Exploring how art – and not just sex, drugs and alcohol – inspired the writing of cult modernist and lesbian novel Nightwood
Nightwood, written by Djuna Barnes, is known for its depictions of the darkest sides of life. In stunningly lyrical but at times almost incomprehensible language, Barnes draws on the underworld of Parisian nightlife to tell the tale of Nora Flood and Robin Vote and their volatile relationship – a tale that has been deemed to be semi-autobiographical because of the similarities to her own turbulent relationship with the artist Thelma Wood. (In)famous for her excessive drinking, drug taking and philandering, Wood spent eight years with Barnes before they finally separated in 1929/30, and all the highs and lows of those years were eventually poured into Nightwood.
Wood was certainly the inspiration for the worst aspects of Robin Vote, so much so that almost all accounts of Barnes’ life and work reduce her to a shadow, known merely as Barnes’ philandering lover and as the ‘real life’ Robin. There have been no biographies or major works written on Wood herself, and her art is largely forgotten or overlooked. Yet she was an accomplished artist in her own right, and her relationship with Barnes was a creative as well as an emotional and sexual one. The influence of this can be most clearly seen, ironically enough, in Nightwood.
Wood started her career early at the St Louis School of Fine Art before travelling to Paris in 1920, aged just 19, with the express intention of furthering her artistic studies. Once in Paris, it’s likely that she took advantage of the many ateliers in the city that opened their doors on a ‘pay per class’ basis to women, where she would have had the opportunity to study diverse mediums such as oil painting, sculpture, life drawing and sketching. She had already begun to establish herself in the modernist community of artists in Paris before she met Barnes in 1921/22. She was close to (and one-time lover of) photographer Berenice Abbott, and while both women started their careers in sculpture, both soon diverged – Abbott into the world of avant-garde photography and Wood into drawing and silverpoint. Wood’s female Study (pencil and ink) was published in the modernist magazine Gargoyle in September 1921, and her only surviving sketchbook records a trip to Berlin around the same time. The modernist city was her inspiration here – she drew male and female figures in cafés and bars, smoking and drinking, dancing and talking. Her lines were sharp and heavy, perhaps harking back to her inclination for sculpture, and showed a yearning for abstraction that would be developed later in her silverpoint.
Interestingly, even though they had only just met, Barnes’ work of that period shows some of the same characteristics. As a career journalist in New York, she had been preoccupied with the life she saw around her in all its vivid, repulsive truth. She too drew inspiration from the city in order to create sharp, incisive and often darkly hilarious portraits in her interviews and short stories, and yet she too was already leaning towards something different, something more. She separated her journalism and her ‘juvenilia’ from her attempts at more ‘serious’ literature, and despite jokingly claiming, after the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses, that she would never write another word because she didn’t have the nerve to, she was excited by experimentation and modernism.
By the winter of 1922, Barnes and Wood were living together in an apartment just off the boulevard St Germain in the artistic heart of the Left Bank, where they mingled with writers and artists such as Joyce, Abbott, Sinclair Lewis, Hart Crane, Mina Loy, Marsden Hartley and Ezra Pound. Inspiration must have been all around, but they also took inspiration from each other – in particular, it was Barnes who encouraged Wood to return to silverpoint as a medium instead of sculpture. Wood had already experimented with silverpoint during her time at St Louis, but it became her dominant form during the 1920s. Detailed, sharp, and painstakingly precise, silverpoint developed as a form in the fourteenth century. A silver rod, carrying silver wire, is used to make the lines on specially prepared paper covered in white pigment, and the resulting image is uniquely fine and delicate. It’s a marked contrast to the heaviness and tangibility of sculpture – a contrast that is mirrored in Barnes’ own work, as she started to shift her focus away from the journalism jobs that paid the bills and onto more literary experimentation.
By 1926, both women were working within a framework of experimentation and modernism, one that mirrored the developing volatility of their emotional relationship. Drinking and drugs featured heavily, as did – for Wood, at least – casual sex, and their once-happy and domestic relationship was becoming strained. Creatively, though, they seemed to feed off each other like never before. Woods began to dabble in painting, writing to Barnes that “silverpoint doesn’t do the trick any more – sort of mechanical”, but in October of that year she exhibited silverpoint at the surrealist Galerie des Quatre Chemins. Taking advantage of the luminosity and delicacy afforded by silverpoint, she created work that was heavily inspired by nature, and that revealed hybrid worlds of animal and human, monstrosity and beauty, erotically charged and highly sensual.
This kind of “beneath the surface” sexuality had often been hinted at in Barnes’ work, but can be clearly seen in the 1928 work Ladies Almanack. This was a satirical satire on the lesbian circles of writer Natalie Clifford Barney (circles in which Barnes was prominent) and was written to pay the medical bills after Wood was hospitalised with spinal issues. The language is obscure, full of in-jokes and oblique references, but undeniably sexual beneath the surface – just as Wood’s silverpoint held sexual and sensual layers beyond the obvious. In addition, Barnes’ first full-length novel Ryder, written in 1926-1927 and published in 1928, showed a willingness to experiment with form and style that could have been partly encouraged by Wood’s own shift between mediums. A barely-disguised account of her family back in New York, Ryder is written is mix of prose styles that bring Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Bible to mind. Barnes also shifted between lyrical verse, sonnets and letters. The “TW” to whom the book is dedicated is, of course, Thelma Wood.
The full influence of Wood’s art on Barnes is really seen in Nightwood. Barnes probably began writing it, in one form or another, in the late 1920s, when her relationship with Wood was deteriorating into promiscuity, heavy drinking and violence. Wood eventually left for America with another woman, Henriette Metcalf, but their correspondence continued and Wood’s art almost leaps out of the pages of Nightwood at the first introduction of Robin:
On a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and flowers, faintly oversung by the notes of unseen birds, which seem to have been forgotten… lay the young woman… the perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth-flesh… her flesh was the texture of plant life… she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room…
Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human.
A review of Wood’s work published in The Arts in 1930 (Vol. XVI.7) described it as “tortuous but exquisitely imaginative animal and plant themes”. Barnes’ introduction of Robin is so hauntingly evocative of Wood’s silverpoints that the same review could almost be applied to her writing.
Nightwood is full of this darkly lyrical prose. Throughout the novel Robin is portrayed as a “somnambule”, a creature of the night, a shapeshifter between animal and human and a hybrid of the erotic and the monstrous. She is the personification of both the depravity and beauty of sexual desire – a personification that could have come straight from Wood’s art. An undated silverpoint of a bushbuck or eland (an antelope-type animal) surrounded by trees is one of Wood’s few works that survives, and it too had made its way into Nightwood as a vision of a bride. This influence was acknowledged by Barnes herself who, just before Nightwood was published, wrote to Emily Coleman saying that she had been having nightmares of animals. She was convinced that these dreams were the result of Thelma’s animal spirit, and in particular, the eland.
Nightwood is a remarkable book that, beyond its status as a modernist classic, is full of the emotional, sensual and artistic echoes of one woman – Thelma Wood. Some of Thelma Wood’s silverpoints survive in the Djuna Barnes archive at the University of Maryland and can be seen online here.