By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak
A VILLAGE IN SOUTHWEST FRANCE — I always thought I’d be brave, like Tarrou in Camus‘s “La Peste,” “The Plague.” Diving right into the heart of the malady, seeing it as an opportunity to make his own meaning even during the darkest calamity; the gist of existentialism a la Camus. Or like the author himself, walking around Occupied Paris with the proofs of his clandestine newspaper Combat stuffed into his pocket, at the risk of his life. (On one occasion, spotting a Gestapo patrol a block ahead, he had just time enough to pass them to his mistress Maria Casarès, knowing that she’d be less likely to be searched.) (The birthday date accompanying the fake name on Camus’s fake passport is my own.) But now it’s clear that I would be more like Bourvil’s character in Claude Autant-Lara’s 1956 film “La Traversée de Paris,” neither a collaborator nor a Resistant, but just trying to survive and get along, in his case by trundling a black market side of beef across Occupied Paris after curfew with the help of painter Jean Gabin. (When I saw this film at the beginning of my Paris years with my friend Sabine at a Latin Quarter cinema, I didn’t understand why Gabin’s character got so riled up when the pair took refuge in a cafe where a Jewish girl was bussing tables. I thought it an admirable thing that they were hiding her out. “He is mad because they are taking advantage of the situation to have a worker for free,” Sabine explained.)
While this quarantine can’t be compared to that particular ‘Peste’ — if we are at war, as President Macron justly explained in announcing the confinement, it is a war where even friends and family might be bearing the threat, whence the reason for the strict measures — I can say that if this were 1940 (and I were still Jewish), I already have a pretty good idea of who here in my petite village would be hiding me out.
Several years ago, when I suggested to an association in the 13eme arrondissement of Paris, near where some of the action of the film had been situated, that I organize a screening of “La Traversée de Paris” (a resto on the lip of the jardin des Plantes has actually adopted the name, with a cartoon Bourvil smiling out from its marquee) — they’d supposedly been interested in soliciting ideas from the general public, and had liked mine to show films shot in the arrondissement — the association’s presidents resisted. “Why don’t you show a film about Resistance? That would be more interesting.” It’s almost like their own resistance was to acknowledge that there had been people like the characters portrayed by Bourvil, people who just tried to get along. (De Beauvoir protégée Violette Leduc was another, bicycling Black Market goods to the suburbs to sell.) But the fact is that in times of crisis, there is a middle-ground between the Maquisard and the Collabo, and it’s the petite homme (or woman) who just wants to survive. Not everyone has the guts to be a hero. I’m pretty sure I don’t.
(In these days of the Corona virus, you don’t need me to tell you that the grand heroes — the real Tarrous — are the doctors, the nurses, and the other health-care workers, beginning with that Chinese doctor who first sounded the alarm and who was initially rewarded for his bravery with prison.)
In the meantime, I will be thankful for the ‘petite’ heroism of my neighbor-friend — you know who you are and you know how you’re helping. (I will say that it was only after leafing through my copy of Vintage / Knopf’s — very bad — English translation “La Peste,” which still bears the Strand Book store .48 cent stamp and re-reading Dr. Rieux’s advice to Cottard that he should “get out for some physical exercise” that I finally emerged from my own particular hermitage to take advantage of one of my friend’s kind offers.)
French language corner
On one of the quartier solidarity lists for the East of Paris on which I’m subscribed, the hostess forwarded this note / request for advice from “Arman”:
Ma demande peut paraître déplacée par ses temps d’épidémie et de confinement mais je suis à la recherche d’une ou deux balles de ping-pong.
Merci et prends bien soin de toi.
(He’s basically saying “I know this might seem inappropriate in these days of epidemic and confinement, but I’m looking for one or two ping-pong balls.” This is how I responded, English translation following pigeon-French original.)
D’abord votre demande n’est pas déplacée du tout! En ces moments sombres, il faut tienne aux souvenirs des meilleures temps — du passé et d’un future souhaitable — qui sont indissociable avec LIBERTE et JOIE. Pour moi, déjà vous m’avais donne une: De pouvoir jouer autour des tables de ping-pong dans le jardin de L’observatoire un jour de printemps, tout en faisant des nouvelles connaissances. Sacre de printemps que j’espère pouvoir reprise avant trop longtemps. (Pour la question pratique, quand il sera encore ouvert, “Go Sports”; il y un a je crois a la place d’Italie et un autre place de la République et ils ne sont pas chère.)
Perigordin / Parisian.
In the first place, your request is not AT ALL inappropriate. In these somber moments, we need to cling to images of better times — of the past and of a desired future — which speak to FREEDOM and JOY. For me, already you’ve given me one: To be able to play again on the ping-pong tables of the jardin de l’observatoire on a Spring day, at the same time making new friends. Rite of Spring that I hope to be able to reprise before too long. (For the practical question, when it will be open again, try Go Sports; there’s one on the place d’Italie and another on the place de la Republique, and they’re not expensive.)
In writing this piece, I looked up a “Doer’s Profile” the Noe Valley Voice did on me in 1978, when I was still in high school, to confirm that not only had I listed “The Plague” as, with Huck Finn, my favorite book, but that I’d said what I referred to above regarding Tarrou and the book’s message, and my intention to follow that credo. But when the reporter Corey M. Anders asked what was the most important thing to me, I’d actually answered “Making friends.”
Par préférence, autour d’une table de ping-pong au milieu du jardin de l’observatoire. Preferably, over a ping-pong table in the jardin de l’observatoire.
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.
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“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.
Jean Fouquet, “The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against the Demons,” circa 1452–1460. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more information on the tableau, click here.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”
— Danté (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27)
“Well, you know that I love to live with you
But you make me forget so very much
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us.”
— Leonard Cohen, “So long Marianne,” being sung by a busker behind Notre-Dame on Easter Sunday, 2019
PARIS — Here are some of my memories associated with Notre-Dame: Being shocked to learn, from a sign posted on the church’s gates in 2005, that among those who would be choosing the successor to Pope John-Paul was the disgraced Boston cardinal Bernard Law.… Stiffing a French girl I was dating in 2002 to go to an improvisation match between the N-D organ and a tuba, which cued our final rupture…. Crossing the short bridge (its brown iron railings recently replaced with love-lock proof glass) over the Seine in the shadow of the church on which Charles Boyer held a clandestine RDV with Ingrid Thulin in occupied Paris in Vincente Minelli’s 1962 “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (and above where Gene Kelly waltzed Leslie Caron in Minelli’s 1951 “An American in Paris”) in 2006 with a girl named Charlotte Lejeune who made my heart feel jeune again after seeing Katherine Dunham and Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather” at a cinema on the rue Christine near where Miles had wooed Greco at the Club Taboo and dining on buckwheat crepes and hard cider on the rue Mouffetard, and hearing her declare upon beholding Notre-Dame, “Elle est BELLE!” My initial reaction to the news was that it’s just a thing — no one died in the fire which tore the roof off the 900-year-old sucker last month — and whose significance, like most of the things in Paris, derives not just from the architecture (in N-D’s case, a pell-mell melange of epochs; the same architect whose spire everyone’s now lamenting has been maligned for centuries for turning the towers of Carcassonne into epoch-inconsistent coneheads), historical context, and personal memories but from the allure with which artists have invested them over time. (Following the catastrophe, Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” soared back to the top of the best-seller lists.) After all, who would give a second thought to Winesburg, Ohio, if Sherwood Anderson hadn’t made it the setting for the first American psychological novel? What made a floating laundry basin — the Bateau Lavoir — the fulcrum of Cubism and the birthplace of Surrealism, if not the alchemy of Picasso, Braque, and Max Jacob that it spawned? Why did this fulcrum migrate from Montmartre to Montparnasse in the 1920s, if not for the ateliers the city set up around the train station and the artists and writers who installed themselves there? What made the Haute Provence so special if not Jean Giono’s lyrical rhapsodies? And the filthiest street in the world a hallowed terrain for urban adventurers if not the imagination and knack for capturing the local lingo of Damon Runyon?
To try to augment my empathy for the Parisians, French, and foreigners who have taken the fire and gutting of much of Notre-Dame’s roof more deeply to heart than I have — “With that woodwork, it was like you could touch history; now that’s gone forever,” one particularly anti-clerical friend confided in me — I’ve imagined what I might feel like if one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge suddenly fell off. I’ve also reminded myself that I’m not just the Joe Biden of columnists, so mesmerized by the sound of his own voice that he doesn’t seem to care about the readers who get lost in the parentheses within parentheses never to be heard from again, but a reporter, and that this is my beat. (Or as I reflected on a recent late afternoon while sipping the last of my hot thermos mint tea on a bridge over the Canal St.-Martin where the volunteers of “Une Chorba Pour Tous” — a pirate operation judging by the way they quickly packed up their van and took off afterwards — had just dispensed hot soup and baguettes to the black and brown masses who continue to huddle under the tracks at La Chapelle no matter how many times the authorities clear them out: “Paris. It was his city.”) So on Easter Sunday, after the usual round of skirt-chasing (actually they’re not wearing skirts this season, but high-wasted pants with the ever-present pre-fabricated holes — if Malcolm McLaren were to return to Paris today, he’d find the girls all dressing like his prodigy Sid Vicious and stroking tiny screens instead of live mice — and short shirts or sweaters) and book-hunting and quixotic Dulcinella ping-pong partner courting and having my thermos tea with Delacroix at his fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens (he’s another one: Most of the tourists who pause to take their pictures in front of the fountain have no idea who he was; if I didn’t, would I be quite as inspired every time I sit there looking up at the master of color’s Byronic bust and his Muse’s naked torso supplicating him below it?), I descended to the Seine to assess the damage.
From the recent exhibition at the Metropoloitan Museum of Art and the Louvre: Eugène Delacroix, “Self-Portrait in Green Vest.” Oil on canvas, circa 1937. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Copyright RMN – Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York. Photo: Michel Urtado.
But first, by way of prelude: If I’ve scrapped the political commentary in earlier versions of this piece as it ultimately didn’t seem appropriate to use this catastrophe as a soap-box (even for expounding on pertinent and larger related issues, e.g. as an indication of a generalized lack of official concern for the country’s patrimony which pre-dates this administration, with Nicolas Sarkozy as the exception, his Socialist successor scrapping Sarkozy’s plans for a museum of the history of France), I still think it’s legitimate to cite two issues which have arisen in the debate — and it is a debate — over the appropriate measures to take for the church’s reconstruction.
“It’s a building — We’re human beings. What about us?” This is how one Gilet Jaune or “Yellow Vest” interviewed on French public radio reacted to the news that two of France’s richest families had donated a combined 330 million Euros to repair the church within 24 hours of the fire. Because another fixture that has been eroding in France in recent years, according to many, is the social ‘welfare’ state erected by the National Council of Resistance after the War, the question is entirely pertinent. Or, as the Gilets Jaunes of the Paris suburb of Pantin, right next to mine, expressed their demands in a flyer distributed at a recent Saturday market outside the Church of Pantin, they seek:
** “A minimum wage of 12 Euros an hour.” (Less than the $15/hour minimum many American states have recently adopted.)
** “The means for our schools, smaller class size.” (To which was added the complaint that their children are being oriented less and less towards college and more and more towards brief professional formations.)
** “Health care for all; free care (notably dental care).” (Contrary to what you may have heard, health care isn’t free for everyone here, and most French have to subsidize their public plan with private insurance.)
** “Construction and maintenance of affordable housing.”
The second pertinent issue was raised by numerous preseveration specialists, including state functionaries, alarmed by a measure adopted by Parliament May 2 which includes a provision that would allow the government to over-ride existing ecological and preservation regulations during the reconstruction, in the interests of fast-tracking the repairs so that they can be finished in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
My own view is that the country’s real monument is its artistic and literary canon. (Although an argument could be made that as architecture and art repository Notre-Dame falls into this category.)
Johan Barthold Jongkind (Dutch, 1819–1891), “The Pont Neuf,” 1849–50. Oil on canvas, 21 1/2 x 32 1/8 in. (54.6 x 81.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Mendelsohn, 1980. Both this tableau and that of Fouquet, above, have recently been showcased at the Met as a gesture of solidarity with those affected by the Notre-Dame fire.
It was my ongoing quest for both of these — as well as the perennial cherche pour l’ame-soeur (soul-mate) — that found me on Easter Sunday morning exiting the Denfert Rochereau Metro station across the street from the Catacombs (some of whose residents have been there as long as Notre-Dame), and heading down the avenue Denfert Rochereau (toujours fixé a le Meridian moi) for the sprawling headquarters of the benevolent association “Big Neighbors,” a sort of Jewish Community Center for recent immigrants, except that unlike the JCC most of its activities are free. The occasion was a crafts — crafts fabricated by the migrants — and vide-grenier sale. The last time I was here — the event is held every month if you want to check it out — I’d scored, for a combined 2 Euros, paperback editions of two books I’d actually been looking for — Céline’s “Voyage to the end of night” and Zola’s “L’oeuvre,” a thinly veiled biography of Cézanne or Monet or both — as well as Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” and tried to score with a woman who was selling hand-lithographed “Les Ping-Pongeurs” tee-shirts, which she explained celebrated the association’s ping-pong table, which had become a kind of community fireside for the migrants, a lieu for exchanging their own stories. Partly to prolong the contact but also for a future Lutèce Diary, I’d given the woman my card and asked her to e-mail me images of the tee-shirt’s design as soon as she had them. She’d given me hers too but as there was no e-mail address, I’d resorted to trying to “friend” her on Facebook, after also noting that we had similar musical tastes and being impressed with the number and type of other associations she volunteered for or “liked,” notably the Palestinian Film Festival.
This time around in the book department I scored once again and for the same bargain rate, the price dropping from 2 Euros to 1 between the time I asked the woman guarding two large bins of them how much they were (“2 Euros”) and the moment I started looking elsewhere (“actually, they’re all 1 Euro”). I found a limited edition copy of a lavishly illustrated history of Modern Art from the ’50s (the best era for color reproduction) I’d used to own but lost, a hefty hardcover “Dictionary of Synonymes” (useful for translating), and, the real coupe, a copy of Victor Serge’s “Les années sans pardon.” Serge being one of the real-life heroes of one of my translating projects, Michel Ragon’s novel “La mémoire des vaincus.” In what I assume to be a thinly fictionalized telling of his own story — Serge was a non-violent anarchist publisher who became a disillusioned ally of the Bolsheviks, unsuccessfully trying to get the French Communist Party to acknowledge Soviet crimes — the book, published in 1947, recounts the Communists’ tracking of one of its Paris leaders after he quits the party, even though he promises to beat a gentle retreat to Mexico (where Serge would die that same year).
(I forgot to mention, important because it comes up later, that at a real gauntlet of a vide-grenier near the la Villette basin on the other side of the Seine earlier that morning, whose sublime and free highlight was observing Paris come to life while having my thermos tea perched on the Crimée pedestrian bridge over the Ourcq Canal and watching the drawbridge go up and then back down for no apparent reason as there was no boat traffic, and that was really more of a brocante — junk — sale, I’d spent all of 1 Euro on a “Dictionary of Symbols,” a gift for a witch I know. (You know which witch you are.) And scored some bargain stomach sustenance: A canned roast chicken salad for a Euro, a pound of dry rice for 50 cents, and a can of duck mousse for the same, the idea being it will give me something local to eat my first night back in the Dordogne, a.k.a. duck country.) (Lest you think I just eat them as this is the second Lutèce Diary in a row in which I’ve mentioned my predilection for this Dordogne staple, I recently had the opportunity to give back, lunching with one famished female canard with a bald-spot on her head on the lip of the pond of the parc George Brassens, calmly gray and sparsely populated on a drizzly Sunday. We dined on left-over Texas-style cornbread and peas, my new friend making duck eyes at me every time she came up from fishing the crumbs out of the muddy shallows.)
Next (we’re back at the vide-grenier in one of the courtyards of les Big Neighbors) I landed a telling item for this column, when a particularly ugly American demanded, in English, of the woman selling next to the bookstand, “I don’t speak French, can you tell her” — her being an older woman with stringy gray hair within hearing distance who’d just set down a tattered box against a nearby column — “that she doesn’t have the right to that space, my friend paid for it and she didn’t pay,” which request he repeated insistently again and again until the seller reluctantly ceded. I guess the young man, unshaven and clad in dirty jeans — who, once the FRENCH woman who UNLIKE HIM HAD THE RIGHT TO BE SELLING AT A FRENCH VIDE-GRENIER sadly walked away, threw down what looked like over-sized tinker-toy wheels on the pavement — wasn’t aware that the reason his friend had had to pay for him was that he has no standing here. Talk about ugly Americans: This loser couldn’t even communicate “I don’t speak French” correctly.
Having surpassed my quota of ugly Americans for the day and my book budget as well, I continued searching for the Ping-Pongeuse who was the real object of my visit through the alleys and across the several courtyards of the Big Neighbors complex, weaving among handmade crafts and clothing and over-priced ash-trays and carafes — the association even offers a restaurant and a bench-lined roof terrace over the entrance where you can take your coffee looking out on the tree-lined avenue, surveilling this stretch of the Meridian. Finally spotting her behind dark sun-glasses (“Quick, that Facebook weirdo is coming over here, hand me those shades!”) wearing a large white sweatshirt which showed off her sliver-brunette bangs and deftly rolling an orange ping-pong ball between my nimble if shaking fingers — the paddles were stashed away in my “Re-Nais – Sance” bag — I stepped up to the Ping-Pongeurs table and, while she stared blankly back at me behind the sun-glasses not changing her expression, sputtered, “I’m the guy who asked you for art of your Ping-Pongeurs tee-shirt for my magazine last month.”
“I remember.” (I’m on to you, Buster, with your vintage 1973 paddles and orange ball, if orange balls tickled my fancy I’d stay at home watching re-runs of “The Prisoner.”)
“I’m still interested.”
“I know, I still have your card.” (Buried in my ‘non-recyclable’ pile.) “But we haven’t been able to take any pictures, what with the Sun coming out and all.” (She didn’t phrase it exactly that way, but I’m channeling Carson McCullers. She comes up later.)
My witch not being available to inform my Ping-Pongeuse that despite the missing teeth I really was a frog waiting to be turned into a prince I decided to take my witch gift “Dictionary of Symbols” further down the Meridian to the Fountain of the Four Parts of the World in the Explorers Garden which abuts the Luxembourg, where at least the four maidens carrying the whole world in their hands wouldn’t glare back at me for ogling their bare bronze chests. I’d read on Wikipedia that one of these ladies, designed by Carpeaux, was supposed to be an American Indian and, besides that she was the least demeure of the bronze babes, bending forward into the wind at the haunches instead of remaining loftily above it like her European sister, she was also recognizable by the (stereotypical) braid…. mirrored in the braided manes of the two horse-mermaids rearing their heads below her. Opening the dictionary while trying to protect it from the errant spray of the water fight going on between the bronze turtles on the first level and the fish below the horse-mermaids, I looked up ‘turtle’ first and was tempted to bang my head on the nearest ping-pong table because as I already should have known, having jogged in a colorful “Turtle Island Marathon” tee-shirt for years back in San Francisco, this is the most obvious, four-parts-of-the-world symbolism of the turtle — the American Indian maiden should have clued me in: They hold the whole world on their shells. And if we keep pissing off the noble turtle, or tortoise, he’s going to retreat into his shell and leave us to our own wiles. (According to the dictionary, whose sources are a bit obscure, the turtle is also apparently both phallic and vaginal, making a strong case for augmenting the already onerous acronym LGBQT to LGBQTET, for eunuch turtles.)
Before heading over to and down the Boul’Mich to Notre-Dame to do my nominal reporter’s job, I decided to look up “arrow,” hoping to find a literary significance for Viollet le Duc’s “fleche de Notre-Dame” going up in flames. Besides being about getting closer to Heaven and giving Cupid a helping hand, the book informed me, the arrow also represents destiny, or as Al Dante quipped about the time Notre-Dame was going up (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27):
“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”
I was hit harder by the disaster zone that greeted me from the Ile de Cité than I’d expected to be when I was finally able to forge my way through the somber Easter Sunday crowd congesting the widened sidewalk — the pedestrians spilling over to the bicycle lane — along the Quay Tournelle facing the church across the water, more hushed than usual; even the ten gendarme vans that sped by with blue lights flashing while I was slowly threading my way through the throng, all of our heads askance to look up and over the river at the church, had respectfully silenced their sirens.
Eugène Atget, “Au Tambourg 63 quai de Tournelle,” 1908.
I’d heard that the twin towers themselves had been spared, but their innards are toast, charred to carbon. Literally, this is all you see through the windows, carbon black. Between the twin towers the roof has effectively been torn off, its curved rim warped on the edge facing the Ile St. Louis, as is the scaffolding which once surrounded the arrow, the fire melting even part of the metal. Two alabaster bishops remain perched high atop the outer ledge of the roof, saluting the Paris skyline from their posts after having been powerless to protect their earthly fiefdom, but the windows below them are also blackened. (This could be from drawn curtains.) When you look at the structure from the Ile St. Louis, which I eventually reached after about half an hour, one of the bishops appears to be turned away from you, his crowned head inclined in mourning.
The real miracle — besides that anything at all is still standing (I’ve seen fires reduce medieval stone houses in my Dordogne village to a pile of rubble in 10 minutes) — is that the ring of gargoyles high up towards where the roof once was (and thus closer than you and me to Heaven) is intact. I know from gargoyles, my first story for the New York Times having been on the gargoyles of Princeton, about which a colleague, Laurel Cantor, had written a precise and elegant book. My favorite was a monkey with a camera peering down from an arch across the street from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs who appeared to be taking pictures of those looking up at him as they passed under the arch. (As I write this I’m realizing that gothic buildings have another resonance with me, evoking the surroundings that welcomed me in September 1979 to grounds that otherwise looked like a hurricane had swept through them, because one had, me arriving in Princeton the morning after Hurricane Frederick. It’s really something to live in the garret of one of those buildings, as I did, wondering if you’re big enough to walk in their shoes, but Fitzgerald’s fit mine perfectly, as far as our Princeton expiration date went anyway. We both lasted longer than Eugene O’Neill, Class of ’10, although he and I ran into the same obstacle at PU: “It’s tradition-bound.” Those gargoyles were the beginning of my end at Princeton, the Times wanting more stories from me after that one, written in the Summer of 1983 while I was covering for the regular stringer as a member of the University Press Club, whose other members ordered me to stop writing for the Times when he came back in September. Both me and my editor convinced there was enough to go around, I refused, was kicked out of the club, the bottom fell out of my social life, I stopped going to class, when I sought help, explaining the various stressors, from the dean of the college she scolded me, “Other students are able to have personal problems without letting them get in the way of their studies,” miserable and telling myself I was already doing what I wanted to do anyway, writing for the Times, I left Princeton but it never left me.)
Who’s zooming who? Gargoyle from the campus of Princeton University. Photo courtesy Princeton University.
Beholding those gargoyles of Notre-Dame unscathed by the flames made me think of that monkey, and, later, seeing the way they seemed to be gawking back across the Seine at the tourist gawkers, of the apes on Monkey Island at the San Francisco Zoo, who used to throw their caca at visitors. (I know this from warning the kids I’d take on field trips there not to stand too close to the monkeys, which of course had the opposite effect.) As the Notre-Dame gargoyles stared back down at us staring up at them, I found myself hoping they’d come to life and start heaving fossilized merde at the tourists. (Why such hostility? I guess this is the other reason I’d put off coming down to Notre-Dame to check out the fire damage. I didn’t want to watch the tragedy turn into yet another photo opportunity for tourists, like the Place de la Republique became after the November 13, 2015 massacres: We are not your “I was here” photo moment, tourist-fuckers. We hurt. Now that I start tearing up at writing that it occurs to me that maybe this inability to feel anything about the fire has just been denial. All the things I love about Paris and France are disappearing. Valuable old books are sold for less than fish-wrap (Le Monde costs 1.25), and the social model that used to make France different and unique and the anti (dote) American is also eroding. In my village the post-man, or woman, used to stop and chat with the elders living alone, sometimes bringing them their paper or baguette or having a petite gout of eau de vie with the retired farmer. Now if you want the mailman/woman to spend more than 30 seconds with your 90-year-old grandmother you have to pay the post office for the service…. (Which post-office also eliminated, under Emmanuel Macron’s Socialist predecessor, the special book rate for sending the country’s literature abroad; so much for exporting French culture.) And Notre-Dame is not just a marketing opportunity to be superficially prettied up in time for the Olympics. It needs to be made whole again.
Ah yes, the books. I was also upset because at least for the first few blocks, the crowd moving along the quay to get a better look at the damaged church across the river was completely ignoring the bookstalls past which this brought them. And yet these bouquinistes, whose lives are not easy — a former friend of mine in the trade worked winters as a museum security guard to support his book-selling habit — are the real guardians of the most valuable monument France has given the world, its literature. This is why on his first morning in Paris, where he’d been sent to fetch the scion of a wealthy Boston family from the clutches of a scheming older Frenchwoman (the Henries seem to have something against this breed, the only thing not quiet in Miller’s “Quiet Days in Clichy” being a Frenchie his hero hooks up with), before he even saw about the boy Henry James’s Lambert Strether (in “The Ambassadors”) headed straight to the quays to search for and procure a complete set of the works of Victor Hugo. At a recent vide-grenier high up on the Meridian — near the Cité Universitaire — I scored a complete volume of the Great Man’s plays that might have been sitting right next to the set Strether bought, given that it was published in the 1880s, for 1 Euro. I’m happy for my library but dismayed about what this says about the value contemporary society attaches to the product of my endangered trade and species. (Further down the quays I joined two older French gentlemen scouring through bins where everything was for sale at 2 Euros, high for vide-greniers but low for bouquinistes. I passed on a volume of the essays, reviews, and other rarely collecting writings of Carson McCullers because it was in French and I was still scarred by an experience with a translation of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” which had the Black characters speaking a kind of plantation dialect that made Ebonics seem like Latin by comparison.)
Speaking of dead poets, while the church plaza was cordoned off, its back-side outside the fence and leading to the bridge to the Ile St. Louis — right across the street from the stairs descending to the Holocaust Memorial in what resembles a prison, except instead of Kilroy the graffiti is signed “Albert Camus” — was open. (From my favorite bench on the Ile St-Louis en face you can see the bars of the memorial’s triangular corner room.) The crowd here was more subdued, lulled in part by a long-grey-haired man reprising Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne,” whose theme — gracefully accepting change — was just right for the occasion:
“So long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”
When the singer shifted to a more obvious choice (I’m not being more specific because it would leave you singing the song all day, which would still be more dulcet than the middle-aged Danish woman who walked by at that moment doing so.) (Oops, now I realize I left out the sample of Danish pastry a comely boulangerista handed me as I was heading away from the Catacombs towards my rendez-vous with the Ping-Pongeuse, which reminded me of another comely boulangerista at the same bakery at the entrance to the rue Daguerre who I tried to court 18 years ago by handing her a sunflower — during the epoch this is what I was packing, the idea being that I would spontaneously give my tournesol to whatever woman sparked my fancy — only to overhear her afterwards flirting on a bench outside the Catacombs with one very living beau. If this digression annoys you, just be thankful I’m sparing you the two-page entry for “Tournesol” in “The Dictionary of Symbols,” although my witch, who’s also a gardener and almost as much of a sunflower fanatic as me, will appreciate it.)
Still hoping to make myself cry (unfortunately I’d forgotten how Spencer Tracy achieves this to win an argument with Katherine Hepburn — I can’t even remember the name of the film) or at least feel something besides the urge to will the gargoyles to life so that they could start hurling their caca at the tourists, I crossed to the Ile St.-Louis and descended to my favorite bench, once again miraculously free, and from which perspective in 16 years of pique-niquing I’ve been looking across the water at Notre-Dame. At least this is how I remembered it, but when I got to the bench, I realized that what I’ve actually been looking at is that barred prison cell in the caverns of the Holocaust Memorial, with Camus lurking somewhere on its walls waiting to tell us that prison is just a state of mind.
As for the Ile itself, as with Montmartre for me on this trip, during which I’ve been trying not to just resurrect my previous nostalgia for epics I never lived but pay attention to whether they evoke anything for me now, thanks to the assholes who think they can play their annoying music and subject everyone else to it — there used to be a common understanding among We the People of the Ile that this was a music-free-zone — that magic was stifled, at least on this visit.
Recently fixed up thanks to a public subscription campaign, the loriette atop the Jardin des Plantes is the oldest iron structure in Paris.
Fearing a similar letdown at the loriette above the nearby Jardin des Plantes — the oldest iron structure in Paris, recently restored thanks to a public inscription campaign — I crossed to the Left Bank and tiredly made my way through the outdoor sculpture garden, stopping only long enough to pee into a metal trough of stagnant amber liquid above which was the inevitable sign from the Mayor: “Paris is clean!” No wonder that when I got there another man was emerging from behind the urinal, where it was no doubt more clean. (Further along in the sculpture garden I found a sort of one-unit “Paris is pissing to fertilize” pissoir with plants in the basin whose complete exposure to the foot traffic makes me wonder what libertine of a deputy mayor dreamed this particular Eco-idea up, although the Serge book informs me that even the Grands Boulevards used to be littered with pissoirs “from which one can see only the cuffs and the shoes” of the piseurs, pissing away the excesses of Capitalism.)
After climbing up to the loriette, where the only free thin metal bench was directly facing the bright 6 p.m. Sun over the green tiles of the Mosque of Paris (the main journalistic justification for this effort was that I wanted to compare religious monuments. Speaking of mosques, maybe the Notre-Dame renovation fund could give, I dunno, 200,000 of that 330 million to the fellows down the street form me here in the prè-St. Gervais, who do their worshiping in a storefront the only religious indication of which is the “Vigi-Pirate” sign on the frosted glass door and the sandals on the ledge outside the mosque on Fridays), I decided I had to say coucou to the Kangaroos (I call them that, but I think they’re actually wallabies), another effort to tap into an early Paris sentimental sensation, when I first discovered them in 2000 and liked to sip my cider leaning up against a bullet-ridden concrete wall facing the pen the kangaroos shared with a pair of black swans. That makeshift terrace has now been walled in as part of a restaurant; paying customers only, please.) I was rewarded with a close-up view, through a fence, of a baby kangaroo milking at his mama’s breast before pitching itself into her pouch, and mama hopping away. A three-year-old boy to whom a papa had been pointing out all these marvels shrieked, “Look Papa, pigeons!” “I point out something really special and you talk to me about pigeons.”
After Mama bounded off, baby in pouch, Dad (I’m talking about the kangaroo) stepped forward to grab a very large slice of raw eggplant from where it had been strewn about with tomatoes and leeks — ratatouille! — neatly nibbling everything away but the black skin before tossing it. That did it. Feeling weak having imbibed nothing but mint tea for six hours I decided to open the can of chicken-vegetable salad — tant pis if it might had fallen off a truck of botchulated foodstuffs on their way back to the factory.
I was about to crawl down into the mouth of the Jusseau metro — I knew there was a toilet on the Place Jusseau; all that mint tea — when I looked across the street and realized it was the “Street of the Arenes.” Yes, I was a traffic light away from THE 2000 year-old arenas of Lutèce, the ancient name for Paris and the more recent name of this column. Another landmark — or rather Paul nostalgia point — that I could cross off my bucket list with just a quick detour.
Ignoring a man strumming his guitar on the first level of the park below the arenas (Oops, the musical reference reminds me that I left out the tango party on the Tino Rossi Square below the Sculpture Garden set against the Seine and beyond that Notre-Dame to which none of the tango dancers who packed the square listening to recorded Carlos Gardel numbers were paying any attention, and where seeing three guys pushing 70 dancing with three girls who won’t be pushing 30 for at least five years told me I should have kept up with those Fort Worth tango lessons and brought my new tango boots instead of my 47-year-old ping-pong paddles to Paris), I continued up the stairs to the concrete lodges flanking one side of the arena from which the Emperor once sat looking down on the gladiators and across at the people in the bleachers, Emperor and subjects drooling over the slaves being tossed out of the cages to the lions, and sat sipping my tea on the bench carved into the lodge before noticing that below that, on the roof of one of the cages, a niche had been carved into the stone big enough for a small emperor to squeeze into, which I did, only instead of a slave being chased by a lion a young woman in a short jeans skirt and white blouse came running towards me chasing a metal ball, which is all they’re chasing these days in the 2000-year-old Arenes de Lutèce.
Heading back where I came from after drinking more tea and emptying it in the appropriate place, then sitting down to enjoy the guitar player before leaving Lutèce, not far from the exit I noticed, in an alcove behind a fenced-in lawn on the other side of which was the arena, a naked alabaster maiden with no head reclining on a body-length stone shelf above an empty basin and cuddling an urn-like object in the crook of her arm. In front of the locked fence protecting the lawn between the fence and the maiden was a stationary sign announcing “Pesticide-free rye and poppies coming soon, thanks to the Friends of the Poppies.” Then I noticed the Don’t drink the water symbol (a faucet with a cross through it) above the alabaster lady and, sure enough, looking closer recognized the three rectangular water outlets below her.
In other words, I’d discovered yet another dry, poorly maintained fountain in Paris, whose administration hasn’t yet figured out that, respiration-wise, a flowing fountain would be a lot more reassuring then poppies and rye. (And I say this as someone of Jewish heritage, whose natural inclinations lean more towards poppies and rye than Gallo-Roman idols.) (I know what you’re thinking: If they’d just put up “Pissoir Ici” signs on all the dry fountains around Paris this would solve two problems. Don’t tempt me.)
This is when I had the revolutionary — for a guy who’s always come to Paris, like Malcolm McLaren, to live yesterday today — revelation: This is what is supposed to happen to decrepit monuments. Their heads fall off. This is what happened to Notre Dame: It’s head fell off. Now, if something happened to that Delacroix fountain, I might be singing a different story….
Françoise Carré and creations. Christian Dao photo copyright Christian Dao and courtesy Françoise Carré.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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“The passerby who knows how to see always picks up an idea, like the bird who takes flight with a piece of straw for his nest.”
— Anatole France, in “Saint-Germain des Prés, my village,” Leo Larguier, Libraire Flon, Paris, 1938.
“The opposite of death isn’t life, it’s creation.”
— Jonathen Larsen, “RENT”
PARIS — Finding the Luxembourg Gardens closed for the third in four Saturdays several weeks ago — presumably out of concern it would be invaded by hoards of “yellow vests,” the Gardens also housing the French Senate — as well as the Explorers’ Garden which it abuts although in that case the Parisians who constitute the bulk of the ping-pongers, footballers, and fanciers of the Fountain of the Four Corners of the World which is the garden’s biggest draw just scaled the locked gates (only an older couple was thwarted, turning sadly back) — I decided to profit from the large slice of free time the universe had just handed me and stroll over to the Jardin des Plantes, banking on the fact that I’d get lost.
I don’t know if it’s that Haussmann, a.k.a. the Butcher of Olde Paris who re-designed Paris for Napolean III to make crowd control easier, never got around to these ruelles — he was stopped at Saint-Germain-des-Prés by angry residents — but none of these streets seem to go in the same direction; there are no straight lines from point A to point B. So after a perambulation during which I actually had room and space to breathe — for a student quarter on an early Spring Saturday afternoon in Paris, the neighborhoods were surprisingly deserted — and finding myself on a block taken up entirely by the red brick chemical college (it’s around here that Marie Curie did her research, and above here that she’s buried) before spotting at my right the rue Claude Bernard, which I knew well enough to know it would take me right out of the 5th arrondissement or Latin Quarter and into the 13th thus away from my putative destination, I instead turned down a two-block angular street, the rue Vauquelin. After walking by a corner “Korean Tea and Coffee-House” whose glass jade walls reminded me of the transparent SoHo bathroom of a former San Francisco bus driver who’d covered the rest of his walls with blood-smeared paintings evoking “Medea” — here’s where all the students were, I realized, sipping green liquid out of large glass cups, pale shadows of Jules Romains’s collegians debating Spinoza and Kant while teetering over Paris on the ledge of the Sorbonne in his multi-volume opus “Men of Good Will” — I came upon a window display full of “Petit Peuple” towered over by gossamer “Saltimbanques.” Resembling Lilliputian Yodas in their earthen hooded robes (with ‘adult,’ ‘teenager,’ and ‘child’ variations and a matching price scale), an entire village of them crammed into the vitrine, they were explained by the following text from their creator, Françoise Carré, a one-time style director who later worked with Emmaus — the non-denominational French version of the Salvation Army — and also studied clothing arts at the Sorbonne: (This is another thing I love about Paris; you can study anything. On a later flanerie high up into the 13th arrondissement on the rue Corvisart below Blanqui I discovered a professional high school devoted to the graphic, i.e. comic book, and literary arts; this is where I want to send my kid if his mom ever shows up.)
Pas si petit que ca: The “Petit Peuple” and “Saltimbanques” of Françoise Carré. Timothée Brunet Lefevre photo copyright Timothée Brunet Lefevre and courtesy Françoise Carré.
“Françoise Carré creates sculptures from second-hand clothing, her matter, mixing it with soil. ‘Used garments, ready to toss and yet rich with traces and the imprints of those who’ve worn them; my desire is to reveal their presence, the signs of their passage, transmitting their humanity. Dead clothes captured in flight, I want to recall the incessant movement which has accompanied them: Respiration, rhythm, fluidity, élan, the invisible lightning bolt of the living. Present them, crumple them, fold them, to give form to absence.'” Another phantom fancier, I thought, this Françoise Carré. “‘Root them in the Earth and secure the memory of this life which once animated them. Archaic memory of the first links, invisible and profound, between Man and his skin, this garment of the body, of Man to his Other, and to others, to all the others. As many worlds as there are men, autant de vêtements pour en dire la présence.”
Re-reading these words several weeks after first seeing them and discovering the Petit Peuple and their gossamer sovereign, what strikes me is the marriage of concept and execution, of reflection to realization in the context of a contemporary Parisian art scene in which the concept often drowns out the art object (or dissimulates its meagerness) and in which the ‘artist’ often seems more interested in impressing the viewer with his erudition than engaging his curiosity. In this case, Carré seems to have done it the other way around, starting with the artistic impulse and then proposing some possible interpretations. While the text certainly enhanced my appreciation of the oeuvres (and the artist’s intentions, not negligible), I didn’t need to read it for the art to speak to me and felt free to reach an entirely different conclusion.
Considering this humility (because it had no pretensions and made no high-falutin’ claims) and the equally unpretentious but still prodigious artistic visions of the other two artists (both of whom happen to be female) I’m focusing on here and will get to in a minute, I couldn’t help contrasting their oeuvres — and their manners of presenting them — with Vincent Dulom’s recent exhibition at the gallery / non-profit association Ahah in its two spaces off the rue Oberkampf below Menilmontant on the Right Bank. Entirely conceptual — all I see on the walls are monochromatic, slightly shadowed soft blue, green, pinkish, and yellow blurs (sometimes set off for no apparent reason against metal supports exponentially larger than the art) that don’t even have the texture of a Rothko nor the nuance of a Soulages because they’re one-dimensional pigment print-outs — unlike all three of these (female) artists Dulom has the backing of an organization founded by two experienced (female) gallerists whose stated goal is not just to temporarily exhibit artists but to provide them with an entire support structure. Et elles ont l’air de s’en fout ou presque de l’engagement réel avec le publique. They don’t seem to take real *practical* steps to engage the public, even though accessibility is part of their manifesto; you have to already know about the exhibitions to seek them out, one of the two spaces being in the rafters of a warehouse with no window display and the other being open at limited hours. In other words Ahah presents as being for outsiders — with programs meant to attract a larger public like ciné-clubs and concerts — but you have to be an insider to know about them.
Dulom talks a good — conceptual — game, his words being more intriguing than the art they’re explaining (he even pooh-poohs social engagement as futile), which, juxtaposed with the case of the three female artists we’re looking at here (all art and little hype, where Dulom is the opposite), reminds me of another male-female artistic paradox first explained to me by the choreographer Sarah Hook at a New York City forum on women choreographers and the challenges they face. Male dancers can simply announce “Voila, I’m a choreographer!” and everyone believes them (or at least takes them seriously), Hook pointed out. Women, on the other hand, actually work to develop their ability to say something — their compositional and technical tools and language, their craftsmanship — before presenting their work in public, and when they do, because they don’t shout as loud as the men they have trouble getting anyone to pay attention. (In the Pantheon not far above Carré’s studio where France’s “Great Men” are buried, Curie was until recently the only woman. Et George Sand alors? Et Sarah Bernhardt?)
Despite being founded by female gallerists and presenting itself as different, Ahah seems to be following the formula of larger institutions like the Pompidou, whose current promotional poster boasting that “Paris wouldn’t be Paris without the Pompidou” suggests, by the artists adduced to support this claim — all men — that the Pompidou would still be the Pompidou (i.e. “the biggest modern art museum in the world”) without any women artists.
I don’t hear Francoise Carré hawking her work and she doesn’t appear to have a support structure, even though she has exhibited for years and through May 12 takes part in a collective expo in Pont-de-Roide Vermondan in the county of the Doubs, where Gustave Courbet once reigned as “master painter” (another male who excelled at self-promotion; see Michel Ragon’s “Gustave Courbet, peintre de la liberté.”). Instead her work was just there waiting to be discovered on this obscure, little frequented two-block street in the labyrinthine canyons of the Latin Quarter, and yet what I encountered is an oeuvre far more original, far more multi-dimensional, and even far more affordable than Dulom’s. (C’est ca Paris, original art can ambush you where you least expect it.) As little as 200 Euros gets you your own petit individual, and unlike Dulom’s they’re not printed out copies.
Marrying concept to execution: The “Petit Peuple” and “Saltimbanques” of Françoise Carré. Timothée Brunet Lefevre photo copyright Timothée Brunet Lefevre and courtesy Françoise Carré.
Carré is a mid-career plasticienne who simply creates in her quiet corner of the 5eme arrondissement. Like the other two women we’re concerned with today (it just worked out that way), she’s more interested in craft than impenetrable statements about craft. Yet artists like these who don’t offer any apparent a la mode marketing caché (let’s say it: they’re not young and hip, nor old enough to be ‘iconic’) seem to be invisible to the cultural gate-keepers of Paris, more impressed with bluster than beauty and programming younger artists who often have no idea where they came from, framing their work as if they were the first to think of making a fire by rubbing two sticks together. (Running an art gallery in the Languedoc several years ago, I was shocked to encounter a Finish-British woman, not young, who had bought a whole chateau just to display her paintings and who had never heard of either Berthe Morisot or Leonor Fini, despite that her work in its themes resembled the latter’s.)
It’s a personal vision, Carré’s, one that resonates in both historical and contemporary senses, the petit peuple having confronted regimes for hundreds of years, right up to the Yellow Vests whose presumed threat (apparently necessitating the closure of the Luxembourg on several successive springtime Saturdays, on two of which there were no yellow vests, little or otherwise, in sight) chased me to her vitrine. (I’m not suggesting Carré postulates this link, just making a cute juxtaposition — the ‘petite peuple,’ as they’ve sometimes described themselves, choosing as a symbol for their opposition a banal garment, their traffic jackets, with Carré’s exploitation of discarded glad-rags.)
From the Arts Voyager Archives and the Museum of Modern Art’s 2012 exhibition: Eugène Atget. “Luxembourg,” 1923-25. Matte albumen silver print, 7 x 8 13/16″ (17.8 x 22.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden.
The good news is that the Luxembourg was finally open when I returned the following week-end; the bad news is that I’d barely had time to toast Delacroix at his fountain over my first sip of thermos green tea before I felt how noxious the air I was inhaling was because of the pollution. (A French friend who also had trouble breathing that week-end suggested it might have been related to the time change, which made for one helluva long day.) As I’ve been yearning to return to Paris for good because of all the positive ways Lutèce stimulates my oculaire, intellectual, artistic, convivial, historic, urban, and gustatory senses, and as it was this very threat to my health — the pollution — along with the interminable construction noise which drove me out 12 years ago, the bad air literally giving me palpitations and not the kind Paris should, I realized I had to deal with this issue, to find out if there was any neighborhood where I could actually live and not risk having a heart attack. And that it wasn’t enough just to verify whether the spots I’d previously identified as breathable still were; for the comparison (to the air around the Luxembourg which was stifling me at that moment) to be accurate I had to do this right away.
After getting lost again near the Observatoire (I’m still not sure what exactly it’s supposed to be observing) above the Jardin des Explorateurs on the other side of Montparnasse/Port-Royal (not far from where Balzac, another failed newspaper publisher, launched the Revue de Paris at 2, rue Cassini) and recognizing the street by the high walls and guard towers of La Sante prison (from whose barred windows the inmates can sometimes be heard late at night congressing with free world friends and asking them to toss up cigarettes) which looms over it I headed up to the tree-lined Boulevard Arago. This is the street where I visualize living, having my morning latté from a Banania Chocolate bowl while leaning on the ornate black iron rail of my 5th floor balcony and looking down through the leaves of the chestnut trees dappled by the early morning sunlight on the parents accompanying their excited children to school, skipping along as their backpacks wobble. (They’re always holding onto their parents’ hands.) Arago is in the 13th arrondissement but a long block from the Boulevard Port-Royal (which becomes Montparnasse after it hits the RER regional subway station Port-Royal on the Meridian, which preceded Greenwich meantime as the world’s clock before the British edged it out — do we get the world clock back with the Brexit? — and extends up from Notre-Dame through the Luxembourg, the Jardin des Explorateurs, the Bullier student cafeteria which when it was the Bullier ballroom saw the Can-Can dancer Jane Avril’s debuts and Sonia Delaunay debut her robe designs, chez Balzac, and the divine and hilly Parc Montsouris with its tranquil lake where I recently sat on a bench under a weeping willow browsing an 1880 edition of the complete theatrical works of Victor Hugo scored for 1 Euro at a vide-grenier near the Cité Universitaire with an interstice in which Hugo harangued a translator who had the audacity to think he could render Homer in French (“Even I failed miserably at translating the Greeks!”; I’m paraphrasing), and where strange things like saving 2000 years of Greek, Hindu, and Chinese philosophy from a public toilet keep happening to me, the latest puzzling evidence being the discovery that the building where my ex-roommate Sabine lives, a block from the toilet, is also where Bernhardt used to model for Alphonse Mucha, the subject of a recent exhibition at the Luxembourg Museum; my 36 years of Bernhardt connections and coincidences includes being the custodian of her personal mirror) in the 5th arrondissement, which means you get easy access to the Latin Quartier but the relative tranquility of a residential neighborhood. This was my first neighborhood in Paris — up the street from where Arago criss-crosses Glaciere — where I felt like I was experiencing the real Left Bank Paris, not the Disney-fied version, where no one (aside from those teaching it at the nearby University of Paris campuses on and off Jusseau and their students) spoke English and where in the boulangeries I had to do a lot of pointing. (On my first morning in Paris, jet-lagged, I zombie-ran to the Luxembourg as if the Meridian homing bug had always been attached to me and had now fetched me back; speaking no French, at the ‘sandwicherie’ across from the Guignol puppet theater when I saw the sing-songy server slather an exotic looking brown meat on the order before mine I just asked for “La meme,” the same, then ate lunch in front of the main fountain surrounded by a gaggling group of French girls who made the tuna fish taste like caviar.)
From the recent exhibition in the Luxembourg museum in the Luxembourg gardens: Alphonse Mucha, “Médée, 1898. Color lithograph, 206 x 76 cm. Prague, Fondation Mucha. Copyright Mucha Trust 2018.
Once again on Arago, then, for this pollution test, after walking past a pre-historic rusted Robby the Robot-like object covering a sewer grating outside the prison (perhaps meant to ray-gun down or trap inmates trying to tunnel out?), I was relieved to find that the most breathable spot, a little park named after Henri-Cadiou, a modern (male) painter, between the rues de la Santé and Glaciere on Arago next to the Maisons Fleuries, was not only still there, it was even more breathable, a state explained by a sign on the grating which noted that it was now smoke-free, part of an experiment by City Hall to make Paris more breathable. It even offered two ping-pong tables in the constrained space, although intimidated by the suspicious glares of two mommas as I stopped to fill my water bottle, I decided not to horn in, even though I had my two circa 1973 paddles in tow. The only revoltin’ development (as Riley might put it) was that the sunken fountain at the base of the Cesar Domela sculpture in front of the benches and new chess tables — he created it in 1933 while living in the Maisons Fleuries — wasn’t working, not unusual these days in Paris, where the marquee fountains in the tourist areas seem to get all the attention while neighborhood fountains are hung out to dry.
To find out how far the circumference of this relatively low pollution zone extended I decided to walk up to the Butte-aux-Cailles via Glaciere en passant by my old neighborhood, not far from which I discovered, in the vitrine of an independent bookstore, Rare Birds, at 1 rue Vulpain, where it intersects with Corvisart, this, a graphic novel ‘avant l’heure,’ the history of an “Idea,” without any words. (And more ‘puzzling evidence’: What stopped me was the pull quote — from ‘my’ author Lola Lafon, my translation of whose “Mercy, Mary, Patty,” a novel whose catalyst is Patricia Hearst, I’ve been trying to find an American publisher for.) This is another thing I’ve always loved about this neighborhood — the one encompassing adjoining parts of the 5th and 13th arrondissements: That you can turn a corner and discover not just a storefront-sized atelier full of petit peuple and saltimbanques but a singular bookstore; on my virgin Paris visit in 2000, the first time I got lost on the rue Claude Bernard trying to find the Jardin des Plantes on one corner I stumbled onto an entire bookstore devoted to Jean Cocteau.
My idea being to wind my way under the 6 Metro elevated tracks — which had first brought me to Paris that brilliant morning of October 16, 2000 — and up the stairs above Corvisart, passing through a middle-class housing project looking out over all Paris to the Butte-aux-Cailles (a one-time outpost of the 1871 Paris Commune, in which Parigots rebelling against Versailles’s capitulation to the Prussians tried to construct their own utopian society, more recently fallen with little resistance to the BoBos ((Bourgeoisie Bohemians)) — an all the same substantial delay considering that the first hot air balloon ((i.e. BoBo incursion)), fueled by burning straw, landed on the Butte in 1783 — with developers dividing apartments into high-priced condos and thus where the ‘popular’ or working class population that gave the Butte its character can no longer afford to live) via the rue Samson, I made another discovery: These stairs are a street and it has a name, and not just any name, but that of the 20th-century’s first grand French photographer, Eugène Atget, a new adjunct to the Butte’s more recent and apparently indelible artistic stamp: It was the launching pad for “MissTic,” whose buxom silhouette and rebel spirit bon mots marked the walls of the quartier’s street corners and restaurants before fanning out to the rest of the Left Bank.
From the Arts Voyager Archives: Eugène Atget, “Rue des Haudriettes 2 (Paris),” 1901. Albumen print. Detroit Institute of Arts. Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts.
Arrived finally at the top of the rue Butte-aux-Cailles and on the verge of having a heart attack — not from the hike but the pollution — I was reassured to discover this sign from the mayor of Paris: “Paris respire!,” “Paris is breathing!,” the justification of which ludicrous claim being that once per week from April to October (I was there on March 31) the Butte is closed to cars. For ten hours.
I’d barely exclaimed “Mon Oeil!” when mon eye spied a group of citizens filling up their plastic water bottles at a multiple-fauceted fountain on a square across the street on the Place Paul Verlaine, also where the hot air balloon had landed. (Across the street also from a park on another corner of this round point where the long benches have been replaced by a row of single-unit benches obviously to keep the homeless from sleeping there — out of sight, out of mind — a plan the pigeons had rapidly commented on by shitting all over them. When I’d sat basking on one of those long benches on a breezy sunny spring-like morning on that first visit in 2000, closed my eyes, and thought: “I want to live here,” I hadn’t figured on this.) Investigatin’, I discovered that this well — located not far from Paris’s first public baths — is an artisanal one above which a sign promises that “because the source is 6 meters under, you will have the rare privilege of drinking water protected from pollution,” presumably the reason the Parisians were filling up, to put off the day when the pollution above-ground would send them six meters under. (The balloon may be long gone, but the hot air lingers.)
The transformation of the Butte from outpost of the 1871 Commune to branché (trendy) seat of Left Bank BoBo-dum also played a role in the near heart attack; the main drag is now lined with bars, which means terraces, which means smokers, these last having occupied the terraces of Paris after an anti-smoking law kicked them out of the dining-rooms in 2008. (I’m not imagining the contribution the cigarette smokers are making to the air pollution; as a friend informed me, these days they’re buying and toking ‘n’importe quoi,’ including cigarettes full of alarming proportions of tar.) Another neighborhood whose memory I’d gilded and clung onto out of nostalgia had bitten the dust; one evening in October 2000, trying to find a restaurant that was still serving at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night in Paris and attracted by its name resembling that of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the hero of Camus’s “The Fall” (I hadn’t yet learned that “Jean-Baptiste Clemente” was the composer of the Commune’s anthem, “The Time of Cherries”) and that I recognized at least one item in each category of the prix-fixe 100 franc / $14 menu posted on the window (Poireux tarte, canard, and compote de pommes), I’d barely escaped with my life. When the very pink duck meat arrived I was ready to gallantly bite into it figuring if they ate their quackers raw in France I wasn’t going to embarrass myself by making a faux pas, when the waiter rushed over and slapped the fork away from my lips explaining, “We bring the grill first, Monsieur, okay? Then you eat.”
I was practically toast on the Sunday in 2019 we’re still theoretically concerned with when I saw the lamp-post flyer advertising an opening the next week at the Galerie de la Butte, under a promising (breathing-wise) picture of a row-boat set against a very pink Mediterranean.
Sophie Laguerre, “Salin 4,” from the exhibition Esprit de Sel, currently on view at Galerie de La Butte. Chez A4etplus, 26 rue du Moulin des Prés in Paris. Image copyright and courtesy Sophie Laguerre.
“It’s from the shrimp,” the photographer in question, Sophie Laguerre, explained when I returned the following week to the gallery, which looked more like a print shop than a gallery — more art in unexpected places. (“A 4 et plus” actually is both, the shop specializing in a system of ‘inkrage’ which replaces non-biodegradable — and thus polluting — ink-jet cartridges with external vials whose ink is piped into the cartridges through tubes, which makes the cartridges re-usable. When the ink is ‘pigment’ — like the type Dulom used to produce his paintings, only with photos it actually works, adding and not subtracting texture — the prints even last longer, protected from the color-muting which eventually bleaches standard ink-jet prints. So basically you have a system which is physically more durable, ecologically more conscious, artistically more dense (pixel-wise), and economically more viable. And before you think the shop’s owner, Richard Bocquet, is just another commercant jumping on the green bandwagon for profits, he’ll actually sell you the regalia you need to do it yourself, including a relatively affordable and good-to-go Canon printer. More info here.)
Sophie Laguerre, “Salin 6,” from the exhibition Esprit de Sel, currently on view at Galerie de La Butte. Chez A4etplus, 26 rue du Moulin des Prés in Paris. Image copyright and courtesy Sophie Laguerre.
“And those mountains of snow?” I next asked Laguerre, pointing at another elegant pigment print (the gallery has them on sale for as little as double-figures).
“It’s not snow, it’s salt,” she explained, the photos having been taken in salines — salt harvesting waters of the Mediterranean — not too far from Narbonne, a mid-sized city in the Languedoc region full of canals and which itself was 100 years or so ago the cradle of the Red Smocks rebellion of struggling wine-makers.
Sophie Laguerre, “Salin 9,” from the exhibition Esprit de Sel, currently on view at Galerie de La Butte. Chez A4etplus, 26 rue du Moulin des Prés in Paris. Image copyright and courtesy Sophie Laguerre.
“And the pagoda?”
“It’s not a pagoda, it’s a floodgate.”
All of which makes for a combination Dead Sea and Red Sea which you don’t even need to travel to the bloody Holy Lands to dip your toe and float up in. (And unlike Dulom’s ostentatious metal supports, Bocquet’s framing choices were subtle and completely at the service of the art encadred.)
“That’s why the flamingos are pink,” piped in Bocquet. (I’d seen those flamingos wading in not necessarily pink waters off Sete in 2001.) “From eating the shrimp.”
“It’s a whole eco-system,” added Laguerre. As is Bocquet’s shop and gallery, proving that you don’t need to have the trappings — or the hoity-toity airs — of a gallery to provide a sublime and welcoming venue for provocative art. And Laguerre’s is that. In an age in which too many photographers (and curators) mistake content for craft — as if photographing cloying subjects or scenes sans Cartier-Bresson’s precise and serendipitous knack for being in the right place at the right time makes you an artist — what I loved about Laguerre’s photos is the way she messes with the viewer’s frames of reference. (The environment Bocquet and his staff have set up also contributed to the conducive picture-viewing ambiance; as opposed to galleries where I often feel excluded if I’m not part of the club, here I felt — even before I’d identified myself as a journalist, and even with my work-in-progress teeth, having all of two lowers at that moment — not just welcomed but that everyone wanted to know what I thought, as if I were there as the friend of a friend. This doesn’t happen that often in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where I’d once entered a gallery for a vernissage to find the ((rare these days for the quartier’s openings)) food table guarded by one foreboding matronne of the arts with a look that said “You must be in the wrong gallery, Monsieur.” No passerons!)
Our reporter isn’t the first to find his fancies in the window displays of the 5th, 6th, and 13th arrondissements of Paris. From the Arts Voyager archives and the Museum of Modern Art’s 2012 exhibition: Left, Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927), “Avenue des Gobelins,” 1925. Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print, 8 9/16 x 6 3/4″ (21.8 x 17.1 cm). Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden. 1.1969.1379. Right, Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927) “Naturaliste, rue de l’ecole de Medecine,” 1926-27. Albumen silver print, printed 1984 by Chicago Albumen Works. 10 3/16 x 7 15/16″ (25.8 x 20.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden. SC1984.67.
Speaking of eco-systems, when I returned to the Place d’Italie Metro station atop the 13th and the Butte-aux-Cailles two nights later — after pausing in the bowels of the Nation Metro for an impromptu concert by Youssou N’Dour and Baba Ma’al’s love child (I was one of only four passengers to take the time to enjoy this unexpected auditory thrill), a young man singing and playing guitar as if his life depended on it in one driving 10-minute ballad or anthem, not even pausing to pass the hat — at the end of which a woman rushed up and enfolded his head in her scarf and elbows — I was greeted by a large banner unfurled in front of the steps of the 13th arrondissement’s city hall decorated with something that resembled red poppies, in front of which a dozen folks around my age were holding a gentile (I don’t mean they were non-Jews, I’m using the French term for nice) demonstration protesting the way pesticides are decimating the flower that made some of Monet’s Provencal landscapes. One of the protesters had barely managed to ask me if I wanted to learn more about the peril to poppies when another interrupted, “Monsieur probably doesn’t have the time.” “Actually I do!” I retorted, having been in SLOW DOWN PAUL mode since almost having a heart attack running up the stairs of the Belleville station, an entirely Sisyphusian (I don’t mean the Camus book from whose first edition Gaston Gallimard excised Kafka because he was a Jew, but the Greek hero) gesture given that it was rush hour when the trains run every 3 minutes. “Where I live, in the Dordogne, I’ve noticed that every year there are fewer and fewer poppies.” “We’re here the first Friday of every month!” a lady with short silver hair informed me. “Why here? Why in front of the 13th arrondissement’s city hall?” “Because we live here.”
The 13th is also where my longtime American literature scholar friend we’ll call Michelle — we met in 2002, when she was my language exchange partner — and her geologist husband we’ll call Marcel live, high above bien sur the boulevard Arago, in other words within the perimeter of my most breathable Paris zone and within spittin’ distance of the Meridian. So I should not have been surprised that it was in this house that Michel and Marcel and their friends would learn me (as we say in Texas) that there are also still spaces where one can *intellectually* breathe in Paris.
This intellectual breathing — this spirit of mental inquiry and debate that used to distinguish Paris, from centuries before Voltaire’s dictionary through the violent disputes between Sartre and Camus (and “La Castor,” as the latter referred to de Beauvoir) and up until Pierre Bourdieu– is happening less and less in the spaces where it should be happening in France and which nonetheless vaunt themselves as being champions of intellectual query and curiosity but which seem rather to harbor predominantly pseudo-intellectuals who spoon-feed their auditors easy to digest answers than genuine coin of the realm philosophers. (Which has got to be the most over-used term on French public radio, its hosts conferring the title on what would be called pundits anywhere else.) The most glaring example of this decline in public intellectualism is France Culture, theoretically Radio France’s high-brow chain but where, with a handful of exceptions (the Culture Monde program, the Pieds a Terre documentary series, Questions d’Islam broadcast of course at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning when a large part of its intended audience is sleeping it off, and Arnaud Laporte’s nightly critical round-table La Dispute among them), the “debate” is governed more by conventional wisdom than open-ended seeking, the most aggravated case being the Saturday morning program Repliques, whose host seems to have more empathy for abbatoir animals than Muslim women. (For more on this reductive ‘philosopher,’ incomprehensibly elected recently to the Academie Francaise, the very pantheon of French intellectualism, in French, go here) In other words, France Culture today resembles less the NRF Review than a Reader’s Digest reductive version of high-brow topics, a Cliff’s Notes of Culture and Social Science offering pop simplifications of questions that were yesterday’s Zeitgeist but are no longer pertinent to anyone but a cloistered mediocracy echo chamber. Its animators and programmers seem to congress mostly with themselves and a circumscribed, inbred circle of like-minded politicians, pundits, and authors and spend little time outside on the street or outside of Paris. (The Socialist party just named one of the chain’s chou-chous, another failed newspaper publisher and ersatz “philosopher,” to head its list for the E.U. Parliament elections. If that’s not proof of moribund political obsolescence, I don’t know what is.) (By the way: I don’t claim to be an intellectual myself — I’m more middle- than high-brow and more Deadhead then Egghead — just someone who needs to be surrounded by true intellectual discourse to breathe.)
At the beginning of this Paris stay I’d found myself confronted by two of the radio pundit in question’s acolytes. (This isn’t a digression because it sets up by way of contrast the intellectual breathing fostered at Michelle and Marcel’s dinner party.) I’d invited the couple to dinner in part because the woman runs a small press in Bagnolet, outside of Paris. I was hoping she’d be able to give me some ideas for founding my own publishing house for translations of under-heralded French literature; at the least I looked forward to a stimulating evening with what I presumed to be French intellectuals. What I got instead was ignorance and borderline prejudice. On their own initiative — I’ve learned better than to introduce the subject — the couple started in on a tirade against the religious practices of a minority of French Muslim women (maybe it was spotting the storefront mosque down the street, recognizable only by the Vigi-Pirate triangle on its door, which rattled them) with arguments founded on hypocrisy and on ignorance of their own country’s principals and laws regarding lay society, if not downright Islamophobia. I had to ask them to leave. (Not because they disagreed with me but because you can’t debate with people whose views are based more on inbred prejudices than facts, logic, and fairness.) Still, I wondered if in doing so I wasn’t practicing my own form of intellectual intolerance. Michelle and Marcel relieved me on this point.
After almost picking a fight with a very nice and outgoing friend of theirs we’ll call Christophe over the pollution question — “I don’t find Paris is polluted at all, maybe you’re just over-sensitive,” “It’s because you grew up inhaling diesel and I didn’t,” (“Shana, you ignorant slut!”) etcetera — I later found myself in an engrossing discussion with the same man and another open, curious-seeming woman we’ll call Jeanne which suddenly turned to the subject of dress codes among some Muslim women. Only this time as it was not my house, asking them to leave if I found the conversation offensive (at this point it was not; I was just girding for that eventuality) would not be an option, and as Michelle had made a touching gesture in responding to me at all on this Paris trip — our rupture 15 years ago had been my fault — leaving in a huff myself was even less appealing.
My take on the opinion of some white French people on this question, particularly when they’re women — the garb of Muslim women seems to be a prickly topic with many non-Muslim, non-Maghrebian origin women who otherwise situate themselves on the Left, with Elisabeth Badinter serving as their high priestess — is that it’s a brand of paternalistic colonialist feminism that assumes that if a Muslim or Arab-origin woman is wearing any religious garment on the spectrum, even just a scarf, it must be because her man is making her do so. (As I pointed out in our discussion — Christophe liked this — no one seems to get upset about the moche / tacky wigs with which Hasidic women cover their heads.) This assumption may also be informed by the fact that the place of women in general in French society has still not been resolved, particularly as concerns the male regard.
This time, though, forced to listen, I discovered that Christophe actually had information that was new to me: A) If some French were troubled by religious signifiers it is because of the violent role religion has played in the country’s history and B) Some Muslim colleagues of his had explained that a big reason they went to work in Muslim garb was, justement, to send a message to their countries of origin that in France one has the right to manifest one’s religion without excluding oneself from public life.
Jeanne’s views were more what I was used to hearing but as opposed to the hate, intolerance, ignorance, and paternalistic colonialistic feminism that had fueled my last interloper’s arguments, Jeanne was expressing her earnest upset. And she seemed open to listening to both of us. Unlike the couple I’d evicted — who from their fields, publishing, one would assume to be intellectuals with the spirit of open inquiry and curiosity that implies if not confers — both Jeanne and Christophe were not just trotting out their positions insistently and refusing to hear my counter arguments, they were really, and intellectually, listening and engaging.
I was eager to continue exchanging — as I sensed my new friends were — but unfortunately at this point we ran up against a practical impediment to serious late-night discourse in Paris: The dreaded Last Metro. It may have inspired an evocative film title for Truffaut (as it’s been a while since we’ve mentioned him: I recently stiffed Antoine Doinel himself — Jean-Pierre Leaud, the actor who portrayed Doinel in Truffaut’s five-film cycle — when he appeared live at a Cinematheque Française screening of “La Nuit Americaine”; more nostalgia evacuated in favor of engaging with the present) and the entry to a magical Montmartre wonderland for Montand (in Marcel Carné’s 1947 fantasia “Les portes de la nuit”) but for me and other Parisian noctambules that the Metro stops running between 12h30 and 2 a.m. often serves to quash interesting discussions just when they get going. (I’d just artfully tried to shift our conversation by declaring “I’m more disturbed by all the Metro passengers who’ve capitulated to the religion of Capitalism by surrendering to their little screens than Muslim women with scarves” when I noticed it was past midnight and thus time for me to rejoin them.) That this chariot-into-pumpkin deadline still exists in a major metropole like Paris is embarrassing — and may explain why New York, the city that never sleeps, still seems (or did when I lived there) more dynamic. It was only midnight but I had a long haul back to my digs in the pré-St.-Gervais suburb just outside Paris.
…. which is where I found myself at 1 a.m., en face of a bar whose clients are almost entirely men, I have to admit (throwing an olive branch to the paternalistic colonialistic feminists, one of whose complaints as that banlieu bars aren’t friendly to women, although I don’t think that’s the case here; the only reason I’m even bringing the bar up is it provides a nifty segué to the next and final item, in the following line:), no doubt neighbors from the nearby Rabelais housing project.
From Artcurial’s recent Impressionism and Modern auction in Paris: Gen Paul, “Le bureau de tabac, rue Norvins et le Sacré-Coeur,” circa 1928-1929 . Oil on canvas. Image copyright Artcurial.
… Speaking of Rabelais, it was largely gourmet gluttony which determined my final stop that Sunday. (I’ve skipped to Sunday for the pantagruélique segué but Saturday provided another appearance of intellectual breathing-stifling philistines in a quartier where one used to find genuine philosophers, poets like Max Jacob partying with Picasso and Rousseau and the whole Bateau Lavoir gang, one-legged painters like Gen Paul carousing with disgraced writers like Celine, intello Can-Can dancers like Avril elevating not only their long limbs but the level of the discourse, and anarchist-surrealist-satirical song writer newspaper hawker idiosyncratic private dick inventors like Léo Malet: Montmartre, where Clemenceau got his start as the quartier’s mayor, the Commune was born, and Boris Vian used to debate the finer points of Pataphysics with Jacques Prevert on the terrace they shared off the Boulevard Clichy next-door to the Moulin Rouge. But when I stopped in at one of my favorite bookstores, l’Attrape-Coeur — named after the mind-boggling French title of “Catcher in the Rye” — opposite the park presided over by the Steinlen fountain ((also dry; he’s the guy that painted all those cats while feeding them, as well as more socially biting designs)), the owner looked at the independently published book by a young Perigordin author I’d brought as a gift as if it were a piece of rotten fruit, pursed her lips and huffed “We don’t accept self-published books, we rely on publishers, they fait très bien le trie,” — ‘trier,’ or ‘sorting’ being a word that anyone but a philistine would only apply to weeding out rotten fruit and not to literature — before going back to planning her soirée with the author of an umpteenth crime series set at 36, quai des Orfevres, which even the real police have abandoned. Trie mon oeil; if he were just debuting and an unknown, Salinger wouldn’t stand a snow-flake’s chance in Hades of placing Holden Caulfield at “L’Attrape-Coeur.”)
So on Sunday, my Rabelaisian goal was to get to the outdoor market on the rue Convention which leads up to the parc George Brassens (with its week-end old books market whose tastes are much more catholic — in the American sense of the word, which means diverse — than those of l’Attrape-Coeur) in the 15th arrondissement in time for the end of market five for ten Euros cheese platter at the last stand…. (I’ve been going there so long exclusively for this they know me. “He wants the platter,” one fromageriste said to another before I could even open my mouth after I more or less cut a long line upon arriving there huffing and puffing from weaving uphill through the rest of the market and the traffic on its periphery on another recent Sunday.)
By the time I arrived at the market on the Sunday we’re discussing my valises were already heavy, including a deteriorating cloth sack hanging onto my shoulder by a thread and barely containing the thermos tea, bread, canned Americano tuna salad, pre-packed chocolate-covered Belgian waffle, blood-orange and water bottle, as well as two bulky (because vintage, circa 1980s judging from the tan Apple-E era color) computer speakers I’d just scored for 2 Euros at a covered vide-grenier in a desuet, first generation mall in the outer reaches of the 13th, below and beyond the Metro 6 station Nationale. (This is one of the things I love about the 6, besides that it was my first chariot into Paris in 2000, in the 13th and passing over the Seine to the 12th arrondissement the ride is largely overland.) I’d been shopping for the speakers so that when I return to the Dordogne where I normally live (in a 500-year-old stone house, my father’s) I’ll be able to drown out the cackle and banal dinner conversations my American neighbor holds almost every night on her terrace, like my skylight overlooking les Milandes, where Josephine Baker raised her Rainbow Tribe and no doubt held far more interesting dinner conversations than either of us. (I include this complaint so you know I’m not singling out French pseudo-intellectuals per se but pseudo-intellectualism in general.)
From Artcurial’s recent Estampes et Livres auction in Paris: Kees van Dongen and Anatole France, “La révolte des anges.” Image copyright Artcurial.
It was also at this vide-grenier in the entrails of the 13th that the Dreyfusard avant l’heure face of Anatole France revealed itself to me, in a volume of his intriguing compendium “La Vie Litteraire.” I didn’t buy it because the book surpassed my maximum price for vide-greniers — 1 Euro — and because I got the impression by the way the seller sized me up after I asked “how much?” that I was getting the “prix Americain,” but I scanned the book long enough to find a France review of a then new book on the Jewish question. From the fact that the compendium also included an obituary of Champfleury, who I know from Michel Ragon, in “Courbet, painter of Freedom” — the realist writer was the painter’s first great champion — died in 1889, I’d place this review as pre-Dreyfus, which would put France out in front because his attitude toward the very premise of the book reviewed is ironic, with observations on how its author sees Jews everywhere, even amongst the Catholic clergy. One of them (France or the book’s author) even hasards an estimate, citing a Jewish population in Paris of 40,000 and saying that according to Bertillon — the man without whom CSI would not exist — the population had doubled in recent years, judging by the number of those buried in the Jewish sections of the cemeteries. (The father of forensic science apparently not only knew how they got there, he knew where all the bodies were buried.)
I also resisted buying a double-volume set of the complete works of Béranger, the 19th-century satirical troubadour after whom my street is named and that dated from when he was still alive, despite the reasonable 10-Euro price and the prescience of a song which, in describing how easily politicians changed suits — presumably in 1832 — might also have been talking about all the Labor activists who have donned yellow vests in recent months.
The Béranger (by both its mental weight and physical heft) might have come in handy in defending myself against the volunteers passing out campaign literature for next month’s European Parliament elections at the Convention market for, I assumed from the flyer’s blue and white colors, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party. (I’d have made that comment regardless of the party.) Seeing my bags running over, a silver-haired activist took pity on me and held out a white sack whose blue letters spelled out, in three rows:
“How much?” I asked, repeating a question Americans have been asking Frenchmen and women since the hero of Henry James’s “The American” opened that novel by popping it to a young woman copying at the Louvre: “Combien?”
“It’s free,” the man answered, laughing.
Noting that “Renaissance” also headlined the flyer, at the bottom of the back of which were listed En Marche and three smaller, voir obscure, parties including one that hasn’t been popular since Jean Jaures was still alive, I deduced that “Re Nais Sance” must be the umbrella name the eggheads at En Marche came up with to play down the party’s own name, an alarming lack of confidence for a party which controls both the Elysée and the legislature. The idea behind the word choice presumably being that we don’t need to throw Europe out or make a “Frexit,” just re-make it so it can be re-born (re-née). I turned the sack inside out (not because of the particular party affiliation but to avoid being exploited for any political advertising), but later realized that this may have been unnecessary. When several days later I showed the sack to a longtime friend who follows French politics almost as much as I do and asked him, “Know what this stands for?” he answered “No idea.” “It’s Macron’s formation for the Europeans.” “Not a good sign,” he added, noting that Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National party had been way out in front in re-baptizing itself “Rassemblement National,” meant to ease potential voters’ consciences: “Now you can vote for us without being accused of being a Holocaust-denying racist.” (Another friend and long-time political observer also drew a blank when I showed him my new bag. A third pointed out that the phrase wasn’t as original as all that, evoking the African Renaissance.)
In other words, France’s president may just be too intellectual for his constituents, assuming they would automatically get what “Re / Nais /Sance” meant in this context. A breath of fresh air for me perhaps but potentially portending dark clouds for France and for Europe if Le Pen, whose party was running neck and neck with Macron’s even before it morphed into “Re Nais Sance,” wins. (When I returned to the market on a recent Sunday, the Macronites had added “Vote for” to the top of the bag.)
My own intellectual appetite nonetheless stimulated, the sack also left me with one hand free to help satisfy my stomach’s (appetite) by carrying the healthy-sized carton of generously meat-filled supposedly ‘non-garnished’ sauerkraut I scored at a butcher’s stand: The most deliciously vinegary sauerkraut I’ve ever had in France and full of not just the usual bacon bits but large chunks of pork cheeks, at less than 2 Euros for nearly a pound. I mention this here not just to make Rabelais smack his lips but because of what, like the five cheese for 10 Euro cheese platter (the price hasn’t gone up in the 15 years I’ve been buying it), it says about the 15th arrondissement: This is not (yet) a BoBo — Bourgeoisie Bohemian — but a simple bourgeoisie quartier. The difference is that whereas the BoBos land in an artistic, ethnic, and previously affordable enclave (I’ve already witnessed this phenomenon in San Francisco’s Mission District and Brooklyn’s Greenpoint; here it struck Belleville before spreading. It didn’t quite work in Fort Worth’s historic Fairmont district because except for Gracey Tune’s Arts Fifth Avenue, the artistic element was already paper thin and because unlike those in Paris, New York, and San Francisco, the Texas BoBos were more interested in cheap historic housing than real artistic activity) and drive the housing and food prices up and the genuine Bohemians (artists and ethnics) who drew them there in the first place out, a genuine Bourgeoisie quarter wants to retain all strata of that class, and thus usually offers some affordable food and housing prices (though the latter are becoming more rare in the 15th). As a sign of this in the 15th, on the Sunday we’re discussing the man behind me in the charcouterie stand line was there for the same thing, a bargain but still gourmet lunch, debating between the sauerkraut and the lentils. (His eager banter with the other customers and the servers indicated that for this older man, perhaps retired and living alone, the Sunday market is also a vital social outlet). This is just one of the things I love about the 15th arrondissement, where I’d had my third Paris apartment in the ancient worker housing of the Cité Falguière next door to the Pasteur Institute where the AIDS virus was identified, and where Soutine made the crazy figures later hoarded by Dr. Barnes of Philadelphia — the 15th getting the overflow of the ateliers that used to dot the neighboring 14th before the expanding Montparnasse train station dependances devoured them — and from whose window the Eiffel tower looked like I could touch it (the Eiffel is always popping up like Waldo from unexpected street corners in the 15th): You don’t have to be rich to dine like an Alsatian king on champagne-infused meaty sauerkraut.
And food isn’t the only affordable luxury offered by the 15th: You also have access to the many-tiered riches of the parc George Brassens (my ultimate destination that day), including: The week-end old book market (where hefty coffee table lavishly illustrated monographs of Miro, Manet, and others can be had for as little as 5 Euros), the large fountain-pond watched over by a toilet chateau on the wall of the arch of which a plaque commemorates the butchers — this was once an abattoir district — who gave their lives for France during World War I, three ping-pong tables perched on their own plateau above one of the two facing hangars of the book market, Shetland pony rides, a Guignol theater for the kids and a formal theater, the Montfort, for the adults. My only complaint — and it’s not anodyne because I’ve found the same neglect in other quartiers outside of the tourist limelight (see above) — is that the Japanese-style cascades bordering the grassy hill below the theater where I like to picnic hasn’t had water for at least ten years. There’s also a Max Poilaine bakery offering warm apple tarts and dark rye bread you can buy by the quarter just across the street.
The park is named after France’s answer to Bob Dylan (like Dylan’s, they study Brassens’s lyrics in school in poetry class). On one of my first visits, in October 2001, I witnessed a singing contest marking the 20th anniversary of Brassens’s death (the French are big on death anniversaries) which demonstrated how the folk-singer’s appeal is multi-generational, the most moving performances being delivered in a quavering voice by a shy 16-year-old blonde girl with glasses and a 40-something man who’s rendition of “Bury me on a beach in Sete” was so invested he broke out in sweat halfway through the song.
On this more recent visit, the music that wafted out of the park’s entrance, guarded by two life-sized bronze bulls each above its own portal (I strutted in under one, binding with my fellow Taurus) and across the street from the Petite Gorilla brasserie (in “Le Gorille” Brassens celebrates a simian who butt-rapes a judge) was not Brassens but a jazz manouche band, “Swing Bazaar,” whose dulcet chanteuse was proclaiming “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” — more rampant Americanization.
The rest of the self-contained Place Jacques Marette at the entrance was occupied by booths displaying mostly Sunday painter variety art, part of a three week-end “Printemps d’art” celebration organized with the 15th’s mayor. There was also free wine and orange juice (“Please don’t put your cup on the table, we don’t want the table-cloth getting stained,” a matron upbraided me — ca aussi c’est le 15eme) but the best news was on the rules notice posted by the gates of the park proper: “This garden is a non-smoking space.”
Finding a bench looking out on the wide shallow pond and being serenaded with “Sweet Georgia Brown” in a lilting French accent while feasting on succulent sauerkraut plentifully dosed with hearty chunks of pork cheek in between taking deep breaths of clean air, topped off with hot thermos tea while clutching my vintage speakers in my new Renaissance bag I was in musical, artistic, intellectual, gourmet, and breathing heaven. So what if the “graph-zine” fair in the old book market which was the actual reason for my being here this particular Sunday was nowhere in sight — “They couldn’t agree on anything,” a man selling the secret papers of Celine for 30 Euros explained to me — there were still the books, one of which (speaking of anti-Semitism) revealed that 30 years after proving himself a Dreyfusard avant l’heure, Anatole France may have drifted over to the other side. Among a leather-bound set of France volumes, this one published in 1925, I found “The Opinions of M. Jerome Coignard,” the pronouncing of which opinions apparently came to an abrupt end on page 2 when, France informs us, Coignard was poignarded to death to by a “Cabalistic Jew.” (N’empeche que as far as anti-pollution crusaders avant l’heure go, Anatole France is still my man, complaining to Leo Larguier in the 1920s, as recounted in Larguier’s 1936 “Saint-Germain-des-Prés, my Village” about the encroaching automobile traffic on the quays of the Seine off the rue des Grands Augustins, where Picasso would later respond to a German officer who asked him, pointing at “Guernica,” “Did you make that?,” “No, you did.”)
That about did it for me so I decided to head for the Metro Pasteur, but I’d only gone two blocks when I was forced to head back towards the park and more important the toilet chateau by the sauerkraut (or maybe it was the gentile pork cheeks) fomenting a cabal in the pit of my stomach.
I was almost there when I saw the “Open Studio this weekend” sign on the window of a store-front atelier. I’d missed the Saturday edition of this particular open atelier, which had been accompanied by a bio wine-tasting (peu importe; I’m not drinking at this moment) and even the artist, so it was left to the artist’s friend to answer my questions in front of five violet bottles which remained resolutely corked. (“He probably couldn’t drink bio wine anyway, most of his bottom teeth are missing.” Having worked a natural wine vendange in the Lot one season, I’m probably just as learned about bio wine as I am about art.) I liked the tropical images — of Cuban beaches and palm trees — but if I say ‘images’ the hic is that they were all ‘pigmented’ print-outs without much piment, because if this format works for photographs like Laguerre’s, it’s a rip-off (at the prices being demanded here) for water-colors, pastels, or oils, because there’s no dimensionality.
But the visit yielded the useful information that the open ateliers were part of the “Printemps d’art” activities (indeed, the lady informed me, every arrondissement in the city offers these, with the support of the city), and a map with the locations of nearby ateliers, one of which was right around the corner and from the epiphany you’ve been waiting 10,000 words to discover.
Isa Guiod, “Primitif n°30,” Pastels à la cire et pastels à l’huile (wax and oil pastels), 20 x 20 cm. Copyright and courtesy Isa Guiod.
To fully appreciate the welcome I and the other visitors to Isa Guiod’s atelier received, first you need to know that when you walk into a typical art gallery in Paris, the typically early 20-something mignonette behind the desk refuses to look up from whatever she’s doing on her computer, no doubt more important than you. (I’m still waiting for the art the mignonette at another gallery off the Grands Boulevards promised to send me over a week ago.) If you ask her (it’s usually a her) a question, she gives you a begrudging one-word answer. And if you try to engage her in a conversation about the art, she just grunts.
Guiod, by contrast (and this is not atypical at open studios) was eager to exchange with her visitors. She even offered coffee to the couple which was already there when I entered; “Or maybe a petite verre?” and then to me. (Why does this matter? As an indication of hospitality; this is what you do when someone visits your home.)
I also felt — and this is less typical — like Guiod was truly interested in hearing the responses of her guests to her art and even in learning from them; this was a real exchange. (I didn’t identify myself as a journalist until shortly before leaving, so it wasn’t that.) When I commented that her medium of choice, wax and oil pastels, reminded me (it was a stretch but I was trying to flaunt my arts smarts) of how Jean-Michel Atlan (Ragon’s favorite), stirred controversy amongst some of his contemporaries (see “Trompe-l-Oeil,” Ragon’s 1956 black comedy of the contemporary art world and market,” a translated sample of which pertaining to Atlan is in the link above) by mixing oils and pastels, she immediately went to look Atlan up on the Internet, and when I compared one of her larger oeuvres — there were at least 50 on the walls, most of them on the smaller scale, and more scattered around the atelier-home on counter-tops — to Cézanne’s “Mount St.-Victoire” series for the subject and the way she like Cezanne seemed to break her tableaux down into into spheres and told her about Vera Molnar’s minimalist homage to the Cézannes, she asked for the name of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés gallery where I’d discovered these. (I know I’m using this term a lot, but isn’t discovery also what life — and breathing in all its expanses — is about?)
From the Arts Voyager Archives: “Bathers,” Paul Cézanne, French, c. 1880, oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts (70.162).
What was inspiring is not that this interest in my opinions and the knowledge I might have to impart stroked my ego but the genuine curiosity it indicated. Many contemporary artists I meet not only ignore their accomplished predecessors but manifest no interest in learning about their own form’s history, as if they invented the wheel and no one of interest could have possibly come before them. (This isn’t quite the same as Courbet saying, in Ragon’s biography, that he’s more interested in reflecting his times than referring to the artists of the past.) Guiod, by contrast, displayed the openness of the lifelong-learner, not surprising as she’s ‘only’ been at this for 10 years, starting with six years of ateliers offered by the municipality of Paris — at affordable prices, important because it reflects an official investment in the artistic soul which made Paris and in its continued diffusion throughout the city, and a conviction that creating art shouldn’t be the sequestered provence of a few — followed by four years under the individual tutelage of three professors.
The work itself reflected this spirit of ouverture, theoretically abstract but open to the viewer’s identifying forms. “People see different things in it,” Guiod pointed out as if she welcomed this.
Isa Guiod, “Primitif n°40,” Pastels à la cire et pastels à l’huile (wax and oil pastels), 20 x 20 cm. Copyright and courtesy Isa Guiod.
As for her method, “I usually just spurt it all out. Sometimes I pause and find myself wondering what the theme is, but then I just stop thinking and asking questions and continue.” Recalling the print-outs I’d seen earlier and comparing that lacheté — asking exorbitant prices for something that took two minutes to print out — with Guiod’s offering strictly original work, I asked her how much time it had taken her to create the 50+ tableaux filling most of four walls (the other thing I liked about her atelier is that the remaining space was filled by books, and not just art books, stretching to the ceiling opposite a loft bedroom): “Two months” for the whole and on average two to three days per canvas.
Isa Guiod, “Entre-Deux n°9,” Pastels à la cire et pastels à l’huile (wax and oil pastels), 50 x 65 cm. Copyright and courtesy Isa Guiod.
Gazing out Guiod’s tall windows whose sills were adorned with pots of poppy flowers onto a cobble-stone courtyard with table and chairs, insulated if not closed to the outside world by stone walls — “I get a lot of light during the day,” she assured me — and engaged in this discussion with an artist who was not at all blasé about her practice but full of the enthusiasm of the person who finds her real calling in mid-life (Guiod appears to subscribe to George Eliot’s dictum, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been”: “If I live to ___,” she later told me, “I’ll still be able to do this for 42 more years.” ) and thinking about how by enabling this self-realization in providing low-cost art courses accessible to everyone the City of Paris was making a statement that in a city defined by art the art must be pervasive and not just the privilege of a sanctified few, and above all from our exchanges, I realized that this is why Parisians stay here in a city where it’s sometimes physically hard to breathe.
This is how they — this is how we Parisians — respire, this is where we find our breath: Individually in the potential to make art and realize our dreams, even new dreams hatched in mid-life, and collectively in our proximity to each other and the breath we breathe into each other like the energy which made that first balloon fly in 1783 (when the Continental Congress was meeting in Princeton, which would give me wings 200 years later), and the limitless potential for the serendipitous encounter anywhere, even in a quartier more Bourgeoisie than Bohemian and even for a critic lately more interested in feeding his stomach than his Art Jones and come to Paris primarily to fix his teeth, who on a quest for a potty stumbles into and gets deterred by the atelier of an artist and seeker who reminds him of the infinite possibitilities this city breeds, restoring his appetite for art, not as a commodity nor a vehicle to be coopted for his own writing but as creation, the first creation, the only creation that matters because it transcends everything else.
This is why they remain here, and this is why I keep coming back to Paris despite the inevitable “Gorge Parisian” it subjects my body to in certain seasons: the potential this city now offers like no other in the world (New York and San Francisco having become too expensive) to breathe in every pore of your spirit and mind.
(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.
Parisians march to demand liberation of American journalist… No, seriously, this is who the “Yellow-Jackets” (as I prefer to call them, even if the translation isn’t literal) like to think they are. Marcelo Brodsky, “Paris, 1968,” from the 1968 series “The Fire of Ideas.” Featured in the Arles exhibition 1968, What a Story! Courtesy of the artist, HFFA NYC & Rolf Art Gallery.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — Seriously, all I want to do is find a playmate. In addition to fixing my teeth so she’ll be able to see me and finding a way to make what comes out of my mouth (words) fetch (earn) what comes into it, this is why I came to Paris. C’est quand meme assez simple. On Saturday, March 2, I met a pretty dazzling — let’s say awesome — candidate. Someone who made my heart bouge as it hadn’t done since junior high school. So I returned to the same table-tennis court — at the Jardin des Explorateurs which abuts the Luxembourg Gardens — this past Saturday, paddles and balls in hand (by which I don’t mean les bijoux familial — inside joke), hoping she’d be back.
Lest you think me an obsedé, it wasn’t just for the girl, although I love the way she made fun of my defensive stance, picked up from the Chinese kid who slaughtered me in the city-wide 9-12 year-old San Francisco championships whose spin balls I couldn’t touch. There was also the excuse of a brocante (antiques stand sale) on the boulevard Montparnasse, as well as my embarrassingly virgin visit to the ‘loriette’ — gazebo to you, bub — at the top of the Jardin des Plantes since my return to see if the oldest, and heretofore crumbling, metal structure in Paris had succeeded in inspiring enough private donations to be restored (our mayor preferring to spend the same amount of money on 30-minute New Year’s Eve light shows), plus the lure of having my thermos coffee at my various favorite fountains and ponds at the Luxembourg.
I almost cried at seeing the kangaroos at the Jardin des Plantes: at the realization that I’d been too addicted to this screen to come get re-acquainted with them earlier. Hoofing it to the Jussieu Metro — in pleine student-land — on an instinct I crossed the rue Linne to check the latest offerings of a bookstore I know…. There on the ‘giant books for 1 Euro’ shelves he was waiting for me: I.F. a.k.a. Izzy Stone, in “The Haunted Fifties,” an original language compilation of the first 10 years of the independent journalist’s I.F. Stone’s Weekly. I say waiting for me because it was a reminder that Stone’s success in getting an initial 5,000 and ultimately 20,000 readers to subscribe at $5 a pop may be a way for me to go… Until I remembered that a) Stone started out with a mailing list of newspaper readers already familiar with his product, b) the ‘market’ is exponentially more flooded with words (and columnists) today and c) no one has time to read. (Not even a recent French cultural minister, who confessed as much in an interview since become infamous.)
I won’t go into all the details of Izzy Stone’s project and the connivances and conniptions of McCarthyism to which many of the initial essays are devoted because if I did we’d never get to Saturday’s near-riot in Paris which found a certain ex-San Francisco youth ping-pong championship runner-up surrounded by CRS national police while trying to impersonate Forest Gump sitting on a bench with his paddles waiting for a potential sweetheart, but among the startling (to me) revelations in Stone’s book was the December 21, 1953 piece “A Few who Fought Back,” his report from Chicago’s Walsh Hall on the National Conference to Repeal the Walter-McCarran Law and Defend its Victims, sponsored by the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, “one of the last functioning Popular Front organizations,” Stone explains. (As you’ll see, the piece is not entirely irrelevant to a site devoted to translation between languages… and cultures.) It seems that the Walter-McCarran Law and various other manifestations of McCarthyism had prompted a mass deportation and denaturalization campaign that by comparison makes ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service) look like it takes its marching orders from newly elected Left-leaning Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
“The deportation drive cuts across every basic liberty,” Stone writes. “Fifteen editors associated with the radical and foreign language press have been arrested for deportation or denaturalization…. The foreign language editors arrested are elderly folk editing papers which are dying out as the process of assimilation steadily cuts into the number of Americans who still read the language of ‘the old country.’ Almost one third of those arrested for deportation are trade union members or officials…. One of the leading victims of the current drive, Stanley Nowak, was present in Chicago. After ten years as a Democratic member of the Michigan State Legislature, part of this time as floor leader, he is facing denaturalization proceedings. This Polish-born legislator played a role in the organization of the automobile industry…”
And if you think Central American (and other dark-skinned) migrants to the U.S. have it bad now, Stone continues:
“The most numerous and widespread abuses have occurred in the treatment of Mexican-Americans. Reports to the conference from Los Angeles pictured terror and lawlessness — the use of roadblocks and sudden raids on areas in which persons of Mexican origin live, the invasion of their homes without warrants, the exile to Mexico of native-born Americans of Mexican parentage. The Mexican-American community is kept steadily ‘churned up’ to maintain it as a source of cheap labor in constant flux.” During the first six months of 1953, the conference was told, “more than 483,000 persons were deported to Mexico — while almost half a million others were being brought in for low paid agricultural work.”
Others who would no doubt form the base for the founding of the United Farmworkers a decade later. At about the same time I was having those first pre-teen crushes, my hippy alternative school in San Francisco would take us on a week-long field trip to work with the Farmworkers in La Paz, California.
So having found the Luxembourg Gardens closed — no doubt indicating that there must be a “Yellow Jackets” (I’m purposely mistranslating “Gilets” for the allusion to guepes, bees, as the so-called “Gilets Jaunes” are just as annoying) demonstration taking place somewhere within five miles — my hoped-for reunion with her (the pre-teen crush’s) reincarnation in Paris in 2019 was about to be ix-nayed (Pig Latin for ‘nixed’). There I was on a partly cloudy Saturday afternoon, reflected rays of Sun emerging to flirt intermittently from the red brick buildings en face, ping-pong paddles circa 1973 and I.F. Stone circa 1950s flanking my carcasse circa 1961 with its heart preserved at the age of 12 like Forest Gump (it was seeing Tom Hanks bringing his paddle to a reunion with his amour d’enfance that had inspired me to bring my pair with me on this trip to Paris) when, all of a sudden, a caravan of ten CRS or national police vans and cars silently pulled up outside the western fence of the park. (Already I’d noticed a phalanx of the vans on the side street leading to the closed entrance of the Luxembourg.)
What the Boulevard St.-Michel DID NOT look like Saturday: From the Arles exhibition 1968, What a Story! Courtesy of the Paris Prefecture of Police, Memory and Cultural Affairs Department. Atypical among the archival photographs and posters on the May 1968 student and worker rebellions which have enjoyed a resurgence in during last year’s 50th anniversary of May ’68, what I appreciated about this photograph is that it humanizes the policemen.
At about this point a park security guard made the rounds to inform all of us that the park was closing.
A Saturday afternoon in Paris and not only were they closing an anodyne park whose greatest attraction is three concrete ping-pong tables (and thus vetoing my albeit remote chance to find what this city is supposed to be made for) — the tables take up more space than a nearby Lilliputian playground any respectable kindergartner would be ashamed to frequent — but the Luxembourg Gardens …. The Luxembourg Gardens which, as gardens and as the seat of the people’s representatives — the grounds are presided over by the French Senate, whose members are elected by the country’s 10,000 mayors — was being closed to the people to whom it belonged. (The counter-argument would be that this was to protect the landmarks — a fair one, given the vandalization of the Monument to the Unknown soldier at the Arch towards the beginning of this media-anointed “Yellow-Jackets” movement.)
Still, I could hardly imagine hoards of “Yellow Jackets” darting over from the Boulevard St. Michel a block away where it turned out the march was taking place, invading the gardens and, what — occupying the ping-pong tables? Moving their iron chairs to the edge of the grand fountain before the Senate building? (Officially interdit, as I had learned when it took a 7-foot tall guardian less than a minute to run over and wag his finger at me after I tried this bold move.) Adapt Marie Antoinette’s response to the bread riots — “Let them eat cake!” — by following Hemingway’s example and stuffing the pigeons bathing in the Medici fountains under their shirts to twist their necks and make pot au feu? My own deepest antipathy was directed at the marchers — at this point a motley medley of chronic demonstrators, chronic members of the dwindling French Communist party, or, judging by the different flags that flew above the crowd who eventually, respectfully, made their way up the Boul Mich towards the Place Royale, various other groups, including the unions, trying to latch on to the “Yellow Jackets” — for almost ruining my Saturday. It’s a sort of interest group politics that doesn’t give a shit about any one else, as long as they can have their little manifestation party.
I actually like French president Emmanuel Macron because he’s trying to rise above all this, and imagine France’s global role, living up to its historic importance. For example, no one was lobbying for him to commit the country to restoring some 80,000 artifacts to their African countries of origin. He just thought it was right.
Ultimately, I think they’re trying to pretend they’re the ’68ers, the student and worker rebellers of May 1968, only they’re mistaking appearance for substance. This isn’t just me saying this; the majority of voters I talk to here in Paris agree that if the initial motivations and cause of the “Yellow-Jackets” were comprehensible, now they have no idea what they want; it’s tout et n’importe quoi. And ultimately the biggest winner will be Marine Pen’s Front National, currently matching the French president’s party in leading polls for the upcoming European Union elections.
17th-century drawing of the Loriette on top of the Jardin des Plantes.
Me, after observing that my local sanitaire — public toilet — on the other side of the park’s fence (the one where I’d recently rescued 2000 years of Western, Hindu, and Chinese Philosophy) was also now surrounded by mask-wearing and shield-holding black-garbed riot police, I decided to make my way over to St. Mich. A couple of blocks down the boulevard, their procession from the Seine carefully controlled by the ranks of riot police who flanked them on all sides, it was clear to me that this tame assemblage did not risk to tumble down the side streets and trash their own gardens. After crossing the street and continuing down a side street a block or so towards a university building, once the marchers and their police escort had passed I decided to return to St. Mich and sit down on a bench to enjoy the rarity of this main Paris artery completely emptied of cars and buses. Looking up at the Hausmanian balconies bathed in late-afternoon Sun, the perpetual, timeless aspect of the boulevard that being divested of cars lent it enabled me to fill the pavement with the demonstrators of 50 years ago. Later, walking down to the barred entrance of the garden allowed me to venture even further back; an organ de barbary grinder was turning his handle to feed the pock-marked cards of music to his instrument, hoping to find some clients in the groups of frustrated tourists clustered in front of the locked gates, their guides trying to explain in Italian, French, English, and Russia the reasons for the unexpected closure. (On my first Paris trip in 2000, which coincided with a museum guards strike, I arrived at the Rodin museum to find it closed with a sign posted on the locked gates apologizing, “For those who are making their first trip to Paris, sorry.”)
After, returning to the wind-swept Loriette above the Jardin des Plantes to enjoy an umpteenth cup of thermos coffee as I gazed over the green tiles of the Mosque of Paris and witnessed a steady stream of huffing and puffing tourists and natives arrive triumphantly at the summit of the wooded labyrinthe, smiling to join me in the small cupola, then marveling at the sculptures in the outdoor Tino Rossi sculpture garden that lines the Seine after you cross to the quays from the Jardin des Plantes, I thought, these “Yellow-Jacket” complainers, they don’t realize what they have. They’re living in the most marvelous place in the world, surrounded by all this beauty, and they still have to find something to grouse about it. Meanwhile, the government is worried, no doubt prompted by the institutional memory of the eight or so previous rebellions whose blood still cakes the streets of Paris.
Arriving at a statue of a divided man whose head was resting on his waist over the inscription “Arthur Rimbaud, with his feet always in front of him,” after thinking “That’s me” even if my sciatic-dogged dogs felt less stable than the sculptured poet who died young and stayed pretty looked, I overheard a mother explaining to her five-year-old, “Do you see those things below his elbow? They’re vowels. It’s because he wrote a poem, ‘Les vowels.’” And thought: If a mother can still school her child on the important things, the boy’s real cultural, literary, and intellectual heritage, maybe there’s hope for France after all.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — I met someone over the week-end and in lieu of making like Albert Camus watching his telephone for four hours on a dreary autumn afternoon in his pad near the Luxembourg Gardens in 1944 waiting for Maria Casarès to call, it occurs to me that the best way to retain the sensation or feeling this girl provoked — even if it ultimately has to move on to someone else, because I have no idea whether I did the same for her — is not to evoke the details of the encounter itself in this forum (which might rightly put off the woman in question, even if I don’t know whether I’ll ever have the opportunity to tell her face-to-face the effect she had on me, preferable), but to flash back to the last time I experienced this sensation, in junior high school. Then at the least I’ll be able to retain this ability to be almost instantly smitten by a girl — which I’ve not experienced for 22 years — even if I never hear from the woman who triggered the sentiment this weekend again and the feeling ultimately has to migrate to someone else. (In which case I’ll just see “La Strada” alone this week.) If I’m aware that I’m taking the risk of alienating her by making the visceral reaction I had to her public even in this veiled manner, sharing a junior high school memory still seems a lot more innocuous than Camus’s coping mechanism in 1944-45, grappling with his own impotence in the face of a retreating Casarès by writing about a Roman tyrant who kills everyone in sight to prove he’s not powerless against fate after his sister-lover dies.
Her name — I mean the junior high school flame — was Felicia French. It seems that my mom must have already known her mom when they introduced us in the Glen Park recreation center nestled in Glen Canyon in … 1974. Typical for San Francisco — and the girls I had the tendency to fall in love with then — she was a mix of white, black, and Latino, with big luminous Nathalie Wood eyes under her frizzy bunned hair. “Crush” is the closest I can come to describing the sensation, which was/is pure — nothing to do with sex, everything to do with the heart warming over as if stirred by a gentle wind. Boulevarsé quoi. And it’s almost entirely centered on the effect the girl’s visage — and manner, in the simplest of gestures — has on me. (Fortunately, the activity over which we met this week-end provided a convenient excuse for looking her in the eyes; not that I was able to keep it up for long. And I’ve probably already said too much.) It’s a sensation that’s completely innocent; there’s no fantasizing of “la suite,” of a physical escalation. Not even the urgency of “I want to be with this person”; one is simply enchanted and entranced. Tongue-tied, stiff, and awkward. Even the little things the girl (or woman) does have this attenuated allure. And if she looks at you, forgetaboutit it. (I practically floated down to the Seine afterwards and when the Eiffel Tower started scintillating, it seemed a natural expression of what was going on inside of me. Now I’ve really said too much.)
So let’s get back to Felicia French. And to Nathalie Wood. A year after our Glen Park encounter, transferring to my local junior high, James Lick, I found myself acting opposite Felicia in a Tennessee Williams one-act which the author would later expand into a full-length film starring Nathalie Wood, “This Property is Condemned.” In the one-act version, a 14-year-old girl balances on a deserted train track and talks a lot about her dead older sister, Alma (in the film, Nathalie), to an audience of one person, a boy, Tom, whose (thus, my) biggest line comes when the girl explains that the sister “is in the bone orchard.” “The BONE orchard?!” answers the boy, flabbergasted. (A bone orchard — the Catacombs, where all the ancient bodies in Paris are really buried, and where the Resistance met during the Occupation — also served as a sort of oracle to my encounter of this weekend: Et maintenant, mec, tu vas avoir la chance de faire quelque chose pour manifeste que tu n’es pas encore un squelette.) In the play (for which I won the Best Supporting Actor award in a city-wide junior high drama contest in which my opponent was a good friend from my previous junior high, Chip Williams, who by high school would announce he had a brain tumor and wouldn’t live past 20; what have I done, who have I loved — and who has loved me? — to prove that I have?), the Girl/Felicia sings a song which goes like this (didn’t have to look it up; imagine the words being sung in the wistful soprano pitch of a 14-year-old):
Wish me a rainbow and wish me a star,
All this you can give me wherever you are;
And dreams for my pillow,
and stars for my eyes,
And a masquerade ball where our love wins first prize.
Felicia and another girl, Linda Mull, liked to taunt me by singing “Soldier Boy,” replacing the title with “Monster Boy.” They even gave me a baby-blue tee-shirt with “Monster Boy” in black letters. This was at my 15th birthday party, which is about when I started lowering my ambitions, girlfriend-wise. Not even dreaming of trying for my dream-girl Felicia, I instead decided to go for a girl named Lisa Craib. It wasn’t that she wasn’t pretty — she was. But I think it was that she was the underdog — the other girls and boys teased her as being flat-chested — that made me think I’d have a better chance of interesting her than Felicia; less competition.
We were playing Truth or Dare in my basement bedroom near the ping-pong table — Felicia and Linda were there also, and, *I think*, even Tracy Wedemeyer, my very first girlfriend (we met in the maternity ward at Marin General). At one point — Tracy must have left (like her, Lisa had long straight blonde hair) — someone (was it Felicia? Did I miss another cue?) asked me this Truth question: “Who’s the girl in this room you like the most?” “Lisa.” When we were alone — the lights must have gone out because I remember assuring Lisa that the unzipping she heard was that of my sweatsuit jacket — Lisa confessed, “Remember what you said? If they asked me, I would have said you.” (This is not the only proximity ping-pong tables had with my pre-adolescent crushes. In 6th grade — when I was 11-12 — I’d dedicate my games over our basement table to Christine LaMar, my very first crush, ennerving my brother and best friend with my insistence on declaring before each match, “This game is dedicated to Christine LaMar. If I win this game, I will be … and …. If I lose it, I will be … and …..” By the time Christine broke my heart by announcing she was transferring to another school, I was able to pronounce, through tears, “… if I win ((sob)) I will be ((sob)) 187 and 9.” Which I did and was.)
Glen Canyon also figured into my Lisa love story; we’d gotten to second base locked in a laying down embrace (whence was born my adoration of the supple female tummy) at the bottom of the canyon, and it was at about that time that Lisa announced that her father — their house was above us on a lip of the canyon — was into guns. (I pictured him already having me in his sights, clutching his daughter.) In my yearbook Lisa would write, “Paul, As Fi (Felicia) says, You are the man of my life. I’ll never forget you.” (Felicia had written, “Have fun with beautiful Lisa.”) We tried to keep it up that summer — the summer before we’d go our separate ways for high school — but the decline started (fittingly enough) over a tennis court. Lisa, a city champion, complained that my game was bringing hers down… Our phone calls also deteriorated, with Lisa cutting the awkward silences with “What else?”
My telephone calls with Felicia, on the other hand, would last for hours, with my mother and brother yelling at me to get off the phone. Couple this with the memory of one particularly graphic dream of me she shared after one of us had told the other s/he was in the process of taking a bubble bath, and I sometimes wonder if I was completely dense in not even trying to make a romantic move. I was devastated when Felicia sent me a postcard at summer camp announcing she’d be going to a different high school, shortly after which around a campfire under star-strewn skies in the shadow of Yosemite I made a move, reciprocated, towards another girl, T.C. (she went by that acronym), and who I was not really attracted to. (And thus assumed would not reject me.)
I know the Felicias don’t always work out as Felicias. (Some of them even remain alone because no guy has the balls to move beyond the hopeless crush stage, assuming she’s unavailable. At about the same time in high school when I was doing — or not doing — this with another crush, Karen Sullivan, I read a story collected in his “Welcome to the Monkey House” in which Kurt Vonnegut, Jr writes about a girl so beautiful she remains alone, because men assume she’s unobtainable. I’ve had an actual relationship with one Felicia — it started out as a crush — in which by the end this “Felicia” of my dreams was showing up as a monster in my nightmares. And it was she who’d made the first move; the relationship would probably not have happened if it had been left up to me, as I’d have gone on considering her out of my league and beyond my reach.)
But I also know that if you don’t declare yourself — coupled with “Caligula” in the paperback copy I purchased for a buck this weekend at a vide-grenier or community-wide garage sale on my way down to the Luxembourg Gardens, Camus’s turf, shortly before meeting this current “Felicia,” was Camus’s “Le malentendu ” — you risk losing everything. In this case, the ability to dream. (I know, Camus probably didn’t have a publicly broadcast declaration in mind, but this is the message I need to send to the Universe right now to increase the chances that if it’s not the person I met this weekend, whoever it is will continue her route towards me.)
And the desire to continue to try to actualize those dreams. The sensation that meeting this woman provoked in me (I put it that way because I’m not saying she did anything express to provoke it) is a sensation that for the last 22 years I’ve only felt in dreams, only to wake up and discover the girl wasn’t real. Against that heartbreak I’ll take the disappointment of potential non-reciprocacity any day. And so even if I will be disappointed if I never hear from this girl again, I thank her for restoring my faith that I have the right to dream and to aim high, to not just settle, to demonstrate that je ne suis pas encore une squelette. And that I can still be smitten and stirred — on first sight — by the face, the eyes, the gestures and the sage words of a woman. Et par l’imperatif de toujours heed the chanson….
…la chanson de Felicia.
Wish me a rainbow and wish me a star,
All this you can give me wherever you are;
And dreams for my pillow,
and stars for my eyes,
And a masquerade ball where our love wins first prize.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation to email@example.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. To read this article entirely in French or any other language, just click the translation button at the right.)
PARIS — Ever think someone is trying to send you signs? From Plato, Confucius, and Krishna ambushing me in a Luxembourg Garden ‘sanitaire’ to accordionists hounding me across the Left Bank to Albert Camus and Maria Casarès winking at me from a balcony on the rue Vaugirard, from busty marble goddesses having coffee with me at the Delacroix Fountain in the Luxembourg to collaged porn queen sirens in St.-Germain-des-Pres beckoning me to call them on a communication system which no longer exists (the Minitel, France’s Internet avant l’heure), from being snobbed by Germanopretan art gallery interns to welcomed by Ile de France artists on the rue Francis Picabia in Belleville, from trying not to knock knees with a supercalifragelosis architect’s assistant on the Metro to learning that, echoing a similar tendency in the United States — so I’m not picking on France here — if a new law passes France will officially no longer distinguish between anti-Zionism an anti-Semitism (which makes me, what, a Jewish anti-Semite?), from trying to decipher “Botoxed” feminine incarnations of Henry Darger’s Vivienne Girls to learning that my shit doesn’t stink too as badly as all that, yesterday like the days that preceded it was as replete with signs as any I’ve had here this past month and a half. To read the rest of the story on The Paris Tribune, click here.