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Alex Carnevale

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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in pablo picasso (4)


In Which Georges Braque Survives Multiple Wars

A Break From All That


As he had for André Derain, Pablo Picasso chose Georges Braque's wife. Marcelle Vorvanne had modeled for other painters, including Modigliani, and had many cheerful anecdotes about doing so. She loved to drop nicknames on unsuspecting artists, terming Max Jacob "the magus." Her mother was an upholsterer, her father was absolutely missing. Madame Vorvanne was a tiny, stout woman with a low center of gravity; her frequent donning of a large hat made her look something like a striped or patterned turtle depending on her mode of dress.

Marcelle's birth name was Octavie, but she discarded it with much else. Reinventing yourself in Europe at this time was not terribly difficult, and she did it more than once. While Braque was a domineering type, he did not mind having a wife with her own mind. Marcelle was expert at giving people exactly what they wanted or needed. Her major tool of benign manipulation was food and drink; after a conversation with Marcelle, participants frequently felt undone.

In the first year of their dating, Braque was still keeping time with a courtesan he had known since boyhood, Paulette Philippi. Madame Philippi ran an opium den in Paris, and the drug would eventually ruin her good looks and sour Braque's view of her. Braque took Paulette to dinner and sometimes lectures, but he felt his heart moving towards Marcelle. When he returned from an uneventful bout of required military service in 1922, he and Marcelle moved into a double apartment in Paris. She continued calling him by his last name for the rest of their lives.

Marcelle usually went to church alone, which is not to say Braque had no faith in the almighty. He did avoid the chapel in Marseilles when they were summering. "It's probably because I know it too well," he said, "but it bothers me that when I go to the House of God it's Matisse that lets me in." Despite their cohabitation, the two would not be officially married until fifteen years later.

By 1914 the war was on. Braque and Derain were both immediately transferred to the front. Picasso took them to the station, writing fallaciously, "On 2 August 1914 I took Braque and Derain to the station at Avignon. I never saw them again." In the thick of the fight, Braque was awarded the Croix de Guerre and appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

In a battle at Neuville-Saint-Vaust, Braque was struck in the head. He became temporarily blind, a condition that was relieved by trepanning two holes in his skull to relieve the pressure. "I was afraid of finding him so badly wounded," Marcelle wrote, "that I would not be able to hide my despair." Braque would spend month after month under the care of doctors, during which time he could not even think of returning to his studio.

Picasso and Braque reunited, but as close as they had been before the war, they never got back to where they were. Picasso was deeply troubled by his own avoidance of battle, and remarked to Gertrude Stein, "Will it not be awful when Braque and Derain and all the rest of them put their wooden legs up on a chair and tell about their fighting?" Pablo was an all-around disgusting man.

Return to painting was slow for Georges. It took him until he received his full discharge, after two solid years of convalescence, to think of proceeding past still-lifes. "Survival does not erase the memory," he wrote.

He looked differently at those who had avoided combat: Gleizes and Picibia, Delaney and Duchamp. Even his closest friend. While Braque was fighting for his country, Picasso had become famous and rich. Still serving in the war, Derain looked down on them both.

A short essay of aphrorisms published by Braque in Nord-Sud helped him regain his creative compass and was variously praised and ridiculed by observers. Picasso and Derain in particular thought that "Thoughts and Reflections on Paintings" was nonsense, but it holds up somewhat better today:

In art, progress does not consist in extension, but in the knowledge of limits.

Limitation of means determines style, engenders new form, and gives impulse to creation.

Limited means often constitute the charm and force of primitive painting. Extension, on the contrary, leads the arts to decadence.

New means, new subjects.

The subject is not the object, it is a new unity, a lyricism which grows completely from the means.

The painter thinks in terms of form and color.

The goal is not to be concerned with reconstituting an anecdotal fact, but with constituting a pictorial fact.

Painting is a method of representation.

One must not imitate what one wants to create.

One does not imitate appearances; the appearance is the result.

To be pure imitation, painting must forget appearance.

To work from nature is to improvise.

One must beware of an all-purpose formula that will serve to interpret the other arts as well as reality, and that instead of creating will only produce a style, or rather a stylization…

The senses deform, the mind forms. Work to perfect the mind.

There is no certitude but in what the mind conceives.

The painter who wished to make a circle would only draw a curve. Its appearance might satisfy him, but he would doubt it. The compass would give him certitude. The papiers collés in my drawings also gave me a certitude.

Trompe l’oeil, is due to an anecdotal chance which succeeds because of the simplicity of the facts.

The pasted papers, the faux bois— and other elements of a similar kind— which I used in some of my drawings, also succeed through the simplicity of the facts; this has caused them to be confused with trompe l’oeil, of which they are the exact opposite. They are also simple facts, but are created by the mind, and are one of the justifications for a new form in space.

Nobility grows out of contained emotion.

Emotion should not be rendered by an excited trembling; it can neither be added on nor be imitated. It is the seed, the work is the blossom.

I like the rule that corrects the emotion.

Derain in particular was contemptuous of the publication. "I’m staggered by the aphorisms of Lieutenant Braque,” he wrote to his wife. “I even feel sorry for him, I have to say. What a filthy journal! He doesn’t see that the others are using him. I’d like to know what the General of Cubism thinks of it. As a reflection, he doesn’t exactly strain himself... I can’t help thinking about Braque’s nonsense. It’s so appallingly dry and insensitive. It manages to combine fanaticism with some initial omissions. One needs centuries of painting, good and bad, for or against, in order to have an idea about art. It regulates the imagination."

Along with the essay, a new spate of paintings followed and sold for obscene amounts. This allowed Braque and his wife to move to Montparnesse, where they commissioned the building of a house. Braque's studio took up the entire top floor of this magnificent, modern domicile. Servants filled the new home: a cook, a chaffeur. Marcelle ensured the walls were mostly yellow, the color which did not disturb her husband's restored and fragile vision.

The second World War smashed this reverie. The Braques fled Paris, meeting the Derains south of Toulose. Eventually, however, they would be able to return to their home, finding it had been used as a German officers' quarters. (Only Georges' accordion was missing.) Derain visited Germany as a honored guest of the Nazis, accepting commissions from the party.

Braque refused all entreaties from Berlin. He did leave his home in order to show his face at the funeral for Max Jacob, who had died on the way to the extermination camp at Treblinka.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


In Which It Was Something We Cannot Explain

My Chagall Memwah


The Chagalls planned to return to Paris after the Second World War. They waited in New York, Marc and his wife Bella did, exhausted by its crowds and pollution, for their home in France to be free. Occasionally they stayed in a hotel in the Adirondacks to get away from the bustle. "Here the only Jews are God himself and us," wrote Bella Chagall.

To pass the time Bella penned her memoirs. (At this point in time they were not yet better known as memwahs.) Put down in her glorious Yiddish, she described her life in Russia before her family had been splintered apart and taken from her. She wrote for hours at her desk in her characteristic black dress. She had been afraid to tell her story before, despite encouragement from friends and family, because of her shyness. The Russia she reimagined then no longer existed.

Marc described his wife during their last months together.

All calm and deep presentiment. I can see her again from our hotel window, sitting by the lake before going to the water. Waiting for me. Her whole being was waiting, listening to something, just as she had listened to the forest when she was a little girl.

Bella died of strep throat six days after the American army liberated Paris.


"I don't recognize the world," Marc Chagall wrote after her death. In her biography of the artist, Jackie Wullschlager describes him turning his canvases to the wall. He wept uncontrollably during his wife's funeral, she tells us, shocking onlookers. As he dealt with her passing, news flowed in of relatives alive and dead in the war. Joy and grief intermingled freely. In his confusion he even addressed a letter to Joseph Stalin.

"Bella and Ida" 1916

In tandem with his daughter Ida, Marc worked through his wife's papers. His daughter's many friends flowed through the apartment; on any given day as many as six languages were spoken there. Family members returned to the Chagall's Paris home, and there was naturally celebration for those who had survived. He wrote his friend Jean Grenier to say "I am very miserable at this time. I have lost the one who was everything to me - my eyes and my soul. If I continue to create and live it is because I hope to see France and the people of France again very soon." And to another: "I must cure myself of myself."

Ida and Marc, 1945

Spring reinvigorated Marc Chagall's creative drive. He had grown accustomed to working with his wife - he considered her opinion on his work invaluable. Bella's favorite color was green; sometimes when she sat for him she read passages aloud from the Old Testament in Yiddish. His many paintings of his wife are not simply portraits, they show Bella Chagall in the act: of gardening, of drinking, of existing as if her husband were only moments away from entering the scene. The empathy they display - albeit for an extension of himself and his love for her - nearly screams.

detail of "Bella with White Collar", 1917


Ida Chagall met Virginia McNeil through a friend. Roughly the same age, Virginia required work: her husband was an insane, depressive drunk poet, and their five-year old daughter could not count on her father. The Englishwoman became the family's new housekeeper after repairing some socks, moving into the house with young Jean. Marc called the girl Genia because it sounded more Jewish.

Virginia McNeil could not help but be attracted to the older widower. Watching him paint, she took every opportunity to flirt, observing his shirtless attire during working hours. They hid the relationship from their daughters at first. When they vacationed in Sag Harbor, Virginia slipped in and out of Marc's room at night. This new, illicit relationship came out in his brush. "You must be in love!" his friend told him after seeing one particular painting.

Chagall did not get along with young Jean/Genia McNeil - he had never been fond of any children while they were children, not knowing how to relate to them. When his relationship with Virginia became more obvious and official, he demanded the girl be sent to boarding school in New Jersey. A month later, Virginia told him that she was pregnant.

in New York, 1942Their relationship recollected his marriage when it could. Marc suggested Virginia convert to Judaism, but that never came to pass. He settled for having her attempt to make Russian food. Before the birth of David Chagall, Marc preemptively left for Paris, enlisting a friend to circumcize the baby. The day he sailed for Paris on the SS Brazil, Virginia sent for Jean to come home from boarding school exile. Chagall had not even left her enough money to pay the bills.


He had planned to only visit Paris, staying in the rooms his daughter rented for him. Instead he remained apart from his child for two years. Ida tried to explain to Virginia, with whom she continued to consummate an uneasy friendship, that her father had purpose in Paris: "People are waiting for him. Their expectation is something to be treasured, not despised. He owes Paris at least a semblance of return. It's like a gift; it must be given at the right time. Paris is Paris, beautiful, decaying, full of sweetness and bitterness."

at the window of his apartment, 1958

Eventually, he did miss Virginia. Maybe he had from the start, but between gallery events and lectures, there had been too much to occupy his attention. He brought her to Europe instead. The happy family:

Her essential non-Jewishness haunted their life. As a replacement for his wife the goy remained inadequate. His paintings continued to be concerned with Bella alone: they were constantly surrounded by the woman in heart and in mind. When he talked to Ida, they spoke in Russian, excluding Virginia from their conversations. This use of language replaced any lingering respect he could have had for Soviet Russia after seeing what the country had done to his friends and relatives.

Jean was constantly envious of her new brother; they sent the girl to live with her grandparents in England. Marc and Virginia attempted to live together in France, but Marc had lost the sexual desire which tied them so closely before. As Virginia flirted with their hippie neighbors and entertained ideas of other men, Marc spent most of his time with the famous artists he counted as friends.

In June of 1951 they went together to Israel. Both were uncomfortable in this foreign place; they barely touched each other. The distance was obvious. Virginia wrote, "I longed for some of the passionate tenderness that filled Marc's paintings, and it was something I couldn't explain to him. By nature, Marc was shy and undemonstrative in love. He talked a lot about love in general, he painted love, but he didn't practice it."

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about W.H. Auden coming to America.

with Bella in Marseilles, 1941

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Alex Carnevale & Lee Krasner

Ellen Copperfield & Dorothea Lange

Elaine de Kooning & Mark Rothko

Alexandra Malmed & La Monte Young

Barbara Galletly & Willem de Kooning

Alex Carnevale & Fairfield Porter

drawing of Marc and Bella as a young couple



In Which We Are Open For Breakfast



from Meaning: A Life

The people I see and talk to, the ways they earn their livings, the children I watch, the courting customs, the ways of parents with their children are all to me learning, and I re-evaluate my own ways and my country's ways every time I travel.

It is not comfort, ease, or previous knowledge that takes me travelling; travelling is never as comfortable as being at home, and I am thrown out of my accustomed style and habits on meeting situations and people for whom I have no preparation.

George and Mary Oppen, Long Island Sound

I think I go travelling in order to be jostled and jolted and confronted with the necessity of thinking faster to meet fast-changing occurrences. Happiness comes in the conversations and the learning that I have to master, even in the barest knowledge of how to get from here to there. It is culturation simply to gain insight to yet one more country or city I never saw before; if I do not learn it well, at least I meet it freshly at the moment I confront it.

In Paris the Impressionists were not yet all dead; in 1930 even their art was not yet in the old established museums, and we went to a private gallery to see Picasso's latest show. I noticed Picasso himself watching us to see our reactions to his paintings, which were the first I had seen of women distorted into their social and emotional meanings, beyond the portraits of previous times. Meanings which were painful to accept I later found to be profound class judgments and beautiful in new ways, in their colors and design. After seeing these portraits, women on beaches and bourgeois women in cafes had a different meaning, in which Picasso had caught and held them. His contribution of fifty years as a painter, most of which time I have been alive, has put him on a list of those who will speak for us to a future time.

George and Linda Oppen in Detroit, 1942

Apprehension mixed with elation as we disembarked at Baltimore and began the drive to New York City. As we approached the first stoplight, grown men, respectable men stepped forward to ask for a nickel, rag in hand to wipe our windshield. This ritual was repeated every time we paused, until we felt we were in a nightmare, our fathers impoverished.

Manhattan loomed across the New Jersey flats; it grew into pinnacles as sunset lit the windows, and we entered the long tunnel under the Hudson River. In Brooklyn we rented an apartment on Willow Street, the first of many apartments we have lived in at one time or another in that same neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights.

George Oppen with Harvey Schapiro

Louis Zukofsky, the slender dark young man, sloping along on his long stalk-like legs, head forward, shoulders hunched, a little close-visored cap on his head. Louis so delicate I didn't think he'd live out five more years, Louis in my mind associated with his own Mants.

But as his long life has proven, Louis is hardy, more hardy than we knew. He has survived with Celia, refusing the attentions of the young who have come admiring him and his place in poetry. He survives, perhaps strengthened by his bitterness and feeling that he must be the only poet or he will not accept acclaim. Louis had not been to Europe; he had only corresponded with Pound. The problem was that Louis had no money; the trip required that Louis' friends help to pay his way. Somehow this was done, and several of us made contributions.

Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker, a student of Louis' at the University of Wisconsin, followed him to New York; we invited her to dinner, and after waiting for her until long after dinner-time, we ate and were ready for bed when a timid knock at the door announced Lorine. "What happened to you?" we asked.

"I got on the subway, and I didn't know where to get off, so I rode to the end of the line and back."

"Why didn't you ask someone?"

"I didn't see anyone to ask."

New York was overwhelming, and she was alone, a tiny, timid small-town girl. She escaped the city and returned to Wisconsin. Years later we began to see her poems, poems which described her life. She chose a way of hard physical work, and her poetry emerged from a tiny life. From Wisconsin came perfect small ms of poetry written out of her survival, from the crevices, that seeped out into poems.

Walking with Louis when Discrete Series was in manuscript, George was discussing it with him before showing it to anyone else. Louis turned and with a quizzical expression asked George, "Do you prefer your poetry to mine?"

"Yes," answered George, and the friendship was at a breaking point.

We went exploring with our friends Mary and Russel Wright, through the East Side of the city where lines of drying clothes festooned the area-ways and back yards of the tenements. Fruit stands and vegetable stands and wagons drawn by horses were piled with heaps of color created by oranges, lettuce, tomatoes and watermelons. Russel wept at the color.

Women leaned with their elbows on pillows at their window sills, idly gazing at the street scene, or shouting at children in the street, or engaging in conversation with a next-door neighbor, window to window. Everything seemed to be going on at once; men hurried across streets pushing loaded racks of clothing, and boys carried bundles of cut cloth to be sewed at home for bosses, who sent out the cut pieces and later collected the finished garments. Sweatshops in every block hummed with their machines, and small industry crowded in among the workers in the neighborhoods where they lived.

George with daughter Linda

At Coney Island we went into the hall of mirrors and laughed at ourselves, then as we stepped out onto the promenade, a blast of air raised Mary's skirts above her head; her arms went up too, and she was a pretty Hower, a half-naked shrieking girl. We rode the giant Ferris Wheel which lifted us up above the city and the sea, and when our car reached the top, high above the surrounding city, a system of rails started the car in a slide of its own as the rest of the wheels stood still, and rocked us in a violent pendulum motion before it came to an abrupt stop. Russel bellowed, and we screamed. His voice rose above the noise of the holiday makers, "GET US OUT OF HERE!" The Ferris Wheel made a half revolution, without any stops, brought us to the platform and let us out.

We took Mary and Russel sailing on the Hudson before we laid our cat-boat up for the winter, and we found that our boat, so roomy for two during the previous summer, was crowded with four. On our return to the mooring, I lost my balance in excitement and misjudgment, and in what seemed to be slow-motion comedy I fell in a forward somersault into the water. I seemed to see myself fall, and I clambered out in chagrin.

There was no way to be adequately myself while, soaking wet in a new red sweater and skirt, I entered the hotel lobby and dripped up in the elevator to change clothes. Zukofsky went with us to strip our boat for laying her up at the end of summer.

the Oppen family

I took off the sail and tied it into a bundle, Louis continuing to talk. I started up the steel stairway to Riverside Drive, with Louis right behind me; George followed with his burden, up the stairs, across the tracks, and up the next Hight of stairs. Louis gallantly protested, "Mary, let me carry it, Mary please." Near the top I turned and handed him the sail. He staggered and went down a few steps before he landed against the railing to recover himself. I gathered the bundle again in my arms and dragged it to the top of the stairs.

Aunt Elsie took me to lunch one day to ask me if we intended to have children. I thought it was none of her affair and said no, but I did not have any kind of birth control and we had gotten no advice from doctors we had asked. She took me to the birth control clinic the next day and I never had to have another abortion. I wrote to Nellie and to my sister-in-law Julia, who had so many children, and told them they must find birth control clinics at once. Nellie replied in high glee, with cartoons, but Julia could not arrange getting from Oregon wilderness to a San Francisco birth control clinic, and she had one more chnild. At that time there were only eleven states that allowed even doctors to give birth control information.


During those years Linda and I did not laugh much. In pictures we look like refugees — remote, thin and bleak. Linda looked like a little wild girl; she would not have her hair combed. When George came home at last I told him, "Linda does not understand what a joke is; laughter is threatening." George made little jokes for her, and we laughed, but we needed time to recover our spirits.

Linda also needed to learn that George and I were equal as her parents — she would turn to me for permission when George had already told her what she might do.

New York City was not a place we understood in ways we needed to understand to bring up a child. George and I visited the school I would have chosen for her to attend in the fall; we tried to imagine what life was like for a child growing up on city streets, and we quailed from it.

We needed to get out of New York City, where tension and too much argument had to be faced; we needed to get away from the scene of wartime living and be a family again. We needed to be free of close neighbors and be together, just three of us, free of the tight living of New York City. We needed space, sky enough to see the sweep of it, stars at night, forests, to have a garden and ride horses.

We retrieved an old open trailer from New Jersey. George parked it at the curb in front of our house in Sunnyside and began to build it into a camping trailer for our trip west — we were going to California. Our neighbors were incredulous, and fathers brought sons on Sunday to watch George at work on the little camp trailer, making a place to sleep, a little shelf for a stove and food, a hitch for the car to pull it. They said, "That trailer will never make it over the Rocky Mountains." At war's end these neighbors were buying their first automobiles and learning how to drive them.

In March 1946, we drove west. Linda stood behind the front seat and kept up a constant conversation, happy that she had us where she could touch us. We had barely started to be a family when the war came upon us, and Linda had had only stories of a father. Her love was for us, and to be with us was her life.

Mornings we drove until we found a roadside place open for breakfast. We discussed farms, animals, horses; I told Linda an endless story about Hoppy the Frog until she began calling me "Hoppy." We passed horses on the prairie, and George caught one for Linda; he has a poem:

"Horse," she said, whispering

By the roadside
With the cars passing.

Little girl welcomed,
Learning welcome.

In France in 1930, from the art of the Louvre, paintings speaking out of different times, from the streets of Paris which make their patterns and take their names from the earliest use the ancients gave them, from a cafe for writers, tourists, artists or students, we looked on and tried to absorb the meaning to us of a culture which accepted living artists, writers and students into the social fabric with a freedom we had searched for in the United States and had not found.

I think I travel to ask the questions which are hard to formulate about one's own times because one is in the midst, at home, of all that one has seen so often that one does not receive the jolt that might confront one with the uncomfortable but important question. Not with answers — answers are not possible for one's own times and in one's own place. The answer only becomes obvious after time has passed, and we can see, if we have survived it, the predicament that we have passed through.

Mary Oppen was an artist, photographer and poet. She was also the wife of George Oppen and this is an excerpt from her autobiography Meaning: A Life.

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