Tag Archives: Realism

Broken Blossoms (1919) – A Lyrical Tale of Love, Idealism and Death

19 May

Today I will talk about my favourite silent film ever, Broken Blossoms (1919), which tells a story of an innocent love between a beautiful waif girl Lucy and a Chinese opium-smoking dreamer Cheng, broken idealism and death, set in the seedy and decaying Limehouse district of London.

D.W. Griffith’s film “Broken Blossoms” first premiered on 13th May 1919, almost a hundred years ago. The introductory title card says: “It is a tale of temple bells, sounding at sunset before the image of Buddha; it is a tale of love and lovers; it is a tale of tears“. It was based on Thomas Burke’s short story “The Chink and the Child” from his collection of short stories called “Limehouse Nights”, first published in 1916, and it tells the story of a sad, helpless and beautiful twelve year old girl called Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish), her loutish and abusive boxer father (Donald Crisp), and a man recently arrived from China, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess), whose dream is “to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.”

I have immediately been attracted to the atmosphere of the film; seedy, dangerous streets and alleys of London’s East End, with poverty-stricken immigrants, thieves and prostitutes, and a little girl wandering the streets all alone, an untainted little blossom whose heart yearns for kindness, gentleness and flowers. The same dark gritty streets have swallowed Cheng’s idealism. He is presented as a naive and romantic opium-smoking idealist and a dreamer, who finds himself too weak to fight evils and injustices that surround him, and instead of spreading the gentle message of Buddha, he wastes time in opium-induced reverie, working in his shop or standing at the corner, lost in his thought, not just powerless against the mud of society, but lying in its dirt.

“The Yellow Man watched Lucy often. The beauty which all Limehouse missed smote him to the heart.” (32:43)

“Lucy’s starved heart aches for the flowers.” (36:38)

Thomas Burke’s literary style is described as a blend of realism and romanticism, and this is exactly the kind of mood that Griffith has created. Throughout the film, the opposites clash and meet; Lucy lives in poverty and is abused mentally and physically and yet she dreams not of wealth and power, but of flowers and kindness, and Cheng is just a shop keeper on the outside, but his mind is always in the state of sweet reverie. Their life-conditions are realistic, but their idealistic friendship and love are so naive and romantic. When the two finally meet in the street, Cheng’s kindness soon grows into innocent adoration for this pretty little thing.

Burke’s fantasy of Limehouse follows in this tradition of an alternative world-turned-upside-down … a French definition of chinoserie that neatly encapsulated the late-Victorian and Edwardian concepts of Chineseness which found expression in the staged Orientalisms of Looking-Glass worlds. (…) In Bakhtinian terms, Chinese Limenhouse presented itself as a place of carnival. The district of Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway are London streets overlaid with the trappings of an alien culture.  The shop windows are filled with arcane products, restaurants are denoted by weird hieroglyphs and serve weirder food. Stragely dressed people and the locality’s dimly lit glooms provoke an early association with theatrical spectacle and grotesquerie, Limehouse is always enveloped in transforming mists and enveloping fogs.” (Thomas Burke’s Dark Chinoiserie: Limehouse Nights and the Queer Spell of Chinatown, by Anna Veronica Witchard)

Sad little Lucy forcing a smile

Here’s a lyrical part from the story describing the moments Cheng saw Lucy and his daydreams about her from then on: “So he would lounge and smoke cheap cigarettes, and sit at his window, from which point he had many times observed the lyrical Lucy. He noticed her casually. Another day, he observed her, not casually. Later, he looked long at her; later still, he began to watch for her and for that strangely provocative something about the toss of the head and the hang of the little blue skirt as it coyly kissed her knee.

Then that beauty which all Limehouse had missed smote Cheng. Straight to his heart it went, and cried itself into his very blood. Thereafter the spirit of poetry broke her blossoms all about his odorous chamber. Nothing was the same. Pennyfields became a happy-lanterned street, and the monotonous fiddle in the house opposite was the music of his fathers. Bits of old songs floated through his mind: little sweet verses of Le Tai-pih, murmuring of plum blossom, rice-field and stream. Day by day he would moon at his window, of shuffle about the streets, lightning to a flame when Lucy would pass and gravely return his quiet regard; and night after night, too, he would dream of a pale, lily-lovely child.

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 1

A quote from the story:

Always the white face was scarred with red, or black-furrowed with tears; always in her steps and in her look was expectation of dread things. (…) Yet, for all the starved face and the transfixed air, there was a lurking beauty about her, a something that called you in the soft curve of her cheek that cried for kisses and was fed with blows, and in the splendid mournfulness that grew in eyes and lips. The brown hair chimed against the pale face, like the rounding of the verse. The blue cotton frock and the broken shoes could not break the loveliness of her slender figure or the shy grace of her movements as she flitted about the squalid alleys of the docks…

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 3

Cheng had seen Lucy many times before, but they have never conversed. Their encounter takes place one evening when Lucy, after being beaten up by her father, weak and vulnerable, aimlessly wanders the dangerous streets at night and somehow finds herself lying on the floor of his shop. When Cheng returns to his shop after going out for noodles and tea, his mind still floating in a vibrant opium dream, he think she too is a product of his altered conscience, but quickly comes to his senses and takes care of her. These are his thoughts upon that sweet unexpected encounter: “O lily-flowers and plum blossoms! O silver streams and dim-starred skies! O wine and roses, song and laughter! For there, kneeling on a mass of rugs, mazed and big-eyed, but understanding, was Lucy … his Lucy … his little maid. Through the dusk she must have felt his intense gaze upon her; for he crouched there, fascinated, staring into the now obscured corer where she knelt.

Breathing in an amber flute to this alabaster cockney girl her love name – White Blossom. (from a title card, at 55.18)

Now, for the first time in her life, Lucy feels safe and loved, and he nurtures her for three nights; showers her with kisses, gentleness and hugs, listens to her sorrows, buys her a doll and flowers, cares for her as if she were indeed a gentle flower found on a road. He dresses her up in beautiful, sumptuous gold and blue fabrics from the far East, thus turning her into a little Chinese princess, he even gives her a love-name: White Blossom. In this pale, frail Cockney girl he found an object of affection and a soul to offer nourishment to. This is where an interesting technical aspect of the film comes from; the scenes in his Oriental fairy-tale bedroom are in a pink-purple colour so they look magical indeed compared to the  which is black and white. His room is a safe haven of beauty.

What he brought to her was love and death. For he sat by her.  He looked at her – reverently, then passionately. He touched her – wistfully yet eagerly. He locked a finger in her wondrous hair. She did not start away; she did not tremble. (…) No, she was not afraid. His yellow hands, his yellow face, his smooth black hair… well, he was the first thing that had ever spoken soft words to her; the first thing that had ever laid hand on her that was not brutal; the first thing that had deferred in manner towards her as though she, too, had a right to live. She knew his words were sweet, though she did not understand them.

1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 2

Slowly, softly they mounted the stairs to his room, and with almost an obeisance he entered and drew her in. A bank of cloud raced to the east and a full moon thrust a sharp sword of light upon them. Silence lay over all Pennyfields. With a bird-like movement, she looked up at him – her face alight, her tiny hands upon his coat – clinging, wondering, trusting. He took her hand and kissed it; repeated the kiss upon her cheek and lip and little bosom, twining his fingers in her hair. Docilely, and echoing the smile of his lemon lips in a way that thrilled him almost to laughter, she returned his kisses impetuously, gladly. (…) So they stood in the moonlight, while she told him the story of her father, of her beatings, and starvings, and unhappiness.

After the rapture of their encounter passes, Cheng began to redecorate his little room to make it fit for his White Blossom:

… the clock above the Millwall docks shot twelve crashing notes across the night . When the last echo died, he moved to a cupboard, and from it he drew strange things… formless masses of blue and gold, magical things of silk, and a vessel that was surely Aladdin’s lamp, and a box of spices. He took these robes, and, with tender, reverent fingers, removed from his White Blossom the besmirched rags that covered her, and robed her again, and led her then to the heap of stuff that was his bed, and bestowed her safely. For himself, he squatted on the floor before her, holding one grubby little hand. There he crouched all night, under the lyric moon, sleepless, watchful; and sweet content was his. (…) Weary and trustful, she slept, knowing that the yellow man was kind and that she might sleep with no fear of a steel hand smashing the delicate structure of her dreams.

Here is how the room of his Oriental princess is described in the story:

…and now at last his room was prepared for his princess. It was swept and garnished, and was an apartment worthy a maid who is loved by a poet-prince. There was a bead curtain. There were muslins of pink and white. There were four bowls of flowers, clean, clear flowers to gladden the White Blossom and set off her sharp beauty. And there was a bowl of water, and a sweet lotion for the bruise on her cheek. (…) Cleansed, and robed and calm, she sat before him, perched on the edge of many cushions as on a throne, with all the grace of the child princess in the story. She was a poem. The beauty hidden by neglect and fatigue shone out now more clearly and vividly, and from the head sunning over with curls to the small white feet, now bathed and sandalled, she seemed the living interpretation of a Chinese lyric. And she was his; her sweet self and her prattle, and her birdlike ways were all his own. Oh, beautifully they loved. For two days he held her. Soft caresses from his yellow hands and long, devout kisses were all their demonstration. Each night he would tend her, as might mother to child…

So far, everything seems idyllic; a tale of love, a tale of blossoms, sweet melodies and sweet words spoken in moonlight, in the seedy streets of Limehouse where the warm light of lanterns permeates the eternal mists, but after three dreamy nights, Lucy’s father found out of her whereabouts and was furious to hear that a foreigner, a yellow-man had taken his daughter, even though he himself had never loved her. When Cheng was out to buy more rice, the furious Burrows came to the chamber of White Blossom, smashed all the beautiful porcelain, ripped the muslin curtains, and dragged Lucy by hair downstairs and back to their house… To quote the story: “The temple was empty and desolate; White Blossom was gone.”

There is a famous scene from the film called “The Closet Scene”, which you can watch here, where Lucy is hiding in a closet and her father is trying to smash the door with an axe, and she’s screaming (we can’t hear her of course), but her face expressions reveal the fear she’s feeling. It is said that in reality she was screaming so convincingly that lots of people gathered outside the studio, thinking that there really was something bad going on.

Death of the White Blossom had made life impossible for Cheng too:

The sacrament of his high and holy passion had been profaned; the last sanctuary of the Oriental  – his soul dignity – had been assaulted. The love robes had been torn to ribbons; the veil of his temple cut down. Life was no longer possible; and life without his little lady, his White Blossom, was no longer desirable.

More in the state of deep sadness and despair than anger, Cheng took the frail lifeless little body of Lucy, still warm, to his home, not a soul had seen him in that night of thick velvety river mist and….

He laid her upon the bed, and covered the lily limbs with the blue and yellow silks and strewed upon her a few of the trampled flowers. Then, with more kisses and prayers, he crouched beside her. So, in the ghastly Limehouse morning, they were found – the dead child, and the Chink, kneeling beside her, with a sharp knife gripped in a vice-like hand, its blade far between his ribs.

American screen actress Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) in costume for her role in the MGM film ‘Romola’, an adaptation of George Eliot’s novel, directed by Henry King, 1924

Last spring I watched a lot of Old Hollywood films, in particular I found myself falling in love with silent films and watched a lot of those. I really loved the Gothic suspense mood of “The Sparrows” (1926) starring Mary Pickford, but “Broken Blossoms” is still my favourite silent film. I’ve fancied Lillian over all other silent film actresses for a long time. Mary Pickford is more famous, without a doubt, but she is cheerful, happy-go-lucky, like the Sun, while Lillian’s face exudes melancholy and wistfulness, she is more like the Moon. One line from Rabindranath Tagore comes to my mind whenever I think of Lillian: “Her wistful face haunts my dreams like the rain at night.

Role of the frail and gentle Lucy is typical for Lilian Gish. She said it herself: “I played so many frail, downtrodden little virgins in the films of my youth that I sometimes think I invented that stereotype of a role.” I happen to love the characters of gentle, fragile, helpless, beautiful waif-like virgins, guilty as charged. I know that silent films are not for everyone, but I see them as hidden jewels! I’ve noticed that I pay way more attention while watching a silent film, because the face expressions, gestures and title cards mean way more;  you have to read their feelings from their face, isn’t that wonderful?! I also very much love the fashion aspect of the films; Lillia Gish has the cutest hairstyle, and the same goes for the clothes both she and Mary Pickford are often wearing; hats, frilly dresses, white lace… It is amazing how they were in their twenties and still playing child-parts, while today girls of fifteen are encouraged to look older and more attractive.

In the end, they are both “Broken Blossoms”; broken idealism and broken life. Have you see the film? Read the story? Don’t you think Lillian is a pretty little thing? The film is on Youtube, as are many other silent films, and Thomas Burke’s stories you can read here. I felt so inspired after watching the film again, that I decided to read not just this story, but some other from the collection as well. They are so interesting and lyrical, and despite being set in London, the atmosphere is that of a magical Oriental world. Suddenly everything is about street lamps, mists, blossoms, perfumes, sweet melodies and roses. Here is a quote from another story, “The Sign of the Lamp”: “He talked of a land of lilies and soft blue nights which he had left that he might adventure in strange countries, and see the beauties of the white girls of other lands and learn great things… All these things he told her in successive sweet evenings of June, when Limehouse, was a city of rose and silver, and the odour of exotic spices lured every sense to the secret amiable delights of the pillow.” So alluring, can you resist not reading it?

Kitchen Sink Dramas – Dark Side of the Sixties

10 Dec

I love the 1960s. And I think you already know that. I love Syd Barrett, early Pink Floyd and psychedelia in London, I love Twiggy’s doll-like make up, I love Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle Vague films, especially those starring Anna Karina, I love listening to young, sweet and innocent Marianne Faithfull singing ‘Come and Stay With Me’ or ‘As Tears Go By’, I love watching films with gorgeous Brigitte Bardot, I love listening to Jim Morrisson singing about L.A. – the city of light, I love looking at pictures of Jean Shrimpton shot by David Bailey, I love the student’s protests in Paris and Jane Birkin and Serge singing together, I love the mini dress. But I also love the other side of the sixties, not so glamorous and swinging aspect of the decade, I love the kitchen sink realism.

1960s-shelagh-delaneyShelagh Delaney, by Arnold Newman, 1961

Kitchen sink realism or kitchen sink drama is a cultural movement that manifested itself in films, theatre, art and television plays. It’s characteristic for late 1950s and early 1960s, but because the themes are so universal the term can be applied to artworks and films of later date, for example, Ken Loach’s film Looks and Smiles (1981) has all the characteristics of a kitchen sink drama but was made in the eighties. Also, an earlier film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) resembles kitchen sink realism very much, it deals with poverty and limited education opportunities for lower classes seen through the prism of a working class Irish-immigrant family in Brooklyn. In a way, kitchen sink realism is an aesthetic, and not just a movement.

Typical kitchen sink drama characters are working class lads and girls who all want something more and better of life, although they often can’t define just what is it they long for, live in the North of England or the Midlands in council houses, or grim attic apartments. They are young, intelligent and often good looking, but their social background, along with a string of bad decisions makes them trapped in lives of resignation, bitterness and disillusionment.

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-2A Taste of Honey, 1961, with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin

Jo from ‘A Taste of Honey (1961)’ is a fifteen year old schoolgirl who falls in love with a black sailor and gets pregnant, in ‘Room at the Top (1959)‘ a working class lad Joe has to decide between living with a woman he truly loves or marrying a pretty young middle class girl which will land him a great job, in ‘Poor Cow (1967)‘ Joy lives with an abusive husband who ends up in jail and has to take care of a small son while still craving beauty, romance and pleasure, in ‘Up the Junction (1965)’ Rube, a young girl working in a confectionery factory, gets pregnant and goes through a traumatic illegal abortion because that’s the only option, In ‘Look Back in Anger (1959)‘ dissatisfied Jimmy Carter, played by Richard Burton, has a sweet-stall in the market, plays trumpet and lives with a passive middle class wife Allison, in ‘The L-Shaped Room (1962)‘ Jane is pregnant and doesn’t want to marry the father, Cathy Come Home (1966) deals with the subject of homelessness.As you can see, every character has a deep inner turmoil and usually ends up unable to fight back the cruel reality.

Their ideals are unattainable, they are in the gutter but they are trying to look at the stars – but there’s none to be seen on that dark, bleak sky of the industrial north. What they want they cannot reach, and if they do get what they want- there’s usually a nasty price to be paid. Was it worth it, they all ask themselves after the taste of honey has vanished from their lips.

by Arnold Newman, bromide print, 1961Shelagh Delaney, by Arnold Newman, 1961

It would be impossible to write this post without mentioning Morrissey and The Smiths; it was because of Morrissey that I was introduced to Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey, and then the movement itself. Perhaps the reason I loved it so much lies in the fact that I love Morrissey’ lyrics, which often deal with similar subjects as the kitchen sink dramas; ‘small-town frustration, lost dreams and complicated loves’ (Why Pamper Life’s Complexities? Essay on The Smiths).

This quote from the book already mentioned above illustrates the connection between kitchen sink dramas and Morrissey’s lyrics:

Kitchen-sink characters such as Jo from ‘A Taste of Honey’, Arthur from ‘Saturday Night Sunday Morning’, Billy from ‘Billy Liar’ and Colin from ‘The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner’ are denied access to the ‘honey’ for most of their lives. Their moment of enlightenment – ‘the taste of honey’ in their lives – is ephemeral and comes under the risk of punishment. This essential dreamless quality of kitchen-sink world can found at the heart of many of Morrissey’s lyrics, and he himself was seen during his years with The Smiths as the official voice of gauche and disillusioned youth.

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-4A Taste of Honey (1961) with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin

Morrissey’s lyrics go hand in hand with bleak aesthetic of the North; smoke rising from the chimneys, small flats with wallpapers peeling off, endless row of red-bricked houses which all look the same just like the days which linger on bringing nothing but dullness. He articulated provincial boredom and feeling of alienation from everyone around him very well. His lyrics create poetic images that seemed to have arisen not only from his own experience of loneliness and life in the north, but also from kitchen sink dramas he loved and often borrowed lyrics from. He sang of kissing under the iron bridge, coming back to the old house (which he never will because it was demolished like a lot of houses in Manchester at the time), short-lasting loves; shyness that is criminally vulgar; going to clubs, standing alone going home alone and wanting to die.

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-6

1961-a-taste-of-honey-with-rita-tushingham-5A Taste of Honey (1961) with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin; “This place stinks. That river, it’s the colour of lead.” (says Jo in Act II)

One song in particular, This Night Has Opened My Eyes, deals with kitchen-sink theme directly. Morrissey took inspiration from Shelagh Delaney’s play ‘A Taste of Honey’. In his other song ‘Reel Around the Fountain’ he even incorporated a line from the play that goes ‘I dreamt about you last night, I fell of my bed twice.’

This night has opened my eyes
And I will never sleep again
You kicked and cried like a bullied child
A grown man of twenty-five
Oh, he said he’d cure your ills
But he didn’t and he never will
Oh, save your life
Because you’ve only got one
The dream has gone
But the baby is real
Oh, you did a good thing
She could have been a poet
Or, she could have been a fool
Oh, you did a bad thing
And I’m not happy
And I’m not sad
Whereas he sang with an undertow of melancholy, in addition to songs being coated in whimsical melodies thanks to Johnny Marr, another band, Manic Street Preachers sang of similar issues, such as boredom and provincial claustrophobia with a genuine working class anger and resentment. Another northern band from Sheffield, Pulp, has a distinct kitchen-sink mood in their lyrics from 1990s, dealing with themes of provincial loneliness, sex and class struggle.

1967-poor-cow-1967-ken-loach-terence-stamp-carol-white-12

1967-poor-cow-1967-ken-loach-terence-stamp-carol-white-10

1967-poor-cow-1967-ken-loach-terence-stamp-carol-white-11Carol White in Poor Cow (1967), dir. Ken Loach

Shelagh Delaney, who wrote ‘A Taste of Honey’ when she was just eighteen years old, describes the kitchen-sink aesthetic very well in a short TV report for BBC Four in 1960. What struck me is that she loved living in Salford, and admitted she gets very homesick whenever she’s away from it. This is ironic because most of kitchen-sink characters are dying to get out of their provincial towns, but Delaney loved the atmosphere of the place, she loved the vitality of people, the language and the situations were all wellsprings of inspiration. She said: ‘And the language is alive, its viral, it lives and it breathes and you know exactly where’s it’s coming from, right out of the earth.

Delaney also called Salford a drug, explaining that even if you wanted to leave, the place hold you back and it’s impossible to say goodbye to it.

1962-the-l-shaped-room-1962-with-leslie-caron-6The L-Shaped Room (1962) with Leslie Caron

Before I sat down writing this post, I asked myself what is it exactly that I love about kitchen sink dramas. And I can’t really pin-point one particular thing, it was love at first sight I suppose. First of all, I love that it’s about the real people in real situations. I don’t like sugar-coated things, they only make you detest your own life and poison you with desires and daydreams about things that will never happen, at least not for you. But kitchen sink dramas are as real as Dostoyevsky’s novels. Characters are always faced with difficult decisions, live in a place they want to escape from, and there’s always a sense that what they want will cause their downfall. What started as ‘just a kiss’ could and probably will end up in pregnancy because characters such as Jo in A Taste of Honey, Rube in Up the Junction and Jane in The L-Shaped Room have no luck when it comes to the matters. And men are working class heroes and that’s something to be. They usually deal with limited employment opportunities, hard labour in factories and difficulty in reconciling their responsibilities and desires, along with the disdain they feel from the upper classes when they try to ‘invade’ their territory.

Watching them, and observing how they deal with these very difficult situations and decisions acts as a catharsis for me, in a way that Aristotle described it as ‘purification of emotions through art’. He thought that art (in this case film) ought to evoke feelings of compassion and fear and thereby purify the feelings of the viewer. Kitchen sink dramas definitely do that for me. When I think of Jo being pregnant with a ‘grown man of 25 who said he’d cure her ills but he didn’t and he never will’, or those girls in ‘Up the Junction’ working in a factory, living for the weekend to go out, put that eyeliner on and dance to some whimsical tunes, or Allison deciding whether she’ll stay with Jimmy or not – these situations make all my problems seem trivial, and I end up crying for them because their lives are so helpless and I don’t know what I’d do in their situations.

1959-look-back-in-anger-with-richard-burton-2Look Back in Anger (1959) with Mary Ure and Richard Burton

I also like the aesthetic of these kitchen sink dramas; everything is dark, rainy and cold, people seem to live on tea and toast, women walk around wearing petticoats and skirts all day long with their hair made for the week, children play on streets and clothes hang on the washing line, while the landscape always seems dominated by tall chimneys of factories, and red bricked houses go on and on, and people walk in the small alleyways clutching umbrellas and wondering when will that day come they’ll finally escape from their shitty town, and there’s not a single tree in the sight. And still, markets are lively, and people smile. Children play and young couples kiss. Hope lies beyond everything.

1956-kenneth-haigh-right-as-jimmy-porter-with-helena-hughes-alan-bates-and-mary-ure-in-the-original-production-of-look-back-in-anger-at-the-royal-court-in-london-in-1956Kenneth Haigh (right) as Jimmy Porter, with Helena Hughes, Alan Bates and Mary Ure in the original production of Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in London in 1956. Photograph: Charles Hewitt (source)

In this post I wanted to show you that, while the sixties are mostly loved and remembered for their swinging and glamorous qualities, there’s also a ‘darker’ side to them. Kitchen sink dramas deal with social and economic problems of post-war Britain shown through the psychological portrayal of an individual – it’s up to you to embrace their dark charms.

Now I’ll recommend you films that were my personal favourites: A Taste of Honey (1961), Poor Cow (1967), Look Back in Anger (1959), The L-Shaped Room (1962), Alfie (1966), and some of later date by Ken Loach: Kes (1969) and Looks and Smiles (1981). Mike Leigh seems to nurture a similar aesthetic in some of him films, although they are noticeably less grim, but I love them as well, particularly Naked (1993), Life is Sweet (1990) and All or Nothing (2002).

Do you like the aesthetic and themes of kitchen sink dramas?

The Railway by Edouard Manet

24 Jan

1873. The Railway by Edouard Manet Edouard Manet, The Railway, 1873

This painting perfectly embodies Charles Baudelaire’s idea of ‘modernity’. (his quote: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.‘) Baudelaire argued that art should capture the modern life, both its glamour and bleakness, with a constant awareness of its transience. Baudelaire’s ideas came to life through the brushstrokes of Impressionists. Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted parties and dance scenes, Claude Monet painted bridges, trains and seasides, Pissaro painted boulevards, Gustave Caillebotte the streets of Paris, but it was the radical young artist called Edouard Manet who beautifully captured Baudelaire’s ideas. In return, Baudelaire praised Manet in times when art critics were still enraged by his paintings Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass.

1873. The Railway by Manet, detail 2

The first thing you’ll notice about this painting is the straightforward gaze on the face of this rosy-cheeked and red haired woman, modeled by Manet’s favourite model, Victorine Meurent. She appeared in many of his paintings, most notably the two already mentioned above: Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass. In this painting she posed as a nanny and her piercing gaze is evident as well, though she seems a bit distant, her eyes sad and tired. She is dressed in a navy gown with wide pagoda sleeves; typical fashion of the time. There’s a sleeping puppy in her lap, a closed fan and a book. She seems to have been reading that book, but something distracted her.

1873. The Railway by Manet, detail 6

1873. The Railway by Manet, detail 5

Next to her stands a little girl in white dress with large blue bow. Model for the little girl was a daughter of Manet’s friend Alphonse Hirsch. Her black hair ribbon matches the one her nanny is wearing around her neck. The little girl turned her back on us. We can’t see her face, thought she appears to be amused by the train passing by, clutching the iron grating like a restless captive bars of its cage. Large brushstrokes of solid black are spread across the canvas, dominating the background.

The setting includes the train station in Paris called Gare Saint-Lazare. It was a spot painted by fellow Impressionists such as Gustave Caillebotte and Claude Monet, but Manet approached the subject quite differently. There is no visible train; only the white cloud of steam indicates its presence.

1873. The Railway by Manet, detail 3

Motif of trains is much more than just an Impressionistic fancy. Train station is a busy but vivid place, a place of tears or joy, depending on whether somebody is traveling far away, or returning after a long trip. Trains could take you anywhere out of Paris, from a grey cityscape to the beautiful gardens in the suburbs, which Monet used to visit. Here the setting symbolises bustle, changes, movement and adventures but both the nanny and the little girl are on the other side, on the wrong side of the fence. They’re not in the centre of activities, they’re just passively watching, that is, the nanny is gazing at us, but the little girl is still full of hope, her eyes riveted at Gare Saint-Lazare.

Edouard Manet’s anniversary of birth was yesterday, so I think it’s always nice to remember artists on their birthdays.

Edgar Degas – Lost in Reveries

27 Jul

Again Degas. Again one of his lesser known works which I’ve chosen just to prove that even the most ordinary paintings have a story of their own and a deeper meaning.

1865. Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers - Degas1865 Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers

In this very interesting painting, the woman and flowers are competing for the viewer’s attention. Well, ‘competing’ is maybe a harsh word because the woman seems utterly uninterested in anything and she’s in fact looking into the distance, focused on something we cannot see, though I wonder what could it be. On the other hand, flowers, beautiful chrysanthemums if I’m not mistaken, have taken most of the space on canvas, totally pushing the woman out of the focus. Conventionally, we are taught to look at a human figure in art as the centre, but here the chrysanthemums serve as a central part of the painting, and this is not Degas’ mistake or miscalculation, it holds a significance.

By placing the woman on the side Degas actually directs our thoughts towards the true meaning and idea behind the, at the first sight, ordinary scene and subject. In addition to her corner position, the woman also hides her face with a hand. This asymmetrical composition contributes to the directness and strong impact the painting leaves on the viewer. Equalisation of woman and flowers provides an opportunity for us to compare the physical presents of chrysanthemums and the spiritual absence of the woman. This painting is a simple scene from everyday life. The woman is lost in her reveries, most likely bitter and disappointed with the banalities of everyday life, just like the tragic heroine of Flaubert’s novel ‘Madame Bovary’. She doesn’t appear to be as romantic as Emma Bovary or as idealistic, but after looking at this painting, this agonising detail of everyday life, the boredom and despair is becoming more and more visible. Look at the colours; brown, orange, grey and utterly boring. Woman’s dress and the tablecloth are almost the same colour. Everyday life is coloured in boredom. If this would be a scene from the film, you could here the monotonous clock ticks, soft light of the day on the wane, attention-seeking chrysanthemums could be a gift from a lover just like in Madame Bovary’s case. But the flowers wither, the lover is far away, and days go by nevertheless.

Degas’ portraits in general are all witnesses to the impossibility of conjuring any kind of individuality in the changeable environment of modern life.

Gustave Courbet’s Muse

14 Jun

Joanna Hiffernan was an Irish artist’s model and a muse to a French painter Gustave Courbet.

1862. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1-The White Girl (girl is Joanne Hiffernan)

Joanna Hiffernan met Gustave Courbet in 1860. and went on to have a six-year relationship with him. During this period she often posed as a model for him. Though she was physically striking; tall and red haired Irish beauty, her personality was even more impressive. She was first a muse to an American-born, British-based painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler whose friends said of Joanna:  ‘She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.’ The painting above is a portrait of Joanna painted by Whistler.

However, Joanna is better known as a muse to Gustave Courbet, a French painter who led the Realist movement in 19th century French painting. During the 1860s, Courbet painted a series of erotic paintings and Joanna modeled for many of them. During his three-month stay in Trouville in 1865, he attracted a following as a portraitist among the society women in this fashionable resort on the Normandy coast. There he met Joanna through acquaintance with fellow artist James Whistler who was also working in Trouville. In 1865. Courbet wrote about ‘the beauty of a superb redhead whose portrait I have begun’ and he was talking about his portrait  Portrait of Jo (La belle Irlandaise).

The portrait shows beautiful Irish red-haired women; Joanna, gazing longingly at the mirror which she’s holding in her left hand while she’s touching her long, curly red hair with her other hand. Melancholy and disappointment protrudes from her eyes as if she, although young, had not achieved what she was hoping for. She’s looking at her face; waning beauty slowly disappearing, and asking herself ‘where have the days gone?’

1866. Gustave Courbet - Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl1865-66. Portrait of Jo (La belle Irlandaise)

Le Sommeil, translated as The Sleepers or Sleep is an erotic painting painted by Courbet in 1866. Because it depicts lesbianism, the painting is also known as Two Friends (Les Deux Amies) and Indolence and Lust (Paresse et Luxure). Though originally commissioned by the Turkish diplomat and art collector Halil Serif Pasa, who was living in Paris at that time, it was not permitted to be shown publicly until 1988. as it was deemed provocative and improper. His other painting L’Origine du monde experienced the same destiny.

The painting shows two naked women lying on a bed in an erotic embrace. One of the women is brunette and the other is blonde but her hair has a reddish glow. No doubt that Joanna was the model for the blonde. Also, their skin tones are different and that just emphasizes the women’s curves and their overlapping bodies. This painting is interpreted as a realist painting for the bodies are detailed but the imperfections are not concealed.

Le Sommeil was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘Delphine et Hippolyte’ from his collection Les Fleurs du mal.

1866. Le Sommeil (The Sleepers) by Gustave Courbet