COMMERCE OF ART
Basel, Switzerland, 1908 to 1930
Basel in Switzerland where Theo Meier was born is a long way from Tahiti and even farther from Bali, to say the least. How did a native son, a young man, who wanted to paint pictures, make it that far is quite remarkable. To tell the truth, it was a movie, a motion picture that did it, a simple movie film that changed his life forever. And they say movies have no effect on people. Let me tell you how it happened.
Basel is a busy commercial center, but quieter than Zurich, less international than Geneva, and farther from the Alps than Bern. It’s Switzerland’s second-largest city where its wealthy patrician families have nurtured a tradition of scholarship and art since the Renaissance. Basel has more than two dozen museums with a population of 200,000, which is proof that this is no ordinary provincial town. And so it was no small wonder then that Theo Meier, born in Basel in 1908, became influenced by the art scene at a very young age. That doesn’t mean, however, that Theo’s father agreed that his only son should delve into the arts. On the contrary, young Theo was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps-a dealer in office machines. Theo never doubted, while growing up, that his profession would be other than that of his father’s. After all, as was the tradition then, shoemakers’ sons became shoemakers; baker’s sons, bakers; and so on. Nor was there anything unusual about Theo’s formative years. His childhood was ordinary, like every other schoolboy in Switzerland. He went to school, came home, did his studies, and met with friends in the evening. He spent Saturdays helping in his father’s business and on Sundays went to church with his family. He had an attentive mother, a strict father and an older sister who bossed him around. The years passed slowly, the sameness year after year, and even the war, when it broke out on the continent, had little effect on Basel. Life in the city went on as usual. The war passed by in the distance. Theo was six when it began and eleven when it ended four years later.
Theo grew up dreading the day when he would turn sixteen, for at that time he had to take a commercial apprenticeship in his father’s office. His life was programmed to revolve around business machines, office equipment, ledgers, accounts, time cards, and set hours. But for young Theo, instead of business machines, his thoughts were elsewhere. His real love was for forms and colors. His likes and talents were in art. Secretly he wanted to paint pictures. When he did approach his father and said he would like to go to art school, he was surprised to find that his father didn’t object. “Certainly, why not?” his father commented to his wife, Theo’s mother. “Who knows, it might even help in the office, promoting business machines.” The senior Meier even paid for his son’s art classes at the Basel School of Arts and Crafts, but with the stipulation that Theo could study painting as long as it didn’t interfere with his commercial studies. Theo’s dabbling in the arts, his painting was, in his father’s eyes, merely a hobby and nothing more. After all, the boy would have a successful and well-established business to step into, one that had been handed down from generation to generation, one that young Theo was being groomed to take over one day.
The war may have passed but, nevertheless, in Switzerland in the late 1920s military service was compulsory for all young men and still is. Theo was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit, given a uniform and a rifle, but without ammunition, to keep locked up in his closet. Since he was a student, enrolled in school, he never had to put on his uniform and when his service time was up he returned the rifle without ever having fired a shot.
After his required three years apprenticeship Theo earned his certificate in business. His father had it framed and hung it on the wall in the living room where everyone could see it. But in the meantime, Theo’s love for painting had intensified. It took preference over business machines. He didn’t want to give up painting. He approached his father with an idea. Since he had his certificate in business, and before he entered the family business he would like to take off for one year and do nothing but paint.
One year before settling down to business.
His father was, of course, pleased that his son had earned his certificate. Why not? Let his boy see how difficult the outside world might be on his own, without support. Theo’s father agreed, but he made it dear, Theo would be on his own. He had to live off the money he made from painting. Theo’s father gave him his one year, but not one franc. He was certain his son would come back into the fold, for he was a bright lad merely living out some sort of fancy. Hunger changes many young men’s minds.
Theo’s father was certain, with no income Theo would come back, and he left the door open to him. But what Theo’s father never expected was that his son would win a grant from the Basel School of Art for 400 francs for a year. Theo was thrilled. He was more proud than ever to be a Ballios, one of the clan, a bona fide member of the city of arts and culture. Indeed, it was exciting times in Basel for young painters, musicians, poets, writers and pursuers of the arts. The exhibitions seen at the Kunsthalle were enough to capture any aspiring young artist’s soul, and Theo soon became fascinated with art groups like the Rot-Blau who were making a name for themselves in Basel. He was caught up in the whirlwind of creation. He moved out from his family dwelling and found a room on the 4th floor of an old apartment across the street from a bakery and dose to school. Poor but happy he lived on coarse sausages, salty bread rolls and cheap Spanish wine. He learned what it was to be free for the first time in his life. He bought canvas on credit from Max Opplinger’s shop on the corner. He found delight in his room with a fresh canvas on his easel, while looking out his window at all the rooftops. He felt like the captain of a great ship embarking on a fabulous journey. He was free. It meant so much to him. He didn’t want to think what would happen when the year was up.
To fill a need in Theo’s life, along came Helga, a buxom jolly woman two years older than him. She was the daughter of the baker across the street, and she would come sneaking into his room in the black of night. They both were aware, had her father caught his “virgin” daughter in the room with Theo, Theo would be slaughtered and his daughter, Helga, sent to a nunnery. Helga’s parents were basic people, strong Catholics who held fast to their faith and they abided by the law of the church and man. Theo thought the end came one night when unable to locate his bottle of wine, he got up and flicked on the overhead light. Helga who was lying naked on the bed let out a scream that could have wakened everyone in the block, including her father and mother across the street. To Helga, being seen without her clothes on was a sin far worse than the act of fornication itself. Fortunately no one heard her scream, and Theo was careful after that never to turn the lights on. When Theo saw her there, naked on the bed, he got the idea of painting her in the nude. At first, when he asked her, she thought he was joking, but when she saw that he was serious she went into a fit. “How can you even think of something so vulgar,” she said and stormed out of the studio. It was a week before she came back, without apologies but with firm words, “Don’t ever ask me anything like that again.”
That night when they lay side by side in the dark, with Helga breathing heavily, Theo remembered a painting by Degas. He had to suppress a chuckle for fear of waking up Helga. The painting was the backside of a nude woman. She had both hands placed firmly on her buttocks. She stood next to an unmade up bed. The painting was titled “The Baker’s Wife.” He wondered if the baker had ever seen the painting, and now he wondered what would happen if he had painted Helga in the nude and her father saw the painting. He would be murdered, or else it would be marriage. Theo got thinking about another painting by Gauguin. Three or four workmen, he couldn’t remember how many, were at a beach in Normandy entering the water. They were in swimsuits that fully clothed their bodies. He then recalled Gauguin’s later paintings, those he did when he was in Tahiti. The Tahitian women wore no clothing. Theo wondered if that was really the way it was in Tahiti. Helga was a simple woman, the kind who makes a good attentive wife and a responsive mother. Theo was appreciative of her efforts, even though he knew when he met her at an exhibition that she would rather have been at the Sunday Flea Market than looking at paintings she didn’t understand. Nevertheless, she was an understanding woman and when Theo said he wanted to go to the French coast to see the countryside where Monet had painted his wonderful garden scenes, and which Pierre Loti had written so romantically about, she had no objection. She stole buns and poppy seed rolls from the bakery and packed him food for several days. He scraped his francs together, packed his easel and kit and bought a third class train ticket to Normandy.