Paul Klee [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s now the 6 November and I am on my own. For the last ten days we have had various guests filing in and out of the boat. They were Gideon’s friends mainly – one of his old best friends came to visit with his French girl friend ‘Al’. They now both live in Marseilles together. He studies at the conservatoire and she studies History of Art as I once did. They kept us entertained with wonderful stories of Provencal life and of their small apartment high above one of the old squares in the central quarter of town. Ed spoke of ‘couscous’ the local speciality, and parts of town where Algerian and African communities would prepare delicious and spicy foods. He spoke of Marseilles as a force of life, which snubbed the other great cities of France. There was a lot of poverty there he assured me, but it was proud of its Mediterranean apartness and its tangible cultural mix. He liked the colonial squalor and the different types it attracted: the young, the rough and ready, the artistic. In my imagination, beaches with sand as fine and white as clouds, absorbed the heat of the Mediterranean sun like an oven. Now, whenever I think of the Mediterranean I think of the late paintings by Graham Sutherland: the flashes of bright poster-paint red, the pergolas and empty decanters of wine.
They slept on our kitchen-table area, which folds out into a double bed. It was an enviable situation – their heads would have been by the chimney of our woodburner and above them, my beautiful new lantern, which reminds me of the tetrahedron in Durer’s Melancholia I would sway ever so slightly. The cat got into the habit of sleeping beside Ed’s head – in a helix of aesthetic completeness and profound content. Then later George, Gideon’s brother, came to stay. He has an impressive and healthy physique – like that of a depression-era labourer, or one of the heroes of a Steinbeck novel. His enormous rugby-players body filled out the central part of the boat, the ‘living room’, where he slept at night. Then Gideon and I were snug as two happy bugs in our assortment of rugs and blankets in the sleeping quarters. Five restful bodies, lined out like sardines across the narrow sternum of our boat. Now they have all gone.
One of the week’s definite highlights was the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate modern. It was very busy and overpriced, but those have become the standard complaints of the more established art galleries. I fell in love with his fish tank paintings. His fascination with his aquarium was stated enough to constitute a sub-genre in his work as a whole.
One of the largest canvases on display was entitled ‘Fish Magic’. This playful, faux-childish title was the perfect epigraph to the painting – which displayed a kind of luminous fish city, scrawled out in etched lines of hot pink and near-green yellow. For Klee, the abstract world, the world of pure forms and colour to which each of his paintings aspired, could not find a more manifest kingdom than the insular, particular and colourful activity of his fish tank. Humour, serendipity, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of colour and weight – were some of the most iterated preoccupations of this very unusual, ambitious and tirelessly innovative artist.
What struck me too, in his fugue of death-bed paintings, which seemed defiantly bright and gestural, were the series of haunting paintings entitled Hexe – for witch. What had he glimpsed behind the veil? What were his agonies of mind? As death neared terribly, as the result of a degenerative condition, the strange, luminous image of the witch, was his parting diagnosis of the internal life. Coincidentally I had just finished a chapter in Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations (Carcanet Press, 2002) in which he too discusses the ‘magic’ of Klee’s art. Speaking of the Wander-Artist he remarks:
‘Like so many of the paintings Klee did in his last year it exuded a sense of desperate urgency yet remained curiously aloof, inhabiting its own still world. […] Klee knew better than anyone how to give and withhold at the same time…’ (p.97-8)
I spent the whole of Sunday afternoon polishing an old coal hod I bought from a rag-and-bone shop just off Columbia Road. The tarnish has all rubbed off now and it looks like an archaeological ‘feature’, perhaps a bronze-age helmet, with a Romanesque chin piece sticking into the air.
After I bought it I picked up some chrysanthemums last minute from the flower market. I always visit just before the stall holders leave and the prices are at rock-bottom. I bought two pots: one with petal heads the colour of honey, the other the colour of rooibus tea. I stuck both plants inside the coal hod and strung it to the toggle of my rucksack with a piece of twine. I was not an easy cycle, my copper flask kept swinging against my side and getting in the way of my arms.
Now the coal hod is glittering in its rightful place in the stone-tiled hearth. I take pride in filling it with brittle, crystalline lumps of coal. Polishing copper is a very pleasant way to pass an afternoon.