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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.

Paul Lombard at Artcurial: Doing Justice to Art History

lombardacleger90detail smallFernand Léger (1881-1955), “Project for  Paul Eluard’s ‘Liberty, I write your name'” (Detail), 1953.  Gouache, ink, and collage on paper, 13 x 51 1/8 inches.  Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 80,000 – 120,000 Euros. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

It’s a pity that Paul Lombard was too busy becoming a lion of the law — among other celebrated cases, working on the Chagall, Picasso, Balthus, and Bonnard successions and valiantly defending one of the last men to be executed in France before it banned the death penalty in 1981, Christian Ranucci, in the belief that his client was innocent — to take up a third career (he also wrote books) as a curator. Judging by the breadth and intrepidness of the late Marseille-born advocate’s collection, which goes on sale Tuesday evening at Artcurial in Paris, Lombard was not only an expert in various domains of the law (notably authoring a book on divorce), but could have given seminars to the major museum curators, whose ethos in recent years (with the exception of the Pompidou) seems to be driven by marketing concerns at the expense of curiosity, archeology, and preservation (of art history, I mean), most exhibitions repeatedly trotting out the same artists in new conceptual configurations or combinations.

A perusal of the Artcurial catalog for the Lombard auction confirms that in building a collection which documents several through-lines of art history between them spanning more than 200 years, Lombard, who died in January at the age of 89, was guided by two principles (both familiar to defense lawyers): Explaining (in this case, the sources of artistic movements and individual artists’ inspirations), and shedding light (here, on previously obscure aspects of artists we thought we already knew everything about).

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L’univers va danser

lombardacleger94 smallAmong the phenomenal collection of the late French lawyer Paul Lombard to be auctioned off by Artcurial in Paris October 10: Fernand Leger, “Camarades!” (Portrait of Jacques Decour), 1951. India ink on paper, 19 1/4 x 12 7/8 inches. Jacques Decour was the nom de plum of Daniel Decourdemanche, French author, German scholar, and editor of Louis Aragon’s revue Commune and of the  Resistance newspaper La pensée Libre, executed by firing squad on Mount Valérien by the German occupiers on May 30, 1942, at the age of 32. It’s not surprising that this particular work should have attracted Lombard,  unafraid of championing lost causes. Originally a gift to Decour’s sister,  Denise Decourdemanche, the inscription says, in part: “Comrades, we won’t let this happen. Today the universe is going to dance.” In a letter to his family written on the day of his execution, Decour wrote: “As I am not religious, I’ve not been dwelling on death. I think of myself a bit like a leaf which falls from the tree to turn into compost. I want to speak to the young people of France, in whom I place all my hope.” Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial. (Letter cited in “La vie à en mourir, lettres de fusillés 1941-1944,” Taillandier, 2003, and quoted in this Wikipedia article.)