Tag Archives: Vincent van Gogh

Romantic Melancholy

17 Nov

Sad; so sad, those smoky-rose, smoky-mauve evenings of late autumn, sad enough to pierce the heart…anguish of the turn of the year, the time of impotent yearning, the inconsolable season. (Angela Carter, Saints and Strangers)

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

In these lonely autumn evenings, I yearn to escape the enveloping dreariness of November through poetry, pressed flowers and scented candles. Suffocated by thick fogs and the smell of rotting corpses of daydreams and high hopes that never come true, I hear Melancholy quietly knocking on my door and silently, without disturbing the yellow roses in my vase, it wrapped my tired shoulders with a fragrant lace cloth of spring naivety and summer innocence, of silver dandelions and spider webs, white roses and kindness of strangers. I try to smile at this stranger dressed in a purple gown and jangling earrings of silver and amethyst, but my lips of a doll have become rusty. I take the imaginary book of memories in my hand and blow away the dust. A few rose petals fall on the floor, and my crystal tears join them in their fall. Memories of summer’s gold and bloom dance in my head like skeletons, memories of things that were painfully beautiful but might never return. Memories of poppy meadows and river’s cheerful murmurs, of May’s pink roses, white butterflies and forest groves, of golden sunlight and juicy pears, of stars and perpetually dreamy days of July, and long warm enchantingly golden afternoons of August. I have a withered rose instead of a heart, and it pulsates melodiously in a rhythm of yearning and anguish. I am a forgotten abbey in the oakwood; all my hopes have fallen like leaves on the trees and my soul is but a skeleton covered in moss. I take a pen and command: Melancholy, oh speak to me!

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

Melancholy is kind and generous, and since I begged her, she spoke to me in a mellifluous voice of all the places where she resides… First thou shall find me, said Melancholy, in ethereal sounds of Chopin’s Nocturnes, whose trembling ecstasies and passions lie hidden under flimsy veils of sadness. As Oscar Wilde said: “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.” When Chopin’s Nocturne turns to mute silence of dreary chambers, I dance my way to beautiful objects and inhabit them; old ballet slippers, worn out lamé dresses of 1920s, a box of old letters and photographs, empty perfume bottles, dusty cradles of children who are now adults, summer dusks with fireflies and strong scent of roses and a pale moon appearing coyly on the horizon, worn out names on tombstones and graves that no one visits any more, flowers slowly withering in a vase, unfinished charcoal drawings, drafts of letters never finished, smell of old books… Every place of beauty is my abode, ye can find me in poetry and songs too; in vocals and wistful violins of the Tindersticks and their song Travelling Light:

“There are places I don’t remember
There are times and days, they mean nothing to me
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
They don’t serve to jog my memory

I’m not waking in the morning, staring at the walls these days
I’m not getting out the boxes, spread all over the floor
I’ve been looking through some of them old pictures
Those faces they mean nothing to me no more”

Caspar David Friedrich, Abtei im Eichwald (Abbey in the Oakwood), 1808-1810

I closed my eyes and listened to Melancholy as it spoke to me, with a voice like flowing honey, and she said: I hide in canvases too; German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich adored me as his muse. Do not believe his landscapes, they are not at all what they seem; a tree is not a tree and fog is not simply fog as it is with John Constable. Led by his pantheistic vision of nature, he portrayed emotions and his states of mind. “Abbey in the Oakwood” is a melancholic masterpiece. An abandoned Gothic abbey is a corpse, a ruin, which speaks of happier times when it served its purpose. Tall oaks with crooked bare branches surround it. Sublime, eerie mood pervades the painting; crosses disappearing into the fog, a barely noticeable procession of monks, a freshly dug grave, and the endlessly lead coloured sky. In early 19th century Germany, Romanticism was closely associated with the National awakening, and Goethe considered Gothic architecture to be Germanic in origin. In contrast to the Classical architecture, the plans of Gothic cathedrals were done by “romantic intuition” rather than mathematical calculations. Gothic abbeys and oaks possess the same grandeur, the same melancholy when covered in deep snow or grey fogs.

I am not always obvious at first sight; do not let the screaming ecstatic yellow of Vincent van Gogh and Kirchner deceive you, for I was their friend too. I was the pencil that Egon Schiele used to sketch his nude beauties with worn out smiles and hollow cheeks, I kissed every yellow petal of the sunflowers he was obsessed with.

Egon Schiele, Sunflower, 1909

As I wipe my tears and feel my cheek’s returning rosy hue, I eagerly listen to Melancholy and her story. She says: I was the lover of John Keats, and the illness of young Werther. All artists find a muse in me, and Romanticists loved me deeply, but the idealist and dreamy escapist Keats adored me in particular, and dressed himself in my cloth of flowers, tears and beauty. In his rosy-coloured visions of the Middle Ages, he found beauty that the world of reality had denied him. Keats knew when he sang of me that Beauty is my other face, and he knew my strength well enough so he never tried to defeat me but rather embrace me and heal the sorrow I cause by contemplating things of Beauty:

“But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud;

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

*

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine…”

Percy Bysshe Shelley confided in me too, but found me too bitter at times, and yet he wrote these verses: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Photo by Laura Makabresku

John Singer Sargent, Polly Barnard (also known as study for Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose), 1885, Medium: pencil

Photo by Laura Makabresku

“There is a life and there is a death, and there are beauty and melancholy between.” (Albert Camus)

Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825-30

Caspar David Friedrich, A Walk at Dusk (detail), ca.1830-35

In November dreariness, my only consolation lies in long evening walks by the river. The Moon is my lover; I year for his caresses and weep at sunset when we must part. He greets me, smiling through the bare branches of tall trees, and I turn my face to his glow and whisperingly ask to fulfil all my longings, to kiss my cheeks and hug me. I hear the river murmuring of happier times, but the Moon is wise and he offers me a “nepenthe”. ‘What is it?’, I ask the Moon and he replies: ‘It is an ancient Greek word, defined as a medicine for sorrow. It can be a place, person or thing, which can aid in forgetting your pain and suffering.’ I follow the Moon, yearning for a more precise answer, but it disappears behind the clouds and I am left alone … yet again.

Photo by Laura Makabresku

I gaze at the river for a long time, longing to see the Moon’s whimsical silvery reflection in the dark water. I cup the dark water in my hands and the dazzling rays of moon slip through my fingers… just as every happy moment does.

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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.

Sappha – I Sleep Alone…

9 Jun

A lovely poem by an ancient Greek poetess Sappha who lived on the Isle of Lesbos and was famously called the “Tenth muse”, accompanied by a beautiful, magical painting of vivacious stars shining on the vibrant blue sky painted in psychedelic swirls. What seems to be an utter source of fascination for me, is that the same moon that Sappha had seen in those warm Mediterranean nights, is the same moon that Van Gogh had gazed at, in the absinthe-laced nights of Arles, or Percy Shelley, and look from your window, go for a late evening walk – you shall see the same lonely, bright, white face gazing at you with melancholic eyes, surrounded in glorious darkness, singing wistful songs to his nymphs the stars which flicker and flicker, until, consumed by their own light, they don’t vanish …. into eternity. We are but mortals, the moon – with no beginning or ending. So should one have pity for us mortals and our transience or for the Moon and his eternal loneliness?

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889

“Well, the moon has set

And the Pleiades. It is the middle

Of the night. And the hour passes by,

But I sleep alone …….”

(Translated by Terry Walsh)

Egon Schiele – Neuelengbach Affair – Martyr for the Cause of Art: Part I

21 Apr

This is the first out of two posts which will explore Egon Schiele’s artistic endeavours in a small town of Neulengbach and his time spent in prison for his erotic drawings.

Egon Schiele, Nude against coloured background, 1911

As I already wrote in my post about Egon Schiele’s Krumau Scenes, small towns and suburbs held a particular charm for this artist, and even before coming to Krumau in May 1910, just a month shy of his twentieth birthday, he’d dreamt of an artistic paradise in some small town where he could afford to rent a cheap studio and be surrounded by nature all day long. Also, he wanted to escape the dark city full of shadows – Vienna, or that is at least how he saw it. Krumau was the birthplace of his mother and that’s why it caught his attention. He first visited the place with his painter-friends; Anton Peschka and Ervin Osen, and then, in May 1911, he settled in a little house near the river Vltava (Moldau) with his new model, lover and a muse – Wally Neuzil. He painted her in the studio, and he also painted a lot of landscapes, capturing the densely situated colourful houses, emphasising their decaying mood, and sunflowers too.

Need I mention that the inhabitants of this little, dreamy, provincial town weren’t really pleased with having a cocky artist living in sin with his pretty little red-haired muse? Town had its charm indeed and Schiele produced some good paintings there, but their heaven came to an end sometime in July 1911, when he wrote to Roessler: “You know how much I like to be in Krumau and now life is made impossible. People boycott us simply because we’re red. Of course I could defend myself, even against all 7,000 of them, but I don’t have the time and why should I bother?” Term ‘red’ was used for a person not going to church. And so Schiele and Wally returned to Vienna.

Egon Schiele, The Self Seers (Death and Man), 1911

Schiele’s longing for a peaceful and creative mood of a small town or a village is so naive in my eyes. Yes, nature is beautiful, but the mood of a small town, the provincial claustrophobia, the judgemental and simple-minded people, there’s no beauty in that, and I should know. People of Krumau, in Schiele’s time, were a bunch of intolerant, simple-minded fools who probably couldn’t understand his art if their lives depended on it, but wait till you hear what happened in Neulengbach.

Schiele spent only a month in Vienna and already started looking for a new rural paradise where his art would thrive, and he found it very near Vienna, just 35 km away or a short train ride, a town of Neulengbach. Paintings that he made there are very interesting; dark, disturbing, painted with thick heavy brushstrokes in scarce, murky colours they are heavily influenced by the late nineteenth century Symbolist paintings. Just reading the titles of his paintings from these years, such as ‘Dead Mother’, ‘Prophet’ or ‘Pregnant Woman and Death’, gives us a sense of dark times and some serious questioning of life and meaning of existence, and while that may be true to a point, I can’t know what was in his head, his time in Neulengbach was actually a rather happy and productive time.

Painting The Self-Seers is a good example of things that he painted in Neulengbach, and it unites Schiele’s obsession with himself and his interest in morbid themes. Did I mention that he was immensely fascinated with himself? He painted many self-portraits; in some he presented himself in a wild embrace with death, in others – simply masturbating, but in this rather sinister self-portrait he painted himself with his Doppelgänger, the person’s exact double, and a very popular motif in German literature of Romanticism, but also in works of Shelley and Poe. Colours of mud, face expressions unsettling, fingers in a strange position, brushstrokes heavy; like the fingers of a corpse scratching its way from the coffin through the moist loam. While his drawings ooze lightness and colourfulness, his paintings are dark and distorted, like they grew from the muddy, scarce, infertile soil after the rain.

Egon Schiele, The Artist’s Room in Neulengbach, 1911

Perhaps the most important and most interesting of Schiele’s works created in Neulengbach is the painting The Artist’s Room in Neulengbach which obviously took inspiration from Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles painted in 1888. In both cases, artists painted the bedrooms of their artistic havens. People of Arles and Neulengbach ought to have been privileged that an artist came to live and work in their town, but needless to say that they weren’t.

We can’t help notice the sombre and claustrophobic mood of his bedroom; high viewpoint, the usual palette of browns, black, a bit of yellow and muted red, all intensify the tense and static mood of the room which doesn’t seem that much different to that of a prison cell. Schiele again presents us with his nihilistic vision of the world, and his bedroom, no matter what it looked like in reality, is presented here looking as drab and miserable as the bedroom of Gregor Samsa from Kafka’s Metamorphosis must have looked like. In comparison, Van Gogh’s bedroom bursts with colour and frenzy. Ah, you know what it’s like, bright sun of Arles and some absinthe, and the world appears before your eyes in colours of a rainbow! In van Gogh – it’s passion and vigour, in Schiele – it’s death and decay.

While van Gogh’s room is oil on canvas, Schiele’s painting was made on a smooth piece of wood with colour being applied in many thin layers producing a kind of enamel effect. He made several paintings in this technique, and he called them ‘Bretterl’ or ‘little boards’.

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, 1888

In the following post you’ll find out why he was imprisoned and the effect his time in prison had on his art and the cult of him as a provocative artist. To be continued 🙂

Osamu Dazai: No Longer Human – Art and Ghost Pictures

10 Feb

Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human is a really fascinating book I’ve read recently and I’ve already reviewed it here. In this post we’ll take a look at the main character, Oba Yozo’s connection to art and the paintings of Western painters such as Modigliani and Vincent van Gogh.

1918-amedeo-modigliani-a-young-girlAmedeo Modigliani, A Young Girl, 1918

Oba Yozo was interested in art and painting since primary school and wanted to go to an art school, but his father put him into college, with an intend to make a civil servant out of him. Yozo obeyed, like he always did in his life, but he couldn’t really identify himself with the role of a student, or soak himself in the ‘college spirit’, so he often cut classes and spent days at home, painting and reading – which is totally more useful for imagination and the soul than the boredom of classrooms and patronising professors at college. He also attended art classes given by a painter in Hongo, and practised sketching for hours. He said: ‘I owned a set of oil paints and brushes from the time I entered high school. I sought to model my techniques on those of the Impressionist School, but my pictures remained flat as paper cutouts, and seemed to offer no promises of ever developing into anything.’

With the help of a friend he realised the artistic truth: sometimes it’s more important to portray the truth and work from the soul, than to create perfect, lifeless pictures with a lot of skill and precision. He also says: ‘What superficiality – and what stupidity – there is in trying to depict in a pretty manner things which one has thought pretty. The masters through their subjective perceptions created beauty out of trivialities. They did not hide their interest in things which were nauseatingly ugly, but soaked themselves in the pleasure of depicting them.’ From that moment on, he began making self-portraits, which is kept a secret, and showed one only to Takeichi, and no one else. In his free time, he painted these ‘ghost pictures’, but in school he kept his style strictly conventional. Later, at college, he meets a fellow art lover and painter, Horiki, who lures him into the ‘mysteries of drink, cigarettes, prostitutes, pawnshops and left-wing thought’.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat, March/April 1887

Here, Yozo and his friend Takeichi are discussing the so called ‘ghost pictures’, and the name itself is so intriguing to me. ‘Ghost pictures’ – what is meant by that? It puzzles me, especially since I adore both Modigliani and van Gogh, but I never thought of their art in that way. A certain fragility, melancholy and sadness lingers through Modigliani’s portraits, that’s for sure, but now I can’t help but to notice the wraith-like quality of his women, with elongated faces and sad eyes, or his nudes in ‘coppery skin’ tones.

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. When we were children the French Impressionist School was very popular in Japan, and our first introduction to an appreciation of Western painting most often begun with such works. The paintings of van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Renoir were familiar even to students at country schools, mainly through photographic reproduction. I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

1916. Modigliani 'Female Nude'Modigliani, Female Nude, 1916

Yozo later draws for comic books and magazines, and, at the very end, ends up copying pornographic drawings which he would then secretly peddle, to earn just enough money to buy gin. Still, despite leaving his original artistic intentions behind, he mentions these ‘ghost pictures’ again:

At such times the self-portraits I painted in high school – the ones Takeichi called “ghost pictures” – naturally came to mind. My lost masterpieces. These, my only really worth-while pictures, had disappeared during one of my frequent changes of address. I afterwards painted pictures of every description, but they all fell far,  far short of those splendid works as I remembered them. I was plagued by a heavy sense of loss, as if my heart had become empty.

The undrunk glass of absinthe.

A sense of loss which was doomed to remain eternally unmitigated stealthily began to take shape. Whenever I spoke of painting, that undrunk glass of absinthe flickered before my eyes. I was agonized by the frustrating thought: if only I could show them those paintings they would believe in my artistic talents.

1888-self-portrait-with-straw-hat-van-goghVincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888

Yellow Stands for the Sun: Vincent van Gogh – The Sower

25 Jul

My life project is making my Mondays happy. Well, one of my life projects. Yellow is a cheerful colour and lately I’ve been fixated on artworks with yellow colour, and of course Vincent van Gogh was the first artist that came to my mind.

‘How lovely yellow is, it stands for the sun.’ (Vincent van Gogh)

1888. Vincent van Gogh, The SowerVincent van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

Vincent van Gogh loved yellow colour. He adored it. He worshipped it. After all, he said that yellow stands for the sun, and, like many artists before and after him, Vincent found his artistic haven under the sun of Provence, in Arles, where he would paint some of his most famous works such as The Sower. Whether painting stars, wheat fields or sunflowers, Vincent used yellow in abundance, but this painting in particular has that pure, intoxicating, magnificent shade of yellow that makes it so special. The painting shows a sower as a small blue figure against the vast field and sky that surrounds him. There’s a narrow path in the foreground that leads nowhere. A few crows are present. Van Gogh will reprise both of these elements in his beautifully intense and sinister painting Wheatfield with Crows, which was to be one of his last works. Mood of The Sower is different however – there’s still hope.

Vincent’s joy and ecstasy for living is woven into every tiny detail of this painting; from the soil, painted in warm brown tones with dashes of blue to the row of bright orange wheat behind the sower, crowned with magnificent, protruding amber yellow – the sun. Rays of sun are so pervading that the sky lost its blueness and became a golden oriental rug or a dress on one of Klimt’s ladies. Such is the beauty and importance of the sun in this painting. Whenever van Gogh painted in yellow or orange colour, he used blue as well. Blue and yellow were a match made in heaven according to Vincent, and you’ll see this in many of his paintings. In this painting, van Gogh switched the natural colours with his own expressionistic vision; blueness of the sky wowed itself into the soil, and the sun coloured the sky with such intensity that it seems to be burning rather than shining.

In the book Lust for Life, Irving Stone vividly describes Arles and Vincent’s thoughts upon arriving at that hot, incredibly and unbearably hot place where cruel sun and mistral drive people to madness. He describes the architecture of the town, river Rhone, and how the houses were all made with bright red tiles but their redness exceeded into light lavender, orange or brown colours under the strong rays of Provence sun. May I add that Vincent spent hours painting outdoors, in wheat fields often not even wearing a hat. The sun eventually drove him crazy too but for some time it was simply a muse that helped him create some of his finest paintings.

And now some beautiful paintings with yellow colour from various art periods:

1888. Summer Evening, Wheatfield with Setting sun, Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Summer Evening, Wheatfield with Setting sun, 1888

1839. Mary Ellen Best - Self-portrait

Mary Ellen Best, Self-portrait, 1839

1899. Max Kurzweil, Dame im gelben Kleid

Max Kurzweil, Dame im gelben Kleid, 1899

1908. The Kiss (Lovers) by Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (Lovers), 1908

1821. Portrait of Henrietta Shuckburgh Provenance by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Margaret Sarah Carpenter, Portrait of Henrietta Shuckburgh Provenance, 1821

1823. Amalie Auguste, Princess of Bavaria and Queen of Saxony

Joseph Karl Stieler, Amalie Auguste, Princess of Bavaria and Queen of Saxony, 1823

1781. Thomas Gainsborough Mrs. Peter William Baker

Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Peter William Baker, 1781

1778. Lady Grace Elliot mistress to George IV, by Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough, Lady Grace Elliot mistress to George IV, 1778

1854. L'impératrice Eugénie à la Marie-Antoinette

Winterhalten, L’impératrice Eugénie à la Marie-Antoinette, 1854

1647 Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orangea

Gerard van Honthorst, Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, 1647

1635. Anthony van Dyck - Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria

Anthony van Dyck – Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, 1635

1705. Anne, Queen of Great Britain 1

Michael Dahl, Anne, Queen of Great Britain, 1705

1833. Evening Dress, Bright Yellow, La Belle Assemblee

Evening Dress, La Belle Assemblee, 1833

1917. Starlight by Emile Vernon

Emile Vernon, Starlight, 1917

1665. Peter Lely - Diana Kirke, later Countess of Oxford

Peter Lely, Diana Kirke, later Countess of Oxford, 1665

1665. Mary Parsons later mrs Draper perh PL ely 1665

Peter Lely, Mary Parsons, 1665

1863. Helen of Troy - Dante Gabriel Rossetti (model - Annie Miller)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy – (model – Annie Miller), 1863

1867. In The Country by Alfred Stevens

Alfred Stevens, In The Country by Alfred Stevens, 1867

Egon Schiele – Melancholic Sunflowers

19 Mar

Egon Schiele was just one of many painters who gave identity to sunflowers; he painted them laden with a heavy burden of melancholy and alienation. Gazing at Schiele’s sunflowers, for me, raises an awareness of the haunting fragility of life. I hope you’re intrigued by the oxymoron in the title.

1911. Sunflowers, by Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Sunflowers, 1911

Artist most widely associated with the sunflower motif is Vincent van Gogh, who painted the flowers using quick, ecstatic brushstrokes, in thick coat of intense, almost fire-like, burning yellow-orange colour, their petals almost dissolving on canvas, and saw them as symbols of blinding sun which, in the end, causes madness, or even death. While his vision of sunflowers may have something to do with his over indulgence in absinthe and the fervent sun of Arles, Egon Schiele’s sunflowers are pure sceneries of the soul.

Schiele’s sunflower scenes are gentle portraits of human alienation. He was twenty-one years old when he painted this painting, titled simply ‘Sunflowers’ (1911), but he already showed a profound interest and understanding of the world and society around him. At the age of fifteen Schiele lost his father to syphilis, and he quickly took off the rose-tinted glasses of childhood and became an adult, or at least he tried. My point is that his work is very mature and thoughtful. His self-portraits from the same year show his pondering on the question of identity, and his place in the society. In the same way, these sunflowers here represent the state of his soul, not the scenery he saw before him.

1911. Sunflowers - Egon Schiele Egon Schiele, Sunflowers, 1911

In 1913, Schiele wrote to an art collector Franz Hauer: ‘I also do studies, but I find, and know, that copying from nature is meaningless to me, because I paint better pictures from memory, as a vision of the landscape – now, I mainly observe the physical movements of mountains, water, tress and flowers. Everywhere one is reminded of similar movements made by human bodies, similar stirrings of pleasure and pain in plants. Painting is not enough for me; I am aware that one can use colours to establish qualities. – When one sees a tree autumnal in summer, it is an intense experience that involves one’s whole heart and being; and I should like to paint that melancholy.*

The melancholy that Schiele so eloquently described in the letter (he was a poet as well), is exactly the feeling which overwhelms me when I look at this painting. In stingy colours, using light brushstrokes Schiele created a true psychological study. His sunflowers appear tired and weary at first sight, and believe me, the second sight only intensifies the first one. Murky yellows, muddy browns, shades of green – neither of which is fresh or relaxing, all indicate a certain fatigue of the soul, decay of traditional values. Notice the sparse petals: some are missing while others are wildly protruding. Their stems are weak, dry, directionless, about to break – ‘heads’ of sunflowers resemble a tired head of a disappointed, forlorn man carried on fragile shoulders. The scene inevitably reminds me of these verses ‘Broken thoughts run through your empty mind‘ and ‘Endless hours in bed, no peace, in this mind/ No one knows the hell where innocence dies‘, again by Manic Street Preachers (Sleepflower). I may be aggravating with these verses, but I think similar themes often occur in many artworks, regardless of the time-period and style, don’t you?

1908. Sunflower - Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Sunflower, 1908

A poem that would go well with Schiele’s vision of sunflowers:

Georg Trakl: The Sunflowers

You golden sunflowers,
Feelingly bowed to die,
You humble sisters
In such silence
Ends Helian’s year
Of mountainous cool.
And the kisses
Make pale his drunken brow
Amidst those golden
Flowers of melancholy
The spirit is ruled
By silent darkness.

1906. Gustav Klimt - The Sunflower, 1906, Oil on Canvas. 110 x 110 cmGustav Klimt, The Sunflower, 1906, Oil on Canvas. 110 x 110 cm

Unlike Schiele’s isolated sunflowers, imbued with sadness, Klimt’s sunflowers have a mystical aura about them. He painted these sunny flowers incorporated in garden scenes. Whereas Schiele isolated his sunflowers, exposed their anguished heads and tired stems, Klimt’s fear of ‘horror vacui’, ‘fear of empty space’, drove his to fill the entire surface of his garden scenes with flowers, whether in form of tiny red dots and green dashes, or in a form of true flowers such as sunflowers. Klimt painted them with their heads looking in different directions, their green leafs dancing in the wind like tulle skirts. Jewish Hungarian journalist and author, Lajos Hevesi (1843-1910), noticed the contrast between bright yellow petals and ‘dark and mysterious’ inner space. Their appearance resembles the solar eclipse. Sunflowers did have a cosmic meaning to Klimt after all.

1913. Farm Garden with Sunflowers, 1913 by Gustav KlimtGustav Klimt, Farm Garden with Sunflowers, 1913