I am not ‘Explicit’: All the Nimoy Nudes too Fat to Print for the Gray Lady

nimoy fat

An image by Leonard Nimoy from his Full Body Project, from its exhibition at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts. Photo copyright Leonard Nimoy and courtesy R. Michelson Galleries.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2007, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

“Any time there is a fat person onstage as anything besides the butt of a joke, it’s political. Add physical movement, then dance, then sexuality and you have a revolutionary act.”              
— Heather MacAllister, founder and artistic director, the Original Fat-Bottom Revue, and subject of photographer Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project book and exhibit.

First published on the Dance Insider on May 15, 2007. To learn how you can obtain your own copy of our archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 artist-critics of performances, films, exhibitions, and books from five continents published on the DI /AV since 1998, as well as PB-I’s Buzz column of rants, raves, and news, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

PARIS — In my recent Flash Journal from this city of light, reporting on the physical discomfort inflicted on the audience by two successive programs from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s company Rosas, I noted that even without a pain factor many non-dance-world people, particularly in the United States, are already uncomfortable with dance, and that a likely explanation for this is their discomfort with their own bodies. This discomfort didn’t come from nowhere; it has many causal agents, one of which is the media’s treatment of the body. Take the New York Times’s prudish coverage (in more than one sense of the word) Sunday of photographer Leonard Nimoy’s new Full Body Project, a photography story (never mind that the Times mis-filed the piece under ‘fashion’) in which the photographs could not be fully shown because, reporter Abby Ellin noted, “Their explicitness prevents the images from being reprinted here.”

Why?

Why as a reporter can’t you show the readers what you’re talking about?

Why is nudity from an artist presented in an artistic context explicit? Particularly when there is no sex involved. If appropriately applied to pornography, this word has no place describing the human body en soi.

Why does the Gray Lady — which some would posit as the most sophisticated newspaper in the United States — turn pale when it comes to treating its readers as adults, who are able to accept that in a story about photographs of nude full-bodied women it makes sense to present the photographs of the nude full-bodied women? Why does the Times instead choose to infantilize its audience by photographing the artist standing in front of the least revealing photo the paper could find, and even then with the artist’s head concealing the model’s breast?

Ah! It’s the children, the Times might say; we’re a family newspaper! We know adults can take this, but what about the kids? Well, I hate to play the Europe card, but I have news for you: I am currently looking at the cover of Le Monde 2, the Sunday magazine of France’s largest newspaper, from February 16, 2004. It features ballerina Sylvie Guillem, in all the splendor of her naked glory, in the air, balancing on a camera balanced on a tripod — in a self-portrait. True, in the cover photo, a profile view, Guillem’s long trellises cover part of her breasts. But in the — very artistic — portfolio inside the magazine, also taken by the dancer herself, they are not obscured. Might these photos titillate some readers? Perhaps. But titillation was not the intent of either the artist nor the subject (in this case the same person). The intent was simply to reveal herself — “at the risk of displeasing” the reader, as Le Monde put it in the cover line. (The etoile also appears to be wearing no make-up; thus for a performer, she is truly naked.) If someone part of whose business is creating physical beauty felt vulnerable to this risk, imagine, then, the risk taken by the women in Nimoy’s Full Body Project — not because they’re fat but because, well, who among us civilians is comfortable baring ourselves like this — no cover, no dissimulation? Neither they — nor the photographic artist — deserve the shame implied by the Times’s suggestion that they were doing something ‘explicit,’ with all the dirtyness that connotes in American society. The shame here is not on the models nor the artists, but on the Times.  Even moreso when one considers that a newspaper whose promotion of the fictive causes of a real war lead to the deaths of a million innocents has no moral authority to imply that art created by innocents is profane.

And bringing it back to dance, and the discomfort many feel with it, there’s a correlation: In Europe, where there’s no, or anyway less shame associated with the body, dance houses are typically full; the language is not alien to people outside the dance world’s rarefied circle. As opposed to the United States, where dance is treated as the poor sister (the Times doesn’t even see fit to list its dance stories on the Home page of its web site), here in Europe it’s not just part of the culture; it’s got a place of honor in the culture.

Dance also has a direct relation to joy. Take a look at the Leonard Nimoy image we’ve reprinted on this page, inspired by Matisse’s painting “La Danse (I).” Is this about explicitness, or is this about joy — and body-pride?

I wish that in deciding whether to include unadulterated images in its story on his artistic and morally estimable project, the Times would have been guided less by its archaic ‘standards’ and more by Leonard Nimoy’s words to the Times reporter:

“The average American woman, according to articles I’ve read, weighs 25% more than the models who are showing the clothes they are being sold…. So, most women will not be able to look like those models. But they’re being presented with clothes, cosmetics, surgery, diet pills, diet programs, therapy, with the idea that they can aspire to look like those people. It’s a big, big industry. Billions of dollars. And the cruelest part of it is that these women are being told, ‘You don’t look right.'”

For dancers, whether aspiring or working, the implications are double.

Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project was published in 2007, and exhibited October 25 – December 15 of that year at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts. 

Life & Death with Christophe Martinez

chris 2

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2014 115  x 146 cm unframed and without margins.   Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

N.B. Le titre c’est le notre. The title is ours, not the artist’s. Christophe Martinez is a photographer based in Paris. Curator PB-I would like to dedicate today’s publication to the memory of Edward Winer, his father, who died December 7 in San Francisco at the age of 81. 

Curated by Paul Ben-Itzak.
Text by Christophe Martinez, translated by Paul Ben-Itzak.
Pour tout renseignment / For information contact :
Français: Christophe Martinez, christophemartinez.photographe@gmail.com
English or Français: Paul Ben-Itzak, artsvoyager@gmail.com

PRESENTATION :

Textures and light: Without any particular pre-meditated inclination, nor any  specific documentary intent, the photographs produced result from hybrid technologies…. For Christophe Martinez, the darkroom produces rather than simply records. Reflect, attempt, operate, transform, with the sole condition being the search for an equilibrium where only methodically developed phenomena intervene. Thus a sum of actions and experiments leads to a marriage of techniques and photographic matter. A form of luminous capillarity arrived at by applying fundamental laws of optics, nature, and light, and with the use of both photo-chemical and digital processes. These different protocols dialogue in a dance at the same time elemental and sensitive.

Christophe Martinez was born in 1978. He lives and works in Paris. For the artist, it is above all photographic conditions and the disposition of photographic material that prime. It is in this framework that he has developed the variants of his research and the depth surrounding the questions that he poses.

 

chris 3

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2006. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 4

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2005. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 5

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2005. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris fish new

Christophe Martinez, Untitled  #1, 2009. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 7

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2009. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 8

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #3, 2009. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 9

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2007. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 10

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #3, 2007. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 11

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2007. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 12

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2016. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 13

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2016. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 14

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2013. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 15

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2013. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 16

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2012. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 17

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2012. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 18

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #3, 2017. 146 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 19

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2017. 146 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 20

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2017. 146 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 21

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2010. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 22

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2010. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

chris 23

Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2006. 115 x 90 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

Fear and Loathing in New York: Mrs. Grundy Rears Her Head at the Times

“Here is nothing, we are sorry to say, but the desire to attract attention at any price.”
— Theophile Gautier, critiquing Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” in the Moniteur Universel, June 24, 1865, cited by Jacques Letheve in ARTnews Annual, 1959

“…what an idiotic project…. A night in the slammer probably caused him at least as much fear as he caused straphangers.”
— Michael Kimmelman, critiquing Clinton Boisvert’s site-specific project for the School of Visual Arts in the New York Times, December 18, 2002

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on the DI on December 19, 2002. To learn how you can obtain your own copy of our archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 artist-critics of performances, films, exhibitions, and books from five continents published on the DI /AV since 1998, as well as PB-I’s Buzz column, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com .)

As alumnus Eugene O’Neill once wrote, Princeton University is a tradition-bound place. It was still that when I arrived about 70 years after O’Neill, and I frequently felt the need to overtly demonstrate that I was a non-conformist. One afternoon in 1984, this took the form of deciding to wear a white cowboy mask for the day. My rounds included a visit to the bank and, well, you can guess what happened. The police were very nice about it, simply advising me that it’s not a good idea to wear a mask into a bank. My classmates put it more bluntly: How could I be so stupid?

In my case, it was I who was not thinking, and it was the bank employees who were reacting as they should to a customer wearing a mask. However, the case of Clinton Boisvert, a freshman at the School of Visual Arts, is another matter altogether. Responding to an assignment for his Foundations of Sculpture class that he create a site-specific work, Mr. Boisvert (whose last name would translate in French as “Green wood”) last week reportedly painted 37 Fed Ex boxes black, scrawled the word “Fear” on them, and attached them to girders and walls in the Union Square subway station. Not having seen the work, I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that it taps into the post 9/11 NYC zeitgeist. But from reading numerous reports in the local media, I see nothing that warrants a) the charge of reckless endangerment with which, if one can believe the New York Times — a big if — the district attorney intends to prosecute young Boisvert, or b) the condescending crucifixion with which Times critic Michael Kimmelman attempted to lacerate the courageous artist in yesterday’s paper. But then, it wouldn’t be the first time in history that an artist was working beyond the ability of a critic to comprehend.

“As the saying goes, art this bad ought to be a crime,” Mr. Kimmelman writes. Is this the best ‘criticism’ the chief art critic of the New York Times can come up with? Well… no! He then goes on to cite, approvingly, an even higher critical authority: the NYPD. (This would be the same NYPD who busted an artist of an earlier era, tapping into an earlier cultural zeitgeist, when Anna Halprin’s troupe was arrested for dancing nude at Hunter College in the 1960s.) “‘The kid is clueless, basically,’ a police official said on Monday,” Mr. Kimmelman continues, referring to the policeman’s quip, “demonstrating remarkable acumen as an art critic.” Well, actually — no. At best, what the police demonstrated, in responding to Mr. Boisvert’s installation by closing off the subway station for several hours and calling in the bomb squad, was a circumspection understandable from law enforcement in a post-9/11 New York. Never mind that, as even Kimmelman acknowledges, many New Yorkers had already guessed that the 37 boxes were an art project and not a security threat; a reasonable argument could be made that it is law enforcement’s job to err on the side of caution. One might also argue that it is their training to recognize even the slightest possible threat to public safety, and that they are not trained to recognize art projects.

An art critic, however, should be able to make this distinction. However, it seems to elude Mr. Kimmelman, who writes of Mr. Boisvert:

“Trying to imagine what he intended, I can only guess that he might say the boxes bearing ‘fear’ were meant to make tangible, as sculpture, what New Yorkers have felt since 9/11 — to give physical form to prevalent emotion. But that’s art mumbo jumbo. By provoking fear, the work trafficked in emotional violence.”

What a stunningly ignorant (“Mike, you ignorant slut!”) statement for a supposed art critic to make! Not all, but much art is MEANT to provoke emotional response. And not just of safe emotions. It is meant to hit us where we live. Cutting the NYPD the slack for actually removing the boxes — unlike Mr. Kimmelman, it’s not the cops’ job to recognize art — where, exactly, is the basis for charging Boisvert with ‘reckless endangerment’? Was there something inside the boxes they’re not telling us about?

And speaking of boxes: Also at Princeton, I had a professor of Russian literature named Ellen Chances. With her raven hair, pallid complexion and taste for old-fashioned dresses, Professor Chances looked like a heroine straight out of Tolstoy. Every session, she would write on the chalkboard elaborate charts explaining the literary and social context of that week’s assignment. One afternoon, Professor Chances did not show up for the beginning of class. When she strolled in 20 minutes late, she was wearing, for the first time ever, pants — blue jeans. She commenced to talk about boxes: The boxes we put things in, literal and figurative — she even pointed to the iron frames of the bright classroom’s windows as evidence. And when she was done, with 15 minutes left to go before the class normally concluded, she abruptly left.

In the United States right now, there is a big, huge box labelled FEAR. Can you see it? The Bush Administration grabs Iraq’s declaration on weapons before anyone else can see it not, of course, to edit out references to the numerous U.S. corporations and government agencies alleged (according to a German newspaper which claims to have obtained copies of some of the deleted pages) to have aided Iraq’s weapons programs over the years, but because the excised portions might help others construct weapons of mass destruction. Yup, put that one over in the FEAR box, my fellow Americans. Trust us. We know what you should fear.

Much of the coverage of Mr. Boisvert’s project has emphasized that he just arrived in New York three months ago, the inference being that he’s just a rube from the Midwest. I would draw a different lesson here: Plopped down in an alien mileau, Mr. Boisvert is, perhaps, able to see things — big picture things — that New Yorkers (or many, anyway) cannot see about themselves, captive as they are to the post-9/11 neurosis — how else explain Mr. Kimmelman’s exagerated response to a college art project? I could WRITE a thesis about this, but in painting that one word and those 37 boxes and placing them in a subway station, Mr. Boisvert has made much a more eloquent and communicative statement. I encourage his professors at SVA to affirm that he has a special gift. He didn’t “cause” the fear, as Mr. Kimmelman would have us believe; he identified it, as only an artist can. Mr. Kimmelman didn’t have to like the results, but he could have at least have had the eye to recognize the intention, and to reveal it to his readers, instead of abdicating his critical responsibility to law enforcement. But it’s not the first time in history a visionary artist has been pilloried by a tunnel-visioned critic. Mr. Boisvert, you have arrived

Chantal Akerman, Pere Lachaise: Was filmmaker-artist’s suicide an indictment of indifference and a Pop Culture universe that had no room for her?

akerman 2

Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery & copyright Chantal Akerman.

“Most of the time when people like a film, they say, ‘I didn’t even feel the time pass.’ I want the film-goer to feel the time pass.”

— Chantal Akerman, who killed herself in Paris October 5, 2015

“Comparable in force and originality to Godard or Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important European director of her generation.”

— J. Hoberman

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Text copyright 2015 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI/AV on November 6, 2015. Interested in reading more about famous artists who killed themselves? Click here to read our recently updated (and lavishly illustrated)  article “L’éclat de Stael — When Nicolas flew too close to the Sun”on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction. For more images of Akerman’s work and a review with translated excerpts of Corinne Rondeau’s “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” click here.

PARIS — Exiting an artist’s atelier off the rue de Couronnes while touring the Open Studios of Belleville last Spring, I almost came face to face with three teenaged marines wielding AK47s, guarding a low building on the edge of the hilly Parc Belleville. When I quipped later to a French pal that it was nice to see the government finally doing something to protect artists and told her the location, my friend observed, “That’s around where Chantal Akerman lives.” While it’s not inconceivable that a renowned Jewish film-maker might be considered as needing of protection as Jewish schools (usually unmarked here, as if the spectre of the Deportation still makes French Jews discrete), in the end it might be tempting to conclude that for the Brussels-born film director and installation artist, who killed herself here in Belleville (from where I write you) October 5 at the age of 65, the biggest enemy was herself. But this would be letting off too easy a pop-centered public and media which supports less and less artists who march to their own drummer and who are more interested in giving us awareness than diversion.

Years ago, alarmed that I had used the term ‘slow suicides’ in a story for her Princeton creative writing class, my professor, Joyce Carol Oates, handed me an essay she’d written critiquing suicides, notably Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. The suicide, she wrote (employing the term as a noun), can’t actually desire to kill herself, because death is a negative, and one can’t wish for a negative. The death wish is thus a surrogate for another desire, e.g. “I want you to love me,” “I want to hurt you,” “I want you to stop hurting me,” “I want to be recognized.” As if it weren’t enough that the suicide had taken her life, Oates would also deny her the franchise of her choice, simultaneously insulating society from being indicted by her death.

While it’s true that no one can look so deeply into the soul of another as to divine why they decided to hasten their reunion with the Divine, given that Akerman took her life on the same day the French legislature had resumed debating the right to choose to end one’s life, given her proclivity to provoke, and given that by the accounts of her colleagues she seems to have suffered when her films didn’t get enough attention, it seems fair to consider her suicide not just as an act of personal desperation by a perennial ‘manic-depressive’ but as a rebuke. The French media’s very reluctance to address why or how she chose to end her own life (initial reports here referred simply to her sudden death or ‘disparition,’ and even once the suicide was acknowledged, no details were reported and there was no probing of the ‘why,’ normally a fundamental question for any journalist) suggests the troubling questions of culpability her action raises. If anything, the media’s scant coverage of her death — Akerman didn’t even get her 15 minutes — confirms that she didn’t get the attention she deserved, and raises the question of whether things would have been different if she had a penis. During the week of her death that I monitored coverage on the cultural radio programs, the commentators and critics seemed anxious to move on to discussing Woody Allen’s latest remake of the same film he’s been making for the past 30 years and the ‘new’ Warhol exhibition at the city’s Museum of Modern Art, while the Cinematheque Francaise could hardly be expected to intrude on its umpteenth homage to a popular American film-maker — in this case Martin Scorcese — with a mini-homage to Akerman. After all, they’d feted her in… 2000, and so a one-off screening of her latest film, “No Home Movie,” November 16 would surely be sufficient. (The Cinematheque Toulouse will do better by her, programming a week-long homage March 2 – 9.)

akerman 2aChantal Akerman, “No Home Movie,” 2015. HD video Film, 115 min, color, sound. Direction: Chantal Akerman. Editing: Claire Atherton. Production: Liaison Cinematographique, Paradise Films, Centre du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel de la Federation Wallonie- Bruxelles. Copyright Chantal Akerman, courtesy Doc & Film International.

No one has even posed the question of why Akerman might take this drastic action on the eve of an anticipated grand success, in this case the first large-scale English-language exhibition of her installation work, being presented October 30 – December 6 at the Ambika P3 gallery by Ambika P3, a Nos Amours (which organized the complete Akerman retrospective in the UK from 2013 through this year), and the Marian Goodman Gallery, and the opening of “No Home Movie.” She was even scheduled to give a master’s class last week-end.

It seems only fair, then — to Chantal Akerman — to at least try to interpret her suicide, even if we can’t ultimately ‘understand’ it.

The easy answers include that suicide is not uncommon for children of Holocaust survivors (Akerman’s mom, who died in 2014, survived Auschwitz, while her grandparents did not); and that she was headed there anyway, given that her first film, “Saute ma ville,” shot in 1968 when she was 18, ends with the director/star opening the gas valves, putting her head in the oven, and blowing up her whole apartment. French commentators haven’t been shy about pointing to this as an early telegraphing, but having recently seen the film, what I remember most is Akerman’s absolute ebullience. Practically still teen-aged Chantal ecstatically hum-singing (the sole soundtrack), gleefully tossing things out of the cupboard onto the floor and then sweeping them into a corner, boiling spaghetti then rapaciously but matter-of-factly wolfing it down without savoring it, scotch-taping over the crevices of the doors and windows. Her early and greatest triumph (spoiler alert), the 1975 “Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” ends with the heroine, a middle-aged woman (the normally glamorous Delphine Seyrig, uglied-down) who prostitutes herself to pay for her indifferent late teen-aged son’s schooling, stabbing to death a client, but that doesn’t mean Akerman was destined to inflict that fate on, say, an indifferent journalist.

akerman 3Chantal Akerman, “No Home Movie,” 2015. HD video Film, 115 min, color, sound. Direction: Chantal Akerman. Editing: Claire Atherton. Production: Liaison Cinematographique, Paradise Films, Centre du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel de la Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles. Copyright Chantal Akerman, courtesy Doc & Film International.

Broadcast interviews with some of those colleagues closest to her suggest Akerman’s determination to follow her own path — both in the stories of her films and her balancing between categories, whether fiction and documentary, or installation artist and cineaste — didn’t square with her desire to be loved, or at least to have a larger and more appreciative audience.

“I think she had a hard time making films today,” suggested the French film-maker Claire Denis, interviewed on France Culture radio. “Not because she was in bad shape or depressed, but because the cinema no longer offers the means to people like her, and I find that 37 films, it’s not enough. To see a film by Chantal Akerman…. Chantal was a warrior. One day we went to London together, to the British Film Institute, and Chantal said that we needed to reflect together, we had to find a way of financing tunnels to rescue Jews stuck in Russia who can’t go to Israel.”

The director Roman Goupil, who like Akerman gives voice to the voiceless and who assisted her on “Rendez-vous avec Anna,” recalled her clear eyes, her sense of humour, and her virulance: While they were scouting locations in Germany, “She systematically started fights in all the bars and night clubs” they frequented. For Akerman, “All Germans were suspect.” But the key quality — in understanding her suicide — may be what Goupil called her “Exaltedness.” Considering whether “Saute ma ville” was a predictor of her final act, Goupil noted Akerman’s telling him, “It’s not what you think it is. I would have adored Charlot,” putting her heroine more in the line of Chaplin’s tragi-comic tramp, although, Goupil added, “There’s an immense wound behind, and that comes back in permanence in our discussions, of the Holocaust, of the Marxist dogma that she doesn’t understand.” While Denis lamented that her death means “We will get no more films from Chantal,” Goupil consoled her that, “We miss her, but her films are there. ‘Jeanne Dielmann’ is something absolutely magnificent, and which is a benchmark in the cinema.”

akerman 1Chantal Akerman, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” 1975, featuring Delphine Seyrig. 35 mm film, 200 min., color, sound. Production: Paradise Films, Bruxelles, Unite trois, Paris. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Copyright Chantal Akerman.

While this piece is not meant to be a recapitulative of her oeuvre, it’s worth pausing on “Jeanne Dielmann…” As too often happens with artists who address the plight of women of all classes, the film is sometimes praised for championing the feminist cause by focusing on a heroine essentially at the mercy of men, supporting her egotistic son by prostituting herself to men who don’t see her as more than a sex object. While this may be true, and laudable, it ignores her larger, filmic achievement. In “Jeanne Dielmann,” Akerman tinkered with the mechanism of the medium itself; if film is largely about time, Akerman messed with the timing and managed to give the illusion in 3.5 hours of about 48 hours conveyed in real time. I found a copy not in a European cinematheque but my local library in a Latino neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas. When I recommended it to the librarian, a woman of about my and the heroine’s age, I was afraid that if it bored her to death — because of the length and because on the surface, nothing much ‘happens’ until the end — she’d no longer take my suggestions seriously. But she came back to me and stated simply, “It’s about routine, and what happens when you get trapped in it. And the importance of ritual, and what happens when that gets disturbed.” There’s a segment in which Jeanne patiently makes her morning latte — precious because it’s a moment just for her — tastes it, and, scowling, throws the whole thing out and starts over again; the milk has perhaps turned rancid. In the extraordinary ‘making of’ documentary by Sami Frey — he of Akerman idol Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande a part” (his “Pierrot le fou” inspired her to make films) — Akerman’s seen making Seyrig repeat the scene again and again until she slows down enough.

During the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, the film-maker took questions after a screening of her 1996 “A divan in New York,” shown that night in a rare French dubbed version, but which I’d also seen at New York’s Anthology Film Archives (a prime source for Akerman when she was learning her trade). The story concerns a dour Manhattan psychologist (William Hurt) who exchanges apartments with a carefree Belleville Bohemian (Juliette Binoche, of course). When his clients mistake her for his replacement, she goes with the program, with improved results; he no sooner hits Belleville than the hammering by construction workers starts on his roof. (I can relate.) He heads back early, discovers her masquerade, they quarrel, she returns to Paris, he loosens up and follows her back. I loved the film — I hadn’t yet seen “Jeanne Dielmann” and realized that this was really what she was about — and thought Akerman would be pleased when I told her so. She, it turns out, hated it — no doubt because it was commercial — even complaining about spoiled stars insisting on their limousines. (She didn’t specify which.) In the same festival, when I took a fellow American to see Akerman’s film about racism in the south, my gal pal pointed to one of the white trash male characters and said, “I know that guy,” meaning that this director born in Belgium had succeeded in authentically capturing (without judging) an American archetype.

Reviewing the Ambika P3 exhibition in the November 4 edition of the Guardian, Adrian Sarle writes: “Akerman said she felt that the kind of films that sweep you up and make you forget yourself were robbing you of your time and of life itself. She wants you to feel every passing second. Watch or don’t watch, stay or leave. She makes me feel the world pulse through me, with all its urgency and all its stalled moments.”

I wonder — speculate, really — whether Akerman felt those seconds at an accelerated rate. I wonder if, sitting in her Belleville apartment with the trees just outside the window, she got trapped in her hyper-awareness. I wonder if she ventured out enough to the top of the parc Belleville, from the belvedere of which you can see the sun seting over the Eiffel tower at twilight and the changing colors of the foliage. I wonder if seeing three to five or, at times, even a platoon of marines guarding an unmarked Jewish school (in a neighborhood which used to be dominated by Jews, and is now the most multi-cultural in Paris) made her feel (rightly or wrongly) that after all these years, she was not safe from the anti-Semitism which took most of her family, even in Paris, with its hyper-protection of its Jewish residents. (When I see those guards, while I’m grateful for their service, the perceived threat that their presence represents makes me feel more anxious than assured. And I wonder how it makes those school-children feel about the world that surrounds them. They may not have to wear yellow stars, but do they feel, even if not accurately, just as marked?) I wonder how she felt about the fact that the operators of so many Jewish schools and synagogues still feel, 70 years after the Deportation and Shoah, the need to hide who they are. These are not my sentiments, so I am not projecting here but rather considering Akerman’s strong ties with her Holocaust survivor mother and her strong feelings for Israel. But mostly, I wonder about the responsibility of myself and my cultural gatekeeper colleagues in directing a cultural diet that doesn’t have room for a Chantal Akerman. (And not just in France; in the U.S., following her death, Turner Classic Movies broadcast “Jeanne Dielmann”… at 3h30 in the morning. Who can stay up until 3:30 in the morning to watch a three-and-a-half hour film, unless it’s with the goal of being put to sleep?) And I can’t help concluding that while she was providing us, uniquely, with a reminder of the preciousness of time, we failed to hold her precious.

 Chantal Akerman is interred at the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Special thanks to M.E..

akerman 4Chantal Akerman, “Tombe de nuit sur Shanghai” (Nightfall in Shanghai), 2007-2009. Installation video, color, sound, 14 minutes, in loop, with two Chinese light boxes. Production: LX Filmes / Fundacao Gulbenkian. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Copyright Chantal Akerman. Photo copyright Marc Domage.

Goya’s “Disasters of War” sold for 30,000

goya war

Tell me why, tell me why: Among the best-sellers of the auction of 19th and 20th-century French literature from the Aristophil collection co-organized by Artcurial last week in Paris was Francisco de Goya’s “Disasters of War,” in one of a limited edition of 500 copies of the album of 80 aquatint and eau-forte engravings. Published in 1863 by the Real Academia de Nobles Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, the book graphically illustrates the horrors which followed Napoleon’s invasion of Spain between 1808 and 1814, in particular General Murat’s brutal repression of the Madrid rebellion of May 2, 1808. Goya depicts, with grand eloquence, scenes of famine, massacres, rapes, fusilades, morsels of cadavres, and the dead being picked apart. No doubt deemed too provocative for the public during the epoch in which Goya made the engravings, between 1810 and 1820, they were never printed during his lifetime. Preserved by the artist’s son, the copper plates were purchased in 1862 by the San Fernando Academy of Madrid and printed a year later. Estimated pre-auction at between 12,000 and 15,000 Euros, the book sold last Tuesday for 30,330 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial. The caption of the above engraving translates, of course, as “Why?”

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française (Part 2): The Appeal

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right (from the Arts Voyager Archives): From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4, 2012: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Four salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey. Est. pre-sale: 4,000-6,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Introduced and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Second of two parts. To read our translated excerpts of the first trial, before the Commercial Tribune of Paris, in which Victor Hugo sought to force the Comédie-Française to fully honor its contracts to perform three of his plays — including Hugo’s testimony about the larger stakes involved, for both the theater and the Romantic movement of which he was the champion — click here. If you have not already done so, please support our ongoing  arts, culture, and literary coverage and translation of French authors and history by designating your donation via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask about donating by check.)

In Romain Gary’s 1975 “Your whole life is ahead of you” (published, by Mercure de France, not insignificantly under the false name of Emil Ajar– a photo of the fictive author illustrates the back cover), an elderly French Arab monsieur who is slowly going blind and probably losing his wits passes his days on a bench outside the cosmopolitan Belleville apartment building in which the pre-teenaged (also Arab French) narrator lives with an elderly French-Jewish woman who boards the children of whores. In the left pocket of his suit-jacket he retains a copy of the Koran; in the right, a copy of (as he refers to him) “Monsieur Hugo.”

If we’ve chosen to translate and reproduce, in their near entirety, contemporaneous legal journals’ accounts of the proceedings accompanying Victor Hugo’s 1837 lawsuit against the Comédie-Française to impel France’s largest theater to honor its contracted engagements to perform three of his plays and pay modest damages for not having yet done so, it’s not just because Hugo’s lengthy and eloquent elocutions in the two trials are themselves compelling dramatic material. Nor because of the validity of Hugo’s incisive explanation that what’s at stake — what drove him to take his occasional employer to court — is not merely his personal rights as an author but the fate of a new school of literature to which the Comédie-Française (the only publicly-funded theater and the only theater with a literary bent), the literary establishment as represented by a conservative faction of the Academie Française, and a ‘coterie’ of ‘bureaucrats’ at the Interior Ministry have systematically sought to bar the route. Nor even for the resonance this battle has in a contemporary France where the Parisian culturati and mainstream media still tend to favor a narrow coterie of their ‘chou-chous’ and cronies. (It’s not uncommon for hosts at the State-owned middle-brow radio chain France Culture, who went on strike this week — which means they only return to the air-waves to let listeners know how well their strike is going — to use their programs to hawk the books of their fellow hosts and commentators, nor films of which the chain is an official sponsor.) It’s also because at a time when this same media often chooses to defend lay values through the vector of a negative, that is to say by incessant railing over the supposed imminent menace posed to these values, and lay society, by a headscarf, with the resultant potential stigmatization of any Muslim woman who chooses to cover her head, the vivid testimony of Victor Hugo, the most sterling representation of those values in one individual, provides a positive example, or clarion call, of what they actually mean and represent and of the positive cultural manifestations they protect, promote, and produce. An opportunity to, rather than stigmatize  these women because they don’t conform to our conception of lay values — thus, by imposing a negative — positively impress them with the luster of the lay offer (presuming, as the opponents of the headscarf often do, that they’re not already hip to it) when it comes to moral values and of the cultural offer adhering to, and profiting from, these values puts at their finger-tips. (In Hugo’s case, opening the doors of the nation’s leading and only public theater to a whole school of literature.)

The enthralling testimony of Victor Hugo — which constitutes the heart of the appeal proceedings reproduced below in our translation, and in which he simply seeks to assert rights already sanctioned by existing law, explains the larger stakes, and even identifies his real opponent and thus the real enemy in these stakes, “the bureaucrat” (the French word, ‘commis,’ can also be translated as ‘clerk’ or ‘sales assistant’) — provides a vital reminder that the most effective and inspiring way to diffuse lay values is not to stigmatize the personal religious choices of some members of a minority group but to continue to educate citizens about the inherent value of lay society as already promoted and championed in the stirring words and exemplary lives of Victor Hugo, of Voltaire, of Camus, of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

What if — for example — instead of wasting half of the air time allotted for interviewing two of the authors of a new 3,000-word, three-tome “Koran of the Historians” on a recent edition of his France Culture drive-time show in grilling the scholars about whether the Koran mandates the wearing of the headscarf (the Orthodox kipa or typically ‘moche’ Hassidic wig somehow never seems to come up), Guillaume Erner, who is so obsessed with this subject he must have nightmares about it, had asked them about possible correspondences and correlations between the Koran and the thinking of Victor Hugo? And what if such a discussion had won new adherents among some of these same headscarf-wearing women? And inspired them to rush out and get their own copies of “Monsieur Hugo,” to accompany them concomittently with the Koran? (And more kipa-donning French Jews and habit-wearing French nuns to do the same.)

It is partly with this end in mind that we now turn the floor over to Monsieur Victor Hugo, his attorney, and the attorney for the Comédie-Française, preceded by our summation of this second trial.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française
Court Royale de Paris
(Presiding judge Monsieur Séguier)
Session of December 5, 1837

 

As reported by French legal journals, reproduced in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872, and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

 

(Following the Commercial Tribune’s November 20, 1837 ruling ordering the Comédie-Française, in the person of its director, to pay Victor Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interests for having failed to honor its contracts to perform Hugo’s “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” — the second of which singularly ushered in the era of Romanticism, the school of which the author was the crowned chief — and the court’s ordering the theater’s director to schedule performances of the three tragedies by specific deadlines as agreed to in the contracts or face fines of 150 francs per day, the organization filed an appeal before the Royal Court.

Much of the appeal proceedings focused on the lawyers for the two sides’ reiterations and bolstering of their cases already addressed in the first trial — and thus in our previous translation of those sessions — and doesn’t need repeating here. But salient details furnished by the attorneys for both sides during this second trial are worth translating for the way they illuminate the popular and boisterous appreciation for Hugo at the time; the refusal by the Comédie-Française, part of whose excuse for not honoring its contracts with Hugo was the alleged mitigated box office receipts for the three plays, to produce records supporting this argument; Hugo’s lawyers producing receipts which suggested the contrary, that the classical playwrights who dominated the theater’s repertory often did much worse at the box office than Hugo, whose plays’ average box-office intake also exceeded that of the Comédie-Française’s leading star; and how Hugo was ready to surrender his meager State stipend when even the barest suggestion of conflict of interest arose.

But most of all this second and last trial — the Royal appeals court would uphold the commercial tribunal’s ruling in the author’s favor — is noteworthy for another improvised speech by Victor Hugo who, once again, signaled the larger questions at stake, specifically: Who controls what the public gets to see? And who lurks behind the effective barring of the country’s only State-funded, literary theater to an entire school of new work?

Voila the pertinent highlights. As with our earlier account, text presented within brackets is the translator’s; the rest is translated from the contemporaneous accounts of the Gazette des Tribunaux:)

As soon as the doors opened, a sizable crowd poured into the courtroom, among them a large number of writers and dramatic artists.

Monsieur Victor Hugo had some difficulty finding a place to sit on the benches reserved for him, already invaded by lawyers.

Maitre Delangle [attorney for the Comédie Française] took the floor with these words…: To read the complete translation on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction, please click here.

November 26 Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three: ‘We know ourselves, the bearers of the light of the earth he is given to, and of the light of all his lost days’

warhol jackyFrom the exhibition Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 26: Andy Warhol, “Nine Jackies,” 1964. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The American Contemporary Art Foundation, Inc., Leonard A. Lauder, president. © 2019 the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

by Wendell Berry
Copyright 1963 Wendell Berry

First published on November 26, 1963, by the Nation. Published in book form shortly afterwards by George Braziller, New York, with lettering and illustrations by Ben Shahn, who also penned the introduction, which said in part: “In so sharply scrutinizing his own feelings, the poet has discovered with an uncanny exactness all our feelings. His words have created a certain monument, not pretentious, but real, and shared.” Today’s republication dedicated to Bill Wedemeyer…. and to Breathless.  To see art by Ben Shahn, read Paul Ben-Itzak‘s memoir associated with this event — and learn who Breathless is — click here.

We know
the winter earth
upon the body
of the young
president,
and the early dark
falling;

We know
the veins
grown quiet
in his temples and
wrists, and his hands
and eyes
grown quiet;

We know
his name written
in the black capitals
of his death,
and the mourners
standing in the rain,
and the leaves falling;

We know
his death’s horses
and drums;
the roses, bells,
candles, crosses;
the faces
hidden in veils;

We know
the children
who begin
the youth of loss
greater than
they can dream
now;

We know
the nightlong coming
of faces
into the candle-
light
before his coffin,
and their passing;

We know
the mouth of the grave
waiting,
the bugle and rifles,
the mourners
turning
away;

We know
the young dead body
carried
in the earth
into the first
deep night
of its absence;

We know
our streets and days
slowly opening
into the time
he is not alive,
filling with
our footsteps
and voices;

We know
ourselves,
the bearers
of the light
of the earth
he is given to,
and of the light of
all his lost days;

We know
the long approach
of summers toward the
healed ground
where he will be
waiting,
no longer the keeper
of what he was.