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Posts Tagged ‘beauty’

Venus of the Woods

October 4, 2016 | by

Celebrating the history of the beloved ash tree.

Charles May, The Old Ash, photograph, 1863.

Charles May, The Old Ash, photograph, 1863.

As a small child, my mother was taken to the Lake District, in the hope that she would have a better chance of survival under the shelter of the northwestern hills than at home on the flat, overexposed coast of Lincolnshire. It was early 1940. It would have been a grand adventure, were it not for the constant reminders that things were not as they should be. It was not just the absence of fathers, uncles, brothers, but the presence in the hotel grounds of oddly damaged things: a blind cat, a broken wheelbarrow, a man who had been at Dunkirk and did not seem quite like other grown-ups. What my mother remembers most vividly is a young woman, pale in face and dress, who spent her days sitting outside, staring up into the branches of the tall ash tree and drawing what she saw. When the sun came out, her pencil lines darkened, turning the tracery of tiny branches into black lace veils. She never spoke, but day after day she looked up and re-created the impossible patterns on her large, flat sheets of paper. What did the ash tree mean to that unknown woman? Or to my mother, in whose agitated, impressionable mind it took root and has remained ever since?

The ash tree is known as the Venus of the woods, and it seems to stir powerful feelings in those who gaze on its graceful form. Whether it is standing in spacious parkland or in an unkempt, November hedge, or rising naked from a sea of bluebells, the ash’s curvy limbs taper to an end with tips pointing to the heavens. A young ash is often like a half-open peacock’s tail, not quite ready to display its beauties; the branches of a mature ash, once fully fanned out, will slope down toward the earth, before sweeping up again, as if to send the buds flying. Through the summer the boughs cascade in all directions, wave-shaped and covered in green sprays. There are no angles on a young ash tree—everything is rounded and covered in fluttering foliage, soft as the feathers in a boa or the fur of a chinchilla. The boughs gain a few inches and furrow with the passing years, but with maturity come striking attitudes. In winter their silhouettes stencil clear skies like a row of unframed stained glass windows. The ebullient black buds stand proud, as if impatient for the spring, but in fact the ash is usually the last to come into leaf and the first to shed its seasonal foliage. The uncovered form of the ash, though, is just as compelling as the full-dress splendor of more eye-catching trees. Read More »

Beauty Marks

September 1, 2016 | by

On Pre-Raphaelite muse Jane Morris.

John Robert Parsons’s photograph of Jane Morris.

A photograph of Jane Morris by John Robert Parsons, 1868.

“Defining British Art,” part of this summer’s 250th anniversary sale at London auctioneer Christie’s, included two lots by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Ligeia Siren (1873), a nude of an unknown model, and Portrait of Jane Morris, bust-length (ca. 1870), a chalk drawing of the legendary Pre-Raphaelite muse—née Jane Burden and known as Janey to her friends—who, despite being married to trailblazing designer William Morris for thirty-seven years, was the love of Rossetti’s life. Only the second work sold (for the tidy sum of £602,500), from which we might infer that Janey’s strange beauty, more than a century after her death, entices at least as much as Rossetti’s signature. A few years ago, his chalk drawing of Janey as Proserpine, goddess of spring and empress of Hades, sold at Sotheby’s for nearly £3.3 million—double the presale estimate.

Rossetti would be gratified indeed. Proserpine, which he reworked in at least eight versions, was his favorite creation, the fullest realization of an artistic drive fueled, above all, by his passion for Janey. A. S. Byatt, in pondering Rossetti’s painterly addiction to Janey in her new book, Peacock and Vine: Fortuny and Morris in Life and at Work, also sees this particular image as the culmination of Rossetti’s entwined artistic and erotic fixations. Byatt, however, is disquieted by it. “There is something appalling,” she writes, “in looking at a whole series of Rossetti’s images, more and more obsessive yet essentially all the same, brooding, dangerous, sexually greedy, too much. The best, and therefore the worst, is Proserpine.” Read More »

Summer Hours, Part 2

July 26, 2016 | by

slough header pr Catch up with Part 1 of Vanessa Davis’s new column. Read More »

Beauty, Truth, and The Girls: An Interview with Emma Cline

July 19, 2016 | by

Emma Cline.

Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, may be loosely based on the Manson murders, but it isn’t really about Manson at all—it’s about the women around him, those attracted to life at the edge of the world. Though the book circles around the blunt facts of Manson’s crimes, it sidesteps the particulars, reducing him to a pitiful, failed musician named Russell whose only talent is tending to his wilting garden of devotees. Instead of dwelling on him, the novel follows fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd, who’s increasingly enthralled by one of the older girls in Russell’s circle.

Cline, a winner of The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize, writes with the kind of beauty the painter Agnes Martin once described as “an awareness in the mind.” “Marion,” Cline’s story in the Review’s Summer 2013 issue, opens with the line, “Cars the color of melons and tangerines sizzled in cul-de-sac driveways.” The Girls is set against a dreamy, at times abstracted, California landscape. Her descriptions shimmer on the page: trying to mimic a girl she admires, Evie stands straighter, “holding my head like an egg in a cup”; a teenage boy’s room reeks of masturbation, “a damp rupture in the air”; girls are “swampy with nostalgia.”

Though she’s encouraged by the warm response The Girls has received, Cline eschews the public eye. “I’m used to the isolated part of writing, the part where you’re doing a lot of work alone, in solitude,” she told me. When we spoke on the phone last month, she’d just landed in LA for a reading. I asked her how long she’d be out West. “Just another week or so,” she said, “and then I’m at large.” Read More »


April 5, 2016 | by

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Maskenball, 1911.

It recently occurred to me that there is one aspect of parties I actively dread. It’s not the socializing. It’s not the dressing up—although it’s true I am not burdened by talent in the hair or makeup department, and begrudge the expense. 

What makes my heart sink is the thought of all that obligatory mutual admiration: “You look beautiful.” “You look great.” Hoping to be the first to get it in; not wanting to sound forced, yet absolutely compelled to join in the ritual. Read More »

Unseen, Even of Herself

November 17, 2015 | by

Before she was guillotined, the inscrutable Madame Roland wrote a remarkable memoir.

A portait of Madame Roland from Coiffure 1er Republique, a compendium of historical French hairstyles

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems, here.

It could be said that the men with the greatest influence on Marie-Jean Phlipon’s life and legacy were two she never met. She rarely let herself depend too heavily on the male figures she knew: her husband, whom she respected and discretely controlled; the lawyer François Buzot, whom she came to love; and the many men of power whose authority she defied. It was Rousseau who provided “exactly the nourishment I needed,” she wrote, having read his La Nouvelle Héloïse in the wake of her mother’s death. “He showed me the possibility of domestic happiness and the delights that were available to me if I sought them.”

Phlipon—a well-read engraver’s daughter who went on to become a martyr of the French Revolution—defined “domestic happiness” differently than most. Two years after Rousseau’s death, she married Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, whose political rise and fall she explores in the thrilling Memoirs she wrote from Paris’s Saint-Pélagie prison in the months leading up to her execution. Thomas Carlyle, the second man who shaped her reputation, was born two years after her death. When he gave his account of her in his 1837 history of the Revolution, it was left to others to decide whether he “interpreted feelings” that she had had herself: Read More »