Ragon, Jules Pascin, Les Petites americaines, smallBut first, a school: From the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Jules Pascin, “Les Petites Américaines,” 1916. MahJ © mahJ / Mario Goldman. Because a number of the artists featured in the exhibition are cited in this episode of “Trompe-l’Oeil,” we’re including some of their oeuvres here. Jules Pascin, the American – Bulgarian artist Hemingway once dubbed “the prince of Montparnasse,” slit his wrists, scrawled the name of his mistress on the walls of his Montmartre studio in his own blood and then hung himself 90 years ago today.

by and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
From “Trompe-l’Oeil,” published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel

Part 15 in the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of Abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first 14  parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click hereBecause today’s episode of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil” — like the last— deals extensively with Post-war anti-Semitism in France (among other topics), making it singular among literature of the period, we’ve decided to make it available for free to all readers, even non-subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager and think this work is important, please subscribe or make a donation today by designating your payment through PayPal in Euros or Dollars to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask how to donate by check.

The art of the present, the ‘art vivant,’ is still Montparno. But if the artists of the avant-garde still live in Montparnasse, they’re no longer Bohemians. They’re no different, by their wardrobe and their comportment, than anyone else. If one had to identify them with a particular social category purely by their appearance, it would most likely be that associated with journalists, film directors, radio reporters. Already, Kandinsky in his time looked more like an industrial magnate than one of the founders of Abstract art. Mondrian might have been mistaken for a distinguished mathematician or master of ceremonies. They were a far cry from Picasso’s flowered shirt and shorts; Chagall’s photogenic grimaces; and Braque’s grease-monkey cover-alls. Thus today, whether it’s Soulages with his studio overlooking the Montparnasse cemetery, Schneider living on the fringes of the train station, Manessier and Singier with their mansions on the rue Vaugirard, or Hans Hartung near the rue de la Gaité, no one is trying to stand out except by his oeuvre, erected in solitude.

0334296 Piet Mondriaan Aaronskelk Blauwe Bloem Post restauratie 2011From the recent exhibition at the Musée Marmottan Monet: Piet Mondrian, “Arum; fleur bleue,” 1908-1909. Oil on canvas, 46 x 32 cm. © Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, the Netherlands.

The traditional artist cafés of Montparnasse — le Dôme and le Sélect — are all the same still invaded by painters, models from the Grande Chaumière Academy*, and a mob of intellectuals. From time to time, the street-walkers who work the intersection around the Métro Vavin come in to warm themselves up with a coffee at the counter.

Moïse KislingFrom the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Amedeo Modigliani, “Portrait of Kisling,” 1916. Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Bertrand Prévost. Born to Jewish parents in Livorno, Italy, after initially installing himself in the Bateau-Lavoir in 1906, Modigliani eventually migrated across the Seine to the cité Falguière in the 15th arrondissement, bordering Montparnasse. Also home to Chaim Soutine’s studio (and, much later, the translator), in Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil” the cité Falguière is where the critic Fontenoy shacks up with the painter Blanche Favard.

Each of these consumers is hoping to resurrect a chapter of the gilded past. The Americans have heard about le Sélect from Hemingway or Miller. The Israelis are following the traces of Soutine and Modigliani. The Scandinavians, the Germans, the Italians, they’re all searching for this mythic École de Paris and they plant their flag in this storied quarter which gave birth to it, awaiting its return or trying to reconstitute it themselves.

Ragon, Juan Gris, Pears & Grapes on Table, 1913From the Arts Voyager Archives and past coverage: Juan Gris, “Apples and grapes on a table,” Autumn 1913. Oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm. The Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Some, elderly, unknown, linger as a kind of vestige of this glorious Montparnasse past. They sat at this very table 40 years ago with Picasso or Juan Gris, and they continue to come here and steep themselves in café-crèmes. They’ve never left Montparnasse. And they’ll never leave it. Every night, from nine o’clock until one a.m., they remain planted in front of the same cup of coffee, never refilled because they can’t afford it. They cling to their souvenirs. They continue getting high on chimerical dreams in which they only half believe any more. At times, during the Summer months, they seem to have left Paris on vacation. But they’ve only drifted down to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where they spend their evenings on the terrace of the Royal Saint-Germain. This is their sole infidelity to Montparnasse. In this way, they convince themselves that they’ve voyaged.

Ragon Moshe Kisling Cubist NudeFrom the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Moshe Kisling, “Cubist Nude,” 1918. MahJ © mahJ / Mario Goldman.

Then one morning, after traipsing back to their Spartan hotel room, or their attic, or their dingy basement, they die, without any pomp or ceremony or anyone  noticing they’re gone. Only the waiters, the café society equivalent of a congressional sergeant of arms, perceive a void among the clientele, quickly filled by the young people arriving from Issoudun or Istanbul. Accustomed to living in colonies, some who’ve spent 30 or 40 years of their lives in Montparnasse die before they’ve learned to speak French. They seem to have this extraordinary capacity of being able to transport intact the street where they were born in Minsk to Denfert-Rochereau.

Thus, while the new artists of the avant-garde, conscious of their social standing, break with this romanticism of poverty, of the night, of alcohol, of girls, particular to the Montparnos who made Montparnasse, a bearded, long-haired clientele, arrayed in cast-off schmatas, continues to furnish tourists with the living proof that Montparnasse is not yet dead.

Jewish Museum Mondzain La Faim From the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Simon Mondzain, “Hunger,” 1914. Private collection. © Christophe Fouin.

The new Montparnos in our story were nonetheless not all complete failures, because Manhès, Ancelin, and Fontenoy spent practically all their nights there. Atlan, who occupied an atelier next-door to where Gauguin once lived, also permanently held court at le Dôme or le Sélect. But he and Manhès also found kinship in a larger community of Jewish artists. They hob-knobbed with the painter Michonz, who had been one of Soutine’s few confidents, or with Zadkine or Mané-Katz.

Jean-Michel Atlan, Untitled, 1955 smallFrom the Arts Voyager’s previous coverage of art auctions at Artcurial, Paris: Jean-Michel Atlan, Untitled, 1955. Image copyright Artcurial.

Of all of them, Mané-Katz was without doubt the only one who fully symbolized the cosmopolitanism of the Montparnos. He lived not far from le Dôme on the other side of the Boulevard Montparnasse, in Othon Freisz’s former atelier, which he’d bought upon the death of the latter. Small, svelte, with a curious, entirely white head of hair in the shape of an aureole, he bore a simultaneous resemblance to Leopold Stokowski and François Fratellini. Like the second, he possessed a sense of repartee, brio, a slightly clownesque sense of humor, and above all the laugh, a laugh both childlike and expressive. He might well have belonged to the same generation as Soutine and Picasso and be rich and famous, but this didn’t stop him from sitting down at Manhès’s table with an entirely unassuming simplicity and regaling him with comic anecdotes in which he was invariably the victim, the first to laugh at his own misfortune, ending up by infecting all around him with his good humour.

When he was finally decorated with the Legion of Honor, his joy was unbridled. Fontenoy, who ran into him a few days later, could not understand how a man already crowned with so many honors could be so proud of a little piece of cloth. Mané-Katz suddenly grew serious:

“It’s hard for you to understand, you’re French by birth. Me, it took me dozens and dozens of years to become French. The little Jew from the Russian shtetl decorated by the French minister…. Now I feel more at ease. I’ve finally been accepted by your country.”

The next night, Manhès and Fontenoy were seated at their regular table in le Sélect when they saw Mané-Katz enter. Spotting the pair, he approached them, his hand extended, in a hilarious mood:

“Ah, Fontenoy! Remember what I told you yesterday? Well, today I went over to get my plane ticket in a travel agency next to the Opera House, for New York, where I’m going to have an exhibition. Coming out of the agency, I ran into an American I know. I accompanied him back into the agency, we talked, then I came out again. Then I ran into another American I know. I walked back into the agency with him, we chatted, I walked out again. Suddenly I felt someone yank the collar of my jacket, and a gruff voice barked, “What are you trying to palm off on them, those Americans? And that red ribbon, how dare you? Come on, you, to the police station!” I tried to explain to the cop that I was going to New York, to show him the proof of my decoration. But try to reason with a symbol of authority. The precinct captain had to launch an investigation. You see, Fontenoy, I was mistaken to believe that I could become French just like that, ipso-facto. He mistook me for a Jewish Black market trafficker!”

For a moment, Mané-Katz let his bitterness seep through. But then he executed a perfect pirouette and picked right back up mocking himself, breaking out in laughter and slapping his thighs.

Ragon Chagall Khalista smallFrom the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Marc Chagall, “Khalista Revue,” No. 2, 1924. © MahJ / Christophe Fouin, © ADAGP, Paris 2020. Khalista or Khalyastre (the Gang), a literary and artistic review created in Warsaw in 1922, was edited by the poets Peretz Markish and Oser Warszawski and illustrated by Chagall. Other reviews published by the community of artist-immigrants which buzzed around “the Hive” in Montparnasse prior to World War II included Menorah, which ran from 1922 to 1933, and the Jewish Review, created by Albert Cohen and put out by Gallimard. 

Montparnasse absorbed Fontenoy, as it did Manhès, as it did all the others. And yet Fontenoy also resented the hold the quartier had on him. He told himself that he was spinning his wheels amidst the flotsam and the jetsam and that he was in danger of being swallowed up by the quicksand like all the others. Manhès echoed his sentiments. But despite their efforts to meet up elsewhere, in their homes or in other neighborhoods, they invariably ended up on this corner of the rue Vavin, this corner on which all the streets, all the roads of the world seemed to converge.

Towards one or two in the morning, Fontenoy and Manhès usually separated near the train station. Manhès went home to Isabelle and Moussia, Fontenoy back to Blanche. This last was going out with him at night less often. She told him:

“I’ve about had it with Montparnasse. What’s the point of frittering away half the night blabbering about painting or poetry! I’d rather stay here and paint. I
think it would also be a lot more productive for you to devote your evenings to writing.”

Fontenoy knew that Blanche was right, but this didn’t stop him from inevitably descending every evening, by eight or nine o’clock, to le Sélect. It was winter. Returning five hours later he’d find Blanche asleep. When he got into bed, she’d grouse because he’d awoken her and he was glacial.

 

*A studio popular during the epoch with many artists, where they could have ready access to live models; this summer, to encourage social distancing — and reach a global audience — the Grande Chaumière Academy is offering this service by video remote.

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