Le feuilleton (the Serial), 2 : “Trompe-l’œil” — Michel Ragon’s ground-breaking 1956 satire of the Contemporary Art Market (in French and English), Part Two

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Original French version follows English translation.)

Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation, or hiring Paul Ben-Itzak to translate your document. Please designate your PayPal donation in dollars or Euros to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.  Click here to read the previous and first extract.)

Charles was entering his 18th year. He’d only remotely followed the metamorphosis of his parents and was astonished. His father and mother’s sudden passion for Modern Art bewildered him. By nature a bit slow, a good boy with a below average intelligence, he had trouble keeping up with the evolution of his family. When his father praised Klee to the detriment of Kandinsky, he might as well have still been comparing Mumphy underwear to Rasural underwear.

Charles was not subject to this fever which had consumed his loved ones since the adventure of the Paul Klee paintings had begun: it should be pointed out that speculation wasn’t the only engine driving Monsieur Mumfy’s new attitude. If Monsieur Mumfy had become obsessed with abstract painting, it wasn’t just because he was counting on it — following the example of the Klees — to centuple in value, but also because he liked it. In her role as a good spouse, Madame Mumfy accompanied him in this conversion. She who previously had never set foot in a museum these days wouldn’t miss a single vernissage or cocktail if it had anything to do with abstract art. She even tried her hand at a variety of smaller works about which she didn’t make a big deal, even though some galleries wanted to expose them.

When it was decided that Charles would become a painter, Monsieur and Madame Mumfy threw a cocktail party to which they invited all the critics, dealers, and collectors.

Once more everyone raved about the perspicacity of the master of the house, who’d had the acumen to build such a stellar collection of Klees.

“When one considers,” proclaimed Charles Roy, “that the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris doesn’t have a single Klee, not even a Mondrian, in its collection, it’s scandalous! It’s up to the private collectors to retain for France a few chefs-d’oeuvre of contemporary art. France owes you so much, dear Monsieur Mumfy!”

Monsieur Mumfy was used to inspiring such homages. Little by little he’d convinced himself that he actually had discovered Paul Klee before the war. In the beginning, he was pretending; now he wasn’t lying. He really believed that he’d always loved Klee — for at least the last 20 years anyway. For that matter, the dates on the paintings on his walls seemed to back up this claim. And given that the art critics, the dealers, and the other collectors who frequented his house were themselves recent converts to abstract art, no one could disabuse him of this notion.

The critic Charles Roy, a specialist in abstract art, had burst into the public spotlight with great fanfare after the Libération. Even though he was already in his 50s, his pre-war activity remained fuzzy. In fact, he’d played a laudable role in the Résistance and he was rewarded by being offered his own platform in the press. As he was absolutely incapable of writing in clear French, or at least of paying any attention to the rules of grammar, he was relegated to the art column. In this post which, on a major newspaper, is usually cloistered and innocuous, Charles Roy had succeeded in carving out a niche for himself thanks to his total ignorance of syntax. No one understood a word he wrote, and as he wrote about paintings that no one understood, people just thought it was a new style. Charles Roy was the veritable inventor of this brand of abstract art criticism which, born at the same time as the Academy of Abstract Art in Paris, made people believe in a concordance of genres when in reality it was just one big critical scam which had encrusted itself like a parasite in the haunches of an art form which merited its own Baudelaire or Apollinaire.

If all the major photographers in Paris were inevitably Hungarian, the big art critics were Belgian. Charles Roy was no exception, and his moniker was obviously a pseudonym. His enemies liked to point this out by punning, “He waffles like a real Belgian.”

Like all Johnny-come-latelies, Charles Roy veered from one extreme to another. A salesman of religious tchotchkes for tourists before the war (voila why he changed his name), Charles Roy now recognized only the strictest form of abstract art. Charles’s artistic coming out party found him once again defending this standard to the boy’s father:

“I admire Klee in a historic sense,” he was saying, “but I don’t approve of his anecdotal aspect. It’s literary painting. Art is only justified today if it doesn’t evoke the least parcel of reality.”

“Ah! Don’t touch my Klee!” Monsieur Mumfy responded in a sententious tone. “You can accuse Miro of being literary, or Picasso of being anecdotal, but when you go after Klee in my presence, it’s as if you’re insulting a member of my family.”

At just this moment a brouhaha broke out in the salon at the entrance sur scene of a dwarf who appeared leaning on a small cane with his bifocals perched on a large nose, a dwarf bearing a surprising resemblance to a Toulouse-Lautrec caricature. The guests parted to make way for the dwarf, who stood on his tip-toes to kiss Madame Mumfy’s hand.

Charles Roy and Monsieur Mumfy fell over themselves to see who could get to the dwarf’s side first.

“My dear Laivit-Canne….”

“Monsieur Laivit-Canne….”

The dwarf sank into an easy chair provided by a servant and announced in a nasal voice:

“I’ve just cut off Manhès!”

This declaration was met with a stupefied silence. The majority of those gathered in the salon turned their heads towards the wall, where five paintings by Manhès stared back at them. They seemed to be looking at them for the first time, even though they were all quite familiar with Manhès’s work. In reality, they were seeking out the little imperfections, the vice which might have earned them the disfavor of Laivit-Canne.

It was finally Charles Roy who broke the silence, ingratiatingly enough, to flatter Laivit-Canne:

“Bravo!, Monsieur Laivit-Canne. Manhès’s style might end up selling well, but in fact it’s already passé. It’s not genuine abstract painting.”

The dwarf, ensconced in his cushions, exuded the surly air of a spoiled child. He resumed in swishing his nose for emphasis:

“I don’t give a fig about abstract painting or non-abstract painting, sellable or non-sellable art …. Manhès insulted me — Manhès who owes me everything, Manhès who’d be dead if not for me –”

“Oh!”

The dwarf nimbly scooped up a petit-four from a passing platter, masticated it with determination, and explained:

“Manhès called me a self-hating Jew….”

This unexpected insult created an unease among the guests. Someone ventured:

“Manhès has always struck me as a racist.”

The dwarf sought out the origin of the voice, squinting his eyes, came up empty, and continued:

“I encourage you, my dear Mumfy, to sell off your Manhèses. Before long they won’t be worth a wooden nickel.”

“There’s no rush, there’s no rush,” joked Monsieur Mumfy with a cheerful bonhomie which broke the tension a little. Then, assuming a stentorian tone, he proclaimed:

“Tonight I’m proud to announce some good news. Charles has decided to choose art over underwear. He’s to be a painter.”

“Which academy will you send him too?” asked one woman, “chez Léger ou chez Lhote?”

“Just don’t tell us he’s going to the Beaux-Arts Academy,” asked another worried woman.

“Don’t be alarmed,” assured Monsieur Mumfy. “He’ll be trained at the right school. I’m going to sign him up for the Abstract Art Academy.”

Big hands started clapping. Those of Charles Roy. The guests formed into groups, depending on their affinities. Many paused in front of Manhés’s paintings, where the conversation was particularly animated. Everyone rushed to shake the hand of Charles, who was starting to get bored.

Version originale par et copyright Michel Ragon:

Charles entrait dans sa dix-huitième année. Il avait assisté à la métamorphose de ses parents sans enthousiasme. La soudaine passion de son père et de sa mère pour l’art moderne le déroutait. D’un naturel un peu niais, bon garçon, d’une intelligence au-dessous de la moyenne, il ne suivit l’évolution de sa famille que de très loin et le souffle coupé. Lorsqu’il entendait son père louer Klee au détriment de Kandinsky, cela lui produisait le même effet que si son géniteur avait fait l’apologie des sous-vêtements Michaud au détriment de sous-vêtements Rasurel.

Charles ne participait pas à cette fièvre qui s’était emparée des siens depuis cette aventure des tableaux de Paul Klee: Il faut dire que la spéculation n’était pas la seul moteur réagissant la nouvelle attitude de Monsieur Michaud. Monsieur Michaud achetait de la peinture abstrait, non seulement parce qu’il comptait bien que celle-ci, a l’exemple des tableaux de Klee, centuple sa valeur, mais aussi parce qu’il aimait ça. En bonne épouse, Madame Michaud l’accompagne dans sa conversion. Elle qui, autrefois, n’avait jamais mis les pieds dans un musée, ne manquait aujourd’hui aucun vernissage, aucun cocktail, concernant l’art abstrait. Elle s’essayait même, comme nous l’avons vu, à certaines petites œuvrettes dont elle avait la sagesse de ne pas faire grand cas et ceci bien que certaines galeries lui aient proposé de les exposer.

Lorsqu’il fut décidé que Charles serait peintre, Monsieur et Madame Michaud donnèrent un cocktail où tous les critiques, marchands, collectionneurs, furent invités.

On s’extasia une fois de plus sur la perspicacité du maître de maison qui avait su réunir une collection de Klee aussi merveilleuse.

— Quand on pense, s’exclama Charles Roy, que le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris n’a même pas un seul Klee, pas un Mondrian, c’est une scandale ! Il faut que ce soient des collectionneurs privés qui retiennent en France quelques chefs-d’œuvre de l’art actuel. La France vous devra beaucoup, cher Monsieur Michaud !

Monsieur Michaud était habitué a soulever de tels enthousiasmes. Peu à peu, il finit par se convaincre qu’il avait réellement découvert Paul Klee avant la guerre. Au début, il jouait la comédie; maintenant il ne mentait plus. Il était persuadé qu’il avait toujours aimé Klee, depuis vingt ans au moins. D’ailleurs les dates des tableaux sur les murs témoignaient de cette ancienneté. Comme les critiques d’art, les marchands et les autres collectionneurs qui fréquentaient sa maison n’étaient eux aussi convertis à l’art abstrait que depuis fort peu de temps, personne ne pouvait le détromper.

Le critique Charles Roy, spécialiste de l’art abstrait, s’était révélé avec fracas à l’attention du public après la Libération. Bien qu’il fût âgé d’une cinquantaine d’années, son activité avant la guerre restait dans un anonymat très vague. En fait, il eut un rôle très méritoire dans la Résistance et on l’en récompensa en lui créant un fromage dans la presse. Comme il était incapable d’écrire un française clair, ou tout au moins correct, on le relégua dans la chronique des arts. A ce poste, qui, dans un grande journal est en général terne et sans histoire, Charles Roy réussit à se faire un nom grâce à sa méconnaissance totale de la syntaxe. Personne ne comprenant rien à ce qu’il écrivait et comme il parlait de tableaux que personne ne comprenait, on crut à un nouveau style. Charles Roy est le véritable créateur de cette critique d’art abstrait qui, née parallèlement au développement d’une Ecole d’Art Abstrait à Paris, fit croire à une concordance des genres alors qu’il ne s’agissait que d’un cafouillage incrusté en parasite au flanc d’une peinture qui méritait son Baudelaire ou son Apollinaire.

Si, à Paris, les grands photographes sont en général hongrois, les critiques d’art sont belges. Charles Roy n’échappait pas à cette règle et son nom était évidemment un pseudonyme. Ses ennemis disaient même, par un calembour facile : « Il est belge comme pieds. »

Comme tous les néophytes convertis sur le tard, Charles Roy allait d’un extrême à l’autre. Représentant de statuettes du genre Saint-Sulpice avant la guerre (et c’est pour cela qu’il avait changé son nom), Charles Roy n’admettait plus maintenant que l’art abstrait le plus strict. Encore une fois, il se chamaillait à ce propos avec Monsieur Michaud :

— J’admire Klee d’une façon historique, disait-il. Mais je lui reproche son côté anecdotique. C’est de la peinture littéraire. L’art ne se justifie aujourd’hui que s’il n’évoque pas la moindre parcelle de réalité.

— Ah ! ne touchez pas à Klee; répondait Monsieur Michaud d’un ton sentencieux. Vous pouvez me dire que Miro est littéraire, que Picasso est anecdotique, mais lorsqu’on attaque Klee en ma présence, c’est comme si on insultait ma famille.

Il se fit un brouhaha dans le salon et l’on vit entrer un nain, avec une petite canne et des lorgnons sur un gros nez, ressemblant étonnamment à un caricature de Toulouse-Lautrec. Tout le monde s’inclinait au passage du nain qui se haussa sur la pointe des pieds pour baiser la main de Madame Michaud.

Charles Roy et Monsieur Michaud se bousculèrent pour arriver le premier près du nain.

— Mon cher Laivit-Canne…

— Monsieur Laivit-Canne…

Le nain s’enfonça dans un fauteuil que lui avança un domestique et dit d’une voix nasillarde :

— Je viens de couper les vivres à Manhes !

Un silence stupéfait accueillit cette déclaration. La plupart des personnes réunies dans la salon tournèrent la tête vers le mur où cinq tableaux de Manhès étaient accrochés. Elles semblaient les regarder pour la première fois, bien que toutes connussent fort bien la peinture de Manhès. En fait, elles cherchaient l’imperfection, le vice qui leur valait la défaveur de Laivit-Canne.

Ce fut Charles Roy qui rompit le silence, assez bassement, pour flatter Laivit-Canne:

— C’est tout à votre honneur, Monsieur Laivit-Canne. La peinture de Manhès pourrait devenir très commerciale, mais elle est tout à fait dépassée. Ce n’est pas un véritable peintre abstrait.

Le nain, enfoncé dans les coussins, avait l’air hargneux d’un enfant prodige. Il reprit en chuintant du nez :

— M’en fous de la peinture abstraite ou pas abstrait, de la peinture commerciale ou pas commerciale… Mais Manhès m’a injurié, lui qui me doit tout, moi qui le faisais vivre…

— Oh !

Le nain attrapa prestement un petit-four, sur un plateau qui passait, le mastique avec application et dit :

— Manhès m’a traité de Juif honteux…

Cette injure inattendue créa un malaise dans l’assistance. Quelqu’un risqua :

— Manhès m’a toujours paru raciste.

Le nain chercha d’où venait cette voix, en plissant les yeux, ne la reconnut pas, et dit :

— Je vous engage, mon cher Michaud, à vendre vos Manhès, bientôt ils ne vaudront plus rien.

— Ce n’est pas pressé, ce n’est pas pressé, plaisanta Monsieur Michaud avec ne bonhomie enjouée qui dégela un peu l’assistance. Puis, reprenant une voix solennelle :

« Ce soir, je veux vous annoncer une bonne nouvelle. Charles vient de préférer les arts aux sous-vêtements. Il sera peintre. »

— Où l’envoyes-vous, demanda une dame, chez Léger ou chez Lhote ?

— Il ne va pas faire les Beaux-Arts, au moins, s’inquiéta une autre ?

— Ne vous alarmez pas, dit Monsieur Michaud, il sera formé à bonne école. Je vais le faire inscrire à l’Académie d’Art Abstrait.

De grosses mains applaudirent. C’étaient celles de Charles Roy. Des groupes se formèrent dans l’appartement, au gré des sympathies et des antipathies. On allait beaucoup devant les tableaux de Manhés et la conversation s’animait dans ce coin-là. Chacun serait vigoureusement la main à Charles, qui s’ennuyait.

Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.

Everything you always wanted to know about Dance & Sex but were afraid to ask, 2: Corpus Displayum — A Dialogue on the Power of Sex in Dance

By & copyright 2000, 2019 Asimina Chremos
& Paul Ben-Itzak

(To receive the complete article, first published on May 25, 2000, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.)

Skin Games — Katherine Dunham’s Documentaries in Paris; Lauwers’s Racialist Stereotypes in Seine-Saint-Denis

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on February 10, 2005, this piece is re-published today because incredibly enough given the community’s multi-cultural population, Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room” has been programmed for April at the theater MC93 in the Paris suburb of Bobigny in the county of Seine-Saint-Denis. (Perhaps the brilliant curators who thought up this idea can sell “Tintin in the Congo,” featuring Belgium’s most famous ambassador, in the gift shop. What they really should do is book-end Lauwers’s piece with Dunham’s more noble — and authentic — enterprise.) Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by subscribing or making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. Subscribe to the DI/AV for one year for just $36 ($21 for students) and get full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances and exhibitions from around the world by 150 critics. Paul Ben-Itzak is also available for French to English translating assignments and for DJing as MC World Beat.

PARIS — A colleague who’s also seen Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room,” a.k.a. “La chambre d’Isabella,” tells me he thinks the “‘quaint racial language is appropriate for the historic moment Lauwers was recreating.” Another respected colleague, the New York Times’s Margo Jefferson, sees merely pretension where I see tired racial stereotyping inherited from Colonialism. Reflecting on the needcompany dance-theater-music work, seen Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, I can see the bases for both these opinions, and I wouldn’t take my colleagues to the mat on them. Yet while Lauwers’s bombastic work (in general) often seems pretentious, it is also intentionally provocative. So I think a visceral response to this visceral approach is valid. (And if Lauwers can dish it out, he should certainly be able to take it.) Here’s mine, recorded a couple of hours after the performance, followed by some reflections on the work’s thin dance content and on cultural appropriation and exploitation. Then we’ll finish with the tonic of authenticity, revisiting Katherine Dunham’s early documentaries of Haiti and the Caribbean.

It is past two in the morning here in Paris, and I should be asleep. But I am restlessly pacing. I am on edge because tonight at the Theatre de la Ville – SARAH BERNHARDT (whose corps at Pere Lachaise must surely be restless these days), the Belgian director-playwright and putative choreographer Jan Lauwers used his considerable dramatic gifts to suck me into a world where, before I knew it, I was hit with residual Belgian colonial racialism, grandmother-to-minor grandson incest/rape (at least that’s what they’d call it in the States), and a generally unremitting nihilism.

Perhaps — perhaps — there are hints of hope among the despair. Perhaps, as in the work of other tragedians, the darkness is meant to set off the light. But how are we supposed to discern these signs through the barrage of blatant racialism and pointless violence? How am I to see anything but racialism when Lauwers gives us a heroine who, we’re told, was impregnated by a Black (I think the word Negro was used) performer on the Place Pigalle whose trick was that he could make his “erect p**** *** just by concentrating on it”? (The asterisks are mine, not an external censor’s; just because Lauwers has desecrated Sarah Bernhardt’s stage with this filth doesn’t mean we need to desecrate our pages.) How am I to find an island of hope on a stage whose dominating scenery is what we’re told is a “giant African penis,” on which the heroine hangs her gold necklace and lighter? How am I NOT to perceive racialism in a scenic environment which, in its blithe use and display of (what we’re told are) African artifacts, is probably committing at least one sacrilege, and has made me complicit in a sort of cultural violation? How did I feel regarding this in a sea of white faces? How did I feel when these fellow spectators giggled at the evocation of black p**** tricks?

I know, I know, I hear some of you saying: You dope, he’s not being racialist, he’s COMMENTING on racialism and Colonialism. I just don’t buy it. Jan Lauwers works in a milieu — Belgium — where one can still find vestiges of the Colonial attitude towards Blacks in mainstream postcard shops peddling images of them (thick lips, bug eyes) that make “Birth of a Nation” seem like it was produced by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In this context, the similar signposts in “Isabella’s Room” make it hard to receive this work as anything but racialist, nihilistic garbage.

lauwers oneNeedcompany in Jan Lauwers’s “La Chambre d’Isabella” (Isabella’s Room). Photo copyright Eveline Vanassche and courtesy MYRA.

It doesn’t help that Lauwers starts off with the often-mocking presentation of a variety of African artifacts, apparently, we’re told, “collected” by his late father. (The question of Colonial expropriation of such artifacts is not broached.) Perhaps he’s mocking the mockers, but what exactly gives him the right to expropriate another culture’s ceremonial objects for his own ceremonies? Especially given Belgium’s brutal colonial history.

“Isabella’s Room” is also advertised — at least in Paris — as a dance spectacle, and when it comes to integrating dance into his theatrical works, Lauwers hasn’t made much progress since the 1999 “Morning Song.” Jefferson, in her Times review, postulates that the dance here serves the same end as the songs, to “echo the characters’ conscious thoughts and unconscious dreams.” I don’t see this; I can find neither comment, interpretation, nor even counterpoint here; just aimless noodling, which might as well have been created outside of the text, in which the individual performers appear to have been left to their own devices, the choreography often devolving into what Jefferson accurately calls “Merce Cunningham and WIlliam Forsythe cast-offs.”

Except for six hours which she spends there in a vain attempt to save the life of her grandson Frank, the Isabella of the title in Lauwers’s piece is an Africa-fancying white anthropologist who never makes it to Africa. Katherine Dunham, by contrast, is an African-American interpreter of Afro-Caribbean dance — with Pearl Primus, the U.S.’s first — who began her career by traversing the Caribbean, on a Rosenwald fellowship, with a camera. Three of the resultant 1936 documentaries, “Trinidad,” “Haiti,” and “Jamaica and Martinique” were recently screened by the Centre Pompidou here in Paris, part of a festival on voyaging women documentary makers of the ’20s through ’60s.

All three films are brief but effective time capsules of the subject countries. “Trinidad” is the most purely dance document, capturing what looks (to this untrained eye) like a Vodun-like dance with its own vocabulary — one of the vocabularies that Dunham would go on to interpret in her concert form. (What a formidable example of scholarly rigor for contemporary choreographers who have the audacity to adapt a given ethnic style after taking only a few classes in it!) A vocabulary it clearly is, with one older woman, back curved, stomach contracted, seen to be drilling a snappy younger man in his footwork as a circle watches.

“Haiti” is a 15-minute masterpiece of a portrait and travelogue; one can almost feel the young Dunham falling in love with the country that still, nearly 70 years later, plays a central role in her life and work. She begins with a panorama of coastal mountains dominated by what look like the remnants of colonial fortresses. There’s also a cock-fight, in which she follows the flying fowl, then zooms in on a smartly attired man clipping his bird’s toe-nails. Eventually we’re taken — as if we were watching it from behind the barricades — to what could be a Carnival parade. Some of the participants are clad simply in their Sunday finest, some wear large masks in the shape of animal heads, others full-body costumes; two Carnival queens greet their ‘subjects’ from floats. Most are, to one extent or another, dancing, from the sharp dresser to the fluent four-year-old on whom Dunham trains her camera for a couple of minutes.

What emerges — aided by more recent musical field recordings which have been layered onto this silent film — is a poignant memory of Haiti just after the 1934 evacuation of U.S. troops. It’s perhaps a bittersweet memory in light of the U.S.’s recent intervention to help depose Haiti’s democratically elected President Aristide, but the filmmaker, at least, provides a much-needed model of an ambassador from our country who casts a curious eye, not a pointed finger at the rest of the world.