Normally, I change the wallpaper on my laptop about every week.  This one, from Alan Fearnley, has been there for nearly two because I find the whole tableau incredibly appealing:  restful, old-fashioned, a beautiful car and a pretty lady… what more could one ask for?

Right-click to embiggen.


I can’t remember whether I’ve ever told the story behind my first (published) novel, Vienna Days.

Here goes.

I’ve always been fascinated by how people’s lives are shaped and/or changed by massive societal change.  Back in the early 1990s, this fascination was focused on the Secession Movement of the late 18th century in Vienna, and I wondered just how it would have felt to be someone who was a typical bourgeois, but over time got subverted by the changing times.

Of course, I’d done a lot of reading about 1880s Vienna (which is what sparked the whole thing) and the first thing that struck me was the fact that the suicide rate among young people in Vienna during this period was the highest ever recorded, and the highest in Europe as a whole.  So naturally, that became the first sentence of the novel.

The second thing to strike me was that when Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had committed suicide, his funeral procession was attended by tens of thousands of people because, as the story goes, nobody likes a good funeral more than the Viennese.  So of course that became the first scene of the novel.

A story idea then began to assert itself.  Imagine that a bourgeois young man became seduced by the non-conformist Secession movement, and in secret began to do something that, if discovered, would spell ruin for his career — but he did it anyway, because the allure of this new movement was irresistible.  But what could that be?

Luckily, I imagined that he would have considerable artistic talent, hitherto unrealized because of his studies, and that led him to secretly draw pornographic pictures.  But pictures of whom?

I had already put this protagonist into a coffee bar where he became involved with a group of ne’er-do-well artists, and one of the people involved with the group was a mysterious and beautiful young woman named Astrid.

I was rather stuck at that point, so I stopped writing to read about pornography of that period, in Erotica  (Charlotte Hill and William Wallace).

There I discovered the works of an anonymous Austrian artist, who had drawn his images in charcoal and cryptically signed his work “A1”.   Wait… “A” for someone named “Astrid”?  Why not?  All I had to do was change the time period of the art, from the 1930s back to the 1880s — easy-peasy.

So I wrote the rest of the thing in about two months (I still had an actual job at the time, which took out my writing time, damn it).

And here’s a sample of the “A1” charcoals:

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Twisted Bodies

I don’t know when I developed my fascination for the human form when it’s been contorted or twisted, for whatever reason or by whatever force.

Maybe it was at the Rodin Museum on an icy late-December day in Paris, where I saw this:

It depicts the fate of Ugolino the Count of Gherardesca, who while immured in Pisa’s Muda Tower, was driven mad by hunger and ended up eating his own children to survive.  I remember standing there, frozen to the bone, but unable to escape the tragedy.  (Nice story, but pure fiction.  When Ugolino’s bones were exhumed and examined for DNA traces of cannibalism, none were found.)  Of the Burghers Of Calais, we will not speak:

In warmer climes (Vienna, also in December but indoors), I saw a couple of paintings by Austrian Egon Schiele, who after WWI was unable to see any kind of future for mankind, and his artistic vision was distorted thereby in his depictions of people:

That’s The Lovers’ Embrace, and one has to have pity on them — which was his intention.  Even his own wife Edith wasn’t spared:

…nor his mistress, Wally [sic] :

And so to the modern day, where others — perhaps sharing Schiele’s attitude, or maybe just having their own mordant view of the human form, have produced works such as this:

I don’t know who the artists are, but their work fascinates me still.

Never Mind The Bureaucracy

I was not familiar with 19th-century artist Giovanni Segantini, but I like his story, for obvious reasons:

In the spring of 1865, his mother died after spending the past seven years in increasingly poor health. His father left Giovanni under the care of Irene, his second child from a previous marriage, and again traveled in search of work. He died a year later without returning home and leaving his family nothing. Without money from her father, Irene lived in extreme poverty. She was forced to spend most of her time working menial jobs while leaving Giovanni to maintain on his own.

Irene hoped to better her life by moving to Milan, and in late 1865 she submitted an application to relinquish Austrian citizenship for both her brother and her. She either misunderstood the process or simply did not have enough time to follow through, and although their Austrian citizenship was revoked she neglected to apply for Italian citizenship. As a result, both Segantini and his sister remained stateless for the rest of their lives.

Segantini met Bugatti’s sister, Luigia Pierina Bugatti (1862–1938), known as “Bice”, and they began a life-long romance. Although Segantini tried to marry Bice the next year, due to his stateless status he could not be granted the proper legal papers. In opposition to this bureaucratic technicality, they decided to live together as an unmarried couple. This arrangement led to frequent conflicts with the Catholic church that dominated the region at this time, and they were forced to relocate every few years to avoid local condemnation.

And they stayed together for life — and the hell with both the Church and the bureaucracy.  As for his paintings, I like these ones the best:

Lovely stuff.  And like Delacroix (two weeks ago), Segantini’s work proved to be a bridge, only this time between Divisionism and Impressionism.  I get the idea, though, that style or “school” was unimportant to him:  he painted according to his own mood and feeling, blazing his own path.

My kinda guy.

The Importance Of The Bridge

Everyone knows about French artist Eugène Delacroix, who painted so many works which later became iconic that his value to Fine Art (not to mention civilization) is pretty much unchallenged.

Liberty Leading The People

And yes, many feel that he was the bridge, artistically speaking, between Classical and Romantic art and is therefore Very Important:

Massacre At Chios

Me, I just like the way he painted women:

Mademoiselle Rose

Death of Sardanapelus

Medea About To Kill Her Children

Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi

Louis of Orleans Revealing His Mistress

Delacroix’s style, to my eyes anyway, changes from piece to piece, from Classical to Romantic to almost-Impressionist — all depending on the topic he’s depicting.  Heck, the Louis of Orleans  painting above is almost Rococo in its playfulness.

And considering that he lived and worked during the hidebound early nineteenth century, that is one hell of an achievement.

Barque of Dante

Landscapes Extraordinaire

Ever since I took a few Art Appreciation classes during my belated university career*, I have been an admirer of Corot’s landscapes — sheesh, okay, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot — because for some reason, they seem to me to straddle the hyper-realism of the Academy and the later swirling Impressionists like Monet.  Here are a few which typify this part of his work:

A Farmyard near Fontainebleau

A Farmyard in the Nievre

The Path leading to the House

Trees and a Swamp

A View Near Volterra

Smyrna, A Boat

A Sudden Gust Of Wind

I love this last one most of all, because it’s almost a photograph, so well does he capture the effect of wind on both the trees and the walker.  But I would be happy to hang all the above on my walls.

In fact, what I think I’d do is get four small 18″x12″ Corot landscapes from, say, iCanvas and arrange them on a wall, thus:

Hey, it’s not too bad a dream, is it?

Corot also did portraits and such, but to be honest, I don’t care for them at all.  Here’s one which I think is his best:

…and another more like his others:

Sorry, but no.  I have high standards when it comes to portrait paintings, what can I say?

*The appreciation of art was truly a neglected part of my education.  Art classes at high school gave me an understanding of movements such as Impressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism and so on, but I never learned to appreciate art properly.  So when I went back to university in my early 50s, I took one such class, realized that I needed to take another, and then took a couple more.

I just wish I’d taken them earlier on in life, because I’ve missed so much.