St. Petersburg to Paris
The Three Worlds of Leonid.
by Leonid Berman.
Translated from the French by Olivier Bernier. Preface by Virgil Thomson. Basic Books. 275 pp. $13.95.
These memoirs ought to have made melancholy reading. Leonid Berman was born into the doomed Jewish bourgeoisie of St. Petersburg twenty-one years before the revolution of 1917. He was thus one of the many who lost “everything” in that conflict, which made him a permanent exile from his homeland. Even when, after establishing himself abroad, he succeeded in becoming an artist—using the single name Leonid to avoid confusion with his older and more successful brother Eugene Berman, who was also a painter—he achieved at best a modest fame. In heavyweight art circles in Paris in the 1930’s, he was anything but a figure to reckon with. (It was mainly the Americans who bought his pictures.) Most ominously of all, he fell captive to the German army in occupied France during World War II.
Yet The Three Worlds of Leonid—the volume of memoirs he completed before his death in 1976—is anything but melancholy. It is, on the contrary, a book suffused with the spirit of human happiness. Without any temptation to blink at the suffering he had observed, and sometimes himself endured, in a life more eventful then most modern painters,’ Leonid nonetheless remained a man with a remarkable gift for self-renewal and a positive vocation for le bonheur. “I have inherited my mother’s looks and my father’s good temper; I am healthy in body and mind, and perfectly happy,” he tells us straightaway. “I forget all past miseries and live in peace with myself, never wishing I were Rockefeller, Piero della Francesca, the handsomest man in the world, or anyone else.”
This uncommon disposition turns out to have been Leonid’s guardian angel not only through the travails of revolution and war but in his relations with family, friends, and lovers. About all of these he writes with a delicacy, an affection, and a geniality that are the very obverse of what we have come to expect from the “confessions” of artistic personalities. His many amatory adventures, including a homosexual episode with Christian (Bébé) Bérard, are recounted with a mixture of irony and sweetness that has all but disappeared from contemporary chronicles of sexual experience. The result is a book that is rather old-fashioned in its gentle manners. There are no scores to be settled, and no villains to be scourged.
The three worlds of the title are the worlds of the author’s childhood and youth in St. Petersburg, his life as a man and aspiring artist in France in the period after 1919, and his experience of the war in occupied France. It is naturally the first and second of these that particularly lend themselves to a tone of sweet reminiscence. The lost world of Leonid’s St. Petersburg childhood is by far the most vivid part of the book, and his description of it also helps to explain—even if inadvertently, for he is not much given to making such connections—the materials he was later drawn to as a painter.
“Our apartment’s decoration was the epitome of bourgeois bad taste,” he writes of his home on Great Stables Street in St. Petersburg. “We had five high-ceilinged rooms, very clean and as silent as the grave. There are three things about the entrance hall that have remained graven in my memory: an enormous stuffed bear serving as an umbrella holder, a large dark closet in which I was locked up twice for being disobedient . . . and finally a large papier-mâché mechanical toy, a Pierrot sitting on the edge of a well. When wound up Pierrot would sing ‘Au Clair de la Lune’; while his head and eyes began to move, his hands seemed to pluck at the strings of his mandolin, and the moon’s wide face appeared in an opening of a tower.”
Although this home and the even grander one Leonid occupied when, after the death of his father, his mother remarried—both her husbands were bankers—are described without a trace of bitterness or resentment, one can understand why it was, when he became a painter, he made a specialty of open vistas of water, unbounded space, and sun-drenched light. In Leonid’s gentle evocations of a dreamlike waterscape, one had never suspected there might be an element of personal rebellion, but his memoirs suggest that there was.
It was, in any case, from the over-upholstered comforts of his childhood and youth that the revolution uprooted him. Even so, Leonid recounts his experience of the revolution and the flight to Finland with a comic detachment, and does not hesitate to admit that for him it was at times something of a holiday. “In Helsinki, waiting for a cargo ship, I found myself once again in a lively and cheerful city, full of open-air cafés. . . . I met an officer’s wife who had a weakness for me and left me with an unpleasant souvenir.” It is in this spirit that he describes the collapse of his first “world” in 1919.
It was in Paris that Leonid became a painter. Yet the exigent ideas of modernism that were so much the rage in Paris in the 20’s held no appeal for him. “Man Ray, that remarkable photographer, as far as I was concerned, should never have picked up a brush, and I hated Marcel Duchamp, that handsome aesthete, amateur, and parasite who was taking it easy at the house of Mary Reynolds,” he writes in a passage that even today could easily earn Leonid a permanent bad name. With Bérard, Tchelitchew, and his brother Eugene Berman, he became part of what was known as a “neoromantic” movement that set itself against many of the governing tenets of modernism. Oddly enough, it found favor in the United States among the curators of the new Museum of Modern Art in the 30’s and it was as a votary of “neo-romanticism” that Leonid became known here even before he emigrated after the war.
The memoirs devoted to the 20’s and 30’s are not primarily interesting for their account of the Parisian art world, however. It is Leonid’s private life that charms our interest—the family connections that remained important to him, but mainly the love affairs upon which he lavished his whole spirit.
The book concludes with the surprisingly hard-headed diaries Leonid kept during the war years when, after something of an idyll in the countryside, he was finally conscripted as a laborer helping to build fortifications and then dig trenches against the expected Allied invasion. Yet even in this grim experience, Leonid managed to retain something of his equable spirit, and he survived with his gift for the happy ending intact. With his first three worlds now only a memory, he sailed for America on a well-named Liberty ship to begin yet another new life.