Dr. Barnes, Je presume: How a French critic managed to thwart the will of the Monstre Sacre of American Collectors

Ragon Cezanne card playersFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Paul Cézanne (Aix-en-Provence, 1839-1906, Aix-en-Provence), “The Card Players,” c. 1890-92. Oil on canvas, 65.4 x 81.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. 61.101.1. RP 707.

by Michel Ragon
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

First published in the Jardin des Arts, November 1964. Michel Ragon turns 95 today. Also celebrating a birthday today is PB-I’s mother Eva Wise, to whom the translation is dedicated. To read more work by Michel Ragon, enter his name on the Arts Voyager search engine, or visit our sister site the Maison de Traduction.

MERION, Pennsylvania — During my recent stay in the United States, I was able to obtain — via the State Department, of whom I was the guest — the authorization to visit the Barnes Collection.

I had to wait a month before being admitted, on a Friday, among the 200 visitors who, twice per week, are authorized by the descendants of Dr. Barnes to penetrate his house in Merion, outside Philadelphia.

The State Department must have emphasized my credentials as a novelist and not as an art critic because even today, 13 years after the death of the famous collector, his house is off-limits mainly to journalists and anyone else interested in artistic matters. Reportages on the collection — at least those offering a room-by-room analysis — are thus rare. They tend to focus rather on the works known to have been acquired by the doctor. The secrecy which surrounds the works, the quarantine of the foundation to specialists, the impossibility of reproducing the paintings because it’s also forbidden to photograph not only the interior of the museum, but even the exterior, has endowed the Barnes collection with the mystique of forbidden fruit.

Departing specially from New York for Philadelphia, to get to Merion I had to take a petit suburban train. If Merion is a suburb of Philadelphia, it’s a rural suburb. A miniscule train station, a road which winds along parks lead to the iron grill of the Barnes property. A uniformed police officer stationed in a large car bars the alley. After verifying that my name was indeed on the list, he authorized me to penetrate the park, dominated by a spacious demeure “à la française.” After this you still need to ford the gauntlet of uniformed guards, fork over the $1 entry fee as in any normal museum, and then you’re finally free to roam from one room of the apartments to the next, to regard the works as long as you like, and to take notes, without which this article would not have been possible. All this under the eyes of an army of stony-faced guardians.

But before describing the Barnes collection, it might be useful to recount its origins and, along the way, to sketch a portrait of its founder.

The “Argyrol” millionaire

Albert C. Barnes is the very model of the type of American collector of whom I’ve been able to view numerous contemporary counterparts. These ‘self-made men’ are a sort of Mr. Jourdain as likely to have brilliant streaks of inspiration as to fall prey to ludicrous infatuations. Millionaires subject to chaotic aesthetic impulses, they’re absolutely convinced of being the modern equivalent of the Renaissance art patron.

Born in Philadelphia on January 2, 1872, Barnes had a father who worked for the municipal abattoirs. Often unemployed, he was unable to support the elementary needs of the family. Dr. Barnes’s childhood thus took place in the slums of the fringes of the city. At 11 he started working, as a newsboy. But at 13, an unexpected scholarship enabled him to go to high school, where he cemented friendships with two boys who would go on to become the major American painters of the turn of the century, or at least valued as such in America, John Sloan and William J. Glackens.

Ragon John SloanJohn Sloan (1871 – 1951), “Six O’Clock, Winter, 1912.” Oil on canvas. ©2011 Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Acquired 1922, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. . From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”

The origins of Albert C. Barnes’s passion for painting date from these adolescent encounters. His classmates effectively opened up to him a world of art to which he was previously oblivious, with the initial reaction that he tried to become a painter himself. While he was studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania he even participated in some exhibitions. To his fellow students he declared, “I want to earn a lot of money as quick as possible so that I can be free to dedicate myself to the major interest of my life: Art.”

He found his method of making money in Heidelberg, in 1900, in the person of a fellow student, Herman Hille, in the process of preparing a chemistry thesis. Forging a friendship, the two young men conducted experiments together on silver vitellinate. Who should get the credit for what? It seems evident that Dr. Barnes could not have conducted the experiments without Dr. Hille because when he returned to the United States, he asked Hille to join him. Together they put the finishing touches, in 1902, on an anti-septic which they dubbed “Argyrol.” From the moment the product went on sale, success was immediate and Barnes set about eliminating his collaborator and friend. Eventually worn down, Hille sold his shares to Barnes for several hundred thousand dollars.

Barnes starts acquiring

Exclusive owner of Argyrol, Dr. Barnes, who refused to file a patent for his discovery so that the formula would remain secret, renounced his career as a painter to devote himself to the metier of collector.

Ragon John Marin Tank mountains MaineFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: John Marin (1870-1953). “Tunk Mountains, Maine,” 1948. Oil on canvas. ©Estate of John Marin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Collection of Louisiana Art & Science Museum, Baton Rouge. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

His initial purchases, in the galleries of New York and Philadelphia, focused on the painters of the Barbizon School, then in vogue among American collectors. When he hooked up again with Glackens, this last, dismayed, realized that his wealthy friend had become the easy target of art dealers of questionable honesty, who took advantage of him to liquidate their holdings of second-rate paintings. Glackens urged him to go to New York and see the modern work being showcased by Alfred Stieglitz. Sloan, also reunited with his former classmate, seconded this idea. Barnes thus gave himself over to acquiring the work of the American modern painters who formed, on the eve of World War I, the first American school of modern painting, known as the Ashcan School: Prendergast, Demuth, and John Marin. Interested via them in Modern Art, Barnes decided he wanted to know their French models. To this end, he sent Glackens to Paris in 1912, with a $20,000 budget, to sow the seeds of his collection. Glackens started out by buying, from Renoir, his “Young Girl Reading.” Next he acquired Van Gogh’s “Portrait of the postman Roulin”; in total 20 paintings, among them Gauguin, Pissarro, Monet, Seurat, Degas.

Confronted with this bounty, Barnes, completely stupefied, was convinced that the art dealers of Paris must have strung Glackens along like the art dealers of New York had strung him along. Glackens nevertheless urged him to live among these paintings for a while, and Barnes was rapidly conquered by Impressionism.

In January 1913, he in turn traveled to Paris, and the role that Glackens had played for him with Impressionism, Leo and Gertrude Stein performed with Cubism. It was in effect chez the Steins that Barnes discovered Picasso, Matisse, Juan Gris, Léger, Braque. Before leaving he bought a new Renoir for $800 and a Matisse and a Picasso for $10. In this same year of 1913, he added 14 canvasses by Cezanne to the two he already possessed.

Sure of himself, Dr. Barnes started writing about art. His ideas began to earn him a reputation for extravagance. Without doubt many agreed with him when he argued that the cubist Picasso was making a fool of the public, but they were scandalized when he claimed that he’d never trade one of his Renoirs for a Raphael “Madonna.” Already, Barnes did not hold back or impose any restrictions on himself when it came to his paintings. Every year, on arriving in Paris he set aflutter the art dealers for whom he’d become “the uncle from America.” Paul Guillaume succeeded in retaining him and sold him numerous African sculptures as well as work by Segonzac, Marcoussis, Foujita, Van Dongen, Marie Laurencin, and Derain. Pascin introduced him to Lipchitz, whom he considered to be the most important contemporary sculptor, and from whom he commissioned an exterior decoration for his foundation.

Up to this point, as we’ve seen, Dr. Barnes’s choices had been singularly guided. But in January 1923 an event took place which would go on to make of Dr. Barnes the “collector-creator” that he dreamed of being. In Paul Guillaume’s vitrine he spotted a canvas by an unknown painter who set him off: Chaim Soutine’s “Petit Patissier.” (Little Baker.) He reproached Paul Guillaume, dumbfounded, for not having told him about such an ingenious painter. Paul Guillaume was not particularly interested in Soutine, but he was aware that a struggling dealer, Zborowski, was desperately trying to sell Soutine’s work. Barnes and Paul Guillaume therefore hurried over to Zborowski’s. Barnes bought his entire stock of Soutines, according to some accounts for 60,000 francs. (Less than $100.) But Barnes wanted to meet the artist, who he found in his reeking studio in La Ruche. (The Hive, a fulcrum for Montparnasse artists in the 1920s.) Without hesitating he bought, once more, every single painting or, with those acquired from Zborowsky, 100 in total.

The collection is put off limits

At this point Dr. Barnes found himself in possession of a collection so important that he decided, with good reason, to display it at the Fine Arts School of Pennsylvania. On April 11, 1923, he therefore let the public see his great treasures for the first time. The reaction in the press was unanimous. Some spoke of the art of madmen, others of garbage, and they all attacked Soutine, who in Barnes’s eyes was the great painter he’d been searching for for so long.

Devastated, Barnes decided to close the doors of his foundation to journalists. This foundation, reserved for students –among whom, recalling his own impoverished origins, Barnes made sure were included numerous Blacks and workers — opened in the Spring of 1924. As is the case today, it was open to the public just two days per week — with the proviso that every visitor had to be approved by Barnes, who minutely scrutinized the identities of those demanding permission. Thus it was that Le Corbusier was excluded and that Alfred H. Barr, celebrated curator of the Modern Art Museum, had to use a fake name and sneak in with a group of professors.

As he grew older, Dr. Barnes became impossible, getting into arguments with everybody, committing ill-considered acts during his changes of mood (as when he traded seven magnificent Cezannes for inferior 18th-century tableaux), engaged in polemics with the newspapers, and pursued his hatred against everyone connected, whether intimately or at a distance, with the art world. On July 24, 1951, speeding along at his customary 124 KM an hour, as if the road belonged to him, he hit a truck and died instantly.

Following several trials over the possibility of opening the collection to the broader public, a 1961 court decision ordered that the foundation allow it to be visited two days per week by a minimum of 200 people. But the foundation’s directors still select who can come in and who cannot, choosing among the requests addressed to them.

Ragon Cezanne bathersPaul Cézanne, (Aix-en-Provence, 1839-1906, Aix-en-Provence), “Bathers,” 1899-1904. Oil on canvas, 51.3 x 61.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Amy McCormick Memorial Collection, Chicago, inv. no. 1942.457. RP 859. Critiquing an earlier “Bathers” tableau included in the third Independent Impressionist exhibition mounted in April 1878 at 6, rue Le Peletier, the critic Georges Riviere wrote in “L’Impressioniste,” a journal launched expressly for the exhibition at Renoir’s suggestion, that Cézanne, “the artist who has been most subjected to attack and maltreatment during the last fifteen years by both press and public,” “belongs to the race of giants. Since he cannot be compared with anyone else, people find it easier to deny him his due. Yet he has his admired counterparts in the history of painting; and if the present does not render him justice, the future will class him with his peers, among the demi-gods of art.” (Cited by Henri Perruchot in “La Vie de Cézanne,” Hachette, 1958, published in English as “Cezanne,” World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, copyright Perpetua Limited, 1961. Perruchot was Ragon’s editor at the Jardin des Arts magazine.) Courtesy Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.

Thus it was that I found myself entering the first room, dominated by the large fresco of Matisse’s “Bathers,” executed by the artist at Barnes’s request in 1933 and of which an initial version can be seen at the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris. One is initially astounded by the quantity of Renoirs and Cezannes. Notably the latter’s “Bathers” and “Card Players.” But among the 120 Renoirs that one finds from room to room, the worse are mixed in with the best. That is to say that there are Renoirs next to Maillols, but also a lot of Renoirs next to Boldinis.

This is for example the case in two small rooms, on the two sides of a larger one and where, next to Renoir, one finds accesorized very tiny works by Degas, Seurat, Rousseau, Van Gogh, and Daumier.

A Museum in Complete Disorder

Moving from room to room, one is stopped short by indisputable chefs-d’oeuvre, and surprised by the high number of mediocre works, all stacked together, all epics melanged, with absolutely no concern for museology. And there are almost as many Glackens as there are Renoirs.

Take Room III. You’ve got Puvis de Chavanne’s “Prometheus,” a small Titien, a large Renoir, two small, outrageously varnished Chardins, one Milton Avery (a second-tier American painter), a miniscule Bosch, “Christ outraged,” a small Greco, “Jesus before the Crucifixion,” and several small medieval masters.

In Room IV, more anonymous medievals, a small Lucas de Leyde triptyque, a Chinese portrait from the XIIIth century, a small Durer, next to a Lancret, a Rubens sketch, and a small icon.

Room V, a “Man in a Hat,” by Hals, hangs below a Watteau, right next to a wall of Renoirs. A decent little Bosch hangs above Cezanne’s “Small swimmers,” right next to a Rubens placed, of course, below a Renoir. A Seurat sea-scape. A nice Soutine portrait in red and a skinned lapin by the same author below a Demuth.

One can’t help being surprised by the sorry lot of Soutine’s paintings. Whereas Renoir is throughout accorded the place of honor, Soutine merits no better, more often than not, than being perched above the doors, where he’s hard to see. Did Barnes thus want to protect his favorite painter from potential assaults?

The pell-mell confusion of values, the senseless placement, is noticeable in every room. In Room VI, for example, there’s a large and beautiful Renoir swimmer in blouse, flanked by two small Corots, one Lotiron (sic), and a Goya portrait. Gauguin’s “Haere Pape” is smothered under a Renoir head, between two Prendergasts. A decent Manet (of fishermen tossing a boat into a fire) is next to a little “Annonciation” by Greco and a curious small Cezanne landscape, in full ink, next to Van Gogh. Two Chirico personages, from 1925, are placed under a Demuth.

In Room VII, between a Chardin “Still Life” and more Renoirs, there’s a surprising and indiscreet Courbet, “Woman putting on her stockings,” one of the most immodest canvasses possible. Miro is represented by a simple gouache, below a Gritchenko sold by Paul Guillaume.

Room XIV offers a magnificent surprise: Rousseau’s “Tiger Hunt.” A very good Soutine (above the door). Two monks à la death-head, by Greco; Redon, Daumier.

Room XVI, miniature Persians, Claude Lorrain, Chinoiseries, very fine Soutine “Flowers,” a Monticelli and numerous Gritchenkos. Room XVIII, some very little items certainly bought at a bargain, but which bear witness to the interest of Barnes even for the artists who began to reveal themselves just before his death because we see a small figurative painting by Geer Van Velde and four miniscule Wols. A postcard-sized Wols figures next to equally ‘modest’ work by Klee and Roualt.

Room XVII: A Picasso from the Blue period, a Cezanne, a Renoir, a Pascin but also a Cross, a Per Krogh and a naif by a French artist unknown but not without charm, who signs a “View of Bordeaux in 1884,” resembling for that matter Venice: “Guiraud, Jean-Baptiste, born in Saint-Chinian, Herault.”

Ragon, Matisse, luxe, calme, et volupteFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954),”Luxe, calme, et volupté,” 1904. Oil on canvas, 38 3/4 x 46 5/8 in. (98.5 x 118.5 cm). Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris. Gift in lieu of estate taxes, 1982. On extended loan to the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. ©2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

To access the second floor, you need to mount a stairway ornamented with tapisseries by Roualt, Picasso, and Matisse. Room XIX, Matisse’s triptyque “Luxe, calme, et volupté,” Modigliani’s “Beatrice Hastings,” a small Wols gouache, a Picasso from the Blue period, a green Soutine, an Utrillo, a Rousseau. Room XX, drawings, African art and Lipchitz sculptures; fine Cezanne water-colors, lots of Pascin, a small Wols. Room XXI: Modigliani, Utrillo, African masks; a very handsome Soutine “Trees” practically invisible above the door, according to the rule. Room XXII, more African masks and two large Modigliani women; a small Klee above a work by the contemporary Italian painter Afro, and between a Lotiron and a Chirico. Room XXIII, a fantastic Henri Rousseau (a nude woman being attacked by a bear that a hunter kills with a rifle shot, or the theme of St. George and the Dragon “modernized,” as Rousseau put it); a large Renoir, work by Lurcat, Chirico, and a Vieira da Silva from 1947.

ragon cezanne st victoire.jpgFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Paul Cézanne (Aix-en-Provence, 1839-1906, Aix-en-Provence), “Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine,” 1886-87. Oil on canvas, 59.6 x 72.3 cm. The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., inv. no. 0285. RP 598. If Paris provided him — notwithstanding his cantankerousness — with collegial support, or at least the feeling that he was not alone in attempting to extend his art — it was to his native Aix that Cézanne regularly returned, ever inspired by the bucolic surroundings in which he, Emile Zola, and Baptism Baille had often escaped as teenagers. Courtesy Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.

Citing everything would be too fastidious, but this elementary enumeration gives you an idea of the incoherencies of the accrochage. One also realizes that the Barnes collection is far from being exemplary, as is the case for example of the admirable Frick collection in New York. The Barnes collection reflects the tastes of an eccentric and despot who, on three and four levels, accumulates his treasures, without sorting them and without any apparent discernment. Admirable Rousseaus… and second-tier Rousseaus. Renoir and Glackens. Cezannes … and Jean Hugos. Drawings infantile, from folk art, of unknown naifs and, throughout on the walls, overloading them even more, between paintings already accumulated to the maximum, iron work. No titles on the frames. No dates. A fine portrait of Madame Cezanne, but also the worse Van Gogh that I’ve ever seen: a nude woman, with stockings, on a bed, in an oval frame. One gets the impression that many of these paintings were bought for their signature. If Seurat’s “Les Poseuses,” Cezanne’s “Mount St.-Victoire,” and Manet’s “Le Linge” are incontestable chefs-d’oeuvre worthy of the most important museums, the Barnes collection is above all a Renoir museum (Pierre Cabanne, in his “Novel of the Great Collectors,” estimates that Barnes has 120. But they seem like a thousand.) As far the 100 Cezannes, the 80 Matisses, and the 100 Soutines which Cabanne also cites, scattered from room to room they’re smothered among the Renoirs and the Glackens. 2000 paintings in the Barnes collection, in one incoherent museum. These painters, hidden, shielded from critics and specialists, have benefited in their ensemble from an exaggerated fame. When the Barnes collection is classed in a reasonable manner, we’ll perceive its lacunes, its weaknesses, but there remain nevertheless three or four rooms-full of chefs-d’oeuvre which will continue to make it one of the leading collections in the world

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

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(The Lutèce Diaries are sponsored by, among others, Ed Winer, Eva Winer, Linda Ramey, Aaron Winer, Lewis Campbell, and Sharon Savage of the San Francisco Bay Area; H&R B. and CV of Paris and Saint-Cyprien (Dordogne), France; Chris Keel, Marty Sohl, and Suki John of Fort Worth, Texas; Don Singer of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Nancy Reynolds of New York City; Martin Epstein of Hudson Valley, New York; Susan Kierr of New Orleans; Polly Hyslop of Fairbanks, Alaska; Marcello Angelini of Tulsa, Oklahoma; Freespace Dance in Montclair, New Jersey; and Slippery Rock University Dance. To join them, please make a donation through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to find out how to donate by check sent through the mail.)

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

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

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

— Donna Summer, “Dreamcatcher”

I fall in love too easily.

— Frank Sinatra

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

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

“Vous-etes Parisienne?”

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

“American?”

“Yes.”

“Which part of America?”

“Actually I’m English.”

“I’m part English.”

“Actually I’m from Germany.”

“Where in Germany?”

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

“Dortmund.”

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

“I design children’s books.”

“I once wrote a children’s book.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Such as?”

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

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

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

“Hah hah hah!”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know Instagram.”

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

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

“My name’s Paul.”

“Betty.”

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

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

“And you design children’s books?”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Why?”

“I keep having these nightmares.”

“What kind of nightmares?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Here’s my card.”

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

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

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

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

Lutèce Diary, 31: Vote Origami!, or, Blood on the Metro floor

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — The inspiring thing about living in France during a European Parliamentary election campaign is the plethora of political parties (34 at last count — each accorded equal space) that sprout up on the cadenzas of steel placards installed in front of schools and other public buildings. What’s left this observer most incredulous ahead of Sunday’s vote (France holds its elections on Sundays, so more people can actually vote) is not the “Partie Animaliste” nor the “Partie Esperanto” nor even that the parties on the Far Right seem to have an easier time finding brown faces for their posters than those on the Left but that the slogans for the major parties or figures are so banal. Thus with Benoit Hamon — the Socialist candidate for the last presidential election who polled all of 6 percent and took his party down with him — we can count on “Hope Returning” if his new party “Generation” wins. (Which generation? French political parties aren’t particularly strong on nomenclature. A party calling itself “New Center” has had that name for 12 years.) And it’s certainly not the hashtag which makes Europe Ecology (the Greens; it was Danny “Le Rouge” Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the May 1968 student rebellion now retired from politics, who came up with that rebaptization) the party I’d vote for if I could vote: “Vote for the climate!” Okay…. exactly which climate would that be? I mean, who’s going to vote *against* the climate? Actually, I should have said “would have voted for until Saturday,” which is when I discovered the “Mouvement Francaise des Plieurs (Folders) de Papier” while heading out from the Marché des Producteurs de Vin on the Boulevard Reuilly and no, this was not a wine-tasting inspired hallucination because I didn’t have a drop, apart from the turnip and colza seed tapenade and okay, a nip or two of prune juice and more foie gras than a kid from California should probably boast of nibbling. And if it had been a hallucination, it would have owed more to the number of times I’d been folded, wadded, spit out and bled (that last literally) in the days before I stumbled onto the boutique of the MFPP and confronted its origami-filled window (with no cranes in site) after falling down a set of stairs onto the rue Coriolis in the 12th arrondissement. (Not far from the Bercy Tunnel, which a sign informs passersby was “re-imagined” by several students, all named and all female. After which I ate my canned couscous and tuna salad — recuperated in the book exchange box off the rue Jourdain in Belleville earlier — on a bench under a canopy of trees above the Yitzhak Rabin Peace Garden facing a ruin wall and above yet another dry water basin, this one dear to me because years ago my step-mother and I had lunched there with a water rat. If I could found a single-issue party in France I know what it would be and so do you. Votez water!) The boutique was closed, apparently for the “Events of Me,” the poster for one of which I hope it won’t mind me cribbing from an associated website page:

origami

First (being folded up and spat out-wise), there was the Belleville artist-activist on the rue Tourtille — 200 yards from where the Paris Commune made its last stand at the bottom of what’s now the parc Belleville– who’d promised to rent me, at 25 Euros a pop, a “petite chamber without door” which turned out to be a petite couch outside the bedroom without sleep, her non-artistic snoring keeping me up all night. When I brought her a bag of fresh croissants, pain aux raisons, and chocolatines (pains au chocolate to you, bub) on the first morning, all she could say was “You got crumbs on the floor” after I grabbed a couple for me as she was giving me the bum’s rush out the door. But the kicker was when several hours after I’d spent my whole morning writing and publishing a piece on an anti-BoBo demonstration the artist-activist and her five BaBa Cool (not to be confused with “BoBo,” “BaBa Cool” means “ageing hippy”) friends were holding Sunday, she waited until the last minute to tell me I had essentially no minutes — the timeline she gave me was physically impossible to meet — to get my back-breaking valise out of her atelier, and which meant that instead of being able to bring the suitcase to the cat-sitting up the street off the rue Belleville (the gig was starting that evening) after I’d retrieved my cat Mimi across town in the 13th arrondissement, I had to lug my Samsonite all the way across town and stow it at the friend’s where I was fetching Mimi, from which I’d then need to haul it back to Belleville when I had enough time to do so. When I tried to explain this to her, she held up her hands in twin peace signs. (Yes, this is the kind of person who starts an argument and then when you simply try to respond, holds up the peace signs to end the discussion, inverting where the violence is actually coming from.) Then there was the friend of 20 years, a specialist in American literature and film, who I discovered had more empathy for the American culture in the abstract than the suffering American in front of her, whom she put in a position where he faced a Hobson’s choice between breaking his hernia and sciatic-afflicted back again or something so dire I can’t even talk about it. (Or as I put it to her in a later e-mail: “I hope no one ever treats you like you treated me this afternoon.”)

The blood comes in, or spilled out, when I reached into the pouch of my back-pack (found in 2015 outside the anarchist bookstore up the street from where I was subletting on the rue Voltaire) inside the Metro on the Place d’Italie, after I’d deposed the suitcase and picked up Mimi, to look for my reading glasses so that I could actually understand the Metro map and figure out the shortest route across town to the cat-sit near the Place des Fetes, only to look down and see blood dripping onto the Metro floor, Mimi’s cage, my grey Marseille jeans, the (fortunately red) back-pack right under where two days earlier a pigeon I’d scooted away from my bench on the Ile St. Louis — where I was feeding a batch of ducklings and their mama after their heads had appeared one by one marching towards me from the ramp leading up from the Seine like a fleet of submarines slowly emerging on the distant horizon — had shat on it. The blood seemed to be spurting out from my hand; in my haste to fetch the glasses I’d forgotten that in my haste to evacuate the artist’s atelier I’d also stuffed two razors into the pouch. Tearing off a patch of toilet paper from the same pouch and hoisting Mimi over one shoulder and the large white bag barely containing her litter box, litter, and cat food over the other, I hurried towards the escalator to the line 7, on the way dropping a surplus bag which another passenger treated as if it contained a bomb. “YOU DROPPED YOUR BAG YOU DROPPED YOUR BAG!!” “IT’S EMPTY DON’T WORRY DON’T WORRY!” (This was actually the second bomb scare and the second evacuation and the umpteenth incident of being treated like an inconvenience and not a human being I’d experienced in two days. On Monday at the Gare de Lyon, the third train station to which I’d been shuffled just to change my ticket, as the French train company — or “Oui.SNCF” as its website has now been renamed; if the client is massively rejecting you, just change your name to “Yes” — continues to close up sales points with live people to chase its clients to the Internet so it can subject us with more advertising and hire less of them, after I’d waited for an hour with the incomprehensible take a number system the SNCF now has, the ticket-buying room was evacuated when no one claimed a small gray valise. I should add that later that evening, after my dentist appointment, at train station number four, the Gare de l’Est, I finally found a human being who agreed, after initially telling me “I can’t do anything, it’s the machine which decides,” like those Boeing computers which recently killed hundreds of passengers, that the ordeal his employer had put me through merited waiving the 12 Euro ticket change fee. Although the bandage in the middle of my front lower teeth — I’d just had a last tooth extraction — may also have had something to do with it.)

Speaking of blood — and getting back to the finger-cutting incident at the Place d’Italie — it was probably seeing the wad of toilet paper caked with blood that I was maladroitly holding around my forefinger that inspired the short-gray-haired lady across the aisle from me on the Place des Fetes-bound line 7, after glancing at me sympathetically a couple of times (making me wonder if I’d somehow managed to get some of the blood on my cheeks), to reach into her purse and fetch me a folded fresh paper handkerchief. “Merci Madame. Merci beaucoup.”

At this point I had to decide: Do I ask the cat-sitting client for a band-aid the moment I arrive, and thus make it more likely that she’ll figure out that the red swatches on my jeans and red drops on my back-pack are blood that I’m bringing into her house for 10 days — remember that at this point, with the denture back in the shop, I had one lower tooth — or say nothing and risk a finger infection? Fortunately the client provided a convenient segué when she showed me the plastic jug of lemon-wedge infused white wine vinegar with which she washes the dishes. “Speaking of vinegar, could I use some of that? I cut my finger.” “Certainly, but do you also want some argyle? The vinegar is fine as an anti-septic, but the argyle will close the wound.”

Which it and she did, physically and psychically.