Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Pure sky, brooks, rose laurels, sun, shadow

As I mentioned in January, finding female landscape painters to highlight in my 'tweet of the day' has been quite difficult, partly because social restrictions reduced their ability to go out sketching and painting in the open air.  The two quotations below, from the diary of the nineteenth century artist Marie Bashkirtseff (1859-84), illustrate the point.  Born in Ukraine, she moved to Paris with her family at the age of twelve and began exhibiting at the Salon after studying at The Académie Julian (women were not permitted to attend the École des Beaux-Arts).  Her frustrations here as a twenty-year old aspiring artist have an added poignancy, because just five years later she succumbed to tuberculosis. 
Thursday January 2nd 1879 — What I long for, is the liberty to ramble alone, to come and go, to seat myself on the benches in the garden of the Tuileries, and especially of the Luxembourg, to stop at the artistic shop- windows, enter the churches, the museums, to ramble at night in the old streets, that is what I long for, and that is the liberty without which one can not become a true artist. Do you believe that we profit by what we see when we are accompanied, or when going to the Louvre, we must await our carriage, our chaperone or our family?
   Ah! heavens and earth! that is what makes me so angry to be a woman! I will dress myself like a woman of the middle class, wear a wig, and make myself so ugly that I will be as free as a man. There is the liberty that I want and without which I shall never succeed in being anything.
   One's thoughts are fettered by this stupid and enervating constraint; even if I disguise myself and make myself homely, I am but half free, for a woman who roams about is imprudent. And in Italy, in Rome? The idea of going in a landau to visit ruins!
   "Where are you going, Marie?"
   "To see the Coliseum."
   "But you have already seen it! Let us go to the theatre or take a drive, where there will be a crowd."
    And that is enough to bind one down to the earth. That is one of the great reasons why there are no women artists. Oh, sordid ignorance? Oh, savage routine! It is horrible to think of it all!
Marie Bashkirtseff, Autumn, 1883

'What I long for, is the liberty to ramble alone' - this has a familiar ring from many recent critiques of androcentric nature writing and male psychogeographers.  Marie Bashkirtseff may not have lived to paint the Coliseum, but she did complete the view of Paris in Autumn that I have reproduced here (now in the State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg).  There is something sad about that empty road, with its litter of leaves and the bench knocked over so that nobody can sit on it.  However, what really leaves an impression, assuming this reproduction resembles the real painting, is the intensity of that sunlight in the distance.  Perhaps it was affected by her yearning for the brightness of southern Europe.  Here is a second entry from her diary, in which she puts down a volume of Gautier to dream of travelling to Spain.    
  Wednesday June 20th, 1882 — Well! nothing new. A few calls exchanged and painting — and Spain. Ah, Spain! A volume of Théophile Gautier is the cause of all this [...] Ah! how short is life! Ah! how unhappy we are to live so little! For to live in Paris is only the point of departure for everything. But to make these sublime, artistic journeys! Six months in Spain, in Italy! Italy, sacred soil; divine, incomparable Rome! it takes away my reason.
   Ah! how women are to be pitied; men are free, at least. They have absolute independence in ordinary life, liberty to come and go, to start out, to dine at a restaurant or at home, to go on foot to the Bois or to a café; that liberty is the half of talent and three-quarters of ordinary happiness.
   But, you will say, superior woman that you are, give yourself that liberty!
   It is impossible, for the woman who emancipates herself thus — the young and pretty woman, be it understood — almost has the finger pointed at her, she becomes singular, commented on, insulted, and consequently still less free than before she shocked idiotic custom.
   So there is nothing to do but deplore my sex and return to dreams of Italy and Spain. Granada! Gigantic Arabs, pure sky, brooks, rose laurels, sun, shadow, peace, calm, harmony, and poetry!
This translation is by A. D. Hall (1908).  I see that another early translator, Mathilde Blind (1890), rendered the last sentence 'Granada! Gigantic vegetation! pure sky...'  Whatever the 'gigantic' thing was that Marie Bashkirtseff longed for, along with the rose laurels (oleander), sunshine and shadows, it was never to be...

4 comments:

Mike C. said...

Curious... I know a little Russian, and was intrigued by the "gigantic vegetation / arab" crux, so looked for an online version of her journal. Having found the entry for 20 June 1882, I discovered it matches exactly the translation you give, *except* that it ends "So there is nothing to do but deplore my sex" ("Итак, остается оплакивать свой пол.") -- no Granada, no gigantic arabs, nothing. I presume it has been edited out of the online version (?), but that does seem odd.

Mike

Plinius said...

Thanks - I don't know any Russian!
I have a suspicion that 'arabs' is some kind of error and that she was basically just talking about gigantic trees. The 'arabs' translation can be seen here. The 'vegetation' version is here.

Mike C. said...

It turns out the original journal is in French ("Mon Journal") and not in Russian, and in multiple "redacted" versions... I am still determined to discover how "arabs" and "vegetation" are in any way synonyms, however.

Mike

Mike C. said...

Having found a French text, it turns out the offending phrase is "arbres géants" ... Hilarious.

Mike