From the exhibition Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse, opening October 16 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it runs through January 27 and playing at the Museum of Modern Art March 22 through July 20: Félix Vallotton, “The Anarchist,” 1892. Engraving on wood, 17.1 × 25 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. © Photo Bibliothèque nationale de France. To read more about anarchism — of all stripes — click here to check out our excerpt from Michel Ragon’s novel “La mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished) on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction or see below.
Nicolas de Stael, “Plage,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 24 x 33 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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“The wondrous envelopes us and deluges us like the atmosphere, but we don’t see it.”
— Charles Baudelaire, cited by Eli Faure in “Histoire de l’art: L’art moderne, I,” Editions Denoel, 1987
PARIS — The concrete plaque on the fence midway up the rue Menilmontant above the weed-submerged tracks of the “Petite Ceinture” which winds around Paris commemorates the three men, aged 20 to 53, who gave their lives in August 1944 to liberate their city from the German occupiers, in the conviction that waiting for the Allied troops — which landed on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago today — to do so would be to surrender their future to the Yankees. So why has the mayor of Paris — who made sure passersby knew the fresh flowers tacked to the plaque were from her — so readily ceded to the increasingly rampant Americanization of Lutèce without a fight?
Up the street from this newly opened to the public parcel of the Petite Ceinture, where you can pique-nique on freshly-fallen Queen Anne cherries while reclining on homey chaises composed of unvarnished planks of wood, a bakery-café too tony for the neighborhood is selling Mrs. Field-style cookies for 4 Euros a pop. I prefer the sunflower-encrusted variety the French Arab boulangerie on the Boulevard Menilmontant below offers for .50 cents apiece. And unlike what one older woman I dated during my recent visit to Lutèce (who claimed to be a Leftist atheist) contended, to me the biggest threat to traditional French values isn’t the scarf with which the bakery babushka chooses to cover her head but boutiques selling “cookie pauses,” restaurants calling themselves “Thank God for Broccoli,” and cafés promising “the best brunch on the Canal,” all in English. This isn’t just a question of going exotic that can be likened to a New York restaurant calling itself, say, Lutèce; it’s an appeal by Yankee commercants to Yankee customers who resume going local to ordering a croissant and café creme.
Roger Bissière, “Vert et noir (Esprits de la Fôret),” 1955. Oil on paper pasted on canvas. Photo copyright Veignant. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
If I still harbored any doubts that City Hall is just rolling over in the face of this lingual imperialism, they were dispelled by the American high school chorus chanting Frankie Valli’s ‘I love you, baby” from the chandelier’d top floor of the Hotel de la Ville on a recent Thursday evening as I returned from a twilight pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis where I’d been flirting with a red-headed, purple-stockinged German children’s book designer named Betty, in English (as we contemplated an evolving Notre-Dame whose dome now sports a white yarmulke which just might remain there long enough for some wag to observe, “Funny, you don’t look Blue-ish”; only 13 million of the 800 million Euros pledged for the church’s reconstruction has been delivered; the leading industrialist who committed 200 million just found out his gift won’t be as tax-deductable as he originally thought; and the main French patrimony foundation organizing the fundraising has rightly decided to steer future donations to some of the country’s other 2,500 sagging monuments), she sharing nightmares of walking into bottomless escalators, me of returning to school and constantly missing classes I really wanted to take. When the chorus segued into Cindy Lauper’s “Girls just want to have fun” (Cindy had accompanied my Princeton years) I had to second the emotion of the chic Parisienne striding confidently towards me who twisted the finger ballet she’d been performing into a gun and pointed it in the direction of the singing.
All this is a far cry from the mutually respectful meeting and melding of cultures promoted by Boris Vian, who, picking up after the war where Josephine Baker, the Revue Negre, and, later, Charles Trenet and the Zazous (the French version of the Zoot Suits) had left off, introduced Duke Ellington to France and ravenously devoured American jazz magazines so he could translate their choicest morsels for French jazz fans. Vian, who with Miles Davis and Juliette Greco set the tone in Saint-Germain-des-Près (“I didn’t know he was Black,” Greco quoted by Malcolm McLaren in his album “Paris” said of Davis. “And when I found out he was Black, I just cried.”), would blow his heart out on the cornet and trumpet by the age of 39, dying of a heart attack at a 1959 preview of the film version he’d opposed of his novel “I’ll spit on your graves,” the first-person account of a Black American who decides to kill as many white people as he can. Jean-François Jaeger, on the other hand — who, after taking over as director of the Jeanne Bucher gallery in 1947 upon Bucher’s death, helped the Paris abstract art movement carve out a distinct identity which left the American school in the dust — is still kicking at ninety-something. And his legacy — as personified by artists like Nicolas de Stael, Jean Dubuffet, Roger Bissiere, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva — is still vibrant, as demonstrated by a new exhibition running at the Galerie Jaeger-Bucher’s Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “La Garde des anges,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
What I love about the French abstract art of this era — the way it feeds and sustains me — is that it’s so dense. While Picasso was busy scrawling silly clowns that would make Red Skelton blanche on napkins and noble doves for the peace posters of the French Communist Party as it buried its head in the sand to the gulags, these artists were delivering genuine revolutions in every painting. (And not just at the Bucher nor only under the aegis of gallerists like Jaeger; Jean-Michel Atlan, Pierre Soulages, Wols, the COBRA group, and the critics who championed them like Michel Ragon, another “passeur,” or transmitter, also get some of the credit.) Or as Jaeger put it in 1997, “For us there are only beginnings, successive births at the will of solicitations to throw our points of view into question, each one completely owned, each one eventually contradicted by an adventure of another type, without losing the essential attachment to the quality of the mode of expression. Possessing no power of creation ourselves, we’re placed at the advance posts, the first to be subjected to the shock of a revelation born in the studio, the first to assimilate it with the goal of accomplishing our role of passeur.” Contrast this humble and self-effacing attitude with what — at least as reflected in much of the work I see in the galleries of Paris these days — seems to be the optic of Jaeger’s successors, which is to program work which confirms and assures them in their tastes.
Jean Dubuffet, “Le Bar,” 1965. Vinyl on paper mounted on canvas. 81x 100 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
Literalists like me can certainly find stories — or at least figuration — in some of the work on view at the Jaeger-Bucher if we want to, but we can also just allow it to deluge (or as Baudelaire might say, ‘abreuve’) us with sensations. (After all, if they could have said it in words, they would have become writers.) What I appreciate about this period is that art, even abstract, impenetrable art, was everywhere. Dali landscapes and Miro ‘bonhommes’ were decorating the albums of Jacky Gleason and Dave Brubeck alike. (Re-viewing several seasons of Mad Men recently after covering last year’s Aix-en-Provence exhibition of Stael’s later, Mediterranean color and light-infused paintings, I was delighted to spot one of them hanging behind the desk of the ad executive Roger Sterling, who might have been one of those American soldiers marching towards Paris.) These days, instead of European art enhancing American pop culture, a new, unimaginative generation of American pop culture artists (often with no technical training, and bragging about it) is turning up in Parisian art galleries, notably in the Marais. (The Americanization of the Marais isn’t confined to its artistic venues. Emerging earlier this year from a palatial space given over to monotonously repetitive big-eyed, long-nosed women designed by a young American artist which owed more to the Sunday comic strip “The Fusco Brothers” than Robert Rauschenberg, I ran smack dab into a window display hawking a Krispy-Kreme-scale donut with a thimble-sized cup of coffee for six Euros.) English is often the go-to language at the vernissages and in the guided tours at these venues, the press releases are in English, the exhibition titles are in English, and much of the (American) art is so crappy it would never dare to show its face in Brooklyn. Some of it (and not just the American) is so buried in conceptual (often textual) mazes that I can’t find the graphic matter.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Two. Silkscreen painting in color, signed and justified. 11.81 x 11.81 inches / 18.89 x 16.53 inches. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
The Germainopretan galleries, on the other hand, remain resolutely international in their selection and (for the most part) rigorous in their aesthetic standards. (Even the snob factor has diminished enough that I’m tempted to reverse Vian’s formula: “Encore moins snob que tout a l’heure.”) After leaving the Jaeger-Bucher earlier on the same Thursday evening that terminated on the other side of the Seine with being serenaded by American girls just wanting to have fun at City Hall, I crossed the rue de Seine to a gallery half its size where, instead of the usual jeunotte annoyed at being interrupted in whatever she was doing in front of her computer screen that was more important than me I found two young women in glasses busily arranging dozens of Victor Vasarely optical illusions neatly arrayed on the floor.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Three. Silkscreen painting in color, signed in crayon and justified. 75.5cm x 75.5cm / 83 cm x 83 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
“If you have any questions, let us know!” one enthusiastically invited me (in French). And I’m glad I did; they both knew more about the art than I did, specifically explaining to me that before Vasarely there was Agram, both of whom lead a movement sometimes called ‘cinetic’ art (Vasarely’s approach has also been described as photo-graphisme), which looks like it provided the model for the various unknown sectors the starship Enterprise would stray into a decade later. The last time I’d come upon this particular artistic genre, at a Latin American-themed gallery in the Marais whose exhibition was more mobile-oriented, the — older — galleriste had huffed when she discovered I didn’t already know what cinetic art was, “It’s very well-known!” Here, by contrast, the two young gallerists not only explained to me that ‘serigraphs’ meant ‘silk-screens,’ but when I asked what exactly this entailed, one of them, “Louise,” left the room to fetch two blank sheets of paper so she could demonstrate the process.
Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled Two. Silkscreen, signed and justified. 75.5 cm 75 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
When I finally identified myself as a journalist and asked if she had jpegs of the art available, Louise encouraged me to visit the gallery’s website and pull what I needed. (Contrast this to the attitude of the Reunion of the National Museums, which handles the publicity for the Luxembourg, Grand Palais, and other institutions, whose press offices set up so many roadblocks — often at the dictate of ADAGP, the artist rights’ syndicate which apparently thinks art magazines still make money — to featuring their art in articles about their exhibitions ((in other words, free advertising)) that I’ve given up covering them. In fact in theory I’ve given up writing about art, period, because it doesn’t keep me in croissants let alone the dentures to be able to nibble them, but the problem is that every time I go outside in Paris it seems to find me.) When, before leaving to not look for more art, I told the gallerists at the Grillon — as the space is called (Jimminy Cricket!) — about the (non) reception that usually greets me at art galleries, another, older woman who had just entered and sat down behind a desk replied, “C’est pas comme ca que ca marche ici,” that’s not how it works here.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled One. Silkscreen in colors, signed in crayon and justified. 57 cm x 45 cm / 75 cm x 60 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
After testing my new choppers (the family paid for them) on the cornichons and pretzel sticks at a third space on the rue de Seine, the Petite Gallery (unfortunately the only galleries that still offer food and drink at vernissages these days seem to be the ones with the least interesting art, which is why I’m not talking about it here), I was still doing pretty good Germainopretan snob quotient-wise until I entered a fourth gallery whose name I’ve purposely forgotten but was something like “The eyes have it” or “The eyes are everywhere” and which was offering a group exhibition under the rubric “Surrealism, the Second Generation,” purporting to cover the period 1945 – 1965. Intrigued that most of the art displayed seem to come from the collection of the Duchamp specialist Arturo Schwartz, I asked the gallerist why. Taking me aside and shaking his head (not at me but at the institution in question), he explained, “He left 700 works to the Jerusalem Museum. They promptly sold off most of them so they could buy more contemporary work.” Reverse-intrigued, I asked him why he didn’t have any Leonor Fini among the mostly male assemblage. “She wasn’t really a surrealist,” the gallerist sniffed dismissively — and typically. (Read: She was a female artist who refused to be subsumed by and subsetted into a male universe. Around Leonor’s pad in the hills above Trieste, the men wore gowns.) If you’re wondering why I’m not citing a single name of an artist who was included in the exhibition, it’s not to venge Fini but because when I took one of several copies of a list pairing works with artists as a memori menti for this article, a thin van-dycked gallery assistant with slicked-back hair chased me out of the gallery and down the rue des Beaux Arts to recuperate the material. “Hey, come back here! You can’t take that!”
Leonor Fini, “Dithyrambe, 1972. Oil on paper laid down on canvas. 30 x 21.25 inches. Courtesy CFM Gallery.
After an unhealthily more than cursory look (okay, digging-through) of a box someone had left outside another gallery with a sign “Free for the taking!” but which consisted mostly of battery-less gold-painted hand-clocks not even Dali would want to recuperate, I continued towards the Seine and the Ile St. Louis. The deal I’d made with myself was that I’d already prepared a cauliflower-potato-chicken-curry salad for the pique-nique and packed a plastic bottle of Algerian lemon soda scored at the Belleville market for 15 cents, and if I didn’t like it on the Ile, I could just get up and leave. The reasons I thought I wouldn’t like it were a) the first time that I’d retrieved “my” bench on the Ile during this Paris visit, I’d run down to the Seine from Beaubourg (the Pompidou) so fast — you might have thought Niki de Saint Phalle’s big-breasted mermaid had jumped out of the Stravinsky fountain (yet another that’s been left out to dry) and was chasing after me — that I’d no sooner sat down on “my” bench than I felt like I was about to have the runs and had to run back up to the Right Bank, where my go-to toilet outside the Metro Pont-Marie was flashing the dreaded red ‘out-of-order’ sign, and the open toilet I finally found near the Theater Sarah Bernhardt just as time was running out was out of toilet paper, leaving me to show up at a Valentine’s Day vernissage in the Marais with proof that my shit really did stink too. (Looking up at a dried-out David Hockney tree I felt very wet.), b) the second time I’d tried, after an initial post-fire visit to Notre-Dame to size up the damage for you, I’d been scared off by four bulky British rugby-players bunched onto “my” bench and blasting their music de merde on their portables (there used to be an unspoken rule among We the People of the Ile that you didn’t impose your music on others), and c) the years I used to spend every Friday night on the Ile after trolling for used records off the rue Mouffetard where I’d had my cheap cafe latté standing at a tall table contemplating the curvy form and curve-throwing bon mots of MissTic were my drinking years, only unlike Baudelaire I had no Gauthier to record the resultant reveries of this artificial Paradise, so all I remember besides the way the rippling of the Seine seemed to glitter more brightly as the Sun set over Notre-Dame after a glass of pastis is how heavy I felt walking towards Pont-Marie afterwards (the pique-nique also contributed; I wasn’t just drinking), and how when I tried to replace the half a bottle of red or two cans of Pelforth Brune with a whole bottle of tomato juice it just wasn’t the same. If I didn’t have a scribe like Gauthier or Baudelaire (whose building at 33 rue Lamartine had been my first after moving to Paris) to lend these evenings a literary flavor, I did have a librarian: A bouquiniste, Marcel, whose noble trade — having a best friend who sold books along the Seine made me feel like a real Paris insider — blinded me to his fickle soul. I hadn’t had any contact with Marcel since 2014, when he wrote to say that according to his new and young White Russian bride (the same who, after a French Arab man who was more French than she was left the elevator we’d shared at the Metro Place de Lilas had scowled, “They should all go back where they came from”), “You look like a Hobo” (the teeth no doubt).
Thus it was that telling myself if I didn’t like it — if I encountered more music de merde to perturb my tranquility — I didn’t have to stay I made my way to the Ile along the newly pedestrianized Right Bank of the Seine, discovering the spanking new mahogany benches around tables where people were eating, drinking, and partying, and of course, the one decent toilet within five kilometers, an equally spanking new white facility. (You’re just too good to be true, can’t keep my eyes off of you.)
Taking the stairs back up to the street after passing the Hotel de la Ville so I could access the bridge to the Ile — the urge to see if Marcel (not his real name) was still there manning his ‘box’ above a ramp leading down to the river was also a factor — I didn’t find my literary friend but further on was reassured to see that Pierre, a bouquiniste to whom Marcel had shown the ropes, was faithfully at his station, and recognized me enough to nod.
The last time I’d seen Pierre — I’d just fled from a late-career, ear-splitting Pina Bausch spectacle at the Bernhardt and decided to linger in the neighborhood so that I could go back for the after-party and at least have some food and drink to compensate for the ear damage, plus my friend Sabine had stayed for the second act — he’d insisted that I was working for the CIA. “That’s why your teeth are so bad — It’s a disguise!” When he’d announced after hanging up the cell phone he’d told me a Chinese guy had sold him that he had to take off for a rendez-vous with a Vietnamese woman, I’d responded, “I know. We’re the ones who told the Chinese guy to sell you the cell phone after we put a bug in it.” By his laughing reaction I wondered if Pierre had just been ribbing me.
On this recent retrieval, Pierre’s curly hair was scanter and his face more arid from the exposure to the Sun and wind ricocheting off the Seine, and he was sporting an aborted handle-bar mustache and sharing a bottle of red with his potes around a small fold-up table he’d set up in front of his stand, where the books were piled up in pell-mell chaos. The new teeth had apparently improved my stature. “You’re a bouquiniste also, right?” “No, I’m a friend of Marcel’s.” Indicating the Red Guards cap on his head, I observed, “Last time I saw you were wearing a Chinese peasant lamp-shade hat to protect you from the Sun.” “Vietnamese!” Pierre corrected me, pulling the lampshade out from behind a pile. Then nodding up at a row of lantern-cages with stuffed parrots in them hanging like birds on a wire from the green-iron hood of the stand above the piles of books, he suggested, “Tapper and see what happens.” As I prepared to deliver a round-house wallop on the first cage he chided me impatiently, “No no, clap your hands *together.*” I did, and the lanterns lit up as the birds began to sing.
Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled One. Silkscreen, signed and justified, 77 cm x 70.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
(Original French version follows English translation.)
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Manhès lived in an atelier behind the Montparnasse train station, on a narrow street as muddy in the winter as the Lithuanian ghetto back alley where he was raised. Between the train tracks and the bustling neighborhood around the avenue Maine subsisted a practically rural little island, where automobile and even foot traffic was rare. Little by little this island was being devoured by the expanding dependences of the train station. All that remained were a few hovels, several rows of dilapidated ateliers in which a handful of artists lived in constant fear of expropriation.
Manhès’s atelier, like those of his neighbors, consisted of an entry level with a dirt floor. A dressing-room served as a bedroom. With a very high ceiling that made it impossible to heat during the winter, this room looked more like a storage space than a lodging. The only modern comfort was electric lighting. No water, no gas. A pump in the street provided for all the residents’ needs.
Forty-two years old, Manhès had lived in Paris for 20 years. The war had interrupted his career just at the moment where he was beginning to find his own personal style. From 1940 to 1944 he fought with the Maquis in the forests around Limoges, finishing his service in Germany with General Lattre after receiving three minor wounds. When he returned to Paris, the galleries were already full up and all the comfortable artists’ ateliers had been swept up by the nouvelle riche bourgeoisie.
Before the war, Manhès knew Klee in Germany as well as Kandinsky, whom he frequented when the great abstract art theorist took refuge in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, where he died. He came under their influence at first and then, slowly, developed his own style. From the moment he resumed working in 1945, in this sordid atelier where he continued to live, he produced Manhès, that is to say a type of painting which didn’t resemble any other and which, from this very fact, shocked everyone.
The figurative painters and the fans of traditional painting accused him of being abstract, while the abstract painters, as well as their supporters à la Charles Roy, accused him of clinging to an outmoded style of figurative painting. Because a strange form of poetry emanated from Manhès’s art, he was also subject to the dismissive epithet of being “literary.” Numerous younger artists formed a real cult around him, falling under his sway. Bolstered by this following, he could have easily founded his own school, as did Matisse and Léger, but he liked to say that art could not be taught, that the only thing one could pass on to others was cooking recipes; he preferred consecrating his time entirely to his work, which had finally arrived at a level of authority acknowledged by the majority of art aficionados.
Manhès was no longer poor. His contract with Laivit-Canne assured him a very honorable monthly stipend and on top of this, he was allowed to sell on his own whatever paintings his gallery didn’t take. He fantasized about soon being able to buy a decent studio. Acquired by the most important collectors, recognized as one of the leaders of the prevailing art current, he seemed to have finally arrived when his altercation with Laivit-Canne arrived to throw everything up in the air.
Manhès wasn’t particularly worried about the rupture in the contract, but the vexing words of his dealer weighed heavily on his heart. Ancelin, loyal Ancelin, whom he favored among all his disciples and who had become his intimate friend even though ten years separated them, followed him to his studio. It was Manhès who persuaded Laivit-Canne to offer Ancelin a contract. It was in the art dealer’s best interests to support his stars by simultaneously promoting younger painters who’d fallen under their influence.
Invited to Monsieur Mumfy’s soirée, Manhès and Ancelin preferred going to the Sélect on the boulevard Montparnasse, a café which drew the majority of the quartier’s artists, rather than dealing with the uproar in the artistic milieu that Laivit-Canne would surely provoke this evening.
The two friends presented a surprising contrast. Manhès was small and stocky, brunette, with frizzy black hair. A typical bohemian, he wore clothes which always seemed to be second-hand, even if he didn’t lack for money. Ancelin, by contrast, was the typical young man issued from a good French family. Tall, svelte, always wearing an immaculately tailored suit, he also displayed an outgoing, polished, and distinguished visage, whereas Manhès always seemed tense and gruff.
Sitting on the terrace of the Sélect, they were recognized at most of the tables and made a round of handshakes. A young man hailed them from inside the café: Their inseparable companion, the poet and art critic Fontenoy.
Manhès and Ancelin precipitated themselves on him to break the news:
“Guess what? I got into an argument with Lévy. (Manhès always de-Frenchified the name of the dealer in pronouncing it.) He threw me out on the street, but he’ll be sorry. Now I can sell all my own works. I’ll make more than when I was under contract.”
“But what happened?”
“He accused me of not evolving, of making ‘Jewish paintings’ at a time when, according to him, traditional French painting is once again à la mode. What a bunch of bullshit! It’s like those who accuse me of literary painting! I don’t try to make Jewish paintings, or literary paintings, or abstract, or figurative. I paint what I feel, what I am… Anyway I lost it. I shouted back at him that I didn’t want to be a fake, camouflaging my painting like he camouflages his name, and that I don’t like self-hating Jews.
“You know that horrible voice he has,
like an impotent screeching. He started stamping and yelping. His employees came running. In that nasal voice he has he demanded: “Bring me this imbecile’s contract so I can tear it up! I’ll make him croak from hunger!” Poor Lévy, in letting me go he also lets go of a good opportunity to not die of hunger himself! I can live without a dealer, but the dealers can’t live without us.”
“The problem,” said Ancelin, “is that I also have a contract with the dwarf. This puts me in a delicate position.”
“Not at all,” Manhès protested. “Just make out like you’re not au courant. Agree with him if you have to. This doesn’t keep us from being pals. You’re still young. You need him.”
“I must write about this tomorrow in my rag,” Fontenoy piped in.
Fontenoy was an editor at L’artiste, the only newspaper devoted to the fine arts with a considerable readership. He was 30 years old, like Ancelin, but was first and foremost Manhès’s friend. This poet from the Loire Valley had been smitten with Manhès’s painting like one might fall for a girl. He readily proclaimed: “I’ve experienced two great shocks in my life: The first when I discovered at the age of 18 the poetry of Blaise Cendrars, the second at 24 standing in front of the tableaux of Manhès.” He’d tried to capture in his poetry the violent and chaotic art of his great painter, but sifted through his sensibility, Manhès’s images took on another light. They became tame, ordered. It was a miracle that he was able to understand at all the Judeo-Slavic genius of Manhès, so different from his own talent. And yet Fontenoy had written the best studies on Manhès. For that matter he was often accused of being a one-trick pony, only able to talk about Manhès and his followers. Those who gave no credit to the art of Manhès, like Charles Roy, even claimed that Fontenoy was incapable of writing about abstract art. Fontenoy liked to retort with illustrated examples: “Baudelaire really only understood Delacroix, Zola Manet…. Critics who know how to talk about anything and everything are not creators. They write catalogs — useful, no doubt, but never risking their name in championing one over the other. The only time they declare someone a genius is after he’s dead.”
Fontenoy was a petit blonde man, skinny, with blue eyes. He lived in extreme austerity in a furnished hotel room in Montparnasse, his revenue being limited to his articles in L’artiste and several other newspapers and revues, as well as translating and rewriting work when he could get it. All of this was low-paid, for the simple reason that newspaper owners were accustomed to the fact that art critics were corrupted.
When Fontenoy became an editor at L’artiste, the owner told him:
“I can only pay you 1000 francs* for each major article, but by being associated with our newspaper you should be able to quintuple your freelance work. For that matter, I shouldn’t even be paying you at all!”
All too happy to be hired by the major art newspaper, Fontenoy did not protest and did not even ask the owner to elaborate on how exactly he might be able to quintuple his freelance assignments. He simply assumed that the notoriety his collaboration with L’artiste would give him would get him work writing texts for art books and other revenue sources whose existence he did not even suspect. But this work never came and Manhès had to demonstrate to him how naive he was. Just as history loses many of its enigmas when one studies, in parallel, political economy, the rivalries and affinities in the arts world stopped being complex for Fontenoy the day Manhès revealed to him the economic mechanism of the art market.
“How do you think your colleagues manage to eke out a living?” Manhès asked rhetorically. “It’s quite simple: At the end of the week they go by the galleries they champion to pick up a little envelope … which is not always turned over to them that discretely. Some dealers like to ostensibly mount that they pay off their critics, treating them with airs like a boss treats his servant. And the critics dutifully kow-tow to them. When the dealers refuse to give them money, they wheedle out a drawing, a lithograph, which they then go on to sell. I can even cite for you certain critics who are veritable flacks, only writing about the painters they sell. This quasi-generalized corruption perverts all the relationships between painters, art critics, and dealers.”
Following this little talk, Fontenoy became so touchy about the principle of the disinterestedness of the critic that Manhès didn’t dare aid his friend: When he offered him a painting one day, Fontenoy turned beet-red and became extremely uncomfortable:
“Yes, I’d love it… for my room… But then people would say that you’d bought me off. I just can’t.”
Then he tried to make light of it, with a voice that trembled a little all the same:
“Bah! I’d never consider putting a Paolo Ucello in my room! When I want to see his ‘Battle’ again, I just go to the Louvre. When I want to see some Manhès I’ll just go over to his place!”
* * *
Manhès, Ancelin and Fontenoy were talking in hushed tones, in the depths of the Sélect, their elbows flattened out on the table so that their faces drew nearer to each other.
“Isabelle’s going to be worried again,” Manhès said. “She was so happy with this contract. It was almost as if I’d become a civil servant.”
“When does she come back from the country?”
“Tomorrow night. It seems that Moussia has big rosy cheeks.”
During the war, in Limoges, Manhès had married a country girl. This Isabelle was 10 years his junior. With her allure that of a robust country woman, she’d brought a much needed equilibrium into the life of Manhès, who was constantly worrying and fretting. Two years ago they’d had a daughter: Moussia.
Manhès seemed obsessed by his painting. And yet to this passion he’d added, he’d even enveloped into, Isabelle and Moussia. His wife and daughter had become indispensable to his art. Ever since they’d been taking the air of Spring in the country, Manhès hadn’t touched a single paintbrush. In general sober, he drank when his wife was away, felt lost, abandoned. In fact he’d been a little drunk when he’d had his altercation with Laivit-Canne.
“I want them to be there,” Manhès said. “I should have gone with them. But the countryside bores me to death.”
“And yet it would do you some good, the country,” Ancelin suggested. “The only time you leave your studio is to bunker down in a café, a movie theater, a galerie. You end up completely intoxicating yourself.”
Manhès began fidgeting.
“I don’t need to paint from nature. Nature has nothing to teach me. I transport my world with me wherever I am. If I’d remained holed up in a cave my whole life, I’d still paint what I paint.”
“We’re not talking about your painting,” Fontenoy joined in, “but your health. You’re getting anemic from staying locked up in one locale or another, always under electric lighting. Look at yourself in a mirror… you’re so white!”
Manhès lifted his head towards the café’s wall mirror. He got worried seeing his visage:
“It’s true that I am looking rather pale at that!”
Then he laughed.
“In the beginning of the Occupation, the Germans organized an anti-Semitic exhibition. I went to check it out incognito. Among the multiple pieces of evidence was a photograph of the ugliest Jew in the world. I recognized myself.”
Ancelin and Fontenoy weren’t crazy to hear Manhès joking about this subject. Ever since the German Occupation, like all anti-racists, they got embarrassed whenever the subject of Jews came up. The word itself was difficult to say. All it took was a slight alteration in intonation to make “Jew” sound like an insult. Some people didn’t even dare employ the term, substituting the word “Israélite.” But Jews never referred to themselves as “Israelites,” except for self-hating Jews like Laivit-Canne. A gentile who used the term “Israélite” seemed to have a guilty conscience.
The more it made his friends uncomfortable, the more Manhès fell back with a certain sadism on this brand of Jewish humor which delighted in making fun of itself.
Ancelin changed the subject back to painting:
“It appears that old man Mumfy bought three Wols and two Reichels?”
“Not that surprising,” Fontenoy explained, “they resemble Klee. Klee, forever Klee, he can’t see anything outside of Klee!”
Manhès appeared disgruntled.
“He’s all the same given me my own wall. And he’s also bought an Ancelin.”
“Yes yes,” resumed Fontenoy. “Because he doesn’t want to miss out on what might be the next best thing. But he’d betray you in an instant for some Vieira da Silvas.”
Manhès called out to a diminutive Mediterranean character who’d just peeked into the café:
Atlan joined them at their table. He was a night owl, like all of them, but he broke all the records. He emerged to make his rounds at the very hour the cafés started closing, latched on to some stragglers, and didn’t return to his studio until three or four in the morning. A member of the tribe with Manhès, only Algerian rather than Slavic, he was the only painter of his generation that Manhès held in high esteem. Not because of their shared origins, but because their pictorial explorations were oriented in the same direction. Atlan was just as inclassable as Manhès, with an equally independent spirit. A non-figurative painter, he was influenced by Africa in the same way Manhès was influenced by Slavic folklore. Fontenoy had an equal passion for the art of Atlan. But Ancelin didn’t share his two friends’ opinion. His problem with Atlan was his “recipe,” that is to say that he mixed oil with pastel and crayon.
“That’s ridiculous,” Fontenoy told him. “Do you blame the primitives for having used plaster to set the aureoles of their saints in relief, or for encasing precious stones in their kings’ crowns? Do you blame Degas for having — he as well — mixed pastel with his oils, or Braque for having sprinkled sand in some of his paintings?”
Ancelin became obstinate:
“Yes in fact, I’m against all of that.”
When it came to Atlan, Ancelin was biased, to such a degree that he resembled Charles Roy. During the whole time that Atlan remained at their table, the young painter didn’t utter a word. Manhès told Atlan about his adventure with Laivit-Canne.
“Consider yourself lucky,” Atlan assured him. “Ever since I ended my contract with Maeght, my position has only solidified. You’ll see, the art aficionados will start rolling into your atelier.”
Atlan precipitously took off so he could catch up with the playwright Arthur Adamov, who was passing by on the boulevard. Shortly afterwards, the Sélect manager came to tell them that he needed to close.
They continued talking late into the night, pacing back and forth on the boulevard Montparnasse. The milkmen’s vans and the trucks from Les Halles wholesale market drove past in a thundering of iron. They finally separated regretfully, their heads heavy and their eyes brilliant.
*The equivalent of 10 “new francs” or, in 1956, about $2.
par et copyright Michel Ragon
Manhès habitait un atelier derrière la gare Montparnasse, dans une ruelle aussi boueuse l’hiver que la venelle du ghetto lithuanien où il était né. Entre les lignes de chemin de fer et le quartier mouvementé en lisière de l’avenue Maine, se trouvait un petit ilot presque champêtre, en dehors du circuit habituel des voitures, où personne ne passait. Cet ilot était dévoré peu à peu par les agrandissements des dépendances de la gare. Il ne restait plus que quelques masures, quelques rangées d’ateliers en ruines, dans lesquels quelques artistes vivaient dans la crainte de l’expropriation.
L’atelier de Manhès, comme celui de ses voisins, consistait en un rez-de-chaussée au sol de terre battue. Une loggia servait de chambre à coucher. Très haute de plafond, donc presque impossible à chauffer l’hiver, cette pièce ressemblait plus à un débaras qu’à un logement. Le seul confort tenait dans l’éclairage électrique. Ni eau, ni gaz. Dans la ruelle, une pompe servait pour la collectivité.
Manhès, âgé de quarante ans, était Parisien depuis vingt ans. La guerre interrompit sa carrière de peintre au moment où il commençait à trouver son style. De 1940 à 1944, il servit dans les maquis du Limousin et termina son équipée en Allemagne, dans l’armée de Lattre, avec trois blessures sans gravité. Lorsqu’il revint à Paris, les galeries avaient fait leur plein de peintres et les ateliers d’artistes confortables étaient tous habités par des bourgeois nouveaux riches.
Avant la guerre, Manhès connut Klee in Allemagne, ainsi que Kandinsky qu’il fréquenta lorsque le grand théoricien de l’art abstrait vint se refugier et mourir à Neuilly. Il subit leur influence puis, lentement, dégagea son style propre. Dès qu’il se remit au travail, en 45, dans cet atelier sordide qu’il habitait toujours, il fit du Manhès, c’est-a-dire une peinture qui ne ressemblait à nulle autre et qui, de ce fait, choqua tout le monde.
Les peintres figuratifs et les amateurs de peinture traditionnelle lui reprochaient d’être abstrait et les peintres abstraits, ainsi que leurs supporters du genre Charles Roy, l’accusaient de se raccrocher à une figuration désuète. Comme une étrange poésie irradiait de l’art de Manhès, on lui accolait aussi l’épithète dédaigneuse de « littéraire ».
Quoi qu’il en soit, l’art de Manhès était trop personnel, trop nouveau aussi, pour passer inaperçu. De nombreux jeunes artistes lui vouaient un véritable culte et subissaient son influence. Il eût pu, en leur compagnie, fonder une Ecole, comme le firent Matisse ou Léger, mais il avait l’habitude de dire que l’art ne s’enseigne pas, au l’on ne peut donner aux autres que des recettes de cuisine; Il préférait se consacrer entièrement à son oeuvre, arrivée actuellement à une maturité que la plupart des amateurs lui reconnaissaient.
Manhès n’était plus pauvre. Son contrat avec Laivit-Canne lui assurait une mensualité très honorable et il avait, de plus, la faculté de vendre par lui-même les peintures que sa galerie ne lui prenait pas en premier choix. Il songeait à acheter bientôt un atelier confortable. Entré dans les meilleures collections, reconnu comme l’un des chefs de file de l’art actuel, il semblait avoir gagné la partie quand son altercation avec Laivit-Canne remit tout en question.
Manhès ne s’inquiétait pas de cette rupture de contrat, mais les paroles vexantes de son marchand lui restaient sur le coeur. Ancelin, son fidèle Ancelin, celui qu’il préférait parmi ses disciples et qui était devenu son ami intime bien que dix ans les séparaient, l’avait suivit à son atelier. C’était Manhès qui avait fait prendre Ancelin sous contrat par Laivit-Canne. Celui-ci avait d’ailleurs intérêt à soutenir ses vedettes en montrant des jeunes peintres qui subissaient leur influence.
Invités à la soirée de Monsieur Michaud, Manhès et Ancelin préférèrent aller au Sélect, boulevard Montparnasse, un café où se retrouvaient la plupart des artistes du quartier, plutôt que d’affronter la meute du milieu artistique que Laivit-Canne allait exciter dès ce soir.
Les deux amis formaient un contraste étonnant. Manhès était petit, trapu, brun, avec des cheveux noirs frisés. Très bohème, il portait des vêtements qui paraissaient toujours misérables bien qu’il ne manquait pas d’argent. Par contre, Ancelin était le type même du jeune homme de bonne famille française. Grand, svelte, toujours vêtu de complete de bonne coupe, il montrait aussi un visage avenant, poli et distingué, alors que Manhès paraissait toujours crispé et bourru.
A la terrasse du Sélect, ils furent reconnus à la plupart des tables et firent une tournée de poignées de mains. Un jeune homme les appela de l’intérieur du café : C’était leur inséparable compagnon, un poète et critique d’art : Fontenoy.
Manhès et Ancelin se précipitèrent pour lui raconter la nouvelle :
— Tu sais, je me suis engueulé avec Lévy. (Manhès défrancisait le nom du marchand en le prononçant.) Il m’a fichu à la porte, mais il le regrettera. Je vais disposer de toute ma production. Je gagnerai plus qu’avec son contrat.
— Mais qu’est-ce qui s’est passé ?
— Il me reprochait de ne pas évoluer, de faire une peinture juive alors que, paraît-il, la mode revient à une peinture de tradition française. Des conneries ! C’est comme ceux qui me reprochent de faire une peinture littéraire ! Est-ce que je cherche à peindre juif, ou littéraire, ou abstrait, ou figuratif ? Je peins ce que je sens, ce que je suis…. Alors je me suis emporté. Je lui ai lancé en pleine figure que je ne voulais pas être un faussaire, camoufler ma peinture comme il camouflait son nom et que je n’aimais pas les juifs honteux….
« Tu connais son horrible voix grêle d’impuissant ! Il s’est mis à trépigner, à glapir. Ses employés sont accourus. Il nasillait : apportez-moi le contrat de cet imbécile que je le déchire ! Je le ferai crever de faim ! Pauvre Lévy, en lâchant ma peinture, il lâche une bonne occasion de ne pas crever de faim ! Moi je peux vivre sans marchand, mais les marchands ne peuvent pas vivre sans nous. »
— Ce qui m’embête, dit Ancelin, c’est que j’ai un contrat chez le nabot. Ça me met dans une situation délicate.
— Mais non, protesta Manhès, fait celui qui n’est au courant de rien, approuve Lévy s’il le faut. Ça ne nous empéche pas d’être copains. Toi tu es encore jeune. Tu as besoin de lui.
— Il faudra que je parle de ça demain dans le canard, dit Fontenoy.
Fontenoy était rédacteur à L’Artiste, le seul journal consacré aux beaux-arts qui atteignait un assez vaste public. Il avait trente ans, comme Ancelin, mais il était surtout l’ami de Manhès. Ce poète du Val-de-Loire s’était épris de la peinture de Manhès de la même manière qu’il eût pu s’amouracher d’une fille. Il disait volontiers : « J’ai ressenti deux grands chocs, dans ma vie : le premier en découvrant à dix-huit ans la poésie de Cendrars, le second à vingt-quatre ans devant les tableaux de Manhès. » Il avait essayé de traduire en poésie l’art violent et chaotique de son grand peintre, mais passées à travers lui, les images de Manhès prenaient un autre éclairage. Elles s’adoucissaient, s’ordonnaient. C’était miracle qu’il pût comprendre le génie judéo-slave de Manhès, si éloigné de son talent. Pourtant, Fontenoy avait écrit les meilleures études sur Manhès. On lui reprochait souvent, d’ailleurs, d’être un critique d’art trop limité et de ne savoir parler que de Manhès et de ses suiveurs. Ceux qui n’accordaient aucun crédit à l’art de Manhès, comme Charles Roy, disaient même que Fontenoy était incapable d’écrire sur l’art abstrait. Fontenoy s’en défendait par des exemples illustres : « Baudelaire n’a vraiment bien compris que Delacroix, Zola n’a vraiment bien compris que Manet… Les critiques qui savent parler de tout et de rien ne sont pas des créateurs. Ils établissent des catalogues, utiles sans doute, mais ne risquent jamais leur nom en optant pour quelques-uns. Ils ne donnent du génie qu’aux morts. »
Fontenoy était un petit blond, mince, aux yeux bleus. Il vivait très pauvrement dans une chambre d’hôtel meublé de Montparnasse, n’ayant pour tout revenu que ses articles à L’Artiste et dans quelques autres journaux et revues, ainsi que des travaux de traduction et de rewriting. Tout cela mal payé, pour la raison fort simple que les directeurs de journaux étaient habitués à ce que les critiques d’art fussent corrompus.
Lorsque Fontenoy devint rédacteur à L’Artiste, le directeur lui dit :
— Je ne peux vous payer chaque article important que mille francs, mais vous devez, en étant attaché au journal, quintupler vos piges. Je devrais même ne pas vous payer du tout !
Trop heureux d’être accueilli dans le grand journal des arts, Fontenoy ne protesta pas et ne demanda même aucun éclaircissement sur la manière de quintupler ses appointements. Il pensa simplement que la notoriété qui lui serait donnée par sa collaboration à L’Artiste lui apporterait des commandes de textes pour des livres d’art et d’autres sources de revenus dont il ne soupçonnait pas l’existence. Mais ces commandes ne vinrent jamais et Manhès lui démontra à quel point il était naïf. Tout comme l’Histoire perd beaucoup de ses énigmes lorsque l’on étudie parallèlement à elle l’économie politique, les rivalités et les affinités dans le monde des arts cessèrent d’être complexes pour Fontenoy le jour où Manhès lui révéla le mécanisme économique du marché de la peinture.
Comment vivent tes collègues, lui dit Manhès ? Mais ils passent tout bonnement à la fin de chaque semaine, dans les galeries qu’ils soutiennent, chercher une enveloppe qui ne leur est pas toujours remise très discrètement. Certains marchands montrent ostensiblement qu’ils payent leurs critiques, traitant ceux-ci de haut, de patron à domestique. Et les critiques baissent l’échine. Lorsqu’on leur refuse de l’argent, ils mendigotent un dessin, un litho, qu’ils revendent ensuite. Je pourrais même te citer des critiques qui sont de véritables agents de publicité, n’écrivant que sur les peintres qu’ils vendent. Cette corruption quasi généralisée fausse tous les rapports entre peintres, critique d’art et marchands.
A la suite de cette conversation, Fontenoy devint si chatouilleux sur le principe du désintéressement du critique que Manhès n’osait aider son ami: Lui ayant offert un jour une peinture, Fontenoy avait rougi, s’était troublé :
— Oui, j’aimerais beaucoup… pour ma chambre… Mais alors on dira que tu m’achètes… Je ne peux pas.
Puis il s’était mis à plaisanter, avec une voix qui tremblait un peu :
— Bah ! Il ne me viendrait pas à l’idée de désirer mettre dans ma chambre un Paolo Uccello ! Lorsque j’ai envie de revoir sa Bataille, je vais au Louvre. Lorsque j’ai envie de voir des Manhès je vais chez lui !
* * *
Manhès, Ancelin et Fontenoy discutaient à mi-voix, au fond du Sélect, les coudes à plat sur la table pour mieux rapprocher leurs visages.
— Isabelle va encore s’inquiéter, dit Manhès. Elle qui était si heureuse de ce contrat. C’st un peu comme si j’était devenu fonctionnaire.
— Quand revient-elle de la campagne ?
— Demain soir. Il paraît que Moussia a de grosses joues roses.
Manhès avait épousé pendant la guerre, en Limousin, une fille du pays. Cette Isabelle comptait dix ans de moins que son mari. Avec son allure de robuste paysanne, elle aidait beaucoup à l’équilibre de Manhès, toujours inquiet, angoissé. Depuis deux ans ils avaient une fille : Moussia.
Manhès semblait dévoré par sa peinture. Pourtant, à cette passion il ajoutait, il englobait même, Isabelle et Moussia. Sa femme et sa fille étaient devenues indispensables pour sa peinture. Depuis qu’elles prenaient l’air du printemps à la campagne, Manhès n’avait pas touché un pinceau. En général sobre, il buvait lorsque sa femme s’absentait, se sentant perdu, abandonné. Il était d’ailleurs sans doute un peu ivre lorsqu’il eut son altercation avec Laivit-Canne.
— Je voudrais qu’elles soient là, dit Manhès. J’aurais dû les accompagner. Mais la campagne m’ennuie.
— Ça te ferait pourtant du bien, la campagne, dit Ancelin. Tu ne sors de ton atelier que pour t’enfermer dans un café, dans un cinéma, dans une galerie. Tu arrives à t’intoxiquer complétement.
Manhès eut un geste d’agacement :
— Je n’ai pas besoin d’aller sur le motif. La nature ne m’apprend rien. Je transporte partout mon monde avec moi. SI j’étais resté toute ma vie enfermé dans une cave, je peindrais ce que je peins.
— Ce n’est pas pour ta peinture, que nous parlons, essaya de le raisonner Fontenoy, mais pour ta santé. Tu t’anémies à rester enfermé d’un local dans un autre, toujours à la lumière électrique. Regarde-toi dans la glace… tu es d’une pâleur !
Manhès haussa la tête vers la glace murale du café. Il devint soucieux en voyant son visage :
— C’est vrai que j’ai une sale gueule !
Puis il se mit à rire :
— Au début de l’Occupation, les Allemands organisèrent une exposition antisémite. J’y suis allé incognito. Parmi de multiples pièces à conviction, il y avait une photo du Juif le plus laid du monde. Je me suis reconnu.
Ancelin et Fontenoy n’aimaient guère que Manhès plaisantât sur ce sujet. Depuis l’Occupation allemande, comme tous les antiracistes, ils éprouvaient une gêne lorsqu’il était question des Juifs. Ce mot lui-même était difficile à prononcer. Il suffisait d’une toute petite intonation pour qu’il parût injurieux. Certains n’osaient même pas le dire et employaient à la place le mot Israélite. Mais les Juifs ne s’appellent jamais Israélites entre eux, à l’exception des Juifs honteux comme Laivit-Canne. Un Aryen qui dit Israélite n’a pas l’air d’avoir bonne conscience.
Autant ses amis semblaient gênés, autant Manhès appuyait avec un certain sadisme sur cet humour juif qui se rit de lui-même.
Ancelin détourna la conversation en revenant à la peinture :
— Il paraît que le père Michaud a acheté trois Wols et deux Reichel ?
— Pas étonnant, dit Fontenoy, ça ressemble à Klee. Klee, toujours Klee, il ne voit rien en dehors de ça !
Manhès parut mécontent :
— Il m’a quand même donné un mur. Et il a aussi acheté un Ancelin.
— Oui, oui, reprit Fontenoy…. Parce qu’il a peur de manquer une affaire. Mais il vous trahirait sans hésiter pour des Vieira da Silva.
Manhès appela un petit homme de type méditerranéen qui jetait un coup d’oeil dans le café :
— Hé ! Atlan !
Atlan vint s’asseoir à leur table. C’était un noctambule, comme eux tous, mais lui battait les records. Il sortait faire un tour à l’heure où les cafés fermaient, s’accrochait à quelques retardataires et ne retournait dans son atelier que vers trois ou quatre heures du matin. Coreligionnaire de Manhès, mais Algérien et non pas Slave, il était le seul peintre de sa génération que Manhès tint en haute estime. Non pas à cause de leurs origines communes, mais parce qu’ils orientaient leurs recherches picturales dans un même sens. Atlan était aussi inclassable que Manhès et d’un esprit aussi indépendant. Peintre non-figuratif, l’Afrique influençait son art comme le folklore slave celui de Manhès. Fontenoy aimait également l’art d’Atlan. Mais Ancelin ne partageait pas l’opinion de ses deux amis: Il reprochait à Atlan sa « cuisine », c’est-à-dire de mélanger à l’huile du pastel et de la craie.
— C’est ridicule, lui disait Fontenoy. Est-ce que tu blâmes les primitifs d’avoir utilisé le plâtre pour donner du relief aux auréoles de leurs saints, ou d’avoir enchâssé des pierres précieuses dans les couronnes de leurs rois ? Est-ce que tu blâme Degas d’avoir, lui aussi, mélangé du pastel à ses huiles ou Braque d’avoir saupoudré de sable certaines de ses peintures.
Ancelin s’obstinait :
— Oui, oui, je suis contre tout ça.
Lorsqu’il était question d’Atlan, Ancelin devenait de parti pris, à un tel point qu’il rappelait alors Charles Roy. Pendant tout le temps qu’Atlan resta à leur table, le jeune peintre ne dit pas un mot. Manhès raconta à Atlan son aventure avec Laivit-Canne.
— Estime-toi heureux, lui dit Atlan. Depuis que, moi aussi, j’ai rompu mon contrat avec Maeght, ma position n’a fait que s’affirmir. Tu vas voir, les amateurs vont rappliquer chez toi.
Atlan les quitta précipitamment pour rattraper le dramaturge Arthur Adamov qui passait sur le boulevard. Peu après, le gérant du Sélect vint les avertir qu’il se voyait dans l’obligation de fermer.
Ils continuèrent encore à discuter, en faisant les cent pas sur le boulevard Montparnasse. Les voitures des laitiers et les camions des halles passaient dans un vacarme de ferraille. Ils se séparèrent à regret, la tête lourde et les yeux brilliant.
Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.
Françoise Carré and creations. Christian Dao photo copyright Christian Dao and courtesy Françoise Carré.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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“The passerby who knows how to see always picks up an idea, like the bird who takes flight with a piece of straw for his nest.”
— Anatole France, in “Saint-Germain des Prés, my village,” Leo Larguier, Libraire Flon, Paris, 1938.
“The opposite of death isn’t life, it’s creation.”
— Jonathen Larsen, “RENT”
PARIS — Finding the Luxembourg Gardens closed for the third in four Saturdays several weeks ago — presumably out of concern it would be invaded by hoards of “yellow vests,” the Gardens also housing the French Senate — as well as the Explorers’ Garden which it abuts although in that case the Parisians who constitute the bulk of the ping-pongers, footballers, and fanciers of the Fountain of the Four Corners of the World which is the garden’s biggest draw just scaled the locked gates (only an older couple was thwarted, turning sadly back) — I decided to profit from the large slice of free time the universe had just handed me and stroll over to the Jardin des Plantes, banking on the fact that I’d get lost.
I don’t know if it’s that Haussmann, a.k.a. the Butcher of Olde Paris who re-designed Paris for Napolean III to make crowd control easier, never got around to these ruelles — he was stopped at Saint-Germain-des-Prés by angry residents — but none of these streets seem to go in the same direction; there are no straight lines from point A to point B. So after a perambulation during which I actually had room and space to breathe — for a student quarter on an early Spring Saturday afternoon in Paris, the neighborhoods were surprisingly deserted — and finding myself on a block taken up entirely by the red brick chemical college (it’s around here that Marie Curie did her research, and above here that she’s buried) before spotting at my right the rue Claude Bernard, which I knew well enough to know it would take me right out of the 5th arrondissement or Latin Quarter and into the 13th thus away from my putative destination, I instead turned down a two-block angular street, the rue Vauquelin. After walking by a corner “Korean Tea and Coffee-House” whose glass jade walls reminded me of the transparent SoHo bathroom of a former San Francisco bus driver who’d covered the rest of his walls with blood-smeared paintings evoking “Medea” — here’s where all the students were, I realized, sipping green liquid out of large glass cups, pale shadows of Jules Romains’s collegians debating Spinoza and Kant while teetering over Paris on the ledge of the Sorbonne in his multi-volume opus “Men of Good Will” — I came upon a window display full of “Petit Peuple” towered over by gossamer “Saltimbanques.” Resembling Lilliputian Yodas in their earthen hooded robes (with ‘adult,’ ‘teenager,’ and ‘child’ variations and a matching price scale), an entire village of them crammed into the vitrine, they were explained by the following text from their creator, Françoise Carré, a one-time style director who later worked with Emmaus — the non-denominational French version of the Salvation Army — and also studied clothing arts at the Sorbonne: (This is another thing I love about Paris; you can study anything. On a later flanerie high up into the 13th arrondissement on the rue Corvisart below Blanqui I discovered a professional high school devoted to the graphic, i.e. comic book, and literary arts; this is where I want to send my kid if his mom ever shows up.)
Pas si petit que ca: The “Petit Peuple” and “Saltimbanques” of Françoise Carré. Timothée Brunet Lefevre photo copyright Timothée Brunet Lefevre and courtesy Françoise Carré.
“Françoise Carré creates sculptures from second-hand clothing, her matter, mixing it with soil. ‘Used garments, ready to toss and yet rich with traces and the imprints of those who’ve worn them; my desire is to reveal their presence, the signs of their passage, transmitting their humanity. Dead clothes captured in flight, I want to recall the incessant movement which has accompanied them: Respiration, rhythm, fluidity, élan, the invisible lightning bolt of the living. Present them, crumple them, fold them, to give form to absence.'” Another phantom fancier, I thought, this Françoise Carré. “‘Root them in the Earth and secure the memory of this life which once animated them. Archaic memory of the first links, invisible and profound, between Man and his skin, this garment of the body, of Man to his Other, and to others, to all the others. As many worlds as there are men, autant de vêtements pour en dire la présence.”
Re-reading these words several weeks after first seeing them and discovering the Petit Peuple and their gossamer sovereign, what strikes me is the marriage of concept and execution, of reflection to realization in the context of a contemporary Parisian art scene in which the concept often drowns out the art object (or dissimulates its meagerness) and in which the ‘artist’ often seems more interested in impressing the viewer with his erudition than engaging his curiosity. In this case, Carré seems to have done it the other way around, starting with the artistic impulse and then proposing some possible interpretations. While the text certainly enhanced my appreciation of the oeuvres (and the artist’s intentions, not negligible), I didn’t need to read it for the art to speak to me and felt free to reach an entirely different conclusion.
Considering this humility (because it had no pretensions and made no high-falutin’ claims) and the equally unpretentious but still prodigious artistic visions of the other two artists (both of whom happen to be female) I’m focusing on here and will get to in a minute, I couldn’t help contrasting their oeuvres — and their manners of presenting them — with Vincent Dulom’s recent exhibition at the gallery / non-profit association Ahah in its two spaces off the rue Oberkampf below Menilmontant on the Right Bank. Entirely conceptual — all I see on the walls are monochromatic, slightly shadowed soft blue, green, pinkish, and yellow blurs (sometimes set off for no apparent reason against metal supports exponentially larger than the art) that don’t even have the texture of a Rothko nor the nuance of a Soulages because they’re one-dimensional pigment print-outs — unlike all three of these (female) artists Dulom has the backing of an organization founded by two experienced (female) gallerists whose stated goal is not just to temporarily exhibit artists but to provide them with an entire support structure. Et elles ont l’air de s’en fout ou presque de l’engagement réel avec le publique. They don’t seem to take real *practical* steps to engage the public, even though accessibility is part of their manifesto; you have to already know about the exhibitions to seek them out, one of the two spaces being in the rafters of a warehouse with no window display and the other being open at limited hours. In other words Ahah presents as being for outsiders — with programs meant to attract a larger public like ciné-clubs and concerts — but you have to be an insider to know about them.
Dulom talks a good — conceptual — game, his words being more intriguing than the art they’re explaining (he even pooh-poohs social engagement as futile), which, juxtaposed with the case of the three female artists we’re looking at here (all art and little hype, where Dulom is the opposite), reminds me of another male-female artistic paradox first explained to me by the choreographer Sarah Hook at a New York City forum on women choreographers and the challenges they face. Male dancers can simply announce “Voila, I’m a choreographer!” and everyone believes them (or at least takes them seriously), Hook pointed out. Women, on the other hand, actually work to develop their ability to say something — their compositional and technical tools and language, their craftsmanship — before presenting their work in public, and when they do, because they don’t shout as loud as the men they have trouble getting anyone to pay attention. (In the Pantheon not far above Carré’s studio where France’s “Great Men” are buried, Curie was until recently the only woman. Et George Sand alors? Et Sarah Bernhardt?)
Despite being founded by female gallerists and presenting itself as different, Ahah seems to be following the formula of larger institutions like the Pompidou, whose current promotional poster boasting that “Paris wouldn’t be Paris without the Pompidou” suggests, by the artists adduced to support this claim — all men — that the Pompidou would still be the Pompidou (i.e. “the biggest modern art museum in the world”) without any women artists.
I don’t hear Francoise Carré hawking her work and she doesn’t appear to have a support structure, even though she has exhibited for years and through May 12 takes part in a collective expo in Pont-de-Roide Vermondan in the county of the Doubs, where Gustave Courbet once reigned as “master painter” (another male who excelled at self-promotion; see Michel Ragon’s “Gustave Courbet, peintre de la liberté.”). Instead her work was just there waiting to be discovered on this obscure, little frequented two-block street in the labyrinthine canyons of the Latin Quarter, and yet what I encountered is an oeuvre far more original, far more multi-dimensional, and even far more affordable than Dulom’s. (C’est ca Paris, original art can ambush you where you least expect it.) As little as 200 Euros gets you your own petit individual, and unlike Dulom’s they’re not printed out copies.
Marrying concept to execution: The “Petit Peuple” and “Saltimbanques” of Françoise Carré. Timothée Brunet Lefevre photo copyright Timothée Brunet Lefevre and courtesy Françoise Carré.
Carré is a mid-career plasticienne who simply creates in her quiet corner of the 5eme arrondissement. Like the other two women we’re concerned with today (it just worked out that way), she’s more interested in craft than impenetrable statements about craft. Yet artists like these who don’t offer any apparent a la mode marketing caché (let’s say it: they’re not young and hip, nor old enough to be ‘iconic’) seem to be invisible to the cultural gate-keepers of Paris, more impressed with bluster than beauty and programming younger artists who often have no idea where they came from, framing their work as if they were the first to think of making a fire by rubbing two sticks together. (Running an art gallery in the Languedoc several years ago, I was shocked to encounter a Finish-British woman, not young, who had bought a whole chateau just to display her paintings and who had never heard of either Berthe Morisot or Leonor Fini, despite that her work in its themes resembled the latter’s.)
It’s a personal vision, Carré’s, one that resonates in both historical and contemporary senses, the petit peuple having confronted regimes for hundreds of years, right up to the Yellow Vests whose presumed threat (apparently necessitating the closure of the Luxembourg on several successive springtime Saturdays, on two of which there were no yellow vests, little or otherwise, in sight) chased me to her vitrine. (I’m not suggesting Carré postulates this link, just making a cute juxtaposition — the ‘petite peuple,’ as they’ve sometimes described themselves, choosing as a symbol for their opposition a banal garment, their traffic jackets, with Carré’s exploitation of discarded glad-rags.)
From the Arts Voyager Archives and the Museum of Modern Art’s 2012 exhibition: Eugène Atget. “Luxembourg,” 1923-25. Matte albumen silver print, 7 x 8 13/16″ (17.8 x 22.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden.
The good news is that the Luxembourg was finally open when I returned the following week-end; the bad news is that I’d barely had time to toast Delacroix at his fountain over my first sip of thermos green tea before I felt how noxious the air I was inhaling was because of the pollution. (A French friend who also had trouble breathing that week-end suggested it might have been related to the time change, which made for one helluva long day.) As I’ve been yearning to return to Paris for good because of all the positive ways Lutèce stimulates my oculaire, intellectual, artistic, convivial, historic, urban, and gustatory senses, and as it was this very threat to my health — the pollution — along with the interminable construction noise which drove me out 12 years ago, the bad air literally giving me palpitations and not the kind Paris should, I realized I had to deal with this issue, to find out if there was any neighborhood where I could actually live and not risk having a heart attack. And that it wasn’t enough just to verify whether the spots I’d previously identified as breathable still were; for the comparison (to the air around the Luxembourg which was stifling me at that moment) to be accurate I had to do this right away.
After getting lost again near the Observatoire (I’m still not sure what exactly it’s supposed to be observing) above the Jardin des Explorateurs on the other side of Montparnasse/Port-Royal (not far from where Balzac, another failed newspaper publisher, launched the Revue de Paris at 2, rue Cassini) and recognizing the street by the high walls and guard towers of La Sante prison (from whose barred windows the inmates can sometimes be heard late at night congressing with free world friends and asking them to toss up cigarettes) which looms over it I headed up to the tree-lined Boulevard Arago. This is the street where I visualize living, having my morning latté from a Banania Chocolate bowl while leaning on the ornate black iron rail of my 5th floor balcony and looking down through the leaves of the chestnut trees dappled by the early morning sunlight on the parents accompanying their excited children to school, skipping along as their backpacks wobble. (They’re always holding onto their parents’ hands.) Arago is in the 13th arrondissement but a long block from the Boulevard Port-Royal (which becomes Montparnasse after it hits the RER regional subway station Port-Royal on the Meridian, which preceded Greenwich meantime as the world’s clock before the British edged it out — do we get the world clock back with the Brexit? — and extends up from Notre-Dame through the Luxembourg, the Jardin des Explorateurs, the Bullier student cafeteria which when it was the Bullier ballroom saw the Can-Can dancer Jane Avril’s debuts and Sonia Delaunay debut her robe designs, chez Balzac, and the divine and hilly Parc Montsouris with its tranquil lake where I recently sat on a bench under a weeping willow browsing an 1880 edition of the complete theatrical works of Victor Hugo scored for 1 Euro at a vide-grenier near the Cité Universitaire with an interstice in which Hugo harangued a translator who had the audacity to think he could render Homer in French (“Even I failed miserably at translating the Greeks!”; I’m paraphrasing), and where strange things like saving 2000 years of Greek, Hindu, and Chinese philosophy from a public toilet keep happening to me, the latest puzzling evidence being the discovery that the building where my ex-roommate Sabine lives, a block from the toilet, is also where Bernhardt used to model for Alphonse Mucha, the subject of a recent exhibition at the Luxembourg Museum; my 36 years of Bernhardt connections and coincidences includes being the custodian of her personal mirror) in the 5th arrondissement, which means you get easy access to the Latin Quartier but the relative tranquility of a residential neighborhood. This was my first neighborhood in Paris — up the street from where Arago criss-crosses Glaciere — where I felt like I was experiencing the real Left Bank Paris, not the Disney-fied version, where no one (aside from those teaching it at the nearby University of Paris campuses on and off Jusseau and their students) spoke English and where in the boulangeries I had to do a lot of pointing. (On my first morning in Paris, jet-lagged, I zombie-ran to the Luxembourg as if the Meridian homing bug had always been attached to me and had now fetched me back; speaking no French, at the ‘sandwicherie’ across from the Guignol puppet theater when I saw the sing-songy server slather an exotic looking brown meat on the order before mine I just asked for “La meme,” the same, then ate lunch in front of the main fountain surrounded by a gaggling group of French girls who made the tuna fish taste like caviar.)
From the recent exhibition in the Luxembourg museum in the Luxembourg gardens: Alphonse Mucha, “Médée, 1898. Color lithograph, 206 x 76 cm. Prague, Fondation Mucha. Copyright Mucha Trust 2018.
Once again on Arago, then, for this pollution test, after walking past a pre-historic rusted Robby the Robot-like object covering a sewer grating outside the prison (perhaps meant to ray-gun down or trap inmates trying to tunnel out?), I was relieved to find that the most breathable spot, a little park named after Henri-Cadiou, a modern (male) painter, between the rues de la Santé and Glaciere on Arago next to the Maisons Fleuries, was not only still there, it was even more breathable, a state explained by a sign on the grating which noted that it was now smoke-free, part of an experiment by City Hall to make Paris more breathable. It even offered two ping-pong tables in the constrained space, although intimidated by the suspicious glares of two mommas as I stopped to fill my water bottle, I decided not to horn in, even though I had my two circa 1973 paddles in tow. The only revoltin’ development (as Riley might put it) was that the sunken fountain at the base of the Cesar Domela sculpture in front of the benches and new chess tables — he created it in 1933 while living in the Maisons Fleuries — wasn’t working, not unusual these days in Paris, where the marquee fountains in the tourist areas seem to get all the attention while neighborhood fountains are hung out to dry.
To find out how far the circumference of this relatively low pollution zone extended I decided to walk up to the Butte-aux-Cailles via Glaciere en passant by my old neighborhood, not far from which I discovered, in the vitrine of an independent bookstore, Rare Birds, at 1 rue Vulpain, where it intersects with Corvisart, this, a graphic novel ‘avant l’heure,’ the history of an “Idea,” without any words. (And more ‘puzzling evidence’: What stopped me was the pull quote — from ‘my’ author Lola Lafon, my translation of whose “Mercy, Mary, Patty,” a novel whose catalyst is Patricia Hearst, I’ve been trying to find an American publisher for.) This is another thing I’ve always loved about this neighborhood — the one encompassing adjoining parts of the 5th and 13th arrondissements: That you can turn a corner and discover not just a storefront-sized atelier full of petit peuple and saltimbanques but a singular bookstore; on my virgin Paris visit in 2000, the first time I got lost on the rue Claude Bernard trying to find the Jardin des Plantes on one corner I stumbled onto an entire bookstore devoted to Jean Cocteau.
My idea being to wind my way under the 6 Metro elevated tracks — which had first brought me to Paris that brilliant morning of October 16, 2000 — and up the stairs above Corvisart, passing through a middle-class housing project looking out over all Paris to the Butte-aux-Cailles (a one-time outpost of the 1871 Paris Commune, in which Parigots rebelling against Versailles’s capitulation to the Prussians tried to construct their own utopian society, more recently fallen with little resistance to the BoBos ((Bourgeoisie Bohemians)) — an all the same substantial delay considering that the first hot air balloon ((i.e. BoBo incursion)), fueled by burning straw, landed on the Butte in 1783 — with developers dividing apartments into high-priced condos and thus where the ‘popular’ or working class population that gave the Butte its character can no longer afford to live) via the rue Samson, I made another discovery: These stairs are a street and it has a name, and not just any name, but that of the 20th-century’s first grand French photographer, Eugène Atget, a new adjunct to the Butte’s more recent and apparently indelible artistic stamp: It was the launching pad for “MissTic,” whose buxom silhouette and rebel spirit bon mots marked the walls of the quartier’s street corners and restaurants before fanning out to the rest of the Left Bank.
From the Arts Voyager Archives: Eugène Atget, “Rue des Haudriettes 2 (Paris),” 1901. Albumen print. Detroit Institute of Arts. Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts.
Arrived finally at the top of the rue Butte-aux-Cailles and on the verge of having a heart attack — not from the hike but the pollution — I was reassured to discover this sign from the mayor of Paris: “Paris respire!,” “Paris is breathing!,” the justification of which ludicrous claim being that once per week from April to October (I was there on March 31) the Butte is closed to cars. For ten hours.
I’d barely exclaimed “Mon Oeil!” when mon eye spied a group of citizens filling up their plastic water bottles at a multiple-fauceted fountain on a square across the street on the Place Paul Verlaine, also where the hot air balloon had landed. (Across the street also from a park on another corner of this round point where the long benches have been replaced by a row of single-unit benches obviously to keep the homeless from sleeping there — out of sight, out of mind — a plan the pigeons had rapidly commented on by shitting all over them. When I’d sat basking on one of those long benches on a breezy sunny spring-like morning on that first visit in 2000, closed my eyes, and thought: “I want to live here,” I hadn’t figured on this.) Investigatin’, I discovered that this well — located not far from Paris’s first public baths — is an artisanal one above which a sign promises that “because the source is 6 meters under, you will have the rare privilege of drinking water protected from pollution,” presumably the reason the Parisians were filling up, to put off the day when the pollution above-ground would send them six meters under. (The balloon may be long gone, but the hot air lingers.)
The transformation of the Butte from outpost of the 1871 Commune to branché (trendy) seat of Left Bank BoBo-dum also played a role in the near heart attack; the main drag is now lined with bars, which means terraces, which means smokers, these last having occupied the terraces of Paris after an anti-smoking law kicked them out of the dining-rooms in 2008. (I’m not imagining the contribution the cigarette smokers are making to the air pollution; as a friend informed me, these days they’re buying and toking ‘n’importe quoi,’ including cigarettes full of alarming proportions of tar.) Another neighborhood whose memory I’d gilded and clung onto out of nostalgia had bitten the dust; one evening in October 2000, trying to find a restaurant that was still serving at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night in Paris and attracted by its name resembling that of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the hero of Camus’s “The Fall” (I hadn’t yet learned that “Jean-Baptiste Clemente” was the composer of the Commune’s anthem, “The Time of Cherries”) and that I recognized at least one item in each category of the prix-fixe 100 franc / $14 menu posted on the window (Poireux tarte, canard, and compote de pommes), I’d barely escaped with my life. When the very pink duck meat arrived I was ready to gallantly bite into it figuring if they ate their quackers raw in France I wasn’t going to embarrass myself by making a faux pas, when the waiter rushed over and slapped the fork away from my lips explaining, “We bring the grill first, Monsieur, okay? Then you eat.”
I was practically toast on the Sunday in 2019 we’re still theoretically concerned with when I saw the lamp-post flyer advertising an opening the next week at the Galerie de la Butte, under a promising (breathing-wise) picture of a row-boat set against a very pink Mediterranean.
Sophie Laguerre, “Salin 4,” from the exhibition Esprit de Sel, currently on view at Galerie de La Butte. Chez A4etplus, 26 rue du Moulin des Prés in Paris. Image copyright and courtesy Sophie Laguerre.
“It’s from the shrimp,” the photographer in question, Sophie Laguerre, explained when I returned the following week to the gallery, which looked more like a print shop than a gallery — more art in unexpected places. (“A 4 et plus” actually is both, the shop specializing in a system of ‘inkrage’ which replaces non-biodegradable — and thus polluting — ink-jet cartridges with external vials whose ink is piped into the cartridges through tubes, which makes the cartridges re-usable. When the ink is ‘pigment’ — like the type Dulom used to produce his paintings, only with photos it actually works, adding and not subtracting texture — the prints even last longer, protected from the color-muting which eventually bleaches standard ink-jet prints. So basically you have a system which is physically more durable, ecologically more conscious, artistically more dense (pixel-wise), and economically more viable. And before you think the shop’s owner, Richard Bocquet, is just another commercant jumping on the green bandwagon for profits, he’ll actually sell you the regalia you need to do it yourself, including a relatively affordable and good-to-go Canon printer. More info here.)
Sophie Laguerre, “Salin 6,” from the exhibition Esprit de Sel, currently on view at Galerie de La Butte. Chez A4etplus, 26 rue du Moulin des Prés in Paris. Image copyright and courtesy Sophie Laguerre.
“And those mountains of snow?” I next asked Laguerre, pointing at another elegant pigment print (the gallery has them on sale for as little as double-figures).
“It’s not snow, it’s salt,” she explained, the photos having been taken in salines — salt harvesting waters of the Mediterranean — not too far from Narbonne, a mid-sized city in the Languedoc region full of canals and which itself was 100 years or so ago the cradle of the Red Smocks rebellion of struggling wine-makers.
Sophie Laguerre, “Salin 9,” from the exhibition Esprit de Sel, currently on view at Galerie de La Butte. Chez A4etplus, 26 rue du Moulin des Prés in Paris. Image copyright and courtesy Sophie Laguerre.
“And the pagoda?”
“It’s not a pagoda, it’s a floodgate.”
All of which makes for a combination Dead Sea and Red Sea which you don’t even need to travel to the bloody Holy Lands to dip your toe and float up in. (And unlike Dulom’s ostentatious metal supports, Bocquet’s framing choices were subtle and completely at the service of the art encadred.)
“That’s why the flamingos are pink,” piped in Bocquet. (I’d seen those flamingos wading in not necessarily pink waters off Sete in 2001.) “From eating the shrimp.”
“It’s a whole eco-system,” added Laguerre. As is Bocquet’s shop and gallery, proving that you don’t need to have the trappings — or the hoity-toity airs — of a gallery to provide a sublime and welcoming venue for provocative art. And Laguerre’s is that. In an age in which too many photographers (and curators) mistake content for craft — as if photographing cloying subjects or scenes sans Cartier-Bresson’s precise and serendipitous knack for being in the right place at the right time makes you an artist — what I loved about Laguerre’s photos is the way she messes with the viewer’s frames of reference. (The environment Bocquet and his staff have set up also contributed to the conducive picture-viewing ambiance; as opposed to galleries where I often feel excluded if I’m not part of the club, here I felt — even before I’d identified myself as a journalist, and even with my work-in-progress teeth, having all of two lowers at that moment — not just welcomed but that everyone wanted to know what I thought, as if I were there as the friend of a friend. This doesn’t happen that often in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where I’d once entered a gallery for a vernissage to find the ((rare these days for the quartier’s openings)) food table guarded by one foreboding matronne of the arts with a look that said “You must be in the wrong gallery, Monsieur.” No passerons!)
Our reporter isn’t the first to find his fancies in the window displays of the 5th, 6th, and 13th arrondissements of Paris. From the Arts Voyager archives and the Museum of Modern Art’s 2012 exhibition: Left, Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927), “Avenue des Gobelins,” 1925. Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print, 8 9/16 x 6 3/4″ (21.8 x 17.1 cm). Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden. 1.1969.1379. Right, Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927) “Naturaliste, rue de l’ecole de Medecine,” 1926-27. Albumen silver print, printed 1984 by Chicago Albumen Works. 10 3/16 x 7 15/16″ (25.8 x 20.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden. SC1984.67.
Speaking of eco-systems, when I returned to the Place d’Italie Metro station atop the 13th and the Butte-aux-Cailles two nights later — after pausing in the bowels of the Nation Metro for an impromptu concert by Youssou N’Dour and Baba Ma’al’s love child (I was one of only four passengers to take the time to enjoy this unexpected auditory thrill), a young man singing and playing guitar as if his life depended on it in one driving 10-minute ballad or anthem, not even pausing to pass the hat — at the end of which a woman rushed up and enfolded his head in her scarf and elbows — I was greeted by a large banner unfurled in front of the steps of the 13th arrondissement’s city hall decorated with something that resembled red poppies, in front of which a dozen folks around my age were holding a gentile (I don’t mean they were non-Jews, I’m using the French term for nice) demonstration protesting the way pesticides are decimating the flower that made some of Monet’s Provencal landscapes. One of the protesters had barely managed to ask me if I wanted to learn more about the peril to poppies when another interrupted, “Monsieur probably doesn’t have the time.” “Actually I do!” I retorted, having been in SLOW DOWN PAUL mode since almost having a heart attack running up the stairs of the Belleville station, an entirely Sisyphusian (I don’t mean the Camus book from whose first edition Gaston Gallimard excised Kafka because he was a Jew, but the Greek hero) gesture given that it was rush hour when the trains run every 3 minutes. “Where I live, in the Dordogne, I’ve noticed that every year there are fewer and fewer poppies.” “We’re here the first Friday of every month!” a lady with short silver hair informed me. “Why here? Why in front of the 13th arrondissement’s city hall?” “Because we live here.”
The 13th is also where my longtime American literature scholar friend we’ll call Michelle — we met in 2002, when she was my language exchange partner — and her geologist husband we’ll call Marcel live, high above bien sur the boulevard Arago, in other words within the perimeter of my most breathable Paris zone and within spittin’ distance of the Meridian. So I should not have been surprised that it was in this house that Michel and Marcel and their friends would learn me (as we say in Texas) that there are also still spaces where one can *intellectually* breathe in Paris.
This intellectual breathing — this spirit of mental inquiry and debate that used to distinguish Paris, from centuries before Voltaire’s dictionary through the violent disputes between Sartre and Camus (and “La Castor,” as the latter referred to de Beauvoir) and up until Pierre Bourdieu– is happening less and less in the spaces where it should be happening in France and which nonetheless vaunt themselves as being champions of intellectual query and curiosity but which seem rather to harbor predominantly pseudo-intellectuals who spoon-feed their auditors easy to digest answers than genuine coin of the realm philosophers. (Which has got to be the most over-used term on French public radio, its hosts conferring the title on what would be called pundits anywhere else.) The most glaring example of this decline in public intellectualism is France Culture, theoretically Radio France’s high-brow chain but where, with a handful of exceptions (the Culture Monde program, the Pieds a Terre documentary series, Questions d’Islam broadcast of course at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning when a large part of its intended audience is sleeping it off, and Arnaud Laporte’s nightly critical round-table La Dispute among them), the “debate” is governed more by conventional wisdom than open-ended seeking, the most aggravated case being the Saturday morning program Repliques, whose host seems to have more empathy for abbatoir animals than Muslim women. (For more on this reductive ‘philosopher,’ incomprehensibly elected recently to the Academie Francaise, the very pantheon of French intellectualism, in French, go here) In other words, France Culture today resembles less the NRF Review than a Reader’s Digest reductive version of high-brow topics, a Cliff’s Notes of Culture and Social Science offering pop simplifications of questions that were yesterday’s Zeitgeist but are no longer pertinent to anyone but a cloistered mediocracy echo chamber. Its animators and programmers seem to congress mostly with themselves and a circumscribed, inbred circle of like-minded politicians, pundits, and authors and spend little time outside on the street or outside of Paris. (The Socialist party just named one of the chain’s chou-chous, another failed newspaper publisher and ersatz “philosopher,” to head its list for the E.U. Parliament elections. If that’s not proof of moribund political obsolescence, I don’t know what is.) (By the way: I don’t claim to be an intellectual myself — I’m more middle- than high-brow and more Deadhead then Egghead — just someone who needs to be surrounded by true intellectual discourse to breathe.)
At the beginning of this Paris stay I’d found myself confronted by two of the radio pundit in question’s acolytes. (This isn’t a digression because it sets up by way of contrast the intellectual breathing fostered at Michelle and Marcel’s dinner party.) I’d invited the couple to dinner in part because the woman runs a small press in Bagnolet, outside of Paris. I was hoping she’d be able to give me some ideas for founding my own publishing house for translations of under-heralded French literature; at the least I looked forward to a stimulating evening with what I presumed to be French intellectuals. What I got instead was ignorance and borderline prejudice. On their own initiative — I’ve learned better than to introduce the subject — the couple started in on a tirade against the religious practices of a minority of French Muslim women (maybe it was spotting the storefront mosque down the street, recognizable only by the Vigi-Pirate triangle on its door, which rattled them) with arguments founded on hypocrisy and on ignorance of their own country’s principals and laws regarding lay society, if not downright Islamophobia. I had to ask them to leave. (Not because they disagreed with me but because you can’t debate with people whose views are based more on inbred prejudices than facts, logic, and fairness.) Still, I wondered if in doing so I wasn’t practicing my own form of intellectual intolerance. Michelle and Marcel relieved me on this point.
After almost picking a fight with a very nice and outgoing friend of theirs we’ll call Christophe over the pollution question — “I don’t find Paris is polluted at all, maybe you’re just over-sensitive,” “It’s because you grew up inhaling diesel and I didn’t,” (“Shana, you ignorant slut!”) etcetera — I later found myself in an engrossing discussion with the same man and another open, curious-seeming woman we’ll call Jeanne which suddenly turned to the subject of dress codes among some Muslim women. Only this time as it was not my house, asking them to leave if I found the conversation offensive (at this point it was not; I was just girding for that eventuality) would not be an option, and as Michelle had made a touching gesture in responding to me at all on this Paris trip — our rupture 15 years ago had been my fault — leaving in a huff myself was even less appealing.
My take on the opinion of some white French people on this question, particularly when they’re women — the garb of Muslim women seems to be a prickly topic with many non-Muslim, non-Maghrebian origin women who otherwise situate themselves on the Left, with Elisabeth Badinter serving as their high priestess — is that it’s a brand of paternalistic colonialist feminism that assumes that if a Muslim or Arab-origin woman is wearing any religious garment on the spectrum, even just a scarf, it must be because her man is making her do so. (As I pointed out in our discussion — Christophe liked this — no one seems to get upset about the moche / tacky wigs with which Hasidic women cover their heads.) This assumption may also be informed by the fact that the place of women in general in French society has still not been resolved, particularly as concerns the male regard.
This time, though, forced to listen, I discovered that Christophe actually had information that was new to me: A) If some French were troubled by religious signifiers it is because of the violent role religion has played in the country’s history and B) Some Muslim colleagues of his had explained that a big reason they went to work in Muslim garb was, justement, to send a message to their countries of origin that in France one has the right to manifest one’s religion without excluding oneself from public life.
Jeanne’s views were more what I was used to hearing but as opposed to the hate, intolerance, ignorance, and paternalistic colonialistic feminism that had fueled my last interloper’s arguments, Jeanne was expressing her earnest upset. And she seemed open to listening to both of us. Unlike the couple I’d evicted — who from their fields, publishing, one would assume to be intellectuals with the spirit of open inquiry and curiosity that implies if not confers — both Jeanne and Christophe were not just trotting out their positions insistently and refusing to hear my counter arguments, they were really, and intellectually, listening and engaging.
I was eager to continue exchanging — as I sensed my new friends were — but unfortunately at this point we ran up against a practical impediment to serious late-night discourse in Paris: The dreaded Last Metro. It may have inspired an evocative film title for Truffaut (as it’s been a while since we’ve mentioned him: I recently stiffed Antoine Doinel himself — Jean-Pierre Leaud, the actor who portrayed Doinel in Truffaut’s five-film cycle — when he appeared live at a Cinematheque Française screening of “La Nuit Americaine”; more nostalgia evacuated in favor of engaging with the present) and the entry to a magical Montmartre wonderland for Montand (in Marcel Carné’s 1947 fantasia “Les portes de la nuit”) but for me and other Parisian noctambules that the Metro stops running between 12h30 and 2 a.m. often serves to quash interesting discussions just when they get going. (I’d just artfully tried to shift our conversation by declaring “I’m more disturbed by all the Metro passengers who’ve capitulated to the religion of Capitalism by surrendering to their little screens than Muslim women with scarves” when I noticed it was past midnight and thus time for me to rejoin them.) That this chariot-into-pumpkin deadline still exists in a major metropole like Paris is embarrassing — and may explain why New York, the city that never sleeps, still seems (or did when I lived there) more dynamic. It was only midnight but I had a long haul back to my digs in the pré-St.-Gervais suburb just outside Paris.
…. which is where I found myself at 1 a.m., en face of a bar whose clients are almost entirely men, I have to admit (throwing an olive branch to the paternalistic colonialistic feminists, one of whose complaints as that banlieu bars aren’t friendly to women, although I don’t think that’s the case here; the only reason I’m even bringing the bar up is it provides a nifty segué to the next and final item, in the following line:), no doubt neighbors from the nearby Rabelais housing project.
From Artcurial’s recent Impressionism and Modern auction in Paris: Gen Paul, “Le bureau de tabac, rue Norvins et le Sacré-Coeur,” circa 1928-1929 . Oil on canvas. Image copyright Artcurial.
… Speaking of Rabelais, it was largely gourmet gluttony which determined my final stop that Sunday. (I’ve skipped to Sunday for the pantagruélique segué but Saturday provided another appearance of intellectual breathing-stifling philistines in a quartier where one used to find genuine philosophers, poets like Max Jacob partying with Picasso and Rousseau and the whole Bateau Lavoir gang, one-legged painters like Gen Paul carousing with disgraced writers like Celine, intello Can-Can dancers like Avril elevating not only their long limbs but the level of the discourse, and anarchist-surrealist-satirical song writer newspaper hawker idiosyncratic private dick inventors like Léo Malet: Montmartre, where Clemenceau got his start as the quartier’s mayor, the Commune was born, and Boris Vian used to debate the finer points of Pataphysics with Jacques Prevert on the terrace they shared off the Boulevard Clichy next-door to the Moulin Rouge. But when I stopped in at one of my favorite bookstores, l’Attrape-Coeur — named after the mind-boggling French title of “Catcher in the Rye” — opposite the park presided over by the Steinlen fountain ((also dry; he’s the guy that painted all those cats while feeding them, as well as more socially biting designs)), the owner looked at the independently published book by a young Perigordin author I’d brought as a gift as if it were a piece of rotten fruit, pursed her lips and huffed “We don’t accept self-published books, we rely on publishers, they fait très bien le trie,” — ‘trier,’ or ‘sorting’ being a word that anyone but a philistine would only apply to weeding out rotten fruit and not to literature — before going back to planning her soirée with the author of an umpteenth crime series set at 36, quai des Orfevres, which even the real police have abandoned. Trie mon oeil; if he were just debuting and an unknown, Salinger wouldn’t stand a snow-flake’s chance in Hades of placing Holden Caulfield at “L’Attrape-Coeur.”)
So on Sunday, my Rabelaisian goal was to get to the outdoor market on the rue Convention which leads up to the parc George Brassens (with its week-end old books market whose tastes are much more catholic — in the American sense of the word, which means diverse — than those of l’Attrape-Coeur) in the 15th arrondissement in time for the end of market five for ten Euros cheese platter at the last stand…. (I’ve been going there so long exclusively for this they know me. “He wants the platter,” one fromageriste said to another before I could even open my mouth after I more or less cut a long line upon arriving there huffing and puffing from weaving uphill through the rest of the market and the traffic on its periphery on another recent Sunday.)
By the time I arrived at the market on the Sunday we’re discussing my valises were already heavy, including a deteriorating cloth sack hanging onto my shoulder by a thread and barely containing the thermos tea, bread, canned Americano tuna salad, pre-packed chocolate-covered Belgian waffle, blood-orange and water bottle, as well as two bulky (because vintage, circa 1980s judging from the tan Apple-E era color) computer speakers I’d just scored for 2 Euros at a covered vide-grenier in a desuet, first generation mall in the outer reaches of the 13th, below and beyond the Metro 6 station Nationale. (This is one of the things I love about the 6, besides that it was my first chariot into Paris in 2000, in the 13th and passing over the Seine to the 12th arrondissement the ride is largely overland.) I’d been shopping for the speakers so that when I return to the Dordogne where I normally live (in a 500-year-old stone house, my father’s) I’ll be able to drown out the cackle and banal dinner conversations my American neighbor holds almost every night on her terrace, like my skylight overlooking les Milandes, where Josephine Baker raised her Rainbow Tribe and no doubt held far more interesting dinner conversations than either of us. (I include this complaint so you know I’m not singling out French pseudo-intellectuals per se but pseudo-intellectualism in general.)
From Artcurial’s recent Estampes et Livres auction in Paris: Kees van Dongen and Anatole France, “La révolte des anges.” Image copyright Artcurial.
It was also at this vide-grenier in the entrails of the 13th that the Dreyfusard avant l’heure face of Anatole France revealed itself to me, in a volume of his intriguing compendium “La Vie Litteraire.” I didn’t buy it because the book surpassed my maximum price for vide-greniers — 1 Euro — and because I got the impression by the way the seller sized me up after I asked “how much?” that I was getting the “prix Americain,” but I scanned the book long enough to find a France review of a then new book on the Jewish question. From the fact that the compendium also included an obituary of Champfleury, who I know from Michel Ragon, in “Courbet, painter of Freedom” — the realist writer was the painter’s first great champion — died in 1889, I’d place this review as pre-Dreyfus, which would put France out in front because his attitude toward the very premise of the book reviewed is ironic, with observations on how its author sees Jews everywhere, even amongst the Catholic clergy. One of them (France or the book’s author) even hasards an estimate, citing a Jewish population in Paris of 40,000 and saying that according to Bertillon — the man without whom CSI would not exist — the population had doubled in recent years, judging by the number of those buried in the Jewish sections of the cemeteries. (The father of forensic science apparently not only knew how they got there, he knew where all the bodies were buried.)
I also resisted buying a double-volume set of the complete works of Béranger, the 19th-century satirical troubadour after whom my street is named and that dated from when he was still alive, despite the reasonable 10-Euro price and the prescience of a song which, in describing how easily politicians changed suits — presumably in 1832 — might also have been talking about all the Labor activists who have donned yellow vests in recent months.
The Béranger (by both its mental weight and physical heft) might have come in handy in defending myself against the volunteers passing out campaign literature for next month’s European Parliament elections at the Convention market for, I assumed from the flyer’s blue and white colors, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party. (I’d have made that comment regardless of the party.) Seeing my bags running over, a silver-haired activist took pity on me and held out a white sack whose blue letters spelled out, in three rows:
“How much?” I asked, repeating a question Americans have been asking Frenchmen and women since the hero of Henry James’s “The American” opened that novel by popping it to a young woman copying at the Louvre: “Combien?”
“It’s free,” the man answered, laughing.
Noting that “Renaissance” also headlined the flyer, at the bottom of the back of which were listed En Marche and three smaller, voir obscure, parties including one that hasn’t been popular since Jean Jaures was still alive, I deduced that “Re Nais Sance” must be the umbrella name the eggheads at En Marche came up with to play down the party’s own name, an alarming lack of confidence for a party which controls both the Elysée and the legislature. The idea behind the word choice presumably being that we don’t need to throw Europe out or make a “Frexit,” just re-make it so it can be re-born (re-née). I turned the sack inside out (not because of the particular party affiliation but to avoid being exploited for any political advertising), but later realized that this may have been unnecessary. When several days later I showed the sack to a longtime friend who follows French politics almost as much as I do and asked him, “Know what this stands for?” he answered “No idea.” “It’s Macron’s formation for the Europeans.” “Not a good sign,” he added, noting that Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National party had been way out in front in re-baptizing itself “Rassemblement National,” meant to ease potential voters’ consciences: “Now you can vote for us without being accused of being a Holocaust-denying racist.” (Another friend and long-time political observer also drew a blank when I showed him my new bag. A third pointed out that the phrase wasn’t as original as all that, evoking the African Renaissance.)
In other words, France’s president may just be too intellectual for his constituents, assuming they would automatically get what “Re / Nais /Sance” meant in this context. A breath of fresh air for me perhaps but potentially portending dark clouds for France and for Europe if Le Pen, whose party was running neck and neck with Macron’s even before it morphed into “Re Nais Sance,” wins. (When I returned to the market on a recent Sunday, the Macronites had added “Vote for” to the top of the bag.)
My own intellectual appetite nonetheless stimulated, the sack also left me with one hand free to help satisfy my stomach’s (appetite) by carrying the healthy-sized carton of generously meat-filled supposedly ‘non-garnished’ sauerkraut I scored at a butcher’s stand: The most deliciously vinegary sauerkraut I’ve ever had in France and full of not just the usual bacon bits but large chunks of pork cheeks, at less than 2 Euros for nearly a pound. I mention this here not just to make Rabelais smack his lips but because of what, like the five cheese for 10 Euro cheese platter (the price hasn’t gone up in the 15 years I’ve been buying it), it says about the 15th arrondissement: This is not (yet) a BoBo — Bourgeoisie Bohemian — but a simple bourgeoisie quartier. The difference is that whereas the BoBos land in an artistic, ethnic, and previously affordable enclave (I’ve already witnessed this phenomenon in San Francisco’s Mission District and Brooklyn’s Greenpoint; here it struck Belleville before spreading. It didn’t quite work in Fort Worth’s historic Fairmont district because except for Gracey Tune’s Arts Fifth Avenue, the artistic element was already paper thin and because unlike those in Paris, New York, and San Francisco, the Texas BoBos were more interested in cheap historic housing than real artistic activity) and drive the housing and food prices up and the genuine Bohemians (artists and ethnics) who drew them there in the first place out, a genuine Bourgeoisie quarter wants to retain all strata of that class, and thus usually offers some affordable food and housing prices (though the latter are becoming more rare in the 15th). As a sign of this in the 15th, on the Sunday we’re discussing the man behind me in the charcouterie stand line was there for the same thing, a bargain but still gourmet lunch, debating between the sauerkraut and the lentils. (His eager banter with the other customers and the servers indicated that for this older man, perhaps retired and living alone, the Sunday market is also a vital social outlet). This is just one of the things I love about the 15th arrondissement, where I’d had my third Paris apartment in the ancient worker housing of the Cité Falguière next door to the Pasteur Institute where the AIDS virus was identified, and where Soutine made the crazy figures later hoarded by Dr. Barnes of Philadelphia — the 15th getting the overflow of the ateliers that used to dot the neighboring 14th before the expanding Montparnasse train station dependances devoured them — and from whose window the Eiffel tower looked like I could touch it (the Eiffel is always popping up like Waldo from unexpected street corners in the 15th): You don’t have to be rich to dine like an Alsatian king on champagne-infused meaty sauerkraut.
And food isn’t the only affordable luxury offered by the 15th: You also have access to the many-tiered riches of the parc George Brassens (my ultimate destination that day), including: The week-end old book market (where hefty coffee table lavishly illustrated monographs of Miro, Manet, and others can be had for as little as 5 Euros), the large fountain-pond watched over by a toilet chateau on the wall of the arch of which a plaque commemorates the butchers — this was once an abattoir district — who gave their lives for France during World War I, three ping-pong tables perched on their own plateau above one of the two facing hangars of the book market, Shetland pony rides, a Guignol theater for the kids and a formal theater, the Montfort, for the adults. My only complaint — and it’s not anodyne because I’ve found the same neglect in other quartiers outside of the tourist limelight (see above) — is that the Japanese-style cascades bordering the grassy hill below the theater where I like to picnic hasn’t had water for at least ten years. There’s also a Max Poilaine bakery offering warm apple tarts and dark rye bread you can buy by the quarter just across the street.
The park is named after France’s answer to Bob Dylan (like Dylan’s, they study Brassens’s lyrics in school in poetry class). On one of my first visits, in October 2001, I witnessed a singing contest marking the 20th anniversary of Brassens’s death (the French are big on death anniversaries) which demonstrated how the folk-singer’s appeal is multi-generational, the most moving performances being delivered in a quavering voice by a shy 16-year-old blonde girl with glasses and a 40-something man who’s rendition of “Bury me on a beach in Sete” was so invested he broke out in sweat halfway through the song.
On this more recent visit, the music that wafted out of the park’s entrance, guarded by two life-sized bronze bulls each above its own portal (I strutted in under one, binding with my fellow Taurus) and across the street from the Petite Gorilla brasserie (in “Le Gorille” Brassens celebrates a simian who butt-rapes a judge) was not Brassens but a jazz manouche band, “Swing Bazaar,” whose dulcet chanteuse was proclaiming “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” — more rampant Americanization.
The rest of the self-contained Place Jacques Marette at the entrance was occupied by booths displaying mostly Sunday painter variety art, part of a three week-end “Printemps d’art” celebration organized with the 15th’s mayor. There was also free wine and orange juice (“Please don’t put your cup on the table, we don’t want the table-cloth getting stained,” a matron upbraided me — ca aussi c’est le 15eme) but the best news was on the rules notice posted by the gates of the park proper: “This garden is a non-smoking space.”
Finding a bench looking out on the wide shallow pond and being serenaded with “Sweet Georgia Brown” in a lilting French accent while feasting on succulent sauerkraut plentifully dosed with hearty chunks of pork cheek in between taking deep breaths of clean air, topped off with hot thermos tea while clutching my vintage speakers in my new Renaissance bag I was in musical, artistic, intellectual, gourmet, and breathing heaven. So what if the “graph-zine” fair in the old book market which was the actual reason for my being here this particular Sunday was nowhere in sight — “They couldn’t agree on anything,” a man selling the secret papers of Celine for 30 Euros explained to me — there were still the books, one of which (speaking of anti-Semitism) revealed that 30 years after proving himself a Dreyfusard avant l’heure, Anatole France may have drifted over to the other side. Among a leather-bound set of France volumes, this one published in 1925, I found “The Opinions of M. Jerome Coignard,” the pronouncing of which opinions apparently came to an abrupt end on page 2 when, France informs us, Coignard was poignarded to death to by a “Cabalistic Jew.” (N’empeche que as far as anti-pollution crusaders avant l’heure go, Anatole France is still my man, complaining to Leo Larguier in the 1920s, as recounted in Larguier’s 1936 “Saint-Germain-des-Prés, my Village” about the encroaching automobile traffic on the quays of the Seine off the rue des Grands Augustins, where Picasso would later respond to a German officer who asked him, pointing at “Guernica,” “Did you make that?,” “No, you did.”)
That about did it for me so I decided to head for the Metro Pasteur, but I’d only gone two blocks when I was forced to head back towards the park and more important the toilet chateau by the sauerkraut (or maybe it was the gentile pork cheeks) fomenting a cabal in the pit of my stomach.
I was almost there when I saw the “Open Studio this weekend” sign on the window of a store-front atelier. I’d missed the Saturday edition of this particular open atelier, which had been accompanied by a bio wine-tasting (peu importe; I’m not drinking at this moment) and even the artist, so it was left to the artist’s friend to answer my questions in front of five violet bottles which remained resolutely corked. (“He probably couldn’t drink bio wine anyway, most of his bottom teeth are missing.” Having worked a natural wine vendange in the Lot one season, I’m probably just as learned about bio wine as I am about art.) I liked the tropical images — of Cuban beaches and palm trees — but if I say ‘images’ the hic is that they were all ‘pigmented’ print-outs without much piment, because if this format works for photographs like Laguerre’s, it’s a rip-off (at the prices being demanded here) for water-colors, pastels, or oils, because there’s no dimensionality.
But the visit yielded the useful information that the open ateliers were part of the “Printemps d’art” activities (indeed, the lady informed me, every arrondissement in the city offers these, with the support of the city), and a map with the locations of nearby ateliers, one of which was right around the corner and from the epiphany you’ve been waiting 10,000 words to discover.
Isa Guiod, “Primitif n°30,” Pastels à la cire et pastels à l’huile (wax and oil pastels), 20 x 20 cm. Copyright and courtesy Isa Guiod.
To fully appreciate the welcome I and the other visitors to Isa Guiod’s atelier received, first you need to know that when you walk into a typical art gallery in Paris, the typically early 20-something mignonette behind the desk refuses to look up from whatever she’s doing on her computer, no doubt more important than you. (I’m still waiting for the art the mignonette at another gallery off the Grands Boulevards promised to send me over a week ago.) If you ask her (it’s usually a her) a question, she gives you a begrudging one-word answer. And if you try to engage her in a conversation about the art, she just grunts.
Guiod, by contrast (and this is not atypical at open studios) was eager to exchange with her visitors. She even offered coffee to the couple which was already there when I entered; “Or maybe a petite verre?” and then to me. (Why does this matter? As an indication of hospitality; this is what you do when someone visits your home.)
I also felt — and this is less typical — like Guiod was truly interested in hearing the responses of her guests to her art and even in learning from them; this was a real exchange. (I didn’t identify myself as a journalist until shortly before leaving, so it wasn’t that.) When I commented that her medium of choice, wax and oil pastels, reminded me (it was a stretch but I was trying to flaunt my arts smarts) of how Jean-Michel Atlan (Ragon’s favorite), stirred controversy amongst some of his contemporaries (see “Trompe-l-Oeil,” Ragon’s 1956 black comedy of the contemporary art world and market,” a translated sample of which pertaining to Atlan is in the link above) by mixing oils and pastels, she immediately went to look Atlan up on the Internet, and when I compared one of her larger oeuvres — there were at least 50 on the walls, most of them on the smaller scale, and more scattered around the atelier-home on counter-tops — to Cézanne’s “Mount St.-Victoire” series for the subject and the way she like Cezanne seemed to break her tableaux down into into spheres and told her about Vera Molnar’s minimalist homage to the Cézannes, she asked for the name of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés gallery where I’d discovered these. (I know I’m using this term a lot, but isn’t discovery also what life — and breathing in all its expanses — is about?)
From the Arts Voyager Archives: “Bathers,” Paul Cézanne, French, c. 1880, oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts (70.162).
What was inspiring is not that this interest in my opinions and the knowledge I might have to impart stroked my ego but the genuine curiosity it indicated. Many contemporary artists I meet not only ignore their accomplished predecessors but manifest no interest in learning about their own form’s history, as if they invented the wheel and no one of interest could have possibly come before them. (This isn’t quite the same as Courbet saying, in Ragon’s biography, that he’s more interested in reflecting his times than referring to the artists of the past.) Guiod, by contrast, displayed the openness of the lifelong-learner, not surprising as she’s ‘only’ been at this for 10 years, starting with six years of ateliers offered by the municipality of Paris — at affordable prices, important because it reflects an official investment in the artistic soul which made Paris and in its continued diffusion throughout the city, and a conviction that creating art shouldn’t be the sequestered provence of a few — followed by four years under the individual tutelage of three professors.
The work itself reflected this spirit of ouverture, theoretically abstract but open to the viewer’s identifying forms. “People see different things in it,” Guiod pointed out as if she welcomed this.
Isa Guiod, “Primitif n°40,” Pastels à la cire et pastels à l’huile (wax and oil pastels), 20 x 20 cm. Copyright and courtesy Isa Guiod.
As for her method, “I usually just spurt it all out. Sometimes I pause and find myself wondering what the theme is, but then I just stop thinking and asking questions and continue.” Recalling the print-outs I’d seen earlier and comparing that lacheté — asking exorbitant prices for something that took two minutes to print out — with Guiod’s offering strictly original work, I asked her how much time it had taken her to create the 50+ tableaux filling most of four walls (the other thing I liked about her atelier is that the remaining space was filled by books, and not just art books, stretching to the ceiling opposite a loft bedroom): “Two months” for the whole and on average two to three days per canvas.
Isa Guiod, “Entre-Deux n°9,” Pastels à la cire et pastels à l’huile (wax and oil pastels), 50 x 65 cm. Copyright and courtesy Isa Guiod.
Gazing out Guiod’s tall windows whose sills were adorned with pots of poppy flowers onto a cobble-stone courtyard with table and chairs, insulated if not closed to the outside world by stone walls — “I get a lot of light during the day,” she assured me — and engaged in this discussion with an artist who was not at all blasé about her practice but full of the enthusiasm of the person who finds her real calling in mid-life (Guiod appears to subscribe to George Eliot’s dictum, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been”: “If I live to ___,” she later told me, “I’ll still be able to do this for 42 more years.” ) and thinking about how by enabling this self-realization in providing low-cost art courses accessible to everyone the City of Paris was making a statement that in a city defined by art the art must be pervasive and not just the privilege of a sanctified few, and above all from our exchanges, I realized that this is why Parisians stay here in a city where it’s sometimes physically hard to breathe.
This is how they — this is how we Parisians — respire, this is where we find our breath: Individually in the potential to make art and realize our dreams, even new dreams hatched in mid-life, and collectively in our proximity to each other and the breath we breathe into each other like the energy which made that first balloon fly in 1783 (when the Continental Congress was meeting in Princeton, which would give me wings 200 years later), and the limitless potential for the serendipitous encounter anywhere, even in a quartier more Bourgeoisie than Bohemian and even for a critic lately more interested in feeding his stomach than his Art Jones and come to Paris primarily to fix his teeth, who on a quest for a potty stumbles into and gets deterred by the atelier of an artist and seeker who reminds him of the infinite possibitilities this city breeds, restoring his appetite for art, not as a commodity nor a vehicle to be coopted for his own writing but as creation, the first creation, the only creation that matters because it transcends everything else.
This is why they remain here, and this is why I keep coming back to Paris despite the inevitable “Gorge Parisian” it subjects my body to in certain seasons: the potential this city now offers like no other in the world (New York and San Francisco having become too expensive) to breathe in every pore of your spirit and mind.
From the exhibition Vera Molnar, Affinités particulières: Hommages à Dürer, Cezanne, Klee, on view at the Galerie Berthet-Aittouares in Paris through April 20: Vera Molnar, “Montparnasse, d’après Klee, en bleu, vert et rouge,” 2006. Numéro 3, 17×17 cm, 12 x 12cm. Image copyright Galerie Berthet-Aittouares.