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American Art

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, August 7th, Continued

Solsona is a walled city with narrow streets and high, Oriental-like gates. Silhouetted against the sky, as we viewed it from afar, it had the flavor of the Mid-East; it could have been a city of mosques. An old man wearing the badge of the Fonda Vilanova (the pension which had been recommended to us) was waiting for the bus as it drew up outside the gates. He took our bags and we followed him through the gate and up a narrow street paved with great blocks of stone, past ancient stone houses with balconies bright with towers, to a rambling, vine-covered building with a stone courtyard and huge pots of exotic looking plants. This, our guide announced, was Fonda Vilanova. We followed him into a rustic looking foyer and up brick-paved steps to the second floor, where the proprietor came forward to greet us.

He is a short, stouts, shrewd-looking but kindly man in his late sixties. At first he seemed surprised and a little uneasy to have foreigners as guests. This was something quite outside of the usual pattern of things. Fonda Vilanova is popular among the neighboring towns and even as far as Barcelona, but the thought of entertaining strangers like ourselves was a bit disturbing. Only two Americans have ever visited Solsona, he told us, and that was many years ago. However, his innate friendliness soon overcame his uneasiness, and he made us welcome.

Friday, August 8th

We slept well last night. The beds are comfortable and the sheets and pillow-cases of fine monogrammed linen. Strangely enough, however, there is no closet or wardrobe in the room, and no chest of drawers; only one small drawer in the table between our beds and some hooks on the wall to hang our clothes. There is running water but it is icy cold. However, early this morning the maid brought us a big pail of hot water, and said that we could have more whenever we wanted it during the day.

Breakfast consisted of huge cups of cafe' au lait, toast and butter. After breakfast we wandered about the town, admired its ancient stone buildings and examined the cathedral, which is on the square just opposite the pension, and by its side an old drinking fountain and a trough where once the village housewives did the family washing.

The patron had told us that the director of the museum was out of town and that the museum was closed. Nevertheless we walked over to the building, and there we discovered Ingrid.

Twelve years old, blue eyed, flaxen haired, Ingrid is a German war orphan. She pointed to a house facing the museum. That is where she and her sister have lived since they were taken from Berlin and adopted by the Museum Director, Dr. Llorans, and his two maiden sisters. They are happy here in Spain, Ingrid said, but when Ary spoke to her in her native German she hugged him in her excitement. She would show us around the museum; we must meet her foster-aunt and her aunt would give her the key.

The foster-aunt proved to be a gracious, friendly woman, and she walked with us back to the museum. But it was Ingrid who was our guide. For this is her own intimate world. To her these frescoed saints and martyrs, these nativity scenes, are like pages from old picture books, these sculptured figures are precious, although somewhat battered dolls. She handled them fondly, blissfully unaware that they were priceless art treasures.

As we made our round of inspection Ingrid’s little sister and a friend joined her. Word had evidently spread that we were "Americanos" and the youngsters eyed us with great curiosity.

Back to the pension for lunch, a superb meal, beautifully served. And the white wine that goes with the meal is like nectar.

The wine made us so drowsy that we slept as if drugged for several hours. Then up and out into the country, where we walked along the road until we found a pile of logs. There we sat for an hour or more, enchanted with the vista before us — fields, trees and terraced vineyards below, with mountain ranges in the distance and a clear blue sky with shifting white clouds. The air was cool and of an indescribable buoyancy, and it was so still that every little sound stood out as if sharply etched in the silence. It seemed as if we had been whisked out of the world of realities, and there was a feeling of vast peace and beauty, and a mystic something quite indefinable.

Saturday, August 9th

At noon we had an appointment with the little German girl, Ingrid, to go again to the museum. What an engaging child she is, so fresh and natural, so lively and talkative. I enjoyed watching her with Ary. He explained to her in very simple terms why the primitive paintings are so fine. She listened very attentively, but when we came to a very crude 10th century drawing of an imaginary animal with a grotesque human figure below (very much like our modern Dubuffet) it was too much for Ingrid to take. "I could do better than that myself!" she sniffed.

There are some very beautiful frescoes in the collection. Many of them are quite Oriental, for the Moorish influence was strong in this section; also the Crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries brought back art influences with them from the Orient. One fresco in particular is very Persian in effect — a Crucifixion scene, flatly painted, in blues and black, red and gold, with flying angels and stars and figures with swords. Another fresco depicts an angel in white, with lovely wings of reddish brown, and there are some very "folksy" paintings, including a panel depicting scenes from the life of Mary — such a naive Nativity scene, with Mary lying on a high bed, and a horse and cow looking on.

I liked particularly a wooden figure of Christ, fashioned with simple lines, and — a touch of supreme naivete — wearing long, black, silky hair. This is little Ingrid's favorite too, she told us. She looked up at the figure affectionately; then a frown came over her face, and after a moment she climbed on a chair, braided the black hair neatly, and then gave her treasure a motherly pat on the head. Somehow there seemed to be nothing sacrilegious in the gesture — quite the contrary, in fact.

Sunday, August 10th, 10:30 A.M.

The church bells tolled furiously early this morning — before five o'clock. Before long we heard voices, as if many people were gathering for the early mass at the Cathedral across the square. The bells and voices continued until after eight o'clock; we dozed but heard them intermittently. And then suddenly a street band burst forth, with the gayest of marches — a Catalan folk-tune. We rushed to the window, and there was the band, in the courtyard of our pension. The musicians were young fellows, about nine or ten of them, and they were playing brass instruments, and strangely enough, a bass viol. The music, we found out later, is in honor of the football game between Maressa and Solsona which will take place this afternoon.

We are sitting in the courtyard as I write this. Ary is reading a Spanish newspaper. The square before the church is lively with families coming to attend mass. They are gathered in small groups or pacing up and down the street. An air of festivity and excitement prevails. And now the sound of music again, and the band comes down the sloping street, preceded by a group of excited little boys and followed by some thirty or forty men, who file into the church. We are told that a special prayer is to be given for Solsona's victory in the big game this afternoon.

There is a flurry in our own courtyard, as three little boys are heisted onto motorcycles to ride with their fathers. The smallest youngster is wide-eyed with excitement and fear. The men are carrying big baskets; evidently they are going out to pick mushrooms. Last evening some other guests brought back a whole basketful. They are big and flat with ragged edges, and colorful — brown with red and black. And they have a stronger, more earthy flavor than those we have in America.

Evening, the same day

When I finished writing the above, we walked up the street to see what form the general activity was taking. Suddenly I felt someone tugging me by the arm. It was the little girl Ingrid, all smiles and excited gestures. Her foster-father had returned, she informed us breathlessly; we must come right over to meet him. It was Sunday, we protested, we didn't want to intrude on him. But the child over-rode all our objections and finally we accompanied her to the house opposite the museum. As we entered, a priest in black robe came forward to greet us. It had never occurred to us that Ingrid's foster-father, Dr. Llorans, might be a priest! He is a jovial, kindly person, tremendously enthusiastic and energetic. He is sympathetic and fatherly with Ingrid and her sister, and they are as lively as little kittens in his presence. In spite of our protests, Dr. Llorans insisted on taking us over to the museum to show us some of his special treasures. Of course his interest is from a religious and archaeological viewpoint. We spent an interesting hour with him and made an appointment to come again tomorrow morning.

As we came out into the street the band was playing a Catalonian folk-tune at the big square where the market is held, and the young folks of the town were dancing the Catalonian round dances. We joined the crowd which was watching the lively circles swing forward and back.

Then back to the pension, and at two o'clock the most delicious luncheon was served. Every meal here is quite an event. The proprietor is a true gourmet, and it is his pride and delight to serve the finest food. He hovers around during meal-time, talking to a guest here and there, leaning ever the table in a most confidential way as if to divulge a choice bit of information, as he announces some special dish; serving the main course himself if the waiter is rushed; beaming when one praises the food and downcast when appetites aren't keen.

The Sunday noon meal is worth recording: first, a big platter of hors d’oeuvres — cold meats, sardines, tomatoes, olives. Then rice cooked with seafood. Next, the most delicious chicken with the big mushrooms of the region. For dessert, little cream puffs together with a large slice of honeydew melon, and the most heavenly tasting Malaga grapes, sweet as honey, with a flavor like perfume. And to drink, the white wine of the region, which we never tired of.

A siesta after lunch, and later we walked to the football field. The village was there en masse, headed by the mayor of the town, in dignified black suit and hat, and several black-robed Priests. These dignitaries occupying special places of honor. The game is like soccer, played entirely with the feet rather than the hands. Solsona piled up a score of 5 to 1 against their opponents from Maressa, so everyone was happy, and the mayor presented a silver cup to the winners, while the band played triumphantly… And all this time the setting sun was casting the most wonderful lights over the mountain peaks in the distance and the clouds floated like fantastic spirits in the fading blue of the sky.

Monday, August 11th

When we arrived at the museum this morning we found Dr. Llorans acting as guide for a group of school girls who were under the chaperonage of a sweet-faced nun. He joined us soon, and brought with him a painter from Barcelona, a big fellow in overalls and open shirt. Dr. Llorans introduced him as Guillermo Soler, and explained that he is painting the murals for the new seminary up the hill.

Soler was happy to meet an American artist, and eager to display his knowledge of the English language. However, after a few unsuccessful attempts to converse in English everyone resorted to French.

In the course of conversation Soler asked Ary if he is an abstract painter. When Ary replied in the affirmative Soler was greatly interested, but a look of dismay came over the face of Dr. Llorans. For a moment he was silent, then he turned and walked away. Soon he was back again, but he no longer talked to Ary. He devoted his attention to me, explaining to me the meaning of some of the religious pieces. Little Ingrid came in just then and the good Doctor included her in the conversation. He was making an effort to brush aside the disturbing element that had entered the picture. But the child seemed to sense his disquietude, and she gazed first at him and then at us with a bewildered air.

In the meantime Soler was plying Ary with questions. I heard only snatches of their conversation, but one sentence of Ary's stood out. "Although you refer to the present-day world — particularly America" he said "as mechanized and hence cold and without a soul, the machinery, the skyscrapers, the aeroplanes have all been fashioned by the hands of man. They are the result of man's vision, his thinking. Abstract art seeks to express the spirit, the soul that conceived this man-made machinery which on the surface seems so cold." He went on to say that abstract art seeks to express the inner reality rather than the surface reality and for that reason the abstract artist finds primitive art, which concerns itself with the soul-world, the world of super-reality, closely related to his own.

When we accompanied Soler to the seminary on the hill to see the frescoes he is painting we found them very realistic, although nice in color, especially the rich velvety black for which the Spanish painters are so famous. And late this afternoon when we returned from a walk in the country we found a note from him, in his flowery English which is a literal translation from the Spanish. He told Ary of his pleasure in meeting him and of his interest in their conversation, and then continued; "In spite of my style do not believe that I am not sensitive to primitive art. All the contrary, I research something that can be drawn from it as an alive lesson of simplicity and candour. Yet I dissent about the forms. I am a Latin and I like and feel the sensuousness of the forms of Nature and of Life, and I can't deny what I love. I can't assume the function and the want of odd-looking figures." He went on to ask that we meet with him soon again, which we shall do.

Tonight after dinner we walked to the center of the town where a celebration was in progress. In Solsona the principal streets are named after saints, and on the special dia Sante the shop-owners on the street arrange a festival. Early this morning fringed streamers of pink and yellow paper were strung the length of Saint Alexander Street and out into the tree-lined promenade which extends beyond the city gates. This evening a band appeared and stationed itself in front of the cafe in the center of the village. Ary and I went into the cafe and sat there an hour or so, watching the band and the crowds outside, as well as the groups sitting at the tables. They were a gay crowd, talking, laughing, some of them intent on games of dominoes or Parchesi. A policeman in the typical shiny black hat stood watching the players at one table. The hat is a sinister looking affair and cast a discordant note in the warmth and gayety of the room. At a table near us a young Catalan with black hair and eyebrows, a flashing smile showing the whitest of teeth, and a long, narrow, expressive face like the ancient sculptured figures, shook with delighted laughter every time he won a game of dominoes from an older man, evidently his father-in-law. His wife and mother sat at the table with them watching the game.

The band went on to the edge of the town and we followed, to the big outdoor cafe on the promenade, where dozens of people were sitting, looking on at the dancing, which went on and on , in a monotonously rhythmic movement, small circles of dancers inside larger circles. The festivities were scheduled to last until two o'clock in the morning and undoubtedly did, but about midnight we made our way back to the pension.

Tuesday, August 12th

I slept through the night, but Ary says he was awakened about two-thirty by a clamorous ringing of bells. He looked out the window, and all was quiet. The night was beautiful. To use Ary's words, "The moon was beautiful with half a face. And next to it was a star more brilliant than seven moons. A little cloud was floating in the sky and trying to get in between the moon and the star without troubling the peace. Then she managed to get between, with her tail dragging a little ... "

At first there were just mysterious shadows between the church and the fountain by its side. Then gradually windows began to open and faces to appear and people began to emerge from the houses and walk down the sloping street. A man came out of our pension and one from next door. There was loud talking and all the while the bells were clamoring. And then gradually the clamoring stopped, the people went back to their homes and Ary got into bed. But he couldn't sleep. It seemed that he had to figure out where he was at this time last year, and the year before, and the year before that. And then, how much change did he have in his pocket. As he was still counting the pesetas he drifted into sleep. But it was a troubled sleep, for there was the policeman with the shiny black hat who had been in the cafe that evening, and he held Ary's passport and was looking at it intently... And then Ary was in the middle of the street carrying his suitcase, with cars and trucks and motorcycles whizzing by. And he said to some unseen companion, "I'll leave my suitcase in the middle of the street rather than have my nerves shattered ..."

In the morning one of the guests told us that, as Ary suspected, there had been a fire during the night. It was a slight one, in a garage.

He told us further that it was the night-watchman who rang the bells for the fire. Among the night-watchman's duties is the forecasting of the weather, and every two hours during the night he makes the rounds of the town, calling out a weather report. During the recent rainy spell of some days, the crops were threatened, so the neighboring farmers entreated the watchman to ring the church bells to drive away the clouds. He rang the bells furiously, and with the desired results — the rain stepped and the sun came out. For this the grateful farmers rewarded him with corn. Such services are required frequently during the year, so much so that the watchman is at all times well supplied with corn, and can even sell the surplus.

Wednesday, August 13th

A long walk this afternoon and several hours enjoying a particularly brilliant sunset. Dinner was delicious as usual. The only thing that bothers us is the late hour. We shall never get accustomed to dining at nine or nine-thirty. The day seems confused, and since we don't like to stay up too late it means that we have only an hour and a half between the end of our dinner and the time we retire.

The pension is full of traveling men. The fame of the cuisine has spread throughout the region, and the men all arrange their schedules so as to stop here on their travels. They are mostly big and hearty, with enormous appetites, and even for breakfast they order meat and wine. It fascinates me to watch them drink their wine out of the double-necked bottles. Evidently there is a special technique in throwing the head back and holding the bottle poised high, so that the wine trickles down to just the right spot on the palate.

The men are a disorderly and careless lot, and the community bathroom is always a mess now. It is distressing, and I told Ary that we ought to complain to the proprietor, but he said who am I to try to reform the W.C. habits of the Mediterranean people; besides, they have advanced a great deal since he was here twenty years ago. So I gave up.

Thursday, August 14th

When we paid our usual visit to the museum this morning two elderly priests were deep in conversation with Dr. Llorans. He introduced us to them and told us that one of them in particular, Dr. M., was an authority on early Catalan painting and sculpture. When Ary spoke of our enthusiasm for this primitive art, Dr, M. objected strongly to Ary's classification of the Catalan art as primitive. He contended that the early Catalonians were a deeply religious people, and that their art represented their way of expressing this religious feeling; consequently it should be classified as religious art. According to Ary's views, however, the creative element existed among these people and it found expression through religious subjects, the only ones which prevailed at that period. This was the art of the people, and it was primitive because they expressed themselves in a primitive way, with a naive, almost childish fantasy.

Of course, the two points of view are diametrically opposed. If, as Dr, M. maintains, the subject matter is the important thing for the artist to express on account of the religious motivation, he starts with a conscious approach, and the finished work has a clarity of surface ideas. If however the urge to create is the motivating factor, if the artist's intention is to make a painting, and the religious subject is employed as a vehicle of expression, there emerges, not a definite surface reality but a sort of abstraction of ideas, which has been crystallized in the process of creativity. That is why, according to Ary, the early art is more closely related to modern abstractions than the later work which emphasizes the subject matter.

We felt in Dr, M., as with Dr, Llorans at a previous session, a strong resistance against this modern abstract art which is a negation of a clarity of surface ideas. It contains something hidden; something which is not to be trusted…

Evidently this feeling of distrust has projected itself very strongly to the child Ingrid. Since the day she sensed her foster-father's disapproval of Ary's theories, she has avoided us. She no longer accompanies Dr. Llorans when he guides us about the museum. She scurries out of the way when she sees us on the street.

Friday, August 15th

This was the day of Santa Maria, and a holiday atmosphere prevailed throughout the village. People streamed into the Cathedral in a continuous line. It was market day also, so there was a buzzing and excitement in the center of the town. While the women-folk walked from stand to stand, shrewdly bargaining, the men gathered in little groups, for conversation on local politics. The proprietor of our pension is much in demand, for he seems to be an influential figure in the affairs of the community. Frequently one group or another comes to call on him and heads are close together while heated discussion goes on.

At the market the women can choose from tables piled high with vegetables and fruit, wearing apparel and trinkets, and all sorts of articles for the home and the kitchen. The shops on either side of the street have lined up chairs outside their doors, on which are draped bright-colored dress materials.

One of the young women at the pension, mother of three handsome boys, seemed much concerned that we didn't go to mass, and in a bewildered way asked Ary if in America they don't observe religious holidays. Ary tried to explain to her, in his limited Spanish, that our country is made up of people of many religions; that all religions are respected, and each individual is free to worship according to the dictates of his heart.

Monday, August 18th

Ary is disappointed that he has made so little progress in learning Spanish. Here in Solsona he has had little opportunity to practice, for everyone speaks Catalan, even those who have learned the Spanish language in school.

Not quite everyone at that, for this afternoon, on our way to a little chapel where we sat the other day, we passed a stone hut on the roadside, and a peasant woman came out of the hut and hailed us. At first we thought she was begging for money, but no — she was lonesome, we looked like nice people, and where are we from... She has lived here for ten years, but came originally from Andalusia, in the South of Spain, and speaks Spanish, not Catalan. Her two children speak Catalan, but somehow she cannot learn this strange language... When we walked back along the road several hours later she evidently had been waiting for us, for she waved and ran out, eager to speak to us again and to show us her nine-year old boy — a handsome little fellow. He had noticed us in the town, he said; it was the first time he had seen Americanos.

In the evening there was dancing again in front of the cafe at the edge of the village. The whole town was there. One of the guests at the pension, Senor R., paid the musicians for a special waltz in our honor, and Ary whirled through it with the Senora R. as his partner.

Tuesday, August 19th

We spent some time this morning in the courtyard between the museum and the Cathedral. In the Cathedral garden is an old well, where, according to legend, the figure of the Madonna and Child which now graces the Cathedral altar was found. It is said that many years ago a little boy, playing in the garden, fell into the well, and that in rescuing him, this ancient piece of sculpture was discovered.

The crumbling walls surrounding the courtyard have acquired a curious patina during the centuries, and we lingered there, delighted with the form and color of the designs which have been etched there by wind and sun and rain.

Late in the afternoon the painter Soler joined us as we sat at the cafe at the edge of the village. He suggests that we visit the city of Gerona, which is between Barcelona and the Spanish border. It is an interesting town, he says, and we will find some rare art treasures there. He will give us a letter of introduction to the director of the Cathedral museum.

Thursday, August 21st

My birthday — how strange to be celebrating it in this far-away mountain town! It is our last day in Solsona, for we have decided to follow Soler's suggestion, and tomorrow we shall return to Barcelona and then go on to Gerona.

We spent the day revisiting some of our favorite spots, including of course the museum, where we bade goodbye to Dr. Llorans. As we strolled through the winding streets we spied little Ingrid, accompanied by her sister and a friend. She nodded casually to us, just the merest recognition of our presence. But before lunch when we sat in front of the pension, Ary suddenly exclaimed: "Here come Ingrid and her friends!" I looked up and beheld the three girls. They had changed their gingham dresses and were arrayed in stiffly starched party dresses, their curls carefully brushed and fresh ribbon bows in their hair. Arm-in-arm, they walked past us and into the pension, looking neither to right nor left. I wondered whom they had come to visit. A minute later the three of them came out and walked down the path in front of our chairs, with an exaggerated air of casualness. Just as they passed us they wheeled around, and still without looking directly at us, called out in unison: "Adios!" then went quickly on and up the sloping street.

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