Girl In The Frame
by John Undermeyer
I WONDER if you know the magazine Artlife? It’s a monthly effort, mostly about painting and sculpture and often reviews exhibitions at London’s private art galleries. I’m the editor and not long ago I was looking rather urgently for a piece to lead my next issue.
As editor I frequently receive calls from gallery owners, so I was not surprised to hear from Fiona-Jane McCullum. Fiona is a Scot d’un certain age who owns a well-known gallery in the vicinity of Berkeley Square. She is careful about the work she shows, so when she rings I pay attention to what she says and usually attend her previews.
This time the invitation was especially intriguing. She was showing work from a school led by her elder brother. You will understand that by school I do not mean a place of education. I mean, rather, a group of artists who have joined together, in this case in one place, because they share a similar outlook and philosophy. They are conducting — as they like to put it — a search for some artistic truth.
‘So you want to introduce me to the McCullum School?’ I chuckled down the phone.
Fiona explained that her brother was the head of a group of young artists who lived in a large house in Cornwall. I would subsequently discover that Douglas McCullum was a middle-aged man, very well-built, with a huge head of hair, a full-set beard, rosy face, black cheery eyes and a disposition for good claret. He was rarely out of his smock which was besmeared with paint from his brushes, palette and hands. His companions were a group of young men and women who were experimenting with certain painting techniques. Every summer they spent a fortnight in London exhibiting their work and naturally they used Fiona’s gallery.
‘The preview is next Monday and I believe you ought to be there…’ Fiona told me.
‘All very well,’ I said, relieved at the prospect of hopefully being able to fill a looming hole in my next issue. ‘I’ve certainly had some good copy and pictures from your past exhibitions. But I must say…’ I paused because I had to put this delicately, ‘…the McCullum school is not one I am familiar with. And — as you know — I’m not one who enjoys strange or outlandish experiments in oils…’
‘No more am I!’ Was Fiona’s tart riposte. Then, more pleasantly: ‘You’ll see some very good work, I promise. It’s impossible to describe it on the telephone, but it’s stimulating work. I’ll say no more now… just come. OK?’
The phone went down. I knew Fiona never hung rubbish so I went along, although I had not the least idea what to expect.
The viewing had a most unusual effect on me which I shall describe as best I can. Fiona met me at the reception table with a grateful smile, a slim catalogue and a glass of well-chilled champagne. After the usual kisses and how-are-yous she said, ‘Take your time. Enjoy what you see; you may even give your readers a surprise or two in next month’s issue. But don’t leave without speaking to me again.’
She urged this last sentence on me in a way that convinced me that I would be missing something if I slipped away without saying goodbye. But I was not ready for what I finally saw.
You will know, if you know Artlife, that most small galleries in Mayfair, Chelsea and Soho rarely show work that depicts the human form in all its natural realism. Blobs, anomalous patches, large indecipherable shapes and other oddities often litter the walls. But far from distorting and rearranging its figures, this school depicted them with skill, grace and beauty. I began to be impressed. I was looking at really gifted life-drawing and painting and there was an overall feeling of passion about the work. It evoked incense and could have been thought of — in a certain sense — as worshipful.
Most of the paintings were of young women, or young couples. There were a few landscapes; one in particular caught my eye. It was a huge house, perched about 500 yards from the edge of a sheer cliff, the walls of which plunged some 500 feet into what I later learned was the Atlantic. I was to discover many strange facts about this house, not the least of which that it had been built ‘back to front’. You approached it through a long drive of close-planted pine trees only to be confronted by the rear. The front aspect gazed (as in this picture) out over the sea.
The paintings were accomplished in a palate that moved from pale greys to indigo, via all the shades of blue. The predominant colour was that of incense smoke when burned from a stick. The figures (as I say, mostly girls) were willowy and mysterious. There were sprites, wood-nymphs, huntresses, dancers, tall, slim, arms and legs stretched to fine points, bodies poised to throw a javelin, reach for a plant, catch a bird in flight or pull a star out of heaven. There were girls in pirouette holding a wand or torch or standing on tip-toe preparing to dive into a lake. Mostly they had bird-like necks from which bent pale, bashful heads sprayed about with long shanks of flowing hair.
All the images were naked. Breasts were the shape of saucers or shallow wine bowls, arms and legs were taut and trim, waists dissolved into a boyish narrowness and tummies were hard and flat. The beautiful slender legs had (so it seemed to me) been elongated slightly and melded into feminine thighs then into firm, tight buttocks. And here was the strange part. The buttocks appeared to be sucked in at the cleft, their muscles clenched tight, utterly closed — indeed squeezed together almost vehemently. The cheeks were like two parts of a glass marble which had been split, melted, then when molten, pressed together again. Strength, fitness, vitality and vibrant youth were all present but so also was pain. You may feel it strange for me to say that these fairy figures conveyed vibrant pain. I too found the sensation rare. I can only assure you that after long and careful appraisal I became convinced it was so.
You are, I am sure, familiar with Rodin’s The Kiss. A similar erotic rapture suffused virtually all the paintings from this strange school. Young women lay naked, their heads in the laps of young men, their sinuous arms wrapped adoringly around the legs of their seated masters. Figures twined sensuously with a quality which reminded me of the old love-carvings in the Tantric temples of India. Some poises carried the hint of yoga. There were echoes of Degas’s ballet girls, though without their pumps and tutus. There was certainly the discipline and spirit of the ballet exercise class. One naked girl was poised high on a tightrope, a paper umbrella in her hand. Another danced on a high wooden bar. All the work left me — and I will confess it unashamedly — with a feeling of spirited, singing sexuality.
I began to wonder how much of this exhibition I dared illustrate in Artlife for many of my readers are fastidious and all believe in art with the utmost good taste. This work was tasteful enough but it was also seductive. The beautiful people in these scenes were sexual beings. Men had the faces of Creek gods. The girls possessed an allure, a startling preternaturalness unsullied by the trendy hairstyles and knowing glances of big-city life. Their faces were open and smiling, their eyes innocent and happy, their poses inviting inspection and admiration. At first I was impressed; then, falling more and more under their influence, beguiled; finally, although I would never admit it in my own publication, I was aroused.
One canvas, showing a young woman reaching to pluck an apple from a high branch, her body stretched so that every curve and crevice could be seen in its ultimate definition, reminded me of Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra: ‘She makes hungry where most she satisfies.’
When I found Fiona again I was ravenous to know more about the McCullum school of art. The gallery-owner looked at me teasingly over the top of her half-rim spectacles. When I raised an eyebrow to encourage her to explain, she broke into a taunting grin and drew her tongue along her teeth as if to say ‘Think what you’d have missed if you hadn’t come’.
‘You’d have to be nerveless not to catch the scent,’ was what she actually said. ‘Evocative, isn’t it? I’m glad my brother has been willing to put his more successful efforts on show.’
We were walking towards the back of the gallery where a roped-off staircase led to the floor above. On the scarlet cord across the first step hung a notice: PRIVATE. Viewing only when accompanied by a representative of the gallery.
‘Since you are clearly enjoying yourself I think perhaps I can take you upstairs. There is a second exhibition which I show only to those I am sure will genuinely appreciate it.’ It was clear as she re-clipped the red rope behind us that I was to be shown something the general visitor would never see. When we reached the upper gallery it was poorly lit but Fiona turned up a series of dimmer-wheels to full brightness and I caught my first inkling of why this room was for trusted patrons only.
The canvases were much larger than those below and the figures on them fully lifesize. These pictures could most certainly not under any circumstances be reproduced in Artlife, although no doubt the majority of my subscribers would have been fascinated.
The first showed a giant room which might once have been the dining hall of a stately home but was now quite unfurnished, with whitewashed walls, uncurtained windows and uncarpeted floor. The windows gazed towards that familiar clifftop, then out into the sea. Two figures formed the centrepiece. One was a girl in her twenties, fully naked and bent like a hairpin. She was high on the points of her toes. Her legs, shut so tightly they seemed to form a single stem, streamed upwards in a smoothly curving line taking in her calves and thighs. At the top of her legs, pushed proudly in the air, was the most perfect bottom. It stuck upwards almost defiantly, tight, round, tantalising in its invitation, smooth, curvaceous and beseeching attention.
This gorgeous dome of dimpled flesh swelled outwards then curved into a complete ‘U’ turn, stretching downwards now, the outline of the totally bent spine melding into long slender arms which flowed sleekly towards hands and fingers that strained to her toes. The longest finger of either hand just touched the tips of her tilted feet. It was the ‘bend-and-touch-your-toes’ position par excellence.
By this time Fiona had left me alone and was signing some papers at a large desk at the end of the room. I had not noticed her going, so closely was I studying the picture. The girl’s head was tucked hard into her knees. Her inverted breasts pressed firmly against the front of her thighs. Her long, smoky hair fell across part of her face, touched the floor and spread outwards from her feet like spilled wine.
Toes and fingers were stretched to the limit. I peered to study what could be seen of her features. She was serenely pretty; her eyes, painted sapphire, were wide open and sparkling, her small mouth pouting in what could have been — in a different kind of picture — a softly blown kiss.
The second figure was a young man of about the same age as the delightful girl. He was dressed as if for the ballet, but planted firmly on the soles of both feet. He wore a haughty, imperious look, and his head was held straight and stiff as he stood to one side of the tip-toed enchantress looking at her with a mixture of mastery and worship. One hand was fully outstretched and then I noticed a third hand entering the picture from the side of the canvas. This hand was passing our ballet dancer a crook-handled cane.
You may legitimately ask if there were weals on the bottom of this upturned girl and I must report there were not. But studying the face of the dancer, and the eagerness with which his fingers stretched to reach for that whippy, offered wand, I could not doubt that had this picture represented the same scene but thirty seconds into the future, there would most certainly have been four, perhaps five, finely-ridged tramlines on that unblemished skin.
I moved to the next large frame which was a portrait picture showing head, shoulders and part of the upper torso, trimmed just below the breasts. It was a girl, and as I looked I saw that she was the same maiden who stood bent doubled over on the previous canvas.
Light caught the top of her head and the long silky hair which was strewn in glory all about the sides of her sweet face, framing the high-boned cheeks, covering completely both her ears, falling in wanton abandon across part of one eye, then down over both shoulders. Most of her hair vanished behind her back, but another lock led the viewer’s eye to the most delicate, up-tipped and brazenly erect nipple.
This, I realised, was the painting of the same girl, some five or ten minutes after the ballet dancer had accomplished his task. I was looking at a portrait of sorrow and grief, of misery and distress, of shame and self-pity, of irredeemable remorse and very vibrant pain.
Down each youthful, downy cheek there still trickled a wet channel of tears. The eyes had clearly been streaming only minutes before but now they shed their brine slowly and irregularly as a melting icicle drips in a bleak and wintry sun. Yes, this was the winter of her discontent. A storm had burst between the moments depicted in the last canvas and this. In the unshown interval the cane had been utilised and laid aside, and the girl allowed to rise and stand upright.
The artist had captured the baleful and humbled look in her almost shuttered eyes. He had not missed the way her tears had glued together her erstwhile separated eyelashes. A bulging pearl of brine was balanced on the lower rim of one eye whilst her other gazed wistfully, having just blinked away — or so it seemed — the droplet that was now coursing towards one side of her pert and pretty nose.
Her nostrils, I noticed, shone at their openings with glittering albumen and I asked myself whether it was right to show a perfect portrait with a runny nose. Yes, I counselled my critical mind. When a woman weeps as copiously as this there can be no doubt that the nose must shed its liquid too: this was only a post-punishment truth. The painter had conveyed this passion so eloquently that in my transport I was moved to feel for my kerchief, so that the penitent might wipe away the offending evidence of distress. Even had her face been dry, one could still clearly have seen the girl’s preoccupation with sensations that possessed her whole consciousness.
Those lips, which (as I told you) in the last picture might have suggested a softly blown kiss, were now turned down bitterly at both comers. They parted slightly in the centre and I could tell, so acutely was the scene depicted, that the girl was breathing through her mouth. No doubt the nostrils were partly unable to take the air. Tears had run across her mouth and left a shimmering and wanton track of dampness on both lips. There were even one or two now hanging perilously on her heart-shaped chin, just waiting for the next heave of her breath to shake them on to those glowing breasts or into her dishevelled and dampened hair.
My mind went back to the pictures I had seen downstairs. I remembered how I had been convinced that the buttocks of so many figures had been clamped fiercely tight. How the cheeks of so many bottoms had been held so hard, tension shrieking in each half of the glass marble. Here was the explanation. Expectation. Expectation of corrective pain. Immediate expectation of the bite of the cane. Fear of that searing bamboo sting.
I retraced my steps a few paces to look at the first picture again. Here was the impish mistress, bent double and stretched tight, on the point of receiving her punishment. I hurried to the second canvas. Here was the penitent after the deed had been done. I could only surmise how many strokes of that proffered wand it had taken to reduce the girl to the tearful state in the portrait. But I could not doubt that the cane had been laid on with a will. I looked once more at the downcast eyes which seeped soft salty water.
I lowered my gaze to the breasts, one of which was partly covered by her hair, the other quite naked. They were so beautifully firm, I thought it unlikely they needed support from even the daintiest bra, and I imagined how adorable those breasts would be to caress. How telling, too, that the secret caning of that peach of a naked bottom had brought both nipples to a state of rigid wakefulness. Surely, even when she made love her nipples could not attain that length and hardness. And they had been painted with such realism that I was almost tempted to lick the canvas and make a complete fool of myself.
Both of these adorable mounds showed traces of how the young lady had wept, for there were glittering beads on her breasts and their tracks ran down from her eyes, across her cheeks, to pause at the chin then topple over and bedeck her upper body. The streaks showed how they had fallen. Yet there was the purest and most moving poetry in the face from which tears were still slipping. Not a trace of resentment could be seen on it. There could be no doubt, I concluded, that the ballet dancer had mastered the skills of whippy rattan and given this forlorn young upstart such a sizzling bottom that simple words could not express all the nuances of her feelings.
I was on the point of moving to the next canvas when I heard the sound of people mounting the stairs. These, too, must be special guests, I thought, for Fiona had stressed that only a chosen few were invited to this first floor, and could even then only come if accompanied by a member of the gallery staff. But no member of staff was present. Instead there was a giant, rust-bearded merry-eyed Father Christmas of a man, and beside him a slim, long-haired and very attractive young woman.
Fiona-Jane was on her feet and hurrying forward to greet the newcomers. ‘Douglas!’ she whooped. ‘How good to see you. And you too, Clarissa.’ She flung her arms round the bearded man’s neck and dotted him with kisses. Then she drew back and shook hands with the girl. ‘I wasn’t expecting you till next week. You said you couldn’t come to the preview.’
The big man was clearly Douglas McCullum, head of the school whose paintings had so captivated me. But it was Clarissa I was studying. Surely I knew this girl? The face was so familiar; the sapphire eyes, the flowing locks of hair, the mouth that pouted slightly as though she were blowing a kiss. I looked at the portrait of the weeping woman again. Of course. They were one and the same. It was Clarissa who had touched her toes, been caned, and was painted again with the unfakeable proof of her tears.
She walked towards me with a delicate outstretched hand and a truly lovely smile. ‘How do you do?’ she asked. And without waiting for my reply (which may have taken a few seconds, I was so surprised at this meeting) she went on, ‘I see you have been studying me on canvas. Don’t I make a wretched spectacle?’ With a most affecting little giggle.
‘You must have been hurting terribly…’ I began in an attempt to show sympathy but she brushed my embarrassment and condolences aside. ‘Yes, my bottom was burning, and I did cry hard as you can see. But isn’t the finished result a superb painting? It was my friend Dominic who painted it. We had the canvas and everything else ready. Then Dominic gave me the cane and we hurried on to get the results into paint. What do you think?’
Her voice was girlish and cultured, and her face was so cheerful, and she was obviously so pleased that Dominic had captured her tears and shame, that I simply could feel anything but pure wonder. ‘I tell you what I think. I think this work is so good I am going to buy the picture.’
Weeping Clarissa now has pride of place on my living-room wall. Whenever I look at her the frisson starts inside me and images of her under the cane run riot through my mind. She would not stay silent, I am sure of that, for her expressive nature would not allow her to suppress her cries and gasps. Nor, I feel, would she wish to deny her witness the delicious satisfaction of seeing her full response to discipline. I gaze at her watery eyes, her downturned lids, her tear-streaked face and naughty, uptilted, elongated nipples and remember her smile when we met. And there is another chapter to her story.
Douglas McCullum has invited me to the big house in Cornwall, overlooking the cliffs which plunge into the Atlantic. As editor of Artlife I am potentially his most influential advocate. I am to be allowed full freedom of the house and to watch the artists at work in their various studios. Clarissa is to be painted again, this time by another artist. I have commissioned the picture especially. The subject? The same as before, of course, because I cannot see too much of this beautiful girl.
Douglas has made me a promise which I look forward to in great anticipation. Clarissa will be painted with the tears once more coursing down her cheeks. And I will be allowed to watch. Not just while the portrait is being done. But during her trial and preparation when she is to be awarded a full dozen strokes of the cane.