PRINT July 1963

Marcel Cavalla

THE CINDERELLA STORY of “Pensioner to Painter” which surrounds Marcel Cavalla is filled naturally with “human interest.” More important and more un­likely, Cavalla’s paintings are intriguing for their es­thetic qualities as well as their subject matter. A man of obstinately high spirits at 73, Marcel has lived for the past 23 years amidst the soon-to-be-“redeveloped” clapboard shelters of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill. Pin-­ups and billboards are as relevant to Marcel’s work as the house he lives in or his memories of Italy, for Marcel has always painted what he wanted to. His natural treasury of naive humor and extraordinary narrative imagination blend “Folk” and “Pop” themes with complete nonchalance. Laughing at his own saga, Marcel-the-artist sees his life as a conven­tional one, while Marcel-the-pastry-chef is proud of being an eccentric.

Marcel was born in 1890 at Castel-a-monte, Italy, a town producing ceramic goods. The boy’s education included ornamenting pottery and training in the art of pastry design. His early roots were severed when his family sent him to Buenos Aires, but he ran away from Argentina, arriving in France just as World War I was declared. While waiting to be sent to the front, he caught his right hand in a machine, disfiguring it, but because of his linguistic skills he was given a job as interpreter for prisoners-of-war. As soon as the Armistice was declared Marcel booked passage to New York. He worked as a pastry chef in Broadway hotels and cabarets during the flamboyant Twenties, supplementing his income by contributing to Latin language newspapers and instructing for the Union of Cake Decorators. When the Depression hit, he went West, working in San Francisco nightclubs until 1939 when he came to Los Angeles and Bunker Hill.

The painter in Marcel only appeared after his re­tirement as a pastry chef. While his works are in­trinsically and unselfconsciously organized in terms of patterning, the years of ornamenting delicacies have not forced cliches of form on Cavalla. Instead they seem to have left him a linear sureness in creat­ing those narrative details which keep his canvases from becoming mere designs. He is a bachelor with a practiced eye for the rhythms of life, be they the curve of a woman’s hip or the pattern of a tiled roof. When you ask him if he has a family, he replies with ironic egoism, “There is only me, me, me!” As an “only me” Marcel developed a powerful sensibility to the human comedy; solitary but garrulous he loves the ritual gibberish of the living. He learned to look at men and nature for their salient characteristics, for a neighbor’s stance while gaping at a store win­dow, for the way a cypress tree bends, or the kind of shapes made by two puppies in playful combat. The accuracy of the gestures, in Cavalla’s depictions of men at work, or women in a waiting room, of Elea­nor Roosevelt fingering her chin, or a would-be wolf leering at La Monroe, results from penetrating obser­vation.

If you visited Marcel within the haven of his high­ceilinged apartment, you would find him standing with arms akimbo. His torn T-shirt and soiled khakis could just as well be white tie and tails, for he meets the world and all comers wearing an affably curious yet self-possessed expression. Somehow, for a mo­ment, with his head thrust forward, stretching the skin hanging at his throat, Marcel resembles “Cecil the Sea Serpent.” Because of his weakened physical condition some serious surgery in the recent past), Marcel has difficulty talking for long. He is also very definite about the days on which he feels like having company, but should the time and energy be right, a multi-lingual monologue will be the reward. He will interrupt his story-telling for only two things: to offer something (a box of upholstery tacks, some hard candies from Perugia), or to placate the five chattering parakeets he provides with watercress and fond companionship. (He will explain that the birds are restless ever since his paintings were taken away; they miss perching on the picture frames.)

The paintings are the justification for all this in­trusion on Marcel Cavalla’s privacy. He is a naive painter whose works set him within the “‘primitive’ tradition” of Thomas Chambers, Horace Pippin and Morris Hirshfield, but they also establish a relation­ship with the paintings of Guy Pene du Bois, Oscar Schlemmer and Andy Warhol. Cavalla’s naivete is far from the spellbound exoticism of the Douanier Rous­seau. He is a prosaic storyteller who cannot keep himself from exaggerating the facts, so that at the same narrative instant the world of daydreams im­pinges upon reality; the Varga girl dares to come down off the calendar and the forces of morality gird themselves into a little old lady who shakes her dust-mop at the hussy.

Marcel’s intention is to paint what he knows, the life around him and the things he reads. The written word conjures up images for this solitary man which have reality equal to the view from his window. In one category are the handsome paintings of specific houses in Bunker Hill and the view of Angel’s Flight, where he attains a balance between truthful detail and controlled plastic organization. Initially, his works may seem symmetrical, but this is illusory since one side is played against the other, varying in color organization as well as in interior shapes. (His unusual capacity for integrating ornamental space is evident even on the long strip of paper he keeps to record the numerous medicines he requires daily. It is a marvel of calligraphic design, knit to­gether by the upward slant of the T’s and the contra­pposto of tally marks.)

At the base of the long canvas of Angel’s Flight, its yellow-orange entrance is placed opposite a blue house, yet at the picture’s top the car terminal is red-orange surrounded by green buildings and trees. Such well-paced elaboration achieves its own kind of elegance and is strangely reminiscent of the girlie pageants so popular in the nightclub acts of the 30’s and 40’s, where the divergent costumes would be arranged so that if a green-gowned girl with a blue hat is on the right, a cutie dressed in the reverse color scheme poses at the left. Similarly, Marcel, who has always tried to live within a romantic milieu, would find in Bunker Hill’s Victorian extravaganzas the same patterns that he associates with dramatic splendor.

Cavalla will also emphasize what he knows over what he sees for the sake of clarifying the story. In doing so his art becomes increasingly symbolic and the forms measured and exaggerated. Two paintings of acrobats create out of the pretzel-posed female figures a lacertine of shapes very much in the spirit of Leger. Since the artist wanted to exaggerate the performer’s physical plasticity the forms themselves had to become manipulable. Another example of his reasoning concerns Marcel’s depiction of the Roma Grocery, where he placed crates marked with the Italian flag on the sidewalk in front of the store’s entrance. The shop’s owner protested that he always receives his deliveries at the back door, but Marcel countered that he wanted to make sure everyone could see where the groceries came from. Yet the im­portance of those crates in the painting is primarily esthetic. The vivid red and green stripes placed in the foreground increase the 3-dimensionality of the entire color scheme, complementing the shifting greys in the interior, where rows and rows of goods converge backward.

In addition to his paintings of city scenes and imagined landscapes from the “old country,” Marcel has been inspired to paint his modern heroes and goddesses. He is an avid reader of newspapers and paperbacks, keeping a lookout on the public’s fickle attitude toward its idols. Marcel’s heroes retain their human scale, but once he has succumbed to their aura his affections are constant. Pancho Villa, Eleanor Roosevelt, Pedro Infante, Marilyn Monroe, Rocky Mar­ciano, all captured Marcel’s imagination because they seemed in addition to their unique endowments to be of good heart. All have been portrayed with the sense of elaboration which is the bard’s gift. Cavalla is like the troubadours of old who went beyond story­telling to create legends. But his legends are told with a “punch line,” his candor of detail comes straight from the sidestreets of a big city, or from the poster art he saw years ago. Marilyn Monroe’s ankle-strapped shoes are a memory from World War II cheesecake, while the American flag in Mrs. Roose­velt’s office hangs with the same limpness as the one on the cover of Carl Richter’s sheet music for The Star-Spangled Banner

To relate Marcel Cavalla’s naive paintings to the stream of American art might seem contrived, but he shares with the early limners their inclusion of only the most salient elements of the personality. But Marcel’s distinctive interpretation of this attitude goes down to Pedro Infante’s toes––perfectly encased in a sharpie’s black and white shoes. An earlier Amer­ican primitive, Edward Hicks, painted animals as examples of the Peaceable Kingdom. The modern primitive loves to include dogs, cats and birds in his city paintings, horses and donkeys for the rural stories, but just as he limits the kind of animal to the appropriate narrative, he also shows them in action, not posing for their picture! Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis both paint the American cityscape. It is as if Marcel uses a homegrown version of Davis’s jazziness to deal with Hopper’s subject matter. Finally in terms of the present generation of “Pop” artists, Cavalla reinterprets the images given to him by mass culture; he adds his own wishful thinking about Mari­lyn, his own name to a sign on a building, his own colors to the telephones and lampshades.

The recent exhibition of Cavalla’s works (at the Ceeje Gallery in Los Angeles) revealed in the artist’s sure strokes and subtle colors a feeling for the funny rightness of the world in which he lives. Marcel’s pictorial imagination should not be undersold, nor should we miss the clue he gives of the invincible strength of one man’s good cheer.

––Rosalind G. Wholden