Tag Archives: Symbolism

Léon Spilliaert – The Absinthe Drinker and Other Paintings

25 Nov

Léon Spilliaert, The Absinthe Drinker (La Buveuse d’Absinthe), 1907

I have felt drawn to Léon Spilliaert’s dark, disturbing and nightmarish paintings for years now, but I always found them just a tad too disturbing to write about. I mean, just look into the eyes of the woman in the painting “The Absinthe Drinker”; two dark abysses, her pupils swirling rivers of dark, haunting absinthe laced dreams. If you look into them long enough she will suck you into her nocturnal world of nightmares and lost hopes. The woman and the space around her are both painted in the same shades of black and midnight blue, as if the woman is inseparable from the space that she resides in. Her silhouette, with the hat, flowing hair, dress and even necklace bring to mind the lovely Edwardian photographs and other portraits from that time, but Spilliaert’s absinthe drinker lives not in Edwardian world but in her own dark fantasy. Big crazy eyes, thin lips pressed together, almost comically large and dark circles around her eyes, her flesh morbidly pale; she sees something that we cannot see and the glass of absinthe hides the secret.

Léon Spilliaert was born in the Belgian coastal town of Ostend, on the 28 July 1881. Spilliaert, a reclusive child with frail health grew up into an equally sickly and reclusive young man who took solace in the world of art. Even in childhood he showed a love of doodling and drawing and this love grew into real painting. Through art his imagination flourished. Interestingly, the town of Ostend gave the art world another amazing painter; James Ensor. Skeletons that pop up in almost all of Ensor’s paintings are at once creepy and comical. Both Ensor and Spilliaert’s art have an element of eerieness, it must be something in the Ostend air. The two painters, despite the generational gap between them, actually became friends and connected over their art endeavors. If I had to chose, I would chose Ensor’s art as my favourite, but Spilliaert’s artworks are something that I gaze at half in awe and half in fear. A strange chill goes down my spine when I get immersed in his dark world.

Leon Spilliaert, Vertigo, 1908

Painting “Vertigo” shows a figure of a woman shrouded in black, her long gauzy black scarf dancing in the wind. The figure is painted in such a nightmarish way that it could also be the figure of death itself. The space around the woman, dark, empty and isolate, oozes an equally nightmarish vibe. It’s only the woman and the wind on the stairs. I can imagine her climbing up the stairs and stopping for a moment only to look into the dark abyss bellow. The contrast between the tread and the riser of the stairs is sharp and precise. The colour scheme and sharp contrats makes me think of the German Expressionist cinema. The wind as a motif appears again in the painting “The Gust of Wind” from 1904. Again, we have a figure of a woman dressed in black, save for her white petticoat revealed by the gust of the wind from the title. Her black hair and her black dress are both moving in the wind and her face is a grimace; a scream or a black hole ready to swallow you whole. She is leaning with her back on the rails behind her and the space around her is, again, devoid of all details, just an empty, isolated landscape with a beach and the sea in the background. No seagull in the sky, no passers by, no clouds… There is definitely something heavy and unsettling about these paintings which brings to mind the paintings of Munch who, interestingly, also used seascape as a background in his paintings of lonely people.

The seascape of Ostend was particularly inspiring for Spilliaert and he enjoyed strolling there at night, under the light of the street lamps. The wind, the sand, the emptiness of a beach; these natural elements are the core of his paintings where the empty space becomes a metaphore for the isolation of a human existence. In all his paintings, the figures are all alone in a big landscape, which also makes me think of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. In Friedrich’s landscapes the figures appear melancholy and lonely and the seascape or other landscape around them is painted in soft, dusky colours; blues, purples, yellows, but in Spilliaert’s art the landscape and its emptiness takes a darker, deeper shade. The female figures in Spilliaert’s art are not only melancholy and sad, but also very disturbing to look at, they truly do appear as something that inhibits nightmares; frail, thin, dressed in all black, painted in a stylised way, their faces hidden. The landscape around them is painted in darker colours and there are no romance or dreams in it.

Leon Spilliaert, The Gust of Wind, 1904

Still, this dark phase of Spilliaert’s art which was inspired by the art of Edvard Munch and Fernand Khnopff, and the writings of Nietzsche and Lautremont, withered like a picked flower after his marriage in 1916. He continued creating art, mostly illustrations and landscapes which are less known, but not with the same ardour and anguish. Perhaps the happiness of marriage and family life finally fulfilled him, but it is sad in the art context. I almost wished he spent his life in misery but continued creating wonderful art. One cannot have it all… or?

Autumn in Art: Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it!

22 Nov

“Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonise. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”

(Letter to Miss Lewis, Oct. 1, 1841, George Eliot, George Eliot’s Life, as Related in Her Letters and Journals)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George – Autumn, 1922

Two Octobers ago I wrote a post called “Different Faces of Autumn” and it was a little selection of autumn themes in art. This year I decided to do something similar. I gathered a few intersting paintings by different painters and all of them have something autumnal in them whether it’s the autumn foliage or pumpkins, autumnal colours, word ‘autumn’ in the painting’s title etc. The first painting here is Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Lake George – Autumn” from 1922. The painting shows the Lake George in Warren County, New York. O’Keeffe’s husband, the famous artist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, had a family house by the Lake George and that is why Georgia had an opportunity to spend her holidays by the lake. The horizontally elongated shape of the canvas is further emphasised by the composition which consists of four horizontal layers of motives; the thin layer of the sky in the far distance, the mountains, the blue lake and the lush trees with autumnal foliage in the foreground. Every motif is simplified and almost abstracted because O’Keeffe never wanted to portray reality or nature realistically with all its details.

Jean-Francois Millet, Autumn Landscape with a Flock of Turkeys, 1872-73

From O’Keeffe’s vibrancy through Millais’ melancholy, in this next painting called The gloomy and foreboding mood of Jean-Francois Millet’s painting “Autumn Landscapes with a Flock of Turkeys” is a stark contrast to O’Keeffe’s playful, nearly abstract, and vibrant portrayal of the Lake George in autumn and Millais’ lyrical and melancholy mood in “Autumn Leaves”. Millet painted this during his stay in the village of Barbizon. He wrote to his patron Frederic Hartmann on the 18 February 1873 that his painting for the dealer Durand-Ruel was almost finished, and he even included a brief description of the painting: “It is a hillock, with a single tree almost bare of leaves, and which I have tried to place rather far back in the picture. The figures are a woman seen from behind and a few turkeys. I have also tried to indicate the village in the background on a lower plane.” The tall tree with bare branches, its last leaves being carried off by the wind of change, turkeys walking aimlessly around the field, a mysterious shrouded figure of a woman, the bleak, earthy brown tones; all of this gives a heavy, autumnal mood to the painting. There is a slight worm’s eye view so the gloomy sky and the tree appear even more threatening and sublime.

Winslow Homer, Pumpkin Patch, 1878

Winslow Homer’s watercolour “Pumpking Patch” is a simple scene from everyday life which shows children in a pumpkin patch. Homer painted many watercolours with scenes from countryside life and these artworks bring to life the day to day activities; women gathering eggs or picking apples, milk maids, shepherdesses, reapers, or just children playing. In this watercolour we see a similar composition to O’Keeffe’s painting; the painting is composed of three horizontal layers; the sky, the haystacks and grass. There is a young boy carrying a pumpking across the pumpkin patch and some children on the left are seen sitting down and chatting. One bird in the sky. Just a peaceful countryside scene from a watercolour master that Homer was.

Camille Pissarro, Autumn, Poplars, Éragny, 1894

Pissarro’s painting “Autumn, Poplars, Eragny” brings to mind the views that I see from the window of the train when I am going to my university lectures. Landscapes of meadows, woods, fields, houses and villages, all pass by my eyes swiftly but they awaken artistic feelings inside me because they bring to mind all the simple yet delightful landscapes painted by Impressionists. The clouds in the baby blue sky are smiling and the sun is casting its warm lightness on the trees and the grass. The green leaves on the branches seem to be competing with the yellow and brown ones. Some trees are completely covered in yellow leaves while some are still green; nothing speaks more of autumnal transience than seeing the leaves on the trees change colour until there are no more leaves left on the branches.

Egon Schiele, Autumn Tree, 1911

Schiele’s approach to painting nature was similar to his approach when it came to painting portraits. For him painting a tree was not just painting a portrait of a tree, painting nature was a way of capturing emotional states. The trees, so thin and so fragile, and almost bare, with their long almost skeletal branches, growing from the wet, barren soil, standing still againsts the gusts of the cold autumn wind, they are symbolic of human isolation and loneliness. Schiele’s portrayal of autumn is this drab, cold November autumn when things are staring to be sad and grey. I wrote more about Schiele’s autumn trees in the post here.

Eliot Hodgkin, Large Dead Leaf No. 2, 1966

Eliot Hodgkin, a less known English artist, painted this interesting painting called “Large Dead Leaf No. 2” in 1966 and I think it fits nicely into this little selection of autumn themed paintings. The date is pretty recent considering the nineteenth century paintings in this post. Hodgkin loved to paint still lives of objects from nature such as fruit, vegetables, flowers, and leaves, and he approached his motives in the similar way that Georgia O’Keeffe did; he noticed the little things that most people wouldn’t and his painting style shows this precise observation and curiosity. Just look at how he approached this dead leaf, which some have suggested is a sycamore leaf but I am not sure. The dead autumn leaf is twisting from dryness and Hodgkins captures all its nuances of brown colour and tiny veins. It’s almost an exercise in mindfulness. Here is what the artist said about his approach in 1957: “In so far as I have any conscious purpose, it is to show the beauty of natural objects which are normally thought uninteresting or even unattractive: such things as Brussels sprouts, turnips, onions, pebbles and flints, bulbs, dead leaves, bleached vertebrae, an old boot cast up by the tide. People sometimes tell me that they had never really ‘seen’ something before I painted it, and I should like to believe this… For myself, if I must put it into words, I try to look at quite simple things as though I were seeing them for the first time and as though no one had ever painted them before.

I hope you enjoyed this little selection of autumn in art! Naturally, there are many many other autumn themed paintings which are gorgeous and interesting but this is just my selection for this year.

Serafino Macchiati – The Break-Up

26 Sep

“But I panicked as she turned to walk awayAs she went out the door I heard her sayYes I’m in need of somethingBut it’s something you ain’t gotBut I used to love you a lot

I thought she loved me with a love that wouldn’t dieLooking at her now I can’t believe she said good-byeShe just left me standing there, I never been so shockedShe used to love me a lotShe used to love me a lot….”
(Johnny Cash, She Used to Love Me a Lot)

Serafino Macchiati, The Break-Up, 1900-05

I recently discovered this painting by the Italian painter Serafino Macchiati and I was insantly struck by its dark, murky colours and the equally dark and sad mood that they help convey. The painting is titled simply “The Break-Up” and it was painted just after Macchiati had moved to Paris. The painting shows a man and a woman in a luxurious interior. The woman is standing by the fireplace with her back turned against the man who is looking at her with a slight yearning or disbelief… The tension in the room is palpable. The space and the figures are painted in a way that makes it seem like this is a night scene and the woman’s white dress is bathed in the moonlight. The scene of this love drama, the act of breaking up, may as well have been happening at night, but perhaps the colour scheme of this painting, with its dark blues, grey and black, is more reflective of the mood in the room than than it is reflective of the actual space. It is as if the dark cloud is hanging above the room; their dark grey room is a canvas that shows their distance and tensions, and, after the lightning and thunders of the couple’s shouting and arguing, the dark cloud is now ripe and ready to release the pouring rain. What I am trying to say is that the space is more symbolic than real, and this gives it not only an aesthetical feast for the eyes, but also a variety of interpretations. Is this a real scene, or is it a distant memory? Is the woman, dressed in that gorgeous white gown, merely a ghost of a past lover, a memory of the past that is coming back to haunt the solitary man on this dreary evening. Perhaps he heard a faint ghostly rustle of a dress and all the memories suddenly came back to haunt him. There is also a curiosity as to who is breaking up with whom? I think it is the woman, for her back is turned against the man, symbolically representing her Macchiati also painted some equally dark and mystical paintings whilst in Paris titled “The Vision” and “Spiritism” and both portray the Spiritualist experiences. All in all, this painting is a visually beautiful one, and its beauty is of the poetic, lyrical kind which makes my thoughts go towards music and poetry…

Teodor Axentowicz – The Old Man and the Ghost of a Young Woman

7 Nov

Polish-Armenian painter Teodor Axentowicz (1859-1938) is somewhat forgotten and neglected in today’s art history but he has many amazing painting, for example his pastel “Redhead” of which I have written about before. Today I wanted to write about a pastel and watercolour painting whose mood and colours fit this time of the year so well, that is, the mood of the painting fits the mood of nature in this moment.

Teodor Axentowicz, Vision – Memory, Old age and youth, (The old man and the ghost of a young woman, An old man with a girl) (after 1900), pastel and watercolor on paper

This painting is known under various titles, but my favourite title is “The old man and the ghost of a young woman” because it directly implies that the wistful, gentle face of a woman that appears to be gazing at the old man is a ghost. We could assume that from the way she was painted as well; her face is clear but the rest of her seems unfinished, as if she is fading away or she is not really there. She is suppose to be a simple peasant, but her facial features look more like those of a model and the classical, idealised beauty of her face contrasts with the more realistic manner in which the old man’s face was painted. The old age has coloured his hair and beard in snow white, his attire is simple and brown. Why is he sitting under a tree with a furrowed brow? Does he sense that his end will come soon? Do the memories of his youth haunt him? Does he see the face of a girl he once loved but who had died? Maybe she came to tell him: shhh, it is time to go now… But he is still scared. The girl’s face oozes patience and tenderness, surely she has come to help him in some way. Wistful, lovely and lonely female figures appear often in Axentowicz’s art; whether it’s his gorgeous pastel “Girl with a Blue Vase (Tears)” from 1900, “Portrait of a Girl Dressed in Krakow” from 1909, or his “Girl with a Candlestick”, but they are always isolated figures against a landscape. In this painting the girl’s wistful face is tied to a bigger story and every detail is imbued with a symbolism.

Another title for the painting “Memory, Old Age and Death” brings yet another meaning to the scene; the old man seeing the girl’s face in the forest must be a sign of his impending death and the girl must be a face from his memory, someone he loved. Also, it implies a vanitas theme of transience and the shortness of life. The somber, earthy, autumnal colours match the mood of the painting perfectly. The colours aren’t the gay, vibrant shades typical for early autumn, no, this is the autumn nearing its end; winter’s frost kissing the bare trees. The painting looks like it was seen from a sepia-tinted glasses, like a distant memory, something melancholy that can never be returned. The forest setting, away from people, away from everyday life, brings additional spiritual dimension to the painting. There are no more leaves to fall of those trees; the leaves rustle no more, nothing but stilness and coldness is in the air – death is near. The combined technique that Axentowicz used is also interesting; pastel over watercolour; it brings the best of both worlds.

Teodor Axentowicz: Redhead – A Pastel Dream

6 Aug

“Your eyes dream, opened wide.
Belovèd, your eyes of green,
In the dusk the perfume exhausts,
Are dreaming of tortures dire…

Mine eyes to weep were fain,
Mine eyes possess thee all. (….)
Flower petals fall.
The roses all are dying..
I am saying nothing, thou hearest
Under thy motionless hair.

Love is heavy. My soul is sighing..
What wing brushes both of us, dearest,
In the sick and soundless air?

(Albert Samain, Summer Hours)

Teodor Axentowicz, Redhead, 1899, pastel on paper

This gorgeous pastel drawing has been haunting me for some time now. Axentowicz’s “Redhead” is a face from a dream, or a memory. The girl’s pale face arises from the blueish mist. Dreamy and fragile, like a vision that is here and then gone in a second. The blue and green colours absolutely enchant me; I feel as if I am a staring into the turquoise-teal depths of a lake, completely mesmerised and unaware of anything else that is going on around me, but were I to touch the surface, the vision would be gone. These colours are just mesmerising. And the way it was drawn further emphasised the dreamy, ethereal mood of the drawing; these strokes of pastel are as soft and fragile as spiderweb. Softer than anything in this real world, soft because it’s woven from dreams, memories, reveries, visions… Axentowicz wasn’t drawing this with pastel on paper, he was weaving it softly like a spider weaves his web, from poetry and dreams. The blueness of the background perfectly contrasts with the girl’s auburn hair, like water mingling with the reed, and I love the way all these pastel strokes meet and mingle, carefully crafting the volume of the drawing. It is all so tender and ever so palpable. The paper loses its physical quality and this drawing seems more like music, or poetry than a real pastel on paper. That is not meant as a criticism of the pastel because I love the medium with all its potential of wildness and vibrancy, but here the artist has transcended the medium and created something spectacular. When I gaze at this pastel the verses of the Symbolist poet Albert Samain instantly come to mind, or rather, the mood that his verses convey is very similar to the mood of this pastel.

Teodor Axentowicz was a Polish-Armenian painter born in 1859 in Brasov, a city which was then part of Hungary but is today part of Transylvania, Romania. He was a true cosmopolitan who travelled all over Europe, though this wasn’t unusual for artists of the time. He lived and studied in many places, most notably in Munich and then in Paris where he studied under Carolus-Duran. His career as a painter was equally diverse; in Paris he worked on fashion magazines, he painted Polish peasants and their day to day life, he was one of seven Polish painters who confounded the Vienna Secession and this pastel “Redhead” painted in 1899, right at the turn of the century, fits the mood of Secession but also looks like something that could illustrate a Symbolist poem. Axentowicz died in Krakow in 1938, before he could see the horrors of the Second World War.

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

Eugène Carrière – The First Communion

17 Dec

Eugène Carrière, The First Communion, 1896

Eugène Carrière’s painting “The First Communion” is the most haunting painting of a little girl dressed for her First Communions that I have seen. Quite a few examples of this motif can be found in the late nineteenth century art, but no painting I’ve seen is this ghostly. The gentle figure of a young girl arises from the surrounding darkness. All of Carrière’s paintings have this distinct atmosphere and the figures in them seem to emerge from the brown-grey fog or a muddy swamp. The girl’s hands are clasped in her lap and she seems so sombre and wraith-like; her white formal gown and veil are transformed into a sea of greys by Carrière’s brush, as if they’re made of ashes. Usually the girls painted in their white First Communion dresses look angelic, smiling and lively, but Carrière’s portrayal of this motif instantly takes away the little girl’s angelic, innocent appeal because she seems more like a ghost than a real girl; no smile, no rosy cheeks on that face.

As I gaze at the girl’s face more, a scene from the film “The Others” (2001) comes to mind; a very devout Catholic woman (played by Nicole Kidman) lives alone in a lonely, forgotten mansion surrounded with constant fog with her two children and servants, desperately awaiting her husband’s return from the war. In one scene she lets her daughter try on the new snow-white dress and veil for her First Communion. The mother leaves the room for awhile and when she returns, she finds her daughter playing with a doll, but her face isn’t her own: it’s a horrible and frightening face of an old woman. Of course, it was only an illusion, but Carrière’s girl seem to me capable of transforming into something else, it isn’t static and final in my eyes, it moves and changes; I can imagine the girl’s dress changing from perfectly white to this shade of grey; I can imagine her eyes losing shine and her face loosing form; this is but one state of melancholy decay, she will sink even more into the darkness that surrounds her.

In all of Carrière’s paintings, I feel like his figures are transitioning from the palpable, material world to a mystical, airy one, their forms are distilling, they are fading away… Odilon Redon, a fellow Symbolist artist who used colour and shapes very differently though, wrote this of Carrière’s art: “…opaque limbos where pale, morbidly human faces float like seaweed: that is Carrière’s painting. It does not have the flavor of solid reality, but remains in the muted regions of the first elaboration, which are favorable to visions, and never appears or flowers in the shining brightness of the solar prism.” My view of Carrière’s paintings varies from day to day, from painting to painting; sometimes the haunting and ghostly mood of his portraits really captivates me, and other times, his colour palette is devastatingly depressing and monotonous. Carrière’s dislike, or mistrust, of colour is truly remarkable. I really love this painting “The First Communion” because of its motif really, but some of his other paintings tend to drain me due to their lack of vibrant colour. And now, here are some other examples of the same motif but in a very different mood and style. With their white gowns and veils, the First Communion girls look like little brides.

Sir John Lavery, Eileen, Her First Communion, 1901

Elizabeth Nourse, The First Communion (La Première communion), 1895

Henri Martin, First Communion, 1891

Jules Bastien-Lepage, First Communion, 1875

Carl Frithjof Smith, After first Communion, 1892

Emile Claus, First Communion, 1893

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.

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“.