I FEEL A twinge of guilt settling in with the energetic 83-year-old Renske Mann on her sofa beneath a glorious oil portrait of her daughter. Her mission is to talk about the paintings of her late ex-husband – Cyril Mann, a brilliant artist who never ‘made it’, an unsung hero of modern British art, famous for not being famous, self-sabotaging and mentally unstable.
In 1963, aged 19, Renske was his ingénue model and muse, and later his wife – he was 45. It’s an extraordinary coupling as human relationships go.
We are sitting in her smart West London apartment which she shares with long-term partner, Marion. My guilt comes because she wants me to admire the brushwork and colouring in the portrait of her daughter, but I’m more beguiled by an iridescent dash of lilac purple on her eyelids, an act so discreet and yet producing the psychic equivalent of white noise: Renske wears no other makeup except for this brushwork, and I can’t help asking myself: who is this woman who at 19 fell madly in love with a penniless older artist with severe mental health problems and took it upon herself to nurture him, despite divorcing him twenty years later for a woman who is still her life partner? What energies lay between them and what can it tell us about art as a spiritual currency, and the soul’s evolution?
Not that either Renske or Mann was conventionally religious. He was passionately alive to the metaphysical mysteries of light, painting it obsessively, staring into the sun as if it had a spiritual redemptive quality to it, numinous and epiphanic. She – a natural Buddhist, being Dutch Oriental in origin – narrates her story with a feeling of sacredness of purpose, art almost as a sacrament, involving a liturgy of purpose – sacrificing her youth on an altar of creativity. (In fact, though Renske might not agree with me, there is something of her own self-perplexment in the narration, trying to settle in her own mind forty years later what her youthful self was doing.)
This project to rehabilitate Mann has refreshed an already well-lived life. Now each morning Renske takes to social media to post to thousands of followers a daily vignette about art or music, but mostly about her ex-husband.
Renske with Cyril Mann
The Girl in the Green Jumper is a simply, lovingly told tour de force. It is a memoir that is trying to make sense, slay ghosts, erase shadows (Mann’s not Renske’s). Like the iridescent eyeshadow, passion is signed, not bragged about, not shouted. Life is narrated simply, as it was to all purposes a simple life in reality. In one way I think this makes up the attraction of the memoir and is similar to the simplicity that makes Van Gogh’s letters to his brother so compelling when he is starting out in Arles at the Yellow House. The horror of poverty, having to make do. A tiny council flat in Bevin Court, searching for cheap food. Minimal furniture, scavenging for cigarette butts. The minutiae of a poor urban London life – and yet a creative one too, with art, books, galleries. Renske narrates it all lovingly and matter-of-factly. There’s a nostalgic sense, as I read, of what we have lost in a society that has become too acquisitive. As well as the anecdotes of a creative life, there are brilliant illustrations of Renske herself, so young, in sharp contrast to the brooding, passionate, difficult husband. Mann’s nudes narrate a story of Renske’s youth, youth abstracted and naked on a crumpled sheet. The furious brush strokes speak for themselves. He paints her body again and again, twisted in improbable postures. Don’t fucking move, he’d say. Fucking itself is never mentioned but is always just a breath away, the imagination holding it briefly – early morning nude portraits as his nubile Indonesian Dutch lover wakes up. It is an improbable partnership. Cyril Mann was a lucky man. Gauguin had to travel to Tahiti for such youthful exotic, erotic fodder.
Modern Venus – Private Collection
I mention Vincent Van Gogh to Renske and she catches fire again, the lilac eyeshadow shimmering. His brother, Theo, was an inspiration for her, she says: his financial support of Vincent, which allowed him to paint full-time, along with his moral and emotional belief in him. ‘If I helped Cyril he would become great like Vincent. I was 20…’ Her spousal support of Mann continued for twenty years through thick and thin. She subbed him, firstly, with secretarial work, and then, as her own career took off, with an executive income. It’s no plot spoiler to say that there wasn’t a happy ending. As with Vincent, Mann’s severe mental health problems proved too much for Renske’s love. Ironically, for a memoir that talks so lovingly (and rightly) about the visual electricity of light in Mann’s paintings (‘So interesting, because he was brought up in the dark’), it is the shadows that involve the reader. ‘For about forty years I couldn’t speak about him … the suffering … In the end he began to destroy me.’
The Girl in the Green Jumper – Collection Renske Mann
This beautifully illustrated narration of life with Cyril Mann has proved a real commercial success, with strong and unexpected sales, the bestselling Hatchards art book in the week I met Renske. Personally, I think this is more to do with its being a coming-of-age memoir about her rather than about the life of Mann, though Renske will disagree. Why does she think her memoir has been so popular? After all, former models and muses like Celia Paul and Françoise Gilot have also written memoirs. ‘But they are more self-portraits,’ she comments. ‘Mine is not a self-portrait. It’s a portrait of my husband … What is going to appeal to people? Lucien Freud going with Auerbach into a restaurant and having oysters and champagne? What is that going to mean to artists who have very great difficulty in paying rent and buying paint? Our life is far more typical than these very famous people.’
She drives me from her flat to the handsome Piano Nobile Gallery in Holland Park, currently exhibiting Cyril’s work. The drive itself is revelatory – fierce determination, much hooting. ‘You can’t go to sleep on a traffic light,’ she says briskly, and I feel this is a good metaphor for Renske – seizing opportunities, always driving forwards. ‘Everything happening now is meant to be – and if it’s not a success that is meant to be as well!’
‘What I would love,’ she adds, changing gear, ‘is some sort of playwright to make it into a two-handed play set in Bevin Court …’
Ecstasy – Private Collection
The small selection of Mann’s work at the gallery is beautifully lit, illuminating Mann’s rhapsodic relationship to paint, his brushwork quick like a passionate embrace, capturing the almost psychic energy of people and place. Whilst he himself wasn’t conventionally religious, his worlds were spiritual, and he was obsessed with light in an almost abstract, numinous way, often painting directly into the light itself. ‘Squint!’ I am commanded by Renske. ‘Squint and you will see the light itself. I lie under the light, see?’
We eye some of the twisted luminous nudes, some still-life flowers – not still at all, in fact, but deliciously revolving on the cusp of abstraction – as well as the eponymous Girl in The Green Jumper.
This painting is a real surprise, a visual treat. The colours are striking, the female gaze even more so. It is slightly out of focus – if you can be out of focus in paint, that is – painted quickly as if capturing an essence in that ontological way of his.
But the girl stares back, an invisible male gaze annihilated.
Self portrait – The Estate of Cyril Mann / courtesy of Piano Nobile, Robert Travers (Works of Art) Ltd
‘Cyril Mann made me,’ she says in her flat, frank, matter-of-fact Dutch style. But again, just as she speaks, the iridescent lilac eyeshadow catches the gallery lighting and I am drawn away from Cyril Mann’s brushstrokes.
No, I think, looking back at the nudes and with the memoir in my head, this is ultimately her story, not his. A coming-of-age memoir, encompassing much tension, passion and imagination. That girl in the green jumper made Cyril Mann.
OCTOBER 2022 Dodie Alexander MONK
The Girl in the Green Jumper: My Life with the Artist Cyril Mann – Renske Mann, published by Pimpernel Press Limited, 208 pages
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