Lutèce Diary, 34: An Americanization in Paris; Abstractions St.-Germainopretan

Nicolas de Stael, Plage, 1954, huile sur toile, 24 x 33 cm, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger smallNicolas de Stael, “Plage,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 24 x 33 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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“The wondrous envelopes us and deluges us like the atmosphere, but we don’t see it.”

— Charles Baudelaire, cited by Eli Faure in “Histoire de l’art: L’art moderne, I,” Editions Denoel, 1987

PARIS — The concrete plaque on the fence midway up the rue Menilmontant above the weed-submerged tracks of the “Petite Ceinture” which winds around Paris commemorates the three men, aged 20 to 53, who gave their lives in August 1944 to liberate their city from the German occupiers, in the conviction that waiting for the Allied troops — which landed on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago today — to do so would be to surrender their future to the Yankees. So why has the mayor of Paris — who made sure passersby knew the fresh flowers tacked to the plaque were from her — so readily ceded to the increasingly rampant Americanization of Lutèce without a fight?

Up the street from this newly opened to the public parcel of the Petite Ceinture, where you can pique-nique on freshly-fallen Queen Anne cherries while reclining on homey chaises composed of unvarnished planks of wood, a bakery-café too tony for the neighborhood is selling Mrs. Field-style cookies for 4 Euros a pop. I prefer the sunflower-encrusted variety the French Arab boulangerie on the Boulevard Menilmontant below offers for .50 cents apiece. And unlike what one older woman I dated during my recent visit to Lutèce (who claimed to be a Leftist atheist) contended, to me the biggest threat to traditional French values isn’t the scarf with which the bakery babushka chooses to cover her head but boutiques selling “cookie pauses,” restaurants calling themselves “Thank God for Broccoli,” and cafés promising “the best brunch on the Canal,” all in English. This isn’t just a question of going exotic that can be likened to a New York restaurant calling itself, say, Lutèce; it’s an appeal by Yankee commercants to Yankee customers who resume going local to ordering a croissant and café creme.

Bissière, Vert et noir (Esprits de la Fôret), 1955, huile sur papier marouflé sur toile, Photo © Veignant, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger smallRoger Bissière, “Vert et noir (Esprits de la Fôret),” 1955. Oil on paper pasted on canvas. Photo copyright Veignant. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

If I still harbored any doubts that City Hall is just rolling over in the face of this lingual imperialism, they were dispelled by the American high school chorus chanting Frankie Valli’s ‘I love you, baby” from the chandelier’d top floor of the Hotel de la Ville on a recent Thursday evening as I returned from a twilight pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis where I’d been flirting with a red-headed, purple-stockinged German children’s book designer named Betty, in English (as we contemplated an evolving Notre-Dame whose dome now sports a white yarmulke which just might remain there long enough for some wag to observe, “Funny, you don’t look Blue-ish”; only 13 million of the 800 million Euros pledged for the church’s reconstruction has been delivered; the leading industrialist who committed 200 million just found out his gift won’t be as tax-deductable as he originally thought; and the main French patrimony foundation organizing the fundraising has rightly decided to steer future donations to some of the country’s other 2,500 sagging monuments), she sharing nightmares of walking into bottomless escalators, me of returning to school and constantly missing classes I really wanted to take. When the chorus segued into Cindy Lauper’s “Girls just want to have fun” (Cindy had accompanied my Princeton years) I had to second the emotion of the chic Parisienne striding confidently towards me who twisted the finger ballet she’d been performing into a gun and pointed it in the direction of the singing.

All this is a far cry from the mutually respectful meeting and melding of cultures promoted by Boris Vian, who, picking up after the war where Josephine Baker, the Revue Negre, and, later, Charles Trenet and the Zazous (the French version of the Zoot Suits) had left off, introduced Duke Ellington to France and ravenously devoured American jazz magazines so he could translate their choicest morsels for French jazz fans. Vian, who with Miles Davis and Juliette Greco set the tone in Saint-Germain-des-Près (“I didn’t know he was Black,” Greco quoted by Malcolm McLaren in his album “Paris” said of Davis. “And when I found out he was Black, I just cried.”), would blow his heart out on the cornet and trumpet by the age of 39, dying of a heart attack at a 1959 preview of the film version he’d opposed of his novel “I’ll spit on your graves,” the first-person account of a Black American who decides to kill as many white people as he can. Jean-François Jaeger, on the other hand — who, after taking over as director of the Jeanne Bucher gallery in 1947 upon Bucher’s death, helped the Paris abstract art movement carve out a distinct identity which left the American school in the dust — is still kicking at ninety-something. And his legacy — as personified by artists like Nicolas de Stael, Jean Dubuffet, Roger Bissiere, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva — is still vibrant, as demonstrated by a new exhibition running at the Galerie Jaeger-Bucher’s Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

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 smallMaria Helena Vieira da Silva, “La Garde des anges,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

What I love about the French abstract art of this era — the way it feeds and sustains me — is that it’s so dense. While Picasso was busy scrawling silly clowns that would make Red Skelton blanche on napkins and noble doves for the peace posters of the French Communist Party as it buried its head in the sand to the gulags, these artists were delivering genuine revolutions in every painting. (And not just at the Bucher nor only under the aegis of gallerists like Jaeger; Jean-Michel Atlan, Pierre Soulages, Wols, the COBRA group, and the critics who championed them like Michel Ragon, another “passeur,” or transmitter, also get some of the credit.) Or as Jaeger put it in 1997, “For us there are only beginnings, successive births at the will of solicitations to throw our points of view into question, each one completely owned, each one eventually contradicted by an adventure of another type, without losing the essential attachment to the quality of the mode of expression. Possessing no power of creation ourselves, we’re placed at the advance posts, the first to be subjected to the shock of a revelation born in the studio, the first to assimilate it with the goal of accomplishing our role of passeur.” Contrast this humble and self-effacing attitude with what — at least as reflected in much of the work I see in the galleries of Paris these days — seems to be the optic of Jaeger’s successors, which is to program work which confirms and assures them in their tastes.

dubuffet the bar jaeger bucherJean Dubuffet, “Le Bar,” 1965. Vinyl on paper mounted on canvas. 81x 100 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

Literalists like me can certainly find stories — or at least figuration — in some of the work on view at the Jaeger-Bucher if we want to, but we can also just allow it to deluge (or as Baudelaire might say, ‘abreuve’) us with sensations. (After all, if they could have said it in words, they would have become writers.) What I appreciate about this period is that art, even abstract, impenetrable art, was everywhere. Dali landscapes and Miro ‘bonhommes’ were decorating the albums of Jacky Gleason and Dave Brubeck alike. (Re-viewing several seasons of Mad Men recently after covering last year’s Aix-en-Provence exhibition of Stael’s later, Mediterranean color and light-infused paintings, I was delighted to spot one of them hanging behind the desk of the ad executive Roger Sterling, who might have been one of those American soldiers marching towards Paris.) These days, instead of European art enhancing American pop culture, a new, unimaginative generation of American pop culture artists (often with no technical training, and bragging about it) is turning up in Parisian art galleries, notably in the Marais. (The Americanization of the Marais isn’t confined to its artistic venues. Emerging earlier this year from a palatial space given over to monotonously repetitive big-eyed, long-nosed women designed by a young American artist which owed more to the Sunday comic strip “The Fusco Brothers” than Robert Rauschenberg, I ran smack dab into a window display hawking a Krispy-Kreme-scale donut with a thimble-sized cup of coffee for six Euros.) English is often the go-to language at the vernissages and in the guided tours at these venues, the press releases are in English, the exhibition titles are in English, and much of the (American) art is so crappy it would never dare to show its face in Brooklyn. Some of it (and not just the American) is so buried in conceptual (often textual) mazes that I can’t find the graphic matter.

grillon vasarely sans titre two boxVictor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Two. Silkscreen painting in color, signed and justified. 11.81 x 11.81 inches / 18.89 x 16.53 inches. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

The Germainopretan galleries, on the other hand, remain resolutely international in their selection and (for the most part) rigorous in their aesthetic standards. (Even the snob factor has diminished enough that I’m tempted to reverse Vian’s formula: “Encore moins snob que tout a l’heure.”) After leaving the Jaeger-Bucher earlier on the same Thursday evening that terminated on the other side of the Seine with being serenaded by American girls just wanting to have fun at City Hall, I crossed the rue de Seine to a gallery half its size where, instead of the usual jeunotte annoyed at being interrupted in whatever she was doing in front of her computer screen that was more important than me I found two young women in glasses busily arranging dozens of Victor Vasarely optical illusions neatly arrayed on the floor.

grillon vasarely sans titre threeVictor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Three. Silkscreen painting in color, signed in crayon and justified. 75.5cm x 75.5cm / 83 cm x 83 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

“If you have any questions, let us know!” one enthusiastically invited me (in French). And I’m glad I did; they both knew more about the art than I did, specifically explaining to me that before Vasarely there was Agram, both of whom lead a movement sometimes called ‘cinetic’ art (Vasarely’s approach has also been described as photo-graphisme), which looks like it provided the model for the various unknown sectors the starship Enterprise would stray into a decade later. The last time I’d come upon this particular artistic genre, at a Latin American-themed gallery in the Marais whose exhibition was more mobile-oriented, the — older — galleriste had huffed when she discovered I didn’t already know what cinetic art was, “It’s very well-known!” Here, by contrast, the two young gallerists not only explained to me that ‘serigraphs’ meant ‘silk-screens,’ but when I asked what exactly this entailed, one of them, “Louise,” left the room to fetch two blank sheets of paper so she could demonstrate the process.

grillon agam sans titre twoYaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled Two. Silkscreen, signed and justified. 75.5 cm 75 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

When I finally identified myself as a journalist and asked if she had jpegs of the art available, Louise encouraged me to visit the gallery’s website and pull what I needed. (Contrast this to the attitude of the Reunion of the National Museums, which handles the publicity for the Luxembourg, Grand Palais, and other institutions, whose press offices set up so many roadblocks — often at the dictate of ADAGP, the artist rights’ syndicate which apparently thinks art magazines still make money — to featuring their art in articles about their exhibitions ((in other words, free advertising)) that I’ve given up covering them. In fact in theory I’ve given up writing about art, period, because it doesn’t keep me in croissants let alone the dentures to be able to nibble them, but the problem is that every time I go outside in Paris it seems to find me.) When, before leaving to not look for more art, I told the gallerists at the Grillon — as the space is called (Jimminy Cricket!) — about the (non) reception that usually greets me at art galleries, another, older woman who had just entered and sat down behind a desk replied, “C’est pas comme ca que ca marche ici,” that’s not how it works here.

grillon vasarely sans titre one

Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled One. Silkscreen in colors, signed in crayon and justified. 57 cm x 45 cm / 75 cm x 60 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

After testing my new choppers (the family paid for them) on the cornichons and pretzel sticks at a third space on the rue de Seine, the Petite Gallery (unfortunately the only galleries that still offer food and drink at vernissages these days seem to be the ones with the least interesting art, which is why I’m not talking about it here), I was still doing pretty good Germainopretan snob quotient-wise until I entered a fourth gallery whose name I’ve purposely forgotten but was something like “The eyes have it” or “The eyes are everywhere” and which was offering a group exhibition under the rubric “Surrealism, the Second Generation,” purporting to cover the period 1945 – 1965. Intrigued that most of the art displayed seem to come from the collection of the Duchamp specialist Arturo Schwartz, I asked the gallerist why. Taking me aside and shaking his head (not at me but at the institution in question), he explained, “He left 700 works to the Jerusalem Museum. They promptly sold off most of them so they could buy more contemporary work.” Reverse-intrigued, I asked him why he didn’t have any Leonor Fini among the mostly male assemblage. “She wasn’t really a surrealist,” the gallerist sniffed dismissively — and typically. (Read: She was a female artist who refused to be subsumed by and subsetted into a male universe. Around Leonor’s pad in the hills above Trieste, the men wore gowns.) If you’re wondering why I’m not citing a single name of an artist who was included in the exhibition, it’s not to venge Fini but because when I took one of several copies of a list pairing works with artists as a memori menti for this article, a thin van-dycked gallery assistant with slicked-back hair chased me out of the gallery and down the rue des Beaux Arts to recuperate the material. “Hey, come back here! You can’t take that!”

fini lutece diarythme

Leonor Fini, “Dithyrambe, 1972.  Oil on paper laid down on canvas. 30 x 21.25 inches. Courtesy CFM Gallery.

After an unhealthily more than cursory look (okay, digging-through) of a box someone had left outside another gallery with a sign “Free for the taking!” but which consisted mostly of battery-less gold-painted hand-clocks not even Dali would want to recuperate, I continued towards the Seine and the Ile St. Louis. The deal I’d made with myself was that I’d already prepared a cauliflower-potato-chicken-curry salad for the pique-nique and packed a plastic bottle of Algerian lemon soda scored at the Belleville market for 15 cents, and if I didn’t like it on the Ile, I could just get up and leave. The reasons I thought I wouldn’t like it were a) the first time that I’d retrieved “my” bench on the Ile during this Paris visit, I’d run down to the Seine from Beaubourg (the Pompidou) so fast — you might have thought Niki de Saint Phalle’s big-breasted mermaid had jumped out of the Stravinsky fountain (yet another that’s been left out to dry) and was chasing after me — that I’d no sooner sat down on “my” bench than I felt like I was about to have the runs and had to run back up to the Right Bank, where my go-to toilet outside the Metro Pont-Marie was flashing the dreaded red ‘out-of-order’ sign, and the open toilet I finally found near the Theater Sarah Bernhardt just as time was running out was out of toilet paper, leaving me to show up at a Valentine’s Day vernissage in the Marais with proof that my shit really did stink too. (Looking up at a dried-out David Hockney tree I felt very wet.), b) the second time I’d tried, after an initial post-fire visit to Notre-Dame to size up the damage for you, I’d been scared off by four bulky British rugby-players bunched onto “my” bench and blasting their music de merde on their portables (there used to be an unspoken rule among We the People of the Ile that you didn’t impose your music on others), and c) the years I used to spend every Friday night on the Ile after trolling for used records off the rue Mouffetard where I’d had my cheap cafe latté standing at a tall table contemplating the curvy form and curve-throwing bon mots of MissTic were my drinking years, only unlike Baudelaire I had no Gauthier to record the resultant reveries of this artificial Paradise, so all I remember besides the way the rippling of the Seine seemed to glitter more brightly as the Sun set over Notre-Dame after a glass of pastis is how heavy I felt walking towards Pont-Marie afterwards (the pique-nique also contributed; I wasn’t just drinking), and how when I tried to replace the half a bottle of red or two cans of Pelforth Brune with a whole bottle of tomato juice it just wasn’t the same. If I didn’t have a scribe like Gauthier or Baudelaire (whose building at 33 rue Lamartine had been my first after moving to Paris) to lend these evenings a literary flavor, I did have a librarian: A bouquiniste, Marcel, whose noble trade — having a best friend who sold books along the Seine made me feel like a real Paris insider — blinded me to his fickle soul. I hadn’t had any contact with Marcel since 2014, when he wrote to say that according to his new and young White Russian bride (the same who, after a French Arab man who was more French than she was left the elevator we’d shared at the Metro Place de Lilas had scowled, “They should all go back where they came from”), “You look like a Hobo” (the teeth no doubt).

Thus it was that telling myself if I didn’t like it — if I encountered more music de merde to perturb my tranquility — I didn’t have to stay I made my way to the Ile along the newly pedestrianized Right Bank of the Seine, discovering the spanking new mahogany benches around tables where people were eating, drinking, and partying, and of course, the one decent toilet within five kilometers, an equally spanking new white facility. (You’re just too good to be true, can’t keep my eyes off of you.)

Taking the stairs back up to the street after passing the Hotel de la Ville so I could access the bridge to the Ile — the urge to see if Marcel (not his real name) was still there manning his ‘box’ above a ramp leading down to the river was also a factor — I didn’t find my literary friend but further on was reassured to see that Pierre, a bouquiniste to whom Marcel had shown the ropes, was faithfully at his station, and recognized me enough to nod.

The last time I’d seen Pierre — I’d just fled from a late-career, ear-splitting Pina Bausch spectacle at the Bernhardt and decided to linger in the neighborhood so that I could go back for the after-party and at least have some food and drink to compensate for the ear damage, plus my friend Sabine had stayed for the second act — he’d insisted that I was working for the CIA. “That’s why your teeth are so bad — It’s a disguise!” When he’d announced after hanging up the cell phone he’d told me a Chinese guy had sold him that he had to take off for a rendez-vous with a Vietnamese woman, I’d responded, “I know. We’re the ones who told the Chinese guy to sell you the cell phone after we put a bug in it.” By his laughing reaction I wondered if Pierre had just been ribbing me.

On this recent retrieval, Pierre’s curly hair was scanter and his face more arid from the exposure to the Sun and wind ricocheting off the Seine, and he was sporting an aborted handle-bar mustache and sharing a bottle of red with his potes around a small fold-up table he’d set up in front of his stand, where the books were piled up in pell-mell chaos. The new teeth had apparently improved my stature. “You’re a bouquiniste also, right?” “No, I’m a friend of Marcel’s.” Indicating the Red Guards cap on his head, I observed, “Last time I saw you were wearing a Chinese peasant lamp-shade hat to protect you from the Sun.” “Vietnamese!” Pierre corrected me, pulling the lampshade out from behind a pile. Then nodding up at a row of lantern-cages with stuffed parrots in them hanging like birds on a wire from the green-iron hood of the stand above the piles of books, he suggested, “Tapper and see what happens.” As I prepared to deliver a round-house wallop on the first cage he chided me impatiently, “No no, clap your hands *together.*” I did, and the lanterns lit up as the birds began to sing.

grillon agam sans titre one

Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled One. Silkscreen, signed and justified, 77 cm x 70.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

 

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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.)

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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.