Richard Aldington – Death of a Hero,1929

Needless to say, Mr. Upjohn was a very great man. He was a Painter. Since he was destitute of any intrinsic and spontaneous originality, he strove much to be original, and invented a new school of painting every season. He first created a sensation with his daring and brilliant

Christ in a Bloomsbury Brothel”, which was denounced in no unmeasured terms by the Press, ever tender for the purity of Public Morals and the posthumous reputation of Our Lord. “The Blessed Damozel in Hell” passed almost unnoticed, when fortunately the model most unjustly obtained an afliliation order against Mr. Upjohn and thus drew attention to a neglected masterpiece, which was immediately bought by a man who had made a fortune in intimate rubber goods. Mr. Upjohn then became aware of the existence of modern French art. One season he painted in gorgeous Pointilliste blobs, the next in monotone Fauviste smears, then in calamitous Futuriste accidents of form and colour. At this moment he was just about to launch the Suprematist movement in painting, to which he hoped to convert George, or at any rate to get him to write an article about it. Suprematist painting, which has now unfortunately gone out of fashion, was, as its name implies, the supreme point of modern art. Mr. Upjohn produced two pictures in illustration (the word is perhaps inaccurate) of his theories. One was a beautiful scarlet whorl on a background of the purest flake white. The other at first sight appeared to be a brood of bulbous yellow chickens, with thick elongaged necks, aimlessly scattered over a grey-green meadow; but on closer inspection the chickens turned out to be conventionalized phalluses. The first was called Decomposition-Cosmos, and the second Op. 49, Piano.

Mr. Upjohn turned on both electric lights. in his studio for George to study these interesting productions, at which our friend gazed with a feeling of baffled perplexity and the agonized certainty that he would have to say something about them, and that what he would say would inevitably be wrong. Fortunately, Mr. Upjohn was extremely vain and highly nervous. He stood behind George, coughing and jerking himself about agitatedly.

“What I mean to say is,” he said, puncturing his discourse with coughs, “there you’ve got it.”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“What I mean is, you’ve got precise expression of precise emotion.”

“Just what I was going to say.”

“You see, when you’ve got that, What I mean is, You’ve got something.”

“Why, of course!”

“You see, what I mean to say is, if you get two or three intelligent people to see the thing, then you’ve got it. I mean you won’t get those damned block-headed sons of bitches like Quijasso and Caesar Frank to see it, I mean, it simply smashes them, you see.”

“Did you expect them to?”

“You see, what you’ve got is complete originality and The Tradition. One doesn’t worry about the hacks, you see, but what I mean to say, one does mildly suppose Quijasso had a few gleams of intelligence, but what I mean is they won’t take anything new.”

“I get the originality, of course, but I admit I don’t quite see the traditional side of the movement.”

Mr. Upjohn sighed pettishly and waved his head from side to side in commiserating contempt.

“Of course, you wouldn’t. What intelligence you have was ruined by your lack of education, and your native obtuseness makes you instinctively prefer the academic. I mean, can’t you SEE that the proportions of Decomposition-Cosmos are exactly those of the Canopic vase in the Filangieri Museum at Naples?”

“How could I see that,” said George, rather annoyed, “since I’ve never been to Naples?”

“That’s what I mean to say,” exclaimed Mr. Upjohn triumphantly, “you simply have no education what-so-ever!”

“Well, but what about the other?” said George, desiring to be placable; “is that in the Canopic vase tradition?”

“Christ-in-petticoats, No! I thought even you’d see that. What I mean is, can’t you see it?”

“They might be free adaptions of Greek vase painting?” said George tentatively, hoping to soothe this excitable and irritated genius. Mr. Upjohn flung his palette knife on the floor.

“You’re too stupid, George. What I mean is, the proportion and placing and colour-values are exactly in the best tradition of American-Indian blankets, and what I mean is, when you’ve got that, well, I mean, you’ve got something!”

“Of course, of course, it was stupid of me not to see. Forgive me, I’ve been working at hack articles all day, and my mind’s a bit muzzy.”

“I mildly supposed so!”

And Mr. Upjohn, with spasmodic movements, jerked the two easels round to the wall. There was a short pause in the conversation. Mr. Upjohn irritatedly cast himself at full length upon a sofa, and spasmodically ate candied apricots.


Richard Aldington, 1892-1962                        Death of a Hero, 1929

Described by George Orwell as “the best of the English war books” and by Aldington as a threnody, a death dirge, a lamentation, Death of a Hero, is a semi-autobiographal account of George Winterbourne, an idealistic artist who enlists in the army at the outbreak of World War I. The narrative is deeply pessimistic depiction of the pointlessness of war, the complacency of English bourgeois society, and the moral hypocrisy of the new woman, whose attitude and behaviour shows little compassion towards soldiers at war, living or dead. The painter Frank Upjohn, who invents a new style of painting every season, is a satirical portrait of modernist artists and poets, suggested by Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound.

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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