Exclusive: ‘Trompe-l’oeil’: Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, markets, & critics in Paris in the ’50s, episode 4, translated in English for the first time

Feneon Matisse 22 smallHenri Matisse (1869-1954), “Interior with girl” (Reading), 1905-1906. Oil on canvas, 72.7 × 59.7 cm. New York, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo © Paige Knight. © Succession H. Matisse. Succession Matisse. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

by & copyright Michel Ragon, 1956, 2019
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

To be able to simultaneously share, for the first time in English, Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel about the contemporary art market and world in Paris in the 1950s — and which also treats post-War anti-Semitism in France — we’ve decided to illustrate today’s installment with art directly referred to in “Trompe-l’oeil” that readers can see now or soon in Paris, New York, and London, notably at the Orsay Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Jeanne Bucher Jaeger gallery in the Marais, the Waddington Custot in London, and Di Donna Galleries, New York. (See captions for details.) Like what you’re reading and want to see more? Please support independent arts journalism today by designating your donation in dollars or Euros through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail. Special thanks to Michel and Françoise RagonEdward Winer, and  Jamie. To read the previous installment of “Trompe-l’oeil” (which links to earlier episodes), please click here. First published in the French original by Albin-Michel.

Fontenoy had gotten his start at L’Artiste with a reportage on Matisse. Not that he was particularly interested in this major painter, but his editor tended to ask him to write about the subjects he was the least interested in. He wasn’t trying to irritate or bully Fontenoy. The editor in chief’s dishing out of the weekly assignments to his writers was completely haphazard. What really interested Fontenoy, the new non-figurative painting, had very little chance of being mentioned in L’Artiste. Just the bare minimum coverage needed for the weekly to appear au courant without turning off the majority of its subscribers, only now discovering, with rapture, Impressionism. The editor in chief put up with the whims of his writers as long as they weren’t too glaring. Fontenoy was permitted, like his colleagues, to talk about his fads from time to time. His boss would have been surprised to learn that Fontenoy’s support for Manhès and Ancelin had not been bought and paid for by Laivit-Canne, their dealer.

Fontenoy had submitted, among his pieces for the week, an item on the rift between Laivit-Canne and Manhès. He voiced his surprise to the editor in chief when it didn’t show up in the paper.

“My friend, if we start reporting on the fracases between painters and their dealers, it’ll never end.”

“And yet readers love reading about the quarrels between Vollard and the Impressionists. Why wouldn’t they be interested in reading about the intricate dealings of their own times?!”

The editor in chief shrugged his shoulders. “Vollard isn’t around any more to make trouble for us. Laivit-Canne, on the other hand, is an advertiser. I don’t want to upset a gentleman who supports our newspaper to help out another gentleman who’s not even a subscriber.”

bucher vieira balletMaria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Ballet figure,” 1948. Oil on canvas and black lead pencil, 27 x 46 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.  “I watch the street and the people walking, each with a different look, each advancing at his own rhythm,” Vieira da Silva once explained. “I think of the invisible threads manipulating them. I try to perceive the mechanics which coordinate them…. This is what I try to paint.”

Fontenoy reddened with shame and anger. He was seized with a violent compulsion to throw up his hands and walk out, but he contained himself. Who would be left to talk about the painters he loved if he quit L’Artiste? Not Morisset, that’s for sure. This last had just walked into the editor in chief’s office sporting a broad smile. Everything was broad with him, for that matter: His shoulders, his handshake, his critical standards. The only time he became particular was when it came to abstract art. Morisset was always nice to Fontenoy, even if their opinions were completely opposed. He was one of those people eager to please everybody. If he ran into one of his enemies, before the latter even had time to dig his feet in he sprung on him, frenetically shook his hand, slapped him on the back, and called him “pal” with such conviction that the concerned party ended up being hoodwinked. As Morisset didn’t take anything seriously, he mingled with the artistic milieu with a casualness that seemed genuine when in reality everything he did was calculated. Except for a handful of abstract art galleries, scattered and without a lot of means, Morisset lined his pockets with tips from all corners. If a painter asked his advice on how to get exhibited, he complimented him on his talent, slapped him on the back and pushed him into a paying gallery where he had a deal for a percentage for every sucker he reeled in. As the painter was not hip to this arrangement, he’d offer him a canvas for his services. If the idea didn’t occur to him, Morisset would be sure to bring it up. He also wrote numerous exhibition pamphlets which he could always be sure to get printed by a shop with whom he had an ongoing arrangement. He resold paintings that he’d been given or extorted. Morisset earned a paltry $24 per month at the paper and yet somehow managed to have his own car. He spent his weekends with his family at his country place. He was a man perfectly content with his lot and at peace with his conscience. One day Fontenoy told him:

“When abstract art has conquered the market, you’ll be its most fervent supporter.”

He assumed Morisset would get pissed off, or protest, but no. He responded in the most natural manner possible: “Of course… How could you imagine otherwise?”

Morisset was bought and paid for from his shoelaces to his beret to such a degree that he wound up laughing about it. For that matter he liked to say, “Painters get rich thanks to us, it’s normal that we should get our portion of the profits. If you don’t ask for anything, my dear Fontenoy, you won’t get anything. You’ll see, your abstract painters, if they make it rich one day, they’ll slam the door in your face because you’ll always be broke. But they’ll still need a good publicity agent and I’ll be there. Do you really believe that painters think of us as anything more than flacks? This being the case we need to take our gloves off and play the game.”

VIEIRA10Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Playing Cards,” 1937. Oil on canvas with pencil tracing, 73 x 92 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.

Another critic arrived in turn in the editor in chief’s office. His name was Arlov and he was as uptight as Morisset was hang-loose. While he wasn’t lacking in intelligence or critical sensibility, his cirrhosis leant him a preference for melancholy paintings. For him Bernard Buffet represented the summit of contemporary art. He was also moody. His opinions tended to follow the course of his digestion. Whether an exhibition was praised or thrashed depended on whether Arlov visited the gallery after a good meal or bursting at the seams a la Kaopectate. In contrast to Morisset, one had to be careful not to load him with free drinks or food. A painter’s career sometimes depended on this perfect understanding of the digestive system of critics.

Arlov was poor. He wasn’t in art for the dough but the dames, his goal being to sleep with as many women as possible. This explained why he presided over the Salon of Women Painters (he’d even created it). His monumental book on the NUDE was the authoritative work on the subject. The funny thing was that his particular gender specialization even encompassed dead painters, with whom short of being a narcoleptic he had no chance of sleeping. He’d even managed to write, who knows how, a spicy “Life of Madame Vigée-Lebrun.” His big dream in life was to rehabilitate Bouguereau; albeit a man, the 19th-century Academic’s nudes weren’t entirely lacking in sensuality. Needless to say, Arlov was not too interested in abstract art.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun self portrait in straw hatLouise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), “Self-portrait in Straw Hat,” after 1782. Purchased by the National Gallery, London. Public Domain, via Wikipedia. Vigée Le Brun was the official portraitist of Marie-Antoinette.

After having gone over, with their editor in chief, the issue which had just come out and whose pages were spread out over a big table, the three journalists jotted down the vernissage invitations, cocktails, etcetera for the upcoming week…. The editor then took the floor.

“Sunday, Protopopoff is baptizing his son. Mustafa is the godfather. Protopopoff has invited me to the reception, at Mustafa’s digs, but I’m already booked. You, Fontenoy, you can write up a big spread for the front page….”

“Why me? I think Morisset is a lot more qualified.”

“Impossible Old Man,” this last cut him off. “I spend Sundays with the family.”

Arlov quietly tip-toed out.

“What’s the hang-up, Fontenoy,” the editor continued, “you’re not going to tell me now that you don’t like Mustafa’s paintings?!”

“Okay, I’ll go….”

Fontenoy was thinking: Always the frou-frou stuff that has nothing to do with the painting itself. Mustafa godfather of the son of his dealer Protopopoff — what a waste of space when artists who are creating the art of our times don’t have a forum, practically don’t even have champions! What a metier! Embalm cadavers, voila what we’ve been reduced to. When Mustafa had been abandoned in the gutters of Montparnasse by the seedy bar-owners who sponged money off him in exchange for a few jugs of red wine, the newspapers had no space to talk about Mustafa. Today, Mustafa no longer has any need for publicity, and they take advantage of the slightest pretext to put his name on the front page.

Leaving the newspaper office, Fontenoy remembered that he had a date with a young female painter. This Blanche Favard was doggedly pursuing him. The problem was that when it came to female painters, he never knew if these signs of attention were meant for the man or the art critic. When in doubt, he sagely opted for the second possibility.

Blanch Favard lived in the Cité Falguière, an affordable housing complex initially conceived and constructed as worker housing and now peopled almost exclusively by Bohemians. From the basements to the attics, as in the honeycombs of a hive, artists of the most diverse schools, ages, and nationalities applied themselves with the patience of worker bees and the passion of alchemists to create their Great Work. All this in the shadows of some major ghosts who continued to haunt the cité, notably that of Soutine, who’d lived in one of the studios when he arrived in Paris in 1913. The painters of the Cité Falguière still talked about Soutine. It was their re-assurance. Because a genie had once lived between these walls, it was always possible that one of them….

Fontenoy was hailed by Blanche Favard, a plump little thing with a laughing visage whose blonde mane was twisted into tresses. She emerged from one of the windows just like a conventional figure in a Viennese operetta. Fontenoy hiked up to the floor that she’d indicated.

The studio was petite, but Blanche Favard painted mostly water-colors. She’d spread them out on the divan which occupied half of the room. The work was delicate. The forms very subtle. But here again one could recognize Klee’s influence. That said, Blanche had her own particular characteristics and personality. She’d started out in one of the same modes as Klee, this was clear, but she’d extended and deepened it. In setting out her work for him, she didn’t smile. Her visage remained tense, worried. She awaited Fontenoy’s verdict with a certain anxiety. And yet he’d never abused painters. He tried to understand them, convinced that a critic always has something to learn from an artist, even the most mediocre artist. Next he eliminated from his choice painters that he didn’t understand or that he didn’t like. He rarely thrashed an artist. He preferred consecrating his articles to vaunting the artists he liked while keeping quiet about those he didn’t.

Fontenoy talked to Blanche Favard about her water-colors, in measured terms, carefully weighing his words, underlining a quality here, a certain heaviness there, or a gap in the composition elsewhere. Little by little, the visage of the young woman loosened up. As Fontenoy concluded his critique, she was smiling again.

She put some water on to boil on the small Bunsen burner posed on the floor, so that she could offer some tea to her visitor.

“I’d love to have an exhibition,” she said. “But I don’t have enough money to pay a gallery. And yet it would really help me in my work to see the public’s reaction. One can’t just paint for oneself all the time.”

Fontenoy considered for a moment, at the same time taking some water-colors over to the window so he could study them in the full sunlight.

“Well, there is a bookstore which might be open to hanging your water-colors on its walls…. It’s not the same as a gallery, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll speak with the bookseller. He’s not really into abstract art, but he trusts me.”

“Yes, but the frames? I can’t just present my water-colors like that!”

“Mumphy! We need to show them to Mumphy. I think he’ll like them. I can’t get mixed up in the financial negotiations, but I can certainly ask Manhès or Ancelin to introduce you to Mumphy.”

“Oh! You’re so sweet,” Blanche Favard exclaimed in clasping her hands together just like a Reubens angel.

Then, amiably ironic:

“I know that you don’t accept paintings, nor money. But you’re doing me a big favor! Isn’t there something I can give you?”

Feneon Matisse 23 smallHenri Matisse (1869-01954), “Nude sitting down,” also known as “Pink Nude,” 1909. Oil on canvas, 33.5 x 41 cm. City of Grenoble, Grenoble Museum – J.L. Lacroix. © Succession H. Matisse. Digital photo, color. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

“Nothing, nothing,” grumbled Fontenoy, who’d suddenly started furiously mashing his tea.

Blanche laughed archly.

“Well, you can at least accept a sugar cube because you’re crushing the bottom of my cup to death!”

Sipping his tea, Fontenoy surreptitiously examined the young woman arranging her water-colors out of the corner of his eye. How old was she? 25, 30, 35? Fresh-faced if just a tad stout, she was ageless. Fontenoy had known her for a year. He’d noticed her first consignments at the Salon of New Realities and had written a cautiously positive review. Later she’d been introduced to him at an opening, like so many other painters, he couldn’t remember when. They’d continued running into each other from time to time in the galleries or, at night, at the Select. This was the first time he’d seen her in her atelier.

As he was getting ready to go, Blanche ventured: “I have one more thing to ask of you, but I don’t dare.”

“Ask all the same.”

“So, if you succeed in getting this bookstore to exhibit me, I’d be very happy, very flattered, if you’d agree to write the pamphlet.”

“We’ll see….

Blanche Favard stepped towards the young man and took the lapels of Fontenoy’s velour jacket in her hands, tenderly manipulating them. Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath.

“So, there’s hope?”

“Yes, of course,” replied Fontenoy, trying to disengage himself.

Blanche let go of his jacket.

“I’d love to give you a kiss, but you’d think it was just for services rendered.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” sputtered Fontenoy, uneasy. “So, bon courage. I’ll keep you updated on my efforts.”

Lutèce Diary, 37: Branded or, It may be Manet’s World, Baby, but it wouldn’t be nothin’ without Berthe Morisot

Morisot 13, Pscyhe, smallBerthe Morisot, “La Psyché,” 1876. Oil on canvas, 64 x 54 cm. Madrid, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, n° inv. 686 (1977.87). © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
With  texts by Emile Zola, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Valéry, Francis Mathey, and Denis Rouart, translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(The Lutèce Diaries are sponsored by, among others, Ed Winer, Eva Winer, Linda Ramey, Aaron Winer, Lewis Campbell, and Sharon Savage of the San Francisco Bay Area; H&R B. and CV of Paris and Saint-Cyprien and Belves (Dordogne), France; Chris Keel, Marty Sohl, and Suki John of Fort Worth, Texas; Don Singer of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Nancy Reynolds and Matthew Brookoff of New York City; Martin Epstein of Hudson Valley, New York; Susan Kierr of New Orleans; Polly Hyslop of Fairbanks, Alaska; Marcello Angelini of Tulsa, Oklahoma; Freespace Dance in Montclair, New Jersey; and Slippery Rock University DanceTo join them, please make a donation through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to find out how to donate by check sent through the mail.)

“Judged by the men who have the privilege of creation, feminine painting will always be the expression, wondrous or servile, of a reflection…. Let’s just say that the women don’t so much borrow as refer to. Morisot to Manet, Cassatt to Degas. But there’s one universe where the women are triumphant, that towards which their ideal carries them: Maternity, childhood….”

— Francis Mathey, director, Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris, in “Impressionists in their time,” Fernand Hazen, 1959.

“Si tu veux etre un homme, ne pas mourir avant d’avoir vécu, écarte-toi des idées toutes faites, de la nourriture machée et des récompenses. Si tu es peintre, regarde simplement en toi-même. Quand on n’est pas stérile, on n’adopte pas les enfants des autres.”*

— Maurice de Vlaminck, “Tournant Dangereux,” 1929, ré-édition 2008 copyright sVo Art, Versailles. (Reflexions apres avoir fait le Guerre de 14-18.)*

If you’ve not heard from me lately, it’s because I’ve been spending my summer vacation looking into schools at which I might resume my formal studies after 36 years (got any ideas? E-mail me at paulbenitzak@gmail.com  ), in the apparently chimerical belief that I might find one interested in welcoming into its community a renegade arts critic, editor, and publisher and incipient translator who ‘fesses up to his ignorance, only to discover, by many of the course descriptions and most of the archaic, voir feudal, transfer admission policies, that many American universities seem to be less interested in teaching their charges how to think independently than in teaching them what they should be thinking about and how they should be thinking about it, while their admissions departments seem to prime conformity and clonage over individuality. (Whence the justification for calling this a Lutèce Diary; presuming I was entering Parnassus, I sallied gamely back into this arena armed with but a plume, only to be devoured by the lions guarding the academic citadel.) And that if the coursus now caters to every possible non-white male heterosexual constituency — as if the responsibility, the yoke, for paying the bill for centuries of racism, sexism, neglect, abuse, slavery, exclusion, and genocide must fall on the shoulders of academia at the expense of major artistic figures who don’t fall into any racial, sexual, social, regional, or religious sub-category (notably in my field, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Carson McCullers, Sam Shepard, Bernard Malamud, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories, with the exception of rare sightings in genre-specific subjects absent from the majority of the courses I’ve examined) — the affirmative action policies don’t include recuperating people like me, age-ism apparently not being one of the isms whose historic and ongoing injustices need to be repaired, at least in the eyes of academia. In American academia like in American politics, second acts are interdit.

Tant pis. My initial zeal — motivated in large part by intellectual curiosity, an insatiable, unquenchable thirst for knowledge and discovery — had been waning anyway, after nearly three months of virtually wading through courses many of which seem to be driven more by doctrinal, sectarian, and partisan agendas than what used to be considered intellectual and scholarly imperatives. Take, for example, the upper-level “English” course (at American universities, political correctness is not confined to the Politics department but far-reaching and invasive) at Cornell University, “The Future of Whiteness,” which poses the inculpatory question: “How should anti-racist people respond to the new racialized white identities that have emerged recently in Europe and the United States?” (Or, how to prove one is not a wife-beater.) Setting aside the numerous intellectually fatuous, voir downright lazy, presuppositions of the question (“new”ly racialized? In what fox-hole has this instructor been living? And what you mean ‘We,’ white man?), already you see the boxes: You’re either a full-fledged Nazi or you’re an anti-racist; you’re either with us or you’re against us. There’s no room — no space — for someone who’s simply finding their way, who’s trying to navigate between factors like life experience and upbringing and the ideal, who recognizes his/her biases and their inherent unfairness and is doing his/her level best to agitate against and equalize them, the ‘ist’ already implying that the person’s sentiments are driven by dogma and not influences like poverty or inherited and learned prejudices. It gets worse with the astounding second question: “What alternative conceptions of whiteness are available?” Which, combined with the first question, implies that only white people can be racist. (Evidently, the instructor has never been to Texas.) And that these anti-racist white people go to college to shop for alternative conceptions of whiteness. “I’ll take the ivory off-whiteness behind door number 1, Monty.” In the name of agitating against racism, Cornell — putatively an Ivy-League college — has posed an infinitely racialist question, to which simply shedding one’s skin is not a possible response / solution. Not that New York State is a jingoism-free zone; inspired by the bucolic prospect of studying in its Finger Lakes location, my initial enthusiasm for the art history department at Hobart and William Smith College was dampened when I was confronted with the art-historical chauvinistic fallaciousness at the end of this description of this course in 20th Century American Art: “This course is a study of American art from the turn of the century to its ascendancy as the center of international art.” The school partly redeems itself with the first sightings I’ve seen yet in any American university art history department anywhere of Suzanne Valadon, who typically (even in her home country of France) gets less press than her less preternaturally gifted son Maurice Utrillo, with one of the two sightings even occurring in a course that has nothing to do with feminism — thus including the artist purely on her aesthetic merits as an important progenitor of, in this case, “French Roots of Modernism,” an innovation only slightly diminished by the fact that the last name of Paul Gauguin, whose name precedes Valadon’s in both course listings, is misspelled in one of them. (The second course, if you’re interested, Genre of the Female Nude, promises to “examine representations of the female nude in painting of the late 19th-century European Symbolist period from a feminist perspective.” We’ll skip the matter of Valadon’s being no more a Symbolist than a sex symbol.)

Suzanne Valadon nu sortant du bain smallFrom the Arts Voyager archives: Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938), “Nude getting out of bath” (also known as “Woman sitting on the rim of a bathtub”), circa 1904. Sanguine on paper, 9 7/8 x 8 inches. Signed at lower right. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

I finally thought I’d found a course whose teacher seemed more interested in instructing history than inculpating doctrine, a survey in Romanticism in the art history department at Bard College — until I read that the terrain would be circumscribed by the Symbolist William Blake and “the *academic* Delacroix” (emphasis added), not a good indication of historic fidelity. (The follow-up course will no doubt address the legacy of that well-known Cubist Gerome.)

Met Delacroix, The Education of Achilles, ca 1844 smallFrom the Arts Voyager archives and last year’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863), “The Education of Achilles,” ca. 1844. Graphite, 9 5/16 x 11 11/16 inches (23.6 x 29.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift from the Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, in honor of Emily Rafferty, 2014 (2014.732.3).

If you’d assume that an educational institution affiliated with a museum would do better, historic fidelity-wise, you’re wrong: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago can well tout its academic mission as being informed by a feminist sensibility; its mother institution doesn’t walk the talk. Were I to matriculate at the school and try to pursue research projects on two of the most influential painters in their respective movements of the past two centuries, the Surrealist Leonor Fini and the Impressionist Berthe Morisot — promised preferential access to the museum’s collections being one of the School’s major draws for me — I’d be out of luck. Conforming to the sexism of other major museums (notably the Centre Pompidou National Museum of Modern Art in Paris, which should add “Male” before “Modern” to its name to more accurately describe its collecting and curatorial gestalt), the Art Institute holdings offer a scant three works by Fini and a paltry 20 by Morisot, compared to 183 by her brother-in-law Edouard Manet. (Not that post-Impressionist European male artists do much better. Echoing the American provincialism of the art history department of Hobart and William Smith, the Art Institute of Chicago’s collections include just four works by Nicolas de Stael, a handful by Wols, and 0 by Jean-Michel Atlan or Karrel Appel. They may well have been among the leading Abstract artists of their time — roughly speaking, the middle of the last century — but for the AIC they’re little more than an abstraction.)

morisot 22. Morisot_paysanne-etendant-du-linge- smallBerthe Morisot, “Washer-woman” (Paysan hanging out her laundry), 1881. Oil on canvas, 46 x 67 cm. Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, NCG MIN 2715. © Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

If this sexist exclusion bothers me it’s not because I have some kind of doctrinal adhesion to a feminist agenda, nor because a school has taught me that this is the politically correct way to think. It’s because as an art fan, an art critic — even an ill-informed and under-educated art critic — and an idealist I would like to believe that museums and galleries collect, select, and share work based primarily on two related criteria: Quality and Taste. A third criterium might be the impact of a work, or an artist, in the development of a movement. (Note to the SAIC Admissions department: “Impact” is not a verb, and “Impactfull” is not a word.) And when I stand the Manets on view in Chicago through September 8 for the AIC’s exhibition “Manet and Beauty” (the title itself is troubling in its reflection of a superficial curatorial vision which misses the point and misplaces the artistic ideal, confounding the Impressionist movement’s scientific-aesthetic-technical attributes with crass beauty standards) up against the Morisots on view in Paris through September 18 for the Orsay’s Berthe Morisot exhibition there’s no question but that the Art Institute isn’t walking its school’s feminist talk: The by far superior and more sophisticated female artist has been excluded (in the Art Institute’s acquisition preferences) in favor of the less sophisticated male artist. (Counter-intuitively, if Beauborg — as the Pompidou is referred to by locals — i.e. France’s *Modern* national museum of art is still unrepentantly sexist in its curating and in the marketing of its attractions, the Orsay, the late 19th-century national museum, and its affiliate institutions, the Orangerie and the photography-oriented Jeu de Palme, have proved themselves lately more open to both female artists and feminist-informed vantage points, one example being the Jeu de Paume’s recent exhibition on the late American photographer Ana Mendieta.)

jeu de paume ana mendieta creek smallFrom the Arts Voyager archives and the recent exhibition at the Jeu de Paume: Ana Mendieta, “Creek.”

Not that the Art Institute is alone in its retrograde view of art history; if anything, in its implied under-estimation of Morisot relative to Manet the institution is only following (and heeding) a long tradition of male critics apparently blinded by Morisot’s belonging to the “second sex” from recognizing her place as a first-rank artist, the painter who along with Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet best exemplified the Impressionist principles. Even the great Emile Zola (whose formal education, by the way, stopped when he didn’t pass his ‘bac,’ or high school graduation test; take that, academia), who at the age of 27 lead a lonely campaign in defense of Manet, his Aix-en-Provence childhood comrade Cezanne, and the Impressionists in general while other critics (and cartoonist / caricaturists) were almost universally deriding and mocking them (particularly Manet, for “Olympia”), if he wasn’t quite as dismissive as most of his contemporaries and successors, who typically limited their praise of Morisot to pointing to the (stereotypically feminine) qualities like ‘softness’ and ‘peace’ in her work, was still unable to see the master for the mother, far more succinct in his reactions to and superficial in his analysis of her work than in his effusive, pamphlet-length eloges to Manet, for this prototypical modern novelist a founding pillar of Modern Art.

Berthe Morisot_Le Berceau smallBerthe Morisot, “The Cradle,” 1872. Oil on canvas, 56 x 46.5 cm. Paris, musée d’Orsay, acquired in 1930. RF 2849. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Michel Urtado.

We’ll get to the feather-weight treatments of Morisot by Zola and the Surrealist poet and Cubist champion Apollinaire (in whose view just about the only female artist worth extended comment was the one who also happened to be his girlfriend, Marie Laurencin), as well as the more profound and lyrical appraisals of Paul Valéry and the Morisot collector Denis Rouart, in my translations of their observations, in a minute. But first — and without any pretensions of being able to write about art on the same rarified level of sophistication, analysis, or cohesiveness or with the same breadth of philosophical underpinning or depth of literary background of any of these commentators (this is why I wanted to go back to school, you crumbs; bullocks to your other shades of whiteness and your Afro-Pessimism, I just want to be a better — less historically ignorant, more technically astute, and more theoretically adept — critic) — I’d like to offer my rudimentary comparisons of several Manets and Morisots on view in the Chicago and Paris exhibitions, to the end of pointing out how in the very areas where Zola praised Manet as a paragon of Modern principles and tenets Morisot was the far more accomplished practitioner and thus would have served as a better example, but for the lack of a penis.

Despite what I just said, until recently I wasn’t entirely sure whether my predilection for Morisot wasn’t guided as much by outrage at the way her work has historically been ghettoized by critics because she was a woman as by an objective assessment of its qualitative value; in other words, whether my passion for and defense of this artist wasn’t fueled mostly by my own particular doctrine of championing victims of sexism, racism, and any kind of exclusion which ignores talent and is influenced by superficial facets of identity. (As I just vaunted my Zola-esque “J’accuse” virtues rather sanctimoniously, this is perhaps the place to admit that I’m one of the troubled racialists referred to above, influenced by experience and trying to agitate in his public life against the prejudices this has cultivated.) (Another indication of contemporaneous and succeeding generations’ critics’ sexism-determined blindness to Morisot is that they typically group her with the much more one-dimensional and inferior Mary Cassatt. Go powder your noses, girls, while the big boys do the hard work of invention and theorizing.) Beyond an appreciation for her multiple shades of blue and the way they subtly, gradually meld into one another, notably observed during a visit 15 years ago to the room dedicated to Morisot at the Musée Marmottan-Monet in the Bois de Boulogne (Zola may well have pointed out Manet’s preference for a blonde palette and identified his recurrent method of either shifting from a darker hue towards a lighter one or the inverse, but this gentleman prefers the blonde color scheme and gradations of Manet’s sister-in-law — Morisot was married to Edouard’s brother Eugene — whose shiftings are much more subtle and refined and gradations much more infinite), I had to admit that I too was becoming ‘laisse’ with her scenes of women, girls, children, parks, countrysides, girls reading in countrysides, mothers and daughters, and bourgeoisie gardens. At least those among the rare Morisots to show up on auction. (Which retention should tell you something about the esteem in which the artist is held by the real connoisseurs, the collectors.)

Morisot 07. Morisot_Femme et enfants sur le gazon-1.jpgBerthe Morisot, “Woman and children on the grass” (The lilacs at Maurecourt), 1874. Oil on canvas, 50 x 61 cm. Paris, private collection. © Private Collection / Bridgeman Images / Service presse.

Then a particularly diligent publicist sent me high-resolution images of some of the work featured in the Orsay exhibition, and I had my revelation.

Having high-res images in front of you is like being able to examine the brush-strokes with a microscope (or even, dare I say, up close in a museum); besides enabling an infinitesimal analysis of the subtle shifts in color gradation, it also gives you a sense of the thickness of the texture. Not only does subjecting some of the images of Morisot’s work to this hyper-close and heightened scrutiny reveal the seamlessness of the way, say, an arm will blend into a park bench, a hatted head into the surrounding foliage, or a pair of nominally white ducks seem to sink into the decidedly green pond they’re gliding over, but standing them up against high-res images of some of the Manet work displayed in the Art Institute exhibition confirms that there’s just no comparison between the two in the richness or multitude of touches in the tableaux, nor the poetry and resultant sentimental resonance this often stirs.

Morisot 18 summer dayBerthe Morisot, “The Lake in the Bois de Boulogne” (Summer Day), versus 1879. Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 75.2 cm. London, The National Gallery, legacy of Sir Hugh Lane, 1917. NG3264. © National Gallery, London.

Manet may well have long been credited as one of the originators of Impressionism (and where it comes to the movement’s Naturalist aspect, I guess I can see the justice of this assessment), but by the evidence it’s Morisot who best illustrates and thus exemplifies the scientific-creative-painterly effect principles most associated with Impressionism, namely the refined and varied use of color, the ability to produce a multitude of shades even within one color scheme, the sophisticated and nuanced eye for color values (Morisot studied for six years with Camille Corot, in his atelier across the street from where I used to live on what’s now called the rue de Paradis, where Pissarro also took his first Paris lessons in painting), the way colors are blended and brushed to recreate and prismatically reflect light and ability to evoke nature, the way small touches of a darker color are employed to set off and highlight a lighter tone, and, most of all, the way her human subjects seem to emanate from and harmonize with that nature. (Zola, in his 1867 essay on Manet — if any of my prospective Art History departments are scrutinizing my scholarship to verify that I’ve actually been able to learn something on my own since leaving Princeton in 1983, they’ll find the references noted in a bibliography below — explains that what distinguishes the Modern era from everything that came before it is that whereas for 2000 years artists were striving to attain the Greek beauty ideal ((where, if one is to judge by its exhibition titling protocols and spic and span art deco bathroom sinks, the Art Institute may still be stuck)), with the Modernists the goal became to directly depict, or read, react to, and render, Nature, in which rubric he includes the whole megilla ((I needed to find a pretense for inserting at least one Yiddish term in this paper, if only to increase my own chances of one day entering the coursus through the rubric of Jewish-American writers, with even past masters like Grace Paley and Bernard Malamud only squeaking through because of the color of their religion, not the quality of their craftsmanship, which would be like only teaching my old Princeton professor Joyce Carol Oates in a survey of Writers of the Utica School)): the human figure, the still life, the atmosphere ((“Atmosphere!? Atmosphere!?”)), the flora and the fauna. ((Those sentences broken up by tenuously linked parenthetical digressions is another reason I need to go back to school: I’m desperately in need of an editor, and perhaps only the threat of a “C- for expository straying” will beat some discipline into me.)) Art, Zola goes on, consists of two elements: One fixed, Nature; and one variable, the sentiment or personality of the artist rendering Nature. “This is why I could stand in the middle of a Palace of Industry filled with thousands of examples of art that meets this criteria and never be bored.” ((Unfortunately, these days the art that fills the Palace of Industry — in Zola’s time home to the Salon — in its contemporary incarnation as the Palace of Tokyo is more likely to be denaturized and overconceptualized, devoured by the beasts of post-post-Modernism, than to be a direct reaction to Nature.)) I’d put the cursor — where this shift ((for those artists concerned with Nature)) to the goal being to represent Nature as opposed to attain the Greek beauty ideal, began — at Delacroix. ((At least in the French context; I can’t pretend to even an amateur’s expertise in any other nation’s 19th- and prior-century art.)) Both of these educational, art historical revelations, by the way — that from Zola’s essay on Manet and that on the place of Delacroix in the origins of Modernism — I gleaned ((even though with Delacroix I already had an inkling)) from two books which cost me a total of $7 at the Old Books Market at the parc George Brassens in Paris ((see bibliography below)), and, by osmosis, from many afternoons and mornings spent sipping thermos tea and coffee on the lip of the Delacroix fountain while dialoguing with his Byronic bust, just yards from the French Senate and its machine-gun toting, bullet-proof vest wearing guards at the Luxembourg Gardens, for free. ((As a reminder that the times in which we live are no longer Delacroix’s — we’ve lost so much, with the fear standard too often supplanting the beauty standard! — the guards can sometimes be seen quietly patrolling in the bushes behind the fence in back of the fountain, albeit minus the machine-guns.)) A lot less than the $56,000 yearly tuition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and, no doubt, that at Bard (I high-tailed it out of that site as soon as I hit the Delacroix faux attribution),which has erroneously relegated Delacroix, the font of Modern Art, to the dusty historical bin of the academics. Princeton was only $8,000 at the time I first matriculated in 1979 ((it must now be closer to $100,000)), but as opposed to being able to feast my eyes and spirit on Delacroix feted by buxom bronze babes for free, this earned me the right to regard George Segal’s statue of Abraham stabbing Isaac — it had been commissioned by Kent State after police massacred four of its students in 1970, but Kent State thought the statue too dangerous to accept — standing guard outside Firestone Library, an oracular warning in my case considering the relationship I subsequently developed with my university. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m still bearing the wound. It had actually healed decades ago, but the schools I’ve contacted about resuming my studies have opened it back up again with their retrograd transfer admissions policies.)

Delacroix, Shakespeare, the death of Hamlet, lithograph on stoneFrom the Arts Voyager Archives and the exhibition at the Eugene Delacroix House and Museum in Paris: Delacroix, “Shakespeare, the death of Hamlet,” lithograph on stone. Courtesy Eugene Delacroix House and Museum, Paris.

Notwithstanding the enduring traces of that wound, freshly opened this summer by my encounters with the universities for whom it is apparently an indelible brand (PBI, the Chuck Connors of art scholarship), I’ve sufficiently recovered my scholarly confidence in the 36 years since I left Princeton (Yes, I know that reflection should theoretically be consigned to the parenthesis in the preceding paragraph whose allusion it refers to but as an introduction to what’s about to follow, it can’t be; see above re: more schooling and needing a good editor — this is yet another reason I need more schooling, to better reconnoiter escape hatches when I’ve boxed myself into rhetorical corners) to venture offering some critical comparisons of the respective levels of sophistication between Manet and Morisot, at least those reflected in several of the high-res images I’ve been able to examine from the two exhibitions, in Chicago and Paris. My purpose is not to start a post-mortem family quarrel between sister- and brother-in-law, but to demonstrate how with the qualitative differences — in the very realms in which Zola and others have chanted Manet’s eloge for 150 years — so glaring, only sexism, the fact that she’s painting without a penis, can explain why Morisot has gotten relatively such short shrift while Manet was being lionized by Zola and his successors. I don’t pretend to Zola’s eloquence, let alone Valéry’s uncanny ability to superannuatively use the individual artist to illustrate the big picture (as you’ll see once we get to the lengthy excerpt from his essay on Morisot; the wait is worth it). By way of compensating at least for my not being an artist, I sought the input of a French painter friend who lives down the path from me here in the Dordogne, parenthetically the capital of artistic pre-history. (Who would want me to tell you that she thinks it’s unfair to compare painters.)

But first, let’s set the stage for Morisot with what her collector Denis Rouart, contributing the Morisot entry for Fernand Hazen’s 1954 “Dictionnaire de la peinture moderne,” has to say about her.

Eugene Manet (1833-92) with his daughter at Bougival, c.1881 (oil on canvas)Berthe Morisot, “In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight),” 1875. Oil on canvas, 38 x 46 cm. Paris, Musée Marmottan-Claude Monet, Fondation Denis et Annie Rouart, legacy of Annie Rouart, 1993, n° inv. 6029. © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / The Bridgeman Art Library / Service presse.

Rouart begins by noting that if the influence on Morisot of Corot and her brother-in-law was particularly evident in 1875-76, it was she who eventually drew Manet towards painting in ‘pleine air’ and light, forging her proper style in 1877-79, particularly visible in “Jeune femme se poudrant,” “Derriere la jalousie,” and “Jour d’été.” “She didn’t use a systematically divided touch, but rather grand touches very liberally laid down in every direction, which leant her canvases a particular aspect belonging to her alone. The familiar interior scenes or ‘pleine airs’ that she painted in this style bathed in a radiant and iridescent light, in which the silver tones mingled with harmonies of a delicacy and subtlety rarely attained elsewhere. Exactly characteristic of her genius, these paintings are fetes of light, of a mobility and aerian lightness and of a spontaneous freshness, ceaselessly renewed from 1879 to 1889 (‘Eugene Manet et sa fille a Bougival,’ 1881; ‘La verandah,’ 1882; ‘Sur le lac,’ 1884; ‘La lecture,’ 1888.) This very free and personal factor seems particularly suited to her temperament, which persists in her as a means of expression tailored for her. Nevertheless, around 1889 she became concerned about the danger to the Impressionist vision, too exclusively attached to the atmospheric aspect of the world, and she sought a greater unity and greater respect of form. She thus adapted a more supple and elongated brush-stroke, which suited the form without hemming it in, but in shaping it in its mass and luminosity: ‘La mandoline,’ 1889; ‘La jeune fille endormie,’ 1893, ‘Les deux soeurs,’ 1894. This would be her final style, for she died in 1895…. Berthe Morisot was first and foremost sensitive to the effect of light on the world which surrounded her, she invested it with her emotions, and it’s in her pictorial interpretation that she expressed her soul as a woman and as an artist. She left behind her no ideology, nor systematic mindset to compromise the spontaneity of her art, in the service of which she used only purely plastic means…. Woman…, she found her climate of choice in the intimate atmosphere of family scenes, animated by the simple gestures of life from which she knew how to extract poetry.”

No doubt much less poetic, adroit, and expert (I’m not trying here to be falsely modest, but making another plea for any of the art history professors from my prospective schools who might be reading this to help me be more expert, more adroit, and more rhetorically lean), here are some of my own analyses and comparisons of the Orsay Morisots and the Art Institute Manets, informed by the artist’s perspective of my friend:

manet chicago conservatory two smallÉdouard Manet, “In the Conservatory,” about 1877-79. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.

Round One: Morisot’s “In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight),” 1875, from the collection of the musée Marmottan-Monet / Fondation Denis and Annie Rouart, versus Manet’s 1877-79 “In the Conservatory.” (1) In these paintings, both artists rely essentially on gradations of four colors: blue, green, red, and black. Yet while Manet follows the pattern Zola, in his 1867 essay “Edouard Manet, Biographical and Critical Study” (first published in the Revue of the 19th Century, nine years later as a pamphlet, issued by E. Dentu, on the occasion of Manet’s personal exhibition on the Boulevard d’Alma), observed in his shadings, either starting from somber and moving to lighter or progressing in the opposite direction, Morisot puts her brother-in-law to shame in the same realm in the manner and rhythm with which she rapidly, subtly and deftly shifts from one depth to another, as well as with the multitude of the gradations. (For a qualification to this comparison, see footnote 1 below.) Why ‘puts to shame’? After all, when I reduce the size of the Manet — the desktop equivalent of stepping back from a tableau in a museum — it resembles a lush color photograph, so exactly has Manet succeeded in mirroring Nature (with excuses to Baudelaire, who wouldn’t necessarily see this medium comparison as a compliment). But when I subject the Morisot to the same operation, it also delivers this quality — of a rich color photograph — only because she offers more shifts of shadings, her painting exudes something the Manet doesn’t: a wistful, almost melancholic poetry. (It occurs to me that I’m on tenuous critical ground with this particular point, having used the juxtaposition of this very Manet image earlier this year with a Lutèce Diary entry to illustrate how I wasn’t getting through to an impassive paramour; but my argument about the more complex poetic pathos of the Morisot still holds.) I sense this particularly in the effect the reduced scale has on the aura around the girl, injecting the regard of the man (and thus the viewer’s) with a premonition of loss, as he observes the child (Eugene Manet’s and thus Morisot’s daughter? We’re left to wonder) looking out yearningly on the sea, like Pagnol’s Marius itching to embark and ready to yield to her wanderlust. (Note also the bars the window frame imposes over the visage of the woman, her face becoming indistinct to the girl, ignoring her mother as she plots her future.) My artist neighbor friend doesn’t read the figures and their regards this way, contending that the man seems to be looking rather at the woman, and that the child isn’t necessarily wander-lusting. To the various shadings I indicated, she added the accomplishment of the vaporous, practically transparent, almost ephemeral curtain, as well as the contrasts in and nuances of the colors Morisot deploys to capture the texture of the fabric.

Step closer to the Morisot, step right up to it, and it offers something else the Manet doesn’t: You see the brush strokes and are once again reminded of the scientific brilliance, the optical skill, that was the Impressionists’ major technical achievement and legacy, to envision from afar while working up close. The technique. (Yes I know, as a Naturalist Manet wasn’t necessarily going for this — see my footnote 1 below — but if this excuses the lack of this effect in his tableau, it doesn’t excuse the lack of according at least equal, if not more, credit to Morisot as a font of Impressionism as that traditionally granted to her brother-in-law.) In one of the unfortunately sparse references to Morisot in her otherwise wide-ranging 1996 study “Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde” (University of Chicago Press) — more latent sexism, or just a matter of even an uncontested heavy-weight contemporary female specialist accepting the inherited gender-biased critical reductions of Morisot handed down to her? — Martha Ward shares, citing Anne Higenot’s 1990 biography (Harper and Row), that “Berthe Morisot complained in the 1890s that the day that art was reduced to a few concepts, engaging everyone, ‘that would be the triumph of Pissarro! Everyone talented and no one a genius.'” The remark makes clear that contrary to what contemporaneous and successive critics suggested, Morisot wasn’t just dreamily recording her impressions of hearth and home and assorted family pastoral outings in an illustrated diary out of sentimental value but was working out — had worked out — a complex, nuanced technical system for Impressionism. (If you still have doubts, compare Manet’s puerile, almost child’s scrawl portrait of Morisot in the collection of the Art Institute here,  whose simplicity even Naturalist values can’t justify, and Morisot’s own self-portrait in the same collection here . The former reveals but a superficial eye, the latter insight.)

manet chicago jeanne spring smallÉdouard Manet, “Jeanne (Spring),” 1881. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

Manet comes off a bit better in the 1881 “Jeanne” (Spring), achieving an almost Monet-like quality in the way the dimensions and textures of his human subject’s dress gel with those in the surrounding environment, but he still can’t hold a candle to Morisot in the 1879 “L’été”; one gets the impression that if she didn’t put that trait outlining the shoulder there, the arm would have melted right into the upholstery of the chair. Note also — I complete missed this until I saw ‘fenetre’ (window) in the title — how the glass has completely blended into the flora, even as its colors reflect predominantly the habilage of the model. To paraphrase M.C. Hammer for a repost to M. Manet: You can’t touch this.

Portrait of a Young Lady (oil on canvas)Berthe Morisot, “Summer,” also known as “Young woman sitting next to a window,” 1879. Oil on canvas, 76 × 61 cm. Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole, musée Fabre, Inv. 07.5.1. © Photo Studio Thierry Jacob.

Next let’s compare Manet’s 1880 “Portrait of Emilie Ambre as Carmen,” from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with Morisot’s 1869 “Young woman at her window (Portrait of Madame Pontillon),” on loan to the Orsay from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

manet chicago portrait of emilie ambre smallÉdouard Manet, “Portrait of Émilie Ambre as Carmen,” 1880. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Edgar Scott, 1964. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (If you’ve noticed that my Manet legends have less detail than my Morisots, this is how the press service of the Art Institute notes them. I’m only as good as my material.)

Except that I guess you could say it goes with the somewhat bulky brown fringe of his model’s vest, and matches the almost dried blood-like splotches of brown over her breast, there’s nothing outstanding or nuanced about the brown wall in the Manet. The best I can say about his knack for evoking the reflection of light here is that one cheek is shadowed, the other not.

Now let’s look at the Morisot, starting with how she uses the same hue in a multitude of places and to create a variety of effects.

A16570.jpgBerthe Morisot, “Young woman at her window” (Portrait of Mme Pontillon) (likely Morisot’s sister Edma, also a painter), 1869. Oil on canvas, 54.8 x 46.3 cm. Washington, National Gallery of Art, legacy of Mrs. Ailsa Mellon Bruce, 1970, n° inv. 1970.17.47. © Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Brown shows up in Morisot’s painting not as the dominant color in the central plane but in the borders of a diamond pattern on the wall, which borders, matching her hair, might be pins jutting out from it; in a tress which has carelessly strayed to her shoulder; in scattered rust-colored markings on the white chair covering; on her left cuff; in the almost pinkish brown of the middle slat of wall beneath the window; at the top of the tree seen through the window; above the frames of the windows across the street; in the settee against the wall behind the model; in the rim of her fan; lending solidity to the wooden floor; in the brown-orange-ish tint of the wainscoting; in her eyes and lips; in the inside fold of the shutters; and to lend a patineed quality to the dominant blue of the shutters. In other words, more poetry, lending the scene a quality of melancholy — though it’s a fleeting melancholy which could quickly evaporate, as suggested by the intermittent white in the floor.

Then there’s the geometry, the way the tableau can be broken down into diamonds, squares, rectangles, half-circles on top of rectangles; Cezanne with his spheres had nothing on Berthe Morisot.

All of the above details I gleaned from looking at the image of the painting at a reduced scale, in other words after stepping back from it. Studying the work in high-res — or up-close — I’m startled at the multiplicity of color shades and shifts, and also by the fact that if the figure in the window of the building across the street at the right blurs, with high-res / close-up viewing the figure at the left, resembling a kind of matador, retains his intricate details, almost as if he had been painted express as a miniature. Enlarged / at high-res / up close the foliage seen through the iron grills of the balcony railing becomes more dense, mostly green but infused with blood by the strategically arrayed red. A green-blue ring and a red slipper peeping out from under the gown also materialize.

Julie Manet (1878-1966) and her Greyhound Laerte, 1893 (oil on canvas)Berthe Morisot, “Girl with greyhound” (Julie Manet and her greyhound Laërte), 1893. Oil on canvas, 73 x 80 cm. Paris, musée Marmottan-Claude Monet, Fondation Denis et Annie Rouart, legacy of Michel Monet, 1966, n° inv. 5027. © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / Bridgeman Images / Service Presse.

My French artist neighbor friend noticed a resemblance I’d completely missed in my appreciation of Morisot. “Reminds me of Bonnard,” she said. “In the intimate scenes?” “No, in the intimate qualities with which she invests them.” (She put it more poetically.) And indeed, Morisot’s women and girls sometimes have a pensive, lost aspect which could make them clothed versions of Pierre Bonnard’s model wife Marthe, Morisot’s personages appearing no less vulnerable and fragile than Marthe emerging naked from a bathtub, no less tentative than Mme Bonnard gazing at her visage in a mirror (only they’re gazing inward, even when they’re looking into a mirror). And yet if Bonnard, who for all his vivid and dense color use and his steadfast determination to rest in that line against all the contemporary currents of the latter part of his life, is often described as “the last Impressionist,” this resemblance identified by my friend, which suggests that the younger male artist might have been inspired by the older female artist, is rarely signaled. The works also share (my friend pointed out), even in the oils, a pastel quality.

Morisot 06. Morisot_Femme et enfant au balcon-1 smallBerthe Morisot, “Woman and child on the balcony,” 1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm. Tokyo, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation, Gaiyo 268. © Tokyo Fuji Art Museum/Bridgeman Images / Service presse.

Bonnard apart, my friend noted that Morisot “paints by touch” and has a poetic manner of mixing colors, infusing them with “a rich nuance,” which is her most singularly beautiful technical trait. “It’s this melange of colors, in complete poetry, which is what’s the most beautiful in her. It’s this that touches and moves the viewer. This quality doesn’t easily lend itself to analysis.” She was also awed by the general richness of Morisot’s palette, and observed the profound sadness the artist manages to convey in “Woman and child on the Balcony,” an oil painted in 1871-72 and situated in the Paris suburb of Meudon, also home to Rodin, his frequent guest the poet Rilke, and, much later, the anti-Semitic novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. (Which is just to convey that the location reeks with poetic-artistic-tragic possibilities, and that Morisot was adroit at sensing and tapping into these qualities. The water-color study for the painting, in the collection of the Art Institute, confirms this.)

Morisot 20. Morisot_jeune-fille-poupee-1 smallBerthe Morisot, “Young girl with doll,” 1884. Oil on canvas, 82 x 100 cm.  Paris, private collection. © Photo: Christian Baraja.

Even a doll, my friend pointed out, in the hands and at the ends of the brushes of Berthe Morisot becomes a vessel for expression communicated by her color choices and eloquent touches. (I don’t know about you, but — and speaking, as we were about a century ago when you were a century younger, about inherited prejudices — at this point in the story I am ready to name my highly-theoretical daughter Berthe, or even Bertha, despite the historical baggage the American version comes with. Theoretical daughter responding to theoretical taunts ((“Bertha! Bertha!”)) of theoretical playmates in 2030 as her dad teeters towards his doctorate: “You mean YOU don’t know who Berthe Morisot was!?”) “Painting by touches allows her to add nuances, color. The more unified a painting is” — Manet’s “Boating,” for example — “the less color there is. It’s less expressive, less rich when it’s unified.” This is often why when a painter is starting out, she explained, the tableaux can lack expression; “one hasn’t yet learned, one hasn’t yet acquired the technique.”

manet chicago boating two snallÉdouard Manet, “Boating,” 1874-75. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection. Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.

Speaking of not yet having acquired the technique, let’s turn the floor over to some of my literary forebears and inspirations who had it in spades, at least where fiction, poetry, and criticism is concerned, and see how they did by Berthe Morisot, by way of suggesting how even among two of these otherwise enlightened intelligences, innate male sexism played a role in diminishing her fundamental, founding role in Impressionism, blinding even great men like Zola and Apollinaire. The translations of the Zola, Apollinaire, and Valéry texts, like those of the Rouart and Mathey citations above, are by me.

In its clairvoyance and courage — Zola was 27 at the time, and still smarting from having being fired from the rag l’Evenement mid-gig following public outrage at a series of critiques on the 1866 Salon the year before in which he basically didn’t like anything, even delivering a lacerating critique of the jury itself — Zola’s essay on Manet is 100 years ahead of its time, not just in his precise analysis of Manet’s technique and regard and why in his view they were so revolutionary, but for his broader, prescient, and coherently explained views on art and artistic movements, as indicated above. (At times I even found myself regretting that he had not stuck to art criticism; the art sometimes seems to have a better chance of standing up for itself, of making its case, with Zola than do the heroes of his harder social justice novels like “Germinal” and “L’Assommoir” of acting on their own, of breaking free from their author’s socio-political agenda, Zola’s only imperative here being to clarify and articulate the art and the artist’s intentions in verbal terms.) The essay is not just a dedicated presentation of one artist, but a treatise on the birth of Modern Art, with an easily comprehensible definition of what distinguished it as Modern, and that should be required reading at every beaux art academy and in every art history department in the world. He even makes me reconsider my own recently diminished appreciation of Manet after reading Michel Ragon’s “Courbet, Peintre de la liberté,” in which the father of Naturalism seems (to me; not blaming Ragon here) almost like a dandy standing next to the titan of Realism — parlor subject-wise at least. Zola reminds me that like the ‘petites rats’ of the Paris Opera Ballet were for Degas, the bourgeoisie were just Manet’s milieu — he was painting what he knew — and I should not be deterred by my own San Francisco radical upbringing into confounding the milieu with the artistic task and accomplishment.

manet chicago cafe concert smallÉdouard Manet, “The Café Concert,” about 1878–79. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

Morisot’s milieu was even more restricted. Not only were her women pensively reading in fields of red poppies or distractedly fanning themselves at open windows while Courbet’s men were off hunting bucks; when Manet’s men were ogling baristas at the Folies Bergère (and distorting the serveuses butts or faces in the mirror behind the bar), Morisot’s (in this setting, I mean) were often off powdering their noses. The difference, though, in the critical regard, was that where with Manet supporters like Zola, who in his novels had a pretty acid view of the bourgeoisie, were able to see beyond the milieu to the craft, with Morisot they couldn’t see the master for the matron, the craft she devoted to painting them, nor even the intricacies and myriad of colors — of touches — that she deftly deployed to create the sentimental effect these tableaux often provoked.

Eugene Manet (1833-92) with his daughter at Bougival, c.1881 (oil on canvas)Berthe Morisot, “M.[onsieur] M.[anet] and his daughter in the garden at Bougival,” 1881. Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. Paris, musée Marmottan-Claude Monet, Fondation Denis et Annie Rouart, legacy of Annie Rouart, 1993, n°inv. 6018. © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / Bridgeman Images / Service Presse.

This disparity in Zola’s critical regard is not confined to the gap between his appreciations for Morisot and Manet, but extends to the profundity of his appreciations for other of her male peers compared to the shallowness of his descriptions of her work. (I don’t mean he’s shallow, I mean he doesn’t plunge as deeply into the canvas and the artist’s intentions as he does when analyzing the work of Morisot’s male colleagues.) Listen to his contrasting assessments, reviewing the 1868 Salon, of Camille Corot, his pupil Camille Pissarro, and his other pupil Morisot.

“I was contemplating Camille Pissarro the other day,” Zola writes. “You won’t find a more conscientious, more precise painter anywhere. Pissarro is one of those Naturalists who clutches nature to him. And yet his canvasses offer their own particular accent, an accent of austerity and of grandeur that is absolutely heroic. Scour his individual passages — you won’t find anything else like them. They’re utterly personal and utterly true.”

Pissarro Minette

From the Arts Voyager Archives and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco exhibition: Camille Pissarro, “Minette,” ca. 1872. Oil on canvas, 18 1/16 x 14 in. (46 x 35 cm). Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, the Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1958.144.

After devoting more than a page to Jongkind — whose bland landscapes, rendered in a lot less than 50 shades of grey, I sometimes find hard to tell apart — Zola moves on to Corot. Noting that “his talent is so widely recognized that I can dispense with analyzing it,” Zola nonetheless offers:

“… Corot is a painter of good breeding, extremely personal, very knowledgeable, and who should be recognized as the doyen of the Naturalists, notwithstanding a predilection for fog. If his vaporous tones, which for him are habitual, seem to place him amongst the dreamers and the idealists, the solidity and richness of his touch, the real feeling he has for nature, the vast comprehension of the ensemble, and above all the verity and the harmony of his color values make him one of the masters of modern Naturalism.

“The best of the paintings he has on display at the Salon is, in my opinion, ‘A morning in Ville-d’Avray.’ It’s a simple curtain of trees, their roots plunged into the dormant water, their summits lost in the white dawn mist. It has an almost Elysian nature, and yet this is but the reality, perhaps slightly smoothed out. I remember catching, in Bonniere, a similar morning; white puffs of smoke lingering above the Seine, lifting in fragments alongside the poplars of the iles, drowning their foliage; a grey floating sky, filling the horizon with a vague sadness.” (And I remember penetrating those trees in the Ville-d’Avray, a bucolic setting which also spawned the naturalist Jean Rostand and Boris Vian, for a private birthday celebration some years ago, and feeling like I had inserted myself in the painting.)

Finally the Great Man arrives at the Morisot sisters, Edma (who may be the Madame Pontillon in the title of the painting above, elsewhere referred to as “Edma Pontillon”) and Berthe:

“I’d like to cite two small canvasses that I discovered by accident during my desolate promenades in the bare solitude of the Salon.

“These are the paintings of the Mademoiselles Morisot — no doubt two sisters. Corot is their mentor, no doubt about it. These canvasses contain a freshness and a naiveté of impression that gave me a break from simple crowd-pleasing cleverness. The artists must have painted these studies in full consciousness, with a strong desire to render what they were seeing. This alone suffices to infuse their oeuvres with an interest not offered by that many large paintings of which I’m aware.”

Morisot 11. Morisot_femme-a-sa-toilette-1 smallBerthe Morisot, “Femme à sa Toilette,” 1875-1880. Oil on canvas,  60.3 x 80.4 cm. Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Stickney Fund, 1924, n° inv. 1924.127. © Image Art Institute of Chicago.

Later, reviewing on April 19, 1877 the third Impressionist exhibition, if Zola “regrets” — it should be noted that like Apollinaire three decades later, he was operating under the severe space constraints of a newspaper or revue — that he has “but several lines” to devote to Madame Morisot, he signals that “Psyché” and “Jeune femme a sa toilette” are “two veritable pearls, in which the grays and the whites perform a very delicate real symphony.” (“Delicacy” and “finesse” — read, typically feminine — are terms that come up frequently in contemporaneous and subsequent reviews of Morisot’s work by Zola and others. Who stop there.) I’ve just been looking at the image of “Psyché” or “La Psyché” (scale back up to the top of this article to check it out yourself) — it’s part of the Orsay show — in both high-res (up close) and low-res (from a distance), and all I can think is, “This masterpiece, and all Zola can see is the white?” Later on in the same review he explains, “What is meant by Impressionist Painters is painters who paint reality… to convey the very impression of nature, that they study not in its details, but in its ensemble.” And I can only ask, how could this writer, this perspicacious observer and penetrator of human nature, with his sympathetic portraits of Gervaise in “L’Assommoir” and the courageous, tragic teenage mine worker Catherine in “Germinal” — how could he have missed so much in this painting? How could he not have seen the ‘ensemble’ impression that Morisot renders in “Psyché,” derived not from the white, nor even solely from the subject’s doubtful self-assessment of her faceless double in the mirror, but from the multitude of *non-white*, primarily red and brown marks throughout, an impression that goes straight from the eyes to the heart, an effect surpassing Manet and Corot and matched perhaps only by Pissarro in some of his family portraits, such as the tragic painting of an infant daughter, Minette, who will soon be dead? Zola, that great analyst of the “Bête Humane”!

Guillaume Apollinaire, the Surrealist poet and Picasso pal still in vogue today 100 years after his death from the Spanish flu to which a German shrapnel injury to the head left him more susceptible, does a little better than Zola, at least recognizing how Morisot has departed from what is usually considered to be the aesthetic of female painters.

“It seems to me,” Apollinaire writes for “Le petit Bleu” on March 13, 1912, “that the decorative artists could benefit from a close study of the work of current female artists who alone hold the charming secret of the grace which is one of the singularities of French painting, whether one considers those who are dubbed the French primitives, or whether one is referring to these marvels of a delicious taste and which could only be born in France and which have painted Watteau, Fragonard, Corot, Berthe Morisot, Seurat. Female artists have infused painting with a new sentiment which has nothing demure or dainty about it, but which can be defined as follows: a kind of bravado in looking at nature in its most juvenile aspects. This new delicatesse, which is chez the French woman a sort of innate feeling of Hellenism [Apollinaire had apparently not read Zola’s explanation of the break with the Greek ideal that Modernism marked], one finds in a superior degree in the works that Mlle Marie Laurencin is exposing in this moment at the Barbazanges gallery.” (Back to the girlfriend! Which might explain the disproportionate space the poet gives over the body of his reviews to the inferior artist relative to Morisot, whose name comes up all of twice, the second time segregated into a list of exceptional female artists, in the 520 page compendium “Chroniques d’Art” published by Gallimard in 1960 from which the above is translated.)

If Paul Valéry as well can’t help praise the stereotypically feminine quality of ‘grace’ in the second sentence of his long reflection, “Berthe Morisot,” collected in “Essays about art” (Gallimard, 1934), for the rest of the essay he heads in the opposite direction of Apollinaire; instead of confining and contextualizing Morisot as a female artist, he uses her as the departure point for a larger meditation unattached to presupposed ideas of gender: The eyes of the artist.

Self Portrait, 1885 (oil on canvas)Berthe Morisot, “Self-portrait,” 1885. Oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm. Paris, Musée Marmottan-Claude Monet, fondation Denis et Annie Rouart, legacy of Annie Rouart, 1993, n°inv. 6022. © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / Bridgeman Images / Service Presse.

Of the three, at least in what I’ve examined so far in the compendiums of their work I scored this Spring (for a total of about 10 Euros) at a vide-grenier (community-wide garage sale; vide = empty, grenier = attic) near the Montparnasse cemetery where Sartre and de Beauvoir are buried in matching graves, Gainsbourg under an avalanche of Metro tickets, and Dreyfus in a family tomb that also includes the rests of a niece deported to the camps (a cemetery not far from where Fitzgerald and Hemingway met for the first time in a brasserie on the rue Delambre), a ‘you name the price’ book sale at a libertaire (anarchist) social association down the street from Pere Lachaise, and the Old Books Market at the parc George Brassens (another anarchist, he, buried in Sete not far from Valéry), Valéry’s observations (anarchist name-your-price book sale) related to Morisot are the most sophisticated; whereas Zola’s critical aesthetic acumen isn’t up to his trenchant novelistic incisiveness when it comes to Morisot and Apollinaire’s comments don’t have a hundredth of the invention of his poetry, Valéry’s reach the top of Mount Parnassus.

“When it comes to Berthe Morisot,” he begins, “or ‘Aunt Berthe,’ as those around me frequently refer to her, I’m not going to pretend to be an art critic, a domain in which I have absolutely no experience, nor am I merely going to regurgitate what those who know her already know so well….” After noting that these intimates are “educated” and “seduced” by the “graces” of her work and awarding the requisite compliments to Morisot’s “discrete attributes” as well as her simple, pure, and intimately passionate and laborious existence, he notes that those in her close circle “are well aware that the ancestors of her taste and her vision are the luminous painters who had already expired before David, and that among her friends and devotees were numbered Mallarmé, Degas, Renoir, Claude Monet, and that’s about it,” adding that “she pursued without let-up the noble ends of the proudest and most exquisite art, the kind of art which consumes itself, via the means of countless exercises in trial and error that one reproduces and discards relentlessly, ultimately to convey the impression of an art produced from whole cloth and with effortless success the first time out.” In other words, a craftsman who understands that to be effective craft must be invisible. (Even as in the eyes of Valéry unlike those of his predecessors — and even some successors like Mathey — she’s not reduced to the Invisible Woman.)

Here Valéry indulges in two paragraphs on Morisot’s ‘personne,’ the likes of which are nowhere to be found in his subsequent study of her brother-in-law Edouard Manet collected in the same volume, but which at least have the merit of providing this segué to his larger artistic theme:

“Which brings me to my point, her eyes. They’re almost too vast, and so powerfully dark that Manet, in the many portraits he made of her, painted them black instead of the green that they actually are in order to be able to fully communicate their mysterious and magnetic force. Her pupils efface themselves in deference to her retinas.

“Is it that far-fetched to imagine that if one of these days an exact analysis of the conditions of painting is undertaken, without doubt the vision and the eyes of painters will need to be closely studied? This would only be beginning at the beginning.” (A parallel research into the eyes of art critics would also not be a bad idea; a noted New York dance critic — I’m sworn to secrecy — was reported to have a glass eye, which would have put his/her depth perception out of circulation, and when Bruno Foucart, in his preface to the 1983 edition of Zola’s “L’oeuvre,” refers to the author’s supposed myopia, I’m not sure if he’s being figurative.)

“Man lives and dies by what he sees; but he only sees that which he conceives. In the middle of a country passage, observe diverse personages. A philosopher vaguely perceives everything as ‘phenomenons’; a geologist, epochs crystallized, mixed together, in ruins, pulverized; a military man, opportunities and obstacles; a farmer, acres, sweat, and profits…. But what they all have in common is that nothing is simply *seen.* The only thing processed by their sensations is the instigator that is needed to make them pass on to a completely different subject, whatever subject pre-occupies them. They’re all prey to a certain system of colors; but each of them immediately transforms these colors into signs with significations, and which speak to their minds like the conventional shadings on a map. All these yellows, all these blues, all these grays so bizarrely assembled evaporate in the same instant; the memory chases the present; the useful chases the real; the signification of the objects chases their form. We immediately see just hopes or regrets, properties or potential virtues, promises of the wine harvest, symptoms of premature ripeness, mineral categories; we see strictly the future or the past, and hardly at all the instantaneous blots. In any event the non-colored is constantly substituted for the chromatic presence, as if the substance that most concerns the non-artist absorbs the sensation, never to give it back, having fled towards its consequences.

“Opposing this abstraction is the abstraction of the artist. Color speaks to him as color, and he responds to color by color. He lives in his object, in the very middle of what he’s trying to grasp, and in a temptation, a defiance, examples, problems, an analysis, a perpetual inebriation. It’s possible that he can’t visualize what he’s trying to imagine, but that he can imagine what he’s seeing.

“His very methods are part of his artistic space. Nothing is quite so alive to the eyes as a box of colors or a packed palette. Even a keyboard doesn’t provoke quite as strongly the desire to ‘produce,’ because it’s but silence and waiting, whereas the delicious state of lacquers, clays, oxides, and alumins are already singing in all their tones the enrapturing preludes of the possible. The only thing I can compare this to is the tingling chaos of pure sounds and lights which lift up from the orchestra as it’s getting ready to perform, the instruments seeming to dream before they’ve formally begun, every player searching for his ‘la,’ practicing his part for himself alone in the forest of all the other timbres, in a disorder full of promise and more general than all music, which inflames with delights the entire soul of the sensitive listener, stirring all the roots of pleasure.

On the Terrace, 1874 (oil on canvas)Berthe Morisot, “La Terrasse,” 1874. Oil on canvas, 45 x 54 cm. Tokyo, Tokyo Fuji Art Museum. © 2017 Christie’s Images Limited.

“Berthe Morisot lives in her large eyes in which the extraordinary attention to their function, to their continual act lends her this strange air, separate, which separates from her.” (Here I can’t help thinking of the way all those ‘taches,’ or spots, my artist friend indicated ‘separate out’ if you look at the tableaux up close or in high-res, this reflection fermented with Valéry’s into an image of Morisot tearing — separating — the color spots from her artist’s soul.) “Stranger means ‘strange,’ but singularly strange — a stranger repudiated because of excessive presence.” (And here Valéry could be talking about what’s happening right now in the Mediterranean border of Europe and on the Mexican border of the United States, only I’d insert ‘imagined’ before ‘excessive,’ or turn it into ‘excessivized.’ This is the tragedy in the politically corrected coursus of, particularly, literature departments across the United States: By topicalizing their instruction, often at the expense of the modern classics, they’ve instituted a kind of revisionist, headline-driven pedagogical hierarchy with an expiration date, whereas the Paul Valéry’s and the Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s, the Joseph Heller’s and, yes, even the Carson McCullers’s and the I.F. Stone’s — the muckracking journalist, indy avant l’heure, was already exposing the plight of migrants being witch-hunted out of the country by McCarthy and his allies in the 1950s — would give them lessons and manuals to last a lifetime.)

“Nothing conveys this air abstracted and distinct from the world like seeing the present in all its purity. Nothing, perhaps, more abstract than that which is. (Rien, peut-etre, de plus abstrait que ce qui est.)”

 

*”If you want to be a man, to not die before you’ve even lived, stay away from ready-made ideas, from pre-chewed food and from recompenses. If you’re a painter, regard simply in yourself. When one is not sterile, one does not adopt the children of others.'”

— Maurice de Vlaminck, “Dangerous Turning Point,” 1929, ré-édition 2008 copyright sVo Art, Versailles. (Reflections after having served in the Grand War of 1914-1918.)*

 

1. The only element that might throw off framing this juxtaposition in the context of Zola’s analysis of Manet in his 1867 essay is that the work on view for the Art Institute exhibition was made ten years later. So to assure you that if anything, the novelist’s esteem for the painter had only grown with the years, here’s his immediately posthumous assessment, in a piece written in 1884 — at the express request of Eugene Manet, the artist’s brother and Morisot’s husband — on the occasion of the exhibition organized by his friends and family at the Beaux-Arts School following Manet’s death in 1883 : “The real masters, in truth, should be judged as much by their influence as by their oeuvres; and it is above all on this influence that I insist, because it’s impossible here to make it palpable, that one must write the history of our school of art during these past 20 years in order to mount the all-powerful role that Manet has played.” (By way of emphasizing that my comparisons are not meant to diminish Manet but to call out the exponentially disparate critical valuations of the artist and his sister-in-law and which, as pertains to the relatively little and gender-stereotype tinted ink devoted to Morisot, can only be explained by sexism, I should add that here Zola also describes Manet as “one of the indefatigable laborers of Naturalism,” and seen in this light, what to me seems like the flatness of Manet’s colors relative to Morisot’s may be, er, natural. Despite the sourcing of Impressionism to Manet that’s been passed down to us, this occasional flatness may simply be explained by his not belonging to the same… more Impressionist… school as Morisot.)

Bibliography:

Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art” (1902-1918), Gallimard, 1960.

Delacroix, Collection Génies and Réalities,  Librarie Hachette et Société d’Etudes Economiques, Paris, 1963, with contributions from René Huygue, Jean-Louis Bory, Jean Cau, Yvonne Deslandres, René Hardy, François Nourissier, Maurice Rheims, Claude Roger-Marx, and Maurice Sérullaz.

“Impressionists, Symbolists, and Journalists,” Jacques Lethève, ARTNews Annual No. 2, 1960. (For the tip to the way the Impressionists and notably Manet were initially mocked by many caricaturists, also touched on by Martha Ward in her generously illustrated book; see below.)

Andre Malraux, “Psychology of Art.”

“Les Impressionists et leur temps,” Francois Mathey, Fernand Hazen, 1959.

Carson McCullers, “The Ballad of the Sad Café.”

“Dictionnaire de la peinture moderne,” le club francais du livre, 1958, Morisot entry by Denis Rouart.

I.F. Stone, “The Haunted Fifties,” The Merlin Press Ltd., 1963.

Paul Valéry, “Pieces sur l’Art,” Gallimard, 1934.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or, Pearls Before Swine.”

“Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde,” by Martha Ward, 1995, University of Chicago Press.

Emile Zola, “Ecrits sur l’art,” Gallimard, 1991.

“L’oeuvre,” Emile Zola, 1886, for this article for the preface by Bruno Foucart, Gallimard 1983 from the Pleiede Edition.

Le Feuilleton (the serial), 3: “Trompe-l’œil,” Michel Ragon’s groundbreaking 1956 satire of the contemporary art market (in French and English), Episode 3

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(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:

“Hey, Atlan!”

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.

Version originale
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.

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.