‘Domestic detail come alive’

Vuillard, Jean Edouard, 1868-1940; Interior with Madame Hessel and Her Dog

(Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Interior with Madame Hessel and Her Dog, 1910: Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives)

‘What would you like to do on your birthday?’

The time before last that I lunched with the Librarian, she steered me to the excellent Sotiris Bakery for spanakopita and a Greek coffee (and some halva and cakes to take away), after which I drifted into the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery to visit a few favourites, including Vuillard’s portrait of Lucie Hessel and her dog.

Lucie Hessel—friend, muse, lover of Vuillard—was the wife of the art dealer Joss Hessel: they remained close friends for many years with Vuillard, to whom they offered constant hospitality in their Rue de Rivoli apartment or the Chateau de la Claye near Versailles. Vuillard lived mainly with his mother until her death: he was then sixty.

In 1955, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Randall Jarrell, thanking him for his review of Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring: he had written that her work was ‘as unmistakable as the first few notes of a Mahler song, the first few patches of a Vuillard interior. (The poems are like Vuillard or Vermeer.)’[1] Bishop wrote that ‘it has been one of my dreams that someday someone would think of Vermeer, without my saying it first, so now I think I can die in a fairly peaceful frame of mind, any old time, having struck the best critic of poetry going that way. . . ’ She continued: ‘Something else rather funny too—I’ve been working on a long poem about an aunt of mine, and when I don’t write on the poem I’ve been trying to use all the same material for either a long story or a short play—and in both of them Vuillard was the person I had in mind for the exact effect I wanted to produce. In fact, in the beginning of the play version I’d already written (in the stage directions) that it was to look like a Vuillard, before I received your clippings. —Well, communication is an undependable but sometimes marvelous thing.’[2]

Vuillard-Seamstresses

(Édouard Vuillard, Deux ouvrières dans l’atelier de couture (Two Seamstresses in the Workroom), 1893, © National Gallery of Scotland / Photo: Antonia Reeve)

And so say most of us. Paris in 1968 was pretty busy with demonstrations, strikes, student occupations of universities, workers’ occupations of factories, running battles with the police and the like; but a little later in the year, Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris were able to indulge in ‘an orgy of paintings and food’, White noted, mentioning ‘[a] marvellous exhibition of Vuillard’. David Marr’s biography quotes another letter of that time: ‘The great joy of Paris was an orgy of paintings, especially little intimate Vuillards “of people sitting over the remains of a meal, women sewing, and nursemaids looking after children in parks. Although he is so very French he is also related to the best 19th century Russian writers in his ability to make domestic detail come alive.”’[3]

What more natural, then, in answer to the Librarian’s question as to what I’d like to do on my birthday than say lunch in Bath, followed by the Vuillard exhibition at the Holburne Museum (Édouard Vuillard: The Poetry of the Everyday, until 15 September)? Alas. Ten minutes before we left I stooped a little to put a book back on a shelf and yelled loudly—not from delight or exultation but because I must have twisted my upper body when shelving it, just enough anyway to wreck my—previously wrecked—back again. Instead of looking at paintings by Vuillard, then, I shouted, winced, clutched at walls and door handles, climbed the stairs on all fours and subsequently spent at least ten minutes getting out of bed, cursing and howling, with the aid of the Librarian and a bemused stare from the cat.

A trip deferred for now. À bientôt, Monsieur Vuillard.

 
Notes

[1] See Randall Jarrell, Kipling, Auden & Co. Essays and Review 1935-1964 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 245.

[2] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 312.

[3] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 329; David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 483.

 

All safely gathered in – Guy Davenport, Stanley Spencer

Piper-Enjoying-Paintings

Here’s a recent arrival: Enjoying Paintings, edited by David Piper, a Pelican Original (at twelve shillings and sixpence), published in 1964. I ordered my secondhand copy at the prompting of a few lines by Guy Davenport—another prodigious instigator of book purchases and readings, not unlike his admired Ezra Pound.

In March 1966, Davenport wrote to Hugh Kenner: ‘[Rene] Odlin tells me the Egyptians wrote letters to the dead, the temple being the post office.’ A month later, he advised: ‘Do add the Penguin Enjoying Paintings to your library (ed. David Piper) – contains essays on specific works by essayists who write in the gracious olden manner. Ayrton on Watteau, for instance. Piper on Holbein also excellent. And an essay on Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, that has moved me more than any contemporary work of English painting. And more than anything in American painting.’[1]

Davenport didn’t say that this essay is by the painter Carel Weight, one or two of whose early paintings are a little reminiscent of Spencer’s own, nor did he mention, and may not have known, that Spencer also wrote letters to the dead, specifically to his first wife Hilda, beginning with a December 1950 letter and continuing until his own death nine years later. At no point did Spencer refer to her being dead. Some of the letters ran to a hundred pages.[2] More than fifty years after his own death, his younger daughter Unity, herself a painter, ends her autobiography, Lucky to be an Artist, with a moving letter addressed to her father.[3]

Unity-Spencer-Lucky

This very high value placed on Spencer’s painting is introduced fairly abruptly but Davenport’s interest in him manifested itself many times and in several contexts.

The attractions of Spencer’s work seem to have been the painter’s direct engagement with a world which is there, the human body crucially a part of its natural beauty; pictures often crowded with puzzling details that required an intense and knowledgeable gaze; and a figure of the kind that he felt too often evaded conventional critical and historical habits of classification. Davenport’s enthusiasms frequently tended to be for the maverick, the misunderstood, the overlooked, the misread and the misrepresented.

‘Christ Preaching at the Henley Regatta’, Davenport’s story in Eclogues, plays on Spencer’s Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta, a painting ‘made of a collage of elements: Dufy, Mallarmé, et d’autres choses.’[4] A few years later, Davenport’s essay ‘Stanley Spencer and David Jones’ begins by pointing to Roger Fry’s part in what was ‘a necessary revolution’ but one which had unforeseen consequences. The hierarchical placement of technique over subject ‘calcified into a dogma: the subject of a work of art is negligible.’ So a good many British artists largely disappeared from serious critical consideration. Davenport views Spencer and Jones as ‘spiritual twins’, together constituting ‘a thoroughly British phenomenon: nonmodernist modernism.’ He adds that, ‘The meaning of a work of art is efficacious only insofar as its charm elicits a response. Thus a new kind of art, like Spencer’s and Jones’s, must educate an audience before it can communicate.’ He remarks also that: ‘Modernism has been owned and operated by various groups with their own interests to look after.’[5] In an essay from the early 1940s, David Jones wrote: ‘“All must be safely gathered in”, as Mr Stanley Spencer said to me, with reference to the making of a picture (a more apt expression of the artist’s business I never heard).’[6]

Dufy-Regatta-at-Henley

(Raoul Dufy, Regatta at Henley: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

In an essay on Jonathan Williams, Davenport discusses English eccentricity, then the tradition stemming from Blake’s Ancients, seeing it for the most part as ‘a tangled and untraced path in and out of official literature and art.’ He mentions Charles Doughty, Tolkien, Edith Sitwell, Bruckner – and Stanley Spencer: ‘we await the historian of these visionaries.’[7] Elsewhere he suggests that Balthus and Spencer ‘illuminate each other’, the latter’s ‘intrepid religious grounding’ comparable to Balthus’ ‘privileged, undisclosed, but articulate psychology’, both of them expressing ‘a sensual delight in the material world that is openly hedonistic’. Davenport sees Balthus in ‘the distinguished category of the unclassifiable, like Wyndham Lewis and Stanley Spencer’, remarking that, ‘If modernity ended by trivializing its revolution (conspicuous novelty displacing creativity), it also has a new life awaiting it in a retrospective survey of what it failed to include in its sense of itself.’[8]

Most evidently, there is, in Thasos and Ohio—a selection of Davenport’s poems and translations—The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, which opens the book:

The Cookham dead begin to rise
When God with April in his eyes
Ended in O its midst the night.
To dogwood flowered hard and white,
To rain and violets overhead,
Sharp music lifted up the dead,
In cuckoo song and silence born,
A silver brilliant hunting horn.

GD-Thasos

In the following 212 lines, fifty or so named figures arise—a touch of verbal equivalence to the Jann Haworth and Peter Blake design for the sleeve of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—many of them familiar from other Davenport writings: Michael Ventris, who deciphered the Linear B script, Ruskin, Alan Turing, Charles Doughty, Hugh Miller, Christina Rossetti, Wittgenstein, Henri Rousseau, Babbage, Stan Laurel (also on the Beatles album cover, together with Oliver Hardy) – and Spencer himself, of course.

And Stanley Spencer rose upright,
Who, naked as a swimmer, stood
As best his sleepy body could
Beside his tombstone while his wise
And deep and dark untroubled eyes
Watched the startled, exultant dead
Take flesh of fire in flesh’s stead.[9]

Stanley Spencer wrote of his painting: ‘The resurrection is meant to indicate the passing of the state of non-realization of the possibilities of heaven in this life to the sudden awakening to the fact. This is what is inspiring the people as they resurrect, namely the new meaning they find in what they had seen before.’[10]

The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

(The Resurrection, Cookham: Presented by Lord Duveen 1927: © Tate Gallery)

The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard is a huge – 108 x 216 in/ 274 x 549 cm – painting, begun in 1924 and completed in 1926. ‘He painted it in a small room over a public house in the Vale of Health, Hampstead. Outside was a fairground, and Spencer used to say that the only way he could ever get far enough to see his picture as a whole was “to have two pennyworth on the swings” and glimpse it as he shot by the window.’[11] That’s a wonderful image. Penelope Fitzgerald, born in 1916, wrote to Howard Woolmer in 1990, ‘I’m glad you like the Spencer Resurrection and the Cookham pictures – I used to be taken to see them when I was quite small, and indeed Stanley Spencer was a familiar sight on Hampstead Heath in those days with his pram full of canvases.’[12]

There were many resurrections in Spencer’s body of work but The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard represented, he thought, a consummation of all his work up to that point.[13] There are many interpretations of it but I doubt if anyone feels confident that they’ve plumbed its depths, not least because, as Carel Weight remarks, the painting is ‘a great piece of autobiography which can tell you more about its author and his immediate family than any self-portrait could have done’.[14] So Spencer’s wife Hilda appears at least three times and his favourite dresses of hers a couple times more; his brother-in-law Richard Carline is there two or three times, and Spencer himself twice.

GD_Hunter_Gracchus

(The jacket painting is Spencer’s Swan Upping at Cookham: Tate Gallery)

As against Wyndham Lewis—‘The lines define, the surfaces are expanses of ink or graphite or paint, NOT cloth or flesh or any texture whatever’—Spencer, ‘by contrast, painted textures only.’[15] Spencer was ‘before all else a poet for whom the natural beauty of the world [ . . . ] was the primary fact.’ Of Spencer’s extensive and unfinished series, Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta, Davenport wrote that it was going to be ‘a very crowded. Bosch-like tangle of people, picnicking, and punts. A great deal of eighteenth-century British humor comes from too many people in a space (Rowlandson, Hogarth, Smollett). This very British theme becomes for Spencer an objet-petit-a [Jacques Lacan’s unattainable object of desire], an intimacy with gratuitous sensual content’. Spencer’s art exemplifies ‘an insistence that the world (not a world created ideally by a choice of attentions) is there.’[16]

Though he spent time during the First World War in the Beaufort War Hospital and later served in Macedonia, experiences which had a huge and lasting effect upon him—and resulted in some extraordinary pictures—the centre of his life and art was Cookham. There’s a world in William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and in William Carlos Williams’ Rutherford – there’s one more distinction in Spencer’s case, which is the erasure of that line between the secular and the holy, between the human, godly and angelic realms. ‘Everything is holy and everything is connected’, Alexandra Harris wrote of Spencer’s work.[17] And so it is.

 

Notes

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 781, 789.

[2] Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harvill Press, 1962), 214.

[3] Unity Spencer, Lucky to be an Artist (London: Unicorn Press, 2015), 229-234.

[4] Bernard Hoepffner, ‘Pleasant Hill: An Interview with Guy Davenport’:
http://wvorg.free.fr/hoepffner/PleasHillEng.html (Accessed 3 July 2019)

[5] Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 112-113, 121, 125.

[6] David Jones, ‘The Myth of Arthur’, in Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings (London: Faber, 1973), 243.

[7] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 188.

[8] Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (New York: Norton, 1989), 19, 18.

[9] Guy Davenport, Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations, 1950-1980 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 9, 10.

[10] Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 226, citing the Spencer collection in the Tate Archives, reference TA 733.3.1.

[11] Carel Weight, ‘The Resurrection: Cookham’, in Enjoying Paintings, edited by David Piper (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964), 225.

[12] Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 358.

[13] Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer (London: Phaidon, 1999), 59.

[14] Weight, ‘The Resurrection: Cookham’, 226.

[15] Questioning Minds, II, 931.

[16] Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus, 121-123.

[17] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames & Hudson, 2010), 179.

 

Albers, Bonnard, Carter: as easy as ABC

Bonnard, Pierre, 1867-1947; Coffee (Le Cafe)

(Pierre Bonnard, Le Café: Tate)

In search of ways to take our minds off the quagmire of Brexit, we head for the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern, just squeezing in before it closes. It was certainly impressive—and important that a woman working in the fields of weaving, textiles and design should be recognised as a significant artist. My difficulties were, firstly, that the lighting, reduced for understandable reasons, made it tricky for me to see some of the materials very clearly; secondly, that the show required a certain level of technical knowledge to appreciate what was actually displayed—knowing a bit about the Bauhaus and more about Black Mountain College didn’t cut the mustard; and, thirdly, lacking the requisite knowledge, chunks of the exhibition seemed rather repetitive. Still, several items, such as the Six Prayers, were astonishing even to the most inexperienced eye.

albers-six-prayers-1965

(Albers: Six Prayers)

To have gone all the way to London, at such expense, only for that might have felt to me a bit, hmm, thin. Luckily, there was, at the same address, an exhibition of paintings, and drawings, and photographs, by Pierre Bonnard. That is to say, light and colour and Marthe, his companion of fifty years, glimpsed, clothed or naked, in the bath, in the kitchen, at the table. She died in January 1942. ‘You can imagine my grief and my solitude’, Bonnard wrote to Henri Matisse, ‘filled with bitterness and worry about the life I may be leading from now on.’ (‘Vous jugez de mon chagrin et de ma solitude pleine d’amertume et d’inquiétude sur la vie que je puis mener encore.’)[1] Julian Barnes, whose essay on the artist is called, not unreasonably, ‘Bonnard: Marthe, Marthe, Marthe, Marthe’, comments that ‘Bonnard’s subject-matter is sometimes so seductive as to be problematic’ and notes that Bonnard’s exteriors, when they occur, retain the qualities of the interiors: ‘Bonnard is the painter of the Great Indoors, even when he’s painting the Great Outdoors’.[2] And those ‘Great Indoors’, of course, are his true domain. Laura Cumming, in a typically acute and discriminating review, remarks that Bonnard ‘turns curiously conventional outdoors’ (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jan/26/pierre-bonnard-the-colour-of-memory-review-tate-modern-wife-marthe)
which is perfectly true – but a lot of that outdoors is seen through an open window and here is the bath, the table, the coffee cup, the door or window frame, the curve of hip or breast or shoulder in Southern French light, the essential Bonnard: the sketched, the familiar, the remembered, the known, felt on the skin and the fingertips and the mind’s eye. There’s an extraordinary canvas, The Sunlit Terrace, which was painted over seven years, 1939-1946, right across the span of the Second World War; and some unsettling late self-portraits which radically undercut the idea of Bonnard as a consistently happy or serene painter.

bonnard-nude inaninterior

(Bonnard, Nude in an Interior: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Back on the 16:30 train, with a valuable reminder, if such were needed, that some people just Can’t Shut Up. Two of them on their phones for miles after mile, talking over and against each other, a twenty-first century duel to set against those of Lermontov, Pushkin, George Canning and Lord Castlereagh. Still, there and back, I sojourned happily enough in the Golden Age of Crime—Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers—as opposed to this age of it, the Brass one.

wise-children

(Wise Children, via The Guardian)

Then, on Saturday, to the marvellous Emma Rice adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children at Bristol Old Vic. The Librarian and her sister shaking with laughter beside me; their mother crying with laughter in the seat in front of me. Songs, dancing, spontaneous applause, tears, jokes, a deafening ovation to end with. As someone rarely seized by things theatrical, I was—seized.

And we are back, with a glass of wine to offset cultural overload—but that Other Thing, alas, is still with us.

References

[1] Antoine Terrasse, Bonnard/Matisse: Letters Between Friends, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Abrams, 1992), 101.
[2] Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015), 142.

Autumn harvest

Sargent-gassed

(John Singer Sargent, Gassed, Imperial War Museums)

September. Originally the seventh month of the year. The Welsh name, ‘Medi’, is the word for reaping; the Irish, ‘Meán Fómhair’ means ‘mid-autumn’; and the Scots Gaelic, an t-Sutltuine, refers to the abundance and cheerfulness of harvest.[1] It hardly feels like mid-autumn here yet, early mornings aside; and while the ‘astronomical’ autumn begins on 23 September, the date of the autumn equinox, the ‘meteorological’ autumn began on 1 September (mine too).

The ‘abundance of harvest’. Yes, I’m currently closely engaged with a handsome festschrift for poet and publisher (and much else) Jonathan Williams, which I intend to write about in the very near future. Jeffery Beam, one of the book’s editors, closes his introduction with the observation that, ‘One might call Jonathan’s life a poetics of gathering, and this book is a first harvest.’[2] Then too, harvest looms very large indeed in a superb recent novel, All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison.[3] She took part in a Festival of Ideas event last night with Tim Pears, ‘The Pastoral Novel and Lessons of History’, held at the main Waterstones branch in Bristol, both of them very impressive, articulate and engaged (the moderator was good too). Melissa Harrison, asked to read an extract from her book, recited from memory, as Alice Oswald does her poetry. With prose, it’s rarer, though I recall an event years ago at which Iain Sinclair read and then Stewart Home recited or, possibly, improvised, talking very quickly and for a good fifteen minutes.

Harrison-Barley

I read Melissa Harrison’s novel on the train to and from Manchester. Set in the 1930s, it doesn’t need to spell out or even point towards the painful resonances with our current situation. The narrator dreams of the countryside in which she grew up. ‘Awake, I would picture in loving detail the valley’s fields and farms, its winding lanes and villages, conjuring up a vision of a lost Eden to which I longed to return. But at last I came to see that there is a danger in such thinking; for you can never go back, and to make an idol of the past only disfigures the present, and makes the future harder to attain’ (324).

Wave-IWMN

The Imperial War Museum North is exhibiting Wave, initially conceived for the installation at the Tower of London in 2014, designed by Tom Piper and sculpted by Paul Cummins. Poppies as symbols of remembrance (the history, the controversies, the disparate opinions) featured in the current exhibition, Lest We Forget? As well as some fascinating photographs, film footage, documents and commissioned war paintings—Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis—there was the huge John Singer Sargent picture, Gassed, which I’d been trying to show to the Librarian for quite a while: when we asked in London it had been lent to Washington but now we’d finally caught up with it.

Whitworth

Once checked-out of the hotel, we walked to the refurbished Whitworth Gallery, a stunning success, every detail a real class act, now one of the Librarian’s favourite places (and mine). To walk into a huge and elegant space—the exhibition is called In the Land—a Terry Frost canvas on either side of the threshold, past a Peter Lanyon, a Bryan Wynter, a Roger Hilton, then a Barbara Hepworth and John Milne’s aluminium Icarus, to the end wall’s pairing of a John Piper and a beautiful Ben Nicholson—it’s a damned fine walk. Prints of Darkness: Goya and Hogarth in a Time of European Turmoil was wonderful and terrifying, reminding me again how precisely Goya’s ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ provides the default text for our times. Textiles from the Islamic World included some breathtaking exhibits and Bodies of Colour—yes, wallpaper—was diverting too.

Goya-sleep-of-reason

(Goya, ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’)

Then the City Gallery—remarkable—with the wonderful cards that people fill in: ‘What did you enjoy most about your visit?’ One read: ‘I saw it with my wife’. Another: ‘The Ancient Arts were decent. Thank you.’ Then the Central Library. Bloody hell. Fantastic. The Wolfson Reading Room. The rows of intent and silent readers. The Henry Watson Music Library. The kids picking out tunes on the piano, working out songs together. Democratic. Non-judgemental. Free. This stuff matters. I think of all the Tories and privatisation fetishists who say: ‘We don’t need libraries’ or ‘Nobody uses libraries’. They know nothing; they display such shameful ignorance that they should never pronounce on this or any other issue again. Never ever again.
References

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 355.

[2] Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens (Westport and New York: Prospecta Press, 2017), xiv.

[3] Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018).

‘Volunteer fireman’s clothes’: Thomas Eakins

Miss-Amelia-Van-Buren

(Eakins, Miss Amelia Van Buren: The Phillips Collection, Washington, D. C. Eakins ‘excelled at painting thought’, Robert Hughes wrote.)

A word about Thomas Eakins – not Thomas Atkins, which is a whole other world* – but Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins, painter, sculptor and photographer, born 25 July 1844 (died 1916). A tremendous artist of the realist persuasion, who didn’t always chime with the prevailing tastes or accepted modes of behaviour. His public ‘often resented having unvarnished truth shoved at it, and he entered his forties regarded as truculent and socially inept – at home with his family and his cabal of students, but otherwise unpleasant to know.’[1]

In Artopia, his art diary, the late John Perreault discussed Thomas Eakins and a recent book about him by Henry Adams, Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist (Oxford University Press, 2005). He asserted that Adams was certainly right in taking to task Lloyd Goodrich, one-time director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, ‘for creating the deceptive view of Eakins as manly, honest, and forthright, posing him as virtuously all-American and the dubious precedent for the all-American representational painters Goodrich was promoting then’. In reality, Perreault says, Eakins ‘had a high-pitched voice, affected volunteer fireman’s clothes and often painted in his underwear; failed his classes in Paris, told dirty jokes, was “feminine,” was not exactly fond of women, was never much of an athlete, and drank a quart of milk with every meal.’
https://www.artsjournal.com/artopia/2006/02/eakins_naked.html

The high point here, obviously, is ‘affected volunteer fireman’s clothes’. Wonderful.

Though he had a three-year stint in Paris, which included training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Eakins was back in Philadelphia by the end of 1870 and remained in the city thereafter, teaching at the Academy until he was forced to resign in 1886, the purported reason being his removal of a male model’s loincloth in a class which included female students.

Eakins-Whitman

(Eakins, Walt Whitman, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine arts)

In December 1887, Eakins took the ferry across the Delaware River to Camden and began painting a portrait of Walt Whitman, a few weeks after their first meeting. Eakins had had no significant contact with the Impressionists in France, absorbing rather the lessons of French academicism: his ‘contemporary reputation as a radical lies more in his pedagogy, his use of photograph, and in his interest in the nude, rather than in his approach to portraiture.’[2] Nevertheless, Whitman would prefer Eakins’ interpretation of him above all the many other versions because it depicted him ‘“without feathers”’.[3] ‘I never knew of but one artist, and that’s Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they thought ought to be rather than what is.’[4]

As so often, ‘Realism’ is the beginning rather than the end of the matter. Robert Hughes remarks that there are two halves of Eakins the realist: the idea of a painting as ‘a factual and consistent slice of life’ but, ‘rejecting the illusion of Impressionist instantaneity’, he is for ‘memory and combination’, for ‘the tangle of feelings, however far under the surface they may be.’ He bought his first camera in 1880 and saw clearly enough how it could both empirical and romantic, that it could ‘describe fact and suggest fiction’.[5]

Eakins’ most familiar painting is probably The Swimming-Hole, first, The Swimmers: apparently, John Perreault comments, Eakins’ widow tried to shift the title further, to the ‘even more sentimental’ The Old Swimming Hole, and denied that he used photographs – but he did.

Thomas_Eakins_-_Swimming_(1895)

(Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

Unsurprisingly, the painting recalls Whitman: ‘Where the splash of swimmers and divers cools the warm noon’.[6] And the title recalls too Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto XIII’, the ‘Confucian’ canto, where Kung walks ‘out by the lower river’ with several companions. He asks them what they would do to fulfil their destinies and they speak of government, military administration, religious practices.

And Tian said, with his hand on the strings of his lute
The low sounds continuing
after his hand left the strings,
And the sound went up like smoke, under the leaves,
And he looked after the sound:
”The old swimming hole,
”And the boys flopping off the planks,
”Or sitting in the underbrush playing mandolins.”
And Kung smiled upon all of them equally.
And Thseng-sie desired to know:
”Which had answered correctly?”
And Kung said, “They have all answered correctly,
”That is to say, each in his nature.”

Reason-Eakins

Back in my book trade days, I remember a book by Akela Reason, Thomas Eakins and the Uses of History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), which drew on unpublished letters, diaries of friends and contemporaries, and period newspapers, and won the SECAC Award for Excellence in Scholarly Research and Publication.

 
*Popular term for a British infantryman, dating back to at least the mid-eighteenth century, prevalent in the First World War, generally shortened to ‘Tommy’, and used not infrequently by Rudyard Kipling, as in the poem of that name:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play-
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you Mr Atkins,” when the band begins to play.

 

References

[1] Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 295.

[2] Jane Watkins, editor, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: 200 Years of Excellence (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2005), 158.

[3] Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Myself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 455.

[4] Quoted by F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941; New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 604.

[5] Hughes, American Visions, 289, 296.

[6] Song of Myself, in Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 98. This edition has a detail from The Swimming Hole on the jacket.

 

Merry Jesting

Rousseau_Carriole-Juniet

(Henri Rousseau, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (1908): Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.)

Published in the Partisan Review in the summer of 1939, Elizabeth Bishop’s appreciation of Gregorio Valdes made no claims for him as a great painter—‘sometimes he was not even a good “primitive”’—and observed that the artist himself saw no difference between ‘what we think of as his good pictures and his poor pictures’, that success and failure seemed to be merely a matter of luck. Most were copied from photographs or reproductions, nevertheless, ‘when he copied, particularly from a photograph, and particularly from a photograph of something he knew and liked, such as palm trees, he managed to make just the right changes in perspective and coloring to give it a peculiar and captivating freshness, flatness, and remoteness.’

Bishop commissioned Valdes to paint a picture of the Key West house she was living in with Louise Crane, and asked the painter for extras: more flowers, ‘a monkey that lived next door, a parrot and a certain kind of palm tree, called the Traveller’s Palm.’ She began her memoir by describing the first Valdes painting that she saw, ‘a real View’: ‘In the middle of the road was the tiny figure of a man on a donkey, and far away on the right the white speck of a thatched Cuban cabin that seemed to have the same mysterious properties of perspective as the little dog in Rousseau’s The Cariole of M. Juniot.’[1] In letters of that period, she referred to Valdes as ‘our new Key West Rousseau’ and ‘our local Rousseau’.[2]

In 1949, Flannery O’Connor met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, and subsequently moved into their house, Ridgefield, Connecticut, as a paying guest. In a letter to Janet McKane, 27 August 1963, O’Connor wrote: ‘Thanks so much for the museum bulletins with devilish dogs etc. The dog I like in painting is one in a painting of Rousseau. I don’t know the name of it but the family is in a wagon, all looking ahead and there is one dog in the wagon and one underneath, kind of prim diabolical dogs. It’s very funny. It used to hang in the Fitzgeralds’ kitchen (the people I lived with in Connecticut) but I have never seen it anywhere else.’[3]

OConnor-InaDillardRussellLibrary

(Flannery O’Connor: Ina Dillard Russell Library via New Georgia Encyclopedia)

It is, of course, the same painting, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (‘Old Juniet’s Cart’), by Henri Rousseau, commonly called ‘Le Douanier’, although ‘he was never a douanier (customs inspector) but a gabelou (employee of the municipal toll service).’[4] Like most of the work of Valdes, Rousseau’s painting began with a photograph, ‘which shows how he selected and revised at will. The bleak snapshot is transformed into a study of red wheels and shafts penetrating masses of black. In the painting the people sit in a compact arrangement in the cart, with space around them, instead of standing formlessly on the kerb. They have become, recognizably, creatures of Rousseau’s vision.’[5] (And four of the people in the picture plus one dog are, pace O’Connor’s memory, not looking ahead but rather at us—only old Juniet and two of the dogs seem to be looking ahead.)

Rousseau has consistently been mocked or celebrated, and sometimes both simultaneously, as was the case with most of the guests attending the famous banquet, given in Rousseau’s honour by Pablo Picasso and Fernande Olivier at the Bateau Lavoir, probably on 21 November 1908. Those guests included Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, André Salmon and Georges Braque. Many years later, Picasso commented that it was ‘vraiment une blague [really a joke]. Nobody believed in his talent, only Rousseau took it seriously. He wept with joy.’ And yet Picasso was ‘the only person present who genuinely admired Rousseau’s work.’[6]

André Derain commented on the work of Henri Rousseau that, ‘“It seems hardly worthwhile searching and using technical training, when a person so simple, so pure, such a dope, in fact, can succeed in giving such an impression; his work is the triumph of the dopes.”’[7] Nevertheless, his influence on several other painters, notably Robert Delaunay, is often remarked, and Guy Davenport suggests that Picasso’s career-long habit of ‘combining full face and profile’, which became ‘a stylistic trademark’, prompted Rousseau’s ‘perfectly accurate observation, “You and I, M. Picasso, are the two greatest living painters, I in the modern manner, you in the Egyptian,” the full-face eye in a face seen sideways being the rule in Egyptian drawing.’[8]

So too, the impact of the Rousseau retrospective at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants (the year following his death) was considerable. The younger artists ‘conspired to present a retrospective exhibition’ of forty-seven of Rousseau’s paintings. ‘Esteemed as a true “primitive” by Delaunay and Léger, Rousseau was considered a precursor by the salon cubists, on a par with Cézanne, another modernist primitive’.[9]

John, Gwen, 1876-1939; A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris

(Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris: Museums Sheffield)

There were other, perhaps less predictable, appreciations. ‘In the Indépendants a man named Rousseau had a collection of pictures which you would be very interested in, I’m sure’, Gwen John wrote in a letter of 22 August 1911. ‘He has died lately. He was a douanier and at fifty year[s] old he felt he must paint and so he painted, not knowing at all how to paint. His pictures are very remarkable works, as you can imagine, but they are works of art. I hope you will be able to see them some day, but I don’t know where they are now. I suppose they have gone to his family. The other exhibitors in the Indépendants are just mad people.’[10]

Among recent critics, Robert Hughes wrote that Rousseau meant his visions to be absolutely real, the authenticity of the jungle scenes resting on a tissue of fibs about serving in the French army in Mexico in the 1860s. It was important, Hughes went on, that these spectacles ‘should seem witnessed, not invented’ – and they had, in fact, been witnessed twice, once in Rousseau’s imagination, once more in the Jardin des Plantes.[11] In fact, Roger Shattuck comments, much of the ‘lingering falsehood’ stems from Apollinaire’s articles, in which he stated that Rousseau ‘went to Mexico with troops sent by Napoleon III to support Maximilian, and that it is the memory of the “forbidden” tropical fruits in Central America that obsessed him in his jungle paintings.’ There’s no evidence of such a trip but, as Shattuck remarks, ‘Rousseau’s imagination was capable of its own voyages.’[12]

So it was. His paintings are unsettling but oddly compelling, with their huge children and tiny animals, moustachioed figures frozen in peculiar poses, startling vegetation, sly self-portraits, the sleeping gypsy (who is, in fact, awake, though pretending to be dead), the velvety exoticism of his snake-charmer.

Rousseau_Merry_Jesters

(Henri Rousseau, Les joyeux farceurs: Louis and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

‘Until we are willing to enter Rousseau’s world’, Guy Davenport writes, ‘we are going to misread all his paintings.’ (He has just discussed five such misreadings, of Rousseau’s Les joyeux farceurs.) And, ‘What, psychologically, was most useful to Rousseau was not childishness but a quality wholly mature: the ability to fool himself.’ That is, he saw his paintings as he wished to see them. ‘In this he was a kind of Don Quixote; and, as with the Don, Rousseau wins us over to his way of seeing.’[13]

In a letter to Hugh Kenner (1 March 1963), accompanying his long poem, Flowers and Leaves, Davenport signed himself ‘The Douanier Rousseau of Poetry’ (Kenner’s letter of 1 May 1963 began ‘Dear Mr Rousseau’).[14] * And, as Davenport mentions in the essay just cited, Monsieur Rousseau is there, in that poem:

Henri Rousseau’s garden jungle
Is sincerity’s domain.

And:

Mr Rousseau, master in the modern manner,
Has depicted us in forests of flowers, inquisitive
As catfish, intelligent as Miss Gertrude Stein.[15]

* (Currently scheduled for October this year, and keenly awaited in some quarters, is Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward Burns, published by Counterpoint Press: a total of 2016 – no, that’s not a date – pages: two volumes of a thousand pages each. Quoted price is $95.00 which, given that a lot of slim UK monographs come in at £70 or even £80 these days, seems a snip.)

 

 

References

[1] ‘Gregorio Valdes, 1879-1939’, in Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2008), 326-332.

[2] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 75; Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, 746.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 1190.

[4] Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, revised edition (New York: Vintage, 1968), 46.

[5] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 100.

[6] John Richardson, A Life of Picasso. Volume II, 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life (London: Pimlico, 1997), 110, 112.

[7] Derain, in Denys Sutton, André Derain (London: Phaidon, 1959), 27: quoted in Judi Freeman, The Fauve Landscape (London: Guild Publishing, 1990), 110.

[8] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 68.

[9] Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, editors, A Cubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 1906-1914 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), 120, 121.

[10] Gwen John to John Quinn, in Letters and Notebooks, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 69.

[11] Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, revised edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 229.

[12] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 46.

[13] Guy Davenport, ‘What Are Those Monkeys Doing?’, in Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 14, 26.

[14] Edward M. Burns, ‘Questioning Minds: The Letters of Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport’, The Hopkins Review, 8, 3 (Summer 2015), 338-371 (349).

[15] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 91, 110.

 

Back to normal

Morris

We stayed in Walthamstow in December 2017 mainly to be sure of finally getting to the William Morris Gallery. Housed in a mid-eighteenth century house, in which Morris lived between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two, the Gallery reopened in 2012 after a major redevelopment. We timed the visit to coincide with an exhibition of the work of May Morris, William’s younger daughter, artist and designer of wallpapers, jewellery, embroidery and much else: teacher, lecturer and editor of the 24-volume collected edition of William Morris’s works: http://maymorrisartandlife.co.uk/the-exhibition/

On this occasion of William Morris’s birthday (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896), I was thinking of Peter Stansky noting that, among other paradoxes, Morris’s strong dislike of the Renaissance had to be set against his providing a fine example of what has become the conventional definition of ‘a Renaissance man’. Opposing the very notion of individual genius was a man of evident individual genius. As Stansky remarked, ‘What Morris was unprepared to recognize was that his was truly the exceptional case.’[1]

May_Morris.Wiki

(May Morris)

The narrator of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between remarks at one point, ‘I was in love with the exceptional and ready to sacrifice all normal happenings to it’.[2] Yes, that ‘normal’ – what is it and what has it become? I saw too a photograph, earlier today, in which a ‘March For Our Lives’ demonstrator in Washington held up a placard reading ‘This is not normal’. We said, of course, ‘Back to normal’ as the scheduled strike period ended and the Librarian returned to what was hoped and desired to be precisely that. But normality, like nostalgia, isn’t what it used to be. From the individual and small-scale to the national and supranational, the stable and the commonsensical have taken a vacation of unspecified length.

On that smallest scale—deliveries cancelled; collections missed; a plasterer working in the house—my own ‘normal’ wasn’t shaping up too well and, essentially, I needed to keep out of the way. Work on walls I might have dodged; work on ceilings made things a little trickier. So I walked to the newsagent, then out over the park to the station and caught a train to Bath.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that, just as cats can immediately spot the one man or woman in the room unsympathetic to cats—and head straight for them—so men on trains with mobile phones and loud voices can pick me out in a crowded carriage—‘Hey, a guy with a book!’—and are thus able to position themselves behind my right ear before getting stuck in to a detailed and repetitive progress report on a telecommunications project, involving several individual contracts. The train ride was thirteen minutes long: when I arrived in Bath, the palms of my hands were slightly damp but I’d suffered no blackouts and the telecommunications man was still in rude health.

(Rex Whistler, The Foreign Bloke; Thomas Gainsborough, Louisa, Lady Clarges: both Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)

So: bookshops, cafés, parks, canal path walking but mainly looking at pictures—David Inshaw’s The River Bank (Ophelia), William Roberts’ The Dressmakers, Gainsborough, Joseph Wright, Thomas Barker—while reading Elizabeth Bishop whenever I could:

‘Mr. Valdes had a wonderful time, I think. It was rather exhausting for us, though, because he speaks scarcely any English, and he stayed from four till seven. We had sherry, which he seemed to regard as just “wine.” He kept saying “More wine” and he finished off the bottle, while Charlotte and I became sicker and sicker. The high point of the affair was when he and Charlotte imitated mosquitoes and buzzed around the room.’ And, ‘Since our patronage he has changed his sign (a palette stuck on the front of his cottage) from “Sign Painter” to “Artistic Painter”. . . ’[3]

Valdes-painting-key-west

https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3578226
(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

But yes, that ‘normal’. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson entitled her memoir—in the course of which she wrote of the feelings of sympathy shared by people, even when they didn’t know one another, inside the giant tent during the church’s Glory Crusades. ‘The tent was like the war had been for all the people of my parents’ age. Not real life, but a time where ordinary rules didn’t apply. You could forget the bills and the bother. You had a common purpose.’[4] This was something that I already associated with my own late mother, not in a religious context but purely a social one. For my mother, it was a time when class barriers fell away and everyone was nice to one another and pulled together. Rarely, if ever, mentioned were those opportunities provided to—and enthusiastically taken up by—looters, murderers, rapists, black marketeers and fraudsters. It was, quite simply, the most exciting time—perhaps, unambiguously, the best time—of her life. And this widely-held view of the past, particularly that period of the past, had, I suspect, a strong bearing on the recent convulsions in this country.

Ideas of the normal change over time, with age, within social groups; and some are more obvious than others. The general shift to increasingly liberal social values makes the hundreds of capital offences current in the early nineteenth century, famously including such crimes as impersonating a Chelsea pensioner and damaging Westminster Bridge, almost comic now. And it was quite normal in the nineteenth century for the family album to have photographs of the infant dead, choreographed so that, with eyes open, they still seemed to be alive.[5] Now, I’m often struck by the extraordinary lengths to which some people go to avoid or conjure away the whole subject of death.

‘It may well be’, Allan Bloom observed, ‘that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.’[6] A text for the times, you may think. Still, as Herbert Read noted, ‘it is perfectly possible, even normal, to live a life of contradictions.’[7]

So it is, so it is. I wonder, though, whether the possibility of not living a life of contradictions, is fast vanishing – if it has not already left the building.

References

[1] Peter Stansky, Redesigning the World: William Morris, the 1880s, and the Arts and Crafts (Princeton University Press, 1985), 6.

[2] L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between ([1953] Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 94.

[3] To Frani Blough and Margaret Miller, 3 June 1938: One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 75.

[4] Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011; London: Vintage 2012), 70, 71.

[5] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), 375.

[6] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 75.

[7] Herbert Read, Contrary Experiences (London: Faber, 1963), 62.