Tag Archives: woman

Love, Blood and Savagery in Botticelli’s The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti

10 Nov

These four canvases by Botticelli hide a strangely dark and cruel tale inspired by a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part one: Nastagio meets the woman and the knight in the pine forest of Ravenna, 1483, tempera on wood

Tormented by unrequited love, a young nobleman by the name of Nastagio Degli Onesti flees his hometown of Ravenna searching for some faraway place where he wouldn’t be thinking and dreaming of her – the beautiful haughty damsel who rejects him so cruelly over and over again. She enjoys rejecting him and seeing him suffer, and he tried suicide on a few occasions but all the attempts were all unsuccessful. Nastagio is tired from the unending blows of rejection and not even wanderlust can stir his dead, tired, lovelorn soul and his travel stops in a little place called Chiassi, a seaport a few miles away from Ravenna. It was the beginning of May and evening was approaching when Nastagio wandered into the dark mystic pine woods: “It chanced one day, he being come thus well nigh to the beginning of May and the weather being very fair, that, having entered into thought of his cruel mistress, he bade all his servants leave him to himself, so he might muse more at his leisure, and wandered on, step by step, lost in melancholy thought, till he came [unwillingly] into the pine-wood. The fifth hour of the day was well nigh past and he had gone a good half mile into the wood, remembering him neither of eating nor of aught else…” (*)

The distance, the change of scenery, nought could stop him from thinking of his cruel-hearted damsel in Ravenna; instead of beauties of nature, he only sees her pretty countenance, instead of the scent of the fragrant pine trees, he only breathes in her name from afar and breathes out desperation and longing. Ahhh…. Deep in mournful reveries that tear his heart even further, Nastagio “heard a terrible great wailing and loud cries uttered by a woman; whereupon, his dulcet meditation being broken, he raised his head to see what was to do and marvelled to find himself among the pines; then, looking before him, he saw a very fair damsel come running, naked through a thicket all thronged with underwood and briers, towards the place where he was, weeping and crying sore for mercy and all dishevelled and torn by the bushes and the brambles. At her heels ran two huge and fierce mastiffs, which followed hard upon her and ofttimes bit her cruelly, whenas they overtook her; and after them he saw come riding upon a black courser a knight arrayed in sad-coloured armour, with a very wrathful aspect and a tuck in his hand, threatening her with death in foul and fearsome words.” This is the scene from Boccaccio’s “Decameron” (fifth day, eighth story) which Botticelli has depicted in the first panel of the four-part series. I love the different phases of narration depicted in a single painting; in the background on the left we see Nastagio’s servants and then the tent, then we see Nastagio walking alone in the woods, and then right in the centre is the horrid encounter between Nastagio and the poor naked damsel. Having no sword or other weapon in hand, Nastagio picked up a branch, trying to defend the lady.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part two: Killing the Woman, 1483, tempera on wood

And now, in the background of the second panel, we again see the scene that had happened but minutes before; the woman being chased by an evil knight on a white horse. Now, the woman is killed and her body lies on the grass and the knight, angry faced but also seemingly accustomed to the actions, is tearing her flesh and ripping her organs out. Nastagio looks away in horror and the gesture of his arms shows how horrified and disgusted and bewildered he is by the strange scene that awoke him from his meditative reverie. Boccaccio writes: “This sight filled Nastagio’s mind at once with terror and amazement“. Dogs are eating her organs and now, on a moist grass of a dark pine forest, lies the naked dead body of a beautiful woman whose last breaths and words he had witnessed, and yet he was unable to save her from “anguish and death.” You would think that Renaissance was all about harmony and elevated themes, or so we were taught in grammar school, but what Botticelli has depicted here is a wild, untamed flow of savagery, the Dionysian element trying to stir the perfect Apollonian world of Renaissance; world of knowledge and reason is now tainted with blood, screams and torture.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part three: The banquet in the forest, 1483, tempera on wood

The knight then explains to Nastagio the strange, barbarous scene that Nastagio had witnessed. Once upon a time, in days when Nastagio was but a child, the knight, whose name is Guido degli Anastagi, also lived in Ravenna and was also suffering from unrequited love. He loved a damsel who was as cruel and haughty as Nastagio’s beloved is, and who also enjoyed tormenting him, enjoyed to see him suffer from rejection. Unable to take it anymore, death seemed dearer to Guido then such a miserable, lovelorn existence, and he took his life. The damsel was pleased that such was the power of her beauty and charm, and she shed not a tear, but very soon she fell ill and died. Having no remorse before her death for her cruel behavior towards Guido, she was condemned to eternity in hell. Guido is also there, having committed the sin of suicide. And their punishment is intertwined; every Friday he has to chase her through the forest with the dogs, kill her and rip out her heart and feed it to the dogs. A cruel, cold, little heart which was incapable of love; that is her sin.

This repetitive punishment occurs every Friday and will repeat every Friday for as many years as there were months that the lady rejected Guido. Fascinated by this discovery, the following Friday Nastagio invites his family and friends for a little gathering, a party, and the cruel damsel whom he loves is also there. This is the third scene. Party is disturbed by the same savage ceremony of damned lovers and all the guests see the lady die again and her heart being ripped out. The Knight Guido again tells the crowd of their punishment in hell and it makes an impact on people, especially the females who teary eyed suddenly feel more loving and gentle. Nastagio’s beloved, the daughter of Paolo Traversiari, suddenly feels guilt and regret for her past actions and decides to marry Nastagio, fearing the same destiny might await her in case her cruel rejection of his love perseveres.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part four: Marriage of Nastagio degli Onesti, 1483, tempera on wood

The fourth panel, perhaps the dullest one, shows Nastagio’s wedding to the once haughty pretty wealthy maiden. Well, she is still pretty and wealthy, but more down to earth and perhaps more afraid of hell’s flames. She sends her maid to tell Nastagio that “she was ready to do all that should be his pleasure“. The scenery and its connection to the story is fascinating; in first two panels the setting is the wild, dark, mysterious pine forest where Nastagio wanders into because he is daydreaming and not paying attention to where he is going, so he walks into the woods as in a dream. The third panel is half-half; woods are still present in the background behind a long white-clothed dinner table. And then, after the moment of cruelty – the killing – is over, the setting goes to a more classical, polite, rational space; a banquet celebrating the marriage. Dense, repetitive row of trees gives a sense of depth and, along with the figure of the knight, and the emphasised narrative element of the painting, are all reminders of the Gothic art of the previous centuries, but it strangely fits the mood of the story.

Boccaccio’s tales from “Decameron” were suppose to carry a wise, education message to them and in this story the message is not to reject love because everyone deserves to be loved and have the right to love. Women should learn from the cruel damsel’s behavior and not follow in her footsteps. It is a sin not to love. Nastagio and his lady live happily ever after, but this isn’t the only positive outcome of the event, oh no, suddenly “all the ladies of Ravenna became so fearful by reason thereof, that ever after they were much more amenable than they had before been to the desires of the men.” Did no one found it strange that the only reason to return someone’s affection was the fear of suffering the same damnation? It’s interesting how some things sound so normal in these old tales, while they are utterly bizarre in our day and age.

The four pictures were commissioned in 1483 by Antonio Pucci, a wealthy merchant from Florence, for the occasion of the wedding of his son Giannozzo with Lucretia Bini. The theme was most likely chosen by Pucci himself and the paintings were intended for the bedroom of the newlyweds. Why, yes, a nude lady being killed by a knight and having her heart ripped out… quite a soothing, romantical scene to gaze at before bedtime and to see the first thing in the morning. An applause please, for Antonio Pucci’s wonderful aesthetic sense. The theme was chosen for its happy ending, I mean, they do get married in the end, but still. Now the paintings are, luckily, not gracing the walls of any poor couple’s bedroom, they are in Museo del Prado.

 

Egon Schiele and Klimt: Danaë

12 Jun

Wonderful and one of a kind Austrian artist Egon Schiele was born on this day in 1890. In this post we’ll take a look at one of his very early works “Danaë”, inspired by Gustav Klimt’s painting of the name.

Egon Schiele, Danaë, 1909

Although Egon Schiele died fairly young, in 1918 at the age of twenty eight, he left an oeuvre of mostly erotic drawings and paintings, which is as provocative and captivating nowadays as it was in his time. In 1909, Schiele was a confident, self-aware and handsome nineteen year old who had already started creating the image of his art as something extraordinary and something that the world would remember. He was truly following his own path and his art already started showing the characteristics that he would develop in later years in something unique. Still, in 1909 he was still in his experimental phase and very influenced by Gustav Klimt; both share a fascination with the body and the erotic component of art.

Schiele’s painting “Danaë” is a perfect example of this young artist looking up to the older one. It shows Danaë as a nude auburn haired girl hiding from what is suppose to be a lush shower of gold, though it doesn’t quite look golden here. She looks like a dreamy child of nature, surrounded by grass and woods, a shy rosebud in hiding. Her face is rosy-cheeked and sweet, but her body appears yellowish and flat, much like the way bodies look in Japanese Ukiyo-e prints that both Klimt and Schiele admired. In contrast to the minimalist approach to painting her body, Schiele painted her hand little and bony, the same way he would continue to paint his girls; fragile, all skin and bones.

Egon Schiele, Study for Danaë, 1909, watercolour, pencil and ink

Whereas Schiele was directly inspired by Klimt’s version of “Danaë” from 1907, Klimt on the other hand was merely following a painterly tradition of portraying the mythical woman Danaë that started with Grecian vases and reached its peak in the Renaissance with renditions painted by Correggio and Titian. Danaë was the princess of Peloponnese, daughter of the King Acrisius of Argos who unfortunately didn’t have an heir to his throne but the prophecy said that his daughter Danaë will have a son and the King would be murdered by Danaë’s son. The King did the only reasonable thing he could; imprisoned his daughter in a bronze tower with no doors or windows, with just a source of light instead of a roof. She spent a long time there until Zeus started desiring her. Zeus’s lust knew no boundaries and there are many stories from Greek mythology about the different ways he seduced beautiful young girls but the way he came to Danaë is surely a very magical one; he took form of the golden shower which fell down into the tower and left her with a child, a son named Perseus.

Schiele exhibited four works in the Kunstschau of 1909, one of which was the painting “Danaë” whose decorative and erotic elements showed a frank homage to Klimt, but Schiele’s painting isn’t a pure copy of Klimt’s style, for it shows the young artist’s personal touches, the shape of the body and a slight reluctance to excessive decorative background. Klimt’s version has more sensuality; Danaë’s body is portrayed as plump and accepting of the rich stream of gold which is flowing through the canvas. Her hair is red and seems alive, her lips are parted and her eyes closed, she seems to be enjoying the moment.

Gustav Klimt, Danaë, 1907

Sad veiled bride, please be happy…

23 May

“Sad veiled bride, please be happy
Handsome groom, give her room
Loud, loutish lover, treat her kindly
(Though she needs you
More than she loves you)”

(The Smiths, I know it’s over)

George Theodore Berthon, Portrait of Mrs. William Henry Boulton (Harriette), 1846

I can remember how good I felt inside
When the preacher said “Son, you may kiss the bride”
But as I leaned over to touch her pretty lips
I felt it all slip away through my fingertips

(Bruce Springsteen – Stolen Car)

The wedding day can be the happiest day of your life – or the most tragical one. That depends on many factors; whether a girl is marrying a prince or an ogre (no offense Shrek), whether her husband to be has a mad wife in the attic or not, whether his marriage is just a devise to rob you of your family inheritance. Nontheless, the image of a bride, let’s imagine a Victorian era bride, is always a charming one; dressed in white and covered with a veil, she might as well be a ghostly creature from another realm. So ethereal and eerie is the figure in white. Walking down the isle, veil covering her blushing cheeks, dressed in a white gown and looking splendid in all her virginal glory, sweetness, hopes, anticipation, all fill her fast beating heart. In a step or two, her destiny will be decided, her life changed forever… is she walking towards the altar or being led to the dungeons where her execution is to be held.

Queen Victoria set the standard for white wedding gowns in 1840 when she married Prince Albert, but that is not to say that white wedding dresses were not worn before; they were, but from that point on they became the statement. Her wedding day was an intensely happy event and she loved being married to Albert, but not every woman in Victorian era felt quite the same way, despite the idealisations we nowadays may have of their time and their lives, doting wife and angel in the house was often a bored and lonely woman. Let’s take Toulmouche’s painting “The Reluctant Bride” (below) as an example; just look at her face expression, she is absolutely not thrilled about it. Or Sophie of Württemberg (1818-1877), the Queen of Netherlands, who was buried in her wedding dress because she said that her life ended the day she got married.

Let’s take a look at Jane Eyre’s state of soul in chapter 36 after the secret was revealed:

Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent, expectant woman–almost a bride, was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale; her prospects were desolate. A Christmas frost had come at midsummer; a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hayfield and cornfield lay a frozen shroud:lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, today were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and flagrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway. I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing…

Jane Eyre’s wedding was so short and hasty that she must have been thinking, again quoting The Smiths:

I know it’s over
And it never really began
But in my heart it was so real

Apart from the obvious contrast between joy and disappointment that a bride inevitably faces, the figure of a bride in white, an innocent pure maiden, can serve as a visual contrast to something darker in the story, for example: Jane Eyre meets her husband to be Mr Rochester’s real mad violent wife in the attic, or the young naive bride of Bluebeard, when left alone in his castle, discovered his dark, bloody and blood-chilling secrets; also Elizabeth in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” who is strangled on her wedding night by the Monster that Doctor Frankenstein had created as a revenge to the Doctor who refused to make him a female companion.

And to end, here is perhaps the most eerie bride out of them all: Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s novel “Great Expectations”, a bride who is decaying and rotting under her silk and lace garments:

In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.

She was dressed in rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on – the other was on the table near her hand – her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

Auguste Toulmouche, The Reluctant Bride, 1866

Firs Zhuravlev, Before the wedding, 1874

József Rippl-Rónai – Haunting Faces

6 Sep

József Rippl-Rónai is considered one of the finest Hungarian painters and yet his paintings in garish colours with flat treatment of the surface cease to keep me interested. I could see them and forget them in the matter of seconds. His pastel portraits, on the other hand, are absolutely captivating and they have a rare haunting beauty.

József Rippl-Rónai, Woman’s Head with Red Bun, 1891

József Rippl-Rónai was born in the town of Kaposvár in the southern Hungary on the 23 May 1861. He attended grammar school and later, most unusually for someone who would went on to become such a fine painter, studied pharmacology. From 1881 he worked in an apothecary in his home town and as a private tutor for the family of count Zichy. He only casually attended some drawing classes, and once in a while travelled to Vienna to copy the works of old masters. In 1884 he was awarded a scholarship to study art in Munich, at last! It was common for the aspiring artists from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to study in Munich, or, if fate dealt them better cards, even in Paris; the place where everything was.

Rippl-Rónai was among those lucky students and after just two years in Munich, he got the opportunity to study in Paris with a fellow Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy who painted realist style genre scenes and whose influence, thank the providence, would not have an impact on Rippl-Rónai’s art. After settling in the big bustling city of boulevards, tree avenues, cafes, city of light and hope, he moved to Neully and briefly studied in Academie Julien. In Paris he met a lady who was to be his future wife, Lazarine, and, even more importantly for his art, he met and befriended a few progressive artists, Édouard Vuillard and later Paul Gauguin as well. In 1894, after his painting “My Grandmother” was exhibited in Parisian Salon Champ-de-Mars, the art group Les Nabis recognised him as one of their own. From then on, his artistic career only blossomed.

József Rippl-Rónai, My Grandmother, 1894

What amazes me is the fact that Rippl-Rónai’s well-known paintings are those influenced by Les Nabis, with flat space and bold colours, while his shadowy and ethereal pastel portraits are left in the shadow. A contemporary critic described his already mentioned painting “My Grandmother” as “a poem about the profound sadness of old age”, and he was very right in comparing it to a poem. All of Rippl-Rónai’s pastels have this quality of transcending the borders of arts; at times they reminds me of some Swinburne’s verses, at times they make me think of wistful violins in candle lit chambers. Undeniably, they posses a striking lyrical beauty and an eeriness that would interest even the great Edgar Allan Poe himself. Perhaps Rippl’s painting “Woman’s Head with Red Bun” shows the kind of face that Poe had in mind in his short story “The Oval Portrait”. They have a musical element about them, lyrical too, a string of a lyre, a soft hush of a violin, a fragrance of withering roses, delicacy of something passing and transitory, unearthly beauty, verses written in ink and slowly fading, these are the faces of women you see once, only for a moment, and spend your entire life fantasising about.

A little digression here. In his essay on Beethoven, E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German Romantic author, described music as “the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infinite. Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing…” Likewise, Rippl-Rónai’s pastel portraits stand on the border of different arts, soaked in music notes, whispering verses…

József Rippl-Rónai, Red-haired Parisian Girl, 1891, pastel

These pastels are something extraordinary in Rippl-Rónai’s oeuvre, the farthest he went from his Realist beginning, the closest he got to Symbolist tendencies, to aestheticism and l’art pour l’art philosophy of the late 19th century. In “Woman’s Head with Red Bun”, this delicate oval face seems to arise from darkness and appear in its smooth as ivory, pale as milk and moonlight colour just for the viewer. Distant, untouchable, delicate as a lily, she oozes fragility and gentleness, and soft perfumes and sounds of wistful violins, her lips are two rose petals, her large blue eyes, watery and soft even without the drops of belladonna, are two wells that reflect the languorous world of dreams. The transition between the strongly contrasting colours, black and white, are ever so soft, and give the appearance of something that is slowly vanishing, as if every time you blink and then open your eyes again she will be gone; she isn’t really here anyway, she is just passing through this material world without touching it, without being tainted by it.

Painting “Red-haired Parisian Girl” resides in an equally dreamy other-world as the previous maiden, but hers is the kind where you leave all your hopes before your enter. If the previous pastel showed a ghostly maiden, this one then is surely a lesbian vampire or a muse gone mad, laudanum addict, the face of Elizabeth Siddal from the other side of the grave. Distant gaze of those aqua blue eyes that also match the colour of the background are as eerie as they are fatal and inviting. Masses of her fiery red hair overwhelm the bounds of the canvas, There’s a certain masculinity in her face the strong jawline and neck, along with coppery hair, bring to mind Rossetti’s somnambulist femme fatales, beautiful and cruel, irresistible and cold. This is a face from a dandy’s opium dream.

József Rippl-Rónai, Lili Darvas Playing Lonti, 1922, pastel

The mystic shadowy beauty of these pastels reminds me of one poem in prose written by a Croatian Symbolist poet and writer Antun Gustav Matoš (1873-1914) called “Shadow”, these paintings, to me, seem to match Matoš’s lyrical dream-like visions:

I love the mournful shadow, the dozing light: light which dreams of the night. I love the shadow, twin sister of the warm sun and of the cold moon. I love the shadow, my eternal adopted sister and companion which slumbers beside me, walks near me, my dark picture and my caricature. Yes, I love the shadow, yellow, grey, black; the shadow, sad and silent as death….

O, Shadow, child of the day and the night! Shadowy morning and purple evening! Shadow, child of darkness and light, pale daughter of enigma, opening melancholy silent weary eyes, and through them life peers wonderingly into mysterious death! Last night, my love, you were trembling against my breast with the moist eyes of affection and happiness. I named you beauty, happiness, and woman, but there remained a handful of ashes in place of honey. Love, you also are a shadow….

The shade told me, the shade which grew larger and larger behind the old oak beneath the moonlight whilst awaiting the dew and the dark song of the nightingale under the shrubbery of the hawthorne and brier rose, such shady, foggy and grey fables. The shade was whispering to me this morning as well, as it walked under the fleecy cloud across the field of stubble, caressing the larks’ and the quails’ nests, and kissing the quivering tops of the field flowers.

Shadow, thou soft pillow of light: Shadow, thou black bed of life! And when once the planets extinguish, you will remain the empress of life.

I love you, Shadow, pure silent goddess: lift up your soft mantle of fog streaked with golden secrets, and cover my weary eyes, to close them to embrace my shadow.(Antun Gustav Matoš, Shadow)

József Rippl-Rónai, Woman with Red Hair, c. 1890s

József Rippl-Rónai, Green-Eyed Woman, 1901, pastel

József Rippl-Rónai, Girl on Blue Background, date unknown

József Rippl-Rónai, Sitting Nude with Red Hair, 1891, pastel

József Rippl-Rónai, Parisian Woman, 1891, oil on canvas

John Singer Sargent’s Watercolours – Ladies with Parasols

9 Apr

It so happens that most of the paintings I talk about here on the blog are oil on canvas, but deep down in my heart I am an ardent lover of watercolours. I think it’s a medium full of spontaneity and feelings. So, let’s take a look at some beautiful watercolours with a mood of spring and indolence by an American Impressionist John Singer Sargent.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911, detail

A beautifully dressed woman with a parasol, in nature, enjoying the sunshine and summer breeze; not quite a foreign subject to the artists, especially not to the Impressionists; Claude Monet for one painted plenty of such scenes. Still, I feel that John Singer Sargent’s explorations of this theme are particularly interesting. Firstly because they are made in watercolours, and secondly they were made in moments when Sargent was taking a break from his highly appraised oil-on-canvas portraits of Victorian and later Edwardian nobility, therefore they are more experimental and more intimate. These show Sargent’s heart, not his business.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911

In “The Lady with the Umbrella”, a beautiful woman dressed in a beautiful white gown is lying on the grass; her umbrella has just rolled over and she has to hold it gently with her hand, lest the summer’s breeze might blow it away. There is an air of sweetness and delicacy about her, she looks like a large white anemone flower, but there is a hint of sensuality as well; her flushed cheeks and direct gaze, the way her little hand is holding the umbrella, the S-silhouette of her body, so typically Edwardian, clad in soft whiteness. The sitter is actually Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond. I like how closely cropped her body is; look how her dress and the umbrella are delightfully ‘cut-off’. The artist hesitates to show us all of her charms, but rather invited us to daydream of the nature surround this beauty and makes us believe her dress is indeed a flowing sea of white silk that goes on and on, lavish and soft. The painting reminds me of a scene you’d find in Merchant-Ivory films such as “A Room with a View” (1985) or “Howards End” (1992) with the beautiful Helena Bonham-Carter. Also, because of the woman’s gaze, pose and the way she’s closely-cropped, it almost reminds me of fashion photography, from the sixties and seventies as well as now. Example of what I mean is right below:

John Singer Sargent, Madame Roger-Jourdain, 1883-85, watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 55.8

Still, “The Lady with the Umbrella” isn’t the first painting of this kind that Sargent made. After 1900, Sargent often used the motif of woman lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but when he painted Henriette, this was a new thing for him. His watercolour portrait of Madame Roger-Jourdain made decades earlier is perhaps the painting that started it all. Henriette Roger-Jourdain was a daughter and the wife of two artists; her father was Henri Moulignon, and her husband was the artist Joseph Roger-Jourdain. Henriette was not just a society hostess but also a friend and a muse to many artists; composer Gabriel Fauré dedicated his composition “Aurore” to her in 1884, Paul Albert Besnard and Sargent both painted her. Sargent became acquainted with the Roger-Jourdain family because they were neighbours in the boulevard Berthier in Paris.

The painting is similar to the one we’ve seen above; a lady lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but here her body isn’t closely cropped and she is surrounded by grass; freedom all around her. One can imagine her laughing when tickled by the grass, stretching her arms and breathing in the fresh air, laughing at the tree tops that open before her eyes, wishing she could fly with the birds and be one with the baby blue sky… Dressed in a white dress, lying on that dark green grass she looks like a lotus flower on the flickering emerald green surface of a lake. The portrait oozes that fantastically indolent and sensuous “dolce far niente” mood.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Parasol, 1888, watercolour on paper, 17.2 x 24.1 cm

Now, this third example is a tad different; the colours are darker and the woman appears more demure. She is depriving the viewer of her coquettish gaze, choosing rather to stay hidden underneath her gauzy white scarf. I really appreciate the sketch-like brushstrokes here; look how the parasol was painted with its taupe brown shadings and details in white, then the grass in a strange moss-green colour, perhaps it was an autumn day. Again, the woman’s hat and her parasol are slightly closely-cropped which helps us imagine that we are there with her, it gives an immediacy to the scene.

All painting/drawing techniques have their strengths and beauties. Drawings with pencil exude sincerity, those with charcoal possess the gloom and the strength of a tall oak. Pastels are raw pigments and their vibrancy is so psychedelic and childlike. All yet, I adore watercolours! Painting with them is such a thrill; you dip your brush in that watery paint, press is gently to the paper and let is either sink in or mingle freely with the colour next to it… and you feel like a magician, like a witch over her cauldron creating a love potion. Pure magic! Everyone should try it, it’s really therapeutic, it feels like travelling on a rainbow and making friends with each colour. I feel that, with watercolours, the painting almost creates itself; you can make a brushstroke in blue and add a mere drop of red, when water touched the two, you’ll see purple. You can play with it and see where it takes you.

Edvard Munch – The Lonely Ones (Two People)

8 Feb

In this post we’ll take a look at Edvard Munch’s painting “The Lonely Ones”.

Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones (Two People), 1895

A man and a woman are standing on the shore, gazing at the sea. The waves crush on to the shore as the two of them stand there in silence, just one step away from each other, and yet emotionally distant. The whiteness of her dress stands in contrast with his sombre black suit, which visually further connects the insurmountable difference between the sexes. The murmur of the sea, louder than their loneliness, matches the turmoil that rises in their soul. Are they a couple who just had an argument, or two lovers who have, after being drunken with love, now sobered and realised that nothing, not even their love, will spare them the loneliness and feeling of isolation that they experience as individuals, that they are forced to face the world alone, that one is alone even when they are holding a loved one in their arms?

Turquoise and pink rocks on the beach and the sea waves take on psychedelic shapes as Munch swirls with his brush just as he did in the famous “Scream”. As hopes crush into bitter disappointments, the reality fails to make sense and the man and the woman gaze longingly at the sea searching answers to their inner voids. In his book about Munch, J.P. Hodin writes: “It is as if Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics of Sexual Love were represented in the medium of painting. Man and woman are like elements which come into contact, obsess one another but cannot become united. Woman is an enigma to man, a sphinx which he must always contemplate searchingly.”

Still, that disconnection, this misunderstanding between man and a woman alone on the shore reminds me more of something that Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving: “Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside.

Edvard Munch, Separation II, 1896

In “Separation” above we again see a man and a woman, together on canvas yet painfully and deeply alone, drifting into opposite directions, aimlessly like paper boats on the lake. His dark eyelids are closed, his mouth mute. Her long hair seems to be flying in the wind, caressing his shoulder, stirring the silence with its murmur, mingling with the sweet nocturnal air. The striking titles of many of Munch’s paintings point at his desire to portray the whole range of different emotions and states: separation, loneliness, fear, anguish, consolation, pain…

Connecting love with pain, and ultimately loneliness, is a theme often exploited in the world of art and poetry, but Edvard Munch and his contemporaries in the decadent and spiritually rotting society of fin de scle had a particular penchant for it, to the point of rejecting love or a lover. In his youth, Munch was shy and reticent, not much is known about his relationships with women apart from the fact that they brought bitter disappointments, and he tended to fear any signs of affection or closeness because they most certainly carried anguish with them. Holdin again writes: “Love turned into distrust of woman. When Nietzsche spoke of love he saw it as the eternal war, the mortal hatred between the sexes. ‘Man fears woman when he loves, he fears her when he hates.”

Munch was a friend with many writers of the days and he was influenced by their writings and their ideas. Swedish playwright Strindberg was similarly interested in conflicts of love, and in 1897 wrote in his diary: “What is Woman? The enemy of friendship, the inevitable scourge, the necessary evil, the natural temptation, the longed for misfortune, a never ending source of tears, the poor masterpiece of creation in an aspect of dazzling white. Since the first woman contracted with the devil, shall not her daughters do the same? Just as she was created from a crooked rib, so is her entire nature crooked and warped and inclined to evil.

Edvard Munch, Consolation, 1894

Holdin ends his thoughts about the paintings “The Lonely Ones” with a glimpse of hope: “No, Munch does not hate woman, for he realizes that she has to suffer as he suffers himself.” How splendid of him to console us!

The Night When Modigliani Stole a Stone…

5 Feb

Amedeo Modigliani, Woman’s Head, 1912, limestone

There is a beautiful bohemian chapter in André Salmon’s book about Modigliani (original title: “La Vie passionnée de Modigliani”) where the devilishly handsome sculptor and painter Amedeo goes out one night to steal a stone that he needs for his statue. The theft wasn’t a one night thing, for Amedeo had often ventured into the blue Parisian nights to steal a stone from a store or a warehouse, guided by the light of the shining stars. He dared to steal only after midnight, and often went with a friend, usually with the fellow painter Emmanuel Gondouin. What a sight the two artists must have been, roaming the empty streets: Amedeo with his raven “hair of a rebellious angel and fiery eyes”, as Salmon describes him, and Gondouin who was of robust built and whose appearance was similar to that of Beethoven. Gondouin would help him carry the heavy stone.

But that night Modigliani was alone… It wasn’t wise to go to the stone theft alone, all sorts of thoughts roamed his pretty head… but he had to carve, he had to create, nor his hands nor his mind would be at peace if he didn’t have that stone… Perhaps the night would be peaceful and the stars forgiving at this poor melancholy angel?… And so he went – alone. “I will get caught… I will end up in prison”, he thought as the darkness of the night shrouded him softly. After he stole the beautiful piece of limestone from someone’s shed, still in a haze from the alcohol and hashish of those glorious nights of Montparnasse, he carried it out and hid around the corner trying to catch his breath. His weak body, plagued with years of alcohol and illnesses, couldn’t keep up with the blazing passion of his spirit. Amedeo, at long last beholding his beauty, glanced at the stone. The beautiful piece of white limestone answered to Amedeo’s loud heartbeats with a smile and whispered promises of inspiration. It was happy to be in loving arms, at last. Then, he heard someone’s footsteps… Could it be the police? Drops of sweat slid down his forehead… No?… Good. It was a man, an anarchist and a nocturnal wanderer who worked at the Halles market, and whose intentions have proved to be kind. He helped Amedeo with the stone and chatted until they arrived to his atelier where they parted.

Modigliani would say that it doesn’t matter if the stone is soft, as long as it gives the illusion of marble. The photo above shows one of his sculptures. It is stylistically very similar to the paintings which followed; an elongated face, long slender neck and large almond-shaped eyes; eyes that seem to gaze into eternity, a face that echoes the sadness of the world, a neck of a swan, so fragile and breakable…