Tag Archives: woman in art

Eugène Grasset – La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict)

23 May

“Well it just goes to show
Things are not what they seem
Please, Sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams
Oh, can’t you see I’m fading fast?
And that this shot will be my last…”

(The Rolling Stones, Sister Morphine)

Eugène Grasset, La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict), 1897, color lithograph

In one of my previous posts I wrote about Eugene Grasset’s lovely watercolour “Young Girl in the Garden”, but today I am presenting a very different work of the same artist. The heroine of the artwork is again a woman, but not a dreamy, romantic young woman standing in her garden, surrounded by flowers and birds in the sunset of the day, oh no, the heroine of this colour litograph is a morphine addict. The figure of the addict woman is portrayed from the head to the knees and this closely cropped composition makes the mood more intimate, more immediate. The fact that she is dressed in her undergarments contributes to the intimate, secretive mood. After all, injecting morphine is a private thing to do so the bedroom setting and the clothes she is wearing are both more than appropriate. We hold our breath as we watch the woman inject the morphine into her thigh. The transient pain of the needle will soon melt into sweet nothingness that the Sister Morphine offers…

“Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jim’s in this town
And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds
And everybody puttin’ everybody else down….
Then thank God that I’m good as dead
Then thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care
And I guess I just don’t know
And I guess I just don’t know.“

(Velvet Underground, Heroin)

All details are eliminated; we can partly see the green chair behind the woman and the table on the left is cut off from the space of the artwork because neither are necessarry. Even the colour scheme is simplified; yellow, white, black and green, and thus all our focus goes straight to the woman and in particular to her face which is definitely the most interesting aspect of this litograph. The painful grimace on her face, with its teeth showing and eyebrows clenched is animalistic, primal, without contraints, and how different in that regard to the reserved aloofness and coldness of the elegant upper class ladies with their stiff corsets and fixed smiles.

The injection of morphine brings a rush of pleasure, followed by a drowsiness, sleepiness and dreaminess. We are witnessing this very journey; from the initial almost orgasmic pleasure to the realm of dreams where reality can’t hurt her anymore. Pleasure and dreams as means to forget it all. The flat surface and the woman’s grimace both show the Japanese influence on Western artists.

Paul Albert Besnard, Morphine Addicts or The Plume, 1887, etching, drypoint and aquatint

Grasset was just one of the fin de siecle artists who peeked behind the velvet curtains of the supposedly respectable society and painted the garish and ugly reality that was hiding there; alcoholism, prostitution, debauchery, drug use. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Kees van Dongen, Paul Albert Besnard and many others portrayed scenes of the seedy Parisian underbelly; the world of bohemians, outcasts and degenerates. The woman in this litograph -a prostitute and a morphine addict – is a stark contrast to the elegant upper class ladies seeping tea or strolling around which can be found in the art of Mary Cassatt. Paintings by Cassatt portray the visible reality, but Grasset is the voyeur who is peeking at the hidden, forbidden aspects of the late nineteenth French society.

Uemura Shoen – Flames

21 May

“You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away.”

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

Uemura Shoen, Flames, 1918

The title of Uemura Shoen’s painting, “Flames”, is somewhat in a discord with the painting’s gentle, subdued appearance.The title “Flames” inplies the flames of jealousy and the woman portrayed here is Lady Rokujo; the heroine of Murasaki Shikibu’s eleventh century novel “The Tale of Genji” (Genji Monogatari). The motives of leaves and delicate spider webs speak of the tranquility of nature, but the feelings rising in Lady Rokujo’s soul are all but tranquil. The lady’s pale skin hides a scarlet coloured rage, but still waters run deep and Rokujo’s feelings are deep and passionate. She is biting the strand of her long, long black hair and this gesture speaks of the tormenting state that this lady has found herself in. The pose that she is in; stylised and contorted also adds to the tense, anguished mood that she is in. The lady’s elegance and her porcelain pale skin makes her look like a doll and that is something we see often in Shoen’s paintings of women.

Shoen specialised in the genre called bijin-ga; a genre of pictures that show beautiful women, especially popular in the Ukiyo-e prints. Often times these beautiful women were prostitutes, but that is not always the case and it is certainly not the case with Shoen’s paintings such as this one. Shoen was born in 1875 and in those times it was very unusual for a woman to be a professional painter. Women who could paint well were viewed as cultured, but it was something only to be done as a hobby, behind closed doors, not something a woman could do as a career. Shoen was born two months after the death of her father and luckily she had a supportive mother who encouraged her in her artistic pursuits. Shoen was sent to Kyoto Prefectural Painting School when she was twelve years old and there she found a great tutor alled Suzuki Shonen who was the painter of Chinese-style landscapes. He gave her freedom to paint whatever she wanted, even painting human figures which was something that was allowed only in later years of training. Indeed, painting female figures was something that Shoen loved best and this painting proves just how skilled she was at portraying the psychology of the character. Shonen also gave Shoen the first kanji “sho” to use in her name. Shoen’s original birth name was Uemura Tsune.

The topic of jealousy instantly made me think of this passage from Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre” where the dark and brooding Mr Rochester tells this to Jane:

You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away. Floating on with closed eyes and muffled ears, you neither see the rocks bristling not far off in the bed of the flood, nor hear the breakers boil at their base. But I tell you — and you may mark my words — you will come some day to a craggy pass in the channel, where the whole of life’s stream will be broken up into whirl and tumult, foam and noise: either you will be dashed to atoms on crag points, or lifted up and borne on by some master-wave into a calmer current — as I am now.

Miroslav Kraljević – Paris Years (1911-1912)

16 May

Miroslav Kraljević, Rest, 1912

In September 1911 a young Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević arrived in Paris; the city which lured artists from all over Europe and gave them all a welcoming embrace. He settled in a little studio in Montparnasse; the same place where painters such as Modigliani, Foujita, Chaim Soutine and Marc Chagall lived and worked. In his vibrant and poetic autobiography Chagall describes artists of many different nationalities and  speaking all different languages painted in studios just nearby his. Miroslav Kraljević was just another stranger in the city of art. Although his stay in Paris was very brief; he had returned to his dear homeland in November 1912, the year and two months that he spent there marked the most exciting and daring phase in his career, and also the final one. He died in April 1913 from an illness; he was only twenty-seven years old.

The paintings, watercolours and sketches he created in Paris were an explosion of his creativity and even though some of his friends in Paris, fellow Croatians, had doubts about his work being well-received in artistically conservative Croatia (still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time), the critics in Croatia praised his work for being a true testimony to the spirit of modernism in Croatia. In his short life and short career, Kraljević had gone through many art transformation and his work exhibits many different influences; from that of Edouard Manet and old Spanish painters, to that of Cezanne’s paintings made in Provence, drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, Henri Valloton, paintings of Henri Forain and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Kraljević’s pastel titled “Rest” from 1912 beautifully shows how the painter was inspired by the art of Toulouse-Lautrec. A woman is seen resting, lying on the bed with her legs in over-the-knee black stockings dangling over the bed. Her beautifully shaped body dressed in a grey dress seems almost lifeless, and her eyes, looking in a distant spot on the ceiling, add to the eeriness. Her pose and her garments are something that Toulouse-Lautrec would have certainly approved of. I love how the grey colour of her dress almost transcends into soft lavender shades. There is also an exciting contrast between the sketchy part of the drawing and the beautifully painted arms and torso where Kraljević achieved the illusion of volume.

Miroslav Kraljević, Apres, 1912

Another pastel, “Apres”, shows a very similar theme; the woman lying on the sofa, again wearing black stockings, but this time nude, is seen covering her face and perhaps her blushing cheeks. Maybe she is hiding from the painter’s gaze. Again, I love the contrast between sketchy and finished. A very different work from Paris is the watercolour “In the Cafe” which shows a man and a woman, both elegantly dressed, sitting in the Parisian cafe. The contrast of he woman’s very pale face and her dark blue coat is very striking.

Even though Kraljević’s paintings such as these were almost scandalously modern and free-spirited for the art circles of the provincial Croatia, his style was actually lagging behind the art trends. In spirit, Kraljević was a man of the fin de siecle; he loved women, female beauty and perfume, eroticism; he was moody, nervous and had frail nerves, he was an aesthete, a follower of the cult of Beauty to the very end. Even on his deathbed he asked for champagne and a comb so he could, quoting him, “die beautifully and – die beautiful”. The soft curves of the female body were dearer to him than rectangles of Cubism, the golden glow of streetlamps and carriages more appealing to him than the speed and ugliness of modern life.

His love of the very recent past (at the time) was equaled with his faithful love for his homeland, it was almost a romantic and sentimental attachment to the meadows and hillsides of his country, even the streets of Zagreb were dearer to him that those of Paris. He was a man who had narrowly missed out on the age which suited his spirit more and, disappointed like a person who’s train had just left the station without him, Kraljević worked with an almost frantic determination and neuroticism, desperately trying to make up for lost times. His fire developed quickly and was extinguished equally so. In some symbolic way, his death in 1913 is very fitting because it is the year just before the First World War had started, it marked the end of an era.

Miroslav Kraljević, In the Cafe, 1912

Georgia O’Keeffe – Love, Flowers and Solitude: Part II

24 Jan

In the first part of my little series, I wrote about Georgia’s early charcoal drawings, her correspondence and blooming romance with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. In this part, I will continue where I left off and focus on her fascinations with flowers.

“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus, 1939

According to Georgia, they would make love, and Stieglitz would take pictures of her afterwards. She found it difficult and tiresome to stand still for so long. Sometimes he would focus on a specific body parts such as her bosom or her pretty delicate hands. In a similar manner Georgia would later focus on the detail of something that she was painting and cropped it, particularly flowers. When I think of Georgia’s dazzling portraits of flowers, I see her as a little girl out in the meadow, running freely and led by childlike curiosity, observing them through her magnifying glass and discovering an entire new world. Georgia was just as inquisitive as Alice in Wonderland, but also a very patient person with an acute observation. She gazes at flowers, she starts understanding their language and gesture, the petals hold no more secrets to her wise eyes. Enraptured with what she had seen and discovered, Georgia takes the paint – all sorts of colours fitting for a flower – yellow, pink, red, white, blue, orange – and paints for us all that the flowers try to hide from us. Georgia applies almost Zen-like principles in her art, and life too, her focus was always on patience and observation. She says herself: “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia’s paintings of overwhelmingly large flowers confront us with something we take so little to notice or appreciate. Just think about it, how little we spend just gazing at something; meditatively gazing without anything to gain from it, without a final destination.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus with Plumeria, 1939

Georgia’s paintings of flowers are something most exquisite, no one before her painted flowers that way; huge flowers in vibrant tropical colours dominating the canvas, stretching their large petals and drawing you into their world. Fluid forms and lyrical softness are reminiscent of her early watercolours and charcoals, but the way of painting was something quite new. Inspired by Stieglitz and the photography that he introduced her to, she began painting in a very fine, precise way so that no brushstrokes are seen and the overall effect of paint on canvas is smooth. Personally, I would love to see the brushstrokes because it is like the artist is speaking to you, but perhaps without that technical segment we are able to focus on the thing Georgia is painting and not her as the creator behind it; by eliminating the heavy visible brushstrokes, she is revealing to us the flower itself, its petals, and allows it to be a world of if its own. She tricks us, feeds us illusions. Gazing at Georgia’s paintings of flowers makes me think that this is how a butterfly must feel when it lands on a flower, this is how a bumblebee must feel when he pays the beloved flower a visit and becomes one with its lush fragrant petals. We too don’t just observe Georgia’s flowers from afar, as we would a standard still life with flowers or a painting of a flowery meadow, we are engaged – we too become a part of the flower, at least for the moment. I think in some way, her paintings of flowers are really psychedelic.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Petunia and White Morning Glory, 1926

Georgia O’Keeffe, Sunflower, 1935

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Iris, 1926

Georgia O’Keeffe, Oriental Poppies, 1927

At first, I didn’t think of Georgia’s flowers as ‘romantic’ in a way Claude Monet’s flowers are, scattered in the meadow or surrounding a lady sitting in the grass, but now I am thinking: what would be more romantic than painting a flower in such an intimate way – from the point of its most ardent lover and admirer. And did the flower petals blush from too much attention when Georgia painted them?

Georgia O’Keeffe – Love, Flowers and Solitude: Part I

13 Jan

Georgia O’Keeffe is a woman I deeply admire these days. She decided she wanted to become a painter at the age of twelve, and she not only became an accomplished painter but spent nearly her entire life developing her art, constantly learning, experimenting and changing, striving to paint in a way that was completely her own, and not mimic the art that others were making around her. Hardworking and dedicated when it came to her art, O’Keeffe worked continuously every day, never waited for the perfect moment of inspiration, and rarely allowed her negative moods or emotions to rule her day or her life. She was very patient and able to gaze at something in nature, be it a flower, a cloud, a brook, then meditate over it, soak in its every last detail and then distill the essence of her experience into her artwork. This way she created abstract paintings and drawings that were inspired by what she had seen in the natural world around her, and her own visions at the same time. This is the first part of a little series I will be making about Georgia O’Keeffe, and I will focus on things which fascinated me the most about her life; her love for Stieglitz, her love of flowers and her love of solitude.

Georgia O’Keeffe photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Paintings which we today connect with Georgia O’Keeffe’s are full of colour but her early work was very different. At the academy, she painted in the realist manner which was expected of her, but privately she painted minimalist watercolours and abstract charcoal drawings which were unlike everything she had seen other artists around her painting. She was determined not to use colour until she discovers the true potential of a simple and unassuming medium such as drawing, in her own words: “I wasn’t going to use any colour until I couldn’t do what I wanted to do with charcoal or black paint.” Georgia thought that art, like music, should be inspired by nature and the real world, but separate from it and abstract in its core. She opposed copying directly what was in front of her, and her charcoals are really interesting, with repetitive shapes that seem to have been made spontaneously, without much thinking or planning before hand. Satisfied with what she has created, early in 1916, Georgia O’Keeffe sent a letter accompanied with ten of her charcoal drawings to her friend and former classmate Anita Pollitzer who then, without Georgia’s permission, proceeded to share these with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, at the time also known for being the promoter of modern art.

Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 7 Special 1915

Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 20-From Music-Special, 1915

Georgia O’Keeffe, Drawing XIII, 1915

It’s little to say that Stieglitz was captivated with what he saw; unable to utter a single word as he gazed at the drawings which seemed so fresh, exciting and new, so unlike all that he had seen before. Pollitzer wrote to Georgia about Stieglitz’s reaction: “it was a long while until his lips opened: finally a woman on paper.” Stieglitz almost instantly showed her drawing at his Midtown Manhattan art studio called “291”; the place for the scandalous and avant-garde art decades before Andy Warhol and his avant-garde at his Manhattan studio called “The Factory”. It wasn’t until May 1916 that Georgia found out that Stieglitz was showing her works at his gallery; at first she was angry about it, although she allowed the exhibition to continue, but then curiosity prevailed and she was eager to hear what it was that he loved about her drawings. From a simple letter which read: “Mr. Stieglitz, if you remember why you liked the charcoals Anita Pollitzer showed you and what they said to you, I would like to know, if you want to tell me“, they started a correspondence that lasted throughout their lives and little they knew that a seed of love was planted in those few words; love that would blossom in the years to come.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

In autumn of 1916, Georgia was teaching art at the West Texas State Normal College and living in a small town called Canyon. She wrote Stieglitz of her long walks in nature and the beauty of the night sky and stars, and she also mentioned some tall, strong and handsome young Texans. Stieglitz was more than twenty years her senior, married, although not very happily, but enjoying his life in New York City, in the bustling streets and tall skyscrapers, in the middle of a busy art community. By the end of 1916 and in the beginning of 1917, their letters were longer and of more intimate nature, they started opening up about their fears, struggles and secrets. Each letter was a little book; Stieglitz sometimes wrote to her up to three or four times a day, and Georgia said his letters would “sometimes burst open in the mail”.

Alfred Stieglitz; Georgia O’Keeffe, Hands and Breasts, 1919

They fell in love through their correspondence, and in June 1918 Georgia moved to New York City where Stieglitz provided her with a place to stay and work. He promoted her work, and in return, found in her a muse that he never had before. He took many photographs of her during their relationship, mostly lyrical nudes. On one of such photo sessions, Stieglitz’s wife Emmy walked in. She wasn’t impressed with what she had seen and demanded that he stop seeing Georgia. Completely enamored with Georgia, Stieglitz instead left his wife and the pair moved in a new flat in New York City. Days were spent in art and love. They slept separately at first but by August the passion overtook them and “they were like two teenagers in love. Several times a day they would run up the stairs to their bedroom, so eager to make love that they would start taking their clothes off as they ran.” (Richard Whelan; Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography)

Alfred Stieglitz; Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

The letters they exchanged also speak of great passion, tenderness and mutual interests that kept their relationship alive throughout the years, and they range from tender and romantic longings such as this one from Georgia’s letter to Stieglitz in May 1922: “I’ll not try to say things I can’t — you must just understand — I want to put my arms round you — kiss you — let you kiss me — it’s all very quiet — what I want is very quiet — it’s great to trust anyone enough to let them kiss you.” to those which were more passionate in nature such as this one, also written by Georgia: “Dearest — my body is simply crazy with wanting you — If you don’t come tomorrow — I don’t see how I can wait for you — I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours — the kisses — the hotness — the wetness — all melting together — the being held so tight that it hurts — the strangle and the struggle.” They married in 1924, but didn’t live together always and that’s the reason their correspondence continued even after they started living together. All together they exchanged over 5000 letters, and they never seemed to run out of things to say. Something that Stieglitz wrote to her in June 1929 struck me as very poignant and beautiful: “I’d like to die in your arms – perhaps that’s my great wish – it always was.” She indeed was with him when he died in 1946.