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’.

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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.

Wyndham Lewis – Sigismund, 1922,

john-collier-lady-godiva-1897

Some months later, settled in the midst of a very great establishment, Sigismund’s fancy found a new avenue of satisfaction. He resolved to make a collection of pictures. His newly-awakened sensibility where pictures were concerned was the servant of his ruling passion, and admirably single-minded. His collection must be such as a nobleman would wish to possess. And again in this fresh activity his instinct was wonderfully right.

But Deborah grew blacker day by day. The dumb animal from the sacred Past felt by now that there was something exceedingly queer about her husband. The fabulous sums of money that Sigismund got through in the prosecution of his new fad awoke at last her predatory instincts. Solid bullion and bank balances was what she had wedded: not a crowd of fantastic and rather disturbing scenes. She secretly consulted with Lord Victor.

However, Sigismund proceeded to fill the house with pictures, engravings, drawings and pieces of sculpture. They all had some bearing on the Past. Many were historical pieces. They showed you Henry VIII., the king of the playing card, divorcing Catherine. He appeared, in the picture, to be trying to blow her away. They disclosed the barons after their celebrated operation at Runnymede, thundering off with the Charter: or William the Conqueror tripping up as he landed. There were pictures celebrating Harry Page’s doings, ‘Arripay’ : episodes on the Spanish main. There was an early lord earning his book-rights with an excellent ferocity: and a picture of a lonely geneat on his way to the manor with his lenten tribute of one lamb.

A rather special line depicted a runaway labourer being branded upon the forehead with a hot iron, at the time of the Labour Statutes of the fourteenth century: and sailors being bastinadoed after unusually violent mutinies. Stock and thumbscrew scenes. There was a picture of a Kentish churchyard, John Ball preaching to a rough crowd. As Sigismund gazed at this terrible picture, he experienced perhaps his richest thrill.

When Adam delved and Eve span Who was then the gentleman?

He could see these unhallowed words coming out of the monk’s lips and the crowd capering to them.

He had the six English regiments at Minden, mechanical red and accoutred waves, disposing of the French cavalry: and Hawke in Quiberon Bay, pointing with a grand remote pugnacity to the French flagship: the old ceremonious ships, caught in a rather stormy pathos of the painter’s, who had half attempted, by his colouring and arrangement, to find the formula for an event very remote in time from the day of the artist depicting it.

Charles II. dying ‘do not let poor Nelly starve ‘ Sigismund’s model of how to die: * for-

give me, Deborah, for protracting this insignificant scene. 5 He was not sure about ‘insignificant ‘ and sometimes substituted ‘tedious.’ The word ‘unconscionable,’ he felt, was the prerogative of dying princes.

The masked executor holding up the head of Charles I., whose face, in the picture, although severed from the body, still wore a look of great dignity and indifference to the little trick that had been played upon it by the London Magnificos. ‘Eikon Basilike’ drew as many tears from Sigismund’s susceptible lids as it did from many honest burgesses at the time of its publication.

Mary Queen of Scots over and over again: Fotheringay : many perfect deaths: the Duke of Cumberland holding the candle for the surgeon amputating his leg.

Gildas, Kemble’s ‘Saxons in England’ the life of Wilfrid, by Eddi, were three of his favourite books. And pictures dealing with this period he concentrated in a room, which he called the ‘Saxon’ room. In these pieces were seen

The Crowning of Cedric.

Guthlac of Crowland vomiting at the sight of a bear.

The Marriage of Ethelbert with Bertha, daughter of King Charibert.

The Merchants telling Gregory that the angelic slaves came from ‘Deira.’

Constantine on the chalk cliffs, Minster below, knees jutting out, for the first time, in a bluff english breeze ; and Ethelbert, polite, elevated, but postponing his conversion with regal procrastination, or possibly leisureliness.

Burner’s dagger reaching Edwwie through Lilians body.

Coifi, the priest, at Godmanham, making his unexpected attack on an obsolete temple.

Aidan with a bag of hairy converts in the wilds of Bernicia.

Penda looking at the snowy fist blessed by Aidan after he had defeated the Northumbrians. Alfred singing psalms and turning cakes, and Caedmon writing verses in his stable.

These were only a few of the many scenes that Sigismund roamed amongst: standing in front of them (when he could prevail on her to come with him) with his arm round Deborah’s waist.

The pictures that Deborah hated most were those most economically noxious. These were pictures by masters contemporary with the Past. Van Dyck was his great favourite, at once a knight, a Belgian, and a painter. He reflected with uncertainty, ‘a foreign title, obviously’ ? Contemporary painters who were at the same time knights, or even lords, he thought less of, it may be mentioned in passing : though he never grudged them, on account of their good fortune, the extra money he had to pay for their pictures.

His instinct manifested itself more subtly, though, in his choice of modern works. Burne-Jones was perhaps his favourite artist not belonging, except in spirit, to the wonderful Past. He recognized the tendril or twist he had read about in the book found at Bosselwood. Also the unquestionable proclivity to occupy himself with very famous knights and queens struck Sigismund as a thing very much in his favour. But our hero was an incomparable touchstone. His psychic qualities had their part in this. You could have taken him up to a work of art, watched his behaviour, and placed the most entire confidence in the infallibility of his taste in deciding as to the really noble qualities, or the reverse, of the artist. The Man in the Savage State propensity always met with a response. And you would not be surprised, if going further along the gallery with Sigismund, you came upon a work by the same painter of a very tender description, showing you some lady conceived on a plane of rhetorical spirituality. The Animal and the Noble, you would know, are not so far apart: and the savage or sentimental and the impulses to high-falute very contiguous.

Suffocated by this avalanche of pictorial art, Deborah had been constantly sending up S.O.S.’s, and Lord Victor had hurried to her assistance, unknown to Sigismund. This very ‘natural’ female splinter from a remote eruption, grew more violent every day. The more animal she grew the better pleased was Sigismund. One day when as usual he strolled round his galleries, he was only able to examine his acquisitions with one eye, the other having been ‘poached’ overnight by his wife.

Wyndham Lewis, 1882-1957   Sigismund, 1922.

Sigismund, was first published in Art and Letters, 1922, and in the collection of short stories, The Wild Body, A Soldier of Humour and Other Stories,1927, Harcourt Brace, 1928.

Image: The Honourable John Maler Collier OBE RP ROI (1850-1934). 1. Lady Godiva, 1897, oil on canvas, 56 x 72 inches /142.2 x 183 cms, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry. 2. Sacred and Profane Love,1919, oil on canvas, Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

Wyndham Lewis is in full snarling hunting pink in a satirical anti-establishment story where ‘Art’ and ‘Race’ signify the good-bad breeding of the English quality society. ‘Art’ is a collection of paintings of English history and pictures by masters contemporary with the past.” Lord Sigismund and the Honourable Deborah Libyon-Bosselwood are monolithic representatives of the genealogical relics of ‘Race’, or inbred aristocratic blood lines. The Bosselwood motto: Nunquam ignoscete (Never Forgive) reflects a violent and primitive heraldic feudalism. She is described as a surly, lumpen woman of thunderous stature, hairy and leathery skinned, mute and massive. His pursuits involve the necromancy of researching her astrological pedigree. A passive cast of haw-hawing imbeciles and nincompoops are the more malevolent reflection of the upper classes mirrored by PG Wodehouse. They include Captain Reddie Gribble-Smith, and Tom Fireacres. pronounced Furrakers, a Socialist from an “Awfully good family you know.”, and a genetically defective Bulldog, named Pym. Sigismund reads to Deborah from a book in the library at Bosselwood Chase:

The training of these fortunate people—ancient houses, receding lines of pictures, trophies, books, careful crystallization of memories and forms, quiet parks, large and massive dwellings—all is calculated to make life grow backward instead of forward, naturally, from birth. This is just as pleasant, and in some ways easier. The dead are much nicer companions, because they have learnt not to expect too much of existence, and have a lot of nice habits that only demise makes possible. Far less cunning, only to take one instance, is required to be dead than to live. They respect no one, again, for they know, what is universally recognized, that no one is truly great and good until he is dead: and about the dead, of course, they have no illusions. In spite of this they are not arrogant, as you might expect.

‘I think that is divinely well put, don’t you agree, darling?’ asked Sigismund closing the book. Deborah looked straight at him with genuine hatred: with the look of a dog offered food about which he feels there is some catch.

Noël Coward – The Kindness of Mrs. Radcliffe,1939

She remembered once saying to Cecil, Marjorie’s husband, who after all was supposed to be a painter, when they were standing in the garden one summer evening before dinner, that sunset and sunrise were God’s loveliest gifts to mortals if only they were not too blind to be able to appreciate them. Cecil had laughed, that irritating, cynical laugh of his, and replied that many thousands of people would appreciate them more if they were edible. She recalled how annoyed she had been, she could have bitten her tongue out for betraying a fragment of her own private self to someone who was obviously incapable of understanding it. On looking back, she realized that that was the first moment that she really knew that she disliked Cecil. Of course, she had never let Marjorie suspect it for an instant, and never would. What was done, was done, but still it was no use pretending. ”Know thyself,” was one of the cornerstones of her philosophy. Poor Marjorie. Poor willful, disillusioned Marjorie. That Marjorie was thoroughly disillusioned by now, Mrs. Radcliffe hadn’t the faintest doubt. Nobody could be married for seven years to a man like Cecil with his so-called artistic temperament, his casualness about money, her money, and his complete inability to earn any for himself, without being disillusioned. Mrs. Radcliffe sighed as she turned into Station Road. What a tragedy! Marjorie Radcliffe had met Cecil Garfield at a fancy-dress ball at the Albert Hall in 1950. She was up in town for a few days visiting a married school friend, Laura Courtney. There had been a buffet dinner before the ball, in Laura’s house in St. John’s Wood, and Marjorie, dressed as Cleopatra, a very effective costume that she had designed and made herself, was escorted to the Albert Hall by Roger Wood, a cousin of Laura’s who was in the air force. Roger was not dressed as anything in particular. He was a hearty young man and balked at the idea of tidying himself up; the most he had conceded to the carnival spirit of the occasion was a false moustache and a dark blue cape lined with scarlet which he wore over his ordinary evening clothes. Marjorie had been rather bored with him and was much relieved when, upon arrival at the ball, they ‘had been accosted in the foyer by a group of hilarious young people none of whom she knew, but all of whom seemed to know Roger. They were whirled off to the bar immediately to have a drink before even attempting to find Laura and the rest of their party. Among the group, was Cecil Garfield, and Cecil was dressed as Mark Antony. This coincidence provided an excuse for a great deal of playful comment from everybody. It would be useless to deny that Cecil looked very attractive as Mark Antony. His physique, much of which was apparent, was magnificent. He had a quick wit and a charming smile and Marjorie danced several dances with him.

At about three in the morning everybody, Laura and her husband included, adjourned to Cecil’s studio in Glebe Place to cook eggs and bacon. it was there that Marjorie first realized that he was an artist. How the word “Artist,” to Marjorie, held an imperishable glamour. She had long ago decided that a life such as her mother would have wished her to lead with a conventional husband, a cook and a baby, was out of the question. Marjorie wholeheartedly detested her suburban existence and, if the truth were known, was none too fond of her mother. Of this unnatural state of affairs, Mrs. Radcliffe was mercifully unaware, and if Mr. Radcliffe occasionally had an inkling of it,, he was wise enough to keep his suspicions to himself. Marjorie’s predilection for the artistic life had originally started when she was in her teens. Miss Lucas, her drawing mistress at school. had, perhaps unsuitably, lent her The Life of Van Gogh. Profoundly impressed by this, Marjorie had gone from bad to worse. My Days with the French Romantics, The Beardsley Period, Isadora Duncan’s Autobiography, and The Moon and Sixpence, had followed each other in quick succession. By the time she was twenty, she had assimilated a view of life so diametrically opposed to her mother’s, that existence at home became almost insupportable. She was an intelligent girl, however, wise beyond her years and practiced in deceit. A certain proficiency in’this direction being essential with a mother like Mrs. Radcliffe, and with a secretiveness that could only be described as downright sly, she kept her own counsel.

. . . . . .

Cecil and Marjorie had sat in a corner together that night after the ball and talked. A few days later they met by the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens and talked a lot more. They talked of literature, music, religion and morals and agreed on all points. Of painting they talked more than anything. Cecil’s gods were Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse and Manet. He considered Picasso an intrinsically fine painter, but misguided. Cecil, when he talked of painting, betrayed his heart. Marjorie watched him fascinated. She noted the way his body became tense, the swift, expressive movements of his hands, how, when he was describing some picture that meant much to him, he would screw up his eyes and look through her, beyond her, beyond the trees of the park and the red buses trundling along on the other side of the railings, beyond the autumn sunshine and the people and the houses, beyond the present into the future. It was himself he was staring at through those half-closed eyes, himself having painted a successful picture, several successful pictures. Not successful from other people’s points of view, perhaps, but from his own.

It was when she first saw him like that, unselfconscious, almost arrogant, demanding so much of life and of himself and of anybody who had anything to do with him, that she knew she loved him. More than this, she knew that she could help him and comfort him and look after him. At last she had found someone in whom she could sublimate her passionate, unresolved yearning for creativeness. Five months later she had crept out of the house early on a bleak wet morning in February, traveled to London by the seven-forty-five train, met him under the clock at Victoria Station and married him at nine-thirty at a Registry Office in Fulham.

. . . . .

All this had taken place six years ago. Since then the allowance had been raised, on the stubborn insistence of Mr. Radcliffe, to almost double. Consequently, the Garfields were enabled to live in comparative comfort in a small house behind Sloane Square with a studio at the back converted, at certain expense, from a conservatory.

The fact that Cecil only very rarely managed to sell a picture was a source of great irritation to Mrs. Radcliffe. Having at last, soothed by the passage of time, consented to bury the hatchet and accept her artistic son-in-law, it was extremely frustrating not to be able to refer to his work with any conviction. To say ”My son-in-law is quite a well-known painter, you know,” was one thing, but it was quite another to say, “My son-in-law is a painter,” and upon being asked what kind of a painter, to be unable to explain. If only he would do portraits that had some resemblance to the sitter, or landscapes which gave some indication, however faint, of what they were supposed to be. lt was all very fine to argue that a painter painted through his own eyes and nobody else’s, and that what was green to one person might very possibly be bright pink to another. All that sort of talk smacked of affectation and highbrowism. What was good enough for Landseer and alma Tadema was good enough for Mrs. Radcliffe, and, she would have thought, good enough for anybody who had their heads screwed on in the right way.

. . . . .

“How is Cecil?”

“Bright as a button. He’s been working like a dog for the last two weeks.”

“Really?” The vision of Cecil working like a dog did not impress Mrs. Radcliffe. In the first place she didn’t believe it. She didn’t consider that painting away in that studio constituted work at all. It was just dabbing about. Cecil, as far as she could see, spent his whole life dabbing about. She naturally didn’t say this to Marjorie. Marjorie was inclined to be overvehement in defense of her husband’s activities.

“Has he managed to sell any more pictures lately?” she inquired. The ”any more” was purely courtesy. As far as she could remember Cecil had only sold one picture in the last eighteen months and for that he had received only twenty pounds.

An expression of irritation passed over Marjorie’s face, but she answered amiably enough. “He’s planning to have an exhibition in June. Lady Bethel is lending him her house for it.”

This caused Mrs. Radcliffe to sit up as Marjorie had intended that it should.

“ls that the Lady Bethel who organized that charity pageant just before Christmas?”

“Yes,” said Marjorie. “She’s a darling, there was a lovely picture of her in the Tatler last week: going to a Court ball,” she added wickedly.

“Mrs. Radcliffe was clearly puzzled. Lady Bethel was certainly an important figure. If she was willing to lend her house for an exhibition of Cecil’s paintings it might mean—here her reflections were disturbed by Cecil himself coming into the room. He had washed and tidied himself for lunch, but for all that he looked ill-groomed. His hair was too long, he wore no tie and there were paint stains on his very old gray flannel trousers. He bent down and kissed Mrs. Radcliffe on the cheek and then poured himself out some sherry.

“How are you, Marm?” he said breezily. He always addressed her as “Marm” and there was a suggestion in his tone of mock reverence which never failed to annoy her. “You look shining and beautiful.”

Mrs. Radcliffe deplored extravagance of phrase. She answered rather tartly, ”Very well indeed, thank you, Cecil.”

Cecil came over and leant against the mantelpiece, looking down at her. She was forced to admit to herself that he was hand- some in a loose, slovenly sort of way, but she could never be reconciled to that hair, never, if she lived to be a thousand.

“l’ve been telling mother about Lady Bethel promising to lend her house for your exhibition,” said Marjorie a trifle loudly.

Was it Mrs. Radcliffe’s fancy or did Cecil give a slight start of surprise?

”Yes,” he said with marked nonchalance. “It’s sweet of the old girl, isn’t it?”

Something in Mrs. Radcliffe revolted at Lady Bethel, The Lady Bethel, being referred to as an old girl, but she didn’t betray it.

“lt certainly is very nice of her,” she said. “But she has a great reputation, hasn’t she for giving a helping hand to struggling artists?”

Cecil, disconcertingly, burst out laughing. ”Touché, Marm,” he said. “Come along and let’s have some lunch.” He helped her out of her chair with elaborate solicitude and led the way into the dining room. Lunch passed off without incident. The conversation, although it could not be said to sparkle, was at least more or less continuous. Cecil was in the best of spirits. He was extremely attentive to Mrs. Radcliffe, always it is true with that light overture of mockery, that subtle implication in his voice and his gestures that she was a great deal older than she was, and had to be humored at all costs.

. . . . .

After lunch was over and they had had their coffee (lukewarm) in the drawing room, Mrs. Radcliffe expressed a desire to see Cecil’s pictures. This request was made merely in the spirit of conventional politeness. She had no real wish to see his pictures, as she knew from experience that there was little or no chance of her admiring them. Cecil and Marjorie were also perfectly aware of this, but nevertheless, after a little humming and hawing Cecil led the way into the studio. Marjorie walked behind with rather a lagging tread. The untidiness of Cecil’s studio always struck Mrs. Radcliffe with a fresh shock of distaste. It was inconceivable that anyone, however artistic, could live and breathe amid so much dirt and squalor. The table alone, which stood under the high window, was a sight to make the gorge rise. On it were ashtrays overflowing with days’ old cigarette ends, two or three used and unwashed teacups, a bottle of gin, a noisome conglomeration of paint tubes of all shapes and sizes, many of them cracked and broken so that their contents was oozing out and all of them smeared with a brownish substance that looked like glue, a pile of books and magazines, countless pencils and crayons and pieces of charcoal and, most disgusting of all, a half-full glass of milk, round the rim of which a fly was walking delicately. The rest of the room was equally repulsive. There was a model throne draped with some dusty material, a gas-fire with a bowl of water in front of it, in which floated several more cigarette ends, two easels, several canvases stacked against the wall, a large divan covered in red casement cloth and banked with paint-stained cushions and a pedestal supporting a sculpture in bronze of a woman’s breast. It was only by the greatest effort of self-control that Mrs. Radcliffe repressed a cry of horror.

The picture on which Cecil was working stood on the bigger of the two easels in the middle of the room. It represented a man, or what passed for a man, sitting in a crooked rocking chair without any clothes on. His legs, which were fortunately crossed, were enormously thick. Upon a slanting table at the right-hand side of the picture was what appeared to be a guitar together with a vase of flowers, a bottle and a fish. The paint on the canvas looked as though it had been flung at it from the other side of the room. There was not a trace of what Mrs. Radcliffe had been brought up to recognize as “fine brush work”. In fact there didn’t appear to be any brush work at all. She regarded in silence for a moment and then shook her head. “lt’s no use,” she said, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice. “I don’t understand it.”

“Never mind, Marm,” said Cecil cheerfully. “lt’s not really finished yet, anyhow.”

“But what does it mean?”

“It’s called ‘Music,”’ said Marjorie as though that explained everything.

“I still don’t understand what it means,” said Mrs. Radcliffe.

Cecil exchanged a quick look with Marjorie, who shrugged her shoulders. This annoyed Mrs. Radcliffe. “I’m sure you think I’m very ignorant and old-fashioned,” this time making no attempt to control her irritation, “but I don’t approve of this modern futuristic art and I never shall. To my mind a picture should express beauty of some sort. Heaven knows, there is enough ugliness in the world without having to paint it—”

“But we don’t think that picture is ugly, mother,” said Marjorie with an edge on her voice. Cecil looked at her warningly. Mrs. Radcliffe sniffed.

“You may not think its ugly and your highbrow friends may not think so either, but I do,” she said.

“Our friends are not particularly highbrow, Marm,” he said gently. “And as a matter of fact, nobody has seen this picture yet at all. You’re the first, you should feel very honoured,” he added with a disarming smile. Unfortunately, however, the smile was not quite quick enough and failed to disarm. Mrs. Radcliffe was by now thoroughly angry. The Chianti at lunch had upset her digestion as she had known it would and, having endured that inferior, badly cooked food and done her level best to be pleasant and entertaining into the bargain, to be stood in front of a daub like this and expected to admire it was really too much. In addition to this, both Cecil and Marjorie had a note of patronage in their voices which she found insufferable. All very fine for them to be patronizing when they were living entirely on her money, or rather Mr. Radcliffe’s which was the same thing. All very fine for a strong, healthy young man of Cecil’s age to fritter his time away painting these nonsensical pictures when he ought to be in some steady job shouldering his responsibilities and supporting his wife in the luxury to which she had been accustomed. All very fine to allude to Lady Bethel as an “old girl” and “darling” in that casual intimate manner and boast that she was going to lend her house for an exhibition of Cecil’s paintings. If Lady Bethel considered that that sort of nonsense was worthy of being exhibited she must be nothing short of an imbecile. In any case, she strongly doubted that Lady Bethel had promised any such thing. She recalled the swift look that had passed between Cecil and Marjorie before lunch, and the rather overdone nonchalance of Cecil’s tone.

The whole thing was nothing but a lie in order to impress her. The suspicion of this, which had lain dormant at the back of her mind throughout the whole of lunch, suddenly became a conviction. Of course that was what it was. A deliberate lie calculated to put her in the wrong, to make her feel ‘that her criticisms of Cecil’s painting in the past had been unjust, and to try to deceive her into the belief that he was appreciated and understood by people who really knew, whereas all the time he was nothing more nor less than the complete and utter failure he always had been and always would be. Mrs. Radcliffe decided to speak her mind. .

“Cecil” she said in an ominous voice, ‘’I have something to say to you that I have been wishing to say for some time past.”

The smile faded from Cecil’s face, and Marjorie walked across purposefully and slipped her arm through his.

‘Fire away, Marm,” he said with a certain bravado, but she saw him stiffen slightly.

“I want to suggest,” went on Mrs. Radcliffe, ”that you give up this absurd painting business once and for all and find some sort of job that will bring you in a steady income—”

“Give up his painting, mother, you must be mad!” said Marjorie angrily.

“Cecil patted her arm. “Shut up, darling,” he said.

Mrs. Radcliffe ignored the interruption and continued: ‘’I have talked the matter over with my husband.” This was untrue, but she felt that it solidified her position. “And we are both in complete agreement that it is nothing short of degrading that a young man of your age should be content to live indefinitely on his wife’s money.” There was dead silence for a moment. Mrs. Radcliffe’s face was flushed and the corners of Cecil’s mouth twitched.

Noël Coward,1899-1973   The Kindness of Mrs. Radcliffe, in, To Step Aside, Seven Short Stories,1939

Tennessee Williams – In Memory of an Aristocrat,1940

John McCrady,1911-1968

By this time she had painting for several years and had accumulated enough canvases to cover the walls of a room. She packed all her paintings and shipped them down to New Orleans where she heard an artist could subsist on practically nothing. She had hitch-hiked down there (last winter it was) and set up the studio and lived the life of an artist with that particular modification, if it really is a modification, which her desparate need of money had imposed.
As for her paintings, I thought they were really surprisingly good. They were very raw and terrific. Pictures of pregnant women in soiled cotton dresses and bums sleeping in doorways. Screaming strikeworkers, hideous scabs and bosses. There was one that was quite indecent but powerful as hell: a policeman nude except for his cap and his badge, beating a woman striker with a club while his sex organ stood in complete erection. This sounds like very bad painting but surprisingly it wasn’t. Each of the pictures packed a tremendous wallop, they hit you right smack between the eyes with the force and precision that only comes from the fury of a first-rate talent. Irene was a furious girl, she was possessed of a demon, but more than anything else I think, Irene was an artist.

. . .

I wanted, she said –(and this is something that I will always remember)-I wanted, she said, to stretch out the long, sweet arms of my art and embrace the whole world!

She said this at the end of everything else and it was, I think, what she had been trying to say all the time and hadn’t till then found the perfect utterance for.

Now she was silent. I turned over and saw that now at last Irene had fallen asleep. And her face as she slept was white and lovely and tender, the face of a sleeping child.

This was Irene.

Two or three weeks after Mardi Gras there was held what was known as the Annual Spring Display of Paintings by New Orleans artists. It was sponsored, of course, by a select private group of the more successful painters, the ones who if they had lived in the Quarter lived there only because it had atmosphere and whose studios were sparsely furnished with very beautiful things, great oval gilt-framed mirrors and inch-thick Oriental carpets and the kind of vases that the tragic protagonist knocks over when sneaking home late at night in two-reel comedies.

That is how I imagine them to be without, I must admit, having entered more than a couple.

Irene had submitted ten of her best canvases and for some time before the display she went around white and excited in a new black crepe dress with a silver and rhinestone buckle. She shaved her heavy legs, now, and wore some neat black slippers and even affected an ivory cigarette holder. She had a quick nervous smile for everyone in the Quarter. I would wake up some mornings and hear her voice on the street and think she was calling me but when I stepped out on the balcony I could see she was merely holding a casual conversation with the woman who sold perfume at Hové King’s or a tangerine vendor or one of the prostitutes at the corner bar. The Union organizers who had disappointed and betrayed her, the gallant workers in the garment shops, the mean-souled bosses and the sadistic policemen, all of these had receded from the surface of her mind. Art stood out above everything else, it bathed the landscape in a radiant, heavenly glow. Her eyes were lit with it, it trembled on her lips when she spoke, magnified her voice to a trumpet and filled the bigness of her body with a new kind of universal passion. She wanted to stretch out the long, sweet arms of her art – (I keep remembering that speech!)-and embrace the whole world . . .

Well-

I didn’t see her for several days and then she suddenly burst into the restaurant one Sunday while I was clearing the tables after the midday meal.

Something has happened she panted.

What?

I can’t tell you! How long will you be?

About ten minutes.

Okay, I’ll wait till you’re through.

But Irene couldn’t sit still. She paced tigerishly up and down the Bohemian dining room with its charcoal nudes on the walls.

I want a job, she said.

Doing what?

Painting this kind of stuff! She said. I want to decorate somebody’s bathroom with scatological sketches, I want to draw obscene images on the ceilings of bedrooms!

Why?

Because I’m finished, she said, I’m all washed-up and I’m tired of being a whore!

It was sunny that day, terrifically bright on the streets, and Irene’s face was like a wound that should have been wrapped up. The bandages were torn away, the gentle humour, the tolerance and the good will so that nothing was visible but the raw, bleeding hurt, the fury and the terrific frustrated bitterness.

Rejected! She said. Every one of them completely rejected!

As we approached the artists’ salon I could see that something special was going on that afternoon. The curbs were lined with the kind of motors that the negro woman had told Irene she should ride down Canal Street in with a man in a full-dress suit.

We’d better not go in there now, I advised.

I got to, said Irene, before they burn my pictures!

Burn them?

Yes, she said, they’re planning to destroy my work!

It was the society crowd making a gracious bow to respectable art. Elegant people were standing around with little demitasse cups and frosted cakes and the air was pregnant with polite exclamations.

Irene was shaking terribly now and her face was chalk white. I could see that she was determined to make some kind of a scene and I began to make mental notes of ways to get out quickly.

What she did was to go in the back room where they had piled the rejected canvases like spare pieces of lumber after a house has been built. Their backs were outward, their faces were turned to the wall as though they stood there in shame. Irene, breathing heavily, stooping awkwardly, snatched among them until she had found her own. Then she lifted the largest and stalked with it into the bustling brightness of the the little spring salon. As I looked at the persons and objects that she was moving amongst I had a warning sense of something desparately irreconcilable in the air. These delicate vases, these little china cups, these blossoms, these nicely chiseled bits of terra cotta, and also these people with their fastidious clothes and their reserved little voices, they were all too fragile and Irene was something too fierce. There could be no peace between them. I saw her moving straight forward, black and terrible as a thundercloud in all the pale spring brightness, I saw the people before her dividing politely, murmering and giving way. I heard their nice exclamations, their Ohs and Ahs. And I thought to myself, If one were conducting a tour of battlefields in action, one might say, Here on the left is a gorgeous specimen of a twentieth-century man with the top of his skull blown off, and that one, the stout dowager with the violets at her bosom, would point delicately with her littlest gloved finger and say, How very nicely it’s done!

This was bitterness, not truth, but expressed my feelings.

Irene had moved over to the middle-aged man in frock coat and pince-nez standing beneath the leathery green fronds of a large potted palm. At first she seemed to be speaking without very much agitation. He was gently, politely warding off her objections. I could see him making fatherly little faces and touching her shoulder with the tip of one finger, just enough to establish contact without the risk of any contamination, while the saliva dribbled ever so slightly from the corner of his mouth.

Then Irene started raising her voice. There was a stir all around her. Coffee cups were set down with tiny click-clicks, a very faint spsss-spsss-spsss began to be heard under or above the ordinary chatter, eyebrows climbed higher, spruce little men craned their necks, roosterwise, debutantes shimmered and giggled with little breathless spasms, large women waggled their bottoms the way that they do when a disturbance is pending.

Is this the floor show? Someone asked.

The girl with the orchids giggled.

At this point Irene’s voice rose abruptly to shouting proportions. Something like pandemonium was then beginning to be let loose at the Annual Spring display, though it was still on a fairly small scale compared to later developments. You know how it is when a crowd of our best people discover all at once that something on the order of the Bubonic Plague has suddenly reared its hideous face amongst them. The social pattern, which is everything, is suddenly disrupted. There is no longer any logical motion so that they swarm without reason. The head is cut off the chicken, as it were, and she is flying about the yard spouting blood in complete abandon while her frenzied companions cackle in useless sympathy and dismay. Why doesn’t she put her head on? What can be done to stop it? The answer is nothing, nothing! On a stage you could bring down the curtain, in a bar you could summon the bouncers, but here amongst our nicest people there is no preparation for anything outrageous to happen. Suppose the police were called? The papers would be full of it tomorrow, a disorderly scene at the Annual Spring Display, it would completely crowd out the references to who served coffee and who was the chairman of what. It would constitute a regular scandal. But could this person be allowed to continue? No, she could not!

Who is she, anyhow? Does anyone know?

What? I can’t hear you!

Oh!

Who?

Some Quarter Rat who paints disgusting pictures that couldn’t be shown.

Of the actual altercation I could see very little. When I heard the loud impact, the sound of rippping canvas, I said to myself, christ, she’s busted that picture over somebody’s head!

Hysteria broke loose at this point. Women who had been exclaiming in little pussycat voices abruptly learned how to scream in the way that swimming is learned by suddenly falling in water. Something loud crashed, a window I think it was. I was alarmed, unable to see but full of the wildest conjectures.

Irene! I shouted. Could she have been thrown out?

There was a brief contortion among the tight group of people who now surrounded Irene. The white-haired official was frenziedly spewed from amongst them. He shot straight forward across the floor to the phone on the opposite wall and shouted into its mouth such words as disturbance, Riot, Police!

But it was too late, this action too tardily taken. Irene was beyond restraint. As the wall of backs divided I had caught a glimpse of her face. My God, what a sight! Her face was no longer colourless, it was livid. Her dress had been torn loose in the struggle and one of her large white breasts was exposed. She was pinioned for that short moment by two stout gentlemen but they could not possibly hold her. She stamped on the toes of one and jabbed her knee into the other’s groin so they both fell away with desparate looks of anguish.

Then she was out. Nothing on earth could stop her, not even the Maginot line. Like a human tornado she swept around the four walls, plucking the nice pictures down and tossing them on the floor, hurling them at her pursuers or at the tea table. The glittering percolator went over, the cut-glass bowl full of pale green sherbert followed right after it. Millions of voices seemed to be shouting together, but over them all, all of the other voices, was always Irene’s. Such words as she screamed the nicer ladies had never heard whispered before. Dykes she called them, bitches and son of bitches and-

Well-

Tennessee Williams,1911-1983   In Memory of an Aristocrat, c.1940

Image: John McCrady,1911-1968.  The Parade, 1950. The artist paints a portrait of a nude woman in his studio in the French Quarter while a Mardi Gras parade passes in the street.

A short-story written in the Winter of 1939-40. The story describes Irene, who had studied painting in New York in a night class at the WPA, and moved to New Orleans, living and supporting herself as an artist by working as a prostitute in the artistic Quarter of New Orleans. Irene was based on a character in New Orleans whom Williams described as “an Aristocrat of the Spirit”, a bohemian artist and prostitute, who exhibited a freedom and joie de vivre in her art and her sexuality, “who painted the marvellous pictures and disappeared”.

Jorge Luis Borges – El duelo,1970 The Duel

borges collected ficciones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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