(Ed note: this is the final post in Anna Cypra Oliver's series about writing and painting. Find yesterday's post here. sdh.)
A family legend grew up around my grandfather, which told of his genius as an artist and how his profound talent was never fully realized because he chose to take a job designing logos and letterhead for his father-in-law’s paper products manufacturing company. At a very young age, my grandfather acquired a reputation in his native Chile as a watercolor caricaturist—his work appeared frequently as illustrations for news stories and, in the early 1920s, when he himself was only in his early twenties, El Murcurio, Santiago’s premier newspaper, staged an exhibition of his work in its galleries. My grandmother loved to tell how he was greeted by a brass band and a length of red carpet on his return to Santiago in 1940 for his mother’s funeral. “The great artiste,” the crowd exclaimed, “Juan Olivér has come home!” We worshipped him, not just because he was a wonderful person, though he was, but because he was an artist, a mysterious being touched by the God in whose existence we claimed (except for my mother) not to believe.
Juan’s best work was produced in New York in the 1930s, before and in the early years of his relationship with my grandmother. Sensual wood sculpture, blatantly sexual nudes, economical pencil sketches of landscapes and of Rose. It is also the work in which his Chilean origins are most evident: gauchos on horseback, tangoing couples, guitar-playing men with brown faces and handle-bar mustaches abound. Later, his painting and sculpture became derivative of Cubist Picasso and Juan Gris, a point where my grandfather stuck, working in this vocabulary well into the 1960s and 70s.
Perhaps it is no surprise that his production of these poor imitations coincides with his years as a designer for The Warshaw Manufacturing Company, Nathan’s company, a job Juan took in the late 1930s or early 1940s, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Until then he'd made a living by creating book jacket art and sophisticated advertisements that appeared above his own signature in publications such as The New Yorker, McCall's, and Playbill, before the advent of cheap and gritty photography and the economic bust made his sort of hand-drawn commercial work harder and harder to get. Who can blame him for wanting more security, especially having become, at forty, a husband and father? Nor is it surprising that despite my grandmother’s repetition of the brass band and red carpet story and the deep sound of regret with which she told it, how he abandoned his career as an artist “just as he was beginning to make a name for himself in New York,” it was surely she who most wished for him to take a job in her father’s company, just as it was she who wanted the family to move from the city to the suburbs. And yet, blaming her is too easy. He was a good man with tremendous talent, but he didn’t have the commitment or the discipline or the courage to go all the way. He had no stomach, for one thing, for the business of art, the need for hustle and self-promotion, and anyway, according to my mother and a close cousin, he hated to part with his work. Maybe, like many who are trained as children to be concert pianists or pro tennis players, he broke off, deciding that he didn’t have the goods to be great.
I recognized all this only later, two decades after his death, with the jaundiced eye of an adult who had by then visited many museums and learned, as well, to distrust family mythologies. Among his late work are many nice paintings and several compelling grid-like sculptures on which my brother and I drove our Matchbox cars as children, pretending the structures were city streets—sophisticated decorations for a suburban living room, yes; great work, no. Saying so, as I did to my mother while helping to clear out my grandmother’s apartment after her death, felt like a bold move, a need to speak the truth, and at the same time, a treason, but my mother, who loved her father more than anyone in the world, vindicated my impulse by agreeing. It was still bratty of me. Why did I feel the need to hack away the clay of my own idol’s feet?
The truth is that I adored my grandfather, but it was my grandmother’s intellectual fire that was my touchstone. My grandfather was almost always silent, while she never stopped discussing, analyzing, arguing, pronouncing. It was she that I most wanted to be like: the well-read woman with a hundred razor-sharp opinions. While my grandfather embodied my idea of art, my grandmother represented the life of the mind, and the life of the mind to me—to her, I think—meant words as much as ideas. Though it feels dangerous even now to say so, a betrayal of my grandfather and a confession of profound philistinism, I looked at art and was moved, but I never understood it as anything earth-shattering or world-changing or even hard, something that the hands and the brain had to wrestle with the soul to produce, Jacob in a death struggle with the angel of God. The beauty of art struck me. It sometimes made me draw a sharp breath. I admired it. But it didn’t shatter me. Only language could do that. Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden says in his great poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” I was young when I read those words for the first time: I closed my eyes in anguish, the thought and the words that gave voice to it equally seismic. And then, from the illustrious poet, a reprieve that swept through me like a cataract, even if I couldn’t entirely grasp what he meant, beyond allowing that poetry did in fact matter, if only as a way to bear witness: …/From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth. Oh!
Or perhaps the explanation lies in the use Juan has been put to by the family: as a yardstick with which to smack the groping fingers of the rest of us. More than once I’ve made the mistake of showing relatives my paintings and drawings, wanting to share, a woman well into her thirties (and now forties) childishly seeking approval and praise, but getting instead the severe judgment of an art jury. “That’s dead,” a cousin of my mother’s generation pronounced on a still life I’d executed in the first weeks of painting class, one whose sense of light and sure depiction of subject had previously made me proud. “These are good drawings,” my great aunt Anna said carefully of a portfolio I’d brought to show her and my great uncle before lunch one day, “but they’re tight.” Anna held a master’s degree in chemistry, but had spent her life as an amateur printmaker and sculptor. She admired the fractures and dissolutions of modern art—keen renderings of an orchid and its shadow on a windowsill didn’t do a thing for her. I had seen the look of disappointment on her face, the effort it cost her to say something kind. She passed over without comment the drawings that were my favorites, glanced impassively at my academic renderings of sculpture at the Metropolitan, and expressed enthusiasm only for a sheet of five minute sketches—a self-imposed time limit to loosen my hand—that I’d done with Stephan a few weeks before. “It looks like you’re spending a lot of time doing this,” she said. “Have you given up writing?” And in her tone, I thought I heard her say, Honey, don’t quit your day job.
I wasn’t proposing to go to art school or to devote myself to a career in art. I didn’t even want to be anything more than a good amateur painter, but her words hurt me nonetheless. (And, of course, I barely registered the approval of my grandmother, implicit in her suggestion that I make a second career of art, or of another cousin, the one to have become a successful and highly respected printmaker, who boldly announced that I had talent, that I should absolutely, definitely keep going.)
Maybe all I wanted was the mantle, even if I now deemed it a little tattered: it’s obvious, my dear, you are Juan Oliver’s granddaughter.
PAINTING AND WRITING
My family’s criticisms and judgments ricocheted around my mind. They tagged me like blue paint, leaving their residue everywhere. But this time they didn’t stop me. I kept going into the studio. I kept painting. Their voices sank below the level of consciousness as I worked, drowned by shape, washed away by magenta, by golden ochre, by just the right shade of plummy gray. Bob Dylan groaned, How does it feel? and they grew quiet. They did not become screeching birds on my shoulder. Perhaps I had less at stake here, less to lose than I did as a writer. I still loved the paint. I still didn’t much care whether the effort took me anywhere or whether there was anything to it beyond the physical act of this stroke, that triangle of pale apricot that was in fact an elbow.
But work leads to work; idea begets idea. Somewhere along the way, as I kept on painting, something else began to happen: the words began to creep back. Often, it was the evocative language of painting itself, echoing in my mind: Bonnard’s Blue, Payne’s Gray, every brushstroke defines a gesture. I began an odd still life of a large live lobster perched on a shiny stainless steel pot, compelled by the shape of its defiantly held head and the amazing range of blues and greens and mustards in its shell. Consider the lobster, I thought. And then, paintbrush in hand, carving the creature’s tail, I began to remember an experience I’d had, trying to make an elaborate lobster soufflé with an elderly friend. The experience began to form itself into story. It took on weight, it developed significance, other elements jostled their way into the narrative. Rich as oil paint, solid as the crustacean materializing on the painted surface in front of me, the words appeared on the canvas of my mind. The black bird made no comment. I cocked my ear, listening for it, but it was finally silent. I sat down to write an essay and for the first time in many years, remained there, ass in the chair, until it was done. http://inquisitiveeater.com/2014/09/03/stans-madeleine/
All images Copyright © 1999 Estate of Juan and Rose Oliver