Tag Archives: vibrant colours

Vladimir Varlaj – Red House

10 Oct

Vladimir Varlaj, Red House, 1923

A lonely and mysterious pink house with red windows. Tall crooked trees. A passing train. There is an inexplicable loneliness about this autumnal scene which is very captivating to me. The loneliness is combined with vibrant, almost cheerful colours and this combination gives a sense of strangeness, uneasiness even. The contrast confuses and charms both at once. Strangeness is seeping from all sides of this canvas. Even the viewpoint is strange; we are seeing the scene as if we were standing on the hill, above the railway and the house, hidden behind the trees, or maybe we are one of them. The bare crooked trees come alive in the autumn wind, contorting and stretching their thin branches in all directions, their branches are like long arms trying to grab the stars. The soft gradience of the colours, pink mixing with orange and purple, is flying through the canvas from the unknown misty distances to the foreground, and it looks as if the colour is being carried by the wind. Varlaj transformed what might have otherwise been a drab, depressing scene into an almost magical realism landscape which is more a landscape of the soul than that of nature. The ecstatic pink colour is unsettling, like the laugh of a madman. It has the opposite effect than we might expect from dainty color pink. The red windows on the house are a nice contrast against the pink walls, but the place where the doors ought to be are a hollow space that will suck you in if you come too close, like the mouth opened in a scream in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”. And the motif of a train at night passing by without stopping through the strange landscape is perhaps a symbol of the man’s transience, of the passing of life, of the arrival of death.

Vladimir Varlaj (1895-1962) was a Croatian painter and a member of the Group of Four or the Prague Four; the four artists who worked and lived in Prague for a while during and right after the First World War. I have already written about another artist from this group Vilko Gecan here. In 1911 Varlaj started studying in the private school of the Croatian painter and graphic artist Tomislav Krizman, then he studied at the college of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb. In 1915 he was sent to the Russian front and in 1918 he was in Prague. In the 1920s he was back in Croatia, working with passion and eagerness, but sadly, after 1933 he was no longer able to paint because of his illness. The critics and art historians have had a hard time placing Varlaj into a distinct art movement, for his landscapes at times have elements of Expressionism and other times of magical realism. There is an influence of the German New Objectivity painter Alexander Kanoldt whose landscapes had a similar unsetting and strange appeal, but also, without a doubt, Varlaj was painting the state of his soul when he was painting a landscape which is something that the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich was a big proponent of. Some of Varlaj’s landscapes are more tame, continuing the tradition of Croatian landscapes. But other, such as the “Red House” are more moody and romantic, and filled with visual elements that add to the drama such as the nocturnal setting, lonely house by the railway, a passing train, bare trees; the desolation of late autumn is perfectly encapsulated in this painting, and so is the desolation of the artist’s soul. Varlaj was known for destroying his artworks in moments of depression and disillusionment so we are lucky that this amazing painting survived the painter’s madness.

Vincent van Gogh: Sun, Heat and Vibrant Colours of Arles (from Lust for Life)

17 Mar

“The Arlesian sun smote Vincent between the eyes, and broke him wide open. It was a whirling, liquid ball of lemon-yellow fire, shooting across a hard blue sky and filling the air with blinding light. The terrific heat and intense clarity of the air created a new and unfamiliar world.”

(Irving Stone, Lust for Life)

Vincent Van Gogh, Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, August 1888

One of my greatest joys in these early spring days is noticing and gazing at the trees in bloom, the same trees which were sad-looking and bare for months, and enjoying the golden rays of sun caressing me and promising ever warmer days. The joy of feeling the warm sun on your skin cannot be put in words! When it comes to art, my mind instantly went to Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers, his delicate almond blossoms and blooming orchards, I need his yellows and blues like I need the air to breathe. I was reading some of his letter again and also I was rereading Irving Stone’s wonderful novel “Lust for Life”, first published in 1934, which is a romanticised biography of Vincent van Gogh. I really recommend the book to everyone because it’s just so beautifully written and it absolutely sweeps you away. Irving Stone was just a great writer, I also read his novel “Agony and Ecstasy” about the life of Michelangelo, and I loved it as well, and I am not even interested in the art of Michelangelo and I think that speaks for the brilliancy of Stone’s writing. So, I decided to share passages from the novel which I found particularly interesting and accompany it with Van Gogh’s paintings and my own thoughts. After spending some time in Paris and living with his brother, Vincent, a man from the drab north, felt an inexplicable aching and longing for sun and in spring of 1888 he arrived to Arles, a small town in Provence, and that is where some of his most exciting, most vibrant paintings were painted. Here is how his arrival and first impressions of Arles are described in “Lust for Life”:

He dropped out of the third-class carriage early in the morning and walked down the winding road that led from the station to the Place Lamartine, a market square bounded on one side by the embankment of the Rhône, on the other by cafés and wretched hotels. Arles lay straight ahead, pasted against the side of a hill with a neat mason’s trowel, drowsing in the hot, tropical sun. When it came to looking for a place to live, Vincent was indifferent. He walked into the first hotel he passed in the Place, the Hotel de la Gare, and rented a room. It contained a blatant brass bed, a cracked pitcher in a washbowl, and an odd chair. The proprietor brought in an unpainted table. There was no room to set up an easel, but Vincent meant to paint out of doors all day.

He threw his valise on the bed and dashed out to see the town. There were two approaches to the heart of Arles from the Place Lamartine. The circular road on the left was for wagons; it skirted the edge of the town and wound slowly to the top of the hill, passing the old Roman forum and amphitheatre on the way. Vincent took the more direct approach, which led through a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets. After a long climb he reached the sun scorched Place de la Mairie. On the way up he passed cold stone courts and quadrangles which looked as though they had come down untouched from the early Roman days. In order to keep out the maddening sun, the alleys had been made so narrow that Vincent could touch both rows of houses with outstretched fingertips. To avoid the torturing mistral, the streets wound about in a hopeless maze on the side of the hill, never going straight for more than ten yards. There was refuse in the streets, dirty children in the doorways, and over everything a sinister, hunted aspect.

Vincent van Gogh, Peach Tree in Blossom, Arles, April-May 1888

Vincent left the Place de la Mairie, walked through a short alley to the main marketing road at the back of the town, strolled through the little park, and then stumbled down the hill to the Roman arena. He leaped from tier to tier like a goat, finally reaching the top. He sat on a block of stone, dangled his legs over a sheer drop of hundreds of feet, lit his pipe, and surveyed the domain of which he had appointed himself lord and master.

The town below him flowed down abruptly to the Rhône like a kaleidoscopic waterfall. The roofs of the houses were fitted into each other in an intricate design. They had all been tiled in what was originally red clay, but the burning, incessant sun had baked them to a maze of every colour, from the lightest lemon and delicate shell pink to a biting lavender and earthy loam-brown.

The wide, rapidly flowing Rhône made a sharp curve at the bottom of the hill on which Arles was plastered, and shot downward to the Mediterranean. There were stone embankments on either side of the river. Trinquetaille glistened like a painted city on the other bank. Behind Vincent were the mountains, huge ranges sticking upward into the clear white light. Spread out before him was a panorama of tilled fields, of orchards in blossom, the rising mound of Montmajour, fertile valleys ploughed into thousands of deep furrows, all converging at some distant point in infinity.

Vincent van Gogh, Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass, 1888

But it was the colour of the country-side that made him run a hand over his bewildered eyes. The sky was so intensely blue, such a hard, relentless, profound blue that it was not blue at all; it was utterly colorless. The green of the fields that stretched below him was the essence of the colour green, gone mad. The burning lemon-yellow of the sun, the blood-red of the soil, the crying whiteness of the lone cloud over Montmajour, the ever reborn rose of the orchards… such colourings were incredible. How could he paint them? How could he ever make anyone believe that they existed, even if he could transfer them to his palette? Lemon, blue, green, red, rose; nature run rampant in five torturing shades of expression.

Vincent took the wagon road to the Place Lamartine, grabbed up his easel, paints, and canvas and struck out along the Rhône. Almond trees were beginning to flower everywhere. The glistening white glare of the sun on the water sent stabs of pain into his eyes. He had left his hat in the hotel. The sun burned through the red of his hair, sucked out all the cold of Paris, all the fatigue, discouragement, and satiety with which city life had glutted his soul.
A kilometre down the river he found a drawbridge with a little cart going over it, outlined against a blue sky. The river was as blue as a well, the banks orange, coloured with green grass. A group of washerwomen in smocks and many-coloured caps were pounding dirty clothes in the shade of a lone tree. Vincent set up his easel, drew a long breath, and shut his eyes. No man could catch such colourings with his eyes open. There fell away from him Seurat’s talk about scientific pointillism, Gauguin’s harangues about primitive decorativeness, Cezanne’s appearances beneath solid surfaces, Lautrec’s lines of colour and lines of splenetic hatred.

Francisco de Zurbarán – Saint Agatha

10 Feb

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Agatha, 1630-33

In the first half of the seventeenth century Francisco de Zurbarán, perhaps the spookiest painter of the Spanish Baroque, painted a series of portraits depicting female saints and virgin martyrs which is surprisingly vibrant in colour and mood, at least compared to his other paintings. Zurbarán painted around twenty such portraits and all of them present the image of youth and delicate beauty: the saints are painted as rosy-cheeked girls, elegant and serene, and most importantly – beautifully dressed in sumptuous fabric in all colours and shade, from mustard yellow and rich red to greens, blues and even some splendid Veronese pink. In his time Zurbarán got his fair share of criticism for portraying the virgin martyrs in such a lavish way, accentuating more their worldly beauty and rich attire rather than their humility and piousness. And indeed, they look more like dainty princesses than martyrs. Still, there is something that clearly marks them as saints and not princesses: their attributes; a visual symbol that helps us recognise which saints is presented in the painting. Our sweet little saint Agatha here is painted carrying her cut off breasts on a platter and that is how we know the painting shows Saint Agatha and not some other saint.

Agatha of Sicily (c. 231-251) was an early Christian saint born in Sicily and the story goes that, according to Jacobus de Voragine’s “Golden Legend”, the young Agatha took a virginity vow and, on many occasions, rejected the romantic offers of Roman prefect Quintianus. This all happened during the persecutions of Decius and eventually Quintianus reported Agatha to the authorities. He imagined that Agatha, when faced with torture and death, would give in to his demands, but instead she prayed to god for courage. Part of her torture included her breasts being cut off with pincers. She was suppose to be burnt at the stake but an earthquake prevented this and then she was sent to prison where St Peter the Apostle appeared to her and healed her wounds. She died in prison, remaining faithful to her ideals.

In Zurbarán’s portrait, not a trace of suffering, torment or pain can be seen on her delicate pale face, only perhaps a tinge of wistfulness. Her slender figure is arising from the darkness of the background like a beautiful sculpture and there is nothing in the painting that distracts us from the real motif: Saint Agatha. She’s gazing in the distance with her large dark eyes while her breasts, so pale and so beautifully sculpted, stand on the platter like two delicious cupcakes. Around her neck a pearl necklace, her dress falling beautifully. I like other female saints portraits as well but Agatha showing off her cut off breasts is perhaps the most interesting to me because it’s kinda provocative and naughty. Just imagine what an outrage these tits would cause if the theme of the painting wasn’t religious but worldly. Here are some other paintings from the same series:

Francisco de Zurbarán, Santa Dorotea, 1648

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Dorothy, 1640-50

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Ursula, 1635-40

Circus Scenes in Art – A Tightrope Between Vibrancy and Melancholy

20 Sep

Der Himmel über Berlin

Wim Wenders’ film “Wings of Desire” (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) perfectly encapsulated my vision of circus. It is a beautiful film, one of my all time favourites, and even though the circus is not its main theme, it is the most poignant to me. What’s not to like about this film; slow tempo, alienating mood, greyness of Berlin streets and buildings, everyday sadness that seems poetic seen through the eyes of the Angel, old man vainly looking for Potsdamer Platz but finding only the wall covered in graffiti, depressed people in U-Bahns, a sad young man who commits suicide by jumping from the top of the Europa Centar at Kudamm thinking to himself “The East is everywhere”, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds having a gig at a smoky club, also The Crime and the City Solution, and finally – the lonely trapeze artist Marion who “waited an eternity to hear a loving word”. The most beautiful scene in the film, for me (you can see it on YouTube) is when Marion sits on top of the car, wistful and lonely, with her angel wings, thinking about past and future because the circus, an elephant sadly trumpets, and the guy starts playing a sad melody on accordion. So beautiful, dreamy and nostalgic.

Der Himmel über Berlin

There’s this duality of circus that intoxicates me. Everything is an illusion, just like in cabarets, theatres, nightclubs, parties, Moulin Rouge etc. On one hand, there’s the cheerful vibrancy; striped red-white tent, trapeze artist in shiny pink costume, wide smiled doing acrobatics, laughter and clapping, clowns, tightrope walkers, jugglers, dancers, magicians, animals, lions, crocodiles, elephants, trained to do tricks against their will. On the other hand, there’s the grey reality after the performance. These artists seem to live for the show, but about life after it? Exhausted people returning to their trailors, doing the same thing every night to a different crowd, from one town to the next. When the audience finally leaves, when the candy-floss and popcorn have been sold, when silent night descends, what remains – solitude and melancholy.

There’s such sadness and transience in seeing posters all over the town for an event that has passed becoming paler, chipped and torn as each day passes until one day, a new set of shiny bright posters replace them. Circus theme is present in the film Coralina (2009) where the old Russian guy in the attic perseveres in teaching mice to do tricks; in reality he fails to do so, but in the “other world” his circus is the stuff that dreams are made of. In Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, Sabina is a painter and the scenes she paints always have a duality about them; red velvet curtains that reveal a different whimsical world. There’s always this duality about circus and theatre; glitter and sadness, tears and laughter, ecstasy and melancholy, all tangled together, inseparable.

Pierre-Auguste-Renoir, Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg), 1879

It is easy to understand why all those painters were drawn to the fanciful world of circus, theatre and the clowns, from Antoine Watteau who portrayed the sad, melancholy Pierrot in the most humane, poignant way, to Goya, Picasso, Renoir, Seurat, Federico Beltran Masses, Marc Chagall, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Laura Knight and many others. Firstly, the circus was a visually fascinating place, all the vibrant colours, interesting faces and shining costumes, dynamic and the movement are so easy to capture on paper, you needn’t search for a particular motif, it is right there in front of your eyes, paint a clown or a trapeze artist. Secondly, circus performers were people alienated from the rest of the “normal” society and that makes them similar to painters from Montmarte and Montparnasse. They both had the outsider appeal which drew them together, they both felt all too well the fragility and beauty of living on the margins of society. And thirdly, a painter paints a world of his own on his canvases and a circus is already a world of its own; Marc Chagall’s art is really unique in how playful and imaginative it is, we can really call it “Chagall’s world” because it doesn’t exist anywhere else but on his canvases (and first in his mind, naturally) and likewise, the world of circus only exists under the striped red and white tent, only on specific days, in certain evening hours, so it is like a dream, and dreams always end. I will not comment specifically about each painting, but I hope you enjoy this little selection of circus scenes in art which I love.

Georges Seurat, English Circus Sideshow, 1887-88

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Rider On A White Horse, 1888, pastel and gouache

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Circus Fernando, the rider, 1888

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, At the circus work in the ring, 1899

Georges Seurat, The Circus, 1891

Laura Knight, The Fair, 1919

Federico Beltran Massess, Circus (El Circo), c. 1920s

Laura Knight, Circus Matinee, 1938

Marc Chagall, The Blue Circus, 1950

Marc Chagall, The Dance and the Circus, 1950

Marc Chagall, Couple au cirque 1981

Philip Wilson Steer – Vibrant Beach Scenes

22 Aug

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”

(KIate Chopin, The Awakening)

Philip Wilson Steer, Boulogne Sands, 1888-91

Philip Wilson Steer painted some rather dull landscapes and some very atmospheric interiors with dreamy girls, but his most unique and eye-catching paintings are these vivacious and vibrant beach scenes painted in the late 1880s and first half of the 1890s. The radiant colours and the sketchy style is what makes these paintings so unique and extraordinary.

At the age of eighteen, Steer wished to work for the Civil Service but found the entrance exams too demanding. We are fortunate that didn’t occur, for he probably would not have become a painter. He proceeded to study at the Gloucester School of Art and Kensington Drawing Schools, but he wasn’t quite good enough for the Royal Academy of Art. After being rejected by the Academy, Steer went to Paris and there he studied from 1882 to 1884, first at the Academie Julian and then at the École des Beaux Arts where his teacher was Alexandre Cabanel. Despite the years spent at the academies, Steer returned to England not as a Cabanel copy-cat, rather he was more influenced by the works of the Impressionists that he had seen. Steer often visited the picturesque coastal little towns of Walberwick and Southwald in Suffolk, for he had friends there, and he painted people, mostly mothers and daughters, having their holidays in the sun. Despite being inspired by the Impressionist, Steer didn’t go full plein air, that is, he didn’t paint outdoors. Whilst on the beach, Steer would enjoy the scenery and liveliness all around him, take many sketches in his sketchbook and then later turn them into proper paintings in his studio. That way he could capture many fun scenes that happened on the beach in the same day and transform them into canvases full of dots, dashes, textures, sketchy imprecise and harsh brushstrokes.

Philip Wilson Steer, Watching Cowes Regatta, 1892

These beach scenes may appear sketchy and spontaneous, but Steer actually carefully planned each one and often took years to finish them. Each of them has a unique beauty; “Watching Cowes Regatta” has a wonderfully serene harmony of gentle blue tones and is reminiscent of some of Whistler’s paintings, in “Children Paddling” the water just shines and glimmers and the blueness is overwhelming, in “Girls Running” the two figures of girls dressed in matching dresses and matching red sashes is the most striking, and notice how they are not holding their hands, but their shadows are, in “Figures at the Beach” everything disappears in a blueish haze and the three girls in blue and white dresses are as sketchy as can be to still look recognisable, in “The Beach at Walberswick” the red is so intense and pulsating and contrasts beautifully with the blueness of the sea, and in the last painting what strikes me the most is how sketchy and nearly see-through the figures in the foreground are. A wonderful brushwork and a wonderful vibrancy of shades and colours constrasts truly make these beach scenes tangible and alive; one can hear the waves, the seagulls and the laughter of all these girls, feel the magic of the glimmering sea and feel the pebbles or sand underfoot.

“There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.” (Kate Chopin, The Awakening)

Philip Wilson Steer, Walberswick, Children Paddling, 1894

Philip Wilson Steer, Girls Running, Walberswick Pier, 1888-94

Philip Wilson Steer, Figures on the Beach, Walberswick, 1888-89

Philip Wilson Steer, The Beach at Walberswick, 1889

Philip Wilson Steer, Southwold, 1889

Jean-Vincent Simonet – Under Neon Loneliness

3 Jul

“Under neon loneliness, everlasting nothingness.”

(Manic Street Preachers, Motorcycle Empintess.)

I recently stumbled upon these groovy photographs by a young French photographer Jean-Vincent Simonet and they instantly captivated me! This series of photographs, named “In Bloom” and indeed it is blooming with all sorts of vibrant colours, is a product of nocturnal wanderings through the busy streets of Tokyo and Osaka. But these photographs show the cities in a rather different view than most people walking the streets in those same evenings saw it. Vibrant colours melting into one another, slightly distorted shapes of buildings and streets, neon signs, purple skies and pink streets look like something out of a Sailor Moon anime, and also, for some reason, they remind me of the line “Under neon loneliness, everlasting nothingness” from the song “Motorcycle Emptiness” by the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers; the video for that song was also, coincidentally, filmed in Tokyo where the band is seen walking the streets, under the garish neon signs and shining promises of fun that the city has to offer, but their faces show alienation from all that garish world. Therefore, I see these photographs not only as psychedelic, bubbly and wild in colours, but also as a garishly coloured fantasy world of chaos and excitement which offers cheap dreams but nonetheless leaves one lonely and lost; I have never felt more lonely than when wondering the streets in the evening, seeing the glitter and neon lights and feeling complete emptiness and detachment from it all. But they can also be seen as presenting the magic of the night when anything seems possible and one can be whoever one wants; the dream is pulsating and alive until the faint grey light of dawn kills it. Simonet made prints of the photographs onto plastic paper then washed the photograph with chemicals and that is how he succeeded in creating images with such a psychedelic mood to portray his experience of Tokyo at night.

The photographer’s page: https://www.jeanvincentsimonet.com/about

Girl with a Hat – Hommage à Renoir by John Corbet

6 Apr

“Upset by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his marvelous sense of unreality and he ended up recommending to all of them that they leave, that they forget everything he had taught them about the world and the human heart, (…), and that wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”

(Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

John Corbet, Hommage à Renoir, watercolour on paper, 2020

This lovely watercolour has been haunting me ever since I first laid my eyes on it. The warm vibrant colours and all the swirls and free, playful and spontaneous brushstrokes touch my heart. Like opening a box in the attic filled with trinkets and toys from childhood or listening to a song that brings a world back to life, this watercolour awakes all these rich feelings and memories. At once bitter and sweet, like a memory that aches and warms your heart at the same time but you can never relive it, memory of flowers and sunsets, laughter, birdsong and sea waves, the distant dreamy world that is beyond reach, the paradise lost, now only the echoes of laughter and songs remain, the memory of sunbeams dancing on the sea waves but not the hot, burning sun itself. Almost tangible, but still a memory. Memories always have that dim, rosy, foggy quality, that warmth and sugary sweet essence with just a tinge of peppermint-flavored sadness. In your thoughts, you run and run through colourful hazy corridors of memories, you follow the music that awakes them, you want to live in the chambers of happier times, but you cannot. A dried flowers cannot bring the spring back, and the old theatre ticket cannot bring back that performance. And you live and you walk and you talk in this real tangible life, but all around you the memories float like symbols, like shells and flowers in Odilon Redon’s paintings, mystic and dreamy, it touches something inside you that reason wants to suppress.

These are the thoughts that flood my mind as I gaze at this watercolour inspired by Renoir’s lovely paintings of girls in hats, but this watercolour has more ecstatic colours, more grooviness, something dreamy that Renoir’s girls do not possess. Look at her rosy face, rosy because it’s coloured by the last rays of sun in the dusk of the day, the dreamy hour of the day when shadows and colours tremble and breathe. Her eyes are closed to the real world around her, she wants to forget, she wants to be the part of the Dream world that is alive all around her. I imagine her spinning and floating on the breeze of that dreamland, rising from the ground and traveling, like Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, to that distant place of poppies and cactuses, warm sands and fragrant flowers, winds that whispers poems in your ear, and pink sunsets skies that are infinite and promising…

Something about this watercolour makes me feel so nostalgic… for everything. It makes me feel deeply the line from Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”: “the past was a line, memory has no return, and every spring gone by could never be recovered.” Bring me violins that makes the heart bleed, a sad accordion that makes the tears flow, because when I gaze at this watercolour I feel melancholy for what was and will never be, I think of blooming apple trees that suddenly lose their blossom and turn all green, magnolia blossoms and freshly cut grass, crickets chirping and seasons passing, changes that cannot be stopped, words that cannot be unspoken, escapism into domains of one’s dream and memory land. The way she closes her eyes and sensually allows herself to be kissed by the sun, there’s something so innocent and indulgent about allowing oneself such simple pleasure. Close your eyes to the world, look within and another world awaits you, one which is infinitely better. The colours have something sixties about them, orange and mauves. A touch of violet and orange on her shirt, her rosy face and wine-coloured hair, moss green painted in swirls in the background, I am seduced by these colours. This watercolour has the Beauty that makes my heart burst like a ripe fig in the Mediterranean sun.

Renoir, Etude de femme avec chapeau – fragment, date unknown

John Corbet is a contemporary artist whose wonderful, whimsical and dreamy pastels and watercolours you should definitely check out here. We are so fortunate that he is sharing these beautiful artworks, sharing little fragments of his imagination and beauty with the word. I have already written about his ghostly pastels last year, but his work continues to surprise me, it’s getting more vibrant and more lovely and I am delighted to see that he is doing more and more watercolours, exploring and experimenting without neglecting his love for pastels. Formally, this is a Hommage to Renoir, but on a spiritual level, the mood of Corbet’s watercolour is more dreamy and mystical and it brings to mind the mood of Odilon Redon and Gauguin’s paintings.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Girl with Hat (Jeune fille au chapeau), c. 1883

Renoir, Young Girl in a Flowered Hat, 1900-05

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Young Girls Reading, 1890-91

Renoir, Two Sisters, 1890

Renoir, The Little Reader (Little Girl in Blue), 1890

Gustav Klimt – The Virgin

3 Mar

Today we’ll take a look at Klimt’s painting “The Virgin”, to me, his most vibrant and psychedelic work which signifies a stylistic change in his art and deals with a theme of girl’s sensual awakening. I will start with this ode to virginity from the novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders” written in 1932 (but published in 1945) by a Czech Surrealist writer Vítězslav Nezval. Nezval was a teenage boy when Klimt and Shiele were created their works, and in those days they were all compatriots. Valerie is a seventeen year old girl who lives in this strange little village with her strange aunt, the atmosphere is reminiscent of Gothic novels and it’s more romantic than surrealist actually. One night she, along with other village virgins, goes to a sermon where a strange priest is instructing the virgins on how they should behave: “Oh virgin, do you know who you are? (…) You are an as yet uncleft pomegranate. You are a shell in which the future ages will ring. You are a bud which will burst open when the time is ripe. You are a little rose-petal floating on  the tempestuous ocean. You are a peach oozing red blood…”

Gustav Klimt, The Virgin, 1913

I am absolutely captivated by the colours, shapes and patterns in this painting. This isn’t Klimt’s “golden phase”, this is his colourful psychedelic phase, and it proved to be his last stylistic change before he died in February 1918. Klimt on acid; borrowing purples and yellows from Matisse and Bonnard, flowers and patterns from Japanese textiles and kimonos, daydreaming of the mosaics of Ravenna. The waterfall of colours is joyfully flickering, laughing, bursting with excitement, dancing and swirling around the pale maidens who are languidly floating in a dreamy kaleidoscopic world of their own; a floating island of love, a resplendent Cythera of their own. The rigor mortis of “The Kiss”, his most famous work and a representative of his golden phase, is now a thing of the past. Though the space is still flat and ornamental, it appears far more lively because there’s so much more going on; in a pyramidal composition six female figures are intertwined, their poses and face expressions differ, but they all have the same flesh; their skin is very pale with patches of blue and pink, which brings to mind Schiele’s nudes. Here and there breasts are protruding. They are not as seductive as the femme fatales in his earlier works were, here the colour is what captures all our attention. While the girls all possess similar features and doll-like faces, the pattern appears very unique and well planned. Negating the figure and giving free reign to the pattern might be a step towards abstract art.

Nonetheless, Klimt’s focus here is still on women, without a doubt his favourite thing to paint, and the face in the middle, right above that wave of purple, is the face that my mind keep coming back to. That is her – the Virgin. Her white mask-like face with closed eyes seems peaceful with a trace of anticipation in those blueish eyelids and lips pressed together; she is dreaming within her own dream. Her heart is fluttering with the anticipation of the delights that are to come, the ecstasy which is to awake her from her virginal slumber. Her eyes are closed; she doesn’t yet see and she doesn’t yet know, but the flowers blooming all around her are far less secretive about the desires awakening inside her. Her feelings are stirred, and her hopes sweet, but she patiently awaits the future. Gazing at her face and imagining her feelings made me think of this poem by a Japanese Poetess of the Heain period Ono no Komachi (c. 825-900):

Was I lost in thoughts of love
When I closed my eyes? He
Appeared, and
Had I known it for a dream
I would not have awakened.

Gustav Klimt, The Bride, 1917-18

A stylistic and symbolic continuation for the painting “The Virgin” might as well be Klimt’s unfinished work “The Bride” where the maiden figure is at the last step of her virginal life and about to enter a new phase, she is now ripe as a fig at the height of summer, bursting with sweet juices. Again, the close-eyed figure and the swirling pattern and abundance of colours is present. It’s interesting to notice that he painted pubic hair on the figure on the right, and began painting a vibrant dress over it, and I’m sure it wasn’t a sudden change of mind but rather a preference.

Fragonard and Goya: The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure?

9 Dec

Jean-Honore Fragonard, A Game of Hot Cockles, 1775

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a master when it came to turning fantasies into realities, in the realm of his canvas at least, he wasn’t a magician or a magic fairy. Fragonard, a pupil of Boucher, brought elegance and youthful playfulness into Francois Boucher’s sumptuous and slightly erotic compositions. Whereas Boucher intertwined mythological scenes with the unrestrained lives of the wealthy nobility, Fragonard painted worlds which are neither real nor mythological, but his own dreamy havens. His is the world where love never dies and sun never sets. The painting “A Game of Hot Cockles” isn’t even the finest example, his series called “Progress of Love” is the height of romantic escapism in that fanciful kingdom of love and dreams.

In the painting above the figures occupy just a small portion of the canvas, while the tall trees stretch on and on. He paints trees in a variety of shades, from the warm green-yellowish leaves in the foreground to the gentle hazy blue-greens in the background. The mysterious park is like a theatre stage where games take place. The inspiration for the dazzling landscapes in the background of his painting came from his travel to Rome in 1756, and so does the vibrant colour palette. In contrast to the greenness, the figures are dressed in vibrant jewel coloured clothes; ruby red, sapphire blue, amber yellow, pink as rose quartz.

Detail of Fragonard’s painting

In a dreamy park surrounded by woods a dreamy group of silk-clad figures are enjoying their leisure time and playing a game, and not just any game, but a very Rococo one called “game of hot cockles” which was a popular game for the Christmas time even in the nineteenth century. The game includes one person placing their head in someone’s lap while a third person is hitting their bottom, and the person has to guess who spanked them. A man had a unique opportunity to place their head in a pretty woman’s laps, and ladies had a chance to do the same. Such a silly and naughty game with an erotic undertone instantly became a hit with the indolent French nobility. One could intentionally name the wrong person so that this “wicked game” continues. The group is playing the game, but what are the lady in a red dress and the man in blue doing in the far left corner? Perhaps he’s telling her ‘Hey, I would like to spank you, but it needn’t be part of the game.’ To which she disapprovingly replies ‘Oh, please, can’t you see my dog is listening’.

Lyrics from the Gang of Four’s song ‘Natural’s not in it’ come to mind:

“The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
Ideal love a new purchase
A market of the senses….
Renounce all sin and vice
Dream of the perfect life
This heaven gives me migraine”

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Blind Man’s Buff (La Gallina Ciega), 1788

The works that Goya is known for today, the imaginative, but dark and disturbing “Los Caprichos” are in the start contrast to his earlier works painted for the court. “Blind Man’s Buff” belongs to Goya’s court phase or his Rococo phase. Both the theme and the colour palette are lighter, and he was influenced by Watteau in this period. It is part of the series that Goya painted for the Royal Palace of El Pardo in Madrid. The painting shows a group of young people playing the game of blind man’s buff.

The man in the middle is blindfolded and trying to touch the other players with a long wooden spoon. I remember playing that game when I was little, but we never used a spoon, how funny! One man, the one on the right, is dressed in an elegant French attire while the other three men and the women are all showing off their vibrant Spanish costumes which they chose to wear in order to emphasise their nationality and culture. In this detail you can see the wonderful vibrant colours, that red and that yellow are so eye catching! It all looks so dreamy and naive, which goes in tune with the spirit of Rococo and its never ending pursuit of pleasure and love for enjoying life.

The Straw Manikin (La Marioneta) by Francisco Goya, 1791-92

Here is another painting from the same royal series by Goya, painted a bit later though, called “The Straw Manikin”. I already wrote about it here. Times are getting darker and Rococo is in demise, and here an innocent outdoor game is taking a twisted touch. Girls are throwing a straw doll in the air, but look at his face expression; so passive, so resigned, they can do whatever they want with him. He is powerless in the hands of females.

Henry Wallis – The Death of Chatterton

23 Sep

Today we’ll take a look at a painting which I loved recently; “The Death of Chatterton” painted in 1856 by a Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis. The painting’s romantic, melancholy mood and vibrant colours are perfect to celebrate the first day of autumn; the most romantical of all the seasons.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Tate Britain version

Pale rays of the morning sun are coming in through the window of this shabby little garret. A young man is lying on the bed, but he isn’t in the world of dreams, in the usual slumber we mortals are well acquainted with. His pale grayish skin and hand hanging limply and touching the floor tell us that his soul is now wandering the dark avenues of the world of the death; no bird song, no caress or soft whisper of a loved one’s voice shall ever awaken those eyes to see and mouth to speak again. Through the window stretches a view of London; a city of possibilities, a city of despair, a city which brought nothing but disappointment and misery to this poor red-haired sleeping angel. Not many possessions he had in his poorly furnished attic room; a box lies next to his bed full of papers, some torn to pieces and some survived with words full of secrets. A chair with a red coat on it. Dark dirty wall full of cracks and a round little table. One can imagine the eerie silence hanging in that room like a cloud.

The dead young man here is the eighteenth century poet Thomas Chatterton who died in London in 1770 at the age of seventeen by poisoning himself with arsenic in the fit of despair. Although poor, he was very clever and not only ambitious, but, unfortunately for him, quite romantic too; when his idealism was shattered, the pink clouds of his dreams tainted by reality’s grey long-fingered nails, he saw death as the only escape. He is now considered an early romantic, and with his interest in Medieval literature and his short life laced with mysteries, Chatterton was admired by Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. And yet, no one glamourised his life with such intensity as Wallis here in this painting. Victorian group of painters, the Pre-Raphaelites were visual continuators of the idealism and dreaminess of the Romantic poetry; not in the form of beautiful and sensuous language but in vibrant colours and intricate detailing. Not only the subject alone, that of a Romantic martyr for art, but the method and style of the painting with its emphasis on details and usage of vibrant colours connect Wallis to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Can we take a moment to appreciate just how gorgeous and vivid these colours are, and how beautiful his corpse looks dressed in those lapis lazuli coloured trousers and masses of auburn hair. How serene he looks after a life of suffering in this cruel world. His shirt is unbuttoned, one shoe fell on the floor, and there is a bottle, presumably of arsenic that rolled out of his hand. In the Birmingham version of the painting, his trousers appear more violet in colour, which makes a tremendous difference 😉 .

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Birmingham version

The dazzling chiaroscuro, a method which Wallis loved, with the lightness falling on the body while the rest of the garret is in half-darkness only intensifies the emotional dimension of the painting. It is impossible not to feel gentleness, empathy, and also a sense of sacredness. The model for Chatterton was George Meredith, a poet and a novelist whose wife had an affair with Wallis just two years after this was painted, ouch, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. The Christ-like pose of the cadaver has since brought comparisons to religious art, such as Michelangelo’s “Pietà”. For Romanticists and Pre-Raphaelites, the artist was a secularised Christ-like figure, a dreamer, an idealist and a lover of beauty tortured by the unkind world. Therefore, Henry Wallis’s painting of Chatterton holds a deeper significance and meaning than a usual historical painting would; it isn’t just a portrait of a poet who had died the century before, it is an icon for all who believe in the religion of Art and Beauty.

There is an interesting anecdote from Chatterton’s life which occurred three days before he died; he was walking with his friend along the St Pancras Churchyard (the same one where Percy Shelley had nocturnal love meetings with Mary), lost in his thoughts the young poet fell into an open grave. His friend joked about it by saying he’d be delighted to help resurrect a genius from the grave, to which Chatterton replied: “My dear friend, I have been at war with the grave for some time now.” Just three days later, on 24th August 1770, he was dead.

This painting with the theme of suicide reminded me of the Manic Street Preachers’s song “Suicide is Painless”:

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
I can take or leave it if I please
That game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card of some delay
So this is all I have to say
That suicide is painless
….
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And you can do the same thing if you please…