Tag Archives: Paris

Constantin Guys – A Grisette and Other Watercolours

19 Sep

M.C.G.[Monsieur Constantin Guys]loves mixing with the crowds, loves being incognito, and carries his originality to the point of modesty.” 

(Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life)

Constantin Guys, A Grisette, 1859, Pen and ink with ink and watercolor washes on wove paper

These watercolours and drawings by Constantin Guys have caught my attention these days. I just love how brilliantly they capture the vibrant and busy social life of the mid-nineteenth century rich and posh Parisians. Guys is almost like a precursor to a paparazzi, capturing every move, every laughter, every nuance of what is going on. These works were mostly made during the Second French Empire times; from 1852 to 1870, and lucky for us viewers, those decades were the decades of the sumptous and extravagant fashion for women, mostly because of the crinoline which made the skirts excessively wide thus making the women look like giant lotus flowers walking around. These sketchy and quick yet so vivid and detailed pen and ink drawings with watercolour washes give us a sneak peek into the era that is gone by. But Guys doesn’t just paint the wealthy ladies. His drawing of a grisette from 1859 can vauch for that. A grisette is a flirtatious coquettish working class woman. Guys stunningly captures the flounces of her dress and the way he painted the black fabric makes it appear like waves on the dark waters of Venice. His use of blue is equally thrilling in the drawing “Leaving the theatre”. Guys seems always to be walking on the tightrope between sketchiness and brimming with details.

I imagine these ladies and gentlemen are the characters from Gautier’s stories, from Chopin’s concerts, maybe one of these beauties is the fatal mistress of Mr Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, stepping out of the carriage and giving a kiss to her other lover while Mr Rochester awaits her on the balcony, hidden by the roses, heartbroken and disappointed. I imagine these are the kind of ladies that Balzac wrote about in Father Goriot, the kind of ladies who know every little gossip and secret of Parisian budoirs and bedroom, they are the flies on every wall and no one is safe from their watchful eye. But little do they know that all along Monsieur Guys is gandering at them from afar, his eyes catching scenes like the camera, his hand drawing on its own. It is for a reason that the decadent poet Charles Baudelaire called him “the painter of modern life” in his essay of the same-name. In that essay he especially praises Guy’s endless curiosity about life and the world around him, the same curiosity that children have and which makes them ecstatic about everything. This curiosity, tied with perceptiveness, artistic skill and a flaneur lifestyle make Guys the brilliant painter that he was. Here are some interesting passages from Baudelaire’s essay:

“Today I want to talk to my readers about a singular man, whose originality is so powerful and clear-cut that it is self-sufficing, and does not bother to look for approval. None of his drawings is signed, if by signature we mean the few letters, which can be so easily forged, that compose a name, and that so many other artists grandly inscribe at the bottom of their most carefree sketches. But all his works are signed with his dazzling soul, and art-lovers who have seen and liked them will recognize them easily from the description I propose to give of them.

Constantin Guys, Leaving the Theatre, 1852, Pen and brown ink, brush and black, gray, red, blue, and yellow wash

M. C. G. [Monsieur Constantin Guys] loves mixing with the crowds, loves being incognito, and carries his originality to the point of modesty. (…) when he heard that I was proposing to make an assessment of his mind and talent, he begged me, in a most peremptory manner, to suppress his name, and to discuss his works only as though they were the works of some anonymous person. I will humbly obey this odd request. (…) M. G. is an old man. Jean-Jacques began writing, so they say, at the age of forty-two. Perhaps it was at about that age that M. G., obsessed by the world of images that filled his mind, plucked up courage to cast ink and colours on to a sheet of white paper. To be honest, he drew like a barbarian, like a child, angrily chiding his clumsy fingers and his disobedient tool. I have seen a large number of these early scribblings, and I admit that most of the people who know what they are talking about, or who claim to, could, without shame, have failed to discern the latent genius that dwelt in these obscure beginnings.

Constantin Guys, Two Gentlemen and a Lady, n.d., Pen and brown ink, brush and brown, green and blue wash, over graphite; touches of red chalk

Today, M. G., who has discovered unaided all the little tricks of the trade, and who has taught himself, without help or advice, has become a powerful master in his own way; of his early artlessness he has retained only what was needed to add an unexpected spice to his abundant gift. When he happens upon one of these efforts of his early manner, he tears it up or burns it, with a most amusing show of shame and indignation. In this context, pray interpret the word ‘artist’ in a very narrow sense, and the expression ‘man of the world’ in a very broad one. By ‘man of the world’, I mean a man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and legitimate reasons behind all its customs; by ‘artist’, I mean a specialist, a man tied to his palette like a serf to the soil. M. G. does not like being called an artist. Is he not justified to a small extent?

He takes an interest in everything the world over, he wants to know, understand, assess everything that happens on the surface of our spheroid. (…) With two or three exceptions, which it is unnecessary to name, the majority of artists are, let us face it, very skilled brutes, mere manual labourers, village pub-talkers with the minds of country bumpkins. (…)  Thus to begin to understand M. G., the first thing to note is this: that curiosity may be considered the starting point of his genius.

Constantine Guys, Reception, 1847, Pen and brown ink with brush and watercolor, over graphite, on ivory laid paper

Do you remember a picture (for indeed it is a picture!) written by the most powerful pen of this age and entitled The Man of the Crowd? Sitting in a café, and looking through the shop window, a convalescent is enjoying the sight of the passing crowd, and identifying himself in thought with all the thoughts that are moving around him. He has only recently come back from the shades of death and breathes in with delight all the spores and odours of life; as he has been on the point of forgetting everything, he remembers and passionately wants to remember everything. In the end he rushes out into the crowd in search of a man unknown to him whose face, which he had caught sight of, had in a flash fascinated him. Curiosity had become a compelling, irresistible passion.

Now imagine an artist perpetually in the spiritual condition of the convalescent, and you will have the key to the character of M. G. But convalescence is like a return to childhood. The convalescent, like the child, enjoys to the highest degree the faculty of taking a lively interest in things, even the most trivial in appearance. Let us hark back, if we can, by a retrospective effort of our imaginations, to our youngest, our morning impressions, and we shall recognize that they were remarkably akin to the vividly coloured impressions that we received later on after a physical illness, provided that illness left our spiritual faculties pure and unimpaired. The child sees everything as a novelty; the child is always ‘drunk’. Nothing is more like what we call inspiration than the joy the child feels in drinking in shape and colour.

Constantin Guys, Meeting in the Park, 1860, Pen and brown ink, brush and gray, blue, and black wash

I will venture to go even further and declare that inspiration has some connection with congestion, that every sublime thought is accompanied by a more or less vigorous nervous impulse that reverberates in the cerebral cortex. (…) But genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed. To this deep and joyful curiosity must be attributed that stare, animal-like in its ecstasy, which all children have when confronted with something new, whatever it may be, face or landscape, light, gilding, colours, watered silk, enchantment of beauty, enhanced by the arts of dress.”

Miroslav Kraljević – Olympia (Homage to Manet)

15 Sep

A few months ago I wrote a post about the Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević’s Parisian phase (1911-12) and today let us take a look at one particular painting from that phase called “Olympia” (1912). It is a direct homage to Edouard Manet’s controversial female nude “Olympia” (1863). Decades later, a painter from a provincial Austro-Hungary (now modern Croatia) had been so inspired by Manet’s painting that he had to paint his rendition of it. This just goes to show the immense influence of Manet on modern art.

Miroslav Kraljević, (Great Female Nude) Olympia, 1912

In 1911, after having spent awhile studying abroad in Munich where he had encountered the newest trends in art, the Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević was back home in a town called Požega. In the peaceful and idylic small-town environment, Kraljević painted many self-portraits and landscapes, but still he was restless, perhaps slightly claustrophobic as well, and there was something his heart desired, a shiny red apple of sin he wanted to grab from the branch and sink his teeth into; Paris, with its vivacity, art, and the bright lights. He turned his fantasies into a reality in September 1911 when he travelled to Paris; the it place for an artist. He had been looking forward to seeing the works of the finest French painters, especially those of Edouard Manet. Apart from museums and galleries, Kraljević visited parks, cafes, bistroes and infamous places such as Moulin Rouge. As appropriate for the city he found himself in, his favourite motif in his Parisian phase was – the woman, more often than not nude or wearing very little clothes. And of course, as a hommage to his idol, Kraljević painted his own “Olympia” in 1912.

Female nude has been a popular motif in art for a long time, but when Edouard Manet painted his nude Olympia, it was seen as brash and shocking to the audience and critics. Why? Well, firstly because Manet didn’t bother to dress his painting up in mythology and allegory, and secondly because of the manner in which he painted her; realistic rather than idealised and highly eroticised. Inspired by Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” (1532-34), Manet’s Olympia is visibly less sensuous and inviting. She looks like a dull, flat, paper doll. In fact, she looks uninterested, as if she’s saying “oh, it’s you again, ah well…” Olympia isn’t a Roman goddess that every man would desire, she is a realistic looking courtesan that was well-known to Parisian men of the upper classes. Manet stirred the waters of Parisian society by directly pointing out the hypocrisy and serving some hot realism on a platter.

Kraljević’s Olympia is equally pale and uninterested, looking directly in the viewer, without a trace of shame or shyness. She doesn’t have a waterfall of long, golden hair to sensually cover her nudity like a Baroque martyr would. Nope, she is flaunting her body, but, just like Manet’s Olympia, she is wearing dainty slippers; God forbid some madman with a foot fetish gets a thrill from looking at her feet, oh no. Kraljević painted her pale flesh in the same way he had approached his earlier portraits, with more visible brushstrokes and a sense of volume than Manet had done it. Around her are a few vibrant coloured cushions and we can see a bouquet of purple flowers on the right, echoing the flowers that the servant is presenting to Olympia, most likely a gift from a client. Colours in Kraljević’s painting are more warm and muted, which makes it seem more like a budoir scene whereas Manet’s painting shows Olympia as a doll in the shop-window. I wonder what Manet would have thought of this homage?…

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

Pablo Picasso – At the Lapin Agile

20 Jul

I am not a big fan of Picasso’s art or persona, but recently I discovered some of the paintings from his early period which I quite liked. The air of fin de siecle is still present in these early paintings and one can observe the influence of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Pablo Picasso, At the Lapin Agile, 1905

Painting “At the Lapin Agile” shows an interior of the cabaret club called “Lapin Agile” in Montmarte. A drunken, brooding harlequin clad in earthy tones in the foreground, a humble-looking guitarist in brown in the background; the two figures show the artist and the owner of the club, Frédéric Gérard. The harlequin, a motif borrowed from the eighteenth century masters such as Antoine Watteau and Goya, has lost his cheerfulness and vibrancy over the centuries. Frédéric’s guitar instantly brings to mind the wistful sounds of Francesco Tarrega’s guitar. Between two men we see a female figure that could have been transported from some seedy cabaret scene painted by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec just a decade earlier. The woman is Germaine Pichot. Just four years earlier she had been pursued relentlessly by Picasso’s best friend Carles Casagemas, a mad and passionate Catalan poet and painter who shot himself in front of Germaine in February 1901. Casagemas’ death kickstarted Picasso’s blue period, filled with sorrowful figures and dominated by the shades of blue. After exhausting his feelings of saddness and loss Picasso’s palettes drifted in landscapes painted in warm tones of pink, orange, red and brown; this was his Rose Period. The white pallor of the woman’s skin contrasts with her blood-red lips. Her face seen in profile is traced in a thick black line. She is looking in the distance. All three characters in the club are physically close to one another but distant in spirit. Everyone is lost in their own thoughts, everyone is thinking about their own problems. Visually the scene brings to mind Toulouse-Lautrec’s cabaret scenes, but the mood of the painting embodies Vincent van Gogh’s saying that a café is a place where one can ruin oneself or commit a crime. The colour palette of earthy, heavy, murky shades of brown and red contributes to the mood. The harlequin looks quite miserable and perhaps even misanthropic. Even though Picasso was devastated after the loss of his friend, it still didn’t stop him from pursuing romance with Germaine and yet, in the painting, she looks like a stranger to him. The harlequin’s face is turned away from both the woman and the guitarist, and instead he chose to reveal his face expression to us, allowing us to read it as if it were a book of emotions. Picasso was commissioned to paint this painting by the owner of the club, in exchange for food, and it is interesting that he chose to place himself in the foreground of the painting. Typical Picasso, wanting to be in the centre of everything.

Greuze and Diderot – Innocence Lost

27 Jun

My friend, you are laughing at me! You are making fun of a serious person who presently is consoling the child in a painting who has lost her bird, or the loss of anything that you wish? Can you see how beautiful she is! How interesting she is! I hate to trouble her.

(Diderot)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Young Girl Grieving Over Her Dead Bird, 1765

It is no secret that I have a soft spot in my heart for the wistful, pale, delicate and gentle ingénues that inhabit the canvases of Jean-Baptist Greuze. This eighteenth century painter is often overlooked and misunderstood, his paintings are often brushed off as sentimental and silly which is not true. Although, ironically, these paintings are the embodiment of the spirit that swept Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century: the Sentimetalism; a movement that emphasises the emotional appeal of art over cold reason and logic. Greuze’s girls have a way of moving the viewer and making him sympathise with their sorrow. In some paintings, the girl’s eyes are large and turned upwards, expressing sorrow and yearning, and other times, their face expressions are almost blank, and they captivate the viewer because we want to know the secret behind their face expression. The sweet oval face of the girl with a broken pitcher seems expressionless, and yet the aura around her is tinged with melancholy.

One such viewer who was very moved by a particular Greuze’s painting was the writer, philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot, who, I must add, also wrote the wonderful novel “The Nun”. On the salon of 1765, Diderot saw Greuze’s painting “The Young Girl Grieving Over Her Dead Bird”; an oval portrait of a girl lamenting the death of her beloved little bird. The girl is dressed in white, as Greuze’s girls usually are. The life of the pretty white bird surrounded by blue flowers is gone – never to be returned. Still, the subject of a painting isn’t as simple as it seems at first sight. It isn’t just about the dead bird, just as it is not about the broken eggs and broken mirrors and broken pitchers; these are the motives that you will see in the paintings bellow. Different motives here serve as metaphors that the viewers of the time surely understood. Diderot and some other critics saw these paintings as symbolic representations of the loss of innocence; a motif which had a great appeal to the buyers and collectors at the time. I can just imagine one of these girls as Marquis de Sade’s Justine, naive and easily exploited and abandoned, just like the girl in the painting “The Complaint of the Watch”; I already wrote a post about that painting which you can read here.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Dead Bird, 1800

Diderot, who was a friend of Greuze and loved his art, wrote a lenghtly monologue about the girl and the dead bird in his critic of the Salon of 1765 and here is what he wrote:

When one sees this piece, one says: Delightful! If one stops, or that one returns, one says Delightful! delightful! Soon one is surprised to find oneself speaking to the child, consoling her. This is so true that this is what I remember saying to her at dif-ferent times. “But my little one, your pain is very deep and thoughtful! What does this dreamy sadness mean! What! For a bird! You aren’t crying, you are deeply wounded; and the thoughts carry your wounds. There my little friend, open your heart, open up your heart to me; tell me the truth, is it really the death of this bird that forces you to retreat into yourself? You’ve lowered your eyes; you’re not answering me. Your tears are ready to flow. I am not a father; I am neither indiscreet nor punishing… Ah! So, I realize that he loved you, he swore his love to you and he swore it a long time ago. He suffered a great deal: the way to see suffering of those we love… Let me continue; why are you closing my mouth with your hand? … Unfortunately, that morning your mother was absent. He came; you were alone; he was so handsome, so passionate, so tender, so charming! He had so much love in his eyes! So much truth in his expressions! He spoke those words that go straight to the heart! And while saying them, he was on his knees: I can still believe it. He held one of your hands; from time to time you felt the warmth of some tears which fell from your eyes and which ran the length of your arms.

Greuze, The Complaint of the Watch, 1770

Still your mother did not return. It is not your fault; it your mother’s fault… He doesn’t want your pretty tears… But what I am saying to you is not to make you cry. Why are you crying? He made you a promise; he will not allow anything to happen to what he promised you. When one has been given the happiness to meet a charming child like you, and become one, so as to please him; it is for life…- and my bird?…- You smile”. (Oh! My friend, how pretty she is! Oh if you only could have seen how she laughed and cried!). I went on. “So! As for your bird! When one loses oneself, does one remember one’s bird? When it came time for your mother to return, the one you loved left. How happy he was, contented, and transported; how difficult it was for him to tear himself away from you! How you stare at me! I know all this. How many times he stood to leave and sat down again! How many times he said goodbye without leaving. How many times did he go only to return! I just saw him at his father’s: he is overwhelmingly happy, a happiness in which everyone participates, without putting up any resistance….”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Broken Eggs, 1756

“And my mother? – Your mother? He had just left when she returned; she found you entranced, as you were a little while ago. One is always that way. Your mother was speaking to you, and you were not listening to what she was saying; she told you to do one thing and you did another. A few tears welled in the corners of your eyes; or you held them back, or you turned your head away to wipe them away furtively. Your unending daydreams made your mother impatient, and she scolded you and that gave you the opportunity to cry without restraint and to relieve your heart… Shall I continue, my dear? I fear that what I will say will continue your pain. You want me to? Your mother was upset with herself for making you unhappy; she came to you and took your hands, she kissed your forehead and cheeks, and you cried even more.”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Head of a Young Woman, c 1780s

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Mirror, 1763

“Your head fell onto her and your face which continued to blush, there just as it is doing now, was hidden in hers. How many calming things your mother said to you, and how much these kind words hurt! Furthermore your canary wanted to screech, to warn you, to call you, to bat its wings, to complain of your forgetfulness, you didn’t see him, you didn’t hear him; you were thinking other thoughts. His water or feed went unfilled and this morning the bird was no more… You are still staring at me; is there anything left for me to say? Oh, I hear, my sweet thing; that bird, it is he who gave him to you; oh well, he will find another just as beautiful… That is not all: your eyes are fixed on me, and are filling again with tears; what else is there? Speak I can’t guess…- What insanity. Don’t worry about anything, my poor girl; it can’t be; it won’t be!”

Greuze, The Broken Pitcher, 1771

What! My friend, you are laughing at me! You are making fun of a serious person who presently is consoling the child in a painting who has lost her bird, or the loss of anything that you wish? Can you see how beautiful she is! How interesting she is! I hate to trouble her. In spite of that, it will not displease me to be the cause of her pain.The subject of this poem is so refined, that many have not heard it; they thought that this young girl was crying because of the canary. Greuze has already painted the same subject; he had placed a tall girl in white satin in front of a cracked mirror who appeared deeply saddened. Do you think that there will be as much gossip spoken about the young girl and her tears at the loss of a bird, than the sadness of the girl in the broken mirror in the last Salon? I am telling you that this child is crying over a different cause. First, you heard her, she agrees and her thoughtful pain says the rest. This pain! At her age and for a bird…

Miroslav Kraljević – Paris Years (1911-1912)

16 May

Miroslav Kraljević, Rest, 1912

In September 1911 a young Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević arrived in Paris; the city which lured artists from all over Europe and gave them all a welcoming embrace. He settled in a little studio in Montparnasse; the same place where painters such as Modigliani, Foujita, Chaim Soutine and Marc Chagall lived and worked. In his vibrant and poetic autobiography Chagall describes artists of many different nationalities and  speaking all different languages painted in studios just nearby his. Miroslav Kraljević was just another stranger in the city of art. Although his stay in Paris was very brief; he had returned to his dear homeland in November 1912, the year and two months that he spent there marked the most exciting and daring phase in his career, and also the final one. He died in April 1913 from an illness; he was only twenty-seven years old.

The paintings, watercolours and sketches he created in Paris were an explosion of his creativity and even though some of his friends in Paris, fellow Croatians, had doubts about his work being well-received in artistically conservative Croatia (still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time), the critics in Croatia praised his work for being a true testimony to the spirit of modernism in Croatia. In his short life and short career, Kraljević had gone through many art transformation and his work exhibits many different influences; from that of Edouard Manet and old Spanish painters, to that of Cezanne’s paintings made in Provence, drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, Henri Valloton, paintings of Henri Forain and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Kraljević’s pastel titled “Rest” from 1912 beautifully shows how the painter was inspired by the art of Toulouse-Lautrec. A woman is seen resting, lying on the bed with her legs in over-the-knee black stockings dangling over the bed. Her beautifully shaped body dressed in a grey dress seems almost lifeless, and her eyes, looking in a distant spot on the ceiling, add to the eeriness. Her pose and her garments are something that Toulouse-Lautrec would have certainly approved of. I love how the grey colour of her dress almost transcends into soft lavender shades. There is also an exciting contrast between the sketchy part of the drawing and the beautifully painted arms and torso where Kraljević achieved the illusion of volume.

Miroslav Kraljević, Apres, 1912

Another pastel, “Apres”, shows a very similar theme; the woman lying on the sofa, again wearing black stockings, but this time nude, is seen covering her face and perhaps her blushing cheeks. Maybe she is hiding from the painter’s gaze. Again, I love the contrast between sketchy and finished. A very different work from Paris is the watercolour “In the Cafe” which shows a man and a woman, both elegantly dressed, sitting in the Parisian cafe. The contrast of he woman’s very pale face and her dark blue coat is very striking.

Even though Kraljević’s paintings such as these were almost scandalously modern and free-spirited for the art circles of the provincial Croatia, his style was actually lagging behind the art trends. In spirit, Kraljević was a man of the fin de siecle; he loved women, female beauty and perfume, eroticism; he was moody, nervous and had frail nerves, he was an aesthete, a follower of the cult of Beauty to the very end. Even on his deathbed he asked for champagne and a comb so he could, quoting him, “die beautifully and – die beautiful”. The soft curves of the female body were dearer to him than rectangles of Cubism, the golden glow of streetlamps and carriages more appealing to him than the speed and ugliness of modern life.

His love of the very recent past (at the time) was equaled with his faithful love for his homeland, it was almost a romantic and sentimental attachment to the meadows and hillsides of his country, even the streets of Zagreb were dearer to him that those of Paris. He was a man who had narrowly missed out on the age which suited his spirit more and, disappointed like a person who’s train had just left the station without him, Kraljević worked with an almost frantic determination and neuroticism, desperately trying to make up for lost times. His fire developed quickly and was extinguished equally so. In some symbolic way, his death in 1913 is very fitting because it is the year just before the First World War had started, it marked the end of an era.

Miroslav Kraljević, In the Cafe, 1912

Alfons Karpinski – Jane With a Japanese Doll

5 May

Alfons Karpinski (1875-1961), Jane avec une Poupée Japonaise, 1909

I discovered this painting a few months ago and hesitated for some time before deciding to write about it, for I felt I had nothing much to say, but something just keeps luring me to gaze at it again and again…

Alfons Karpiński was a Polish painter, born in 1875, who studied in Krakow at the School of Fine Arts from 1891 to 1895, then in Munich from 1903 to 1907, and then he traveled to the city for artists at the time: Paris. Painting “Jane with a Japanese Doll” shows Karpiński’s favourite motif to paint: a beautiful woman. The closely cropped composition and the intimate, sensual mood is what instantly appeals to me in this painting and the scene also brings to mind the sensual scenes of Fragonard and Boucher. The model for the painting was a Parisian girl called Jane and this isn’t the only time Karpiński had painted her. Jane is dressed in her undergarments with pretty pink bows, over the knee stockings and brown boots; part of her little boot and her shoulder are cut off and overall little is seen of the space around her, only a floral wallpaper and a hint of the doors. Jane seems almost unaware of the artist’s presence or his inspecting gaze that is slowly transforming her from a vision before him to a painting on canvas. One gaze, one brushstroke and reality is turning into art. I can imagine her dangling her legs with nonchalance, but don’t let this nonchalance fool you; she knows very well she is the muse about to be captured for eternity. I just love how simultaneously she is the centre of the painting, the centre of the painter’s vision, and yet, at the same time she is amused by something else, playing with a Japanese doll, lost in her thoughts, aware of her loveliness yet completely nonchalant about it; she doesn’t even gaze at us.

The angle of the painting, the casually dressed lady and the soft, sensual and intimate mood all reminds me of the many 1970s photographs I’ve seen, especially those by the notorious David Hamilton. In my mind, this could be sweet Jane Birkin, coyly playing with a Japanese doll and singing a song in French with her cute accent…. Bellow you can see another portrait he painted of her in 1908, not as interesting as “Jane with a Japanese Doll” but certainly the blue and white stripes are visually exciting.

Alfons Karpinski, Model Jane, 1908

Van Gogh and Hiroshige: Plum Blossoms and Pink Skies

12 Mar

“Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers? And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”

Hiroshige, Plum Park in Kameido, 1857

This beautiful scene of an orchard in bloom, “Plum Park in Kameido”, is probably the most famous print made by the Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige in 1857. It is the thirtieth print from the collection of 119 ukiyo-e prints “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” which were mostly done by Hiroshige and, after Hiroshige’s death in 1858, the rest of the prints were done by his successor Hiroshige II. Around ten thousand copies were made of each of these prints and after Japan reopened to the West in 1853 these prints travelled even to France where painters such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and many, many other painters got their hands on them and used them as inspiration. Vincent van Gogh not only took inspiration from these prints, but also made copies. In many of his letters, Vincent mentions his love for Japan and ukiyo-e prints, here is an example, from a letter to his brother Theo, 23 or 24 September 1888:

If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass.

But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.

Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?

And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention. (…) I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I have that, I’ll be able to do people strolling along the boulevards, the streets, a host of new subjects.

Vincent van Gogh, Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige), 1887

Since we are now in the time of the year when the white and pink blossoms are starting to adorn the sad and bare three branches, these paintings have been on my mind. Van Gogh painted a copy of Hiroshige’s “Plum Park in Kameido” sometime in September or October 1887 whilst he was still in Paris. As you can see, Hiroshige used a very interesting perspective here and the entire plum orchard in bloom is seen through the tree branches of the plum tree in the foreground. The plum tree in the foreground is very cheekily obscuring our view, as if we are gazing at something forbidden, something mysterious on the other side of the fence. In the background, many plum trees in bloom are painted. In Van Gogh’s copy the tree tops of those plum trees in the background are especially dreamy, they look like soft, yellowish clouds, and the gradation of that yellowish-white colour to the red of the sky is quite exquisite. The grass of the orchard is a flat green surface with almost no visible brushstrokes. Van Gogh usually loved layers of colour and rough brushstrokes, but here he was inspired by the flatness of Hiroshige’s print and tried to mimic it.

Vincent van Gogh, View of Arles with Trees in Blossom (Orchard in Bloom with View of Arles), 1889

Vincent van Gogh, The Flowering Orchard, 1888

And to end, here are two more van Gogh’s paintings of orchards in a Japanese style and another excerpt from Vincent’s letter, this time to Emile Bernard, which mentions his love for Japanese art, written in Arles, on Sunday 18 March 1888:

My dear Bernard,

Having promised to write to you, I want to begin by telling you that this part of the world seems to me as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay colour effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes, as we see it in the Japanese prints. Pale orange sunsets making the fields look blue — glorious yellow suns. (…) Perhaps there’d be a real advantage in emigrating to the south for many artists in love with sunshine and colour. The Japanese may not be making progress in their country, but there’s no doubt that their art is being carried on in France.

Jean-Louis Forain – Ballerinas and Their Admirers

22 Feb

Jean-Louis Forain, Intermission on Stage, 1879, watercolour, gouache, india ink and pencil on wove rag paper

Jean-Louis Forain’s watercolour “Intermission on Stage” is a wonderful example of the artist’s fascination with ballerinas; a fascination which he inherited from his friend and protégé Edgar Degas: the ultimate painter of ballerinas. Degas even invited the eighteen years younger Forain to participate in the Impressionist exhibitions that were taking place at the time, from 1879 to 1886. Even though both artists chose to portray the same motifs of Parisian nightlife; the balls, theatres, and cafes, they focused on completely different things. While Degas used ballerinas merely as a beautiful motif to further explore the problems of composition and perspective, Forain found good material for social satire whilst observing the social dynamics of the world of dancers, the harsh and ugly reality of their off the stage life.

“Intermission on Stage” is a great example because it shows the ballerinas and their admirer. It is easy to see why the critics at the time praised Forain’s work for its vibrant colour and vigour, I mean, just look at the ballerinas in their vibrant emerald tutus which are painted in swift, quick strokes and thus give the impression of something sketchy, immediate and exciting. A rich, older gentleman is seen eyeing the ballerina in the foreground who is adjusting her shoe, or rather, he is eyeing her perky white breasts peeking from her revealing dance costume. The gentleman is an abonné; a well-off older gentleman who can afford to pay a subscription which would allow him to spend time with the ballerinas behind the stage and enjoy their beauty and charms from close up. He almost looks like a caricature, his big nose, mustache hiding his mouth, his protruding belly, well certainly it isn’t his looks that the turquoise ballerina is after.

Jean-Louis Forain, The Admirer, 1877-79, oil on canvas, mounted on wood

Painting “The Admirer” shows the same thing, just this time the setting is a well-lit cozy spot with red velvet sofa and the gentleman is handing out a big, lush bouquet of red roses to the ballerina who doesn’t look too receptive of his offers. Her gaze seems to say “Oh dear…”, her hands aren’t stretched out eagerly to take the splendid gift. Hmm I guess money cannot buy everything now, can it? That is certainly how the gentlemen in Forain’s paintings felt when they used their money and status to gain access to young ballerinas who otherwise wouldn’t have even glanced at them. Forain was very observant of what goes on society around him and that is what the satire and caricatures interested him so much.

And even when he is not drawing a caricature, he is still imbuing his paintings with some satire and mockery, but there is also a pinch of moralizing here too which reflects his fight for justice and hatred for hypocrisy. It is easy to see why he was such good friends with the poet Arthur Rimbaud with whom he almost shares a birthday; Forain was born on 23th October 1852, and Rimbaud on the 20th October 1854. The two free-spirited men, both young and full of life, even shared a room for a few months and their bohemian lifestyle was certainly a slap in the face to the proper society and its values, or lack of thereof. Forain’s chatty and witty nature easily made him a friend of other writers and poets as well, such as Paul Verlaine and Joris-Karl Huysmans. He seems to have been a vivacious and important part of the artists group at the time and it is a shame that he isn’t more popular today.

Jean Louis Forain, Dancer in Her Dressing Room, c.1890

Jean Louis Forain, In the Wings, 1899

Pierre Bonnard – Street Scene

16 Feb

Pierre Bonnard, Street Scene, 1899, four panel screen, colour litograph

Pierre Bonnard was fascinated by the liveliness and vibrancy of Parisian streets and parks where nannies, dogs and children play in sunny spring days and he painted many such vibrant street scenes, but this “Street Scene” (also known as “Nannies Promenade, Frieze of Carriages”) is a special street scene because the common Impressionist and Post-Impressionist motif of a street scene is inspired by the Japanese art and it also exhibits the philosophy of the Nabis group that art should be present in everyday life, in everyday objects such as tapestries, fans, posters and decorative folding screens. A century and a half before Bonnard, the art of Rococo had already shown a fondness for folding screens which were painted in the spirit of chinoserie, but the artists who painted the screens were always anonymous and unimportant, but in the late nineteenth century the artists of Post-Impressionism and Nabis found a tremendous source of inspiration in Japanese art and works such as this street scene by Bonnard are a delightful mix of Post-Impressionist European art and the influence of Japan.

Bonnard, a young artist at the time, first painted the screen in distemper (pigment in glue) on canvas with carved wood frame in 1895. In 1894 in a letter to his mother he spoke about the idea for the painting: “I am working on a screen […]. It is of the Place de la Concorde with a young mother walking with her children, with nannies and dogs, and on top, as a border, a carriage rank, and all on a light beige background which is very like the Place de la Concorde when it’s dusty and looks like a miniature Sahara.” And in 1895-96 around a hundred and ten colour lithographs were made and the one you see here is one of them. Half of those lithographs were destroyed in a flood in Paris in 1940. They were sold either individually or in a set and could either be mounted on the screen and served as a decoration in the room, or they could have been framed and placed on the wall as a panting. It is beautiful to see it flat like a painting and also beautifully folded in zig zag way, each vertically enlongated screen is an artwork for itself and yet it created a scene for itself. This narrow vertical canvas is called “kakemono” in Japanese art, and the action in the painting is suppose to be read in Japanese way, from right to left.

Bonnard showed a great interest in the folding screens and the first one he created was “Women in the Garden” in 1891 but in that folding screen every part of the canvas was filled with pattern and colour. In contrast, “Street Scene” is beautifully empty and there is an intricate visual play between groups of figures and the empty space. The figures are flat and simple. The placement of figures seems spontaneous but is actually carefully planned and it looks beautiful when the screen is opened or flat. The group of figures in the foreground are a fashionably dressed mother with her two children who are playing with sticks and hoops, a game seen often in the art of the Impressionists. A little black dog is here too. In the background three almost identically dressed nannies, and a row of carriages with horses behind them.

 

Camille Pissarro – Impressions of Parisian Streets

27 Nov

Camille Pissarro, Rue Saint Lazare, 1893

Pissarro is a somewhat neglected Impressionist and understandably so; his private life wasn’t rife with scandals and excesses, and his art wasn’t scandalous and fleshy either. It’s easy to see why the dandyish Monet, Degas; the painter of ballerinas, or Renoir with his pretty girls are more popular, but Pissarro’s oeuvre shows both steadiness and experimentation. Pissarro lived in the countryside most of his life and thus most of his paintings are scenes from the countryside. Still, due to health reasons, he moved to Paris near the end of his life and there he continued paintings plein air but his motifs weren’t the meadows, trees and haystacks of his beloved countryside, but the bustling streets of a big city. These delightful urban landscapes are the crown of Pissarro’s painterly career. These paintings remind me of that wonderful feeling; when you find yourself in the midst of a bustling city, on a square or walking on the pavements, and suddenly feel yourself detaching from all the noise and bustle, and simply observing it all. Seeing the people, walking fast or walking slow, cars and trams gliding down the streets, show windows and neon shop signs.

I named this post the “Impressions of Parisian Streets” because this series of paintings that Pissarro had painted throughout the winter of 1897/1898 marks not only the end of Pissarro’s oeuvre but also his final return to a more free, sketchy Impressionist style after he spent a few years flirting with pointillism and learning from Signac and Seurat. These urban landscapes are Pissarro’s “impressions” of the streets he saw from the window of the hotel in the place du Théâtre Français. Seen from afar, these impressions of Parisian streets look like a vibrant and bustling place, but if you look at the paintings from up close you see that the carriages, trees and people have all turned into blurry dots, dashes and dabs of colours. The Impressionist desire to paint plein air and to paint the real world around them reminds me so much of sociology because both basically observed society and world around them. Pissarro basically sketched what he saw in these urban scenes, and even though the style is very free and subjective, he pretty much portrayed the objective truth that was before his eyes.

Camille Pissarro, La Place due Théâtre Français, 1898

Camille Pissarro, Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of rain, 1897

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, 1897

Camille Pissarro, Place du Théâtre Français, Paris – Rain, 1898

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, Morning Mist, 1897

Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873-74

I also decided to include this painting by Monet just because it’s so beautiful and captures the same motif.