The Colors of Hilaire Hiler (Part 1)
References to my painter friend Hilaire Hiler (16 July 1898 – 19 January 1966) crop up in the most reassuring places. In a diverting book about the growth and power of the cosmetic industry, War Paint, Lindy Woodhead wrote: “The Jockey [Club], run by Hilaire Hiler who designed and painted the interiors in the style of a Wild West saloon, was fondly remembered by Hemingway as being ‘the best nightclub that ever was.’”1 Not sure the big fellow Ernest is the definitive word, but it’s nice to see Hilaire’s talent and joie recognized.
I can still see Hilaire Hiler’s place, one of the dramatic studio/residences built for artists at the end of the nineteenth century near Cite d’Universite in Paris’s 14th arrondisement. In 1965, near the end of his life, Hilaire was working on large exquisite color wheels. After years as an abstract artist, he now explored the eye’s ability to discern minute differentiations in the spectrum. The round canvases were mounted on the tall south wall above which, in the light-drenched, high-ceilinged Elizabethan-style room, was a balcony protected by a substantial wood railing. The north wall had a high, sloping roof covered by an expanse of opaque glass.
But back to Hilaire. The first evening Hilaire, another friend and I had a good dinner in a quiet bistro when, after much eating and drinking and conversation, Hilaire began to cough. He’d coughed several times before, and his flushed face had suggested high blood pressure or possibly a more toxic condition. Now the paroxysm hit— he went on with such force for so long, his face turned beet red, and, for a terrifying time, he could not breathe. It was painful to sit there and watch; I wanted to do something, anything to ease the problem. Or run the hell away. I silently asked my friend if there was anything to do, but her eyes signaled me to stay calm and wait. Around us, the entire restaurant remained on hold, as though we all hovered in a balloon above his life-and-death fray. While the paroxysm continued there was an odd poise, an equilibrium compounded of fear, the shared impulse to sprint from the restaurant and also a brutal, cowardly fascination with the resounding death rattle of the high-spirited, large, florid man whom all the waiters and several of the customers liked. At last the coughing subsided, like the monster Grendl slouching back into her cave. After he caught enough air to breathe freely, I thanked Hilaire for dinner and asked if I could get him a taxi. He looked at me hard, as though offended. We slowly proceeded to the exit, Hilaire hailed his own cab. After that first evening I realized that, since Hilaire was dying, to be his friend I had to accept the process itself. At 25, it seemed cruel to be asked to face that ultimate fact—though not as cruel as it was to Hilaire.
I ran into Hilaire in La Coupole some nights later, and he bought me a drink and we talked, mostly about his work and color theory. (I’m reminded of astronomer Remington Byrd, who sent David Sauer, an eye surgeon friend of my older brother’s, a copy of the actual visual spectrum. The entire range of colors available to the most sophisticated instruments and keen-sighted animals like hawks and raptors; there was a small black triangle drawn over a sliver of the color wheel. Rem had written, “Range of color discerned by the human eye: That’s all we can see, David!” This to the eye surgeon.) That evening Hilaire invited my friend and me his studio/home for dinner.
His friend Janine cooked. We ate and drank in the dining/living area with its towering wall graced by his meticulous color gradations. (In Ulysses, Bloom’s high school teacher is Roygbiv Vance: the first name an acronym for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.) That night Hilaire coughed for intervals of six, seven, eight minutes. After one assault subsided, Hilaire dragged himself and all of us upstairs, where he showed us the view from the balcony then we trooped into his bedroom—a trompe l’oeil fantasy. The entire space was draped with painted green vines, an orgy of simulated growth. Vines trailed and descended over the canopy bed, entwined in embraces above the weighty wooden headboard carved with delicate flowers and ferns. Every square inch of the wall and floor was fecund green—rampant shades of green, the painter’s bid to upstage nature’s lavish spring outpouring. A seasonal largesse that Picasso denigrated as causing him “green indigestion.” Janine looked altogether at home in Hilaire’s magic bower, where I assumed they spent many nights sharing and reciprocating pleasures. I felt oddly jealous that evening, half-in lust/love with the lovely, relaxed and assured Janine, with her dark hair and candid, inviting smile—the French woman of a young man’s dreams, sensual, worldly and approachable. Sex wasn’t being offered to me, but it was clear it played a central role in her mental and emotional life.
Several nights later, at Hilaire’s, we drank so much and stayed so late that my friend passed out on the sofa. Janine, who had an early call in the morning, retired upstairs to the fairytale bower. Hilaire and I sipped our brandy and then he asked, “You like Joyce, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied, having read Ulysses once. At the time I admired all of Joyce’s work with the exception of Finnegan’s Wake, which I believe is a colossal mistake, an avant-garde bid to outdo Ulysses, where Joyce, unable to escape his inflated schema, paints himself into a literary corner. Moment-to-moment Finnegan’s Wake is unreadable—too many puns, too many layers. But then I’ve never been able to finish it, so I should shut up. Just before he died in January 1941, Joyce said that he would like his next work to be a simple story about the sea, which could have been his literary goal or yet another perplexing Joycean enigma—could he write a simple tale about anything, yet alone the sea with its ubiquity, ceaseless movement and unfathomable depths?
We’re in Hilaire’s studio; now it was two in the morning. No Metro that late. I was about to wake up my passed out friend when Hilaire offered this: “Some day I’ll tell you about my meeting with Joyce.” I asked if he could tell me now.
“One day Robert McAlmon and I were walking down a street, and a guy came up to us and said that Joyce wanted to talk to an Irish Jew. McAlmon was an American, whose father was a Scot, I think, and I had somewhat curious history—Jewish by birth, my name was Hiler Harzberg. My father changed the last name to Hiler. Hiler Hiler sounded like I stuttered so nominally here I am. Anyhow, we went to Joyce’s apartment on (I think, 71, Rue du Cardinale Lemoine). We drank his fine white wine for a couple of hours and, while the interview went on, I sketched Joyce—full face, in profile, at a 45-degree angle. At the end of the session Joyce asked to see the drawings. I handed them over, and he pulled the first one as close to his eyes as anyone I’d ever seen. But he couldn’t make out the outline. So I took the drawing back and darkened the lines. Even then he couldn’t see it. Finally, after another go at it, Joyce could just about make out his own profile.”
This, for me, is where the hard part starts. Hilaire said, “You want to look at them? I’ll go get them. I’ll give you one.” “Where are they?” I asked. “Upstairs.” At that point he started to cough. It went for six or seven minutes. He turned beet red, lobster red, latterly a terrifying scarlet, outshining a newly scrubbed fire engine or a rooster’s comb. A hacking, persistent, hopeless cough, as though something inside had broken off and was shaking inner organs apart. I was sure he’d die in front of me. And, over and over, the ripsaw kept tearing into his being.
Finally, Hilaire stopped coughing. He looked shrunken, defeated, utterly exhausted. When he recovered enough to speak, he asked, “Shall I get them?” “Don’t bother,” I replied. He studied me with a frigid, raptor-like stare. Then he simply said, “Okay.” A week later I left Paris; it was mid-December, 1965. I thought I’d be back in a month, but did not return until 1968. Hilaire died less than a month later, 19 January 1966. I assume that his son, Hilaire Jr., has the Joyce sketches. Back then I believed Hilaire was at least 80. Born in 1898, he actually died at the age of 68. At time I was 24. I am now 71. It was the first dying I witnessed up close. But there’s another angle, this – on the James Joyce mystery front, my stupidity about Hilaire’s drawing – is what I consider Strike One.
One, two, three strikes and you’re out. Bob Seidman describes here how he missed the golden opportunity to own work by the deceased French American artist Hilaire Hiler. (1898-1966). Works by Hiler can currently be found at the Museum of New Mexico, National Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art of New York, Santa Barbara Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Luxembourg Museum in Paris, San Francisco Museum of Art, Harvard University, Oakland Museum and the California Palace of Legion of Honor. Particularly, this sketch was a portrait of James Joyce, whom Seidman would later study in detail later.
“Strike Two” will be published on the Vastari Featured Articles section on 28 February 2013.
Seidman recently published a new history novel: Moments Captured to critical acclaim. It is availablein hardcover for purchase on Amazon and directly from the publisher, Overlook Press.
Cover Image: "Hilaire's Ceiling" copyright Kristine McCallister. used with permission from the photographer.