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The Artist's Wife

  History/Biography of Ary Stillman  

P U B L I C A T I O N S  >  F R A N C E S    S T I L L M A N ' S    E U R O P E    D I A R Y

CHAPTER I..........Going from Here to There

CHAPTER II..........Mishap in Milan

CHAPTER III..........Venice

CHAPTER IV..........Florence

CHAPTER V..........Siena

CHAPTER VI..........Rome

CHAPTER VII..........Assisi

CHAPTER VIII..........Nice

CHAPTER IX..........Barcelona

CHAPTER X..........Solsona

CHAPTER XI..........Gerona

CHAPTER XII..........Paris in the Fall

Thursday, July 31st

Of course Hotel Durante doesn't boast a porter, and we couldn't find one in the neighborhood, so Ary had to carry our bags one at a time to the station. Fortunately it wasn't very far away. We had reserved seats in advance, so had no difficulty in getting ourselves comfortably established on the train.

At first we were the only occupants of the compartment. A few stations beyond Nice the seat opposite was taken by a little old lady, probably in her eighties. A Scottish man, smiling and gay in the typical Provencal manner, brought her into the compartment and settled her and her bags in the seat, then boomed out a hearty farewell and departed with a flourish of his hand.

The little old lady was unsmiling. She drew herself into the corner, crossed herself and closed her eyes, and her lips moved in prayer. She remained this way for some minutes, then opened her eyes and peered at us as if to discern what manner of people we might be. She had a little black bag in her lap, and we offered to put it up on the rack with the rest of her luggage. She shook her head and clung to it determinedly. We thought it must contain some precious possessions. About noon she opened it. She fumbled among layers of paper and brought out a little tablecloth! She spread the cloth on her lap. And then what a feast came out of that black bag — meat and eggs and cheese and cookies and fruit and a bottle of red wine. All of this she consumed solemnly but with great relish. After the last crumb was eaten she folded up the tablecloth carefully and put it back among the layers of paper in the bag.

And then she began to talk to us. She was originally from Toulouse, she told us, but for some time had been living with her married daughter in the vicinity of Toulon. Her daughter and son-in-law — the jovial fellow who had brought her to the train — had been good to her but she was unhappy. Her eyes flashed and her voice rang out as she recited her grievances. "I do not like these people in the South of France! It is always laughter with them! They do not believe in God; they believe only in themselves'! It is I, I, I, always I, with them! So I am returning to my own country, so that I can die there and be buried there. I do not want to be buried in the South of France, where there is laughter instead of prayers!"

West of Marseilles the character of the landscape began to take on a familiar aspect. At first I was puzzled. I had the feeling that I had seen it all before. And then I realized that I have seen it time and again — through the eyes of Cezanne. Here were his blue sea, his red roofs, his brown and purple hills. And now we were passing the village of L'Estasse, and the very spot which Cezanne had transferred to canvas to create one of his masterpieces. It is amazing how the vision of a great artist becomes an integral part of our consciousness.

We reached Narbonne about four-thirty and set about looking for a hotel. They were all shabby and uninviting. We eventually found a room over a restaurant, clean and pleasant enough, except that the weekly laundry had been hung up to dry right outside our window. They promised to take it down at once, but when we returned late in the evening the clotheslines were still up. We slept restlessly, and every time we awakened there were the sheets and towels flapping about like ghostly figures in the moonlight.

Friday, August 1st

Up early this morning, walked to the station, and had our coffee and croissants at a cafe nearby, as we waited for the train. As it drew in we could see that it was terribly crowded. The people waiting on the platform — and there were dozens of them — made a mad rush, pushing us aside. When we finally managed to climb on the train we couldn't find a seat. Even the aisles were jammed. We found out later that the majority of French "white collar workers" have their vacation in August, and the first of August is the worst travel day of the year.

Eventually we found seats in a compartment occupied by an old man with numerous boxes and bundles, a Belgian woman whose ticket was good only to Perpignan, and who had a heated argument with the conductor about paying the additional francs to the Spanish border, and a man and wife with their lively group of five children. The mother busied herself frantically with her brood, washing the face of one, taking a cinder out of the eye of another, calling them in from the window in the aisle, scolding her husband for soiling his suit at the open window. There was a critical moment when a youngster sitting opposite me suddenly took on a greenish pallor and opened his mouth wide. But the mother grabbed him, dashed with him to the aisle and held him out of the window head down. Soon they were back again, and she was giving her attention to the others, who were demanding oranges and coca cola.

The sick boy refused the coca cola his little sister wanted to share with him and turned over to her his pear, with a half-eaten one of someone else's, which he had been sitting on by mistake. The father of the brood, who had quite a care-free air, began to talk to me. They were Belgian and spoke French. I didn't understand a great deal of what he said but I smiled and nodded now and then and he seemed pleased to be talking with an American.

When we reached Port-Bou, the French border, the officials came around to inspect passports, and a little later we arrived at Cerbere, the Spanish border town, and everyone piled out of the train. There seemed to be hundreds and hundreds of people milling about, and endless windows where one had to present one's passport for checking. Customs inspection came next, a helter-skelter affair. After we had waited half an hour a customs official came up to us, glanced hastily at one open suitcase and checked it, then rushed away to attend to someone else. Meanwhile at least a dozen people took their places ahead of us, and despite our protests we had to wait until the customs officials worked their way up to us again. Next we had to get our ticket to Barcelona. Ary took his place in the line in front of one window, and waited interminably, but when it came to his turn, they directed him to another window. And when at last he reached the front of that line they told him there were no tickets left. Finally they found two first class tickets. Ary bought them and we clambered into the first class section and found seats. In a few minutes however some people appeared and claimed the seats as theirs. We were exhausted and in a state of near collapse by this time. Fortunately the bell for lunch sounded from the diner. We had a leisurely meal, which refreshed us and restored our calm.

On the train from Narbonne Ary had become acquainted with a young Spanish artist named Saponaro. He was returning from a visit to Paris, and intended to spend several days in Barcelona before going on to his home near Toledo. He offered to take us to his pension, which he said was very simple, but he believed would be adequate for our wants. Artists often stop there, he told us. In changing trains at the border we lost sight of him, but when we stepped from the train at Barcelona, there he was, making his way with difficulty under a burden of suitcases, paintings and art materials. He motioned to us to follow him, and he hailed a taxi. He knew the name of the pension but couldn't remember the street, so we cruised around in the taxi awhile before we found it.

It was on a very narrow street in the heart of the business district. The entrance was in a sort of alleyway. The door was open and we could see a steep flight of stairs. Ary and Saponaro left me in the alleyway with the suitcases and bundles while they climbed up the stairs. After a few minutes they came down and Ary said, "It's pretty primitive — sort of like Siena — but come on up".

Saturday, August 2nd

We have just had our breakfast — a huge cup of coffee (mostly sweetened milk) and a big piece of coarse white bread. The maid had rapped on our door about nine o'clock; she brought us a big pail of hot water. A pail of cold water stands on the floor by the wooden wash-stand. The plumbing is most primitive. The wooden washstand holds a big washbowl. There is a hole in the bottom of the washbowl. A rubber stopper keeps the water in the bowl while you wash. Uncork the stopper and the soapy water drains into a pail underneath.

The washstand, a wardrobe for our clothes, two scrawny looking beds and two straight chairs comprise the furnishings of the room. The room is badly in need of paint, but it is large and it has a big door leading to a balcony. Judging from the solid woodwork and the handsome stone floors this must have been an exclusive residence at one time. Now it is terribly run down. But it is spotlessly clean, and although the bed-linen is a maze of patches, last night when we came to bed we found that the sheet was turned down and our dressing gowns laid out on the bed in true Waldorf-Astoria style.

The patron is very solicitous for our comfort. He is a sad little man, with graying hair and soft brown eyes. He talks very little, but has a gentle smile for everyone. On the wall in the foyer is a photograph of him with a group of men on the verandah of a large house set in a tropical background. Saponaro tells us that he was the manager of an exclusive country club in Cuba, and that he left a successful career there to come back to Spain at the time of the Civil War, to his birthplace in Austria, where the fighting was particularly heavy. Whatever his activities may have been at that time he evidently has righted himself with the Government authorities, or he would not have been granted permission to operate this pension.

Later -- in the evening

Saponaro took us on a tour of the neighborhood today. Our street runs at right angles with the Ramblas, Barcelona's Fifth Avenue. In the middle of the avenue is a promenade, lined on either side with wooden armchairs, where people sit and talk and read their newspapers. Further on the chairs give way to flower stalls, bright with gladiolas, dahlias, daisies, roses, carnations, and the most heavenly pale pink, fragile flowers like lilies. Still further on is the bird market, where parakeets and love birds by the hundreds screech in shrill tones.

We walked until we were tired and then sat at a sidewalk cafe. It was supposed to be one of the better places but it was drab and not very clean and I found the atmosphere depressing. Although Barcelona is an industrial city and this entire region is much more prosperous than the southern part of Spain, the majority of the people one sees on the streets are shabbily dressed and the children are small and look undernourished. An air of poverty prevails, also an air of hopelessness and resignation. In my mind's eye I can still see the boot-blacks who besieged us at the cafes, their desperate eagerness for the few pesetas, the droop of their shoulders under their ragged coats as they bend over their work.

Our patron at the pension has the same air of resignation. His wife however is stout and cheerful and bustling. She takes charge of the kitchen. There is a servant, a slatternly creature who trudges about hour after hour emptying and filling pails of water, scrubbing the stone floors, and making the beds. This noon I came in just in time to rescue Ary's nylon shirt and my blouse which she was gathering up with the bed linen to launder in the community wash-tub. It was only with the assistance of one of the student boarders who speaks French and could translate into Spanish that I finally made her understand that nylon needs special care. She was terribly unhappy when I insisted that I wanted to wash our things myself. It was beneath my dignity.

There are three long tables in the dining room. Saponaro sits at our table, also a French Algerian government worker with his wife and their pretty little eight-year daughter. There is a table of students, including a young chap who teaches Spanish in a French university. The third table is occupied by a middle-aged widow and her four sons, big, husky fellows and terribly excitable. They are constantly getting into heated arguments which threaten to degenerate into fist-fights, but the mother is a clever woman and very determined, and she always manages to restore order before the situation gets out of bounds.

We pay the equivalent of one dollar a day apiece for our room and three meals. Saponaro says that this is the rate for tourists, but that the regular boarders — the students and the mother with her four boys — pay about half that amount. They are happy when strangers like the French Algerians and ourselves happen to fall in here, for that means that the patron has additional pesetas to spend at the market, and they can serve meat and a greater variety of dishes at mealtime.

Sunday, August 3rd

We were awakened by the pealing of church bells this morning. Across the street there is an ancient cathedral with a handsome twelfth century facade. We sat on the balcony outside our room watching the stream of worshippers, old men and women in sombre black, young girls in white jackets and black lace mantillas, fathers and mothers leading their youngsters by the hand. The children were in their Sunday best, the little girls very quaint looking with their dresses reaching half-way between the knee and the ankle. Outside the cathedral a flower girl was sitting and occasionally someone stopped to buy a bouquet before entering the church.

The street is so narrow that we could hear, through the open door, the sound of the organ and the chanting of the choir. For some reason every sound in the street, even the conversations of the passers-by, seems to vibrate and reverberate through our room, and at night it is just as if our beds were out in the middle of the street — all the traffic noises and the talking going on around us, and we lying there invisible to those passing by.

Later we took the streetcar, with Saponaro as guide, to the Museum of Ancient Art, to see the early Catalan painting and sculpture. It was a new experience to me and an exciting one. The various pieces have been gathered together from ancient churches in this region. Great chunks have been cut out from the interior of these buildings so that the murals painted on the stone walls centuries age can be preserved even though the buildings have crumbled. Because of the dry climate the paint has been well preserved and the colors are amazingly fresh and rich.

Of course the paintings, which date from the 11th century, are all on religious themes. Often they portray a story — the martyrdom of a saint, the Nativity, the life of the Virgin. In style they are more or less static like the Byzantine. However they have somewhat mere flexibility; whereas the Byzantine has no feeling whatever of movement, these seem to give the impression of movement, which has been arrested. They have a clarity, a sweep and a decisiveness of line which is very exciting. Every part of the painting — the dress, the hands, the feet, the wings of the angels, plays its part in the over-all design, but you feel that this is entirely intuitive, that there is no conscious striving for a balanced composition.

I found my greatest delight in the carved figures — mostly of painted wood — the Christ figure, Madonnas and saints, all very naive in conception, with wonderful simplicity of form. Sometimes they are grotesque — Christ is represented as typically Spanish, with flowing dark hair and an expression of the most exaggerated suffering; again he is portrayed with a happy, rounded face. But always there is a sensitiveness and a spirituality, and a powerful impact. One particular Crucifixion figure I came back to again and again. It was a very naive conception, in dark bronze tones, with body and arms rounded, to carry out the natural contour of the wood. There was such beauty and sensitivity in the outstretched arms that they seemed to embody all the longing, the compassion and the suffering in the world.

Monday, August 4th

Ary walked down to the port with Saponaro this morning. I pretended that I had some shopping to do, as I knew that Saponaro would be happier alone with Ary. He is always extremely courteous to me, but he has the typical Latin view about women, and the close comradeship which exists between Ary and myself is incomprehensible to him and quite disturbing.

He adores Ary. I think Ary is quite the most wonderful thing that ever happened to him, next to his trip to Paris. For some years he has been very unhappy in Toledo. He has felt himself crushed by the weight of traditions, and he has lacked entirely the freedom which he feels is essential to the creative artist for his fullest expression. Paris opened up a new world for him. He was ecstatically happy during the month he spent there, and tremendously stimulated by the spirit of adventure with which the younger, avant-garde artists approached their work. And now the thought of returning to the old bonds which have restrained his creativeness is intolerable. He told Ary all about it as they explored the harbor and the docks this morning. And when we met him at a cafe for an aperitif before dinner he announced that he has made a decision. He will leave Toledo. He had spent the afternoon making inquiries about the possibility of getting a visa for Brazil and it looks very hopeful. His idea is to go there alone first, and after he is settled to send for his wife and three children. I asked him if his wife would agree to the move and he looked at me wonderingly. "I do not ask her — I tell her," he said. "She is happy to do as I wish."

Later he patiently explained to me that his wife is a very pretty and charming woman and is devoted to her home and children, but not at all aware of his problems as an artist. And that is how it should be. "But she will be glad that our boys will have a chance to grow up where they can breathe more freely".

This was after dinner, when we sat in his room here at the pension, looking at the paintings that he had brought with him from Toledo. The room was dimly lighted, which may have accounted in some part for the sombre look of these canvases. There were dark landscapes, with a mood of mystery; grinning masks; weird torchlight processions of hooded figures in flowing white robes. These processions, Saponaro said, are ritual ceremonies which were widely observed in the Middle Ages, and which still prevail in some isolated districts.

Wednesday August 6th

A young artist friend of Saponaro's joined us at dinner last night, and afterwards Ary went out for a walk with him and Saponaro. It was ten-thirty when they left the pension. Dinner isn't served until nine or nine-thirty, so any evening activities begin very late. They returned about twelve-thirty. I was sitting in the reception room reading, and I was surprised when the door opened and they walked in accompanied by a night-watchman. Saponaro explained that rooming houses and pensions must lock their doors at eleven-thirty. The guests are not permitted to have keys. If they return to the pension after the specified time they must call a night watchman. They summon him by clapping their hands loudly three times. A watchman appears, looks the stranger over and satisfies himself that he is a bona fide guest of the establishment, climbs the stairs with him and unlocks the door, for which he receives a tip of a few pesetas.

Saponaro's friend was at the museum when we arrived there this morning. He is most attractive, with a sensitive looking face and brown beard; he could be one of the group around Delacroix, Alfred de Musset and Georges Sand. He is frail and has a persistent cough. He told us of a nearby town in the Pyrennes where he has spent some time because of his health. It is a beautiful place, he said; the air is cool and dry, and they have an interesting museum of early Catalan art. We would find it delightful and we ought to plan to go there for several days.

When we returned to the pension at noon and talked it over we decided to take his advice. Saponaro is becoming eager to see his wife and boys and to get his affairs into shape so that he can leave for Brazil. So he will take the express for Madrid this afternoon and then on to Toledo. Without him, our zest for Barcelona will be less keen. Besides, the weather is growing very warm, and a few days in the mountains will be refreshing. We shall pack our bags this evening and leave on the early morning train tomorrow. The patron will permit us to leave the bulk of our luggage here.

Thursday, August 7th

It was a two-hour ride on a crowded train to Maressa, where we changed for a bus to ride up to our mountain town. The bus wound its way through truly exciting country. The entire landscape was a grandiose one. There were amazing rock formations — grotesque figures, primitive gods, strange beasts. The mountain peaks were wreathed in clouds. At the top of one mountain stood a village with towers and turrets, and the sun shining on it to give it a silvery-golden look. It seemed so remote and mysteriously beautiful as we looked up at it that I could think only of Valhalla, the mountain home of the gods. Eventually we reached the summit of the mountain and drove into the village. At close range the town was less glamorous than it had appeared from below. It was Cardona, and the next stop was our destination -- Solsona.

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