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Arthur Hughes – April Love

26 Aug

Let’s take a look at some very romantical paintings by a Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes.

Arthur Hughes, April Love, 1855-56

On 19th May 1855, Edward Burne-Jones, English painter associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, took his beloved girl Georgiana “Georgie” MacDonald to the Royal Academy Exhibition and proposed marriage to her in front of the painting “April Love” by Arthur Hughes. What a romantical gesture!? I have always been fond of this painting because of its dreamy and romantic mood and the gorgeous indigo-purple dress that the girl is wearing. Purple dresses are somewhat rare in art history, and interestingly Arthur Hughes’s canvases are full of them. Sweet and wistful coppery-haired maidens in purple gowns, against a background of lush green nature. Very romantic and very Pre-Raphaelite. Hughes is famous for making paintings of lovers, influenced by a painting that he himself admired, “The Huguenot” by John Everett Millais, but he is also somewhat ignored, perhaps because his life wasn’t rife with scandals, lovers or travels to exotic places. He led a quiet, but joyous and serene life with his wife Tryphena Foord ‘his early and only love’ and they married in 1855, so around the time “April Love” was painted.

Arthur Hughes, Study for April Love, 1855

It’s interesting to note that Arthur Hughes’ own love life was happy and seemingly ideal, and yet the romantic scenes on his canvases are tinged with melancholy and unrequited feelings; transient nature of love and life are in opposition with the lasting character of nature, old oak trees and ivy with its steady and persistent growth are in contrast with the changing nature of human feelings. Maybe in his real life, love was as strong as an oak trees and could resist winds and storms, but in the gentle, dreamy and wistful world of his paintings, love is a light pink rose whose delicate petals are easily scattered by a gentle breeze, as we can see in the bottom left part of the painting “April Love” where a girl is standing by an ivy-overgrown tree trunk and looking down in disappointment and sadness, while a gentleman whose head is hard to even notice on canvas is kissing her hand and perhaps reassuring her that she is wrong in her doubts and that he does love her. The model for the lad was the sculptor Alexander Munro who shared a studio with Hughes from 1852 to 1858, and the model for the girl was originally a girl from the countryside who refused to pose for Hughes after she saw the way he had drawn her. Hughes then used his wife as a model and it is her face that we see on the canvas, so gentle and so suitable for a romantic scene. The painting was exhibited in 1856 and accompanied with these verses from Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Miller’s Daughter”:

Love is hurt with jar and fret,
Love is made a vague regret,
Eyes with idle tears are set,
Idle habit links us yet;
What is Love? For we forget.
Ah no, no.

Arthur Hughes, Amy, 1853-59

Arthur Hughes was not an official member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but his paintings clearly exhibit the Pre-Raphaelite style and preference of themes. Another painting, “Amy”, is also a beautiful example of Hughes’ use and choice of colours; how radiant and vivacious is the purple of her dress?! Especially in the contrast with the many shades of green of the ivy, moss and fern all around her. The rosy-cheeked Amy with a flower in her hair could be mistaken for a forest fairy. Her eyes are worryingly set on the name “Amy” freshly carved on the tree trunk. Youthful love is fragile and somewhere deep in her heart she can sense it. In a follow-up painting “Long Engagement” we see the same girl, this time with a far sadder look on her face, disappointment and pleading are in her gaze. His eyes are directed somewhere else, perhaps he doesn’t have the heart to break hers and shatter her hopes, or there is reluctance which keeps him from fulfilling his promise. Meanwhile, the carved name on the tree trunk is getting more and more overgrown with ivy. Ferns and moss have grown in abundance, and white roses with their thorny stems have started to smother the paths of the forest. The lovers’ love is lulled to everlasting sleep. Despite the sad element of Hughes’ paintings, they are still a definite proof that broodiness and melancholy are cool, and happiness is not. Also, it’s interesting to note that the couple mentioned in the beginning, Edward Burne-Jones and Georgie, also had a long engagement which made Georgie’s heart ache, but in 1860 they finally married, and luckily avoided the fate of the couple bellow.

Arthur Hughes, Long Engagement, 1859

Henri Rousseau – The Dream

12 Aug

I recently watched the film “Love in the Time of Cholera” (2007) and I really liked the title sequence with a jungle-inspired animation, it reminded me of Henri Rousseau’s imaginative paintings.

Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

Henri Rousseau’s life and paintings are equally fascinating. They are fascinating because he wasn’t a typical bohemian artist living in Montmartre and in fact started painting rather late in life when he was in his early forties and worked as a tax collector. He at last decided to fully devote himself to art at the age of forty-nine. Another thing which makes him fascinating as an artist is his subject matter; jungles and strange dream-like exotic places filled his canvases. Can you fathom the scope of his imagination when he conjured up such vivid and almost surreal scenes even in the greyness of Parisian winters. Cafes, boulevards, bridges, the Seine, dances and cocottes and dandies, such subjects were all right for Impressionists and Post-Impressionist, but Rousseau followed his own path.

Painting “The Dream” is perhaps Rousseau’s most famous work and an excellent representative of his style. In the middle of a jungle a nude lady is lying on a read couch, surrounded by many different trees and plants, each overshadowing the other with its intricate green colours and fine shadowing. The details seem realistic, while the composition all together is everything but. It is clear this isn’t a faithful portrayal of a jungle or a forest, but a place of Rousseau’s Parisian reveries, but nonetheless it is striking how he captured the mood of a place he never even visited. But perhaps I am wrong, for I have never visited a jungle myself! Anyhow, the nude long-haired lady is not alone. The place is bursting with life, from all corners some strange creatures are breathing, hearts are beating and wild eyes as yellow as amber are glistening strangely. Two lions are lying in the grass; both with mad stares, one is looking at her, and the other at us. Behind the lions stands a dark-skinned flautist, a motif which some art historians have interpreted as being erotic. Around the lady large blue flowers are protruding their petals, and birds are sitting on tree branches. An orange snake in the grass, you can really imagine its moist cold body moving quickly through the grass, hidden from the moonlight. The moon is white and full, and things are not as they seem.

Henri Rousseau, The Snake Charmer, 1907

Another interesting painting is “The Snake Charmer”. A nude dark-skinned woman is playing a flute and, well, charming the snake as the title suggests, but visually her dark horizontal figure is dividing the space on two different places, the lake on the left and the dark impenetrable jungle forest on the right. Three black snakes arise sinisterly from the grass, awaken to the beautiful mystical sounds of the flute which, I am sure, makes the leaves and flowers sigh with delight too. I am constantly amazed at how detailed Rousseau was with painting grass and trees, and how diligent, painting each one with care. Look at each leaf individually, the shape and dark matte colour makes it appear so unnatural, and when observed all together they appear even more surreal. Again, a full moon is shining low on the horizon, over the lake, but its silvery shine doesn’t reach the darkness of the forest.

Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891

Painting “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” is just amazing! Just look at the tiger’s face, full of expression, his mouth in a grin, his eyes wide open. And how vividly Rousseau has portrayed the tropical storm, the pouring rain that could drain you to the bone, the silver thunders, the swaying branches of trees and dancing leaves in many shades of green and yellow. There’s one chapter in Irving Stone’s book about Vincent van Gogh called “Lust for Life”, which is amazing by the way, where Vincent visits Henri Rousseau in his studio in a poor part of Paris. There they find the artist’s room full of jungle scenes on the walls and four boys with their violins waiting for the lecture to begin because Rousseau often gave violin lessons to earn extra money, and plus he loved playing the instrument as well. He is portrayed as someone very humble and detached from the world around him, in a good way, living in his imagination and not very worried about the things around him.

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“.

Vincent van Gogh – Road with Cypress and Star

26 Aug

When you think of cypress trees, what kind of mood do they evoke? It is a rather gloomy tree, isolated and dark, unfriendly, a tree in despair, usually gracing graveyards and ever since ancient times it was seen as a symbol of mourning, but also of hope because it stretches high up in the sky, as if wanting to touch the stars. Still, the first sight of Vincent van Gogh’s wonderful painting gives us an utterly different mood, not one of mourning but that of rapture and nocturnal magic.

Vincent van Gogh, Road with Cypress and Star (Country Road in Provence by Night), 1890

Vincent painted this in May 1890 while in Saint Rémy and finished it in June in Auvers-sur-Oise. His time spent in Provence, in Arles and Saint Remy, is the most productive period of his life; it was there that he painted the famous starry nights, sunflowers, cypresses and wheat fields. Man from the damp, dark north found his artistic haven in the sunny landscape of the south, where sun burn as intensely as the stars and one could drown in the ripe yellowness of the endless wheat fields. Road with Cypress and Star is a nocturnal scene painted in rich frantic crooked brush strokes, each one looks as if it was made with pain and passion. It shows an isolated country road in the silent hour of the night with two small figures in the lower right corner, a carriage and an inn in the background. The road looks more like a river, and the space looks like it’s sinking. The landscape is pulsating, and notice the different direction of the brushstrokes in the road, the field and the sky. In hands of Van Gogh, a seemingly ordinary landscape gets a dreamy, magical dimension. You almost wish you could join those men and roam the countryside yourself, when in reality it was probably hot and crickets would sing from the grass. He wrote that the scene itself is very romantic, but also very characteristic for Provence.

The star of the painting are two cypress trees which grew so closely together that they look like one, entwined in their darkness. They stretch and stretch, seemingly endlessly because, in a Japanese Ukiyo-e style, Vincent ‘cut’ their ends, and we are left with an impression that the cypresses are really kissing the vibrant blue night sky painted in swirls of blue and white. On one side is a big bright star, and on the other is an elegant crescent moon. Van Gogh was especially fond of cypresses; he admired their smooth line and thought they resembled Egyptian obelisks.

Vincent truly believed death would take us to another star, and this is what he wrote to Theo:

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.

Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?

Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.

To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

The last sentence reveals his passionate, impetuous nature. You can’t expect such a man to live an ordinary life, to obey society, to produce his art without wasting himself. No, he burned and burned like a shooting star, disappearing and leaving beauty behind him.

We can imagine the gloomy cypress trees being transformed by the spell of the night into loveable creatures who stretch their branches to touch that sky, to play and daydream with the stars because they are so lonely and misunderstood here on earth. They are standing on the earth with their head in the stars.