post-Impressionist Posts

Priya Parmar “Vanessa & her Sister”

Vanessa and her Sister26 April 1905 – 46, Gordon Square, Bloomsbury

The exhibition opens today. I submitted my portrait of Nelly to the New Gallery over a month ago but never heard whether it was accepted. Mr Bell says that if it had been rejected, they would have sent it back. … .

Later

Virginia set out after breakfast to get a catalogue for the New Gallery. This is Virginia at her best: loving, rational, engaged, sincere. 

It was there. We stood in the gallery. Watching people watch the painting. It was exhilarating but mixed with an elusive bittersweet I could not place. Nelly looked lovelier hanging on that wall than she ever did resting on my easel, but she had grown unfamiliar in the weeks since I handed her over to the gallery. It is true that we do not understand the boundaries and dimensions of what we have created until it is consumed by another. I loved being an artist today. (p.28-29)

25 August 1906 – Blo’Norton Hall

Now she is writing. Every morning she stands and smokes and writes. She is using her travel desk from home. The wood is worn on the left top corner, where she pulls and paws when she cannot find the right word. Writing settles her. It gives her day a shape, a tempo. I hope she is working on the novel and so can keep her drumbeat rhythm for months and years instead of watching it eddy away as it does after a short article or review. 

Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and her Sister is about Vanessa Bell and her younger sister Virginia Woolf. It spans a period of seven years ( 1905-12). The four Stephen siblings — Vanessa, Julian, Virginia and Thoby are living together after the recent demise of their parents. Ever so often, Thoby would bring over his friends from Cambridge for a weekly dinner at home in London. Many of these were Cambridge Apostles too who later became better known as members of the Bloomsbury Group. It consisted of Clive Bell, Lytton Stratchey, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry et al.  During these few years, the Bloomsbury Group was established, the first show of Post-Impressionist paintings was curated by Roger Fry in London ( 1910), Vanessa married Clive Bell and discovered what it means to be in a “modern” marriage, Virginia began writing and by 1912 was married to Leonard Woolf who returned to London after his stint as a Civil Servant in Ceylon.

Vanessa and her Sister is written from Vanessa’s point of view. It is in the form of a diary — not an easy mode of writing. It requires the author to be extremely close and familiar with the sensibilities of the person, i.e. Vanessa, writing the diary. As Priya Parmar says about the Bloomsbury Group, “…their lives are so well documented. They were prolific correspondents and diarists, and there is a wealth of existing primary material.” But Vanessa never maintained a diary. This is fiction. In fact the difficulty for the author was to “find enough room for fiction in the negative spaces they left behind”.

Initially Vanessa and  her Sister feels like it is a primer about the Bloomsbury group. But then it slowly and very effectively draws you into this The Nursery Tea, Vanessa Bellintimate circle of these individuals. A hundred years later these people are still looked up to for their pioneering efforts in art, literature, academics etc. Yet without feeling like an intruder the reader is like a fly on the wall, privy to their conversations, correspondence, emotional outbursts, and affairs/heartbreak. Through it all, slowly and steadily Vanessa plots the professional ( and significant) milestones Virginia and their friends achieve. But what comes through is the quiet “blossoming” of Vanessa, from being the reliable and competent elder sister/wife/mother who is constantly being leaned upon to being professionally successful as a painter. The book closes with her participating with The Nursery Tea in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition curated by Roger Fry at the Grafton Galleries, London, 1912.

2014 has had some spectacular bio-fiction published. Vanessa and her Sister is a good addition to the list. Worth reading!

Priya Parmar Vanessa and her Sister ( In India it is published by Bloomsbury.)

31 Dec 2014 

Esther Freud “Mr Mac and Me”

Esther Freud “Mr Mac and Me”

Mr Mac and MeMac is working on a bright purple grape hyacinth. He has it laid out on a sheet of paper and is examining its tiny solid head. ‘No.’ he mutters to himself, ‘no.’

I’ve let myself in, but now I’m not sure whether to disturb him.

‘Hello.’ He looks up and catches me at the door, and he tells me that never has he spent a morning with a flower and known less about it when he was through. ‘Look,’ he lays it out. And together we peer at the dense purple blocks of it, solid as wax above its stalk of blazing green. 

(p.195, Mr Mac and Me)

Thomas Magg, the crippled twelve-year-old son of the Blue Anchor owner, lives on the coast of Suffolk. A little before First World War breaks, Tom befriends a new visitor to their village, who it turns out is the renowned architect, Charles Rennie Macintosh. The two develop a  cordial relationship, primarily focused upon their common love for painting. Thomas or Tom as he is often referred enjoys doodling ships and boats in the margins of his notebooks, much to the exasperation of his school teacher. Whereas Mr Macintosh or Mr Mac as Tom calls him exquisitely paints water colours of the local wild flowers. ( In fact the cover of Esther Freud’s novel uses a detail from a beautiful 1915 water colour and pencil drawing Charles Macintosh made of Fritillaria.) Soon the two men “bond” over their love for painting and are able to share the silence of working together in peace. ( “There’s a thick, warm silence as we work. I’ve sense that silence, when I used to watch them, but now that I’m inside it, it’s as solid as a coat.” ) At times, Mrs Margaret Macdonald, an accomplished painter herself specialising in the technique of Gosse, joins her husband in Suffolk. ( Her most famous Gesso work was a set of panels, larger than doors, commissioned by a private collector and called The Seven Princesses. ) They are from Glasgow where along with Margaret’s sister, Frances and her husband, Herbert MacNair, they were known as The Four. Mr Mac was also responsible for designing the new Glasgow School of Art, commissioned in 1897 by the School Director, Francis Newberry. (His descriptions of the project are a pleasure to read in the crm-pansynovel.) With the Great War breaking life in Suffolk is also affected. Soldiers come and stay, refugees arrive, and locals living near to the sea move to safer places  inland and with the turmoil suspicion falls upon Mr Mac. The locals, goaded by Mr Gory, a newcomer himself, rapidly come to believe that Mr Mac is a spy since he moves around with his binoculars or spyglass observing the coastline. Before the war is over, Mr Mac is arrested and Thomas leaves Suffolk to travel the world.

Mr Mac and Me is a stunningly beautiful novel. All fiction is ultimately a labour of love, butMargaret Macintosh, Seven Princesses this is infused with love and beauty on every page. Every description is magnificent such as of the child observing Mr Mac paint — “I smile because he’s painted the river as if it is his own”. The descriptions of the wild flowers, even of the sweet william blooms on Tom’s mother’s table in the pub add a dash of colour, it is as if you can almost get the gentle and sweet fragrance of the wild flowers. While reading I kept wondering if some of these observations about watching a painter at work stemmed from Esther Freud’s own experience of seeing her father Lucien Freud at work. An answer was to be had in an interview she gave to the Guardian. She says “It’s funny, I didn’t even think about that until my publisher pointed out that the book describes how an artist works through the eyes of a child. And that was exactly my experience with my father; I slowly came to understand the artistic process through watching him paint. I’d have these little realisations like: oh, it’s going to take years! Or, as it says about Mackintosh in the book, that he was showing the insides of something – he hadn’t just abandoned it halfway through. I enjoyed trying to follow his thought process.”  ( 31 august 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/31/esther-freud-author-interview-mr-mac-and-me  )

Sadly the buildings of Glasgow School of Art that Charles Rennie Macintosh designed were severely damaged in a fire on 23 May 2014. In fact, Esther Freud “heard the news on the last day of checking the proofs. The timing did feel extraordinary. I felt so connected to him and so aware that he had had enough bad luck already.”

Mr Mac and Me is a pleasure to read. It has the knack of drawing  you in to the early twentieth century world of Suffolk without seeming like historical fiction, yet it leaves a warm glow of discovering a new world, creating a new space in one’s mind and introducing the reader to a significant designer of the post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain.  There is a lovely article published on 16 August 2014 in the Guardian describing how Esther Freud came to write this novel: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/16/esther-freud-houses-ghosts-inspired-new-book .

Please buy it! You won’t be sorry. This is a book for keeps.

Esther Freud Mr Mac and Me Bloomsbury India, 2014. Pb. pp. 300 Rs. 499