Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Indignant confusion and the Paris Lido: the strange legacy of the Marchesa Casati

Yesterday was spent exactly as I always dreamed Saturdays in France would be spent. Beloved husband attended a statistics class while I sat in a cafe in Fontainebleau sipping tea and reading. In the evening we put down our books and headed for Paris and for a table under the glittering lights and before the leggy, feathered show boys and girls of the Lido caberet. And if that sounds decadent – that is before I have even let on what I was reading. The book that I devoured in the cafe yesterday was an example of my chief vice – it was an art book. They cost too much, they are full of pictures and they certainly do not fit in your handbag – and yet I find them compulsive.

“The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse” by Scot D Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino is quite a thing to find compulsive. It is the story in words, pictures, fabrics and collages of one of the strangest, most narcissistic, most creative and downright outrageous women known to history – Luisa, the Marchesa Casati. Luisa (which I shall take the liberty of calling her) was born in late 19th century Milan and at 13 was Italy’s wealthiest heiress. She made a consensual but loveless arranged marriage early and had a child. But the world of respectable wife and mother was not one that she would inhabit for long.

Almost overnight Luisa transformed herself into a man eating, drug taking international muse. She said that she wanted to become a work of art and to this end her image was her only real focus. Any artist who came within kissing distance was commissioned to represent her appearance – she was painted on canvas, captured on film, sculpted in clay and cast in bronze. She accentuated her emaciated 6 feet tall figure with elaborate headpiece and sky high heels. In an age where some still considered piano legs to be risqué she attended parties wearing nothing but a fur cape and high heels. Her look was completed with a menagerie of exotic animals - monkeys, panthers and snakes which would be worn live and venomous around her white neck.

Such was her self-absorption that she dissipated her entire fortune on costumes, parties, paintings and the furnishing of gin palace homes. By the 1940s she was living in a bed-sit in London kohling her famous eyes with cherry blossom boot polish. There she died in 1957. Before her death she had taken to wearing a waste paper basket sheathed in black velvet on her head. She had even been seen foraging in a Mayfair bin. The cultural legacy associated with her image is colossal. In our own time it has been represented by Tennessee Williams, Cecil Beaton, John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford to name but a few.

For me, Luisa is a most confusing figure. One side of me is frustrated that a woman so narcissistic, so intellectually insubstantial could ever become a figure of cultural resonance and in anyway represent her sex. Equally, one has to admire the sheer subversion of Luisa Casati – she was not willing to do one single thing that society demanded of her and she pursued all that was not allowed and disapproved of. The urge to disobey exists in us all, but Luisa was brave enough to respond to it. At the same time, she became a figure of fun and her life, at its end, was a profoundly sad one. The authors of this pictorial biography are quite right though, when they write that her cultural legacy is so huge that we hardly even notice it anymore. This was the thought that struck me as the lights in the Paris lido dimmed and out strutted a troupe of men and women, scantily clad, gold heeled, heavily made up and topped with crowns and feathers. The image which the Marchesa Casati invented in the early part of the twentieth century, is still with us today.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A brilliant way to treat entangled lives: "A Crisis of Brilliance" by David Boyd Haycock

I am standing in our kitchen wondering why I chose David Boyd Haycock’s A Crisis of Brilliance as the first book I read at our new home in France. Only tiny traces of the massive snowfall that greeted our arrival remain in the garden and half remembered schoolgirl French is slowly coming back to me. I do still feel like a bit of a newbie – a student on an exchange trip rather than a permanent resident. So maybe that is the reason behind choosing such a quintessentially English book for my first read.

A Crisis of Brilliance is that rare and excellent thing: a collective biography. It traces the lives of five British artists of the early twentieth century – Stanley Spencer, Dora Carrington, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler and Richard Nevinson. These artists all entered the Slade School of Art by wildly divergent routes at approximately the same time. They met, fought, loved and formed there and they are rightly associated with one another. When Britain went to war in 1914 they would be shattered apart – never to be reunited – never to recapture the glory days of their youth. For each of them the war would mean something different – alienation; disintegration; fear; grief; development; fame. For all of them their best work would emerge from the horror of conflict. The images that they produced, of landscapes torn asunder and men treated like machines have become standard ways of looking at the Great War – but at the time they were groundbreaking.

There are too few collective biographies in the world. Thinking about people in groups makes so much sense – we all live love and work in groups and the traditional format of the cradle to grave individual biography is often limiting. The subjects of Haycock’s book were drawn inexorably together and so Haycock has treated them together. They were all brilliant subversives who rejected the ordinary and the respectable. Individually and collectively, they lived for their art. In some cases they are already well known. Anyone who has seen “Carrington” will know the tragedy of Dora Carrington’s end as well as the unlikely subject of her most abiding love. Visitors to Cookham will know of the gentle, gauche Stanley Spencer whose paintings have come to represent so much of English identity. The brilliance of Haycock’s book is that he shows the staggering level of entanglement between these people.
This tale is a whirlwind of passion, repression, love, intelligence and alienation. Although it is non-fiction, Haycock’s prose reads effortlessly and often has the power of a novel – it moves from one scene to another, taking in a vast array of colourful characters. In many respects the beguiling, enchanting, often dishonest Dora Carrington, or “Carrington” as she preferred to be known stands at its centre. Crop haired, charming, confused, deceitful, she attracts almost everyone but struggles to respond to their affections. Mark Gertler, the Jewish émigré artist is the brooding, difficult heathcliffe – tormented by his visceral love for Carrington. Paul Nash stands aloof: courteous, urbane and thoughtful. Stanley Spencer, that genius of the English countryside is locked into a world where the verge of Jordan meets the Thames valley. Richard Nevinson is the angry, difficult young man who pushes away those whom he loves the most. Although we have all heard about them before, because Haycock has been brave with his format and approach, they come alive afresh on the page.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The George Eliot you didn't know...

A small second hand bookshop, stuffed with battered Stephen King novels in the middle of the Trinibagonian capital, Port of Spain, was the last place that I expected to find a stash of Virago Modern Classics. But there they were, at the back of the store, so far from where they originated and such a salvation for me in my dilemma. My problem was that I was facing a 10 hour flight accross the atlantic, out of the burning caribbean and into snowy Europe, and I could not face it without a book or two. I chose three and read one that very afternoon. With the powerful heat of the day on my face and the city heaving into action around me, I read The Lifted Veil by George Eliot.

It was a shock to find a George Eliot title that I have not heard of, and even more of a shock to find it dealing with themes and exploring concerns which that brilliant novelist is not known for. Where Eliot is usually realistic, stark and concerned with the everyday, The Lifted Veil is a novella of horror, suspense and the supernatural. The tale is told by the central character, the sensitive Latimer whom we see progressing falteringly from adolecence to manhood. Latimer is burdened by a condition which plagues his relationships with others and ability to make his own destiny and that condition is that Latimer is both a clairvoyant and a mind reader. These abilities make latimer profoundly miserable, he fears the life that he is able to forsee and is at the same time drawn, inexorably to it. He is a figure of passive aggression whose ability to see the petty and vain thoughts of others renders him misanthropic himself.

Narration by an intelligent but flawed Latimer calls to mind the anxious ramblings of Victor Frankenstein and the hazy, gilded evocation of nineteenth century Europe as well as the final, hideous setpiece in which Latimer discovers that which he did not forsee, all recall Mary Shelley’s classic. In this novella, George Eliot is dipping her toe into the waters of the supernatural and the so-called pseudoscienes that so preoccupied the Victorians. The “veil” is a reference to the lack of knowledge about fate and about others which is the usual human condition. Latimer, by contrast, inhabits a world, or thinks that he inhabits a world, in which that veil is lifted, in which his knowledge of the world around him exposes him morally and emotionally. This premise is a vehicle for a rather wonderful exploration of the self and a treatment of alienation and the tawdry thoughts that can motivate human behaviour. George Eliot interuppted writing Mill on the Floss to pen this dark yarn, and in its candid potrayal of charcter, it is typical of its author’s work. A fine discovery and one for the recommendations list.