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Paul Swan (1883-1972), classic dancer, artist and actor, was known as"the most beautiful man in the world" and met Arilde Rosenkrantz through Alexander Nelson Hood, who was also known as Duca di Bronte, in 1911, in Florence. Rosenkrantz invited Paul to go with him to Paris, and they did. They stayed in the Rue Cambon. They went on to London, from where Paul Swan left shortly for the USA. He stated that Rosenkrantz painted several splendid portraits of him in 1911 in Italy, so perhaps that is where this portrait of Paul originates from. The two met up again in London in 1912.
Paul Swan was bisexual. He was married (and did indeed love his wife, Helen) and had two children, but he was also searching for a definition of himself as a person. He had a rather difficult upbringing with a fundamentalist Methodist mother (who could be pretty frightening at times), and felt like an alien in his family of 9 other siblings. During his life he had affairs with both men and women, and he also had many friends who were straight men and women, with whom he had no sexual relationship.
When seventy-seven-year-old Paul Swan wrote to his longtime friend American poet and journalist Jeanne Robert Foster on 28 November 1960, it was to ask her help with an autobiography that he considered his magnum opus: "Well, my book should be cut down and just the events used which contribute to the revelation of the person I am - which clarify the strangeness ... of my personality - the soul that looks for beauty in all people and things." Regardless of the judgment of others, Swan never faltered in ranking his work among the best of its kind, and he rarely felt that he was paid enough for it. In fact, the reaction of critics to his art was so favorable that Swan might be forgiven some hubris, but at this stage in his career his best work seemed behind him. Foster read the book but declined. Ultimately it would not be Swan's autobiography but a 1965 experimental film by pop artist Andy Warhol entitled, simply, Paul Swan that would give Swan, once hailed as "the most beautiful man in the world," a place in American cultural history.
"I am the most famous unknown person in New York," Swan says in the opening of Paul Swan. It is true that he was largely forgotten by the Copyrighted material University of Nebraska Press 1960s. Even his beloved Carnegie Hall pushed him aside in 1961, along with a number of other artists, when rents were raised substantially. In desperation, Swan found new digs at the Van Dyke Studios on 939 Eighth Avenue at Fifty-sixth Street in Manhattan.
Once Swan had been known as "America's leading exponent of classic dancing." In the second decade of the twentieth century, while acting in silent films for Post Films, Five Star Featurettes, and the Pluragraph Company, he also dazzled audiences at Arthur Hammerstein's famous Victoria Theater in New York with performances of The Sphinx and Faun Dance. He soon became so well known that audiences readily understood Adele Astaire when she chided her brother, Fred, in one of their song-and-dance routines, "Don't think you look like Paul Swan!" His dance performances won acclaim from Hollywood to Athens, and audiences marveled at his beauty.
As noted as Swan was for his dance, it was not his earliest artistic talent. His first published artwork appeared on the cover of Putnam's Magazine in December 1908. In 1909 he was chosen by Russian actress Alla Nazimova to paint five portraits of her in her various Ibsen costumes. By 1923, when he appeared in Cecil B. DeMille's original Ten Commandments, he was executing commissioned portraits and sculptures of some of the world's best-known figures, including actor John Barrymore and Sir Eldon Gorst, the governor of Egypt. He was hailed as one of America's leading painters, and on 21 March 1929 the Chicago Evening American called him "a modern Leonardo da Vinci." From New York to London, from Buenos Aires to Paris, reviewers praised his art. His portraits and photos of him dancing appeared in magazines such as Vogue, Literary Digest, New York World, Spur, Fashion Digest, and Esquire. In 1930 the New York Times gave equal space to Swan and French dignitary Prince Joachim Napolèon Murat in a headline announcing their arrival in France (SB).
Swan was one of a very few ever to achieve international celebrity during his life for such a combination of talents. Robert Forrest Wilson wrote in Paris on Parade (1925): "He follows most of the seven arts and does more in any one than most in their individual specialists. He sculptures symbolic portrait heads, and paints decorative murals for the wealthy of New York, writes verse and gives classic dancing concerts in Athens and elsewhere in Europe" (224).
But Swan eventually became a caricature of his former self. When he returned to New York in 1939 after living a decade in Paris, he found a city much different from the one he had left in 1930. He was fifty-six years old, and his dance was in a natural state of decline. Unlike Japan's multitalented bisexual writer Yukio Mishima, a fellow devotee to the Greek ideal of beauty who thought his artistic life was over at forty-five (and so ended it), Swan could only remember the time he had been called the most beautiful man in the world. Most of us have some avoidance techniques to deny what we see in the mirror. Swan seemed intent on obliterating this evidence. He applied shoeblack to graying hair and improved his photographs with a black pen in order to nip his waist or lift his sagging chin.
Painting portraits still brought him commissions and exhibitions; his skills had not diminished appreciably in this area. But he continued to hold weekly dance performances into his eighties, public displays in which he unknowingly parodied his past grace. He became a character, one that New Yorkers tend to collect as evidence of the strange and complex nature of their city. Perhaps if he had retired sooner his reputation as a dancer would have been better preserved. But he chose instead to continue to dance until his daughters, Paula and Flora, finally moved him into a Bedford Hills nursing home in 1971, where he died in February 1972, at the age of eighty-eight.
By the time he met Warhol in 1964, Swan was no longer the young headliner whom Arthur Hammerstein had called "a re-incarnated Greek god." Warhol then worked out of an old firehouse at East Eighty-seventh Street, a short walk from the first studio Swan had taken in New York City, on East Eighty-sixth Street, fifty years earlier. He met Warhol and his assistant, an aspiring poet named Gerard Malanga, during the filming of Gregory Markopoulos's The Illiac Passion, which Markopoulos based on Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound. Swan played the role of Zeus, Warhol played Poseidon, and Malanga played Ganymede. "Illiac," although unmistakably anatomic (spelling aside) and, in this context, unmistakably gay, refers us also to Homer's poem and thus creates a circle of Greek references. Scenes in this innovative and disturbing film employ the same kind of paralysis Beckett had used on his stage: "The imagery in The Illiac Passion is striking in its hypnotic repetitions, particularly in a sequence where a man repeatedly attempts to walk, but finds himself unable to move, perhaps trapped in the director's powerful mise-en-scene.... [Markopoulos] reads from Thoreau's translation of Prometheus Bound but 'edits' the words just as he does the images, repeating phrases as if they were chants, with the repetitions alternating with silences" (Morris 2).
Markopoulos was gay and wanted "to make homosexuality a beauty in life." "The average man is destroying beauty," he once said. "The average man no longer looks into another man's eyes. Everyone is afraid." Swan had lived his life stubbornly, if not bravely, looking into people's eyes even in periods of self-doubt. He never wavered in his attempts to create and promote his vision of beauty. Whatever other aesthetic motives he may have had, the director admired the dancer and rewarded him with a role in his film.
At least in part because of Warhol's interest in Swan's "unswerving dedication to his increasingly anachronistic art form," the filmmaker decided to load his Auricon sound-sync camera and shoot the film Paul Swan (Angell, "Paul Swan" 23). Paul Morrissey, director of photography, said the movie was "a record of a kind of performing art of the early years of the century, but more fascinating being performed in the middle sixties long after it had gone out of fashion" (Morrissey). While Warhol was surgically deconstructing artistic tradition, forcing his audience to look with new eyes, Swan was hanging on blindly to the Greek ideal he had embraced as a young man, dancing for dwindling audiences who, in the 1960s, began to consist primarily of young gay men and old women with fidgety grandchildren in tow.
Warhol often focused on "reinterpreting the worth of cultural waste products" (Koestenbaum 28), whether they were soup cans or elderly artists. For those who know the story of Swan's magnificent early career, Paul Swan at first seems a dreary film that draws attention to the star's age. Swan has difficulty bending, kneeling, and swinging the same sword he had once wielded in To Heroes Slain-a dance he created half a century earlier as a tribute to soldiers killed at Flanders. It is painful to watch Swan attempt quick costume changes as Warhol's unrelenting camera lens moves just enough to observe the ordeal.
Swan's early reputation as "Greek god reincarnated," "Hermes of Praxiteles," and "Adonis" was a history long buried beneath the cultural waste Warhol wanted to excavate. This dimly lit and grainy portrayal of an eighty-two-year-old man trying to dance reminded Morrissey "of the Candid Camera tv-show in which people didn't know they were being filmed. This is the only instance ... in any of the experiments when someone didn't know they were being filmed."
Swan did, however, know that filming continued, and he was frustrated. He complains during one difficult costume change, "Oh dear, God damn. I can't do it this way. It takes too long." Then he remarks to someone as he dons his headdress, "I look like you." Still frustrated at trying to pull on the costume, he groans, "It takes too long. It spoils it. I can't do it." He quickly reassures himself: "I suppose you can cut all that out, can't you?"
Morrissey believed that Paul Swan was "one of the very few times when the concept [of keeping the camera running and not editing the film later] was effective.... What makes this film so interesting is its combination of extreme theatrical artifice (the Paul Swan recital) and the total lack of any artifice in the intervals of the costume changes."
Swan believed-even when his skills were deteriorating-that he had something to offer those who watched him. In spite of such confidence, and even after a lifetime of performances, he still dealt with chronic stage fright. Warhol wanted to observe and record Swan as the old man confronted his demons. He may also have been attracted to Swan as a film project because of his own interest in dance. After Warhol began living in New York City in the 1950s, he associated with a number of dancers who inspired him in a variety of ways. Freddy Herko, for instance, appeared in some of Warhol's early films, but he danced himself into oblivion when, after putting Mozart's Coronation Mass on the hi-fi, he leaped out of a window and killed himself (Koestenbaum 24). The death must have been upsetting, even though Warhol reportedly told friends that he wished he could have filmed it. Warhol's interest in Swan-a decrepit dancer whose performance could only remind him of the body's inevitable ruin-seems to make more sense when one considers Warhol's preoccupation with last things.
Did Warhol also see himself in Paul Swan? Was he intrigued (or reassured) by Swan's stubborn decline? By the 1950s, Swan's use of theatrical makeup had increased dramatically. He began stuffing his pants with socks to make himself look more endowed; his mascara sometimes looked more like black globs than eyelashes-the result of his increasingly poor vision and palsy in one eyelid.
In the same decade, Warhol began wearing hairpieces, although he was only in his twenties. He wore pinhole cardboard glasses to try to strengthen weak eyes; he had his nose sanded (Koestenbaum 34). By 1963 he had begun wearing the now famous silver wig. Did his own uncertain health have something to do with his interest in Swan's determined denial of physical decline?
Wayne Koestenbaum offers another reason. Warhol considered subjects in order "to solve one conundrum: what does it mean to exist in a body, next to another person, who also exists in a body?" (Koestenbaum 11). In Paul Swan, which Koestenbaum calls "more Gloria Swanson than Rudolf Nureyev" (Koestenbaum 24)-remember that the dancer was geriatric at the time-Swan was the only body, the solo performer. The body he was existing in was the distorted image of who he had been, "the most beautiful man in the world."
There are, then, two characters in Paul Swan: Paul Swan the old man and the memory of Paul Swan as Adonis. Swan unknowingly creates the tension in the film as these two characters battle with every lunge, every arm extension, each costume change. Just as we are often shocked by a snapshot of ourselves revealing flaws we ordinarily decide not to see, Swan's dance is a ghostly echo of the grace and beauty that once was. What at first appears as "more Gloria Swanson than Rudolph Nureyev," a spectacle for us to deride or pity, becomes a study in the capacity of the human to ignore the burdens of time. As W. B. Yeats says in "Sailing to Byzantium,"
An aged man is but a paltry thing A tattered coat upon a stick, unless Soul clap its hands and sing And louder sing For every tatter in its mortal dress.
Swan never ceased his song, no matter how his voice cracked.
The comparison to Swanson is apt, for certainly it is not the young Gloria that Koestenbaum is referencing but rather the caricature of Norma Desmond that she created in Sunset Boulevard. Just as the young Gloria appears in our mind's eye when we watch that film, so does Swan's youth and skill filter through the old man's creaky performance. Warhol's unblinking camera pushes our collective noses into the ultimate end of life and art.
Further, Swanson's choice to become a caricature is clearly an artistic decision, and its execution is shared by actor, director, and writer. In Swan's case, he is more found object for Warhol, and the art that results is more precisely Warhol's alone. This intense focus removes any consideration of Swan's performance as performance and allows us to concentrate on exactly why Warhol has chosen to make this film.
The camera's focal distance varies occasionally during the film, but it returns again and again to a close-up of the face of Paul Swan, the aged Adonis. Sometimes the camera searches as it zooms, finding only part of Swan's face or briefly chopping off his head. When it ultimately locates its subject, Swan's deterioration is exposed. Paul Swan disturbs us. Let the movie end, and let the poor old man off the hook. But Warhol won't do that: "The more you look at the exact same thing," he said, "the better and emptier you feel." After sixty-six minutes, no illusions are left.
Warhol wanted to disturb us. "Time has the power to move and the power to stand still; time's ambidextrousness thrills and kills," and so Swan's difficulty on stage is one way that "Andy pumps full-strength his experience of time as traumatic" into his film (Koestenbaum 70). He wanted to put Swan in a situation, turn the camera on, and see what happened. Swan finishes his performance, but the camera is still running. When he pokes his head out onstage, someone yells at him, "Come out and make a speech. The film is almost over." Swan questions the direction, asking if he should recite some of his poetry. The person yells again, "I just want you to make a speech, like at the end of a performance." And so Swan recites poetry until, in medias res, the film ends.
Callie Angell, adjunct curator of the Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art, writes that the "fluidity of Warhol's filmmaking practice, which was often serial in nature and structured around the full-length reel as the basic unit of production, has in some cases made it impossible to categorize Warhol's films in the standard filmographic terms, or evaluate them as unique art objects" ("Andy Warhol" 123). She continues: "Traditional archival methodologies became inadequate in the face of Warhol's idiosyncratic film practice. For example, the standard filmographic catalogue, which lists finished films in the year in which they were released, seriously misrepresents the actual nature of Warhol's modular and extremely flexible film production, in which individual reels often accumulated their own histories as he used and reused them under different titles and in different formats".
Janis Londraville Richard Londraville
The artist by descent to his niece,