Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Audit of Fame 1: Prodigal Son Vincent Van Gogh

Let me declare at once that I claim first dibs on the title, The Audit of Fame, as it may be found set in stone on page 313 of my Sister Morphine (Salt, 2008), where my embittered, disinherited heroine identifies a practice in art history indistinguishable from vanity publishing  . . . in other words, her Portrait of the Artist as a Remittance Man (in this case, Boy, her spoilt-rotten younger brother).
I don’t think the general public is aware that art for art’s sake is a privileged pursuit often underwritten by family trust funds or that, immediately after the Second Great War, art was considered a gentleman’s profession very like the practice of publishing, and infested with remittance men.                                                                                            The Audit of Fame remains a book that begs to be written by an aesthetical chartered accountant. I repeat, had not Mother progressively sold off parcels of land from my father’s estate — including Wilkes’s prized vegetable plot — Boy would not have had the wherewithal to mount his one-man exhibitions, nor would he have garnered that minor entry in the current guides to British artists, under ‘H’ (my maiden name is the sole inheritance we share).
Such an audit of artists would, without doubt, include Degas, whose aristocratic kinsfolk owned banks with branches in Paris, Naples and New Orleans. Edgar, himself, was born on bank premises at the Paris branch of the Banque de Naples, which his father managed. Nor should our audit ignore Toulouse-Lautrec, the scion of aristocratic wealth, and the possessor of an allowance and studio in Montmartre, by the grace of his parents, the Comte and Comtesse de Toulouse-Lautrec. Cézanne, too, was the son of a wealthy banker and granted an allowance to study art in Paris. In 1886, at the age of 47, he inherited his father's wealth and became financially independent.

The Squandering Prodigal of Yellow.

However, the shabby task of running a post hoc slide-rule over the loose change of 19th Century trustafarians is not my intention here. 

No. Not here. My fiduciary duty on this occasion is confined to the ledger account of that archetypal remittance man, Vincent van Gogh.

And, since Van Gogh’s socialist sympathies are nowhere more evident than in his depictions of indigent saboted peasantry, my interest, you might say, is one of purely Marxian economics defined by the true cost of labour, for it recently struck me, just as a scientific hypothesis, to compare 
the daily wage of the said saboted peasant with the profligacy of van Gogh’s impetuous smorgasbords of impasto pigments – value-costed by oil paint per square centimetre of canvas. 

The correlation yields a result that is somehow unsurprising, given my lifelong ascetic disdain for van Gogh’s technique of squandering gobbets of oil paint straight from the tube.

The coverage I’ve calculated is derived from a typical Vincentian wheat field’s massy yellow, which approximates to 1,400 square centimetres. Hence, in my estimation, allowing for wastage, some two and half double tubes of couleurs fines pour les arts were likely consumed, with each tube (retail) representing a manual worker’s average daily wage. 

For additional fascinating insights I am indebted to the diligence of Brian Dudley Barrett whose 2008 dissertation, North Sea artists’ colonies, 1880-1920, contains an excellent account of the mounting costs faced by followers of the fashion for plein-air painting.

Typically, for early pleinairists of the 19th Century, ‘a medium-sized canvas (125 x 80 cm.) took approximately 100 francs worth of paint . . . In the 1895 Lefranc catalogue prices for tube oil-paints average approximately two francs for a size number 6, c.60 ml. ... It is worth noting that Lefranc’s size 13 tube, their largest, at over 15 cm. long and 3.5 cm in diameter, c.200 ml., cost five francs each, one of which alone was approximately equivalent to an average labourer’s daily pay.’ Or, indeed, the cost of a day’s food for his family. [Five francs was a Parisian’s daily wage, one suspects; in the provinces, 3 francs per diem rate was more likely. In context, the price of a prostitute was also typically 3 francs.]

Agreed, these are sketchy figures. Yet, by contrast, Vincent van Gogh’s tube oil-paint consumption is well documented.

A Docket for the Quartermaster.

In early April, 1888, Vincent writes from Arles to his brother, Theo, itemising his 
. . . order for paints; if you order them at Tasset’s and L’Hôte, Rue Fontaine, it would be a good thing – since they know me – to tell them that I expect a discount equal to at least the cost of carriage, which I will willingly pay; they need not pay the carriage, we pay for it here, but the discount in that case should be 20%. If they agree to that – and I'm inclined to think they will – they can supply me with paints until further notice, and that you mean a big order for them.
So a ‘big order’, then, to his brother who was, in effect, his quartermaster; an order that included ten Double Tubes of Chrome Yellow No. 2 (cf. Goupil’s grades) and ten Doubles of the Jaune Citron he adored. Even with the wholesale discount Vincent demanded, just the cost of these items alone would have fed a worker’s family for a month.

The magnitude of ‘Vincent’s Account’ with his indulgent brother may be judged by the cost to Theo of painting materials in the period June 1889-July 1890, listing 901.80 francs for materials supplied by the firm of Tasset & L’Hôte, and 381.25 francs for Tanguy. 

Total: 1,283 francs.

Estimates suggest that Theo spent an average of around 100 francs a month on Vincent; that is some 15 percent of his annual income on his brother’s remittances.

So I return to the problem of Marxian aesthetics, as hypothesised by a callow Anthony Blunt long before the Iron Curtain had clanged down to crush the beliefs of fellow-travellers in the West who harboured a utopian sympathy for Social Realism. When a young man, Blunt cleaved to a vision of Art’s future under Communism that was unequivocal: ‘The culture of the revolution will be evolved by the proletariat to produce its own culture ... If an art is not contributing to the common good, it is bad art.’  [Cf. Footnote 2, below.]


Stakhanovist Artistic Licence?

Mmm. The proletariat would have its own culture, eh?  Stakhanovist masterworks to stand witness to the Dignity of Labour? Tell that to Mademoiselle Sans Sabots of Arles, who must scythe a hectare of wheat per day for less than the price of the yellow vermicelli squirted by the town’s wanton dauber, never mind that the sunstruck remittance man’s confounded easel is planted in the path of her reaping blade.

Yet, if a recognised exemplar of Western Art is the attempted transmutation of the haecceity of wheatfields into the vermiculations of a Vincentian yellow-encrusted canvas, then, by contrast, the Marxian aesthetic, to my mind, was never more powerfully expressed than in the inspired stroke that transubstantiated a Russian Orthodox church into a hungering people’s Grain Store. As Social Realism at its most potent and most emblematic, it surely then outclasses any of the conceptualist vapidities that the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern has lately foisted on our Intelligentsiya.

Soviet Grain Store. 1930s.

Footnote 1 (December 13 2014)

Of course, were not Conceptualism a discredited art, a more sober reading of the 1930s Soviet Grain Store is to consider the 30,000,000 deaths accounted by the Patriotic War and Stalinist Purges as represented by seeds of grain. By my estimation – if each death were expressed as a seed of grain – then some eighteen sacks of grain would memorialise the tragedy of those lives lost.

Footnote 2 (January 6 2018)

In his prophetic satire of England’s Galsworthian leisured classes, W. Somerset Maugham (Christmas Holiday, 1939) describes the views of a young Cambridge-educated communistic firebrand and admirer of the iron fist of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder and Director of the Cheka. The political tyro claims: ‘Art! It’s an amusing diversion for the idle rich! Our world, the world we live in, has no time for such nonsense . . . I know what you would have thought; you would have thought it gave a beauty, a meaning to existence; you would have thought it was a solace to the weary and heavy-laden and an inspiration to the nobler and fuller life. Balls! We may want art again in the future, but it won’t be your art, it’ll be the art of the people.’    


For more observations concerning the artistic legacy of M & Mme Anon, see . . .


Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremisCompulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)

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