Chantal Akerman, Pere Lachaise: Was filmmaker-artist’s suicide an indictment of indifference and a Pop Culture universe that had no room for her?

akerman 2

Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery & copyright Chantal Akerman.

“Most of the time when people like a film, they say, ‘I didn’t even feel the time pass.’ I want the film-goer to feel the time pass.”

— Chantal Akerman, who killed herself in Paris October 5, 2015

“Comparable in force and originality to Godard or Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important European director of her generation.”

— J. Hoberman

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Text copyright 2015 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI/AV on November 6, 2015. Interested in reading more about famous artists who killed themselves? Click here to read our recently updated (and lavishly illustrated)  article “L’éclat de Stael — When Nicolas flew too close to the Sun”on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction. For more images of Akerman’s work and a review with translated excerpts of Corinne Rondeau’s “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” click here.

PARIS — Exiting an artist’s atelier off the rue de Couronnes while touring the Open Studios of Belleville last Spring, I almost came face to face with three teenaged marines wielding AK47s, guarding a low building on the edge of the hilly Parc Belleville. When I quipped later to a French pal that it was nice to see the government finally doing something to protect artists and told her the location, my friend observed, “That’s around where Chantal Akerman lives.” While it’s not inconceivable that a renowned Jewish film-maker might be considered as needing of protection as Jewish schools (usually unmarked here, as if the spectre of the Deportation still makes French Jews discrete), in the end it might be tempting to conclude that for the Brussels-born film director and installation artist, who killed herself here in Belleville (from where I write you) October 5 at the age of 65, the biggest enemy was herself. But this would be letting off too easy a pop-centered public and media which supports less and less artists who march to their own drummer and who are more interested in giving us awareness than diversion.

Years ago, alarmed that I had used the term ‘slow suicides’ in a story for her Princeton creative writing class, my professor, Joyce Carol Oates, handed me an essay she’d written critiquing suicides, notably Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. The suicide, she wrote (employing the term as a noun), can’t actually desire to kill herself, because death is a negative, and one can’t wish for a negative. The death wish is thus a surrogate for another desire, e.g. “I want you to love me,” “I want to hurt you,” “I want you to stop hurting me,” “I want to be recognized.” As if it weren’t enough that the suicide had taken her life, Oates would also deny her the franchise of her choice, simultaneously insulating society from being indicted by her death.

While it’s true that no one can look so deeply into the soul of another as to divine why they decided to hasten their reunion with the Divine, given that Akerman took her life on the same day the French legislature had resumed debating the right to choose to end one’s life, given her proclivity to provoke, and given that by the accounts of her colleagues she seems to have suffered when her films didn’t get enough attention, it seems fair to consider her suicide not just as an act of personal desperation by a perennial ‘manic-depressive’ but as a rebuke. The French media’s very reluctance to address why or how she chose to end her own life (initial reports here referred simply to her sudden death or ‘disparition,’ and even once the suicide was acknowledged, no details were reported and there was no probing of the ‘why,’ normally a fundamental question for any journalist) suggests the troubling questions of culpability her action raises. If anything, the media’s scant coverage of her death — Akerman didn’t even get her 15 minutes — confirms that she didn’t get the attention she deserved, and raises the question of whether things would have been different if she had a penis. During the week of her death that I monitored coverage on the cultural radio programs, the commentators and critics seemed anxious to move on to discussing Woody Allen’s latest remake of the same film he’s been making for the past 30 years and the ‘new’ Warhol exhibition at the city’s Museum of Modern Art, while the Cinematheque Francaise could hardly be expected to intrude on its umpteenth homage to a popular American film-maker — in this case Martin Scorcese — with a mini-homage to Akerman. After all, they’d feted her in… 2000, and so a one-off screening of her latest film, “No Home Movie,” November 16 would surely be sufficient. (The Cinematheque Toulouse will do better by her, programming a week-long homage March 2 – 9.)

akerman 2aChantal Akerman, “No Home Movie,” 2015. HD video Film, 115 min, color, sound. Direction: Chantal Akerman. Editing: Claire Atherton. Production: Liaison Cinematographique, Paradise Films, Centre du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel de la Federation Wallonie- Bruxelles. Copyright Chantal Akerman, courtesy Doc & Film International.

No one has even posed the question of why Akerman might take this drastic action on the eve of an anticipated grand success, in this case the first large-scale English-language exhibition of her installation work, being presented October 30 – December 6 at the Ambika P3 gallery by Ambika P3, a Nos Amours (which organized the complete Akerman retrospective in the UK from 2013 through this year), and the Marian Goodman Gallery, and the opening of “No Home Movie.” She was even scheduled to give a master’s class last week-end.

It seems only fair, then — to Chantal Akerman — to at least try to interpret her suicide, even if we can’t ultimately ‘understand’ it.

The easy answers include that suicide is not uncommon for children of Holocaust survivors (Akerman’s mom, who died in 2014, survived Auschwitz, while her grandparents did not); and that she was headed there anyway, given that her first film, “Saute ma ville,” shot in 1968 when she was 18, ends with the director/star opening the gas valves, putting her head in the oven, and blowing up her whole apartment. French commentators haven’t been shy about pointing to this as an early telegraphing, but having recently seen the film, what I remember most is Akerman’s absolute ebullience. Practically still teen-aged Chantal ecstatically hum-singing (the sole soundtrack), gleefully tossing things out of the cupboard onto the floor and then sweeping them into a corner, boiling spaghetti then rapaciously but matter-of-factly wolfing it down without savoring it, scotch-taping over the crevices of the doors and windows. Her early and greatest triumph (spoiler alert), the 1975 “Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” ends with the heroine, a middle-aged woman (the normally glamorous Delphine Seyrig, uglied-down) who prostitutes herself to pay for her indifferent late teen-aged son’s schooling, stabbing to death a client, but that doesn’t mean Akerman was destined to inflict that fate on, say, an indifferent journalist.

akerman 3Chantal Akerman, “No Home Movie,” 2015. HD video Film, 115 min, color, sound. Direction: Chantal Akerman. Editing: Claire Atherton. Production: Liaison Cinematographique, Paradise Films, Centre du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel de la Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles. Copyright Chantal Akerman, courtesy Doc & Film International.

Broadcast interviews with some of those colleagues closest to her suggest Akerman’s determination to follow her own path — both in the stories of her films and her balancing between categories, whether fiction and documentary, or installation artist and cineaste — didn’t square with her desire to be loved, or at least to have a larger and more appreciative audience.

“I think she had a hard time making films today,” suggested the French film-maker Claire Denis, interviewed on France Culture radio. “Not because she was in bad shape or depressed, but because the cinema no longer offers the means to people like her, and I find that 37 films, it’s not enough. To see a film by Chantal Akerman…. Chantal was a warrior. One day we went to London together, to the British Film Institute, and Chantal said that we needed to reflect together, we had to find a way of financing tunnels to rescue Jews stuck in Russia who can’t go to Israel.”

The director Roman Goupil, who like Akerman gives voice to the voiceless and who assisted her on “Rendez-vous avec Anna,” recalled her clear eyes, her sense of humour, and her virulance: While they were scouting locations in Germany, “She systematically started fights in all the bars and night clubs” they frequented. For Akerman, “All Germans were suspect.” But the key quality — in understanding her suicide — may be what Goupil called her “Exaltedness.” Considering whether “Saute ma ville” was a predictor of her final act, Goupil noted Akerman’s telling him, “It’s not what you think it is. I would have adored Charlot,” putting her heroine more in the line of Chaplin’s tragi-comic tramp, although, Goupil added, “There’s an immense wound behind, and that comes back in permanence in our discussions, of the Holocaust, of the Marxist dogma that she doesn’t understand.” While Denis lamented that her death means “We will get no more films from Chantal,” Goupil consoled her that, “We miss her, but her films are there. ‘Jeanne Dielmann’ is something absolutely magnificent, and which is a benchmark in the cinema.”

akerman 1Chantal Akerman, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” 1975, featuring Delphine Seyrig. 35 mm film, 200 min., color, sound. Production: Paradise Films, Bruxelles, Unite trois, Paris. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Copyright Chantal Akerman.

While this piece is not meant to be a recapitulative of her oeuvre, it’s worth pausing on “Jeanne Dielmann…” As too often happens with artists who address the plight of women of all classes, the film is sometimes praised for championing the feminist cause by focusing on a heroine essentially at the mercy of men, supporting her egotistic son by prostituting herself to men who don’t see her as more than a sex object. While this may be true, and laudable, it ignores her larger, filmic achievement. In “Jeanne Dielmann,” Akerman tinkered with the mechanism of the medium itself; if film is largely about time, Akerman messed with the timing and managed to give the illusion in 3.5 hours of about 48 hours conveyed in real time. I found a copy not in a European cinematheque but my local library in a Latino neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas. When I recommended it to the librarian, a woman of about my and the heroine’s age, I was afraid that if it bored her to death — because of the length and because on the surface, nothing much ‘happens’ until the end — she’d no longer take my suggestions seriously. But she came back to me and stated simply, “It’s about routine, and what happens when you get trapped in it. And the importance of ritual, and what happens when that gets disturbed.” There’s a segment in which Jeanne patiently makes her morning latte — precious because it’s a moment just for her — tastes it, and, scowling, throws the whole thing out and starts over again; the milk has perhaps turned rancid. In the extraordinary ‘making of’ documentary by Sami Frey — he of Akerman idol Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande a part” (his “Pierrot le fou” inspired her to make films) — Akerman’s seen making Seyrig repeat the scene again and again until she slows down enough.

During the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, the film-maker took questions after a screening of her 1996 “A divan in New York,” shown that night in a rare French dubbed version, but which I’d also seen at New York’s Anthology Film Archives (a prime source for Akerman when she was learning her trade). The story concerns a dour Manhattan psychologist (William Hurt) who exchanges apartments with a carefree Belleville Bohemian (Juliette Binoche, of course). When his clients mistake her for his replacement, she goes with the program, with improved results; he no sooner hits Belleville than the hammering by construction workers starts on his roof. (I can relate.) He heads back early, discovers her masquerade, they quarrel, she returns to Paris, he loosens up and follows her back. I loved the film — I hadn’t yet seen “Jeanne Dielmann” and realized that this was really what she was about — and thought Akerman would be pleased when I told her so. She, it turns out, hated it — no doubt because it was commercial — even complaining about spoiled stars insisting on their limousines. (She didn’t specify which.) In the same festival, when I took a fellow American to see Akerman’s film about racism in the south, my gal pal pointed to one of the white trash male characters and said, “I know that guy,” meaning that this director born in Belgium had succeeded in authentically capturing (without judging) an American archetype.

Reviewing the Ambika P3 exhibition in the November 4 edition of the Guardian, Adrian Sarle writes: “Akerman said she felt that the kind of films that sweep you up and make you forget yourself were robbing you of your time and of life itself. She wants you to feel every passing second. Watch or don’t watch, stay or leave. She makes me feel the world pulse through me, with all its urgency and all its stalled moments.”

I wonder — speculate, really — whether Akerman felt those seconds at an accelerated rate. I wonder if, sitting in her Belleville apartment with the trees just outside the window, she got trapped in her hyper-awareness. I wonder if she ventured out enough to the top of the parc Belleville, from the belvedere of which you can see the sun seting over the Eiffel tower at twilight and the changing colors of the foliage. I wonder if seeing three to five or, at times, even a platoon of marines guarding an unmarked Jewish school (in a neighborhood which used to be dominated by Jews, and is now the most multi-cultural in Paris) made her feel (rightly or wrongly) that after all these years, she was not safe from the anti-Semitism which took most of her family, even in Paris, with its hyper-protection of its Jewish residents. (When I see those guards, while I’m grateful for their service, the perceived threat that their presence represents makes me feel more anxious than assured. And I wonder how it makes those school-children feel about the world that surrounds them. They may not have to wear yellow stars, but do they feel, even if not accurately, just as marked?) I wonder how she felt about the fact that the operators of so many Jewish schools and synagogues still feel, 70 years after the Deportation and Shoah, the need to hide who they are. These are not my sentiments, so I am not projecting here but rather considering Akerman’s strong ties with her Holocaust survivor mother and her strong feelings for Israel. But mostly, I wonder about the responsibility of myself and my cultural gatekeeper colleagues in directing a cultural diet that doesn’t have room for a Chantal Akerman. (And not just in France; in the U.S., following her death, Turner Classic Movies broadcast “Jeanne Dielmann”… at 3h30 in the morning. Who can stay up until 3:30 in the morning to watch a three-and-a-half hour film, unless it’s with the goal of being put to sleep?) And I can’t help concluding that while she was providing us, uniquely, with a reminder of the preciousness of time, we failed to hold her precious.

 Chantal Akerman is interred at the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Special thanks to M.E..

akerman 4Chantal Akerman, “Tombe de nuit sur Shanghai” (Nightfall in Shanghai), 2007-2009. Installation video, color, sound, 14 minutes, in loop, with two Chinese light boxes. Production: LX Filmes / Fundacao Gulbenkian. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Copyright Chantal Akerman. Photo copyright Marc Domage.

Goya’s “Disasters of War” sold for 30,000

goya war

Tell me why, tell me why: Among the best-sellers of the auction of 19th and 20th-century French literature from the Aristophil collection co-organized by Artcurial last week in Paris was Francisco de Goya’s “Disasters of War,” in one of a limited edition of 500 copies of the album of 80 aquatint and eau-forte engravings. Published in 1863 by the Real Academia de Nobles Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, the book graphically illustrates the horrors which followed Napoleon’s invasion of Spain between 1808 and 1814, in particular General Murat’s brutal repression of the Madrid rebellion of May 2, 1808. Goya depicts, with grand eloquence, scenes of famine, massacres, rapes, fusilades, morsels of cadavres, and the dead being picked apart. No doubt deemed too provocative for the public during the epoch in which Goya made the engravings, between 1810 and 1820, they were never printed during his lifetime. Preserved by the artist’s son, the copper plates were purchased in 1862 by the San Fernando Academy of Madrid and printed a year later. Estimated pre-auction at between 12,000 and 15,000 Euros, the book sold last Tuesday for 30,330 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial. The caption of the above engraving translates, of course, as “Why?”

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française (Part 2): The Appeal

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right (from the Arts Voyager Archives): From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4, 2012: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Four salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey. Est. pre-sale: 4,000-6,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Introduced and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Second of two parts. To read our translated excerpts of the first trial, before the Commercial Tribune of Paris, in which Victor Hugo sought to force the Comédie-Française to fully honor its contracts to perform three of his plays — including Hugo’s testimony about the larger stakes involved, for both the theater and the Romantic movement of which he was the champion — click here. If you have not already done so, please support our ongoing  arts, culture, and literary coverage and translation of French authors and history by designating your donation via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask about donating by check.)

In Romain Gary’s 1975 “Your whole life is ahead of you” (published, by Mercure de France, not insignificantly under the false name of Emil Ajar– a photo of the fictive author illustrates the back cover), an elderly French Arab monsieur who is slowly going blind and probably losing his wits passes his days on a bench outside the cosmopolitan Belleville apartment building in which the pre-teenaged (also Arab French) narrator lives with an elderly French-Jewish woman who boards the children of whores. In the left pocket of his suit-jacket he retains a copy of the Koran; in the right, a copy of (as he refers to him) “Monsieur Hugo.”

If we’ve chosen to translate and reproduce, in their near entirety, contemporaneous legal journals’ accounts of the proceedings accompanying Victor Hugo’s 1837 lawsuit against the Comédie-Française to impel France’s largest theater to honor its contracted engagements to perform three of his plays and pay modest damages for not having yet done so, it’s not just because Hugo’s lengthy and eloquent elocutions in the two trials are themselves compelling dramatic material. Nor because of the validity of Hugo’s incisive explanation that what’s at stake — what drove him to take his occasional employer to court — is not merely his personal rights as an author but the fate of a new school of literature to which the Comédie-Française (the only publicly-funded theater and the only theater with a literary bent), the literary establishment as represented by a conservative faction of the Academie Française, and a ‘coterie’ of ‘bureaucrats’ at the Interior Ministry have systematically sought to bar the route. Nor even for the resonance this battle has in a contemporary France where the Parisian culturati and mainstream media still tend to favor a narrow coterie of their ‘chou-chous’ and cronies. (It’s not uncommon for hosts at the State-owned middle-brow radio chain France Culture, who went on strike this week — which means they only return to the air-waves to let listeners know how well their strike is going — to use their programs to hawk the books of their fellow hosts and commentators, nor films of which the chain is an official sponsor.) It’s also because at a time when this same media often chooses to defend lay values through the vector of a negative, that is to say by incessant railing over the supposed imminent menace posed to these values, and lay society, by a headscarf, with the resultant potential stigmatization of any Muslim woman who chooses to cover her head, the vivid testimony of Victor Hugo, the most sterling representation of those values in one individual, provides a positive example, or clarion call, of what they actually mean and represent and of the positive cultural manifestations they protect, promote, and produce. An opportunity to, rather than stigmatize  these women because they don’t conform to our conception of lay values — thus, by imposing a negative — positively impress them with the luster of the lay offer (presuming, as the opponents of the headscarf often do, that they’re not already hip to it) when it comes to moral values and of the cultural offer adhering to, and profiting from, these values puts at their finger-tips. (In Hugo’s case, opening the doors of the nation’s leading and only public theater to a whole school of literature.)

The enthralling testimony of Victor Hugo — which constitutes the heart of the appeal proceedings reproduced below in our translation, and in which he simply seeks to assert rights already sanctioned by existing law, explains the larger stakes, and even identifies his real opponent and thus the real enemy in these stakes, “the bureaucrat” (the French word, ‘commis,’ can also be translated as ‘clerk’ or ‘sales assistant’) — provides a vital reminder that the most effective and inspiring way to diffuse lay values is not to stigmatize the personal religious choices of some members of a minority group but to continue to educate citizens about the inherent value of lay society as already promoted and championed in the stirring words and exemplary lives of Victor Hugo, of Voltaire, of Camus, of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

What if — for example — instead of wasting half of the air time allotted for interviewing two of the authors of a new 3,000-word, three-tome “Koran of the Historians” on a recent edition of his France Culture drive-time show in grilling the scholars about whether the Koran mandates the wearing of the headscarf (the Orthodox kipa or typically ‘moche’ Hassidic wig somehow never seems to come up), Guillaume Erner, who is so obsessed with this subject he must have nightmares about it, had asked them about possible correspondences and correlations between the Koran and the thinking of Victor Hugo? And what if such a discussion had won new adherents among some of these same headscarf-wearing women? And inspired them to rush out and get their own copies of “Monsieur Hugo,” to accompany them concomittently with the Koran? (And more kipa-donning French Jews and habit-wearing French nuns to do the same.)

It is partly with this end in mind that we now turn the floor over to Monsieur Victor Hugo, his attorney, and the attorney for the Comédie-Française, preceded by our summation of this second trial.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française
Court Royale de Paris
(Presiding judge Monsieur Séguier)
Session of December 5, 1837

 

As reported by French legal journals, reproduced in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872, and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

 

(Following the Commercial Tribune’s November 20, 1837 ruling ordering the Comédie-Française, in the person of its director, to pay Victor Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interests for having failed to honor its contracts to perform Hugo’s “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” — the second of which singularly ushered in the era of Romanticism, the school of which the author was the crowned chief — and the court’s ordering the theater’s director to schedule performances of the three tragedies by specific deadlines as agreed to in the contracts or face fines of 150 francs per day, the organization filed an appeal before the Royal Court.

Much of the appeal proceedings focused on the lawyers for the two sides’ reiterations and bolstering of their cases already addressed in the first trial — and thus in our previous translation of those sessions — and doesn’t need repeating here. But salient details furnished by the attorneys for both sides during this second trial are worth translating for the way they illuminate the popular and boisterous appreciation for Hugo at the time; the refusal by the Comédie-Française, part of whose excuse for not honoring its contracts with Hugo was the alleged mitigated box office receipts for the three plays, to produce records supporting this argument; Hugo’s lawyers producing receipts which suggested the contrary, that the classical playwrights who dominated the theater’s repertory often did much worse at the box office than Hugo, whose plays’ average box-office intake also exceeded that of the Comédie-Française’s leading star; and how Hugo was ready to surrender his meager State stipend when even the barest suggestion of conflict of interest arose.

But most of all this second and last trial — the Royal appeals court would uphold the commercial tribunal’s ruling in the author’s favor — is noteworthy for another improvised speech by Victor Hugo who, once again, signaled the larger questions at stake, specifically: Who controls what the public gets to see? And who lurks behind the effective barring of the country’s only State-funded, literary theater to an entire school of new work?

Voila the pertinent highlights. As with our earlier account, text presented within brackets is the translator’s; the rest is translated from the contemporaneous accounts of the Gazette des Tribunaux:)

As soon as the doors opened, a sizable crowd poured into the courtroom, among them a large number of writers and dramatic artists.

Monsieur Victor Hugo had some difficulty finding a place to sit on the benches reserved for him, already invaded by lawyers.

Maitre Delangle [attorney for the Comédie Française] took the floor with these words…: To read the complete translation on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction, please click here.

November 26 Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three: ‘We know ourselves, the bearers of the light of the earth he is given to, and of the light of all his lost days’

warhol jackyFrom the exhibition Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 26: Andy Warhol, “Nine Jackies,” 1964. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The American Contemporary Art Foundation, Inc., Leonard A. Lauder, president. © 2019 the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

by Wendell Berry
Copyright 1963 Wendell Berry

First published on November 26, 1963, by the Nation. Published in book form shortly afterwards by George Braziller, New York, with lettering and illustrations by Ben Shahn, who also penned the introduction, which said in part: “In so sharply scrutinizing his own feelings, the poet has discovered with an uncanny exactness all our feelings. His words have created a certain monument, not pretentious, but real, and shared.” Today’s republication dedicated to Bill Wedemeyer…. and to Breathless.  To see art by Ben Shahn, read Paul Ben-Itzak‘s memoir associated with this event — and learn who Breathless is — click here.

We know
the winter earth
upon the body
of the young
president,
and the early dark
falling;

We know
the veins
grown quiet
in his temples and
wrists, and his hands
and eyes
grown quiet;

We know
his name written
in the black capitals
of his death,
and the mourners
standing in the rain,
and the leaves falling;

We know
his death’s horses
and drums;
the roses, bells,
candles, crosses;
the faces
hidden in veils;

We know
the children
who begin
the youth of loss
greater than
they can dream
now;

We know
the nightlong coming
of faces
into the candle-
light
before his coffin,
and their passing;

We know
the mouth of the grave
waiting,
the bugle and rifles,
the mourners
turning
away;

We know
the young dead body
carried
in the earth
into the first
deep night
of its absence;

We know
our streets and days
slowly opening
into the time
he is not alive,
filling with
our footsteps
and voices;

We know
ourselves,
the bearers
of the light
of the earth
he is given to,
and of the light of
all his lost days;

We know
the long approach
of summers toward the
healed ground
where he will be
waiting,
no longer the keeper
of what he was.

Vallotton @ the Met (via Apollinaire): a truth believer takes a bite out of art

valllotton Nude Holding Her Gown, 1904 smallI’ll just leave my dentures at the door of the studio, thanks: While we have no proof that the painting represented above, Félix Vallotton’s 1904 “Nude Holding Her Gown,” a 50 3/4 x 37-38 inch oil on canvas, is the one the French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire — Cubism’s first literary champion — was referring to in the following review of Vallotton’s contributions to the Salon d’Automne in the October 12, 1907 issue of “Je dis tout” (I tell all), the indications, judging from the model’s height, stance, modest dipping of the head and above all pronounced overbite (take it from an expert) are pretty convincing: “Monsieur Vallotton, and we regret it, has not exposed the portrait of a Swiss woman, a tall protestant lady who absolutely insisted on removing her denture before posing: ‘It would not be honest to represent my teeth. In reality, I don’t have any. Those which garnish my mouth are false and I believe that a painter should only represent that which is true.'” (Speak for yourself, lady.) As for you, bub, you can check the original itself out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Madame will be holding court, teeth or no teeth, through January 26 as part of the exhibition Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet. Private collection. Photo © Fondation Félix Vallotton, Lausanne. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. To read more about what happens when dental issues confront art head on (so to speak), click here. (Source of Apollinaire citation: Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art” (1902-1918), NRF / Gallimard, Paris. Copyright Librairie Gallimard.) — PB-I

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française: When the greatest writer of the 19th-century had to take the renowned theater to court to get it to honor its contract to perform his plays

hugo hernani artcurialVictor Hugo (1802-1885), Manuscript of “Hernani” delivered to the censors, 1829. 115 pages in one volume in-folio (35.3 x 22.8 cm). Includes seven requests for correction of the censor. Pre-sale estimate: 2,000 – 3,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Introduction by Victor Hugo
Translation and preface by Paul Ben-Itzak

If you think all you can glean from a sale of musty old books and manuscripts is a whooping cough, think again. What arises most remarkably from today’s sale of 19th and 20th-century literature belonging to the Collections Aristophil organized by Artcurial, Aguttes, Drouot Estimations and Ader-Nordmann in the Drouot-Richelieu auction facilities in Paris is not dust but history, and not just literary histories but histories of humanity. Among the more than 100 lots comprised of manuscripts, original editions, photographs, and art by or associated with Victor Hugo which constitute the heart of the auction is a 115-page manuscript for “Hernani,” considered by many to be the first salvo launched by the Romantics of whom Hugo was the general on the citadel of the Classicists. If this manuscript — estimated pre-sale by the auctioneers at 2,000 – 3,000 Euros — is the example the author submitted to the censors in 1829, contrary to what one might assume, the impediments to getting Hugo’s plays produced didn’t fall with censorship in the Revolution that followed the next year. They only increased. Herewith our translation of the proceedings of the legal process the author was forced to launch against the august Comédie-Français in 1837 after seven years of trying in vain to get the theater created by Moliere to honor its contracts to perform “Hernani,” “Marian de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” as reported by French legal journals and as included and introduced by Hugo himself in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872 . (A copy of which we picked up not an auction but a ‘vide-grenier’ — like a neighborhood-wide garage sale, meaning literally ’empty the attic’ — above the park Monceau earlier this year … for one Euro.) As you’ll discover, because the plaintiff was Victor Hugo and because the defendant was the Comédie-Française, in other words the guardian of the temple, far from representing just one author’s efforts to get his client to honor its contracts, the affair was a sort of outing of the literary battle of two schools, of the past and the future, previously largely hidden or confined to the corridors of power and the backrooms of the theater. With his later lambasting — in the appeal process — of the ‘coteries’ which controlled what the public gets to see, the proceedings also can’t help but resonate with anyone who observes the programming at the establishment theaters of today, whether in Paris or New York. (In this observer’s view.)

Because Eugene Delacroix was to art what Hugo was to theater — ushering in the Romantic movement in that world, and even designing costumes for Hugo’s first play — we’ve included below a drawing by the former also on sale in today’s auction. There’s also one from Hugo himself.

Our translation is dedicated to Lewis Campbell, for introducing us and so many others to the humanistic power and historical resonance of the theater. To read our translation of George Sand reviewing Victor Hugo for Victor Hugo, click here. And of Hugo appealing for clemency for John Brown, click here.  To support our work via PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com  , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check, or to hire Paul for your translation needs.

Introduction by Victor Hugo

As with “Le roi s’amuse,” “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo” had their trials. At heart, it always comes down to the same thing: Against “Le roi s’amuse,” it was a matter of a literary persecution hidden under a political fracas; against “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” of a literary persecution hidden behind the chicaneries of the corridors of power. We’re forced to admit: We’re somewhat hesitant and not a little embarrassed to pronounce this ridiculous term: “literary persecution,” because it’s strange that in the moment in which we’re living, literary prejudgments, literary animosities, and literary intrigues are consistent and solid enough that one can, in piling them up, erect a barricade in front of the door of a theater.

The author was forced to crash through this barricade. Literary censorship, political interdiction, preventions devised in the backrooms of power, he had to solemnly seek justice against secret motives as well as public pretexts. He had to bring to light both petty cabals and ardent enmities. The triple wall of coteries, built up for so long in the shadows, he had to open in this wall a breach wide enough for everybody to pass through it.

As little a thing as it was, this mission was bestowed upon him by the circumstances; he accepted it. He is but — and he is aware of this — a simple and obscure soldier of thought; but the soldier like the captain has his function. The soldier fights, the captain triumphs.

For the 15 years that he’s been at the heart of the imbroglio, in this great battle that the ideas which characterize the century wage so proudly against the ideas of other times, the author has no other pretension than that of having fought the good fight.

When the vanqueurs are tallied, he might be numbered among the dead. No matter! One can die and still be the vanqueur. To read the complete translation — and trial report — on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction, click here.

Mondrian chez Monet: Death & Devotion

mondrian sunflower and devotionWhile I was initially skeptical of the very premise of Figurative Mondrian: A Secret History, running through January 26 at, appropriately, the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris (whose permanent collection of its namesake’s work traces Claude Monet’s own progression from caricaturist to late-‘Water Lillies’ and ‘Japanese Bridge’ abstractionist — there are none so clairvoyant as those who can barely see), an examination of a selection of the oeuvres featured suggests that at least the Marmottan, as opposed to many of its sister institutions in Paris and New York, has not forgotten that one of the fundamental missions of a fine arts museum is to continually re-evaluate our understanding of historical artists. (As opposed to using the greats as platforms to launch their own fleeting fancies, as the Musée Petit Palais is now doing in marking the bicentennial of the birth of Gustave Courbet by pairing a paltry dozen works by the Modern Master with many more by a contemporary midget.) My initial objection was that one can’t simply lop off the early stage of an artist’s career from the rest and elevate it from a necessary foundation on which what followed was constructed to an independent oeuvre worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with what artists who made their reputations in that genre accomplished. (If our most representative modernist and surrealist, Picasso and Duchamp, started out as, respectively, eloquent figuratives and last-generation impressionists, it was because these were the worlds they were born into and these were the schools in which their masters created and taught.) And that the most important legacies these formative stages offer is the proof that before he went off the reservation, the artist demonstrated that he had mastered the fundamentals. Before you break the rules, you need to prove you know what they are. Even James Bond had to show he had the rigor to enter Her Majesty’s Secret Service before he was granted a license to kill.  (And even Martha Graham had to pass by Leonid Massine — in whose version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” she played the Chosen One — before she branched out from the ballet tree to create her own Modern system) What the Marmottan was thus characterizing as an oeuvre worthy of an expo in its own right had previously seemed to me to fall more appropriately into this category, Piet Mondrian’s necessary rites of passage to establish that he knew how to depict nature before he set out to denature it, an ‘apercu’ that he’d started out with forests populated by trees before he got to empty spaces dissected by lines. And not much more. This impression was based mostly on Alberto Busignani’s monograph “Mondrian” (Arts et Métiers Graphiques, Paris, in Dominique Fort’s translation, and Sadio Editore, Florence, 1968.) But even the two oils above disprove Busignani’s contention that by 1909-1910 — and already hinted at in 1908 — “the abstraction of the subject absolutely forbids [Mondrian] from creating a painting of story.” You don’t have to be a Moses Pendleton (to evoke Modern Dance’s most famous sunflower-worshiper) to see story in the “Dying Sunflower I” oil on carton at left, measuring 63 x 31 cm, or “Devotion,” the oil on canvas at right, measuring 94 x 61 cm. Both images  © Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, the Netherlands. — Paul Ben-Itzak