Marcel Proust – Remembrance of Things Past,1913-27 The Captive 1923

Vermeer View of DelftThe circumstances of his death were as follows. A fairly mild attack of uraemia had led to his being ordered to rest. But, an art critic having written somewhere that in Vermeer’s `View of Delft’ (lent by the Gallery at The Hague for an exhibition of Dutch painting), a picture which he adored and imagined that he knew by heart, a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself, Bergotte ate a few potatoes, left the house, and went to the exhibition. At the first few steps he had to climb, he was overcome by an attack of dizziness. He walked past several pictures and was struck by the aridity and pointlessness of such an artificial kind of art, which was greatly inferior to the sunshine of a windswept Venetian palazzo, or of an ordinary house by the sea. At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. “That’s how I ought to have written,” he said. “My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.” Meanwhile he was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition. In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow. He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter. “All the same,” he said to himself, “I shouldn’t like to be the headline news of this exhibition for the evening papers.” He repeated to himself: “Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall.” Meanwhile he sank down on to a circular settee; whereupon he suddenly ceased to think that his life was in jeopardy and, reverting to his natural optimism, told himself: “It’s nothing, merely a touch of indigestion from those potatoes, which were undercooked.” A fresh attack struck him down; he rolled from the settee to the floor, as visitors and attendants came hurrying to his assistance. He was dead. Dead for ever? Who can say? Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self- sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there – those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only – if then! – to fools. So that the idea that Bergotte was not dead for ever is by no means improbable.

Marcel Proust, 1871-192      À la recherche du temps perdu, 1913-27 Remembrance of Things Past,  Volume 5: La Prisonnière, 1923  The Captive.  Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, 1922-31; 4 volumes, 1934

Image: Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c.1660-61, Oil on canvas. 98.5 × 117.5 cm (38.8 × 46.3 in), Mauritshuis, The Hague

Petrarch – Il Canzoniere, 1327-1368, Sonnets 77, 78

Petrarca Laura de noves
Sonnet 77.

Per mirar Policleto a prova fiso

Polyclitus gazing fixedly a thousand years
with the others who were famous in his art,
would not have seen the least part
of the beauty that has vanquished my heart.

But Simone must have been in Paradise
(from where this gentle lady came)
saw her there, and portrayed her in paint,
to give us proof here of such loveliness.

This work is truly one of those that might
be conceived in heaven, not among us here,
where we have bodies that conceal the soul.

Grace made it: he could work on it no further
when he’d descended to our heat and cold,
where his eyes had only mortal seeing.

Sonnet 78.

Quando giunse a Simon l’alto concetto

When Simone had matched the high concept
I had in mind with the design beneath his hand,
if he had given to this noble work
intelligence and voice with the form,

he would have eased my heart of many sighs,
that make what’s dearer to others vile to me:
since she’s revealed to the sight, so humble,
promising peace to me in her aspect.

But when I come to speak with her,
benignly though she seems to listen,
her response to me is still lacking.

Pygmalion, what delight you had
from your creation, since the joy I wish
but once, you possessed a thousand times.

Petrarch, Francesco Petraca, 1304-1374 Il Canzoniere,1327-1368 Song Book, Sonnets 77 , 78, )

Polyclitus, was a 5th century BC Greek sculptor; Simone Martini,1283-1344, was a Sienese painter. He was a friend of Petrarch and painted a lost portrait of Laura referred to in the poem.

Per mirar Policleto a prova fiso
con gli altri ch’ebber fama di quell’arte
mill’anni, non vedrian la minor parte
de la belta che m’ave il cor conquiso.
Ma certo il mio Simon fu in paradiso
(onde questa gentil donna si parte),
ivi la vide, et la ritrasse in carte
per far fede qua giu del suo bel viso.
L’opra fu ben di quelle che nel cielo
si ponno imaginar, non qui tra noi,
ove le membra fanno a l’alma velo.
Cortesia fe’; ne la potea far poi
che fu disceso a provar caldo et gielo,
et del mortal sentiron gli occchi suoi.
Quando giunse a Simon l’alto concetto
ch’a mio nome gli pose in man lo stile,
s’avesse dato a l’opera gentile
colla figura voce ed intellecto,
di sospir’ molti mi sgombrava il petto,
che cio ch’altri a piu caro, a me fan vile:
pero che ‘n vista ella si mostra humile
promettendomi pace ne l’aspetto.
Ma poi ch’i’ vengo a ragionar co llei,
benignamente assai par che m’ascolte,
se risponder savesse a’ detti miei.
Pigmalion, quanto lodar ti dei
de l’imagine tua, se mille volte
n’avesti quel ch’i’ sol una vorrei.

Anthony Burgess – A Clockwork Orange,1962

Herman+Cornelius Makkink Herman Makkink. Rocking Machine

Chapter 6.

As I stepped back from the kick I must have like trod on the tail of one of these dratsing creeching pusspots, because I slooshied a gromky yauuuuuuuuw and found that like fur and teeth and claws had like fastened themselves round my leg, and there I was cursing away and trying to shake it off holding this silver malenky statue in one rooker and trying to climb over this old ptitsa on the floor to reach lovely Ludwig van in frowning like stone. And then I was into another saucer brimful of creamy moloko and near went flying again, the whole veshch really a very humorous one if you could imagine it sloochatting to some other veck and not to Your Humble Narrator. And then the starry ptitsa on the floor reached over all the drat sing yowling pusscats and grabbed at my noga, still going ‘Waaaaah’ at me, and, my balance being a bit gone, I went really crash this time, on to sploshing moloko and skriking koshkas, and the old forella started to fist me on the litso, both of us being on the floor, creeching: ‘Thrash him, beat him, pull out his finger—nails, the poisonous young beetle,’ addressing her pusscats only, and then, as if like obeying the starry old ptitsa, a couple of koshkas got on to me and started scratching like bezoomny. So then I got real bezoomny myself, brothers, and hit out at them, but this baboochka said: ‘Toad, don’t touch my kitties,’ and like scratched my litso. So then I screeched: ‘You filthy old soomka’, and upped with the little malenky like silver statue and cracked her a fine fair tolchock on the gulliver and that shut her up real horrorshow and lovely.

Anthony Burgess,1917-1993    A Clockwork Orange,1962

Images: A Clockwork Orange, 1971. Herman Makkink, Sculpture Machine. The large erotic paintings in Alex’s bedroom, and the Cat Lady’s living room are by Herman’s brother, Cornelius Mikkink.

A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian novel by Burgess. The film directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971 was described by Burgess as, “a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence” and “the film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die.”

Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange. An interview with Michel Ciment:


Alex has a close relationship with art (Beethoven) which the other characters do not have. The cat lady seems interested in modern art but, in fact, is indifferent. What is your own attitude towards modern art?

I think modern art’s almost total pre-occupation with subjectivism has led to anarchy and sterility in the arts. The notion that reality exists only in the artist’s mind, and that the thing which simpler souls had for so long believed to be reality is only an illusion, was initially an invigorating force, but it eventually led to a lot of highly original, very personal and extremely uninteresting work. In Cocteau’s film Orpheé, the poet asks what he should do. ‘Astonish me,’ he is told. Very little of modern art does that – certainly not in the sense that a great work of art can make you wonder how its creation was accomplished by a mere mortal. Be that as it may, films, unfortunately, don’t have this problem at all. From the start, they have played it as safe as possible, and no one can blame the generally dull state of the movies on too much originality and subjectivism.

Anne Thackeray Ritchie – From an Island, 1877

Julia Margaret-Cameron-Lilies and Pearls 1864-5

Chapter III. Pg 23

 The little procession comes winding up the down, Lord Ulleskelf and the painter walking first, in broad-brimmed hats and coats fashioned in the island, of a somewhat looser and more comfortable cut than London coats. The tutor is with them. Mr. Hexham, too, is with them; as I can see, a little puzzled by the ways of us islanders.
 As St. Julian talks his eyes flash, and he puts out one hand to emphasize what he is saying. He is not calm and self-contained as one might imagine so great a painter, but a man of strong convictions, alive to every life about him and to every event, his cordial heart and bright artistic nature are quickly touched and moved. He believes in his own genius, grasps at life as it passes and translates it into a strange quaint revelation of his own, and brings others into his way of seeing things almost by magic. But his charm is almost irresistible, and he knows it, and likes to know it. The time that he is best himself is when he is at his painting; his brown eyes are alight in his pale face, his thick grey hair stands on end; he is a middle-aged man, broad, firmly-knit with a curly grey beard, active, mighty in his kingdom. He lets people in to his sacred temple; but he makes them put their shoes off, so to speak, and will allow no word of criticism except from one or two. In a moment his thick brows knit, and the master turns upon the unlucky victim.

Chapter III. Pg 26

 As St. Julian walked on, he began mechanically to turn over possible effects and combinations in his mind. The great colourist understood better than any other, how to lay his colours, luminous, harmonious, shining with the real light of nature, for they were in conformity to her laws; and suddenly he spoke, turning to Hexham, who was a photographer, as I have said, and who indeed was now travelling gipsy fashion, in search of subjects for his camera. . .
 “In many things,” he said, “my art can equal yours, but how helpless we both are when we look at such scenes as these. It makes me sometimes mad to think that I am only a man with oil-pots attempting to reproduce such wonders.”
 “Fortunately they will reproduce themselves whether you succeed or not,” said the tutor. St. Julian looked at him with his bright eyes. The old man had spoken quite simply, he did not mean to be rude, — and the painter was silent.
 “My art is ‘a game half of skill, half of chance,’” said Hexham. “When both these divinities favour me I shall begin to think myself repaid for the time and the money and the chemicals I have wasted.”
 “Have you ever tried to photograph figures in a full blaze of light?” Lord Ulleskelf asked, looking at Aileen, who was standing with some of the children by Hester. They were shading their eyes from a bright stream that was playing like a halo about their heads. There was something unconscious and lovely in the little group, with their white draperies and flowing locks. A bunch of illumined berries and trailing creepers hung from little Susan’s hair: the light of youth and of life, the sweet wondering eyes, all went to make a more beautiful picture than graces or models could ever attain to. St. Julian looked and smiled with Lord Ulleskelf.
 Hexham answered, a little distractedly, that he should like to show Lord Ulleskelf the attempt he had once .made. “Nature is a very uncertain sort of assistant,” he added; “and I, too, might exclaim, “Oh, that I am but a man, with a bit of yellow paper across my window, and a row of bottles on a shelf, trying to evoke life from the film upon my glasses”
 “I think you are all of you talking very profanely,” said Lord Ulleskelf, “before all these children, and in such a sight as this. But I shall be very glad to come down and look at your photographs, Mr. Hexham, tomorrow morning,” he added, fearing the young man might be hurt by his tone.

Chapter VII. 59-61. 

 So the carriages were ordered after luncheon; but the sun was shining bright in the morning, and Hexham asked Hester and Aileen (shyly, and hesitating as he spoke), if they would mind being photographed directly.
 “Why should you not try a group?” said St. Julian. “Here are Hester, Lady Jane, Missie and Emilia, all wanting to be done at once.” Emilia shrank back, and said she only wanted baby done, not herself.
 “I was longing to try a group,” said Hexham, “and only waiting for leave. How will you sit?” And he began placing them in a sort of row, two up and one down, with a property-table in the middle. He then began focussing, and presently emerged, pale and breathless and excited, from the little black hood into which he had dived. “Will you look?” said he to St. Julian.
 “I think it might be improved upon,” said St. Julian, getting interested. “Look up, Missie — up, up. That is better. And cannot you take the ribbon out of your hair?”
 “Yes, uncle St. Julian,” said Missie; “but it will all tumble down.”
 “Never mind that,” said he; and with one hand Missie pulled away the snood, and then the beautiful stream came flowing and rippling and falling all about her shoulders.
 “That is excellent,” said the painter. “You, too, Hester, shake out your locks.” Then he began sending one for one thing and one for another. I was despatched for some lilies into the garden, and Lady Jane came too, carrying little Bevis in her arms. When we got back we found one of the prettiest sights I have ever yet seen, — a dream of fair ladies against an ivy wall, flowers and flowing locks, and sweeping garments. It is impossible to describe the peculiar charm of this living, breathing picture. Emilia, after all, had been made to come into it: little Bevis clapped his hands, and said, “Pooty mamma,” when he saw her.
 “I don’t mind being done in the group,” said Lady Jane, “if you will promise not to put any of those absurd white pinafores on me.”
 Neither of the gentlemen answered, they were both too busy. As for me, I shall never forget the sweet child wonder in my little girl’s face, Hester’s bright deep eyes, or my poor Emilia’s patient and most affecting expression, as they all stood there motionless; while Hexham held his watch, and St. Julian looked on, almost as excited as the photographer. As Hexham rushed awav into his van, with the glass under his arm, we all began talking again.
 “It takes one’s breath away,” said St. Julian, quite excited, “to have the picture there, breathing on the glass, and to feel every instant that it may vanish or dissolve with a word, with a breath. I should never have nerve for photography.”
 “I believe the great objection is that it blackens one’s fingers so,” said Lady Jane. “I should have tried it myself, but I did not care to soil my hands.”
 As for the picture, Hexham came out wildly exclaiming from his little dark room: never had he done anything so strangely beautiful, — he could not believe it; it was magical. The self-controlled young man was quite wild with delight and excitement. Lord Ulleskelf walked up, just as we were all clustering round, and he, too, admired immensely.
 Hexham rushed up to St. Julian. “It is your doing,” he said. “It is wonderful. My fortune is made.” He all but embraced his precious glass.
 St. Julian was to be the next subject. What a noble wild head it was! There was something human and yet almost mysterious to me in the flash of those pale circling eyes with the black brows and shaggy grey hair. But Hexham’s luck failed him, perhaps from over-excitement and inexperience in success. Three or four attempts failed, and we were still at it when the luncheon-bell rang. Hexham was for going on all day; but St. Julian laughed and said it should be another time.

Anne Thackeray Ritchie, 1837-1919               From an Island 1877

Image: Julia Margaret Cameron – Lilies and Pearls, 1864-5

Michel Houellebecq – La carte et le territoire, 2010 The Map and the Territory


A little despite himself, he approached Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, which was standing on his easel in the middle of the studio, and dissatisfaction seized him again, still more bitterly. He realised he was hungry, which wasn’t normal after the complete Christmas dinner he’d had with his father — starter, main course, cheese and dessert, nothing had been left out but he felt hungry and so hot he could no longer breathe. He returned to the kitchen, opened a tin of cannelloni in sauce and ate them one by one, while looking morosely at his failed painting. Koons was undoubtedly not light enough, not ethereal enough — it would perhaps have been necessary to give him wings, like the god Mercury, he thought stupidly; there, with his pinstriped suit and salesman’s smile, he reminded you a bit of Silvio Berlusconi.

On the ArtPrice ranking of the richest artists, Koons was world number 2; for a few years now, Hirst, ten years his junior, had taken his place at number 1. As for Jed, he had reached 593 ten years ago — but 17 in France. He had then, as the Tour de France commentators say, ‘dropped to the bottom of the classement’, before disappearing from it altogether. He finished the tin of cannelloni and opened an almost empty bottle of cognac. Lighting his ramp of halogen lamps to the maximum, he trained them on the centre of the canvas. On closer inspection, the night itself wasn’t right: it didn’t have that sumptuousness, that mystery we associate with nights on the Arabian peninsula; he should have used a deep blue, not ultramarine. He was making a truly shit painting. He seized a palette knife, cut open Damien Hirst’s eye, and forced the gash wider; it was a canvas of tight linen fibres, and therefore very tough. Catching the sticky canvas with one hand, he tore it in one blow, tipping the easel over onto the floor. Slightly calmed, he stopped, looked at his hands, sticky with paint, and finished the cognac before jumping feet first onto his painting, stamping on it and rubbing it against the floor until it became slippery. He ended up losing his balance and fell, the back of his head hitting the frame of the easel violently. He belched and vomited, and suddenly felt better, the fresh night air circulating freely on his face, and he closed his eyes contentedly: he had visibly reached the end of a cycle.

Chapter 9.

Many years later, when he had become famous — extremely famous, if the truth be told — Jed would be asked numerous times what it meant, in his eyes, to be an artist. He would find nothing very interesting or original to say, except one thing, which he would consequently repeat in each interview: to be an artist, in his view, was above all to be someone submissive. Someone who submitted himself to mysterious, unpredictable messages, that you would be led, for want of a better word and in the absence of any religious belief, to describe as intuitions, messages which nonetheless commanded you in an imperious and categorical manner, without leaving the slightest possibility of escape — except by losing any notion of integrity and self-respect. These messages could involve destroying a work, or even an entire body of work, to set off in a radically new direction, or even occasionally no direction at all, without having any project at all, or the slightest hope of continuing. It was thus, and only thus, that the artists condition could, sometimes, be described as difficult. It was also thus, and only thus, that it distinguished itself from other professions or trades, to which he would pay homage in the second part of his career, the one which would earn him worldwide renown.

Chapter 11.

Jed was not to remain faithful to the Sennelier brand, and his mature paintings are almost entirely made with Mussini oils by Schmincke. There are exceptions, and certain greens, particularly the cinnabar greens that give such a magical glow to the forests of California pine descending towards the sea in Bill Gates and Steve jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, are borrowed from the Rembrandt range of oils by the firm Royal Talens. And for the whites he almost always used Old Holland oils, whose opacity he appreciated.

Jed Martin’s first paintings, art historians have later emphasised, could easily lead you down the wrong track. By devoting his first two canvases, Ferdinand Desroches, Horse Butcher then Claude Vorilhon, Bar-Tabac Manager, to professions in decline, Martin could give the impression of nostalgia for a past age, real or fantasised, in France. Nothing, and this is the conclusion that has ended up emerging about all his works, was more foreign to his real preoccupations; and if Martin began by looking at two washed-up professions, it was in no way because he wanted to encourage lamentations on their probable disappearance: it was simply that they were, indeed, going to disappear soon, and it was important to fix their images on canvas while there was still time. For his third painting in the series of professions, Maya Dubois, Remote Maintenance Assistant, he devoted himself to a profession that was in no way stricken or old fashioned, a profession on the contrary emblematic of the policy of just-in-time production which had orientated the entire economic redeployment of Western Europe at the turn of the third millennium.

In the first monograph he devoted to Martin, Wong Fu Xin develops a curious analogy based on colorimetry. The colours of the objects in the world can be represented by a certain number of primary colours; the minimum number, to achieve an almost realistic representation, is three. But you can perfectly build a colorimetric chart on the basis of four, five, six, or even more primary colours; the spectrum of representation would in this way become more extensive and subtle.

In the same way, asserts the Chinese essayist, the productive conditions of a given society may be recreated by means of a number of typical professions, whose number according to him (it is a figure he gives without any empirical evidence) can be fixed at between ten and twenty. In the numerically most important part of the ‘Professions’ series, the one that art historians have taken the habit of entitling the ‘Series of Simple Professions’, Jed Martin portrays no less than forty—two typical professions, thus offering, for the study of the productive conditions of the society of his times, a spectrum of analysis that is particularly extensive and rich. The following twenty—two paintings, centred on confrontations and encounters, classically called the ‘Series of Business Compositions’, themselves aimed to give a relational and dialectical image of the functioning of the economy as a whole.

The ‘Series of Simple Professions’ took Jed Martin a little more than seven years to paint. During these years, he didn’t meet many people, and formed no new relationship — whether sentimental or simply friendly. He had moments of sensory pleasure: an orgy of Italian pasta after a raid on the Casino hypermarket in the boulevard Vincent-Auriol; such-and-such an evening with a Lebanese escort girl whose sexual performances amply justified the ecstatic reviews she received on the site ‘Layla, I love you, you are the sunshine of my days in the office, my little oriental star,’ wrote some unfortunate fifty-somethings, while Layla for her part dreamed of muscular men, virile, poor and strong: this was the life, basically, as she saw it. Easily identified as a guy who was ‘a bit bizarre but nice, not at all dangerous’, Jed benefited with Layla from that kind of exception of extra-territoriality that has always been attributed to artists by the girls. It is maybe Layla, but more certainly Genevieve, his Malagasy ex-girlfriend, who is recalled in one of his most touching canvases, Aimée, Escort Girl, treated with an exceptionally warm palette based on umber, Indian orange and Naples yellow. At the opposite extreme from Toulouse-Lautrec’s representation of a made-up, chlorotic and unhealthy prostitute, Jed Martin paints a fulfilled young woman, both sensual and intelligent, in a modern flat bathed in light. With her back to the window, which opens onto a public garden since identified as the square des Batignolles, and simply dressed in a tight white miniskirt, Aimée is finishing putting on a tiny orange-yellow top that only very partially covers her magnificent breasts.

Martin’s only erotic painting, it is also the first where openly autobiographical echoes have been uncovered. The second one, The Architect Jean-Pierre Martin Leaving the Management of his Business, was painted two years later, and marks the beginning of a genuine period of creative frenzy that would last for a year and a half and end with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, subtitled The Conversation at Palo Alto, which many consider his masterpiece. It is astonishing to think that the twenty-two paintings of the ‘Series of Business Compositions’, often complex and in wide format, were made in just eighteen months. It is also surprising that Jed Martin finally hit a snag on a canvas, Damien Hirst and Jefi Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, which could have, in many regards, matched his Jobs-Gates composition. Analysing this failure, Wong Fu Xin sees in it the reason for his return, a year later, to the ‘Series of Simple Professions’ through his sixty-fifth and final painting. Here, the clarity of the Chinese essayist’s thesis carries conviction: in his desire to give an exhaustive view of the productive sector of the society of his time, Jed Martin was inevitably, at one moment or another in his career, going to portray an artist.

Michel Houellebecq, 1956      La carte et le territoire, 2010 The Map and the Territory

La carte et le Terretoire, published by Flammarion, Paris 2010. © Michel Houellebecq ©Translation copyright by by Gavin Bowd, Published by William Heinnemann, London.

Mina Loy – Insel, 1937

m loy-richard oelze


What am I to do with you? The Taxi metre is ticking, the surrealist’s waiting. Pull yourself together—quick! I’ll take you along.
“However did you get that hole in your trousers, its new—” I demanded, detecting, as we got into the taxi, a perfect round of perforation letting out a tiny light from his thigh. I suspected him of replenishing his beggar’s capital.
“It was there before,” said Insel sanctimoniously, as if referring to a halo earned by excessive martyrdom.
“You might as well come up and see Ussif with me,” I suggested.
“No,” said Insel, “none of the surrealists will have anything to do with me. They know only too well, if they did, I should try to borrow money.”
“I should have thought you’d be worth a little money to a surrealist. He might learn what supereality is about—you are organically surreal—”
“I don’t do it on purpose, said Insel dejected.
“I know you don’t,” I assured him warmly. You only do Kafka on purpose—you’re so much better in the original.
I kept my promise of going to his room on my way back. Strangely—the very name of the street he lived in had the sound of a ghostly exhaustion. His attic was on the seventh storey.
Along the narrow open passage with its bare iron railing the Chambres de Bonnes moved past me as I looked for his name on the doors, when, coming to a closed iron shutter fleeced with dust and cobwebs growing in patches like a moss of soot or hanging in gray festoons about its slits, I felt the liveness of the air decrease, and “Insel” written in the archaic hand of some automatic writings drew up my eyes—. To that darkened crack which outlines the magical versatility of a barrier measuring a yard across and with merely the touch of a hand diminishing to a strip three inches wide. That cover of a living book whose history may come to an end before you can get it open; or cut short your personal adventure by remaining shut; out of this oblong outline of Entrance and Exit there leaked a perceptible seepage of Insel’s torpor.
Noiselessly, indolently, the door vanished. I walked into its chasm and Insel led me to his painting set in the pacific light of a large attic window.
Das ist die Irma?” he said with the secretive in-looking twinkle that lit up his eyes with recurrent delights. And suddenly it dawned upon me that one thing about this man that made him so different to other people was that contrary to our outrunning holding-up-the-mirror self- consciousness, his was constantly turning its back on the world and tiptoe with expectancy, peeping inquisitively into its own mischievous eyes. Or, in some cerebral acrobatic recoil, that being who is, in us, both outlooker and window, in him, astonishingly, was craning back to look in at the outlooking window of himself, as if there were something there he might forget, some treasure as to whose existence he wished to remain assured, some lovely illusion inside him, he must re-see to insure its continued projection.
“Die Irma,” he repeated lovingly to introduce her to me, and the magnetic bond uniting her painted body to his emaciated stature—as if she were of an ectoplasm proceeding from him—was so apparent one felt as if one were surprising an insane liaison at almost too intimate a moment. He was glittering with a pleasure as dynamically compressed as the carbon of a diamond.
A narrow canvas, nigger-black, whose quality of shining obscurity was the effect of minutely painting in oil on some tempera ground, die Irma stood knee—deep on an easel.
To her livid brow, rounded like a half-moon, clung a peculiarly clammy algaeic or fungoid substitute for hair. Beneath it a transparent mask of horizontal shadow was penetrated by the eyes of an hypnosis; flat disks of smoked mirror, having the selfsame semblance of looking into and out of oneself as her creator.
Perhaps in a superfine analysis, this is what all men really do, but as a natural interplay; whereas Insel and his picture were doing it with alternating intent. Indeed the great thin uninscribed coins of her gunmetal pupils, returning his fascinated gaze, were tilted at such an angle as to give a dimly illuminated reflection of an inner and outer darkness.
Her hands, as if nailed to her hips like crossed swords, jutted out from her body which seemed to be composed of rippling lava that here and there hardened to indentations like holly leaves growing from her sternum—her male hands that hardly made a pair, for the one had the bones of the back marked all of equal length and the other, one finger too long with an unmodeled edge which curved like paper against the background.
He hung over die Irma like a tall insect and outside the window in the rotten rose of an asphyxiated sunset the skeleton phallus of the Eiffel Tower reared in the distance as slim as himself.
Beside the picture I noticed that the gutter of his upper lip was interrupted by a seam, a fine thread of flesh running from the base of the nose to his mouth that accentuated the compression of his lips in their continual retention of the one remaining tooth which, so thin as to be atavistic in an adult, was like a stump forgotten in a croquet ground, left over from the Game of Life. An incipience or reparation of harelip? And Irma? In this very same spot she puffed to a swollen convergence.
“But Insel,” I asked, “her upper lip is about to burst with some inavowable disease. You have formed her of pus. Her body has already melted.”
“Exactly,” he answered with mysterious satisfaction. “I don’t care for it,” I decided.
“And I,” said Insel, with the reverent intonement with which he accompanied his tacitly implied admittance of myself to his holy-of-holies, “thought that this picture would be just the one that you would like.”
Time hovered, suspended in the attic air as the powders of life in the noxious mist of the exhausted city below. When suddenly the soporific lure he sowed in his magnetic field—shattered. Insel was snatching at the emptied flesh on his face in the recurrent anxiety inspiring his wilder gestures.
“She ought not to be,” he cried out, “if you don’t like her, I am going to destroy her.”
His cerebral excitement seemed to inflate his head, rather as a balloon from which his wasted body hung in slight levitation.
“Come down to the floor, for God’s sake,” I said peremptorily. “What does my opinion matter? I ’m not the museum.”
“But you’re right,” he insisted. “I have been going in the wrong direction. Die Irmas out.”
“And don’t use me as a sop for your terror of working.”
“It’s really not that—but a technical question. Die Irma ist nass.”
“She isn’t, she’s bone dry. I felt her.”
“I assure you, underneath—”
“Every time I’ve come to Paris you’ve said the same thing. Pull yourself together Insel, you’ve got to finish this for the museum. For you it’s work or death. Can’t you figure it out?” I urged helpfully— “When you have money and can eat you paint a picture so as to have more money— when you haven’t any more money.”
“It’s more complicated than that,” he objected again, “die Irma is wet—”
I was getting exasperated— When the balls of our eyes caught each other, we both began to laugh.
“If you had heard the Lesbian’s synopsis of Frank Harris’s confessions, you wouldn’t even trouble to mention it—.”
“I shouldn’t care to read this Lesbian’s confessions—it is a Lesbian who has taken the love of my life away from me.”
“Well now, I wouldn’t mention that either. Of course, it does not matter with me—anybody can tell me anything—you know what I mean—when you surrender your arms, chuck them onto neutral territory. I know it’s a touch that modernizes your romanticism; all the same, I’d advise you never to make that particular confidence to a woman ‘ou connaît ça.’”
But Insel was past advice. With a look of dogged emptiness he recited for the nth time the story of those Mädchen who shut themselves into the house for a fortnight for fear he would shoot them.”
Mostly when speaking of his loves of the past he became quite normal; subnormal really, for his adventures in the actual world had been of an excruciating banality.
As I was also engaged for dinner, I asked the time. Insel who was sitting on a wooden stool stretched out his arm—it reached much further than its actual length would warrant.
Behind the curtain in the corner, carefully secreted under empty boxes, neatly stacked, was his wristwatch. He did not bring it out—his arm seemed in some Einsteinian contraction to shorten the necessary distance for focusing the hands.
It was seven o’clock. I took my leave. Insel, astonished as if this were the first break in a timeless conversation, snapped in half; or at least bowed like a poplar in a sudden gale; his dessicated limbs the branches.
Staring vainly towards the door I was opening—he choked in the voice of a Robot, “Morgen komm ich im Gericht. Tomorrow I go to court—I am going mad!”
Then don’t forget your little afternoon,” I reminded him— “I dote on madmen.”
As I was leaving, he seized his palette and dripping an enormous brush into a pile of ebony pigment painted with a heinous neigh of victory, “Die Irma—Out!”

Mina Loy,1882-1966  Insel, 1937. First published October 1st 1991 by Black Sparrow Press

Image: Richard Oelze,1900-1980

A novel that follows an autobiographical relationship between, the character of the Loy narrator, Mrs. Jones, and the painter, Insel, based on the German Surrealist painter Richard Oelze. Mrs. Jones, is a writer in Paris, who also collects art for a New York gallery. The ethereal narrative represents an attempt to create a surrealist non-linear way of seeing the world. “It was the evening outside the Lutetia I experienced its effects. A sort of doubling of space where different selves lived different ways in different dimensions at once. Sitting on the sidewalk—floating in an Atlantic Ocean full of skyscrapers and ethereal cars.” To a background of daily life in the artist’s studio in Paris Mrs. Jones’s attempts to understand and articulate the superreal thought process of the Surrealist mind.  “Insel,” I asked puzzled, “how does the world look to you? Like an Aquarium?”

Tama Janowitz – Slaves of New York,1986

tama janowitz_slavesof new york 1986


The juice of New York was something he could understand. American rage, freedom from European classicism and the deathly Common Market. Still, he had problems with his stomach. It was fifteen or sixteen years since he had moved to New York. Now his artists were famous for painting cartoon characters, primitive computerlike drawings, rip-offs of Navaho and African art. He was riding the crest of the future, it was better that he hadn’t stuck with painting. He had been involved with a revolutionary group, in the 1960s: one of the members had gone up to the offices of a famous art publication and chopped off his finger on the desk of the senior editor. This was a statement. He and two others had bombed the information desk at the Museum of Modern Art. It was a small bomb; none of them expected that a few paintings would receive smoke damage, shrapnel. Only a Miro was beyond restoration. A year’s suspended sentence: ten years later, people still tried to fight with him in bars. But his old self no longer seemed to have any relationship to his present one.

He had told George Lodge he would go up to his Forty-second Street studio to look at his new paintings that afternoon; by now it was too late to go to the gallery first. He took a cab uptown. The streets, even this early in the summer, were unbelievably filthy; the pavement seemed to be oozing its own sediment, the reek of grilling meat, hot dogs, shashlik, burnt and greasy, was like the smell of some garbage incinerator. He had to fight his way around the hustlers, past the electronic junk stores, to get into George’s building. The elevator stank of roach spray and mothballs.
The radio was turned up so loud he had to bang on the door over and over before George heard him and let him in. “George, George,” Victor said, “how can you listen to that junk?” He walked into the room. To work in such squalor. The reek of acetone, a tipsy brain-crumbling shrillness, almost knocked him off his feet. Spray paint, fixative, polyurethane.
No molecules resembling oxygen were left anywhere, the air conditioner was apparently out of order and the windows sealed shut. The 0 and CO2 forced out by the tougher, manmade particles, which lacerated the lungs as they floated here and there. George stood sulkily by the door, his long galoot face surly and elegant, as Victor pulled stuff from the racks. Scrawled on various half-finished canvases:




Victor, did you get my letter?” George’s arms were too long, like a gibbon, shooting from imaginary tree to tree.
“What letter? Why don’t you get a chair, someplace I can sit?” He went and looked out the window. It was bleak here on Forty-second Street, no sign of vegetable life to prove that the season was spring. Across the way was a peep show, two nude women in neon; one, with the tube burnt out in her leg, flickered on and off. “Give me some paper.” George didn’t move. Victor peeled a piece of newsprint paper off the floor and took a gold pen from his lapel pocket. “I’m excited about what you’re doing, George, but I’d like to see you working from from extensive drawings, it would give me the feeling that you’ve spent time working these things out.. See, this is what Oldenburg did. He started with small sketches, let’s say for his giant cigarette. He made sketches, these today are worth a hundred thousand. Then he went out and found cigarettes, hundreds of butts. He studied these. Then he had a craftsman, a master craftsman, make a small cigarette butt from metal. Then he had medium-sized ones made from clay.”
“Victor, didn’t you read that letter I sent you?”
“Wait, just let me finish. Then you’ll talk. This is important, George. This could change your whole way of working. How Oldenburg worked, when he was finally ready, he built his giant cigarette butt in soft sculpture. Whether you like his work or not—”
“I like Oldenburg.”
“You have to agree that the man was a genius. So have the whole gamut, do you see what I’m getting at, here, George? You have the whole gamut, from sketches to paintings to the final soft sculpture; it’s not as if he just got an idea and slapped it onto canvas. When you’re working, you should do drawings first, then you should make the painting in squares. Each individual square, a segment of the painting, should be as complete and fully realized as the whole work. Go and look at Léger, George. He knew about composition. That’s who you could be like, if you spent a little more time on these things. In his excitement the thick, oily feeling rose up in his chest, as if the stomach contents were backing up the esophagus like a kitchen sink. He fumbled for a Tums.
“Victor, can I say something now?”
“What? George, I came all the way up here this afternoon, just to take a look at your work, and I can see you’re already on the defensive.”
“Victor, I’m trying to tell you: I sent you a letter listing twenty points that would have to change for me to stay with the gallery, and I don’t think you even read the letter.
“No, I haven’t read any letter! George, I just got back from Chicago, I had to spend all week getting ready for the Madrid art fair, I’m leaving for Madrid tomorrow—what’s your problem?”
“I don’t know if we should talk about it until you’ve read my letter. Basically, it’s about your attitude. I’ve seriously been considering leaving the gallery for a long time now, Victor. I don’t see how I can stay unless you have a change of attitude.”
“Attitude! What attitude! George, why don’t you come to me if you have problems? You go around complaining to your friends, this doesn’t make me look good.”
“How can I come to you, Victor, when I can’t even get into your office to see you? This is the first time you’ve come to my studio in eight months.”
“You’re not listening, Victor. Don’t you see yourself? How terrible you look?”
“I’m going to call you, George. I would love to stay and talk this through—”
“I don’t want to talk! I want you to read my letter!”
He could hear George flinging objects this way and that as he waited for the elevator. He would suggest to George the name of his old psychiatrist. George, whom three years ago he had found. working as a janitor, barely able to make enough to buy supplies. What did he want from him?
In the taxi he remembered it was Sistina’s birthday he hadn’t gotten her anything. There was something about going out to dinner that night with Schmuel—Sam—and some of her model friends. He looked in his appointment book. There was an opening around the corner he had promised to go and see and a dinner afterward for Monica Bell, a painter whom he had shown two years ago who was still working on new stuff.

. . . . .

He walked into the gallery rubbing his head; Leo, his brother, was standing stunned in front of one of the paintings at the far end. “Sasha,” he said to the blond, bored-looking girl who sat behind the front desk. He could feel her bristle as he got near. Literally begin to bristle. This fury, to be met with it in his own gallery! “I have to have something to eat, Sasha. Would you go around the corner and get me a cup of chili?”
“Madrid called,” she said. “They can’t get the paintings out of customs.”

Tama Janowitz, 1957.       Slaves of New York,1986

In the age of art-hype and inflation, where new dealers sell the new art of Warhol, Haring, Basquiat, Schnabel to the new millionaires of Wall Street, the stories of artists, dealers and gallery owners in Slaves of New York feature episodic tableaux of aspirational, egotistical, paranoid, crazy, immoral talented/less chancers, hustlers and potheads with an eye on fame and riches in 1980s urban Bohemia. The art world is a permanently shifting scenario of artists hyping themselves on the way up or out, jostling for recognition and the big exhibition, project, collector and commission, and most important of all – a nameplace at the right A-list post-exhibition dinner.  Reality and satire converge in the characters of on-edge neurotic Jewish art dealer Victor Okrent, overworked and underfunded, fighting a losing battle with his staff, gallery artists and the Betsy Brown Gallery, or the sleazy dealer, Stephen Borali. The artist Markey Mantello tries to persuade the wealthy collector Chuck Dade Dolger, boyfriend of his dealer Ginger Booth, to invest in his ‘Chapel of Jesus Christ as Woman’ in Rome, adjacent to Vatican. Chuck is already funding “…an environmental artist moving heaps of mud from one part of Montana to another.. a man attempting to get permission to cover the Golden Gate Bridge in Band Aids…a gal handcuffed to a Korean and a Dalmation making a videotape overy moment of their year chained together.” Chuck, in between feeding Marley obscene amounts of cholesterol packed breakfast, buys his picture ‘The Party of Beauty’, “..a big get together of all the beautiful people, the Venus of Milo, Aphrodite, Hebe, the Graces, Peri, Houri, Cupid, Apollo, Hyperion, Antinous, Narcissus – “ Another artist, Shash Stoz makes paintings based on the difference between good and evil, using cartoon images – Bahalooey, Chilly Willy, Bullwinkle, Mickey Mouse and various Byzantine characters. The rich, powerful and vulgar make the avant garde-artists run around like pimps and courtesans to satisfy their wealth and egos while the real money goes on the blue chip pictures of Roy Lichtenstein, Eric Fischl and Van Dyke Brown.

Jorge Luis Borges – El duelo,1970 The Duel

borges collected ficciones

  Clara, after a few years of indecision and quiet casting about, decided to become a painter. She was inspired to this, perhaps, by her friend Marta Pizarro.

  It is typical of Marta Pizarro that whenever she was mentioned, she was defined as the sister of the brilliant (married and separated) Nélida Sara.

  Before taking up her brushes, Marta had considered the alternative of literature. She could be witty in French, the language her readings generally were drawn from; Spanish for her was no more than a household utensil, much like Guarani for the ladies of Corrientes province. Newspapers had put the pages of Argentina’s own Lugones and the Spaniard Ortega y Gasset into her hands; the style of those masters confirmed her suspicions that the language to which she had been fated was suited less to the expression of thought (or passion) than to prattling vanity. Of music she knew only what any person might know who dutifully attended Concerts. She was from the province of San Luis; she began her career with meticulous portraits of Juan Crisostorno Lafinur* and Colonel Pascual Pringles,* and these were predictably acquired by the Provincial Museum. From the portraiture of local worthies she progressed to that of the old houses of Buenos Aires, whose modest patios she limned with modest colours rather than the stagy garishness that others gave them. Someone (most certainly not Clara Figueroa remarked that Marta Pizarro’s oeuvre took for its models the solid works of certain nineteenth-century Genoese bricklayers* Between Clara Glencairn and Nélida Sara (who was said to have fancied Dr. Figueroa at one point there was always a certain rivalry; perhaps the duel was between those two women, and Marta but an instrument.

  Everything, as we all know, happens first in other countries and then after a time in Argentina. The sect of painters, today so unfairly forgotten, that was called “concrete” or “abstract” (as though to indicate its contempt for logic and for language) is one of many examples of this phenomenon. The movement argued, I believe, that just as music is allowed to create a world made entirely of sound, so painting, music’s sister art, might essay colours and forms that do not reproduce the forms and colors of the object: our eyes see. Lee Kaplan wrote that his canvases, which outraged the bourgeoisie, obeyed the biblical stricture, shared with Islam, against human hands’ creating images (Gr. eídōlon) of living creatures. The iconoclasts then, he argued, as breakers of the idols, were returning to the true tradition of pictorial art, a tradition which had been perverted by such heretics as Dürer and Rembrandt; Kaplan’s detractors accused him of invoking a tradition exemplified by rugs, kaleidoscopes, and neckties. Aesthetic revolutions hold out the temptation of the irresponsible and the easy; Clara Glencairn decided to become an abstract artist. She had always worshiped Turner; she set out to enrich abstract art with her own vague splendours. She labored without haste. She reworked or destroyed several compositions, and in the winter of 1954 she exhibited a series of temperas in a gallery on Calle Suipacha—a gallery whose speciality was art that might be called, as the military metaphor then in fashion had it, “avant-garde.” The result was paradoxical: general opinion was kind, but the sect’s official organ took a dim view of the paintings’ anomalous forms—forms which, while not precisely figurative, nonetheless seemed not content to be austere lines and curves, but instead suggested the tumult of a sunset, a jungle, or the sea. The first to smile, perhaps, was Clara Glencairn. She had set out to be modern, and the moderns rejected her. But painting itself—the act of painting—was much more important to her than any success that might come of it, and so she continued to paint. Far removed from this episode, Painting followed its own course.

  The secret duel had now begun. Marta Pizarro was not simply an artist; she was passionately interested in what might not unfairly be called the administrative aspect of art, and she was undersecretary of a group called the Giotto Circle. In mid-1955 she managed things so that Clara, already admitted as a member, was elected to the group’s new board of directors. This apparently trivial fact deserves some comment. Marta had supported her friend, yet the unquestionable if mysterious truth is that the person who bestows a favor is somehow superior to the person who receives it.

  Then, in 1960 or thereabout, two “world-renowned artists” (if we may be pardoned the cliche) were competing for a single first prize. One of the candidates, the older of the two, had filled solemn canvases with portraits of bloodcurdling gauchos as tall as Norsemen; his rival, the merest youngster, had earned applause and scandal through studied and unwavering incoherence. The jurors, all past the half-century mark, feared being thought to be old-fashioned, and so they were inclined to vote for the younger man, whose work, in their heart of hearts, they disliked. After stubborn debate (carried on at first out of courtesy and toward the end out of tedium), they could not come to an agreement. In the course of the third discussion, someone ventured the following:

  “I do not think B is a good painter; I honestly don’t think he’s as good as Mrs. Figueroa.”

  “Would you vote for her?” another asked, with a touch of sarcasm.

  “I would,” replied the first, now irritated.

  That same afternoon, the jury voted unanimously to give the prize to Clara Glencairn de Figueroa. She was distinguished, lovable, of impeccable morality, and she tended to give parties, photographed by the most costly magazines, at her country house in Pilar. The celebratory dinner was given (and its costs assumed) by Marta. Clara thanked her with a few well-chosen words; she observed that there was no conflict between the traditional and the new, between order and adventure. Tradition, she said, is itself a centuries-long chain of adventures. The show was attended by numerous luminaries of society, almost all the members of the jury, and one or two painters.

  We all think that fate has dealt us a wretched sort of lot in life, and that others must be better. The cult of gauchos and the Beatus ille . . . are urban nostalgias; Clara Glencairn and Marta Pizarro, weary of the routines of idleness, yearned for the world of artists—men and women who devoted their lives to the creation of beautiful things. I presume that in the heaven of the Blessèd there are those who believe that the advantages of that locale are much exaggerated by theologists, who have never been there themselves. And perhaps in hell the damned are not always happy.

  Two or three years later the First International Congress of Latin American Art took place in the city of Cartagena. Each Latin American republic sent one representative. The theme of the congress was (if we may be pardoned the cliché) of burning interest: Can the artist put aside, ignore, fail to include the autochthonous elements of culture—can the artist leave out the fauna and flora, be insensitive to social issues, not join his or her voice to those who are struggling against U.S. and British imperialism, et cetera, etcetera? Before being ambassador to Canada, Dr. Figueroa had held a diplomatic post in Cartagena; Clara, made more than a little vain by the award that had been granted her, would have liked to return to that city, now as a recognized artist in her own right. But that hope was dashed—the government appointed Marta Pizarro to be the country’s representative. Her performance, according to the impartial testimony of the Buenos Aires correspondents, was often brilliant, though not always persuasive.

  Life must have its consuming passion. The two women found that passion in painting—or rather, in the relationship that painting forced them into. Clara Glencairn painted against, and in some sense for, Marta Pizarro: each was her rival’s judge and solitary audience. In their canvases, which no one any longer looked at, I believe I see (as there inevitably had to be) a reciprocal influence. And we must not forget that the two women loved each other, that in the course of that private duel they acted With perfect loyalty to one another.

  It was around this same time that Marta, now no longer so young as before, rejected an offer of marriage; only her battle interested her.

  On February 2, 1964, Clara Figueroa suffered a stroke and died. The newspapers printed long obituaries of the sort that are still de rigueur in Argentina, wherein the woman is a representative of the species, not an individual. With the exception of an occasional brief mention of her enthusiasm for art and her refined taste, it was her faith, her goodness, her constant and virtually anonymous philanthropy, her patrician lineage (her father, General Glencairn, had fought in the Brazil campaign), and her distinguished place in the highest social circles that were praised. Marta realized that her own life now had no meaning. She had never felt so useless. She recalled the first tentative paintings she had done, now so long ago, and she exhibited in the National Gallery a sombre portrait of Clara in the style of the English masters they had both so much admired. Someone said it was her best work. She never painted again.

  In that delicate duel (perceived only by those few of us who were intimate friends) there were no defeats or victories, nor even so much as an open clash—no visible circumstances at all, save those I have attempted to record with my respectful pen. Only God (whose aesthetic preferences are unknown to us) can bestow the final palm. The story that moved in darkness ends in darkness.

Jorge Luis Borges, 1899-1986     El duelo, 1970 The Duel. Published in, El informe de Brodie, Brodie’s Report, 1970. Translated by Andrew Hurley. Collected Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges. Published by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press. Published by the Penguin Group.

Sven Berlin – The Dark Monarch, 1962

Svrn Berlin The Dark Monarch 1962 cover

The Tower

 Sir Stanislas shook hands with me, looking steadily into my mind with his grey-blue eyes. Here was an integrated man who had almost invented the Nouveaux Arts; in all he did there was a surgical precision and exactness; because of his abstract world he was a very fine artist, probably at times even a great artist, though completely ruthless as a man. He could create in colour and form a set of relationships which, in the experience of it, may well have been the equivalent to a Bach suite. For me this was reason enough to treat him with respect, even though as a creative person I was at the other end of the stick.
 ‘An arm on a hip is a circle!’ he said.
 ‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘The circle is the space around which exists an arm on a hip. The difference between you and me, Stanislas, is that I start from the arm and may well finish up as a circle: you start from a circle but never discover it is surrounded. by an arm!’
 ‘The thought is the circle,’ he insisted, ‘not that by which it is surrounded!’
 ‘Exactly. But I never think when I am working,’ I replied.’
 ‘That, dear Sven, is the difference between you and me!’
 Miss Chimes became emotionally exhausted as she went on listening to Quoit tell of their treachery. ffirth-fforth smoked a cigarette from a long ivory holder and blew out a ring of smoke in disgust, Mark Abbey was too honest to admit the deception, Albert Mantis too innocent to see it, Annabella too flattered by being among famous people to care anyway. Poor Edward Brown, trusting as an English gentleman must, had not even thought of being bamboozled.
 The initial meeting, which this was, was followed by many more of insidious and intricate intent, usually held at St Elmo’s Hotel, with sumptuous refreshment served free by the White Rabbit: going on till 2 a.m. I had not before been involved in the administrative side of the art world not knew of the diabolical cunning with which laws were formed, individuals were expurgated, groups run to control the ideas of a few and direct them towards financial success. It was really more horrifying than the battlefield: on the battlefield we killed and that was straightforward enough: this was destruction of the individual within society by poisoning, strangulation, friendship or any other deception you cared to use. I had not the sort of mind to deal with the maddening detail, the elaborate and wasteful discussion of unimportant things, such as discussing how many pictures could be hung on a wall before we had the wall on which to hang them.
 Before many weeks I found the laws to be arranged in such a way that a machinery was set up which would eliminate all the members who did not work non-figuratively and all those who were not anyway of the Inner Circle of Art. The fulcrum of this was that all work had to be marked either ‘ALPHA’ or ‘OMEGA’, which isolated and condemned the work even before it was seen. Having had a certain number of works rejected you automatically lost your membership: as the selection committee consisted of a preponderance of ‘ALPHAS’ as against a few ‘OMEGAS’, the result was simple to control. It was a ruthless method which did not exist for the selection of good art but for a certain kind of art done by a particular kind of person.
 Seeing through this facade from the start by a natural clairvoyance I inherited from my mother, I fought against it rigorously, believing in the natural honesty of human beings and the need for truthfulness.
 Quoit was the first to fight back, saying he would not care to remain in a society that contained such a trouble-maker as myself. I all but threw him out of the hotel window on to the sands below; to stay myself I nearly broke his hand by shaking it.
 Mantis said he respected me for my self-control, but could not see why I was so difficult. Stanislas Robinson stated categorically that since we were an Inner Circle of artists we must build a fortress against the uninitiated and devise a method by which we could expel the troublesome and unworthy. I knew by this that since they knew I was not unworthy as an artist nor as a person, they intended to dub me a maker of trouble by tying a tin to my tail. We must create a liaison officer to protect us against the free press, and no one should air an opinion publicly without consulting him first: only he must be allowed to make a statement. Robinson then proposed Quoit, who was seconded by Coracle, and finally the vote was carried.
 I resigned my place as first founder member and secretary, but my resignation was refused.
When a hall had finally been rented after endless subterfuge, intrigue, deceit and back-biting, we saw the set of laws go into operation for the first time. They worked with uncanny precision: most of the representational people were out and the non-figurative people were all in. I only managed to keep my membership by the acceptance of one drawing. My carving was not represented, leaving the Coracle as the only sculptor exhibiting. Nor was my painting shown. I renewed my resignation and, with that peculiar obstinacy that has carried me through starvation and death, I hung on to it this time, even though, over the course of the next three or four weeks, a number of delegations were sent to me asking me to recant; on one occasion I was even offered a bribe if I would return, inasmuch as a ‘Kneeling Figure’ of mine would be purchased.
 This insight into the uncanny machinery of the art world was a shock. I was too emotional, too wild, forthright, untamable to wish to be involved. I could not understand the minds of the people who perpetrated it, nor could I see why good friends and honest men became like vipers under this influence. It was a negation of all one I held to be true, a destruction of life, a betrayal of the spirit of man from which source only great art could evolve. If the forces of evil worked through reason then this was a pattern of the way in which it happened.
 There are the first forces of life which in themselves are pristine and inexorable: it would seem also that it is according to whether a man is set towards the sun or towards the shadow that these forces become good or evil: and yet so often man is cast into the shadow or emerges into the light in obedience to these forces. In a highly organized society, controlled by reason, the forces of life and of the deeper mind are concreted down, become an underground torrent, and man feels he is guiding his own destiny‘ until they break through, either by the agency of magic, immorality, or weakness: such a break-through results in war, rape, murder, arson, sabotage and so on. For a creative person the sluice gates are kept open all the time: he must be tenacious to control the flood: madness else. I did not feel I wanted to use my energy and my talents towards forming a small social organism that would control the fashion and form of art. This was not for me but for those who would gain power and emulation of the ego, insteadiof mastery of the spirit.
 When Dai almost filled the door of my Tower talking about this, I was standing at my bench inside the tiny sculpture room, and no longer angry. We had become good friends, and every year he helped me to decorate my place so that it shone white in the sun and the rooms were clean. But in this difference we were split.
 ‘They want you back, mun,’ he said. ‘You are foolish. Return and they will vote you in right away!’
 ‘That is only because I am making them look fools. I am more of a danger outside. If I go back they would have me out just as soon as the society was strong enough to stand such basic criticism. But I am not standing out to harm them. I want to be left alone: that is all. I’Ve always worked alone. Groups are weakness: they form to gather more strength. But in the final quest a man must go on alone.’
 ‘You may be right. There’s nothin’ to stop you paintin’ and carvin’ alone is there?’ Dai’s slow good-humoured voice emerged from his great face like a sound out of a cave; a cave that was blocked up. ‘But – and this is what you’ve got to remember – the Council of Visual Arts is comin’, the English Council of Paintin’ and Carvin’, the Modern Society of Arts and the Eisenheimer Trust: they will all buy and show our work. If you are not in it you will be passed by.’
 I felt the hot blade sink down my throat and had to talk past it.
 ‘You are asking me to do this. ‘Will the society change the law? Will they open themselves honestly to all forms of Visual expression? Will they judge the work only by its quality and standard? Will they allow us free speech in the press? None of these things will they do. They will not and I will not be of them, because I think they are false.

Sven Berlin, 1911-1999

The Dark Monarch, A Portrait from within, 1962. Published by Galley Press Ltd, London 1962. The book was withdrawn from sale within a few weeks of publication in Autumn 1962, due to libel actions, and not reprinted until 2009.

  The Dark Monarch is a roman à clef portrait of the St Ives artists colony in 1949 and 1950, but written retrospectively in 1960. St Ives is depicted as Cuckoo Town, peopled by artists including, Wilhelmena Barnes-Graham (ffrederika ffirth-fforth), Barbara Hepworth (Diana ‘Delphi’ Coracle), Patrick Heron (Nigel Bittern), Peter Lanyon (David Quoit), Bernard Leach (Albert Mantis), Isobel Heath (Annabella Moorland), Guido Morris (Lorenzo Smith) Ben Nicholson (Sir Stanislas Robinson), Harry Rowntree (Harry Gumtree), John Wells (Mark Abbey), and Bryan Wynter (Roger Moss). Ben Nicholson / Sir Stansilas Robinson with “A face cold and uncompromising, transparent as white alabaster”, is described “tapping his glass fingers on the arms of a fleshy chair. He was neatly dressed in six shades of morning-mistgrey with a scarlet tie, which betokened an aesthetic principle rather than a political one; he was looking Ptolemaic.” While Barbara Hepworth / Diana Coracle is “more active, with a head like an Archipenko in white Marble” and who is “spitefully called Delphi, because of her authority with stone and not because of her genius, looked today like a 1935 Henry Moore carving, full of holes and tensions.”
 It vividly describes the characters and aesthetic interests of professional artists working in their studios. It notably provides an insider’s eye-witness account of the malevolent machinations of the older visual artists, led by Hepworth and Nicholson, who represented a High Priesthood of Abstract Art, to control the Penwith Society of Arts (The Old Society), perceived as the Ancient Order of Dabblers. It follows the secession of the younger artists – Lanyon, Berlin,Wynter, Wells and Morris and Barnes-Graham to form the Crypt Group (The Cuckoo Group) within the St Ives Society of Arts.

Albert Camus – Jonas, ou l’artiste au travail, 1957 The Artist at Work

Albert Camus 1913-1960

The following day Jonas went out very early. It was raining. When he returned, wet to the skin, he was loaded down with boards. At home, two old friends, come to ask after him, were drinking coffee in the big room. “Jonas is changing his technique. He’s going to paint on wood!” they said. Jonas smiled. “That’s not it. But I am beginning something new.” He went into the little hall leading to the shower-room, the toilet, and the kitchen. In the right angle where the two halls joined, he stopped and studied at length the high walls rising to the dark ceiling. He needed a stepladder, which he went down and got from the concierge.

When he came back up, there were several additional people in the apartment, and he had to struggle against the affection of his visitors, delighted to find him again, and against his family’s questions in order to reach the end of the hall. At that moment his wife came out of the kitchen. Setting down his ladder, Jonas hugged her against him. Louise looked at him. “Please,” she said, “never do it again.” “No, no,” Jonas said, “I’m going to paint. I must paint.” But he seemed to be talking to himself, for he was looking elsewhere. He got to work. Half-way up the walls he built a flooring to get a sort of narrow, but high and deep, loft. By the late afternoon, all was finished. With the help of the ladder, Jonas hung from the floor of the loft and, to test the solidity of his work, chinned himself several times. Then he mingled with the others and everyone was delighted to find him so friendly again. In the evening, when the apartment was relatively empty, Jonas got an oil lamp, a chair, a stool, and a frame. He took them all up into the loft before the puzzled gaze of the three women and the children. “Now,” he said from his lofty perch, “I’ll be able to work without being in anyone’s way.” Louise asked him if he were sure of it. “Of course,” he replied. “I don’t need much room. I’ll be freer. There have been great painters who painted by candlelight, and . . .” “Is the floor solid enough?” It was. “Don’t worry,” Jonas said, “it’s a very good solution.” And he came back down.

Very early the next day he climbed into the loft, sat down, set the frame on the stool against the wall, and waited without lighting the lamp. The only direct sounds he heard came from the kitchen or the toilet. The other noises seemed distant, and the visits, the ringing of the doorbell and the telephone, the comings and goings, the conversations, reached him half muffled, as if they came from out on the street or from the farther court. Besides, although the whole apartment was overflowing with blinding sunlight, the darkness here was restful. From time to time a friend would come and plant himself under the loft. “What are you doing up there, Jonas?” “I’m working.” “Without light?” “Yes, for the moment.” He was not painting, but he was meditating. In the darkness and this half-silence which, by contrast with what he had known before, seemed to him the silence of the desert or of the tomb, he listened to his own heart. The sounds that reached the loft seemed not to concern him anymore, even when addressed to him. He was like those men who die alone at home in their sleep, and in the morning the telephone rings, feverish and insistent, in the deserted house, over a body forever deaf. But he was alive, he listened to this silence within himself, he was waiting for his star, still hidden but ready to rise again, to burst forth at last, unchanged and unchanging, above the disorder of these empty days. “Shine, shine,” he said. “Don’t deprive me of your light.” It would shine again, of that he was sure. But he would have to meditate still longer, since at last the chance was given him to be alone without separating from his family. He still had to discover what he had not yet clearly understood, although he had always known it and had always painted as if he knew it. He had to grasp at last that secret which was not merely the secret of art, as he could now see. That is why he didn’t light the lamp.

Every day now Jonas would climb back into his loft. The visitors became less numerous because Louise, preoccupied, paid little attention to the conversation. Jonas would come down for meals and then climb back to his perch. He would sit motionless in the darkness all day long. At night he would go to his wife, who was already in bed. After a few days he asked Louise to hand up his lunch, which she did with such pains that Jonas was stirred. In order not to disturb her on other occasions, he suggested her preparing some supplies that he could store in the loft. Little by little he got to the point of not coming down all day long. But he hardly touched his supplies.

One evening he called Louise and asked for some blankets. “I’ll spend the night up here.” Louise looked at him with her head bent backward. She opened her mouth and then said nothing. She was merely scrutinizing Jonas with a worried and sad expression. He suddenly saw how much she had aged and how deeply the trials of their life had marked her too. It occurred to him that he had never really helped her. But before he could say a word, she smiled at him with an affection that wrung his heart. “Just as you say, dear,” she said.

Henceforth he spent his nights in the loft, almost never coming down any more. As a result, the apartment was emptied of visitors since Jonas couldn’t be seen any more either by day or night. Some were told that he was in the country; others, when lying became an effort, that he had found a studio. Rateau alone came faithfully. He would climb up on the ladder until his big, friendly head was just over the level of the flooring. “How goes it?” he would ask. “Wonderfully.” “Are you working?” “It comes to the same thing.” “But you have no canvas!” “I’m working just the same.” It was hard to prolong this dialogue from ladder to loft. Rateau would shake his head, come back down, help Louise replace fuses or repair a lock, then, without climbing onto the ladder, say good night to Jonas, who would reply in the darkness: “So long, old boy.” One evening Jonas added thanks to his goodnight. “Why thanks?” “Because you love me.” “That’s really news!” Rateau said as he left.

Another evening Jonas called Rateau, who came running. The lamp was lighted for the first time. Jonas was leaning, with a tense look, out of the loft. “Hand me a canvas,” he said. “But what’s the matter with you? You’re so much thinner; you look like a ghost.” “I’ve hardly eaten for the last two days. But that doesn’t matter. I must work.” “Eat first.” “No, I’m not hungry.” Rateau brought a canvas. On the point of disappearing into the loft, Jonas asked him: “How are they?” “Who?” “Louise and the children.” “They’re all right. They’d be better if you were with them.” “I’m still with them. Tell them above all that I’m still with them.” And he disappeared. Rateau came and told Louise how worried he was. She admitted that she herself had been anxious for several days. “What can we do? Oh, if only I could work in his place!” Wretched, she faced Rateau. “I can’t live without him,” she said. She looked like the girl she had been, and this surprised Rateau. He suddenly realized that she had blushed.

The lamp stayed lighted all night and all the next morning. To those who came, Rateau or Louise, Jonas answered merely: “Forget it, I’m working.” At noon he asked for some kerosene. The lamp, which had been smoking, again shone brightly until evening. Rateau stayed to dinner with Louise and the children. At midnight he went to say goodnight to Jonas. Under the still lighted loft he waited a moment, then went away without saying a word. On the morning of the second day, when Louise got up, the lamp was still lighted.

A beautiful day was beginning, but Jonas was not aware of it. He had turned the canvas against the wall. Exhausted, he was sitting there waiting, with his hands, palms up, on his knees. He told himself that now he would never again work, he was happy. He heard his children grumbling, water running, and the dishes clinking together. Louise was talking. The huge windows rattled as a truck passed on the boulevard. The world was still there, young and lovable. Jonas listened to the welcome murmur rising from mankind. From such a distance, it did not run counter to that joyful strength within him, his art, these forever silent thoughts he could not express but which set him above all things, in a free and crisp air. The children were running through the apartment, the little girl was laughing, Louise too now, and he hadn’t heard her laugh for so long. He loved them! How he loved them! He put out the lamp and, in the dark-ness that suddenly returned, right there! wasn’t that his star still shining? It was the star, he recognized it with his heart full of gratitude, and he was still watching it when he fell, without a sound.

“It’s nothing,” the doctor they had called declared a little later. “He is working too much. In a week he will be on his feet again.” “You are sure he will get well?” asked Louise with distorted face. “He will get well.” In the other room Rateau was looking at the canvas, completely blank, in the centre of which Jonas had merely written in very small letters a word that could be made out, but without any certainty as to whether it should be read solitaire or solidaire.

Albert Camus, 1913-1960.    Jonas, ou l’artiste au travail, in, L’Exil et le royaume, 1957 The Artist at Work, in, Exile and the Kingdom

Originally published in France as L’Exil et le royaume, 1957 ©Librarie Gallimard. Translated by Justin O’Brien, 1957

Image: Albert Camus 1913-1960