Review: Learning to Draw / A History: In the Field


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 117 in February, 2009.

Basil King, Learning to Draw / A History: In the Field Where Daffodils Grow
(New York: Libellum, 2008)

Review by Jim Feast

What Basil King offers in his new book, In the Field Where Daffodils Grow, is a modern fable, one where, in the stead of talking beavers and alley cats, he puts artists like H.D. and William Carlos Williams.

Don’t get me wrong. This procedure, using the artists in a fable, is in no way meant to belittle or undercut their importance. Rather the painters and poets are rendered in simplified form, as simplified masks, as it were, to better dramatize significant political and aesthetic issues. With the spokesmen and women of different viewpoints pared down to outline form, the poem presents a lively (at times ribald) discussion, taking on, in a sharp way, for instance, the question of how an artist fits into a countercultural milieu.

There’s no question, by the way, that established society, which doesn’t want its collective feathers ruffled – to stay with the beast fable metaphor – will reject any half-decent, and hence critical, creator. King mentions, in relation to many of the neglected artists, such as Marsden Hartley,

I don’t know if having your work ignored is good for you. I don’t know if it makes your work harder; I don’t know if it makes you more sad, more depressed, but I do know if you hadn’t had to do something in your childhood that was almost heroic, you would never be able to tolerate being ignored.

Artists of top caliber are often given a cold shoulder, because, as Northrop Frye puts it in the ringing conclusion of Anatomy of Criticism, “The ethical purpose of a liberal education [including especially the study of great art] is to liberate, which can only mean to make one capable of conceiving society as free, classless, and urbane,” something that no society, up to now, has been near being. This is not something most societies want pointed out.

However, what King directs his attention to is not conventional society, whose attitudes toward path-breaking art can easily be anticipated, but to the way, equally but with less open hostility, an artistic community, will act to stifle at least some artists in its midst. In the early 20th century, from which King draws his examples, this was particularly the case in relation to daring women.

This may happen, as it does to a degree, with a woman like H.D., who is liberated for her times. It is this free living that, for example, frightens W.C. Williams. “Her courage and her erratic behavior put Williams and H.D. at odds with each other.” WCW doesn’t actively interfere with her career, because, though he disapproved of her, “the great poet from New Jersey was complicated.” He does argue with her at every turn, even while both he and Charles Sheeler “want to take H.D.’s arm and go around the corner with her.”

The real trouble comes, not in dyadic relations of this type so much as when restrictions are implicitly inscribed as the rules of a seemingly free countercultural zone, such as the one in London at the time. “Bloomsbury buzzed as it created a gracious Bohemia, a style of living that is today, with contemporary variations, still in fashion.” This social group could thrive because they didn’t have to worry too much about their opinions affecting their place in the outside world. They were wealthy, so unusual opinions wouldn’t lose them their jobs or keep them from living well.

Only one of the group didn’t fit this characterization. King explains, “With the exception of Leonard [Virginia Woolf’s husband] who was Jewish and was one of nine children, Bloomsbury came from privilege. Their families were socially established and moneyed.” Yet, it was only in this one, slightly outré couple, Virginia and Leonard, that the husband subordinated himself to a more talented wife. It was this couple, also, who had the temerity to found a press, something the others didn’t find quite respectable. “The press did not always do what Bloomsbury expected. Bloomsbury thrived on good food, an appreciation of writing, and painting. But comfort – comfort was essential. Not business.”

King contrasts this ménage to that of Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell. She was living more in the rich bosom of the set, but found that, as a woman without such a supportive husband, she had to spend more time keeping up appearances than pursuing and prosecuting her art. “No one told Vanessa [as Leonard told Virginia] that she was important. No one told her that she too could find amazement. Vanessa served and partied.”

Like any good fable, In the Field has a moral, but it differs from most such tales by making an original, not a common-sense point. Artfully using the lives and thoughts of creative giants, which are always given with precision and lucidity, King shows that any enclosed social situation can be suffocating to some of its denizens. Even those living in a sheltered artistic community are apt to censor (in the sense of not giving them time to do their work) those among them, such as H.D., who don’t conform to the accepted unconventionalities.