Swiss-born artist Paul Klee (1879–1940) was a significant influence in my early art. What excited me about his work was the incredible variety. He seemed like an artist who defied categorization.
Modern? Yes, but only in the sense that his work was liberated from everything before it. He worked using a variety of media and a seemingly endless variety of styles. He worked on paper, cloth, canvas, burlap, or what appears to be anything he could find. Like Dylan today, he seems to have been constantly re-inventing himself.
I caught up with him recently to discuss his life and work, somewhat eager to learn his impressions of mine.
Ennyman: Tell me about your early influences? Klee: My earliest influence was music. I was raised in a very musical family. My father was a music teacher and my mother a trained singer. I began playing violin at age seven. But my grandmother once gave me a box of sidewalk chalk and it was clear I had a good hand for drawing. As a teen my drawings showed a considerable level of skill and my parents, reluctantly, allowed me to pursue art school at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.
Ennyman: My grandmother was an influence, too, in my art development. After college, then what? Klee: I went back home and lived with my parents. It was a rueful time, and my work travelled down two paths. My black and white pieces were dark, and so color came to mean something special to me, even began to possess me. I was also doing a lot of experimentation at the time, doing one series of 57 pictures drawing on a blackened pain of glass with a needle.
Ennyman: Interesting technique. Klee: I still kept up my music and played violin in the orchestra and was writing concert and theater reviews.
Ennyman: Yes, you were also a writer. Klee: I’d begun a diary very young and never quit that. It’s a good way to learn how to capture abstract ideas in words and to develop an understanding of how you observe.
Ennyman: How did you come to be a recognized figure in the European art scene? Klee: I was doing illustrations for Voltaire’s Candide and met Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and other avant garde artists, who became known as The Blue Rider group. Wassily has a keen mind and had been developing theories and ideas about color, as I had. Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible. We both went on to teach at the Bauhaus school of art.
Ennyman: Mr. Kandinsky wrote a number of books as well as opening modern painting to new spaces. I enjoyed his Concerning the Spiritual in Art. You wrote as well, did you not? Klee: I published my diary in 1918 and also some other writings later.
Ennyman: You once stated that even drawing has changed for you. Klee: In the final analysis, a drawing simply is no longer a drawing, no matter how self-sufficient its execution may be. It is a symbol, and the more profoundly the imaginary lines of projection meet higher dimensions, the better.
Ennyman: Are there any common threads in your world view with other disciplines: Klee: The art of mastering life is the prerequisite for all further forms of expression, whether they are paintings, sculptures, tragedies, or musical compositions.
Ennyman: Any last thoughts? Klee: Some will not recognize the truthfulness of my mirror. Let them remember that I am not here to reflect the surface… but must penetrate inside. My mirror probes down to the heart. I write words on the forehead and around the corners of the mouth. My human faces are truer than the real ones. Also, when looking at any significant work of art, remember that a more significant one probably has had to be sacrificed.
Ennyman: Thank you for your time.
Saturday morning I was talking with my mom about Great Uncle John S. Hall, the blind poet of Ritchie County. John was the youngest son of the venerable Halls of Highland, West Virginia, born in 1845. His name came up because the day before I had been in Nashville, flying home from a business trip. She asked about the flooding, and then asked if I had seen the hospital there, which I took as a strange question unrelated to anything. She then explained that great uncle John Hall, who had been overcome with fever during the battle of Murfreesboro in the Civil War, was taken to the Nashville hospital where he would spend five months, either in recovery or transition to the grave.
I thought it might be entertaining and informative to tell his story by means of an imaginary interview today. It’s a remarkable story about a remarkable man.
Ennyman: Is it true you were found in a delirium on the side of the road after the Battle of Murfreesboro? Which side were you fighting for and how did you come to be there? John S Hall: I’m the youngest of five brothers (we had a sister who went on to marry a McGregor) in the northwest region of the State of Virginia but which is no West Virginia. As you know, this great conflict split families right in two and ours was one so divided. Two of my brothers took sides with the North and two with the South. They were all involved in the political wrangling and my two brothers with Northern sympathies actually led the charge in our state legislature to break West Virginia off from Virginia. My oldest brother Leonard was a member of the Richmond Convention that voted for secession. Simon and William took up arms for the North. The youngest, except for me, was Allen and he fought for the South. After the war, when Allen and William compared notes, they found they’d fought against each other in seven different battles!
You can read about the role my brothers played in the secession of West Virginia in Dr. James C. McGregor’s book The Disruption of Virginia. (McMillan 1922)
Ennyman: I’d always heard you ran away from home to join the army when you were fifteen. JSH: No, I was fifteen when the Civil War broke out. Still a teen when I ran off though. Mom did not want me fighting — in fact, vehemently opposed it — so I snuck off at night to join the Teamsters, serving in the Union’s Fourth Brigade. It takes a lot of work to supply an army, and I was part of the machinery of war in that way. We were attached to Sherman’s army, cutting through Tennessee in the early part of his famous march to the sea. The fighting was bitter because we were on Southern soil at this point, in the heart of Dixie.
Ennyman: What can you tell us about your experience from there? JSH: They say I was found in a delirium on the side of the road somewhere outside of Murfreesboro. They say I protested when I was to be taken to that hospital in Nashville. You know the reputations hospitals have. For most of us, it’s the last stop, the gateway to the grave.
I was there from the end of October till the middle of May. That’s a long time to be laid up. For three months of that period my hands were tied behind my back, full of bed sores, and quite beside myself.
For some reason there were doctors who took a special interest in my case, because the other six fellows who came in at the time with this condition had all died in two weeks. So the doctors kept checking in on me.
One day, I heard a doctor describing my circumstances to a visiting physician and I felt a gentle hand touch my forehead. I was still in a semi-conscious frame of mind, so it surprised them when I spoke, “That was a soft hand.” Someone replied, “Yes! That was the famous Dr. Mary Walker.”
Ennyman: Ultimately, the fever left you blind, but you fully recovered otherwise. JSH: Yes, the fever had centered in my brain and left me without sight when it finally lifted. Those were frightening days for a boy so long from home. During that time the doctors tried to find out who I was. They didn’t know where I had come from, so they didn’t know who to contact. And my parents had no idea where their boy was. They hadn’t heard from him in many months and feared he’d already found a shallow grave.
Ennyman: Tell us about Lelia. Didn’t you write a poem about your time in the hospital called Lelia and the Silver Charm? JSH: One of the doctors there, Dr. Francis, had a wonderful daughter who began to visit me, became special to me. She would come to my bedside and read to me, which helped pass the hours. The poem I wrote was later published in The Wetzel Messengerin 1877. You might say it is my way of enshrining her memory.
Ennyman: How did you finally find your family. JSH: Someone came across the address of my sister. Maybe there were some things of mine that had been stored, I don’t know. They wrote and my family was overjoyed as you can guess. But it was not an easy road, because their son was now blind and in the prime of his youth.
Once home I went away again, to a College for the Blind in Columbus, Ohio, from which I graduated in 1868. It was an influential school. One of my classmates went on to become Chaplain of the House of Representatives in Washington. I studied to be a teacher and which is what I did for seven years after graduation, five of those years in Highland, named after the Scottish Highlands by the MacGregors who’d settled in these parts. I also became the first schoolmaster in Cairo, there in West Virginia.
But I had higher ambitions and went to law school and admitted to the bar. This was still not satisfying and in 1878 I started a newspaper called the St. Mary’s Observer with Minus P. Prettyman. Three years later I started a second newspaper called The Oracle. The newspapers fulfilled something for me. Being fond of expressing myself through the written word, I ultimately took an early retirement to enjoy my later years surrounded by nature and writing poetry. My book Musings of a Quiet Hour was published in 1907 when I was 62.
Ennyman: My grandmother said that the first ten years of her life you used to babysit her and recite poetry out on the hills. JSH: People had to work and it was easy for them to let me watch over their little ones. I remember your grandmother, Elizabeth. She was a very bright child. She really liked to listen when I would recite verse.
Ennyman: Thank you for your time here today. You life made an impact on a lot of people, and I number myself among them. Thank you. Any last thoughts? JSH: Maybe I should close with this…
The softly fading twilight hours Bring once familiar things to view, And memory wakes the withered flowers To beauty and to life anew;
And friends departed gather ‘round To worship here at memory’s shrine, Till all are here on hallowed ground; Their presence makes life seem divine.
’Tis sweet to sit at eventide And pensive watch the fading light In golden silence softly glide, From weary day to restful night.
And in the quiet evening hour When silence soothes the world to sleep, To yield to some mysterious power, And gently in with childhood creep.
Primary Source: The History of Ritchie County by Minnie Kendall Lowther.
Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) was a French novelist and playwright. His magnum opus was a sequence of short stories and novels collectively entitled La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815.
Due to his keen observation of detail and unfiltered representation of society, Balzac is regarded as one of the founders of realism in European literature. He is renowned for his multifaceted characters, who are morally ambiguous. His writing influenced many subsequent novelists such as Marcel Proust, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Eça de Queirós, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Benito Pérez Galdós, Marie Corelli, Henry James, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Italo Calvino, and philosophers such as Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx as well as the artists Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso.
What follows is an interview that took place between myself and Mr. Balzac at a salon in the Bohemian sector of Paris in late 1847. It is a work of fiction.
Ennyman: Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Honoré de Balzac: I was an enthusiastic reader and a rather willful, independent thinker as a child. I had trouble adapting to the rote style of teaching in my school. As a result I was frequently punished by being sent to a place called “the alcove” which was essentially a form of solitary confinement. The good part is that I could read there and I read everything I could get my hands on.
Ennyman: Is it true that when you got out of school you failed in business? HB: I failed in a lot of things. First I failed as an apprentice in a law office. Then I failed in a few businesses. I tried my hand as a publisher, but failed at that. Failed in the printing trade and also as a politician. Perhaps all my failures in these various endeavors helped give me a deeper understanding of human life through such a diverse set of experiences.
Ennyman: I hear that you have a rather unusual daily regimen as writer. Can you explain that a little bit? HB: I’ve found that writing at night is the most fertile time for me. There are fewer distractions. So, usually I go to bed at 6:00 each evening and wake at one in the morning, with my pot of black coffee accompanying me through the night. At eight in the morning I take a little nap for an hour or two, then rise again to continue writing till maybe three or three-thirty.
Ennyman: When do you eat? HB: I take a couple hours for dining after that, then off to bed.
Ennyman: Sounds like you don’t have much of a social life. HB: I’ve broken off friendships over a remark like that. No, I had plenty of social experience growing up. I have too many stories to tell and am very conscious that we’re all mortals and only have a short time to accomplish whatever it is we’re setting out to do. Till I’ve said all I intend to say, writing is my life. Maybe because of all that time in the alcove being alone so much just feels normal to me. And I’m really not alone. We have 300 domestic servants. I married into wealth.
Ennyman: Is it true you once tried suicide? HB: I had pretty frigid relationships with my parents. My father was from a very poor family in the south of France and struggled for respectability, but it was a hard time. When I was 15 our family moved to Paris where I was sent to private tutors and schools. It was a very unhappy period in my life. I used to regularly cross this bridge over the Loire River and one day felt so low I decided to jump. It was a very foolish thing but I came through.
Ennyman: How did you get on track with your life after that? HB: The following year I went off to the Sorbonne where I —
Ennyman: The Sorbonne? HB: You must not be from around here. The University of Paris. It’s in the Latin Quarter. It was there that I encountered three supremely influential and somewhat important professors. The first, my Professor of Modern History François Guizot, later went on to become Prime Minister. The second was a recent arrival from the College Charlemagne, Abel-François Villemain, who lectured on French and classical literature. Philosophy prof Victor Cousins, however, proved most influential of all. He encouraged us to think independently and to not simply be parrots. I understood why the rote teaching of my childhood was so maddening. In this regard his ideas completely resonated with me.
Ennyman: How did you come to take up writing? HB: I had always been influenced by the books I’d read, and knew the power of the written word. Having failed at everything else, it seemed natural to take up the pen.
And actually my father did some writing, at one point writing a treatise on the means of preventing thefts and murders and of restoring the men who commit them to a useful role in society. My father had a deep disdain for prisons as a form of crime prevention. By my early twenties I had inwardly determined to write.
Ennyman: Who have been your biggest influences as a fiction writer? HB: Who were yours?
Ennyman: You probably wouldn’t know them as they haven’t been born yet. HB: (tapping my forearm) Don’t be so serious. I was kidding. My chief influences would include Walter Scott, Moliere, Jean Racine, Shakespeare — he’s influenced everyone — and Lord Byron, among others.
Ennyman: Your first book was about Cromwell, yes? HB: Yes, and it was a failure. For the next several years I wrote gothic, humorous and historical novels under various pseudonyms. Some day they’ll probably call it pulp fiction. You know, fiction for the masses. Not great writing but a great experience. Over time I began to formulate a style, found my voice so to speak.
Ennyman: When did you begin writing under your own name? HB: When I turned thirty I published Les Chouans under my own name. I felt fairly confident about it. It’s a historical novel about the Breton peasants who took part in a royalist insurrection in 1799. I followed this with a humorous and satirical story the subject of marital infidelity, which encompassed both its causes and cure. My third book was a set of six short stories about girls, psychological studies of girls in conflict with parental authority.
Ennyman: At this point you must have written near a hundred novellas, stories, novels. HB: My publisher says more than eighty. When I reach 100 I may put down the pen and take up tennis. (He laughs.) I’ve also produced some plays. The secret, if you don’t mind me noting it, is to understand and paint the subtle interior life of the women characters correctly. If this doesn’t ring true, you’ve lost that verisimilitude that is essential in fiction.
Ennyman: The story I wanted to ask about is The Unknown Masterpiece. I’m especially interested in learning more about the three painters, Pussain, Porbus and Frenhofer, especially Frenhofer. HB: I’m sorry, but I’ve given you all the time I am able for now. Maybe you can come back?
I promised I would call on him again, but as I became busy with my own writing projects I never got around to it until I learned he passed in August 1850. The funeral fell on my day off so I was able to attend. Victor Hugo, a pallbearer for the occasion, delivered the eulogy.
Details for this interview were extracted from Wikipedia and online Britannica.