Basil King: Delacroix’s Pigeon

  Basil King

  A Pigeon in Delacroix’s Garden

  Prose Poem

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Paris, October 2013.


Mother of pearl there is an Olmec head
In my back yard and it doesn’t stop talking
And it says at the Louvre we had to walk the whole length of the second floor beginning with French Medieval painting because the entrance to gallery 6 and 7 where Watteau is hung was being repaired. We saw wonderful studies by Ingres, a portrait of a lion’s head in profile by Gericault. I think this painting is his Self Portrait. Eighteenth and nineteenth century painters, Fragonard, Boucher and a room full of paintings by Chardin which I’d never seen before in a book or any other museum.


Chardin the great French homebody was married two times, painted kitchens, maids, children, the table and its contents, fish and fruit, the cat wants the oysters. The silver mug wants your attention. Attend to the detail the line comes from outside. The line is not always linear. It’s not always predictable. Chardin the precursor of Morandi keeps his larder stocked.


Morandi fills his table with muted arrangements. Paint eclipses his father, the Holy Ghost, his mother and his two sisters. Paint stirs his muscles and the triangle sleeps next to his easel.




There were two young Asian women in the last room sitting on a bench in front of Watteau’s Gilles talking, they paid us no mind. Because we weren’t sure how long they would stay Martha took a photograph of me gazing up at Watteau’s Gilles as they sat talking. During the whole time that we were with Gilles no one else came into the room.


I have known Watteau’s Pierrot or Gilles since I was in my teens. And I have always wondered is this young figure a man or a woman. The costume hides the answer. Take off your jacket. Take off your pants. Take off the mask. I can’t forget the smile. I cannot forget that I love the ambiguity of not knowing is Gilles Watteau’s Self Portrait, is Gilles a man or a woman. I appreciate that men and women are not the same but there are likenesses and likenesses appreciate that nature has four seasons. I think we all have a season of choice. And in the Louvre there are bold contrasts. One being Poussin’s Self Portrait is an abstraction that says he has thought of everything and when I think of Watteau’s Self Portrait, my Gilles, I cannot forget that I love the ambiguity of not knowing is Gilles Watteau’s Self Portrait, a man or a woman.




Downstairs on the first floor huge crowds visit Mona Lisa. What does Mona Lisa say? I see Leonardo always running from his illegitimate birth the diverse and unfinished projects, is Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile Leonardo’s smile? Leonardo writes backwards, fly motherfucker I visited The Last Supper and catch me if you can. I want to keep you at a distance. But the public is like a cat. If a cat knows you don’t like cats the cat will forever want to get on your lap. So the crowds come and the Mona Lisa smiles. Oh, Leonardo your heart is bare who can blame you for wanting to keep it covered.




Amongst the more than 20 paintings of Poussin’s in the Louvre is Poussin’s self-portrait. He wears a dark green gown. His hands rest on a closed portfolio he is 56 years old. This most practical of men this master gave himself permission to mythologize Pan the lover, the fornicator lives with Poussin. I don’t know if this is correct. Are the paintings meant to be dark? The Poussin paintings I’ve seen in books are never dark, does artificial lighting highlight the figure and the landscape and make the paintings look clean? In Arcadia where nature is bountiful and light perfects the flesh Poussin’s paintings are never dark. Whereas the Poussin’s in the Louvre look like they have never been cleaned.




I have a window in front of me that needs cleaning sunlight is coming in between the blinds. Above my head I have a 65 watt light bulb. I sit in a comfortable chair and write of having had the advantage of having been to the Louvre and seen Poussin’s self-portrait and Watteau’s Gilles. The Louvre has more Poussin paintings than the National Gallery in London, Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has five Poussin paintings and all five have been cleaned.




Watteau had been a sickly child. And maybe because of this he obsessed. How much time do I have? I suspect that Watteau didn’t take care of himself and was careless and anxious when he wasn’t drawing or painting. When he wasn’t drawing or painting, he went to the theater. It was always the theater, the action, the gesture the imaginary pasture. On Watteau’s stage so many depictions of frivolous fêtes galantes. But look again where you think there is only romance there is Mezzetin (The Lute Player) The French Comedians, The Italian Comedians. He alone among 18th-century painters exposes a secular Blue, the excess of skirts, futility, truth and imagination, White on White. Compassion tells us there is no metaphor for death.




In 1720, Watteau travelled to London, England, to consult with Dr. Richard Mead, one of the most fashionable physicians of his time and an admirer of Watteau’s work. He had purchased The Italian Comedians. London’s damp and smoky air offset any benefits of Dr. Mead’s good food and medicines. Watteau returned to France and spent his last few months on the estate of his patron, Abbé Haranger, where he died in 1721 perhaps from ‘tuberculous laryngitis’ at the age of 36. The Abbé said Watteau was semi-conscious and mute during his final days, clutching a paintbrush and painting imaginary paintings in the air.




Late in life Nicolas Poussin developed a tremor in his hands. That didn’t stop him painting — he improvised and taught himself to use the brush as a pointer and build up the surface with a multitude of dots. But his tremors got worse, so bad he had to stop painting. His wife died and a year later in 1665 Poussin died. Dot, dot, no dash Seurat will continue the chase.




Seurat caught a theory. By juxtaposing tiny dots of colors he created lights of harmonious balance. This innovative technique came to be known as pointillism. He used the same technique when he drew using conte crayon — he drew dark dots, light dots, night and day, day and night. Seurat was 24 in 1883 when he painted Pierrot with a White Pipe. Pierrot stands calmly smoking his pipe. There is no hint of danger. Seurat died seven years after completing Pierrot at the age of 31.

  Part 2


I don’t know if every museum in France honors the disabled. I use a cane and have a limp. In Paris the disabled do not pay or stand in line to get into a museum.

  Musee de Orangerie


In 1879 as his wife Camille Dosnicieux lies dying Monet paints her disappearance and experiences water, clouds, Lily pads. Monet didn’t laugh at death and he didn’t ignore it. Measure the distance between lily pads the distance between layers of off whites, pinks and clouds. View his compulsion, his desire to complete his metamorphosis, his Self Portrait.


Splash, Monet blows his nose. The silence is broken.


The first thing I saw was a huge swash of yellow paint in Monet’s Soleil Couchant. The yellow sun hit me and I screamed. A very tall guard wearing a long knitted scarf came rushing over to me with his finger on his lips and a smile on his face.




I experienced cruel moments as I was sucked into Monet’s surfaces. I lost my bearings, my equilibrium. Remember the color wheel the distance between trees the lack of shade, the oval egg shaped galleries that house Monet’s Water Lilies. I was a fetus. I was born and I died and I was born again. Looking out of the train and seeing the English landscape the landscape of my childhood was not tender it was complicated by war, resentment. Splash the silence is broken.




In 1941 my mother, my aunt Jenny, my cousin Renee and I were living in a rented cottage eight miles outside of Northampton, in the village of Great Creatan. We were new comers, foreigners to an inbred medieval village. That I am Jewish that I was six years old and could read and write didn’t exactly favor me with the village kids. They wanted to see my horns. The village wanted to know why we buried our dead standing up.




Built in the 1900s a one-room school held all the grades. The teacher a Miss Edna Litchfield sat on a high stool in the middle of the room. In her right hand she held a very long switch. She used it when she saw any infraction. Whack! It stung.


If I didn’t walk home with my cousin I always ran home. What started it was it a fight or the calling of more abusive names? I was dragged by a number of older boys to the horsetrough that was in the middle of the village green. The boys dunked me over and over. Under the water I couldn’t breathe and I saw lights like tiny yellow bulbs. I thought it was my aunt Jenny’s sister Sadie who pulled me away from the boys but my cousin Renee says she did. I was swollen and everything was very blurry. I don’t remember anything after that.


When I woke up I was in the hospital I had been operated on for an infected mastoid, the ward had young men who had been wounded. Some of them were bandaged all over their bodies. Others had leg or arm wounds. There was a shortage of bed sheets, towels, pajamas and nurses. One of the men befriended me he must have been a medic. Three times a day he gave me my shots.


In one corner of the ward there was a little boy who always stayed in bed. He never did answer any of my questions.


The operation is the only good part of this story. Every doctor that looks into my ear wants to know who operated. They say it is beautiful, a magnificent job.


Back then it was believed that it would be emotionally disturbing to children in hospital to see their parents. They might cry they might want to go home. The one time I saw my parents I was given a clean top and bottom and a dressing gown. I sat in a wheelchair and the nurse wheeled me into a bare room with a large window. My parents were on the other side of the window. They smiled and waved and I waved. I don’t know how long I stayed in the hospital but that was the only time I saw them. And that was the only time I wore a top and a bottom. The rest of the time I wore what the men wore. Some days some men wore tops and some men wore bottoms. On the days when the men had only tops they were exposed. A young nurse came into the ward to change the men’s bandages and give them their shots. Men would get hard ons and a man would say something to the nurse that I didn’t understand. Without hesitation the nurse would flick the man’s genitals with her fingers.

  Part 3


When we visited Delacroix’s apartment studio and garden at Rue Furstenberg I saw myself living in this modest and unpretentious apartment painting in the studio with its skylight, large window and northern light. This great painter, painted tigers, Liberty Leading the People, drew panthers, said ‘One can never paint violently enough’, always lived alone.


Delacroix loved his garden. He had the soil rehabilitated, cut and pruned the existing flowerbeds and vines, created new flowerbeds edged with thyme, planted roses, gooseberry and strawberry bushes, as well as a number of trees. The aim was a varied, densely planted garden.




There was a Pigeon in Delacroix’s garden that reminded me of the Pigeon that hangs on the wall over our bed. I’ve painted Pigeons since the 1970s. They don’t beg and they have no master. They know what the rules of the city are and they obey them. They take care of themselves. They fascinate me. Their timing is perfect. When approached they wait till the very last moment before they fly away.




I stood in Delacroix’s garden watched the Pigeon fly and I flew back to Great Creaton. I am going to be 79 this year. I am a superstitious man and the numbers 7 and 9 are hole cards, wild cards. And the number 79 has me spooked. I have started to feel like the survivor who asks himself why am I still alive when so many of my friends have died. I am unable to count how many times I have returned to the afternoon I got dunked in the horsetrough and I am being dunked again. I am married, have two daughters, four grandchildren and a house and a garden and I envy Delacroix he wasn’t afraid of success. I have painted for over sixty years written seriously for thirty years and in all that time I have not lived up to my work. Since the age of six I have been in hiding. Frightened that if I show myself I could get dunked. The trauma never goes away. Black Mountain College, San Francisco, New York City and so I am the foreigner, the man who was never there.


I think I began to draw when I was 5 or 6 years old. I remember copying cartoons by David Low. Black and white. Black and white has always been very important to me. Ink. Charcoal. Print.
By the time I was 14 I was painting every day. But otherwise, as has often been the case, my life was unsettled and difficult. By lucky circumstance, I found Black Mountain College when I was 16—and from there I was able to enter New York City and San Francisco.
I often explain my art by saying “from the abstract to the figure, from the figure to the abstract makes an edge of exquisite distance and distance gives us our sensations.”
Writing was part of being at Black Mountain. But I did not begin to write seriously until 1985, after a series of disappointments followed by my first trip back to England since my parents and I emigrated in 1947. When I returned to New York, I could not stop writing. It was “a season of digestion.”
Today I go back and forth between painting and writing, on two different floors of my house in Brooklyn. One feeds the other and in both I bring disparate things together.



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