May 30, 2004


Lilacs (1900) is one of my favourite works by the Russian painter Mikhail Vrubel - although I’d have to add that I only know this artist’s paintings from images in books, and on-line. His famous works are held by Russian and Ukrainian museums, and I have never visited either country: Lilacs is in the Tretyakov Gallery, in Moscow.

'Lilacs', by Mikhail Vrubel, oil on canvas, 1900.
Detail from 'Lilacs', by Mikhail Vrubel, oil on canvas, 1900.  Detail from 'Lilacs', by Mikhail Vrubel, oil on canvas, 1900.

The book from which I scanned the images above is a Soviet-era publication (compiled by one S. Kaplanova, and issued by Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad) with texts in English, French, German and Russian. I noted with interest that the Russian for ‘lilacs’ is, if my exceedingly shaky grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet did not mislead me, something like ‘sireny’. I wondered then whether the figure in the painting might be a siren of some kind, and her presence on the canvas due to a straighforward play on words. Having said that, her gesture seems more one of farewell, than a beckoning one. The accompanying text in the book, while poetic, offers no further clue:

The cool, fragrant clusters of lilac blossoms set off the woman’s pale face, wistful and enigmatic. A cold violet light emanates from the blossoms, spectrally luminous in the darkness of the night. Their beauty is the beauty of life…
Detail from a photograph of some lilacs taken in the park near our apartment.
Detail from a photograph of some lilacs taken in the park near our apartment.
lilac Obs. Fr. (now lilas ult. f. Pers. līlak (whence also Turk. leylâk) var. of nīlak bluish, f. nīl blue + dim. suff. -ak - SOED.
Common lilac is a native of the northern Balkan Peninsula. Around 1560, the German ambassador in Constantinople sent off specimens to Vienna, and the culture quickly spread to the rest of Europe […] Etymology: Gr. syrinx, tube or flute, because of the hollow, marrow-filled branches; Lat. vulgaris, common. Like jasmine, lilac belongs to the olive family - source here.
Detail from a photograph of some lilacs taken in the park near our apartment.
Detail from a photograph of some lilacs taken in the park near our apartment.

The lilacs in the parks and gardens in the town where we live are now all in full bloom, and the night air is rich with their fragrance. I took a few photographs of the lilacs in the park near our apartment the other evening: the images above are small snippets cut from these.

Posted by misteraitch at May 30, 2004 02:23 PM | TrackBack

That Russian name for lilacs, sireny?...sounds very much like the Finnish word for these flowers: syreeni, pronounced sort of like "see-rainy" without the "i" sound. I tried unsuccessfully to find it's source in my Finnish dictionary and online. Perhaps it comes from the Latin syringa?

Anyway they are lovely, my favourite spring flowers along with lily of the valley! Their scent brings back memories from chldhood.

Posted by: Marja-Leena on May 31, 2004 07:20 AM

Vasmer's Etymological Dictionary says that it's from the Latin syrinх, syringa, from the Greek surinx, which means tube or pipe.

Posted by: PF on June 1, 2004 07:44 AM

Sweetheart, sireny, or rather syren, means the greyish-violet color of those flowers deriving from the slavonic word "siriy"- grey. Perhaps another source to be concidered is the word "siren" which is the singing mermaid. Notice that Vrubel drew a fairylike girl emerging from the flowers, and Vrubel was a visionary who peeked closely at the secrets of nature and it may well cost him his sight...

Posted by: yulia on February 28, 2006 12:24 PM
Comments are now closed