Sunday, October 24, 2010

Madame Camus

On Inhabiting an Orange

All our roads go nowhere.
Maps are curled
To keep the pavement definitely
On the world.

All our footsteps, set to make
Metric advance,
Lapse into arcs in deference
To circumstance.

All our journeys nearing Space
Skirt it with care,
Shying at the distances
Present in air.

Blithely travel-stained and worn,
Erect and sure,
All our travels go forth,
Making down the roads of Earth
Endless detour.

– Josephine Miles (source: Poetry)

The orange portrait at top came into existence in 1869. Edgar Degas painted it in the image of his good friend, Madame Camus. Also in 1869 he painted the same woman just turning away from her piano keyboard, and that one is called Madame Camus at the Piano. Sometimes the orange one is called Madame Camus, sometimes it is called Evening, and sometimes it is called Madame Camus (Evening). The American industrialist Chester Dale and his wife Maud bequeathed the orange Degas to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1962. As far as anyone knows neither one of them had ever read the 1934 poem by Josephine Miles that is indisputably and inextricably linked (in my mind) with this painting. I knew Josephine Miles in the 1970s as an elderly professor at UC Berkeley. She was by that time virtually immobilized by rheumatoid arthritis yet still writing vigorously and surrounded by ardent student admirers.

Madame Camus at the Piano is in the Bührle Collection in Zurich. It was stolen by the Nazis from Alphonse Kann's house near Paris, despite the fact that the Nazis disapproved of Impressionism. What they did in France when they stole modern paintings was to trade them to French dealers for Old Master paintings that they considered fit to be sent back to Germany. Then the French dealers sold the modern masterpieces to other buyers and everybody made a killing – except of course for the Jewish victims of the original thefts. In this way, Madame Camus at the Piano was sold on to the Swiss arms manufacturer Emil Georg Bührle (1890-1956). After the war Herr Bührle refused to surrender his large collection of looted art until lawsuits forced him to do so. In 1949 Madame Camus at the Piano made her way back to France and was restored to Alphonse Kann's heirs. Oddly enough they chose to sell it straight back to Emil Bührle – who must have genuinely loved the painting, since he bought it twice – so that is how it comes to be in Switzerland today.