Sarah Bernhardt was the first international star. She had a following all around the world and did many tours of Europe, America, Mexico, Canada, Cuba etc… She was herself a painter and a sculptor of acknowledged merit. Here is an amusing extract from Sarah Bernhardt: My Erotic Life (Amazon)
In Mexico, while waiting for the steamer to take me to Havana, I witnessed a fascinating sight, and must share it with my readers. I was on a walk on the beach in Puerto Vallarta with three friends from our party going to Cuba, and whilst crossing a field, we noticed a big crowd at the far end. There seemed to be a lot going on, much jollity and merriment, to judge by the raucous laughter that flared up periodically. As my good friend Mr Wilde said, ‘Resist everything dear, except temptation,’ we directed our steps towards that hub. The people, as usual were courteous and deferential, and parted like the waters of the Nile to allow us to go through to the front.
There was the most bizarre coconut palm I have ever seen, growing at an angle of 45 degrees to the horizontal ground, giving the impression that if someone was ill-advised enough to push it, it would come crashing to the ground. That, however, was not the most striking thing we saw that day. From near its top, came down a rope, at the end of which there was a harness, and to this was attached a really unusual man. He was no bigger than a ten year old, had no arms and no legs, his body ending just below the level of his bottom, with two small protuberances showing the rudiments of his thighs. He had a face which bore a strong resemblance to a goat, and he must have known this, for he grew a small black goatee to emphasise this. His tanned face was greasy, and he had a mouth full of gold teeth. He was swinging gently, and the moment he caught sight of us, he grinned and in an unpleasant squeaky voice greeted us, in Spanish. ‘Come English, come watch the greatest artist in Mexico produce a masterpiece.’ A rather gentle-looking giant of a man who seemed to be a minder or to be managing the show looked at us with ill-concealed hostility, but he curtly deferred to us, with a nod and a slight bow. At the same time we noticed a canvas held in a sort of weaver’s frame, tilted at some small angle to the horizontal with coloured marks on it, the beginning of an abstract painting. On the ground there were pots of coloured paint. The small man was wearing a kind of soiled loincloth, and a paintbrush protruded out of his anus. He grinned wickedly as he realised that we had just seen this.
‘Pedro, what do I pay you for?’ He flung at his minder angrily in his piercing voice, ‘to look beautiful? Don’t even try, you are uglier than the arse of a donkey! You speak their language, explain to the English what the Great El Tronco is about to do.’ In a subdued voice, but in comprehensible English, Pedro explained the obvious, which kept El Tronco grinning and nodding. He then got hold of the rope and guided the artist and left him hovering over his oeuvre for a while, while another minion held it up for him to study it. When he was satisfied that he had seen what he wanted he gave some instructions to Pedro who placed the canvas in position, and adjusted its angle. The minder then ordered the minion to bring a pot of green paint, and placed it under where the artist’s bottom. El Tronco angrily remonstrated with the man, telling him off for not doing it right, but finally after some grotesque manoeuvering, he managed to dip the brush in the paint. Pedro pulled the harness up slightly, allowing the paint it to drip. He then lifted the harness by a few more centimetres and lowered it, enabling the artist to swing into action. Deftly he added a green patch to the work in progress, at which everybody applauded and laughed. El Tronco then demanded to look at it, and after a lengthy perusal, nodded wisely. He then contorted his face in a very strange manner, and while he talked to Pedro, he began frantically moving his head in a circle a few times, clearly instructing his side-kick. We understood that he wanted to draw some whirling patterns. Pedro proceeded to carry out his master’s orders by positioning him over the canvas and gently revolving the harness, and circular patterns were added to the work in progress. The master was not satisfied, and subjected his long-suffering sidekick to a lengthy diatribe which he took by bowing his head respectfully. He then gave instructions to permit him to make a snake-like addition to the piece, in yellow, but just as he was about to dip the brush in the pot, it fell off. How was that Pedro’s fault, we could not understand, but, as we expected the poor man had to listen to a torrent of abuse and insult once more. Some of the words coming out of the mouth of the tyrannical dwarf clearly questioned the paternity of the long-suffering Pedro and the chastity of his poor mother. This time it was too much for him, and he found it impossible to hold his tears, which redoubled El Tronco’s volubility. Then suddenly the abuse ceased, and I think I knew why. The great painter suddenly remembered that the man he was belittling so aggressively was also going to have to stick the brush more firmly up his arse, and began to fear for his safety. His whole attitude changed and he was now the figure of conciliation and love. He signalled to Pedro to come nearer and to lower the harness and began to caress his head with his belly, ending up kissing it lovingly. Pedro resisted the temptation to push the brush deeper than he must have wanted, and the execution of the work proceeded at a pace. We all marvelled at how the masterpiece was taking shape, and after half an hour, the work was deemed finished. It was then tied to the body of the great artist and he was hoisted up in the air, in order to display the composition to the crowd who duly applauded the birth of the triumphant showpiece ecstatically.
‘I will buy it,’ I said in what passed for Spanish, at which El Tronco looked at me scornfully.
‘Señora,’ he squeaked in English, ‘no for sale.’
‘I will pay the price you ask,’ I insisted, ‘what about two hundred America dollars?’ He looked at me coldly and snapped, ‘No for sale! You no understand Ingles?’
‘Vas te faire foutre,’ I muttered under my breath, and signalled to my companions that we had better leave. We turned round and started walking away, but the shrill voice of the artist stopped us in our tracks.
‘Señora, I do painting for you. Is a gift, I need no money. A gift from El Tronco. Is no for sale.’
I have treasured this painting done by two arse-holes, and if every time my visitors remarked on its présence, one hundred francs fell from the ceiling, I would not need to drag my weary old bones and my wooden leg across the planks to pay my son Maurice’s gambling debts. Not that I begrudge him anything. I have promised it to leave it my dear friend Louise after I die.