Le Feuilleton (the Serial),10: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris; Part 10: Conflicts

Vera Molnar, Montparnasse, d'après Klee, en bleu, vert et rouge 2006 To demonstrate how the Abstract Art of which Michel Ragon was one of the first champions is very much a living tradition, where possible the Dance Insider / Paris Tribune are including art from current or recent exhibitions with our exclusive, first-ever English-language serialization of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’oeil.” Above, from last year’s exhibition at the Galerie Berthet- Aittouarès (in, bien sur, Saint-Germain-des-Prés): Vera Molnar, “Montparnasse d’après Klee en bleu vert et rouge,” 2006. © Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès.

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

Part 10 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 nine  parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here. To learn how to support our work, e-mail artsvoyager@gmail.com . To support us through PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

Fifteen days later, in the throes of correcting the proofs of the second issue, Fontenoy felt a sudden surge of discouragement. Blanche was working in her atelier at the Cité Falguière. He dropped everything and went to see his companion.

Walking down the Boulevard Montparnasse, he took stock of the results of the first issue of the revue. It was too soon to draw any conclusions, but he had the impression of hurtling against a wall. Like Manhès, what had pleased him about this adventure was the battle to come, the possibility of finally saying in print everything he’d been stifling about this conspiracy against the movement of painting that he loved. This revue would be a little bomb which would go off in the midst of the conformists, the cabals. They’d be forced to respond to so many specific accusations. But neither L’Artiste, nor Le Figaro, nor any other newspaper had yet noted, even with two measly lines, the new revue’s existence. Everything continued just as it had been, as if the revue didn’t exist at all. Some booksellers in Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Prés had put it in their windows. Its successful launch depended on them, and on eventual subscriptions in response to the comp. copies that had been sent out.

Blanche was flattened out on her stomach on the divan, working on a water-color. Fontenoy plopped down next to her. In the atelier, numerous water-colors had been framed behind glass, ready for the imminent exhibition.

“You know,” she remarked, continuing to paint, “it’s no laughing-matter to try to get the bookshops to sell the revue….”

“I know. But it’s the only way to spread the word.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You made the rounds of the art bookshops that you know well, and that know you. No problem. You leave the copies on consignment and they say thanks. But me, I hit the other bookshops. You have no idea how they react. Some don’t accept consignments as a matter of sheer principle. They tell me: ‘When you come back to pick up the unsold copies, they’ve disappeared under a pile. They can’t be found and we have to pay you anyway. Two months later they surface and are unsellable. No no, no consignments.’ ‘Okay, so buy a fixed number of issues.’ ‘You must be joking. We’re inundated as it is!’ And those are the nice ones. Others take a quick look, disabusedly shrug their shoulders, and say no. Some pick up the revue, leaf through it, and burst out in guffaws: ‘Ah! Cool, it’s a take-off? I get it — very clever…. But our customers won’t get it at all.’ I was, however, able to place a few copies that were accepted on consignment, begrudgingly, and in those cases most likely because of my gorgeous eyes.”

In a corner of the atelier Fontenoy spotted the pile of rejected revues. He had a sudden spurt of revolt, of anger:

“But how the hell are we supposed to get off the ground if the newspapers give us the silent treatment, if the bookstores refuse consignments, if the subscription drives meet up with nothing but negligence and indifference!?”

Fontenoy perceived that hostility to their cause wasn’t the only factor. The bookstores held themselves above the internecine factional squabbles, but their detached attitude could become just as lethal, if not moreso, as any frontal attacks.

Blanche straightened up her material on the table, cast a last glance at the fresh water-color she’d just finished and came over to sit next to Fontenoy, lacing her plump arms around him.

“Worries, worries, worries! How’s about putting your ‘big ideas’ aside for a moment and getting back to the two of us? Have you finished the preface for my exhibition? What are you planning, for me, in the revue?”

“All that on the other hand is going very well,” Fontenoy responded with lassitude. “Look, I have the text for your preface right here in my pocket. Read through it. For the revue, Rinsbroek will talk about you, it’s preferable.”

“And you won’t put in any of my images?”

“That’ll be up to Rinsbroek.”

“Come again? But what good does it do then to be the editor-in-chief?”

“Rinsbroek wants to talk about you. He’ll say what he judges needs to be said and we’ll publish a reproduction of your work if he considers that you merit it.”

Blanche bit her lip. Fontenoy grasped her tenderly around the waist and kissed her on the temple:

“Listen, Blanche. Don’t get upset. I’m being brutal, but we have much bigger worries these days. Your exhibition will go quite well and in all probability we’ll publish a photo in the revue. Rinsbroek’s article will certainly sing your praises, otherwise he wouldn’t have accepted the assignment. But on principle, I just want to make it clear, once again, that I won’t put any pressure on him. It’s just not comprehensible. It’s as if you’re asking me to employ the very methods in our revue that we’re fighting against when others practice them.”

Blanche didn’t answer. She read over Fontenoy’s handwritten text for the preface:

“How set are you on citing Klee? I know you just mean to use it as a reference, but won’t that just make them think that I imitate him, like all the rest?”

Fontenoy replied, exasperated: “Delete Klee if he bothers you so much!”

Blanche got riled up:

“I like Klee. I don’t deny that. But the reference here just bothers me.”

And she put her dainty little finger on the sheet of paper. “It’s like your phrase: ‘Blanche Favard is an abstract painter who composes with parcels of memory.’ I understand what you’re getting at. My compositions include forms which resemble foliage, even landscapes. I agree. But what will Charles Roy say? The Salon des Réalitiés Nouvelles jury is quite capable of rejecting my submissions under the pretext that they’re Naturalist.”

“So now it’s Charles Roy’s opinion that matters the most to you!?” Fontenoy exclaimed, stupefied.

“I just don’t want to get everyone’s hide up like Manhès.”

“You’ll succeed, Blanche,” Fontenoy re-assured her, thoughtfully. “And what’s more, you’re talented.”

Huysmans to Puvis to Zola: When the author of ‘J’accuse’ touted a monumental artist who refused to go with the tide

Puvis de Chavanns Young women at the seaside smallerFrom the exhibition Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald: As seen by Francesco Vezzoli, in principle running April 3 through July 19 at the Strasbourg Museum of Contemporary Art (after an earlier run at the Orsay Museum, to whose boffo press service we owe these images): Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), “Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (Young women at the sea-side), 1879. Oil on canvas, 205.4 x 156 cm.  Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © musée d’Orsay / rmn. (For more art from the exhibition, click here.)

Text by Emile Zola
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

One of the benefits of the Orsay Museum’s latest penchant for re-envisioning  the late 19th-century work which is its charge through the eyes of contemporaneous critics  is that the polyglot writers often dictate a polyglot selection of artists which means that major figures overdue for their own solo shows get a cameo. Such is the case with the exceptional  Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)’s 1879 oil “Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (Young women at the sea-side),” which features in the work exhibited at the Orsay and theoretically to be exhibited through July 19 at the Strasbourg Museum of Contemporary Art for  Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald: As seen by Francesco Vezzoli. Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) may well have referred to himself as a “Dutchman putrefied with Parisianism,” but if we’re to judge by the Puvis painting above, his tastes were anything but. It’s no surprise that in 1880 — a year after this tableau was made — Emile Zola invited Huysmans to collaborate in the collection “Les Soirées de Medan.” Which connection is enough of a pretense for us to turn the Puvis floor over to the great man, as Zola singled out the painter in his review of the 1875 Salon, published in two “Letters from Paris” which appeared in Le Sémaphore de Marseille of May 3 and 4 and in “Le Messager de l’Europe” in Saint-Petersburg. Today’s translation and art goes out to Holly, and to all the Holly Golightlys of the world, in esperance for the period when we’ll all be able to go lightly again. — PB-I

I’ve saved Puvis de Chavannes’s large tableau for the end. Secluded at the Sainte-Croix convent, Radegonde gives refuge to poets and protects the world of Letters against the epoch’s barbary. Here at last is a truly original talent, who trained himself far from any Academic influences. He alone can succeed in the art of decorative painting, in the vast frescos exposed to the raw light of public institutions. In our times, with the crumbling of classic principles, the fate of mural paintings has become critical. The nobility of heroes, the simplicity of the drawing, every rule which makes the tableau a type of bas-relief in which the ‘cooler’ colors have trouble standing out in the midst of the marble of churches and palaces, have collapsed, making way for the explosion of the romantic brush. And suddenly, it seems to me, Puvis de Chavannes arrives and finds a breach in this impasse. He knows how to be interesting and alive, in simplifying the lines and painting with uniform tones. Radegonde, surrounded by nuns in white gowns, is listening to a poet declaiming verse between the walls of a convent. The scene exudes a grandiose and peaceful charm. To tell the truth, for me Puvis de Chavannes is but a precursor. It is indispensible that large-scale painting is able to find subjects in contemporary life. I don’t know who will be the painter with the genius to know how to extract the art of our civilization, and I don’t know how he’ll do it. But it is indisputable that art does not depend on either draperies or the antique nude; it takes root in humanity itself and consequently every society must have its own conception of beauty.

From Emile Zola, “Ecrits sur l’Art,” copyright 1991 Editions Gallimard.

Father is the child of the man: Chagall par Apollinaire, in poetry and criticism

Chagall Le Père smaller

From the exhibition “Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940,” in principle opening April 2 at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism in Paris, where it runs through August 23: Marc Chagall, “The Father,” 1911. MahJ, dépôt du Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI. © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat © Adagp, Paris 2020. Click here to read more about the exhibition.

Criticism & Poetry by Guillaume Apollinaire
Translations by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what we’re doing? We are continuing to post, daily when possible, under extremely difficult circumstances because we believe that in these perilous days it’s vital to share reasons to live, and art is one of them. If you have not yet donated or subscribed to the DI/AV, please join Lewis Campbell and others by doing so today in designating your payment in dollars or Euros through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask how to donate by check.)

Not only did the Surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire review Chagall’s show before it traveled from Paris to Berlin in 1914; his poem “Rotsoge” served as the preface to the exhibition catalog. Our translation of that poem, re-titled “A travers l’Europe” for the poet-critic’s monumental “Calligrammes,” follows the review below.  Today’s translations dedicated to my father Ed Winer, who died December 7, 2019 at the age of 81. And to all our valued living elders, because if there’s another reason we’re featuring this painting today, it’s this: Years ago, jogging down to the river from my digs in Fort Worth, Texas, I used to come across a sign on the outskirts of the (private) golf course that bordered the water: “Dr. Dan Patrick, for U.S. Senate.” This week that same Dan Patrick, now lieutenant governor of the Lone Star state, told Fox News (the president’s main information source) that (as Democracy Now reported) maybe all the old people should just let themselves die off, as a sacrifice to the young people so that America can get back to work. Where’s the A.M.A. (American Medical Association, which should sanction Dr. Patrick) when you need it? For more on the exhibition “Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940” at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism in Paris where (in theory) you can see the real McCoy of the Chagall painting, click here .

Marc Chagall

by Guillaume Apollinaire

(From L’Intransigeant, June 4, 1914.)

The Jewish race has not yet shone in the plastic arts. In the modern movement, for example, only Pissarro can be cited as having played an important role among the pioneers of Impressionism.

Being presented at this moment at the Sturm gallery in Berlin, which has exposed a large number of the young French painters and particularly [Robert] Delaunay and Léger, is the work of a young Russian Israelite painter, Marc Chagall. To this information I’d like to add that one can see his paintings in Paris at the Malpel gallery on the rue Montaigne.

Chagall is a colorist full of an imagination which, sometimes springing from the fantasies of Slavic folk imagery, always surpasses it.

He’s an extremely varied artist, capable of monument-scale paintings, and he doesn’t let any system cage him.

His show, which I caught before it travelled to Germany, includes 34 oils, water-colors, and drawings from different periods. I prefer his more recent work and above all his “Paris as seen from the window.”

Collected in Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art” (1902-1918), copyright 1960 Librairie Gallimard and compiled and annotated by L.-C. Breunig. Including the lead to the poem below which served as preface to the Chagall exhibition catalog.

****

A travers l’Europe

by Guillaume Apollinaire

To M. Ch.

Rotsoge
Your scarlet visage your biplane metamorphosed into a hydroplane
Your circular house where a pickled herring swims.
I must have the key to the eyelids
Happily we spotted M. Panado
And we’re assured on that account
What do you see my dear M.D….
90 or 324 a man in the air a veal who sees through her mother’s stomach.

I’ve looked for so long on the roads
So many eyes are shut along the roads
The wind makes willow-groves cry
Open open open open open
Look oh just look therefore
The old are bathing their feet in the wash-basin
Una volta ho intesto dire Chè vuoi
I burst into tears at the memory of your childhoods

And you you show me a harrowing violet
This little painting where there’s a car reminds me of the day
A day made up of mauve morsels yellows blues greens and reds
Where I went to the country with a charming chimney holding its dog by the leash
It’s gone it’s gone your little reed-pipe
Far from me the chimney smokes Russian cigarettes
The dog barks at the lilacs
The night-light has petered out
Petals have shat on the gown
Two golden rings next to the sandals
have lit up on the Sun
But your hair is the trolley
riding through Europe dressed with little multi-colored lights.

From “Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916),” copyright Librairie Gallimard 1925 and Club du meilleur livre 1955.

Montparnasse Forever or, when Painting was a Combat Sport

Jewish museum Kisling cubist nude smallMoshe Kisling, “Cubist Nude,” 1918. MahJ. © MahJ / Mario Goldman.

Texts by Guillaume Apollinaire and Maurice Raynal
Translated & introduced by Paul Ben-Itzak

What I love about the exhibition “Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940,” in principle opening April 2 at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism in Paris, where it runs through August 23, is the opportunity it furnishes to re-live the golden era of Montparnasse, quartier si cheri pas seulement aux exiles European but also American expats. (My inaugural summer in Lutèce, one of my initial excursions was to rush from my flat in the Cité Falguière, where many of these artists lived when they weren’t creating at “La Ruche” ((the hive)), notably Chaim Soutine (who also had his atelier there), to the rue Delambre to find the brasserie where Fitzgerald and Hemingway were said to have met for the first time, right up the street from Le Dôme.)

Today we’re proud to feature work by two of the artists featured in the exhibition, Moshe Kisling and Amedeo Modigliani. And to leave their appreciation to the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who no doubt knocked coffee cups with them on the terraces of Montparnasse (in an account of a duel Kisling once fought with a colleague) and the historian Maurice Raynal. The first from Apollinaire’s June 13, 1914 column in L’intransigeant as collected by L.-C. Breunig in “Chroniques d’Art” (1902-1918), copyright 1960 Librairie Gallimard. And the second from Kisling’s entry in Fernand Hazan’s 1954 “Dictionnaire de la peinture moderne.” (Copies of both of which I scored last Spring in Paris at vide-greniers — community-wide garage sales — in… Montparnasse. Bien sur.)

dome smallI’ll have another cup of coffee, please: (Left to right) Wilhelm Uhde, Walter Bondy, Rudolf Levy and Jules Pascin — the last of whom Hemingway once dubbed, in “A Moveable Feast,” “the king of Montparnasse,” at the legendary Paris bistro. The pile of ‘sous-tasses’ indicate how many cups of java the four had downed between them, so that the waiters could keep track for the check. Collection Catherine Cozzano. For more on Pascin — and a luscious sampling of his work — visit this Wikipedia article (in French).

Duelists

by Guillaume Apollinaire

Two Polish painters fought each other furiously yesterday in the Parc des Princes.* This gives us the occasion to sketch the portrait of these two major personages of Montparnasse, the quartier which, as we all know, has thoroughly replaced Montmartre, above all when it comes to painting.

Gottlieb, who’s been painting in Paris already for many years, is a discreet and simple man, whose art reflects the influences of Van Gogh and Munch. He’s an expressionist who himself has had more than a little influence on some of his compatriots. In general his work tends to pop up at the Salon of “Independents” and the Salon d’Automne. In December, he exposed a “Portrait of M. Adolphe Basler” which was particularly remarked.

M. Kisling, for his part, has been influenced rather by French painters like Derain. For a long time he painted in Céret, a sub-prefecture in the Pyrenees-Orientales, commonly referred to as the Mecca of Cubism. It should be added that in some circles great hope has been placed on Kisling, who will shortly be exposing his work in Dusseldorf, which will be hosting an exhibition of foreign painters who congregate at Le Dôme, the famous café at the corner of the boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse.

Kisling is in the process of creating woodcuts for a collection of poems by Max Jacob, “The limping Mouse.”*

Moïse Kisling

Amedeo Modigliani, “Portrait de Kisling,” 1916. Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI. © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Bertrand Prévost.

Moshe Kisling

by Maurice Raynal

The art of Moshe Kisling (b. 1891, Cracow; d. 1953, Sanary, France) offers a sharp example of the characteristics of what’s typically referred to as the Paris School, in the sense that he attempted to wed the traits of French art to those of his ethnic temperament. The young Moshe began drawing early on and with such facility that his family decided to make an engineer out of him. But when he reached the age of 15, he enrolled in the Cracow Academy, where his professor was the excellent Pankiewicz, who opposed the Munich style then in vogue in Poland, instead initiating the young Kisling in the art of the Impressionists he had known personally. On the advice of his master, Kisling moved to Paris in 1910 and settled in Montparnasse, where his spiritual joviality, a charming sensitivity, and his talent made him into one of the quartier’s most picturesque and beloved figures. During World War I, he enlisted in the Foreign Legion, was wounded in 1914, then discharged. He was one of the best friends of Modigliani, whom he assisted right up until the end. His art has always reflected a dynamism of color-infused forms which he owed to his Slavic origins. With the influence of French moderation, particularly that of André Derian, for a while he tried to contain his sensual exuberance. Notwithstanding the apparent ebullience of his character, his female nudes and faces of young boys often reflect some of the melancholy of a Modigliani. A melancholy that he masked in part with patches of bravado and, later on, completely evacuated in his portraits of actresses or women of the world where his brio was manifest in an exaltation which exploded in colors [and a] voluptuous drawing acuity….

 

*Notes from the original edition of Apollinaire’s collected articles on art, referenced above: According to a June 12 report in L’Intransigeant, the two adversaries Kisling and Gottlieb “fought with Italian sabers, with a ferocity atypical to our current customs. It was necessary, at a certain point, for M. Dubois, master of arms and combat director, to physically restrain one of the two dualists to get them to listen to him and stop the match….” The editor also indicates that there is no trace of the Max Jacob collection referred to….. click here to see Picasso’s portrait of Jacob, and here to read his piece on… Fake News. Avant l’heure….

Billie Holiday, Pieuvre: When Mr. Vian grasped Madame Day with all 8 arms

by and copyright Boris Vian
Translation and introduction copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

Given that Boris Vian, born 100 years ago this month, loved words like he loved music, often investing them with the same unbridled ribaldry with which he infused his coronet as every breath he pumped into the instrument in the caves of Saint-Germain des Près brought him closer to his pre-ordained final hour — Vian’s heart ultimately exploded when he was 39 — and applied the same playfulness and musicality to vernacular(s) as he applied to musical phrasing and songwriting, presuming to translate Vian in all his rhythms would be like trying to translate the seductive tones of Yves Montand or the joy in the voice of Charles Trenet; it can’t be done. (And as in many cases — the B-movie take-off sketches that comprise “Cinémassacre” or the American-style crime novels often written under the pen name of Vernon Sullivan — Vian himself is spoofing American vernacular, argot, and styles, translating him back into American inevitably ends up sounding flat because the humour gets lost in what is actually a kind of reverse-translation. Yes, Vian also earned his living as a translator.) Our English version of this Vian homage to Billie Holiday (citations at the end), on the announcement of her long-awaited French debut in 1954,  thus makes no pretense of being able to convey what Vian sounded like, reproduce the flavor of his expression, or mirror his masterful wordplay. What we do hope to reflect is the ardent devotion to jazz of this — of *the* — quintessential French lover (and promoter — he was the first to bring the Duke here) of this quintessentially American art form.  And to its First Lady — Lady Day. — PB-I

Take it away — and bring it home — Boris:

Billie Holiday is finally coming to France. We’ve been waiting for her for so long that it doesn’t seem real — we don’t believe it…. Happily, the years haven’t changed an iota of her talent; in this way she’s like a good wine which only gets better, if that were possible. It seems that the only thing which has changed is her silhouette, and that she now presents agreeable curves perfectly invisible in the photographs of the young Billie of ’37 or ’38. My goodness, there’s nothing displeasing about this to us, the sexual fanatics of France — and Billie is still far from achieving the volume of the Peter Sisters which themselves didn’t shock anyone chez nous (they even found themselves husbands).

You either like or don’t like Billie Holiday’s voice, but when you like it, you like it like you like a poison. She’s not the singer who flattens you right away with the big irreparable shock from which you never recover. Billie’s voice, a kind of insinuating philtre, *surprises* the first time you hear it. The voice of a provocative cat, with audacious inflections, it strikes you with its flexibility, its animal suppleness — a cat with its claws retained, the eyes half-closed — or to evoke an extremely more brilliant analogy, an octopus. Billie sings like an octopus. At first this is not always reassuring, but when she grabs you, she grabs you with all eight arms. And she doesn’t let go. (For that matter, there’s no animal more playful and caressing than the octopus, as witnessed by the films of Cousteau, the under-water explorer.)

It would be vain enough to study Billie’s vocal style — this kind of study is generally based on a comparison with standards the reader is supposedly familiar with, but this doesn’t work with Madame Day: in truth, she can’t be compared to any other chanteuse, even if it’s just a matter of her characteristically slightly “horsey” voice. Billie may have her imitators — she doesn’t imitate anyone. Wait a minute; did I just say she has imitators? I was wrong. It really seems that no one’s ever dared. There’s something ironic in her way of singing — an irony which transforms itself into toughness in the most emotional moments — which eliminates any sentimental or vulgar elements from her recordings. Who else could sing that great banality that is “No Greater Love” with such intonations? Flat in itself, the song becomes something provocative in Billie’s mouth — and if the American critics at this particular moment are slobbering over the “sexuality” in the charming Eartha Kitt’s interpretations, they’ve forgotten that Billie preceded her on the path of the double-entendre — these suggested by purely vocal and not verbal methods.

Billie Holiday has been reproached for her “sophisticated” side. One has to ask: Where’s the problem? One might just as well reproach Lester [Young] for having a different personality than [Erskine] Hawkins; it’s a known fact that in 1934, the epoch when the reign of the great Bessie had only just come to an end, Billie’s unexpected style was as surprising as Lester’s — and the choice of this comparison is no accident. She carved out a niche as distinct from the rest of the crowd of singers as, later on, Sarah Vaughan would in her turn. And the achievement was all the more meritorious in that Billie never had the vocal gifts of a Sarah, an Ella, an Ivie Anderson. But she knew how to mitigate this deficit with an acute intelligence about its possibilities, an exceptional sense of jazz, and an originality which sufficed, in this time of plagiarization where one can no longer tell one musician from his cousin or his brother, to earn her our homages. Which homages we offer in assuring her that it is with an unmitigated joy that we await hearing her, in flesh, in bones, and in voice.

— Excerpted from Boris Vian’s February 1954 jazz press review in Jazz Hot, collected in Boris Vian, “Chroniques de Jazz,” copyright 1967, Editions La Jeune Parque, compiled by Lucien Malson at the direction of Ursula Kübler Vian, Vian’s widow.

Le Feuilleton (the Serial), 9: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, anti-Semitism, and critics in Post-war Paris; Part 9: An Art and Literary Revue is launched

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

Part nine 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 eight parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here. To learn how to support our work, e-mail artsvoyager@gmail.com . To support us through PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

Ancelin asked Monsieur Mumphy to help fund the literary and artistic revue to be directed by Fontenoy.

The industrialist attempted to demure, but Ancelin was tenacious. Finally, he secured a commitment to a monthly subsidy, with one stipulation: That Charles Mumphy be mentioned in every issue. Such pretentiousness initially seemed exorbitant and inacceptable to Ancelin:

“At least wait until your son is an actual painter. He’s only 18. What could we possibly write about him now?”

“Well, you can say this!: That he’s only 18 years old and he’s already studying at the Academy of Abstract Art… And anyway, how should I know what you can write about him? That’s Fontenoy’s job, isn’t it? As long as he makes sure that people know that Charles exists, and that he’s studying to become a painter. The sooner we start giving him a little publicity, the better.”

Ancelin accepted, all the while dreading how Manhès and Fontenoy would react. He secured subscription pledges from his various girlfriends and their connections. In sum, thanks to Ancelin’s social dexterity and Manhès’s pocketbook, the revue became a reality. To avoid being indebted to Manhès, Fontenoy invested a chunk of his severance pay from L’Artiste in the enterprise.

Gustave Courbet, Le jardin de la Mere Toutain a Honfleur, 1859-61From the Arts Voyager archives: Gustave Courbet, “Le jardin de la Mere Toutain a Honfleur,” (Mother Toutain’s garden in Honfleur), 1859-61. Oil.

The first issue shaped up as a veritable manifesto. Fontenoy published his anti-Courbet article, which had been refused by L’Artiste. From this launching pad he extended the debate, denouncing the conspiracy against Abstract Art that had just exploded into a major offensive, with salvos being fired from all quarters. The revue presented a visit to Corato’s atelier in the Montparnasse artist quartier and offered full-page spreads with reproductions of paintings by Corato, Manhès, and Ancelin. Fontenoy enlisted a veteran critic, Rinsbroek — Belgian, of course — to undertake a group study on the new Abstract painting. At 65, Rinsbroek had accomplished the miracle of being able to comprehend a new generation of artists whose tendencies were diametrically opposed to those of the painters of his youth whom he’d championed when they were making their debuts. Such cross-generational prescience is rare. The defenders of Impressionism had greeted Cubism with a bewildered disapprobation, and the pioneers of Cubism had in turn thrown up their hands as a sign of discouragement when confronted with Abstract Art. Parents rarely understand their children, above all those who start taking up ideas that contradict their own, by a kind of instinctive physiological reaction.

Rinsbroek, 65-year-old herald of the new avant-garde, just as he’d been a herald of Cubism at 25, subsisted on very little. His impeccable honesty had been subjected, over the years, to the assault of many a temptation. Considered incorruptible, he’d been let out to pasture by the revues. He was unable to secure either the lucrative text assignments from art book publishers or cultural commissions from the state to curate exhibitions, two sources of honest revenue for art critics. But as long as an art critic maintains his integrity, he gets locked out. If he can’t be bought, he’s gagged. Rinsbroek had been muzzled.

Rinsbroek, who’d been one of the prophets of Cubism, owned only reproductions of work by the painters he’d launched. They’d shown him a perfect ingratitude, particularly when he’d started discovering the “younger” artists.  His old friends looked upon this renewal as a betrayal. While bitter, Rinsbroek retained a sufficient stock of enthusiasm to be able to throw himself into a new battle.

Rinsbroek’s study for Fontenoy’s revue tackled the subject of the controversial painters who had become the masters of the art of the contemporary scene: Hartung, Schneider, Soulages, Atlan, Poliakoff, de Staël, Vieira da Silva.

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, La Garde des anges, 1950, huile sur toile, 60 x 92 cm, Photo © Jean-Louis Losi, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris smallFrom the recent exhibition at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger in Saint-Germaine des Près: Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “La Garde des anges,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm, Photo © Jean-Louis Losi, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger.

The revue also included poems, essays on music and architecture, and notes and diverse factoids, including this item: “Charles Mumphy, son of the celebrated collector, has enrolled in the Academy of Abstract Art. No one doubts that this young man with a bright future…,” ad nauseum.

In a veritable fever, Fontenoy prepared the issue mailing. Blanche helped him to stick on the wrappers and address the labels for the recipients. The press run not being substantial enough to attract a distributor, they had to mail the magazine out themselves and count strictly on bringing in subscriptions. Copies were also dropped off at any bookstores willing to accept them.

Blanche aided Fontenoy, sulking all the while. She wasn’t happy that no reproductions of her watercolors were featured in the revue.

“I can’t,” Fontenoy explained. “They’d say right away it’s just a magazine for our pals. When you have your exhibition, we’ll devote an essay to you. But right now, it would seem like a buddy system.”

Blanche remained obstinate:

“You have something on Ancelin, so why not me?”

“Please Blanche! We already have worries enough!”

“It’s like Rinsbroek,” Blanche insisted, “why doesn’t he even mention me?”

Fontenoy was tempted to answer that he didn’t mention her because she wasn’t at the same level as the other artists cited by Rinsbroek, but he didn’t dare. He knew that Blanche would be hurt. But also, why the devil didn’t she stay in her place! He remained silent, applying himself to the thankless work of fulfillment clerk. As always in difficult situations, great examples came to his rescue. He recalled a visit that he paid one day to Jean Schlumberger.* The editor had pointed to a corner next to a chimney and explained, “You see the first issues of the N.R.F.* piled up over there? We sent them out from this room. Gide helped me, and Copeau.* We stuck the stamps on and wound the wrappers around them ourselves. After three years of effort, we only had 528 subscribers, of whom Gide forced himself to copy down the lists.”

Over the course of the evening, Ancelin and Manhès dropped by to lend a hand. At midnight, the magazines were ready to ship out. They contemplated the piles with a certain apprehension, as if they were staring at bands of dynamite or land mines.

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

*The quintessential French literary and critical revue, the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, commonly referred to as the N.R.F. and affiliated with the publisher Gallimard, was founded in 1908 by a group of novelists, critics, and journalists including Jean Schlumberger, André Gide, Jacques Copeau, and André Ruyters.

 

Journal d’un confiné (Diary of a confined man): Camus versus Bourvil; a nos jours de ping-pong en pleine air

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

A VILLAGE IN SOUTHWEST FRANCE — I always thought I’d be brave, like Tarrou in Camus‘s “La Peste,” “The Plague.” Diving right into the heart of the malady, seeing it as an opportunity to make his own meaning even during the darkest calamity; the gist of existentialism a la Camus. Or like the author himself, walking around Occupied Paris with the proofs of his clandestine newspaper Combat stuffed into his pocket, at the risk of his life. (On one occasion, spotting a Gestapo patrol a block ahead, he had just time enough to pass them to his mistress Maria Casarès, knowing that she’d be less likely to be searched.) (The birthday date accompanying the fake name on Camus’s fake passport is my own.) But now it’s clear that I would be more like Bourvil’s character in Claude Autant-Lara’s 1956 film “La Traversée de Paris,” neither a collaborator nor a Resistant, but just trying to survive and get along, in his case by trundling a black market side of beef across Occupied Paris after curfew with the help of painter Jean Gabin. (When I saw this film at the beginning of my Paris years with my friend Sabine at a Latin Quarter cinema, I didn’t understand why Gabin’s character got so riled up when the pair took refuge in a cafe where a Jewish girl was bussing tables. I thought it an admirable thing that they were hiding her out. “He is mad because they are taking advantage of the situation to have a worker for free,” Sabine explained.)

While this quarantine can’t be compared to that particular ‘Peste’ — if we are at war, as President Macron justly explained in announcing the confinement, it is a war where even friends and family might be bearing the threat, whence the reason for the strict measures — I can say that if this were 1940 (and I were still Jewish), I already have a pretty good idea of who here in my petite village would be hiding me out.

Several years ago, when I suggested to an association in the 13eme arrondissement of Paris, near where some of the action of the film had been situated, that I organize a screening of “La Traversée de Paris” (a resto on the lip of the jardin des Plantes has actually adopted the name, with a  cartoon Bourvil smiling out from its marquee) — they’d supposedly been interested in soliciting ideas from the general public, and had liked mine to show films shot in the arrondissement — the association’s presidents resisted. “Why don’t you show a film about Resistance? That would be more interesting.” It’s almost like their own resistance was to acknowledge that there had been people like the characters portrayed by Bourvil, people who just tried to get along. (De Beauvoir protégée Violette Leduc was another, bicycling Black Market goods to the suburbs to sell.) But the fact is that in times of crisis, there is a middle-ground between the Maquisard and the Collabo, and it’s the petite homme (or woman) who just wants to survive. Not everyone has the guts to be a hero. I’m pretty sure I don’t.

(In these days of the Corona virus, you don’t need me to tell you that the grand heroes — the real Tarrous — are the doctors, the nurses, and the other health-care workers, beginning with that Chinese doctor who first sounded the alarm and who was initially rewarded for his bravery with prison.)

In the meantime, I will be thankful for the ‘petite’ heroism of my neighbor-friend — you know who you are and you know how you’re helping. (I will say that it was only after leafing through my copy of Vintage / Knopf’s — very bad — English translation “La Peste,” which still bears the Strand Book store .48 cent stamp and re-reading Dr. Rieux’s advice to Cottard that he should “get out for some physical exercise” that I finally emerged from my own particular hermitage to take advantage of one of my friend’s kind offers.)

French language corner

On one of the quartier solidarity lists for the East of Paris on which I’m subscribed, the hostess forwarded this note / request for advice from “Arman”:

Ma demande peut paraître déplacée par ses temps d’épidémie et de confinement mais je suis à la recherche d’une ou deux balles de ping-pong.

Merci et prends bien soin de toi.

(He’s basically saying “I know this might seem inappropriate in these days of epidemic and confinement, but I’m looking for one or two ping-pong balls.” This is how I responded, English translation following pigeon-French original.)

Bonjour,

D’abord votre demande n’est pas déplacée du tout! En ces moments sombres, il faut tienne aux souvenirs des meilleures temps — du passé et d’un future souhaitable — qui sont indissociable avec LIBERTE et JOIE. Pour moi, déjà vous m’avais donne une: De pouvoir jouer autour des tables de ping-pong dans le jardin de L’observatoire un  jour de printemps, tout en faisant des nouvelles connaissances. Sacre de printemps que j’espère pouvoir reprise avant trop longtemps. (Pour la question pratique, quand il sera encore ouvert, “Go Sports”; il y un a je crois a la place d’Italie et un autre place de la République et ils ne sont pas chère.)

Bon courage,
Paul B-I,
Perigordin / Parisian.

In English:

In the first place, your request is not AT ALL inappropriate. In these somber moments, we need to cling to images of better times — of the past and of a desired future — which speak to FREEDOM and JOY. For me, already you’ve given me one: To be able to play again on the ping-pong tables of the jardin de l’observatoire on a Spring day, at the same time making new friends. Rite of Spring that I hope to be able to reprise before too long. (For the practical question, when it will be open again, try Go Sports; there’s one on the place d’Italie and another on the place de la Republique, and they’re not expensive.)

In writing this piece, I looked up a “Doer’s Profile” the Noe Valley Voice did on me in 1978, when I was still in high school, to confirm that not only had I listed “The Plague” as, with Huck Finn, my favorite book, but that I’d said what I referred to above regarding Tarrou and the book’s message, and my intention to follow that credo. But when the reporter Corey M. Anders asked what was the most important thing to me, I’d actually answered “Making friends.”

Par préférence, autour d’une table de ping-pong au milieu du jardin de l’observatoire. Preferably, over a ping-pong table in the jardin de l’observatoire.

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.

Vian versus virus(es): Born 100 years ago today, he spat on their graves before he went to his at the age of 39

Texts by and copyright Boris Vian
Translated and introduced by Paul Ben-Itzak

Tempting as it’s been in these heady days of impending pandemic to translate and share an excerpt from Albert Camus‘s “The Plague,” I just can’t bring myself to do it. (The latest development here in France: The culture minister is among the 1400 infected.) Not because historical parallels can be perilously inexact — notwithstanding that French radio announcers’ initial pronunciation of the name of the Chinese town where that country’s Corona virus affliction started sounded a lot like the cosmopolitan Algerian coastal city in which Camus situates his 1948 drama, Oran. But because I realized that what makes the author’s high moral stance problematic is that the indigenous population in Albert Camus’s Oran are the invisible men (and women). Born 100 years ago today and dead at the age of 39 when his heart burst as he watched a preview of the film version of his novel “I’ll Spit on Your Graves,” in which the pseudonymous “Vernon Sullivan” recounts a vengeful murder spree against white people, Boris Vian, songwriter and novelist, poet and playwright, Pataphysician and DJ, jazz critic and promoter (he introduced Ellington in France), godfather of the post-War Germanopretan scene and cornet player who blew his heart out, puts Camus to shame when it comes to moral consistence.

To condemn war, Vian doesn’t pick a morally uncomplicated example but chooses the justest of just wars, setting his novella “Les Fourmis” (the Ants) on a beach in Normandy where an Allied soldier wanders along a beach littered with German corpses, and his 1946 anarchist burlesque “Horse-quartering for beginners” in the home and abattoir of a horse-quarterer in Arromanches on D-Day, when his hero’s main preoccupation isn’t “their war” but to get the “Fritz” who’s (probably) been sleeping with his daughter for four years to make her an honest woman. Similarly, if the moral high ground of many French critics’ of anti-Black racism in the United States is often undermined by their ignoring similar tendencies in their own backyard (sure, Josephine Baker had it better in Paris than in the U.S., but if the “melomanes” flocked to see her at the Folies Bergère in the 1920s, the banana belt probably had something to do with it), when Vian uses a jazz press review (largely of the American jazz press) as a prism — the excerpt below, from Vian’s Jazz Hot jazz press review of June 1956, is just one example — to examine the treatment of Blacks in the United States, he starts out by allowing that he’s throwing his stones from a glass house:

“In the April 1956 issue of Jazz Journal, a fine piece by Berta Wood on racial prejudice. It’s a good thing that the Americans themselves have decided to enter the fracas by protesting against the bullying to which Blacks there are subjected; because given the fashion with which we comport ourselves in certain quarters we should probably shut our traps on the subject.

“In a word, Berta Wood writes about  ‘The Record of Emmet Till.’

“You know the story: the young Black man Emmet Till accused of raising his eyes and casting his lewd gaze on a good white woman; on the basis of which the good woman’s husband and brother-in-law kill him in cold blood and are acquitted by the all-white jury faster than you can say ‘Jim Crow’.

“About which the Blacks have made a record. ‘The Record of Emmet Till.’

“At night, on the radio, when everyone’s at home, there’s a sudden silence. And then the record is played.

“And the record is sung by a Black man with the flat voice of a Black man, without any apparent trace of emotion. It recounts how Emmet Till, at the age of 14, whistled one day in admiration when the white woman walked past him, and how the whites came to look for him at his uncle’s, took him to a barn, and beat him to death. And how the white men laughed when the verdict was pronounced.

“The record is played without any introduction. Just this moment of silence before and another after it’s finished playing. And the program continues as if nothing’s happened.

“This will surely not keep the murderers from sleeping. Because in all the countries of the world, the murderers sleep deeply.”

In a(nother) historical moment in which right-wing politicians in Italy, Poland, and Hungary often resort to a thinly veiled racial purity argument to keep the refugees penned up in frontier junctions like, lately, a Greek island called Lesbos, an item from Vian’s column of July-August 1956 is also worth sharing and translating:

“A little joker named Asa Carter, the secretary of the Council of White Citizens of Northern Alabama, has condemned ‘rock and roll’ in declaring ‘that it is being encouraged as a method of lowering the white man to the level of the Black man’ and that it is ‘part of a conspiracy to sap the morality of our nation’s youth. It is sexual, amoral, and constitutes the best way to bring together the members of the two races.’

“… which seems to me like an excellent idea. For that matter, the future lies in the mixing of the races, whether Carter, Asa likes it or not, from the moment one finds (and one does happily find) people who couldn’t care less about the color of their neighbor as long as he’s sympathetic.”

Extracted from Boris Vian, “Chroniques de Jazz,” text established and introduced by Lucien Malson, copyright 1967 Editions La Jeune Parque.

MICHEL RAGON EST MORT — VIVE MICHEL RAGON (WITH NEW EXTRACT FROM ‘TROMPE-L’OEIL’)

baudelaire courbet smallFrom the DI/AV archives: Gustave Courbet, “Portrait of Baudelaire,” 1847 (?). Oil, 53 x 0.61 cm, unsigned. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. In his championing of artists, Michel Ragon upheld the grand tradition of Baudelaire and Zola, who championed Courbet, Delacroix, and the Impressionists.

Michel Ragon — critic, curator, ambassador of art, not only champion but exponent of abstract painting, archivist of anarchists, workers, and the proletariat, defender of a new style of architecture, novelist, teacher, Seine-side bookseller, manual laborer, and husband — died February 14 in Paris, at the age of 95. What Baudelaire and Champfleury did for Courbet (whose twin investment in advancing art, as the leader of the Realism school, and social struggles, as an official of the Paris Commune, made him the perfect subject for a Ragon biography), Michel Ragon did for a whole genre, the Abstract Art school that flourished in post-war Paris. Jean-Michel Atlan was his chou-chou and friend; the COBRA group owed him their first Paris exhibition; Ragon’s tribute to Wols assured his place in the pantheon of  20th-century painters. And his incognito infiltration of the Barnes Collection made sure that neither American authors nor the French artists they hoarded were left out. The largely forgotten vectors of European anarcho-syndicalism — Victor Serge, Paul Delesalle, Nestor Makhno, Alexandra Kollontai, Louis Lecoin, Rirette Maitrejean — their rescue from the dustbin of history into which its victors, a forgetful media, and a reductive academy had swept them. If Michel Ragon is dead after nearly a century, thanks to Michel Ragon the names, combats, struggles, and moral victories of these prime movers in two worlds, society and art — Ragon always had one foot firmly implanted in each — will live on for many more. We’ll try to make our modest contribution.

… Starting with the latest installment in our serialized translation of Ragon’s seminal semi-fictional treatment of the Abstract Art movement and market in Paris in the 1950s, as well as post-war anti-Semitism in France, “Trompe-l’oeil.” A melange — or update — of both Zola’s “L’oeuvre” and Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” in its defense of the artistic genus and the artist’s soul and lacerating portrayal of the media, “Trompe-l’oeil” is most of all the love story of a journalist and art. (Merci a L.D. pour son aide precious avec l’argot….)

Michel Ragon is survived by his wife Françoise — and a legion of art aficionados. Michel Ragon est mort. Vive Michel Ragon.  — Paul Ben-Itzak

Le Feuilleton (the Serial), 7: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, anti-Semitism, and critics in Post-war Paris, Part 7

 

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

Part seven in the Paris Tribune’s 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 six parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here.

Fontenoy asked his editor at L’Artiste if he could write a “studio visit” feature on Corato.

“Which one is that?” the editor groaned.

“An abstract painter who….”

“Obviously! But, my dear young man, who’s interested in your precious Abstracts — I mean besides you? Sometimes I think you just make them up. Listen to me, Fontenoy, you’d do much better to take on some serious subjects. Ever since you’ve taken up with abstract art, your pieces feel just like that. Abstract.”

“You’re not actually going to tell me that I write like Charles Roy?”

“If that were the case, I would have tossed you out on your keister a long time ago! No, you still write in a decipherable manner — and that’s exactly what worries me.”

Fontenoy had trouble fathoming what his boss was trying to tell him.

“Here, take a look at the mock-up for the next issue.”

He spread out the pages on the large lay-out table in the middle of the office. Stupefied, Fontenoy read on the cover, in large bold letters: “LAST LAP FOR THE FARCE OF ‘ABSTRACT ART.’ Then further down the page, under a photo of Matisse: “HENRI MATISSE COMES OUT AGAINST ABSTRACT ART.” And on page four, a major piece with the headline: “YOUNG PAINTERS RETURN TO LANDSCAPES AND PORTRAITS.”

“Perfect,” Fontenoy responded. “Abstract art has finally waltzed into the newspaper by the front door.”

“All the easier to stifle you, my boy,” the editor in chief ribbed him, breaking out in laughter. Then he added, flippantly, “I’ll need a group article on several typical good painters: You know, the likes of Yves Brayer, Chapelain-Midy, Lorjou…. I’m counting on you….”

“You’ve got to be kidding. You’ve purposely chosen the most philistine of the figuratives to foist them off on me.”

“My good fellow, a journalist has to be a jack of all trades. If you don’t like those painters, that’s your right. Just keep it to yourself when the newspaper needs you to sing their praises. We’re not here to satisfy our personal tastes, but those of our silent partners and our readers. We should be satisfied that the two of them concord!”

“I’m sorry,” Fontenoy responded after a moment of hesitation, “but it won’t be possible for me to write that article.”

“Are you telling me that you’re abandoning us?”

Fontenoy smiled ironically. He flared the trap. They wanted to push him to quit in a great histrionic fashion, which would have the consequence of depriving him of unemployment compensation. Very well. It seemed obvious that he’d become a liability for the newspaper, but he’d let them fire him before he’d quit.

“I’m not abandoning anything. But those painters ‘belong’ to Morisset, and I don’t want to pilfer them from him.

“Tell you what,” he added after reflecting for a few seconds, “because you want to preach a new realism, I’ll do a study for you on Courbet.”

In the past, when Fontenoy emerged from such altercations he’d dread returning to his small room. If he didn’t happen to run into Manhès, he’d feel completely lost. Now, Blanche was always ready to welcome him with open arms.

They’d each hung on to their individual apartments, which simplified their work. But Fontenoy spent all his nights at the Cité Falguière.

They were laying down on the divan. Blanche had undone her tresses and her blond hair cascaded down her shoulders. Fontenoy let himself be lulled by the warmth of his companion’s body. He closed his eyes, trying to forget his anxieties. But he was all too aware of what lay ahead.

“It’s going to be brutal, Blanche, very brutal…. They’ll be attacking on all fronts, you’ll see.”

“Bah! Look at Manhès, he’s never sold so well!”

“Yes. And yet, even Manhès makes me worry. It’s just all going too well. All these people who have their comfortable positions to protect, all these dealers whose basements are packed with figurative paintings, all these collectors who’ve pumped fortunes into the very school of painting we’re fighting, are not going to let us get away with it. It’s no accident that L’Artiste has launched this offensive now….”

Blanche hugged him close: “You’re such a pessimist.”

Fontenoy let out a huge sigh: “All I can say is it’s a good thing that you’re here!”

He gave in to dreaming again, hooking his arm around his companion’s waist. He flashed back to the first time he visited this atelier. Blanche showed herself simultaneously mutinous and worried. She understood what he meant. Even though their intimacy did not happen overnight, he found it strange to find himself so suddenly  linked to this young woman whom he’d been running into here and there for a year at exhibitions without ever surpassing the level of a distant politeness. She was less a painter, now, than a beloved being.

And yet Blanche was intensely, definitely a painter. An instinctive painter. Thank God she was not one of these intellectuals who supplied ready fodder to the academies which then inculcated them with paint-by-numbers formulas. Fontenoy had a genuine physical repulsion for this genre of woman. He tended to agree with Baudelaire that making love with an intellectual was a form of paederasty. Blanche constituted a living rebuke to those who believed that Abstract art was an art for intellectuals. She was a solid, stout, uncomplicated woman, sensual and carefree. Her water-colors were the exact reflection of her temperament, with their slightly heavy spots and a graphic design pigmented with a subtle sense of humor.

“Fontenoy (Blanche still addressed him by his last name, as she had before they began sleeping together), Fontenoy we’ll always find a way to muddle through. You worry too much….”

She could feel, close to her, her lover’s anguish. She wanted to lighten his load, to take some of the burden upon herself, but she could feel him tense up — that, as immobile as he was, he was struggling against a throng of enemies.

Fontenoy predicted he’d be fired by the newspaper. That was to be expected. They paid him so little, but this pittance was vital to rounding out his budget. And then it wasn’t just a matter of money! Tribunes consecrated to the arts were few and far between. If he lost this one, he also lost a forum for expressing himself. He saw himself mutilated, naked next to a sneering Morisset and Arlov, before a triumphant Charles Roy. Because Fontenoy was doubly heretical: Not only did he attack traditional figurative art, but also the brand of academic abstract art championed by Charles Roy. Even supposing they allowed the academic form of Abstract art to flourish for a little while longer, it would only be so they could eventually demolish it as a sclerotic art form. “What they really want to crush,” Fontenoy thought to himself, “are the genuine creators, like always. The old historic battles will resurface.” The cohort of Impressionists attacked by the incomprehension of the public and the mockery of the critics and cartoonists, the Cubists in the time of the Bateau Lavoir, then the damned of Montparnasse: Soutine, Modigliani, Pascin, he saw them marching before him in one long lamentation. “It’s all happening again,” Fontenoy told himself. “I sense it. We were wrong to believe we’d won the hand.”

He clutched Blanche tightly to him. She laughed heartily.

“Naughty boy!”