LIVES OF THE PAINTERS
 
  Heironymous Bosch wanted no part of his father's fortune. In college, he did all he could to turn ten thousand dollars yearly tuition into a waste of money, just to get the old man's goat. Most of his sophomore year was spent under the influence of potent psychotropic drugs he got from friends in the science department, and his rare appearances in class, effected more from a lack of imagination than a sense of duty, were punctuated frequently by the sound of his head striking the desktop. Called upon to contribute for example an opinion on the state of the press during the first years of the French Revolution (this actually happened), he might answer (as indeed he did), "Fuck, Jesus, cow, fuck, cow." Whether such statements, and oh there were many, were deliberate provocation or mere psychotic drivel is less important finally than his eventual expulsion and the famous scandal that followed. And yet some would say it was a small price to pay for such a work as "The Garden of Earthly Delights." The next summer he left for India on the money it earned him (a pittance given its subsequent worth). He has not been seen since.
  Jackson Pollock's landlady, back in the mid-twenties when he was known around Broadway for his theatrical caricatures, before a dropped paint brush changed his life, was a woman named Myra Jones. She had been a great beauty in her day (upon which the sun had long set), linked with Diamond Jim Brady and Mayor Walker, among others. She conceived a liking for young Jack Pollock, whose head was then full of curly brown hair but whose pockets were often empty (he was an avid gambler, and a bad one), and it's said she sometimes forgave his rent for the price of an overnight call. Who are we to deny her this relief, or to say a warm bed so bought is not in all ways superior to a Central Park bench in the sharp teeth of a New York winter? Pollock's affection for older women is anyway well-documented; his mother was a strong personality, a suffragette, and a nudist. "I am forever searching her like," he wrote Franz Kline the year before his accident, "but have settled often for less." Often somewhat understates the frequency of Pollock's "settling" -- in the end, "action" painting was all he had time for.
  Frida Kahlo knew more about cars than any boy in town, but Mama had a horror of grease and oil and dressed her in crinoline and sent her to cotillion instead. The fox trot, the waltz, the rhumba -- these were gauntlets to be run, over long afternoons of slow torture in the grip of awkward adolescents whose hair smelled of flowers. How she would have preferred to be holding a socket wrench, under the hood of the Studebaker she was restoring out of sight of her mother in Uncle Leo's backyard. If Frida could have seen then where that car would take her -- perhaps Mama had glimpsed that tragedy, had only been trying to keep her safe in a swaddling of petticoats. It must be regarded as significant that in her painting Frida forswore all automotive representations. And there is the telling story of the breakdown on the road to Cuernevaca. She remained in the car, reading a magazine, while Diego sweated over the engine for an hour; she instinctively knew what was the trouble, but could not speak. All she said finally was, "Honey, call the Auto Club." In those days, he was sleeping with her sister.
  Grandma Moses poured herself another shot of rye -- the only hard liquor she could stand, though she'd drink wine of almost any sort, even that cherry-flavored lighter fluid they stocked down at the Bide 'n' Buy. At the small desk, the one by the window with the view over the pond, she read again her dealer's letter. The news was only good -- even minus Roddy's commission, not to say Uncle Sam's, she was banking a small fortune -- and yet it troubled her. She folded the sheet carefully (when was she ever not careful?) and returned it to its envelope, took a pencil from the pencil box and on the envelope's backside drew a quick self-portrait in primitive style (when was she ever not primitive?), then added, not even as an afterthought, a devil's beard and horns. What was eating her? If only Grandpa Moses were here, she sighed almost aloud. But there never was a Grandpa Moses, just a long parade of senseless one-night-stands. "All right," she laughed to no one, "not quite senseless." And she thought suddenly of Enrique, his downy beard and thin, sensitive fingers. Under the picture she wrote, "Ninety years young."
  Kandinsky, Kandinsky -- the song was on everyone's lips that summer. Balalaikas chimed in the California sun. Nights he'd hide himself away in the garret of his little grass shack, inventing abstract art. Days he belonged to the ocean; dawn reliably found him paddling out to whatever waves the sea cared to offer -- four-foot faces, ten-foot faces, it mattered little to Kandinsky, whose only aim was to forget where he ended and the water began. Back on shore the transistors blared: Kaan-dinsky, k-k-k-kan-kan-dinsky. He was the hot dog they all wanted a bite of. Time, LIFE and Sports Illustrated all in the same week. Art News, too, but who saw it? It wasn't "Red Oval" that brought to his door the little bronze wahinis, or the groupie gremmies offering six-packs and smokes. Well, fame, he knew, was an unmanageable thing; it was why he never turned pro, and yet his very lack of ambition proved the making of his legend. So what could he do? Accept the cigs and suds, admit the occasional beach bunny, and do what he'd do in any case -- ride the wild surf, rid painting of objects.
  Winslow Homer, the Boy with the Backward Name. Teachers of course could never get it right -- he was Homer Winslow the whole semester. And yet this alone cannot account for his strange behavior later in life, the kleptomaniacal episodes, the bizarre dress, the conversing with furniture. (Not that it didn't endear him to us all the more.) He was psychoanalyzed, mesmerized, alienated and regressed, and for the better part of one fervid year corresponded with Freud himself, setting down vivid accounts of the dreams of storm-tossed seas that inspired some of his most memorable canvases. But they never got to the bottom of him, never uncovered the seed of his peculiarity. In the end, he dismissed the headshrinkers and decided simply to regard himself as normal; he had a loving and supportive family and dear friends who found it easy to indulge what were after all relatively harmless eccentricities. (The stolen goods were always cheerfully accepted back.) He was withal a pillar of his close-knit community, and it is only because the stonecutter was new in town that the memorial in the courthouse square is dedicated to Mr. Homer Winslow. All agree it was an honest mistake.
  Henri Matisse -- few knew the man behind the celebrity, the feted painter, the master of color. And yet his own true colors were, among the security chiefs of Europe, a matter of constant discussion, endless surmise. In fact, even the beard was false. Born Jacques Delay in the shade of Sacre Coeur in the same year as Karl Marx, he was raised on a strict diet of radical politics by his wheelwright father. Bombmaking came naturally to him. He was much affected, in all the wrong ways, by Nietzsche. By Henri's fifteenth birthday, there was a file on him a yard long, and yet it contained nothing solid enough to warrant an arrest -- he was all smoke and shadow. Much to the chagrin of the commisionaires, he was, by dint of his prodigious artistic talent and success, accepted into highest society -- a society he was only too eager to destroy, in which he moved only to hasten its end. The critics called him "fauve," a wild beast, but just how wild they never suspected. His only allegiance was to anarchy. Picasso called him "the most undependable man I know. And you can depend on it." But his revolution never came.
  Fra Fillipo Lippi, alias Frank the Lip, alias Francis Lipponi, alias Phil Franklin, alias Light-Fingered Lippy, alias Lippy the Liar, alias Roger Lipansky, alias Howard Wolf, in the end was not sorry to have done the 21 months in Chino, for it was there he discovered an aptitude for something better than relieving widows of their assistance checks and tourists of their wallets. Boredom was his muse, and by the time of his release he'd chalked upon one wall of his cell a creditable Flight from Egypt and covered the other with a really impressive Annunciation, in egg tempera. It was work bound to change the course of Florentine painting, and it knocked six months off his sentence. He'd also begun a lucrative business in tattoos; the shop he opened on the Strip (Interview did a layout) is still in business today, and the tour buses slow there, though they do not stop. Drop in anytime for a modish death's head pierced by snakes or to discuss 15th-century frescoes -- the Fra is equally at home with either. And he'll talk about his bad old days, too, with not hint of shame -- or, for that matter, of pride.
  El Greco was down three falls to two. But the Battling Greek, the man these Spanish crowds loved to hate, was not about to let the Belt he'd worked so hard to win pass into the hands of El Buen Vato Loco -- or of any other wrestler on God's multicolored earth, no matter what was in the script. "Go back to Athens, ya Cretan!" someone screamed. No use to give the rabble a geography lesson, anyway not now, not in the ever-tightening grip of his opponent's full nelson. He'd need to muster all his Mannerist tendencies to turn this match around. He smelled popcorn and spilled beer. Concentrate ... He looked at the scene from afar, as if it were a picture he were painting. Suddenly, he went limp; to the Vato, it appeared the Greek's proportions had suddenly shifted; he somehow turned long and thin, like a Giacometti centuries later, and slipped away, and one two three just like that the Vato was kissing canvas. The commentator rattled on about "violent foreshortening." The "ref" was nonplussed; so was the director. But Domenikos Theotocopoulos was no one's puppet. Back in Knossos, Mama turned up the volume on the radio.
  Mary Cassatt lay in the tub, examining her toenails far down at the other end, squinting a little to see them better. The polish needed touching up already, but she was wary of making a fetish of it, and anyway she was out of that color, and anyway hadn't she come to Paris to live la vie Boheme? (Just what was so hip about living like a Czech in France escaped her, but she put that down to her corn-fed American provincialism.) And yet in some quarters makeup itself was daring; she thought of those girls back in the Village, fortifying their eyes in moats of black mascara. So there you were, damned if you did, damned if you didn't. She supposed the really liberated thing to do was to not worry about it at all, so she looked at her breasts instead, which were just her breasts and neither provincial nor Bohemian, and thought about her date later with Degas, and hoped he wasn't going to try to get French again—fresh again, she meant—at least not so soon. But after another long day painting babies, sex was the last thing on her mind, Bohemian or no.
  Georgia O'Keefe, from Cork to Kenmare there wasn't the colleen to match her, not for looks nor sunny personality. Wasn't she a delight then to be seen skipping down a country lane with a basket of raspberries swinging like a carnival ride in her hand, her feet bare and a good old tune whistling from between her full and ruby lips. How came she to be scrabbling in the dirty desert of far Ameriky, making pictures of the naked head bones of dead Bossies, I ask you, and posing in the I-don't-mind-telling-you for that bearded photographer gentlemen and he not her husband either? Oh her mother won't even talk of it, and her pater, sure didn't the man drown himself in whiskey merely of grief? There's one hussy won't be welcomed back open arms and no questions asked into the bosom of the people who knew her when. What is it turns our most promising young ones into artistes and hoors? What maddening fever, what beguiling devils, fashion magazines, ambisexual propagandists? Come, give us one of the old songs, and for god's sake uncork that thing already. Am I here just to hear myself talk?
  Andrea Mantegna could sing the blues like no other Italian painter of the fifteenth century; he was absolutely without peer in this regard, there is no disagreement on that point. One has only to see his "St. Sebastian," eyes lifted woefully toward the arrow sticking out of his forehead, to confirm that here was a man who understood suffering. And he blew damn fine harp besides. There was the usual commotion of course about white men and the blues, and this one without a word of English in his vocabulary, but it rarely took more than a single hearing to quiet his critics. Soul is soul, isn't that the basis of democracy, that every man and woman has the inalienable right to be unhappy, has the innate potential to be as wretched as the next one. The Man can't bust our misery. Andrea rarely played outside of Padua, and there mostly at parties, but he was no dilletante, he blew his harp so hard he once sucked a reed right into the back of his throat. And he had all the Junior Parker sides centuries before they were recorded; a very special kind of dedication, can you deny it?
  Leonardo da Vinci, painter, inventor, composer, filmmaker, ski instructor, insurance adjustor, veterinarian, vegetarian, set dresser, topless dancer, Borscht Belt comic, insect wrangler, snake charmer, air traffic controller, lead guitarist, cocktail waitress, contract killer, drug dealer, panderer, panjandrum, skip tracer, drag racer, King of the May, Queen of the hop, child star, vampire, plaster-caster, hockey player, heavy drinker, translator, deep thinker, councilmember, bedwetter, bellboy, call girl, rail-splitter, house-sitter, sweater-knitter, pipe-fitter, tennis pro, gigolo, rack-jobber, bank robber, meat-packer, boot-blacker, jester, jockey, junkie, Mickey's monkey, maneater, script-reader, focus puller, key grip, twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift. A pirate, a poet, a pauper, a puppet, a pawn and a king. A funk and a pony. Friend of the devil, root of all evil. Cock of the walk, talk of the town. Son a gun, one in a million. Hair of the dog. Eye of the tiger. Six foot three in his stocking feet. Thighs like tree-trunks. A man unlike men like other men. Fawns gathered at his feet, birds nested in his beard. He read six papers by breakfast, made history by noon, love thrice daily.
  Peter Paul Rubens, employee of the month, folding long-sleeved pocket-t's, black, XL, at the back of the store. It's that lazy, empty, slightly anxious time before the first customer, like the space between when the sky gets light and the world gets busy. It lasts sometimes as long as an hour, but never less than 15 minutes; nobody waits at the door for a mall to open. At least one hopes not. Peter Paul fancies he thinks his deepest thoughts now, as he moves about the store straightening stacks of jeans and racks of flannel shirts, watching Alexa Johnson out of the corner of his eye. She's what some people might call plump, but still more to his liking than the aerobicized hair-babes who breeze around the mall all day following their credit cards. A little meat on the bones, not such a bad thing. The women of his dreams he sees billowing like clouds, in heroic attitudes, mythological tableaux. Women ten feet high. Venus was no Twiggy, he's certain of that. Better to worship abundance than dearth, feast than famine, that was just common sense. More is more. Bigness is all. XL as in excellent.
  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec turns the key in the lock and pushes open his front door, hits the light switch and hears the roar before he sees the crowd. "Oh," says Henri, turning red, "oh, fuck you guys." He means this mostly in a nice way, though nowadays he prefers his birthdays to go unremarked, and he feels a little put out at having been the only one not in on the surprise. It doesn't make sense, but it's the end of the nineteenth century and nothing does. All the Post-Impressionists are here, and of course there's a lot of show people, and half the whores in the arrondisement. There's cake, balloons, a pile of gag gifts -- elevator shoes, a periscope. Henri is grabbed and kissed as he makes his way through the room, the blood still in his face, the senseless resentment lingering. But after a couple of shots of absinthe and a squeeze from Henriette, he starts to relax, calling everyone "Stretch" and asking how the weather is up there and occasionally punching someone in the back of the knee to make her leg buckle. These are the favorite jokes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
  Pablo Picasso was famously a sucker for the occult. Tarot cards, tea leaves, psychic advice, interpreted dreams -- omens and portents guided his life and his art. The stars said blue, and so: The Blue period. The cards said pink, and the Rose period began. Cubism was the result of contradictory counsel from a palmist and an astrologer; it fractured painting and set the spiritual tone for the 20th century. How odd then that the man responsible was deeply engaged in the study of medieval necromancy. Eventually he came to believe himself paranormally gifted, and bothered his friends ceaselessly with trying to guess numbers or shapes he made them think of and telling them what was in their pocketbook. He was almost never right. But his pictures looked like the work of a man with second sight -- and third, and fourth, and fifth. Corrective lenses were prescribed, but Picasso would have none of it. "I see not with my eyes," he said, as portentously as possible. In later years, he wore a hooded cloak and carried a wand. He claimed that the world would end September 7, 1979; he went to his grave having not yet been proved wrong.
  Mark Rothko writing a love letter: "You are a large red rectangle surmounting the smaller blue rectangle of my heart on a field of black." No wonder he had no luck with women. Placing an ad in the personals, WM painter ISO anybody. When it came to the clinches, as it would rarely but, rarely, it would, he'd express himself abstractly, and was either not comprehended or else misinterpreted obscenely. The blank expressions, the unmerited slaps. Was this to be his eternal, his only portion? Oh what was the matter? The world was full of lovers and soul-mates and paramours, all speaking a language the other could understand. Birds and bees, cats and dogs, mice and monkeys, Cole Porter's whole amorous litany were hard at it, and here was he, semper solo, on the last stool of the darkest bar in New York, buying himself another lonely drink. The jukebox played Sinatra, on Mark's quarter. "I can't talk to girls," he said to Mac the bartender. "I'm a girl," said Mac, "and you're talking to me." My God, she was, how could he never have noticed! He spoke again, but all that came out were two amber squares.
  Gilbert Stuart poured another beer over his head, pounded his chest like an ape, high-fived the nearest available open palm. Half an hour later he was on hands and knees, being colorfully sick all over the lawn -- "clearing the decks for further engagements" is what he'd call it later, though at the time it was just puking. But it wasn't the end of him, and before his brain mercifully shut his body down, he had peed out a window, broken a door, and bitten off really a very small and inessential piece of Jane Ellen Proctor's left little finger. "Hey," he said in a message left by way of apology on her phone machine, "nobody's perfect." Look at Washington, tight-lipped in the still unfinished portrait in Gilbert's studio (maybe when his hangover cleared he'd finally fill in that blank spot at the bottom). Father of the country -- dude chopped down his old man's tree (and fucking got away with it, just for telling!), wore wooden teeth, cheated on his wife. Still they put his picture on the money, erected him a large phallic monument in the city that bore his name. What's a little puke to posterity?
  Frederic Remington, the Pasha of the Plains, was living it up on typewriter money in the presidential suite of the Cheyenne Hotel. He lit his cigars with one-hundred dollar bills, and threw the cigars away, ordered French champagne just to hear the corks pop. His rooms were full of the smoke and noise of the beautiful people of the Old West, powdered and pompadoured and stuck like flies to Remington's honeyed tab. Glassy-eyed, thick-tongued, surgically improved. Ah but he knew them for what they were, dead things in his orbit, dust in his big wind. He directed them in obscene parodies of his famous paintings, orchestrated massacres and orgies, quick-sketching all the while. The women played cowboys and the men played Indians; then the women were men and the men were women; but they were never themselves again. Remington in his smoking jacket dark-eyed and silent, ate chaos like candy, moved among them secure in the bubble of his disregard. Waiters arrived with caviar and buffalo and pheasant, Geronimo carved in ice. Starstruck teenagers at the door bargained dearly for admittance. Rock music blasted, the bathroom was locked, the TV went over the balcony.
  Thomas Gainsborough -- could he really have committed the Paper Bag Murders? That the great portraitist -- whose well-known Blue Boy, reproduced in ten million cheap prints, would hang in so many homes, a painting nearly as familiar as Washington Crossing the Delaware -- could be the genius of something so unsavory hardly seemed possible. And yet there he stood in the dock, the focus of the most sensational trial London had seen in a fortnight. From Chelsea to Knightsbridge, the city was atwitter, agog, aghast. His likeness at Madame Tussaud's was half done already. The Beatles were suddenly no longer front-page news. ("Gainsborough, who's he, then?" John disingenuously inquired, flexing the famous Beatle wit.) Evidence was produced, alphabetically identified. Witnesses were sworn. The jury was instructed to disregard certain remarks. Gainsborough refused to speak in his own defense. Found guilty, he was sentenced to be hanged (a fitting end for a painter). The night before his execution he disappeared from a locked, guarded room, an occurrence miraculous enough that many took it as a sign of his innocence; others saw the Devil's hand. Some smelled a hoax: His prices at auction skyrocketed. Gainsborough, wherever he was, still wasn't talking.
  Albrecht Durer: See him cleaning the griddle, putting away the shake mix, wiping down the tables. His boss is Mr. Canning whose brother is dean of boys at Albrecht's school; there's the same weak chin and astronaut haircut. But Albrecht has never had to speak to the other Mr. Canning, he's a pretty good kid most of the time and when he isn't, he's lucky. And in any case it's only a month to graduation, then the promised summer in Venice, after which he'll bring the warm breath of the Italian Renaissance home to Nuremberg. Hey, it's not a bad town, it's just a little ... Germanic. Now, as he's popping the top off a waste container to get to the garbage bag, he spies Claudia through the plate glass, straddling her stupid lovely bicycle. His heart is full of a love that speaks in such terms as these: Gosh, Golly, Wow. He draws her pictures of herself. Someday he doesn't foresee, it'll be devils and saints and other popular, profitable images he'll engrave, but in the here and now of this teenage spring, art's just something to give your girlfriend and there is no future and everything lasts forever.

Miscellany
Words

writed by Mr. R. Lloyd and © too