Sunday, February 3, 2008


October 29, 1986

Dear Mr Gol/d\berg,

In the July 1986 issue of Art in America you reviewed my most recent novel, What's Bred in the Bone, and I am obliged to you for the many kind things you say about it. The article has just come into my hands, as I have been away for several weeks, and there is a passage in it which interests me very much and I would be grateful if you could throw some light on it.

You speak of the letter that Papini published in Libro Nero in 1952 and say that it is `generally discredited' and later on speak of Papini's `barefaced bogus statements,' and suggest that I have been gullible in my use of the letter.

I assure you I took a great deal of trouble to investigate the matter of the letter, which first came to my notice in the writing of a well known English art critic who had accepted it as authentic. As the letter seemed a curious confession on Picasso's part, I made further enquiries and could find no evidence that Picasso had ever refuted the letter, or that Papini was other than a respectable interviewer and editor--to say nothing of his substantial reputation as a philosopher. I am curious, therefore, about the certainty with which you dismiss the letter and would be glad to hear from you with references which discredit it, other than the natural distaste of the art world for such a strange confession. I think that you have been unfair to me in omitting to mention that in my novel, directly following the letter, follows a conversation in which an art critic says about the letter very much what you have said yourself--but I understand, of course, that reviewers are obliged to read very rapidly.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Robertson Davies

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11 December 1986

Dear Mr Davies,

Your letter suggests that you are a careful man, but even a careful man, on occasion, may omit the d in Goldberg in a first draft.

I, too, occasionally nod. I simply assumed that your date of 1952 for the first appearance of the Il Libro Nero "interview" was accurate, but there are some who claim it's November 5th, 1951. This, of course, is pedantic nitpicking. What I can tell you about the Papini material is that it was generally discredited even at the time it first appeared (witness the enclosed [not included here] which I happened to run across at New York's Museum of Modern Art library the other day: it's from the periodical Arts, published in Paris, in the issue of 19 June 1952, no. 364, p. 9. You'll note from the text that Arts is hardly a left-wing rag whitewashing one of its pinko pals. Given the year of the publication--1951-1952--the politics of Papini are as potentially suggestive as the art politics involved). I think, by and large, Pierre Cabanne's statement on the Papini affair (vid. Le Siècle de Picasso, vol. 2, pp.202-3) represents the considered position of recent Picasso scholarship.

No, I don't believe that I was unfair to you in not mentioning Ross's statements in his conversation with Francis. (I certainly hope I wasn't.) As I recall, Ross tacitly accepts Papini's Picasso as genuine and argues extenuating circumstances, the artist down in the dumps. While I'm sure that even Picasso had his bad days (many of them according to Olivier, Sabartès, Gilot, Penrose, et al.), I don't believe that makes this relevant or the interview genuine. Perhaps your awareness of other possible interpretations of the "interview" would be
more persuasive (vis-a-vis modern art) if your (and our) sympathy wasn't so squarely with Francis as opposed to that solipsistic and obnoxiously ambitious smoothie.

The key problem that I find with the Papini business, however, is not its validity or lack of it (which we can leave to art historians) but the melodramatic way in which it's used. That Francis (hardly a bumpkin in aesthetic matters) would take Papini at face value and instantly, out of a sense of betrayal, give up his quest to become a modern painter is to me unconvincing. All he would have to do (though, of course, this is more time-consuming fictionally speaking) is look at Picasso's work and stop thinking of him as THE MASTER. Had he studied the man's art half as hard as he did that of Harry Furniss he could hardly have dismissed him as a cynical quack, an Iberian money-making machine. In any event, would you yourself care one whit less for Lear (assuming you have a partiality for beards) if some "respectable editor" turned up an interview with Bill in which he called himself nothing more than a public entertainer compared to those heavyweights Holinshed, Spenser, and Higgins?

As I said in my Art in America review, I did indeed enjoy the cornucopic pleasures of your novel, which I read very very slowly. That, alas, is the way I write, too; otherwise this note would have reached you much sooner.

Happy holidays!


Gerald Jay Goldberg

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These letters are in Gerald Jay Goldberg's UCLA archive.

Saturday, February 2, 2008


Centaurs, griffins, gorgons, and sphinxes are not for the timid. They're interesting, of course, but if you're looking for ordinary zoo critters you're bound to be disappointed. What's Bred in the Bone, the latest novel by the Canadian writer Robertson Davies, is like one of those weird mythical beasts. A peculiar amalgam of mystery story, family saga, espionage adventure and portrait of the artist, Davies's novel is sure to bring a taxonomical fusspot howling to his knees, but it just might amuse the casual impurist....

It is [the hero, Francis Chegwidden Cornish's] life in art that helps to baste the book together and hold the various parts in place. Early on there are clear indications that young Cornish may well have the right stuff because, like so many other artist-heroes in fiction, he is miserable in school, lousy at games. And like them, too, he's clever--"always top of his class in French," and "good in Latin and Greek." As if to confirm his artistic calling, Francis suddenly comes down with a serious illness, and like his countless fictional counterparts plagued by pneumonia or brain fever or TB, he is bedridden for weeks. If Francis's "wound," as Edmund Wilson might have termed it, has arrived, can his "bow" be far behind?

Sure enough, the boy loved to draw. The scene at the back of Devinney's Furniture and Undertaking Parlours in which he is furiously sketching as his friend, Zadok, goes about his business of embalming the body of Old McAlister is memorable. Zadok shows himself to be an artist of sorts. When young Francis tentatively suggests that he might be one, too, and hands over his sketchbook, his friend exclaims, "By the Powers of Old are, dear boy, and no mistake." Francis's apprenticeship includes copying old master drawings at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum and a summer in Paris studying oil painting under Othon Friesz at La Grande Chaumière, where he learns to paint fat on lean, warm on cold. But then the rebarbative Saraceni sums up Francis's talent as "substantial, but not first-rate," and invites him to Rome to study restoration. Accepting the Master's harsh judgment without question, the pusillanimous Francis takes him up on his offer.

While in most Kunstlerromanen the author is satisfied to limit his hero's role in art--thus narrowing the focus and heightening credibility--Davies characteristically opts for plenitude. Not only is Cornish a painter and restorer in this novel, but a celebrated connoisseur and collector and generous patron of art as well. All of these multiple strings to his bow are tied to the plot, though occasionally at some risk to plausibility. Take, for example, the case of the unmasking of Letzpfennig.

Summoned to the Netherlands to probe the legitimacy of a newly discovered painting attributed to Hubertus Van Eyck (The Harrowing of Hell), Saracini perversely chooses to send Cornish instead of going himself. That the Dutch judge at the Hague should predict that of all the internationally renowned art experts gathered there to authenticate the work, the opinion of Saraceni's untried assistant "will doubtless prove decisive," is to heighten drama at the expense of good sense. The situation becomes still more embarrassing when Francis zips open his briefcase and whips out his "Little Jiffy Bernard Berenson Art Expert Set"--a pair of binoculars, a large magnifying glass, and one medium-size brush. As events turn out, his connoisseurship has less to do with iconography than zoology and the timely intervention of the supernatural.

The Van Eyck faker--a troubled soul appropriately named Letzpfennig--admits his fraud. Even though exposed, he gloats over his achievement, for he has shown that a modern artist can create work as accomplished as the old masters. Francis offers further proof when two of his own paintings pass anonymously into art history as the work of a 16th-century Gothic genius dubbed by the critics as "The Alchemical Master." The question that Davies poses here is: Can great art actually be created when the artist is mimicking an esthetic more appropriate to an earlier age than his own--400 years earlier in this instance? Francis's daimon claims that it can, insisting that his charge has "forged nothing. He has painted an original picture in a highly individual style, and if any connoisseur misdates it, the more fool he."

While thus recognizing the talent of living artists, Davies views modernist art (and, no doubt, modernist fiction as well) as suspect. His is the simple fusty notion that modern art is a private language based upon a subjective inner vision rather than on mythology or religion, the well-understood languages of the past. "Raw gobbets of the psyche displayed on canvas," Saraceni labels it, in one of those many pompous pronouncements that suggest he may have been sniffing turps too long.

There are some perhaps who would agree with Cornish that the division between art and crime is as "thin as a cigarette paper," but few serious minds can still hold the shopworn idea that modern artists, yes even the most famous of them, are trying to slip one over on us. Look what happens in the novel. No sooner does Francis attempt to become a contemporary painter by turning to Picasso for inspiration than Picasso betrays him. Davies employs the generally discredited Giovanni Papini Libro Nero interview of 1952 in which Picasso allegedly dismisses himself as nothing more than "a public entertainer," a modern trickster compared to the great artists of the past. Cornish, seeking to achieve consolation and exaltation in his work, reads this and weeps, and grinds his brushes into toothpicks. That he should accept Papini's barefaced bogus statements as gospel calls into question not only his knowledge of Picasso but of modern art as well.

The pleasures of What's Bred in the Bone are many: the complexity of the principal characters, the broad two-continent canvas, the knowing details. Anyone familiar with the earlier Deptford Trilogy of Davies will find here, too, a similar variety of curious information ranging from the finesses of astrology to those of embalming. Best of all are the wonderfully bizarre comic scenes. Davies is a master of the goofy grotesque. One is not likely soon to forget Francis's Auntie scalped by a Great Horned Owl that has mistaken her hat's black and white plumes for a skunk, or the powerful series of lectures on purity--sexual and otherwise--delivered to the boys in Francis's class by the astonishing Dr. Upper, a hilarious scene that culminates in the Doctor producing "after some rummaging, his own penis as an example of the adult member in its full splendour."

Of course in a multifaceted monster such as this there are bound to be a few inconsistencies, incredible coincidences, red herrings, and other extravagances. Perhaps like Walt Whitman, who also hung a handsome beard, Davies may claim to contain multitudes. An author who can pack four suicides into one novel--even if one of them may only be murder--is not to be taken lightly. That more isn't less in Davies's new novel is a credit to the breadth of his artistry rather than to his crotchety notion of art.

* * *

GJG's complete review appeared in Art in America (July 1986).