British painter-printmaker and teacher born 1898 in King William’s Town, South Africa. Educated in Germany & Switzerland. In 1917 he studied at Ecole Polytechnic Zurich, obtaining a diploma in agricultural engineering, then from 1918-1922 he obtained a doctorate in biological science at the university of Lausanne. In 1923 he researched science at Munich university, while studying art with Hans Hoffman. After settling in Paris in 1928, Rieser studied at Atelier 17 with Stanley William Hayter and also learnt copper line engraving with with Joseph Hecht. He organised portfolios of prints to raise funds for the Spanish cause, (including Solidarité (Paris, 1938), a portfolio of seven prints, one of them by Picasso), and Kandinsky. Contributed to the Steven Spender and Atelier 17 Album “Fraternite” to raise money for unfortunate children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War. Stephen Spender’s poem , both in English and with a French translation by Louis Aragon, was accompanied by a group of etchings by Kandinsky, Miro, Hayter, Hecht, Buckland-Wright, Husband, Mead, Rieser and Varas. Having moved to England to join the war effort in 1940, he was initially an ARP warden in the Blitz and then worked for PID and SOE and later for the Control commission in Germany.
In 1945 newly married he settled back to civilian life. In 1948 he rented a cottage near, Zennor, and painted and drew the landscape extensively. Rieser stayed in regular contact with several members of the St Ives School in 50s and 60s. From the late 1950s he was employed lecturing in biology liberal studies and art, and also giving private tuition in printmaking. In 1960 he was invited to Cape Town and Johannesburg universities to lecture on that subject.
He took part in group shows widely throughout Europe and America, including the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery 1939; Atelier 17 shows in New York and in San Francisco, in 1954. His solo shows were international, including gallerie Bon Jean Paris, 1936 the Zwemmer gallery, 1956 the ICA, 1966 The Lumley Cazalet, 1968 David Paul Gallery, Chichester, 1979 . His work is in collections in the Victoria & Albert Museum, Imperial War Museum, the Arts Council UK, National Gallery of Canada and the New York Public Gallery .
On our way home from Cornwall to London Easter Sunday 1977 I was run over by a car and badly damaged. Somehow I was aware of the fact that I probably would not recover. However, after two weeks in hospital I was released to our cottage in Bosporthennis to convalesce for four weeks before returning to London. I do not think my health would have been restored so quickly without the constant care and understanding of my wife, Barbara
All that time I was obsessed by my past life and even in hospital I began to write my biography, almost without the slightest hesitation, as if by dictation. To confront one’s past is a strenuous and not always pleasant procedure. A further difficulty arises due to the fact that complete objectivity is almost impossible to achieve and one is very much inclined to be lenient with oneself. A serious knock received during the accident, impairing my sight and also my hearing for a while, had the beneficial effect of recalling memories long forgotten. It seemed at the time as if my past history was arranged in the form of microscope slides in cases. All of it was known to me and yet had rather blurred and sunk into the less conscious part of the memory. Now, however, maybe due to the blow on my head, the past had come so intensely alive that all I
had to do was to select “ a slide” and there were all the half- forgotten details of all the past episodes, emotional or otherwise.
It seemed as if incidents of my past life had become magnified to such an extent that no details were lost. Maybe this was only a passing phase, but I felt it was imperative to write things down before they disappeared. Strangely enough, it was words and not my usual lines and colours which seemed the best means of expression here, due perhaps to the particular circumstances of my accident. Lines and colours could follow: in fact this seemed more than likely, although I feared exaggeration through artistic interpretation. A further incentive was that to endure the environment of the hospital ward and all the physical pain I needed a very strong remedy and counterbalance. Also, at the time, I could not draw, due to the damage to my eyes and so instead I used words . Surprisingly they came easily and so I continued to use them. The emphasis in the account that follows is laid on my years in Paris, which preceded the War.
SOUTH AFRICA – EARLY YEARS
The strange and elusive power Africa holds on people is hard to define. All I know is that anyone who has lived for some time on that continent is in some way or another bound to it. This is even more evident when you are born there and applies in particular to the Southern end of Africa. Maybe it is the enormous expanding space, the almost untouched aspect of the land and the feeling one gets of unlimited distances, similar to one’s experience on the high seas, far away from land. Whatever it may be, the outcome is one of nostalgia and longing and one can never get rid of the ingrained feeling of having lost something very precious once one has left Africa. This is quite illogical when one remembers all the negative aspects of life encountered in Southern Africa. Most of these aspects are “man made” or due to the strength and severity of the continent, which seems to reach far down to the little known regions of the world. Even now, after so many years, I experience from time to time these nostalgic feelings which cannot be put into words, being almost being dream- like in nature. Indeed, one does sometimes remember certain fragments of similar real dreams. Psychologists say that the first years of a human life are the most important and seem to decide the direction of one’s life.
I was born in South Africa and some of my early memories are only evoked by rare coincidences and happenings. Certain sounds and odours suddenly touch off long forgotten memories. This happened to me one day in the Orchid House of a botanical garden. A penetrating and most unusual smell emanating from a rare tree orchid suddenly evoked long forgotten scenes. This took me back to my very early youth in South Africa when we spent some time in a small resort in the hills to escape the intense prevailing heat in my home town. My father took me to a dense part of the forest, still in its primordial state, to see the enormous trees linked by lianas and climbing plants. He also showed me some monkeys playing in the treetops and I was suddenly hit by the most unusual and penetrating odour and he then showed me an orchid high up on a tree, which he told me, produced the scent. This scene was suddenly present in the Orchid House. Memories like these date back to my very earliest years.
I was born in King William Town, Eastern Province of the Cape in 1898. The town was small and was built between hills, amplifying the heat. The Buffalo River was usually dry, but during the rainy season sometimes immensely swollen. We often had picnics with other children and parents along the river and elsewhere. I remember complaining about being thirsty but not wanting to accept the warm, milky tea, which was rightly offered as remedy. My father liked to show my sister and me the animals and birds still alive then and I vividly remember some of the rarer ones such as very colourful Kingfishers, stalking Secretary Birds and the occasional small antelope called the “Dik Dik”.
We lived near the top of a hill and our neighbours were my uncle and aunt. He was mayor of the town and an MP and my father and he were partners in a factory they ran together. His son and two younger daughters played with us. Sometimes we had tennis parties, which were held in rotation, and I remember the luxury of cakes and tarts served on the porch when our turn came. I too wanted a factory of my own and a large packing case was rigged up with nails and shelves on which to hang utensils such as wheels and screws. Soon, however, such playthings were neglected and forgotten and, later on, the factory box became a bin for old leaves. I also vividly remember playing in the hayloft of the stables and the instant when the ‘stable boy’ (those were the days of the horse) discovered a nest of dangerous snakes in the straw. He shouted “Baas! Baas! Snakes!” and my father appeared with his rifle to shoot them. Ever since I have hated snakes, quite unreasonably really as snakes are shy and nearly always avoid human beings. Exceptions are of course when they feel threatened or when you step on them.
Often we went away at weekends to my uncle’s small fruit farm, some ten or twelve miles distant. We nearly always found at least five or six dead snakes hanging up, killed by the ‘farm boys’. My aunt, who was a dainty lady, was an expert snake killer. With her riding whip she broke their backbones and then squashed their heads with her heel. I also remember some ‘Kaffir’ boys catching snakes by pinning their heads down with a forked stick and lifting them by their tail to throw them into a sack on their shoulder. I think they received a penny a snake, which were sold to produce anti-serum. If the snake should wind itself round the arm this could be very dangerous indeed. Some of these snakes like Puff Adder or Mamba were extremely dangerous.
I can recollect some snake stories my father told me. Once when he was on safari he and his friend got caught in a bush fire. They had to ride for their lives to cross a nearby river and I remember how impressed I was when he told me that all the game, including wild animals such as Cheetahs, fled along with them. Suddenly he saw one enormous snake towering above his horse’s head, also trying to escape with the rest. Now if you know that a snake can only rise to two-thirds of its length you can imagine how enormous this Boa must have been! He also told me about the Green Tree Snake (Boomslang) which hangs from branches looking like a liana, but which when attacking an animal, drops on it killing it almost immediately. Another snake he warned me against was the smallest of all, called a Coral Snake. Being bright red and very small indeed it was often found in rotting wood. The two tiny fangs produced a bite that almost immediately caused death.
All this was evoked a few years ago when the South African poet, Roy Campbell, wrote his children’s book “Mamba’s Precipice”, which I illustrated. Roy died some years later in dramatic fashion by driving his car, himself and his wife over a cliff (I’m sure accidentally). He was a real buccaneer who could be quite delightful, but quite deadly when drunk.
To return to my early years, our garden had an enormous apricot tree, which in season produced a great quantity of ripe fruit we children devoured by the dozen. Many other original stories told by my father come to mind. When he was very young he took all sorts of jobs. At the age of about seventeen he was employed on an Ostrich farm. In those days the wing and tail feathers were very much sort after and fetched high prices. He knew nothing about these grotesque birds at the time. When walking one day from the farmhouse veranda to his lodgings, he suddenly received an enormous punch between the shoulder blades that threw him over and tore his shirt and jacket. The bird that had attacked him then sat on top of him trying to hit him. Now an enraged Ostrich can quite easily kill a man with his four enormous toe claws, but luckily for my father these birds can only hit upwards or straight ahead and not downwards. The farmers shouted to my father from the veranda not to get up and they pulled the bird off him. In order to pluck the feathers from these birds a stocking was put over their head to stop them seeing what was happening, as otherwise they would attack. I myself remember being chased one day by a very large dog and escaping through our garden gate just in time to avoid being bitten .
It is of course difficult to keep these souvenirs in the right sequence . When I was three years old we went to Europe for a holiday visit and I have vague recollections of grandmothers and also of a sailing tour round Dar- Es-Salaam in a sailing boat, with a boatman who fancied himself and wore a monocle. Going through the Suez Canal, I can remember the long rows of camels on the shore. After our return to South Africa my memories became more coherent. I went to a kindergarten, which was run by nuns, and I also remember a little blonde girl called Monica, who lived nearby, and walked there with me. She always came by asking, “ Where is Dolaphy?” She lived in a house with eight or ten brothers and sisters.
One time I asked my father why one could not simply wait for the turning earth to transport one to school without the effort of walking. He explained things to me by sticking a pin into an orange and turning it so that the earth (the pin) turned around its own axis while the sun produced its orbit.
My mother was a kind and very sensitive person. She was extremely musical. She sang and was an accomplished pianist and was also very well read. She also wrote extremely fluently and I vividly remember some of her aphorisms. In fact I’m quite sure she could have been a very good writer. Luckily, she found a few people with whom she could produce music, especially as my father also played the violin. After our return to Europe some years later we also had musical evenings at home.
The climate of King William’s Town was particularly difficult to bear and my mother suffered greatly especially where her nerves were concerned. I vividly remember her awful attacks of migraine when she had to stay in a darkened room. In the end we decided to leave South Africa, as I shall relate later on . My uncle, my mother’s brother, was at that time living on the border of Basutoland. He was running a small trading post and also kept some horses and sheep. This place was right up on the high plateau and was called Moshes-Ford after the famous Basuto chief, Moshes. My uncle invited us up to him for a holiday and I think we first took a train and then had to continue by horse and carriage, which presumably was also the postal service at the time. I remember well an “ooutspan” for lunch near an immense field full of dried bones and skeletons. These were the remains of the “Rinderpest” which shortly before had nearly wiped out the cattle of South Africa. I played football with a cow or ox skull, very much to the annoyance of the grown-ups. The following night we had to spend at the German Pastor’s home and I remember how impressed I was with the enormous bed and unknown eiderdowns.
Moshes-Ford was absolutely ideal for children. There was practically nothing there but a now empty river and the farm buildings, a Police Station and a Post Office, my uncle’s house and stores and a few corrals. The rest: the very wide-open spaces continued literally for hundreds of miles. There was also a strange contraption spanning the riverbed. It consisted of a very large box-like structure hanging from two cables. Later during our stay I saw it in use. One day the rain started and poured down for days on end and soon the empty river bed filled up and overflowed, reaching the buildings. Everything was flooded and sand sacks were put in front of the doors to keep the water out, but water still penetrated the buildings. The ferry on cables was used to haul people and goods across the surging waters, which very nearly reached over it. I remember, because I sat in it for the journey across and back. Floods however did not last very long and soon we were back to the old routine. The trading post and frontier station attracted a deal of traffic and it was at that time that I first made acquaintance with the famous heavy Boer oxen wagon. There were about 16 or 18 oxen pulling the very heavy wagon, laden with goods and driven by a black driver, who had an enormously long stick and whip that could reach all the animals. A small boy led the foremost pair. One boy’s leg was badly hurt by the ox hooves. The driver knew all the animals by name and when they started to move he called their names, which usually were Biblical. Thus “Jochanan, Abraham etc.Trek! Trek!” and then the whole column started off at a slow walking pace. This was the manner in which the Boers organised their historical treks from the Cape to Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
One day my uncle said, “It’s time you had a horse and learn how to ride.” They caught a young horse (who had not yet been broken in), put on a saddle and lifted me on to it. Of course, as soon as it was free, the horse bolted and threw me off. Unfortunately, one of my feet remained in the stirrup and kept me hanging freely in the air. I remember seeing the ground a few inches away from my face. They quickly managed to catch the horse before I hit a rock. After this my uncle said “You are obviously too young to have a horse. Come along into my shop and I will swap it for something else”. So he led me to the store which sold practically everything, apart from the sheep’s wool in which he also dealt. I then chose a mouth organ that I fancied. Many years later I told my uncle what a mean trick he had played on me and asked him why he had not taught me to ride properly before putting me on an unbroken horse. Later, however, my own father taught me how to ride.
The hills behind Moshes-Ford were of particular interest. One day my father took me there and we climbed to an overhanging rock shelter. There I saw for the first time Bushmen wall paintings. I am certain that it was then that the foundations of my later graphic ambitions were laid. At least I still remember the breathless feeling of wonder and awe I experienced then.
After returning to King William’s Town I remember another holiday by the seaside in East London. This time we rented a bungalow for the summer. I also remember that we had to bring mattresses as well as blankets and sheets. I was always a fairly good and sometimes wild runner and so I frequently fell and had holes in my knees. I also remember people asking laughingly “Has he been in the wars?” meaning the recent Boer War.
One day I came home and complained about pains at the top of my legs. My anxious mother examined me and called my father and within an hour or two the whole bungalow was packed up and we returned as quickly as possible to King William’s Town. There our family doctor was called in and much later I was told what had taken place. Apparently Bubonic Plague was rampant then and I can recollect the isolation tents and barracks far away on the hills. My father and mother knew that any suspect was immediately sent to the isolation barracks where most of them died. This is why I was brought back to our own doctor and luckily for me this proved to be a false alarm. The cause of the swollen glands had been infected wounds on my knees.
When after many years I finally returned to King William’s Town I could find little trace of the early images remembered from my first youth. The drive to my uncle’s small fruit farm was, to say the least, tedious: passing neglected cattle locations made up of roundovels. The farm was small and the hill in it, which I remembered being covered with enormous tree-like Geranium plants (which are indigenous to South Africa), turned out to be scraggy and very sparse. Red-blanketed “Kaffirs” still walked about; the girls in single file swaying rhythmically along. However, I will relate my further visits to South Africa before and after the Second World War at a later stage.
Owing to my mother’s bad health and other circumstances, my father and mother decided that the family should return to Europe. I do remember the departure and the trip on the P&O liner. I also recollect a race aboard ship and the prizes being given by Lord Milner, who said to my father, “This boy will be a good runner one day”, which to a certain degree came true. I also remember the shock to the family when the nurse my mother had hired, forgot to shut the porthole window over my brother’s cradle. My mother found my baby brother swimming in seawater. This to my mind was later partly responsible for Herbert’s nervous disposition.
In 1924 I contracted pneumonia and the doctor thought it would be a good idea if I spent the winter in the South. Consequently my first wife and I went to Sicily. First we lived in a pensione and later moved to aPalazzo. This happened in the following manner: someone had given me an introduction to a certain Barone S. of Baltic descent that lived there. He offered us his deceased mother’s white marble palazzo, which however was completely empty and denuded of furniture. He himself lived in the former gardener’s cottage. We managed to find a table, some chairs and a bed and promptly installed ourselves in this magnificent building, half way up the hill between the sea and the village of Taormina. The view from there was quite breathtaking, with Mount Etna on one side and the coast of the Ionian Sea towards Calabria on the other side. The building itself was beautiful, but slightly eerie, because it was completely empty and had many dark nooks and corridors in its interior. One door at the foot of the magnificent marble stairs let to an internal, natural well, which was the only water supply in the house. A bucket on a chain had to be lowered down a very long way before reaching the water level, which was replenished either by rainwater or from a hidden spring. Eventually we found that a pair of fish lived in the well, presumably to keep it clear of larvae and insects.
Another disadvantage of the house was the frequent visits of enormous rats: apparently they clambered up some nearby palm trees and jumped through the first floor window. I remember entering a room one dark night and seeing an enormous black shape on a table, which at first glance I took to be a cat. We found leftovers from the Countess’s former existence in a few huge boxes filled to the brim mainly with 19th Century novels such as The Baron Orzcy.
Every morning one was woken up by the mournful cry of the asses and mules conveying fish, fruit and other produce up to the town market. Next to the house was the property of the Duka di Bronte, a direct descendant of Admiral Nelson, who had inherited this title. The terraced gardens in his property were quite magnificent, tended by many silk-shirted gardener boys! When King George V passed by on his Mediterranean cruise he stopped to visit the Duke.
The English colony in Taormina consisted of two sets at that time, as I was informed by the oldest citizen, a Miss H. She called shortly after our arrival and told us she belonged to “the angels” and hoped we would join them and avoid “ the devils”. Actually some of the devils were very nice people indeed. I recollect an old German photographer who had taken magnificent pictures of nudes under the olive trees.
Barone S., our landlord, was a nice, little middle-aged man who was very timid indeed. In his household he had a young gardener boy who looked after the property. This young man was called Mario and he became very friendly with us and complained bitterly of the extreme jealousy of the Barone. He also told us that he was engaged to a beautiful girl up in Taormina whom he intended to marry. Matters went on for a while but one day the Barone suddenly appeared enquiring whether we had seen Mario anywhere. When he could not be found, the Barone enquired further and found that Mario had gone to Naples. He promptly followed him there and tried to persuade him to return. Alas, he was too late! Mario had just married his paramour, mainly thanks to the generous gifts bestowed on him by the Barone. Taormina seemed to be full of such little dramas, which one did not usually know about unless one witnessed them as they took place.
The former monastery of San Dominico, towering over the walled city and facing Mount Etna, had been transformed into a hotel and was very near to an ancient Roman amphitheatre. Built up the hillside there were many old buildings and hidden side streets, walled-in gardens and attractive houses, both small and large. From my own terrace I could just make out the pink walls of a little house perched high above us. This was, so I was reliably informed, the former house of D.H.Lawrence who had lived there a few years earlier. It is strange how often I have come across places where Lawrence has lived. For example, my Cornish cottage is just about three miles away from Lawrence’s former rented home at Higher Tregarthen in Zennor. Returning to Taormina one cannot find a better description than the one given by Lawrence in the first pages of his book “Sea in Sardinia” describing the leaving of Taormina for Sardinia. This book, incidentally, is one of the best and most probing travelogues I have ever read. His remarkable gift for analysing landscape, people and the power driving them, together with the poetical way in which he renders it, singles him out as a great writer, although one may not always be enthusiastic about his other themes and stories. In my imagination I can still see him trotting down the early morning streets of Taormina with “kitchenio” in his hand, rucksack on his back and the “Queen Bee” trotting beside him. But look how he described Mount Etna!
“…Not from this world and the riches of olive blossoms, orange and lemon groves abounding all around the coastal slopes”.
Digging in the garden I often found terracotta bits and shards of Roman origin and of course the place was simply loaded with the many cultures that have passed through. As in most Mediterranean islands, one was very much aware of the past. Strangely enough this does not depend on the temples and amphitheatres in the most marvellous positions, nor does it depend on the old palazzo, so austere and forbidding. Maybe it is the ‘ambience’ of everything submerged under the most splendid sunshine set in the most splendid of landscapes!
A sculptor I knew at that time one day unearthed a beautiful bronze lion’s head with a ring through its mouth, covered with green verdigris.
It was a kind of handle from a big terracotta storage jar. This excellent example of Greek or Roman art was promptly sold to an American who was passing through not, however, before my friend had made a cast of his find. It was wonderful that every season after this he ‘unearthed’ similar lion’s heads in his garden, which turned out to be a real treasure trove!
A German sculptor who also lived there produced nice, small figures, which were influenced by Greek terracotta. I do not recall any outstanding painters, but I was not yet fully captivated by art. I do however remember Mrs.Moholy Nagy who came to see us with some friends.
The cloudless sky began slowly to be overcast by the frequent appearance of black-shirted youths, who threw their weight around in the cafes and also on the Corso which until then had a very nice, gay and harmless atmosphere. Also the so-called Casino changed its aspect, although one could still play roulette there and win a little and lose a lot.
One day I met an old acquaintance who told me that he intended to climb Mount Etna. This had always been my ambition too and he, being an experienced mountaineer, was just the right sort of the companion required for this purpose. We decided to do it, particularly as I was very interested to know more about the flora and fauna. What a grand mountain Etna is, arising out of the sea and the plain to an immense height, with the constant trail of smoke over it. What did Lawrence say about it?
“Etna the wicked witch resting her thick white snow under heaven and slowly, slowly rolling her orange coloured smoke. They called her the ‘Pillar of Heaven’ the Greeks…. Remote under heaven, aloof, so near yet never with us”.
In the end Lawrence experienced Etna as a menace from which one had to flee.
When we had decided on the expedition we found that there was only transport available to the lower regions of the immense slopes, where there are innumerable villages. From there on one had to go on foot and organise one’s own transport. We knew that there was on top a sort of mountain hut and observatory, largely disused, but which would give us shelter for the night. Lots of snow had fallen recently on the top of the mountain, which was white-capped like Mt. Fuji. Consequently, we took the train to Catania and proceeded by bus to a village on the lower slopes. There we hired a muleteer with two mules to take our provisions, the necessary charcoal, etc. to the top. We also had a pair of skis we intended using by turns for the descent.
At first the ascent was very pleasant, slowly leaving the vineyards and orchards behind and reaching isolated farms surrounded by dense oak woods. Very slowly the landscape changed. We had to cross ancient lava streams and also more recent ones caused by eruptions some twenty and thirty years previous, but still extremely hot in the crevasses. The weather deteriorated increasingly and, to top it all, ominous rumbles emanated from the interior of Etna, which showed signs of impending eruption. Finally our muleteer objected to advancing any further in spite of all bribes. We therefore took our rucksacks and as much coal as we could possibly carry and proceeded to advance on our own. The muleteer shook his head, crossed himself and left.
A very strenuous and tiring ascent followed. Up here the upper regions had the uniformity of an enormous field of snow, reaching to the horizon. Far away a very cloudy sky could be seen overhanging a sinister looking sea. After many hours (was it ten, twelve or fourteen?) we finally reached the observatory in the teeth of a terrific gale. We entered the dismal building, long neglected, with no provisions and no fuel in store. The only thing we found was an old pair of skis, belonging apparently to Ducca di Abruzzi. The night that followed was a true “night of witches”. The gale increased and so did the rumblings emanating from the nearby crater, which released flames, smoke and lava. We felt extremely worried and exposed crouching over the smouldering fire made from the charcoal we had brought with us. I remember my friend writing his ‘Last Will’ and begging me to convey it to his family should he perish and I survive. Our initial intention to explore the crater the next morning was completely eliminated and all we wanted was to get out and down. Therefore at the first sign of dawn we packed up, left the trembling hut and descended in a howling gale. At the same time the earth shook and the volcano was erupting. Although while all this lasted it seemed to be a real disaster, my later recollections seemed rather more pleasant. The ‘Witch’ had us trembling and we could not observe her frightening cauldron.
One sad case I do remember. There appeared a ‘Mrs. H.’ with her young daughter. Her husband was involved in a famous banking scandal and was consequently jailed. His wife, formerly one of the leading Society ladies in London, was relegated to a Mediterranean backwater with hardly any means of existence. She was a sad and most depressed lady with an equally sad daughter. Her degradation was even more emphasised by further unfortunate circumstances. Mme. H used to have a yearly face-lift, applied in those days by subcutaneous Vaseline injections. As this treatment could not be continued now, the Vaseline accumulated at the lower part of the face in big pouches.
To go swimming meant quite a long walk down the mountainside, following the old main road and its short cuts. Near the station, linking the coastal railway between Catania and Messina, were a cluster of houses and fishermen’s dwellings and behind this was a lagoon-like bay extremely suited to swimming and bathing. I was told later that a very big lido was developed on this spot. At the time there was not much sand there but good rocks to dive from and fine waters to swim in. Some American youngsters produced some incredibly high dives from these rocks. Two young female American students experienced some of the hazards of that coast. Paying little attention to warnings, they thought they had found a nice place for sunbathing and sat down on what they thought was a smooth rock, only to jump up in great pain. It would seem that they had sat right on a cluster of sea urchins, which appeared at low tide. I believe it took weeks for them to be able to sit down normally and to eliminate all the spines that had a nasty habit of breaking off deep in the skin and flesh. I believe now that the whole coast has changed and marinas appear everywhere where formerly there was only Nature.
One day I decided to go out fishing with the fishermen. They agreed to take me along, but insisted that I join them at 4 am . I did so promptly one morning and they rowed for about twenty minutes to a place where they had sunk their lobster pots. This spot was right in front of a promontory that produced a heavy swell. When the lines and pots were brought up, the bait gave out a penetrating aroma , which produced in me a violent attack of seasickness. As my highly amused fishing friends continued in their fish gathering, there was no escape for me. All the beautiful effects of torches, dripping nets and reflections in the dark water were lost on me. I only revived when we started towards the shore and the sun began to rise gloriously out of the deep waters. When I presented myself pale and trembling to my wife, loaded with presents of fish and lobsters, all I produced was another spell of laughter together with the habitual female remark “ I told you so”.
Soon after this experience we left the golden shores. Were we driven away by Mount Etna?
THE ENCHANTED ISLANDS
In the year 1931 I decided to explore the Balearic Islands. Indirectly, I had heard a lot about them and their unspoilt beauty. In those years the tourist trade was little developed and the islands were still pure and unspoilt, not over-built with hotels, smart beaches and so on, which almost by necessity destroy what once has existed, presumably for the benefit of the masses. Alas, today the climate remains the same but the original power of these beautiful spots is now very much diminished. Almost like an over-decorated Christmas tree where little of the original pine is still visible.
I went first with my brother Herbert to Palma de Majorca. In those days the steamer from Barcelona arrived only twice a week. We stayed only for a short while in a small pensione from which we could explore. After a while we discovered a small fishing village at the other end of the island. We liked it very much but could not find any accommodation there. Through enquiries, I heard out that there was a small house, which could be rented, built right onto the port, consisting of one big room and a terrace. It had a covered space underneath for fishing boats, completely filled with fishing nets. I found out that it belonged to a widow living in a small mountain village called Cap de Pera. I tracked her down and succeeded at long last in convincing her that I, a painter, could live there very happily. I offered to pay her a good rent provided she could house her nets elsewhere. We finally came to a very satisfactory arrangement, namely that she should whitewash the one large, red-tiled room, provide me with a table and some chairs and furnish me with some wooden poles. These could be transformed into a bed by slinging a rope across the poles and covering it with a mattress. The result formed a most satisfactory hammock-like bed in which I slept beautifully.
The rent for this admirable abode amounted to one peseta a month, but it should be remembered that at that time there was very great inflation in Spain and English currency was pure gold. One could live easily on £5 to £10 a month.
I finally moved into this adorable house with my gear and paraphernalia. The view from my terrace over the many coloured fishing boats, floating in front of me in the small harbour, was quite breathtaking and I immediately set to work drawing and painting.
By and by I got to know the few Europeans who lived there. There was the well-known German historian and writer, Franz Blei, who lived there at the time with his daughter. We became good friends. Then there was also a rather morose young Swiss author with his nice young wife, who however seemed rather unhappy. Near a beach there were a few modern bungalows, which were let to tourists, such as some Americans and to a young German woman with her small son. I became very friendly with these people. Soon after our arrival, my brother and I decided to climb the highest mountain on the island, the Putch Major, which was right on the other side of the island. We recruited a team of about five chaps, French and Americans, and planned our approach. We had to take various buses to the foot of the mountain range, but had been assured that there was a monastery near the top of the ridge which could house us for the first night.
The ascent on to the mountain began slowly and painfully, particularly as one of the strong American chaps seemed quite unable to bend his knees in the proper fashion in order to ascend the steep slopes. Consequently, a few hours he was unable to continue and he and his brother decided to return home to their mother. In reality he was only interested in collecting butterflies, of which there was a great variety on the mountain.
Ascending higher, the scene became increasingly wild and the small footpath almost disappeared at times. In the late afternoon only my brother and I were left out of the initial mountaineering party. It became very cold and snow could be discerned on the high ridges. A wild and incredibly beautiful mountain landscape unfolded, full of steep rugged crags and mountain peaks.
Eventually we saw our first eagles floating above us. Surprisingly, we counted five pairs of eagles gliding in the air over our heads at the same time. Following our information, we finally made the mountain hostel, which turned out to be a small, very old, monastery, inhabited by only three or four monks. They made us most welcome with a rough meal and straw paliasses, on to which we dropped totally exhausted. Leaving gifts for the monastery, we departed in the early morning, ascending to the pass and then down the other side of the mountain range towards Soler. Very quickly the whole aspects of the alpine landscape changed into what seemed like an almost tropical growth of vegetation. The Valley of Soler is very rich in orange trees and other plantations. At Soler lived an English painter whom we had met at Palma and who had invited us to call. So we proceeded to his house and were very hospitably received. After a day or two we returned to Palma, having first visited the famous Cartoucha Monastery where Chopin had once resided with George Sand. Oh, irony of ironies: two cells each contained a grand piano and each of them claimed to be “the original Chopin cell”, a very lucrative business for the enterprising Majorcans!
Having finally returned to Calla Radjada, we made some excursions to Deya and fashionable Fomentara. At one small cafe in Deya I even had a small exhibition, with however, very little success.
At some time I had been told of a small, extremely secluded valley, on the northwest side of the island. Apparently it was only inhabited by a few farmers. A lady friend and I decided to explore this place. After several hours we approached a small mountain range, leading to the valley, through a gap in the hills. The path was very narrow and only accessible to mules and pedestrians. Eventually, we reached a lovely short valley leading to the sea. A number of small whitewashed farms nestled on the sides of the valley between the fields. As soon as we made our approach, a loud cry arose from the farmer working nearest to us. The long drawn out shout of “Est-tran-geros!” was taken up by the next man and continued to echo through the valley.
When we finally arrived at the harbour we found a small bar with shop attached and also a minute church. Practically the whole population was assembled and promptly entered the bar with us. We learnt that no one had come that way for months and they hardly had time to go to Majorca, perhaps once a year, they said. Many of them had never been to the mainland. They were lovely, unspoilt crowd, playing the guitar and accepting our gift of wine, making merry all the evening. The landlord put a primitive, whitewashed room at our disposal for the night. Next morning, just before we wanted to leave, a rugged priest approached and offered us two art objects for sale. He explained that the government had given up paying the priests (that was the tendency then) and he had to sell something in order to survive. The object I obtained (and still possess) was a magnificent baroque wooden candlestick, painted in green and blue. The other object, I would have dearly liked to acquire, but could not possibly transport since it was much too large. It was a copper christening basin, richly engraved with magnificent patterns: I think it must have been very old.
Returning to Cala Radjada, I was determined to paint my biggest painting yet, which comprised a view of the port with its many coloured fishing boats and sails. The picture advanced nicely and I was quite happy with its progress. One day, while I was painting, an enormous smart car glided past and suddenly stopped. This was indeed an unprecedented event. Two young ladies sat in the car and shouted up to me as I was painting on my terrace, “Do you speak English and can we see your picture?” I invited them up to a glass of wine and they then said: “We want to buy your picture, when will it be finished?” I was completely dumbfounded, as I had never sold an oil before. I said, “I shall finish the picture in two weeks from now and then I shall leave for Ibiza”. The girls said they would return.
About two weeks later I was packing up my belongings, prior to my imminent departure for Ibiza. I was just rolling up my oils when the big car reappeared and suddenly the two girls stood in the door and said: “Where is our picture?” I unrolled it and showed it to them and they liked it very much and asked the price. That put me in a dilemma, because I didn’t know what to ask for it. I then decided to sell it for about 40 pesetas and they readily agreed to this. Imagine my joy, I was established at last! Well, as it happened, 40 pesetas went a long way in those days in Spain. I lived on it for quite a while and even got a pair of handmade shoes out of it. Years later (around Christmas 1964 or ’65) I was asked to a party in London with my wife Barbara and my son Richard, given by the famous art collector Peggy Guggenheim, to whom I had recently been introduced. We got talking about pre-war Paris and Spain and she remembered being the girl who had bought my painting. Amazing!
Shortly afterwards I left for Ibiza. I learned later that my house was taken over as a nightclub or bar by some Dutchman, who named it “Il Casa di Pintor”. To finish up this episode I shall recount a small story. About two years later in Paris I took my brother to the Gard du Nord to return to London. A thin girl was hanging out of one of the windows ardently kissing a young man, crying, whilst mascara ran down her cheeks. I said to my brother “Ask her on the boat whether she is “La Libellule” as we christened the girl who had bought my Spanish picture”. He wrote back to me confirming “Yes, she still has it and likes it very much”.
THE ENCHANTED ISLANDS
Steaming into the harbour of Ibiza leaves a great and memorable impression. Floating above the greenish sea was this white, almost medieval citadel, seemingly there since beginning of time . When I arrived there, the island was still undiscovered; a steamer from Barcelona arrived once a week only . There were no hotels and no comforts. When we docked, a number of inhabitants offered their help as carriers and I chose a rather cheeky- faced man with a tattered straw hat. He said: “There are only two pensiones here. I take you to the better one”. That was it. He led me to a fairly clean building near the harbour and there I obtained a room and meals at an extremely low cost. Before the man departed, I asked him for his address and his occupation. He answered: “But you have seen it, senor. Once a week I carry luggage, but do come and see me”. Eventually I found his small shack with about an acre of land. His wife and daughter were digging hard and he was drinking hard and then sleeping. A real artist of life!
The pensione was adequate, inhabited by a number of Europeans whom I slowly got to know. I met a Dutch civil servant, married to a charming Indonesian girl. There were also a number of English middle-class ladies, ardently occupied in painting pink sunsets. One evening, however, a very interesting lady turned up with a female companion. Later I got to know her very well indeed. At first, I took her to be one of the sunset painters whom you always met in the Mediterranean. However on one of the first days of her appearance I was walking along a goat path, right above the built up town, when I suddenly caught sight of the woman in question. There was no escape, as she was established right across the path and I had to look at her daubs. When I got nearer, however, I stopped thunderstruck. There on her easel was a most beautiful, almost abstract, translucent watercolour of the port. I stopped and congratulated her and she said, “Well I’m Frances Hodgkins: quite well known nowadays” and smiled rather delightfully. After that we became very good friends and had many talks in the pensione. I admired her skill, ability and potential very much. She had been given a lot of beautiful paper; intended for the English £5 notes and on this paper she painted her watercolours. She also painted in oils and did a portrait of the Indonesian. At a later stage, Frances gave me one of her watercolours, which she swapped for a black and white drawing of mine. At that stage I was starting to draw in very precise lines with pointed matchsticks dipped in Indian ink.
After a number of weeks I began to look for digs as I had decided to live in the town in Ibiza itself, in order to explore this most intriguing warren of streets and built-up areas. Finally I found a flat right on top of one of the tall, elongated buildings on top of the town, just under the fortifications and the Cathedral. The view from here was quite incredible: I was able to look right down into the different quarters and across the port to the far side of the bay and the open sea where boats and islands were bathed in constantly changing light. One constantly made the most remarkable discoveries such as some hidden courtyards nearby, which I later discovered contained some very primitive brothels. Across from my window the neighbouring house was leaning slightly forward and was painted in a bright red colour, while other houses were richly speckled, in fact covered with decaying textures. There was so much to draw and paint that one hardly knew where to begin. Many of the old windmills still functioned and the flat, swampy countryside was full of strange decaying arches, almost Chinese in form.
The hill farms or finkas were always painted white and built in a beautiful style reminiscent of Le Corbusier. They were always cool, with an inner courtyard. I got to know a number of the farmers on my sketching trips -they were very poor and extremely friendly. In those days very few tourists were to be seen and I was always invited in. I tried to acquire a few objects and managed to buy a small, painted drum (which I still use as a wastepaper basket) and a few headscarves printed with pure herbal dyes. Very much to my shame, I did in those days what Aladdin did: namely “new lamps for old”, giving them Manchester printed scarves in exchange for their panuelles antiques. One other time I found a very beautiful old hand-painted wooden nutcracker made out of a single piece of wood. By and by I explored the countryside and met a few more people and began to adapt to the place.
Every evening everyone collected in the passeo (square), where usually two columns formed: the men walking one way and the girls the other. Everyone had his best clothes on, the men ogling the girls, and the girls giggling back. The beauty of it was that the ladies still wore traditional costumes in those days, many floating, swirling skirts and petticoats, tight bodices, very beautiful head scarves and best of all big golden chains made out of golden beads. I was told that one tell the wealth of a girl by the quantity of beads she wore. The pardones at San Antonio, however, were even more spectacular. There everyone collected in his or her finest outfit. The men, in particular, donning broad, dark sombreros. I got so involved in the island that I decided, against all advice, to hibernate there. This was a bad decision. In winter very few Europeans remained. We met once or twice a week in a cafe in order to speak French or English. The rest of the time one was isolated and it was cold in the tiled rooms. The only heating I had was a brazier I had filled with charcoal under the perforated table. One day a German middle-aged painter I got to know asked if he could share my flat and have one of my rooms. I agreed, although I hardly knew him. He immediately suggested a new, and as he said, infallible way of heating. We acquired a metal funnel, fitted an exhaust pipe leading out of a window and started to stuff the metal container tightly full with squeezed newspaper balls. He said: “If we light this from the bottom very slowly it will give out enormous heat!” This in fact was quite true and for once I had a warm room. We decided to go to a cafe to celebrate. However, when we returned after about an hour we found a fire engine in front of the house and huge black smoke clouds belching out of all the windows. Luckily only a table was burnt, but that ended my friendship with the German, who had to leave.
The rain set in and no one was to be seen. Once in a while a heavily hooded female flitted through the streets. My caffar became intensified and more depressing! One morning however, like a miracle, the sun appeared, the heavy shutters in the houses opened, the Asphodels grew between the rocks and the first tourists arrived. Life had changed again.
Now I began to roam the countryside alone or together with chance acquaintances. I visited a lonely hill town with an albergo and I made my way down to a most beautiful cove. I had hardly seen a lovelier spot with a very steep rock pinnacle in the middle of the bay. I returned there several times and had in the meantime got to know a German entomologist living with his two sisters in a lonely hill farm. I was told that he survived by collecting one of the rarest European lizards only to be found on that particular pinnacle in the bay. He set traps for them filled with honey. The man in question had trained a huge dog to do his shopping and I encountered it several times on lonely paths leading to a small village with a shop. It had a basket round its neck in which there was a shopping list and some money. The shopkeeper put the required purchases into the basket, which it then carried back to his master. On one occasion on that particular, unspoilt beach, I decided to acquire some land. I remember hearing that a price of about 50 pence a square yard would have to be paid. While considering this tempting idea, I received a terrible shock. One day, suddenly, out of the clear water rose a black-grey monster. In fact it was a Spanish submarine, which surfaced there, and soon the deck was covered with sailors. It is strange the effect this had on me, in fact it put me off completely. Very soon after this I left Ibiza for good. I was told that much later during the Spanish Civil War many Republicans were assassinated on that particular beach. Undoubtedly amongst them were some of my acquaintances.
At that time a number of modern bungalows were beginning to be built on some of the beaches. Life was however still very primitive and I well remember hearing (and this I was told was an authentic account) about some smugglers who had been caught. In fact a lot of tobacco was smuggled in from North Africa at that period. The fishermen went out and met the boats from North Africa on the high seas and then took American cigarettes into the country. It was quite easy to obtain these just by lifting one or two fingers in certain places indicating either one or two packages. It was also great fun to blow the smoke into the noses of the Carabinero. What had evidently happened on that particular occasion was that a young lad had given away the secret hiding place of the smuggled tobacco. It was hidden in the clock tower of a church. Unfortunately the lad was later found murdered on one of the beaches. This at least, I was told, was the absolute truth. “Quien sabe!”.
I spent the summer of 1928 in Concarneau, Britanny. Full of enthusiasm, I was ready to produce hundreds of valuable pictures – many landscapes! It seems strange how confident beginners are! The old town was extremely attractive with its many fortifications. So was the harbour full of fishing vessels. I often drew and painted these tunny boats and was particularly interested in their fundamental shapes. Later I found a real “graveyard” of ships” containing many boat wrecks in different stages of decay. These twisted and distorted remains held a strange fascination for me and, very much later, they partly gave rise to a large copper engraving which I then called “The Graveyard of Ships”.
First I had to find lodgings and, as usual, being a romantic, I took a room in the inner quarter overlooking the fortifications. However, when I rested in a seafront cafe, someone said to me: “But you are a painter and the house next door lets studios, which face the back”. I went there and found an empty studio, which I promptly took, so I had to go back to my first lodgings and explain and of course had to compensate the good landlady. The studio was a very lucky find, as it included board and lodging, as far as I remember. A German or Polish artist with a red haired girlfriend was also there, but I hardly knew them.
Well, I started to draw, do watercolours and paint and then I went and swam from the beaches and from the other side of the port where there were a few smart hotels and villas, with their Parisian summer guests, children and nurses. These children were delightful and became my great friends.
One day when I was working in this port, I noticed a young Frenchman who was doing watercolours without brushes, painting directly with his finger-tips from the tubes. I saw his work and found it extremely interesting and we started to chat. By and by we developed a great friendship and I admired his erudite mind very much. This fellow was Roger Blin and he became a real friend. At that time he was still a student and doing journalism on the side. Later he became the great “maitre en scene” and actor, friend of Jean Louis Barrault, acting and directing many films such as “Les Visiteurs du Soir”.
One day as we were working in the port, we saw a couple of girls putting up their easels and starting to paint. We looked at them and stared at each other. One of the girls was of such outstanding beauty that we could hardly believe our eyes. Imperceptibly we moved nearer and nearer, until we could not help making their acquaintance. The tall beauty turned out to be Cora van Milligan whom I promptly christened “Augusta Midnight”. She had been brought up in Egypt where her father had taught her to walk with a pitcher on her head as native girls do and consequently she walked through life straight, with her head above the backbone, moving with infinite grace and beauty. I remember people turning in the Champs Elysee to watch her go by. We all became great friends that summer, or rather as they used to say “les grands copains”. We took less to the dark, distant cousin and the mother who was there as a sort of chaperone. That summer there was much fun and laughter and serious talks.
Another interesting acquaintance of that time was the Irish writer, Liam O’Flaherty together with his green-eyed, beautiful girl friend. He was the nicest and most erudite chap when sober, but alas, he insisted on getting drunk every night and then he became quite impossible, even knocking his girl friend about quite badly .
One day Roger and I decided to go for a pilgrimage to Pont Aven to see where Gauguin had worked after his first return from the South Seas. The landscape high above the sea was rather bleak on that day and one could not quite imagine how he could have painted those lovely, idyllic landscapes there. We went to the cafe to discuss Gauguin over a glass of wine. Suddenly an old, bearded gentleman with a red nose approached us and said: “You are here to see Gauguin’s haunts, aren’t you?” When we replied in an affirmative, he said “I’m the man to tell you all about him, for I knew him well”. When we were rather doubtful about this statement, he said “I am the painter Serrusier who knew Gauguin intimately”. Whether this was the truth or not (and it still seems doubtful to me now), we still accepted his statements and after having agreed to buy him a bottle of red wine he proceeded to lead us to the cottage where he said Gauguin had lived. Then he showed us a very small attic room with a small, hinged skylight window and there he said Gauguin had painted his famous yellow Christ. This may or not have been the truth, but definitely seems to have been a possibility.
Space to paint is a great advantage, but it is not a necessity when obsessed with a picture, which has to be produced almost as a necessity. A large studio does not create a great artist. I remember a magnificent studio in Montparnasse, inhabited by an American who was there on a grant. A noisy party was going on and the shelves around the studio were lined with empty bottles from previous parties. When I asked him “Where are your pictures?” He said “Oh the one picture I have to paint this year is up on my easel. Come and see it”. He lifted a cover and I saw a very ordinary still life as his principal chef d’oeuvre.
Much later, on another occasion , on the terrace of the Cafe du Dome in Montparnasse, I remember an ardent discussion about space among my friends. Arp the great painter, whom I hardly knew, together with his wife, Tauber Arp, was explaining that he was very unhappy indeed as he did not know exactly where to place one piece of the wood montage he was making at that time. I rather looked down on him, thinking at that moment that such problems were irrelevant. How well I now understand just how important these questions may be. There is only one absolutely right solution to certain space problems. If achieved in one go, everything is fine and the image is right and balanced and exactly as one wants it to be. If not, the picture is wrong. Space translated onto a flat surface is most difficult to resolve and this is quite irrespective of the mode of expression: subjective or non-subjective. Experience, of course, can almost instinctively produce the right means of expression, but this does not invariably guarantee the right solution to the problem.
To return to Concarneau, amongst the smart set of Parisians who lived in villas and hotels were an assembly of young females who seemed to be rather intellectually inclined, as least judging by the latest “avant garde” novels they displayed on the beach. Either through Liam O’Flaherty or someone else, I got to know some of the ladies and found them to be most agreeable, amusing and cultured. I became particularly friendly with Suzanne M. she and her sister were the daughters of the owner of one of the big department stores in Paris. Much later in Paris, Suzanne became my very good friend. She was full of enthusiasm for intellectual discovery and was, indeed, very erudite. The flat the two sisters shared in the Parc Monceau area was very modern, well equipped and full of good books. She liked my paintings but, at that time, was not quite sure of their standard. One day therefore in Paris, she asked me whether she could show my watercolours to her cousin who was a famous art critic. I consented and the verdict he gave was as follows: “The young man has a lot of talent and does very intelligent painting, but why does he insist in abstracting his shapes?” Well, maybe that was right or wrong. One uses the means that seem the right ones for one’s own manner of expression. Much later I learnt how to engrave and that changed my whole outlook as regards form, conception and expression, as I will discuss later .
In the autumn the different Breton communities celebrate their church festivals, the Pardons; much fun, festivities and church processions evolve. The females, of course, wear their natural costumes, the Bigogudens – different headdresses according to the town they come from. Concarneau also had its Pardon, run with great aplomb and on one occasion I painted the landlady’s daughter in her native costume. It was not an altogether bad portrait, although I was inexperienced then.
One day walking along the port I trod onto a nail, which went right through my espadrilles. I went promptly to the doctor to get an anti-tetanus injection. My God what agony followed! He applied the old method of injections, which as he smilingly stated “Will bring out all the symptoms of tetanus”. I was extremely ill in bed with those symptoms for several days. When the doctor came he looked at my artwork and was not terribly satisfied with it. But revenge came to me later on through a flirtation with his daughter . In my papers I still have a drawing of Roger Blin looking at my drawings on the wall. It was at the time that Roger introduced me to Rimbeau’s poetry, which I hardly knew until then, and in my mind I can still hear him recite the “Bateau Ivre”: “Quand J’ai descendu les fleuves impassibles ….” – very beautiful!
It is strange what an obsession I have had of tetanus ever since and how often I have had to have injections. I suppose it dates from my early youth in South Africa when my mother’s best friend lost her husband, who fell from his horse and died of tetanus.
Late in the autumn at the time of the Pardons the Icelandic fleet of tunny boats started coming in! “What joy, here they come!” everyone shouted, and like enormous birds they came racing in, with their faded red and blue sails and long spiky fishing rods sticking out. Almost identical to birds, these boats seemed to be gliding in fast and almost imperceptibly into the harbour. This was almost the last event of my summer in Concarneau. However, one-day great excitement shook the town and virtually the whole population lined the main road leading to the south. The cause of all this fuss was the approach of the “Tour de France”. It was the first time I had experienced this event, which could be compared with the frenzy of an important English football match. A cloud of dust approached, a bunched lot of cyclists, hardly perceived, shot past and all that remained was an enormous cloud of dust!
PARIS – RUE BELLONI
A number of large courtyards had been built up with innumerable studios in the vicinity of the Boulevard Pasteur. I believe it was the enterprise of an ambitious builder, who used the remains of an international exhibition (either in the late 90’s or the early 1900’s) to establish these studio nests. They were very cleverly built in two layers and separated by several courtyards. No.7 Rue Belloni was one of these studio complexes and someone told me about a possible vacancy there. I was introduced to the person who wanted to leave and lo and behold it was Ger van Velde, the very nice and gifted Dutch painter. He sold me some of the studio furniture, which included a large, solid kitchen table, that looked like a refectory table. I moved in and organised myself. At last I had a studio in Paris and was very happy indeed.
These studios were well arranged and had a supend gallery on top where one slept, which was reached by stairs, a niche with a table and a glass roof and also glass walls facing outwards on to the first courtyard. There, to my joy, a fig tree grew just under my studio window with an old decayed statue in front of it. This formed the motif for my very first line engraving. In the meantime I installed myself and began to work. The rent for the studio was ridiculously low, even for those days. In fact I paid only £17 a year. I forgot to say that the studio also contained running water, a basin and a poel – a round stove – which was very important for the winter. The rent payable to Madame, the Concierge, who was also responsible for pulling le cordon for the heavy front gate late at night. The procedure was that through the speaking tube one shouted “le cordon s’il vous plais, c’est Rieser” and the gate opened. This Madame la Concierge was an amiable busybody who also looked after my laundry. By and by I got know some of my neighbours. One was Lugio Vargas, a Chilean painter with curly white hair and an extremely young face. He had a charming wife who worked in a hospital. Lugio became a very good friend. He cooked an excellent pilaff and when (and if) he worked, he painted extremely well. I still possess one of his South American seascapes, meticulously painted. However Lugio was (with all due respect) extremely lazy: how often have I heard him say when knocking at his door and asking what he did “Io soy simpere travayando” and finding him reclining with a novel and a glass of wine. However we were excellent copains. He later linked up with Bill Hayter’s group, to which I already belonged and about which I will talk later. Luigio and I often repaired to the nearest small bistro du coin in order to ear half a dozen oysters and drink a glass of white wine; so delicious and so cheap, costing only a few pence. Those were the happy days in which one could live easily for about £150 to £200 a year in Paris.
At just about that time I was introduced to Maitre Josef Hecht. He later became a very great influence in my artistic life and it was mainly thanks to him that I began to understand the meaning of lines and the significance of discipline in pictorial compositions. Hecht lived in a similar assembly of studios to mine, just a few minutes away in the Cite Falguiere, now alas demolished, as also subsequently happened to 7, Rue Belloni, of which more later. Cite Falguiere was amply constructed, inhabited by many artists, with innumerable iron staircases leading to studios all around. Green bushes and plants sprouted here and there, hiding some of the cast-iron stairs. Hecht had two studios – one in which he lived with his Swedish wife, Ingrid, and his little boy Maik (now also a well-known painter). His other working studio was on the other side of the complex. It contained a big copperplate printing press, similar to the one I have now , and all the materials for his printmaking. His supend was completely filled with marvellous editions of his folders such as “L’Arch de Noa” with a poem by Suarez and his animal albums etc.
Hecht took me in hand and we became very great friends. In fact I knew him so well that I should really write his biography, having so many of his letters in hand. Josef Hecht remains one of the greatest engravers of our Age. In fact he was in reality a “classic” whose inimitable line can compete with the greatest engravers of all times. In some respects he was quite against any abstraction (although some of his animals are in fact abstract). He more or less influenced all present-day engravers. He was also a great friend to all the young, striving artists. He often dropped in on Bill Hayter’s “Atelier 17” in the Rue Campagne Premier where I soon became a permanent student. Maitre Hecht had very many admirers who usually assured good sales of his output. It seems almost incredible to me that nowadays he is so little known. One small paperbound book still in my possession by Blaise Candrac (“L’Aubage”) was illustrated by him with original handprinted engravings. One could buy it for about 10 francs at the time. Nowhere else in the world could this happen. The illustrated, handprinted editions produced by the greatest artists have a long tradition in France. The art magazines, Verve and Minotaur, often contained original lithos and screen-prints.
One summer I spent with the Hechts in Belle Isle en Mer. This island is windswept and has very steep cliffs. The Hechts rented a very small cottage and I found rooms half a mile away with the widow of an old sea captain. It was lonely and beautiful. I remember Hecht fishing off the high cliffs and saying “You watch the line and contemplate the world in doing so”. I’m afraid I never quite took to it, but felt rather frustrated and tried instead to draw and paint the cliffs and the sea. As a matter of fact I am still trying to do this in Cornwall and, as ever, the cliffs and the sea escape me. Nevertheless, I think I have produced one or two good engravings of these subjects. It seems to me that movement in nature, which is so dynamic, can hardly be “fixed” into a static interpretation.
One day Hecht asked me to participate in a big fish meal as he had caught twelve plombs . As these fish were of a fair size I could not with the best of intentions eat more than one and a half of them, washed down with red wine. His wife, Ingrid, and his son, Maik, also managed one to two fish each, which left Josef Hecht with about six fish to eat, which he swore he would do! Watching with great apprehension, we saw poor old Hecht devour his fish with the utmost tenacity. Such endeavour for the grande bouffe! But he did it and was promptly very sick indeed.
One day I woke with the most dreadful toothache and cycled to the small port opposite the mainland called Le Palais. Alas, there was no dentist on the island and I would have had to wait for the next boat to leave for the mainland twenty-four hours later! However, I found this impossible to bear and so I finally found out that the town barber was prepared to yank out my molar for a certain compensation. This he did promptly and liberated me from my pains.
My paintings and drawings on the island were not terribly good that summer, although I remember one oil with trees and a white horse, which didn’t seem too bad. The clouds drove over the island and one felt as if one were on a big ship, windswept in the ocean. One episode, which Hecht related to me at the time, interested me greatly. Apparently Modigliani had a studio in the Cite Falguiere and Hecht knew him well. He told me that on Modigliani’s death, Hecht woke in the middle of the night disturbed by some noise. Looking down on to Modigliani’s studio he saw two men load some of Modigliani’s sculptures on to a wheelbarrow and cart them away. It would appear that Sporosvki, the art dealer from the Rue du Seine, claimed all his artistic output, stating that Modigliani had a contract with him. Hecht doubted very much whether Sporosvki had any right to these sculptures. On the other hand much gossip was floating around concerning Modigliani’s death, speeded up, I was told, by alcohol and forced painting in Sporovski’s premises. I don’t know what was the truth in this story. However, I used to take many meals in a small restaurant next to the Atelier 17 in the Rue Campagne Premier which was called “Chez Rosalie”. It was run by Rosalie and her half-witted son and contained only half a dozen round marble-topped tables. The floor was covered in sawdust and one could get a very good meal there at low cost. Rosalie, who always wore a red handkerchief round her hair, told me that Modigliani used to eat there often and even slept there sometimes, on the floor . There still was a vague fresco on the wall, which she said was painted by him. I was told later that some art dealer wanted to chisel it out of the wall and that Rosalie would now allow it. She also told me that she “Thought very little of his long necked females”. When, after his death, he suddenly became famous, she said: “I remember he gave me some paintings and drawings to pay for his meals. I had put them in the cellar and so I thought ‘I’m a rich women now – I just have to sell my Modiglianis.’ Alas I found that all this canvasses had rotted away in my very damp cellar”
A similar story was related to me by Hecht himself who told me that he went to Modigliani’s studio and found stacks of his and also his wife’s drawings there, but unfortunately most of them were destroyed by damp and fell to bits. However I remember seeing some of them intact in Hecht’s studio.
The Librairie Doucet was also deeply involved with all such art activities. In this connection I should like to mention a very dear friend, now deceased, who also belonged to the Hayter cycle. She was Rose Adler, a gifted leading bookbinder, internationally recognised. She was a very charming and helpful person, who had a lovely flat on the Isle St. Louis. After the War I saw her in Paris and in London. During the phoney War (1939) she commissioned me on behalf of the Librairie Doucet (Madame Walther) to produce some small engravings of the French colonial troops. This I did and they sold quite well on behalf of the French Red Cross. Some of the plates got lost but the existing prints have recently been acquired by the Imperial War Museum. So as you see, I had at the time two strong graphic influences – possibly the best of that period: Josef Hecht, the great animalier and William Hayter, who was the leading printmaker of the age in abstract conception of lines and later the inventor of the colour viscosity technique. However, I shall relate more about our community, exchanges and life together. I was extremely fortunate to meet so many gifted and agreeable people. Some of them became very famous later and in due course I shall recall our relationships and friendships.
It was at about that time when I made the acquaintance of two people who became very dear friends of mine. One day my friend, Suzanne, of whom I have spoken during my holiday in Concarneau, took me to see a new dressmaker she had discovered in Montparnasse. She thought I might like her and find her interesting. She had belonged to a German avant garde group which I probably knew. In fact, I had spent some years in Munich after my graduation from Swiss university and had known quite a lot about the intellectual and musical movements in Germany after the First World War. At that time I was working at the Botanical Institute of Munich University, but had already started to attend the art school of Hans Hoffman in Schwabin. Later he became very famous in the United States as one of the leading new Abstract Expressionists. This whole story, however, together with personal experiences belongs to a different chapter. In short, I left Munich for Paris, partly also to escape the ugly menace of Hitlerism.
As mentioned, Suzanne took me to her new dressmaker whom I found gifted, charming and very intelligent. She called herself “Ré” and said she had been Han Richter’s wife. He was of course one of the great avant garde photographers, painters and writers connected with Dadaism and other movements. Indeed I was never quite sure about Ré’s claim until quite recently when I came across Richter’s richly illustrated autobiography where I read the following: “The third time I was married to a very gifted girl whom I called Ré”, so she had told me the truth!
We became very good friends and she soon said: “You must meet my friend, Philippe …. you should get on well together”. A meeting was arranged and I got to know Phillipe Soupault, whom I liked very much. He was a great poet and one of the founders of Surrealism, who had signed the original Surrealist manifesto together with Andre Breton. I greatly valued my time with these two people, although they are now dispersed. Ré, as far as I know lives in the United States and Philippe still in France, but appears to be very hard to find. Recently I tried several times to trace him , having received a letter or two from him directly after the War. One of the people I got introduced to by Ré was Leger, whose studio I visited with her.
It just occurred to me how things and their value are very relative . Some things seem quite unimportant and irrelevant, but nevertheless later they become important and relevant. I shall relate an astonishing example confirming this. On a big, old gate in Montparnasse, which I passed frequently, I always noticed some graffiti, which became slowly augmented. When I left Paris in 1940 to escape to England I again noticed these same graffiti because the car which took me out stopped right in front of them. When returning to Paris after the War in 1945 in the uniform of a Control Commission Officer I saw the same graffiti again. It may have been irrelevant and unimportant, but it had survived the destruction of cities and the slaughter of many human beings and this struck me as of extraordinary significance .
Another very interesting person I got to know fairly well was Alberto Giacometti, who at that time was by no means as famous as he was to become in the post-war period. He always thought I was Swiss, as my name occurs frequently in Switzerland and as I also knew Maloja in the Engadine very well from my student days. How beautiful the lakes and the landscape are in the Grisons; the purest air and the purest light I ever saw anywhere! I Remember a lovely summer in a small hotel at the back of beyond in the Fex Valley, just half a mile from where the glacier ended in the meadows and where the Edelweiss grew like Buttercups. Well, Giacometti’s family house was right up there at Maloja where Kant had written his “Caratustra”. I also remember visiting Giacometti’s studio, which was very small indeed, set in a Montparnasse back street. He had already begun to produce some of his elongated figures. At times his eyes became very staring , strangely contrasting with his curly hair and rugged features. I was told that from time to time he took Ether as a stimulant, but cannot vouch for this story. He was a very delightful person whom I liked very much and who always stopped and talked to me. I remember when I returned for the first time after the War to Paris to try and collect some of my possessions, which I left behind in 1939. I was sitting in one of the cafes of St. Germain du Pres. He suddenly appeared and sat down at my table and said “Alors mon vieux, comment va-tu? Ou a-tu passe la guerre? Moi j’etais en Suisse”. I told him that I had enlisted and been in Special Operations and later in the Intelligence Service of the Foreign Office; so we had a nice talk and soon other friends such as Roger Blin joined us . It was surprising that this continuity of human relationships in Paris existed and persevered in spite of all the external changes, which to a degree altered Paris from its pre-War expression. I also remember that at that time the sculptor Zadkine joined the circle, looking rather Americanised.
One very dear friend, now dead, was Reichl. He had come to Paris as a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany. This very gifted artist produced very small and beautiful pictures. He was the only gifted painter who could compete with Paul Klee without imitating him. His images were different from Klee’s but he used a similar, penetrating, pictorial language, which discovered, as Klee put it, the truth behind things. Reichl had a small studio at the Port d’Orleans where he lived with his wife. The walls were covered with his beautiful dream images. One of those I once had at one time. He also had a lovely head, printed in the two colours red and green by Jawlenski. I always wanted to possess this picture. Finally, one day being badly in need of money, he agreed to sell it to me “temporarily” with the option of buying it back when he could. For a long while it was hanging over my bed in the Rue Belloni and then later in my new studio at the Place Dauphine. Alas, Reichl never claimed it and when I had to flee Paris on the 14th May, 1940, I quickly packed this portrait and a number of other precious possessions marking it as ‘urgent and important’. Then I rang some French friends begging them to collect this and other cases as soon as possible after my departure. Unluckily, I found after the War that many of my things had disappeared out of the boxes. Was it the Germans or the French who took possession of them? Who knows! So I lost many of my things including the beautiful head by Jawlenski which would now be worth a fortune.
The group of people working at that time at Atelier 17 was only a small one, but some of them were very gifted and they formed a close unit of friends. There was Bill’s wife, Dala Husband, who came from British Columbia. There was the banker, Roger Vuillard – a very gifted engraver indeed who did for instance a lovely little plate of the Place Dauphine – also the Swiss, Brignioni, and numerous others. Closely connected with these groups were Tony Gross, a friend and Buckland-Wright and his wife, Mary, who all during the War years remained my dear and helpful friends. After the War, ‘Buck’ as we called him, became a teacher of graphic art at the Slade. Unfortunately he died very prematurely in1956 and I very much regretted his untimely death. He was very helpful indeed to me and also full of admiration for Josef Hecht. I very often worked with him at the Slade where, after his death, his place was taken by Tony Gross.
To return to the Paris pre-war days. After our bi-weekly evening classes at Atelier 17, we usually repaired to the ‘Bistro au Coin’ to refresh ourselves with a coffee and a glass of wine. The sessions there were full of fun and also serious talk and very often people like Josef Hecht and also Miro used to drop in. Miro was very amusing indeed, full of humour. On such occasions Bill Hayter was at his best, relating funny anecdotes from his earlier occupation when he was a chemist in the Gulf of Aden. He was particularly keen on the behaviour of the old English sea captains who plied these routes with their cargo ships.
Another enthusiastic engraver working at that time with Hayter was Gabor Peterdi. I think he was Hungarian with a lot of temperament, who nearly always wore checked cowboy shirts. That was very rare indeed in those days and he stands out in my memory as being rather exceptional in that respect. Later on he established himself as a very well known printmaker in America, and also wrote a book about the medium. Brignioni, whom I have mentioned before, was a very nice, sensitive, person who produced some very fine prints at the time. We were all very surprised later that he was not better known. I never knew what became of him .
Another admirable couple, closely connected with Atelier 17, were Vieria de Silva and her husband, Arpad Scenes, both well known now , particularly Vieria, who we used to call ‘Bichou’, and who is now considered to be in the foremost rank of gifted women artists of the period. I was always very impressed with her concept of floating space which created a colourful dream world of her own, yet very logically anchored in her own personal cosmos.
In one of the exhibitions of the Surindependents, I think it was in 1937, a strange coincidence of artistic conception happened between Arpad Scenes and myself. I had produced one of my first stylised, huge abstract paintings of dancing natives which was quite successful, although maybe a bit too decorative. Arpad Scenes had produced for the same exhibition a similar composition consisting of five or six musicians, very much in the rhythm and colour scheme of my own painting.
The Surindependents were an admirable institution to which we all belonged. It was a sort of artists’ co-operative, which held an exhibition once a year for its members in which you could exhibit any amount and kind of painting . There were no restrictions and the annual exhibition usually took place in one of the huge halls left over from an international exhibition. I think it was at the Port d’Orleans. The day of the vernisage completely filled the enormous hall with public from both sides of the river. Any sales which took place had to occur on the first day! I once took a client to see my pictures there on the second or third day and found only two or three people in that immense hall. In any case, this occasion allowed young artists to hang their work together with already recognised masters of the young movement and therefore was extremely welcome, because it was by no means easy to obtain exhibitions in Paris otherwise.
Returning to Arpad and Vieria, I have to mention their nice studio on the Boulevard Arago near where he had discovered an admirable bistro run by a Breton who produced magnificent lobsters at a very low cost. Unluckily for us, however, some artists brought their wealthy Right Bank girl friends there and very soon this bistro became fashionable. Table cloths, coloured umbrellas, etc., soon appeared and all the prices doubled. This happened all too often with other restaurants, which we had discovered, frequented and which then became too well known and too expensive for us.
It was at about this time that I made the acquaintance of the painter, Max Ernst, whom I admired very much indeed. I still like his version of Surrealism far better than that of most other Surrealists. It would seem to me that many of the Surrealists developed their images purely intellectually without imbuing them with the interior reality, which those of Max Ernst carried for me. There are of course exceptions such as Magritte and also Miro in his Surrealist paintings. How genuine they seem to be in their productions, in contrast with the likes of Salvador Dali, whose very admirable technique does not convince me of the sincerity of his images.
One old acquaintance, whom I met again in Paris, was the painter Paalen. We had been at Hans Hoffman’s studio in Munich at the same time and had become very friendly. He was of Baltic descent and a very dedicated artist, even in those days. Later on he became a well-known Surrealist and married, as far as I remember, Andre Breton’s daughter. I lost sight of him but heard after the War that he settled first in Taos and then in Mexico itself. He died fairly tragically by committing suicide, but the reasons leading to his sad end are unknown to me.
Another very dear friend in Paris should be mentioned. Dr. Kuba Wayzer arrived in Paris as a refugee from Poland in the early thirties. He came with a considerable reputation as a scientist who, although very young, had already made a number of new discoveries in the field of endocrinology, I think. I met him at Hecht’s studio but am not absolutely certain about this. We became great friends mainly because we thought alike about many things. He was also extremely gifted as a musician and easily could have made a name for himself in that field. A shy, unassuming man, who observed everything and summed things up with witty and caustic remarks. Based on his previous scientific work, he was given his own research laboratory at the Rothchild Institute of the Sorbonne. I frequently visited him there and admired his ability and dexterity in formulating theories and the following, necessary, experimental developments. He was so persuasive that he nearly convinced me to turn back to science. Indeed he said he would guide me and help me in his lab, if I wanted to do this. Perhaps I did not have either the guts or, I should have thought, the conviction to take up science again after so many years in the field of art.
Kuba and I met often during those years and my French friends all liked and admired him greatly. When the War broke out, he insisted in joining the French Foreign Legion. I tried to dissuade him, but off he went. During the winter of 1939 I had a letter from him asking me to put him up while he was on leave in Paris. He arrived a resplendent, thin and tough figure, adorned with glasses, in the uniform of a Foreign Legionnaire. He told me many stories and, contrary to what I thought, seemed to have enjoyed his tough life and the company of his comrades greatly.
Shortly after the War I found Kuba again in Paris, but unfortunately in quite a different condition. Whether he had contracted the disease in Paris or elsewhere we don’t know, but he said he had Parkinson’s Disease and said that he would gradually become totally paralysed. His absolute tranquillity and acceptance of his state made a great impression on me. I remember at that time on one of my Paris visits sharing a meal with his wife, whom he had recently married, . I also visited his laboratory again where he continued to work, but by that time he needed assistants to do his research, which he directed from his wheelchair, with just the same philosophical smile. He also told me that he had just heard about a possible new cure for his illness, which consisted of being completely immersed in water. It did nothing for him, however, and shortly after my return to London I learnt that he had died in a traffic accident. Much later mutual friends told me that he had deliberately driven his electric wheelchair in front of a Paris bus. Who knows? But he was a very kind soul!
I remember that a similar effort to bring me back to science had been made by a Russian painter of great talent, whom I had known in Lausanne while studying science there. I then admired his work immensely and also showed him some of my drawings. He said at the time, “You know you have quite a lot of talent”. Many years later I met him again in Paris and when he asked me what I was doing. I told him that I had become an artist and he exclaimed in horror: “What do you want to do that for – so many artists – and you could have been, I think, a good scientist”. His name was Solutarof. Well these decisions, right or wrong, have to be taken by oneself!
One rather amusing intermezzo happened to me in the mid-thirties. Late one night I was sitting in the Cafe du Dome feeling lost and lonely, when I suddenly heard the most fantastic roaring noise approaching rapidly. An extraordinary, elongated motor car, the largest I had ever seen, stopped in front of the Dome. A youngish man stepped out and came on to the terrace and I suddenly recognised him. It was my old friend, not seen for many years, Seymour Blair, whom I had known well in my Munich days. I hailed him and he immediately recognised me. This young American, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and closely related to the Rockefeller family had all the talents possible but none satisfied him. At one stage he had been Cultural Attaché at the American Embassy in Tokyo and there he had collected the most beautiful prints and kakemonos (wall hangings). On that occasion we related to each other our different fates since we had met several years before. He suddenly said: “I say, Dolf, you must come and have breakfast with us. I only stopped here to buy some cigarettes”. I was very surprised: “But you cannot have breakfast at 2.00 am”, I said. “Oh, yes” he replied. “I get up one hour later every day, until I have done the full circle”. I was not really surprised at these fantasies and so I hopped into his car.
He took me to a very nice studio, full of his Japanese prints and with a beautiful piano, and not least of all a very delicious, young Parisienne. We sat down to a magnificent breakfast, which included oysters and also a good deal of talk. After that I saw a lot of Seymour, but as usual his luck did not hold out. One day he said to me: “Dolf, the same thing that happened to me in Munich, happens now. I have run out of money and have to go home and try and get some more. I’ll have to pawn my gold things in order to get ticket home. I leave all my cash to Yvonne, please look after her and I shall send her more”. Then he was gone. Not long afterwards Yvonne turned up asking me to look after her and take her in as she had received no more money from Seymour. This, however, I refused to do, not wanting to take over her, together with her luxury tastes . For a while she disappeared but one day, walking down the Champs Elysee I saw a well dressed, undulating female walking in front of me. It was Yvonne and I bought her a coffee and she told me “ I had to do something and so I did what I thought best. I became a poule de luxe”. No good arguing with her. She said “Seymour had me educated one to two years before he took me over”. I tried to convince her to change route but she smilingly shook her head showing me her well-equipped flat. This girl had much allure, although a gamin of about seventeen years. I saw her sometimes after that and we were always on the friendliest terms, having Seymour as a common denominator in the background.
It was at about that period that I had to earn some more money and I tried to obtain some private lessons teaching whatever was required – English, German or Latin. In fact it was an enormous cheek trying to do this type of thing, as I was hardly qualified to do it. However, owing to some contacts, I obtained lessons with French families who had children. This is how I got to know the family Jaoul who became and still are very good friends indeed. At that time they lived in Neuilly in a big apartment. Very much later they had a double house built by Le Corbusier which remains one of the great showpieces of that master even today. In due course I got to know him, but I shall talk about that a bit later. Andre Jaoul was one of the directors of Electro-Chimey d’Ugine and he and his wife had four sons whom I had to teach. They differed greatly in character, some of them extremely gifted in certain directions. For instance one son, Bernard, was a mathematical genius who at a very early age became a lecturer at the Ecole des Mines, discovering new, scientific truths in higher mathematics such as Le Point Jaoul which was named after him. Very unfortunately, however, he was accidentally exposed to dangerous radiation and died very quickly of brain cancer. Anyhow, early on we all became increasingly friendly and in the end I almost formed part of the family, frequently being a guest at their house and also sharing holidays with them. The friendly relationship with this family still continues with the second and third generation. They also liked my artistic work; introduced me to occasional clients and to many interesting people. The Jaouls were great collectors and had a number of important pictures such as a small Douanier Rousseau, some abstract paintings, etc. They also like Josef Hecht’s work very much and acquired one of the very rare bronze sculptures by him – a bison. In those days they commissioned me to paint a fresco for their hall. I painted this on canvas in the Rue Belloni and it was a big jungle scene with figures, which was quite successful. When they moved into their Le Corbusier house they took it with them and it hung there for many years.
One day Madame Jaoul said: “I’m going to visit the studio of Brancusi. Do you want to come with me?” Well, obviously I wanted to go, having the greatest admiration for this outstanding and important sculptor. When we got to his studio on the Boulevard Montparnasse he immediately said: “What does this man want here?” Madame J. said “He is our friend, also an artist and he would like to meet you”. He very grudgingly accepted this. Later Madame J. laughingly admitted that she brought me along more for her self-protection than for any other reason. However Brancusi showed us some of his very admirable work. In particular I remember a fluted metal comb of absolute perfection. Brancusi played the wild, Rumanian peasant, having an open fire for cooking with pelts in front, on which he said he slept. In fact I saw a very comfortable bed half-hidden up on his gallery.
One day I got to know Francoise de Tinan, the granddaughter of Debussy. A good friend whom I knew well introduced her to me together with her banker husband . As he was Jewish, his fate was rather terrible – facts which were related to me only after the War. He was arrested by the Gestapo early in the War and, for reasons unknown to me, he was beheaded.
Francoise was a sensitive, intelligent person. Unfortunately, however she was a lesbian and extremely unhappy, seemingly unable to cope with her problems. She often confided in me and I tried to explain matters as well as I could. I heard much later that she finally committed suicide. At that time, however, we were very good copains and one day she introduced me to her mother in Debussy’s home. Someone there played on the master’s piano some of his preludes.
Montparnasse at that time was full of the most extraordinary types of humanity – some showing off and doing nothing else, others working hard and not showing it. It was at that time quite easy to get to know most people, as after a while one just became part of it and a ‘habitué’ in the Montparnasse cafes such as the Dome, Selecte or Rotunde. The world moved past and one sat and looked at it. Friends, acquaintances, strangers and possibly enemies walked past. Always someone sat down at your table and soon one was involved in deep discussions. Well I remember a rather amusing incident when the famous Kiki, a beautiful Breton girl painted by nearly all the artists and who had become a minor cabaret star, suddenly jumped up and relieved herself in front of everyone against a tree. Everyone clapped and shouted: “Bravo, bravo Kiki”.
One of my oldest friends, a girl I had met years previously during a summer in the Basque country moved to Paris to work in an office. Helenitta- my life long friend still in Paris-now married to delightful Spaniard- my friend Santiaja-has the most positive nature I ever came across. Although, of very high extraction (in fact a Marchesa) though she lost all her wealth, she made the best of everything and somehow managed to do sport all the year round like tennis, skiing and swimming. In fact early on she was one of the great sporting stars in Spain. I remember skiing with her in the Sierra Guadoromea. Well, she arrived in Paris to work in a Spanish insurance firm. She had a small hotel room on Boulevard Postean and I gave her a Siamese cat. It was in the end impossible to enter her room , which was crammed with tennis rackets, skis and riding boots and inhabited by, it seemed to me, innumerable cats. The landlady succumbed to her charms and allowed her to do what she wanted, provided she kept her room clean. Later Helenitta married and had two sons who now roam the world. She is still our very good friend, cycling through Paris or driving in a very old Citroen deux Chevaux!
Man Ray I remember well. He was always full of witticisms and new artistic ideas and he was a great and gifted inventor and innovator.
I also remember seeing James Joyce, although only the once. Roger Blin and I were walking through the Tuilleries Gardens to visit the Greek and Egyptian collection at the Louvre and suddenly Roger said: “Look over at that bench. That person is James Joyce”. I always wanted to see him, as I had missed my chance in Zurich where he was while I was studying at the same time in 1917-18. In fact I missed many chances then, without knowing it. However I did hear Bussoni play as his son took me to his house, and I must also have seen Lenin in a cafe just around the corner from my lodgings where there were a number of revolutionary Russians in exile together with Lenin in 1917. However all this belongs to a completely different chapter in my life story.
On that sunny afternoon in the Tuillerie Gardens we saw James Joyce, wearing a Panama and reading a book. As we continually walked past his bench many times staring at him, he in the end became very irritable indeed, staring at us indignantly, although we were of course motivated by the greatest admiration.
I have mentioned above that I met Le Corbusier through the Jaouls. He was an extremely animated character, full of new ideas and very enthusiastic about his future plans and modules. I remember one very amusing episode, which happened at his house. He had invited the family Jaoul and me to a meal there. The occasion was his wife’s birthday -a woman I found wholly admirable- ‘a child of nature’ running about barefoot. As he told us “ I cannot take her out. She does not know how to behave – but she is adorable. It’s not her fault she is a fishmonger’s daughter from Toulon!” On that memorable occasion Madame Le Corbusier , thoroughly delightful, wanted to please her goldfish swimming about in a huge tank and so she poured a bottle of Eau de Cologne into the water “ In order to perfume it for them” as she explained. Unfortunately the poor fish promptly gave up on life! Tears and despair.
Le Corbusier’s houses were admirable concepts (see the ideal house) but some times misjudged climatic conditions. I remember a smart studio house by him near the Parc Montsoury, built for an American. It had a flat Mediterranean roof, which constantly leaked, in the heavy Parisenne rains.
In 1936 when the Spanish Civil War broke out we were deeply involved with the Republican side. Some of our friends from England joined the International Brigade and we did all we could to collect money. Thus we brought out a small folder with poems and hand-engraved plates by different artists. Fraternite had a limited edition of 100 and it fetched very good prices for the Republican Red Cross- Picasso did one plate…. I was invited to make a plate. Later I also contributed a plate to another folder Salvo for Russia with Hayter, Hecht, Miro, Kandinsky and Yves Tanguy.
I suddenly had to travel to South Africa as my mother had died and my uncle Karl Seligman was also deceased. So I left Paris in 1936 for a period of about 8 months to sort out their affairs. When I returned to Paris nothing much had changed and I took life up as I had left it. The friends and groups still existed. The climate had changed and one could almost feel the approach of coming events.
Near the Boulevard de la Sante there was a very cheap Fleapit Cinema where one could see hours of Wild West Films, squatting on wooden benches and probably catching fleas. Speaking of insects, one could tell some stories.
The old timber used in modern houses very frequently was infested with bed bugs. I remember having to leave a small modern flat near Sorte on account of it. One day in the Rue Belloni an enormous commotion arose when the studio under mine, for years inhabited by two Japanese, was fumigated! It was found that they never cleaned the studio, but spread newspapers on the dirt and then covered it up with mats. When the fumigation started I peered out of my studio window and lo and behold: out of the studio underneath and gradually winding their way upwards past the fig tree was a long column of bedbugs! Just in time I slammed to my window and let the daring fellows find other premises! It also reminds me of a small verse seen in the Tyrol on a peasant painting and saying,
“Oh Holy St.Sebastian please spare my house –
Set fire to my neighbours.”
In fact bedbugs are extremely clever and very hard to beat. I remember putting the legs of my bed into plates filled with paraffin. What did they do? They crawled up to the ceiling and dropped straight down on me! This is the honest truth.
In the early Thirties more and more German Refugees appeared in Montparnasse. I remember a set of fairly well known (and less well-known) film actors and directors, some of whom did quite well in Jainville. I got to know a few and we discussed great schemes myself as the set designer! Nothing came of this all apart from a dreary Christmas spent on Mount St.Michel in the fog and the occasional part as extra in Jainville. I must say this was the most immoral occupation I ever experienced. Sitting in costume for 8-10 hours waiting to be shot for five seconds! One got approximately £1 for this and lots of students did it The only time I received about £2 was when I was a Head Waiter and had to say “Dinner is served” or something similar. That was in the grand film called Le Maison Jeaune de Rio de Janerio, as I remember, a sordid brothel story.
However I soon left all that behind, but thanks to my friend Roger Blin, discovered ‘Buster Keaton’ – the greatest clown ever, as he put it. I was inclined to agree. I gave him an embroidered cravat from Breltay, which he then wore in a film. I think it was the Visiteur du Soir- magnificent!
One more memorable encounter comes to mind. One day walking along the Boulevard St.Germain. Hecht met an old friend, a very sick looking person to whom he spoke in Polish. He introduced me to the painter Soubrie- whom I had admired for a long time. He later said to me we should visit his studio, but alas- the poor man was very ill indeed. Hecht said it was TB In fact it was only a short while later that we heard of his untimely death!
One of the more agreeable pleasures in those years was a visit to Marché aux Pouces. In this enormous flea market just outside the Port de Clignancourt one could really make discoveries in those days. Between all the rubbish, things of real value could be found and I remember starting my Comb Collection then when I discovered a magnificent wooden comb from Nigeria. It was richly incised with an intriguing pattern. Many more followed in later years, but the Marché laid the seeds for my future collection.
I have spoken of joy, pleasurable activities and entertainment with friends, but there was quite another aspect to my life in Paris! Nowhere can one be lonelier than in a big city. This of course goes for any big town. Paris, simply on account of its intense life could be the cruellest city in the world, if and when one felt excluded. Very often I was in that state and almost in despair in spite of my many contacts -acquaintances and friends. Obviously it was in part my own doing, as I had separated from my wife some years previously. My marriage to Cressenica Greck had been an ill-considered one back in 1924 and in some ways I was still attached to the past. Things improved somewhat after my divorce came through from Zurich in November 1938 . Though to extricate myself I had had to settle £450 on her which I got by selling some of my debenture shares in the family firm in South Africa-Ginsburg and Co. But enough about sexual miseries!
One day Roget Blin called on me and said “ I have found new lodgings and you must come immediately to see them. They are out of this world” He conducted me to an outlying district of Paris- which was unknown to me- called Buttes de Chaumont. Apparently Baudelaire had lived in that district. Through some connections Roget had obtained the loan of a stadia there which was quite unique. A large tree grew in the middle of the studio; its foliage spreading over the glass topped roof. The stem of the tree formed an integral part of the studio acting almost as a living column to hold up the glass canopy. As we arrived at Roget’s studio it began to rain and very soon a stream of rainwater came running down the stem to disappear into the soil, surrounding the tree which was rooted and grew out of the studio floor. A very strange, almost surreal effect was thus produced. That in effect was just the sort of thing Roger and his friends liked to experience.
I owed many Parisian surprises to Roger. Things I otherwise would not have noticed. Thus he took me repeatedly to some curious places; some not without danger. There was a real ‘thieves kitchen’ where after midnight people came to swap loot. We could not go there unless dressed in pullovers and worn-out clothing. Similarly we sometimes visited the Rue de Lappe, unsavoury at that time, with many small dance halls and brothels. There you could see the real ‘mecs’ dancing with girl friends and ‘poules’. Each dance always payable by ‘jettons’ you had to buy. I remember one very primitive workers’ brothel in that district, which looked like a bistro. You could obtain a glass of red wine and watch the atmosphere. Upstairs was a sort of supend curtained off and at the foot of these stairs sat Madame who charged 5Fr or maybe 10Fr to mount with one of the girls available. Customers had to pay an extra 1Fr for a towel. Workers on their way home leant their bicycles against the house drank a glass of wine, mounted upstairs for a few minutes and then happily cycled home. What an extraordinary scene for a documentary film!
On one other occasion we went to the Cinema in Montmartre when Bunuel’s ‘Chien Andalou’ was shown for the first time. It was so extraordinarily impressive and we also saw ‘L’age D’or’. One night later the fascists entered and slashed at pictures hanging in the foyers including the film performance! Plus ca change – plus c’est la meme chose.
At that time I got to know Max Ernst and his then wife Berthe. He had a fine studio on the Boulevard Raspail and asked me up to see his paintings. I like then and still like his works immensely. It seems to me to be ‘Real’ pictorial Surrealism. How strange that I cannot stand Dali who is such a good technician, but has never seemed genuine to me.
At times we went to the Bal Martinique in company with copains of Atelier 17 such as Julian Trevelyan and his wife. I remember how impressed I was the first time to see these beautiful girls dressed in their colourful costumes with their coiffeurs, gliding smoothly around dancing the Rumba. I asked one of them to teach me the Rumba: all she said “That’s easy boy – just press your belly to mine and wobble”.
That in fact is the trick! After that with the real Rumba rhythms, the session became very animated indeed.
One of the great advantages of my relationship to the Jaoul boys was my ability to be proficient in Sports. Ever since we had come to Europe my father insisted on Sports for us boys, in particular skiing. In the early years (pre-First World War) this was rather a rare activity. I do remember us wearing very heavy pullovers, which promptly were covered with frozen snow- looking more like Polar Bears than ‘Hommes Anglais’. This taught us the fundamentals of skiing. Of course the old fashioned techniques with Telemark Swings and rarely a Christiania. In France during the Inter -War years skiing was still rarely practised. I remember the assembly of spectators at the Gare St. Lazare who wanted to know from us what those wooden planks were for? As a matter of fact I was asked to take the Jaoul boys to Haute Savoie to teach them to ski!
In some ways this was an ideal commission. Electro-Chimey D’Ugine, for which Monsieur Andre Jaoul worked, owned many hydroelectric plants in the Alps. One of these stations in Haute Savoie was several hours above Hauteluce to where the train almost took us. When we arrived in the morning we had to carry our provisions and equipment in our Rucksacks right to the end of the valley ( Dorinet). There was a cargo lift for maintaining the HydroElectric Power Station high up on the Lac de la Girotte. Apart from that the firm had built a summer Chalet for the employees at the lake. The Chalet was well equipped and electrically heated. We repaired to the Chalet, which was ideally situated facing the northern slopes of Mont Blanc. The very steep slopes did not make skiing very easy, but the breathtaking view and fantastic sunshine were unimaginable. Luckily the firm provided a very old Italian and his wife who produced admirable minestrone, macaroni and polentas including red wine! There we were all day long practising on the slopes and the boys quickly became very efficient. We also took to hacking holes into the ice on the lake and putting in baited lines. Very often we caught lovely “Truites Saumone”, for our meals.
In those days the Alps were still unspoilt; no ski lifts or cable cars. One had to do it all the hard way: climbing for hours and descending at full speed in a few minutes. I well remember one trip to the Val’ d’ Aosta, just the other side of Zermatt, where we climbed to the Col de Lyon- the boundary between Switzerland and Italy. There was a team of Berssajlieri their training for the Olympics. My God could these chaps run up the hills!
The last time I went skiing with the boys was just before the War. We went to Courcheval- now so famous and plastered with Hotels, Chalets and Ski lifts. At that time I think there was only one mountain chalet with about thirty beds. We arrived, settled down, had a day’s skiing and changed for the evening meal. I remember going to the bar to order a drink from the Landlord. Looking up at the wooden ceiling I asked the Landlord “What is that black hole for, above the Petrol Lamp?”. The Landlord gave one look and said “Ne doutes rien” and darted upstairs! He came back immediately and shouted “Get your things and everybody out!!” Apparently the flame of the unprotected petrol lamp had set the Capoc lining between the ceiling and the upper floorboards on fire and it had been steadily burning for hours! Within ten minutes the whole Chalet stood in sheets of flame. The boys and I grabbed our Rucksacks and hurried quickly to an outhouse nearby. However, I remembered suddenly that I had given my money, papers and Passport to the Landlord to lock away in his cupboard for safe keeping. I shouted, “Where are my papers?” but everybody had gone haywire by then. The burning house filled with deadly smoke and fumes. I made my way to the smouldering room with the cupboard and remembering that smoke rises began to crawl to the cupboard. I had to break it open to rescue my papers. A miserable night followed. In particular we had one or two girls along with the boys, but we all huddled together on an old bedstead to keep warm. One of the boys had his brand new Rucksack stolen on the same night. He left for Paris in the morning very depressed indeed.
A short time later and the last time I went skiing in France was just before the War when I spent a week with an English Doctor friend in the Val d’Isere-still very unspoilt in those days. We competed very favourably with the top French Olympic team. They insisted on doing the jump Christiana in heavy snow whereas Dr Moreland and I descended in the most elegant and nonchalant fashion doing many beautiful Telemark Swings. Unluckily that method is old- fashioned (I was told), but what about using it if it sees you safely through disaster?
The 14th Julliet , Bastille Day was breathtaking in those days. Nowadays it mainly consists of noise! In pre-war days all the quartiers had their own private festivities- decorated squares- local bands- and of course dancing in the streets. One could dance with anyone and I remember dancing with people in front of the D’Orsay one of their number being Marlene Deitrich. The nicest square on those occasions was the Place Contrescarpe, right in the Latin Quartier behind the Pantheon. It preserved a village-like character and one could often buy goat’s cheese sold by an old man who descended the Rue Mouffetard blowing a flute and driving some goats! Probably one of the last ‘Cries de Paris’.
I have to relate one incident, which impressed me deeply. One day Re Richter said “I’m going to present you to Leger whom I know well and whose work I admire immensely”. So we went to his studio in Montparnasse. I found him the most amiable of persons, totally involved in his work and absolutely convincing. I must say that at that time some of Leger’s work seemed strange- not to say artificial to me!
It happens too frequently that we cannot appreciate certain pictorial languages until they become conscious to our understanding. I remember the same thing happening in my Swiss student days with Paul Klee. At that time I was at the Ecole Federale in Zurich. I was only sixteen and a half and studying Agriculture. I was completely flabbergasted “Infantile. Peurile” I said. Rodolph van de Mull, looking pityingly at me, said “Dear friend, you will learn and understand when you are a bit older”. How right he was! The great master of the Twentieth Century-Klee the inimitable, digging deeply into the meaning of things!
Actually the problems of painting and graphics became increasingly complicated. There was this internal complication between colour and line! How often we talked about all that and how different the opinions! I rightly thought that when and if we can formulate our artistic problems in several ways there is in fact no cheating possible! Thus learning with Hecht and with Hayter I acquired the gentle art of engraving and of deep-etch colour plates.
This gave one an enormous feeling of security. For one had now not to think anymore how to do a thing, but to use the pure line to express what one had in mind. The absolute control of means of expression, depicting objects or subjects allowed ones mind to investigate what it is all about. So the purest form of all – the engraved line, opens the gate once one can properly manipulate them. However the snag remains: while playing with lines, colours appear in one’s mind and that, according to the calculations, should produce beautiful paintings. Not so at all! Sometimes indeed that can happen, but colour in the purest sense contradicts linear formations.
Such problems, although personal, do make Art a difficult metier- certainly when taken seriously. How well I remember my naivety, painting landscapes in Spain at the beginning. Thinking ‘I am a great painter’ and then doubting it more and more as my eyes were opened! Well, enough of this miserable monologue- one is as one is- and does all one can do.
Paris, of course, is so very rich in museums. There was the Luxembourg with its lovely gardens and one of my favourites, the Cluny on the Boulevard San Michelle, with those wonderful tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn!
When we were very broke we used to repair to an Algerian Eating-House
where you could have some Cous Cous for about 2p. This was very delicious, but the plates and forks were encrusted with dirt. So we appeared with our own cutlery and enjoyed the meal. This was just behind the Rue de Seine, not far from the lovely Place Farstenberg where Deter Crack(?) had his studio and where there was a magnificent four -armed street candelabra in the middle of the square. The Algerian hovel in this dirty little cul-de-sac also held a very mysterious building with heavy closed gates. I could not make out what it contained until a habitué informed me that it was a very high-class brothel especially for Seminarists, who could escape if necessary through another entrance at the back.
I often accompanied Joseph Hecht either to the Jardin des Plants on the Seine or to the new Zoo at Parc de Zoologique. I remember seeing the Giant Panda-the only one in Europe at that time- an amazing animal. I watched Hecht capture the image of antelopes, lions etc. His inimitable lines expressing the wealth of all the lines in existence. It is strange how absolutely sure he was of where to put his shapes onto the metal plate! These were just in the right place (and there is only one right place!)- unrelated to each other and still so closely linked by their relative shapes- what a great Master Hecht was!
When Hitler bullied his people, many refugees appeared in Paris- some desirable, some less so! I knew a number of them and particularly remember a chap called Charlie who had a short leg and was very good with his hands. He did metal sculpture and also carved lovely little heads out of ordinary pebbles. I sold quite a lot amongst my richer Parisian acquaintances for poor Charlie. I heard the story of his fate after the War when I returned to Paris. Apparently the Gestapo had him on their black list, as he had been a known Communist in Hamburg. He was promptly apprehended by the Germans and transported in a prison train to some camp. Fearing the worst he went to the toilet and jumped out of the moving train. Although not injured he could not get away fast enough due to his short leg and was promptly machine-gunned by one of the guards on the train. I shall stop here. However, my last years in Paris will be told in my next chapter on the Place Dauphine!
PARIS PART II
The small Parisian squares held a particular attraction for me. Not only because they were a beautiful part of the traditional scene and expressed their own private life. There were many squares, particularly on the Left Bank and one could feel their traditional life pulsing along the blood vessels and nerves which were formed by their tiny streets and Medieval Squares which fed the life of the Quarter. I always wanted to find the right square and the right studio in such a square for myself, but this seemed hardly possible due to the run on such rare studios!
One evening at a party in Montparnasse a number of Cubans asked me to come to their studio after the party in the early in the morning. I had never dreamed of entering a studio in one of those beautiful houses, built in the period of Henri IV on the Place Dauphine. These very old Sixteenth Century houses formed a triangle on the Isle de la Cite at the Pont Neuf end just where the statue of Henri IV protects the Vert Galort and looks right into the Square. Part of the flat faced the Right Bank, but also, like all the houses in that part of the Seine, a bank festooned with very old Poplar trees. Many times, I admired the fine canopy of those beautiful trees with pointing branches and their fine lacy, heart-shaped leaves. Against the sluggish grey green water of the Seine the deep verdigris leaves seemed to float along with the flotsam of the odd boats, panicles and the Bateau-La Maison.
Coming back to that first visit to the studio in the Place Dauphin, my friends took me up and up the narrow tiled winding staircase until we reached the top floor- and how high and narrow those houses were! When they opened the flat door there was the most beautifully shaped elongated room facing onto a narrow veranda and high glass windows. Next to it was a smaller room and a kitchenette, bathroom etc., a windy staircase leading to the studio above which formed part of the flat. The impression this studio flat made on me the first time was out of all proportions. Here was exemplified the quintessence of all that I admired of a Parisian Studio! It’s historical tradition! Its … city and its interest beats? How marvellously these places had become adapted to the metier of the artist. The significance of their form and expression was part of their long established studios.
The party in question was very gay and Latin American- those boys sang to Guitars and in fact my Cuban friend was a well-known modern composer. A couple of those people at the party had come straight from Hawaii and performed the most beautiful Hula dances. When I finally left at dawn I told my friend; “You have given me the greatest pleasure in your Dauphin Studio”. Previously I had only met him and his wife in Cafes and he very quickly answered “C’est Renada”. I also said “If ever you leave Paris, Please offer me your Studio flat first of all people without fail!” He faithfully promised this on that occasion. I barely recollected the incident when about a year later my Cuban friend contacted me in my Montparnasse Studio in the Rue Belloni and asked me to come and visit him! I went straight away and found that he had contracted a very bad case of TB and his wife intended to take him back home straight away! He then offered me the lease of his studio flat and I had to decide within a few days! This put me in a bit of a dilemma- I did want to live in the Place Dauphin- but I had just re-decorated my own studio, which as I have previously related, went at a very cheap rent indeed! I would have to find someone to take over part of my things and the decoration expenses. My Cuban friend’s offer of a semi-studio plus flat was much too grand to let go, although the rent was by present standards ridiculously low, namely about £50 per annum, but compared with own studio which amounted to £17 per annum this was expensive and indeed a luxury!
To cut a long story short, I did manage to get rid of my Montparnasse studio and to raise the money for the Place Dauphin Studio! So there I was proud owner of one of the most desirable residences in Paris! I moved in with the aristocracy living around the Isle St Louis and Isle de la Cite. Although this by no means possessed snob value yet, apart from a few ‘grandes palais’ on the Isle St.Louis, the rest were ordinary little Parisian Bourgeoises who happened to live on the river banks of the Seine. But now all the trouble started- my dear friends started to bribe the Concierge, geronde and collector of rents by all means possible. I had to defend the studio very hard indeed by establishing once and for all my credibility and right to have the studio flat. This I finally did, but not before loosing a few personal friends on the way!
So started my sojourn au the Place Dauphin- full of poetry- strange inter-mezzo and ending finally with a phoney “Year of War”! This most unusual, isolated, isolating and quite disastrous Year! In time new aspects of my studio made themselves known. There was the instance when I had to repair a leaking glass roof panel by climbing onto the roof, when suddenly a trap door opened and an old mans’ bearded head appeared, “Eh -Comment aller vous? J’ais vous ai avec depuis long temps”. I asked him how he happened to be above my studio? He said that that was quite simple. There were a number of hidden doors which led from one studio to another. I went to see him 20 yards away from me and found him to be a delightful old Portrait Painter, who had lived up there nearly all his life.
The postman never came up, but the concierge shouted up the shaft of the staircase, from the basement, if there was any mail; “Descendez Monsieur Rieser- j ‘ai des lettres!” .
There was the fat Geronde or Administrator, who lived on the first floor, who had a legal or administrative business and who together with his wife also collected the rents! He incidentally provided the basis of a most macabre future incident ! This happened during the Phoney War year-1939-1940. One morning, very early, at about 4 p.m., there was a knock at the door and the tearful, agitated voice of Madame La Geronde begged me to descend to their flat. I arrived and was received with the tearful wails of the wife who informed me that her husband had deceased early in the evening- not surprisingly as the rather corpulent gentleman had been ill for some time. Now the thing Madame. La Geronde wanted me to do was to “ L’habiller son mois”- in fact too dress him before he became quite stiff! According to her it was impossible to obtain the usual Mortician owning to it being wartime! So there I was enrolled together with one or two other ‘Locataires’ to undertake the macabre feat. This was by no means an easy thing to do as the ungainly stiff’s heavy body was extremely difficult to handle! Constantly fighting waves of nausea, I finally managed to crawl under the corpse and to lift it up on my shoulders for the others to dress ! After the war Madame did not want to recollect this instance and denied that all this happened.
Unwholesome as such instances appear they rather fitted in with the unreal situation prevailing in 1939! No one really seemed to know what to make of it and alas I realise only now how hopeless the defence against Germany must have been. This became really evident much later as I shall relate.
In the meantime what appeared as normal life proceeded and one saw ones friends of whom, however, there were less and less! Where did they all get to? I remember discussions with some friends about an ‘Imperialist War’, which had nothing to do with us, or the attitude that Hitler was a much maligned person etc. Much later some of these persons regretted retiring to the U.S.A. and elsewhere!
Well, as said previously, strange influences of detail have a tendency of impressing themselves very deeply and permanently in one’s imagination and fantasies. In this way they resemble graphic reproduction of the purest lines such as produced in copper line engravings, the purity of such linear precision cannot be enhanced by any other means. Paris struck me often as not only being the creator of beautiful translucent varieties of colours, but also as being enormously linear and graphically bound. This is rather hard to define- if by graphic we mean dynamic! But colour, rhythm, form, tension and even abstraction could be found abundantly in the Isle de Cite. No wonder it gave rise to many other artistic movements widely influencing art around the world.
When one walks along Quais and starts to discover the small side lanes of the Quartier Latin, very rich discoveries appear: the small hidden churches like St. Maria dating back to the Twelfth Century. I also used to spend some mornings at the bird basket and flower and seed market also on the Cite and admire the beauty of the goods and the milling population.
Paris is extremely rich in street markets, which exist in all quarters. Once or twice a week the stands are put up in prepared places and by early morning an abundance of fruit, vegetables, meats etc. are displayed. It certainly was the best way to do one’s shopping as an infinite variety of wares was offered to the customers. I remember the market on the Boulevard Foster where I did my shopping and Ni Porte Calor: the market of the Rue Daguerre (at the Lyon de Belfort) stands out in my memory. It was particularly rich in seafoods- fresh from the coast; seafoods were a daily food for us – and in those days extremely cheap! I remember going to the corner cafe with friends in the morning to eat half a dozen oysters with a glass of white wine. I think we paid only a few francs for it, but had to bring our own oyster knives; my own now serves as a kind of pallet knife.
Sometimes I went to see the St. Chapelle when the sun shines fully on the colourful glass windows. However I do not want to write a travelogue, but a more personal account of the Town, the people- my friends and also myself as I saw it all. I remember one of my very first lodgings in the early ‘30’s in Paris- when I was still fairly green and open eyed!
I found this Pensione de Fontanais- I do not know quite how. It was quite the wrong place for me- catering for gifted provincial Catholic students, who came to Paris to cram in stiff competition for the Grand Ecoles such as the Ecole des Music, Ecole Normale Superieure etc. Once in they were safe for life(as they said). In fact it usually meant State employment later. But, my word, how they worked! I recollect talking to a young lad who sat a midnight with a wet towel around his head. Reading out Virgil fluently in Latin and translating it equally fluently. Right on top of the house I had a funny sort of studio-room, overlooking the small back gardens and further across the walls into the Seminar of the Ecole Irelandis- an Irish monastery school- training these lads who walked in pairs under the blooming Chestnut trees. This in fact produced one of my first feasible etchings! Not without malice, I watched some midenettes undressing in a house behind open windows to the gaping admiration of the incarcerated seminarists!
The dinner table of the Pensione Fontanais was formidable. Madame presiding at the top, her son (a dental student) in the middle and lots of chaps right and left. I quite enjoyed their provincial Eldorado of small aristocracy etc, but very much objected to some of them reading the Action Francaise – the right wing fascist paper at the dinner table. As they would not stop, I one day began unfolding Humanite and that communist paper put the lid on the top! Otherwise it was pleasant enough.
It was very pleasant living in the ancient precincts of the Pantheon near the delightful Luxembourg Gardens. Many years after the War I and a friend set out to rediscover the Pensione Fontanais and finally the small and almost unobtrusive entrance to the Rue Laromiguere with the Pensione Fontanais in it. Sadly all was closed and shuttered- the doorplate cracked-evidentially a consequence of La Guerre!!
The Belle Bullier still existed up near the Absourtaine in the early 30’s and it was delightful to go there with friends and dance in the open under the trees or in the hall. There is that lovely picture by Le Dounier Rousseau, which expresses all these pleasures. We used to buy some 12 Dancing Tickets and that gave you the right to dance with anyone – if they wanted to! The Ball Neusettes were of a different category (in the quarter) – catering mainly for the midenettes and their boyfriends were frighteningly fierce and not to be played around with! The Java was about the fastest dance room with fantastic staccato rhythms! One English girl I knew was crazy about all that and she was great fun to take along. In spite of her money, she was full of astonishment and surprises! One day she, my friend Ursula and I raced down to Chartres in her car to re-visit that fantastic Cathedral. I exclaimed suddenly: “Look girls a wheel seems to be running in front of us!” “ Oh my God! It’s ours!” they exclaimed- but kept their calm braked slowly and landed us safely!
“Oh la Belle Bouce cet curvee profonde”- and how awful it was in 1940 amongst the refugees seeing Chartres for many hours before reaching near it. However, much of this later.
In the meantime in the mid-thirties life was rich and extremely pleasant. It was all so important i.e. talk, work, love-superiority in fact in all aspects of our cultural life. There were the degrees- the categories etc. Of course one somewhat disdained the academicians- they regarded us as pompiers. But the Copains- good ones, gifted ones, ungifted ones and in some the whole coalescence between them in spite of all differences. You could sit in the Cafe du Dome with a coffee for a few pence for many hours and talk and talk and watch and be watched and talk again half the night through! The outcome of all was of course little- but there was a residue: a clarifying thought about La Peinture and what was more the laying of a foundation for the understanding of problems (and perhaps new understandings of problems). Much later this became so much clearer.
As to work? Well this was so very difficult. Young reason is fearless and investigates all. Look at Mr Picasso himself. There he was prodigious- misunderstood, giving a show of extraordinary new images- just to create something almost opposite the next time! What was one to make of it? – Confusing and not terribly helpful! He could sometimes be seen in the Cafes. On the other hand one got to know many important people- sans allure- that helped.
A number of events took place in the last pre-war years. Hayter laid on a number of exhibitions of his and his student’s work and these were quite successful! I also belonged to the Groupe Anglo-American, which had a number of prominent members such as Rattner etc. We also belonged to the Surindependants-This group of freely associated artists shared costs of one large exhibition at the Port de Versailles in one of the immense exhibition halls left over from an International Exhibition.
Our Group i.e. Hayter’s pupils and friends hung our pictures together and one could show as many pictures as one wanted without being submitted to a Jury. This free Artists Association had great advantages and disadvantages. Very good and also very bad pictures were exhibited. I remember well the vernissage days. Hundreds of people milled about looking at the exhibits-friends, acquaintances, art critics, and clients: even the rich from the Right Bank! Everyone was excited congratulated or run down. It was great fun and sometimes one got well encouraged.
I remember- in an earlier year- being told; “Why the Dickens do you still paint realistic pictures in your group of abstract artists?” To which I remember replying “I am considering painting in abstract shapes, but only when I feel I have to”. This in the end happened, with more or less success. I recollect 2 or 3 very memorable exhibitions.
There was the first Surrealist Exhibition in, I think, 1936. That was the period of the Front Populaire. The dark entrance to the show was sinister, with drapings hanging from the ceiling and tickling you while the floor was soft and made of rubber. Inside was an assembly of some very interesting objects and images. In particular a table made out of three mannequin’s legs- wearing stockings and shoes- with a round table top. This was made my good acquaintance C….. Seligmann and on top stood the now famous cup and saucer, fur lined by Meret Oppenheim, also a Swiss. She was a very nice girl, but as far as I know this was the only great idea of hers. The neat aspect of this cup gave you a slight feeling of nausea.
At about this time Roger drew my attention to an extraordinary Surrealistic book called ‘Le Chamt de Maldor’ written by one Lautreamont. Surrealism was in the air. The book impressed me very deeply. Full of hidden meanings and fears it was apparently written under a pseudonym by some young South American in a Monmartre Hotel. He committed suicide soon after having written the book.
One memorable exhibition was the Exposition Internationale of 1936. Two remarkable facts stay in my memory. The German (Nazi) Pavilion faced the Russian one. The similarity in structures was amazing. Even more amazing were a group of beautiful maidens in stone in front of the Russian building and a group of beautiful men in front of the German building. These were products of ‘Kraft durct Freinde’ (Or was it the other way round). Inside everything was technical and impressive but the frescoes in both buildings again resembled each other with materialistic images of human beings doing social duties or activities.
The outstanding building of this Exhibition was the Small Spanish Republican Building. The whole of Picasso’s fantastically dramatic Guernica Fresco was there on of the patio. The extraordinary dramatisation of human misery and destruction I can only compare with Grunewald’s Isenheim Altar now permanently at Colmar, France.
Sometime later I had my own one man show in the Gallery Bonjean (Rue de la Boetie). This was shared with an American, but it was for me a great honour and quite successful. I even sold pictures and had one or two good write ups! In fact I never had a better one than the one by Jacques Laparra who called me; “ un jour ou l’autre, l’un des tout premiers colorist de notre epoque….” If only that were true. However it did a lot of good for my morale- always in doubt!
Another show on the Right Bank shortly before the war was held by the Anglo American Groupe. I had a few things in it and produced rather amazing results. One day a bearded, elderly gentleman came in looked at one or two of my works, nodded to me and referring to a drawing said “C’est nest pas mal”. I assumed it was an art critic and of course felt very pleased.
Several days later I was drinking coffee on the Dome terrace with an American second cousin of mine, whose mother used to collect pictures. Suddenly this cousin jumped up and accosted the same bearded gentleman who had looked at my pictures. I was introduced to him and nearly fell to the ground when I heard his name: it was in fact Kandinsky himself- whom I admired so much! He was kind enough to remember me and we three had a very amiable talk. I do treasure the memory by having in my possession a very fine etching by the master.
However, enough now of exhibitions! The last free summer I spent on the Isle D’Aix in a small hotel with the Jaouls.The Island is small, heavily fortified, very attractive and quite flat. I painted a lot there in the ‘old style’ and had a fine sun-bathed time on that modest island near La Rochelle. Some strange people lived there! The Baron Gaurgaull, a very fine man who had an Arab servant and who also had Parkinson’s Disease, which he may have contracted in Africa. The Baron had a fine collection of Masters including some Impressionists. His wife was an American lady of stately proportion who loved the colour pink. Her house was pink and even her fuchsias were pink. She commandeered anyone to carry her paraphernalia to the beach including a pink umbrella and a pink lorry tyre on which she used to float in the sea.
In 1939 I had produced my first Folio of 10 line engravings based on sketches brought back from Africa. Hecht helped me to print it and it had some success. I also at this time produced my biggest plate yet at the Atelier 17. It turned out to be one of my most successful plates depicting birds changing into planes. Maybe it was foresight of things to come? Based on a poem by me called ‘Styx the Bird’- ‘spreading his wings and covering the world’. The print was frequently reproduced and acquired by galleries including the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Alas the golden days drew to an end. Suddenly war was imminent and in the autumn of 1939 it really happened. One returned to Paris and the whole aspect of the world seemed to have changed. I remember the day of fate- the declaration of war. I went to the British Embassy to ask for Emergency Reserve papers-, which I promptly got through Major Gielgod (who I knew much better later in London in S.O.E.). When returning through the Place Royale to the Place Dauphin, very, very depressed, I suddenly saw a very elegant young female in a smart white costume bearing down on me. Lo and behold it was Corra or rather Augusta Midnight (whom we had so ardently admired in Concarneau). She was bubbling over with life; “Dolf, you must come to my party tonight. I am engaged to be married to a Scottish Captain, marvellous chap. You should meet him”. I promised, but did not go, too depressed I suppose. After that no one ever saw her again. What happened to her?
However I am glad she was happy because previously a rather bad character had got hold of her and her money. At that time she had bought a house boat on which she lived, but the bad character slapped her about and forced her to give him all her money she had inherited. For some time I took care of her cheques and put them in a bank. What happened after that I did not know until I met her, utterly radiant, on the Rue Royale the day war was declared.
One more friend I have to mention. That was my good friend Thomas Cadett, Times correspondent in Paris, whom I met through his girlfriend I had known on the Isle de Re. Thom had a marvellous collection of Japanese Kimonos of white horses spread all around his room in St.Germain- overlooking the Seine and Paris. I remember he told me later that he had saved everything by burying it in the garden and digging it up after the war.
The Phoney War year was now really on. Very strange, isolated and frightening. Once or twice there was an air raid alarm, but nothing happened. We all were hustled into the cellar and to my surprise I discovered a second cellar underneath which spurted Seine water through the stone walls and which could easily have been part- Roman in origin. My sister had joined me from Switzerland and I shared my flat with her.
One day in May 1940 I was contacted by my friend Jaoul who said
“The Germans have broken through and are advancing on Paris. We are getting out. Be ready in two hours and we can give you a lift in our car.”
So we packed two bags, bundled my precious possessions into 2 or 3 boxes and rang a few friends to collect and store them. We then left with the Jaouls through the Port d’Orleans.
I had hung on in Paris as long as possible not wishing to leave a milieu where I had developed my painting and engraving, working with Hayter, Hecht and many others. I had had many good times and liaisons and had thoroughly enjoyed myself over the last 12 years.
But as the Nazi’s inexorably rolled towards Paris I felt it was time to get out. Their disgusting politics had dogged me across Europe. I had already quit Munich in 1929 and was no longer able to spend my summers in Spain. Now they were poised to occupy the cultural and artistic centre of Europe with their bomisk tastes and cruel anti-semitic dictatorship.
Always one to leave things to the last minute on 14th May 1940. I gathered together my artistic output – a roll of painted canvasses, some recent oils from my trip to Africa, my Africa Folder, some watercolours and sketchs, some prized books including my first edition Voltaire (75 volumes) given me by my uncle Karl Seligman on my recent trip to Africa and clatties I couldn’t carry. I put them in several taxis and went round to my friend Helenitta and left them in her basement for the duration of the war. Unfortunately this basement was flooded by the Seine in my six year’s absence and many of my works were ruined or stained. I left other boxes and rang friends and arranged for them to pick up and store for me. On my return in 1945 I found the boxes open and many of my most valuable things missing.
Having thrown a few essential possessions into a case, I got my sister Dora for whom I also felt responsible. Especially since she had sacrificed herself looking after our mother in Munich until her unfortunate suicide in 1936(?). Dora had many accomplishments, having acquitted herself with distinction at University, but she was very retiring and generally put herself down.
We set off by hired car to the outskirts of Paris on the road to Boulogne. We joined thousands of others fleeing the Nazi’s. The road was clogged with carts, every sort of vehicle and even people walking on both sides of the long pollard lined road. Though not practising Jews (we were brought up as humanists), ethnically Dora and I would be considered Jewish as our ancestors were and we both had British passports. Indeed as my recent divorce papers from Munich to my first wife classified me as an Israelite. My brother Herbert was already in London and his was our destination.
After many hours of frustration and having to take cover in the ditch as the occasional Heinkel flew over us at a low altitude strafing stragglerswho had not managed to take cover, we reached a Routiere.
Having eaten and drunk I went to the latrine, it was an old-fashioned lime box but with a seat over it. To my horror as I pulled up my trousers I realised my wallet and papers had fallen out of my pocket and were floating on top of the sewage some feet below me. Galvanised into action by my thoughts of becoming a stateless person without passport, I rushed back into the restaurant to find the owner, saying “Madame have you blotting paper and a fishing net? It is most urgent! ”.
My luck was in, within a few minutes Madame appeared with the requested items and I returned to the latrine and was able to fish out my papers and wallet. Having washed off the most offensive odour, I laid them on the blotting paper in the warm sun. I tended them like seedlings, turning each document all day until the operation was complete. We were able to resume our journey.
Because of the delay, when we finally got to the harbour all the boats had gone except the last troop ship, which was waiting for some sappers. They were wiring up the harbour to blow it up as they sailed out to prevent it being of use to the advancing Germans.
Hastily, I negotiated with the commanding officer to take us with them. The fact my sister accompanied me was the main problem as there were no toilet facilities and we would have to sit on the open deck with 300 Tommies on the 3 day crossing. However, I assured him I would hold a blanket round Dora whilst she went to the toilet and our British passports finally persuaded him to take us.
After an uncomfortable three days we were mightily pleased to reach Southampton and be greeted by volunteer English ladies handing out mugs of hot tea and biscuits and blankets. After interrogation we were allowed to take the train to London and my brother. Though at that point we did not know the outcome of the War I could not help reflecting on our good fortune to be with this indomitable island people who had managed to spread their rather strange and European ways around the globe.
On arrival I had immediately offered myself for war work, thinking that my knowledge of French and German and long residence in those countries, together with my fluent English, would be useful to the War Effort.
In the meantime having found Dora a flat in St. John’s Wood, I moved in temporarily with Herbert in Bloomsbury. He was already an official photographer for the Ministry of Information. As the Blitz developed in the autumn of 1940, I volunteered to be an ARP warden while I waited for the war office to process my application and check my credentials. Herbert was already a fire auxiliary.
I recollect one particularly bad night. I was on duty round Russell Square checking people’s blackout and the Ack-Ack was so bad it was like it was raining metal. I lay down in the road with my tin helmet on my head, hunched up and miraculously was not hit by falling shrapnel.
Another morning I was shocked to come across a bombed house and in the midst of the rubble sat a completely naked man who kept asking for his wife, who presumably lay under the pile of bricks that was all that was left of a fine Georgian Terrace.
Soon after this I was fortunate enough to be offered a job in the Special Operations Executive, working with Free French Commandos, briefing them and preparing them for clandestine re-entry of occupied France.
Having a paid job, supplemented my meagre allowance from our family holdings in South Africa (was paid quarterly into the Standard Bank), I was finally able to get a room of my own, overlooking the ponds of South Hampstead and the edge of the Heath. From the flat it was a short walk to Parliament Hill and from there I was able to observe the Blitz on the London Docks. The sky was quite literally red with fire though it was the middle of the night. I was occasionally able to paint and did several canvasses including one of the bombs falling.
My war work included liasing with the French, acquiring French clothing for those to be dropped into France, briefing them with the current situation in the occupied sector and even going on Commando training in Scotland. I had the rank of Captain.
I remember being driven in a staff car to Chalk Farm Road, which then had a series of second-hand clothes shops and was nothing like it is today with the Camden Lock Development. As the car waited, I went through the clothes looking for genuine French labels for ‘our boys’ to wear when dropped into France.
They were young and very brave and I liked them a lot, spending many a good night with them drinking, smoking and talking. A number were killed early on, including Michele who was killed on the parachute drop.
Another time while going up to Inverness by train for commando training a Major met me on the train. “Ah Rieser, going up to the camp, can you take these!” and he threw me a bag of live hand grenades.
The instructors were very tough, teaching men how kill with one blow or how to insert a knife to deadly effect. SOE had lots of little gadgets like silk maps to be sewn into clothes; button compasses and cyanide pills to avoid torture. During this period I had managed to cut myself on some barbed wire from which I disentangled myself and forgot about the incident. A week later my hand was the size of a balloon and I was hospitalised with blood poisoning. After some time early 1943 I was asked to transfer to PID – the Political Intelligence Department. This was based at Woburn Abbey and our job was creating black propaganda for use in Europe and later preparing information for the invasion. My section was the Low Countries – Holland and Belgium and my boss was man called Cecil De Somaries – an erudite Channel Islander.
I was billeted with a butcher in Woburn and this at least meant I ate well. At Woburn Abbey I met Barbara Dyer, an interesting and strangely beautiful English girl, who I courted amongst the Duke’s herds of bison and deer. We asked Cecil where was a good place to go to forget the War for a few days and he said Wales and Cornwall. Our first trip was to Wales but our second was to Cornwall, getting the night train to Penzance and then a taxi to the village of Zennor, which I knew of from reading D. H. Lawrence. We stayed with some local farmers called the Manns. The light and scenery were amazing and Barbara and I fell in love with each other and the place.
We returned there for our Honeymoon the following year in spring 1944. We stayed with Len Berryman, Mrs Mann’s brother. From here, lost in our precious world, we explored the coast although barbed wired and went inland along gushing small streams into this untouched land of harsh stone and soft hush greens and browns, always in sight of an aquamarine sea. On one of these jaunts we came across a small granite cottage and out buildings whose only occupants seemed to be thousands of potatoes stored there by the neighbouring farmer. We rented the place for half a crown (2 shillings and 6 old pence) or 12p a week.
From then on, whenever we could get away, we came down to the cottage. We bought two old bikes, some old furniture and a precious stove and had our idyll.
As we moved towards the invasion our department had more and more work. I was constantly writing handbooks, which were to be used by advancing troops, and these had to have every detail about the local geography, history, customs and culture of every town and village. We were also responsible for the maps to be used and these had to be updated from aerial photographs. Eventually by VE day it was all over, but being in need of money, I enrolled in the Control Commission that was policing the vanquished Germany. I was on a Major’s pay now but I didn’t really fit in with many of the career officers who had fought their way across Africa, up Italy and into Germany with Monty and the Eighth Army.
There were still pockets of resistance from a few Nazi’s, but generally there was just devastation in towns like Hamburg, that the RAF had more or less flattened. Everywhere there were hungry, ragged displaced persons and refugees and this was before we even knew of the death camps. The unspeakable barbarity towards Jews and others made me sure I had been right to join the War Effort rather than go off to America and continue with my art as Hayter, Miro and Kandinsky had done. We were all sure we wanted a better life for ourselves and our children and Marshall Aid and the Labour Government in the UK made this look a real possibility. By early 1947 I couldn’t wait to be re-united with Barbara, now living in Hillsborough Court in St. John’s Wood. But when I got back we went straight down to Cornwall to rebuild our lives at our cottage in Bosporthennis.
PAGES FROM A SOUTH AFRICAN DIARY
In August 1960 I was invited to lecture in South Africa. Flying at enormous speed and at incredible altitudes should produce the thrill we are expected to experience. Far from it, one feels rather disagreeably crammed into a box together with a number of other people and the sensation was not caused by the flying itself, but by the knowledge that within a very short period of time we would be over Africa. This lasted until I happened to open the curtains and looked out into the night sky in the hope of seeing something of the Alps we were then crossing. Far above, the round disc of a full moon hung in a translucent sky and many thousands of feet underneath the ‘plane, a most violent thunderstorm was erupting; blinding flashes were lighting up heavy mountains of clouds. That was it! Space suddenly had a meaning – it could be felt and not only thought of. Here we were suspended in the sky between two planets, which could be experienced and felt as separate units.
Khartoum 4 a.m. En route for Africa. The moment you stepped our of the ‘plane – landing for refuelling – Africa hit you. 103o Fahrenheit at 4 o’clock in the morning and the hot sand was like a glowing furnace giving out waves of heat of the kind usually experienced in a Turkish bath. Fat Arabs connected with the airport were sweating in beach chairs fanning themselves with palm leaves. Inside, it was bit cooler, thanks to ventilators and cold showers. Brisk business done by a wily old Arab selling crocodile and lizard bags.
Central Africa was very rugged country when seen at the scale usual from 35,000 feet. Here and there a crater-like lake appeared and evidence of much erosion , and later over East Africa and Rhodesia I saw ribbon-like roads linking the rare settlements. This WAs really no way to see anything; but you do get the feeling you expected: of this enormous, incredible continent which never seems to end. Later, on the return trip to Europe this feeling was much more evident when the ‘plane flew over the Libyan Desert in daytime. There was the desert: hour after hour nothing but sand and an occasional Wadi. This vastness is hammered in again and again. You distinctly feel a dimension, which until then you hardly knew existed.
Capetown is really an unbelievable town. Not that it is particularly beautiful but, because the tip of Africa is a landscape of incredible beauty, it is a town which profits from its situation. Sometimes, in the early morning, I looked over the rooftops out to sea and across the swinging away coast and the purity of the landscape seemed hard to bear. This hits you again and again . Time and again one also feels that this continent would be quite happy without any human beings; in fact one sometimes feels that it is quite hostile to them.
The coast, this unspoilt coast round the Cape with red mountains climbing out of an untouched sea, which sends wave after wave up the enormous bays. At this time of year everything is covered with giant Proteas and many other rare flowers. It is easy to imagine that no one ever stepped here, especially among the last rocks of the Cape pointing straight down towards the South Pole. Near here the baboons come down to fish. Indeed they fish crabs and sand fleas out of the seaweed.
I spent a very interesting day with the Warden in charge of a small bird reserve on one of the inland lakes (viles) which is a sanctuary for an abundance of Pelicans, Ibises and many other kinds of wild birds. Hundreds of Flamingos suddenly flew up not fifty yards away, flapping enormous wings. It seemed hard for them to get off the water and then the big necks stretch out, with their long legs dangling behind. This is an extraordinary bird, well adapted to its wading life but rather incongruous in its flight. This lake provides a shelter for all migrating birds and many species live here all year round. The Warden does very valuable work here in observing and checking the fluctuating bird population, and researches into other subjects, such as the diet of Baboons about which little, hitherto, has been known.
The magnificent flora and fauna of Africa are dying fast. Here they have the botanical gardens of Kirstenbosch on the slopes of Table Mountain. Very wonderful indeed, but how sad to think then even in South Africa one has to go very far indeed to discover certain indigenous plants. As to antelopes and other animals : they are going fast. Hardly any are left down here, apart from those in the game reserves, and exactly the same thing is happening further north.
Still, it is possible to be alone here very quickly in the mountains with nothing but sea, rocks and some very beautiful plants and flowers around. Spring is happening fast and far away coasts sink into the purple seas at night when the sun dips into the waters.
The National Gallery in Capetown has an early Italian primitive in gold, black and red of great beauty, hanging in a dark corner. This “discovery” reminded me of the time when I found a small Peter Breughel in pre-war days, dusty and forgotten on the staircase of the museum in Le Havre. The museum here also has very good Spanish lustre-ware, and a few excellent wooden figures from the Congo. Also here are some Bushman rock paintings, the best being the earlier stylised ones depicting hunting scenes and often serving as magic symbols.
Table Mountain dominates the town and the sea. It seems impossible to paint here. The beauty is too great and light too intense. The mountain holds and squeezes the town between its slopes and the sea. Often the old buildings remind one of the Mediterranean. Early in the morning the light possesses the same translucent quality which fades quickly when the sun rises higher and the intense light shows everything up in half black and white volumes. Some of the walls are spotted in ochre with white and black patches just as in Spain . Just as in Southern Spain, the odd palm tree and wisteria screens the porches. The old colonial houses and verandas are disappearing rapidly, but some of the streets still retain their aspect with veranda railings on all floors of the houses overhanging the pavement.
I travelled through the Karoo. Once through the pass, the rugged ridges and Kopjes of the Drakensberg are slowly left behind and the car shoots along on the thousand mile long road leading straight north. The sun is sinking over moulded Kopjes , an ochre landscape with bushes. Along the road the small Lilies and Misembryanthemums are in full bloom. Far away is a farmstead in the midst of enormous sheep farms. The Sheep is the only possible domestic animal in this semi-desert.
Now the sun really sinks and the ochre of the hills turn to an intensive blue aquamarine sky with golden patches. We reach the small township and suddenly you are back in 1900. Wide streets, white bungalows and stoops and the dining room in the small hotel has an enormous, mirrored sideboard with additional coloured tiles, such as I remember having seen in my grandmother’s house.
The waiters serving must be of Hottentot or Bushman extraction, showing the typical skull formation, single hair curls growing apart and other features of that unfortunate race, nearly exterminated now. A Boer family is celebrating at a very long table and innumerable little girls in white, starched, party dresses are eating enormous quantities of sweets. At 10 o’clock everyone is in bed apart from one or two latecomers and a few dogs barking at the moon. Nothing has changed here since the early Nineteen hundreds.
The car broke down and I am sitting in its shadow waiting for help. Occasionally an enormous American car races past and far away an eagle floats in the air. There is a water pumping station and a few native huts about half a mile away and I watch a few small children playing a stalking game. Even at this distance I can distinguish their blown up bellies. The wind blows very hard over an arid landscape and time seems to stand still.
Later a group of migrating Africans walk past and set up camp for the night near by. The man walks in front in ragged European clothes, carrying a stick, and the three females follow in single file carrying all their bundles on their heads. Their beautiful upright carriage is perfectly balanced and their beadwork clicks as they move past. They must have come up from the Eastern Reserves as they are not Zulus, but wear ochre blankets which they dye themselves. Soon a small fire is started and they seem to have lived here all their lives.
Johannesburg is rather frightening with its mushroom growth of skyscrapers, its rectangular grid system of streets and its rich suburbs with beautiful country houses. The sense of unreality prevails throughout. Some of the new University buildings at Witwatersrand are magnificently appointed. Lucky students, with their large laboratories, study rooms and swimming pool!
A young government archaeologist showed me some rock engravings, which had only recently been discovered in the Transvaal. The rocks on which these reliefs are engraved had lain unnoticed by anyone on a farm in the Veldt. They are estimated to be from 12 to 15,000 years old and exceed anything I have ever seen in their conception and execution. The artists had employed three different methods of incising the outlines: either simple lines were engraved, or else a double-edged tool had been used for hatching outlines, or, again, flat carvings had been produced. These latter are of extraordinary beauty, showing two to three levels to which the rock has been worked, producing the effect of moulded bas-reliefs. The engravings depict the animals, familiar from the Bushman paintings, such as Eland and Kudoo antelopes. The eyes of these animals appear to be protruding, whereas the sockets are gradually slanting inward. The haunches, on the other hand, protrude again outwards. Conception of movement and execution are purely abstract. Again one is aware of the fact that these so-called ‘beginnings’ of art possibly reached the highest perfection ever attained. There seems to be only one right solution to each artistic problem. The people who executed these engravings were presumably helped by their concentration on magic imagery. Similar results in this oldest and purest form of art were again achieved by different cultures all over the world leading in an unbroken chain right up to the first and greatest Italian engravers who showed a similar conception of line. They, too, created a line, which is more than a delineation of space, but creates a dimension in which moving volumes are linked to the surrounding space. At the beginning of art was the line cutting into space; colour came much later.
Sometimes certain exterior conditions may help us considerably in finding the solution to artistic problems which have so far remained unsolved . Thus is happened that the enormous spaces, which the eye takes in South Africa, transcended anything had perceived so far and suddenly made it quite clear that space in itself is a purely relative problem. An image constructed on an assumed space can ring truer, and convey far more, than factual reproductions of observed space relations. The important point is that the space relationship should ring true in a picture. A convincing example would be the so-called early Italian primitives where everything is completely out of proportion, but which, nevertheless, ring true because the immense emotion felt by the artist is truly conveyed. It would appear that nowadays the splitting up of a surface in a picture, practised by the young artists, convinces only if more is conveyed than just an assembly of space particles. This seems true, even if a dynamic power is fully expressed in the picture.
Certain landscapes in this country add a timeless element to the visible formations, transgressing the perceived forms.
Austerity in a landscape will act on the observer more strongly than a flourishing exterior, and so it happens that the coastal areas covered with magnificent vegetation were obliterated. The real structure is more visible in the arid, half-deserts of the Karoo and the Kalahari. Here nothing detracts from the structure of the land, and it is in these areas that space relations suddenly become clear.
On Sunday mornings the Africans working in the gold mines perform their tribal dances. It is a very big occasion, and all around the small arena cluster the spectators. The Africans line up on the sunny side; the white people in the shade. These dances are performed strictly by each ethnic group working in the mines. The extraordinary thing is that the conception of rhythm underlying each performance varies from tribe to tribe. Most impressive of all was a dance performed by twelve massive natives where a few sharp, rhythmic movements ended in a terrific co-ordinated stamping of the right foot on to the ground. The ground literally shook and trembled each time this happened. Musical illustration was given by tribal orchestras, either in singing groups or playing percussion instruments. Natives from Portuguese Angola performed the most extraordinary stilt dance (standing at least 10 feet high). The headgear of the dancers consisted of stylised masks, overshadowing the faces and created a most eerie impression.
D. E. RIESER 1979