The Modernist inclination to evaluate our predecessors according to their contributions to “progress” inevitably marginalizes and simplifies. The complex network of stories we refer to as “history” should be seen as more elliptical than the linear model we have traditionally been offered. My work critiques art history by presenting (fictional) cases of ignored and forgotten figures whose stories do not fit in with conventional notions of authorship and evaluation. This paper will present outlines of two such projects – a smoking dog whose attempts to fit into human society end in failure, so he decides to set out in search of understanding, uncertain of what he is looking for but determined to find it all the same. He is forever the outsider. The second concerns a Melbourne “ghost painter”, Robert Inglewood Pirrie (R.I.P.) who successfully transmitted impressions of the other side to his grieving wife during a series of séances in the 1890’s.
I will suggest that nothing is really true or really false and that many stories lie hidden in the unexplored quagmires of history.
I do art because I don’t often see the art that I would like to see. I must order what’s on the menu, and like a person with more than a passing interest in food, I want to create my own meals. That meal is an alternate world, a world that makes sense to me…
John Baldessari, in (Utopia Station, Dreams and Conflicts, the Dictatorship of the Viewer, Venice Biennale Catalogue, 2003: 324)
Imagine a mysterious and dimly lit swamp – a hazardous maze of confusing pathways and grey, gurgling quicksand accompanied by phantoms, sprites and banshee howls. Glimpses of dull moonlight appear through tangles of wiry branches. From time to time a muddy hand bursts through the surface and waves desperately towards the diffused torchlights of a distant search party. This is the land of the dead. This is the sprawling field of history and stories unknown; stories forgotten, stories discontinued and stories abandoned. This is where explorers are guided by the crumpled maps passed down by earlier expeditions. But these maps show straight and logical pathways, tidy and directional vistas. Everything is either in its place or not far from the main road. The chaos has been hidden under a polite and digestible grid. If only we could personally explore these winding pathways, bring stories out from the shadows and rescue the forgotten ones from oblivion.
The time’s arrow model of history – one that carves a razor-sharp line into the future – seems far less comprehensive than a more wobbly, elliptical model that frequently requires alteration and repair. The kind of model that’s just as likely to collapse and fall off the table every time you turn around.
Visual art should be among the most reliable methods of reading history given that most of it is manifested by a continuum of objects and images that are convincingly attributed and dated. But our appraisals of these items – usually inherited – are inevitably open to question: they form a Darwinian value system that is based on opinion and intellectual orientation. Revisions of obsolete valuations spiral through time leading, in the context of art history, to re-mapping the past – to discreet entries and exits from the pantheon.
Near the end of his life, Max Harris, the principal and intended victim of the Ern Malley hoax, declared that he still believed in the imaginary poet, in spite of everything that had happened. He believed that there was an Ern Malley walking the streets of every city – a vulnerable outsider, whose voice might only be heard by accident . . . or through fictional representation. He was right, of course, because Ern Malley’s work really does exist, notwithstanding its irregularities of authorship. Malley’s personal position in our cultural history is totally justified because, whether he actually lived or not, he represents a place that would otherwise be vacant. He is a jigsaw piece cut to order.
This paper will suggest that nothing is really true or really false, that – as Bob Dylan has suggested ‘All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie’ 1 (Things Have Changed Columbia Records 1999) – and that many stories, true and false, lie hidden in the great unexplored quagmire of the past.
In 1910 an amateur London artist named William Braithwaite produced a very clumsy painting of a smoking dog. Although unskilled, his intention was clear – to perpetuate the role of painting as a visualiser of the impossible, or, more correctly, the extremely improbable. The desired method was simple: to portray an unlikely visual event as convincingly as possible by using the tools of realist painting – a mild form of subversion that aimed to fascinate and amuse rather than to shock or promote earnest discussion. Almost certainly unknown to Braithwaite though, contemporary experiments in painting were questioning this role, dispensing with narratives and fictions for more formal concerns.
While we know almost nothing about him, Braithwaite was one of thousands who wielded a paintbrush in the year 1910, most choosing to depict landscape scenes, along with reindeers in wooded glades, lost children and drowning sailors. While his choice of subject was not original it could arguably be grouped into a sub-genre of mythological and idealized creatures that included smoking dogs, angels and mermaids. But Braithwaite was living in heady times. Three years earlier, in 1907, Picasso had painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting that would redefine the possibilities of painting almost overnight. In 1908 the Futurist Manifesto had been signed and in 1910 Kasimir Malevich produced what has arguably been designated the world’s first abstract painting. Modernism was hurtling towards the explosion that would be World War One. The old was about to be forever replaced by the new – or so conventional history has advised us. The story of western painting would now be evaluated according to its perceived prescience and contribution to the gathering and inevitable momentum of Modern Art. Braithwaite and his kind, both professional and amateur, would be banished from the story that was about to begin. They had no place on the highway to the future.
However, the new onrush of experimentation and iconoclasm would follow more than one pathway, roughly divided over relative concerns with form and content. Rosalind Krauss has described the reductive evolution of cubism into minimal abstraction – aka the visual honesty of the flat surface – as the “cubo-centric” tradition (Rosalind Krauss,1993). On the other hand Sigmund Freud – another contemporary of William Braithwaite’s – had sown the seeds for a new language of subjective analysis and exploration, which would come to early visual fruition via Surrealism.
But this paper does not choose to retrace such familiar footsteps; instead I would like to redirect attention to the forgotten artists who toiled over smoking dogs and sailing ships while formalist movements carved new directions all around them. Were their efforts entirely in vain, clinging as they were to the last traces of a Victorian appreciation of sentimental allegory, pastoral utopias and moral fables? Would it be fair to say that history is not only riddled with omissions but often falls in with a system of evaluation where only contributors to the concept of “progress” are remembered? Braithwaite and his kind might potentially have re-invented themselves as psycho-sexual adventurers within the Surrealist experiment. But they didn’t.
In my work as a visual artist I present the case of the ignored and the forgotten via superfiction projects which aim to critique conventional notions of authorship and historical evaluation. These projects offer unlikely or ludicrous subjects that have been inserted into the early years of the Modernist era. I would like to briefly present two of these projects, Le Chien Qui Fume – the story of a Smoking Dog living in Europe during the early decades of the twentieth century, as well as R.I.P. – The Story of Robert Inglewood Pirrie, a Melbourne painter who, as a ghost, managed to convey images of the afterlife to his widow during a series of séances in the 1890’s.
Le Chien Qui Fume
This is a “what if?” story. The time is post first-world-war; the place, somewhere in Europe. A large dog, of uncertain breed, is rescued from a life of urban scavenging by members of a travelling circus. A beautiful Chinese acrobat teaches the dog to smoke cigars and, eventually, a pipe. He is also taught to wear human clothing and to stand on his hind legs. He joins a group of other trained dogs in a tent-show that makes him a popular curiosity, but he grows to dislike this newfound status more and more. Gradually, the act of smoking becomes less a trick and more a need. He loses whatever common feelings he shared with other dogs and becomes aware of a more human sensibility separating him from his origins – and yet the world of humans remains beyond his grasp and comprehension. As his identity crisis deepens, his performances become more distracted and lethargic and his smoking more addictive. The dog’s attempts to fit into human society end in failure, so he decides to set out in search of some kind of understanding. Stoically, the dog continues his journey, uncertain of what he is looking for but determined to find it all the same. He is forever the outsider.
Since 2002 I have been following in the footsteps of William Braithwaite, working (both singly and collaboratively) on the hidden story of the smoking dog. Although trivialized and familiar as an icon of kitsch, this figure has become culturally significant for me as a champion of the forgotten outsiders. With qualities that cast him as a walking repudiation of high Modernist principles, he is also a symbol of the disappearing relationship between humans and animals. The theme of the humanised dog has been addressed many times. I wish to make the distinction thatLe Chien Qui Fume acts as both a symbol of the animal, anthropomorphised or otherwise, and equally as a symbol of low art.
The appeal of the anthropomorphised animal is undeniable. It contains humour, albeit layered and satirical, with a tinge of pathos. Despite the longstanding antipathy of Modernist art to any trace of sentiment or narrative, this embargo was ignored by cinema and popular music – arguably the two dominant art forms of the twentieth century. Extracted from Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s illustrations (in particular His Station and Four Aces!) this character seemed the perfect antithesis of artistic pomposity – a walking repudiation of Modernist classicism and austerity. He is an icon of low art and contains all the mysterious power of anthropomorphic constructions going back to the deities of the ancient world.
In order to address (amongst other issues) the transition of the animal from man’s best friend to a marginalised creature who is both misunderstood and tokenised, I have chosen for my subject a creature that has survived in the underbelly of the human environment. This dog is rescued from a life of urban scrounging, taught to do tricks, and elevated to the status of a curiosity. But he is weighed down by the realisation that dealings with humankind have rendered him stateless, in the sense that he can no longer be a normal animal – he has learned too much. By the same token, he can never be human. He resents his newfound status as a curiosity, and is unable to return the stares of his audience because he is always so outnumbered. In my notes for this project I wrote
. . . there was something a little disturbing about a dog who seemed uninterested in circus tricks but engaged in deep and private thoughts and whose smoking and walking were not so much performed as inherent. The dog would exhale long and thoughtful lungfulls, pausing to consider the smoke as it hung upon the air before again inhaling. It was this languor which transcended any hint of artifice and which, perhaps, served to remind the audience of the days when their own souls seemed empty and the visible horizon like the wall of a prison.
The Smoking Dog has origins as a motif from early advertising and popular illustration as well as a host of more speculative associations. The same motif was popular as a mascot for cafés and bars in Europe during the 1920’s. In his poem Sunflower (for Pierre Réverdy) André Breton writes “Torpor spread like mist / At the Smoking Dog Café”. In his notes to the poem (Andre Breton, 1988, 55) Breton explains, ‘This was for me the typical name of one of these restaurants in Les Halles…’ There is, in fact, a restaurant named Aux Chien Qui Fume at 33 Rue du Pont-Neuf, in Les Halles, which was established in 1920. As Breton’s poem was published in 1937, it is difficult to imagine that he wasn’t referring specifically to this establishment. There is also a brasserie named Au Chien Qui Fume at 119 Boulevard Montparnasse – and so we have it on good authority that the smoking dog was at least a silent witness during the peak of Modernism – perhaps patiently waiting its turn.
But where did he come from? A sub-genre of horror films was the travelling carnival. Herein lies a plethora of cultural pathways. The Romantic grotesque, or carnivalesque tradition is connected to the B-side or alternative history of Western art. The work of Breughel and Bosch, Goya’s black paintings and the underrated graphic work that runs parallel to the history of European painting, all point to an audience for the superstitious and the uncanny that has presumably run parallel to more official tastes for centuries. The travelling carnival suggests a link with the mediaeval world, 2 with its currency of pagan rites and beliefs – fortune telling, magic, archetypes, and the (often fraudulent) display of the marvellous. This type of circus acts as the human equivalent of the Wunderkammer – it is a repository of things we would like to be true, even if our rational selves know that they are not. What better place of origin for le chien qui fume?
But how can this more sinister, or uncanny reading of the Smoking Dog be reconciled with C.M.Coolidge’s loveable card players? It occurred to me that the gambling and pool playing dogs might have come about as the result of rumours Coolidge had heard, and that his paintings were in fact a vulgarisation of something that could claim much darker, European origins. The abundance of wolf legends in European literature, from Beowulf to Little Red Riding Hood to any number of retellings of the werewolf legend, suggest that the human/canine hybrid is an age-old archetype. While the wolf and the fox, however, are seen as sly and merciless carnivores, their cousin the dog represents a creature whose loyalty and honesty are to be admired.
So, is the Smoking Dog a descendant of age old superstitions, a POP motif that came decades too early, or simply an involuntary non-conformist? In whichever case he embodies the forgotten, the misunderstood, the unlucky or the unnoticed. His provenance might be found in history’s Lost Property Office.
Just as the smoking dog fiction raises the possibility of art by proxy, in the sense that the protagonist can stand in for the artist and can go to places the artist could not – a syndrome perfectly defined by Rimbaud’s dictum “I is another”. As described my project explores two examples of this concept and in the second I usie the constructed life and death of the bohemian painter Robert Inglewood Pirrie as a framework.
I have entitled this work The Life, Death and Post-Mortem Works of Robert Inglewood Pirrie, with the details of his life as follows. He was born in Hamilton, Victoria in 1860 and after a series of menial occupations he began to paint and draw, eventually drifting into Melbourne’s bohemian circles where he became a friend and disciple of Tom Roberts. His untimely death, in 1897, was caused by a freak accident. A carriage-horse, panicked by the sound of broken glass, kicked Pirrie in the temple as he attempted to calm the beast outside his studio at 91 Little Collins Street. Pirrie’s widow, Alicia Hopkins Pirrie (1866 – 1957) immediately sought the aid of spiritualists to maintain communication with her lost husband. At a series of séances held in the studio between July and December 1897, Alicia claimed to have established contact with, and furthermore to be receiving messages from Robert. These messages came in various forms, beginning with whispered words and eventually manifesting as vivid images which Alicia, who had no previous art training, was able to bring into solid form via painting and collage. (In so doing, she anticipated the collage method by at least a decade).
Alicia’s spiritualist works caused widespread controversy in 1890’s Melbourne and were dismissed as “a tasteless fraud” by the Melbourne Argus (October 16th. 1897). Her only support was to come from the fledgling Theosophical Society, which had only recently established a meeting room in nearby Russell Street. The society commissioned the commercial photographer Ellery Hibling (1853 – 1926) to record events at the studio séances, which he did over several weeks during October and November. Hibling described the sessions thus ~
Mrs. Pirrie would begin the sessions with silent trembling. After a time we would hear the sound of a distant windstorm, and she would go into a kind of rapture, or trance. Then she would begin to paint. The use of a blindfold made no difference to her fluency in this activity.Sadly, Alicia was committed by her family to a private institution where she lived from 1899 until her death in 1957. The works she produced during the studio séances have been held in storage until now.
Pirrie’s artworks are unremarkable by themselves, it is their occult provenance that distinguishes them. The ghost painter speaks to us from another world. While this may seem a ridiculous concept, consider the commonly indulged activity of staring at old paintings. The thrill of finding a drip in a Velazquez or a brush – hair in a Bonnard, perhaps even a fingerprint on a drawing, it’s almost like feeling the artist’s breath over your shoulder. There was a living, thinking being here that left this for me to look at …I’m conversing with a ghost!
Pirrie’s literal inspiration of his widow Alicia catalyses her into creative leaps she might not otherwise have made. Who of us has not, at some time or other, been inspired by a ghost? But, as any good séance attendee knows, such occasions can let in the uninvited, the unexpected and the unheard of. The reading of history, prescribed as it might be, can be linked to the séance, with the greatest difference being, in most cases, a switch from first hand communication to second or third hand. In the case of art history we are offered a pleasing mix of stories and pictures. The intertwining of art and biography provides a compelling narrative, which, in most cases, adds garnish to a more direct appreciation of the work itself. Generally the two can be read together, like cause and effect. But what if both are fictional?
Conventional history has been extremely harsh on the two poets who concocted Ern Malley. What they set out to do can be seen as far from reactionary. They created a poet who should have existed even if he technically did not. Whatever their motives may or may not have been, they clearly answered a need and they answered it better than anyone else. Had this hoax been perpetrated today it would almost certainly have been received more positively. By constructing a fictional poet with a believable yet tantalizingly incomplete biography Stewart and MacAuley were propelling the author/artwork convention into new and unchartered territory. What they did was anything but conservative: for a start, they collaborated. This in itself was a radical manoeuvre in an era that sought to worship and mythologise the auteur, even if their real agenda lay elsewhere. The idea of eschewing the sacred cow of the inspired individual was itself a slap in the face to the entrenched genius-fantasies of Modernism.
Ern Malley is an amalgam of romantic attributes that provides an irresistible addition to the pantheon of artist/outsider types whose biographies are often at least as interesting as their work. The fact that this biography is entirely fictional gives it an ongoing resonance that might have proven even more irritating to its creators than the enormous success of the poetry.
‘I still believe in Ern Malley’,(Max) Harris wrote years later.
‘ … I know that Ern Malley was not a real person, but a personality invented in order to hoax me… In all simplicity and faith I believed such a person existed, and I believed it for many months before the newspapers threw their banner headline at me. For me Ern Malley embodies the true sorrow and pathos of our time. One had felt that somewhere in the streets of every city was an Ern Malley . . .’ ( Max Harris, 2003, 277/8
This beautiful statement by Max Harris, made only a short time before his death, suggests that truth is a relative concept; that while specific details and names might be the stuff of invention, perhaps a greater truth is possible. If Ern Malley didn’t really exist, then he should have. The Spanish fiction artist Joan Fontcuberta offers a view of photography that parallels Harris’s beliefs,
Contemporary art supports the notion of falsification as an intellectual strategy. … Today, nothing is evident; on the contrary, we navigate in a cloud of ambiguity, through virtual spaces that are substitutes for experience. … concepts of truth and falsehood have been stripped of all validity. Everything is both true and false, establishing a new protocol of relations for images and systems of knowledge transmission, which tend to reposition the social functions of technologies that produce images and redefine notions of what is real. ( Joan Fontcuberta, 2005:7)
In conclusion I would like to suggest that history resembles the child’s jigsaw puzzle that has been spilled on the floor with some pieces disappearing forever behind armchairs or into dogs’ mouths. Such constructs as Ern Malley, the Smoking Dog and Pirrie the ghost painter are needed in order to offer provisional solutions to the puzzles of the past.
Baldessari, John. (2003). Utopia Station, Dreams and Conflicts, the Dictatorship of the Viewer, (Venice Biennale Catalogue)
Breton, Andre. (1988). Mad Love, (New York: Bison Books)
Fontcuberta, Joan. (2005). Truths, Fictions, Virtuality (Photofile #59)
Harris, Max, (2003). My Life as a Fake, Peter Carey (Australia: Random House)
Krauss, Rosalind. (19193). Art, Michigan: M.I.T)