Gertrude Stein – The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933

Ambroise_Vollard,_standing_in_front_of_Picasso's_Evocación._El_entierro_de_CasagemasChapter 3 – GERTRUDE STEIN IN PARIS

1903-1907

During Gertrude Stein’s last two years at the Medical Schools Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, 1900-1903, her brother was living in Florence. There he heard of a painter named Cézanne and saw paintings by him owned by Charles Loeser. When he and his sister made their home in Paris the following year they went to Vollard’s the only picture dealer who had Cézannes for sale, to look at them.

Vollard was a huge dark man who lisped a little. His shop was on the rue Laffitte not far from the boulevard. Further along this short street was Durand-Ruel and still further on almost at the church of the Martyrs was Sagot the ex-clown. Higher up in Montmartre on the rue Victor-Masse was Mademoiselle Weill who sold a mixture of pictures, books and bric-a-brac and in entirely another part of Paris on the rue Faubourg-Saint-Honore was the ex-café keeper and photographer Druet. Also on the rue Laffitte was the confectioner Fouquet where one could console oneself with delicious honey cakes and nut candies and once in a while instead of a picture buy oneself strawberry jam in a glass bowl.

The first visit to Vollard has left an indelible impression on Gertrude Stein. It was an incredible place. It did not look like a picture gallery. Inside there were a couple of canvases turned to the wall, in one corner was a small pile of big and little canvases thrown pell mell on top of one another, in the centre of the room stood a huge dark man glooming. This was Vollard cheerful. When he was really cheerless he put his huge frame against the glass door that led to the street, his arms above his head, his hands on each upper corner of the portal and gloomed darkly into the street. Nobody thought then of trying to come in.

They asked to see Cézannes. He looked less gloomy and became quite polite. As they found out afterward Cézanne was the great romance of Vollard’s life. The name Cézanne was to him a magic word. He had first learned about Cézanne from Pissarro the painter. Pissarro indeed was the man from whom all the early Cézanne lovers heard about Cézanne. Cézanne at that time was living gloomy and embittered at Aix-en-Provence. Pissarro told Vollard about him, told Fabry, a Florentine, who told Loeser, told Picabia, in fact told everybody who knew about Cézanne at that time.

There were Cézannes to be seen at Vollard’s. Later on Gertrude Stein wrote a poem called Vollard and Cézanne, and Henry McBride printed it in the New York Sun. This was the first fugitive piece of Gertrude Stein’s to be so printed and it gave both her and Vollard a great deal of pleasure. Later on when Vollard wrote his book about Cézanne, Vollard at Gertrude Stein’s suggestion sent a copy of the book to Henry McBride. She told Vollard that a whole page of one of New York’s big daily papers would be devoted to his book. He did not believe it possible, nothing like that had ever happened to anybody in Paris. It did happen and he was deeply moved and unspeakably content. But to return to that first visit.

They told Monsieur Vollard they wanted to see some Cézanne landscapes, they had been sent to him by Mr. Loeser of Florence. Oh yes, said Vollard looking quite cheerful and he began moving about the room, finally he disappeared behind a partition in the back and was heard heavily mounting the steps. After a quite long wait he came down again and had in his hand a tiny picture of an apple with most of the canvas unpainted. They all looked at this thoroughly, then they said, yes but you see what we wanted to see was a landscape. Ah yes, sighed Vollard and he looked even more cheerful, after a moment he again disappeared and this time came back with a painting of a back, it was a beautiful painting there is no doubt about that but the brother and sister were not yet up to a full appreciation of Cézanne nudes and so they returned to the attack. They wanted to see a landscape. This time after even a longer wait he came back with a very large canvas and a very little fragment of a landscape painted on it. Yes that was it, they said, a landscape but what they wanted was a smaller canvas but one all covered. They said, they thought they would like to see one like that. By this time the early winter evening of Paris was closing in and just at this moment a very aged charwoman came down the same back stairs, mumbled, boa soir monsieur et madame, and quietly went out of the door, after a moment another old charwoman came down the same stairs, murmured, bon soir messieurs et mesdames and went quietly out of the door. Gertrude Stein began to laugh and said to her brother, it is all nonsense, there is no Cézanne. Vollard goes upstairs and tells these old women what to paint and he does not understand us and they do not understand him and they paint something and he brings it down and it is a Cézanne. They both began to laugh uncontrollably. Then they recovered and once more explained about the landscape. They said what they wanted was one of those marvellously yellow sunny Aix landscapes of which Loeser had several examples. Once more Vollard Went off and this time he came back with a wonderful small green landscape. It was lovely, it covered all the canvas, it did not cost much and they bought it. Later on Vollard explained to every one that he had been visited by two crazy americans and they laughed and he had been much annoyed but gradually he found out that when they laughed most they usually bought something so of course he waited for them to laugh.

From that time on they went to Vollard’s all the time. They had soon the privilege of upsetting his piles of canvases and finding what they liked in the heap. They bought a tiny little Daumier, head of an old woman. They began to take an interest in Cézanne nudes and they finally bought two tiny canvases of nude groups. They found a very very small Manet painted in black and white with Forain in the foreground and bought it, they found two tiny little Renoirs. They frequently bought in twos because one of them usually liked one more than the other one did, and so the year wore on. In the spring Vollard announced a show of Gauguin and they for the first time saw some Gauguins. They were rather awful but they finally liked them, and bought two Gauguins. Gertrude Stein liked his sun-flowers but not his figures and her brother preferred the figures. It sounds like a great deal now but in those days these things did not cost much. And so the winter went on.

Gertrude Stein, 1874-1946. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933

Published by Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1933.

image: Paul Cézanne, 1898–1900, Bathers, 1898-1900; Oil On Canvas; 10 5/8 x 18 1/8. Baltimore Museum of Art

image: Ambroise Vollard, 1866-1939. Standing in front of Picasso, Evocación. El entierro de Casagema (Funeral at Casegamas), 1901.

Editor’s Note: Although described as a novel, it is an autobiography of Gertrude Stein’s life narrated through the external voice of her companion Alice B.Toklas. It is, however, a personal eye-witness account of people she met while in Paris between 1903-1907. This relates meetings with artists, including Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire, and the purchase of paintings by Paul Cézanne from the art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Virgil Thompson, who wrote music to Stein’s lyrics considered the book “in every way except actual authorship Alice Toklas’s book; it reflects her mind, her language, her private view of Gertrude, also her unique narrative powers. Every story in it is told as Alice herself had always told it…. Every story that ever came into the house eventually got told in Alice’s way, and this was its definitive version.” Leo Stein described it as a farrago of lies”.

George Orwell – Burmese Days, 1934

georges-bouche-1874-1941-nature-morte-aux-oranges-46x55cm

Elizabeth was just turned twenty-two, and was an orphan. Her father had been less of a drunkard than his brother Tom, but he was a man of similar stamp. He was a tea-broker, and his fortunes fluctuated greatly, but he was by nature too optimistic to put money aside in prosperous phases. Elizabeth’s mother had been an incapable, half-baked, vapouring, self-pitying woman who shirked all the normal duties of life on the strength of sensibilities which she did not possess. After messing about for years with such things as Women’s Suffrage and Higher Thought, and making many abortive attempts at literature, she had finally taken up with painting. Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work. Mrs Lackersteen’s pose was that of an artist exiled among ‘the Philistines’ — these, needless to say, included her husband — and it was a pose that gave her almost unlimited scope for making a nuisance of herself.

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The inevitable crash came late in 1919. Elizabeth was taken away from school, to continue her education at a succession of cheap, beastly schools, with gaps of a term or two when her father could not pay the fees. He died when she was twenty, of influenza. Mrs Lackersteen was left with an income of £150 a year, which was to die with her. The two women could not, under Mrs Lackersteen’s management, live on three pounds a week in England. They moved to Paris, where life was cheaper and where Mrs Lackersteen intended to dedicate herself wholly to Art.

Paris! Living in Paris! Flory had been a little wide of the mark when he pictured those interminable conversations with bearded artists under the green plane trees. Elizabeth’s life in Paris had not been quite like that.

Her mother had taken a studio in the Montparnasse quarter, and relapsed at once into a state of squalid, muddling idleness. She was so foolish with money that her income would not come near covering expenses, and for several months Elizabeth did not even have enough to eat.

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It was a mean, beastly existence. In fact, it reached levels of ‘beastliness’ which Elizabeth had not previously known to exist. But the thing that most depressed her, most filled her with the sense of sinking into some horrible lower world, was her mother’s studio. Mrs Lackersteen was one of those people who go utterly to pieces when they are deprived of servants. She lived in a restless nightmare between painting and housekeeping, and never worked at either. At irregular intervals she went to a ‘school’ where she produced greyish still-lifes under the guidance of a master whose technique was founded on dirty brushes; for the rest, she messed about miserably at home with teapots and frying-pans. The state of her studio was more than depressing to Elizabeth; it was evil, Satanic. It was a cold, dusty pigsty, with piles of books and papers littered all over the floor, generations of saucepans slumbering in their grease on the rusty gas-stove, the bed never made till afternoon, and everywhere — in every possible place where they could be stepped on or knocked over — tins of paint-fouled turpentine and pots half full of cold black tea. You would lift a cushion from a chair and find a plate holding the remains of a poached egg underneath it. As soon as Elizabeth entered the door she would burst out:

Oh, Mother, Mother dearest, how can you? Look at the state of this room! It is so terrible to live like this!’

The room, dearest? What’s the matter? Is it untidy?’

Untidy! Mother, need you leave that plate of porridge in the middle of your bed? And those saucepans! It does look so dreadful. Suppose anyone came in!’

The rapt, other-worldly look which Mrs Lackersteen assumed when anything like work presented itself, would come into her eyes.

None of my friends would mind, dear. We are such Bohemians, we artists. You don’t understand how utterly wrapped up we all are in our painting. You haven’t the artistic temperament, you see, dear.’

I must try and clean some of those saucepans. I just can’t bear to think of you living like this. What have you done with the scrubbing-brush?’

The scrubbing-brush? Now, let me think, I know I saw it somewhere. Ah yes! I used it yesterday to clean my palette. But it’ll be all right if you give it a good wash in turpentine.’

Mrs Lackersteen would sit down and continue smudging a sheet of sketching paper with a Conté crayon while Elizabeth worked.

How wonderful you are, dear. So practical! I can’t think whom you inherit it from. Now with me, Art is simply everything. I seem to feel it like a great sea surging up inside me. It swamps everything mean and petty out of existence. Yesterday I ate my lunch off Nash’s Magazine to save wasting time washing plates. Such a good idea! When you want a clean plate you just tear off a sheet,’ etc., etc., etc.

Elizabeth had no friends in Paris. Her mother’s friends were women of the same stamp as herself, or elderly ineffectual bachelors living on small incomes and practising contemptible half-arts such as wood-engraving or painting on porcelain. For the rest, Elizabeth saw only foreigners, and she disliked all foreigners en bloc; or at least all foreign men, with their cheap-looking clothes and their revolting table manners. She had one great solace at this time. It was to go to the American library in the rue de l’Elysée and look at the illustrated papers. Sometimes on a Sunday or her free afternoon she would sit there for hours at the big shiny table, dreaming, over the Sketch, the Tatler, the Graphic, the Sporting and Dramatic.

Ah, what joys were pictured there! ‘Hounds meeting on the lawn of Charlton Hall, the lovely Warwickshire seat of Lord Burrowdean.’ ‘The Hon. Mrs Tyke-Bowlby in the Park with her splendid Alsatian, Kublai Khan, which took second prize at Cruft’s this summer.’ ‘Sunbathing at Cannes. Left to right: Miss Barbara Pilbrick, Sir Edward Tuke, Lady Pamela Westrope, Captain “Tuppy” Benacre.’

Lovely, lovely, golden world! On two occasions the face of an old schoolfellow looked at Elizabeth from the page. It hurt her in her breast to see it. There they all were, her old schoolfellows, with their horses and their cars and their husbands in the cavalry; and here she, tied to that dreadful job, that dreadful pension, her dreadful mother! Was it possible that there was no escape? Could she be doomed forever to this sordid meanness, with no hope of ever getting back to the decent world again?

It was not unnatural, with the example of her mother before her eyes, that Elizabeth should have a healthy loathing of Art. In fact, any excess of intellect — ‘braininess’ was her word for it — tended to belong, in her eyes, to the ‘beastly’. Real people, she felt, decent people — people who shot grouse, went to Ascot, yachted at Cowes — were not brainy. They didn’t go in for this nonsense of writing books and fooling with paintbrushes; and all these Highbrow ideas — Socialism and all that. ‘Highbrow’ was a bitter word in her vocabulary. And when it happened, as it did once or twice, that she met a veritable artist who was willing to work penniless all his life, rather than sell himself to a bank or an insurance company, she despised him far more than she despised the dabblers of her mother’s circle. That a man should turn deliberately away from all that was good and decent, sacrifice himself for a futility that led nowhere, was shameful, degrading, evil. She dreaded spinsterhood, but she would have endured it a thousand lifetimes through rather than marry such a man.

When Elizabeth had been nearly two years in Paris her mother died abruptly of ptomaine poisoning. The wonder was that she had not died of it sooner. Elizabeth was left with rather less than a hundred pounds in the world. Her uncle and aunt cabled at once from Burma, asking her to come out and stay with them, and saying that a letter would follow.

George Orwell, 1903-1950. Burmese Days, 1934, Chapter 7

Published by Harper & Brothers, USA, 1934; Victor Gollanz, GB, 1935

image 1: Georges Bouche, 1874-1941. Nature morte aux oranges, 46 x 55 cm

image 2: Louis Thevenet, 1874-1930. Nature morte, 1914. Oil on canvas, 38,5 x 46 cm

George Orwell’s novel, Burmese Days, describes the lives of the colonial civil servants and officials of the British Empire, based on Orwell’s observations while working in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in the 1920s. Elizabeth Lackersteen epitomises the idle and under-educated ex-pat, with assumptions of superiority in her status due to her class and race, who yearns for the superficialities of English country life and sporting pastimes. A short episode in the novel describes the otiose life of Mrs Lackersteen, her mother and the indolent milieu of the cultivated bohemian artist. Elizabeth despises the dirt and poverty of the artistic dabblers and dilettantes, and it is her mother’s fate to die as a result of food poisoning associated with her socially corrupt lifestyle. The text suggests a beatific vision of Paris in the 1930s, conjured up by John Flory, an English civil servant in Burma: I’ve never even seen it. But, good Lord, how I’ve imagined it! Paris — it’s all a kind of jumble of pictures in my mind; cafes and boulevards and artists’ studios and Villon and Baudelaire and Maupassant all mixed up together. You don’t know how the names of those European towns sound to us, out here. And did you really live in Paris? Sitting in cafes with foreign art students, drinking white wine and talking about Marcel Proust?’ Burmese Days, Chapter 6.

F Scott Fitzgerald – Tender is the Night,1934

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His most interesting case was in the main building. The patient was a woman of thirty who had been in the clinic six months; she was an American painter who had lived long in Paris. They had no very satisfactory history of her. A cousin had happened upon her all mad and gone and after an unsatisfactory interlude at one of the whoopee cures that fringed the city, dedicated largely to tourist victims of drug and drink, he had managed to get her to Switzerland. On her admittance she had been exceptionally pretty — now she was a living agonizing sore. All blood tests had failed to give a positive reaction and the trouble was unsatisfactorily catalogued as nervous eczema. For two months she had lain under it, as imprisoned as in the Iron Maiden. She was coherent, even brilliant, within the limits of her special hallucinations.

She was particularly his patient. During spells of overexcitement he was the only doctor who could “do anything with her.” Several weeks ago, on one of many nights that she had passed in sleepless torture Franz had succeeded in hypnotizing her into a few hours of needed rest, but he had never again succeeded. Hypnosis was a tool that Dick had distrusted and seldom used, for he knew that he could not always summon up the mood in himself — he had once tried it on Nicole and she had scornfully laughed at him.

The woman in room twenty could not see him when he came in — the area about her eyes was too tightly swollen. She spoke in a strong, rich, deep, thrilling voice.

How long will this last? Is it going to be forever?”

It’s not going to be very long now. Doctor Ladislau tells me there are whole areas cleared up.”

If I knew what I had done to deserve this I could accept it with equanimity.”

It isn’t wise to be mystical about it — we recognize it as a nervous phenomenon. It’s related to the blush — when you were a girl, did you blush easily?”

She lay with her face turned to the ceiling.

I have found nothing to blush for since I cut my wisdom teeth.”

Haven’t you committed your share of petty sins and mistakes?”

I have nothing to reproach myself with.”

You’re very fortunate.”

The woman thought a moment; her voice came up through her bandaged face afflicted with subterranean melodies:

I’m sharing the fate of the women of my time who challenged men to battle.”

To your vast surprise it was just like all battles,” he answered, adopting her formal diction.

Just like all battles.” She thought this over. “You pick a set- up, or else win a Pyrrhic victory, or you’re wrecked and ruined — you’re a ghostly echo from a broken wall.”

You are neither wrecked nor ruined,” he told her. “Are you quite sure you’ve been in a real battle?”

Look at me!” she cried furiously.

You’ve suffered, but many women suffered before they mistook themselves for men.” It was becoming an argument and he retreated. “In any case you mustn’t confuse a single failure with a final defeat.”

She sneered. “Beautiful words,” and the phrase transpiring up through the crust of pain humbled him.

We would like to go into the true reasons that brought you here —” he began but she interrupted.

I am here as a symbol of something. I thought perhaps you would know what it was.”

You are sick,” he said mechanically.

Then what was it I had almost found?”

A greater sickness.”

That’s all?”

That’s all.” With disgust he heard himself lying, but here and now the vastness of the subject could only be compressed into a lie. “Outside of that there’s only confusion and chaos. I won’t lecture to you — we have too acute a realization of your physical suffering. But it’s only by meeting the problems of every day, no matter how trifling and boring they seem, that you can make things drop back into place again. After that — perhaps you’ll be able again to examine —”

He had slowed up to avoid the inevitable end of his thought: “— the frontiers of consciousness.” The frontiers that artists must explore were not for her, ever. She was fine-spun, inbred — eventually she might find rest in some quiet mysticism. Exploration was for those with a measure of peasant blood, those with big thighs and thick ankles who could take punishment as they took bread and salt, on every inch of flesh and spirit.

Not for you, he almost said. It’s too tough a game for you.

Yet in the awful majesty of her pain he went out to her unreservedly, almost sexually. He wanted to gather her up in his arms, as he so often had Nicole, and cherish even her mistakes, so deeply were they part of her. The orange light through the drawn blind, the sarcophagus of her figure on the bed, the spot of face, the voice searching the vacuity of her illness and finding only remote abstractions.

As he arose the tears fled lava-like into her bandages.

That is for something,” she whispered. “Something must come out of it.”

He stooped and kissed her forehead.

We must all try to be good,” he said.

F Scott Fitzgerald,1896-1940.   Tender is the Night,1934, Chapter 39

Image: Zelda Fitzgerald,1900-1948. Chrysanthemums, watercolour, 15 3/4 x 11 ½“

Image: Zelda Fitzgerald,1900-1948. Zelda Sayre surrounded by flowers while in ballet costume, representing “Polly” in “Les Mysterieuses” Ball, Montgomery, 1919

Iris Murdoch – The Bell, 1958

pp-rubens-portrait-of-susanna-lunden-ngl

Dora hadn’t especially intended to visit the National Gallery, but once she was there she went in. It was as good a place as any other to decide what to do. She no longer wanted any lunch. She wondered if she should try telephoning Sally again; but she no longer wanted to see Sally. She climbed the stairs and wandered away into the eternal spring-time of the air-conditioned rooms.

Dora had been in the National Gallery a thousand times and the pictures were almost as familiar to her as her own face. Passing between them now, as through a well-loved grove, she felt a calm descending on her. She wandered a little, watching with compassion the poor visitors armed with guide books who were peering anxiously at the masterpieces. Dora did not need to peer. She could look, as one can at last when one knows a great thing very well, confronting it with a dignity which it has itself conferred. She felt that the pictures belonged to her, and reflected ruefully that they were about the only thing that did. Vaguely, consoled by the presence of something welcoming and responding in the place, her footsteps took her to various shrines at which she had worshipped so often before: the great light spaces of Italian pictures, more vast and southern than any real South, the angels of Botticelli, radiant as birds, delighted as gods, and curling like the tendrils of a vine, the glorious carnal presence of Susanna Fourment, the tragic presence of Margarethe Trip, the solemn world of Piero della Francesca with its early-morning colours, the enclosed and gilded world of Crivelli. Dora stopped at last in front of Gainsborough’s picture of his two daughters. These children step through a wood hand in hand, their garments shimmering, their eyes serious and dark, their two pale heads, round full buds, like yet unlike.

Dora was always moved by the pictures. Today she was moved, but in a new way. She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. Who had said that, about perfection and reality being in the same place? Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless. Even Paul, she thought, only existed now as someone she dreamt about; or else as a vague external menace never really encountered and understood. But the pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly and yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. When the world had seemed to be subjective it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all.

These thoughts, not clearly articulated, flitted through Dora’s mind. She had never thought about the pictures in this way before; nor did she draw now any very explicit moral. Yet she felt that she had had a revelation. She looked at the radiant, sombre, tender, powerful canvas of Gainsborough and felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before it, embracing it, shedding tears.

Dora looked anxiously about her, wondering if anyone had noticed her transports. Although she had not actually prostrated herself, her face must have looked unusually ecstatic, and the tears were in fact starting into her eyes. She found that she was alone in the room, and smiled, restored to a more calm enjoyment of her wisdom. She gave a last look at the painting, still smiling, as one might smile in a temple, favoured, encouraged, and loved. Then she turned and began to leave the building.

Dora was hurrying now and wanting her lunch. She looked at her watch and found it was tea-time. She remembered that she had been wondering what to do; but now, without her thinking about it, it had become obvious. She must go back to Imber at once. Her real life, her real problems, were at Imber; and since, somewhere, something good existed, it might be that her problems would be solved after all. There was a connexion; obscurely she felt, without yet understanding it, she must hang onto that idea: there was a connexion. She bought a sandwich and took a taxi back to Paddington.

Iris Murdoch, 1919-1999. The Bell, 1958 Chapter 14.

Published by Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1958

Image: Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640. Portrait of Susanna Lunden(?)(Fourment) – ‘Le Chapeau de Paille’, probably 1622-5, Oil on oak, 79 x 54.6 cm, The National Gallery, London

Image: Carlo Crivelli, c.1430/5–c. 1494, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, 1486, Egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm, The National Gallery, London

Image: Rembrandt, 1606-1669, Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip, 1661, Oil on canvas, 5.3 x 63.8 cm, The National Gallery, London

Image: Piero della Francesca, 1415/20-1492, The Baptism of Christ, 1450s, Egg on poplar, 167 x 116 cm The National Gallery, London

Image: Sandro Botticelli, c.1445–1510, Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius, c. 1500
Tempera on wood, 64.8 x 139.7 cm, The National Gallery, London

A.S. Byatt – Art Work, The Matisse Stories, 1993

Le Silence habité des Maisons

Shona McRury sends a gallery postcard to Robin and Debbie jointly, saying that she really loved seeing the pictures, which have real integrity, and that things are very crowded and confused in the life of her gallery just now. Debbie knows that this means no, and suspects that the kindnesses are for her, Debbie’s, possible future usefullness, that is, A Womans Place’s possible future usefulness, to the Callisto Gallery. She does not say that to robin, whom she is beginning to treat like a backward and stupid child, which worries her, since that is not what he is. And when A Woman’s Place sends her off a month or two later to the Callisto Gallery with a photographer, a nice-enough on-the-make Liverpudlian called Tom Sprot, to illustrate an article on a new feminist installation, she goes in a friendly enough mood. She is a reasonable woman, she could not have expected more from Shona McRury, and knows it.

Tom Sprot has brilliantined blond hair and baggy tartan trousers. He is very laid back, very calm. When he gets inside the gallery, which is normally creamy and airy, he says, ‘Wow!’ and starts rushing about, peering through his lens, with alacrity. The whole space has been transformed into a kind of soft, even squashy, brilliantly coloured aladdin’s Cave. The walls are hung with what seem like huge tapestries, partly knitted, partly made like rugs, with shifting streams and islands of colour, which when looked at closely reveal little peering mad embroidered faces, green with blue eyes, black with red eyes, pink with silver eyes. Swaying crocheted cobwebs hang from the ceiling, inhabited by dusky spiders and swarms of sequined blue flies with gauzy wings. These things are brilliantly pretty, but not like a stage set, they are elegant and sinister, there is something horrid about the netted pockets with the heaped blue bodies. The spiders themselves are menaced by phalanxes of feather dusters, all kinds of feathers, a peacock fan, a fluffy nylon cyan-blue and shocking pink tube, a lime-green and orange palm tree on a golden staff, wound with lamé. The cavern has a crazy kind of resemblance to a lived-in room. Chest of drawers, made of orange boxes covered with patchworks of wallpaper, from vulgar silver roses to William Morris birds, from Regency plum stripes to Laura Ashley pink sprigs, reveal half-open treasure chests with mazy compartments containing crazy collections of things. White bone buttons. Glass stoppers. Chicken bones. Cufflinks, all single. Medicine bottles with lacquered labels, full of iridescent beads and codliver-oil capsules. Pearlised plastic poppet beads and sunflower seeds, dolls teaspoons and drifts of variegated tealeaves and dead rose-petals. Sugar mice, some half-chewed. String, bright green, waxed red, hairy brown, running from compartment to compartment.

There are pieces of furniture, or creatures standing about in all this. A large tump, or possibly a giant pouffe, layered in skirts of scarlet and orange, grass-green and emerald, dazzlingly juxtaposed, reveals, if the wools are parted, a circle of twenty or thirty little knitted pink breasts, and above that another of little chocolate-coloured satin ones, a kind of squat Diana of Ephesus without face or hands. A long bolster-like creature might be a thin woman or a kind of lizard or even a piece of the seashore. It is mostly knitted, in rich browns and greens, with scalloped fronds and trailing, weedy ‘limbs’ or ‘maybe’ tentacles – there are more, when it has been walked round, than four. From a distance it has a pleasing look of rock-pools crusted with limpets and anemones. Closer, it can be seen to be plated with a kind of armour of crocheted bosses, violet and saffron, some tufted with crimson, or trailing threads of blood-coloured embroidery-silks.

The centrepiece is a kind of dragon and chained lady, St George and the Princess Saba. Perseus and Andromeda. The dragon has a cubic blue body and a long concertina neck. It has a crest of mulberry taffeta plates, blanket stitched, something like the horrent scallops of the Stegosaurus. It is an odd dragon, recumbent amongst its own coils, a dragon related to a millipede, with hundreds of black shining wiry tentacular legs, which expose their scarlet linings and metal filaments. It is knitted yet solid, it raises a square jaw with a woollen beard, and some teeth dripping with matted hair and broken hairpins, multicoloured fluffy foam and cotton spittle. Its eyes are bland blue rounds with soft chenille lashes. It is a Hoover and a dragon, inert and suffocating.

And the lady is flesh-coloured and twisted, her body is broken and concertinaed, and she is draped flat on a large stone, her long limbs are pink nylon, her chains are twisted brassières and demented petticoats, pyjama cords and sinister strained tights. She has a cubist aspect, crossed with Diana of Ephesus again, her breasts are a string of detached and battered shoulder-pads, three above two, her public hair is shrunk angora bonnet. Her face is embroidered on petit-point canvas on a round embroidery-frame, it is half-done, a Botticelli Venus with a chalk outline, a few blonde tresses, cut-out eyeholes, stitched round with spiky black lashes. At first you think that the male figure is totally absent, and then you see him, them miniscule in the crannies of the rock, a plastic knight on a horse, once silver, now mud-green, a toy-soldier with a broken sword and a battered helmet, who have both obviously been through the wheel of the washing-machine, more than once.

There is someone in the window hanging a series of letters, gold on rich chocolate, on a kind of hi-tech washing line with tiny crimson pegs. It says,

                                         SHEBA BROWN     WORK IN VARIOUS MATERIALS

1975-1990

Underneath the line of letters a photograph goes up. Debbie goes out into the street to look at it, a photograph of Mrs Brown under a kind of wild crown of woven scarves, with her old carved look and an added look of sly amusement, in the corners of her mouth and eyes. Her skin has come out duskier than it ‘really’ is, her bones are sculpted, she resembles a cross between the Mona Lisa and a Benin Bronze.

A.S. Byatt. b.1936.  Art Work, The Matisse Stories, 1993

Published by Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1993

Copyright @ A.S.Byatt 1993

Image 1. Henri Matisse, 1869-1954. Le silence habité des maisons, 1947, oil on canvas, 21 5/8 x 18 1/8 inches. Private Collection

Image 2. Henri Matisse, 1869-1954. Le silence habité des maisons, 1947. Museum Bergruenn, Berlin. http://www.smb.museum

Matisse’s painting Le silence habité des maisons, translates as ‘The Inhabited Silence of Houses’. In A.S Byatt’s short story this suggests the ennui of failed ambition, the dull habitualness of domesticity and the life of bored and unfulfilled couples in the inner suburbs of Bohemia. Debbie Dennison is the successful editor of a A Woman’s Place magazine. Her husband, Robin Dennison, who as a young man was a progressive artist “a neo-realist before neo-realism” had become an introverted painter working from his home studio making sterile and repetitive work drained of energy: “He painted bright things in large expanses of grey and buff and beige”. Shona McRury is an ambitious art dealer who owns the Callisto Gallery. Mrs. Brown is the Dennison’s part-Guyanese, part-Irish home help who has a flamboyant sense of fashion and inventive artistic talent who has been privately making colourful textile ‘soft sculpture’ in the “lock-up room in the basement of her block of flats”. Shona McRury visits Robin Dennison’s studio but is dispirited by his work. Then to the surprise of the Dennison’s an exhibition of Mrs. Brown’s work is shown at the Callisto Gallery and is celebrated for presenting “feminist comments” and “shocking effects”. Sheba Brown leaves her job with the “artistic family” to pursue her career as an artist. The story ends with Debbie Dennison returns to being an artist, making illustrations and wood-engravings, while Robin Dennison begins to make a new form of painting featuring ‘Kali the Destroyer’.

Wyndham Lewis – Beau Séjour,1927

h-brodsky_viewing-kermesse-1917

THE POLE. In pre-war Europe, which was also even more the Europe of before the Russian Revolution, a curious sect was established in the watering-places of Brittany. Its members were generally known by the peasants as ‘Poles.’ The so-called ‘Pole’ was a russian exile or wandering student, often coming from Poland. The sort that collected in such great numbers in Brittany were probably not politicians, except in the sentimental manner in which all educated Russians before the Revolution were ‘radical’ and revolutionary. They had banished themselves, for purely literary political reasons, it is likely, rather than been banished. Brittany became a heavenly Siberia for masses of middle-class russian men and women who made ‘art’ the excuse for a never-ending holiday. They insensibly became a gentle and delightful parasite upon the French. Since the Revolution (it being obvious that they cannot have vast and lucrative estates, which before the Revolution it was easy for them to claim) they have mostly been compelled to work. The Paris taxi-driver of today, lolling on the seat of his vehicle, cigarette in mouth, who, without turning round, swiftly moves away when a fare enters his cab, is what in the ancien régime would have been a ‘Pole.’ If there is a communist revolution in France, this sort of new nomad will move down into Spain perhaps. He provides for the countries of Europe on a very insignificant scale a new version, today, of the ‘jewish problem.’ His indolence, not his activity, of course, makes him a ‘problem.’

The pre-war method of migration was this. A ‘Pole’ in his home in Russia would save up or borrow about ten pounds. He then left his native land for ever, taking a third-class ticket to Brest. This must have become an almost instinctive proceeding. At Brest he was in the heart of the promised land. He would then make the best of his way to a Pension de Famille, already occupied by a phalanstery of ‘Poles.’ There he would have happily remained until the crack of doom, but for the Bolshevik Revolution. He had reckoned without Lenin, so to speak.

He was usually a ‘noble,’ very soberly but tactfully dressed. He wore suède gloves: his manners were graceful. The proprietress had probably been warned of his arrival and he was welcome. His first action would be to pay three months’ board and lodging in advance; that would also be his last action of that sort. With a simple dignity that was the secret of the ‘Pole,’ at the end of the trimestre, he remained as the guest of the proprietress. His hostess took this as a matter of course. He henceforth became the regular, unobtrusive, respected inhabitant of the house.

If the proprietress of a Pension de Famille removed her establishment from one part of the country to another, took a larger house, perhaps (to make room for more ‘Poles’), her ‘Poles’ went with her without comment or change in their habits. Just before the war, Mademoiselle T. still sheltered in her magnificent hotel, frequented by wealthy Americans, some of these quiet ‘Poles,’ who had been with her since the day when she first began hotel-keeping in a small wayside inn. Lunching there you could observe at the foot of the table a group of men of a monastic simplicity of dress and manner, all middle-aged by that time, indeed even venerable in several instances, talking among themselves in a strange and attractive tongue. Mademoiselle T. was an amiable old lady, and these were her domestic gods. Any one treating them with disrespect would have seen the rough side of Mademoiselle T.’s tongue.

Their hosts, I believe, so practical in other ways, became superstitious about these pensive inhabitants of their houses. Some I know would no more have turned out an old and ailing ‘Pole’ who owed them thirty years’ board and lodging, than many people would get rid of an aged and feeble cat.

For the breton peasant, ‘Polonais’ or ‘Pole’ sufficed to describe the member of any nation whom he observed leading anything that resembled the unaccountable life of the true slav parasite with which he had originally familiarized himself under the name of ‘Pole.’

Few ‘Poles,’ I think, ever saw the colour of money once this initial pin-money that they brought from Russia was spent. One ‘Pole’ of my acquaintance did get hold of three pounds by some means, and went to spend a month in Paris. After this outing, his prestige considerably enhanced, he came back and resumed his regular life, glad to be again away from the siècle and its metropolitan degradation. In pre-war Paris, ‘Poles’ were to be met, very much de passage, seeing some old friends (en route for Brest) for the last time.

A woman opened a smart hotel of about thirty beds not far from Beau Séjour. I was going over to see it. She advertised that any artist who would at once take up his quarters there would receive his first six months gratis. Referring to this interesting event in the hearing of a ‘Pole,’ he told me he had been over there the previous day. He had found no less than twelve ‘Poles’ already installed, and there was a considerable waiting list. ‘If you like to pay you can go there all right,’ he said, laughing.

The general explanation given by the ‘Pole’ of the position in which he found himself, was that his hosts, after six or nine months, were afraid to let him go, for fear of losing their money. He would add that he could confidently rely on more and more deference the longer he stopped, and the larger the amount that he represented in consequence. Ordinary boarders, he would tell you, could count on nothing like so much attention as he could.

That such a state of affairs should ever have occurred, was partly due perhaps to the patriarchal circumstances of the breton agricultural life. This new domestic animal was able to insinuate himself into its midst because of the existence of so many there already. Rich peasants, and this applied to the proprietors of country inns, were accustomed in their households to suffer the presence of a number of poor familiars, cousinly paupers, supernumeraries doing odd jobs on the farm or in the stables. The people not precisely servants who found a place at their hearth were not all members of the immediate family of the master.

But there was another factor favouring the development of the ‘Pole.’ This was that many of them were described as painters. They seldom of course were able to practise that expensive art, for they could not buy colours or canvases: in their visitors’ bulletins, however, they generally figured as that. But after the death of Gauguin, the dealer, Vollard, and others, came down from Paris. They ransacked the country for forgotten canvases: when they found one they paid to the astonished peasants, in the heat of competition, very considerable sums. Past hosts of the great french romantic had confiscated paintings in lieu of rent. The least sketch had its price. The sight of these breathless collectors, and the rumours of the sums paid, made a deep impression on the local people. The ‘Poles’ on their side were very persuasive. They assured their hosts that Gauguin was a mere cipher compared to them.—These circumstances told in favour of the ‘Pole.’

But no such explanations can really account for the founding of this charming and whimsical order. Whether there are still a few ‘Poles’ surviving in Brittany or not, I have no means of knowing. In the larger centres of villégiature the siècle was already paramount before the war.

The Russian with whom translations of the Russian books of tsarist Russia familiarized the West was an excited and unstable child. We have seen this society massacred in millions without astonishment. The Russian books prepared every Western European for that consummation. All the cast of the Cherry Orchard could be massacred easily by a single determined gunman. This defencelessness of the essential Slav can, under certain circumstances, become an asset. Especially perhaps the French would find themselves victims of such a harmless parasite, so different in his nature to themselves. A more energetic parasite would always fail with the gallic nature, unless very resolute.

Wyndham Lewis, 1882-1957 Beau Séjour, in, The Wild Body, A Soldier of Humour and Other Stories,1927

Image 1: Horace Brodzky, 1885-1969, Viewing Kermesse 1917, Drypoint, 11 x 9.5 cm. © The Estate of Horace Brodzky; Image supplied courtesy of the Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2011

Image 2: Wyndham Lewis, 1882-1957. Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro, a self-portrait, 1921. Oil on canvas, 73 x 44 cm. Ferens Art Gallery, Hull City Museums and Art Gallery. © The Estate of Mrs G.A. Wyndham Lewis: The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust

Wyndham Lewis describes a particular group of resident ‘artists’ in Brittany, known as the ‘Poles,’ who were political and economic refugees, mostly Little Russians, Finns and Germans, who live modestly in auberges on the charity of the Breton landladies. As well-mannered êmigrês they found a niche in the social structure and are accepted as dilettantes adopting the role of poverty-bound artists.The Soldier of Humour, appeared in its original form in The Little Review (an American publication) of 1917-18. In it the showman, Ker-Orr, is, we are to suppose, at a later stage of his comic technique than in the accounts of his adventures in Brittany. Beau Séjour is the first hotel at which he stops. (This, except for the note at the end, is a new story.)” Foreward, Wyndham Lewis, July 6, 1927. Harcourt Brace,

Hannah Höch – Der Maler, 1920 The Painter

Stamp of Fantasy

Once upon a time there was a painter. He wasn’t called Dribble, or anything like that, as he might have been in earlier times. It was around 1920—the painter was a modern painter—so his name was Heavenlykingdom. Unlike the real painters of earlier times, he was not asked to work only with brush and palette. This was his wife’s fault: she thwarted the boundless flight of his genius. At least four times in four years, he was forced to wash dishes – the kitchen dishes. The first time, actually, there had been a pressing reason. She was giving birth to the baby Heavenlykingdom. The other three times had not seemed absolutely necessary to Heavenlykingdom, Sr. But he wanted to keep the peace—because after all God had created the male to do just that and so had no choice but to obey her Xanthippian demand. Yet the matter continued to weigh on him. He felt degraded as a man and as a painter under its dark shadow. On the days of crisis he would suffer nightmares. He kept seeing Michelangelo washing up the cups. He knew enough about psychoanalysis to confront the woman with the truth that such demands always arise out of the desire to dominate, no matter what other reasons there might be. As a modern person he felt that in theory he had to agree with the equality of the sexes—still, if one looked closely at the situation one could not—and then, especially in your own house—her demand seemed to him comparable to an enslavement of his soul …

Now one day he began to paint a picture. A dark force moved him, because he was full of dark forces. He wanted to represent, to cube really, the essential likeness between the nature of chives and the female soul. In theory the whole problem was solved. He saw the emptiness that fills both these objects precisely and with total intellectual clarity. There is more to genius than intellect, however, and, when he connected the herb’s snake-like form with the previously mentioned soul, his unusually developed instinct gave him mystical knowledge. No genius would deny a certain complement of mysticism.

Our Heavenlykingdom was deeply wounded by something he had also heard about from his fellow men: although these little women are often really tiny, they can still not be shaped and modelled into the form one needs for physical and psychic comfort. Had he been a writer, he would have been compelled to enrich literature with a ponderous work on the theme, “When you go to Woman, do not forget the whip.” But under the circumstances that you know about now, his painting was to be called, “The Chive and the Female Soul: A Comparison.” I think it was already announced for exhibition, while the canvas still shone blankly, spotlessly receptive. One has to do everything in good time. Gotthold—that was Heavenly kingdom’s first name—suffered under the female soul in the totality of his manhood. And we all need to confront what makes us suffer. No wonder, then, that Heavenlykingdom (secretly) began to think of himself as on a level with a redeemer—let’s admit it, with Christ—because of the likeness he has discovered.

But you have to imagine the painting properly—as it were, a scientifically dissected representation—the female soul, totally clear in a segmented cubist painting—so that everyone able to adopt an abstract point of view could read, there she is, that’s her innermost being. And next to that the analogy and parallel: chives. Wouldn’t everyone see it as clear as day? We also know that when we recognize what ails us, we are cured. So what perspectives would open up with the creation of this painting? Wouldn’t the most burning question of our time be solved? Yet we have had to admit too often that theory and practice don’t coincide. He had worked on his picture for two years and two days already. He laboured and laboured mightily, unable to advance beyond the chives. In the first place, the painting remained green. As soon as he used a different colour, the disturbance that resulted was so great that he covered it with green again. For a while he thought that the treacherous female soul (treachery no doubt its most important element alongside emptiness) could appear as a cubist lemon-yellow spiral among the green—a shape more or less like one of those sofa-springs that winds crookedly upward. But alas, painting is colour as well as form. The yellow refused to meld with the massive green of his chive allegory. He had no choice but to remove the winding spiral. A painter must remain enough of an aesthete to refuse to paint badly for the sake of his idea. The same thing happened with the composition. He tried and tried, even falling into trances, but nothing beyond the dull repetitive up-and-down of the chive motif would develop. Over and over again he hoped to fix the damnable female soul in a fluted doughnut-shape. But his eye remained objective and told him the truth without pity: this fretwork muddies the powerful melody of the chive movement. His most intimate friend, looking at the painting, remarked that it had the kind of power that liberated itself in an overwhelming sense of bore … No, that’s not what he said. He said, liberates itself in sameness. Then he decided with a heavy heart to abandon the female soul and to devote himself only to chives from now on.

A month later, and the President, who has just opened the exhibition, is propelling his presidential belly around the myriad chambers that display the works of all the painters of the realm. Suddenly he stops. His face displays emotion. His entourage observes closely. He begins to speak. “A masterpiece,” he stammers. “Has my administration ever produced anything better?” He questioned everyone around him. All that green – what can it remind me of? His adjutant (unless an assistant goes by another name in a Republic) suggested helpfully, “Of the revolution? Of the revolution, my President?”

Absolutely right. The revolution.”

They say the State bought the painting for the National Gallery. They say that when its creator was asked for the title, he omitted mention of the chives and proudly called it “The Female Soul. ” They say Gotthold Heavenlykingdom will be the next candidate for a Nobel Prize.

Hannah Höch, 1889-1978 – Der Maler, 1920 The Painter

Images; Hannah Höch.  Da Dandy, 1919. collage, 34.3 x 45.0cms. Bridgeman-Giraudon / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY. Private Collection, Berlin

Hannah Höch.  Die Kokette 1, 1923-25. collage, 18.5 x 20.5 cms

In this bitter and amusing short story Hannah Höch describes the ego of the male painter, Gotthold Himmelreich, which translates as God-Beloved-Heavenly-Kingdom, who seeks to capture “the essential likeness between the nature of chives and the female soul” in a painting entitled, Das Schnittlauch und die Seele des Weibes (ein Vergleich) –The Chives and the Female Soul (a comparison).

Hannah Höch studied at the Berlin School of Applied Arts from 1912 and the Museum of Applied Arts in Berlin from 1915, where she met artist Raoul Hausmann. She contributed to the Berlin Dada Group and exhibited at the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920. Höch’s work was defined as degenerate (Entartete Kunst/Degenerate Art) in Germany during the 1930s. Höch’s work has been exhibited internationally with a retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and the Berlin Nationalgalerie in 1976.