The Birth of an Artist
Part 2 1948 - 1955
Carme Castells - translated by David Magil
Journey to the centre of art: Paris, Rome and...Torremolinos
"Paris was a different world. Paris is fantasy and mythology, you can hardly believe you are there. One of the most beautiful moments of my life was when I went to the place where Picasso painted the Guernica. I knew the address, I looked it up on the map, I went over there... phew, I can remember it... I reached the building and... there was nothing interesting about it, but it was there, it was there he had painted it! I also went to Delacroix's studio, but Picasso was my obsession." When Ellis first stood on French soil he was incredibly shy, and you could even say fearful of all the novelties surrounding him. Even so, the mere fact that he had set off to travel to the Old World was an act of braveness in itself. On the boat he met an American couple who had already visited France, so he gladly accepted their suggestions. And like so many other Americans, he gave himself over to discovering the city of his dreams, the city of light, which was such a contrast to the society he came from. "Many Americans visited Paris with Henry Miller's book under their arms. Do you know what a pissoir is? A urinal. Well, Miller wrote of the pissoirs of Paris, which were located on the sidewalks there men went to urinate. They were standing there urinating and you could see their bodies from the waist up and their feet, and if anyone passed by they greeted them quite casually, without batting an eyelid. This was inconceivable in the United States. We went around looking for the pissoirs, some pissoir where Henry Miller may have peed. I was also surprised, in the cinema, to see the bathrooms were mixed. This did not exist in the US, no way."
There is an element of fetishism in Ellis' appreciation of the French capital. but also one of anxiety, of an indescribable thirst for knowledge and discovery of what the European capital of art had to offer him. And what it offered was precisely direct contact with avant-garde art, in spite of the fact that at that time the new artistic movement, the evolution of abstraction along the paths initiated by the 'isms', was brewing in New York. "Whilst I was in Paris there was a huge exhibition of the American abstract expressionists; Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko etc... And it's curious, because l was impressed by it, but I didn't pay much attention to it. I was so obsessed with Picasso and Braque that there was no space in my head for anything else."
Braque, specificaly, was one of Jacobson's big discoveries in Paris. "I remember a friend spoke to me of an
exhibition that was showing of Braque's recent work. I only vaguely knew who he was, I went to the exhibition and I can still see it, as though it were yesterday. Those works are etched in my mind, I did a lot of works
like his, I imitated him for a very long time." It is Ellis himself who affirms that Braque's influence is probably the most pronounced in his work. Because of "his way of applying paint, and above all his way of looking at things, very zen, very spiritual. He worked on cubism, like Picasso, but in a very different way. Braque looked at negative space and played with it. With Braque I realized that positive and negative are not absolute, that negative can be positive, that the figure in the foreground can become secondary and cutting it out can be
positive. It is very difficult to explain, but he displayed this. Vacuum is not vacuum - all the great masters in history have said that. Although knowing it and seeing it and implementing it are different things. You can spend hours with this observation, it's fascinating. It broadens our vision of objects and space. It is a process,
like so many others: how to draw with your eyes closed." Or how to free oneself of the automatism the abstract expressionists drank of. But that will come later. For now Ellis is in Paris, drinking from all the bottles the French city uncorks before his eyes. Ellis cannot believe what he sees, but he drinks it in, absorbing it like a sponge. Although not everything is avant-gardes. In the Opera Library he discovered masterpieces on caricatures, books on ballet, with figurines and scenes which would stay with him. However, we could say that many of the hours Ellis spent in France were passed in the Cabinet des Dessins of the Louvre Museum, an authentic icon in the creator's artistic training, where he went without doubt attracted by the vast quantity of
drawings by the grand masters housed there. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres said that drawing makes up three-quarters and a half of what constitutes painting.
In the Cabinet des Dessins de L'Louvre, Ellis learned endless lessons, from the portfolios of the great painters that were accumulated in the files. Jacobson, unflagging and impatient, began with Michelangelo Buonarroti. The box files piled up before him, containing originals which engrossed Ellis for hours at a time. He gave himself over to discovering the keys to their genius, as he would with the d rawings of Delacroix, too; notes and sketches the French man produced prior to his major works. "The Louvre was a school for me. More as an inspiration than as imitation." During this period, these originals were very accessible indeed, and there was only one ru e: copying the drawings was forbidden. Ellis complied, doubtless because he was not interested in reproducing those l i nes, but rather i n capturi ng the sense of each stroke, of each gestu re, i n i nvestigati ng i nto the gen i us of those masters in order to extract thei r teach i ngs. He certainy absorbed them, as one can percei ve in the skilll Jacobson shows in his drawings afterwards."
When not in art school or in museums, or walkign the streets, Ellis spent hours, days, sitting sketching in the cafes of Paris, Le Select was his favorit, but he also spent many hours drawing and drinking at Le Dome.
Ellis, Montmartre, Paris, 1952
Annie, Paris, 1953
Sketches, Paris, 1952-53
Ellis studied at L'Académie de la Grande Chaumière on Rue Vavin and rented a small attic apartment right across the street, there were a number of Americans also studying there, like him their studies were funded by the GI Bill. His time in Paris was a combination of self-imposed solitude, and exploration and adventure with the many expats who he encountered in the cafes of Montparnasse. La Coupole was where he would take his dates - Hemingway's favorite there was the lamb curry - Ellis would have to cut back on his expenses after each one of those dates, often bread and cheese for every meal would be his penance for a week or so. He spent weekend mornings at the fleamarkets of Paris often as fascinated by the people he would meet as the rare and random objects he would find - but most often not be able to afford. It was a time of personal discovery but also a time of explorations, a time to work towards becoming the artist he knew he would one day be. Ellis could have remained in Paris forever but he was eager to see more, learn more. At 28 he knew he could alwasy come back to Paris, but a new adventure awaited him.
Coliseum, oil on canvas, Rome, 1954
Perhaps it was the mermaid's song of Michelangelo that drove him, or perhaps the inescapable nature of Italy as the cradle of art, but the fact is that one year after arriving in Europe he moved to Rome. "The people were delightful. They rummaged in the tourists' bags and pinched the girls' bottoms on the tram." Just as he had done in Paris,
in Rome he took a whole year to study at an art school, this time is was Romes Stuio Hina. Ellis' memory does not bring up many images of the city battered by the war, something which was beginning to fade in the distance, but was still evident, without doubt. Just fleeting snippets: a village pounded by bombs, near Pisa. or in towns where the ravages of bullet holes could be seen on the walls of buildings. In Rome Ellis lived similarly to how he had lived in Paris, a poor art student, watching what he ate and spending all his free time in museums, churches and on the streets of a city finding its way back from the darkness that was the war. Paris had been different, the war had left deeper scars on Italy and Ellis experience in Rome was to have a deeper impact on his phyche. He met many artist there and developed close relationships that were to span decades. But once he left, unlike Paris, he was never to return.
Studio Hinna, Rome, 1954
In 1954 Ellis established his place of residence in Torremolinos. The scenes of that grey Spain had not prevented him from appreciating the country's light and charm, and Torremolinos seemed a good place to for him after the bif cities of Paris and Rome, its surrounding countryside, beaches and its tranquillity. There was little tourism. "For me everything was different there, even my way of breathing. The locals were very humble, generous people. For an artist, Torremolinos offered many experiences and adventures." Ellis devoted himself to paper and pencil, capturing whatever went on around him. And he studied: Torremolinos was also a school for him.
Shortly after arriving he met David Friend an American who wanted to open an art school. Ellis started going to his classes for free, as the savings he had brought from the United States had diminished considerably. "Friend aroused a great interest for teaching in me. With him I learned pictorial technique: composition and bringing out personal colour. But above all I learned how to teach, how to help people to be creative. I discovered that there is a way of learning that has nothing to do with the trad itional way." He began to explore abstract art more seriously, while continuing to develop his draughtsman skills.
During the holidays Ellis embarked on a short trip to visit Spain. This was his first contact with the country. He visited Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Cordoba. "Things were very cheap in those days. You only needed a l ittle money to take the train, although you did have to put up with all kinds of inconveniences. The journeys took hours, the carriages were uncomfortable, with wooden seats, crowded with people, lots of gypsies carrying smuggled goods. It was extremely slow and tedious. Information just didn't exist, you never knew anything about timetables, although we had already got used to that in Italy, it was as if in Spain it was intentional, part of Franco's censorship strategy."
The Spain of the '50s left a lasting impressions on Ellis. From Rome he decided to move to the small seaside town of Torremolinos, in Malaga. The country was slowly picking itself up and the cities were awash with misery and hardship, as Nobel Luareate Camilo Jose Cela - who was to become a close friend of Jaocbson's in years to come - expressed well. "Spain was dirty, grey, colour didn't exist." Ellis goes on to say "wherever you went that people were congregated; in the theatre, in the cinema, at bullfights there was always a heavy police presence. I remember that in Toledo I tried to take a photo of a house in ruins. I found it attractive somehow. Immediately I felt a hand on my shoulder. A policeman indicated I should not take the photo. They didn't want images that would give a bad impression of Spain to be published".
Throughout his trip, he discovered a country with very little tourism, modest boarding houses and delicacies that cost next to nothing. Very few cars, "when you went up inside the Sagrada Familia you could see the grid-like city, but the streets were empty." And there were peculiar smells. " Malaga smelled of olive oil everywhere you went." Censorship asserted itself everywhere, "you didn't see a single kiss on the screen. people were very carefl what they did in public. In bookshops, not much was left. I looked for books by Garcia Lorca, but he was banned. So was Andre Malraux. In the end I managed to get them, but it was difficult." Spain was cut off from the rest of the world, having sided with Hitler and now not benefiting from the Marshall Plan. Franco ruled with an iron fist. "There was a tremendous sadness in the country. In 1953, when the world was recovering, Spain was still immersed in disaster." And yet Ellis loved what the county, he connected with it and its people in a way that he hadn't in any other European country.
Photos by Jacobson, Torremolinos, 1954
He struck up a special friendship with Friend, one of mutual respect. He would meet him again back in the United States a few years later. And he would even receive a proposal from him to help him with a new school he had set up in New York. "And I wanted to go to New York, it was my dream, everything was happening there. But I didn't go. I fell ill. maybe from pure fright. I didn't go".
Back in 1955 Ellis' savings had run out, and with them his European adventure. The artist returned to his home town of San Diego with a trunkfull of papers and a heap of rolled up canvases. A lot of abstract water colours, painted in Rome. dozens of sketch pads from the cafes of Paris, A cubist vision of the Coliseum, "not very origi nal, but it is a work that sings, moves me, it dominates whatever room it is in." The influence of Picasso and Braque were present in many pieces. There was also the strong presence of what Ellis called "Matisse-style, with very swift lines." Nobody could deny that Ellis had done his homework during his nearly four years in Europe.