AVID, the Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary: Thresholds, with art from Balthus, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn and PBI’s Memoir ‘Two-and-a-half with a Bullet’

balthus 7 la chat du mirroir 7 small 2From the exhibition Balthus, running through January 1 at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland: “Le Chat au miroir III,” 1989–1994. Oil on canvas, 220 x 195 cm. Private collection. Copyright Balthus.

Text by & copyright Paul Ivan Winer Ben-Itzak
Art by Balthus from the exhibition Balthus at the Fondation Beyeler, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn (see captions for copyrights)

Today AVID offers a dialogue between PBI’s time-traveling memoirs of growing up in the U.S. and assimilating in France and the work of Balthus, on view at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland through January 1 and, from our archives, Ruth Asawa and Ben Shahn. Like what you’re reading? Please subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for $36/year or make a donation by designating your PayPal payment to paubenitzak@gmail.com , or write us there to learn how to pay by check. This one goes out to Linda, in memory of Bill Clark. The excerpt below, from PBI’s “Cross-Country/A Memoir of France & the U.S.,” is titled “Prelude: Two-and-a-half with a bullet,” and is 90% revised from an earlier version. 

“He’s here again: the man with the child in his eyes.” — Kate Bush

“We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.”     — Wallace Berry, “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three” (George Braziller, New York, 1963. Illustrated by Ben Shahn)

“Songs to aging children come / Aging children, I am one.” — Joni Mitchell, “Songs to Aging Children Come,” from the film “Alice’s Restaurant”)

Mom is crying over the wooden loom that divides the dining room from the kitchen in our San Francisco Edwardian, as the fog over Noe Valley evaporates outside the window. I look up at her from the black-speckled yellow linoleum floor.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”

“President Kennedy has been ass-ass-i-na-ted.”

This is my first conscious memory. (Although as my old creative writing teacher Joyce Carol Oates recently pointed out on French radio, what we think are direct memories are often memories of memories, retained by constant replay. The best teachers’ lessons are meted out over a lifetime. Which is not to say that Oates wasn’t already meting them out in 1980. After I submitted a short story in which I confessed to committing “slow suicides,” she handed me an essay she’d written, “The Art of Suicide,” not a how-to-manual but a critique of famous self-immolators: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath….Her main point was that as one can’t desire a void, for the Suicide – she used it as a noun – the wish “I want to die” is really a stand-in for something else: “I want you to love me,” “I want to you to listen to me….” Three years later another Princeton professor, Robert Fagles, would walk into Tragedy class one afternoon with a Washington Post article about a college student who had killed himself after reading the Oresteia… in his translation. Holding the clipping in one hand and tapping the book gently with the other and looking each of us in the eyes, he declared, carefully enunciating each word in his tender, resonant cadence: “I want to be sure you understand what this tale is about.” When I interviewed Fagles about his new Oedipus translation the next year for the Times, he would explain: “Oedipus had to be burned to a crisp in order to emerge whole again.” My own thinking on the ultimate existential question – Albert Camus called it the only question —  has evolved, following the 2015 Paris suicide of filmmaker Chantal Akerman,  who once built a play around the letters between Plath and her mother, to consider the possibility that when an artist chooses to end her life, it may just be a creative way to formulate a period. Or to breach a threshold. And that we should allow these liberators of our own souls their franchise.)

As childhood memories go, I have only two of my parents together before they split up when I was 12. An electrical storm is rattling our isolated house off Bohan-Dillon Road in rural Northern California, and Dad is late returning from a visit to the Pomo reservation, reached only by a treacherous mountain road. When he finally bursts in, drenched, Mom clutches him desperately, like a fisherman’s bride embracing an errant sailor presumed lost to the sea’s caprices. (From the reservation I also remember a succulent pig roasting on a dripping spit and the Great Chicken Pox Epidemic of 1969, which started with the Indian children and terminated with my baby brother’s pink-speckled body dangling from my mom’s arms. Now that I’ve shared Jordan’s most intimate moment of affliction — to cop a term from another Princeton prof. — here’s mine:  Being bitten on the penis by a tic while climbing the cliffs above the totem pole guarding the Timber Cove Inn, which explains my aversion for going cepes hunting with my neighbor in the South of France five decades later.)

My other memory of Mom and Dad together is of them hiking on a mountain above the Tamales Bay ranch where Hans and Dina Angress (her family hid him out in Holland during the war) hosted their annual herring festival with the dozens of children they’d adopted: Smoked herring, pickled herring, barbecued herring, fried herring, herring-shaped bread, salt-water herring taffy. (When the herring festival wasn’t on, we’d beg mom to stop at the Stewart General Store across from Fort Ross, an old Russian bastion overlooking the ocean, for beef jerky.) Dad in his broad tan cowboy hat is carefully explaining something to Mom, not looking at her, as she purses her lips and stares down at the dry brown weeds. (They would separate soon afterwards.) I resume flirting with a mulatto girl from a local school I retrieved every year on the volleyball court, not the first mulatto girl I’d fall in love with.

balthus five Les Enfants Blanchard smallBalthus, “The Blanchard Children,” 1937. Oil on canvas, 125 x 130 cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris.  Donation of Picasso’s inheritors, 1973/1978. © Balthus.  Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau Blanchard.

My courting of Christine LaMar that same school year, 1972-73 (also when my first cat, Kristen, was mauled to death by the O’Neils’ German Sheppard), was confined to stare-out contests across the aisle of the 24 Divisadero, until she blindsided me one morning by boarding the bus at Market wearing dark glasses. Deciding it was time to up the ante, I dedicated my first, handwritten novel, “The Problem Cops,” about a police duo who took on racial problems, to her. I also dedicated my ping-pong victories to Christine, announcing to my brother Aaron and best friend Eric before every match over our basement table: “I dedicate this game to Christine LaMar. If I win, I will be __ and __ . If I lose, I will be….” By the time Christine broke my heart by announcing that she was transferring to another school, I was able to declare, through tears not abated by a buttermilk donut, “If I win, I will be 187 and 9,” my final tally. It took so many dry-runs to summon the courage to call Christine and ask her out that I still recall her phone number as faithfully as Jenny’s (from the song: 867-5309): 587 – _ _ _ _. When in 1994 we organized a reunion for Rooftop – our alternative public school, one of the city’s first, was relegated to the roof of another school — I was devastated to learn that Christine had told the classmate charged with calling up other alumni that she wouldn’t be coming, as she couldn’t remember anyone. I did: Besides Christine, Monica Woo, Maura Iaconi, and Kathy D., skipping up to Jackson Park for our lunch break in a red sweater and white skirt, a beret holding back her straight brown hair, and with whom I used to exchange the kind of teasing that among 11-year-olds is another form of flirting. (Also from the lunch breaks, I recall the most popular teacher, Ernie Baumgarten — who often came to school wearing the mask of our mascot, King Kong — laying on the grass with his ear glued to a transistor to follow the Watergate hearings. At the reunion, in a Fort Mason barrack overlooking the bay, after catching up with some of us, now in our ‘30s, Ernie would commiserate, “I know that many of you are still struggling.”) I’d fall for Kathy again eight years later, in 1981 – I remember the year because we saw “Atlantic City” together, Burt Lancaster ogling Susan Sarandon bathing her naked arms with lemon juice – when she was bobbing her hair and, as often seemed to be the case that year in Noe Valley, weighing her sexual orientation. (Though this observation may be my way of processing her lack of romantic interest in me.) When I next had news of Kathy, she was trundling Agnes DeMille around Greenwich Village and living at the aging choreographer’s pad at 11th and 5th, in the same building where Duchamp schemed up R. Mutt and turned a toilet into art. When I last saw her, in 1991, it was at the memorial service for her brother, who had killed himself. Her eyes were as luminous as ever. The only Rooftop girl I ever kissed was Kerry Baum, who with Gio Coppola, Francis’s son, had formed the school’s Bopsy Twins. I’d later interview Gio’s brother Roman – who’d produced one of the first films to exploit ‘70s nostalgia, “The Spirit of ’76,” in which Olivia d’Abo time-travels back to the era and falls in love with David Cassidy – and open my interview with his mom, Eleanor, on her “Making of Apocalypse Now” documentary, by conveying my condolences on the loss of Gio, killed after being bopped on the head by a mast while sailing with Ryan O’Neal’s boy. Another Rooftopper, Chris Perry,  would grow up to be the first person I knew to die of AIDS, which I learned of while doing a story on the Quilt in 1991 and discovering his name on a panel.

Once we’d debarked from the 24 and scaled the six flights of stairs to Rooftop, school would start with Morning Circle, a chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” followed by share-time. (I’d soon be studying auto-harp at his son Jodie Guthrie’s house,

balthus the card party smallBalthus, “The Card Party,” 1948-50. Oil on canvas, 140 x 194 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © Balthus.

forcing my instructor to teach me “Your Daddy’s Home,” and, later in Paris, would chow down with Woody’s daughter Nora.)  At one Morning Circle, a long-haired, freckle-faced kid named Aaron Burg divulged, “I had dried cat food for breakfast this morning. It’s actually quite good!” Another Aaron, my brother, signed his school picture to me that year, “Love, Aaron W..” And yet another would help launch my show-business career. A reporter for an about kids, by kids local t.v. show, “Whatchamacallit,” Aaron Wolf anchored a segment on Rooftop in which he said all we did was sit around reading comic books. (Actually, we made them. And Super-8 movies about vampire-heroes set to the theme from “Mission Impossible.” And tape-recorded Watergate spoofs in which I played Nixon: “Mitchell’s thinking of spilling the beans.” In 1985, regaining consciousness in the emergency room after passing out in the Herod-scale sunken mosaic bathtub of my dad and step-mom’s home while immersed in Swiss bubbles from her shop, Common Scents – I’d been nervous about a first date with an older woman, or maybe it was Kennedy’s bullet, the dread that anything can end when it’s only just begun — when the good-looking doctor asked me who the president was, I answered, “It’s not Nixon, is it?”) When “Whatchamacallit” refused to let us rebut, we decided to start our own show, What’s New With Kids?, which ran on radio station KPOO. (If you don’t like the news, make some of your own.) This lead to my being invited to audition for a new t.v. show, Kidswatch, and this oracular rejection note: “You seemed more like the brains behind the talent than an actual on the air personality.” But the Wolfs weren’t through with me yet. In 9th-grade drama, Aaron’s dreamy sister Naomi would play Roxanne to my Cyrano before she went on to play Rasputin to Al Gore, turning him into a girly-man with the image make-over that inadvertently launched a war and landed me on the front-page of France’s Communist paper, leading an American contingent demonstrating in Paris against the Iraq invasion in 2003.

shahn civil rights small

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ben Shahn, “Civil Rights March.” Copyright Ben Shahn.

Despite retaining all this minutia (I left out Inca Robbins’s nose-ring, marching with my mom against the war in 1966, and betraying the 25th Street Gang for the Jersey Street Gang, lured by Roxanne Sanchez), I have no other memories of my parents together from this period. Which is not to say I don’t have other charged souvenirs from the year we spent in Timber Cove in 1969: Knocking Aaron unconscious for four seconds; Aaron and I erecting our own fort in a cluster of trees overlooking the Pacific, and the set of Children’s Encyclopedias we stowed there getting water-logged; our discovering a typewriter in the secret attic that ringed the house; the towering redwoods outside our  room’s window whose foliage I made into faces; Aaron whining “Lemme go to sleep!” when I would not stop talking; looking under the bed for simians from “Planet of the Apes”; and obstinately refusing to return to school after glimpsing the slip of Mrs. Klein, who taught the lower grades in our little red schoolhouse of 40 kids. (I also associate a leather belt with this memory.)

PWI91668

Balthus, “The Cherry Tree,” 1940. Oil on wood,  92 x 72.9 cm. Roman Family, London. Copyright Balthus.

The upper grade teacher and principal, Mr. Cash, was run out of town at rifle-point after holding all the kids with brown eyes after school one day and all the kids with blue eyes the next to teach them about racism. (Which is not to say that racism was confined to rural California. Back at Alvarado School in Noe Valley the next year, 1970, I remember our work on the schoolyard mosaic mural – supervised by Ruth Asawa, the Japanese-American artist whose World War II imprisonment had taught her the importance of education – being interrupted one afternoon by the cry “A fight, a fight, a nigger and a white!”)

balthus la rue smallBalthus, “La Rue,” 1933. Oil on canvas, 195 x 240 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Thrall Soby. ©Balthus. Photo: 2018. Digital image, Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. Note the thick-licked, drugged-looking Black – or Arab — man assaulting the white girl, as everyone else goes blithely about their business.

From Timber Cove, I also remember plastering wine bottles with papier-maché to turn them into candle-stick holders as Christmas presents for my parents, and walking into the woods to chop down the biggest Christmas tree we’d ever had, so tall we had to carry it lengthwise to get it through the doorway. And Linda Murphy, our first teacher at Fort Ross, with her shoulder-length curly blonde tresses, handing out plastic blue raincoats the same Christmas and leading us in singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” And clinging to the mountainside along a narrow path teetering over a creek at the end of the year picnic, thinking that’s the first life I owe when I didn’t slip and plunge into the water.

I remember how privileged I felt when Miss Stettner, my kindergarten and second-grade teacher back in Noe Valley, came to visit us in Timber Cove. I have a distinct memory of her fording the rocks along the coast with her boyfriend in her knee-high black boots. (Retrieving Miss Stettner in 1991 teaching at a school where I was working in the after-school program, I would betray her request not to tell our common charges that she’d been my teacher, which she then denied. Joan Baez would have a similar Thanks for making me feel old reaction when, during a 1987 interview, I told her how my mom had introduced me to her at my first concert, by Bob Dylan, when I was four.) I remember refusing to traverse the field that lead to George Bohan’s house, even in my brand-new bicycle, because it was infested with wasps. And playing with our astronaut doll, Matt Mason, in an arroyo where we also discovered Pomo arrow-heads.  (Our pacifist parents wouldn’t let us have GI Joes or even cap guns. Back in Noe Valley, my best friend and his little brother had solved this dilemma by torching GI Joe and launching him from the roof of their garage.)

ruthnude2 smal

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ruth Asawa, “Nude.” Lithograph, 1965. Courtesy     Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

I remember returning to the woods to find the makings for a kipa for Cousin Jane and Martin’s wedding at the Timber Cove house, transformed into Fontainebleau West with all of Jane’s parents, step and birth, flown in from Boca Raton. (10 years later my mom’s young cousin, divorced from Martin, would in her turn guide me to another threshold. Seeing Camus looking out from the orange cover of Germaine Brée’s biography on the bookshelf of her Greenwich Village high-rise, and strolling on the Prospect Heights boardwalk with Jane — coquette in an orange blouse tucked into a short late-summer white dress — and her older friend Earl, a Hemingway biographer, the week before I started Princeton made me feel like I’d intellectually arrived. Even if finding a copy of “Mein Kampf” on the desk of my new roommate, Gordon Humbert Jones III, next to his neatly folded ROTC uniform made me wonder exactly where. No torching Gordon Humbert Jones III and tossing him off the roof of Princeton Inn College.) And making another kipa in the woods with Tracy Wedemeyer, who had been my girlfriend ever since we had neighboring cribs at Marin General, and the confidences we exchanged under our makeshift wedding bough. “You pick your nose too!?” (When Aaron married a Catholic girl in 1992, the red-nosed priest would let them install a kipa in the altar and crush the sacramental wine glasses with their feet. Which accommodation didn’t prevent four Jewish boys, me, Jordan, Eric, and my mom’s first ex-boyfriend Ralph – Jordan had once burst into the bedroom and cried “You’re not my daddy! What are you doing in my mommy’s bed?”  – from squirming uncomfortably when the priest began talking about the blood of Christ.) At nine, after Tracy’s family moved to Berkeley, I’d buy her a plastic engagement ring at Mr. Mopp’s. At 13, I’d have my first date as a teenager with Tracy, trying the old stretching arm around the chair and back maneuver, prompting her to lean forward in her seat in the theater where we were watching Tina Turner or Anne-Margaret bathe herself in baked beans in “Tommy,” on a double-bill with “Alice’s Restaurant.” (Where, yet another Guthrie promised, “You can get anything you want…’ceptin’ Alice.”) From the playmate who used to bite and scratch me up (“Come with me to Nursery School,” published in 1970, features a photo of Tracy using her feet to defend her swing from a pair of boys under the caption: “It’s important to take turns. Can you tell whose turn it is now?” and another of me determinedly climbing up a tree),Tracy had metamorphosed into a svelte, bronze-skinned California Girl with long straight blonde hair. When I last had news of her, she was married to a CBS Records vice-president and living in Venice Beach. When I last saw her, it was my 14th birthday, and we were both perched on the cusp of adulthood.

balthus 1 therese smallBalthus, “Thérèse,” 1938. Oil on carton on wood,  100.3 x 81.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of  Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, with William S. Lieberman, 1987. ©Balthus. Photo ©2018. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence.

For my third birthday, Tracy’s father Bill had given me what is now the oldest object I still possess, Ben Shahn’s illustrated book of Wallace Berry’s poem “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three”: “We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.” To which Bill had added an equally poignant inscription: “Years from now, you will learn of this event….  It often brings sadness, and perhaps despair, to the minds of some men, to witness the deeds of others. There are times when the goals of men seem to be so opposed to that dream of men that some of our minds hold, that indeed man seems lost. That this little book exists is a ray of proof that from this despair, beauty can still be born.” The dedication is signed “Bill, Patty (Tracy’s mom), Tracy, Bill again (her kid brother), and Breathless,” Breathless being the Wedemeyers’ Saint-Bernard. (And a sobriquet I now realize, in Francophile retrospect, may have been inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 film, at a 2003 Paris screening of which I was the only one in the audience to laugh when Jean-Paul Belmondo exhaled cigarette smoke after he’d already expired.)

Oh Breathless, where are you now?

dad timber cove smallChild is the father of the man: Ed Winer and his three sons Aaron, Jordan, and Paul behind the house on Bohan-Dillon Road, Halloween 1969. (The red strips of felt are for devils.) Photo: Eva Wise (then Winer).

Advertisements

Legacies: From Brazil’s torched history to Hugo’s Guernesey, Patrimony, Dispersed

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right: From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Four salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey. Est. pre-sale: 4,000-6,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Text by and copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak (revised, with a new ending)
Images Copyright 2012 Christie’s

(Like what you’re reading? Please make a donation to the DI & AV today by designating  your payment through PayPal to: paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Publisher Paul Ben-Itzak is also looking for an exchange — translation and editing services, communications, website management, arts consulting, DJing, theater teaching, English tutoring or other professional services for lodging — in Paris so that the DI/AV can further augment its arts and cultural coverage, and so that he can receive vital medical care. Please spread the word.)  

“I dedicate this book to this mountain of hospitality and liberty, to this corner of the old Normandy terrain where the noble humble people of the sea live, on the Ile of Guernesey, severe and gentle, my current refuge, my probable tomb.”

— Victor Hugo, “Les Travailleurs de la Mer,” introduction to Book 1, “L’Archipel de la Manche.”

First published by our sister magazine Art Investment News on April 4, 2012, the day that Christie’s Paris auctioned off 500 lots of art, correspondence, books, photographs, and other mementos and memorabilia belonging to the descendants of Victor, Jean, Valentine, and succeeding generations of  Hugos. Two days after another legacy was dispersersed – with 90% of the 20 million pieces of artifacts and documentation collected over 200 years perishing when Brazil’s National Museum, the largest institution of natural history in South America, went up in flames, not helped by the neglect of the federal and state governments – it seems appropriate to celebrate another national and international cultural legacy. Particularly one that demonstrates – the Brazilian catastrophe comes at a time when the most popular candidate in the imminent presidential election, convicted of corruption, has been ruled ineligible by the courts – the intimate connection between cultural and political heritages, between a Democratic civilization’s record and its perseverance. Former Brazilian environmental minister Marina Silva, cited in the Guardian, likened the catastrophe to “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.” If it is a lobotomy, it’s a  conscious one, the consequence of en epoch which prizes commodities which don’t produce anything — e.g., Facebook — over substance, and where faceless entities impose fiscal ‘austerity’ at the expense of national treasures.

What happened when that most celebrated exponent of French Letters and values, Victor Hugo, went into exile on an island — part of France until nature detached it from Normandy – under British sovereignty, where residents had to pay a yearly tribute to the Crown of two chickens and were taxed not on their income, but on their fortune? He fell in love with the place. Choosing exile after Napoleon III’s 1852 coupe, Hugo stopped over first in Brussels, then shortly afterwards landed in the Channel Island of Jersey and, evicted from there after criticizing Queen Victoria, settled in Guernesey (as he spelled it) in 1855, refusing a general amnesty offered by Napoleon in 1859 and not returning to France until the regime abdicated after the Prussian War debacle of 1870. Compared to France under Napoleon III (whom Hugo dubbed “Napoleon le petit,” enthroning a soubriquet that stuck), he discovered in Guernesey a cradle of liberty, regaling at its four newspapers. “Imagine a deserted isle,” he wrote in his introduction to “Les Travailleurs de la Mer,” the Workers of the Sea (1866). “The day after his arrival, Robinson creates a newspaper, and Friday subscribes…. Arrive, live, exist. Go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be who you want to be. No one has the right to know your name. Do you have your own god? Preach him. Do you have your own flag? Fly it. Where? In the street. It’s white? Fine. It’s blue? Very good. It’s red? Red is a color. Does it please you to denounce the government? Get up on the podium and speak…. Think, speak, write, print, harangue — it’s your own business.” (By way of testifying to the importance of institutions of cultural preservation: I only know about Hugo’s two-volume work because I was able to score a 1900-vintage edition at a sale proposed by the Upper West Side branch of the New York Public Library.)

hugo two adeleLeft: Lot 19: By Charles Hugo (1826-1871) or Auguste Vacquerie (1819 -1895), “Portrait of Adele Hugo as a young woman,” circa 1856. Set of eight prints, one salt print mounted on card, seven collotypes mounted on cards. Pre-sale estimate for the Christies auction: 9,000-12,000 Euros. Few photographs from this period exist of Adele Hugo, the artist’s daughter, whose tragic story is recounted in Francois Truffaut’s 1975 film “The Story of Adele H..” A copy of Grove Press’s complete script of the film is also on auction (est. 180 – 200 Euros), complete with a note from Truffaut to Jean Hugo: “For Jean Hugo, another screen between the reality and the fiction of today, with my gratitude and my loyalty.” Right: Lot 68: Edmond Bacot, “Les Misérables,” 1878. 10 large albumen prints mounted on cards of Cécile Daubray in the role of Cosette and Dumaine in the role of Jean Valjean, seven signed in red ink ‘Edouard Bacot’ (on the image); one signed and dated ‘Manday1878’ (on the image) and one titled and dated on the card. Env. 30.5 x 26 cm. Est. 3,000-5,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Convictions are fine, but what enabled Hugo to endure his exile from the soil which made him and the country in whose liberties he remained invested and so readily adapt to his new terrain was the family that surrounded him — initially at Marine Terrace in Jersey, then at Hauteville House in Guernesey. And whose members in their turn instantly took to the islands, notably Hugo’s son Charles, who, with August Vacquerie, set up a photographer’s studio in a side room at Marine Terrace in 1852. He had the eager backing of his father, who arranged to have the pioneering photographer Edmond Bacot send over books so that Charles could instruct himself. In Guernesey, on the third floor of Hauteville House, the room which Hugo called his ‘look-out’ was consecrated to a library. When Victor Hugo died in Paris in 1885 — a death so monumental that French officials didn’t just put the author in the Pantheon, they *moved* the Pantheon — if he left his oeuvre to France and the world, he left Hauteville House to his grandchildren Georges and Jeanne, all his immediate scions having preceded their father to the grave. When Georges died in 1925, Jean — Victor’s great-grandson, by then already an established artist and a cohort of Jean Cocteau — decided to give the bulk of Hauteville House’s remnants to the city of Paris.  But he hung on to some of the furniture, objects, books, and photographs, including the armoire in which Hugo stored his manuscripts as well as 50 original drawings by the author, who might have found full-time work as a caricaturist, draftsman, or painter had he not been so busy writing poems,  plays, treatises (against the death penalty, to recall one of his most celebrated causes), appeals (famously, a plea for mercy for the American abolitionist John Brown), novels  (“Les Miserables” was finished at Guernesey) and serving in national assemblies and local governments. (Hugo would later campaign for amnesty for the Communards of 1871, shortly after his return to France.) These sundry artifacts eventually made their way to Jean Hugo’s family home in Mas de Fourques, Lunel, near Montpellier, a dilapidated farmhouse — or so Marie-Jacqueline Lancaster, sister of Jean’s widow Lauretta, recalled in Lauretta’s 2005 London Independent obituary  — where peacocks were known to fall out of the trees and Lauretta produced a local victual called Muscat de Lunel. There she and her husband entertained the likes of Dali, Picasso, and Cocteau who, besides the peacocks, were likely to hear sheep being quartered outside their windows. (Also among the treasures were sketches by Jean’s first wife Valentine of Ballets Russes legends Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky.)

hugo three belgiumLot 179: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Souvenir de Belgique.” Charcoal, brush, and black ink, grey and brown wash heightened with white, on brown paper, in a painted frame, also made by Hugo. 157 x 594 mm. Est. 50,000-80,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

After Lauretta died, the seven children she’d had with Jean were confronted with a choice. “Raised among all these family souvenirs in the house of our father …, Jean Hugo, great-grandson of the poet,” they write in the Christie’s Paris catalog for today’s auction, “it was only after the death of our mother Lauretta that we heard the word ‘partage’ (in French, this can mean ‘divide’ but also ‘share’), which entrained the word ‘dispersion,’ which in turn made us pronounce the word ‘sale’ because, in effect: how to cut up into seven pieces the crown of Leopoldine?,” this last being one of Victor Hugo’s two, short-lived daughters, the other being Adele, immortalized by Isabel Adjani in Francois Truffaut’s 1975 film “The story of Adele H.”

hugo four guerneseyLot 25: Thomas Singleton, “Views of Guernesey,” circa 1870. Set of 12 prints: Eight large albumen prints mounted on cards; four unframed prints. Various dimensions, from 13 x 20 cm. to 27.5 x 39 cm. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

I like this term ‘dispersion.’ (Hugo’s descendents have apparently also inherited his knack for the well-chosen verb.) At first I found it depressing to conceive of this concentrated trove of Hugo memorabilia –  not just the artifacts of the writer and his descendants, but the reflections of his intelligence and culture represented by the books he collected and prized – being dispersed to disparate coins of the globe in all the 500 parts on auction today. Then I recalled that there are still places to find concentrated  Hugo cachets – notably the Victor Hugo House in Paris and the Bibliotheque National Française. (For a sampling – here of Victor Hugo’s artworks — check the BNF’s virtual exposition, Victor Hugo, l’homme ocean.) And then I considered that word dispersion, as well as the verb partage, in its meaning share. When I lived in France from 2001 to 2010, every weekend I’d scour the vide greniers (essentially neighborhood-wide garage sales: vide = empty; grenier = attic) for French memorabilia. The vintage carafes and ashtrays I amassed (I probably had the most ashtrays of any non-smoker in France), promoting various marks of pastis and regional aperitifs, were not just meaningless societal detritus but conduits into a cultural past I hadn’t grown up with but that I hoped to adapt and assimilate. And those were only carafes and ashtrays — repositories of popular culture, not high culture. (For the Frenchmen and women disposing of these quotidian objects, elevated in this culture and thus immune to their inherent charm for the budding Francophile, they were just junk cluttering up the attic.) Today at Christie’s, at estimated prices some of which are not much higher than what I paid for those carafes, one can acquire a morsel of the most important literary legacy in modern French history.

hugo five jerseyLot 26: “Jersey & Guernesey.” Two private albums with views of Guernesey and Jersey, and one on Venice. Est. 2,000-3,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo six chimney and leopoldineLot 174: Left: Victor Hugo (1802-1885), “Project for a chimney in the dining room at Hauteville House.” Brown wash. 278 x 228 mm. Est. 8,000-12,000 Euros. Right: Lot 161: Victor-Marie Hugo, “Portrait of Léopoldine, profile, or Fracta Juventus.” Pencil. 122 x 70 mm. Hugo’s daughter was just 19 years old when she passed away in 1843. Est. 2,000-3,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

But before they’re dispersed, let’s return these souvenirs one last time to the hearth of Jean and Lauretta Hugo in Mas de Fourques, as recalled and evoked by their children (in an introduction to the Christie’s catalog for this sale), the great-great-grandchildren of the Great Man:

“On winter nights, our father would get a book from the shelves and, seated near the chimney of the large library, a monocle fixed under his eyebrow, read us poems. We’d listen without budging, our large children’s eyes posed on him. The verses transported us to shipwrecks, skies, pits, valleys filled up with the songs of birds: ‘Oceano Nox,’ ‘Stella,’ ‘Booz asleep.’

“At the end of the evening, we’d leave the library to return to our rooms, but not before pausing for a long while before Saint Antoine, a painting previously stowed in the black cabinet of Hauteville House. This painting, close to the universe of Bosch, fascinated us. Naked bodies, buttocks in the air, suspended from tree branches, a character emerging from an earthenware jar, a bird with a long beak, a big fish with an arm running on muscled legs, a sort of inverted siren…. Alone in our rooms, our imaginations took flight in our dreams.

“Today, at the dawn of the millennium, the sale dispersing the souvenirs conserved in the family for so many years opens to present generations a day newly illuminated by this past.”

The idea could apply to the writings of Victor Hugo themselves. In “La vie devant soi” (All of Life Before You; Editions Mercure de France, Paris, 1975), written by Romain Gary under the pen name Emile Ajar, the adolescent narrator befriends an old man who sits in front of his Belleville apartment building every day. Even as the man starts to lose his memory, he clings to two books, his guides in life: In the one hand, the Koran; in the other, “Monsieur Hugo.”

hugo seven profile and judgeLeft: Lot 166: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Veiled profile.” Brown wash. 315 x 206 mm. Est. 3,000-5,000 Euros. Right: Lot 159: Victor-Marie Hugo, “Caricature of a Judge Wearing a Hat.” Brown wash. Est. 1,500 – 2,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo eight caricatures women's visagesLot 170: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Caricatures: Two visages of women.” Pen and ink and brown wash. Est. 2,500-3,500 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo nine always cryingLot 175: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Celui-ci pleurait toujours” (This one is always crying or is still crying). Brush, brown wash. Est. 8,000-12,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo ten jean hugo faustLot 359: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Faust Magicien,” 1929. 31 painted glass plaques for a magic lantern by Jean Hugo, eight other glass plaques by Jean Hugo, and one other plaque showing the reproduction of a Diane Chasseresse painting. Est. 10,000-15,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo eleven jean hugo faust magicianLot 359: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Faust Magicien,” 1929. 31 painted glass plaques for a magic lantern by Jean Hugo, eight other glass plaques by Jean Hugo, and one other plaque showing the reproduction of a Diane Chasseresse painting. Est. 10,000 – 15,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo twelve jean hugo mosquito menLot 389: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Mosquito Men,” circa 1937. Gouache and watercolor on paper. 1 & 2: 8.2 x 13 cm. 3: 11.8 x 15 cm. Est. 1,000-1,500 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo thirteen vallottan the chargeLot 369: Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), “L’Anarchiste” and “La charge” (pictured above). (Vallotton/Goerg 104; 128.) A set of two woodcuts on wove paper, 1892 and 1893, years when anarchism was in vogue in some sectors in France. As with all pieces described in this article/gallery, interested parties should read full lot descriptions and any condition report. Est. 800-1200 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo fourteen riviereLot 371: Henri Riviere (1864-1951), “Le Lavoir au Haut-Trestraou,” 1891. Woodcut in colors with hand-coloring. 24 x 35.6 cm. Like some other Impressionists and post-Impressionists, Riviere was known for emulating the style of Japanese prints of the epoch. Est. 500-700 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo fifteen vallotton seaLot 372 Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), “La Mer,” 1893. (Vallotton Goerg 112.) Woodcut, signed in pencil. Est. 800-1,200. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo sixteen valentine hugo karsavinaLeft: Lot 315: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), Tamara Karsavina in “The Fire Bird.” Pastel on blue paper. 24.6 x 13 cm. Est. 1,500-2,000 Euros. Right: Lot 311 Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), Tamara Karsavina in “The Golden Rooster.” Charcoal on tracing paper. 31 x 22 cm. Est. 300 – 500 Euros. Both images ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo seventeen valentine hugo karsavina and nijinskyLeft: Lot 307: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), “Nine studies of dancers for Karsavina and Nijinsky.” Pencil on tracing paper. 38 x 27 cm. Est. 600-800 Euros. Right: Lot 306: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), “Four studies for Nijinsky.” Pencil and colored crayon on paper. Largest piece 27 x 21 cm. Est. 600-800 Euros. Both images ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo eighteen valentine hugo sylphidesLot 309: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968). Study for “Les Sylphides.” Pencil on tracing paper. Jean Hugo’s first wife, Valentine was renowned for her sketches of Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and the Ballets Russes. Est. 300-500 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo nineteen valentine hugo cocteau auricLeft: Lot 338: Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), “Portrait of Georges Auric.” Pen, India Ink, and watercolor on paper. 16 x 11 cm. Never mind the impression you might have that one has to be a big spender to collect art by masters; this one is estimated pre-sale at just 100-150 Euros. Imagine! To be able to own for that little a Cocteau, and one depicting Georges Auric, who composed the music for Cocteau’s signature films “The Blood of a Poet,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Orpheus,” as well as John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge,” Max Ophuls’s “Lola Montes,” and Jean Delannoy’s “Notre-Dame de Paris.” Right: Lot 334: Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), “Le Centaure et les femmes.” Pencil on paper. 29 x 23 cm. Est. 1,000-1,500 Euros. Both images ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo twenty cocteau chessLot 332: Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), “The Chess Match, Jean Hugo and Pierre Colle.” India ink on paper. 32 x 21 cm. Est. 2,000-3,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo twenty-one jean hugo maries tour eiffelLeft: Lot 357: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Study for a tapestry intended for a fire screen for the Vicount de Noailles,” dated and inscribed on the reverse, 1929. Gouache on paper. 20.5 x 18 cm. Right: Lot 388A: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Three characters for ‘Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel,’ play by Jean Cocteau.” Three pieces. Above piece titled ‘A Director’ at lower right. Gouache on paper. 29.5 x 22 cm. Est. 5,000-7.000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.