Painting so, in a burst of emotion, he usually comes to an end of his enthusiasm before he has attained beauty. You point out the fact to him that his painted woman has but three fingers. "Ah, that is true," he says; "but I couldn’t put in the other two without throwing the whole out of drawing—it would destroy the composition and the unity of my ideal. Perhaps, some day, I may be able to get what I want of sentiment, of emotional appeal, and, at the same time, draw all five fingers. But the subjective idea is what I am after now; the rest can wait."
Matisse, however, should not be classed among the Wild Beasts of this Parisian menagerie. But of him I learned something of the status of the movement, which is a revolt against the subtleties of impressionism. It is a revolt against "mere charm," against accidental aspects of illumination; a return to simplicity, directness, pure color and decorative qualities.
Matisse, being as mild a man as ever tortured the human form or debauched a palette, what of these other Fauves, who had left him out of sight in the runaway from beauty I picked out seven of the most ferocious and stalked them all over Paris. From Montmartre to Montparnasse I chased, from the stable on the ground floor to the attic on the sixth, through courts, down corridors, up interminable stairs worn to a spoon-like hollowness, in and out of Quartier and Faubourg. And what magnificent chaps I met! All young, all virile, all enthusiastic, all with abundant personality, and all a little mad. But all courteous and cordial, too, patient with my slow-witted attempts to make order out of intellectual chaos. And, after long dialogues on art, on ideals and new orders of beauty, in each studio was a new impossible outrage in color to confute their words. It was amazing in contrast. It was as if some fond mother, after a doting description of her first-born babe, should lift a cloth and show you a diseased, deformed child upon the point of death!
And so, first, to visit Braque, the originator of architectural nudes with square feet, as square as boxes, with right-angled shoulders. Braque’s own shoulders were magnificent. He might be a typical American athlete, strong, muscular, handsome, as simple as a child and as modest as a girl of nine. To see him blush when I asked permission to photograph him—and then to turn to the monster on his ease, a female with a balloon-shaped stomach—oh, it was delicious to see big, burly Braque drop his eyes in a blush!
It was in a court off the Ur D’Orsel, up I don’t know how many flights of stairs. No one could have been kinder than was Braque to the impertinent, ignorant foreigner. He gave me a sketch for his painting entitled "Woman" in the Salon des Indépendents. To portray every physical aspect of such a subject, he said, required three figures, much as the representation of a house requires a plan, an elevation and a section. His chief preoccupation is the search for violence (he spars, too, does Braque), for a primitive emotion. He looks at Nature in order to possess it emotionally. In his sketch there is a "harmony of volume," which is a step further than any mere flat decorative effect. It is a spiritual sentiment. Now, gentle reader, look at his drawing! I had to keep my face straight.
"I couldn’t portray a woman in all of her natural loveliness," says Braque. "I haven’t the skill. No one has. I must, therefore, create a new sort of beauty, the beauty that appears to me in terms of volume, of line, of mass, of weight, and through that beauty interpret my subjective impression. Nature is a mere pretext for decorative composition, plus sentiment. It suggests emotion, and I translate that emotion into art. I want to expose the Absolute, and not merely the factitious woman."
Do you get it? It takes a bit of trying. Let’s repeat the dose. Follow me, with Braque leading, to visit Dérain, whom all consider the most intelligent and earnest of the Fauves, and experimenter like Matisse, seeking to find the way for the youngsters to travel.
Why, here’s Dérain, now, across the street, with his model, a dead-white girl with black hair, dressed in purple and green, Dérain leaves her pouting, and we walk through a strange, crowded bourgeois neighborhood with Dérain, who is a tall, serious-looking young man, with kind brown eyes and a shrill blue tie. We plunge down a narrow lane-like passage, with casts amidst the shrubbery, into a big open studio, with a gallery at the end.
Look at his biggest picture, first, and have your breath taken away! He has been working two years on it. I could do it in two days. So could you, I’m sure. A group of squirmy bathers, some green and some flamingo pink, all, apparently, modeled out of dough, permeate a smoky, vague background. In front sprawls a burly negro, eight feet long. Now notice his African carvings, horrid little black gods and horrid goddesses with conical breasts, deformed, hideous. Then, at Dérain’s imitations of them in wood and plaster. Here’s the cubical man himself, compressed into geometric proportions, his head between his legs. Beautiful! Dérain’s own cat, elongated into a cylinder. Burned and painted wooden cabinets, statues with heads lolling on shoulders, arms anywhere but where they ought to be. A wild place, fit for dreams. But no place for mother.
Dérain, being a quiet man, doesn’t care to talk, but he sits obediently for his photograph, holding the cylindrical cat in his arms, as I instruct him. He shows us portfolios of experiments in pure color, geometrical arrangements such as you did in the second grade of the grammar school, tile patterns, sausage rosettes, and such.
But who am I, to laugh at Dérain? Have I not wondered at the Gobelin designs, at the Tibetan goddess of destruction, and sought for occult meanings in the primitive figures of the Mound Builders? Let Dérain talk, if he will be persuaded. What has he learned from the negroes of the Niger? Why does he so affect ugly women?
"Why, what, after all, is a pretty woman?" Dérain answers, kindly. "It’s a mere subjective impression—what you yourself think of her. That’s what I paint, another kind of beauty of my own. There is often more psychic appeal in a so-called ugly woman than there is in a pretty one; and, in my ideal, I reconstruct her to bring that beauty forth in terms of line or volume. A homely woman may please by her grace, by her motion in dancing, for instance. So she may please me by her harmonies of volume. If I paint a girl in the sunlight, it’s the sunlight that I’m painting, not the real girl; and even for that I should have the sun itself on my palette. I don’t care for an accidental effect of light and shade, a thing of ‘mere charm.’
"The Japanese see things that way. They don’t paint sunlight, they don’t cast shadows that perplex one and falsify the true shape of things. The Egyptian figures have simplicity, dignity, directness, unity; they express emotion almost as if by a conventional formula, like writing itself, so direct it is. So I seek a logical method of rendering my idea. These Africans being primitive, incomplex, uncultured, can express their thought by a direct appeal to the instinct. Their carvings are informed with emotion. So Nature gives me the material with which to construct a world of my own, governed not by literal limitations, but by instinct and sentiment."
Fine, fine—until one looks again at his paintings to get this appeal to sentiment. Then one is thrown back upon one’s reason. Where is that subjective beauty that is his? In the cubical man? In the cylindrical cat? In the doughy bathers? But, as he is only an experimenter, the failure of his experiment does not prove the falsity of the principle involved. So much is already clear, though; these men are not attempting to transcribe the effect nature makes upon the eye, as do the impressionists. It lies deeper than that.
And now for Picasso, of whom, here and there, one has heard so much. Picasso will not exhibit his paintings. He is too proud and too scornful of the opinions of the canaille. But he sells his work, nevertheless. That’s the astonishing thing about all of them. Who buys? God knows! Germans, I suppose.
It is the most picturesque spot in Paris, where the wide Rue de Ravignan drops down the hill of Montmartre, breaks into a cascade of stairs and spreads out into a small open space with trees. Picasso comes rolling out of the café, wiping his mouth, clad in a blue American sweater, a cap on his head, a smile on his face.
Picasso is a devil. I use the term in the most complimentary sense, for he’s young, fresh, olive-skinned, black eyes and black hair, a Spanish type, with an exuberant, superfluous ounce of blood in him. I thought of a Yale sophomore who had been out stealing signs, and was on the point of expulsion. When, to this, I add that he is the only one of the crowd with a sense of humor, you will surely fall in love with him at first sight, as I did.
But his studio! If you turn your eyes away from the incredible jumble of junk and dust—from the bottles, rags, paints, palettes, sketches, clothes and food, from the chairs and tables and couches littered with a pell-mell of rubbish and valuables—they alight upon pictures that raise your hair. Picasso is colossal in his audacity. Picasso is the doubly distilled ultimate. His canvases fairly reek with the insolence of youth; they outrage nature, tradition, decency. They are abominable. You ask him if he uses models, and he turns to you a dancing eye. "Where would I get them?" grins Picasso, as he winks at his ultramarine ogresses.
The terrible pictures loom through the chaos. Monstrous, monolithic women, creatures like Alaskan totem poles, hacked out of solid, brutal colors, frightful, appalling! How little Picasso, with his sense of humor, with his youth and deviltry, seems to glory in his crimes! How he lights up like a torch when he speaks of his work!
I doubt if Picasso ever finishes his paintings. The nightmares are too barbarous to last; to carry out such profanities would be impossible. So we gaze at his pyramidal women, his sub-African caricatures, figures with eyes askew, with contorted legs, and—things unmentionably worse, and patch together whatever idea we may have…
Then Picasso, too, talks of values and volumes, of the subjective and of the sentiment of emotion and instinct. Et pat-à-tie et-pat-à-ta, as the French say. But he’s too fascinating as a man to make one want to take him only as an artist. Is he mad, or the rarest of blaguers? Let others consider his murderous canvases in earnest—I want only to see Picasso grin! Where has he found his ogrillions? Not even in the waters under the earth…. Picasso gets drunk on vermillion and cadmium. Absinthe can’t tear hard enough to rouse such phantasmagoria! Only the very joy of life could revel in such brutalities.
But, if Picasso is, in life and art, a devil, he at least has brains, and could at one time draw. Not so, I fear, poor Czobel, a young Hungarian, almost a Hun, that is, what’s not Vandal in him. He hasn’t yet succeeded in getting himself talked about, but he did his worst to achieve infamy at the Salon des Indépendants this year. He even sacrificed himself in the attempt, painting his own portrait for the enemy to howl at. And Czobel isn’t bad-looking, either. He has Picasso’s verve and courage tamed into a sort of harmless idiocy. As I waited for him, at the very end of the Cité Falguière, on the bridge that connects a row of studios built like a primeval lake dwellings above the level of the gutter, he appeared, bearing a bunch of hyacinths. What a country, where such incarnate fiends on canvas appear, flower bedecked, to welcome intrusions! I expected at least a vivisectionist, feeding on fried babies.