Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Boyhood of Cyrus

"A Dance to the Music of Time," Nicholas Poussin
For well over 30 years, I have been a fan of the English novelist Anthony Powell.  A prolific writer, he is best known for the twelve novels he wrote between 1951 and 1975, known collectively as A Dance to the Music of Time.  I have read through them at least three times, or perhaps four, and hope to do so at least one more time.  My son is slowly working his way through the Dance while in Tbilisi.  He is about halfway through.  I have a complete collection of first editions, as well as a Folio set, but the copies I read from are four thickish volumes, each containing three of the novels.  They were my introduction to Powell back in the early 1980s.  I am a founding member of the Anthony Powell Society, as well.  So you could well say that I am a serious Powellian.

The series takes its name from the painting by Nicholas Poussin, and indeed art plays a prominent role in the weaving of Powell's narrative.  The opening passage describes a street scene evoking images of Poussin's Dance, and the ultimate passage in the twelfth volume is a conversation within a London art gallery.  In between, there are countless encounters with, and allusions to art and artists, both real and fictional.  Charles Stringham's Modigliani appears regularly in the narrative, but my favorite has to be The Boyhood of Cyrus by Edgar Bosworth Deacon.  The work appears early in the narrative, and the irascible Deacon is a recurring character in some of the earlier novels.  He is somewhat at war with the modernists and paints in a classical and realistic style, falling somewhere between Alma-Tadema and Burne-Jones.  By the 1920s, this sort of thing was long out of favor, having lost out to modernism.  But by the end of the series--in the early 1970s--Deacon's work had undergone a reappraisal, was being snatched-up by collectors, and the subject of "retrospective" exhibits.  As The Boyhood of Cyrus was the fictional work of a fictional artist, I could only picture it in my mind's eye.

I suppose I have always enjoyed art, if in a casual way.  From my earliest childhood, I remember visits to my great-aunt's house.  Each of my parents, on their own schedules, were in the habit of dropping by for a quick visit there on trips between our house and the farm.  The aunt's house was the simplest of four-room affairs, with no running water.  A quilt frame hang over the bed in my great-aunt's mother's room.  This was where we visited.  My attention was always drawn to an oval picture hanging in the back corner--a sentimentalized pastoral scene depicting two swans gliding across a reed-enclosed glade.  No doubt it was only an inexpensive print, but to me it was a thing of beauty, and I knew that we had noting to compare with it in my home.
"The Beheading of St. John the Baptist," by Puvis de Chavannes

I have been very fortunate in life to have visited a number of great art museums.  Only in recent years, however, have I been able to intelligently categorize the type of painting I appreciate.  My wife and I were at the Met in New York City back in 2015.  A snowstorm had blown in, which delayed our arrival and necessitated leaving in a timely manner.  And so, I spent my limited time upstairs with the Great Masters.  Then earlier this year, when in New Haven, I took the train into the City and returned to the Met.  I went directly to the wing housing the work of the European artists of the 18th and 19th century.  This might not be to everyone's taste, but I realized that I had found my artistic home.  I was introduced to new artists--Gustave Moreau, Edward Burne-Jones, and most of all, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.  The Met owns four of this latter artist's work--The Shepherd's Song, Allegory, Cider, and Sleep.  I stood, almost in amazement, at these paintings.  Once I returned home, I began to familiarize myself with Puvis de Chavannes' body of work.  Then in May of this year, when in England, I made a special trip to Birmingham to the Barber Institute.  Without this museum, I can assure you that there would have been no reason for a detour to this city.  I did so because the Barber Institute contains, among other excellent paintings, Puvis de Chavannes' The Beheading of John the Baptist.

To return to Anthony Powell, when pursuing the odd Powelliana online, I recently came across this site.  The writer muses on the fictitious The Boyhood of Cyrus, and which real life painter and painting could have served as Powell's inspiration for Deacon and his work.  Perhaps it should not have surprised me, but he suggested Pierre de Chavannes and his Ludes Pro Patria.  In some way, I found this satisfying, the way things had come full circle.
"Ludes Pro Patria," by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes