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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

Saturday, August 23rd

Up early yesterday morning to catch the 7:30 bus to Maressa and from there the train to Barcelona. Then back to Saponaro's pension, where they welcomed us with open arms. But somehow the place has lost its appeal. Perhaps Saponaro had given it life before, or perhaps it is the contrast with the freshness and charm of Solsona. Now the surroundings are depressing, the food tasteless, and the loud arguments of the four boys and their mother at the next table are irritating.

Sunday, August 24th

The sun was setting when we pulled into the railroad station at Gerona today. With our little canvas bag in hand we set cut in search of a lodging place. We had our choice of two — Soler had written down detailed information for us. "The hotel" he said "is more modern and comfortable but of high price, and the food is rather scarce. The other, Casa Quima, is likewise the one in Solsona, modest but very clean and the meals are very well. Say my name, they are my friends."

We decided to look at Casa Quima first. We found the street. It was deserted except for a very old woman, wrinkled and toothless, who sat in front of an open doorway. There was no sign of a pension. We finally approached the old woman. "Casa Quima — donde esta?" Ary asked.

"Aqui" and the old woman pointed to the open door. We peered inside. It was dim, but we could make out a sort of entryway, windowless, with a kitchen sink on one side and open shelves on the other, crowded with bottles of wine and glasses of every size. At the back of the entryway was a narrow stairway.

The old woman mumbled something in Spanish, and Ary was able to make out that the patron and his wife were out but that she could show us the rooms. I pulled at Ary's arm. "Let's go to the hotel," I whispered. But by this time the old woman had dragged herself up from the chair and was leading us toward the stairway. "We'll just take a look," begged Ary, so we followed her up the steep steps and along a dark passageway. Then she threw open a door, and there was a big room, spotlessly clean, with wide windows overlooking a little river which winds its way through the town.

We took the room, and at dinner time we met the patron and his wife, good-natured, friendly people who were happy to welcome friends of Soler's.

Monday, August 25th

The view from our window last night was most romantic. The winding river, the row of old buildings on the opposite bank, and beyond the massed buildings, at a curve in the river, the tower of an ancient church standing out white in the moonlight. People walking across the bridges which span the river, making a continual feeling of movement; the twinkling lights on the opposite shore; the faint tunes of a radio playing Spanish tunes — it was all most picturesque.

Comfortable beds, although the pillows are too plump and give one a stiff neck. In European hotels the pillow problem is almost as acute as the plumbing problem!

After breakfast — croissants and cafe au lait served in a big white bowl — we walked to the museum which is located in the Square of Spain, or "Square of the Wine", as it is more popularly known. We asked for the Director, as Soler had suggested, and he came to greet us — in black frock, for the museums in these towns are all under the supervision of the clergy. He had callers, he told us, but we should return at four o'clock, when the museum would be closed to the public and he would be free to devote himself to us.

At the appointed time we clanged the big knocker at the door. The Director opened it and invited us into his study. It was lined with shelves of books and there were books stacked in the corners and piled on the desk.

After chatting a few minutes — he spoke beautiful French — he led us into the museum and showed us the archaeological collection. His explanations were perfunctory at first, but under Ary's questioning he was drawn into a philosophical explanation of the various phases of Spain's historical development. They discussed the cultural contribution of the Phoenicians and later of the Romans, who were masters of the country for centuries and who gave this people the Latin basic foundation of its culture; the invasion of the Goths and then the Moors from the South; the clash of forces and the triumph of the Catholic Church in the struggle for supremacy.

And then, as we walked into the rooms devoted to art, the Director spoke of St. Francis of Assisi, of his humanistic philosophy and how under its influence the artists gradually drew away from the detached, cold stylization of the Byzantine. He led us from one painting to another to point out the difference between the early Catalan where everything was more or less static, devoid of movement, and the later period, when everything began to take the shape and form of actual reality, of life. According to his views the progress of art was due to this humanization which had its roots in St. Francis' philosophy.

Ary objected, and tried to show him that this "humanization in art" was only surface, that the movement and form which the later artists injected into their work didn't represent progress; it was a step backward. The surface of a reality is not humanism, he said, it is the inner elements of reality which contain the more moving qualities. And he pointed to a wooden carving to illustrate his contention. It was a work of the twelfth century — a wonderful Crucifixion figure, naive in conception, but poignantly expressive and conveying a sense of mystic power. In spite of its crudeness and lack of surface realism, Ary said, it conveys a mystic impact from within. It is naive, almost grotesque, it is carved with rough tools, but the artist's inner urge to create, his intense need to express that which was within him was so strong that it produced an overwhelmingly moving impact. However, the later artists, in their preoccupation with surface realities, lost that spark, that impact.

When Ary had commenced speaking the Director's expression had been one of disapproval and impatience. But now there was a gleam in his eyes. Evidently this was the first time he had heard ideas of this kind, and he was deeply interested. He took us back into his study, and we sat there an hour or more while he and Ary argued back and forth on various points. As they talked on it seemed to me that the Director's black robes somehow faded into the background. I no longer saw before me a Catholic priest and a layman from a different country and of a different religion, but two earnest and dedicated human beings, each extraordinarily sensitive in his own way, diametrically opposite in background, training and ideology, but meeting on the common ground of their search for what they deem fundamental truths.

It grew late and we rose to go. "Doctor" said Ary "it has been a rare experience that we have had this afternoon". The Director did not reply. Instead he took from a book of photographs the Crucifixion which we had admired so much, autographed the back of it, and presented it to us. As we reached the door he shook hands with us to bid us goodbye. And then he finally spoke: "I too consider my meeting with you a rare experience". And with this we parted.

Tuesday, August 26th

This is a very pleasant town — winding streets and ancient buildings in the old part of the city and nicely laid out squares in the newer section, which is new only by comparison. The squares, particularly the "Square of the Wine" on which the museum is situated, are lined with cafes. They are empty during the day, but when the sun sets and the shops and offices gradually close their doors, the tables all along the street begin to fill. By seven-thirty or eight o'clock it seems as if the entire town is on hand, either at the tables or promenading back and forth in the square. There are groups of young boys and groups of young girls, eyeing each other self-consciously; there are young couples; there are families, papa, mamma and numerous children, all well-dressed and comfortable looking.

Last evening, as we sat with an aperitif in the "Square of the Wine" an old "ham" actor, in antiquated dress suit, gathered a crowd around him and performed sleight of hand tricks and did imitations of bird calls, all with sweeping bows and flourishes of his high silk hat. Following this he passed around some kind of raffle cards to the audience. For the most part they ignored him, but Ary gave him a few pesetas. The old fellow thanked him in grandiose manner and then strode on to a cafe down the street, jaunty and unruffled, despite the noisy crowd of street urchins who followed him...

This morning we climbed up the hilly streets through the most picturesque part of the old section of the city, to the Cathedral, which is on a high elevation, overlooking the entire town. In Soler's notes on Gerona, written in his baroque hand-writing, he bad described this section: "I like very much the corners of the old narrow streets of the higher wards inside of the disappeared walls. The ancient houses and the stone-built palaces, the two belfries, the clenched, tightened houses with their feet into the river..."

Soler had provided us with a letter of introduction to Dr. Lambert Font, the head of the Cathedral museum, but at the same time he had warned us that Dr. Font might possibly be "in disease". This proved to be the case; he had been confined to his home for some days. However, when Soler's letter was brought to him he insisted that we come to his home for a few minutes' chat. We found him scholarly, kindly, and most courteous. He would give instructions that we be shown the museum treasures, in particular the famous Creation tapestry and the Beatus manuscript, which is one of the oldest illuminated manuscripts in existence, dating back to the tenth century.

Back to the Cathedral museum we went, to view the Creation tapestry. The central part of the tapestry is devoted to the story of the Creation, and an outer border depicts the twelve months. It is all pictured with delightful fantasy — God creating light, the separation of heavens and land and sea, the creation of the sun, moon and stars — the sun with a man’s face and wavy rays, the moon with a woman's face, and the stars encircling the sun and moon. And here and there the most bizarre animals and birds, and queer monstrous amphibian creatures out of a nightmare.

Time has softened the colors so that they have an indescribable richness and mellowness; this in spite of the fact that the tapestry was lost for many years, and eventually found in the possession of a private family, who, totally unaware of its artistic and historical value, had cut off the bottom and one side and were using it as a carpet.

Soler had wanted us to see some of his "mainest murals" which adorn the walls of the seminary chapel. At the seminary we were greeted by a young priest, a slender lad with dark eyes and hair and a wonderfully sensitive face. He seemed happy to show us the frescoes and afterwards he lead us to a nearby church where there are more murals by Soler and other painters. He confided to Ary that he thinks an extremely rationalistic painter shouldn't attempt religious subjects. Ary said: "You think it should be from the heart, not the head?" and he replied, "The heart first, then the head". It seems that he has visited Italy, including Rome and Assisi, and loves Giotto, Simone di Martini, and other Italian masters of that period. We had a nice talk with him and parted from him with a warm feeling of pleasure at the encounter.

The same day -- evening

When we were in the Cathedral museum this morning one of the attendants came up to tell us that arrangements had been made for us to look at the Beatus manuscript in the afternoon. So after lunch and a siesta, we climbed up to the “upper wards" of the town again, and, in the Cathedral library we spent several unforgettable hours, sitting at the long table of carved and polished wood, the priceless book before us, entranced by the figures of saints, of angels, of birds and animals, all creatures of fantasy and all painted in brilliant color harmonies.

The text of the Beatus is a commentary on the New Testament; the illuminations were made in the monasteries, which in the Dark Ages were the sole centers of learning and culture. The book we held before us is one of only seven or eight, I believe, that were made in Spain. It is not only for its antiquity that the Beatus is treasured. As Ary pointed out to me, it is apparent that here a new vision is beginning to develop, that you are witnessing the beginning of a new creative freedom, a breaking away from the rigid Byzantine tradition, a sort of spontaneity and a movement that is quite rhythmic. Art history tells us that the Romanesque style was almost entirely of monastic origin, cultivated and spread by the monks, through the illuminated manuscripts they produced. So here in this manuscript we see the very beginning of the Romanesque, which characterized Western European art until the Gothic took over.

Thursday, August 28th

The weather was disagreeable this morning, so after walking around a bit we went into the hotel bar, for a cup of tea. This is the hotel which Soler had warned us was "of high price, and the food rather scarce". However, the bar has great attractions for me, although I don't believe Ary shares my enthusiasm. In the first place they serve tea. In most of the Catalan towns there is no tea to be had at any price, except herb tea which you can purchase in the pharmacy if you are ill, but which no able-bodied Catalan would ever deign to drink.

Here in Gerona it is different, however, and the tea in the hotel is very good. The bar itself is all mirrors and chromium fixtures and leather upholstery, with a radio playing American jazz. It could have been transported in its entirety from any Middle-Western town of the United States. It is so utterly foreign to the spirit of this ancient Catalan town that it strikes a false note. Yet at the same time there is something that draws me to it — I feel at home in its very garishness and liveliness and informality, and it gives me a nostalgic feeling for America.

Toward noon the clouds cleared and by the time we walked back to the pension for lunch the sun was streaming down. A party of motorists were lunching at the table next to ours — South of France, by their accent. How they relished every morsel — napkins tucked under their chin, mopping their plates with pieces of bread, drinking the red wine with such gusto. No wonder our little waitress is sad at the aenemic sort of performance Ary and I turn in, even at our hungriest: She is a pretty, doll-like creature, with big black eyes; she looks as if she might have stepped down from a Goya painting. She is assigned to the private dining room where we have our meals. It is reserved for special guests and strangers like ourselves. At the other side of the entryway is a larger room which is for the townspeople.

Friday, August 29th

Yesterday we felt like adventuring further, so we packed the little canvas bag and took the late bus to the town of Olot, which is widely known as a summer resort.

The hotel which had been recommended to us was "expensive" — 140 pesetas a day for room and, meals for the two lot us (about $3.75 in our money.) However, the proprietor, a pale-faced young man with soft, puffy hands, assured us haughtily that it was a "first class hotel." In the Catalan region it is evidently the food that counts, for although the room was far from comfortable the evening meal was elaborate and faultlessly prepared and served and the large dining room was well filled with summer guests.

The hotel proprietor was all deference and friendliness after discovering that we were Americans, and today when we went to settle our bill before returning to Gerona he was eager to engage us in conversation. He was evidently very much aware of things that were taking place in the United States in relation to Europe, and sympathetic with the progressive movement in the world at large. After awhile, apparently mustering a great deal of courage, he said: "We here are centuries backward; we have the Church that controls everything. But if he (meaning Franco) thinks he is holding us he is badly mistaken. We don't want him and he knows that, and no soldiers will succeed in holding us". These were the strongest words we heard in Catalonia.

Shortly after lunch a Cinderella-like coach, drawn by two gray horses, drove up with a flourish to the hotel. This was the coach reserved for visiting dignitaries, the young hotel proprietor explained to us proudly, and since we were very special visitors it was fitting that we should ride in it to the railroad station. So we rode like royalty through the streets of the town. We had hardly arrived at the railroad station when, with a shrill whistle and clanging of bells, a tiny train pulled in. It could have been one of the toy trains for children in amusement parks at home. We settled ourselves on one of the narrow wooden benches, and after a few puffs the train pulled out from the land of Olot.

It was one of those days that left a warm feeling in our hearts for the people of this region. As we bounced up and down on the hard wooden seats the little train chugged along, through corn fields, along narrow streams, up to the front door of wayside inns. We passed little villages, all very old, the houses worn and weathered by sun and rain; they seemed to have pushed up out of the soil itself. The older people had the same look of having sprung from the mountain soil: But the young men and women were dressed in modern fashion, the girls in modish dresses and the latest "hair-do." At same inns they were dancing to the music of phonographs. At one station a girl was saying goodbye to a soldier. But in Catalonia there is restraint in such matters; there was no kiss, except possibly in their hearts and minds.

Tuesday, September 2nd

After breakfast at Casa Quima we said our adieus to the landlady and to the little Goya-type waitress. The landlady begged us to drop her a line from America. As a parting gesture of hospitality she had prepared a big box of lunch for us.

We ate it at the station cafe in Cerbere, the Spanish border town — tomatoes and olives and fruit and huge, thick sandwiches of cold veal cutlet and cold omelet, which turned out to be surprisingly good. Later we strolled around the village, a small resort place on the sea. A circus had installed itself on the beach and there was a bustle of activity in the tents and in the red wagons.

Back at the station at six o'clock, and soon the train for Paris pulled in. We breathed a sigh of relief when we were settled in a compartment, for we knew what crowds there would be when the express from Barcelona arrived at the border.

Wednesday, September 3rd

The night and the morning merged together as we sped through France. There were only a few stops and these were very brief. For hours at a time I sat stiffly, trying to find a comfortable place for my head, my arms, my legs. I would look across at Ary, all hunched together, asleep, and then suddenly Ary would be pulling me up from a cramped position and putting my head against the back of the seat, and I would realize that I too had slept.

My seatmate was a nun, quite a handsome woman, in her early forties, I should think. It was interesting to watch her. She sat so quietly, so serenely, her hands folded and with such an air of detachment and, imperturbability. It was as if she was entirely free from any bodily discomfort.

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