Robespierre: Incorruptible or Tyrant?

Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most is a new book on the revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794). Written by prominent French intellectual Marcel Gauchet (b. 1946), it presents a personal view of the problem of Robespierre. For the supporter of humanism and secularism, Robespierre is both a hero and villain, embodying the best and worst of human nature. Rather than a biography that mines primary sources, Gauchet’s book traces Robespierre’s actions during the Revolution. Even today, Robespierre has supporters (who consider him a misled pioneer of human rights) and detractors (who view him as a reckless, paranoid autocrat).

Gauchet is a philosopher, professor of social sciences and prolific author. Gauchet comes at the subject as a moderate Socialist with liberalist tendencies. (By British standards, he would be considered a left of centre.) In the introduction to Gauchet’s book (originally published in 2018), David A. Bell and Hugo Drochon frame Gauchet’s argument. They give biographical sketches of Robespierre and Gauchet to inform non-French readers about background. The translation reads well but the decision not to translate long titles of speeches and pamphlets will vex non-Francophones.

Well-educated (as a lawyer), intelligent and hardworking, Robespierre was a member of the Legislative Assembly when the Revolution commenced. He was initially a principled liberalist, arguing for a constitutional figurehead monarchy, the extension of the franchise and ending capital punishment. He was a tireless advocate for acceptance of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Initially an unimportant figure, Robespierre’s eloquent speeches attracted admiration. Part of the Montagnard faction in the newly elected Convention in 1792, Robespierre became ever more extreme.

By the spring of 1793, Robespierre was at the head of the Committee of Public Safety, the new Republic’s government. He used his legal training and oratorical skills to justify the Terror, during which over ten thousand were executed as counter-revolutionaries after show trials. According to Robespierre, the torrential bloodletting and curbs on freedom were only ever extraordinary measures, temporary, contingent and regrettably necessary in the face of counter-revolutionary activities domestic and foreign. When Robespierre’s accelerating regime of fratricide was on the verge of threatening virtually every member of the Convention, the members turned on him. Denounced and arrested, Robespierre was sent to the guillotine on 10 Thermidor, Year 2 (28 July 1794).      

The legacy of the French Revolution (in France) was the establishment of a secular state, institution of democracy, the supremacy of humanism as a national value, the enforced fusion of the wishes of individuals with the intentions of the state and the authority of the state to control and kill citizens in the furtherance of its continuation. Robespierre’s intentions were utopian and it is precisely because they were impossible that the failure to implement his policies in practice led to violence. When an ideologue encounters opposition, it is merely a test of his resolve and his enemies are the enemies of the people and it is in the name of the people that the ideologue will put to the sword their enemies.

This quote shows Robespierre at his most trenchant. “There are now only two parties in France, the people and their enemies. All these rogues and scoundrels, who eternally conspire against the rights of man and against the happiness of all peoples, must be exterminated. […] There are only two parties, one of men who are corrupt, the other of men who are virtuous.” Here we have the cry of the political radical throughout the ages, echoing unchanged.

Gauchet has precepts which – while it would be insulting to describe as unexamined – verge on the banal. The Revolution was terrible because of the bloodshed but the establishment of democracy was worth it. (“The truth is that the ends were just and the means were horrifying.”) Was it? There are strong arguments against democracy (as presented in my article here), and Gauchet’s blithe assumption asks too much of a critical readership. French monarchists and staunch Catholics actively opposed democracy until the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

Robespierre was no atheist. His promotion of the Cult of the Supreme Being – an abstraction of rationalism, scientism or humanism, call it what you will – was not the act of a cynical atheist but the act of a believer. His own need for religion led him to found a state religion, in order to unify people and provide a spiritual justification for the radical social changes wrought by the Revolution. Robespierre (according to Gauchet) probably had to force through the decree of the worship of the Supreme Being despite the hostility or scepticism of the Committee for Public Safety. It was the deep antipathy of the Convention towards that decree that sparked Robespierre’s show trials of moderates, which frightened and angered members and led to his downfall.  

Gauchet finds much to admire in Robespierre: his opposition to slavery, his championing of the common man, the support for human rights, his brilliant speeches. Gauchet, as a centrist, perhaps predictably considers Robespierre neither “saint or the demon that he has so comprehensively and so complacently been made out to be. The roles of heroic martyr or bloodstained monster in which most historians have tried to confine him are of little use in discovering who he was and what his life meant.”

Gauchet interprets his subject as driven by circumstances. He was made by 1789 and was transformed into an extremist by the storming of the Tuileries Gardens on 10 August 1792. Gauchet rejects interpretations that dig into Robespierre’s biography or attempt to provide a psychological explanation to his actions. The result is that Gauchet’s Robespierre can seem like mechanical soldier, walking implacably in any direction into which he is set, like a chattering automaton without free will.

Gauchet (and modern French intellectuals) erroneously divides people into those who revile Robespierre for his murderous callousness but admire his ideals and those who regret his excesses but consider his aims and achievements ultimately worth the price. There is a disregarded third group – those who reject the values of the French Revolution. Ultimately, Robespierre can only seem heroic if you consider his values worthwhile and his values definitely are contestable.

Gauchet’s Robespierre sets out the autocratic and liberal facets of his subject but it goes no further because Gauchet cannot see further, with one exception. Gauchet writes something insightful when he describes Robespierre’s fatalism before his removal from power. Robespierre’s religious devotion to the cause of the emancipation of the French people had a martyr-like quality. “Ultimately, self-abnegation, the surrender to something greater than oneself, could be motivated only by the conviction that by acting in this way one could once more act in accordance with the design of the supreme arbiter of all things. In the absence of a shared recognition of some higher authority than man, there could be no justice among men.”

Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most is, notwithstanding the limited perspective of the author, an accessible current-day overview of a pivotal figure in French history.

Marcel Gauchet,  Malcolm DeBevoise (trans.), Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most, 3 May 2022, Princeton University Press, cloth hardback, 200pp + xxii, £28, ISBN 978 0 691 21294 4

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

“Fernando Pessoa, Shadow of a Ghost”

“If, after I die, they should want to write my biography,

There’s nothing simpler.

I’ve just two dates – of my birth, and of my death.

In between the one thing and the other all the days are mine. […]

– ‘lf, After I Die’, Fernando Pessoa writing as Alberto Caiero

“He led a respectable life. He wore smart clothes to the office. He wrote and translated material, sometimes with a flourish that belied his extramural activities. He was courteous and a touch playful, a bachelor in his thirties. He was given to using spare time to write at his desk. At the end of the work day, he would put on his hat and raincoat and walk through the capital’s streets, thinking of his latest project. Perhaps he would go to his usual café, where he would see friends. They admired him as a writer, appreciating his abilities, chiding him for his perfectionism. He published a little but they knew he wrestled with larger work which was not made public, even to them. When he died he was mourned by his friends and his readers but they did not realise what a giant he had been. In time, he would come to define their whole nation.

“This could be a description of Franz Kafka but it is not. American Richard Zenith is a leading authority on Fernando Pessoa. He has edited and translated Pessoa’s writing. Living in Lisbon, Zenith inhabits Pessoa’s home city, relic of a glorious age and scene of an inexorable decline. It is a testament to Zenith’s devotion and ingenuity that he has managed to produce a 1,000-page biography of a figure whom he describes as ‘fanatically private.’ There is no autobiography; there are few revealing letters; the most informative ones are the drafts and unsent (mostly unfinished) letters he kept. There were no direct descendants. There are three diaries with short factual entries that together cover a total of over half a year. Zenith describes the interviews and memoirs of those who knew Pessoa as uninformative – or at least informative on how reserved the subject was. Pessoa was well aware of this and seemed to have actively participated in this occlusion. He was much given to self-reflection and intimations of both immortality and obscurity….”

Read the full review on The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2021/12/27/fernando-pessoa-shadow-of-a-ghost/

Toyen, Magnetic Woman

The first English-language overview of Czech Surrealist artist Toyen (Marie Čermínová, 1902-1980) corrects a longstanding lacuna in English literature on Surrealism. Surrealism studies has been expanding its range over decades. Central and Eastern Europe have been poorly served however, particularly because of lack of access to records during the Communist era and the relative dearth of Surrealist scholars able to speak the relevant languages.

As Karla Huebner, associate professor of art history at Wright State University, explains in her monograph Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, neglect of Toyen’s art is in part her own making. Toyen was not keen to commit her artistic ideas or biographical information to paper, leaving many admirers in her lifetime unclear about the artist’s intentions. André Breton was an admirer of her art and she was involved in post-War Surrealism in Paris – she fled to Paris after the Iron Curtain fell – but she is seen as, if not second rank, certainly second generation. Huebner correctly discerns that post-War Surrealism was (and is) considered a spent force. Even in official histories of the movement, comparatively little attention is paid to the Paris group after 1945. Other reasons are discussed later.

Toyen was born Marie Čermínová, in Prague in 1902, to Catholic parents from Bohemia. Huebner sets out what little she can glean of Toyen’s early life, which (apart from official records) amounts is almost nothing. Between 1919 and 1922, Čermínová attended the Artistic-Industrial School, which was the applied art school in Prague. Her teacher was Emanuel Dítĕ the Younger was an academic painter, but Heubner points out that some notable Czech modernists started their careers under him, so his teaching must not have been deadening. In later years, the artist did not discuss her background with anyone, though it seems she was not estranged, simply keen to protect her privacy (or control public perceptions of her).

Čermínová dressed ambiguously, not presenting as a man but in working clothes more common for men than women. She also wore conventionally feminine clothes. She cut her hair short. Rather than intending to pass as the opposite sex, Čermínová’s diverse styles of dressing suggest variable intentions and moods, an understanding of appropriacy and a studied disregard for convention. “Descriptions of the artist as androgynous or of mutable gender identity emphasize four general characteristics: 1) cross-dressing, especially in rough and working-class manner; 2) walking with an unusual, apparently unladylike, gait; 3) use of the masculine gender in Czech (though not, apparently, in French); and 4) attraction to women.”

Image: “2.1 A studio photograph used for publicity. Toyen, circa 1928. Photographer unknown. LA PNP.”

Čermínová was a successful and prolific designer of book jackets and illustrations, starting in 1923. That was the same year she joined the Devĕtsil Modernist movement, which Huebner describes as an avant-garde movement with cosmopolitan attitudes, which saw itself as internationalist – partly to step outside the Czech nationalist revival (Nationalist Awakening), that had begun around 1900. The Devĕtsil members had their roots in the Decadent Movement of the 1890s. It was upon her joining the movement that she was given the name “Toyen”, which she would use for the rest of her life, personally and professionally (if not legally).

From 1922 until his death in 1942, Toyen was the partner of Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942). Štyrský started as a latter-day follower of the Decadents. He had an interest in potent provocative literature, dreams and occultism – a good grounding for a future Surrealist. He was a painter with a pronounced preoccupation with death, decay, ruin, as well as the erotic. He worked as a painter, although it is for his montages – especially with pornographic elements – that he is best known for today. The couple apparently collaborated on different levels, consulting each other about choices and sometimes working on pieces together. They frequently exhibited together, with prices comparable. Štyrský and Toyen were considered a social and artistic pairing, Toyen not as a junior partner or follower. Magazine spreads show that their art was given equal prominence. There seems to have been no condescension towards women in the Devĕtsil group, though (again) apparently few participated.

Huebner describes how the Prague proto-Surrealists were a vital force in the mid-1920s, just as the Paris group was graduating from Dadaism to Surrealism. (This was despite the fact that the Prague group was not officially founded until 1934.) There was apparently rivalry between the groups for intellectual leadership of the movement. In 1925 Toyen and Štyrský moved to Paris. The book contains much discussion of the pair’s personal and artistic fascination with sex, so much more easily accessible and public in Paris than elsewhere. Sex was a major theme of the pair’s art. Toyen’s paintings and sketches include revue bars, prostitution, lesbianism, orgies and other sexual imagery, made in a naïve style.

Image: “0.2. Toyen’s work began to signal an interest in androgyny by the early 1930s. Toyen, untitled drawing in the Erotická revue 2 (1932).”

Toyen’s erotic illustrations are playful and vary in detail, ranging from the primitive to the sophisticated over-layering found in Surrealist photomontages. The lines can be sensitive and elegant. The imagery includes the ribaldry of pornography, the sophistication of Beardsley and the juxtapositions of Surrealism. The sheer amount of work indicates Toyen’s serious artistic investment in this field. Toyen and Štyrský published illustrated erotic books and her illustrations in Štyrský’s Erotická Revue (1930–33). Štyrský was sympathetic to Bataille’s dissident Documents group, which focused on the power of sex, the concept of the informe and the concentration on sadism. This book should establish Toyen as a major artist of the erotic.

The pair’s work earliest art in Paris was semi-abstract paintings, influenced by Cubism and Purism; it was described as “artificialist”. It is tepid fare. The ambivalence of Breton and the Surrealist poets towards art meant that painting in early Surrealist period was ancillary. Breton started writing in 1925 of “Le surréalisme et la peinture”, distinguishing and dividing the two entities with the conjunctive “and”. Toyen and Štyrský spent the late 1920s resisting Surrealism, all the time becoming more familiar with it, swimming in the waters of the movement that dominated inter-war Paris. Huebner says that once Toyen committed to Surrealism, she did it wholeheartedly and became the central figure of Czech Surrealism – its unofficial leader. By this time, she was back in Prague. She and Štyrský had returned from Paris in 1928.

This book acts as a survey of Czech Surrealism. It explains the significance of major actors, important events and the tensions between Surrealism and Communism. The paucity of personal papers means that Toyen disappears a little in some sections. She comes back into focus during the Occupation and World War II, during which she stayed in Prague, sheltering a half-Jewish artist Jindřich Heisler (1914-1953) from Nazi arrest and transportation to concentration camps. In 1942, Štyrský died of pneumonia, exacerbated by alcoholism. It was in 1944 that Toyen produced Hide Yourself, War!, nine ink illustrations featuring animal skeletons in devastated landscapes. They are by far Toyen’s best art. The powerful bleakness, graphic crispness and wonderfully modulated shading give these apparitions tremendous impact.

Image: “5.22a–i Skeletal figures on flat expanses warn of war’s destruction. Toyen, Schovej se, válko! [Hide Yourself, War!/Cache-­toi guerre!], 1944 (Prague: F. Borový, 1946).”

Occupation of Prague by Soviet forces following the war and the artistically deadening influence of Czech Communists meant that Toyen, despite being politically left, realised her art had no future in her home country. In 1947, Toyen and Heisler (her new partner) moved to Paris. She would reside in France until her death.

It is a little ironic (given the author’s identification of the critical neglect Surrealists after 1945) that relatively little space is given to Toyen’s post-War production. This does turn out to be justified. The author describes how Toyen’s art became more diffuse, mystical in mood, suffused by darkness. This was congruent with Surrealism as a whole, as Breton directed followers to embrace the occult and mysticism. Single hybridised humanoid forms float in stygian voids. Collaged elements (such as mouths and hands cut from magazine pages) are incorporated into painted personages. It is hard not to think of this era as a decline. Toyen’s art was at its best with a sharp graphic bite and limpid clarity. We do find some flickers of success in her post-1945 line drawings but even these are less concisely arranged than her early Surrealism. Toyen’s painting (always weak) becomes forgettable. There is the implicit suggestion of laziness – covering backgrounds and settings with darkness, failing to resolve compositions, not fully articulating motifs. Viewing these pedestrian efforts, is it any wonder Toyen is considered a third-rate painter, when she is considered at all?

There are unanswered questions. Huebner does not discuss how the paintings were made. Did Toyen make preparatory drawings or were the paintings designed on the canvas? Hide Yourself, War! presumably had sources for the skeletons – were they taken from textbooks or drawn from museum specimens? Did Toyen keep sketchbooks? Did she write letters mentioning her technique or including thumbnail sketches? Also, Toyen’s income goes undiscussed. Did she make a living income from fine art or was she obliged to do book-design work? We do not know anything about her living arrangements or daily routines. Did she travel? This is no criticism of the author. It may be that such information is entirely lost. Huebner has rightly discerned that the main priority is to outline Toyen’s art and summarise methods of critiquing it.   

Pick up any large book on Surrealist art and you will find Toyen’s art, but rarely represented by more than a drawing or two or maybe a painting. Little text is given to her. (Less is given to Štyrský.) So, for what reasons (apart from neglect of the post-War period of Surrealism) are Toyen’s art not more reproduced or discussed?

Refreshingly, for an author writing on a female Surrealist, Huebner admits that gender is not the primary reason for the neglect of her subject. “The scholar in pursuit of Toyen encounters some of the usual problems in studying a female artist – the relative paucity of critical sources, the need to research her via male associates – yet not entirely for the usual reasons. Indeed, Toyen’s two artistic partners, Štyrský and Heisler, have received no more attention than she. It is less that her gender has obscured knowledge of her work than that historical circumstances – primarily arising from the Cold War – have obscured her from view.” This point is outlined in the second paragraph of this review.

The frankness of Toyen’s erotic art may have put off some publishers and art historians. The subject of sex is not unknown to the movement (Hans Bellmer made it his central concern), but mainstream publishers can be wary of unambiguously explicit art in titles intended for libraries and schools. The erect phallus (which one does not find in the art of other female Surrealists) is definitely on the indecent side of the line that separates mainstream publishing from specialist publishing. The compiler of any monograph on Toyen cannot avoid including her erotic pictures.

Huebner identifies a key difference between Toyen and other female Surrealists. There is lack of personalisation and a lack of personae in her art. There are no self-portraits, no alter egos and no glamorous avatars in Toyen’s dreamscapes. “Toyen’s avoidance of [the face of the artist] does not negate the possibility of self-referential imagery in her work, but indicates that she did not care to represent herself in an obvious way or as the kind of wild and beautiful woman found in the work of Carrington, Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, and even Valentine Hugo.” This is definitely to Toyen’s disadvantage in terms of popular reception. There is no accessible entry point and no character upon which the female viewer can project herself. Toyen was an attractive woman but unlike the other women Surrealists, she did not model nude for herself or anyone else. Toyen’s aversion to (even disguised/transposed) literary and pictorial autobiography makes her art less attractive to audiences and academics.

Image: “Plate 18. Does the gymnast emerge from or disappear into the wall? Toyen, Relâche [After the Performance], 1943, oil, 109 × 52.5 cm. Alsova Jihočeska galerie, Hluboká nad Vltavou.”

As already described, a strike against Toyen is the fact that she was not a natural painter, being better suited to collage and illustration. Her skill was for graphics – line, composition, reduction – rather than colour, texture and brushwork. This puts her at an immediate disadvantage compared to the major Surrealist artists, who (with the exceptions of sculptor Giacometti and photographer Man Ray) were all painters. Next to the paintings of rich patterns and colours of Leonor Fini, the fairy-tale characters of Leonora Carrington and the haunting plains of Kay Sage, Toyen’s paintings feel a little thin, a touch flat, even drab. The best of Toyen’s art is her illustrations. However unfairly, line drawings and illustrations are judged minor art forms and treated accordingly.  

I disagree with José Pierre’s assessment of Toyen, quoted by Huebner, as “the least acknowledged of the great surrealist painters”.Toyen is not a great painter; she is barely a competent painter. She is a very accomplished draughtsman – at times reaching true greatness. However, due to the minor status of drawing and the other limitations outlined above, Toyen will never be counted as a Surrealist of the highest level by the public. Huebner has very well evaluated and presented the case for Toyen and readers benefit from knowing Toyen and her unique contribution to Surrealism. Magnetic Woman is a major achievement, very enjoyable and greatly informative. The author’s diligence and the clarity of her writing are of the highest standard. The author is well informed about Surrealism and current discussions in gender theory.

For those claiming Toyen as a “transgender” artist, there is disappointing news. Huebner nowhere cites Toyen describing herself as anything other than a woman. Despite using both male and female pronouns regarding herself in Czech, for the majority of her life she spoke principally French. In French, she never used a male pronoun regarding herself. While there is evidence of cross-dressing and some linguistic reframing in one of her two languages, there is nothing here to suggest she considered herself in identity terms such as transgender, transman, transvestite, intersex or anything else. The most that can be said of her is that (at times) she did not act in ways that were considered normatively female – along with a number of other women in that era, who likewise did not consider themselves transgender. It seems that Toyen did not want to be thought of by others as a woman because that might limit her; there is no evidence in this book that she thought of herself as anything other than a woman. She was a woman who acted the ways she wanted to. That in itself is noteworthy and does not need embellishing.

This publication is a rare foray into art history by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Let us hope it will not be the last. The book is well illustrated and handsomely bound in buckram, doing both subject and author credit. A word of advice for anyone who is a devotee of Surrealism, Czech Modernism, erotic art and female Modernist artists: buy this book. Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic is certain to become an essential source book, much sought after and expensive. Buy it now, while you can.

Karla Huebner, Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020, cloth hb, 408pp, 28 col./many mono illus., $100, ISBN 978 0 8229 4647 2

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art, visit www.alexanderadams.art

Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York

I. The Book

Alexander Nemerov (a professor at Stanford University) has written a series of biographical episodes about the art and life of Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and founder of Colour-field Painting (Post-Painterly Abstraction). Nemerov has taken 11 dates, one per year from 1950 to 1960, to write about. These are entrances into different parts of the artist’s life, situating the chapters around specific events. This works adequately. Nemerov has to be flexible about what to include and how much the significance the day has to the chapter, but the framework is secondary to content.  

The 1950s were a decade in which Frankenthaler achieved an astronomical rise in prominence. When the account begins, Frankenthaler was a young painter, a recent graduate, searching for a unique style and place. She had graduated in 1949 from Bennington College, Vermont. Frankenthaler came from a wealthy upper-class Jewish family from New York. Her father had been a New York State Supreme Court justice. His unexpected death in 1940 left the family of a wife and three young girls grieving but financially secure.  

Frankenthaler participated in the 1951 exhibition at a venue on Ninth Street. Only in retrospect was it seen as ground breaking. Frankenthaler became close to Grace Hartigan, who exhibited in that show. More important for Frankenthaler was her first solo exhibition in November of that year. By that time she had already started an affair with Clement Greenberg. Much her elder, Greenberg was the most influential critic of the era. His backing had not exactly made Pollock the most famous (or notorious) painter in America, but his support had certainly seen both Pollock and Greenberg’s stars rise. Frankenthaler met Pollock and his wife Krasner via Greenberg. By this time, Pollock and Krasner lived on Long Island. Greenberg and Frankenthaler went out to visit them. Frankenthaler took much from Pollock. He was an example of a great and serious painter. His art was exhilarating. She viewed Pollock’s 1950 exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, which contained Pollock’s greatest drip paintings, and this transformed her idea of what painting could be.

On 26 October 1952, Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea. It was painted on raw canvas and unstretched, as Pollock painted. Frankenthaler diluted her paint so that it soaked and stained, rather than remained where poured. This diffuseness was radical. It was lyrical and sensuous. It was different from gestural painting of Pollock and the tight, impermeable surfaces of Malevich and Mondrian. This is seen as the starting point for the Colour-field Painting. Friedel Dzubas, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and others were excited by the painting as saw potential in that art. Others would soon follow. For the first time in history, two occurrences had taken place: a woman had founded a major art movement and a style had been established on a single identifiable day.

On 27 July 1953, Frankenthaler visited the Prado, seeking cultural release from domestic frustrations. Her encounter with Tintoretto and painters of the Spanish Golden Age led her to tackle larger canvases, referring back to art history. On 12 August 1956, Frankenthaler was in Paris with Krasner when the news reached them that Pollock had been killed in a car crash. Frankenthaler did her best to comfort Krasner as she made funeral and travel arrangements by telephone. Following Pollock’s lengthy deterioration into a violent angry drunk, his death ended up freeing both Krasner and Frankenthaler. As Nemerov puts it, “Whatever personal feelings it occasioned, Pollock’s death was also a release. That fall Helen’s paintings became freer, more improvisational, more brazenly indifferent to protocols of “finish.” Some new joy came with the master’s demise; some liberation, inseperable from the pall, fueled her work.”

On 1 August 1958 Frankenthaler and Motherwell were on their honeymoon in Spain and visited the caves of Altamira.  On 16 July they had visited the caves of Lascaux. This was Frankenthaler’s second pilgrimage to the Altamira caves. That had been with a crowd. This time, she and her husband were alone, having bribed the keeper to allow them in during the lunch break. Viewing the paintings by candlelight, surrounded by darkness and silence, the couple wondered at the paintings of bison, horses and deer that had once inhabited ancient Spain. For two painters strongly committed to the primal power of painting and dedicated to paint as a medium, it was a profound experience. Both later made reference to the experience in statements and art.

The year 1959 was a stressful one for Frankenthaler and Motherwell. They took custody of Motherwell’s two young children from his ex-wife, due to her break down. Frankenthaler was at first anxious and disconcerted by the responsibilities of being a stepmother. However, the couple adjusted, had enough money for a nanny and the children grew to trust and like Frankenthaler. It was a bittersweet moment when the girls returned to their mother two years later. Frankenthaler would have no children of her own. Frankenthaler’s 1960 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York, brought a curtain down on the 1950s and her youth. By this time, Pop, Happenings and Conceptual art was in the wings. Politics would drive a wedge between the student artists and the grand Abstract Expressionists. Over barely two decades, Abstract Expressionism would rise, freeze and fade, its practitioners turned into bankable Old Masters in late middle age.    

The book is a brisk read, written in a direct style but informed by a solid grounding in 1950s American culture and the New York School. Nemerov’s familiarity with the biography and art of his subject (and of others in her milieu) is evident. The thorough footnotes will help students and scholars track down sources; the illustrations – colour images of art, photographs of the artist at work and socialising – fill out the narrative. This book will be welcomed by fans of the painter and anyone interested in the New York School.

II. Frankenthaler as “a woman artist”

Discussions about Frankenthaler and the circumstances of women artists is complex. She was a talented painter who made original art – started a new school of painting – and was acclaimed by her peers. On that level, she is a success story, a self-actualised woman artist in a time when there were few top-level female artists. Yet her close connections to critic Clement Greenberg, artist Robert Motherwell and curator Bryan Robertson leave open the inference that her prominence was assisted by these men. If we examine interpretations of Krasner’s career, we find authors and associates suggesting Krasner’s marriage to Pollock impeded her during his lifetime (making her a supernumerary, causing people to view her art as relational to Pollock’s, reducing her productivity) and assisted her after his lifetime (proceeds from the Pollock estate making her financially secure, dealers interested in Pollock’s art treating Krasner’s art favourably in order to win access to his art). Yet Frankenthaler was already part of the New York Abstract Expressionist scene before her relationship with Greenberg. She was already exhibiting and selling art before the affair started. Greenberg may have increased the attention given her art before 1953 (the year Mountains and Sea was first exhibited), but it was in that year that Frankenthaler earned her reputation and had artist followers. It is difficult to see how her romantic connections translated into measurable career advantages, certainly after 1953.

It seems inevitable that an artist as original and driven as Frankenthaler would have broken through in the way she did, even without the encouragement of influential male partners. Greenberg was not a great champion of women artists as a whole. It is possible that the main boost he provided to Frankenthaler was forming a strong social bond with Pollock and Krasner and thereby allowing Frankenthaler to see their art first hand and discuss techniques, material and ideas with two of the most advanced artists in the scene. She admitted that seeing Pollock’s art was a seminal experience for her as a fellow painter. In that sense, Greenberg’s assistance was to help her develop her art, not to advantage her public career.

Frankenthaler’s signature style of staining was seen by some critics and artists as distinctly feminine. The style tended to conform to assumptions about womanly delicacy, as did the lack of evidence of raw physical energy or cultivated athletic dexterity, as found in the art of Pollock and Kline. The paintings contained blooming optical sensations and enveloping expanses rather than staccato brushwork or whipped drips. There were the inferences of woman as producer of fluids, passive, unfirm, labile, unpredictable, unfocused, avatar of untrammelled nature. Such talk betrayed the assumptions of the commentator more than it identified any trait in the painter. Woman as dyer of cloth, maker of decoration and laundress were the cultural shadows flickering through the minds of some in the 1950s and 1960s who saw photographs of Frankenthaler. These same viewers had seen Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Pollock at work, the comparisons were somewhere between boxer and farmer; Pollock was described as a cowboy spinning lariats of paint instead of a lasso.

Frankenthaler’s art was well regarded – especially by the art cognoscenti of Manhattan, Long Island and Provincetown – possibly in part because it was seen as a (incidentally feminine) variant of an existing (incidentally largely masculine) discipline. It was an offshoot or evolution. In stylistic terms, this is correct. Colour-field Painting was developed by Abstract Expressionist painters, in their search to expand their formal range and technical capacities. The inference that it was secondary and subsequent, was one that artists and critics at the time were aware of and it did frame discussions. It is ironic that the first style inescapably founded by a female artist was one that was considered primarily as a development or continuation of a pre-existing school of painting. Even as a leader, Frankenthaler was seen at a secondary rank, as the head of a group which was behind a vanguard. This is a touch unfair whilst being accurate. Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and Colour-field Painting did develop from that existing movement.      

This book does present a good overview of how Frankenthaler’s art was received by contemporaries, though the author is limited by his biographical focus. This book is a suitable entry point for those wishing to investigate this subject in more depth.

Alexander Nemerov, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, Penguin Press, 2021, hardback, 269pp + xviii, illus., $28, ISBN 978 0 525 56018 0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Max Wengraf: Memories of a London Fine Art Dealer

Alex Wengraf (b. 1938) was born in Vienna and became part of the flood of Jewish émigrés to London in the immediate pre-war period. The art world had a large number of Jewish collectors, dealers and scholars. Wengraf was not expected to join the family business and he studied medicine at university. Only with the death of his father was he thrust into the art trade. Wengraf’s memoirs are a free-form stroll through his impressions and recollections.

Wengraf tells us of the charmed lives of family members back in Austria, which so soon turned into a nightmare. The telling takes off the edges, as family tales tend to do. Lives are encapsulated in charming single sentences. Reading the book is like being seated in a leather wingback chair at a club, listening to an affable chap recount his favourite anecdotes. There are few footnotes and most of the text clearly comes from memory, which Wengraf freely admits.  

There are some fascinating examples of sleights of hand within the art world, such as Christie’s attempting to pass of a dealer’s stock as property of the estate of Konrad Adenauer. He met forger Tom Keating and claims he was not taken in by his Velasquez and inadvertently gave him advice. He had to root out Eric Hebborn’s forged drawings that had been sold to Colnaghi’s. (He suggests Hebborn forged little but instead altered period drawings and forged signatures. He did not believe any forger could so convincingly think himself into so many different artists’ mentalities.) He mentions that prisoners at Featherstone Prison were forging Bernard Leach ceramics, including signatures and stamps. “[…] the auction houses only became suspicious because too many new works were being discovered.”  

We glancingly meet some famous figures and get some unsalacious gossip. There are some fun stories, including this: “Stavros Niarchos was going round the Fine Art Society once with a new mistress. She was glamorous beyond lust but had never set foot in an art gallery before. ‘And what are all those red dots on the labels?’ she asked, ‘Does that mean they are not for sale? ‘No,’ the great shipping magnate was heard to say, ‘that means they now cost a little more than before.’”

At times, Wengraf seems less Berenson and more Del Boy. He hung a Trevisani canvas over a radiator and the next day he found the painting slid off and dried to the carpet below. He had been unaware that it had been relined with wax. A curved panel that Wengraf nailed flat in a frame exploded the frame with bang – leaving the panel curved again and the frame destroyed.

The book is illustrated with items that Wengraf might have sold. Well, one presumes so, because the text rarely gets more specific than a creator’s name. they might just be art he admires. Overall, this is an enjoyable canter through a veteran dealer’s memories, light on details and warmly diverting.

Alex Wengraf, Memories of a London Fine Art Dealer, Unicorn, 2020, hardback, 256pp, col. illus., £30, ISBN 978 191 2690701

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art


John Craxton, A Life of Gifts

[Image: (right) John Craxton, 1997. (c) Matthew Thomas]

The recent biographies of Bacon and Freud return us to the post-war milieu of Soho and Fitzrovia. A significant artist from this period was John Craxton (1922-2009). He was a luminary of the Neo-Romantic movement of the 1930s and early 1940s, which sought to depict not so much the events and characters of heroic myths – and the pastoralism of historical past – as to evoke an atmosphere of a pre-industrial age, at times bucolic and primeval, by using milder forms of pictorial Modernism. Like Freud (with whom he had a close but short friendship), Craxton was another well-connected boy wonder in London’s constricted wartime cultural scene.

According to Ian Collins’s new biography John Craxton: A Life of Gifts (not to be confused with a separate 2011 monograph on Craxton by Collins), Craxton had an unsettled childhood and a patchy education, spending time in Sussex, Dorset and elsewhere. He visited Paris in 1939 in search of contact with modern art and attended the Louvre. He took a few classes at the Académie Julian but was essentially self-taught. He was picked up by a publisher in 1940 and his Neo-Romantic illustrations provided him with an entry into the art world. Influenced by Samuel Palmer, Craxton’s early works are monochrome drawings and graphics on paper with paint in muted colours; they feature figures in densely drawn landscapes.

Craxton was part of the (not exclusively homosexual) circle around millionaire collector Peter Watson in that setting that included Freud, Cyril Connolly, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, John Minton and Kenneth Clark. Craxton was homosexual himself and – like many in the Fitzrovia/Soho sets – did not disguise the fact. Craxton fell in with Freud, a contemporary misfit and another enfant terrible of the Fitzrovia set. They met in 1941 and became inseparable until 1947. Both were engaged by pastoral landscapes and the figure, made portraits, admired realism but produced faux naïf art. Collins recounts with élan the pair’s hijinks in bombed London. They worked side by side in their shared Abercorn Place flat, sometimes working on pictures together, sometimes drawing each other. Their styles and subjects overlapped noticeably and it is hard to distinguish a leader and a follower. Later, some of the works in Craxton’s possession were sold as Freuds, much to the latter’s displeasure.   

Watson paid for Craxton to attend life-drawing classes at Goldsmiths College. When he taught there unhappily and unsuccessfully, for only a term. The future art forger Tom Keating responded badly to being corrected by him. Craxton and Freud worked alongside Sutherland on the South Wales coast. Craxton’s range was expanding from ink drawing to conté-and-white-chalk on tinted paper (animal still-lifes, very close to Freud’s) and oil paintings. These have slightly less intensity and detail than Freud’s but have better overall composition and cropping and are slightly more pleasing as pictures.

The Greece that Craxton first visited in 1946 had not begun recovering from war, occupation and civil war. There was a civil war between nationalists and communists ongoing at the time, which would eventually see the communists defeated. Craxton had already acquired an affinity for Greek cuisine in Soho and thought that a hot dry climate would help his health. (Unbeknownst to him, he had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis in London, the cause of constant weakness and inability to put on weight.) The sunshine and good food of Greece inspired Craxton the man, restoring him to health. His new surroundings were immediately evident in his paintings of coastal views, still-lifes, landscapes and figures (mainly sailors, objects of attraction). His landscapes are heavily derived from early Miró.

Craxton went to Poros – lauded by Lawrence Durrell, George Seferis and Henry Miller – where Freud joined him in September 1946. “Lucian would remain in Greece for five months during which he produced the most beautiful work of his life. John never really left, in every sense finding himself in Greece.” Freud painted Craxton and himself, largely deprived of portrait subjects, and made still-lifes of fruit. Craxton was painting simplified townscapes, using the smooth surfaces and subtle brushwork the pair liked. They tapped Lady Norton, wife of diplomat Sir Clifford Norton, in order to sustain themselves in necessities.

Planning a joint exhibition of their Greek art, the pair returned to London in time for the severest winter of the century in Britain, exacerbated by a chronic fuel shortage. Craxton went to Crete in autumn 1947 and responded strongly to the mixture of Greek culture and Minoan art and architecture. Craxton mingled with shepherds and lived in the mountains; he also courted danger by seeking out bandits. Crete would become the centre of his imaginative world and he would henceforth live and work in Crete and London.

The London Gallery showed Craxton and Freud together and separately. Craxton sold well and was more prolific than Freud. Craxton’s scenes of Mediterranean life offered the deprived, ration-bound residents of Great Britain a sunny escape. Wyndham Lewis thought his pictures to be lightweight: “a prettily tinted cocktail, that’s good but does not quite kick hard enough.” While Craxton’s Picasso-inflected art of scenes and people of the sunny South struck a chord and found collectors, they came be viewed as increasingly out of step with the age of Existentialism and the Geometry of Fear.     

In 1951 Frederick Ashton invited Craxton to design the set for the Covent Garden production of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloë. Craxton formed a close but short-lived friendship with lead ballerina Margot Fonteyn, who visited Crete, accompanied by Ashton. The production was considered cutting edge for its modern dress and décor, only receiving full appreciation after it had closed.

Craxton settled in Chania, a port on the coast of Crete. In 1955, Craxton’s penchant for sailors caught him out. He was accused of being a spy who had informed on a gun-running operation to Cyprus. As a foreign bohemian who travelled to London frequently, had links to the British Embassy and caroused with Greek naval men, Craxton was an obvious suspect. It was not true but the suspicion lingered even after his death. Craxton came to speak demotic Greek well and became involved in preserving Cretan heritage, which was disregarded by locals, especially when buildings dated to the Muslim occupation. Once he was suspected of harbouring antiquities. Craxton announced, “I have absolutely nothing Greek (ie antiquities) in the house except men and wine.”  

Exhibitions at Mayor and Leicester galleries met collector demand. His art developed modestly. The curvilinear style that Picasso and Braque used was also found in Minoan murals. The mixture of Modernism and ancient art turned to decorative ends also incorporated Pop Art. The Butcher (1964-6) shows the influence of Patrick Caulfield, Pop Art and hard-edge abstraction, with its emphatic straight outlines and planes of uninflected strong colour. Breaking up surfaces into parallel lines of alternating colour (such as Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67)) the appearance of a tapestry. It is not coincidental that at this time Craxton was examining Byzantine mosaics.


[Image: John Craxton, Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67), oil on canvas, 122 x 244 cm. (c) John Craxton Estate.]

His apparently impressive retrospective in 1967 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery confirmed his ability and the pleasure-giving capacity of his art and also his definitive distance from the critical consensus and fashion. During the Greek military junta (1967-74) Craxton went into exile, considered an undesirable by the regime. He wandered the ports of the Mediterranean in search of a substitute utopia. In 1973 a compensation came in the form of Richard Riley, who became his romantic partner for the rest of Craxton’s life.

When a group of drawings by Craxton and Freud surfaced, Freud disputed them, claiming they had been tampered with. He threatened the gallery with a lawsuit but the exhibition went ahead in 1984. The friendship, which had become distant over the years, was now dead. Freud’s capacity for grudge-bearing and feud-starting was legendary. Although the exhibition was a success, Craxton was hurt by Freud’s anger and Freud’s cutting remarks lingered in his mind until he died, according to friends.

However satisfying the art from the 1940s and 1950s is, one might find a lack of development in Craxton’s production disappointing. He was ultimately somewhat conservative in nature and timid. In his Neo-Romantic work, we see Samuel Palmer resuscitated with Miró and Picasso – all of whom laid out the styles and devices Craxton would use. It is true that not all artists must be original to be dazzling or wonderful, but greatness requires an essential forcefulness and daring, which Craxton lacked. Anyone painting in the 2000s as he did in the 1950s is someone who has the temperament of an artisan rather than an artist.

Another travail of old age was the incident when Craxton was drugged and thieves stole art from his house – including a Miró and a Sutherland. The thieves did not take any Craxtons. “Never losing a sense of humour, he claimed to have been not only robbed but insulted.” His final years were spent in London, where he died in 2009. His ashes were taken to Crete. Shortly before his death, he consented to be interviewed by Ian Collins for this biography and a monograph on his art. Collins has done well to search out personal acquaintances and track down photographs of the art, artist and his circle.

Elements of Craxton the painter remain a little elusive. Did Craxton write statements about his art, have a diary or pen useful letters? How productive was he? Did he destroy much? Did he disavow or criticise any of his work? What was his taste in art made by others? Although Collins adds a little near the end about Craxton’s routine and practices, readers may wish for more time inside the artist’s studio and his head. Yes, the art is enjoyable but did Craxton have strong ideas about what art – specifically his art – should do and not do?    

These cavils should not deter anyone interested in Craxton and his art from reading this thoroughly researched, attractive and vivid biography.

Ian Collins, John Craxton: A Life of Gifts, Yale University Press, 11 May 2021 (UK)/22 June 2021 (USA), hardback, 384pp, 160 illus., $35/£25, ISBN 9780300255294

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Revealing the hidden Hemingway

“In the cycle of a fiction writer, there is a pattern: youthful works, reviews/articles and fiction during the author’s lifetime; then posthumously comes unpublished fiction, journals, collected articles and – finally – letters.

“Letters are the most fugitive of literary texts. They are distributed between numerous recipients and their descendants, sold to collectors, lost, forgotten, destroyed. But they allow us to experience life events from the perspective of the author.

“So it is with Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). In The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 5: 1932-1934, we spend time with him in the Florida Keys, a period when Vanity Fair featured a full-page, full-colour Ernest Hemingway paper doll, captioned ‘Ernest Hemingway, America’s own literary cave man; hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-loving – all for art’s sake’. The paper costumes were Neanderthal, soldier, boulevardier, fisherman and bullfighter. By this point, Hemingway was already working to maintain a macho reputation he himself had promoted: a proper man’s man, but with the sensitivity of a poet and the avant-garde technique of a literary Picasso.

“Hemingway was notorious for exaggerating his masculine achievements, but he had real prowess as a sports fisherman…”

Read the rest of the article on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2021/04/13/revealing-the-hidden-hemingway/ 

The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson, Canadian Painter

[Image: Tom Thomson, public domain]

Tom Thomson (1877-1917) is considered one of the greatest of Canadian artists. His spectacular landscapes of the New Ontario wilderness – composed with vivid colour, passionate brushwork and startling brevity and energy – are considered not only stylistically ground breaking but have become icons of the glory of the Canadian landscape. Alongside the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, Thomson is beloved by Canadians and enthusiasts of Modernist landscape painting worldwide.

Thomson worked in Toronto as a commercial artist, producing lettering and graphic designs for publication. He had been an enthusiastic artist from childhood but began painting seriously in 1913, travelling to the Algonquin Park to capture the sights en plein air, using oil paint on small boards. In 1914 he exhibited publicly for the first time in an open exhibition, meeting with success. Thomson returned to the park each summer, travelling out into the wilderness using a canoe, taking with him tent, survival equipment and provisions as well as painting supplies. According from companions, he was apparently an experienced and judicious outdoorsman, capable of setting fires, pitching tents, hunting, fishing and defending himself against wolves and bears. Due to his frequent visits and long stays, he was regarded as familiar with the landscape and the locals.

[Image: Tom Thomson, The Canoe (1912), oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, public domain]

Death on Canoe Lake

Supposedly, on 7 July 1917, Thomson spent the night drinking with friends at Canoe Lake. It is alleged that this ended in a fistfight, with Thomson fighting either Martin Blecher Jr or Shannon Fraser. Fraser owed Thomson money, though (apparently) they were on good terms. Regarding the war, Thomson was pro-Canada and Blecher pro-Germany and there was bad feeling between them. This was an awkward situation, as Thomson was staying at Mowat Lodge (a large guest house), run by the Blechers. However, this scenario was not mentioned in 1917, only in 1970.

On 8 July, Thomson helped Fraser carry a boat, then went fishing alone in his canoe or he departed for a two-week trip (reports vary). That afternoon, at 3:05 p.m., the undamaged canoe was seen floating upturned by Blecher Jr, who did not report it nor consider it significant. Searches were mounted and George Thomson, the artist’s older brother, visited to help. No trace of Thomson was detected; George was due back at his work and departed. On 16 July, Thomson’s body was found floating in Canoe Lake by Dr Goldwyn Howland, a holidaymaker, and his daughter. As the coroner had not arrived by the following day, Howland was deputised to perform an ad hoc examination. Howland and Robinson examined the body and Howland concluded the cause of death was accidental drowning, perhaps caused by a blow which had left a bruise to the right temple and/or forehead (reports vary). A later report noted a short length of fishing line was wound around his left ankle and cut/snapped. (This was possibly from the rod of Howland’s daughter, who it was claimed had snagged the body underwater and causing it to rise. Others suggest the line was Thomson’s own. An obvious alternative is that it was the line that was used to tow the body to the shore or – more sinisterly – used to tether the body underwater.) No post-mortem was conducted. Due to decomposition and the hot weather, it was decided to inter Thomson in the village cemetery, Mowat Cemetery. The coroner, Dr Ranney, arrived but decided not to disinter the body to perform as post-mortem; instead, he took witness statements and recorded a verdict of accidental drowning.

On 18 July an undertaker sent by the Thomson family disinterred the body and placed it in a fresh coffin for removal to the family plot in Leith Presbyterian Church cemetery, Ontario. Although the formalities were not observed and the undertaker had worked hastily, the park warden permitted the removal of the body. Mark Robinson, a park ranger and friend of Thomson, noted that the excavation in the local cemetery was very shallow, which troubled him. On 21 July, in a closed-coffin funeral, Thomson was reburied in Leith, with his family in attendance.

The Aftermath

Fraser wrangled with the Thomsons over expenses he incurred regarding the recovery and return of Tom’s body. Gradually, the Thomson family became aware Fraser owed Tom the remainder of an unpaid personal loan. Locals did not consider Fraser trustworthy and Tom had become suspicious of him and his wife snooping on his personal life. Fraser had some of Tom’s possessions from his final trip, which he did not return until February. (They were all mundane items – clothing and cooking utensils – no art or writing.) By early 1918, the Thomsons, protective of their reputation and Tom’s legacy, were content to treat his death as a tragic accident.

By 1931, author Blodwen Davies decided to write an expanded appreciation of Thomson. Unbeknownst to her, rumours of suicide or foul play were circulating. Weather was mild, somewhat rainy. There was doubt that a sober man – particularly a known strong swimmer such as Thomson – would drown in placid inland water such as Canoe Lake. Contradictions became more numerous. The coroner recorded – second hand – that the head wound was on the left temple. Yet Dr Ranney cited Howland as recording the wound on the other temple and bleeding from the right ear. When manipulated, it was determined there was air in the lungs, which ruled out death by drowning. Blecher Jr claimed he did not recognise the upturned canoe, yet all Thomson’s acquaintances knew the canoe, which was painted a distinctive dove-grey (or green). The hasty burial of the body despite the imminent announced arrival of the coroner was highly irregular. There was scepticism that the man who exhumed Thomson’s body could have dug up the body, placed it in a metal coffin, soldered it shut and removed the coffin by lantern light in three or four hours at night. Davies pressed for an examination of the Mowat Cemetery in order to establish that it was Thomson’s body that had been exhumed from the small site which had multiple burials close to each other.   

Over the years, more reports emerged, some with perplexing details. One was that the Blechers had retrieved the canoe, which was found floating upright. Robinson’s audio-recorded account, recorded at the end of his life, adds further confusion, as they contradict his earlier statements. It seems that $50 was missing from Thomson’s body – or it was left at his lodgings and disappeared from there. Locals speculated that the affections of Thomson’s close friend or lover Winnifred “Winnie” Trainor (1885-1962) (a local woman) was the subject of rivalry between Thomson and Blecher Jr. However, some close to Thomson (and his family) suggest that Winnie was keener on Thomson than he was on her; Thomson had not mentioned engagement to Winnie to anyone, it seems. There are no reports from people who knew Thomson first hand to contradict this, though second- and third-hand assertions were published much later.

An Unauthorised Exhumation

Without permission, in 1956 a group of men (including William Little) decided to excavate the Mowat cemetery to settle the suspicion that Thomson’s was not the body transferred to Leith. They did find a body, with a skull that had a seeming bullet hole in the left temple. Forensic anthropologists concluded that the shape of the skull and dental characteristics suggested Mongoloid (First Nations/Indian) typology; bones indicated a height of about 5’8” (Thomson was estimated to be 6’0”) and aged 20-30 (Thomson was almost 40), therefore the skeleton was not Thomson’s. One doctor thought that the hole was the result of trepanning, not typical of a gunshot. No bullet was located in the skull, which had no exit wound. It seems impossible to belief that an experienced doctor such as Dr Howland could have missing a bullet wound to the head, especially where the hair would have been short.

The subsequent discussion and William Little’s The Tom Thomson Mystery (1970) foregrounded the suspicion of murder among the general public. Little suggests that he believed that Blecher Jr murdered Thomson by striking him on the head with a paddle by the lakeside. Little’s book – which summarised and published little-known sources – became a key book and powerfully influenced debate. Charles Plewman’s essay and talks in the 1970s suggested that pressure from Winnie regarding marriage had potential driven Thomson to desperation, even to the point of suicide. A still later theory was that Thomson had been killed by accident in the fight of 7 July and that his body was disposed so as to make it appear an accidental death. One of the last survivors of the era, Daphne Crombie, gave interviews in which she says that Fraser’s wife admitted that her that her husband had killed Thomson by accident during the supposed fight of 7 July. Fraser struck Thomson, who had fallen and hit his head on a fire grate, killing him. She had no corroborative evidence to add. By the 1970s, there was a cottage industry of articles, books and television films about Thomson’s death.

Determining the cause of death at a distance, relying on sources that are not full post-mortem examinations, is impossible. Was the bruise to the forehead or temple related to Thomson’s death or was it the result of the reported fight from the previous evening? Was it actually discoloration due to decomposition? Likewise, blood from the ear may be putrefaction fluid leaking from a body that was apparently very swollen and becoming rotten by the time Howland examined it.

In The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact From Fiction, Gregory Klages attempts to patiently unpick the way rumour and legend were added to the Thomson story over the years, with the changing information altering interpretations. Various individual writers became attached to certain theories and sought to defend them over decades, with subsequent books splicing in new snippets of information and paraphrasing information that was already unreliable. Klages rightly dismisses the idea of suicide by voluntary drowning and can see no plausible alternative method of suicide that explains the circumstances. Klages thinks murder is not proven (true), any culprit not identified (also true) and that “we can reasonably and confidently conclude that Tom Thomson was not murdered”[i] – which seems too definitive. With regard to death by murder, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Klages states there is not enough evidence to disbelieve the narrative of Thomson’s body removal from Mowat to Leith.

While Klages can be disparaging of authors, he is at times a little unclear himself. The most contentious point of Klages is “Thomson’s body did not have wounds that suggested trauma or violence.”[ii] Klages attributes the bruise or marking to the temple to post-mortem decomposition and – it seems – the ear blood to decomposition. Yet he also seems to hold out the possibility that these observations indicate the results of an accident. This is unclear. Contusion due to injury due to a fall on a canoe gunwale or rock is still “trauma or violence”, even if it is not deliberate or inflicted by a person. Whether the marks were due to man-inflicted violence, accidental injury or decomposition is indeterminate at this point – though it is possible to assign probabilities to each discrete possibility – and this uncertainty is not compatible with Klages’s definitive dismissal of “trauma or violence” and murder. Klages favours a scenario of Thomson’s canoe hitting a submerged log (common due to the logging industry) and causing Thomson to strike his head on the canoe or log, dying by drowning. There are two problems with this. Firstly, according the Fraser in 1917, the canoe’s two paddles were tied in for portaging. This means that the canoe was not in movement in the water to strike any log. Secondly, drowning is contradicted by the evidence of air in the lungs. Cerebral haemorrhage causing instant death would be feasible, as that would not entail drowning, but it seems that the bruise (if it was a bruise) did not indicate cranial fracture to the examining doctor. Such an injury would have to have taken place while the canoe was stationary. Klages, however, maintains that Thomson’s death was through drowning and not suspicious.

John Little, son of William Little, has written Who Killed Tom Thomson?, published in 2018. Little states up front that he believes the bones found by his father in Mowat Cemetery were Thomson’s. Little introduces new evidence from an elderly local park guide, Ralph Bice, who stated that he had heard that Thomson was a womaniser and a heavy drinker, in fact “a drunken bum”[iii] who “couldn’t paint unless he had a bottle of gin”. According to Bice, Thomson had fallen on his head while drunk and drowned. Yet, these disparaging comments came from an individual who resented Thomson’s celebrity and never spoke to him.    

Little accepts some later additions to the Thomson story – the drunken fight, the fishing line around the ankle (not mentioned by Howland, Ranney or Robinson in 1917), Robinson’s immediate opposition to the accident verdict – and presents some rather distant tales of Thomson as a womaniser. That is not to say these aspects are either impossible or unlikely, simply not contemporaneous. Little is correct in assessing the body buried at Mowat as anomalous. The oddity of the body being in what seemed to be Thomson’s original coffin is unexplained. Even a burial just before it becoming covering the empty coffin debris is hard to understand. There were two recorded burials at the period of Thomson’s burial, with a potential third. There was no record of an Indian being buried then. Yet the forensics report defies Little’s belief that the bones were those of the artist. Little does conclusively prove that no member of the Thomson family saw the body after the exhumation. Little outlines an idea that Thomson was shot, pointing out the weaknesses of the shooting theory.

Little asked a pair of retired police detectives to review the evidence. They rule out suicide and accidental death by drowning. They believe the Mowat body to be Thomson and suspect foul play. Little concurs. Short of DNA testing the reinterred Mowat bones or exhuming the Leith body (ruled out by the Thomson family), there is no way to end the debate over the body identities and no way at all to determine a cause of death.

Gregory Klages, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact From Fiction, Read How You Want, 2017, paperback, 359pp + x, mono illus., £24.99, ISBN 9781525236884

John Little, Who Killed Tom Thomson?, Skyhorse Publishing, 2018, hardback, 409pp + xxxvii, 31 mono illus., C$24.99, ISBN 9781510733381

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

[i] P. 285

[ii] P. 319

[iii] P. xv

Francis Bacon: Francophile

Francis Bacon: Francophile is the first book dedicated to photographs of Bacon taken in France. Bacon first visited Paris in 1926, then again in 1927, to learn French and become acquainted with French culture. The book is edited and introduced by Majid Boustany, founder of the Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, Monaco. The foundation houses many documents and photographs relating to the artist. This handsome book gathers the best of these with photographs by other photographers which are better known. Boustany sets Bacon’s contacts and esteem for French life and culture in context. Eddy Batache (with Reinhard Hassert, good friends of Bacon’s in Paris) writes about Bacon’s everyday responses to Paris and French cuisine and wine, so important to the artist. Yves Peyré writes about Bacon’s reading in French.

The photographs range from casual holiday snapshots to appearances at vernissages up to formal portrait photographs by professional photographers. The first photographs are by Bacon’s cousin Diana Watson, with whom he travelled to Paris in 1932. There are few photos until 1971, when the selection becomes richer with Bacon’s Grand Palais retrospective. The photographs of 26 October 1971 are a psychological profile of Bacon as he greets friends and dignitaries at the opening, all the time knowing that his lover was lying dead in a hotel bathroom. The private views for exhibitions in commercial galleries were big social events, with crowds pressed up against Bacon in order to get signatures.

There are many photographs taken by Batache and Hassert, not only at Bacon’s Paris flat in the Marais, but in visits to other parts of France. Seeing Bacon in chateaux gardens or wine cellars makes a change from the usual studio and museum settings. Visitors noted that Bacon kept his Paris studio apartment much cleaner than his London studio, not least because he slept and lived in a single room. We see Bacon posing on the street or seemingly caught unawares, wearing a glossy black overcoat. Some of the cultural luminaries of the period are seen with him, including Miró, Masson, Hayter and others. Michel Leiris was a personal friend and one of the writers whose general works and essays on Bacon himself Bacon most valued.  

The edition is limited to 206 copies, each sold with a loose photographic print by André Ostier enclosed. It is available only from the Foundation. Francophile is an attractive book sure to be snapped up by Baconophiles.

Majid Boustany (ed.), Francis Bacon: Francophile, Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, hardback, cloth spine, 308pp, over 150 illus., 2020, €295, ISBN 978 2 9552115 33

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Janis Tomlinson: Goya

“The life and art of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) are woven into the history of Europe in Janis A. Tomlinson’s stimulating new biography. His was a life which overlapped the tail end of the Inquisition, the rise of the Enlightenment, revolution, war and the end of the Spain as a major colonial power.

“Goya is often seen as the embodiment of the old Spain: dark, poor, superstitious and living under an absolute monarch. The artist was born in Fuendetodos, near Zaragoza. He began his apprenticeship assisting in gilding frames and altarpieces with Francisco Bayeu (1734-1795). Failing to gain entry to the Royal Academy, Goya undertook a study tour of Italy, from 1769 to 1771, gaining familiarity with advanced Italian art. In these pre-royal patronage years, Goya received income from collector Martin Zapater. Much of our knowledge of the painter’s character and career come from letters written by Goya to Zapater….”

Read my full review in The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/francisco-goya-the-embodiment-of-old-spain/