I’ve always loved the pre-Raphaelite painters with their richness of colour, texture and mythic themes, not to mention that I would have made a perfect model for them.
Holman Hunt’s most famous painting, The Light of the World, is a feast of richness and mystery. The figure is assumed to be Jesus, a very English interpretation, standing at a door and knocking but look closer and notice some interesting things.
The door is already open and yet, it seems little used. Wild plants grow up around the doorway, untrampled and mostly undisturbed. The door is in fact wedged open. It’s also hard to tell whether the door is going out or coming into somewhere. Jesus looks sad. He looks like he is coming to remind someone of something they have forgotten, as if he is knocking to tell people, hey look the door is open, it’s been open for years, why don’t you come through?
He also looks uncertain, as if he doesn’t know how he is going to be welcomed and given that crown of thorns on his head, can you blame him. I imagine he is tapping lightly but without bravado on that door, persistently alerting us to the fact that the door is open, but he is simply standing there. Where does the doorway lead to and where does it lead from?
Who is waiting for who? Is he waiting for us to come to him or is he waiting to be told he can come in?
Is it later than we think?
Blue Water Lilies by Monet
I didn’t get very far in the Impressionists’ Gallery at the Musee d’Orsay. I think I was generally overwhelmed by it all; I was still pretty quiet inside after the catacombs and I found I was shrinking away from the beauty on show. I found a seat and sat and wrote about the Degas picture and found that slowly calmed me, much as I imagined the combing of her hair calmed the red head in the picture.
I wandered round, feeling lost and in need of a quiet haven of peace and found it in the Monet room.
I was unprepared for the sheer power of the paintings. I knew most of them from birthday cards and posters but they had never had the punch of the real ones.
The Blue water lilies drew me in and kept me. I wanted to find a deck chair and sit and watch for dragonflies and for fish rising to the surface. I could smell the river smell, sweet and dank at the same time with a green scent of the grass on the banks crushed beneath my dress. The light was going, and I was waiting for the first stars to emerge in the navy blue sky. Somewhere close by a blackbird began tuning up for his evening serenade.
I came to myself, standing open-mouthed amid a bustle of multi-national tourists and was back in the dust and heat of a sweltering Paris afternoon with only the prospect of a ride on the Metro and another busy evening to look forward to.
Later, riding round Paris by night on the coach, giving a commentary that no one seemed to listen to, I let my mind return to the cool blue lake and the blooming lilies and felt that calm and peace return, long enough to get me back to the hotel and into bed. My blue nightlight soothed me to sleep, overheated and exhausted as I was, and as I slid uneasily into sleep, the blackbird sang somewhere close by in my mind and I slid below the surface of the water and was at peace.
Femme se Coiffant (woman combing her hair)
Extract from my journal 2nd July 2010
“I’m sitting in the Degas room, contemplating a painting: Femme se coiffant. The semi-naked figure is combing very long dark red hair that must reach her hips. It’s texture is slightly rough, a little like the tail of a horse and her intent in restoring smoothness to her tresses hums through every line of the painting. You can feel the concentration even though you can’t see her face. There’s a powerful feeling as if in smoothing her hair she is smoothing her feelings, as if her emotions are being brought to order as she tames her hair. I imagine her as a fiery, temper-filled person, brimming with passion and vitality and a zest for life. It’s hard to remember that these luscious thick tresses only a few years from this will have been slowly to grey, to thin and become pale and lifeless, and that voluptuous body will have perhaps run to fat as middle-age ensues, or shrunken as old age withers her flesh. And harder still to remember that she’s a century dead now, the red hair and her strong bones turned to dust and lost. Only the painting remains of that moment in an unknown woman’s life. Her name, I do not know, but after the catacombs I am reminded that my flesh too is mortal and only my work will remain after my body is gone.
Light gleams on the hair or perhaps she has combed macassar oil into it to give it shine. She holds the mass of her hair in one hand and draws the comb down the length of it. You can feel the pressure of the comb until finally in a long slow movement it gives and the comb pulls through.”
I was entirely overwhelmed by the Impressionist gallery at the Musée D’Orsay, which was my next stopping point after the catacombs. Coming hard on the heels of my musings on mortality, this picture(it’s actually done with pastels) caught my eye for a number of reasons. My own hair is almost this long and similar texture and I had a sense of fellowship with the woman combing it. I also work very occasionally as a life model and one thing that has always struck me doing that is that it is the work of the artist that is remembered and praised, not the courage of the model. Often the model remains unknown; many never even draw my face.
But this girl and her artist are long dead and yet, something of their essence remains to those who wish to touch and experience it. I hope to do the same one day.
next- waterlilies by Monet: not what I expected.