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, 35: A Dreamcatcher meets the White Pimple on the Ile St.-Louis

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 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 (Dordogne), France; Chris Keel, Marty Sohl, and Suki John of Fort Worth, Texas; Don Singer of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Nancy Reynolds 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 Dance. To 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.)

When I passed into the valley of Ti-n-tamat, I said in my interior to [my wife] The-anegh:
The night is coming; I’m going to look for the camels.
The-anegh, sleep will not come to me [because the thought of you is ever-present].

— Elkhasen agg Ikki des Kel Amedjid (1830 – 1894), Touareg poet, translated into French by Charles de Foucauld, as cited by Amalia Dragani and published by the journal Africa of the University of Cambridge in PB-I’s translation of her article

Lay down my child
and rest your head
Gonna hang the dreamcatcher
Right over your bed.
Lay down, lay down
My baby
Don’t be afraid
Dreamcatcher’s watching
Gonna chase the bad dreams away.

— Donna Summer, “Dreamcatcher”

I fall in love too easily.

— Frank Sinatra

PARIS — Absent the red wine, I had to look for my sparkle elsewhere, and soon found it in the violette-maned, bespectacled young woman sitting 20 feet away from me dangling her fuchsia-stockinged legs over the tip of the Ile St.-Louis facing a Notre-Dame somewhat the worse for wear after 800 years. Moi, with my shining new teeth I wasn’t quite so decrepit as the church, at least on the outside. On the inside, I was still smarting from my failure the previous week-end to offer to share my clear plastic umbrella with the Paris skyline with the lissome young woman in jeans and hooded white North Face jacket standing next to me on the corner of the rue Marie & Louise waiting for a stoplight to change so that we could march under a torrential rain from the Canal St.-Martin to the boulevard Belleville. “I was afraid she’d think I was some kind of weirdo trying to ‘drague’ her,” I’d explained later to my longtime friend Anatole in his electrician’s shop while he tinkered over a silver stand-up neon-tube lamp from the 1960s. “What does that say about what I think of myself?” “You think too much is what it says,” Anatole had answered without looking up from the tangle of wires upon which he was working his magic. Then, plugging the brown chord into a multi-prise outlet which fed an amber light into the neon bar, he’d concluded: “You just need to act.”

So once the violette-haired fuchsia-stockinged nana in the school-girl style skirt had smiled at me from under her librarian-style glasses on the Ile St.-Louis — home-field advantage — I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t venture something. After we’d toasted each other — “Tchin!” “Tchin!” — over, respectively, my cup of thermos tea and her plastic water bottle, the best I could come up with (as Cary Grant, who, indicating the couples making out on benches on the Right Bank of the Seine as he stood watching from the deck of a bateau mouche with Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s “Charade” had boasted “I taught them everything they know” — blanched in embarrassment at how I was botching his legacy), was:

“Vous-etes Parisienne?”

“I’m sorry, I’ve only been here a couple of weeks and my French isn’t very good.”

“American?”

“Yes.”

“Which part of America?”

“Actually I’m English.”

“I’m part English.”

“Actually I’m from Germany.”

“Where in Germany?”

At this point (perhaps realizing I wasn’t hearing a word she was saying, even though we were now shouting at each other over a gay male couple trying to make out… as Cary had taught them) she picked up her bottle, scooped up her skirt, approached the spot where my legs were perched on a set of stairs leading down to the river, and delicately sat down next to me, as a barge bearing 10 tons of sand and 10 centuries of history passed under the bridge connecting the Ile de Cité to the Ile St.-Louis.

“Dortmund.”

“Dortmund, Dortmund. I think there’s a good dance company there.”

“I design children’s books.”

“I once wrote a children’s book.”

“Oh, you did?” she beamed (I’ve avoided using this très inexact stand-in for ‘said’ for 40 years, but it fits here to describe the delight that lit up her eyes and cheeks and also sets up the comparison between Parisian and foreign women that’s right around the corner; be thankful that I’ve not yet told you her name, thus saving you from the facile alliteration which would ensue were I to replace ‘she’ with ‘Betty’), wide-eyed with marvel.

“Actually, it’s a group of children’s stories with the umbrella title ‘The Story the Sea-Shell Told.’ They’re stories a father tells to his daughter as they wait for the mother to come home from a late Christmas Eve errand.”

“‘The Story the Sea-Shell Told’?” she encouraged me, the eyes now so wide they illuminated the delicate magenta freckles on her dimpled cheeks like Gatsby’s green light beckoning from the other side of the Sound with its dreams of some kind of epic grandeur.

“Yes, you know, that large shell, in English it’s called a conch shell” — at this point I cupped the imaginary crustacean over my ear — “where if you listen you can hear the sea?” (Years ago, after reading about a conch excursion off New York Harbor in Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel,” I’d spent an evening scouring all of Little Italy for a restaurant still serving scungilli, and finally found one down the street from my pad on W. 8th Street next to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio.)

“Yes yes, in Bremen they say that you can hear the Brothers Grimm. Why did you decide to write children’s stories?”

“Actually they wrote themselves. I was going through a break-up and at the same time I was baby-sitting. I couldn’t very well sob my heart out to the seven-year-old, so I made up stories for her that at the same time served as parables to help me process what I was going through.” (It had begun innocently enough, with the woman, 12 years my senior — the perfect 36 — beaming at me across a dinner table in a Pacific Heights mansion converted into a restaurant and exclaiming “You’re so nubile!”)

“Such as?”

“Such as the story of ‘The White Pimple.'”

“‘The White Pimple!'” she said, clapping her hands together as if clamoring to hear the story as that girl had done in the Parnassus street bedroom of a San Francisco Edwardian 33 years ago. “It’s about a monster pimple?”

“No, it’s about a beautiful princess who wakes up one morning to find a white pimple on her face. She demands that her father the king do something, he engages a series of magicians who each in turn produce increasingly disastrous results: The pimple multiplies, the pimple is joined by warts, the pimples and warts turn multiple colors. Each one she kicks out the window of her room in the tower — kind of like that princess in the Tower of Nesle over there on the other side of the Seine who stuffed her dead lover into a burlap sack and tossed it to servants waiting on the sidewalk below so they could dump his body in the river — and he tumbles to his death.”

“Hah hah hah!”

“…until the last one, who takes one look at the pimple and faints. The princess rushes to his side and asks, ‘What’s wrong, what’s wrong, is it my pimple?’ ‘Yes, it’s your pimple. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’ From that day on, every morning when she wakes up the princess still rushes to her mirror, only now it’s not to see if the pimple has disappeared but to assure herself that ‘it’s still there. My BEAUTIFUL white pimple is still there.'”

“That’s the problem today,” the young woman assented (she’d stopped beaming). “The ads on the television and in the magazines are telling all the girls they have to be skinny and have a certain look.”

“Yes, it’s really sick when nine-year-olds are going on diets.”

“And the social networks make it worse, like Instagram.”

“I don’t know Instagram.”

“It lets you doctor your pictures, so they’re not really you.”

I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to doctor this girl’s picture. (And now I can’t imagine why I didn’t tell her this at the time. That’s me, ‘toujours en retard’ ((always late)) Ben-Itzak. Ou en bon française: ‘Lentement sur le pick-up.’)

“My name’s Paul.”

“Betty.”

“Enchanté…. Is it ‘Bette’ or ‘Betty’?”

“Betty.” Given that recently I’d been spending more of my Paris evenings watching re-runs of Mad Men than offering my umbrella to lissome Parisiennes, it was inevitable that the first girl I would meet on a rare night out would be named Betty. (And in her doll-like egg-shaped visage, look like a sort of post-modern 2019 European update of Betty Draper Francis.)

“And you design children’s books?”

“Well, that’s just one of my jobs. I also design hard rock albums. And you’re a writer!” The way she said it made it sound like I was on my way to the other side of the Seine to join Zola in the Pantheon.

“Yes.”

“This is my tenth time in Paris. I have to go back tomorrow,” we were Thursday, “and Saturday I’ll be back at my desk in Dortmund!”

Our conversation shifted to the topic of dreams after she asked about the furry white ring onto which the stumps of turquoise and orange feathers were fastened by yellow pipe-cleaners, with a red bead stringed to a sort of cat’s cradle plastic arrangement in the middle, le tout tied to my red bandana by a red ribbon. “It’s a dreamcatcher I found on the sidewalk just after crossing the frontier to Paris on my birthday,” I explained. “It’s for catching nightmares.”

“Maybe you could lend it to me. I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.”

“Why?”

“I keep having these nightmares.”

“What kind of nightmares?”

“I’m entering an… how do you say… elevator?”

“Like the ones in ‘Elevator for the Scaffold,’ with the Miles Davis soundtrack, where the guy gets stuck on an elevator all night after murdering his lover Jeanne Moreau’s husband.” (You’re doing fine, PB-I; a girl with fuchsia stockings who’s just come over to you on the Ile St. Louis as the Sun setting over the Seine and Notre-Dame supplies all the AT-MO-SPHERE you need starts talking elevators and instead of making like Eddie Money and proposing to share your two tickets to Paradise, you continue talking murder.)

“Well, in my dreams the elevator has no floor and I keep falling.”

“You know, in the southern Algerian Touareg dialect of ‘Tamahaq'” — on my way to this rendez-vous, a frantic bouquiniste had tried to sell me a copy of the first Touareg-French dictionary, produced in the early 20th century by the French missionary Charles de Foucauld while he was charting 2,000 kilometers of Touareg territory, that I’d been casually examining by lowering the price — “the word for dream, ‘tahârgit’ or ‘tergit,’ also means ‘nocturnal pollution.'” (This detail had been unearthed by Amalia Dragani, an Italian researcher whose paper on the dreams of the Touaregs I’d once translated for the journal Africa of the University of Cambridge.) “Myself, I seem to dream a lot about looking down at my feet and discovering I’ve lost my shoes. Or going back to school and signing up for all these classes I really want to take and then missing them.”

“Well Paul, I have to go now.” (I’m misplacing this announcement, so you shouldn’t necessarily connect it to the dreams.) The Sun was just setting over the Seine.

“Here’s my card.”

“Oh, you have a card!” Betty declared as if I’d just handed her my Legion of Honor pin instead of a very home-made looking brown business card. “I’ll look at your sites. And I’ll write you.”

Of course, me being me, afterwards I reproached myself for not telling Betty about the Open Studios of Belleville starting the next day and suggesting she delay her departure so that I could show her around ‘my’ ‘hood. (Now that I think about this logically, having been shuffled around to four different stations by the French train company to change one ticket, I understand that this might have been problematic.) When I recounted my victory — over my own inhibitions — to Anatole on Saturday, he was proud of me and agreed that just in itself, the moment was worth savoring, like a brief encounter he’d had recently with a Turkish woman on the boulevard Magenta, after which he’d told me, “Note that she was foreign. Couldn’t have happened with a French girl.” So he was not surprised when I told him Betty was German. “Foreigners just seem to be more open, less fearful,” he pointed out, than French women, an assessment I agreed with. “Yes, I remember once several years ago” — 15 actually — “I had an intern here from California. We were walking in the 16th arrondissement when we stopped for a toilet break. When I emerged a French guy was chatting Nicole up. Later she explained to me that after driving past her on his motorcycle, he’d screeched to a halt, circled back, and asked her, “You’re not French, are you?” “How did you know that?” “You’re smiling. French girls never smile.”

I know what you’re thinking: If French girls are so closed, what am I doing in France, where the odds would seem to be stacked against me, trouver l’ame-soeur-wise? But a ready smile can also be vacuous and remember, you’re talking to a guy who isn’t quick enough to offer to share his clear plastic umbrella with a damsel in distress being doused on an afternoon when “it’s raining like a cow pissing,” to cop a French metaphor. (Maybe I’ll try that line the next time: “Madame, may I shelter you from the cow piss?,” although if she’s French this may just prompt her to invert my invitation to “May I piss on you?”) But the middle passage — after the initial suspicion and before the final curdling of a wound I have no idea how I inflicted — between me and French women is usually pretty magical, or at least sympathetic. We connect, and often around subjects on which we share the same perspective.

On the first night of the cat-sitting gig up top Belleville near the Place des Fetes which had made it possible for me to be there on the Ile St.-Louis to encounter Betty that evening, I’d discovered that my client and I were in complete synchronicity on the ludicrousness of the latest fashion trend which has half the women of Paris trying to dress like Sid Vicious, with pre-fabricated holes and slices in various parts of their jeans. (“Coming over here from the Metro,” I’d told the client whom we’ll call Sylvie for now as the verdict on our future is still out, “I crossed a woman on the Place des Fetes who had so many holes in and strips of rented clothing hanging from her jeans I was tempted to ask, “Mais Madame, qu’est que vous etes arrivé?” Nodding vigorously, ‘Sylvie’ had informed me with pride (by way of affirming that she didn’t follow mode), “All my clothes are second-hand. It’s just not that important.” It was at about this moment, looking over at her from my too-wide grey Marseille jeans, third-hand striped pink short sleeve shirt, and found class project dreamcatcher attached to Texas bandana (another good omen was that she had a genuine one hanging over the bed in which I’d be sleeping while she was away), as the argyle salve ‘Sylvie”d given me continued to heal the five-inch finger wound I’d inflected on myself by reaching into my back-pack to search for my reading glasses at the Place d’Italie Metro so I could decipher the map and forgetting about the unprotected razors I’d hastily stashed there, that I’d started to fall in love with her.

Lutèce Diaries, 4: Diary of a disabused critic / Journal d’un critique désabusé or why I stood up /pour quoi j’ai posé un lapin à Agnes Varda & Sandrine Bonnaire

people on sunday twoUrban pastorale: A scene from Robert Siodmak’s and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1930 silent film “People on Sunday,” recently restored and playing this afternoon at the Cinematheque Française as part of its retrospective of the films of Billy Wilder, who wrote the screenplay.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.)

PARIS — So there I was at the hour of the crepuscule Wednesday, standing on a bridge linking the Ile de Cité to the Left Bank and contemplating the nascent twilight reflected on the rippling waves of the Seine, when I realized that the ping-pong table in the sculpture garden above the Tino Rossi tango plaza where two kids were battling each other and the bracing gusts of freezing wind was much more compelling than the date with Agnes Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire that awaited me at the Cinematheque Française further down the river. And that I’d have much more chance of finding ‘l’ame-soeur’ sitting on a bench with my rackets (the same with which I’d placed second city-wide for my age group in 1973; a puny nine-year-old from San Francisco’s Chinatown beat me for the championship with spin-balls I couldn’t touch — seeing “Forrest Gump” recently had inspired me to bring the paddles with me to Paris, only I brought two, because unlike Tom Hanks I’m still searching for my playmate) than sitting in a darkened movie theater, which I’ve been doing for as long as I’ve been playing ping-pong but scoring much less often. But it wasn’t just this micro-epiphany that decided me to head up towards the Bastille (after a tour of the bouquiniste stands on both sides of the Seine highlighted by an animated debate with an elegant silver-haired and bearded bookseller in an ankle-length fur coat whose proudest offering was a shrine to Celine amply furnished with his oeuvre and articles arguing that he was not so anti-Semitic as that) rather than turning right towards Bercy.

This abrupt change of plans — just that afternoon I’d joked to my dentist, “If you can keep the blood to a minimum this time, that would be great, as I’ve a date with Agnes Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire” — was also provoked by a malaise over the institutional art scene and its promotion that’s been festering in me for a long time. From New York to Paris, I’ve been frustrated the past several years by an art programmation in which, at least on the level of the major museums, cinematheques, and theaters, the last curatorial consideration has been what should be the first, namely mining the archives and nooks and crannies for artistic treasures and exposing them to a broader public.

Take the Agnes Varda retrospective which was the reason for my invitation to the Cinematheque soirée. I should have been delighted that the Cinematheque was feting a pioneer who deserves to be celebrated. But cinema history excavation-wise, the choice was unintrepid. Who doesn’t already know about Agnes Varda? Why not *also* program a retrospective of the directorial work of Maya Deren? Or the work in front of and behind the camera of Ida Lupino, without whom there might not have been an Agnes Varda? (And one of whose early films, “A Rainy Afternoon,” set in Paris, belies what I said about the impossibility of meeting someone in a darkened theater. If I thought there was a chance that Ida Lupino was waiting for me, I’d make every screening.) So I was ecstatic when I discovered that a Lupino film starring one of her chou-chous, Sally Forrest — with a dance theme yet! — had been restored for presentation at the Museum of Modern Art. I know this because I’ve been following, and covering, MoMA for nearly 25 years. Before the veteran Margaret Doyle left its press office, MoMA not only appreciated, but courted our coverage. After she left, I’m so devoted to this New York City — and Modern Art — institution that I even got over the fact that MoMA’s advertising director couldn’t be bothered to respond when we offered her a special deal on promoting the museum’s current Judson retrospective on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager. The press manager I’d been dealing with was happy with the extended Judson coverage we nonetheless pursued, in which we coupled art from the exhibition with articles by the late Jill Johnston, Judson’s Boswell.

Unfortunately, my efforts to promote MoMA’s Lupino restoration were sabotaged by an inexperienced publicist, who responded to my request for a screener of the film — *forwarded to her by her manager I’ve been working with and who, judging by the assiduous manner in which she hounds me for coverage, is familiar with our magazine’s reputation and reach* — by asking “what outlet” I was writing for. I don’t necessarily expect a green flack to be already versed in the diverse media landscape she’s getting paid to promote her artists on. But if you don’t know, before you risk insulting and alienating the very colleagues you’re supposed to be cultivating, *you ask.* When Richard Philp suddenly promoted me to news editor of Dance magazine in 1995 after my predecessor Joseph H. Mazo died before he could learn me the landscape, I was pretty dance-ignorant, so if I didn’t know who an artist was, I walked across the hall and *asked* Richard, the late great Gary Parks, the ibid Marion Horosko, or Harris please write home all is forgiven Green *before I talked to the artist.* Why embarrass what was then a trusted institution with my dance-stupidity? This MoMA publicist, by contrast, has managed with one ill-considered, ill-reflected letter — and her subsequent refusal to apologize — to destroy 25 years of goodwill her predecessors (and the quality of what they were promoting), notably Margaret Doyle and Paul Jackson, had built up with a veteran editor. (I considered deleting this mini-rant because I know it sounds petty, and why give them the free publicity they have contempt for anyway? But besides the convenient segué this item provides to the next screed, art is too important for its propagation among the audience it really belongs to be sabotaged by one publicist. Recognize your error, and all will be forgiven.)

jack lemmon

I love you Jack (Lemmon, in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” now playing at the Cinematheque Francaise), but after five New Year’s Eves, I’m tired of looking at your puss and ready for something new, even if it’s 30 years older. (Photo courtesy Cinematheque Francaise.)

At the Cinematheque Française, by contrast, my issue is not with the Comm team — impeccably professional, even when dealing with mercurial, disabused critics — but with a programmation which ever since the departure of director Peter Scarlett 15 years ago seems to be determined more by box office considerations than curatorial imperatives, which latter should be modeled (to cop the marching orders former Village Voice editor Elizabeth Zimmer used to issue to her acolytes) on the quest of the truffle hunter, determined to unearth priceless, buried treasures with a nose for genuine cinematic news. There has been a real jewell playing at the Cinematheque this month, but it’s been buried in yet another festival dedicated to an American director everyone’s already heard about. I have nothing against Billy Wilder — “The Apartment” has been my go-to-film on many a solitary New Year’s Eve — but do we really need to see “Some Like it Hot” — which opened the retrospective — an umpteenth time? The truffle here, Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1930 restored silent film “People on Sunday,” which got in because Wilder wrote the screenplay, is buried in one Friday afternoon screening (today at 3:30) which only old fogey cinema junkies who already know about it will think to and be able to see. And yet it’s the far more transformative, provocative film. If I watch “The Apartment” every year, it’s for the same reasons — after the first time anyway — that Jack Lemmon’s hero spends his evenings, as he puts it, with Mae West and John Wayne. It’s good company. It comforts me in what I already know or aspire to: The dynamic, droll doll eventually drops the married cad for the loveable, earnest, devoted, clumsy, awkward, lonely and somewhat homely bachelor.

“People on Sunday,” by contrast, is a troubling film — particularly in the current social context in France and around the world. If the premise — four young Berliners out for a Sunday pastoral; or Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, and the complicated but ultimately classic romantic alliances, ruptures, and petites jealousies that ensue as they frolic from beach to forest — must have seemed primordially bucolic at the time, the questions the film poses post-Holocaust are disturbing, and even interrogate this very moment we’re living in France. In one prolonged segment, Siodmak introduces a panoply of smiling Germans out fully profiting from their Sunday, in soccer matches, on park benches reading newspapers under monuments, etcetera… Falling in love with this innocence I found myself asking: How could these loving and outgoing people have voted in that fascist government just three years later and committed that atrocity in the decade that followed? (And whether the young brunette actress I fell in love with ended up being among those who paid the price.) Yet that fascist government and that atrocity were born in exploitation of a social unrest not unlike that now troubling France (it had the same sources: financial instability and insecurity, with the same, if up to now minority, tendency to blame the stranger). As a foreigner, as a Jew, and as an intellectual who treasures the liberal values that France at its best embodies, I’m scared shitless. Those who counter that “It can’t happen here” need to watch this film, if only to be reminded that if it could happen so quickly — to a people so evidently joyful, carefree, admirable, lovely, extraverted, outgoing, and loving as the people shown in this movie, yes, it can happen here.

people on sunday oneRedemption song: Another scene from Robert Siodmak’s and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1930 silent film “People on Sunday,” recently restored and playing this afternoon at the Cinematheque Francaise as part of its retrospective of the films of Billy Wilder, who wrote the screenplay.

(Rather than burying “People on Sunday” in a Wilder festival, were I running the Cinematheque’s programmation I’d have scheduled an entire retrospective around the films of Robert Siodmak, which have in common that they all terminate with some form of redemption: The disturbed killer Gene Kelly giving up his life to free his wife Deanna Durbin so that she can fully live hers in “Christmas Holiday”; Charles Laughton deciding — memorably, on the runway of a ship!, thus revealing that 20 years later, Siodmak hadn’t lost his knack for scene-setting — to take the consequences for killing his shrewd of a wife rather than join his new love, so that an innocent doesn’t pay for his crime; Burt Lancaster’s “Swede”‘s noble acceptance of his fate in Siodmak’s adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Killers.” And then there’s his sense of nuance: In “People on Sunday,” the full sensuality of the outdoor love scene — perhaps a first-love scene — that’s just transpired is suggested by the pensive, slightly perturbed manner in which the blonde heroine, abandoned, adjusts the strap of her dress, post-coitus.)

And it’s happened elsewhere more recently than 1933: Religious intolerance and outright barbarity produced Alep, the destruction of lives and the decimation of a millennium-old cultural legacy, and the potential loss of cultural memory and native pride this engenders. This is why I was initially delighted to learn of the Metropolitan Museum’s major exhibition of Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s mid-19th century daguerreotypes taken during his voyages to Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East, produced in collaboration with the Bibliotheque Nationale Française, opening January 30 and running through May 12. These breathtaking images — reflecting, Met photography curator Stephen C. Pinson points out in a lavishly illustrated catalog in which the oeuvres are re-produced in their original sizes, the concomitant births of the sciences of photography and archeology — are a voyage into a lost North Africa, rien a voir with Girault’s Orientalist contemporaries, even if he influenced their aesthetic and helped infuse it with some semblance of authenticity. If I already know this much, it’s because at the Met I was fortunate enough to encounter a publicist who went beyond the call of duty and, unrequested, sent me the PDF of the entire catalogue.

alep,” from monuments arabes d_egypte, de syrie et d_asie-mineure, 1846. lithograph by eugène cicéri (1813–1890) after girault“Alep,” from Monuments arabes d’Egypte, de Syrie et d’Asie-Mineure, 1846. Lithograph by Eugène Cicéri (1813–1890) after Girault, sheet 22 3/8 × 15 5/8 in. (56.9 × 39.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joyce F. Menschel Photography Library Fund, 2017 (2017.66.7) Public domain image.

Unfortunately, the same catalog reminded me of the extent to which the Met has collaborated in refurbishing the image of those members of the Wexler family whose patronage of the Met is enabled by their investment in Perdu Pharma, largely responsible for the opiate addiction scourge which has taken tens of thousands of lives in the United States in recent years. Given the Met’s similar role in erecting the philanthropic image of the climate science-denying anti-Labor Koch Brothers, I guess I shouldn’t be shocked, but this reminder — Met director Max Hollein praises the Sacklers in his introduction to the catalog — makes it difficult for me to collaborate with the Met in promoting this exhibition. Instead, and again taking advantage of a proactive publicist who hopefully won’t regret that proactivity, I’ll take advantage — for Alep — of her sending me an image after one of Girault’s works on Alep. And since she told me I didn’t need to connect our use of this public domain image to the Met event — even requested I did not — I’ll instead use it to promote the Syria week-end March 9 and 10 at the Philharmonie here in Paris, promoted by another member of my Publicists Hall of Fame, Hamid si-Amer. Not just because he’s the coolest publicist in Paris — Hamid starts his e-mails with “Salut” and never terminates them with “Bien a vous” — but because of his impeccable professionalism.

MQB. Spectacle. White Spirit, Transe soufie et street-art. Du 6 au 15 novembre.Coming up at the Philharmonie in Paris: Whirling for Syria and Alep. Photo of Derviches tourneurs de Damas copyright Cyril Zannettacci and courtesy the Philharmonie.

Speaking  of whirling dervishes , the other epiphany I had while standing on that perch near Notre Dame watching those kids playing ping-pong is that like them I’d rather be outside, observing life and getting my material directly, than sitting in a dark theater and pondering someone else’s views of life to write about it later, particularly if this third-hand observing — my view of another’s view of life — requires running the gauntlet of sometimes indifferent publicists. I don’t know if my writing is up to my vision — I’ve been flying without an editor for 20 years — but this is at least what I’ll be attempting to do in the coming weeks, energy allowing. And given the life-affirming sensation that I get every time I walk out my door here in Paris and its surrounding suburbs, it will at least deliver light to me.

Several of these frescoes jumped up before my eyes as I headed home Wednesday evening (after the requisite watching of the Eiffel sparkling up), taking the Bastille before turning left onto the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir — Maigret territory — then right up Temple which turns into Belleville and down past the Buttes Chaumont and crossing the Paris/Pantin border. But given that I’ve already taken up enough of your time — too much of it in settling professional vendettas (in a non-too professional manner) — for now I’ll rest with one.

Midway to the rues de Temple/Belleville, where the same breed of nihilists who devastated Alep mowed down Noemie Gonzalez and too many others on the cafe terraces on November 13, 2015 (the memorials have disappeared from the terrace of “The Good Beer”; tant pis), and not far from where they murdered 80 insouciant, mostly young people at the Bataclan for loving music too much, a young woman was straddling a gymnastic bar over a patch of the strip of park that covers the canal all the way to Temple. Her legs trundling in the emptiness, propelling her forward nonetheless metaphysically speaking, her walkmanned head rolled side to side in joy as she sung the body electric.

Lutèce Diaries, 3: (Illustrated) Trans Tintin on rue Montorgueil, Superman in St.-Germain des près, Shoah Puppets on Mouffetard — the Journal of a Blood-sucking Critic

joseph yes gorgeous smallJoseph, “Yes gorgeous,” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. 110 x 80 cm. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

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

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.  Don’t miss  out on our upcoming coverage from Paris and Lyon of art, theater, film, puppets, and dance from around the world! Drop a line to artsvoyager@gmail.com with the words “Flash Me, Dance Insider & Arts Voyager” and we’ll add you to our list. Any and all references to my teeth and any blood from therein are hyperbolic poetic license; if I’ve made the journey from the Southwest of France to Paris, it’s not for the art but because  my dentist here is the best — and kindest — in the world and the only one in whom I’ve ever had confidence. And who would no doubt be distressed to learn that I did not head straight home after our last appointment.)

PARIS — Only a nut for culture and for a Paris retrouvé to which he’d re-taken (“First we’ll take Manhattan, then we’ll take Paris” — Leonard Cohen via Jennifer Warnes, tweaked) like the proverbial canard to water would think of strolling from the Grands Boulevards to the Seine in sub-freezing climes, traversing the most luminous river in the world — they say the light comes from all the souls that have found their final solace in her fathomless depths and all the hearts that have fused on her bridges, boats, and benches (“I started that” — Cary Grant to Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s “Charade,” pointing to the lovers necking on the quays from the deck of a bateau mouche) — and then hop-scotching from several openings in the gallery grotto of Saint-Germain-des-Près to the heights of the Latin Quarter to mouffe tard (work late) on the rue Mouffetard with a puppet hoarder of Holocaust detritus while surrounded by 50 hushed school-children, right after having three teeth extracted. And did I mention that I forgot the Ibuprofen, which I told myself would make me all the more able to empathize with the Shoah victims (later to have their fillings extracted after being gassed), but which only left me to grit the hemoglobin-soaked bandage over my gums and become the living embodiment of the blood-sucking critic?

joseph kiss smallJoseph, “What does a kiss mean,” 2018. Acrylic, collage and résin on wood. 110 x 80 cm. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

The most provocative piece of art I saw all evening was the illicit poster someone had painted on an entire building wall, near the arched gateway to the rue Montorgueil, of Tintin — celebrating his 90th birthday this year, and acting pretty frisky for his age — illicitly planting a tender wet kiss on the mouth of Captain Haddock, enough to make the mullahs of Moulinsart bent on upscaling the image of Hergé as a high-class painter piss their pants, but not enough to distract me from the Starbucks shingle which continues to tackify the entrance to one of the most typical passages of Paris, once memorialized by Claude Monet. Lingering 20 minutes later on the Pont des Arts to wait for the Eiffel to sparkle up (after shaking my head over the construction blight of the former Samaritain — when last seen, Kylie Minogue was diving off the roof of the late multi-block department store, one inspiration for Zola’s “The Happiness of Ladies,” in Leo Carax’s “Holy Motors” — being made over into a luxury hotel so that rich foreigners have a place to sleep until they can buy a place through one of the numerous real estate agencies which have replaced my favorite cheese boutiques and used record shops, and to pay hommage at the school on the Street of the Dry Tree where they once vainly tried to teach me about the imperfect past), I was relieved to see that the faux graffiti wall with which the city had replaced the chain fencing in an attempt to stymie the love-locks which had threatened to make the bridge fall into the river had been supplanted by a sleek glass barrier. After reconnoitering a dark corner on the Left Bank near the water that seemed propitious for a minimal-risk piss (I’ve been nervous ever since the police caught me relieving myself by a tree on the Ile St. Louis in 2005, when I hadn’t dared cite Malcolm McLaren in my defense: “Everybody pees on Paris, watch me now.”), I reflected that confined to clusters in the middle and at the top of the bridge lamp-posts that made them resemble bouquets for robots, the love-locks now actually had something to do with love. (One unclear on the concept wag had written on his, “Love doesn’t need locks,” before bolting it.) Prodded by the memory of a long-ago futile search for a public urinal on the rues Bonaparte and Visconti, I finally plunged down a stairway and mingled my waters with the crepuscular dew, spitting out the blood-drenched gum bandage in a poubelle at the base of the Nesle Tower — where an ancient royal Rapunzel once tempted various cavaliers who lost their heads for their gallantry — before heading to the galleries so that I could shut my trap and not reveal that I was one fangless critic.

joseph superman smallJoseph, “No time to lose (Superman),” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. 110 x 70 cm. Courtesy Gallery Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

If there had been any police patrolling in the area, Superman was waiting to rescue me, emitting scarlet beams of x-ray vision from both eyes over a collage of ’50s Life magazine ads lacquered into art by the eponymous Joseph and on display (through the end of the month) at the Galerie Roy Sfeir, the first on the rue de Seine if you’re coming from the river. (And one of the only galleries I spotted — not counting those hosting openings — where the gallerist wasn’t huddling behind a computer screen.) Behind twin bull-dog sculptures guarding the 12 or so oeuvres — most topped off by comic-book like soap-operatic bubbles a la Roy Lichtenstein — the gallery’s owner was discussing the “Yellow Vests” phenomenon with a client. When they asked my opinion (I’m not sharing theirs because I didn’t identify myself as a journalist) and then said they had no idea what I’d just said, for once I had a retort that headed off any comment on my accent:

“Itf becaufe I’fe juft come from fe dentisf.”

roy lichtenstein artist's studioAmong the 44 works whose recent installation has renewed the Contemporary Collection on view at the Art Institute of Chicago is, above, Roy Lichtenstein. Artist’s Studio “Foot Medication,” 1974. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. The art by Joseph featured here evokes his American artistic ancestor.

Next I scrunched into the barely three-person-wide “Petite Gallery” — “Let the monsieur in, he’s actually here pour voir, pas pour boire” (to look, not to drink) — for a group exhibition that, in appreciation for the conviviality with which the ensemble welcomed a demi-sans-dent individual they had no idea was a blood-sucking critic, I’ll diplomatically refrain to comment on — before landing at my destination gallery, on whose exhibition, thanks to the flack who treated my modest request for three images *in the appropriate size* like she was doing me a favor even though she did know I was a journalist, I’ve not so diplomatically — okay, childishly — decided not to waste any more energy on here.

In contrast to the kind folks at the Petite Gallery, the Centre Pompidou is no doubt big enough to withstand a little biting criticism from a demi-sans-dent critic. So I was practically delighted to find matter for a rant in the mammoth “Without the Centre Pompidou, Paris wouldn’t be Paris” English-language poster that reared its head before me on the Boulevard Saint-Germain as I made my way towards Mouffetard for my Shoah puppet show. After mentally dispensing this pedagogy (this is what French commentators call it when they want to explain to you why you’re wrong and they’re right), I crossed St.-Mich and turned onto the rue des Ecoles so I could explore what the Latin quarter cinemas were offering before the show. In the lobby of the Grand Action, an apparently jet-lagged young woman with a Nordic accent (and so Nordically enveloped I can’t describe her better than that) was asking the ticket-seller, “Am I in Paris?”

If there had previously been any doubt in my mind, I definitely knew I was in Paris when I scaled the mount St. Genevieve, one of the oldest streets in Lutèce (the city’s name in Roman times), and definitely knew I was still inevitably an American in Paris when I paused to pay the obligatory homage to Hemingway at Papa’s former roost up top the rue Cardinal Lemoine, more or less catty-corner from Descartes’s former digs on the rule Rollin, and where I resisted the temptation to channel the Gorilla Girl inside me and amend the Paris is a Moving Feast citation “Lucky the man who has spent part of his youth in Paris” with “and the semi-toothless blood-sucking journalist who’s still here.” Speaking of youth and ecoliers, in the courtyard at the end of the alley leading to the Mouffetard theater of the Art of the Marionette I was immediately surrounded by 50 schoolchildren decidedly mouffing tard, no doubt for the educational value of a puppet show about the Holocaust or Shoah, as it’s referred to here.

Despite the presence of several superficially stereotypical Jewish puppet characters (a bent-over Hasid, an Einstein-lookalike with a magic cigar box hanging from his neck) designed after the now exhausted Czech National Puppet Theatre model what I liked about the endearing Alexandre Haslé’s production of Daniel Keene’s “The Rain” for the Lendemains de la veille company was that despite what I said above, as there’s nothing in the piece explicitly linking it to the Holocaust the message is not limited to that one deportation and period. As Haslé suggested in brief comments after curtain, the simple plot premise — an old woman surrounded by the possessions neighbors gave her before boarding trains of no return when she was a girl — could apply to many contemporary situations and displaced populations. He cited, somewhat vaguely, “Italy, Spain — even France.” Perhaps because I’ve just finished reading Joe Sacco’s graphic novel “Palestine,” with its depictions of Palestinian families given an hour to quit their ancestral homes before Israel blows them up in acts of collective punishment for the first Infitadah — I’d add Palestine/Israel to the tale’s potential resonances. Which is a way to say that what I appreciated in this tale and its presentation was the universality of its message’s application. For this reason, I was encouraged that their parents and teachers had let the school-children mouffe tard. One of the problems I have with the “Yellow-Vest” movement which has been the chou-chou of the French media for the past two months is its “Me First” mentality. In this context any measure that fosters empathy — I’ve never seen a crowd of children so quiet and enraptured — in the next generation is a welcome tonic.

I’d love to stay and cat, but I’ve got a busy day ahead: This time the dentist is taking out a nerve, after which I’ve blithely made a date with Agnes Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire (following another rendez-vous with Bernhardt), et dans laquelle il n’y aurait aucun risque que je morde.

joseph happiness smallJoseph, “Happiness,” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

 

The Lutèce Diaries, 2: Ils sont tous les enfants de la Republique; The Jewish Book of the Dead; Paris Survival Secrets

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.)

PARIS — A DJ I used to know, commenting on one of my elliptical returns to San Francisco from inside the booth of the busy Kennel Club on Divisadero on World Beat night, once explained, “It’s the spirit of the Indian god of Tamalpais. It makes sure you always return to the source.” Tamalpais has nothing on Sigmund Freud, the street named after whom serves as a kind of Rubicon between the prè St.-Gervais ‘burb where I’ve found impeccable digs (thank you, CD and EA) and the Eastern quartiers of Paris, and which somehow found a way Tuesday to steer me away from the multi-ethnic Belleville neighborhood I was aiming for — it reminds me of SF’s Mission District, with Muslims and Jews, Africans and Asians, BoBos and genuine Bohemians, and succulent pork brioches from Wei Zu province and black dates from the Algerian Bled harmoniously (and deliciously) existing side by side — to Lubavitcher central. I was relieved once I’d crossed the street from a block lined with Kosher grocery stores offering sacks of dubious-looking alleged “bagels” (if they’re not made with New York water, forgetaboutit, and if they’re large, watch out; I subsequently had nightmares about being trampled by wagon-wheels construed of these round baguettes with holes) to a corner presided over by the Haman Medical Center. (Not to say that I wasn’t tempted to enter the Jewish grocery store and ask if they had “Shiksa,” fortunately remembering in time that what I meant was “Kishka,” the most scrumptious and least healthy delicacy Jewish cuisine has to offer, and rien a voir with “Shiksa,” which will sterilize you, Jewish progenitor-wise ((after my annual New Year’s Eve re-viewing of “The Apartment,” now playing at the Cinematheque Française as part of its Billy Wilder retrospective, everything is now -wise with me, and not just because it’s my Kiev-born grandmother’s Ellis Island-truncated maiden name. And if you’re thinking about calling me a Wisenheimer, forgetaboutit it.))) (And if you’re wondering why I’m determined to avoid Jewish neighborhoods like Albert Camus‘s Plague, let’s just say that in France the Jewish question is too loaded and in the Wild West ambiance of the Internet it’s too loaded for me to tell you why. Yes, I don’t just adulate the fat of chickens — see above under “Kischka” — I am one.)

When the rue Petite finally spat me out at the Laumiere Metro station a couple blocks from the La Villette Basin (to borrow a phrase from Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma, who provided the blue-print for private dicks in French literature), I realized that I was heading away from Belleville. Discovering grace of a handy-dandy Metro station You are Here map that walking in the other direction would take me to the man-made Buttes Chaumont park and waterfalls, from which I knew the way to Belleville if not San Jose, I headed up-hill. Realizing that the trajectory would enable me to discover if the other, second-floor lodging I’d been considering, facing the park on the rue de Crimee (Kiev again), was really as “calm at the exterior” as its proprietor had claimed, I was comforted in my choice of the pré St. Gervais. While the absentee owner can’t have been expected to have known this, two houses down from the building municipal workers were drilling up the carrefour (corner crossing), as part of a city-wide initiative to renovate the gas network. Again. Secret to Surviving Living in Paris No. 1: Don’t. (Live in Paris.) Pick a ‘burb on a Metro line, which foyer you’ll bless every friggin’ time you come home to your refuge from the noise, pollution, and speed of Paris. (Taking my life into my own hands at several street crossings, I was reminded of what a denizen of car-crazy Fort Worth, Texas had once told me as we waited for the green light at a vast intersection to give us 10 seconds to get to the other side. Pointing at the cross-walk, he declared, “Death.”)

What I love about my choice, the prè St.-Gervais, is its charming desuetitude, or obsolescence. Even the recoop chair I’m writing you from, with its Jetson-style curved back and early ’60s olive-green carpeted hide, qualifies as endearingly obsolete, the perfect bons mots launching pad for a throwback like me, who persists in perpetrating an obsolete trade.

Speaking of time capsules, heading down the rue la Villette from the Buttes Chaumont towards the rue Belleville and running into the rue Fessart, I decided to look for No. 22, the former hide-out of the notorious Bonnot Band of anarchists where the adventure of the young heroes of Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished), the novel for which I’ve been trying to find an American publisher, begins, so that I could say a little prayer to whatever Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Anarchist, and most of all New York publishing world gods would listen. Fortifying myself with the famous pork brioche at a dim sum place just above the Boulevard Belleville (after a detour down the rue Cascades, accessed via the rue Levert stairway where Pascal met his “Red Balloon” in the Albert Lamorisse film I must have seen 100 times as a kid, to salute to the ancient water cisterns that used to hold the water flowing down to Paris from the abbeys and then back towards the parvis of the parc Belleville for the best view of the Eiffel tower in town, trying to ignore the restaurant marquee on the rue Piat which exclaimed, in English, “Thank God for Broccoli,” yet another sign that Belleville isn’t just being BoBoized, it’s being Anglo-Bobo-ized) — the decor and the prices of the bakery where I used to get my customary pork bun had unfortunately been BoBo-ized — I entered the gauntlet of my favorite marché in France, the place where the multi-cultural Babel of voices makes me feel the most ‘chez moi.’ (Actually I only entered it to make my purchases. If Secret of Surviving Living in Paris No. 2 is get your fruits and veggies at the ‘Arab’ markets, annex to Secret etc is once you’ve located your favorite stands, skirt the alleys of the market by advancing on the sidewalk behind them, only peneterating them for search and purchase missions.)

The very fact that all these people from all these cultures are able to advance along the narrow alleys, meandering over several city blocks, compressed between the two rows of stands of bananas, multi-colored cornet peppers, sizzling hot-pepper filled Maghrebian savory pastries being fried up by smiling scarf-wearing women, pavements slippery from being hosed down by fish-mongers, knick-knack hawkers (4 toothbrushes for 1 Euro, like everything) and spicy merguez sausage sellers, squeezed tighter than a can of (Moroccan imported) Harisa-drenched sardines without a single fight breaking out belies the image some abroad may have of a France, and a Europe, torn by sectarian strife. WE LIVE TOGETHER, AND WE THRIVE ON THIS ACCESS TO CUISINES AND GOODS FROM ALL OUR GLOBAL CULTURES. If you’re not convinced, just listen to the Chinese restaurant owner, Nigerian babushka, or English tourist (typically speaking only English) haggling with the Arab sweet-potato vendor. (I use the ethnic identifiers so you can visualize the scene, but to me they’re all French, or at least Parisian.)

Emerging from this gauntlet at Menilmontant, and after looking up the hill to salute the wall-scale painting of “nous, les gars de Menilmontant,” I returned to another other mecca, the French Arab epicerie where the same hot pepper, garlic, and citrus-infused olives and peppers that go for 24 Euros a kilo in the Southwest of France can be had for 4.60. (When I mentioned this to the owners squabbling at the cash register, the female half, clad in a black full-length gown and elegant black and white hood — the only reason I keep highlighting the local duds is to point out that it’s not like these women are being sequestered by their husbands and fathers in darkened rooms, they are fully integrated into French public life; it’s just that their scarves are more visible than, say, the wigs worn by their Hassidic counterparts which turns some French feminists beet red with indignation — replied, “All the more reason to stock up!”) The 1.20 can of Palestinian humus and 2.30 bottle of Dutch peanut-butter bringing my sack and pushing my sciatic-harboring back to breaking point, I passed through the Art Nouveau red lamps to descend into the Menilmontant Metro, only to find that the ticket machine didn’t take paper money. “You have to walk to the next Metro stop,” the dread-locked dude behind the information window informed me, which of course was Pere Lachaise, immediately torpedoing my resolution to avoid cemeteries this time around (Sarah Bernhardt, Heloise and Abelard, Jim Morrison, Marie Taglioni, Isadora Duncan, and Camille Pissarro are among the many bodies buried there) and try to find my muses (and counsels) among the living.

I perked up when I realized that this detour, perilous as it was for my dormant herniated disc, would also allow me to score my generous slice of Diplomate (like bread pudding, only moister) gateau at another of my regular Arab-European (bakery goods-wise) boulangeries. As usual, the (scarf-coiffed) matron behind the counter ignored my request not to close the paper around the Diplomate (they may have the best deserts in the world, but the French still haven’t figured out how to make a paper wrapping that doesn’t rip the top off), but given that the 1 Euro price hadn’t risen in four years, I decided to be a diplomat and not insist.

Tempted as I was to devour the Diplomate on the rim of Bernhardt’s tomb, after remembering what happened the last time I did this (“In France, we don’t dine on graves,” an uppity ersatz tourist guide had scolded me, tempting me to retort, “And unlike what you just told your clients, Sarah Bernhardt was not a star of silent cinema and had converted from being Jewish”), and considering that the now imploding sack might lead the cemetery’s entry guards to mistake me for a crazy terrorist (a terrorist crazy enough to have hatched a plan to kill already-dead icons), I instead settled for a bench facing an art deco elementary school with a tower-scale chimney, praying to all the gods I know, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Cultural, as I chawed my pudding after peeling the almond slivers off the paper, that the ideals represented by the school’s marquee won’t go up in smoke as thick as that spouting from the chimney tower:

Ecole Primaire Voltaire.

Ils sont tous les enfants de le République.

PS: If you don’t have the means and/or the celebrity to make it into Pere Lachaise (with the appetizing possibility that an obsolete necrofrancophiliac journalist might one day be dining on your grave and asking you for advice) — not to mention the massive carbon imprint your final flight would leave if you’re not lucky enough to die in France (clin d’oeil — and test to see if she’s really hanging, so to speak, on my every word — to CD), here’s an alternative that would please even my journalistic god Jessica Mitford. (And one that’s apparently even greener than Pere Lachaise, not-so-incidentally the largest patch of green in Northeast Paris.)