Tag Archives: Romantic

J.M.W.Turner – Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff

3 Sep

“Autumn approaches and
The heart
Begins to dream.”

(Bashō, from The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets)

J.M.W.Turner, Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff, 1835-39, bodycolour on paper

The last true month of summer – August – has not even passed yet and already my end-of-summer-blues has started sinking in. I awoke the other day not welcomed by golden rays of sweet sunshine but with a gust of colder breeze. I sneezed… And I realised at that moment that summer is fleeing. A succesion of rainy days is a further reminder and now I cannot escape the realisation. Surely there will be more sunny days in September, but it is inevitable: the clock is ticking the last minutes of the summer of 2022. It’s back to scarves and jackets, cloudy skies, lighted candles, hot teas, wet streets and falling leaves. I feel a huge wave of blue sadness overwhelming me… A poetic kind of sadness and the only way to soothe it is to immerse myself in all things beautiful, poignant, melancholy and with a touch of the sublime.

It’s a wonderful thing then that I recently discovered yet another painting by J.M.W. Turner which I adore. This one is called “Sunset over a Ruined Castle on a Cliff” and it was painted between 1835 and 1839 in the medium of bodypaint on paper. Just the title alone catapults me into mad romantic reveries! The words such as “sunset”, “ruined castle” and “cliff” are enough to start the wildfire in my imagination. So so romantical! And the lyrical beauty of the painting perfectly justified the beauty of the title. It’s not a clickbait for sure, you know, a pretty title but a boring painting. Turner has painted many and many sketches and watercolours of castle, some half-ruined and some still intact, but this painting is something else. The rich and warm colours of the painting are warming my soul in a way only beautiful things can. I love the gradient way the colour go from the lavender sky to the pinkish-red-wine coloured ruins of the castle perched on top of the hill, over to the warm orange and yellow shades. The depths of the landscape bellow the castle with a lake I believe are painted in cooler blue and grey tones.

Considering just how abstract this painting is; the castle is not painted in a detailed manner, and there is no clear, strict, defined space such as we may find in some of Turner’s other paintings, the soft, gradient flow of colours really creates a certain vague, dreamy magic. I love how the yellow light appears out of nowhere in the middle of the lavender sky, right above the ruined castle’s highest tower. The light of the sunset is at once illuminating the castle in its warm, almost redish glow, and covering it with a veil of vagueness, mystery and dreams. Just like the castle of the Sleeping Beauty is covered with a veil of brambles, ivy and thorns, the castle in Turner’s vision is covered in a veil of sunset dreams. All of Turner’s watercolour sketches of castles have a vague, dreamy quality to them, but this one is something special or at least it fits my mood at the moment because it’s dreamy, impalpable and … just as all that is happy and beautiful, it is just beyond reach. I feel that if I stretched my arm and tried to touch the castle it would disappear, crumble into dust like a dry moth on the windowsill.

And something else crumbling into dust these days is my summer castle made out of poetry, wildflowers, moonlight and dreams. Just like the roots of a tree are encroaching the pavement or growing under the house, the cold and crooked fingers of the approaching autumn are slowly encroaching my summer castle. Soon the branches will break the windows, the winds blow off the rose wallpapers, and autumn rains soak in the soft carpets, the moss will grow over the birch hardwood floors, and the fog will hide the castle away from me forever… I need something beautiful to cling to and Turner’s paintings of castles and ruins are a wonderful choice.

But the last day of summerNever felt so coldThe last day of summerNever felt so oldNever felt so…
All that I haveAll that I holdAll that is wrongAll that I feel for or trust in or loveAll that is gone

(The Cure, The Last Day of Summer)

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.

Lovers are Strangers: John Atkinson Grimshaw – Lovers on a Moonlit Lane

2 Aug
“Expressing your uncertainties
Through years of anniversaries
Then five years down the line
You’ll say: she was never my type
Lovers are strangers
There’s nothing to discuss
Hearts will be faithful
While the truth is told to someone else”

(Michelle Gurevich, Lovers Are Strangers)

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Lovers on a Moonlit Lane, 1873

John Atkinson Grimshaw was a Victorian era artist who is mostly remembered for his captivating and atmospheric paintings of nocturnal urban scenes. The pompous American expatriate Whistler said: “I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures”, and this is a true testament which reveals just how captivating Grimshaw’s nocturnal paintings were back in his day. Whistler wasn’t the type of person who would give praise or credit lightly. A few years ago I wrote a post about Grimshaw’s Dreary Victorian Streets where I connected the desolate, urban mood of his paintings with the music of Joy Division, but today I want to tackle a painting which is nocturnal but less urban and more romantic than his other ones.

Painting “Lovers on a Moonlit Lane” was painted in 1873, which is a decade earlier then his more famous masterpieces, though he was already thirty-seven at the time. The painting shows two lovers meeting in the moonlit lane near a forest. The tree branches point the way and the glowing full moon casts light on the face of two beloveds. The vertical canvas suits the nocturnal foresty scene because it gives space for the trees to stretch their branches into the night sky. The night scene with the hauntingly dark and tall trees brings to mind the setting of a poem or a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, but also the motif of nature in moonlight and the figures of lovers irresistibly reminds one of the painting by Caspar David Friedrich. The muted colours, blues and greys, are helpful in conveying the mood. Romanticism, like the ghost of the past, haunts this painting and gives it beauty. Distant fog and unknown paths, uncertainty of love, like frost, bites the hands and cheeks… The motif of the trees which are mostly bare, the leaves that have fallen on the frozen muddy ground and the path leading nowhere all indicate a sense of ending. Autumn is giving way to winter, the vibrant leaves of autumn have rotten and fallen on the ground, a question lingers in the air: will the flame of their love survive the winter frost, or will it perish and be forever lost?

The painting has the Tim Burtonesque “Corpse Bride” aesthetic and that is why it came to my mind when I was listening to Michelle Gurovich’s song “Lovers are Strangers” which I recently discovered. I love the lyrics of the song, but also, the music sounds like something that belong to a macabre carnival, the film “Coraline” or that fits the imagination of Tim Burton. In my mind, all of these are connected together.

Tagore: Only lips know the language of lips, know how to sip each other’s hearts

26 Feb

Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss, 1907

The Kiss

Only lips know the language of lips,
Know how to sip each other’s hearts
The two lovers leave home for goals unknown,
Setting out eagerly on Holy Communion.
Like two waves that crest at love’s pull
Lips at last melt and meld in lovers’ lips,
Viewing each other with deep desire,
Both meet at the body’s frontier.
Love weaves music from such refrains
Love’s tale is told in quivering lips!
From fowers plucked from lips that roam
Garlands surely will be woven at home!
The sweet union of two desiring lips
Climaxes in a red bridal bed of smiles!


(“Chumban,” from Kori O Komal)
Translated by Fakrul Alam)

Wassily Kandinsky – The Singer, 1903

28 Dec

“Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

(Kandinsky)

Wassily Kandinsky, The Singer, 1903, colour woodcut

I decided to end the artistic year on this blog with a gorgeous colour woodcut by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. Earlier this month I had written about Kandinsky’s magical painting “Riding Couple” from 1906-07, and today we have another example of Kandinsky’s early artistic phase. “The Singer” is one of Kandinsky’s earliest colour woodcuts and its fluid, undulating lines and the ornamental division of the space shows the influence of Jugendstil which was popular at the time. The contours of a pianist dressed in black arise out of a dreamy blue background. His face and arms are pale as moonlight, his hair longish. Despite, or maybe because of, the stylised lines and the simple composition Kandinsky managed to convey such a deep, palpable mood which is dreamy, melancholy, poetic. Roses, piano music and moonlight. Soft, hushed tones, a whisper, a soft sigh, a rustle of red roses. Evereything watery and Neptunian; sensitive, tender, mystical…

Kandinsky deeply felt the connection between painting and music. In fact, his final decision to succumb to the voice that was luring him to become a painter was inspired, partly, by seeing Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin” in the Moscow theatre sometime in the mid 1890s. Whilst listening to the music, he saw the entire range of colours and shapes before his eyes, wild lines were creating drawings in his mind. In the end, he was a painter and not a composer, but he always sought connections between painting and music, between colours and tones. Art was a synesthetic experience for him. Many artists, such as Degas, have painted theatre and stage scenes before, but in Kandinsky’s case the choice of a motif, the singer and the pianist, is especially interesting and meaningful. And I must say, to me, this woodblock feels musical. The sounds of a melancholy Nocturne is seeping out of the black and blue tones. The lines, stylised, fluid, like water, are the medium of a melody that lives in this woodcut. There is a dynamic between the dark background and the white foreground where the singer is standing, dressed in a white dress which, strangely, brings to mind the shape of the skeleton.

I will end this post with a dreamy passage from E.T.A.Hoffmann’s essay about Beethoven’s instrumental music which first appeared in 1810 and was revised in 1813:

…(music is) 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..”

Caspar David Friedrich – On the Sailing Boat

17 Dec

Let’s love, then! Love, and feel while feel we can
The moment on its run.
There is no shore of Time, no port of Man.
It flows, and we go on…”

(Alphonse de Lamartine, The Lake, translated by A.Z.Foreman)

Caspar David Friedrich, On the Sailing Boat, 1818-20

Friedrich, the melancholy misanthrop and loner of Greifswald, had finally tied the knot on the 21 January 1818, just a few months after his fourty-third birthday. His young bride was the twenty-five year old Caroline Bommer whose elegant figure in a red dress we can see in a few of his paintings from that time period. Friedrich’s friend, and a fellow painter, Carl Gustav Carus noted that the marriage didn’t leave a trace on Friedrich, but there is a subtle yet notable shift in Friedrich’s work after the marriage; the colours are softer, the overall mood lighter, and human figures appear more often. In fact, his famous and perhaps even the most beautiful painting “Moonrise Over the Sea” was painted in 1820. Nothing compares the pink and purple sky in that painting, it’s something most dreamy and romantic. But this uplifting, lighter phase of his career was, sadly, only a short Nordic summer; as he was getting older his gloominess prevailed and he started returning to his moody, isolated landscapes.

Painting “On the Sailing Boat” shows a couple, that is, the painter and his wife, sitting at the prow of the ship, hand in hand, gliding towards the infinity of their love. Typical for Friedrich, the figures are seen either from behind or in profile, which definitely adds to the mysterious appeal. The tender purple and blue waves are cradling the lovers’ boat and above them the yellow-tinted vanilla sky is smiling with promises of future joys. In the distance the shadowy contours of a townscape appear as if they are seen through the mist, or – seen in a dream. The vastness of the sky and the sea further intensifies the dreamy, almost mystical aura of this painting which correlates to the Romantics’ view on love, or a cult of love we might even say, as a union of souls. This solemn seriousness towards the matters of love was a far cry from the frivolous and playful attitude of the Rococo generation. Just how different is this dreamy painting to something painted by Boucher or Fragonard. The subtle melancholy which permeats Friedrich’s paintings, even the seemingly joyful ones, brings to mind the work of Watteau. It seems the two painters have more in common than one would initially assume. Their work, although so dreamy and charming, holds a deeper truth about life: that all human experiences are bitter-sweet and transient: “Upon the sea of time can we not ever/ Drop anchor for one day?” (de Lamartine, The Lake) Another interesting thing about this painting is the viewpoint; while gazing at the painting we feel as if we too are on the boat and that makes us closer to the scene in the painting, but two is a company, three’s a crowd, we better leave them alone to enjoy the hours of bliss until they pass…

Wassily Kandinsky – Riding Couple

8 Dec

“Darling, it’s only the fairy tales we really live by.”
(Katherine Mansfield, Letter to J.M.Murry, 18 October 1920)

Wassily Kandinsky, Riding Couple (Couple on Horseback), 1906-07

This magical and romantical painting known under various titles such as “Riding Couple” or “Couple on Horseback” is a beautiful example of Wasily Kandinsky’s early work. The embracing couple dressed in their traditional Russian costumes bring to mind the romantic paintings by a fellow Russian painter Viktor Vasnetstov, particularly his painting “Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf” (1889) which I wrote about here. Kandinsky may be using a similar motif but his treatment of the painting’s surface is completely different. While Vasnetsov tries to evoke the mysterious and romanticised, but still realistically painted, spirit of the forest, Kandinsky transports us into a carnival of colours bursting with energy and vibrancy. Around the riding couple are a few thin elegant birches, and behind them is a scenery made up of a wide river and a townscape with many colourful domes and roofs, reminiscent of the grandeur of Moscow, a town that had a special place in Kandinsky’s heart. The description of the scene makes it sound beautiful, but then upon seeing it, ahh it is a feast for the eyes! Kandinsky here uses a Divisionist method which allows the colour to mix and mingle freely in the eye of the viewer and not on the painter’s palette. He is building the space with little dots, dashes and dabs of colour.

Just look at the outfit the couple is wearing; it’s made out of little dots of blue and pink, then the leaves on the trees just blots of brown and gold, the horse’s body is made up of grey dashes, the river is glimmering in all colours, on the right we see the landscape made up of horizontal dashes, and then the sky, those blues and the purple cloud; it’s woven with magic. The landscape is smiling and flickering like Christmas lights. The orange and red leaves that have fallen on the ground also add to the magical appeal. There is a visual contrast between the shining and inviting city across the river and the solitary, more intimate space hidden by the trees where the lovers on the horse are, as if they are hiding their love, or, the city with its lights and promises of fun and gaiety doesn’t appeal to them because they already found the heaven on earth in each other’s arms. The motif, the scenery and the manner in which it was painted all make it seem as if this is a scene from a fairy tale. Maybe the riding couple were banished from the kingdom on the other side of the river and now, shivering from the chill autumnal air and finding abode in the embrace, they will cast a last, melancholy-tinged glance at the place they use to consider their home…

Bellow you can see a painting from the same time period called “The Colourful Life” and again you see this wonderful technique; vivacious patches of vibrant colour are arising out of a dark background and glowing like gemstones; this is what makes these paintings so enchanting. It also makes me think of mosaic; church mosaics seen in the flickering light of a candle. Take a moment to appreciate the wonderful colours; just look at those gorgeous blues, teal, purple and orange in the painting bellow. It truly uplifts the soul. The characters look like they escaped from the pages of fairy tale books and we have a motif of a castle perched on the top of the hill, all of these little details bring the fairy tale spirit and that is another characteristic of Kandinsky’s early period. And it is interesting to note that even though this is Kandinsky’s early phase, he actually celebrated his fortieth birthday on 16th December 1906, so I guess it goes to show that it is never too late to start a hobby or chase your dream. Age shouldn’t be an impediment to your desires.

Wasily Kandinsky, Das Bunte Leben (The Colourful Life), 1907, tempera on canvas

Sándor Petőfi: Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose, not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

27 Oct

Today I wanted to share my new poetic discovery: Sándor Petőfi, a Romantic Hungarian poet and a revolutionary whose national fervour and patriotism eventually led him to his doom, but also to his glory. Romanticism arrived a bit late to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was closely tied to patriotism and national revival; each country in the vast empire sought to define its individuality; its national history and traditions. Petofi fits the theme of central European Romanticism and the two of his main poetic themes are romantic love and love for his country. He was of Slovak or Serbian ancestry, but he wrote in Hungarian and fought for the Hungarian language to be the language of the theatre and literature instead of German. As a true Romantic hero, he led a short and turbulent life and went missing at the age of twenty-six after the Battle of Segesvár in 1849; he was presumed dead but who knows when he actually died… His poems are the mirrors of the politically turbulent times he lived in and he died in the very manner he wished, as expressed in his poem “The Thought Torments Me”:

When every nation wearing chains
Shall rise and seek the battle-plains,
With flushing face shall wave in fight
Their banners, blazoned in the light:
“For liberty!” Their cry shall be;
Their cry from east to west,
Till tyrants be depressed.
There shall I gladly yield
My life upon the field;
There shall my heart’s last blood flow out,
And I my latest cry shall shout.

In 1846, in Transylvania he met an eighteen year old maiden Júlia Szendrey and, charmed by the beauty of her countenance which matched the beauty of her mind and soul, Petofi instantly fell in love and they married the same year. His parents didn’t approve and their marriage was short anyway. Like her husband, Júlia was also a poet, and a writer and translator. She spoke a few foreign languages, loved the poetry of Heinrich Heine and the writings of George Sand, loved dancing and playing the piano but she was also a private and modest person who didn’t like sharing her talents with the world. They seem like a perfect Romantic couple, with the perfectly short, intense and tragic marriage ended by a mysterious disappearance in battle and probable death. It sounds like a story one would read in a work of Schiller or Lermontov.

Giuseppe Molteni, Desolate at the Loss of her Lover, 1850

Poem “At the End of September” is written in a truly Romantic manner because it ties the themes of love and death that all Romantics loved so much. In the first stanza Petofi slowly introduces the theme of transience through a visual imagery of the changing of seasons, and even compares the arrival of winter to his hair slowly turning grave. The transience of spring and summer goes hand in hand with the passing of his youth, and the arrival of winter is tied with the impedimence of his death. I love how melancholy and melodramatic he is, wanting to know whether his beloved will weep over his grave, but then the poetic imagery turns a darker mood and we see the poet returning from the death’s vale at midnight… These poems satisfy all my poetic needs. Just seeing the words and expressions in the poem such as “broken heart”, “bleeding heart”, “tomb”, “weep”, “tears”, “death”, “mournful”, makes me swoon!

At the End of September

The garden flowers still blossom in the vale,

Before our house the poplars still are green;

But soon the mighty winter will prevail;

Snow is already in the mountains seen.

The summer sun’s benign and warming ray

Still moves my youthful heart, now in its spring;

But lo! my hair shows signs of turning gray,

The wintry days thereto their color bring.

This life is short; too early fades the rose;

To sit here on my knee, my darling, come!

Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

O, tell me, if before thee I should die,

Wilt thou with broken heart weep o’er my bier?

Or will some youth efface my memory

And with his love dry up thy mournful tear?

 

If thou dost lay aside the widow’s vail,

Pray hang it o’er my tomb. At midnight I

Shall rise, and, coming forth from death’s dark vale,

Take it with me to where forgot I lie.

And wipe with it my ceaseless flowing tears,

Flowing for thee, who hast forgotten me;

And bind my bleeding heart which ever bears

Even then and there, the truest love for thee.

Matthew James Lawless, Dead Love, 1862

“Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?”

Petofi’s poems often bring to mind romantic imagery, typically romantic themes of love and death mingle freely in his verses and I decided to illustrate the poem with the drawing “Dead Love” from 1862. Victorian era artist Matthew James Lawless is little known today because he died young, at the age of twenty-seven, and his career never had a chance to take off. The drawings that he left definitely show a talent and a romantic imagination which ties him to the Pre-Raphaelites, and therefore I think the mood of his drawing fits the mood of Petofi’s poem. And now a poem which continues with the theme of love but here love is tied with another motif Petofi loves: fighting for liberty.

My Wife and My Sword

Upon the roof a dove,
A star within the sky,
Upon my knees my love,
For whom I live and die;
In raptures I embrace
And swing her on my knees,
Just as the dewdrop sways
Upon the leaf of trees.

But why, you’ll surely ask,
Kiss not her pretty face?
It is an easy task
To kiss while we embrace!
Many a burning kiss
I press upon her lip,
For such a heavenly bliss
I cannot now let slip.

And thus we pass our day,
I and my pretty wife,
Beyond all rare gem’s ray
Is our gay wedded life.
A friend, my sword, it seems,
Does not like this at all,
He looks with angry gleams
Upon me from the wall.

Don’t look on me, good sword,
With eyes so cross and cold,
There should be no discord
Between us, friends of old.
To women leave such things,
As green-eyed jealousy:
To men but shame it brings,
And you a man must be!

But then, if you would pause
To think who is my love,
You’d see you have no cause
At all me to reprove.
She is the sweetest maid,
She is so good and true;
Like her God only made,
I know, but very few.

If thee, good sword, again
Shall need our native land,
To seek the battle-plain
Will be my wife’s command.
She will insist that I
Go forth, my sword, with thee,
To fight, if need to die,
For precious liberty!

Sandor’s wife Julia Szendrey (1828-1868).

Eugène Delacroix – Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard

13 Oct

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839, Oil on canvas, 29,5 x 36 cm

Eugene Delacroix’s temperament, lifestyle and interests made him the perfect Romantic artist. Delacroix travelled to hot, vibrant, exotic places such as Morrocco, but he also travelled in his imagination to the romantic and alluring, dark and dramatic past eras. He was also an avid reader; words of Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and others fed his soul and fired his imagination. His ardent love of literature came with a knack for illustrating the scenes that he was reading about, he was prolific at it, and he was great at it. A theme that he found himself returning to often throughout the years was Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and especially the scene where Hamlet and Horatio are at the graveyard. Delacroix made different litographs and watercolours of the scene, but his most well-known depiction of the scene is the painting from 1839. The scene shows four figures; Horatio and Hamlet standing by the grave and two gravediggers digging the grave for Ophelia who had recently perished. This is a rather morbid, depressive chore but the gravediggers are so used to it that they are unphased. They are capable of digging a hole and talking about decomposing bodies and death as if they are exchanging recepies over tea. This makes it almost grotesque, but for Hamlet the discovery of the skull of Yorick leads to deeper thoughts, pensiveness and introspection; how transient and meaningless life is, how it passes and means nothing, how every corpse here on the graveyard was once a person with wishes, yearnings, loves. The personalities of gravediggers and Hamlet could not be more different. Here is an excerpt from their dialogue from Act V, Scene I:

Gravedigger: This skull has lain in the earth three-and-twenty years.
Hamlet: Whose was it?
Gravedigger: A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not.
Gravedigger: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! He poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.
Hamlet: This?
Gravedigger: E’en that.
Hamlet: Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.—Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, watercolour, 1827-28

Eugene Delacroix, Hamlet Contemplating Yorick’s Skull, litograph, 1828

In his litographs Delacroix had depicted the scene with more details, in composition and in the clothes of the figures, everything feels more ornate and Baroque-like. The painting is stripped of all unnecessary details and ornaments. Only four figures set against a distant landscape and the stormy sky with dark clouds. This allowed Delacroix to place his focus on the analysis of the characters and the drama that is going on in the scene. The bare-chested gravedigger holding a skull is quite a sight, but all eyes are on Hamlet. Delacroix saw him through the lenses of Romanticism and he depicted him as a pale, melancholy, frail and gentle looking man dressed in black. His pale and small, almost feminine looking hands, stand out against the darkness of his clothes. His hair is flying in the wind and the stormy clouds seem to echo the stormy state of his soul. Pale and withered, in a pensive mood, reflecting on matters of life and death, and anticipating the burial of Ophelia, Hamlet is like a frail lily-flower just plucked from the ground. The watercolour version of the scene shows an equally frail, melancholy Hamlet and the whole mood is lyrical and wistful in a way that can only be accomplished with the medium of the watercolour.

Andrew Wyeth – Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939

3 Sep

“Set sail in those turquoise days…”

(Echo and the Bunnymen, Turquoise Days)

Andrew Wyeth, Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939, watercolour and pencil on paper

This gloomy watercolour by Andrew Wyeth instantly struck a chord with me because it brought to mind the solitary landscapes of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and the moody music of Echo and the Bunnymen’s second album “Heaven Up Here” (1981) which is an all time favourite of mine, and I especially savour it in this time of the year. As someone who is continually seeking the connections between painting and rock music, literature and art, music and literature etc, this is a perfect match in mood, for the sounds of the “Heaven Up Here” transport me to a wet, solitary beach where the sea and the sky meet in a kiss while the dusk is slowly taking over… Wyeth’s watercolour strongly conveys a similar mood, at least to me because the colours are beautifully chosen.

Wyeth, who usually had a penchant for taking an ordinary motif and transforming it into an extraordinary one, took a simple motif of a three master or a ship with three masts and painted a stunning watercolour using a palette of only a few colours, but visually strong and captivating ones. The ship is leaning on its right, the sea waves are strong, they are cradling the ship as if it were a baby in the crib. The nature can easily destroy something man-made, even if it is as big as the ship, and it’s easy to see just how powerless and meaningless the small human figures are compared to the vastness of the sea. The figures here almost appear to be melting into the rest of the scene and they bring to mind the figures in Caspar David Friedrich’s melancholy seascape painting though Wyeth’s watercolour is more dynamic and expressive than meditative and dreamy. The combination of the dark colours and the whimsical, playful way the watercolour seemed to be painting itself creates a contrast that stimulates and excites our eyes.

The liquid and often capricious medium of watercolour is perfect for this kind of a scene because it vividly portrays the sea waves, better than a dry medium of pastel would, for example. When you gaze at these dark and murky waters you know they were painted with water, you can imagine the brush heavy with drops of rich colour hitting the surface of the paper and leaving a rich, dense trace which grows paler as the stroke gets longer… The greedy paper takes in the colour just as the sand on the beach drinks in the water of the sea. I feel that watercolour can translate the mood of melancholy, isolation and gloom better than other mediums. Wyeth was only twenty-two years old when he painted this watercolour; the same age as Echo and the Bunnymen’s singer Ian McCulloch when he sang the lines “set sail in those turquoise days…” from the above mentioned album. In 1937, at the age of twenty, Wyeth had his first one-man exhibition of mostly monochromatic watercolours. Seeing the gorgeous “Three Master Aground” we needn’t be surprised that the exhibition was a huge success and that all the watercolours were sold.