Amateurs in Eden

I meant to review “Amateurs in Eden”, Joanna Hodgkin’s biography of her mother Nancy Meyers, when it was first published back in 2013 or thereabouts. But I couldn’t quite get a handle on it, so the review languished half-written. Like many reviewers, my reaction was generally favourable but ultimately I couldn’t quite see why we needed a whole book about someone whose greatest claims to fame were that she was married for a time to the author Lawrence Durrell, and Henry Miller liked one of her paintings (which, like practically everything else she ever painted, has since been destroyed). I recently had occasion to re-read the book though and I think I have a better sense of why it’s more important than I thought at first. But before I get into that, a little background might not hurt.

I first read Lawrence Durrell’s classic Alexandria Quartet back when I was somewhat younger and more impressionable than I am now. And was fascinated by it, like so many others ever since the four novels in the tetralogy were first published back in the late 50s & early 60s. Not everyone likes the books, mind you – the lush romanticism and highly wrought (shading into over-wrought) prose leave some readers cold. But for me it was a window onto a wider, far more exotic world, a much needed counterpoint to the rather safe, suburban, Canadian existence that was (and remains, thankfully) my day to day reality. For a time, I wanted to live in Durrell’s Aexandria.

But since that world no longer existed (and in fact never existed outside of Durrell’s imagination), I settled for the next best thing: reading as much as I could by and about Durrell and his life and times and the world (the real, historical one) that informed his writing. And as it turned out there was no shortage of material.

One of the conceits of Durrell’s fictional world is that it is full of writers. There is the narrator of the first and last volumes, Darley, an aspiring novelist. And lurking in the background there is the older and more established novelist Pursewarden, offering up his cynical, world-weary aphorisms. There is also Balthazar, the titular character of the second novel who is by profession a doctor, but who writes a novel-length ‘interlinear’ commenting on and correcting the manuscript of the first book, Justine. And speaking of Justine, it turns out an earlier phase of her life was documented in another book by a writer named Arnauti, who never makes an on-stage appearance. And I think there are a couple more writers, like the poet John Keats (no, not that John Keats) but I’ve kind of lost track.

Anyhow, here’s the thing: while it might seem a little strange to have so many writers circling around the same set of characters and events, describing and re-describing them in different ways, in fact this aspect of the Quartet has curious parallels with Durrell’s own life. Or at least an early and significant part of it, specifically the time he spent with Nancy Meyers in Corfu and Paris in the latter half of the 1930s.

The first writer to chronicle the adventures of Lawrence and Nancy was probably Anais Nin in her copious diaries, but her version was one of the later ones to see print as the diaries didn’t find a publisher until the mid-60s. In Nin’s version, Nancy in notable only for her “eloquent silences.” The first published account, in 1941, was Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi, describing Miller’s trip to Greece shortly before the advent of WWII. Lawrence and Nancy have a couple of  walk-on parts in that one. Next up was Durrell’s own Prospero’s Cell, a nostalgic and not strictly factual recollection of pre-war life on Corfu. Published in 1945 and written after Lawrence and Nancy had split up, she appears only as “N”, painting “lazy pleasant paintings”  (whatever those are), diving for cherries, and buying sailboats. And of course the least literary and by far the best known recounting was My Family and Other Animals, written by Lawrence’s brother Gerald, first published in 1956. Gerald paints a wonderful comedic portrait of Lawrence as a pompous ass, while Nancy has been written out entirely. (According to Hodgkins, Gerald’s version was by far Nancy’s favourite.)

So in all these recountings of the Durrell mythology, when she appears at all Nancy is barely there, a ghostly figure, vaguely drawn. You could say this is because she’s a supporting character, but in fact these books are full of memorable  supporting characters, from the shy naturalist Theodore Stephanides to the jocular Spiros Americanos. So what’s up with Nancy?

Hodgkin’s biography sets out to answer that question, and in the process she writes Nancy back into the story. It’s a sad story in many respects, and doesn’t reflect well at all on Lawrence, who comes across as controlling, jealous, and just plain nasty, using his considerable force of personality to keep Nancy out of the limelight, away from his milieu of writers and artists. And this despite the fact she was blowing through a small inheritance bankrolling their whole bohemian idyll. I think ultimately that’s where I’d locate the significance of Hodgkin’s book: like Balthazar’s interlinear, it corrects some basic misconceptions set forth in previous volumes, and opens up another dimension in an already multidimensional story. Nancy really deserves to have her say, even if it is a bit late in the game.

As a bit of an aside, I have to say I also enjoyed the descriptions of Nancy’s art student life in the 1930s, in all its tawdry glamour and desperation. The forms of art may be in constant flux, but there’s something oddly reassuring about the continuities of the art student existence down through the ages.





Joseph Cornell, Wanderlust

Not surprisingly, I’m rather partial to the American artist Joseph Cornell, whose enigmatic, nostalgic, and deeply personal little constructions and collages have been casting their spell since he began making them back in the thirties.

Earlier this year the Royal Academy of Arts over in London held a big exhibition of Cornell’s works, entitled “Wanderlust“. Unfortunately I haven’t been to London in years so never got a chance to take it in, but I did get my hands on a copy of their catalogue.

Up to now the only volume on Cornell in the Durno art library was Dore Ashton’s “A Joseph Cornell Album”, which is an excellent introduction to his life, work and world view but rather lacking in the pictorial reproduction department. “Wanderlust” fills that gap rather well.

I don’t plan on doing a full-on review here – if you like Cornell you should check it out, if you don’t why are you reading this? – but rather I’m going to use this as an opportunity to get all self-referential and talk about how Cornell relates to a couple of earlier posts in the blog.

First up, it seems to me Joseph Cornell’s work nicely exemplifies the DIY quality that I think is a notable and valuable characteristic of the art of the early 20th century. His boxes are very much the product of a shy, middle-class dreamer, and look as though they could have been made “in someone’s garage” – although in Cornell’s case they were in fact made in his unfinished basement, after he got tired of trying to do it all on the kitchen table.

The other observation I’d like to make is that Cornell’s imagination was deeply rooted in the There and Then, not the Here and Now, and yet somehow he managed to make some pretty wonderful things. I can’t help wondering how valuable the “non-colonized sensibility” rule really is, given that rigorously applied it would seem to exclude Cornell’s works from serious consideration. Cornell’s was an almost totally colonized sensibility, deeply immersed in nostalgia for times (16th-19th century) and places (France and other parts of Western Europe) that were far removed from the daily reality of his life in 20th century New York.

When I was going to school back in the 80s and 90s, “Nostalgia” was a dirty word, sufficient unto itself to condemn works and artists. In this it had supplanted “Kitsch”, which had been used to similar effect by an earlier generation of critics but had fallen out of favour due to its associations with High Modernist dogma. Nostalgia, the impermissible emotion, had taken its place, largely one suspects due to a perceived conflict with progressive ideals.

Ultimately though, it seems to me nostalgia is very much a part of the human condition, and as such, is as a valid a thing for an artist to explore as anything else. In making my case for that I’ll offer Joseph Cornell’s constructions as Exhibit A.

Book Review: The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb

The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb
by Adrienne Brown
Introduction by Robert R. Reid
Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue Publishing, 2014

Almost a year ago I came across a series of locally published books called “The Unheralded Artists of BC,” celebrating all-but-forgotten BC artists, many of whom were active in the early modern art circles of mid-20th century Vancouver and the Island. I’ve long been interested in that period and in my initial rush of enthusiasm I said I’d review all the books individually as I worked my way through the series. So far that mostly hasn’t happened, apart from a single review I wrote back in July of last year. Not that long ago though I picked up the seventh and most recent volume in the series, “The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb”, and now here’s my second review.

The concept continues to fascinate, although I’m not sure I can fully articulate why. Artist biographies tend to follow a familiar pattern: years of struggle, followed by recognition and the ensuing period of success (and perhaps followed by an optional slide into obscurity, if the artist lives long enough). There are variations of course; sometimes the recognition comes after the artist is already dead (Van Gogh, Modigliani), or too old to really enjoy it (Cezanne). But what if the success doesn’t really come at all? It raises some interesting questions.

If recognition always aligned with artistic achievement the questions might be less interesting. But of course we know from history that it doesn’t work that way, and there have been many fine artists who have created amazing work in obscurity. How artists negotiate the particular challenges that accompany a lack of recognition is a topic of some moment, and sadly all too relevant to a lot of us. The local history aspect of this series is pretty interesting too, touching on a range of cultural personages and landmarks that used to be well known but are now little more than fading memories.

Harry and Jessie Webb met at the Vancouver School of Art in the late 1940s, where they studied with some of the better known regional artists of the period, including Peter Aspell and Lionel Thomas. They emerged newly married into the burgeoning Vancouver modern art scene in 1950 and for the next few years pursued their artistic ambitions in a succession of low-rent flats. Judging from their photos from this period they were a couple of beatnik archetypes incarnate. And they didn’t just look the part: they were founding members the Cellar Jazz club, helped to start a short-lived literary review, hung out with jazz pianist Al Neil, read the San Francisco poets, and once had Kenneth Patchen over for tea.

They painted of course, but they were mainly printmakers. Specifically, their medium of choice was the reduction linocut, taking multiple impressions from the same block of linoleum while progressively cutting away sections of it each time. (Picasso was known to favour the same technique, but he didn’t invent it, and in fact the Webbs got there before he did.) The book contains a number of excellent colour reproductions of the Webb’s linocuts, gouaches and oils. In my opinion the linocuts are their most realized and effective works, stylized in the way things were back in the 50s, but never mannered: lively, well composed, with interesting and sometimes surprising colour harmonies.

The Webbs attained some level of recognition, with shows at the Vancouver Art Gallery and elsewhere, but wealth did not follow. With the arrival of a daughter in the mid-50s and a growing need for stability they began the inexorable drift away from artmaking as their principal focus. Harry Webb turned his creative talents toward landscape architecture, in which field he had considerable success in the following decades. Sadly for Jessie Webb this began a long period of decline into depression and troubles with alcohol. The Webbs were divorced in the early 70s, and the last two chapters of the book chronicle their lives separately, one for each.

In all, a worthwhile portrait of two artists and a unique moment of our cultural history.

The book mentions a related cultural artifact of which I was unaware, the NFB documentary In Search of Innocence. Shot in Vancouver and Victoria in the early 60s, it features a number of local artists including Harry Webb, Al Neil, Don Jarvis, Jack Shadbolt, Margaret Peterson and one of my old teachers, Roy Kiyooka. It’s harder to find than it ought to be, but at least copies can still be ordered from the NFB. I’ll probably write about it one of these days.

The Painter’s Secret Geometry

Shortly after I started this blog, a couple of years ago now, I wrote a series of three posts on my approach to using geometry in composing my paintings. In one of them I wrote “For painting, the go-to book is probably Charles Bouleau’s excellent The Painter’s Secret Geometry (sadly out of print, but many libraries have it).”

And it was true – at the time I remember the cheapest copy available on Abe Books was going for something like $200. I can only assume the good folks at Dover Books are reading my blog, because they issued a reprint edition about 6 months ago. Or maybe just a coincidence? … Nah, couldn’t be …

The difference between Bouleau’s book and others of a similar bent is that Bouleau’s geometric analyses of historic paintings are convincing, well thought out and explained with reference to period writings by the artists and their contemporaries. With some other books on composition you get the feeling the overlays are mostly arbitrary lines that could equally well be replaced by different ones. That’s seldom the case here.

Dover deserves a lot of credit for keeping this old stuff in print and available in reasonably priced editions. It’s great to see they’ve added this classic to their repertoire.

Unheralded Artists of BC, book 2

The life and art of Frank Molnar, Jack Hardman, LeRoy Jensen. Eve Lazarus, Claudia Cornwall, Wendy Newbold Patterson; introduction by Max Wyman. Mother Tongue Publishing, 2009.

Last post I said I planned to review the individual books in a series of monographs entitled “Unheralded Artists of BC” as I worked my way through them.  I’ve now read the first three, and I think it makes more sense to start my reviews with the second book in the series. The second book differs from the others in that it describes the work and lives of three artists, while the other five books each cover one. Starting with the second book will allow me to focus less on individual particulars of the artists’ lives (you can, and should, read the books for that) and write more generally about the series itself.

The books are visually quite impressive. The images of the artworks give you a real sense of what these artists were about, and the historical photos add a lot to the context. Having a certain bias, I tend to think the visual content in art books is generally the most important part. My overall evaluation so far is that the three books I’ve read succeed admirably in what they set out to do, calling our attention to a number of artists whose works did not get wide exposure during their lifetimes and may now be unjustly cruising toward oblivion.
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