Tag Archives: Sea

Felix Vallotton – Yellow and Green Sunset – 800th Post!

12 Jun

“A sunset so beautiful that the rest of your life will seem anticlimactic.”

(Disenchantment, S1 E2 )

Felix Vallotton, Yellow and Green Sunset (Coucher de soleil jaune et vert) 1911

The vibrant colours of Felix Vallotton’s painting “Yellow and Green Sunset” from 1911 immediately spoke to me. I am just mesmerised by these rich lavender, yellow and turqouise shades! How dreamy is this purple!? How vivacious and magical this yellow!? This painting is surely one of the most magical depictions of a sunset that I have seen in art. The motif of the painting, that of a beach in the sunset of the day with two small human figures walking by, brings to mind the beautiful and melancholy landscapes of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, but the mood and the colours that Vallotton here uses are completely different. Whereas Friedrich would have been subtle and paid attention to shades and tones of colours, Vallotton paints almost as if he trew a bucket of purple, yellow, blue and green onto the canvas. The intense, almost garish colours cover huge portions of the paintings and it is a delight for the eye. The painting is almost made of different horizontal stripes of colour; from the sky to the sea to the beach, but if one looks more closely, one will notice the details such as the purple sky that is made out of pink lines, or the rocks on the beach in the shallow water, colored gold by the light of the fading sun. A few days ago I was sitting by the river and I wittnessed a sunset very similar to the one portrayed in this painting and this connection is something that I cherish. Also, this is my 800th post and I decided to write about this painting because it holds a special meaning for me now. The quote in the beginning of the post comes from the second episode of the first season of the show Disenchantment where the main character Bean and her friends Elfo and Luci are on the Party Barge and the sailor makes a comment on the sunset, that it is “(sunset) so beautiful that the rest of your life will seem anticlimactic,” and for some reason this line stuck with me… The sunset I had seen the other day was indeed mesmerising and its colours were so strong that I felt them impressing themselves upon my soul, the yellow of the sun tastes like sweet mellon… but I do hope the rest of my life will not be anticlimactic now, hehe.

Caspar David Friedrich – On the Sailing Boat

17 Dec

Let’s love, then! Love, and feel while feel we can
The moment on its run.
There is no shore of Time, no port of Man.
It flows, and we go on…”

(Alphonse de Lamartine, The Lake, translated by A.Z.Foreman)

Caspar David Friedrich, On the Sailing Boat, 1818-20

Friedrich, the melancholy misanthrop and loner of Greifswald, had finally tied the knot on the 21 January 1818, just a few months after his fourty-third birthday. His young bride was the twenty-five year old Caroline Bommer whose elegant figure in a red dress we can see in a few of his paintings from that time period. Friedrich’s friend, and a fellow painter, Carl Gustav Carus noted that the marriage didn’t leave a trace on Friedrich, but there is a subtle yet notable shift in Friedrich’s work after the marriage; the colours are softer, the overall mood lighter, and human figures appear more often. In fact, his famous and perhaps even the most beautiful painting “Moonrise Over the Sea” was painted in 1820. Nothing compares the pink and purple sky in that painting, it’s something most dreamy and romantic. But this uplifting, lighter phase of his career was, sadly, only a short Nordic summer; as he was getting older his gloominess prevailed and he started returning to his moody, isolated landscapes.

Painting “On the Sailing Boat” shows a couple, that is, the painter and his wife, sitting at the prow of the ship, hand in hand, gliding towards the infinity of their love. Typical for Friedrich, the figures are seen either from behind or in profile, which definitely adds to the mysterious appeal. The tender purple and blue waves are cradling the lovers’ boat and above them the yellow-tinted vanilla sky is smiling with promises of future joys. In the distance the shadowy contours of a townscape appear as if they are seen through the mist, or – seen in a dream. The vastness of the sky and the sea further intensifies the dreamy, almost mystical aura of this painting which correlates to the Romantics’ view on love, or a cult of love we might even say, as a union of souls. This solemn seriousness towards the matters of love was a far cry from the frivolous and playful attitude of the Rococo generation. Just how different is this dreamy painting to something painted by Boucher or Fragonard. The subtle melancholy which permeats Friedrich’s paintings, even the seemingly joyful ones, brings to mind the work of Watteau. It seems the two painters have more in common than one would initially assume. Their work, although so dreamy and charming, holds a deeper truth about life: that all human experiences are bitter-sweet and transient: “Upon the sea of time can we not ever/ Drop anchor for one day?” (de Lamartine, The Lake) Another interesting thing about this painting is the viewpoint; while gazing at the painting we feel as if we too are on the boat and that makes us closer to the scene in the painting, but two is a company, three’s a crowd, we better leave them alone to enjoy the hours of bliss until they pass…

Andrew Wyeth – Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939

3 Sep

“Set sail in those turquoise days…”

(Echo and the Bunnymen, Turquoise Days)

Andrew Wyeth, Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939, watercolour and pencil on paper

This gloomy watercolour by Andrew Wyeth instantly struck a chord with me because it brought to mind the solitary landscapes of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and the moody music of Echo and the Bunnymen’s second album “Heaven Up Here” (1981) which is an all time favourite of mine, and I especially savour it in this time of the year. As someone who is continually seeking the connections between painting and rock music, literature and art, music and literature etc, this is a perfect match in mood, for the sounds of the “Heaven Up Here” transport me to a wet, solitary beach where the sea and the sky meet in a kiss while the dusk is slowly taking over… Wyeth’s watercolour strongly conveys a similar mood, at least to me because the colours are beautifully chosen.

Wyeth, who usually had a penchant for taking an ordinary motif and transforming it into an extraordinary one, took a simple motif of a three master or a ship with three masts and painted a stunning watercolour using a palette of only a few colours, but visually strong and captivating ones. The ship is leaning on its right, the sea waves are strong, they are cradling the ship as if it were a baby in the crib. The nature can easily destroy something man-made, even if it is as big as the ship, and it’s easy to see just how powerless and meaningless the small human figures are compared to the vastness of the sea. The figures here almost appear to be melting into the rest of the scene and they bring to mind the figures in Caspar David Friedrich’s melancholy seascape painting though Wyeth’s watercolour is more dynamic and expressive than meditative and dreamy. The combination of the dark colours and the whimsical, playful way the watercolour seemed to be painting itself creates a contrast that stimulates and excites our eyes.

The liquid and often capricious medium of watercolour is perfect for this kind of a scene because it vividly portrays the sea waves, better than a dry medium of pastel would, for example. When you gaze at these dark and murky waters you know they were painted with water, you can imagine the brush heavy with drops of rich colour hitting the surface of the paper and leaving a rich, dense trace which grows paler as the stroke gets longer… The greedy paper takes in the colour just as the sand on the beach drinks in the water of the sea. I feel that watercolour can translate the mood of melancholy, isolation and gloom better than other mediums. Wyeth was only twenty-two years old when he painted this watercolour; the same age as Echo and the Bunnymen’s singer Ian McCulloch when he sang the lines “set sail in those turquoise days…” from the above mentioned album. In 1937, at the age of twenty, Wyeth had his first one-man exhibition of mostly monochromatic watercolours. Seeing the gorgeous “Three Master Aground” we needn’t be surprised that the exhibition was a huge success and that all the watercolours were sold.

Ford Madox Brown – Capturing the Atmosphere: Walton-on-the-Naze and The Hayfield

29 Aug

Ford Madox Brown, Walton-on-the-Naze (1860)

The final days of August are always tinged in melancholy. Summer is not yet gone, and autumn has not yet arrived. The rich and vibrant facade of summer is slightly cracking and a yearning for what once was fills the cracks, and even a sunny, warm day or the beauty of a blooming rose are haunted by a feeling of nostalgia for the passing summer. The first rain, or a gust of wind, the first sight of yellow leaves on a chestnut tree all seem ominous of what is to come. This mood inhabits some of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and two of such examples are landscape scenes by Ford Madox Brown. His paintings “The Hayfield” and “Walton-on-the-Naze” both possess that rich yet wistful ambience. Most of the painting “The Hayfield” was painted slowly and patiently during a period of time from late July to early September and, following the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy of painting directly from nature, Brown would walk miles and miles from his house two times a week to a spot where the scenery was the most delightful. Waiting for the perfect light, he would start painting at 5 am. The twilight scene shows the end of a working day; the moon had just risen but there is still enough daylight to reveal the scene to our eyes. The farmers are slowly getting ready to go home, there are children sittin in the haycart and one man is gazing up at the moon. You can feel the chill in the air, the slightly damp, cold grass, children’s cheerful chatter… The colours of the painting proved to be controversial, just as was the case with John Constable’s landscape some years before, but Brown stated in the catalogue for the painting that: “the stacking of the second crop of hay had been much delayed by rain, which heightened the green of the remaining grass, together with the brown of the hay. The consequence was an effect of unusual beauty of colour, making the hay by contrast with the green grass, positively red or pink, under the glow of twilight”. This shows us that the Victorian audience had a perception of reality and nature different to what it really was and they didn’t want to see the reality in art, but rather their dreamy vision of the world around them.

The painting “Walton-on-the-Naze”, painted during Brown’s visit to this small coastal town in Essex in August 1859, again features the motif of a rising moon and the gorgeous effect of light. This might be his most beautiful landscape because the ephemeral light and the effect of depth are just mesmerising. The air seems soft, rosy and palpable and the rainbow in the sky adds a whole new dreamy dimension to the scene. I had had the luck of seeing the rainbow but a few weeks ago and its beauty still charms my memory. The male figure is the portrait of Brown himself and the female figure is Brown’s wife Emma. The little girl is their daughter Catherine. The beautiful visual rhythm of the stacks of wheat in the foreground may reminds us of the harvest time and the work that is to be done, but this painting isn’t the harvesting type like the previous one, but a touristy type because Brown and his family were on holiday in that coastal town when he painted it and this reflects the Victorian discovery of coastal towns and the sea as places for leisure, rest and fun. Londoners could have easily reached the coast via a steamer train and one is seen in the background of this painting. Even Elizabeth Siddal and Rossetti stayed on the sea for her health around the same time. The layers of depth in this painting are superb, I mean just look at the ship disappearing on the horizon, a pink sky behind it, how utterly dreamy.

Ford Madox Brown, The Hayfield, 1855-56

Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human: Cherry Blossoms in April

4 Apr

Hiroshi Yoshida, Hayase, 1933

In March I was rereading one of my favourite books ever: Osamu Dazai’s novel “No Longer Human” and this passage about cherry trees, blossoms scattered in the sea, struck me as particularly dreamy and visual so I thought I’d share it when April comes… and now is that time:

“On the shore, at a point so close to the ocean one might imagine it was there that the waves broke stood a row of over twenty fairly tall cherry trees with coal-black trunks. Every April when the new school year was about to begin these trees would display their dazzling blossoms and their moist brown leaves against the blue of the sea. Soon a snowstorm of blossoms would scatter innumerable petals into the water, flecking the surface with points of white which the waves carried back to the shore. The beach strewn with cherry blossoms served as the playground of the high school I attended. Stylized cherry blossoms flowered even on the badge of the regulation school cap and on the button of our uniforms….”

The rest of the book is much darker than this passage but I still recommend it as a great book; it’s written in the first person by Oba Yozo, a young man who finds it hard to adapt into normal society and finds it almost impossible to communicate with other people and even be himself in front of anyone. His true self is hidden and the only thing the world sees is a mask. Since the book was published in 1948 and set a few decades earlier I wanted to find an Ukiyo-e print which was more modern, not something from the early nineteenth century, and I think this one by Hiroshi Yoshida is quite lovely because it shows not only cherry blossoms but the water as well, though not the sea in this case but a river.

Santoka Taneda – The Sound of Waves…

14 Mar

I stumbled upon this poem by Santoka Taneda and it struck a chord with me because it is profound and touches on the topic of transience. The poet compares the constancy of the waves, caressing the sandy shore then withdrawing again, in an everlasting rhythm, with the fleeting nature of our human life and the lyrical subject wonders: how much of his life remains? Santoka Taneda (1882-1940), an eccentric drunkard turned Zen priest, wrote many meditative poems and remains famous for writing in a free verse haiku style. Regardless of Taneda’s innovative haiku style “far more important are the special Zen qualities of simplicity (wabi), solitude (sabi), and impermanence (mujo) conveyed in a modern setting by his haiku.” (Mountain Tasting, Poetry of Santoka Taneda, translated by John Stevens) I think these elements make the poem so deep and I look forward to reading more of his poetry.

Paul Gauguin, La Vague, 1888

“The sound of waves
Now distant, now close;
How much of my life remains?”

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

5 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea, 1822

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Wilson Steer – Vibrant Beach Scenes

22 Aug

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”

(KIate Chopin, The Awakening)

Philip Wilson Steer, Boulogne Sands, 1888-91

Philip Wilson Steer painted some rather dull landscapes and some very atmospheric interiors with dreamy girls, but his most unique and eye-catching paintings are these vivacious and vibrant beach scenes painted in the late 1880s and first half of the 1890s. The radiant colours and the sketchy style is what makes these paintings so unique and extraordinary.

At the age of eighteen, Steer wished to work for the Civil Service but found the entrance exams too demanding. We are fortunate that didn’t occur, for he probably would not have become a painter. He proceeded to study at the Gloucester School of Art and Kensington Drawing Schools, but he wasn’t quite good enough for the Royal Academy of Art. After being rejected by the Academy, Steer went to Paris and there he studied from 1882 to 1884, first at the Academie Julian and then at the École des Beaux Arts where his teacher was Alexandre Cabanel. Despite the years spent at the academies, Steer returned to England not as a Cabanel copy-cat, rather he was more influenced by the works of the Impressionists that he had seen. Steer often visited the picturesque coastal little towns of Walberwick and Southwald in Suffolk, for he had friends there, and he painted people, mostly mothers and daughters, having their holidays in the sun. Despite being inspired by the Impressionist, Steer didn’t go full plein air, that is, he didn’t paint outdoors. Whilst on the beach, Steer would enjoy the scenery and liveliness all around him, take many sketches in his sketchbook and then later turn them into proper paintings in his studio. That way he could capture many fun scenes that happened on the beach in the same day and transform them into canvases full of dots, dashes, textures, sketchy imprecise and harsh brushstrokes.

Philip Wilson Steer, Watching Cowes Regatta, 1892

These beach scenes may appear sketchy and spontaneous, but Steer actually carefully planned each one and often took years to finish them. Each of them has a unique beauty; “Watching Cowes Regatta” has a wonderfully serene harmony of gentle blue tones and is reminiscent of some of Whistler’s paintings, in “Children Paddling” the water just shines and glimmers and the blueness is overwhelming, in “Girls Running” the two figures of girls dressed in matching dresses and matching red sashes is the most striking, and notice how they are not holding their hands, but their shadows are, in “Figures at the Beach” everything disappears in a blueish haze and the three girls in blue and white dresses are as sketchy as can be to still look recognisable, in “The Beach at Walberswick” the red is so intense and pulsating and contrasts beautifully with the blueness of the sea, and in the last painting what strikes me the most is how sketchy and nearly see-through the figures in the foreground are. A wonderful brushwork and a wonderful vibrancy of shades and colours constrasts truly make these beach scenes tangible and alive; one can hear the waves, the seagulls and the laughter of all these girls, feel the magic of the glimmering sea and feel the pebbles or sand underfoot.

“There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.” (Kate Chopin, The Awakening)

Philip Wilson Steer, Walberswick, Children Paddling, 1894

Philip Wilson Steer, Girls Running, Walberswick Pier, 1888-94

Philip Wilson Steer, Figures on the Beach, Walberswick, 1888-89

Philip Wilson Steer, The Beach at Walberswick, 1889

Philip Wilson Steer, Southwold, 1889

John William Godward – When the heart is young

10 Aug

The sweetest thing on earth is …. to do nothing and enjoy it! Late Victorian British painter John William Godward was born on 9th August 1861 and his life ended by a suicide in 1922 because, as he stated in a note that he left, “the world is not big enough for myself and Picasso”. His perception seemed to be that Picasso was so superior a painter that he had to reside from the position of the painter and from planet earth. A very sad ending to a life devoted to art.

John William Godward, When the heart is young, 1902

“you came and I was crazy for you
and you cooled my mind that burned with longing”

(Sappho, translation by Anne Carson)

“When the heart is young” is one of my favourite painting by Godward, perhaps even the favourite one. There’s just something about it that lures me to it, again and again. Perhaps it is the sweet indolence that speaks to my heart the most. I just love the warmth, sensuality and clear, vibrant in this painting. Every detail about it is perfect and precise and no element of the painting seems superfluous. A beautiful and dreamy dark haired young woman occupies the central place in the painting and everything around her; the marble bench and floor, a peacock fan, animal skin, flowers and the sea in the background all serve to accentuate the idleness and luxury that she is oozing. She is lazing around on a sunny summer day and has the luxury to do so; daydreaming and allowing the minutes and hours to pass by without any guilt or concern, for being idle is not a crime. Gorgeous masses of her black hair are seductively falling over her head, her large dark eyes are full of desire and dreams and her flushed cheeks speak of desires unspoken in words. She seems to exist on a diet of sunlight’s caresses, sweet summer wines and thoughts of love. The curvy line of her body stretched on the fuzzy warm fur is as seductive as the yellowish line that separates the azure blueness of the sea from that of the sky. I can imagine the soft, summery breeze rustling the distant cypresses, kissing the poppies and bringing the salty scent of the sea to the woman’s nose. And now some more of Sappho’s verses because they fill so well with the mood of idleness and undisturbed ripe and juicy fig sweetness:

“Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.

here to me from Krete to this holy temple
where is your graceful grove
of apple trees and altars smoking
with frankincense.
And in it cold water makes a clear sound through
apple branches and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.
And in it a horse meadow has come into bloom
with spring flowers and breezes
like honey are blowing….”

(Sappho, translated by Anne Carson)

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1904

Marble and draped gowns worn by the indolent women in Godward’s paintings bring to mind the similar work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Godward was the protégé of Alma-Tadema and their styles hold similarities; they both drew inspiration from the imagined luxury of the Greek world, Ancient Roman Empire and the warm, rich, fragrant, mood of the Mediterranean, they both painted in a Neoclassical style with fine, elegant brushwork resembling that of Ingres, especially when the subject is that of a female body; both made paintings full of light and vibrancy. Paintings “When the Heart is Young” and “Dolce far niente” both show elegantly dressed women doing nothing, being sweetly idle in beautiful settings and thus they fall into the “dolce far niente” genre of painting. ‘Dolce far niente’ is a wonderful Italian expression meaning ‘sweet doing nothing’, and it illustrates the dreamy, hedonistic, self-indulgent nature of indolence, and the enjoyment of it. In the late 19th and early 20th century, in the artistic climate influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetic movement with its ‘cult of beauty’, popularity of this genre of paintings grew. Artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Godward and John William Waterhouse dared to tackle the subject and painted numerous vibrant and beautiful paintings of this theme.

There’s a certain pattern of beauty in all of these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings: a beautiful idle woman dressed in her finery, lazing around in sumptuous surroundings, doing nothing, gazing in the distance or at the viewer. Usually they’re presented in luxurious and idealised settings, aesthetically inspired by the Roman empire, lounging on animal skin, dressed in gorgeous diaphanous fabrics. Certain motifs appear in all of these paintings: finely painted marble balustrades or just marble in general, balconies overlooking the sea glistening underneath a perfectly blue sky with a few clouds, animal skin, clothes and hairstyles inspired by the styles of the Ancient world, flowers and flower pots, lush Mediterranean vegetation and plants such as oleander, lavender, cypresses, orange trees, even poppies, thyme, basil etc.

Dreamy Autochromes – A Girl in Red On the Beach

4 Jun
“And from then on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, infused with stars and lactescent,
Devouring the azure verses; where, like a pale elated
Piece of flotsam, a pensive drowned figure sometimes sinks;
 
Where, suddenly dyeing the blueness, delirium
And slow rhythms under the streaking of daylight,
Stronger than alcohol, vaster than our lyres,
The bitter redness of love ferments!
(Rimbaud, Drunken Boat)

These wonderful dreamy autochrome photographs of a girl in a red bathing suit at a rocky beach were taken by Mervyn O’Gorman (1871-1958). Similar to the Belgian artist Alfonse van Besten whose autochrome photographs I wrote about before, O’Gorman wasn’t a professional photographer, but rather an engineer with an interest in photography. Alongside knowing the autochrome technique, he clearly had a knack for aesthetic and beauty as well and that is what makes these photographs so timeless and captivating. The thin, pale and pretty strawberry-haired girl was O’Gorman’s daughter Christina and these photographs were taken on a rocky beach in Dorset in 1913. The pictures have a dreamy, nostalgic air which makes them belong to a world of the past, but they also seem modern in some way, maybe it’s because Christina’s poses, setting and even clothes seem modern. Naturally, the kind of bathing suit she is seen wearing is nothing like those she would be wearing today, but when we think of the Edwardian times, an image of a girl on the beach, with bare knees and barefoot certainly isn’t the first thing which comes to mind. There’s a dreamy veil over these photographs, and a tinge of sweet sensuality as well; Christina in her red bathing suit is like a shy poppy flower which starts blooming and, raising its head toward the blue sky, starts being aware of its own beauty and charm. Every time I see the boat in the background of the autochrome above, it makes me think of Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “Drunken Boat”:

“But, in truth, I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking.

Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter.

Acrid love has swollen me with intoxicating torpor

O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea!

 

If I want a water of Europe, it is the black

Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight

A squatting child full of sadness releases

A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.”

Autochromes from the beach are certainly the most striking, but O’Gorman took many more pictures of his daughter Christina and she is always seen in this lovely, vibrant red which instantly captivates the viewer and brings the attention to Christina. In the last picture you can also see O’Gorman’s wife and other daughter, also on the beach.