Tag Archives: Sea

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.

Maurice Prendergast – Vibrant Watercolour Beach Scenes

16 Feb

American Post-Impressionist painter Maurice Prendergast seems to be my favourite painter at the moment. After sharing his beautiful painting “The Lady with a Red Sash” with you, I simply must share these vibrant, dazzling watercolours of beach scenes, bursting with life and vivacity.

Maurice Prendergast, Low Tide, Beachmont, 1900-05, watercolor over graphite and coal on off-white wove paper

A single glance at any of Maurice Prendergast’s delightful watercolours of beaches and the sea is enough to send me into a state of reverie. Memories of past summers fill my mind; I see the wonderful blue sea trembling before my eyes, the steady yet wild waves with a golden shine sparkling in the sun, salty scent tingling my nostrils and sun warming my skin, a plethora of pebbles and parasols in many vibrant colours, the line which separates the sky and the sea is faraway and out of reach. The seaside was a lingering theme in Prendergast’s career, and watercolour appears to have been his favoured medium for these scenes, although he did paint many traditional oils as well.

His watercolour “Low Tide, Beachmont” (the title was given posthumously) seems to be my favourite at the moment. I love the vibrancy and liveliness of the scene, not just the mood of a carefree, idle, leisure day spent at the beach, collecting pebbles, jumping around and laughing, and inhaling the fresh salty scent of the sea carried by the soft western breeze, but also the liveliness of all the elements on the paper. Women and children are enjoying a day at the beach. Little boats are sailing in the distance. Skirts are billowing in the wind, and some hats are eager to fly away; the little in the foreground is holding her hat with both hands. Their reflections appear in the surface of the water which the waves had brought to fill the empty space between the rocks.

This watercolour excites me not merely because of its content, the wonderful portrayal of a fun day at the beach, but also because of the way it was executed. The repetition of elements such as those brown-grey rocks creates a rhythm which is soothing and exciting both at once. It almost creates a tapestry of shapes, swirls and colours makes the painting so playful, vivacious and alive. It makes the painting appear as a decorative ornamental surface and everything seems to be trembling and breathing. In all of his watercolours, but in this one especially, the world appears as if it was painted from a child’s point of view; it’s just so very playful. Before travelling to Paris in 1891 to study in well-respected academies, Prendergast (1858-1924) was apprenticed to work in the commercial arts, and hence he grew to like the flatness and the bright colours. He painted coastal scenes in Brittany during his four-year stay in France and after returning from Paris in 1895 he settled in Boston and often ventured to the beaches north of Boston, Revere Beach and Beachmont to name a few.

As I have already stated on this blog many times, I absolutely adore watercolours. Anything painted in that medium never fails to look lively, immediate and spontaneous. This effect of watercolours being “spontaneous” and “effortless” is very deceiving because this watery medium tends to have a mind of its own; it spills, stains the paper and goes in directions one has not planned. Dates for this watercolour vary a lot; some sources state it was painted between 1902 and 1904, some state the year as 1905, and yet in the bottom right corner there is the painter’s signature and the year 1897. Strange indeed. Now, here are a few more of Prendergast’s wonderful beach scene. While I adore the playful visual rhythm of “Low Tide, Beachmont”, I also enjoy the way the colours in the painting “Children at the Beach” (1897) melt so lyrically, especially around the figures of children. And that serene blue! Ahhhh…

Maurice Prendergast, Ladies with Parasols, 1897, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Low Tide, 1897

Maurice Prendergast, Children at the Beach, 1897, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Revere Beach, 1897, watercolour

Peder Severin Krøyer – Summer Evening on the Skagen Beach

9 Sep

“I’m the lonely voyager standing on deck, and she’s the sea. The sky is a blanket of gray, merging with the gray sea off on the horizon. It’s hard to tell the difference between sea and sky. Between voyager and sea. Between reality and the workings of the heart.” (Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore)

Peder Severin Krøyer, Summer Evening on the Skagen Southern Beach with Anna Ancher and Marie Krøyer, 1893

What I love about this painting is that it reminds me of music, an echo of soft fairy whispers mingled with fading notes of the piano… and then silence. It has a gentleness and stillness that sends our mind into a reverie, or inspires us to contemplate on eternity in a similar way that Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes do. Here Krøyer painted the most melancholy and profound moment of the day: twilight with its endless dreamy blueness. The soft meandering line which separates the world of sea waves with the white sand of the coast is very dreamy because it suggest infinity and leads the viewer’s eye towards unknown distances. Two ladies are walking slowly right near that dreamy line, one can feel the water touching their dresses when the wave comes or see their footsteps appearing after each step in the wet sand. The colour palette is particularly dreamy as well, aerial, soft and gentle with plenty of white, grey, blue and hints of toned yellow in the sand and on the dresses. They are walking arm in arm, in intimate conversation, just two figures walking towards infinity. Without the figures, this painting would be yet another landscape, but with the figures added in, the painting gets an emotional depth, ironically, the inclusion of figures reminds us of the loneliness of the beach. Two lone figures, might as well be ghosts in white gowns, for their faces we cannot see, walking slowly and leaving barely a trace of their existence.

Skagen is Denmark’s northernmost town and is closer to the coast of Sweden than to Copenhagen. In Krøyer’s time it was a remote fishers village whose understated beauty is revealed through the eyes of the group of painter appropriately called “The Skagen Artists”. Nowadays, Krøyer is the most well-known from this group, but they were all interested in similar themes; the beauty of the cold northern sea, fishers and harvests, and, in a manner similar to the Impressionists, they meticulously devoted themselves to portraying the effects of sunlight and people having fun, mostly their families and friends. Below we have a similar painting by Michael Archer, a fellow painter from the Skagen group of artists. Again, it has that gorgeous immeasurable lightness and a long clear diagonal line between the sandy beach and the sea, how romantically it stretches on and on. Lonely mood is toned down because of the five female figures in pastel coloured dresses, but a hint of melancholy is left in the face of the girl who treads the beach first, gazing down at the sand, lost in thoughts, following the shadow that falls in front of her.

Michael Ancher, A stroll on the beach, 1896

I imagine that the seaside looks exquisite this time of the year; I imagine the soft sand untainted by human footsteps, the sky clear and grey-blue, not even a seagull is flying by. Smell of salt hangs in the melancholy air. When I gaze at these paintings, I can almost hear the waves playing Debussy’s “La Mer”, soothing my soul with each passing note… And there in the distance, the sky and the sea are becoming one in a kiss.

Story Inspiration: Wind, Oranges, Love and Guitars

5 Jul

Photo by Pedro Gabriel.

Photo found here.

Watercolours of the Caribbean by Winslow Homer

27 May

Last summer I fell in love with Winslow Homer’s watercolours so I thought now is the right time to finally write about them.

Winslow Homer, Rest, 1885

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was an American painter from the East coast, famous for his Realist style landscapes and scenes of turbulent blue seas. He started his artistic career by studying lithography for two years, and he made illustrations for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly but this didn’t stop him from pursuing his dream of being a real artist and he made a successful transition from illustrator to oil-on-canvas painter. In 1859 he moved from Massachusetts where he lived with his family to New York City where he opened a studio and started taking classes at the National Academy of Design. He first started using the medium of watercolours in 1873 and he was instantly good at it; he successfully sailed the seas of watercolours. His mother was an amateur water-colourist so it is possible she inspired him to take up watercolours, since the two were close throughout his life.

In this post we’ll take a look at Homer’s watercolours that capture the beauty of the south and the mythical tropical lands that are perpetually so dazzling to the imagination of the Western people; a place where rains don’t fall down hard and sad, the sky isn’t a monotonous grey, a place where pink and golden sunsets play Apollonian melodies and love lingers in the air; the Caribbean. Homer was nor the first nor the last Western artist to take inspiration in lands that were exotic to them; Albrecht Durer travelled to Italy, Delacroix’s travels to Morocco changed his colour palette and brought a whole new set of subjects, Paul Gauguin’s well-known Odyssey to Tahiti resulted in many vibrantly coloured canvases. And what an experience it must have been for Homer who was so used to the grey sky and green meadows to come to a world of sunshine, light breeze and glistening blue ocean, inviting and warm. Homer travelled to Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas in winter of 1884-85 to paint the tropical heaven scenes commissioned by the Century Magazine.

Winslow Homer, Sponge Fishermen, Bahamas, 1885

“Sponge Fisherman” has such a meditative vibe, perhaps it’s because of the horizontal composition, or the dreamy way in which the sky and the ocean meet, both so serene and blue. Even though the painting shows workers and it’s probably very hot, something about it makes me so relaxed. The palm trees here look as if they are carried by a gentle breeze and the workers seem bubbling and chatty, not exhausted or sad.

The sponges in this painting reminded me of something from Márquez’s novella “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother” which I was just reading. In one scene the grandmother is talking in her sleep and she mentions sailors from foreign lands who brought sponges that were alive and crying and made children in the house cry just so they could drink in their tears! Ha ha. That wonderful magic realism.

Winslow Homer, Along the Road, Bahamas, 1885

“Along the Road” is a rather interesting example because we have a human figure again; a dark-skinned beauty dressed in white walking down the street. it seems to me that she is holding her headdress with her hand so the wind doesn’t blow it off. Behind her we see a row of houses and the ocean is glistening in the distance. The palm tree swaying its branches wildly and the sky both indicate the weather condition of strong winds and an approaching storm possibly. I hope this lady got home before rain. Homer managed to create a sense of depth in the sky and the rest of the painting despite using a limited colour palette of greys and muted tones.

Winslow Homer, A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Winslow Homer, Orange Tree, Nassau (also known as Orange Trees and Gate), 1885

The two paintings above both show gardens in Nassau and here Homer had wonderfully achieved the mood of a hot summer day. Many and many shades of green and blue seem to be playing a sonata in “A Garden in Nassau”. The tree looks ever so grandiose with those large leaves painted in intensely vibrant shades of green. A little boy stands in front of the gates and a tall white stone wall. Half-frightened, half-curious. The little red flowers in the right part giggle with curiosity as he bows his head down. The palm tree is silent, casts its shadow in the midday heat instead of a respond. Its leaves don’t sway, for the wind is having a siesta. In the painting “Orange Trees and Gate” it is the orange tree which got Homer’s spotlight. Again, everything is so luminous and bathed in lightness. Thousand little brushstrokes of green colour make an orange tree and dots of orange stand for the fruit which weighs the tree down. Ground is left in white but a sad dark shade of blue is coming from the lower right corner, from the space unknown to us.

Winslow Homer, Shark Fishing, 1885

Winslow Homer, After the Hurricane, Bahamas, 1899

Two paintings above, “Shark Fishing” and “After the Hurricane” shows us that Homer didn’t just capture the idealised notion of the Caribbean world and presented it as a world of sunshine and magic, as Gauguin had perhaps done in his Tahiti paintings. Homer didn’t hesitate to paint the everyday reality and people doing what they normally would, whether it’s a brave and dangerous act of fishing a shark, or capturing the sad reality of the fragile Caribbean world after the hurricane. Notice again what a virtuoso he is with watercolours, how gracefully he painted the transitions of colours, how he created a dynamic mood; that threatening dark cloudy sky, that unforgiving sea, the blades of grass so thin and vibrant, and the figure of a man washed up on the shore, a poignant focus of a painting that we can all empathise with. Nature is interesting, yet wild. As you may have noticed by the dates, some of the watercolours were made a decade later, in 1899, and not in 1885. It’s because Homer visited Florida and Nassau again in winter and stayed there from December 1898 to February 1899. His very colourful and vibrant watercolour “Flower Garden and Bungalow” was also painted during that trip. I didn’t even notice the bungalow at first because my eyes were so captivated by the sea of tropical red and yellow flowers in the foreground. And the view of the dreamy blue sea in the background is just mesmerising.

Winslow Homer, Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda, 1899

My infatuation with the Caribbean and Latin America started last summer when I read Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which I thought was absolutely fabulous and I intend to reread it this summer. To feed my Caribbean infatuation I read poems by Cuban authors, Latin American writers, Reinaldo Arenas, listened to Omara Portuondo and Agustin Barrios, gazed at Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and so when I discovered these gorgeous watercolours by Winslow Homer it was love at first sight. This is how I imagine the sea when Reinaldo Arenas writes about it in his memoir “Before Night Falls”. Sandy beaches, pink skies, a breeze through the palm trees, rare birds with colourful feathers, a world of exoticism and vibrancy comes to mind when I gaze at these watercolours and daydream of the Caribbean islands and seas.

Book Review: Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

21 Oct

I just finished reading a fascinating book: Reinaldo Arenas’s beautiful memoir Before Night Falls. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), the self proclaimed “bad poet in love with the moon” (in Spanish: “Mal poeta enamorado de la luna”) was a gay Cuban poet, novelist and playwright who fled to the United States in 1980.

The sea; turquoise blue and whispering thousands of secrets in every wave that rhythmically kisses the soft and golden sand of the beach. Photo found here.

Reinaldo Arenas… When I whisper his name, I hear the murmur of the sea, and that ‘r’ melts on my tongue like pure golden honey… Arenas… And ‘arena’ means ‘sand’ in Spanish.

How did I came to know about Arenas? Well, it all started one warm crimson night in August when I first watched the film Before Night Falls (2000) based on his autobiography, starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo. The film struck a chord with me; there was something poignant about the talented boy from the provincial area arriving to Havana to study agronomy, the boy who was at the same time naive and enraptured by the new and exciting possibilities that the big city offered. The sea, ahhh, the clear and warm sea in colours of turquoise and teal, the endless sandy beeches, and the vibrant architecture of Havana with colourful but decaying buildings with iron fences and palm trees everywhere…  And I’ll be honest, just gazing at Javier on the screen was nice too! I soon found myself daydreaming of Havana and I couldn’t get Reinaldo Arenas out of my head, so I read some of his poetry. His famous Auto-epitaph, written in New York in 1989, is just mind-blowing:

“A bad poet in love with the moon,

he counted terror as his only fortune :

and it was enough because, being no saint,

he knew that life is risk or abstinence,

that every great ambition is great insanity

and the most sordid horror has its charm.

He lived for life’s sake, which means seeing death

as a daily occurrence on which we wager

a splendid body or our entire lot.

He knew the best things are those we abandon

— precisely because we are leaving.

The everyday becomes hateful,

there s just one place to live – the impossible.

He knew imprisonment offenses

typical of human baseness ;

but was always escorted by a certain stoicism

that helped him walk the tightrope

or enjoy the morning’s glory,

and when he tottered, a window would appear

for him to jump toward infinity.

He wanted no ceremony, speech, mourning or cry,

no sandy mound where his skeleton be laid to rest

(not even after death did he wish to live in peace).

He ordered that his ashes be scattered at sea

where they would be in constant flow.

He hasn’t lost the habit of dreaming :

he hopes some adolescent will plunge into his waters.”

It’s hard to put in words what this poem meant to me in those warm afternoons of August I spent soaking in the golden rays of sun and daydreaming of the tropical sea, and what it still means to me. There is one line that’s particularly poignant to me and I dare say it’s almost burned in my mind: “Sólo hay un lugar para vivir – el imposible.” (There is just one place to live – the impossible.)

This painting by Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa (1871–1959) has absolutely nothing to do with the book, but if I had to chose one painting to describe my feelings upon reading the book, this would be it: bloom, vibrancy and ecstasy!

It took me only a few pages to realise that the book I am holding in my hands is a very special book, so I read it slowly, savouring every page. Arenas’s writing is so flowing, brutally honest and poetic despite the grittiness of his life. If I had to describe the book in short, I would say: sea, sex, madness for living and writing, and fighting Fidel Castro’s regime. The book starts with memories of his childhood; he was brought up by a single-mother and lived with her large family. He described his mother as a very beautiful and a very lonely woman. Despite their material poverty, he, along with other children, discovered beauty all around them; in the morning fogs, in silent nights in the village, and especially in soil. He writes about an almost primordial connection to the soil; he ate soil as a child, his first crib was a hole in the ground dug by his grandmother, he made mud castles, and in the end the dead body would rot in the soil and become reborn as a flower, a tree or some other plant. Still, the thing that enraptured him the most was the sea which was a constant presence in his life. The sea, with its rhythmic play of waves and its blueness, spoke of freedom. This is what he says about the sea later in the book: “The sea was like a feast and forced us to be happy, even when we did not particularly want to be. Perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.

Winslow Homer – A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Here are some quotes about his childhood fascination with the trees:

“I used to climb trees, and everything seemed much more beautiful from up there. I could embrace the world in completeness and feel a harmony that I could not experience down below.”

“Trees have a secret life that is only revealed to those willing to climb them. To climb a tree is to slowly discover a unique world, rhythmic, magical and harmonious, with its worms, insects, birds, and other living things, all apparently insignificant creatures, telling us their secrets.”

And here is one about his mother; the lingering sadness and disappointment of her life is so poignant:

“Before getting to my mother’s house, I would always think of her on the porch or even on the street, sweeping. She had a light way of sweeping, as if removing the dirt were not as important as moving the broom over the ground. Her way of sweeping was symbolic; so airy, so fragile, with a broom she tried to sweep away all the horrors, all the loneliness, all the misery that had accompanied her all her life…”

Colourful architecture of Havana. Photo found here.

At one point he moved from his little village to the city of Holguín, and in 1963 he won Fidel Castro’s scholarship and moved to Havana to study at the School of Planification. Later he studied literature and philosophy at the Unversidad de La Habana, but left the course without completing a degree. Ever since he first visited Havana, Arenas felt drawn to it, he felt it is the place to be: a big vibrant city where no one knows your name, a place far away from the poverty of the countryside. There he meets many interesting people: bohemians, painters, eccentrics and fellow writers such as Eliseo Diego and Lezama Lima. Arenas’s time spent in the sixties Havana was a vibrant and a happy period of his life, filled with sexual escapades, swimming, spending evenings at the famous cabaret Tropicana. There were three things he enjoyed in the early sixties: his typewriter, countless young men (fulfilling lust was a path to liberty because it was anti-regime), and the full discovery of the sea. Arenas wrote that sitting down and writing was a special experience and that the rhythm of his typing would inspire him and chapters would come like waves of the sea, first strong and wild then silent and slow. Many pages are devoted to descriptions of his writing and wild parties where everyone brought their notebooks, wrote poems or chapters of novels which they would then read to each other and, of course, made love. As Reinaldo said: literature and passion went hand in hand.

But things changed in the late sixties when Reinaldo’s openly gay lifestyle and his writing fell out of favour with the Communist regime. He had to hide his manuscripts and his novels were published abroad with the help of his French friends. In 1974 he was arrested and sent to prison. After he escaped from prison and tried to flee Cuba he was arrested again and sent to the notorious prison called El Morro Castle where he lived in gruesome circumstances. There’s a great scene in the film where in the middle of a dirty prison cell and loud inmates, Reinaldo is shown writing. Nothing could stop him from creating; hunger, imprisonment, illness. Creative expression was everything. While he was in prison he organised French lessons and helped his inmates by writing love letters to their girlfriends or wives. If you’re looking for self-pity, you won’t find it on any page of Before Night Falls.

Peder Severin Krøyer,Summer evening at the South Beach, 1893

Winslow Homer – Sponge Fishermen, Bahamas, 1885

And here is an explanation for the book’s title ‘Before Night Falls’ (original: Antes que anochezca: autobiografía):

‘Being a fugitive living in the woods at the time, I had to write before it got dark. Now darkness was approaching again, only more insidiously. It was the dark night of death. I really had to finish my memoirs before nightfall. I took it as a challenge.’

There is such a romanticism about Reinaldo’s life; the way he was never spiritless despite the hardships, imprisonments and betrayals of people he considered to be friends. It seems like nothing could really get him down, and he never wasted time but wrote, wrote and wrote. He lived for his writing, everything else came second, and despite his relatively short life his oeuvre proves his fruitfulness as an artist. Particularly interesting was to read about the creation of his novel “Farewell to the Sea” (Otra vez el mar). I honestly can’t even remember how many times he wrote that novel but every time the manuscript would get lost, stolen, burnt, you name it. And you know what he did? He started writing it again.

In 1987 Reinaldo was diagnosed with AIDS. On 7th December 1990 he died after an intentional overdose on alcohol and drugs. His decision to end his life instead of passively waiting for death is summed in this quote: “I have always considered it despicable to to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.”

In this photo you can see the man himself.

To close this ode to Reinaldo, here is another interesting thing, an interview from 1983 which you can read here. Here is a fragment from the beginning, the interviewer’s impression of Reinaldo: “Though I was nervous about meeting the great man, one of Cuba’s most admired writers, Arenas immediately put me at ease. “Encantado,” he said, smiling and taking my hand. Forty years old at the time, he had thick, curly black hair and enormous, sad eyes…”

I was especially interested to hear about his writing process and choosing different styles of writing for different scenes:

“If there’s a moment—as in my novel “Farewell to the Sea”—where you want to satirize all the uniforms, swords, and so forth of a dictator, you can do a caricature of the baroque. If you’re describing the characters’ nightmares, that may be the time for surrealism. All of these techniques or styles can come into play as you realize your vision. (…) But there’s a moment for every style. That’s why I advocate an eclectic technique.”

I loved this book because I felt as if I was on a journey with Arenas, through space and time. I loved it because of its wild and sincere yearning to live life to the fullest, to write and create and breathe and be excited by the sight of the sea for the thousandth time. In his last letter, Arenas wrote: “I end my life voluntarily because I cannot continue working … I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.

I see this book as a gift from Reinaldo, it gave me hope and assured me in my opinion that there is nothing more elevating than suffering and struggling for art.

Story Inspiration – Melancholy, Sea, Nocturne

22 Jul

A while ago I started writing a short story. Since I am an expert in starting things without finishing them, I eagerly hope to finish this one. These pictures are the ‘aesthetic’ of the story; they are here to inspire me, and hopefully you’ll find it interesting too. Enjoy!

Photo found here.

Photo by Molly Dean.

Photo found here.

Photo found here.

Photo found here.

Photo found here.

Photo found here.