War is over (esperant), summer is here, & a très bean toe Marcel Gromaire

gromaire roubaix marne

Gromaire Roubaix warAs 150 paintings, drawings, engravings, and other oeuvres by Marcel Gromaire (1892 – 1971) ride off into the sunset after successive exhibitions in Séte, Honfleur, and most recently la Piscine (Swimming Pool) in Roubaix, France — many of Gromaire’s explosions of color no doubt returning to languish in the sombre basement of the Modern Art Museum of the city of Paris, which apparently prefers exhibiting contemporary artists no one’s ever heard of to Modern artists more people should know about — we thought we’d give you two last, in our view appropriate for the particular juncture we’re living in the world and in France right now, perspectives from the versatile artist who was as at home writing comics for a satirical magazine as sketching his comrades in the trenches of “the Great War,” conceiving massive public murals and tapestries, penning the first book (in 1925) on painting and the infant art of cinema, illustrating a book of Charles Baudelaire’s “Spleen” poems (you can find it at the Art Institute of Chicago), or infusing buxom bare-breasted babes with splendiferous color, often in hues of bright green, gold, and red. And no matter the subject, Gromaire almost always made sure to include a splotch of sky in the background. ‘Scuse us while we kiss him (in good Franglais) ‘a bean toe’. Top: Marcel Gromaire, “Les bords de la Marne,” 1925. Oil on canvas. Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Photo: Eric Emo et Stéphane Piera © ADAGP, Paris, 2019. Bottom: Marcel Gromaire, “|La Guerre,” 1925. Oil on canvas, 130 × 97 cm. Paris, Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville. Photo: Julien Vidal/Parisienne de Photographie. © ADAGP, Paris 2020.

When Gromaire celebrated ceramics

Marcel Gromaire, Sevres, smallerFrom the exhibition Marcel Gromaire, l’élégance de la force, theoretically on view through Sunday at la Piscine in Roubaix, France, after earlier runs in Séte and Honfleur: Marcel Gromaire, “Sèvres ou Les Arts de la Terre et du Feu ou Les Loisirs ou Les Temps libres ou La Paix sous le soleil de France” [model for a ceramic mural for the pavilion of Ceramic and Glass Art at the 1937 Exposition], 1936 . Oil on canvas, 89 × 250 cm. Roubaix,
La Piscine – Musée d’art et d’industrie André Diligent. Dépôt du Musée national d’Art moderne en 2000. Photo: A. Leprince © ADAGP, Paris 2020. For more coverage of the exhibition, subscribers please e-mail artsvoyager@gmail.com. Not yet a subscriber to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager? You can subscribe today for just $59 or Euros / year ($32/Euros for students, independent artists, healthcare or food service workers or the unemployed), by designating your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or writing us at that address to learn how to pay by check.

(Updated 6 p.m. French time)What’s wrong with this picture? In the Heart of Darkness with Marcel Gromaire and the ‘Humanists,’ or, Pour quoi nous ne sommes pas tous Princesse Tam-Tam

gromaire abolitionThe press packet for the exhibition Marcel Gromaire, l’Elegance de la Force, theoretically on view through Sunday at the Piscine in the Northern French city of Roubaix after earlier runs in Sete and Honfleur, describes the massive fresque “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” (above), commissioned by the State in 1949 to commemorate the 1848 abolition of slavery in France and celebrate its primary government instigator, undersecretary of state Victor Schoelcher (at right) and Marianne, the icon of French democracy (at left), as a ‘humanist’ composition. And yet an even cursory study of the picture, whose original measures 40 square meters, suggests a more nuanced interpretation: the Black (naked) savages liberated by the benevolent white bwanas. I’m of course not calling into question either Marianne or Schoelcher themselves, both laudable, voir heroic and justifiably lionized figures, but specifically questioning the hierarchy in Gromaire’s composition, his depiction of the Black personages (more the men than the women, whose curves and bare breasts are typical to Gromaire women of any color, and about which you won’t find this misogynist complaining, in fact it’s part of the allure for me of the painter who up until now has been my favorite) and their supplicating postures, and thus the painting’s qualifications as ‘humanist.’ This over-simplification — and apportioning of the roles of victim and liberator — is not unique to French artists. Abraham Lincoln was also mythologized (including by Black artists) as the savior of Black people, as if the Civil War were fought only for their freedom. More troubling is that in reality, by 1949, 100 years after their liberation on paper, Blacks were far from free from racialist denigration by French writers and artists (as was also the case in the United States, where the consequences were more lethal) . (I prefer the term ‘racialist’ to ‘racist,’ which implies a malevolent intention which isn’t necessarily always there; I myself was — and am — racialist when it comes to my idea of Black men. I don’t know if I’ll ever rectify this in my heart; all I can do is try to correct it in my deeds and writings.) Already, in 1935, a French film director, Edmond T. Greville, could make a movie (also released in the U.S.) starring Josephine Baker, “Princess Tam-Tam,” which, notwithstanding its American star’s enjoying more civil rights in France than she would have in her native country (let alone not risking being shot in her own home, as was a young Black woman in my former home city Fort Worth, Texas, not too long ago), terminates with Baker, portraying a ‘native’ that the ‘cultivated’ white novelist has ultimately been unable to civilize (for much of the movie he appears to have done so, until he wakes up to realize this was just a dream, and not of the Martin Luther King Jr. variety), smiling approvingly as the monkey she’s let into the Tunisian villa the white man’s left her knocks over a shelf of books and a jackass gobbles up a tome called “Civilization.” (Returning home from a pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis in 2019, in the corridor of the City Hall Metro station I spotted a billboard for a line of lingerie — in which only one of the half-dozen scantily clad models was moderately dark-skinned — announcing “Nous sommes tous Princesse Tam-Tam,” “We are all Princess Tam-Tam.” When I later asked an employee of the brand’s boutique — ironically flanking the entrance to the Montmartre space of the Theatre de la Ville, lately known for presenting a number of dance companies from Africa — the origin of the name, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”) In 1957 — eight years after Gromaire’s monumental work was unveiled in the l’Assemblée de l’Union française in the château of Versailles — Léo Malet, the father of the Modern French detective novel, could have his hero PI / narrator Nestor Burma observe, in “Micmac Moche au Boul’Mich’,” part of Malet’s “New Mysteries of Paris” series (later made into a popular television show): “They say that Negros diffuse a particular smell….” In 2006, the Paris Opera Ballet could present, in the august Garnier Palace, a ballet by its former director, Serge Lifar, in which white male dancers covered with black make-up portrayed ‘savages’ leaping about like gorillas. These racial stereotypes — and if anything they were and still are as if not more widespread in the United States, and with much more vehemence in certain states, than in France — are not benign. Far from being ‘humanistic,’ they vehicle a dehumanization of the Black man and woman which ultimately leads to events (because they are depicted as less than fully human) like the recent stalking and murder of a Black man in Georgia and Monday’s murder in Minneapolis of a Black man named George Floyd, whose stifled cries of “I can’t breathe” did not convince a white police officer to take his knee off Floyd’s throat, as three other officers allegedly stood by. (I’m NOT saying the 1949 painting lead to the 2020 slaying, but rather that its one-dimensional depiction of Black people is part of a long, ongoing history by Occidental, white artists and writers of reducing people because of their race which makes it easier to not see them as fully human.) Among the tributes at an impromptu memorial to Floyd deposited on a Minneapolis sidewalk was this handwritten sign: “I’m not black but I see you.” The problem with Marcel Gromaire’s “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” — and which makes it more dehumanizing than ‘humanist’ — is that while he sees the white re-enfranchisers, he doesn’t really see the liberated Black men and women as anything but helpless victims completely reliant on their previous enslavors for their liberation, his one-dimensional depictions ultimately denying them their franchise as fully realized human beings. (To those who would defend Malet by saying that his, or at least his hero-narrator’s, views on Blacks are just a reflection of the times — I say ‘are’ because the novel with that description of Blacks was proudly re-published by Robert Laffont in 1985, with no exculpatory note by editor Francis Lacassin — I would answer with Eugene Sue. In Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris,” written a hundred years earlier and whose title inspired Malet, by far the noblest character is an African-American physician from Louisiana, Dr. Paul, who has a crisis of conscience when the hero, his employer, barbarically orders him to pierce the eyes of the saga’s villain as an alternative to sending him to prison. There are none so blind as those who will not see.) The press pack for the Rubaix exhibition also quotes Gromaire, while he was working in his ‘hangar’ on his ‘great machine,’ as confessing, “I’ll be happy… […] [to] find out if I succeed in revitalizing painting by official commission; let Delacroix protect me!” The invocation is unfortunate; despite the reputation he has for inspiring the original sin of Orientalism, the sketches Delacroix made when he accompanied an official French diplomatic delegation to North Africa in the 1830s were much more respectful than Gromaire’s results here, unafflicted by any Romanticism — negative or positive. What ultimately bothers me in the hierarchy of Gromaire’s composition — and prompts me to dispute the painting’s claim to a great ‘humanism’ — is his perspective: “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” doesn’t so much fete that milestone as canonize the cagers for simply deciding to open up the cage and free those who should never have been enchained in the first place, in the process freeing themselves. Painting credits: Marcel Gromaire, “L’Abolition de l’esclavage (detail),” 1950. Oil on canvas pasted on wood. Commissioned by the State; deposited at the Centre national des arts plastiques in 1991. Photo: A. Loubry – © ADAGP, Paris 2020. George Floyd tribute seen on the website of The Progressive. — Paul Ben-Itzak

PS: Speaking of Delacroix: To make sure it’s absolutely clear that the target of my criticism in the Gromaire painting is not Marianne, but rather the relative importance of the roles the painter assigns to her and to the Black personages in their liberation, I’ve decided to also share a reproduction of Eugene Delacroix’s 1831 painting “Liberty Guiding the People.” Note that here the Marianne-like figure isn’t *liberating* the people, but rather *leading* them; they are active players in their own liberation from oppression.

Le 28 juillet 1830 : la Liberté guidant le peupleEugene Delacroix, “Liberty Guiding the People,” 1831. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

Gromaire’s “Ragmen” chez Artcurial: Paris, c’est pas que le chaos; c’est surtout l’art qui fait du sense de la chaos

December artcurial Gromaire LES CHIFFONNIERSAmong the work on sale in Artcurial’s Tuesday Impressionism and Modern sale in Paris is, above, Marcel Gromaire’s “Les Chiffonniers (The Ragmen),” 1958. Oil on canvas, 51 1/8 x 63 3/4 inches. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 40,000 – 60,000 Euros. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

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The Permanent Humanity of Marcel Gromaire

Gromaire Sculpteur 1949 lot 133 smallLight & matter: In Marcel Gromaire’s 1949 oil on canvas “Sculptor,” measuring 31 7/8 x 39 3/8 inches and on sale today in Paris for Artcurial’s Impressionist and Modern Sale, a grid seems to be imposed over the torso of the live model, the clay has already assumed her curvy proportions, the figure of the sculptor is ephemeral, and the light (and outside world) filters from a large window. Signed and dated lower right; signed, dated, and titled on the back. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 30,000 – 40,000 Euros. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

The universe of Marcel Gromaire (1892 – 1971) – as confirmed by a number of the 10 Gromaire oils and inks available in the November 28 Impressionist and Modern Sale at Artcurial Paris — is a universe in which there is almost always light. Construction workers, soldiers, nude models, stairways on narrow somber streets, rooftops; even if it’s not the central subject, a patch of sky is usually hovering somewhere, a reminder of the larger world in which the scene is taking place. The result is that nothing is detached from life. “My mission as a painter,” Gromaire once explained, “is to give art a permanent and humane image.” If, viewed with a post-feminist (using the term ‘post’ loosely) sensibility, the native of northern France’s nude ink sketches and paintings (many sexually suggestive), with their visages frequently indistinct and even smudged, the bust always ample, the positions often not simply neutral but provocative, can be justly taxed with objectifying women, they can also be viewed as humane, the conniptions of the body and the head often suggesting an inner turmoil. In lieu of Lotharian intentions, perhaps it is simply that, having commenced his artistic career by sketching the rat-riddled trenches of World War 1 (for a series published by the revue Le Crapouillot in almost real time, and later issued in a very limited edition book) in which he was embedded and which reeked of the putrid stench of death, he simply wanted to focus, a la Courbet in “The Creation of the World,” on the source of life, the perfume of sex, the elixir of rejoicing, the nourishment (in the breast) of sustenance. (The drama of the nudes also owes something to his cinematic eye; Gromaire authored, in 1925, the first treatise on the manifestation of painterly values in the nascent medium of motion pictures.)

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