A story about an artist

Today, I found a tiny pygmy shrew lying in a large empty clay flowerpot. Last summer the pot was graced with a host of cheerful scarlet and crimson trailing geraniums. The flower pot was still filled with a small amount of earth and the recent dry sunny weather in early April had succeed in drying it; and, it was upon this earth that the pygmy shrew lay. The shrew was dead. It looked almost sweet – poignantly and tragically sweet – as it lay, quite still – shrouded in a velvet covering of fur. I had not expected to find the shrew; the sight saddened me; I was reminded, once again, that something so perfect could meet, too soon, its death. The little shrew and the memories of those once beautiful geraniums reminded me that nothing lasts forever – and reminded me, too, of a work of art – an art book – that I had, not so long ago, made.

As part of an inquiry into what I had come to call a ‘psycho-philosophical’ art I had developed the particular art book that took, as its starting point, an essay by Michel de Montaigne. The famous essay encouraged his readers to take the view that ‘all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion which is teach us not to be afraid of dying.’ I supplemented Montaigne’s writings with readings from various sources – each of which had something interesting or profound to ‘say’ about death. And one of the entries I made in the art book was an extract from a short essay by Hermann Hesse entitled ‘Klingsor’. I did not, in truth, identify with Klingsor – who was an impassioned artist – nor did I feel his sublime levels of commitment – but I could feel certain affinities with him. Hesse’s text tells us of the last summer that Klingsor lived before his death. It is ‘Klingsor’s last summer’. Klingsor was a painter – a painter enthralled by beauty, a painter of vivid colour, passionately, fervently, endlessly seeking to express his love of everything the world could reveal. No day could ever be reclaimed; life was precious – every moment was precious, irrevocable, a gift and a glory and, in its passing, a tragedy …

One evening in that last year of his life he left his studio; and, from a balcony he looked, through his artist’s eyes, into the cool darkness of the night: It is then that the narrator tells us:

‘In a year perhaps or sooner, these eyes would be blind and the fires in his heart extinct. No: no human being could endure his flaming life for long. Not even he could, not even Klingsor … Nobody could go on for such a long time having all his candles burning day and night, working feverishly for many hours everyday, spending many hours every night in feverish thoughts … forever creating, forever with all his senses and nerves wide awake and alert, like a palace behind whose every window music rings out day after day, while night after night a thousand candles twinkle. It would come to an end …’

The narrator continues by tracing out some of the details of Klingsor’s last year: we learn about his intense experiences, his unceasing hunger for life, his relations with a handful of friends, his swings of mood, his moral freedom and his veniality. But we have been alerted to the fact that his days are numbered.

Then, in September of that year Klingsor painted his last self-portrait, and, of this painting, the narrator tell us that:

‘This frightening, yet so magically beautiful painting, the last of his works to be entirely finished, came at the end of that summer’s labours, at the end of an incredibly fervid tempestuous period of work, and was its crowning glory.’ And how did he paint this work?

‘He painted seated and from memory; only now and then, and almost always during pauses in his work, would he go to the large, old-fashioned mirror on the north wall, its frame painted with climbing roses. Standing before the mirror he would stretch his head forward, open his eyes wide … he saw many many faces behind the Klingsor face in the big mirror … and he painted many faces into his picture; sweet and wondering children’s faces, young manhood’s brow and temples full of dreams and ardour, scoffing drinker’s eyes, lips a’thirsting, persecuted, suffering, the seeking libertine of an enfant perdu. But he built up the head majestically brutally, made it into a jungle idol, a jealous infatuated Jehovah, a totem to whom new born babes and virgins might be sacrificed. Those were a few of his faces. Another was the face of a doomed and denying man who accepted his fate: moss grew on his skull, the old teeth stood askew, cracks ran through the white skin, and scales and mould grew in the cracks. These are the features his friends particularly love in the painting: They say: this is the man, ecce homo, here is the weary, greedy, wild, childlike, and sophisticated man of our late dying European age who wants to die, overstrung by every longing, sick from every vice, enraptured by the knowledge of his doom, ready for any kind of progress, ripe for any kind retrogression … at once Faust and Karamazov, beast and sage, wholly exposed, wholly without ambition, wholly naked, filled with childish dread of death and filled with weary readiness to die.’

And finally the same narrator continues:

‘And it was not only his face, or his thousand faces that he painted into this picture, not only his eyes and lips, the pained ravine of his mouth, the cleft cliffs of his forehead, his rootlike hands, his twitching fingers, the mockery of reason, the death in his eyes. In his idiosyncratic, overcrowded, concise, and jagged brush script he painted his life along with it, his love, his faith, his despair. … and he painted a youth with a suicide’s face, also temples and woods, an old bearded god, mighty and stupid, a woman’s breasts split open by a dagger, butterflies with faces on their wings, and at the back of the picture, on the brink of chaos, Death, a grey ghost driving the spear of a small needle into the brain of Klingsor.’

We do not know how he dies. But I do know that, in his intensely vivid depiction of Klingsor, Hesse was describing what was once seen as the image of the ‘true’ artist. And the particular sensibility to which he was referring characterised much of early twentieth century art – expressive, as it was, of angst, dread, alienation, suffering and insanity. Things are different now.

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