Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Djuna Barnes; the 31 Women number eleven; her birthday is 12 June.

Djuna Barnes in 1921
         Djuna Barnes is one of the most original talents among the 31 Women, although anyone who has heard of her may be slightly surprised to find her named as an artist in an exhibition.  However it would be wrong to regard this as undeserved.  She was a more than able visual artist and known for her pen and ink portraits and newspaper illustrations, though from early on she made a conscious choice to be a writer rather than a visual artist. She often illustrated her own poetry and in the 1930’s she sold an unknown number of oil painted portraits.

She had acute visual awareness, which she usually converted into words, her writing style has been described as painterly. In both art and writing she was an obsessive perfectionist, working and re-working a painting or manuscript for months and years, often having difficulty letting go of any work she regarded as less than perfect.

Although Djuna Barnes frequently illustrated her written work, revealing technically and artistically sophisticated visual skills, she always regarded herself as a writer rather than an artist. There was only one solo exhibition of her artwork, in 1915, where she showed drawings and watercolours, some on anti-war themes. Guido Bruno, gallery owner, described her as the American Beardsley as she created deliberately Beardsley-esque illustrations for newspaper articles and poems. She avoided direct involvement with art movements, although before 1920 she was already friends with artists including Berenice Abbott, Marcel Duchamp, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Lawrence Vail, Mina Loy and Man Ray.

In later years she became reclusive, only communicating with her friends via telephone or letter and even in her youth she was reserved and a social observer, not usually a party animal. Many of her drawings and paintings are portraits of people she should have been close too, but they appear isolated on their page or sheet of card; they do not look out at the viewer, as they did not see the real Djuna Barnes, illustrating her isolation, for she was fundamentally a loner.

Djuna Barnes' extraordinary family history goes some way to explaining both her innate creativity and her reserved nature. She was born on June 12, 1892 on a farm near Storm King Mountain, Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY. In this beautiful rural setting the Barnes family lifestyle was far from traditional. Djuna’s English mother, violinist Elisabeth Chappell, had met her American father, Wald Barnes, in London. Wald Barnes was an unknown writer and artist, he was more successful at polygamy and promiscuity, conducting social experiments on his family. Djuna was the second child, with four brothers, two half-brothers and a half-sister, Muriel.

Djuna and her siblings were largely brought up by their grandmother; Zadel Gustafson was a successful journalist, writer, feminist and a spiritualist. Through her the family had visits by writers, musicians and artists including novelist Jack London and composer Franz Liszt, though some may have been ‘visitations’.  Djuna was not sent to school, her father distrusted teachers and Zadel educated all the children at home. She was a published poet, novelist and essayist and her example made a profound impression.
Later Djuna said her parents were distant and her grandmother was her true parent. Her father would whip the children and there are indications of sexual abuse in this unusual household; at her father’s instigation Djuna, aged 16, was forcibly ‘married off’ to a much older man, the brother of Wald Barnes’ second wife. This brutal event had a profound effect on her. She understandably never forgave her father and for much of her later life she avoided the family.

Djuna Barnes’ formal education came after she moved to New York City around 1911, following her parents’ divorce. This escape, aged nineteen, from her father’s bizarre ideology encouraged her to study. In 1912 she became a student at the Pratt Institute, then attended the Art Students League (1915-16). She was considering art as a career and she could not afford dilettantism, but art did not become her full time profession. Although she did sell paintings and drawings, her visual talent has been subsumed beneath her literary achievement.

            She was already a writer and it would be futile to comment on the creativity of Djuna Barnes without including her contribution to American literature. She once described herself as, ‘the most famous unknown writer,’ a quote that has been used by everyone, so must obviously be included here! In the first part of the twentieth century, literary women suffered from less discrimination than women in the visual arts and Barnes writing achieved limited recognition. Her first published poem appeared in Harper’s in June 1911 and that was only the beginning.

          Djuna Barnes was a successful journalist for almost twenty years; beginning in New York in 1913. She worked as an interviewer, illustrator and reporter for such diverse publications as The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the New York Sun. However this was mainly to earn daily bread for her divorced mother and younger siblings and to buy care for her ailing grandmother, who was a continuing influence on her as a writer. For a time Barnes had a very good income, she worked hard and her ability to illustrate her articles helped to sell them, but she seldom took her journalistic forays seriously. She had to interview celebrities, many of whom she despised, and participate in silly and sometimes dangerous stunts. One ‘story’ had her hugging a gorilla, in another she submitted to force-feeding like a political prisoner, in order to describe the experience. Her articles display her literary skills, her dark humour and her keen eye for the bizarre.

         Later in life she gave up journalism and she wasn't able to rely on a regular income from her other writing activities. She wrote in a variety of esoteric styles, on lesbian and other personal themes and much of her literary work was treated as obscure and of limited appeal. Unlike her barbed, witty journalism, her highly wrought and sometimes impenetrable poetry and prose proved hard to sell to the general public, it could never be regarded as light reading.

         Her work as a journalist meant Djuna Barnes could travel; in 1921 McCall’s magazine sent her to be their Paris correspondent at a time when Paris was entering a new heyday after the trauma of the First World War. In Paris she became involved with the avant-garde intellectual circle often known as the ‘Women of the Left Bank.’ These were mainly English speaking literary women, who found the less intolerant atmosphere in Paris more conducive to female creativity than the Victorian social values still prevailing in their home countries of Britain and the USA. In spite of their liking for French liberalism, very few of these women bothered to gain any fluency in the French language and Djuna Barnes was no exception, though she lived mainly in France for twenty years.

         This circle of women included talented writers such as Gertrude Stein, Janet Flanner and Natalie Barney. Barnes wrote a satirical work, Ladies Almanack, about this largely lesbian group and the individuals who were a part of it. Respected and even feared for her acerbic wit, Djuna Barnes became recognised as the other important writer among this community, alongside Gertrude Stein. However when Barnes became immersed in the ex-pat scene in Paris, it was not only women who were anxious to know her. She was an attractive, forceful woman who also befriended male writers including Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. She always thought Joyce was the best writer of the century. Joyce in his turn admired her work and they kept up an irregular correspondence for many years.

         Most of Barnes’ work, including much of her journalism, was concerned with the lives of people who, like Barnes herself, could not fit conventional patriarchal models of society. Although the Djuna Barnes of the 1920’s was seen as a striking, auburn-haired beauty, sweeping through Paris in a full black opera cloak, drinking and smoking elegantly and lacing her conversation with biting humour, she said years later that this was a public persona which she found necessary. The withdrawn, private Djuna was never seen by most of her friends. This separateness even from a group which admired her was a precursor to the isolation she was to live in for the final forty years of her life. Barnes was always a cynical observer rather than a joiner and this characteristic undoubtedly contributed to her creative uniqueness, her work defies the barriers of propriety and genre. 

Her writing style was highly experimental, she often used deliberately archaic language and obscure refereneces, combining dark, biting satire with almost surreal, fin-de-siecle settings and imagery. As a far from mainstream writer, she was over-looked for most of the twentieth century, except by an observant few. Her first novel, Ryder (1928) was almost a minor bestseller. Her best known work is her second novel, Nightwood (1936), a nearly gothic satire with sexually ambiguous characters involved in obscurely dubious activities; as most of these were based on people she knew, she lost friends over it. She also wrote a number of plays, some were performed by the Provincetown Players before she moved to Paris. In 1958 she created a verse drama, the Antiphon, which though only performed once in her lifetime is today regarded as her other major work beside Nightwood. 

         Djuna Barnes personal life remained confused. After breaking free of her highly unconventional family, she was briefly married, in New York, to writer Courtney Lemon, although it is doubtful this arrangement involved a wedding ceremony. She admired a number of men, possessors of ‘fine minds,’ but her praise of them was never unstinting. Lemon was the first of these, for two years they shared a single room and a dark sense of humour, but then she departed for Paris and another life.

         Another of her New York lovers was artist and writer Lawrence Vail, whose work was also staged by the Provincetown players. Vail would go on to marry Peggy Guggenheim, who was one of Djuna’s longest lasting and most supportive friends. Barnes also admired Guggenheim’s second husband, critic John Holmes.

         However quite apart from her ‘fine minded’ men, she had a number of close female friends and lovers, who were more important. These included photographer Berenice Abbott, artist Mina Loy, Dada Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, writer Janet Flanner and Jane Heap, the co-editor with Margaret Anderson of literary magazine the Little Review, which published some of Barnes’ poetry and stories. Most of these friendships lasted many years, though the Dada Baroness died in 1929. However Djuna Barnes' private life was largely solitary, she and Lemon were separated by 1920 and her only longer relationship, with sculptor Thelma Wood, lasted less than a decade. In later years she denied that she had ever been a lesbian, although her memory was deliberately selective it was all grist to her own very personal creative mill.

Throughout much of her life Djuna Barnes had a patron, in the form of Peggy Guggenheim, who obviously admired and cared for her brilliant friend, though Djuna found her dependence on Peggy difficult. She stayed with Peggy often during the 1930’s when she was living in England. It seems likely that Peggy saved Djuna’s life at least once, when she attempted suicide after her abortion. Barnes continued to suffer poor health, afflicted by her asthma and by serious depression. The outbreak of WWII found her back in Paris, recovering from another breakdown. Although Guggenheim had withheld funds for a short while, refusing to fund Djuna’s drinking, she paid the medical bills.

Peggy Guggenheim arranged Djuna’s return to the United States in 1941, putting her fragile friend on a ship; coincidentally the same vessel as Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, whose work Peggy had exhibited in London. She put Tanguy in charge of Barnes’ welfare on the voyage. Exactly how Peggy thought this alcoholic French former sailor and current Surrealist hell-raiser was meant to be responsible for a proud, asthmatic, reclusive, American lesbian is not clear. All they had in common was a certain regard for Peggy Guggenheim and a larger one for booze, but both survived the journey.

Back in New York, Djuna Barnes' interest in art waned, one of her last paintings was a portrait of Peggy. By 1950 she had also given up alcohol, cigarettes and sex, though it was too late for her health, she suffered from asthma and emphysema. Peggy continued to contribute to medical bills and paid her a small stipend for many years, allowing her to live in frugal comfort. She settled in a tiny apartment in Patchin Place, Greenwich Village, where she lived for forty years, emerging with increasing rarity to visit friends, the doctor or occasionally the cinema. Her health and her eyesight gradually deteriorated and, never an easy person to get along with, she became increasingly irascible even with her closest friends.

It is easy to assume that Djuna Barnes was damaged by her bizarre childhood and her life of excess in Europe, which led to her involuntarily shutting herself away in her New York apartment for forty years. An interestingly different view says that Barnes deliberately chose solitude, abstinence and celibacy, allowing herself the space to concentrate on her writing. Although almost nothing was published during those last forty years, when photographer and writer Hank O’Neal was introduced to Djuna Barnes by her old friend, Berenice Abbott in 1979, he found her flat filled with dozens of sheaves of poetry, upon which failing eyesight and deteriorating health was preventing her from working.

O’Neal acted as editorial assistant and arranged for the re-publication of several of her works, plus a new poetry collection. Miss Barnes, as O’Neal always called her, co-operated with him for more than two years and found that her work was still in demand, which helped her financial situation. Her final new volume, Creatures in an Alphabet was a result of this co-operation. O’Neal’s memoir about their relationship reads as a moving study of a brilliant mind, struggling to come to terms with a lonely and irresolvable life.

Sadly, Miss Barnes had become estranged from Hank O’Neal too, before she died on 18 June 1982, aged 90 years and six days. She ended her days as she had largely lived them, in selected isolation with her mind, no doubt, still full of dark poetry.

My thanks go to Hank O'Neal for his kind help and for his extraordinary book -

 “Life is painful, nasty and short…in my case it has only been painful and nasty.” Djuna Barnes: An Informal Memoir  by Hank O'Neal, published in New York by Paragon House in 1990
Other useful sources on Djuna Barnes include:-

 Silence and Power; a Re-evaluation of Djuna Barnes edited by Mary Lynn Broe in 1991, Southern Illinois University Press

Djuna Barnes: A Bibliography by Douglas Messerli - 1975 David Lewis, New York

You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog. Just click the 'Project 31 Women' label below to see the others.

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