It Skinned My EyesSunday, April 06, 2014
One day I saw a painting by Matisse, a reproduction. I saw it because of the chaps who were laughing and called me over. It gave me the shock of my life. It skinned my eyes for me. And I became a different man.
Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth
On Saturday night (last night) after a dinner of gnocchi in the oven (with lots of Parmesan and cheddar cheese) and a dessert of tapioca pudding from scratch we (Rosemary, Hilary, Lauren, 11 and I) sat down in the den (with a roaring fire) to watch Ronald Neame’s 1958 film The Horse’s Mouth with Alec Guinness. The film was based on Joyce Cary’s novel by the same name.
There is a statement that Gulley Jimson (Alec Guinness) makes that froze me. I attempted to find the quote in my copy of Cary’s novel but I suspect that it may have been written into the film by Guinness as he was responsible for the screenplay.
I have no idea when I first saw the film. I remember it was funny and that Gulley Jimson was a bohemian to an excess, much worse than my womanizing private art teacher in the middle 50s in Mexico City. Robin Bond mixed his paints not on a palette but on the walls of his studio. The floor was soaked with countless cups of black coffee that had been spilled and ashtrays everywhere where brimming over with cigarette butts.
Rosemary was not too happy with the film and our daughter took it all so seriously and she was disgusted at the antics of the selfish and overbearing artist played so well by Guinness.
To my surprise it was Lauren who laughed and enjoyed the film. I told her, “We are the only sophisticates here.” It reminded me of my grandmother when I was Lauren’s age who would shield me from my mother’s wrath saying, “Nena, you must forgive Alex, he is an artist like I am.”
The quote on Matisse by Jimson made me think of what moment my eyes may have been skinned. I have written about it many times. I was 8 or 9 and my mother had taken me to the United States Information Service (the benign and outside image of the CIA) Lincoln Library on Calle Florida in Buenos Aires. I happened to open a publication or book by the American Heritage Society and I saw my first images of live and dead American Civil War soldiers taken by Brady, O’Sullivan and Gardner. I was struck by the immediacy of men that looked alive (and indeed they were when the photographs were taken I realized) and that if I went outside to the street I just might run into them.
I have been most interested in the American Civil War since. Like most of those photographs I rarely make my subjects laugh or smile.
And yet it is strange for me to use as an example of portraiture that was inspired by portraits of American Civil War soldiers this particular one of John Alleyne, former Artistic Director of Ballet BC and the formidable dancer Gail Skrela. You might notice that there is a hint of a smile in both of them.
I too, like Gulley Jimson became a different man.