Thursday, April 12, 2012

The D.H. Lawrence Paintings: A Look at the Work, a Talk with the Owner, Saki Karavas (1982)

“Scotland Yard detectives last night seized about twelve paintings by Mr. D.H. Lawrence, the novelist and artist, from the Warren Galleries in Maddox Street, London, about which complaints had been received.  It is surprising that the authorities took so long.

“I climbed seven flights to have a look at these before I had any idea what they were like, which absolves me, I trust, from any prurient curiosity.  They were quite on par with the less restrained portions of Lady Chatterly’s Lover (there is no need to particularize further) . . .”  (From the London Sunday Times Magazine, June, 1929.) 

The fifty-third anniversary of the seizure is as good excuse as any for ARTlines to check into the current status of Lawrence’s “scandalous” paintings.  He is, of course, remembered as the author who, more than any other, dragged sexuality out of the musty Victorian closet and threw it onto the verdant fields of the twentieth century.  As a painter he is not remembered – and for good reason.  His pictures for the most part portray chunky, naked women and bearded, satyr-like men in poses that can no longer be considered sex-sational.  In technique and intention they are obvious and heavy-handed.
D.H. Lawrence, Rape of the Sabine Women, 1928

“Ours is an excessively conscious age.  The modern theories of art make real pictures impossible.  You only get these expositions, critical ventures in paint, and fantastic negotiations.  And the bit of fantasy that may lie in the negation – as in Dufy or a Chirico – is just the bit that has escaped theory and perhaps saves the picture.  Theorize, theorize all you like – but when you start to paint, shut your theoretic eyes and go for it with instinct and intuition.”  (From Lawrence’s essay, Making Pictures.)

Lawrence certainly did “go for it,” and perhaps he was right about this being “an excessively conscious age” over-dependent on theory, but he failed to mention the discipline and craft, and he failed to develop them himself. 

There is the sense that these paintings were done by a man who refused to grow up and knuckle under to discipline – in his paintings or in his books.  He had the heart of a man and the head of a juvenile, and the impulses that struggled within him looked on canvas like leering prurience. 

Lawrence apparently loved to copy pictures as a child, but he was 40 before he began to paint seriously.  From that moment on, he was a convert, as passionate and narrow-minded about his new found faith as any convert.

            “I sat on the floor with canvas propped against a chair and with my house-paint brushes in little casseroles, I disappeared into that canvas.  It is to me the most exciting moment – when you have a blank canvas and a big brush full of wet colour, and you plunge.  It’s like diving into a pond – then you start frantically to swim.  So as far as I’m concerned it is like swimming in a baffling current and being rather frightened and very thrilled, gasping and stroking out for all you’re worth.  The knowing eye watches sharp as a needle; but the picture comes clean out of instinct, intuition and sheer physical action.  Once the instinct and intuition gets into the brush-tip, the picture happens, if it is to be a picture at all.”  (Making Pictures.)

            Lawrence was a complex blend of egomaniac and humanist, man and child, saint and sinner, and, despite his own innocent joy at making pictures, his intentions, at times, could be called anything but that.  The excesses of his writing carried over to his painting.  His loathing of critics, in a letter to Dorothy Brett, ended on a serious but characteristic note:

“I’ve done my novel (Lady Chatterly’s Lover) – I like it – but it’s so improper, according to the poor conventional fools, that it’ll never be printed.  And I will not cut it.  Even my pictures, which seem to me absolutely innocent, I feel people can’t even look at them.  They glance, and they look quickly away.  I wish I could paint a picture that would just kill every cowardly and ill-minded person that looked at it.  My word, what a slaughter!”

            D.H. Lawrence comes as close as any writer to setting the pages aflame with his fierce, uncompromising passion for life.  It is fitting that he made the Phoenix the central image of his work.  One can see him with his red beard and deep little eyes, strutting about and flapping his skinny arms as he wrote the following lines:

            “Familiarity wears a picture out.  Since Whistler’s portrait of his mother was used as an advertisement, it has lost most of its appeal, and become for most people a worn-out picture, a dead rag.  And once a picture has really become popular, and then died into staleness, it never revives again.  It is dead forever.  The only thing is to burn it . . .

            “On the other hand, if I had a Renoir nude, or a good Fricsz flower study, or even a Brabazon (sic) watercolor, I should want to keep it at least a year or two, and hang it up in a chosen place to live with it and get all the fragrance out of it.  And if I had the Titan “Adam and Eve,” from the Prado, I should want to have it hanging in my room all my life, to look at:  because I know it would give me a subtle rejoicing all my life, and would make my life delightful.  And if I had some Picassos I should want to keep them about six months, and some Braques I should like to have for about a year:  then, probably, I should be through with them . . .

            “Pictures are like flowers that fade away sooner or later, and die, and must be thrown in the dustbin and burnt.  It is true of all pictures.  Even the beloved Giorgione will one day die to human interest – but he is still very lovely, after almost five centuries, still a fresh flower.  But when at last he is dead, as so many pictures are that hang on honoured walls, let us hope he will be burnt.  Let us hope he won’t still be regarded as a piece of valuable property, worth huge sums, like lots of dead-as-doornails canvases today.”

            “But we all have to stare at the dead rags our fathers and mothers hung on our walls, just because they are property.  But let us change it.  Let us refuse to have our vision filled with dust and nullity of dead pictures in the home.  Let there be a ground conflagration of dead “art,” immolation of canvas and paper, oil-colours, water-coulours, photographs and all, a grand clearance.”  (From his essay, Pictures on the Wall.)

            If Lawrence’s “Modest Proposal” were to be adopted today, we would be obliged to deal forthwith with his own paintings.  Indeed, were they mine, I would burn them with all due respect, but I would burn them nonetheless.  I could call together my most passionate friends, build a sturdy cedar pyre out on the mesa, and just at sunset, as harp and trumpets played Noel Farrand’s Alleluia, torch them.        
Saki Karavas in his La Fonda Hotel office, 1980

            But the paintings, or at least ten of them, are the property of Saki Karavas.  They hang on the walls of the La Fonda Hotel office in Taos, amidst framed letters from, and publicity stills of, politicians, movie stars, Taos cronies, and Albert Einstein.  For $1, you can see for yourself.

            A couple of weeks ago, we had a short chat with Saki about Lawrence, the paintings . . . and Saki himself.

How did you get the paintings?
I bought them from Angelino [Ravagli], after Frieda died.

How many do you have?
Ten.  Originally I bought nine, and then I swapped for another one.

What do you think they’re worth?
 (Snickering quietly)  I don’t want to go into that.

Are they for sale?

I’ve heard talk that if they’re not sold, you’re going to donate them to the Greek Government.  Why would you do that?
Because England has the Elgin Marbles.  They’re very famous sculptures that Lord Elgin took out of Greece in the nineteenth century.  They fill an entire room of the British Museum.  I went to see them.  They’re marble friezes.  Greece should have a piece of England.

I’ve also heard that Scotland Yard still has a ban on these paintings.
Here, you read this letter.  It’s from Lawrence’s agent.  (Aside, calling to his receptionist, Judy!  Call the woman at the cleaners.  Ask her when she’s going to bring those shirts back.  Tell her I’m tired of waiting for snaps.)

 (Reading from letter framed and hanging on office wall) “D. H. Lawrence gave an undertaking to the authorities here that the paintings would never come back to this country.  It was, if my memory serves, on these conditions that Scotland Yard and Home Office returned the paintings to D. H. Lawrence after they had seized and closed down the exhibition.”  Dated 1958, from Gerald Pollinger, his agent.

I bought these paintings away from Shultis, I’m trying to think of his first name, he got killed in a car wreck.  A very wealthy Swiss.  He had bought the Lady Chatterly’s Lover from Frieda.  And then he bought a painting, and then he went back to Europe and commenced negotiating with Angelino for the rest of the paintings.  So then . . . 

So what do you think of the paintings?  Do you like them?
I’m not crazy about them.  So they started negotiating – I was going to tell you – and I happened to meet Angelino in the street, either the day he heard from Shultis or the day after, one of those two days, and they couldn’t get together on price.  Angelino was ready to leave, to go back to Italy for good, so I said to Angy, “Sell them to me.” And he said, “Do you think you could raise the money?”  And I said, “Well, that’s what they have banks for, you know.”  So I had to act very quickly.  So I borrowed the money, but don’t ask me how much I paid for them.  I can’t tell you how much I want.  It makes it a rather unusual deal, doesn’t it, huh?  But the main reason, that always remained at the back of my mind, was that Frieda had said to the late Aga Khan, the grandfather to the present Khan – they used to weigh him in diamonds -- he wanted to buy these paintings, and also one of the Rothchild’s, but which one I can’t tell you.  Did you see Priest of Love?

In the film they show the paintings on exhibition, and they show Scotland Yard coming in to remove the paintings, and then Gulbenkian, you know who he was?  His father was Mr. Five Percent.  He made five percent of all the oil coming out of the Middle East.  His son lived in London, and always wore a flower in his buttonhole, and that flower was brought in fresh from I don’t know where in the hell, India or someplace.  So, in the back of my mind I knew that if these two men were interested in the collection, it had to be worth something.   And If I sell it to them, I can become a playboy.  Get my little monoplane, drive around the world, drop out little Hershey Bars.  You can’t be a broke playboy.

You seem to do all right.
I live a quiet life.  (Laughter)

Were you ever a fan of Lawrence’s books?
No.  I have a lot of his first editions, two with his signature.  The best thing I ever saw him write was Sex Versus Loveliness.

The essay?
Right.  The best thing he wrote.

What did it say?
What makes people tick.  There has to be a flame there.  If the flame isn’t there, it doesn’t mean anything.  I have it if you want to read it.  And I like Lady Chatterly’s Lover, too.  I never read much of Lawrence.  But maybe someday the paintings will sell, and I’ll go to Paris and live it up for several weeks.  It’ll be very unusual.  Then maybe to Bangkok, City of Sin.  Maybe it will change my life after I sell these paintings.

How many people, in the course of a year, say, come in here and see these?
It’s hard to tell.  I’ve never kept count.  People come from curiosity.  They come from all over.  The movie missed out on the story.  It just didn’t congeal.  But it’ll be interesting to see what happens to these paintings.  There’s just my mother and I, they’ve got to go somewhere.  Everything’s got to go, right?  Including ourselves.  Right?  What do you think of them?  If Lawrence hadn’t painted them no one would look at them.  Let’s be honest.  But so much has been said about these paintings that it can become counterproductive after a while.  Do you think that?

I don’t know what you mean.
Did I show you the article from Sweden?  The article in The Observer?  (He pulls out copies of these and other articles).  Some people have the cookies, some have the jar.  That’s how I look at life.  Some have both, some have neither.

 And these paintings are the jar?
No, they’re the cookies.  Somebody once said to me, “If you didn’t have these paintings and these rugs, no woman would ever look at you.”  I said, “You’re right.  Every spider’s got his web, buddy.”  (Pause)  Do you think the paintings will ever be sold?

If you want them to sell badly enough, they’ll sell.
I have to find someone who will pay the right price.

That’s what you have to decide – do you want to go all the way around the world first class, or will you settle for a couple of weeks in Paris?
(Pause)  I’ve got a lot of fantasies.

Stephen Parks, June 1982.

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