Tag Archives: Suzanne Valadon

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – The Hangover

22 Apr

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Hangover, 1888

These days I am listening to Bruce Springsteen a lot, in particular the album “Born in the U.S.A.”, but I am also finding new songs that I am obsessed about. Apart from the wonderful music alone, I love how the lyrics often tell a story and romanticise the harshness of day to day working class life, but the songs also have a hopeful undertone because they show the beauty that lies in struggle. All these songs about restless youth who wants to escape the boredom of their small towns, or heartbroken men working down at the car wash, or two men talking in a bar reminiscing about their glory days, have reminded me of some nineteenth century paintings of sad-looking individuals who seem to carry the same aura around them; being lost, morally lost in the misty and confusing paths of life, tired and disappointed. We all feel like that from time to time. The first painting that came to mind was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting “The Hangover” which is really a portrait of his lover at the time Suzanne Valadon, a circus dancer and a model for many Impressionist paintings who later started painting herself. But in this painting she has seems to have a hangover, although that title was given later and not by the painter himself: “Aristide Bruant, a cabaret owner, singer, and songwriter who exhibited Toulouse-Lautrec’s work in his establishment, gave this painting its title. Bruant’s songs were often about the condition of the urban poor and the theme of excessive drinking.” (source)

She’s seen from the profile and seems uninterested and aloof. It was nothing unusual for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to paint his friends in a spontaneous setting, while they are sitting in a bar or dancing, he would sit at the table and sketch all night. A year before the “Hangover” he made a bar-portrait, also seen from the profile, of his friend Vincent van Gogh and I already wrote about that painting here. It’s interesting here that Suzanne, being a woman, is presented as a drunkard. Alcoholism among women was a growing concern around that time. And she’s drinking alone. Her head is resting in her hand, a half-full bottle of wine is on the table, there’s just a little bit left in the glass. She gazes somewhere in the distance, her vision is hazy and her thoughts astray. Who knows what is going on in her mind. The colour palette and the sketchy way the paint was applied perfectly fits the mood of the painting and Suzanne’s emotional state. When I gaze at this painting, instantly these lyrics come to mind, from Springsteen’s song “Downbound Train”:

I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going mister in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the carwash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train

She just said “Joe I gotta go
We had it once we ain’t got it any more”
She packed her bags left me behind
She bought a ticket on the Central Line
Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining
I feel her kiss in the misty rain
And I feel like I’m a rider on a downbound train…

Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1876

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, In The Restaurant La Mie, 1891

Song “Downbound Train” really makes me feel like I am in one of those paintings, the music with Springsteen’s voice, the lyrics tinged with a dream-gone-by feel and ending in resignation. It makes me see the grey skies, rain sliding down the windows, paint flaking from the window frame, and waking up in a cold room on a day which you can sense will be shitty and disappointing. Looking at the two paintings above, Degas’ famous “L’Absinthe” and another one by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec really reminds me of the intro to Springsteen’s song “Glory Days” about two people walking into a bar and just talking about life:

Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
But all he kept talking about was

Glory days well they’ll pass you by

But I must say that a lot of these songs, although they do deal with the working class life and sadness, mostly sound energetic and make you feel hopeful, and if not hopeful than they at least give you that c’est la vie feeling, ah that’s life and regardless of how you feel, you have to live it so you may as well sit in an empty bar and have a hangover morning because there ain’t no sunshiny meadow waiting for you! These paining however bring no hope.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, A la Bastille (Jeanne Wenz), 1888

This lines seems to fit Jeanne Wenz’s strange shy little smile:

She says when she feels like crying
She starts laughing thinking about

Glory days well they’ll pass you by….

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Renoir – The Umbrellas

10 Mar

‘Some people feel the rain, others just get wet.’ – Bob Marley

1883. Pierre Auguste Renoir - Umbrellas1881-86. The Umbrellas

This afternoon, while casually listening to the song Motorcycle Emptiness by Manic Street Preachers for the hundredth time, the opening scene with James Dean Bradfield singing in the rain, under neon loneliness, in a Tokyo street crowded with people and umbrellas reminded me of Renoir’s painting The Umbrellas. Bustling street, in the rain, dark coloured umbrellas permeated with melancholy, and the feeling of alienation in the city, themes the painting and the song share in common,  have all alluringly drawn me into the story that lies behind Renoir’s magnificent painting The Umbrellas.

This paintings is very interesting for many reasons. Firstly, it was painted in two different stages, the right part indicating the Impressionistic style with its loose brushstrokes and slightly brighter colour palette, while the left portion, featuring a lady dressed in a dreary grey dress, was painted around 1885-86, the dress style indicating the precise years. In the middle of the 1880s Renoir became disillusioned with the Impressionism and sought inspiration in the works of Courbet and Manet, admiring their realistic approach, and also in the works of old masters such as Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher, the sentimentality of whose paintings had always been deep-rooted into Renoir’s works. That so intriguing female figure on the left is actually a modiste or a milliner’s assistant, modeled by Renoir’s lover Suzanne Valadon, a very rebellious, passionate and seductive young lady, not even twenty years old when the painting was started. Bleak grey shades of her dress and those realistically sad brush strokes are the best legacy of Renoir’s change of style. The figure that he had so unhesitatingly repainted originally wore a white dress with lots of lace and frills and a lavishing hat. By changing her dress, Renoir changed her position in society, from an upper class lady, this figure became a grisette; a coquettish and flirtatious working class girl. The composition is quite unusual too; instead of a central composition one would expect, Renoir emphasised the left part of the canvas giving the figure of modiste even more depth and meaning. Behind the lady we see a vigorous young gentleman, a student or a dandy perhaps, that is about to engage her, maybe offer her shelter under his umbrella. She is not even remotely interested, instead she gazed longingly at the viewer. While her face appears rosy and innocent, her eyes are filled with melancholy, despair, and wistful reconciliation.

Renoir in general wanted to capture the mood of modern Paris; the bohemianism, the nonchalance, the laughter; an aim he fulfilled in works such as ‘Le Moulin de la Galette‘, but in the painting The Umbrellas, Renoir presented a rather different view on modern Paris, emphasising its isolation. The scene itself is very dynamic, the sky is almost hidden away by all the umbrellas, but the crowd of people are barely having any contact with each other. Apart from the gentleman on the left, all the other characters are rushing in their own ways, fairly uninterested for one another. It’s a rainy day and Parisian streets are busy, who has time for chatter!?

Essentially, isn’t it the same, the feeling of estrangement in the city, whether it is the 19th century Paris seen through the eyes of Renoir or the late 20th century alienation that Richey Edwards has so eloquently expressed, the feeling of being lost, isolated and trapped in a big city is universal.