Tag Archives: working class

Richard Redgrave – The Sempstress

19 Mar

Work — work — work!
My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread — and rags.
That shattered roof — this naked floor —
A table — a broken chair —
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1846

In a modest interior, on a light of a single candle a poor girl is wasting her precious hours, days and nights, labouring over a blouse she will never wear, or a dress for a dance she’ll never attend. Outside the last breath of twilight colours the sky in sad streaks of yellow. Lights on the windows appear one by one. The hour is merry. The night murmurs of dreams and far-off lands, it speaks to the poets and dreamers across the grey cityscape, and softly knocks on this poor needlewoman’s window… The night invites her eyes for a dream, distant trees are whispering gentle lullabies, but she knows she cannot leave her needle and rest her hands… The work needs to be done, the bills paid, warm bread on the table would be heaven… And yet her gaze is directed upwards; tired of the wordly misery, she longs for the stars. Her own shadow on the wall is her only companion; her kindred-spirits are the birds that sing cheerfully in spring, and white snowflakes in winter. She is yearning not for idleness and luxury but rather a heaven up there with all its promised delights, for this earth is unkind. Exhausting work day by day, night by night, have coloured her young oval face in paleness of sorrow, as she daydreams of the sweetness of the countryside:

Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet —
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet.

She might be poor and starving in the countryside, but at least she would have fresh air, brooks and flowers that ease the life’s hardships in ways that the grey city cannot. In the early Victorian era, the newspapers were informing their readers about the exploitation of workers in the factories, often in the clothing trade. Still, when Richard Redgrave painted “The Sempstress”as a part of the wave of sentimentalised portrayals of working-class life, he was inspired by a poem he had read earlier, Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt“, which I already quoted above, first published on 16th December 1843. Here are some more lines that go well with the painting:

In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear its terrible shape,
It seems so like my own —
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear
And flesh and blood so cheap!

Her face expression, with large eyes turned upwards, and the way her figure is lighted in a dramatic way are reminiscent of the baroque paintings of female saints. Redgrave here portrays a realistic subject and offers a social criticism to eyes that wished to see it, but for the majority of Victorian viewers this painting offered a sentimentalized portrayal of working class reality; a life of sorrows, poverty and longing, with hope directed towards god. Is not this poor girl a martyr then? A martyr of a society blighted by the blossoming industrialisation and exploatation of cheap labour in factories.

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Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Mandarin Oranges

26 Jan

Last year when I published a post with the story The Good Faith of Wei Sheng by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) many of you seemed to like it, so I decided to share another one I loved. The story I am sharing with you today, Mandarin Oranges, is less lyrical and more realistic, but it possesses a strength that culminates in the very end with a sentence that I couldn’t forget even after a year of reading the story: It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.

I accompanied the story with beautiful paintings of Victorian flower girls and poor children, which, in my view, suits the mood of the story. I am not an expert in Japanese art to find the Japanese art to follow the story.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, The Flower Girl, 1872

It was a cloudy winter evening.

I was sitting at the end of the seat in the second class car.  The train was to leave Yokosuka for Tokyo and I was waiting absentmindedly for a whistle to blow.

As is not usual,  there were no passengers except me in the car,  which had already been lit inside.

Looking out at the platform,  I didn’t see any persons who came for a send-off; only a puppy was sometimes barking sadly in the cage.

Strangely enough, such bleak scenery fit my feeling of that time.

Inexplicable fatigue and weariness were casting their shadow in my mind like the cloudy sky threatening to snow.

I kept both my hands in my overcoat pocket;  I didn’t have much strength even to take an evening newspaper out of it to read.

Meanwhile, a whistle blew to signal the departure.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington, The Pinch of Poverty, 1892

Having a slight peace of mind, with my head against the window frame, I was expecting half-heartedly that the station before my eyes would start moving backward trailingly.

But prior to it, I had hardly heard a loud noise of wooden clogs from the gate accompanied by the conductor’s abuse, when I saw a girl in her early teens open the door and come in hurriedly.  At the very moment the train swayed heavily once and moved off slowly.

Each pillar on the platform, a water-wagon for a locomotive looking as if left behind, and a porter thanking his customer for the tip —-they lingered but soon fell behind the smoke blown against the windows.

Feeling relieved at last , I opened my heavy eyelids and gave my first serious glance at the girl seated in front of me while I was lighting a cigarette.

She was a typical bumpkin with ichogaeshi-styled dry hair and chapped cheeks so flushed as to look strange.

She hang loosely a spring-green colored woolen muffler over her knees, and on them lay a package covered with furoshiki.

She held it in her frostbitten hands, in one of which she also clasped tightly a ticket for the third class car.

I disliked her vulgar looks.

I was disgusted by her dirty clothes.

And I was displeased by her senselessness of not being able to tell the second class car from the third class car.

So after I lit a cigarette, I took the newspaper out of my pocket and spread it on my knees, for one thing, to forget about her.

Vilko Šeferov, 1928

Then suddenly the light lit on the newspaper changed; it had come from outside, but now it came from the ceiling, making the types of the newspaper appear clearly before my eyes.

Needless to say, the train was entering the first of the several tunnels on the Yokosuka Line.

When I looked over the newspaper under the electric light, I found nothing but routine incidents occurring in the world, which were there to console my gloom.

Treaty of Versailles, weddings, bribery, obituary — I ran my eyes over these dreary articles almost mechanically,  under the illusion that the moment the train entered the tunnel in the opposite direction

However, I could not but be aware of the girl sitting in front of me, personifying the vulgar reality.

This train passing through the tunnel, this bumpkin girl, this evening newspaper filled with routine articles— weren’t they all symbols?   Didn’t they all symbolize obscurity, lowness and boredom of life?

Coming to feel everything was worthless, I threw away the half-read newspaper and closed my eyes as if dead.  I began to doze with my head against the window frame.

Several minutes had passed.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, Little Flower Sellers, 1887

Suddenly I felt as if I had been threatened by something and I looked around in spite of myself and found the girl, who had changed her seat from my opposite to my side, trying to open the window eagerly.

But it seemed that the heavy window would not open up against her wishes.

The chapped cheeks became all the more flushed and some sniffles accompanied with a low breathless noise reached my ears constantly.

It certainly aroused some sympathy of mine.

But it was obvious that the train was right on the point of another tunnel by seeing the mountains on both sides, where dry grass were reflected by twilight,  approaching the train window.

Nevertheless, the girl was trying to drop open the window which was closed on purpose.

I couldn’t understand what forced her to do so.

No, I could not but think she was doing out of caprice.

So, with hostility deep inside toward her, coldheartedly I was watching her struggling to open the window with those frostbitten hands, hoping that her attempt would never succeed forever.

Then the train rushed into the tunnel with an appalling noise, at which moment the  window was dropped open at last.

And the air , as dark as melted soot, came in through the square opening and , turning into suffocating thick smoke, began to fill the car.

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877

Having a naturally weak throat, I tried but failed to put a handkerchief over my face in time not to be bathed with the smoke.  Consequently, I was made to cough so violently that I could hardly breathe.

But the girl seemed not to care about me and looked hard in the direction the train went,  making a long neck out of the window with her hair blown in the wind in the dark.

When I saw her in the smoke and the electric light,  it was getting brighter and brighter outside the window, from which the cold smell of soil, dry grass and water flew in; otherwise I would have scolded the strange girl without waiting for her excuse and ordered her to close the window though I had been relieved of coughs at last by that time.

Aleksander Gierymski, Jewess with Oranges, 1880-81

But having gone through the tunnel smoothly, the train was coming near the crossing on the outskirts of a poor town lying among the mountains covered with dry grass.

Near the crossing were shabby cramped houses with thatched and tiled roofs.

And in the dusk was fluttering languidly a white flag, which would be waved by a gateman.

It was when I thought the train had passed through the tunnel at last that I saw three red cheeked boys standing closely together in a line behind the fence of the crossing.

They were all as short as if they were held down by the cloudy sky.

And all of them were wearing kimono of the same color as the gloomy scenery of the outskirts town.

They had no sooner raised their hands at the same time, while looking up at the train passing, than they bent their little neck backward and gave an incomprehensible cry with all their might.

Then it happened.

William J. McCloskey (1859–1941), Wrapped Oranges, 1889

The girl,  who had leant half her body out of a window, stretched her frostbitten hand and shook it vigorously.  Then some five or six mikan, so beautifully sunny-orange colored as to make one happy, showered down on the boys who had seen the train off.

The unexpected scene took my breath away.

And I understood everything at once.

The girl, who was likely to be on the way to her new employer, threw some mikan out of her kimono pocket to reward her brothers who came all the way to the crossing to see her off.

The crossing of the outskirts town in the dusk, the three children cheering like little birds, and the bright color of mikan falling around them – all of them had gone by in a blink.

Henry Walton, The Market Girl, 1776-77

But the scene had been printed on my mind so clearly in a heartrending way.

And I realize a strange feeling of something cheerful also sprang up from there.

I raised my head confidently and gazed at the girl as if she were another person.

Before I noticed, she had sat on the seat before me again , with her chapped cheeks buried in her spring-green colored woolen muffler.

In her hand, which held a big furoshiki, she clasped tightly the ticket for the third class car.

It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.”

________________________________________________________________________________

*mikan, the fruit the girl is giving away, is of Asian origin, also translated as satsuma mandarin, satsuma orange, tangerine and cold hardy mandarin, hence the title.

Working Class Heroines of the Rococo

4 Dec

Earlier this year I wrote a post about Dolce Far Niente and the paintings which feature pretty girls doing nothing. Well, in this post we’ll take a look at some 18th century paintings where pretty girls are not daydreaming and lounging around in flimsy dresses but ironing, doing the laundry, carrying tea, soaping linen…

Philip Mercier, Girl with a Tray, c. 1750

Rococo is an often overlooked era in the history of art. It’s deemed as kitschy, pink and frivolous, but if you scratch the surface you’ll discover many wonderful artistic inventions. After the extravagances of Baroque which favoured sacral themes, dramatic lightning and chiaro-scuro, in Rococo painters shifted their attention from saints and kings to everyday life with its everyday pleasures and pursuits. If Baroque is a dark night with blazing thunderstorms, then Rococo is a quiet morning full of lightness and possibilities. If Baroque is a turbulent stormy sea, then Rococo is a serene lake whose surface reflects the blueness of the clouds. Baroque is extravagant, grandiose, serious; Rococo is lighter, gentler, simpler. Rococo brings as in intimate spheres of people’s lives, but at the same time it’s not realistic, it doesn’t portray the harsh reality, the hard working conditions of the underprivileged and poor. Rococo idealises and lies, it doesn’t mirror the truth but instead offers a world of dreams and escapism. There is such a fragility about Rococo and especially about the paintings of Antoine Watteau which started the movement in the first place: it is so beautiful that it cannot last. Dreams always end.

Rococo is typically full paintings that present luxury and pleasure; handsome men and charming women in silk gowns lounging in gardens of everlasting spring, nudes, “fete galante”, Venuses and angels, painting such as Fragonard’s The Swing… The paintings in this post are something different. My fascination with the subject started when I saw Mercier’s girl bringing tea on Pinterest. I liked it a lot and I noticed a series of paintings from the same time period which feature the similar theme: girls doing a domestic work such as ironing, bringing tea or washing the laundry. These ladies are maids and not duchesses and yet they are worthy enough to occupy a canvas. This intrigued me. So, I envisaged this post as a brief overview of eight paintings by four different French and British painters, not as a detailed study of each painting. Also, I have to say that there is a parallel between these Rococo paintings and Dutch Baroque art of Vermeer: he also painted everyday women in simple interiors. Nothing posh, nothing luxurious.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Laundress, 1761

Greuze shows us a rosy-cheeked Rococo maid who happens to be washing the laundry but has lifted her gaze towards us. One can sense a quiet curiosity in her eyes. And look at her mules; they were a very popular form of shoes for women in the eighteenth century. The wall behind her is grey, in the upper left corner red bricks are seen. From 1759 to about 1770s, there was a craze for Greuze’s genre paintings in the Parisian art circles.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Wool Winder, c. 1759

Another painting by Greuze shows a very young girl dressed in gentle blue and white gown winding wool. She looks so young and dreamy with her pale face and fine blonde hair hidden underneath a white cap. The gentleness of her face reminds me of Raphael’s faces. She looks as if her skin was silky soft and her neck smells of lily of the valley. I sense wistfulness, a quiet melancholy in her blue eyes. The cat, on the other hand, seems amused by the thread of wool, you can tell just by looking at its eyes and the tail turned upward. As I gaze at the girl who, to me, exudes such chastity and naivety, I am thinking about her name; for me it’s Justine. It just dawned on me that perhaps she is the same girl who is sitting in her attic flat abandoned by a lover in Greuze’s painting The Complain of the Watch of which I’ve written earlier this year. I will imagine that she is. This painting is becoming dearer and dearer to me.

Philip Mercier, Portrait of a young woman, 1748

Philip Mercier was a French painter who was born in Berlin and died in London and he is well-known for making some portraits of the royals. This is the painting that started my fascination in the first place and it is my favourite painting out of all that I’ve presented here, and a rather simple one too; just a girl with porcelain skin and large dark eyes holding a tea tray. She is dressed in a light green dress. The model was possibly the artist’s maid Hannah. I like her straightforward gaze. Now something that I am interested in: who is the lucky person to be served by this beauty?

The painting below is Mercier’s work again and its dramatic light reminds me of Baroque. It shows two girls, perhaps sisters; one is sewing and the younger one is sucking her thumb.

Philip Mercier, A Girl Sewing, 1750

Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Woman peeling turnips, 1740

Chardin’s portrayal of the working class life is perhaps the most realistic, both in terms of style and content. Painted in dark, muted colours and earthy tones and presenting a gritty image of reality instead of silk-clad idealism of the previous paintings, and it lacks the glamour and sparkling colours of Mercier’s girls bringing tea. In “Woman peeling turnips”, Chardin presents us with an intimate and realistic scene of a woman sat on a chair, peeling turnips in her kitchen, dressed in simple garments. The wall behind her is bare and grey, and she is surrounded by things you’d normally find in a kitchen, pots and a pumpkin. Something distracted her for a moment and she is looking to the right. It looks as if Chardin really was in her kitchen. Chardin was a keen observer of everyday life and his paintings emphasise the values such as industriousness, loyalness to ones family and honesty, and this struck a cord with the middle-class buyers. Speaking of turnips, whoever is a fan of Blackadder will know that Baldrick loved them. Ha ha.

Henry Robert Morland, A Laundry Maid Ironing, c. 1765-82

A London-based painter of genre scenes, Henry Robert Morland, presents us here with two pretty ladies dresses in sumptuous silks perhaps too sumptuous for the position of a maid, but then again all these paintings, apart from Chardin’s woman peeling turnips are just dreamy idealised portraits of domestic scenes, and why portray reality when it was so gritty? The girl above is shows ironing and is very focused on her task, while the girl doing laundry in the painting below had to stop for a moment to show us her smile.

Henry Robert Morland, Lady’s Maid Soaping Linen, c. 1765-82

Although artistically these paintings hold importance within their art movement, thematically we should embrace their light-heartedness. Unlike similar genre paintings of Victorian era, these Rococo portraits of beautiful working class heroines were not meant to convey a social message or serve as a social critique.

Egon Schiele and Kokoschka – Proletarian Lolitas

27 Mar

Friendship of Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, who were both remembered for being a thorn in the eye of the art scene in the late Art Nouveau and early Expressionism phase of Vienna, was merely an artistic one. They both soaked each others ideas and for a very short time created from the same wellspring of inspiration, only to move apart and drift into totally different directions.

Egon Schiele, Mädchen mit übereinandergeschlagenen Beinen (Girl with crossed legs), 1911

The very first thing you notice when gazing at Schiele’s portraits and nudes is their ‘elegantly wasted’ appeal mixed with some kind of twisted eroticism, smouldering melancholy and trashy glamour. There’s some subtle poetry of sadness about their worn out faces, tired eyes, sunken cheekbones, and their pale greyish skin. Completely nude, or dressed in lingerie and stockings, they gaze nervously, tiredly, forlornly at us; they provoke a response. Certain malaise pervades their smiles.

A true-blooded Expressionist, Oskar Kokoschka was the first to show interest in portraying the underprivileged, the poor, the misfits, but Egon Schiele soon followed his path, and they both worked and soaked inspiration in the gritty everyday reality of working class Vienna. Schiele’s drawings from 1910 and 1911 show resemblance to Kokoshka’s drawings from 1908 and 1909, but they are more poetical. In my view, Kokoshka’s drawings cannot even be compared to the power of his later paintings which are full of Expressionist frenzy, unsettling and distorted, painted in layers and layers of colour, as if every brushstroke brings relief. Below, you’ll see one of his drawing from this period which shows a half-nude girl. It slightly reminds me of Paul Gauguin’s way of portraying bodies, her face contour is strong, her body is kind of geometrical, overall she looks rough, stiff. This just shows that Schiele’s main method of expression was line, while in Kokoschka’s paintings colour plays a more important role. Kokoschka later even accused Schiele of ‘stealing’ his style.

Oskar Kokoschka, The juggler’s daughter, 1908, pencil, watercolour

But Schiele… Schiele’s drawings are like existentialist poems. He was an excellent draughtsman. Otto Benesh, son of Schiele’s patron Heinrich Benesh, wrote this of Schiele’s drawing technique: “Schiele drew quickly. The pencil skated over the white surface of the paper as though led by some ghostly hand… and he sometimes held the pencil in the manner of a painter from the Far East.” It’s also interesting to note that he never used an eraser; he rarely made mistakes, but when he did, he’d simply throw the paper away. And he sketched quickly, and then later, in the absence of the model, he’d fill in his drawings with watercolour or gouache.

Egon Schiele, Seated Girl Facing Front 1911

The beauty of his drawings is unsurpassed, even Klimt once admitted to him that he is better at drawing. His lines seem fragile and constricted, but their firm and controlled nature cannot be denied. Schiele employed the language of melancholy and lyricism, in a similar way to Modigliani, and used it to portray his own bewildering loneliness. In my view, all of his portraits, nudes, sunflowers and landscapes, express the same thing – melancholy, death, decay, they are windows into his soul and mind. This is just what Caspar David Friedrich said: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees in himself. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting what he sees before him.” Schiele always paints what is within him.

When he chose to paint these poor girls from the streets, he did so because he saw through their sunken cheeks and sad eyes, his artistic vision penetrated through their souls. Kokoshka is interested only in their bodies, but Schiele wants to see the world through their eyes. Kokoschka was interested in their crooked postures and inelegance because it suited his distorted visions of the world, whereas in Schiele’s drawings you see the souls behind their tired little bodies. Pale, skinny, beaten and hungry, unnoticed till that moment, these street urchins, mostly girls, always ignored, pushed into the corner, out of the way, were brought into the spotlight all of a sudden, which undoubtedly made them feel special, privileged. Someone noticed them, someone was nice towards them, someone wanted to paint them!

Egon Schiele, Girl with black hair, 1910

A sentence which sums it all, and which inspired me to write this post in the first place:

“Physically immature, thin, wide-eyed, full-mouthed, innocent and lascivious at the same time, these Lolitas from the proletarian districts of Vienna arouse the kind of thoughts best not admitted before a judge and jury.” (Egon Schiele, by Frank Whitford)

You’ll notice how awkward they look. Girl with black hair has a look of sadness and resignation in her eyes. For a while that has been one of my favourite of Schiele’s nudes because of the discord between her cute round face with large eyes and full lips, and the awkward skinny body with skin stretched taunt over the bones, and small breasts. She looks uncomfortable with being naked, she looks shy and hopelessly sad. My more recent favourite is the one below, Sitting girl with ponytail, again, I love her body and her skin tone, which Schiele obviously enjoyed painting. His nudes always look pale and sickly, but sometimes their skin has a greyish tone and sometimes it takes yellowish shades, but you’ll notice how he paints patches of unnatural shades of colour where they should not naturally be, like adding a bit of green, blue or brown on their bodies. And look at the face of this little proletarian Lolita – it resembles that of a sad and dreamy porcelain doll, eyes gazing in the distance, lips painted in rich red colour.

This is what Schiele’s friend Gütersloh wrote of these child models:

There were always two or three small of large girls sitting about in his studio, brought there from the immediate neighbourhood, from off the street or picked up in the Schonbrunn park that was nearby. They were ugly and pretty, washed and unwashed and they did nothing – at least to the layman they might have seemed to do nothing… They slept, recovered from beatings administered by parents, lazily lounged about – something they were not allowed to do at home – combed their hair, pulled their dresses up or down, did or undid their shoes… like animals in a cage which suits them, they were left to their own devices, or at any rate believed themselves to be. (…) With the aid of little money and much charm he had managed to lull these little beasts into a false sense of security… They feared nothing from the sheet of paper which lay by Schiele on the divan.

Egon Schiele, Sitting girl with ponytail (Sitzendes Mädchen mit Pferdeschwanz), 1910

I think Schiele’s pencil and brush could have captured the appearance of Sonia Marmeladova from Crime and Punishment to utter perfection. Sonia is a pale, skinny, meek, painfully shy but deeply religious eighteen year old girl, and a prostitute who somehow manages to transcend the misery of her surroundings and remain pure at heart. And she also falls in love with Raskolnikov. Don’t they make a splendid match: a killer and a harlot. This is how Dostoevsky describes Sonia in the book:

She had a thin, very thin, pale face, rather irregular and angular, with a sharp little nose and chin.  She could not have been called pretty, but her blue eyes were so clear, and when they lighted up, there was such a kindliness and simplicity in her expression that one could not help being attracted.  Her face, and her whole figure indeed, had another peculiar characteristic.  In spite of her eighteen years, she looked almost a little girl- almost a child.

Sonia is one of my favourite literary heroines, and ever since I’ve read the book, I wondered what she looked like. Now I know that only Schiele could capture that irregular pale face, that fragile thin body, those big bright eyes. No doubt he would be attracted by her childlike figure, but would she dare to pose for him, as shy as she was? I don’t know, but maybe modelling would be better than prostitution. There’s a lot of descriptions of poverty in the book as well. Sonia’s little brothers and sisters, and her step-mother Katerina live in bad conditions; each has only one clothing garment, which Katerina washes every night, they are always hungry and frail, often ill. We can assume that the working class Vienna of Schiele’s time was no different, and that all these little innocent creatures that Schiele has painted with such zest probably lived similar lives. It was all very poignant to me. You just can’t read a book by Dostoevsky, close it, and not come out changed.

Oskar Kokoschka, Children Playing, 1909
 
As you can see by now, I can’t get Egon Schiele out of my mind. He is one of my favourite artists, and the more I read about his art, the more richness I discover. These days, I think, read, daydream about his art, various aspects of it, a lot, and I can tell you one thing – there are so many interesting fragments about his art that even a hundred posts wouldn’t be enough to explore his magic. And he has indeed woven magic over me.