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Entries in ellen copperfield (52)

Friday
Jul072017

In Which We Take Note Of Cézanne's Early Work

The Quadrille

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

"Talking about art is almost always useless," Paul Cézanne told an interviewer near the end of his life.

Either you see a picture immediately or you never see it at all. Explanations don’t help a bit. What good does it do to comment on it? All those things are imperfect, imprecise things. We talk as we do because it’s amusing, like drinking a good bottle of wine.

In spring of 1859, Paul Cézanne fell in love for the first time. Unfortunately the woman in question, whose name was Justine, was already involved with a classmate. He wrote, “What fantasies I built, as mad as can be, but you see it’s like this: I said to myself if she didn’t despise me we should go to Paris together, there I should become an artist, we should be happy." She never took notice of him.

To make himself forget the girl, he spent all his time at the Free School of Drawing. While there, you were forbidden to ever go to the bathroom. Cézanne disdained the nude models, and at first he shied away from depicting the human form at all. He was far from the best of the group.

That honor went to a painter named Jean-Baptiste Chaillan, who was also fond of fucking the nude models. "The love of art veils any over-excitement at all the nudity," Paul told his friend Émile Zola. Instead of finishing law school, Cézanne went to Paris. Zola was ecstatic to have his friend in town. With only a modest allowance from his father supplementing this venture, Cézanne ate cheap meals and only splurged on cigarettes. 

Chaillon had made a similar journey to the big city. Much to Paul’s chagrin, Chaillon painting from six to eleven and spent the rest of the day lazing about the Louvre and talking to girls. Cézanne was not much more productive, to Zola’s disappointment. "Convincing Cézanne of something is like persuading the towers of Notre Dame to execute a quadrille," he complained.

"Don’t think I’m becoming a Parisian,” Cézanne said by way of a response. He applied to art school twice, but was not accepted either time. He was terrible with women, and found all new relationship risky and threatening at their core. It was the work of Édouard Manet which finally gave him a model for his own varied artistic inclinations.

"It’s because I can’t capture my sensation at the first go," he said, "so I lay in some color, I lay it in as I can. But when I start I always try to paint with a thick impasto like Manet, giving form with the brush." Manet also took note of Cézanne’s early work. He was just seven years older than his admirer, but it took over a year before Cezanne was back to not being impressed by anyone. (Zola’s critique of the artist helped in penetrating Cézanne’s heavenly view of Manet.)

Thereafter Cézanne had finished with idol worship; he was not content to sit in admiration of any except himself. Sometimes Cézanne when painting the countryside would leave his canvas there "to be reclaimed by the natural environment,” explained Renoir. “I wanted to copy nature,” Cézanne explained, "I couldn’t. I searched, turned, looked at it from every direction, but in vain. It's invincible, from all sides."

By 1866 he had developed this persona completely. "Paul looks superb this year," noted a friend, "with hair thin on top and extremely long, and his revolutionary beard."

The paintings Cézanne managed in the following years found their way into the collections of the biggest names in art. According to Paul's biographer Alex Danchev, Gauguin owned seven canvases, Degas had another seven, while Monet was in possession of fourteen Cézannes, including three that hung in his bedroom. Renoir exchanged paintings with Cézanne frequently, and his wife even cooked by Paul's recipes. 

Where Renoir and Cézanne eventually parted ways was in their view of Jews. Renoir was aghast at Cézanne's association with the Jewish painter Pissarro. In the wake of the Dreyfus affair both Renoir and Degas refused to talk to Camille Pissarro or any Jew, while Monet, Gauguin and Zola supported their friend. This political conflict turned into an aesthetic one, dividing a close community. Cezanne found himself in the middle – for the most part, he avoided the politics. But he never abandoned his mentor and comrade Pissarro. 

It was Pissarro who taught Cézanne that painting was more a profession than a dalliance, and that a great deal of work had to go into it. Pissarro's background was far from the privileged European life Cézanne was used to: he was the son of a nephew who married in his aunt in the Virgin Islands. Pissarro's politics were left of left, and he had no use for the institutions of the art world. "Pissarro wasn't wrong," Cezanne later wrote, "he went a bit far, however, when he said we should burn the necropolises of art."

The Parisian world was shattered when the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Paul had no intention of fighting in the conflict. Instead he had intercouse with a nineteen year old named Marie-Hortense, and she gave him a son, which they also named Paul. He took years before telling his parents about this state of affairs, and they found out first from other sources.

What Marie-Hortense liked most about Paul was his money. "My wife only likes Switzerland and lemonade," he explained. He must have been drawn to her dirty blonde hair, which soon went completely dark. Cézanne rented a small house where Marie-Hortense was both his maid and lover. Using Marie-Hortense as his model meant not only was he flattering her form, but Cézanne could have hours of silence to himself. She spent her free time reading tawdry romances and he dashed off to Provence whenever he grew tired of her.

He did paint his new wife quite a bit, and all indications are that their relationship suited him just fine. After his death, she sold off plenty of his work to raise funds. There were so many paintings when so few would have sufficed. She never had a particularly high opinion of her husband's oeuvre.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording.

Monday
May152017

In Which Mervyn Peake Set The Standard For Us All

This is the first in a series.

The Small Room

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

Mervyn Peake's first home was in a Western enclave in northeast China, in the port of Tientsin. If you walked out his front door for more than a few minutes, you would experience the foreignness of the place wholesale: therefore Mervyn's parents (his father was a doctor) and his older brother Lonnie felt it was best if Mervyn, in his first years, kept to the premises of their Victorian home.

Dr. Ernest Peake and Mervyn

At first the house, built almost entirely of grey stone, would be enough for him. The year was 1913. In his notes for an autobiography of this period, Mervyn wrote, "Whatever happens, I return and I must return to the compound. Now that I shall see China no more... I am lost without the long dry compound."

In this very English home, the family's cook entertained Mervyn by allowing him to kill the chickens for their meals. Dogs, parrots and monkeys were all common sights in the compound. As a child Mervyn began writing rather early. In one note he listed his "Fears": "the black jersey, the shapes of clothes hung over chair backs, the changeling." It was not living things which scared him. In Tientsin Mervyn joined the local Boy Scout troop.

Summers were intensely hot in the city. As far north as Tientsin was situated, the winters could be monstrous, too. Mervyn rode a donkey to his first day of school. He found other children engaging, and became best friends with a one-eyed Russian boy who possessed a natural wild streak. "He is my God," Mervyn noted in his journal. Confined to his Western education, Mervyn was naturally curious about the world outside his enclave. He learned Mandarin, and spoke the language until he died.

When he escaped the compound, he saw lepers and homeless who his father treated medically, and patiently moved from stall to stall where various meats and goods were sold. Chinese medicine was in a state of perpetual infancy, so Dr. Peake trained assistants in basic hygiene and physiology. He went door-to-door to find the pregnant women of Tiantsin so he might administer basic prenatal care.

Mervyn was fascinated by the procedures his father performed, but the sight of needles and blood made him queasy. Still, he sympathized with the deeply ill, finding empathy for amputees, lepers, and other victims of disease. In the summer of 1917, Dr. Peake had plenty of patients: the city had flooded and the heat was unbearable. Mervyn stuck his head into watermelons to cool off. When the heat became too much, the family went to an English mountain resort in the town of Kuling:

Mervyn's mother Bessie was also a missionary, and she and her husband took Mervyn all over China once he was old enough. Shanghai was the most modern place Mervyn had been, and he found it "a frozen, icy, tinkling horro of mules and motor cars, western houses.... A stench of sweetmeats and dung."

Mervyn, the man who would become England's finest illustrator and a mercurially talented novelist, was already drawing what he could. His father Ernest possessed an artistic inclination, photographing all of the strange sights he saw, including radical surgery. He let his young son view these images at the boy's leisure, and Mervyn would try to draw some of them, reimagining others.

Mervyn, Lonnie & Bessie

When his wife developed heart problems, Dr. Peake moved the family back to England, purchasing a practice in Surrey, and taking over an estate called Woodcroft. Dr. Peake smoked a pipe and was generally regarded as somewhat strange; such traits are usually written off in a man of medicine. Mervyn was enrolled in Eltham College, where he sometimes ran afoul of the rules. Punishment involved a caning to his precious hands.

To get along, Mervyn further developed his own interests. His cryptic journals of that time in school enumerate what these may have been: "The invisible man. The watchers. Jewels inside hooting like an owl. The sleepwalkers. The fire in the small room." He might have been expelled from the place as a twelve year old if he had not possessed such a stunning talent for art. Although he read constantly, his spelling was never remotely palatable and he probably suffered from a learning disability. By far his favorite book was Treasure Island.

Even though he liked Eltham, he never graduated or performed well in the place. His instructors frequently remarked upon his uncleanliness, but he rarely quarrelled with fellow students. His brother was working as an accountant in the Phillipines, and Mervyn's career path was relatively obvious. He enrolled in the Croydon School of Art, two stops away by train from his home at Woodcroft. He did not even last the year there before transferring to a Royal Academy in Piccadilly in 1929.

On his left hand he wore a silver ring with a large, green stone. It was here that Mervyn Peake encountered the opposite sex for the first time in his life.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.


Thursday
May042017

In Which Emma Goldman Served Her Time In Missouri

This is the second in a two part series. You can read the first part here.

Emma, Incarcerated

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

Time meant nothing. The world was immediate, without past or future. Every tree and bristly bush attained a sharp, stark clarity. Faces loomed, split by immense grins. Crisp light poured through them all, illuminating everything with an even, eternal glow. Each stored increment awaited only a release of control in order to speak its pain. - Gregory Benford

Being arrested was becoming de rigeur for Emma Goldman and her boyfriend Dr. Ben Reitman. As her interests turned to the rights of women, passing out birth control and information about it regulary led to both members of the anarchist couple being forced to spend time in jail or a workhouse. Later, Reitman served six months in prison for distributing illegal pamphlets in Cleveland.

Emma Goldman's penalties for the same crime were usually not quite so severe, and sometimes her convictions were overturned in New York courts. Given the choice between prison and a fine, she always selected the former out of principle.

But prison changed Emma Goldman no matter how long she was inside. "I don't know whether you will understand the feeling since you have never had the experience," she wrote, "but I felt more miserable yesterday and today than on the day I was sentenced and in fact the two weeks while I was in prison. However there is no time to contemplate one's feelings." Once Reitman had served his time, he begged Emma more forcefully than ever to marry him and settle in one place.

She declined the nuptials, but at the end of 1913, Emma Goldman purchased a Harlem brownstone on 119th Street. With four floors and a tremendous open feeling, this house was quite spacious. Ben suggested his mother move in with them, and Emma tentatively agreed. She may have intimated the disastrous effect having Ben's mother on the premises would have on her sex life and overall well-being.

Instead of being one happy home, the experience of living together was nothing short of a disaster. Emma's ex-boyfriends and fellow travelers used the house as their own, and Reitman grew resentful of being financially dependent on Goldman. "I am 35 years old, and I haven't a thing," he told her, "and I am only the jester, joker or clown. I don't amount to a damn in the movement and I know it." Reitman and his mother bailed and moved back to Chicago.

Ben suggested they live in a small apartment of their own, but Emma had grown tired of the domestic experiment. The house consumed most of Emma's income from lectures, and hangers-on ate any food on the premises. She moved into more spare quarters on E.125th. "I am so tired of lectures, meetings and the mad chase," she told Reitman. She asked him to go on the road with her again, and he hesitantly agreed. During that trip Reitman met Anna Martindale, an English expat who was crusading for a woman's right to vote. He began seeing Anna when Emma was at meetings or in other towns.

In 1917, Ben Reitman married Anna Martindale. Emma was distressed, but a part of her knew this was inevitable. She turned to her work, where she found that she missed her manager as much as her sexual and emotional partner. Protesting the first World War was her focus. Police arrested anyone at her lectures who could not produce a draft card. Eventually, they arrested Emma in her home. She prepared for trial at the age of 48. The charges were outlandish, but the political climate was completely against her. Goldman was accused of accepting German money, of inciting violence, and preventing draft registration. A jury aided by a deeply biased judge found her guilty and Emma was sentenced to the maximum: two years. The New York Times enthusiastically praised the verdict.

Emma avoided jail on appeal for the moment and helped her friends, many of whom were also pursued by the law. Ben Reitman served his time in a workhouse; others were deported. The post office refused to mail any of her newsletters, and she was forced to shut her magazine (Mother Earth). Emma finally thought of leaving her adopted country. She knew that it was unlikely she would be allowed back if she left for Russia, and this scared her.

Before she could flee of her own volition, the Supreme Court rejected her appeal and she was sent to federal prison in Jefferson City, Missouri. "In moments of depression I look to Russia," she wrote in a letter. "She acts like a ray of sunshine working its way through black clouds." It was a most half-hearted hope.

Missouri State Penitentiary was the biggest prison in the United States, with a population of 2300 inmates. The cells for the 100 women situated there were 7x8 with a working sink and toilet. Straw was both mattress and pillow. Prisoners spent their days manufacturing clothes in the shop; the smell throughout was pervasive. The dining hall was filled with cockroaches. Breakfast was sugar, bread and coffee. Potatoes were inedible. Twice a week, the women got oatmeal. Lunch featured beef, dinner incorporated a soup ridden with worms. Talking during meals was not permitted, and overall conditions were wretched.

Most of Goldman's fellows were mentally ill. The library would not have been much use to them anyway, but women were not permitted to have books until the prisoners appealed. Bent over a sewing machine all day, Emma suffered intense pain in her neck and spine. Going outside was only permitted on Sunday, although this brief pleasure was denied Goldman because she would not attend church. The day was still a blessing, since she was allowed to spend all morning reading and writing letters.

Upon her release from prison in 1919, Emma Goldman took a train to Chicago. She had not seen Ben Reitman in years. Traveling with her niece, she met Ben, his wife, and their daughter in that city. After leaving prison, Reitman had opened up a private practice and was researching birth control in free hours. In Rochester Emma saw her mother for the final time. She would be deported to Russia on December 21st, 1919.

Whether she was angry to be forcefully removed from the United States is not evident in her letter to Ben Reitman. "Their mad rush in getting us out of the country is the greatest proof to me that I have served the cause of humanity," she wrote. She continued:

I was glad to have been in Chicago and to see you again, dearest Hobo. I never realized quite so well how far apart we have travelled. But it is alright, nothing you have done since you left me, or will yet do can take away the 10 wonderful years with you. If it is true that the power of endurance is the greatest test of love, Hobo mine, I have loved you much. But I have been rewarded not only in pain - but in real joy - in ecstasy - in all that makes life full & rich & sparkling.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.