Thall on Life and Art (2)

Victor on his childhood:

Actually my legal name is Victoria. My mother was an Anglophile and she named me after Queen Victoria. You can imagine what that did to me when I was a child. I hated the English…[all my mother] did was yak about England and her Kensington garden and the fact that I was named after Queen Victoria, so you can imagine how I felt about the English when I got to England and met them. I hated them….[My mother] was one of those transplanted Anglophiles that thought that the United States was full of Indians. She hated it and she spent her whole life in a garden in Milton, Massachusetts trying to recreate a Kensington garden. And she did it too very successfully because they gave her a silver watering can for the best garden and that thing haunted me all through my childhood because she never relinquished it after she won it. And I hated the English like you can’t believe it until I got to England, you know, about 1923 and discovered how great they were….

I never went to school…I played hookey for so many years they thought I left the country. I just wouldn’t go to school, ever.

[But] I started at the Art Students League when I was eleven years old, when I got back to Manhattan. And I was painting nudes, you know, an adult class, I was about eleven, and the model, the naked model wouldn’t pose in the same class with me because in those days, you know, little boys didn’t have any costumes like they have today where the little boy looks like his dad. We wore those little Lord Fauntleroy suits and I had Buster Brown curls down to my shoulder and short little trousers with brass buttons… But the board of control said he’s an art student and you have to… we didn’t have much of an art education in the United States in those days, you know. It wasn’t as cultivated as it is today so that the reigning masses were pretty bad. And I was victimized by some pretty incompetent teachers….There was nothing but ignorant men teaching art.

p138I might have a bit of extra-sensory perceptivity because I began to suspect by the time I was twelve that the teacher didn’t know much. You know there was something phony about my first criticism, the very first…I feltĀ  that it was a lie when he told me that the highest light was always next to the darkest dark, that’s how you get form, [it]sounded false …

I spent my childhood in the library, the zoo, and the museums. And actually I played hookey for so long, for so many months that when they caught me – I’ll never forget one time – I still remember this, I might have been about twelve years old when they hauled me up before this principal, and the idiot wore a beard, I still see him with his little van Dyke and his pince nez with a ribbon, and he had that benign look, you know, that they always give the little boy – that lofty position of an adult. And he said, “Don’t you like your teachers, Victor?”, you know. And I could see myself looking at him with my bald, black eyes and saying, “I don’t even know them.” I’d never seen them, how could I dislike them?049

I was drawing since I was five. And I finally got rid of the Art Students League because I was listening to a lot of bilge and I went to the museums and discovered that it wasn’t true because I looked at Rembrandt and everybody I loved, and I saw no indication whatsoever that the highest light was next to the darkest dark. I just didn’t see it. And I’ve seen every museum in the world since then and I’m still looking for it, and I haven’t found it from that day to this. So obviously I had an intuitive realization that [the Art Students League teacher] was telling me a great lie.

Victor on riding the rails in the 1930s:

…for instance, suppose you were in a boxcar, you know, there I am in a boxcar with men, just in a boxcar – of course I discovered something very interesting about being an artist in a situation like that – again if you have a mind and a spirit you just don’t suffer as much as other people, it’s an interesting fact that men, no matter how strong they are, if they’re cold and hungry they’re completely comatose, they huddle in a corner like animals and they suffer. But if you have a spirit you just don’t. And I still had a sketchbook in my pocket and I could still look out at a moving landscape and be alive and aware of what was going on, you know, even though I was undernourished, had colitis, malnutrition, intestinal poisoning, I weighed 117 pounds at the time, but my brain was still functioning, I had not lost my identity. I’m still Victor Thall and I can still walk into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in a pair of dungarees…even if I was starving.

It’s a kind of thing that you have – if you have that kind of beginning – it’s a curious fact, you know, and maybe that’s what my father gave me with the money, because you somehow develop an identity. I wonder if there’s any possible validity to this, that the people who are impoverished when they’re children are marked by it, and they just re-try to escape from it and they never want to go back because they have a horror recollection of it, I’m talking about people in the slums of New York who finally get up to Park Avenue…now they’re the same people – the path of behavior hasn’t changed except for the outward appurtenances, you know, the car, or whatever. As a matter of fact I had a man sitting in this studio just last week who now has an income of one million a year, and he told me this. Now I remember him when he was a fifteen dollar a week bundle-wrapper. Now he has an income of a million a year, and the biggest Rolls-Royce in the country, he informed me, but I realize – talking to him – that he hasn’t gone one inch away from his beginnings, not an inch. He’s still the same bundle of insecurities, the same nothing that he was…I met ridingrailsthis man at a time when I was broke but I had a lifetime behind me of luxury and a certain kind of status of the childhood that I had, and this man, much younger than me, was a clerk – not a clerk, he was a bundle-wrapper, he got fifteen dollars a week, but he had to have money. And I remember at the time saying to some of his companions on the beach when I had my boat out saying to be a little more respectful of him because I said you’re all going to be working for him. They said, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “Brother, I can smell gold around this boy.” There was a Midas glow all around him that you can’t believe…A drive to break down those walls. Now in subsequent years he had his nose done with plastic surgery, he developed a phony accent, he had all the outward appurtenances of money. And now, right now, he’s got an income of one million a year. But he has to make the statement and tell you about his Rolls-Royce. But he’s the same ignorant lout that he always was; and he’s a bundle of insecurity. It’s interesting.