Tuesday, 3 May 2011

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part 18

Augustus John on the cover of Time Magazine, by Boris Chaliapin

It's difficult to think of an artist, or a human being, who made a bigger, noisier mess of his love life than Augustus John.

Raised in a strict religious home, he rebelled with a life of free love and anarchy.  He proudly crowed, "Without much thought I act on the impulse of the moment."

John impetuously eloped with a fellow art student, Ida Nettleship, but shortly after they were married he began courting a second art student, Dorelia McNeill.  While Ida sat home tending to their new baby, John was pleading with Dorelia to pose for him in the nude ("Why not sit for me in your soft skin, and no other clothes-- Are you ashamed?  Nonsense!  It's not as if you were very fat.").

Sketch of Dorelia by Augustus John
Ida gradually accepted that in order to hang onto her husband, she would have to consent to living in a menage a trois with Dorelia.  When Dorelia remained unconvinced, John enlisted his sister, Gwen (who was also Dorelia's art teacher) to write a remarkable letter urging Dorelia to join with John and Ida.

Gwen John by her brother Augustus
Soon they were sleeping three in a bed, with their small children sleeping in boxes scattered around their home.  Having a wife and mistress did not deter Augustus from dozens of affairs with bar maids, art students and an occasional countess.  He courted them with portraits, bad poetry and wildly indiscreet letters (to a secretary, Alick Schepler, he wrote, "O pray, retain the bloom till I come.  Do not wash till I see you").

Alick Schepler by Augustus John

John impulsively offered to marry Schepler.  His biographer, Michael Holroyd, recounts how he explained his decision to his existing wife and his mistress: 
domestic life, even of the unorthodox variety with which they had experimented,  smothered him; he told them of his feelings for Alick, that his painting could not advance without her, that he needed her.  There was nothing too personal in all this-- but he could not be restricted....  
Unfortunately, John's confession was wasted because Alick turned him down after discovering that his plan was to set up a second menage a trois with Alick and her friend, artist Frieda Bloch.  All of these women gave up on a traditional fairy tale romance for a small piece of the great artist's attention.
What does the example of Augustus John teach us about "Artists in Love"?  It certainly demonstrates the manipulative power of art.  Alick claimed she never noticed that she was beautiful until John drew her. When he tried to lure Frieda Bloch into joining his second menage, he offered as bait his mystical artistic secrets ("I will find her a studio-- and I will show her things I'm pretty sure she never suspected.")   To justify his philandering to Ida and Dorelia, he explained that freedom was essential to the greatness of his art.  Everyone was willing to make exceptions for "the King of Bohemia." But for those who, like me, have trouble accepting love as a heedless thing, John offers little.

Naw, the "artists in love" I'm referring to in this post are the women John mistreated, the ones who might have gone on to become substantial artists and independent voices in a more fair era.  An interesting thing happened amongst these women as they sacrificed their artistic careers, supported each other, and raised their many children communally.  Some fell in love with each other, apparently with greater profundity and fidelity than John was able to offer.  Ida, Dorelia and Gwen became particularly close.

Gwen's self portrait: clothed and confident
Gwen's self portrait: nude and vulnerable

Ida and Dorelia "eloped" together to Paris for a long break from John and his "nervous abberrations." John came to visit them between flings, but the two built a meaningful daily life together.

Gwen's portrait of Dorelia
 Gwen and Dorelia had their own adventures.  Reports Holroyd:
The source of Gwen's upsurge in happiness was Dorelia.  On an impulse she proposed that the two of them should leave London and walk to Rome-- and Dorelia, once she was certain that Gwen was not joking, calmly agreed.... The two girls were as excited as if it were an elopement....Gwen brushed aside [August's] objections, would not even listen to his arguments...and they set off  'carrying a minimum of belongings and a great deal of painting equipment....' At each village they would try to earn some money by going to the inn and either singing or drawing portraits of those men who would pose.... At night they slept in the fields, under haystacks or, when they were lucky, in stables, lying on each other to feel a little warmer, covering themselves with their portfolios and waking up encircled by curious little congregations of farmers, gendarmes and stray animals.  Between the villages...they would practice their singing.  They lived mostly on grapes and bread, a little beer, some lemonade.  There were many adventures; losing their tempers with the women, outwitting the men, dying of fright, crying with laughter.  
During John's long absences, these women responded to their raw deal by developing strong, supportive passionate relationships.  When Dorelia left Ida for just a few days to visit her mother, Ida wrote her: "Darling D.... Love from [Ida] to the prettiest little bitch in the world....I was bitter cold last night in bed without your burning hot, not to say, scalding body next to me."

The great naturalist author Loren Eisley wrote about one wintry evening when a street light was casting an odd shadow in his front yard.  Fetching a ladder,  he discovered that a spider had saved herself from her frosty environment by spinning her web next to the warmth of the streetlight:
"Good Lord" I thought, "she has found herself a kind of minor sun and is going to upset the course of nature."....There she was... a great black and yellow embodiment of the life force, not giving up to either frost or step ladders.  She ignored me and went on tightening and improving her web.  I stood over her on the ladder, a faint snow touching my cheeks and surveyed her universe.... a world where even a spider refuses to lie down and die if a rope can still be spun on to a star.... Here was something that ought to be passed on to those who will fight our final freezing battle with the void.  I thought of setting it down carefully as a message to the future: In the days of the frost seek a minor sun.