Monday, June 12, 2017

Tristan and Isolde by Rogelio de Egusquiza y Barrena (1845-1915)

Tristan und Isolde: Death (1910)

Tristan and Isolde are two of the great lovers of legend and since their first appearance, as Tristan and Iseult, in 12th century Franco-Norman poetry, there have been many versions of their story.  Like Romeo and Juliet, Paolo and Francesca and Anthony and Cleopatra, it is a doomed love which suited the Victorian sensibility.  Matters are complicated in that the story is a love triangle in that Tristan is sent by his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, to bring back the Irish princess Isolde to be Mark's bride.  However, on the way back the two take a love potion.  Depending on the version of the story this is either accidentally or Isolde takes the potion destined for her and King Mark and gives it to Tristan instead, thus becoming a typical (for the Victorians) predatory woman.  The two fall in love but King Mark doesn't learn of their affair for some time. When he does he decides to hang Tristan and burn Isolde at the stake but Tristan escapes, rescues Isolde and flees to the forest where they are not discovered again for some years.  Eventually Mark persuades Tristan to return Isolde to him and he is banished to Brittany where he marries a woman, also called Iseult ( not coincidentally).

Tristan and Isolde: Life (1912)

In one version of the story, Mark treacherously kills Tristan, while he is playing the harp, with a poisoned lance. In the other version Tristan is injured in a fight with other knights and sends his friend to bring Isolde, who is the only person who can heal him, across the sea.  His friend is told to display white sails on his ship if he is bringing back Isolde and black if he is not. However, Tristan's jealous wife, sick of being an Isolde substitute lies to him about the colour of the sails and Tristan, thinking that Isolde no longer cares for him, dies of grief.  On arriving in Brittany Isolde also dies on seeing Tristan's body and this is the scene depicted in Egusquiza's painting.

Study for Isolde (1893)

It is not surprising that such a melodramatic story appealed to the Victorians and many artists of the time did their own paintings of the couple, mostly full of medieval backdrops and costume.  Egusqueza's version has a rare eroticism about it with Isolde barely dressed in the flimsiest of,  garments, her breasts exposed. He based Isolde's figure on a nude study he had done some years before, adding the lightest drapery to the figure for the painting.   This was not a random drawing, later re-used for unconnected paintings years later, in the manner of Delacroix; he was already planning his Tristan and Isolde painting back in 1893.

Study for Isolde (1896)

Egusqueza came from a well-off family from Santander. in the north-western, Basque area of Spain and studied art in Madrid and then Paris. After some travel he returned to Paris and stayed there until a one year visit to Rome.  In 1876 when back in Paris, he first heard the music of Richard Wagner and from then on developed a fixation on the operas of the composer.  He later got to know Wagner and drew his portrait.

Kundry (1894)

He started to feature Wagnerian themes in his paintings, although more often illustrating characters rather than actual scenes.   This drawing is of Kundry, the high messenger of the Grail, from Wagner's final opera Parsifal.  Wagner handed Egusquiza a copy of the manuscript of Parsifal for him to look at in 1880 and the painter attended the premier in Bayreuth in 1882.

Kundry (1906)

Egusqueza knew Wagnjer's operas intimately and played the music himself on the piano.  He began to attend performances of the operas in Bayreuth.  He started work on his Tristan and Isolde project in the early eighteen nineties and knew that he wanted to produce  paintings illustrating two key scenes from the opera, Firstly, the finale of Act III with Isolde's death upon the body of Tristan (in Wagner's version of the legend Tristan is still (barely) alive when Isolde finds him on the beach).

Tristan and Isolde: life (1893)

The second paintingwas to depict Tristan and Isolde alive in the night (from Act II).  The opera itself is about the tensions between night and day with the lovers embracing the night, which enables them to pursue their amorous encounters undiscovered.  It is about life and death too, of course and Wagner was influenced by the rather pessimistic views of philosopher Artur Schopenhauer, and through Wagner, Egusqueza embraced his views too.  In this early rendering by the artist, a diaphanously clad Isolde is embraced by the warrior Tristan.

Tristan and Isolde (1896)

The figures seem to be enveloped in dark. Egusquiza had written a book on stage lighting and was very aware of the light effects he wanted in his pictures.  The final painting of the lovers alive was not completed until 1912, three years before the artist's death.  Both are large canvases, some five feet by eight.

Tristan and Isolde 1906

In this drawing, Egusquiza presents his final composition for the lovers. Isolde's arm is moved from the initial sketches so that she holds Tristan's wrist, linking them in death.  It was anoher five years before the final painting was first exhibited at the Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1911, where it was rapturously received. Privately owned Tristan and Isolde: Death  was not seen again in public until a retrospective of the artist in his home town of Santander in 1995.  It made a huge impact and became well known as a result.  In 2000 it was bought by the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum where it hangs today.  Tristan and Isolde: Life is now just forty five miles away in the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Santander and Cantabria.

Egusquiza, through his intimate knowledge of Wagner's opera, has produced a painting that matches the passion and tragedy of the music and is much more than a man and a woman in medieval clothe,s like most of the other depictions of the chracters..

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