Tag Archives: Painting

William Orpen – The Mirror: Why live in the world when you can live in your head?

13 Feb

William Orpen, The Mirror, 1900

This painting keeps haunting me. I don’t quite know why because it’s a really simple portrait, nothing special about it at first sight. I discovered it months ago, and it just lingers in my memory. Every once in a while I remember it and then I gaze it for some time. Then I forget it, and a week passes and then I remember it again and it’s a never ending cycle. The space in the painting isn’t cluttered with many things that tire our eyes. The colours are neutral, greys, black and olive green, nothing overwhelming. The simple arrangement of objects in a painting, with a chest of drawers, a round mirror on the wall and a girl sitting on a chair makes for a simple composition. It also makes it look as if the painter didn’t just capture the space as it was, although it is accurate, but rather chose the objects to make the painting look aesthetically appealing. William Orpen, an Irish painter, was very young when he painted “The Mirror”, just twenty-two years old. He had just recently finished his schooling at the Slate School of Art in London (he studied there from 1897 to 1899), and with this painting he was paying homage to Whistler’s famous “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2” or simply A Portrait of the Artist’s Mother painted in 1871. The round mirror on the wall which shows the artist painting is an obvious reference to “The Arnolfini Portrait” painted by Jan van Eyck. But Emily seems to belong to an entirely different world to the one where Orpen is painting. As if the space around her is disappearing and she remains alone on the stage of her life, hiding from us with that hat.

“The Mirror” was painted in Orpen’s lodgings and the model was a girl called Emily Scobel who modeled at the Slade School and was at the time engaged to Orpen, but broke off the engagement the following year and eventually married someone else. She was the main model for Orpen’s early works. With the simple composition and sombre colours, Orpen put a focus on Emily’s face because that’s where the real drama takes place. Her face is very captivating to me and it seems to say so much. Half hidden in the shade of her lovely hat, the same hat you can see in a drawing of Emily that Orpen made in 1901, her eyes are full of doubt and slight disappointment; I feel like she’s come to the point where she doesn’t know what to do with her life and she’s staring into the grey future with worrying eyes that seem to say: and what now? Her shoulders are sloping and her hands are clasped in her laps. She is sitting there in her long black skirt and white blouse, but her thoughts are somewhere else. Cheeks of her round face are pink as roses, but her lips pressed together are hiding secrets that she is hesitant to tell us. When I look at her face, and I have gazed at it for quite some time on different occasions, the lyrics to the Pulp’s song “Monday Morning” comes to mind:

There’s nothing to do so you just stay in bed,

Oh poor thing,

Why live in the world when you can live in your head?

 

Mmm when you can go out late from Monday,

Till Saturday turns into Sunday,

And now you’re back here at Monday,

So we can do it all over again.

And you go aah ah ah

I want a refund,

I want a light,

I want a reason,

To make it through the night, alright.

 

And so you finally left school,

So now what are you going to do?

Now you’re so grown up,

Yeah you’re oh oh oh oh oh so mature oh.

William Orpen, A Study – Emily Scobel, 1901, red chalk, graphite and grey wash

This interesting red chalk study of Emily was used to illustrate an article written about Orpen in August 1901 in a magazine called “The Artist”. Not much is known about Emily, and if it wasn’t for her connection with Orpen and her modelling at the Slade School of Art, she would have probably been forgotten in history. She was born sometime in 1877 and in the 1901 UK census, she was listed as a twenty-four year old servant living in Lewisham, London, working for the Churchward family along with a girl called Mary Scobel, who was twenty-two years old at the time and possibly her sister or cousin.
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Georgia O’Keeffe – Love, Flowers and Solitude: Part II

24 Jan

In the first part of my little series, I wrote about Georgia’s early charcoal drawings, her correspondence and blooming romance with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. In this part, I will continue where I left off and focus on her fascinations with flowers.

“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus, 1939

According to Georgia, they would make love, and Stieglitz would take pictures of her afterwards. She found it difficult and tiresome to stand still for so long. Sometimes he would focus on a specific body parts such as her bosom or her pretty delicate hands. In a similar manner Georgia would later focus on the detail of something that she was painting and cropped it, particularly flowers. When I think of Georgia’s dazzling portraits of flowers, I see her as a little girl out in the meadow, running freely and led by childlike curiosity, observing them through her magnifying glass and discovering an entire new world. Georgia was just as inquisitive as Alice in Wonderland, but also a very patient person with an acute observation. She gazes at flowers, she starts understanding their language and gesture, the petals hold no more secrets to her wise eyes. Enraptured with what she had seen and discovered, Georgia takes the paint – all sorts of colours fitting for a flower – yellow, pink, red, white, blue, orange – and paints for us all that the flowers try to hide from us. Georgia applies almost Zen-like principles in her art, and life too, her focus was always on patience and observation. She says herself: “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia’s paintings of overwhelmingly large flowers confront us with something we take so little to notice or appreciate. Just think about it, how little we spend just gazing at something; meditatively gazing without anything to gain from it, without a final destination.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus with Plumeria, 1939

Georgia’s paintings of flowers are something most exquisite, no one before her painted flowers that way; huge flowers in vibrant tropical colours dominating the canvas, stretching their large petals and drawing you into their world. Fluid forms and lyrical softness are reminiscent of her early watercolours and charcoals, but the way of painting was something quite new. Inspired by Stieglitz and the photography that he introduced her to, she began painting in a very fine, precise way so that no brushstrokes are seen and the overall effect of paint on canvas is smooth. Personally, I would love to see the brushstrokes because it is like the artist is speaking to you, but perhaps without that technical segment we are able to focus on the thing Georgia is painting and not her as the creator behind it; by eliminating the heavy visible brushstrokes, she is revealing to us the flower itself, its petals, and allows it to be a world of if its own. She tricks us, feeds us illusions. Gazing at Georgia’s paintings of flowers makes me think that this is how a butterfly must feel when it lands on a flower, this is how a bumblebee must feel when he pays the beloved flower a visit and becomes one with its lush fragrant petals. We too don’t just observe Georgia’s flowers from afar, as we would a standard still life with flowers or a painting of a flowery meadow, we are engaged – we too become a part of the flower, at least for the moment. I think in some way, her paintings of flowers are really psychedelic.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Petunia and White Morning Glory, 1926

Georgia O’Keeffe, Sunflower, 1935

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Iris, 1926

Georgia O’Keeffe, Oriental Poppies, 1927

At first, I didn’t think of Georgia’s flowers as ‘romantic’ in a way Claude Monet’s flowers are, scattered in the meadow or surrounding a lady sitting in the grass, but now I am thinking: what would be more romantic than painting a flower in such an intimate way – from the point of its most ardent lover and admirer. And did the flower petals blush from too much attention when Georgia painted them?

Georgia O’Keeffe – Love, Flowers and Solitude: Part I

13 Jan

Georgia O’Keeffe is a woman I deeply admire these days. She decided she wanted to become a painter at the age of twelve, and she not only became an accomplished painter but spent nearly her entire life developing her art, constantly learning, experimenting and changing, striving to paint in a way that was completely her own, and not mimic the art that others were making around her. Hardworking and dedicated when it came to her art, O’Keeffe worked continuously every day, never waited for the perfect moment of inspiration, and rarely allowed her negative moods or emotions to rule her day or her life. She was very patient and able to gaze at something in nature, be it a flower, a cloud, a brook, then meditate over it, soak in its every last detail and then distill the essence of her experience into her artwork. This way she created abstract paintings and drawings that were inspired by what she had seen in the natural world around her, and her own visions at the same time. This is the first part of a little series I will be making about Georgia O’Keeffe, and I will focus on things which fascinated me the most about her life; her love for Stieglitz, her love of flowers and her love of solitude.

Georgia O’Keeffe photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Paintings which we today connect with Georgia O’Keeffe’s are full of colour but her early work was very different. At the academy, she painted in the realist manner which was expected of her, but privately she painted minimalist watercolours and abstract charcoal drawings which were unlike everything she had seen other artists around her painting. She was determined not to use colour until she discovers the true potential of a simple and unassuming medium such as drawing, in her own words: “I wasn’t going to use any colour until I couldn’t do what I wanted to do with charcoal or black paint.” Georgia thought that art, like music, should be inspired by nature and the real world, but separate from it and abstract in its core. She opposed copying directly what was in front of her, and her charcoals are really interesting, with repetitive shapes that seem to have been made spontaneously, without much thinking or planning before hand. Satisfied with what she has created, early in 1916, Georgia O’Keeffe sent a letter accompanied with ten of her charcoal drawings to her friend and former classmate Anita Pollitzer who then, without Georgia’s permission, proceeded to share these with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, at the time also known for being the promoter of modern art.

Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 7 Special 1915

Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 20-From Music-Special, 1915

Georgia O’Keeffe, Drawing XIII, 1915

It’s little to say that Stieglitz was captivated with what he saw; unable to utter a single word as he gazed at the drawings which seemed so fresh, exciting and new, so unlike all that he had seen before. Pollitzer wrote to Georgia about Stieglitz’s reaction: “it was a long while until his lips opened: finally a woman on paper.” Stieglitz almost instantly showed her drawing at his Midtown Manhattan art studio called “291”; the place for the scandalous and avant-garde art decades before Andy Warhol and his avant-garde at his Manhattan studio called “The Factory”. It wasn’t until May 1916 that Georgia found out that Stieglitz was showing her works at his gallery; at first she was angry about it, although she allowed the exhibition to continue, but then curiosity prevailed and she was eager to hear what it was that he loved about her drawings. From a simple letter which read: “Mr. Stieglitz, if you remember why you liked the charcoals Anita Pollitzer showed you and what they said to you, I would like to know, if you want to tell me“, they started a correspondence that lasted throughout their lives and little they knew that a seed of love was planted in those few words; love that would blossom in the years to come.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

In autumn of 1916, Georgia was teaching art at the West Texas State Normal College and living in a small town called Canyon. She wrote Stieglitz of her long walks in nature and the beauty of the night sky and stars, and she also mentioned some tall, strong and handsome young Texans. Stieglitz was more than twenty years her senior, married, although not very happily, but enjoying his life in New York City, in the bustling streets and tall skyscrapers, in the middle of a busy art community. By the end of 1916 and in the beginning of 1917, their letters were longer and of more intimate nature, they started opening up about their fears, struggles and secrets. Each letter was a little book; Stieglitz sometimes wrote to her up to three or four times a day, and Georgia said his letters would “sometimes burst open in the mail”.

Alfred Stieglitz; Georgia O’Keeffe, Hands and Breasts, 1919

They fell in love through their correspondence, and in June 1918 Georgia moved to New York City where Stieglitz provided her with a place to stay and work. He promoted her work, and in return, found in her a muse that he never had before. He took many photographs of her during their relationship, mostly lyrical nudes. On one of such photo sessions, Stieglitz’s wife Emmy walked in. She wasn’t impressed with what she had seen and demanded that he stop seeing Georgia. Completely enamored with Georgia, Stieglitz instead left his wife and the pair moved in a new flat in New York City. Days were spent in art and love. They slept separately at first but by August the passion overtook them and “they were like two teenagers in love. Several times a day they would run up the stairs to their bedroom, so eager to make love that they would start taking their clothes off as they ran.” (Richard Whelan; Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography)

Alfred Stieglitz; Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

The letters they exchanged also speak of great passion, tenderness and mutual interests that kept their relationship alive throughout the years, and they range from tender and romantic longings such as this one from Georgia’s letter to Stieglitz in May 1922: “I’ll not try to say things I can’t — you must just understand — I want to put my arms round you — kiss you — let you kiss me — it’s all very quiet — what I want is very quiet — it’s great to trust anyone enough to let them kiss you.” to those which were more passionate in nature such as this one, also written by Georgia: “Dearest — my body is simply crazy with wanting you — If you don’t come tomorrow — I don’t see how I can wait for you — I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours — the kisses — the hotness — the wetness — all melting together — the being held so tight that it hurts — the strangle and the struggle.” They married in 1924, but didn’t live together always and that’s the reason their correspondence continued even after they started living together. All together they exchanged over 5000 letters, and they never seemed to run out of things to say. Something that Stieglitz wrote to her in June 1929 struck me as very poignant and beautiful: “I’d like to die in your arms – perhaps that’s my great wish – it always was.” She indeed was with him when he died in 1946.

Marc Chagall – The Wedding Lights

27 Dec

Marc Chagall’s muse, lover, wife and a life companion Bella died on the 2nd September 1944. Chagall spent the entire autumn and winter in mourning and turned his canvases back to the wall. He only picked up his brush in moments when the birds and flowers were announcing the awakening of nature and a new spring of 1945; the spring that Bella never lived to see.

Marc Chagall, The Wedding Lights, 1945

When he returned to his studio that spring, one very large canvas that he had originally worked on in 1933 captivated him in particular. Although he’d already painted something on it, he suddenly felt inspired to cut the canvas in half and turn it into two different paintings. The right part of the original large canvas turned out to be the painting “Around Her”, seen bellow, which showed a crying figure of Bella dressed in pink and stand next to a magical ball showing their home town of Vitebsk, a bridal couple, a bird carrying a candle and an artist with his head upside down. The left part of the canvas became the painting “The Wedding Lights”. The painting has a strange, dreamy, nocturnal atmosphere of mystique and memories. A winged creature with a goat’s head is what remained from the original composition, but the somewhat cluttered and misty mood of the scene was new.

There’s a town in the distance, little houses that bring to mind Vitebsk, the place of Chagall and Bella’s first kisses and smiles, behind it a burning orange sky in sunset. A bride all in white and her chaperon are in the centre of the composition. A green cellist is slowly wandering off the canvas followed by the sounds of his melancholy notes. Space around the bride is grey and empty while she is paving way for the lightness, the same way Bella brought lightness into Chagall’s life back in 1909 when he first laid his eyes on that beautiful and demure daughter from a wealthy family. In the lower left corner another couple is hiding their love in the blue cloak of the night, sleeping on a rooster, they seem to be sinking into blueness.

Marc Chagall, Around Her, 1945

After Bella’s death, Chagall seems to be obsessively returning to the motif of lovers and bridal couples. He did paint many lovers before, usually flying in the air and often bearing resemblance to himself and Bella, but in later years the majority of his paintings feature newlyweds, dreamy and joyous, in an ambiguous space, shining with the promise of their future happiness. Physical Bella died, but in some spiritual way, she continued haunting his art, touching his canvases with her ghostly hand from the other world, her breath continued colouring his paintings in that dreamy shade of blue. Their love was love at first sight; they met in 1909 when he was twenty-two and she was fourteen, and instantly felt connection.

This is what Chagall wrote of Bella in his very dreamy and picturesque autobiography “My Life”: Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her pale colouring, her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul.” Next year, in 1910, Chagall moved to Paris because of his art and stayed there for four years. He missed her terribly while in Paris and was thinking about her day and night. Bella waited for him and in 1915 they were married. Their only child, a daughter named Ida, was born in May 1916. The title of the painting “The Wedding Lights” is a reference to her memoir called “The Burning Lights” that Bella had been writing in haste just before she died.

Jan Steen – The Lovesick Maiden

13 Dec

Today we’ll take a look at a very interesting painting from the Dutch Golden Age; “The Lovesick Maiden” by Jan Steen.

Jan Steen, The Lovesick Maiden, c. 1660

In a typical Dutch interior of the period, a pale young woman is suffering from a terrible illness, the one for which no cure has ever been found – love! She is situated in the middle of the canvas as if she was an actress playing a role on the stage. Tragedy is the genre. On her right side is her maid servant, on her left is a doctor dressed in unusual clothes. His hat in particular is strange, and look at the way the servant is eyeing him. He is checking the girl’s pulse. The setting is the girl’s bedroom, there is a bed in the background, in the left corner there are bed heaters and the girl’s appearance reveals an intimate setting; she is wearing her white linen night cap, and she only carelessly threw on her ermine trimmed little coat to keep her warm I guess, her rounded white bosom are peeking above her garish red corset. She is too in distressed to care for frivolous matters such as clothes! Too ill to care, and still too healthy she appears to be sitting there like that instead of lying in bed. And that doctor too looks too much like a comedy actor. That’s because he is a quack doctor. Next to the girl’s feet a little dog is sleeping. In the context of a love scene, a dog usually represents fidelity. What exactly is she faithful to here; to her unrequited love, or to her love sickness?

I can really imagine her thinking these thoughts from Bob Dylan’s song “Love Sick” as she is sitting there with her head on her hand, her leg raised up, her rosy cheeks and her furrowed brow, half-lamenting and half-sulking:

Did I hear someone tell a lie?
Did I hear someone’s distant cry?
I spoke like a child; you destroyed me with a smile
While I was sleeping

I’m sick of love but I’m in the thick of it
This kind of love I’m so sick of it….

I’m sick of love; I hear the clock tick
This kind of love; I’m love sick

Sometimes the silence can be like the thunder
Sometimes I feel like I’m being plowed under
Could you ever be true? I think of you
And I wonder

I’m sick of love; I wish I’d never met you
I’m sick of love; I’m trying to forget you

Just don’t know what to do
I’d give anything to be with you

Decades before this was painted, in 1610, the French physician Jacques Ferrard published a study of this “disease of the fantasy”, named “Of Lovesickness or Erotic Melancholy: A Scientific Discourse that teaches how to know the essence, causes, signs, and remedies of this disease of the fantasy“. Here he names the symptoms of this illness that this Jan Steen’s pale girl which also have: “Lovesickness gives rise to a pale and wan complexion, joined by a slow fever that modern practitioners call amorous fever, to palpitations of the heart, swelling of the face, depraved appetite, a sense of grief, sighing, causeless tears, insatiable hunger, raging thirst, fainting, oppressions, suffocations, insomnia, headaches, melancholy, epilepsy, madness, uterine fury, satyriasis, and other pernicious symptoms that are, for the most part, without mitigation or cure other than through the established medical remedies for love and erotic melancholy… These symptoms of disease have caused many to believe that love is a kind of poison that is generated within the body itself…” (quote found here.)

Jan Steen, Physician’s Visit, 1660

In this painting, a sculpture of Cupid in the shadowy upper left corner, above the doors which lead into the outdoors stands as a symbol of love that is tormenting her. This is however just one painting in a row; Jan Steen made an entire series of paintings that portray love as an illness and a doctor as a quack. It was a comedy genre beloved in his time and especially in his home town of Leiden because the Leiden University produced many fine doctors in the country. Here is another example that he made, the same year in fact, called “The Physician’s Visit”. In this example, the painting of Venus and Adonis on the wall tell us that Steen’s girl is suffering from lovesickness. The physician is feeling her pulse because that was a way of knowing whether the patient suffers from the “erotic melancholy”. The illness could also be detected through the urine, and we can see that the maid is holding an urine bottle. Also, the little boy in the left corner is a Cupid dressed in contemporary costume, ready to shot his arrow.

Apart from doing mischief, Cupid was especially fond of idleness and even in the Ancient times Ovid wrote how avoiding idleness makes you immune to Cupid’s arrows. During the Renaissance it was thought that idleness in fact triggers erotic melancholy. “In “L’Antidote d’amour”, Jean Aubery delineates the “particular dispositions” that make one susceptible to passion and thus to love-sickness. Chief among these are idleness, youth, luxury, and springtime. When all of these factors are present, passion is inevitable. Why are artisans and laborers exempt from erotic melancholy, even during springtime and even if they are young? Because, the author concludes, they know neither luxury nor idleness.” (Virginia Krause; “Idle Pursuits: Literature and Oisiveté in the French Renaissance”)

If Steen’s lovesick maidens had been doing their embroidery regularly or had other occupations, they might have avoided the trap of pining and yearning. All in all, these painting are comedies of love and everyday life and the possible buyer most likely had a good sense of humor.

Fragonard and Goya: The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure?

9 Dec

Jean-Honore Fragonard, A Game of Hot Cockles, 1775

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a master when it came to turning fantasies into realities, in the realm of his canvas at least, he wasn’t a magician or a magic fairy. Fragonard, a pupil of Boucher, brought elegance and youthful playfulness into Francois Boucher’s sumptuous and slightly erotic compositions. Whereas Boucher intertwined mythological scenes with the unrestrained lives of the wealthy nobility, Fragonard painted worlds which are neither real nor mythological, but his own dreamy havens. His is the world where love never dies and sun never sets. The painting “A Game of Hot Cockles” isn’t even the finest example, his series called “Progress of Love” is the height of romantic escapism in that fanciful kingdom of love and dreams.

In the painting above the figures occupy just a small portion of the canvas, while the tall trees stretch on and on. He paints trees in a variety of shades, from the warm green-yellowish leaves in the foreground to the gentle hazy blue-greens in the background. The mysterious park is like a theatre stage where games take place. The inspiration for the dazzling landscapes in the background of his painting came from his travel to Rome in 1756, and so does the vibrant colour palette. In contrast to the greenness, the figures are dressed in vibrant jewel coloured clothes; ruby red, sapphire blue, amber yellow, pink as rose quartz.

Detail of Fragonard’s painting

In a dreamy park surrounded by woods a dreamy group of silk-clad figures are enjoying their leisure time and playing a game, and not just any game, but a very Rococo one called “game of hot cockles” which was a popular game for the Christmas time even in the nineteenth century. The game includes one person placing their head in someone’s lap while a third person is hitting their bottom, and the person has to guess who spanked them. A man had a unique opportunity to place their head in a pretty woman’s laps, and ladies had a chance to do the same. Such a silly and naughty game with an erotic undertone instantly became a hit with the indolent French nobility. One could intentionally name the wrong person so that this “wicked game” continues. The group is playing the game, but what are the lady in a red dress and the man in blue doing in the far left corner? Perhaps he’s telling her ‘Hey, I would like to spank you, but it needn’t be part of the game.’ To which she disapprovingly replies ‘Oh, please, can’t you see my dog is listening’.

Lyrics from the Gang of Four’s song ‘Natural’s not in it’ come to mind:

“The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
Ideal love a new purchase
A market of the senses….
Renounce all sin and vice
Dream of the perfect life
This heaven gives me migraine”

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Blind Man’s Buff (La Gallina Ciega), 1788

The works that Goya is known for today, the imaginative, but dark and disturbing “Los Caprichos” are in the start contrast to his earlier works painted for the court. “Blind Man’s Buff” belongs to Goya’s court phase or his Rococo phase. Both the theme and the colour palette are lighter, and he was influenced by Watteau in this period. It is part of the series that Goya painted for the Royal Palace of El Pardo in Madrid. The painting shows a group of young people playing the game of blind man’s buff.

The man in the middle is blindfolded and trying to touch the other players with a long wooden spoon. I remember playing that game when I was little, but we never used a spoon, how funny! One man, the one on the right, is dressed in an elegant French attire while the other three men and the women are all showing off their vibrant Spanish costumes which they chose to wear in order to emphasise their nationality and culture. In this detail you can see the wonderful vibrant colours, that red and that yellow are so eye catching! It all looks so dreamy and naive, which goes in tune with the spirit of Rococo and its never ending pursuit of pleasure and love for enjoying life.

The Straw Manikin (La Marioneta) by Francisco Goya, 1791-92

Here is another painting from the same royal series by Goya, painted a bit later though, called “The Straw Manikin”. I already wrote about it here. Times are getting darker and Rococo is in demise, and here an innocent outdoor game is taking a twisted touch. Girls are throwing a straw doll in the air, but look at his face expression; so passive, so resigned, they can do whatever they want with him. He is powerless in the hands of females.

Oskar Kokoschka – The Bride of the Wind

26 Nov

And you held me, my love, and then went on dreaming.
Of perhaps a different kind of death.

Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride of the Wind (or The Tempest), 1914

In nervous, swirling and frantic brushstrokes Kokoschka painted two lovers lying side by side in a sad embrace. The woman is asleep, her eyes are peacefully closed and while she is sailing the seas of dreams, unaware of the shadows of reality that grow bigger with each passing hour of the night, the man is awake. His deep set eyes gaze into the void, his cheeks are hollow, his fingers ugly and twisted, his chin protruding, his skin taunted over his bones; he might as well be a skeleton already. While their bodies are painted in quick nervous strokes of white colour with dashes of yellow and blue the abstract space around them is made out of swirls of black and midnight blue. The blueness of the space around them might, in different circumstances, lead us to thoughts of something spiritual and serene, a vast blue sky or a calm sea, but his frantic brush strokes have dismissed such thoughts. It’s difficult, or rather impossible to determine the setting, for the whole space appears to us like a nihilistic swamp of darkness and despair; it’s a world from a dark dream, a nightmare, a premonition of the future, a scream from the bottom of one’s being.

The painting allegorically represents the painter and his beloved Alma Mahler who was at the time his lover and the wife of the composer Gustav Mahler. They are carried by strong gusts of wind, but it isn’t the wind of passion that carried Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s hell, but the wind of anxiety, uncertainty and the futility of everything. Oskar Kokoschka was a representative of the Viennese Expressionism and this catastrophic vision of the world and the future is typically Expressionistic. The same dreary mood fills his portraits which all have a psychological aspect to them and look as if they were made out of mud and tears, and is similar to painting of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s paintings with urban mood of alienation and premonitions of catastrophe that the World War One was about to bring. Expressionistic art was a whirlwind of colours and screams created from the nervous energy of the antebellum period, and although many artists shared the sentiment, none experienced it so deeply and profoundly as the artists who were the closest to the fire, that is those who lived in the Austria-Hungarian Empire; Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, poets Georg Trakl and August Stramm, Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and many other across the vast decaying empire.

So, the painting is infused with his personal torments or life and love, and fragile nature of both, but at the same time it hold a deeper meaning because it perfectly represents the changing times and the political and cultural changes that were taking place. The painting mirrors the uncertainties that the future beholds; both the fleeting nature of love and passion, and the political instability that affects everyone. Here is a poem called “With Your Right Hand on my Neck” by a Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti that seems to fit the mood of Kokoschka’s painting and also mingles the themes of love and death:

With your right hand on my neck, I lay next to

you last night,

and since the day’s woes still pained me, I did

not ask you to take it away,

but listened to the blood coursing through your

arteries and veins,

Then finally around twelve sleep overcame me,

as sudden and guileless as my sleep so long ago,

when in the downy time of my youth it rocked

me gently.

You tell me it was not yet three when I was

startled awake

and sat up terrified and screaming.

muttering strange and unintelligible words,

then spread out my arms like a bird ruffled with

fear

flapping its wings as a dark shadow flutters

through the garden.

Tell me, where was I going? And what kind of

death had frightened me so?

And you held me, my love, as I sat up half-asleep,

then lay back in silence, wondering what paths

and horrors awaited me.

And then went on dreaming. Of perhaps a

different kind of death.

During the process of painting this painting, the poet Georg Trakl had a habit of visiting the artist almost daily and he composed this poem called “The Night” directly inspired by the painting:

Over nocturnal dark floods
I sing my sad songs,
Songs which bleed like wounds.
However, no heart carries them to me again
Through the darkness.

Only the nocturnal dark floods
Rush, sob my songs,
Songs which bleed from wounds,
They carry them to my heart again
Through the darkness.