Gilbert Cannan – Mendel: a story of youth, 1916

Mark Gertler Rabbi and Rabbitzin

And now here was Mitchell babbling of his love for Morrison. When Mendel wanted to talk of pictures and art and the old painters who had worked simply without reference to success, Mitchell kept dragging him back to Morrison, her simplicity, her extraordinary childlike innocence, her love of beauty, her generous trustfulness, her queer sudden impulses.

“What has such a girl as that to do with art or with artists?” said Mendel furiously. “An artist wants women as he wants his food, when he has time for them.”

“Gawd!” says Mitchell, trotting along by his side; “you don’t know what you are talking about. I tell you I never believed all that trash about a young man being redeemed by a virtuous girl until now.”

“It’s nonsense !” shouted Mendel ; “nonsense, I tell you. It must be nonsense, because it didn’t matter to you whether it was Clowes or Morrison, and for all I know, it may be both.”

“Clowes is a jolly nice girl too,” replied Mitchell, “but she’s more ordinary. I never met any one like Morrison before. I can’t make her out, but she does make me feel that I am an absolute rotter. It is her fresh enjoyment of simple things that disturbs me and makes me see what a mess I’ve made of my life. Once an artist loses that, he is finished.”

They had been reading Tolstoi on “What is Art?” and their young conceit had been put out by it. Must their extraordinary powers produce work accessible to the smallest intelligence? Mendel had been greatly influenced by that theory in his portrait of his mother, while Mitchell’s energy had been paralysed so that he could produce nothing at all.

“Yes,” Mitchell went on, “I know now what Tolstoi means. He means that love can speak direct to love, and, by Jove! it is absolutely true. Brains are only a nuisance to an artist. Look at Calthrop ! He hasn’t got the brains of a louse. Of course, that is why painters are such an ignorant lot. I must tell my father that when he goes for me for not reading.”

“But Tolstoi liked bad artists!” grumbled Mendel. “And my mother does not like some of my best things. As for my father, he wants a painted bread to look as if he could eat it: never is he satisfied just to look at it. His love and my love are not the same and cannot speak to each other.”

“You should see more of Morrison, and then you would understand,” rejoined Mitchell.

Mendel felt that Mitchell was slipping away from him, and all this Christian talk of love was to him a corrosion upon his imagination and his nervous energy, blurring and distorting everything that he valued. There were many things that he hated, and yet because he hated them their interest for him was consuming. Issy’s wife, for instance, and her squalling children ; his father’s bitter tongue; and Mitchell’s odd self-importance.

He repeated: “Tolstoi liked bad artists.”

“You can’t settle a big man like Tolstoi just by repeating phrases about him.”

“I can settle him by painting good pictures,” retorted Mendel. “I don’t paint pictures to please people.”

“Then why do you paint?”

“I don’t know. To be an artist. Because there is a thing called art which matters to me more than all the love and all the women and all the little girls in the world.”


Gilbert Cannan,1884-1955 Mendel; a story of youth,1916. Book II Bohemia. Chapter I, THE POT-AU-FEU

Gilbert Cannan was part of a London literary circle including J.M Barrie, D.H Lawrence, Ottoline Morrell, John Middleton Murray and Katherine Mansfield.

Mendel: a story of youth, 1916, is about the artist Mendel Kühler, closely based on the early life of Mark Gertler,1891-1939. Mendel was Gertler’s Yiddish name, and the narrative follows Mendel from the poor Jewish immigrant community in Whitechapel to the Slade School of Art. He is described as a talented instinctive genius of a painter as well as being naïve, arrogant, histrionic and impetuous. The novel includes descriptions of Greta Morrison (Dora Carrington, 1893-1932), and Mitchell (John S Currie, 1883-1914). Fellow students at the Slade included artists of the ‘Neo-Primitive’ group, C.R.W. Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Stanley Spencer, Adrian Allinson, Dora Carrington, John S. Currrie.

The novel was described by D H. Lawrence, “Gertler… has told every detail of his life to Gilbert… who has a lawyer’s memory and he has put it all down, and so ridiculously when it comes to the love affair… it is a bad book – statement without creation – really journalism.” Dora Carrington commented, “How angry I am over Gilbert’s book. Everywhere this confounded gossip, and servant-like curiously. It’s ugly and so damned vulgar.”

Image: Mark Gertler, Rabbi and Rabbitzen, 1914. Watercolour and pencil

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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