Of these, hope: Buda, Texas, 1949

Morris Engelm, Buda, Texas. Dairy Farmer-Rylander Family, 1949, gelatin silver print, Carter MuseumFrom the exhibition Looking In: Photography from the Outside, theoretically on view through July 5 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas: Morris Engel (1918–2005), “Buda, Texas. Dairy Farmer—Rylander Family,” 1949. Gelatin silver print. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. © 1980 Morris Engel. Note all the squares and rectangles and which, when they interrupt them, focus the eye on the young woman’s strong calf, elegant foot, and taut toes. Note also the resemblance to the stance of another young worker, the model (his sister) in Gustave Courbet’s 1855 oil painting “The Wheat Sifters,” in the collection of the Fine Arts Museum of Nantes, France.

Le Feuilleton (the Serial), 8: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, anti-Semitism, and critics in Post-war Paris, Part 8

by and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
From “Trompe-l’oeil,” published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel

Part eight in the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first seven parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here. To learn how to support our work, e-mail artsvoyager@gmail.com .

Freshly returned from New York, Ancelin took tea at the Mumphys’ pad facing the Luxembourg Gardens. Monsieur Mumphy fawned over Ancelin, showering him with compliments as he did no other artist. These bouquets were destined first and foremost for the general’s son before they arrived at the young painter with a bright future.

No matter; regardless of who he was dealing with, Ancelin always conducted himself with an easy-going manner. His familiarity with the art dealers, the collectors, and even the most reserved of critics had the initial effect of shocking them before convincing them despite themselves to look upon Ancelin as a friend. Thanks initially to the rank of his father, then to his own cheekiness, at just 30 years old Ancelin had built up an address book that many older artists never compiled on their talent alone.

He never addressed an acquaintance by his last name, but always by his first name. His conversation was also laced with enigmas that only the initiated could follow. For example, he might say to Monsieur Mumphy:

“Jean promised to puff me up with Marcel. We had a long interview the other day chez Gaston.”

Translation: “Paulhan promised to sing my praises to Arland. We had a long interview the other day with Gallimard.”

By thus referring to them by their first names, Ancelin eventually convinced
everyone that he was on intimate terms with everyone else — and really did become close to all those who mattered in the art world.

Ancelin had another weapon in his arsenal: women. Not just the worldly women amongst whom his youth and his impertinence sowed bedlam, but all women. If his more or less concealed intimacy with numerous worldly women opened the doors to important collectors, his knack for seduction also exercised its charm on women who were more obscure but just as important to his career: gallery assistants, newspaper employees who made sure to slip a word to an editor. A deft painter who worked swiftly, Ancelin allocated one hour per day to his work and the other 23 to hawking it. He slept too of course, but rarely alone and as he also peopled the dreams of numerous disappointed women the same night, his time was never squandered.

And yet, this patented arrivist was not bereft of all sensitivity, or even outright sentimentality or disinterestedness. His friendships with Manhès and Fontenoy were proof of this.

When he was starting out, Ancelin found a precious support in Manhès, an established and esteemed painter. Fontenoy’s articles helped to launch him. But even today, when he no longer had need of them, he still hung out with the older painter and the journalist. He often defended them, even if these interventions were later held against him.

Young Charles joined his parents for the tea at the Mumphys.’ If the world of painting had been completely foreign to the adolescent as recently as the previous spring, he’d been bitten by the bug since he started taking courses at the Academy of Abstract Art. Bien entendu, he aped the lessons of his teachers.

As Ancelin lingered in front of the wall dedicated to Manhès, studying for the umpteenth time the technique in these paintings, dissecting them with his eyes and always extracting some profit for his own work, Charles Mumphy sashayed over to him and asked:

“What do you think you’ll discover in Manhès? You paint much better than him.”

Ancelin pivoted around, surprised by this chiding.

“Charles,” said Monsieur Mumphy with an air of reproach, “our good friend Ancelin has lots of talent, but after all, Manhès….”

“Manhès is the greatest of us all,” Ancelin cut him off with a certain brusqueness.

“Oh! Don’t exaggerate, don’t exaggerate,” Monsieur Mumphy answered in a jocular tone.

Ancelin walked over to two small water-colors, placed in discrete retreat in a corner.

“How about that! Blanche Favard! You’ve done right to add them to your collection, it’s good work!”

“Kind of you to say, kind of you to say….”

“You know that she’s become Fontenoy’s girlfriend?”

“We know, we know,” Monsieur Mumphy responded, rubbing his hands together and grinning until his face puffed up.

Ancelin approached the wall consecrated to his own paintings. He studied them as minutely as he’d examined Manhès’s tableaux earlier.

“Albert, you should give this one back to me. I’ll touch it up.”

“No, no!” Monsieur Mumphy protested. “Those paintings belong to me.”

Ancelin didn’t insist, but he continued ruefully regarding the incriminating painting.

In addition to his loyalty to his friends, Ancelin had another admirable quality: a professional conscience.

*****

After leaving the Mumphys’, Ancelin stopped in at the Laivit-Canne Gallery.

Satisfied to see one of his paintings in the show-case, he embraced the secretary upon entering and hunched over to reduce himself to the same scale as Laivit-Canne, effusively shaking the dealer’s hand.

He inspected the paintings hanging from the gallery’s walls, confirmed that he was well-placed, and remarked the absence of Manhès, who used to occupy the place of honor.

Laivit-Canne followed the painter around the room, monitoring his reactions. He interrogated him on what he thought of certain tableaux.

“Why haven’t you hung any of Manhès’s paintings?” Ancelin asked.

“Manhès is finished.”

Then he adopted an unctuous tone:

“You did quite well in New York, my dear Ancelin. Your exhibition was not a huge financial success, but your paintings are catching on. Next time you’ll sell everything. You have the stuff it takes to succeed. I’m going to be frank with you. Up until now, I’ve kept you in the shadow of Manhès and I was wrong. It’s a good thing that I had a falling out with that imbecile. Now I’m going to put all my stakes on you.”

Ancelin did not seem very happy about this.

“I’m the stand-in who replaces the star.”

“No, no!” Laivit responded testily. “You’ll see…. I’ll take you under my wing. I’ll make you skip a generation. Okay, so Manhès was your initiator; let’s recognize that. But you’re the better painter.”

Ancelin was slightly inebriated by Laivit-Canne’s words. This stroke to his ego, though, was tempered by bitterness over the dealer’s ingratitude towards Manhès. And then there was this comment again, the same that Charles Mumphy had pronounced: “You paint better than Manhès.” The phrase worried him. “There’s a conspiracy brewing against Manhès. I’ll warn him tonight.”

****

Ancelin reunited with Manhès, Isabelle, Fontenoy, and Blanche at the Select. He embraced Isabelle and Blanche, shook hands with his friends.

He talked about his trip to New York, of the warm welcome Abstract art was receiving over there.

“The French,” observed Manhès, “are always complaining with a certain rancor about the Americans who swept up all the Impressionist paintings. But they’ve conveniently forgotten that the Impressionists were understood in America from their very first exhibition. It will be the same for us. We live in Paris, but our paintings will go to American museums because the French bureaucrats of the Fine Arts administration ridicule our work.”*

Ancelin didn’t know how to talk to Manhès about the conspiracy which he’d devined. To do this he’d have to allude to the comparisons by Charles Mumphy and Laivit-Canne which were excessively flattering to him, and this embarrassed him. Fontenoy brought him to the heart of the subject by announcing:

“I’ve been fired by L’Artiste.”

“No!”

“Oh yes, Old Man. Already, while you were in New York, I had several squabbles with the editor-in-chief. They refused to let me write something about the Manhès-Laivit-Canne rupture under the pretext that it might upset the gallery. Then, when I proposed to write about a visit to Corato’s studio, they asked me to sing the eloges of Yves Brayer. If it was just that, I could have dealt with it. But now L’Artiste has launched an all-out campaign against Abstract art. I thought I’d dodged the problem by proposing a ‘piece’ on Courbet. But when I started looking at Courbet more closely, I got a glimpse of the conventional aspect of the personage. The famous ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet’is indeed a chef-d’oeuvre… of boorishness and of conceitedness. Courbet’s sole quality is in the matter; his signature style is beautiful. But what conventionality in the sources of his inspiration! Voila the gist of my article on Courbet. Bad idea! My timing could not have been worse. It just so happened that they were getting ready to hold up Courbet as an example for the young painters. The die was cast. It was time to relieve themselves of my services.

Ancelin seemed crushed:

“It’s a tough blow. There’s no way of repairing the damage?”

Fontenoy sighed wearily.

“I don’t have the will any longer. I held on to the Artiste gig as long as I could. To continue, I’d have to deny everything I’ve fought for.”

Ancelin remained lost in thought.

“That’s out of the question, but it’s a huge sacrifice all the same…. From time to time the newspaper publishes your poems. You’ve got a tribune there that it will be difficult to replace elsewhere in the near future.”

“I’m well aware of that. If it was just a minor misunderstanding, it could be fixed. But we’re about to confront a major offensive. Did you see the latest issue of Le Figaro?”

“No.”

“Claude-Roger Marx has penned a piece with a bold headline: IT’S TIME TO BRING BACK GREEN WITH COURBET. Elsewhere, Dunoyer de Ségonzac is going after non-figurative painting. In another major daily, they turned over an entire page to Vlaminck just so he could rail at all Modern Art, from Cubism to the Abstracts — except of course his own painting. I had the presentiment of a catastrophe. Now it’s a certitude.”

“Don’t make like the biblical prophet,” Manhès warned. “I earn enough for us to start our own revue. That’ll rile them up! How’s that for an idea? What do you say? If we launch a review of our own? Of course, Fontenoy would be the editor-in-chief.”

Fontenoy suddenly had a vision of one of his dreams coming true: Directing an avant-garde revue, mingling poetry and painting, music and architecture. Then he tried to dismiss this over-flattering idea:

“You know, it’s really expensive to print a revue!”

“How much?” asked Manhès, tensing up. “Work up an estimate, evaluate the possibilities and the risks of the adventure. Make up a demo issue. Nothing’s impossible. In any case, I’d be quite happy to toss our own revue on their path to trip them up!”

They parted in the excitation of this idea.

Copyright 1956, 2020 Michel Ragon. Published by Albin Michel, 1956. Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak.

*At the epoch as now, the French government — represented here by the Fine Arts department of the culture ministry — has the right to pre-empt the sale at auction of works it deems national treasures. If it so deems them.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française: When the greatest writer of the 19th-century had to take the renowned theater to court to get it to honor its contract to perform his plays

hugo hernani artcurialVictor Hugo (1802-1885), Manuscript of “Hernani” delivered to the censors, 1829. 115 pages in one volume in-folio (35.3 x 22.8 cm). Includes seven requests for correction of the censor. Pre-sale estimate: 2,000 – 3,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Introduction by Victor Hugo
Translation and preface by Paul Ben-Itzak

If you think all you can glean from a sale of musty old books and manuscripts is a whooping cough, think again. What arises most remarkably from today’s sale of 19th and 20th-century literature belonging to the Collections Aristophil organized by Artcurial, Aguttes, Drouot Estimations and Ader-Nordmann in the Drouot-Richelieu auction facilities in Paris is not dust but history, and not just literary histories but histories of humanity. Among the more than 100 lots comprised of manuscripts, original editions, photographs, and art by or associated with Victor Hugo which constitute the heart of the auction is a 115-page manuscript for “Hernani,” considered by many to be the first salvo launched by the Romantics of whom Hugo was the general on the citadel of the Classicists. If this manuscript — estimated pre-sale by the auctioneers at 2,000 – 3,000 Euros — is the example the author submitted to the censors in 1829, contrary to what one might assume, the impediments to getting Hugo’s plays produced didn’t fall with censorship in the Revolution that followed the next year. They only increased. Herewith our translation of the proceedings of the legal process the author was forced to launch against the august Comédie-Français in 1837 after seven years of trying in vain to get the theater created by Moliere to honor its contracts to perform “Hernani,” “Marian de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” as reported by French legal journals and as included and introduced by Hugo himself in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872 . (A copy of which we picked up not an auction but a ‘vide-grenier’ — like a neighborhood-wide garage sale, meaning literally ’empty the attic’ — above the park Monceau earlier this year … for one Euro.) As you’ll discover, because the plaintiff was Victor Hugo and because the defendant was the Comédie-Française, in other words the guardian of the temple, far from representing just one author’s efforts to get his client to honor its contracts, the affair was a sort of outing of the literary battle of two schools, of the past and the future, previously largely hidden or confined to the corridors of power and the backrooms of the theater. With his later lambasting — in the appeal process — of the ‘coteries’ which controlled what the public gets to see, the proceedings also can’t help but resonate with anyone who observes the programming at the establishment theaters of today, whether in Paris or New York. (In this observer’s view.)

Because Eugene Delacroix was to art what Hugo was to theater — ushering in the Romantic movement in that world, and even designing costumes for Hugo’s first play — we’ve included below a drawing by the former also on sale in today’s auction. There’s also one from Hugo himself.

Our translation is dedicated to Lewis Campbell, for introducing us and so many others to the humanistic power and historical resonance of the theater. To read our translation of George Sand reviewing Victor Hugo for Victor Hugo, click here. And of Hugo appealing for clemency for John Brown, click here.  To support our work via PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com  , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check, or to hire Paul for your translation needs.

Introduction by Victor Hugo

As with “Le roi s’amuse,” “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo” had their trials. At heart, it always comes down to the same thing: Against “Le roi s’amuse,” it was a matter of a literary persecution hidden under a political fracas; against “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” of a literary persecution hidden behind the chicaneries of the corridors of power. We’re forced to admit: We’re somewhat hesitant and not a little embarrassed to pronounce this ridiculous term: “literary persecution,” because it’s strange that in the moment in which we’re living, literary prejudgments, literary animosities, and literary intrigues are consistent and solid enough that one can, in piling them up, erect a barricade in front of the door of a theater.

The author was forced to crash through this barricade. Literary censorship, political interdiction, preventions devised in the backrooms of power, he had to solemnly seek justice against secret motives as well as public pretexts. He had to bring to light both petty cabals and ardent enmities. The triple wall of coteries, built up for so long in the shadows, he had to open in this wall a breach wide enough for everybody to pass through it.

As little a thing as it was, this mission was bestowed upon him by the circumstances; he accepted it. He is but — and he is aware of this — a simple and obscure soldier of thought; but the soldier like the captain has his function. The soldier fights, the captain triumphs.

For the 15 years that he’s been at the heart of the imbroglio, in this great battle that the ideas which characterize the century wage so proudly against the ideas of other times, the author has no other pretension than that of having fought the good fight.

When the vanqueurs are tallied, he might be numbered among the dead. No matter! One can die and still be the vanqueur. To read the complete translation — and trial report — on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction, click here.

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