(Updated 6 p.m. French time)What’s wrong with this picture? In the Heart of Darkness with Marcel Gromaire and the ‘Humanists,’ or, Pour quoi nous ne sommes pas tous Princesse Tam-Tam

gromaire abolitionThe press packet for the exhibition Marcel Gromaire, l’Elegance de la Force, theoretically on view through Sunday at the Piscine in the Northern French city of Roubaix after earlier runs in Sete and Honfleur, describes the massive fresque “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” (above), commissioned by the State in 1949 to commemorate the 1848 abolition of slavery in France and celebrate its primary government instigator, undersecretary of state Victor Schoelcher (at right) and Marianne, the icon of French democracy (at left), as a ‘humanist’ composition. And yet an even cursory study of the picture, whose original measures 40 square meters, suggests a more nuanced interpretation: the Black (naked) savages liberated by the benevolent white bwanas. I’m of course not calling into question either Marianne or Schoelcher themselves, both laudable, voir heroic and justifiably lionized figures, but specifically questioning the hierarchy in Gromaire’s composition, his depiction of the Black personages (more the men than the women, whose curves and bare breasts are typical to Gromaire women of any color, and about which you won’t find this misogynist complaining, in fact it’s part of the allure for me of the painter who up until now has been my favorite) and their supplicating postures, and thus the painting’s qualifications as ‘humanist.’ This over-simplification — and apportioning of the roles of victim and liberator — is not unique to French artists. Abraham Lincoln was also mythologized (including by Black artists) as the savior of Black people, as if the Civil War were fought only for their freedom. More troubling is that in reality, by 1949, 100 years after their liberation on paper, Blacks were far from free from racialist denigration by French writers and artists (as was also the case in the United States, where the consequences were more lethal) . (I prefer the term ‘racialist’ to ‘racist,’ which implies a malevolent intention which isn’t necessarily always there; I myself was — and am — racialist when it comes to my idea of Black men. I don’t know if I’ll ever rectify this in my heart; all I can do is try to correct it in my deeds and writings.) Already, in 1935, a French film director, Edmond T. Greville, could make a movie (also released in the U.S.) starring Josephine Baker, “Princess Tam-Tam,” which, notwithstanding its American star’s enjoying more civil rights in France than she would have in her native country (let alone not risking being shot in her own home, as was a young Black woman in my former home city Fort Worth, Texas, not too long ago), terminates with Baker, portraying a ‘native’ that the ‘cultivated’ white novelist has ultimately been unable to civilize (for much of the movie he appears to have done so, until he wakes up to realize this was just a dream, and not of the Martin Luther King Jr. variety), smiling approvingly as the monkey she’s let into the Tunisian villa the white man’s left her knocks over a shelf of books and a jackass gobbles up a tome called “Civilization.” (Returning home from a pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis in 2019, in the corridor of the City Hall Metro station I spotted a billboard for a line of lingerie — in which only one of the half-dozen scantily clad models was moderately dark-skinned — announcing “Nous sommes tous Princesse Tam-Tam,” “We are all Princess Tam-Tam.” When I later asked an employee of the brand’s boutique — ironically flanking the entrance to the Montmartre space of the Theatre de la Ville, lately known for presenting a number of dance companies from Africa — the origin of the name, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”) In 1957 — eight years after Gromaire’s monumental work was unveiled in the l’Assemblée de l’Union française in the château of Versailles — Léo Malet, the father of the Modern French detective novel, could have his hero PI / narrator Nestor Burma observe, in “Micmac Moche au Boul’Mich’,” part of Malet’s “New Mysteries of Paris” series (later made into a popular television show): “They say that Negros diffuse a particular smell….” In 2006, the Paris Opera Ballet could present, in the august Garnier Palace, a ballet by its former director, Serge Lifar, in which white male dancers covered with black make-up portrayed ‘savages’ leaping about like gorillas. These racial stereotypes — and if anything they were and still are as if not more widespread in the United States, and with much more vehemence in certain states, than in France — are not benign. Far from being ‘humanistic,’ they vehicle a dehumanization of the Black man and woman which ultimately leads to events (because they are depicted as less than fully human) like the recent stalking and murder of a Black man in Georgia and Monday’s murder in Minneapolis of a Black man named George Floyd, whose stifled cries of “I can’t breathe” did not convince a white police officer to take his knee off Floyd’s throat, as three other officers allegedly stood by. (I’m NOT saying the 1949 painting lead to the 2020 slaying, but rather that its one-dimensional depiction of Black people is part of a long, ongoing history by Occidental, white artists and writers of reducing people because of their race which makes it easier to not see them as fully human.) Among the tributes at an impromptu memorial to Floyd deposited on a Minneapolis sidewalk was this handwritten sign: “I’m not black but I see you.” The problem with Marcel Gromaire’s “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” — and which makes it more dehumanizing than ‘humanist’ — is that while he sees the white re-enfranchisers, he doesn’t really see the liberated Black men and women as anything but helpless victims completely reliant on their previous enslavors for their liberation, his one-dimensional depictions ultimately denying them their franchise as fully realized human beings. (To those who would defend Malet by saying that his, or at least his hero-narrator’s, views on Blacks are just a reflection of the times — I say ‘are’ because the novel with that description of Blacks was proudly re-published by Robert Laffont in 1985, with no exculpatory note by editor Francis Lacassin — I would answer with Eugene Sue. In Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris,” written a hundred years earlier and whose title inspired Malet, by far the noblest character is an African-American physician from Louisiana, Dr. Paul, who has a crisis of conscience when the hero, his employer, barbarically orders him to pierce the eyes of the saga’s villain as an alternative to sending him to prison. There are none so blind as those who will not see.) The press pack for the Rubaix exhibition also quotes Gromaire, while he was working in his ‘hangar’ on his ‘great machine,’ as confessing, “I’ll be happy… […] [to] find out if I succeed in revitalizing painting by official commission; let Delacroix protect me!” The invocation is unfortunate; despite the reputation he has for inspiring the original sin of Orientalism, the sketches Delacroix made when he accompanied an official French diplomatic delegation to North Africa in the 1830s were much more respectful than Gromaire’s results here, unafflicted by any Romanticism — negative or positive. What ultimately bothers me in the hierarchy of Gromaire’s composition — and prompts me to dispute the painting’s claim to a great ‘humanism’ — is his perspective: “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” doesn’t so much fete that milestone as canonize the cagers for simply deciding to open up the cage and free those who should never have been enchained in the first place, in the process freeing themselves. Painting credits: Marcel Gromaire, “L’Abolition de l’esclavage (detail),” 1950. Oil on canvas pasted on wood. Commissioned by the State; deposited at the Centre national des arts plastiques in 1991. Photo: A. Loubry – © ADAGP, Paris 2020. George Floyd tribute seen on the website of The Progressive. — Paul Ben-Itzak

PS: Speaking of Delacroix: To make sure it’s absolutely clear that the target of my criticism in the Gromaire painting is not Marianne, but rather the relative importance of the roles the painter assigns to her and to the Black personages in their liberation, I’ve decided to also share a reproduction of Eugene Delacroix’s 1831 painting “Liberty Guiding the People.” Note that here the Marianne-like figure isn’t *liberating* the people, but rather *leading* them; they are active players in their own liberation from oppression.

Le 28 juillet 1830 : la Liberté guidant le peupleEugene Delacroix, “Liberty Guiding the People,” 1831. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

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From Dali, the Persistence of Memory

dali persistence of memoryFrom the collections of the Museum of Modern Art: Salvador Dali, “The Persistence of Memory,” 1931. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13″ (24.1 x 33 cm). Given anonymously. © 2004 Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photographed by Jonathan Muzikar.

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Pendant l’exil: When Victor Hugo revisited the rues & houses of the Old Blois of his youth, thanks to an artist

hugo blois by armand queyroy 5 with coverEau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy. Printed by Delâtre, Paris, 1864. Introduction by Victor Hugo, extracted from la Gazette des Beaux Arts. Ouvrage dedicated by Queyroy to “Madame le Masson souvenir affectueux.” Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

by Victor Hugo
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Translation dedicated to Lucie and Lionel, Travailleurs intellectuelles Parisiens, maintenant exiles … pas loin de… Blois….

Just before the virus hit, I found the ideal place in Paris — an apartment-atelier on the rue Daguerre, no less, where it’s no doubt perched atop a portion of the Catacombs — from which to launch Les Editions Hèléne, a publishing house specializing in English translations  of French literature and on French art. In addition to being on the Meridian of Paris, where miracles always seem to happen to me, the rental comes with other happy accidents related to future work and translation projects. In pondering whether I should (and could) wait until there’s a vaccine to return to Paris — thus prolonging my own exile from Lutèce for at least another year — I considered the case of Victor Hugo, who did not let a little thing like 18 years of exile from Paris and France stop him from producing some of the best literature ever. Besides “Les Miserables,” there were poems, essays, political tracts, appeals (famously, for clemency for John Brown), and correspondence. Not just exchanges with peers including George Sand, but appreciations like the following 1864 letter to Armand Queyroy on the occasion of the publication of “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” a collection of eaux-fortes or etchings printed by Delâtre, in Paris. And of course, coming from the pen of Victor Hugo, these souvenirs do not just reflect one of the Great Man’s Proustien — madeleine — moments; Hugo manages to squeeze in a political discourse which reveals his sometimes nuanced disposition towards French monarchic heritage. But above all, where this discourse touches me is in its illustration of the nexus between literature and the fine arts.  Like what you’re reading? If you are not already a subscriber, advertiser, or family member, please help pay  for our hard work in increasingly expensive and risky times by making a donation today. Just designate your payment in dollars or Euros via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at there to learn how to pay by check.– PB-I

(Extracted from “Pendant l’Exil,” 1852 – 1870, Victor Hugo. Paris, Nelson, Editeurs. Images from the Archives  of the Loire-et-Cher department of France. The letter also served as a preface to Queyroy’s publication.)

Hauteville House, [Guernsey,] April 17, 1864

Monsieur, I want to thank you. You’ve just enabled me to re-live the past. On the 17th of April, 1825 — 39 years ago to this very day (allow me to note this minor coincidence, which is interesting to me at least) — I arrived in Blois. It was early morning. I’d come from Paris. I’d passed the night in the mail-wagon, and what is there to do in the mail-wagon? I’d done “The Ballad of the two Archers”; then, the final verses finished, as the day had not yet dawned, all the while watching through the dim light of the track lights on either side of the train the troops of Orleans cows descending towards Paris, I’d dozed off. The conductor’s voice awoke me. “Voila Blois!” he’d cried.

I opened my eyes and saw a thousand windows at the same time, an irregular and pell-mell pile of houses, of steeples, a chateau, and on the hill a crown of tall trees and a row of gabled, pointed stone facades on the edge of the water, an entire city resembling an amphitheater, capriciously spread out on the ledges of an inclining plain and, except that the Ocean is wider than the Loire and doesn’t have any bridges leading to the other side, practically identical to this city of Guernsey where I live today.

The Sun was rising over Blois.

Fifteen minutes later and I was on the rue du Foix, number 73. I knocked on a small door giving onto a garden; a man who was working in the garden came to open it for me. He was my father.

That night, my father lead me to the mound which overlooked the house, and which harbored “Gaston’s tree”; I now saw again from the heights of the city what I’d seen that morning from its depths; the aspect, for that matter, was, if somewhat severe, even more charming. The city, in the morning, had seemed to me to have the gracious disorder and practically the surprise of waking up; the night had softened its angles. Even though it was still light, the Sun had only just set, there was a debut of melancholy; the blurring of twilight had taken the edge off the points of the rooftops; the rare scintillating of candles had replaced the dazzling diffusion of the aurora on the window-panes; the profiles of things were subsisting the mysterious transformation of night; the rigidness was losing the battle, the curves winning; there were more elbows, less angles. I looked on, almost mellowed by this effect. The skies had a vague breath of summer. The city appeared to me, no longer like it had that morning, gay and ravishing, haphazard, but harmonious; it had been cut into compartments of a beautiful whole amounting to an equilibrium; the planes had receded, the stories superimposed themselves with impeccable timing and tranquility. The cathedral, the bishopry, the black church of Saint-Nicolas, the chateau, as much a citadel as a palace, the ravines mixed up with the city, the slopes and descents where the houses at times climbed, at times tumbled, the bridge with its obelisk, the beautiful serpentine curves of the Loire, the rectangular bands of willows, at the extreme horizon Chambord, indistinct with its forest of turrets, the forest into which was sunk the antique route known as ‘Roman bridges’ marking the ancient bed of the Loire, all this seemed vast and gentle. And after all, my father loved this city.

Which today you have rendered back to me.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 2

“Blois, la rue Chemonton et ses escaliers.” Reproduction of an engraving à l’eau-forte by Arrmand Queyroy, 1890. 247 X 135 mm; (object) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

Thanks to you, I’m in Blois again. Your 20 etchings reveal the intimate city, not the city of palaces and churches, but the city of houses. With you, one is there in the streets; with you, one enters into the ramshackle hut; and so many of these decrepit edifices, like the dwelling in sculpted wood on the rue Saint-Lubin, like the hotel Denis-Dupont with its stairway lantern and oblique bay windows following the movement of the spiral staircase of Saint Gilles, like the house on the rue Haute, like the very low arcade of the rue Pierre-de-Blois, exposing all the Gothic fantasy or all the Renaissance graces, augmented by the poetry of dilapidation. Being a hut and being a jewel are not mutually exclusive. An elderly lady who has heart and spirit, nothing is more charming. Many of the exquisite houses drawn by you are that elderly woman. One is happy to make their acquaintance. One retrieves them again with joy when one is, like me, their old friend. What things they have to tell you, and what a delicious return to the past! For example, take a look at this fine and delicate house on the rue des Orfevres, it seems to be engaged in a tete-a-tete. One is fortunate to be amidst all this elegance. You make us recognize everything, so much are your sketches portraits. It’s photographic fidelity with the liberty of great art. Your rue Chemonton is a chef-d’oeuvre. I’ve scaled, at the same time as these good paysans of Sologne painted by you, the steep steps of the chateau. The house of statuettes on the rue Pierre de Blois is comparable to the house of Musicians in Weymouth. I’ve retrieved everything.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 6

Blois, vue de l’Hôtel d’Alluye.” Eau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Printed by Delâtre, Paris, 1864. 188 X 267 mm; (object) 308 X 482 mm. Papier vergé.Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

Here’s the tower of Argent, here’s the high somber gable at the corner of the rue des Violettes and the rue Saint-Lubin, here’s the hotel de Guise, here’s the hotel de Cheverny, here’s the hotel Sardini with its arches in three-centered curves, here’s the hotel d’Alluye with its gallant arcades from the time of Charles VIII, here are the Saint-Louis steps which lead to the cathedral, here’s the rue du Sermon, and at the end the practically Roman silhouette of Saint-Nicolas; here’s the pretty cantwise turret referred to as Queen Anne’s Oratory. The garden where Louis XII, gouty, liked to promenade his mule in a garden behind this turret.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 1

“Blois, view of the rue des Violettes and the rue St-Lubin.” Eau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Paris, Imp. Delâtre, 1864. 255 X 157 mm; (object) 299 X 423 mm . Papier vergé. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy.  From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

That Louis XII, like Henry IV, had his amiable sides. He made many blunders, but was a good-natured king. He tossed the procedures launched against the Vaudois into the Rhone. He was worthy for having the valiant Huguenot astrologist Renée de Bretagne, so intrepid before Saint-Barthélemy and so proud in Montargis, as a daughter. As a youngster, he’d spent three years in the Tower of Bourges, and he’d tasted the iron cage. This experience, which might have rendered another man mean, made him debonair. He’d entered Genoa, victorious, with a golden bee-hive on his coat of arms and this motto: Non utitor aculeo. He was good, and he was brave. In Signaled, to a courtesan who warned him, “You’re exposing yourself to danger, sire,” he responded, “Get behind me.” It’s also he who said: “A good king is an authentic king. I prefer being ridiculous with courtesans to being overbearing with the people.” He said: “The ugliest beast to see walk past you is a procurer carrying his dossiers.” He hated judges eager to condemn who tried to exaggerate the fault to envelope the accused. “They are,” he said, “like cobblers who stretch out the leather by pulling on it with their teeth.” He died from loving his wife too much, just like François II later on, gently killed the one like the other by a Marie. The honeymoon was short. On January 1, 1515, after 83 days or rather 83 nights of marriage, Louis XII expired, and as it was New Year’s Day, he told his wife: “My darling, for a New Year’s gift I give you my death.” She accepted, sharing the present with the Duke of Brandon.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 7

“Blois,  front, old houses at the foot of the St.-Louis cathedral.” Reproduction of an engraving à l’eau-forte by Armand Queyroy, 1865. 250 X 160 mm; (objet) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

The other phantom who dominates Blois is as loathsome as Louis XII was sympathetic. It’s this Gaston, half Bourbon, half Medici, a Florentine from the 16th century, cowardly, perfidious, spiritual, who said of the arrests of Longueville, Conti, and Condé: “Lots of net! Capture at the same time a fox, an ape, and a lion!” Curious, artist, collector, fascinated with medals, filigrees, and sweetmeats, he might spend his mornings admiring the cover of an ivory box while his men lopped off the head of one of the friends he’d betrayed.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 4

“Blois, vue de l’Hôtel d’Amboise et d’une rouennerie en gros (marchand d’étoffes et de tissus).” Reproduction of an eau-forte engraving, extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Paris, Printed by Delâtre, 1864. 202 X 157 mm; (object), 266 X 205 mm; papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

All these figures, as well as Henry III, the Duke of Guise, and others, including this Pierre de Blois whose main claim to fame was being the first person to pronounce the word ‘transubstantiation,’ I’ve found them again in leafing through your precious collection. I contemplated your fountain of Louis XII for a long time. You’ve recreated it as I saw it, so old, so young, charming. It’s one of your best plates. I’m almost certain that the ‘Rouennerie en gros,’ recorded by you vis-a-vis the hotel d’Amboise, was already there in my time. You have a real and fine talent, the coupe d’oeil which grasps the style, the sure, agile, and strong touch, plenty of spirit in the engraving and a good dose of naiveté, and that rare gift of being able to evoke light in shadows. What strikes and charms me in your etchings is the broad day, the gaiety, the prepossessing aspect, this joy in the commencement which contains all the grace of morning. The plates which seem to be bathed in an aurora. Indeed it’s there, Blois, the Blois that is precious to me, my luminous city. Because that first impression on arriving has stuck with me. Blois for me is radiant. I only see Blois in the rising Sun. These are the effects of youth and of the homeland.

I’ve let myself go on at length talking with you, monsieur, because you’ve given me great pleasure. You’ve found my weakness, you’ve touched the sacred corner of memory. I’ve sometimes felt a bitter sadness; you’ve given me a gentle sadness. To be gently sad, this is a pleasure. I’m in your debt. I’m happy that it is so well preserved, so little changed, and so parallel to what I saw 40 years ago, this city to which this invisible tangle of ties of the soul, impossible to break, still attaches me, this Blois which saw me as a teenager, this Blois whose streets know me, where a house has loved me, and where I’ve just strolled in your company, looking for the white hair of my father and finding my own.

Monsieur, I shake your hand.

Victor Hugo

hugo blois by armand queyroy 3

“Blois: the steps of the chateau and the vestiges of the ancient Jacobins gate.” Reproduction of an eau-forte engraving by Armand Queyroy, 1865. 240 X 128 mm; (objet) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: Eau-forte. Lieu(x) :Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

Protected: Le Feuilleton (the Serial): (English translation followed by V.O. française) Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris, Part 12: Bartering painting for meals on the place de la République (Subscriber-only content; to learn how to subscribe, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

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