Tag Archives: woman

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.

Oda Krohg: A Japanese Lantern

6 Feb

“The true joy of a moonlit night is something we no longer understand. Only the men of old, when there were no lights, could understand the true joy of a moonlit night.”
(Yasunari Kawabata, Palm-of-the-Hand Stories)

Oda Krohg (1860–1935), A Japanese Lantern (By the Oslofjord), 1886, Pastel on paper pasted on canvas

The palpable dreaminess and delicate, lyrical nocturnal ambient is what instantly captivated me about this painting. A woman in a white gown is sitting at the balcony doors and gazing out into the beautiful summer night; the distant moonlight is painting the landscape in whimsical shadows and casting a silver light that transforms the mundaneness of this view from the window into a magical scene. The woman’s face is turned away from us which gives her a mysterious vibe but also puts us in her place; we are not gazing at her, but rather we are seeing what she is seeing. Our view stretches from the lush, murmuring treetops in the foreground to the serene lake bathed in moonlight in the background. Above the woman, a Japanese lantern is hanging from the ceiling, it almost replaces the image of the moon, and its warm, yellowish light is reflected at the ornamental glass of the door.

The title, “A Japanese Lantern”, the cropping, and the motif of a lantern all hint at the Oriental inspiration behind the painting. Alternative title, “By the Oslofjord”, puts the painting in a geographic reality and places the scene near the town of Oslo. Before seeing paintings of Edvard Munch and now this gorgeous pastel by Oda Krohg, I never thought Nordic nights and fjords could have such a magical appeal. The painting, with its hushed, nocturnal and dreamy atmosphere that matches that of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, paved a way for the revival of Romantic themes in art; romance, dreams and Symbolism instead of realism. I love how the predominant tonality is blue. The purity of using just this one colour and its different tones to achieve this nocturnal effect is mesmerising. The pastel chalk technique also adds a certain softness that is fitting for the mood.

Oda Krohg was a female Norwegian painter who lived her life like a man; she disobeyed the social norms, went to pubs and cafes unchaperoned, had children out of wedlock and had affairs with many fellow Norwegian artists, but not with Munch though. She was twenty-six years old when she painted this painting and it was her painterly debut. She married the painter Christian Krohg whose painting “The Sick Child” would later influence Munch to paint the same motif of a sickly, dying child. Christian Krohg also painted this charming portrait of his wife Oda in the same year that Oda painted her “A Japanese Lantern” painting. She does look like a cheerful, independant bohemian. With that long flowing hair, vibrant red dress, hoop earrings and the red bonnet I can picture her in a 1960s Godard film, like Anna Karina. And I love her smile.

Christian Krohg, Oda Krohg as Bohemian Princess, 1886

Tomislav Krizman – Autumn

17 Oct

“Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.”

(Emily Bronte)

Tomislav Krizman, Autumn, 1904, litograph

Tomislav Krizman’s gorgeous litograph “Autumn” truly encapsulates the dual nature of autumn; its richness, ecstasy and vibrancy, and its melancholy and wistfulness. The colours, the mood, the composition; everything about this litograph is absolutely perfect to me. In a true Art Nouveau manner, the spirit of autumn is presented in the form of a woman. She is seen from the profile, clutching a cluster of autumn leaves to her chest. Her eyes are closed and her pale face oozes wistfulness and silent resignation. The white dress she is wearing contrasts beautifully with the harmony of orange and yellow in the woods in the background. The woman’s flaxen hair and the leaves are flying in the autumn breeze. The hair is captured in its dance, the leaves in their fall. Both the leaves on the trees and the leaves that the lady is holding in her arms are impervious to the gusts of wind. She is clutching them on her bosom, but she is unable to hold onto them all. Autumn is, after all, a season of nature that brings to our attention the bittersweet transient nature of everything on earth. The leaves will change colour, the trees tops, once lush and full of life and birdsong, will become bare. In the background we see a forest; thin dark tree trunks and the ground covered in the leafy carpet of orange and gold. The ground stretches all the way in the distance and this gives an illusion of depth. This manner of portraying trees and the woods is something we see often in paintings of a fellow Secessionist painter from the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Gustav Klimt. In those paintings, his fir and pine woods acquire a certain solemn silence and a strange mysticism, one almost feels as if one is entering into another world. Composition-wise, this is a stunning and beautiful contrast of the figure in the foreground and the vibrant woods in the background. The mood of autumn is beautifully captured, but another thing I love about this litograph is how poetic it is, like a poem full of onomatopoeia; I can just hear the rustle of leaves, the whisper of the wind through the trees, rain drops hitting the ground in a wonderful rhythm of nature.

Miroslav Kraljević – Olympia (Homage to Manet)

15 Sep

A few months ago I wrote a post about the Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević’s Parisian phase (1911-12) and today let us take a look at one particular painting from that phase called “Olympia” (1912). It is a direct homage to Edouard Manet’s controversial female nude “Olympia” (1863). Decades later, a painter from a provincial Austro-Hungary (now modern Croatia) had been so inspired by Manet’s painting that he had to paint his rendition of it. This just goes to show the immense influence of Manet on modern art.

Miroslav Kraljević, (Great Female Nude) Olympia, 1912

In 1911, after having spent awhile studying abroad in Munich where he had encountered the newest trends in art, the Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević was back home in a town called Požega. In the peaceful and idylic small-town environment, Kraljević painted many self-portraits and landscapes, but still he was restless, perhaps slightly claustrophobic as well, and there was something his heart desired, a shiny red apple of sin he wanted to grab from the branch and sink his teeth into; Paris, with its vivacity, art, and the bright lights. He turned his fantasies into a reality in September 1911 when he travelled to Paris; the it place for an artist. He had been looking forward to seeing the works of the finest French painters, especially those of Edouard Manet. Apart from museums and galleries, Kraljević visited parks, cafes, bistroes and infamous places such as Moulin Rouge. As appropriate for the city he found himself in, his favourite motif in his Parisian phase was – the woman, more often than not nude or wearing very little clothes. And of course, as a hommage to his idol, Kraljević painted his own “Olympia” in 1912.

Female nude has been a popular motif in art for a long time, but when Edouard Manet painted his nude Olympia, it was seen as brash and shocking to the audience and critics. Why? Well, firstly because Manet didn’t bother to dress his painting up in mythology and allegory, and secondly because of the manner in which he painted her; realistic rather than idealised and highly eroticised. Inspired by Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” (1532-34), Manet’s Olympia is visibly less sensuous and inviting. She looks like a dull, flat, paper doll. In fact, she looks uninterested, as if she’s saying “oh, it’s you again, ah well…” Olympia isn’t a Roman goddess that every man would desire, she is a realistic looking courtesan that was well-known to Parisian men of the upper classes. Manet stirred the waters of Parisian society by directly pointing out the hypocrisy and serving some hot realism on a platter.

Kraljević’s Olympia is equally pale and uninterested, looking directly in the viewer, without a trace of shame or shyness. She doesn’t have a waterfall of long, golden hair to sensually cover her nudity like a Baroque martyr would. Nope, she is flaunting her body, but, just like Manet’s Olympia, she is wearing dainty slippers; God forbid some madman with a foot fetish gets a thrill from looking at her feet, oh no. Kraljević painted her pale flesh in the same way he had approached his earlier portraits, with more visible brushstrokes and a sense of volume than Manet had done it. Around her are a few vibrant coloured cushions and we can see a bouquet of purple flowers on the right, echoing the flowers that the servant is presenting to Olympia, most likely a gift from a client. Colours in Kraljević’s painting are more warm and muted, which makes it seem more like a budoir scene whereas Manet’s painting shows Olympia as a doll in the shop-window. I wonder what Manet would have thought of this homage?…

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

Teodor Axentowicz: Redhead – A Pastel Dream

6 Aug

“Your eyes dream, opened wide.
Belovèd, your eyes of green,
In the dusk the perfume exhausts,
Are dreaming of tortures dire…

Mine eyes to weep were fain,
Mine eyes possess thee all. (….)
Flower petals fall.
The roses all are dying..
I am saying nothing, thou hearest
Under thy motionless hair.

Love is heavy. My soul is sighing..
What wing brushes both of us, dearest,
In the sick and soundless air?

(Albert Samain, Summer Hours)

Teodor Axentowicz, Redhead, 1899, pastel on paper

This gorgeous pastel drawing has been haunting me for some time now. Axentowicz’s “Redhead” is a face from a dream, or a memory. The girl’s pale face arises from the blueish mist. Dreamy and fragile, like a vision that is here and then gone in a second. The blue and green colours absolutely enchant me; I feel as if I am a staring into the turquoise-teal depths of a lake, completely mesmerised and unaware of anything else that is going on around me, but were I to touch the surface, the vision would be gone. These colours are just mesmerising. And the way it was drawn further emphasised the dreamy, ethereal mood of the drawing; these strokes of pastel are as soft and fragile as spiderweb. Softer than anything in this real world, soft because it’s woven from dreams, memories, reveries, visions… Axentowicz wasn’t drawing this with pastel on paper, he was weaving it softly like a spider weaves his web, from poetry and dreams. The blueness of the background perfectly contrasts with the girl’s auburn hair, like water mingling with the reed, and I love the way all these pastel strokes meet and mingle, carefully crafting the volume of the drawing. It is all so tender and ever so palpable. The paper loses its physical quality and this drawing seems more like music, or poetry than a real pastel on paper. That is not meant as a criticism of the pastel because I love the medium with all its potential of wildness and vibrancy, but here the artist has transcended the medium and created something spectacular. When I gaze at this pastel the verses of the Symbolist poet Albert Samain instantly come to mind, or rather, the mood that his verses convey is very similar to the mood of this pastel.

Teodor Axentowicz was a Polish-Armenian painter born in 1859 in Brasov, a city which was then part of Hungary but is today part of Transylvania, Romania. He was a true cosmopolitan who travelled all over Europe, though this wasn’t unusual for artists of the time. He lived and studied in many places, most notably in Munich and then in Paris where he studied under Carolus-Duran. His career as a painter was equally diverse; in Paris he worked on fashion magazines, he painted Polish peasants and their day to day life, he was one of seven Polish painters who confounded the Vienna Secession and this pastel “Redhead” painted in 1899, right at the turn of the century, fits the mood of Secession but also looks like something that could illustrate a Symbolist poem. Axentowicz died in Krakow in 1938, before he could see the horrors of the Second World War.

Foujita: La Vie – Everything Passes

11 Jul

Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness.

Everything passes.

This is the one and only thing I have thought resembled a truth in society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell.

Everything passes.”

(Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human)

Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita, La Vie, 1917

Japanese artist Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita fell in love with Western art at a very young age and in 1913, at the age of twenty-seven, he moved to Paris. The role of an exotic eccentric in Montparnasse surrounded by fellow artists, foreigners and eccentrics fit Foujita like a glove. A person as vibrant and theatrical as he was belonged there. Some of the artists from his artistic gang were Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Juan Gris, Picasso, and Henri Matisse. Foujita’s painting “La Vie” is an example of his early work in France and the style of the painting reminds me so much of Modigliani. The painting shows a woman dressed in blue, set against the background of a solitary sandy beach with a single little boat, stranded and confined in sand instead of floating freely and being carried by the waves. The woman’s oval and slightly elongated face and the shape of her eyes remind me of Modigliani’s melancholy and mysterious mask-like female faces and also of the silent marble Brancusi’s Muse. Simplified and geomentric looking, her head and also the strange position of her hands seem as though they were borrowed from some archaic scuplture, or seen in a dream. The cheeks are bright pink and the fingers slender and long. Her head leans on her right in a very exaggerated way, as if this mysterious woman is bowing her head down, not from shame, but as a gesture of both a realisation of the defeat and calm acceptance. The waves in the water behind her are breaking and hitting the sandy shore then retreating in a rhythm of nature which neither of us can stop or influence. The mood that I feel in Foujita’s painting “La Vie” resonates with me strongly and serves almost as a sacred message to a feeling that is always inside me, sometimes more hushed and sometimes awaken like a volcano, like a wound that never heals, it brings anguish wrapped up in nostalgic rosy cover of sweetness. This feeling is the painful awareness of transience of everything, the powerlesness against the fast and unpredictable currents of life, the best way I can describe the feeling that the painting awakes inside me is by sharing a much loved quote from Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”: Upset by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his marvelous sense of unreality and he ended up recommending to all of them that they leave, that they forget everything he had taught them about the world and the human heart, […], and that wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.” Everything passes, every spring and summer once gone are gone forever, a flower will bloom and wither and nothing can resurrect it, memories are pale and hushed shadows, tears cannot bring back a love once lost, and all change is inevitable, c’est la vie… So what else can we do but bow our heads down like Foujita’s silent and solemn muse and let the river of life flow, for our resistence would only bring anguish and ache.

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

Alfons Karpinski – Jane With a Japanese Doll

5 May

Alfons Karpinski (1875-1961), Jane avec une Poupée Japonaise, 1909

I discovered this painting a few months ago and hesitated for some time before deciding to write about it, for I felt I had nothing much to say, but something just keeps luring me to gaze at it again and again…

Alfons Karpiński was a Polish painter, born in 1875, who studied in Krakow at the School of Fine Arts from 1891 to 1895, then in Munich from 1903 to 1907, and then he traveled to the city for artists at the time: Paris. Painting “Jane with a Japanese Doll” shows Karpiński’s favourite motif to paint: a beautiful woman. The closely cropped composition and the intimate, sensual mood is what instantly appeals to me in this painting and the scene also brings to mind the sensual scenes of Fragonard and Boucher. The model for the painting was a Parisian girl called Jane and this isn’t the only time Karpiński had painted her. Jane is dressed in her undergarments with pretty pink bows, over the knee stockings and brown boots; part of her little boot and her shoulder are cut off and overall little is seen of the space around her, only a floral wallpaper and a hint of the doors. Jane seems almost unaware of the artist’s presence or his inspecting gaze that is slowly transforming her from a vision before him to a painting on canvas. One gaze, one brushstroke and reality is turning into art. I can imagine her dangling her legs with nonchalance, but don’t let this nonchalance fool you; she knows very well she is the muse about to be captured for eternity. I just love how simultaneously she is the centre of the painting, the centre of the painter’s vision, and yet, at the same time she is amused by something else, playing with a Japanese doll, lost in her thoughts, aware of her loveliness yet completely nonchalant about it; she doesn’t even gaze at us.

The angle of the painting, the casually dressed lady and the soft, sensual and intimate mood all reminds me of the many 1970s photographs I’ve seen, especially those by the notorious David Hamilton. In my mind, this could be sweet Jane Birkin, coyly playing with a Japanese doll and singing a song in French with her cute accent…. Bellow you can see another portrait he painted of her in 1908, not as interesting as “Jane with a Japanese Doll” but certainly the blue and white stripes are visually exciting.

Alfons Karpinski, Model Jane, 1908

John William Godward – When the heart is young

10 Aug

The sweetest thing on earth is …. to do nothing and enjoy it! Late Victorian British painter John William Godward was born on 9th August 1861 and his life ended by a suicide in 1922 because, as he stated in a note that he left, “the world is not big enough for myself and Picasso”. His perception seemed to be that Picasso was so superior a painter that he had to reside from the position of the painter and from planet earth. A very sad ending to a life devoted to art.

John William Godward, When the heart is young, 1902

“you came and I was crazy for you
and you cooled my mind that burned with longing”

(Sappho, translation by Anne Carson)

“When the heart is young” is one of my favourite painting by Godward, perhaps even the favourite one. There’s just something about it that lures me to it, again and again. Perhaps it is the sweet indolence that speaks to my heart the most. I just love the warmth, sensuality and clear, vibrant in this painting. Every detail about it is perfect and precise and no element of the painting seems superfluous. A beautiful and dreamy dark haired young woman occupies the central place in the painting and everything around her; the marble bench and floor, a peacock fan, animal skin, flowers and the sea in the background all serve to accentuate the idleness and luxury that she is oozing. She is lazing around on a sunny summer day and has the luxury to do so; daydreaming and allowing the minutes and hours to pass by without any guilt or concern, for being idle is not a crime. Gorgeous masses of her black hair are seductively falling over her head, her large dark eyes are full of desire and dreams and her flushed cheeks speak of desires unspoken in words. She seems to exist on a diet of sunlight’s caresses, sweet summer wines and thoughts of love. The curvy line of her body stretched on the fuzzy warm fur is as seductive as the yellowish line that separates the azure blueness of the sea from that of the sky. I can imagine the soft, summery breeze rustling the distant cypresses, kissing the poppies and bringing the salty scent of the sea to the woman’s nose. And now some more of Sappho’s verses because they fill so well with the mood of idleness and undisturbed ripe and juicy fig sweetness:

“Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.

here to me from Krete to this holy temple
where is your graceful grove
of apple trees and altars smoking
with frankincense.
And in it cold water makes a clear sound through
apple branches and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.
And in it a horse meadow has come into bloom
with spring flowers and breezes
like honey are blowing….”

(Sappho, translated by Anne Carson)

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1904

Marble and draped gowns worn by the indolent women in Godward’s paintings bring to mind the similar work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Godward was the protégé of Alma-Tadema and their styles hold similarities; they both drew inspiration from the imagined luxury of the Greek world, Ancient Roman Empire and the warm, rich, fragrant, mood of the Mediterranean, they both painted in a Neoclassical style with fine, elegant brushwork resembling that of Ingres, especially when the subject is that of a female body; both made paintings full of light and vibrancy. Paintings “When the Heart is Young” and “Dolce far niente” both show elegantly dressed women doing nothing, being sweetly idle in beautiful settings and thus they fall into the “dolce far niente” genre of painting. ‘Dolce far niente’ is a wonderful Italian expression meaning ‘sweet doing nothing’, and it illustrates the dreamy, hedonistic, self-indulgent nature of indolence, and the enjoyment of it. In the late 19th and early 20th century, in the artistic climate influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetic movement with its ‘cult of beauty’, popularity of this genre of paintings grew. Artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Godward and John William Waterhouse dared to tackle the subject and painted numerous vibrant and beautiful paintings of this theme.

There’s a certain pattern of beauty in all of these ‘dolce far niente’ paintings: a beautiful idle woman dressed in her finery, lazing around in sumptuous surroundings, doing nothing, gazing in the distance or at the viewer. Usually they’re presented in luxurious and idealised settings, aesthetically inspired by the Roman empire, lounging on animal skin, dressed in gorgeous diaphanous fabrics. Certain motifs appear in all of these paintings: finely painted marble balustrades or just marble in general, balconies overlooking the sea glistening underneath a perfectly blue sky with a few clouds, animal skin, clothes and hairstyles inspired by the styles of the Ancient world, flowers and flower pots, lush Mediterranean vegetation and plants such as oleander, lavender, cypresses, orange trees, even poppies, thyme, basil etc.

Absinthe Faces: Louis Anquetin and Matisse

21 May

“Seek for the boldest colour possible, content is irrelevant.”

(Henri Matisse)

Louis Anquetin, Girl Reading a Newspaper, 1890, pastel on paper

These two paintings, Louis Anquetin’s pastel “Girl Reading a Newspaper” and Henri Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat” were painted by different artists and are fifteen years apart, but both show the same thing; a half-length portrait of a woman wearing a hat. A portrait of a woman, even a woman wearing a hat, is not an uncommon things in the art, but the thing that connects these two paintings and makes them so unique is the colour. And not just any colour, but one colour in particular: the vibrant, radiant, glowing turquoise shade which, even if present in smaller quantities on canvas, nonetheless seduces the viewer and blinds him with intensity.

Anquetin’s pastel shows a fashionably dressed woman seen from the profile reading the newspapers. Thin lips pressed together and a slightly long, pointed nose give a disdainful, uninterested appeal to her face; her newspapers are more interesting than whatever else is going on around her. Her auburn hair and eerily pale skin, almost glowingly white like moonlight are contrasting beautifully with the domineering shades of turquoise and teal. The colour seems so unbelievably radiant and glowing, like some strange tropical flower or a bug with an iridescent hard shell. When I first beheld this portrait, I thought: this seems like a world seen through an absinthe glass! Even her eyelids have a turquoise shade, her skin is slightly blueish, her newspapers are vibrantly turquoise and there’s even some turquoise on the ribbons of her hat. Interestingly, this pastel was known for many years by the title “The Absinthe Drinker” which has proved to be incorrect, but the colours would surely justify such a title. This painting was shown at the exhibition in 1906. Anquetin’s paintings usually feature scenes of night life, the wild, gaudy and gay underground of fin de siecle so the connection of this particular colour with absinth is very suitable.

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905

Nothing I have seen can surpass the vibrant, absinthe-coloured radiance of this pastel by Anquetin, but this well-known painting by Henri Matisse called “Woman with a Hat”, exhibited infamously at the Salon d’Automne in 1905, has the similar shades of untamed pure colour which doesn’t match the reality. Matisse’s wife Amélie posed for the painting and in real life she was wearing a black dress, but in the mind of her painter husband, the simple black dress was transformed into a jungle of colours which uplift the soul and excite the eyes and among them are the turquoise and teal shades which we’ve seen in Anquetin’s portrait. Matisse is dear to me and that is mostly due to his attitude towards colour. I just love to see an artist being untamed when it comes to colours; no lines, no shading, no imitating the colour in nature, just wild colours on canvas, colour for the colour’s sake. There is something so liberating about that. I love how the face, the dress and the hat in Matisse’s portrait of his wife are all just patches of colours, an expressive and exciting mosaic of shapes. There is a turquoise line contouring the woman’s nose and one on her forehead, how exciting is that!?