Art lessons

“What did you do with your day man?”
Georges Sheridan, Boston 1923 – Mallorca 2008

I want you to imagine it is a winter’s morning in Deiá, on the island of Mallorca in the early 1970s. It is cold. The sun has not risen above the mountain called the Teix which looms over the village. There is no heating in the house. Georges Sheridan, like many wealthy men, does not like to spend money unnecessarily. I marvelled at the fact that he and his wife Cecilie slept on a mattress on the floor, with two white painted wooden boxes for bedside tables, drove a fifteen year old Mini Minor, and ate frugally.

Georges Sheridan had come to Deiá in the fifties. He had studied art in Paris with Bill Waldren, another permanent expatriate American and Norman Yanukin (see The Man Who told Picasso). It was here that George became Georges. Three more different men you could not imagine. Bill and Georges, especially Georges, had made a material success of their lives.

He had been married, before Cecilie, to a French woman, of an aristocratic but on the way to being impoverished family. They had property, but little vigour. Georges, a Bostonian of great intellect, drive and talent, was just the American rootstock that needed to be grafted on to their attenuated bloodline.

He took time off from his art to restore the family fortunes. He re-invigorated their vineyards in the South of France, bought and sold properties for them, made shrewd investments.

“They (the Maquerelles, his wife’s family) had property, and it was all being torn apart and run down and the vineyards were going to pot, the villa was falling apart. And I put it all together again.

“I bought a couple of farmhouses nearby and enlarged the property, and did the same to the vineyards, took them from 16/17 hectares up to 40. Genevieve’s father had died in the forties, he was a brilliant man. I learnt how to run the vineyard and repair the machinery by reading his books. He bought the vineyard that I ended up running, which was a kind of a joke because Genevieve’s family had been in vineyards since the 16th Century. But the mother was ill, and Genevieve was a child so we put that right.

“I used to go up to Paris to look at the shows, and went off to London, went around all the galleries. That’s where I met all the Australian painters, I met Brett (Whiteley) when he was 18 or 19, and through him Michael Johnson and Tony McGillick.”

During this time he had two children with Genevieve, and during this time also he discovered Deiá, and its attendant temptations. Cecilie, now his wife, was one of those temptations, but one who proved more than a passing fancy. Cecilie is English, was an art teacher, is still an artist, a quiet and charming woman who fell hard for Georges. And he for her.

He sought a divorce from his French wife, and was divorced under French law. The case was heard by three judges, who examined the stories on each side. Their decision was that as M Sheridan had been instrumental in restoring the family fortune, had added to the family patrimony, he was entitled to some reward for his efforts. He married Genevieve in 1954, and bought the Deià house in 1960. But Genevieve didn’t like Deià. “She didn’t swim, she didn’t like the musical scene here. Some French don’t travel well – there’s better food in France, better everything. It’s possibly true.”

In the settlement he was given the house in Deiá, and the vineyards. Georges and Cecilie married in 1975 (three years after I met them), and then settled into what was now their house, C’an Marti, and produced two daughters, Tara in 1974 and Amy in 1977.

I first met Georges when he employed me, casually (and of course illegally), by the hour, to help him paint the walls of C’an Marti.
He had, I discovered, worked with Russian painter decorators restoring the family properties in Paris, and had learnt to prepare surfaces and walls meticulously. This was a somewhat unusual practice on Mallorca, especially in these ‘casas rusticas’, whose walls tended to undulate organically under the application of hundreds of years of whitewash – yeso – which gave to interiors a somewhat cave-like appearance. Later, when I learnt more about these houses, had lived in more of them and had bought my own, I developed a preference for the system of applying a coat of yeso every four/five years, rather than stripping the yeso back and painting the wall with plastic paint, which is more durable but which does not give the wonderful quality of luminescence, as if lit from within by soft candlelight, that a wall gives off when covered with a palimpsest of yeso.

But I learnt more than Russian émigré painter decorator techniques from Georges Sheridan. It was from him that I received my education in twentieth century art. I was as ignorant of art as I was of much else at that time. I knew nothing, not even what I liked, other than a nascent interest in Japanese prints, and a vaguely remembered tumescent response to Gauguin’s large breasted Tahitian girls, mainly because of a print of two luscious girls carrying a tray of breadfruit (remember Phillip Larkin’s mournful question ‘what is breadfruit?’ this was an erotic icon for more than one generation) daringly hanging in my parent’s flat.3_006

Georges Sheridan was the kind of artist, like the late Picasso , whose subject was art. One example will explain. He would often visit the Prado in Madrid, perhaps the greatest art museum in the world. Like many artists and writers (Picasso again, and Carlos Fuente) he had become obsessed by Velasquez’ masterpiece, Las Meninas. While there, while thinking about this work, he had been in the gallery coffee shop having a coffee and on the wrapping around the cube of sugar that he put into his coffee was a reproduction of – Las Meninas. This revelation caused him to buy a copy of Picasso’s own series of meditations in canvas on Las Meninas (many of which I saw myself later in the Picasso museum in Barcelona) and to over paint the Picasso book with his own works, which were his meditations on the place of great works of art in the popular imagination, on Picasso and on Sheridan.

On this cold morning I am up a ladder, sanding the first coat on a large wall. Georges is behind me, dressed in layers of colourful, comfortable and paint splattered clothing, half hippy, half tramp. As he lays filler onto the wall with a flat trowel in long expert sweeps, he talks, to me , but not facing me. Occasionally, he will stop and emphasise a point with his trowel. I will stop sanding and look down at him. It is one strange art school. He speaks in a nasal, east coast accent, but with a rich timbre to his voice and an expressive theatrical sweep. But what makes his talk riveting is not so much the sound of his voice but the extent and the depth of his knowledge of the lives and work of the artists. I am captivated and flattered to be treated to this MA in Modern Art.

“Here is this painting, right, a conundrum. But it’s a trick, a psychological and artistic trick. Is Velasquez saying that we, the viewers, are the King and Queen of Spain? Are the Infanta and all the attendants looking in a mirror? For three centuries, man, this painting has had people asking these questions – Jesus, what is it, what is the trick? And there I am, sitting in the café and it’s reproduced on a goddamn sugar cube! And I’m staring at it. And I’m reminded that when Pablo finds the picture, he spends a year painting it – a year of his life, the life of Picasso! Painting the Infanta, the dog, the doorman – whose name is also Velasquez, no relation – who is leaving the room, you know the euphemism for dying, leaving the room, he’s in shadow, he’s leaving the room and in one sense, Velasquez is looking right at him! And I get the book, and I see what Pablo’s done to it and I have to do my own thing man, so I get another copy of the book. Let’s go and get it.”

We climb the stairs to the studio, a huge room at the top of the house, once the drying room, where were stored the hams, the almonds, the branches of tomatoes in winter, now inauthentically (but essentially) glazed, windows looking out over the almond trees in the garden, bare for the winter, with flat bench spaces over drawers full of boxes stuffed with graded cardboard sheets, paper clips, collections of all sorts of stuff – Virgin Mary postcards, baby photographs, coloured cellophane – a treasure trove. There are wonky easels lolling about holding half finished paintings, hundreds of stretched (and unsold!) canvasses leaning against walls, higgledy piggledy piles of art books, tumbling tubes of paint, forests of brushes bristling out of tin cans.

I don’t know it then, but this is to become an important room for me. Later, when Susie and I move into this house, when we are kicked out of Son Rullan by the judge’s wife, this is where I will sit down, with a scrounged portable typewriter, to begin writing – not journalism, not advertising copy, but fiction, sketches, developing the ideas scribbled into my black cardboard covered Chinese notebooks. This room, its white walls, its huge windows staring bleakly out onto a grey winter’s day, will live with me for ever, will always be an ideal work room. I’ve never again had one so good. Although our bedroom, in Fornalutx, with the plomming of doves from Maria’s dovecote, will later prove more fruitful.

But now, Georges opens the book, smoothing down the pages, and yes, he has over-painted Picasso’s Las Meninas. And he takes me through it. It will be several years before I see the Velasquez original in the Prado for myself, and before that, I’ll see Picasso’s Las Meninas paintings in a show in Barcelona. But when I do see it finally, I am armed. I know how to look at it. I don’t solve the problem any more than Cees Noteboom does (in Roads to Santiago) but I have some small ownership of this magnificent painting, thanks to Georges Sheridan.

“Picasso was a Scorpio, man, all that sexual energy!” Georges’ invocation of the zodiac and his accent makes him sound – especially on the page – like something of a hippy. But this was far from the case. He is an erudite, complex man, what I call an artoonist, one whose art about art owes much to the artists his art is about. He is a painter who has, I suspect, recognised his limitations, and has created a world in which he can work at his painting without the need to support himself by selling it.

I returned to the island once after having spent some time in the galleries of Paris, and was annoyed that Sheridan was burying himself in an artistic backwater, a colony, surrounded by inferiors and not offering himself and his works in a milieu like Paris, most of whose artists, as far as I could see from that visit, were inferior to his. But no. I came to the conclusion that the daily slog of selling in Paris, of putting up with rejection, of the politics of galleries, was hardly worth the candle, and that M Sheridan had created for himself an ideal life, where he could paint, play chess, collect Tibetan bronzes and tankas (he is a world authority on these), swim to the headland in the summer, travel and live, really live, without being subject to critical opinion. Which would, in all probability, come down against him.

Who better, then, to take little Johnny Newton in hand and teach him about painters and painting? It is from Sheridan that I learnt what I needed to know to embark on a journey that would end with the novel The Man Who Painted Women.

Was Georges Sheridan a great artist? Will his art live on? maybe proximity made me less able to judge his work. Well, now that’s he’s gone and thanks to the miracles of the net, you can check out his work here and see for yourself.

All I know is that I own three Sheridans, one from the Las Meninas series, one from the Deiá suite and a little gouache celebrating the birth of his daughter Tara. They give me great pleasure daily. How many people you know, many years after their death, can you say that about?

Te recuerdo con amor y Amistad Georges. Salud.

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