Tag Archives: whimsical

Marc Chagall – A Painter of Childhood

1 Mar

I have a childlike heart. (Sappho, Fragments)

Marc Chagall, I and the Village, 1911

Marc Chagall is the painter of childhood memories and dreams. It is hard to place his art into a specific art movement, or divide it into distinct phases. His paintings sometimes seem as if they all belong to one great psychedelic puzzle because they are connected with the same motifs that reappear again and again, regardless of the year the painting was made in. Harshness of poverty and ugliness of mud of Chagall’s little village of Vitebsk is magically transformed in his canvases into a mythical land of little cottages with cute small windows, streets where one can hear the melodies of the village fiddlers joyously dancing on roofs bathed in moonlight, vibrantly coloured cows, milkmaids and reapers, dark blue sky littered with stars is the only place where lovers find abode, love makes you feel like you’re flying into the clouds, and boyish crushes and dreams are whispered solely to the moon when the cows, roosters and hens are sleeping in silence. Innocence, cheerfulness, whimsicality, everything-is-possible mood pervades his canvases. It’s everyday reality, with its ugliness and banality, seen through pink glasses, similar to the worlds that Gabriel Garcia Márquez has created in his writings. Chagall uses paint instead of words, but portrays the similar fantasy world where colours transition softly one to another, like two cheeks touching tenderly, from white to red, blue to white, the transitions are as velvety soft as the border between dreams and reality is when one first opens one’s eyes in the morning and through tired flickering eyelashes sees rays of sunlight coming through the window.

Marc Chagall, Over the town, 1918

This is the world seen through the eyes of a gentle and dreamy boy whose great scope of imagination enabled him to escape the dreariness of his surroundings and to walk forever on the tightrope between the real world and the world of daydreams. Chagall is the Dreamer who took up painting, a Peter Pan amongst artists; a boy who refused to grow up and forever carried a light of childhood that shone through his kind blue eyes like a firefly shines in warm summer dusks in the mysterious corners of the garden. When Bella spoke of his eyes, she said they were strange, almond-shaped, and “blue as if they’d fallen straight out of the sky”. It’s that light from within and a stubborn faithfulness to the world of daydreams and memories of his little village that made his transcend the poverty, wars and ugliness of his own everyday reality. His tender love for Bella, his memories and childlike naivety and curiosity all fed into his art. In these poetic visions of his provincial desolation, logic makes no sense so you may throw it into the rubbish bin and you may do the same with the perspective and proportions. In “Over the Town”, Marc and Bella are flying over the picturesque village that looks as if it came out of a Russian fairy tale with wooden cottages and fences that stretch on and on, like rainbows, as the two are flying towards their castle on a cloud.

Marc Chagall, The Fiddler, 1912

Don’t you remember how beautiful it was to be a child and believe in everything? I honestly believed I would one day live in a castle and wear old-fashioned dresses, and that I could be everything I want. I also remember vividly how I slowly stopped believing and through tears came to a bitter realisation, which hurt like a bee sting, that the future is actually very limited and that I will probably never be as carefree again as I was that summer when I was ten and my afternoons were spent trying to find a four-leaf clover; a quest in which I happily succeeded once. These are my thoughts at the moment, and there is no answer because time cannot be returned, childhood cannot be relived, and also there are many beautiful things about now; the flowers, the meadows, the river, have not lost their charm for me after all those years.

I just remembered something that Anais Nin said in an interview from 1972; she referred to Baudelaire’s saying that in every one of us there is a man, a woman and a child. She said the child in us never dies but goes on making fantasies, in all of us, but most wouldn’t admit it. The artists are the ones who admit it, but it takes courage to share these fantasies and dreams with the world, serve them on a plate for all to see, expose oneself, only to potentially be ridiculed or judged. So, perhaps the key to nurturing and preserving the child inside is seeing Beauty everywhere around you, being excited and captivated by little things, and to believe – because children always believe, whether it’s in fairy tales or in themselves.

For more on Chagall’s art and his years in Paris, read this.

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James Ensor – Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man

17 Feb

Welcome to the whimsical, colourful and macabre world of the Belgian painter James Ensor.

James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man, 1891

Painting “Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man” is a perfect example of the art that Ensor remains known for. Skeletons shouting, skeletons laughing, skeletons dressed in pretty clothes and fancy hats fighting and threatening each other with brooms and umbrellas. Meanwhile, on the far left and far right ends of the canvas a group of masked faces observe in silence. Their faces, or rather the masks they are wearing reveal a whole set of different emotions; anger, curiosity, shock, malice. Ensor’s whimsically knowns no end because in some paintings it is hard to tell whether a figure is a living person or a skeleton wearing a mask in order to trick us into thinking it’s a living flesh and blood. He skilfully combines playfulness with morbidity, eerie sense of transience with joyous hedonism of the carnival. Skeletons wearing clothes, fighting and living normally amongst humans is death itself laughing to our face, it is as if she is saying: you can’t avoid me, so embrace me. Unlike Edvard Munch who had a morbid obsession with death and illness, Ensor’s view on it is neither sad nor tragic. Death is inseparable from the often pointless and often laughable, at once colourful, burdensome and boring carnival of life. He in fact paints it in shiny and vibrant colours, often with the background in white, painted in careful small brushstrokes, showing attention to detail and filing the space with light.

James Ensor (1860-1949) didn’t always paint these kind of vibrant yet twisted scenes full of intrigues. He wasted his early years on painting in a Realistic manner and painting the popular plein air scenes inspired by the Impressionists. But as he approached his thirties, he found his artistic inspiration in something that had been right in front of his nose for years – carnival masks. In his coastal home town of Ostend in Belgium, Ensor’s parents owned a shop that sold masks, mostly for tourists. So, in carnival masks in front of his eyes and skeletons in his imagination, Ensor concocted many and many whimsical paintings with just a slight macabre touch. The faces on masks are perhaps a hint to Bruegel the Elder’s grotesque faces of peasants, but Ensor adds a social critique by portraying his disillusionment in society around him. Those masked faces, for me, perfectly capture the way I see people around me and in the streets; always eager to judge and stuff noses in matters that do not concern them, hiding their true malicious motifs under a mask of smiles and nice words. With its emphasis on surreal world where skeletons and humans live in harmony, and the expressive abilities of human faces with different emotions, Ensor’s art carried a seed that would later blossom into Expressionism and Surrealism, although it’s important to note that he wasn’t as influential on the development of those art movements as Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch were.

Arcimboldo – A Genius of Mannerism

6 Jun

Giuseppe Arcimboldo is one of the few artists that I truly admire. His paintings are overwhelmingly whimsical, daring and original, bizarre and fascinating even after more than four hundred years. There’s no doubt that these richly individualistic paintings are works of a Genius of Mannerism.

1591. Arcimboldo - Vertumnus, a portrait depicting Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor painted as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the seasons1591. Giuseppe Arcimboldo – Vertumnus

Originality and whimsicality of Arcimboldo’s paintings have ensured him the title of the most interesting Mannerist painter. Admired by his contemporaries, Arcimboldo’s paintings remained puzzling even to the cynical and skeptical audience of the twenty-first century. His imaginative portraits such as ‘Summer‘, or ‘Vertumnus‘ shown above, all posses an unexplainable enigmatic power which leaves the viewers overwhelmed with thoughts and questions. What kind of person painted such marvelous paintings, especially if we consider the time period? And what an imagination?

‘Portrait’ above shows Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor as Vertumnus, or the Roman God of seasons. Rudolf was a peculiar ruler; a King of Hungary and Croatia who at one point decided to move his court from Vienna to Prague and focus on art, science and other hobbies rather than wasting time on dull state affairs. Who has time for politics and wars when there’s art and all sorts of life mysterious waiting to be discovered? Rudolf never married, and his sexuality was the subject of whispers at court, many believed that he was homosexual. Instead, he went on to become a patron of arts, showing a particular fondness for Norther Mannerism.

1563. Giuseppe Arcimboldo - Spring1563. Giuseppe Arcimboldo – Spring

Rudolf’s other interests varied from astronomy, botany and science in general, all the way to alchemy. His court was an abode for all sorts of weirdos and individual minds of Europe at the time; along with a Flemish botanist Charles de l’Ecluse and astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, there was also a female creature at his court, quite unusual for the time, a poetess, Elizabeth Jane Weston, known for Neo-Latin poetry. Themes of her poems varied between idyllic reveries, odes to Rudolf and odes to herself.

Did I mention that Rudolf also kept a menagerie of exotic animals and botanical gardens? Though, that’s not so unusual for the Habsburgs. Rudolf was also fascinated with clocks, telescopes, musical instruments, water works, astrolabes and compasses; all of which he had specially made by the finest European craftsmen. He also had a ‘cabinet of curiosities‘ (Kunstkabinett); ‘encyclopedic collection of objects whose categorical boundaries were, in Renaissance Europe, yet to be defined’; in short, a collection of different things belonging to natural history, geology, art, archeology, antiquities, relics and all sorts of things that would be interesting for a Renaissance man. Considering the variety of his interests, I doubt that he would even have time for a wife. Free from chains of marriage, he had plenty of time for exploration. As a person, Rudolf seems like a strange mixture of Homo Universalis of Renaissance and a rather odd individual.

1640s Wenceslas Hollar - Landscape shaped like a face (date unknown)Wenceslas Hollar – Landscape shaped like a face (date unknown) – 17th century

Fantasy or insanity? Now that’s a debate that could refer to both Arcimboldo and his patron Rudolf. Art critics have many times questioned Arcimboldo’s work, treating his ingenuity as a deranged mind. We can observe Arcimboldo’s painting style from two main aspects. Firstly, the enigmatic mood of his paintings is something that was very popular in Renaissance, it questioned one to think and use its reason to solve the problem. Secondly, the nature of Arcimboldo’s paintings reflects the atmosphere of the time; Renaissance world of harmony was slowly fading away, replaced by doubts and fear – that’s the spirit of Mannerism.

Arcimboldo’s portrait of Rudolf is perhaps the most vivid out of all his imaginative paintings. By skilfully arranging different vegetables, fruits and flowers from all seasons such as cherries, wheat, grapes, corn, plumes, olives, pumpkins, cabbage, apples, pears, onions, chestnut, figs etc, Arcimboldo created a portrait of an Emperor and a perfect personification of a Roman God Vertumnus. Arcimboldo used this formula of ‘portraits-allegories’ many times, one of my favourite renditions of this method is his painting ‘Spring’ which is composed entirely of flowers and leafs. Hidden-faces were quite a popular thing back then, as we can see in the engraving Landscape shaped like a face by Wenceslas Hollar. At first sight it’s a landscape, on the other it’s definitely a face. Landscape, face, landscape, face…

Although Arcimboldo had no direct followers, his work was hugely influential on Surrealists and Dadaists such as Dali, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst. This is the third time I’m writing about Arcimboldo as he seems to be a popular subject, both for me and my readers – I’ve written about his painting The Librarian and about the connection between his painting and Syd Barrett’s Vegetable Man.