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

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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

Fernando Pessoa – The Book of Disquiet,1988

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“Since perhaps not everything is false, may nothing cure us, my love, of the almost ecstatic pleasure of lying.

Ultimate subtlety! Supreme perversion! The absurd lie has all the charm of the perverse with Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet,the even greater, ultimate charm of being innocent. The deliberately innocent perversion – who can go beyond this supreme subtlety? The perversion that doesn’t even aspire to give us pleasure and that lacks the fury to cause us pain, falling to the ground between pleasure and pain, useless and absurd, like a shoddy toy with which an adult tries to amuse himself!

Don’t you know, exquisite one, the pleasure of buying things you don’t need? Don’t you know the delight of roads which, when we’re distracted, we take by mistake? What human act has a colour as lovely as a spurious one… . . which lies to its own nature and contradicts its own intention?

How sublime to waste a life that could have been useful, never to execute a work of art that was certain to be beautiful, to abandon midway a sure road to victory!

Ah, my love, the glory of works which have been lost forever, of treatises which today are mere titles, of libraries which burned down, of statues which were demolished!

How blessed with absurdity are the artists who set fire to a beautiful work! Or the artists who could have made a beautiful work but deliberately made it ordinary! Or the great poets of silence who, knowing they were capable of writing an absolutely perfect work, preferred to crown it with the decision never to write it.

How much more beautiful the Mona Lisa would be if we couldn’t see it! And if someone were to rob it just to burn it, what an artist he would be, even greater than the one who painted it! Why is art beautiful? Because it’s useless. Why is life ugly? Because it’s all aims, objectives and intentions. All of its roads are for going from one point to another. If only we could have a road connecting a place no one ever leaves from to a place where no one goes! If only someone would devote his life to building a road from the middle of one field to the middle of another – a road that would be useful if extended at each end, but that would sublimely remain as only the middle stretch of a road!

The beauty of ruins? That they’re no longer good for anything.

The sweetness of the past? Our memory of it, since to remember is to make it present, and it isn’t present nor ever can be – absurdity, my love, absurdity.

And I who am saying all this – why am I writing this book? Because I realise it’s imperfect. Dreamed, it would be perfection; written, it becomes imperfect; that’s why I’m writing it. And above all else, to myself, to be unfaithful to my own theory. And the supreme glory of all this, my love, is to think that perhaps none of it is true and that I don’t even believe it’s true.

And when lying begins to bring us pleasure, let’s give it the lie by telling the truth. And when lying causes us anxiety, let’s stop so that the suffering can’t become even perversely pleasurable.”

Fernando Pessoa,1888-1935. Livro do Desassossego, 1998 The Book of Disquiet, 2001. translated by Richard Zenith, 2001

 Image 1: Café A Brasileira, Lisbon, 1911. Photograph: Joshua Benoliel. Image 2. Café A Brasileira, Lisbon, Art Deco

Martin Amis – Money, 1984

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Thanks to my shrewd self-projection as a painting-buff, canvas-fancier and general art-artist I have spent a good deal of this turbulent period being exposed to high culture by Martina Twain. Accordingly, I’m in a state of high-culture shock — a panic of bedraggled blankness — as I am led across swirling parquetry, down ulterior corridors, past hidden visions smocked in light. You have to queue, and pay good money, to mingle with vituperative interpreters and flashlight-faced Japanese, balls-talking bumblers, vultures, students, loners, pick-ups, the determined samplers and consumers spun offby the thrashing city. Many of these types, I note, are working class and upwardly mobile, out-of-towners in high-gloss jerkins and biscuit pants-suits. The men are plump clunkers in pastel romper gear, smiling, plodding, nodding. The women are the kind of talking dolls that say Mommee and take a leak if you turn them upside down, their faces cute and beady under rugs of taramasalata and meringue. Heroic consumers, they have a slice of most things, and now they want a slice of this stuff too, this art stuff. They seem to think it’s all there for the taking. Maybe it is. But for me? I’m from the wrong side of the tracks. I’m from the wrong side of the Atlantic. I’m from London, England. I’m pretty well convinced by now that this gear isn’t for me. It’s trying. While others look at art or read books or surrender to serious music, my mind just razzes me about money, Selina, hard-ons, the Fiasco. I’m trying, but that’s trying too. It’s trying, trying.

Me and Martina, we went to all kinds of shows. We went to a constructivist show uptown East somewhere. Twanging maypoles and girder tepees, spastic flexings of concrete and steel, jagged jungle-jims. We went to a modernist show just off the Park. Ripped playing-cards and chess-piece profiles, backgammon battlefields and shards of dice, spoils of trickery, hazardry. I feel obliged to seem enthusiastic about all this but I ran out of bluff and patter long ago and now feign dumbfounded absorption beneath my poker face. Yesterday we went to a show of the classical nude in marble form, it was nice to see some women looking so cool and neutral in the heat. They weren’t quite in the altogether, though, these nudes, having been figleafed by a recent hand. It’s ridiculous, said Martina, the tiny wraps and sprigs they’ve added on. Oh I don’t know, I said: don’t be too hasty — it’s good to leave a little something to the imagination. She didn ‘t agree, in my view, of course, the chicks would have looked even better if they’d added stockings and garter- belts, G-strings and ankle-strapped shoes: but that’s aesthetics for you. Tomorrow we go to the big new show by Monet or Manet or Money or some such guy.

Martin Amis, 1949.     Money, A Suicide Note, 1984.     Published by Jonathan Cape,1984. Image: Penguin Books, Illustrator: Bert Krak.

Amis critiques the self-indulgent money worshipping generation of the capitalist social pornographic landscape of New York in the 1980s through the character of the anti-hero, John Self. Yet, while the value of artistic culture is treated dismissively the term ‘artist’ is used to describe a variety of street, criminal, business and social persona from the general art-artist, money artists, sack, piss, con and bullshit artists, jungle artists, spool artists, lie artists, bad-cheque and bent-plastic artists, TV artists, too-little-too-late artists, sadistic singlet-and-dumbbell artist, haggard handjob artist, chess artist, short-fuse artist, the needing, the hurting artist, the wanting artist, and the body artist. Art is the key neurosis of self obsession ‘… Okay. Actually I’d like to return to the motivation question. It seems to me it’s an idea taken from art, not from life, not from twentieth-century life. Nowadays motivation comes from inside the head, not from outside. It’s neurotic, in other words. And remember that some people, these golden mythomaniacs, these handsome liars — they’re like artists, some of them.’

Milan Kundera,The Unbearable Lightness of Being,1984

 

 

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The Beauty of New York.

   Franz and Sabina would walk the streets of New York for hours at a time. The view changed with each step, as if they were following a winding mountain path surrounded by breathtaking scenery; a young man in a black suit directing an invisible orchestra while crossing the street; a fountain spurting water and a group of construction workers sitting on the rim eating lunch; strange iron ladders running up and down buildings with ugly red façades, so ugly that they were beautiful; and next door, a huge glass skyscraper backed by another, itself topped by a small Arabian pleasure-dome with turrets, galleries, and gilded columns.

   She was reminded of her paintings. There, too, incongruous things came together: a steelworks construction site superimposed on a kerosene lamp; an old-fashioned lamp with a painted-glass shade shattered into tiny splinters and rising up over a desolate landscape of marshland.

   Franz said, ‘Beauty in the European sense has always had a premeditated quality to it. We’ve always had an aesthetic intention and a long-range plan. That’s what enabled Western man to spend decades building a Gothic cathedral or a Renaissance piazza. The beauty of New York rests on a completely different base. It’s unintentional. It arose independent of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern. Forms which are in themselves quite ugly turn up fortuitously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they sparkle with a sudden wondrous poetry.’

   Sabina said, ‘Unintentional beauty. Yes. Another way of putting it might be “beauty by mistake.” Before beauty disappears entirely from the earth, it will go on existing for a while by mistake. “Beauty by mistake” – the final phase in the history of beauty.’

   And she recalled her first mature painting, which came into being because some red paint had dripped on it by mistake. Yes, her paintings were based on ‘beauty by mistake’, and New York was the secret but authentic homeland of her painting.

   Franz said, “Perhaps New York’s unintentional beauty is much richer and more varied than the excessively strict and composed beauty of human design. But it’s not our European beauty. It’s an alien world.’

   Didn’t they then at last agree on something?

   No. There is a difference. Sabina was very much attracted by the alien quality of New York’s beauty. Franz found it intriguing but frightening; it made him feel homesick for Europe.

Part 6. The Grand March. Chapter 11.

   In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions a question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies behind it. In fact, that was exactly how Sabina had explained the meaning of her paintings to Tereza: on the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth

   But the people who struggle against what we call totalitarian regimes cannot function with queries and doubts. They, too, need certainties and simple truths to make the multitudes understand, to provoke collective tears.

   Sabina had once had an exhibition that was organized by a political organization in Germany. When she picked up the catalogue, the first thing she saw was a picture of herself with a drawing of barbed wire superimposed on it. Inside she found a biography that read like the life of a saint or martyr: she had suffered, struggled against injustice, been forced to abandon her bleeding homeland, yet was carrying on the struggle. ‘Her paintings are a struggle for happiness’ was the final sentence.

   She protested, but they did not understand her.

   Do you mean that modern art isn’t persecuted under Communism?

   My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!’ she replied, infuriated.

From that time on, she began to insert mystifications into her biography, and by the time she got to America she even managed to hide the fact that she was Czech. It was all merely a desperate attempt to escape the kitsch that people wanted to make of her life.

Milan Kundera, b.1929. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984  Czech: Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí

Part Three. Words Misunderstood. Chapter 5. A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words (continued). The Beauty of New York

Part Six. The Grand March. Chapter 11.

Image: Max Ernst, 1891-1976. Les cages sont toujours imaginaires, 1925. @Kunsthaus, Zürich