Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Gift Of Art: Grosz' Ecce Homo

In 1927, June Mansfield left for Europe without her husband, Henry Miller. She returned a couple of months later with a trunk full of souvenirs, including two books that featured the artwork of George Grosz. One of these, Ecce Homo, would help inspire Miller’s interest in becoming a visual artist.
June returned to New York from Europe in July 1927 [1]. “She was bursting to tell me things,” wrote Miller of June’s return: “Val,” she said, “[Paris is] what you’ve dreamed of all your life. You belong there…” [2]. Back at the Henry Street basement apartment, June presented Henry with a number of souvenirs, including Parisian menus, “a poster peeled from a pissoir on the Rue Blondel,” [3], “paintings, carvings, art albums,” [4] and books. She had met a number of artists in Paris, and had them autograph their work, when possible [5]. One of her signed souvenir books was a published play by the French-born German expressionist and surrealist, Iwan Goll.

Iwan Goll (1891-1950, known alternately as Yvan Goll) met June Mansfield (at right) in Paris in June 1927. He was 36 years old, and was busy writing scenarios for German composer Kurt Weil. Written and produced in 1922, his surreal, absurdist play, Methusalem, or The Eternal Bourgeois, featured “human beings … [who achieve] no more than sexual encounters, eating, and the evacuation of wastes” [6]. While June was in Paris in 1927, the play was being revived on stage by Jindrich Honzl [7], and co-starred Antonin Artaud [8]. It was likely at a staging of this production that June acquired her bound copy of the play and had it signed by the author, Goll.
Above: A photo still from the 1927 production of Goll's Methusalem, as directed by Honzl. Source: New York Public Library's Digital Gallery.

Amazingly, the actual signed copy of this book--which June brought back from Paris and, no doubt, placed in Henry’s hands for his review in their Henry Street basement apartment—is currently available for sale, for $1,500, from Between The Covers. Goll’s German inscription to June may be seen below (image from the BTC website).
Katja, in the Comments section beneath this post, has kindly applied her German-to-English language skills (and keen eyesight) to Goll's inscription to June. She offers the following translation, which certainly enhances the intrigue and mystery about June:
"For June Mansfield, The wild gypsy, The romantic also very demonic (--refers to June--). Iwan Goll, Paris, June 27."
June’s copy (above) of Methusalem was a 1922 first German edition (Methusalem oder der ewige Burger). When this play was first produced, the costumes had been designed by artist George Grosz. Three pages of Grosz’s designs were published in this edition of Methusalem (one, seen at left, from this website; a second, larger example is at the site for the ABC Gallery).

While the few Grosz pages in Methusalem offered a taste of the artist’s work, a full buffet of his subversive style was on display in an art album called Ecce Homo, which June also brought back for Henry. George Grosz (1893-1959) was part of the German Dada movement, and came to be known for his satirical, often grotesque caricatures, such as those portrayed in Ecce Homo (1921/1922).

“[June] returned with a copy of that sensational album of George Grosz’ Ecce Homo,” wrote Miller in To Paint is to Love Again (1968). “What a revelation it was! Such unmitigated savagery, such sublime desperation, such remorseless excoriation! An enlightened madman, I thought. A Goya come to life. A more ferocious Goya than ever Goya was. And what magistral, devastating use of the water color medium” (p.5). “For his violent colors he blended arsenic, vitriol, cyanide of potassium with an admixture of vomit, shit, sweat and tears” [9].

About a month or two after receiving the Grosz portfolio from June, Henry returned to his apartment after a night “jaunt” with his friend, Joe O’Reagan. Miller was still buzzing with inspiration from the Turner paintings he’d just seen in a department store window. “I say it was Turner’s watercolors which started it,” Miller writes in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, “But George Grosz had much to do with it” (p.88). That night, eager to try his hand at drawing, Henry’s eye happened to be drawn to the cover of the Ecce Homo book. “The first thing I attempted was to copy the portrait on the cover - Mr. Homo himself - which I had assumed was a caricatural self-portrait of Grosz” [10]. “The resemblance I succeeded in achieving excited me so much that then and there I lost all my fears and inhibitions about drawing” (Big Sur, p.89). “From that day I took pleasure in using pencil and brush” [11]. “Since I had never evinced the least ability to draw, this first successful effort gave me confidence to continue a pursuit which has given me as much, if not more, pleasure than writing” [10].
Above: Plate IV from Grosz' Ecce Homo

In the Henry Miller Papers of the Archives of California, there’s a reference to an essay Miller wrote in 1934, called “George Grosz—an appreciation.” I have not found any other reference to this essay, anywhere--which means it may not have been published.

In 1966, Grove Press re-published Grosz’ Ecce Homo; this time, including an introduction by Henry Miller. That same year, the introductory essay was published on issue #40 of the Evergreen Review, as “Man In The Zoo: George Grosz’ Ecce Homo” [12]. This entire article is available online on the Evergreen Review website.
Above: An etching from Grosz' Ecce Homo
Although I am not sure where Henry’s copy of this influential Grosz art portfolio went to, there may be a hint in one of his letters to Emil Schnellock from April 1933, in which he notifies his friend that he has mailed him “a Grosz Album” (Letters To Emil, p.118). But the exact title is not mentioned (according to this gallery bio of Grosz, he had published at least three other art albums in the 1920s).

After receiving his complimentary publisher copies of Ecce Homo (1966), Miller made sure to send a copy to the person who had turned him onto to the artist in the first place. On January 18, 1967, Miller sent a copy to his ex-wife, June Mansfield (now June Corbett). On it, he inscribed: “To June – To replace the original you brought back from Paris in 1927! Remember that? Henry, 1/18/67.” The actual signed book—with its direct link between Henry, June and his success as a watercolourist—is for sale by Between The Covers, for $1,250 (US). [shown below]
“Looking at the drawings in Ecce Homo today I am filled with the same excitement and unbounded admiration for the artist as I was in 1927 when I first saw his work. All through the years these expressions of despair, hate and disillusionment, as Grosz himself called them, have remained with me as if burned into my brain” [10].
P.S. In the hardcover edition of the Miller autobiogrphy, My Life And Times (Playboy Press, 1971), is a reproduction (p.176) of two pages from (what I assume to be) Miller's Paris notebooks--including a sketch that he describes as "a feeble attempt to imitate Georg Grosz, the German artist, after looking at his famous album of water colors called 'Ecce Homo'..."

[1] Martin, Jay. Always Merry And Bright; p. 140-141; [2] Miller, Henry. Nexus: p.179; [3] Martin, Jay. Always Merry And Bright: p. 141 – Martin lists various items that June had collected into a “black pasteboard trunk.” His source for the list of items is referred to in footnotes as Tropic Of Cancer manuscript, III, 6-7; [4] Miller, Henry. Nexus, p. 179; [5] See note 4. Martin refers to “autographed manuscripts of poems.”; [6] Jacqueline Rollfinke. 1986. The call of human nature: the role of scatology in modern German literature, p.165; [7] Witkovsky, Matthew. 2004. "Surrealism in the Plural: Guillaume Apollinaire, Ivan Goll and Devìtsil in the 1920s." Online at Surrealism Centre ; [8] Brandt, George W. 1998. Modern theories of drama, p.171; [9] Miller is quoted in Dissent magazine, Winter 1972 – they appear to be quoting the Evergreen Review, but I’m not sure which article; [10] Miller, Henry. “The Man at the Zoo,” published in Evergreen Review [No. 40, 1966], and available online; [11] Miller, Henry. “An Open Letter to All and Sundry,” in Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, p. 44; [12] According to Shifreen & Jackson’s Bibliography of Primary Sources, this Evergreen essay is the same as the one that appeared in Ecce Homo (Item A179 + B177).


Blogger Eric D. Lehman said...

I like Miller's watercolors better than Grosz, actually! But it seems to me that Grosz's caricatures might be good as 'illustrations' for some of Miller's work - the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy in particular.

12:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow- an autographed book from Henry to June for only $1250? That sounds like a steal!

5:52 pm  
Blogger DANIELBLOOM said...

any pics or photos online of Caryl Hill Thomas when she first was waitress at Big Sur and met Miller there? Google images has? Where: / send to danbloom AT gmail DOT com ...thanks...GREAT BLOG and research sir!

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11:14 pm  
Anonymous Katja said...

I'm German, still find it hard to read Goll’s German inscription for June. (Might be to do with the bad picture quality). Here's what I could decipher:

For June Mansfield

The wild gypsy,
The romantic also
very demonic (--refers to June--)

Iwan Goll
Paris, June 27
Did she tell him she's a gypsy? Wouldn't surprise me!

I love this blog btw!!!


5:21 am  
Blogger RC said...

Hi Katja,

Thanks very much for the translation! I'm surprised you were able to figure this out, despite the tiny, handwritten text. I've included your translation in the body of the article.

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