Tag Archives: watercolour

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.

Maurice Prendergast – Feast of the Redeemer

2 Mar

“Spring lanterns –

colourful reincarnations

of the moon”

(haiku by Isabel Caves, found here.)

Maurice Prendergast, Feast of the Redeemer, c 1899, watercolour

Another post, another watercolour by Maurice Prendergast! In this post we are sort of continuing the theme from my previous Prendergast post where I talked about his watercolour “The Grand Canal, Venice“, also from 1899. The aforementioned watercolour is a lively scene that shows tourists, gondoliers and strollers enjoying a sunny day at the Grand Canal, but the watercolour we will be seeing today shows us a night view of the same waters and canals of Venice.

Using only three colours; blue, orange and yellow, Prendergast manages to create a fetching nocturnal scene filled with plethora of little boats decorated with garlands and glowing lanterns. The painting has depth; our view stretches on and on into the distance, so far off that it is hard to distinguish whether the distant orange and yellow dots are the lanterns or just the reflections of the lanterns in the nocturnal waters. Each boat is painted in a single thick black line which, for some reason, brings to mind the black lines in paintings of Franz Kline. I cannot decide which aspect of the watercolour is more beautiful; the glowing lanterns or the reflections of their light in the dark midnight water, the reflections which are painted in a kind of zig zag pattern in the foreground while in the distance they are vertical, like golden tears. Everyone who paints watercolours will know that it is like walking on a tightrope, a constant struggle between control and spontaneity. Sometimes the effect of letting the watercolour paint itself can be magical, but without some direction it could also be a big colourful mess. Prendergast always walks that tightrope with ease and perfection, none of his watercolours seem as if they are laboured over, as if he struggled.

At first sight this watercolour appears whimsical, playful and fantasy-like, but in reality the scene it depicts is a religious festival called “Festa del Redentore” or Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer which is celebrated every year on the third Sunday of July. It is one of the most important Venetian celebrations that binds religion and festivity. The origin of the festival started back in the sixteenth century, to commemorate the end of the plague that happened in 1577. The festival is celebrated by a sea pilgrimige to the little island of Giudecca and that is the sight that Prendergast has seen and decided to capture in watercolours. On the night of the festival the fireworks are let out and people gather on the balconies and roofs to observe the occassion.

Watercolours of Venice: Maurice Prendergast and John Henry Twachtman

18 Feb

Maurice Prendergast, The Grand Canal, Venice, 1899, watercolour

I recently stumbled upon these two gorgeous watercolours of Venice and I though it would be fun to compare the two because they are so different in mood. As you may know already, I am a massive fan of Maurice Prendergast’s watercolours and I have written about them on numerous occasions. They are just so vibrant, colourful, bubbly and so darn fun! Prendergast truly transformed the otherwise moody, watery and melancholy medium of watercolour into something ecstatic and playful, childlike but still skilled and refined. Colours and vivacity are two things that characterise Prendergast’s watercolours the most. In this watercolour “The Grand Canal, Venice” from 1899, we are instantly captivated by all the energy and business of the scene; people are gliding up and down the pavement, the gondoliers are on their gondolas, the seawaves are cradling the gondolas and the water is glistening in the sunlight. The way the water is painted, in little dots and dashes, really makes it seem as if it were alive. The composition is interesting because it has a lot of depth and our view stretches from the gondolas in the foreground and the little girl with her red parasol, all the way to the beige and blue houses in the background. The vertical lines of the streetlamps is echoed by the vertical lines of the canal poles. As usual, Prendergast is great at capturing people, lots of people walking down the street chatting and laughing, in a way that is seemingly detailed and sketchy both at once.

In his watercolour titled simply “Venice”, from 1881, the American Impressionist painter John Henry Twachtman offers us a rather different view of the dreamy town on many canals. Twachtman’s watercolour painted in harmony of greys and browns is a stark contrast to Prendergast’s bubbly and colourful view of the Venice canal. The moody, grey sky and the grey water with ever so slight touch of blue and green occupy the majority of the scene. The little boats with brown sails and grey toned domes of churches visually break the vastness of the water and the sky. Prendergast’s watercolours are always bursting with liveliness and are full of people, but in Twachtman’s view of Venice there are no people. This absence of human figures, further contributes to the sombre, slightly melancholy mood. The tonalist way in which the watercolour was painted, with just a few carefully selected colours, makes it feel as if this was a musical composition, a nocturne, something hushed and melancholy. Twachtman allows the colours to freely create the scene and this gives the impression of something light and effortless; we don’t feel as if the painter laboured over this watercolour, rather it feels delicate and natural, as if the sky had imprinted itself on the paper and the sea waves of Venice painted the painter in their aqua blue shades. Two different views of the same city, different in style but equal in beauty.

John Henry Twachtman, Venice, 1881, watercolour

Antigone in Art: Being charged as foolish by a fool

27 Nov

“…does not someone who, like me,
Lives on among so many evils, profit
By dying?

(Sophocles, Antigone)

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927), Antigone, no date

When, back in high school, I first read a few passages from the Greek tragedy “Antigone”, written by Sophocles in 441 BC, I wasn’t particularly interested in it, but now I decided to read the play again because the play’s central theme – the civil disobedience – is something that resonates strongly with today’s events. The strong and brave Antigone is a true heroine and reading the play filled me with a sense of direction and gave me encouragment.

Antigone, the play’s heroine and the main character, is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, and the sister of Ismene, Polynices and Eteocles. An event that happens before the start of the play is the civil war of Thebes in which Antigone’s brothers Polynices and Eteocles fight on different sides. Antigone’s uncle Creon gives an order that Eteocles must have an honorable burial but Polynices must be left unburried in the battlefield and his dead body will be food for vultures, as a punishment for his rebellion. The play begins with a conversations between Antigone and Ismene; the brave Antigone who is led by justice wishes to give her brother a proper burial because she feels that is the right thing to do, but Ismene, who is a lawful and obedient daughter, dares not to do this, even though she knows in her heart it is the right thing. Ismene begs Antigone not to proceed with her plan because she knows how harsh the punishment will be when the King Creon finds out, but Antigone doesn’t listen to her sister and instead says:

ANTIGONE:
For me it’s noble to do
This thing, then die. With loving ties to him,
I’ll lie with him who is tied by love to me,
I will commit a holy crime, for I
Must please those down below for a longer time
Than those up here, since there I’ll lie forever.

Antigone and Ismene by Emil Teschendorff, Antigone and Ismene, n.d.

ISMENE: You have a heart that’s hot for what is chilling.
ANTIGONE: But I know I’m pleasing those I must please most.

In the painting by Emil Teschendorff above you can see the beautiful, blue-eyed and blonde Ismene trying to convince Antigone not to go out and bury her brother. What a visual contrast they make; Ismene is dressed in light clothes, she is bright and fair, and Antigone is dressed in a dark blue, with dark hair. Ismene is the good and proper daughter, and Antigone is the stubborn rebel and troublemaker. Their personalities are indeed as different as day is to night, but this ‘light’ and positive representation of Ismene is very misleading because ‘obedience’ doesn’t equal ‘goodness’ or ‘justice’. Being obedient doesn’t mean doing the right thing, it means doing what you were told to do without questioning it.

Nikiforos Lytras, Antigone in front of the dead Polynices, 1865

As you can see, there are many interesting representations of Antigone in art, especially the scene where Antigone finds the body of her dead brother and gives him a proper burial. Greek painter, appropriately, Nikiforos Lytra places the scene at a rocky beach. Behind Antigone the dark sea and the moody sky meet. She gazes in disbelief at her brother’s corpse. In Benjamin-Constant’s version of the scene the Antigone is dressed in a white gown and while she is performing the ritual two guards behind here have just caught her in the act.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, Antigone au chevet de Polynice, 1868

In the watercolour by Lenepveu the naked body of Polynices is stretches under Antigone’s feet while she is sprinkling dust all over him and perfroming the ritual. Their poses and the way the red cloth is carefully placed to cover Polynices’s private part makes the scene seem staged and not as mysterious or as spontaneous as the previous paintings. My favourite is the version by the Pre-Raphaelite painter of Greek origin Marie Spartali Stillman; the landscape behind Antigone is a moody one and the crows add to the ominous appeal, both sisters are next to their brother’s body and Ismene is holding Antigone’s hand imploringly, desperately trying to prevent her from doing what she is about to do.

Jules Eugene Lenepveu (1819-1898), Antigone Gives Token Burial to the Body of Her Brother Polynices, c. 1835-1898, watercolor, pen and black ink over black chalk, on gray-green paper

Ismene with her moral lenience, her cowardice and lack of passion and integrity reminds me of a quote by Robert Anton Wilson which is very appropriate for our times: “The obedient always think about themselves as virtuous, rather than cowardly.” And this leads us to another moral dilemma which is at the centre of the play: obedience to what or whom? Obedience to civil laws made by men, or obedience to something higher; obedience to God or your own conscience? Which is more important? Ismene doesn’t want to create an inconvenience or disobey the civil law but Antigone doesn’t care about laws on earth because she knows that she must please the Gods first; her life on earth is brief but the life of her soul is eternal.

Isn’t it fascinating how when we are presented with something in retrospective, or in art, everything is perfectly clear to us; it is obvious that Antigone is a brave and principled heroine, that Ismene is weak and obedient, that Creon is a tyrannt. Everyone would agree that Antigone did the right thing, and yet, in real life, everything is twisted and upside-down; blind obedience, conformity and cowardice are celebrated as bravery, real bravery is portrayed as dangerous ignorance and even lunacy, not to mention that Truth and Logic have been the first victims of our tragedy; they died in Act One. If our situation was a Greek play it would be obvious who was on the right side, as history will inevitably show too. To end, here is a brilliant dialogue between the King Creon and Antigone where he questions her about what she has done and Antigone gives him a brilliant, intelligent, even a bit cheeky reply. Go, Antigone!:

KREON: You — answer briefly, not at length — did you know
It was proclaimed that no one should do this?

ANTIGONE I did. How could I not? It was very clear.
KREON And yet you dared to overstep the law?
ANTIGONE:
It was not Zeus who made that proclamation
To me; nor was it Justice, who resides
In the same house with the gods below the earth,
Who put in place for men such laws as yours.
Nor did I think your proclamation so strong
That you, a mortal, could overrule the laws
Of the gods, that are unwritten and unfailing.
For these laws live not now or yesterday
But always, and no one knows how long ago
They appeared. And therefore I did not intend
To pay the penalty among the gods
For being frightened of the will of a man.
I knew that I will die —how can I not? —
Even without your proclamation. But if
I die before my time, I count that as
My profit. For does not someone who, like me,
Lives on among so many evils, profit
By dying? So for me to happen on
This fate is in no way painful. But if
I let the son of my own mother lie
Dead and unburied, that would give me pain.
This gives me none. And now if you think my actions
Happen to be foolish, that’s close enough
To being charged as foolish by a fool.

Oh and the guards in the play who told the King that they saw Antigone are the perfect examples of people who are “just doing their job”, which is something I am sick to my stomach of hearing. The picture above is something I found on The Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown’s Twitter, but I have seen it in other places and I don’t know who the original creator is.

Teodor Axentowicz – The Old Man and the Ghost of a Young Woman

7 Nov

Polish-Armenian painter Teodor Axentowicz (1859-1938) is somewhat forgotten and neglected in today’s art history but he has many amazing painting, for example his pastel “Redhead” of which I have written about before. Today I wanted to write about a pastel and watercolour painting whose mood and colours fit this time of the year so well, that is, the mood of the painting fits the mood of nature in this moment.

Teodor Axentowicz, Vision – Memory, Old age and youth, (The old man and the ghost of a young woman, An old man with a girl) (after 1900), pastel and watercolor on paper

This painting is known under various titles, but my favourite title is “The old man and the ghost of a young woman” because it directly implies that the wistful, gentle face of a woman that appears to be gazing at the old man is a ghost. We could assume that from the way she was painted as well; her face is clear but the rest of her seems unfinished, as if she is fading away or she is not really there. She is suppose to be a simple peasant, but her facial features look more like those of a model and the classical, idealised beauty of her face contrasts with the more realistic manner in which the old man’s face was painted. The old age has coloured his hair and beard in snow white, his attire is simple and brown. Why is he sitting under a tree with a furrowed brow? Does he sense that his end will come soon? Do the memories of his youth haunt him? Does he see the face of a girl he once loved but who had died? Maybe she came to tell him: shhh, it is time to go now… But he is still scared. The girl’s face oozes patience and tenderness, surely she has come to help him in some way. Wistful, lovely and lonely female figures appear often in Axentowicz’s art; whether it’s his gorgeous pastel “Girl with a Blue Vase (Tears)” from 1900, “Portrait of a Girl Dressed in Krakow” from 1909, or his “Girl with a Candlestick”, but they are always isolated figures against a landscape. In this painting the girl’s wistful face is tied to a bigger story and every detail is imbued with a symbolism.

Another title for the painting “Memory, Old Age and Death” brings yet another meaning to the scene; the old man seeing the girl’s face in the forest must be a sign of his impending death and the girl must be a face from his memory, someone he loved. Also, it implies a vanitas theme of transience and the shortness of life. The somber, earthy, autumnal colours match the mood of the painting perfectly. The colours aren’t the gay, vibrant shades typical for early autumn, no, this is the autumn nearing its end; winter’s frost kissing the bare trees. The painting looks like it was seen from a sepia-tinted glasses, like a distant memory, something melancholy that can never be returned. The forest setting, away from people, away from everyday life, brings additional spiritual dimension to the painting. There are no more leaves to fall of those trees; the leaves rustle no more, nothing but stilness and coldness is in the air – death is near. The combined technique that Axentowicz used is also interesting; pastel over watercolour; it brings the best of both worlds.