World War I, which was to have made the world safe for democracy, succeeded far better in making the world safe for the avant-garde.
The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck
It’s Saturday, the day I try to give something back to the giants whose shoulders I stand upon. After all, it’s the least I can do after getting mud all over their epaulets.
I mean the men in the first rank of the avant-garde, the guys in late 19th century France who made the world safe for artistic innovation; who stood complacency on its head and shook it hard. Then they picked up the change that fell out of its pockets, went off and bought a bottle of wine, and after a night of drunken revelry laid down the strict rules to be followed by all those who would challenge the “creative” establishment ever since. Rule Nombre Une: Never follow artistic conventions, unless you do so in an unconventional way.
I take Route 30 out to the Home for the Aged Avant Garde, a one-story building since the poets, painters, playwrights and composers who lodge within can’t make it up stairs anymore. In many ways, it’s like the assisted living facility that my mother lived in near the end of her life. The last time I saw her we were periodically interrupted by a woman from the dementia ward who wandered the halls, displacing the beloved personal items of the other patients. That picture of your grandchildren you set on your window sill? She found a better place for it—down the laundry chute, or in the tray return in the dining hall. What a nut!
In other words, a place where the avant-garde would fit right in, since they’d had long practice in such practical nonsense. There’s Alfred Jarry, who used to fire off a gun in his apartment, and thought his bicycle was a time machine. Next, Henri Rousseau, the toll-taker who walked away from his job because Jarry told him “I can see in your face that you’re a painter.” He ended up in court for leaving his post and offered to paint a portrait of the judge’s “lady” to avoid punishment.
There’s Erik Satie, the composer whose work was so monotonous that pianist Alfred Cortot called it “furniture music.” Satie named one of his pieces “Embryons desséchés”–“dried embryos,” a bridge too far for even the most offensive punk rocker. Finally, there’s Guillaume “Bill” Apollinaire, painter-poet-bon vivant-raconteur, flaneur de deux rives who, at the height of his waggery, wrote a column on lady poets under the nomme de plume Louise Lalanne.
I pull into the parking lot and see Wilson, the orderly in the avant-garde ward, outside taking a smoke break.
“How’s it going?” I ask him as I approach the entrance.
Erik Satie: “I’m thinking of a number between one and Cleveland.”
“Ain’t never no good day to watch the avant-garde,” he says with resignation as he stubs out his Kool in a potted plant that’s pretty dessicated itself.
“I know what you mean,” I say commiserating.
“They always doing things back-asswards, just to spite me,” he says as we walk in together.
I check in with the receptionist, tell her who I’m here to see.
“Oh, those guys,” she says dismissively, and a file clerk behind her suppresses a snicker. Also a Milky Way, if I’m not mistaken, or it could have been a Heath toffee bar. “They’re out on the inner courtyard.”
“’Out in the inner courtyard.’ Ain’t that just like the avant-garde,” I say, channeling Louis Jordan. I apply my visitor’s pass to my jacket and head to what I like to call le boulevard du avant-garde—the corridor where my artsy friends reside.
Louis Jordan: America’s greatest lyricist?
I’m here to see all of them, but in particular Rousseau, the primitive painter whose guileless nature made him the butt of many practical jokes played on him by his fellow, more self-conscious avant-guardians. A simple nature often incites a desire in sophisticated types are to play tricks to establish their superiority over a more innocent colleague. To give you just a few examples:
Gaugin told Rousseau he’d been awarded a public commission and told him to go to a government office to learn the details; there he was rebuffed brusquely—as only a French bureaucrat can. Another time his friends arrived at his apartment with a man who resembled the Minister of Fine Arts and told him he’d been awarded a high honor. A ceremony was performed at which he was decorated with a fine-looking but phony medal, as the concierge’s daughter stood in attendance with a bouquet of flowers. Rousseau lapped it up like a benighted golden retriever.
Henri Rousseau: You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to fool him. Like, 11:30 a.m.
I reach the door to the courtyard—the kind of open area within closed confines that my mom used to sneak away to for a smoke. There I see the four of them plus a woman arranged in some sort of bogus ceremony. “Monsieur Rousseau paints with his feet with his eyes closed,” a nurse is reading from a piece of paper she holds in her hands. “He achieves a remarkable fidelity by tracing the outlines of his subjects onto butcher paper spread out on his studio floor.”
“Okay, this has gone on long enough,” I say as I enter the outside, so to speak. They all look at me; the nurse and Rousseau with looks of unsuspended disbelief, the others with expressions I’m capable of myself, having been caught more than once with my hand in cookie jars. And white china candy dishes. And—well, you get the idea.
“Please—do not interrupt this august body in the performance of its mission, which is to recognize the greatest visual artist in the history of the Metrowest Home for the Avant-Garde.” It’s Jarry, as usual, putting on the high-flown dog.
“In a pig’s you-know-what,” I say. “Go take a piss in the Marcel Duchamp Memorial Urinal.” I know whereof I speak, since my 2012 charitable donation was made with specific instructions for the construction and installation of a fountain in Duchamp’s memory.
“You realize,” Satie suggests drily, “that we are engaged in a ceremony of the utmost insignificance here, do you not.”
That’s the avant-garde world-view right there; they insist, with great irony, on being taken seriously.
“I don’t care,” I say. “You’ve had your fun, now put out your smokes and get back inside.” It’s December, so there’s a health rationale behind my attempt to herd these cats out of the cold.
“I will accompany myself,” Satie says with a sniff, and I don’t think it’s because he has a cold.
Gypsy-flavored Kibbles ‘n Bits!
“I’m not going anywhere,” Apollinaire says. He’s a willful chap; he wrote a facetious story of Walt Whitman’s funeral for the Mercure de France that portrayed it as an all-day barbecue cum orgy, and don’t let me stop you from finding a double entendre in the word “cum.” According to his account, there were lovers of Whitman representing both sexes present, numerous watermelons were consumed, the pallbearers got drunk and had to carry his coffin into the tomb on all fours because the entryway was so low. It was total fiction, but it succeeded in disrupting the smoothly polished image of Whitman that more respectable critics had been working fifteen years to put an improper and dubious shine upon.
I give Jarry a nod, hoping to get his assistance, and for once he cooperates because it gives him an opportunity to use his time machine. “Guillaume—this has been an unpleasant five minutes. Let’s go backwards in time and try again.”
“D’accord,” Apollinaire agrees, and takes a seat on the handlebars.
I hold the door to the courtyard open for them and they ride down the corridor to Rousseau’s room, to continue the ceremony. They move slowly, and it’s a good thing, because we encounter a woman like the one who used to haunt the halls of my mother’s assisted living facility. She appears to have escaped from the dementia ward, just as that woman used to. She has an air of disassociation about her; she’s mumbling, her gaze is vacant, her robe is hanging open, her hair is a mess.
She takes in the scene—Apollinaire in Jarry’s bike basket, Rousseau sporting his bogus medal, Satie shouting the sort of musical directions that he used to notate his scores with: “The work should be incomprehensible—even to the composer. During intermission the audience should act as if the music did not exist. Performed by two frogs—one of whom is a deaf mute.”
I extend my hand to Jarry to steady him as we navigate the narrow passageway when the woman suddenly lets out an insane screech. A nurse appears with two paper cups, one containing a pill the other water, thinking the woman forgot to take her medication.
“I’m fine,” she says, rebuffing the nurse’s attempt to calm her. “It’s these people who are crazy!”