George Lambert 'The smile of Pan' 1915 oil on wood panel Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, purchased through the South Australian Government Grant in 1930 click to enlarge
“Families – I hate you.”
Actually. it’s a character based on Oscar Wilde who utters it (in a book called Fruits of the Earth).
Fruits of the Earth was one of those reveries which half of adolescent France read a couple of generations ago –and quite a few in England and Australia as well (perhaps some of you) … it changed lives.
And the line everyone remembers is: ‘Families – I hate you.’
An Anglican vicar’s wife I know in France –quite a conventional woman in some ways, almost Midsummer Murders, but French – sighed when I told her recently that I was working on André Gide and then whispered to me over the cucumber sandwiches that Fruits of the Earth had been her bible when she was girl. ‘Families – I hate you,’ she murmured, staring wistfully out into the summery garden past her husband.
I mention this because the line reverberated through my mind while I was looking at the George Lambert exhibition, thinking about the life he led. And that, as Peter Cundall would say – in fact, is just about to say on ‘Gardening Australia’ – is what tonight’s program is all about: reverberations.
I’m hardly equipped to say anything that hasn’t already been said about George Lambert and his paintings. Still, when I turned my mind to the life and art of the subject of the present retrospective, I did find myself vibrating, as it were, with all sorts of thoughts and memories about family – after all, I’ve spent the last five or six years of my life immersed in the lives of two men with similarly anxious ties to family (the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev and the French Nobel Prize winner André Gide). I can’t say anything original about Lambert’s technique or whether it’s Gainsborough, say, or Velàzquez that he’s been looking at before painting this or that canvas, but I would like to share my reverberations on families, love, travel, home, old age and one or two other things with you.
When I first saw ‘The Smile of Pan’ a few weeks ago I was immediately transported back to the National Archeological Museum in Naples, which I visited not long ago.
Now, if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know that it’s famous for its Gabinetto Segreto or Secret Chamber, which is open at appointed times only and only to those with a special ticket. Everyone lines up to get this special ticket because the display of erotica from the ancient sites around Naples on display inside is art (more or less), so not embarrassing. Your interest can be passed off as ethnographic. The place is jam-packed. Now, amongst the most confronting figures you’ll see there are the representations of the god Pan. Here he’s fondling a shepherd boy playing a mouth-organ, there he’s having his way with a goat … well, his chief duty was, after all, to make the flocks fertile and he was half-goat himself.
George Lambert 'Pan is dead (Still life)' 1911 oil on canvas Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, purchased in 1952 click to enlarge
Pan was the incarnation of sex, not love; he stood for fecundity, not family ties; he was a solitary wanderer, living in caves in the countryside, not ‘at home’, not in cities; he was robust, lusty, forceful, pagan … and many men in suits and ties today, stuck at traffic lights in their Holden Commodores, would like to imagine that, despite appearances, the Pan in them is not quite dead. ‘Pan is Dead’ is, of course, the title of another, earlier work in this exhibition, showing the same model of Pan – a model of Lambert’s own face, as a matter of fact, which he used to make a mask for a pageant in London before the war (in which he played the part of Pan) - given the right framework George Lambert could be highly theatrical. And in this painting he hints at what kills Pan in man: the white gloves.
The later painting (‘The Smile of Pan’) also features white gloves, but it’s much more explicit and more disturbing, I think. What is particularly disturbing here, it seems to me, is that this white-gloved woman, with the wan, anxious smile, not beautiful (as some of his sitters were), verging on the homely in a soignée sort of way, hasn’t the faintest idea of the drama being played out in that Edwardian room she’s been posed in – of how ludicrous her position is, of how vulnerable everything she stands for is, how powerless well-mannered domesticity is once Pan goes on the rampage.
In fact, do you know what first came to mind when I looked at this painting? A headline in The Age from 1940:
WELL-DRESSED WIFE DENIES FAMILY BLOOD-BATH.
‘Well-dressed’ tells you everything you need to know.
Indeed, just two years after painting ‘The Smile of Pan’, Lambert responded (in my terms) to the call of Pan, going off to the Middle East to paint his war pictures, and then soon afterwards returning to Australia without his wife Amy, sliding away from her, mouthing regrets, but in fact abandoning her in England to look after the children he’d fathered but had no intention of actually looking after, to live out his Pan fantasies, more or less alone, for the rest of his life.
This painting strikes me as emblematic of a fundamental tension at the heart of civilised life …in Pompeii, I’m sure; in Turgenev’s life, certainly; in André Gide’s, too, in quite a different way; in George Lambert’s; in the life of my friend the vicar’s wife in the south of France; in my own.
It’s the tension between the domestic and what I might call ‘the wild’. It will be construed differently, needless to say, in Pompeii and a French vicarage, this tension, on Turgenev’s estate and in my house in Hobart, but it all boils down to much the same thing.
We’re wrong, I think, to imagine that the problem revolves around sex. Today – do we blame Freud? do we blame Christianity? - sex seems to be the measure of almost everything: the most heinous crimes we can imagine (or at least that the Hobart Mercury can imagine) are sexual crimes, not murder or the destruction of the planet; the supreme virtue is monogamy or chastity – which, I suspect, often means the same thing. The refreshing thing about George Lambert – and, for that matter, Turgenev and Gide – is that the tremendous tension in their lives between the domestic and ‘the wild’ was not played out (or, in Gide’s case, not only played out) in the sexual arena. It wasn’t about sex. It’s Pan’s sexual antics that titillate the crowds in the Secret Chamber, but Pan, if only they knew it, is a threatening figure for much more powerful reasons: in a word: he is anti-home. He is the wild.
Civilised man – and I say ‘man’ because it’s men I’ve been writing about and until recently nobody was much interested in women’s dreams of escape – (certainly it’s hard to picture the lady in this picture indulging in anything wilder than the odd orgy at Fortnum and Mason’s) – and when women like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina did act out their dreams, they paid a shocking price – civilised man is, and has always been, caught on the horns of a dilemma:
he must reproduce within the confines of the home, feeding and clothing his wife and children in safety, but, if he has an ounce of imagination, he knows that that isn’t enough. It never has been, it isn’t and it never will be. Home is not enough.
Paradoxically, at the same time it often feels like too much: a bottomless chasm of responsibilities, which, for some reason, we always fail to carry out to everyone’s satisfaction. Of course, the culture dramatises this tension in terms of adultery – virtually every novel that’s been written over the last 150 years seems to have revolved around adultery – but it’s more serious than that. We don’t know what to do about it. It seems impossible to do anything about it without hurting somebody.
We all have our own way of attempting to deal with the dilemma. Some of us just replace Pan with his debased, indeed parodic, alter ego: the garden gnome – pudgier, of course, than Pan, but with the same curl on the forehead, the same little beard. We garden our way towards oblivion. It’s fun, it’s fecund, it’s masculine and we can kill things in the garden with impunity. From a red-blooded adventurer’s point of view, though, it’s also a failure of nerve. (Garden gnomes actually are descendants of Pan, by the way … they’re the distant relatives of the Pan figures Romans used to mark the boundaries of their gardens with. They’re Pans gone soft, Pans lite. It was the Edwardians who came up with another Pan lite: Peter Pan. Men wanting to remain boys mucking about with other boys was a typically Edwardian fantasy.)
Speaking of Peter Pan, Dr Who , by the way, in his present incarnation, is the very embodiment of Peter Pan – he even flies – although the intergalactic option is not for all of us. Some men might avoid the dilemma altogether by going into a monastery – also an intergalactic option of sorts, I suppose.
Some, like the Royal family – do you remember them from the TV series? – slump with a can of beer in front of the television, bickering. Utter desolation. Some, like the painter Pierre Bonnard, rather than abandoning the domestic, transform it into something beautiful. If you can bring his luminous domestic scenes to mind – Madame Bonnard in her bath, her dog beside her, in the garden doing nothing in particular, sitting at a table staring straight ahead, surrounded by those little attempts at feminine creativity we dismiss as craft or mere cooking – you’ll know what I mean. I love his paintings, I must say, I am seduced by his transformation of the banal into the beautiful, his skill at vivifying the numbed quick at our very core through colour and design - and love, of course …There’s an intense timelessness to his paintings. But for many of us it’s not enough.
On a slow Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening after dinner, intense timelessness sounds attractive, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough because at home time is actually unavoidable – there are clocks everywhere nowadays, even on the microwave – and home is too often about objects and immobility, while we want to move, to become, to be transfigured. Home, as André Gide said, gives rest to a man who isn’t tired. And it’s not enough because we are not singular – we are double, triple, quadruple beings. And so we are torn. We are scores you can interpret in countless ways, from jazz to plainsong, but who has the wit?
Lambert, as you probably know, although an artist since boyhood – as was Pan, by the way: he played pipes – revelled as a young lad when he first arrived in Australia, and in his teenaged years, in the time he spent on a sheep-station herding sheep, shearing, butchering, building fences, horse-breaking, riding, ring-barking …he boxed and swam and jackaroo’d …turning himself, as one of his friends described it, into a ‘job-lot Apollo’ under the Australian sun.
There was nothing cissy about George Washington Lambert. The more artistic side to his persona was accommodated by dressing up. He dressed flamboyantly in town – cravats and cloaks: that sort of thing – wore his hair long, smoked cigarettes, and generally cut a dashing figure. Neither the jackaroo nor the bohemian is at home with domestic arrangements: they’re really just two different versions of the same thing: Pan without flute and Pan with flute.
When he married Amy and moved to Europe, his reality changed. There were outbursts of theatricality, of course, and cascades of paintings, and longer and longer periods spent away from Amy bonding with other men at the Chelsea Arts Club (and elsewhere), but basically the virile young goatherd had been tethered to home and hearth – and to a wife who soon became homely, matronly, more than a little dull.
She became his ‘dear thing’, a term which speaks volumes. After seventeen years of domesticity his other self reasserted itself, and he went off to the Middle East as a war artist, tearing about on camels and living a life of the body, not the mind, outdoors, with emotionally undemanding male companions … and then in Sydney, once he got to Australia, alone, he set up the kind of domestic arrangement that suited him much better than marriage: in his studio in Randwick he created a ‘family’ (as it were) of three male helpers, plus an odd-job boy called Splinter and a char-lady called Olive Broomhead … it was perfect.
A home, or at least a hearth, but without the demands of a real family. Male, with female support staff. And when he was well enough, he could go horse-riding in Centennial Park, and swish around town in his shot-silk cape, going to the opera and dining with stylish friends.
Pan, in a word, with flute.
But someone got hurt: Amy. He destroyed her life.
I don’t mean to imply, by the way, when I emphasise Lambert’s desperate wish to escape home and its feminine connotations, that there was anything ambiguous about his sexual orientation. (Not particularly ambiguous, at any rate.)
It’s funny how tempted we are in the 21st century to cast a light of sexual ambiguity over almost everyone and everything. Well, not Mao Tse Tung or John Howard, I suppose, but pretty much everyone else.
George Lambert 'The half-back (Maurice Lambert)' 1920 oil on canvas Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, purchased through the South Australian Government Grant in 1958 click to enlarge
If we look, for instance, at a few of Lambert’s pictures of the naked male form (the naked female form being almost absent from his work)
Lambert’s English biographer Andrew Motion, writing 20 years ago, for instance, even declared that there was something ‘camp’ (his term) about the iconic ‘Sergeant of the Light Horse’ (I can’t see it myself) but to modern eyes, there is something (how should I put this?) … something at least erotically suggestive about ‘The Half Back’ (modelled, as a matter of fact, on his son Maurice). But I think we’d almost certainly be barking up the wrong tree. I think that what these pictures show is a fascination with the image of the naked warrior, of virility either wounded or about to be …as his was (by domesticity).
The fact is, I suspect, that the Pan principle in Lambert was hardly sexual at all.
His manliness … (and words like ‘manliness’, ‘virility’, ‘masculinity’ and ‘athleticism’ abound in Andrew Motion’s biography) … was expressed overwhelmingly in an outward display of masculine signs … pugilism, horsemanship, camaraderie, vigour, play. But there, to the chagrin, no doubt, of his wife and several rather forward lady admirers, it ended. It happens all the time.
Ivan Turgenev, 55 years older than Lambert, and the child of the Romantic era in Russian culture, was also not much interested in sex – he said so. Four times a year was enough, he’s quoted as saying. He was passionately interested in passion – and in wooing, paying court, and even in the moment of seduction – in love, actually, but little interested, it seems, in the carnal act.
He fell in love at the age of 23 with the French opera diva Pauline Viardot, and stayed passionately attached to her for the rest of his life, living most of his life by her side in France and Germany, and dying more or less in her arms (she was, I think, at lunch when the critical moment arrived). Yet, as far as anyone knows, this love was never consummated. Turgenev never married, and, by remaining so all-encompassingly in love with a married woman, he made sure that he probably never would marry.
The idea of ‘the nest’, as he called it – his word for domesticity – attracted him, naturally, as it does most of us, and he urged his friends to settle down in one, but at the same time he feared ‘the nest’, feared the slow strangling of first love – that much-celebrated whirl of tenderness, lust, amazement, sentiment and so on – by the banality of married life. He simply couldn’t picture himself ending up marooned on a country estate with a ‘dear thing’.
Happiness has no storyline. Domesticity doesn’t happen in his books – it’s cut off by betrayal or escape or suicide before it can – and in his life he merely borrowed someone else’s – Pauline’s – when and where it suited him. The Pan principle in him – the wild side, in my terms – was most vividly embodied in a love of hunting: killing things in the bosom of nature in the company of other men. That was his gentlemanly version of Lambert’s jackarooing.
André Gide, on the other hand – who was more or less Lambert’s contemporary, by the way, although he had a much longer life – was very interested in sex indeed, prompting the Vatican to put all his works on its Index librorum prohibitorum in 1952, thereby securing him a permanent place in French hearts and also the French school curriculum. The French don’t like being told what they can read by some jumped-up Italian prelate.
In Gide the Pan principle was flagrantly alive: there was a woolly-legged satyr in the Luxembourg Gardens opposite the family apartment when he was a child – it’s still there – and satyrs, often playing a flute, appear in some form or other throughout his life and his works. He craved the freedom to gambol with satyrs around the shores of the Mediterranean all his life – Arab shepherd boys, Sicilian fishermen, Roman ruffians – anyone, really, embodying, however faintly, the pagan shepherds in Virgil’s poetry. He did marry at 25 and stayed married, if not happily, then at least with a kind of emotional devotion, to his wife Madeleine until she died over four decades later. It wasn’t a sexual arrangement – as far as anyone knows, it was a mariage blanc – but it was intensely emotional, even loving, on both sides, and when Madeleine died, he found it difficult to go on living meaningfully.
Yet almost from the start Gide felt stifled by marriage – strangled, so to speak, by those hands in white gloves …he felt he was rotting away, as he put it, suffocating, becoming a corpse. His solution to the dilemma of domesticity versus Pan was what I might call the Ottoman one: respect for his wife and her comforts on the one hand, and an endless series of encounters and infatuations with young men, ‘beloveds’, on the other. For him it worked remarkably well: there was ‘home’ (with servants) and there was ‘the wild’ and he moved constantly between the two. For his wife the arrangement was a disaster. Of course, unlike most married men and women today, Gide (like Turgenev) wasn’t saddled with doing the washing or cooking or shopping or the menial side of looking after the children. The banality of married life was emotional – sexual, of course, in his case, as well – and also (since his wife read little apart from devotional literature) intellectual.
All three men shied away from what Robert Louis Stevenson called trudging side by side with a wife and children down the road lying ‘long and straight and dusty to the grave’ (as he put it) - after all, once you’re married, ‘there is nothing left for you,’ Stevenson said, ‘not even suicide, but to be good’. Not many men want to be ‘good’, at least not incessantly. (Not even Kevin Rudd.) That’s the problem.
Now, you’ll have noticed that Stevenson’s metaphor for marriage was a straight line – ‘long and straight and dusty to the grave’. He didn’t mention ‘narrow’, but it’s often that as well, as we know. One way of making the journey along it less dusty and predictable is to triangulate. Triangulation in whatever form it takes gets a bad press, though: whether you call it ‘ménage à trois’ or simply ‘cheating on your spouse’, it raises hackles.
Even Susan Maushart, for example, in the Weekend Australian, would baulk, I’m sure, at endorsing triangulation. The advantage of it is that it turns a non-descript baseline into a space you can play in. Some men have a ménage à trios with their football club as the third party, or their car, or even Jesus – it isn’t always sexual. But these three men triangulated with people.
The third point in George Lambert’s triangle was Thea Proctor, whom he first met as a young man on the Australian Magazine and at Ashton’s art school in Sydney. Thea followed him to England, and back to Australia …she shadowed him, hovering on the edge of his nest, for his whole adult life. She was, in Andrew Motion’s words, when she arrived in London at 25, ‘beautiful, tall, dark-haired, languorous and dignified and devoted to George, as artist and man.’
She frequently modelled for him. And, to put it bluntly, was a constant presence in the family home. Deciding, it would seem, that she and George were not having an affair, Amy behaved for the most part affectionately towards Thea (as Pauline Viardot’s husband did towards his cher ami Turgenev). Whether or not Lambert and Proctor were ever lovers during their thirty years of intimacy, nobody seems to know: or some people seem to know for a fact that they were, and some that they weren’t. It hardly matters (to me). They were certainly intimate friends.
For a time this elegant, sensitive woman, with whom he shared so much as an artist, allowed him to play around the edges of that ‘long and straight and dusty road’, widening it, in effect, and lending it a colour and variety that a spouse rarely can. How could the increasingly matronly, not to say dowdy, Amy compete with Thea Proctor? As the years passed, though – and this can happen if the third point in the triangle becomes too much of a fixture – even George seems to have found Thea’s constant presence in his life irksome. She came, according to Andrew Motion, to ‘reinforce the dull domesticity he had originally expected her to invigorate’. In other words, she became just another feature of domestic life.
His raffish friend Augustus John set himself up in an openly triangular arrangement, but Lambert was not made of that sort of stuff. In the end he failed, I think, to – excuse the jargon – successfully negotiate the space between home and the wild. Most of us do.
Gide and Turgenev, despite having their ups and downs, were much better at it, I think, than Lambert was. Of course, they were both richer than he was – immeasurably richer – and that helps. I think they also knew themselves better than Lambert did – for Lambert introspection was anathema.
‘I’m sure sensitiveness is a great mistake,’ he once said, ‘and should be bullied out of the young.’
Gide triangulated with little emotion all over the place, from his honeymoon until he was almost eighty, and once – just once – when almost fifty, embarked on a love-affair with the son of a family friend, Marc Allégret. It ran its course as a love-affair, naturally – that’s what love-affairs do, that’s why we call them love-affairs. When Marc reached an age when, in Ottoman terms, he was no longer a fitting ‘beloved’, and in any case was becoming almost rampantly heterosexual, the relationship turned into a loving friendship which lasted and enriched both men’s lives until the day Gide died over thirty years later.
Gide’s wife was bitterly hurt by this affair – not so much, it seems to me, because it was based on sexual passion, but because it led to her humiliating abandonment for a time in the family home in Normandy and brought shame on her Christian marriage. Madeleine escaped the disappointed emptiness of her existence by loving God, with whom Gide was not on good terms, as it happens.
The Viardots’ situation was a little different. Turgenev joined their ménage much as Thea Proctor joined the Lamberts’. And it was Louis Viardot, the husband, who was the slightly dull spouse in the arrangement, while Pauline, the glittering megastar of European opera, was more in George Lambert’s position. Louis Viardot, according to unkind tongues, was the postilion on the Pauline-Turgenev carriage. In reality, the arrangement seems to have worked remarkably well for four decades. Pauline was Turgenev’s infinitely beloved friend, Turgenev (who was often living next door) was Pauline’s ‘heart’s choice’, and Louis was nice to everyone.. None of them, of course, being who they were, was shut up at home polishing the furniture, they spent half their lives gallivanting around Europe being famous. It wasn’t ideal, and for Turgenev there was considerable heart-ache at different times, as there may well have been for Thea Proctor. But Turgenev, by avoiding marriage, seems to have found space in his life for white gloves and family, Pan and ‘the wild’. I doubt he’d have admitted it, though.
Travel, of course, was the other way to escape the flatness of domesticity for all three men, but especially for Turgenev and Gide. It is for me.
‘When one realizes that his life is worthless’, the American humourist Edward Dahlberg wrote,
A century ago the highly eccentric Swiss traveller Isabelle Eberhardt reflected on her need for a vantage-point outside Europe in order to even understand who she was. She went to North Africa to find that vantage-point, as did Gide, was converted to Sufism and married a Moroccan, I believe - out of the frying-pan into the fire, as it were. But she died very young, before she realized she was still burning.
Gide simply went back and forth to North Africa, living out one side of his nature there (being Pan, outside time), and the other side, the more emotionally complex, culturally aware side, at home in France.
It’s not so much that foreign parts are more interesting than home, it’s that you find yourself more interesting when you travel. I certainly find myself more interesting in Tunis than in Hobart.
I’m not sure that George Lambert found Palestine particularly interesting, but he certainly found himself more interesting there than in Chelsea – and his paintings show it.
As you get older – at least in my experience – you learn (in a way that Lambert did not perhaps live long enough to know) to allow your different selves to look each other in the eye and talk to each other in a civilized way. The boundaries between them begin to blur. A conversation begins. I don’t mean an exchange of monologues in front of an audience so much as an unscripted gathering of voices –
I am struck, looking at this retrospective, how rare it is in Lambert’s paintings for his figures to be engaged in any kind of conversation, even in the very broadest sense of that word. You might say that the conventions of the Old Masters he so admired hardly allowed for it, yet all the same, very often, to my eye, what is remarkable is how tenuous the relationship between the people in his pictures is:
‘The sonnet’ ,‘The holiday group’ ,‘Lotty and a lady’ ,‘Portrait group’ (The mother)– Amy rounding out here, but still handsome ‘Holiday in Essex’ … everyone in these paintings seems focussed on something else. They vividly embody real human types, but have little to say each other. They have been brought together for the purposes of composition. In one of his most commented-on paintings, ‘Important People’, for instance, motherhood, business and pugnacious virility cannot even meet each other’s eyes, they barely cohabit in the same world and look distinctly uncomfortable in each other’s company.
In other words, the people who are ‘important’ in making any life good look to me like ‘monologues’, not participants in an exchange. As you grow older, I think you can afford a greater measure of gentleness and play.
Fiddlesticks, some might say – Pan’s misery hemmed in by dowdy wife and squalling children is just what’s needed to coax great art out of him, to turn him from a tootler on that flute of his into a maestro. In fact, that’s more or less what Andrew Motion does say about the Lamberts: ‘Their unhappiness,’ he writes, referring to George, his sons and his grandson Kit, ‘was an inspiration and a controlling energy. The qualities which made them feckless and unreliable at home, made them inventive and exciting away from it, and thrust them into the front rank of the various artistic and social worlds to which they aspired.’
That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose. George’s son Maurice did become a distinguished sculptor, his other son Constant a composer of note (although now largely forgotten), and his grandson Kit the manager of The Who … although not for long: he drank and drugged himself to death at an early age.
It’s not the misery that’s vital, it seems to me, it’s knowing how to be creative in whatever circumstances you find yourself in.
And almost all of us are going to find ourselves torn between the nest and the wild.
‘Families – I hate you.’
The man who wrote that (André Gide) actually went on to acquire a voluminous family – wife, illegitimate daughter, grandchildren, adopted son, in-laws galore …
yet those four words still resonate in complicated ways with millions of us. In a crude, still shocking way they encapsulate an abiding dilemma for all free spirits: how to love – to live lovingly with – Pan and white gloves at one and the same time. How to be tethered, yet free.
Which is why everyone loves kites.
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