Tag Archives: passion

Japonism in Oskar Kokoschka’s Fan for Alma Mahler

7 Jun

Oskar Kokoschka, Third Fan for Alma Mahler, 1913

Japonism, or the influence of Japanese art on Western art, was all the rage in the European art circles of the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Ukiyo-e prints and folding screens were the most influential. Artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and many others were captivated by the strange and vibrant beauty of Japanese artworks and decorative objects and they found all sorts of ways to be inspired by what they saw. It is very obvious then that the semicircular shape and vibrant patterns of Japanese fans were also highly popular with European artists. In the shape of the fan and in its changeable quality, it being different when it is open and when closed, they found a new inspiration to play with shapes and depictions of landscapes and other motifs. Degas of course incorporated his delightful ballerinas on the fan, Manet painted chrysanthemums, but a very striking and exciting example of a fan inspired by Japanese art comes from the brush of Oskar Kokoschka; an Austrian artist very prolific in the period just before and during the First World War in Vienna. In those times ladies still wore their fans as a fashion accesory so it was not just an artwork but also a useful object. In his series of six fans painted for his lover Alma Mahler, Kokoschka brings the art of fan painting on a whole new artistic level. The pictorial space on the fan stretches over several sections, not just one, and you can only imagine how exciting this fan would look when being slowly opened and all the figures were enliven for a moment. The central scene of the fan is the most beautiful and romantic one; it shows two lovers, Kokoschka himself and Alma, under the Mount Vesuvius. Perhaps the eruption of the vulcano Mount Vesuvius can be symbolically seen as the culmination of all his intense love, desire and yearning for the seductive and charming Alma who, very tragically, ended their relantionship and ended up marrying the architect Walter Groppius, and later even the writer Franz Werfel. The scenes on the left and right of the fan are an hommage to the couple’s trip to Italy.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Paolo and Francesca da Rimini

12 May

Love led us straight to sudden death together.”

(Dante, Inferno, Canto V)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1855, watercolour

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an English poet, painter, illustrator, translator and most importantly the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was born on this day in 1828 in London so let us use the opportunity and remember the fascinating and charismatic artist on his birthday. Rossetti had artistic aspirations from an early age and his siblings shared those aspirations as well. His maternal uncle was John William Polidori; the friend of Lord Byron and the author of the short story “The Vampyre” (1819). He died seven years before Rossetti was born, but it shows what kind of family ancestry Rossetti had and why it was perfectly natural for him to aspire to become a poet and an artist. Half-Italian and half-mad, Rossetti idealised and glorified the Italian past, especially the Medieval era and the writings of Dante Alighieri; a hero whom he worshipped. In 1848 he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood along with William Holman Hunt whose painting “The Eve of St. Agnes” Rossetti had seen on an exhibition and loved, and the young prodigy John Everett Millais. Their aim was to paint again like the old masters did; with honesty and convinction, using vibrant colours and abundance of details, and most of all; to paint from the heart.

In 1850, two very important things happened in Rossetti’s life; he met Elizabeth Siddal; a moody and melancholy redhaired damsel who was to become the main object of his adoration in decade to come, his pupil, his lover and muse; and, he focused on painting watercolours. In the 1850s Rossetti’s head wasn’t all in the clouds of love, no half of it was in the rose-tinted clouds of the past, his main artistic inspirations being the Arthurian legends and Dante.

His watercolour “Paolo and Francesca da Rimini” from 1855 is a synthesis of these two inspirations; his love Lizzy Siddal and Dante. The watercolour is a tryptich (read from left to right) in intense, rich colours portraying the tale of doomed lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini who was the wife of his brother. Paolo and Francesca were real-life historical figures, but Rossetti’s inspirations stems from Dante’s Inferno, specifically from the Canto V where Dante and Virgil, portraid in the central panel of the tryptich, enter the part of Hell where the souls of passionate and sinful lovers remain for eternity. The first tryptich shows Paolo and Francesca in a kiss. A secret, guilty, and forbidden kiss and yet Rossetti’s scene only shows a tender and passionate moment between lovers, their hands clasped together, Paolo pulling her closer. Francesca’s long red hair and face resemble the hair and face of Elizabeth Siddal, and the figure of Paolo was based on Rossetti himself. It is as if he knew that his love would be as doomed, though in a different way, just like that of Paolo and Francesca.

The interior is simple and allows the focus to be on the couple and their secret kiss. A plucked rose on the floor, an opened book with glistening illuminations is on Francesca’s lap shows the activity that bonded the pair and made the kiss inevitable, from Dante’s Inferno, Canto V:

Dante asks Francesca:

But tell me, in that time of your sweet sighing

how, and by what signs, did love allow you

to recognize your dubious desires?”

And she responds:

And she to me: “There is no greater pain

than to remember, in our present grief,

past happiness (as well your teacher knows)!

But if your great desire is to learn

the very root of such a love as ours,

I shall tell you, but in words of flowing tears.

One day we read, to pass the time away,

of Lancelot, how he had fa llen in love;

we were alone, innocent of suspicion.

Time and again our eyes were brought together

by the book we read; our fa ces flushed and paled.

To the moment of one line alone we yielded:

it was when we read about those longed-for lips

now being kissed by such a famous lover,

that this one (who shall never leave my side)

then kissed my mouth, and trembled as he did.

When I gaze at this left panel of the tryptich, a lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s song “The River” comes more and more to my mind, I wonder does the memory of the kiss come back to haunt Paolo and Francesca in hell:

“Pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry…”

When finally I spoke, I sighed, “Alas,

what sweet thoughts, and oh, how much desiring

brought these two down into this agony.”

(Dante, Inferno, Canto V)

The central part of the tryptich, as I’ve said, shows Dante and Virgil. The third or the right wing of the tryptich shows the afterlife of the doomed lovers in Hell. Just like the sould of other unfortunate and lustful lovers, Paolo and Francesca are shown being carried by the wind of passion that swept them away in their living life on earth too, in each other’s arms for eternity. Are they being mercilessly carried by the wind, or have they overpowerd it and are riding it blissfully? All around them flames of hell dance like shooting stars. Quite romantic actually, I don’t see where the punishment part comes myself. Still, there is a message and the tale of doomed lovers in hell shows how a single moment and a single step is enough to commit a sin; the kiss was the act of weakness and passion. That single moment of weakness endangered forever their possibility of eternal glory.

Unlike other artists before him who have portrayed the story of Paolo and Francesca, Rossetti convinently avoids portraying the bloody and gruesome moment when the lovers are caught by Paolo’s brother Gianciotto who is also Francesca’s husband and murders them both. I really like that Rossetti painted a tryptich whose theme isn’t religious but profane, though some, like John Keats – another Rossetti’s hero – argue that love is sacred. After all, a tryptich is just an artwork divided into three panels, telling a story, kind of like a modern comic book so there is really no need for it to be restricted to religious topics. We can view this watercolour then as a Tryptich of the Religion of Love. And to end, here is a quote from Keats’ letter to Fanny Brawne, from 13 October 1819:

“I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.”

Calcedonio Reina – Love and Death

25 Feb

Calcedonio Reina, Love and Death (Amore e morte), 1881

A couple locked in a kiss and a background of mummified corpses behind them; this strange combination of motifs of love and death is what makes this painting so eerie and so unforgettable. This painting is full of contrasts of mood and colour; love and death, passion and transience, life and decay, white and black; that is, the man is dressed in dark clothes, the woman in a splendid white gown. Calcedonio Reina was both a painter and a poet and he seems to have been a strange, melancholy individual. He was born in Sicily in 1842 and the plaque on the house in which he lived and died states that he was “a poet in painting, and painter in poetry.” In 1864, at the age of twenty-two, his artistic career took him to Naples and later to Florence.

Still, his native Sicily seems to have lingered in his mind because the macabre background of the painting “Love and Death” shows the Catacombs of Cappuccini in Palermo, Sicily. The last friar to be interred in the catacombs was Brother Ricardo in 1871, and the catacombs were closed for the public in 1880 but nonetheless tourists still continued visiting it. The loving couple in Reina’s painting seems to have been such a touristy couple and I imagine them walking around, arm in arm, a mere glance at the creepy corpses fill the lady with horror, the long sleeves of her silk gown hiding the goosebumps of horror, and her smile hiding the fear she feels. Ah, how the warmth of her lover’s arms contrasts with the cold, stale air of the catacomb! And perhaps, whilst strolling down the corridor filled with the odour of death, this loving pair felt the ache of their own mortality and the short-lasting nature of everything in life and – when faced with transience – their clung to life and love even more, their lips meeting in a kiss, her arms wrapped around his neck seeking a safe haven from the claws of death ever so gently clutching at her silk white dress.

The painting was Reina’s response, or rather, a comment on the more famous painting “The Kiss” (1859) by a fellow Italian painter Francesco Hayez. It can be seen as a slight mockery as well because Hayez’s painting is devastatingly romantic, and there is a very thin line between romantical and sentimental. His loving couple looks like a pair of actors on stage, their kiss theatrical, the space behind them perfectly clean of any unnecessary details and clutter. All focus is on them. Their clothes appears archaic; the lady’s dress is blue as the bluest sky and the man is wearing a pair of red tights like some Renaissance hero. It’s a beautiful painting, but maybe too much perfection and sugary sweetness is making it seem a bit over the top. In contrast, Reina’s painting has a completely different mood and his choice of the catacombs for a setting and corpses for the background give the painting more than a tinge of the Symbolist macabre mood. By comparing these two examples of the same motif of a kissing couple we can see the huge role the background plays in conveying the mood of the painting.

Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, 1859

Amedeo Modigliani – 100th Death Anniversary

24 Jan

On 24th January 1920, on that sad, cold, grey, winter’s day, it was Saturday I may add, Jewish-Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani died from tubercular meningitis in the Charité Hospital in Paris. There is no beautiful death, the transition to the unknown is bound to be tinged with tragedy, but Modigliani’s death was particularly sad and tragical; so young, so in love, so talented, one step away from receiving recognition. Such an ugly, sad, inhumane way to depart; ill, frail, in a cold room in a hospital bed, the painter who was so humane and who lived for Beauty and devoted his life to it. The next day his young lover Jeanne Hébuterne, who was two months shy from her twenty-second birthday and eight months pregnant with their second child, ended her life tragically by throwing herself from the window of her parents’ flat on the fifth floor; the thought of living without her beloved was unbearable. She was his lover, his muse, his devoted and faithful companion, even in death. Her epitaph on their grave says “Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice.” Who knows what a new decade would have brought to them both?

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918

Amedeo was born in July 1884 in a Jewish family in Livorno. His family was well off but around the time he was born, they faced severe financial difficulties. Nonetheless, the dreamy and sickly boy grew up in an environment where literature and philosophy were appreciated. At the age of sixteen he contracted tuberculosis and spent some time in Naples, Capri and Rome, hoping the warm mild weather would soothe his disease. After studying art in Livorno and Florence, Modigliani moved to Venice in 1903 and there he encountered the joys of hashish. Three years later he moved to Paris and encountered the works of Cezanne; the two proved to have a lasting influence on him. His early work shows the influence of Klimt; portraits of femme fatale women with large wide brimmed hats; full, sensuous and thirsty lips and their breasts exposed, a touch of Fauvism in the garish choice of colours, green or blueish for the skin. Cezanne, Cubism and the traditional African masks from Kongo, so popular in the art circles in Paris at the time, all left an impact on his art. Angular, elongated faces with large almond eyes and long noses have found their way from the limestone sculptures to the canvases where finally, after all the influences, his pure artistic instinct, his lyricism, love and poetry emerge.

Photographs of Jeanne Hébuterne

In early 1917 Modigliani finished a series of around thirty nudes. In April 1917, Amedeo met Jeanne Hébuterne, a demure, talented and beautiful schoolgirl who was studying painting at the Académie Colarossi. Ukrainian scultpor Chana Orloff introduced them. Modigliani was no stranger to seduction and it’s easy to see why Jeanne fell for him. He was known in his younger days for his devilish good looks and charms which easily lured women, to his bed and to his canvases. But what was this shy girl from a strict family doing in the wild, free-spirited hippie crowd at Montparnasse? It was her brother André, who also aspired to be a painter, who brought her to the art circles in Montparnasse. The French writer Charles-Albert Cingria described her as “gentle, shy, quiet, and delicate”. Even in the photographs, there is an air of demureness and melancholy around Jeanne; she seems quiet yet passionate, shy but stubborn and strong. She did after all turn her back on the strict bourgeois Catholic upbringing and to the horror of her prim and proper parents moved in with Modigliani soon after meeting him. And what a meeting of souls that must have been! Like Dante and his beloved Beatrice who died young, but inspired his art. Modigliani was an avid reader and always carried his dear homeland Italy in his heart, and during painting sessions he would recite passages from the works of Dante and Petrarca which he knew by heart, and sing arias from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La traviata.

Amedeo Modigliani, Nude on a Blue Cushion, 1917, oil on linen, 65.4 x 100.9 cm

Interestingly, since meeting Jeanne, nudes appear less frequently in Modigliani’s art and her slender figure and face fill canvas after canvas. That’s not to say that Modigliani never painted nudes again, he did, but they don’t seem to dominate his art like they did in previous years. He never painted a nude of Jeanne; perhaps she was too shy to pose like that, or perhaps her body was too sacred to him to share it with the rest of the world, even if it’s on canvas. She was, after all, his future bride, as he wrote in one letter. The nudes he painted in 1917 echo the luminosity and sensuality of Renaissance nudes and the wonderful Venetian sense for colours and tones. All so similar, yet all so different. His oeuvre isn’t a repetitive string of portraits and nudes, but one great gallery of souls. It seems that Modigliani had the gift of transcending the bounds of the flesh, no matter how luminous, soft and pink it was, and painting the soul, connecting soul to soul on a deep, profound, humane level. The same quality of understanding and humanness lingers through the art of another very unique painter whose art, just like Modigliani’s cannot be placed into a specific art movement, and his name is Marc Chagall.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of a Girl, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude, 1917, oil on canvas, 60.6 x 92.7 cm

Amedeo Modigliani, Iris Tree (Seated Nude), 1916, oil on canvas, 92.4 x 59.8 cm

The painting above, “Seated Nude” from 1916 is one of my favourite nudes that Modigliani painted, looking at it now, I am once again filled with ecstasy! Such beauty of the flesh, those warm colours, that pink on her cheek, that mystery in her closed eyes, touches of blue on her eyebrows and her lips, who is this silent muse?

“On that blue velvety Parisian afternoon, Modigliani sat by the window, smoking a cigarette, lost in his thoughts, occasionally glancing at his empty canvas. A nude model is sitting on the chair, behind her a tattered wallpaper, grey wall protruding behind it. Clock is ticking. Rain is beating on the window. Time is passing…. Her long chestnut hair falls over her sunken cheeks. Her eyes are fixated on the wooden floor, but when she lifts her weary eyelids towards Modigliani, aquamarine blue shines through, overwhelming the room, piercing through the greyness of the afternoon. Yes, her eyes are as blue as cornflowers he had seen years before, on one train ride, in the south of France. Fields of cornflowers there were, blue and tender, and amongst them a red poppy was smiling…. yes, blue as cornflowers; Modigliani’s his thoughts lingered on like this…. Her eyelashes are dark, wet from tears, but her face radiates calm resignation. Her lonely blue eyes sense something dark. She looks at Modigliani for a moment, and the next moment she’s lost in her thoughts again. Dreamy veil covers this bohemian abode. Rain is still falling. ‘Modi’, as Modigliani was known, is still smoking the same cigarette. His grey-silvery smoke fills the room like some old tune. A few old, forgotten books lie on the windowsill. Wooden floor is covered with paint flakes at parts. Rain – blue and exhilarating – baths the city. He picks up his brush….

The nude lady is as sad as this rainy afternoon, but he can’t paint her eyes. He feels her sadness, but he can’t bring himself to capture that beautiful aquamarine blueness, because he does not yet know her soul.”

(An excerpt from my older post)

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu Couche, 1918

These luscious, sensuous nudes were exhibited on Monday, 3rd December 1917 in the gallery of Berthe Weill. Modigliani was thirty-three years old, and this was the first and the last exhibition of his life. Many Parisians were drawn to the gallery that evening, but unfortunately for Berthe and Modigliani, the gallery was situated opposite the police station and seeing the gregarious curious crowd in front of the gallery made the policemen curious too. They instantly showed up and were scandalized by the art they had seen and instantly demanded Berthe to remove them, or else they would be confiscated. It was the pubic hair which scandalised the policemen especially. These narrow minds judging such a wonderful artist, very sad, especially since Modigliani devoted his life to Beauty. The scandal and failure of the exhibition didn’t plague his spirit for long. Love had entered in Modigliani’s life in the form of a shy, sweet Jeanne and Modigliani was very inspired and very prolific, filling canvas after canvas with her face, serious with direct gaze and large blue eyes. Apart from Jeanne, Modigliani painted many other neighbourhood faces, pretty melancholy street-urchins, but he painted them with poetry and compassion. He spent a great deal of 1918 and 1919 in Nice where he met the old Renoir, and he painted some landscapes while there, a genre uncommon for him. Their daughter Jeanne was born in Nice on 29th November 1918. After returning to Paris in late 1919, Modigliani continued with his melancholy portraits, but sadly he died soon afterwards, on the 24th January 1920. Now let us take a look at some wonderful portraits of Jeanne and other girls!

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hebuterne, 1919

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hebuterne with Hat and Necklace, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, Seated, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne in a Hat, 1919

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Petite Lucienne, 1916

Amedeo Modigliani, Two girls, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Marie, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Paulette Jourdain, 1919

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918

Book Review: The Final Mist by María Luisa Bombal

13 Aug

I already wrote a book review about the wonderful novel “The Shrouded Woman” by María Luisa Bombal, and now I feel that I must also mention her other novel “The Final Mist” (La última niebla) first published in 1934 when Bombal was only twenty-four years old.

Just like Bombal’s already mentioned novel “The Shrouded Woman”, the story is told in the first person by a young woman called Regina who had just gotten married to Daniel. The newlyweds are arriving to Daniel’s country house. From the beginning the atmosphere is mysterious and eerie, maybe slightly sinister too because his first deceased wife is mentioned:

“The previous night’s storm had removed the shingles from the roof of the old country house. When we arrived the rain was dripping into all of the rooms. (…)
As a matter of fact, ever since the car had crossed the boundary of the farm Daniel had become nervous, and almost hostile. It was to be expected. Hardly a year ago, he had made the same journey with his first wife; that sullen, weak girl he adored, who would die unexpectedly hardly three months later. But now there is something like apprehension in the way he examines me from head to foot. It is the same hostile expression with which he always looks at any stranger.
“What are you doing?” I ask him.
“I am looking at you,” he answers. “I am looking at you, because I know you too well…”

The narrator is clear that their marriage isn’t one of love and adoration but one of practicality; she was afraid of becoming an old spinster and she wanted a better life. They start living together in that unkempt sad country house, but they mostly spend time apart and rarely make love. The shadow of his first wife’s death is hanging over them and the enveloping fog is sucking their souls and energy. The motif of the first wife and the film noir atmosphere kind of reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s novel and film “Rebecca”. The strange atmosphere is kind of similar. Also, just like Flaubert’s provincial heroine Emma Bovary, the narrator is bored, disillusioned and unloved, yet still romantic and prone to dreaming. In dreary autumnal weather she is silently and slowly sinking in the countryside boredom. She is constantly making remarks about her youth, beauty and joy fading forever. But, one night she goes for a walk and meets a stranger who takes her by the hand and leads her into a grand old house where they make love passionately. This adventure makes her feel alive and its memory helps her to endure all the other disillusionment of life.

The central point of the novel is the struggle between dreams and reality; the narrator, just like Anais Nin in her diaries, tries to escape her trivial loveless existence through dreams, fantasies, make beliefs and her cold and distant husband is the first one to shove truth into her face. Did she really get lost in the mist that night and met that man, or was it all just another dream that she uses as a defense against reality’s blows that she cannot bear. The element of fog isn’t here simply to indicate the state of weather, as if perhaps might be in some English novel where people are keen to discuss the weather, no here it sort of stands as a symbol for the portal to the world of dreams. The heroine escapes into fog and the reality ceases to exist. There is also an erotic element that lingers throughout the novel which is also present in “The Shrouded Woman” but here the sensuality is even more emphasised, and it sadly belongs to the world of dreams and not reality for the narrator. Bombal’s writing is full of beautiful imagery, sights, sounds, emotions, acute perceptions and it’s very feminine in a way that Regina’s longing and desperation and boredom are very feminine, I think only a woman can experience them in that particular way… Here are some beautiful quotes:

Every day the fog gets thicker and thicker around the house. It has now covered the trees whose branches brush against the edge of the terrace. Last night I dreamed that, through the cracks of the doors and windows, the fog was slowly leaking into my room, diminishing the color of the walls and the furniture, filtering into my hair, and sticking to my body, as it dissipates everything, absolutely everything…

The years pass by. I look at myself in the mirror, and I see myself with clearly noticeable little wrinkles that only showed when I laugh before. My breasts are losing their roundness and the consistency of a ripe fruit. My flesh is stuck to my bones, and I no longer look slim, but angular. But, what does it matter? What does it matter that my body withers, if it has known love? What does it matter that the years go by, all the same? I had a beautiful adventure, once… With just one memory one can tolerate a long life of tedium. One can even repeat day by day, without boredom, the same small, everyday tasks.

There is a person who I could not meet without trembling. I might find him today, or tomorrow, or ten years from now. I might find him at the end of the street, or in the city when I go around the corner. Perhaps I will never find him. It doesn’t matter; the world seems full of possibilities, and for me in every moment there is hope, so that each minute has its emotion.

There are mornings when I am overrun by an absurd contentment. I have the feeling that a great happiness is going to come to me within the space of the next twenty four hours. I spend the day feeling a kind of exaltation. And I wait. For a letter, or an unexpected meeting? In truth, I don’t know.

My body and my kisses never make him tremble but, like they used to do, they made him think about another body, and other lips. Like years ago, I saw him trying again furiously to caress and desire my body, and always with the memory of his dead wife between the two of us. As he surrendered himself to my breast, his face unconsciously tried to find the smoothness and the contour of another breast. He kissed my hands, and other places, searching for some familiar passions, odors, and shapes. And he wept bitterly, calling for her, shouting absurd things to me, that were directed at her.

Daniel takes me by the arm and starts walking as if nothing had happened. (…) I follow him in order to carry out an enormous number of little jobs; to perform an enormous number of frivolous tasks; to cry as usual, and to smile out of obligation. I follow him to live correctly, and to die correctly, someday. Around us the fog gives things the quality of endless immobility.

And now I will just take a moment to tackle the issue of the title. Bombal’s novel originally called “La última niebla” was published in 1934 and it is translated in English as either “The Final Moment of Fog” or “The Final Mist”. But in 1947 Bombal wrote and published a longer and much altered version of this earlier work and named it “The House of Mist”.

Paolo and Francesca: The Passion of Lovers is for Death

15 Nov

“The passion of lovers is for death said she
Licked her lips
And turned to feather”

(Bauhaus, The Passion of Lovers)

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca, 1819

Kisses

It is easy to envelop the distant, mythical past in many veils of dreams and poetry. Romantics loved romanticising and the subject of doomed thirteen century lovers which charmingly unites the themes of love and death, was a perfect fuel for the artists’ fantasies from Ingres all up to now probably. Even the embraced couple, carved in splendid white marble, in Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Kiss” shows Paolo and Francesco, though the title of the work wouldn’t reveal it instantly. Different artists chose to portray different moment in Paolo and Francesca’s doomed love life; some portrayed them as innocent love bird sharing a coy kiss or two, others painted them in the moment of their deaths, and some focused on their buzzing afterlife in Inferno.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is considered a Classicist and still elements of Romanticism, both stylistically and thematically, often pop up in his work; from the vibrant exoticism of his harem ladies and dark archaic touch of the Northern art in some of his portraits, to his portrayal of Medieval lovers caught in their forbidden earthly love. In his painting from 1819, he presented the two lovers enjoying each others company in a small elongated chamber the walls of which are covered in wood panels which makes the room resemble a box, perhaps suggesting the oppressive environment of their household. Francesca is painted in archaic robes and resembles a character from a painting of Northern Renaissance. Paolo, in his tights and a sword, is kissing her cheek as she turns her oval face away from him. As the old saying goes: “Two is a company, three is none”; the seeming peace of their love is interrupted by a figure in the background. It’s Giovanni, slowly drawing the curtain away only to see a shocking sight. The scene all together resembles a theatre scene and the narrative aspect is very strong, Ingres is leading us thought the story with little details and gestures. The very moment Giovanni is about to raise his sword, Francesca’s book is caught in its fall to the ground.

William Dyce, Francesca da Rimini, 1837

Francesca was born in 1255 in Ravenna, her father was the lord of Ravenna; an Italian town on the Adriatic coast with a strong Byzantine influence, and the last place to be the centre of Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Around the age of twenty she married Giovanni Malatesta, the wealthy yet crippled lord of Rimini, sometimes also known as “Gianciotto” or “Giovanni the Lame”. Similarly to the story of Tristan and Isolde, Francesca wasn’t in love with Giovanni, it was just an arranged marriage after all, but her eyes soon took notice of Giovanni dashing younger brother Paolo. Gaze turned into a conversation, and words into kisses and caresses… Paolo was also married, and yet the two managed to keep their love a secret for ten years. William Dyce portrayed the couple as sitting on a balcony; Francesca is reading a book while Paolo is rushing to kiss her. Behind them is a serene verdant landscape, the moon shines in the right corner, and next to Francesca’s feet is an instrument, I am guessing, a lute which might add a sensuous touch to the scene. The scene is all together a bit too sentimental. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, hailing from Italy himself and an ardent admirer of Dante’s poetry and his life, envisaged the scene differently. In his watercolour, he portrays the couple as sitting in a chamber; pink roses are blooming, fresh air is coming in through the window, and, distracted from whatever they were reading, the couple share a passionate kiss. The book, half on his lap and half on hers, is about to fall down on the thorns of some more pink roses.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1867, watercolour

Death

The secret kisses turned out to be not so secret after all, for one day, around 1285, Giovanni caught them off guard, in Francesca’s bedroom. His blood fueled from rage and jealousy, and without much thinking Giovanni yielded the sword and deprived them both of life. Well, unfortunately, it wasn’t so dramatic in reality. What really happened was that Giovanni had heard some rumours about his wife cheating on him, and he rushed to her chamber. Francesca let him in because she was certain that Paolo had managed to escape through the window, but what she didn’t know was the he got stuck. Giovanni then tried to kill his brother, but Francesca tried to defend him, and was killed instead. Giovanni then proceeded to kill Paolo as well. Later they were buried in a single tomb; how devastatingly romantic is that!?

Alexandre Cabanel, The death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1870

Alexandre Cabanel was a French Academic painter and the way he envisaged the scene of Paolo and Francesca’s death is very theatrical. They are both dressed in splendid clothes, their pale faces are full of pathos, their gestures tell a story of their agony. Francesca is lying on something which looks more like a sarcophagus than a bed, and the ornamental marble floor further emphases the mood of coldness and death. Meanwhile, Giovanni is checking behind the curtain one more time to be sure they are indeed dead. Previati portrayed the scene of their death in a very dramatic way, using an elongated canvas and focusing on the figures themselves and not so much on the interior. Our eyes are focused on the bodies and the agony and pain of their sudden death. The painting is striking; there is still a sword in Paolo’s back, and his arm is limp, and Francesca’s hand is on her chest while her mouth are still slightly open as if she’s still catching her breath.

Gaetano Previati, Paolo e Francesca, ca. 1887

Wind of Passion

Death is no the end, as Nick Cave says in one of his songs. Almost a thousand years had passed from their deaths, but Paolo and Francesca are still embraced and carried away by the wind of passion. It is almost hard to imagine that before their eternity of damnation they were of mortal flesh just as we are now. Dante shows both disapproval of their life choices and a sympathy when he finally meets them in Inferno. I am thinking: wow, what a way to spend eternity! Being carried by the wind, safe in the arms of the one you love. Sounds like heaven, not hell.

George Frederic Watts, Paolo et Francesca, 1872-75

When Dante met Paolo and Francesca in Hell, this is what he said:

And I began: “Thine agonies, Francesca,
Sad and compassionate to weeping make me.
But tell me, at the time of those sweet sighs,
By what and in what manner Love conceded,
That you should know your dubious desires?”

And Francesca responds:

And she to me: “There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery, and that thy Teacher knows.
But, if to recognise the earliest root
Of love in us thou hast so great desire,
I will do even as he who weeps and speaks.
One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.
Alone we were and without any fear.
Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;
But one point only was it that o’ercame us.
When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne’er from me shall be divided,
Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.

William Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

Gabriel Garcia Márquez: Love Letters, Fresh Lilies, Tears and Dried Butterflies (One Hundred Years of Solitude)

16 Jul

A week ago I finished reading Márquez’s magnificent novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and I have fallen in love with the story, the mood, the characters, his writing style and magic realism. Art equivalent of the book must be, for me, the blue dreamy world of Marc Chagall’s lovers, flowers and psychedelic fiddlers on roofs in far-off villages of his imagination, which might as well be Márquez’s mystical Macondo, and I can also see myself listening to Pink Floyd and daydreaming of chapters from the books. Some sentences have really left me feeling high as a kite; it rains for four years, plague insomnia which leaves people not tired but nostalgic for dreams, tiny yellow flowers that cover the entire village the moment José Arcadio Buendía dies, yellow butterflies that follow the dark melancholic-eyed Mauricio at every step, Rebeca who eats earth and arrives with a sack that makes a clock-clock-clock sound of her parents’ bones; illusion upon illusion, magic upon magic, and in the end, only eternal solitude remains.

Savely Sorin, Two Women, c. 1920s

I recently discovered this painting of two women in white by the Russian artist Savely Sorin (1887-1953), and now every time I look at it, it reminds me of Amaranda and Rebeca, sitting on a begonia porch, their hands busy embroidering; both lost in their own worlds and their hearts full of woe, both lonely with an impenetrable inner life, both finding consolation in writing passionate perfumed love letters to the same man which they never send… I imagine the lady in the front to be Rebeca and the brown-haired one is Amaranta, for me.

When I started reading the book, one morning sitting on my balcony, surrounded by pots of pink begonias, I flipped through the pages wondering about their content, and this was the first sentence that I randomly saw and I was mesmerised, what a scene: “On rainy afternoon, embroidering with a group of friends on the begonia porch, she would lose the thread of the conversation and a tear of nostalgia would salt her palate when she saw the strips of damp earth and the piles of mud that the earthworms had pushed up in the garden. Those secret tastes, defeated in the past by oranges and rhubarb, broke out into an irrepressible urge when she began to weep. She went back to eating earth.

I don’t think I will ever see begonias again and not think of Márquez. I like to daydream of flowers and their different personalities and connect flowers and trees to people, real or imaginary.

Even though I loved the entire book, there is a part of that I particularly enjoyed reading, that appealed to me the most, when Buendía family was at its most lively, vibrant state, and the house was full of love: Aureliano was consumed with passion for Remedios who is described as “a pretty little girl with lily-colored skin and green eyes”, and Rebeca and Amaranda were besotted with their dance instructor, a dashing and handsome blonde Italian called Pietro Crespi. With love followed daydreams, passionate letters, tears, torments and jealousies:

The house became full of love. Aureliano expressed it in poetry that had no beginning or end. He would write it on the harsh pieces of parchment that Melquiades gave him, on the bathroom walls, on the skin of his arms, and in all of it Remedios would appear transfigured: Remedios in the soporific air of two in the afternoon, Remedios in the soft breath of the roses, Remedios in the water-clock secrets of the moths, Remedios in the steaming morning bread, Remedios everywhere and Remedios forever. Rebeca waited for her love at four in the afternoon, embroidering by the window. She knew that the mailman’s mule arrived only every two weeks, but she always waited for him, convinced that he was going to arrive on some other day by mistake. It happened quite the opposite : once the mule did not come on the usual day. Mad with desperation, Rebeca got up in the middle of the night and ate handfuls of earth in the garden with a suicidal drive, weeping with pain and fury, chewing tender earthworms and chipping her teeth on snail shells. She vomited until dawn. She fell into a state of feverish prostration, lost consciousness, and her heart went into a shameless delirium. Ursula, scandalized, forced the lock on her trunk and found at the bottom, tied together with pink ribbons, the sixteen perfumed letters and the skeletons of leaves and petals preserved in old books and the dried butterflies that turned to powder at the touch.

As soon as Amaranta found out about Rebeca’s interest in Pietro, she wanted him too:

When she discovered Rebeca’s passion, which was impossible to keep secret because of her shouts, Amaranta suffered an attack of fever. She also suffered from the barb of a lonely love. Shut up in the bathroom, she would release herself from the torment of a hopeless passion by writing feverish letters, which she finally hid in the bottom of her trunk. Ursula barely had the strength to take care of the two sick girls. (…) Finally, in another moment of inspiration, she forced the lock on the trunk and found the letters tied with a pink ribbon, swollen with fresh lilies and still wet with tears, addressed and never sent to Pietro Crespi.

Marc Chagall, Bouquet près de la fenêtre, 1959-60

Meanwhile, some things occur, Rebeca marries another man and Pietro, heartbroken, finds consolation in hours spend in Amaranta’s company. This must be the dreamiest, most romantic passage of the book, for me. I mean; suffocating smell of roses in dusk, this dashing Italian translating Petrarca’s love poetry for his sweetheart, and both sighing and daydreaming on the begonia porch of that remote village in Columbia about that famed Europe and wonders of Italy, nostalgia pervading the Columbian night:

Amaranta and Pietro Crespi had, in fact, deepened their friendship, protected by Ursula, who this time did not think it necessary to watch over the visits. It was a twilight engagement. The Italian would arrive at dusk, with a gardenia in his buttonhole, and he would translate Petrarch’s sonnets for Amaranta. They would sit on the porch, suffocated by the oregano and the roses, he reading and she sewing lace cuffs, indifferent to the shocks and bad news of the; war, until the mosquitoes made them take refuge in the parlor. Amaranta’s sensibility, her discreet but enveloping tenderness had been weaving an invisible web about her fiance, which he had to push aside materially with his pale and ringless fingers in order to leave the house at eight o’clock. They had put together a delightful album with the postcards that Pietro Crespi received from Italy. They were pictures of lovers in lonely pink. with vignettes of hearts pierced with arrows and golden ribbons held by doves. “I’ve been to this park in Florence,” Pietro Crespi would say, going through the cards. “A person can put out his hand and the birds will come to feed.” Sometimes, over a watercolor of Venice, nostalgia would transform the smell of mud and putrefying shellfish of the canals into the warm aroma of flowers. Amaranta would sigh, laugh, and dream of a second homeland of handsome men and beautiful women who spoke a childlike language, with ancient cities of whose past grandeur only the cats among the rubble remained.

Have you read the book? Have you enjoyed these passages as much as I have?