence is carefully weighed, simple but philosophical and thought-pondering. He never bores the reader like some writers *cough* Balzac *cough* do. He gets to the point and I appreciate it.

The novel is set against the political events of 1968 and it revolves around the lives of four main characters; Tomáš, a surgeon, an intellectual and a womaniser; Tereza, a shy and gentle provincial girl who falls in love with Tomáš and comes to live with him in Prague and marries him, then Sabina; Tomáš’s lover and his best friend who is a painter and is in a self-declared war on kitsch, and Franz, an idealistic, kind yet weak professor from Geneva and Sabina’s lover. Kundera always uses his characters to explore ideas and philosophies so his characters are not just characters. I’ve always had a soft spot for Sabina because she is very free-spirited and because she is a painter, and she also represents the ‘unbearable’ lightness of being from the title, as opposed to Tereza’s view of life as ‘heavy’ burden. Tomáš and Sabina both represent the lightness of life because they take everything as it comes, they are like balloons in the air, flying freely wherever wind takes them, and Tereza is someone who pulls Tomáš down to reality with her heaviness. Tereza is initially jealous of Sabina, for obvious reasons, but eventually they befriend and on one ocassion Tomáš brings Tereza to Sabina’s studio and Sabina tells us something about her art.

As I mentioned above, the novel is set in the sixties and at the time when Sabina was a student the artistic and cultural climate was strict. We know this from real life examples, the life of the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, or from literary examples; Kundera’s first novel “The Joke”, published in 1967 but set in the 1950s, where we see how a simple joke against the regime can mean a life in prison or at least ostracism from society for the individual. If Sabina had painted as freely as she wanted perhaps she would have been expelled from university, but these restrictions only served to inspire her creatively and in her works, which of course we don’t see because it is a novel although I wonder what they might look like in Kundera’s mind, she finds ways to beat the system from within. The space in her paintings always shows two worlds, realism and magic meet and live alongside one another on Sabina’s cavases.

Jeanne Hebuterne, Self-Portrait, 1918

This dualism always reminds me of circus or theatre stage, at once vibrant and melancholy, and that is why I chose the picture of red curtains on the stage because they show this divison well; the red velvet curtains separate the real world of the audience from the magical, fanciful world of the stage. Here is what the novel says:

Sabina invited Tereza to her studio, and at last she saw the spacious room andits centerpiece: the large, square, platform-like bed.

I feel awful that you’ve never been here before, said Sabina, as she showed herthe pictures leaning against the wall. She even pulled out an old canvas, of asteelworks under construction, which she had done during her school days, aperiod when the strictest realism had been required of all students (art thatwas not realistic was said to sap the foundations of socialism). In the spiritof the wager of the times, she had tried to be stricter than her teachers andhad painted in a style concealing the brush strokes and closely resembling colorphotography.

Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with abuilding site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it. And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it Behind the Scenes. Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract. After pausing for a moment, she added, On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.

(Sabina and Tereza, two women in Tomáš’s life, stills from the film from 1988 which Kundera disliked intensely.)

Tereza listened to her with the remarkable concentration that few professors ever see on the face of a student and began to perceive that all Sabina’s paintings, past and present, did indeed treat the same idea, that they all featured the confluence of two themes, two worlds, that they were all double exposures, so to speak. A landscape showing an old-fashioned table lamp shiningthrough it. An idyllic still life of apples, nuts, and a tiny, candle-lit Christmas tree showing a hand ripping through the canvas.

She felt a rush of admiration for Sabina, and because Sabina treated her as afriend it was an admiration free of fear and suspicion and quickly turned into friendship. She nearly forgot she had come to take photographs. Sabina had to remind her. Tereza finally looked away from the paintings only to see the bed set in the middle of the room like a platform.

Syd Barrett’s Favourite Artists and Artworks

6 Jan

January is always a time of sobering up, the hangover after a wild party of colours, vibrancy and magic that is December. I hate that! I want the party to go on perpetually, I don’t want to ‘sober’ up… ever. I want to always be drunk on music, art, poetry, love and beauty. And so this drab, lonely and grey month always passes in a whimsical mood for me because I celebrate Syd Barrett’s birthday every year. Syd Barrett was born on the 6th January 1946. But the celebration doesn’t begin and end on the 6th, oh no, it lingers on and on. I devote myself these days to listening to Pink Floyd’s early work, then Syd’s solo albums, reading one of my ultimate favourites: Julian Palacios’s wonderful book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”. The book instantly transports me back in time, to some whimsical, groovy, fairy tale-like place which perhaps never even existed, or it did, but only for a moment, like a shooting star. This is a post I originally wrote six years ago to celebrate Syd’s birthday, but I thought I’d repost it today because it’s been six years, come on, and I know there are many new readers now who probably have not read it. Enjoy!

Syd Barrett with his painting, spring 1964

In this post we’ll discuss two of my favourite things in the world; Syd Barrett and art. Despite having achieved fame as a musician, first with Pink Floyd, and then later with two solo-albums, Syd was a painter first and foremost. He attended the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London, and continued painting later in life. Let’s take a look at the artists and artworks Syd loved! Syd’s first passion was art. Some even went as far as saying that he was a better painter than a musician. Even David Gilmour said that Syd was talented at art before he did guitar. I’ve seen his paintings, and I wouldn’t agree. What could surpass the beauty that he’s created musically?

All quotes in this post are from the book ‘Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe’ by Julian Palacios, and so is this one: ‘Waters brought older, upper-class friends round to Barrett’s house after school, among them Andrew Rawlinson and Bob Klose. They found him painting, paint below his easel, newspaper as a drop cloth and brushes on the windowsill. Painting and music ran in tandem, and Barrett was good at both. (…) Barrett sketched, painted and wrote, his output prolific.

syd-80Syd holding one of his paintings.

Syd first attended the Saturday-morning classes at Homerton College, and then started a two-year programme at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology in autumn 1962. Along with his enthusiasm and skill at painting, he was good at memorising dates and authors of paintings. Here’s another quote that demonstrates Syd’s painting technique: ‘Syd drew and painted with ease, demonstrating a deft balance between shadow and light. He had a talent for portraits, though his subjects sometimes looked somewhat frozen. Best at quick drawings, Syd had a good feel for abstract art, creating bright canvases in red and blue.‘ It seems to me that Syd would have loved Rothko; an American Abstract-Expressionist artist who painted his canvases in strong colours with spiritual vibe.

Then, in autumn of 1964, Syd came to London to study at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. The curriculum at Camberwell was more rigorous than what Syd was used to at his previous college of arts: ‘At Camberwell, drawing formed the core curriculum. Tutors put Barrett through his paces working in different mediums and materials.‘ Syd’s art tutor, Christopher Chamberlain was taken with Syd’s tendency to paint in blunt, careless brushstrokes. Later in life, Barrett tended to burn his paintings, ‘psychedelic paintings, vaguely reminiscent of Jackson Pollock‘ because he believed that the point lies in creation and the finished product is unimportant. I can’t understand that at all – my paintings are my children.

Now I’ll be talking about seven artists that are in one way or another connected to Syd Barrett.

1918. Hébuterne by ModiglianiAmedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918

Modigliani

Sitting cross-legged in the cellar at Hills Road, Mick Rock was impressed as Syd rolled a joint with quick, nimble had. Nicely stoned, they listened to blues and talked about Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, until the morning light peeked through the narrow slot windows.

Amedeo Modigliani; whose name itself sounds like a sad hymn of beauty, is perhaps one of the most unsung heroes of the art world. And the story of Amedeo and Jeanne’s love is perhaps the saddest of all. When Modigliani died, she couldn’t bear life without him so she threw herself out of the window, eight months pregnant at the time, oh how engulfed in sadness that January of 1920 must have been. Modigliani painted women, he painted them nude, and he painted their heads with large sad eyes, elongated faces, long necks and sloping shoulders. I think Modigliani expressed melancholy and the fragility of life like no other painter. I can’t tell for sure that Syd loved Modigliani, but since he talked about him, I take it that he was at least interested in the story behind his art. I would really like to hear that conversation between Syd and Rock.

gustav klimt beechwood forestGustav Klimt, Beechwood forest, 1902

Klimt

Appealing to Barrett’s Cantabrigian sensibilities were paintings like Gustav Klimt’s 1903 Beechwood Forest, where dense beech trees blot the sky, each leaf captured in one golden brushstroke.

Smouldering eroticism pervades all of Gustav Klimt’s artworks. Sometimes flamboyant, at other occasions toned down, but always burning in the shadow. In ‘Beechwood Forest’, Klimt paints trees with sensuality and elegance. He always painted landscape as a means of meditation, usually on holidays spent in Litzlberg at Lake Attersee, enjoying the warm, sunny days with his life companion Emilie Flöge. Klimt approached painting landscapes the same way he painted women, with visible sensuality and liveliness. The absence of people in all of his landscapes suggest that Klimt perceived the landscape as a living being, mystical pantheism was always prevalent. The nature, in all its greenness, freshness and mystery, was a beautiful woman for Klimt.

1891. James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged ManJames Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man, 1891

James Ensor

Stephen Pyle recalled that Syd’s main interests were expressionist artist Chaim Soutine and surrealist painters Salvador Dali and James Ensor. Ensor’s surreal party of clowns with skeletons cropped up in his artwork even thirty years later.

Belgian painter James Ensor (1860-1949) was a true innovator of the late 19th century art. He was alone and misunderstood amongst his contemporaries, just like many revolutionary artists are, but he helped in clearing the path for some art movements like Surrealism and Expressions which would turn out to be more popular than Ensor himself. Painting ‘Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man’ is a good example of Ensor’s themes and style of painting: skeletons, puppets, masks and intrigues painted in thick but small brushstrokes, with just a hint of morbidness all found their place in Ensor’s art. There’s no doubt that Barrett was inspired by the twisted whimsicality and playfulness of Ensor’s canvases.

1920. Les Maisons by SoutineChaim Soutine, Les Maisons, 1920

Soutine

Art historian William Shutes noted,Barrett used large single brushstrokes, built up layer by layer, layer over layer, like relief contours.

Chaim Soutine was a wilful eccentric, an Eastern Jew, an introvert who left no diaries and only a few letters. But he left a lot of paintings, mostly landscapes that all present us with his bitter visions of the world. He painted in thick, heavy brushstrokes laden with pain, anger, resentment and loneliness. In ‘Les Maisons’ the houses are crooked, elongated, painted in murky earthy colours. Their mood of alienation and instability is ever present in Soutine’s art. He portrayed his depression and psychological instability very eloquently. Description of Barrett’s style of painting, layers and layers of colour, relief brushstrokes, reminds me very much of the way Soutine painted; in heavy brushstrokes, tormented by pain and longings, as if layering colours could release the burden off of his soul.

Ren? Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009 øðä îàâøéè, áðå ùì àãí, 1964, øñèåøöéä ò"é ùîòåï éðåáéõ, 2009Rene Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964

Rene Magritte

There’s no doubt that, as a Surrealist, Magritte was inspirational to young people in the sixties who were inclined to listening to psychedelic music or had a whimsical imagination. With Barrett, Magritte is mostly associated with his ‘Vegetable Man’ phase, in times when his LSD usage was getting out of control, just prior to being kicked out of band. Magritte is, along with Dali, another Surrealist that appealed to Barrett’s imagination. Belgian artist, Magritte meticulously painted similar, everyday objects like men in suits, clouds, pipes, umbrellas and buildings with strange compositions and shadows. In ‘The Son of Man’, some have suggested that he was dealing with the subject of one’s own identity, and that might be something that appealed to Syd when he appeared in the promotional picture with spring onions tied to his head which is an obvious wink to Magritte, not to mention Acimboldo.

1875. Les Raboteurs de parquet - Gustave CaillebotteGustave Caillebotte, Les Raboteurs de parquet, 1875

Gustave Caillebotte

Lying in bed one morning, he stared at his blanket’s orange and blue stripes and had a flashback to Gustave Caillebotte’s 1875 painting ‘The Wood Floor Planers’, which depicts workers scraping the wood floors of a sunlit room in striated patterns. Inspired, with Storm Thorgenson’s garish orange and red room at Egerton fresh in his mind, he got up, pushed his few belongings into a corner, and sauntered off to fetch paint from the Earl’s Court Road.

This is perhaps Caillebotte’s best legacy – inspiring Syd Barrett to paint his floor in stripes which later ended up gracing his first solo-album, the famously dark and whimsical ‘The Madcap Laughs’, released on 3 January 1970. Like the cover, other pictures taken that spring day in 1969 by Mick Rock and Storm Thorgenson, are all filled with light and have a transcendent mood.

1935-dali-paranoiac-visageDali, Paranoiac Visage, 1935

Dali

I believe none of you are surprised that Dali is on this list. Anyone who is familiar with his art will know that it ties very well with the music of Pink Floyd, and perhaps some other psychedelic bands. There’s no one quite like Dali in the world of art. Art he created, like Surrealism in general, is a visual portrayal of Freud’s ideas of the unconscious, and is based on irrationality, dreams, hallucinations and obsessions. His paintings are mostly hallucinogenic landscapes in the realm of dreams; realistic approach combined with deformed figures and objects which, just like in the art of Giorgio de Chirico, evokes feelings of anxiety in the viewer.

When I like an artist, musician or a writer, I always want to know what inspired them, or what they thought of something that I love. What did Barrett really think of Modigliani, for example? But, some things will forever stay a mystery. Perhaps it’s better that way.

Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Hôtel Particulier and the Art of Paul Delvaux

20 Dec

“All my life I’ve tried to transcribe reality to make it into a kind of dream.”

(Paul Delvaux)

Paul Delvaux, Sleeping Venus (La Venus Endormie), 1944

Serge Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album “Historie de Melody Nelson” released on 24 March 1971 has a Lolitaesque theme and in seven unique yet connected songs tells a tale of an older gentleman (Serge) who, by accident, collides his car into the red bicycle of a sweet and pretty schoolgirl called Melody Nelson (Jane Birkin). This chance seemingly unhappy encounter blossoms into a flower of seduction and romance as the gentleman takes Melody to a hotel. This part of the musical story is told in the fifth song “L’hôtel particulier“. Needless to say, I very much enjoy the variety of different musical styles on the album’s songs, and I love the innocently-sexy Jane Birkin in the videos, but it is the video for this song “L’hôtel particulier” that fascinates me in particular because it features the wondrous paintings of the Belgian Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) who was actually still alive during the time the album was made. Not only alive, but also very prolific. Even though he was the last surviving Surrealist during his life, he was a wanderer and an individualist in the Surrealist crowd who created a unique dream-like world on his canvases which feature repetitive motifs; Classical architecture, nocturnal setting, nude women whose bodies are white as snow and appear smooth as marble, skeletons, crescent moon, trains, boudoirs.

The shaping of Delvaux’s art career was a slow and steady process because at first his parents pressured him into studying architecture, it was something he didn’t enjoy but it did serve him greatly later in creating the strange, accurately depicted yet eerie spaces in his paintings. In 1934 Delvaux saw the Surrealist exhibition “Minotaure” and this inspired him to start working in the direction of Surrealism because it led him back to the imaginative state of childhood. Delvaux’s art also shows the influence of Giorgio de Chirico’s cold and enigmatic worlds where architecture is drawn with precision yet the overall effect is unsettling. In 1937 and 1939 he visited Italy and the architecture inspired him to serve as a setting for the world of his languid dead-eyed hypnotised nudes. Delvaux painted some wonderful eerie paintings even in the late 1960s and 1970s, but the paintings chosen for Gainsbourg’s video were mostly painted in the 1940s. The World War II period was a harsh one for Delvaux as it was for everyone, but it only inspired him to paint more and to retreat into the world of his imagination. The artist stated “I would like to create a fabulous painting in which I would live, in which I could live.”

As a child he was afraid of skeletons but later in life he found a way to incorporate them into his nocturnal worlds, bones glistening in moonlight, death opposing the sensuality of the women’s nude flesh. One such skeleton pops up in the painting “Sleeping Venus” painted in 1944, and unlike skeletons in James Ensor’s art (a fellow Belgian painter), Delvaux’s skeleton is unashamed of himself, he doesn’t put on a mask or hide under some garish carnival clothes. Nude Venus is sweetly asleep on a divan in front of the temple-like building while the skeleton is having a fascinating conversation with a Belle Epoque woman with a large brimmed hat and a dark red dress. The conversation is so fascinating that not even the passing couple, Serge and Jane, can interrupt it. Even though Delvaux’s paintings aren’t directly connected to the music and the song, I think they create a striking background visually which really leaves the viewer interested.

Bellow I’ve compared Delvaux’s paintings to stills from the video and also added the lyrics of the song because they are really descriptive:

Paul Delvaux, The Echo, 1943

Au cinquante-six, sept, huit, peu importeDe la rue X, si vous frappezÀ la porteD’abord un coup, puis trois autresOn vous laisse entrerSeul et parfois même accompagné
*
At number fifty-six, seven, eight… who knows,
Of the unnameable street,
if you knock on the door
One knock first, then three more,
they will let you in
Alone or sometimes even not alone.

Paul Delvaux, Night Train, 1947

Une servante, sans vous dire un motVous précèdeDes escaliersDes couloirs sans fin se succèdentDécorés de bronzes baroquesD’anges dorésD’Aphrodites et de Salomés
*
Without saying a word,
a maid leads you
Through a haze of endless stairs and hallways
Adorning baroque bronzes,
gilded angels,
Aphrodites and Salomés

Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens, 1947

S’il est libre, dites que vous voulez le quarante-quatreC’est la chambre qu’ils appellent iciDe CléopâtreDont les colonnes du lit de style rococoSont des nègres portant des flambeaux
 
If it’s available, say that you want room forty-four
They call it here
the Cleopatra room,
Where ebony bodies holding torches
Cover the rococo style bed columns

Paul Delvaux, Le nu et le mannequin, December 1947

Entre ces esclaves nusTaillés dans l’ébèneQui seront les témoins muetsDe cette scèneTandis que là-haut un miroirNous réfléchitLentement j’enlace Melody
 
Among these naked slaves
carved in wood,
All silent witnesses to the scene,
While above us a mirror
reflects our image,
Slowly I embrace Melody.

Serafino Macchiati – The Break-Up

26 Sep

“But I panicked as she turned to walk awayAs she went out the door I heard her sayYes I’m in need of somethingBut it’s something you ain’t gotBut I used to love you a lot

I thought she loved me with a love that wouldn’t dieLooking at her now I can’t believe she said good-byeShe just left me standing there, I never been so shockedShe used to love me a lotShe used to love me a lot….”
(Johnny Cash, She Used to Love Me a Lot)

Serafino Macchiati, The Break-Up, 1900-05

I recently discovered this painting by the Italian painter Serafino Macchiati and I was insantly struck by its dark, murky colours and the equally dark and sad mood that they help convey. The painting is titled simply “The Break-Up” and it was painted just after Macchiati had moved to Paris. The painting shows a man and a woman in a luxurious interior. The woman is standing by the fireplace with her back turned against the man who is looking at her with a slight yearning or disbelief… The tension in the room is palpable. The space and the figures are painted in a way that makes it seem like this is a night scene and the woman’s white dress is bathed in the moonlight. The scene of this love drama, the act of breaking up, may as well have been happening at night, but perhaps the colour scheme of this painting, with its dark blues, grey and black, is more reflective of the mood in the room than than it is reflective of the actual space. It is as if the dark cloud is hanging above the room; their dark grey room is a canvas that shows their distance and tensions, and, after the lightning and thunders of the couple’s shouting and arguing, the dark cloud is now ripe and ready to release the pouring rain. What I am trying to say is that the space is more symbolic than real, and this gives it not only an aesthetical feast for the eyes, but also a variety of interpretations. Is this a real scene, or is it a distant memory? Is the woman, dressed in that gorgeous white gown, merely a ghost of a past lover, a memory of the past that is coming back to haunt the solitary man on this dreary evening. Perhaps he heard a faint ghostly rustle of a dress and all the memories suddenly came back to haunt him. There is also a curiosity as to who is breaking up with whom? I think it is the woman, for her back is turned against the man, symbolically representing her Macchiati also painted some equally dark and mystical paintings whilst in Paris titled “The Vision” and “Spiritism” and both portray the Spiritualist experiences. All in all, this painting is a visually beautiful one, and its beauty is of the poetic, lyrical kind which makes my thoughts go towards music and poetry…

John Constable – Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea)

22 Aug

“My greatest pleasure was the enjoyment of a serene sky amidst these verdant woods: yet I loved all the changes of Nature; and rain, and storm, and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with them. When rocked by the waves of the lake my spirits rose in triumph as a horseman feels with pride the motions of his high fed steed. But my pleasures arose from the contemplation of nature alone, I had no companion: my warm affections finding no return from any other human heart were forced to run waste on inanimate objects.

(Mary Shelley, Mathilda)

John Constable (1776–1837), Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-28), oil on paper, 22.2 × 31.1 cm

English painter John Constable painted many interesting landscapes but the most beautiful, the most majestic and awe-inspiring, to me, are his seascape studies painted in Brighton around 1824-28. The most dramatic of these seascape studies is the painting you see above called “Seascape Study with Rain Cloud” or sometimes simply called “Rainstorm over the Sea”. The painting shows the sea and the vastness of the sky above it in the moment of a rainstorm. The rough, sketchy look of the sky attests to the quick manner in which the painting was executed, but still there is precision and confidence in the way the dark, threatening clouds were captured so as to inspire awe and the feeling of the sublime. The sea here takes up very little space of the canvas while almost the majority of it is dedicated to the portrait of the roaring clouds heavy with anguish and rain. It is in these moments, very much loved by the Romantics, that nature reveals its raw power. The clouds are black at parts and the vertical motion of the brushstrokes helps to convey the wildness of the transient moment of the summer rainstorm over the sea. Constable had a particular penchant for observing and portraying clouds, in all their shapes, colours and moods, and this is evident in these seascape studies.

John Constable, Seascape Study: Brighton Beach Looking West, ca. 1824-28

Another seascape study painted in the 1824-28 period is the painting called “Seascape Study: Brighton Beach Looking West” which shows two tiny female figures standing on the desolate beach and looking out at the sea. Their dresses are windswept as they admire the breaking of the waves. Our eye stretches from the soft seafoam in the shallow sea in the foreground all the way to the dark blue deep sea in the background. The diagonal line which visually separated the beach from the sea slightly curves in the background and, again, more than the half of the canvas is occupied by the sky with the delightful white clouds. Their whiteness is echoed by the whiteness of the sea foam and it is just so exciting to see touched of white colour here and there, they enlived everything. These beach scenes make me think of the film “Me Without You” (2002) which is set in Brighton in the early 1980s, in some scenes the girls are seen walking on the Brighton pier or walking by the sea.

John Constable, Seascape Study: Boat and Stormy Sky, 20 July 1828

Above we can see yet another wild and untamed portrayal of a stormy sky over a raging sea. This is a little less known painting by Constable but interestingly we know the exact date it was painted, the 20 July 1828, which is amazing.

The reason behind Constable’s constant visits to Brighton was the frail health of his wife Maria. They all hoped she would find peace and serenity in the melliflous music of the sea waves and the fresh, salty sea air. Maria and their six children stayed in Brighton for lenghtly periods of time on and off in the period from 1824 to 1828; she gave birth to their seventh and last child in January that year and finally succumbed to consumption in November. Constable would split time between London and Brighton and, interestingly, he had mixed feelings about Brighton. At times he wrote that Brighton was “perhaps no spot in Europe where so many circumstances conducive to health and enjoyment are to be found combined“, and other times he complained at how touristy and hectic it was, offering no serenity for his artistic endeavors: “Brighton is the receptacle of the fashion and offscouring of London. The magnificence of the sea, and its (to use your own beautiful expression) everlasting voice is drowned in the din & lost in the tumult of stage coaches – gigs – ‘flys’ etc – and the beach is only piccadilly …. By the sea-side … in short there is nothing here for the painter but the breakers – & the sky – which have been lovely indeed and always [various].

John Constable, Brighton Beach, 1824, oil sketch

The third seascape study I’ve chosed fro this post is this simple but fascinating oil sketch called “Brighton Beach”, painted in 1824. The canvas is distinctly elongated which gives the painting a panorama-like view of the beach. The mood is definitely daker in this painting than in the previous one; the sky and the clouds are a much darker shade of blue and this stormy mood brings to mind the hypnotic sounds of the Echo and the Bunnymen’s album “Heaven Up Here” (1981) which is my go-to rainy day album.

Felix Vallotton – Yellow and Green Sunset – 800th Post!

12 Jun

“A sunset so beautiful that the rest of your life will seem anticlimactic.”

(Disenchantment, S1 E2 )

Felix Vallotton, Yellow and Green Sunset (Coucher de soleil jaune et vert) 1911

The vibrant colours of Felix Vallotton’s painting “Yellow and Green Sunset” from 1911 immediately spoke to me. I am just mesmerised by these rich lavender, yellow and turqouise shades! How dreamy is this purple!? How vivacious and magical this yellow!? This painting is surely one of the most magical depictions of a sunset that I have seen in art. The motif of the painting, that of a beach in the sunset of the day with two small human figures walking by, brings to mind the beautiful and melancholy landscapes of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, but the mood and the colours that Vallotton here uses are completely different. Whereas Friedrich would have been subtle and paid attention to shades and tones of colours, Vallotton paints almost as if he trew a bucket of purple, yellow, blue and green onto the canvas. The intense, almost garish colours cover huge portions of the paintings and it is a delight for the eye. The painting is almost made of different horizontal stripes of colour; from the sky to the sea to the beach, but if one looks more closely, one will notice the details such as the purple sky that is made out of pink lines, or the rocks on the beach in the shallow water, colored gold by the light of the fading sun. A few days ago I was sitting by the river and I wittnessed a sunset very similar to the one portrayed in this painting and this connection is something that I cherish. Also, this is my 800th post and I decided to write about this painting because it holds a special meaning for me now. The quote in the beginning of the post comes from the second episode of the first season of the show Disenchantment where the main character Bean and her friends Elfo and Luci are on the Party Barge and the sailor makes a comment on the sunset, that it is “(sunset) so beautiful that the rest of your life will seem anticlimactic,” and for some reason this line stuck with me… The sunset I had seen the other day was indeed mesmerising and its colours were so strong that I felt them impressing themselves upon my soul, the yellow of the sun tastes like sweet mellon… but I do hope the rest of my life will not be anticlimactic now, hehe.

Ferdinand du Puigaudeau – Breton Girls with Chinese Lanterns in Pont-Aven

29 May

“… a land of lilies and soft blue nights…”

(Thomas Burke, Limehouse Nights: The Sign of the Lamp)

Ferdinand du Puigaudeau (1864-1930), Breton Girls with Chinese Lanterns in Pont-Aven (Bretonnes aux lampions à pont-aven), 1896

Many late nineteenth century painters such as Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, and Roderic O’Conor found their artistic haven in Pont-Aven; a commune in Brittany in the north of France. The traditional black and white costumes worn by Breton women and the local customs and traditions of the Breton people were a sort of refuge from the cold, calculated and rationalised modern world and the bustling, ever-changing streets of Paris. Many other artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Jakub Schikaneder, Willard Metcalf, Alexandre Benois, and Władysław Ślewiński had also found inspiration in the costumes of Breton woman, their black garments and white headwear, ascetic and simple, removed from time. What the Pre-Raphaelites had found in their idealised visions of the Arthurian legends and the Medieval times, the Post-Impressionist artists had found in the dreamy town of Pont-Aven.

The particular style developed there by Gauguin and Emile Bernard is referred to as the Pont-Aven School, but the painting we are talking about today is something completely different. Ferdinand du Puigaudeau’s painting “Breton Girls with Chinese Lanterns in Pont-Aven” painted in 1896 features the motif of the Breton girls in their traditional garments but this time the motif is combined with Chinoiserie; the European interpretation and imitation of Chinese and other East Asian artistic traditions. Chinoiserie is a term often connected tied with the art of Rococo. In Du Puigaudeau’s painting the Chinoiserie-motif are the Chinese lanterns and the effect is mesmerising. The overall mood of the painting is vivacious, vibrant and playful and brings the otherwise sombre motif of Breton women’s traditional garments to a whole new level. The diagonal composition that starts with the girl at the forefront of the festival parade and ends with a building in the distance with a pagoda-style roof gives a dynamic and playful mood to the painting and reveals the influence of Japanese art on Du Puigaudeau.

The girls, with their flowing garments dancing in the nocturnal breeze, look like fairies. I love the way the glow of the lanterns colours their dresses and the space around them, as if the magic of the lanterns is spilling onto the rest of the scene, as if the light of the lanters is liquid colour spilling like a river onto the space around the girls; blue, red, yellow… I cannot help but think of the stories from Thomas Burke’s short-story collection “Limehouse Nights”, such as “The Chink and the Child” which inspired the film “Broken Blossoms” (1919) starring the lovely moon-faced Lilian Gish, because the element of Chinoiserie is woven into each of these stories and motifs such as lanterns helps evoke the magical, oriental spirit that pervades Du Puigaudeau’s painting as well as Burke’s stories. Another thing that comes to mind is definitelly Debussy’s whimsical “Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp in F Major” which I absolutely adore.

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