This week, I have settled in to watch the new hour-long Spanish documentary on Maria Blanchard.* It is a typical talking-heads treatment of a famous, historic personage, interspersed with footage of Paris in the early 1900s. But such heads as are talking there!Top Spanish art critics, curators, writers, and relatives, friends, friends of relatives and relatives of friends—for example, Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe Rivera, goes on at length about the complex relationship between her father and Blanchard.

Among this cast of talkers is a doctor who puts a lie to the oft-repeated story that Maria’s disability was caused by her mother’s fall from a horse. I myself, much to my own current chagrin to the point of teeth-gnashing, repeated this story in my writings about Blanchard. I first read this fabulation in Lorca’s elegy but passed it on as I had found it over and over in more recent biographies of the artist. Early on in the film, positioned in front of many x-rays of human spines, Dr. Jose Ramon Rodriguez Altonaga begins, “No es la verdad….” ("It's not the truth") these stories about the cause of her disability. These things may be caused by a variety of factors, he says: it may be congenital, it may be genetic, but no one is to blame.
My terrific friend, Maria Bonnett, had already explained this to me in her gentle Facebook response to my post on my previous Blanchard blog:

I am curious about her disabilities, though. It was said that Maria sustained her injuries when her mother fell while she was pregnant with her. I suspect that wasn't her true diagnosis. Fetal injuries are rare in cases of falls or even car accidents for that matter. Her deformity appears to be more suggestive of osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. Not much was known about this disorder in the early 1900's. At that time, most congenital malformations were blamed on something the mother did during her pregnancy. I hope more research will lead to the discovery of her true illness.

Suddenly, I was struck, recalling my very first lecture class in college, 10 a.m. Monday morning. The professor introduced the subject of autism, reviewing the literature on what the causes had been attributed to previously, beginning with the earliest, when the cause was determined to be…mothers who were cold, unfeeling. He quickly dispensed with that as not the cause and moved on to the more modern analysis, which was, as I recall, “Well, we don’t know.” I learned then and often after that when we don’t know, we blame the mother.
Bonnett is a retired nurse who spent a big chunk of her life birthing babies as a midwife, so she is not only curious about these things, she knows a lot about them. And she knows a lot about looking at art too. She told me that she had spent the afternoon looking at the Blanchard images online. I asked her what term one should use in discussing Maria’s disability. I had used kyphosis, since some people had felt that “hunchback” was disrespectful. But every time I used “kyphosis,” readers had asked, “What’s kyphosis?” Bonnett replied:

Kyphosis is a medical term that defines the outward curvature of the thoracic spine. It is a symptom one sees upon exam, not the disease itself. “Hunchback” is the common term. There are dozens of medical disorders that can cause kyphosis, some genetic, some congenital. Genetic causes stem from improper DNA sequences that caused the spinal deformity. Congenital defects are caused by improper formation during embryo development…. Maria presents with a "constellation" of medical problems. Not only did she have kyphosis, she also had hip dysplasia that limited her ambulation. She was also considered a dwarf, or short stature. This is more in line with a genetic problem with her bones, like osteogenesis imperfecta. But since she never had a true diagnosis, it is just my educated guess. Most of the children born with OI have a triangular shaped face, and her painting is the best clue that is what she had. Look at her self-portrait when she was younger--her face is in the shape of a triangle!

Her mother was probably cold and distant, and I don't think I would blame her. Her mother lived her life being blamed for Maria's deformity. I'm sure this did not help the bonding process between mother and daughter. Maria's mother felt the shame and guilt of creating an imperfect child. This often causes an insurmountable rift between parent and child.

Maria's illness must have caused her great pain. These people struggle daily to do the most routine tasks that we able bodied people take for granted. Her painting, "Boy with ice cream" says it all.

I look at the boy- happy, carefree, munching on his treat. I see the little girl behind the cart, reaching with great effort to get some of the sweetness of life. A crutch is on the floor in the foreground. How telling!

The painting certainly is telling and insofar as it is, it represents one of the reasons I love Blanchard's later work more than the cubistic paintings she produced earlier. I do love her grand cubist painting, Woman with a Fan, which hangs in the Queen Sofia Museum, a floor above Picasso’s Guernica and next to a Rivera cubist painting. Woman with a Fan is about image, about women, about Spain and women of Spain, about cubism and all its theories about time and motion. It has made me think a lot about my own history and the history of the women of my country. I love it. But her later paintings of mothers and children, the girl with the toothache, the boy with the ice cream cone, those paintings seem to me more about people and their stories, which I tend to love more. As my friend Maria Bonnett puts it, they are “telling.” They have a lot to tell us, and I am keeping my eyes and ears wide open to see and hear what Blanchard’s are telling me, what they can tell us all.
(*The film, titled 26, Rue Du Depart: Erase una vez en Paris, is subtitled "A documentary about the life and work of Maria Blanchard." It is written, directed, and produced by Gloria Crespo MacLennan.)







On January 9th, I received an email that began, "My name is Gloria Crespo. I am a Spanish journalist and have been researching on Maria Blanchard for years. I have just recently finished a documentary film on her and now I am working on her written biography. Today I have found on the Internet a text about your poems on her...."
This was great news to me. As I have chronicled in an essay titled "Speaking of Maria Blanchard," for the online journal Wordgathering, I have been trying to write about Blanchard for nearly 25 years. When I began, there was little available to me on her life or images, but the few scraps I could find, buried in biography footnotes and blotchy black and white photocopies of prints from interlibrary loans, intrigued me. More recently, as my essay chronicles, I have actually gotten to see one Blanchard painting and many prints. And since receiving Crespo’s email, I have been able to find more moving information about and images by this great Spanish artist.
In subsequent emails, Crespo has informed me that currently, an exhibit titled simply, “Maria Blanchard,” running till February 25, 2013, at the Queen Sofia Museum in Madrid hopes to recover the artist from oblivion. In the article, “Reclaiming Maria Blanchard,” the curator of the exhibit, Maria Jose Salazar, notes that Blanchard has been treated very unfairly. For just one example, on one canvas, Blanchard’s signature was erased and replaced with that of “Juan Gris,” her dear friend, but NOT the person who made the painting. Both gender and her disability worked against her in her time and in the decades following. For 2012, the 80th anniversary of her death, many in Spain set about trying to give this brave, talented woman her due.
In addition to paintings, three letters have been discovered recently, which Crespo has written about for El Pais. But Crespo’s big contribution to Blanchard’s legacy is a one-hour documentary film about Blanchard, a clip of which can be viewed on YouTube, “26, Rue de Depart.” Crespo is looking at the investment of time and money it would take to make the film available in the U.S.—subtitling, copyright, and other issues and tasks—which may prove daunting while she works on the Blanchard book.
I think Americans would show much interest in the film about this fascinating woman and talented artist. When I posted about Blanchard last week on Facebook, my friend Maria Bonnett said she really enjoyed viewing the Blanchard images now available online. A midwife for many years, Bonnett also reminded me that the story of Maria’s mother’s fall from a horse was probably the sort of blame-the-mother tactic that was used for generations of children with congenital defects, and I am sorry to have repeated it. I do agree with an online poster who has suggested that the effect of Blanchard’s kyphosis on her work and reputation would be a rich area for disability studies.
Dartmouth University, as far as I know now, has the only Blanchard painting in the U.S. (I have tried to see it, but the painting hasn’t been available when I am, and vice versa.)
Having written about Frida Kahlo for years, too, I find both women fascinating and admirable in the excellence they achieved despite debilitating pain and disability, but the more I come to know about Blanchard, the more I admire how she went it alone, and, as I have written elsewhere, how she did not become the maidservant to the famous male artists around her, as many of the women artists of the time did. That stubbornness may have cost her some fame in her time, so now we must see to her legacy in our time.


On the 61st Anniversary of My Sister's Birth

My sister, Daun Kendig, would have been 61 this week. I try to remember her birthday each year, though it is the day she died that is stronger in my memory. In fact, I don't recall the day she was born at all, though I recall the births of our other two siblings, because I, the eldest, was only 21 months old when she, the second of us, was born. She is in the earliest memory I do retain, though, an event that occurred when I was three and a half or so, and I have very few childhood and teenage memories that don't include her.

But once we grew up and weren't living in the same place, we tended to celebrate birthdays, oh, whenever. It wasn't unusual for Daun to begin two months ahead of my birthday to tell me what a wonderful gift she had found for me and then to for me to actually receive it two months after the date when we were back home in Canton because, for one example, the gift was too big to mail, a canoe pack basket which she had picked up at a sale, for god knows why since, except for a required college phys ed class, I have never canoed in my life. (I used it for dirty laundry and car trips home. Now it sits in my entryway and holds winter scarves, hats, and gloves and summer shawls.) We'd phone as close to the day as we could, often even on the day, but we always celebrated in person, whenever that ended up being, often June or July.

But January 19th, more or less, that is her birth date, which I celebrate this week, though it's hard to celebrate without her. It's hard to celebrate many other experiences  without her, too. 

In a recent New Yorker article on Thorton Wilder the author Robert Gottlieb quotes Wilder’s letter to Alice B Toklas, on the death of Gertrude Stein: “WASN”T IT WONDERFUL TO HAVE KNOWN AND LOVED HER? What glory! What fun! What goodness! What lovableness….” At the time, I thought how these words might have provided consolation to Toklas. Since then, poet Janet Holmes (Editor of Ahsahta Press) has noted on Facebook that Wilder’s words seem to her a good attitude to adopt in place of “the crushing sadness” one feels at the loss of friends.

I still feel both the crushing sadness and the glory of having known Daun as sister and friend. And when the sadness has been so crushing that I cannot recall the glory, I turn often to her friends, who, like Wilder, managed in the very saddest of sad times to write and speak and send such memorable thoughts. Some of their eulogies appear, at length, on the webpage I created about her (Daun Gay Kendig); others, in a scrapbook she asked us to create for her daughter. Recently, I pulled some quotes from those eulogies to create a sort of found poem, making all those voices speak in chorus, and a joyful noise it is:

a found poem, in several voices, on the 61st anniversary of my sister’s birth

You see, she could hardly talk about this memorial service, I think, because she was so fierce about wanting to live. To talk about this kind of gathering was perhaps to broach giving up or letting go. And  you know, she never gave up on life or living.

She was the first adult woman in my life who honestly gave me time and treated me like a thoughtful human being, not a child. She helped me grow exponentially.

Her expressions tickled me ("fancy schmansy" and "ritzy titsy" as just a couple of examples). Her descriptions of people and life and adventures were so articulate, so clever and so "right on." I felt that I understood her completely, because she was so open and expressive and wanted to be completely understood. Her voice and particularly her laugh were distinctively beautiful and melodic. I simply enjoyed the sound of her voice and her sparkling laughter.

I always, always admired her to-the-bone stubbornness ... which never faltered, not once, to the very end.

And so we want more. More conversation, more pleasures shared, more time together, more time. On the Saturday night before Easter I told her that I wasn't ready to let her go, that I had come to say hello, not goodbye. She didn't answer.

She taught me a great deal about loving life, fighting for it furiously, valuing family and friends, and the importance of prayer.

For most of us life goes on in remarkably normal ways: We go to work. We eat our meals. We laugh, we drink, we cry, we tell jokes. We read our books and watch our television shows. And yet in the midst of all of that the world has changed in some fundamental way because Daun is gone.

Today the willow weeps, as do I....Her spirit is so strong, she lives on.

She said if she died with the cancer, she was going to be real pissed for a while, and I am sort of holding onto that for her right now myself. In the words of another poet, "I am not resigned."

As her name suggests: a ray of hope in the dark sky.

So I know that on “bright frozen” days, I will not only think about “A Well-Worn Path,” I will think about her.

I can still see her at the head of the room standing up but leaning forward slightly, using big gestures and telling one of her great stories.