Henri Matisse (1869-1954), “Interior with girl” (Reading), 1905-1906. Oil on canvas, 72.7 × 59.7 cm. New York, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo © Paige Knight. © Succession H. Matisse. Succession Matisse. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.
To be able to simultaneously share, for the first time in English, Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel about the contemporary art market and world in Paris in the 1950s — and which also treats post-War anti-Semitism in France — we’ve decided to illustrate today’s installment with art directly referred to in “Trompe-l’oeil” that readers can see now or soon in Paris, New York, and London, notably at the Orsay Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Jeanne Bucher Jaeger gallery in the Marais, the Waddington Custot in London, and Di Donna Galleries, New York. (See captions for details.) Like what you’re reading and want to see more? Please support independent arts journalism today by designating your donation in dollars or Euros through PayPal to email@example.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail. Special thanks to Michel and Françoise Ragon, Edward Winer, and Jamie. To read the previous installment of “Trompe-l’oeil” (which links to earlier episodes), please click here. First published in the French original by Albin-Michel.
Fontenoy had gotten his start at L’Artiste with a reportage on Matisse. Not that he was particularly interested in this major painter, but his editor tended to ask him to write about the subjects he was the least interested in. He wasn’t trying to irritate or bully Fontenoy. The editor in chief’s dishing out of the weekly assignments to his writers was completely haphazard. What really interested Fontenoy, the new non-figurative painting, had very little chance of being mentioned in L’Artiste. Just the bare minimum coverage needed for the weekly to appear au courant without turning off the majority of its subscribers, only now discovering, with rapture, Impressionism. The editor in chief put up with the whims of his writers as long as they weren’t too glaring. Fontenoy was permitted, like his colleagues, to talk about his fads from time to time. His boss would have been surprised to learn that Fontenoy’s support for Manhès and Ancelin had not been bought and paid for by Laivit-Canne, their dealer.
Fontenoy had submitted, among his pieces for the week, an item on the rift between Laivit-Canne and Manhès. He voiced his surprise to the editor in chief when it didn’t show up in the paper.
“My friend, if we start reporting on the fracases between painters and their dealers, it’ll never end.”
“And yet readers love reading about the quarrels between Vollard and the Impressionists. Why wouldn’t they be interested in reading about the intricate dealings of their own times?!”
The editor in chief shrugged his shoulders. “Vollard isn’t around any more to make trouble for us. Laivit-Canne, on the other hand, is an advertiser. I don’t want to upset a gentleman who supports our newspaper to help out another gentleman who’s not even a subscriber.”
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Ballet figure,” 1948. Oil on canvas and black lead pencil, 27 x 46 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020. “I watch the street and the people walking, each with a different look, each advancing at his own rhythm,” Vieira da Silva once explained. “I think of the invisible threads manipulating them. I try to perceive the mechanics which coordinate them…. This is what I try to paint.”
Fontenoy reddened with shame and anger. He was seized with a violent compulsion to throw up his hands and walk out, but he contained himself. Who would be left to talk about the painters he loved if he quit L’Artiste? Not Morisset, that’s for sure. This last had just walked into the editor in chief’s office sporting a broad smile. Everything was broad with him, for that matter: His shoulders, his handshake, his critical standards. The only time he became particular was when it came to abstract art. Morisset was always nice to Fontenoy, even if their opinions were completely opposed. He was one of those people eager to please everybody. If he ran into one of his enemies, before the latter even had time to dig his feet in he sprung on him, frenetically shook his hand, slapped him on the back, and called him “pal” with such conviction that the concerned party ended up being hoodwinked. As Morisset didn’t take anything seriously, he mingled with the artistic milieu with a casualness that seemed genuine when in reality everything he did was calculated. Except for a handful of abstract art galleries, scattered and without a lot of means, Morisset lined his pockets with tips from all corners. If a painter asked his advice on how to get exhibited, he complimented him on his talent, slapped him on the back and pushed him into a paying gallery where he had a deal for a percentage for every sucker he reeled in. As the painter was not hip to this arrangement, he’d offer him a canvas for his services. If the idea didn’t occur to him, Morisset would be sure to bring it up. He also wrote numerous exhibition pamphlets which he could always be sure to get printed by a shop with whom he had an ongoing arrangement. He resold paintings that he’d been given or extorted. Morisset earned a paltry $24 per month at the paper and yet somehow managed to have his own car. He spent his weekends with his family at his country place. He was a man perfectly content with his lot and at peace with his conscience. One day Fontenoy told him:
“When abstract art has conquered the market, you’ll be its most fervent supporter.”
He assumed Morisset would get pissed off, or protest, but no. He responded in the most natural manner possible: “Of course… How could you imagine otherwise?”
Morisset was bought and paid for from his shoelaces to his beret to such a degree that he wound up laughing about it. For that matter he liked to say, “Painters get rich thanks to us, it’s normal that we should get our portion of the profits. If you don’t ask for anything, my dear Fontenoy, you won’t get anything. You’ll see, your abstract painters, if they make it rich one day, they’ll slam the door in your face because you’ll always be broke. But they’ll still need a good publicity agent and I’ll be there. Do you really believe that painters think of us as anything more than flacks? This being the case we need to take our gloves off and play the game.”
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Playing Cards,” 1937. Oil on canvas with pencil tracing, 73 x 92 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.
Another critic arrived in turn in the editor in chief’s office. His name was Arlov and he was as uptight as Morisset was hang-loose. While he wasn’t lacking in intelligence or critical sensibility, his cirrhosis leant him a preference for melancholy paintings. For him Bernard Buffet represented the summit of contemporary art. He was also moody. His opinions tended to follow the course of his digestion. Whether an exhibition was praised or thrashed depended on whether Arlov visited the gallery after a good meal or bursting at the seams a la Kaopectate. In contrast to Morisset, one had to be careful not to load him with free drinks or food. A painter’s career sometimes depended on this perfect understanding of the digestive system of critics.
Arlov was poor. He wasn’t in art for the dough but the dames, his goal being to sleep with as many women as possible. This explained why he presided over the Salon of Women Painters (he’d even created it). His monumental book on the NUDE was the authoritative work on the subject. The funny thing was that his particular gender specialization even encompassed dead painters, with whom short of being a narcoleptic he had no chance of sleeping. He’d even managed to write, who knows how, a spicy “Life of Madame Vigée-Lebrun.” His big dream in life was to rehabilitate Bouguereau; albeit a man, the 19th-century Academic’s nudes weren’t entirely lacking in sensuality. Needless to say, Arlov was not too interested in abstract art.
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), “Self-portrait in Straw Hat,” after 1782. Purchased by the National Gallery, London. Public Domain, via Wikipedia. Vigée Le Brun was the official portraitist of Marie-Antoinette.
After having gone over, with their editor in chief, the issue which had just come out and whose pages were spread out over a big table, the three journalists jotted down the vernissage invitations, cocktails, etcetera for the upcoming week…. The editor then took the floor.
“Sunday, Protopopoff is baptizing his son. Mustafa is the godfather. Protopopoff has invited me to the reception, at Mustafa’s digs, but I’m already booked. You, Fontenoy, you can write up a big spread for the front page….”
“Why me? I think Morisset is a lot more qualified.”
“Impossible Old Man,” this last cut him off. “I spend Sundays with the family.”
Arlov quietly tip-toed out.
“What’s the hang-up, Fontenoy,” the editor continued, “you’re not going to tell me now that you don’t like Mustafa’s paintings?!”
“Okay, I’ll go….”
Fontenoy was thinking: Always the frou-frou stuff that has nothing to do with the painting itself. Mustafa godfather of the son of his dealer Protopopoff — what a waste of space when artists who are creating the art of our times don’t have a forum, practically don’t even have champions! What a metier! Embalm cadavers, voila what we’ve been reduced to. When Mustafa had been abandoned in the gutters of Montparnasse by the seedy bar-owners who sponged money off him in exchange for a few jugs of red wine, the newspapers had no space to talk about Mustafa. Today, Mustafa no longer has any need for publicity, and they take advantage of the slightest pretext to put his name on the front page.
Leaving the newspaper office, Fontenoy remembered that he had a date with a young female painter. This Blanche Favard was doggedly pursuing him. The problem was that when it came to female painters, he never knew if these signs of attention were meant for the man or the art critic. When in doubt, he sagely opted for the second possibility.
Blanch Favard lived in the Cité Falguière, an affordable housing complex initially conceived and constructed as worker housing and now peopled almost exclusively by Bohemians. From the basements to the attics, as in the honeycombs of a hive, artists of the most diverse schools, ages, and nationalities applied themselves with the patience of worker bees and the passion of alchemists to create their Great Work. All this in the shadows of some major ghosts who continued to haunt the cité, notably that of Soutine, who’d lived in one of the studios when he arrived in Paris in 1913. The painters of the Cité Falguière still talked about Soutine. It was their re-assurance. Because a genie had once lived between these walls, it was always possible that one of them….
Fontenoy was hailed by Blanche Favard, a plump little thing with a laughing visage whose blonde mane was twisted into tresses. She emerged from one of the windows just like a conventional figure in a Viennese operetta. Fontenoy hiked up to the floor that she’d indicated.
The studio was petite, but Blanche Favard painted mostly water-colors. She’d spread them out on the divan which occupied half of the room. The work was delicate. The forms very subtle. But here again one could recognize Klee’s influence. That said, Blanche had her own particular characteristics and personality. She’d started out in one of the same modes as Klee, this was clear, but she’d extended and deepened it. In setting out her work for him, she didn’t smile. Her visage remained tense, worried. She awaited Fontenoy’s verdict with a certain anxiety. And yet he’d never abused painters. He tried to understand them, convinced that a critic always has something to learn from an artist, even the most mediocre artist. Next he eliminated from his choice painters that he didn’t understand or that he didn’t like. He rarely thrashed an artist. He preferred consecrating his articles to vaunting the artists he liked while keeping quiet about those he didn’t.
Fontenoy talked to Blanche Favard about her water-colors, in measured terms, carefully weighing his words, underlining a quality here, a certain heaviness there, or a gap in the composition elsewhere. Little by little, the visage of the young woman loosened up. As Fontenoy concluded his critique, she was smiling again.
She put some water on to boil on the small Bunsen burner posed on the floor, so that she could offer some tea to her visitor.
“I’d love to have an exhibition,” she said. “But I don’t have enough money to pay a gallery. And yet it would really help me in my work to see the public’s reaction. One can’t just paint for oneself all the time.”
Fontenoy considered for a moment, at the same time taking some water-colors over to the window so he could study them in the full sunlight.
“Well, there is a bookstore which might be open to hanging your water-colors on its walls…. It’s not the same as a gallery, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll speak with the bookseller. He’s not really into abstract art, but he trusts me.”
“Yes, but the frames? I can’t just present my water-colors like that!”
“Mumphy! We need to show them to Mumphy. I think he’ll like them. I can’t get mixed up in the financial negotiations, but I can certainly ask Manhès or Ancelin to introduce you to Mumphy.”
“Oh! You’re so sweet,” Blanche Favard exclaimed in clasping her hands together just like a Reubens angel.
Then, amiably ironic:
“I know that you don’t accept paintings, nor money. But you’re doing me a big favor! Isn’t there something I can give you?”
Henri Matisse (1869-01954), “Nude sitting down,” also known as “Pink Nude,” 1909. Oil on canvas, 33.5 x 41 cm. City of Grenoble, Grenoble Museum – J.L. Lacroix. © Succession H. Matisse. Digital photo, color. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.
“Nothing, nothing,” grumbled Fontenoy, who’d suddenly started furiously mashing his tea.
Blanche laughed archly.
“Well, you can at least accept a sugar cube because you’re crushing the bottom of my cup to death!”
Sipping his tea, Fontenoy surreptitiously examined the young woman arranging her water-colors out of the corner of his eye. How old was she? 25, 30, 35? Fresh-faced if just a tad stout, she was ageless. Fontenoy had known her for a year. He’d noticed her first consignments at the Salon of New Realities and had written a cautiously positive review. Later she’d been introduced to him at an opening, like so many other painters, he couldn’t remember when. They’d continued running into each other from time to time in the galleries or, at night, at the Select. This was the first time he’d seen her in her atelier.
As he was getting ready to go, Blanche ventured: “I have one more thing to ask of you, but I don’t dare.”
“Ask all the same.”
“So, if you succeed in getting this bookstore to exhibit me, I’d be very happy, very flattered, if you’d agree to write the pamphlet.”
Blanche Favard stepped towards the young man and took the lapels of Fontenoy’s velour jacket in her hands, tenderly manipulating them. Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath.
“So, there’s hope?”
“Yes, of course,” replied Fontenoy, trying to disengage himself.
Blanche let go of his jacket.
“I’d love to give you a kiss, but you’d think it was just for services rendered.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” sputtered Fontenoy, uneasy. “So, bon courage. I’ll keep you updated on my efforts.”
Berthe Morisot, “La Psyché,” 1876. Oil on canvas, 64 x 54 cm. Madrid, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, n° inv. 686 (1977.87). © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
(The Lutèce Diaries are sponsored by, among others, Ed Winer, Eva Winer, Linda Ramey, Aaron Winer, Lewis Campbell, and Sharon Savage of the San Francisco Bay Area; H&R B. and CV of Paris and Saint-Cyprien and Belves (Dordogne), France; Chris Keel, Marty Sohl, and Suki John of Fort Worth, Texas; Don Singer of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Nancy Reynolds and Matthew Brookoff of New York City; Martin Epstein of Hudson Valley, New York; Susan Kierr of New Orleans; Polly Hyslop of Fairbanks, Alaska; Marcello Angelini of Tulsa, Oklahoma; Freespace Dance in Montclair, New Jersey; and Slippery Rock University Dance. To join them, please make a donation through PayPal by designating your payment to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to find out how to donate by check sent through the mail.)
“Judged by the men who have the privilege of creation, feminine painting will always be the expression, wondrous or servile, of a reflection…. Let’s just say that the women don’t so much borrow as refer to. Morisot to Manet, Cassatt to Degas. But there’s one universe where the women are triumphant, that towards which their ideal carries them: Maternity, childhood….”
— Francis Mathey, director, Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris, in “Impressionists in their time,” Fernand Hazen, 1959.
“Si tu veux etre un homme, ne pas mourir avant d’avoir vécu, écarte-toi des idées toutes faites, de la nourriture machée et des récompenses. Si tu es peintre, regarde simplement en toi-même. Quand on n’est pas stérile, on n’adopte pas les enfants des autres.”*
— Maurice de Vlaminck, “Tournant Dangereux,” 1929, ré-édition 2008 copyright sVo Art, Versailles. (Reflexions apres avoir fait le Guerre de 14-18.)*
If you’ve not heard from me lately, it’s because I’ve been spending my summer vacation looking into schools at which I might resume my formal studies after 36 years (got any ideas? E-mail me at email@example.com ), in the apparently chimerical belief that I might find one interested in welcoming into its community a renegade arts critic, editor, and publisher and incipient translator who ‘fesses up to his ignorance, only to discover, by many of the course descriptions and most of the archaic, voir feudal, transfer admission policies, that many American universities seem to be less interested in teaching their charges how to think independently than in teaching them what they should be thinking about and how they should be thinking about it, while their admissions departments seem to prime conformity and clonage over individuality. (Whence the justification for calling this a Lutèce Diary; presuming I was entering Parnassus, I sallied gamely back into this arena armed with but a plume, only to be devoured by the lions guarding the academic citadel.) And that if the coursus now caters to every possible non-white male heterosexual constituency — as if the responsibility, the yoke, for paying the bill for centuries of racism, sexism, neglect, abuse, slavery, exclusion, and genocide must fall on the shoulders of academia at the expense of major artistic figures who don’t fall into any racial, sexual, social, regional, or religious sub-category (notably in my field, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Carson McCullers, Sam Shepard, Bernard Malamud, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories, with the exception of rare sightings in genre-specific subjects absent from the majority of the courses I’ve examined) — the affirmative action policies don’t include recuperating people like me, age-ism apparently not being one of the isms whose historic and ongoing injustices need to be repaired, at least in the eyes of academia. In American academia like in American politics, second acts are interdit.
Tant pis. My initial zeal — motivated in large part by intellectual curiosity, an insatiable, unquenchable thirst for knowledge and discovery — had been waning anyway, after nearly three months of virtually wading through courses many of which seem to be driven more by doctrinal, sectarian, and partisan agendas than what used to be considered intellectual and scholarly imperatives. Take, for example, the upper-level “English” course (at American universities, political correctness is not confined to the Politics department but far-reaching and invasive) at Cornell University, “The Future of Whiteness,” which poses the inculpatory question: “How should anti-racist people respond to the new racialized white identities that have emerged recently in Europe and the United States?” (Or, how to prove one is not a wife-beater.) Setting aside the numerous intellectually fatuous, voir downright lazy, presuppositions of the question (“new”ly racialized? In what fox-hole has this instructor been living? And what you mean ‘We,’ white man?), already you see the boxes: You’re either a full-fledged Nazi or you’re an anti-racist; you’re either with us or you’re against us. There’s no room — no space — for someone who’s simply finding their way, who’s trying to navigate between factors like life experience and upbringing and the ideal, who recognizes his/her biases and their inherent unfairness and is doing his/her level best to agitate against and equalize them, the ‘ist’ already implying that the person’s sentiments are driven by dogma and not influences like poverty or inherited and learned prejudices. It gets worse with the astounding second question: “What alternative conceptions of whiteness are available?” Which, combined with the first question, implies that only white people can be racist. (Evidently, the instructor has never been to Texas.) And that these anti-racist white people go to college to shop for alternative conceptions of whiteness. “I’ll take the ivory off-whiteness behind door number 1, Monty.” In the name of agitating against racism, Cornell — putatively an Ivy-League college — has posed an infinitely racialist question, to which simply shedding one’s skin is not a possible response / solution. Not that New York State is a jingoism-free zone; inspired by the bucolic prospect of studying in its Finger Lakes location, my initial enthusiasm for the art history department at Hobart and William Smith College was dampened when I was confronted with the art-historical chauvinistic fallaciousness at the end of this description of this course in 20th Century American Art: “This course is a study of American art from the turn of the century to its ascendancy as the center of international art.” The school partly redeems itself with the first sightings I’ve seen yet in any American university art history department anywhere of Suzanne Valadon, who typically (even in her home country of France) gets less press than her less preternaturally gifted son Maurice Utrillo, with one of the two sightings even occurring in a course that has nothing to do with feminism — thus including the artist purely on her aesthetic merits as an important progenitor of, in this case, “French Roots of Modernism,” an innovation only slightly diminished by the fact that the last name of Paul Gauguin, whose name precedes Valadon’s in both course listings, is misspelled in one of them. (The second course, if you’re interested, Genre of the Female Nude, promises to “examine representations of the female nude in painting of the late 19th-century European Symbolist period from a feminist perspective.” We’ll skip the matter of Valadon’s being no more a Symbolist than a sex symbol.)
From the Arts Voyager archives: Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938), “Nude getting out of bath” (also known as “Woman sitting on the rim of a bathtub”), circa 1904. Sanguine on paper, 9 7/8 x 8 inches. Signed at lower right. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.
I finally thought I’d found a course whose teacher seemed more interested in instructing history than inculpating doctrine, a survey in Romanticism in the art history department at Bard College — until I read that the terrain would be circumscribed by the Symbolist William Blake and “the *academic* Delacroix” (emphasis added), not a good indication of historic fidelity. (The follow-up course will no doubt address the legacy of that well-known Cubist Gerome.)
From the Arts Voyager archives and last year’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863), “The Education of Achilles,” ca. 1844. Graphite, 9 5/16 x 11 11/16 inches (23.6 x 29.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift from the Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, in honor of Emily Rafferty, 2014 (2014.732.3).
If you’d assume that an educational institution affiliated with a museum would do better, historic fidelity-wise, you’re wrong: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago can well tout its academic mission as being informed by a feminist sensibility; its mother institution doesn’t walk the talk. Were I to matriculate at the school and try to pursue research projects on two of the most influential painters in their respective movements of the past two centuries, the Surrealist Leonor Fini and the Impressionist Berthe Morisot — promised preferential access to the museum’s collections being one of the School’s major draws for me — I’d be out of luck. Conforming to the sexism of other major museums (notably the Centre Pompidou National Museum of Modern Art in Paris, which should add “Male” before “Modern” to its name to more accurately describe its collecting and curatorial gestalt), the Art Institute holdings offer a scant three works by Fini and a paltry 20 by Morisot, compared to 183 by her brother-in-law Edouard Manet. (Not that post-Impressionist European male artists do much better. Echoing the American provincialism of the art history department of Hobart and William Smith, the Art Institute of Chicago’s collections include just four works by Nicolas de Stael, a handful by Wols, and 0 by Jean-Michel Atlan or Karrel Appel. They may well have been among the leading Abstract artists of their time — roughly speaking, the middle of the last century — but for the AIC they’re little more than an abstraction.)
Berthe Morisot, “Washer-woman” (Paysan hanging out her laundry), 1881. Oil on canvas, 46 x 67 cm. Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, NCG MIN 2715. © Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
If this sexist exclusion bothers me it’s not because I have some kind of doctrinal adhesion to a feminist agenda, nor because a school has taught me that this is the politically correct way to think. It’s because as an art fan, an art critic — even an ill-informed and under-educated art critic — and an idealist I would like to believe that museums and galleries collect, select, and share work based primarily on two related criteria: Quality and Taste. A third criterium might be the impact of a work, or an artist, in the development of a movement. (Note to the SAIC Admissions department: “Impact” is not a verb, and “Impactfull” is not a word.) And when I stand the Manets on view in Chicago through September 8 for the AIC’s exhibition “Manet and Beauty” (the title itself is troubling in its reflection of a superficial curatorial vision which misses the point and misplaces the artistic ideal, confounding the Impressionist movement’s scientific-aesthetic-technical attributes with crass beauty standards) up against the Morisots on view in Paris through September 18 for the Orsay’s Berthe Morisot exhibition there’s no question but that the Art Institute isn’t walking its school’s feminist talk: The by far superior and more sophisticated female artist has been excluded (in the Art Institute’s acquisition preferences) in favor of the less sophisticated male artist. (Counter-intuitively, if Beauborg — as the Pompidou is referred to by locals — i.e. France’s *Modern* national museum of art is still unrepentantly sexist in its curating and in the marketing of its attractions, the Orsay, the late 19th-century national museum, and its affiliate institutions, the Orangerie and the photography-oriented Jeu de Palme, have proved themselves lately more open to both female artists and feminist-informed vantage points, one example being the Jeu de Paume’s recent exhibition on the late American photographer Ana Mendieta.)
From the Arts Voyager archives and the recent exhibition at the Jeu de Paume: Ana Mendieta, “Creek.”
Not that the Art Institute is alone in its retrograde view of art history; if anything, in its implied under-estimation of Morisot relative to Manet the institution is only following (and heeding) a long tradition of male critics apparently blinded by Morisot’s belonging to the “second sex” from recognizing her place as a first-rank artist, the painter who along with Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet best exemplified the Impressionist principles. Even the great Emile Zola (whose formal education, by the way, stopped when he didn’t pass his ‘bac,’ or high school graduation test; take that, academia), who at the age of 27 lead a lonely campaign in defense of Manet, his Aix-en-Provence childhood comrade Cezanne, and the Impressionists in general while other critics (and cartoonist / caricaturists) were almost universally deriding and mocking them (particularly Manet, for “Olympia”), if he wasn’t quite as dismissive as most of his contemporaries and successors, who typically limited their praise of Morisot to pointing to the (stereotypically feminine) qualities like ‘softness’ and ‘peace’ in her work, was still unable to see the master for the mother, far more succinct in his reactions to and superficial in his analysis of her work than in his effusive, pamphlet-length eloges to Manet, for this prototypical modern novelist a founding pillar of Modern Art.
Berthe Morisot, “The Cradle,” 1872. Oil on canvas, 56 x 46.5 cm. Paris, musée d’Orsay, acquired in 1930. RF 2849. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Michel Urtado.
We’ll get to the feather-weight treatments of Morisot by Zola and the Surrealist poet and Cubist champion Apollinaire (in whose view just about the only female artist worth extended comment was the one who also happened to be his girlfriend, Marie Laurencin), as well as the more profound and lyrical appraisals of Paul Valéry and the Morisot collector Denis Rouart, in my translations of their observations, in a minute. But first — and without any pretensions of being able to write about art on the same rarified level of sophistication, analysis, or cohesiveness or with the same breadth of philosophical underpinning or depth of literary background of any of these commentators (this is why I wanted to go back to school, you crumbs; bullocks to your other shades of whiteness and your Afro-Pessimism, I just want to be a better — less historically ignorant, more technically astute, and more theoretically adept — critic) — I’d like to offer my rudimentary comparisons of several Manets and Morisots on view in the Chicago and Paris exhibitions, to the end of pointing out how in the very areas where Zola praised Manet as a paragon of Modern principles and tenets Morisot was the far more accomplished practitioner and thus would have served as a better example, but for the lack of a penis.
Despite what I just said, until recently I wasn’t entirely sure whether my predilection for Morisot wasn’t guided as much by outrage at the way her work has historically been ghettoized by critics because she was a woman as by an objective assessment of its qualitative value; in other words, whether my passion for and defense of this artist wasn’t fueled mostly by my own particular doctrine of championing victims of sexism, racism, and any kind of exclusion which ignores talent and is influenced by superficial facets of identity. (As I just vaunted my Zola-esque “J’accuse” virtues rather sanctimoniously, this is perhaps the place to admit that I’m one of the troubled racialists referred to above, influenced by experience and trying to agitate in his public life against the prejudices this has cultivated.) (Another indication of contemporaneous and succeeding generations’ critics’ sexism-determined blindness to Morisot is that they typically group her with the much more one-dimensional and inferior Mary Cassatt. Go powder your noses, girls, while the big boys do the hard work of invention and theorizing.) Beyond an appreciation for her multiple shades of blue and the way they subtly, gradually meld into one another, notably observed during a visit 15 years ago to the room dedicated to Morisot at the Musée Marmottan-Monet in the Bois de Boulogne (Zola may well have pointed out Manet’s preference for a blonde palette and identified his recurrent method of either shifting from a darker hue towards a lighter one or the inverse, but this gentleman prefers the blonde color scheme and gradations of Manet’s sister-in-law — Morisot was married to Edouard’s brother Eugene — whose shiftings are much more subtle and refined and gradations much more infinite), I had to admit that I too was becoming ‘laisse’ with her scenes of women, girls, children, parks, countrysides, girls reading in countrysides, mothers and daughters, and bourgeoisie gardens. At least those among the rare Morisots to show up on auction. (Which retention should tell you something about the esteem in which the artist is held by the real connoisseurs, the collectors.)
Berthe Morisot, “Woman and children on the grass” (The lilacs at Maurecourt), 1874. Oil on canvas, 50 x 61 cm. Paris, private collection. © Private Collection / Bridgeman Images / Service presse.
Then a particularly diligent publicist sent me high-resolution images of some of the work featured in the Orsay exhibition, and I had my revelation.
Having high-res images in front of you is like being able to examine the brush-strokes with a microscope (or even, dare I say, up close in a museum); besides enabling an infinitesimal analysis of the subtle shifts in color gradation, it also gives you a sense of the thickness of the texture. Not only does subjecting some of the images of Morisot’s work to this hyper-close and heightened scrutiny reveal the seamlessness of the way, say, an arm will blend into a park bench, a hatted head into the surrounding foliage, or a pair of nominally white ducks seem to sink into the decidedly green pond they’re gliding over, but standing them up against high-res images of some of the Manet work displayed in the Art Institute exhibition confirms that there’s just no comparison between the two in the richness or multitude of touches in the tableaux, nor the poetry and resultant sentimental resonance this often stirs.
Berthe Morisot, “The Lake in the Bois de Boulogne” (Summer Day), versus 1879. Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 75.2 cm. London, The National Gallery, legacy of Sir Hugh Lane, 1917. NG3264. © National Gallery, London.
Manet may well have long been credited as one of the originators of Impressionism (and where it comes to the movement’s Naturalist aspect, I guess I can see the justice of this assessment), but by the evidence it’s Morisot who best illustrates and thus exemplifies the scientific-creative-painterly effect principles most associated with Impressionism, namely the refined and varied use of color, the ability to produce a multitude of shades even within one color scheme, the sophisticated and nuanced eye for color values (Morisot studied for six years with Camille Corot, in his atelier across the street from where I used to live on what’s now called the rue de Paradis, where Pissarro also took his first Paris lessons in painting), the way colors are blended and brushed to recreate and prismatically reflect light and ability to evoke nature, the way small touches of a darker color are employed to set off and highlight a lighter tone, and, most of all, the way her human subjects seem to emanate from and harmonize with that nature. (Zola, in his 1867 essay on Manet — if any of my prospective Art History departments are scrutinizing my scholarship to verify that I’ve actually been able to learn something on my own since leaving Princeton in 1983, they’ll find the references noted in a bibliography below — explains that what distinguishes the Modern era from everything that came before it is that whereas for 2000 years artists were striving to attain the Greek beauty ideal ((where, if one is to judge by its exhibition titling protocols and spic and span art deco bathroom sinks, the Art Institute may still be stuck)), with the Modernists the goal became to directly depict, or read, react to, and render, Nature, in which rubric he includes the whole megilla ((I needed to find a pretense for inserting at least one Yiddish term in this paper, if only to increase my own chances of one day entering the coursus through the rubric of Jewish-American writers, with even past masters like Grace Paley and Bernard Malamud only squeaking through because of the color of their religion, not the quality of their craftsmanship, which would be like only teaching my old Princeton professor Joyce Carol Oates in a survey of Writers of the Utica School)): the human figure, the still life, the atmosphere ((“Atmosphere!? Atmosphere!?”)), the flora and the fauna. ((Those sentences broken up by tenuously linked parenthetical digressions is another reason I need to go back to school: I’m desperately in need of an editor, and perhaps only the threat of a “C- for expository straying” will beat some discipline into me.)) Art, Zola goes on, consists of two elements: One fixed, Nature; and one variable, the sentiment or personality of the artist rendering Nature. “This is why I could stand in the middle of a Palace of Industry filled with thousands of examples of art that meets this criteria and never be bored.” ((Unfortunately, these days the art that fills the Palace of Industry — in Zola’s time home to the Salon — in its contemporary incarnation as the Palace of Tokyo is more likely to be denaturized and overconceptualized, devoured by the beasts of post-post-Modernism, than to be a direct reaction to Nature.)) I’d put the cursor — where this shift ((for those artists concerned with Nature)) to the goal being to represent Nature as opposed to attain the Greek beauty ideal, began — at Delacroix. ((At least in the French context; I can’t pretend to even an amateur’s expertise in any other nation’s 19th- and prior-century art.)) Both of these educational, art historical revelations, by the way — that from Zola’s essay on Manet and that on the place of Delacroix in the origins of Modernism — I gleaned ((even though with Delacroix I already had an inkling)) from two books which cost me a total of $7 at the Old Books Market at the parc George Brassens in Paris ((see bibliography below)), and, by osmosis, from many afternoons and mornings spent sipping thermos tea and coffee on the lip of the Delacroix fountain while dialoguing with his Byronic bust, just yards from the French Senate and its machine-gun toting, bullet-proof vest wearing guards at the Luxembourg Gardens, for free. ((As a reminder that the times in which we live are no longer Delacroix’s — we’ve lost so much, with the fear standard too often supplanting the beauty standard! — the guards can sometimes be seen quietly patrolling in the bushes behind the fence in back of the fountain, albeit minus the machine-guns.)) A lot less than the $56,000 yearly tuition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and, no doubt, that at Bard (I high-tailed it out of that site as soon as I hit the Delacroix faux attribution),which has erroneously relegated Delacroix, the font of Modern Art, to the dusty historical bin of the academics. Princeton was only $8,000 at the time I first matriculated in 1979 ((it must now be closer to $100,000)), but as opposed to being able to feast my eyes and spirit on Delacroix feted by buxom bronze babes for free, this earned me the right to regard George Segal’s statue of Abraham stabbing Isaac — it had been commissioned by Kent State after police massacred four of its students in 1970, but Kent State thought the statue too dangerous to accept — standing guard outside Firestone Library, an oracular warning in my case considering the relationship I subsequently developed with my university. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m still bearing the wound. It had actually healed decades ago, but the schools I’ve contacted about resuming my studies have opened it back up again with their retrograd transfer admissions policies.)
From the Arts Voyager Archives and the exhibition at the Eugene Delacroix House and Museum in Paris: Delacroix, “Shakespeare, the death of Hamlet,” lithograph on stone. Courtesy Eugene Delacroix House and Museum, Paris.
Notwithstanding the enduring traces of that wound, freshly opened this summer by my encounters with the universities for whom it is apparently an indelible brand (PBI, the Chuck Connors of art scholarship), I’ve sufficiently recovered my scholarly confidence in the 36 years since I left Princeton (Yes, I know that reflection should theoretically be consigned to the parenthesis in the preceding paragraph whose allusion it refers to but as an introduction to what’s about to follow, it can’t be; see above re: more schooling and needing a good editor — this is yet another reason I need more schooling, to better reconnoiter escape hatches when I’ve boxed myself into rhetorical corners) to venture offering some critical comparisons of the respective levels of sophistication between Manet and Morisot, at least those reflected in several of the high-res images I’ve been able to examine from the two exhibitions, in Chicago and Paris. My purpose is not to start a post-mortem family quarrel between sister- and brother-in-law, but to demonstrate how with the qualitative differences — in the very realms in which Zola and others have chanted Manet’s eloge for 150 years — so glaring, only sexism, the fact that she’s painting without a penis, can explain why Morisot has gotten relatively such short shrift while Manet was being lionized by Zola and his successors. I don’t pretend to Zola’s eloquence, let alone Valéry’s uncanny ability to superannuatively use the individual artist to illustrate the big picture (as you’ll see once we get to the lengthy excerpt from his essay on Morisot; the wait is worth it). By way of compensating at least for my not being an artist, I sought the input of a French painter friend who lives down the path from me here in the Dordogne, parenthetically the capital of artistic pre-history. (Who would want me to tell you that she thinks it’s unfair to compare painters.)
But first, let’s set the stage for Morisot with what her collector Denis Rouart, contributing the Morisot entry for Fernand Hazen’s 1954 “Dictionnaire de la peinture moderne,” has to say about her.
Berthe Morisot, “In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight),” 1875. Oil on canvas, 38 x 46 cm. Paris, Musée Marmottan-Claude Monet, Fondation Denis et Annie Rouart, legacy of Annie Rouart, 1993, n° inv. 6029. © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / The Bridgeman Art Library / Service presse.
Rouart begins by noting that if the influence on Morisot of Corot and her brother-in-law was particularly evident in 1875-76, it was she who eventually drew Manet towards painting in ‘pleine air’ and light, forging her proper style in 1877-79, particularly visible in “Jeune femme se poudrant,” “Derriere la jalousie,” and “Jour d’été.” “She didn’t use a systematically divided touch, but rather grand touches very liberally laid down in every direction, which leant her canvases a particular aspect belonging to her alone. The familiar interior scenes or ‘pleine airs’ that she painted in this style bathed in a radiant and iridescent light, in which the silver tones mingled with harmonies of a delicacy and subtlety rarely attained elsewhere. Exactly characteristic of her genius, these paintings are fetes of light, of a mobility and aerian lightness and of a spontaneous freshness, ceaselessly renewed from 1879 to 1889 (‘Eugene Manet et sa fille a Bougival,’ 1881; ‘La verandah,’ 1882; ‘Sur le lac,’ 1884; ‘La lecture,’ 1888.) This very free and personal factor seems particularly suited to her temperament, which persists in her as a means of expression tailored for her. Nevertheless, around 1889 she became concerned about the danger to the Impressionist vision, too exclusively attached to the atmospheric aspect of the world, and she sought a greater unity and greater respect of form. She thus adapted a more supple and elongated brush-stroke, which suited the form without hemming it in, but in shaping it in its mass and luminosity: ‘La mandoline,’ 1889; ‘La jeune fille endormie,’ 1893, ‘Les deux soeurs,’ 1894. This would be her final style, for she died in 1895…. Berthe Morisot was first and foremost sensitive to the effect of light on the world which surrounded her, she invested it with her emotions, and it’s in her pictorial interpretation that she expressed her soul as a woman and as an artist. She left behind her no ideology, nor systematic mindset to compromise the spontaneity of her art, in the service of which she used only purely plastic means…. Woman…, she found her climate of choice in the intimate atmosphere of family scenes, animated by the simple gestures of life from which she knew how to extract poetry.”
No doubt much less poetic, adroit, and expert (I’m not trying here to be falsely modest, but making another plea for any of the art history professors from my prospective schools who might be reading this to help me be more expert, more adroit, and more rhetorically lean), here are some of my own analyses and comparisons of the Orsay Morisots and the Art Institute Manets, informed by the artist’s perspective of my friend:
Édouard Manet, “In the Conservatory,” about 1877-79. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.
Round One: Morisot’s “In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight),” 1875, from the collection of the musée Marmottan-Monet / Fondation Denis and Annie Rouart, versus Manet’s 1877-79 “In the Conservatory.” (1) In these paintings, both artists rely essentially on gradations of four colors: blue, green, red, and black. Yet while Manet follows the pattern Zola, in his 1867 essay “Edouard Manet, Biographical and Critical Study” (first published in the Revue of the 19th Century, nine years later as a pamphlet, issued by E. Dentu, on the occasion of Manet’s personal exhibition on the Boulevard d’Alma), observed in his shadings, either starting from somber and moving to lighter or progressing in the opposite direction, Morisot puts her brother-in-law to shame in the same realm in the manner and rhythm with which she rapidly, subtly and deftly shifts from one depth to another, as well as with the multitude of the gradations. (For a qualification to this comparison, see footnote 1 below.) Why ‘puts to shame’? After all, when I reduce the size of the Manet — the desktop equivalent of stepping back from a tableau in a museum — it resembles a lush color photograph, so exactly has Manet succeeded in mirroring Nature (with excuses to Baudelaire, who wouldn’t necessarily see this medium comparison as a compliment). But when I subject the Morisot to the same operation, it also delivers this quality — of a rich color photograph — only because she offers more shifts of shadings, her painting exudes something the Manet doesn’t: a wistful, almost melancholic poetry. (It occurs to me that I’m on tenuous critical ground with this particular point, having used the juxtaposition of this very Manet image earlier this year with a Lutèce Diary entry to illustrate how I wasn’t getting through to an impassive paramour; but my argument about the more complex poetic pathos of the Morisot still holds.) I sense this particularly in the effect the reduced scale has on the aura around the girl, injecting the regard of the man (and thus the viewer’s) with a premonition of loss, as he observes the child (Eugene Manet’s and thus Morisot’s daughter? We’re left to wonder) looking out yearningly on the sea, like Pagnol’s Marius itching to embark and ready to yield to her wanderlust. (Note also the bars the window frame imposes over the visage of the woman, her face becoming indistinct to the girl, ignoring her mother as she plots her future.) My artist neighbor friend doesn’t read the figures and their regards this way, contending that the man seems to be looking rather at the woman, and that the child isn’t necessarily wander-lusting. To the various shadings I indicated, she added the accomplishment of the vaporous, practically transparent, almost ephemeral curtain, as well as the contrasts in and nuances of the colors Morisot deploys to capture the texture of the fabric.
Step closer to the Morisot, step right up to it, and it offers something else the Manet doesn’t: You see the brush strokes and are once again reminded of the scientific brilliance, the optical skill, that was the Impressionists’ major technical achievement and legacy, to envision from afar while working up close. The technique. (Yes I know, as a Naturalist Manet wasn’t necessarily going for this — see my footnote 1 below — but if this excuses the lack of this effect in his tableau, it doesn’t excuse the lack of according at least equal, if not more, credit to Morisot as a font of Impressionism as that traditionally granted to her brother-in-law.) In one of the unfortunately sparse references to Morisot in her otherwise wide-ranging 1996 study “Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde” (University of Chicago Press) — more latent sexism, or just a matter of even an uncontested heavy-weight contemporary female specialist accepting the inherited gender-biased critical reductions of Morisot handed down to her? — Martha Ward shares, citing Anne Higenot’s 1990 biography (Harper and Row), that “Berthe Morisot complained in the 1890s that the day that art was reduced to a few concepts, engaging everyone, ‘that would be the triumph of Pissarro! Everyone talented and no one a genius.'” The remark makes clear that contrary to what contemporaneous and successive critics suggested, Morisot wasn’t just dreamily recording her impressions of hearth and home and assorted family pastoral outings in an illustrated diary out of sentimental value but was working out — had worked out — a complex, nuanced technical system for Impressionism. (If you still have doubts, compare Manet’s puerile, almost child’s scrawl portrait of Morisot in the collection of the Art Institute here, whose simplicity even Naturalist values can’t justify, and Morisot’s own self-portrait in the same collection here . The former reveals but a superficial eye, the latter insight.)
Édouard Manet, “Jeanne (Spring),” 1881. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.
Manet comes off a bit better in the 1881 “Jeanne” (Spring), achieving an almost Monet-like quality in the way the dimensions and textures of his human subject’s dress gel with those in the surrounding environment, but he still can’t hold a candle to Morisot in the 1879 “L’été”; one gets the impression that if she didn’t put that trait outlining the shoulder there, the arm would have melted right into the upholstery of the chair. Note also — I complete missed this until I saw ‘fenetre’ (window) in the title — how the glass has completely blended into the flora, even as its colors reflect predominantly the habilage of the model. To paraphrase M.C. Hammer for a repost to M. Manet: You can’t touch this.
Berthe Morisot, “Summer,” also known as “Young woman sitting next to a window,” 1879. Oil on canvas, 76 × 61 cm. Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole, musée Fabre, Inv. 07.5.1. © Photo Studio Thierry Jacob.
Next let’s compare Manet’s 1880 “Portrait of Emilie Ambre as Carmen,” from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with Morisot’s 1869 “Young woman at her window (Portrait of Madame Pontillon),” on loan to the Orsay from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Édouard Manet, “Portrait of Émilie Ambre as Carmen,” 1880. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Edgar Scott, 1964. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (If you’ve noticed that my Manet legends have less detail than my Morisots, this is how the press service of the Art Institute notes them. I’m only as good as my material.)
Except that I guess you could say it goes with the somewhat bulky brown fringe of his model’s vest, and matches the almost dried blood-like splotches of brown over her breast, there’s nothing outstanding or nuanced about the brown wall in the Manet. The best I can say about his knack for evoking the reflection of light here is that one cheek is shadowed, the other not.
Now let’s look at the Morisot, starting with how she uses the same hue in a multitude of places and to create a variety of effects.
Berthe Morisot, “Young woman at her window” (Portrait of Mme Pontillon) (likely Morisot’s sister Edma, also a painter), 1869. Oil on canvas, 54.8 x 46.3 cm. Washington, National Gallery of Art, legacy of Mrs. Ailsa Mellon Bruce, 1970, n° inv. 1970.17.47. © Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Brown shows up in Morisot’s painting not as the dominant color in the central plane but in the borders of a diamond pattern on the wall, which borders, matching her hair, might be pins jutting out from it; in a tress which has carelessly strayed to her shoulder; in scattered rust-colored markings on the white chair covering; on her left cuff; in the almost pinkish brown of the middle slat of wall beneath the window; at the top of the tree seen through the window; above the frames of the windows across the street; in the settee against the wall behind the model; in the rim of her fan; lending solidity to the wooden floor; in the brown-orange-ish tint of the wainscoting; in her eyes and lips; in the inside fold of the shutters; and to lend a patineed quality to the dominant blue of the shutters. In other words, more poetry, lending the scene a quality of melancholy — though it’s a fleeting melancholy which could quickly evaporate, as suggested by the intermittent white in the floor.
Then there’s the geometry, the way the tableau can be broken down into diamonds, squares, rectangles, half-circles on top of rectangles; Cezanne with his spheres had nothing on Berthe Morisot.
All of the above details I gleaned from looking at the image of the painting at a reduced scale, in other words after stepping back from it. Studying the work in high-res — or up-close — I’m startled at the multiplicity of color shades and shifts, and also by the fact that if the figure in the window of the building across the street at the right blurs, with high-res / close-up viewing the figure at the left, resembling a kind of matador, retains his intricate details, almost as if he had been painted express as a miniature. Enlarged / at high-res / up close the foliage seen through the iron grills of the balcony railing becomes more dense, mostly green but infused with blood by the strategically arrayed red. A green-blue ring and a red slipper peeping out from under the gown also materialize.
Berthe Morisot, “Girl with greyhound” (Julie Manet and her greyhound Laërte), 1893. Oil on canvas, 73 x 80 cm. Paris, musée Marmottan-Claude Monet, Fondation Denis et Annie Rouart, legacy of Michel Monet, 1966, n° inv. 5027. © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / Bridgeman Images / Service Presse.
My French artist neighbor friend noticed a resemblance I’d completely missed in my appreciation of Morisot. “Reminds me of Bonnard,” she said. “In the intimate scenes?” “No, in the intimate qualities with which she invests them.” (She put it more poetically.) And indeed, Morisot’s women and girls sometimes have a pensive, lost aspect which could make them clothed versions of Pierre Bonnard’s model wife Marthe, Morisot’s personages appearing no less vulnerable and fragile than Marthe emerging naked from a bathtub, no less tentative than Mme Bonnard gazing at her visage in a mirror (only they’re gazing inward, even when they’re looking into a mirror). And yet if Bonnard, who for all his vivid and dense color use and his steadfast determination to rest in that line against all the contemporary currents of the latter part of his life, is often described as “the last Impressionist,” this resemblance identified by my friend, which suggests that the younger male artist might have been inspired by the older female artist, is rarely signaled. The works also share (my friend pointed out), even in the oils, a pastel quality.
Berthe Morisot, “Woman and child on the balcony,” 1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm. Tokyo, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation, Gaiyo 268. © Tokyo Fuji Art Museum/Bridgeman Images / Service presse.
Bonnard apart, my friend noted that Morisot “paints by touch” and has a poetic manner of mixing colors, infusing them with “a rich nuance,” which is her most singularly beautiful technical trait. “It’s this melange of colors, in complete poetry, which is what’s the most beautiful in her. It’s this that touches and moves the viewer. This quality doesn’t easily lend itself to analysis.” She was also awed by the general richness of Morisot’s palette, and observed the profound sadness the artist manages to convey in “Woman and child on the Balcony,” an oil painted in 1871-72 and situated in the Paris suburb of Meudon, also home to Rodin, his frequent guest the poet Rilke, and, much later, the anti-Semitic novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. (Which is just to convey that the location reeks with poetic-artistic-tragic possibilities, and that Morisot was adroit at sensing and tapping into these qualities. The water-color study for the painting, in the collection of the Art Institute, confirms this.)
Berthe Morisot, “Young girl with doll,” 1884. Oil on canvas, 82 x 100 cm. Paris, private collection. © Photo: Christian Baraja.
Even a doll, my friend pointed out, in the hands and at the ends of the brushes of Berthe Morisot becomes a vessel for expression communicated by her color choices and eloquent touches. (I don’t know about you, but — and speaking, as we were about a century ago when you were a century younger, about inherited prejudices — at this point in the story I am ready to name my highly-theoretical daughter Berthe, or even Bertha, despite the historical baggage the American version comes with. Theoretical daughter responding to theoretical taunts ((“Bertha! Bertha!”)) of theoretical playmates in 2030 as her dad teeters towards his doctorate: “You mean YOU don’t know who Berthe Morisot was!?”) “Painting by touches allows her to add nuances, color. The more unified a painting is” — Manet’s “Boating,” for example — “the less color there is. It’s less expressive, less rich when it’s unified.” This is often why when a painter is starting out, she explained, the tableaux can lack expression; “one hasn’t yet learned, one hasn’t yet acquired the technique.”
Édouard Manet, “Boating,” 1874-75. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection. Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.
Speaking of not yet having acquired the technique, let’s turn the floor over to some of my literary forebears and inspirations who had it in spades, at least where fiction, poetry, and criticism is concerned, and see how they did by Berthe Morisot, by way of suggesting how even among two of these otherwise enlightened intelligences, innate male sexism played a role in diminishing her fundamental, founding role in Impressionism, blinding even great men like Zola and Apollinaire. The translations of the Zola, Apollinaire, and Valéry texts, like those of the Rouart and Mathey citations above, are by me.
In its clairvoyance and courage — Zola was 27 at the time, and still smarting from having being fired from the rag l’Evenement mid-gig following public outrage at a series of critiques on the 1866 Salon the year before in which he basically didn’t like anything, even delivering a lacerating critique of the jury itself — Zola’s essay on Manet is 100 years ahead of its time, not just in his precise analysis of Manet’s technique and regard and why in his view they were so revolutionary, but for his broader, prescient, and coherently explained views on art and artistic movements, as indicated above. (At times I even found myself regretting that he had not stuck to art criticism; the art sometimes seems to have a better chance of standing up for itself, of making its case, with Zola than do the heroes of his harder social justice novels like “Germinal” and “L’Assommoir” of acting on their own, of breaking free from their author’s socio-political agenda, Zola’s only imperative here being to clarify and articulate the art and the artist’s intentions in verbal terms.) The essay is not just a dedicated presentation of one artist, but a treatise on the birth of Modern Art, with an easily comprehensible definition of what distinguished it as Modern, and that should be required reading at every beaux art academy and in every art history department in the world. He even makes me reconsider my own recently diminished appreciation of Manet after reading Michel Ragon’s “Courbet, Peintre de la liberté,” in which the father of Naturalism seems (to me; not blaming Ragon here) almost like a dandy standing next to the titan of Realism — parlor subject-wise at least. Zola reminds me that like the ‘petites rats’ of the Paris Opera Ballet were for Degas, the bourgeoisie were just Manet’s milieu — he was painting what he knew — and I should not be deterred by my own San Francisco radical upbringing into confounding the milieu with the artistic task and accomplishment.
Édouard Manet, “The Café Concert,” about 1878–79. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Morisot’s milieu was even more restricted. Not only were her women pensively reading in fields of red poppies or distractedly fanning themselves at open windows while Courbet’s men were off hunting bucks; when Manet’s men were ogling baristas at the Folies Bergère (and distorting the serveuses butts or faces in the mirror behind the bar), Morisot’s (in this setting, I mean) were often off powdering their noses. The difference, though, in the critical regard, was that where with Manet supporters like Zola, who in his novels had a pretty acid view of the bourgeoisie, were able to see beyond the milieu to the craft, with Morisot they couldn’t see the master for the matron, the craft she devoted to painting them, nor even the intricacies and myriad of colors — of touches — that she deftly deployed to create the sentimental effect these tableaux often provoked.
Berthe Morisot, “M.[onsieur] M.[anet] and his daughter in the garden at Bougival,” 1881. Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. Paris, musée Marmottan-Claude Monet, Fondation Denis et Annie Rouart, legacy of Annie Rouart, 1993, n°inv. 6018. © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / Bridgeman Images / Service Presse.
This disparity in Zola’s critical regard is not confined to the gap between his appreciations for Morisot and Manet, but extends to the profundity of his appreciations for other of her male peers compared to the shallowness of his descriptions of her work. (I don’t mean he’s shallow, I mean he doesn’t plunge as deeply into the canvas and the artist’s intentions as he does when analyzing the work of Morisot’s male colleagues.) Listen to his contrasting assessments, reviewing the 1868 Salon, of Camille Corot, his pupil Camille Pissarro, and his other pupil Morisot.
“I was contemplating Camille Pissarro the other day,” Zola writes. “You won’t find a more conscientious, more precise painter anywhere. Pissarro is one of those Naturalists who clutches nature to him. And yet his canvasses offer their own particular accent, an accent of austerity and of grandeur that is absolutely heroic. Scour his individual passages — you won’t find anything else like them. They’re utterly personal and utterly true.”
From the Arts Voyager Archives and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco exhibition: Camille Pissarro, “Minette,” ca. 1872. Oil on canvas, 18 1/16 x 14 in. (46 x 35 cm). Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, the Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1958.144.
After devoting more than a page to Jongkind — whose bland landscapes, rendered in a lot less than 50 shades of grey, I sometimes find hard to tell apart — Zola moves on to Corot. Noting that “his talent is so widely recognized that I can dispense with analyzing it,” Zola nonetheless offers:
“… Corot is a painter of good breeding, extremely personal, very knowledgeable, and who should be recognized as the doyen of the Naturalists, notwithstanding a predilection for fog. If his vaporous tones, which for him are habitual, seem to place him amongst the dreamers and the idealists, the solidity and richness of his touch, the real feeling he has for nature, the vast comprehension of the ensemble, and above all the verity and the harmony of his color values make him one of the masters of modern Naturalism.
“The best of the paintings he has on display at the Salon is, in my opinion, ‘A morning in Ville-d’Avray.’ It’s a simple curtain of trees, their roots plunged into the dormant water, their summits lost in the white dawn mist. It has an almost Elysian nature, and yet this is but the reality, perhaps slightly smoothed out. I remember catching, in Bonniere, a similar morning; white puffs of smoke lingering above the Seine, lifting in fragments alongside the poplars of the iles, drowning their foliage; a grey floating sky, filling the horizon with a vague sadness.” (And I remember penetrating those trees in the Ville-d’Avray, a bucolic setting which also spawned the naturalist Jean Rostand and Boris Vian, for a private birthday celebration some years ago, and feeling like I had inserted myself in the painting.)
Finally the Great Man arrives at the Morisot sisters, Edma (who may be the Madame Pontillon in the title of the painting above, elsewhere referred to as “Edma Pontillon”) and Berthe:
“I’d like to cite two small canvasses that I discovered by accident during my desolate promenades in the bare solitude of the Salon.
“These are the paintings of the Mademoiselles Morisot — no doubt two sisters. Corot is their mentor, no doubt about it. These canvasses contain a freshness and a naiveté of impression that gave me a break from simple crowd-pleasing cleverness. The artists must have painted these studies in full consciousness, with a strong desire to render what they were seeing. This alone suffices to infuse their oeuvres with an interest not offered by that many large paintings of which I’m aware.”
Berthe Morisot, “Femme à sa Toilette,” 1875-1880. Oil on canvas, 60.3 x 80.4 cm. Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Stickney Fund, 1924, n° inv. 1924.127. © Image Art Institute of Chicago.
Later, reviewing on April 19, 1877 the third Impressionist exhibition, if Zola “regrets” — it should be noted that like Apollinaire three decades later, he was operating under the severe space constraints of a newspaper or revue — that he has “but several lines” to devote to Madame Morisot, he signals that “Psyché” and “Jeune femme a sa toilette” are “two veritable pearls, in which the grays and the whites perform a very delicate real symphony.” (“Delicacy” and “finesse” — read, typically feminine — are terms that come up frequently in contemporaneous and subsequent reviews of Morisot’s work by Zola and others. Who stop there.) I’ve just been looking at the image of “Psyché” or “La Psyché” (scale back up to the top of this article to check it out yourself) — it’s part of the Orsay show — in both high-res (up close) and low-res (from a distance), and all I can think is, “This masterpiece, and all Zola can see is the white?” Later on in the same review he explains, “What is meant by Impressionist Painters is painters who paint reality… to convey the very impression of nature, that they study not in its details, but in its ensemble.” And I can only ask, how could this writer, this perspicacious observer and penetrator of human nature, with his sympathetic portraits of Gervaise in “L’Assommoir” and the courageous, tragic teenage mine worker Catherine in “Germinal” — how could he have missed so much in this painting? How could he not have seen the ‘ensemble’ impression that Morisot renders in “Psyché,” derived not from the white, nor even solely from the subject’s doubtful self-assessment of her faceless double in the mirror, but from the multitude of *non-white*, primarily red and brown marks throughout, an impression that goes straight from the eyes to the heart, an effect surpassing Manet and Corot and matched perhaps only by Pissarro in some of his family portraits, such as the tragic painting of an infant daughter, Minette, who will soon be dead? Zola, that great analyst of the “Bête Humane”!
Guillaume Apollinaire, the Surrealist poet and Picasso pal still in vogue today 100 years after his death from the Spanish flu to which a German shrapnel injury to the head left him more susceptible, does a little better than Zola, at least recognizing how Morisot has departed from what is usually considered to be the aesthetic of female painters.
“It seems to me,” Apollinaire writes for “Le petit Bleu” on March 13, 1912, “that the decorative artists could benefit from a close study of the work of current female artists who alone hold the charming secret of the grace which is one of the singularities of French painting, whether one considers those who are dubbed the French primitives, or whether one is referring to these marvels of a delicious taste and which could only be born in France and which have painted Watteau, Fragonard, Corot, Berthe Morisot, Seurat. Female artists have infused painting with a new sentiment which has nothing demure or dainty about it, but which can be defined as follows: a kind of bravado in looking at nature in its most juvenile aspects. This new delicatesse, which is chez the French woman a sort of innate feeling of Hellenism [Apollinaire had apparently not read Zola’s explanation of the break with the Greek ideal that Modernism marked], one finds in a superior degree in the works that Mlle Marie Laurencin is exposing in this moment at the Barbazanges gallery.” (Back to the girlfriend! Which might explain the disproportionate space the poet gives over the body of his reviews to the inferior artist relative to Morisot, whose name comes up all of twice, the second time segregated into a list of exceptional female artists, in the 520 page compendium “Chroniques d’Art” published by Gallimard in 1960 from which the above is translated.)
If Paul Valéry as well can’t help praise the stereotypically feminine quality of ‘grace’ in the second sentence of his long reflection, “Berthe Morisot,” collected in “Essays about art” (Gallimard, 1934), for the rest of the essay he heads in the opposite direction of Apollinaire; instead of confining and contextualizing Morisot as a female artist, he uses her as the departure point for a larger meditation unattached to presupposed ideas of gender: The eyes of the artist.
Berthe Morisot, “Self-portrait,” 1885. Oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm. Paris, Musée Marmottan-Claude Monet, fondation Denis et Annie Rouart, legacy of Annie Rouart, 1993, n°inv. 6022. © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / Bridgeman Images / Service Presse.
Of the three, at least in what I’ve examined so far in the compendiums of their work I scored this Spring (for a total of about 10 Euros) at a vide-grenier (community-wide garage sale; vide = empty, grenier = attic) near the Montparnasse cemetery where Sartre and de Beauvoir are buried in matching graves, Gainsbourg under an avalanche of Metro tickets, and Dreyfus in a family tomb that also includes the rests of a niece deported to the camps (a cemetery not far from where Fitzgerald and Hemingway met for the first time in a brasserie on the rue Delambre), a ‘you name the price’ book sale at a libertaire (anarchist) social association down the street from Pere Lachaise, and the Old Books Market at the parc George Brassens (another anarchist, he, buried in Sete not far from Valéry), Valéry’s observations (anarchist name-your-price book sale) related to Morisot are the most sophisticated; whereas Zola’s critical aesthetic acumen isn’t up to his trenchant novelistic incisiveness when it comes to Morisot and Apollinaire’s comments don’t have a hundredth of the invention of his poetry, Valéry’s reach the top of Mount Parnassus.
“When it comes to Berthe Morisot,” he begins, “or ‘Aunt Berthe,’ as those around me frequently refer to her, I’m not going to pretend to be an art critic, a domain in which I have absolutely no experience, nor am I merely going to regurgitate what those who know her already know so well….” After noting that these intimates are “educated” and “seduced” by the “graces” of her work and awarding the requisite compliments to Morisot’s “discrete attributes” as well as her simple, pure, and intimately passionate and laborious existence, he notes that those in her close circle “are well aware that the ancestors of her taste and her vision are the luminous painters who had already expired before David, and that among her friends and devotees were numbered Mallarmé, Degas, Renoir, Claude Monet, and that’s about it,” adding that “she pursued without let-up the noble ends of the proudest and most exquisite art, the kind of art which consumes itself, via the means of countless exercises in trial and error that one reproduces and discards relentlessly, ultimately to convey the impression of an art produced from whole cloth and with effortless success the first time out.” In other words, a craftsman who understands that to be effective craft must be invisible. (Even as in the eyes of Valéry unlike those of his predecessors — and even some successors like Mathey — she’s not reduced to the Invisible Woman.)
Here Valéry indulges in two paragraphs on Morisot’s ‘personne,’ the likes of which are nowhere to be found in his subsequent study of her brother-in-law Edouard Manet collected in the same volume, but which at least have the merit of providing this segué to his larger artistic theme:
“Which brings me to my point, her eyes. They’re almost too vast, and so powerfully dark that Manet, in the many portraits he made of her, painted them black instead of the green that they actually are in order to be able to fully communicate their mysterious and magnetic force. Her pupils efface themselves in deference to her retinas.
“Is it that far-fetched to imagine that if one of these days an exact analysis of the conditions of painting is undertaken, without doubt the vision and the eyes of painters will need to be closely studied? This would only be beginning at the beginning.” (A parallel research into the eyes of art critics would also not be a bad idea; a noted New York dance critic — I’m sworn to secrecy — was reported to have a glass eye, which would have put his/her depth perception out of circulation, and when Bruno Foucart, in his preface to the 1983 edition of Zola’s “L’oeuvre,” refers to the author’s supposed myopia, I’m not sure if he’s being figurative.)
“Man lives and dies by what he sees; but he only sees that which he conceives. In the middle of a country passage, observe diverse personages. A philosopher vaguely perceives everything as ‘phenomenons’; a geologist, epochs crystallized, mixed together, in ruins, pulverized; a military man, opportunities and obstacles; a farmer, acres, sweat, and profits…. But what they all have in common is that nothing is simply *seen.* The only thing processed by their sensations is the instigator that is needed to make them pass on to a completely different subject, whatever subject pre-occupies them. They’re all prey to a certain system of colors; but each of them immediately transforms these colors into signs with significations, and which speak to their minds like the conventional shadings on a map. All these yellows, all these blues, all these grays so bizarrely assembled evaporate in the same instant; the memory chases the present; the useful chases the real; the signification of the objects chases their form. We immediately see just hopes or regrets, properties or potential virtues, promises of the wine harvest, symptoms of premature ripeness, mineral categories; we see strictly the future or the past, and hardly at all the instantaneous blots. In any event the non-colored is constantly substituted for the chromatic presence, as if the substance that most concerns the non-artist absorbs the sensation, never to give it back, having fled towards its consequences.
“Opposing this abstraction is the abstraction of the artist. Color speaks to him as color, and he responds to color by color. He lives in his object, in the very middle of what he’s trying to grasp, and in a temptation, a defiance, examples, problems, an analysis, a perpetual inebriation. It’s possible that he can’t visualize what he’s trying to imagine, but that he can imagine what he’s seeing.
“His very methods are part of his artistic space. Nothing is quite so alive to the eyes as a box of colors or a packed palette. Even a keyboard doesn’t provoke quite as strongly the desire to ‘produce,’ because it’s but silence and waiting, whereas the delicious state of lacquers, clays, oxides, and alumins are already singing in all their tones the enrapturing preludes of the possible. The only thing I can compare this to is the tingling chaos of pure sounds and lights which lift up from the orchestra as it’s getting ready to perform, the instruments seeming to dream before they’ve formally begun, every player searching for his ‘la,’ practicing his part for himself alone in the forest of all the other timbres, in a disorder full of promise and more general than all music, which inflames with delights the entire soul of the sensitive listener, stirring all the roots of pleasure.
Berthe Morisot, “La Terrasse,” 1874. Oil on canvas, 45 x 54 cm. Tokyo, Tokyo Fuji Art Museum. © 2017 Christie’s Images Limited.
“Berthe Morisot lives in her large eyes in which the extraordinary attention to their function, to their continual act lends her this strange air, separate, which separates from her.” (Here I can’t help thinking of the way all those ‘taches,’ or spots, my artist friend indicated ‘separate out’ if you look at the tableaux up close or in high-res, this reflection fermented with Valéry’s into an image of Morisot tearing — separating — the color spots from her artist’s soul.) “Stranger means ‘strange,’ but singularly strange — a stranger repudiated because of excessive presence.” (And here Valéry could be talking about what’s happening right now in the Mediterranean border of Europe and on the Mexican border of the United States, only I’d insert ‘imagined’ before ‘excessive,’ or turn it into ‘excessivized.’ This is the tragedy in the politically corrected coursus of, particularly, literature departments across the United States: By topicalizing their instruction, often at the expense of the modern classics, they’ve instituted a kind of revisionist, headline-driven pedagogical hierarchy with an expiration date, whereas the Paul Valéry’s and the Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s, the Joseph Heller’s and, yes, even the Carson McCullers’s and the I.F. Stone’s — the muckracking journalist, indy avant l’heure, was already exposing the plight of migrants being witch-hunted out of the country by McCarthy and his allies in the 1950s — would give them lessons and manuals to last a lifetime.)
“Nothing conveys this air abstracted and distinct from the world like seeing the present in all its purity. Nothing, perhaps, more abstract than that which is. (Rien, peut-etre, de plus abstrait que ce qui est.)”
*”If you want to be a man, to not die before you’ve even lived, stay away from ready-made ideas, from pre-chewed food and from recompenses. If you’re a painter, regard simply in yourself. When one is not sterile, one does not adopt the children of others.'”
— Maurice de Vlaminck, “Dangerous Turning Point,” 1929, ré-édition 2008 copyright sVo Art, Versailles. (Reflections after having served in the Grand War of 1914-1918.)*
1. The only element that might throw off framing this juxtaposition in the context of Zola’s analysis of Manet in his 1867 essay is that the work on view for the Art Institute exhibition was made ten years later. So to assure you that if anything, the novelist’s esteem for the painter had only grown with the years, here’s his immediately posthumous assessment, in a piece written in 1884 — at the express request of Eugene Manet, the artist’s brother and Morisot’s husband — on the occasion of the exhibition organized by his friends and family at the Beaux-Arts School following Manet’s death in 1883 : “The real masters, in truth, should be judged as much by their influence as by their oeuvres; and it is above all on this influence that I insist, because it’s impossible here to make it palpable, that one must write the history of our school of art during these past 20 years in order to mount the all-powerful role that Manet has played.” (By way of emphasizing that my comparisons are not meant to diminish Manet but to call out the exponentially disparate critical valuations of the artist and his sister-in-law and which, as pertains to the relatively little and gender-stereotype tinted ink devoted to Morisot, can only be explained by sexism, I should add that here Zola also describes Manet as “one of the indefatigable laborers of Naturalism,” and seen in this light, what to me seems like the flatness of Manet’s colors relative to Morisot’s may be, er, natural. Despite the sourcing of Impressionism to Manet that’s been passed down to us, this occasional flatness may simply be explained by his not belonging to the same… more Impressionist… school as Morisot.)
Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art” (1902-1918), Gallimard, 1960.
Delacroix, Collection Génies and Réalities, Librarie Hachette et Société d’Etudes Economiques, Paris, 1963, with contributions from René Huygue, Jean-Louis Bory, Jean Cau, Yvonne Deslandres, René Hardy, François Nourissier, Maurice Rheims, Claude Roger-Marx, and Maurice Sérullaz.
“Impressionists, Symbolists, and Journalists,” Jacques Lethève, ARTNews Annual No. 2, 1960. (For the tip to the way the Impressionists and notably Manet were initially mocked by many caricaturists, also touched on by Martha Ward in her generously illustrated book; see below.)
Andre Malraux, “Psychology of Art.”
“Les Impressionists et leur temps,” Francois Mathey, Fernand Hazen, 1959.
Carson McCullers, “The Ballad of the Sad Café.”
“Dictionnaire de la peinture moderne,” le club francais du livre, 1958, Morisot entry by Denis Rouart.
I.F. Stone, “The Haunted Fifties,” The Merlin Press Ltd., 1963.
Paul Valéry, “Pieces sur l’Art,” Gallimard, 1934.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or, Pearls Before Swine.”
“Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde,” by Martha Ward, 1995, University of Chicago Press.
Emile Zola, “Ecrits sur l’art,” Gallimard, 1991.
“L’oeuvre,” Emile Zola, 1886, for this article for the preface by Bruno Foucart, Gallimard 1983 from the Pleiede Edition.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(The Lutèce Diaries are sponsored by, among others, Ed Winer, Eva Winer, Linda Ramey, Aaron Winer, Lewis Campbell, and Sharon Savage of the San Francisco Bay Area; H&R B. and CV of Paris and Saint-Cyprien (Dordogne), France; Chris Keel, Marty Sohl, and Suki John of Fort Worth, Texas; Don Singer of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Nancy Reynolds of New York City; Martin Epstein of Hudson Valley, New York; Susan Kierr of New Orleans; Polly Hyslop of Fairbanks, Alaska; Marcello Angelini of Tulsa, Oklahoma; Freespace Dance in Montclair, New Jersey; and Slippery Rock University Dance. To join them, please make a donation through PayPal by designating your payment to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to find out how to donate by check sent through the mail.)
When I passed into the valley of Ti-n-tamat, I said in my interior to [my wife] The-anegh:
The night is coming; I’m going to look for the camels.
The-anegh, sleep will not come to me [because the thought of you is ever-present].
— Elkhasen agg Ikki des Kel Amedjid (1830 – 1894), Touareg poet, translated into French by Charles de Foucauld, as cited by Amalia Dragani and published by the journal Africa of the University of Cambridge in PB-I’s translation of her article
Lay down my child
and rest your head
Gonna hang the dreamcatcher
Right over your bed.
Lay down, lay down
Don’t be afraid
Gonna chase the bad dreams away.
— Donna Summer, “Dreamcatcher”
I fall in love too easily.
— Frank Sinatra
PARIS — Absent the red wine, I had to look for my sparkle elsewhere, and soon found it in the violette-maned, bespectacled young woman sitting 20 feet away from me dangling her fuchsia-stockinged legs over the tip of the Ile St.-Louis facing a Notre-Dame somewhat the worse for wear after 800 years. Moi, with my shining new teeth I wasn’t quite so decrepit as the church, at least on the outside. On the inside, I was still smarting from my failure the previous week-end to offer to share my clear plastic umbrella with the Paris skyline with the lissome young woman in jeans and hooded white North Face jacket standing next to me on the corner of the rue Marie & Louise waiting for a stoplight to change so that we could march under a torrential rain from the Canal St.-Martin to the boulevard Belleville. “I was afraid she’d think I was some kind of weirdo trying to ‘drague’ her,” I’d explained later to my longtime friend Anatole in his electrician’s shop while he tinkered over a silver stand-up neon-tube lamp from the 1960s. “What does that say about what I think of myself?” “You think too much is what it says,” Anatole had answered without looking up from the tangle of wires upon which he was working his magic. Then, plugging the brown chord into a multi-prise outlet which fed an amber light into the neon bar, he’d concluded: “You just need to act.”
So once the violette-haired fuchsia-stockinged nana in the school-girl style skirt had smiled at me from under her librarian-style glasses on the Ile St.-Louis — home-field advantage — I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t venture something. After we’d toasted each other — “Tchin!” “Tchin!” — over, respectively, my cup of thermos tea and her plastic water bottle, the best I could come up with (as Cary Grant, who, indicating the couples making out on benches on the Right Bank of the Seine as he stood watching from the deck of a bateau mouche with Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s “Charade” had boasted “I taught them everything they know” — blanched in embarrassment at how I was botching his legacy), was:
“I’m sorry, I’ve only been here a couple of weeks and my French isn’t very good.”
“Which part of America?”
“Actually I’m English.”
“I’m part English.”
“Actually I’m from Germany.”
“Where in Germany?”
At this point (perhaps realizing I wasn’t hearing a word she was saying, even though we were now shouting at each other over a gay male couple trying to make out… as Cary had taught them) she picked up her bottle, scooped up her skirt, approached the spot where my legs were perched on a set of stairs leading down to the river, and delicately sat down next to me, as a barge bearing 10 tons of sand and 10 centuries of history passed under the bridge connecting the Ile de Cité to the Ile St.-Louis.
“Dortmund, Dortmund. I think there’s a good dance company there.”
“I design children’s books.”
“I once wrote a children’s book.”
“Oh, you did?” she beamed (I’ve avoided using this très inexact stand-in for ‘said’ for 40 years, but it fits here to describe the delight that lit up her eyes and cheeks and also sets up the comparison between Parisian and foreign women that’s right around the corner; be thankful that I’ve not yet told you her name, thus saving you from the facile alliteration which would ensue were I to replace ‘she’ with ‘Betty’), wide-eyed with marvel.
“Actually, it’s a group of children’s stories with the umbrella title ‘The Story the Sea-Shell Told.’ They’re stories a father tells to his daughter as they wait for the mother to come home from a late Christmas Eve errand.”
“‘The Story the Sea-Shell Told’?” she encouraged me, the eyes now so wide they illuminated the delicate magenta freckles on her dimpled cheeks like Gatsby’s green light beckoning from the other side of the Sound with its dreams of some kind of epic grandeur.
“Yes, you know, that large shell, in English it’s called a conch shell” — at this point I cupped the imaginary crustacean over my ear — “where if you listen you can hear the sea?” (Years ago, after reading about a conch excursion off New York Harbor in Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel,” I’d spent an evening scouring all of Little Italy for a restaurant still serving scungilli, and finally found one down the street from my pad on W. 8th Street next to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio.)
“Yes yes, in Bremen they say that you can hear the Brothers Grimm. Why did you decide to write children’s stories?”
“Actually they wrote themselves. I was going through a break-up and at the same time I was baby-sitting. I couldn’t very well sob my heart out to the seven-year-old, so I made up stories for her that at the same time served as parables to help me process what I was going through.” (It had begun innocently enough, with the woman, 12 years my senior — the perfect 36 — beaming at me across a dinner table in a Pacific Heights mansion converted into a restaurant and exclaiming “You’re so nubile!”)
“Such as the story of ‘The White Pimple.'”
“‘The White Pimple!'” she said, clapping her hands together as if clamoring to hear the story as that girl had done in the Parnassus street bedroom of a San Francisco Edwardian 33 years ago. “It’s about a monster pimple?”
“No, it’s about a beautiful princess who wakes up one morning to find a white pimple on her face. She demands that her father the king do something, he engages a series of magicians who each in turn produce increasingly disastrous results: The pimple multiplies, the pimple is joined by warts, the pimples and warts turn multiple colors. Each one she kicks out the window of her room in the tower — kind of like that princess in the Tower of Nesle over there on the other side of the Seine who stuffed her dead lover into a burlap sack and tossed it to servants waiting on the sidewalk below so they could dump his body in the river — and he tumbles to his death.”
“Hah hah hah!”
“…until the last one, who takes one look at the pimple and faints. The princess rushes to his side and asks, ‘What’s wrong, what’s wrong, is it my pimple?’ ‘Yes, it’s your pimple. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’ From that day on, every morning when she wakes up the princess still rushes to her mirror, only now it’s not to see if the pimple has disappeared but to assure herself that ‘it’s still there. My BEAUTIFUL white pimple is still there.'”
“That’s the problem today,” the young woman assented (she’d stopped beaming). “The ads on the television and in the magazines are telling all the girls they have to be skinny and have a certain look.”
“Yes, it’s really sick when nine-year-olds are going on diets.”
“And the social networks make it worse, like Instagram.”
“I don’t know Instagram.”
“It lets you doctor your pictures, so they’re not really you.”
I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to doctor this girl’s picture. (And now I can’t imagine why I didn’t tell her this at the time. That’s me, ‘toujours en retard’ ((always late)) Ben-Itzak. Ou en bon française: ‘Lentement sur le pick-up.’)
“My name’s Paul.”
“Enchanté…. Is it ‘Bette’ or ‘Betty’?”
“Betty.” Given that recently I’d been spending more of my Paris evenings watching re-runs of Mad Men than offering my umbrella to lissome Parisiennes, it was inevitable that the first girl I would meet on a rare night out would be named Betty. (And in her doll-like egg-shaped visage, look like a sort of post-modern 2019 European update of Betty Draper Francis.)
“And you design children’s books?”
“Well, that’s just one of my jobs. I also design hard rock albums. And you’re a writer!” The way she said it made it sound like I was on my way to the other side of the Seine to join Zola in the Pantheon.
“This is my tenth time in Paris. I have to go back tomorrow,” we were Thursday, “and Saturday I’ll be back at my desk in Dortmund!”
Our conversation shifted to the topic of dreams after she asked about the furry white ring onto which the stumps of turquoise and orange feathers were fastened by yellow pipe-cleaners, with a red bead stringed to a sort of cat’s cradle plastic arrangement in the middle, le tout tied to my red bandana by a red ribbon. “It’s a dreamcatcher I found on the sidewalk just after crossing the frontier to Paris on my birthday,” I explained. “It’s for catching nightmares.”
“Maybe you could lend it to me. I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.”
“I keep having these nightmares.”
“What kind of nightmares?”
“I’m entering an… how do you say… elevator?”
“Like the ones in ‘Elevator for the Scaffold,’ with the Miles Davis soundtrack, where the guy gets stuck on an elevator all night after murdering his lover Jeanne Moreau’s husband.” (You’re doing fine, PB-I; a girl with fuchsia stockings who’s just come over to you on the Ile St. Louis as the Sun setting over the Seine and Notre-Dame supplies all the AT-MO-SPHERE you need starts talking elevators and instead of making like Eddie Money and proposing to share your two tickets to Paradise, you continue talking murder.)
“Well, in my dreams the elevator has no floor and I keep falling.”
“You know, in the southern Algerian Touareg dialect of ‘Tamahaq'” — on my way to this rendez-vous, a frantic bouquiniste had tried to sell me a copy of the first Touareg-French dictionary, produced in the early 20th century by the French missionary Charles de Foucauld while he was charting 2,000 kilometers of Touareg territory, that I’d been casually examining by lowering the price — “the word for dream, ‘tahârgit’ or ‘tergit,’ also means ‘nocturnal pollution.'” (This detail had been unearthed by Amalia Dragani, an Italian researcher whose paper on the dreams of the Touaregs I’d once translated for the journal Africa of the University of Cambridge.) “Myself, I seem to dream a lot about looking down at my feet and discovering I’ve lost my shoes. Or going back to school and signing up for all these classes I really want to take and then missing them.”
“Well Paul, I have to go now.” (I’m misplacing this announcement, so you shouldn’t necessarily connect it to the dreams.) The Sun was just setting over the Seine.
“Here’s my card.”
“Oh, you have a card!” Betty declared as if I’d just handed her my Legion of Honor pin instead of a very home-made looking brown business card. “I’ll look at your sites. And I’ll write you.”
Of course, me being me, afterwards I reproached myself for not telling Betty about the Open Studios of Belleville starting the next day and suggesting she delay her departure so that I could show her around ‘my’ ‘hood. (Now that I think about this logically, having been shuffled around to four different stations by the French train company to change one ticket, I understand that this might have been problematic.) When I recounted my victory — over my own inhibitions — to Anatole on Saturday, he was proud of me and agreed that just in itself, the moment was worth savoring, like a brief encounter he’d had recently with a Turkish woman on the boulevard Magenta, after which he’d told me, “Note that she was foreign. Couldn’t have happened with a French girl.” So he was not surprised when I told him Betty was German. “Foreigners just seem to be more open, less fearful,” he pointed out, than French women, an assessment I agreed with. “Yes, I remember once several years ago” — 15 actually — “I had an intern here from California. We were walking in the 16th arrondissement when we stopped for a toilet break. When I emerged a French guy was chatting Nicole up. Later she explained to me that after driving past her on his motorcycle, he’d screeched to a halt, circled back, and asked her, “You’re not French, are you?” “How did you know that?” “You’re smiling. French girls never smile.”
I know what you’re thinking: If French girls are so closed, what am I doing in France, where the odds would seem to be stacked against me, trouver l’ame-soeur-wise? But a ready smile can also be vacuous and remember, you’re talking to a guy who isn’t quick enough to offer to share his clear plastic umbrella with a damsel in distress being doused on an afternoon when “it’s raining like a cow pissing,” to cop a French metaphor. (Maybe I’ll try that line the next time: “Madame, may I shelter you from the cow piss?,” although if she’s French this may just prompt her to invert my invitation to “May I piss on you?”) But the middle passage — after the initial suspicion and before the final curdling of a wound I have no idea how I inflicted — between me and French women is usually pretty magical, or at least sympathetic. We connect, and often around subjects on which we share the same perspective.
On the first night of the cat-sitting gig up top Belleville near the Place des Fetes which had made it possible for me to be there on the Ile St.-Louis to encounter Betty that evening, I’d discovered that my client and I were in complete synchronicity on the ludicrousness of the latest fashion trend which has half the women of Paris trying to dress like Sid Vicious, with pre-fabricated holes and slices in various parts of their jeans. (“Coming over here from the Metro,” I’d told the client whom we’ll call Sylvie for now as the verdict on our future is still out, “I crossed a woman on the Place des Fetes who had so many holes in and strips of rented clothing hanging from her jeans I was tempted to ask, “Mais Madame, qu’est que vous etes arrivé?” Nodding vigorously, ‘Sylvie’ had informed me with pride (by way of affirming that she didn’t follow mode), “All my clothes are second-hand. It’s just not that important.” It was at about this moment, looking over at her from my too-wide grey Marseille jeans, third-hand striped pink short sleeve shirt, and found class project dreamcatcher attached to Texas bandana (another good omen was that she had a genuine one hanging over the bed in which I’d be sleeping while she was away), as the argyle salve ‘Sylvie”d given me continued to heal the five-inch finger wound I’d inflected on myself by reaching into my back-pack to search for my reading glasses at the Place d’Italie Metro so I could decipher the map and forgetting about the unprotected razors I’d hastily stashed there, that I’d started to fall in love with her.
Nicolas 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.
Roger 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. 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.
Jean 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.
Victor 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.
Victor 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.
Yaacov 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.
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!”
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.
Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled One. Silkscreen, signed and justified, 77 cm x 70.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
(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….”
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 –”
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.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — So there I was at dusk, heart broken and sentiments seeping out, teeth throbbing and gums bleeding profusely into a bandage I was trying in vain to grit (hard to grit when half of your teeth are gone; I’m in Paris to have them replaced), staggering up the rue des Martyrs towards the Montmartre cemetery and the grave of the man I blamed it all on: François Truffaut. To read the rest of this article on our sister site The Paris Tribune, click here. To read more Lutèce Diaries, click here.