Laurits Andersen Ring. Part 1. Death, unrequited love and depression.

Portrait of Laurits Andersen Ring by Knud Larsen

ecently I gave you five blogs which were devoted to one of the great Surrealist artists of the twentieth century but today I am reverting back to what I would irreverently term “ordinary” paintings.  However, there is nothing ordinary about the works of the Danish painter Laurits Andersen Ring, professionally known as L.R. Ring, one of Denmark’s foremost artists during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was a pioneer of both symbolism and social realism.   I had not previously known anything about him or his work but I could not believe how beautiful his paintings were.

Tåget landskab med Mogenstrup Mølle (Foggy landscape with Mogenstrup Mill,) by Laurits Ring (1889)

Laurits Andersen Ring was born Laurits Andersen on August 15th, 1854 in the village of Ring, near Næstved, in the south of the Danish island of Zealand. His father was Anders Olsen and his mother was Johanne Andersdatter.  For several generations, the Anders Olsen family had been peasant farmers and Johanne was a farmer’s daughter and came from a family of smallholders.  When Anders and Johanne married, he took over his father-in-law’s house in the village of Ring.  However, due to his poor health, asthma, he was unable to work the land and so neighbours undertook the upkeep of the land whilst he established himself as a carpenter and wheelwright.  Anders and Johanne had their first child, a son, Ole Peter on January 6th 1850 and four and a half years later Johanne gave birth to Laurits on August 15th, 1854.  Laurits and his brother grew up in a family with cramped and impoverished conditions, and throughout his life Laurits was particularly concerned with the struggle of workers and peasants to get better living and working conditions.  As teenagers the two boys had to help in their father’s workshop as his health was deteriorating and he was unable to work for long periods of time.  Eventually Ole took over the family business.

Autumn Weather: A Man with a Wheelbarrow on a Path by Laurits Ring

With Ole was looking after the family business, Laurits was free to further his own ambitions, that of becoming a professional painter. In 1869, aged fifteen, Laurits became a painter’s apprentice.   In 1873, while working in Copenhagen Laurits decided to enrol in painting classes and, in 1875, following two years of private study, he gained entrance to the Royal Danish Academy of Arts.  It was around this time that Laurits decided to change his surname.  He and his friend, fellow painter Hans Andersen, who came from the village of Brændekilde, decided to change their last names, taking the names of their native villages, in order to avoid confusion at exhibitions when they both exhibited paintings.  Laurits Andersen became Laurits Ring and Hans Andersen became Hans Andersen Brendekilde.  As has been the case of many young artists I have profiled, Laurits fell out of love with academic teaching and the Academy set-up.  He was never satisfied with life at the Academy and loathed the strict training in classical disciplines.  In 1882 Laurits had his paintings shown at his exhibition debut.  It was a great triumph and through this and other exhibitions he slowly received critical acclaim for his work and within two years his artistic career had been launched successfully.

The Railroad Guard by Laurits Ring (1884)

In June 1884, Laurits Ring produced a painting which finally bestowed on him the artistic recognition he deserved.  The painting was entitled The Lineman.   Rail transport in Denmark began in 1847 with the opening of a railway line between Copenhagen and Roskilde and for Denmark, it was the great innovation of the middle and late nineteenth century.  Look at the figure in the painting.  He is the Lineman or Railway Guard.  He is dressed in his railway uniform.  He stands looking down the line at the on-coming train.  If we look more closely at the figure, we see a man whose clothes are ill-fitting.  He wears old wooden clogs.  His demeanour is one of tiredness with his slumped shoulders and there is a definite air of poverty about him.  Although the new railways might have benefited the country, they also allowed people the opportunity to escape impoverished rural communities and find work in the cities which further worsened the predicament of the rural communities which suffered the greatest poverty.

Evening. The Old Wife and Death by L.A. Ring

Sadly, just as Ring’s career was taking off, tragedy struck. On June 18th, 1883, his father, Anders, died, aged 66.  Laurits’ childhood home was dissolved, and his mother had to go and live with his brother. Worse was to happen three years later, on March 28th, 1886, when Laurits’ brother who had been looking after his mother, died after a short illness, aged 36.  Nine years later, in 1895, Laurits’ mother died aged 81.  These inevitable but tragic events occurred in a twelve-year period and greatly affected Laurits Ring.  Many of his works around this time focused on death, such as his 1887 painting entitled Evening: The Old Wife and Death.  Laurits, besides his Social Realism works, was also known as a symbolist painter, and depicted in this painting, we see before us an old woman resting by the roadside, exhausted after carrying her heavy burden.  Her arm hangs slack.  She can do no more. She is close to death.  She will not get to the end of the road.  She will not make it home.   The sun has set and the soft light of dusk characterizes the scene. The road symbolises her road of life on which she has made the final journey.  In the sky above her looms the Angel of Death.  He smiles and laughs knowing he is about to harvest yet another soul.

Three Skulls from Convento dei Cappuccini at Palerrmo by Laurits Ring (1894)

Ten years later Laurits Ring focused on another aspect of death following his visit to Sicily in 1894.  The Symbolist painting was entitled Three Skulls from Convento dei Cappucini at Palermo. It is a strange and haunting work based on the catacombs of the Cappuccin monastery in Palermo which has long placed their dead monks in catacombs, where their corpses slowly mummify.

Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo

Laurits Ring depicts just three of over eight thousand bodies there.  Just a point of interest: The last monk was buried in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo in 1871. The last non-clergymen that was added to the collection dates from 1920.

Churchyard at Fløng by Laurits Ring

Throughout Laurits Ring’s life he showed great empathy with the poor and their lot in life.  He was one of the most well-known ambassadors of Social Realism in Danish art. Throughout his life he never forgot his humble and impoverished upbringing and his family’s battle to survive and this could be seen in his art.  He was proud to change his surname to the name of his birthplace in the little south Zealand village and it was those surroundings and the people living in the area which became his constantly recurring subject.

Boy with a Crossbow at the Foot of a Hill by Laurits Ring

In Denmark, the term The Modern Breakthrough was given to the period between 1870 and 1890 which marked a period in Danish literature and arts which focused on naturalism and realism and replaced romanticism at the end of the nineteenth century.  Personal poverty, which Ring had witnessed first-hand in his family household, had inspired him to support the constant battle of peasants and workers for social and economic change. Laurits Ring was a champion of the weak and oppressed and, like many young people demanded change and even contemplated the need for a revolution.  In the 1880s, Ring was active in the Rifle Movement, a group that openly advocated  an armed uprising.

Harvest by Laurits Ring (1885)

Laurits never forgot the poverty his family had suffered and his Social Realism paintings confronted the hardship of life for the less well-off such as the peasant farmers.  There was a family connection in his 1885 painting entitled Harvest.    Laurits managed to persuade his elder brother Ole Peter to model for the painting.  We see his brother working on his Zealand farm near the village of Fakse.  The depiction shows endless swathes of wheat fields and Laurits’ brother vigorously swinging the heavy scythe.

The Gleaners by Laurits Ring (1887)

Another of Laurits’ rural depictions, The Gleaners, completed in 1887, is one used by many artists, and depicts the gathering of grain or other produce left behind in a field after harvest.  The best-known version of this subject is probably Jean-François Millet’s 1857 painting of the same name.

A young woman with a headscarf around her head (Johanne Wilde). by Laurits Ring (1887)

Laurits Ring had three women who took on a special importance in his life.  The first was his mother, Johanne Andersdatter, with whom he had a special and long-lasting bond.  Around 1887, a second woman came into Laurits’ life.  She was Olga Johanne Albertine Wilde, the wife of the lawyer and amateur painter, Alexander Wilde who had his studio next to that of Laurits’ residence in Frederiksberg, a district of Greater Copenhagen.  She was the mother to two sons and a daughter. With a mutual interest in painting Alexander and Laurits became great friends and Laurits almost became one of the family spending Christmas and the summers with them.   Despite his great friendship with Alexander, Laurits fell in love with his wife, Johanne.  It was a disastrous infatuation and an unrequited love as, despite a passing back and forth between Laurits and Johanne of recurrent intimate letters, she remained faithful to her husband.

Johanne Wilde at the loom in the summer residence, Hornbæk by Laurits Ring (1889.)

Finally, around 1892 Laurits realised that there could be no future with Johanne and he broke this circle of friendship with the Wilde family.  The end of this intimate relationship caused Laurits to experience a period of great depression at his lost love. It was a traumatic time in the life of Laurits Ring.  His father and only brother had died within three years of each other.  He was totally disillusioned with the political struggle to better the living conditions of the poor in urban and rural areas and he was now beginning to doubt his artistic ability.  In fact, he was losing faith in God and the deeper meaning of life at all.  It is thought that but for the fact that his mother was still alive, he may have contemplated suicide as a way out of his depression.  If that was not bad enough, his “friend” Henrik Pontoppidan, in his 1895 novel, Nattevagt (Night Watch), based his character Thorkild Drehling, a painter and failed revolutionary, who was in love with his best friend’s wife, on Laurits Ring.  Ring was horrified at his friend’s betrayal, especially the publicly divulging of Ring’s infatuation with Johanne Wilde.  Their friendship immediately ended.

Things had to change for Laurits, and they did, in the form of the third woman in the life of Laurits Ring.

…………………………………….to be continued.

George Hendrik Breitner – The Amsterdam Impressionist.

George Hendrik Breitner

The artist I am looking at today is George Hendrik Breitner, the nineteenth century Dutch painter, who was best known for his realistic depiction of Amsterdam street and harbour scenes.   He was also of great importance in what was later termed Amsterdam Impressionism.

Self portrait by George Breitner (1883)

George Hendrik Breitner was born in Rotterdam on September 12th, 1857.  He and his younger brother, Godfridus, were the children of Johan Wilhelm Heinrich Breitner and Marie Anne Henriette Gortmans.  His father worked in the grain business and George, after finishing primary school, joined the Palthe & Haentjes, grain company, as a clerk.  At the age of seventeen George went to the Delft Polytechnic School for vocational training.  George showed a great talent for drawing and in January 1876, aged eighteen, partly because of the intercession of the artist Charles Rochussen, his father agreed to have him enrolled on a four-year course at the Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten (Royal Academy of Art) in The Hague.  He was an exemplary student and won a number of awards including a second prize for composition and two years later took the first prize in a live model competition.  In October 1877 he obtained his teaching certificate and during 1878 and 1879 he taught art at the Leiden Art Society (Ars Aemula Naturae), originally the Leiden Guild of St. Luke.

The Dam, Amsterdam by George Breitner (1895)

In 1880 Breitner was expelled from the Art Academy for misconduct, his misdemeanour said to have been that he had destroyed the regulations-board.  Around that time, he shared lodgings of the Dutch landscape painter of the Hague School, Willem Marisat, at the Oud Rozenburg house in The Hague.  Marisat became Breitner’s friend and tutor. It was through Marisat that Breitner was accepted as a member of the Pulchri Studio, an important artist’s society in that city. 

Les Brisants de la Mere du Nord (The Breakers of the North Sea) by William Mesdag

It was here that he met fellow member Hendrik Mesdag, a one-time banker but later an accomplished artist, whose forte was his maritime paintings, one of which, Les Brisants de la Mere du Nord (The Breakers of the North Sea), gained him the gold medal at the 1870 Paris Salon.  In 1880, Mesdag had been commissioned by a group of Belgian entrepreneurs to paint a panorama depicting a view over the village of Scheveningen which lay on the North Sea coast close to The Hague.  It was such a large project that Mesdag put together a team of artists including his wife Sientje, Theophile de Bock, Barend Blommers and twenty-three-year-old George Hendrik Breitner.  The finished work which measured 14 metres high and 120 metres around, was completed in 1881 and I talked about in my My Daly Art Display blog

Bridge with Rain and Wind by George Breitner (1887)

In 1882, Breitner made the acquaintance of another distinguished artist, Vincent van Gogh, and the two would often go on sketching trips around the poorer and seamier side of The Hague.  In a letter to his brother Theo in February 1882, Vincent wrote:

“…. At the moment I quite often go to draw with Breitner, a young painter who’s acquainted with Rochussen as I am with Mauve.  He draws very skilfully and very differently from me, and we often draw types together in the soup kitchen or the waiting room &c…”

Two Girls with Brown Can by George Breitner (1885)

For Breitner his models were the poorer working-class folk such as labourers and servant girls who plied their trade in the lower working-class areas of the city.  Breitner preferred these working-class models such as labourers, servant girls and people from the lower-class districts. Interest in the fate of the common people, which many artists felt in that period, was cultivated by the social conscience of French writers such as Émile Zola and the realism paintings of Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet.  Breitner believed that through his paintings he would create history. His desire to become famous for his realistic paintings of the poor can be seen in his letter he sent to his patron, the grain merchant, Adriaan Pieter van Stolk, dated March 28th 1882.  Breitner wrote:

“…Myself, I will paint the people on the street and in the houses, they built, life above all, I’ll try to be Le peintre du peuple or I’ll be better because I want to be. History I wanted to paint and I will too, but history in its most extensive sense. A market, a quay, a river, a gang of soldiers under a glowing sun or in the snow…”.

Distribution of Soup by George Breitner (1882)

In May 1884 Breitner left The Hague and travelled to Paris.  His stay in the French capital lasted only six months during which time he attended Atelier Cormon where he liked to depict the toiling workhorses or demolition scenes, using dark tones .  He completed a number of paintings featuring the streets of the city with its horse and cart transportation.   His desire to paint scenes of everyday life in the French capital was enhanced by his interest in and inspiration from the writings of Zola, Flaubert and especially Edmund and Jules de Goncourts with their book, Manette Salomon, being a favourite of Breitner. 

Labourers Pulling a Heavily Laden Cart on Jacob van
Lennepkade, Amsterdam by George Breitner (1900)

In the late 1880’s, Breitner’s new hometown, Amsterdam, was beginning to expand, new industries were shooting up and it was pulsating with life.  Breitner was afforded the ideal opportunity to record pictorially the changes.  Now living in the city, he took the opportunity to hone his artistic talents by enrolling for a short period at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts under the tutelage of August Allebé, an exponent of realism and impressionism.  Breitner’s cityscape paintings of that era, although maybe not topographically accurate, were emotional depictions, full of colour and movement.  His depiction of the common people was somewhat different as he used greys and browns to portray the hard and laborious tasks, they had to perform to earn a meagre wage.  His paintings were often both emotional and sensitive.

Construction Site in Amsterdam by George Breitner

Breitner’s 1902 painting, Construction Site in Amsterdam, highlights the building boom in Amsterdam.   He based the painting on a series of photographs he took of a construction site in the city. Although it may have been thought to be an en plein air work, the painting was in fact carefully created in his Prinseneiland studio. Through the use of his photographs and sketches, he was able to portray an ever-changing city.

A View of the Leidsegracht Amsterdam by Willem Witsen

One of the painters he liked at this time and whose work influenced him was the Dutch painter and photographer associated with the Amsterdam Impressionism movement, Willem Witsen, whose best works include serene views of Amsterdam, such as his depictions of the canal areas Herengracht and Leidsegracht.

Lying Naked by George Breitner (1889)

In the late 1880’s, beside his cityscape works, Breitner embarked on painting nudes.

The Red Kimono by George Breitner (1893)

In 1893, he completed a series of paintings featuring Japanese girls, a beloved theme of many painters in those days.  Japonism, which referred to the French term, japonisme, which denotes the assimilation of iconography or concepts of Japanese art into European art and design. Most of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists painters were influenced by this phenomenon.

Girl in White Kimono by George Breitner (1894)

Breitner was Inspired by Japanese prints he had seen between 1893 and 1896 and completed thirteen paintings featuring a girl in a kimono. In each the young woman assumes different positions and the kimono often are of different colours. In the above 1894 work, Girl in a White Kimono, what stands out the most in the depiction is the exquisitely embroidered, white silk kimono with red-trimmed sleeves and an orange sash. For this painting and many in the series, Breitner utilised the services of seventeen-year-old Geesje Kwak, a seamstress who was also one of his regular models.

De Gele Ruiters (The Yellow Riders) by George Breitner (1886)

In his earlier days during his time in The Hague, Breitner had been criticised in the media for his drawings and his attempts at Impressionism and even his patron had pressed him just to paint what the public wanted.  Breitner baulked at this advice and his relationship with van Stolk ended.  In the late 1880’s, then living in Amsterdam, there was a change in his fortune and with every passing month, he gained more and more recognition as a talented artist.  In 1886 Breitner completed one of his great masterpieces, De Gele Ruiters (The Yellow Riders).  It was a monumental work measuring 115 x 76 cms and featured the elite mounted artillery corps seen galloping down the sand dunes at breakneck speed. Breitner took full advantage of their black-and-red busbies and the gold braid on their uniforms, which adds to the vitality of the charge.

(Detail) De Gele Ruiters (The Yellow Riders) by George Breitner (1886)

We witness the sand being kicked up by the hooves of the horses at the front which clouds our view of the horsemen who follow and all we can make out of them are the flashes of black, yellow and red of the following troops.  In the October 16th 1886 edition of the Netherlands Spectator, the Dutch poet and art critic, Carel Vosmaer, wrote

“…But what a momentum and storm in the movement, what a feeling for the poetry of such a tingling, dusty, turbulent group!..”

In the same year Breitner was invited by the avant-garde Société des XX (Vingtistes) to show his work in Brussels.  More and more was written in the press about him and his work.  At the turn of the century, George Breitner was forty-two-years-old and at the high point in his artistic career.  So, what was he like as a person ?  In his biography of the artist, Breitner, by Arthur van Schendel, he quoted the description of the artist by people who knew him, writing:

“…often fierce and brusque in his performance, sometimes suddenly rigid and closed, living among bouts of passion and despondency and always possessed wholeheartedly for his art…”

The levelled building-site for Maison de la Bourse by George Breitner (1909)

In 1901 an exhibition of his work was held, a highly successful retrospective at Amsterdam’s Arti et Amicitiae, one of the largest clubs for artists and art lovers in the Netherlands.  At this time Breitner would use his photographs as a preparation for a painting.  He built up a collection of people and cityscapes form a historical document of life in the city of Amsterdam at the end of the 19th century and it was these which helped to document city life at the turn of the century.  These photographs and his cityscapes often appeared in historical publications.

On September 18th, that same year, 1901, George Hendrik Breitner married Maria Catharina Josephina Jordan in Amsterdam.  His wife was nine years younger than him.  The couple had no children. 

Portrait of Marie Breitner, wife of the artist by George Breitner

Breitner painted a portrait of his wife, which, in my eyes, seems less than flattering.

Portrait of Mrs Marie Breitner-Jordan by Willem Witsen

A more flattering portrait was done by Breitner’s friend Willem Witsen.

George Breitner by Willem Witsen

Witsen also completed a portrait of George Breitner.

In 1903 Breitner decided to move away from Amsterdam and relocate to Aerdenhout, a small town located in the dunes between Haarlem and the seaside town of Zandvoort, some twelve miles west of Amsterdam.  His decision to move away from the city was because his friend and fellow artist, Marius Bauer, had moved there and wanted Breitner to join him. However, Breitner missed Amsterdam and in 1906 he returned to the city.

Rokin with the Nieuwezijdskapel, Amsterdam. by George Breitner (1904)

In 1904 Breitner completed his work entitled Rokin with the Nieuwezijdskapel, Amsterdam.  The Rokin is a canal and major street in the centre of Amsterdam and is a recurring theme in Breitner’s works.  Breitner would spend much time in this area, sketching and photographing people and buildings.   The art gallery Van Wisselingh & Co. was found in this area as was his artist’s society Arti et Amicitiae which can be seen in the background.   The painting fetched 415,200 euros at Christie’s Amsterdam auction in April 2005.

Although Breitner was successful as an artist and enjoyed a great reputation during his life, he did encounter financial difficulties during his life and this led to the establishment of a support committee for him and his wife. On June 5, 1923, George Hendrik Breitner died of a heart attack, aged 65.  George Breitner is seen as one of the most important painters in the Netherlands at the end of the 19th century – but internationally he is less well known as an artist.

Remedios Varo. Part 5. The productive years.

In 1958, Remedios Varo participated in the First Salon of Women’s Art at the Galerías Excelsior of Mexico, together with Leonora Carrington, Alice Rahon, Bridget Bate Tichenor and other contemporary women painters of her era.   Remedios submitted two of her works, Harmony and Be Brief, and won the first prize of 3,000 pesos.

Her painting Harmony is a fascinating work of art.   According to Luis-Martín Lozano an art historian and curator of modern and contemporary art:

“…Harmony was conceived as a self-portrait, where the author takes on the role of the organizer of the universe, using a sheet music mill to connect with creatures from other dimensions through magical crystals and formulas…”

Harmony by Remedios Varo (1956)

In the painting, sitting in a medieval study,  we see an androgynous figure of a scientist although some believe it to be a self-portrait of the artist.   The figure takes objects from a treasure chest such as geometric solids, jewels, plants, crystals, even a scrap of paper with the mathematical constant, pi, written out to six digits. 

Detail from “Harmony” painting

They are then placed as notes onto a three-dimensional musical staff, which is being used as an arranging tool, and by doing so, creates from a chaos of possibilities, the order that is music.  On the wall behind the staff we see a female figure who also adds items to the strings of the musical staff.  This is the hand of chance, which is a vital ingredient in attaining scientific achievement.

St Jerome in his Study by Antonello da Messina (c.1460-1475)

The depiction has been likened to the Renaissance painting by Antonello da Messina’s work entitled Saint Jerome in his Study, which he completed around 1475.  In both paintings a solitary figure sits in a self-contained space surrounded by thick heavy stone walls,  arched doorways and ceilings and a multi-design floor. 

Trompe l’oeil

The trompe l’oeil technique was used by both artists. Antonella attempts to trick the viewers eye with what looks like a three-dimensional step in the foreground of his painting whilst Varo has presented us with a bird’s nest emerging from a split in the back of the upholstered chair.  Varo wants not only us to be fooled by this aspect but she shows that a bird is also deceived!  Varo’s painting mirrors the Netherlandish style of paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth century in the way there are so many items within the depiction, each one making you query why it had been inserted.  Do the various items have a certain meaning that we should grasp?  We should also remember that as a teenager her father would take her to the Prado in Madrid and it was here that she fell in love with the works of Hieronymus Bosch which displayed a myriad of objects, figures and weird details.

Centre panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510)

Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych painting Garden of Earthly Delights which hangs in the Prado could well have been remembered by Remedios when she painted her 1959 work entitled Troubador as both have oversized yet identifiable birds depicted. 

Troubadour by Remedios Varo (1959)

Again, in this painting we see a bow being pulled across, not a stringed instrument, but the long strands of hair of a female.  In an earlier blog, we saw a painting depicting the bow being drawn across sunbeams.

The Juggler by Remedios Varo (1956)

Another interesting painting by Varo is one entitled The Juggler.  At the centre of the depiction we see the magician/juggler standing on a table in front of a crowd of onlookers. The table actually forms part of his bizarre-looking vehicle.  The Juggler is dressed in a red robe which covers his brown-patterned outfit and atop his head he wears a witch-like conical hat.  The face of the juggler is painted on a five-sided piece of inlaid mother of pearl. Mother of pearl was often associated with works by Remedios Varo.  For her, it was the idea of enlightenment and of understanding, a sort of hyper-awareness.   The figure is in the act of juggling but instead of using his juggler’s rings which lay at his feet he is juggling balls of light adding to the impression that this is not just an ordinary juggler but one with mystic powers.  Look carefully at his audience.  All look the same with similar hairstyles and yet on closer inspection they all have individual expressions.  However, what is more bizarre are their clothes.  Again, on closer inspection their clothes are made from just one single cloak which is worn by them all.  It is all about unity.  Varo, in a letter, described the audience as:

“… a kind of unenlightened individuals who were awaiting a transference of enlightenment from the magician so that they can wake up…”

  The painting does not just depict the juggler and his audience.  Look closely at the others in the “cast” that add to the depiction.  Varo includes and owl who we see in the part-open chest, a lion that lies obediently at the juggler’s feet and the ever-present birds.  Inside the vehicle is the juggler’s wife and a goat.  It is this type of painting that I find fascinating.  No matter how many times you look at it there is something new to see and it taxes your brain trying to work out what Remedios was thinking when she put brush to masonite.  The painting is housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Star Catcher by Remedios Varo (1956)

The theme of the relationship between mother and child was explored in her 1956 painting, Star Catcher.  Remedios never had children although she did terminate a pregnancy when she was married to Péret saying that motherhood was more than she could handle.  In this painting we see a huntress has captured the moon and carries it in a cage.  The fantastic huntress is adorned in a sumptuous costume with delicately marked butterfly-wing sleeves and holds the butterfly net she has used to capture the crescent moon.  The depiction is both beautiful and disturbing and the iconography is hard to read.  However, the idea of imprisonment and constraint runs through many of Remedios’ paintings.  It is the dichotomy between power (the huntress) and powerlessness (the captured moon) which is another recurring theme in her work.

Breaking the Vicious Circle by Remedios Varo (1962)

The theme of breaking free of constraint and demonstrating female power featured in her 1962 mixed-media painting entitled Breaking the Vicious Circle.  The background is a brown shapeless void   A female figure stands before us.  She summons all of her strength to pull apart the rope that encircles her body.  This severing of the rope circle causes an electrification of her hair which stands on end and at the same time we see her torso open up to reveal a path through a forest.  It symbolises the opening up of the possibilities inside her.   Her subconscious thoughts are revealed which are rich and adventurous.  So, what does it all mean?  The breaking of the rope circle is a metaphor for the breaking free and release of the figure’s power of imagination.  This breaking free from the past and tradition allows the figure to embark on a spiritual journey that had lay dormant in her heart.  Look towards the floor at the hem of her cloak.  In the folds of her cloak, at her feet, there is an over-sized bird, which according to Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and great thinker who made a deep impression on Varo, this was a symbol of transcendence and so the woman has made a spiritual breakthrough. 

L’Ecole Buissonnière by Remedios Varo (1962)

In an earlier blog I talked about how Remedios, as a schoolgirl, was fascinated in the occult.  Later in life, she studied mystic disciplines and immersed herself in metaphysical texts and in the pursuit of meaning and control. It became a passion that dominated her work.  She became interested in the ideas postulated by the likes of Jung, Helena Blavatsky as well as stories about the legends of the Holy Grail, alchemy and the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text.  It is an influential text read throughout the world, providing inspiration to the worlds of religion, philosophy, literature, and art which Remedios consulted regularly before she made decisions.   She had spurned Catholicism saying:

“…What you grow up with you are given dogmatically, what you find, you conquer yourself…”

It was her search for an alternative to Catholicism featured in the depiction in her 1962 work entitled L’Ecole buissonière (literally, school in the bush but colloquially it means playing hooky).  In the painting we see a youth who has skipped school and gone into the forest in search of answers.  In the conical tower he finds his “friends” – the cunning fox and the wise owl which holds a crystal ball.  These will be his true mentors.

Hermit by Remedios Varo (1956)

An earlier painting completed in 1956 followed a similar theme of knowledge and learning.  In her painting Hermitano (Hermit) we see depicted a magical figure standing alone in the woods.  The body of the figure is formed by a misty six-pointed star, formed by joining together upright and inverted triangles, which symbolises equilibrium and the unification of consciousness with the unconsciousness. 

If you look closely at the chest cavity of the figure you will detect the circle of yin-yang, the Chinese symbol that similarly represents the balance of opposites.  The face of the figure is one of calmness and serenity and suggests inner harmony and balance.

 

When we look closely at Remedios Varo’s depictions, are we taking in every facet of her work?  The American art historian, Whitney Chadwick summed it up saying:

“…Although we often see everything [on them], we can’t help feeling that we’re missing an important key that would clearly show us the meaning…”

Three Destinies by Remedios Varo

Take for example Varo’s 1956 work entitled Three Destinies.  What is going on?  We see before us three figures in monk-like robes, each sitting in separate towers.  One is writing, one is painting whilst the third is drinking.  Each are oblivious to the presence of the other two. We also see, faintly drawn, a pully and rope systems connecting the towers.  And so, what is happening?

Remedios Varo’s explanation of this depiction is that although the three figures believe they are independent, they are actually and inextricably interconnected.  The fate of the three is permanently interwoven by the complicated pully system which winds around each of the three figures which makes them move, albeit they believe they are moving freely and one day in the future their lives will cross.  Varo was fascinated by what she believed was just an indistinct line separating free will and determinism, the philosophical view that all events are determined completely by previously existing causes.

Still life Reslicitando by Remedios Varo (1963)

Remedios Varo’s last work was completed in 1963 and was entitled Still Life Reviving.  The painting was one of only a few of her works which did not include a human figure.  The painting was all about the cyclical rebirth of nature.  Before us we see a tablecloth, eight dinner plates, various fruits and a candlestick all of which have been swept into a whirlwind by a source of energy which we cannot see.   Soon it looks like a celestial depiction with the fruits acting like planets orbiting the sun, in this case, the candle flame.  Look carefully at the fruit on the outermost ring.  The colliding fruit explode and this then results in the seeds of the fruit being sent back to earth, the floor, where we see them magically germinate, sprouting roots and bearing small delicate green shoots.  Above all this there are the diaphanous blue dragonflies that witness the goings-on and fly off to spread the news.  Look at the background.   Here we see a religious tone to the work with the ogival arches which sit above a chapel-like space. Varo has energised the work by adding a warm glow which also enhances the work, by her inclusion of the reds, golds and oranges of the fruit.

In 1963 Remedios suffered some health problems.  She had complained of a shortage of breath when climbing stairs.  She had a history of chronic gastric problems and was known to drink excessive amounts of coffee as well as being a heavy smoker.  She was checked out for heart problems but was given a clean bill of health.  The state of her mental health was open to doubt.  Some of her friends said she was bubbly and full of life whist others said she had told them that she was depressed and did not know whether she could carry on with life.  Walter Gruen, her husband, remembered the devastating afternoon of October 8th 1963, saying that he and Remedios had lunched with their friend Roger Cossio who had come to buy Varo’s painting, The Lovers.  Gruen said his wife was happily explaining the details of the work to the buyer.  With lunch over Cossio left and Gruen returned to his Sala Margolin shop across from their house to do some work.  Shortly after, their Indian maid rushed into Gruen’s shop to tell him that Remedios was very ill.  Gruen rushed home to find his wife complaining of chest pains.  Gruen was unable to contact a doctor so left Remedios and went into the next room to consult some medical books.  When he returned to his wife, he found that she had died. 

Remedios Varo died two months shy of her fifty-fifth birthday.  She was buried at the Jardin Panteon, a cemetery on the outskirts of the city.  The local newspapers were full of the story of her life and her untimely death.  Margarita Nelken, a close friend and a journalist for the Mexico city newspaper Excelsior wrote:

“…Remedios Varo, one of the greatest artists of modern Mexico, and – without exaggeration – of contemporary painting, on Tuesday evening left us forever.  Unexpectedly.  So discreetly, quietly, just as she had lived among us…”

Alfonso de Neuvillate, the art critic for the Novedades newspaper wrote:

“…Unjust, inexplicable…..on Tuesday, the eighth of October at 7pm, death ended the life of one of the most individual and extraordinary painters of Mexican art, Remedios Varo.   A heart attack.  One asks the questions like, why her?  Why not someone mediocre?…”


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo. Part 4 – A new life in Mexico

Remedios Varo at work in her studio

Varo arrived in Mexico at the end of 1941 having had to flee the oppression of Vichy France and the Nazis.  She had been accepted by the Mexican government and granted the status of a political exile for one year but which could be renewed. She was allowed to find work with the exception of bars, cabarets and restaurants providing she did not displace any Mexican workers.    It is estimated that Mexico accepted more than fifteen thousand refugees into its country.  The majority of them could be termed the “intelligentsia”, who brought with them a much-needed stimulus to both the economic and cultural development of the country.  Many of these exiles believed that one day in the near future they would be able to return to France and Spain and so many of these exiles kept together rather than try to assimilate with Mexicans and their culture.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

These exiled artist from Europe were not loved by everybody and the most popular Mexican artist of the time, Diego Rivera and his partner Freda Kahlo. who held the position of being the reigning leaders of Mexican artistic culture rejected what they deemed as the foreign colonializing influences of the newly arrived European artists.  Kahlo who had been in Paris in 1939 for her own exhibition at the Pierre Colle gallery and who had been a guest of André Breton was surprisingly scathing about the Surrealist painters.  In a letter from Kahlo to Nikolas Murray, a Hungarian-born American photographer and her long-time lover, in the March of that year, she wrote:

“…They make me vomit.  They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore……I’d rather sit on the floor in the market at Toluca and sell tortillas, than to have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris…”

Leonora Carrington

One of Remedios’ closest friends when she arrived in Mexico was the English Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, who like Remedios had to flee from the Vichy and Nazi controlled France and find refuge in Mexico.  Leonora and Remedios, who had first met in France in the late 1930’s, got together nearly every day and the two women formed an intense connection and would talk about their dreams for the future.  

In her early days in Mexico, Remedios did few paintings and spent most of her time writing.  She and Leonora Carrington would write fairy tales, collaborated on a play, invented Surrealistic potions and recipes, and influenced each other’s work. The two women, together with another of their friends, the photographer Kati Horna became known as “the three witches”

Women’s Tailor by Remedios Varo (1957)

Once in Mexico, Varo took on a variety of jobs, hand painting furniture and restoring pre-Columbian artifacts. In 1942, she worked with Marc Chagall, a fellow refugee from Air-Bel in Marseilles, designing costumes for Leon Massine’s ballet, Aleko.  Remedios completed a painting in 1957 entitled Women’s Tailor which shows the wild imagination she had when it came to costume designs.  The setting is a showroom in an haute-couture fashion house and we see the dress designer proudly parading his models wearing his dresses in front of a potential client.  She had always loved designing and making clothes and would often design clothes for many of the exiled Surrealist costume parties.

Insomnia by Remedios Varo (c.1947)

Remedios Varo’s main source of income in the late 1940’s was the work she did for Casa Bayer (the Bayer pharmaceutical company).  She was tasked with illustrating their promotional literature.  One example of this was her work, Insomnia, which was incorporated into a pamphlet advertising Bayer’s sleeping pills, which included the words warning of the trauma of insomnia:

“…Sensing that someone has been observing them, they open tired eyelids, searching the nocturnal shadows !   Undefined anxiety fills the solitude of the dark, dry rooms, devoid of warmth…” 

Rheumatism Lumbago Sciatica by Remedios Varo (1947)

Another pamphlet Remedios illustrated was one focusing on back pain which Bayer pharmaceuticals could alleviate.  The horrors of the ailment were summed up by Bayer in their leaflet:

“…As if sharp nails are being driven into flesh…..into the joints, into the bones, into the nerves…..!!!  These are the sensations that one can suffer, Rheumatism….lumbago….sciatica….! !…”

Rheumatic Pain by Remedios Varo (1948)

Remedios Varo’s illustration for the 1947 Bayer pamphlet entitled Rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica, added greater force to the words.  In the work we see a man depicted running through a boulder-strewn field with pointed objects piercing his feet and body.   In the background there is a castle with conical towers and crenelated walls which harks back to the Spanish castles of Varo’s childhood. 

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

It is also believed that Varo drew inspiration for this depiction of spikes and nails entering the man’s body from Freda Kahlo’s 1944 work Broken Column which she painted as a reminder of how her body had been broken and put together again after she was involved in traffic accident whilst riding on an old wooden bus, which collided with a streetcar. Several people were killed, and Kahlo suffered nearly fatal injuries—an iron handrail impaled her through her pelvis, fracturing the bone. She also fractured several ribs, her legs, and her collarbone which was to leave her in pain for the rest of her life.

Allegory of Winter by Remedios Varo (1948)

She also illustrated the Bayer calendar with depictions of the coming of Winter and the coming of Spring. 

Signature of “Uranga” on Bayer painting

It is interesting to note that all the commercial illustrations she did for Bayer and other companies were signed “Uranga”, her mother’s maiden name.  Varo was determined to clearly separate her commercial work from her own art which she was happy to sign in her own name.

Although Remedios was beginning to enjoy life in Mexico, her second husband Benjamin Péret was homesick for France and wanted to return there with Varo but his financial situation would not allow him to purchase a passage on a ship to France.  He wrote to his old friend André Breton, who had been exiled in America and the Caribbean until 1946, when he had managed to return to Paris.  Péret’s letters to Breton were sad and pleading.   In March 1947 he wrote:

“…It’s true I have not written for a long time, but what’s the use of writing to give always discouraging news:  abominable material circumstances, no hope of prompt return…”

In October 1947 he wrote again to Breton telling of his poor financial situation:

“…I still can’t make any arrangements for return, for lack of money.  As soon as this is possible, I’ll let you know…”

Breton and other friends of Péret finally rallied around and staged an exhibition for him at the Paris Galerie Rive Gauche.  Artists, such as Picasso, Miro, Tanguy, Dominguez and Breton contributed works, the sale of which was enough to pay for a single one-way passage and by late 1947 Péret was ensconced once again in his beloved Paris.  Remedios Varo refused to accompany her husband for she had made her home in Mexico and did not or could not return to her homeland which held so many bad memories for her.  Her relationship with Péret had been going downhill for some time.  Varo’s close friend, Kati Horna, a Hungarian photographer, explained why Remedios’ relationship with Péret had run its course:

“…Péret was so intellectual, so distracted, that although he was a kind and generous man, he did not participate actively.  He was always lost in thought, his head in the clouds, thinking weighty thoughts…”

Portrait of Jean Nicole by Remedios Varo

Varo had already started a new relationship before her husband had taken his leave of Mexico.  The new love of her life was a French pilot and adventurer, Jean Nicholl, a fellow refugee whom Péret and Varo had sheltered

Remedios Varo with Jean Nicole in the jungle, Venezuela – 1949

To get over the break with her husband, Remedios travelled with her new friend/lover Jean Nicolle to Venezuela at the end of 1947.  Her brother Rodrigo was living in Venezuela, working as an epidemiologist and had brought with him his family and his mother.  It is quite possible Remedios’ mother was horrified when she met her daughter and her new flamboyant lover who was fourteen years younger than her, and who were now living together.  Her mother’s Catholic sensibility must have taken a big hit, knowing her daughter’s first marriage had ended in divorce, her second partner had left her and gone back to Paris and now she was living with a third man!       Her answer was a plea for her daughter to attend mass with her.  Remedios did accompany her mother to church – but just the once.   Remedios’ stay in Venezuela came to an end at the start of 1949.

Walter Gruen (1952)

Around the time of their return from Venezuela, Remedios and Jean Nicolle’s relationship began to peter out and soon they became separated and eventually their romantic interlude came to an end.  A new man came in to Remedios’ life, an Austrian political refugee Walter Gruen whom she had first met in the early 1940’s.  However, they did not become closer until Péret had left for Paris in 1947, her relationship with Jean Nicolle had been downgraded to just a friendship and Gruen’s first wife, Clari had died in a tragic drowning accident.

Sala Margolin

Gruen had once been a medical student in Austria until Hitler came to power which put and end to his studies.  He decided that his life was in danger and managed to escape Europe and settle in Mexico.  He arrived with no possessions and very little money.  Initially he worked in a tyre shop and persuaded the owner that he could make extra money by selling phonograph records as well as tyres and Gruen and the owner set up a record shop at the front of the store.  Soon Gruen’s finances improved, so much so, he bought the tyre shop owner out and by the early 1950’s Gruen had transformed the tyre store into one of Mexico’s most prestigious music stores.  Gruen named his store Sala Margolín after the tyre store owner who had given him his first chance in Mexico.  Remedios moved in with Gruen in 1951 and lived in an apartment block on calle Alvaro Obregón close to Sala Margolín in a middle-class neighbourhood. 

Remedios Varo on her terrace.

They occupied two apartments on either side of a landing, one of which had a high-ceiling third floor studio which had a door leading out to a small terrace, where Remedios would spend hours on end painting.  Walter and Remedios married in 1952.  Remedios was adamant that despite Gruen having a lucrative business she would contribute equally to their living expenses.  Gruen gave Remedios his unwavering support which allowed her to free herself from her commercial work and devote herself entirely to her own artistic vision.

This was the start of Remedios Varo’s great painting years.

………..to be concluded


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo. Part 3. Escape and flight from oppression.

Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo’s six year old marriage to Gerado Lizarraga was in decline and she started a romantic relationship with the young Spanish surrealist painter Esteban Francés, and a short time later, she left the marital home and she and Esteban went to live together in a room in a small house in the city.  Whilst there, the two lovers produced a number of surrealist works.  Remedios also became friendly with a group of surrealist artists known as the Logicophobists, who wanted to bring about a close connection of art with metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, and although she never became an official member of the group in 1936 she exhibited three of her work with theirs at the Catalonia de Barcelona gallery.

The Spanish Civil War broke out on July 17th 1936 between two political groups.  The Republicans who supported the Second Republic of Spain which had been founded in 1932 following a bloodless coup and the Nationalists, led by General Franco, who opposed it.  Remedios’ young brother, Luis, joined Franco’s army but was killed shortly afterwards.  Remedios was devastated by the death of her brother and could never understand why he decided to fight under the banner of the “enemy”.

Benjamin Péret

In October 1936, Remedios Varo met Benjamin Péret, a French poet, a founder and central member of the French Surrealist movement.  Péret had married the Brazilian singer Elsie Houston in April 1928.  Her brother was Mario Pedrosa, a Trotskyist activist, and the next year, Péret and his brother-in-law founded and hosted the Communist League of Brazil, which was based upon the ideas of Trotsky.  Péret was eventually arrested, imprisoned and expelled from Brazil as a “communist agitator” on December 30th, 1931, a few months after the birth of his son Geyser.  He returned alone to France and carried on with the political struggle as a Trotskyist and participated in the Spanish Civil War as one of the many Trotskyists and anarchists, who claimed to fight for a classless society.   When Remedios and Péret first met she was twenty-seven and he was thirty-seven. 

André Breton

Péret was a close friend of the Surrealist painter, André Breton.  In 1937, Péret returned to Paris and Remedios went with him, breaking off her ties with her husband Gerardo and her lover, Esteban Frances, but the latter later decided to follow the couple to Paris. Remedios and Péret were now lovers but the couple’s life was marked by poverty and political uncertainty.  She described the position she found herself in the French capital:

“…It is not easy to live on painting in Paris…Sometimes I did not have more food in an entire day than a small cup of coffee with milk. I call this ‘the heroic epoch’…That bohemian life that is supposed to be necessary for the artist is very bitter…”

Esteban Francés

It is Spring 1937 and Remedios Varo and Benjamin Péret are safe in Paris having escaped the mayhem in Spain caused by the Civil War.   Remedios, through her close relationship with Péret, was accepted into the heart of the Surrealist group.   She commented on her lowly position within the inner sanctum:

“…My position was the timid and humble one of a listener; I was not old enough nor did I have the aplomb to face up to them, to a Paul Eluard, a Benjamin Péret or an André Breton.  Here was I with my mouth gaping open within this group of brilliant and gifted people…”

The Souls of the Mountains by Remedios Varo (1938)

Whilst living in Paris she shared a Montparnasse studio with Péret and Francés and although this ménage-a-trois caused rivalries Remedios managed to enjoy life in Paris.  In 1938 she completed a painting entitled The Souls of the Mountains. In this work, mountains are portrayed as slim volcanic tubes which are seen rising from a light-impregnated mist. Out from the inside of the tallest pair of these mountains emerge a head of a woman each bearing a resemblance to the artist.  Remedios experimented not just with what she depicted but also how she depicted things.  In this work she has used a Surrealist technique known as fumage.  The technique of fumage was invented by the Austrian surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen in the late 1930s and is achieved by passing a flame quickly across a surface fresh with oil paint.  Paalen found that the smoke would trace unique marks in the wet surface.  In this work by Varo the fumage technique created clouds swirling around the cylindrical mountains, linking the stony peaks and is suggestive of dreams and apparitions. 

Again, we try and get into the head of the artist and work out what the painting is all about.   The encased females in the painting appear to be imprisoned all alone inside the mountain.  Remedios continually harked back to the past and on her feeling of imprisonment within the family home, the constraints made upon her at her convent school and the feeling of isolation and this depiction reminds us of her struggle to break free.  The mountains have a phallic shape and this could be Remedios’ take that she lives in a male-dominated world and that female artists of the time were not looked upon as real painters but were compartmentalised as being the “spouses of artists”.  The overall dark and depressing palette of the depiction was chosen by Remedios so as to give the work a feeling of isolation and disheartening confinement.  The title of the work gives us a clue that the depiction is about a life force under oppression which is deprived of its freedom and entitlement to be acknowledged.  Remedios believes that the souls in the painting should be released from their incarceration so that they may be able to express themselves fully and without any restrictions from their surroundings.  Likewise, Remedios believes female artists should be freed from the restrictions of a patriarchal society.

Left to right: Victor Serge, Benjamin Péret, Remedios Varo and André Breton in front of the Villa Air-Bel (c.1940-41)

So, what was life like for Remedios Varo and her Surrealist group ?  Maybe the late American art historian, Robert Goldwater summed it up in his publication, Reflections on the New York School, Quadrum 8.  He wrote about the group:

“…international in character, bohemian in a self-confident, intensive fashion….. living as if they had no money worries….[Yet they] existed on the margin of society……As thee latest issue of a long line of romantics, they accepted this situation as a condition of creativity and made it a positive virtue.  They carried with them a warmth of feeling, an intensity and concern for matters aesthetic, a conviction of the rightness of their own judgements and an unconcern for any other…”

This encapsulates Remedios Varo’s lifestyle at the time.  She believed fervently in the importance of art and she was reliant on spontanaity and put her trust in her subconscious instincts. At the time, Péret was working as a proof-reader as the sale of his paintings did not bring in enough money to survive and he would often have to beg for food.  When Remedios joined him, she too had to endure this lifestyle but she didn’t care as she loved this bohemian way of life and revelled in the company of the extraordinary and stimulating group of people with whom she was surrounded.  They too were mesmerised by her and during this time she had a number of love affairs.  However, her joie de vie was to be short lived as politics and war were to change her life once again.  Hitler was on his march towards European domination and with his annexation of the Sudetenland and the takeover of Austria, people in France feared the worst.  By July 1939, the worst had arrived and Parisians were told that if they were able, they should get out of their city which was now paralysed with anxiety.  It was an even more dangerous time for foreigners who lived in the French capital.  They were threatened with deportation back to their own countries.  Remedios, being a former Republican sympathiser, could not return to Spain where the right-wing Nationalists under Franco now ruled with an iron fist and where summary executions of Republican sympathizers were common.   Her former husband, Lizarraga, had fled from Franco’s armies and arrived in France but, as a Spanish refugee, he found himself interred in a French concentration camp. 

 In February 1940, Péret, being an outspoken Communist, was recalled to military service but three months later he had been incarcerated in a military prison in Rennes for his political activities. On June 14th 1940 the Nazis entered Paris.  An independent French government was established in Vichy and the Franco-German armistice was signed.  Included in the treaty was an article which required the Vichy French government to surrender on demand any fugitive wanted by the Third Reich.  Remedios was now in great danger for her connections with Péret.  She knew that because of her left-wing Republican views and past actions, she would not survive if she was deported to Spain and yet to remain in Paris would ultimately mean a journey to an internment camp.  Her friends tried everything to save Remedios from arrest but during the Winter of 1940 she was taken in by the police.  She was eventually released but she knew, despite wanting to stay behind until Péret was released, she had to get out of the French capital.

Oscar Dominguez

She did manage to escape the chaos in June 1940 and through help from her friend, Oscar Dominguez.  She managed to get a ride in a car owned by an American couple who were also escaping from Paris.  She arrived on the south coast at the small fishing village of Canet-Plage which lay close to Perpignan.  It was here she stayed with a number of Surrealist painters who had taken refuge on the Mediterranean coast.  Soon she and a Romanian Jew, Victor Brauner, who had also fled south, paired off and went to live together in Marseilles.  This was yet another of her love affairs.  As a reminder of their time together he gave her a watercolour, probably a portrait of her, and he wrote on it:

“…To my very dear friend Remedios with the memory of an indelible period of my life.  Your admiring friend, Victor Brauner, Marseille, Oct 1941…”

Remedios kept Brauner’s watercolour and a letter from him all her life.

Victor Brauner

Varo and Brauner were now part of a large group of intellectuals, artists and Jews who were trying to escape the Nazis.  They were joined by Péret at the end of the year.  He had managed to bribe the Nazi guards and then made a long and dangerous journey south.  The city of Marseilles was bursting with refugees all desperate to get out of the country.  They were living on little food and the fear of being caught in random but regular police roundups. 

 

Villa Air-Bel

Varo and Péret eventually found refuge at the Villa Air-Bel, a large residence outside the city which was being used by a group calling themselves the Emergency Rescue Committee.  This was a group that officially helped refugees legally obtain visas so they could leave France. The group’s secret agenda was to get those people on the Gestapo’s blacklist – specifically writers, artists and political activists, out of the country, by any means possible,   The organisation was led by an American, Varian Fry.  Fry was one of the founding members and as soon as the Committee was set up, they established a list of people to save in priority, mainly artists and writers, who had fled Germany and Occupied France to hide in the South.

Group of artists posing on the grounds of the Villa Air-Bel near Marseilles (1941)

Remedios Varo, now back with Péret, was in great danger.  Many of their fellow refugees had gained passage to America but Péret had been refused entry to America due to his previous communist activities.  As each month passed in Marseilles the danger of being arrested by the Vichy police became ever greater.  They knew they had to escape.  Their perilous situation was documented in notes in the files of the Emergency Rescue Committee:

“…He [Péret] is in immediate danger as his democratic ideas are opposed to the Vichy government, and he faces persecution.  He and his family [referring to Varo, although Péret did not marry Remedios Varo until 1942, after the death of his first wife] are in danger of starvation, as the problem of the food supply in their region is acute…”

Remedios Varo’s immigration papers (1942)

The Emergency Rescue Committee recognised the couple as “qualified as intellectuals and worthy of attention” and proceeded to try and attain visa for them so as they could leave France.  It was a long and torturous fight to get the documentation and took six months to achieve.  However, it was not just the visas they needed but money, again something they did not have.   Once again it was up to the Emergency Rescue Committee to get them financial help from their American backers.   Their fund-raising pamphlets were quite clear with their message which displayed hard-hitting headlines such as:

“…Wanted by the GESTAPO, Saved by America…”

The pamphlet then asked for contributions of $350, as the price of a life of one escapee.

SS. Serpa Pinto

Remedios and Péret’s thoughts then turned to Mexico as a place of refuge.  They had a number of things going for them with this idea.  Varo spoke Spanish.  The President of Mexico had stated that he would accept all Spanish refugees and to any members of the International Brigade living in France, who had once fought against Franco.  So, the destination for Péret and Varo was decided, now all they needed was to get there and procure a safe sea passage across the Atlantic.  For this to happen they had to travel from Marseilles to Casablanca and then board a ship to Mexico.  They eventually made it to Casablanca and on November 20th 1941, a year after they had arrived in Marseilles, they set sail from Casablanca on the Portuguese freighter Serpa Pinto.  The couple arrived in Mexico at the end of 1941.  They had been battered by the ferocious winter seas of the Atlantic Ocean crossing and also fearful of being attacked by Nazi naval ships.  Remedios remembered the ordeal in a later interview, she said:

“…I came to Mexico searching for the peace that I had not found, neither in Spain – that of the revolution – nor in Europe – that of the terrible war – for me it was impossible to paint amidst such anguish…”

…………..to be continued


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo: Part 2. Lovers and war.

Remedios Varo

Whilst attending the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid Remedios met Gerrado Lizarraga, a fellow student.  He was a Basque from Pamplona, a lanky, long-nosed man, known for his honesty and great sense of humour.  During the time at the Academia she remained living at home and it was during her years at the Academia that she realised she had to break free of the family.  She desperately wanted her independence.  As an unmarried twenty-one-year old woman she was expected to live at home with her family and remain under their tight control.  She realised that marriage was the only way out of this restrictive situation.  

Rupture by Remedios Varo (1955)

This constant battle against a restrictive lifestyle whether it be life at the convent school or life at home whilst attending the Academia must have played on Remedios’ mind for many years.  In 1955 whilst living in Mexico she completed a painting entitled Ruptura (Rupture) which recalled life in “captivity” and the escape.  In this work we see her character in a similar situation that reminded her of her own experience whilst in Madrid.  Before us we see a hooded figure in a brown travelling cloak leaving a building, from which dead leaves and old papers flutter away in the breeze.  Look at the faces in the windows, all staring out at the departing figure.  For Remedios, this was what life was like in her teenage years. – constantly being watched over and spied upon.  She would later write about how she would hide her diaries under a loose stone on the floor of her bedroom and how she had sprinkled sugar on the floor by her door to see if anybody had entered her room while she was absent.   The figure in the painting is going down a long flight of steps.  The setting is a winter’s day, the trees having shed their leaves.  On either side of the steps are high stone walls which are covered in vegetation.  These imposing walls suggest constraint and incarceration, the very feelings which Remedios had during her late teenage years  Climbing up the walls we can see a number of snails carrying their large shells, their “homes”, on their backs and is a memory of the burdens Remedios had to carry through her early years.  Although there would have been parental control and the convent school would have kept an eye on what she was doing, much of Remedios’ perceived spying would be just a figment of her imagination.

I took advantage of all that I learned, in painting the things that interested me on my own, which could be called, together with technique, the beginning of a personality.”

Gerardo Lizarraga and Remedios Varo (1930)

The year she left the Academia, 1930, was also the year she married her boyfriend and fellow student and political activist Gerardo Lizárraga.  They got married in the Basque city of San Sebastian, a place she knew well from her family summer holidays.  He was three years older than Remedios and was a politically committed artist and his bohemian and carefree lifestyle appealed to Remedios.   For Remedios, marriage enabled her to escape the overwhelming control of her parents, especially her mother.  She was fascinated by Surrealism and the surrealist ideas which were beginning to permeate Spanish art from France, especially Paris.   She wanted to fully immerse herself into the world of Surrealism and so in 1931 she and Lizárraga moved to Paris.  Remedios wanted to experience art tuition other than that pedalled by the Academia de San Fernando and signed up for courses at the Accademia de la Grande Chaumiere, a free art school which was legendary throughout Paris. However, she only lasted there a few three weeks.  She felt overwhelmed and under too much pressure and decided that life for her and her husband in Paris should simply be an opportunity to immerse themselves in what Remedios later recalled was a poor bohemian lifestyle, one which allowed them to remain self-assured and untroubled by life. It was a chance to savour an unrestricted life free from her parents.

Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. Paris.

Like her early departure from the teaching at the Accademia de la Grande Chaumiere, she decided that after a year in the French capital it was time to return to Spain.  In 1932 Remedios and her husband went back, not to Madrid, but to Barcelona which had a much more unconventional and innovative feel to it.   Barcelona was the closest to Paris in its avant-garde atmosphere.  It had become the intellectual and artistic centre of Spain and of course it gave a sufficient distancing from her parents. 

Esteban Francés

Another man entered Remedios’s life soon after she and her husband arrived in Barcelona. He was the Catalan artist Esteban (Esteve) Francés who was born in Portbou, a small town close to the French border.  Later he and his family went to live inland to the larger town of Figueras, in North Eastern Spain, also the birthplace of Dali. In 1925, at the age of twelve, he moved to Barcelona where, after a brief period studying law, he enrolled at the art and design school, Escola de la Llotja.  He was nineteen when he first met Remedios Varo, and later they shared a studio in Barcelona in the Plaza de Lesseps.  

Composición surrealista by Esteban Frances (1934)

He, like Varo, had a great interest in the avant-garde world of Surrealism.  Although Remedios lived with her husband, she and Esteban became lovers.  This affair marked the first time Remedios had broken the stern moral code under which she had been raised.  It was to be first of many open relationships she maintained throughout her life.  Being a member of the bohemian set, Varo flouted conventional morals and had few recriminations.

Composition by Remedios Varo (1935)

Remedios Varo completed one of her earliest surrealist compositions in 1935 with her pencil on paper artwork, simply entitled Composition.   It is a strange depiction of a bone-like tree, a flaccid stretched-out figure and insect/human hybrids all of which flow like a dream one into the next.

L´Agent Double (Double Agent) by Remedios Varo (1936)

Remedios had fully engaged herself in the Surrealist movement and had joined the group known as Logicofobista, whose aim was to epitomise the mental state of the internal soul in a Surrealist style. It was during her time spent as a member of this group that Remedios Varo produced her painting L´Agent Double (Double Agent).  Trouble had been brewing in Spain since the early 1930’s which, in 1936 culminated in an almost three-year very bloody civil war.  In 1936 Remedios Varo completed this work which reflected the political tensions in Spain at that time.  The setting is a small enclosed room which has a separate image on each of the walls and the floor.  The back wall is covered with full fleshy female breasts and a small bushy tree, suggesting a hairy pubic triangle.  To the right, coming through the window an elongated red arm holding a ball-like object, from which a sperm-like tail is attached which wriggles away into a small dark opening low down on the far wall.  On the opposite wall we see a large-handed figure, part heavy-limbed male, part curvaceous female standing up, nose pressed hard against the surface of the wall.  It seems to be trapped within the confines of the room.  Climbing up the back of this figure is a giant bumblebee.  Looking at the floor we see a woman’s head rising out of a crack in the floor surface.  It is the first self-portrait of Varo to appear in one of her paintings.  Many more would follow over the years.  She cautiously looks out and on either side of her head we see vapour or roots rising.  This part of the painting is also a reminder that as a child and a teenager Remedios used to hide things, such as her writings and diary, from her family under a stone, part of the floor in her bedroom. 

It is easy to describe what we see before us but a little more difficult to make sense of what we see.  The year 1936 was the start of the Spanish Civil War, a war which was to see about 200,000 people die as the result of systematic killings, mob violence, torture, or other brutalities.  Fighting and killings however, had preceded that date in the struggles between the left-wing sympathisers of the Republican Government also known as the Loyalists who supported the Spanish government and the right-wing Nationalists led by General Franco.  Spies and secret agents for both sides were ever present.  In the painting entitled Double Agent we are posed the question as to who the double agent is.  Is it the figure appearing from out of the floor and who has the perfect vantage point to see what is going on.  Has she trapped the part man, part woman? Or is it the figure with its nose pressed to the wall that has trapped her.  Or are they both trapped by the creature with the long far-reaching hand?  It is all about entrapment and of the fear of treachery and double agents at a time in Spain when one did not know who your ally was and who was your enemy.  It was a painting which juxtaposes eroticism with distorted unreal and unrelated objects.  Welcome to Surrealism !

Benjamin Péret

Enter the life of Remedios Varo of a man who was to play an important part of her life.  He was Benjamin Péret, a French poet, Parisian Dadaist and a founder and central member of the French Surrealist movement and a close friend of André Breton.  Péret had met Varo in October 1936, through her friendship with Oscar Dominguez, an artist from the Spanish Canary Islands who had close connections with Gaceta de arte, a Tenerife journal devoted to all Surrealist activities.  Péret had come to Spain in 1936, a month before the civil war had begun, along with many other left-wing foreigners who wanted to fight for the Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists.  He was a Communist activist and had been jailed in Brazil for his subversive activities.  Soon a love affair between Varo and Péret began.  Péret was nine years older than Varo but was in love with her.  In a letter, dated October 15th 1936 to André Breton, the French writer and poet, who was concerned for the safety of his friend in Barcelona and wondered when he would return to the safety of France.  Péret repiled in a letter:

“…I am involved in a love story that holds me here until the young person can accompany me to Paris, so I can say nothing of my return…”

Remedios Varo and Benjamin Péret (1936)

Péret wrote love notes in his books which he gave to Remedios.  He was absolutely besotted with her and in his book of love poems, Je sublime, there was a dedication “to Remedios Lizarraga” and part of one of the poems, Source, Péret wrote:

“… It’s Rosa weather with a real Rosa sun

And I’m going to drink Rosa with a Rosa meal

Until I fall into a Rosa sleep

Dressed in Rosa dreams

And the Rosa dawn will wake me like a Rosa

Mushroom

In which Rosa’s image will be surrounded

By a Rosa halo…”

Remedios was equally in love with Péret.  So what was the thing that forged this love affair between the two ?  For Varo it was probably the fact that Péret was a published poet, a French Surrealist and a close friend of Breton.  He was a romantic who had dedicated poems to her.  He had left France to fight as a revolutionary defending her country.  For Péret she was an attractive younger woman who doted on him.  What more could he ask for ? Péret moved back to Paris in early 1937 and in the Spring of that year, Remedios Varo decided to join him, leaving her homeland, her husband and also her one-time lover Estéban Francés, who would later follow her to Paris.

Eyes on the table, by Remedios Varo (1938)

Remedios Varo had escaped the chaos and blood-letting of the Spanish Civil War which had taken the life of her younger brother and moved to the safety of the French capital.  However, unknown to her at the time, Paris and France was to be almost the death of her………….

………………………….to be continued.


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo. Part 1: Surrealism, the early days, family life and schooling.

Remedios Varo

We all have our favourite art genre and within that genre we also probably have our favourite artists.  For me, I like the Golden Age painters of The Netherlands and the Scandinavian artists who were known as the Skagen painters.  For some people narrative paintings are their favourites for others they prefer paintings that have various symbols depicted, each conveying a hidden meaning.  Today I am going to look at an artist who is famous for her painting genre, a genre which is both equally strange and yet somewhat fascinating.  Let me introduce you to the Spanish surrealist painter Remedios Varo who was born María de los Remedios Varo y Uranga.

André Breton (photo by Henri Manuel) 1927

Before I look at the life and works of Varo, first let us try to understand Surrealism.  Surrealism was founded in Paris by the French writer and poet André Breton in 1924.  Breton had been a leading light in the Dadaist movement, an artistic movement which was practiced by a group of European writers, artists, and intellectuals in protest against what they saw as a senseless war, World War I, which had claimed an estimated 37.5 million lives.  Out of Dadaism was born Surrealism, which was an artistic and literary movement.  The Surrealists wanted to put an end to the overbearing dictates of modern society by destroying its mainstay, that of rational thought.  Surrealism was preoccupied with spiritualism, the thoughts of Sigmund Freud with regards psychoanalysis and the political thoughts surrounding Marxism.  Surrealists wanted to achieve the creation of art which came from the artist’s unconscious mind and that lacked any reasoned thoughts.  Surrealism was a forerunner of Automatism which is the avoidance of conscious intention in producing works of art, especially by using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations.  Breton maintained that Surrealism was pure psychic automatism.

Varo family
Back: Remedios and older brother Rodrigo Jnr
Front: Mother, paternal grandmother, younger brother Luis and father

In a series of blogs, I will be looking at the life and work of Remedios Varo.  María de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga was born on December 16th 1908 in the small walled village of Anglès which lies ten kilometres west of Girona and eighty kilometres north-east of Barcelona. The village is situated in a Pyrenees valley close to the River Ter.  Remedios was the daughter of Rodrigo Varo-i-Zayalvo who hailed from Cordoba in Andalucía and his wife Ignasia Uranga Bergareche, a large woman of strong character, who came from a Basque family but was actually born in Argentina.  Remedios was the middle child of three, having an older brother Rodrigo Jnr., who would later become a doctor and a younger brother, Luis, who would sadly die in the Spanish Civil War.  Her mother gave her daughter the name Remedios in dedication to La Virgen de los Remedios as a remedy to help her forget the sadness associated with the death of her older daughter who died when she was very young.  Remedios’ connection with her two brothers was very different.  Probably because her older brother, Rodrigo, looked in horror at her life as a bohemian artist, their relationship was not a close one.  On the other hand, Remedios was very close to her younger brother Luis.

Postcard

Remedios’ father was a hydraulic engineer and it was his work on the nearby canal and lock systems which had brought the family to Anglès.  In his line of work, he had to travel all around the country as well as to North Africa.  His wife did not want to be left at home during her husband’s frequent business trips so she and the children would travel with him.  The constant “wanderings” of the family and the disruption it caused had an overpowering effect on Remedios.  She missed her home, and so, as she should did not want to forget her home life in Anglès, all her life, no matter where she went, she always kept with her a childhood postcard of the street in Anglès where she lived.

Father, older brother and Remedios (1912)

Remedios Varo’s religious upbringing was a tale of two parental beliefs.  Her mother, Ignasia, was a devout Catholic whereas her father, Rodrigo, was more receptive to religious beliefs of different faiths.  Remedios was very close to her mother but did not believe in her narrow Catholic beliefs favouring her father’s more varied and less dogmatic religious viewpoint. Varo’s father wanted his daughter to attend a “free” school which was independent from both the State and the Church and which many believed gave a more rounded education and were educationally superior to Catholic schools, but her mother demanded Remedios attended a Catholic school.  Her mother’s will must have been acceded to as Remedios attended a Roman Catholic convent school run by nuns.  A strict belief in Catholicism was demanded of the pupils and to counter this Remedios would immerse herself in books by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas, which spun stories of fantasy worlds.  She also liked to read about mysticism and alchemy.  It was the strict regimented existence at the Catholic convent school which led, in 1931, to her painting the triptych in which she ridiculed the restraints of convent schooling.

Toward the Tower by Remedios Varo (1961)

The three paintings formed the autobiographical triptych entitled Embroidering Earth’s Mantle.  The first of the three works was entitled Towards the Tower and Varo depicts a pack of identical girls following their leader in a trance-like state, bicycling away from a beehive tower in which they were once held captive.  All the girls face the same way, except one, Varo’s inclusion of herself as the heroine.  She depicts herself as the independently minded rebellious one.  Leading the pack of schoolgirls is the Mother Superior and a strange looking man who has a sack over his shoulder from which we see flocks of blue-coloured birds escaping and hovering over the party of cyclists.  Look at the bicycles.  They are fabricated, in part, from the stiffened fabrics of their own clothes. 

Embroidering Earth’s Mantle by Remedios Varo (1961)

In the central panel of the triptych, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, we observe the same young women.  This time the setting is a room in the tower where the convent girls are made to work.  The setting is what could be termed a medieval scriptorium, a room devoted to the writing, copying and illuminating of manuscripts commonly handled by monastic scribes.  It is a cramped and isolated space in which the young women are weaving out the surface of the earth under the intense supervision from the Great Master who reads from the book of instructions whilst at the same time, stirring a boiling broth in the same alchemical vessel from which the women draw their embroidery thread.  Behind him a veiled figure sits playing a flute.  Each and every young woman works alone embroidering images of the landscape onto a continuous fabric which tumbles 0ut from table-height battlements around the sides of the tower.  This act of embroidering and needlework was considered to be a skill suitable for cultured young women

Hidden image of the lovers

Varo has added an ironic twist to the painting although it may not be very clear in the main picture.  Remedios’ rebellious heroine in this triptych has embroidered an upside-down image of her and her lover within the folds of the cloth that emerge from her table.

The Escape by Remedios Varo (1962)

In the final panel, Varo reveals The Escape; Varo’s heroine has successfully fled with her lover on a fantastical furry inverted umbrella which floats on a foggy mist.  Both the clothes of the girl and her lover billow behind them in the wind and act as sails.  For Varo the triptych is all about imprisonment and the chance to liberate herself from the strict academic confines of convent school life and her determination to free herself from the facelessness of being one among a homogenous many.  It was her determination to escape isolation and be free.  Her freedom was to come in 1930 when she was twenty-one and left home after marrying Gerrado Lizaraga a fellow art student.

Portrait of Grandmother Doña Josefa Zejalvo by Remedios Varo (1926)

In order to keep his daughter, Remedios, amused on his business trips he would allow her to redraw his blueprints, and at the same time explain the function of the various systems. Remedios’s knowledge grew as did her inquisitiveness.    This was the start of her artistic tuition.  Her father was a hard taskmaster and would make his daughter repeat technical drawings until they were right.  Over time her draughtsmanship  constantly improved and her pencil lines gradually became more accurate as she became self-assured.  This infused in her the lifelong characteristic of meticulousness.  She had started to become a perfectionist.    Besides his training of Remedios in draughtsmanship, her father encouraged her love of art, by taking her to museums and art galleries.

Mother and daughter – Pencil sketches by Remedios Varo (1923)

By 1924 the family had relocated to an apartment on calle Segovia, one of Madrid’s main streets and because fifteen year old Remedios had shown a love of art the family arranged for her to attend the city’s Escuela de Artes y Oficios (School of Arts and Crafts) and later the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, where she became one of the first female students of the academy.  Like all the major art Academies of Europe, the Academia was known for its strict observance of the methodology of the Old Masters.  They would not compromise and those who became disruptive were expelled.  The year Remedios started at the Academy was the same year that fellow student, Salvador Dali, returned from his one-year expulsion for leading a student protest over a professional appointment at the Academia.  Two years later he was permanently expelled.  Despite this strict observance of academic art Remedios became interested in Surrealism.  Of her education at the Academy, she said:

“…”I took advantage of all that I learned, in painting the things that interested me on my own, which could be called, together with technique, the beginning of a personality…”

In Janet A. Kaplan’s book, Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys she quotes a story from Remedios teenage years, an erotic fantasy she had endured in a dream:

“…One night, a strange being entered through the window and threw itself on top of me; it was like the devil.  I resisted, but his eat was immense.  The following day and with out having said anything at the table my grandmother said to me ‘Remedios, what has happened to you?  Your hair is burned’…”

All her life Remedios would believe in the power of such dream images and in her mind, there was little to differentiate between reality and dreams.

Pencil sketches of Paternal grandmother by Remedios Vara (1925 and 1923)

Her “personality” was her strong attraction to Surrealism, which had gained a foothold in the Madrid art culture.  Whilst studying at the Academia she would make many visits to the Prado and became fascinated with the works of Primitive painters, including tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and very early European art, and European folk art.  She also loved the works of Hieronymus Bosch and also the mainstream art of El Greco and Goya.  In 1930, she graduated from the Academia with a drawing teacher diploma.

…………………………….. to be continued.


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

William McTaggart. Part 2. The later years.

Self portrait (1852)

William McTaggart’s art was likened to Impressionism and yet he was a forerunner of that genre.  He was a pioneer of Impressionism before it was given a label.  It is true that he was fascinated with nature and man’s relationship with it, and he endeavoured to capture aspects such as the fleeting effects of light on water. He also, like the Impressionists, liked to paint en plein air.  This aspect of his work was discussed in an early edition of the Art Journal:

“…A Scottish Impressionist”, points out that “before the term had been imported from France and Monet and the rest had formulated their creed, Mr McTaggart had evolved for himself a method and style not unlike what they ultimately achieved, but exceeding it in suggestion, significance, and beauty…”

As Happy as the Day is Long by William McTaggart (1880)

After the period when McTaggart depicted idyllic scenes populated with young children he turned to landscape and seascape work, the latter being motivated by the love of the sea as a child when he lived close to Machrihanish and the storm ravaged Atlantic coast, often battered by the great and unforgiving ocean.  William McTaggart would visit Machrihanish and paint the bay and the vast expanse of the sea.  He would paint en plein air at different times of the day capturing the understated appeal of the waves as they rolled towards the long continuous stretch of seashore under sunlight with the white streaks of the breaking waves.  Other works depicted the rocky shoreline with just a hint of colour.  In his works such as Machrihanish Bay, his depiction brings out a feeling not just the powerfulness of the sea but the aloneness, two feelings which he recognised would be in the mind of the fishing folk as they went on their daily voyage.

The Storm by William McTaggart (1890)

His 1890 painting entitled The Storm emphasised the darker side of the sea and the perils waiting for those who chose to underestimate or defy it.  As we look at the painting, we can almost hear the howling wind and the sound of the crashing waves upon the rocky foreshore.

The Fishing Fleet Setting Out by William McTaggart (early 1890’st

It has to be noted that in McTaggart’s later paintings, details became secondary to his desire to depict his personal consciousness of nature and the life around him and the effect of differing light on what he saw before him.  An example of this is his early 1890’s painting entitled The Fishing Fleet Setting Out.  We see the children of the fishermen in the foreground almost camouflaged by the rocks. They are playing in the rock pools.   In the far distance we see the fishing fleet setting out to sea.  A detailed depiction of the children was not important to McTaggart who was more interested in the ever-changing state of the sea and the weather.  He has used a pink/cocoa coloured ground which enhances and gives a hazy warmth to the scene.

The Coming of St Columba by William McTaggart (1895)

McTaggart painted numerous seascapes featuring the waters around southern Kintyre.  In 1895 he completed a work entitled The Coming of St Columba.  St Columba had left Ireland on a missionary voyage to Scotland in 563AD.  He and twelve travelling companions travelled across the Irish sea in a wicker boat known as a currach which was covered with leather.  Legend has it that he landed on the south of Kintyre, close to the small village of Southend before journeying onwards north to the Isle of Iona.  In McTaggart’s depiction of the arrival of the saint he has used The Gauldrons instead, as the setting for the work.   The Gauldrons (Scottish Gaelic: Innean nan Gailleann) meaning “Bay of Storms” is a bay facing the Atlantic Ocean in the village of Machrihanish in Argyll, on the west coast of Scotland, a short distance north of the tip of the Mull of Kintyre.  The figures and boats were added in the studio after the landscape was completed

And All the Choral Waters Sang by William McTaggart (1902)

In 1902, he completed another seascape entitled And All the Choral Waters Sang which comes from a line of verse from the famous Victorian poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem, At a Months End:

“…Hardly we saw the high moon hanging,

Heard hardly through the windy night

Far waters ringing, low reefs clanging,

Under wan skies and waste white light.

 

With chafe and change of surges chiming,

The clashing channels rocked and rang

Large music, wave to wild wave timing,

And all the choral water sang…”

The depiction evokes the music of the crashing Atlantic waves on Machrihanish beach. McTaggart’s son-in-law, James Caw, who had married William’s daughter, Anne, said that the work was painted entirely in the open at Machrihanish in June 1902.   In his book, William McTaggart, R.S.A., V.P.R.S.W.; a biography and an appreciation, Caw writes about this work:

“…Both breeze and sunshine pervade the masterpiece, to which Swinburne’s splendidly descriptive line, “And all the Choral Waters sang,” was given as title. Yet, while the mighty music of great waves breaking in many rhythmic chords of thundering surf upon the Atlantic shore is recreated to the imagination by the artist’s wizardry of line and colour and design, one feels as keenly the “Light that leaps and runs and revels through the springing flames of spray.” Looking north-west, the radiant early afternoon sunshine of June falls upon the ordered on-rush of these charging regiments of rearing and plunging white horses sweeping into the long curving bay, and raises their white foaming manes and flying silver tails to a brilliance greater than that of sun-illumined snow. And, between the gleaming lines of racing white, the wind-swept sky throws reflections of vivid changing blues, which, mingling with the lustrous greens amid the leaping waves and the rosy purples and tawnies afloat in the shoreward shooting ripples, make a wonderful and potent colour harmony. Words, however, are woefully inadequate to convey any real impression of this splendid picture — this great sea symphony in colour and light and movement. And, pathetic though “a symphony transposed for the piano” may be, reproduction of such a picture is even more disappointing…”

Playmates, Gracie by William McTaggart

William McTaggart suffered two great losses in 1884.   In November, his mother died, aged 80.  She had been living in Glasgow but had in her latter years returned to Campbeltown.  William had been greatly devoted to his mother and her death had greatly affected him.  During the few days he and his wife had been at Campbeltown his wife’s health, which had been poor, deteriorated.  On returning home they consulted her doctor who recommended an immediate operation and this was carried out immediately.  Sadly, Mrs McTaggart never recovered and on December 15th 1884 she died, aged 47.  William and his children were devastated.  His eldest daughter, Jean, would not let him out of her sight even when he was trying to court his future second wife, Marjorie Henderson.

Belle by William McTaggart (1886)

In 1886 McTaggart completed a portrait of his eldest daughter, Jean.  It was entitled Belle.  She stands before us in a red frock with a lace collar. The painting was owned by Jean’s sisters who later bequeathed it to the National Galleries Scotland in 1991.

Marjorie McTaggart, William McTaggart’s second wife

On April 6th 1886, William McTaggart married Marjory Henderson, who was the eldest daughter of Joseph Henderson, a well-known Glasgow artist, and who, despite their age difference, had forged a close relationship with McTaggart’s eldest daughter, Jean.  William was fifty-one and Marjory was thirty-years of age.  Unfortunately, this large difference in age led to a certain amount of unwelcoming gossip.  However, this second marriage proved an incredibly happy one and, importantly, his new wife was accepted by all the children from his first marriage.  William and Marjorie went on to have a further nine children.  This harmonious atmosphere at home was so important to his progression as an artist

The McTaggart family

By the end of the 1880’s William Taggart’s paintings were selling so well that he started to refuse commissions which meant he was told what to paint.  By doing this he could choose what to depict on his canvases, such as seascapes and landscapes of his choice.  In 1889 all his works held by the art dealer, Dowells, were put up for sale and a total of £4000 was realised, an amazing figure for the time.  In the May of that year he moved from his Edinburgh studio and went to live at Dean Park, Broomieknowe, on the outskirts of Lasswade, Midlothian, some ten miles south east of the Scottish capital.  It was here he built himself a small studio which would last him six years until 1895, at which time, he built a much larger studio/gallery.  He was sixty years old and finally he was able to relax and enjoy semi-retirement.  He lived in an uncomplicated and undemanding manner and often welcomed young aspiring painters to his studio.  He was always supportive and had words of encouragement for them.  William McTaggart died of heart failure, at his home in Dean Park, Broomieknowe, Lasswade on the afternoon of April 2nd 1910 at the age of 75. He had been very poorly during the previous winter but it was still a shock to his family when he suddenly died.  He had spent the last twenty years of his life at his home, Dean Park and although it was somewhat isolated from the artistic hubbub of Edinburgh, William was just pleased to have the company of his large family and visiting friends. 

The Old Fisherman by William McTaggart,

His funeral was held on April 5th at Echo Bank Cemetery in Newington, Edinburgh and was attended by a large crowd with a procession of some twenty mourning coaches leaving Bonnyrigg for the short journey to Edinburgh.  He lies with both his first and second wives: Mary Holmes and Marjory Henderson. Three of his children who died in infancy and are buried with him. His daughter, Annie Mary who married the art historian Sir James Caw, lies alongside. Joseph’s sons John Henderson and Joseph Morris Henderson also became painters as did his fifth daughter from his second marriage, Eliza (Betty) McTaggart.


A good deal of information for this and the previous blog came from the Bonnyrigg Lasswade Local History website:

bonnyrigglasswadelocalhistory.org/

 

William McTaggart. Part 1. The son of a Scottish crofter.

William McTaggart

My featured artist today, William McTaggart, was born in the rural hamlet of Aros, in the parish of Campbeltown, a Scottish town on the Kintyre Peninsula, on October 25th, 1835.  He was born into a family of crofters. He was one of nine children of Dugald and Barbara Brodie McTaggart (née Brolachan).  His father was a farm labourer and it was said that young William would fashion models from the clay which was prevalent in the ground around the farm.  In 1847 his parents arranged for him to become an apprentice to Doctor Buchanan, an apothecary in Campbeltown.  During his apprenticeship he would wile away his spare time sketching and painting, often they would be portraits of the shop’s customers.  Doctor Buchanan must have been impressed by his hard work and his love of art as in 1852, he arranged for William to go to Glasgow and gave him a letter of introduction to the established Scottish portrait artist Daniel MacNee. 

A Life Study of a Seated Male Model by William McTaggart (c.1850’s)

MacNee was also impressed by William McTaggart and began to give him some lessons in artistic techniques. He advised the young man to go to Edinburgh and seek a formal art education.  William took the advice, much to the consternation of his father, and enrolled as a student at the Trustees’ Academy, an establishment which dated back to 1760 and which, in 1907 became the Edinburgh College of Art.  William McTaggart spent seven years at this Edinburgh art school and studied under Robert Scott Lauder, the Scottish Historical painter. It was just what young McTaggart needed.  Here he had found a sense of enthusiasm towards art rather than a cynicism towards the subject which he had encountered at home.  No longer where his artistic aspirations looked upon as being foolish.  He was now not alone when it came to his love of art and had the added advantage of having a skilled tutor to guide him.  This change of environment acted as a stimulus for his enthusiastic nature.  His success at the Academy was down to his artistic talent and his strength of character.

Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857

At the Trustees Academy he won various awards including first prizes for both painting life models and painting antique casts. During his long stay he also attended some of the anatomy classes of John Goodsir at Edinburgh University.  In 1857, along with Paul Chalmers, a fellow Trustees’ Academy student who became a well-known portrait painter, William travelled down to Manchester to visit the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition which comprised over 16,000 works split into various categories, such as Pictures by Ancient Masters, Pictures by Modern Masters, British Portraits and Miniatures, Water Colour Drawings, Sketches and Original Drawings (Ancient), Engravings, Illustrations of Photography, Works of Oriental Art, Varied Objects of Oriental Art, and Sculpture.  It was a monumental exhibition remains and believed to be the largest art exhibition ever to be held in the with over 16,000 works on display.

Machrinhanish Bay by William McTaggart

In numerous biographies of artists who studied in Paris they often travelled to Brittany during their summer vacations but for aspiring Scottish artists studying in their homeland they would often spend their summer holidays across the Irish Sea in Ireland.  Like their French counterparts, whilst enjoying their summer vacation they would paint and try and sell their artwork before returning back home to the new term which had to be paid for.  William McTaggart’s initial painting were portraits and in 1855 he had his first painting, a watercolour portrait of two ladies, unveiled at an Edinburgh exhibition, although previously he had some of his works shown at the Royal Hibernian Society.

The Past and the Present, by William McTaggart (c.1860)

One of McTaggart’s early paintings, completed around 1860, was The Past and The Present depicting the cheery purity of young children and was probably influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters who favoured this type of subject.  McTaggart received the commission for this work from the Glaswegian art collector Robert Craig.  The painting depicts a group of five children of varying age playing innocently in the graveyard of the ruined Kilchousland church on a sunny afternoon.  They show no fear with regards the area which holds the remains of those who have passed away.  The depiction of their innocence negates any thoughts that this is a vanitas painting and yet the title would seem to highlight the transience of life.

Spring by William McTaggart, 1864

After a three-year engagement, William McTaggart married Mary Holmes in Glasgow on June 9th 1863.  They would go on to have six children.   He and his young wife went to Fairlie, a picturesque village which backed on to green pastoral hills which surrounded beautiful wooded glens, on the Ayrshire coast a few miles from Largs. From Fairlie the couple went to London on a brief visit about the end of July, when Mrs. McTaggart met some of her husband’s early friends, and they visited the Royal Academy Exhibition.  However, for William McTaggart, London was not for him and the couple returned to live in Edinburgh.  Soon his family increased and during the following summers he would take his wife and children on family holidays by the sea on the East coast of Scotland, visiting places such as Carnoustie and Broughty Ferry, where he painted many of the local scenes and soon gathered a number of commissions from the local people

Through Wind and Rain by Wiliam McTaggart (1875)

In 1870, McTaggart and his family went on holiday to the small village of Kilkerran, a few miles south of Campbeltown, and close to his birthplace.  It was a working holiday as William loved to paint.  From that year on, William and his family would return to Kintyre visiting Machrihanish, Tarbert, Carradale or Southend. He was a prolific painter and his output was tremendous. His paintings were much sought after and commanded high prices. It is believed at that time he was probably the best open-air painter in Britain.

The Village, White House by William McTaggart (1875)

In 1875 McTaggart completed his painting The Village, Whitehouse.  It was exhibited in the London Royal Academy under the title Twas Autumn and Sunshine arose on the Way.   It was one of many McTaggart paintings which depicted the picturesque small village. It was a tiring journey for the artist to get to Whitehouse as he had to go to Campbeltown and then catch the Campbeltown-Tarbert coach and to achieve all this he had to leave his holiday home at 5.a.m.  It was the last time he exhibited at the Royal Academy as he reasoned that he preferred to be first in his own country rather than be second in any other.

Dora by William McTaggart (1870)

As a student at the Trustees’ Academy, William McTaggart was awarded several prizes.  He also began to exhibit his work at the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy and in 1870 applied to become a full Academician.   To achieve this, he had to pass an interview and submit a diploma piece.  McTaggart’s diploma piece was his 1869 painting entitled Dora.  The painting illustrates a scene from Tennyson’s 1835 poem of the same name.  Dora, the heroine of the poem, waits in the field for the old farmer to acknowledge his grandchild beneath a blaze of summer sunshine.    Dora’s ploy here is to take off the boy’s sun-hat and put a little chain of wildflowers around his head instead, to make him look appealing (although in the poem itself, she puts the flowers round his hat). The grandfather can be seen approaching in the distance. Fortunately, in the end, the child does bring his grandfather round.

The poem reads:

“…But when the morrow came, she rose and took

The child once more, and sat upon the mound;

And made a little wreath of all the flowers

That grew about, and tied it round his hat

To make him pleasing in her uncle’s eye…”

William McTaggart was made an Academician in 1870.  The painting is part of the Scottish National Gallery and is regarded as one of the gems among the Scottish pictures.

Summer Breezes by William McTaggart (1881)

Most of his early works featured figure painting with him concentrating on depictions of children.  A fine example of this early work was McTaggart’s 1881 painting entitled Summer Breezes.  The painting depicts the two daughters of Sir. Thomas McCall Anderson who was a noted and pioneering dermatologist at the Glasgow Western Infirmary and later Regius Professor of Medicine. The background for the picture was painted from sketches made by McTaggart at Machrihanish in August 1880.  His biographer John Craw summed up the painting in his 1917 book William McTaggart R.S.A., V.P.R.S.W., A Biography and an Appreciation.  He wrote:

“…Than the last there is, indeed, nothing more exquisite in the fascinating kind of child portraiture he had made peculiarly his own. Here the two little daughters of Sir T. McCall Anderson, playing barefoot upon the sunlit shore, are grouped beside a great rock. One child, dressed in pale blue and pink, leans against the tawny and golden ridge upon which her smaller white-pinafored sister is perched, and their curly heads come together as they look with delight and wonder at a shell held by the other girl. Beside them, but neglected for the new-found treasure, a rough-haired terrier turns his attention seawards, where not far off a cobble at the salmon nets bobs buoyantly upon the waves, which heave divinely blue and free beneath a brilliant summer sky. Delightful as story, the pictorial treatment is no less charming. The design is happy and pervaded by a rare sense of beauty, the handling and drawing easy, graceful, suggestive, the colour lovely on its high-pitched but full harmony, the whole effect remarkable not only for vividness of lighting but for silvery clearness of tone…”

………………to be continued.

 

Léon Frédéric. Part 2. The Symbolist painter

Having looked at his Realism/Naturalism works in my previous blog, in this, the second of my blogs about the nineteenth century Belgian artist, Léon Frédéric, I want to concentrate on his work as a Symbolist painter.

Allegory of the Night by Léon Frédéric

Léon Frédéric has been designated as a Symbolist painter and yet when I look at all his work only some of it seems to fall into that category, whilst other of his paintings tended towards realism, but today it is all about his Symbolist art. I think probably the best way of starting the discussion is to specify what Symbolism means as far as art is concerned. Symbolism was a late nineteenth century anti-materialist and anti-rationalist movement. It was a type of art which rejected the authentic representation of the natural world, as seen in impressionism, realism, and naturalism, which was spurned in favour of imaginary dream worlds in which we may see strange figures from literature, the bible, and Greek mythology. It was art which focused upon the erotic and mystical with diverse subjects such as love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire. It was the aim of Symbolist painters to give visual articulation to emotional happenings. Symbolism was an art in which there was an idea that another world lies beyond the world of appearances.

Jean Moréas by Antonio de La Gandara

The Greek-born poet, essayist and art critic, Jean Moréas published The Symbolist Manifesto in the French newspaper Le Figaro on September 18th 1886. It described a new literary movement, and it proclaimed the name of Symbolism as not just the fitting terminology for that movement, but one that echoed how imaginative minds manage the work. It was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites in England and Symbolist art became very popular throughout Europe. The leading protagonists in France were Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes and Odile Redon. In Germany it was the artwork of Franz Stuck and Max Klinger and in Austria at the forefront of Symbolist art was Gustav Klimt and Alfred Kubin and in Frédéric’s homeland Belgium, Fernand Khnopff, James Ensor were the leading exponents of Symbolism art.

Studio Interior by Léon Frédéric (1882)

Frédéric completed his extraordinary symbolist painting, Studio Interior in 1882,  which appears to be a fantasy self-portrait depicting the artist naked with a skeleton on his lap. The latter has been dressed up in undergarments with a long starry veil over them. His palette and brushes are at the lower right, and his clothes – including a top hat – are draped on chairs.

Ohara Museum of Art (Kurashiki, Japan)

Frédéric’s works from the early 1890’s concentrated almost exclusively on symbolist subjects. His artwork was lauded by his fellow Belgian artist, Fernand Khnopff in The Studio, the Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art magazine which was published in London. More of Frédéric’s work was talked about in many foreign journals such as the Austrian Ver Sacrum, the official magazine of the Vienna Secession and it was this wide coverage which brought Frédéric and his art to the fore and became internationally recognised. His work was exhibited in Paris, Venice and Munich. Léon Frédéric’s Symbolist artworks were both large and spectacular. One example of this is in the Ohara Museum of Art in Kurashiki, Japan.

All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love by Léon Frédéric

It is entitled All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love. It is a massive work of art measuring 161 x 1100cms (5ft 3 x 36 feet). It is a polyptych, a painting which is divided into sections, or panels or to be more precise, a heptaptych (or septych) one which is divided into seven panels. It is incredibly detailed and took Frédéric twenty-five years to complete having started it in 1893, it was not completed until 1918. It is a work of great beauty and its potency is overpowering. The multi-depiction is made up of Biblical tales and it reads from left to right.

The three panels on the left tell how God is angry with how he is unhappy at how mankind has been acting and he is sends down fire and brimstone to punish the people. The end result, as depicted, is that the people were burnt by the fires and crushed into rocks and all eventually die.

In the fourth (middle panel) there is a change of mood and we see a depiction of a white dove, which is a symbol of a messenger from God, arriving on the scene bearing good news, that God forgives and through his love,  humanity will be revived.

The three panels to the right depict the result of his forgiveness. Happy people congregate under a double rainbow. It is an amazing work with countless figures, each with their own expressions. It was obviously a time-consuming project and highlights the love Frédéric had for this work and his Christian beliefs. Take time to study each panel. Look at all the different expressions on the faces of the people. Look at the backgrounds of each panel. It is amazing what you discover.

One sad note with regards the painting is connected with the centre panel. During the time Frédéric was painting this work, World War I had begun in which he lost his daughter Gabrielle. In the foreground of the middle panel there are five young girls wearing floral garlands on their heads. It is believed that the girl in the centre of this group was a portrait of his daughter who died and to the bottom left of the panel (although illegible in this attached picture) Frédéric has written:

“…a nohe bien ainee fille Gabrielle (To my dear daughter, Gabrielle)…”

and he has added his own signature.

So, what does the painting symbolise? It is thought that Frédéric intention was to depict the foolishness of wars and the sorrow it brings, not just to the victims but their loved ones as seen in the left-hand panels. However, he wants there to be some good for those victims including his daughter to revive in the land of God in the right half of the painting.

Self Portrait by Torajiro Kojima

The painting was bought by Torajiro Kojima following his visit to Frédéric’s Studio in 1923. He had originally seen the work at an exhibition in Antwerp. Torajiro was a Japanese artist who followed the traditions of the Impressionists. He studied at the University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo, and in 1908 went to Paris to continue his studies. In 1909 he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium, where he trained in Luminism. From 1920 onwards, after a decade back in Japan, he travelled to Europe several times at the request of Magosaburo Ohara, his patron and a Japanese businessman and philanthropist who founded the Ōhara Art Museum with the intention of filling it with Western art by Emile Claus, Jean-Joseph Delvin, Monet, Matisse, Albert Marquet and sculptures by Rodin, and many others. The museum, which opened in 1929, was the first one in Japan to house a large collection of modern Western art.  The polyptych painting by Frédéric was Torajiro Kojima’s last purchase in Europe. It is believed that this seven-panel painting became a determining factor for the width of the Ohara Museum of Art during the time of the design phase.

Les âges de l’ouvrier [The Ages of the Worker] by Léon Frédéric

The Musée d’Orsay has, within its collection, a triptych by Lé Frédéric entitled Les âges de l’ouvrier [The Ages of the Worker], which he completed around 1897. It is a painting packed with crowds of people, all of whom are displaying a multitude of dramatic, yet meaningful gestures.

Left-hand panel

The left-hand panel depicts the men engaged in heavy labour. The white-haired man with the white apron is almost kneeling on the floor. Is he collecting rubble as behind him stands a young boy with a wicker basket on his back, possibly waiting to haul away the stones? Look at the men in the background helping each other to carry the large baulks of timber. Does this not remind you of a crucifixion scene with the erection of the crosses in a religious painting?  Is this symbolic of man’s struggle?

Right-hand panel

The right-hand panel in contrast is populated by the women who are nursing their babies. They look very concerned and seem not to be happy with their lot in life. Again, thinking of religious connotations does this depiction remind you of religious depictions of the Virgin and Child ?

Centre panel

In between these two panels is the centre panel which is all about childhood and youth. In the front there is a group of boys playing cards while we observe a parade of youngsters coming out of school or young men leaving their workshops or worksites. Some of the young girls are carrying food whilst others are eating theirs. Look closely at the centre background of this centre panel and you will catch a glimpse of a funeral procession moving away and it is a reminder of the inevitability of death. The movement of the cortege is away from us which is in direct contrast to all the workers and school children that move towards the viewer.

Aurora by Léon Frédéric

Another of Léon Frédéric’s famed Symbolism paintings is entitled Aurora often referred to as ‘L’Aube arrachant les Ténèbres (Dawn tearing away the Darkness) which he completed in the early 1890’s. It is a painting, part Symbolism and part Neo-Classicism. Aurora is the Greek goddess of dawn and she was the sister of the sun-god Helios. Her normal depiction features her scattering flowers from her four-horse chariot but in this depiction by Frédéric we see her almost naked, her body partly covered with a wind-blown diaphanous black veil which covers half her face. She is surrounded by a series of moons, suns and an aureole of stars. We see her materialising from banks of clouds and sunbeams, she stands before us, separating the morning from the night. She is the true goddess of dawn. Frédéric has heightened the atmosphere of his depiction by using lighter, silvery-blue colours to paint a cosmic, supernatural motif. There is no doubt the depiction is both mesmerising and challenging.

Le Ruisseau (The Torrent) by Léon Frédéric

Around the same time that Frédéric completed Aurora he also finished what many consider to be his greatest Symbolist work, the giant triptych entitled Le Ruisseau (The Stream), which he dedicated to Beethoven. It was a controversial painting full of naked children and swans. Observers of the work were either impressed or upset by what they saw. Although painted in a photorealist style the meaning of the work was incomprehensible.

Centre panel (detail) of Le ruisseau (The torrent) by Léon Frédéric

Of all Léon Frédéric’s paintings my favourite is his 1882 triptych entitled The Holy Trinity. The frames of the three paintings are not joined together but the three are looked upon as companion pieces. As I said in the previous blog, in around 1882. Frédéric went to live in the small southern Belgium village of Nafraiture, which was close to the French border and over the next forty years he was to visit the village on numerous occasions and paint portraits of the inhabitants as well as landscapes of the outlying areas.

Holy Trinity Triptych by Léon Frédéric (1882)

Frédéric gave his Holy Family triptych, which he completed in 1882, to the village. One would have thought that the inhabitants of the village would be delighted to have his three paintings displayed in the charming little village church but that was not the case. The paintings were placed out of sight in the church rectory. The reason for the parishoners’ reluctance to openly exhibit the works of art was that the faces depicted in the paintings were that of some of the local people, who were less than pleased with their depictions. However Cardinal Mercier, an admirer of the works of Frédéric, had them removed from the rectory and placed on the interior walls of the church itself. They are now the centrepieces of the church of Nafraiture and are a testament to the artist Léon Frédéric’s love for the village.

The left-hand panel of The Holy Trinity triptych – God the Father

The painting on the left of the trio depicts the omnipotence of God the Father.

The centre panel of the Holy Trinity – Jesus Christ, God the Son

The painting which is positioned in the middle of the triptych is a depiction of God the Son, Jesus Christ. His face is depicted on a white shroud held aloft by two angel-like figures as they walk through a field of flowers. In the background we can see a field being ploughed and to the right we see a procession of people walking along a path, following the angels. Look at the bottom foreground on the right and you will see a pair of snakes

Close-up of Christ’s face

The depiction of Jesus Christ’s face is an amazing work of art which has been brought back to life after seven moths of restoration. It is a face covered in blood from the crown of thorns. The blood runs down the white cloth below the face. The forehead of Christ is wrinkled with pain and his eyes have taken on a blank look due to his intense suffering. It is such a heart-rending depiction.

The Holy Spirit

The final painting which is usually positioned on the right of the trio depicts the Holy Spirit.

In September 2017 the three works were taken down from the walls of the church so that they could be restored. The restoration took seven months to complete. It was a difficult job with the frames having been attacked by vermin and had to be repaired and the canvases re-stretched.

The restorer and the church curator explains what else had to be achieved:

“…We started with a clean-up, and we realized at that point the condition of the varnish, which is not homogeneous. The details and the touch of the artist were no longer so noticeable, because of the yellowing. It was due to the restoration varnish laid about fifty years ago, not to the painting. There were no chemicals used during our restoration…”

The tears

The clarity of the newly restored paintings is quite amazing. Look at the face of the Holy Spirit. Look at the astounding way the artist has depicted the tears. After the restoration, you can see much better the tears that flow from the eyes. The colours are lighter, brighter.

The village church of Nafraiture

The triptych of the Holy Trinity has been exhibited all over the world, but it has always returned home to the village church at Nafraiture.

Léon Frédéric died in the Belgian town of Schaarbeek on January 27th 1940 aged 83.