Reflections of Montmartre

by Hazel Anna Rogers

The sun has been shining for some time now. At first, warmth came from behind bulbous grey clouds, yielding a muggy, wet heat, but now light has taken precedence and grass glows white in its piercing rays.

We were walking on one such sunny day and stopped beside the book shop some two and a quarter streets from our home. This particular shop habitually puts books out on a small, raised shelf just to the left of its entrance. On the shelf are titles it has found difficult to shift and each is priced at one pound. A small white spine was crammed between two larger tomes, and I reached in to take it out for a closer look. There are often gems to be found amidst the clutter on the one-pound-shelf, and this appeared to be one of them.

On the cover of the white book was a whimsical image of a side street in Montmartre, Paris, with a single bare tree at the fore and snow covering the paving stones. Below the painting was the name ‘Utrillo’ in dark pink, and below this was the name ‘Montmartre’ in block capitals.

I fingered through the book and found numerous pages with colored images of scenes in Montmartre, some cheerful and filled with city-dwellers, others people-less and barren. These paintings, though created some hundred years prior to my escapades in Paris, nevertheless brought back memories of my time in the city. I heard the sounds of life from Utrillo’s depictions; bustling corners with rows of vendors, and the loud ringing of bells that erupts from the ‘dômes blancs’ of the basilica.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Montmartre

Maurice Utrillo – La Place St. Pierre et le Sacré Coeur de Montmartre

It was a warm late October morning when I decided to make my way up to Montmartre. I had the weekends to myself when I was working as an au pair and would use my free time to explore known and lesser-known quarters of the city. It was peaceful to walk as the sun rose slowly up the white apartment blocks and shed its watery light over the glistening streets. I walked some twenty minutes up the continual mild incline towards the white dome in the distance and came across the Cimitière du Nord, or Cemetery of the North (as is officially named the graveyard of Montmartre) in the 18th arrondissement. The cemetery passes below several archways and bridges which one can walk over to admire the city of dead below it. As is expected of such a large necropolis, the graveyard boasts wonderfully elaborate monuments amidst the 20,000 burial plots within its walls. I walked down the stone stairs from the road and walked among the dead.

Émile Zola’s grave was one of the first graves I came across. Above the tomb stands an ominous bust of Zola’s face in bluish-grey stone, placed in the center of a curvaceous speckled-brown marble arch. The clouds came over as I wandered on, and Zola’s eyes trailed me as I went.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Emile Zola image

The grave of Emile Zola

Shortly after my encounter with Zola, I discovered the brutal memorial attributed to Berlioz. A grey mount of Berlioz’ profile is buried in the middle of the three black marble walls which solemnly protect his body. A cross is marked in silver above Berlioz’ head. It is a cold grave, unlike Berlioz’ music.

I checked the time and concluded I should get on my way to Montmartre, considering it was a weekend and it would likely begin to get busy around late morning. I found my way back to the same stone steps I had walked down from and emerged back into Paris. The dead remained below.

I turned off of the main road after around ten minutes and found myself in some cobbled side streets. The only establishments open were a few bakeries wafting intoxicating clouds of freshly baked loaves and pastries. I didn’t buy anything, as I had already eaten. I continued on.

Up, up, up the roads went, and the white dome of the Sacré-Cœur became ever bigger as I made my way towards the inner-village of Montmartre. My legs ached, and my back was sweating beneath my bag when I finally entered the ‘old’ village via the Rue Lepic. Many shops were open offering tacky trinkets and memorabilia of the various artists who once called Montmartre home. I stopped to watch a crepe maker swirl batter over a black cast iron cylindrical block. Once the batter was spilled, he deftly swirled it right to the outer edges of the flat-topped iron with a wooden baton that looked somewhat like a shortened croquet stick. Once the crepe began to bubble, the gentleman took a flat spatula and flipped it over,revealing a perfectly pale-brown beneath. I watched him for some time, and took my camera out to film him. He laughed at me, and I laughed too. I walked on.

Faces smiled in the tepid morning sun. Each house was as charming as the last. I followed the street on past the Moulin de la Galette and its enchanting little wooden windmill, and entered onto Rue Norvins, the road that would lead me to the Place du Tertre. Time went slowly, and the breeze ruffled my hair softly. I felt I was no longer in Paris. The rush and racing of city life fell away when one walked these calm streets, and all that remained were images and poetry.

The Place du Tertre was a bustling hubbub of heckling artists, artisans, and musicians, yet somehow everything blended together into the sweetest symphony of village noise. I stopped to gaze at a few tableaus. Some were quite wonderful. An artist came up to me and demanded I sit for a portrait. I glanced at his work, and his depictions were indeed lovely – softly penciled faces with wistful expressions – but I politely declined. He continued to ask, and I responded by asking whether I would have to pay for his eagerly-requested sitting. The artist looked sheepish and scuttled back to his wicker chair.

Over on the far side of the Place, one can look out over the city. To the west is the leafy Square Louise Michel.

Between the two silver birches standing by the wall in front of the outlook, someone had fastened a tightrope. Down near my feet was a red beret with a few coins of change. I turned and walked back the way I had come, towards the Sacré-Cœur.

There weren’t many people on the stone steps leading up to the basilica when I arrived. I sat and took my bag off, then leaned back and looked up at the blue sky. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the world had changed color. The bells of the Sacré-Cœur began ringing and I jumped slightly at how very loud they were. The ringing continued in my ears for a few minutes after the basilica had become silent once more.

A man came and sat on a step below me, retrieved a small piano accordion from his bag, and began playing Le Temps des Cerises. I almost laughed at how very perfect it all was, how ridiculously French this little village was. An elderly woman came and stood beside the gentleman and began singing. I smiled, and did not stop smiling until I returned back to my apartment in the 8th arrondissement.

Maurice Utrillo’s paintings make me nostalgic. They make me think on a Paris that is charming, romantic, and playful, one that captivates with its cobbled streets and wooden shutters, that mesmerizes with its secret alleyways and green balconies. His depictions of Montmartre create a Paris that one might meet in a dream, where colors are bright and time passes gently and calmly. For Montmartre is a reverie, a moment that cannot be grasped or held. It is a fragment of history that one passes through, then just as quickly leaves behind. Montmartre is the old beating heart of Paris, remaining static and unchanging while the city expands and modernizes around it.

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The Legacy of the Satyr

by Hazel Anna Rogers

The passing-down of literature fascinates me. I find something utterly awe-inducing in the ability of human language to convey a narrative generation after generation, and for us to have the knowledge and ingenuity to understand the importance of preserving great stories and characters. I suppose the process must be akin, in some sense, to that of a distillation chamber, in that it consists of years of inter-generational storytelling that distill the story to its essence, to the very narrative blocks that birthed it to begin with. And, from then on, the story itself is open to interpretation, thus presenting us with endless possibilities of adaptation. Tales have been pummeled, pressed, and forced into eternally variable forms, starting from anonymous fables and ending in popular animated entertainment. But do we lose something when we carve away all the layers of a story, or a character, and place in it instead our own values, our own narrative, our own words? If we present a character or story to an audience as de facto, that is to say an original work, why need our audience doubt it? I wish to present here the origins and developments of one such character, the Satyr, so as to suggest the true importance of literary and cultural heritage in the modern day.

So…the Satyr. A half man, half beast creature that allegedly emerged in works of Classical Greek mythology, and was most prominently associated with the god of ecstasy and wine, Dionysus (or Bacchus/Liber Pater in Rome), son of Zeus and Semele (the only mortal to father a god, Semele was Zeus’ mistress but swiftly found her death through the wrath of Zeus’ wife, Hera). Dionysus’ artistic importance in Greek society stems from his purported powers – to produce or inspire ecstasy – and many theatrical performances were attributed to him in festivals bearing his name. His legacy was one of exaltation, pleasure, and sexuality, thus many of the ceremonies ascribed to him involved the phallus and the theme of fecundity in the form of spirits such as satyrs.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - 2 Satyrs

Two Satyrs, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1618

The Satyr differs from the Roman ‘Faunus’, Saturn’s grandson who was revered to bring abundance to the pastoral, in that the Satyr is endowed an (erect) phallus along with horse ears and tail, whereas Faunus is half man half goat. However, in the Hellenistic era Satyrs were also presented as being part goat and man, so this distinction can sometimes be arbitrary. Perhaps a more prominent distinction can be observed in ancient Greek artwork, where Satyrs were often painted alongside women (mortals) and nymphs, whom they would attempt to woo. In Classical Athenian theater, the triad of plays performed for the Dionysia would consist of two tragedies proceeded by a bawdy tragicomedy known as the ‘Satyr play’, in which satyrs would take on the role of the chorus. Not many complete plays of this ilk remain from the period, but Euripides’ ‘Cyclops’ is one such play that we have in its entirety. As is characteristic of ‘Satyrs’, Euripides’ play is founded on debauchery and immorality, the main themes of it being gluttony and excessive ingestion (testimony to Dionysus’ title of the ‘god of wine’). The Cyclops’ belly itself is described as the ‘greatest of all divinities’, and Silenus (Dionysus’ satyresque companion) along with his chorus of satyrs are eager for Odysseus to give them his wine in exchange for the Cyclops’ food. It is a wondrous satire of one of the scenes from Homer’s epic The Odyssey. [Carl Kruse: As an aside, Prof. Emily Wilson has released a new, modernized translation of The Odyssey, which I highly recommend).

Interestingly, the lewd and sexual nature of the Satyr and the figure of Silenus have been lost to time if we look to references of them in 20th and 21st Century literature and media. Mr Tumnus, the faun-like character in C S Lewis’ ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ (1950) is exceedingly tender and tame, despite his appearance being a sort of faun-satyr hybrid (he has a long, horse-like tail but also horns and goatish legs). The ‘Nymph and Satyr’ (1908) painting by Fauvist artist Henri Matisse is distinctly unsexual, aside from the nymph lying in front of him (which I suppose could be interpreted any such way), and with the satyr looking distinctively man-like.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Matisse painting

The Nymph and the Satyr, 1908, Henri Matisse

The satyr Grover Underwood in Rick Riordan’s popular children’s series of ‘Percy Jackson’ novels is also decidedly domestic, acting simply as a loyal friend to protagonist Percy, despite the fact that the series itself is supposedly based on Greek mythology.

Why is this important? Why is it significant that a character that continues to be portrayed in popular culture has lost its defining traits to time? Surely poetic license allows for us to make these changes? Well, yes. I agree. But I also think that this example is perfect in showing us how easily our literary and cultural heritage can fade away. In a few simple sentences, Rick Riordan has replaced the legacy of the satyr with something completely different, and I think it’s a shame to forget where these stories and characters came from in the first place. We are all influenced by what we read, listen to, and watch. As we increasingly rely on fast-paced pleasures such as social media and video games, our interest in the past wanes. Everything is moving faster, everywhere there are new possibilities, all around new futures tempt fewer people to go to university. We don’t need to spend three years learning about one field anymore in the hope of pursuing a career that brings enough money in. We can do short entrepreneur courses or make money through social media outlets. Increasing your intelligence through persistent long-term study is no longer as desirable – it has become a waste of time. You can get all the answers you could ever want through the internet.

I think there’s an alarmingly steep uphill trend of shortening attention spans aligned with the increasing normality of seeing six-year-olds with smartphones, and I find that disarming. Classics and robust tomes of literature were most definitely not shoved down my throat while I was growing up, but the names of such authors as Austen, Lawrence, and Homer were certainly not unknown to me. I loved to sit down and read thick, musty novels through day and night, often becoming so invested in the storyline of a certain protagonist that it would take an almighty level of strength to pull myself away from a book so as to have an agreeable amount of sleep. I used to get reading lights in my stockings at Christmas which only exacerbated my unhealthy night-time habits.

Through our increasing reliance on the internet to solve every question or dilemma, I do believe we have become, or are becoming, quite base thinkers. We are more inclined to rely on the satisfaction derived from a ‘like’ or ‘share’ on a social media post, our primary mode of communication, than to seek it from reading or researching the shelves in a library. Popular classic novels have been turned into graphic novels so they’re easier to ingest, and there is an ever-growing market for pseudo-babble texts that tell you how to improve your life with various methods of spirituality and finance-management. These books employ lists and short phrases to cater to our inability to concentrate on a single idea for longer than a page. Complexity seems unappealing, and ease and speed of ingestion of information is what we now seem to seek.

Reading a long book takes discipline, and time, something many of us don’t have a lot of anymore. But it also takes passion, and with a world endlessly bombarding us with all of the exciting and different things we could be doing with our time we often feel inclined to leave the quiet, secular activity of reading to one side. Even just a hundred years ago, primary and secondary schools often still taught Latin, and reading the ‘canonical’ works was non-negotiable. Though in saying that, there is much to be said about the validity of ‘canonical’ works, and I value the attempts by many university institutions to vary this ‘canon’ to include non-native English writers and literature from marginalized authors.

Why not delve deeper, why not exchange a moment of time you would normally spend binge-watching a television series on something that takes more work, more imagination? Why not pick up a fat book, one that makes you feel when you open it to the first page that it is so impossibly long that you could never possibly finish it? Why not read the books that have influenced timeless authors through the centuries, and see if they inspire you just as much? Why not invest time learning about the history of all of the art and literature around you, all that made us what we are today?

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Van Gogh’s Chair: Omens of Tragedy

By Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Arts Blog

I first saw Vincent Van Gogh’s painting ‘Van Gogh’s Chair’ (1888) in secondary school, in the middle of an art class.

My art teacher had no particular regard for art history. She found it uninteresting, and it was never a fundamental part of the classes she taught. She was a tiny thing, my teacher, always dressed in bold, screaming colors and imaginative accessories. She more often than not wore startlingly high heels, which retrospectively I suppose must have been rather agonizing considering how long she wore them for. I remember a certain pair – they were hot pink stilettos, with some sort of adornment on the front that looked like a piece of candy.

I do believe she was quite the darling of many of the boys and it seemed like she played up to this role quite readily. Come to think of it, I reckon a few of my secondary-school teachers played up to that side of juvenile sexuality, probably to encourage good behavior and obedience. That isn’t to say it was only the female teachers. On the contrary, I have had a few (borderline) flirtatious male teachers teach me at one time or another during my secondary and college education. I have always been quite obsessed with the forbidden sexuality of those in authority, and I’ve certainly had many a teacher-crush.

Anyway, back to the art class. In my last year of secondary school, we had to paint a ‘final piece’, and deduce its contents on a separate written piece, dissecting it and commenting on the techniques we used to create it. I must say I really do despise self-reflection with regards to artwork. I know that, for myself, when I create something, whether it be written, painted, drawn, played…whatever it is, it is almost always spontaneously generated. Occasionally I will vaguely plan the ongoing trajectory of a piece I’m in the middle of so as not to lose creative fire, but I won’t generally plan prior to beginning it. Inspiration sparks at the most bizarre of times, and no plan or bullet point list tends to help me to get there, to that perfect peak of creative energy that suddenly begins to flow like a flood and ignite the best work. But, of course, one has to ‘feign’ planning in order to escape being reprimanded for not doing so. Dutifully, I searched through the limited collection of art books we had in class to search for ‘inspiration’. I came across a short text about Van Gogh, which detailed a few of his paintings along with a mini biography. I flipped through the paintings in the center of the book, then stopped abruptly. The chair looked back at me, and I stared at it. Such a lonely piece. So isolated and sedentary. I fell into a silence, and the noise of the world around me became a dull, quiet roar, like the sound of distant waves. It was like I was waiting for the occupant of the chair to return and light up his pipe. But he never came.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Image of Van Gogh's Chair

Van Gogh’s Chair

I had a class in art history this year, and in one of the weeks my teacher brought up Van Gogh when speaking of post-impressionism. While my teacher swept through pictures of the sunflowers, the beautiful night skies, and the vibrant cafes up on the interactive whiteboard, I thought about the chair. I decided it was essential I delve into it, that I dive into the painting that near brought me to tears upon my initial viewing of it. I was not always a believer in the dissection of art, as I was of the opinion that it would inevitably ruin the intrigue and beauty of it through over-analysis. But, through my study of literature and more advanced music theory over these past few years, I have learned that studying art in any form can bring one to enjoy a work even more than one did prior. I decided to dissect Van Gogh’s melancholic painting, to see what I could find in it, and whether I could find that lonesome character that had left his seat and his tobacco in such a hurry. Here is what I have come up with:

In deciphering ‘Van Gogh’s Chair’, an approach concerning the metonymy – substituting an object or attribute for a person or emotion – prompted by the painting I feel is essential. The chair, illustrated in oil-on-canvas, is clearly a daylight rendering, with a light source suggested as emerging from the top left, unseen, corner, and reflected onto the light-colored wood in thick, golden brushstrokes. The brightness and air of simplicity in the painting could reflect Van Gogh’s self-reflection. However, simultaneously, ‘Omens of tragedy [rumble] beneath thick smears of beaming yellow’, as contemporary poet Niall O’Sullivan suggested in a poem framed side-by-side with the image in the National Gallery.

The positioning of the chair in the center of a sombre-toned brassy kitchen tiles is to me melancholic. The chair’s emptiness creates an unsettling sense of loneliness, which is further emphasised by its asymmetry; unequal bars connected to dumpy, shapeless chair legs. Supposedly “Empty chairs had a very personal significance for van Gogh, who appears to have associated objects strongly with people” [1]. Gogh’s inspiration for the painting was most likely Victorian magazine ‘The Graphic’ which published an illustration in 1870 by Luke Filde, dubbed ‘The Empty Chair, Gad’s Hill’. This was painted after Charles Dickens’s death, a chair with no owner, yet an object so completely synonymous with its owner (Dickens) that it became an embodiment of him in itself. It is well documented that Van Gogh was a huge admirer of Dickens’ works, and supposedly wrote letter emphatically proclaiming his love for the writer, using phrases like: ‘I want to paint what Dickens has done with words’[2]. Van Gogh continued to show his admiration for Dickens through his art, and ‘The Arlésienne’ (1890), which was painted in his last year of life, depicts a Dickens novel on the table in front of the female figure. This emotionally charged use of the symbolism could certainly have affected Gogh in some way. This emotionally charged use of the symbolism could certainly have affected Gogh in some way. This emotionally charged use of the symbolism could certainly have affected Gogh in some way. The emotionally charged use of symbolism (using symbols to represent ideas, and in this case a person) in Filde’s painting could certainly have deeply affected Van Gogh, leading to his own chair portraits.

The personalizing of his own chair as being metonymically associated with himself can be furthered by his positioning of his own personal objects on the chair; the hastily painted pipe (it is believed Van Gogh followed Dickens’s prescription of smoking for melancholia) and the open bag of tobacco. These intimate objects seem to be connected with the candle depicted on the painting Van Gogh did of fellow artist Paul Gauguin’s own ‘Chair’ (‘Gauguin’s Chair’ 1888). Perhaps he considered Gauguin’s ‘light’ as essential, not only to light the tobacco in his pipe, but to light up his own work. I will comment on Van Gogh and Gauguin’s artistic relationship, as well as the significance of the contrasting chairs he painted, in a moment.

The complexity of the configuration of the painting with areas of wider, continual brushstrokes (see the first front rung of the chair) juxtaposed to thicker, busier areas (the foremost chair leg), create a distorted three-dimensional image, elevating this mundane object to something rather more sinisterly representative of a despairing mental state, potentially pointing to Van Gogh’s own mental deterioration. This supports Victoria Charles’ notion that ‘Van Gogh’s life and work are so intertwined that it is hardly possible to see his pictures without reading in them the story of his life’[3]. Does this indicate that, for Van Gogh, ‘painting had become identical with life itself’[4], the only way for him to communicate the difficulties and pains of living?

I feel that a further analytical comparison of this painting to Van Gogh’s contrasting depiction, ‘Gauguin’s Chair’, is necessary to contextually analyze this painting. Both canvases were painted once relations between the once-amicable artists had become strained due to Van Gogh’s poor mental health. Van Gogh has hoped that his artist’s studio, the ‘Yellow House’, would become a studio for himself with Gauguin as his artistic mentor. But his vision of harmonious living with Gauguin did not last long, as after 9 weeks of living together Van Gogh started falling through a downwards spiral into deep depression and bipolar disorder. After Van Gogh sliced off his ear in a fit of violent anger he was sent to an insane asylum, and his dream of working with Gauguin swiftly ended. Van Gogh painted both chairs just as his relationship with Gauguin was becoming strained.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Image of Gaguin's Chair

Gaguin’s Chair, 1888

‘Gauguin’s Chair’ is a baroque-style envisioning in its exaggerated features and emphasis on ‘tenebrism’ (the dramatic use of light and dark). It is of a deep, sensual palate that is startling richer than that used to depict his own chair. This image seems to suggest a nocturnal exoticism and complexity that appears juxtaposed to the garish simplicity of Van Gogh’s own chair. These chairs are both ‘alive, like strange creatures’[5]. Van Gogh here employs the ‘intense colours and dramatic shapes…[that] anticipated Expressionism [the use of artistic distortion to create different emotions]’[6]. The light sources – a candle and a gas-lantern – create a far more claustrophobic image than that of Van Gogh’s own chair, which is lit by external sources, symbolic perhaps of Van Gogh perceiving Gauguin as self-interested and thus self-illuminated in this painting, though one cannot say for sure he felt this sort of animosity towards his fellow artist. By all accounts, Van Gogh was utterly bewitched by Gauguin’s artwork and was highly insistent that Gauguin should come and work with him to help him better his own art. Gauguin recounts in his memoirs how much of a dutifully hardworking artist and loving man Van Gogh was prior to his ever-increasing episodes of ‘madness’. Maybe the use of this internal, unattainable light indicates that Van Gogh perceived Gauguin as his last hope, hope that was swiftly dwindling.

Another aspect of the painting I wish to briefly discuss is its musicality, as I believe it is integral to understanding Van Gogh’s artistic technique. Before moving to The Yellow House, Van Gogh articulated to his brother Theo that the paintings he so viscerally envisioned he would come to paint in Southern France would be ‘a symphony in blue and yellow’[7]. Van Gogh’s persistent application of ‘words related to music – such as ‘harmony’, ‘piano’, ‘note’, ‘register’, ‘clarion’ and ‘scherzo’’[8] in written correspondence during his life can be used to analyse the painting of his chair. This painting seems indeed an homage to the so-called ‘Yellow House’ gallery he so dearly endeavoured to pursue with Gauguin. Its vibrantly warm autumnal palate echoes the ‘dark ochre to bright cadmium’[9] that Van Gogh ‘was continually comparing [to] the sounds made by the piano’ [10] during his piano lessons in Paris. The melodic use of a simple base palate in this painting isolates the chair in its own lonesome song, lingering on the edge of a climax into chaos. To me, that is what this chair evokes. An all-consuming loneliness fuelled by rejection and solitude. An attempt to create an image out of a void of emptiness, to make beauty from estrangement and a desperation to connect. I find it achingly beautiful and overwhelmingly sad. In this piece I feel that I can hear the profound music that so deeply affected Vincent – Wagner, Beethoven, Berlioz – and inspired his own creation. This chair, to me, is a painting of Van Gogh himself, of his life, a life despairing for a friendship and a dream so soon blighted, fearful of the darkness yet to come.


Natascha Veldhorst, translated by Diane Webb, Van Gogh and Music: A Symphony in Blue and Yellow, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2018)

Josephine Cutts and James Smith, Intro by: Lucinda Hawksley, Essential Van Gogh (Parragon Publishing, UK, 2000)

Victoria Charles, ‘Vincent Van Gogh’, (Parkstone Press International, 2012)

Ed. Ingo F. Walther, Impressionist Art, (Taschen Bibliotheca Universalis, Koln, 2016)

Guardian Online:

The National Gallery Online:

Quoted in Thompson, Paige, ‘How Vincent Van Gogh was Inspired by the Works of Charles Dickens’, pub. In ‘Sotheby’s’ (URL:, July 29th 2019

[1] Josephine Cutts and James Smith, Intro by: Lucinda Hawksley, Essential Van Gogh (Parragon Publishing, UK, 2000)

[2] Quoted in Paige Thompson, ‘How Vincent Van Gogh was Inspired by the Works of Charles Dickens’, pub. In ‘Sotheby’s’ (URL:, July 29th 2019

[3] Victoria Charles, ‘Vincent Van Gogh’, (Parkstone Press International, 2012), p. 7

[4] Ibid. 324

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ed. Ingo F. Walther, Impressionist Art, (Taschen Bibliotheca Universalis, Koln, 2016), p. 326

 [7] Natascha Veldhorst, translated by Diane Webb, Van Gogh and Music: A Symphony in Blue and Yellow, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2018), p. 1-2

[8] Ibid. p. 2

[9] Ibid. Anton Kerssemaker, pg 7

[10] Ibid. Anton Kerssemaker, pg 7

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When did we Stop Criticizing Art?

by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Arts Blog

When I was around 13, I visited the Tate Gallery at the Liverpool Docks in Northern England primarily to see an exhibition of J.M.W. Turner and Cy Twombly, a starkly contrasting set of artists and the latter of which I actually had next-to-no prior knowledge of. Turner’s tableaux were mesmerizing, a sheer cacophony of violent maritime depictions in furious reds and oranges juxtaposed to ominous grey skylines. The walls of the gallery were filled with gloriously calm sunsets at sea alongside terrifying raging flames and waves that curved and swayed and spat like sharks feasting on shoals of fish. It was wonderful, an utterly overwhelming delight for the senses.

Carl Kruse Blog - Painting by JMW Turner

Fishermen At Sea,” J.M.W. Turner (1796) – Image courtesy Tate Gallery

In the next room on I was suddenly surrounded by Cy Twombly’s enormous canvases. Scrawls of paint had been twirled and splatted and daubed onto the huge white expanses creating a graffiti-like effect, some with the appearance of words. I hated it. It felt all wrong, an expression of seeming carelessness towards the production of his masterpieces. After having wandered dreamily through Turner’s paintings, this felt like a punch in the eyes, a pointlessly unartistic exposition in the name of ‘art’. Yet, I felt unable to say anything against those huge, grotesque paintings, being observed as they were by a silent audience of respectful spectators.

Carl Kruse Blog - Twombly

“Untitled (Bacchus),” Cy Twombly (2008) – Image courtesy of Tate Gallery

I understand the differences in artistry and approach to creation much more now than I did at 13. I understand that the process of creating a masterpiece is not prescriptive, nor is it defined by one particular artistic style. I also understand that the emotions I felt, being surrounded by Twombly’s scribbles, were valid sentiments, and likely would have pleased Twombly himself should I have recounted them to him. But that doesn’t discount my anger, my frustration that art with no merit except its colossal size and thus imposing presence should be beside the tender daubs of someone like Turner. The art world has always had opposing views on what is, or is not, art, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I don’t disagree that Twombly’s paintings are art. I also don’t wish to debate what ‘beauty’ is with regards to art, as it isn’t always relevant. A piece of art can be incredible without being beautiful. I just want to understand how it is we came to the art world of today, of the 21st Century, where we no longer criticise art.

I am in a generation bewitched by social media, a generation that is unashamedly narcissistic and that relishes self-importance. It is also the generation that produced the Instagram poet Rupi Kaur, along with her pages of simplistic, immature poetry. I have been to slam poetry contests where the winner was crowned not for poetic merit, but for loudly proclaiming how much hardship they had endured through their life. If I sound embittered, it’s because I am. Bygone eras are much the talk of mine and past generations, times when music was exciting, when people wrote letters, when people read books and wrote ones just as wonderful. I often think about the jazz scene of 1920’s Harlem, a sea of exciting talent emerging from an ever-increasing black population, with such greats as Fats Waller and Willie The Lion Smith striking piano keys in the jazz clubs that popped up left right and centre as New York became the epicentre of jazz in the 1930s. It’s that feeling of ‘You had to be there’. I have no doubt in my mind that the musicians playing in Harlem in the 1920s were often showered with tomatoes, booed off-stage, and not invited back until they were better in their respective trades. To be criticised is to be encouraged, to have the drive to get better, to show how good you can really be if you put your mind to something.

Part of the problem with new art is its audience. We can no longer heckle bad poets and bad musicians, or tell people that their paintings are unimaginative or uninspiring. We live, strangely, in a social climate that tells us we need ‘trigger warnings’ for certain books we read, while we watch poets read lines that shout about how they were bullied, raped, oppressed, and harassed without a metaphor in sight to disguise their meanings. And we sit, stony-faced, silent, and clap them, congratulate them on how brave they are to tell us all how much we should pity them. Art is no longer questioned, at least not within the younger generations that I am often amongst.

I remember when I was 15 and won the Young Poet Laureateship for the region where I grew up. Time and time again I would write poems, and time and time again my family would tell me they needed improving, or that they weren’t good at all. Criticism was a wonderful thing for me. It allowed me to grow as an artist, to shape my language into something subtle, sharp and resonant. I was better for it, a more rounded poet and writer, and never once did I resent feedback on my writing, be it bad, or worse, dismissive.

In a world obsessed with art but unable to distinguish the good from the purely egotistical, we find ourselves stranded. I still fell as though I am in that gallery, looking at Twombly’s artwork, perplexed and unimpressed. We discussed the paintings when we went back to school. Twombly’s paintings were ‘experimental’, ‘disturbing’, ‘interesting’, and ‘thought-provoking’. The space to say how much I hated them disappeared quickly as an overriding sentiment of respect for Twombly’s art overtook the classroom. Was it because it was in a gallery, thus it had to be worthy of our awe and wonder? I can’t say. But I think back on that day where I remained silent, and I also think about what would have happened if my family had praised my poetry when they in fact thought it flawed, meaningless and dull. And I will toast to the day that I have the courage to stand up and tell a bad poet what I really think of them, when I have the courage to tell my friend that her indie alternative jazz band needs to get their act together, because all of their music sounds the damn same. I will praise the day that someone tells me they didn’t like my poetry performance, that it was crass or forced or unintelligent, and I will relish the possibility of self-improvement under the motivation of their harsh words. In a world that censors negativity in the face of art, I hope that we can learn to speak our minds once again.


Carl Kruse – Ars Lumen Home Page – Here
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Last blog post was on Escher
Another post by Hazel Anna Rogers – Music, Memory, the Cloud
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