I never met Thomas Calame. As he died in 1956 – well before I was born, much less interested in art – I came to know him as we do most artists: first through the lens of their works and only later, if at all, through stories, biographies and informational placards. With Calame, however, even his works are becoming less well-known with the passing years; so much so that a painting of him (Rene Magritte’s La Clairvoyance , in which a man in a dark suit is depicted painting a bird in flight while looking at an egg on a side table) rather than a painting by him is the most viewed work with which he is associated. It is perhaps not surprising that Calame’s fame is waning; he was never a master painter nor a bold conceptual artist, the two requirements for lasting impact on the canon. Likewise, he has so far failed to fall into one of the accidental frenzies that grips the art auction world. No biographies of him exist and barely a line is devoted to him in the encyclopaedias. His paintings can be divided into two groups, distinguishable not by their different techniques – for he painted simply and realistically throughout his career, favouring simple colours and bold lines – but by their subjects. Like the surrealists with whom he is grouped, many of his paintings depict impossible things: gravity-defying cities, labyrinths that were also tigers, the corpses of mythical beasts in still-life. As surrealist works go, these are generally considered rather pedestrian. His other works depict the startlingly mundane: eggs, birds, landscapes. Within this group of prosaic subjects are several hidden depictions of the unthinkable – the future.
Calame’s works are now scattered throughout the world, filling out the surrealist and modern galleries of provincial museums. The museum in Canton, Ohio has one and so I must have seen it growing up, but it wasn’t until I chanced upon one of his canvases (Self-portrait IV, a weedy lot with drifts of trash piling up against a peeling fence) in the Kunstmuseum Bern that I became interested in his works. A docent saw me puzzling over the painting one day during my lunch break and we fell to talking. She mentioned that one of the museum’s retired conservators, an Australian by birth, had known both Calame and several of his colleagues. In town for a conference followed by a week of vacation, I asked if it would be possible to meet the conservator for coffee. From that meeting and the several that followed it, I have assembled the following information/biography/sketch.
The Thomas Calame depicted in La Clairvoyance seems to be an accurate representation, for those who had met him described him thusly: tall, thin, even for the times, with a mushroom-like head, an impression only heightened by dark hair that seemed to have slid off his crown to lie clustered about his ears. The painting is also a good representative of his sartorial preferences – black suits with simple straight lines. While he and Magritte looked very similar at the time of the painting (which Magritte, with characteristic humour, described as a self-portrait), their appearances diverged as they aged: Magritte filled out, Calame did not. Magritte kept more of his hair, although it all whitened. Calame’s thinned and whitened on the crown of his head, but it stayed thick and dark below, giving his head its fungiform aspect. Among the things not captured in the portrait: Calame was partial to French cigarettes which he smoked continuously; he moved quickly with a very quiet step; talked little but when he did he would gesture emphatically with both hands. He was excitable, not given to socialising much. He had few friends, but he was fierce in devotion to those he did make.
Calame was born in 1907 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, a small manufacturing centre in the mountains along the French border. The only child of a reasonably well-off lawyer and distantly related to the 19th century painter Alexandre Calame, he showed an early aptitude for art. Unwilling to bring an instructor to their house because of the cost, his parents did begin sending him to study in town at the age of eleven. His education was challenging, as would be imagined of one with his ability, even though the precise nature of that talent would not be recognized for many years. Instead, adults described him as overly imaginative, prone to fancy, and unable to focus on the task at hand. His talent lay hidden so long because while he could easily draw or paint from his imagination, if asked to paint or draw from a model, be it a person, still life, or landscape, his brush or pencil would produce an image of the scene unlike that in front of him. Childish drawings of the view outside the classroom in the morning would depict a night scene during a different season. Houses in the distance would be shown in ruins, or new houses would appear in empty fields. Still-lives were grotesqueries, full of desiccated corpses and rotten fruit, or they showed bare tables, or piles of unrelated clutter. When asked if that was indeed what he saw, he could only respond with incomprehension. Demands to repeat his work would produce a different image. Thus obstinacy and stupidity were added to his list of character traits. Despite this, by the time he came of age, several of his paintings had made it into regional shows, and he developed a reputation as a promising young painter.
Catalogues record 137 paintings and drawings by Calame, of which thirty-one have been lost or destroyed. Seventeen of these, comprising most of his early output, have the distinctly dubious honour of having been destroyed in the first V-2 strike on London in 1944. Of the remaining fourteen, most went missing during the war from friends’ homes when the home was destroyed, or were presumed stolen or sold. To date, none have resurfaced.
The painting of the bird shown in La Clairvoyance (egg III) was one of only two series of paintings he is known to have produced: eggs I – VII, and a series of works titled ‘self-portrait’ that were discovered posthumously. It is unsurprising that neither series depicts in an obvious fashion either an egg or Calame. Both series are now distributed among half a dozen museums throughout the world. The egg paintings (two of which were destroyed in the V-2 strike) depict, in addition to the mature bird in flight in egg III, an omelet (egg II), a fluffy chick (egg VI), a cat with the broken body of a bird in its mouth (egg I), and a single feather stuck in the crook of a tree (egg IV). It is not clear if multiple paintings depict the same egg or if each canvas was created from a different model. This point would reasonably be considered vital, as it would settle at a stroke the debate between determinism and free will. Calame, though, seemed uninterested in the question, relying on servants to remove and do what they would with his models. The supposition that an egg, or the egg depending on your philosophical bent, ended up breakfast for the servants is irresistible. The series was produced in Paris between 1933 and 1936, where Calame had moved in 1928 to gain more exposure. There he met Magritte, Max Ernst, Miró, and others active in the surrealist scene. He found a ready home with surrealism and its depiction of realities that are impossible, or at least very improbable. It was an easy field in which to paint purely from imagination. It did not afford enough of an income to live on, though, so for a time he painted by commission. This came to an end after he spent three months in 1935 working on a portrait of a prominent Jewish family. He refused to paint portraits after this, and indeed no more paintings of any subject are recorded until he moved to London in 1936. He appears to have spent most of the intervening years closeted in his rented room.
In moving to London, Calame was following Magritte, who was living under both the patronage and the roof of the poet Edward James. It was there that Calame asked Magritte to paint him. It was also during this time that Calame exhibited the egg series, as well a number of typically surrealist paintings. When war looked to be inevitable, he fled England for Australia, where the unchanging nature of the landscape provided him with a chance to have his brush produce the same scene others saw.
It is not known when he produced the series of paintings titled self-portraits I – IV. Some have suggested that they were produced in Paris after his failure at portraiture, but there is no record of their storage or shipping to Australia. I believe it more likely that he only painted them after arriving in Australia, having had a chance to come to peace with what they would show. The series is composed of the following subjects: An an open packing crate with the lip of a dark green jar lid just visible inside; a single tree off-centre in a level grassy field with farm-covered hills in the background; a broken body in dark cloths lying, head at an impossible angle, at the bottom of a set of marble stairs, a pool of blood spreading to encompass the body; an empty, weedy lot in front of a peeling wooden fence. Many people assume that these were titled whimsically in keeping with the proclivities or of his early friends. Those sympathetic to New Age mysticism and certain forms of Buddhism assume they are meant to show the universal connection between all living things. They are not these things, though, at least not fundamentally. He was simply being honest in the naming.
The paintings were not found until several years after his death, when a manager found them in a storage room he had taken out in Perth. He died in his small house outside Perth in 1956, following a fall down a full flight of stairs. He appears to have simply tripped. The fall broke his neck and fractured his skull. His will dictated that he be buried in his native Switzerland, but his estate was unable and his relatives unwilling to pay for transportation of his body from Australia. He was cremated, his ashes deposited in a small, simple urn, and this was shipped to his hometown. A proper burial was also out of the question. A cousin who had met him only once scattered his ashes on a field outside Columbier. I visited it before leaving the country, and while the field is intact and the tree is still standing, albeit with a number of rotten branches, it is only a matter of time until the growing town overtakes the field, leaving a peeling fence bordering a weedy, trash-filled lot in its wake.
Patrick M. Hare writes fiction and photophysics. He lives near
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.
He is on Twitter @NKUPMH