Thursday, August 9, 2007

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part eleven

James Montgomery Flagg had an ugly view of beauty.

"I have never had any slight interest in homely ladies," he said, "no matter how charming and intelligent they are reputed to be. They do not exist for me." And even if a woman satisfied his standards for beauty, she'd better not nag or be jealous about his many infidelities:
[I]f I ran the world...I'd have my FBI corral all the ugly people [along with] all nagging and jealous women,...and take them out to Death Valley and drop an atomic bomb on them.
He also believed that beauty, at least in women, diminished as they approached middle age:
Usually former models of mine whom I don't see for a quarter of a century have become distinctly middle aged.... in an almost invariably shocking way....I occasionally tell these dames they look like zombies. They naturally resent it and usually come back with "Well, you don't look so hot yourself!" But that has no sting whatever....
Flagg never ran out of of girlfriends to mistreat (will some kind female reader puhleeze write in and explain this?), but toward the end of his long career, Flagg fell head over heels in love for the first time.

In his autobiography Flagg described Ilse Hoffman, a young model and photographer, as "the most important thing in my life." Newly humbled, Flagg admitted, "I shall have to testify that there is such a thing as love at first sight. And I do mean love." The two had a passionate romance. He painted her as often as she would permit.

Ultimately, Flagg was too much of an emotional miser for a successful relationship:
After about three years there came a change in our relations-- a shadow hard to define... a contributing cause may have been ...a growing feeling on her part that she wanted to get married. I didn't....Gradually Ilse's attitude toward me began to change.
Ilse moved into an apartment of her own.
When I asked if she'd give me an extra key, she refused with obviously false excuses. I reminded her that she had a key to my place that made her welcome at any time, night or day. I told her I had no notion of using it, that I wanted her to make the gesture. Nothing doing. Then I knew.
Flagg became deeply despondent over losing the love of his life. "I walked and walked, uptown, not really knowing were I was going. I was hurt to death." One would hope that this painful experience caused Flagg to know moments of thoughtfulness. However, all evidence points to the contrary.

When Ilse found another man who was willing to commit to her, Flagg had a bitter and typically clueless reaction:
I was saturated with disgust for Ilse...I said to myself: 'I truly loved Ilse. No other woman has meant a thing to me-- from the moment I saw her.' Eventually she married this young man, who was some sort of stock market runner. Yes, she was a married woman. She'd got what she desired. A wedding ring.

Flagg never loved again. He had a sour and lonely old age. He said at the end of his life,
I can't stand the look of my present age. All my life I have been a worshipper of that beauty of the human form you see in some men and women....Is it any wonder that I don't like to look at the physical mess and mental dullness that has set in for me? As far back as I can remember, I have been in the limelight; now I'd rather be dead than be passed by, ignored.

Flagg's final self portrait is haunted by the painting of Ilse over his shoulder, and the life that might have been. The old man ruminated, "A roll in the bed with honey isn't love. And the tragic part of it is that you never learn this until you're past the age for it to happen to you again."

We sometimes like to believe that art sensitizes us and heightens our awareness of the beauty around us. But Flagg had a circle of compassion no wider than one of his pen nibs, and he paid the price for it.