Tag Archives: sad

Book Review: Romaji Diary by Takuboku Ishikawa

27 Aug

“Alone and awake in the metropolis where the entire race of men was fast asleep, I realized, as I kept track of the breathing of others during that quiet spring night, how meaningless and trivial my life was in this narrow three and-a-half-mat room.”

Kasamatsu Shiro (1898-1991), Rainy Evening at Shinobazu Pond, Tokyo, 1938

In the beginning of August I finally started reading a book which intrigued me immensely: “Romaji Diary and Sad Toys” by Takuboku Ishikawa. A single quote compelled me to read the book because it spoke to me: “How I wished to go somewhere. I walked on with this thought in mind. I wanted to ride a train. That was my thought. I wanted to ride somewhere, anywhere, with no destination in mind and to a place I have never been before.” Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912) was a Japanese writer mostly remembered for his tanka and his free-style poems. He died in April 1912 from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, tragically too soon, so we can’t know how his literary talents would flourish had he lived longer. The “Romaji Diary” is Ishikawa’s diary written in Japanese but in Latin script (in Japanese it’s called “romaji”) so his wife couldn’t understand it. Ishikawa continues the long literary tradition of keeping a diary which originated in the ninth century.

The diary starts on 7 April and ends on 16 June 1909. We are instantly in the mind of a young person in a big bustling city of Tokyo; a person who is alienated, brooding, slightly cynical, a tad melodramatic and completely honest with himself. Ishikawa’s thoughts and writing style made me think of both Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human” which isn’t a diary but is written in the first person, and Kafka, whose letters I have read and enjoyed. Kafka in Japan; Kafka amongst cherry blossoms. Nothingness and loneliness, bring to mind the early days of Manic Street Preachers and I am sure that Richey Edwards, who appreciated Japanese literature and brooding heroes, would appreciate the Romaji Diary as well. One of the recurring topics throughout the diary is the topic of his responsibility towards his family which conflicts with his literary aspirations; I would of course chose the latter and so I can easily empathise and understand how the family and the sentimentality around it can drag an artist down. I also enjoyed that Ishikawa mentions Russian writers and characters from Russian novels because I love some of them too. But now, let me speak no more, here are the quotes which I enjoyed the most and they will show you the style of the diary and Ishikawa’s thoughts:

Alone and awake in the metropolis where the entire race of men was fast asleep, I realized, as I kept track of the breathing of others during that quiet spring night, how meaningless and trivial my life was in this narrow three and- a-half-mat room.
What will I look like when, sleeping all alone in this narrow room, I am overcome by some indescribable exhaustion? The final discovery of man is that he is far from great. Such a long time in this narrow room, nursing a weary anxiety and a foolish desire to seek out, by force if necessary, something to interest me— more than two hundred days have come and gone. When will I be able to… No!
Lying in bed, I read Turgenev’s short stories.

Hiroshima Koho – Night View of Ohashi Bridge

When I clasp a warm hand and smell the powerfuI fragrance of a woman’s hair, I am not satisfied with that: I want to embrace a soft and warm and perfectly white body. Oh, the feeling of loneliness when I go back home without fulfilling that desire! It’s not merely a loneliness stemming from unfulfilled sexual desire; it’s a deep, terrible, despairing realization which forces me to see that I am unable to obtain anything I want.”

“I’m exhausted now. And I’m searching for freedom from care. That freedom from care, what’s it like? Where is it? I can’t, even in a hundred years, return to the innocent mind free from pain that I had long ago. Where is peace of mind?
“I want to be ill.”
(…) Oh, for a life of freedom, released from all responsibility! “I wish my family would die!” Even though I’ve desired that, no one dies. “I wish my friends would regard me as their enemy.” For that I wish too, but no one regards me seriously as their foe. All my friends pity me. God! Why am I loved by others? Why can’t I hate men with all my soul? To be loved is an unbearable insult! But I’m tired. I’m a weakling!”

“I ran my fingers over the strings of a samisen I found hanging on a wall, and the upshot was I took the instrument down and clowned around with it. Why had I done such a thing? Was I in high spirits? No! Somehow the feeling overwhelmed me that there wasn’t a place in the entire world for me. “I have a headache, so just for this one night I’ll enjoy myself.” These words weren’t true. So what was I searching for? A woman’s body? Saké? Probably neither. If not, what? I myself didn’t know. My self-consciousness made my mind sink even deeper. I didn’t want to fall into the terrible abyss. Nor did I want to return to my room: it was as if some disgusting thing were waiting for me there.”

Benkei Bridge – Tsuchiya Koitsu, early 20th century, Japan

“And though I can’t endure the pain of this life, I’m unable to do anything about that life. Everything is restraint, my responsibilities heavy. What am I to do? Hamlet said, “To be or not to be.” But the question of death in today’s world has become much more complicated than in his time.”

I know now that I have no confidence, that I have no aim, that from morning till night I’m driven by vacillation and anxiety. I have no fixed point in me. What will become of me? A useless key that does not fit! That’s me! Wherever I bring myself, I can’t find the keyhole that fits me!
Dying for a smoke!”

“Everything changes according to the way you look at it,” Obara had said. “People think that day by day they are shortening the fifty or sixty years allotted to them, but I believe life means adding one more new day after each succeeding day, so the passing of time doesn’t pain me in the least.”
“When all is said and done, the happy person is someone like you. A person like you can feel assured deceiving himself in such a way,” I had replied.

Greuze and Diderot – Innocence Lost

27 Jun

My friend, you are laughing at me! You are making fun of a serious person who presently is consoling the child in a painting who has lost her bird, or the loss of anything that you wish? Can you see how beautiful she is! How interesting she is! I hate to trouble her.

(Diderot)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Young Girl Grieving Over Her Dead Bird, 1765

It is no secret that I have a soft spot in my heart for the wistful, pale, delicate and gentle ingénues that inhabit the canvases of Jean-Baptist Greuze. This eighteenth century painter is often overlooked and misunderstood, his paintings are often brushed off as sentimental and silly which is not true. Although, ironically, these paintings are the embodiment of the spirit that swept Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century: the Sentimetalism; a movement that emphasises the emotional appeal of art over cold reason and logic. Greuze’s girls have a way of moving the viewer and making him sympathise with their sorrow. In some paintings, the girl’s eyes are large and turned upwards, expressing sorrow and yearning, and other times, their face expressions are almost blank, and they captivate the viewer because we want to know the secret behind their face expression. The sweet oval face of the girl with a broken pitcher seems expressionless, and yet the aura around her is tinged with melancholy.

One such viewer who was very moved by a particular Greuze’s painting was the writer, philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot, who, I must add, also wrote the wonderful novel “The Nun”. On the salon of 1765, Diderot saw Greuze’s painting “The Young Girl Grieving Over Her Dead Bird”; an oval portrait of a girl lamenting the death of her beloved little bird. The girl is dressed in white, as Greuze’s girls usually are. The life of the pretty white bird surrounded by blue flowers is gone – never to be returned. Still, the subject of a painting isn’t as simple as it seems at first sight. It isn’t just about the dead bird, just as it is not about the broken eggs and broken mirrors and broken pitchers; these are the motives that you will see in the paintings bellow. Different motives here serve as metaphors that the viewers of the time surely understood. Diderot and some other critics saw these paintings as symbolic representations of the loss of innocence; a motif which had a great appeal to the buyers and collectors at the time. I can just imagine one of these girls as Marquis de Sade’s Justine, naive and easily exploited and abandoned, just like the girl in the painting “The Complaint of the Watch”; I already wrote a post about that painting which you can read here.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Dead Bird, 1800

Diderot, who was a friend of Greuze and loved his art, wrote a lenghtly monologue about the girl and the dead bird in his critic of the Salon of 1765 and here is what he wrote:

When one sees this piece, one says: Delightful! If one stops, or that one returns, one says Delightful! delightful! Soon one is surprised to find oneself speaking to the child, consoling her. This is so true that this is what I remember saying to her at dif-ferent times. “But my little one, your pain is very deep and thoughtful! What does this dreamy sadness mean! What! For a bird! You aren’t crying, you are deeply wounded; and the thoughts carry your wounds. There my little friend, open your heart, open up your heart to me; tell me the truth, is it really the death of this bird that forces you to retreat into yourself? You’ve lowered your eyes; you’re not answering me. Your tears are ready to flow. I am not a father; I am neither indiscreet nor punishing… Ah! So, I realize that he loved you, he swore his love to you and he swore it a long time ago. He suffered a great deal: the way to see suffering of those we love… Let me continue; why are you closing my mouth with your hand? … Unfortunately, that morning your mother was absent. He came; you were alone; he was so handsome, so passionate, so tender, so charming! He had so much love in his eyes! So much truth in his expressions! He spoke those words that go straight to the heart! And while saying them, he was on his knees: I can still believe it. He held one of your hands; from time to time you felt the warmth of some tears which fell from your eyes and which ran the length of your arms.

Greuze, The Complaint of the Watch, 1770

Still your mother did not return. It is not your fault; it your mother’s fault… He doesn’t want your pretty tears… But what I am saying to you is not to make you cry. Why are you crying? He made you a promise; he will not allow anything to happen to what he promised you. When one has been given the happiness to meet a charming child like you, and become one, so as to please him; it is for life…- and my bird?…- You smile”. (Oh! My friend, how pretty she is! Oh if you only could have seen how she laughed and cried!). I went on. “So! As for your bird! When one loses oneself, does one remember one’s bird? When it came time for your mother to return, the one you loved left. How happy he was, contented, and transported; how difficult it was for him to tear himself away from you! How you stare at me! I know all this. How many times he stood to leave and sat down again! How many times he said goodbye without leaving. How many times did he go only to return! I just saw him at his father’s: he is overwhelmingly happy, a happiness in which everyone participates, without putting up any resistance….”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Broken Eggs, 1756

“And my mother? – Your mother? He had just left when she returned; she found you entranced, as you were a little while ago. One is always that way. Your mother was speaking to you, and you were not listening to what she was saying; she told you to do one thing and you did another. A few tears welled in the corners of your eyes; or you held them back, or you turned your head away to wipe them away furtively. Your unending daydreams made your mother impatient, and she scolded you and that gave you the opportunity to cry without restraint and to relieve your heart… Shall I continue, my dear? I fear that what I will say will continue your pain. You want me to? Your mother was upset with herself for making you unhappy; she came to you and took your hands, she kissed your forehead and cheeks, and you cried even more.”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Head of a Young Woman, c 1780s

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Mirror, 1763

“Your head fell onto her and your face which continued to blush, there just as it is doing now, was hidden in hers. How many calming things your mother said to you, and how much these kind words hurt! Furthermore your canary wanted to screech, to warn you, to call you, to bat its wings, to complain of your forgetfulness, you didn’t see him, you didn’t hear him; you were thinking other thoughts. His water or feed went unfilled and this morning the bird was no more… You are still staring at me; is there anything left for me to say? Oh, I hear, my sweet thing; that bird, it is he who gave him to you; oh well, he will find another just as beautiful… That is not all: your eyes are fixed on me, and are filling again with tears; what else is there? Speak I can’t guess…- What insanity. Don’t worry about anything, my poor girl; it can’t be; it won’t be!”

Greuze, The Broken Pitcher, 1771

What! My friend, you are laughing at me! You are making fun of a serious person who presently is consoling the child in a painting who has lost her bird, or the loss of anything that you wish? Can you see how beautiful she is! How interesting she is! I hate to trouble her. In spite of that, it will not displease me to be the cause of her pain.The subject of this poem is so refined, that many have not heard it; they thought that this young girl was crying because of the canary. Greuze has already painted the same subject; he had placed a tall girl in white satin in front of a cracked mirror who appeared deeply saddened. Do you think that there will be as much gossip spoken about the young girl and her tears at the loss of a bird, than the sadness of the girl in the broken mirror in the last Salon? I am telling you that this child is crying over a different cause. First, you heard her, she agrees and her thoughtful pain says the rest. This pain! At her age and for a bird…

Film: Brzezina (The Birch Wood) 1970

17 Jan

“From my window in the sanatorium, I saw things that could have been beautiful if I had been able to touch them. But I never touched them and never will.”

In December I watched the Polish film “Brzezina” or “The Birch Wood” (1970) directed by Andrzej Wajda and based on a short story by Jarosław_Iwaszkiewicz. I found it just…. captivating! The title alone was alluring to me because I love birches and I find them the most poetic and gentle of all trees. The film is set in the 1920s and it starts with a pale and sickly looking yet smiling young man called Stanisław returning home to a cottage in the woods where his brother Bronisław, a widower, lives with his young daughter Ola. Stanisław, a pianist and a man who has travelled and seen the world, is at once enchanted with the peacefulness, greenness and fresh air of the countryside, but something is not quite right. The atmosphere is tense; Stanislaw may be smiling and delighting in nature but Bronislaw is clearly agitated, shouting both at his maid and at his daughter who, as we see later in the film, seems lonely and neglected, often by herself, playing with a broken doll, sitting on a swing or visiting her mother’s grave in the birch forest. The film is full of such poetic scenes; poetic both in mood and visuals. The birch woods and blooming meadows certainly provide a lot of visual delights.

A very poignant scene in the film is around the fourteenth minute; in the evening Stanislaw is playing piano and Bronislaw comes to his room and tell him that the music is going on his nerves, and Stanislaw, smiling a smile tinged with nostalgia, dreaminess and melancholy, responds by saying that the music is irritating him too because it reminds him of a world that he never really got to know well; a world that he can never return to. Later in the conversation Stanislaw admits to his brother that he returned home to die because he is suffering from consumption. Bronislaw, who had not so long ago lost his wife, is disturbed at the thought of death in his house again, but his sadness never manifests itself in tears and gentleness, but rather through drinking and shouting, especially at his timid daughter Ola who is obviously frightened of him in many scenes.

Bronislaw is a desperate broken man badly coping with his wife’s death, and the handsome starry-eyed Stanislaw is desperate to live, to taste the life that is seeping away from him like sand in a sand clock. His eyes shine with a desire for life to the point that it’s tragic. The film shows two people, two brothers, who have completely different situations in life and it compares their two different life philosophies, or approaches to life. Stanislaw would give everything just to be healthy and strong again, and Bronislaw seems oblivious to all the good things he still has in life, such as his sweet little daughter Ola, and he allows himself to sink into grief and bitterness, giving away the precious life he has, drinking it away, he is alive but not really living. When you think of Stanislaw, so eager to live and so enchanted with music, nature and the world around him, it truly seems ungrateful to treat life the way Bronislaw does, to waste it away, to be “dead” before you actually die. It almost seems a sacrilegious to throw life away. Still, there’s a very Slavic sadness to this film which I like a lot. Also, now that I think of it, Ola reminds me of one of my best friends from childhood whose mother had also died when she was very little, the same blonde hair and timidness…

Vasily Vladimirovich Pukirev – The Unequal Marriage

27 Dec

“Sad veiled bride, please be happy
Handsome groom, give her room
Loud, loutish lover, treat her kindly
(Though she needs you
More than she loves you)…”

(The Smiths, I know it’s over)

Vasily Vladimirovich Pukirev, The Unequal Marriage, 1862, oil on canvas, 173 x 136,5 cm

Pukirev, the son of a peasant who had originally been trained to be an icon painter swept the art scene when he presented his very large canvas “The Unequal Marriage” in 1863. Pukirev had just finished studying at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in Moscow and this painting was an ambitious and successful attempt to portray a scene from an everyday life (well, a wedding may not be an everyday thing, but it’s not a theme from history or religion) in a serious, not sentimental manner. The scene looks like a very dramatic moment in a play; the light in the church is falling on the three main figures in the painting; the bride, illuminating her beautiful and sad figure of the bride, the wrinkled and dull looking old groom, and the hunched priest. The bride and the groom are both holding a lighted candle. The bride; beautiful, shy, and melancholy, is the picture of innocence. Her lovely pale oval face is framed with silky curls that touch her collar bones and her necklace. Jewels glimmers on her skin, blossoms on her wreath are blooming, but her heart is a poor withered flower, sad and cold. The crinoline is heavy on her slender frame, and her downward gaze reveals more than it hides. We cannot see the look in her eyes, but we can feel what she is feeling, we can imagine the soft tears blurring her visions, we can imagine the dryness in her throat when the moment to say “I do” comes.

The idea for the painting came from this one particular real life story; Pukirev’s friend Serge Mikhailovich Varentsov, a young merchant, was hopelessly in love with a twenty-four year old girl Sofya Nikolaevna Rybnikova, but her parents decided it would be better for her to marry a man who was richer and more succesful, a thirty-seven year old Andre Aleksandrovish Karzinkin. The age different wasn’t as big as the painting presents it, but Pukirev wanted to emphasise the bride’s youth and beauty in contrast to the man’s old age and fading looks, so the artistic freedom is understandable and justifiable. Poor, lovelorn Sergei was nonetheless forced to attend the wedding and see his beloved marry someone else, due to family reasons; his brother Nikolai was married to Karzinkin’s younger sister. One man’s sadness was another man’s inspiration and when Sergei told this to his friend the artist, Pukirev instantly had the idea of a painting in mind. The man behind the bride is suppose to be portrait of Sergei but later Sergei was rather angry that Pukirev had painted him and so Pukirev added a beard to the face but the rest remained unchanged. Still, the artist’s friend S. I. Gribkov said for the bearded man that: “with crossed arms in the picture, it is V. V. Pukirev himself, as if alive”. The theme of the painting and the social problem it accentuates reminds me of something from Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”; the main character Raskolnikov’s intelligent and beautiful sister Dunya takes upon herself to better the family’s financial situation by marrying an old and wealthy, but not good-hearted lawyer Luzhkin. In the end, she doesn’t proceed and she ends up marrying Raskolnikov’s best friend Razumikhin who is intelligent and strong and, unlike Luzhkin, he loves her dearly.

First Zhuravlev, After the Wedding, 1880

Auguste Toulmouche, The Reluctant Bride, 1866

More sad brides!

Marianne Stokes – The Queen and the Page

22 Dec

“…the woman is seen as unattainable, the more the desire she has aroused grows, and her Beauty is transfigured.”

Marianne Stokes, The Queen and the Page, 1896, oil on canvas, 101 x 96 cm

Marianne Stokes’ painting “The Queen and the Page” has been haunting me for weeks now. As soon as I read the painting’s title I was, in my imagination, transported to some enchanted, far-away, Medieval fairy tale land, to some white castle with many many narrow towers and spiraling staircases; a castle with knights, troubadours and damsels. The painting has a distinctly Medieval mood which shows Marianne Stokes’ interest in the Pre-Raphaelites. The composition and the colour palette both contribute to the gentle beauty and the bittersweet mood of the painting. The focus is solely on the two figures of the Queen and her Page who are seen walking through a forest. The space around them is painted in soft, tender shades of blue, grey and green, and it looks very dreamy and remote from the stifling life at the court. The woodland, with the tall elegant tree trunks and the mushrooms springing from the ground, is a beautiful setting for the scene.

The figures of the Queen and the Page are elegant and gently elongated, beautifully clad in sumptuous fabric, both are wearing a similar pair of pointy shoes, and their paleness and some sort of frail elegance brings to mind the elegant figures from the fourteenth century illuminations by the Limbourg Brothers. The Page is carrying her train; it’s a sacred duty to him, a privilege to touch the silk train of her dress when the fate is so cruel that he may not touch her lips of soft blonde hair. Without a word being spoken we can feel the mood between the young and beautiful Queen and the blonde Page; there’s a quiet yearning and tenderness in the air. Their faces are especially interesting in conveying the feelings; her downward gaze seems wistful and passively surrendered to her faith, the Page’s eyes glisten with yearning and his cheeks, rosy as rosebuds, speaks of sweetness that mount in his soul while he is breathing the same air as his beloved. But, alas, bittersweet is the tale of their romance!

The inscription written in German in the upper part of the canvas speaks of the story of an old grey-haired King who was married to a young, beautiful Queen, and there was also a Page who had blonde hair and who carried the Queen’s silk train. The Queen and the Page loved each other too much and they both had to die. This vision of love, exceedingly idealised and romantic, tinged with melancholy, tender and – tragical – is typical for the late Medieval age of romance, damsels and troubadours that Marianne Stokes is clearly trying to evoke: “That new romantic code so sweetly celebrated in ‘Le Roman de la Rose’ and the ideal of “courty love” sung by the troubadours governed the relations between the sexes. The lover was expected to show delicate attentions and pay respectful hommage to the lady of his heart. This new culture, worldly no doubt but full of smiling grace, did much to shape the course of the 13th century life.” (Gothic painting, Jacques Dupont)

And here is something very interesting that Umberto Eco says on the same topic in his book “On Beauty”:

…the development of an idea of female Beauty, and of courtly love, in which desire is amplified by prohibition: the Lady fosters in the knight a permanent state of suffering, which he joyfully accepts. This leads to fantasies about a possession forever deferred, in which the more the woman is seen as unattainable, the more the desire she has aroused grows, and her Beauty is transfigured. (…) …all these stories of passion contain the idea that love, apart from the ravishment of the senses, brings unhappiness and remorse in its train. Consequently, as far as regards the interpretation of courtly love in the centuries that followed, the moments of moral weakness (and of erotic success) undoubtedly took second place to the idea of an infinitely protracted round of frustration and desire, in which the dominion the woman acquires over the lover reveals certain masochistic aspects and, the more passion is humiliated, the more it grows.

Marianne Stokes, Aucassin and Nicolette, date unknown

Marianne Stokes (born Preindlsberger) was an Austrian painter who married the British landscape painter Adrian Scott Stokes. They had no children and they were both devoted to their art and travelled Europe extensively. These travels fueled their inspiration and Marianne’s oeuvre, very thematically diverse, reflects this. Painting “The Queen and the Page” is a very beautiful example of Stokes being inspired by the art of the Pre-Raphaelites. Another beautiful and romantic example of this is the painting “Aucassin and Nicolette”.

Jakub Schikaneder – Dead Girl

27 Sep

“Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”

(Tagore)

Jakub Schikaneder, Dead Girl, 1909

Czech painter Jakub Schikaneder’s paintings are full of figures of people miserable in one way or another. He painted the poor and the lonely, the forgotten and the downtrodden, old and frail, young and – dead. Motif of death appears often in Schikaneder’s art; from a scene of murder to a melancholy figure of a drowned young girl washed a shore and in this painting, “Dead Girl”, painted in 1909 the lightness and innocence of youth are touched and torn by death’s black claws. The scene is bared to the minimum, nothing unnecessary clutters the composition, just a chair and a bed made out of dark wood; the wood is solid, dark and hard, and the girl is frail and clad in white. A humble interior. A little room filled with sickness and death, stuffy from the coughs and the burning candle. That way, the painter placed our focus on the real essence of the painting; the girl and her death. Death is an invisible and pervading, solemn and mysterious character in this poignant scene. The simplicity adds to the sorrowful mood of the painting and the colour palette of different tones of grey, the colour of fog and ashes, because the world of colours, sounds and scents means nothing to her anymore. You are fading away, sweet child, and:

….You will no longer

Distinguish what rises or falls;

Colors are closed, and tones are empty,

And you won’t even know any longer

Who brings you all the flowers.

I also stumbled upon this photograph by a Polish photographer Laura Makabresku and it is obviously inspired by this painting and is equally melancholy and poignant. Edvard Munch also painted a sick child in bed and it seems that the motif of death and children go well together because they create a contrast which makes it especially poignant and sorrowful.

Photograph by Laura Makabresku

Jakub Schikaneder, By the Girl’s Bed, 1910

All of Jakub Schikaneder’s paintings have that particular mood which is hard to put in words, but rather brings to mind other imagery; the thick and impenetrable November fog, orange autumnal sunset tinged with sadness because it seems the sun will never rise again, a soil hardened by frost, an eerie yellowish light of the lantern on the street corner. Autumnal and announcing death and the end. Schikaneder also loved the motif of autumn and winter, and is not winter the death of nature? In another painting, “By the Girl’s Bed”, painted the following year Schikaneder explores the same motif; death of a young girl. In this painting the glow of the candle is overpowering, colouring the room in warm orange shades, as if the more frail and sickly the girl is, the more strength the candle possesses.

Marie Laurencin: More Than Dead – Forgotten

16 May

Last week I wrote about the wonderful French painter Marie Laurencin and her paintings of wistful, dreamy girls in soft pastel colours. Today I thought I’d share a poem that Laurencin wrote in 1917 and it’s called “La Calmant”, translated in English as “The Sedative”. To go with the melancholy verses I chose Laurencin’s painting of a girl called Valentine. I love her face expression, the way she placed her head on her hand, and again, those gentle, pastel shades of pink, lavender and yellow typical for Laurencin’s artworks.

Marie Laurencin, Valentine, 1924

The Sedative (La Calmant):

More than annoyed
Sad.

More than sad
Unhappy.

More than unhappy
Suffering.

More than suffering
Abandoned.

More than abandoned
Alone in the world.

More than alone
Exiled.

More than exiled
Dead.

More than dead
Forgotten.

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…

Clarice Lispector – Passively Enacting the Role of Being (The Hour of the Star)

29 Jan

“And when she woke up? When she woke up, she no longer knew her own identity. Only later did she reflect with satisfaction: I am a typist and a virgin, and I like coca-cola. Only then did she get dressed, spend the rest of the day passively enacting the role of being.”

“She meditated while she was typing and that’s why she made even more mistakes.”

Last summer I read Clarice Lispector’s novel “Agua Viva” (“The Stream of Life”) and I was quite smitten with her writing style, it was so unique, flowing and unrestrained, feminine and strange. I knew even then that another novel by this wonderful Brasilian author would find its way in my hands soon, and last week it did. I read her novella “The Hour of the Star” (A hora da estrela). Lispector died on 9th December 1977, a day before her 57th birthday, and this novella was published soon after the author’s death. The narrator, or the “writer” of the novella is Roderigo S.M. who says about himself “I write because I have nothing better to do in this world: I am superfluous and last in the world of men. I write because I am desperate and weary. I can no longer bear the routine of my existence and, were it not for the constant novelty of writing, I should die symbolically each day.

The novella tells a tale of a poor, very poor girl called Macabéa who moves from the rural Northwest area of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro and gets a job as typist, shares a room with four other girls and lives on hot-dogs because she is that poor. Roderigo writes that “She scarcely has a body to sell, nobody wants her, she’s a virgin and harmless, nobody would miss her. Moreover – I realize now – nobody would miss me either.” The first five pages bored me a little bit because it was Roderigo writing, but then when the focus shifts to Macabéa, Lispector’s flowing style of writing shines and draws you into the story. The writer said about her novel that it was: “the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. That’s not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.” Tales of sad, poor individuals, crushed innocence and gloomy ending touch the strings of my heart and naturally I was very soon emotionally invested in the book, turning page after page, breathless. It felt like I was inside of Macabéa’s mind, inside her emptiness, basking in its sweetness because it is zen-like, meditative emptiness, no desires, nothing. Macabéa is timid, passive, lost in her thoughts…

A contrasting character is a guy called Olimpicus that Macabéa meets one day; he is aggressive, dominant, chasing money and success, he wants to be rich and he wants to be a butcher because he likes knives. Only in the moment of her death, Macabéa inner emptiness becomes inner freedom. She reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s character based on a real person, a morphine addict called Tristessa, from the novel of the same name. Tristessa, like Macabéa, is sad but hopeful, empty but also serene, makes us readers envy her emptiness, as if it is something sweet and unattainable. Velvet Underground’s song “Sweet Nothing” also came to my mind when I thought of Macabéa. When I finished reading the book, I thought it was a good book, but as hours and days passed, the story, the words I had read were intensifying in my mind and I grew to love it more and more.

(Photo by Magdalena Lutek (Nishe)

“And when she woke up? When she woke up, she no longer knew her own identity…”

And now some beautiful quotes:

“She recalled her childhood with nostalgia – dried mandioca – and believed that she had been happy. In truth, no matter how bad one’s childhood may have been, it always sounds enchanted in recollection – how awful.”

“Her life was duller than plain bread and butter.”

I am alone in the world and I don’t believe in anyone, everyone lies, sometimes even when making love, I don’t think one being speaks to another, the truth only comes to me when I’m alone.

“Una furtiva lacrima” had been the only really beautiful thing in her life. Wiping away her own tears she tried to sing what she heard. But her voice was as crude and out of tune as she was. When she heard it she started to cry. It was the first time she’d ever cried, she didn’t know she had so much water in her eyes. She cried, blew her nose no longer knowing what she was crying about. She wasn’t crying because of the life she led: because, never having led any other, she’d accepted that with her that was just the way things were. But I also think she was crying because, through the music, she might have guessed there were other ways of feeling, there were more delicate existences and even a certain luxury of soul.”

She had no idea how to cope with life and she was only vaguely aware of her own inner emptiness. Were she capable of explaining herself, she might well confide: the world stands outside me. I stand outside myself.”

“So she repented. Since she wasn’t quite sure for what, she repented entirely and for everything.”

“if she was dumb enough to ask herself ‘who am I?’ she would fall flat on her face…[She is] so dumb that she sometimes smiles at other people on the street. Nobody smiles back because they don’t even see her.”

“She had what’s known as inner life and didn’t know it. She lived off herself as if eating her own entrails. When she went to work she looked like a gentle lunatic because as the bus went along she daydreamed in loud and dazzling dreams. These dreams, because of all that interiority, were empty because they lacked the essential nucelus of—of ecstasy, let’s say. Most of the time she had without realizing it the void that fills the souls of the saints. Was she a saint? So it seems. She didn’t know what she was meditating because she didn’t know what the word meant. But it seems to me that her life was a long meditation on the nothing. Except she needed others in order to believe in herself, otherwise she’d get lost in the successive and round emptiness inside her. She meditated while she was typing and that’s why she made even more mistakes.”

“On the pavement tiny blades of grass sprouted between the flagstones — Macabéa noticed them because she always noticed things that were tiny and insignificant. She thought dreamily, as she rang the doorbell: grass is so easy and simple. Her thoughts were gratuitous and unconnected because, however erratic, she possessed vast reserves of inner freedom.”

Sad veiled bride, please be happy…

23 May

“Sad veiled bride, please be happy
Handsome groom, give her room
Loud, loutish lover, treat her kindly
(Though she needs you
More than she loves you)”

(The Smiths, I know it’s over)

George Theodore Berthon, Portrait of Mrs. William Henry Boulton (Harriette), 1846

I can remember how good I felt inside
When the preacher said “Son, you may kiss the bride”
But as I leaned over to touch her pretty lips
I felt it all slip away through my fingertips

(Bruce Springsteen – Stolen Car)

The wedding day can be the happiest day of your life – or the most tragical one. That depends on many factors; whether a girl is marrying a prince or an ogre (no offense Shrek), whether her husband to be has a mad wife in the attic or not, whether his marriage is just a devise to rob you of your family inheritance. Nontheless, the image of a bride, let’s imagine a Victorian era bride, is always a charming one; dressed in white and covered with a veil, she might as well be a ghostly creature from another realm. So ethereal and eerie is the figure in white. Walking down the isle, veil covering her blushing cheeks, dressed in a white gown and looking splendid in all her virginal glory, sweetness, hopes, anticipation, all fill her fast beating heart. In a step or two, her destiny will be decided, her life changed forever… is she walking towards the altar or being led to the dungeons where her execution is to be held.

Queen Victoria set the standard for white wedding gowns in 1840 when she married Prince Albert, but that is not to say that white wedding dresses were not worn before; they were, but from that point on they became the statement. Her wedding day was an intensely happy event and she loved being married to Albert, but not every woman in Victorian era felt quite the same way, despite the idealisations we nowadays may have of their time and their lives, doting wife and angel in the house was often a bored and lonely woman. Let’s take Toulmouche’s painting “The Reluctant Bride” (below) as an example; just look at her face expression, she is absolutely not thrilled about it. Or Sophie of Württemberg (1818-1877), the Queen of Netherlands, who was buried in her wedding dress because she said that her life ended the day she got married.

Let’s take a look at Jane Eyre’s state of soul in chapter 36 after the secret was revealed:

Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent, expectant woman–almost a bride, was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale; her prospects were desolate. A Christmas frost had come at midsummer; a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hayfield and cornfield lay a frozen shroud:lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, today were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and flagrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway. I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing…

Jane Eyre’s wedding was so short and hasty that she must have been thinking, again quoting The Smiths:

I know it’s over
And it never really began
But in my heart it was so real

Apart from the obvious contrast between joy and disappointment that a bride inevitably faces, the figure of a bride in white, an innocent pure maiden, can serve as a visual contrast to something darker in the story, for example: Jane Eyre meets her husband to be Mr Rochester’s real mad violent wife in the attic, or the young naive bride of Bluebeard, when left alone in his castle, discovered his dark, bloody and blood-chilling secrets; also Elizabeth in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” who is strangled on her wedding night by the Monster that Doctor Frankenstein had created as a revenge to the Doctor who refused to make him a female companion.

And to end, here is perhaps the most eerie bride out of them all: Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s novel “Great Expectations”, a bride who is decaying and rotting under her silk and lace garments:

In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.

She was dressed in rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on – the other was on the table near her hand – her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

Auguste Toulmouche, The Reluctant Bride, 1866

Firs Zhuravlev, Before the wedding, 1874