Tag Archives: Romanticism

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).

Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare

23 May
“Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.—I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl’d
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles?…..”
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni, 1814)

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1790-91

Henry Fuseli’s masterpiece “The Nightmare” has been haunting the imagination of everyone who saw it ever since it was first exhibited in the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1781. The popularity of the painting even then was so immense that Fuseli painted a few versions of the same theme and then one I’ve chosen for this post is the one painted in 1790-91. I somewhat prefer that version because of the colours, blue and grey tones as oppose to the warmer colours in the original 1781 version, and the composition.

A few days ago I awoke on a rainy morning after a nightmare and I thought of this painting, and ever since that moment I cannot get it out of my mind. The painting is charged with eroticism and a feeling of sublime which both unsettle and excite the imagination. I adore the expressive, exaggerated and slightly melodramatic mood of the painting. The woman’s pose alone is unforgettable; there she is, the poor Gothic heroine suffering from a nightmare, trapped in the world of slumber while in reality her body is lying stretched in a vulnerable position and visions of a remoter world are indeed gathered around her bed. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. The eighteenth century physicians such as Dr John Bond saw the menstruation as the cause of such disturbing nightmares; “such dreams, suggested both by the pressure against the chest and the supine position of the sleeper, are usually about a violent sexual assault – the kind of dreams that gave rise to rumours of intercourse with the devil” (Vaughan, Romantic Art), or perhaps the true cause are all the suppressed desires and thoughts that such a young maiden dares not even think of in the waking hours. The horse’s head staring with mad eyes which resemble a lightning, may symbolise masculine principle.

Fuseli admired the muscular, dynamic figures of Michelangelo and he painted the figures in his painting in the same manner. The girl in this painting has beautifully shaped and pale, but rather muscular and strong arms that are stretched as much as it’s possible and reach the floor, making her overall position a very expressive and convulsed one. The pale lady in the painting experiencing the nightmare is not dead, she is merely asleep, though if we look at the two worlds of sleep and death as twin-sisters, as the Romantics would have seen them, then the difference isn’t so vast. My interest in Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” which I read years ago sparked again these days for many reasons, one of them being the fact I watched the film “Mary Shelley” (2017) again, and this passage reminded me so much of Fuseli’s painting. After Victor Frankenstein refused to create a female companion for the Monster, the Monster had a revenge and on the wedding night of Victor and Elizabeth he strangled the poor Elizabeth:

She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair. Everywhere I turn I see the same figure– her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on its bridal bier. Could I behold this and live? Alas! Life is obstinate and clings closest where it is most hated. For a moment only did I lose recollection; I fell senseless on the ground.

When I recovered I found myself surrounded by the people of the inn; their countenances expressed a breathless terror, but the horror of others appeared only as a mockery, a shadow of the feelings that oppressed me. I escaped from them to the room where lay the body of Elizabeth, my love, my wife, so lately living, so dear, so worthy. She had been moved from the posture in which I had first beheld her, and now, as she lay, her head upon her arm and a handkerchief thrown across her face and neck, I might have supposed her asleep. I rushed towards her and embraced her with ardour, but the deadly languor and coldness of the limbs told me that what I now held in my arms had ceased to be the Elizabeth whom I had loved and cherished. The murderous mark of the fiend’s grasp was on her neck, and the breath had ceased to issue from her lips.

Henry Peach Robinson – Fading Away

28 Apr

The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858

I found myself thinking about death these days, and naturally the first things that came to my mind were the poems, the paintings and this Victorian era photograph taken by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858. “Fading Away” is a very romantical and elegantly sad photograph which shows a pale and frail young girl dying from consumption, or perhaps from a broken heart. She is surrounded by her a family members, all of which play a different role in the composition of the photograph and also in expressing emotion. The male figure, presumably the father, turned his back towards the girl, unable to face the painful truth; death of his beloved daughter. Perhaps he is trying to suppress his tears, and perhaps he feels powerless because he failed to protect her from the ultimate enemy: death.  This photograph perfectly encapsulated the morbidly romantical fascination with death which came to define the Victorian era. For modern viewers the aesthetic conveyed is very Victorian, but the Victorians felt very differently about Robinson’s photograph. It received mixed reviews from the public; some found it shocking that the photographer would invade such an intimate, private moment. The Victorians knew the distinction between the private life and the outside world. And also, the photograph is actually an early example of photomontage and Robinson. was a pioneer of that. I am as shocked as the Victorians were because the final result is so realistic and I would never have assumed that these individuals weren’t in the same room at the same moment together.

Poets of Romanticism expressed an inexplicable longing for death because every day life, with its struggles and ugliness, was far from their ideal of Beauty. “Transient pleasures as a vision seem, and yet we think the greatest pain’s do die”, wrote John Keats in his poem “On Death”. Percy Bysshe Shelley was equally dramatic, utterly obsessed with death, he saw it as the state of ultimate happiness and perfection. The Victorian era romanticised death, especially the slow, staged, almost theatre-like moment of death. And what actress to play the role of a person soon to be departed than a beautiful, pale, virginal girl who had tasted none of life’s sweetness and joys and already at such a tender age death was to take her away. It’s like a rose forever preserved in its loveliest stage of bud! Never blooming fully, and thus never withering either. Poe was right: death of a young girl is indeed the most beautiful topic for art. And here is John Keats’ poem “On Death” written in 1814 in a letter to his brother Thomas who was, just like the poor girl in the photograph, suffering from consumption which would ultimately be Keats’s end as well:

On Death

Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,
And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?
The transient pleasures as a vision seem,
And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.

How strange it is that man on earth should roam,
And lead a life of woe, but not forsake
His rugged path; nor dare he view alone
His future doom which is but to awake.

Henry Peach Robinson, She Never Told Her Love, 1857

“She never told her love,

But let concealment,

like a worm i’ the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek”

(Shakespeare, Twelfth Night II,iv,111-13)

Robinson’s photograph “She Never Told Her Love”, taken in 1857, served as a study for the girl in “Fading Away”. Resting on soft big pillow, the girl truly does appear to be fading away. Her hair is spread on the pillow, her hands clasped on her lap, her lips ever so softly parted. This study’s focus is on the girl, she is alone in her pictorial space, alone with her woe, illness and that poor broken heart. In “Fading Away” she is surrounded by family, and even though the study has the intimacy of the girl alone, I feel like the characters add to the drama and the story behind the photograph.

It is interesting to think of the way poets and artists of Romanticism and the Victorians saw death, and how our culture sees it. The Victorian era attitude towards death is seen as “morbid” nowadays and I don’t quite see why. Every living thing on earth is bound to die one day, so why is death such a taboo topic, such a shocking morbid “Gothic” thing? It seems like everything is so sugarcoated nowadays; idealised, filtered, posed, set-up, and artificial and hence such a pure, dark truth such as death is hard to digest. Death comes without invitations, it cannot be ignored, postponed, sugarcoated, it changes everything, it is beyond our control. Perhaps we are too entitled today and we subconsciously feel that, along with our generally good standard of living (at least in the Western countries), immortality is also our god-given right, and it isn’t. Can’t we go back to times when death was romanticised and one could truly die of a broken heart!? I feel like I can relate to Romantic visions of the death much more, and also this beautiful poem “Goodbye, my friend, goodbye” by the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) who ended his life not by consumption or broken heart, but by suicide:

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.

Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let’s have no sadness — furrowed brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer.

The poem was written in the poet’s own blood and found in the hotel room where he had committed suicide. Still, despite the tragical ending, the poem carries a seed of hope, like a silver dandelion seed floating aimlessly in the wind, because dying is nothing new and living no newer, and the sad parting brings reunion, and could there be a more hopeful thought? Death is not the end, not the end…

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Love’s Philosophy is 200 Years Old

22 Dec

My favourite poem by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Love’s Philosophy”, was published on the 22nd December 1819. I cannot believe that this gem of a poem is 200 years old, yet it feels so youthful and fresh, like the first clear skies in spring. English critic and poet Leigh Hunt published the poem in the 22nd December 1819 issue of the newspapers “The Indicator”, which he edited from 1819 to 1821. Then later, in 1824, Mary Shelley published the poem again in the “Posthumous Poems”. The beautiful, innocent mood of the poem was inspired by the poems of the Greek poet Anacreon which celebrated love. The second generation of Romantic poets; Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron, looked up to the Classical world, the Romans and the Greeks, for inspiration, wisdom and Beauty.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard is well-known for his paintings of stolen kisses, secret meetings, coquetry, indolence and frivolities in romantic garden settings, but this painting here, called “The Souvenir” is announcing the Romantic vibes which took over the European art in the late eighteenth century. The girl is alone in the woods, carving the name of her Beloved in the tree so every living creature in the nature can know the secret of her heart. Her pet dog, usually seen as a symbol of fidelity in art, is observing her. Look how pretty her pink dress is, and how delicate the whole scene is. I can imagine this girl would love Percy Shelley’s poem.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Souvenir, 1776-8

Love’s Philosophy

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle-
Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea; –
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?

Lermontov – Happiness is…. being in a cornfield

28 Nov

Autumn is passing, never to return… at least not this year, and December’s cold fingers are touching the landscape, transforming the fields of corn and wheat which shone in gold to desolate spaces where silence resides, save for the moments when the crows hold ominous yet chatty meetings. Today, this little poem by the Russian Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov, called “When, in the cornfield” is on my mind. It was written in 1837, when the poet was in his twenty-third year and is an example of a Romantic poet’s love of nature, which seems to be the only place a Byronic hero such as Lermontov can find joy and calmness which people and society do not offer. I don’t think one necessarily has to visit a corn field and walk about it seeking joy, but really any place in nature will surely evoke such sweet, serene feelings. Life seems easier when we see how effortless and slow everything is in nature, yet everything is accomplished. “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” (Lao Tzu) If nature can take things slow and be beautiful in every season, so can we, be it sadness or joy, flowers or snow….

“My heart is losing troubles and distress  —

And I can apprehend the happiness on earth…”

George Clausen (1852-1944) View of a lady in Pink standing in a cornfield, 1881

When, in the Cornfield…

When, in the cornfield, yellow waves are rising,

The wood is rustling at the sound of soft wind,

And, in the garden, crimson plums are hiding

In pleasant shade of leaves, so shining ones and green;

 

When, spilled with fragrant dew in calmness of the alley,

In morning of a gold or evening of a red,

Under the bush, the lily of a valley,

Is gladly nodding me with silver of her head;

 

When the icy brook in the ravine is playing,

And, sinking thoughts in somewhat misty dreams,

In bubbling tones secretly tale-telling

Of those peaceful lands from which it gaily streams  —

 

Then wrinkles are smoothing on my knitted brow,

My heart is losing troubles and distress  —

And I can apprehend the happiness on earth,

And see Almighty in the heavens now…

Picture found here.

Picture by Julia Starr.