Montparnasse Forever or, when Painting was a Combat Sport

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

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

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

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

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

Duelists

by Guillaume Apollinaire

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

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

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

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

Moïse Kisling

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

Moshe Kisling

by Maurice Raynal

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

 

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

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

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

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

Take it away — and bring it home — Boris:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part nine in the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first eight parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here. To learn how to support our work, e-mail artsvoyager@gmail.com . To support us through PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blanche remained obstinate:

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

“Please Blanche! We already have worries enough!”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Part seven in the Paris Tribune’s exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first six parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here.

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

“Which one is that?” the editor groaned.

“An abstract painter who….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He clutched Blanche tightly to him. She laughed heartily.

“Naughty boy!”

A suicide

by Émile Zola
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

In the Spring of 1866, the Paris newspaper L’Evenement commissioned a 26-year-old author, Émile Zola — whose first novel, “The Diary of Claude,” had been published the previous fall — to review that year’s Salon, later to become infamous for the number of influential painters, notably Zola’s chou-chou Edouard Manet, to have work refused. Zola — also close to Paul Cezanne, with whom he’d grown up in Aix-en-Provence — had several axes to grind; his first review would take on the Salon jury by name, reviewing their individual qualifications (and work). By number seven, the public had had enough of this upstart who not only attacked institutional art but rejected established critical norms; the newspaper’s editor, Monsieur Villemessant, ceded to the threats of cancelled subscriptions and other insults and aborted Zola’s assignment. (As detailed by Henri Mitterand in “Zola, Journaliste.”) As a sort of prelude to his reviews — which he’d initially planned to pen under the pseudonym of “Claude” — Zola sent Villemessant and his readers the following account of the suicide of the painter Jalos Holtzhpapfel, after he was rejected by the Salon.* (Zola was not finished with either “Claude,” painters, or artist suicides; the doomed hero of his 1886 novel “L’oeuvre,” loosely inspired by the early critical fates, if not the styles, of Manet, Claude Monet, and Cezanne, would be named Claude Lantier.) To read more of Zola on art, click here. Have a document that needs translating? Contact Paul Ben-Itzak at artsvoyager@gmail.com by pasting that address into your e-mail program. And at the same address to learn more about Paul’s collaborative “Suicide Artists” project.)

April 19, 1866

“You have charged me, my dear Monsieur Villemessant, with talking about our artists to L’Evenement’s readers, a-propros of this year’s Salon. It’s a heavy task which I have nonetheless accepted with joy. I will doubtlessly displease many people, decided as I am to recount many horrible truths, but I take an intimate pleasure in unburdening my heart of all the gripes accumulated over the years.

“You have assured me: ‘Make like chez vous.’ I will thus speak without mincing any words, as a veritable authority. I count on sending you, before the opening of the Salon in several days, an outline of my over-riding credo as well as a rapid study of the artistic moment we are currently living.

“For today, I have imposed upon myself a sad mission. I believe that I have the responsibility of talking about a painter who blew his brains out several days ago, and about whom none of my colleagues will no doubt concern themselves.

“The rumor had been circulating for several days that an artist had killed himself, after the Salon refused his canvasses. I wanted to see the atelier where the unhappy individual committed suicide; I was able to learn the address, and I’ve only just returned from the sinister room whose parquet floor is still splattered with large burgundy stains.

“Do you not think it is a good idea to make the public penetrate this room? I took a kind of bitter pleasure in telling myself that, from the beginning of my task, I’d be hurtling against a tomb. I think about those who will have the applause of the crowd, of those whose work will be spread out widely in the full light of day, and I see at the same time this miserable man, in his deserted atelier, writing his farewell note and spending an entire night preparing himself to die.

“I’m not trying to be maudlin, I assure you. I knocked on this door with a profound sentiment, and my voice trembled with trepidation when I questioned a woman who opened the door and who was, I believe, the suicide’s maid.

“The atelier is small, ornately decorated. At the right, near the entrance, is an oak sideboard, intricately carved. In the corners of the room more furniture, also oak, is arrayed, a sort of paneled trunks with drawers. Ropes attached at either end with red seals quarantine each of these pieces of furniture. One can see that the dead man must have brushed bruskly against them.

“At the right the bed was stretched out, a bed low and flattened out, a sort of narrow divan. It is here… that he was found, the head loping and crushed, as if he was sleeping.

“The pistol hadn’t fallen from his hand.

“I didn’t even recognize his name. I had no idea if he had any talent, and I still don’t know. I wouldn’t dare judge this man who has departed, fatigued by the struggle. I did indeed spot four or five of his canvasses hanging on the wall, but I did not look at them with the eyes of a judge. At the Salon, I’ll be severe, maybe even violent; here, I can only be sympathetic and moved.

“The artist was German, and his paintings reflect his origins. These are compositions of the Charles Comte variety, historic scenes drawn from the Middle Ages. On an easel, I noticed a white canvas with a pencil composition completely aborted. No doubt the final work. The painter killed himself before this unfinished oeuvre.

“Certainly, I’m not claiming that the jury’s rejection was the only factor in the death of this unhappy man. It’s difficult to penetrate a human soul at this supreme hour of suicide. The bitternesses slowly pile up until one arrives to deliver the coupe de grace.

“They nevertheless tell me that the artist was of a gentle character and that he wasn’t known to have suffered any particular vexation. He had some money, he was able to work without worry.

“Truly, I would not liked to have condemned this man. If I were a painter and if I had been among those who had had the honor of excluding my fellow painters from the Salon, I’d be having nightmares tonight. I’d see the suicide again, I’d tell myself that I had without doubt contributed to his death, and in any case, I would be tormented by this horrible idea that my indulgence would have without doubt prevented this sinister denouement, even if the artist harbored some secret disappointments.

“You certainly want me to draw a moral from all this. I won’t give you this moral today, because it will only duplicate the articles that I’m preparing for L’Evenement.

“I’ve written this letter simply to place a fact before the eyes of the readers. I’ll enlarge as I can the file of my grieves against the jury which functioned this year.

“That’s about it for now. I have a strong case to bring against it.”

“Claude.”

We’d initially agreed, Monsieur de Villemessant and I, that I’d review the Salon under a pseudonym. Already signing an article practically every day, I didn’t want my signature to appear twice in the same newspaper.

I am now obligated to remove my mask before I’ve even attached it; there are many jackasses at the livestock fairs named Martin and there are also, it seems, many Claudes among the ranks of art critics. The real Claudes were afraid of being compromised because of my article “A Suicide”; and they’ve all written to inform our readers that it wasn’t them who had the audacious idea to put the jury on trial before the court of public opinion.

That they be re-assured: It has been decided that I should boldly confess that the revolutionary Claude in question was none other than me.

Voila the entire Claude tribe tranquilized.

Émile Zola

*Collected in “Émile Zola: écrits sur l’art,” Editions Gallimard, 1991, edition established, presented, and annotated by Jean-Pierre Leduc-Adine.

Fénéon a l’ordre du jour toujours: Au revoir Paris, a très bean toe New York

Feneon by SignacPaul Signac, “Opus 217. Sur l’émail d’un fond rythmique des mesures et d’angles, de tons et des teintes, portrait de M. Félix Fénéon en 1890.” Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92.5 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller. © Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. (For more on Signac and his relationship to Fénéon, as described by Guillaume Apollinaire — and more art — click here.)

Text by Michel Ragon
(from “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie,” published by and copyright Editions Albin Michel, 2008)
Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak

As the exhibition “Félix Fénéon: Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse,” migrates across the Atlantic from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to the Museum of Modern Art in New York — with a tweaked title for the Spring show that emphasizes the critic, editor, and modern art promoter’s status among French anarchists — we thought we’d commemorate the occasion with (justement) Michel Ragon’s sketch, as featured in “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie,” published and copyright Editions Albin Michel, Paris, 2008: (To read our previous coverage of this transatlantic extravaganza — and see more art — start here, then follow the additional links at the end of that article. Click here to read more from Michel Ragon on Anarcho-Syndicalisme,  in translation, and here to read translated excerpts from Monsieur Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil.”)

Fénéon, Félix (1861 – 1944): Anarchist intellectual, dandy, eminent critic of the art of Neo-Impressionism (Seurat, Signac, Lautrec), employee (highly-regarded) of the War Ministry, Félix Fénéon was also an important anti-militarist, suspected of posing a bomb at the Foyot restaurant. Incarcerated [in 1894] during the ‘Trial of 30,’ judged, and acquitted (Mallarmé testified in his favor), he directed [the anarchist artistic journal] L’En Dehors until 1895.

felixAlphonse Bertillon, “Fénéon Félix,” in “Album des anarchistes,” 1994. Albumin silver print after glass negative, 10.5 x 7 cm. Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005. © New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bertillon is typically regarded as the father of forensic science — the man who made the various CSIs possible.

Secretary of “La Revue Blanche” (1895-1903), he glorified Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse.

His short stories in three lines for Matin (1905-1906) are miniature masterpieces. He paraded alcoholic clergymen and syphilitic soldiers and denounced universal suffrage and the right to vote.

In January 1893, in a period when the winter was particularly severe, he wrote, “The moment is propitious for the extinction of pauperism. In a few days, if the frigorific acceleration progresses, the dying-of-hunger race will have completely disappeared.”

He liked to say that the Fatherland is “an entity entirely empty and hollow, like God, like Society, like the State, like Nature, like Morality, etcetera.”

Art critic at Père Peinard, he adopted the tone of [Emile] Pouget [the journal’s publisher, a labor militant and comrade of Paris Communard Louise Michel]: “And merde to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, it’s just a run-down jalopy that needs a good kick in the ass like all the academies, all the institutes and the other bureaucratic machines of the precious pigsty of governance. Therefore no jury, for the independent artists. That’s good that, my God.”

Jean Paulhan, in his preface to Fénéon’s works, wrote: “The anarchist attacks had their reasons, good or not; it’s not for me to judge. Societies have their defects; it seems that French society of the post-War period was particularly ignoble and lack-luster at the same time: detestable and as if disgusted with itself. Even if their only ambition was to provoke precise, explainable, and intelligent crimes, this is enough for the anarchists to warrant our sympathy.”

Feneon, Seurat_Marine avec ancresBye-bye Paris, a bean toe New York: Georges Seurat (1859-1891), “Marine avec des ancres,” 1890. Oil on canvas, 65.4 × 81.9 cm. New York, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden, 1963. Photo ©John Wronn. Félix Fénéon was the first to champion Seurat, Signac, and the Neo-Impressionists.