Tag Archives: Sadness

Eugene Delacroix – Orphan Girl at the Cemetery

26 Apr

A French painter of Romanticism, Eugene Delacroix, was born on this day, 26th April, in 1798 and today we’ll take a look at one of his early works, the “Orphan Girl at the Cemetery”.

Eugène Delacroix, Orphan Girl at the Cemetery (Jeune orpheline au cimetière), 1823-24

A young girl alone at the cemetery looks up towards the sky, with a prayer mounting in her heart and not yet spoken on her lips. She sees the large white clouds moving monotonously, slowly, tiredly; she wishes to talk to God but the sky is empty, to quote Sylvia Plath. The girl is painted from the profile, with large eyes turned upwards and mouth slightly open. Her left shoulder is left bare and her right arm is resting lifelessly on her knee; all suggesting resignation and vulnerability. The graveyard in the French countryside, as it is suggested, with its wooden crosses, forgotten names, mud, flowers and candles, is a vision of loneliness. As dusk descends, not a soul is around. Her eyes and her pose tell us so much. She is seeking answers, she is unloved and confused, and contemplating over her life she sees nothing but poverty and uncertainty. Look at her eyes. This is sadness beyond tears and meaningless words. Tombstones and the trees in the background all look tiny in comparison with her rather closely-cropped figure. Mournful murmur of the distant cypress trees mingles with the heavy silence of the wooden crosses.

Since this is one of Delacroix’s early works, the colours are not of the warm and glistening kind that he used after his trip to Morocco in 1832. The limited colour palette of murky browns, greens and yellowish-white serves here to intensify the gloomy mood, and yet on her skin colour the real dynamic dance of colours begins; the warm brown base takes over red, pink and greenish shades in places. The dimly-lit vanilla coloured sky in the background is painted as romantically as it is possible and brings to mind the melancholy sunsets and skies in paintings of a German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. As a true Romanticist, Delacroix approached the subject with a lot of subjectivity, compassion and a depth of feelings. In a harmony of colours and a wonderful composition, he brought the emphasis on what is important; the girl with her pain and her solitude, successfully avoiding the sentimentalising of her position.

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Turgenev’s Maidens: Natalya and Asya

2 Apr

In this post we’ll take a look at “Turgenev’s Maid”; a type of female character typical for Turgenev and often found in his novellas and novels.

Nicolae Grigorescu, A Flower Among Flowers, 1880

Although equally important for Russian Realism, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev is often overlooked when it comes to Russian writers, somewhat overshadowed by the more famous Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Out of those three writers, Turgenev was the one influenced by the progressive ideas and philosophy of Western Europe and even spent majority of his life in France where he died too. His mother was a tyrannical woman and his parents’ marriage an unhappy one, so Turgenev decided to stay a bachelor. There’s elegance in his writings and an emphasis on nature and its lyric beauty. There’s nothing dramatic about his writing, but somehow it lingers in the memory and you find yourself pondering over some things that meant very little the moment you were reading it. Also, his words leave some kind of quiet sadness and a sense of futility against life, love and nature. Can you stop the flower from withering, sun from setting, springs from lingering one after another and passing?

Turgenev’s first novel was “Rudin”, first published in 1856 in a literary magazine “Sovremennik” (“The Contemporary”). In this novel, he laid a foundation for his future characters and themes by introducing a female type of heroine which came to be called “Turgenev’s Maid” and a hero who is a young superfluous man. Turgenev is continuing and developing the types of characters that Pushkin had started in his novel “Eugene Onegin”. Characters follow the similar pattern in his novella “Asya”, published in 1858. Turgenev’s odes to failure in love.

Photo by Frieda Rike.

A typical Turgenev’s maiden is a girl whose introverted, reserved, modest and shy exterior hides a passionate and poetic soul that only few people see, but is hidden to the rest. She is romantic and dreamy, but not in a delusional Emma Bovary kind of way, but rather this romantic nature arises from idealism and life spent in the idyllic countryside isolation which can sometimes make her inexperienced in society. She is educated, both in history and geography as in daydreaming, and often speaks several languages. She possesses a gentle, girlish, unassuming beauty and is modest in behaviour and the way she dresses. Turgenev’s maiden often falls in love with man unworthy of her; weak and passive idealists who are excellent in conversation but incapable of doing something with their life. As I already said, Turgenev’s heroines draw heavily on Pushkin’s wonderful Tatyana Larina from “Eugene Onegin” and here is what D.S. Mirsky says about it in his discussion about Turgenev: “The strong, pure, passionate, and virtuous woman, opposed to the weak, potentially generous, but ineffective and ultimately shallow man, was introduced in literature by Pushkin, and recurs again and again in the work of the realists, but nowhere more insistently than in Turgenev’s.”

William Powell Firth

Natalya Alexyevna Lasunskaya

Natalys is a shy seventeen year old girl who lives in the countryside with her mother. On the outside she seems reserved, very secretive and cold, but that is just her way of hiding her feelings from the world and her dominant mother. She is introduced in the story in the fifth chapter with these words: “Darya Mihailovna’s daughter, Natalya Alexyevna, at a first glance might fail to please. She had not yet had time to develop; she was thin, and dark, and stooped slightly. But her features were fine and regular, though too large for a girl of seventeen. Specially beautiful was her pure, smooth forehead above fine eyebrows, which seemed broken in the middle. She spoke little, but listened to others, and fixed her eyes on them as though she were forming her own conclusions. She would often stand with listless hands, motionless and deep in thought; her face at such moments showed that her mind was at work within.

But further quotes reveal to us that Natalya’s feelings are strong and that her mother doesn’t understand her personality at all: “But Natalya was not absent-minded; on the contrary, she studied diligently; she read and worked eagerly. Her feelings were strong and deep, but reserved; even as a child she seldom cried, and now she seldom even sighed and only grew slightly pale when anything distressed her.

Heinrich Vogeler, Spring (Portrait of Martha Vogeler), 1897

Life in the beautiful countryside amongst family friends has made her inexperienced with the ways of the world and she is a perfect pray for Rudin, a poor intellectual unsure of what he wants from life or love, indulging himself in shallow melancholy and praising highly the courageous heroes of literature and history while he himself is beneath them, both in spirit and intellect. He takes a pleasure in seducing Natalya because his feelings aren’t as deep or as pure as hers are, and since he had many failed loves in the past, he doesn’t take the relationships seriously. For him, it’s just a past time, but in Natalya he has awoken a whole new set of feelings, ones that she only read about in literature. After Natalya admits her love for Rudin to her mother, and is met with mother’s disapproval, she meets Rudin secretly at the brake of dawn somewhere in the meadow to tell him the sad truth, expecting him to fight for their love.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

This is their poignant, sad and bitter dialogue from chapter IX:

“‘What do you think we must do now?’

‘What we must do?’ replied Rudin; ‘of course submit.’

‘Submit,’ repeated Natalya slowly, and her lips turned white.

‘Submit to destiny,’ continued Rudin. ‘What is to be done? I know very well how bitter it is, how painful, how unendurable. But consider yourself, Natalya Alexyevna; I am poor. It is true I could work; but even if I were a rich man, could you bear a violent separation from your family, your mother’s anger? . . . No, Natalya Alexyevna; it is useless even to think of it. It is clear it was not fated for us to live together, and the happiness of which I dreamed is not for me!’

All at once Natalya hid her face in her hands and began to weep. Rudin went up to her.”

What you have just read is a typical Turgenev-style ending; the heroine is too passionate and her feelings too strong for the passive hero. It’s not that Rudin doesn’t love Natalya, it’s more that he is incapable of being himself, living his own life, to commit to someone. Once rejected, Natalya doesn’t go on daydreaming of Rudin or returning to him. Instead, just like Pushkin’s Tatyana, she walks away with dignity and self-respect.

William Dyce, Portrait of Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Albert, 1848

Asya

In “Asya”, the narrator, a lonely forty year-old bachelor named N.N. tells us the sad love story of his youth. His memory sets the novella in a small and picturesque town on the Rhine, whose shore is littered with romantic Medieval castles and emerald green hills; a perfect setting for a fleeting, ephemeral romance. The narrator comes there on a holiday and meets two fellow Russians, a brother and a sister; Gaguine and Asya. Since they are the only Russians in town, they soon befriend. The narrator develops an intellectual bond with Gaguine but is soon enamoured by his strange and pretty younger sister Asya who is very shy around him at first.

This is what Turgenev tells us of their first encounter: “My presence appeared to embarrass her; but Gaguine said to her, “don’t be shy; he will not bite you.” These words made her smile, and a few moments after she spoke to me without the least embarrassment. She did not remain quiet a moment. Hardly was she seated than she arose, ran towards the house, and reappeared again, singing in a low voice; often she laughed, and her laugh had something strange about it—one would say that it was not provoked by anything that was said, but by some thoughts that were passing through her mind. Her large eyes looked one in the face openly, with boldness, but at times she half closed her eyelids, and her looks became suddenly deep and caressing.

And this is how Turgenev imagined her to look like. Again, she has a very girly appeal, just like Natalya and other Turgenev’s maidens: “The young girl whom he called his sister at first sight appeared to me charming. There was an expression quite peculiar, piquant and pretty at times, upon her round and slightly brown face; her nose was small and slender, her cheeks chubby as a child’s, her eyes black and clear. Though well proportioned, her figure had not yet entirely developed.

Photo by by SophieKoryn. “You consider my behaviour improper,” her face seemed to say; “all the same, I know you’re admiring me.” (Asya)

Asya can be rapturous and wild at one moment, without any regard for social conventions, only to become shy the next moment, wistful and lost in her thoughts. Here is an example to illustrate the point: on one occasion, Asya breaks a branch from a tree and plays with it as if it was a gun. When they encounter a group of shocked English tourists, she starts singing in a loud voice just to spite them. But later in the evening, she is the epitome of elegance and demureness: “When we arrived, she immediately went to her room, and did not reappear until dinner, decked out in her finest dress, her hair dressed with care, wearing a tight-fitting bodice, and gloves on her hands. At table she sat with dignity, scarcely tasted anything, and drank only water. It was evident she wished to play a new rôle in my presence: that of a young person, modest and well-bred. Gaguine did not restrain her; you could see that it was his custom to contradict her in nothing. From time to time he contented himself with looking at me, faintly shrugging his shoulders, and his kindly eye seemed to say: “She is but a child; be indulgent.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria in “Victoria” (2016)

Here is a little conversation from the ninth chapter which also reveals Asya’s lack of feeling for proper behavior:

And what is it that you like about women?” she asked, turning her head with a childlike curiosity.

“What a singular question!” I cried.

“I shouldn’t have asked you such a question, should I? Forgive me; I am accustomed to say whatever comes into my head. That is why I am afraid to speak.”

“Speak, I beg you! Fear nothing, I am so delighted at seeing you less wild.

Juliette Lamet by Melanie Rodriguez for Melle Ninon.

The narrator seems more interested in the mysterious aura around her, than actually in love with her, he says himself: “Oh! that little girl—she is, indeed, an enigma.”

Here are a few more quotes to get you interested:

I understood what attracted me towards this strange young girl: it was not only the half-savage charm bestowed upon her lovely and graceful young figure, it was also her soul that captivated me.

I do not know what womanly charm suddenly appeared upon her girlish face. Long afterwards the charm of her slender figure still lingered about my hand; for a long time I felt her quick breathing near me, and I dreamed of her dark eyes, motionless and half closed, with her face animated, though pale, about which waved the curls of her sweet hair.” (Chapter IX)

William Powell Frith, The Proposal, 1856

The end of their love, again the hero suddenly turns cold and steps back from the affections that he himself started in the first place:

“So all is at an end,” I replied once more; “at an end—; and we must part.”

“There was in my heart,” I continued, “a feeling just springing up, which, if you had left it to time, would have developed! You have yourself broken the bond that united us; you have failed to put confidence in me.” (chapter XVI)

To end the post I would like to quote a fellow blogger at “A Russian Affair” who focuses on Russian literature. Here are her brilliant observations on Turgenev’s themes and style from the post “Typically Turgenev“:”Not a lot happens in Turgenev’s works. The situation at the beginning is more or less the same as the one in the end. All that remains is memories and what-ifs. The reader has to content himself with plenty of beautiful atmospheric scenes and contemplations. (…) You read Turgenev with your heart.

And a beautifully put thought regarding love from her post “Love in Turgenev’s work“: “It all starts in high spirits; the weather is ’magnificent’ and ’unusually good for the time of the year’ and the surroundings are idyllic. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally pretty girl surprises the narrator. He falls in love, but he never gets the girl, and remains a bachelor. Again and again Turgenev describes being in love, but he never dares to let it blossom into a relationship, nor in his stories, nor in real life.

I hope you decide to read some of Turgenev’s work, if you still haven’t and that you enjoy it as much as I did.

Edvard Munch – Maiden and the Heart

11 Feb

And “love” is just a miserable lie
You have destroyed my flower-like life
Not once – twice
You have corrupt my innocent mind
Not once – twice.

(The Smiths, Miserable Lie)

Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944), Maiden and the Heart, 1896

Edvard Munch’s etching shows a nude girl sitting outdoors, on the grass, surrounded by a few scarce flowers. She turned her back on us, showing off the beautiful line of her arching back. We cannot meet her gaze, but seen from the profile her furrowed brow allows us to assume that the feelings mounting in her soul are that of sadness or pain. Our attention immediately leads somewhere else. In her stretched hands she is holding a heart; live, bleeding, crimson red (we can imagine), pulsating, aching, painful heart. From about 1894, Munch was getting more and more interested in woodcuts and etchings, and he was skilful in those art forms as well as in standard oil on canvas.

Paintings of Edvard Munch nearly always explore deep, profound themes and states of the soul; anxiety and alienation, loneliness, death and despair, love and pain, and the crown of his themes is love as a source of anguish and pain. The sorrowful Maiden who is holding the bleeding heart in her hands is a visually simple etching, without too much detail, but the longer you gaze at it the more feelings it evokes, the more depth you see in it. Often used, and overused phrases such as “heart ache” or “broken heart” suddenly get a new exciting flair when I gaze at Munch’s interpretation of the subject. The idea of portraying pain so literally and so directly has so much of childlike straightforwardness and honesty in it. A broken heart is presented as a real bleeding thing that the Maiden can hold in her hand just as she would hold a book or a flower, and her hands and her feet are coloured with the crimson blood which drips, sweet and sticky as honey, on the grass, while the flowers listen, their petals full of worry. The trees in the background, silent and sketch-like, are mute to her pain.

Frida Kahlo, Memory (The Heart), 1937

I simply adore the idea of expressing pain so directly! In her painting “Memory (The Heart)”, Frida Kahlo did a similar thing. The oversized bleeding heart is meant to portray the pain inflicted by Diego Rivera’s affair with her younger sister.

Vincent van Gogh, Sorrow, 1882

Simple lines, expressiveness and pain of Munch’s etching reminded me of a famous drawing called “Sorrow” that Vincent van Gogh made in 1882. It shows Vincent’s friend Sien, at the time a sad, destitute pregnant woman prone to drinking, mostly likely working as a prostitute. Such simplicity of lines and depth of emotions in both works. I usually love Van Gogh’s rapturous mad yellows and Munch’s strong whirling, almost psychedelic brushstrokes but here the black line on white background is all I need. Perhaps the colour is an excess when the subject is such an intense emotion?

Edvard Munch – The Lonely Ones (Two People)

8 Feb

In this post we’ll take a look at Edvard Munch’s painting “The Lonely Ones”.

Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones (Two People), 1895

A man and a woman are standing on the shore, gazing at the sea. The waves crush on to the shore as the two of them stand there in silence, just one step away from each other, and yet emotionally distant. The whiteness of her dress stands in contrast with his sombre black suit, which visually further connects the insurmountable difference between the sexes. The murmur of the sea, louder than their loneliness, matches the turmoil that rises in their soul. Are they a couple who just had an argument, or two lovers who have, after being drunken with love, now sobered and realised that nothing, not even their love, will spare them the loneliness and feeling of isolation that they experience as individuals, that they are forced to face the world alone, that one is alone even when they are holding a loved one in their arms?

Turquoise and pink rocks on the beach and the sea waves take on psychedelic shapes as Munch swirls with his brush just as he did in the famous “Scream”. As hopes crush into bitter disappointments, the reality fails to make sense and the man and the woman gaze longingly at the sea searching answers to their inner voids. In his book about Munch, J.P. Hodin writes: “It is as if Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics of Sexual Love were represented in the medium of painting. Man and woman are like elements which come into contact, obsess one another but cannot become united. Woman is an enigma to man, a sphinx which he must always contemplate searchingly.”

Still, that disconnection, this misunderstanding between man and a woman alone on the shore reminds me more of something that Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving: “Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside.

Edvard Munch, Separation II, 1896

In “Separation” above we again see a man and a woman, together on canvas yet painfully and deeply alone, drifting into opposite directions, aimlessly like paper boats on the lake. His dark eyelids are closed, his mouth mute. Her long hair seems to be flying in the wind, caressing his shoulder, stirring the silence with its murmur, mingling with the sweet nocturnal air. The striking titles of many of Munch’s paintings point at his desire to portray the whole range of different emotions and states: separation, loneliness, fear, anguish, consolation, pain…

Connecting love with pain, and ultimately loneliness, is a theme often exploited in the world of art and poetry, but Edvard Munch and his contemporaries in the decadent and spiritually rotting society of fin de scle had a particular penchant for it, to the point of rejecting love or a lover. In his youth, Munch was shy and reticent, not much is known about his relationships with women apart from the fact that they brought bitter disappointments, and he tended to fear any signs of affection or closeness because they most certainly carried anguish with them. Holdin again writes: “Love turned into distrust of woman. When Nietzsche spoke of love he saw it as the eternal war, the mortal hatred between the sexes. ‘Man fears woman when he loves, he fears her when he hates.”

Munch was a friend with many writers of the days and he was influenced by their writings and their ideas. Swedish playwright Strindberg was similarly interested in conflicts of love, and in 1897 wrote in his diary: “What is Woman? The enemy of friendship, the inevitable scourge, the necessary evil, the natural temptation, the longed for misfortune, a never ending source of tears, the poor masterpiece of creation in an aspect of dazzling white. Since the first woman contracted with the devil, shall not her daughters do the same? Just as she was created from a crooked rib, so is her entire nature crooked and warped and inclined to evil.

Edvard Munch, Consolation, 1894

Holdin ends his thoughts about the paintings “The Lonely Ones” with a glimpse of hope: “No, Munch does not hate woman, for he realizes that she has to suffer as he suffers himself.” How splendid of him to console us!

George Bellows – The Lone Tenement

22 Jan

The first thing I love about this painting is the title: The Lone Tenement. Doesn’t it sound so evocative of someone lonely, solitary, sad and abandoned? I say “someone” because both the title and the painting awake strong feelings in my heart; I almost want to hug the lonesome tenement and make its loneliness go away. I like to imagine that this is exactly what George Bellows did in his own way; by painting the tenement he preserved a memory of it for all times.

George Bellows, The Lone Tenement, December 1909

George Bellows’s painting shows a lonely building which stands as a relic surviving from an old neighbourhood block. The sight of the tall isolated building reminds me of a misunderstood, melancholy human figure from one of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. In a cold December twilight, the lonely building stands on the outskirts of New York City as the sad witness of the urban expansion and progress and the last relic of the old. Thickly, richly applied paint and those dazzling orange and lavender shades somewhat oppose the sombre subject. If there is an expression ‘Living in the moment’, than I’m calling this painting ‘Painting in the moment’ because this building stood there lonely and vulnerable in December 1909 when Bellows painted this, but perhaps if he’d waited a month longer it wouldn’t have been there at all. And a month earlier, two more buildings would have been there too. In this painting, Bellows turned an ugly sight that most people wouldn’t even notice into something beautiful, lyrical and able to awake strong emotions.

George Bellows (1882-1925) was an American painter connected with the group of painters called The Ashcan School who concentrated on portraying the everyday reality of the city that never sleeps: New York City. In his last years, Bellows focused on domestic scenes and portraits of his wife and two daughters, but early in his career he painted urban New York and some very well known boxing scenes. Bellows was the City’s greatest portraitist in the beginning of the twentieth century; he portrayed the disappearance of the old and intimate New York and scenes that interested him were the demolitions of old neighbourhoods, building of new bridges and train stations, construction sites, and places where the urban meets the wild nature surrounding the City. Each of his paintings has a distinct mood and if you concentrate you can almost hear the sounds in the distance and smell the air. Bellows observed and painted meticulously the City’s rapid change, its vivacious energy, its joys, sorrows and struggles for a sense of identity in a never ending flow of change. Here is a quote from the magazine Harper’s Weekly from 1869 in connection to Bellows’s portrayal of a culture that is always rushing and always changing: “In London or Paris you may see some relic of past centuries; these are reverenced and preserved as long as they endure, but New York is a series of experiments, and every thing which has lived its life and played its part is held to be dead, and is buried, and over it grows a new world.”

When I daydream of New York, my visions are pink and soft-edged like clouds and shaped by Lou Reed’s songs and the street-wise groovy rock ‘n’ roll of Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s romance as artists working side by side, Edie Sedgwick on one of the legendary parties wearing huge earrings and talking to Andy Warhol, Sid Vicious and Nancy kissing in an alleyway in the film “Sid and Nancy” (1986), Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane walking hand in hand with Katrina in the last scene of “The Sleepy Hollow” (1999) as snow starts falling gently… so being introduced to Bellows’s art and gazing through New York City through his eyes is just adding to the richness of my daydreams!

Rembrandt, The Mill, 1645-48

In connection to the sentiment of seeing the building in the full scale of emotions that you would see a human being with, I will mention Rembrandt’s darkly romantic and hauntingly beautiful “The Mill” which shows a scenery and a mill bursting with emotions. It’s more than a landscape and the Mill appears more like a melancholy loner than just a mill.

Paul Gauguin – Nevermore (O Taiti)

25 Nov

In this post we’ll take a look at one of Paul Gauguin’s famous nudes of Tahitian girls and search the deeper meaning of the painting beside the, at first sight obvious, alluring exoticism and eroticism.

Paul Gauguin, Nevermore (O Taïti), 1897

A nude woman is lying on a bed. Just another one of Gauguin’s exotic island girls, you might think, but her face expression and the mystic mood compels you to take another look. The horizontal composition of the painting is subordinated to the voluptuous body of this chocolate-skinned Tahitian girl. All of Gauguin’s island girls have this interesting skin colour: brown accentuated with green and hints of salmon pink. Her black hair is spilt on the bright lemon yellow pillow. She looks bored at first sight, her head is resting on her hand. Her lips are turned upwards, perhaps she is sulking? And how delightfully the outline of her body separates the foreground from the background. Nocturnal, dreamy mood where every colour holds a secret; browns, pale purple, green and blue. Silence of the night. In the background we see two women, a big bird and a series of abstract decorations. Notice the distinct colour palette that Gauguin uses; mostly muted tones with pops of bright colour, usually purple, pinks and aqua blues. The girl you see in the painting is Pahura, Gauguin’s second vahine (Tahitian word for ‘woman’). But why is she so sad?

Let me tell you something about Gauguin’s travels. After living a bourgeois life as a salesman and being married for eleven years to a Danish woman, he felt suffocated by this existence and, at the age of thirty seven, finally decided to devote himself to painting. But soon the escape into the world of art wasn’t enough and he felt a need to physically escape the western world which he deemed as materialistic and decadent. He first sailed to Panama, then to the Caribbean, to a little island called Martinique, then he spent some time with Vincent van Gogh in Arles which ended in the famous ear incident, from then to Brittany, then Paris again, until one day, in 1891, on a suggestion of a fellow painter Emile Bernard, he decided to sail to Tahiti, a French colony which seemed like a paradise in his imagination. In 1893 he returned to France, but in 1895 he visited Tahiti again, this time for good : he died there too. When he returned to Tahiti in 1895, he found his old wife married to a fellow native, and was looking for another wife and he soon found her. Her name was Pahura and she was fifteen years old, although Gauguin himself claimed she was thirteen, perhaps in a desire to spark more outrage. Pahura was his greatest muse and she stayed with him, on and off, for six years. Soon enough Pahura was pregnant and the baby was due around Christmas 1896. A little girl was born, which delighted Gauguin, but sadly she died soon afterwards. Gauguin’s respond to this sad situation was the painting “Nevermore” where we see Pahura in a state of sadness after the loss of her first child, her eyes are soft with sorrow, to quote Leonard Cohen. The title itself is taken from the famous poem “Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. In the poem, as you all know, a raven visits a sad lover who laments the death of his beloved maiden Lenore. The only word that the Raven ever says is “Nevermore”. And indeed, both the poem and Gauguin’s painting have a nocturnal ambience imbued with feelings of mystery and loss.

Romantic Melancholy

17 Nov

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

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

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

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egon Schiele, Sunflower, 1909

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

“But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud;

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

*

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine…”

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

Photo by Laura Makabresku

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

Photo by Laura Makabresku

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

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

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

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

Photo by Laura Makabresku

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