A short festival on Spain

 

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This was written for an occasional series in The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘A short festival on…’ and I chose Spain. I’m posting it because we’re going to Spain in a couple of weeks, my first trip in some years. 

The Spanish would rather a fiesta than a festival any day, it’s a party and a lot more fun. We will hold ours on St Anthony’s Day, January 17th, a day on which a bonfire is lit (St Anthony’s fire?) in every village square, and neighbours gather to eat and drink.

What better to eat than a paella, ours prepared by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, whose detective character, Pepe Carvalho, eats far more than he detects, and is pedantic about paella, asserting (in South Seas): “I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and – nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.” The wine, the legendary Vega Sicilia Unico, will flow like water.

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) is also a novel by last century’s most prominent Hispanophile, Ernest Hemingway, a tale which introduces the intertwining themes of our fiesta, the bullfight, the matador, and sex: eros and thanatos. In Fiesta, the matador, Pedro Romero, makes love to the bold and beautiful Lady Brett Ashley because the narrator, Jake Barnes, can’t: a war wound left him impotent. Hemingway does Lorca.

Because we can, we have invited Hemingway, and you can see him, glass of wine in one hand, cigar in the other, talking to his friend the matador Antonio Ordoñez, who will be demonstrating the art of killing bulls, showing classic passes, the pase natural, and his own derechazo de rodillas among them.

Our fiesta is being held in a bull ring, the roaring bonfire throwing glints and sparkles off Ordoñez’s suit of lights. Just the place to ponder the nature of a culture whose heroes are killers – matador from matar, to kill – and whose national sport, also an art, sacrifices animals and men in public. There is a darkness in the Spanish soul.

That darkness has a name: duende, the elusive spirit that poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca called “the hidden heart of disconsolate Spain.” It is to be found in Spanish art, literature and music. “All that has black sounds has duende” murmured Gypsy canto jonde (deep song) singer Manuel Torre upon hearing composer Manuel de Falla’s Nocturno del Generalife.

It certainly informs the paintings on show here. There are three in the art tent, the first and greatest, once defined as “the theology of painting”, in front of which the French romantic poet Théophile Gautier stood and cried “where is the picture?” It is Diego Velásquez’ profound, enigmatic and beautiful Las meninas, the maids of honour, a painting which transforms its every viewer into the King and Queen of Spain. All Spanish art stands on the shoulders of this man who, artist Anton Raphael Mengs said “paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be.”

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Our second painting is by one whose duende drips from his brushes, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. We have chosen the baffling El perro semihundido, the half buried dog, from the series known as the black paintings. An abstract field of light with a curved horizon, bare but for the tiny head of a terrified spaniel. It has mystified viewers and critics for almost 200 years, moving many to tears. This is only detail from the larger painting which is way more mysterious – and  moving.

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Finally, one work from the creator/destroyer, the protean Picasso, the painting that ushered in the 20th Century, of the most famous whores in history, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, equal parts eros and thanatos, with its cryptic reference to the promiscuous Picasso’s fear of syphilis.

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But where are the killer heroes? Elsewhere in Goya and Picasso of course, on television all day during summer, and in the cinema regularly. In Carlos Saura’s 1983 adaptation of Carmen, his most successful collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades. And most sardonically in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 Matador, in which the sumptuous Assumpta Serna murders her victims in coitus, and, ‘al momento de verdad’ (at the moment of truth), using a long hair pin in much the same way as her ultimate victim, ex-matador Nacho Martinez, despatched bulls with his sword.

The matador (or matadora) returns in Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her, a film already heralded as the first classic of the 21st Century, in which Rosario Flores plays a famed female bullfighter, gored, left in a coma, and cared for tenderly by her lover, Adrio Grandinetti.

We leave the films being projected onto a suspended muleta (bullfighter’s cape), and stroll to the fire for a plate of Montalban’s precise paella and to take a glass with Javier Marias, whose 1997 novel, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, opens with a man whose first night with a lover is interrupted by her death, in his arms. We note with pleasure we have been given a small scraping of socorrat, the burnt crust of rice from the bottom of the pan. And then the arena falls silent, but for the crackling of the fire.

We look up. The gate has burst open. A magnificent fighting bull runs onto the arena and skids to a halt in the sand, black hide glistening. He looks wildly to right and left, snorting steam. We are frozen with fear, but for Ordoñez, who reaches for his sword. The bull lowers his huge head, and charges the bonfire, crashing into it, scattering embers, ashes and flaming branches. The burning bull stands in the centre of the conflagration, bellowing.

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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.

The Man Who told Picasso

It was in the village of Maya, on the Mediterranean Spanish island of Lavinya that I met Herman Johnson, who not only met Picasso, but told him. But that’s not really what intrigued me about Herman. It was only when I thought about him later I realised that he was the happiest man I ever met. That was back in the days when I confused happiness and freedom, and Herman seemed to have set his life up so that he was free of all those things that we feel we have to do. Like going to work every day. And paying off houses.

Herman, of course, is not his real name, because he’s still in the same place and from latest accounts making out like he always made out – like a bandit. But I’ll write in the past tense because it seems to suit this type of story. Not that I am in any way wishing Herman into the past.

Herman was an artist. If you had to put a label on him, you’d probably call him an abstract impressionist. When I knew him he liked to play chess and ping pong almost as much as he liked to paint. He was a stocky man with humour in his face and grey eyes that laughed even when it hurt. He had grey kinky hair that stuck up either side of his head like Pan’s horns. He looked like a horny old Pan in an Arcadian olive grove. And a bit like the billy goat up by the estanco, the post office.

He’d gone to Spain to live after working a psychiatric discharge from the army. He’d only joined the army to get a pension, and now he lived on that pension, and a handout from the Jewish Veterans.It wouldn’t have been enough to live on in New York, Herman’s home town, but in Spain, he didn’t even have to sell a painting. Which was a very good thing. He didn’t sell a lot of paintings.

Every year, the Jewish Veterans sent him a clothing parcel, mostly old army clothes, and every month, he got his pension cheque. He lived in a rented house on the way to the sea, and had a studio underneath a bridge with a fig tree by the door. He’d sit there and listen to Beethoven and Mahler on an old tape machine for hours, not moving, just sitting and listening. Then he’d rush the canvas, and make a painting in twenty minutes flat. He’d put it away, usually in the house, and pick at it for months, staring at it while he ate. That was his style, his way of getting his moment onto canvas.

They told me Herman had been very fashionable in the fifties, had sold a lot of pictures. But Herman hadn’t changed his style since the fifties, his jokes since the forties, and his sox since the early sixties. I don’t think the Jewish Veterans expected him to have feet. They never sent him sox or boots. Every time I met Herman in the grocery store, wearing his old army greatcoat, he’d be buying some butter, and he’d make the same old joke. “You know why they call it mantequilla, doncha? Cause it is, that’s why. Cheez, this Spanish butter, it’s something else, ain’t it?” And he’d laugh so hard you had to join him. All those years in France and Spain and Herman still spoke with a heavy dose of the Bronx. Bronx English, Bronx French, and Bronx Spanish.

All the other American artists who’d come to live in this village, who’d been to art school in Paris with Herman, one way or another, they were rich or famous or both. Only Herman, he was neither. But he seemed to me to be as close to being happy as any man I’d ever met. Not that sickly bogus happiness that pretends to feel no pain, but the happiness that Shaw wrote about, alive and active. Every day of his life, Herman did most of the things he really liked doing. Herman liked painting, so he painted all day most days in the studio with the fig tree by the door. Herman liked to play ping pong, so he played ping pong in the afternoon and early evening with me or the doctor or the school bus driver. And mostly, he beat us. Then he’d go home and eat the chicken that had been simmering all day in the pot with carrots and mushrooms. Herman loved to play chess, so he’d play at night with another American painter who, by the way, painted Persian rugs on the wall when he wasn’t playing chess. Like I said, everything Herman liked to do most, he did most every day. Except maybe fuck.

Herman was a horny little Pan, and he never could get enough. Summer was a little better, for then the blue eyed Suecas flew south and gave it to Herman because he was a painter, and they had grey jobs in a frozen land and had never even met a painter, let alone slept with one. Herman gave them a couple of sketches, a lot of laughs, a new way of looking at the world, and they gave him what he needed most, which seemed only fair. In winter, when the Suecas were snowed in, Herman drew dirty little drawings. I’ve still got one he gave me, one that he did on a page he ripped out of a Spanish medical magazine he took from his friend the village doctor.

One afternoon, I met Herman in the estanco, and we walked together down to the cafe for a coffee and a cognac. We sat outside beneath the trellis, reading our mail. “Did I ever tell you about the time I visited Picasso in his studio?” he asked, finishing a letter, I guess it must have been from a friend in Paris.

“Bullshit Herman” I replied without even looking up from mine.

“No, really I did. It happened like this. I was at art school in Paris, and I was walking in Montparnasse one day with a folio of drawings under my arm. It was summer, a hot day. I saw this little bald guy come out of a cafe, surrounded by rich looking men and beautiful women. He looked like a stevedore, or a little peasant, that’s why I noticed him. He seemed hemmed in by all these well fed people. He looked up and I looked into these black eyes and then it hit me – Jesus, that’s Picasso! So I walked up to the group and I elbowed my way through all those great looking women and well dressed men around him and I said ‘Señor Picasso, I am a painter and I would like you to look at my work. I have some drawings here.’ “He was getting into a big black car and he turned to me, looking a little startled. He looked right into my eyes and said `Not here. Do you have a pen and paper?’ I reached into my pocket and pulled out a drawing pencil and ripped a piece of paper off my folio. `Write down my address’ he said. `No’ I said `you write it’ and shoved the pen and paper at him. He laughed out loud and scribbled his address on the paper and signed it. I put it in my pocket and went home.

“Many years later, I was down in the south of France painting. Someone told me Picasso lived nearby. I remembered my meeting with him. I still had the piece of paper with his name and Paris address on it, I’d kept it, like a talisman, even though I’d never gone to visit him, I don’t know why, I was doing well, I was too busy, I fell in love. Who remembers? But now I went. He lived in Mougins. It was a big white stucco place with a high iron gate. Out front on a plaque was the name Notre Dame de Vie. The man at the gate wouldn’t let me in, so I scribbled my name on the piece of paper beneath Picasso’s and handed it to him. He went away and came back in ten minutes time. “`Picasso will see you’ he said, and led me into the house.Huge white rooms, no furniture, the walls lined with Picassos but for one Miro.

“I was lead through room after room, along long corridors and through a courtyard. Finally, I was left in an entrada outside an arched wooden doorway. The door was flung open. He burst into the room, threw his arms around my shoulders, and boomed `Herman que tal? How have you been? It has been years, how is the work going?’ “I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t figure this at all. Later, I think I worked out what had happened. He was an old man, even then well over 80. And I’d handed him a piece of paper with his own handwriting on it. Maybe his memory was not so good, and rather than running the risk of snubbing an old friend, he faked it! He must have known a lot of people in his time. Everybody wanted to get close to Picasso.

“So I was led into the inner sanctum, his arm still round my shoulders. There were paintings stacked four deep leaning against the walls, sculptures and pots to the ceilings, at least five half finished works on easels. The sun shone and so did his eyes. We talked about painting and Paris. He asked me about New York. We dredged up a couple of mutual acquaintances. Then he said `come, let me show you what I’m working on now.’ “I walked around in silence. Picasso was standing behind me, also silent. I got the impression he cared what I thought. Me, Herman Johnson from the Bronx! `Well’ he said finally, `what do you think?’

“I didn’t know what to say. You see, I didn’t like them. There was a reclining nude with a big bushy box and a huge male face in grey staring at her. There was an artist and model, the model was OK, but the artist was bad painting. It was like he was going through the motions, recycling all the old themes, but trying to paint like a child. It didn’t work for me! It was my territory, but it wasn’t as good. He was faking. I read once where he said don’t worry about copying other people, it’s when you start copying yourself, that’s when you got problems.

“I said nothing for ten seconds that felt like ten hours, trying desperately to think of something non committal to say. It was no use. “`Pablo’ I said, `I don’t think much of them. You’ve done better.’ “The light went from his eyes. I started to babble, to talk of his earlier work, the work I’d seen coming in, wishing I’d said nothing, or just something polite. But what the fuck. He asked me. I told him. He stood there nodding, looking at the floor, maybe agreeing, maybe knowing I told him the truth, maybe wondering who was this little Jewish schmuck from New York anyway. Then he turned and walked away. I thought he was going to get his man to throw me out.

“But he went to a cupboard and opened it. In it was a bottle of wine, an old Rioja I remember. He bought the bottle back with two glasses, he poured a glass for me, a glass for himself. Still, he said nothing. We stood in the centre of the studio, Picasso and me, and we drank our good Spanish wine, saying nothing. Then he spoke.

“`Herman, when I was a young man, a very young man, I lived in Montmartre. Before Montmartre filled with bad artists and shits from all over the world. Then, Montmartre was a place to live and work. At night, after working all day, I would go with Fernande to the Place du Tertre with all our friends. We drank all night and we sang and we got very drunk very often. Some crazy Basque poet had given me a revolver. I carried it always. Late at night, when Fernande was carrying me home, I would take the revolver out and fire at the moon. I never hit the moon, Herman, but I never stopped shooting at her.’

“We talked some more. We finished the bottle, Picasso walked me to the door, his arm around my shoulder once again, and we parted amicably. We promised to meet again, the way people do when they know they never will. And of course we never did. “On the way home, I remembered that I had forgotten to get back the piece of paper with his name and mine on it.”

I was amazed. “Herman, you met Picasso, and you told him you didn’t like his paintings?”

He laughed. “What could I do? He asked me, I told him.” He waved his arm in the air, dismissing any further speculation. I paid for his coffee and cognac – well, it was a good story – and left him sitting there on the cafe terrace reading his mail. Who knows? Maybe Herman did meet Picasso. Maybe Picasso did shoot at the moon with a pistol. Maybe if he hadn’t been drunk he would have hit her. But Herman, Herman would never hit the moon. Because Herman would never shoot at the moon. Herman was far too happy to be free.