Tag Archives: self-portrait

Vincent van Gogh’s Birthday – The Prettiest Star

30 Mar

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888

Vincent van Gogh; a passionate and eccentric individual in his time, and a well-known and beloved artist today, was born on this day, 30th March, in 1853. The date of his birth seems so fitting; it’s the time of the year when pink and white blossoms of cherry, pear and apple trees grace the landscape and invite us to dream, it’s the moment of the year when nature shows its strength by winning a battle against winter, the sun shines on the frozen soil, melts the snow and invites the little snowdrops and primroses to bloom, the birds are returning from foreign lands…

Vincent, I know you were not appreciated in your time, but I look at your paintings with ardour, I feel them; I feel rapture from those intoxicating yellows and playful blues, I love your mischievous cypresses, starry nights, blossoming trees, and lonely wheat fields, I love your letters – the windows to your soul, and above all, I love the “lust for life” energy that emerges from the canvases and speaks to my heart and soul, and to many and many hearts out there. Thank you for existing and painting, even if it was such a short time, but aren’t we all here on earth for such a short time, compared to eternity?

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the beauty that Vincent has created in his short life; gaze at his paintings, read his letters, daydream about his starry skies and trees in bloom, feel the ecstasy that he has created in those vibrant colours and think of him because his soul is the prettiest star!

Happy birthday, Vincent van Gogh!

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, repetition of the 4th version (yellow background), August 1889

Vincent, you are not forgotten!

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Frida Kahlo – Love, Flowers, Pain

4 Nov

In 1938 French Surrealist poet André Breton visited Mexico and upon seeing the paintings of the young artist Frida Kahlo he classified them as works of surrealism which is something she herself denied by saying: “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” And indeed, by looking at her paintings and following the events in her life, the parallel is unmistakable. Frida used art as a diary; she used brush and paint instead of a pen and jotted down her feelings, her anguish, her memories, her sense of identity in a similar way that Anais Nin did in her diaries, and Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath did in their poems. Looking at Frida’s paintings inevitably draws us into her inner world because the two are inseparable; the viewer yearns to know more about her life and the meaning behind the symbols and motifs she painted. I see her paintings as poetic scenes, verses in vibrant colours, and although they may seem surreal, they are always sincere and woven with depths of her feelings.

Frida Kahlo With Classic Magenta Rebozo, Nickolas Muray, 1939

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

Two things that shaped the life and art of Frida Kahlo were her love for a fellow painter Diego Rivera and “the accident”. Love and pain; two sensations so intermingled that the first one can’t possibly live without the other. In her own words: “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Pain and love followed her like shadows. When she was six years old, she contracted polio and that left her with one leg shorter than the other; she would later hide this defect by wearing man’s clothes or long traditional Mexican gowns. The illness helped to create a strong bond with her father Guillermo who was also of poor health. Although her relationship with her mother was somewhat strained and distanced, Frida loved her father and described him as being tender and understanding. Guillermo was a photographer and not only did he take pictures of his daughter and talked to her about philosophy, nature and literature, but he also encouraged her to practise sport as a way of regaining her health and he inspired her artistic explorations. Little Frida filled notebooks with sketches but never considered art as a profession until “the accident” occurred: on 17 September 1925 she was riding a bus home from school with her boyfriend and the bus collided with a streetcar. A few people died and Frida suffered nearly fatal injuries; she fractured several bones and was confined to bed for three months. Her dreams of being a doctor crashed, and, in solitude, pain and fatigue, She found comfort from solitude, fatigue and pain in painting. An easel was placed specially so that she would paint laying in the bed and she had a mirror so she could see herself.

Frida Kahlo, Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931

By 1927 Frida’s health was recovered and she reconnected with her old school friends and joined the Mexican Communist Party. An old school friend introduced her to a group of artists and activists who were gathered around the Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella. On a party held in June 1928 by Mella’s lover Tina Modotti, an Italian-American photographer, Frida met Diego Rivera who was a well-known artist by that time. She had met him once before when he worked on a mural in her school “Escuela National Preparatoria”. Frida wanted to show him her paintings and longed to hear his opinion. Rivera liked what he saw and he encouraged her to pursue career as an artist, stating that her work possessed: “an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity … They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own … It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist”.

Diego and Frida married on 21 August 1929: she was twenty two years old, he was forty-two. Their love story is one of the most well known in the world of art and the double-portrait above is actually their wedding portrait made by Kahlo. It looks almost grotesque and deliberately exaggerated in proportions, but it presents the truth. Rivera, a tall and over-weight artist and a womaniser with his feet strongly on the ground is shown holding a tiny hand of his petite and fragile artist-wife; his doll, his little girl; his “muñeca”, his “niña”.

Frida painted Diego with a palette and brushes in his right hand, and herself merely as a companion to the artist. Looking at the portrait, one would never guess that this fragile, timid, gentle looking thing in a dark green dress and a long red scarf, looking so small and gentle compared to the robust and grandeurs artist, was actually an artist herself whose fame today exceeds that of her husband. It might be hard to understand what exactly Frida liked about Rivera; his temperament, his physical ugliness, his eyes that easily wandered to other women (including her younger sister), his age, and yet she adored him, worshipped him. She once wrote: Diego era todo: mi niño, mi amor, mi universo.(Diego was my everything: my child, my lover, my universe.) Frida’s parents referred to the union as the “marriage between an elephant and a dove”. Judging by the portrait and the photographs below – they were right.

“I love you more than my own skin and even though you don’t love me the same way, you love me anyways, don’t you? And if you don’t, I’ll always have the hope that you do, and I’m satisfied with that. Love me a little. I adore you.” (Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.” (Letter from Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera)

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas), 1939

Frida and Diego’s marriage was turbulent to say the least. In 1939 their divorce was being finalised. It was Diego who wanted a divorce, and Frida was very melancholic and very lonely. To hush the anguish in her heart, she drank alcohol and painted furiously because she resolved never to be financially depended on a man again. This fruitful artistic period resulted in a series of self-portraits. Painting “Two Fridas” was also made around the time they divorced and it is perhaps the most symbolic of that period in her life and her feelings at the moment. It unites the subjects of love and pain, and it’s also a psychological study of her identity and ancestry. It shows just how childlike, deep and sincere her art was because it deals with her feelings directly, without hesitation or tendency towards snobbish avant-garde, her style is at the same time inspired by naive art, and self-invented and her own.

On the left we see the European Frida: dressed in a white Edwardian gown with lace on her bodice and collar, and a living pulsating wounded heart; she has a pair of scissors in her hand. On the right we see the Mexican Frida: dressed in a traditional Tehuana dress; in her hand she’s holding a little portrait of Diego as a child. The European Frida shows her father’s ancestry who was a German Jew. The Mexican Frida shows the culture that Frida embraced and the Frida that Diego loved. The hearts of two Fridas are connected by one artery and the heart of European Frida is aching, bleeding, falling apart, dying. Diego has rejected the European Frida and she is dying. He thought that: “Mexican women who do not wear [Mexican clothing] … are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong.” And so Frida loved to emphasise her mestiza ancestry by wearing traditional Mexican peasant dresses, traditional elaborate hairstyles with braids and flowers and adorn herself with jewellery. Her exotic appearance showed quite a sensation when she was in New York in October 1938. Frida’s exoticism in the eyes of western people, her peculiar expressive self portraits with eyebrows that meet and flowers in her hair are things that first come to mind to people when they think about her.

Still, with paintings as personal as these, I feel it is almost a sacrilege to butcher their meanings and make one’s own assumptions of their meaning. Frida said for this particular painting that it represents her and her imaginary childhood friend. It is this emotional and diary-like aspect of her art that appeals to me, but the overall style and colours are not really my taste.

Frida Kahlo, Memory (The Heart), 1937

Painting “Memory (The Heart)”, painted during Diego’s affair with Frida’s younger sister, also shows her pain inflicted by love. Her heart is painted disproportionally large and shown bleeding.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego in My houghts), 1943

In the painting above, Frida shows us that Diego was always on her mind, literally so – he is tattooed on her forehead! Could it be more direct?

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, 1940

“I am that clumsy human, always loving, loving, loving. And loving. And never leaving. (Fridas’ diary entry)

Egon Schiele – Neuelengbach Affair – Martyr for the Cause of Art: Part II

25 Apr

I do not deny that I have made drawings and watercolours of an erotic nature. But they are always works of art. Are there no artists who have done erotic pictures?” (Egon Schiele)

Egon Schiele, Prisoner (Gefangener), 24-4-1912

What are the two most important things that happened in April 1912? I shall tell you; Titanic sank and Egon Schiele was arrested. “Neulengbach Affair” is the name given to the string of events which took place in April 1912, and this affair holds an important place in the romanticised myth of Schiele as a tortured genius and a painter of perversity.

In the first part of this post, I’ve written about things that Schiele painted in Neulengbach; self-portraits, Wally, landscapes, and a very interesting Van Gogh-inspired painting of his bedroom, but he also did many erotic drawings, which was his primary subject. Schiele’s studio became a gathering place for the misfits, the delinquency, the mischievous children of Neulengbach, and he’d often paint them too. Sometimes, after he’d finished painting Wally, he’d let the children play around his house while carelessly or naively leaving his erotic drawings around the studio. Older children, who weren’t so innocent any more, started whispering things, and soon gossips and accusations started spreading through this peaceful town. All sorts of disgusting things have been said; that he invited children to his house, painted them nude and encouraged them to do improper things. While the people of Krumau disliked Schiele for no apparent reason, the inhabitants of Neulengbach at least had a motif to hate him, and soon complaints were made to the police. On 13th April 1912, Schiele was arrested and charged for seducing and abducting a minor, and exhibiting erotic paintings in front of children; only the latter has proven to be true.

Although the charges of abduction and seduction were quickly dropped when Schiele appeared in court after two weeks in prison, a large amount of erotic drawings found around the house certainly didn’t please the police, nor the town’s people, nor served good to Schiele. They confiscated more than a hundred of them and filed them under ‘pornography’.

Egon Schiele, Tür in das Offene (Doors in the Cell), 1912

The judge obviously shared the views of town’s inhabitants towards Schiele and his art because, at the end of the trial, he burned one of his drawings on a flickering candle flame, a gesture I find heartbreaking and could not watch without tears of anger. They burnt his drawing. They could have burnt all of his drawings, but the hands that made them were alive and full of vigour to produce more masterpieces, and they did. The Neulengbach affair only propelled Schiele to fame. Sometimes the ‘Neulengbach affair’ takes too much spaces in the myth of Egon Schiele, but it is important in a way that it cemented Schiele’s image as notorious figure in Vienna’s artistic circles. Just twenty-two years old and already the image of him as a dangerous and a provocative artist started spreading in Vienna. The myth of Schiele has started.

This is a fragment from “Schiele’s” prison-journal:

At the hearing one of my confiscated drawings, the one that had hung in my bedroom, was solemnly burned over a candle flame by the judge in his robes! Auto-da-fé! Savonarola! Inquisition! Middle Ages! Castration, hypocrisy! Go then to the museums and cut up the greatest works of art into little pieces. He who denies sex is a filthy person who smears in the lowest way his own parents who have begotten him.

A note: the journal is true to some extent, but it needs to be taken with reserve because it was not written by Schiele himself, rather, it was written by Arthur Roessler, an art critic and friend of Schiele.

What started as just an artist making erotic drawings, turned into sinister stories of abduction and seduction, but when it comes to the bottom of things, people of Neulengbach didn’t like him because he was different. In small towns the story goes like this: if you don’t fit in, you’re going down, if you dare to be different, you’ll get punished for that. I think that even if Schiele restricted himself to painting only landscapes and sunflowers, they’d still find something to accuse him of.

Egon Schiele, Self-portrait as prisoner, 25 April 1912

All in all, Schiele spent 24 days in prison, and while he was there, he wasted no time, but continued creating his art. Supplied by Wally with thin, bad quality paper and food, such as oranges, he drew his surroundings and many self-portraits. Don’t think he drew frantically day and night, he also spent many hours in deep thoughts and contemplation, and his self-portraits show the agony and torment the artist endured. Drawing above is a good example. In the upper right corner, Schiele wrote this: “Ich werde für die Kunst und meine Geliebten gerne ausharren” or “For my art and my loved ones I shall gladly endure.” Watercolour of greys and blue, anguished face in an agony, and yet he states he shall gladly endure. Schiele was full of such statements, elevated and full of pathos such as “I do not feel punished, but rather purified.” and my favourite “To restrict the artist is a crime. It is to murder germinating life“, which show what a drama queen he really was.

In these drawings, the cold greyness of his prison cell mingles with eloquently expressed angst and torment, and that’s what makes these prison-portraits so memorable. They are like a visual diary. Pencil lines and watercolour work in absolute harmony and the gradation of the blue-grey colour is gorgeous, like the sky and clouds on an overcast day, and the parts where the greyness mixes with orange-yellows is exquisite. I think watercolours in general are an excellent medium, I love the effect of lyricism and fragility they create, colours mixing freely, kissing one another and creating a new shade, there’s something bohemian about it. Another very interesting thing about these self-portraits is that they are the only self-portraits Schiele ever made using his memory, without a mirror. In his studio, he’d always use a mirror. But notice how old he looks in most of these drawings, he was just two months shy of his twenty-second birthday and yet he drew himself looking old, tired, worn out, and on the self-portrait down below, he almost looks dead, or at least creepy.

Egon Schiele, The Single Orange Was the Only Light, 19th April 1912

Along with self-portraits of himself as a prisoner, Schiele also drew his prison cell, and in The Single Orange Was the Only Light we see his bed and the doors of the cell. His pillow is actually his coat folded to serve the purpose of a pillow, and we see his blanket and one orange. We can understand the importance he attributes to a piece of shiny, orange-coloured fruit, given to him by Wally, if we think of his drab prison existence; the lonely hours filled with uncertainty in that cold, grey prison cell, sleeping in an uncomfortable bed, staring at barren walls, covered with a mangy blanket. It’s also great that we can know the exact dates these were made. No matter how rebellious and provocative he was, when it came to adding signatures and dates to his paintings, he was the most meticulous fellow out there.

I think Schiele himself had mixed feelings about his prison-time. One the one hand, he was worried about the outcome of his imprisonment because the prospects looked bleak in the beginning; exhibiting erotica was considered a serious offence with a maximal punishment of six month’ hard labour, while the offence of seducing a minor would result in twenty years of hard labour. From April 1912, Schiele had only six more years to spend on this earth. Imagine if he’d have to spent them all in prison. What a dreadful crime against art that would have been!? I shudder at the thought.

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait as St. Sebastian, 1914

On the other hand, for the dramatic, self-pitying side of Schiele’s personality, those three weeks spent in prison were just the thing that was needed to make him a true martyr for the cause of art. I’m sure that Serge Gainsbourg has a self-satisfied smirk on his face when he heard that the eroticism of his song ‘Je t’aime’ was deemed offensive and that the song was banned in many countries. He said himself once that provocation was his oxygen, and I think Schiele felt something similar because he was self-consciously provocative. Perhaps that’s just my view because I’d certainly enjoy being provocative. Schiele wrote himself that he feels ‘purified, not punished’, and he identified himself with St Sebastian, who is always presented in art with arrows; this is an identification that he shared with the German poet Georg Trakl, and both wrote similar poetry, full of anxiety and symbolism at the same time. Schiele’s yet another self-portrait from 1914 shows this fascination and identification with St Sebastian; he drew himself as a thin, fragile figure with half-closed eyes, almost falling down from the attack of the two arrows protruding his body. He didn’t fill in the drawing with watercolour, yet the paper and pencil lines are eloquent enough to tell us about the anguish he felt. No colour – no life. No colour because he’s fading away.

Egon Schiele, I Love Antitheses (self-portrait), 1912

All in all, the Neulengbach affair that seemed like a tragedy at first sight, turned out to be a stepping stone for Schiele’s career and it started the cult of Schiele as a tortured genius who endured suffering for his art – a martyr of art. After the darkness, followed the light. Schiele has risen from the ashes and once again he was arrogant, brazen, bursting with confidence, and the words he wrote to his mother in March 1913 confirm that a fruitful period lay in front of him: “All beautiful and noble qualities have been united in me… I shall be the fruit which will leave eternal vitality behind even after its decay. How great must be your joy, therefore, to have given birth to me!”

Egon Schiele – Neuelengbach Affair – Martyr for the Cause of Art: Part I

21 Apr

This is the first out of two posts which will explore Egon Schiele’s artistic endeavours in a small town of Neulengbach and his time spent in prison for his erotic drawings.

Egon Schiele, Nude against coloured background, 1911

As I already wrote in my post about Egon Schiele’s Krumau Scenes, small towns and suburbs held a particular charm for this artist, and even before coming to Krumau in May 1910, just a month shy of his twentieth birthday, he’d dreamt of an artistic paradise in some small town where he could afford to rent a cheap studio and be surrounded by nature all day long. Also, he wanted to escape the dark city full of shadows – Vienna, or that is at least how he saw it. Krumau was the birthplace of his mother and that’s why it caught his attention. He first visited the place with his painter-friends; Anton Peschka and Ervin Osen, and then, in May 1911, he settled in a little house near the river Vltava (Moldau) with his new model, lover and a muse – Wally Neuzil. He painted her in the studio, and he also painted a lot of landscapes, capturing the densely situated colourful houses, emphasising their decaying mood, and sunflowers too.

Need I mention that the inhabitants of this little, dreamy, provincial town weren’t really pleased with having a cocky artist living in sin with his pretty little red-haired muse? Town had its charm indeed and Schiele produced some good paintings there, but their heaven came to an end sometime in July 1911, when he wrote to Roessler: “You know how much I like to be in Krumau and now life is made impossible. People boycott us simply because we’re red. Of course I could defend myself, even against all 7,000 of them, but I don’t have the time and why should I bother?” Term ‘red’ was used for a person not going to church. And so Schiele and Wally returned to Vienna.

Egon Schiele, The Self Seers (Death and Man), 1911

Schiele’s longing for a peaceful and creative mood of a small town or a village is so naive in my eyes. Yes, nature is beautiful, but the mood of a small town, the provincial claustrophobia, the judgemental and simple-minded people, there’s no beauty in that, and I should know. People of Krumau, in Schiele’s time, were a bunch of intolerant, simple-minded fools who probably couldn’t understand his art if their lives depended on it, but wait till you hear what happened in Neulengbach.

Schiele spent only a month in Vienna and already started looking for a new rural paradise where his art would thrive, and he found it very near Vienna, just 35 km away or a short train ride, a town of Neulengbach. Paintings that he made there are very interesting; dark, disturbing, painted with thick heavy brushstrokes in scarce, murky colours they are heavily influenced by the late nineteenth century Symbolist paintings. Just reading the titles of his paintings from these years, such as ‘Dead Mother’, ‘Prophet’ or ‘Pregnant Woman and Death’, gives us a sense of dark times and some serious questioning of life and meaning of existence, and while that may be true to a point, I can’t know what was in his head, his time in Neulengbach was actually a rather happy and productive time.

Painting The Self-Seers is a good example of things that he painted in Neulengbach, and it unites Schiele’s obsession with himself and his interest in morbid themes. Did I mention that he was immensely fascinated with himself? He painted many self-portraits; in some he presented himself in a wild embrace with death, in others – simply masturbating, but in this rather sinister self-portrait he painted himself with his Doppelgänger, the person’s exact double, and a very popular motif in German literature of Romanticism, but also in works of Shelley and Poe. Colours of mud, face expressions unsettling, fingers in a strange position, brushstrokes heavy; like the fingers of a corpse scratching its way from the coffin through the moist loam. While his drawings ooze lightness and colourfulness, his paintings are dark and distorted, like they grew from the muddy, scarce, infertile soil after the rain.

Egon Schiele, The Artist’s Room in Neulengbach, 1911

Perhaps the most important and most interesting of Schiele’s works created in Neulengbach is the painting The Artist’s Room in Neulengbach which obviously took inspiration from Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles painted in 1888. In both cases, artists painted the bedrooms of their artistic havens. People of Arles and Neulengbach ought to have been privileged that an artist came to live and work in their town, but needless to say that they weren’t.

We can’t help notice the sombre and claustrophobic mood of his bedroom; high viewpoint, the usual palette of browns, black, a bit of yellow and muted red, all intensify the tense and static mood of the room which doesn’t seem that much different to that of a prison cell. Schiele again presents us with his nihilistic vision of the world, and his bedroom, no matter what it looked like in reality, is presented here looking as drab and miserable as the bedroom of Gregor Samsa from Kafka’s Metamorphosis must have looked like. In comparison, Van Gogh’s bedroom bursts with colour and frenzy. Ah, you know what it’s like, bright sun of Arles and some absinthe, and the world appears before your eyes in colours of a rainbow! In van Gogh – it’s passion and vigour, in Schiele – it’s death and decay.

While van Gogh’s room is oil on canvas, Schiele’s painting was made on a smooth piece of wood with colour being applied in many thin layers producing a kind of enamel effect. He made several paintings in this technique, and he called them ‘Bretterl’ or ‘little boards’.

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, 1888

In the following post you’ll find out why he was imprisoned and the effect his time in prison had on his art and the cult of him as a provocative artist. To be continued 🙂