Mondrian chez Monet: Death & Devotion

mondrian sunflower and devotionWhile I was initially skeptical of the very premise of Figurative Mondrian: A Secret History, running through January 26 at, appropriately, the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris (whose permanent collection of its namesake’s work traces Claude Monet’s own progression from caricaturist to late-‘Water Lillies’ and ‘Japanese Bridge’ abstractionist — there are none so clairvoyant as those who can barely see), an examination of a selection of the oeuvres featured suggests that at least the Marmottan, as opposed to many of its sister institutions in Paris and New York, has not forgotten that one of the fundamental missions of a fine arts museum is to continually re-evaluate our understanding of historical artists. (As opposed to using the greats as platforms to launch their own fleeting fancies, as the Musée Petit Palais is now doing in marking the bicentennial of the birth of Gustave Courbet by pairing a paltry dozen works by the Modern Master with many more by a contemporary midget.) My initial objection was that one can’t simply lop off the early stage of an artist’s career from the rest and elevate it from a necessary foundation on which what followed was constructed to an independent oeuvre worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with what artists who made their reputations in that genre accomplished. (If our most representative modernist and surrealist, Picasso and Duchamp, started out as, respectively, eloquent figuratives and last-generation impressionists, it was because these were the worlds they were born into and these were the schools in which their masters created and taught.) And that the most important legacies these formative stages offer is the proof that before he went off the reservation, the artist demonstrated that he had mastered the fundamentals. Before you break the rules, you need to prove you know what they are. Even James Bond had to show he had the rigor to enter Her Majesty’s Secret Service before he was granted a license to kill.  (And even Martha Graham had to pass by Leonid Massine — in whose version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” she played the Chosen One — before she branched out from the ballet tree to create her own Modern system) What the Marmottan was thus characterizing as an oeuvre worthy of an expo in its own right had previously seemed to me to fall more appropriately into this category, Piet Mondrian’s necessary rites of passage to establish that he knew how to depict nature before he set out to denature it, an ‘apercu’ that he’d started out with forests populated by trees before he got to empty spaces dissected by lines. And not much more. This impression was based mostly on Alberto Busignani’s monograph “Mondrian” (Arts et Métiers Graphiques, Paris, in Dominique Fort’s translation, and Sadio Editore, Florence, 1968.) But even the two oils above disprove Busignani’s contention that by 1909-1910 — and already hinted at in 1908 — “the abstraction of the subject absolutely forbids [Mondrian] from creating a painting of story.” You don’t have to be a Moses Pendleton (to evoke Modern Dance’s most famous sunflower-worshiper) to see story in the “Dying Sunflower I” oil on carton at left, measuring 63 x 31 cm, or “Devotion,” the oil on canvas at right, measuring 94 x 61 cm. Both images  © Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, the Netherlands. — Paul Ben-Itzak

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Thus spoke the Raven / Le Corbeau (with a little help from Manet and Mallarmé)

books poe 1Édouard Manet illustration for Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), and Édouard Manet (1832-1883), “Le Corbeau, The Raven: poëme,” Paris, Richard Lesclide, 1875. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 40,000-60,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

If ever proof was needed that the tastes of private collectors are more adventurous and archeologically enterprising than those of most museum curators/marketers, a comparison of current marquee exhibitions at three major Paris museums and an auction of relatively modest ambitions — Artcurial’s Thursday Books and Manuscripts sale in Paris — provide it.

At the Louvre, the first major Paris exhibition devoted to Delacroix in 55 years (running through July 28) seems less ambitious than a pair of simple but vivid Delacroix water-colors (of costumes for an early Victor Hugo drama) offered by Artcurial, France’s leading auction house, a couple of years back. Most of the reproductions of available press visuals make it hard to distinguish the master’s from any other musty parlor paintings that might have been hauled down from the attic. (Which is hopefully where the Louvre’s been storing them, what with the increasingly recurrent flooding of the Seine that make its basement storage problematic.) Meanwhile, over in the toney 16th arrondissement on the cusp of the Boulogne woods, the Marmottan Monet museum has decided to show the least flattering side of Camille Corot, displaying not the nature studies which made him a pioneer in outdoor painting who blazed the trail for the Impressionists (some of whom, notably Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot, took their first lessons in color values in Corot’s studio off the rue de Paradis), but his portraits, which, except for the ultimate, the 1874 Lady in Blue, belong back in the 18th century with their visages hard to distinguish from one to the other. (And I’m still waiting for someone to explain what those swastikas are doing etched on the bindings of the books in back of the Lady.) And the curators at the Orangerie museum in the Tuilerie Gardens are treating as a revelation the influence of Monet’s later Water Lillies and Japanese Bridge studies on certain American abstract painters, a connection which is plain to anyone who’s ever seen Monet’s twilight paintings in their permanent home at the Marmottan.

Into this breach of (mostly public) institutional imagination steps, once again, Artcurial, furnishing more artistic revelations than all these museum exhibitions combined — and this in an auction whose putative primary focus isn’t even art, but literature.

So while museums (around the world, not just in France) are treating as clever novelty the pairing of contemporary creators with the ancients, often by drawing nebulous neo-extrapalatory connections, Artcurial, by contrast, in just this one moderate-scale auction shows us vastly more interesting literary-painterly connections than even I, with my over-exposition to and immersion in art, knew existed. Specifically: Edgar Allen Poe / Stéphane Mallarmé with Edouard Manet; Fernand Léger with the gallivanting Blaise Cendrars; Guillaume Apollinaire with Robert Delaunay; André Breton with Pierre Molinier; Paul Eluard with Oscar Dominguez; Horace and the sculptor Aristide Maillol; and Anatole Le Braz with Mathurin Méheut, the Breton-born official painter of the Marine, whose sketches of what Hugo called “the workers of the sea” recall the realism of his Breton contemporary, the film-maker Jean Epstein. And these are just the highlights; I’ve left out literary-artistic collaborations in which I don’t know the literary work well enough to do the collaboration justice.

But enough ranting; let’s get to the literary art collaborations.

I’d just barely finished drying my tears at dropping the already heavy petanque ball and missing Artcurial’s Illustrated Books sale when the catalog for Books and Manuscripts arrived on my doorstep somewhere in the southwest of France Thursday.

books poe twoÉdouard Manet illustration for Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) , Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), and Édouard Manet (1832-1883), “Le Corbeau, The Raven: poëme,” Paris, Richard Lesclide, 1875. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 40,000-60,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

If you thought you had nothing left to learn about Edouard Manet, you probably haven’t yet heard about his drawings for the Paris publisher Richard Lesclide’s 1875 edition of “Le Corbeau, The Raven: poëme,” doubly-titled because Edgar Allen Poe’s original is doubled by Stéphane Mallarmé’s translation. (Realizing that Poe was translated by Mallarmé and Faulkner — “Requiem for a Nun” — translated *and* dramatized by Camus is enough to make any budding translator wonder if he has the literary balls for this work.)

The original edition on sale by Artcurial (one of 150 printed on Holland paper) includes four large lavis in black ink drawings hors-texte and autographed and two large black vignettes (the raven’s head on the first cover plate and the wings spread over the ex-libris). It’s signed by Mallarmé and Manet, with the four illustrations printed on China paper, and inscribed by Mallarmé to Léonie Madier de Montjau, a witness at the writer’s wedding with Christina Maria Gerhard and, later, his neighbor on the rue de Rome in Paris, near the Gare St.-Lazare.

books cendrars legerFernand Léger illustration for Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961) & Fernand Léger (1881-1955), “La Fin du monde filmée par l’Ange N.-D. Paris,” Éditions de la Sirène, 1919. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 1,500-2 000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

France’s answer to Hemingway, if Blaise Cendrars’s 1913 collaboration with Sonia Terk Delaunay, “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France,” illustrated and designed as a vertical accordion poem, is well-known, Cendrars’s 1919 “La Fin du monde filmée par l’Ange N-D” (The end of the world filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame) was not known to me until I opened up the Artcurial catalog to behold Léger’s illustration, one of 22 featured in this the second book he designed for the author (after “J’ai tué,” I have killed, in 1918). Here’s the translation of the text in the pages we’re sharing:

“God the Heavenly Father is at his American-style desk, hastily signing innumerable papers. He’s in his shirt-sleeves, his eyes covered by a green printer’s shade. He gets up, lights up a fat cigar, looks at his watch, nervously paces back and forth in his office, chewing on his cigar. He sits down again at his desk, feverishly pushes away….”

books breton molinierAndré Breton (1896-1966) & Pierre Molinier (1900-1976), “Poèmes.” Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 8,000-10,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

The surprise of the auction, in more ways than one, is Pierre Molinier’s contribution to Breton’s “Poems,” published by Gallimard in 1948, one of 23 examples on Hollande paper, and one of three not released for sale, all marked “A.” In other words, this is Breton’s own copy, enriched by an original lead pencil drawing monogrammed by Molinier, “Hotel des Etincelles” (Sparkles Hotel). Apparently the Surrealist-in-Chief had slipped the drawing neatly into the book next to the poem of the same name — so subtly that the last time it was sold at auction, in 2003, the auction house didn’t even notice the Molinier work. (En quoi de nourrir every amateur art collector’s fancy to find a previously unreconnoitered Picasso secreted by Cocteau into his personal copy of “Les parents terribles.”)

As for Mathurin Méheut, as Artcurial puts it in the catalog, the 71 China ink drawings, enhanced with gouache before being engraved in wood for the book, and 72 additional illustrations created in watercolor, sanguine, charcoal, colored pencil, and other mediums for G. & A. Mornay’s two-volume 1923 publication of Le Braz’s “Le Gardien du feu” (The Fire Guard), constitute, “by the variety of techniques employed,” and subjects treated, a veritable testament to the unique and fecund oeuvre of the great Breton artist, official painter of the Marine, decorator of ships, ceramist, and book illustrator.

books meheut one

books meheut two

books meheut two and a half

books meheut three

books meheut fourAbove (all five): Mathurin Méheut, illustrations for Anatole Le Braz (1859-1926) et Mathurin Méheut (1882-1958), “Le Gardien du feu,” Paris, G. & A. Mornay, 1923. Two volumes. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 120,000-150,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.