Tag Archives: Vincent van Gogh

Karl Nordström – Field of Oats

29 Aug

“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 18)

Karl Nordström, Field of Oats at Grez-sur-Loing, 1885

Something about this landscape by a Swedish Impressionist painter speaks to my soul. A field of oats is a seemingly simple, almost humble motif, but this landscape has a poetic and gentle beauty which speaks of deeper feelings. I love the vastness of the field, painted in soft shades of green and yellow, and the way nearly the entire canvas is the field itself; it makes me feel as if I am a part of the oat field, in their embrace. Nordström beautifully captures the oats that have soaked in all the summer sun and are now ripe and ready to be harvested. Touches of vibrant blue and red add a playful touch to the gentle greenness. It is pleasant to think of blue cornflowers and crimson poppies growing among the oats and enjoying the sunny, carefree, summer days. Larks are flying in the upper right corner and a small figure of a reaper with his scythe appears to be harvesting the oats; how tiny he is compared to the vastness of the field and nature.

Nordström painted this oat field in a commune Grez-sur-Loing in north-central France which was a popular hot spot fir many artists at the time; Nordström met his wife Tekla Lindeström, who was an engraver, there and a fellow Swedish Carl Larsson also met his future wife there. Even though this painting precedes Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Sower” (1888) by three years, I see it as a sort of closer to Van Gogh’s painting where a farmer, with a rising bright and shining yellow sun in the background, is planting the seeds and in this painting they are ripe and ready to be harvested. In Nordström’s painting, the farmer’s scythe is almost symbolic of death, for the summer is nearing its end and very soon the very fields where the oats grew and danced in the wind will be nothing but a vast muddy nothingness, only a few broken stems will rise from the autumnal mists. These days my thoughts are tinged with sadness; one more summer is passing and I know that once gone, it will seem like a distant dream. I know that, in winter dreariness, I shall scarcely be able to imagine the sun’s warm touch on my skin. I feel like I spend a thousand years waiting, yearning, craving summer, only to enjoy it for a second until it quickly vanishes. Persephone must feel the same way, sighing longingly, as she descends again to the darkness of the underworld…

Vincent van Gogh – Explosion of Colours in Arles

30 Mar

Van Gogh, born on 30 March 1853, is a painter whose works I greatly admire, whose letters I consider an endless source of inspiration, whose paintings are one of my dearest subjects to write about. He managed to passionately and eloquently express his deep sadness, loneliness and despair and turn them into the most magical, most captivating and intriguing paintings ever painted. With those brush strokes of magical blues and ecstatic yellows, Van Gogh is saying to us that despite all misery, poverty and painful solitude ‘…there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.’

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationVincent van Gogh, Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888

“The only time I feel alive is when I’m painting.” (Van Gogh)

Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888, ill, tired and weary, with hopes of founding an utopian art colony where artists would paint side by side, in harmony and serenity.

Warm melodies of the south have lured artists from the North for a long time, ever since Albrecht Dürer traveled to Italy in Renaissance. It wasn’t just the architecture, or the art of Quattrocento; monuments of old glory which longed to be discovered. It was something higher, something more powerful; warm sun of the south that spoke to the soul, not the mind. Artists were attracted by the sublime sense of entering the historic land, fascinated with Mediterranean landscape and its warm climate, created for idle time and pleasure. Effects of this ‘art tourism’ were especially evident on the colour palette which became lighter, more vivid, and more passionate, enriched by golden rays of the sun and rich fragrances of the South. For Vincent van Gogh, Arles brought explosion of colours; mauve, ultramarine and yellow, and, in addition, he found the landscape enchanting and inspirational.

In Arles, Van Gogh was able to live out his visions of Japan by simply gazing at the sunbathed meadows and delicate trees in bloom, while in Paris he needed to get absorbed in Hiroshige’s wood-cuts in order to feel that way. His paintings of Flowering Orchards painted in spring of 1888, symbolise this optimism, sudden outburst of joy, a sense of all the wishes becoming true. It was enough for him to open his eyes and feel alive, caressed by the soft southern breeze, kissed by the rain drops, and mesmerized by the beautiful landscapes, interesting people of Arles; beauty of life opening right in front of his eyes. These months were rather happy for Van Gogh, which is not something that can easily be said, as sorrows in his life followed one another.

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

Paul Gauguin arrived in Arles on 23 October 1888, and the two very different painters painted together during November. Van Gogh’s utopian dream of an art colony seemed to be realized, at least for a month. However, the differences between these two painters were insurmountable. Van Gogh was, in comparison with Gauguin, a tactic rationalist, too impulsive, too intrusive, and he indulged himself in wistfulness of his imagination a tad too much. Van Gogh was a romantic, and Gauguin was prone to primitivism, Van Gogh loved thick layers of colour, and Gauguin hated disorder. For some time the two got along, but their relationship was beginning to deteriorate as early as in December 1888. In addition to Gauguin’s arrogance and domineering behavior, Vincent van Gogh, who longed to be treated as Gauguin’s equal, had an enormous fear of being deserted, doomed to solitude and sadness again. Their quarrels ended in that infamous ear incident which happened in December 1888, after which Gauguin left and never saw Van Gogh again.

Van Gogh was a fragile person, full of love and sympathy for everyone around him, and along with his own fears, destitution and self-criticism, Gauguin’s patronising behavior had certainly not helped matters. I prepared for this post by reading his letters from Arles again, and it is clear to me, now more than ever, how every word he wrote expresses optimism and silent but profound hope, and how all poverty and lack of understanding had not hardened his feelings, and how in deepest sorrow he found beauty everywhere he looked. I feel in love with Van Gogh’s soul after reading his letters. They are more beautiful than any book because they are real.

I already mentioned this, but I’ll mention it again. In an episode of Doctor Who, the Eleventh Doctor traveled to past and met Vincent van Gogh. After spending some time with him, the doctor took him to a present day gallery. After Van Gogh saw his paintings and the popularity of them, tears of joy came down his cheeks. I confess it made me cry from happiness too! Too bad Amy Pond rejected his offer to stay with him; they could have gazed at the sunflowers all day surrounded by their red-haired children.

1888. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Gauguin’s ChairVincent van Gogh, Gauguin’s Chair, 1888

As a vision of loneliness, Van Gogh painted his and Gauguin’s chairs in December 1888. Both of them are painted as empty; metaphors for artists that are not there anymore, but once shared their thoughts and feelings; friends have vanished but the chairs are here, empty. Van Gogh’s chair is a modest wooden chair with a tobacco pipe which Van Gogh smoked because Dickens had advised it as a cure for melancholy. On the other hand, Gauguin’s chair is lavishing with books and a candle, indicating education and ambition.

Van Gogh painted his own chair in yellow and blue tones, symbolising light and hope. In the painting with Gauguin’s chair he used red-green contrast which, just like in the painting The Night Cafe, gives a sinister feel to the painting, witnessing darkness and lost hopes of their friendship. The message is clear; Gauguin had brought night and darkness into Van Gogh’s idealistic world. These chairs are portraits in alienation in which Van Gogh expressed ‘…not sentimental melancholy, but serious sorrow.

With the help of art, the world that seemed threatening and unfriendly was suppose to become his world too. Van Gogh did not want to repress reality, neither did he want to renounce it; he wanted reality to become understandable and accessible. Was this simple desire too much for the harsh world? With these painting Van Gogh proved the audience that ‘Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul.’

Beauty in the Everyday – Turner and Okyo (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

22 Mar

“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

(Soseki, The Three-Cornered World)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The simple plot where nothing much happens is great because the true beauty of the novel can shine through: the poetic, zen-like writing which transports the viewer in a meditative state. The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Instead of dynamic events and exciting adventures, the narrator ponders on what it actually means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration:

I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit. For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon, 1879

The narrator portrays the artist, himself included, as a person who is here to show others the beauty around them which they would otherwise be unaware of. The artist is the one who, through his art, tells people to stop and take a look at the wondrous, whimsical and beautiful things in the world around us. The narrator chose two interesting artists to illustrate his point; British Romanticist Turner and an eighteenth century Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Okyo. I love it when novels reference other things, it’s like a springboard from one source of inspiration to another. Turner’s grandiose and awe-inspiring canvases, filled with golden lightness and dreamy mists, usually portray sunsets or historical events, but in the painting referenced by the narrator, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, painted in 1844, near the very end of the painter’s life, the subject is something completely modern and everyday; a train. Just imagine the excitement, awe and fear with which the Victorians looked at trains. I dare say I look at them at the same way too, even today. Trains are fascinatingly fast and frightening in their speed and yet they also seem vintage in some way because it seems more romantical to travel by train than by bus. Turner captured the train’s speed and cloud of fog with the same brilliance that he had previously devoted himself to historical scenes, which shows that he approached two very different motifs with the same ardour and with the same patient search for beauty that any artist has. Soseki lived in England for two years, just before this novel was published and it’s very likely he had seen this painting in person. I’ve also included here a Japanese artist Kiyochika’s exploration of the train-motif in a more direct way than Turner, but still carrying its own beauty.

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), The Ghost of Oyuki, 1750

Another example the narrator gives is a painting of a ghost by the artist Maruyama Okyo. The narrator doesn’t mention a specific painting, but with a little research makes it clear that Soseki is referring to Okyo’s famous ink on silk painting which shows the female yurei or the traditional Japanese ghost of his lover Oyuki. It is a poignant portrait of a dead beloved which came from intense sadness and longing, almost a century before Poe wrote of similar themes in his poems and short stories. The ghost-girl Oyuki was Okyo’s mistress who worked in the Tominaga Geisha house and died young. Looking at the dates, I see now that Okyo was just seventeen years old at the time, wow, what a deep, profound and melancholy gesture… This sad event must have shaped his life in one way or another, and it has certainly shaped the way the Japanese, even today, see a female ghost, as a creature in white clothes, pale face, dark hair falling like weeping willow branches and ending in faint, thin lines, and lower body and feet disappearing. So simple, yet so poignant and sweetly melancholy.

Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

Another example which isn’t mentioned in the novel, but goes with the narrator’s idea; Vincent van Gogh’s “portrait” of his old, dirty, worn out shoes. The motif, when spoken out loud, seems laughable and not even remotely worthy of being painted, but van Gogh painted this pair of shoes with the same passionate approach that he had for his landscape, wheat fields and sunflowers, look at the careful brushwork and wild patches of colour. If Van Gogh didn’t paint his old shoes as his artist mission to show us beauty around us, we would never have known just what beauty lies in them.

Vincent van Gogh’s Birthday – The Prettiest Star

30 Mar

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888

Vincent van Gogh; a passionate and eccentric individual in his time, and a well-known and beloved artist today, was born on this day, 30th March, in 1853. The date of his birth seems so fitting; it’s the time of the year when pink and white blossoms of cherry, pear and apple trees grace the landscape and invite us to dream, it’s the moment of the year when nature shows its strength by winning a battle against winter, the sun shines on the frozen soil, melts the snow and invites the little snowdrops and primroses to bloom, the birds are returning from foreign lands…

Vincent, I know you were not appreciated in your time, but I look at your paintings with ardour, I feel them; I feel rapture from those intoxicating yellows and playful blues, I love your mischievous cypresses, starry nights, blossoming trees, and lonely wheat fields, I love your letters – the windows to your soul, and above all, I love the “lust for life” energy that emerges from the canvases and speaks to my heart and soul, and to many and many hearts out there. Thank you for existing and painting, even if it was such a short time, but aren’t we all here on earth for such a short time, compared to eternity?

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the beauty that Vincent has created in his short life; gaze at his paintings, read his letters, daydream about his starry skies and trees in bloom, feel the ecstasy that he has created in those vibrant colours and think of him because his soul is the prettiest star!

Happy birthday, Vincent van Gogh!

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, repetition of the 4th version (yellow background), August 1889

Vincent, you are not forgotten!

Edvard Munch – Maiden and the Heart

11 Feb

And “love” is just a miserable lie
You have destroyed my flower-like life
Not once – twice
You have corrupt my innocent mind
Not once – twice.

(The Smiths, Miserable Lie)

Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944), Maiden and the Heart, 1896

Edvard Munch’s etching shows a nude girl sitting outdoors, on the grass, surrounded by a few scarce flowers. She turned her back on us, showing off the beautiful line of her arching back. We cannot meet her gaze, but seen from the profile her furrowed brow allows us to assume that the feelings mounting in her soul are that of sadness or pain. Our attention immediately leads somewhere else. In her stretched hands she is holding a heart; live, bleeding, crimson red (we can imagine), pulsating, aching, painful heart. From about 1894, Munch was getting more and more interested in woodcuts and etchings, and he was skilful in those art forms as well as in standard oil on canvas.

Paintings of Edvard Munch nearly always explore deep, profound themes and states of the soul; anxiety and alienation, loneliness, death and despair, love and pain, and the crown of his themes is love as a source of anguish and pain. The sorrowful Maiden who is holding the bleeding heart in her hands is a visually simple etching, without too much detail, but the longer you gaze at it the more feelings it evokes, the more depth you see in it. Often used, and overused phrases such as “heart ache” or “broken heart” suddenly get a new exciting flair when I gaze at Munch’s interpretation of the subject. The idea of portraying pain so literally and so directly has so much of childlike straightforwardness and honesty in it. A broken heart is presented as a real bleeding thing that the Maiden can hold in her hand just as she would hold a book or a flower, and her hands and her feet are coloured with the crimson blood which drips, sweet and sticky as honey, on the grass, while the flowers listen, their petals full of worry. The trees in the background, silent and sketch-like, are mute to her pain.

Frida Kahlo, Memory (The Heart), 1937

I simply adore the idea of expressing pain so directly! In her painting “Memory (The Heart)”, Frida Kahlo did a similar thing. The oversized bleeding heart is meant to portray the pain inflicted by Diego Rivera’s affair with her younger sister.

Vincent van Gogh, Sorrow, 1882

Simple lines, expressiveness and pain of Munch’s etching reminded me of a famous drawing called “Sorrow” that Vincent van Gogh made in 1882. It shows Vincent’s friend Sien, at the time a sad, destitute pregnant woman prone to drinking, mostly likely working as a prostitute. Such simplicity of lines and depth of emotions in both works. I usually love Van Gogh’s rapturous mad yellows and Munch’s strong whirling, almost psychedelic brushstrokes but here the black line on white background is all I need. Perhaps the colour is an excess when the subject is such an intense emotion?

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.

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