Painting with Nigredo: The Life and Art of Vali Myers
Vali Myers, the expatriate Australian artist, cultivated a traffic-stopping look: tattooed face, hands and feet, heavily kohled eyes, gypsy clothes and a perfectly dishevelled coif of flaming red hair. She used her look as a disguise. As she once admitted, “I get to know immediately about other people. They don’t really get to know me very fast.”
Myers left Australia at nineteen and did not return for 43 years. Arriving in Paris in 1949, she danced in African clubs and stayed up all night in cafes when she had no room to go to. She had the knack of being everywhere important at just the right moment, but at a slight remove. Tennessee Williams based a character on her. She complained that Jerome Robbins was a terrible dancer who stepped on her feet. Her legs appear in a John Lennon film, the only ones that were clothed because she would not remove her gaiters for anyone. The hotel in Paris where she crashed was managed by Proust’s last housekeeper.
She was Ed van der Elksen’s muse when he made Love on the Left Bank, his 1954 photoessay on the demi-monde of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. She is incandescent in the pictures, and miserable. When Patti Smith and Donovan discovered van der Elksen’s book in their own teenage years, the unknowable redhead became their poster-girl for alienation.
All the while she worked on her intricate drawings, carrying them with her. George Plimpton of The Paris Review saw her dancing in Paris and became enamoured of “the combination of the drawings, and you,” as he said in The Tightrope Dancer, Ruth Cullen’s 1989 documentary on Myers. In 1958 Plimpton featured what Myers later came to call her “nigredo” drawings in the same issue as Phillip Roth’s first published story.
In alchemical terms the nigredo is purification, the burning of dross. It represents the putrefaction of impurities necessary for creation. "Our black earth is fertile earth" is an alchemical saying, and in her art Vali would persist with darkness as a motif: black sunflowers and madonnas, black suns, suicidal and doomed poets and artists.
These drawings depict Myers opium-pinned on her iron bed or floating adrift in the sky, sometimes accompanied by enervated figures, often alone. Plimpton bought them all, doubting that she would survive. But she did.
Myers and her husband Rudi set up home in a ruined Moorish-style pavilion in a wild Italian valley known as Il Porto, just outside Positano. They got clean and Myers remade herself as an artist with a goosefeather quill, inks and a dog-tooth to lay gold leaf. She could not have children but took a fox as her “daughter.” She kissed toads and loved their golden eyes, fed the eels in her ponds by hand.
Until now, Myers’s fascinating life has tended to obscure the value of her drawings. As Carlo McCormick (of Paper Magazine) points out in Night Flower, a new book presenting the high points of her output alongside facsimiles of her diaries, recollections from her inner circle, and photographs, Myers could easily be taken as just a cool thing to know about, with plenty of room under her spangled cloak for all the manic pixie dream girls out there.
It’s a shame the editors haven’t included close readings of her work to dispel this. Less memorialising and more analysis -- particularly of her artistic influences (she was a incisive reader of poetry, folklore and literature and fed those interests directly into her work) -- would have been better.
Ernst Fuchs and Mati Klarwein, later symbolists of the psychedelic age, both knew Vali in Paris. Was their taste for the fantastic shared? She spoke admiringly in later life of Rodolphe Bresdin, a 19th-Century French master of eau-forte engraving with a dramatic biography and technically breathtaking work that you could describe as “cheese dream pastoral.” His influence on Myers in her super-concentration of line and shading, and her rejection of conventional perspective, offers a tantalising insight into what art fed her practice.
Myers's art rewards proper attention. It’s ornate as brocade, but not pretty. Her method, not unrelated to tattooing (Myers was a master tattooist, her body a private canvas) used the smallest marks with a fine nib to work up shading and line over pencil, sometimes washed with watercolor, achieving a shimmering quality hard to describe. The ikon painter Rublev was famous for painting in smoke. Myers draws in it.
Reproduction clarifies the pointillism of Myers's style to its detriment. The inevitable resizing of images to enhance important details also alters their temperature, their intense compressions. Her drawings are like devotional illuminations, meant to be held in the hand for private contemplation and stored away afterwards. Her work is fugitive and highly light-sensitive. She preferred that it not be hung.
Night Flower makes it possible for the first time to easily access Myers's drawings. There isn’t much stillness in her work -- it’s full to the brim and restless as art brut. Its patterns, which can resemble the decorative markings on the skins of toads, beads of dew or inlaid stones, can obscure its meaning. Myers related her own style to Mughal miniatures, the Book of Kells, and the prows of Viking ships.
Like Frida Kahlo, Myers made her life’s work out of herself and for herself. In her portraits of animals, witches, queens and Sicilian bandits, her own face -- that extraordinary face! -- appears constantly. It can make her work seem static and repetitive, impervious to influence and development. But, just as with Kahlo’s self-portraits, her face and figure are stages for her motifs. They are only the mask.
Myers’s rich field of inspiration becomes clear from the details in the drawings, the factual and imaginary fused into one. There is always an animal (in addition to her pigs, donkeys and 30-odd dogs, Vali kept the kinds of animals most people avoid: toads, mice, eels, her fox) alongside a subject from a treasured poem and the silhouetted cliffs of Il Porto. In the cliff face might hide a distilled rendering of a streetscape, compressed from memory, or a plant from the hidden valley.
Lammas Tide (1964) was the first drawing to feature Myers’s mature style, the end of her nigredo. It took six years to complete and is reproduced in Night Flower, marking her rebirth as an artist (literally -- the Lammas feast, on the first of the harvest, is the eve of her own birthday). It gets no less scary with multiple viewings. Its central, sacrificial figure is a wolfish, spider-limbed homunculus. As McCormick writes, “Vali Myers is not after the beautiful so much as the sublime, which in philosophical terms is a much more terrifying aesthetic territory to occupy.” The space travelled in making that drawing is reflected in Myers’s late decision to paste a new face over the original one for the figure, which was serene and smiling. The final version cries tears from its pebble-dark eyes and laps them up, nourished by sorrow.
When she first visited New York in 1970, Salvador Dali scrutinised Myers's work with a magnifying glass and recommended that she launch herself in Europe. Only then would she be famous enough to be accepted in New York. She had a big show in Amsterdam the following year and continued from that point to show yearly in Europe and America, retreating to Il Porto to work.
Myers never liked galleries, preferring to sell her work with her portfolio on her lap, speaking about the pictures, a list of (high) prices scrawled on a piece of paper nearby. She claimed Andy Warhol told her to sell only reproductions and she took his advice, parting with only the absolute minimum of her originals to get by financially.
When money was needed she had a room at the Chelsea in New York to which her collectors came to be seduced into purchases. To hear Myers talk about her pictures was to be offered the key to understanding them, their crucial elements often peripheral. It wasn’t that she explained their symbolism outright, but with determinedly interior themes and mutable iconography, she unlocked subtleties as the mood took her. The drawings grasp the body as mystery just as they were carried in her hands, her leather portfolio of unfinished and recent works moving through the world with her.
Careless of received notions of beauty and behavior, Myers tattooed a lyre-shaped spiritual mustache around her mouth in mid life. She loved a bit of flash. When she was seventy-one she had her two front teeth -- perfectly good teeth -- replaced with gold ones, a Neapolitan or Romany flourish in which a gold tooth is a sign of really having made it. Despite her exoticism, when she opened her mouth her laugh and voice pegged her as undeniably of a particular Australian era.
Myers was a contrarian who required dynamic energies, even savagery. Her intimacy with animals partly fed that need, but if things were too settled she could make chaos. She liked to quote Yeats: “It’s certain that fine women eat / A crazy salad with their meat / Whereby the horn of plenty is undone.”
Myers disliked notoriety and meddling, yet she courted it with her appearance. She was attuned to animals more than people, but didn’t manage the breeding of her feral dogs, which ran wild in her valley. She was “free,” but always had a man to do the heavy lifting required to maintain her menagerie -- huge sacks of feed carried on backs up the steps into Il Porto.
Myers made her lovers wild; they became like her. Rudi Rappold transformed from a Viennese architectural student in his final years of study into a super-charged macho Hungarian Rom. Gianni Menichetti, her later partner and keeper of Il Porto, called himself “utterly her creation.”
Frida Kahlo was known for memorialising difficult events in her life in her paintings (miscarriages, affairs, operations on her recalcitrant body), but Myers does not do this. You cannot pin her art to her biography. When Ruth Cullen asked her if a drawing was hard, Vali replied with patient weariness: “They’re all difficult, love.” There’s almost a sense that each one is a grimoire, an entry to magic. You read them not only for the secrets they contain, but because the drawings themselves became infused with heavy intention, drawn night after night, slow work by gaslight.