Monday, December 28, 2009

Wallace Smith and those who crucify themselves on billboards in the quest for the Nietzschean solitude

Wandering around Henderson Books earlier today. Happened to see a stack of prints by none other than Wallace Smith. I remarked to the owner that Smith was about the last artist I would expect to find in a stack of miscellaneous prints.

Years ago, I purchased a copy of Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath by Ben Hecht, illustrations by Wallace Smith. At the time, I had only a notion of who Ben Hecht was. I bought to book solely on the power of Smith's illustrations.

After purchasing all the prints at Henderson's, I returned to my room and scanned them in. (A click on the images here will take you to a much larger image.) I also did a little research on the enigmatic Wallace Smith. Enjoy.

A novel of decadence and mystic existentialism, Fantazius Mallare is a story of a mad recluse—a genius sculptor and painter who is at war with reason. Rather than commit suicide, his doting madness dictates that he must revolt against all evidence of life that exists outside himself. He destroys all of his work and then seeks out a woman who will devote herself to his Omnipotence. What follows is a glorious trek into a horrifying enlightening insanity.

- From { feuilleton }: Fantazius Mallare and the Kingdom of Evil

Hecht’s book was illustrated by Wallace Smith (1888–1937) whose careful delineations seem to owe something to Harry Clarke. Smith didn’t spare the salacious details and artist and writer ended up being fined $1000 each when the books were seized. Book fanzine It Goes on the Shelf throws some interesting light on this incident in a review of a Hecht biography:

"…my interest in Hecht is mostly that he wrote a book, Fantazius Mallare, illustrated by Wallace Smith. Smith was said by Ronald Clyne to have gone to jail for the Mallare artwork, but apparently this was an exaggeration—he and Hecht were, however, fined $1000 each for “obscenity”; and $1000 was quite a lot of money in 1924. The particular points I was curious about were where the rest of the Wallace Smith artwork is? he could hardly have developed that style in the handful of drawings that have been published; and what happened to the copies of Fantazius Mallare seized by the US government? the book did not seem to be as scarce as would have been expected if they had seized even half of the 2000-copy edition. MacAdams was able to answer this last question to some extent—after the obscenity conviction, the publisher made another 2000 copies and sold them ‘under the counter’. However, MacAdams and I discovered that we both have copies of the original numbered edition, and that mine is #587 while his is #1900 and something—so what did the goverment seize?

"It should be noted that Hecht and Smith went to a great deal of trouble to have themselves convicted of obscenity. They had wanted to create a test case of the federal obscenity law and have a show trial in order to turn public opinion against it by ridicule. Hecht also intended to enter a million-dollar civil suit for defamation of character against John Sumner and his infamous Society for the Suppression of Vice if Sumner attacked his book. The famous Clarence Darrow was to have been their attorney. The plan was to send review copies of Fantazius Mallare to all of the literary lights of the time, and then have Darrow call these people as expert witnesses at the trial. Alas, the scheme foundered on the unforeseen pusillanimity of the literary establishment—only HL Mencken agreed to appear as a witness. In the end there was no trial because Hecht and Smith endered a plea of nolo contendere."

- From { feuilleton }: Fantazius Mallare and the Kingdom of Evil

The Dedication from Fantazius Mallare

This dark and wayward book is affectionately dedicated to my enemies- to the curious ones who take fanatic pride in disliking me; to the baffling ones who remain enthusiastically ignorant of my existence; to the moral ones upon whom Beauty exercises a lascivious and corrupting influence; to the moral ones who have relentlessly chased God out of their bedrooms; to the moral ones who cringe before Nature, who flatten themselves upon prayer rugs, who shut their eyes, stuff their ears, bind, gag and truss themselves and offer their mutilations to the idiot God they have invented (the Devil take them, I grow bored with laughing at them); to the anointed ones who identify their paranoic symptoms as virtues, who build altars upon complexes; to the anointed ones who have slain themselves and who stagger proudly into graves (God deliver Himself from their caress!); to the religious ones who wage bloody and tireless wars upon all who do not share their fear of life (Ah, what is God but a despairing refutation of Man?); to the solemn and successful ones who gesture with courteous disdain from the depth of their ornamental coffins (we are all cadavers but let us refrain from congratulating each other too courteously on the fact); to the prim ones who find their secret obscenities mirrored in every careless phrase, who read self accusation into the word sex; to the prim ones who wince adroitly in the hope of being mistaken for imbeciles; to the prim ones who fornicate apologetically (the Devil can-cans in their souls); to the cowardly ones who borrow their courage from Ideals which they forthwith defend with their useless lives; to the cowardly ones who adorn themselves with castrations (let this not be misunderstood); to the reformers- the psychopathic ones who publicly and shamelessly belabor their own unfortunate impulses; to the reformers (once again)- the psychopathic ones trying forever to drown their own obscene desires in ear-splitting prayers for their fellowman's welfare; to the reformers- the Freudian dervishes who masturbate with Purity Leagues, who achieve involved orgasms denouncing the depravities of others; to the reformers (patience, patience) the psychopathic ones who seek to vindicate their own sexual impotencies by padlocking the national vagina, who find relief for constipation in forbidding their neighbors the water closet (God forgives them, but not I); to the ostracizing ones who hurl excommunications upon all that is not part of their stupidity; to the ostracizing one who fraternize only with the worms inside their coffins (their anger is the caress incomparable); to the pious ones who, lacking the strength to please themselves, boast interminably to God of their weakness in denying themselves; to the idealistic ones who, unable to confound their neighbors with their own superiority, join causes in the hope of confounding each other with the superiority of their betters (involved, but I am not done with them); to the idealistic ones whose cowardice converts the suffering others into a mirror wherein stares wretchedly back at them a possible image of themselves; to the idealistic, ones who, frightened by this possible image of themselves, join Movements for the triumph of Love and Justice and the overthrow of Tyranny in the frantic hope of breaking the mirror; to the social ones who regard belching as the sin against the Holy Ghost, who enamel themselves with banalities, who repudiate contemptuously the existence of their bowels (Ah, these theologians of etiquette, these unctuous circumlocutors, a pock upon them); to the pure ones who masquerade excitedly as eunuchs and as wives of eunuchs (they have their excuses, of course, and who knows but the masquerade is somewhat unnecessary); to the pedantic ones who barricade themselves heroically behind their own belchings; to the smug ones who walk with their noses ecstatically buried in their own rectums (I have nothing against them, I swear); to the righteous ones who masturbate blissfully under the blankets of their perfections; to the righteous ones who finger each other in the choir loft (God forgive me if I ever succumb to one of them); to the critical ones who whoremonger on Parnassus; to the critical ones who befoul themselves in the Temples and point embitteredly at the Gods as the sources of their own odors (I will someday devote an entire dedication to critics); to the proud ones who urinate against the wind (they have never wetted me and I have nothing against them); to the cheerful ones who tirade viciously against all who do not wear their protective smirk; to the cheerful ones who spend their evenings bewailing my existence (the Devil pity them, not I); to the noble ones who advertise their secrets, who crucify themselves on billboards in the quest for the Nietzschean solitude; to the noble ones who pride themselves on their stolen finery; to the flagellating ones who go to the opera in hair shirts, who excite themselves with denials and who fornicate only on Fast Days; to the just ones who find compensation for their nose rings and sackcloth by hamstringing all who refuse to put them on -all who have committed the alluring sins from which their own cowardice fled; to the conservative ones who gnaw elatedly upon old bones and wither with malnutrition; to the conservative ones who snarl, yelp, whimper and grunt, who are the parasites of death; who choke themselves with their beards; to the timorous ones who vomit invective upon all that confuses them, who vituperate against all their non-existent intelligence cannot grasp; to the martyr ones who disembowel themselves on the battlefield, who crucify themselves upon their stupidities; to the serious ones who mistake the sleep of their senses and the snores of their intellect for enviable perfections; to the serious ones who suffocate gently in the boredom they create (God alone has time to laugh at them) to the virgin ones who tenaciously advertise their predicament; to the virgin ones who mourn themselves, who kneel before keyholes; to the holy ones who recommend themselves tirelessly and triumphantly to God (I haere never envied God His friends, nor He, mine perflaps); to the never clean ones who bathe publicly in the hysterias of the mob; to the never clean ones who pander for stupidity; to the intellectual ones who play solitaire with platitudes, who drag their classrooms around with them; to these and to many other abominations whom I apologize to for omitting, this inhospitable book, celebrating the dark mirth of Fantazius Mallare, is dedicated in the hope that their righteous eyes may never kindle with secret lusts nor their pious lips water erotically from its reading- in short in the hope that they may never encounter the ornamental phrases I have written and the ritualstic lines Wallace Smith has drawn in the pages that follow.

- From Fantazius Mallare

The entirety of Fantazius Mallare is available online (alas, without illustrations).

While the movie people basked in the limelight, Smith quietly sketched his way into a permanent place in Round-Up history. His drawings included a taut and tense depiction of a prototypically lean cowboy atop a horse. The cowboy, his hat flying away, leans back toward the bronco's high-kicking rear end and holds on with all the strength he can muster.

Round-Up organizers paid Smith $250 for the drawing, copyrighted it in 1925, and began using it as the event's logo. There's no estimating how many times since then the image has been reproduced or seen. Many decades later, the picture still symbolizes at a glance the essence of rodeo competition. To knowledgeable Round-Up fans, Smith's drawing and the words "Let 'er Buck!" are synonymous.

... Years before the 1924 Round-Up, Hearst newspapers dispatched Smith four times to cover wars in Mexico. He was embedded twice with forces of Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. In those days, journalists were less detached from story subjects, helping to explain why Villa awarded Smith the rank of colonel. He also rode with U.S. forces after Villa mounted an assault into New Mexico. At one point, Smith was captured and nearly executed by Mexican firing squad.

A book about William Randolph Hearst's Chicago American, where Smith worked for many years, described him as ruggedly handsome, flamboyant, and having a penchant for solving crimes that police couldn't. During the Mexico campaigns, while other correspondents wore army-issue clothes, Smith "had himself fitted with an officer's uniform that might have been the envy of a four-star general," wrote George Murray in his 1965 book The Madhouse on Madison Street.

During his assignments in Mexico, Smith closely observed the peasants for whom Villa waged war. In his 1923 book, The Little Tigress, he wrote sympathetically about their plight and brought them to life in his trademark stark black-and-white drawings.

Smith's run-in with obscenity laws culminated in Chicago six months before the 1924 Round-Up. He pleaded no contest to charges he had violated federal law with erotic drawings illustrating a bizarre 1922 novel, Fantazius Mallare, by fellow journalist and novelist Ben Hecht. Smith and Hecht were each fined $1,000. (In 1929 at the first-ever Academy Awards, Hecht won an Oscar for best original screenplay, a genre that Smith also would later add to his résumé.)

An apparent plan for celebrated lawyer Clarence Darrow to test the law's constitutionality using the case against Smith and Hecht never materialized, and the government seized Fantazius Mallare after two thousand and twenty-five copies were printed. After the nation's mores changed and such laws were relaxed, several publishers reissued the book starting in 1978. It was widely available in 2008.

Smith steered clear of sexually explicit drawings after his legal troubles, though his work was no less evocative, judging from "Let 'er Buck!" and similar art in his 1925 book Oregon Sketches. Based on an extended trip across the state, the book celebrated western life and its characters, including the Round-Up's buckaroos.

In 1928, Smith returned to the Round-Up and judged the Indian Beauty Pageant. He also made front-page newspaper drawings--this time for the East Oregonian--and did research in support of his campaign to defeat a proposed ban on bronco-busting at California rodeos.

For a time he owned a ranch in Oregon, though it isn't clear where. Smith apparently wrote there occasionally after relocating to Hollywood and embarking on his successful screenplay-writing career. His services were in high demand--he wrote or contributed to twenty-six screenplays, often enhancing them with detailed scene sketches. Smith's work included screen adaptations of his novels The Captain Hates the Sea and The Gay Desperado.

In 1935, Smith's novel Bessie Cotter about a prostitute's life on the streets of Chicago was judged indecent in England and the publisher fined the equivalent of $1,000. It was published a year earlier in the United States.

A newspaper colleague and friend, Harry Hansen, wrote of Smith in the 1923 book Midwest Portraits: "His salary was always big, his stories were always expansive, his expense account always leaned to the side of generosity to all men; he came and went in princely fashion, in olden times he might have preceded by a roll of drums."

Smith's flamboyance aside, he was congenial and warm--in Hansen's words "an emotional man, of great depressions and glad rejoicings, and yet a careful student of his fellows; a man who responds quickly and intensively to beauty in mountain and valley, in seashore and plain." Upon seeing Smith's drawing of black hands reaching out of quiet waters, Hansen said Carl Sandburg remarked: "That's poetry."

In 1937, Smith died suddenly of a heart attack. He was forty-eight.

- From The East Oregonian: Wallace Smith draws the symbol of Round-Up By Michael Bales

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