PRINT March 1963

Martin Baer (1894–1961)

WHOEVER SPOKE TO MARTIN BAER was confronted with beauty. The person who conversed with him about love, painting, death, the void, or any of the phenomena of being human, would suddenly find a field of daisies laid out before him. No man ever put so much of beauty into the vast space between one man and another.

Martin was handsome and dignified in appearance; he had a rare respect for humans and animals; he was gentle and affectionate; he showed the wisdom of long suffering; he had a passionate interest in his occupation, and the humility that cognizance of one’s own ignorance brings.

Martin was never bored; he was always interested; he always enjoyed the baffling glory of being. Walking with him one had the street in a new and brilliant focus. His wandering commentary and questioning recreated the object of his attention for you, right before your eyes. He was not a teacher, but by being your companion he brought you face to face with your own existence. By recognizing the many facets of this creature you became aware that the life of a man is a demanding and magnificent task.

The following is to show you what it felt like to be with Martin. This is what he might have said to you:

Who know what a good painting should look like? Maybe no one knows. Maybe a painting should look like nothing. Maybe there isn’t anything a painting should be. You’d think the painter would know. But maybe the painter just paints. Maybe he doesn’t know anything. Maybe he doesn’t even know how to paint. What is painting anyway?

I always felt suspicious of the tendency people have to lionize the painter.

There is a story about an illiterate Germany family. The father could write his name, and every time a document needed his signature he would sit officiously at the table, roll up his sleeves, take pen in hand, and his Frau would then say, “Seid ruhig Kinder, Vater schreibt sein Namen.” (Be still children, father is writing his name.) The painters are the father; the art lovers are the mother; and all humanity is “the children.”

There’s something phony here. Just because someone thinks I’m Rembrandt, can I stop waiting for Godot?

I had a very thorough academic art training. When I was still in short pants I was facing the live model. I was a rather timid child and I tended to distort the line, which they said was bad. They made me correct it, and the spark was gone. They didn’t tell me to learn this and forget it. They told me this was it.

But that damned academic line doesn’t flow.

I’d like to have started like the young people today. The teacher should say, “There’s your menu kid; buckets, brushes, inks, wood: it’s all art. Now get on with it.” There’s nothing officious about painting. You simply put things down and hold on to the thrill of the moment.

The artist says to God, “I will create.”

I think people should be encouraged to create, even when we don’t understand what they create. When the river flows it fills up all the low places, without choice; it doesn’t know where it’s going. The flower takes in the sun without thinking what’s good for itself. The thought-out response is self-centered and death to nature. Take the nature from the mountains, oceans and trees, and there’s nothing left. It’s the same with humans; and it’s the same with human creations.

I believe people should be encouraged to do whatever it is in their nature to do. We all make mistakes. Our capacity for simple-mindedness and egocentricity is limitless.

We all suffer from the same sickness. It’s easy to cure our own stupidity in the safety of our studios: but who’s going to take the blame for the cesspool of existence. We all say to ourselves, “Mart, you’re a great guy,” even though we can’t believe it. I wouldn’t lie to you, my dear ones; we’re all up to our chins in merde, saying to one another, “Don’t make waves.”

Is there any beauty to the poisonous gases our buses give off; or to the phony politics by which we make chaos of our country? Is there any art to the jailing of other human beings because of the way they choose to love one another; or to the nutritionless food served in our cafeterias for the sake of money; or to any of the other multitude of ways we have for killing the man on the street?

Can you honestly say that anyone is treating their fellow “life-termers” with the respect and affection with which Paul Cézanne painted a piece of fruit?

So we keep going back to our studios to contemplate. We get in front of an empty canvas and throw out thought. Just when we think we’ve got it, then we have to take it out into “the big madhouse” and see if it works.

There are no easy answers.

Maybe we should stop thinking of the painter as some special kind of creature, created by God in his better moments. Maybe in the long run, in the void between birth and death, the cries, the loves, the sufferings, the flights, the very motions of being are what count. If a man’s life is artless it’s bound to show up in his painting.

If there is a heaven, it’s the place where we go around bowing to one another.

Take a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and be affectionate to one another. I hope my paintings will help you remember that————

They do.

Harold La Vigne