Tag Archives: Symbolism

Arnold Böcklin – Isle of the Dead

14 Jun

The title of this painting was apparently coined by the art dealer, while the artist himself referred to the painting only as “a picture for dreaming over”. A fascinating detail to be aware of because the morbid and mysterious allure of the painting lies half in its symbolist-laden title. I didn’t know for the painting before I discovered Rachmaninov’s composition of the same name a few years ago. The title is bewitching, and yet the painting itself looks like the world of nightmares which I inhabit in my slumber. I am drawn and repulsed by it, I fear being engulfed in its darkness, and yet I crave to unravel the mystery of those tall cypress trees.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, ‘Basel’ version, 1880

“Under ancient cypress trees, weeping dreams are harvested from sleep.” (Georg Trakl, tr. by Jay Hopler, from “Year,” published c. October 1912)

The painting shows a seemingly uninhabited little island, composed from strange massive yellowish rocks and built in classical style architecture, the purpose of which is unclear. The centre of the isle is occupied by tall and shadowy cypress trees which look, to me, as if they are corpses standing upright and decaying slowly. Their darkness exudes a nauseating scent and the way they loom over the isle silently gives their presence an ominous character. This is a place from the artist’s imagination, and all elements are subordinated to the mood which is one of dreams and death, some even say the mood is that of ‘withdrawal, of rejection of reality’ which makes sense in the context of Symbolism. Death dreamily hangs over the isle as a dark cloud heavy from rain; death hides in the soft trembling of the tired cypress trees; death lingers in the air in the rich and heavy scent of the Mediterranean. But the isle is not alone; a little rowboat is slowly gliding through the dark and still waters. On the boat we see an oarsman, a figure shrouded in white veils, resembling a statue or a mummy, and a coffin. Now, just when you thought things couldn’t get more symbolist if they wanted to! There are dozens of interpretations of this painting and its every detail offers many explanations. Some suggest the oarsman represents Charon, the boatman from Greek mythology who led souls to the underworld over the river Acheron. Perhaps defining the painting would mean stealing its richness of vague dreaminess and confining it to the genre of mythological scenes, and it’s much richer than that because its layers and layers of mystery serve to awaken the subconsciousness.

Island of Saint George

This painting is one of three versions or variations of a same theme that Böcklin painted. Even though the isle is the artist’s little fantasy, a dream-world and not a real place, it was inspired by a real place, and again, there are a few possibilities. One of them points to the islet called “Sveti Đorđe” (“Island of Saint George”) in Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. The only building on the islet is a Benedictine monastery from the 12th century and the abundance of tall and dark cypress trees are reminiscent of Böcklin’s paintings. It really is a dead isle; no one lives there apart from the wandering souls of the dead, and tourists are not allowed. Böcklin could have seen the islet on one of his travels to Italy. I am certain that in twilight it holds the same eerie spell on the observer as the isle in the painting does. Another possible inspiration is the Pontikonisi islet in Greece, again with plenty of cypress trees and a Byzantine chapel from the 12th century. I personally feel that there is a clear resemblance between the Island of Saint George and the third version of the painting “Isle of the Dead”, from 1883, where the rocky formations are sharp and grey, almost enveloping the isle, and the colour of the sea blends with that of the sky.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, The Third Version, 1883

What draws us to the painting is the eerie atmosphere, the irrational composition of the isle and its dazzling dream-like beauty, and the mystery which doesn’t have an answer. Surrealists such as Giorgio de Chirico loved the painting, precisely because of those qualities, and the similar mood of silence, eeriness and mystery pervades many of his paintings. A reference to the past might be the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich which have the same mute stillness and a spiritual mystique.

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Arthur Rimbaud – The First Evening

23 Apr

Spring upon spring, I find myself deeply in love with Rimbaud’s poetry over and over again! This poem in particular I’ve loved for years and have fond memories of reading it while sitting by my windowsill, at dusk, and inhaling the dazzling perfume of the lilac trees in bloom, raising my head from the book at times only to hear the secret whispers exchanged by the blooming apple trees dressed in splendid whiteness.

Egon Schiele, Blondes Mädchen im Unterhemd, 1913, gouache and pencil on paper

Her clothes were almost off;
Outside, a curious tree
Beat a branch at the window
To see what it could see.

Perched on my enormous easy chair,
Half nude, she clasped her hands.
Her feet trembled on the floor,
As soft as they could be.

I watched as a ray of pale light,
Trapped in the tree outside,
Danced from her mouth
To her breast, like a fly on a flower.

I kissed her delicate ankles.
She had a soft, brusque laugh
That broke into shining crystals –
A pretty little laugh.

Her feet ducked under her chemise;
“Will you please stop it!…”
But I laughed at her cries –
I knew she really liked it.

Her eye trembled beneath my lips;
They closed at my touch.
Her head went back; she cried:
“Oh, really! That’s too much!

“My dear, I’m warning you…”
I stopped her protest with a kiss
And she laughed, low –
A laugh that wanted more than this…

Her clothes were almost off;
Outside, a curious tree
Beat a branch at the window
To see what it could see.

I found this translation on this website where you also have the original in French, but there is also a different translation by Oliver Bernard from “Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems” (1962) which you can read here.

*All pictures of blossoms by Denny Bitte.

Gustav Klimt – Birch Trees: dancer of the wood

25 Mar

In his portraits of trees and flowers, Klimt conveyed a sense of lyricism and mystery that nature possesses in abundance, but holds it secret to most, choosing rather to reveal her charms to the eye capable of recognising her Beauty.

Gustav Klimt, Farm House with Birch Trees, 1900, 81 x 80 cm, oil on canvas

These four damsels on the meadow in Klimt’s painting are so beautiful and so silent. Never eager for a conversation, they hesitate to speak to me, but they are not proud, but shy, or so the swallows have told me. And how white their gowns are, how fragile their frames; eastern breeze carrying the sound of a distant flute might blow them away! What mythical land have these enchantresses escaped from, I wonder. The gentle grass is swaying on the melody of Debussy and little blue flowers are batting their eyelashes vivaciously, all that is alive and breathes is awaken at the arrival of the mischievous Faun. Oh, yes, the Faun must wander these paths for sure. The birches’ entire bodies tremble, the little green leaves sigh, as they hear the Faun approaching, for they know that, once again, his flute playing will send them into the wildest dream. Dewdrops on the grass are trembling as the sun starts shining slowly and shyly through the woods announcing the day. The birds awaken as the dawn gives birth to morning; fresh, green and glorious. In a step or two, the wild Faun leaves, biding farewell to the birches as they descend into sweet dreams. Tired from their dancing in the dawn, they enjoy indolence during the day, and so a wandered through the woods might assume that they are serious by nature.

Here is a lovely poem by Arthur Ketchum called “The Spirit of the Birch”:

I am the dancer of the wood —
I shimmer in the solitude;
Men call me Birch Tree, yet I know
In other days it was not so.
I am a Dryad slim and white
Who danced too long one summer night,
And the Dawn found and prisoned me!
Captive I moan my liberty,
But let the wood wind flutes begin
Their Elfin music, faint and thin,
I sway, I bend, retreat, advance,
And evermore — I dance! I dance!

In Vienna, Klimt’s artistic focus was on humans as he diligently painted lavish nudes and portraits for rich aristocrats, but in summer months spent in Litzlberg at Lake Attersee he gave himself to nature and painted rich orchards with apple trees, farm houses and chickens, plain and pretty garden flowers, and trees. On his holiday, Klimt would arise early in the morning, around 6 o’clock, and indulge in long walks through the meadows and nearby woods. Were the nymphs the ones to lure him, or was it the smell of wild flowers? So, just like Faun, Klimt tastes the sweetness and secrets of nature at dawn, and these moments became a part of his art. The locals there called him “Waldschrat”: “someone who lives in the woods on his own”. It seems that Klimt and I share the same idea of indolence; for me it isn’t about doing nothing, it’s to stop and ponder, gaze and breathe.

Gustav Klimt, Farm Garden (Flower Garden), 110 x 110 cm, oil on canvas

For nearly all of these “nature-paintings” he did during his holidays, Klimt chose interesting canvases; nearly all are perfectly square shaped. Usually, we tend to think of landscapes painted on rectangle shaped-canvases, with an emphasis on the horizontal line, but Klimt’s landscapes are something entirely different. He doesn’t paint nature from a viewer’s perspective, he walks right into its world, he paints it whilst surrounded by it. For this artist-Faun, nature is sensuous and alive, covered with veils and veils of mysteries… This vision of nature reminded me of a poem in prose called “Dawn” by Arthur Rimbaud:

I have kissed the summer dawn. Before the palaces, nothing moved. The water lay dead. Battalions of shadows still kept the forest road. (…) My first adventure, in a path already gleaming With a clear pale light, Was a flower who told me its name. I laughted at the blond Wasserfall That threw its hair across the pines: On the silvered summit, I came upon the goddess. Then one by one, I lifted her veils. In the long walk, waving my arms. Across the meadow, where I betrayed her to the cock. In the heart of town she fled among the steeples and domes, And I hunted her, scrambling like a beggar on marble wharves. Above the road, near a thicket of laurel, I caught her in her gathered veils, And smelled the scent of her immense body. Dawn and the child fell together at the bottom of the wood. When I awoke, it was noon.”

In “Farm House with Birch Trees” Klimt created a sense of depth; the meadow seems to stretch endlessly upwards, the birches are not painted with their tree tops and leaves but left as slim white lines, slightly crooked, and creating a rhythm in the way they are placed in a diagonal line, surrounded with different layers of flowers, reminiscent of some of Hiroshige’s plum orchards. Klimt is meticulously focused on details and his landscapes have little in common with the sketch-like laid-back styles of Monet. At the same time this painting seems to me like a moment frozen in time, still and ornamental, flickering with details and colours; and at the same time it is a portal to the world of dreams, a world where the Faun, nymphs and flowers await you to join their celebration of indolence and taste the never ending flow of honey, music and laughter. Oh, how I wish to go there! Wait, I can hear the music, how it lures me: Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun“.

Rimbaud – Sensation – I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing…

25 Mar

My heart leaps up when I behold the charms of spring; tree branches adorned with leaves and gorgeous little white or pink blossoms, daisies and buttercups gracing the meadows, violets smiling devilishly from the grass, sunsets in shades of lilac, pink and orange. These days my soul is filled with sweet restlessness and my mind is alive with ideas, and I found a special delight in aimlessly walking around town and by the river, listen to the water murmuring, feeling the cool breeze on my bare head. Every flower lures me to ‘rescue’ it from someone’s garden and put it in my vase. Flowers, flowers, just give me pretty flowers and I shall be happy!

Some things are synonymous with spring for me; paintings of Impressionists, Schiele and Klimt, music of Debussy and The Stone Roses, Vincent van Gogh’s letters and Rimbaud’s poems! When I first discovered Rimbaud, I instantly fell in love with his poetry. Oh, it was a mad love! His book of poems was in my hands always. Every evening I’d sit by the window, breathing in the chill evening air filled with the sweet fragrance of lilac trees, gaze at the distant hills covered with a veil of pinkish mist, and read his poems over and over again, for a moment stopping to rest my head and daydream, while the distant church bells permeated the air, along with an occasional dog bark. Inspired by what I felt, what I saw, and what I daydreamed about, I wrote many and many verses too, not very good admittedly, but it was Rimbaud who unlocked that creativity in me, and I shall never forget that! Sunsets are heartbreaking, not dawns, and every moon is indeed atrocious and every sun is bitter!

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol, 1875

This evening, the same book is in my hand, the same verses, the same view from the window and yet the feeling the poem awakes is more subtle. The excitement upon reading something for the first time is just exquisite, and you can’t get it back. Rimbaud wrote this poem in March 1870; not even sixteen years old. I first read it in March too, and I was overwhelmed by the fact that there was a boy who lived more than a hundred years before me, and yet felt the same things that I do, and managed to express it more eloquently than I ever could. It appealed me immensely that he was my age when he wrote all of his poetry. This verse from another poem was amongst my favourites as well: “Seventeen! You’ll be so happy!/Oh! the big meadows/The wide loving countryside! – Listen, come closer!…

These days, his poem Sensation is on my mind constantly and I think it goes very well with Claude Monet’s portrait of his wife Camille and their son Jean. It’s a beautiful en plein air study on a windy summer’s day, look how Camille’s veil playfully dances in the wind, and how green the grass, how blue the sky, how white the clouds? It was painted in just a few hours, and the intensity of the colours really shows that it was painted outdoors on a summer day, and not in the studio. Colours are intense just like they really are when the sun is high. Camille is shown dressed like an elegant Parisian woman, walking down the meadows on a blue summer afternoon, crushing the short grass and getting prickled by the corn… but will the endless love mount in her soul too, as she walks silently, her face covered with a mysterious flimsy veil?

Sensation

On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside – as happy as if I were with a woman.

And here is the poem written by the man himself, what elegant handwriting!

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol, facing left, 1886

If this poem hasn’t awoken a sense of excitement and rapture in your soul, I don’t know what could. My plans for the rest of the weekend: Rimbaud, Debussy and a healthy dose of Egon Schiele, and you?

Gustav Klimt – Valley of the Dolls

5 Mar

In a transitional period from his ‘erotic-symbolist Golden phase’ to his highly decorative and vibrant Japanese inspired phase, Klimt painted these gorgeous and aloof femme fatales: a subject so popular in fin de siecle. These two ladies are not mythical creatures, they look like real Viennese women and they’re impatient, they’re waiting, wrapped in their fur, adorned with the finest Art Nouveau jewellery, they’re glancing at you with disdain, they’re throwing darts in the eyes of their lovers.

1909-gustav-klimt-lady-with-hat-and-feather-boa-1909-4Gustav Klimt, Lady with Hat and Feather Boa, 1909

End of the first decade of the twentieth century brought some changes for Klimt; his gorgeous studies in gold with intricate details and stylised forms were slowly becoming passé. Rise of the Expressionism denoted the end of his ‘golden phase’. In his paintings such as ‘The Kiss’, Klimt painted his figures in shining yellow fabrics, decorated with tiny golden leaves, against luminous golden backgrounds, floating in a highly decorative world of his imagination. This excessive decorative element in his art prevented him from delving into psychological depth and achieving the emotional intensity of the portrayed figure, and that’s something that painters like Schiele and Kokoschka did very well . In 1909, Klimt travelled to Paris where he discovered the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fauvists. These encounters with the new streams in the artistic world, as well as his friendship with the younger artist Schiele, all inspired him to reinvent his style.

La Belle Epoque fashion looks as if it was made for femme fatales – it’s exuberant, it’s glamorous; wide-brimmed hats with feathers, fur muffs, voluminous hairstyles, large choker necklaces, long flowing dresses with lace details… Klimt was very much in tune with the fashion of the day because his life companion Emilie Flöge happened to be a fashion designer. Klimt also helped in designing the dresses by making the patterns. In this transitional period, Klimt dressed his femme fatales not in gold but in lace and perfumes and jewels and rouge; he tamed them, he made them into fashionable little dolls who are impatiently waiting to be played with, to be admired. These creatures are vain and aloof but not as sinister and destructive as Franz Stuck’s dark female figures filled with lust and anxiety. Klimt also tamed his lust for excessive ornamentation by painting the background in one colour instead of the usual vibrant kaleidoscope of shapes and patterns.

Painting Lady with Hat and Feather Boa has a strangely dark colour palette, unusual for Klimt’s typical vibrant pinks, yellows and greens. The lady has an amazing face expression; her downward tilted eyes are fixated on something on her right which we can’t see, and her eyebrows are sharp and angry. Her face has been haunting me for weeks! And that peacock blue line on her hat, and the feathers, painted in swirling, near abstract motions. Her wild red hair, and gorgeous lips peeking from that feather boa, oh she’s a real femme fatale. You can imagine her getting out of the carriage, somewhere on the streets of Vienna, opening her parasol, blind to every eye she meets, with a gaze that says: ‘You’re not fit to polish my boots!’

1910-gustav-klimt-black-feature-hat-1910Gustav Klimt, Black Feather Hat (Lady with Feather Hat), 1910

On the other hand, Black Feather Hat (Lady with Feather Hat) is somewhat different in mood and style. Our redhead beauty above looks gorgeous and vivacious like Klimt’s women usually do, but this one looks a tad different – there’s a subtle nihilism in those white-grey shades, a hint of Egon Schiele and the fin de siecle nervousness. Look at her angular face and the way her hand is painted; it looks like something you’d see on Schiele’s paintings. Truth is, Schiele was initially inspired by Klimt, but Klimt also learner something from his young independent-minded pupil. Again we see this gorgeous La Belle Epoque fashion, and again this femme fatale is looking into the distance, we don’t know what occupied her attention, or whose face lingers on her mind.

Franz Stuck: Dark Female Figures in a World of Anxiety and Lust

6 Sep

If you gaze at dark and richly textured paintings of a German Symbolist painter Franz Stuck for too long, you become spiritually drowned in a world of ‘anxiety and lust’, to quote Carl Jung. That peculiar mood of his paintings is as intoxicating as it is heavy and suffocating, radiating the typical turn of the century claustrophobia and interest in eroticism.

1903. The Sin (Die Sünde) - Franz Stuck

Franz Stuck, The Sin (Die Sünde), 1903

Last August, while I was in Berlin, I had a chance to see Stuck’s The Sin and Circe in Alte Nationalgalerie where they are part of the museum’s permanent collection. I remember it clearly, the feeling of being completely and fully mesmerised by hypnotic power of Stuck’s vamp femme fatales; dark eyed Eve luring from the shadow, and Circe, clad in purple, offering a gold cup, and smiling lustfully with moist, half-open lips. The day was rainy and gloomy, the chamber quiet and solitary because most visitors chose to see the Im-Ex exhibition that was on at the time. Even in the middle of the day, painting The Sin seemed frightening and grandiose because of its dimensions, but how magical and sinister at the same time would it look at night, with a few tall candles as only sources of light, shining in brilliant Byzantine golden flames, and a sofa you could lie on, smoke opium and immerse into dreams, watched upon by those big, darkly oriental eyes. I think that kind of experience would be the closest to an acid trip I could possibly imagine.

If you observe Stuck’s oeuvre, you’ll notice that darkness, like heavy November fog, lurks from every corner. World that he created in his paintings is a mythical one, where anxiety and erotic fantasies emerge from every canvas. Sometimes his paintings, just like those of Edvard Munch, can be a tad difficult to digest, at least for me, as they seem to lurk the viewer to the end of the cliff; first to be amazed, and then – to fall. I feel emotionally drained and ill after looking at them for too long, that’s the power of art for you all. Stuck portrays the dark side of mythology and female dominance and images that arise from his artworks are those of suffering and agony, twisted bodies, murky colours and strong contrasts, and ever popular in Symbolism, figures of wicked and possessive femme fatales.

So, what exactly is the true subject of his art, the spiritual fall of the Western society of his own secret Freudian fantasies?

Stu-04-NatGalFranz Stuck, Tilla Durieux as Circe, c. 1913

Stuck painted the subject of Eve’s sin and the consequent Fall of Humanity many times. The version I’ve put here, from 1903, isn’t the most striking, but it is the one I saw. In The Sin, Eve looks directly at the viewer, ironically smiling. Her sickly white, yet robust body emerges from the dark background. Two large, dark, protruding almond shaped eyes resemble those of Luisa Casati, an extravagant Italian heiress and a great example of fin de sicle decadency in lifestyle. A garishly green shadow hides her face. Framed with masses of Rossettian hair so dark it seems to have been woven from darkness itself. And then, as if the painting wasn’t unsettling enough, you notice the snake wrapped around Eve’s body, with thin piercing pupils and purplish skin that distinguishes it from the pervading darkness. If you don’t move your eyes, it will draw you in too.

Circe is visually brighter, painted in three vibrant colours; auburn for the hair, dark yellow with hints of olive brown for the cup, and lastly – purple, like dried larkspur flowers. Three colours against the pitch dark background and again, that strange sickly pale skin, were enough to uplift the mood of the painting. In body sculpting, Stuck slightly reminds me of Burne-Jones. Look at her purple tunic that sensuously falls, then her earrings and the luminous cup. Who wouldn’t be tempted to drink from it, even if the price was entering the kingdom of death and running into the arms of Persephone, a fellow mythological creature that played around with fin de siecle imagination. Stuck’s Circe reminds me of silent film stars of 1920s, such as Theda Bara and Pola Negri, who often played roles of vamp femme fatales.

Arthur Rimbaud – Dawn

18 Jun

1861. Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861

I have kissed the summer dawn. Before the palaces, nothing moved. The water lay dead. Battalions of shadows still kept the forest road.

I walked, walking warm and vital breath, While stones watched, and wings rose soundlessly.

My first adventure, in a path already gleaming With a clear pale light, Was a flower who told me its name.

I laughted at the blond Wasserfall That threw its hair across the pines: On the silvered summit, I came upon the goddess.

Then one by one, I lifted her veils. In the long walk, waving my arms.

Across the meadow, where I betrayed her to the cock. In the heart of town she fled among the steeples and domes, And I hunted her, scrambling like a beggar on marble wharves.

Above the road, near a thicket of laurel, I caught her in her gathered veils, And smelled the scent of her immense body. Dawn and the child fell together at the bottom of the wood.

When I awoke, it was noon.*