Gala Dalí: Between Goddess & Monster

9. eric schaal © fundació gala-salvador dalí, figueres, 2018. drets de gala i salvador dalí reservats. fundació gala-salvador dalí, figueres, 2018

[Image: Eric Schaal, Salvador Dalí and Gala working on the “Dream of Venus” pavilion, 1939. © Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018. Image Rights of Gala et Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018.]

I. The Life of Gala

Gala Dalí has had a decidedly mixed public reception. She has been seen as a muse, an enigma, a sensitive cultivator of creativity and a debauched heartbreaker. She is one of the most divisive figures among historians of Surrealism. Her shadow looms large, extending in a Dalínian fashion across the landscape of Surrealism. A number of major creative people were smitten by her – she had relationships with Dalí, Éluard, Ernst and de Chirico, among others – yet many who met her described her as difficult and demanding, commanding more respect than affection from acquaintances. Above all, she is lodged in the memories and imaginations of millions of people as the central recurring subject of the art of her husband Salvador Dalí, who was so devoted to her that he habitually signed himself “Gala Salvador Dalí”.

The English-language translation of the catalogue for a recent exhibition at Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (5 July-14 October 2018) examines the life of Gala Dalí, showing startling photographs and private documents. This is a review of the catalogue.

10. autor desconegut. retrat de gala tête à chateau. drets de gala i salvador dalí reservats. fundaci gala-salvador dalí, figueres, 2018

[Image: Unknown author, Portrait of Gala “Tête à chateau”. © Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018. Image Rights of Gala et Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018.]

Elena “Gala” Ivanovna Diakonova Éluard Dalí was born in Kazan, Russia, 7 September 1894. Suffering at an early age from tuberculosis, Gala was sent by her middle-class family to a mountain sanatorium in Switzerland. On her arrival in 1912, she met the budding poet Paul Éluard (1895-1952). They began a love affair which would, in 1916, lead to marriage. He often wrote about her and her beauty and the hypnotic gaze which inspired many painters, photographers and writers associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements.

She was a complex character but that has often been overlooked because of how reticent she was in some respects. The common accusation that Gala was a gold-digger – in connection with relationships – is unfair. When she left Éluard for the young and poor Dalí in 1929, she took a risk and it seems a genuine emotional commitment on both sides. Her attractions to men never seem materialistic, even though she was materialistic. Gala was both emancipated by her roving eye and also ensnared by her libido. As she exercised her freedom, the more she became dependent on her erotic drive and romantic relationships. The assertion of her independence in sexual matters locked her into a life pattern which led to her being seen publicly as a muse and mistress. Although Estrella de Diego, the catalogue author, fairly notes that views of Russian women and Spaniards were bound up with the influence of Orientalism (as put forth by Edward Said), that point is belaboured. All cultures develop narratives including views of themselves and foreign cultures which assert and reiterate stereotypical traits of in-groups and out-groups. This phenomenon is not unique to Western Europe but a reoccurring universal.

Though the trope of the mysterious devouring goddess – one who charms and repulses, seduces then disposes of lovers – is a cliché it is also an accurate description of the role Gala fulfilled in the Surrealist circle. She was indeed a prolific lover, confident and assertive, frighteningly cutting, inspiring yet personally deeply private, not least about her Russian past and her innermost feelings. Although the cliché is not whole truth, it does describe well Gala’s function as Surrealist muse, whilst neglecting the truth (so far as it is ever attainable) about her inner life.

In 1929 Gala and Éluard travelled to summer in Cadaqués at Dalí’s home. (See my review of Magritte and Dali here.) Gala started an affair with Dalí which led to marriage and lasted until her death. They were constantly together in the early years, attending high-society functions, Surrealist balls and bohemian gatherings, where they partook in séances and answered questionnaires. They were a striking couple, both very attractive and stylishly dressed. When they spent time in New York in the 1930s they became an immediate hit with art collectors and the press. Dalí came to be seen as the mad Surrealist par excellence and the mysterious Gala his aloof and glamorous muse. They spent the 1940s in America, fraternising with Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock, with Dalí making a living painting Surrealist portraits of millionaires. When they returned to Spain in 1949, Dalí was considered a sell-out and a traitor for supporting General Franco. When Dalí announced he would paint religious pictures glorifying the divine majesty of the Catholic faith, with Gala as his model, he was dismissed as shameless publicity-seeker by the Surrealists and followers of Modernist art. In the 1960s, Dalí was considered by many to be an irrelevant clown. He found a new wave of supporters among the hippies and groupies who travelled to the Dalís’ Port Lligat home. His dreamlike imagery was the ideal accompaniment to LSD trips. Dalí’s sexual licentiousness was indulged by androgynous youths on a secluded beach while Dalí held court on a stone throne. (He preferred to watch rather than participate.)

Gala pursued affairs with younger men. Her need for seclusion – she distained the sexual antics of the beach groupies – led to the purchase of a tower at Púbol in 1969. Not far from their house in Port Lligat, this tower would be her private domain and Dalí would not be permitted to visit with written invitation from her. (This was a manifestation of his deep masochism, he declared.) Together, the couple oversaw the renovation and designed decorations, some of which Dalí painted. Others seem to be the work of his studio assistants. Instances of Dalínian inspiration can be seen in the illusionistic murals, the stuffed animals and Surrealist assemblages. This catalogue features many photographs of the tower during Gala’s time and its current state, which is largely as it was. In 1971 Vogue featured photographs of the couple in the tower and the new decorative art works. However, Gala was fanatically private and refused to allow visitors while she was away, restricting access to her tower as much as possible. Púbol is often overlooked by historians, who tend to pass over the artist’s last years in cursory fashion. It was a collaborative project though it is unclear – on the evidence here – who was responsible for which parts. Since the 1990s, the tower has been accessible to visitors.

Gala died in 1982 and was buried in the basement of Púbol tower. Dalí, already ailing with Parkinson-like symptoms and unable to walk, refused to eat and was subsequently fed through a nasal tube. He was incapable of painting due to tremors and deeply depressed. Dalí intended to be buried in the tower next to Gala. He designed the twin tombs to be linked, so that their spirits could hold hands. Upon the death of Dalí, in 1989, the mayor of Figueras stunned people by announcing that in his last days Dalí had confided to him his wish to be interred in the Teatro-Museo in Figueras, making a public announcement that caught everyone off guard. Nobody who knew Dalí believed it was Dalí’s will to be separated from Gala. The mayor had committed a cynical coup by retaining the artist’s body for reasons of civic pride. Before anyone could mount a serious protest, the funeral took place in Figueras. Today, visitors to the museum wander over his gravestone without noticing it.

Dalí should be reburied in Púbol tower beside Gala.

 

II. The Exhibition

The exhibition in Barcelona focused on the life of Gala, stressing her role as muse and collaborator. The description of Gala as a creator is contentious. (This will be discussed in part III.) The exhibition uses photographs, art and possessions from her tower at Púbol as a point of focus which typifies the interaction between her and Dalí. Dalí was only one of the artists in her life, though admittedly the most important to her. The tower is viewed by the curator as a collaboration which reflects not only Gala’s character but as a manifestation of her creativity as a co-creator.

The catalogue reproduces some of her possessions including books, mirrors and icons. She knew the poet Anastasia Tsvietáieva from childhood and in the collection is a copy of one of her books inscribed to Gala from the author, dating from 1974. Many of her books are Russian-language, mainly classics in hardcovers. These, and a few sentimental tokens from Russia, remind us of the unseen side of Gala as a Russian émigré. There are examples of the dresses and jackets that Gala wore in the 1940s and retained. Gala remained slim so the dresses fitted her even decades after she acquired them. There are photographs from her childhood right up into the 1970s. In her very last years, Gala was averse to being photographed. There are other photographs (by no means all late ones) where Gala has scratched off her face, dissatisfied with her appearance – a mark of her vanity and insecurity. Some of the most intriguing photographs are of Gala as a young woman, with Éluard in the sanatorium: standing in the dazzling snow, seated inside with fellow lung patients playing chess or reading a book. A striking couple of photographs show Gala and Éluard dressed as Pierrots. One of the photographs belonged to André Breton

The photographs here of the young couple in the 1930s show the intense affection they felt, their physical intimacy and enjoyment of each other’s company. The photo-booth strips of the couple embracing are some of the most touching instances of their personal chemistry. We see the young lovers living in domestic settings, mixing with fellow Surrealists in galleries and on the beach in Spain. There are photographs by Man Ray, which cemented her reputation as the presiding Surrealist muse. There is the famous face shot of Gala, demonstrating the “gaze that pierces walls”, as Éluard put it. There are photographs of the handsome couple by Beaton and Horst. Poet René Crevel’s close friendship with Gala makes its presence known in their photographs and letters. Crevel’s suicide in 1935 was powerfully felt by both Gala and Dalí. Such friendships make Gala appear more sympathetic than has appeared in biographies of Dalí.

Many photographs of Gala show her as a muse for fashion designers. With her good bone structure and slim yet feminine physique, not to mention her prominence in social circles, meant that she was often given outfits to wear to public events. There is a photograph of her wearing the famous Schiaparelli high-heel hat – a concept that Dalí and Gala had invented for a Surrealist ball, which was developed by the couturiere with their permission.

8. andré caillet. gala amb barret-sabata

[Image:André Caillet. Gala with Elsa Schiaparelli’s shoe-hat inspired by a Salvador Dalí design (1938) André Caillet. París. Image Rights of Gala et Salvador Dalí reserved.
Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018.]

Illustrations include sources photographs of Gala posed for Leda Atomica (1947), Galarina (1945) and other paintings. (Gala was not shy about modelling nude.) There is a 1933 profile photograph which was used for Portrait of Gala with Lobster (1933). The exhibition included many paintings, drawings and prints by Dalí. This shows how frequently Gala appeared in Dalí’s art, often as the central motif. Gala has become an entire world which Dalí’s imagination inhabits and animates. She is the Madonna who floats immaculately (Madonna of Port Lligat), the embodiment of classical grace (Leda Atomica), the eternal woman atomised (The Flesh of the Décolleté of My Wife, Clothed, Outstripping Light at Full Speed), the mysterious paranoiac apparition (My Wife, Nude, Contemplating Her Own Flesh Becoming Stairs, Three Vertebrae of a Column, Sky and Architecture), the dreamt-of woman-child (Remorse), the unknowable figure from an Old Master painting (Sugar Sphinx) and the confidently sexual modern woman (Galarina).

Many of Dalí’s art works featuring Gala were exhibited in the Barcelona display and illustrated in the catalogue. The range was good, taking work form every period. The few late works that are weak show Dalí’s tiredness in the 1960s and 1970s. There are some drawings on tracing paper, showing Dalí traced photographs while preparing paintings. Heliogravures – a method of photo-sensitive transferral of drawing on to an etching plate – show Dalí using technical means to reproduce art. Whilst this is a valid way of producing prints its use disincentives the artist learning of etching technique and developing facility in the medium of etching. Already, by the early 1930s, Dalí was employing shortcuts to create art. Increasing commercial and public pressure to produce art led Dalí to make work with less involvement, including the use of assistants, photo-reprographics and – eventually – licensing others to produce material he would endorse.

6. salvador dalí. la mémoire de la femme-enfant (monumento imperial a la mujer niña), 1929. museo nacional centro de arte reina sofía

[Image:Salvador Dalí, The memory of the woman-child. Imperial monument to the woman child (1929), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Dalí bequest. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2018.]

Happily, most of the art here is made well, with originality and genuine feeling. It includes loans from the Teatro-Museo and prominent museum and private collections. For fans of Dalí there is much here to enjoy, not least the source photographs of Gala that Dalí used. Dalí enthusiasts will be fascinated to see the juxtaposition of art and sources. A handful of art works not made by Dalí but featuring Gala were included.

There are a handful of cadavres exquises in which Gala participated in the display. The game consists of a folded sheet of paper which is passed around, players drawing part of a picture without knowing the rest of it. There is also a version with words. A journal illustration documents a now lost Surrealist assemblage made by Gala. Such objects were commonly made by artists and non-artists in the Surrealist group, so much so that around 1930-2 it was considered a mania. Documentary photographs of Gala, Dalí and a team of fabricators making the Dream of Venus (Dalí’s contribution to the New York World’s Fair of 1939) show Gala’s input into the creative process. The pavilion was part Surrealist environment, part theme-park attraction, part shop-window display; it was dismantled when the fair closed.

Some private cards and letters to and from Gala were exhibited. These include a draft letter to her father in Russia written in 1945. Gala maintained links to her siblings and parents despite her geographic separation. The single greatest contribution this exhibition made was to expose the aspects of Gala not present in the art of others – namely her private reading and her Russian background.

 

III. The Catalogue

This catalogue presents Gala as an active participant in the art that was inspired by her and also suggests she was a sensitive writer, on the basis of her letters and an unfinished memoir fragment. The manuscript was found only recently and published in 2011. On the basis of the short quotes presented here it is definitely an informative and engaging document. Gala acted as Dalí’s translator in their early years in the USA. She managed his career and used charm and tenacity to promote his art. However, one should not over estimate her impact here. Dalí had already achieved considerable success in Spain before he met Gala and there is no reason to think that his unique vision, eccentricity and desire for fame (all established by 1929) would not have carried on to great success without Gala. De Diego moots the possibility that Gala had a hand in Dalí’s published writing, yet beyond evidence that Gala corrected the French of The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí she presents nothing more than conjecture. No doubt some of Dali’s writing springs from conversations with Gala but – again – Dalí was already a prolific writer before he met Gala.

2.salvador dalí. gala placidia. galatea de les esferes. 1952

[Image: Salvador Dalí, Gala Placidia. Galatea of the Spheres (1952), Fundació Gala- Salvador Dalí, Figueres. Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2018.]

It seems that Gala was content to work with and through other creative people rather than presenting herself as the primary creator. She published very little. De Diego notes Gala’s preface to an early volume of Éluard poems. Ultimately, it seemed collaboration as a model satisfied Gala adequately. It may be that she was uncertain of her abilities and, surrounded by acclaimed authors, was diffident about presenting her writing. There certainly seems to be sufficient material of high to warrant a collection of writings including her memoirs, occasional pieces and letters being published an independent volume.

As a biographical study (admittedly not a full biography) the catalogue text by Estrella de Diego is gravely flawed. Anna Maria, Dalí’s sister, is not covered in much depth and her importance is not made clear. The siblings were very close and Anna Maria is the subject of many early portraits. Anna Maria and Gala disliked each other from that start and a mutual rift opened between (on one side) Anna Maria and Dalí senior and (on the other) Dalí and Gala. Another omission is Cécile, Gala’s daughter with Éluard, who was treated poorly by her mother: abandoned in childhood and rejected in adulthood. Following Gala’s death, Cécile traded the Dalí art she had for photographs and letters relating to her father in her mother’s estate. Gala’s dislike for her own motherhood and her coldness towards her daughter are virtually missing from this account. De Diego suggests that the complete absence of Cécile from Gala’s draft memoir text was something that Gala would have gone back and added later. One wonders though.

De Diego sets forth “Gala the creator with no apparent work”.  She also sees Gala as co-creator of Dalí’s art, partly on the basis of here presence in his art, Dalí’s signature of “Gala Salvador Dalí” and his constant references to her in public statements about his ideas and art. This leads her into ideas of devolved authorship of art and concepts proposed by Post-Modernists. These arguments are no more or less comprehensible or compelling than any other argued along Post-Modernist lines. The idea that the tower of Pubol is akin to a conceptual work of art may have validity. However, de Diego’s other claim that the Teatro-Museo is not a conceptual work of art – due to it prioritising the staging of pre-existing art and being a public space – is unsupportable. Much of the experience of visiting the Teatro-Museo is a conceptual staging of art, collaborations and assemblages made specifically for the location. Indeed, the existence of the museum, which occupies a theatre from Dalí’s childhood reconceptualised as a partially ruined, partially transformed stage for his art, is a conceptual project.

The author draws parallels between Gala and other creators in a tenuous fashion. Due to the limited public understanding of Gala, this catalogue might better have been spent describing her activities using quotes from letters and her incomplete memoirs, including the personal photographs of Gala and Dalí’s photographs for paintings, in order to expand general knowledge about Gala. There is a comprehensive chronology which will be a resource for researchers; it is an indication of what this catalogue could have been.

Perhaps one reason de Diego prefers to dwell on speculative parallels with Claude Cahun  and Georgia O’Keeffe rather than discussing Gala’s life is the moral murkiness. That is not a reference to the Dalís’ open marriage – a matter to be negotiated in private by the couple themselves – but rather Gala’s involvement in unethical behaviour. De Diego omits verified tales of Gala driving Dalí on produce more and more commercial work, with much of which he had little creative involvement. Dalí authorised sculptures of works made by craftsmen – including series of variations fraudulently produced in “extra” editions. Dalí signed tens (possibly over a hundred) thousand blank sheets for production of prints authorised, pirated and outright faked. This did immense damage to Dalí’s artistic reputation. The art world is flooded with fake Dalís, as even Dalí experts and museums admit. Gala was complicit in this fraud.

Dalí had a compulsion for debasing both himself and those around him, taking pleasure in watching associates bend their morals until they snapped, giving in to their greed. Yet, had Gala exerted her personal power, she could have prevented or curbed this. Gala was involved in fraud, currency smuggling, tax evasion and forgery. She carried suitcases of undeclared cash on flights; she travelled from Paris to New York to deposit cheques in her bank to evade Spanish tax. Gala participated at every level in Dalí’s personal, artistic and legal corruption and the subsequent defrauding of thousands of Dalí collectors.

This is only one aspect of Gala but it is central because it is tied to her acquisitiveness and selfishness. This corruption is nowhere mentioned in this book. Yes, Gala has been maligned and this book sought to bring out Gala’s creative side and her connections to artists and writers but without acknowledging the dark side of Gala’s character we get a portrait that is unrecognisable. Readers of this book will come away knowing only half of Gala.

De Diego makes a warranted case for assessing Gala in a more sympathetic and rounded manner. The letters, photographs and personal items she has encountered in the Dalí Museums collection (and presented in this exhibition) are enough to provide evidence of Gala’s complexity, cultured nature and creativity. However, on the evidence of this book, de Diego is a poor advocate. The author’s attacks on André Breton achieve the unimaginable – they make Breton appear sympathetic and dignified by assaulting him with petty criticism. Breton was an immensely flawed character: arrogant, authoritarian, aloof, aggressive, a bearer of lifelong grudges, a veritable tyrant. Yet de Diego is so intent on championing Gala (and other female Surrealists) that her arguments make – by transference – these women appear weak and shrewish, downtrodden and ireful. Anyone who has studied the female Surrealists – as I have done for numerous reviews – will know better. When your arguments drive away naturally sympathetic readers you have to examine your failings as an advocate.

De Diego is so convinced of the idea that Gala is yet another talented woman written out of history by chauvinists – and so energised by her role as Gala’s champion – that she gets carried away by the unpublished writings of Gala, seeing her as “an artist without a body of work”. We come perilously close to the Feminist fallacy: due to past injustice, today’s unworthy individual must in compensation be awarded unearned status. Being an artist requires the effort, commitment, accomplishment and concentration of an artist. Being an artist is not incidental. Gala Dalí, talented writer of occasional prose and correspondence, was no artist.

To summarise: the primary material in the exhibition and catalogue give us a Gala more complex and sympathetic than hitherto presented; the case for Gala as an independent creative artist-writer is not supported by the material and concepts put forth in the catalogue, though the material is worthy of extensive publication; the catalogue presentation of Gala’s life and involvement with Dalí is so incomplete as to be misleading. If one can set aside the author’s partisan position and blind spots, this book contains valuable source photographs and facts about Gala Dalí and the art of Salvador Dalí.

 

Estrella de Diego, Gala Salvador Dalí. A Room of One’s Own at Púbol, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya / Dalí Museums, 2018, paperback, 255pp, fully illus., €40, ISBN 978 8480 433396 (Spanish and Catalan versions available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

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Van Gogh: A Life in Places

UNICORN_vangoghfinalCOVER

Vincent Van Gogh lived in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and England. This small-format hardback book is a brief biography in the form of a guide to the places Van Gogh lived, illustrated with some of his art. There are many quotes from Van Gogh’s letters, which give his own words about his surroundings. Drawings from letters show how Van Gogh presented places to his family, mainly his chief correspondent brother Theo. Contemporary photographs show buildings and people the artist would have known. And – of course – the artist’s paintings are reproduced too.

Van Gogh’s stints in school teaching, bookselling, art selling and missionary work are presented summarily. Much of this time was before the artist’s commitment to become an artist, so there is little art to display. The majority of the book is taken up with the last decade of Van Gogh’s life, 1880-90, when he was producing art.

Van Gogh stayed in Kent, Isleworth and London, teaching boys. The author mentions Van Gogh’s lay preaching and church going around London, consumed with an evangelical fervour. A pencil sketch of two churches is included. Two of the best drawings are early large elaborate landscapes drawings in pencil heightened with white chalk. These are not often reproduced, so it is nice to see them. They well portray the gloom of the Dutch landscape. Nature inspired Van Gogh from a young age, when he drew and described insects and plants. Nature would underpin his best art. Van Gogh spent time in Drenthe, where the population harvested peat, which was transported away by barge. It was a singularly bleak region. Borinage in Belgium was a mining area. There Van Gogh ministered to the local population and made himself ill with his Spartan living, giving away all he had to the bemused mining families. He then decided to study art in Antwerp and Brussels.

The author strikes a good balance, explaining the significance of different locations while avoiding detailed specifics of individual pictures. Heslewood takes us around Paris and environs to show us the places the painter worked in when he absorbed Impressionism into his technique: Asnieres, with its distant factories and chimneys, Montmartre, with its windmills and dancehalls. When the artist moved to Arles he made a point of travelling in the region as much as he could afford to. Pictures and text refer to the Camargue, the coastal village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Montmajour and other locations.

For Van Gogh, Arles became the centre for a longed-for School of the South – to complement Schools of the North (Pont Aven) and West (Martinique) already pioneered by Gauguin, Laval and Bernard. Provence, for Van Gogh, resembled the Japanese woodcut prints that he had pored over in Paris. It had bright light and intense colour as well as a distinct (if not precisely exotic) regional culture. Provence could be their Japan.

Van Gogh’s painting excursions were curbed by his confinement to a hospital in Arles and later his voluntary commitment to the asylum in Saint-Rémy, following his infamous self-mutilation and breakdown. The grounds of the asylum and a view of a wheat field are the most common motifs for 1889. In the summer he moved to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, to be under the care of Dr Gachet. There he painted his last works – views of wheat fields, Daubigny’s house and garden, ivy thickets of undergrowth. This was a very productive period for the artist and some of his best loved landscapes come from this period.

This book would make an ideal addition to a school library and is recommended as reading for anyone passingly familiar with the art of Van Gogh who would like an introduction to his life.

 

Juliet Heslewood, Van Gogh: A Life in Places, Unicorn, 1 November 2018, hardback, 172pp, 85 illus., £15, ISBN 978 191 160 4648

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Frida Kahlo: You are Always with Me. Letters to Mama

You Are Always With Me

You are Always with Me. Letters to Mama 1923-1932 is a collection of 54 letters and postcards written by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) to her mother. This is a translation of the original Spanish-language edition of 2016. They show the strong bond of the young artist and her mother and the formation of one Modern art’s greatest painters. This publication has been timed to coincide with the current exhibition of Kahlo’s art and personal possessions currently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. For a review of that exhibition, click here.

Frida Kahlo’s father was Guillermo Kahlo (1871-1941), a German immigrant who worked as a photographer. Her mother was Matilde Calderón y González. Born in Oaxaca in 1876, she was mestiza – half Spanish-Mexican, half indigenous Mexican. The distinctiveness of Oaxaca tradition had an influence on Kahlo’s sense of herself, despite her spending most of her life in Mexico City. This appropriation of maternal lineage was reflected in the presence of traditional Oaxacan costumes in her unique fashion choices and in her art.

Kahlo suffered from polio as a youngster and was left with a deformed leg and a lifelong limp. (She may also have had hereditary scoliosis.) Kahlo was close to her father and his favourite child. When young she worked with him in the studio and was frequently his model, which gave her a reason to dress up, sometimes in masculine clothing. She was fascinated by the transformative power of controlling her own image, something that shaped her self-portraiture as a painter.

The earliest letters to her mother are written by Kahlo from her school about her social plans and disciplinary issues. We see her asking for money and excusing her mischievous behaviour at school. The first letter mentions the talk to be given at her school by Diego Rivera. Rivera was a revered artist who had just returned from an extended stay in Europe. Seen as a leader of the Mexican avant-garde, Rivera was an influential figure. When he joined the Communist Party and began a series of public paintings commissioned by the government, he became a key figure in the formation of a group called the Mexican Muralists. The group developed an approach that combined Social Realism with reference to Mexican history and traditional art. Kahlo and Rivera would later start a relationship and marry.

On 17 September 1925 Kahlo was severely injured when the streetcar she was travelling in was involved in an accident. Some passengers were killed and Kahlo was close to death and was left with serious disabilities which required repeated operations. The pain, immobility and distress caused by her conditions and surgery left her reliant on alcohol and pain medication. These early events and influences had a formative impact upon Kahlo as an artist and she sometimes returned to specific events in her life for paintings. A large part of Kahlo’s art is autobiographical but she took pains to frame her experiences in terms of universal subjects of suffering, regret, anger, pride and so forth, frequently drawing parallels to history and religious painting.

In 1929 Kahlo and Rivera married. In late 1930 the couple travelled to San Francisco, where Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural in the Pacific Stock Exchange Luncheon Club. The majority of the letters to her mother come from this period. She is excited to travel outside of Mexico for the first time. She describes her travels in California, unfavourably impressed by the wealth and luxury of the mansions of movie stars in Los Angeles compared to the housing stock inhabited by the poor. Comments on the Chinese immigrants living near her in San Francisco are frequent in the letters. Kahlo was pleased at the kindness shown to her and Rivera by the people she met in San Francisco. “The gringas have liked me very much and they are impressed by the dresses and shawls that I brought with me, my jade necklaces are amazing for them and all the painters want me to pose for their portraits.” She met the luminaries of the art scene in San Francisco and began an affair with Nickolas Muray and (probably) her doctor Leo Eloesser. While it is the case that her journals and private comments display pain caused by Rivera’s infidelities, she also had her own affairs. Their partnership was turbulent but stimulating, with deliberate provocation and selfish libido sporadically driving both Kahlo and Rivera at different times.

Translator and editor, Héctor Jaimes explains that Kahlo’s writing style was idiosyncratic. Her erratic punctuation belied her top-class education. She writes in an apparently unpremeditated way, passing on news and opinions as they occur to her. She obviously presented what she thought her mother wanted and ought to know. She asks after her relatives by name and enquires about their health. Her own health is naturally a topic which comes up repeatedly as she describes Dr Eloesser’s treatment, including endless injections. When she mentions her weight it is always to reassure her mother that she becoming less thin. Kahlo is often more concerned about her mother’s health than her own conditions. Her devotion shines out.

There are glimpses of the darkness of Depression-era USA is a description of a dance marathon that Kahlo observed. “You have no idea how interesting this spectacle was, but the most cruel and stupid; they chain the black people, a woman and a man; there was a woman with a kid in her arms; two died and an unfortunate woman became mad from walking and her husband, instead of exiting the rink, picked up another woman and kept on walking.”

There are many light-hearted moments. She describes parties, outings and airplane journeys. She makes catty comments about the gringas not being pretty and American food being not to her taste. (Not spicy enough for her.) She confesses to being an incompetent cook. Although she mentions in the letters that she is painting, she does not describe the subjects or the thinking behind the pictures. She frequently discusses Rivera’s work – which was supporting them both, with irregular payments going to Kahlo’s family – though gives few details about her husband’s art.

Over 1931 to 1932 she was in New York. Rivera was attending an exhibition of his art and was commissioned to paint murals there. Kahlo felt more at home in New York than San Francisco. She writes of the incomparable treasures of the Metropolitan Museum and watching children play in snowy Central Park. Kahlo was repelled at attending functions held by Rivera’s patron the Rockefellers at a time when the Great Depression had caused homelessness and poverty in New York. She saw the soup lines and beggars daily, something which deepened her commitment to Communism. On 15 September 1932 Matilde died of cancer. The death deprived not only the family of a beloved member but it also deprives us of more letters, including Kahlo’s period in Detroit.

You are Always with Me allows us to see the world through Frida Kahlo’s eyes. This attractive book includes a few well-chosen illustrations would appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in one of the most personal of painters.

 

Frida Kahlo, Héctor Jaimes (ed. and trans.), You are Always with Me: Letters to Mama 1923-1932, Virago, 6 September 2018, hardback, 176pp, col. & mono illus., £20, ISBN 978 0 349 01195 0

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams

The Compelling Mystery of David Lynch

“A couple of years ago, it looked as though David Lynch’s active career as a director was over. After all, his then most recent movie Inland Empire had been released in 2006. This rambling, disconnected 180-minute film was by far the most obscure work he had produced. It received mixed reviews, alienated casual audiences and was disliked by even some diehard Lynch fans. He had not directed anything substantial since then. He was mainly occupied with making art (he had several high-profile and well-reviewed exhibitions in the US and Europe) and speaking about transcendental meditation. It seemed that Lynch the film director had retired for good.

Then a new, third series of Twin Peaks (featuring many of the old cast members and directed entirely by Lynch) premiered in 2017 and met a very favourable response from fans and critics alike. Lynch proved he was still able to satisfy and perplex audiences by taking genuine risks and following his personal vision.

Room to Dream is a biography formatted in an unusual way. Biographical chapters – each focusing on a particular project of Lynch’s – are written by Kristine McKenna, using interviews with friends, family and colleagues, in addition to documentary sources; these are followed by commentaries from Lynch himself, telling stories and sharing personal details relating to these projects in a conversational manner. Thus we get both a factual account that is largely neutral and Lynch’s own perspective on matters, complete with photographs showing Lynch on set and with friends….”

Read the full review online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-compelling-mystery-of-david-lynch/21707#.W35Q1M5KjIU

Amrita Sher-Gil: Unseen Brilliance

“Some grand claims have been made for the art of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). Christie’s described her as ‘one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century’, yet few art-history students in Europe and America know her name. The reissue of Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters & Writings, which collects all of the artist’s writings and reproduces her 172 surviving paintings, allows us to judge the acclaim. In the foreword, Salman Rushdie explains how Sher-Gil became an inspiration for his character Aurora Zogoiby in The Moor’s Last Sigh.

“There is scarcely a day without a gallery press release announcing the rediscovery of a female artist who has not just been neglected but ‘excluded from the Western fine-art canon’. The claim that any artist can be excluded from the canon is nonsensical. The Western canon is a list of the most important good art that a person should know in order to understand the Western art tradition. The canon is not a set text, but a composite of opinions and has no central authority and changes over time. Therefore no art or artist can ever be excluded from the Western canon, whatever you may be told. (For an explanation, read my essay here.)

“Amrita Sher-Gil was born in 1913 in Budapest. Her family was middle class. Her father was Amrao Singh Sher-Gil, a Sikh writer and religious ascetic. He was a skilled photographer and his favourite subject was his family. Amrita’s mother was of French and Hungarian Jewish descent. The couple were mismatched in some respects and the conflict between an ascetic detached father and neurotic socialite mother would prove a source of instability in Amrita’s life. The family (including Amrita’s younger sister Indira) spent Amrita’s early years in Hungary before the family moved to Simla, India in 1924.

This two-volume book publishes all of Amrita’s writings, translated from the original French and Hungarian. She spoke English to her family and Indian colleagues, so much of the text is in her own words….”

Read the full review online at Spiked here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/amrita-sher-gil-unseen-brilliance/21365#.Wu7uNC7wbIU

Art of the Canadian Relief Camps: Alan Caswell Collier

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[Image: (c) UBC Press]

In the wake of the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, many ordinary people found themselves out of work. At the time, unemployment relief was limited or unavailable. The existing system had not been expected to cope with the vast numbers of men unable to support themselves and their families. In Canada the relief project to combat unemployment and save workers from destitution was a work programme established by the Department of National Defence. Although nominally a civilian organisation for labour, it operated with military austerity and discipline, administered by former military personnel and organised along military lines. Basic shelter and food was provided and men cut timber, dug, built and laboured for 20¢ per day. The scheme was partly to provide subsistence living for the unemployed, curb vagrancy and crime and to combat a rising tide of Communism.

One of the men who arrived at relief camp 506, Big Bend, British Columbia in September of 1934 was Alan Caswell Collier (1911-1990). Relief Stiff: An Artist’s Letters from Depression-Era British Columbia collects Collier’s letters to his fiancée while he was working in one of these camps. (A “relief stiff” is an unemployed man on government relief.”) Collier had trained as a painter at Ontario College of Art between 1929 and 1933. There he met and fell in love with Ruth Brown (1910-1993). The couple courted and intended to marry but by the time Collier graduated, the Depression was in its trough. Unable to secure a job, Collier went to work at a relief camp in the rural interior of British Columbia.

Peter Neary, professor emeritus of history at the University of Western Ontario, has compiled this reading edition of 120,000 words from a transcript of 281,000 words. He not only edited down the text but also made minor changes to increase the consistency and readability of the text, which is an intelligent decision. Neary explains the background and the context of the DND “royal twenty centers”, as the relief workers were called. He writes: “Readers of excerpts I have chosen will encounter in passing the language of racism, homophobia, ableism, nativism, anti-Semitism, sectarianism, and intolerance.” To which concern I am bound to reply that his readers are doubtless robust and adult enough to detach themselves when they encounter language and views they do not personally endorse. No warning was necessary.

The artist intended to document his time through art and letters, primarily to Ruth. He was a skilled letter writer and his lively narrative is free of pretension. He attempted to record the toughness of the life in a way that was authentic, while no doubt taking off a few rough edges and embellishing anecdotes, as all writers do. Collier took paints and paper with him and produced (according to his own records) 61 pictures during his time in the camps. He painted landscapes and portraits, oil on board. His landscapes are largely in the school of the Group of Seven, a prominent association of Canadian painters who depicted the rural landscapes of Canada in a Post-Impressionist manner. He also added to his letters sketches (many humorous) of life in the camps and the characters he knew. Photographs of the camps and men add to our immersion in the milieu.

As an artist, Collier judged his postings by the landscape as a sketching subject. He would go out to draw or paint the landscape most Sundays, painting oil on board. He drew caricatures of the men and painted portraits too, some of which he sold to the subjects for $1. Some portraits he kept for himself.

The camps where Collier worked constructed roads in inland British Columbia. The men were a mixture of working class and middle class, some skilled tradesmen and professionals, along with piece workers. Most of the men were young; some of the older ones were veterans of the Great War. There were many recent immigrants. “Out of forty in camp, 37.5% are Canadian born; 35% were born in the British Isles; and 20% are Scandinavians.” Some, such as explosives experts were employed for their expertise, others moved between jobs in the camps as needed. The men worked five and a half days a week (a half day on Saturday, Sunday off). There was no sick pay but free healthcare. Collier started as a labourer before moving to the less physically arduous but intellectually taxing position of storeman, where he issued, ordered and monitored clothing and equipment.

From these letters we learn about his daily routine, his reading and views on current events, especially relating to the economic situation. There is much talk of food, grumbling about the rations – daily expenditure on food was 23.34¢ per man – and the competence of the cook. Clothes were issued monthly. Collier sold his tobacco ration to earn an extra 50¢ a month.

Like soldiers on deployment, separated from friends and families, the relief-camp workers killed free-time with letter-reading and -writing, playing horseshoes, gambling, washing their own clothes by hand and sleeping. There are stories of fist fights, drunken escapades, strikes and petty pilfering. The writer does not shy away from the seedier aspects of life in the camps. He comments how locals had low opinions of camp workers, most of the times they encountered works them was when they came to town on payday to drink, fight and cause a rumpus.

He atmospherically describes life in the snowbound camp. “That train that was buried at Three Valley was completely buried, and part of it is still in there. There was forty feet of snow on top of the mail car and engine.” At another camp, an avalanche killed three camp workers. Workers at Camp 376, Tappen envied the workers at camps located near towns. Those workers could earn up to 40¢ per hour snow shovelling – quite an improvement on 20¢ per day.

Discontent with the economic situation and lack of security provided the resentment that allowed Communist ideas to flourish. While sympathetic to limited social change in areas, Collier was critical of Communism. He took a leading part in a camp strike when a foreman abused his authority and refused to listen to workers’ grievances but he was opposed to general strikes to further Communist-aligned goals. Relief Camp Worker, a Communist newspaper, incited strikes and disruption. Collier quoted an article discussing individuals killed in an accident. “’We do not regret the accident. We suggest that they represented the type which will have to be exterminated before a perfect society can be realized. This type is an obstacle to world sanity.’ […] Statements like that show what kind of men run the Red organization.”

The camp system was riven with inefficiency, profiteering, corruption and theft and Collier struggled to do right by the system and the men. He attempted to curb wastage and balance the books. He tried to protect hardworking amiable men and to retain the best cooks.

In the summer of 1935, Collier left camp, toured the USA and continued his art education in New York, joined by Ruth.

In these letters young artist comes across as serious, intelligent and independent. He seems – on the basis of these letters – a shrewd judge of character and sceptical of political ideology, fundamentally a pragmatist. His few casual slurs are typical of the time and – given the tough conditions – he seems free of malice or bitterness. He displays empathy and patience. His love of the landscape shines through in his descriptions of sketching trips.

The book contains an introduction, which sets out the methodology of the editorial process and explains the artist’s early life. The index is a useful addition and the footnotes are mostly informative and well judged. An afterword covers Alan and Ruth Collier’s subsequent lives and Alan’s art. During 1940s he painted photograph-derived montage-style paintings in a dry naturalistic style, produced art in mines and became a specialist in landscape painting. Each summer, from the 1950s until the end of his life, Alan and Ruth and their son Ian, toured Canada in a mobile home, Alan working on landscape paintings. He achieved considerable success in Canada and the USA as an artist, while Ruth chose to concentrate on home and family, ably supporting her husband’s career.

This book is an easy read and will appeal to general readers, as well as those interested in the 1930s life or Canadian art. This fascinating slice of social history forms a Canadian counterpart to the volume of Pollock family letters.

 

Alan Caswell Collier and Peter Neary (ed.), Relief Stiff: An Artist’s Letters from Depression-Era British Columbia, March 2018, hardback, UBC Press, 368pp, 89 mono illus., C$45, ISBN 978 0 7748 3498 8

Collectors without Remorse: Dominique and John de Menil

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[Image © Alfred A. Knopf]

Patrons of the arts are not always given the respect or understanding due to them. Although it is artists, writers, composers and other creative figures which generate cultural products, it is the patronage of others who allow them to create (by commissioning art and providing stipends) and preserve the fruits of their labours in their private collections. Very often those collections become public and enrich the life of the state and population. Much culture would never have been produced if it were not for the generosity – and acquisitiveness – of collectors and patrons. Today, those who become wealthy are often scorned as exploiters and are unfairly maligned. Yet it is only through the patronage using funds derived from base commercial transactions that the most sublime cultural products of our eras are created and shared communally – be those sources the tithes of the Medieval church, the coal barons of South Wales, rail magnates of America, shipping tycoons of Greece or the income tax of modern Europe. It is only right that many museums today bear the names of the farsighted and adventurous members of the rich.

Two of the greatest benefactors of the visual arts in America were Dominique and John de Menil. They conducted their lives with a mixture of generosity, frugality, simplicity and attention to detail. Much of that came from their upbringings.

The ancestors of Dominique de Menil (1908-1997) included François Guizot (1787-1874), the renowned lawyer, statesman and historian. His father was guillotined during the Terror. Guizot went into public life and enacted lasting educational reforms, wrote many influential histories and founded La Revue française. Another branch of her relatives included the Schlumbergers, Protestant Alsatian industrialists. It was noted that Dominque’s austere attitudes and emotional restraint was derived from her Protestant upbringing. In Dominique’s family tree commerce, culture and public service were interwoven. In character she was cautious and abstemious.

Baron Jean de Menil (1904-1973) was descended from a line of soldiers and bankers. His great-grandfather was decorated by both Napoleon and Louis XVIII and conferred the title of baron. The de Menil’s were less favoured by fortune than the Schlumbergers – financially ruined then decimated by the Great War, the de Menils were in a poor state at the end of the Great War, at which time Jean was 14 years old. Jean went to work at Banque de I’Union Parisienne and became a rising star, rising to the level of executive by 26.

In 1930 the couple met and began a relationship that last until Jean’s death in 1973. In 1931 they married, the wife remaining Protestant and the husband Catholic. Using the bride’s dowry, they set up home together. Their first artistic commission – a portrait – was inauspicious. Their architect (who was converting their new home) introduced them to Max Ernst. While they liked the artist, they disliked the portrait of Dominique that he painted. They kept it in a cupboard for over a decade.

In the 1910s, Dominique’s father Conrad Schlumberger had established a method of using electrical resistance to prospect for oil. By the 1930s, Schlumberger International was a major player in oil exploration and extraction. In 1936 Conrad died and two years later Jean joined the Schlumberger firm, bringing with him a great deal of banking and financial experience. The war forced their hands. After the fall of France, Jean travelled to Texas. Houston had become an important area for Schlumberger’s business and Jean went to head the branch of Schlumberger there. Dominique and the children soon crossed the Atlantic to join them. As soon as they arrived, Jean and Dominique (who had technical expertise in oil exploration) went to Venezuela to assist the branch there. German submarines had been sinking oil tankers heading north and this vital route of oil transportation was at risk. The de Menils did their part for the Resistance and the Free French Government by raising money.

After the war, the de Menils returned to Houston and commissioned a Modernist house. John dropped the title baron and his name was more frequently anglicised to “John”. The couple began to form an impressive collection of art, which numbered 10,000 items by the late 1970s. The core collections consist of Surrealism, European Modernism, American Modernism (including Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), ancient art, African art and Native American and Latin American art. Out of these, the most important holdings are of Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst and René Magritte) and Abstract Expressionism (particularly Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman). The book includes colour plates of some of the best works in the collection, with many installation shots of landmark loan exhibitions they organised. They commissioned work by a range of world-class creative figures such as couturier Charles James, dancer Merce Cunningham, architects Philip Johnson and Renzo Piano and composers Morton Feldman and Pierre Boulez, among many others.

Although they agreed on all purchases, the couple’s personal tastes as collectors differed. John was the more acquisitive and enjoyed exuberant and combative art (especially Picasso). Dominique liked more meditative art, in particular Rothko and Magritte. It is curious that the de Menils formed such an attachment to Surrealism – a movement that was moribund by the time they started collecting seriously. By 1945, Surrealism looked tired, academic and meretricious, especially compared to the new American art emerging.  Moreover, a large impetus of Surrealism movement was anti-clericism, even atheist, which rather contrasted with the de Menils’ strong Christian faith. They considered collecting and supporting artists to be a moral responsibility but they did not generally judge art in moral terms. (An exception is Matta – one of the de Menils’ artists – whom Dominique considered to be borderline obscene, with all his inter-penetrating quasi-organic forms representing veritable painted orgies.)

There were sometimes gaps in the collection. Most of the best canvases by Braque, Matisse and Picasso were unavailable and the Abstract Expressionists were selling briskly by the late 1950s. “One would go to the Leo Castelli Gallery and the whole show would already have been sold,” Dominique lamented. They would buy classic Ernsts and Magrittes from New York-based dealer Alexandre Iolas, whose judgement they came to rely on. The de Menils formed personal ties to a number of artists, including Ernst and Magritte – with whom they could converse in French. Middleton includes titbits from the private notes that Dominique made when meeting artists: Brauner said Picasso’s art made him feel good and want to paint; Lipchitz was dismissive of de Chirico and Rouault; Giacometti was “exceptionally intelligent”.

In 1951 the de Menils curated a landmark exhibition of Van Gogh at a venue in Houston. The event was a sensation and established the couple as both cultural powerbrokers and curators of discernment. The de Menils became deeply involved in MoMA, with John becoming a trustee. They donated work to the museum but made clear that their civic duty was towards Houston. Dominique made a donation of major works (including The Deep (1953), Pollock’s greatest painting) to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, when it opened. The de Menils also funded research and commissioned the catalogues raisonnés of Ernst and Magritte.

The de Menils were committed supporters of civil rights, the promotion of non-Western art and inter-denominational dialogue. In 1960, the de Menils decided to build a non-denominational chapel at Rice University, Houston and dedicate it to the spiritual power of art. In 1964 they commissioned architect Philip Johnson (who later resigned over aesthetic differences with the de Menils) and interior paintings from Mark Rothko and acquired an exterior sculpture by Barnett Newman. It opened in 1971 and became a centre for art pilgrims and those in search of a contemplative sanctuary. Despite a predominance of positive reactions, opinions have varied about the success of the Rothko Chapel, though the seriousness and significance of the efforts of all involved are unquestioned. The chapel has become a centre for events relating to human rights and political dialogue, which drew Dominique towards former President Carter.

The de Menils had an interest in presenting black art, from African origins to contemporary American art. They travelled in Africa and Asia on trips that combined art buying, museum visiting and consultation with religious leaders, all part of a quest to fuse spirituality and art. Different religions derive their identities from their differences and grow through competition and suppression of competing religions; each religion claims exclusive superiority. The de Menils’ good intentions and genuine desire to harmonise discordant worldviews seem admirable but naïve.

After the death of John in 1973, Dominique continued their work and conceived of turning their art collection into a museum. The $25m museum, designed by Piano, opened on 4 June 1987. The design was a sober, discreet, elegant and dedicated to art, eschewing merchandising. Dominique was insistent it was free to entry. The Menil Collection became one of the world’s leading museums.

William Middleton has used access to the de Menil’s private papers, the Collection’s archives and interviews with colleagues and friends of the subjects to build a rich and sensitive portrait of the de Menils as public figures and private people. The book is thoroughly footnoted and illustrations are well chosen. The great diversity of activities and interests of the subjects – as well as the sheer industriousness of their collecting and curating – mean there are no dull passages or repetition in this narrative. The biography is a warm, balanced and respectful tribute to two major figures in American culture and philanthropy.

 

William Middleton, Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, hardback, 784pp, col. and mono illus., $40, ISBN 978 0 375 41543 2

The Poet who Vanished

 

“Anyone who picked up a new copy of the New Republic from his or her local newsstand on the morning of 18 July 1955 could have opened it to read an article called ‘How to be happy: installment 1053’. What they couldn’t have guessed is that the author would, in all probability, choose to extinguish his life mere hours later. With a flourish sour, sardonic and elegant, the author would disappear. His name was Weldon Kees.

“Kees had the knack of being in the right place at the wrong time. As a writer-artist, Kees had been in all the best cultural hotspots of the period. He was in New York in 1943-48 during the early Abstract Expressionist boom, but left before the market took off. He had also been in artists’ haven Provincetown, but had sold relatively little work. In 1950, he arrived in San Francisco. Somehow he had managed to be in these places and failed to make critical breakthroughs. He (and his wife Ann) had quit places without getting the most out of them. He seemed to have turned missing opportunities into his greatest art form.

“Admired for his talents as a poet, storywriter, critic, musician, composer, painter, film-maker and photographer, Kees never broke through in any one field despite his talent…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 26 May 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/weldon-kees-the-poet-who-vanished/19874#.WShlYGkrLIU

Literature of Longing

Denton Welch

Denton Welch, Daniel J. Murtaugh (ed.), Good Night, Beloved Comrade. The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver, 2017, University of Wisconsin Press, hardback, 213pp, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-299-31010-3

 

The upheaval of the Second World War provided many people with opportunities for covert romantic and sexual assignations. The blackout in large cities aided fleeting trysts and, on the home front, the relocation of people assigned war work, the absence of spouses and general mobilisation all loosened social constraints. People of different regions, professions and classes mingled on an unprecedented scale during those years.

In November 1943 the author-artist Denton Welch was partially crippled and bed-ridden when a friend paid a visit. Welch said he was too ill to see him, then he changed his mind; it was a decision that would alter the course of his life. The friend brought into Welch’s bedroom a handsome labourer called Eric Oliver. Although they did not know it at the time, Welch and Oliver’s lives would be entwined forever after.

At that time Welch had published a novel and some stories that had made him the toast of a small circle of London literati and a wider circle of homosexual admirers. Welch, who had trained as an artist, had been struck by a car at the age of twenty and for the remainder of his life suffered severe medical complications. Mobility seriously restricted and frequently in pain, Welch occupied himself with writing, spending his adult years in Tonbridge, Kent. Although in his twenties, he described himself as “old, so immensely old, like a stone image on a mountain watching small boys play”. Detachment aided Welch as a writer – he excelled in observation and description. Of the writings published in Welch’s lifetime the most explicitly homosexual aspects were omitted; only in the 1980s were Welch’s frankest writings published.

Welch’s journals and novels are tinged with longing, regret and wistfulness. Reading his descriptions of road-menders working in the sun stripped to the waist, we are made strongly aware of an attraction the author rarely consummated. His bucolic descriptions of rural Kent and pinpoint scrutiny of domestic details also leave a strong impression. Reading Welch is peculiarly like watching Welch write – we imagine Welch melancholy and thoughtful, his full forehead and horn-rimmed spectacles bowed above the pages of a notebook.

When Welch met Oliver, the latter was working in Kent in the agricultural service as a land boy. Oliver found Welch good company; Welch became infatuated with Oliver. The mismatch in class and outlook – with Welch a public-school-educated introverted intellectual and Oliver, a hard-drinking bisexual working-class rake – caused a degree of friction and uncertainty. After a slow start they grew closer and became lovers. After Oliver’s residence was destroyed by a V-2 rocket (in July 1944), he accepted Welch’s offer that Oliver move in with him; they would remain together until Welch’s death in 1948, at the age of 33. The companions gave mutual support and Oliver’s emotional and practical assistance brought the writer great happiness in his last years.

This collection of 51 unpublished letters by Welch to Oliver covers the period 1943-7. Most letters are from 1943 and 1944, before cohabiting rendered correspondence unnecessary. The letters of 1945-7 were written during Oliver’s absences. In early letters, Welch expresses his longing and betrays anxiety about rejection, sometimes pricked by jealousy and self-pity.

“I would agree with you absolutely, over 100% love affairs being very uncommon, but doesn’t that apply to everything in life? Aren’t all our feelings, however strong, never quite as strong as we think they might be? Aren’t they always mixed with some doubt; and aren’t we always torturing ourselves and wasting time thinking, can this be love?”

Reading of the indignities of Denton’s medical examinations and the symptoms of his conditions explains much of his peevishness, although the descriptions are touched with humour. Not all of the correspondence is introspective. Welch tells Oliver about the flight of residents from Kent to avoid V-1 bombs (a number of which landed on Tonbridge), “those wretched bombers circling overhead and those peculiar lights which flash from the hillside” and difficulties of living with rationing. He passes on news of their friends, sometimes empathetic, sometimes catty. Suffering and the threat of sudden death heightened the piquancy of Welch’s desire, though he admitted that “in some moods I would quite ruthlessly sacrifice all the lovers in the world to my work.”

The editor has decided to leave Welch’s spelling and grammatical errors uncorrected and underlining in the original letters is faithfully transcribed. Thus we get Welch at his most raw, intimate and irascible. A vivid, informative introduction allows readers previously unfamiliar with Welch’s writings to understand the course of the author’s life and work. Extensive annotation is confined to the back of the book and includes extracts of Welch’s novels and journals. The reader does not have to be familiar with Welch’s other writings to enjoy this collection, which is as fresh and lively as Welch’s fiction and journals.

This book is part of a series of publications in the press’s “Living Out” series of gay and lesbian literature. More open social attitudes towards sexuality have stimulated interest in gay writing. Newly published letters and diaries give us insights into the experiences of people whose stories could not be publicly told in the eras in which they lived. Although some individuals considered their sexuality shameful and found subterfuge stressful, others relished the frisson of “sex as crime”, leading the lives of sexual outlaws and conspirators. Welch’s life is particularly poignant as it was so clearly restricted by the circumstances of his time. In a later age more advanced medical treatment and altered social attitudes regarding homosexuality would have extended and enriched his life. Yet, perhaps Welch’s best qualities as a writer spring from painful yearning and a sense of isolation. Paradoxically, what might have made Denton Welch’s life fuller would possibly have made his writing less powerfully engaging.

Alexander Adams

Franz Kafka: a Life Beyond Literature

“There are few writers as highly regarded as Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Even people who have not read Kafka understand his blend of the sinister and absurd. Despite the reputation of being a high-brow, intellectual author, Kafka wrote bewitching tales in clear prose. Indeed, his stories are often short and ostensibly easy to understand even if the allusions and implications. And his writing is often shot through with humour – not just absurdity, but also comic misunderstandings and dry irony.

“A recently completed three-volume biography by Reiner Stach, superbly translated from German by Shelley Frisch, uses newly discovered sources to capture Kafka’s life and reflect on the origins and meaning of many of his writings. Stach takes time to correct previous biographical misconceptions, and observes that while there are mountains of academic, theoretical and literary overviews of Kafka, there are few biographies.

“Stach attempts to be scrupulously fair to Kafka’s parents. Hermann Kafka was a self-made proprietor of a fancy-goods store in Prague, selling fabrics, clothes, household goods and toys…”

Read the full review of the new 3-volume Reiner Stach biography online at Spiked Online (28 February 2017) here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/kafka-a-life-beyond-literature/19511#.WLWjhfl_s5k