I used to live my life vicariously through my art, which I suppose is an ironic way of saying that circumstances in life usually left me starving three days out of four; the major reason being that I frightened people--frighten I should say, let’s be honest here and use the present tense, because I still do. I’m ugly by any man’s standards. First of all, I’m a dwarf, in case you don’t know me through my art. And as a dwarf, I’m disproportionate, my body misshapen by a twisted torso; my legs bowed and my left foot clubbed. As disproportionate as my body is, so too my face with its mismatched eyes, bulbous nose and oversized ears; needless to say, I wasn’t a beautiful child. I once saw a poster outside a cinema where they were showing the Lon Chaney movie Notre Dame; that poster could’ve been me I used to think as I walked past it. As I said, not many people know of me if they don’t know me through my art. When people think of artists, they usually picture a solitary man standing in front of an easel and then think nothing more of him--except when he paints a self-portrait, which I would never do unless it was a crowd scene at a freak show. I readily admit that I have never been as popular as Monet, or Matisse, but some art critics have been heard to say you can see similarities in our work. I’m not certain as to whether it’s the same colour dynamic, or the so-called innocence in my portraits they refer to, but tell me now I say, while I still have time to change. Anyway, I live in Paris now--’we’ live in Paris I should say--because while everything in this story concerns me, it’s not so much a story about me as it is the people in my life. I left Russia when I was thirteen years old, swearing to myself that I’d never go back; that’s one promise to myself I’ve managed to keep, but Paris was always my goal--my end-game I think the expression is. Prior to moving to France however, I lived in Vienna for a number of years before the Great War--and by ‘I’, I mean ’we’ of course. You’ll learn more about the ‘I’ and ‘we’ of my life soon enough, but first I have to tell you a few things about myself, so you’ll understand how it is I came to be where I am today.
As I said earlier, I’ve lived most of my early life vicariously, most of it through happenstance. I began by selling water-colour sketches to patrons and servers in the taverns and music halls of Vienna--portraits in time I used to call them--as well as selling them to passersby on street corners where I sometimes sat under the cover of a nearby eaves painting street scenes lit up by dull city lights, or a melancholy mood. Needless to say, it was a hand to mouth existence that took years for me to establish anything even close to resembling a following; which made me the cliché starving young artist for lack of a better expression. Whatever fame I may have at this time in my life, I owe more to luck than anything else; trust me when I tell you that I’ve never been one to believe in fate. As a matter of fact, I’ve never been one to believe in much of anything. I do accept that success and fame have little to do with ones’ artistic talents, and I say this because I’ve known a great many men with talent who’ve fallen by the wayside. One would almost think that luck and fate conspired against them; or, one could just as easily say that they were fated to fail--if one were searching for a certain irony in life. Fate’s more a matter of hindsight I think; luck’s nothing more than being in the right place, at the right time.
Some would say it’s luck that brought me to where I am today. That may be true, but doesn’t that imply that my success is due to something I did; that my leaving Vienna and coming to Paris after the Great War were somehow the twin catalysts that set off a series of events taking half a lifetime to unfold? I seriously doubt if one has to do with the other. You can think that way if you want, but not me. As I said, Paris had always been my destination, even at a young age. And yes, while Paris is where I was discovered, or mentored if you wish, by that so-called lost generation of writers and artists who were no more than survivors really--men and women whose only need was to escape the memories of war by over-indulging in alcohol and cocaine--I can’t help but wonder what our lives would have been like had there been no war. I suppose the answer to that question is obvious, isn’t it? But we’d been taught from an early age--and by ‘we’ I mean my generation--that Truth was Beauty and Beauty Truth, and that the object of life was to seek out the Truth as though it were some sort of mystical Holy Grail. All the songs the poets sang and all the paintings the artists painted--even our own religions--preached this tenet as though it were a promise made to us by our parents’ generation, and through them, the Hand of God. But it seems that art and culture always suffer through times of peace, don’t they? It’s during those low periods--for surely war must be thought of as a low period in man’s existence--that any true advancement in the science of industrial art overwhelms all other discoveries made during times of peace. It’s nothing less than necessity that causes both art and culture to come to a halt while society’s thoughts lean toward victory and war. Everything pales in comparison when you take into consideration that by the turn of the new century we had such innovations as the telephone, the wireless telegraph, and even the cinema. But then, there was also the bicycle, the automobile, and the motorcycle; when you throw in the aeroplane for good measure you can see how all these inventions could be misused in one way or another as instruments of destruction during the Great War. It was never a question of what the future held for Mankind, but rather, how Mankind would shape its own future. I’m not saying that art and culture came to a complete standstill, they didn’t. But any hopes a man may have had for attaining world-wide fame left him with little more hope than being hailed as a local celebrity, and nothing more--unless that man had a message as powerful as Picasso and his Guernica a generation later. I suppose it’s possible that at some future time there’ll be a system whereby ideas may be conveyed as easily as words on a wireless, but until that time, one need only look at the evolution of the aeroplane from simple flying machine into a weapon of mass destruction to see how far we can advance as a society, as well as a race. The specious idea of a war to end all wars was a dream thought up by idealists; Mankind is not meant to live in peace.
I say all of this with the benefit of hindsight, of course, but that’s neither here nor there, is it? It’s only through the passage of time that we can understand what we’ve gained, as much as we might lament over all that we’ve lost--and if anything, we’re a generation that laments its past. In fact, there have always been men out there--some even right now, I suppose--walking the streets with vacant, broken hearts; men who fought valiantly for that holy trinity of God, King and Country, who feel that they’ve been bitterly betrayed, and remain resentful as they look for someone to blame. They think of themselves as the final remnants who fought for the sacred cause of Justice and Freedom in the world. There were a multitude of such men during the Great War who gave the greatest sacrifice that a man can give, life itself. But that same generation--those who survived--became Brown-shirted thugs rife with thoughts of revolution and anarchy, reasoning that their lives had not only been forgotten, but that they’d been forsaken as well; it was the ultimate betrayal in their eyes. And why’s that, you ask? Well, why does any society forsake those it once regaled as heroes? Is there even an answer to such a question? That’s how those embittered veterans--to all intents and purposes--evolved into preachers of the politics of hate. If the war taught us anything, it wasn’t that we’d killed the baser instincts of cruelty, blood-lust, and primitive savagery, no, if it taught us anything at all it’s that our humanity had been broken. We’d lost that part of ourselves, so much so, that we truly were a lost generation. All it takes for history to repeat itself isn’t the failure of Mankind’s collective memory, but the collapse of the world’s collective conscience. Even in America, while crops were failing and people were flocking to the cities in search of hope, those proselytizers of hate--those false prophets of doom--were determined to find someone they could blame; or, in failing that, find a scapegoat for some other invented cause. Is that what the future holds for us now? It has always been in times such as those when men we’d never deign to lead us willingly, step up from the mire so that they might lead us further into the darkness. Russia is a fine example of that with its nascent revolution giving birth to Stalin; and just as the France of old gave the world Napoleon, so the Great War gave us Hitler. I’d seen what he and his followers could do on newsreels at the cinema around the corner--add to that Mussolini’s rise in Italy, Franco’s victories in Spain, and Communism rearing its ugly head in both America and Britain--and you can see how people were willing to listen. And cheer for them. Hitler preached fear and hatred, and as much as he called for retribution against past generations--against the Jews, Catholics, and even the Blacks of the world--I’ve often asked myself how it was possible that anyone could believe in him, and yet, they did; not all, but enough so that the people readily endorsed his new political party, and just as eagerly donned his brown-shirted uniform as though there was a new purpose to their lives. People have always been quick to follow someone who is willing to lead them into darkness, someone who is eager to preach violence and rail on about taking what they feel was once theirs, and while they dismiss the treaties of the past and exclaim a new world order that’s nothing more than an excrescence and a blight on the horizon of the future, they slip into a miasma of complacency.
And why is it that, you say? The Civil War was being fought in Spain and proving to be no more than a trial run for the modern war plans of the German High Command; it looked for a time as if it would spill over the borders and seep into France. Refugees cried to be let across the borders but were prevented; atrocities were inflicted on the populace; France became rife with strife as a result. There were no jobs to be had, and while poverty and the immigration of homeless refugees was a problem in Paris, it was just as much a problem everywhere else. Jews were fleeing the continent like rats off a sinking ship, using French ports as a jumping off point while shipping treasures to relatives in Holland, or England, storing them in bank vaults as Hitler and his fervent followers--fresh from conquests both politically and militarily--were clearly laughing at the world as they pointed out the obvious failings of their fellow man. Nobody wanted the Jews, he said, and to prove himself right, he let them board ships with the hope of finding themselves a better life in America, or Canada--but even those havens of refuge were closed.
When we left Vienna in 1921, Stanza said if my plan was to travel across Europe in hope of seeking out a better life in Paris, then she insisted I call her by her real name, Constanza Leismuller. Her reasons were entirely selfish she said, the main one being that she no longer wanted to be the woman she was; the name she’d used while living in Vienna had not been her real name. She said she chose it simply because it sounded lyrical. If we were going to start our lives anew, she said, she wanted to cut off all ties with her former self and use the name her parents gave her. I told her that I’d change my name as well, and from that day forward, whenever I sign my paintings, I use the name Pumilio.
You may think it’s nothing more than a clearing of my conscience when you realize that I blame myself for not leaving France when we had the chance. We should’ve left Europe years before, I know that now; have I told you that I’m pretty good at reliving my life in hindsight? But instead of leaving in 1936--leaving with the last of the crowds who attended the Berlin Olympics--I elected to stay, thinking now that Hitler had his moment in the sun, things in Europe would settle down. The writing was on the wall as they’re wont to say, I simply didn’t read it. Stanza could see what was coming, but she left it up to me. I never made the decision. When the Germans finally invaded, we were still in the city; I was more concerned with helping document and pack up the treasures of the Louvre than I was in leaving my beloved Paris.
There were no questions asking me when we were planning to leave Paris; it seemed as if Stanza simply accepted what was coming and understood long before I did that I’d waited too long. She steadfastly resigned herself to the inevitable. Her blindness has always prevented me from doing what’s right, choosing instead to do what’s right at the moment, which it turns out is never right for either one of us. And now that the world had plunged itself into yet another war--a Second World War (as if numbering them allows us time for growth), we lived our lives accordingly. The Germans entered Paris on the 14th of June, 1940; by the 16th, the Prime Minister had resigned, and on the 17th, the new acting head of State, Marshall Petain, called for an immediate cease-fire.
How did I let this happen, you ask? How did I allow us to become victims of yet another World War? I’ve asked myself that same question many times over the years. It may be as simple as the fact that I’ve always been a victim; unknown to me, my life has never been my own to live. After all, ours was a generation distinguished by its coinciding with the opening of the twentieth century--an age of promise, wealth and luxury when one considers the great technological advances that were made, but an age bifurcated by the Great War--a truly world war of untold magnitude. Those of us who survived--those of us who lived through the horrors of the battlefield, and those of us who starved in the cities--divide our lives into separate categories: before, during, and after, while those of us who grew up and matured in an age of such loss can never reconcile ourselves to the fact that we let our fathers’ generation dictate how we were to live our lives.
So, how did all of this happen you ask? It began with a knock at my door. And while I can’t say how everything I say from here on in is the truth, or how everything I say we did is exactly how it happened--or how it came about--there’s little I choose to leave out. This isn’t as much an autobiography as it is a search for one’s self; whether that search results in self-loathing isn’t the question to be asked, nor is it the answer I seek. Nothing in life makes any sense if you leave out the details, no matter how small; there’s always someone that will show up out of the blue to remind you of your failings, and in your failings, how you caused others to fail. I’ve had my share of failures.
But back to the knock at my door before I change my mind.