Among the Daughters/Chapter 7
ARTIST AND MODEL
Turning into the vestibule which led up to Bittner Sisters she saw in the window of Cheever's Store a canary-yellow rectangle on which was a strange sort of human bird in red, purple, green, and blue—a picture without a frame on a three-legged stand.
She never before had stopped in front of this store window, usually displaying uninteresting things, large sheets of paper, colored pencils, brushes, little tin cups or wooden boxes, and books. Nothing to wear. But this bright yellow picture had pretty colors, reminding her of something—Mode?—and something else. What could it be?
Her eyes widened to take it in. It was a picture of a bird figure. Man or woman? Slowly the blades and patches of color diffused into a photograph on the wall of Miss Klemper's studio in Denver. She felt a surge of warm familiarity and put her face close to the glass to see better. Miss Kleinper had said it was the photograph of a Russian ballet dancer. Mother said Russians were Bolsheviki who wore beards and went on strike and that was why the factory closed down. In Mode there were pictures of all sorts of colored and crazy-quilt patches but she always turned over those pages because she neither knew nor cared what those pictures meant.
She saw the figure seemed to be in ballet pose but standing in air instead of firmly on the sturdy toe of a ballerina's slipper. She opened her mouth and retrieved a crumb from her cheek with a wipe of her pink tongue. The colors were exciting but no dancer could stand that way. And the arms! "Such port de bras," she criticized with a tsk of her now free tongue.
A shadow islanded her and the painting from the burning August sun. She glanced at the reflection in the window to see who was standing behind her. A tall brown gingerbread man leaned over her and she turned to see an orange glow which was a short pointed beard. The small eyes were shaded by heavy bristles like the brushes in the window. Rough tweeds as unfamiliar as the dark blue tarn on his head labeled him a foreigner. A light tap of pleasure at the base of her throat heralded adventure.
The tall figure straightened as she turned and, amazed, she saw he had been leaning on a queer crooked umbrella-handle stick.
"How do you like it?"
Why, this strange man's voice was just like Congress and much higher and gentler than she expected because only Bolsheviki wore beards. Except old grey men.
"Well, I guess it's all right—but whoever made it didn't know much about ballet," she answered guardedly.
Clem Brash felt the patronizing pat he had begun to bestow on a beautiful child dissolve. Annoyance took the place of indulgent complacence. A complacence recently achieved after months of gnawing self-doubting to salve with reassurance the aesthetic wound received in France, a wound more painful than his limp, souvenir of Verdun.
At twenty-seven Clem Brash felt finished. Seven long years ago, in 1913, he had been a methodical art student in New York accepting without question Monet's purple shadows as these filtered through the patter of the local teachers. Then suddenly he found himself a revolutionary against everything in previous art forms. A momentous event in art history now known as the Armory Show startled New York, exposing the latest forms in European painting, principally French. It no longer mattered if one couldn't equal the old-fashioned impressionists, or old-hat old Masters. The new paintings, with their whorls and cones and—things, gave Clem pause. By themselves they would not have converted him to the new aesthetic religion. It was the Word, the liberating Word of accompanying manifestoes hurling barrages of language whirling with cones and spheres and "pure painting" which mesmerized him. Until the Armory Show he had been unfamiliar with the new forms, believing the old religion of art up to the impressionists sacrosanct. A camp follower, he had gone unquestioningly along with the orderly New York school of painting which, considering itself the modern movement, still was adjusting itself to the revolution of the late 19th century masters. This adjustment took the form of dividing among themselves by the local masters of ghostly Carrière, vitriolic disillusioned Forain, "pure painter" Manet, and voluptuous Renoir. Unlike Clem Brush some of the painters of the contemporary New York school already had seen examples of the cubistic paintings by the Parisian nuts. They had jeered openly the few examples straggling past baffled customs inspectors, exhibited as far back as 1909 in Alfred Stieglitz's small "291" (Fifth Avenue) Gallery. The urgent black lines of the European newcomers still infuriated most of the local New York masters when they visited the Armory Show.
Some of them however, Clem following, began the msh up the cubist-futurist staircase down which Marcel Duchamp's nude descended to newspaper fame. But the impetus of the Armory Show which carried Clem to France proved to be a boomerang, returning him to his native Nebraska worn and sore from buffeting on puzzling cubist points and edges, and dizzy from the gyrating vortex of futurist whorls.
During his seven years in Europe, with nine months out for service in the war to end war and the wound which released him from it, Clem had acquired and dropped theories of painting as often as there are normal changes of French Cabinets. He glued newsprint and nailed buttons and bits of wood to panels, and was a tiny cog in the dadaist periphery as he tried to be automatic, letting his hand go where it would in drawing a line; slanting heads after Modigliani; rushing to the circus after Picasso had extracted cubist form from it but also, bewilderingly, painted quite recognizable, even academically representative Harlequin figures. Picasso wouldn't stay put. And Clem puzzled over Matisse's cubism which seemed to be impressionist as well—hadn't modern art abandoned impressionism?
He remained a camp follower; though welcome (he had an income from home) somehow always an outsider in all coteries. But he could see he was as competent, more competent often, than some whose works received coterie acclaim merely because they had evolved a new twist or theory. Thus, a feeling of defeat never left him.
At one especially despondent interval between new movements he toured the great museums. Tutored in cubist-futurism, at first he scoffed at Rembrandt, then retreated overwhelmed by the Godlike mastery of form. In the Prado, Velasquez was a portrait painter whose insidious technique had been devised to trick. Goya was an illustrator concerned with literature. Painting must be pure, without literary associations, didn't have to mean anything. But what should one do, say, about Titian—or Tintoretto!
Floating on the Grand Canal, the Lachryma Christi drunk with his luncheon was tears that drowned his spirits. In a black gondola Charon poled him down the malodorous Styx between old masters and cubist-futurists. He leaned back frowning into the azure dome across which drifted angelic clouds tinted with Venice's rose and gold. The sky was the Tiepolo ceilings in the Rezanico Palace where he had spent the morning.
Christ, those old birds certainly knew their perspective! Maybe they posed their models on a scaffold. A scaffold where Michelangelo spent so much time. He closed his eyes and the giants way up in St. Peter's dark dome hovered formidably. When he opened his eyes he was floating in royal violet and ruby twilight. The Venetians on the piazza were brush strokes by Guardi. The Doge's Palace a drawing washed with sunset blush.
Oh, hell, what's the use, who can compete with those guys! He turned to tell the boatman querulously to take him to the Piazza—and saw Manet's gondolier in straw hat, striped shirt, mustache, and all. At Florian's he ordered coffee. The wine at lunch had made him groggy. When the coffee came he asked for cognac. Over St. Mark's a last moon-pale ray of the sun through the deepening purple haloed the curve of a cobalt-grey cloud.
Naples yellow they used to get those high lights. Tinted with Naples yellow. Tinted with Tintoretto. Who could paint from a Montmartre model? Swell models, swell clothes, architecture, painting light. Maybe that's what one needed. The lush magnificence of the Uffizi, the Prado, the Louvre, the museums of Germany, Austria, and Holland, burst through the swell models and he ordered another cognac. Those old days were the days to have lived.
No, the cubists and futurists were right. What was done was finished and one must think up something else to offer in competition. But what? He burned with impotent jealousy, and pushed a pigeon aside with his cane. Seven years since he had left New York, and nothing to show. Perhaps in New York he could achieve that release which came to others. Why couldn't he be recognized like—Picasso. I can paint a Picasso.
He returned to New York wearing, not the uniform of the war he had fought bravely, but the insignia of the recognizable artist, beard and beret. An insignia which now at dark moments seemed more impossible to deserve than on that day when, having won first prize in a high school poster contest, the butcher, the baker and, best of all, the girls had said: "Well, Clem, see you're quite an artist."
There was no such acclamation from this girl for the figure he had painted in memory of heated roaring nights at the Russian Ballet in Paris. He had thought it stood up pretty well to the Leon Bakst drawings he had tried to emulate. And now here even in Congress, a provincial vacuum if ever there was one, a chit like a Hellenistic Tanagra come to life made him feel again that disquiet from which he had fled, first in Paris, then in New York, where they knew as much as he did about cubism and futurism, and could paint a Cezanne or Picasso, and did.
The lengthening afternoon shadows molded the blue drape of Lucy's dress against her body. Pencil line with watercolor wash.
"So you know all about dancing, do you?" He tried to make his voice casual, and was annoyed to hear it pitch high.
Why should the man sound so cross? You'd think he made the picture. Lucy laughed. The deference she first had felt melted. He didn't seem strange any more, his voice wasn't what she expected from so big a man. She looked at him, could not catch his eye. Some people were like that, they never looked at you when talking.
"Well, you see in ballet there is a flat place on the toe and you stand on it."
He hoped his reply would answer her, an answer learned in Paris. "Maybe in this case the artist wanted to give a certain effect, as though she—the ballet dancer—is a bird."
Lucy was unimpressed. "Well, I keep thinking she'll break her toe. I'd like it better if it was more right—real. I don't even see how she could dance in that costume—I couldn't."
Clem, irritated, opened his mouth to defend himself but doubt tied his tongue. Perhaps she was right. He didn't know how a dancer stood. Useless to tell this girl a painter didn't have to make things recognizable any more, that a painter had the right, duty, to make a painting without representative associations.
The egg oval of this girl's face, with its high cheekbones and enormous almond-shaped eyes, excited his fingers. There was something vaguely familiar about her, reminding him of Paris, Paris green—Marie Laurencin! Yes, she looked like the fragile girls Laurencin painted, except for her blue eyes. All she needed was a black accent, perhaps a ribbon around her throat. A good model was half the battle, gave one ideas. He certainly could do as well as a woman painter. Women really couldn't be artists. This girl would be wonderful for action poses. Degas drew ballet girls. Made quite a reputation at it.
There was that 1918 May night at the Paris Opéra when he and a group of painters had shouted and declaimed allegiance to whatever ism raised its head so long as new. Down with the old—no matter how good some of it might be. In the coming Utopia art would at last be resolved to the "Pure!"—to the "Functional!" But the next morning, golden and fragrant as May can be in Paris, his head too thick to work, he walked to the Luxembourg under a gentle snow of chestnut blooms. The gallery of white marble nymphs and Houdon busts was clammy as he passed through with derogatory indifference to the gallery where the 19th century paintings awaited admittance to the Louvre like souls in Purgatory. Among them was a Degas oil of a ballet scene. A marvel of form and line. Clem had bitten his lower lip as he looked at a shadow under the nose of a figure to see what color Degas had used. Odd, he thought, that his paintings are so different in technique from his pastels. Different palette too. He's not really much of a colorist in oils but there's always something interesting about a theatre scene, even in such academic technique. These old realistic approaches are dead as door-nails. I wonder if he posed each model or developed it from a theatre sketch. You had to admit he could draw and knew how to get what he wanted. But we don't want things like that today. A wave of chilling loneliness swept over him and his wounded leg ached. Think I'll go and sit in the garden, it's chilly in here.
Clem observed Lucy examining him solemnly. Of course a kid in Nebraska might not understand about being an artist's model. The word provincial brushed his mind. There had been a phase in Paris when he had thus referred to himself, remarking with a deprecating smile that he was from the American provinces. To say one was a provincial was tantamount to belonging to that group of painters who, having come from other rural communities the world over, now formed the School of Paris. It was not necessary to be a Parisian to belong to a coterie of which a Spaniard from Barcelona was leader. To be a provincial connoted a quixotic fellow come to Paris with a fresh individual talent, a new approach untouched by academic sterility. A primitive—innocent. Though Picasso wasn't as innocent as they said! But in New York it was different. New York was a tough place. There a provincial was a yokel from the sticks. It had been a painful surprise to find himself considered a Nebraska painter instead of a Prometheus from Paris by Raymond Figente, a rich society guy who dabbled in sculpture and set himself up as an art judge, dismissing as of no account any but those he called originals.
In Congress a girl who posed for painters was a loose woman. Except for a dime-store clerk who refused to open her blouse, Clem and two commercial artists who formed the local painters' group had to content themselves with derelicts picked up at the Salvation Army, and the ubiquitous Indian who turned up as part of the aesthetic equipment in every American life class.
Tentatively, and stressing the intention of only drawing correct ballet positions, Clem asked Lucy if she would pose. "Of course," he added, "you'll receive the regular pay of fifty cents an hour."
Her face was expressionless. So he was the painter. Her eyes tried to search his for the true meaning of the offer. A dreamy silence swathed her as her mind tried to grasp all the implications of the proposal and a sprinkle of perspiration glistened in the valley of her upper lip. Dew on a petal. She tilted her head at oblique angle, and Clem grew confused at the subtle change from a young girl into a feminine creature whose eyes faintly mocked him.
This, she marveled, is like the movies. I'm just standing here and a rich man comes and says he'll give me half a dollar an hour just to stand still so he can draw me. He's crazy. But he doesn't seem bad, like dirty old Mr. Schmidt and smelly old Mr. Brady. He isn't even so old. I wonder what he looks like without that fuzzy red beard. Maybe there's a dancing teacher in Congress. I could take lessons with all that money. A sudden doubt dispirited her. It was too good to be true. Maybe it would only take an hour to draw her. Or half an hour!
"How long would it take?"
Clem grinned. "As many times as you want to pose."
Lucy stared at him. Maybe you couldn't tell about men. His smile was nice. If it was true they could leave Aunt Mabel's with all that money he would pay her.
"My ballet dress is light blue with sequins all down here, and rosebuds."
"Any kind of a costume is all right."
I guess he doesn't know anything about dancing to say a silly thing like that. I should worry. A half dollar an hour! Just for standing!
"Let's say tomorrow afternoon at my studio—410 Brick—two o'clock?"
As quick as all that, and in Congress too! The light high disappearing scale of her voice disturbed and excited him long after she ran up the stairs to the Bittner Sisters' sewing rooms where she told him her mother was.
As Clem left Cheever's, St. Cecilia's bells struck the three quarter. Dismay at being late for six o'clock supper erased the years since childhood when tardiness meant punishment. Queer how he couldn't shake the feeling he must be on time at home. In Paris at vesper bells he'd be blending with a second Pernod into the green-yellow twilight. He was out of breath after his dash for the streetcar and, settling into one of the few remaining seats, felt the hostile inquiring stare of the passengers. The little-boy feeling passed and he sat looking straight ahead secretly pleased at the attention his beret, beard, and Windsor tie attracted. After all, in Paris artists wore clothes, and beards, which disclosed their identity.
The one-eyed cupola of a two-storied brick house watched him descend a block from home. Front rooms and upstairs were dark in the houses on Pawnee Street but kitchens and dining rooms glowed. A little girl in a red dress stopped roller skating to observe Clem from across the street, and a man who had known him since childhood muttered a noncommittal "Evenin', Clem." A neighbor's collie, sniffing at his heels, followed him to the back door where, in the kitchen, he was greeted by his mother ladling apple sauce into a glass dish and the pungent odor of roast pork.
He hung his cane and beret on a hook next to the kitchen door, and gave his mother a pat on the back in clumsy affection. Her voice was sweet sour, like her homemade preserves.
"You're just in time to run down to the cellar for a jar of green tomato pickles, or maybe you'd rather have mustard pickles."
Mrs. Brush thought she ought not to have said run because of his leg but that blue tarn and red beard determined her not to see anything but the boy he used to be. A tall, bony woman, her dour Lutheran face masked the affection and awe she felt for this strange man returned in place of the high school graduate who had left eight years ago.
The neighbors had been interested and then envious of the letters postmarked New York City and then Paris France. At first she had felt apologetic at having a son embarrassingly different from other boys, an artist! To fill the void until his return (for Mrs. Brush never had a moment's doubt he would return) and to try to envision what he w'as doing, she tore out magazine covers and hung them in narrow gilt frames in the parlor and her bedroom. Pictures of little boys in patched pants, sometimes the skin showing in unmentionable places, with fishing rods, or a snow scene just as real.
But sometimes now Mrs. Brush wished Clem had stayed away. God forbid anything should happen to him, but she missed the envy and awe of neighbors when the postman called out importantly so the whole neighborhood heard, "Letter from Paris France, Mrs. Brush." Now envy had become a mixture of pity and amusement because of that blue tarn and crazy red beard. His father always had shaved twice a week until the day he died while Clem was in the war. What would his father, who did everything so right and proper, successful too in his grain and feed business and not ever considering anyone's feelings, have thought of such a get-up? She thought Clem would bring home beautiful pictures of foreign places and she would invite neighbors in to admire. But he brought nothing. At last, after she had asked many times, he gave her a scene of a little park with a big arch and red houses around it. You could hardly make it out because the lumps of paint in bright colors looked crazy. But if you stood away and squinted you could sort of see it was what he said—Washington Square in New York City.
Everything for supper was on the table except the coffee, and Mrs. Brush returned to the kitchen for the percolator.
"Want your coffee now, Clem?"
"No thanks, Ma, I'll have mine later."
Mrs. Brush poured her coffee with a prickle of annoyance at his highfalutin way of having coffee, not even with the dessert, but last by itself.
Clem looked at the round laden table. Pickles, apple sauce, mashed potatoes, com, loin of pork, lemon pie, bread, butter, coffee, and dishes with ugly little painted flowers. Renoir had been a china painter. A wave of nostalgia swept away his exhilaration at the prospect of painting Lucy. One night Paul Vermillion, a New Yorker, had said at the Ddme it didn't matter where one painted. But it did. Who could feel like painting a Nebraska supper table? A table at which one had to struggle against being made to feel a child. Always that strain about coffee. He just couldn't drink it, as he used to, gulped hot and then lukewarm between bites of meat and potatoes. And the coffee was thin, Ma getting hurt when he told her. At least the coffee he got at the Italian store and made at the studio was something like the coffee at Florian's.
He buttered an ear of corn and nostalgia for Venice and Paris became resentment. Corn was good even though the French said it was fodder. Thought they knew everything. So damned patronizing, like when he had said he was a provincial and they had smiled. He'd show them. That Laurencin girl, and in Nebraska too. He'd show them he could paint as good, better than a woman at any rate.
Clem grinned and rescued a buttery drop from the corner of his mouth. Mrs. Brush smiled too. The territories of her long face were mapped with fine umber lines. Burnt, or raw umber? Did Dürer use either? Gothic Germany. The Bohemian Cellar in Congress was like a rathskeller, not as deep down, hollowed in the rock, as the Nelson Cellar in Nuremberg. Liebfraumilch. Big juicy breasts of Rubens. Nothing juicy about Nebraska. Yellow cornfields were more like—what? More like Brueghel. Yes, that's it, Brueghel. But what was done, was done. One must think up something new. Like Picasso. Every year, something new. But what? But what!
Brick Street cut by Venner Avenue had received its name in 1887 because of the several short blocks of Victorian brick residences on the avenue's west axis. These houses, smaller replicas of Omaha copies of Chicago's South Side, were now abandoned to real estate offices, lawyers, doctors, dentists, funeral parlors, in that order, since Brick Street's second generation had moved to the latest fashionable garden spots on River Road near the new country club.
Number 410 Brick Street was distinguished from its other two-storied neighbors by a sloping skylight. This had been installed in 1915 by an optimistic photographer of hazy sepia portraits and then abandoned because of the Philistine imperviousness of Congress elite to the new "art photography." One day Clem Brush while walking aimlessly, morosely longing for his old Paris studio, spied the skylight and seized on it as a heaven-sent sign of escape from his mother's reproachfully questioning eyes.
The first thing he did was to have the Victorian excrescences on door and windows chiseled off, bricks cleaned to their original red, the window frames painted chrome yellow and the door ultramarine blue: primary colors in defiance of the Bisons in their granite-rough building across the street. The Bisons in their fortress of two joined grey stone residences eyed 410 suspiciously and debated having it raided as a Bolsheviki hangout. That Brush feller even had a red beard and more yet just had come from Paris France. Specific examples of French rottenness were titillatingly related by several younger Bisons, recently returned from the war, who had made impersonally scientific investigations in certain Paris houses where women did anything you wanted for money. American women, like at Mona's, wouldn't do those things. "That's all those Frenchies are interested in, money," said Martin L. (short for Luther) Schultz to his shocked brother Bisons.
On the afternoon when the house painters were finished Clem, entangled as usual in the simultaneous wish to be approved as regular and delight in the attention his irregularity of habiliment produced, leaned back on his cane, made a peephole of his right hand, and examined through it the pictorial possibilities of Brick Street, which he dismissed with a theatrically contemptuous shrug, conscious that across the street in the Bison doorway stood Councilman Lauter glaring in openmouthed outrage.
"Harya, Councilman," Clem called over with oblivious affability, and entered past the ultramarine door, the opening of which set off a voice as if part of a cuckoo clock.
I celebrate myself and I sing myself
Peering into the room to the left he saw on a dilapidated black leather couch a curled tomcat figure of a young man, fat haunched, neckless it seemed, his small flat-topped head with pointed protruding ears facing the door with unblinking grey eyes.
Clem grinned. "Hello, Shakespeare!"
Semanter Klug, Semy to friends, unfolded his long-torsoed thick-limbed body and smoothed his dark sleek hair to each side of its center part with a fleshy palm.
"It's Whitman." His pleasant voice had a timbre of triumph undetected by Clem. He had been waiting for almost an hour to spring the poetic words.
Shortly after acquiring the studio Clem, friendless in Congress, found in the Bohemian Cellar, a restaurant operated in European café style by a German, a refuge against loneliness. It wasn't Paris by a long shot but at least you could find someone interested in art—like Larsen and Henkel, two commercial artists who worked for some of the important Congress businessmen who cooked up their deals there over near beer. Larsen and Henkel, inspired by Clem's talk about art, envisioned a day when they too would be released from illustrating work to indulge their wish to paint as just artists and gladly accepted Clem's invitation to use 410 Brick as a studio nights and Sundays.
Through Larson and Henkel, Semanter Klug, a reporter on the Husker-Sun who also patronized the Bohemian Cellar, had heard of this art studio and, wangling an invitation, had flattered Clem into inviting him to become the fourth member of the studio group which, with Semy representing literature, considered itself the avant-garde of Congress.
Semanter Klug's interest in painting had been non-existent until the moment of meeting Clem. Twenty-one, and after three years as obituary editor, he had in the past two months achieved space on the newspaper to write a weekly column under the heading of "Theatre and Things." Theatre in Congress consisted of movies, a short vaudeville bill at the largest motion picture house, and rare one-night stands by minor traveling stock companies. "Things" was a catchall designed to mention books and maybe, now that he had met Clem, even art. Semy had copied the idea from reading the newspapers of other cities.
Councilman Lauter, owner of the Husker-Sun, first skeptical, was impressed by the salestalk of the young wiseguy, heretofore thought of as merely the obituary man. What clinched his permission was when Semy, with clairvoyance, addressed him with flatteringly shy admiration as "Senator"—pointing out the importance of growing Congress in state affairs. Councilman Lauter, with an eye on Washington, was impressed with the smart young feller's tone of deference, so lacking in old McCafferty, the managing editor. The Councilman was equally impressed with the fact that Semy didn't want any extra pay for the column—unless, in time, the "Senator" decided it was worth it.
McCafferty, "Pop" to his staff, an eastern night city desk man weary of the pressures of Chicago, had been invulnerable to Semy's blandishments, but had indifferently said he didn't give a damn if Semy asked Lauter as long as he did his regular work, obituaries and rewrite.
At an early age Semy had discovered flattery the best weapon for a poor boy to ingratiate himself with those who had power to move you up in the world. Flattery only had failed with that hard-boiled old bastard McCafferty, and the girls at Mona's sporting house on the edge of town. Like McCafferty, the girls just wouldn't go along if he tried to explain he didn't deliver like a bull because it was bad for his writing. They didn't care, one way or another, whether he did or he didn't. They just stared at him unbelievingly, like McCafferty when he told that cynical old has-been that the reason he wanted to do the column was to show Congress what was going on culturally elsewhere. "All you want to do is show off," McCafferty said.
Semy thought of himself as a genius, alone, militant against a hostile world, with flattery as a weapon in his right hand and opportune self-deprecation ready in the left. He stored in his photographic mind the ideas of writers, particularly of his own generation, applause for whose achievements he resented as a personal affront. Even the columns of other newspapers which had given him the idea for one were a source of envious resentment. It was just luck that they appeared in larger newspapers. He was certain that only the accident of having been born poor in a small town was responsible for his inability to show what he could do as a writer. An extraordinary thing invariably happened when Semy read a book, new or classic, or columns in other newspapers—he discovered he had had the identical thoughts. The writer merely had had time to write them first. He would repeat whole passages as his in his everyday conversation because, in fact, they were his. He was patiently biding his time and perfecting himself in the womb—Semy was partial to phrases which incorporated womb—of his mind while awaiting the great idea to germinate with which to surpass the young writers becoming famous. The trouble was he didn't know whether he wanted to write novels or plays or for the movies. In the meantime, he derived exhilarating pleasure from critical comments pointing to flaws in contemporary works, and carefully reprinted these criticisms in his column.
He was fond of the name Semanter, a prophetic creation, he thought, of his deceased father's and his only inheritance from that miserable failure, a cobbler whose only interest in life had been philology. Of the squat ugliness of his last name, Klug, he invariably remarked to new acquaintances at almost the first moment of meeting them and as though speaking of a stranger, it was odd that a word sounding like water sucked down a drain meant wise. He also followed this offhand comment by remarking with smiling self-deprecation that he was the least of his cobbler father's lasts.
Thus he earned a reputation of being a kind, modest but pretty smart fellow, who also was a regular encyclopedia of information—a reputation he could back up, for, having read something, it became his own.
When someone said "Semy is smart" he would smile with indulgent self-deprecation, substituting "genius" in his thoughts for "smart." Though Semy did not like anyone, everyone thought him affectionate, generous and self-sacrificing. Look how he supports his sister Ruth, everyone said—for Semy often spoke sadly of Ruth as his responsibility when explaining why he was stuck in Congress.
It was only his sister Ruth, with whom he shared a small flat, who knew Semy could hurt as well as flatter. She was a lumpish sweet girl, several years older than Semy, who could have been pretty had she spent on herself some of the attention she lavished on her brother. She contributed most of their living expenses by working as a bookkeeper; in awe of her brother she conceded, with his cooperation, that she was not his equal and that a young man needed most of what he earned as spending money to get on. Ruth longed to be invited to the studio, and at least share her brother's friends, but her only role to Semy was to pay for their flat and, as housekeeper, be concerned with his needs. Taking for granted her care after their parents' deaths when he was seventeen and finished high school, he discouraged, mockingly, any women, and especially men friends she tried to make. Clem once had asked Semy to bring Ruth to the studio but her affectionate brother had replied ruefully he would like nothing better but that Ruth did not like to go out because she was a homebody.
His first approach to Clem had been that of a reverent boy at the feet of a Master. Clem, unsure of himself and never before flattered except doubtfully by himself, quickly accepted this intelligent new friend who made him feel an important artist.
Until the advent of Clem Brush, Semy had considered painting a minor expression. From Clem however he learned of the ferment and upheaval in the world of painting, especially in Paris, where old masters, about whom he read up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, were being pushed off museum walls to make room for the new masters who created pure works of art unrelated to anything but themselves. As a result, Semy revised his opinion of Larsen and Henkel who up to Clem's advent he had thought of vaguely as artists. The admiration he had expressed for their infrequent literal landscapes now was couched in a tone of patronizing indulgence when he informed the two puzzled illustrators that nature should imitate art. Naturally, he didn't tell them Wilde had said that as they wouldn't know who Oscar was anyway; moreover he didn't precisely know what Oscar meant either.
While Clem usually didn't mind Semy's presence, today he wanted him out of 410. Tingling with anticipation, as if on the verge of discovering something new in painting to start him on the right track, he wanted none of Semy's flossy talk to kill his mood.
"Beat it, Semy, I've a model coming and don't want to be disturbed."
Semy's flat chin dropped and his eyes clouded as he pictured the possibilities of Clem's afternoon. Must be a woman he'd found somewhere. Old Tom, the Indian model, never had been a barrier. Being a painter had advantages over writing, at least in Congress. True enough, French writers frequented houses but French girls undoubtedly were different from the sluts at Mona's near the freightyards where he was treated so cavalierly as to make the sexes seem reversed. All they thought of was to get it over and be paid. You couldn't turn yourself off and on like a spigot. And you were scared of what you'd catch all the time. No use talking, money was the key. Look at Clem. Money to travel, rent himself a place like this to be alone with a model. Though why he should return to Congress, when he could live in Paris, New York, or Chicago, was a mystery. Catch me sticking around here when I get a chance to beat it.
He unwound completely and, standing, stretched.
"God, Semy, you're like a big cat!"
"That's me, a big tom," smirked Semy.
"Well," Clem said, thinking that the one thing Semy never gave the impression of was the sinewy virility of a prowling tom, suggesting rather the soft sterility of a fixed cat.
"Got to get back to the paper anyway. I'll just go up and wash my hands." The reference to himself as catlike delighted Semy as did any confirmation of himself as a romantic figure. And he was personable, despite a large rump and a square, short-necked body. His straight brown hair, save for a boyish lock that kept dropping over his flat forehead, always was neatly trimmed. In a town where grooming did not extend beyond routine cleanliness, Semy was almost a dude, over-clean and over-groomed. Though the hairless skin of his hands never seemed unclean he was constantly washing them.
Drawing board rectangles on chairs disclosed between oblique angles three large easels, arabesques of bentwood chairs, cluttered palette tables with bouquets of brushes in jars, and a model platform backed by a burlap screen over which hung an old green portiere from someone's attic. A smell of turpentine, linseed oil, and stale smoke permeated the charcoal dusty air. Returning, Semy lifted a canvas from a stack against the wall, examining it intently as if seeking a flaw in a priceless jewel, his manner that of a great connoisseur. "Not bad, not bad at all," he delivered judgment in a tone of great admiration.
Clem felt a warming flow of affection. "Not bad—it's damned good!" He had put the canvas aside to paint over when he needed a stretcher that size. Semy's approval revealed it in a new light. After not seeing it for months it didn't seem bad now at all. It looked as though it might have been done by Cezanne, or maybe in some parts, Pascin.
Semanter Klug replaced the canvas gently without further comment and sidled among the objects in the room, stopping in front of a plaster copy of Michelangelo's portrait of Giuliano de Medici on a neutral grey pedestal. His long hairless fingers caressed the surface of the plaster copy. His voice was clear and positive in a declarative statement. "This is great art. All that marvelous detail in the hair."
Clem took tacks from his mouth and turned to look. "Yes, Angelo was a great technician. But there's more to art than technique. It's not enough to copy a head. The human figure and all nature are composed of geometric truths. It's those truths that matter in art, not representation per se. Artists now have to be scientists to keep up with the world."
The imperious Medici head seemed to regard Clem ironically. Clem turned away uneasily. Semy's face should be painted in gouache. Flat, and there was scarcely any modeling where his thick nostrils joined the small flat nose. Yellow ochre and Venetian red with a lot of white.
Semy waved his hand in dismissal of Michelangelo. Gone was the simple, declarative obeisance to greatness.
"I only meant it shows wonderful proficiency, don't you agree? Like a virtuoso violinist. You're lucky to be a painter. It's easier to see what you do than in writing. Life today is against the writer in the grand tradition. The world is too complicated. We know too much. Who can compete with Shakespeare? I doubt whether there are any great writers today. Who cares about the picayune happenings of Winesburg, Ohio! That guy Anderson is over-rated."
That new guy Sherwood Anderson sure was Semy's latest wound, thought Clem.
Semy indeed had been upset by the acclaim of Winesburg, Ohio; and had found the delineation of the behavior of some of that book's characters somewhat unnerving. Anderson seemed to be aware of things that Semanter Klug did in the privacy of his room, and other things, like peeping in windows, the last for copy of course. He could have written an Anderson story himself, thought Semy.
"So far as This Side of Paradise is concerned," he said, "I have to get over to Merwald Mortuary by two o'clock."
Lucy shook out the blue tarlatan from its morning-glory bud and rubbed Bison Hall dust from the tips of her ballet slippers. A shame they weren't brand new. She hated not pressing the rumpled costume but Aunt Mabel hadn't been out of the kitchen all morning. It really didn't look bad if each layer of ruffles was pulled out. She laid it as best she could in the suitcase with the slippers and pink tights and, when Aunt Mabel went upstairs, tiptoed out the front door laden with suitcase, purse and red makeup box. She felt excited, as if about to dance.
Vida was on the slope of her front lawn. She was looking for a four-leaf clover because if she found one it would mean she and Lucy would go for a long walk in the park. My goodness, thought Lucy, Vida's always dawdling around the front yard. Vida jumped up and pulled down her poppy-red wrinkled dress, looking at suitcase and red box in dismay. "Are you going away?" she shrilled.
Lucy glanced up at the window of Aunt Mabel's room and whispered, "No, I'm just going over to Brick Street." Was Vida going to tag along?
Vida frowned. You always had to pull everything out of Lucy Claudel. Maybe she was moving and didn't want to say so for some reason. Ma was right. Lucy and her mother were so secretive. But she didn't agree with Ma that "that Claudel pair probably had things to be ashamed of, covering up their past."
"Oh you are? That's funny, I was just going over that way to get something. I'll go with you and help carry."
Lucy contemplated the suitcase. She would rather have had herself for company this afternoon. There were important things to think about, and Vida was such a chatterbox. Though in some ways she was very smart. Why was she out of breath, the suitcase wasn't as heavy as the makeup box. "What are you so out of breath for?"
Vida's heart was palpitating for fear that Lucy was getting away from her. Besides, she had those cramps today and walking was uncomfortable. "I am not! Are you moving to Brick Street?"
"I'm going to pose for an artist in my ballet costume."
Vida gaped. Worse than she expected. "An artist! Where do you know an artist from?" In her consternation she overlooked the grammatical admonition never to end a sentence with a preposition. That was what came from having to help around the house while Lucy went out and had all kinds of exciting things happen to her.
"Oh, I just met him when I was shopping yesterday. He's going to pay me half a dollar an hour to show him the right ballet positions. He has a cute red beard."
A-ha, Vida thought jealously, so it's a red beard that's cute and not my new red dress. Imagine going to a strange man artist's studio. Romantic possibilities vaguely imaginable on the basis of her reading occupied her seething thoughts for half a block. "Aren't you afraid to go there alone?"
"Afraid of what? It's across the street from the Bison Club." Vida asked the silliest questions.
When at last they reached the red, yellow, and blue house, its primary colors reminded Vida of her school water-color box, an object she only hazily until now had associated with the word artist. Lucy took her suitcase from Vida with businesslike brevity. "Thanks. Goodbye." The dismissal was inexorable.
Vida walked away slowly and then, turning to pick up an imaginary object, strained her ear to hear Lucy's reception. The blue door closed on Lucy's high disappearing laugh. Vida loitered about disconsolately and then an idea struck her.
I think I'll go home and paint Lucy with my water colors.
*** To pay fifty cents an hour this man must be richer than—Aunt Mabel, but this dusty dirty room didn't look it. A lot of cheap chairs like those men with collars off sat in to wait their turn in barbershops. And dusty tables with squeezed smelly tubes, and three-legged stands like in Cheever's window. She stood uncertainly, wondering a little fearfully whether she should have given up her suitcase and makeup box so readily to this strange man. Maybe she should have encouraged Vida to come up.
Clem watched her guarded manner with amusement. Congress girls weren't used to studios. On second sight she was more beautiful, the remembered image exceeded by the original. How could she have survived the conformities of this prohibiting community, an orchid among vegetables. Nor did one have to search in her for beauty, as in the taunting coarse-skinned bitches who posed in Paris. Those frizzed black masses of hair had been hard to plane into form. The black hair on and between their sturdy legs and under their arms, and their corn-misshapen toes had been impossible to view objectively. Repelling. French models, with their direct sexual posing, and in their talk and lovemaking as well, and that overpowering animal odor, had made him feel insufficient.
"You see," he explained apologetically, "this is a place to work. I don't live here. I live on Pawnee Street. It's not as dirty as it looks, painting makes a mess."
He doesn't seem like Mr. Brady, he isn't fresh at all, decided Lucy. If he really lives on Pawnee Street I guess he can pay fifty cents, but I guess it won't be for many times.
"Oh, that's all right." She waited for him to make the next move.
He was relieved that he had had the sense to clean the bathroom but was too shy to use the word. "I thought," he began hesitantly, "if you will put on your costume and stand on that platform we can decide on a pose."
"Oh sure. My dress will be a little wrinkled though. Is there a toilet or bathroom I can use?"
Clem blushed. Who ever said Nebraska was provincial? He showed her where to dress and, closing the door, rubbed his hands delightedly at his luck. Some quick sketches first, as Degas had done. Who knows, even the sketches might be good enough to show. Lucy stuck her head out. What shoulders, thought Clem, bedazzled.
"Do you want me to put on my makeup?" She hoped he would say yes.
"No, no, just the costume. Otherwise just as you are."
Artists are funny. It was more like when Mother took her to have her picture taken than at the Bison Hall.
"Now," said Clem, arranging the portieres so the platform was clear, "take the pose like the painting you saw yesterday."
Lucy rolled up on her toes, held it an instant, and wobbled. "Well," she explained, "I can't stand still this way long, I'd have to go into the next step."
Clem frowned. "Is there any pose you can hold?"
"Oh sure. I can stand like this, or this, or this, or this. I can hold any of the five positions."
"Let's see the one before the last with your one leg forward, and one arm up and one down. Can you hold that?"
"You mean the fourth position. I can hold this."
She felt good. This was something like Miss Klemper's studio. A studio was a nicer place to study in than in some old schoolroom where Miss Shaver or some boy was always wanting to kiss you.
Clem was in a fever of work. The pose was like—the sculptured ballerinas of Degas. Yet there was a difference. Hers was not the resilent exercised line of a Degas dancer. How much had been fact, how much fancy, in Degas's perception? He picked up a stick of charcoal but uncertainty paralyzed him. The five fingers of his stiff hand pointed down many different roads of approach. His eyes kept wandering back to her face. Cobalt eyes, lemon cadmium hair with a tinge of white and ochre. Now that he saw her emerging from the carnation skirt she was no fragile Laurencin convalescent, but living Flora within reach. She was no lesser copy of museum beauties, the modest eyes of Botticelli's maidens never stared at the world so frankly. The stalk of the long white throat rose straight from its cup between the gentle curve of the shoulders, but a line of tarlatan surf washed tantalizingly over the high twin dunes. If only he could get her to pose nude. His eyes drew the long gradual curve of her legs. Too much tarlatan stuff where the legs joined the body. He rearranged a fold in the portiere he had no intention of drawing, a pretense to kill time while he tried to formulate the feel of his first line. He whistled happily under his breath and Lucy glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, but he didn't seem to be looking at her that way.
"If you get tired, rest." His voice was preoccupied as he seated himself in front of a board on which was thumbtacked a sheet of charcoal paper. Charcoal was easier to manipulate for a first sketch.
Scratching of charcoal. Lucy stifled a yawn but he did not notice. He seemed to have forgotten about her. Balance was on the back leg; even so, the figure did not stand and he wiped off the foot. The foot was too big, and the heel not under the spine. He breaded a piece of rubber in moist nervous fingers and erased some off the toe. There, that was it. The figure was blocked in; of course, he was only trying for a general line. He got up and backed away to look at his work.
Was that what he had thought so right close by? The figure was off. It didn't stand. Legs too long—because he had been looking up at her. Charcoal was too coarse for such a drawing, a pencil line would be better. He came forward and rubbed off the whole figure.
"You'd better rest a while."
Lucy yawned, and sat down on the chair he put on the platform. Dancing was easier than posing. She wanted to see how he drew her picture but didn't like to ask. He seemed cross.
Clem put coffee on a gas plate, lit a cigarette, and looked at her. She sat, legs apart, well turned out, leaning on her knees.
A Degas pose. Not graceful, but interesting. A pose should be interesting. That had been his mistake, trying to pose her. He got a sketch pad and pencil.
"Can you sit, comfortably like that, a little while?"
She nodded. A silly way to draw a dancing picture, but she should worry at fifty cents an hour.
The drawing pleased Clem though he had to admit chairs were almost as hard to draw as figures. One thing about the cubists, they weren't held back by physical representational details. It was more effective to make a freely arbitrary construction. Still one should know how to draw. Very few cubists could in the Leonardo anatomical sense. Picasso could. Of course, that was an old-fashioned slant. Still! The coffee boiled over.
Lucy jumped down and walked around the studio while Mr. Brush poured coffee. It felt good to move around.
"Next time," he said, handing her a cup, "I'm going to begin to paint you." An impression, like Laurencin he thought.
"Can I see my picture?" Lucy asked tentatively. She liked the big man with the hesitating voice. He was gentle and kind and had said there would be a next time.
She looked at the figure with shadowy pencil lines for arms and heads where the eraser had been used, and laughed. "I look jittery, as if I keep moving all the time. Aren't you going to draw my face too?" It was a funny picture, as if he couldn't make up his mind.
Clem gulped the coffee and burnt his tongue. It annoyed him when models made comments. "I think we'll stop for today, it's almost four thirty," he said. Perhaps if he worked an hour by himself he'd get the feel better.
When she was ready to leave he handed her a dollar and a half. "It's only tour thirty so I owe you twenty-five cents' change," die said. She only had a nickel.
He laughed. "Let it go, you can make it up sometime. When can you come again?"
"Any time, any time at all."
"Monday, same time?"
Monday was three days away. Saturday, Sunday, Monday. Tomorrow, Saturday, she would find out if there was a dancing school in Congress.
Funny, he didn't try to kiss her when she left. Everyone else did when they gave you something. A whole dollar and a half!
Alone, Clem reheated the coffee. Sharing a studio was an awkward arrangement. It would be ideal if he could have living quarters here. An artist should live in his studio. He telephoned his mother he was having supper at the Bohemian Cellar.