Tag Archives: poetic

How could you regain a poetical frame of mind at times like this? (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

4 Apr

My go-to book for the late winter and early spring days is Natsume Soseki’s novel “The Three-Cornered World”; it is soothing, meditative, lyrical and inspiring. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The novel is filled with the narrator’s observations on nature, art and life. Every time I read the novel, something new catches my attention and this time it was this passage about distancing oneself from one’s emotions and how that may help in maintaining the poetic vision of the world.

Painting by a Korean artist Oh Myung-Hee

Even something frightening may appear poetic if you stand back and regard it simply as a shape, and the eerie may make an excellent picture if you think of it as something which is completely independent of yourself. Exactly the same is true with disappointed love. Providing that you can divorce yourself from the pain of a broken heart and, conjuring up before you the tenderness, the sympathy, the despair and yes, even the very excess of pain itself, can view them objectively, then you have aesthetic, artistic material. There are those who purposely imagine their hearts to be broken, and crave for the pleasure they get from this form of emotional self-flagellation. The average person dismisses them as foolish, or even a little mad, but there is absolutely no difference, inasmuch as they both have an artistic standpoint, between the man who draws an outline of misery for himself and then leads his life within it, and him whose delight it is, to paint a landscape which never existed, and then to live in a potted universe of his own creation. (…) Putting it as a formula, I suppose you could say that an artist is a person who lives in the triangle whichremains after the angle which we may call common sense has beenremoved from this four-cornered world.

(…) The shadow I had just seen, considered simply as a shadow and nothing more, was charged with poetry. So much so, that nobody who saw or heard it could possibly fail to appreciate the fact.—A hot-spring in a secluded village—the shadow of blossoms on a spring night—a voice singing softly in the moonlight—a figure flitting through the shadows—every one of them a subject to delight any artist. Yet for all that I had engaged in an investigation which was quite out of keeping with the situation, and probe dabout pointlessly trying to find reasons for everything. I had been privileged to see the world of pure poetry, and had tried to apply to it the yardstick of logic.

(…) How, I wondered, could you regain a poetical frame of mind at times like this? I came to the conclusion that it could be done, if only you could take your feelings and place them in front of you, and then taking a pace back to give yourself the room to move that a bystander would have, examine them calmly and with complete honesty. The poet has an obligation to conduct a post-mortem on his own corpse and to make public his findings as to any disease he may encounter. There are many ways in which he may do this, but the best, and certainly the most convenient, is to try and compress every single incident which he comes across into the seventeen syllables of a Hokku. Since this is poetry in its handiest and most simple form, it may be readily composed while you are washing your face, or in the lavatory, or on a tram. When I say that it may be readily composed, I do not mean it in any derogatory sense. On the contrary, I think it is a very praiseworthy quality, for it makes it easy for one to become a poet; and to become a poet is one way to achieve supreme enlightenment. No, the simpler it is, the greater its virtue. Let us assume that you are angry: you write about what it is that has made you lose your temper, and immediately it seems that it is someone else’s anger that you are considering. Nobody can be angry and write a Hokku at the same time. Likewise, if you are crying, express your tears in seventeen syllables and you feel happy. No sooner are your thoughts down on paper, than all connection between you and the pain which caused you to cry is severed, and your only feeling is one of happiness that you are a man capable of shedding tears.

Yoshio Markino – Autumn

22 Oct

Listen! The wind is rising, and the air is wild with leaves,
We have had our summer evenings, now for October eves!”

(Humbert Wolfe)

Yoshio Markino, Autumn, 1904

I have often presented works of Western artists here on the blog, mostly Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, who were inspired, in one way or another, by the Japanese art of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Some of these artists that I have written about were Maurice Prendergast, Vincent van Gogh, Whistler, Henri Riviere, Raphael Kirchner, just to name a few. A lot of European artists have been very enthusiastic about Japanese art ever since Japan opened its borders to the world in the mid nineteenth century but in the case of the Japanese artist Yoshio Markino it is the other way around. Markino was a Japanese artist who from an early age had a fascination with the Western art and he not only took stylistic inspiration from it but actually moved to the Western world; first to USA in 1893 at the age of twenty-four and then to London in 1897. For a short while in 1908 and 1909 he even resided in Italy because of something art-related. Markino loved his life in England and he returned to Japan in 1942 after England had declared war on Japan. Markino lived a very long life and he was a very prolific artist, mostly known for his magnificent depictions of London streetscenes and foggy weather and this is known as Markino’s “fog and mist watercolours”. His art is of a peculiar kind because it is a true mix between the east and the west.

At the moment, and appropriate for these golden and misty October days, my favourite of Markino’s paintings is the one above called “Autumn”, painted in 1904. It shows a woman in the street on a windy autumn day. She cannot seem to open her umbrella and the frustration can be seen in her face expression. Autumnal colours – orange and browns – dominate the painting and the delicate sense of transience is indicated in the fall of the leaves carried away gently by the autumn wind, never to return to their branches, dancing their last dance. There is a dynamic play between foreground and background; at first glance we see the auburn haired woman in the foreground with her umbrella and a tree full of orange leaves above her, and then, painted in a more poetic and dreamy way, is the background with the carriage slowly departing. Our view is clouded from so many leaves flying in the air.

A faint church tower can be seen and also some treetops but these background elements are painted in such a delicate, hushed, and subtle way, almost ghostly or as something seen in the memory. The harsh lines of reality are subdued in Markino’s poetic brushstrokes. Not only the leaves in the air but also the woman’s clothes indicate the presence of the wind and the direction of it. While the background is imbued with a sense of dreamy stillness, the foreground is a place of where dynamic playfulness. A very interesting thing is also the face expression of the woman. It is so particular, even the way her facial features are painted. The cheeks, rosy like a rosebud, the eyebrows, the narrow eyes, all of it brings to mind the faces of the figures in the ukiyo-e art which is known for its expressivness.

9 Years on the Blog: There are places I don’t remember, There are times and days, they mean nothing to me

20 Oct

“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking on the days that are no more.”

(Lord Tennyson – Tears, Idle Tears)

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856

Today my blog is nine years old! At first I didn’t really know what to say on this ocassion, I thought: nine years and that is that, whatever, nothing to say. I am a person who doesn’t usually enjoy birthdays or anniversaries because they remind me of the passing of time, but that is precisely why this nine year blog anniversary does matter and why I decided to celebrate it anyway. It matters because it is not only the nine years of this blog and almost a thousands posts published, it is also nine years of my life. Every year, every season on the blog, every painting, every post is a fragment of my life, and my soul. Every anniversary of this blog reminds me of the passing of time. Thinking about nine years that have passed sets me off into a reverie…

Thinking of transience, I cannot help but hear in my mind the wistful violins from Tindersticks’ 1995 song “Travelling Light”. The song’s lyrics hold a special meaning for me and the older I get the more I can relate to them; people come into your life and leave it without a noise, without a sound and days go on like nothing has changed. People die, and leave, and disappear, and yet you get up the next morning and drink coffee and life goes one. Hearts get broken and brokenly live on, to quote the Romantic Lord Byron whose “muse” I am. Well, I am not really but I named my blog so. Things that seemed so important back then now mean nothing to me, and faces from old photographs are like ghosts from another life. I am usually a person who clings to every littlest thing that has memory for me; a piece of paper, train ticket, pressed flower, for I am hopelessly clinging to the past, in vain trying to stop the unstoppable; the passing of time. But lately I had started to feel like Miss Havisham, suffocating in my little room full of spiderwebs, pretty objects and memories and so I am learning to shed myself from the burden of all those memories, like a snake sheds off its skin, so that I may walk lighter into the future. Here are the lyrics:

There are places I don’t rememberThere are times and days, they mean nothing to meI’ve been looking through some of them old picturesThey don’t serve to jog my memory
I’m not waking in the morning, staring at the walls these daysI’m not getting out the boxes, spread out all over the floorI’ve been looking through some of them old picturesThose faces they mean nothing to me no more
I travel lightYou travel lightEverything I’ve doneYou say you can justify, mmm you travel light
I can’t pick them out, I can’t put them in these sad old bagsSome things you have to lose along the wayTimes are hard, I’ll only pick them out, wish I was going backTimes are good, you’ll be glad you ran away….
*
There are many reasons why I chose John Everett Millais’ painting “Autumn Leaves” for this post; firstly, because it is one of my favourite paintings; secondly, because it is poetic and beautiful and represent the mood I have been trying to cultivate on my blog for years; and thirdly, because its autumnal setting is a perfect setting for my thoughts about transience and the passing of time. The painting – a true Pre-Raphaelite gem – shows four girls in the dusk of the day gathering leaves in a pile. What a simple scene visually yet imbued with so much wistfulness, melancholy and lyrical beauty. The dried orange and brown leaves set the time of the year; autumn, a time for farewells and endings. The sky in the background, painted in purples and yellow, so romantic, a perfect twilight, as Millais had put it. The two long-haired girls in black dresses were the younger sisters of Millais’ wife; Alice and Sophy Gray. Their round faces are full of girlish innocence, but still melancholy is casting a shadow over them, and their large blue eyes are filled with yearning. Millais had painted Sophie on many ocassions and her face, with the blue eyes laden with sadness and cherry red lips is perfect for the Pre-Raphaelite art. Rosy cheeks and wistful gazes, these girls are caught at the border between girlhood and womanhood; fragile, sad days. One more autumn passing by, one more year passing by… how many are left?
I will take this opportunity to thank everyone who has been following my blog in the past nine years and everyone who shared their words of encouragment and kindness with me.

Depeche Mode and Caspar David Friedrich: Pleasures Remain So Does the Pain, Words are Meaningless and Forgettable

9 Oct

Autumn is a time for wistfulness, melancholy and introspection, and also a time for one of my favourite painters Caspar David Friedrich whose Romantic landscapes perfectly fit this autumnal mood.

Caspar David Friedrich, Memories of the Giant Mountains, 1835

These days I was listening to Depeche Mode and I especially enjoyed the song “Enjoy the Silence” which is probably their most recognisable song anyway. I also enjoyed watching the video, directed by Anton Corbijn, where the singer Dave Gaham is dressed as a king and is seen walking around through fields, meadows, beaches and mountains; all the landscapes which irresistibly bring to mind the moody landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. The specific places in the video are the Scottish Highlands, the Algarve coast in Portugal and the Swiss Alps which beautifully showcases the beauties and diverities of European landscapes. All of these places in nature; forests, beaches, snow-capped mountains, can easily be found not only in paintings of Friedrich but also in paintings of other Romantic painters. Corbijn’s concept behind the video was that the King (Dave Gahan) represented “a man with everything in the world, just looking for a quiet place to sit; a king of no kingdom.” I think the video is a good representation of that.

Whilst gazing at the video, I suddenly remembered something that my friend had said. Years ago he had sent me the video to the song “Enjoy the Silence” and pointed at the similarity between the video’s aesthetic and the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. I hadn’t seen the video before he had sent it to me because I was mostly listening to Depeche Mode from my mother’s casettes, so this was something very interesting to me. These days my thoughts again turned to Depeche Mode and Friedrich and finally I felt it was the right time to tackle the topic because, as you know, I am always fond of discovering aesthetic parallels between art and rock music and poetry. I had done so previously by connecting the cover of Echo and the Bunnymen’s album “Crocodiles” (1980) and “Heaven Up Here” (1981) to Friedrich’s landscapes. I am writing this post with the memories of my friend who, although estranged from me now, will always have a place in my heart. And, interestingly, Corbijn also directed many music videos of Echo and the Bunnymen too.

Scenes from the “Enjoy the Silence” video.

In some scenes of the video, Gahan is seen as a solitary figure against the vast landscape; a transient figure passing through the ever-lasting landscapes of beauty. In some scenes he is sitting and turning his back to us, which is again something we see often in Friedrich’s art, for example in his famous painting “Moonrise Over the Sea” (1822). In the scenes filmed at the beach in Portugal the sea waves are crushing onto the sandy shore and Gahan is seen looking out at the sunset over the sea, everything painted in dusky pink and purple shades, and this romantic imagery is also seen in many of Friedrich’s beach scenes. In one scene Gahan is walking across a landscape where the tree is the only other thing in the scene and there is a tight line separating the land from the vastness of the sky. This, for example, made me think of Friedrich’s painting “Monk by the Sea” (1808-1810). I also incorporated the lyrics of the song into this post because I like them, I think they are wise and profound and they fit the mood of loneliness and isolation that Friedrich’s landscapes have.

Words like violenceBreak the silenceCome crashing inInto my little worldPainful to mePierce right through meCan’t you understand?Oh, my little girl
Caspar David Friedrich, Evening, 1821
Caspar David Friedrich, Seashore by Moonlight, 1835-36
All I ever wantedAll I ever neededIs here in my armsWords are very unnecessaryThey can only do harm
Caspar David Friedrich, Riesengebirge, 1830-35
Scenes from the “Enjoy the Silence” video.
Caspar David Friedrich, Sunset (Brothers) or Evening landscape with two men, 1830-35
Vows are spokenTo be brokenFeelings are intenseWords are trivialPleasures remainSo does the painWords are meaninglessAnd forgettable
Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808-10
Scenes from the “Enjoy the Silence” video.

Childe Hassam – Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago

13 Sep

“…the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain…”

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, What Lips Have I Kissed, And When and Why)

Childe Hassam, Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago, 1893, watercolour

These rainy September evenings awake inside me an inexplicable sadness and so I sit there wistfully by the window and I pine, and whine … and, just like in Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem the rain is also full of ghosts that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply… Very fitting for the wistful mood of my rainy days is this hauntingly beautiful watercolour called “Nocturne: Railway Crossing, Chicago”, painted in 1893 by the American painter Childe Hassam. The watercolour is simple in both colour and composition, and yet rich in its lyrical beauty. The nocturnal scene in the watercolour shows a fragment of urban life; a carriage and a tram are gliding down the road on a rainy night. The motif such as this would otherwise be too urban in its ugliness or simply boring, but in Hassam’s vision the rainy night in the big city is a blue poem. Instead of bustle and noise, Hassam hears a blue sonata coming from the steady beats of the rain and the rhythm of the horse-drawn carriage. The title alone, containting the word “Nocturne”, in a proper Whistler style, is insinuating something poetic and dreamy. The watercolour is amost entirely washed away in this mesmerising blue colour, with soft touche of yellow representing the big city lights. The carriage and the coachman are elegantly painted in black, almost like a silhouette, which only adds to the poetic mysterious mood of this night scene, as the French poet Stephane Mallarme said “to define is to kill, to suggest is to create”. In this watercolour, Hassam is suggesting, rather than defining, the beauty and poetry of the night and I think this is what makes this artwork so hauntingly beautiful. There is a special kind of beauty in wandering aimelessly down the streets of a big city on a rainy night, the bright lights of streetlamps and neon lights reflected in the puddles and wet pavements, passing by life but not being in it. Ahh… as I gaze at this painting more I can see and hear in my mind the jazzy music and Robert De Niro’s monologue from the film “Taxi Driver” (1976).

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

22 Aug

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

(Mary Shelley, Mathilda)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Constable, Brighton Beach, 1824, oil sketch

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

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams…

3 Aug

“Night after night I lie awake,

Listening to the rustle of the bamboo leaves,

And a strange sadness fills my heart.”

(As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams)

Japan | takaphilography

A week or so ago I finished reading this wonderful little book whose title alone lured me from the bookshelf of a dimly lit library: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. How alluring is that title!? As I took the book into my hands and flipped the pages, it was as if I were instantly transported to the world of dreams, the quotes spoke to my heart and I knew right away this book was a treasure. And what a delight, in warm summer nights, with the nocturnal music of cicadas and rain, to read a diary of a young girl, later a young woman, living in the 11th century Japan. Lady Sarashina was born in 1008 at the height of the Heian Period, at the same time when Sei Shonagon was writing her “The Pillow Book” which I love, and she spent most of her life in Kyoto. As a child, she is utterly dreamy and obsessed with reading tales and daydreaming of a charming, handsome prince that she will meet one day and the wonderful life she will have.

Timid, withdrawn and hypersensitive, little Sarashina feels deep sorrow after her sister dies and her step-mother leaves, and the same poignancy is seen in her experience of nature, especially the sight of the moon and red leaves of the trees in autumn. As she grows up, she finds that she doesn’t want to participate in the world and that her dreams are more fulfilling. She tries being a court lady for awhile but is a failure because she is too dreamy to participate in the court life. Eventually, at the age of thirty-six she marries a middle-class man and has three children. It is assumed that she started writing the book at the age of forty-nine, just after her husband had died. Perhaps, with this huge loss that brought a change to her life, she started thinking about lost times and again sank into the deep, wild sea of dreams.

Maples and River by Ogata Kenzan, Edo Period, 18th century; Look at those maples leaves, falling down in the river like bright red stars!

“Though it was already the end of the Tenth month when we crossed Mount Miyaji, the maple leaves were still in their height.

So the storms have not yet come to Mount Miyaji!
For russet leaves still peacefully adorn the hills.”

Ogata Kenzan, Autumn Ivy, after 1732; Notice the gorgeous gradient colours of the leaves; from brown to green, red to orange, just mesmerising…

I lived forever in the dream world. Though I made occasional pilgrimages to temples, I could never bring myself to pray sincerely for what most people want. I know there are many who read the sutras and practice religious devotions from the age of about seventeen; but I had no interest in such things. The height of my aspirations was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in the mountain village where he would have hidden me like Lady Ukifune. There I should live my lonely existence, gazing at the blossoms and the Autumn leaves and the moon and the snow, and wait for an occasional splendid letter from him. This was all I wanted; and in time I came to believe that it would actually happen.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Autumn leaves in Sangoku, 1914

“The trees in our garden grew as thickly as those that spread their darkness at the foot of the Mount Ahigara, and in the Tenth month we had a blaze of red leaves, like a rich covering of brocade, which was far more impressive than anything on the surrounding hills. A visitor to our house mentioned that he had passed a place with some magnificent red foliage and I improvised:

What can excell this garden where I dwell
In my autumnal weariness?”

Toyohara Chikanobu, Autumn Leaves, 1897

Lady Sarashina’s disinterest in the real world around her is also evident in her descriptions of her travels; her knowledge of geography was limited and sometimes flawed, but she writes with ardour about a field of poppies, a sea of mist, or the beauty of the waves hitting the shore. She saw life through a poetic lense and real life facts and data had little meaning to her. Over time, she comes to regret wasting her life in dreams and wishes that instead she had invested more time in her spiritual growth, but in a way this is yet another escapism because monks live in the own world, away from society and its troubles. By engaging in spiritual concern, Sarashina could once again escape reality, just like Anais Nin. Needless to say that I find Lady Sarashina’s thoughts and reveries very relatable and I find it very poignant that a thousand years ago a girl lived who is so much like me and who could understand me like no one else does know. I can only imagine how lonely she felt in her reveries, since people mostly think that fantasising is a waste of time. Little do they know how pleasant it is … to cross the bridge of dreams and pass the time in that pleasant, other-world.

Shibata Zeshin, Autumn Grasses in Moonlight, 1872

“That evening we stayed in Kuroto Beach, when the white dunes stretched out far in the distance. A bright moon hung over the dense pine groves, and the wind soughed forlorny in the branches. The scene inspired us to write poems. Mine was:

Had I not stayed awake this night
When should I have seen the moon –
This Autumn moon that lights Kuroto Beach.”

Utagawa Hirshige II, Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Temple (Ishiyama shûgetsu), from the series Eight Views of Ômi (Ômi hakkei), 1859

“Late one nights towards the end of the 8th month I gazed at the wonderful dawn moon illuminating the dark cluster of trees and the mountainside, and I listened to the beautiful sound of a waterfall.

“If only I could share this moon
With one whose feelings are like mine –
This moon that lights the mountain village in the Autumn dawn!”

Poetry and Sadness of Abandoned Places

13 Aug

“The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet.”

(Cyril Connolly)

Maison of the Philosopher, picture found here.

I’ve always felt a fondness for things and places old and slightly tattered, where the moldy, dusty and sweet scent of the passing of time lingers in the air and every abandoned every day object is woven with stories and secrets. Abandoned houses, manors and castles posses such a sad, poetic beauty and their solitary abandoned state and slight decay makes them much more romantic to my eyes because every broken window, every crack on the wall, every tattered wallpaper, every porcelain cup, doll, a clock or a bed left behind tell a tale of a life once thriving between the four walls. Mystery and romance shrouds everything that would usually seem mundane in abandoned places; a left notebook, train ticket, old shoe, everything seems so precious and mysterious. I’d chose a cracked facade overgrown with ivy and perhaps even red roses, if I’m being fancy and decadent, over a brand new white facade any day because the former has so much vivacity and life in it, and a new building hasn’t lived much at all. Pristine and pretty perhaps it is, but doesn’t awake my curiosity at all.

With all that said, you can imagine my delight when I discovered a YouTube channel called “Bros of Decay“; two twenty-something year old brothers from Belgium make delightful videos about abandoned places; from very fancy and rich castles and manors with often odd and bizarre history behind them, to more average homes of working class people. Their filming locations range from Belgium and France to Italy, Spain and Portugal, even Japan, and I really enjoy observing the differences in architecture of different regions.  French countryside manors seem so dreamlike and I can’t help but imagine myself a little girl living in one of them; sleeping in a bedroom with white floral wallpapers, washing my face in a basin in the morning, playing with my porcelain dolls and practicing piano in the lovely drawing room downstairs with a view of the loveliest garden full of roses and lilies, maybe even a pond with a weeping willow stretching its branches over the water…. Yes, these videos are definitely fueling my daydreams! (As if they need further fueling) And that is why I felt the need to recommend them to all of you; I think they are just so well-made, the way they are filmed is great because you can real observe and soak in all the details, and also the lads are very polite and respectful and it’s really pleasant to watch over all. I hate when these types of videos are sensationalist. All the pictures in this post are from their site and of course you can watch the video for any of these lovely locations. Oh, and to add to the intro quote, dried roses are dead and they also smell sweet!

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – To Define Is To Kill, To Suggest Is To Create

11 Jun

“To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.”

(Stéphane Mallarmé)

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold–Southampton Water, 1872

The more I gazed at these near abstracts paintings by the American expatriate painter Whistler, these dreamy and vague river-scapes of the Thames, the more this quote by the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé kept coming to my mind: “To name an object is to do away with three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem which is derived from the satisfaction of guessing little by little; to suggest it, that is the illusion. It is the perfect handling of the mystery that Constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little in order to show a state of mind or inversely to choose an object and to disengage from it a State of mind, by a series of unriddlings.

Stephané Mallarmé’s poems are full of complicated and unique symbols which leaves the reader the space for interpretation, and he used music as inspiration and a role model because music is the most irrational and also most romantic of all the arts, as E.T.A. Hoffman said in the early nineteenth century. I see a direct parallel with this Mallarmé’s thought and these landscapes that Whistler painted in the 1870s are a visual portraits of that thought; the little boats and the setting sun in the painting “Nocturne: Blue and Gold–Southampton Water” just like the lights in the “Nocturne” bellow are more suggestive than direct, accurate, realistic portrayals of the scene. This vague interpretation of the scene Whistler saw before him gives these paintings a poetic flair, these are the kind of artworks one can gaze at for a long time and daydream. Reveries come easy when we gaze at something undefined and ready to be expanded with our imagination.

James Abbott McNeil, Nocturne, 1870-1877

James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American artist, but after coming to England in 1859, he never returned to his homeland again, but instead divided his time between London and Paris, and nurtured friendships with other artists and writers on the each side of the Channel; Gaultier, Swinburne, Manet and Courbet to name a few. Whistler is famous for promoting ‘art for art’s sake philosophy’, and enraging Ruskin who emphasised the social, moralistic role of art. He was also known for giving his paintings musical names, such as “Symphony” or “Nocturne”, which sometimes enraged the critics, but still fascinates the lovers of his art, myself included.

I really love the idea that the title Nocturne can be given to a painting as well, not just to a piece of classical music as is mostly the case. The title alone can the suggestive and influence our perception of the painting and a title such as “Nocturne” certainly directs my perception into a mystical, dreamy direction. In 1872, he wrote to Frederic Leyland, an amateur musician who inspired Whistler for his musically inspired titles: “I say I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me—besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish.” These Nocturnes are pure poetry on canvas. One would think that covering an entire canvas in monotonous shades of blue and grey would make a dull painting, but the effect is the opposite.

In 1877, Whistler exhibited his “Nocturne” series of the river Thames at the Grosvenor Gallery in London and these paintings truly enraged the art critic and writer John Ruskin who wrote of the exhibition that Whistler was “asking two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face“. This just show how scandalous these half-realistic and half-abstract paintings were to Victorians. Today, after all that art has gone through, the good and the bad, our eyes are so desensitised that these paintings could hardly be considered outrageous.

James Abbott McNeil, Nocturne: Blue and Silver, Chelsea, 1871

Natsume Soseki: Spring makes one drowsy…

26 Apr

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. I already wrote a book review for this novel and also a post about the Beauty in every day life in relation to the narrator’s thoughts, but today, on this wonderful, warm, green April afternoon, I wanted to share a passage from the first chapter in which the narrator speaks of the beauties of spring, seeing the world from the poet’s point of view, sadness and sensitivity as related to being a poet. I also love the point that detaching yourself from the situation makes you see the true Beauty of it, if you observe your life from a detached point of view, it turns into a poetic experience, I do this all the time and it’s wonderful. And to accompany this spring mood, a few lovely paintings by Renoir.

Scene from Marie Antoinette (2006)

“Spring makes one drowsy. The cat forgets to chase the mouse; humans forget that they owe money. At times the presence of the soul itself is forgotten, and one sinks into a deep haze. But when I behold that distant field of mustard blossom, my eyes spring awake. When I hear the skylark’s voice, my soul grows clear and vivid within me. It is with its whole soul that the skylark sings, not merely with its throat. Surely there’s no expression of the soul’s motion in voice more vivacious and spirited than this. Ah, joy! And to think these thoughts, to taste this joy – this is poetry.

Renoir, Girls Picking Flowers in a Meadow, about 1890

“Shelley’s poem about the skylark immediately leaps to my mind. I try reciting it to myself, but I can remember only two or three verses. One of them goes

“We look before and after

And pine for what is not:

Our sincerest laughter

With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Yes indeed, no matter how joyful the poet may be, he cannot hope to sing his joy as the skylark does, with such passionate wholeheartedness, oblivious to all thought of before and after. In Chinese poetry one often finds suffering expressed as, for instance, “a hundredweight of sorrows,” and similar expressions can be seen in Western poetry too of course, but for the non-poet, the poet’s hundredweight may well be a mere dram or so. It strikes me now that poets are great sufferers; they seem to have more than double the nervous sensitivity of the average person. They may experience exceptional joys, but their sorrows too are boundless. This being the case, it’s worth thinking twice before you become a poet….

Sorrows may be the poet’s unavoidable dark companion, but the spirit with which he listens to the skylark’s song holds not one jot of suffering. At the sight of the mustard blossoms too, the heart simply dances with delight. Likewise with dandelions, or cherry blossoms—but now I suddenly realize that in fact the cherries have disappeared from sight. Yes, here among these mountains, in immediate contact with the phenomena of the natural world, everything I see and hear is intriguing for me. No special suffering can arise from simply being beguiled like this—at worst, surely, it is tired legs and the fact that I can’t eat fine food.”

Renoir, Young Woman with a Japanese Umbrella, 1876

“But why is there no suffering here? Simply because I see this scenery as a picture; I read it as a set of poems. Seeing it thus, as painting or poetry, I have no desire to acquire the land and cultivate it, or to put a railway through it and make a profit. This scenery—scenery that adds nothing to the belly or the pocket—fills the heart with pleasure simply as scenery, and this is surely why there is neither suffering nor anxiety in the experience. This is why the power of nature is precious to us. Nature instantly forges the spirit to a pristine purity and elevates it to the realm of pure poetry. Love may be beautiful, filial piety may be a splendid thing, loyalty and patriotism may all be very fine. But when you yourself are in one of these positions, you find yourself sucked into the maelstrom of the situation’s complex pros and cons—blind to any beauty or fineness, you cannot perceive where the poetry of the situation may lie.

To grasp this, you must put yourself in the disinterested position of an outside observer, who has the leisurely perspective to be able to comprehend it. A play is interesting, a novel is appealing, precisely because you are a third-person observer of the drama. The person whose interest is engaged by a play or novel has left self-interest temporarily behind. For the space of time that he reads or watches, he is himself a poet.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Girls in the Grass Arranging a Bouquet, 1890

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Girl in the Garden at Mezy, 1891