As I mentioned, Theo had returned to Basel without a mark, without a franc in his pocket. He had spent the last of his money for his train fare back from Germany. Very disillusioned and uncertain which way to turn or what to do, he was walking to his flat when he passed a museum that was holding an art exhibition. Perhaps a short visit might ease his mind of his troubles. Still carrying his portfolio under one arm he entered the museum. Before he could go far, he was greeted by a former teacher. The teacher was with a well-dressed, elderly gentleman whom he introduced to Theo. Theo knew him by name, Paul Sacher, the wealthy owner of Hoffmann-Laroche, and the founder of the Basel Chamber Orchestra. “So you are an artist,” Sacher said giving Theo the once over. ”And what do you have there?” he asked when he saw Theo’s portfolio under his arm. He asked to see it. Theo was reluctant to show him his work, mostly rough sketches, but he had no other choice. At a marble bench facing a Renoir hanging on the wall, Theo laid down his portfolio and opened it. Sacher picked up a sketch, studied it for a moment, placed it back in the folder and withdrew another one. He studied this one longer. Theo felt he had a pistol pointed at his chest, waiting for the trigger to be pulled. He wondered which sketch it was that Sacher studied so intently, but he dared not stretch his neck to look to see what one it was. Theo waited for the pistol shot. Sacher said nothing, not a word. Nor did the expression on his face change. Finally he returned the sketches and closed he folder. Slowly he turned to face Theo. With great theatrics he removed his glasses and carefully placed them in his coat pocket behind his handkerchief He then said something that was totally unexpected. He asked Theo if he could keep the portfolio until the following day. He didn’t wait for Theo to reply. He picked up the portfolio and handed it over to his assistant who was trailing behind him. He told Theo to come to his office the next afternoon, bid him good-bye and was gone, his assistant following close at his heels. What was all that about, Theo wondered?
What was only a day’s wait seemed like a month to young Theo. What could Monsieur Sacher possibly want? It had to be a commission. It couldn’t be anything else. Could this be the break Theo needed? Could this save him from clerking in his father’s office, The Meier Office Machine Company? It has to be a commission. Theo languished at the thought. The following afternoon he appeared at Sacher’s office, all scrubbed and neat, his hair trimmed. The secretary of the owner of Hoffmann-Laroche’s was waiting and ushered him into the boss’ office. Sacher was seating behind his polished desk, and across the top was Theo’s portfolio. It was opened. “I have two commissions for you,” he said coming straight to the point. He was all business. He picked up one sketch, laid it down, and picked up another. He folded the portfolio and handed it back to Theo and then handed him an envelope.
“Here are two letters of introduction,” he said. “Your commissions-” he hesitated-“your commissions are to paint the portraits of composers Arthur Honegger and Igor Stravinsky.” His commissions, Sacher said! Commissions for two world famous composers! Theo stood there stunned. He could hardly make out what his benefactor was telling him after that. Words floated meaninglessly by. Something about his going to Paris. Train tickets would be waiting with the secretary. He was to leave the next day. Out in the street Theo wondered if he had thanked Monsieur Sacher. He wondered if what the heard was real, that is, he wondered until he looked at the train tickets, and there was his name. It was real. If Theo ever had doubt that there was a higher being looking down over him, it was dispelled now. He was saved again from working in his father’s business, just-by the bell.
Once he was out in the street, he cut loose and shouted with joy to the top of his lungs. Those passing him on the street might have thought the young man carrying an artist’s portfolio had gone mad, and in a sense he had. What could be more magnificent than for him, a young artist, to be commissioned to paint the portraits of two of the greatest musicians in Europe, Arthur Honegger and Igor Stravinsky? He skipped all the way back to his flat, hardly touching the ground.
Theo was still baffled the next afternoon as he sat aboard the express train that carried him to Paris. Generally aboard trains he found enjoyment looking out the window watching the scenery flashing by, but not this time. His mind was preoccupied with other thoughts, his commissions, Honegger and Stravinsky. The pressure began to set in. He remembered Monsieur Sacher’s parting words, harsh words that echoed in his mind like heavy drum beats-“And I don’t like to be disappointed~.”
Honegger was the most talked about composer in Europe, and the thought couldn’t make Theo any happier. Shortly before in 1927 Honegger had composed the music for Abel Gance’s epic film, Napoleon, a silent film that had deeply impressed Theo. More recently, he had shot to fame with his latest “Le Roi David” composition. And there was Igor Stravinsky, the great Igor Stravinsky. Theo could hardly believe he was going to paint these two great men. He, Theo Meier, was going to paint them. Both men were in Paris, which made it easier for him. Theo opened the letter Sacher gave him and read that he was to go first to Stravinsky’s residence at the rue Faubourg St.-Honore. What Theo hoped to be a happy moment and a splendid experience turned out to be the opposite. Stravinsky’s wife had contracted tuberculosis and she was dying. To make matters worse she had infected their eldest daughter, Ludmila, and Stravinsky himself Nevertheless, the great composer posed for Theo. The painting proved to be one of Theo’s finest portraits. He depicted the agony that Stravinsky was suffering. With Arthur Honegger it went much easier. Theo was back in Basel in two weeks.
The commissions, of course, were quite an undertaking for a young, unknown artist, to paint two of the most important composers in Europe. Theo was pleased with the assignment and with the results, and he was gratified to be commended highly for his work. He was pleased, that was certain, but he was not satisfied. He was troubled. He was haunted by something from which he couldn’t escape. It had started ever so slowly a few years before, almost without his being aware of it, like a man who grows older and doesn’t realize it. He had discovered the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and he became deeply, perhaps even self-consciously, moved with the author’s “noble savage” idea. Man, Rousseau stated, was better off when he wasn’t corrupted by the influence of civilization. This concept of the noble savage had reached a new height in the later 18th century with the publication of the voyages of Captain James Cook. And Theo read them too.
Cook’s journals gave the world a glimpse of an unspoiled and un-Christianized South Seas. And then there were the biographical novels of Pierre Loti that Theo had also discovered. He was bewitched by The Marriage of Loti. He wondered if the pond at Fautera Falls, where Loti bathed with his love, the lithe and beautiful Rarahu, was still there, hidden away in a lotus-covered valley as Loti so wonderfully described.
Something was about to erupt and he didn’t quite know what it was. One interest led to another, and soon Theo became mesmerized by primitive art and Neoprimitivism, the 19th-centurydiscovery of the primitive arts of the South Sea Islanders and the woodcarvings of African tribes. And there was still another discovery that Theo made, and that was Paul Gauguin. Gauguin became Theo’s guiding star. Gauguin had been the major artist to employ exotic patterns and motifs in his woodcuts and paintings of the tropics, painted during his extended sojourn in Tahiti. For Theo, primitive art, with its complete negation of the notion of progress, seemed to be the promise of a new beginning. When Theo saw an exhibition of Gauguin’s works in 1928 he was beside himself. Gauguin had gone to great lengths to put the doctrine of primitivism into practice.