The following essay was written in 2002 by Jim Kincaid and was originally published in the book titled "Anna's Eyes - The Story of Theo the Artist." The publisher is L'Art de Theo, Ltd., 990 Sulphur Spring Road, Prospect, VA 23960. The essay is rekeyed and reprinted, without illustrations, with permission of L'Art de Theo, Ltd., ISBN 0-9742541-0-X. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you would like to obtain a copy of the book, please contact L'Art de Theo, Ltd. directly through either this phone number or web address:
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I heard the stories again and again, until they were fixed in my mind, not as incidents in the life of Theo Wildanger, but as memories of my own history; which is remarkable, because they were uttered in a language that existed nowhere else on the planet.
Theo spoke little English, and what little he did speak was colored by the grammar of German and French, and larded heavily with the patois of Luxembourg. Thus, the two of us had to invent a language in which we both became quite fluent, but was incomprehensible to the casual bystander.
But, language aside, the stories were told with passion and eloquence, each chapter deepening my understanding of this complex man whose beginnings dictated that he would live and complete his life as an Alsatian peasant.
Indeed, many if not most great men can point to humble and unpromising beginnings, but few could paint a bleaker picture than the one into which Theo was born in 1905. The miserable quarters of a laborer in the iron mines near Aumetz, France. Eleven siblings had preceded Theo into the family, and his birth represented yet another burden on an income already stretched beyond its possibilities.
Thus, we see Theo at an age when our own children would be beginning primary school, taken by his father to a nearby farmer whose house and barn were located in the village of Aumetz. There, Theo's father negotiated a deal with the farmer. Theo would come each morning, take the farmer's cows to pasture outside the village, tend them through the day, and bring them back in the evening. If he did his job well, the farmer would give him something to eat. This constituted the entirety of the child's daily wage, but relieved his father of one mouth on the hefty roster of those he had to feed.
Theo's relation of this part of his history varied from time to time. Often he remembered the almost sensuous pleasure of drinking his fill of milk from an earthen pot, the smell of the cattle, and of the cheese the farmer made, the texture of the grasses and wildflowers in the pastures, the dusty silence of a hot day and the constant cold of the dank Alsatian winters. These scenes he remembered so vividly that he could reproduce them in words, and on canvas, more than a half century later. But, no matter how many times I heard the story, never was there a tender moment between father and child. Family scenes are almost entirely missing, as though the struggle for everyone involved was all there was time for.
The struggle, however, was inescapable, and before Theo would reach his teens his elders sent him into the mines.
As in so many poor countries, child labor laws were unheard of in Theo's homeland, and mine owners found children ideal for the work of pushing trams through the dark and narrow tunnels. For one thing, children could stoop over, mules couldn't. And for another, children went back to their own homes, while mules had to be kept and fed.
So, Theo became a human mule, pushing the tramcars to the mine face empty, and back to the surface fully loaded with ore.
The salary for this was pitifully small, but unlike his job as a cowherd, provided his father with a few additional pennies to feed his large family. Had fate, and gravity, not intervened, Theo doubtless would have remained in this job until he was old enough to train as a miner like his father.
But an upgrade in the mineshaft, a tramcar full of ore, and a slippery footpath between the rails proved more than the preteen could handle one day. He fell, the tramcar rolled backward, and, unable to roll completely to the side in the narrow tunnel, Theo lost two fingers and much of the palm of his left hand.
The mine owners gave his parents a few francs to compensate them for the loss of Theo's fingers and his income. But Theo's personal loss was, to his elders, more their misfortune than his was. Theo would tell me, many years later, that it was the luckiest accident he ever had, in that it filled him with determination to be anything but an iron miner. But the darkness of the mines and the hunger and desperation of poverty remained a part of his mental repertoire.
But this determination, this decision not to return to the mines was perhaps the first demonstration of the independent character that would bless, and plague, Theo throughout his life.
As in so many peasant societies in this disorderly world, the teachings of the church and common practice in the community dictated unquestioning obedience. To scorn a father's occupation was to dishonor him. The boy born into a miner's family was expected to understand that mining was his destiny, and to turn away from it was unnatural and dishonorable. Many years, and half a world away from Aumetz, I found the same attitude in the West Virginia coalfields, often expressed in the phrase "Don't try to get above your raising, boy".
Theo never told me what the French equivalent of that phrase might be, but I have no doubts that there was such a phrase, and that Theo heard it often.
At any rate, Theo stuck by his abandonment of a career in mining, and his father persuaded a local baker to take Theo in as an apprentice.
He learned the bakery trade well, but the dusty atmosphere of the bakery, laden as it was with flour and yeast, aggravated a lung condition Theo was quite probably born with; and his career as a baker was short lived.
He retained the art, however, and many of these stories I am passing on to you were told in front of a fireplace in our old farmhouse at Elam while a great bowl of dough stood rising on the hearth. Hardly anything enhances a story of old times like a hot, crusty, and well-buttered baguette, accompanied by a strong cafÈ-au-lait.
World War I was approaching Europe and this, by chance, worked to Theo's advantage in his continuing struggle to contribute his share to his family's barely livable income.
The fact that Germany and France had been at odds over the ownership of the Alsace-Lorraine region for generations seemed to promise that the war would come that way had inspired the French to establish a garrison at Aumetz, and the French soldiers were later joined by units of Americans.
Theo and some of his compatriots established a lively trade in appropriating some of the military rations that the troops were either not using or watching at the time. After some experimentation, Theo gave his business almost exclusively to the Americans, in part because the Americans were less picky about such petty pilferage, but mainly because the Americans carried a much better quality inventory. Theo's feeling was that if a fellow found it necessary to engage in an illegal enterprise, at least he should exercise some degree of good taste. It was not at all unlike the attitude of a Southern farm boy toward the watermelon. It's not immoral to acquire one by art on a hot summer day. It is to be expected in such a climate, and not in the slightest illegal-unless you get caught.
At any rate, luck and, perhaps, a lack of prosecutorial zeal among the authorities in Aumetz enabled Theo to escape this particular period of his life better fed than he might otherwise have been, and without a criminal record.
Theo's early history, bereft as it was of remembrances of family warmth, also featured none of the schoolboy reminiscences one might expect.
Never a story about a favorite teacher, a close boyhood chum.
Theo was, in fact, never exposed to formal education, since the Wildanger family simply couldn't afford the loss of his contribution, or the cost of books and materials.
But Theo was determined to have an education anyway. And undertook the job on his own, teaching himself to read in both German and French, and using his skill to consume all the reading material he could obtain my whatever means it took to obtain it.
The subject matter was of no particular moment. He read history, philosophy, cookbooks, and the Bible with equal hunger for information and for escape from his drab surroundings. And the most reliable escape he found was in the subject of art and artists.
Not that he dreamt of being an artist in his own right. He didn't. But, he did develop an intense desire to somehow be a part of that world, seeing in it an almost godlike power to create, to make something never before seen.
Theo never told me this in so many words, but though he never painted a single image in his youth, he mentally recorded his surroundings so faithfully that he could reproduce them on canvas more than fifty years later.
My most striking experience with this facet of his talent came the year after Theo died.
My wife Catherine and I paid a visit to Aumetz to give me a chance to research a book about her father.
Our thought was to publish a coffee table book featuring color plates of some of his paintings, and flesh it out with a few personal stories about his early life, his marriage, his years in Paris and Brussels, and his evolution from a lover of great art to a creator of great art. We, like Willie Loman's wife in "Death of a Salesman", felt that such a man should be taken note of.
At one point I left Catherine and the friends who had been good enough to drive us to Aumetz, to just look around, get a "feel" of the place though I knew there was little chance of much that Theo had talked about being around after all this time.
There was the church, of course, and the graveyard and I looked for some signs that Theo had been there. I found none.
The residential streets were quaint and tidy, and some of the houses looked like they might have predated Theo, but nothing seemed familiar until I approached the old French barracks, which is now a housing area.
When I turned away from this charming, but disappointing scene to rejoin my companions, there it was, directly across the street behind a low stone fence, the farmhouse. The very farmhouse where Theo had collected the farmer's cows each morning and returned them in the evening in hopes of his only meal of the day. The house and barn stood shoulder to shoulder, the windows and doors placed precisely where they were in the painting I suddenly saw among Theo's works back home. The only concession to the passage of a half-century was a John Deere tractor parked in the barnyard.
I was seized with an overwhelming urge to run across the street, bang on the door, and ask the proprietors if they still had cows, and if I could have a drink of milk from an earthen jar.
I didn't act on that impulse, realizing that it would probably result in having to explain my actions to the Aumetz gendarmerie. My French isn't up to such a task. Either to describe to a French farmer the saga of a small boy who once worked for one of his forebears, or to explain to a French policeman that I wasn't an itinerant American mooch. If Theo had been with me, however, we would have done it, and probably added a demand for back wages. Theo read, as I mentioned, books on many subjects, but diplomacy was not among them.
I came away from the experience with a new sense of connection to the childhood Theo must have experienced, so different from my own on an isolated farm in the foothills of the Ozarks; but, in so many ways quite similar. I understood the loneliness, and the fear of the future he felt. Small boys dream in such circumstances, but see few prospects on the horizon that they will somehow find their way out of the poverty so many in their limited world have come to accept as divinely mandated.
Separated as we were, by an ocean and a couple of generations, Theo and I had come to a common belief at about the same age. That there is a Supreme Being, creator of all things, but that this Almighty Being didn't take quite the personal interest in some of his creatures as the clerics claimed. It's a lonely theology; hardly unreasonable when one considers the facts.
We discussed this disconnection from organized religion many times over the years, but came to few conclusions; only that it seemed quite possible that there might be a committee of gods, rather, than just one. And that this committee worked about as efficiently as most committees here on this little planet. We also compared notes on the effects of prayer, which we both still believed in, in spite of the fact that our own prayers seemed to have been answered, for the most part, in the negative.
Still, we both maintained faith in the Almighty, and a deep and abiding admiration for some of His works, but not all of them.
Theo was to find a particular work of God, one that he did admire, at a village dance in Grevenmacher, a tiny town just beyond the nearby border of Luxembourg. Her name was Anna. She was the seventeen-year old daughter of a local winegrower and the most beautiful, the most desirable creature Theo had ever seen. She would become-and remain-Theo's one and only love.
The Town of Grevenmacher lay in the midst of Luxembourg's wine growing district, and thus was the home of many farmers like Anna's father.
These farmers tended vineyards of a few hectares each, and lived by selling their grapes to the wineries that produced Luxembourg's tart white wines.
It was hard work on the steep hillsides along the Moselle River, and most farmers, the successful ones at least, had large families, thus diminishing the amount of outside labor necessary to tend and harvest a profitable crop.
In the society of that day and region, farmers stood firmly in the middle class, alongside tradesmen and government clerks, a step or two below lawyers, doctors, and wealthy merchants, but well above laborers, baker's apprentices, and iron miners.
The Saturday night dances were sponsored by the powers that ordered life in Grevenmacher, to reward the young people for a week of services to their families, and in the hope that the romances formed in these get-togethers would produce the desired result.
The dairyman hoped his son or daughter would form a lasting union with the son or daughter of another dairyman, and eventually join the herds of two families, or, failing that, produce additional hands to milk the cows.
The vintner's hopes were much the same. The growth of the family by marriage into a like family with acreage of grapes was simply good business. Only the young were concerned with the romance of the matter.
So, when Theo journeyed the few miles from Aumetz to join in the regular Saturday night frolics, his very presence constituted a serious breach of the community's unwritten but firm rules.
Of course, neither Theo nor the community noticed this at first. Nor would they have, ever, had Theo not noticed Anna.
Theo had seen farm girls before, but never one like this. With long black hair falling nearly to a trim waist, a face like a Madonna, with huge brown eyes a fellow would move the Earth to have her glance his way and wink a welcome. Eyes that he would one day memorialize in a painting, but that thought never crossed his love struck mind at the time. All he could think was how desperately he wanted to meet her, and how terribly afraid he was that she was already taken.
Theo, at barely twenty, was handsome, and well aware of it. But this girl was so beautiful that she doubtless had been courted by Grevenmacher's finest, and richest, young men. But Theo was more afraid of losing this treasure he had just discovered than he was of any mere army of local suitors and bided his time sitting out each dance until he had a chance to ask her for the honor of a dance. He came very close to collapsing at her feet in a quivering heap when she said yes.
The dizzying gait of a waltz to an oompah band was hardly conducive to gentle conversation, but Theo was able to learn that this vision's name was Anna Thekes, that she had a brother and two sisters, that she attended school at a Grevenmacher convent, but had no intentions of joining a nunnery, and that she (thank God!) had no steady boyfriend.
Theo was never sure how he got home to Aumetz that night, but he seems to remember flying, without benefit of aircraft.
The journey to Grevenmacher became a regular thing after that, and in a matter of weeks he had convinced Anna that she could no more live without him than he could without her. It was decided. But the decision was theirs alone. It reflected in no way, not even a small one, the views of Anna's father, or her extended family in both paternal and maternal directions. Theo and Anna soon found that the army of local suitors he had once feared at the village dance was a mere battalion compared to the massed legions of Thekes family members and the ingrained opinion of the middle class of Grevenmacher.
As in small towns all over the world, once the romantic attachment between Anna Thekes and Theo Wildanger was noticed, the village intelligence committees took pains to learn the essentials about this boy from "over yonder". One, that he was the son of an iron miner. Two, he was a foreigner, either a German or a Frenchman, depending on which nation was favored in the generational dispute between Germany and France over ownership of Alsace-Lorraine. (In fact, Theo was never quite sure of this latter fact himself.)
Worst of all, in the collective Grevenmacher wisdom, Theo had no prospects. He had no formal education, he owned not a yard of land or cow or mule, and had only three fingers on his left hand. Unacceptable.
Theo had but one ally in the impossible quest for the hand of Anna Thekes. Anna Thekes herself. And that proved to be enough.
The two decided to flee to the only sanctuary they knew where love was commonly understood to supercede all other authority. They went to Paris. And that great refuge of romance on the Seine proved true to its advertising. It failed to notice that the two of them were socially mismatched, and allowed them to be married. The French don't care what you do, just that you do it in French, and pronounce it properly.
Theo and Anna, having accomplished the feat of forming a union between them in spite of the continuing disapproval of the Thekes family, soon found that a more daunting challenge faced them--how to acquire the funds to make it work.
Anna had for some time entertained the dream of a career on the stage, indeed she had been told that her beauty and charm would make the road to success in such a career almost inevitable. But, reality reared its ugly head early on, and Anna found that the road to success was blocked with a goodly number of detour signs. In short, the theatre was not hiring aspiring actresses whose credits included nothing but a few stellar performances in convent school Easter and Christmas pageants. It would be necessary to study. And acting schools in Paris required tuition even more than talent and natural charm.
Anna therefore found that her required reading in the early days in Paris was to be found in the classified ads rather than the work of the great French playwrights.
It happened that a certain Countess Trotti was in need of a personal assistant at that moment of need in the young couple's life, and Anna applied, and was chosen for the position.
The job description was simple. Anna was to do anything the countess required, and the countess required a lot of fetching and carrying, housekeeping and catering, secretarial and messenger services.
It was humble but demanding work, and Anna threw herself into it with gusto, impressing the countess to such a degree that she agreed to recommend Theo to her husband, the count, for a similar position in his employ. The count agreed. So, the newly formed family Wildanger found itself in an ideal situation, employed on the same premises where they were allowed to occupy sparse but adequate servants' quarters, and with a modest income. A serendipitous bonus came with the fact that they were exposed on a daily basis to upper class, and the farm girl from Grevenmacher and the miner's son from Aumetz found themselves within view of a world that their beginnings never promised. Not that they were invited to participate, but they could watch, make mental notes, and dream.
Count Trotti was in the business of buying and selling fine art and antiques, and it was during his service as the count's assistant that Theo began to develop the appetite for living in gracious circumstances surrounded by things of great beauty. He learned to recognize the marks of special talent that made the difference between a work-a-day painting and piece of furniture and a truly fine example of the painter or cabinetmaker's art. His errands on behalf of Count Trotti also exposed him to the leading citizens of the art world of Paris, and the very mundane wheeling and dealing that took place therein. He learned to recognize the subtle difference between an original work and an expert copy, noting that the copy, however faithful to the outward look of an original, simply didn't exhibit the soul of the rightful artist. He also learned that people in the business of buying and selling great art were much more capable of spotting these differences when they were buying rather than selling.
Was Theo by then nourishing dreams of one day becoming an artist in his own right? Perhaps.
"In ze times" was Theo's usual signal in the language we two shared that a story was about to be launched concerning some important event--sooo
In ze times, while he was still in the employ of Count Trotti it happened that the count was about to host a dinner business. He had noticed that nothing lubricated a possible sale quite like the fruit of the vine. In preparation for the event, Count Trotti dispatched Theo and a husky companion, with a cart, to a nearby warehouse where he rented space for his considerable collection of fine wines.
The two made their way to the warehouse through the busy streets of central Paris without incident and loaded the cart with the vintages the count had listed in their instructions. While there, they decided to pop just one cork and refresh themselves for the rigors of the return trip. The one bottle, however, confirmed the count's good taste in wines, and led to a random sampling of several more selections.
On the return trip, laden with cargo this time, the cart was far less maneuverable than it had been going to the warehouse cellars, and Theo and his fellow workman were far less able to maneuver it with any degree of accuracy.
As it happened, their path back to Count Trotti's residence led past a fine hotel, where a fine client had just arrived in a sparkling Hispano-Suiza touring car.
Having escorted his upper crust employer into the hotel lobby, the chauffeur of this immaculate and enormously expensive vehicle returned to the street for luggage just in time to see a couple of wobbly draymen rake the iron hub of their crude cart down the side of the Hispano-Suiza, leaving a generous groove in the multi-layered and otherwise virgin lacquer.
There ensued a drama, which, for sheer entertainment value, the French prize above the most classic of plays.
The cast included, of course, the chauffeur, who delivered the prologue, which, freely translated ran something on the order of "You idiots, look what you've done to my boss's car!"
Frenchmen came from blocks around to read for parts in the production, each one delivering a more moving version of the tragedy, caring not a bit that they had not seen it happen, and became aware of the event on hearing the anguished chauffeur scream the opening lines. Actual witnesses were among the cast members as well, but their authority in the interpretation of the occurrence was judged not on the truth of their deliveries, but the passion. Nowhere on Earth can such a performance be duplicated, except perhaps in Italy.
No matter, it was mere moments before the appearance of the essential element in this scene, the always-imperturbable Parisian gendarme. This particular one had to abandon his post at a nearby traffic circle where he had been trying, unsuccessfully of course, to impart some order to the flow of automobiles, handcarts, delivery trucks, bicycles, and nannies pushing prams.
Our heroes, meanwhile, stood mute for the most part, hoping that the confusion would become even greater in time, and allow them to slip away while the attention of the crowd was fastened on some particularly lofty oration on the French system of justice, and how it should be applied in this case.
The "flic" however, was experienced in these matters, and deduced that the furrow in the paint of the Hispano-Suiza was somehow connected to the cart with flecks of a similar paint on the hub of one wheel, and, to the still wobbly draymen standing nearby.
He was, nonetheless, a just and practical gendarme, steeped in the majesty of French law, and fully aware that accidents need be described in a written report only if one party or the other is clearly at fault. His verdict was swift and sure. It was unavoidable. The accident--and the gendarme's conclusion.
At this point the drama should have ended, and the curtain rung down.
But Theo, having still neglected his education in the field of diplomacy had to enter one more line for the edification of his fellow players.
"If this idiot", he observed, indicating the chauffeur, "had parked a half meter closer to the curb, we would have missed the auto altogether".
Needless to say, the case was reopened immediately, and Theo was convicted, just as immediately.
I would like to say that Theo took this lesson to heart and had schooled himself in the art of, if not diplomacy, then when to keep his mouth shut. But he didn't. He should have, but he didn't. I'll present evidence on this fact later in this narrative.
Count Trotti, as Theo reported it to me, was not amused, and refused to participate in the repayment required of Theo, in spite of the fact that Theo had courageously defended his interests in the affair which involved Count Trotti's cart, his wine, and his employees. Somehow, Count Trotti failed to grasp the theory that he was ultimately responsible for the accident, he, and perhaps the chauffeur.
Theo's education at the hands of Count Trotti was at an end, though he didn't exactly graduate with honors. Even so, Anna remained in Countess Trotti's employ, and would remain so, with a brief side trip into the theatre, until the young couple's eventual return to Luxembourg.
But prior to the return, Theo took a side trip onto the stage himself. Or, more properly, in near proximity to the stage.
He found work as a stagehand at a small Vaudeville theatre. A very small Vaudeville theatre of the sort that abounded in Paris in those pre-war times. Movies were already available, and the clientele at such theatres was limited to those who had a nostalgic feeling for the old days, or enjoyed the opportunity to critique the performance with rotten eggs and past due fruit.
Theo's theatre was an ideal choice for the latter type, presenting acts by performers who could not afford to refuse even the small performance fees the theatre's owner-manager could afford to pay.
Theo's job consisted mainly of aiming the spotlight from a safe vantage point off-stage at the performer currently being bombarded with groceries that had outlasted their shelf life. That, and cleaning up the results of the evening's performance when the audience was safely outside wreaking vengeance on hapless street artists.
All went well for a time, with Theo holding his opinions of the artistry of his spotlight targets to himself--but with some difficulty.
But there came a time when the wife of the owner-manager decided to grace the theatre with her own ample presence, and demanded to be seated where she could obtain an excellent view. She decided on Theo's lighting platform in the wings.
Let me attempt to set the scene.
The lighting platform was a metal grid some five feet above stage level, equipped with a spotlight, and accessed by means of a narrow stairway with iron railings to either side.
The lady in question was a monument to French cookery, and plenty of it, and a long career of partaking of the most calorically rich elements of the art. In short, she was blessed with latitude equal in every way to her longitude, and at least a hemisphere wider than the stairs to the lighting platform.
It was decided, however, that she could pull at the handrails, her husband and Theo would take up positions behind, where there was ample material to work with, and by concerted effort the three of them would be capable of hoisting this human planet into her rightful place in the heavenly reaches of the wings.
It was a faulty plan. It reckoned without the physics of the matter, that being that once she squeezed through the constricting passage of the handrails, inertia would come into play. And inertia did, since Theo and the boss stopped pushing only after the braking power of the handrails had been passed. The lady at this point became a missile, but by no means a guided missile, traveling the length of the lighting platform in an eye blink, and then going into sort of a barrel roll, flailing the air in an attempt to get her legs below, where they belonged, instead of well above her, where they were actually located. She landed, finally, in the middle of a soft-shoe act, which was engaged at the time in trying to avoid a barrage of produce coming from the audience.
Well, I think it's no strain to say that she "brought down the house". Literally.
Theo's boss was quicker than the gendarme mentioned beforehand was, and judged immediately that he was fully to blame and carried out the sentence. "You're fired". He said.
"Fired", said Theo, "You should give me a raise. It's the first time your audience has laughed in a month!"
So, Theo was once again unemployed, but left the theatre with the satisfying sound of "Bravos, huzzahs" and demands for "encore" warming his undiplomatic soul.
France meanwhile, was fully employed, as it usually was during the first half of the twentieth century, with the business of keeping the Germans at bay.
In the region around Theo's old hometown, and to the East and West of it, the finishing touches were being put on General Maginot's great defensive wall. Indeed, the remnants of the Maginot Line, the massive earthworks, pill boxes, artillery emplacements and trench systems are still to be seen on all sides in the area, since it was never really used to any great degree. The Germans, when they decided to invade, simply ignored the Maginot Line and went over it with the world's most modern air force, and around it with their equally modern and swift mechanized divisions.
As the war clouds gathered, Theo and Anna were faced with some hard decisions, among them, whether Theo was a Frenchman or a German. Since Theo was born in Lorraine, the question was far from clear, as that region had been in dispute for generations, and the local populace had rarely, if ever, been consulted by either nation as to their own preferences.
Since his Frenchness was somewhat iffy, in the view of the French Government, Theo's choice was simple. He could leave the country, or he could enlist in the French Foreign Legion--and leave the country.
In this country we call that a Hobson's choice. I'm not sure what the French call it, but it is surely much more elegant than Hobson's choice.
At any rate, Theo's decision was to leave the country and return with Anna to Luxembourg.
This was not an easy decision, since the family climate generated by Anna's marriage to a miner's son had not changed. Happily, however, the Thekes family didn't have a foreign legion.
At this point in their Parisian career, Theo was unemployed and Anna's job with Countess Trotti, while secure, showed no promise of advancement.
The brief side trip into the theatre that I mentioned earlier was brief indeed, consisting of a single interview with the producer of a local theatrical house where she learned that the path to stardom led directly through his office, or more particularly, across his couch. Anna's devotion to Theo was far stronger than her desire to be an actress, so the road ended there.
At about the time of life when youngsters of their age were completing formal training at colleges or academies, Anna and Theo were clearly concluding an informal, but highly instructive educational experience. No diplomas were issued. And no recruiters visited their campus. Their yearbook merely a collection of vivid mental pictures of the City of Light, and some of the characters, great and low, who make it unique among the world's great cultures.
Paris is, after all, not simply a city, but a state of mind that, once solidly acquired, remains embedded no matter how far you travel in time and geography.
For Anna and Theo it was a painful parting, to desert the vibrant atmosphere of Paris and take up lodgings in a homeland that would never quite accept them. The stodgy society of Grevenmacher would receive them, but hardly warmly. Theo was, after all, merely the son of an iron miner who had married well above his rightful station, and Anna was the disinherited daughter of a prominent vintner. Only youth and intensive love for each other could make such a mountain of opposition seem climbable. But Anna and Theo were young, and in love, and had their climbing boots on.
As unpromising as their return to Luxembourg seemed to be, Anna and Theo found it not quite as bad as they had feared.
While opinions as to their legitimacy had not changed among the elders of the village of Grevenmacher, the more youthful citizens saw them in quite a different light.
A handsome couple, they had acquired a certain polish during their years in Paris that lent an air of sophistication that the younger generation found glamorous. And so, the couple found themselves easily absorbed into this younger circle, and sought out for their company and for their opinions.
Among these admirers was none other than the elder brother in Anna's family who adored his little sister in spite of her poor taste in husbands. In time he even came to like Theo.
Happily for Anna and Theo, he already had control of some part of the estate he would one day inherit from his, and Anna's father, and gladly advanced them enough money to rent a house in the village with living quarters upstairs, and a shop downstairs.
Perhaps I should explain that the Napoleonic code that governed Luxembourg dictated that a father's estate would pass at his death to his eldest son, no matter how many brothers and sisters might be standing by. This law would have excluded Anna from any part of the estate. In a sense, therefore, she didn't have to be disinherited--she was never inherited in the first place. Anyway, the loan from her brother, which he made clear she didn't have to pay back, constituted more than she could have expected had she never met and married Theo.
With the help and encouragement of her big brother, Theo and Anna established residence, and went into business well before their small savings from the Paris years were exhausted. They embarked on the most prosperous, in fact, the only prosperous period they would experience as a family.
And just in time too, since they had returned from Paris not only with dreams of a better life, but with an addition to their family already adding a motherly dimension to Anna's figure.
During the few months they had to prepare for parenthood, Theo and Anna threw themselves into the job of getting their fledgling mom and pop operation off the ground.
Thanks in large measure to Anna's farm girl practicality, and her experience in Paris managing Countess Trotti's affairs, they were successful in establishing a tobacco shop with sidelines in candy, school supplies, and a lending library.
This was brilliant thinking since the shop was able to supply something for every age group in Grevenmacher. All the products on their shelves had the advantage of being things that people used, and used up. The house of Wildanger prospered.
The lending library created the added advantage of bringing the better-educated segment of Grevenmacher society through their doors, exposing Theo and Anna to current thinking on all subjects.
This advantage was moderated, however, by the fact that Theo had never shed his old habit of saying exactly what he thought about things, when he thought about them, and regardless of what position on the matter might be held by his target of the moment. To know Theo is to know that he sent some customers out of his store with the cigars they came for, the correct change for their Franc note, and a calm determination to find another tobacconist if he had to go all the way to Luxembourg City.
In addition to her regular duties managing the business, Anna spent no small part of her time in a vain effort to find ways to keep Theo out of conversations with the customers. Anna adored her "Teddi", but recognized the possibility that others might not share her opinion. Theo adored her back but failed to see what harm there could be in sharing his certain grasp of the facts on matters--almost any matters. But especially art and politics.
Theo loved art, and surrounded himself and Anna with all the beautiful things he could afford. And fortunately, the prosperity of their business allowed for the collection to grow steadily. As Theo's knowledge of the finer points of art had grown while he was in the employ of Count Trotti, so had his collection of opinions of art, and artists. Once formed, these opinions were as solidly cast as a bronze bust. And he was democratic in a way. He could love a particular painting and loathe the painter who made it. His tastes ranged over a large spectrum of art, but once something had been deemed by him as unworthy, excommunication was certain and final.
He also loved politics, almost as much as art. Not any particular political movement or theory, but the discussion of politics. He disliked and distrusted politicians as a breed, but maintained faith and admiration for a select few. It would have been impossible; however, to make a judgment on Theo's own personal politics based on his heroes in the trade. Theo himself was sort of a populist/libertarian, with overtones of anarchy for flavor. But in a political discussion, over a bottle of wine, his choice of sides usually depended on which side seemed to be favored in the early going. Once a particular theory had been advanced, Theo leapt in with a counter attack that put the losing side back in the game. It mattered not that he might have championed the cause of the opposing side earlier that same day. And once the battle was joined Theo maintained the pressure. The outcome of the battle was certain. It would end in total victory or scorched earth. Surrender was never an option.
The one cause that Theo could never espouse, even for the sake of argument, was Bolshevism. To Theo, Bolshevism was nothing short of the Anti-Christ, a system designed by Satan for the specific purpose of doing evil.
As I said, Theo's heroes offered no clues to his personal beliefs. He hated Stalin, Lenin, and Mao Tse Tung, but thought Ho Chi Minh was a pretty nice guy. He had many heroes among the long French list of writers and painters, but I never heard him mention a French politician he admired. He loved Winston Churchill, perhaps because he held the same views on the subject of surrender; but he loathed Franklin Roosevelt. I think he suspected that he was a closet Bolshevic.
To Anna's great relief, her delivery of Theo's first son, Mathis, limited his opportunities to alienate the clientele since Theo would have less time on his hands.
To this point in his life, Theo had still not entertained notions of becoming an artist, but in Mathis he saw an opportunity to play God, in a way, and mold one from the original clay. To put it simply, Theo became what we refer to today as a soccer mom, or a tennis dad. From the time Mathis was able to hold a drawing instrument, the instrument was there. When American dads were bringing home baseball gloves, Theo was supplying his son with watercolors.
Fortunately, the aptitude for art that Theo so fervently wished for, was there. Mathis would continue his studies throughout his youth, willingly entering the doors his father opened for him, even if he had to kick them open, exhibiting the wisdom of his father's choice of vocation by winning the prestigious "Official Medal of the City of Paris" in his early twenties and going on to establish himself firmly as one of Luxembourg's most successful painters.
But I get ahead of myself.
During these early years of fatherhood, Theo was aware that war was gestating in the womb of Europe. He hoped it would pass tiny Luxembourg by. A forlorn hope as things turned out since the Germans' route around the Maginot Line on the way to France would pass across his adopted nation.
As I pointed out earlier on, Theo's feelings about this matter were mixed. He was all in favor of Germany moving toward the East and taking on the Bolshevics; he dreaded the idea of the Barbarian Hun occupying his more civilized section of Europe. Of course, he was not consulted in the matter and when the Germans did come, they simply arrived. Luxembourg went to bed one night with one reality and awoke to quite another.
It was a relatively quiet invasion; all resistance remaining to be developed as the war elsewhere in Europe wore on. And Theo realized, for the first time in his life, that diplomacy might not be such a bad thing after all.
As the Germans went from house to house, and shop to shop, they were deciding who was reliable and who needed to be watched, and perhaps, collected.
Theo convinced the soldiers who came to his shop that he was an apolitical tobacconist, carried no subversive substances in his store, and would be pleased to have them as customers. It was much the same tactic that was used by most of the citizens of Luxembourg, especially those whose livelihood depended on staying in business.
During the German occupation Theo and Anna welcomed the arrival in their family of Catherine, their first daughter and now my wife, and bowed to the German regulation that her name be spelled with the German "K" rather than the French "C". The bulk of the population of Luxembourg had to make similar accommodations with the Germans.
In the open, and in business, practically the entire body of the tiny country went along with all German regulations and pretended it didn't matter to them at all.
There was, however, an active underground which Theo was a part of, quietly.
He used his openly friendly relationship with the German authorities, many of whom were customers in his tobacco shop, to intercede in behalf of citizens who were arrested on suspicion of having anti-German sympathies.
Unfortunately for Theo, those citizens who did not join in the work of the underground were unaware of his efforts in their behalf, and saw only the fact that Theo stayed in business, mostly unmolested by the unwelcome invaders, and seemed to prosper.
The family of the reigning Gand-Duchess of Luxembourg, meanwhile, courageously withdrew to England, took crash courses in the Luxembourg dialect (French was the court language you know) and made brave broadcasts to their subjects back home, encouraging them to stay the course and resist the Boches.
As the war wore on, the American invasion at Normandy came their way and the Wildanger family found themselves in the way of a real-live shooting war.
First, the Americans came through on their way to the Rhine, and the Germans retreated to a safer climate.
But the American occupation was to be brief, since the German counter-offensive known to history as the "Battle of the Bulge" came their way as well. The Germans were back until General Patton got the good weather for which he had directed a chaplain to pray. Again the Americans were in charge.
It was a relatively short war, as wars go, in Luxembourg. But in the space of months this small country, hardly county-sized by American standards, had been occupied, liberated, reoccupied, and reliberated.
The fighting, especially the second round, the Bulge, had a devastating effect on Luxembourg.
Even as the scene was being set by military commanders on both sides, Anna was pregnant with Theo's third child, who would be named Pierre-Jacques. At a time when she should have been happily tending to the duties of motherhood, Anna was busily trying to keep all her children, Mathis, and Catherine, safe from the artillery bombardments from both sides.
Theo had gone a few miles away from Grevenmacher to help two of his elder sisters escape the fighting. When the townspeople were ordered to evacuate, Anna hurriedly piled the children, a few necessities, and some clothing into a horse-cart and joined in the uncertain exodus.
The route of escape proved to be badly chosen since it led the refugees into an area mightily in dispute between the German and American gunners. Only an episode of misbehavior on the part of Mathis, the elder son, enabled the family to remain intact.
When Mathis, in a fit of childish rebellion, left the cart and ran into the forest alongside the road, Anna quickly grabbed Catherine and ran after him. Just as she reached the edge of the woods, she heard a particularly loud report behind her. She looked back to see the cart, or its remains, scattered along the section of road she and her offspring had so recently occupied.
Mathis went unpunished and the young family proceeded to safety into Luxembourg City. There the outcome of the battle had been decided in favor of the Americans.
Eventually, the Americans prevailed over the entirety of the region. Anna and the children were reunited with Theo in Grevenmacher. But not the Grevenmacher they had left behind in their flight.
There was destruction on every hand, including the house and shop where Anna and Theo had prospered and established their family. It was necessary to begin again but without the means to do so. Much of the citizenry of Grevenmacher were in the same fix, few options, all of them bad.
But begin again they did, picking up the pitifully few pieces of their former life, and struggling to move again toward a better future, not knowing that the war would have lasting effects that would make the struggle far more difficult than they anticipated.
As they were doing this, the Allied advances toward a conclusion of the war were speeding up and the day when Europe could rebuild in earnest was coming closer.
When the day arrived, in Luxembourg, it developed that the United States was prepared to hasten the rebuilding, doing what conquering armies rarely do, even when they can affront it. America, it seems, was willing to compensate the nations they had liberated for the damage done in the effort to free them of German rule. Luxembourg had suffered mightily, so the funds for reparations would be plentiful and it would be left to local authority to decide how to justly distribute them.
It sounds like good news, doesn't it? And it was--for most. But Anna and Theo were about to learn that the good news didn't apply to them.
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