Tag Archives: Teodor Axentowicz

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.