The Art of Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka

Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka (1853 – 1919) was a Hungarian painter working in the expressionist style and being part of the twentieth century’s avant-garde movement. A pharmacist by profession, he had a vision that he would become a renowned painter when he was already close to thirty and after that vowed to stop at nothing “to fulfil his destiny”. However, Kosztka was not popular with his contemporaries and achieved most of his recognition only after his death, with his paintings now forming part of Hungary’s national treasure. Below are three of his distinctive paintings, with each having at least one curious aspect.

I. Old Fisherman [1902]

This seemingly straightforward at first glance painting shows an old fisherman with a cane with a coastline in the background. To the left of the man, one can see the serene sea and what looks like the signs of a village, while to the right, the sea is more volatile and a number of factories are seen, emitting pollution in the air. However, this is a painting with “a twist”. Art critics were quickly to spot that if you take a mirror and place it on the left-hand side of the painting (mirroring the fisherman’s face), it will show the benevolent man in a prayer, standing for goodness (God), but if you take a mirror and place it on the right-hand side (mirroring the fisherman’s face), it will show Devil himself (as the illustrations below demonstrate). Csontvary Kosztka seems to have wanted to underline the humanity’s dual nature – it harbours the seeds of both good and evil.

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Delicate Symbolism & Transience: Paintings of Caspar David Friedrich

“The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself”(Caspar David Friedrich).

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) was a German Romantic painter, specialising mostly in landscape paintings. In time, his art had become hugely influential, making its mark on the art of others (Arnold Böcklin, Ivan Shishkin) and even on cinematography (Andrey Tarkovsky). Friedrich’s work has been described in many different terms: allegorical, melancholic, sublime, nature-focused, mystical and religious. What is clear, however, is the artist’s desire to convey to the viewer that unfathomable link between the external and the internal worlds that we all experience, and he would use landscape (“moodscape”), symbolism and other devices to convey his impenetrable “philosophy”. He was particularly interested in capturing the “stillness” of a moment/place and tying it to the deeper feelings of longing and wonder at nature, and life and its transience. Below I present five Friedrich’s paintings with some commentary.

I. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen [c. 1818]

In this painting, the artist probably depicted himself, his wife Christiane Caroline Bommer and his brother Christian as this painting was completed just after Friedrich’s honeymoon to the island of Rügen, Germany. The serenity of the Stubbenkammer sea and cliffs contrasts with the activity of the three people in the foreground who find themselves dangerously close to the cliff’s edge. As seen in other paintings by Friedrich, we can discern a fine symbolism and symmetry in this painting. The overhanging trees work as though a window-frame, presenting to us a lady wearing a red dress, which contrasts with the white cliffs and offsets the dark green and blue dresses of her companions. If the man to the right is completely immobile, standing arms crossed and reclining on what appears to be a dead tree, then the lady is leisurely pointing towards something in the abyss below and is in the sitting position, and the man in the middle (probably the artist himself) is on his hands and knees on the ground, looking in equal wonder at some scene unfolding below. Though the three people find themselves at a short distance from each other, the overall impression is still that of group unity and the three being comfortable around each other, perhaps feeling a little independent at that moment captured by the artist. Knowing that the painting was completed just after the artist’s honeymoon, it may be safe to assume that he wanted to symbolise the happy unity of two recently joined people: the red dress of the woman may stand for love and bright beginnings, Friedrich, her husband, stands for humility and hard-work as he put his hat on the ground, prepared to be humble and work hard to make his union work, and the motionless man on the right (maybe Friedrich’s brother or moody Friedrich in his youth) is the quiet, melancholic understanding itself. Another common interpretation is that the colours of the dresses of the three characters in the painting (blue, greed and red) stand for the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love respectively. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen is in the permanent collection of the Winterthur Museum of Art in Winterthur, Switzerland.

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Ivan Aivazovsky: Sea Chapels, Shipwrecks & the Moonlit Night

Ivan Aivazovsky [1817 – 1900] was a Russian painter and one of the greatest masters of marine art who is predominately known for his masterpieces that depict seascapes: coastlines and seas. As a child growing up in Feodosia (Crimea), Aivazovsky fell in love with the sea (the Black Sea) and this passion for water and all things marine never left him. Below is just a tiny fraction of his paintings, where I focus on the themes of “sea chapels” and shipwrecks, and Aivazovsky is also known for depicting Armenian themes and battles. Some of my other favourite Aivazovsky’s paintings include his depictions of the Bay of Naples and Constantinople.

I. Clock-wise from the upper left-hand corner: Sea View with Chapel [1845], Misty Morning in Italy [1864] and Chapel by the Coast on a Moonlit Night [1851]

These paintings of chapels by the sea create an impression of an idyllic scenery, a harmonic fusion of the man’s spirituality/religion and nature’s wonder. It is no wonder Aivazovsky’s paintings are often compared to beautiful poetry. Chapels by the sea were not uncommon. Sailors have always been a religious and superstitious class of people, and for a good reason. Sea is one of the most unpredictable environments one may find themselves in, and, in past times, sea-travel was fraught with various difficulties, culminating in disasters and death with frequency which is staggering by today’s standards. Thus, the protection of sailors and safe journeying on sea were issues of paramount importance. Chapels near the sea must have served a welcoming sight, symbolising the man’s “illusionary” control over the uncontrollable, and they often contain statues of saints, which only leave chapels on special days and festivals. Both Charles Dickens (in American Notes [1842]) and Herman Melville (in Moby-Dick [1851]) were fascinated by “sea chapels”, and patron saints of sailors and marine travel include St Brendan, a celebrated traveller, whose worship promises safe passage, St. Christopher, the legendary patron saint of travel, and St Erasmus, an ex-Bishop, who suffered much for his faith. In past times, such chapels also worked similar to lighthouses, signalling the way to the bay.

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Arnold Böcklin: 3 Symbolic Paintings

Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901) was a Swiss painter working in the genre of symbolism. He was known for painting motifs from mythology, and his works often depicted otherworldly beings, mysterious places and dark allegories. In this post, I will talk about three of Böcklin’s works of art.

I. Isle of the Dead (Third Version) [1883]

This is Böcklin’s best-known painting in which he depicted “the Isle of the Dead”, a mysterious island with dense vegetation inside (cypress trees) surrounded by the white “fortress” of white rock. A lone boat approaches the island head on with the mysterious veiled white figure standing in it. In the boat, one can also see another white object, probably a coffin. The dark waters and gloomy skies build a sombre atmosphere, and the funeral motifs are also emphasised by the cypress trees since these too have been traditionally associated with cemeteries and mourning.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Magpie on the Gallows

This is a painting that Dutch-Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in 1568 and left to his wife before his death. This is not merely a countryside scenery. There is something unsettling in this painting and some have suggested that it hides a secret meaning. In this painting, two men are seemingly enjoying the view to the river valley, but there is something disturbing that comes into their view – a group of dancers on the left happily passing their time in front of the gallows, which stand as an ominous reminder that one day human life comes to an end. Our attention is immediately drawn to the gallows because Bruegel depicted what seems to be an “impossible object” in art. The gallows’ posts are positioned in such a way that cannot occur in real life, with the right side receding into the distance. This alone gives the gallows in the painting a special significance. At the same time, the merry people to the side of the gallows, as well as the person who is squatting on the foreground, seem to be mocking the very symbol of death and “justice”. The contrast between their merriness, and the solitary and sombre gallows could not have been more pronounced, giving a peculiar unnaturalness to the scene. Over the years, there have been a number of interpretations put out forward regarding the magpie that sits on the gallows (as well as the one near the base of the gallows), and one of the most popular ones is that the magpie represents baseless and spiteful gossip that often leads to the gallows. This painting is currently held by the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany.

Annunciation to the Shepherds: 3 Artworks

And the angel said to them “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2: 8 – 14].

I thought I would return to religious art (see also my previous post 5 “The Last Supper” Paintings). I am choosing to focus on three artworks that depict the annunciation to the shepherds because this is a somewhat overlooked episode from the Bible and most prefer to focus on the nativity scene itself or on the adoration of the Magi when depicting Biblical episodes. The episode concerns the appearance of the angel who tells the shepherds the location of the Christ Child.

annunciation to the shepherds 1I. Annunciation to the Shepherds by Taddeo Gaddi 

Maybe this artwork is my favourite because I remember I visited many times the Basilica of Santa Croce when I lived in Florence and this fresco is from there – located in the Baroncelli Chapel. It dates to around 1328 and is said to be one of the first night-time depictions of this kind. Taddeo Gaddi approached differently the presentation of the angel here, especially by the standards of that time, and the spiritual light surrounding the angel and the casting of this light on the rocky surface and on the shepherds are striking. In this fresco, the shepherds are slowly arousing themselves from their deep sleep, their cattle is still asleep and one of their dogs is already awake, looking distrustfully, but also obediently at the source of the light. There are both quietness to this depiction (especially in comparison to the paintings below) and a sense of conviction: the messanger has come and what he has to say is true. Continue reading “Annunciation to the Shepherds: 3 Artworks”

Francisco de Goya

Francisco de Goya (1746 – 1828) was a Spanish painter working in the style of Romanticism. He is probably best known for his paintings Saturn Devouring His Son and The Third of May 1808. Some of his other paintings have an eerie and even disturbing element to them. The somewhat satirical paintings below portray one central figure that catches the eye and unsettles. Witches’ Sabbath is held in the Museo Lazaro Galdiano in Madrid; The Straw Manikin is held in the Prado Museum in Madrid; and Time and the Old Women resides in the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, France.

Witches Sabbath GoyaI. Witches’ Sabbath [1798]

This painting, which is part of Goya’s “Black Paintings”, shows a coven of witches. In the centre sits the Devil represented by a he-goat, with women around him being either in awe or scared of him, some offering him their children. The he-goat is motionless, his expression is neutral, eyes wide open, betraying nothing, while women around him fuss, causing a commotion. The goat’s human-like sitting posture hint at him being endowed with human qualities. It is possible that de Goya tried to satirise through this painting the prevalence of superstition and the belief in witches in rural parts of Spain (Francisco de Goya wanted to denounce any mass worshiping based on ignorance). This is so especially since the witches in his painting appear to be deformed and seem to be completely blinded by their belief in the entity before them (even though the he-goat appears almost like a dummy), offering their most precious “possessions” to the Devil – their children. Also, if a witches’ sabbath is usually held on a full moon at night, the painting purposefully depicts neither the full moon nor the darkness of a night (but a new moon, with the meeting taking place at dusk).  Continue reading “Francisco de Goya”

René Magritte

René Magritte [1898 – 1967] was a Belgian surrealist artist known for his thought-provoking and enigmatic paintings. Many of his paintings play with the concepts of reality, identity and truth, and some of the most recognised painting are The Lovers [1928], Not to Be Reproduced [1937], Golconda [1953], The Son of Man [1964] and The Man with the Bowler Hat [1964]. In this post, I would like to draw attention to and discuss the three others: Memory, The Survivor and The Masterpiece or The Mysteries of the Horizon.

Memory MagritteI. Memory [1948]

Unlike other paintings on this list, Memory is an allegorical painting, a painting with a hidden meaning. It is a striking painting for many reasons and one of those is the contrast of the white and the red – a beautiful white bust here is tainted with blood. That “injury” on the bust may represent this woman’s traumatic and painful memory which she now has to bear. The irony here is that this blood is what makes this bust “come alive” – it gives this woman’s head the qualities of a real person, probably, a person in pain. Memory forms such an integral part of who we are, and what is our reality and daily life that, without it, we are lost. The possible “bleeding” out of “memory” in this image may hint at this person slowly being converted into a statue, which she has become – since we are looking at a bust. One trivia for film lovers here is that this painting probably served as an inspiration for one of the murder scenes in Anthony Minghella’s film The Talented Mr Ripley (1999).      
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