Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Queen of suspense – the art of Patricia Highsmith

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The Far Away Melody (1945), Rolf Tietgens. Courtesy Keith de Lellis Gallery, New York

Matthew Sperling writes in Apollo:

Patricia Highsmith, who was born 100 years ago this month, was already known as a giant of suspense fiction at her death in 1995. Since then, while the stock of some of her literary contemporaries has gone down (think of Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, or Norman Mailer), her reputation as a writer of serious artistic and philosophical achievement has increased. The 21st century – when imposture is at the heart of online life, when self-identification precedes authenticity – seems more and more like the age of Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s greatest creation.

Less well known, however, is that the final publication Highsmith oversaw was not about murder or secrecy or guilt, but about drawing. In perhaps the last piece of writing that she ever completed, the foreword published in German in Patricia Highsmith: Zeichnungen (Diogenes), the book of her drawings and paintings that appeared posthumously in 1995, Highsmith argued for the unity of writing and visual art:

Why should it be surprising that many writers enjoy drawing or sculpting? Perhaps some of them also have a go at composing here and there. All arts are one, and all art – ballet too – is a means of telling stories. A picture also tells a story. [author’s translation]

While Highsmith claims not to take her own art very seriously (‘I enjoy it when I succeed in a picture; and if a friend likes it, I say, “If you like, you can have it”’), she also has a keen sense of what writing and drawing shared, and how they differed:

Drawing, painting, modelling – in my case also making tables or other things out of wood – means that you live in another element for a while. For the writer, the art of the painter is something totally other, and wonderful: a picture can be seen and grasped and understood in an instant, whereas it takes much longer with a book or a short story…

Part of the value of making images and objects, then, is that it allows you to become absorbed in another element. In 1989, unwell and beset by worries, Highsmith reminded herself in her diary to ‘put more variation in my life, such as drawing & carpentering’. Throughout her life she was attracted to making as a way of imposing order on her surroundings, whether it was in her tool-shed or in her contributions to the design of ‘Casa Highsmith’, the almost windowless house in Tegna, Switzerland, that she helped to design for herself. (‘Hitler’s bunker’, a friend called it.)

But the painter also has one advantage over the writer, in the immediacy with which their creations can tell a story. For a novelist who was so dedicated to the careful elaboration of plot, it must have sometimes seemed an enviable position. As well as putting fictional painters into her novels on a number of occasions, bringing one form of storytelling into another, Highsmith produced drawings, watercolours and gouaches throughout her life. The 106 images chosen for Zeichnungen, none of which had been exhibited or published before, are taken from many hundreds, spread between dozens of sketchbooks, that now reside in her archive in Switzerland. In the best of them, Highsmith demonstrates a spontaneous facility for seeing and shaping the truth of an image, which makes her drawings something more than just a sideline to her writing life.

Throughout Highsmith’s life, she had close ties to the visual arts. Her mother, biological father and step-father were all commercial artists, and her first job in New York was writing for a comic-book publisher. She was divided between pursuing a career in writing or in art for several years. ‘I was on the fence ’till I was 23 as to whether I wanted to do drawing or painting or writing’, she recalled in 1991. Naturally left-handed but forced by schoolteachers to write with her right, she continued to draw with her left hand. Wherever she went, even after her novels and stories had become her life’s work, she turned out landscapes, window views, drawings of her pet cats and snails, and sketches of her friends and lovers of the time. In 1958, she even provided the drawings for a children’s book, in collaboration with her lover, Doris Sanders, who came up with the text. As the captions in Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda go from ‘A veil on a snail’ to ‘A monk and a skunk and some junk on an elephant’s trunk’, Highsmith’s jaunty drawings rise to the challenge each time, maintaining a poised and decisive line as the subjects grow more and more absurd.

Living in Greenwich Village throughout the 1940s brought Highsmith into contact with a varied circle of friends, acquaintances and lovers from the art world. They included the collector Peggy Guggenheim, the gallerist Betty Parsons, the critic Rosalind Constable, and painters including Buffie Johnson, Lil Picard, and Allela Cornell. Highsmith and Cornell had a brief relationship in 1943, during which Highsmith sketched her new lover as a goggle-eyed tomboy with her nose in a book, and Cornell painted the oil portrait of Highsmith which the novelist would carry with her wherever she lived for the rest of her life. In that picture, the young Highsmith already resembles the older, gloomier figure she would become; her complexion seems tinted with green, and her large, dark eyes stare intensely back at the viewer.

A different view of Highsmith emerges from the photographs by two other friends, Ruth Bernhard and Rolf Tietgens, for whom she posed in the 1940s. Both German émigrés, the two were sharing a studio when Highsmith met them. In Bernhard’s portrait from 1948, we find Highsmith clasping her arms around a knee that is drawn up in front of her in a gesture of girlish self-protection, yet the look on her face seems one of steady purpose and confidence. It is the image which most bears out Bernhard’s opinion that ‘Pat was a very attractive person, a wonderful-looking woman, and people were drawn to her’.

Tietgens, meanwhile – one of the gay men with whom Highsmith attempted what she described as a ‘not quite successful’ sexual relationship – took nude photographs of Highsmith (he saw her as ‘really a boy’), and used her as a model in several striking surrealist photocollages. In one, The Far Away Melody (1945), she is superimposed in double exposure on a deserted rural landscape, appearing wistful and ghostly as she tilts her head upwards, eyes closed. In another from 1942, her disembodied head, with eyes again closed and hair spread out above her, floats in front of a cloudy sky. And in the weirdest of them, also from 1942, the same head has been superimposed on a crumpled sheet of paper, burnt around the edges, giving Highsmith the appearance of Christ on Saint Veronica’s veil, while scraps of burnt paper, a doll’s-house chair and window frame, and a large shell stand next to her on the stage set. Since Highsmith is a writer whose own works are so good at creating the sensation of dread and the uncanny in the reader while never departing from the grammar of realism, it is striking to find her image at the centre of a work which summons its own sense of poetry through surreal juxtaposition . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including more images.

Written by Leisureguy

15 January 2021 at 11:06 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Writing

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