To Paint is to Love Again Part 13: The Unknown Heroes

Everybody loves the clichéd rags-to-riches stories of people surviving hardship and poverty to then become famous and wealthy. Oh, the American Dream. The cliché of making your way from the bottom of the social ladder to the top is well present in pretty much every industry one can possibly think of, and sure enough, art is there too. Alice Neel, who was called “one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century” by Barry Walker, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, raised two sons on welfare, in poverty, being financially dependent on a violent partner who was abusive towards one of her sons. Laurence Stephen Lowry (known as L.S. Lowry) grew up in both financial and emotional poverty with two cold and controlling parents. And the list goes on.

But for every painter who rose to fame after years of hardships and obscurity, there are thousands of unknown heroes: those who don’t get the happy end. For every nobody-turned-celebrity, there are thousands of artists who remain undiscovered. These stories never make it onto the screen because people love being sold hope and dreams. But like Henry Miller, I find it incredibly inspiring to see people who push through the hardships and remain committed to their art despite the lack of recognition and remuneration. It really isn’t difficult to make art when you have a fancy studio equipped with quality materials, a solid position in the art world and enough money to sustain yourself for years ahead. Yes, there are always emotional challenges and the wealthy and famous go through periods of feeling blocked, dealing with Imposter Syndrome and so on. But guess what: the poor and unknown go through those too, and that’s on top of millions of practical challenges they are facing every day.

But that is the test of commitment, isn’t it? Without this passion and urge to create, one is not going to last long when their efforts are not rewarded materially (sales, exhibitions, reviews, etc.). If someone picks up a brush wanting to become the next Peter Doig and believes that it’s all down to well targeted marketing, then I say that it’s only a matter of time before they give up and switch to something that will fill the need for recognition. I believe that painting is a lifetime commitment, a journey into the unknown, a solitary expedition to the North Pole. Why do people want to leave a warm and comfortable home to spend days in extreme cold, walking on ice that is in constant motion and pulls you southward? Because of that inner drive.

In the last chapter of “To Paint is to Love Again”, we can read about how Henry Miller found acceptance for the modesty of his life, and love for making art that would not “cause a stir”. There is a lot of inspiration one can get from his stoical approach of accepting life’s events and feeling gratitude for every little positive thing one encounters.


Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 13: The unknown heroes

What sustains the artist is the look of love in the eyes of the beholder. Not money, not the right connections, not exhibitions, not flattering reviews.

I think of my friend Beauford Delaney, The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney as I christened him. The man doesn’t know what money is. He has never tasted success. Never lived anything but a hole and corner existence. But what a wealth of friends he has made. What joyous paintings he has produced and will undoubtedly go on producing until the end of his days. Today, after 30 or more years of black struggle, he has made his home in a poor suburb of Paris. He lives in a miserable shack, without heat or any facilities worth mentioning. When he wants to go to Paris, he has to walk to the metro station at the city limits, a distance of some miles. Nothing can defeat him. He remains ever gracious, serene, magnanimous. A truly royal personage.

The celebrated biographies give us the sufferings and hardships of the great. But the sufferings and hardships of the unknown are often more eloquent. The tribulations of fate weave a mantle of unsuspected heroism about these lesser figures. To win through by sheer force of genius is one thing; to survive and continue to create when every last door is slammed in one’s face is another. Nobody acquires genius: it is God-given. But one can acquire patience, fortitude, wisdom, understanding. Perhaps the greatest gift the little men have to offer us is this ability to accept the conditions which life imposes, accept one’s own limitations, in other words. Or, to put it another way – to love what one does whether it causes a stir or not. Of the highest men Vivekananda once said: “They make no stir in the world. They are calm, silent, unknown”. 

And now let me return to the Green House in Beverly Glen, where I made so many watercolors, sold them for a song or for an umbrella I had no use for, but where I also made and found friends I never knew existed.

Who knows what is good for man in this life? Poverty is one of the misfortunes people seem to dread even more than sickness. Bernard Shaw was positively frightened of it. Why is it so dreadful? For me, this seemingly bleak period was a most instructive one, because not being able to write for money, I had to turn to something else to keep going. It could have been shining shoes. It happened to be watercolors. To make watercolors for money never gave me the least qualm. I set no price on my labors. Whatever the buyer chose to offer, whatever he thought he could afford, no matter how ridiculous the sum, I said yes. I did what I could and the buyer had to accept it in good faith. Now and then, if he insisted that I make him a landscape, a nude, a head, I would endeavor to comply. If it turned out to be a failure, it was his hard luck. No shame, no guilt involved, I’ll be gazumped, I’d say to myself, meaning: so long as you’re helping. Catering to my clients in my own sweet way was quite different, it seemed to me, from accepting a handsome advance of a commercial publisher and getting tied up in knots, struggling to produce the pap which they expect.

I could have had a good paying job in the film industry. It wasn’t that I despised the handsome salary that was offered. I simply couldn’t pretend to kill time, which was part of the bargain. To be sure, making watercolors was also a way of killing time. But it involved no temptations. I earned just enough to keep my head above water. It was like writing songs and getting paid to whistle them. They went fast by little jobs. Some must have been absolutely frightful, no question about it. Even Vincent Price, generous and indulgent as he then was, balked at some I offered him. On the whole, you might say that a happy atmosphere prevailed. Never anything comparable to that shameful state of slavery to which Modigliani was reduced by his rapacious dealer. 

While turning them out, I had my friend John Dudley to talk to. Young as he was, he was already a disaffiliated artist. If I couldn’t make a bird or fish the right way, I would ask him to show me how. Taking a tiny piece of paper, always the tiniest, he would then draw me a bird, fish, zebra, whatever was called for. Though I had given him carte blanche, he would never touch the painting I was engaged on. If I were puzzled about color combinations, he would amble over to my table, take one look, and in a quiet, authoritative way, say “Try a dash of cobalt blue” or “Give it a touch of moss green”.

He would then go back to the divan on which he spent a lot of time, often doing nothing more than trimming his locks and continue his divagations on Rimbaud. He was fascinated by Rimbaud because, like the incredible Rimbaud himself, he too had walked out on his chosen vocation. Morning, noon and night he had the gramophone going. Nothing but jazz. Sometimes he would deliver a monologue on the subject. It might last an hour or two. Louis Armstrong figured heavily in these flights. So did Herman Melville and Siqueiros, the wild Mexican painter. It might be 3:00 in the morning, with everyone peacefully tucked away in that quiet steely Glen and Dudley and I still chirping away about Louis de Armstrong, Sikelianos, Moby Dick, the wilds of Abyssinia, the magic of Hölderlin or the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. It was during such bouts that I would take it into my head to insert a line from Rimbaud in one of my watercolors or something from Baudelaire, such as “Il est défendu à l’homme de déranger son destin”.

There was always enough to eat and drink, no rent to worry about, thanks to our generous hosts, and our legs strong enough to take us to Westwood Village and back when we needed supplies. Once we bought a car for thirty five dollars, used it a day or two, then ditched it.

It was tough walking at two or three in the morning from the remote heights of Hollywood. But then there was no time clock to punch, and whether I got up at noon next day or 5:00 p.m. was all one. The Green House was a snug, cozy place, more like an aquarium than a guest house. Visitors came and went at all hours. Once the Los Angeles chief of police drove up in a limousine to present the director of some famous art museum. Knud Merrild, the Danish painter, used to come regularly, always with fresh reminiscences of his days with D.H. Lawrence in New Mexico. Now and then, I visited Man Ray in his Hollywood studio. Wonderful evenings, which always began and ended with the Marquis de Sade. One day I decided to make a little Green House, just big enough for a dwarf or a cretin, and in it I placed a black nude with rubber arms and legs standing on a miniature Persian rug. It is now in the possession of Geraldine Fitzgerald, one of the more fascinating visitors to the Green House. I saw it a couple of years ago when visiting Geraldine in New York. And I must say, it didn’t look near as goofy as I thought when I painted it. There was a nice, cool green wind blowing through it.

Of course, all this good fortune – of being able to work like a dog in happy poverty – was the result of a chance encounter with Attilio Bowinkel who ran an art shop in Westwood Village. One day I entered his shop to buy two tubes of paint. I asked for the cheapest watercolors he had. When he asked me if that was all I needed I told him frankly that that was all I could afford at the moment. Whereupon the good Mr. Bowinkel put me a few discreet but pertinent queries. I answered briefly and truthfully. Then he said, and I shall never forget it: “Choose what you like … paper, paints, brushes, whatever you need. It’s a gift.” A few days later he came to the Green House to inspect my work. I blushed when I showed him what I had on hand. He didn’t say whether they were good or bad but on leaving he took a few with him, and the next day, on passing his shop, I noticed two of them in the window, beautifully framed. They were sold that very day, to Arthur Freed of M.G.M., a collector of modern European paintings.

Thereby hangs another tale. But this is not the place to go into it. It is the place, however, to repeat what I have said elsewhere, that in Attilio Bowinkel I found a friend and a savior. And so, though I come to him last, I trust he will forgive me, for often the first are last and the last first.

Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 12: Friends and mentors

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