Pain and Painting

The stars were especially bright that night. They twinkled at me so I twinkled back because I was in love walking arm in arm with the man I loved. A woman on the corner of Saint-Germain des Pres and Rue Jacob was singing Fréhel’s “Si tu n’étais pas là” (“If you were not there”) and holding a cup hungry for coins. The words “Quand je suis dans tes bras, mon coeur joyeux se livre” (“When I’m in your arms, my happy heart surrenders”) made me sigh and press my head against Hugh’s shoulder. Ah, 1935 was a lovely year to be in love.

To toast our love we went to Café Les Deux Magots. My glass of pastis was almost empty when I noticed the woman sitting next to us. She was Jean Renoir’s set photographer, Dora Maar. I‘d seen some of Dora photomontages and had found quite intriguing. So I continued to watch her from the corner of my eye. But my eye almost popped out of its socket when Picasso and Paul Eluard walked in and sat down at her table. Dora was wearing black gloves with embroidered pink flowers. She began stabbing in between her fingers with a pen-knife. Sometimes she’d miss causing blood to appear on her gloves. Picasso was blatantly fascinated and, once Dora had stopped stabbing herself, asked for the gloves as a memento.

Thanks to my friend Mona, I knew that Dora and Georges Bataille had once been lovers. And let me tell you that that Bataille was some weird dude. As a young man he’d hoped to become a priest believing in the mystical juxtaposition of pleasure and pain. Now he was a writer addicted to sadistic transgressions. Anyone who’d been to his studio knew that Bataille kept a photo of Fou Tchou-Li, the man who was executed by being slowly dismembered to death because he killed a Mongolian prince. Bataille said that Fou Tchou-Li had a look of ecstasy on his face as they were slicing him away. You know, the same look of ecstasy Bernini gave his Saint Teresa.

“Beauty is desired in order that it may be befouled, not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it” Bataille had said. So when Dora, 28 years old, got involved with the 54 year old Picasso notorious for how he loved to humiliate women, she was just continuing on a road she’d already started with Bataille. That’s why it didn’t matter that Picasso had already left his wife Olga to live with the young and beautiful Marie-Therese but now wanted Dora, too. Because Dora had some messed up idea that suffering and love were almost synonymous. One day Dora and Marie-Therese accidentally met at Picasso’s studio on rue des Grands-Augustins. The two demanded that Picasso choose who he wanted to be with. Picasso told them they’d had to fight it out. So the women began hitting one another. Later Picasso would say the scene of them fighting for him was one of his best memories.

In Picasso’s words, women were either goddesses or doormats. And if the woman was a goddess, Picasso did his best to turn her into a doormat. And the best way to do that was to make her suffer and cry. Picasso loved Dora’s tears so much that they inspired him to paint a series of Weeping Women.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Dora, more politically aware than Picasso said “Hombre, you’re a Spaniard. Show some indignation for your country.” He responded with “Guernica”. Dora took photos of the painting in progress and it’s thanks to her that this masterpiece exists.

Picasso liked to dabble in photography and, seeing Dora’s talents, made photograms with her. When he realized that he would never be as good a photographer as Dora, he said, “Mujer, you must give up photography and paint like me”. To encourage this, he collaborated with her on a painting and they jointly signed “Picamaar”. Seeing it as an artistic marriage, Dora fell victim to her own desire to please Picasso. So she abandoned her own talents just to make second rate Picasso-like paintings.

This S&M rapport went on for nine years. Then Picasso met the extremely young and beautiful Françoise Gilot and dumped Dora causing her to have a nervous breakdown. A concerned Paul Éluard sought the help of psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan, who treated Dora with electroshocks. This is the same Lacan who owned Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde but, because his wife Silvia (ex-wife of Bataille) found the painting too disturbing, had it covered by a sliding wooden panel. One wonders why a man who permits himself to be censored thinks he can illuminated another.

Éluard reprimanded Picasso for the way he’d crushed Dora but Picasso responded that Dora’s downfall was not his fault but that of the Surrealists. To ease his conscious, Picasso bought Dora a house in Provence. Here Dora turned to abstract painting and sought comfort in the Catholic religion. Years later, Picasso went to visit her and told her he was surprised she hadn’t committed suicide. Dora responded that she hadn’t only to keep him from having that satisfaction.

Misognynists.

Picasso hadn’t been totally wrong when he said that Dora’s downfall was the fault of the Surrealists. Despite their claims of being avant-garde, Surrealists were just as misogynist as conservatives.

Initially many women found Surrealism appealing because it was an alternative to a status quo that had never accepted them. Although never taken seriously as artists, Surrealism did give women the space to be introspective and self-referential.

In 1929 André Breton, founder and leader of Surrealism, wrote that “the problem of women is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in the world” appropriating Freudian theories for his manifesto. Freud believed many women have problems because they suffered from penis envy. Of course, that was just wishful thinking on his part. The real problem is the male fear of the vagina dentata, the vulva with teeth that can bite off a penis since a man enters as a macho but leaves as a wimp. Maybe that’s why the French use the expression “petite mort” (“little death”) as a slang for orgasm.

Surrealism had heavy sadomasochistic undertones. Bataille (a Marquis de Sade disciple), Picasso, and Man Ray were all into bondage. Picasso painted his mistress Marie-Thérèse all tied up (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust) based on a bondage photo taken by Man Ray.

So why the need for men to tie up their women? It’s obviously about a power struggle. And women, brought up to feel guilty about having sexual desires, could appease this guilt if tied up and helpless.

After the horrors of WWII, Breton realized that his male oriented movement lacked a spirituality that, for biological reasons, only women possessed. Furthermore, women could no longer be considered the irrational sex as it had been men and not women who’d caused such a devastating and stupid war.

Lessons learned.

Beauty is ephemeral. If you base your life on your looks, you’re never going to be happy once you hit menopause.

Create your own identity and don’t let someone else try to do it for you. Never underestimate the value of your own self-esteem.

Just because you look good in a photo doesn’t mean you look good in real life.

In a patriarchal society, women will always be minimized next to a man.

Never love someone more than you love yourself. And, if you don’t know how to love yourself, it’s time you learned.

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

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Lee Miller

One hot morning in July of 1937, I woke up needing to hug a tree. So Hugh suggested we drive to Mougins for a brief vacation because that area of the Côte d’Azur was full of pines, olives, and cypress trees.  Ahh, j’adore!

We checked into the Hôtel Vaste Horizon and were sitting on the terrace having an aperitif when Picasso and Dora Maar showed up. Dora looked so sad and Picasso looked so full of himself. Picasso had many visitors including Lee Miller, Roland Penrose, Man Ray with his new girlfriend, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington as well as poet Paul Eluard and his wife Nusch. The group kept mainly to themselves but one evening I ran into Lee on the terrace. She’d obviously been drinking and was quite talkative. Lee was exquisite and it was easy to see why men swooned over her. Fascinated by her presence, I took advantage of her altered state to ask personal questions.

She was there with Roland Penrose, a surrealist painter who, like the other men present, for some reason treated Picasso as a god. And, as an offering to this god, they had their girlfriends take turns sleeping with Picasso despite the fact that he was there with Dora, his official girlfriend.

Hugh and I were jumping the waves when the Picasso group arrived. Jealous of the diaper bathing suits all the women were wearing, I decided to make myself one, too.

My talk with Lee the night before made me wonder if beauty isn’t really a beast. Everyone wanted Lee but for all the wrong reasons. She was still a teen when she moved to New York City (maybe to get away from her peculiar father). One day as she was crossing the street, a car almost hit her. Luckily a man pulled her away in time.  That man was Condé Nast and, like most men, he was overwhelmed by Lee’s beauty. He convinced her to model for VOGUE initiating her successful modelling career. But the thrill of being on magazine covers quickly dissipated. Lee wanted more. She wanted to be on the other side of the lens.

So, at the age of 22, Lee arrived in Paris determined to study photography with Man Ray. She stalked the Bateau Ivre bar on Blvd Raspail not far from his studio in Montparnasse until he showed up. Then she boldly went up to him and said “My name is Lee Miller and I’m your new student”. May Ray told her he didn’t have students plus he was on his way to Biarritz to which Lee responded “So am I”.

For a month the two went riding around the south of France in Ray’s Voisin cabriolet wearing matching berets. Back in Paris, Lee rented a room on rue Campagne-Première near Ray’s studio and started studying photography with him. For 3 years the relationship was very stimulating and they enjoyed experimenting together (as with solarisation). But Ray became too possessive.  He continued the role of guru and went into a rage when Lee used some of his trashed negatives to experiment on her own. Feeling claustrophobic, Lee fled to NYC leaving behind a Ray who sunk into depression. Fixated with his ex-lover, for two years he worked on a painting of Lee’s lips floating over Paris.

Back in New York, Lee set up a photography studio hoping to earn a living as a commercial photographer. She was sponsored by a couple of boyfriends and all went well until she got The Itch again. Her sails were hungry for a wind to sweep her away again.

While vacationing with Charlie Chaplin in Saint Moritz, Lee met Aziz Eloui Bey, an Egyptian railroad magnate in his forties. For some reason Lee married Aziz and went to live with him in Cairo. But Cairo was dull and Lee was easily bored. Initially photography helped to distract her but in 1937, she couldn’t take it anymore and boarded a steamer headed for Marseilles. Back in Paris, Lee started making the rounds. And it was at a Max Ernst dinner party that she met Penrose.

I had quite enjoyed Lee’s psychological strip tease that night on the terrace but, once our vacation was over, life took my thoughts in another direction. Then, years later, Hugh & I went to visit our friends, Rita & Demetri, who were now living in south Essex. They were quite excited about their new rural lifestyle and insisted on driving us around the countryside. One lovely home particularly stood out. Connie said it was Farley Farm, the home of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose.

So Lee was living in England now! My mind immediately flashed back to our evening together. Exploding with curiosity, I had Rita tell me everything she knew about her.

On September 1, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and a new wind set Lee’s sails in another direction. She convinced VOGUE magazine to let her be their WWII photojournalist.  The only female photographer with the permission to travel in a war zone, Lee was audacious and dared to go everywhere to take photos.

Straight out of a Hemingway novel, Lee was tough, hard drinking and hard talking. And looked like an angel. She used a Rolleiflex without a telephoto lens. This meant getting close to the action often risking her life. But nothing she’d seen during the war could compare to the Nazi atrocities of Buchenwald and Dachau. The emaciated bodies piled up like rubbish was too much for her and would leave her psyche permanently scarred.

Finally the Allies took control. While in Munich, Lee broke into Hitler’s apartment and took a bath in his tub just hours before he committed suicide.

The war was over but not its consequences. Having photographed so many horrors radically changed something inside of Lee. And all those dead bodies she’d photographed kept coming back to haunt her. Maybe she thought that a “normal” life would make those monsters go away. So in 1946 she married Penrose. The couple bought Farley Farm and had a child. But the monsters remained. Sometimes, to obliterate their presence, she started drinking. And menopause didn’t help either. Despite a facelift, the mirror was no longer her friend.

The war had obviously left Lee suffering from PTSD. She sought refuge in food by becoming a gourmet cook. Lee collected cookbooks and studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. And, when not entering cooking competitions, she enjoyed inviting friends to the farm to enjoy her meals. Guests included Picasso, Mirò, Renato Guttuso, Henry Moore, Man Ray, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst.

In 1977, at the age of 70, Lee died of cancer. She was cremated and her ashes dispersed in her herb garden.

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

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Brakes

Last night I dreamt I was driving along the Cornish coast again. The road was narrow and full of curves. I was afraid of swerving off the road. Then I remembered Hugh’s words, “Brake before the bend, not on it”. It was a relief to wake up all intact. But the dream had aroused briny scented memories and I spent the rest of the morning thinking about her.

It was September of 1939. The Germans had just invaded Poland and we were in Fowey, a small town in southern Cornwall. Fowey sits on the mouth of a breath-taking estuary and we thought it would be a good place for Hugh to write and for me to do some landscape painting.

We didn’t have much of a social life and our main pastimes were those of taking long walks or having afternoon tea at Hotel Fowey. One day I had a craving for scones and went for tea alone. Sitting next to me was a woman I’d recognized from the newspapers–Daphne du Maurier, the author of Rebecca. Intrigued, I improvised a ruse to start conversation. “Excuse me for interrupting”, I said, “do you have a pen I could borrow? I need to write something down quickly before I forget it.” It wasn’t the most ingenious approach and Daphne looked at me quizzically. Nevertheless, she opened her purse and took out a pen. It was the beginning of a mild manned rapport and we often took walks to Sandy Cove together. But I couldn’t really call it a friendship as Daphne was very self-contained and revealed little of herself.

Hugh and I eventually left Cornwall and my contact with Daphne slowly dissipated. Then in the late 50s, I was having martinis at Duke’s Hotel in London when I ran into one of Daphne’s friends. For reasons of discretion, I will simply refer to her as Mrs. R. From her I learned that Daphne had had a nervous breakdown and, said Mrs. R., it was all the fault of her grandfather and that Peter Pan man. Totally intrigued, I begged to know more and, thanks to the martinis, Mrs. R. was more than happy to elaborate.

While studying art in Paris, Daphne’s grandfather, George du Maurier, became fixated with hypnosis and enjoyed experimenting its effect on young women. His experimentation led to a novel, Trilby (1894), the story Trilby, a young artists’ model. Svengali, a musician and a hypnotist, is infatuated with her. Although Trilby is tone deaf, via hypnotism, Svengali transforms her into an international singing diva. But when Svengali has a heart attack and can’t hypnotize her, Trilby goes on stage and is unable to keep a tune. The audience boos and humiliates her so she cries out that she had never wanted to sing but did so only because of Svengali. Realizing that she doesn’t know who she really is, Trilby breaks down and dies a few weeks later.

Du Maurier’s novel, a major bestseller, inspired Jim Barrie to manipulate minds, too. He choose George Du Maurier’s grandsons (and Daphne’s cousins) as his prey and was so successful that it wasn’t long before the boys referred to him as “Uncle Jim” and the parents often left their children in his care. Uncle Jim taught them how to achieve Dreaming True, a trance like state where fantasy obliterates reality. And the king of this imaginary world was Peter Pan, Barrie’s novel that led to money-making plays.

Basic mind control techniques include: taking advantage of a person’s vulnerability and their need for approval, making someone feel special while simultaneously isolating them from others, creating synchronized activities together as a form of bonding. And, above all, demolishing one’s sense of personal identity.

A year after Barrie’s death, Daphne published Rebecca, a novel about a man with two wives. And Daphne represents both those wives.

As a child, Daphne’s father (also under Barrie’s control) let it be known that he’d wanted a son, not a daughter. So the young Daphne cut her hair, dressed as a boy, and called herself Eric Avon. In Rebecca, Mrs Danvers tells us that Rebecca “looked like a boy in her sailing kit, a boy with a face like a Botticelli angel.” Mrs. Danvers is describing Daphne.

By killing Rebecca in the novel, Daphne symbolically tries killing off the boy in her so she can liberate herself from Uncle Jim and her father.

Lesson learned from Daphne:

Having a sense of self is fundamental. It’s like a compass that helps keep you going in the right direction. Because if you lose touch with your core, you’ll easily get lost.

It’s important to “know thyself” and to keep that self whole. Personal identity is based on so many variables so we are constantly changing and need to periodically update the image we have of ourselves even as we grow older.

The stronger our sense of self, the less likelihood of being manipulated by others. So keep close to your core and stay united with yourself. Just think about Robert Louis Stevenson (Jim Barrie’s pen pal for many years). Dr Jekyll is a nice guy until he meddles with his mind and tries splitting up his identity so that Mr. Hyde can come out.

And if you ever feel you are going out of bounds, remember to “Brake before the bend, not on it”.

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

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Kiki de Montparnasse

It had been a while since we’d walked together in the moonlight. So, hand in hand, Hugh and I took a stroll around Montparnasse.  We wound up at Le Jockey Bar where Kiki de Montparnasse was singing “La Haut Sur La Butte”. We enjoyed it so much that we offered her a drink. Kiki was wild and exciting in a debauched way. She was living with the Surrealist photographer, Man Ray, who often used her as a model. To accommodate his surrealistic fantasies, he completely redesigned Kiki’s face. He’d removed her eyebrows just so he could redraw himself and gave her stenciled lipstick lips.

Too bad for him that it was easier to manipulate her face than it was to manipulate her personality. He should have taken that into consideration when he dumped her for Lee Miller. I was there in the café when Man Ray told Kiki that it was over. Kiki went into a rage and started throwing plates at him with such violence that he was forced to hide under a table.

Afterwards I lost contact with her but later heard that, not only had she opened her own cabaret, Chez Kiki, she’d also started painting.  Self-taught, Kiki’s Naïf paintings sold out at her first exhibition. In 1929, she wrote her memoirs with an introduction by Hemingway.

But living in a whirlpool caught up with her. Without an anchor, she drifted away from her talents and mimicked herself when she sang for tourists in the Montparnasse cafes. Although always in need of money, Kiki said that she could survive with an onion, a piece of bread, and a bottle of red wine and she could always find someone to offer her that.

Kiki’s addiction to cocaine and alcohol eventually killed her. She was only 52.

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

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Mementos

The smell of honeysuckle entered from my bedroom window. The summer heat had intensified its sticky sweetness and the aroma was making me dizzy. Luckily I was reading in bed so I didn’t risk falling.  Connie had lent me Lee Harper’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Set in a small Alabama town of the 1930s, it’s the story of how a black man, unjustly accused of a crime, is defended by a white lawyer, Atticus Finch.  But Atticus knows that no matter how well he defends his client, his client will be found guilty simply because he’s black.

Some people respect prejudice more so than they do truth.

Atticus’ statement that “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” inspired me to be a better woman. That’s why, in August of 1963, I found myself in D.C. for the March on Washington. Civil Rights leaders had organized a protest against racial discrimination and 200,000 people had gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr speak.

“I have a dream—I have a dream that…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” King said. The crowd, wanting to dream too, roared with emotion and, resonating together, all felt related one to the other.

After the march I met up with an old friend from middle school, Clyde. Clyde and I were both romantics. We liked heartbreaking mariachi music, chimichurri sauce, and rainy Sunday mornings. A friend of his from church, Lillian Rogers Parks, had invited us over for tea. Lillian was a tiny little woman who liked wearing fake pearls and a smile full of adjectives. Having suffered from polio as a child, she used crutches. But she hadn’t let her handicap turn her into a victim. Both Lillian and her mother had worked at the White House as domestics for 30 years. Together they’d collected quite a number of White House souvenirs now displayed in a large mahogany Victrola given to Lillian by President Hoover and his wife.

The little cabinet of curiosities was loaded with photos, fans, figurines, and perfumes. Lillian’s collection also included the dress worn by Mrs. Coolidge for a portrait, a ribbon from Queen Elizabeth’s bouquet, two of FDR’s canes as well as his Bible, and Mrs. Harding’s mourning items. But more than objects, Lillian had collected stories. She was initially uncomfortable with the idea of writing about her White House experiences thinking it would be too audacious. But her mother said that “if a cat may look at a Queen in England, a maid may write about a First Lady in America”. The result was the bestselling book “My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House”.

Much of Lillian’s work dealt with sewing. She made drapes and tablecloths but also did much mending. Lillian had mended White House towels and tablecloths as well as FDR’s sweaters and Eisenhower’s golf stockings.

While working at the White House, Lillian had a chance to observe the Presidents and their attitude towards Blacks.

When Coolidge was president, the Mississippi Delta risked flooding. To save the cotton plantations, Black communities were flooded in order to reduce pressure on the levees. Now, not only homeless and without food, Blacks were forced by guards to help fortify the river banks. But the levee broke and hundreds of black labourers were swept away and died.

When President William Howard Taft’s wife became First Lady, she substituted police with Blacks as doormen at the White House believing the latter to be less intimidating.

Woodrow Wilson believed in segregation and backed the Klu Klux Klan.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to invite Blacks to the White House as guests. When Queen Elisabeth came for a visit, Eleanor’s mother-in-law said that it would be best to have only white domestic helpers. Eleanor ignored her. However, in 1942, despite Eleanor’s civil rights activities, her husband enacted one of America’s most racist executive orders by forcing 100,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps.

Harry Truman grew up believing in white supremacy but the brutal violence of racial lynchings he saw as President forced him to create a Civil Rights committee.

When Nikita Khrushchev visited the White House in 1959, he took a look at the Black employees and asked Eisenhower “Are these your slaves?”

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional and that Black students in Little Rock, Arkansas couldn’t be prohibited from attending the local high school. So, although “understanding” why Southerners wouldn’t want their sweet little girls sitting next to some “big black buck”, President Eisenhower had no choice but to send U.S. army troops to escort the Black students to school.

Lesson learned:

Historians obviously write about the Presidents from a particular point of view. But someone like Lillian, who spent her days at the White House as a domestic, had the possibility to observe things historians couldn’t. Like how the Roosevelts loved to have loud and rowdy meals whereas the Eisenhowers enjoyed being alone and eating dinner in front of the TV. And only an insider would know that Harry Truman washed his own underwear or that Taft was so overweight that a special bathtub had to be made for him (and maybe the reason why his wife introduced twin beds in the White House).

Convictions take courage.

And you don’t have to be President to live in the White House.

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

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