Tag Archives: Romantic

Romantic Melancholy

17 Nov

Sad; so sad, those smoky-rose, smoky-mauve evenings of late autumn, sad enough to pierce the heart…anguish of the turn of the year, the time of impotent yearning, the inconsolable season. (Angela Carter, Saints and Strangers)

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

In these lonely autumn evenings, I yearn to escape the enveloping dreariness of November through poetry, pressed flowers and scented candles. Suffocated by thick fogs and the smell of rotting corpses of daydreams and high hopes that never come true, I hear Melancholy quietly knocking on my door and silently, without disturbing the yellow roses in my vase, it wrapped my tired shoulders with a fragrant lace cloth of spring naivety and summer innocence, of silver dandelions and spider webs, white roses and kindness of strangers. I try to smile at this stranger dressed in a purple gown and jangling earrings of silver and amethyst, but my lips of a doll have become rusty. I take the imaginary book of memories in my hand and blow away the dust. A few rose petals fall on the floor, and my crystal tears join them in their fall. Memories of summer’s gold and bloom dance in my head like skeletons, memories of things that were painfully beautiful but might never return. Memories of poppy meadows and river’s cheerful murmurs, of May’s pink roses, white butterflies and forest groves, of golden sunlight and juicy pears, of stars and perpetually dreamy days of July, and long warm enchantingly golden afternoons of August. I have a withered rose instead of a heart, and it pulsates melodiously in a rhythm of yearning and anguish. I am a forgotten abbey in the oakwood; all my hopes have fallen like leaves on the trees and my soul is but a skeleton covered in moss. I take a pen and command: Melancholy, oh speak to me!

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

Melancholy is kind and generous, and since I begged her, she spoke to me in a mellifluous voice of all the places where she resides… First thou shall find me, said Melancholy, in ethereal sounds of Chopin’s Nocturnes, whose trembling ecstasies and passions lie hidden under flimsy veils of sadness. As Oscar Wilde said: “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.” When Chopin’s Nocturne turns to mute silence of dreary chambers, I dance my way to beautiful objects and inhabit them; old ballet slippers, worn out lamé dresses of 1920s, a box of old letters and photographs, empty perfume bottles, dusty cradles of children who are now adults, summer dusks with fireflies and strong scent of roses and a pale moon appearing coyly on the horizon, worn out names on tombstones and graves that no one visits any more, flowers slowly withering in a vase, unfinished charcoal drawings, drafts of letters never finished, smell of old books… Every place of beauty is my abode, ye can find me in poetry and songs too; in vocals and wistful violins of the Tindersticks and their song Travelling Light:

“There are places I don’t remember
There are times and days, they mean nothing to me
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
They don’t serve to jog my memory

I’m not waking in the morning, staring at the walls these days
I’m not getting out the boxes, spread all over the floor
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
Those faces they mean nothing to me no more”

Caspar David Friedrich, Abtei im Eichwald (Abbey in the Oakwood), 1808-1810

I closed my eyes and listened to Melancholy as it spoke to me, with a voice like flowing honey, and she said: I hide in canvases too; German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich adored me as his muse. Do not believe his landscapes, they are not at all what they seem; a tree is not a tree and fog is not simply fog as it is with John Constable. Led by his pantheistic vision of nature, he portrayed emotions and his states of mind. “Abbey in the Oakwood” is a melancholic masterpiece. An abandoned Gothic abbey is a corpse, a ruin, which speaks of happier times when it served its purpose. Tall oaks with crooked bare branches surround it. Sublime, eerie mood pervades the painting; crosses disappearing into the fog, a barely noticeable procession of monks, a freshly dug grave, and the endlessly lead coloured sky. In early 19th century Germany, Romanticism was closely associated with the National awakening, and Goethe considered Gothic architecture to be Germanic in origin. In contrast to the Classical architecture, the plans of Gothic cathedrals were done by “romantic intuition” rather than mathematical calculations. Gothic abbeys and oaks possess the same grandeur, the same melancholy when covered in deep snow or grey fogs.

I am not always obvious at first sight; do not let the screaming ecstatic yellow of Vincent van Gogh and Kirchner deceive you, for I was their friend too. I was the pencil that Egon Schiele used to sketch his nude beauties with worn out smiles and hollow cheeks, I kissed every yellow petal of the sunflowers he was obsessed with.

Egon Schiele, Sunflower, 1909

As I wipe my tears and feel my cheek’s returning rosy hue, I eagerly listen to Melancholy and her story. She says: I was the lover of John Keats, and the illness of young Werther. All artists find a muse in me, and Romanticists loved me deeply, but the idealist and dreamy escapist Keats adored me in particular, and dressed himself in my cloth of flowers, tears and beauty. In his rosy-coloured visions of the Middle Ages, he found beauty that the world of reality had denied him. Keats knew when he sang of me that Beauty is my other face, and he knew my strength well enough so he never tried to defeat me but rather embrace me and heal the sorrow I cause by contemplating things of Beauty:

“But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud;

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

*

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine…”

Percy Bysshe Shelley confided in me too, but found me too bitter at times, and yet he wrote these verses: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Photo by Laura Makabresku

John Singer Sargent, Polly Barnard (also known as study for Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose), 1885, Medium: pencil

Photo by Laura Makabresku

“There is a life and there is a death, and there are beauty and melancholy between.” (Albert Camus)

Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825-30

Caspar David Friedrich, A Walk at Dusk (detail), ca.1830-35

In November dreariness, my only consolation lies in long evening walks by the river. The Moon is my lover; I year for his caresses and weep at sunset when we must part. He greets me, smiling through the bare branches of tall trees, and I turn my face to his glow and whisperingly ask to fulfil all my longings, to kiss my cheeks and hug me. I hear the river murmuring of happier times, but the Moon is wise and he offers me a “nepenthe”. ‘What is it?’, I ask the Moon and he replies: ‘It is an ancient Greek word, defined as a medicine for sorrow. It can be a place, person or thing, which can aid in forgetting your pain and suffering.’ I follow the Moon, yearning for a more precise answer, but it disappears behind the clouds and I am left alone … yet again.

Photo by Laura Makabresku

I gaze at the river for a long time, longing to see the Moon’s whimsical silvery reflection in the dark water. I cup the dark water in my hands and the dazzling rays of moon slip through my fingers… just as every happy moment does.

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Laura Makabresku – A Macabre World of Dreams and Melancholy

10 Nov

Stillness, quiet melancholy and spider-web fragility of the world Laura Makabresku has created in her photographs keep haunting me for weeks now. I discovered her photographs slowly, one by one, and each intrigued me because it seemed to tell a story, without a clear beginning or ending, like a frozen moment in time that leaves your wondering and daydreaming.

Polish photographer Laura Makabresku is completely self-taught and she sees photography as a diary-medium to portray her feelings and her inner world; this makes me even more intrigued. Her photographs are easily recognisable by their dreamy beauty. Still, by gazing at them one after another, one can sense the changing moods: innocent sleepy chambers where long-hared maidens reside in their flimsy gowns of wistfulness and reverie, easily thorn by the sharp claws of reality. Ophelia-maidens trapped in cages of silk, birds and fawns are their only companions. Pale feminine ideal, porcelain muses easily shattered by rays of light. They seem lonely and mute, yet their hair whispers softly of darker secrets underneath their porcelain skin… From their muteness arises the melody of Chopin’s Nocturnes, at times deeply melancholic, at times shiveringly passionate. While some photos resemble David Hamilton’s dazzling mix of innocence and eroticism, the others portray the gruesome and bloody side of fairy tales and folklore; pale arms adorned with cuts, wrists with drops of blood, dead birds, dried flowers and lace doilies soaked in old perfume… If you’ve read real fairy tales, and not the naff Disney-versions, you’ll know how darkly imaginative and disturbing they can get, and I think Makabresku captures that mood well. The fairy tale fabric of her dreamy scenes is woven with a thick Slavic atmosphere of silence and mysteries. In some of her photos, I feel the dreariness and mystique of the Polish fields and meadows that Chopin wrote in one of his letters. At other times, I feel an oppressive and claustrophobic Kafkaesque mood. Her photos simply evoke so many ideas, dreams, memories… These are just my impressions, now I will leave you to enjoy the pictures!

 

Dark coat, a lock of hair with a ribbon, a bird peeking from the pocket: if this doesn’t intrigue you, I don’t know what does! Just looking at her photos gives me story ideas.

And here is a link to her website: http://lauramakabresku.com

Edwardian Daydreams of the 1970s – Lace, Pastel Colours, Countryside Idyll

8 Sep

Today we’ll take a look at the Edwardian influence on the fashion of the 1970s and the dreamy world it created where white lace, straw hats, floral prints and pastel colours rule.

Photo by David Hamilton, 1970s

Fashion-wise, the 1970s were an eclectic decade, a trend-driven one, especially compared to the previous ones, like the 1950s which were homogeneous. Fashions ranged from Hollywood-inspired Biba glamour, Glam rock, Yves Saint Lauren’s gypsy exoticism to disco, Studio 54 extravagances, Punk and New wave. There was also one trend that I absolutely adore at the moment – the Edwardian revival which brought a gentle, girly and romantic touch to one’s wardrobe. It is in stark contrast to the bold patterns and bright colours of sixties mini dresses.

I already wrote about the influence of the late Victorian and Edwardian era along with Art Nouveau on sixties psychedelia, both in visual art and in fashion here, but this influence is a tad different. Forget the vibrant colours and shapes of Mucha’s paintings that go perfectly with groovy sixties posters. Open your mind for something whiter, gentler, dreamier….

Jane Birkin (1970) and Edwardian lady (1900)

Photo by David Hamilton, 1970s

Left: Bette Davis, Right: Jerry Hall by David Hamilton

Wearing certain clothes can transport you to a different place in imagination, don’t you agree? Well, the mood of this Edwardian revival fantasy is that of an idealised countryside haven where a maiden in white spends her days in romantic pursuits such as pressing flowers, strolling in the meadows, picking apples, lounging on dozens of soft cushions with floral patterns and daydreaming while the gold rays of sun and gentle breeze peek through the flimsy white curtains, reading long nineteenth century novels by Turgenev or Flaubert in forest glades, Beatrix Potter’s witty innocent world of animals, illustrations by Sarah Key, all the while being dressed in beautiful pastel colours that evoke the softness of Edwardian lace, Lilian Gish and Mary Pickford’s flouncy girlish dresses, long flowing dresses with floral prints and delicate embroidery, straw hats decorated with flowers and ribbons, lace gloves, pretty stockings, and hair in a soft bun with a few locks elegantly framing the face, or all in big rag curls with a large white or blue bow, resembling a hairstyle of a Victorian little schoolgirl.

Brooke Shields in “Pretty Baby” (1978)

Left: Lillian Gish, Right: Mary Pickford, c. 1910s

As you know, films have an influence over fashion. I myself often watch a film and caught myself mentally going through my wardrobe and looking for similar outfits that a heroine is wearing. It’s beyond me. Many films from the seventies have the same romantic Edwardian revival aesthetic, such as Pretty Baby (1978) set in a New Orleans brothel at the turn of the century, women are lounging around in white undergarments and black stockings which is so typically fin de siecle, and Shield Brooks in a white dress holding a doll, adorable.

In Australian drama mystery film Picnic at the Hanging Rock (1975) set in 1900 girls from a boarding school go out in nature for an excursion and are dressed in long white gowns, have straw hats or parasols and white ribbons in their hair, Polanski’s Tess (1979) brought an emphasis on the delicate beauty of floral prints on cotton and that also inspired the designer Laura Ashley, even the film Virgin Suicides (1999) which is set in the seventies has a wardrobe of pastels and florals and all the girls wear such dresses to a school dance.

Left: Brigitte Bardot and Right: Nastassja Kinski

ELLE France, 1978, Gilles Bensimon

Left: dreamy hairstyle, Valentino Haute Couture Spring 2015, Right: photo from 1910

Virgin Suicides (1999)

Left: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Right: two Edwardian ladies, 1900s

Models of the era are also seen wearing the fashion, such as Twiggy with her straw hat with cherries and Jerry Hall in white dress. Many photos by David Hamilton also capture the mood of this Edwardian revival; there’s something dreamy and ethereal about them, a frozen moment with girls in a reverie, either lounging on bed half-naked or surrounded by trees and flower fields wearing long floral dresses and hats, looking so serene as if they belong to another world. The first picture in this post is my favourite at the moment, a girl with a straw hat with ribbons, and stocking, and those warm Pre-Raphaelite colours… mmm…

Edna May photographed by Alexander Bassano, 1907

Jane Birkin looking so Edwardian and adorable!

Even Brigitte Bardot couldn’t resist elegance in white.

Tess (1979)

Seventeen magazine, February 1974

Twiggy in Valentino by Justin de Villeneuve for Vogue Italy, June 1969

Brigitte Bardot

Wedding dress ‘Faye Dunaway’ by Thea Porter, 1970, England – All that lace!!!

Left: Abbey Lee Kershaw by Marcin Tyszka, Vogue Portugal (2008), Right: Alexis Bledel in Tuck Everlasting (2002)

As you can see in the pictures above, the Edwardian revival has found its place in contemporary fashion and cinematography as well. If you like this style, look for things that capture the mood, regardless of the decade.So, do you want to be a pretty and dreamy Edwardian lady too? Well, it is simple, you can wear a white dress, have a cup of tea, read Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” or Forster’s “A Room With a View”, stroll around wearing a straw hat, pick flowers, press flowers, chase butterflies, surround yourself with white lace and indulge in reveries!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Bocca Baciata

4 Aug

Dante Gabriel Rossetti spent 1850s in a mood of indolence and love; he was infatuated with Elizabeth Siddal, the beautiful red-haired Pre-Raphaelite model who famously posed for Millais’ Ophelia, and he mainly painted pencil drawings of Siddal and watercolours of idealised Medieval scenes. He wasn’t as productive in the early years of Pre-Raphaelite as he was in his later years when he filled his canvases with seductive, dreamy women with luscious full lips and voluminous hair; “Bocca Baciata” is the painting that started it all.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859

The half-length portrait shows a woman dressed in an unbuttoned black garment with gold details, while the white undergarments coyly peek through. Her neck is long and strong, her head slightly tilted, lips full and closed, eyes heavy-lidded and gazing in the distance. On her left is an apple, and she’s holding a small pot marigold in her hand. She is full, voluptuous, strong, possessing none of Siddal’s delicate, melancholic, laudanum-chic beauty, but one thing they have in common: beautiful hair. Model for the painting was Fanny Cornforth who was described as having “harvest yellow” hair colour, but here Rossetti painted it as a warm, rich coppery colour which goes beautifully with the orange marigolds and gold jewellery around her neck and in her hair. Rossetti must have borrowed the brush of Veronese himself when he painted those masses of lascivious wild hair that flows and flows, seemingly endless, ready to wrap itself around the neck of its victims. Gazing at Pre-Raphaelite paintings has taught me that the famous Victorian saying which goes: “hair is the crown of woman’s beauty” is wrong. Hair is not the crown, but the weapon, ready to seduce a man, ready to suffocate him in a matter of seconds.

What lures me about this painting are the beautiful autumnal colours and pot marigolds that grace the background; they are the flowers which fascinate me the most at the moment. They are the birth flowers for October, appropriate because their orange colour matched that of the falling leaves, and in the Victorian language of flowers they are seen as the symbols of love and jealousy, pain and grief, but this symbolism saddens me. Why bestow such a negative meaning to such an innocent, bright, whimsical flower? Marigolds are known as “summer brides” because they love the sun and I love them; they are so modest and unassuming, you’d fail to notice them in the company of extroverted roses and overwhelming sunflowers, but they hide so much beauty in their small orange petals.

The white rose in her hair symbolises innocence, and this portrait, although sensual, is indeed innocent compared to those which followed. As if the long, flowing fiery hair wasn’t enough, the title, Bocca Baciata, meaning “the mouth that has been kissed”, gives off a sensual mood. The beautiful expression comes from an Italian proverb from Boccaccio’s Decameron which Rossetti wrote on the back of the painting: “The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its savour, indeed it renews itself just as the moon does.” The line is a reference to a story from Decameron told on the second day, about a Saracen princess who, despite having numerous lovers, managed to persuade the King of Algarve that she was a virgin bride.

“Bocca Baciata” is both stylistically and technically a transitional work. It is Rossetti’s first oil painting in years, the previous one being “Ecce Ancilla Domini” from 1850. The luxurious, sensuous mood is a reference to High Italian Renaissance, more specifically, the art of Titian and Veronese and their long-haired women. The main characteristic of Venetian art is the beautiful colour; space, volume is built with colour, not with line, and Rossetti used this principle hear, using soft shadings on the skin of her neck and in building the hair, stroke by stroke. Also, inspired by Titian, he used red colour as a base of his canvas, not the usual white. “Bocca Baciata” is not just a beautiful harmony of warm colours, but it also set a pattern of a style of painting typical for the art of late Pre-Raphaelite Movement and Symbolism, where a beautiful woman occupies a canvas, exuding sensuality, vanity and indolence, dressed in luxurious fabrics and surrounded by other objects of beauty such as flowers, mirrors, fans and jewellery. These types of paintings are not portraits with individual characteristics of a person, but a never ending series of visual representations of female sexual allure.

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

16 Jul

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

Savely Sorin, Two Women, c. 1920s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

John Constable – Romantic Ruins of Hadleigh Castle

6 May

Sublime landscapes with romantic ruins are what fills my heart with delight, for nature by itself is plain and mundane. Ruin of a Medieval castle or an abbey overgrown with ivy, lovers sitting in forest glades bathed in silvery moonlight, rivers whose calm flow brings forgetfulness, sight of a lonely figure amidst wild nature; a landscape unadorned with any of these things seizes to excite me. And is there a better age in art for all these qualities than Romanticism?

John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9, London, Tate Gallery

John Constable’s aim in painting landscapes was to capture the nature with honesty, to capture its beauty and simplicity without showing off in an arrogant Turner way. He is not the representative in portraying nature with passion, lyricism or melancholy; you should seek those qualities in paintings of Turner, John Martin or Caspar David Friedrich, but at one point, in 1828, he felt that his life and art were in a state of ruins and he sought in nature a vision of his own soul and he found it in a desolate scene of a Hadleigh Castle in Essex.

The brooding tower is a sinister sight indeed, seen after a stormy night; wrapped in dark thoughts, breathing in the air of decay, its glory days forgotten and only a corpse of stone walls remains, the crows flying by its only friends in centuries of solitude… The sky is a commingled mass of whites and blues, and the marshlands are drowning in darkness. A vague figure of a shepherd with his dog in the left corner, and cows and cliffs painted carelessly. The most peculiar thing about this oil sketch is the way it is painted; almost expressionistic with those thick, careless brushstrokes, heavy, thickly impasto way of applying colour with no constraint. And it’s sublime and sombre mood has since drawn comparisons to Rembrandt’s “The Mill” (1645-48). The scene seems so out of place in Constable’s usual peaceful countryside scenes painted in a very detailed way with fine brushwork, that one can’t help but wonder about this strange change of style and theme.

John Constable, Maria Bicknell, 1816

This peculiarly dark mood of the painting is caused by the events in Constable’s private life. His dear wife Maria, who was of fragile health, fell ill after giving birth to their seventh child in January 1828, and in November the same year she died from consumption. Constable was devastated; he started dressing in black and  succumbed to melancholy. The death of his angel, as he called her, changed everything. They married in autumn of 1816, when he was forty years old, after their friendship grew into deep love. But now, after only twelve years of happiness, Constable was a lonely, depressed figure, wrapped in gloomy thoughts, tormented by anxiety and brutal self-questioning of his life and career. Nothing made sense any more, and he wrote in a letter to his brother Golding “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me“.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, sketch, 1814

As you can see from the rather small pencil sketch, about 8 x 11 cm, Constable had visited the sight way before he decided to fully devote to it and paint it on a large, six foot canvas in oils. It seems to me that the distance between two towers is bigger in the drawing than it is in the paintings. Perhaps the reason why he returned to the subject of the Hadleigh Castle after fourteen years lies in the fact that while he visited it for the first time, in 1814, he rapturously wrote to Maria of its beauty. This is what he wrote, on 3 July 1814: “At Hadleigh there is a ruin of a castle which from its situation is a really fine place – it commands a view of the Kent hills, the Nore and North Foreland & looking many miles to sea.” After she died, he may have revisited their correspondence, and with tears glistening in his eyes remembered the happier times, and he may have seen the castle as a symbol of those times.

I love the sketch, specially the birds flying around the tower and the clouds, and something about it appeals me more than the finished painting. I know what it is; in the drawing there is no figure of a shepherd and the cows; a motif so utterly Constable and so unfitting for the Gothic mood of the sublime. As much as I like the painting, I would have preferred to see it painted as a nocturnal scene, in dark magical blues with large moon shining on the horizon and a distant figure of a horseman, and the moonshine peeking through the old ruin of a tower, but that wouldn’t be Constable any more.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames–Morning after a Stormy Night, 1828-29

Now you can see what an impact personal life and tragedies can have on an artist, and that even a simple landscape is filled with secrets that leads us to the artist’s soul. Constable’s saddest state resulted in what is perhaps the most poetic, the most ‘sublime’ out of all his paintings, but the wild and gloomy sketch version from the Tate Gallery isn’t the only one. He painted another version of the same scene, pretty much the same, which is more in tune with Constable’s typical refined, sleek style; gloom is subtler, brushstrokes are more controlled, and you can see the details more clearly, such as the shepherd and his dog, and the cows, even the sky looks softer and less threatening. So there is a ‘passionate’ version and a ‘tamed’ one. Needless to say which one I prefer.