Saturday, May 30, 2020


After fabulous Florence, where art and life and financial insecurity and the melancholy joy of partially unrequited love mingled together in wobbly operatic harmony, I was back in cut-the-crap New York. Being in America was always a confrontation. The first question most people asked of each other was: what do you do? But the real question behind that was: are you a success? An atmosphere of continual success-measuring, of one’s self and others, hung in the air like smog or like perfume, depending on your reaction. it could be stimulating or angst-making. Or both.

A few years earlier I had spent a lot of time working on another script, a serious comedy. At some stage I asked a friend to collaborate and we produced a finished screenplay illustrated with my cartoons, titled The Peacemaker. It went to agents, studios, producers etc. with some positive feedback but nothing more. Then suddenly a letter from Louis de Rochemont asking for a three month option, after which he’d either buy the screenplay or give it back. Of course this was good news even though the monthly fee was peanuts ($50 for each of us). The option period was extended but The Peacemaker screenplay was not purchased and the film never made.

By now ir was 1956 and my success-measuring angst was acting up. I decided that if I took up mural painting there would always be people who wanted me to create fabulous frescoes on their private or public walls. I was thinking of those I’d seen and loved in Italy - Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca - rather than Diego Rivera, Orozco or Siqueiros. But Mexico was where I chose to go for training and I enrolled in the mural painting course at the renowned Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende.

In my online unfinished autobio I’ve already written about that period so I’ll just add some photos of it here and if you want to read that part of my story, here’s the relevant link:

Fresco study at the Instituto Allende. NdA 1956
La Despedida. Plaster bas-relief study at Instituto Allende. 3.25 x 2.25 meters. NdA 1956

Porttrait of Reg Dixon, San Miguel de Allende. NdA 1956. Duco on board. Collection of Valerie Dixon.
Taking a break from painting Reg, the ceramics teacher. He was asked to pose for a painting class once.

Me and Reg Dixon  at the Instituto Allende, summer 1956. 

Leaving San Miguel at the end of summer. Friends seeing me off at the train station. !956
Mexican soldier. Duco on board. NdA San Miguel 1956

Tuesday, May 26, 2020


My memory doesn’t hold on to details for very long but retains moments of intense joy or intense sadness. Alone on the wide terrace of the house in San Antonio on the night before my departure. The wind is making waves on the vast open field leading down to the silver stripe of river. Above my head an unbelievable sky, so filled with stars there is hardly any sky between them. I begin to sing at the top of my lungs. Can’t remember what the song was, probably one of the sentimental Guarani ballads, but my soul, ah my soul! It’s flying, zooming around ecstatically in the cosmos. One of those moments.

Back in New York several unrelated things happen, not in chronological order. I have another fall in and out of love. I write a chidren’s story entitled The Big Stick, change it to The Legend of Weapons. I start illustrating it with cartoons then think it needs a different approach so I ask a friend, successful young Italian artist, and he produces a set of brilliant pen and ink drawings. The problem is that his drawings are sophisticated and cynical whereas my story, an anti-war fable, is naive and feel-good. The two approaches don’t match. I send the illustrated manuscript round to publishers anyway and get the expected pile of rejections. Then, astonishingly, it’s accepted by Barney Rossett, legendary head of the Grove Press. He signs a contract that he’ll publish within eighteen months and pays us an advance. Quite a while later, he decides not to publish the book. That is that.

It’s 1953. My sister Anne,working for a student travel agency in New York, is sent to Italy to organise her plan of introducing American college students to luminaries of Italian culture. One of these is writer and polymath Gerardo Guerrieri. Later that year Annie and Gerardo are married in Florence and all our family are there. Meanwhile my father, whose mind is always in Project-mode, rents a Florentine villa as the setting for his idea: Contrastland. The premise is that Amercan students will  arrive with preconceived ideas, clichés about Italy. They will be invited to the villa to see an audio-visual presentation illustrating these preconceptions in Dantesque images (paradise, purgatory, hell), Afterwards they’ll be asked for their reactions and, hopefully, their understanding will benefit from this experience.

When I arrive in Florence, preparations for Contrastland are in full swing. My father has recruited a  team of volunteers who are thrilled to be involved and lunchtimes  around a huge table outside are wonderfully expressive events. I am delegated to paint the Dantesque scenes onto a long roll of canvas which will be slowly unwound from life-size wooden spools, accompanied by recorded narration. Working on the narration is an American poet and University Professor of English who spends every summer in Florence. The Contrastland presentation has the intended psychological effect on the small groups of students who attend and at the close of summer, everybody goes home.

I have fallen in love with Florence and more than fallen, crash-landed in love with the poet-professor. He reciprocates but, alas, strictly platonically. He goes back to his University and I decide to stay in Florence for a year. I find a cheap studio and the winter goes by fast with painting and almost daily letters flying back and forth between the poet and I. He dedicates a play to me and I start a series of comics, The Gabriel Books, inspired by him. We meet again in Italy and America and remain platonically close friends until his death many years later.

My sister Anne with Gerardo Guerrieri in Rome, 1953.
Cypreses, Florence. NdA 1953, Oil. Collection Andrei Korliakov, Paris.
Natalie and Poet on roof terrace of Villa Ulivi, Florence 1953.

Florentine. NdA, Florence 1953. Oil on board.
Poet. NdA Florence 1953. Oil on board.
Winter, Florence 1954

Wednesday, May 20, 2020


San Antonio, Paraguay, where my happiest childhood days were spent, remained in imagination as my own private garden of Eden, the only place which ever felt like home. My father still owned the property and a German-Latvian refugee couple had been living there ever since we left, looking after the Quinta as well as running their delicatessen in Asunciòn. While in the throes of my latest bout of self-dissatisfaction in New York, the remedy seemed obvious: I should go back to my Eden and just paint, paint. paint.

In the summer of 1952 I was back at the Quinta Recalde, waiting for my art materials to be released from Paraguayan Customs. The house I had loved so much looked completely different, not just because fifteen years had passed, but because the current residents had, naturally enough, adapted the place to suit themselves..Did I really think I’d find my old bedroom intact, with its curved wall and shelves filled with my beloved books? Never mind, I was there to paint, not to wallow in nostalgia. When my materials arrived, I set to work on the goal of producing at least one painting a day. I painted the landscape and I painted the local Guaranis who remembered my family from the old days, and I painted an ancient Russian émigré with watery blue eyes forever fixed on his past as Colonel Kermanoff.

I have slides of most paintings of that period but snapshots are not sharp or true to the actual colours. To give a flavour of the place and time, here are a few of them anyway.

The house my father built in San Antonio, Paraguay around 1937 as it looked then.

Standing on the terrace, painting my reflection as I see it in a glass door. NdA 1952. Oil.

Cows in the field, San Antonio. NdA 1952, Oil.
Colonel Kermanoff. NdA, San Anonio 1952. Oil.
Tres Meninas. NdA 1952 San Antonio. Oil.
Don Joaquim. NdA, San Antonio 1952. Oil. (The original is in colour)

Annuncia and borrowed child. NdA, San Antonio 1952. Oil.
Stormy Sky, San Antonio. NdA 1952. Oil .The original is in colour. This painting was stolen in New York.

Monday, May 18, 2020


A job as salesgirl at the ribbon counter - ribbons for heaven’s sake! - in a posh department store on Fifth Avenue was never going to be anything but temporary. Then my wonderful uncle Jacques Grinieff, a film producer (and a whole other story) offered me a job. He had an offce in New York but was always travelling. The task he gave me was to read stories by Conan Doyle  (not the Sherlock Holmes ones) to see if some might be adapted as film scripts.

I got on well with Jacques and in his idiosyncratic way, he had faith in me. I’d been working on a film script myself, a surreal kind of parable about America, tentatively titled Portrait of America. Jacques liked it but thought, rightly, that it needed bringing down to earth. He decided that I should meet Norman Mailer and see if he’d collaborate with me. Jacques arranged for Mailer to meet me for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. The Naked and the Dead was published in 1948 and Mailer was still reeling from its huge success. Our lunch meeting was fun, Mailer was hyperactive, articulate, with an incisive, quick intelligence that made our conversation stimulating. But when he invited me to come and help him “paint his new apartment” I declined, aware that it would involve more exercise than wielding a paintbrush and I wasn’t attracted to him at all. But Norman kept his promise to read my script, all versions of it, and wrote me an honest, detailed, helpful analysis of it. Eventually I gave up on the film project. There is a post script however: 

in the mid-1960s, in London during one of my many impecunious stages, I took Norman Mailer’s letters and my illustrated script to Sothebys and asked if they could sell the lot. They said yes. It went into an auction and sold for £500 to a dealer who then sold it to a collector of memorabilia of famous American writers. Thereby hangs that tale.

Thanks to my job for Uncle Jacques, I was able to rent a small flat downtown in Seventh Avenue South and continued to paint, sometimes exhibiting in local galleries. But I wasn’t satisfied with my work or my life. Another move was imminent.

Self-Portrait. NdA circa 1952. Oil on board.
Natalie with strange haircut circa 1955, with earlier self-portrait.
Qui Sommes Nous, Ou Allons Nous? NdA, New York 1952. Oil.

Portrait of T. Skilford.  NdA, New York 1952. Oil.
Uncle Jacques Grinieff (second from the right, hand in pocket), Paris in the 1920s at signature of contract for production of Abel Gance's legendary film Napoleon. Abel Gance is first on the left. A photo of Gance given to my uncle said Jacques was the only one who understood him.

Friday, May 15, 2020


What’s the English word for ‘mouvementé’? The 1950s were like that. Returning to New York from São Paulo I entered another phase, always searching for what would be truer than the previous phase.
Being a very good artist and being in love, preferably simultaneously, was, I felt sure, the destiny assigned to me. A steady job, diplomas, marriage, children, a house - in my mind, these were not requirements on the road to my particular capital D Destiny.

I worked in downtown Manhattan at Jack Tworkov’s studio for a while, next door to Willem de Kooning. The Abstract Expressionist movement was in full swing and intrigued me though I didn’t think I belonged there. Tworkov, one of the major Ab/Ex painters, had a hands-off approach to teaching. He didn’t try to influence you, only to encourage you to find and develop your own ‘voice’.This suited me very well but I fluctuated impatiently between styles, ways of seeing, media, techniques.

I also had Projects, always one or more Projects demanding much concentration. Writing has always lived alongside visual art in my life. One of my Projects at the time was an illustrated book: The Do-It-Yourself Handbook for Neurotics ( I later changed to: Is Happiness Really Necessary?) I was probably the only one among my friends in New York who wasn’t seeing a shrink, partly because I couldn’t have afforded one and partly because I didn’t give much credence to head-shrinkage. The book was a satire on this theme, black ink drawings and brief text. When ready I sent it round - an agent and a few other people liked it. I got rejections from top American publishers. Not too discouraged, I turned it into a photo-story, got some friends to pose for the parts and photographer George Cserna took terrific shots of the scenes. This project didn’t sell either. Eventually I turned it into a dance-mime play which was performed by students at a school in Putney, Vermont. All the illustrations, rejection letters etc. are sitting in boxes which I’ve been digging into for this memoir.
More to come, watch this space.

1950s Natalie
Spring. NdA 1951
Autumn. NdA 1951 
Illustration from The Do It Yourself Handbook for Neurotics, NdA 1951-55
Part of photo-story version of The Do-It-Yourself Handbook for Neurotics. Photo by George Cserna
Studio Still-Life. NdA 1951

Wednesday, May 06, 2020


In 1950 I was in Brazil again, São Paulo. My sister Annie always had a mysterious knack for meeting everybody everywhere within ten minutes of being somewhere, anywhere. I exaggerate only slightly. Suddenly we were in Nick Bar on rua Major Diogo, hanging out with actors, directors, writers, cast and crew of a film being shot near the city. Saturdays were feijoada day (a rich, delicious stew of black beans, meat, rice etc.) and everyone congregated at Nick Bar. It was a fascinating polyglot mix of Brazilians with European émigrès and temporary residents. We were welcomed and at ease there and got to know most of those involved in the film Caiçara Alberto Cavalcanti, John Waterhouse, Oswald Hafenrichter, Ladislas Babushka and others. One of the others was a Polish/British/Brazilian film editor who told me that when he arrived in London from Poland he wanted to change his surname and, walking in Bloomsbury one day, a street sign charmed him and he chose it as his new name.

Falling-In-Love is among the greatest pleasures life offers. I’m talking about the process of falling and not about love per se.The times, and there may be many, when you’re falling towards love, not necessarily landing or staying there, are always memorable. So the London-street-named Pole and I had one of those FIL episodes.

Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of the Nick Bar people but at that time I was also painting a lot and I do have snaps of some of that work, much of which was later sold or lost.

Self-Portrait, Sao Paulo 1950

Self painting flowers. Sao Paulo 1950

Portrait of Alzira Mattar, Sao Paulo 1950.

Trees, Sao Paulo 1950

Suburb, Sao Paulo 1950

Saturday, May 02, 2020


I spend far too long taking a shower but it's my favourite place to think. The shower is not fancy, it's just an ordinary one over the bathtub with a striped shower curtain. But it's where my thoughts crystallize into words and sentences. Maybe the needles of hot water gently pricking my skin act like some kind of psychological acupuncture? Or maybe not.

What I'd like is a waterproof recording device that can be attached to the tiled shower wall and remotely connected to my computer so that I can ruminate into it and then see this later on my computer screen as well as printed out on paper.

Now it's almost 5pm...FIVE PM...and I haven't been out to do my shopping yet.
Back soon with another installment of the illustrated memoir.


The time lapse between illusion and disillusion was never very long in my life. Maybe that's because reality and stability didn't figure prominently in my upbringing. Or maybe it's because emotional entanglement pushed me down from the high spot on the seesaw and, in the low spot, I didn't have the patience to wait for balance. Anyway there's a lot more to say about the Art Students League period but one day, sitting with my mates in Carneys Bar down the street from school, I felt an ending coming on. I seemed to be stuck in an artificial world which no longer rang true to me and my work felt stale.

My father was about to leave on another trip to Brazil, stopping in London and Paris, so I decided to go with him. Some of the gang I hung out with at the League came to see me off and waved goodbye as the ship sailed away.

In Paris I stayed at my aunt Alice's small flat on Rue de l'Université off the Boulevard Saint Germain. She was out at work all day and I had the place to myself so I set up an easel. Then began the strangest time, involving automatic'writing and painting and other 'alternative' experiences (without drugs) but I won't elaborate on ithis now.

Later on my sister arrived and we went to live in London for a while. I had my first exhibition at the small AIA (Artists International Gallery) on Lisle Street in Soho. I just walked in and showed them some work and they said yes, I could have a show. It was a very easy-going place. There were some good press mentions, even from Patrick Heron and Lawrence Alloway! And the Evening Standard snapped a photo (can't find it) of me walking down the street.

Transforming. NdA 1949. Ink on paper

Past Life Visitors. NdA 1949. Oil on canvas.

Song of Songs. NdA 1949. Oil on board.

Wuth my sister Annie in London 1949.