Portraits and Passages
Is That All There Is
“Is that all there is beyond work and children!” I was listening to its stark honesty. They had asked themselves it when their kids were almost grown. They found their lives in Toronto numbing.
So Phyllis and Robert came to Paris for the year to see what they could discover – that something else. In the autumn of 1994 I too found myself in Paris. Much was stimulating and refreshing, but I already had it.
I especially liked going to the Louvre, a straight line on the Metro from Vincennes, to browse in its incredible bookstore. Usually I wouldn’t go into the museum: the art books laid out on tables were sufficient to excite. I was in Paris to paint.
But Paris can be a severe test. For an artist without affiliation to school or gallery can strand one in a solitary studio. For a while that can be luxurious as one begins a body of work. To be sure, it extracts a toll; everything dear does.
What made that exhilarating was my obsession for the woman living in Hamburg whom I call the German Girl. If just a tease of middle age staged by fate, it was purposeful. She got near enough to be spit out as rabid – my response aimed beyond her tormented soul to an ashen sky that one cannot forget.
I make her chimera not muse. Seduced by her charm, I abandon myself in longing. Painting her dispels it as I turn the mirror towards her.
Her incarnation paired with another woman in “German Girls – Night Games” is malevolent, almost androgynous - her prurience going beyond sexual desire to something venal. It beat out John Currin’s pairs of nude Barbie Dolls by six months to a year. Mine were very real!
(Its composition combining the first two paintings of “The German Girl” from early autumn in Paris, then photographed with me in front of them, is placed in FlashArt, Nov/Dec 1995)
It came out of my second visit to Hamburg in mid-October. I have not seen her since April following our initial encounter when I visit her two days later in Hamburg for the first time.
As I sit on her neighbor’s carpet, my hostess and her wily sidekick settle themselves into a delicious languor as they relate their adventure of the night before to an African nightclub new to them. It had been very late before they decide to go and well into morning before they return home, despite the fact, and maybe because of it, that I am due to arrive early that morning.
They went to dance, as they often do, and which is all they do that night. Still, something salacious is hovering in their account as a private joke.
The saucy smaller woman, sitting with one knee raised and one foot under her, passes me a joint. She stretches towards me. As they laughingly speak of themselves as “new meat”, she lifts her hips just so to reveal the indentations in the fabric of her pants. She smiles at me with a hint of invitation in her eyes. Self-satisfied, she knows she could have me.
But I only stay one night, closed firmly into my hostess’s living room to make sure that I don’t mistake her solicitude. The male nude that I had sent her that spring is pinned to the wall. She wants to stretch it; I reply I prefer it as is. She waves that aside. She is going to do as she pleases. It annoys her to be obliged, becoming peevish and vexed instead.
I can imagine her toying with the African men whom she takes home from the nightclubs. Once her needs are satisfied, she’d devastate them utterly by pushing them out into the cold Hamburg night. She’d show them who was a piece of meat!
She has laughingly told me of their shattered looks shorn of worth. She becomes “The German Girl Lusting for Africa”. They would have a long walk home: the night bitter and cold.
I am summarily dismissed the second evening. I, at least, am allowed to call a taxi for the night train to Paris.
Her hoarse, scornful laugh benights my days and nights back in Vincennes. It undermines my sanity. I have already imbued her – become swollen with her. There is nothing to do but expunge the poison by painting it,
And it gets worse after she invites me again this time to her parents’ in Wiesbaden, where her playing puppet mistress goes berserk, In my painting her effigy I become ruthless in return. The man gets mauled, but the artist remains fascinated by her venomous nature –absolutely inspired by the cupidity in her petty vulgarity so really silly but for the smoldering rage inside her.
In the inverted logic of art, I render her sublime; thus possessing her as some precious specimen splayed out on some board to have her sex examined by the doctors.
It would take Freud himself to diagnose the convolutions in the pathology inherited from the German mother whose exigency in marrying a German American soldier of the Allied occupation only buried by necessity a virulent mindset of superiority into a more shadowy and fastidious cynicism.
A displaced person no matter what country she and her amicable husband in Army Intelligence are stationed, she learns to disguise her dissimulations and her contempt. Her emotional estrangement from witnessing the devastation and the incommensurable shame of loosing the war is repressed but never healed: a terrible fester to carry around in one’s soul for a lifetime.
Nor could such an overriding bitterness be conveyed directly to her children growing up American in America. Instead, her brooding ruminating within roots itself into a stern and meticulous aloofness whose sleight of hand is adopted by her daughter.
They are always innocent, always good intentioned. It is others who entangle them in obligation; force concessions on them; make demands. The mother even expresses to me contempt for her son’s wife back in Idaho, “who would do anything including mountain climbing to be with her husband. Is the girl so needy of his company that she’d follow him anywhere!”
It is a brutal, unyielding sort of stoicism; its purview touching all aspects of her daughter’s life. The girl’s former boyfriend’s new wife has just had a baby: “Be thankful you’re not up to your ears in diapers!”
She writes me from Wiesbaden blaming my “foolish romanticism for seeing [her] daughter in so glamorous a light without really knowing her true personality”. I am at fault, not the ambivalent welcome baiting a trap.
. . . . . . . . . .
Her daughter devises a circuitous ploy: “Come with photos of your art. My father loves to meet artists. You’ll like him so very much. Everybody does. It’s my mother who tends to be critical.”
Then she recoils in alarm. In a pre-emptory strike she cleaves the visit in two and me, disinterestedly, as a large predatory cat might swipe across the eyes some hapless mammal, mauled indifferently and blinkered and left discarded for the vultures and the maggots.
No sooner do I arrive at the station after traveling since early morning and am introduced to her father, then she tells me that it would be best that I leave early the next afternoon: her father is working very hard and needs a rest.
I plead: “But I just got here. You invited me for the weekend. Why didn’t you let me know before I left.”
At that, the father, incredulous and looking somewhat aghast at his daughter’s breech in courtesy brakes in: “Oh, we can make out all right. Come spend the weekend as planned. I’m quite happy that you’ve come, and so is my wife looking forward to meet you. Let’s go home. She’ll love the orchids that you’ve brought.”
I’m leery. She has just unmasked herself with total impunity as if her request is self-evident and my inconvenience of no import. She is wearing the well-fed look of complaisance that functionaries enjoy when observing inmates under duress. She is taking enormous satisfaction in my discomfort that I’m close to saying: “Why bother at all. I’ll return right now.”
But her father I believe is genuinely kind, and he is looking at me for understanding: he knows more than I know about his troubled daughter. So, despite his own dismay, he throws out a tone of clemency, and in so doing his charm diffuses the moment.
I cannot bring myself to forcing the scene to the level that she has provoked and cause him further distress and embarrassment. And to be honest, I am tired. I’m not ready to wait who knows how long for another train. So I fall back to a default position. I don’t like being treated with indignities, but now I am curious to see it through; I’ve come all this way. Still, I sense the pincers. I know it’s a mistake.
That evening just before dinner, at the suggestion of her parents, the two of us walk the neighborhood around the high Victorian mansion on whose top floor, shaped by the slope of the mansard roof of imbricated slate, is her parents’ apartment. It is twilight, a bewitching time, and mellowness has begun to replace the anxious mood from earlier. The sky, still luminous though darkening, silhouettes sycamores and other trees on hillsides reminiscent of Pittsburgh. Even the moisture in the breeze feels a familiar comfort.
Immediately reassuring, the ambiance of the neighborhood seems so similar to back home that I’m overcome with delight. Trying to convey my pleasure and surprise, I begin only to be rebuked outright, slammed with citation as if I have offended good manners:
“My mother says one should never compare a new place to what you know. You should see it with fresh eyes as it is, completely new, and not make comparisons that confuse your experience with what is there. My mother is very certain her approach is correct.”
And I am not permitted to continue; pre-empted by my inquisitor-jailer, actually refused license to express astonishment of a parallel world to mine from the century before. It is the international style of the gilded age built by the industrial barons on both sides of the ocean – my mother having a view across the street from her condo of a mansion like the one in Wiesbaden where her parents live. It isn’t as if I found myself in a rice paddy in Burma.
I am being led on a choker, muzzle ready in her hand. The comfort I wish to express dissolves. My heart tightens as darkness falls. I am waiting like a dog, alert that its master could yank the chain hard.
I feel the bile rising in my gorge, while I hear the pleasure she is taking in admonishing me. She’ll be able to go to dinner with good appetite.
And there would follow other burdens placed upon her. In the end it turns into a rout. She has never intended to take prisoners. I feel the rope tighten; I’m listening for the sound as the floor drops away:
“You are eating my parents out of house and home; I need time alone with my parents; My father’s overworked. He needn’t drive you to the central station. Be more considerate. You can wait at the sub-station. It’s only an hour longer for the connecting train; You really have exhausted me. I didn’t get the rest I needed; You are too old for me. I’ve told you that already, but somehow I have the idea that someday we may wind up together; I’ve tried to be kind, but you are so demanding; Now at least, I’ll have a couple of hours alone with my parents.
“Why did you invite me?”
The second bleak, all night train ride would be the last. Everybody had told me not to go. It proved so in her gloating, icy stare. She is radiantly detached as my own composure crumbles before turning to the trains.
If it weren’t for that casually parenthetical statement floating up absurdly ambivalent from all that pool of sour complaint - the possibility of something in some unspecified future where we would find ourselves together; all this would look like a one-sided infatuation instead of some incredibly sick game. But it was not made up in my head.
It begins as a fairytale drawing two strangers magnetically in an impromptu dance as if the grand exhibition hall at l’Hotel de Ville were the swirling ballroom in “Romeo and Juliet” that segways to the adjacent room, magically empty, where he has fled, and she within moments follows.
The ballerina takes the assertive role as she steps to the threshold separating the two spaces. Touching tentatively the high doorpost as if for assurance, she spots him diagonally forty feet away, and nodding decisively, straightaway crosses the empty floor to where he sits.
He hasn’t expected her to come to him. He doesn’t believe it as she sits down beside him on the bench comfortably, almost familiarly as if two friends comparing notes, her voice low and thrilling.
She thinks there is something in his face that has been touched by the paintings in the exhibition. It is that that draws her to him, but why with such compelling attraction when he had disappeared as she spins on tiptoes in the crowded salon next door.
How could she feel his eyes on her for those brief seconds, or hear his barest prayer to God to send someone like her to him. There has been no certain eye contact, or has there? Why has she focused on him in a room with fifty other people, or missed his presence and followed in pursuit.
It happens in a blur of but one minute or two, from first sight to first sitting. How should that have happened when later she will tell him she is only attracted to black men, and that she wishes to have a mocha-colored baby girl.
He is unused to women approaching him; in America he doesn’t get those kinds of looks, and if he does, it is rare, and he doesn’t notice. In America, women look to see if he has money; they’re not interested in a man who’s searching for poetic vision. The women who he knows that do are unavailable to him except as friends, they all have husbands paying their bills. He hasn’t had a lover in years. Almost a hermit back home, he doesn’t go to bars or even coffee shops. He doesn’t schmooze; he’s never learned to small-talk.
Nicolas de Stael’s small abstract landscapes have a poetic freshness, and she is very much taken by them. But what is there to say – just another doped and drunk artist strung out and alone with his painting who will fall backwards out an open window to his death. Everybody’s happy – a limited number of works; the prices will escalate!
Out of the whole exhibition, maybe he likes two or three paintings. He doesn’t say that to her, but agrees that something lyrical is there. Still, what did she expect to share that brought her out from her own musing with the paintings to rush from the gallery and track him down?
The conversation is at a standstill. So after a few sentences she returns back to the exhibition, He in a panic leaves the building and races several blocks away only to concede to his need to see her and return to find her signing her appreciative note in the guest registry.
So begins their tale of a misbegotten romance, if one can call it that. For each is guarded by sentinels; watched by the souls of their dead. They know what they cannot do.
. . . . . . . . . .
She is the picture of Artemis the huntress/moon goddess. And one will find out that her psyche shifts from one aspect to the other along with the moon. At this moment she is balanced at the juncture and heading towards the gentler moon.
His first visit two days later in Hamburg is blessed with gentleness. It is her lyrical side that has beckoned him from the very first, and during that first short visit she flows around him responsively, delicately. A lyricism informs the way both move. Where would it go to turn imperious and intractable and mean?
But for the moment, the menace from that subterranean source is slaked, and the huntress feels the enchantment of the occasion. Both wish to pretend a wall is not between them. It comes to light briefly as they sit at a café when she asks him if he’s ever been to Germany. It hovers in the air over them. It is far greater an issue than being a Montague to a Capulet! But they put it aside.
So after taking a coffee, she accompanies him to Alexandra’s loft not far away to see his paintings that have been brought from the New York apartment: two large abstract works from the mid=seventies about seventy-six inches square. Alexandra is at Regifilm and won’t be there.
The place is very classy in a bohemian way; the paintings have pride of place with one comfortably centered in the long main gallery, and the other high up and looking across to Alexandra’s bed.
The huntress is disarmed by the world she views. It’s beyond money. It’s about taste and flare and ease. Alexandra has her father’s eyes who started the French film world’s prop and costume house. This casual, sophisticated world forms the background impression for the woman to see whom he might be and confirms her initial attraction.
She already knows before he had spoken: “Je suis juif” that he is Jewish from sight. She is on her way home after visiting the father’s chateau in the south of France of a woman who is a French Jew and one of her best buddies in Amsterdam. But there is a world of difference in having a girlfriend who is Jewish and attracting a romance with a Jewish man.
So a number of cards are turned face up, though nothing’s at stake. No one is asking for ante. So they leave unheeded intimations that neither can allay.
The next day, after her night train to Hamburg, he calls her telling her he wishes to see her before returning to the states. He has already spoken with Alexandra on the serious issue, but Alexandra being a Frenchwoman recognizes that romance has its own due that must also be allowed to follow through wherever it goes; that the issue can be addressed when it comes time.
The girl in Hamburg, for her part also is uncertain, but calls back after being reassured by friends there who promise to meet as a group for dinner and check the fellow out. They tell her why not; she needs some fun. As yet, he does not threaten the delicate balance; after all, he lives across the ocean.
. . . . . . . . . .
If the fellow may be drawn to strong women, he is not by definition, looking for a dominatrix. And by the same token, if she has attracted a man of some sensitivity, she is mistaken if she thinks she has found a willing subject for her sadism.
Whatever games the German girl plays and whatever pleasure she takes in humiliating him, can only be aimed at the man. If she imagines she can break something in the artist, she misunderstands a great deal.
. . . . . . . . . .
For a few brief years while living in Amsterdam she had entertained the ambition to be a ceramic artist. But at the time he meets her, she is at a major turning point in her life following a crisis of nerves in the wake of endless rounds of difficulties. It is always an issue of economics. There is no family money to buffer her from the cold.
It is unsustainable. She has quit Amsterdam and deserted the very idea itself of being an artist. Her French Jewish girlfriend, who has been her most devoted supporter, pleads for her not to give up her art, but to no avail. She doesn’t want to be desperate any more.
The drama, obviously traumatic, including God knows how much pressure from her parents, has been playing out during the year prior to his discovering her in Paris. When they meet, she is already in Hamburg finishing her studies to be a Euro-secretary. She is trilingual.
She may seem steady, but she’s still in shock. One can recognize someone not fully rehabilitated. She is walking down corridors holding on to walls as if afraid to lose her balance.
The volte-face in giving up a dream is crippling to her psyche. She’s in denial; she’s trying to be realistic. Her parents tell her what will become of her; she’s already in her early thirties. She must be realistic! But its repercussions will be more than penance for her cavalier years working in resorts in Africa. It will undermine her spirit and turn her sour.
Can one taste freedom in expressing oneself only to become a functioning cog in the machine? What recourse is left is to pursue release in salacious acts. Her self-effacement is bringing out her dark side.
The scenario between the girl and the painter is further confused by denial. She refuses to acknowledge her attraction despite her active role in hunting him down; while he refuses to walk away while he could do so cleanly, honorably. In revisiting their encounter over and over again during his long nights and days alone in his Vincennes studio, it becomes clear to him that both are playing with fire.
She sees him before he sees her; for he remembers her leaping dance step into the epicenter of the crowded gallery and into his field of vision. His initial reaction to her turning her vision towards him mirrors her intensity. She already knows he is there before she steps into the center circle of viewers. She is imploring him to notice her.
She is no babe in the woods, no child practicing her charms without fully understanding their consequences. The woman is a huntress: a regular on dance floors in nightclubs; she knows how to bait attraction. If there is something timorous in her boldness, her vulnerability is fleeting. Her visible passion sears the air like brush fire - an arc of communication jumping between two poles: him and her.
The heat of the moment rushes in. Burning eyes pierce his – a glance so tangibly lucid yet so fugitive, that later he discounts it as fantasy.
She turns in a pirouette and stretching on tiptoes extends her lithe body to view the paintings on the wall fifteen feet away. She knows he is looking at her though a dozen people are between them. She is dancing for him as Simonetta does for Sandro. The muse claims her artist as the painter consumes his idol: she is already branded in his mind – her arm rises slightly in the pose of surprise by one of the graces caught in delight; her profile flushed and tremulous. One can almost hear her whispering, whimpering, cooing.
He feels imperiled by the intoxication of his vision; he knows it treacherous. She has found the fulcrum. She is radiant; he spellbound, but oh so wary for what he might do. The complicity, spilled open and spreading its insidious narcotic, will bring him down to self-revulsion. Already he has a presage that can’t be banished. He leaves the room shaken.
The girl likes games. She knows he’s nonplussed. Why run him to ground. Is she Salome, and he a trophy to bring to her father? Or does she see his withdrawal to the other room an invitation. Maybe it is. They are drawing each other to themselves. It ceases to matter beyond that. She will prosecute her prerogative.
Something has brought them on stage together, but the roles that have been assigned compromise both. They do not make just a random drama of boy meets girl. They both understand that all too well.
In front of them always is the black whole of the Holocaust drawing both German and Jew irrevocably into its density. Its presence in the imagination is impossible to circumvent.
The fellow’s mad move to Paris three months later in August has forced the crisis. She is divided inside. She has never intended it to be serious despite the promise in his face that something is worth sharing. Still, she can’t say no; she’s greedy for attention. But his interest in her is too much, and she baulks.
So the attraction hits a brick wall. She has to abort it like an unwanted fetus. She turns to ice. And he abandons her like a pillar of salt. Behind them the sky is red.
Her gratuitous sporting uncannily incarnates the sordid games of the Nazis. His stepping into her neurotic labyrinth releases what has been dammed up in both players. It’s harsh, but fate has conjured this avatar that the artist be summoned.
His return to Paris from Wiesbaden does not bring surcease. The assault on his nerves has placed him in a crucible. He will suffer many nights of self-torture until it burns off all pretense.
The liberation of France is being celebrated. It is a prodigious moment funneling the past into the present. It is fifty years. He also is turning fifty, and very aware of being a Jew in Europe,
He has painted himself as “The Performer” - the Jew on the tightrope. Soon the fiftieth anniversary of the liberating of Auschwitz will also be commemorated. He already understands how his personal story fits the bigger one; though he hasn’t yet imagined how seamlessly these paintings of the German Girl will flow into those of the Holocaust.
He will paint her in “Born on Blood She Dreams She Flies” and in “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art). Her apotheosis is not for a saint. A year later he will place them as if centerfolds in World Art and Limn Magazine respectively. It will be quid pro quo. In that he exhibits sang-froid. He is in no mood to be conciliatory whether to crypto-Nazis or crypto-apologists.
Once back in Pittsburgh he paints “Ashes in the Wind”, “Madonna of Flames”, “Schneeloch”, and “The Chamber” followed by “The Oven’s Womb”. All of them along with the “German Girl” series will be placed on pages of art magazines used the way graffiti artists use city walls; only the spaces he usurps are international: some twenty images altogether on these paired subjects.
Corny you say. Emotional you say. Try it; you may like it. Fuck the avante-guard. Fuck the Jewish collectors of Kiefer. Fuck all who are undecided or who wish for a different form. He is not concerned that it is not advanced art, nor does he wish to follow others’ programs.
To yoke the spirit is to grasp the little sparrow of the soul into a clasped palm and squeeze the fingers tight. He will follow his own path.
It had been an exhausting time. His friends Alexandra and Marie-Pierre help him through the madness as does Phyllis on the several occasions they have lunch together.
While Marie-Pierre sits close-by, intent on listening to his heartache, with Phyllis he keeps his story more bemused. He speaks of it with detachment, seeing in the anecdote the almost Biblical nature invested in the roles played out. For Phyllis, meeting the struggling artist is just a diversion. Still, she is compassionate. She has a good heart and a good mind.
He has been given Phyllis’s number by acquaintances in Pittsburgh who imagine her welcoming company in that lonely city while her husband Robert is starting the Paris branch of his law firm, and their teenage daughter is in school.
They live rather grandly just behind les Invalids and enjoy the more gracious manner of life that Paris offers. Still, it’s hard to translate oneself into a new culture.
Of course they love Paris, except whatever is eluding them back home can not be found on the outside. Yet, they remain focused on the tangible world – on expensive objects collected at flea markets to be shipped home later, a new restaurant, a new sight, a trip to Italy for the week. They have come all that way to feed their eyes and stomachs, but what about their souls. That aspect is costly; it requires an effort that they refuse to pay.
At the core of their lives they are strangers to their innermost dreams. When did they forget them – at five or six? Whatever they failed to nurture can not be a comfort now. In Paris, they still do not know that missing something in their lives.
They look at him with fondness and are kind, but perhaps feel apprehension as well. He stands apart from accepted ways; says startling things. They want assurances. They are trying to be decent.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Beyond all else after good health is the blessing of choosing how one makes one’s life meaningful. One can’t depend on others’ definitions. Only in making your own sacraments can you claim peace.
When one hears the call very early, one gets used to it; though one may not put words to it for many years. Still the call is intoxicating. It flavors one’s life with purpose long before that word would be considered as well.
For me, my attraction to form was never separate from its spirit. It was intuitive; my comprehension encompassing the life in a face, in a tree. I became one with what I drew though I didn’t have a concept of that act. I didn’t understand that was an act of love, that it was reciprocal: that I was getting back what I was sending; that I was in a dance letting what I was seeing freely become what went on paper.
I felt the softness of a contour as it shaped a forehead or dissolved around a cheek. I didn’t use the word contour at age seven, nor the word mortal, but felt compassion as I drew a face. It gave nuance to my line, but I didn’t know that word either.
If I drew a flared nostril or the prominence of a nose, I didn’t judge it against some contemporary fashion or classical ideal. I didn’t know the word ideal, though I already was beginning to see in my mind’s eye a particular form against the conceptual building blocks.
When in my early teens, I first came across reproductions of Cézannes, I thought his brush strokes overly stylized. His still-life and landscape would become an acquired taste, but I still have reservations about his portraits and card players. In their self-conscious display they flirt with being fetish. I saw that very early on, though I never used the word fetish either.
Such impressions of course get modified over time. But at whatever stage one is in, without discovering one’s core, one can’t have a view of one’s own; can’t feel the compelling force that beckons one to begin a journey.
When discrimination is developed early, one begins to guide one’s own way. That gives one an enormous sense of self-worth and pleasure. One is attracted to what one loves. If that is narcissistic, it may not be a bad thing. The precepts of the moment will pass like a hand of cards being played out. One must align oneself to a greater truth.
An accord must be found in one’s self that demands the whole person. One must be grounded or one is blown in the wind.
I was lucky to know my calling. In that I was blessed. It’s really quit simple: at the core of my art is simply a soul before the viewer. That is why my paintings have so little going on. It is all that I know to do.
Often it takes the greater part of a lifetime to fully understand the part one has played. That I had written it is one thing; that I am growing into its realization is another. It has taken form as a story as well as a body of work. Its unfolding gives even abandoned directions coherence within the search for meaningful form.
But as a story played out against the epic, it begins to have breadth. No, it’s not Michelangelo’s agonies or Rembrandt’s fall from grace. Still, in the follies and adventures that accompany almost every painting there is a palpable presence: it resonates with conviction. Its failures and successes are authentic.
For what life means won’t be about notoriety. Whatever contentment we will find will be found closer to ourselves.
As a young man I did not understand that. For all those years wherever I have found myself at any turn of the wheel, I have looked to go full circle. Still one had only partially imagined its resolution even after narrating oneself into the story, for one gets lost while in it.
From time to time one catches a view thinking one is a long way from home. But the mistake was looking for landmarks to verify one’s position. Always one felt a visitor in a strange land; its inhabitants pointing to how incomplete one is. But that isn’t true nor ever was.
One always was complete but never believed it. It took living it out to come full circle to see it: to be content.