Tag Archives: Romanticism

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).

Eugene Delacroix – Horse Frightened by Lightning

22 Oct

Eugene Delacroix, Horse Frightened by Lightning, 1825-29, watercolour

The spirit of Romanticism is alive and intense in this wonderful and expressive watercolour by Delacroix. The simplicity of the composition contrasts the intense and dramatic mood that is conveyed. Using the combination of simple visual elements; a wild horse, a desolate landscape, and a gloomy sky with a lightning, Delacroix created a painting that encapsulated the aesthetic of the Sublime. The face expression of the horse and his pose convey his torment and fear at the sudden lightning and thunder that have appeared in the sky. He seems truly unsettled and his feelings seep into the lonely landscape around him and his fear touches the viewer too; our sympathy for the poor frightened animal mingles with the feeling of awe at the nature’s unpredictability and power. This scene seems like something I would imagine whilst reading a Gothic novel.

Delacroix inherited his love and admiration for horses from another master of French Romanticism; Theodore Gericault, who was only a few years older than Delacroix but at the time this watercolour was painted, Gericault had already been dead. But despite his short life and even shorter career his dramatic art full of feelings and dark passions set the standard for the French Romanticism. Wild and untamed, or tamed but still very beautiful, strong and awe-inspiring, horses are a motif we find often in the art of Romanticism; in Fuseli’s Nightmare, in the art of Sawrey Gilpin, Gros and Gericault. A century later Franz Marc painted vibrant and expressive paintings of horses as well. For Romanticists a horse was a symbol of something wild and unstoppable, of the fire of youth, of passion for exploration, of bravery and Delacroix chose to portray this majestic animals in numerous occasions.

In this watercolour the horse is clearly not representative of something strong and wild, but rather the opposite. Panicked and red-eyed, the horse exhibits his more emotional, vulnerable side, something one wouldn’t expect to see portrayed and this strange constrasts adds to the painting’s stunning beauty; it is not just aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but poingnant and strange all at the same time. The reason why I love this painting so much is firstly because it is a watercolour and I love watercolours, and secondly because of its simplicity, passion and expressiveness, and the colour scheme where the mystical deep shades of blue present in the sky and also as subtle touches on the horse add to the mood of the sublime. A brown colour scheme would have muted the effect of terror, strangeness and drama. Blue is the colour of the deep sea and the sky, of things infinite and mysterious. The landscape around the horse thus gets a mystical air and we might wonder whether the horse itself is but our vision or a fancy…

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.

Johan Christian Dahl – The Eruption of Vesuvius

8 Jul

“a smoke by day and a fire by night”

Johan Christian Dahl, The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1824

The ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered with a thick layer of volcanic ash after the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Covered in ash, forgotten and asleep for more than a thousand years Pompeii was rediscovered in the mid eighteenth century and very soon many artists, wanderers and explorers started visiting the area. One of such curious wanderers who visited the Mount of Vesuvius was the Norwegian Romantic painter Johan Christian Dahl. In 1820 the prince Christian Frederik invited Dahl to join him in Naples and Dahl, despite being busy courting a young lady called Emilia, joyously agreed. He quickly married Emilia and travelled to Italy the next day and stayed there for the next ten months. In Italy Dahl finally discovered the vibrancy of colour and the light that would forever change his approach to painting. And he arrived just in time to see the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius on Christmas Day in 1820. This must have been an awe inspiring sight, just on the edge between danger and excitement, and Dahl quickly captured what he saw in an oil sketch, a sketch he would later use to paint the big painting you can see above.

The volcanic eruption is exactly the kind of wild, raw energy of nature which the Romantics loved and Dahl beautifully captures this energy in his painting. A dull, brown rocky scenery takes up almost half the painting, but then in the upper left corner the big explosion of colours makes up for the dullness of the rocks. Hot, thick red lava and smoke are portrayed with such quickness, rapture and immediacy, even though the painting was finished four years after Dahl had actually seen the volcano erupting. The smoke is built of feathery soft shades of white and grey with a few touches of blue. In the upper right corner we see the bay of Naples, so serene and safe compared to the erupting volcano. Two men are portrayed observing the eruption, and three other, along with donkeys, are waiting on a distance. The appearance of human figures isn’t something we see often in these types of romantic landscapes but they are visually useful because they show us just how small and insignificant man is compared to the wild, and often fickle nature. Dahl’s painting is just one of many Romantic landscapes which express the sublimity of nature. A raging volcano with smoke and lava brings out that wonderful feeling of awe and terror that the romantics loved so much. One such romantic couple who also visited the Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii in 1819 were Mary and Percy Shelley:

Mary, Shelley, and Claire arrived in Naples in December, they moved into one of the most beautiful houses in the city, No. 250 Riviera di Chiaia, which Shelley had rented with the hope of pleasing Mary. It was rumored that the ruins of Cicero’s villa were right under their window. To both Shelleys, the grand old senator stood for the freedom of the Roman republic and was an icon of hope. Nestled below the slopes of Vesuvius, which, as Shelley said, was “a smoke by day and a fire by night,” Naples had public gardens and boulevards lined with palm trees. Across the sea, they could see the outline of a mysterious island drifting in and out of the mist. This was the isle of Circe, as local lore had it, the beautiful temptress who lured Odysseus into her bed and kept him there for seven years. Another legend was that Virgil had composed his gentle, pastoral poems here, The Georgics. Mary delighted in “looking at almost the same scene that he did— reading about manners little changed since his days.” Together, she, Claire, and Shelley explored the famous sites: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Lake Avernus, and the Cumean Sybil’s cave. (…) The trio climbed Vesuvius and gazed out over the city’s steeples and red roofs to the sea. “A poet could not have a more sacred burying place [than] in an olive grove on the shore of a beautiful bay,” Mary wrote in her journal that winter, looking out at the pale blue water.” (Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws)

Maybe at first sight this painting isn’t that exciting, but just look at all these details! This red, although not used in abundance, is so vivid I can just feel it.

Ernst Ferdinand Oehme – Hohnstein Castle in Saxon Switzerland

2 Oct
"I wandered under the branches 

Alone with my despair; 
Touched with a host of memories 

I fell to dreaming there."
(Heinrich Heine)
Ernst Ferdinand Oehme, Hohnstein Castle in Saxon Switzerland, 1827

This painting by a German Romantic painter Ernst Ferdinand Oehme looks so dreamlike and unreal that one would assume it is a mirage or a scene from one’s reverie, but no, it indeed shows a real castle splendidly situated on the top of the hill, vast woodland bellow it and only sky stretching on and on above it. The castle seems dream-like, and yet its forms are vividly clear and tangible. Towers and roofs stand out clear and sharp against the dreamy yellow dusk sky tinged with lavender and soft blue. The Hohnstein castle is stretched playfully over the huge rocks and the scene looks like something out of a fairy tale. One can easily fall into wild and romantical reveries about knights, damsels and troubadours. The fairy tale beauty of the castle contrasts with the rugged, raw beauty of the large rocks; man’s made architecture meets the untamed beauty of nature. In March 1825 The Crown Prince Friedrich August of Saxony informed the painter that he had bought a little property near Dresden and that he wished to fill his gallery with patriotic landscapes that encapsulate the beauty of German nature and castles. The painting was exhibited in 1827 and was criticised for its “picturesque” quality. Certainly compared to Caspar David Friedrich’s sublime landscapes that capture a whole scope of feelings, from loneliness to transience, this simple painting by Oehme isn’t so special, but I love it. Something about it makes me daydream and I think that a painting that can make you daydream is a good painting.

Music Is the Most Romantic of All Arts

17 Sep

“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…

George Roux, Spirit, 1885

I read a sentence in a schoolbook a few years ago which said that “music is the most romantic of all arts” and this line stuck with me. It awoke something inside me, it inspired me at school and at home, it was the most beautiful sentence I had read. The idea that music was the most romantic of all arts enchanted me beyond belief. Later I read the entire essay by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a study of Beethoven’s instrumental music which first appeared in 1810 and was revised in 1813. Perhaps in our day and age the word “romantic” is simplified, overused and misunderstood, it stands for something shallow and sugary, but when Hoffmann used it to describe Beethoven’s music, he used it to describe the powerful, unrestrained passion, emotions and expressiveness. As much as I love paintings and enjoy reading books, I must say that only music awakens that something within me, and I imagine most of you would agree with me. When I listen to Chopin’s Nocturnes and his Waltz in A minor, Debussy’s work for flute and harp, some Ravel, and even other music such as Tindersticks or Echo and the Bunnymen, it sends me into a trance, my imagination is awakened and images appear before my eyes, sentiments I never knew I had suddenly posses me and afterwards I feel a catharsis calmness and a new found love and inspiration. Even in visual arts this romantic nature of music is portrayed. In George Roux’s painting “Spirit” a gorgeous ghostly white lady is seen playing the piano. Her thin waist and ethereal form are aesthetically pleasing and the man’s face shows both shock and awe. Perhaps he is a widow and this is the ghost of his wife playing their favourite tune. Painting is open to interpretation, but one thing is certain; only the music has such power to move us, bring us to tears, purify us, infuse us with yearning and romance, and even make us fall in love with whoever is playing it or sharing our love for it.

John William Waterhouse, Saint Cecilia, 1895

Now here are E.T.A Hoffmann’s words:

When music is discussed as an independent art, should it not be solely instrumental music that is intended, music that scorns every aid from and mixing with any other art (poetry), music that only expresses the distinctive and unique essence of this art? It 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. . . .
Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world! Romantic taste is rare, romantic talent even rarer, and perhaps for this reason there are so few who are able to sweep the lyre with tones that unveil the wonderful realm of the romantic. Haydn grasps romantically the human in human life; he is more accommodating, more comprehensible for the common man. Mozart laid claim more to the superhuman, to the marvelous that dwells in the inner spirit. Beethoven’s music wields the lever of fear, awe, horror, and pain, and it awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic. Thus he is a purely romantic composer, and if he has had less success with vocal music, is this because vocal music excludes the character of indefinite longing and represents the emotions, which come from the realm of the infinite, only by the definite affects of words? . . .

Sir William Quiller Orchardson, Her Mother’s Voice, exhibited in 1888

Monotonous beige and yellow colours and a slightly sentimental mood of this late Victorian genre scene painted by English painter William Quiller Orchardson hides a more wistful theme. Evening has fallen and a lamp is casting a yellowish glow all over the sumptuous interior and yet, despite the richness of the interior, a certain sadness hangs like a cloud over the room. An old gentleman was sitting in his armchair and reading the newspapers until something happened… A familiar voice, a very dear voice, colours the stuffy air filled with memories and hopeless wistful reveries. The voice awakens old wounds and merry memories that he can never get back “And all the money in the world couldn’t bring back those days”, to quote the song “This is the Day” by The The (and later Manic Street Preachers). His daughter, dressed in a fashionable pale pink evening gown, is sitting at the piano, playing and singing while a young man is standing by her side. She has her mother’s voice, as the title of the painting suggests. It is through music, singing, but still music, that the inexplicable yearning enters the man’s heart and soul and awakens a river of emotions which usually remain buried deep within him.

Caspar David Friedrich – Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon

13 Sep

“there is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
there is a rapture on the lonely shore,
there is society where none intrudes,
by the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.”

(Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

Caspar David Friedrich, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, 1818-24, 23 x 44 cm

Caspar David Friedrich, a German painter of Romanticism, preferred portraying nature over people. In this fairly small canvas we see three interesting figures; a man, a woman and a crooked tree with branches stretching wildly, as if they are about to snatch a poor soul who is wandering the woods at a midnight hour. This is definitely a tree that one cannot ignore and is so peculiar that it can rightfully stand as a third figure in the painting; Gothic and gloomy, it adds to the nocturnal atmosphere of mystery and dreams. In the darkness of the night trees, rocks and hills acquire strange, eerie shapes and one cannot separate what is real from what is not. While the night is enveloping the strolling couple with its velvet cloak, the woman rests her hand on the man’s shoulder and they are both fixated on the only source of light in the dark: the moon glowing low on the horizon, glowing with reassurance, hope and magic, it’s almost like a ray of light in the man’s dark path of life. It’s the very same moon that shows its pale face every night, the very same moon that we are seeing now; it is lasting and the man’s life is short. In that mystical way, the moon unites the couple and binds them together in a realisation at how tender and fragile their transient existences are, puts things into a perspective.

Echo and the Bunnymen, Crocodiles (1980), album cover

Caspar painted a similar version of the same motif which included two men contemplating the moon. And later, in 1840, a fellow painter Johan Christian Clausen Dahl suggested that the couple painted in “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” are Caspar and his young wife Caroline. It is interesting to note that the man in the painting is wearing a particular style of costume, an old German costume which was worn by German patriots to show their love of freedom and democracy. In one of my previous posts about Caspar David Friedrich I made a connection between the mood of his seascapes with the album cover for the Echo and the Bunnymen’s album “Heaven Up Here” (1981). This time I want to make a connection between Friedrich’s painting “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” and the album cover “Crocodiles” which features the band in a nocturnal woods. The picture was taken by Brian Griffin and it was suppose to represent “introspection and despair” which fits the mood of the album well. I am listening to those two albums a lot these days and I always have Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings in mind when I hear the music and some of the lyrics. I just couldn’t ignore how similar the aesthetics of the painting and the album cover seem to be; the nocturnal setting, woods, crooked trees…

Caspar David Friedrich and Rollo May: Little We See in Nature That is Ours

5 Sep

German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich was born on this day in 1774 in Greifswald, a town on the Baltic coast whose misty port and lonely ships Friedrich had portrayed in some of his paintings. In August this year I read Rollo May’s wonderful book “Man’s Search for Himself” (published in 1953) and I really enjoyed the chapter on nature and man’s relation to nature, that is, how modern man has lost his connection to the nature and therefore doesn’t feel its charms any more. It’s fascinating how Rollo May writes of man’s alienation, loneliness, emptiness and anxiety in 1953 and I always imagine “modern” man now suffers from all those things, that people in the past were calmer and happier… When May talks of the grandeur and the sublime beauty of nature, I instantly had Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings in mind, I cannot think of another painter who captured the sublime beauty of nature and its relation to men in a more captivating, dreamy and beautiful way. In Friedrich’s paintings the man is always but a small, figure, often with his back turned against us, no face seen, a small, meaningless and transient anonymous figure compared to strong, resilient and lasting nature, whether it’s the sea waves that swallow everything they desire, the cliffs and mountains, the vast spaces where man can ponder, contemplate and perhaps find himself. The following are interesting passage from the chapter called “Little We See in Nature That is Ours”:

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1811

“Or if one gives himself to the feeling of the distance of the far mountain peaks, permits himself to “empathize” with their heights and depths, and if one is aware at the same moment that the mountain “never was the friend of one, nor promised what it could not give,” and that one could be dashed to pieces on the stone floor at the foot of the peak without his extinction as a person making the slightest difference to the walls of granite, one is afraid. This is the profound threat of “nothingness,” or “nonbeing,” which one experiences when he fully confronts his relation with inorganic being. 

People who have lost the sense of their identity as selves also tend to lose their sense of relatedness to nature. They lose not only their experience of organic connection with inanimate nature, such as trees and mountains, but they also lose some of their capacity to feel empathy for animate nature, that is animals. In psychotherapy, persons who feel empty are often sufficiently aware of what a vital response to nature might be to know what they are missing. They may remark, regretfully, that though others are moved by a sunset, they themselves are left relatively cold; and though others may find the ocean majestic and awesome, they themselves, standing on rocks at the seashore, don’t feel much of anything. Our relation to nature tends to be destroyed not only by our emptiness, but also by our anxiety.

A little girl coming home from school after a lecture on how to defend one’s self against the atom bomb, asked her parent, “Mother, can’t we move someplace where there isn’t any sky?” Fortunately this child’s terrifying but revealing question is an allegory more than an illustration, but it well symbolizes how anxiety makes us withdraw from nature. Modern man, so afraid of the bombs he has built, must cower from the sky and hide in caves—must cower from the sky which is classically the symbol of vastness, imagination, release. On a more everyday level, our point is simply that when a person feels himself inwardly empty, as is the case with so many modern people, he experiences nature around him also as empty, dried up, dead. The two experiences of emptiness are two sides of the same state of impoverished relation to life.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea, 1822

Near the beginning of the nineteenth century William Wordsworth, among others, clearly saw this loss of the feeling for nature, and he saw the overemphasis on commercialism which was partly its cause and the emptiness which would be its result. He described what was occurring in his familiar sonnet:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gather’d now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

It is not by poetic accident that Wordsworth yearns for such mythological creatures as Proteus and Triton. These figures are personifications of aspects of nature—Proteus, the god who keeps changing his shape and form, is a symbol for the sea which is eternally transforming its movement and its color. Triton is the god whose horn is the sea shell, and his music is the echoing hum one hears in the large shells on the shore. Proteus and Triton are examples of precisely what we have lost—namely the capacity to see ourselves and our moods in nature, to relate to nature as a broad and rich dimension of our own experience.

Caspar Wolf, The Lower Grindelwald Glacier with the Lutschine Stream and the Mettenberg, 1774-77

Descartes’ dichotomy had given modern man a philosophical basis for getting rid of the belief in witches, and this contributed considerably to the actual overcoming of witchcraft in the eighteenth century. Everyone would agree that this was a great gain. But we likewise got rid of the fairies, elves, trolls, and all of the demicreatures of the woods and earth. It is generally assumed that this, too, was a gain since it helped sweep man’s mind clean of “superstition” and “magic.” But I believe this is an error. Actually what we did in getting rid of the fairies and the elves and their ilk was to impoverish our lives; and impoverishment is not the lasting way to clear men’s minds of superstition. There is a sound truth in the old parable of the man who swept the evil spirit out of his house, but the spirit, noticing that the house stood clean and vacant, returned bringing seven more evil spirits with him; and the second state of the man was worse than the first. For it is the empty and vacant people who seize on the new and more destructive forms of our latter-day superstitions, such as beliefs in the totalitarian mythologies, engrams, miracles like the day the sun stood still, and so on. Our world has become disenchanted; and it leaves us not only out of tune with nature but with ourselves as well.

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808-10

As human beings we have our roots in nature, not simply because of the fact that the chemistry of our bodies is of essentially the same elements as the air or dirt or grass. In a multitude of other ways we participate in nature—the rhythm of the change of seasons or of night and day, for example, is reflected in the rhythm of our bodies, of hunger and fulfillment, of sleep and wakefulness, of sexual desire and gratification, and in countless other ways. Proteus can be a personification of the changes in the sea because he symbolizes what we and the sea share— changing moods, variety, capriciousness, and adaptability. In this sense, when we relate to nature we are but putting our roots back into their native soil.

But in another respect man is very different from the rest of nature. He possesses consciousness of himself; his sense of personal identity distinguishes him from the rest of the living or nonliving things. And nature cares not a fig for man’s personal identity. That crucial point in our relatedness to nature brings into the center of the picture the basic theme of this book, man’s need for awareness of himself. One must be able to affirm his person despite the impersonality of nature, and to fill the silences of nature with his own inner aliveness.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise by the Sea, ca. 1821

It takes a strong self—that is, a strong sense of personal identity—to relate fully to nature without being swallowed up. For really to feel the silence and the inorganic character of nature carries a considerable threat. If one stands on a rocky promontory, for example, and looks at the sea in its tremendous rising and falling of swells, and if one is fully and realistically aware that the sea never “has a tear for others’ woes nor cares what any other thinks,” that one’s life could be swallowed up with scarcely an infinitesimal difference being made to the tremendous, ongoing, chemical movement of creation, one is threatened. Or if one gives himself to the feeling of the distance of the far mountain peaks, permits himself to “empathize” with their heights and depths, and if one is aware at the same moment that the mountain “never was the friend of one, nor promised what it could not give,” and that one could be dashed to pieces on the stone floor at the foot of the peak without his extinction as a person making the slightest difference to the walls of granite, one is afraid. This is the profound threat of “nothingness,” or “nonbeing,” which one experiences
when he fully confronts his relation with inorganic being. And to remind one’s self, “Dust thou art, to dust returnest” is hollow comfort indeed.

Such experiences in relating to nature have too much anxiety for most people. They flee from the threat by shutting off their imagination, by turning their thoughts to the practical and humdrum details of what to have for lunch. Or they protect themselves from the full terror of the threat of nonbeing by making the sea a “person” who wouldn’t hurt them, or by taking refuge in some belief in individual Providence and telling themselves, “He shall give his angels charge concerning thee . . . lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.” But to flee from one’s anxiety, or to rationalize one’s way out of it, only makes one weaker in the long run.

It requires, we have said, a strong sense of self and a good deal of courage to relate to nature creatively. But to affirm one’s own identity over against the inorganic being of nature in turn produces greater strength of self. (…) We wish here only to emphasize that the loss of the relation to nature goes hand in hand with the loss of the sense of one’s own self. “Little we see in Nature that is ours,” as a description of many modern people, is a mark of the weakened and impoverished person.

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poor captive bird who from thy narrow cage pourest such music

30 May

Bitter-sweet verses from my favourite Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Epipsychidion”:

Jacob Maris, The Girl feeding her Bird in a Cage, oil on mahagony, 1867

“Poor captive bird! who, from thy narrow cage,
Pourest such music, that it might assuage
The rugged hearts of those who prisoned thee,
Were they not deaf to all sweet melody;
This song shall be thy rose: its petals pale
Are dead, indeed, my adored Nightingale!
But soft and fragrant is the faded blossom,
And it has no thorn left to wound thy bosom.”

John Constable – Cloud Studies

29 May

Yesterday afternoon I wandered lonely like a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills when all at once I saw a crowd of golden daffodils… No, wait, that was William Wordsworth. Let me commence this post again; yesterday afternoon I sat on the floor of my room and I gazed at the heavy grey and white clouds that sailed slowly through the blueish-grey sky when all at once I saw many and many birds, perhaps a hundred, flying and singing, as if they were drunken with life and ecstatic about the greenness of trees. And that moment made me think of all these beautiful and poetic studies of clouds and the sky by the English Romantic painter John Constable, in particular the one bellow because it had a few birds flying freely in the sky.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1821, Oil on Paper, Laid Down on Board

John Constable’s love of nature makes him a true Romantic painter. Unlike his contemporary J.M.W. Turner who always tried to surpass the beauty of nature with his theatrical paintings filled with lightness and glistening colour. Constable painted nature in all its simple, unassuming beauty, without romanticising it or exaggerating anything. He was born in the countryside of Suffolk, studied at the Royal Academy, but both his heart and art lured him back to the countryside which was a true fountain of inspiration. He truly felt the landscape, the sky and their beauties with his heart. “Painting is but another world for feeling”, he wrote once in a letter and these cloud studies truly show how Constable felt beauty all around him and wished to capture it somehow and thus a feeling for beauty produced a painting which we now admire and gaze upon in awe and call it beautiful. In 1821, Constable moved to Hampstead because his wife was of fragile health and the air of the country suited her better than the polluted air of the city.

In 1821 and 1822 Constable made around a hundred studies of clouds in Hampstead, capturing all sorts of shapes, sized and colours of the clouds; from serene clouds white as milk to those heavy and grey and filled with rain. Clouds are ever changing, fascinating and serene and show a transient aspect of nature because the sky never looks the same as it did a day before. Better capture the cloud before it changes! These cloud studies are one of the first plein air paintings in the art history because Constable went out into the meadow and painted with oil paints the sky he saw above him, these are sketches of nature immediately as he saw it, but in oil paint. A black and white pencil sketch would have been far more convenient, but wouldn’t have had the magic of blue, white and grey shades. I love to imagine Constable gazing above at that beautiful sky and thinking to himself “Oh yes, the clouds look majestic today, I think I shall capture them on paper!” Ahh… the good old days when people stared at the clouds and not at their phones.

John Constable, Cloud Study Stormy Sunset, 1821-22

This love of nature reminded me of a passage from Mary Shelley’s novel “Mathilda” where the heroine Mathilda describes her childhood and youth spent in isolation in a castle in Scotland, and having no family member to love her and love them back, she develops a universal sort of love for every living thing in nature and every element in it such as clouds and rain: “I rambled amidst the wild scenery of this lovely country and became a complete mountaineer: I passed hours on the steep brow of a mountain that overhung a waterfall or rowed myself in a little skiff to some one of the islands. I wandered for ever about these lovely solitudes, gathering flower after flower: Ond’ era pinta tutta la mia via, singing as I might the wild melodies of the country, or occupied by pleasant day dreams. 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.

The cloud study bellow which shows a rather gray and gloomy sky perfect for a sky in some Gothic novel where a heroine is sitting at her window in the castle and gazing outside was painted form eleven in the morning to noon, so it can show us approximately the time which took Constable to create one such cloud study. Of course they needed to be done quickly to be accurate and capture the moment. This immediacy gives them a diary-like quality and an intimate beauty.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822

John Constable, Clouds Sketch, 1822

John Constable, Clouds, 1822, oil on paper on cardboard, Measurements: 30.0 × 48.8 cm, Inscription inscribed in pen and ink on paper label on reverse: 5 Sepr 1822. / 10 o clock Morng. looking South-East. / very brisk wind at West. / very bright + fresh Grey (inverted v under Grey) Clouds running very fast / over a yellow bed. about half way in the sky / very appropriate for the Coast. at Osmington. (source).