Le maitre

Serge Ivanoff_SAN_SEBASTIAN-1931

Serge Ivanoff kissed me on the cheek.

This, I believe, is a blessing from men of that generation.

He was dying.

He had been put in a hospital with pleurisy so L. and I flew to Paris to see him. We stayed for about an hour with him in the hospital, and when he appeared to be tiring, we said our farewells. I leaned over to hug him goodbye and he kissed me, then looked in my eyes and said “You will amaze them all, my boy, work, it will come.”

Before returning to the airport, we were able, with the help of Serge’s most excellent friend Biff, to gain entry to his studio, where I photographed the interior before bidding adieu to his spirit which still inhabited the place in his absence.

I have mentioned elsewhere that my childhood was scarce on male influence. This scarcity made me particularly attuned to the incredible experience of having male mentors. All my life, I have had visitations by both male and female angels, who, in their wisdom, disguised themselves as exceptional people. These contacts were destined to be brief. They came and went in some eternal rhythm that I was not privy to. Their coming, at particular times, were interventions when I was losing my way. Those who are still alive may not even remember me (oblivion being one of an angel’s given abilities) but I will never forget them.

Harry Anderson spent fifteen minutes with me on his front porch when I went looking in vain for his son, while passing through Palo Alto. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but he asked me questions about my life, and seemed genuinely interested in the answers. This was the first time that an adult showed any kind of interest in me, beyond “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry for”, or “Go ask your Mother”. Loryn’s father had the same generous spirit that he bequeathed to his son.

Meeting Serge was like meeting myself fifty years on. I was thirty, he was eighty-four. He lived alone in a small apartment above his atelier in Montmartre. Married many times, and every inch an artist.

He was so gracious and encouraging in his generous way that I was enthralled. We would sit of an evening and have coffee and moldy pastries, while he put portfolios of his drawings under my nose, so that I could study them. His English had lapsed in the thirty years he had lived in France, and my French, was rather pathetic. So often our most accurate means of communication was waving our hands in meaningful appreciation of some aspect of drawing. He was totally free with his information, until he noticed that my drawings were improving so rapidly that it took him by surprise and he became, I think, a little protective. I wanted to watch him paint, and he put it off and put it off. I’d ask him how to do a certain effect and he would say, “Oh, I don’t know, I’ve forgotten.”

Some of his excuses were completely legitimate…like winter. His studio was unheated and had floor to ceiling windows. It was fucking cold in there. By this time Serge was eighty six and getting tired. I felt I had missed my chance and didn’t want to force him into it.

A change came one day when I had missed our regular meeting. Serge called me and asked why I hadn’t come over. I told him that L. and I were getting ready to go back to America, and this apparently saddened him. I was out of money and told him that I didn’t think I would ever meet the standard I sought in realist painting so I was going to go back to San Francisco and try my hand at serious abstraction. This seemed to seriously agitate him, and he insisted that I come over with Biff the next week, and we would all paint together, so that I could finally see what he does.

I was thrilled at the prospect of painting with him and Biff, but I was not so happy that my petulance was the catalyst. He had given us so much already and I was frankly doubtful that one day would be enough. One of my great strengths is that if I see something being done, I have an excellent ability to absorb the information. At one point, Serge called me a “good little monkey”, and I hope he was referring to that ability. But “monkey see, monkey do”, might need more time.

In our session, which occurred in the afternoon, in the month of April,  Paris was beginning to warm slightly. But the studio was still freezing cold. There were the three of us, dressed in overcoats, hats and gloves, trying to paint.

Biff and I were trying to translate our drawings onto canvas, while Serge was copying one of his own paintings.

I spent more time trying to watch him, than doing my own work, until he looked over and saw my unsatisfactory result. I was a stay in the lines painter. I would do careful drawings on the canvas and fill in the color as if it were a coloring book. Everything had a stiff, dull accuracy. Serge grabbed the brush from me and began painting over my lines, haphazardly, I thought. But then, he painted the adjoining color back toward the line he had obliterated, restating the meeting edge with a shimmering, vibrating line of paint.

In that one moment, I knew. It was crazy.

He gave me the key to painting in ten seconds. The remainder of the afternoon was either a refinement or repeat of that first revelation. Painting was no longer a fancy way to color, it was a tool of expression. He used paint like clay, shaping and molding it to become what he wanted. The strokes themselves carried movement and overpainting became a means of refinement, not repair. Edges became complimentary, not divisive, and the entire canvas developed a “skin” of paint that seemed to carry emotion in the brush marks themselves.

This changed everything for me.


~ by theoxherd on March 18, 2012.

One Response to “Le maitre”

  1. Walter, what was the year of “the painting lesson”. I have photos of the final painting as well as the german book from which Serge learned the lesson of painting in glazing technique “Le Sommeil” (dated 1942 or 43), the name of the painting he was to copy that day for our education. He used a matted drawing (of the same date), for the nude. I purchased the drawing in 1983.
    The “copy”, rather more a variation, that he did over the course of 4 or so sittings was placed at auction through MacDougals about 5 years ago. The auction house dated the work as 1921 (!). An expert might have questioned this had he or she bothered to look at the type of canvas on which it was painted.

    When you come out I will show you some of the work that has been placed at auction and of dubious authenticity. “Scoundrels” comme disait Serge

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