Tag Archives: skeleton

Gustav Adolf Mossa – Symbolist Phase

7 Feb

“Then, O my beauty! You will say to the vermin,
Which will devour you with kisses,
That I have preserved the form and essence divine
Of my decayed loves!”

(Charles Baudelaire, Carcass)

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, The Dead Women (Les Mortes), 1908

Gustav Adolfo Mossa, a French painter born in Nice in 1883 to an Italian mother and an artist father, spent his late teens and most of his twenties painting in a Symbolist style and so that first artistic period in Mossa’s oeuvre is called the “Symbolist period” and it lasted from about 1900 to 1911. Later, upon moving to Bruges, he discovered Flemish paintings and his art drifted in another direction. In his Symbolist phase Mossa created a macabre and disturbing yet vibrant world littered with femme fatales and saints, heroes and heroines from Shakespeare, and just random skeletons. Mossa was introduced to the Symbolist art at the Exposition Universelle which he visited in 1900 and after that moment all the inspiration that was mounting in his teenage soul, taken from Art Nouveau and the literary works of Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Mallarmé, suddenly flourished in these watercolours which are all so captivating and full of interesting details. I always felt drown to the spirit of Symbolism, and yet the way these ideas were manifested in the visual arts wasn’t very appealing to me. Now, in the art of Mossa, I found what I was looking for. I love how the classic, well-known themes in art are transformed by Mossa into a festival of blood, bones, lust and roses. The delicacy of watercolour mixed with somewhat gruesome or eerie themes is especially entrancing. The beauty of the Symbolist phase of Mossa’s art is that it both disturbs and bewilders the soul. In “The Dead Women” we see the faces of fashionable ladies after the vermins had devoured them with their kisses; the velvet smooth skin, the rosy cheeks are now all eaten away and the grey skull appears – what a contrast to the radiant blueness of their dresses and the elegance of their hats. Tall and dark cypress trees in the background look gloomy and foreboding, as they do in real life.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Salome, 1901

In the watercolour “Salome” the severed, bloodied heads spring from the most fragrant and delicate pink roses, Salome seductively licks the blade of the very sword which had severed them. Dressed in a loose white nightgown with one breast exposed, her pale flesh is revealed, her hand adorned with rings, not a trace of remorse colours her face.

Gustave Adolphe Mossa, Hamlet and the Skull, 1909, Black chalk, pen and ink, watercolour and gouache on paper, 46.2 x 28 cm

Hamlet, a solitary figure under a grey sky and clouds as heavy as lead, his figure is elongated like the figures in early Renaissance art, he is holding an exaggaretedly large skull in his hands, a cup next to his feet with spilt wine – or is it blood? The town is sleeping in the distance, the tower looming as a threat, hundreds of little windows are like dark empty eye sockets ready to swallow who ever dares to gander upon them for too long.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, La chasse de Sainte Ursule, date unknown

Saint Ursula standing on the shore of a river with snow-white swans next to her feet. Dozens or arrows are flying her way, ready to pierce her virginal flesh, but her face reveals not a sign of worry, it is as serene and pale as can be, her golden hair makes one think more of a fairy than of a saint; she is above it all, shielded from the arrows by her heavy robe, nothing can touch her.

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, Valse Macabre, 1906

In “Valse Macabre” the fin de siecle fascination with Eros and Thanatos are united, a skeleton and a femme fatale with fashionably voluminous hair are locked in a kiss, their bodies intertwined, the breath of the death coming from the graveyard in the distance has extinguished the tall white candles, the lady’s gaze seems to say:

It is eternity when your kiss grazes me,

My heart, my heart rises,

ah! so high that it flies away.

(Remy de Gourmont, Hieroglyphs)

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Pierrot, 1906

Pierrot is wandering the old rotting town with a dagger in his hand and a mad look in his eyes, a face of sleepless night and madness, his under eye circles darker than the dark waters of the canals in Bruges. St Sebastian looks less like a saint and more like a charming boy, his poor, tortured body is convulsing in pain from the arrows while the crow is feasting on his eyes.

 

Gustav Adolf Mossa, Sebastian Martyr, 1907

Juan de Valdés Leal – In Ictu Oculi

4 Feb

“Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness.

Everything passes.

This is the one and only thing I have thought resembled a truth in society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell.

Everything passes.

(Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human)

Juan de Valdés Leal (1622 – 1690), In Ictu Oculi, 1670-1672

In 1670-72 Spanish Baroque painter Juan de Valdés Leal was commissioned by the Brotherhood of Charity to paint two paintings, “In Ictu Oculi” and “Finis gloriae mundi”, for the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville. The sombre and dark paintings fit perfectly with the mood that characterised the sixteenth century in Spain. The “vanitas” genre of painting captures the mood of the times because it unites the themes of the religious spirit bordering with fanaticism, the fascination with death and the obsession with the transience of earthly life. A dark, dramatic and foreboding atmosphere is seeping out of this painting like spilt ink colouring the white paper in the sea of darkness. Arising from the dark background is the figure of a grim reaper who is holding a scythe and a coffin and with his right hand pointing at the letters written above a candlestick “In ictu oculi” meaning “in the blink of an eye”. How nice of the grim reaper to point out the title of the painting for us. His left foot is standing on the globe; how very dainty. Bellow the grim reaper stretches a cluttered landscape of earthly life, filled with material possession such as books, globe, jewellery, crowns; everything that the soul cannot take to the spiritual realm. The colours – hushed down, sombre, faded, apart from that shiny pink and red – serve to convey the mystical and dark mood. Motif of transience was all the rage in the Spanish Baroque poetry and here is a poem by Pedro Calderon de la Barca called “These flowers, whose pomp“:

THESE flowers, whose pomp was joyous to behold,
When the white dawn awoke them out of sleep,
At eve shall be a ruin fit to weep,
Lulled in the darkling night’s embraces cold.
This posy bright with listed hues of gold,
Snow-white and purple, rivalling heaven’s bow,
Will be a warning to our life below;
So doth one day its little life enfold.

To flower, the rose displayed her buds at morn,
And to grow old and wither, did she flower;
One is her cradle and her grave forlorn.
So men behold brief fortune’s earthly dower,
To die upon the day when they were born,
For the past ages are but as an hour.

The verse “the past ages are but as an hour” goes well with the motif of the painting “In Ictu Oculi”; a rose blooms and withers quickly, compared to the rose our human life is long, but compared to eternity it is not. We are surrounded by things that remind us of transience and yet we dread it the most. The other painting, “Finis Gloriae Mundi”, further emphasises not only the passing of everything on earth but also the pointlessness of success, reputation and everything humans spend (or waste?) their life chasing after. The main part of the painting are the two coffins positioned in different directions and they hold the rotting, decaying bodies of a bishop and a knight who both enjoyed fame and repute, though of a different nature, but are both now – dead. In the dark background, another skeleton and a pile of bones and skulls are also painted. Can things get any creepier here? There are times and day when nostalgic thoughts and trips down memory lanes rip my heart in two, but on other occasions thoughts of transience fill me with bewilderment and passion at once because if life passes quickly, if “life is a dream” as Calderon de la Barca wrote, then why waste a single second of it not enjoying it, not being ecstatic that you are alive – while you are alive. In a second you’ll be ashes, so rejoice while you can.

Juan de Valdés Leal, Finis gloriae mundi, 1672

Skeleton Lover

25 Dec

These dreamy photographs I recently discovered are exactly my cup of the tea. I have already written about the fascinating and macabre yet very popular motif in art, the Death and the Maiden, and these pictures seem to be continuing with the same theme. Something that always comes to mind in connection to young girl’s beauty and mortality is a short story “Edward Fane’s Rosebud” by Nathaniel Hawthorne where the beautiful young maiden Rose is faced with mortality for the first time and Hawthorne describes it very poetically:

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

The young, rosy-cheeked girl dressed in white and the skeleton lover who adores her; they are such a lovely couple, wouldn’t you concur? I must say that this skeleton looks more charming and … shall I say handsome than the ones painted by Hans Baldung Grien.

Pictures found here.