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The Dance of the Isms

 

 

Compelled by an "irresistible impulse to paint," my father ran off to Paris at the age of eighteen to become an artist. It was in the early spring of 1912 and he describes the Paris of that era as "un alegre paraiso," a joyful paradise. Accepting the recommendation of a fellow passenger on the train to Paris he immediately set off from the Gare du Nord toward the Hotel Caulaincourt in Montmartre where he rented a tiny studio.
Hotel Caulaincourt

 

 

"Tiempos gloriosos de Paris! With the tricks of some and the generosity of others a generation of young artists and writers, some of whom were important, was sustained: sustained by the simple people and workers of the small hotels, restaurants, and stores where food, books, and artist's materials could be bought, and obtaining credit was never a difficulty. Nor would living several months in a tiny rented room without paying the rent disturb the landlord either... "

 

 

 

Juan Gris's studio

Through a prostitute who lived in his hotel, Toto la Blonde, who was renowned throughout Montmartre as the "protector of young prostitutes and artists," he met Juan Gris, who was living at that time in the Bateau Lavoir.

And under Juan Gris's influence my father started out as a Cubist.

 

 

 

"The first difficulty for a young artist," he tells us in his memoirs, "is in learning how to see and in finding his own style in form." Anyone acquainted with Juan Gris's work can easily see how the inspired life and force of his conceptions could excite and influence a young artist just starting out. Among the Cubists, my father thought Juan Gris was the best, and that his work possessed "a monumentality in form and a plastic force of color which were far superior to those of other artists following the same tendency."

 

 

 

But though Juan Gris is famous today, and the prices of his work far outreach the capacity of ordinary mortals, he lived then in an "indecent hovel," the Bateau Lavoir, and was perhaps the poorest of all Montmartre artists. This, according to my father, was due to his great "dignity and integrity." When other artists would make a bit of money drawing illustrations for a popular magazine Juan Gris would "remain faithful to his vision." This great integrity, I think, deeply impressed my father, comprehending and feeling its kindred necessity, which bolstered his own lifelong integrity as an artist.
Lapin Agile

 

 

 

Modernist  Drawing

Very little remains of what he painted before 1939. And after the war in Spain the fascists destroyed whatever they could find which hadn't been destroyed by the war, even if the work wasn't at all political.

In the early 1950's, in New York, my father made some pastels to demonstrate the sort of things he did in his youth in Paris, when he was a Cubist. Though these pastels may not have any great artistic value they are at least an interesting depiction of how he started out. It wasn't until he went to Florence, Italy, to study the techniques of fresco painting, that he began to develop his own artistic style.

 

 

 

 

Cubist Painting
Pastel on Cardboard: 22 x 29"

 

 

 

 

Modernist Study
Study: Pen on Paper: 8 1/2 x 11"

 

 

 

 

Cubist Painting
Pastel on Cardboard; 27 3/4 x 21 1/2"

 

 

 

 

Cubist Painting
Pastel on Cardboard: 20 x 24 1/4"

 

 

 

Modernist Study
Pen on Paper: 10 x 13 1/4"

 

 

When my father returned to Paris in 1922, after the Great War, he found the activities he witnessed in Montparnasse extremely troubling and disconcerting. For instead of offering an environment, as Montmartre had, in which a painter could "work hard to open up his own way with the development of his artistic personality," surviving on his wits and good humor, the world which sprang up from Montparnasse could be characterized by "despilfarro;" which in Spanish means waste, extravagance, or squandering.

The bohemian escapades that preceded the war had become replaced now with "lavish spectacles" And he recalls that in those postwar years there were moments when he actually felt ashamed to be an artist.

 

 

 

The Reality of Surrealism

"Ideological Self-Portrait of Miss Rose." From The Reality of Surrealism, a satire on that genre.

Pen on Paper: 8 1/2 x 11 x 1/2"

 

 

It was not so much that he merely disagreed with these new tendencies but that their very nature appeared to him antithetical to any true creative development. He looked upon these "formulas" as an expression of the chaotic and lost social world he saw all about him, on the streets of Montparnasse, and not in any way as significant as "aesthetic tendencies." Of all the Isms, only Impressionism and Cubism excited his admiration. And these only because their practitioners had often been magnificent. The rest, he thought, varied from merely the absurd to at best insignificant. And art as an expression of neuroticism, social identification, abstract ideas to be disputed in cafes, or, even worse, cynically employed as a means to dupe the public by art dealers and merchants, had, he believed, very little to do with actual creation.

 

 

Surrealist Painting

Surrealist Painting, from The Reality of Surrealism

Pen on Paper: 8 1/2 x 11 1/2"

 

 

When my father explained to Don Manuel Bartolome Cossio, the author of the first book on El Greco, his ambition to paint murals al fresco, Don Manuel obtained a grant from the Junta de Amplicacion de Estudios in Madrid for him to study in Italy. There were no muralists painting in Spain at that time, and my father would be the first of his generation to do so. He was thirty one years old when he made his trip to Italy in 1924. And it was here in Florence, the cradle of rebirths, that he had an artistic rebirth of his own, abandoning Cubism. "These things can't be forced or premeditated," he sometimes remarked to me. And it is fundamentally true that an artistic affection, a tendency, chooses the artist rather than the self-willed artist choosing it. For if an artist is to grow he must allow his preconceived notions of what beauty is to die. And adopting a more representational style he finally began to develop his own artistic personality, which may be seen on all the other pages of this web site.

 

 

 


 

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