Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Big-eyed art fraud

Margaret & Walter & children

I'm looking forward to the Tim Burton biopic on the big-eyed art fraud of the century. Walter Keane's 1960s paintings of big-eyed children were apparently really created by his wife, Margaret. The Guardian did a very nice story about it. There was one passage in particular that struck me:

"This story begins in Berlin in 1946. A young American named Walter Keane was in Europe to learn how to be a painter. And there he was, staring heartbroken at the big-eyed children fighting over scraps of food in the rubbish. As he would later write: “As if goaded by a kind of frantic despair, I sketched these dirty, ragged little victims of the war with their bruised, lacerated minds and bodies, their matted hair and runny noses. Here my life as a painter began in earnest.”"

The bit about his life as a painter is a lie, apparently, but the bit about the children rings true to me. As it happens, my mother was one of those ragged post-war children in Berlin. She doesn't have any stories of fighting with the other children, but she does have plenty of stories about running along trains full of GIs throwing sweets and sliced white bread from the windows. And picking crumbs of coal from the gravel, then carrying them home in a tin to heat their little flat. Knowing how fastidious my grandma was, I can't see my mother's hair being matted, no matter how poor they were. But as for the bruised minds, yes, that's probably quite an accurate description. So amid all of Keane's lies, there are some little coal-crumbs of truth.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Do you know this woman?

Whenever I research a novel, there comes a point where I arrive at a little green door. It's not actually a little green door, I just think of it that way. On the green door is a plaque with a startling historical fact that challenges all my assumptions and changes the way I think about the world. Most likely it'll be something seemingly small and subtle, as well as counter-intuitive and improbable. For example, I could be reading about two people who were friends or lovers at a time when such a connection should not have been possible, according to the social codes of the era.

So I arrive at the green door, I'm intrigued, I open it, and guess what? There's a whole party going on, a room full of people, conversations, connections that somehow haven't made it into mainstream history. This party tends to be so fascinating that I forget all about my novel and spend a few weeks or even months there, catching up on all these stories I never knew existed. After a while, I decide to go back to writing my novel, knowing that some of what I saw at that party will make it into the story, but most of it won't.

For my current novel-in-progress, the little green door is actually a painting. It was created by Pan Yuliang, a brave and unusual woman who was born in China in 1895 and went on to become a celebrated avantgarde artist in Paris. There are hundreds of accounts of Pan Yuliang's life on the Internet. Most of them say that she was sold into a brothel as a child and ended up marrying one of her clients, who then paid for her to go to art school in Shanghai. Apparently this story is not true. Sadly, there's a lack of reliable accounts of her life, thought over the past few years, scholars seem to have taken a renewed interest in her.

Well, I was noodling around on the Internet, looking at Pan's Parisian paintings, when I came across the one shown above.

Who is this woman?

The painting seems to be from the 1930s. Most artists in Paris at the time were white and male, most models were white. Yet here was an Asian woman painting a nude portrait of a Black woman. The drawings in the background seem to hint at some African connection, though that doesn't mean the woman would have necessarily been African - she could have been African-American, or a Frenchwoman from somewhere like Martinique. I couldn't find any reference to her, though I did come across another Pan Yuliang portrait of possibly the same woman.

From Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/spkushner/1411131776/in/set-72157602091277443

Were they friends? Acquaintances? Was the black woman also a painter? A professional sitter? A celebrity of some sort, or just someone Pan Yuliang met by chance and found inspiring? It's a beautiful portrait, and without going too deeply into the "male gaze" debate in art, I think it's noticeable how different it is from most traditional (and indeed avant-garde) female nudes. The model is not offering herself to the viewer in the traditional full-frontal, available way. She is naked, but not exposed. Her gaze is sceptical rather than flirty. It's a very sensual painting, but there is also a sense of ease and familiarity.

Well, I looked and looked but I could not find out who this woman was. So I checked out possible candidates. There was a boom in black entertainment in Paris in the 20s and 30s, and the most famous artist in that scene was obviously Josephine Baker. I found plenty of photos online of Baker wiggling her hips and rolling her eyes, and then I came across this one:

Look at the eyes, the mouth and the facial expression. Now take another look at the nude:

I thought the resemblance was pretty striking.

The other portrait seems to hang in China's Capital Museum. I used to hate people who walk through museums snapping all the paintings, but now I'm grateful. Again, the eyes, mouth and expression kind of match the photo of Baker.

From Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/spkushner/1411131776/in/set-72157602091277443

Sadly, the museum's website doesn't seem to have any information on the painting or the model. If the paintings are indeed of Baker, the connection between the two women becomes even more interesting. After all, Baker was known to be close to many avant-garde artists. Apparently, she had an affair with Frida Kahlo when the Mexican painter was visiting Paris. Baker also had affairs with other women. Even if Pan Yuliang did paint Baker in the nude, this obviously doesn't mean they were romantically involved. But still, it's an intriguing possibility.

So that was the green door. I opened it. I spent far too much time trying to find out who the woman in the painting was. And then I started looking up other European avant-garde paintings of people of colour. There are more than you might think. An excellent project called The Image of the Black in Western Art has made it its mission to document this hidden seam in art history. Once you start noticing it, you will never think of European art history - or indeed European society - the same way. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, Europe was much more multi-cultural than is often assumed. But many of these paintings were lost or forgotten because of the Nazi persecution of modern artists. Other paintings were preserved but clearly not considered important enough to identify the sitter. There is also a self-reinforcing narrative bias, whereby later writings and works of art tend to refer to the dominant cultural model of the time and ignore artists and models who seemed to be outliers. Anyway, here are a few examples:

Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, model unknown? Kirchner was labelled a "degenerate artist" by the Nazis and committed suicide in exile. He worked with several men and women of colour, mostly circus performers. 

Elfriede Lohse-Waechter, "Jealousy", 1929. Lohse-Waechter was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and murdered by the Nazis under their euthanasia programme.

Christian Schad, "Agosta and Rasha", 1929 (Tate Modern). Unlike most of his contemporaries, Schad was not persecuted by the Nazis, possibly because he was not that famous, or because his style was relatively traditional.

Felix Vallotton, La Blanche et La Noire, 1913. So mysterious and intriguing, but sadly, nothing is known about the models.

Shalva Kikodze, Paris 1920. I thought the woman in the centre could be Baker but it doesn't fit with her biographical dates. Model unknown?

Josephine Baker by Picasso's friend, Kees van Dongen. I'm not a big fan of this painting. When you compare it with Pan's painting, it's almost as if van Dongen captures the stage-Josephine - all banana skirt and rolling eyes - whereas Pan captures the woman behind the mask. I know, I'm getting carried away, it may not even be Baker.

Jan Sluiters, Tonia Stieltjes, 1922 or so. Sluiters was a Dutch painter, Stieltjes was his mistress.

That's it for today. Time to get back to work. But if you've come across any striking portraits of men/women of colour in the pre-1945 period, do get in touch. And if you happen to know anything about a possible friendship between Pan and Baker, definitely get in touch.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Another thing women can't do, apparently

Look, Tom! Medieval female celebrity chefs.

Infuriating headline of the day: Michelin-starred chef says women don't have the "fire" to make it to the top.

It amazes me that in every single career, but really every single one, there's a man saying women can't excel in it. Not in the Middle Ages, but now. 

Georg Baselitz - "Women can't paint". 

VS Naipaul - "Women can't write." 

Larry Summers: "Women can't do science." 

And most recently, this Tom Kerridge chef character: "Women can't be top chefs." 

Is there anything we can do? Ah, right, we can be muses, models and little helpers. 

You'll never make it to the top, dear, but there's something so soothing and pretty about watching you pose for my painting, help me with my research, wash my petri dishes and chop some onions for my molecular kidney pie.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Yom Kippur in A&E

Yom Kippur was a bit different this year as my husband's appendix started bursting half-way through Kol Nidre. The good news was that he was ready to be operated on as he'd been fasting anyway. The bad news was that there was no one around to operate him as we were in a super chaotic A&E with plastic bottles of stale pee left in the corner to ferment, and nurses asking him if he could remember how much morphine he'd been given as they were worried about overdosing.

When I went off to find a nurse for more morphine, I spotted a young Hasidic couple. The Hasidim  always seem to exist in some parallel world, certainly some parallel time, with their big hats and beards and shiny black coats and, for the women, wigs and headscarves. But we were all in A&E, and all going through the same experience of dealing with the A&E chaos on an empty stomach, so I wished them a loud and cheerful Shana Tova. They stared at me as if a Martian had just opened her mouth and started speaking Hebrew.

On my way back from the nurse, they had overcome their initial shock, and after confirming that I was Jewish, started to share their woes with me. The woman was pregnant, had started bleeding a little, was waiting for someone to confirm that the baby was okay.

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "You must be so worried. Is this your first pregnancy?"

"No," she said, "My seventh."

By the time we had covered each of her pregnancies, births, and various other child-related subjects, my head was spinning a bit and I also remembered that poor Dan was sitting there in his cubicle, craving more morphine. The Hasidim decided that they should wish him a happy new year and generally cheer him up a bit, so they came along as well. Dan looked very happy to see me, and very surprised to see I'd brought two Hasidim with me.

Their baby was fine in the end, and they went back to Stamford Hill and their own little universe. Dan and I stayed - it took another 24 hours until they eventually whipped out his bursting appendix. We missed all the other Yom Kippur services. But somehow a hospital seemed a pretty suitable setting for atonement. After all, it's not often that you get to fast with the Hasidim.

(Note: apparently 15,000 Hasidim live in Stamford Hill! Europe's largest Hasidic community.)

Friday, 3 October 2014

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Ways of Seeing

I've started a PhD in creative writing at Goldsmiths College, which happens to be a great fit for my next novel on art and art forgers. The campus has a strong arty vibe (Damien Hirst et al went to Goldsmiths). Every time I attend a lecture or seminar there, I find myself scribbling down lots of intriguing fine art references. Last night I went to a talk on women and theatre in the 1970s. An actress read a passage on the male gaze in art by John Berger - it was brilliant and finally prompted me to look up his groundbreaking TV series, Ways of Seeing. Turns out they made pretty good television in 1971. The special effects are low-tech but very clever. I particularly like Berger's existential earnestness, the way he clarifies right away that we're not just going to be watching a programme about pretty pictures:

"We shall also discover something about ourselves and the situation in which we are living."


Friday, 15 August 2014

Berlin dispatch

Friday evening yoga in Berlin, feisty yoga lady next to me: "Well I never join in with all the chanting because what if I chant one of those mantras and then I find out it means Heil Hitler." ‪#‎ThatsOneWayOfLookingAtIt‬