(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.

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 14: Anti-Semitism rears its concrete head in the Abstract art World (Subscriber-only content; to learn how to subscribe, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

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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.

Artists & Critics, Men & Women, Paris Forever: Tryst avec vu sur des rues de Paris, par Gervex, choisi par Huysmans

Orsay Henri Gervex Rolla smallFrom the exhibition Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald: As seen by Francesco Vezzoli, in principle running April 3 through July 19 at the Strasbourg Museum of Contemporary Art after an earlier run at the Orsay Museum in Paris: Henri Gervex (1852-1929), “Rolla,” 1878. Oil on canvas, 176.2 x 221.3 cm. Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, dépôt du Musée d’Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Patrice Schmidt. Courtesy Musée d’Orsay, Service Presse. The exhibition features art and artists favored by the critic J.K. Huysmans.

Le Feuilleton (the Serial),10: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris; Part 10: Conflicts

Vera Molnar, Montparnasse, d'après Klee, en bleu, vert et rouge 2006 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.

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

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 artsvoyager@gmail.com . To support us through PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

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.”

Ephemeral & Eternal: Helen Levitt’s “Chalk Drawing” at the Met Museum of Art

LT1996.04As part of the exhibition Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection, in principle running through June 28, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, it’s still a helluva town is presenting: Helen Levitt (American, 1913–2009), “Chalk drawing,” New York, ca. 1940. Gelatin silver print. 7 1/8 × 11 3/8 in. (18.2 × 28.8 cm), Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection. © Helen Levitt Film Documents LLC. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Thomas Zander Gallery Image. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Eugenia Burnett Tinsley and Juan Trujillo.

Huysmans to Puvis to Zola: When the author of ‘J’accuse’ touted a monumental artist who refused to go with the tide

Puvis de Chavanns Young women at the seaside smallerFrom the exhibition Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald: As seen by Francesco Vezzoli, in principle running April 3 through July 19 at the Strasbourg Museum of Contemporary Art (after an earlier run at the Orsay Museum, to whose boffo press service we owe these images): Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), “Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (Young women at the sea-side), 1879. Oil on canvas, 205.4 x 156 cm.  Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © musée d’Orsay / rmn. (For more art from the exhibition, click here.)

Text by Emile Zola
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

One of the benefits of the Orsay Museum’s latest penchant for re-envisioning  the late 19th-century work which is its charge through the eyes of contemporaneous critics  is that the polyglot writers often dictate a polyglot selection of artists which means that major figures overdue for their own solo shows get a cameo. Such is the case with the exceptional  Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)’s 1879 oil “Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (Young women at the sea-side),” which features in the work exhibited at the Orsay and theoretically to be exhibited through July 19 at the Strasbourg Museum of Contemporary Art for  Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald: As seen by Francesco Vezzoli. Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) may well have referred to himself as a “Dutchman putrefied with Parisianism,” but if we’re to judge by the Puvis painting above, his tastes were anything but. It’s no surprise that in 1880 — a year after this tableau was made — Emile Zola invited Huysmans to collaborate in the collection “Les Soirées de Medan.” Which connection is enough of a pretense for us to turn the Puvis floor over to the great man, as Zola singled out the painter in his review of the 1875 Salon, published in two “Letters from Paris” which appeared in Le Sémaphore de Marseille of May 3 and 4 and in “Le Messager de l’Europe” in Saint-Petersburg. Today’s translation and art goes out to Holly, and to all the Holly Golightlys of the world, in esperance for the period when we’ll all be able to go lightly again. — PB-I

I’ve saved Puvis de Chavannes’s large tableau for the end. Secluded at the Sainte-Croix convent, Radegonde gives refuge to poets and protects the world of Letters against the epoch’s barbary. Here at last is a truly original talent, who trained himself far from any Academic influences. He alone can succeed in the art of decorative painting, in the vast frescos exposed to the raw light of public institutions. In our times, with the crumbling of classic principles, the fate of mural paintings has become critical. The nobility of heroes, the simplicity of the drawing, every rule which makes the tableau a type of bas-relief in which the ‘cooler’ colors have trouble standing out in the midst of the marble of churches and palaces, have collapsed, making way for the explosion of the romantic brush. And suddenly, it seems to me, Puvis de Chavannes arrives and finds a breach in this impasse. He knows how to be interesting and alive, in simplifying the lines and painting with uniform tones. Radegonde, surrounded by nuns in white gowns, is listening to a poet declaiming verse between the walls of a convent. The scene exudes a grandiose and peaceful charm. To tell the truth, for me Puvis de Chavannes is but a precursor. It is indispensible that large-scale painting is able to find subjects in contemporary life. I don’t know who will be the painter with the genius to know how to extract the art of our civilization, and I don’t know how he’ll do it. But it is indisputable that art does not depend on either draperies or the antique nude; it takes root in humanity itself and consequently every society must have its own conception of beauty.

From Emile Zola, “Ecrits sur l’Art,” copyright 1991 Editions Gallimard.