Monday, December 24, 2012


Once a friend asked me why I always do hard things.  I was circuit-riding for the Unitarian Universalists in Montana at the time -- living in a van.  That was not the hardest thing I’d ever done.  Pouring bronze, addressing animal problems, riding in a buffalo roundup, teaching Blackfeet.  Without thinking I said,  “Hard things are more fun.”  

Clare Sheridan agreed with me, though the hardest things she’d done was cope with the deaths of her son and her husbands.  THAT was not fun.  “Fun” is something one does for it’s own sake, despite risk, not anything that would cause damage to others -- in fact, a thing useful rather than idle.  A thing far from easy was visiting Moscow in 1920, just after the Russian Revolution.  Her diary of this ordeal is free online as well as published in the past.  Online it’s scanned rather than transcribed, so a little hard to read, but not impossible.  It is “fun” to read, partly because of the skeptical but accepting point of view and partly because of the inherent irony (rather ridiculous) of this aristocratic woman from England visiting the grim, relentless leaders of the revolution in order to make their portraits.  (A bit of sentimental hero-worship in the point of view of some -- portrait busts of revolutionaries !!?)  

Working in cold rooms with little light, Clare struggled with a mass of water-based clay to get likenesses.  At one point her subject was so absorbed in papers on his desk that he bent over in a way that prevented her from finding any vantage point that would reveal his face.  Finally she ended up on the other side of the desk with her chin right down on the papers. When he glanced up enough to realize he was staring into her face, he didn’t break his gaze or react, but she began to laugh in spite of herself, and then the mood changed enough that he would accommodate her.

Food was a constant problem -- the only thing Clare found digestible was caviar, which luckily was available in abundance.  Always the excellent tea was steaming, a boon for an Englishwoman, but hot water for bathing was weekly at best, on principle, and more infrequently than that because of mechanical failures.  As the year rolled deep into fall, her cloth coat was nowhere near adequate so that she had to go about with her “rug” wrapped around her, until her distress was so evident that officials took her to a shadowy warehouse where an entire floor was devoted to the storage of fur coats taken from aristocrats.  After hours of trying on sable and silver fox (she was actually rather a connoisseur of furs), she settled on a ponyskin with squirrel fur lining -- heavy but windproof and warm.  The revolutionaries were not like the English Puritans -- they did not destroy the luxuries, merely stored them.  They respected finely made objects and art.

Hints at spying did not take hold enough to endanger her in Russia, but hints at approval of Communism and even collaboration -- to say nothing of a sexually libertine bent -- swept European media when she left for home with two huge crates (she called them “coffins”) of her work.  In the Western world any kind of violence or danger is arousing.  For some inscrutable reason the Russians had said they would “nationalize” all women and to the yellow press this meant all women would be available for you-know-what.  But they also nationalized all the children, which meant free housing, food, health care and education for them.  If this had not been done, it’s probable that few would have survived in a world where standing in line for bread took six to eight hours a day -- EVERY day and only enough bread to last a day.

Clare had protectors, often Russian men, both of high status and low.  She knew how to appeal to them and was straightforward.  Always her priority was her work, which gave them reason to trust her and help her, but also quiet care came from old servants of the aristocracy who knew she appreciated their small skillful kindnesses and graces and from men like her plaster-caster, highly skillful and dependable.  At the end, only hours from embarking for home, she gave away all her warm clothes -- including that coat and her galoshes.  Such things were impossible for the people themselves to get.

Clare doesn’t go into the politics of it all to any great extent, but she -- like so many other artists and intellectuals -- was very much attracted to the idea of rational economics that provided equity for all people.  H.G. Wells showed up while she was there and she differed with him as much as any Russians.  What fascinated her more than theory was always the character of individuals, especially as demonstrated in their heads and faces.  She kept wanting to portray a “typical” soldier but had trouble conveying to the others what that might be.  When she tried to capture a full-figure of a sentry in his heavy clothing -- a collar almost a hood -- he was so warm indoors, even though the clay was almost too cold to be malleable, that the poor boy nearly cooked.

In the end what she comes away with was the impassive stoic acceptance on the part of the people everywhere, which could almost be seen as a kind of stupidity or callousness.  At least fatalism. She couldn’t fathom whether this was a long-standing Russian character trait or whether it was a way of survival that had been brought on by the deep hardships of the revolution.  Even more surprising, once perceived, was their mystical side -- not exactly religious since it wasn’t dependent on institutions or dogma -- but a capacity for direct experience of a spiritual inexpressibility.  Somehow the two sides connected, even enabled each other.

Coming away from Russia was as traumatic as entering such an unknown place.  Back in Europe the sensational emotions, the cascade of luxuries, the feverish determination of people to know everything, were overwhelming.  Though she mentions her children again and again while in Russia (she had left them with her own mother) where she could make no contact whatsoever through letters or phone, once she’s back out, she barely mentions them.  One wonders how much such an account is objectively accurate, how much her reports of her feelings should be trusted.  The biographical account by Anita Leslie, who was close to Clare’s daughter, sheds rather a different light.  But it is clear that Clare was one of those extraordinary women -- like Isadora Duncan or Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney or Anna Hyatt Huntington or Malvina Hoffman or Alexandra David-Neal -- who were artistic, inspired, driven, and achieving.  They did hard things, quite without being nationalized.

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