Wild about Misia

Clive James

At the beginning of her life, Misia Sert met Liszt, whom she remembered for his warts, long hair and transvestite travelling companion. She lived almost long enough to meet two more piano-players, the co-authors of this book. In between, she knew just about everybody who counted in artistic Paris. The painters painted her and the composers aired their masterpieces at her piano, which she herself could play very well. But what gave her long life its fascination, and gives this book its strength, is that she was no mere dabbler. Her taste was original, penetrating and in most cases definitive. Without directly creating anything, she was some kind of artist herself – rather like Diaghilev, of whom she was the soul-mate and valued adviser. For most of her life she was too rich to be a true bohemian, and too passionate about art to be a true representative of high society. Instead, she was, for her time, the incarnation of that special energy released when talent and privilege meet. This book has several faults but at least one great merit: Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale have seen that Misia’s personality, even if it can never quite be captured, remains highly interesting for the light it casts on how talent can cohabit with gracious living and yet still keep its distance. Misia features a good deal of novelettish speculation about the way people long dead ‘must have’ thought and felt, but on the whole it is a refreshingly humane book about how creative work actually gets done. It would be praiseworthy at any time, but is particularly so now when too many abstract treatises are being foisted on us by coldly able young academics who behave as if the arts, like their salaries, came out of a machine.

Misia’s mother died giving birth to her – an inconvenience which her father, the fashionable Polish sculptor Cyprien Godebski, characteristically dealt with by pushing off. Growing up well-connected but abandoned, Misia gave of herself freely but remained hard to get at. In Paris she took piano lessons from Fauré (who regarded her as a prodigy) and lived by her wits. When she met Thadée Natanson she set a pattern by marrying him. From then on she took husbands rather than lovers, and expressed herself by running a ménage in which the piano was something more than a prop but less than an instrument of devotion. Perhaps she was just too beautiful.

Thadée started the Revue Blanche, Verlaine, Mallarmé and the painters duly gathered. Those who couldn’t paint the inspiratrice wrote poems for her. The painters had the privilege of immortalising her miraculous looks, which included a legendary pair of legs and a bosom that kept strong men awake at night thinking. The book reproduces the best of these portraits in good colour, thereby turning itself into something of a work of art. Vuillard, Bonnard, Lautrec and Renoir all painted her often, and later on there were plenty of drawings by such as Marie Laurencin and the omnipresent Cocteau. In addition, there are scores of photographs, the whole iconography adding up to a seductive visual record of her busily leisured life. I should mention at this point that the new picture book on Chanel[*] contains several interesting pictures of Misia which are not in Gold and Fizdale. There is a good photograph of la belle Mme Edwards montant en voiture, a superb one of Misia Natanson en manteau à triple pèlerine, and an extra Vuillard: But then there always seems to be an extra Vuillard: like Bonnard and Renoir, he never tired of painting her. Add all the pictures in both books together and you get a hint of what her beauty must have been like. She used to cut the paintings to size if they didn’t fit the parts of the wall she wanted to put them on, but the painters loved her no less and probably all the more. At the time, we should remember, it must have been the painters’ efforts which seemed capricious and Misia’s volcanic personality which seemed the eternal fact. And indeed she lives on, but through them.

Being published in the Revue Blanche was like getting into a party: you had to know Misia. But this condition was only mildly pernicious, because you had to be gifted before Misia wanted to know you. They all showed up. Gide didn’t like Misia much but came anyway. Valéry liked her a lot. She adored Mallarmé, who reigned as the incorruptible grand old man. Fauré brought his bright young pupil Ravel. Debussy was there. So was Colette, sporting a waist nearly as enticing as Misia’s, which was saying a great deal. At a party thrown by Misia’s brother-in-law to celebrate the completion of nine large panels by Vuillard, Lautrec was the barman. Three hundred people were present, of whom a large proportion were already famous and all promptly became drunk, since Lautrec’s cocktails consisted of several layers of different-coloured liqueurs. A room was set aside for casualties and ended up jammed with the bodies of Jarry, Vuillard. Bonnard etc. It would be very easy to make a bad movie of all this. Misia was in the thick of it, stirring the magic, helping make life itself a work of art – something artists are usually too busy to do.

The century had not yet turned and high society still confined itself to the minutiae of dynastic self-perpetuation. In playing hostess to the artists, Misia was being more bohemian than grand. But she was a grand enough bohemian. She could give the artists a deep draught of luxury. She would probably have aroused the same sense of stylish comfort even if she had had nothing to offer except bread and cheese. But with Thadée’s money she was able to offer country houses too. At the first of these, near Fontainebleau, Misia played Schubert to Mallarmé and every New Year’s Day he gave her a fan with a poem on it. She instinctively respected his essential seriousness – an early instance of her knack for recognising creative intensity even at its most original.

Another, larger country house, at Villeneuve, inspired Vuillard, who was in love with her, to some of his finest panels. It also helped eat up Thadée’s money. Misia didn’t care about material things as long as she had plenty of them. When she caught the eye of the vulgar press baron Alfred Edwards there seemed little chance that such a brute of a man could gain so sensitive a woman. But Thadée required bailing out and Misia was the price. There is also the possibility that she needed to be violated – the psychology of the book goes a bit hazy at this point.

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[*] Le Temps Canel by Edmonde Charles-Roux (Chêene/Grasset).

[†] Stuttgart, 1960.