Lives of the Artists: Remembering Vilmos

Ted Goodden and Vilmos Csaplar, 2005. Photo by Cornelia Hoogland.

I first met Vilmos in January of 1970, in the depths of an Ontario winter, at the London Psychiatric Hospital. I was twenty-two and I’m guessing that Vilmos was about twice that age; he was never forthcoming about biographical information and left behind no public record of his life, not even a listing in the phone book. What family he had remained in Hungary; he never talked about them and he had no friends, none, not one, unless you count me, who managed to sustain an on-again, off-again friendship with him for fifty years. This, I believe, qualifies me by default as the custodian of his memory.

I had dropped out of university and returned to my family home in London, in a fragile state both physically and mentally. I had lost weight and psychedelic drugs, combined with high-octane ideas about the social construction of reality, had thrown me into a kind of mental paralysis that passed as “an identity crisis.” I couldn’t even get it together to buy a pair of winter boots, so my feet were always cold and damp. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be an artist or a psychologist and felt desperately that I needed to decide before I took another breath. In fact I didn’t have the heart for either; I was in retreat, secretly hopeful that I could skip over adulthood and go directly to Free Parking. It was the brute force of Vilmos Csaplar that pulled me out of this dwindling spiral of hesitation and self-doubt. Vilmos pulled me into life, and life for Vilmos was inseparable from art. “The important thing,” Vilmos would say in his rich Hungarian accent, “the important thing is to be occupied with art.”

Responding to a newspaper ad, I began working as a psychiatric nursing assistant at the London Psychiatric Hospital, known locally as “the LPH.” I discovered that the job encompassed a wide range of duties, from taking patients by bus to a bowling alley, to holding their twitching legs on the gurney as they received electro-convulsive shocks. Every two weeks the staff rotated from one eight-hour shift to the next, from the morning to the afternoon to the night shift, a schedule that seemed designed to induce perpetual jetlag. This schedule heightened the sense of unreality that comes from working on a psychiatric ward, and since I already had a tenuous attachment to the real world to begin with, I remember my time at the LPH as if it was a dream.

On my first afternoon shift I heard shouting as I entered the ward, a patient was engaged in a loud argument with the head nurse, who had rolled up a mural he was working on in the common room. He was shouting, “You know nothing about art – NOTHING!” She was screaming that his art was obscene and hideous, and that it had to be removed immediately. As the new staff member, I was recruited on the spot to mediate this dispute, and the mural was unrolled on the floor for my inspection.

How to describe this mural, arc-welded into my retina fifty years ago? It was about twelve feet long and four feet wide, executed in pencil, felt-tipped pen, and poster paints, depicting a Rockettes kick-line of sexually ambiguous monsters, all of them over-muscled and bristling with instruments of war, presented frontally like jumped-up Egyptian gods. The mural was transfixing, and looking at it felt like grabbing hold of a live cable. The imagery seemed primitive, at a glance, but the execution was extraordinary; the mark-making was varied, nuanced, even, and the overall composition was a masterful balance of positive and negative space, with advancing and receding planes. I was dumbstruck, but since a response was required, I reached for an understatement: “It’s very powerful,” I said, “and the common room of a psychiatric ward is probably not the best place to display it.”

This was what the head nurse wanted to hear and it also seemed to please Vilmos, whose favorite adjective, as I discovered later, was “powerful.” He invited me to his room to see a sculpture he was working on, emphasizing that it was only a model for a much larger piece he wanted to cast in bronze. He showed me a black plasticine figure that was not more than six inches high but it had a presence that filled the room. Unmistakably a torso, but without arms, legs, or a head, it had a menacing density, like an expanding black hole. I tried to imagine a scaled-up version of this sculpture in downtown’s Victoria Park; that was not going to happen. I was looking at a golem, a personified id, at one of Michelangelo’s bound slaves, unbound and burnt to a crisp. Vilmos asked rhetorically, “Is powerful, yes?”

A work by Vilmos Csaplar, date unknown. Photo: Terry Sefton.

I never saw either of these works-in-progress again; I think they were removed by the night janitor. And if I try to visualize these pieces clearly – as I often do – it’s like trying to recall a dream in detail; what comes to mind instead is the primal “HOLY SHIT!” I felt looking at them. My job at the LPH, which involved a lot of dreary routine, now had a glowing center of interest and I had a mission to bring the attention of the outside world to this work. An unspoken bond was forged between us at that first meeting, a bond that held the promise of mutual redemption.

I had read the files in the staff room: Vilmos was classified as “schizophrenic, with paranoid tendencies”; other symptoms were mentioned, such as “megalomania” and “hoarding behavior.” But I had also read books by Erving Goffman, R.D. Laing, and Thomas Szasz, which led me to regard these categories as more descriptive of the social system that produced them than definitive of the individual to whom they were applied. Thomas Szasz’s book, The Myth of Mental Illness, discredits the medical model as applied to “mental illness” and comes to the conclusion that “we all have problems in living.” Clearly, Vilmos had two serious problems in living that were not mentioned in his file: (1) his English language skills were poor and this was a real handicap in London, Ontario in 1970, and (2) he was an amputee, which is to say he had only one leg, and popular prejudice, then as now, runs strongly in favor of two.

The left leg had been amputated above the knee joint, and the stump was often inflamed and painful, or dry and cracked; Vilmos would apply creams to the stump and was forever making improvised adjustments to the socket of the artificial leg and to its harness. He told many different stories about how he lost his leg. The one I’m inclined to believe, because it’s the least dramatic, is that he slipped on icy cobblestones and fell under the wheels of a streetcar in Budapest when he was fifteen, more or less. With Vilmos it’s always “more or less,” a case of filling in the blanks with speculation.

I believe that he studied at The Budapest Art Academy and that he was the star pupil of Jeno Barscay, author of the highly-regarded illustrated text, Anatomy for the Artist. I know that he had a rock-solid understanding of anatomy and the history of Western art. I suspect that Vilmos coming to Canada had something to do with the Russian annexation of Hungary in 1956, though he never mentioned this. And I don’t know why he came to London, Ontario, in particular (but then many people who live in London don’t know this). I know that he spent twelve years locked up in the notorious “back wards” of the LPH, which were demolished before I arrived. His file noted that he had been “incommunicative” during this time. When I asked him, “what was it like on the back wards?” he replied with genuine enthusiasm, “I lived with monsters – real monsters!” I asked him what was going on in his head all those years he wasn’t talking. “Philosophy,” he said. “I vas occupied with philosophy.”

This was the golden age of smoking, and smoking was one of the main pastimes on the psychiatric ward. Shared cigarettes were also a currency and a token of friendship. The hospital actually supplied hand-rolled cigarettes to patients; one of my many jobs was to make them on a manual roller kept in the staff room. But the law of supply and demand dictated that “tailor-mades” were much preferred, and I was handing mine out at a rate of one pack per day. Realizing that I couldn’t afford this generosity, and not wanting to withhold it either, I began smoking a pipe. And this might account for why Vilmos always referred to me as “professor,” with a mixture of affection and irony in his voice as he emphasized the third syllable, “profesSOR.” The irony being that he was teaching me.

Vilmos would give me art lessons in the form of assignments, and the one that I recall most vividly was to make a pencil copy of a photograph from Time magazine. The photo depicted an American soldier holding a revolver to the head of a Vietnamese civilian (this became an iconic image that added fuel to the growing anti-war movement). When I brought in my assignment the next day, Vilmos studied it carefully and said, “Do again. You show the cruelty of this face but not the terror of this face. Look at eyes. Do again.”

When I was working the night shift we would play chess in the common room, with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in heavy rotation on the local radio station. We would study the games of the masters and try to incorporate their moves. Or at least I would – Vilmos would always try for a checkmate within the first twelve. His opening game was a blitzkreig frontal attack; I learned that if I could survive this initial onslaught, I had a fair chance of winning, because he refused to castle. It was during one of these evenings of chess that Vilmos said, “Shave off moustache – also, get haircut. Look normal. Look like everyone – also important is talk to everyone. Be Renaissance Man. Be normal on outside, better be crazy on inside.”

If your imagination of mental institutions has been shaped by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you would be disappointed by the low-key, drug-modulated atmosphere of daily life on the psychiatric ward. Vilmos was the only character who might belong in the movie, because he relished the role of genius-in-residence. When a new Head Psychiatrist arrived and wanted to meet all the patients on the ward personally, I accompanied Vilmos to his interview. He swaggered into the office and threw his arms wide, announcing, “I am Vilmos Csaplar and I am greater than the Michelangelo!” The psychiatrist sputtered, made a brief note in his file, and the interview was over.

Fast-forward to the late summer of 1973. I was living in a tiny second-floor apartment in Montreal with my girlfriend and was on the brink of a life-defining choice. I’d been offered a generous fellowship by McGill University which would pay all expenses towards a PhD in clinical psychology, and I’d also been offered an apprenticeship in a stained-glass studio in Old Montreal. This was the return of my identity crisis but now the stakes were raised and the deadline for making a decision had arrived. I’d stewed all summer, drawn up endless lists of pros and cons, and only decided that I didn’t know how to make a decision. The next part of this story I wouldn’t believe myself, but my girlfriend – now my ex-wife – can verify that it actually happened. I was going to let the I Ching decide the matter. I’d taken the book off the shelf and I had the three coins in my hand when I heard a familiar voice calling my name from the sidewalk below. It was Vilmos, who I hadn’t seen for more than three years. I have no idea how he left the hospital, how he found my address in Montreal, or how he managed the train trip. But it didn’t matter at that moment because his uncanny materialization had tipped the scales and made tossing the coins moot. Improbably, here was the embodiment of his own words: “the important thing is to be occupied with art.” I consider the arrival of Vilmos at this moment to be the only mystical event I’ve ever experienced without drugs.

A portrait of Vilmos Csaplar by Ted Goodden, 1997.

We took Vilmos to a Hungarian restaurant on Prince Arthur Street, where we ate goulash and drank red wine as he held forth on the history of Western art and talked with special exuberance about the sculptors of the Italian Renaissance. We had no bed to offer him that evening but Vilmos was content to sleep on the hardwood floor in his street clothes, without a pillow. He lay motionless on his back, as if trying to post himself through a letter box, and in the morning he was gone.

I didn’t see him again for four years. In the meantime I finished a three-year apprenticeship in Montreal, followed by a journeyman apprenticeship in England, and returned to London to establish my own stained-glass studio. I was surprised to meet Vilmos downtown, at large, so to speak. The LPH was preparing to close down and was beginning to divest itself of its residents, turning them loose but keeping them in orbit for check-ins with a psychiatrist to monitor their medications. It was the beginning of the new era in psychiatry and social policy that would soon create the homeless populations swelling our cities today.

My relationship with Vilmos had now shifted onto common ground, but it was never a symmetrical one. I genuinely admired his artwork and was in awe of his abilities; he regarded stained glass as a minor decorative art of no importance. He was always secretive about where he was living, which meant that he could visit me in my studio or I might find him downtown – usually within a three-block radius of the library or the market – but I could never visit him. Except for one memorable occasion.

Vilmos asked if I would help him move out of his apartment. I think I was the only person he knew who drove a car. He didn’t mention that he was being evicted, or that he hadn’t arranged for new lodgings; these details were gradually revealed after I arrived at his fifth-floor apartment near Labatts Brewery. I found him waiting in the hallway outside his apartment, obviously agitated. There was a notice from the Fire Marshal taped to the door, which Vilmos opened with a key, releasing a stench like composting garbage. The apartment was packed solid from floor to ceiling, leaving only a narrow corridor from the front door to the balcony, which was also jammed with detritus. The stovetop, the toilet, and the bed were all stacked to the ceiling with more stuff. Some of it had been picked up from the downtown shops on garbage nights – stacks of cardboard, bicycle parts, old cans of paint, newspapers, broken gym equipment, rebar, sheet metal, and leather offcuts from the shoe-repair shop. And there were sculptures, works in progress or in decay; things made of metal, wood, plaster, and clay, and blocks of wax, now melting in the summer heat. The more pungent items included sausage rings, wheels of cheese, and baguettes in molding cardboard bags.

To move all this in a Volkswagen hatchback was like bailing out a bathtub with a spoon, but I decided to make a start by carrying two large buckets of tar down the stairs. As I was loading them into the car, Vilmos wrenched the cans from my hands, spilling tar all over the car. I realized several things in that moment: since he could not use his toilet, his stove, or his bed, Vilmos must have been sleeping in the narrow corridor of his living room, and I remembered how he had slept on his back on the apartment floor in Montreal those many years ago. And I realized that this was how he lived – that it was a lifestyle choice. Except that it wasn’t: it was a sickness. Though I had met Vilmos in a mental hospital, this was the first time I understood that he was mentally ill.

What Vilmos lacked and desperately needed was a studio. When he asked if he might work in a corner of my teaching studio on King Street, I agreed without hesitation. This arrangement began amiably, with expressions of gratitude and testimonials to our friendship, and ended a week later in bitter recriminations. Vilmos began by constructing the armature for a life-size equestrian statue, not minding that the plaster model wouldn’t fit through the studio door, or that casting the work in bronze would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, or that public enthusiasm for equestrian statues has rather fallen off lately. His art training in Budapest had prepared him for just this kind of work, and he wanted to pick up where he’d left off, before his life was interrupted. It was touching, infuriating, and impossible to supply his demands for more materials, more space, more attention. Every fifteen minutes he’d call on me to admire his progress. “Is powerful yes?” When I told him that he needed to move the sculpture to make room for my evening classes, he took this as a personal insult and an invitation for more personal insults; eventually he stomped out of the studio, saying, “So now it’s Goodbye Henry!” This scenario was repeated, with minor variations, in my next two home-based studios in London. Vilmos would plead for a space to do his work, move in graciously, take over the studio like a cowbird, then leave in a wrath which always ended with, “So now it’s Goodbye Henry!”

Over the years I realized that all the descriptors in Vilmos’s file at the LPH were true: he was a paranoid schizophrenic, a megalomaniac, and a serious hoarder; but he was also an extraordinary artist and he was good company, always interesting and often warm. He carried a gravitas rarely found in North American men, a gravitas that came from struggling with his demons and holding them in check. Vilmos became a frequent guest at dinner, where he would break the house rules and feed the dog scraps under the table. The beagle adored him, of course, and would get excited, picking up his rich scent five minutes before he arrived at the door. My mother and father, my wife and children, my brothers and their wives and children, and most of my friends became his friends, as well, and would greet him on the streets downtown. His visits to my studio were unannounced but I was usually pleased to see him, to talk with him and perhaps play a few games of chess. If we drank a few beers and if Vilmos was invited to supper, he would go into the backyard to piss, announcing, “I need let down my vater.”

By 1989 I had created enough interest in my minor decorative art to be given a solo exhibition at the London Regional Art Gallery, and I used my connections to pitch for an exhibition of Vilmos’s painting and sculpture. I think the curator had in mind the growing interest in “outsider art”; in any case she penciled-in a date for Vilmos in three years’ time. Vilmos was very excited by the prospect of a one-man show in a major Canadian gallery and it provided motivation and direction for his work. We spent hours in conversation, looking at the floor plan of the gallery and envisioning the work in place. But as the date approached for the first curatorial visit, his mood began to darken, moving from anxiety to suspicion to full-blown paranoia. He was convinced that the gallery was going to steal his work, and I was no longer his “beautiful friend,” but an enemy agent in conspiracy with the gallery. The exhibition was canceled, penciled-out, and for several years Vilmos and I passed each other on the streets without speaking.

When he finally reappeared at my studio it was to apologize: he had gone off his medication, he explained, because they made him too sleepy to work, but when he stopped taking his meds he had, as he put it, “gone crazy.” He had been picked up by the police wandering like a zombie in the CN freight yards and had spent some time in the hospital. I couldn’t follow the whole story but I could see that he had changed dramatically. He was older, smoother somehow, and his face had opened up. He had only had two gears in his transmission – neutral and overdrive – and now he had found a new gear in between. With great emphasis he said something that has taken on more meaning as I’ve aged, myself: “Now I am beef, not bull.”

Not only did he apologize, he was now able to share a studio without using up all the oxygen in the room. He was working now at “City Art,” a drop-in center operated by the City of London for clients who defined themselves as “survivors of psychiatric services.” For the first time I could visit Vilmos in his own studio, where I found him at a drafting table in a corner of this cooperative space. He was working on a series of crucifixion drawings, surrounded by a couple of ex-psychiatric patients who obviously respected him as a master.

The stage was set for the last and most rewarding decade of our relationship. Vilmos would continue to drop into my studio but the pressure was off now that he had use of the City Art space. He would sit in a wheeled armchair in the corner, drawing or sculpting clay as I worked at my bench, and he began to take an interest in designing stained-glass windows and to experiment with techniques of painting on glass. Eventually, he settled in to work on a series of graphite and ink drawings, on 11-by-17-inch paper determined by the format of copy machines at Kinkos, where we’d have the drawings printed at the end of the day. Vilmos experimented with the light-to-dark tonal range of the photocopiers and their sensitivities to erasure and wash tones, so that Kinkos became an integrated part of his printmaking process. I could keep a copy without arousing his anxiety, since he kept his original drawing himself. When Vilmos began to talk about having an exhibition, there was no question in my mind that the work deserved it, only a question about whether our relationship could survive the experience.

I was more cautious this time, approaching a commercial gallery with the proposition that, if Vilmos clapped out, I would mount a show in his time-slot the following year. The gallery took a 50/50 split on sales; it was a business, after all, and I’d covered their risk. Vilmos was enthusiastic about the show, which would feature his printmaking as well as some of the paintings and portrait work he’d recently made. We went through the portfolio he kept at City Art, and I had a number of these works framed by the gallery at my own expense before things started to go sideways, repeating the pattern played out twenty years ago: anxiety, suspicion, then paranoia and personal abuse which went over the top when he said, “I curse your mother’s cunt.” That seemed more than harsh; Vilmos had reached deep into Hungarian folklore to find a curse guaranteed to break off our relationship. This was the final “Goodbye Henry.”

As the years passed I began to worry when I no longer saw him on the downtown streets. I went to the City Art center and found “the survivors of mental health services” packing up; their funding had been withdrawn. They told me that Vilmos’s health had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t climb the stairs to the studio. They hadn’t seen him for some time and they didn’t know where he lived either. I eventually learned, two months after the fact, that Vilmos had died. No further details were provided; I try not to imagine those details.

Vincent van Gogh is an archetype for the romantic myth that views “madness” and “genius” as fatally intertwined – a persistent trope that glosses over the reality that we don’t really understand either term, let alone their connection. Unlike Vincent, Vilmos is not going to be posthumously rescued from obscurity: scarcely any of his artwork escaped the gravity field of his chaotic life. I knew this man as well as anyone could know him, and I don’t think Vilmos ever really believed that he was “greater than the Michelangelo,” though I do think he enjoyed himself enormously when he made that claim. His only constant belief, the credo that he followed to the end of his life, was a modest one: “the important thing is to be occupied with art.”

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