It is funny how life is full of interesting coincidences. In the last 2 posts I described my experiences on various trips to northeast Europe – to Finland – as seen through the eyes of someone whose own family comes from the Baltic region. On arriving back in Paris, I visited the Musée d’Orsay again [which I have posted on previously…] to see a new temporary exhibition that I was particularly excited about. It was called Âmes sauvages: Le symbolisme dans les pays baltes. Translated this corresponds to Wild Souls: Symbolism in the Baltic countries [http://m.musee-orsay.fr/fr/expositions/article/ames-sauvages-46485.html]. So here I found myself in back in Paris, revisiting some of the very same themes I ran into when I was checking out the art in Finland a few weeks ago! The exhibit’s advertising material depicts a striking painting by a celebrated Latvian artist, Johann Walter [1862-1932] entitled Jeune Paysanne, which was painted in 1904.
The art exhibit has been organized to celebrate & commemorate the 100th anniversary of the declarations of independence of the 3 Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania – in 1918. This period of freedom was shortlived – the 3 Republics were annexed by the Soviet Union during its imperialistic expansion. Fortunately, today the 3 countries have their independence once more.
As I already mentioned, the artworks featured in the Paris exhibit had themes common to those that I described in the Helsinki Art Museum exhibit of Finnish Art from around the same period in an earlier post. In the late 19th century, there was a cultural revival & a focus on ethnography & national identity in Europe, so many nations there were experiencing similar bursts of cultural activity. In images from the Baltic countries – including Finland – there is always the presence of the supernatural, including death in quite a few works. In one of the works from the Paris exhibit shown below, the moment that Death comes to visit & take an infant from it’s mother is depicted.
This is a striking image on multiple levels. First, Death is depicted in white & as a woman – but her identity is unmistakable as she carries a sickle – a definitive cutting tool. Second, the look on the Mother’s face is depicted with incredible skill. I stood in front of this image for a long, long time contemplating it. There is the Mother’s look of incredulity as she looks directly upon Death & seems to not know how to deal with the situation. Yet, paradoxically at the same time there is an amazing gentleness to the scene. Death herself appears to be a compassionate being – the face depicts a calm, gentle demeanor & the white clothing does not have the negative association that typical images of the Grim Reaper dressed in black & traditionally carrying a scythe elicit. This is a classic painting created by the Latvian painter, Janis Rozentāls [1866-1916].
The exhibit depicts paintings & drawings showing scenes from real life, as well as from myths & legends – hence the symbolism label in the exhibit’s name. Here we come into contact with heros from epic poems, such as the Estonian Kalvipoeg.
The above image by Estonian artist Välko Tuul [1894-1918] depicts him in a battle [Kalevipoeg et Les Guerriers] & was painted between 1915-17. Despite being a hero, he does die [unlike heros in other epic sagas of other countries] – with the event being depicted by Estonian artist Kristjan Raud [1865-1943], entitled La Mort de Kalevipoeg . He suffers an awful death from having both feet cut off by his own sword in a strange twist of fate. The image below depicts the hero with a distorted & emaciated torso & of course, sans pieds – a very dramatic image to say the least.
There is a certain simplicity to the images & this makes them so much more impactful. For example, this painting from 1935 by Kristjan Raud entitled Sacrifice embodies this simplicity. From my interpretation, the image depicts a pagan ritual & the bowed heads, positions of the hands & poses struck by the bodies depict a respectful act of worship.
The images can also capture a dynamic instant in time, such as the moment an archer lets an arrow fly on a breezy day in a painting by Rozentāls entitled L’Archer.
As in the Finnish art exhibit I described in the previous post, the images in the Baltic countries exhibit in Paris also explored nature & landscapes. One of my favorites was an early spring landscape by Latvian artist Vilhelms Purvītis [1872-1945] entitled Les Eaux printanières, which was painted around 1910. It is a beautiful & gentle scene – in some ways minimalistically rendered – the verticalness of the birch & fir trees is a nice contrast to the horizontalness of the water with it’s melting ice & the surrounding land with retreating snow.
In another part of the museum there was a temporary exhibit of Estonian photography depicting scenes from life on the Estonian island of Kihnu – located in the Baltic Sea not far from the Estonian coast. I was able to enjoy those images as well on my visit.
Fortunately for me, these temporary exhibits did not seem to attract the tourists. They were busy on the museum’s upper floors checking out the impressionist classics that the Musée d’Orsay is so famous for (as the photos below indicate). Glad to say that I have spent considerable time in these permanent collections on previous trips to Paris, when there did not seem to be as many tourists… Tourist season is definitely here in Paris now that it is May. Note to self: I need to whip around to some other sites that will gets lots of tourist traffic before they get too crowded…
Despite my recent posts lauding late 19th century art, my favorite period & styles of art actually are early 20th century expressionism, futurism & surrealism. The Centre Pompidou here in Paris has a permanent collection where you can check out some works from this period & the D’Orsay has some works as well.
What period of art & style do you feel most passionate about?