Theo arrived at the port of Paimpol, thrilled beyond expectation, and he couldn’t believe what opened up before him. The sea! A pulsating waterfront! The lighting was poor and the sky overcast but what did that matter! He had found the world of Monet and Pierre Loti and was re-living the pages from Lori’s famous Pecheur d’Islande, a novel of life among the Breton fisher folk. It was a book that Theo had read and reread. He often pictured the scene in his mind, as Loti had so well described it, but he never imagined it to be so real. The fishing port pulsated with activity. Fishing boats had moored along the quay while their crews took on supplies for their next voyage. Shouts and calls from fishmongers filled the air, air that was heavy laden with the odor of tar and hemp and the smell of the sea. Stepping around the crates of fish came the shoppers, women mostly, haggling for bargains. Eateries with marquees out front that announced fresh seafood were as numerous as the nautical stores. Shops with fishing nets and fishing lines, sinkers and floats, and everything a fisherman needed, all displayed in their open-fronted shops. Hardened fishermen with weather-beaten faces and seamen in blue-and-white striped jumpers ruled the waterfront bars with their boisterous voices and their insatiable thirst for drink. The streets were cobbled, wet beneath the feet, and trash ridden, and there was no escape from the crowds. And there was the Latin Quarter that Theo longed to seek out. He was elated to find La Place du Martray and he tried ever so hard to surmise which was the street of the House of Gaud where the heroine of Pecheur d’Islande had lived. In the end it didn’t matter; one of the dilapidated dwellings had to be the place where she had lived and just being on the same street made it all so real for Theo.
The spirit of adventure hit Theo hard, like an uncontrollable typhoon wind gone wild. He saw the whole world open up before him and he wanted to capture it all, to feel it down to his last pore, to imbibe in all its wonders–not later, but then and there, instantly. When he learned that many of the fishing boats were on their way from Paimpol to Iceland, without his giving thought to the consequences, he wanted to join them. He went from one fishing boat to another until he found one captain who would take him on as crewmember. It turned out to be a catastrophe. The adventure didn’t last long. Theo became so seasick the fishermen had to unload him on the British coast forcing him to work his way back to Basel, a distance of several hundred miles. Helga nurtured him back to health with food she sneaked from her father’s bakery.
Back in Basel Theo found himself broke. He felt like a pauper. He couldn’t go on like he was; he had to earn a living. He was beginning to think maybe his father was right. He gave thought to going back to his father’s business, to make a decent living, and then, maybe one day, he could still travel. He was about to acknowledge defeat and concede to his father’s wishes, to the delight of Helga, when fate played its hand. Theo had met Jacob Schaffner, a native of Basel, and he offered Theo a commission to paint his portrait. Schaffner was to be bestowed with an honorary doctorate from Basel University. Theo did the portrait, and Schaffner was so pleased with the result she gave Theo introductions to three famous German painters–Max Liebermann, Karl Hofer and Otto Dix-all living in Berlin.
“I’ll just go and see what it’s all about,” Theo told Helga who had been hinting to Theo that it was time for him to meet her father the baker. She had already mentioned to her father that she had met a young man who one day would take over the Meier Business Machine Corporation in Basel. She didn’t mention about Theo being an artist.
With the letters of introduction and the fee for his commission for the portrait, Theo set off by train for Berlin. He arrived wide• eyed in the German capital filled with enthusiasm. His excitement faded quickly. There was everywhere in the city jubilation and unrest, those in favor of the rising Nazi party and those opposed. Theo was quite astounded by the political mood of the country, of which he wanted no part. Adolf Hider had taken over leadership of the National Socialist German Workers Party and it was only a matter of time that he would become Chancellor of Germany. The atmosphere was rife with political uncertainty and Theo didn’t like what he saw.
Theo lost no time and went directly to see Professor Liebermann, Director of the Berlin Academy of Art, and presented his letter of introduction. Liebermann was standing amidst a classroom crowded with doting art students. He looked more like a diplomat, dressed the way he was in a long waistcoat than a master painter and art instructor. He looked sharply at Theo, scarcely read his letter and told him to be seated and, without introductions or formalities of any sort, instructed him to join the class. Theo set up his easel and opened his kit. He glanced about at the other students. He was quick to gather that they were parvenus of the arts, toadies to the teachers who lauded over them.
Theo disliked Liebermann from the moment he entered the class and sat down. He was beginning to have doubts about him. Maybe it was Liebermann’s appearance. He gave the impression of a country gentleman, or maybe it was the fact that Liebermann classified himself as the father of German Impressionism. About his dress, Theo had no problem with that. So his professor was a dapper. And Theo did credit Liebermann for being instrumental in teaching the new art to his students. But Theo’s dislike ran deeper than the obvious. He watched him move from student to student, attacking each student’s work not with the aplomb of a caring teachers but rather with a scolding acrid tongue. And when he came to Theo he told him to draw a wooden cart. Theo began to draw the cart, wondering all the time why was he doing this. He grumbled to himself that if he wanted to draw a cart he could have saved train fare and stayed in Basel, but he said nothing. He drew the cart. When the class was about to end, Liebermann came to see what Theo had done. For the rest of his days as an artist Theo wondered why he put up with what he did that afternoon at the Berlin Academy of Art. Liebermann tore into Theo’s drawing style like a cantankerous Soviet policeman. “I teach you to be an impressionist and what is this you give me?” he stammered and, picking up Theo’s brush, slashed some heavy lines across the sketch. Theo never did understand why he remained as stoic as he did. But all that night after he checked into his room on the campus he seethed with anger. He reasoned, yes, he did try to be innovative with the drawing of the cart, but that was his own creative style. The French impressionists themselves were rebels in art when they broke away from the traditional styles of the academies. In the beginning the impressionists were ridiculed by the critics in Paris, and after they gained recognition, like the academy before them, they defended their style vehemently, refusing even the slightest deviation for the traditional. Was this what Liebermann was doing?
With his easel and paint kit in hand Theo returned to the class the next morning. He had calmed down, having assuaged his temper. Liebermann stood on a raised dais at the head of the room. Standing at his side was another man who Theo immediately recognized from his photograph-Karl Hofer, the famous impressionist painter. Theo had a letter of introduction to him too. Hofer had come to help Liebermann monitor the class. Before the class began Lieberman introduced Hofer. He extolled upon the merits of his colleague standing next to him. The praise was exuberant, which brought admiration from the students. 1his was Liebermann’s opportunity to speak out against some of his opponents and critics. He brought up Emile Nolde.
In recent months Nolde was coming under criticism by the Socialist German Workers Party. Although he had been a supporter of the Nazi party from the early 1920s, the party began to express negative opinions about expressionism of which Nolde was a part. Theo was an admirer of Nolde’s work, his vibrant brushwork and expressive choice of colors. Theo especially liked his bright yellows and deep reds that appear throughout his work. The colors began to appear on Theo’s pallet.
Liebermann made a condescending remark about Nolde’s political preferences, which Theo would perhaps have let pass but when Liebermann began to attack Nolde’s background, a farm boy and the son of Danish peasants, Theo could no longer remain silent. Theo was sympathetic to Nolde. As a young struggling artist, Nolde had been refused entrance into the academy, no doubt resulting from his background, but instead, the academy claimed, because he had made a living by painting postcards. Theo spoke up in Nolde’s defense. He was adamant. He let his feelings be known in a fiery tirade to Liebermann, but before he could express himself further he was abruptly interrupted by Hofer who demanded that Theo retract his statement and apologize to Liebermann. Theo refused whereupon he was ordered to leave the classroom. He was subsequently kicked out of the Berlin Academy of Art. He had lasted but two days thus ending his formal education in art.
Theo wanted to see Nolde but the artist had left Berlin.
Theo returned to Basel, very disillusioned. It was the year 1930. He couldn’t wait to see Helga. He wanted to curl up in her arms and forget the world. When he arrived at his street, carrying his easel and kit, he saw her peeking through the curtained window of her father’s bakery. It was just a matter of time and the bakery would dose, and Theo knew there would soon be a knock at his door. He left the door partly open and sure enough Helga came bounding in, smelling of flower and fresh bread. They were happy together but Helga knew something had happened to Theo. He was not the same person as when he left. She didn’t find out the reason until they met the next afternoon in the park. Helga appeared with her girlfriend who quickly disappeared and left them alone.
Theo was tired and disillusioned. He tried to explain this to Helga but there was little chance she would understand him. How does one explain one’s uneasiness when one himself is not sure? He tried to tell Helga he was tired of the art scene, and tired of the students he had met. He had no sympathy for them. They wanted
to create, but they did not want it bad enough. They dreamed of artistry but they failed to deliver the goods. Theo saw life with no vision save his own, with his own eyes, with his own brain, with his own senses. He was given no support except that which he created for himself. Helga was of no help but he talked to her anyway, as one might talk to a rag doll.