On January 26, 1920, a 21-year-old woman leapt from a fifth-floor window to her death.
The woman in question was Jeanne Hebuterne, a French art student and model who, not quite three years prior to her death, had met and fallen in love with Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. The couple’s story, of course, ended in tragedy when Modigliani succumbed to a particularly vicious strain of tuberculosis. Two days following her partner’s death, Hebuterne, interned by her disapproving family against her will, committed suicide. She was eight months pregnant with their second child at the time.
It was after reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids for the third time that I decided to finally dive into the punk icon’s music.
Each time I read Just Kids, it is for something different. The first time, I read it out of sheer curiosity, for the story, the lovingly kindled prose. The second time was following a series of experiences while studying in Berlin which I had felt compelled to set against Smith’s own artistic maturation. The third time, I read it because I was lost, trapped in a cycle of depression and creative stagnation, entertaining romantic notions of swapping college for a nomadic existence in the desert. Recognizing my own flailing, I sought insight and support in the words of the woman who had become my hero.
Following this third read, still hungry for something more, I found myself typing “Patti Smith Group” into Youtube, scrolling through song after song. Some engaged me fully while others wafted beyond my then-constricted state-of-mind.
One song—“Dancing Barefoot”—caught my attention especially.
I think it was the title which first drew me: I yearned for the enraptured freedom it seemed to imply. Images of women sick of societal expectations tossing aside their heels, spinning in time to some earthen rhythm, floated through my head upon utterance of such a title. They excited me, those images, that I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude and the accompanying implication of the ability to draw from the world more joy than most. It was like the embodiment of some hippy dream held in those photos of the long-haired, loose-limbed men and women of Haight Ashbury which I had surreptitiously collected in childhood.
And then there was the literal image which accompanied the song. In the comments section was photo of Smith, probably snapped by Mapplethorpe in the 70s. She stands waifish, back slightly bent, arms half extended before a bright blue background. The white dress she wears is loose and its filmy fabric is festooned with an occasional limp white feather; white flowers sit in that famously tousled raven hair.
I spent much of my youth—bogged down by social ineptitude, crippling OCD, and general insecurity—longing to embody the sort of feminine freedom which Smith so effortlessly achieves in that image.
A lyric from the song, “And the promise that she is blessed among women,” lifted by Smith from the New Testimate, felt the perfect caption for such a photo.
It was in the research that followed that first listen where I learned of the song’s relation to Jeanne Hebuterne. It seemed perfectly aligned with all I knew about the young Patti Smith who worshipped the turn-of-the-century’s tortured artists, that she would dedicate a song to the common-law wife of the “prince of vagabonds,” or at least, as the original album sleeve stated, “women such as” the tragic and beautiful Hebuterne.
The romance of life as a starving artist is rife throughout her biography and yet, the weight of Hebuterne’s story lies not in romance but tragedy.
It is not uncommon that female icons of Hebuterne’s period be not known so much for their life but for the nature of their death, but in the graphic conclusion of the young artist and muse’s life, I could not help but notice an inconsistency between her story and my initial interpretation of the song which commemorates her.
Yes there are elements of Hebuterne’s life which served my concept of the song’s subject matter—i.e. the manic-pixie-dream-girl spirit with a twist of tuberculosis à la La Boheme—but Hebuterne’s story simultaneously takes a turn in a different direction with the demise of her partner.
Beneath the romance of vice and passion and artistic creation we are forced to examine Hebuterne and Modigliani’s relationship for what it was: a case in which two people base their entire lives around one another (“she is concentrating on he, who is chosen by she,” sings Smith). As the two “spin so ceaselessly” in rapture, they are heading for something tragic.
In the throws of tubercular meningitis and alcoholism, Modigliani was found by neighbors “in bed delirious and holding onto Hebuterne.” He died soon after, leaving Heburterne “spinning” without her only anchor.
Smith delivers a spoken word sequence over “Dancing Barefoot”’s outro which returns the listener from the revelry representative of Hebuterne’s life with Modigliani to something far more morose:
We shut our eyes we stretch out our arms
And whirl on a pane of glass
An asphyxiation a fix on anything the line of life the limb of a tree
At once the image of the barefoot dancer loses its lighthearted appeal. Gone is the charming cliche of a woman bucking societal norms in the name of freedom. Instead we are left with an image out of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring: a woman hopelessly entangled in her own velocity, flailing with desperation for anything on which she may ground herself.
I knew perfectly well that Patti Smith, in that photograph, is not the care-free nymph I had mentally styled her to be. This is a woman who cares tremendously . . . about her life and her art, her loved ones and idols. She, just like Hebuterne, just like me, is seeking reason to continue.
If the image of one dancing barefoot evokes this illusion of not giving a fuck, that is all it is: an illusion. While our romanticised perceptions may shield others from reality, the degree to which we truly care cannot be denied. The act of dancing barefoot is the embodiment of a desperation for connection with something far more solid than what we have been offered, a desire to glean strength from the earth, for fear we are not strong enough otherwise. Hebuterne sought this connection in a five-story fall punctuated by a kiss with the earth; I think I’ll just keep dancing.
By Sophie Aanerud, Winter 2018
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