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