Tag Archives: watercolour

Charles Burchfield – January Twilight

27 Jan

“South wind in January; cool and moist – the occasional soft roar of wind in the tree tops; sunlight streaming from out of the white southern horizon, running up the sides of the trees like polished Dutch metal, and lighting up brightly the fences of houses, yearning southward.”

Charles Burchfield, January Twilight, 1962, watercolour

I’m really sick of you – January, can you end already? Can you possibly have less days or even better, never come again? But whilst you are still here, I will use the opportunity to write about this lovely watercolour by Charles Burchfield called “January Twilight” painted in 1962, just five years before the artist’s death in 1967.

Watercolour “January Twilight” shows a motif which we’ve seen often throughout Burchfield’s career; street scene with gloomy Victorian houses, a few trees and perhaps an uninterested passerby. All these watercolours of streetscenes are similar in a way, and still unique and wonderful each in their own right. What differentiates these watercolours is the mood and the weather, in “January Twilight” the weather is wintery; freezing and cold January . The tall and bare tree branches are stretching up towards the sky like the spires of Gothic cathedrals. Burchfield really has a knack of capturing the mood of the moment, they are so many little things that make you truly feel the scene that you are gazing at; the smoke from the chimneys, the snow on the roofs, the bare trees, the color of the sky, everything is so evocative of a winter’s day. Painted nearly entirely in shades of grey and with a few touches of soft yellow, the watercolour is monochromatic yet lively at the same time. Burchfield perfectly captures the pale rays of winter sun suddenly coming from behind the drab houses and illuminating the bare tree branches, wet pavements and piles of snow. I love how Gothic-looking his wooden Victorian houses always appear, almost as if they were real persons, full of dark secrets and tales to tell. One can also notice how much more free, loose and playful his style had become in his later years, less attention is paid to precision and details, and more on capturing the mood. I love the snake-like curves drawn here and there in the snow and I love the touches of yellow, as subtle as they are. One can really get lost in all the details of Burchfield’s dream-likes scenes.

Burchfield’s watercolours, whether they were painted early in his career in the late 1910s or 1920s or near the end of his life in the 1960s, are all characterised by this sense of wonder for the world around him. Burchfield grew up in a small rural town of Salem, Ohio, which offered little diversities and amusement, and in such circumstances one really has to find the beauty in everyday things because a small town doesn’t offer an array of things to escape the boredom from in the way a big city does. In that aspect, a small town can be fruitful for one’s imagination, time passes slower and one pays attention to little things, one has time to stop and smell the roses. I really see this in Burchfield’s art.

Details

Autumn in Art: Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it!

22 Nov

“Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonise. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”

(Letter to Miss Lewis, Oct. 1, 1841, George Eliot, George Eliot’s Life, as Related in Her Letters and Journals)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George – Autumn, 1922

Two Octobers ago I wrote a post called “Different Faces of Autumn” and it was a little selection of autumn themes in art. This year I decided to do something similar. I gathered a few intersting paintings by different painters and all of them have something autumnal in them whether it’s the autumn foliage or pumpkins, autumnal colours, word ‘autumn’ in the painting’s title etc. The first painting here is Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Lake George – Autumn” from 1922. The painting shows the Lake George in Warren County, New York. O’Keeffe’s husband, the famous artist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, had a family house by the Lake George and that is why Georgia had an opportunity to spend her holidays by the lake. The horizontally elongated shape of the canvas is further emphasised by the composition which consists of four horizontal layers of motives; the thin layer of the sky in the far distance, the mountains, the blue lake and the lush trees with autumnal foliage in the foreground. Every motif is simplified and almost abstracted because O’Keeffe never wanted to portray reality or nature realistically with all its details.

Jean-Francois Millet, Autumn Landscape with a Flock of Turkeys, 1872-73

From O’Keeffe’s vibrancy through Millais’ melancholy, in this next painting called The gloomy and foreboding mood of Jean-Francois Millet’s painting “Autumn Landscapes with a Flock of Turkeys” is a stark contrast to O’Keeffe’s playful, nearly abstract, and vibrant portrayal of the Lake George in autumn and Millais’ lyrical and melancholy mood in “Autumn Leaves”. Millet painted this during his stay in the village of Barbizon. He wrote to his patron Frederic Hartmann on the 18 February 1873 that his painting for the dealer Durand-Ruel was almost finished, and he even included a brief description of the painting: “It is a hillock, with a single tree almost bare of leaves, and which I have tried to place rather far back in the picture. The figures are a woman seen from behind and a few turkeys. I have also tried to indicate the village in the background on a lower plane.” The tall tree with bare branches, its last leaves being carried off by the wind of change, turkeys walking aimlessly around the field, a mysterious shrouded figure of a woman, the bleak, earthy brown tones; all of this gives a heavy, autumnal mood to the painting. There is a slight worm’s eye view so the gloomy sky and the tree appear even more threatening and sublime.

Winslow Homer, Pumpkin Patch, 1878

Winslow Homer’s watercolour “Pumpking Patch” is a simple scene from everyday life which shows children in a pumpkin patch. Homer painted many watercolours with scenes from countryside life and these artworks bring to life the day to day activities; women gathering eggs or picking apples, milk maids, shepherdesses, reapers, or just children playing. In this watercolour we see a similar composition to O’Keeffe’s painting; the painting is composed of three horizontal layers; the sky, the haystacks and grass. There is a young boy carrying a pumpking across the pumpkin patch and some children on the left are seen sitting down and chatting. One bird in the sky. Just a peaceful countryside scene from a watercolour master that Homer was.

Camille Pissarro, Autumn, Poplars, Éragny, 1894

Pissarro’s painting “Autumn, Poplars, Eragny” brings to mind the views that I see from the window of the train when I am going to my university lectures. Landscapes of meadows, woods, fields, houses and villages, all pass by my eyes swiftly but they awaken artistic feelings inside me because they bring to mind all the simple yet delightful landscapes painted by Impressionists. The clouds in the baby blue sky are smiling and the sun is casting its warm lightness on the trees and the grass. The green leaves on the branches seem to be competing with the yellow and brown ones. Some trees are completely covered in yellow leaves while some are still green; nothing speaks more of autumnal transience than seeing the leaves on the trees change colour until there are no more leaves left on the branches.

Egon Schiele, Autumn Tree, 1911

Schiele’s approach to painting nature was similar to his approach when it came to painting portraits. For him painting a tree was not just painting a portrait of a tree, painting nature was a way of capturing emotional states. The trees, so thin and so fragile, and almost bare, with their long almost skeletal branches, growing from the wet, barren soil, standing still againsts the gusts of the cold autumn wind, they are symbolic of human isolation and loneliness. Schiele’s portrayal of autumn is this drab, cold November autumn when things are staring to be sad and grey. I wrote more about Schiele’s autumn trees in the post here.

Eliot Hodgkin, Large Dead Leaf No. 2, 1966

Eliot Hodgkin, a less known English artist, painted this interesting painting called “Large Dead Leaf No. 2” in 1966 and I think it fits nicely into this little selection of autumn themed paintings. The date is pretty recent considering the nineteenth century paintings in this post. Hodgkin loved to paint still lives of objects from nature such as fruit, vegetables, flowers, and leaves, and he approached his motives in the similar way that Georgia O’Keeffe did; he noticed the little things that most people wouldn’t and his painting style shows this precise observation and curiosity. Just look at how he approached this dead leaf, which some have suggested is a sycamore leaf but I am not sure. The dead autumn leaf is twisting from dryness and Hodgkins captures all its nuances of brown colour and tiny veins. It’s almost an exercise in mindfulness. Here is what the artist said about his approach in 1957: “In so far as I have any conscious purpose, it is to show the beauty of natural objects which are normally thought uninteresting or even unattractive: such things as Brussels sprouts, turnips, onions, pebbles and flints, bulbs, dead leaves, bleached vertebrae, an old boot cast up by the tide. People sometimes tell me that they had never really ‘seen’ something before I painted it, and I should like to believe this… For myself, if I must put it into words, I try to look at quite simple things as though I were seeing them for the first time and as though no one had ever painted them before.

I hope you enjoyed this little selection of autumn in art! Naturally, there are many many other autumn themed paintings which are gorgeous and interesting but this is just my selection for this year.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Canyon with Crows and Other Watercolours

15 Nov

“I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown—no one to satisfy but myself.

(Georgia O’Keeffe)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Canyon with Crows, 1917, watercolour

A few posts ago I wrote about Georgia O’Keeffe’s watercolour “Morning Sky With Houses” (1916) and now I found myself in love with many more of O’Keeffe’s watercolours and I really want to share them with you all. “Canyon with Crows” is my second favourite these days, right after the “Morning Sky With Houses” because I cannot resists purple and orange together. In Georgia O’Keeffe’s vision the canyon is a groovy spectacle, a technicolor dream. In the background the pinks and blues are melting into purple, while the rich river of ruby red is paving its way through the fields of greens. Fields and patches of different colours and a canyon is created. Another wonderful detail here are the crows flying through the sky in a slightly ominous way, as if they warning us of an impending danger.

Georgia O’Keeffe arrived to Canyon, Texas in September 1916 to work as the head of the art department at the West Texas State Normal College. The vastness of the blue sky, the wildness of nature, the red sunsets and red soil, the hot winds blowing across the Texas prairie. The town of Canyon was named after the Palo Duro Canyon which means “hard wood”, referring to the juniper and mesquite trees that grow in that area. The wild, untamed nature of Texas proved to be very inspiring to O’Keeffe. The vibrant contrast between green foliage and red sandstone is stunning. Always adventurous, free and wild at heart, Georgia would spent many Saturdays hiking the risky steep and narrow paths of the canyon. The little town of Canyon with its structured pattern of streets and repetitive rows of houses was not something that O’Keeffe found particularly inspiring. In fact, she not only found it dull but also confusing. On one occassion she went out to mail a letter and she had trouble finding her way home because the streets looked so similar. Her love of wilderness and open spaces will be even more prominent later in life, especially when contrasted with Alfred Stieglitz’s love for the safety and predictability of urban spaces.

The watercolour “Red Mesa” is perhaps the most similar in theme and style to the “Canyon with Crows” but all of O’Keeffe’s watercolours painted in the short time period from 1916 to 1917 have that playfulness and vibrancy which I adore so much. O’Keeffe was particularly fascinated with sunrises. She loved the way the first rays of the sun would come into her room and paint it in soft vanilla yellow shades. Her watercolour “Sunrise” bellow is spectacular, painted in bright red and magenta pink shades. The colours look like they are melting into one another. While this watercolour isn’t realistic, the depiction of the intensity of the sunrise is realistic. Sunrises and sunsets are very strong in colour. Also, today is Georgia O’Keeffe’s birthday so why not enjoy her watercolours!

Georgia O’Keeffe, Canyon with Crows, 1917, watercolour, details

Georgia O’Keeffe, Sunrise, 1916

Georgia O’Keeffe, Pink And Blue Mountain, 1916, watercolour

Georgia O’Keeffe, Sunrise and Little Clouds No. II, 1916, watercolor on paper

Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Mesa, 1917, watercolour

Georgia O’Keeffe – Morning Sky with Houses

5 Oct

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”

(Georgia O’Keeffe)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Morning Sky with Houses, 1916, watercolour and graphite on paper 22.5 x 30.4 cm

From time to time I enjoy feasting my eyes on the art of the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. The paintings or large, closely-cropped flowers and plants are surely some of the most popular artworks that O’Keeffe has created, but my personal favourites are, of course, her watercolours which are always painted in a vibrant and free-spirited manner and have that lyrical playfulness and simplicity which keep luring me back to gaze at them some more. O’Keefe decided to become an artist at the age of ten and she, along with two of her sisters, took art lessons from a watercolour artist Sara Mann. It is no surprise then that O’Keeffe kept coming back to this versatile medium all throughout her life and career. “Morning Sky with Houses” was painted in 1916 when O’Keeffe was eighteen or nineteen years old. O’Keeffe opposed painting directly from nature in a realistic manner and preferred to paint in a style that always borders with abstraction. In her own words: “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

This watercolour shows the way Georgia implemented her art philosophy in the creation of her art. The watercolour shows a simple scene; two houses, meadow and sky in the morning, but all the elements in the scene are more suggested than strictly defined. We know these are houses by their contours alone and we assume the space under them is a meadow or a garden, but on paper everything is a playful harmony of different shades of purple, burgundy,blue, yellow and orange; a proper autumnal colour palette perftctly fitting for this time of the year. I love the white space between the roofs of the houses and the sky. The only other details in this almost-abstract watercolour are the fence on the left and a smoke coming out of the chimney on the house on the right. And yet, devoid of all details, this watercolour doesn’t cease to be less interesting, quite the opposite, it excites the eyes beyond belief. Exluding the details, O’Keeffe only gives more power to the colour and this is something beautiful. The colours of this painting are, in my view, a perfect way to start October on the blog!

Childe Hassam – Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago

13 Sep

“…the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain…”

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, What Lips Have I Kissed, And When and Why)

Childe Hassam, Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago, 1893, watercolour

These rainy September evenings awake inside me an inexplicable sadness and so I sit there wistfully by the window and I pine, and whine … and, just like in Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem the rain is also full of ghosts that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply… Very fitting for the wistful mood of my rainy days is this hauntingly beautiful watercolour called “Nocturne: Railway Crossing, Chicago”, painted in 1893 by the American painter Childe Hassam. The watercolour is simple in both colour and composition, and yet rich in its lyrical beauty. The nocturnal scene in the watercolour shows a fragment of urban life; a carriage and a tram are gliding down the road on a rainy night. The motif such as this would otherwise be too urban in its ugliness or simply boring, but in Hassam’s vision the rainy night in the big city is a blue poem. Instead of bustle and noise, Hassam hears a blue sonata coming from the steady beats of the rain and the rhythm of the horse-drawn carriage. The title alone, containting the word “Nocturne”, in a proper Whistler style, is insinuating something poetic and dreamy. The watercolour is amost entirely washed away in this mesmerising blue colour, with soft touche of yellow representing the big city lights. The carriage and the coachman are elegantly painted in black, almost like a silhouette, which only adds to the poetic mysterious mood of this night scene, as the French poet Stephane Mallarme said “to define is to kill, to suggest is to create”. In this watercolour, Hassam is suggesting, rather than defining, the beauty and poetry of the night and I think this is what makes this artwork so hauntingly beautiful. There is a special kind of beauty in wandering aimelessly down the streets of a big city on a rainy night, the bright lights of streetlamps and neon lights reflected in the puddles and wet pavements, passing by life but not being in it. Ahh… as I gaze at this painting more I can see and hear in my mind the jazzy music and Robert De Niro’s monologue from the film “Taxi Driver” (1976).

Beach Scenes in Art: Maurice Prendergast, Winslow Homer, Berthe Morisot, Munch, Boudin, Joaquin Sorolla

29 Aug

“I am longing to be with you, and by the sea, where we can talk together freely and build our castles in the air.”

(Bram Stoker, Dracula)

Maurice Prendergast, Revere Beach, 1897, watercolour

These days my thoughts, like birds flying south, are going out to the sea – the wonderful blue sea that Rimbaud wrote about:

It has been found again.
What? – Eternity.
It is the sea fled away
With the sun.

I dream of pebbles on the beach, waves caressing my feet and sunsets so bright and orange that they leave me blind. Memories of past summers fill my mind; I see the wonderful blue sea trembling before my eyes, the steady yet wild waves, the silvery-white seafoam shining in the rays of sun, the salty scent of the sea tickling my nostrils and the sun warming my skin, a plethora of pebbles and parasols in many vibrant colours, the line which separates the sky and the sea is faraway and out of reach. Filled with all these memories, I thought I would write a little overview of some lovely beach scenes in art, mostly the art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. When I say “beach scenes” I mean scenes of people enjoying their time by the sea, scenes of fun, games and leisure, not the melancholy scenes of beaches by the Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich or John Constable, or those seventeenth century Dutch painters who portrayed the sea and ship in all their moodyness and wildness.

Winslow Homer, Beach Scene, circa 1869

Winslow Homer was a very prolific American painter whose watercolours of orchards and Caribbean seas I adore. In this oil on canvas painting called “Beach Scene” Homer combines his usual realistic style with some playful Impressionistic touches, especially in the way he explores the natural elements such as the sky, the sea, the seafoam… What I like a lot about this painting is the way the grey colour scheme is combined with the liveliness of the children playing; it’s a contrast which works wonderfully.

Berthe Morisot, At the Beach in Nice, 1882

The second artwork I’ve chosen is this lovely watercolour sketch by the French Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. “At the Beach in Nice” shows a mother and a child under a blue parasol enjoying the vague sketch of what we assume is a beach by the title alone. This watercolour is more like a sketch; it seems to have been painted quickly, it’s more an impression of a moment rather than a contemplative study. There is a sand colour in the lower half of the painting and some blue in the upper half, indicating the sand and the sea. The mother and the child have almost matching blue bonnets, but they seem otherwordly in a way, like a memory or a dream, ghostly a bit.

Eugene Boudin, On the Beach, Trouville 1887

Now, it would be impossible to write a post about beach scenes and the sea without including a painting by the French marine painter Eugene Boudin. This time his painting “On the Beach, Trouville” from 1887 caught my eye. It doesn’t seem to be a sunny, hot day in this scene. The tones and styles of the ladies’ dresses are almost autumnal and the sea in the background is covered in a mist.

Philip Wilson Steer, Young Woman At The Beach, 1887

Philip Wilson Steer has many wonderful beach scenes and seascapes but the one I’ve chosen to include today is a painting called “Young Woman at the Beach”, painted in 1887. I love the lyrical simplicity of this painting: a girl seen from the profile, dressed in a lovely light pink gown, her dark hair flowing in the wind, looking out towards the sea – daydreaming or reminiscing about the gone by days… Her elegant silhouette is set against the background of the glistening sea and the soft vanilla sky. The way the light is painted here, the way it blinds the eyes and makes the waves sparkle with magic is something incredible. When I gaze at the girl in this painting, I can imagine her fantasising about some dream-lover far away and thinking: “I am longing to be with you, and by the sea, where we can talk together freely and build our castles in the air.”

William Merritt Chase, On the Beach, Shinnecock, 1895, watercolour

William Merritt Chase’s lovely watercolour “One the Beach, Shinnecock” from 1895 shows two girls playing in the sand. I love the way their dresses and bonnets are painted, so intensely delicate, like butterfly’s wings. The lonely landscape behind them stretches on and on, made out of sand and grass, making it seem that the girls are all alone in the world, building their castles in the sand, until the gust of September wind blows them away and destroys the fleeting fantasy forever.

Edvard Munch, Young Woman on the Beach, 1896

The wistful and melancholy vibe of Munch’s painting “Young Woman on the Beach” reminds me more of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. I mean, there is certainly no playfulness, leisure or joy here, but I still decided to include it because it shows that the sea can be a vessel not only for merriness but also for contemplation. The sea, with its eternal, never-changing, song of the seawaves, its persistence and its moodiness and changeability can awake all sorts of emotions inside of us. No words are needed to understand how this young woman feels because the painting says it all. The young woman’s back is turned against us and we can’t see her face, but we can feel what she is feeling and thinking, whilst standing here all alone by the sea, her silhouette in a white dress set against the infinite blueness of the beach.

Maurice Prendergast, Children at the Beach, 1897, watercolour

The sea was like a feast and forced us to be happy, even when we did not particularly want to be. Perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.

(Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls)

Now, another cheerful watercolour by Maurice Prendergast! The watercolour shows exactly what the title straightforwardly says: “Children at the Beach”. In Prendergast’s watercolour figures are often just blots of colour but this is what . No other painter can make the blue colour look so warm and cheerful; Prendergast’s blue is like yellow, it’s a sunflower or a ray of sun, he infuses it with a playful, carefree, childlike energy. I especially love the playful way the sky and the clouds are painted in this one, truly stunning way with the brush.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Niña (Girl), 1904

Joaquin Sorolla is known for his playful and realistic beach scenes were children are seen running around, chasing each other and playing, but something about his painting “Girl” from 1904 spoke to me more. While the children in the background are playing and running into the waves, she is standing in wet sand, the waves caressing her feet, and looking out to the horizon. Is she gazing at the clouds, or is a distant ship passing by? We will never know, but her dreaminess tingled with wistfulness is very poignant to me.

Denman Waldo Ross, The Beach, about 1908

The most interesting thing about Denman Waldo Ross’s painting “The Beach” is, for me, the composition: the way the sandy beach takes up most of the space on the canvas and that line of turquoise in the background indicating the sea. The figures on the beach, the ladies in white gowns, with their parasols and bonnets, are all placed in a cascade manner and this pattern is repeated in the turquoise and lilac-blue lines of the sea and the sky.

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)

Winslow Homer – Sunset Fires

9 Aug

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.”

(Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds)

Winslow Homer, Sunset Fires, 1880

I am a big fan of Winslow Homer’s watercolours and there is always a watercolour which is my particular favourite at that particular moment. Sometimes my favourite Homer watercolour is the one that I discover or rediscover at that moment, and other times it is the watercolour that speaks to me in some way, through the mood or the colours… At the moment, in these watermelon and crimson red late summer days of August my favourite is the watercolour titled “Sunset Fires” which dates from 1880. I am immensely attracted to its rich shades of red and orange. August is a red month for me. I see it red in my mind’s eye; the blood of dying summer. The watercolour shows the sunset at sea, a ship and a smaller boat with loosely sketched human figures of sailors on it. These simple motives; sea, boats, sky, sunsets, is something that we find often in the works of the Romantic painter such as Caspar David Friedrich. So the interesting thing here isn’t the originality of the motif, but rather the manner in which they were captured by the artist’s brush. Homer uses a very limited colour palette; only reds, oranges and greys, but they work in such a wonderful harmony where one colour feeds and kisses the other. The red would not appear as vibrant were it not for the lead greyness to contrast it, and without the warm orange tones the painting would not have its vibrant magic, its fireworks, its explosion of energy and joy. I also love the tiny empty spaces between the brushstrokes where the white paper underneath reveals itself to it; this is an interesting thing about watercolours. Homer loved the American landscape and travelled all over the country to capture the most beautiful spots, but also he travelled across the border, to the Caribbean, constantly seeking new landscapes to explore and capture in his artworks. It is in the Caribbean that the sea, the sky and sailors would become his main motif, but, as much as I adore his Caribbean watercolours, no sky in them compares to the fiery beauty of the sky here in “Sunset Fires”.

Homer’s watercolour can be seen in two ways; as mere sketches, or studies which were intended to serve as the basis for the oil-on-canvas painting, or as independent works of art. In my view, they are the latter because I don’t think one art medium should be seen as better or more important than the another. Why should only oil-on-canvas artworks be deserving or admiration and respect, and other mediums be seen as sketchy or less serious?

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgandy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”

(Jack Kerouac, On the Road)

Bruce Springsteen’s Blue-Collar Heroes, the Rust Belt and “My Hometown”

22 Jul

“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody
Wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks
Foreman says, “these jobs are going, boys
And they ain’t coming back
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown
To your hometown…”

(Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown)

Charles Burchfield, Grain Elevators (Evans), 1931-33, watercolour

Lately the things that I have been seeing, reading, and listening to have turned my thoughts towards the Rust Belt; its decaying towns and fallen industries, its sad flair of something that once was thriving and great and just isn’t anymore. Of course, the main inspiration behind this theme were songs and the lyrics of the songs by Bruce Springsteen, especially from the albums “The River” and “Born in the U.S.A.”. Then, I watched two horror films: “Don’t Breathe” (2016) and “It Follows” (2014) and both are set and (partly) shot in Detroit. In both films we can see the whole neighbourhoods of abandoned, decaying houses and that was both immensely sad and visually striking to me. I was thinking about and started rereading (for the 10th time probably!) Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America”.

She was a huge Springsteen fan and would, at times, fantasise of leading the kind of life that the heroes in his songs led: “Sometimes I lie in my own bed and listen to music for hours. Always Bruce Springsteen, which is weird, I have to admit, because I’m becoming this really urban punked-out kid, and he is kind of the spokesman of the rumpled, working-class suburbs. But I identify with him so completely that I start to wish I could be a boy in New Jersey. I try to convince my mother that we should move out there, that she should work in a factory or as a waitress in a roadside diner or as a secretary at a storefront insurance office. I want so badly to have my life circumstances match the oppressiveness I feel internally. It all starts to seem ridiculous: After all, Springsteen songs are about getting the hell out of the New Jersey grind, and here I am trying to convince my mom that we ought to get into it. I’m figuring, if I can just become poor white trash, if I can just get in touch with the blue collar blues, then there’ll be a reason why I feel this way. I will be a fucked-up Marxian worker person, alienated from the fruits of my labor. My misery will begin to make sense.

Charles Burchfield, Hot Summer Afternoon, 1919

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
And vacant stores…

And finally, I read “Voices from the Rust Belt”; a collection of essays by different authors, edited by Anne Trubek. Some of the themes that linger throughout the essays are urban decay, deindustralisation, white flight, school desegregation, suburban boredom, rise of crime etc. Here is what Anne Trubek writes in the Introduction “Why the Rust Belt Matters (and What It Is): (…) in the 1970s, the demand for steel, which was high during World War II, had begun to wane, and many saw their jobs disappear. Arguably the most symbolic date in Rust Belt history was Black Monday, September 19, 1977, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Ohio closed down, leading to a loss of some forty thousand jobs. Also notable: the region’s population peaked in the 1970s and has been in decline ever since. Those manufacturing jobs are never going to return to the levels seen in the 1970s. The lack of jobs and opportunity for the white working class has been an ongoing problem for over forty years now.

The essays reveal the contrasts between the American dream and the reality of life in the Rust Belt, especially in connection to the decline of the industry and the failing economy. Likewise, the heroes of Bruce Springsteen songs, especially on the albums “The River” (1980) and “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), are the blue-collar workers who often find themselves loosing their jobs due to the failing economy, or, as is the case with the hero from the song “Downbound Train”, the misery of their hard work is intertwined with the miseries outside it such as the love woes.

Max Arthur Cohn, Coal Tower, ca. 1934

The Huber Breaker in Ashley, Pennsylvania was one of the largest anthracite coal breakers in North America. It was built in the 1930s and closed in the 1970s. John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA.

While the guy from the aforementioned song has three different jobs in one song: “I had a job, I had a girl/ I had something going, mister, in this world/ I got laid off down at the lumber yard/ Our love went bad, times got hard/ Now I work down at the car wash/ Where all it ever does is rain/ (…) Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang/ Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain…”, other heroes such as the guy in the song “The River” are not as lucky; he did find a job but there hasn’t been much work because of the economy: “I got a job working construction/ For the Johnstown Company/ But lately there ain’t been much work/ On account of the economy/ Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air/ Now I just act like I don’t remember/ Mary acts like she don’t care…”

In songs such as “Youngstown” Springsteen directly mentions the town and referrenced the closing of Jeanette Blast Furnace owned by the Youngstown Sheet and Tube and closed in 1977 but uses a simple, poetic language to convey the sadness: “Here in Youngstown/ Here in Youngstown/ My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down/ Here darlin’ in Youngstown…” Songs such as “Out in the Street” deal less with the job losses and the failing of the economy and more with the everyday reality of being a blue-collar worker; the song’s hero is waiting for his shift to finish, waiting for the working week to finish just so he can out in the street, see his girl, and, talk and walk the way he wants to talk and walk:

“Put on your best dress baby
And darlin’, fix your hair up right
‘Cause there’s a party, honey
Way down beneath the neon lights
All day you’ve been working that hard line
Now tonight you’re gonna have a good time

I work five days a week girl
Loading crates down on the dock
I take my hard earned money
And meet my girl down on the block
And Monday when the foreman calls time
I’ve already got Friday on my mind
When that whistle blows
Girl, I’m down the street
I’m home, I’m out of my work clothes
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I walk the way I want to walk
When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh
I talk the way I want to talk….
_

Perhaps the most interesting and sad reference to Rust belt’s deindustrialisation is in the song “My Hometown” where the foreman hauntingly foresees the future and says that the jobs are going and are not coming back to their hometown.

William Arthur Cooper, The Lumber Industry, 1934

In the 1920s and 1930s many artists such as Charles Sheeler, Charles Burchfield, Max Arthur Cohn, William Arthur Cooper and many others captured the glory of the industrialised landscapes in their cold and slightly bleak portrayals of the coal mines, modern machinery, lumber yards, and steel mills. Some of these artists were either inspired or directly involved with the art movement called the Precisionism; a uniquely American art movement which sought to portray the machinery and modern life in a precise, sharp and cold manner. For them, the industrialised landscapes were a sort of a victory over nature and they were fascinated by the newest inventions and the sleek appearence of these new machines. Little did they know that some thirty-fourty years after they had painted these painting those same steel mills, lumber yards and coal mines would be abandoned and destroyed. These painters captured the heigh days of the Industrial Midwest before it because the “Post-Industrial Midwest” (a synonim for “Rust belt”). Just look at the painting “Coal Tower” by Max Arthur Cohn; how dark, gloomy, powerful and intimidating the coal tower appears, its windows gandering over the landscape like the eye of the Mordor. And what a contrast this powerful building is to its decaying state to which it succumbed.

Max Arthur Cohn, Bethlehem Steel Works, 1938

And returning for a moment to the collection of essays “Voices from the Rust Belt” I have to say that I really recommend it if you are interested in the topic. I love that each essay is written by a different author. In that way we get a unique and intimate perspective on the topic, writing styles are different and most essays deal with personal experiences, memories, longings, so it is very personal and the sadness of the Rust belt is then even more palpable. My favourite essays are “The Fauxtopias of Detroit Suburbs” by James D. Griffioen, “Pretty Things to Hang on the Wall” by Eric Anderson, “The Kidnapped Children of Detroit” by Marsha Music, and “A Girl’s Youngstown” by Jacqueline Marino. I would like to end this post with a quote from the essay “Moundsville” by David Faulk: “When I first heard the term “Rust Belt” during my last year of junior high, the rust had barely formed on Moundsville. (…) The Ohio Valley in the early 1980s was marked by patterns: for every mill closure, bankers closed in on the houses, women dried their eyes with pink Kleenexes, and the belts came off. Then families moved away or fell apart.

Berthe Morisot – Julie Manet, Reading in a Chaise Lounge

27 Jun

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

(C.S.Lewis)

Berthe Morisot; Julie Manet, Reading in a Chaise Lounge, 1890, watercolor on paper

I discovered this lovely watercolour the other day and for me it is a double treat; firstly because I adore the medium of watercolour, and secondly because I love Berthe Morisot’s paintings of her daughter Juliet. Berthe Morisot was an established painter from the Impressionist circle and she was married to the fellow painter Eugene Manet, the brother of the painter Edouard Manet, and had one child with him, a daughter named Julie. Morisot had painted her daughter Julie on so many ocassions during her childhood and teenage years; Julie reading, Julie with a nanny, Julie with her dog, Julie playing a violin, Julie lost in daydreams… But this is the first portrait that I have seen painted in watercolour and that is something particularly interesting to me. In a simple yet delightful manner Morisot has captured her daughter enjoying some leisure hours by reading a book. Julie was twelve years old at the time this painting was painted.

The style is sketchy and loose which gives it a fresh and spontaneous feel, but it is clear enough that we can see Julie’s delicate, slightly melancholy face and her dark blue dress. Julie’s face seems tinged with a certain wistfuness, melancholy dreaminess, in most of the portraits of her, even the photograph which you can see bellow. Perhaps that is part of the reason I am so drawn to portraits of her; Julie’s dreaminess speaks to the dreaminess that is within me. I really enjoy gazing at all the shades and strokes of Julie’s blue dress; how dark the colour blue is on the sleeves and how it finishes in a whimsical manner just as the space around Julie is fading away, it’s becoming less and less detailed. The warm yellow colour of the pillow under Julie wonderfully complements the blue of her dress; it’s just a visually pleasing aspect of the watercolour. In the background there some simply sketched plants can be seen.

Julie Manet in 1894

Still, most of the attention in the watercolour is on Julie reading her book. I wonder which book she was reading? Perhaps a fairy tale about a princess trapped in a tower, or a princess waiting for a kiss? Julie herself was like a little Impressionist princess, adored by her mother and always posing for some paintings, but sadly five years after this watercolour was painted Berthe Morisot died at the age of fifty-four. Whenever I gaze at Morisot’s portraits of Julie or think about Julie Manet, I always get overwhelmed by a certain sadness knowing that Morisot died when Julie was just seventeen… The fairytale of Julie’s childhood must have ended at that point. All these paintings and portraits that Morisot made of Julie are the beautiful and last presents from a mother to a daughter and – call me sentimental – but that is what makes these paintings particularly delicate and poignant to me.

Eugene Grasset – Young Girl in the Garden

12 May

“Let it pass; April is over, April is over. There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.”

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Sensible Thing)

Eugene Grasset, Young Girl in the Garden, date unknown, watercolour

I recently stumbled upon this gorgeous watercolour by a Swiss turn of the century decorative artist Eugene Grasset (1845-1917) and I was instantly captivated by its lyrical beauty and the ever so slight tinge of melancholy seen in the girl’s downward gaze and the setting sun in the distance, a sense of finality and regrets.

A young brunette in a garden of orange and green tones is casting her gaze down to the pond. She is deep in her thoughts. Spring is passing and the sunset song of the birds speaks of warm summer days which are soon to come; heavy with heat and rich scents of awakened flowers. The lush, elegant garden with its marble staircases and statues brings to mind John Singer Sargent’s vibrant watercolours of the gardens of the Italian villas painted around the same time as Grasset’s watercolour or a little later. The figure of the girl, and the scenery around her and behind her, work in a beautiful harmony; our eye is not distracted by the natural setting of a garden, but the scenery isn’t too simplistic either. Just notice and admire the details on the trees in the background; how lively and wild their branches that stretch towards the heavy orange sunset clouds! With its cascade of statues and flower bushes the scene of a garden acquires a depth which makes the scene more realistic. The girl’s appearance seems to belong to two different ages; at first glance she is the turn of the century young lady, with her dress with slightly puff sleeves and her flowing hair, but also her attire makes her look like a princess from some distant time, from some far-away, enchanted land… Time has stopped; the garish orange sun is captured in its flight, but the tender breeze caressing the trees whispers of changes that are to come. The rosebud of spring is blooming into a summer rose and in this painful transience some things must be left behind. What could I have done differently, or, how fast have the spring days gone by, the young girl seems to be asking herself, in the sunset of a beautiful warm day.

Motives of girls and flowers are common in the art of the La Belle Epoque and indeed, Grasset’s own oeuvre is littered with illustrations that feature a figure of a beautiful girl in a natural setting. Usually, in those kinds of illustrations, everything is so decorative and flowery that it might be hard to tell which is the flower and which – the woman. Visually, this watercolour fits into the same type of paintings, but its mood is more lyrical and it conveys more emotions. It is not emotionally flat and merely decorative, and that is what kept luring me to this watercolour. It speaks to my soul, for sure.