And still our days evolved.
For a moment, with the re-creation of her apartment, La Circassia seemed to come to rest, to take comfort in a routine of her own. She had possession of everything in the room, transforming the history, smoothing the surfaces, making each thing hers, absorbing it all. Now, in the mornings, before the sun was high, and in the evenings, when it was low again, she would sit outside her door with a notebook, each page no larger than a large man’s palm. Page-by-page, she drew in the books in red and black ink with fountain pens she filled, almost daily, from tall bottles of Pelikan ink that sat on her desk. Occasionally, instead of the pens, she would blur the lines of the drawings, blend or shade or over-paint them, washing water over the ink with bamboo brushes she stored in a jar next to the bottles. If she paused for long in her drawing, she might close the book, fold her hands, and look into the distance, sitting peacefully, savoring the light. Or she might step into her apartment to sit at the table against the wall, open a portfolio and leaf through the material there. After a few minutes of this she would close it, tie it shut and return to her notebook, her pens, her brushes, and her chair in the sun. Or she might turn to the album she kept.
There was, on the table, a growing stack of magazines – mostly the French weekly L’Illustration, with it’s large pages and pictures in black and white and colour, and its advertisements – together with a box of old postcards and photographs, and a short stack of moldy books. Fitzgerald would find the magazines and he and I might, on occasion, hunt the old book and paper stalls, buying up used books and postcards from all over Europe, even America. As directed, he especially looked for images of flying machines and war landscapes, city views and natural disasters, biological drawings and anatomical drawings, weapons and machines and massive monuments of stone. If several of these were combined in one postcard or one illustration, so much the better.
On the occasional day, when the weather was right and we could avoid detection, La Circassia would leave the asylum and join us in the market. In the past, these excursions gave Fitzgerald a better understanding of her taste in these things. And on these excursions, when she was with us, she would upset the predicted order, and start fishing an entirely new stream. When we returned, the postcards and photographs would go into the box next to the magazines, and the stack of books might grow by one or two. On days when it rained, and the room was cool, she didn’t study her portfolio, or draw. Instead, she would mix a pot of wheat paste, and unpack a pair of shears and her stack of magazines, and her box of cards and pictures, and the moldering books. With the deliberation of an accountant balancing the accounts, La Circassia would sort her postcards, or page through the magazines or the books before discarding them. When she found images she particularly wanted, she would slice out the page with one stroke of the shears, trim it, and paste it into the album. Occasionally she would leaf back through the book, making small drawings in black and red ink in the margins, drawings that, in some coded way, seemed to bear on the images pasted there.
In the first few months, that was her practice on rainy days.
Afternoons, when the sun was strongest and the day was hot, she would draw the curtains around her bed and retire there for an hour before rising and going into a garden courtyard to find shade and watch the other inmates, or draw in her notebooks. Here, over the hottest days of summer, La Circassia came to meet the asylum’s best-known resident.
It was MacLeish who first sensed the attention. For some days a stout old woman with a perpetual frown, a shapeless bonnet, full skirts and an apron, sat apart from the others in the court and watched La Circassia as she drew in her book. Her scrutiny was modest but still obvious to a watcher like MacLeish, who always studied his charge and her surroundings carefully and from a distance. Each day the old woman sat closer and watched more intensely. In the second week, by midmorning, she would be perched on a garden chair, waiting for La Circassia, only meters from her customary place in the yard. On the day La Circassia ignored the heat and stayed longer in her room to page through a portfolio, the old woman sat in a state of perfect agitation, only relieved when, finally, the object of her fascination appeared. This day, for the first time, La Circassia acknowledged her fixation with a gesture that was half bow and half smile. I knew the effect of that smile; I was not surprised when the old woman dropped her frown for a moment and smiled back.
I did not see La Circassia every day. I had duties and I had errands, so several days passed before I realized the two women were now communing in the courtyard for an hour or more each afternoon. They didn’t speak, perhaps because, in public, La Circassia never did so, or because they had no common language, or because it was, for both of them, unnecessary. Instead, as La Circassia drew, the old woman would watch the page intensely, like a perched bird, nodding in appreciation at some trace of the line, or startling a little in surprise at one or another fresh strategy in the drawing. La Circassia would watch for the reaction, and play back to it – shifting her drawing, redirecting her attention, adopting a changing line, brushing over the ink, deliberately smearing it, abandoning the drawing for a fresh page, or turning back to an older one – so that each of them was, in some sense, orchestrating the other. It was a conversation of sorts, and with the gestures of head and hand, the drawing became, on the page, a collaboration. When I first saw this, I was surprised and watched discretely to see how long it would go on. After that, I began to go more often to the courtyard to follow this unexpected conversation. In many ways, this was how I became better acquainted with MacLeish. The two of us would sit and watch the two of them, and as we watched, we would share a little of our stories in a language neither of us was native to. And as we watched, we saw something more.
MacLeish and I saw these things differently. A soldier since 1914, eight or more of those fourteen years actively at war, he was always on watch against the world. While the asylum grounds were controlled, he could never be sure of one inmate or another. The demented, the fixated, the hallucinating, they were all disconcerting, and he was always vigilant. I, on the other hand, saw the world as an underdeveloped photographer hungry for images, one who apprenticed in the production of portraits – wedding portraits, family portraits, business portraits, portraits at christenings and first communions, portraits at enlistments, portraits at promotions, group portraits of club members or classmates, theatrical troupes, portraits for units of the army or the police or the border guards, portraits of business associations and portraits of trade unions and portraits of political clubs and political parties and portraits of city administrations and portraits of sporting clubs. Making pictures of people, I learned to watch for the telling detail, to enhance what distinguished one person from another. Especially, I watched the hands.
If you photograph for a portrait, you may see only the face framed by the shoulders, but if the hands are in the picture, the sitter needs to be smoking, or holding some prop, or the hands need to frame the face in some pose. This looks stiff and unnatural, especially in men.
A three-quarter or full-length portrait exposes the hands but they hang limply by the side or they lie in the lap, unless there is a prop – a gun, a saber, a chair. But when two or more people pose, the hands come into play: each person is the other’s prop; they make a story. A mother rests her hands on her children’s shoulders; two sisters put their arms around each other; a man puts one arm around his wife’s waist, pulling her close while the other arm reaches up in a gesture of support for, and pride in, the infant child she holds in her arms; a standing woman rests her hand on her seated husband’s shoulder, while his hands rest folded on his crossed legs; a mother sits supporting her infant child on her crossed leg, holding her up with one hand and feeding her from a bottle held in the other; a boy sits with an infant sister in his lap, embracing her carelessly with two limp hands; a father and three sons sit in a row, two folding their hands on crossed legs, while the third presses his hands tightly between his thighs; a mother supports a small child on her lap, her hands, with fingers interlaced, loosely holding the child in place, while three more sit in a rank, leaning into their mother from either side, their hands limp in their laps; a sitting man supports his infant child on one hand, holding her up while embracing her and her doll with the other, while the infant reaches over the embracing arm into nothing; two boys stand side-by-side with their hands in their pockets; a family group of five sits in a rank with the outermost – the elderly father – spreading his legs, resting one large hand on each knee, with his shrunken wife sitting next to him with her hands limp in her lap, the tallest son in the middle embracing his entire family in long arms, and two more brothers, one arm each around the other’s waist, with their outside hands each gripping an inner thigh; a man and woman, together, his arm around her waist, her arm over his shoulder, the outside arms hanging limp; two small children stand close, holding hands; a dozen people – a family group – stand together, and except for one infant’s left hand, each person screens another’s hands; an old woman and three grown children stand in a rank, two on one side of the old woman, one on the other, the children turned in slightly around the mother, leaning in by small degrees while all their hands hang limply at their sides; a mother sits, embracing her infant child in her lap while two little boys stand on either side of her, each with an arm behind her back. And so on and on, the animate hands making a lie of the stories the photographer means to tell.
If her expression – her stance – participated in those courtyard drawings, the old woman’s hands were involved in some other way. At first, it seemed she was mimicking the drawings as La Circassia drew them, but, over the days, I watched those hands do something else. Drawing is inevitably a problem of illusion – making three dimensions appear in two, creating a surface with a line, describing a graphic pattern in the fantasy of a space. The vibration between the graphic and the illusion is a vibration between device and effect. It is a relationship that cannot be dismantled. And it is a practice that goes on across a plane rather than within a space. The old woman’s hands remained in her lap, but they were not still, and they were not describing lines on a page. The hands worked together – cupping, stroking, kneading, pinching, outlining surfaces in space – drawing out the shape only she could feel in front of her. The movements were both compulsive and assured. The old woman was sculpting in the air, and more-and-more each day La Circassia was studying her hands. They flowed in the space in front of her, arcing unexpectedly, wheeling in the air, back-tracking, adopting a rhythm, abandoning it, funneling the imagination, twisting it, drawing it out, compressing it, crushing it, drawing it out again. In the air, they were larks at play. And day-by-day, the movements became more expansive, bolder.
La Circassia’s attention liberated those hands, and invigorated the old woman in her delirious work. Drawing and sculpting, the two women were speechless in this mutual hallucination, each in a state of gentle transport.