Ephemeral & Eternal: Helen Levitt’s “Chalk Drawing” at the Met Museum of Art

LT1996.04As part of the exhibition Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection, in principle running through June 28, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, it’s still a helluva town is presenting: Helen Levitt (American, 1913–2009), “Chalk drawing,” New York, ca. 1940. Gelatin silver print. 7 1/8 × 11 3/8 in. (18.2 × 28.8 cm), Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection. © Helen Levitt Film Documents LLC. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Thomas Zander Gallery Image. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Eugenia Burnett Tinsley and Juan Trujillo.

American Cities: How a book of ‘Experiments in Prose’ that washed up on a bench in flooded Paris helped me realize that Chicago is my kind of town

chicago hairy who againFrom the Arts Voyager Archives and the Art Institute exhibition Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good!: Jim Nutt. “Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good,” 1968. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt. © Jim Nutt.

Introduction by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text from “Experiments in Prose,”
Edited by Eugene Wildman
Copyright 1969 The Swallow Press, Chicago
Illustrated with images from the Art Institute of Chicago exhibitions Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good!, Past Forward: Architecture and Design at the Art Institute, and Never a Lovely So Real: Photography and Film in Chicago, 1950–1980

(Editor’s note: In dockside picnics looking out on Lake Michigan while on cross-country train trip pauses, in dreams of ame-soeurs encountered on buses crossing the lake’s glittering sea-like azure expanse, on a Sunday morning jog after an interview for a  news agency position I was offered but didn’t take after my future boss had handed me a press release  announcing a new version of Prozac for dieters and explained “Your role would be to analyze how the news will affect the stock” and I’d thought “No, I’d be more concerned with how the product might affect the dieter” where I ran smack dab into the final leg of the Chicago Marathon and was cheered on by bystanders as if I’d run the whole race, standing before Chagall’s “White Jesus,” a refugee from Hitler’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition, with its burning synagogues, in the cool halls of the Art Institute near the banks of the Chicago River, peering at a river-boat from the parapet of a bridge named after Hull House’s Jane Addams, contemplating, in a Paris museum, Henry Darger’s epic saga of the Viviane Girls, drawn to accompany a 15,000-page manuscript discovered in Darger’s humble janitor’s quarters in Lincoln Park before it became chic, sipping beers on the mahogany counter of a former speakeasy in the same ‘hood converted to a friend’s living room, whisked back to the train by a brisk autumnal wind while a lone saxophonist breathes life into the canned Debussy piped into a downtown district, seeing African-American workers being shooed away from a private lunch table set up in the publicly-owned Union Station, being held up at a corner outside the station for a police car chase which I soon learn was rigged for a film shoot, and contemplating a  former mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who seemed mostly interested in privatizing city services, roads, and schools,  and where the Black population in one of the most segregated cities in the country has dropped by 250,000, aspiring to continue in the spirit of Studs Terkel, and above all inspired by Nelson Algren’s “Chicago, City on the Make” — a screed which has the sentimental effect of an homage — Chicago has always haunted and hounded me. So I was not at all surprised when, in July 2016, about to cross the flooded Seine, my other favorite body of water, I discovered, on a bench, “Experiments in Prose,” a celebration of the free-spirited Chicago-style design, literature, and activism which flourished in the 1960s produced by former Chicago Review editor Eugene Wildman for the Chi-based Swallow Press, and which opens with: (To read the full story and see more images, click here.)

Have Pen, Will Travel: A forward-looking memoir of Paris, the Dordogne, Cahors, Fort Worth, Chicago, Miami Beach, New York, Maryland, Montana, Connecticut, San Francisco, Reno, and the High Sierras

Lichtenstein, Laocoon smallFrom the Arts Voyager Archives and the 2012 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition: Roy Lichtenstein, “Laocoon.” Copyright Estate of Roy Lichtenstein and courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.

Text by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Art by Ansel Adams, Robert L. Berry, Lou Chapman, James Daugherty, Gustave Caillebotte, Jacob Lawrence, Sylvie Lesgourgues, David Levinthal, Roy Lichtenstein, Sam Peckinpah, Charles M. Russell, Saul Steinberg, Deeling Wendt, & Frank Lloyd Wright

“Mystery Achievement —
Where’s my sandy beach?”
— Chrissie Hynde, The Pretenders

“Who would you be if reality were no obstacle?”
— Diane di Prima

“Il n’y a pas un héros de l’art qui ne soit en même temps, par l’âpre et longue conquête de son moyen d’expression, un héros de la connaissance, un héros humain par le cœur.”
— Eli Faure

SAINT-CYPRIEN (Dordogne), France — I’d been telling Harvey Milk that I’ve spent the past ten years choosing where to live primarily on the basis of my dwindling bank account, as the prospects for a long-form journalist in what Herman Hesse foretold with prescience (in “The Glass Bead Game”) as the Age of the Digest have shrunk to the infinitesimally proscribed dimensions of 140 characters on a hand-sized screen and algae-rhythms predicated on people searching for things they already know about, putting the kibosh on the modus vivendi of my trade — curiosity — and making me more obsolete than Vance Packard’s worse nightmares.

“Maybe you should try it from the other end,” Harvey suggested: “Deciding where you want to live and then figuring out how to make it work,” the man who knew his own life’s work came with a built-in fatwa (assassinated at 48, Harvey had prepared a political testament in which he anticipated that eventuality) thus advising me to stop living to work and work to live.

For the full, lavishly illustrated story, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Not yet a Dance Insider / Arts Voyager subscriber? To subscribe for one year for $58 or Euros ($39 or Euros for working performing or visual artists, students, retirees, the unemployed, and teachers), please designate your payment via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check through the mail.

Huysmans to Puvis to Zola: When the author of ‘J’accuse’ touted a monumental artist who refused to go with the tide

Puvis de Chavanns Young women at the seaside smallerFrom the exhibition Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald: As seen by Francesco Vezzoli, in principle running April 3 through July 19 at the Strasbourg Museum of Contemporary Art (after an earlier run at the Orsay Museum, to whose boffo press service we owe these images): Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), “Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (Young women at the sea-side), 1879. Oil on canvas, 205.4 x 156 cm.  Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © musée d’Orsay / rmn. (For more art from the exhibition, click here.)

Text by Emile Zola
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

One of the benefits of the Orsay Museum’s latest penchant for re-envisioning  the late 19th-century work which is its charge through the eyes of contemporaneous critics  is that the polyglot writers often dictate a polyglot selection of artists which means that major figures overdue for their own solo shows get a cameo. Such is the case with the exceptional  Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)’s 1879 oil “Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (Young women at the sea-side),” which features in the work exhibited at the Orsay and theoretically to be exhibited through July 19 at the Strasbourg Museum of Contemporary Art for  Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald: As seen by Francesco Vezzoli. Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) may well have referred to himself as a “Dutchman putrefied with Parisianism,” but if we’re to judge by the Puvis painting above, his tastes were anything but. It’s no surprise that in 1880 — a year after this tableau was made — Emile Zola invited Huysmans to collaborate in the collection “Les Soirées de Medan.” Which connection is enough of a pretense for us to turn the Puvis floor over to the great man, as Zola singled out the painter in his review of the 1875 Salon, published in two “Letters from Paris” which appeared in Le Sémaphore de Marseille of May 3 and 4 and in “Le Messager de l’Europe” in Saint-Petersburg. Today’s translation and art goes out to Holly, and to all the Holly Golightlys of the world, in esperance for the period when we’ll all be able to go lightly again. — PB-I

I’ve saved Puvis de Chavannes’s large tableau for the end. Secluded at the Sainte-Croix convent, Radegonde gives refuge to poets and protects the world of Letters against the epoch’s barbary. Here at last is a truly original talent, who trained himself far from any Academic influences. He alone can succeed in the art of decorative painting, in the vast frescos exposed to the raw light of public institutions. In our times, with the crumbling of classic principles, the fate of mural paintings has become critical. The nobility of heroes, the simplicity of the drawing, every rule which makes the tableau a type of bas-relief in which the ‘cooler’ colors have trouble standing out in the midst of the marble of churches and palaces, have collapsed, making way for the explosion of the romantic brush. And suddenly, it seems to me, Puvis de Chavannes arrives and finds a breach in this impasse. He knows how to be interesting and alive, in simplifying the lines and painting with uniform tones. Radegonde, surrounded by nuns in white gowns, is listening to a poet declaiming verse between the walls of a convent. The scene exudes a grandiose and peaceful charm. To tell the truth, for me Puvis de Chavannes is but a precursor. It is indispensible that large-scale painting is able to find subjects in contemporary life. I don’t know who will be the painter with the genius to know how to extract the art of our civilization, and I don’t know how he’ll do it. But it is indisputable that art does not depend on either draperies or the antique nude; it takes root in humanity itself and consequently every society must have its own conception of beauty.

From Emile Zola, “Ecrits sur l’Art,” copyright 1991 Editions Gallimard.

Father is the child of the man: Chagall par Apollinaire, in poetry and criticism

Chagall Le Père smaller

From the exhibition “Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940,” in principle opening April 2 at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism in Paris, where it runs through August 23: Marc Chagall, “The Father,” 1911. MahJ, dépôt du Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI. © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat © Adagp, Paris 2020. Click here to read more about the exhibition.

Criticism & Poetry by Guillaume Apollinaire
Translations by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what we’re doing? We are continuing to post, daily when possible, under extremely difficult circumstances because we believe that in these perilous days it’s vital to share reasons to live, and art is one of them. If you have not yet donated or subscribed to the DI/AV, please join Lewis Campbell and others by doing so today in designating your payment in dollars or Euros through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask how to donate by check.)

Not only did the Surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire review Chagall’s show before it traveled from Paris to Berlin in 1914; his poem “Rotsoge” served as the preface to the exhibition catalog. Our translation of that poem, re-titled “A travers l’Europe” for the poet-critic’s monumental “Calligrammes,” follows the review below.  Today’s translations dedicated to my father Ed Winer, who died December 7, 2019 at the age of 81. And to all our valued living elders, because if there’s another reason we’re featuring this painting today, it’s this: Years ago, jogging down to the river from my digs in Fort Worth, Texas, I used to come across a sign on the outskirts of the (private) golf course that bordered the water: “Dr. Dan Patrick, for U.S. Senate.” This week that same Dan Patrick, now lieutenant governor of the Lone Star state, told Fox News (the president’s main information source) that (as Democracy Now reported) maybe all the old people should just let themselves die off, as a sacrifice to the young people so that America can get back to work. Where’s the A.M.A. (American Medical Association, which should sanction Dr. Patrick) when you need it? For more on the exhibition “Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940” at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism in Paris where (in theory) you can see the real McCoy of the Chagall painting, click here .

Marc Chagall

by Guillaume Apollinaire

(From L’Intransigeant, June 4, 1914.)

The Jewish race has not yet shone in the plastic arts. In the modern movement, for example, only Pissarro can be cited as having played an important role among the pioneers of Impressionism.

Being presented at this moment at the Sturm gallery in Berlin, which has exposed a large number of the young French painters and particularly [Robert] Delaunay and Léger, is the work of a young Russian Israelite painter, Marc Chagall. To this information I’d like to add that one can see his paintings in Paris at the Malpel gallery on the rue Montaigne.

Chagall is a colorist full of an imagination which, sometimes springing from the fantasies of Slavic folk imagery, always surpasses it.

He’s an extremely varied artist, capable of monument-scale paintings, and he doesn’t let any system cage him.

His show, which I caught before it travelled to Germany, includes 34 oils, water-colors, and drawings from different periods. I prefer his more recent work and above all his “Paris as seen from the window.”

Collected in Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art” (1902-1918), copyright 1960 Librairie Gallimard and compiled and annotated by L.-C. Breunig. Including the lead to the poem below which served as preface to the Chagall exhibition catalog.

****

A travers l’Europe

by Guillaume Apollinaire

To M. Ch.

Rotsoge
Your scarlet visage your biplane metamorphosed into a hydroplane
Your circular house where a pickled herring swims.
I must have the key to the eyelids
Happily we spotted M. Panado
And we’re assured on that account
What do you see my dear M.D….
90 or 324 a man in the air a veal who sees through her mother’s stomach.

I’ve looked for so long on the roads
So many eyes are shut along the roads
The wind makes willow-groves cry
Open open open open open
Look oh just look therefore
The old are bathing their feet in the wash-basin
Una volta ho intesto dire Chè vuoi
I burst into tears at the memory of your childhoods

And you you show me a harrowing violet
This little painting where there’s a car reminds me of the day
A day made up of mauve morsels yellows blues greens and reds
Where I went to the country with a charming chimney holding its dog by the leash
It’s gone it’s gone your little reed-pipe
Far from me the chimney smokes Russian cigarettes
The dog barks at the lilacs
The night-light has petered out
Petals have shat on the gown
Two golden rings next to the sandals
have lit up on the Sun
But your hair is the trolley
riding through Europe dressed with little multi-colored lights.

From “Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916),” copyright Librairie Gallimard 1925 and Club du meilleur livre 1955.

Kisling to Man Ray as Met takes the relay

LT1997.31As part of the exhibition Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection, in principle running through June 28, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, it’s still a helluva town is presenting: Man Ray (American, 1890–1976), “Nude,” ca. 1930. Gelatin silver print. We like the photo because it suggests the inspiration of this painting by Man Ray’s fellow Montparnassian Moshe Kisling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, promised gift of Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, in celebration of the Museum’s 150th Anniversary.  © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris. Image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Eugenia Burnett Tinsley and Juan Trujillo.

Montparnasse Forever or, when Painting was a Combat Sport

Jewish museum Kisling cubist nude smallMoshe Kisling, “Cubist Nude,” 1918. MahJ. © MahJ / Mario Goldman.

Texts by Guillaume Apollinaire and Maurice Raynal
Translated & introduced by Paul Ben-Itzak

What I love about the exhibition “Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940,” in principle opening April 2 at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism in Paris, where it runs through August 23, is the opportunity it furnishes to re-live the golden era of Montparnasse, quartier si cheri pas seulement aux exiles European but also American expats. (My inaugural summer in Lutèce, one of my initial excursions was to rush from my flat in the Cité Falguière, where many of these artists lived when they weren’t creating at “La Ruche” ((the hive)), notably Chaim Soutine (who also had his atelier there), to the rue Delambre to find the brasserie where Fitzgerald and Hemingway were said to have met for the first time, right up the street from Le Dôme.)

Today we’re proud to feature work by two of the artists featured in the exhibition, Moshe Kisling and Amedeo Modigliani. And to leave their appreciation to the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who no doubt knocked coffee cups with them on the terraces of Montparnasse (in an account of a duel Kisling once fought with a colleague) and the historian Maurice Raynal. The first from Apollinaire’s June 13, 1914 column in L’intransigeant as collected by L.-C. Breunig in “Chroniques d’Art” (1902-1918), copyright 1960 Librairie Gallimard. And the second from Kisling’s entry in Fernand Hazan’s 1954 “Dictionnaire de la peinture moderne.” (Copies of both of which I scored last Spring in Paris at vide-greniers — community-wide garage sales — in… Montparnasse. Bien sur.)

dome smallI’ll have another cup of coffee, please: (Left to right) Wilhelm Uhde, Walter Bondy, Rudolf Levy and Jules Pascin — the last of whom Hemingway once dubbed, in “A Moveable Feast,” “the king of Montparnasse,” at the legendary Paris bistro. The pile of ‘sous-tasses’ indicate how many cups of java the four had downed between them, so that the waiters could keep track for the check. Collection Catherine Cozzano. For more on Pascin — and a luscious sampling of his work — visit this Wikipedia article (in French).

Duelists

by Guillaume Apollinaire

Two Polish painters fought each other furiously yesterday in the Parc des Princes.* This gives us the occasion to sketch the portrait of these two major personages of Montparnasse, the quartier which, as we all know, has thoroughly replaced Montmartre, above all when it comes to painting.

Gottlieb, who’s been painting in Paris already for many years, is a discreet and simple man, whose art reflects the influences of Van Gogh and Munch. He’s an expressionist who himself has had more than a little influence on some of his compatriots. In general his work tends to pop up at the Salon of “Independents” and the Salon d’Automne. In December, he exposed a “Portrait of M. Adolphe Basler” which was particularly remarked.

M. Kisling, for his part, has been influenced rather by French painters like Derain. For a long time he painted in Céret, a sub-prefecture in the Pyrenees-Orientales, commonly referred to as the Mecca of Cubism. It should be added that in some circles great hope has been placed on Kisling, who will shortly be exposing his work in Dusseldorf, which will be hosting an exhibition of foreign painters who congregate at Le Dôme, the famous café at the corner of the boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse.

Kisling is in the process of creating woodcuts for a collection of poems by Max Jacob, “The limping Mouse.”*

Moïse Kisling

Amedeo Modigliani, “Portrait de Kisling,” 1916. Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI. © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Bertrand Prévost.

Moshe Kisling

by Maurice Raynal

The art of Moshe Kisling (b. 1891, Cracow; d. 1953, Sanary, France) offers a sharp example of the characteristics of what’s typically referred to as the Paris School, in the sense that he attempted to wed the traits of French art to those of his ethnic temperament. The young Moshe began drawing early on and with such facility that his family decided to make an engineer out of him. But when he reached the age of 15, he enrolled in the Cracow Academy, where his professor was the excellent Pankiewicz, who opposed the Munich style then in vogue in Poland, instead initiating the young Kisling in the art of the Impressionists he had known personally. On the advice of his master, Kisling moved to Paris in 1910 and settled in Montparnasse, where his spiritual joviality, a charming sensitivity, and his talent made him into one of the quartier’s most picturesque and beloved figures. During World War I, he enlisted in the Foreign Legion, was wounded in 1914, then discharged. He was one of the best friends of Modigliani, whom he assisted right up until the end. His art has always reflected a dynamism of color-infused forms which he owed to his Slavic origins. With the influence of French moderation, particularly that of André Derian, for a while he tried to contain his sensual exuberance. Notwithstanding the apparent ebullience of his character, his female nudes and faces of young boys often reflect some of the melancholy of a Modigliani. A melancholy that he masked in part with patches of bravado and, later on, completely evacuated in his portraits of actresses or women of the world where his brio was manifest in an exaltation which exploded in colors [and a] voluptuous drawing acuity….

 

*Notes from the original edition of Apollinaire’s collected articles on art, referenced above: According to a June 12 report in L’Intransigeant, the two adversaries Kisling and Gottlieb “fought with Italian sabers, with a ferocity atypical to our current customs. It was necessary, at a certain point, for M. Dubois, master of arms and combat director, to physically restrain one of the two dualists to get them to listen to him and stop the match….” The editor also indicates that there is no trace of the Max Jacob collection referred to….. click here to see Picasso’s portrait of Jacob, and here to read his piece on… Fake News. Avant l’heure….

In Met expo, Black is Beautiful

Zanele Muholi. Vukani II (Paris), 2014, smallFrom the exhibition Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection, in principle running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, it’s still a helluva town through June 28: Zanele Muholi (South African, born 1972), “Vukani II (Paris),” 2014. Gelatin silver print, 23 1/2 × 13 in. (59.7 × 33 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, promised gift of Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, in celebration of the Museum’s 150th Anniversary. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson Gallery, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg. (For more beautiful black women on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager, click here.)

Billie Holiday, Pieuvre: When Mr. Vian grasped Madame Day with all 8 arms

by and copyright Boris Vian
Translation and introduction copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

Given that Boris Vian, born 100 years ago this month, loved words like he loved music, often investing them with the same unbridled ribaldry with which he infused his coronet as every breath he pumped into the instrument in the caves of Saint-Germain des Près brought him closer to his pre-ordained final hour — Vian’s heart ultimately exploded when he was 39 — and applied the same playfulness and musicality to vernacular(s) as he applied to musical phrasing and songwriting, presuming to translate Vian in all his rhythms would be like trying to translate the seductive tones of Yves Montand or the joy in the voice of Charles Trenet; it can’t be done. (And as in many cases — the B-movie take-off sketches that comprise “Cinémassacre” or the American-style crime novels often written under the pen name of Vernon Sullivan — Vian himself is spoofing American vernacular, argot, and styles, translating him back into American inevitably ends up sounding flat because the humour gets lost in what is actually a kind of reverse-translation. Yes, Vian also earned his living as a translator.) Our English version of this Vian homage to Billie Holiday (citations at the end), on the announcement of her long-awaited French debut in 1954,  thus makes no pretense of being able to convey what Vian sounded like, reproduce the flavor of his expression, or mirror his masterful wordplay. What we do hope to reflect is the ardent devotion to jazz of this — of *the* — quintessential French lover (and promoter — he was the first to bring the Duke here) of this quintessentially American art form.  And to its First Lady — Lady Day. — PB-I

Take it away — and bring it home — Boris:

Billie Holiday is finally coming to France. We’ve been waiting for her for so long that it doesn’t seem real — we don’t believe it…. Happily, the years haven’t changed an iota of her talent; in this way she’s like a good wine which only gets better, if that were possible. It seems that the only thing which has changed is her silhouette, and that she now presents agreeable curves perfectly invisible in the photographs of the young Billie of ’37 or ’38. My goodness, there’s nothing displeasing about this to us, the sexual fanatics of France — and Billie is still far from achieving the volume of the Peter Sisters which themselves didn’t shock anyone chez nous (they even found themselves husbands).

You either like or don’t like Billie Holiday’s voice, but when you like it, you like it like you like a poison. She’s not the singer who flattens you right away with the big irreparable shock from which you never recover. Billie’s voice, a kind of insinuating philtre, *surprises* the first time you hear it. The voice of a provocative cat, with audacious inflections, it strikes you with its flexibility, its animal suppleness — a cat with its claws retained, the eyes half-closed — or to evoke an extremely more brilliant analogy, an octopus. Billie sings like an octopus. At first this is not always reassuring, but when she grabs you, she grabs you with all eight arms. And she doesn’t let go. (For that matter, there’s no animal more playful and caressing than the octopus, as witnessed by the films of Cousteau, the under-water explorer.)

It would be vain enough to study Billie’s vocal style — this kind of study is generally based on a comparison with standards the reader is supposedly familiar with, but this doesn’t work with Madame Day: in truth, she can’t be compared to any other chanteuse, even if it’s just a matter of her characteristically slightly “horsey” voice. Billie may have her imitators — she doesn’t imitate anyone. Wait a minute; did I just say she has imitators? I was wrong. It really seems that no one’s ever dared. There’s something ironic in her way of singing — an irony which transforms itself into toughness in the most emotional moments — which eliminates any sentimental or vulgar elements from her recordings. Who else could sing that great banality that is “No Greater Love” with such intonations? Flat in itself, the song becomes something provocative in Billie’s mouth — and if the American critics at this particular moment are slobbering over the “sexuality” in the charming Eartha Kitt’s interpretations, they’ve forgotten that Billie preceded her on the path of the double-entendre — these suggested by purely vocal and not verbal methods.

Billie Holiday has been reproached for her “sophisticated” side. One has to ask: Where’s the problem? One might just as well reproach Lester [Young] for having a different personality than [Erskine] Hawkins; it’s a known fact that in 1934, the epoch when the reign of the great Bessie had only just come to an end, Billie’s unexpected style was as surprising as Lester’s — and the choice of this comparison is no accident. She carved out a niche as distinct from the rest of the crowd of singers as, later on, Sarah Vaughan would in her turn. And the achievement was all the more meritorious in that Billie never had the vocal gifts of a Sarah, an Ella, an Ivie Anderson. But she knew how to mitigate this deficit with an acute intelligence about its possibilities, an exceptional sense of jazz, and an originality which sufficed, in this time of plagiarization where one can no longer tell one musician from his cousin or his brother, to earn her our homages. Which homages we offer in assuring her that it is with an unmitigated joy that we await hearing her, in flesh, in bones, and in voice.

— Excerpted from Boris Vian’s February 1954 jazz press review in Jazz Hot, collected in Boris Vian, “Chroniques de Jazz,” copyright 1967, Editions La Jeune Parque, compiled by Lucien Malson at the direction of Ursula Kübler Vian, Vian’s widow.