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Ghostly Pastel Portraits by John Corbet

2 May

These ghostly pastels by a contemporary artist John Corbet recently caught my attention. I was speechless at first and captivated by these eerie and mysterious portraits which kept haunting me until I felt compelled to write about them. Their faces seem mute and haunting, but if you look at them more closely, you will know that each has a story to tell.

Pastel Ghost Bearing Flowers

In Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human”, which is one of my favourite books ever, the main character Oba Yozo revels in secretly making ghostly self-portraits which he doesn’t show to anyone, except in that one rare occasion when he shows it to his friend Takeichi, the only person he thinks could possibly understand the strangeness of his art. It was Takeichi who started the topic of “ghost pictures” in the first place:

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. (…) I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

Ghost Portrait: The Monk

The idea of “ghost pictures” immediately struck me and long after I had finished reading the novel it lingered on my mind. Since that moment, I have been searching for art that has the same ghostly quality and mood. I found it in the elongated melancholic faces of Modigliani’s women, George Seurat’s conté crayon shadowy figures, and now again in these pastel portraits by John Corbet. The pastel above called “The Monk” instantly captivated me because the face is so shadowy and undefined; it looks haunting and mute, and yet, when I gaze in those eyes and that mouth, so black and small against the yellowish face, I have a feeling that he longs to speak and that if I gazed at his face long enough, I would hear the words in a hushed lonely voice coming from some other realm, in a language unknown to my ears. Notice the soft thrilling touches of blue on his face. This deliberate vagueness of expression and the soft undefined contours give these portraits their allure and the ghostly quality because one can tell they are not just ordinary portraits of people. Unmistakably they belong to some other world, whether it’s the invisible world of the spirits all around us, or the realm of dreams. Theme of ghosts or otherworldly creatures is dear to my heart. I often have nightmares, and the world I inhabit there is dark, chilling and filled with shadowy ghostly creatures whose faces I have never seen, but something tells me they would look similar to these pastels, especially the first one.

The thing that connects the “ghost pictures” discussed in the book with these pastels is the deep and profound way in which both artists see and feel the world around them and their willingness to see beyond the borders of this visible, material world, and the ability to transcend it with the help of their imagination and come back with art that is woven with mystique and secrets. A ghost picture needn’t always be a portrayal of someone departed, it is more about the ghostly quality in a portrait; a face which appears ethereal and slightly eerie to our human eyes, a face which brings inside us the feeling of transience and the fragility of life, a face which fills us with an inexplicable melancholy and reminds us of the mysteries of the spiritual world, and ultimately, a face which haunts us, shakes us and stirs something inside us which we cannot rationally explain. Ghostly faces on John Corbet’s pastels, whether it’s the melancholy monk or the spooky girl holding flowers above, or the lavender-haired lady and the sad-eyed messy haired girl bellow, all awake these feelings inside me when I look at them.

Pastel Ghost No 2: Mama

I love the way these pastels seem to have been drawn, in a spontaneous and intuitive way, as if led by an invisible hand – a ghostly hand. My initial impression isn’t so far from the truth and the way Corbet actually created these pastels; in semi darkness, near a dim candle, in a kind of trance; letting his soul guide his hand and his pastel, not the eyes alone. I also love the dreamy softness of these faces, especially on the pastel called “Mama”. It makes the face seem as if it is seen through a veil, a flimsy curtain, or a foggy window on an autumn twilight. These languid ghostly creatures seem as if they are slowly passing through our world, unnoticed by most and captured in art by those with sharper senses. These were my impressions of these ghostly portraits, but I suggest you check out the artist’s short and lyrical posts written in a form of letters to Edgar Allan Poe which further explore the personal meaning and inspiration behind these artworks. I am sure Mr Poe himself would love these portraits and would recognise their mysterious quality, he did after all discuss one painting and the artist’s quest for perfection in his short story “The Oval Portrait”. Here is an excerpt from the post about the pastel “The Monk”, you can read the whole post here:

As you so wisely suggested, I took my box of pastels and a few sheets of paper and visited the graveyard. I sat there for sometime from twilight to midnight, but nothing appeared. I was tired so finally I decided to go back. (…) As I quickened my pace I saw a figure in a black coat, walking towards me on the other side of the bridge. It was a fine coat he wore, he was no beggar, yet his face seemed like an old tree beaten by years and years of storms. As he passed by me he did not look at me, but I saw his eyes, and in them was the poetic wisdom of sorrow and loss. He was either a monk, or a poet. I turned to watch him leave, and once he crossed the bridge the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and like magic the fog cleared and the wind calmed – and he was gone.

As soon as I got home I opened my box of pastels and got to work on drawing the ghostly apparition and the wind and rain which pursued him. For the first time, it was like the pastels took on a life of their own, as though my hand were guided by a spirit – could it have been, Mr. Poe, the spirit of the monk? It was dark for I had but one candle lit, therefore I could just barely see what I was doing; the painting seemed to paint itself. The experience brought me such peace within, as though I were bringing consolation to the sorrow within his eyes. This, in turn, brought consolation to me.

I especially like this line: the painting seemed to paint itself.

Conté crayon ghostly portrait

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