Tag Archives: portrait

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

Pietro Longhi – Scenes from Everyday Life

12 Jan

Pietro Longhi is a wonderful Venetian eighteenth century painter who, unlike some of his contemporaries in Venice, devoted himself to portraying the simple beauties of everyday life. These days I enjoy gazing at his genre scenes and let’s take a look at a few interesting ones.

Pietro Longhi, The Painter in His Studio, 1741, oil on canvas, 41 × 53.3 cm (16 1/8 × 21 in)

A painting is a finished work, but in Longhi’s painting “The Painter in His Studio” we see the hidden, mysterious aspect of art and portrait painting; we see what happens behind the curtains, a sweet secret that only the artist, the sitter or the model know. In this work, a painter is painting an oval portrait of a Venetian noblewoman. Her clothes speak of her wealth and importance. I deserve to be captured for eternity on canvas, her gaze seems to say. Her hair is powdered and short, her stays laced, and a little dog is peeking under her lace sleeve. Considering how wide her sumptuous dress is, perhaps there is another dog hiding in there. Their carnivals and their masques, one never knows with these Venetians, what are they hiding, what is real and what a mirage. The man beside her; is he her husband, her brother, a father or a friend, we don’t know. But he also has a Venetian masque on his face, moved to the side though. Maybe he is telling the painter something really important. And look, his hand is about to pull something out of his inner pocket, what is it, a dagger? In case he is displeased with the painter’s work. Or some gold coins, if he thinks the likeness of the two faces, the one on canvas and the one in reality, is astounding. On the left of the painter, we see his painting equipment. The background is painted in muted brownish tones and is empty of details and ornamentation, we don’t see the continuation of rooms or space, which makes these three characters seem like actors on the stage, but then again, aren’t we all?

Pietro Longhi, Fainting, 1744, 50×61.8 cm (19 11/16 × 24 5/16 in)

From a calmness of a portrait sitting painting we are moving on to a more dramatic scene, painted around the same time, 1744, when Longhi was about forty-two years old; it is unsure whether he was born in 1701 or 1702. A lady dressed in a pastel pink gown, deadly pale and weak, is just opening her eyes. Quick, quick, someone call the doctor! The lady had fainted. Oh, she is opening her eyes slowly now. Her one hand is on her breast, the other is hanging limp. A soft pillow was brought so she can lay her head on it, and smelling salts are offered to her delicate nostrils. Do not let this pastel pink sweetness fool you, for this scene is not as innocent as it may seems at first.

The evidence of the crime lays open to our eyes in the bottom left corner; an overthrown little table with a notably Rococo playful and flamboyant chinoserie pattern, cards and a little velvet purse full of coins are scattered on the floor. People have gathered sympathetically around her, but this lady has a card or two up her sleeve. The reason she fainted is not the lack of fresh air, or the stays laced too tight, but rather the fact that she was loosing in the game. What else can she do but stage this silly little incident. Ha, but the man dressed in a long blue cloak and a long dark grey wig on the right doesn’t seem to believe her. His hand is stretched towards her as if he’s asking for the money. Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni praised Longhi’s portrayal of truth on his canvases, portrayal of the real world around them, and the painting “Fainting” most likely inspired Goldoni’s comedy “La finta ammalata or “The Fake Patient Woman” (1750–1751); there’s a scene in which the main character Rosaura had just fainted and she is surrounded by her friend, her suitor, her father and her doctor.

Pietro Longhi, The Game of the Cooking Pot, 1744, 49.8 × 61.8 cm (19 5/8 × 24 5/16 in)

Another charming and slightly confusing scene is presented in the painting “The Game of the Cooking Pot”. The lady in the gorgeous white gown is a sight to behold; her delicate pale face, her tiny pearl earring, a subtle pink flower in her powdered hair, her little white shoe peeking under the dress, all so dainty and doll-like in the typical Rococo way. But then there’s a guy on the right, holding a stick, his eyes tied with a handkerchief so he cannot see, and he is about to hit … the pot? The Game of pentola or The Game of the Pot is yet another one of strange Rococo games played by adults and not children which includes a person who has to strike the pot and smash it in order to find a pleasant surprise underneath. In a fancy Rococo interior carefree and pretty young people are indulging in lighthearted fun, and why would they not? Life is to be enjoyed. In the background, on the left, there’s some wine in jugs and some biscuits, little details that Longhi painted to add his scenes some warmth and domesticity.

What were the Venetians up to in the 1740s. This is sort of like an Instagram of their day and age; everything is smooth and perfect, there’s no smallpox, pimples, sadness or a bad hair day. Everyone is “caught” on the canvas having so much fun, like in a group selfie, a big smile everyone! And of course they are having much more fun than you are. Pietro Longhi’s focus on painting genre scenes led the art critics to compare his work to that of his English contemporary, the famous brutally satiric William Hogarth. This comparison isn’t true at all. They both placed their focus on the everyday life on their age and area, but Hogarth’s work tends to be harsh, his wittiness turns to sarcasm, whereas Longhi’s world is delicate and dainty, and figures in his paintings look like actors on stage, their face expressions and movements carefully devised to tell the tale. Pastel colours, fine brushstrokes, Longhi shows both the refined and frivolous past times of Venetians around him; gambling, playing games, sitting for portraits, reading letters, dancing, taking music lessons, receiving visitors. Every canvas is a scene from life. Also, the notable small size of these interior scenes is another thing which connects Longhi’s art with that of Vermeer and other seventeenth century Dutch painters who portrayed daily life, though with more modesty, mystery and coldness, they are after all people from the dark, rainy, and gloomy North.

Pietro Longhi, The Letter, 1746, oil on canvas, 61 x 49.5 cm (24 x 19 1/2 in)

In this painting I love the detail or a washing line with the white garments painted in such loose, feathery soft, almost ghostly strokes, it just looks so delicate, and adds to the aura of gentleness which matches the pale pretty girl’s pastel pink gown and a sweet round face.

Pietro Longhi, The Music Lesson, 1760, oil on copper, 44.6 x 57.6 x 0.2 cm (17 9/16 x 22 11/16 in)

Since when is holding hands crucial for learning the notes? Hmmm…. The music teacher’s profile alone, with the wide wicked smile and those eyebrows indicates a lecherous Faun-like nature. And look at the way the little dog is observing it all, with his paw in the air.

Georg F. Kersting – Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio

8 Nov

Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes are very loved and appreciated nowadays for their dreamy, dusky and contemplative beauty, but how did they came to be? Where did Friedrich find his inspiration and what was the mood in which he created his beautiful artworks?

The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him.

(Caspar David Friedrich)

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1811

In this portrait by his friend Kersting, the Romantic painter Friedrich is seen painting in his studio; a loner in his lonely cell. And look how bare, clean and ascetic the room seems, with bare wooden floors, a single window which lets in plenty of light which is important for painting, and nothing but the necessary furniture; a chair, a desk and an easel. There is no view from the window save for that of the sky. But that doesn’t even matter for this painter because his inspiration doesn’t come from gazing at nature and quickly sketching exactly what is in front of him. The way Friedrich’s landscapes came to be was firstly through walks in nature, with deep immersion into its mood and state; the way the clouds are, the very shade of pink the sky is, the way the air smells and feels.

In artist’s own words: I must stay alone and know that I am alone to contemplate and feel nature in full; I have to surrender myself to what encircles me, I have to merge with my clouds and rocks in order to be what I am. Solitude is indispensible for my dialogue with nature. And then, the painting arises on canvas after a long, solitary artistic meditation over the canvas, gathering what he had seen in nature and merging the visions of the reality with his imagination. Oh, I can so imagine Friedrich, the solitary man (not like in Johnny Cash’s song though), with his blonde sideburns and piercing gaze walking broodingly on the damp shore of the dark and cold Baltic sea, wearing a navy coat and a face expression which says ‘don’t come near me’. Despite his well-known isolated nature, Friedrich had friends, many of whom were fellow painters, but as he grew older, as times were changing and the style of his art was slowly but surely falling out of fashion, his early natural-born shyness and melancholy gradually turned to bitterness and isolation.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea, 1822

His landscapes are not portrayals of nature as he saw it, but rather – as he felt it, and that gives them their lyrical gentle beauty, the soft gradations of colours, the dusky shades, pinks, purples, dreamy blues. There is not rushed, harsh sketchiness of the plein air paintings that Impressionists painted. Each of his landscapes carries a different mood, and is open to many different interpretations because it is imbued with so much feeling and depth. Friedrich’s landscapes are particularly dreamy and some have the element of sublime, and that makes them different from the landscapes painted around the same time by the English painters J.M.W.Turner and John Constable. John Constable’s landscapes and nature studies, in contrast, are plain and simple what they are; the green meadow, the strong brown tree trunk, there’s isn’t plenty of dreaming and symbolism involved. Near the end of Friedrich’s life Romanticism and its worldviews were on the wane, and more realistic approach to things replaced the dreaminess. Ideas and movements such as positivism and Naturalism couldn’t appreciate the dreaminess of Friedrich’s landscapes and they were forgotten up until the late nineteenth century when the Symbolists, who were also more interested in the transcendent rather than material aspects of life, rediscovered them and saw in them the kind of Beauty that they also proposed. People nowadays seem to truly appreciate Friedrich’s paintings, his art is certainly more than just rediscovered, maybe it’s because it is so full of dreams and while we gaze at it, it resonated with the slumbering dreams that lie within us.

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1819

And here we have another version of Kersting’s portrait of Caspar David Friedrich painting in his studio. Kersting apparently thought that the image of Friedrich painting in his simple, bare, ascetic cell was so fascinating that eight years later he just had to paint it again. In this version, Friedrich is not actually shown painting, although we can assume that would be the next step. Here he is in a state of artistic meditation over his canvas, waiting for the perfect vision to clarify itself in his mind, waiting for the colours to pick themselves from the palette.

When Friedrich painted his wonderful landscapes everything but the Imagination was a distraction. A fellow painter of the time, Karl von Kügelgen wrote about Friedrich’s studio: “Even the things most necessary to painting – the box of paints, the bottles of linseed oil, and the oil-rag – were moved to the adjoining room, because Frederick was of the opinion that any objects would disturb his inner world of imagination…” I think I can understand things and clutter being distracting, but an empty bare room would disturb me I feel. Yet another painter and Friedrich’s pupil, Carl Gustav Carus, commented that Friedrich never made sketches: He never made sketches, cartoons, or color studies for his paintings, because he stated (and certainly he was not entirely wrong), that such aids chill the imagination somewhat. He did not begin to paint an image until it stood, living, in the presence of his soul…

Ghostly Pastel Portraits by John Corbet

2 May

These ghostly pastels by a contemporary artist John Corbet recently caught my attention. I was speechless at first and captivated by these eerie and mysterious portraits which kept haunting me until I felt compelled to write about them. Their faces seem mute and haunting, but if you look at them more closely, you will know that each has a story to tell.

Pastel Ghost Bearing Flowers

In Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human”, which is one of my favourite books ever, the main character Oba Yozo revels in secretly making ghostly self-portraits which he doesn’t show to anyone, except in that one rare occasion when he shows it to his friend Takeichi, the only person he thinks could possibly understand the strangeness of his art. It was Takeichi who started the topic of “ghost pictures” in the first place:

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. (…) I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

Ghost Portrait: The Monk

The idea of “ghost pictures” immediately struck me and long after I had finished reading the novel it lingered on my mind. Since that moment, I have been searching for art that has the same ghostly quality and mood. I found it in the elongated melancholic faces of Modigliani’s women, George Seurat’s conté crayon shadowy figures, and now again in these pastel portraits by John Corbet. The pastel above called “The Monk” instantly captivated me because the face is so shadowy and undefined; it looks haunting and mute, and yet, when I gaze in those eyes and that mouth, so black and small against the yellowish face, I have a feeling that he longs to speak and that if I gazed at his face long enough, I would hear the words in a hushed lonely voice coming from some other realm, in a language unknown to my ears. Notice the soft thrilling touches of blue on his face. This deliberate vagueness of expression and the soft undefined contours give these portraits their allure and the ghostly quality because one can tell they are not just ordinary portraits of people. Unmistakably they belong to some other world, whether it’s the invisible world of the spirits all around us, or the realm of dreams. Theme of ghosts or otherworldly creatures is dear to my heart. I often have nightmares, and the world I inhabit there is dark, chilling and filled with shadowy ghostly creatures whose faces I have never seen, but something tells me they would look similar to these pastels, especially the first one.

The thing that connects the “ghost pictures” discussed in the book with these pastels is the deep and profound way in which both artists see and feel the world around them and their willingness to see beyond the borders of this visible, material world, and the ability to transcend it with the help of their imagination and come back with art that is woven with mystique and secrets. A ghost picture needn’t always be a portrayal of someone departed, it is more about the ghostly quality in a portrait; a face which appears ethereal and slightly eerie to our human eyes, a face which brings inside us the feeling of transience and the fragility of life, a face which fills us with an inexplicable melancholy and reminds us of the mysteries of the spiritual world, and ultimately, a face which haunts us, shakes us and stirs something inside us which we cannot rationally explain. Ghostly faces on John Corbet’s pastels, whether it’s the melancholy monk or the spooky girl holding flowers above, or the lavender-haired lady and the sad-eyed messy haired girl bellow, all awake these feelings inside me when I look at them.

Pastel Ghost No 2: Mama

I love the way these pastels seem to have been drawn, in a spontaneous and intuitive way, as if led by an invisible hand – a ghostly hand. My initial impression isn’t so far from the truth and the way Corbet actually created these pastels; in semi darkness, near a dim candle, in a kind of trance; letting his soul guide his hand and his pastel, not the eyes alone. I also love the dreamy softness of these faces, especially on the pastel called “Mama”. It makes the face seem as if it is seen through a veil, a flimsy curtain, or a foggy window on an autumn twilight. These languid ghostly creatures seem as if they are slowly passing through our world, unnoticed by most and captured in art by those with sharper senses. These were my impressions of these ghostly portraits, but I suggest you check out the artist’s short and lyrical posts written in a form of letters to Edgar Allan Poe which further explore the personal meaning and inspiration behind these artworks. I am sure Mr Poe himself would love these portraits and would recognise their mysterious quality, he did after all discuss one painting and the artist’s quest for perfection in his short story “The Oval Portrait”. Here is an excerpt from the post about the pastel “The Monk”, you can read the whole post here:

As you so wisely suggested, I took my box of pastels and a few sheets of paper and visited the graveyard. I sat there for sometime from twilight to midnight, but nothing appeared. I was tired so finally I decided to go back. (…) As I quickened my pace I saw a figure in a black coat, walking towards me on the other side of the bridge. It was a fine coat he wore, he was no beggar, yet his face seemed like an old tree beaten by years and years of storms. As he passed by me he did not look at me, but I saw his eyes, and in them was the poetic wisdom of sorrow and loss. He was either a monk, or a poet. I turned to watch him leave, and once he crossed the bridge the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and like magic the fog cleared and the wind calmed – and he was gone.

As soon as I got home I opened my box of pastels and got to work on drawing the ghostly apparition and the wind and rain which pursued him. For the first time, it was like the pastels took on a life of their own, as though my hand were guided by a spirit – could it have been, Mr. Poe, the spirit of the monk? It was dark for I had but one candle lit, therefore I could just barely see what I was doing; the painting seemed to paint itself. The experience brought me such peace within, as though I were bringing consolation to the sorrow within his eyes. This, in turn, brought consolation to me.

I especially like this line: the painting seemed to paint itself.

Conté crayon ghostly portrait

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

13 Feb

William Orpen, The Mirror, 1900

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

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

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

Oh poor thing,

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

 

Mmm when you can go out late from Monday,

Till Saturday turns into Sunday,

And now you’re back here at Monday,

So we can do it all over again.

And you go aah ah ah

I want a refund,

I want a light,

I want a reason,

To make it through the night, alright.

 

And so you finally left school,

So now what are you going to do?

Now you’re so grown up,

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

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

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

Birth Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe – The Oval Portrait

19 Jan

Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day in 1809. It must have been a cold and dreary winter’s day in Boston when his parents, traveling actors, welcomed him into this sad world. If he had been a girl, he would have been named Cordelia because his mother was a fan of William Shakespeare and often played roles from his plays. But he was a boy and they named him Edgar instead, again a theatre-inspired name from the play “King Lear”, more about it here. Now is as good opportunity as ever to indulge in his poetry or prose, and I decided to remind you all of his perhaps the shortest short story called “The Oval Portrait” (1842) which lingers in the memory long after one reads it; the shortness and the vague ending leave one wanting more, and the complex ideas about the conflict of life vs art, reality versus the world of imagination, and the idea of art feeding on life and ultimately destroying it. These ideas carried within them a seed which, long after Poe’s death in 1849, traveled over the ocean and blossomed into sumptuous flowers; the “l’art pour l’art” philosophy and later Aesthetic movement and Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray”.

This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), there is a scene where a young man is reading a fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time. Their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.

“The Oval Portrait” starts as a Gothic tale with an unnamed narrator coming into a strange castle and becoming enamored with a portrait of a beautiful young woman on the wall, but the plot soon jumps from the narrator to the story about the portrait itself and its history, again there’s “the most poetic topic in the world” according to Poe himself; the death of a beautiful woman, a pale wistful bride and her half-mad artist husband. Here is the entire story accompanied by some portraits of pretty women painted around the same time the story was originally published:

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Bildnis eines Mädchens (Portrait of a Young Girl), 1840

THE CHATEAU into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary- in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room- since it was already night- to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed- and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long- long I read- and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought- to make sure that my vision had not deceived me- to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea- must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

Henry Mundy, Martha Kermode, c. 1840

“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!

József Rippl-Rónai – Haunting Faces

6 Sep

József Rippl-Rónai is considered one of the finest Hungarian painters and yet his paintings in garish colours with flat treatment of the surface cease to keep me interested. I could see them and forget them in the matter of seconds. His pastel portraits, on the other hand, are absolutely captivating and they have a rare haunting beauty.

József Rippl-Rónai, Woman’s Head with Red Bun, 1891

József Rippl-Rónai was born in the town of Kaposvár in the southern Hungary on the 23 May 1861. He attended grammar school and later, most unusually for someone who would went on to become such a fine painter, studied pharmacology. From 1881 he worked in an apothecary in his home town and as a private tutor for the family of count Zichy. He only casually attended some drawing classes, and once in a while travelled to Vienna to copy the works of old masters. In 1884 he was awarded a scholarship to study art in Munich, at last! It was common for the aspiring artists from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to study in Munich, or, if fate dealt them better cards, even in Paris; the place where everything was.

Rippl-Rónai was among those lucky students and after just two years in Munich, he got the opportunity to study in Paris with a fellow Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy who painted realist style genre scenes and whose influence, thank the providence, would not have an impact on Rippl-Rónai’s art. After settling in the big bustling city of boulevards, tree avenues, cafes, city of light and hope, he moved to Neully and briefly studied in Academie Julien. In Paris he met a lady who was to be his future wife, Lazarine, and, even more importantly for his art, he met and befriended a few progressive artists, Édouard Vuillard and later Paul Gauguin as well. In 1894, after his painting “My Grandmother” was exhibited in Parisian Salon Champ-de-Mars, the art group Les Nabis recognised him as one of their own. From then on, his artistic career only blossomed.

József Rippl-Rónai, My Grandmother, 1894

What amazes me is the fact that Rippl-Rónai’s well-known paintings are those influenced by Les Nabis, with flat space and bold colours, while his shadowy and ethereal pastel portraits are left in the shadow. A contemporary critic described his already mentioned painting “My Grandmother” as “a poem about the profound sadness of old age”, and he was very right in comparing it to a poem. All of Rippl-Rónai’s pastels have this quality of transcending the borders of arts; at times they reminds me of some Swinburne’s verses, at times they make me think of wistful violins in candle lit chambers. Undeniably, they posses a striking lyrical beauty and an eeriness that would interest even the great Edgar Allan Poe himself. Perhaps Rippl’s painting “Woman’s Head with Red Bun” shows the kind of face that Poe had in mind in his short story “The Oval Portrait”. They have a musical element about them, lyrical too, a string of a lyre, a soft hush of a violin, a fragrance of withering roses, delicacy of something passing and transitory, unearthly beauty, verses written in ink and slowly fading, these are the faces of women you see once, only for a moment, and spend your entire life fantasising about.

A little digression here. In his essay on Beethoven, E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German Romantic author, described music as “the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infinite. Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing…” Likewise, Rippl-Rónai’s pastel portraits stand on the border of different arts, soaked in music notes, whispering verses…

József Rippl-Rónai, Red-haired Parisian Girl, 1891, pastel

These pastels are something extraordinary in Rippl-Rónai’s oeuvre, the farthest he went from his Realist beginning, the closest he got to Symbolist tendencies, to aestheticism and l’art pour l’art philosophy of the late 19th century. In “Woman’s Head with Red Bun”, this delicate oval face seems to arise from darkness and appear in its smooth as ivory, pale as milk and moonlight colour just for the viewer. Distant, untouchable, delicate as a lily, she oozes fragility and gentleness, and soft perfumes and sounds of wistful violins, her lips are two rose petals, her large blue eyes, watery and soft even without the drops of belladonna, are two wells that reflect the languorous world of dreams. The transition between the strongly contrasting colours, black and white, are ever so soft, and give the appearance of something that is slowly vanishing, as if every time you blink and then open your eyes again she will be gone; she isn’t really here anyway, she is just passing through this material world without touching it, without being tainted by it.

Painting “Red-haired Parisian Girl” resides in an equally dreamy other-world as the previous maiden, but hers is the kind where you leave all your hopes before your enter. If the previous pastel showed a ghostly maiden, this one then is surely a lesbian vampire or a muse gone mad, laudanum addict, the face of Elizabeth Siddal from the other side of the grave. Distant gaze of those aqua blue eyes that also match the colour of the background are as eerie as they are fatal and inviting. Masses of her fiery red hair overwhelm the bounds of the canvas, There’s a certain masculinity in her face the strong jawline and neck, along with coppery hair, bring to mind Rossetti’s somnambulist femme fatales, beautiful and cruel, irresistible and cold. This is a face from a dandy’s opium dream.

József Rippl-Rónai, Lili Darvas Playing Lonti, 1922, pastel

The mystic shadowy beauty of these pastels reminds me of one poem in prose written by a Croatian Symbolist poet and writer Antun Gustav Matoš (1873-1914) called “Shadow”, these paintings, to me, seem to match Matoš’s lyrical dream-like visions:

I love the mournful shadow, the dozing light: light which dreams of the night. I love the shadow, twin sister of the warm sun and of the cold moon. I love the shadow, my eternal adopted sister and companion which slumbers beside me, walks near me, my dark picture and my caricature. Yes, I love the shadow, yellow, grey, black; the shadow, sad and silent as death….

O, Shadow, child of the day and the night! Shadowy morning and purple evening! Shadow, child of darkness and light, pale daughter of enigma, opening melancholy silent weary eyes, and through them life peers wonderingly into mysterious death! Last night, my love, you were trembling against my breast with the moist eyes of affection and happiness. I named you beauty, happiness, and woman, but there remained a handful of ashes in place of honey. Love, you also are a shadow….

The shade told me, the shade which grew larger and larger behind the old oak beneath the moonlight whilst awaiting the dew and the dark song of the nightingale under the shrubbery of the hawthorne and brier rose, such shady, foggy and grey fables. The shade was whispering to me this morning as well, as it walked under the fleecy cloud across the field of stubble, caressing the larks’ and the quails’ nests, and kissing the quivering tops of the field flowers.

Shadow, thou soft pillow of light: Shadow, thou black bed of life! And when once the planets extinguish, you will remain the empress of life.

I love you, Shadow, pure silent goddess: lift up your soft mantle of fog streaked with golden secrets, and cover my weary eyes, to close them to embrace my shadow.(Antun Gustav Matoš, Shadow)

József Rippl-Rónai, Woman with Red Hair, c. 1890s

József Rippl-Rónai, Green-Eyed Woman, 1901, pastel

József Rippl-Rónai, Girl on Blue Background, date unknown

József Rippl-Rónai, Sitting Nude with Red Hair, 1891, pastel

József Rippl-Rónai, Parisian Woman, 1891, oil on canvas