Tag Archives: Sadness

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope: Thoughts of the Past

24 Apr

“Roxanne, you don’t have to wear that dress tonight, walk the streets for money, you don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right…” (The Police)

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past, 1859

A sad-eyed red haired young woman is standing by the window in her shabby room overlooking the harbour and the grey waters of the Thames. Space around her is dark and cluttered, and it’s hard to distinguish all the details. The window to her right is overlooking the dark murky waters of the Thames, but the colours and style of the painting might lead us to assume the window is overlooking the gloomy canals of Bruges; it has a touch of Northern Renaissance and especially Van Eyck’s tall lean figures in strange cluttered spaces. Stanhope actually painted this in the studio at Chatham Place by the Thames just bellow the studio where Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal spent many happy hours in love. The woman’s face with those large very sad eyes and ruby red lips pressed together reveals her inner drama and tells us into her story. She is holding her long hair with her right hand, and she’s holding the brush in the left, but it’s looks more like she is clutching them both. There’s uneasiness about her gestures and face expression; one can sense something isn’t quite right. A cloud of heavy silence and the anticipation of the inevitable downfall hangs above the room.

This is Stanhope’s first exhibited painting and he is considered the second generation Pre-Raphaelite. The style, the theme and the mood of the painting are indeed very Pre-Raphaelite. Also, a typical Pre-Rapahelite painting with all its details and layers of symbolism allows us to read it almost like we would a book; gazing, investigating, and interpreting. A motif of a sad woman deep in her thoughts reminds of Millais’ Mariana although in that painting the inspiration was taken from Shakespeare’s work and in this painting by Stanhope the motif is taken directly from their day to day Victorian reality. This red-haired woman in the painting is a prostitute contemplating her life so far; reeking of sin and immorality, and feeling turmoil that seemingly has no answer. She is dressed in an informal clothes, there’s money and jewellery on her dressing table and in the lower left corner we see a man’s glove and a stick, part of it. The curtains are torn in one place, and the plant under the window looks sickly, striving for light and fresh air but never reaching it. The view from her window, looking on the dirty waters of the Thames indicate the only destiny suitable for a fallen woman such as herself: suicide by drowning. Living is no option because in the eyes of the respectable Victorian society, she is already tainted, and suicide would be the only path to redemption.

As you can see in the study bellow, Stanhope originally intended to paint the woman with eyes looking upwards, just like in Baroque painting of female saints. The model was Fanny Corthforth who was also Rossetti’s lover and, in 1858, also posed for his painting “Found”, another fallen-woman theme painting. As effective as that face expression is in some paintings, I am glad Stanhope discarded the idea because it can seem overly sentimental, even pathetic. Instead, he portrayed her gazing straight at us and by doing that he involved us, the viewer, and drew us into her world of indecision, moral quandary and despair. I think it also brought the fallen woman and her problem down to an earthly realm; her gaze condemns society she lives in here on earth, instead of seeking help from the heavens above. It isn’t God who judges her, it’s society. Her struggles are much more than sugary sentimentalism that Victorians loved.

A study for the painting

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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – The Hangover

22 Apr

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Hangover, 1888

These days I am listening to Bruce Springsteen a lot, in particular the album “Born in the U.S.A.”, but I am also finding new songs that I am obsessed about. Apart from the wonderful music alone, I love how the lyrics often tell a story and romanticise the harshness of day to day working class life, but the songs also have a hopeful undertone because they show the beauty that lies in struggle. All these songs about restless youth who wants to escape the boredom of their small towns, or heartbroken men working down at the car wash, or two men talking in a bar reminiscing about their glory days, have reminded me of some nineteenth century paintings of sad-looking individuals who seem to carry the same aura around them; being lost, morally lost in the misty and confusing paths of life, tired and disappointed. We all feel like that from time to time. The first painting that came to mind was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting “The Hangover” which is really a portrait of his lover at the time Suzanne Valadon, a circus dancer and a model for many Impressionist paintings who later started painting herself. But in this painting she has seems to have a hangover, although that title was given later and not by the painter himself: “Aristide Bruant, a cabaret owner, singer, and songwriter who exhibited Toulouse-Lautrec’s work in his establishment, gave this painting its title. Bruant’s songs were often about the condition of the urban poor and the theme of excessive drinking.” (source)

She’s seen from the profile and seems uninterested and aloof. It was nothing unusual for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to paint his friends in a spontaneous setting, while they are sitting in a bar or dancing, he would sit at the table and sketch all night. A year before the “Hangover” he made a bar-portrait, also seen from the profile, of his friend Vincent van Gogh and I already wrote about that painting here. It’s interesting here that Suzanne, being a woman, is presented as a drunkard. Alcoholism among women was a growing concern around that time. And she’s drinking alone. Her head is resting in her hand, a half-full bottle of wine is on the table, there’s just a little bit left in the glass. She gazes somewhere in the distance, her vision is hazy and her thoughts astray. Who knows what is going on in her mind. The colour palette and the sketchy way the paint was applied perfectly fits the mood of the painting and Suzanne’s emotional state. When I gaze at this painting, instantly these lyrics come to mind, from Springsteen’s song “Downbound Train”:

I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going mister in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the carwash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train

She just said “Joe I gotta go
We had it once we ain’t got it any more”
She packed her bags left me behind
She bought a ticket on the Central Line
Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining
I feel her kiss in the misty rain
And I feel like I’m a rider on a downbound train…

Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1876

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, In The Restaurant La Mie, 1891

Song “Downbound Train” really makes me feel like I am in one of those paintings, the music with Springsteen’s voice, the lyrics tinged with a dream-gone-by feel and ending in resignation. It makes me see the grey skies, rain sliding down the windows, paint flaking from the window frame, and waking up in a cold room on a day which you can sense will be shitty and disappointing. Looking at the two paintings above, Degas’ famous “L’Absinthe” and another one by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec really reminds me of the intro to Springsteen’s song “Glory Days” about two people walking into a bar and just talking about life:

Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
But all he kept talking about was

Glory days well they’ll pass you by

But I must say that a lot of these songs, although they do deal with the working class life and sadness, mostly sound energetic and make you feel hopeful, and if not hopeful than they at least give you that c’est la vie feeling, ah that’s life and regardless of how you feel, you have to live it so you may as well sit in an empty bar and have a hangover morning because there ain’t no sunshiny meadow waiting for you! These paining however bring no hope.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, A la Bastille (Jeanne Wenz), 1888

This lines seems to fit Jeanne Wenz’s strange shy little smile:

She says when she feels like crying
She starts laughing thinking about

Glory days well they’ll pass you by….

Book Review: Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

23 Mar

Secrets, erotic obsessions, love triangles; those are some themes that linger throughout Junichiro Tanizaki’s novels such as “The Key”, “Quicksand” and my favourite “Naomi”. Things always starts so normally, the characters and their lives are seemingly perfect and uneventful, but then things take a darker turn…

Brooke Shields in “Pretty Baby” (1978)

This fascinating tale begins with the main character Joji, a twenty-eight year old man working on a well-payed office job as an electrical engineer, telling us where and how he met a beautiful fifteen year old girl called Naomi who later became his wife. Naomi was working as a waitress in a cafe when Joji noticed her. To him she seemed “a quiet, gloomy child”, he was intrigued by her silence and her face which had western features, later he compares her face to Mary Pickford’s. He befriends her and starts taking her out, to a movie and dinner. Joji grows fond of her company and, at first, innocently wishes to provide her with a better life starting with her education, as Naomi expressed wishes of studying English and music. Coming from the countryside, being a bit shy and focused first on his education and later his career, Joji had no experience with women and wasn’t interested in living a conventional married life.

As Joji says himself: “My original plan, then, was simply to take charge of the child and look after her. On the one hand, I was motivated by sympathy for her. On the other, I wanted to introduce some variety into my humdrum, monotonous daily existence. I was weary from years of living in a boarding­house; I longed for a little color and warmth in my life. Indeed, why not build a house, I thought, even a small one? I’d decorate the rooms, plant flowers, hang out a birdcage on the sunny veranda, and hire a maid to do the cooking and scrubbing. And if Naomi agreed to come, she’d take the place of both the maid and the bird. . . . This is roughly what I had in mind.

(Picture: Kate Moss) “My darling Naomi,” I gasped from the darkness under her sleeves. “My darling Naomi, I don’t just love you, I worship you. You’re my treasure. You’re a diamond that I found and polished. I’ll buy anything that’ll make you beautiful. I’ll give you my whole salary.”

When they start living together in a cozy little house with plenty of light and a rice field growing behind it, things are incredibly dream-like and seen through rose-tinted glasses, like a gentle and precious moment of dusk, just after sun sets, birds are singing softly from a nearby tree and nature is veiled in silence and dreams, your mind is free of all worries in such a moment. These first chapters are so full of idealism and naivety, and describe a seemingly perfect life that one could only dream of; Joji goes to work in the morning, and the obedient and sweet natured girl Naomi goes to her English and music lessons: “Wearing a dark blue cashmere formal skirt over a silk kimono, black socks, and charming little shoes, she looked every inch the pupil. Bursting with excitement at having realized her dream, she went off to her lessons diligently. Now and then I ran into her on my way home, and I could hardly believe that she had grown up in Senzoku and worked as a hostess. She never did her hair in Japanese style anymore; she wore it in braids, tied with a ribbon.

Mary Pickford, c. 1910s

Joji’s intentions are truly innocent at the beginning, he’s not a predator out to take advantage of her, and he notes that under his care she soon became “a truly radiant, vivacious little bird, and the enormous atelier was her cage. May came to a close and bright, early-summer weather set in. The flowers in the garden grew taller and more colorful day by day. In the evening, when I returned home from work and she from her lessons, sunlight streamed through the India-print curtains and played on the white walls as though it were still the middle of the day.” After they would both come home, he would listen to what she’s learned in class and they’d play games such as tag and blindman’s buff.

Their day to day life together is full of sweetness and innocence. Apart from paying her lessons, Joji buys her many pretty dresses and likes to gaze at her as she puts each one on: “Dressed in one or another of these outfits, she’d parade around the house, stand in front of the mirror, and pose while I took pictures. Wrapped in gauzy, translucent clothing of white, rose, or pale lavender, she was like a beautiful large blossom in a vase. “Try it this way; now this way,” I’d say. Picking her up, laying her down, telling her to be seated or to walk, I gazed at her by the hour.

Here is a passage which I loved, about Naomi’s love of flowers:

“The blossoms remind me that she loved Western flowers and knew the names—troublesome English names—of many flowers that I was unfamiliar with. Apparently she’d learned them at the cafe, where she was in charge of the vases. Sometimes we saw a greenhouse beyond a gate as we passed. Always alert, she’d stop and cry happily, “Oh, what beautiful flowers!”

“Which flower do you like best, Naomi?”

“I like tulips best.”

Her longing for spacious gardens and fields, and her love of flowers, may have been in reaction to the squalid alley­ways of Senzoku where she had grown up. Whenever we saw violets, dandelions, lotus grass, or primroses growing on a levee or by a country road, she would hurry over to pick them. By the end of the day, she’d have a great many flowers grouped in any number of bouquets. And she would still be holding them carefully on the way back.

“They’re all wilted now. Why don’t you throw them away?”

“Oh, they’ll come right back if you put them in water. You ought to keep them on your desk, Mr. Kawai.” She always gave the bouquets to me when we parted for the day.”

“While she was my wife, she was also a rare, precious doll and an ornament.”

As it so happens in a Tanizaki novel, slowly and yet out of nowhere, things take a darker turn. A reader can flip back the pages and wonder where it started, but there is no point of downfall; the darkness just crawls in slowly into the story and you get sad that the happy dream cannot last. How can Tanizaki be so cruel and peel the layers of niceness from the characters’s faces and present them in a whole new light? I desperately want to believe in a dream, and Tanizaki rubs my face into the gloomy reality. The more insolent, stubborn and rebellious Naomi gets, the more possessive Joji becomes, led not by sympathy and kind intentions anymore, but by jealousy and wild desire. “Consumed with love”, he describes himself, as Naomi is slowly but surely weaving spiderwebs of secrets and lies even in times that are seemingly innocent. Joji said: “Except for summer vacations, we’d spent all of our time alone together in our “fairy-tale house,” avoiding contact with society at large…” but the truth is that Naomi had befriended some boys without his knowledge, and these connections, although unassuming at first, will turn darker overtones.

They start going out and dancing, and for the first time Joji starts seeing Naomi’s behavior in public, slowly realises how arrogant and rude she is. Joji is conflicted with the realisation that Naomi will never be his ideal woman, that their love wasn’t as innocent as he thought, but that, as she grows up and her body develops, he is more and more attracted to her physically, to the point of the mad delirious desire: “My heart was a battleground for the conflict­ing emotions of disappointment and love. I’d made the wrong choice; Naomi was not as intelligent as I’d hoped. I couldn’t deny it any longer, much as I wanted to. I could see now that my desire for her to become a fine woman was nothing but a dream. (…) But at the same time, her body attracted me ever more powerfully. I use the word “body” advisedly. It was her skin, teeth, lips, hair, eyes—the beauty of her en­tire form—that attracted me. There was nothing spiritual about it. She’d betrayed my expectations for her mind, but her body now surpassed my ideal. Stupid woman, I thought. Hopeless. Unhappily, the more I thought so, the more I found her beauty alluring. (…) I had wanted to make Naomi beautiful both spiritually and physically. I had failed with the spiritual side but succeeded splendidly on the physical. I never expected that she’d be­come so beautiful.

Photo found here.

Lies upon lies, intrigues upon intrigues, as Joji’s life turns into a nightmare, all that he believed is a lie and the girl he loved doesn’t exist; the Naomi he loved and desired was a fantasy created by his idealistic mind. The real Naomi is a puzzle never to be unraveled. Because the story is told from Joji’s point of view, and we may conclude that he is a good observer, but still we don’t know what is going on in her mind and her heart. This is the thing which intrigues me the most about the novel! And this is the same thing I wondered about Nabokov’s Lolita, the parallels can be made between these two novels obviously. Joji states with sadness about the difference between the Naomi he’d met that rainy afternoon at the cafe and the Naomi that she’d become: “She’d been much more appealing in those days than she was now. In­genuous and naïve, shy and melancholy, she bore no re­semblance to this rough, insolent woman. I’d fallen in love with her then, and the momentum had carried me to this day; but now I saw what an obnoxious person she’d become in the meantime.

The novel starts with as a dream and ends as a tragicomedy because Joji is aware of the truth and yet he admits finding Naomi physically irresistible. He consciously chooses to live a lie; a fool manipulated by this femme fatale: “Naomi wasn’t a priceless treasure or a cherished idol anymore; she’d become a harlot. Neither lovers’ innocence nor conjugal affection survived between us. Such feelings had faded away like an old dream. Why did I still feel any­thing for this faithless, defiled woman? Because I was being dragged along by her physical attractions. This degraded me at the same time it degraded Naomi, because it meant that I’d abandoned my integrity, fastidiousness, and sincerity as a man, flung away my pride, and bent down before a whore, and I no longer felt any shame for doing so. Indeed, there were times when I worshipped the figure of this despic­able slut as though I were revering a goddess.

Art by LETHE.

A fascinating novel, not very long, but very intriguing from beginning to the end, with short chapters and flowing lyrical writing. I totally recommend it, I think it’s better than “Quicksand” and “The Key” which I read also.

Marc Chagall – The Wedding Lights

27 Dec

Marc Chagall’s muse, lover, wife and a life companion Bella died on the 2nd September 1944. Chagall spent the entire autumn and winter in mourning and turned his canvases back to the wall. He only picked up his brush in moments when the birds and flowers were announcing the awakening of nature and a new spring of 1945; the spring that Bella never lived to see.

Marc Chagall, The Wedding Lights, 1945

When he returned to his studio that spring, one very large canvas that he had originally worked on in 1933 captivated him in particular. Although he’d already painted something on it, he suddenly felt inspired to cut the canvas in half and turn it into two different paintings. The right part of the original large canvas turned out to be the painting “Around Her”, seen bellow, which showed a crying figure of Bella dressed in pink and stand next to a magical ball showing their home town of Vitebsk, a bridal couple, a bird carrying a candle and an artist with his head upside down. The left part of the canvas became the painting “The Wedding Lights”. The painting has a strange, dreamy, nocturnal atmosphere of mystique and memories. A winged creature with a goat’s head is what remained from the original composition, but the somewhat cluttered and misty mood of the scene was new.

There’s a town in the distance, little houses that bring to mind Vitebsk, the place of Chagall and Bella’s first kisses and smiles, behind it a burning orange sky in sunset. A bride all in white and her chaperon are in the centre of the composition. A green cellist is slowly wandering off the canvas followed by the sounds of his melancholy notes. Space around the bride is grey and empty while she is paving way for the lightness, the same way Bella brought lightness into Chagall’s life back in 1909 when he first laid his eyes on that beautiful and demure daughter from a wealthy family. In the lower left corner another couple is hiding their love in the blue cloak of the night, sleeping on a rooster, they seem to be sinking into blueness.

Marc Chagall, Around Her, 1945

After Bella’s death, Chagall seems to be obsessively returning to the motif of lovers and bridal couples. He did paint many lovers before, usually flying in the air and often bearing resemblance to himself and Bella, but in later years the majority of his paintings feature newlyweds, dreamy and joyous, in an ambiguous space, shining with the promise of their future happiness. Physical Bella died, but in some spiritual way, she continued haunting his art, touching his canvases with her ghostly hand from the other world, her breath continued colouring his paintings in that dreamy shade of blue. Their love was love at first sight; they met in 1909 when he was twenty-two and she was fourteen, and instantly felt connection.

This is what Chagall wrote of Bella in his very dreamy and picturesque autobiography “My Life”: Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her pale colouring, her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul.” Next year, in 1910, Chagall moved to Paris because of his art and stayed there for four years. He missed her terribly while in Paris and was thinking about her day and night. Bella waited for him and in 1915 they were married. Their only child, a daughter named Ida, was born in May 1916. The title of the painting “The Wedding Lights” is a reference to her memoir called “The Burning Lights” that Bella had been writing in haste just before she died.

Oskar Kokoschka – The Bride of the Wind

26 Nov

And you held me, my love, and then went on dreaming.
Of perhaps a different kind of death.

Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride of the Wind (or The Tempest), 1914

In nervous, swirling and frantic brushstrokes Kokoschka painted two lovers lying side by side in a sad embrace. The woman is asleep, her eyes are peacefully closed and while she is sailing the seas of dreams, unaware of the shadows of reality that grow bigger with each passing hour of the night, the man is awake. His deep set eyes gaze into the void, his cheeks are hollow, his fingers ugly and twisted, his chin protruding, his skin taunted over his bones; he might as well be a skeleton already. While their bodies are painted in quick nervous strokes of white colour with dashes of yellow and blue the abstract space around them is made out of swirls of black and midnight blue. The blueness of the space around them might, in different circumstances, lead us to thoughts of something spiritual and serene, a vast blue sky or a calm sea, but his frantic brush strokes have dismissed such thoughts. It’s difficult, or rather impossible to determine the setting, for the whole space appears to us like a nihilistic swamp of darkness and despair; it’s a world from a dark dream, a nightmare, a premonition of the future, a scream from the bottom of one’s being.

The painting allegorically represents the painter and his beloved Alma Mahler who was at the time his lover and the wife of the composer Gustav Mahler. They are carried by strong gusts of wind, but it isn’t the wind of passion that carried Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s hell, but the wind of anxiety, uncertainty and the futility of everything. Oskar Kokoschka was a representative of the Viennese Expressionism and this catastrophic vision of the world and the future is typically Expressionistic. The same dreary mood fills his portraits which all have a psychological aspect to them and look as if they were made out of mud and tears, and is similar to painting of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s paintings with urban mood of alienation and premonitions of catastrophe that the World War One was about to bring. Expressionistic art was a whirlwind of colours and screams created from the nervous energy of the antebellum period, and although many artists shared the sentiment, none experienced it so deeply and profoundly as the artists who were the closest to the fire, that is those who lived in the Austria-Hungarian Empire; Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, poets Georg Trakl and August Stramm, Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and many other across the vast decaying empire.

So, the painting is infused with his personal torments or life and love, and fragile nature of both, but at the same time it hold a deeper meaning because it perfectly represents the changing times and the political and cultural changes that were taking place. The painting mirrors the uncertainties that the future beholds; both the fleeting nature of love and passion, and the political instability that affects everyone. Here is a poem called “With Your Right Hand on my Neck” by a Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti that seems to fit the mood of Kokoschka’s painting and also mingles the themes of love and death:

With your right hand on my neck, I lay next to

you last night,

and since the day’s woes still pained me, I did

not ask you to take it away,

but listened to the blood coursing through your

arteries and veins,

Then finally around twelve sleep overcame me,

as sudden and guileless as my sleep so long ago,

when in the downy time of my youth it rocked

me gently.

You tell me it was not yet three when I was

startled awake

and sat up terrified and screaming.

muttering strange and unintelligible words,

then spread out my arms like a bird ruffled with

fear

flapping its wings as a dark shadow flutters

through the garden.

Tell me, where was I going? And what kind of

death had frightened me so?

And you held me, my love, as I sat up half-asleep,

then lay back in silence, wondering what paths

and horrors awaited me.

And then went on dreaming. Of perhaps a

different kind of death.

During the process of painting this painting, the poet Georg Trakl had a habit of visiting the artist almost daily and he composed this poem called “The Night” directly inspired by the painting:

Over nocturnal dark floods
I sing my sad songs,
Songs which bleed like wounds.
However, no heart carries them to me again
Through the darkness.

Only the nocturnal dark floods
Rush, sob my songs,
Songs which bleed from wounds,
They carry them to my heart again
Through the darkness.

Egon Schiele – Death and the Maiden

31 Oct

Egon Schiele died on the 31st October 1918. Three days prior to that he witnessed the death of his pregnant wife Edith. If it wasn’t for the Spanish influenza, she could have had their child and his prodigious mind could have produced many more drawings and paintings.

Egon Schiele, Death and the Maiden, 1915

Painting “Death and the Maiden” is a very personal work and it connects and unites two themes that were a lifelong fascination to Egon Schiele; death and eroticism. It shows two figures in an embrace, apparently seen from above, not unusual at all for Schiele to use such a strange perspective. They cling to each other in despair; painfully aware of the finality and hopelessness of their love. They are lying on rumpled white sheets, their last abode before the hours of love vanish forever, which simultaneously add a touch of macabre sensuality and remind us of the burial shroud. The background is an unidentifiable space, a desolate landscape painted in colours of mud and rust.

Death is a man not so dissimilar to Schiele’s other male figures or self-portraits, without the help of the title we couldn’t even guess that is represents death. The red-haired woman hugs him tightly with her long arms and lays her head on his chest. She is not the least bit afraid of his black shroud of infinity. She holds onto him as if he were love itself, and still, her hands are not resting on his back gently, they are separate and her crooked fingers are touching themselves. We can sense their inevitable separation through their gestures and face expressions, and, at the same time, their embrace feels frozen in time, the figures feel stiff and motionless, as if the rigor mortis had already taken place and bound them in an everlasting embrace. The maiden will not die, she will be clinging to death for all eternity.

It is impossible not to draw parallels between the figures in the painting and Schiele’s personal life at the time. The figure of Death resembles Schiele, and we do all know he showed no hesitation when it came to painting and even taking a photo of himself, and the red-haired woman is then clearly Wally. To get a better perspective at the symbolism behind this painting, we need to understand the things that happened in Schiele’s life that year. In June 1915 he married Edith Harms; a shy and innocent girl next door. But first he needed to brake things off with Wally Neuzil, a lover and a muse who not only supported him during the infamous Neulengbach Affair but was also, ironically, an accomplice in introducing him to Edith.

Upon meeting Wally for what was to be the last time, Egon handed her a letter in which he proposed they spend a holiday together every summer, without Edith. It’s something that Wally couldn’t agree with. Perhaps she wasn’t a suitable woman to be his wife, but she wasn’t without standards or heart either. There, in the dreamy smoke of Egon’s cigarette, sitting at a little table in the Café Eichberger where he often came to play billiards, the two doomed lovers bid their farewells. Egon gazed at her with his dark eyes and said not a word. He was disappointed but did not appear particularly heart-broken, at least no at first sight, but surely the separation must have pained him in the moments of solitude and contemplation, the moments which gave birth to paintings such as this one.

Egon Schiele, Embrace, 1915

If we assume then that the painting indeed shows Egon and Wally, the question arises: why did he chose to portray himself as a personification of Death? He chose to end things with Wally, so why mourn for the ending? And shouldn’t Death be a possessive and remorseless figure who smothers the poor delicate Maiden in his cold deadly embrace? Schiele’s embrace in the painting seems caring and his gaze full of sadness.

On a visual level, the motif of two lovers set against a decorative background brings to mind both Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” (1907) and Oskar Kokoschka’s “The Bride of the Wind (or The Tempest)” from 1914. Although similar in composition, the mood of Schiele’s painting differs vastly to those of his fellow Viennese eccentrics. Klimt’s painting shows a couple in a kiss and oozes sensuality and beauty, the background being very vibrant and ornamental. It’s a painting made before the war, its horrors and changes. Kokoschka’s painting is, in a way, more similar to Schiele’s but they two are very different in the overall effect. Both show doomed lovers in a sad embrace, and a strange, slightly distorted background, but Kokoschka’s painting is a whirlwind of energy, brushstrokes are nervous and energetic, the space is vibrant, not breathing but screaming. Schiele’s painting exhibits stillness, stiffness, a change caught in the moment, a breeze stopped, and the space around them seems heavy, muddy and static. “Kokoschka’s is a ‘baroque’ painting, while Schiele’s relates more to the Gothic tradition. “The Tempest” is life-affirming, the Schiele is resigned to the inevitable, immobile and drained of life.” (Whitford; Egon Schiele)

Egon Schiele, Lovemaking, 1915

In this painting Schiele used the old theme of Death and the Maiden and enriched it by adding an introspective, private psychological dimension. Schiele’s rendition of the theme isn’t a meditation on transience and vanity as it was in the works of Renaissance masters such as Hans Baldung Grien; a gifted and imaginative German painter and a pupil of Albrecht Dürer. Grien revisited the theme of Death and the Maiden a few times during a single decade, at the beginning of the sixteenth century. These paintings always feature a beautiful and something vain young woman (she is looking at herself in the mirror) with smooth pale skin and long golden hair, and a grotesque figure of Death looming behind her like a shadow, reminding her with a sand clock that soon enough she too will come into his arms.

Hans Baldung Grien, from left to right: Death and the Maiden, 1510; Death and the Maiden, 1517; Death and the Maiden, 1518-20

I’ve included two more examples of this theme in this post; another version by Grien where Death is shown chowing the Maiden’s dress and the knight is literally saving his damsel not from the dragon or from danger, but from Death and mortality itself. Quite cool! And an interesting detail from Van Groningen’s “The Triumph of Death” where Death is shown as a skeleton in a cloud armed with a spear, chasing a frightened and screaming young Maiden dressed in flimsy robes who is running around hopelessly trying to escape. In these paintings, the Maiden is merely a symbol of the fragility of youth and beauty, but later artists, the Romantics and the fin-de-siecle generation, and Schiele too, had different vision of Death; they glamorised it and romanticised it. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Edward Fane’s Rosebud” the beautiful young Maiden Rose is faced with mortality for the first time and how poetically Hawthorne had described it:

She shuddered at the fantasy, that, in grasping the child’s cold fingers, her virgin hand had exchanged a first greeting with mortality, and could never lose the earthly taint. How many a greeting since! But as yet, she was a fair young girl, with the dewdrops of fresh feeling in her bosom; and instead of Rose, which seemed too mature a name for her half-opened beauty, her lover called her Rosebud.

Death was a life-long fascination for Schiele; at a very young age he witnessed his father’s madness and suffering death, possibly from syphilis, he was obsessed with the idea of doppelgänger who was seen as a foreboding of death, in his poem “Pineforest” he even wrote “How good! – Everything is living dead”. All his art is tinged with death, and with Schiele it wasn’t a fad of the times but a deep, personal morbid obsession. In the height of summer, he already senses autumn leaves, in the living flesh he already sees decay. Also, he was born in 1890, and along with other artists of his generation he witnessed the final decay of a vast empire that had lasted for centuries; “Decay, death and disaster seemed to haunt their every waking hour and to provide the substance of their nightmares.” (Whitford, Egon Schiele)

Hans Baldung Grien, The Maiden, the Knight and Death, date unknown

Jan Swart van Groningen, Der Triumph des Todes (detail), 1525-50

Life and Death contrafted or, An Essay on Woman, 1770

Richard Bergh, The Girl and Death, 1888

Henry Levi (1840-1904), La jeune fille et la mort, 1900

Marianne Stokes, The Young Girl and Death, 1900

Happy Halloween, with Schiele and Death!

Miklós Radnóti: You held me, my love, and then went on dreaming, of perhaps a different kind of death…

13 Sep
One of my recent poetic discoveries is a Hungarian Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944) who died very young in sad circumstances as a victim of Holocaust. During his lifetime he worked as a teacher and translated into Hungarian some works of Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean de La Fontaine. Reading Radnóti’s many lovely poems leaves a taste of sweet memories, promises and hope on my tongue. His verses are covered with a thin dusty pink veil of melancholy, a sense of transience lingers through them, and they reveal a deeply sensitive soul and gentle nature. Many of his poems were inspired by his childhood sweetheart and later his wife Fanny. It’s interesting to see the dates of the poems, written near the end of his life, in 1941 … 1943 etc. and how unburdened they are with the events of the time. One can sense death and the ending in his verses, but the themes that occupied him poetically are of a gentle introspective nature: mostly love, kindness, hope. The war and the political situation didn’t make him bitter, as it made Georg Trakl decades before, but rather it awoke the humanity inside him. His love poems such as this one seem to say “let’s love each other while we still can, come into my arms, my sweet darling, lets sink into a sweet dream until the whirlwind of horrors and change is over, lest it should sweep us away too…” But Radnóti never saw the end of horrors, having died in November 1944. As he went into death, into a long sweet dream, he left his beloved in the wasteland of this world, and a little fragment of his soul in the verses he wrote.
Laura Makabresku, Winter sleep
***

With your right hand on my neck

 

With your right hand on my neck, I lay next to

you last night,

and since the day’s woes still pained me, I did

not ask you to take it away,

but listened to the blood coursing through your

arteries and veins,

 

Then finally around twelve sleep overcame me,

as sudden and guileless as my sleep so long ago,

when in the downy time of my youth it rocked

me gently.

 

You tell me it was not yet three when I was

startled awake

and sat up terrified and screaming.

muttering strange and unintelligible words,

 

then spread out my arms like a bird ruffled with

fear

flapping its wings as a dark shadow flutters

through the garden.

Tell me, where was I going? And what kind of

death had frightened me so?

 

And you held me, my love, as I sat up half-asleep,

then lay back in silence, wondering what paths

and horrors awaited me.

And then went on dreaming. Of perhaps a

different kind of death.

Miklós and his darling wife Fanny in 1937