Although cloud watching seems to be reaching ever-higher levels of popularity nowadays, this noble activity has been a favorite pastime of sensitive and artistically inclined individuals long before the advent of modern photographic techniques.
In his nocturnal composition Nuages (“Clouds”), Claude Debussy tried to capture “the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.”
Debussy’s visual, descriptive language brings to mind impressionistic images of similar themes. Conversely, painters would also use music as a way to better illustrate the effects of their own art. In a letter to his brother Theo in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh wrote: “…in a picture I want to say something comforting, in the way that music is comforting.”
Vincent van Gogh, ‘Wheat Field Under Cloudy Sky’ (Oil on canvas, 1890)
A somewhat darker, and at times even disturbing, vision arises in some of Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic masterpieces, such as Rashomon (1950) and Ran (1985). Here, the depiction of imposing cloud formations serves as a symbol for the futility and the ephemeral status of human affairs, signifying the tragic dimensions of man’s passing from this world.
Stills from Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ (1985)
In the dedication of Paris Spleen, one of the founding texts of literary modernism, Charles Baudelaire had dreamed “of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme” that could “adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience.”
In the opening piece, L’étranger (“The Stranger”), Baudelaire’s enigmatic figure rejects received truths, certainties and conventions, retaining faith only to one’s self and the beauty of passing clouds…
“Tell me, enigmatical man, whom do you love best, your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?
I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.
Your friends? Now you use a word whose meaning I have never known.
Your country? I do not know in what latitude it lies.
Beauty? I could indeed lover her, Goddess and Immortal.
Gold? I hate it as you hate God.
Then, what do you love, extraordinary stranger?
I love the clouds… the clouds that pass… up there… up there… the wonderful clouds!”