Le feuilleton (the Serial), 2 : “Trompe-l’œil” — Michel Ragon’s ground-breaking 1956 satire of the Contemporary Art Market (in French and English), Part Two

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Original French version follows English translation.)

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Charles was entering his 18th year. He’d only remotely followed the metamorphosis of his parents and was astonished. His father and mother’s sudden passion for Modern Art bewildered him. By nature a bit slow, a good boy with a below average intelligence, he had trouble keeping up with the evolution of his family. When his father praised Klee to the detriment of Kandinsky, he might as well have still been comparing Mumphy underwear to Rasural underwear.

Charles was not subject to this fever which had consumed his loved ones since the adventure of the Paul Klee paintings had begun: it should be pointed out that speculation wasn’t the only engine driving Monsieur Mumfy’s new attitude. If Monsieur Mumfy had become obsessed with abstract painting, it wasn’t just because he was counting on it — following the example of the Klees — to centuple in value, but also because he liked it. In her role as a good spouse, Madame Mumfy accompanied him in this conversion. She who previously had never set foot in a museum these days wouldn’t miss a single vernissage or cocktail if it had anything to do with abstract art. She even tried her hand at a variety of smaller works about which she didn’t make a big deal, even though some galleries wanted to expose them.

When it was decided that Charles would become a painter, Monsieur and Madame Mumfy threw a cocktail party to which they invited all the critics, dealers, and collectors.

Once more everyone raved about the perspicacity of the master of the house, who’d had the acumen to build such a stellar collection of Klees.

“When one considers,” proclaimed Charles Roy, “that the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris doesn’t have a single Klee, not even a Mondrian, in its collection, it’s scandalous! It’s up to the private collectors to retain for France a few chefs-d’oeuvre of contemporary art. France owes you so much, dear Monsieur Mumfy!”

Monsieur Mumfy was used to inspiring such homages. Little by little he’d convinced himself that he actually had discovered Paul Klee before the war. In the beginning, he was pretending; now he wasn’t lying. He really believed that he’d always loved Klee — for at least the last 20 years anyway. For that matter, the dates on the paintings on his walls seemed to back up this claim. And given that the art critics, the dealers, and the other collectors who frequented his house were themselves recent converts to abstract art, no one could disabuse him of this notion.

The critic Charles Roy, a specialist in abstract art, had burst into the public spotlight with great fanfare after the Libération. Even though he was already in his 50s, his pre-war activity remained fuzzy. In fact, he’d played a laudable role in the Résistance and he was rewarded by being offered his own platform in the press. As he was absolutely incapable of writing in clear French, or at least of paying any attention to the rules of grammar, he was relegated to the art column. In this post which, on a major newspaper, is usually cloistered and innocuous, Charles Roy had succeeded in carving out a niche for himself thanks to his total ignorance of syntax. No one understood a word he wrote, and as he wrote about paintings that no one understood, people just thought it was a new style. Charles Roy was the veritable inventor of this brand of abstract art criticism which, born at the same time as the Academy of Abstract Art in Paris, made people believe in a concordance of genres when in reality it was just one big critical scam which had encrusted itself like a parasite in the haunches of an art form which merited its own Baudelaire or Apollinaire.

If all the major photographers in Paris were inevitably Hungarian, the big art critics were Belgian. Charles Roy was no exception, and his moniker was obviously a pseudonym. His enemies liked to point this out by punning, “He waffles like a real Belgian.”

Like all Johnny-come-latelies, Charles Roy veered from one extreme to another. A salesman of religious tchotchkes for tourists before the war (voila why he changed his name), Charles Roy now recognized only the strictest form of abstract art. Charles’s artistic coming out party found him once again defending this standard to the boy’s father:

“I admire Klee in a historic sense,” he was saying, “but I don’t approve of his anecdotal aspect. It’s literary painting. Art is only justified today if it doesn’t evoke the least parcel of reality.”

“Ah! Don’t touch my Klee!” Monsieur Mumfy responded in a sententious tone. “You can accuse Miro of being literary, or Picasso of being anecdotal, but when you go after Klee in my presence, it’s as if you’re insulting a member of my family.”

At just this moment a brouhaha broke out in the salon at the entrance sur scene of a dwarf who appeared leaning on a small cane with his bifocals perched on a large nose, a dwarf bearing a surprising resemblance to a Toulouse-Lautrec caricature. The guests parted to make way for the dwarf, who stood on his tip-toes to kiss Madame Mumfy’s hand.

Charles Roy and Monsieur Mumfy fell over themselves to see who could get to the dwarf’s side first.

“My dear Laivit-Canne….”

“Monsieur Laivit-Canne….”

The dwarf sank into an easy chair provided by a servant and announced in a nasal voice:

“I’ve just cut off Manhès!”

This declaration was met with a stupefied silence. The majority of those gathered in the salon turned their heads towards the wall, where five paintings by Manhès stared back at them. They seemed to be looking at them for the first time, even though they were all quite familiar with Manhès’s work. In reality, they were seeking out the little imperfections, the vice which might have earned them the disfavor of Laivit-Canne.

It was finally Charles Roy who broke the silence, ingratiatingly enough, to flatter Laivit-Canne:

“Bravo!, Monsieur Laivit-Canne. Manhès’s style might end up selling well, but in fact it’s already passé. It’s not genuine abstract painting.”

The dwarf, ensconced in his cushions, exuded the surly air of a spoiled child. He resumed in swishing his nose for emphasis:

“I don’t give a fig about abstract painting or non-abstract painting, sellable or non-sellable art …. Manhès insulted me — Manhès who owes me everything, Manhès who’d be dead if not for me –”

“Oh!”

The dwarf nimbly scooped up a petit-four from a passing platter, masticated it with determination, and explained:

“Manhès called me a self-hating Jew….”

This unexpected insult created an unease among the guests. Someone ventured:

“Manhès has always struck me as a racist.”

The dwarf sought out the origin of the voice, squinting his eyes, came up empty, and continued:

“I encourage you, my dear Mumfy, to sell off your Manhèses. Before long they won’t be worth a wooden nickel.”

“There’s no rush, there’s no rush,” joked Monsieur Mumfy with a cheerful bonhomie which broke the tension a little. Then, assuming a stentorian tone, he proclaimed:

“Tonight I’m proud to announce some good news. Charles has decided to choose art over underwear. He’s to be a painter.”

“Which academy will you send him too?” asked one woman, “chez Léger ou chez Lhote?”

“Just don’t tell us he’s going to the Beaux-Arts Academy,” asked another worried woman.

“Don’t be alarmed,” assured Monsieur Mumfy. “He’ll be trained at the right school. I’m going to sign him up for the Abstract Art Academy.”

Big hands started clapping. Those of Charles Roy. The guests formed into groups, depending on their affinities. Many paused in front of Manhés’s paintings, where the conversation was particularly animated. Everyone rushed to shake the hand of Charles, who was starting to get bored.

Version originale par et copyright Michel Ragon:

Charles entrait dans sa dix-huitième année. Il avait assisté à la métamorphose de ses parents sans enthousiasme. La soudaine passion de son père et de sa mère pour l’art moderne le déroutait. D’un naturel un peu niais, bon garçon, d’une intelligence au-dessous de la moyenne, il ne suivit l’évolution de sa famille que de très loin et le souffle coupé. Lorsqu’il entendait son père louer Klee au détriment de Kandinsky, cela lui produisait le même effet que si son géniteur avait fait l’apologie des sous-vêtements Michaud au détriment de sous-vêtements Rasurel.

Charles ne participait pas à cette fièvre qui s’était emparée des siens depuis cette aventure des tableaux de Paul Klee: Il faut dire que la spéculation n’était pas la seul moteur réagissant la nouvelle attitude de Monsieur Michaud. Monsieur Michaud achetait de la peinture abstrait, non seulement parce qu’il comptait bien que celle-ci, a l’exemple des tableaux de Klee, centuple sa valeur, mais aussi parce qu’il aimait ça. En bonne épouse, Madame Michaud l’accompagne dans sa conversion. Elle qui, autrefois, n’avait jamais mis les pieds dans un musée, ne manquait aujourd’hui aucun vernissage, aucun cocktail, concernant l’art abstrait. Elle s’essayait même, comme nous l’avons vu, à certaines petites œuvrettes dont elle avait la sagesse de ne pas faire grand cas et ceci bien que certaines galeries lui aient proposé de les exposer.

Lorsqu’il fut décidé que Charles serait peintre, Monsieur et Madame Michaud donnèrent un cocktail où tous les critiques, marchands, collectionneurs, furent invités.

On s’extasia une fois de plus sur la perspicacité du maître de maison qui avait su réunir une collection de Klee aussi merveilleuse.

— Quand on pense, s’exclama Charles Roy, que le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris n’a même pas un seul Klee, pas un Mondrian, c’est une scandale ! Il faut que ce soient des collectionneurs privés qui retiennent en France quelques chefs-d’œuvre de l’art actuel. La France vous devra beaucoup, cher Monsieur Michaud !

Monsieur Michaud était habitué a soulever de tels enthousiasmes. Peu à peu, il finit par se convaincre qu’il avait réellement découvert Paul Klee avant la guerre. Au début, il jouait la comédie; maintenant il ne mentait plus. Il était persuadé qu’il avait toujours aimé Klee, depuis vingt ans au moins. D’ailleurs les dates des tableaux sur les murs témoignaient de cette ancienneté. Comme les critiques d’art, les marchands et les autres collectionneurs qui fréquentaient sa maison n’étaient eux aussi convertis à l’art abstrait que depuis fort peu de temps, personne ne pouvait le détromper.

Le critique Charles Roy, spécialiste de l’art abstrait, s’était révélé avec fracas à l’attention du public après la Libération. Bien qu’il fût âgé d’une cinquantaine d’années, son activité avant la guerre restait dans un anonymat très vague. En fait, il eut un rôle très méritoire dans la Résistance et on l’en récompensa en lui créant un fromage dans la presse. Comme il était incapable d’écrire un française clair, ou tout au moins correct, on le relégua dans la chronique des arts. A ce poste, qui, dans un grande journal est en général terne et sans histoire, Charles Roy réussit à se faire un nom grâce à sa méconnaissance totale de la syntaxe. Personne ne comprenant rien à ce qu’il écrivait et comme il parlait de tableaux que personne ne comprenait, on crut à un nouveau style. Charles Roy est le véritable créateur de cette critique d’art abstrait qui, née parallèlement au développement d’une Ecole d’Art Abstrait à Paris, fit croire à une concordance des genres alors qu’il ne s’agissait que d’un cafouillage incrusté en parasite au flanc d’une peinture qui méritait son Baudelaire ou son Apollinaire.

Si, à Paris, les grands photographes sont en général hongrois, les critiques d’art sont belges. Charles Roy n’échappait pas à cette règle et son nom était évidemment un pseudonyme. Ses ennemis disaient même, par un calembour facile : « Il est belge comme pieds. »

Comme tous les néophytes convertis sur le tard, Charles Roy allait d’un extrême à l’autre. Représentant de statuettes du genre Saint-Sulpice avant la guerre (et c’est pour cela qu’il avait changé son nom), Charles Roy n’admettait plus maintenant que l’art abstrait le plus strict. Encore une fois, il se chamaillait à ce propos avec Monsieur Michaud :

— J’admire Klee d’une façon historique, disait-il. Mais je lui reproche son côté anecdotique. C’est de la peinture littéraire. L’art ne se justifie aujourd’hui que s’il n’évoque pas la moindre parcelle de réalité.

— Ah ! ne touchez pas à Klee; répondait Monsieur Michaud d’un ton sentencieux. Vous pouvez me dire que Miro est littéraire, que Picasso est anecdotique, mais lorsqu’on attaque Klee en ma présence, c’est comme si on insultait ma famille.

Il se fit un brouhaha dans le salon et l’on vit entrer un nain, avec une petite canne et des lorgnons sur un gros nez, ressemblant étonnamment à un caricature de Toulouse-Lautrec. Tout le monde s’inclinait au passage du nain qui se haussa sur la pointe des pieds pour baiser la main de Madame Michaud.

Charles Roy et Monsieur Michaud se bousculèrent pour arriver le premier près du nain.

— Mon cher Laivit-Canne…

— Monsieur Laivit-Canne…

Le nain s’enfonça dans un fauteuil que lui avança un domestique et dit d’une voix nasillarde :

— Je viens de couper les vivres à Manhes !

Un silence stupéfait accueillit cette déclaration. La plupart des personnes réunies dans la salon tournèrent la tête vers le mur où cinq tableaux de Manhès étaient accrochés. Elles semblaient les regarder pour la première fois, bien que toutes connussent fort bien la peinture de Manhès. En fait, elles cherchaient l’imperfection, le vice qui leur valait la défaveur de Laivit-Canne.

Ce fut Charles Roy qui rompit le silence, assez bassement, pour flatter Laivit-Canne:

— C’est tout à votre honneur, Monsieur Laivit-Canne. La peinture de Manhès pourrait devenir très commerciale, mais elle est tout à fait dépassée. Ce n’est pas un véritable peintre abstrait.

Le nain, enfoncé dans les coussins, avait l’air hargneux d’un enfant prodige. Il reprit en chuintant du nez :

— M’en fous de la peinture abstraite ou pas abstrait, de la peinture commerciale ou pas commerciale… Mais Manhès m’a injurié, lui qui me doit tout, moi qui le faisais vivre…

— Oh !

Le nain attrapa prestement un petit-four, sur un plateau qui passait, le mastique avec application et dit :

— Manhès m’a traité de Juif honteux…

Cette injure inattendue créa un malaise dans l’assistance. Quelqu’un risqua :

— Manhès m’a toujours paru raciste.

Le nain chercha d’où venait cette voix, en plissant les yeux, ne la reconnut pas, et dit :

— Je vous engage, mon cher Michaud, à vendre vos Manhès, bientôt ils ne vaudront plus rien.

— Ce n’est pas pressé, ce n’est pas pressé, plaisanta Monsieur Michaud avec ne bonhomie enjouée qui dégela un peu l’assistance. Puis, reprenant une voix solennelle :

« Ce soir, je veux vous annoncer une bonne nouvelle. Charles vient de préférer les arts aux sous-vêtements. Il sera peintre. »

— Où l’envoyes-vous, demanda une dame, chez Léger ou chez Lhote ?

— Il ne va pas faire les Beaux-Arts, au moins, s’inquiéta une autre ?

— Ne vous alarmez pas, dit Monsieur Michaud, il sera formé à bonne école. Je vais le faire inscrire à l’Académie d’Art Abstrait.

De grosses mains applaudirent. C’étaient celles de Charles Roy. Des groupes se formèrent dans l’appartement, au gré des sympathies et des antipathies. On allait beaucoup devant les tableaux de Manhés et la conversation s’animait dans ce coin-là. Chacun serait vigoureusement la main à Charles, qui s’ennuyait.

Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.

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Le feuilleton (the Serial), 1: “Trompe-l’œil” — Michel Ragon’s ground-breaking 1956 satire of the Contemporary Art Market (in French and English)

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(English version follows French original.)

Dans le salon très moderne de Monsieur Michaud, le fameux Michaud des sous-vêtements du même nom (« avec Michaud, toujours chaud »), se tenait une réunion de famille. L’abondance du plexiglas et les multiples ouvertures des meubles Oscar enlevaient toute intimité à cette vaste salle cubique dont les murs s’ornaient d’une collection de peintures de Klee. Leur qualité valait à son propriétaire l’estime et la considération, très souvent exprimée, des meilleurs écrivains et amateurs d’art.

Assis dans un fauteuil tubulaire tendu de cordes blanches qui lui donnaient une vague allure de harpe faussée, Monsieur Michaud interrogeait son fils, debout devant lui. Un peu à l’écart, mais participant toutefois à la conversation, Madame Michaud s’occupait à un collage relativement cubiste sur une table de céramique noire. Non pas que Madame Michaud fût artiste, ni même qu’elle tentât de passer pour telle, mais elle se distrayait en découpant des morceaux de papiers de couleurs et en les assemblant, tantôt à la manière de Picasso, tantôt à la manière de Matisse, comme elle se fût donnée, cinquante ans plus tôt, aux points de canevas.

— Voyons, Charles, disait Monsieur Michaud à son fils, décide-toi. Tu viens d’être reçu a ton bac, il te faut t’orienter vers une carrière. Nous sommes là pour t’aider…

Charles, tout de noir vêtu, les cheveux raides ramenés sur le front à la Bourvil (ou à la Marlon Brando), triturait son mouchoir, avançait une jambe, la reculait, avec un dandinement pouvant faire supposer qu’il tendait à l’inversion sexuelle, mais il n’en était rien. L’allure efféminée de Charles, comme ses sautillements, ses gestes gamins, sa démarche déhanchée, appartenait au style de l’époque.

— Réponds, Amour, s’exclama Madame Michaud, ne laisse pas languir ton père ; sinon il va encore nous faire vingt-quatre de tension!

— Voila, pap’, mam’, se décida enfin Charles, en accentuant son dandinement, moi j’aimerais bien devenir notaire.

Madame Michaud abandonna précipitamment ses ciseaux et sa colle pour courir à son mari qui suffoquait. Elle le frappais dans le dos avec énergie, lui tapotait les joues :

— Ce n’est rien, darling*, ce n’est rien ! Charles plaisante, tu le vois bien…

Lorsque Monsieur Michaud reprit « ses esprits », Charles très ennuyé par la tournure des événements, redit quand même :

— Je ne voudrais pas vous fâcher, pap’, mam’, mais c’est vrai : j’aimerais bien être notaire.

Monsieur et Madame Michaud se regardèrent d’un air entendu et indulgent. Puis Monsieur Michaud dit d’une voix ferme :

— Mon petit Charles, tu es ridicule. On n’est plus notaire, de nos jours. Comment une pareille idée a-t-elle pu se nicher dans la tête du fils Michaud ! Choisir d’être notaire… Est-ce que l’on choisit d’être cocu ? Enfin, quoi, n’as-tu pas lu Balzac ? Flaubert ? Depuis cent ans les notaires sont des personnages de farce et ton idéal serait de coiffer la calotte noire, de porter des bésicles et une chaîne de montre en or sur un ventre que, Dieu merci, tu n’es pas encore près d’acquérir. Le métier de notaire peut, à la rigueur, convenir à un fils d’instituteur de campagne ; mais toi, Charles, veux-tu faire honte à ta famille ?

« Allons, allons, c’est une bêtise de jeune homme. Je vais t’aider, moi. Tiens… si tu faisais une carrière d’artiste… Peintre, par exemple ?

— Mais, pap’, je ne sais pas peindre…

Monsieur Michaud se prit le crâne à pleines mains, en signe de découragement total devant une telle innocence.

— Regardez-moi ce grand sot ! Mais tu apprendras, Charles ! Est-ce qu’on refuse d’envisager la médecine parce qu’on n’a jamais fait un pansement ! La peinture s’apprend, mon petit, comme toute chose. Et regarde l’avenir qui est offert à un peintre. Picasso est milliardaire, Matisse aussi… Connais-tu un notaire qui, parti de rien, soit arrivé à une aussi brillante situation ? Picasso a perdu beaucoup de temps, dans sa jeunesse, parce qu’il était pauvre, qu’il ne pouvait pas s’acheter de couleurs ni de toiles, qu’il n’avait aucune relation parmi les marchands et les critiques. Mais toi, tu ne manqueras de rien. Je te donnerai une mensualité qui te laissera la tête libre. Tu profiteras de mes relations de collectionneur. Allez, fiston, avec un pu de bonne volonté de ta part, nous ferons de toi un artiste célèbre, qui sera la joie de la famille. Regarde Ancelin, il ne voulais rien savoir pour être peintre, lui non plus. Il voulait devenir officier, sous prétexte que son père est général. Mais le général Ancelin a bien su le dissuader de suivre une carrière aussi compromise par ce pacifisme de plus en plus en vogue. Lui aussi, ce vieil ami Ancelin, avait su voir quels débouchés offrait maintenant le monde des arts. Ancelin a son contrat chez Laivit-Canne et il va bientôt exposer a New York.

En se relevant lourdement, Monsieur Michaud heurta du front une pale d’un mobile de Calder qui se balançait dans la pièce. Il la chassa distraitement du revers de la main, comme une mouche. Le mobile se mit à onduler, toutes les branches évoluèrent en silence. On eût dit qu’un gigantesque insecte se fût tout à coup éveillé au-dessus du père et du fils qui n’y prenaient garde. Une soubrette entre, après avoir frappé. Elle paraissait affolée :

— Madame, le service de céramique que Monsieur avait offert à Madame…

— Et bien ?

— Je ne sais pas comment cela a pu se produire, mais il déteint.

— Expliquez-vous clairement et ne vous énervez pas, soupira Madame Michaud en coupant délicatement une languette de papier gaufré.

— Oui, Madame, j’ai voulu servir le consommé dans le service en céramique et le consommé est devenu tout bleu.

— C’est insensé, hurla Monsieur Michaud. Qui vous a dit de toucher à ce service ! Vous n’avez donc pas vu que ces assiettes n’étaient pas faites pour manger dedans !

— Alors elle sont faites pour quoi, Monsieur, demanda la bonne, ahurie.

— Mais pour rien, hurla encore plus fort Monsieur Michaud, si fort que le Calder en eut des hoquets. Ces assiettes sont des œuvres d’art. On ne mange pas dans des œuvres d’art. On les regarde !

La bonne essaya de se justifier en bougonnant :

— Je n’aurais jamais pensé verser du consommé dans les tableaux de Monsieur. Mais je croyais que des assiettes étaient des assiettes…

Monsieur et Madame Michaud éclatèrent de rire en même temps. Ils pouffaient : « Elle croyait que les assiettes étaient des assiettes… C’est à ne pas croire ! Il faudra raconter ça a Paulhan. »

La bonne repartit, vexée. Par l’immense baie vitrée qui donnait sur le Jardin du Luxembourg, Charles, indifférent a la crise de fou rire de ses parents, regardait avec nostalgie vers la Faculté de Droit.

***

Monsieur Michaud n’était pas né collectionneur. Avant la guerre, tout occupé à son industrie de sous-vêtements, il ignorait même qu’il existait encore des peintres. Il avait fallu un hasard. Un de ses débiteurs lui apporta un lot d’aquarelles, de gouaches et de peintures d’un artiste allemand inconnu, en le suppliant de les conserver comme gage. Monsieur Michaud refusa d’abord ce singulier marché. Depuis quand échange-t-on des sous-vêtements contre de la peinture ! Mais le débiteur était acculé à la ruine. En attendant d’entamer des poursuites, Monsieur Michaud fit porter dans une de ses remises toutes ces peintures qu’il ne prit même pas la peine de regarder. Quelques mois plus tard, son débiteur se suicida. Monsieur Michaud se fit apporter les peintures afin d’examiner s’il pourrait en tirer quelque argent. Stupéfait, il vit qu’il s’agissait de choses enfantines, des sortes de fleuves, d’oiseaux, de bonshommes. Il s’était fait bien avoir. La fureur l’étranglait. Ce salaud de machin s’était payé sa tête avant de se suicider. A tout hasard, il fit quand même venir un marchand qui refusa d’acheter en souriant d’un air supérieur.

— Alors, je peux les foutre à la poubelle, suffoqua-t-il.

— Oh, dit le marchand, avec un geste évasif, gardez-les toujours. On ne sait jamais. Si vous avez de la place…

Peu après la guerre, ce même marchand revint voir Monsieur Michaud qui avait complètement oublié cette histoire de peintures. Il lui offrit deux millions pour ce lot d’œuvres de Klee qu’il se souvenait avoir vu autrefois.

Devant l’énormité de la somme (le débiteur ne lui devait, avant la guerre, que quelques centaines de mille francs), il se méfia, fit venir d’autres marchands de tableaux qui lui offrirent trois, quatre, cinq millions… Il se mit alors à lire quelques livres sur l’art contemporain, découvrit que la peinture était la marchandise la plus spéculative qui soit et que l’on considérait Klee, en Amérique, comme un grand peintre. Il fit encadrer luxueusement ses peintures et les accrocha dans son salon. Bientôt, on lui demanda l’autorisation de photographier « ses » œuvres, de les reproduire en couleurs dans des revues luxueuses et des livres d’art. Son nom fut mentionné à chaque fois que l’on parlait de l’œuvre de Klee. Il pénétra ainsi, à son insu, dans le monde des arts et des lettres et se laissa aisément convertir à toutes les avant-gardes. Il se paya le luxe d’être parfois philanthrope, de subventionner quelques revues, d’encourager quelques jeunes artistes dont la peinture ressemblait à celle de Klee. Il arriva même à passer pour l’un des premiers spécialistes de Klee en France. Loin de lui faire perdre de l’argent, les arts lui apportaient une considération qu’il n’avait jamais obtenue en tant qu’industriel. On le décora pour services rendus aux arts. Des artistes célèbres recherchèrent son amitié. Même les autres industriels lui témoignaient maintenant une déférence qu’ils n’auraient jamais eu l’idée de lui accorder avant qu’il devînt un « grand collectionneur ». Monsieur et Madame Michaud voulurent être à la page. Ils achetèrent un appartement qu’ils firent transformer par Le Corbusier. Rien, absolument rien chez eux, ne fut antérieur à ce siècle, si ce n’étaient eux-mêmes.

Elevé dans cette architecture aux lignes pures, blasé du mobilier qui lui rappelait fâcheusement le cabinet du dentiste, abruti par la fréquentation journalière des chefs-d’œuvre, Charles se prit à souhaiter vivre dans une étude poussiéreuse, avec de grandes vielles chaises aux pieds droits, en bois, avec un bureau en bois et un porte-plume avec une plume. C’était sa poésie, à lui. A chaque adolescent sa folie.

English translation by Paul Ben-Itzak

In the très chic Parisian salon of Monsieur Mumfy — the very same Mumfy of the celebrated underwear ads — “with Mumfy, you’re always comfy” — a Family Conference was underway. The plethora of Plexiglas and the multitude of apertures in the porous Oscar furniture eliminated any idea of intimacy in the vast square room, whose walls were ornamented with a collection of Klees. The quality of these paintings had earned their proprietor the high regard and hosannas, frequently expressed, of the leading art critics of Paris as well as art aficionados.

Ensconced in a tubular arm-chair held together with cream-colored cords which leant it the vague allure of a warped harp, Monsieur Mumfy was in the process of interrogating his son, standing before him. Slightly separated from them, but still participating in the conversation, Madame Mumfy was busy at a black ceramic table creating a more or less Cubist collage. It was not that Madame Mumfy was an artist, or even trying to pass as one, but that she liked to distract herself with cutting up colored paper and re-assembling it, sometimes à la Picasso, sometimes à la Matisse, just as 50 years earlier she might have devoted herself to needlework.

“My dear Charles,” Monsieur Mumfy declared, “it’s time to decide. You’ve now graduated from high school; it’s time to pick a career. We’re here to help….”

Charles, clad from head to toe in black, his stiff hair combed over his forehead à la Bourvil (or à la Marlon Brando), pulverizing his handkerchief between his nervous fingers, tentatively stepped forward before retreating, with a certain dandy-ness that might have lead one to suspect an inclination towards sexual inversion, but it was nothing like that. Charles’s effeminate affectations, like his bird-like hopping back and forth, his juvenile gestures, and the weaving of his hips when he walked, were très à la mode.

“Respond, Cheri!” chimed in Madame Mumfy. “Don’t let your father just languish there. Otherwise we’re in for another 24 hours of stress!”

“Okay Pops, Moms,” Charles finally decided, accentuating his dandy-ness. “I have a dream: To become… a notary public.”

Madame Mumfy precipitously dropped her scissors and glue to rush to the side of her husband, who was hyperventilating. Striking him on the back and tapping him on the cheeks, she tried to reassure him:

“It’s nothing, darling, nothing! Charles is obviously kidding….”

When Monsieur Mumfy had recovered his wits, his son, albeit concerned by the turn of events, nonetheless insisted:

“I don’t want to make you mad Pops, Moms, but I’m not joking: I really want to be a notary public.”

Monsieur and Madame Mumfy glanced at each other with a complicit air tempered by indulgence. Then Monsieur Mumfy responded with a firm voice:

“My dear Charles, don’t be ridiculous. No one becomes a notary public in these times. How could such an idea ever have sprouted up in the head of a MUMFY?! Choosing to be a notary public. The very idea of it! Does one choose to be a cuckold? Haven’t you read Balzac? Flaubert? For more than a hundred years notary publics have been looked on as grotesque characters, the butt of jokes — and your “dream” would be to sport a black skull-cap and bifocals with a pocket-watch dangling on a chain over a protuberant belly that — thank God — you’re not even close to acquiring. Being a notary public might be fitting for the son of a hic school-teacher, but you, Charles — do you want to be the black sheep of your family?

“Come, come now — it’s just the silly fancy of an adolescent. I’m going to help you…. I’ve got it! What if you became … an artist…? A painter, for instance?”

“But Pops, I don’t know how to paint.”

Monsieur Mumfy clutched his head between his hands in a sign of total exasperation in the face of such naïveté.

“Look at this blockhead! You’ll learn, Charles, you’ll learn! Does someone refuse to become a doctor because he’s never applied a bandage? One learns to paint, my boy, as with anything. And consider the future in painting. Picasso is a millionaire, as is Matisse…. Have you ever heard of a notary public who, starting out from scratch, has carved out such a shining success? Picasso lost so much time in his youth, because he was poor and couldn’t afford paints or canvasses, and because he didn’t know any dealers or critics. But you, Charle! You won’t lack for anything. I’ll give you a monthly allowance so you won’t have anything to worry about. You can use my connections as a collector. With a little effort from you, my boy, we’ll make a famous artist out of you who will be the pride and joy of the family. Look at Ancelin. He wouldn’t have heard of becoming a painter. He wanted to be an officer, just because his father is a general. But General Ancelin talked him out of pursuing a career in a field compromised by the pacifism that’s more and more in vogue these days. And our old friend Ancelin was able to see the opportunities available these days in the art world. And he now has a contract with Laivit-Canne’s gallery and will soon be exposed in New York.

Rising heavily, Monsieur Mumfy bumped his head against the blade of a Calder mobile rotating from the ceiling. He scooted it away distractedly with the back of his hand, as if it were a fly. The mobile started to undulate, with all its branches revolving in silence. It was as if a giant insect had suddenly come to life above the father and son, oblivious to its awakening. A soubrette rushed in after urgently knocking, in the throes of panic.

“Madame, it’s horrible! The pottery set that Monsieur gave Madame….”

“Yes…?

“I don’t know how it happened, but… it’s bleeding.”

“Now now, explain yourself clearly and don’t get upset,” sighed Madame Mumfy, delicately snipping off a strip of embossed paper.

“Yes, Madame. I went to serve the consommé in the pottery bowls and the consommé turned completely blue.”

“WHAT?!” erupted Monsieur Mumfy. “Who told you to touch that pottery?! You couldn’t tell that those plates were not made to be eaten from?!”

“Then what are they made for, Monsieur?” asked the maid, flustered.

“They’re not ‘made’ for anything!” roared Monsieur Mumfy even louder, so loud that the Calder began to hiccup. “Those plates are works of art. One does not eat from works of art. One beholds them!”

The maid tried to defend herself by babbling, “I wouldn’t have thought of pouring consommé on Monsieur’s paintings. I just thought that bowls are bowls….”

Monsieur and Madame Mumfy broke into simultaneous laughter, bursting out, “She believed that bowls were bowls…!” “Incredible!” “We must tell Paulhan about this!”

The maid departed, clearly vexed. By the immense bay window looking out over the Luxembourg Gardens, Charles, indifferent to the fit of laughter which had seized his parents, gazed nostalgically out at the Law School.

***

Monsieur Mumfy was not a born art collector. Before the war, consumed as he was with his underwear factory, he didn’t even know that painters existed. It took an accident. One of his debtors brought him a batch of watercolors, gouaches, and paintings by an unknown German artist, pleading with him to accept the paintings as collateral. Monsieur Mumfy initially refused this singular arrangement. Since when did one trade underwear for paintings?! But the debtor had been driven to ruin. Ahead of taking him to court, Monsieur Mumfy had the paintings stored in one of his warehouses, without taking the trouble to even look at them. Some months later, the debtor committed suicide. Monsieur Mumfy had the paintings brought up so he could study them to see if by chance they might actually be worth something. Stupefied, he discovered that they were replete with child-like doodles — all sorts of rivers, of birds, of funny figures. He’d been had. He began to choke with rage. The bastard had conned him before offing himself! Just in case, though, he asked an art dealer to take a look; the dealer refused to buy anything, smiling snidely.

“So I can throw them in the garbage,” Monsieur Mumfy fumed.

“Oh,” the dealer answered, with an evasive gesture, “hang on to them all the same. You never know. If you have the space….”

Immediately after the war, the very same dealer came back to see Monsieur Mumfy, who’d completely forgotten the painting fiasco. He offered him $5,000 for the whole lot of Klee works that he recalled seeing earlier.

Faced with the enormity of the amount (the debtor owed him, before the war, a little over $500), Monsieur Mumfy became suspicious, asked other dealers to come look at the paintings, and got offers of $7,500, $10,000, and $12,500 for the Klees…. He decided to read a few books about contemporary art, discovered that the market for paintings was the most speculative around, and that Klee was considered in America to be a major painter. He bought ornate frames for his paintings and had them hung in his salon. Before long, there were requests to photograph ‘his’ oeuvres, and to reproduce them in color in luxury magazines and art books. The name Mumfy was evoked wherever there was talk of Klee’s oeuvre. Thus he was catapulted, almost unconsciously, into the midst of the world of arts and letters and readily let himself be converted to all things avant-garde. He allowed himself to indulge in the luxury of philanthropy, underwriting several art revues and sponsoring young artists whose paintings resembled Klee’s. He was even recognized as one of the premiere Klee specialists in France. Far from making him lose money, the arts earned him notoriety he’d never even dreamed of as a simple garmento. He was decorated for services rendered to the arts. Famous artists cultivated his friendship. Even his fellow industrialists now showed him a deference that they’d never have dreamed of according him before he earned a reputation as an “influential collector.” Monsieur et Madame Michaud wanted to be up-to-date. They bought an apartment that they hired Le Corbusier to transform. Nothing, absolutely nothing in their home pre-dated the 20th century (with the possible exception of its proprietors).

Brought up amongst this architecture of pure lines, blasé about being surrounded by furniture which constantly reminded him of a dentist’s office, exhausted by this daily frequenting of chefs-d’oeuvre, Charles began to fantasize about living in a dusty bureau, with large old straight-legged  wooden arm-chairs, an oak desk and an ink-well with a feather plume. This was his own form of poetry. To every teenager his folly.

*In English in the original.

Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.

AVID, the Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary: Thresholds, with art from Balthus, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn and PBI’s Memoir ‘Two-and-a-half with a Bullet’

balthus 7 la chat du mirroir 7 small 2From the exhibition Balthus, running through January 1 at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland: “Le Chat au miroir III,” 1989–1994. Oil on canvas, 220 x 195 cm. Private collection. Copyright Balthus.

Text by & copyright Paul Ivan Winer Ben-Itzak
Art by Balthus from the exhibition Balthus at the Fondation Beyeler, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn (see captions for copyrights)

Today AVID offers a dialogue between PBI’s time-traveling memoirs of growing up in the U.S. and assimilating in France and the work of Balthus, on view at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland through January 1 and, from our archives, Ruth Asawa and Ben Shahn. Like what you’re reading? Please subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for $36/year or make a donation by designating your PayPal payment to paubenitzak@gmail.com , or write us there to learn how to pay by check. This one goes out to Linda, in memory of Bill Clark. The excerpt below, from PBI’s “Cross-Country/A Memoir of France & the U.S.,” is titled “Prelude: Two-and-a-half with a bullet,” and is 90% revised from an earlier version. 

“He’s here again: the man with the child in his eyes.” — Kate Bush

“We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.”     — Wallace Berry, “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three” (George Braziller, New York, 1963. Illustrated by Ben Shahn)

“Songs to aging children come / Aging children, I am one.” — Joni Mitchell, “Songs to Aging Children Come,” from the film “Alice’s Restaurant”)

Mom is crying over the wooden loom that divides the dining room from the kitchen in our San Francisco Edwardian, as the fog over Noe Valley evaporates outside the window. I look up at her from the black-speckled yellow linoleum floor.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”

“President Kennedy has been ass-ass-i-na-ted.”

This is my first conscious memory. (Although as my old creative writing teacher Joyce Carol Oates recently pointed out on French radio, what we think are direct memories are often memories of memories, retained by constant replay. The best teachers’ lessons are meted out over a lifetime. Which is not to say that Oates wasn’t already meting them out in 1980. After I submitted a short story in which I confessed to committing “slow suicides,” she handed me an essay she’d written, “The Art of Suicide,” not a how-to-manual but a critique of famous self-immolators: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath….Her main point was that as one can’t desire a void, for the Suicide – she used it as a noun – the wish “I want to die” is really a stand-in for something else: “I want you to love me,” “I want to you to listen to me….” Three years later another Princeton professor, Robert Fagles, would walk into Tragedy class one afternoon with a Washington Post article about a college student who had killed himself after reading the Oresteia… in his translation. Holding the clipping in one hand and tapping the book gently with the other and looking each of us in the eyes, he declared, carefully enunciating each word in his tender, resonant cadence: “I want to be sure you understand what this tale is about.” When I interviewed Fagles about his new Oedipus translation the next year for the Times, he would explain: “Oedipus had to be burned to a crisp in order to emerge whole again.” My own thinking on the ultimate existential question – Albert Camus called it the only question —  has evolved, following the 2015 Paris suicide of filmmaker Chantal Akerman,  who once built a play around the letters between Plath and her mother, to consider the possibility that when an artist chooses to end her life, it may just be a creative way to formulate a period. Or to breach a threshold. And that we should allow these liberators of our own souls their franchise.)

As childhood memories go, I have only two of my parents together before they split up when I was 12. An electrical storm is rattling our isolated house off Bohan-Dillon Road in rural Northern California, and Dad is late returning from a visit to the Pomo reservation, reached only by a treacherous mountain road. When he finally bursts in, drenched, Mom clutches him desperately, like a fisherman’s bride embracing an errant sailor presumed lost to the sea’s caprices. (From the reservation I also remember a succulent pig roasting on a dripping spit and the Great Chicken Pox Epidemic of 1969, which started with the Indian children and terminated with my baby brother’s pink-speckled body dangling from my mom’s arms. Now that I’ve shared Jordan’s most intimate moment of affliction — to cop a term from another Princeton prof. — here’s mine:  Being bitten on the penis by a tic while climbing the cliffs above the totem pole guarding the Timber Cove Inn, which explains my aversion for going cepes hunting with my neighbor in the South of France five decades later.)

My other memory of Mom and Dad together is of them hiking on a mountain above the Tamales Bay ranch where Hans and Dina Angress (her family hid him out in Holland during the war) hosted their annual herring festival with the dozens of children they’d adopted: Smoked herring, pickled herring, barbecued herring, fried herring, herring-shaped bread, salt-water herring taffy. (When the herring festival wasn’t on, we’d beg mom to stop at the Stewart General Store across from Fort Ross, an old Russian bastion overlooking the ocean, for beef jerky.) Dad in his broad tan cowboy hat is carefully explaining something to Mom, not looking at her, as she purses her lips and stares down at the dry brown weeds. (They would separate soon afterwards.) I resume flirting with a mulatto girl from a local school I retrieved every year on the volleyball court, not the first mulatto girl I’d fall in love with.

balthus five Les Enfants Blanchard smallBalthus, “The Blanchard Children,” 1937. Oil on canvas, 125 x 130 cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris.  Donation of Picasso’s inheritors, 1973/1978. © Balthus.  Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau Blanchard.

My courting of Christine LaMar that same school year, 1972-73 (also when my first cat, Kristen, was mauled to death by the O’Neils’ German Sheppard), was confined to stare-out contests across the aisle of the 24 Divisadero, until she blindsided me one morning by boarding the bus at Market wearing dark glasses. Deciding it was time to up the ante, I dedicated my first, handwritten novel, “The Problem Cops,” about a police duo who took on racial problems, to her. I also dedicated my ping-pong victories to Christine, announcing to my brother Aaron and best friend Eric before every match over our basement table: “I dedicate this game to Christine LaMar. If I win, I will be __ and __ . If I lose, I will be….” By the time Christine broke my heart by announcing that she was transferring to another school, I was able to declare, through tears not abated by a buttermilk donut, “If I win, I will be 187 and 9,” my final tally. It took so many dry-runs to summon the courage to call Christine and ask her out that I still recall her phone number as faithfully as Jenny’s (from the song: 867-5309): 587 – _ _ _ _. When in 1994 we organized a reunion for Rooftop – our alternative public school, one of the city’s first, was relegated to the roof of another school — I was devastated to learn that Christine had told the classmate charged with calling up other alumni that she wouldn’t be coming, as she couldn’t remember anyone. I did: Besides Christine, Monica Woo, Maura Iaconi, and Kathy D., skipping up to Jackson Park for our lunch break in a red sweater and white skirt, a beret holding back her straight brown hair, and with whom I used to exchange the kind of teasing that among 11-year-olds is another form of flirting. (Also from the lunch breaks, I recall the most popular teacher, Ernie Baumgarten — who often came to school wearing the mask of our mascot, King Kong — laying on the grass with his ear glued to a transistor to follow the Watergate hearings. At the reunion, in a Fort Mason barrack overlooking the bay, after catching up with some of us, now in our ‘30s, Ernie would commiserate, “I know that many of you are still struggling.”) I’d fall for Kathy again eight years later, in 1981 – I remember the year because we saw “Atlantic City” together, Burt Lancaster ogling Susan Sarandon bathing her naked arms with lemon juice – when she was bobbing her hair and, as often seemed to be the case that year in Noe Valley, weighing her sexual orientation. (Though this observation may be my way of processing her lack of romantic interest in me.) When I next had news of Kathy, she was trundling Agnes DeMille around Greenwich Village and living at the aging choreographer’s pad at 11th and 5th, in the same building where Duchamp schemed up R. Mutt and turned a toilet into art. When I last saw her, in 1991, it was at the memorial service for her brother, who had killed himself. Her eyes were as luminous as ever. The only Rooftop girl I ever kissed was Kerry Baum, who with Gio Coppola, Francis’s son, had formed the school’s Bopsy Twins. I’d later interview Gio’s brother Roman – who’d produced one of the first films to exploit ‘70s nostalgia, “The Spirit of ’76,” in which Olivia d’Abo time-travels back to the era and falls in love with David Cassidy – and open my interview with his mom, Eleanor, on her “Making of Apocalypse Now” documentary, by conveying my condolences on the loss of Gio, killed after being bopped on the head by a mast while sailing with Ryan O’Neal’s boy. Another Rooftopper, Chris Perry,  would grow up to be the first person I knew to die of AIDS, which I learned of while doing a story on the Quilt in 1991 and discovering his name on a panel.

Once we’d debarked from the 24 and scaled the six flights of stairs to Rooftop, school would start with Morning Circle, a chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” followed by share-time. (I’d soon be studying auto-harp at his son Jodie Guthrie’s house,

balthus the card party smallBalthus, “The Card Party,” 1948-50. Oil on canvas, 140 x 194 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © Balthus.

forcing my instructor to teach me “Your Daddy’s Home,” and, later in Paris, would chow down with Woody’s daughter Nora.)  At one Morning Circle, a long-haired, freckle-faced kid named Aaron Burg divulged, “I had dried cat food for breakfast this morning. It’s actually quite good!” Another Aaron, my brother, signed his school picture to me that year, “Love, Aaron W..” And yet another would help launch my show-business career. A reporter for an about kids, by kids local t.v. show, “Whatchamacallit,” Aaron Wolf anchored a segment on Rooftop in which he said all we did was sit around reading comic books. (Actually, we made them. And Super-8 movies about vampire-heroes set to the theme from “Mission Impossible.” And tape-recorded Watergate spoofs in which I played Nixon: “Mitchell’s thinking of spilling the beans.” In 1985, regaining consciousness in the emergency room after passing out in the Herod-scale sunken mosaic bathtub of my dad and step-mom’s home while immersed in Swiss bubbles from her shop, Common Scents – I’d been nervous about a first date with an older woman, or maybe it was Kennedy’s bullet, the dread that anything can end when it’s only just begun — when the good-looking doctor asked me who the president was, I answered, “It’s not Nixon, is it?”) When “Whatchamacallit” refused to let us rebut, we decided to start our own show, What’s New With Kids?, which ran on radio station KPOO. (If you don’t like the news, make some of your own.) This lead to my being invited to audition for a new t.v. show, Kidswatch, and this oracular rejection note: “You seemed more like the brains behind the talent than an actual on the air personality.” But the Wolfs weren’t through with me yet. In 9th-grade drama, Aaron’s dreamy sister Naomi would play Roxanne to my Cyrano before she went on to play Rasputin to Al Gore, turning him into a girly-man with the image make-over that inadvertently launched a war and landed me on the front-page of France’s Communist paper, leading an American contingent demonstrating in Paris against the Iraq invasion in 2003.

shahn civil rights small

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ben Shahn, “Civil Rights March.” Copyright Ben Shahn.

Despite retaining all this minutia (I left out Inca Robbins’s nose-ring, marching with my mom against the war in 1966, and betraying the 25th Street Gang for the Jersey Street Gang, lured by Roxanne Sanchez), I have no other memories of my parents together from this period. Which is not to say I don’t have other charged souvenirs from the year we spent in Timber Cove in 1969: Knocking Aaron unconscious for four seconds; Aaron and I erecting our own fort in a cluster of trees overlooking the Pacific, and the set of Children’s Encyclopedias we stowed there getting water-logged; our discovering a typewriter in the secret attic that ringed the house; the towering redwoods outside our  room’s window whose foliage I made into faces; Aaron whining “Lemme go to sleep!” when I would not stop talking; looking under the bed for simians from “Planet of the Apes”; and obstinately refusing to return to school after glimpsing the slip of Mrs. Klein, who taught the lower grades in our little red schoolhouse of 40 kids. (I also associate a leather belt with this memory.)

PWI91668

Balthus, “The Cherry Tree,” 1940. Oil on wood,  92 x 72.9 cm. Roman Family, London. Copyright Balthus.

The upper grade teacher and principal, Mr. Cash, was run out of town at rifle-point after holding all the kids with brown eyes after school one day and all the kids with blue eyes the next to teach them about racism. (Which is not to say that racism was confined to rural California. Back at Alvarado School in Noe Valley the next year, 1970, I remember our work on the schoolyard mosaic mural – supervised by Ruth Asawa, the Japanese-American artist whose World War II imprisonment had taught her the importance of education – being interrupted one afternoon by the cry “A fight, a fight, a nigger and a white!”)

balthus la rue smallBalthus, “La Rue,” 1933. Oil on canvas, 195 x 240 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Thrall Soby. ©Balthus. Photo: 2018. Digital image, Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. Note the thick-licked, drugged-looking Black – or Arab — man assaulting the white girl, as everyone else goes blithely about their business.

From Timber Cove, I also remember plastering wine bottles with papier-maché to turn them into candle-stick holders as Christmas presents for my parents, and walking into the woods to chop down the biggest Christmas tree we’d ever had, so tall we had to carry it lengthwise to get it through the doorway. And Linda Murphy, our first teacher at Fort Ross, with her shoulder-length curly blonde tresses, handing out plastic blue raincoats the same Christmas and leading us in singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” And clinging to the mountainside along a narrow path teetering over a creek at the end of the year picnic, thinking that’s the first life I owe when I didn’t slip and plunge into the water.

I remember how privileged I felt when Miss Stettner, my kindergarten and second-grade teacher back in Noe Valley, came to visit us in Timber Cove. I have a distinct memory of her fording the rocks along the coast with her boyfriend in her knee-high black boots. (Retrieving Miss Stettner in 1991 teaching at a school where I was working in the after-school program, I would betray her request not to tell our common charges that she’d been my teacher, which she then denied. Joan Baez would have a similar Thanks for making me feel old reaction when, during a 1987 interview, I told her how my mom had introduced me to her at my first concert, by Bob Dylan, when I was four.) I remember refusing to traverse the field that lead to George Bohan’s house, even in my brand-new bicycle, because it was infested with wasps. And playing with our astronaut doll, Matt Mason, in an arroyo where we also discovered Pomo arrow-heads.  (Our pacifist parents wouldn’t let us have GI Joes or even cap guns. Back in Noe Valley, my best friend and his little brother had solved this dilemma by torching GI Joe and launching him from the roof of their garage.)

ruthnude2 smal

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ruth Asawa, “Nude.” Lithograph, 1965. Courtesy     Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

I remember returning to the woods to find the makings for a kipa for Cousin Jane and Martin’s wedding at the Timber Cove house, transformed into Fontainebleau West with all of Jane’s parents, step and birth, flown in from Boca Raton. (10 years later my mom’s young cousin, divorced from Martin, would in her turn guide me to another threshold. Seeing Camus looking out from the orange cover of Germaine Brée’s biography on the bookshelf of her Greenwich Village high-rise, and strolling on the Prospect Heights boardwalk with Jane — coquette in an orange blouse tucked into a short late-summer white dress — and her older friend Earl, a Hemingway biographer, the week before I started Princeton made me feel like I’d intellectually arrived. Even if finding a copy of “Mein Kampf” on the desk of my new roommate, Gordon Humbert Jones III, next to his neatly folded ROTC uniform made me wonder exactly where. No torching Gordon Humbert Jones III and tossing him off the roof of Princeton Inn College.) And making another kipa in the woods with Tracy Wedemeyer, who had been my girlfriend ever since we had neighboring cribs at Marin General, and the confidences we exchanged under our makeshift wedding bough. “You pick your nose too!?” (When Aaron married a Catholic girl in 1992, the red-nosed priest would let them install a kipa in the altar and crush the sacramental wine glasses with their feet. Which accommodation didn’t prevent four Jewish boys, me, Jordan, Eric, and my mom’s first ex-boyfriend Ralph – Jordan had once burst into the bedroom and cried “You’re not my daddy! What are you doing in my mommy’s bed?”  – from squirming uncomfortably when the priest began talking about the blood of Christ.) At nine, after Tracy’s family moved to Berkeley, I’d buy her a plastic engagement ring at Mr. Mopp’s. At 13, I’d have my first date as a teenager with Tracy, trying the old stretching arm around the chair and back maneuver, prompting her to lean forward in her seat in the theater where we were watching Tina Turner or Anne-Margaret bathe herself in baked beans in “Tommy,” on a double-bill with “Alice’s Restaurant.” (Where, yet another Guthrie promised, “You can get anything you want…’ceptin’ Alice.”) From the playmate who used to bite and scratch me up (“Come with me to Nursery School,” published in 1970, features a photo of Tracy using her feet to defend her swing from a pair of boys under the caption: “It’s important to take turns. Can you tell whose turn it is now?” and another of me determinedly climbing up a tree),Tracy had metamorphosed into a svelte, bronze-skinned California Girl with long straight blonde hair. When I last had news of her, she was married to a CBS Records vice-president and living in Venice Beach. When I last saw her, it was my 14th birthday, and we were both perched on the cusp of adulthood.

balthus 1 therese smallBalthus, “Thérèse,” 1938. Oil on carton on wood,  100.3 x 81.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of  Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, with William S. Lieberman, 1987. ©Balthus. Photo ©2018. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence.

For my third birthday, Tracy’s father Bill had given me what is now the oldest object I still possess, Ben Shahn’s illustrated book of Wallace Berry’s poem “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three”: “We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.” To which Bill had added an equally poignant inscription: “Years from now, you will learn of this event….  It often brings sadness, and perhaps despair, to the minds of some men, to witness the deeds of others. There are times when the goals of men seem to be so opposed to that dream of men that some of our minds hold, that indeed man seems lost. That this little book exists is a ray of proof that from this despair, beauty can still be born.” The dedication is signed “Bill, Patty (Tracy’s mom), Tracy, Bill again (her kid brother), and Breathless,” Breathless being the Wedemeyers’ Saint-Bernard. (And a sobriquet I now realize, in Francophile retrospect, may have been inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 film, at a 2003 Paris screening of which I was the only one in the audience to laugh when Jean-Paul Belmondo exhaled cigarette smoke after he’d already expired.)

Oh Breathless, where are you now?

dad timber cove smallChild is the father of the man: Ed Winer and his three sons Aaron, Jordan, and Paul behind the house on Bohan-Dillon Road, Halloween 1969. (The red strips of felt are for devils.) Photo: Eva Wise (then Winer).

Introducing AVID, the Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary: L’éclat de Staël — When Nicolas flew too close to the Sun

Stael soleil 5 smallNicolas de Staël, “Le soleil,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 16 x 24 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

“You are the only modern painter who turns the spectator into a genius.”

— Romain Gary, letter to Nicolas de Staël, cited by Wikipedia

“Tu as élevé le sommet
Que devra franchir mon attente
Quand demain disparaîtra.”

–René Char, “A***,” from “Poéms à dire,” selected by Daniel Gélin, Éditions Seghers, Paris, 1970

Introduction by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
AVID / The Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary
with comments by Gustave de Staël in French and in English translation by PB-I

“I’m looking for that which is essentially organic, vital, and which might furnish the equilibrium at the base of all that follows.”

— Nicolas de Staël, cited in “Paris des temps nouveaux: de l’Impressionism à nos jours,” Editions d’Art Albert Skira, Geneva, 1957

On March 16, 1955, Nicolas de Staël climbed up to the rooftop terrace of his atelier in Antibes and hurled to his death, despondent over an histoire d’amour involving Jeanne Polge, a married woman and an intimate of the author Albert Camus and the poet René Char, also a cohort to both Camus and the 41-year-old painter. It was the denouement of a frenetic two years of creation which in its culminating months saw the Russian-born painter produce as many as three pieces per day, a breakneck pace that prompted his New York gallerist Paul Rosenberg to warn him that his public was starting to worry about dilution. This manic flight towards the Sun — this frenzied éclat of color and creation — accelerated in July 1953, when Staël, seeking the same bright, blistering light of the Midi which had scalded the mind of an earlier epoch’s iconoclast, Vincent Van Gogh, installed himself in the Provençal village of Lagnes, near Avignon, before loading his family into a truck and taking them to Italy, where Sicily and Tuscany would inspire canvases even more infused with light. Returning to France, Staël bought a house in le Castelet, near the Luberon village of Ménerbes, where he remained through October 1954. It’s this fertile period — which saw the painter veer towards a more concrete abstraction, where recognizable forms inspired by the sea and nature started to re-emerge — which is celebrated in the exhibition Nicolas de Staël in Provençe, which closed Sunday at the Hotel de Camont in Aix-en-Provençe. The first monographic show entirely consecrated to this period — in which the artist, inspired by the rich Mediterranean passages and light and his nascent if ultimately impossible love for Polge, produced 254 paintings — the exhibition culls 71 paintings and 26 drawings from an international roll call of public and private collections. (Including the Hirshhorn’s “Nice,” with which Barack Obama once adorned his White House office.) To curate all this, the institution Culturespaces, which runs the museum, secured the participation of no less than Gustave de Staël, the artist’s son, and Marie du Bouchet, his grand-daughter….

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(Updated) Artist & Femen co-founder Oksana Shachko hangs herself outside Paris

femen oksana art

Screen capture (from Liberation article) of Oksana Shachko’s final Instagram post.

PARIS – The body of Oksana Shachko, co-founder of the artistic political action group the Femens — which group has been the bane of everyone from Vladimir Putin to the priests of Notre Dame over the past several years — was found hung in her spartan apartment in the gritty Paris suburb of Montrouge Monday, members of the group confirmed Tuesday after multiple news reports of the artist’s suicide. The Ukranian native was just 31 years old.

“She was not the most mediatized of the Femen,” the art critic Quentin Girard wrote in today’s editions of the Paris daily Liberation. “But she was the most brilliant – artist, atypical, radical, anarchist…. She left a political letter denouncing, simply, the hypocrisy of society and men….” Shachko was ousted from the Femen group — known for its political protests, sometimes topless, outside locations like Notre Dame —  in 2014 after disputes with a later arrival, Inna Schevchenko.  “For Inna Schevchenko,” wrote Girard, “the media glory and the recompenses. For Oksana Shachko, the instability, the squats, the problems renewing her papers (to stay in France), the constant crises. ‘Her life in Paris was very complicated,’ her friend, the artist Apoonia Breuil, recounted by telephone, in tears. ‘We lived in the same bed from squat to squat for five years,’ said Breuil, who welcomed political refugees in her alternative theater in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, the Lavoir Moderne. ‘She finally found a little place in Montrouge, with nothing, no decoration, apart from the closet in which she hung herself. It’s very hard. Life was hard.’”

“People don’t understand what she went through,” Breuil told Girard. “Being arrested in Ukraine by the police or in Bellarussia by the political police, being betrayed by her friends.” In 2014, Girard reports, while the two were watching a performance at the Lavoir moderne in Paris, a man who looked like a skinhead stabbed two members of the audience, leaving them in critical states. His apparent target was the Femen, who no longer lived there. “This was before the 2015 terrorist attacks,” Breuil added. “The support” after the assault at her theater “was just not there. We returned to the Lavoir and had to mop up the blood on the floor, all alone.” Lavoir is the French word for communal laundering pond.  “This affected us a lot. Oksana said that these people were attacked because of her.”

femen two

Screen capture (from Liberation article) from Oksana Shachko’s Instagram account. The top line reads: “Masochist, martyr, icon, iconoclast, jesus, art.”

After enrolling in the fabled Paris Beaux Arts School, Shachko, who sometimes riffed on Orthodox iconography, most recently participated in the collective exhibition Talking About a Revolution at the  Galerie 22 Visconti, in Saint-Germain-des-Pres.

“Of all of them,” wrote Girard, “it was she who remained the closest to the original purity of the Femen project, which is to say a movement of guerilla communication, anarcho-feminist and atheist, familiar with the idea of activists” formulated by Luther Blissett, “where the militant must remain anonymous, not looking for her own glory. ‘Everybody should declare themselves Femen,’ she explained to me one day. She was a major contributor to the popularity of this activism which, beyond the media madness, had the merit of placing feminist and political combats, forgotten and repressed in Eastern Europe but also here in France, at the heart of the actuality.”

Women aren’t just victims, 6: The Ciphers of Chantal — Corinne Rondeau Plunges into the “Akermanian Night,” now at the Cinematheque Française

chantal dis moi smallChantal Akerman, “Dis Moi.” Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

As an American who has always looked upon France as the Valhalla of Intellect and Reason, of Art and Culture, it’s been painful to hear the clarion call of Camus and Godard, of Dutronc and Brassens, of Pissarro and Cocteau, of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, of Claude Cahun and Man Ray, of Renoir and Renoir, of Voltaire and Misia Sert almost entirely drowned out by the obsession with terrorism, Islam, and immigration which has dominated the public airwaves since the criminal massacre of 130 innocents on the café terraces and in the concert halls and stadiums of Paris and Saint-Denis of November 13, 2015. It’s as if, like their New York colleagues (Susan Sontag was a brave exception) after September 11, 2001 — witness the New York Times’s supine readiness to enable the Bush-Cheney chicaneries whenever the pendulum of “national security” was dangled before its eyes — French radio journalists have been infected with a kind of survivor’s syndrome which prevents them from analyzing events, be they cultural or civic, political or societal, outside of these paradigms. (Living in the East of Paris when and where the terrorists struck on November 13, I haven’t been immune to this syndrome, since that day often interpreting events through the prism of my own fears.) On Radio France’s putatively high-brow chain, France Culture, it’s gotten to the point where one is cumulatively more likely to hear the words Islam, immigration, terrorism, jihad, and their various derivatives than the words France and Culture, particularly on the news programs. The exceptions have been the world affairs program Culture Monde and Arnaud Laporte’s panel discussion “La Dispute,” which considers a different art form every evening. (Theater and dance Monday, music Tuesday, the plastic arts Wednesday, literature including comics Thursday, and film and t.v. series Friday, should you want to check it out, at 1 p.m. EST. Link below.) If all the knights and ladies of renaissance man Laporte’s critical round-table are informed, literate, engaged, and engaging — the best curating may be Laporte’s in choosing his team, over whose language he presides with the vigilance of a high school French teacher, making for a minimum of “voila”s — the intellectually exhilarating rhetorical perambulations, pirouettes, and sautées I look forward to following the most are Corinne Rondeau’s.

Droll, colorful, imaginative, incisive, complex without being complicated, erudite without being aloof, humble before the oeuvre and authoritative in the aesthetic background she applies to analyzing it, curious, exuding panache — in effect, the art professor of your dreams, and who confirms, in the best tradition of Clement Greenberg, Edwin Denby, Michel Ragon, Jean-Luc Godard, and Phillip Larkin, that criticism can be its own art form — Rondeau not only knows her material but knows how to sell her arguments. So when I heard that Editions de l’éclat had just published a 125-page essay by my critical chou-chou (whose previous book took on Sontag) on one of my cinematic cheries, the late Chantal Akerman, I couldn’t wait to turn off my radio and sink my mandibles into something that instead of feeding my anxieties promised to stimulate my intellect and my appetite for art.

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