To demonstrate how the Abstract Art of which Michel Ragon was one of the first champions is very much a living tradition, where possible the Dance Insider / Paris Tribune are including art from current or recent exhibitions with our exclusive, first-ever English-language serialization of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’oeil.” Above, from last year’s exhibition at the Galerie Berthet- Aittouarès (in, bien sur, Saint-Germain-des-Prés): Vera Molnar, “Montparnasse d’après Klee en bleu vert et rouge,” 2006. © Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès.
Part 10 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 nine parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here. To learn how to support our work, e-mail email@example.com . To support us through PayPal, just designate your donation to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Fifteen days later, in the throes of correcting the proofs of the second issue, Fontenoy felt a sudden surge of discouragement. Blanche was working in her atelier at the Cité Falguière. He dropped everything and went to see his companion.
Walking down the Boulevard Montparnasse, he took stock of the results of the first issue of the revue. It was too soon to draw any conclusions, but he had the impression of hurtling against a wall. Like Manhès, what had pleased him about this adventure was the battle to come, the possibility of finally saying in print everything he’d been stifling about this conspiracy against the movement of painting that he loved. This revue would be a little bomb which would go off in the midst of the conformists, the cabals. They’d be forced to respond to so many specific accusations. But neither L’Artiste, nor Le Figaro, nor any other newspaper had yet noted, even with two measly lines, the new revue’s existence. Everything continued just as it had been, as if the revue didn’t exist at all. Some booksellers in Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Prés had put it in their windows. Its successful launch depended on them, and on eventual subscriptions in response to the comp. copies that had been sent out.
Blanche was flattened out on her stomach on the divan, working on a water-color. Fontenoy plopped down next to her. In the atelier, numerous water-colors had been framed behind glass, ready for the imminent exhibition.
“You know,” she remarked, continuing to paint, “it’s no laughing-matter to try to get the bookshops to sell the revue….”
“I know. But it’s the only way to spread the word.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You made the rounds of the art bookshops that you know well, and that know you. No problem. You leave the copies on consignment and they say thanks. But me, I hit the other bookshops. You have no idea how they react. Some don’t accept consignments as a matter of sheer principle. They tell me: ‘When you come back to pick up the unsold copies, they’ve disappeared under a pile. They can’t be found and we have to pay you anyway. Two months later they surface and are unsellable. No no, no consignments.’ ‘Okay, so buy a fixed number of issues.’ ‘You must be joking. We’re inundated as it is!’ And those are the nice ones. Others take a quick look, disabusedly shrug their shoulders, and say no. Some pick up the revue, leaf through it, and burst out in guffaws: ‘Ah! Cool, it’s a take-off? I get it — very clever…. But our customers won’t get it at all.’ I was, however, able to place a few copies that were accepted on consignment, begrudgingly, and in those cases most likely because of my gorgeous eyes.”
In a corner of the atelier Fontenoy spotted the pile of rejected revues. He had a sudden spurt of revolt, of anger:
“But how the hell are we supposed to get off the ground if the newspapers give us the silent treatment, if the bookstores refuse consignments, if the subscription drives meet up with nothing but negligence and indifference!?”
Fontenoy perceived that hostility to their cause wasn’t the only factor. The bookstores held themselves above the internecine factional squabbles, but their detached attitude could become just as lethal, if not moreso, as any frontal attacks.
Blanche straightened up her material on the table, cast a last glance at the fresh water-color she’d just finished and came over to sit next to Fontenoy, lacing her plump arms around him.
“Worries, worries, worries! How’s about putting your ‘big ideas’ aside for a moment and getting back to the two of us? Have you finished the preface for my exhibition? What are you planning, for me, in the revue?”
“All that on the other hand is going very well,” Fontenoy responded with lassitude. “Look, I have the text for your preface right here in my pocket. Read through it. For the revue, Rinsbroek will talk about you, it’s preferable.”
“And you won’t put in any of my images?”
“That’ll be up to Rinsbroek.”
“Come again? But what good does it do then to be the editor-in-chief?”
“Rinsbroek wants to talk about you. He’ll say what he judges needs to be said and we’ll publish a reproduction of your work if he considers that you merit it.”
Blanche bit her lip. Fontenoy grasped her tenderly around the waist and kissed her on the temple:
“Listen, Blanche. Don’t get upset. I’m being brutal, but we have much bigger worries these days. Your exhibition will go quite well and in all probability we’ll publish a photo in the revue. Rinsbroek’s article will certainly sing your praises, otherwise he wouldn’t have accepted the assignment. But on principle, I just want to make it clear, once again, that I won’t put any pressure on him. It’s just not comprehensible. It’s as if you’re asking me to employ the very methods in our revue that we’re fighting against when others practice them.”
Blanche didn’t answer. She read over Fontenoy’s handwritten text for the preface:
“How set are you on citing Klee? I know you just mean to use it as a reference, but won’t that just make them think that I imitate him, like all the rest?”
Fontenoy replied, exasperated: “Delete Klee if he bothers you so much!”
Blanche got riled up:
“I like Klee. I don’t deny that. But the reference here just bothers me.”
And she put her dainty little finger on the sheet of paper. “It’s like your phrase: ‘Blanche Favard is an abstract painter who composes with parcels of memory.’ I understand what you’re getting at. My compositions include forms which resemble foliage, even landscapes. I agree. But what will Charles Roy say? The Salon des Réalitiés Nouvelles jury is quite capable of rejecting my submissions under the pretext that they’re Naturalist.”
“So now it’s Charles Roy’s opinion that matters the most to you!?” Fontenoy exclaimed, stupefied.
“I just don’t want to get everyone’s hide up like Manhès.”
“You’ll succeed, Blanche,” Fontenoy re-assured her, thoughtfully. “And what’s more, you’re talented.”
Part nine 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 eight parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here. To learn how to support our work, e-mail email@example.com . To support us through PayPal, just designate your donation to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Ancelin asked Monsieur Mumphy to help fund the literary and artistic revue to be directed by Fontenoy.
The industrialist attempted to demure, but Ancelin was tenacious. Finally, he secured a commitment to a monthly subsidy, with one stipulation: That Charles Mumphy be mentioned in every issue. Such pretentiousness initially seemed exorbitant and inacceptable to Ancelin:
“At least wait until your son is an actual painter. He’s only 18. What could we possibly write about him now?”
“Well, you can say this!: That he’s only 18 years old and he’s already studying at the Academy of Abstract Art… And anyway, how should I know what you can write about him? That’s Fontenoy’s job, isn’t it? As long as he makes sure that people know that Charles exists, and that he’s studying to become a painter. The sooner we start giving him a little publicity, the better.”
Ancelin accepted, all the while dreading how Manhès and Fontenoy would react. He secured subscription pledges from his various girlfriends and their connections. In sum, thanks to Ancelin’s social dexterity and Manhès’s pocketbook, the revue became a reality. To avoid being indebted to Manhès, Fontenoy invested a chunk of his severance pay from L’Artiste in the enterprise.
From the Arts Voyager archives: Gustave Courbet, “Le jardin de la Mere Toutain a Honfleur,” (Mother Toutain’s garden in Honfleur), 1859-61. Oil.
The first issue shaped up as a veritable manifesto. Fontenoy published his anti-Courbet article, which had been refused by L’Artiste. From this launching pad he extended the debate, denouncing the conspiracy against Abstract Art that had just exploded into a major offensive, with salvos being fired from all quarters. The revue presented a visit to Corato’s atelier in the Montparnasse artist quartier and offered full-page spreads with reproductions of paintings by Corato, Manhès, and Ancelin. Fontenoy enlisted a veteran critic, Rinsbroek — Belgian, of course — to undertake a group study on the new Abstract painting. At 65, Rinsbroek had accomplished the miracle of being able to comprehend a new generation of artists whose tendencies were diametrically opposed to those of the painters of his youth whom he’d championed when they were making their debuts. Such cross-generational prescience is rare. The defenders of Impressionism had greeted Cubism with a bewildered disapprobation, and the pioneers of Cubism had in turn thrown up their hands as a sign of discouragement when confronted with Abstract Art. Parents rarely understand their children, above all those who start taking up ideas that contradict their own, by a kind of instinctive physiological reaction.
Rinsbroek, 65-year-old herald of the new avant-garde, just as he’d been a herald of Cubism at 25, subsisted on very little. His impeccable honesty had been subjected, over the years, to the assault of many a temptation. Considered incorruptible, he’d been let out to pasture by the revues. He was unable to secure either the lucrative text assignments from art book publishers or cultural commissions from the state to curate exhibitions, two sources of honest revenue for art critics. But as long as an art critic maintains his integrity, he gets locked out. If he can’t be bought, he’s gagged. Rinsbroek had been muzzled.
Rinsbroek, who’d been one of the prophets of Cubism, owned only reproductions of work by the painters he’d launched. They’d shown him a perfect ingratitude, particularly when he’d started discovering the “younger” artists. His old friends looked upon this renewal as a betrayal. While bitter, Rinsbroek retained a sufficient stock of enthusiasm to be able to throw himself into a new battle.
Rinsbroek’s study for Fontenoy’s revue tackled the subject of the controversial painters who had become the masters of the art of the contemporary scene: Hartung, Schneider, Soulages, Atlan, Poliakoff, de Staël, Vieira da Silva.
From the recent exhibition at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger in Saint-Germaine des Près: Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “La Garde des anges,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm, Photo © Jean-Louis Losi, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger.
The revue also included poems, essays on music and architecture, and notes and diverse factoids, including this item: “Charles Mumphy, son of the celebrated collector, has enrolled in the Academy of Abstract Art. No one doubts that this young man with a bright future…,” ad nauseum.
In a veritable fever, Fontenoy prepared the issue mailing. Blanche helped him to stick on the wrappers and address the labels for the recipients. The press run not being substantial enough to attract a distributor, they had to mail the magazine out themselves and count strictly on bringing in subscriptions. Copies were also dropped off at any bookstores willing to accept them.
Blanche aided Fontenoy, sulking all the while. She wasn’t happy that no reproductions of her watercolors were featured in the revue.
“I can’t,” Fontenoy explained. “They’d say right away it’s just a magazine for our pals. When you have your exhibition, we’ll devote an essay to you. But right now, it would seem like a buddy system.”
Blanche remained obstinate:
“You have something on Ancelin, so why not me?”
“Please Blanche! We already have worries enough!”
“It’s like Rinsbroek,” Blanche insisted, “why doesn’t he even mention me?”
Fontenoy was tempted to answer that he didn’t mention her because she wasn’t at the same level as the other artists cited by Rinsbroek, but he didn’t dare. He knew that Blanche would be hurt. But also, why the devil didn’t she stay in her place! He remained silent, applying himself to the thankless work of fulfillment clerk. As always in difficult situations, great examples came to his rescue. He recalled a visit that he paid one day to Jean Schlumberger.* The editor had pointed to a corner next to a chimney and explained, “You see the first issues of the N.R.F.* piled up over there? We sent them out from this room. Gide helped me, and Copeau.* We stuck the stamps on and wound the wrappers around them ourselves. After three years of effort, we only had 528 subscribers, of whom Gide forced himself to copy down the lists.”
Over the course of the evening, Ancelin and Manhès dropped by to lend a hand. At midnight, the magazines were ready to ship out. They contemplated the piles with a certain apprehension, as if they were staring at bands of dynamite or land mines.
Copyright 1956, 2020 Michel Ragon. Published by Albin Michel, 1956. Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak.
*The quintessential French literary and critical revue, the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, commonly referred to as the N.R.F. and affiliated with the publisher Gallimard, was founded in 1908 by a group of novelists, critics, and journalists including Jean Schlumberger, André Gide, Jacques Copeau, and André Ruyters.
Part eight 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 seven parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here. To learn how to support our work, e-mail email@example.com .
Freshly returned from New York, Ancelin took tea at the Mumphys’ pad facing the Luxembourg Gardens. Monsieur Mumphy fawned over Ancelin, showering him with compliments as he did no other artist. These bouquets were destined first and foremost for the general’s son before they arrived at the young painter with a bright future.
No matter; regardless of who he was dealing with, Ancelin always conducted himself with an easy-going manner. His familiarity with the art dealers, the collectors, and even the most reserved of critics had the initial effect of shocking them before convincing them despite themselves to look upon Ancelin as a friend. Thanks initially to the rank of his father, then to his own cheekiness, at just 30 years old Ancelin had built up an address book that many older artists never compiled on their talent alone.
He never addressed an acquaintance by his last name, but always by his first name. His conversation was also laced with enigmas that only the initiated could follow. For example, he might say to Monsieur Mumphy:
“Jean promised to puff me up with Marcel. We had a long interview the other day chez Gaston.”
Translation: “Paulhan promised to sing my praises to Arland. We had a long interview the other day with Gallimard.”
By thus referring to them by their first names, Ancelin eventually convinced
everyone that he was on intimate terms with everyone else — and really did become close to all those who mattered in the art world.
Ancelin had another weapon in his arsenal: women. Not just the worldly women amongst whom his youth and his impertinence sowed bedlam, but all women. If his more or less concealed intimacy with numerous worldly women opened the doors to important collectors, his knack for seduction also exercised its charm on women who were more obscure but just as important to his career: gallery assistants, newspaper employees who made sure to slip a word to an editor. A deft painter who worked swiftly, Ancelin allocated one hour per day to his work and the other 23 to hawking it. He slept too of course, but rarely alone and as he also peopled the dreams of numerous disappointed women the same night, his time was never squandered.
And yet, this patented arrivist was not bereft of all sensitivity, or even outright sentimentality or disinterestedness. His friendships with Manhès and Fontenoy were proof of this.
When he was starting out, Ancelin found a precious support in Manhès, an established and esteemed painter. Fontenoy’s articles helped to launch him. But even today, when he no longer had need of them, he still hung out with the older painter and the journalist. He often defended them, even if these interventions were later held against him.
Young Charles joined his parents for the tea at the Mumphys.’ If the world of painting had been completely foreign to the adolescent as recently as the previous spring, he’d been bitten by the bug since he started taking courses at the Academy of Abstract Art. Bien entendu, he aped the lessons of his teachers.
As Ancelin lingered in front of the wall dedicated to Manhès, studying for the umpteenth time the technique in these paintings, dissecting them with his eyes and always extracting some profit for his own work, Charles Mumphy sashayed over to him and asked:
“What do you think you’ll discover in Manhès? You paint much better than him.”
Ancelin pivoted around, surprised by this chiding.
“Charles,” said Monsieur Mumphy with an air of reproach, “our good friend Ancelin has lots of talent, but after all, Manhès….”
“Manhès is the greatest of us all,” Ancelin cut him off with a certain brusqueness.
“Oh! Don’t exaggerate, don’t exaggerate,” Monsieur Mumphy answered in a jocular tone.
Ancelin walked over to two small water-colors, placed in discrete retreat in a corner.
“How about that! Blanche Favard! You’ve done right to add them to your collection, it’s good work!”
“Kind of you to say, kind of you to say….”
“You know that she’s become Fontenoy’s girlfriend?”
“We know, we know,” Monsieur Mumphy responded, rubbing his hands together and grinning until his face puffed up.
Ancelin approached the wall consecrated to his own paintings. He studied them as minutely as he’d examined Manhès’s tableaux earlier.
“Albert, you should give this one back to me. I’ll touch it up.”
“No, no!” Monsieur Mumphy protested. “Those paintings belong to me.”
Ancelin didn’t insist, but he continued ruefully regarding the incriminating painting.
In addition to his loyalty to his friends, Ancelin had another admirable quality: a professional conscience.
After leaving the Mumphys’, Ancelin stopped in at the Laivit-Canne Gallery.
Satisfied to see one of his paintings in the show-case, he embraced the secretary upon entering and hunched over to reduce himself to the same scale as Laivit-Canne, effusively shaking the dealer’s hand.
He inspected the paintings hanging from the gallery’s walls, confirmed that he was well-placed, and remarked the absence of Manhès, who used to occupy the place of honor.
Laivit-Canne followed the painter around the room, monitoring his reactions. He interrogated him on what he thought of certain tableaux.
“Why haven’t you hung any of Manhès’s paintings?” Ancelin asked.
“Manhès is finished.”
Then he adopted an unctuous tone:
“You did quite well in New York, my dear Ancelin. Your exhibition was not a huge financial success, but your paintings are catching on. Next time you’ll sell everything. You have the stuff it takes to succeed. I’m going to be frank with you. Up until now, I’ve kept you in the shadow of Manhès and I was wrong. It’s a good thing that I had a falling out with that imbecile. Now I’m going to put all my stakes on you.”
Ancelin did not seem very happy about this.
“I’m the stand-in who replaces the star.”
“No, no!” Laivit responded testily. “You’ll see…. I’ll take you under my wing. I’ll make you skip a generation. Okay, so Manhès was your initiator; let’s recognize that. But you’re the better painter.”
Ancelin was slightly inebriated by Laivit-Canne’s words. This stroke to his ego, though, was tempered by bitterness over the dealer’s ingratitude towards Manhès. And then there was this comment again, the same that Charles Mumphy had pronounced: “You paint better than Manhès.” The phrase worried him. “There’s a conspiracy brewing against Manhès. I’ll warn him tonight.”
Ancelin reunited with Manhès, Isabelle, Fontenoy, and Blanche at the Select. He embraced Isabelle and Blanche, shook hands with his friends.
He talked about his trip to New York, of the warm welcome Abstract art was receiving over there.
“The French,” observed Manhès, “are always complaining with a certain rancor about the Americans who swept up all the Impressionist paintings. But they’ve conveniently forgotten that the Impressionists were understood in America from their very first exhibition. It will be the same for us. We live in Paris, but our paintings will go to American museums because the French bureaucrats of the Fine Arts administration ridicule our work.”*
Ancelin didn’t know how to talk to Manhès about the conspiracy which he’d devined. To do this he’d have to allude to the comparisons by Charles Mumphy and Laivit-Canne which were excessively flattering to him, and this embarrassed him. Fontenoy brought him to the heart of the subject by announcing:
“I’ve been fired by L’Artiste.”
“Oh yes, Old Man. Already, while you were in New York, I had several squabbles with the editor-in-chief. They refused to let me write something about the Manhès-Laivit-Canne rupture under the pretext that it might upset the gallery. Then, when I proposed to write about a visit to Corato’s studio, they asked me to sing the eloges of Yves Brayer. If it was just that, I could have dealt with it. But now L’Artiste has launched an all-out campaign against Abstract art. I thought I’d dodged the problem by proposing a ‘piece’ on Courbet. But when I started looking at Courbet more closely, I got a glimpse of the conventional aspect of the personage. The famous ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet’is indeed a chef-d’oeuvre… of boorishness and of conceitedness. Courbet’s sole quality is in the matter; his signature style is beautiful. But what conventionality in the sources of his inspiration! Voila the gist of my article on Courbet. Bad idea! My timing could not have been worse. It just so happened that they were getting ready to hold up Courbet as an example for the young painters. The die was cast. It was time to relieve themselves of my services.
Ancelin seemed crushed:
“It’s a tough blow. There’s no way of repairing the damage?”
Fontenoy sighed wearily.
“I don’t have the will any longer. I held on to the Artiste gig as long as I could. To continue, I’d have to deny everything I’ve fought for.”
Ancelin remained lost in thought.
“That’s out of the question, but it’s a huge sacrifice all the same…. From time to time the newspaper publishes your poems. You’ve got a tribune there that it will be difficult to replace elsewhere in the near future.”
“I’m well aware of that. If it was just a minor misunderstanding, it could be fixed. But we’re about to confront a major offensive. Did you see the latest issue of Le Figaro?”
“Claude-Roger Marx has penned a piece with a bold headline: IT’S TIME TO BRING BACK GREEN WITH COURBET. Elsewhere, Dunoyer de Ségonzac is going after non-figurative painting. In another major daily, they turned over an entire page to Vlaminck just so he could rail at all Modern Art, from Cubism to the Abstracts — except of course his own painting. I had the presentiment of a catastrophe. Now it’s a certitude.”
“Don’t make like the biblical prophet,” Manhès warned. “I earn enough for us to start our own revue. That’ll rile them up! How’s that for an idea? What do you say? If we launch a review of our own? Of course, Fontenoy would be the editor-in-chief.”
Fontenoy suddenly had a vision of one of his dreams coming true: Directing an avant-garde revue, mingling poetry and painting, music and architecture. Then he tried to dismiss this over-flattering idea:
“You know, it’s really expensive to print a revue!”
“How much?” asked Manhès, tensing up. “Work up an estimate, evaluate the possibilities and the risks of the adventure. Make up a demo issue. Nothing’s impossible. In any case, I’d be quite happy to toss our own revue on their path to trip them up!”
They parted in the excitation of this idea.
Copyright 1956, 2020 Michel Ragon. Published by Albin Michel, 1956. Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak.
*At the epoch as now, the French government — represented here by the Fine Arts department of the culture ministry — has the right to pre-empt the sale at auction of works it deems national treasures. If it so deems them.
From the DI/AV archives: Gustave Courbet, “Portrait of Baudelaire,” 1847 (?). Oil, 53 x 0.61 cm, unsigned. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. In his championing of artists, Michel Ragon upheld the grand tradition of Baudelaire and Zola, who championed Courbet, Delacroix, and the Impressionists.
Michel Ragon — critic, curator, ambassador of art, not only champion but exponent of abstract painting, archivist of anarchists, workers, and the proletariat, defender of a new style of architecture, novelist, teacher, Seine-side bookseller, manual laborer, and husband — died February 14 in Paris, at the age of 95. What Baudelaire and Champfleury did for Courbet (whose twin investment in advancing art, as the leader of the Realism school, and social struggles, as an official of the Paris Commune, made him the perfect subject for a Ragon biography), Michel Ragon did for a whole genre, the Abstract Art school that flourished in post-war Paris. Jean-Michel Atlan was his chou-chou and friend; the COBRA group owed him their first Paris exhibition; Ragon’s tribute to Wols assured his place in the pantheon of 20th-century painters. And his incognito infiltration of the Barnes Collection made sure that neither American authors nor the French artists they hoarded were left out. The largely forgotten vectors of European anarcho-syndicalism — Victor Serge, Paul Delesalle, Nestor Makhno, Alexandra Kollontai, Louis Lecoin, Rirette Maitrejean — their rescue from the dustbin of history into which its victors, a forgetful media, and a reductive academy had swept them. If Michel Ragon is dead after nearly a century, thanks to Michel Ragon the names, combats, struggles, and moral victories of these prime movers in two worlds, society and art — Ragon always had one foot firmly implanted in each — will live on for many more. We’ll try to make our modest contribution.
… Starting with the latest installment in our serialized translation of Ragon’s seminal semi-fictional treatment of the Abstract Art movement and market in Paris in the 1950s, as well as post-war anti-Semitism in France, “Trompe-l’oeil.” A melange — or update — of both Zola’s “L’oeuvre” and Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” in its defense of the artistic genus and the artist’s soul and lacerating portrayal of the media, “Trompe-l’oeil” is most of all the love story of a journalist and art. (Merci a L.D. pour son aide precious avec l’argot….)
Michel Ragon is survived by his wife Françoise — and a legion of art aficionados. Michel Ragon est mort. Vive Michel Ragon. — Paul Ben-Itzak
Le Feuilleton (the Serial), 7: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, anti-Semitism, and critics in Post-war Paris, Part 7
Part seven in the Paris Tribune’s 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 six parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here.
Fontenoy asked his editor at L’Artiste if he could write a “studio visit” feature on Corato.
“Which one is that?” the editor groaned.
“An abstract painter who….”
“Obviously! But, my dear young man, who’s interested in your precious Abstracts — I mean besides you? Sometimes I think you just make them up. Listen to me, Fontenoy, you’d do much better to take on some serious subjects. Ever since you’ve taken up with abstract art, your pieces feel just like that. Abstract.”
“You’re not actually going to tell me that I write like Charles Roy?”
“If that were the case, I would have tossed you out on your keister a long time ago! No, you still write in a decipherable manner — and that’s exactly what worries me.”
Fontenoy had trouble fathoming what his boss was trying to tell him.
“Here, take a look at the mock-up for the next issue.”
He spread out the pages on the large lay-out table in the middle of the office. Stupefied, Fontenoy read on the cover, in large bold letters: “LAST LAP FOR THE FARCE OF ‘ABSTRACT ART.’ Then further down the page, under a photo of Matisse: “HENRI MATISSE COMES OUT AGAINST ABSTRACT ART.” And on page four, a major piece with the headline: “YOUNG PAINTERS RETURN TO LANDSCAPES AND PORTRAITS.”
“Perfect,” Fontenoy responded. “Abstract art has finally waltzed into the newspaper by the front door.”
“All the easier to stifle you, my boy,” the editor in chief ribbed him, breaking out in laughter. Then he added, flippantly, “I’ll need a group article on several typical good painters: You know, the likes of Yves Brayer, Chapelain-Midy, Lorjou…. I’m counting on you….”
“You’ve got to be kidding. You’ve purposely chosen the most philistine of the figuratives to foist them off on me.”
“My good fellow, a journalist has to be a jack of all trades. If you don’t like those painters, that’s your right. Just keep it to yourself when the newspaper needs you to sing their praises. We’re not here to satisfy our personal tastes, but those of our silent partners and our readers. We should be satisfied that the two of them concord!”
“I’m sorry,” Fontenoy responded after a moment of hesitation, “but it won’t be possible for me to write that article.”
“Are you telling me that you’re abandoning us?”
Fontenoy smiled ironically. He flared the trap. They wanted to push him to quit in a great histrionic fashion, which would have the consequence of depriving him of unemployment compensation. Very well. It seemed obvious that he’d become a liability for the newspaper, but he’d let them fire him before he’d quit.
“I’m not abandoning anything. But those painters ‘belong’ to Morisset, and I don’t want to pilfer them from him.
“Tell you what,” he added after reflecting for a few seconds, “because you want to preach a new realism, I’ll do a study for you on Courbet.”
In the past, when Fontenoy emerged from such altercations he’d dread returning to his small room. If he didn’t happen to run into Manhès, he’d feel completely lost. Now, Blanche was always ready to welcome him with open arms.
They’d each hung on to their individual apartments, which simplified their work. But Fontenoy spent all his nights at the Cité Falguière.
They were laying down on the divan. Blanche had undone her tresses and her blond hair cascaded down her shoulders. Fontenoy let himself be lulled by the warmth of his companion’s body. He closed his eyes, trying to forget his anxieties. But he was all too aware of what lay ahead.
“It’s going to be brutal, Blanche, very brutal…. They’ll be attacking on all fronts, you’ll see.”
“Bah! Look at Manhès, he’s never sold so well!”
“Yes. And yet, even Manhès makes me worry. It’s just all going too well. All these people who have their comfortable positions to protect, all these dealers whose basements are packed with figurative paintings, all these collectors who’ve pumped fortunes into the very school of painting we’re fighting, are not going to let us get away with it. It’s no accident that L’Artiste has launched this offensive now….”
Blanche hugged him close: “You’re such a pessimist.”
Fontenoy let out a huge sigh: “All I can say is it’s a good thing that you’re here!”
He gave in to dreaming again, hooking his arm around his companion’s waist. He flashed back to the first time he visited this atelier. Blanche showed herself simultaneously mutinous and worried. She understood what he meant. Even though their intimacy did not happen overnight, he found it strange to find himself so suddenly linked to this young woman whom he’d been running into here and there for a year at exhibitions without ever surpassing the level of a distant politeness. She was less a painter, now, than a beloved being.
And yet Blanche was intensely, definitely a painter. An instinctive painter. Thank God she was not one of these intellectuals who supplied ready fodder to the academies which then inculcated them with paint-by-numbers formulas. Fontenoy had a genuine physical repulsion for this genre of woman. He tended to agree with Baudelaire that making love with an intellectual was a form of paederasty. Blanche constituted a living rebuke to those who believed that Abstract art was an art for intellectuals. She was a solid, stout, uncomplicated woman, sensual and carefree. Her water-colors were the exact reflection of her temperament, with their slightly heavy spots and a graphic design pigmented with a subtle sense of humor.
“Fontenoy (Blanche still addressed him by his last name, as she had before they began sleeping together), Fontenoy we’ll always find a way to muddle through. You worry too much….”
She could feel, close to her, her lover’s anguish. She wanted to lighten his load, to take some of the burden upon herself, but she could feel him tense up — that, as immobile as he was, he was struggling against a throng of enemies.
Fontenoy predicted he’d be fired by the newspaper. That was to be expected. They paid him so little, but this pittance was vital to rounding out his budget. And then it wasn’t just a matter of money! Tribunes consecrated to the arts were few and far between. If he lost this one, he also lost a forum for expressing himself. He saw himself mutilated, naked next to a sneering Morisset and Arlov, before a triumphant Charles Roy. Because Fontenoy was doubly heretical: Not only did he attack traditional figurative art, but also the brand of academic abstract art championed by Charles Roy. Even supposing they allowed the academic form of Abstract art to flourish for a little while longer, it would only be so they could eventually demolish it as a sclerotic art form. “What they really want to crush,” Fontenoy thought to himself, “are the genuine creators, like always. The old historic battles will resurface.” The cohort of Impressionists attacked by the incomprehension of the public and the mockery of the critics and cartoonists, the Cubists in the time of the Bateau Lavoir, then the damned of Montparnasse: Soutine, Modigliani, Pascin, he saw them marching before him in one long lamentation. “It’s all happening again,” Fontenoy told himself. “I sense it. We were wrong to believe we’d won the hand.”
He clutched Blanche tightly to him. She laughed heartily.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954), “Interior with girl” (Reading), 1905-1906. Oil on canvas, 72.7 × 59.7 cm. New York, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo © Paige Knight. © Succession H. Matisse. Succession Matisse. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.
To be able to simultaneously share, for the first time in English, Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel about the contemporary art market and world in Paris in the 1950s — and which also treats post-War anti-Semitism in France — we’ve decided to illustrate today’s installment with art directly referred to in “Trompe-l’oeil” that readers can see now or soon in Paris, New York, and London, notably at the Orsay Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Jeanne Bucher Jaeger gallery in the Marais, the Waddington Custot in London, and Di Donna Galleries, New York. (See captions for details.) Like what you’re reading and want to see more? Please support independent arts journalism today by designating your donation in dollars or Euros through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail. Special thanks to Michel and Françoise Ragon, Edward Winer, and Jamie. To read the previous installment of “Trompe-l’oeil” (which links to earlier episodes), please click here. First published in the French original by Albin-Michel.
Fontenoy had gotten his start at L’Artiste with a reportage on Matisse. Not that he was particularly interested in this major painter, but his editor tended to ask him to write about the subjects he was the least interested in. He wasn’t trying to irritate or bully Fontenoy. The editor in chief’s dishing out of the weekly assignments to his writers was completely haphazard. What really interested Fontenoy, the new non-figurative painting, had very little chance of being mentioned in L’Artiste. Just the bare minimum coverage needed for the weekly to appear au courant without turning off the majority of its subscribers, only now discovering, with rapture, Impressionism. The editor in chief put up with the whims of his writers as long as they weren’t too glaring. Fontenoy was permitted, like his colleagues, to talk about his fads from time to time. His boss would have been surprised to learn that Fontenoy’s support for Manhès and Ancelin had not been bought and paid for by Laivit-Canne, their dealer.
Fontenoy had submitted, among his pieces for the week, an item on the rift between Laivit-Canne and Manhès. He voiced his surprise to the editor in chief when it didn’t show up in the paper.
“My friend, if we start reporting on the fracases between painters and their dealers, it’ll never end.”
“And yet readers love reading about the quarrels between Vollard and the Impressionists. Why wouldn’t they be interested in reading about the intricate dealings of their own times?!”
The editor in chief shrugged his shoulders. “Vollard isn’t around any more to make trouble for us. Laivit-Canne, on the other hand, is an advertiser. I don’t want to upset a gentleman who supports our newspaper to help out another gentleman who’s not even a subscriber.”
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Ballet figure,” 1948. Oil on canvas and black lead pencil, 27 x 46 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020. “I watch the street and the people walking, each with a different look, each advancing at his own rhythm,” Vieira da Silva once explained. “I think of the invisible threads manipulating them. I try to perceive the mechanics which coordinate them…. This is what I try to paint.”
Fontenoy reddened with shame and anger. He was seized with a violent compulsion to throw up his hands and walk out, but he contained himself. Who would be left to talk about the painters he loved if he quit L’Artiste? Not Morisset, that’s for sure. This last had just walked into the editor in chief’s office sporting a broad smile. Everything was broad with him, for that matter: His shoulders, his handshake, his critical standards. The only time he became particular was when it came to abstract art. Morisset was always nice to Fontenoy, even if their opinions were completely opposed. He was one of those people eager to please everybody. If he ran into one of his enemies, before the latter even had time to dig his feet in he sprung on him, frenetically shook his hand, slapped him on the back, and called him “pal” with such conviction that the concerned party ended up being hoodwinked. As Morisset didn’t take anything seriously, he mingled with the artistic milieu with a casualness that seemed genuine when in reality everything he did was calculated. Except for a handful of abstract art galleries, scattered and without a lot of means, Morisset lined his pockets with tips from all corners. If a painter asked his advice on how to get exhibited, he complimented him on his talent, slapped him on the back and pushed him into a paying gallery where he had a deal for a percentage for every sucker he reeled in. As the painter was not hip to this arrangement, he’d offer him a canvas for his services. If the idea didn’t occur to him, Morisset would be sure to bring it up. He also wrote numerous exhibition pamphlets which he could always be sure to get printed by a shop with whom he had an ongoing arrangement. He resold paintings that he’d been given or extorted. Morisset earned a paltry $24 per month at the paper and yet somehow managed to have his own car. He spent his weekends with his family at his country place. He was a man perfectly content with his lot and at peace with his conscience. One day Fontenoy told him:
“When abstract art has conquered the market, you’ll be its most fervent supporter.”
He assumed Morisset would get pissed off, or protest, but no. He responded in the most natural manner possible: “Of course… How could you imagine otherwise?”
Morisset was bought and paid for from his shoelaces to his beret to such a degree that he wound up laughing about it. For that matter he liked to say, “Painters get rich thanks to us, it’s normal that we should get our portion of the profits. If you don’t ask for anything, my dear Fontenoy, you won’t get anything. You’ll see, your abstract painters, if they make it rich one day, they’ll slam the door in your face because you’ll always be broke. But they’ll still need a good publicity agent and I’ll be there. Do you really believe that painters think of us as anything more than flacks? This being the case we need to take our gloves off and play the game.”
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Playing Cards,” 1937. Oil on canvas with pencil tracing, 73 x 92 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.
Another critic arrived in turn in the editor in chief’s office. His name was Arlov and he was as uptight as Morisset was hang-loose. While he wasn’t lacking in intelligence or critical sensibility, his cirrhosis leant him a preference for melancholy paintings. For him Bernard Buffet represented the summit of contemporary art. He was also moody. His opinions tended to follow the course of his digestion. Whether an exhibition was praised or thrashed depended on whether Arlov visited the gallery after a good meal or bursting at the seams a la Kaopectate. In contrast to Morisset, one had to be careful not to load him with free drinks or food. A painter’s career sometimes depended on this perfect understanding of the digestive system of critics.
Arlov was poor. He wasn’t in art for the dough but the dames, his goal being to sleep with as many women as possible. This explained why he presided over the Salon of Women Painters (he’d even created it). His monumental book on the NUDE was the authoritative work on the subject. The funny thing was that his particular gender specialization even encompassed dead painters, with whom short of being a narcoleptic he had no chance of sleeping. He’d even managed to write, who knows how, a spicy “Life of Madame Vigée-Lebrun.” His big dream in life was to rehabilitate Bouguereau; albeit a man, the 19th-century Academic’s nudes weren’t entirely lacking in sensuality. Needless to say, Arlov was not too interested in abstract art.
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), “Self-portrait in Straw Hat,” after 1782. Purchased by the National Gallery, London. Public Domain, via Wikipedia. Vigée Le Brun was the official portraitist of Marie-Antoinette.
After having gone over, with their editor in chief, the issue which had just come out and whose pages were spread out over a big table, the three journalists jotted down the vernissage invitations, cocktails, etcetera for the upcoming week…. The editor then took the floor.
“Sunday, Protopopoff is baptizing his son. Mustafa is the godfather. Protopopoff has invited me to the reception, at Mustafa’s digs, but I’m already booked. You, Fontenoy, you can write up a big spread for the front page….”
“Why me? I think Morisset is a lot more qualified.”
“Impossible Old Man,” this last cut him off. “I spend Sundays with the family.”
Arlov quietly tip-toed out.
“What’s the hang-up, Fontenoy,” the editor continued, “you’re not going to tell me now that you don’t like Mustafa’s paintings?!”
“Okay, I’ll go….”
Fontenoy was thinking: Always the frou-frou stuff that has nothing to do with the painting itself. Mustafa godfather of the son of his dealer Protopopoff — what a waste of space when artists who are creating the art of our times don’t have a forum, practically don’t even have champions! What a metier! Embalm cadavers, voila what we’ve been reduced to. When Mustafa had been abandoned in the gutters of Montparnasse by the seedy bar-owners who sponged money off him in exchange for a few jugs of red wine, the newspapers had no space to talk about Mustafa. Today, Mustafa no longer has any need for publicity, and they take advantage of the slightest pretext to put his name on the front page.
Leaving the newspaper office, Fontenoy remembered that he had a date with a young female painter. This Blanche Favard was doggedly pursuing him. The problem was that when it came to female painters, he never knew if these signs of attention were meant for the man or the art critic. When in doubt, he sagely opted for the second possibility.
Blanch Favard lived in the Cité Falguière, an affordable housing complex initially conceived and constructed as worker housing and now peopled almost exclusively by Bohemians. From the basements to the attics, as in the honeycombs of a hive, artists of the most diverse schools, ages, and nationalities applied themselves with the patience of worker bees and the passion of alchemists to create their Great Work. All this in the shadows of some major ghosts who continued to haunt the cité, notably that of Soutine, who’d lived in one of the studios when he arrived in Paris in 1913. The painters of the Cité Falguière still talked about Soutine. It was their re-assurance. Because a genie had once lived between these walls, it was always possible that one of them….
Fontenoy was hailed by Blanche Favard, a plump little thing with a laughing visage whose blonde mane was twisted into tresses. She emerged from one of the windows just like a conventional figure in a Viennese operetta. Fontenoy hiked up to the floor that she’d indicated.
The studio was petite, but Blanche Favard painted mostly water-colors. She’d spread them out on the divan which occupied half of the room. The work was delicate. The forms very subtle. But here again one could recognize Klee’s influence. That said, Blanche had her own particular characteristics and personality. She’d started out in one of the same modes as Klee, this was clear, but she’d extended and deepened it. In setting out her work for him, she didn’t smile. Her visage remained tense, worried. She awaited Fontenoy’s verdict with a certain anxiety. And yet he’d never abused painters. He tried to understand them, convinced that a critic always has something to learn from an artist, even the most mediocre artist. Next he eliminated from his choice painters that he didn’t understand or that he didn’t like. He rarely thrashed an artist. He preferred consecrating his articles to vaunting the artists he liked while keeping quiet about those he didn’t.
Fontenoy talked to Blanche Favard about her water-colors, in measured terms, carefully weighing his words, underlining a quality here, a certain heaviness there, or a gap in the composition elsewhere. Little by little, the visage of the young woman loosened up. As Fontenoy concluded his critique, she was smiling again.
She put some water on to boil on the small Bunsen burner posed on the floor, so that she could offer some tea to her visitor.
“I’d love to have an exhibition,” she said. “But I don’t have enough money to pay a gallery. And yet it would really help me in my work to see the public’s reaction. One can’t just paint for oneself all the time.”
Fontenoy considered for a moment, at the same time taking some water-colors over to the window so he could study them in the full sunlight.
“Well, there is a bookstore which might be open to hanging your water-colors on its walls…. It’s not the same as a gallery, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll speak with the bookseller. He’s not really into abstract art, but he trusts me.”
“Yes, but the frames? I can’t just present my water-colors like that!”
“Mumphy! We need to show them to Mumphy. I think he’ll like them. I can’t get mixed up in the financial negotiations, but I can certainly ask Manhès or Ancelin to introduce you to Mumphy.”
“Oh! You’re so sweet,” Blanche Favard exclaimed in clasping her hands together just like a Reubens angel.
Then, amiably ironic:
“I know that you don’t accept paintings, nor money. But you’re doing me a big favor! Isn’t there something I can give you?”
Henri Matisse (1869-01954), “Nude sitting down,” also known as “Pink Nude,” 1909. Oil on canvas, 33.5 x 41 cm. City of Grenoble, Grenoble Museum – J.L. Lacroix. © Succession H. Matisse. Digital photo, color. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.
“Nothing, nothing,” grumbled Fontenoy, who’d suddenly started furiously mashing his tea.
Blanche laughed archly.
“Well, you can at least accept a sugar cube because you’re crushing the bottom of my cup to death!”
Sipping his tea, Fontenoy surreptitiously examined the young woman arranging her water-colors out of the corner of his eye. How old was she? 25, 30, 35? Fresh-faced if just a tad stout, she was ageless. Fontenoy had known her for a year. He’d noticed her first consignments at the Salon of New Realities and had written a cautiously positive review. Later she’d been introduced to him at an opening, like so many other painters, he couldn’t remember when. They’d continued running into each other from time to time in the galleries or, at night, at the Select. This was the first time he’d seen her in her atelier.
As he was getting ready to go, Blanche ventured: “I have one more thing to ask of you, but I don’t dare.”
“Ask all the same.”
“So, if you succeed in getting this bookstore to exhibit me, I’d be very happy, very flattered, if you’d agree to write the pamphlet.”
Blanche Favard stepped towards the young man and took the lapels of Fontenoy’s velour jacket in her hands, tenderly manipulating them. Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath.
“So, there’s hope?”
“Yes, of course,” replied Fontenoy, trying to disengage himself.
Blanche let go of his jacket.
“I’d love to give you a kiss, but you’d think it was just for services rendered.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” sputtered Fontenoy, uneasy. “So, bon courage. I’ll keep you updated on my efforts.”
Chantal Akerman, “Dis Moi.” Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2018, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak, (Except translated citation, copyright Editions de l’éclat)
First published on our sister publication the Maison de Traduction in 2018 and revised today. Chantal Akerman killed herself on October 5, 2015. Unfortunately, the intellectual level of the discourse at the middle-brow Radio France chain France Culture has only deteriorated since this piece was first published. The daily book program has now been changed to an ‘oeuvre’ emission, focusing its opening week on Stanley Kubrick. Most of the authors producer Guillaume Erner interviewed and promoted during the drive-time program’s first weeks were fellow France Culture animators. By far the chain’s most erudite program, Questions d’Islam, is broadcast at 7 a.m. Sunday morning — when some of the people who most need to hear it are likely to be sleeping it off. And a new Sunday show, Sign of the Times, devoted more time to discussing the “Caca Club” a recent guest belonged to 30 years ago than the actual book which was the show’s putative subject; when the program’s other guest, a (female) literary critic, finally managed to get a word in edgewise to talk about the ‘oeuvre’ in question, the (like the author, male) host cut her off after 30 seconds with: “We don’t want to do a conference here.” Signs of the times indeed. (What does this rant have to do with Chantal Akerman, besides as indicated below? Unlike these programs, like the true intellectual and artist she was, Akerman never spoon-fed her public answers and meaning in pre-masticated mental baby food. Why are we running this piece again — albeit with revisions? Because it’s important to continue to hear the voices of the heretics.)
“Leave your stepping stones behind you, something calls to you.
Forget the dead you’ve left they will not follow you….
Strike another match, let’s start anew.
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
– Bob Dylan, as interpreted by Joan Baez
Droll, colorful, imaginative, incisive, complex without being complicated, erudite without being aloof, humble before the oeuvre and authoritative in the aesthetic background she applies to analyzing it, curious — in effect, the art professor of your dreams, and who confirms, in the best tradition of Clement Greenberg, Edwin Denby, Michel Ragon, and Phillip Larkin that criticism can be its own art form – Corinne Rondeau not only knows her material but knows how to sell her arguments. On Radio France’s nightly critical round-table La Dispute, the rhetorical perambulations, pirouettes, and sautées I look forward to following the most are Rondeau’s. So when I heard that Editions de l’éclat had published a 125-page essay by my critical chou-chou on on one of my cinematic super-cheries, the late Chantal Akerman, I couldn’t wait to turn off my radio and sink my mandibles into something that instead of feeding my anxieties — these days Radio France might as well be called Radio MIT (all Muslims, Immigrants, and Terrorism, all the time) — promised to stimulate my intellect and my appetite for art.
As brain food, “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit” exceeds my expectations. Whether the author succeeds in fulfilling her announced intention, heralded in a cover citation from the filmmaker*, to analyze Akerman’s achievement not through the prism of biography but on its own merits, is another question.
Chantal Akerman. Courrtesy Cinematheque Française.
Since her October 5, 2015 suicide in a lonely Paris hotel room at the age of 65, which capped a 47-year career of creating films and installations that traverse fiction and documentary and transgress many other frontiers of form, sexuality, sentiment, genre, religion, race, nationality, economics, and cartography, Chantal Akerman seems to have become a cipher, with many of those who survived her (acolytes, colleagues, critics) seeing in her work and/or life (and chosen manner of dying) the manifestation of our own predicament or station (relative to mainstream society and its mores) or proof of our own theorems. In my own case, I decided that Akerman’s suicide was a response to an indifferent mainstream media, welding her desperate act to that particular chip on my own shoulder, and/or the pained reaction of the child of a Holocaust survivor to seeing Jewish schools in her Belleville neighborhood (once predominantly Jewish) in 2015 — 70 years after the Deportation of 74,000 French and foreign Jews including 11,000 children, a scant 3,000 of whom returned from the camps — guarded by armed soldiers. An emerging female filmmaker who wrote to me after my first piece on Akerman’s work and death appeared on the Arts Voyager (reprised here), seemed to identify with what she perceived as Akerman’s outsider alienation. A short movie the young woman made inspired by the Belgian-born director even aped Akerman’s sensibility and included a reference to the exploding oven of Akerman’s first film. For a while, images of the filmmaker took over the top of my correspondent’s Facebook page. Another young female cineaste I met at the after-party for a performance at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt in Paris shortly after the November 13 massacres of 130 civilians wondered whether Akerman’s suicide was prompted by a premonition of the attacks; she didn’t want to be around to witness them. More broadly, some journalists mused that it was not uncommon for either children of Holocaust survivors or a child whose parent had just died, both facts true for Akerman, to choose to end their lives. (When they speculated on Akerman’s suicide at all; ingrained French respect for the privacy of this choice — not atypical in a country without a right-to-die law — often trumped instinctive journalistic rapacity in the limited coverage of her death.) And of course the theme had popped up in her films, from the endearingly cloying debut short “Saute ma Ville,” produced in 1968, not long after she caught a screening at Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives of Godard’s “Pierrot le fou” (which ends with Jean-Paul Belmondo lighting the fuse of a head-dress of dynamite, a conclusion echoed in Akerman’s film, starring her), to “Letters Home,” the staged recitation of an exchange of letters between Sylvia Plath and her mother (enacted by Delphine Seyrig and her daughter).
Chantal Akerman in her 1968 directorial debut, “Saute ma Ville.” All rights reserved and courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 17 at 5 p.m., on a program with “Le Déménagement” and “La Chambre” as part of a month-long retrospective.
Without questioning her sincere, considered, and critically informed admiration for the oeuvre itself, after having attempted to masticate “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” I can’t help but reflect that in at least one minor and one major way, Rondeau seems to have followed the same tendency as the rest of us. Her vision of the work often seems to be directed by her own theories and aesthetic pre-occupations, and not vice-versa — at least as far as I can see from the paucity (or opacity) of some of the celluloid evidence cited to support her arguments. As opposed to her radio perambulations, in which Rondeau tries to decipher what an artist is trying to say and then explains in lucid, brilliant, and down-to-earth terms how well an exhibition does or doesn’t reveal the artist’s modus vivendi, here she sometimes seems to be trying to accommodate Akerman’s films to a theme of her own predilection: Night. (Or at least doesn’t always clearly explain the basis for her conclusion that it’s a central preoccupation for Akerman.) And whereas in her aural expositories I feel like I’m standing next to Rondeau in a museum or gallery, riveted to an oeuvre I’m seeing through her eyes, here she sometimes leaves me idling at the entrance without the door code.
Chantal Akerman, “La Chambre.” Copyright Chantal Akerman.
First, let’s get to the Jewish thing.
After announcing — with that citation* from the artist on the front cover — that it would be a mistake to look for clues to understanding Akerman in her biography and that one should “look elsewhere,” Rondeau appears to ignore her own advice by exploring the most obvious aspect of Akerman’s personal story: That she’s Jewish and the child of a Holocaust survivor. Thus she sprinkles a very brief book with more tantalizing citations of Jewish philosophers than I’ve come across in France in two decades: Vladimir Jankélévitch, Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot – even Gershom Scholem, who proved to be my downfall in Martha Himmelfarb’s Judaism in the Greco-Roman World class my first freshman year at Princeton …. Not that I’m kvetching about discovering or re-discovering them! In a French societal context in which Jews are often perceived through negative prisms (targets of anti-Semitism, vicitms of the Shoah/Holocaust/Deportation, presumed loyalty to Israel no matter how grave its war crimes and crimes against humanity, controlling all the banks, Christ killers) or positive stereotypes that are just as racialist as the negative ones (if I hear Radio France refer once more to the particular vision of “Jewish American” writers, I’m going to choke on my Gefilte Fish) — in this general ambiance which circumscribes “Jewish identity” to these limited dimensions, it’s restorative to be reminded of a legacy which, immersed in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “The Promise” on a cross-country family trip in high school, once inspired me to ask my grandpa to arrange a belated bris (the non-medical, Jewish name-bestowing part) and Cliff’s Notes bar-mitzvah once we reached Miami: The value Jews have always placed on scholarship and books, with an intellectual firmament delineated not by blind doctrinal adherence to the Word but by innate curiosity and the spirit of Talmudic debate, not reserved to discussions of Halacha but stretching into lay terrain. (Not a value exclusive to Jews; in Emile Ajar/Romain Gary’s 1975 novel “All of life before you,” an elderly French-Arab Belleville resident befriended by the pre-adolescent narrator clings to the Koran with one hand, “Monsieur Hugo” with the other, as the last ramparts against encroaching senility.) So I thank Rondeau for reminding me that this is also part of my inheritance; if I can’t defend Israel, I can still take pride in Scholem’s comment (I’m older now and more perceptive, if not more wiser), cited by Rondeau, about the importance of “transmitting the things which are without name.” (A precept which certainly drove Akerman.) If Benjamin and Jankélévitch have been cited in other discourses here in France, even on middle-brow France Culture radio (notably by the philosopher Michel Onfray), it has rarely been in a Jewish context. (And with Jewish delis, bookstores, and bakeries being supplanted by national clothing chains on the rue des Rosiers in the heart of the Marais — Goldberg’s is gone, so forget about finding kischka in Paris — there’s no longer even a local equivalent of Williamsburg to remind me of these positive aspects of my roots.)
So I don’t begrudge Rondeau the references. It just seems to me that she wants to have it both ways: on the one hand, to be able to claim that unlike the rest of us, she’ll be the one to finally analyze Akerman on the basis of her work and not her identity and on the other to be able to liberally cull from Jewish philosophers whose thinking illuminates Akerman’s work.
Delphine Seyrig in “Jeanne Dielman, 23, rue de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, ” 1975. Chantal Akerman. Copyright Janus Films and courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 18 at 2:30 p.m., with Sami Frey’s ‘Making of” documentary screening February 25 at 5:45 p.m.
More problematic than this contradiction is that elsewhere in the book, the film excerpts that Rondeau cites to support her thesis are often fleeting, ephemeral, gossamer images devoid of any narrative framework or references. It’s as if she’s writing for a narrow coterie of colleagues – the Chantal clique — who have already seen all the films in question, so that she feels she can dispense with even an elementary plot description. (The book is dedicated to Akerman’s longtime collaborator Claire Atherton.) And yet even the most expert of critics usually doesn’t assume the reader has already seen the work s/he’s writing about. When I discovered Denby – half a century after the epoch he was writing about — it didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen the performances nor even most of the ballets he was responding to; I was enraptured — he and other critics I read at the time (notably Marcia B. Siegel) helped me fall in love with dance and determined me to write about it. Rondeau’s radio commentaries have a similar effect on me. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t seen the exhibitions she’s discussing; her regard is so precisely brilliant that it’s almost better seeing them through her eyes. If a written commentary can certainly be more sophisticated and philosophically dense (without being opaque), than radio chatter, it shouldn’t be at the expense of clarity, which is often the case here. I sometimes feel like I’m lost in the middle of a rhetorical swamp (and not one as colorfully perilous as Renoir’s in his Louisiana swamp film) without a map. (Even Godard, who doesn’t always deign to include even a summary plot description in his Cahiers du Cinema critiques because his concerns are more profound and technical, still leaves me with a clear sense of where both he and the film are going, even if I haven’t seen the work; in fact he makes me want to.**) And I’m no piker when it comes to Akermania. What Rondeau may not realize is that outside of Paris and New York (and maybe Chicago, where she shows up in a course on Time at the School of the Art Institute), the films of Chantal Akerman are so rarely projected that more narrative context would have been in order. (Most of the friends I’ve told about her, including culturally literate intellectuals, even in France, have never heard of Chantal Akerman. When “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” was broadcast on TCM, it was from midnight to four in the morning. I found Akerman’s chef d’oeuvre in a library in East Fort Worth, Texas graced with a particularly curious librarian. But if I knew to look for her, it was because I’d been able to catch the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.***)
“Almayer’s Folly,” 2011. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved. Courtesy Cinematheque Française, screening the film February 12 at 9 p.m. and 22 at 9:30.
I’ve considered whether it might be my perception – my own lack of theoretical background — and not Rondeau’s logic which is too dense; whether her thinking might just be too complex for me to follow. Because translating an author usually forces me to fathom her meaning in French so that I can do justice to it in English, I decided to try this for the section of “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit” in which Rondeau zooms in on her uber-theme — “the night Akermanian” — as she believes it to be manifest in “Almayer’s Folly,” a 2011 adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel. (I’ve respected the original’s structure in not breaking one long paragraph.)
“But confronted with ‘Almayer’s Folly,'” Rondeau begins on page 96, “it’s the spectator who must let go of everything he knows about [Akerman]. She forces him to not recognize her. It’s the climactic moment of her own treason, which is the absolute love for a body of work that we think we know by heart, of which we’ve already made the tour of the grounds, guided by its residents. But Akerman goes further. With the night of ‘Almayer’s Folly,’ she doesn’t stop saying, without saying: take it to the limit like one lives, nothing less — let yourself be carried away. Then we enter into the night as in a film in which we don’t understand anything, which mixes up time, putting the befores after the afters, not by disorder intended to destroy any and all continuity, but to thwart the slightest hope of putting any order in the grand upheaval of the night, of a life which offers moments of crazy beauty. A beauty we don’t recognize, because beauty is recognizable by that which we don’t recognize in ourselves, the great stranger who sweeps up everything, to whom we grant for no reason, without reticence, all our care to abandon. There’s no beauty without hearing the call: abandon yourself. Yes it’s folly, but ‘folly’ is also love’s other name. Abandon all causalities, chronological order, and assure the disorder — in other words, [engage in] hospitality: Make space for that which doesn’t have space, for that which we don’t recognize. Make space even when one doesn’t have space oneself; learn to displace oneself in the interior of one’s home, in the interior of one’s solitude as well, because the solitude is not solitude, it’s the power of the many. Open oneself to a film in which it’s useless to try to resolve the leaps in time, the chiasms. Ever since ‘Saute ma ville,’ we know that the story happens also in the ellipses, but we never know what remains in the ellipsis. It depends at times on the silence of an explanation, not to hide it, but because that’s how it is and that’s all. To love in order to welcome the disorder of life as it is; why put it all in order at the end, why do we all give ourselves the illusion of order at the end? Yet we don’t know the end until the end of the story, at the moment when we’ve already departed. This is why we have passeurs [those who transmit us from one bank to the other, like the ferryman], rather than connoisseurs, not to restore order in the space of those who have departed, but rather to accept that which we don’t understand about their departure [Akerman’s decision to kill herself comes to mind], to make a place for that which remains without response — the reason that it’s useful to make, to create space rather than a space. What we find is right there before our eyes, and what we sense is that it’s futile to exceed what’s given: beauty and strangeness, such is ‘Almayer’s Folly.’ It’s no longer a visage nor a landscape with which we’re confronted. We find ourselves in front of a night equal to those rivers which flow down to the sea: the intensities of the night, tempest, storm, wind, the reflection of the moon — what remains of the day when the Sun is behind us, when the soil displays our shadow, disrupting the course of the water, the course of time which a violent flurry can reverse. Night creates its place out of that which we discard, if only we let ourselves be swept away by its currents. Grand nocturne of relentless sonic sensations: the buzz of flies, the chirping of crickets, the diluvium rain which batters the water’s surface, the tremor of the rivulets in the wake of an embarcation, Dean Martin’s ‘Sway,’ Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum,’ the prelude to ‘Tristan and Iseault’ in constant replay. Relentless visual sensations as well: the blue and pink aurora of the morning and the black eyes of a disturbing, immobile, statuesque woman of a melancholy beauty, the trace of the moon’s reflection which in the storm scrambles sight, the colored reflections from the lights of a ship which sails past without stopping, the reeds which bend in passing bodies in the jungle, stirred up by the wind which carries away all reason, screams, and the branch which shoots up from the water like the arm of a drowning man that one catches sight of twice, and that continues to float for how much time afterwards.
“Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained, ‘Almayer’s Folly’ is an immense film about the unbridled nature of night.”
And a bit later:
“Because memory can’t exist unless it follows forgetting. ‘Almayer’s Folly’ creates a space for forgetting so that memory can emerge from that which forgetting takes from disappearance. There’s the memory impossible to forget; now comes the forgetting impossible not to leave, because without forgetting, there’s no memory. And if we forget the Night Akermanian, all memory is sacrificed, as well as its call: Let go. One also needs time, a relatively long time, to let go.”
After translating this elegiac rhapsody, and then reading the translation several times, it’s not only clear to me that Rondeau loves Akerman, but that the critic maintains a visceral attachment to the filmmaker that few of us – even we critics censé d’etre sur-doué avec des pouvoirs de perception super-human — can aspire to, with any of our creator subjects. And that – justement – goes beyond a simple grasp of the stories Akerman is recounting (and re-recounting), and even any uber story, to lassoe, however tenuously (like a cowboy trying to get ahold of and pin down a heifer who’s hide has been greased) the metaphysical meaning and potential resonances of Akerman’s oeuvre. And which has helped her to find in “Almayer’s Folly” a key to understanding the place cinema occupies as preservational amber. “Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained” – a decree Rondeau brilliantly supports by evoking the film’s sequence of the uprooted tree branch which weaves in and out of Almayer’s view as it recedes down the river — might apply to the art form more broadly and its relation to memory and how it (mis)informs our regard towards the past. (And even beyond the realm of cinema: “Leave your stepping stones behind you, something calls to you. / Forget the dead you’ve left they will not follow you…./ Strike another match, let’s start anew. /And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” – Bob Dylan, as interpreted by Joan Baez.) I even find a cautionary alert about my own nostalgic tendancies, often goaded by cinematic evocations of epochs I never lived (in particular the late 1940s and the 1950s, a passion albeit tempered lately by the acquisition in a Left Bank bookstore of I.F. Stone’s “The Haunted Fifties”; Ike may have been liked but he let McCarthy get away with murder).
“De l’autre côté,” Chantal Akerman, copyright 2001. Courtesy Cinematheque française, where the documentary screens March 1 at 7:30 p.m., on a mixed program with “Les années ‘80” and “Histoires d’Amérique.”
As if to confirm my impression that elsewhere Rondeau sometimes loses something, clarity-wise, when she passes from spoken word to the printed page, the clearest section of the book is the one based on a previous discourse, perhaps initially delivered out loud in English, as it was Rondeau’s contribution to Westminster University’s November 2016 colloquium “After Chantal” (note the exclusive employment of the first name — another indication of cipherdom). Here her theme relies on another film I’ve not seen (see above regarding the rarity of Akerman projections outside of Paris and New York), the 2000 “De l’autre côté,” but unlike with “Almayer’s Folly,” this time Rondeau’s theme — riffing on the film’s subject of frontiers and border crossings, here between Mexico and the United States — doesn’t elude me. It’s as though the prospect of delivering her thesis directly to an audience (and an Anglophone audience at that) forced the author to be more lucid, as in her radio commentaries. Even in the part of her analyses focusing on a more ephemeral installation which complemented the film, “Une voix dans le dessert,” and which involved “putting a screen on the frontier between the United States and Mexico.” (Here’s an alternative idea for Donald Trump. Or perhaps a mirror would be more appropriate in this case.) This time Rondeau does a better job of connecting the scenarios of the oeuvres in question with her theme of night, the night which can cloak the passage of the clandestine, the night in which a woman can get lost without leaving a trace (except her bones, as has discovered another artist who’s made it his mission to track migrants’ skeletons in the Sonora desert of Arizona so he can put up memorials to the thousands who have perished there), the night which frightens with its opacity, the night whose monochromatic canvas can also be evoked by the vast white sands of the dunes, the frontier between night and day evoked by the border and its barriers, the night which confounds nationalities, the night in which different nationals can exist simultaneously in multiple dimensions and articulated in different fashions (Rondeau refers to narrations delivered in different languages by Akerman) and through different mediums. And thus has better narrative footing for discussing Akerman, who constantly crossed and transgressed frontiers and borders in a multitude of manners.
When it comes to Akerman films I actually have seen that she discusses, Rondeau bats about .333. (In baseball terms, nothing to be ashamed of; Ted Williams territory, if you’ll forgive the side tribute to Jonathan Schwartz, the NYC institution who is Williams’s most consistent fan and another of my radio heroes.) She backs up her observation about the 1999 “Sud”‘s concern with traces (of the past and future) by describing Akerman shooting, from the back of a pick-up truck, the asphalt trajectory of and markings left by James Byrd, Jr. as he was dragged to death from the back of another truck. (What I remember most about catching the film at the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou is my American date’s observation, on seeing one of the young white trash subjects: “I know that guy,” meaning she recognized the type.)
Juliette Binoche in “Un divan a New York,” 1995. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved. Courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 16 at 7|:30 p.m. and February 19 at 5 p.m..
At the Centre Pompidou’s 2004 Akerman retrospective, I had the opportunity to exchange with the filmmaker following a screening of the French-language version of the romantic comedy “Un divan a New York,” in which Park Avenue psychiatrist William Hurt exchanges apartments with Belleville dancer Juliette Binoche, with both hilarity and havoc ensuing, as Hurt’s patients find Binoche a much more effective shrink while his Paris adventure is sabotaged by ongoing construction on Binoche’s digs. (I could relate; living in Belleville in 2015, from my window I saw, and heard, the spectacle of a team of city workers taking down a whole apartment building and two cherry trees so they could replace it with another.) Having also seen the English language version of the film at Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives (where Akerman had her big bang upon seeing Godard’s “Pierrot le fou”), I just couldn’t wait to have her thank me when I stood up during the Q&A to declare how much I loved her movie. “I hated it,” she essentially responded; as I recall, mainly because it was a (rare) commercial commission and because of the demands of one of the stars.
So when Rondeau chides fellow Akerman acolytes who dismiss “Un divan a New York” for not being consistent with the rest of Akerman’s oeuvre, she’s ignoring that the filmmaker herself considered it the black sheep of her family of films.
As Akerman herself is no longer around to dialogue with, it would have been nice if for its retrospective on her running through March 2, the Cinematheque Française would have invited someone who relates to her work on a deeper level than any other critic: Corinne Rondeau. Astoundingly, Rondeau was not among the speakers invited to introduce or debate Akerman’s oeuvre during the retrospective. When asked why, a Cinematheque spokesperson told me, incredibly, “her very fine book came out last October.” In other words, never mind the level of scholarship, authority, expertise, passionate devotion, emotional implication and investment, and erudition — in the limited scope of those running the Cinematheque these days, if it came out earlier than tomorrow it’s suddenly irrelevant. This from a *cinematheque*, where archival interests should prime.
Oh look! It’s Wednesday evening — when La Dispute focuses on the plastic arts, Corinne Rondeau’s fiefdom. At least I can look forward to my radio day terminating with more original stimulation than that with which it began (when a France Culture morning program theme announced as “a look at changing jurisprudence” fatally degenerated into yet another discussion of terrorism and jihadists). For this intellectual stimulation — justement for giving me matter to chew on that I don’t always understand — I thank the gods of cinema for Chantal Akerman, and even France Culture for exposing me to the exalting perspective and way of thinking of Corinne Rondeau.
*”No, no, certainly not…. I don’t believe one should look to autobiography [for clues], it puts you in a box,” a manner to say [Rondeau adds in the cover citation]: perhaps look elsewhere.
** “Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard,” Collection Cahiers du Cinema, Editions Pierre Belfond, 1968.
***If you don’t want to wait until the next time TCM broadcasts “Jeanne Dielman” at an hour you won’t be able to stay up to see it, Criterion has bundled its DVD package of the film with both Godard veteran Sami Frey’s “Making of” documentary and Akerman’s debut short “Saute ma ville.”
From the Arts Voyager Archives: Paul Cézanne (Aix-en-Provence, 1839-1906, Aix-en-Provence), “The Card Players,” c. 1890-92. Oil on canvas, 65.4 x 81.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. 61.101.1. RP 707.
First published in the Jardin des Arts, November 1964. Michel Ragon turns 95 today. Also celebrating a birthday today is PB-I’s mother Eva Wise, to whom the translation is dedicated. To read more work by Michel Ragon, enter his name on the Arts Voyager search engine, or visit our sister site the Maison de Traduction. Like what you’re reading? Please make a donation today so that we can continue this work. You can designate your payment through PayPal in dollars or Euros to email@example.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail.
MERION, Pennsylvania — During my recent stay in the United States, I was able to obtain — via the State Department, of whom I was the guest — the authorization to visit the Barnes Collection.
I had to wait a month before being admitted, on a Friday, among the 200 visitors who, twice per week, are authorized by the descendants of Dr. Barnes to penetrate his house in Merion, outside Philadelphia.
The State Department must have emphasized my credentials as a novelist and not as an art critic because even today, 13 years after the death of the famous collector, his house is off-limits mainly to journalists and anyone else interested in artistic matters. Reportages on the collection — at least those offering a room-by-room analysis — are thus rare. They tend to focus rather on the works known to have been acquired by the doctor. The secrecy which surrounds the works, the quarantine of the foundation to specialists, the impossibility of reproducing the paintings because it’s also forbidden to photograph not only the interior of the museum, but even the exterior, has endowed the Barnes collection with the mystique of forbidden fruit.
Departing specially from New York for Philadelphia, to get to Merion I had to take a petit suburban train. If Merion is a suburb of Philadelphia, it’s a rural suburb. A miniscule train station, a road which winds along parks lead to the iron grill of the Barnes property. A uniformed police officer stationed in a large car bars the alley. After verifying that my name was indeed on the list, he authorized me to penetrate the park, dominated by a spacious demeure “à la française.” After this you still need to ford the gauntlet of uniformed guards, fork over the $1 entry fee as in any normal museum, and then you’re finally free to roam from one room of the apartments to the next, to regard the works as long as you like, and to take notes, without which this article would not have been possible. All this under the eyes of an army of stony-faced guardians.
But before describing the Barnes collection, it might be useful to recount its origins and, along the way, to sketch a portrait of its founder.
The “Argyrol” millionaire
Albert C. Barnes is the very model of the type of American collector of whom I’ve been able to view numerous contemporary counterparts. These ‘self-made men’ are a sort of Mr. Jourdain as likely to have brilliant streaks of inspiration as to fall prey to ludicrous infatuations. Millionaires subject to chaotic aesthetic impulses, they’re absolutely convinced of being the modern equivalent of the Renaissance art patron.
Born in Philadelphia on January 2, 1872, Barnes had a father who worked for the municipal abattoirs. Often unemployed, he was unable to support the elementary needs of the family. Dr. Barnes’s childhood thus took place in the slums of the fringes of the city. At 11 he started working, as a newsboy. But at 13, an unexpected scholarship enabled him to go to high school, where he cemented friendships with two boys who would go on to become the major American painters of the turn of the century, or at least valued as such in America, John Sloan and William J. Glackens.
John Sloan (1871 – 1951), “Six O’Clock, Winter, 1912.” Oil on canvas. ©2011 Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Acquired 1922, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. . From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”
The origins of Albert C. Barnes’s passion for painting date from these adolescent encounters. His classmates effectively opened up to him a world of art to which he was previously oblivious, with the initial reaction that he tried to become a painter himself. While he was studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania he even participated in some exhibitions. To his fellow students he declared, “I want to earn a lot of money as quick as possible so that I can be free to dedicate myself to the major interest of my life: Art.”
He found his method of making money in Heidelberg, in 1900, in the person of a fellow student, Herman Hille, in the process of preparing a chemistry thesis. Forging a friendship, the two young men conducted experiments together on silver vitellinate. Who should get the credit for what? It seems evident that Dr. Barnes could not have conducted the experiments without Dr. Hille because when he returned to the United States, he asked Hille to join him. Together they put the finishing touches, in 1902, on an anti-septic which they dubbed “Argyrol.” From the moment the product went on sale, success was immediate and Barnes set about eliminating his collaborator and friend. Eventually worn down, Hille sold his shares to Barnes for several hundred thousand dollars.
Barnes starts acquiring
Exclusive owner of Argyrol, Dr. Barnes, who refused to file a patent for his discovery so that the formula would remain secret, renounced his career as a painter to devote himself to the metier of collector.
From the Arts Voyager Archives: John Marin (1870-1953). “Tunk Mountains, Maine,” 1948. Oil on canvas. ©Estate of John Marin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Collection of Louisiana Art & Science Museum, Baton Rouge. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
His initial purchases, in the galleries of New York and Philadelphia, focused on the painters of the Barbizon School, then in vogue among American collectors. When he hooked up again with Glackens, this last, dismayed, realized that his wealthy friend had become the easy target of art dealers of questionable honesty, who took advantage of him to liquidate their holdings of second-rate paintings. Glackens urged him to go to New York and see the modern work being showcased by Alfred Stieglitz. Sloan, also reunited with his former classmate, seconded this idea. Barnes thus gave himself over to acquiring the work of the American modern painters who formed, on the eve of World War I, the first American school of modern painting, known as the Ashcan School: Prendergast, Demuth, and John Marin. Interested via them in Modern Art, Barnes decided he wanted to know their French models. To this end, he sent Glackens to Paris in 1912, with a $20,000 budget, to sow the seeds of his collection. Glackens started out by buying, from Renoir, his “Young Girl Reading.” Next he acquired Van Gogh’s “Portrait of the postman Roulin”; in total 20 paintings, among them Gauguin, Pissarro, Monet, Seurat, Degas.
Confronted with this bounty, Barnes, completely stupefied, was convinced that the art dealers of Paris must have strung Glackens along like the art dealers of New York had strung him along. Glackens nevertheless urged him to live among these paintings for a while, and Barnes was rapidly conquered by Impressionism.
In January 1913, he in turn traveled to Paris, and the role that Glackens had played for him with Impressionism, Leo and Gertrude Stein performed with Cubism. It was in effect chez the Steins that Barnes discovered Picasso, Matisse, Juan Gris, Léger, Braque. Before leaving he bought a new Renoir for $800 and a Matisse and a Picasso for $10. In this same year of 1913, he added 14 canvasses by Cezanne to the two he already possessed.
Sure of himself, Dr. Barnes started writing about art. His ideas began to earn him a reputation for extravagance. Without doubt many agreed with him when he argued that the cubist Picasso was making a fool of the public, but they were scandalized when he claimed that he’d never trade one of his Renoirs for a Raphael “Madonna.” Already, Barnes did not hold back or impose any restrictions on himself when it came to his paintings. Every year, on arriving in Paris he set aflutter the art dealers for whom he’d become “the uncle from America.” Paul Guillaume succeeded in retaining him and sold him numerous African sculptures as well as work by Segonzac, Marcoussis, Foujita, Van Dongen, Marie Laurencin, and Derain. Pascin introduced him to Lipchitz, whom he considered to be the most important contemporary sculptor, and from whom he commissioned an exterior decoration for his foundation.
Up to this point, as we’ve seen, Dr. Barnes’s choices had been singularly guided. But in January 1923 an event took place which would go on to make of Dr. Barnes the “collector-creator” that he dreamed of being. In Paul Guillaume’s vitrine he spotted a canvas by an unknown painter who set him off: Chaim Soutine’s “Petit Patissier.” (Little Baker.) He reproached Paul Guillaume, dumbfounded, for not having told him about such an ingenious painter. Paul Guillaume was not particularly interested in Soutine, but he was aware that a struggling dealer, Zborowski, was desperately trying to sell Soutine’s work. Barnes and Paul Guillaume therefore hurried over to Zborowski’s. Barnes bought his entire stock of Soutines, according to some accounts for 60,000 francs. (Less than $100.) But Barnes wanted to meet the artist, who he found in his reeking studio in La Ruche. (The Hive, a fulcrum for Montparnasse artists in the 1920s.) Without hesitating he bought, once more, every single painting or, with those acquired from Zborowsky, 100 in total.
The collection is put off limits
At this point Dr. Barnes found himself in possession of a collection so important that he decided, with good reason, to display it at the Fine Arts School of Pennsylvania. On April 11, 1923, he therefore let the public see his great treasures for the first time. The reaction in the press was unanimous. Some spoke of the art of madmen, others of garbage, and they all attacked Soutine, who in Barnes’s eyes was the great painter he’d been searching for for so long.
Devastated, Barnes decided to close the doors of his foundation to journalists. This foundation, reserved for students –among whom, recalling his own impoverished origins, Barnes made sure were included numerous Blacks and workers — opened in the Spring of 1924. As is the case today, it was open to the public just two days per week — with the proviso that every visitor had to be approved by Barnes, who minutely scrutinized the identities of those demanding permission. Thus it was that Le Corbusier was excluded and that Alfred H. Barr, celebrated curator of the Modern Art Museum, had to use a fake name and sneak in with a group of professors.
As he grew older, Dr. Barnes became impossible, getting into arguments with everybody, committing ill-considered acts during his changes of mood (as when he traded seven magnificent Cezannes for inferior 18th-century tableaux), engaged in polemics with the newspapers, and pursued his hatred against everyone connected, whether intimately or at a distance, with the art world. On July 24, 1951, speeding along at his customary 124 KM an hour, as if the road belonged to him, he hit a truck and died instantly.
Following several trials over the possibility of opening the collection to the broader public, a 1961 court decision ordered that the foundation allow it to be visited two days per week by a minimum of 200 people. But the foundation’s directors still select who can come in and who cannot, choosing among the requests addressed to them.
Paul Cézanne, (Aix-en-Provence, 1839-1906, Aix-en-Provence), “Bathers,” 1899-1904. Oil on canvas, 51.3 x 61.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Amy McCormick Memorial Collection, Chicago, inv. no. 1942.457. RP 859. Critiquing an earlier “Bathers” tableau included in the third Independent Impressionist exhibition mounted in April 1878 at 6, rue Le Peletier, the critic Georges Riviere wrote in “L’Impressioniste,” a journal launched expressly for the exhibition at Renoir’s suggestion, that Cézanne, “the artist who has been most subjected to attack and maltreatment during the last fifteen years by both press and public,” “belongs to the race of giants. Since he cannot be compared with anyone else, people find it easier to deny him his due. Yet he has his admired counterparts in the history of painting; and if the present does not render him justice, the future will class him with his peers, among the demi-gods of art.” (Cited by Henri Perruchot in “La Vie de Cézanne,” Hachette, 1958, published in English as “Cezanne,” World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, copyright Perpetua Limited, 1961. Perruchot was Ragon’s editor at the Jardin des Arts magazine.) Courtesy Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.
Thus it was that I found myself entering the first room, dominated by the large fresco of Matisse’s “Bathers,” executed by the artist at Barnes’s request in 1933 and of which an initial version can be seen at the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris. One is initially astounded by the quantity of Renoirs and Cezannes. Notably the latter’s “Bathers” and “Card Players.” But among the 120 Renoirs that one finds from room to room, the worse are mixed in with the best. That is to say that there are Renoirs next to Maillols, but also a lot of Renoirs next to Boldinis.
This is for example the case in two small rooms, on the two sides of a larger one and where, next to Renoir, one finds accesorized very tiny works by Degas, Seurat, Rousseau, Van Gogh, and Daumier.
A Museum in Complete Disorder
Moving from room to room, one is stopped short by indisputable chefs-d’oeuvre, and surprised by the high number of mediocre works, all stacked together, all epics melanged, with absolutely no concern for museology. And there are almost as many Glackens as there are Renoirs.
Take Room III. You’ve got Puvis de Chavanne’s “Prometheus,” a small Titien, a large Renoir, two small, outrageously varnished Chardins, one Milton Avery (a second-tier American painter), a miniscule Bosch, “Christ outraged,” a small Greco, “Jesus before the Crucifixion,” and several small medieval masters.
In Room IV, more anonymous medievals, a small Lucas de Leyde triptyque, a Chinese portrait from the XIIIth century, a small Durer, next to a Lancret, a Rubens sketch, and a small icon.
Room V, a “Man in a Hat,” by Hals, hangs below a Watteau, right next to a wall of Renoirs. A decent little Bosch hangs above Cezanne’s “Small swimmers,” right next to a Rubens placed, of course, below a Renoir. A Seurat sea-scape. A nice Soutine portrait in red and a skinned lapin by the same author below a Demuth.
One can’t help being surprised by the sorry lot of Soutine’s paintings. Whereas Renoir is throughout accorded the place of honor, Soutine merits no better, more often than not, than being perched above the doors, where he’s hard to see. Did Barnes thus want to protect his favorite painter from potential assaults?
The pell-mell confusion of values, the senseless placement, is noticeable in every room. In Room VI, for example, there’s a large and beautiful Renoir swimmer in blouse, flanked by two small Corots, one Lotiron (sic), and a Goya portrait. Gauguin’s “Haere Pape” is smothered under a Renoir head, between two Prendergasts. A decent Manet (of fishermen tossing a boat into a fire) is next to a little “Annonciation” by Greco and a curious small Cezanne landscape, in full ink, next to Van Gogh. Two Chirico personages, from 1925, are placed under a Demuth.
In Room VII, between a Chardin “Still Life” and more Renoirs, there’s a surprising and indiscreet Courbet, “Woman putting on her stockings,” one of the most immodest canvasses possible. Miro is represented by a simple gouache, below a Gritchenko sold by Paul Guillaume.
Room XIV offers a magnificent surprise: Rousseau’s “Tiger Hunt.” A very good Soutine (above the door). Two monks à la death-head, by Greco; Redon, Daumier.
Room XVI, miniature Persians, Claude Lorrain, Chinoiseries, very fine Soutine “Flowers,” a Monticelli and numerous Gritchenkos. Room XVIII, some very little items certainly bought at a bargain, but which bear witness to the interest of Barnes even for the artists who began to reveal themselves just before his death because we see a small figurative painting by Geer Van Velde and four miniscule Wols. A postcard-sized Wols figures next to equally ‘modest’ work by Klee and Roualt.
Room XVII: A Picasso from the Blue period, a Cezanne, a Renoir, a Pascin but also a Cross, a Per Krogh and a naif by a French artist unknown but not without charm, who signs a “View of Bordeaux in 1884,” resembling for that matter Venice: “Guiraud, Jean-Baptiste, born in Saint-Chinian, Herault.”
From the Arts Voyager Archives: Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954),”Luxe, calme, et volupté,” 1904. Oil on canvas, 38 3/4 x 46 5/8 in. (98.5 x 118.5 cm). Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris. Gift in lieu of estate taxes, 1982. On extended loan to the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. ©2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
To access the second floor, you need to mount a stairway ornamented with tapisseries by Roualt, Picasso, and Matisse. Room XIX, Matisse’s triptyque “Luxe, calme, et volupté,” Modigliani’s “Beatrice Hastings,” a small Wols gouache, a Picasso from the Blue period, a green Soutine, an Utrillo, a Rousseau. Room XX, drawings, African art and Lipchitz sculptures; fine Cezanne water-colors, lots of Pascin, a small Wols. Room XXI: Modigliani, Utrillo, African masks; a very handsome Soutine “Trees” practically invisible above the door, according to the rule. Room XXII, more African masks and two large Modigliani women; a small Klee above a work by the contemporary Italian painter Afro, and between a Lotiron and a Chirico. Room XXIII, a fantastic Henri Rousseau (a nude woman being attacked by a bear that a hunter kills with a rifle shot, or the theme of St. George and the Dragon “modernized,” as Rousseau put it); a large Renoir, work by Lurcat, Chirico, and a Vieira da Silva from 1947.
From the Arts Voyager Archives: Paul Cézanne (Aix-en-Provence, 1839-1906, Aix-en-Provence), “Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine,” 1886-87. Oil on canvas, 59.6 x 72.3 cm. The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., inv. no. 0285. RP 598. If Paris provided him — notwithstanding his cantankerousness — with collegial support, or at least the feeling that he was not alone in attempting to extend his art — it was to his native Aix that Cézanne regularly returned, ever inspired by the bucolic surroundings in which he, Emile Zola, and Baptism Baille had often escaped as teenagers. Courtesy Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.
Citing everything would be too fastidious, but this elementary enumeration gives you an idea of the incoherencies of the accrochage. One also realizes that the Barnes collection is far from being exemplary, as is the case for example of the admirable Frick collection in New York. The Barnes collection reflects the tastes of an eccentric and despot who, on three and four levels, accumulates his treasures, without sorting them and without any apparent discernment. Admirable Rousseaus… and second-tier Rousseaus. Renoir and Glackens. Cezannes … and Jean Hugos. Drawings infantile, from folk art, of unknown naifs and, throughout on the walls, overloading them even more, between paintings already accumulated to the maximum, iron work. No titles on the frames. No dates. A fine portrait of Madame Cezanne, but also the worse Van Gogh that I’ve ever seen: a nude woman, with stockings, on a bed, in an oval frame. One gets the impression that many of these paintings were bought for their signature. If Seurat’s “Les Poseuses,” Cezanne’s “Mount St.-Victoire,” and Manet’s “Le Linge” are incontestable chefs-d’oeuvre worthy of the most important museums, the Barnes collection is above all a Renoir museum (Pierre Cabanne, in his “Novel of the Great Collectors,” estimates that Barnes has 120. But they seem like a thousand.) As far the 100 Cezannes, the 80 Matisses, and the 100 Soutines which Cabanne also cites, scattered from room to room they’re smothered among the Renoirs and the Glackens. 2000 paintings in the Barnes collection, in one incoherent museum. These painters, hidden, shielded from critics and specialists, have benefited in their ensemble from an exaggerated fame. When the Barnes collection is classed in a reasonable manner, we’ll perceive its lacunes, its weaknesses, but there remain nevertheless three or four rooms-full of chefs-d’oeuvre which will continue to make it one of the leading collections in the world
Nicolas de Stael, “Plage,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 24 x 33 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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“The wondrous envelopes us and deluges us like the atmosphere, but we don’t see it.”
— Charles Baudelaire, cited by Eli Faure in “Histoire de l’art: L’art moderne, I,” Editions Denoel, 1987
PARIS — The concrete plaque on the fence midway up the rue Menilmontant above the weed-submerged tracks of the “Petite Ceinture” which winds around Paris commemorates the three men, aged 20 to 53, who gave their lives in August 1944 to liberate their city from the German occupiers, in the conviction that waiting for the Allied troops — which landed on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago today — to do so would be to surrender their future to the Yankees. So why has the mayor of Paris — who made sure passersby knew the fresh flowers tacked to the plaque were from her — so readily ceded to the increasingly rampant Americanization of Lutèce without a fight?
Up the street from this newly opened to the public parcel of the Petite Ceinture, where you can pique-nique on freshly-fallen Queen Anne cherries while reclining on homey chaises composed of unvarnished planks of wood, a bakery-café too tony for the neighborhood is selling Mrs. Field-style cookies for 4 Euros a pop. I prefer the sunflower-encrusted variety the French Arab boulangerie on the Boulevard Menilmontant below offers for .50 cents apiece. And unlike what one older woman I dated during my recent visit to Lutèce (who claimed to be a Leftist atheist) contended, to me the biggest threat to traditional French values isn’t the scarf with which the bakery babushka chooses to cover her head but boutiques selling “cookie pauses,” restaurants calling themselves “Thank God for Broccoli,” and cafés promising “the best brunch on the Canal,” all in English. This isn’t just a question of going exotic that can be likened to a New York restaurant calling itself, say, Lutèce; it’s an appeal by Yankee commercants to Yankee customers who resume going local to ordering a croissant and café creme.
Roger Bissière, “Vert et noir (Esprits de la Fôret),” 1955. Oil on paper pasted on canvas. Photo copyright Veignant. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
If I still harbored any doubts that City Hall is just rolling over in the face of this lingual imperialism, they were dispelled by the American high school chorus chanting Frankie Valli’s ‘I love you, baby” from the chandelier’d top floor of the Hotel de la Ville on a recent Thursday evening as I returned from a twilight pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis where I’d been flirting with a red-headed, purple-stockinged German children’s book designer named Betty, in English (as we contemplated an evolving Notre-Dame whose dome now sports a white yarmulke which just might remain there long enough for some wag to observe, “Funny, you don’t look Blue-ish”; only 13 million of the 800 million Euros pledged for the church’s reconstruction has been delivered; the leading industrialist who committed 200 million just found out his gift won’t be as tax-deductable as he originally thought; and the main French patrimony foundation organizing the fundraising has rightly decided to steer future donations to some of the country’s other 2,500 sagging monuments), she sharing nightmares of walking into bottomless escalators, me of returning to school and constantly missing classes I really wanted to take. When the chorus segued into Cindy Lauper’s “Girls just want to have fun” (Cindy had accompanied my Princeton years) I had to second the emotion of the chic Parisienne striding confidently towards me who twisted the finger ballet she’d been performing into a gun and pointed it in the direction of the singing.
All this is a far cry from the mutually respectful meeting and melding of cultures promoted by Boris Vian, who, picking up after the war where Josephine Baker, the Revue Negre, and, later, Charles Trenet and the Zazous (the French version of the Zoot Suits) had left off, introduced Duke Ellington to France and ravenously devoured American jazz magazines so he could translate their choicest morsels for French jazz fans. Vian, who with Miles Davis and Juliette Greco set the tone in Saint-Germain-des-Près (“I didn’t know he was Black,” Greco quoted by Malcolm McLaren in his album “Paris” said of Davis. “And when I found out he was Black, I just cried.”), would blow his heart out on the cornet and trumpet by the age of 39, dying of a heart attack at a 1959 preview of the film version he’d opposed of his novel “I’ll spit on your graves,” the first-person account of a Black American who decides to kill as many white people as he can. Jean-François Jaeger, on the other hand — who, after taking over as director of the Jeanne Bucher gallery in 1947 upon Bucher’s death, helped the Paris abstract art movement carve out a distinct identity which left the American school in the dust — is still kicking at ninety-something. And his legacy — as personified by artists like Nicolas de Stael, Jean Dubuffet, Roger Bissiere, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva — is still vibrant, as demonstrated by a new exhibition running at the Galerie Jaeger-Bucher’s Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “La Garde des anges,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
What I love about the French abstract art of this era — the way it feeds and sustains me — is that it’s so dense. While Picasso was busy scrawling silly clowns that would make Red Skelton blanche on napkins and noble doves for the peace posters of the French Communist Party as it buried its head in the sand to the gulags, these artists were delivering genuine revolutions in every painting. (And not just at the Bucher nor only under the aegis of gallerists like Jaeger; Jean-Michel Atlan, Pierre Soulages, Wols, the COBRA group, and the critics who championed them like Michel Ragon, another “passeur,” or transmitter, also get some of the credit.) Or as Jaeger put it in 1997, “For us there are only beginnings, successive births at the will of solicitations to throw our points of view into question, each one completely owned, each one eventually contradicted by an adventure of another type, without losing the essential attachment to the quality of the mode of expression. Possessing no power of creation ourselves, we’re placed at the advance posts, the first to be subjected to the shock of a revelation born in the studio, the first to assimilate it with the goal of accomplishing our role of passeur.” Contrast this humble and self-effacing attitude with what — at least as reflected in much of the work I see in the galleries of Paris these days — seems to be the optic of Jaeger’s successors, which is to program work which confirms and assures them in their tastes.
Jean Dubuffet, “Le Bar,” 1965. Vinyl on paper mounted on canvas. 81x 100 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
Literalists like me can certainly find stories — or at least figuration — in some of the work on view at the Jaeger-Bucher if we want to, but we can also just allow it to deluge (or as Baudelaire might say, ‘abreuve’) us with sensations. (After all, if they could have said it in words, they would have become writers.) What I appreciate about this period is that art, even abstract, impenetrable art, was everywhere. Dali landscapes and Miro ‘bonhommes’ were decorating the albums of Jacky Gleason and Dave Brubeck alike. (Re-viewing several seasons of Mad Men recently after covering last year’s Aix-en-Provence exhibition of Stael’s later, Mediterranean color and light-infused paintings, I was delighted to spot one of them hanging behind the desk of the ad executive Roger Sterling, who might have been one of those American soldiers marching towards Paris.) These days, instead of European art enhancing American pop culture, a new, unimaginative generation of American pop culture artists (often with no technical training, and bragging about it) is turning up in Parisian art galleries, notably in the Marais. (The Americanization of the Marais isn’t confined to its artistic venues. Emerging earlier this year from a palatial space given over to monotonously repetitive big-eyed, long-nosed women designed by a young American artist which owed more to the Sunday comic strip “The Fusco Brothers” than Robert Rauschenberg, I ran smack dab into a window display hawking a Krispy-Kreme-scale donut with a thimble-sized cup of coffee for six Euros.) English is often the go-to language at the vernissages and in the guided tours at these venues, the press releases are in English, the exhibition titles are in English, and much of the (American) art is so crappy it would never dare to show its face in Brooklyn. Some of it (and not just the American) is so buried in conceptual (often textual) mazes that I can’t find the graphic matter.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Two. Silkscreen painting in color, signed and justified. 11.81 x 11.81 inches / 18.89 x 16.53 inches. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
The Germainopretan galleries, on the other hand, remain resolutely international in their selection and (for the most part) rigorous in their aesthetic standards. (Even the snob factor has diminished enough that I’m tempted to reverse Vian’s formula: “Encore moins snob que tout a l’heure.”) After leaving the Jaeger-Bucher earlier on the same Thursday evening that terminated on the other side of the Seine with being serenaded by American girls just wanting to have fun at City Hall, I crossed the rue de Seine to a gallery half its size where, instead of the usual jeunotte annoyed at being interrupted in whatever she was doing in front of her computer screen that was more important than me I found two young women in glasses busily arranging dozens of Victor Vasarely optical illusions neatly arrayed on the floor.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Three. Silkscreen painting in color, signed in crayon and justified. 75.5cm x 75.5cm / 83 cm x 83 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
“If you have any questions, let us know!” one enthusiastically invited me (in French). And I’m glad I did; they both knew more about the art than I did, specifically explaining to me that before Vasarely there was Agram, both of whom lead a movement sometimes called ‘cinetic’ art (Vasarely’s approach has also been described as photo-graphisme), which looks like it provided the model for the various unknown sectors the starship Enterprise would stray into a decade later. The last time I’d come upon this particular artistic genre, at a Latin American-themed gallery in the Marais whose exhibition was more mobile-oriented, the — older — galleriste had huffed when she discovered I didn’t already know what cinetic art was, “It’s very well-known!” Here, by contrast, the two young gallerists not only explained to me that ‘serigraphs’ meant ‘silk-screens,’ but when I asked what exactly this entailed, one of them, “Louise,” left the room to fetch two blank sheets of paper so she could demonstrate the process.
Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled Two. Silkscreen, signed and justified. 75.5 cm 75 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
When I finally identified myself as a journalist and asked if she had jpegs of the art available, Louise encouraged me to visit the gallery’s website and pull what I needed. (Contrast this to the attitude of the Reunion of the National Museums, which handles the publicity for the Luxembourg, Grand Palais, and other institutions, whose press offices set up so many roadblocks — often at the dictate of ADAGP, the artist rights’ syndicate which apparently thinks art magazines still make money — to featuring their art in articles about their exhibitions ((in other words, free advertising)) that I’ve given up covering them. In fact in theory I’ve given up writing about art, period, because it doesn’t keep me in croissants let alone the dentures to be able to nibble them, but the problem is that every time I go outside in Paris it seems to find me.) When, before leaving to not look for more art, I told the gallerists at the Grillon — as the space is called (Jimminy Cricket!) — about the (non) reception that usually greets me at art galleries, another, older woman who had just entered and sat down behind a desk replied, “C’est pas comme ca que ca marche ici,” that’s not how it works here.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled One. Silkscreen in colors, signed in crayon and justified. 57 cm x 45 cm / 75 cm x 60 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
After testing my new choppers (the family paid for them) on the cornichons and pretzel sticks at a third space on the rue de Seine, the Petite Gallery (unfortunately the only galleries that still offer food and drink at vernissages these days seem to be the ones with the least interesting art, which is why I’m not talking about it here), I was still doing pretty good Germainopretan snob quotient-wise until I entered a fourth gallery whose name I’ve purposely forgotten but was something like “The eyes have it” or “The eyes are everywhere” and which was offering a group exhibition under the rubric “Surrealism, the Second Generation,” purporting to cover the period 1945 – 1965. Intrigued that most of the art displayed seem to come from the collection of the Duchamp specialist Arturo Schwartz, I asked the gallerist why. Taking me aside and shaking his head (not at me but at the institution in question), he explained, “He left 700 works to the Jerusalem Museum. They promptly sold off most of them so they could buy more contemporary work.” Reverse-intrigued, I asked him why he didn’t have any Leonor Fini among the mostly male assemblage. “She wasn’t really a surrealist,” the gallerist sniffed dismissively — and typically. (Read: She was a female artist who refused to be subsumed by and subsetted into a male universe. Around Leonor’s pad in the hills above Trieste, the men wore gowns.) If you’re wondering why I’m not citing a single name of an artist who was included in the exhibition, it’s not to venge Fini but because when I took one of several copies of a list pairing works with artists as a memori menti for this article, a thin van-dycked gallery assistant with slicked-back hair chased me out of the gallery and down the rue des Beaux Arts to recuperate the material. “Hey, come back here! You can’t take that!”
Leonor Fini, “Dithyrambe, 1972. Oil on paper laid down on canvas. 30 x 21.25 inches. Courtesy CFM Gallery.
After an unhealthily more than cursory look (okay, digging-through) of a box someone had left outside another gallery with a sign “Free for the taking!” but which consisted mostly of battery-less gold-painted hand-clocks not even Dali would want to recuperate, I continued towards the Seine and the Ile St. Louis. The deal I’d made with myself was that I’d already prepared a cauliflower-potato-chicken-curry salad for the pique-nique and packed a plastic bottle of Algerian lemon soda scored at the Belleville market for 15 cents, and if I didn’t like it on the Ile, I could just get up and leave. The reasons I thought I wouldn’t like it were a) the first time that I’d retrieved “my” bench on the Ile during this Paris visit, I’d run down to the Seine from Beaubourg (the Pompidou) so fast — you might have thought Niki de Saint Phalle’s big-breasted mermaid had jumped out of the Stravinsky fountain (yet another that’s been left out to dry) and was chasing after me — that I’d no sooner sat down on “my” bench than I felt like I was about to have the runs and had to run back up to the Right Bank, where my go-to toilet outside the Metro Pont-Marie was flashing the dreaded red ‘out-of-order’ sign, and the open toilet I finally found near the Theater Sarah Bernhardt just as time was running out was out of toilet paper, leaving me to show up at a Valentine’s Day vernissage in the Marais with proof that my shit really did stink too. (Looking up at a dried-out David Hockney tree I felt very wet.), b) the second time I’d tried, after an initial post-fire visit to Notre-Dame to size up the damage for you, I’d been scared off by four bulky British rugby-players bunched onto “my” bench and blasting their music de merde on their portables (there used to be an unspoken rule among We the People of the Ile that you didn’t impose your music on others), and c) the years I used to spend every Friday night on the Ile after trolling for used records off the rue Mouffetard where I’d had my cheap cafe latté standing at a tall table contemplating the curvy form and curve-throwing bon mots of MissTic were my drinking years, only unlike Baudelaire I had no Gauthier to record the resultant reveries of this artificial Paradise, so all I remember besides the way the rippling of the Seine seemed to glitter more brightly as the Sun set over Notre-Dame after a glass of pastis is how heavy I felt walking towards Pont-Marie afterwards (the pique-nique also contributed; I wasn’t just drinking), and how when I tried to replace the half a bottle of red or two cans of Pelforth Brune with a whole bottle of tomato juice it just wasn’t the same. If I didn’t have a scribe like Gauthier or Baudelaire (whose building at 33 rue Lamartine had been my first after moving to Paris) to lend these evenings a literary flavor, I did have a librarian: A bouquiniste, Marcel, whose noble trade — having a best friend who sold books along the Seine made me feel like a real Paris insider — blinded me to his fickle soul. I hadn’t had any contact with Marcel since 2014, when he wrote to say that according to his new and young White Russian bride (the same who, after a French Arab man who was more French than she was left the elevator we’d shared at the Metro Place de Lilas had scowled, “They should all go back where they came from”), “You look like a Hobo” (the teeth no doubt).
Thus it was that telling myself if I didn’t like it — if I encountered more music de merde to perturb my tranquility — I didn’t have to stay I made my way to the Ile along the newly pedestrianized Right Bank of the Seine, discovering the spanking new mahogany benches around tables where people were eating, drinking, and partying, and of course, the one decent toilet within five kilometers, an equally spanking new white facility. (You’re just too good to be true, can’t keep my eyes off of you.)
Taking the stairs back up to the street after passing the Hotel de la Ville so I could access the bridge to the Ile — the urge to see if Marcel (not his real name) was still there manning his ‘box’ above a ramp leading down to the river was also a factor — I didn’t find my literary friend but further on was reassured to see that Pierre, a bouquiniste to whom Marcel had shown the ropes, was faithfully at his station, and recognized me enough to nod.
The last time I’d seen Pierre — I’d just fled from a late-career, ear-splitting Pina Bausch spectacle at the Bernhardt and decided to linger in the neighborhood so that I could go back for the after-party and at least have some food and drink to compensate for the ear damage, plus my friend Sabine had stayed for the second act — he’d insisted that I was working for the CIA. “That’s why your teeth are so bad — It’s a disguise!” When he’d announced after hanging up the cell phone he’d told me a Chinese guy had sold him that he had to take off for a rendez-vous with a Vietnamese woman, I’d responded, “I know. We’re the ones who told the Chinese guy to sell you the cell phone after we put a bug in it.” By his laughing reaction I wondered if Pierre had just been ribbing me.
On this recent retrieval, Pierre’s curly hair was scanter and his face more arid from the exposure to the Sun and wind ricocheting off the Seine, and he was sporting an aborted handle-bar mustache and sharing a bottle of red with his potes around a small fold-up table he’d set up in front of his stand, where the books were piled up in pell-mell chaos. The new teeth had apparently improved my stature. “You’re a bouquiniste also, right?” “No, I’m a friend of Marcel’s.” Indicating the Red Guards cap on his head, I observed, “Last time I saw you were wearing a Chinese peasant lamp-shade hat to protect you from the Sun.” “Vietnamese!” Pierre corrected me, pulling the lampshade out from behind a pile. Then nodding up at a row of lantern-cages with stuffed parrots in them hanging like birds on a wire from the green-iron hood of the stand above the piles of books, he suggested, “Tapper and see what happens.” As I prepared to deliver a round-house wallop on the first cage he chided me impatiently, “No no, clap your hands *together.*” I did, and the lanterns lit up as the birds began to sing.
Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled One. Silkscreen, signed and justified, 77 cm x 70.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
(Original French version follows English translation.)
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Manhès lived in an atelier behind the Montparnasse train station, on a narrow street as muddy in the winter as the Lithuanian ghetto back alley where he was raised. Between the train tracks and the bustling neighborhood around the avenue Maine subsisted a practically rural little island, where automobile and even foot traffic was rare. Little by little this island was being devoured by the expanding dependences of the train station. All that remained were a few hovels, several rows of dilapidated ateliers in which a handful of artists lived in constant fear of expropriation.
Manhès’s atelier, like those of his neighbors, consisted of an entry level with a dirt floor. A dressing-room served as a bedroom. With a very high ceiling that made it impossible to heat during the winter, this room looked more like a storage space than a lodging. The only modern comfort was electric lighting. No water, no gas. A pump in the street provided for all the residents’ needs.
Forty-two years old, Manhès had lived in Paris for 20 years. The war had interrupted his career just at the moment where he was beginning to find his own personal style. From 1940 to 1944 he fought with the Maquis in the forests around Limoges, finishing his service in Germany with General Lattre after receiving three minor wounds. When he returned to Paris, the galleries were already full up and all the comfortable artists’ ateliers had been swept up by the nouvelle riche bourgeoisie.
Before the war, Manhès knew Klee in Germany as well as Kandinsky, whom he frequented when the great abstract art theorist took refuge in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, where he died. He came under their influence at first and then, slowly, developed his own style. From the moment he resumed working in 1945, in this sordid atelier where he continued to live, he produced Manhès, that is to say a type of painting which didn’t resemble any other and which, from this very fact, shocked everyone.
The figurative painters and the fans of traditional painting accused him of being abstract, while the abstract painters, as well as their supporters à la Charles Roy, accused him of clinging to an outmoded style of figurative painting. Because a strange form of poetry emanated from Manhès’s art, he was also subject to the dismissive epithet of being “literary.” Numerous younger artists formed a real cult around him, falling under his sway. Bolstered by this following, he could have easily founded his own school, as did Matisse and Léger, but he liked to say that art could not be taught, that the only thing one could pass on to others was cooking recipes; he preferred consecrating his time entirely to his work, which had finally arrived at a level of authority acknowledged by the majority of art aficionados.
Manhès was no longer poor. His contract with Laivit-Canne assured him a very honorable monthly stipend and on top of this, he was allowed to sell on his own whatever paintings his gallery didn’t take. He fantasized about soon being able to buy a decent studio. Acquired by the most important collectors, recognized as one of the leaders of the prevailing art current, he seemed to have finally arrived when his altercation with Laivit-Canne arrived to throw everything up in the air.
Manhès wasn’t particularly worried about the rupture in the contract, but the vexing words of his dealer weighed heavily on his heart. Ancelin, loyal Ancelin, whom he favored among all his disciples and who had become his intimate friend even though ten years separated them, followed him to his studio. It was Manhès who persuaded Laivit-Canne to offer Ancelin a contract. It was in the art dealer’s best interests to support his stars by simultaneously promoting younger painters who’d fallen under their influence.
Invited to Monsieur Mumfy’s soirée, Manhès and Ancelin preferred going to the Sélect on the boulevard Montparnasse, a café which drew the majority of the quartier’s artists, rather than dealing with the uproar in the artistic milieu that Laivit-Canne would surely provoke this evening.
The two friends presented a surprising contrast. Manhès was small and stocky, brunette, with frizzy black hair. A typical bohemian, he wore clothes which always seemed to be second-hand, even if he didn’t lack for money. Ancelin, by contrast, was the typical young man issued from a good French family. Tall, svelte, always wearing an immaculately tailored suit, he also displayed an outgoing, polished, and distinguished visage, whereas Manhès always seemed tense and gruff.
Sitting on the terrace of the Sélect, they were recognized at most of the tables and made a round of handshakes. A young man hailed them from inside the café: Their inseparable companion, the poet and art critic Fontenoy.
Manhès and Ancelin precipitated themselves on him to break the news:
“Guess what? I got into an argument with Lévy. (Manhès always de-Frenchified the name of the dealer in pronouncing it.) He threw me out on the street, but he’ll be sorry. Now I can sell all my own works. I’ll make more than when I was under contract.”
“But what happened?”
“He accused me of not evolving, of making ‘Jewish paintings’ at a time when, according to him, traditional French painting is once again à la mode. What a bunch of bullshit! It’s like those who accuse me of literary painting! I don’t try to make Jewish paintings, or literary paintings, or abstract, or figurative. I paint what I feel, what I am… Anyway I lost it. I shouted back at him that I didn’t want to be a fake, camouflaging my painting like he camouflages his name, and that I don’t like self-hating Jews.
“You know that horrible voice he has,
like an impotent screeching. He started stamping and yelping. His employees came running. In that nasal voice he has he demanded: “Bring me this imbecile’s contract so I can tear it up! I’ll make him croak from hunger!” Poor Lévy, in letting me go he also lets go of a good opportunity to not die of hunger himself! I can live without a dealer, but the dealers can’t live without us.”
“The problem,” said Ancelin, “is that I also have a contract with the dwarf. This puts me in a delicate position.”
“Not at all,” Manhès protested. “Just make out like you’re not au courant. Agree with him if you have to. This doesn’t keep us from being pals. You’re still young. You need him.”
“I must write about this tomorrow in my rag,” Fontenoy piped in.
Fontenoy was an editor at L’artiste, the only newspaper devoted to the fine arts with a considerable readership. He was 30 years old, like Ancelin, but was first and foremost Manhès’s friend. This poet from the Loire Valley had been smitten with Manhès’s painting like one might fall for a girl. He readily proclaimed: “I’ve experienced two great shocks in my life: The first when I discovered at the age of 18 the poetry of Blaise Cendrars, the second at 24 standing in front of the tableaux of Manhès.” He’d tried to capture in his poetry the violent and chaotic art of his great painter, but sifted through his sensibility, Manhès’s images took on another light. They became tame, ordered. It was a miracle that he was able to understand at all the Judeo-Slavic genius of Manhès, so different from his own talent. And yet Fontenoy had written the best studies on Manhès. For that matter he was often accused of being a one-trick pony, only able to talk about Manhès and his followers. Those who gave no credit to the art of Manhès, like Charles Roy, even claimed that Fontenoy was incapable of writing about abstract art. Fontenoy liked to retort with illustrated examples: “Baudelaire really only understood Delacroix, Zola Manet…. Critics who know how to talk about anything and everything are not creators. They write catalogs — useful, no doubt, but never risking their name in championing one over the other. The only time they declare someone a genius is after he’s dead.”
Fontenoy was a petit blonde man, skinny, with blue eyes. He lived in extreme austerity in a furnished hotel room in Montparnasse, his revenue being limited to his articles in L’artiste and several other newspapers and revues, as well as translating and rewriting work when he could get it. All of this was low-paid, for the simple reason that newspaper owners were accustomed to the fact that art critics were corrupted.
When Fontenoy became an editor at L’artiste, the owner told him:
“I can only pay you 1000 francs* for each major article, but by being associated with our newspaper you should be able to quintuple your freelance work. For that matter, I shouldn’t even be paying you at all!”
All too happy to be hired by the major art newspaper, Fontenoy did not protest and did not even ask the owner to elaborate on how exactly he might be able to quintuple his freelance assignments. He simply assumed that the notoriety his collaboration with L’artiste would give him would get him work writing texts for art books and other revenue sources whose existence he did not even suspect. But this work never came and Manhès had to demonstrate to him how naive he was. Just as history loses many of its enigmas when one studies, in parallel, political economy, the rivalries and affinities in the arts world stopped being complex for Fontenoy the day Manhès revealed to him the economic mechanism of the art market.
“How do you think your colleagues manage to eke out a living?” Manhès asked rhetorically. “It’s quite simple: At the end of the week they go by the galleries they champion to pick up a little envelope … which is not always turned over to them that discretely. Some dealers like to ostensibly mount that they pay off their critics, treating them with airs like a boss treats his servant. And the critics dutifully kow-tow to them. When the dealers refuse to give them money, they wheedle out a drawing, a lithograph, which they then go on to sell. I can even cite for you certain critics who are veritable flacks, only writing about the painters they sell. This quasi-generalized corruption perverts all the relationships between painters, art critics, and dealers.”
Following this little talk, Fontenoy became so touchy about the principle of the disinterestedness of the critic that Manhès didn’t dare aid his friend: When he offered him a painting one day, Fontenoy turned beet-red and became extremely uncomfortable:
“Yes, I’d love it… for my room… But then people would say that you’d bought me off. I just can’t.”
Then he tried to make light of it, with a voice that trembled a little all the same:
“Bah! I’d never consider putting a Paolo Ucello in my room! When I want to see his ‘Battle’ again, I just go to the Louvre. When I want to see some Manhès I’ll just go over to his place!”
* * *
Manhès, Ancelin and Fontenoy were talking in hushed tones, in the depths of the Sélect, their elbows flattened out on the table so that their faces drew nearer to each other.
“Isabelle’s going to be worried again,” Manhès said. “She was so happy with this contract. It was almost as if I’d become a civil servant.”
“When does she come back from the country?”
“Tomorrow night. It seems that Moussia has big rosy cheeks.”
During the war, in Limoges, Manhès had married a country girl. This Isabelle was 10 years his junior. With her allure that of a robust country woman, she’d brought a much needed equilibrium into the life of Manhès, who was constantly worrying and fretting. Two years ago they’d had a daughter: Moussia.
Manhès seemed obsessed by his painting. And yet to this passion he’d added, he’d even enveloped into, Isabelle and Moussia. His wife and daughter had become indispensable to his art. Ever since they’d been taking the air of Spring in the country, Manhès hadn’t touched a single paintbrush. In general sober, he drank when his wife was away, felt lost, abandoned. In fact he’d been a little drunk when he’d had his altercation with Laivit-Canne.
“I want them to be there,” Manhès said. “I should have gone with them. But the countryside bores me to death.”
“And yet it would do you some good, the country,” Ancelin suggested. “The only time you leave your studio is to bunker down in a café, a movie theater, a galerie. You end up completely intoxicating yourself.”
Manhès began fidgeting.
“I don’t need to paint from nature. Nature has nothing to teach me. I transport my world with me wherever I am. If I’d remained holed up in a cave my whole life, I’d still paint what I paint.”
“We’re not talking about your painting,” Fontenoy joined in, “but your health. You’re getting anemic from staying locked up in one locale or another, always under electric lighting. Look at yourself in a mirror… you’re so white!”
Manhès lifted his head towards the café’s wall mirror. He got worried seeing his visage:
“It’s true that I am looking rather pale at that!”
Then he laughed.
“In the beginning of the Occupation, the Germans organized an anti-Semitic exhibition. I went to check it out incognito. Among the multiple pieces of evidence was a photograph of the ugliest Jew in the world. I recognized myself.”
Ancelin and Fontenoy weren’t crazy to hear Manhès joking about this subject. Ever since the German Occupation, like all anti-racists, they got embarrassed whenever the subject of Jews came up. The word itself was difficult to say. All it took was a slight alteration in intonation to make “Jew” sound like an insult. Some people didn’t even dare employ the term, substituting the word “Israélite.” But Jews never referred to themselves as “Israelites,” except for self-hating Jews like Laivit-Canne. A gentile who used the term “Israélite” seemed to have a guilty conscience.
The more it made his friends uncomfortable, the more Manhès fell back with a certain sadism on this brand of Jewish humor which delighted in making fun of itself.
Ancelin changed the subject back to painting:
“It appears that old man Mumfy bought three Wols and two Reichels?”
“Not that surprising,” Fontenoy explained, “they resemble Klee. Klee, forever Klee, he can’t see anything outside of Klee!”
Manhès appeared disgruntled.
“He’s all the same given me my own wall. And he’s also bought an Ancelin.”
“Yes yes,” resumed Fontenoy. “Because he doesn’t want to miss out on what might be the next best thing. But he’d betray you in an instant for some Vieira da Silvas.”
Manhès called out to a diminutive Mediterranean character who’d just peeked into the café:
Atlan joined them at their table. He was a night owl, like all of them, but he broke all the records. He emerged to make his rounds at the very hour the cafés started closing, latched on to some stragglers, and didn’t return to his studio until three or four in the morning. A member of the tribe with Manhès, only Algerian rather than Slavic, he was the only painter of his generation that Manhès held in high esteem. Not because of their shared origins, but because their pictorial explorations were oriented in the same direction. Atlan was just as inclassable as Manhès, with an equally independent spirit. A non-figurative painter, he was influenced by Africa in the same way Manhès was influenced by Slavic folklore. Fontenoy had an equal passion for the art of Atlan. But Ancelin didn’t share his two friends’ opinion. His problem with Atlan was his “recipe,” that is to say that he mixed oil with pastel and crayon.
“That’s ridiculous,” Fontenoy told him. “Do you blame the primitives for having used plaster to set the aureoles of their saints in relief, or for encasing precious stones in their kings’ crowns? Do you blame Degas for having — he as well — mixed pastel with his oils, or Braque for having sprinkled sand in some of his paintings?”
Ancelin became obstinate:
“Yes in fact, I’m against all of that.”
When it came to Atlan, Ancelin was biased, to such a degree that he resembled Charles Roy. During the whole time that Atlan remained at their table, the young painter didn’t utter a word. Manhès told Atlan about his adventure with Laivit-Canne.
“Consider yourself lucky,” Atlan assured him. “Ever since I ended my contract with Maeght, my position has only solidified. You’ll see, the art aficionados will start rolling into your atelier.”
Atlan precipitously took off so he could catch up with the playwright Arthur Adamov, who was passing by on the boulevard. Shortly afterwards, the Sélect manager came to tell them that he needed to close.
They continued talking late into the night, pacing back and forth on the boulevard Montparnasse. The milkmen’s vans and the trucks from Les Halles wholesale market drove past in a thundering of iron. They finally separated regretfully, their heads heavy and their eyes brilliant.
*The equivalent of 10 “new francs” or, in 1956, about $2.
par et copyright Michel Ragon
Manhès habitait un atelier derrière la gare Montparnasse, dans une ruelle aussi boueuse l’hiver que la venelle du ghetto lithuanien où il était né. Entre les lignes de chemin de fer et le quartier mouvementé en lisière de l’avenue Maine, se trouvait un petit ilot presque champêtre, en dehors du circuit habituel des voitures, où personne ne passait. Cet ilot était dévoré peu à peu par les agrandissements des dépendances de la gare. Il ne restait plus que quelques masures, quelques rangées d’ateliers en ruines, dans lesquels quelques artistes vivaient dans la crainte de l’expropriation.
L’atelier de Manhès, comme celui de ses voisins, consistait en un rez-de-chaussée au sol de terre battue. Une loggia servait de chambre à coucher. Très haute de plafond, donc presque impossible à chauffer l’hiver, cette pièce ressemblait plus à un débaras qu’à un logement. Le seul confort tenait dans l’éclairage électrique. Ni eau, ni gaz. Dans la ruelle, une pompe servait pour la collectivité.
Manhès, âgé de quarante ans, était Parisien depuis vingt ans. La guerre interrompit sa carrière de peintre au moment où il commençait à trouver son style. De 1940 à 1944, il servit dans les maquis du Limousin et termina son équipée en Allemagne, dans l’armée de Lattre, avec trois blessures sans gravité. Lorsqu’il revint à Paris, les galeries avaient fait leur plein de peintres et les ateliers d’artistes confortables étaient tous habités par des bourgeois nouveaux riches.
Avant la guerre, Manhès connut Klee in Allemagne, ainsi que Kandinsky qu’il fréquenta lorsque le grand théoricien de l’art abstrait vint se refugier et mourir à Neuilly. Il subit leur influence puis, lentement, dégagea son style propre. Dès qu’il se remit au travail, en 45, dans cet atelier sordide qu’il habitait toujours, il fit du Manhès, c’est-a-dire une peinture qui ne ressemblait à nulle autre et qui, de ce fait, choqua tout le monde.
Les peintres figuratifs et les amateurs de peinture traditionnelle lui reprochaient d’être abstrait et les peintres abstraits, ainsi que leurs supporters du genre Charles Roy, l’accusaient de se raccrocher à une figuration désuète. Comme une étrange poésie irradiait de l’art de Manhès, on lui accolait aussi l’épithète dédaigneuse de « littéraire ».
Quoi qu’il en soit, l’art de Manhès était trop personnel, trop nouveau aussi, pour passer inaperçu. De nombreux jeunes artistes lui vouaient un véritable culte et subissaient son influence. Il eût pu, en leur compagnie, fonder une Ecole, comme le firent Matisse ou Léger, mais il avait l’habitude de dire que l’art ne s’enseigne pas, au l’on ne peut donner aux autres que des recettes de cuisine; Il préférait se consacrer entièrement à son oeuvre, arrivée actuellement à une maturité que la plupart des amateurs lui reconnaissaient.
Manhès n’était plus pauvre. Son contrat avec Laivit-Canne lui assurait une mensualité très honorable et il avait, de plus, la faculté de vendre par lui-même les peintures que sa galerie ne lui prenait pas en premier choix. Il songeait à acheter bientôt un atelier confortable. Entré dans les meilleures collections, reconnu comme l’un des chefs de file de l’art actuel, il semblait avoir gagné la partie quand son altercation avec Laivit-Canne remit tout en question.
Manhès ne s’inquiétait pas de cette rupture de contrat, mais les paroles vexantes de son marchand lui restaient sur le coeur. Ancelin, son fidèle Ancelin, celui qu’il préférait parmi ses disciples et qui était devenu son ami intime bien que dix ans les séparaient, l’avait suivit à son atelier. C’était Manhès qui avait fait prendre Ancelin sous contrat par Laivit-Canne. Celui-ci avait d’ailleurs intérêt à soutenir ses vedettes en montrant des jeunes peintres qui subissaient leur influence.
Invités à la soirée de Monsieur Michaud, Manhès et Ancelin préférèrent aller au Sélect, boulevard Montparnasse, un café où se retrouvaient la plupart des artistes du quartier, plutôt que d’affronter la meute du milieu artistique que Laivit-Canne allait exciter dès ce soir.
Les deux amis formaient un contraste étonnant. Manhès était petit, trapu, brun, avec des cheveux noirs frisés. Très bohème, il portait des vêtements qui paraissaient toujours misérables bien qu’il ne manquait pas d’argent. Par contre, Ancelin était le type même du jeune homme de bonne famille française. Grand, svelte, toujours vêtu de complete de bonne coupe, il montrait aussi un visage avenant, poli et distingué, alors que Manhès paraissait toujours crispé et bourru.
A la terrasse du Sélect, ils furent reconnus à la plupart des tables et firent une tournée de poignées de mains. Un jeune homme les appela de l’intérieur du café : C’était leur inséparable compagnon, un poète et critique d’art : Fontenoy.
Manhès et Ancelin se précipitèrent pour lui raconter la nouvelle :
— Tu sais, je me suis engueulé avec Lévy. (Manhès défrancisait le nom du marchand en le prononçant.) Il m’a fichu à la porte, mais il le regrettera. Je vais disposer de toute ma production. Je gagnerai plus qu’avec son contrat.
— Mais qu’est-ce qui s’est passé ?
— Il me reprochait de ne pas évoluer, de faire une peinture juive alors que, paraît-il, la mode revient à une peinture de tradition française. Des conneries ! C’est comme ceux qui me reprochent de faire une peinture littéraire ! Est-ce que je cherche à peindre juif, ou littéraire, ou abstrait, ou figuratif ? Je peins ce que je sens, ce que je suis…. Alors je me suis emporté. Je lui ai lancé en pleine figure que je ne voulais pas être un faussaire, camoufler ma peinture comme il camouflait son nom et que je n’aimais pas les juifs honteux….
« Tu connais son horrible voix grêle d’impuissant ! Il s’est mis à trépigner, à glapir. Ses employés sont accourus. Il nasillait : apportez-moi le contrat de cet imbécile que je le déchire ! Je le ferai crever de faim ! Pauvre Lévy, en lâchant ma peinture, il lâche une bonne occasion de ne pas crever de faim ! Moi je peux vivre sans marchand, mais les marchands ne peuvent pas vivre sans nous. »
— Ce qui m’embête, dit Ancelin, c’est que j’ai un contrat chez le nabot. Ça me met dans une situation délicate.
— Mais non, protesta Manhès, fait celui qui n’est au courant de rien, approuve Lévy s’il le faut. Ça ne nous empéche pas d’être copains. Toi tu es encore jeune. Tu as besoin de lui.
— Il faudra que je parle de ça demain dans le canard, dit Fontenoy.
Fontenoy était rédacteur à L’Artiste, le seul journal consacré aux beaux-arts qui atteignait un assez vaste public. Il avait trente ans, comme Ancelin, mais il était surtout l’ami de Manhès. Ce poète du Val-de-Loire s’était épris de la peinture de Manhès de la même manière qu’il eût pu s’amouracher d’une fille. Il disait volontiers : « J’ai ressenti deux grands chocs, dans ma vie : le premier en découvrant à dix-huit ans la poésie de Cendrars, le second à vingt-quatre ans devant les tableaux de Manhès. » Il avait essayé de traduire en poésie l’art violent et chaotique de son grand peintre, mais passées à travers lui, les images de Manhès prenaient un autre éclairage. Elles s’adoucissaient, s’ordonnaient. C’était miracle qu’il pût comprendre le génie judéo-slave de Manhès, si éloigné de son talent. Pourtant, Fontenoy avait écrit les meilleures études sur Manhès. On lui reprochait souvent, d’ailleurs, d’être un critique d’art trop limité et de ne savoir parler que de Manhès et de ses suiveurs. Ceux qui n’accordaient aucun crédit à l’art de Manhès, comme Charles Roy, disaient même que Fontenoy était incapable d’écrire sur l’art abstrait. Fontenoy s’en défendait par des exemples illustres : « Baudelaire n’a vraiment bien compris que Delacroix, Zola n’a vraiment bien compris que Manet… Les critiques qui savent parler de tout et de rien ne sont pas des créateurs. Ils établissent des catalogues, utiles sans doute, mais ne risquent jamais leur nom en optant pour quelques-uns. Ils ne donnent du génie qu’aux morts. »
Fontenoy était un petit blond, mince, aux yeux bleus. Il vivait très pauvrement dans une chambre d’hôtel meublé de Montparnasse, n’ayant pour tout revenu que ses articles à L’Artiste et dans quelques autres journaux et revues, ainsi que des travaux de traduction et de rewriting. Tout cela mal payé, pour la raison fort simple que les directeurs de journaux étaient habitués à ce que les critiques d’art fussent corrompus.
Lorsque Fontenoy devint rédacteur à L’Artiste, le directeur lui dit :
— Je ne peux vous payer chaque article important que mille francs, mais vous devez, en étant attaché au journal, quintupler vos piges. Je devrais même ne pas vous payer du tout !
Trop heureux d’être accueilli dans le grand journal des arts, Fontenoy ne protesta pas et ne demanda même aucun éclaircissement sur la manière de quintupler ses appointements. Il pensa simplement que la notoriété qui lui serait donnée par sa collaboration à L’Artiste lui apporterait des commandes de textes pour des livres d’art et d’autres sources de revenus dont il ne soupçonnait pas l’existence. Mais ces commandes ne vinrent jamais et Manhès lui démontra à quel point il était naïf. Tout comme l’Histoire perd beaucoup de ses énigmes lorsque l’on étudie parallèlement à elle l’économie politique, les rivalités et les affinités dans le monde des arts cessèrent d’être complexes pour Fontenoy le jour où Manhès lui révéla le mécanisme économique du marché de la peinture.
Comment vivent tes collègues, lui dit Manhès ? Mais ils passent tout bonnement à la fin de chaque semaine, dans les galeries qu’ils soutiennent, chercher une enveloppe qui ne leur est pas toujours remise très discrètement. Certains marchands montrent ostensiblement qu’ils payent leurs critiques, traitant ceux-ci de haut, de patron à domestique. Et les critiques baissent l’échine. Lorsqu’on leur refuse de l’argent, ils mendigotent un dessin, un litho, qu’ils revendent ensuite. Je pourrais même te citer des critiques qui sont de véritables agents de publicité, n’écrivant que sur les peintres qu’ils vendent. Cette corruption quasi généralisée fausse tous les rapports entre peintres, critique d’art et marchands.
A la suite de cette conversation, Fontenoy devint si chatouilleux sur le principe du désintéressement du critique que Manhès n’osait aider son ami: Lui ayant offert un jour une peinture, Fontenoy avait rougi, s’était troublé :
— Oui, j’aimerais beaucoup… pour ma chambre… Mais alors on dira que tu m’achètes… Je ne peux pas.
Puis il s’était mis à plaisanter, avec une voix qui tremblait un peu :
— Bah ! Il ne me viendrait pas à l’idée de désirer mettre dans ma chambre un Paolo Uccello ! Lorsque j’ai envie de revoir sa Bataille, je vais au Louvre. Lorsque j’ai envie de voir des Manhès je vais chez lui !
* * *
Manhès, Ancelin et Fontenoy discutaient à mi-voix, au fond du Sélect, les coudes à plat sur la table pour mieux rapprocher leurs visages.
— Isabelle va encore s’inquiéter, dit Manhès. Elle qui était si heureuse de ce contrat. C’st un peu comme si j’était devenu fonctionnaire.
— Quand revient-elle de la campagne ?
— Demain soir. Il paraît que Moussia a de grosses joues roses.
Manhès avait épousé pendant la guerre, en Limousin, une fille du pays. Cette Isabelle comptait dix ans de moins que son mari. Avec son allure de robuste paysanne, elle aidait beaucoup à l’équilibre de Manhès, toujours inquiet, angoissé. Depuis deux ans ils avaient une fille : Moussia.
Manhès semblait dévoré par sa peinture. Pourtant, à cette passion il ajoutait, il englobait même, Isabelle et Moussia. Sa femme et sa fille étaient devenues indispensables pour sa peinture. Depuis qu’elles prenaient l’air du printemps à la campagne, Manhès n’avait pas touché un pinceau. En général sobre, il buvait lorsque sa femme s’absentait, se sentant perdu, abandonné. Il était d’ailleurs sans doute un peu ivre lorsqu’il eut son altercation avec Laivit-Canne.
— Je voudrais qu’elles soient là, dit Manhès. J’aurais dû les accompagner. Mais la campagne m’ennuie.
— Ça te ferait pourtant du bien, la campagne, dit Ancelin. Tu ne sors de ton atelier que pour t’enfermer dans un café, dans un cinéma, dans une galerie. Tu arrives à t’intoxiquer complétement.
Manhès eut un geste d’agacement :
— Je n’ai pas besoin d’aller sur le motif. La nature ne m’apprend rien. Je transporte partout mon monde avec moi. SI j’étais resté toute ma vie enfermé dans une cave, je peindrais ce que je peins.
— Ce n’est pas pour ta peinture, que nous parlons, essaya de le raisonner Fontenoy, mais pour ta santé. Tu t’anémies à rester enfermé d’un local dans un autre, toujours à la lumière électrique. Regarde-toi dans la glace… tu es d’une pâleur !
Manhès haussa la tête vers la glace murale du café. Il devint soucieux en voyant son visage :
— C’est vrai que j’ai une sale gueule !
Puis il se mit à rire :
— Au début de l’Occupation, les Allemands organisèrent une exposition antisémite. J’y suis allé incognito. Parmi de multiples pièces à conviction, il y avait une photo du Juif le plus laid du monde. Je me suis reconnu.
Ancelin et Fontenoy n’aimaient guère que Manhès plaisantât sur ce sujet. Depuis l’Occupation allemande, comme tous les antiracistes, ils éprouvaient une gêne lorsqu’il était question des Juifs. Ce mot lui-même était difficile à prononcer. Il suffisait d’une toute petite intonation pour qu’il parût injurieux. Certains n’osaient même pas le dire et employaient à la place le mot Israélite. Mais les Juifs ne s’appellent jamais Israélites entre eux, à l’exception des Juifs honteux comme Laivit-Canne. Un Aryen qui dit Israélite n’a pas l’air d’avoir bonne conscience.
Autant ses amis semblaient gênés, autant Manhès appuyait avec un certain sadisme sur cet humour juif qui se rit de lui-même.
Ancelin détourna la conversation en revenant à la peinture :
— Il paraît que le père Michaud a acheté trois Wols et deux Reichel ?
— Pas étonnant, dit Fontenoy, ça ressemble à Klee. Klee, toujours Klee, il ne voit rien en dehors de ça !
Manhès parut mécontent :
— Il m’a quand même donné un mur. Et il a aussi acheté un Ancelin.
— Oui, oui, reprit Fontenoy…. Parce qu’il a peur de manquer une affaire. Mais il vous trahirait sans hésiter pour des Vieira da Silva.
Manhès appela un petit homme de type méditerranéen qui jetait un coup d’oeil dans le café :
— Hé ! Atlan !
Atlan vint s’asseoir à leur table. C’était un noctambule, comme eux tous, mais lui battait les records. Il sortait faire un tour à l’heure où les cafés fermaient, s’accrochait à quelques retardataires et ne retournait dans son atelier que vers trois ou quatre heures du matin. Coreligionnaire de Manhès, mais Algérien et non pas Slave, il était le seul peintre de sa génération que Manhès tint en haute estime. Non pas à cause de leurs origines communes, mais parce qu’ils orientaient leurs recherches picturales dans un même sens. Atlan était aussi inclassable que Manhès et d’un esprit aussi indépendant. Peintre non-figuratif, l’Afrique influençait son art comme le folklore slave celui de Manhès. Fontenoy aimait également l’art d’Atlan. Mais Ancelin ne partageait pas l’opinion de ses deux amis: Il reprochait à Atlan sa « cuisine », c’est-à-dire de mélanger à l’huile du pastel et de la craie.
— C’est ridicule, lui disait Fontenoy. Est-ce que tu blâmes les primitifs d’avoir utilisé le plâtre pour donner du relief aux auréoles de leurs saints, ou d’avoir enchâssé des pierres précieuses dans les couronnes de leurs rois ? Est-ce que tu blâme Degas d’avoir, lui aussi, mélangé du pastel à ses huiles ou Braque d’avoir saupoudré de sable certaines de ses peintures.
Ancelin s’obstinait :
— Oui, oui, je suis contre tout ça.
Lorsqu’il était question d’Atlan, Ancelin devenait de parti pris, à un tel point qu’il rappelait alors Charles Roy. Pendant tout le temps qu’Atlan resta à leur table, le jeune peintre ne dit pas un mot. Manhès raconta à Atlan son aventure avec Laivit-Canne.
— Estime-toi heureux, lui dit Atlan. Depuis que, moi aussi, j’ai rompu mon contrat avec Maeght, ma position n’a fait que s’affirmir. Tu vas voir, les amateurs vont rappliquer chez toi.
Atlan les quitta précipitamment pour rattraper le dramaturge Arthur Adamov qui passait sur le boulevard. Peu après, le gérant du Sélect vint les avertir qu’il se voyait dans l’obligation de fermer.
Ils continuèrent encore à discuter, en faisant les cent pas sur le boulevard Montparnasse. Les voitures des laitiers et les camions des halles passaient dans un vacarme de ferraille. Ils se séparèrent à regret, la tête lourde et les yeux brilliant.
Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.