Modern Inspiration

Some years ago, a journalist friend, posted to Paris by his magazine, became in quick succession the father of two children. As soon as their eyes were able to focus properly, he would take them round the Louvre, tenderly pointing their infant retinas at some of the world’s greatest paintings. I don’t know if he also played classical music to them while they were in their mother’s womb, as some prospective parents do; but I have occasionally found myself wondering how those children will turn out: as potential directors of MoMA – or, perhaps, as adults with no visual sense at all, and a horror of art galleries.

My own parents never tried feeding me culture at an early (or any other) age; neither did they seek to dissuade me from it. They were both schoolteachers, and so the arts – or perhaps, more precisely, the idea of the arts – were respected in the house. There were proper books on the shelves; and there was even a piano in the sitting room – though at no point in my childhood was it actually played. My mother had been given it by her doting father when she was a young, capable and hopeful pianist. Her playing, however, came to a halt in her early 20s when she found herself faced with a difficult piece of Scriabin. She realised, as she repeatedly failed to master it, that she had reached a certain level, which she could never go beyond. She stopped playing, abruptly and finally. Even so, the piano could not be got rid of; it moved house with her, following her loyally into marriage, and maternity, and old age and widowhood. On its regularly dusted top was a pile of sheet music, including that Scriabin piece she had abandoned decades previously.

As for art, there were three oil paintings in the house. Two were of country scenes in Finistère, painted by one of my father’s French assistants. They were, in a way, as misleading as the piano, since “Uncle Paul”, as he was known, hadn’t exactly painted them en plein air; rather, he had copied – and aggrandised – them from picture postcards. I still have the originals he worked from (one smeared with real paint) on my desk. The third picture, which hung in our hall, was somewhat more authentic. An oil of a female nude, in a gilt frame, it was probably an obscure 19th-century copy of an equally obscure original. My parents had bought it at an auction sale in the outer London suburb where we lived. I remember it mainly because I found it completely unerotic. This seemed very strange, because most other depictions of unclad women had an invigorating effect on me. Perhaps this was what art did: by being solemn, it took the excitement out of life.

There was further evidence that this might be art’s purpose and effect: the boring amateur dramatics my parents would take my brother and me to once a year; and the dreary discussion programmes about the arts they used to listen to on the wireless. By the age of 12 or 13, I was a healthy little philistine of the kind the British are so good at producing, keen on sports and comics. I couldn’t carry a tune, didn’t learn a musical instrument, never studied art at school, and never acted after my cameo (non-speaking) appearance as Third Wise Man at the age of about seven. Though I was introduced to literature as part of my schoolwork, and was beginning to see how it might have connections to real life, I thought of it mainly as a subject on which I would have to pass examinations.

I was once taken by my parents to the Wallace Collection in London: more gilt frames, and more unerotic nudes. We stood for a while in front of one of the museum’s most famous pictures: The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals. I couldn’t for the life of me see what the man with the silly moustache was smirking at, or why it might be an interesting picture. I was probably taken to the National Gallery as well, but have no memory of the event. It wasn’t until the summer of 1964, when I was staying in Paris for a few weeks between school and university, that I started looking at pictures of my own volition. And though I must have gone to the Louvre, it was a large, dark, unfashionable museum that made the most impression on me – perhaps because there was no one else there, so I felt no emulative pressure to respond in a particular way. The Musée Gustave Moreau, near the Gare Saint-Lazare, had been left to the French state on the painter’s death in 1898, and – from its gloom and grubbiness – seemed to have been rather grudgingly kept up thereafter. Upstairs was Moreau’s huge, high barn of a studio, underheated by a chunky black stove which had probably been going since the artist’s time. Badly lit paintings were hung from floor to ceiling, while large wooden chests contained thin drawers you could pull out to examine hundreds of preliminary drawings. I had never knowingly seen a picture by Moreau before, and knew nothing about him (let alone that he was the only contemporary painter wholeheartedly admired by Flaubert). I was uncertain what to make of such work: exotic, bejewelled and darkly glittering, with an odd mixture of private and public symbolism, little of which I could unscramble. Perhaps it was this mysteriousness that attracted me; and perhaps I admired Moreau the more because nobody told me to do so. But it was certainly here that I remember myself for the first time consciously looking at pictures, rather than being passively and obediently in their presence.

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  1. The author’s story = his childhood and art. Art = can be appreciated on your own volition.


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