GUILLEMET AND ALEXIS
|Most of my friends, with the long summer ahead of them, split up to go in different directions, some on painting trips to Rouen, Lille, Le Havre, Cherbourg, Dieppe, and others going further east to Brest, Lorient, and Nantes. Baille, Valabregue, and Guillemet, who had his new bride with him, Alphonsine, accompanied me on the trip south. We all agreed that the situation we faced when we returned to Paris in the fall, was a critical one for the radical group.|
Even Baille, who had nothing at stake, and was assured of a prosperous career as a civil engineer, thought we were being unfairly treated by the academic majority. He said that it was essential for us to continue our tactics for the liberalization of the ground rules for exhibiting at the Salon d'Automne, and to work for equal treatment of artists who wished to work outside regular channels. I was surprised to hear this from Baille because he was, at heart, a staunch conservative, who had established guidelines. "You must keep up the struggle," he repeated several times, "I'm convinced you have no other choice." Guillemet, also of conservative background, but sympathetic to dissident ideas, agreed with Baille, but added that even if a more liberal policy developed, there had measuring standards of some kind to assure a high quality of work. "Without some rules, we have anarchy, a condition which, I feel, is unacceptable to all of us." Valabregue, naturally, took the dissident side of the debate, but it was obvious it was not a big issue with him. I went along with this: I saw the conversation as half-hearted, perfunctory, talk just for the sake of talk; and not very meaningful. Guillemet, besides myself, was the only one in the bunch who had a legitimate interest involved, and I didn't view his allegiance to the radical cause as wholly sincere. Basically, the exchanges were pleasant; I respected their ideas; but eventually, as the train rattled its way south, the chitchat became tiresome; and I was relieved when we finally reached the end of our journey on the Cours Mirabeau. I immediately went through the formalities with the family; set myself up for work at the Jas de Bouffan, using it as a starting point for my researches into the surrounding countryside. I tried, as best I could, to establish disciplines; to concentrate on finding a direction for myself; but I found this extremely difficult: the intense heat in the Midi, the oppressive atmosphere which appeared to stand still; no movement, a silent heavy mood over everything, brought me to an impasse.... I'd sit, staring hopelessly out at nothing, unable to function, wondering about the futility of what I was trying to accomplish. My mind was confused by the complexities of the task; and the brush in my hand, for the most part, remained unused, never touching the palette, lacking the conceptual motivation which might have given it life.
Sometimes, I'd break the tedium of the feverish summer days by visiting the Musee Bourgignon, studying the collection of French, Dutch, German, Italian, and Flemish art, mainly copies of originals, hoping for a clue which might provide insight for my own studies. The collection seemed thoroughly provincial after being exposed to the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, dull, uninspiring, just a repetition of similar themes over and over again. The monotony of the painting, in a curious way, was encouraging, giving me the faint hope that my struggles weren't, after all, a waste of time....
Nothing, at the moment, went easily for me; I had no clear vision of what I wanted; the painting went on instinctively, disorganized, sometimes painfully, as I scouted motifs in the vicinity of Le Tholonet, Beaurecueil, Les Pinchinats, Vauvenargues, Etremont, Tour de Cesar, Le Saint Marc La Moree, Le Barrage Zola, Le Pont des Sautets, and the stretches of countryside paralleling the River Arc. I found it stimulating to be back in direct conact with nature, to feel my way cautiously, to explore possibilities. On days of inclement weather, I remained at the Jas de Bouffan reading Balzac, Hugo, and Alfred de Musset, or I'd sketch the chestnut trees, the far hills, the vineyards, visible from the window of my room on the second floor.
I wrote to Zola, telling him I had settled down to work, but that I was uncertain about the direction of my researches. "As you predicted," I said, "things are really dead here; nothing moves; all is quiet, and, from my point of view, the fumbling continues. I have hopes, though, and being in the Midi has provided the necessary inspiration; I have begun to believe that I can eventually achieve my objectives; that it will happen, if I take a more controlled approach. I envy Guillemet who paints his 'Raising of Lazarus' for the Salon, a canvas eight by ten meters, without hesitation, knowing exactly what he has to do, undaunted by the many problems he faces. When I met him on the Cours, he was very casual about the project, and was worried less about technique, and more about having enough space to accomodate the picture. Guillemet is a self-assured young man, as you might expect, who hasn't the slightest doubt over making an impression on the Jury of the Salon. In his mind, he is absolutely certain that he has all the qualities to make it in Paris, seeing himself as a painter of historical or biblical scenes on a grand scale, famous like David and Ingres, and the pride of the art community. You can't blame him for having dreams, Zola: we had ours back in the old days; but I wish, from my perspective, that he wasn't so damn sure of himself, that pulling off such a thing was so matter of fact. As we walked on the Cours, smoking our pipes, and talking about outdoor painting, I agreed that it was terrifyingly difficult to deal with the troubles involved, that the changing patterns of light, the deficiencies of portable equipment, the occasionally rough terrain, were formidable obstacles .... Realizing ideas, I confessed to Guillemet, was also an impediment; I lacked direction; and this was exaggerated by an inept technique. He suggested working indoors where conditions allowed a more disciplined routine, where the wind, light, and other factors, played a less critical role. He did concede that outdoor painting from nature was useful to acquire an intimate feel for the subject, but I got the impression, Zola, that his inclination for plain-air daubing, was just so-so, something inconsequential, a last resort when information could not be obtained any other way. It was useful, he indicated, as a preliminary to being indoors where details could be ground out, and the artist could give the art the polish necessary to making it in the Salon d'Automne."
"Guillemet, Zola, is, on the whole, a very intelligent artist, well read, analytically perceptive, didactic in manner, always ready with a theoretical solution to an artistic complication. He is, additionally, a generous fellow, passing on information, never holding back, and doing it without the affectation you might expect in such circumstances. I was indebted to him when he suggested several changes in my method for blocking out the composition: telling me that I should spend more time on preliminaries, holding back on the painting, making certain the harmony and balance of values were correct, and completing the drawing with a careful eye to volume. When I studied his painting the 'Raising of Lazarus,' I was impressed with Guillemet's smooth procedures, his draughtsmanship, his sureness of vision, and his absolute confidence in solving problems. For my taste, though, he lacks temperament; he is too dry from the inside, like a machinist studying a manual to repair an engine. He sees the creative act as a process rather than a mode of expression; he is tied to a scientific concept of art, a concept related to viewing human expression in terms of mathematics, etc. etc., in practical terms, and not an entity which is philosophical, and, perhaps, even beyond that speculative discipline. The heart, Zola, is everything; the soul of creation ...."
"With this sort of thinking on my mind, I want to tell you about another Axian who was introduced to me by Valabregue when we met at Mere Berne's the other day. He is all fire and brimstone, with an imagination which outstrips his knowledge; his name is Paul Alexis and he has his eye on a career as a poet--imagine that! Alexis came to the Jas de Bouffan to question me about the dissident's struggle with the Academie in Paris. "Things are developing," I told him, "but not much is going on at the moment." Alexis gave me an interesting review by Balzac, written in 1840, a collector's item, I am convinced. He fills me with steam which I need as he's the only one I see regularly besides Guillemet, who is no ball of fire. All in all, Zola, even with the exuberant Alexis flying about, it's a solitary existence here, hard on me, because, as you know, lack of communication is bad for the mind. During times like this, you turn in on yourself, becoming soured on everything...."
"I hike a lot, ranging widely, it helps me forget the loneliness, to concern myself with the beauty of earth and sky. I'd give anything to have you back again at my side just like it was when we were at the College Bourbon, but I guess that's only dreaming again: something I do frequently these days. On occasion, I forget your absence, talking out loud, as though you were still at my side, but then, I turn, and see no one, that I am totally alone, only the landscape, and I become exasperated at myself. But overall, I am not complaining; things go fairly well; I am reasonably content. I realize now that what I have undertaken requires strict personal routines; I make an effort to advance, even if my head is not set on straight. If I can manage this on a consistent basis there might be hope that all will be well in the end, although the confidence that I can achieve this kind of self-control is an off and on thing: it moves unfortunately in whatever direction the wind is blowing; leaving me, as usual, a spectator standing helplessly by as the other person in me explodes."
"My family, Zola, is what triggers me the most, and just to think about it, causes my blood to boil. When I am disgusted with their sarcastic attitudes toward my painting, I take off across the roughest countryside I can find; the Bibemus Quarry is my usual choice, and I try to exercise the venom out of my mind. I stay away for extended periods, sleeping overnight at a country hotel, or if nothing is available, I snooze in a farmer's haystack. On several of these trips, I've gone as far as Vauvenargues, Entremont, and Gardanne. When I am unable to do this because the sky is raining buckets, I eat out as much as my limited money will permit, usually at Mere Berne's or the Cafe La Croix. Sometimes, I meet Valabregue for a friendly chat, but not very often as his father has insisted that he work on the farm if he expects to get back to Paris in the fall to continue his studies. Actually, Zola, I prefer dining alone; I am not really too fond of any of these Axians, and to sit quietly away from family, is all I ask for. While I eat and enjoy a bit of wine, I read old copies of La Siecle, which are thoroughly boring, before sitting back to watch the citizens parade up and down the Cours. They turn cold stares toward me making it clear that they cannot understand an able-bodied man sitting around enjoying himself when he should be off working at some sensible job. I stare back at these cretins to show them my contempt for what they are and what they represent."
"You can tell by this that I miss your company; every once in a while, I curse the obstacles which have made our friendship so difficult, and I want to wave a magic wand to bring it back; then reality returns and I know the past is firmly in the past, that it will remain there, and there is nothing that can be done about it. The changes taking place, the tensions I face, have turned everything gray. I speculate at times on my sanity, and there are others, watching how I deal with my life, who think I have already gone over the edge. The Axians who populate this somnambulate town have a hot gossip item when they talk about the worthless son of a prominent banker who loafs while his father provides the bread. Does this stir up memories? I am sure it does; and the fact is that I get no respect from any source. I'm an outcast, a figure to ridicule, a lost soul wandering aimlessly without clear objectives in life. From my point of view, Zola, it is a friendless world, a hostile place which makes each move I make terrifyingly difficult. This is more of a problem, believe me, without having you here to console me when the going really gets sticky; I go on, not in the heroic sense of that word, but because I am incapable of doing anything else...."
"Alexis came in as he had promised and read me a pretty ballad; to my surprise, it was excellent and I thought it extraordinary that he concoct such a piece in this damned place. With my encouragement, he read several more, delighted that he had his hands on such a willing audience. One of these poems, I thought, was particularly good, well-constructed and spirited. Alexis called it: "Symphony en la Mineur," which is laying it on a bit, but there is no question about his composing being unusual, much more original than I expected."
"He is on fire, Zola, like a few of the other young men around here, eager for Paris. He's hoping to do this after he passes his final examinations at Aix University and if he can get his father's consent, which is, as he described it, a very big 'if.' Money, as it is for all of us, is the main problem. Imagine! He thinks he can do it on credit; can you believe that? Where on earth did he get such an idea? In spite of this you have to admire Alexis's courage; he lives on dreams just as we did. I see echoes of our thoughts back in the old days when I talk to him; the young man, obviously, is a person you can't take lightly; and he has the talent to go along with his hopes. The big problem for him, in the fulfillment of what he sees as fame and fortune, is that at heart he is a very lazy fellow. The poetry may be his plan to avoid solid work, to live, as he describes it, a life of indolence and pleasure as the proper reward of genius. When I asked about his sincerity, he laughed, and holding his hands high above his head, he said: 'I flow with life; I follow my heart; I avoid strife.' I scolded him for such a cavalier attitude, shaking my head, negatively as I did so. 'What,' I said, 'does a career as an artist mean to you? Do you think ideas grow on trees? Do you think you can pluck them whenever you are in the mood? A poet' I emphasized, 'must, in his mind, be pregnant with some 'Iliad,' or 'Hamlet.'' This kind of advice, of course, fell on deaf ears, and, when I thought about it a little more, I reflected--why not? Alexis has the bit in his teeth, he's ambitious, and sees the world as an easy conquest. I can understand, Zola, this devil-may-care assessment of life, and even appreciate it, but when it comes to chosing something like it for myself, I know it can never be, that I will always be the stick-in-the-mud friend you knew back during our College Bourbon days."