Dr. Barnes, Je presume: How a French critic managed to thwart the will of the Monstre Sacre of American Collectors

Ragon Cezanne card playersFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Paul Cézanne (Aix-en-Provence, 1839-1906, Aix-en-Provence), “The Card Players,” c. 1890-92. Oil on canvas, 65.4 x 81.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. 61.101.1. RP 707. 

by and copyright Michel Ragon
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

First published in the Jardin des Arts, November 1964. Michel Ragon turns 95 today. Also celebrating a birthday today is PB-I’s mother Eva Wise, to whom the translation is dedicated. To read more work by Michel Ragon, enter his name on the Arts Voyager search engine, or visit our sister site the Maison de Traduction. Like what you’re reading? Please make a donation today so that we can continue this work. You can designate your payment through PayPal in dollars or Euros to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail.

MERION, Pennsylvania — During my recent stay in the United States, I was able to obtain — via the State Department, of whom I was the guest — the authorization to visit the Barnes Collection.

I had to wait a month before being admitted, on a Friday, among the 200 visitors who, twice per week, are authorized by the descendants of Dr. Barnes to penetrate his house in Merion, outside Philadelphia.

The State Department must have emphasized my credentials as a novelist and not as an art critic because even today, 13 years after the death of the famous collector, his house is off-limits mainly to journalists and anyone else interested in artistic matters. Reportages on the collection — at least those offering a room-by-room analysis — are thus rare. They tend to focus rather on the works known to have been acquired by the doctor. The secrecy which surrounds the works, the quarantine of the foundation to specialists, the impossibility of reproducing the paintings because it’s also forbidden to photograph not only the interior of the museum, but even the exterior, has endowed the Barnes collection with the mystique of forbidden fruit.

Departing specially from New York for Philadelphia, to get to Merion I had to take a petit suburban train. If Merion is a suburb of Philadelphia, it’s a rural suburb. A miniscule train station, a road which winds along parks lead to the iron grill of the Barnes property. A uniformed police officer stationed in a large car bars the alley. After verifying that my name was indeed on the list, he authorized me to penetrate the park, dominated by a spacious demeure “à la française.” After this you still need to ford the gauntlet of uniformed guards, fork over the $1 entry fee as in any normal museum, and then you’re finally free to roam from one room of the apartments to the next, to regard the works as long as you like, and to take notes, without which this article would not have been possible. All this under the eyes of an army of stony-faced guardians.

But before describing the Barnes collection, it might be useful to recount its origins and, along the way, to sketch a portrait of its founder.

The “Argyrol” millionaire

Albert C. Barnes is the very model of the type of American collector of whom I’ve been able to view numerous contemporary counterparts. These ‘self-made men’ are a sort of Mr. Jourdain as likely to have brilliant streaks of inspiration as to fall prey to ludicrous infatuations. Millionaires subject to chaotic aesthetic impulses, they’re absolutely convinced of being the modern equivalent of the Renaissance art patron.

Born in Philadelphia on January 2, 1872, Barnes had a father who worked for the municipal abattoirs. Often unemployed, he was unable to support the elementary needs of the family. Dr. Barnes’s childhood thus took place in the slums of the fringes of the city. At 11 he started working, as a newsboy. But at 13, an unexpected scholarship enabled him to go to high school, where he cemented friendships with two boys who would go on to become the major American painters of the turn of the century, or at least valued as such in America, John Sloan and William J. Glackens.

Ragon John SloanJohn Sloan (1871 – 1951), “Six O’Clock, Winter, 1912.” Oil on canvas. ©2011 Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Acquired 1922, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. . From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”

The origins of Albert C. Barnes’s passion for painting date from these adolescent encounters. His classmates effectively opened up to him a world of art to which he was previously oblivious, with the initial reaction that he tried to become a painter himself. While he was studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania he even participated in some exhibitions. To his fellow students he declared, “I want to earn a lot of money as quick as possible so that I can be free to dedicate myself to the major interest of my life: Art.”

He found his method of making money in Heidelberg, in 1900, in the person of a fellow student, Herman Hille, in the process of preparing a chemistry thesis. Forging a friendship, the two young men conducted experiments together on silver vitellinate. Who should get the credit for what? It seems evident that Dr. Barnes could not have conducted the experiments without Dr. Hille because when he returned to the United States, he asked Hille to join him. Together they put the finishing touches, in 1902, on an anti-septic which they dubbed “Argyrol.” From the moment the product went on sale, success was immediate and Barnes set about eliminating his collaborator and friend. Eventually worn down, Hille sold his shares to Barnes for several hundred thousand dollars.

Barnes starts acquiring

Exclusive owner of Argyrol, Dr. Barnes, who refused to file a patent for his discovery so that the formula would remain secret, renounced his career as a painter to devote himself to the metier of collector.

Ragon John Marin Tank mountains MaineFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: John Marin (1870-1953). “Tunk Mountains, Maine,” 1948. Oil on canvas. ©Estate of John Marin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Collection of Louisiana Art & Science Museum, Baton Rouge. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

His initial purchases, in the galleries of New York and Philadelphia, focused on the painters of the Barbizon School, then in vogue among American collectors. When he hooked up again with Glackens, this last, dismayed, realized that his wealthy friend had become the easy target of art dealers of questionable honesty, who took advantage of him to liquidate their holdings of second-rate paintings. Glackens urged him to go to New York and see the modern work being showcased by Alfred Stieglitz. Sloan, also reunited with his former classmate, seconded this idea. Barnes thus gave himself over to acquiring the work of the American modern painters who formed, on the eve of World War I, the first American school of modern painting, known as the Ashcan School: Prendergast, Demuth, and John Marin. Interested via them in Modern Art, Barnes decided he wanted to know their French models. To this end, he sent Glackens to Paris in 1912, with a $20,000 budget, to sow the seeds of his collection. Glackens started out by buying, from Renoir, his “Young Girl Reading.” Next he acquired Van Gogh’s “Portrait of the postman Roulin”; in total 20 paintings, among them Gauguin, Pissarro, Monet, Seurat, Degas.

Confronted with this bounty, Barnes, completely stupefied, was convinced that the art dealers of Paris must have strung Glackens along like the art dealers of New York had strung him along. Glackens nevertheless urged him to live among these paintings for a while, and Barnes was rapidly conquered by Impressionism.

In January 1913, he in turn traveled to Paris, and the role that Glackens had played for him with Impressionism, Leo and Gertrude Stein performed with Cubism. It was in effect chez the Steins that Barnes discovered Picasso, Matisse, Juan Gris, Léger, Braque. Before leaving he bought a new Renoir for $800 and a Matisse and a Picasso for $10. In this same year of 1913, he added 14 canvasses by Cezanne to the two he already possessed.

Sure of himself, Dr. Barnes started writing about art. His ideas began to earn him a reputation for extravagance. Without doubt many agreed with him when he argued that the cubist Picasso was making a fool of the public, but they were scandalized when he claimed that he’d never trade one of his Renoirs for a Raphael “Madonna.” Already, Barnes did not hold back or impose any restrictions on himself when it came to his paintings. Every year, on arriving in Paris he set aflutter the art dealers for whom he’d become “the uncle from America.” Paul Guillaume succeeded in retaining him and sold him numerous African sculptures as well as work by Segonzac, Marcoussis, Foujita, Van Dongen, Marie Laurencin, and Derain. Pascin introduced him to Lipchitz, whom he considered to be the most important contemporary sculptor, and from whom he commissioned an exterior decoration for his foundation.

Up to this point, as we’ve seen, Dr. Barnes’s choices had been singularly guided. But in January 1923 an event took place which would go on to make of Dr. Barnes the “collector-creator” that he dreamed of being. In Paul Guillaume’s vitrine he spotted a canvas by an unknown painter who set him off: Chaim Soutine’s “Petit Patissier.” (Little Baker.) He reproached Paul Guillaume, dumbfounded, for not having told him about such an ingenious painter. Paul Guillaume was not particularly interested in Soutine, but he was aware that a struggling dealer, Zborowski, was desperately trying to sell Soutine’s work. Barnes and Paul Guillaume therefore hurried over to Zborowski’s. Barnes bought his entire stock of Soutines, according to some accounts for 60,000 francs. (Less than $100.) But Barnes wanted to meet the artist, who he found in his reeking studio in La Ruche. (The Hive, a fulcrum for Montparnasse artists in the 1920s.) Without hesitating he bought, once more, every single painting or, with those acquired from Zborowsky, 100 in total.

The collection is put off limits

At this point Dr. Barnes found himself in possession of a collection so important that he decided, with good reason, to display it at the Fine Arts School of Pennsylvania. On April 11, 1923, he therefore let the public see his great treasures for the first time. The reaction in the press was unanimous. Some spoke of the art of madmen, others of garbage, and they all attacked Soutine, who in Barnes’s eyes was the great painter he’d been searching for for so long.

Devastated, Barnes decided to close the doors of his foundation to journalists. This foundation, reserved for students –among whom, recalling his own impoverished origins, Barnes made sure were included numerous Blacks and workers — opened in the Spring of 1924. As is the case today, it was open to the public just two days per week — with the proviso that every visitor had to be approved by Barnes, who minutely scrutinized the identities of those demanding permission. Thus it was that Le Corbusier was excluded and that Alfred H. Barr, celebrated curator of the Modern Art Museum, had to use a fake name and sneak in with a group of professors.

As he grew older, Dr. Barnes became impossible, getting into arguments with everybody, committing ill-considered acts during his changes of mood (as when he traded seven magnificent Cezannes for inferior 18th-century tableaux), engaged in polemics with the newspapers, and pursued his hatred against everyone connected, whether intimately or at a distance, with the art world. On July 24, 1951, speeding along at his customary 124 KM an hour, as if the road belonged to him, he hit a truck and died instantly.

Following several trials over the possibility of opening the collection to the broader public, a 1961 court decision ordered that the foundation allow it to be visited two days per week by a minimum of 200 people. But the foundation’s directors still select who can come in and who cannot, choosing among the requests addressed to them.

Ragon Cezanne bathersPaul Cézanne, (Aix-en-Provence, 1839-1906, Aix-en-Provence), “Bathers,” 1899-1904. Oil on canvas, 51.3 x 61.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Amy McCormick Memorial Collection, Chicago, inv. no. 1942.457. RP 859. Critiquing an earlier “Bathers” tableau included in the third Independent Impressionist exhibition mounted in April 1878 at 6, rue Le Peletier, the critic Georges Riviere wrote in “L’Impressioniste,” a journal launched expressly for the exhibition at Renoir’s suggestion, that Cézanne, “the artist who has been most subjected to attack and maltreatment during the last fifteen years by both press and public,” “belongs to the race of giants. Since he cannot be compared with anyone else, people find it easier to deny him his due. Yet he has his admired counterparts in the history of painting; and if the present does not render him justice, the future will class him with his peers, among the demi-gods of art.” (Cited by Henri Perruchot in “La Vie de Cézanne,” Hachette, 1958, published in English as “Cezanne,” World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, copyright Perpetua Limited, 1961. Perruchot was Ragon’s editor at the Jardin des Arts magazine.) Courtesy Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.

Thus it was that I found myself entering the first room, dominated by the large fresco of Matisse’s “Bathers,” executed by the artist at Barnes’s request in 1933 and of which an initial version can be seen at the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris. One is initially astounded by the quantity of Renoirs and Cezannes. Notably the latter’s “Bathers” and “Card Players.” But among the 120 Renoirs that one finds from room to room, the worse are mixed in with the best. That is to say that there are Renoirs next to Maillols, but also a lot of Renoirs next to Boldinis.

This is for example the case in two small rooms, on the two sides of a larger one and where, next to Renoir, one finds accesorized very tiny works by Degas, Seurat, Rousseau, Van Gogh, and Daumier.

A Museum in Complete Disorder

Moving from room to room, one is stopped short by indisputable chefs-d’oeuvre, and surprised by the high number of mediocre works, all stacked together, all epics melanged, with absolutely no concern for museology. And there are almost as many Glackens as there are Renoirs.

Take Room III. You’ve got Puvis de Chavanne’s “Prometheus,” a small Titien, a large Renoir, two small, outrageously varnished Chardins, one Milton Avery (a second-tier American painter), a miniscule Bosch, “Christ outraged,” a small Greco, “Jesus before the Crucifixion,” and several small medieval masters.

In Room IV, more anonymous medievals, a small Lucas de Leyde triptyque, a Chinese portrait from the XIIIth century, a small Durer, next to a Lancret, a Rubens sketch, and a small icon.

Room V, a “Man in a Hat,” by Hals, hangs below a Watteau, right next to a wall of Renoirs. A decent little Bosch hangs above Cezanne’s “Small swimmers,” right next to a Rubens placed, of course, below a Renoir. A Seurat sea-scape. A nice Soutine portrait in red and a skinned lapin by the same author below a Demuth.

One can’t help being surprised by the sorry lot of Soutine’s paintings. Whereas Renoir is throughout accorded the place of honor, Soutine merits no better, more often than not, than being perched above the doors, where he’s hard to see. Did Barnes thus want to protect his favorite painter from potential assaults?

The pell-mell confusion of values, the senseless placement, is noticeable in every room. In Room VI, for example, there’s a large and beautiful Renoir swimmer in blouse, flanked by two small Corots, one Lotiron (sic), and a Goya portrait. Gauguin’s “Haere Pape” is smothered under a Renoir head, between two Prendergasts. A decent Manet (of fishermen tossing a boat into a fire) is next to a little “Annonciation” by Greco and a curious small Cezanne landscape, in full ink, next to Van Gogh. Two Chirico personages, from 1925, are placed under a Demuth.

In Room VII, between a Chardin “Still Life” and more Renoirs, there’s a surprising and indiscreet Courbet, “Woman putting on her stockings,” one of the most immodest canvasses possible. Miro is represented by a simple gouache, below a Gritchenko sold by Paul Guillaume.

Room XIV offers a magnificent surprise: Rousseau’s “Tiger Hunt.” A very good Soutine (above the door). Two monks à la death-head, by Greco; Redon, Daumier.

Room XVI, miniature Persians, Claude Lorrain, Chinoiseries, very fine Soutine “Flowers,” a Monticelli and numerous Gritchenkos. Room XVIII, some very little items certainly bought at a bargain, but which bear witness to the interest of Barnes even for the artists who began to reveal themselves just before his death because we see a small figurative painting by Geer Van Velde and four miniscule Wols. A postcard-sized Wols figures next to equally ‘modest’ work by Klee and Roualt.

Room XVII: A Picasso from the Blue period, a Cezanne, a Renoir, a Pascin but also a Cross, a Per Krogh and a naif by a French artist unknown but not without charm, who signs a “View of Bordeaux in 1884,” resembling for that matter Venice: “Guiraud, Jean-Baptiste, born in Saint-Chinian, Herault.”

Ragon, Matisse, luxe, calme, et volupteFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954),”Luxe, calme, et volupté,” 1904. Oil on canvas, 38 3/4 x 46 5/8 in. (98.5 x 118.5 cm). Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris. Gift in lieu of estate taxes, 1982. On extended loan to the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. ©2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

To access the second floor, you need to mount a stairway ornamented with tapisseries by Roualt, Picasso, and Matisse. Room XIX, Matisse’s triptyque “Luxe, calme, et volupté,” Modigliani’s “Beatrice Hastings,” a small Wols gouache, a Picasso from the Blue period, a green Soutine, an Utrillo, a Rousseau. Room XX, drawings, African art and Lipchitz sculptures; fine Cezanne water-colors, lots of Pascin, a small Wols. Room XXI: Modigliani, Utrillo, African masks; a very handsome Soutine “Trees” practically invisible above the door, according to the rule. Room XXII, more African masks and two large Modigliani women; a small Klee above a work by the contemporary Italian painter Afro, and between a Lotiron and a Chirico. Room XXIII, a fantastic Henri Rousseau (a nude woman being attacked by a bear that a hunter kills with a rifle shot, or the theme of St. George and the Dragon “modernized,” as Rousseau put it); a large Renoir, work by Lurcat, Chirico, and a Vieira da Silva from 1947.

ragon cezanne st victoire.jpgFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Paul Cézanne (Aix-en-Provence, 1839-1906, Aix-en-Provence), “Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine,” 1886-87. Oil on canvas, 59.6 x 72.3 cm. The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., inv. no. 0285. RP 598. If Paris provided him — notwithstanding his cantankerousness — with collegial support, or at least the feeling that he was not alone in attempting to extend his art — it was to his native Aix that Cézanne regularly returned, ever inspired by the bucolic surroundings in which he, Emile Zola, and Baptism Baille had often escaped as teenagers. Courtesy Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.

Citing everything would be too fastidious, but this elementary enumeration gives you an idea of the incoherencies of the accrochage. One also realizes that the Barnes collection is far from being exemplary, as is the case for example of the admirable Frick collection in New York. The Barnes collection reflects the tastes of an eccentric and despot who, on three and four levels, accumulates his treasures, without sorting them and without any apparent discernment. Admirable Rousseaus… and second-tier Rousseaus. Renoir and Glackens. Cezannes … and Jean Hugos. Drawings infantile, from folk art, of unknown naifs and, throughout on the walls, overloading them even more, between paintings already accumulated to the maximum, iron work. No titles on the frames. No dates. A fine portrait of Madame Cezanne, but also the worse Van Gogh that I’ve ever seen: a nude woman, with stockings, on a bed, in an oval frame. One gets the impression that many of these paintings were bought for their signature. If Seurat’s “Les Poseuses,” Cezanne’s “Mount St.-Victoire,” and Manet’s “Le Linge” are incontestable chefs-d’oeuvre worthy of the most important museums, the Barnes collection is above all a Renoir museum (Pierre Cabanne, in his “Novel of the Great Collectors,” estimates that Barnes has 120. But they seem like a thousand.) As far the 100 Cezannes, the 80 Matisses, and the 100 Soutines which Cabanne also cites, scattered from room to room they’re smothered among the Renoirs and the Glackens. 2000 paintings in the Barnes collection, in one incoherent museum. These painters, hidden, shielded from critics and specialists, have benefited in their ensemble from an exaggerated fame. When the Barnes collection is classed in a reasonable manner, we’ll perceive its lacunes, its weaknesses, but there remain nevertheless three or four rooms-full of chefs-d’oeuvre which will continue to make it one of the leading collections in the world

Advertisements

Lutèce Diary, 34: An Americanization in Paris; Abstractions St.-Germainopretan

Nicolas de Stael, Plage, 1954, huile sur toile, 24 x 33 cm, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger smallNicolas de Stael, “Plage,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 24 x 33 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like this article? Cet article vous plait? Please make a donation today so we can continue covering the Paris arts world / Penser à faire un don aujourd’hui alors qu’on peut continuer d’ecrire sur le monde de l’art a Paris in Dollars or Euros by designating your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for an échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail, garde de chat, etc. — plus ici sur ses talents) sur Paris pour le rentrée. Le contacter à artsvoyager@gmail.com.)

“The wondrous envelopes us and deluges us like the atmosphere, but we don’t see it.”

— Charles Baudelaire, cited by Eli Faure in “Histoire de l’art: L’art moderne, I,” Editions Denoel, 1987

PARIS — The concrete plaque on the fence midway up the rue Menilmontant above the weed-submerged tracks of the “Petite Ceinture” which winds around Paris commemorates the three men, aged 20 to 53, who gave their lives in August 1944 to liberate their city from the German occupiers, in the conviction that waiting for the Allied troops — which landed on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago today — to do so would be to surrender their future to the Yankees. So why has the mayor of Paris — who made sure passersby knew the fresh flowers tacked to the plaque were from her — so readily ceded to the increasingly rampant Americanization of Lutèce without a fight?

Up the street from this newly opened to the public parcel of the Petite Ceinture, where you can pique-nique on freshly-fallen Queen Anne cherries while reclining on homey chaises composed of unvarnished planks of wood, a bakery-café too tony for the neighborhood is selling Mrs. Field-style cookies for 4 Euros a pop. I prefer the sunflower-encrusted variety the French Arab boulangerie on the Boulevard Menilmontant below offers for .50 cents apiece. And unlike what one older woman I dated during my recent visit to Lutèce (who claimed to be a Leftist atheist) contended, to me the biggest threat to traditional French values isn’t the scarf with which the bakery babushka chooses to cover her head but boutiques selling “cookie pauses,” restaurants calling themselves “Thank God for Broccoli,” and cafés promising “the best brunch on the Canal,” all in English. This isn’t just a question of going exotic that can be likened to a New York restaurant calling itself, say, Lutèce; it’s an appeal by Yankee commercants to Yankee customers who resume going local to ordering a croissant and café creme.

Bissière, Vert et noir (Esprits de la Fôret), 1955, huile sur papier marouflé sur toile, Photo © Veignant, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger smallRoger Bissière, “Vert et noir (Esprits de la Fôret),” 1955. Oil on paper pasted on canvas. Photo copyright Veignant. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

If I still harbored any doubts that City Hall is just rolling over in the face of this lingual imperialism, they were dispelled by the American high school chorus chanting Frankie Valli’s ‘I love you, baby” from the chandelier’d top floor of the Hotel de la Ville on a recent Thursday evening as I returned from a twilight pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis where I’d been flirting with a red-headed, purple-stockinged German children’s book designer named Betty, in English (as we contemplated an evolving Notre-Dame whose dome now sports a white yarmulke which just might remain there long enough for some wag to observe, “Funny, you don’t look Blue-ish”; only 13 million of the 800 million Euros pledged for the church’s reconstruction has been delivered; the leading industrialist who committed 200 million just found out his gift won’t be as tax-deductable as he originally thought; and the main French patrimony foundation organizing the fundraising has rightly decided to steer future donations to some of the country’s other 2,500 sagging monuments), she sharing nightmares of walking into bottomless escalators, me of returning to school and constantly missing classes I really wanted to take. When the chorus segued into Cindy Lauper’s “Girls just want to have fun” (Cindy had accompanied my Princeton years) I had to second the emotion of the chic Parisienne striding confidently towards me who twisted the finger ballet she’d been performing into a gun and pointed it in the direction of the singing.

All this is a far cry from the mutually respectful meeting and melding of cultures promoted by Boris Vian, who, picking up after the war where Josephine Baker, the Revue Negre, and, later, Charles Trenet and the Zazous (the French version of the Zoot Suits) had left off, introduced Duke Ellington to France and ravenously devoured American jazz magazines so he could translate their choicest morsels for French jazz fans. Vian, who with Miles Davis and Juliette Greco set the tone in Saint-Germain-des-Près (“I didn’t know he was Black,” Greco quoted by Malcolm McLaren in his album “Paris” said of Davis. “And when I found out he was Black, I just cried.”), would blow his heart out on the cornet and trumpet by the age of 39, dying of a heart attack at a 1959 preview of the film version he’d opposed of his novel “I’ll spit on your graves,” the first-person account of a Black American who decides to kill as many white people as he can. Jean-François Jaeger, on the other hand — who, after taking over as director of the Jeanne Bucher gallery in 1947 upon Bucher’s death, helped the Paris abstract art movement carve out a distinct identity which left the American school in the dust — is still kicking at ninety-something. And his legacy — as personified by artists like Nicolas de Stael, Jean Dubuffet, Roger Bissiere, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva — is still vibrant, as demonstrated by a new exhibition running at the Galerie Jaeger-Bucher’s Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, La Garde des anges, 1950, huile sur toile, 60 x 92 cm, Photo © Jean-Louis Losi, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris smallMaria Helena Vieira da Silva, “La Garde des anges,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

What I love about the French abstract art of this era — the way it feeds and sustains me — is that it’s so dense. While Picasso was busy scrawling silly clowns that would make Red Skelton blanche on napkins and noble doves for the peace posters of the French Communist Party as it buried its head in the sand to the gulags, these artists were delivering genuine revolutions in every painting. (And not just at the Bucher nor only under the aegis of gallerists like Jaeger; Jean-Michel Atlan, Pierre Soulages, Wols, the COBRA group, and the critics who championed them like Michel Ragon, another “passeur,” or transmitter, also get some of the credit.) Or as Jaeger put it in 1997, “For us there are only beginnings, successive births at the will of solicitations to throw our points of view into question, each one completely owned, each one eventually contradicted by an adventure of another type, without losing the essential attachment to the quality of the mode of expression. Possessing no power of creation ourselves, we’re placed at the advance posts, the first to be subjected to the shock of a revelation born in the studio, the first to assimilate it with the goal of accomplishing our role of passeur.” Contrast this humble and self-effacing attitude with what — at least as reflected in much of the work I see in the galleries of Paris these days — seems to be the optic of Jaeger’s successors, which is to program work which confirms and assures them in their tastes.

dubuffet the bar jaeger bucherJean Dubuffet, “Le Bar,” 1965. Vinyl on paper mounted on canvas. 81x 100 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

Literalists like me can certainly find stories — or at least figuration — in some of the work on view at the Jaeger-Bucher if we want to, but we can also just allow it to deluge (or as Baudelaire might say, ‘abreuve’) us with sensations. (After all, if they could have said it in words, they would have become writers.) What I appreciate about this period is that art, even abstract, impenetrable art, was everywhere. Dali landscapes and Miro ‘bonhommes’ were decorating the albums of Jacky Gleason and Dave Brubeck alike. (Re-viewing several seasons of Mad Men recently after covering last year’s Aix-en-Provence exhibition of Stael’s later, Mediterranean color and light-infused paintings, I was delighted to spot one of them hanging behind the desk of the ad executive Roger Sterling, who might have been one of those American soldiers marching towards Paris.) These days, instead of European art enhancing American pop culture, a new, unimaginative generation of American pop culture artists (often with no technical training, and bragging about it) is turning up in Parisian art galleries, notably in the Marais. (The Americanization of the Marais isn’t confined to its artistic venues. Emerging earlier this year from a palatial space given over to monotonously repetitive big-eyed, long-nosed women designed by a young American artist which owed more to the Sunday comic strip “The Fusco Brothers” than Robert Rauschenberg, I ran smack dab into a window display hawking a Krispy-Kreme-scale donut with a thimble-sized cup of coffee for six Euros.) English is often the go-to language at the vernissages and in the guided tours at these venues, the press releases are in English, the exhibition titles are in English, and much of the (American) art is so crappy it would never dare to show its face in Brooklyn. Some of it (and not just the American) is so buried in conceptual (often textual) mazes that I can’t find the graphic matter.

grillon vasarely sans titre two boxVictor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Two. Silkscreen painting in color, signed and justified. 11.81 x 11.81 inches / 18.89 x 16.53 inches. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

The Germainopretan galleries, on the other hand, remain resolutely international in their selection and (for the most part) rigorous in their aesthetic standards. (Even the snob factor has diminished enough that I’m tempted to reverse Vian’s formula: “Encore moins snob que tout a l’heure.”) After leaving the Jaeger-Bucher earlier on the same Thursday evening that terminated on the other side of the Seine with being serenaded by American girls just wanting to have fun at City Hall, I crossed the rue de Seine to a gallery half its size where, instead of the usual jeunotte annoyed at being interrupted in whatever she was doing in front of her computer screen that was more important than me I found two young women in glasses busily arranging dozens of Victor Vasarely optical illusions neatly arrayed on the floor.

grillon vasarely sans titre threeVictor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Three. Silkscreen painting in color, signed in crayon and justified. 75.5cm x 75.5cm / 83 cm x 83 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

“If you have any questions, let us know!” one enthusiastically invited me (in French). And I’m glad I did; they both knew more about the art than I did, specifically explaining to me that before Vasarely there was Agram, both of whom lead a movement sometimes called ‘cinetic’ art (Vasarely’s approach has also been described as photo-graphisme), which looks like it provided the model for the various unknown sectors the starship Enterprise would stray into a decade later. The last time I’d come upon this particular artistic genre, at a Latin American-themed gallery in the Marais whose exhibition was more mobile-oriented, the — older — galleriste had huffed when she discovered I didn’t already know what cinetic art was, “It’s very well-known!” Here, by contrast, the two young gallerists not only explained to me that ‘serigraphs’ meant ‘silk-screens,’ but when I asked what exactly this entailed, one of them, “Louise,” left the room to fetch two blank sheets of paper so she could demonstrate the process.

grillon agam sans titre twoYaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled Two. Silkscreen, signed and justified. 75.5 cm 75 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

When I finally identified myself as a journalist and asked if she had jpegs of the art available, Louise encouraged me to visit the gallery’s website and pull what I needed. (Contrast this to the attitude of the Reunion of the National Museums, which handles the publicity for the Luxembourg, Grand Palais, and other institutions, whose press offices set up so many roadblocks — often at the dictate of ADAGP, the artist rights’ syndicate which apparently thinks art magazines still make money — to featuring their art in articles about their exhibitions ((in other words, free advertising)) that I’ve given up covering them. In fact in theory I’ve given up writing about art, period, because it doesn’t keep me in croissants let alone the dentures to be able to nibble them, but the problem is that every time I go outside in Paris it seems to find me.) When, before leaving to not look for more art, I told the gallerists at the Grillon — as the space is called (Jimminy Cricket!) — about the (non) reception that usually greets me at art galleries, another, older woman who had just entered and sat down behind a desk replied, “C’est pas comme ca que ca marche ici,” that’s not how it works here.

grillon vasarely sans titre one

Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled One. Silkscreen in colors, signed in crayon and justified. 57 cm x 45 cm / 75 cm x 60 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

After testing my new choppers (the family paid for them) on the cornichons and pretzel sticks at a third space on the rue de Seine, the Petite Gallery (unfortunately the only galleries that still offer food and drink at vernissages these days seem to be the ones with the least interesting art, which is why I’m not talking about it here), I was still doing pretty good Germainopretan snob quotient-wise until I entered a fourth gallery whose name I’ve purposely forgotten but was something like “The eyes have it” or “The eyes are everywhere” and which was offering a group exhibition under the rubric “Surrealism, the Second Generation,” purporting to cover the period 1945 – 1965. Intrigued that most of the art displayed seem to come from the collection of the Duchamp specialist Arturo Schwartz, I asked the gallerist why. Taking me aside and shaking his head (not at me but at the institution in question), he explained, “He left 700 works to the Jerusalem Museum. They promptly sold off most of them so they could buy more contemporary work.” Reverse-intrigued, I asked him why he didn’t have any Leonor Fini among the mostly male assemblage. “She wasn’t really a surrealist,” the gallerist sniffed dismissively — and typically. (Read: She was a female artist who refused to be subsumed by and subsetted into a male universe. Around Leonor’s pad in the hills above Trieste, the men wore gowns.) If you’re wondering why I’m not citing a single name of an artist who was included in the exhibition, it’s not to venge Fini but because when I took one of several copies of a list pairing works with artists as a memori menti for this article, a thin van-dycked gallery assistant with slicked-back hair chased me out of the gallery and down the rue des Beaux Arts to recuperate the material. “Hey, come back here! You can’t take that!”

fini lutece diarythme

Leonor Fini, “Dithyrambe, 1972.  Oil on paper laid down on canvas. 30 x 21.25 inches. Courtesy CFM Gallery.

After an unhealthily more than cursory look (okay, digging-through) of a box someone had left outside another gallery with a sign “Free for the taking!” but which consisted mostly of battery-less gold-painted hand-clocks not even Dali would want to recuperate, I continued towards the Seine and the Ile St. Louis. The deal I’d made with myself was that I’d already prepared a cauliflower-potato-chicken-curry salad for the pique-nique and packed a plastic bottle of Algerian lemon soda scored at the Belleville market for 15 cents, and if I didn’t like it on the Ile, I could just get up and leave. The reasons I thought I wouldn’t like it were a) the first time that I’d retrieved “my” bench on the Ile during this Paris visit, I’d run down to the Seine from Beaubourg (the Pompidou) so fast — you might have thought Niki de Saint Phalle’s big-breasted mermaid had jumped out of the Stravinsky fountain (yet another that’s been left out to dry) and was chasing after me — that I’d no sooner sat down on “my” bench than I felt like I was about to have the runs and had to run back up to the Right Bank, where my go-to toilet outside the Metro Pont-Marie was flashing the dreaded red ‘out-of-order’ sign, and the open toilet I finally found near the Theater Sarah Bernhardt just as time was running out was out of toilet paper, leaving me to show up at a Valentine’s Day vernissage in the Marais with proof that my shit really did stink too. (Looking up at a dried-out David Hockney tree I felt very wet.), b) the second time I’d tried, after an initial post-fire visit to Notre-Dame to size up the damage for you, I’d been scared off by four bulky British rugby-players bunched onto “my” bench and blasting their music de merde on their portables (there used to be an unspoken rule among We the People of the Ile that you didn’t impose your music on others), and c) the years I used to spend every Friday night on the Ile after trolling for used records off the rue Mouffetard where I’d had my cheap cafe latté standing at a tall table contemplating the curvy form and curve-throwing bon mots of MissTic were my drinking years, only unlike Baudelaire I had no Gauthier to record the resultant reveries of this artificial Paradise, so all I remember besides the way the rippling of the Seine seemed to glitter more brightly as the Sun set over Notre-Dame after a glass of pastis is how heavy I felt walking towards Pont-Marie afterwards (the pique-nique also contributed; I wasn’t just drinking), and how when I tried to replace the half a bottle of red or two cans of Pelforth Brune with a whole bottle of tomato juice it just wasn’t the same. If I didn’t have a scribe like Gauthier or Baudelaire (whose building at 33 rue Lamartine had been my first after moving to Paris) to lend these evenings a literary flavor, I did have a librarian: A bouquiniste, Marcel, whose noble trade — having a best friend who sold books along the Seine made me feel like a real Paris insider — blinded me to his fickle soul. I hadn’t had any contact with Marcel since 2014, when he wrote to say that according to his new and young White Russian bride (the same who, after a French Arab man who was more French than she was left the elevator we’d shared at the Metro Place de Lilas had scowled, “They should all go back where they came from”), “You look like a Hobo” (the teeth no doubt).

Thus it was that telling myself if I didn’t like it — if I encountered more music de merde to perturb my tranquility — I didn’t have to stay I made my way to the Ile along the newly pedestrianized Right Bank of the Seine, discovering the spanking new mahogany benches around tables where people were eating, drinking, and partying, and of course, the one decent toilet within five kilometers, an equally spanking new white facility. (You’re just too good to be true, can’t keep my eyes off of you.)

Taking the stairs back up to the street after passing the Hotel de la Ville so I could access the bridge to the Ile — the urge to see if Marcel (not his real name) was still there manning his ‘box’ above a ramp leading down to the river was also a factor — I didn’t find my literary friend but further on was reassured to see that Pierre, a bouquiniste to whom Marcel had shown the ropes, was faithfully at his station, and recognized me enough to nod.

The last time I’d seen Pierre — I’d just fled from a late-career, ear-splitting Pina Bausch spectacle at the Bernhardt and decided to linger in the neighborhood so that I could go back for the after-party and at least have some food and drink to compensate for the ear damage, plus my friend Sabine had stayed for the second act — he’d insisted that I was working for the CIA. “That’s why your teeth are so bad — It’s a disguise!” When he’d announced after hanging up the cell phone he’d told me a Chinese guy had sold him that he had to take off for a rendez-vous with a Vietnamese woman, I’d responded, “I know. We’re the ones who told the Chinese guy to sell you the cell phone after we put a bug in it.” By his laughing reaction I wondered if Pierre had just been ribbing me.

On this recent retrieval, Pierre’s curly hair was scanter and his face more arid from the exposure to the Sun and wind ricocheting off the Seine, and he was sporting an aborted handle-bar mustache and sharing a bottle of red with his potes around a small fold-up table he’d set up in front of his stand, where the books were piled up in pell-mell chaos. The new teeth had apparently improved my stature. “You’re a bouquiniste also, right?” “No, I’m a friend of Marcel’s.” Indicating the Red Guards cap on his head, I observed, “Last time I saw you were wearing a Chinese peasant lamp-shade hat to protect you from the Sun.” “Vietnamese!” Pierre corrected me, pulling the lampshade out from behind a pile. Then nodding up at a row of lantern-cages with stuffed parrots in them hanging like birds on a wire from the green-iron hood of the stand above the piles of books, he suggested, “Tapper and see what happens.” As I prepared to deliver a round-house wallop on the first cage he chided me impatiently, “No no, clap your hands *together.*” I did, and the lanterns lit up as the birds began to sing.

grillon agam sans titre one

Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled One. Silkscreen, signed and justified, 77 cm x 70.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

 

Le Feuilleton (the serial), 3: “Trompe-l’œil,” Michel Ragon’s groundbreaking 1956 satire of the contemporary art market (in French and English), Part Three

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Original French version follows English translation.)

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation, or hiring Paul Ben-Itzak to translate your document. Please designate your PayPal donation in dollars or Euros to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.  Click here to read the previous excerpt, and here to read the first.)

Manhès lived in an atelier behind the Montparnasse train station, on a narrow street as muddy in the winter as the Lithuanian ghetto back alley where he was raised. Between the train tracks and the bustling neighborhood around the avenue Maine subsisted a practically rural little island, where automobile and even foot traffic was rare. Little by little this island was being devoured by the expanding dependences of the train station. All that remained were a few hovels, several rows of dilapidated ateliers in which a handful of artists lived in constant fear of expropriation.

Manhès’s atelier, like those of his neighbors, consisted of an entry level with a dirt floor. A dressing-room served as a bedroom. With a very high ceiling that made it impossible to heat during the winter, this room looked more like a storage space than a lodging. The only modern comfort was electric lighting. No water, no gas. A pump in the street provided for all the residents’ needs.

Forty-two years old, Manhès had lived in Paris for 20 years. The war had interrupted his career just at the moment where he was beginning to find his own personal style. From 1940 to 1944 he fought with the Maquis in the forests around Limoges, finishing his service in Germany with General Lattre after receiving three minor wounds. When he returned to Paris, the galleries were already full up and all the comfortable artists’ ateliers had been swept up by the nouvelle riche bourgeoisie.

Before the war, Manhès knew Klee in Germany as well as Kandinsky, whom he frequented when the great abstract art theorist took refuge in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, where he died. He came under their influence at first and then, slowly, developed his own style. From the moment he resumed working in 1945, in this sordid atelier where he continued to live, he produced Manhès, that is to say a type of painting which didn’t resemble any other and which, from this very fact, shocked everyone.

The figurative painters and the fans of traditional painting accused him of being abstract, while the abstract painters, as well as their supporters à la Charles Roy, accused him of clinging to an outmoded style of figurative painting. Because a strange form of poetry emanated from Manhès’s art, he was also subject to the dismissive epithet of being “literary.” Numerous younger artists formed a real cult around him, falling under his sway. Bolstered by this following, he could have easily founded his own school, as did Matisse and Léger, but he liked to say that art could not be taught, that the only thing one could pass on to others was cooking recipes; he preferred consecrating his time entirely to his work, which had finally arrived at a level of authority acknowledged by the majority of art aficionados.

Manhès was no longer poor. His contract with Laivit-Canne assured him a very honorable monthly stipend and on top of this, he was allowed to sell on his own whatever paintings his gallery didn’t take. He fantasized about soon being able to buy a decent studio. Acquired by the most important collectors, recognized as one of the leaders of the prevailing art current, he seemed to have finally arrived when his altercation with Laivit-Canne arrived to throw everything up in the air.

Manhès wasn’t particularly worried about the rupture in the contract, but the vexing words of his dealer weighed heavily on his heart. Ancelin, loyal Ancelin, whom he favored among all his disciples and who had become his intimate friend even though ten years separated them, followed him to his studio. It was Manhès who persuaded Laivit-Canne to offer Ancelin a contract. It was in the art dealer’s best interests to support his stars by simultaneously promoting younger painters who’d fallen under their influence.

Invited to Monsieur Mumfy’s soirée, Manhès and Ancelin preferred going to the Sélect on the boulevard Montparnasse, a café which drew the majority of the quartier’s artists, rather than dealing with the uproar in the artistic milieu that Laivit-Canne would surely provoke this evening.

The two friends presented a surprising contrast. Manhès was small and stocky, brunette, with frizzy black hair. A typical bohemian, he wore clothes which always seemed to be second-hand, even if he didn’t lack for money. Ancelin, by contrast, was the typical young man issued from a good French family. Tall, svelte, always wearing an immaculately tailored suit, he also displayed an outgoing, polished, and distinguished visage, whereas Manhès always seemed tense and gruff.

Sitting on the terrace of the Sélect, they were recognized at most of the tables and made a round of handshakes. A young man hailed them from inside the café: Their inseparable companion, the poet and art critic Fontenoy.

Manhès and Ancelin precipitated themselves on him to break the news:

“Guess what? I got into an argument with Lévy. (Manhès always de-Frenchified the name of the dealer in pronouncing it.) He threw me out on the street, but he’ll be sorry. Now I can sell all my own works. I’ll make more than when I was under contract.”

“But what happened?”

“He accused me of not evolving, of making ‘Jewish paintings’ at a time when, according to him, traditional French painting is once again à la mode. What a bunch of bullshit! It’s like those who accuse me of literary painting! I don’t try to make Jewish paintings, or literary paintings, or abstract, or figurative. I paint what I feel, what I am… Anyway I lost it. I shouted back at him that I didn’t want to be a fake, camouflaging my painting like he camouflages his name, and that I don’t like self-hating Jews.

“You know that horrible voice he has,
like an impotent screeching. He started stamping and yelping. His employees came running. In that nasal voice he has he demanded: “Bring me this imbecile’s contract so I can tear it up! I’ll make him croak from hunger!” Poor Lévy, in letting me go he also lets go of a good opportunity to not die of hunger himself! I can live without a dealer, but the dealers can’t live without us.”

“The problem,” said Ancelin, “is that I also have a contract with the dwarf. This puts me in a delicate position.”

“Not at all,” Manhès protested. “Just make out like you’re not au courant. Agree with him if you have to. This doesn’t keep us from being pals. You’re still young. You need him.”

“I must write about this tomorrow in my rag,” Fontenoy piped in.

Fontenoy was an editor at L’artiste, the only newspaper devoted to the fine arts with a considerable readership. He was 30 years old, like Ancelin, but was first and foremost Manhès’s friend. This poet from the Loire Valley had been smitten with Manhès’s painting like one might fall for a girl. He readily proclaimed: “I’ve experienced two great shocks in my life: The first when I discovered at the age of 18 the poetry of Blaise Cendrars, the second at 24 standing in front of the tableaux of Manhès.” He’d tried to capture in his poetry the violent and chaotic art of his great painter, but sifted through his sensibility, Manhès’s images took on another light. They became tame, ordered. It was a miracle that he was able to understand at all the Judeo-Slavic genius of Manhès, so different from his own talent. And yet Fontenoy had written the best studies on Manhès. For that matter he was often accused of being a one-trick pony, only able to talk about Manhès and his followers. Those who gave no credit to the art of Manhès, like Charles Roy, even claimed that Fontenoy was incapable of writing about abstract art. Fontenoy liked to retort with illustrated examples: “Baudelaire really only understood Delacroix, Zola Manet…. Critics who know how to talk about anything and everything are not creators. They write catalogs — useful, no doubt, but never risking their name in championing one over the other. The only time they declare someone a genius is after he’s dead.”

Fontenoy was a petit blonde man, skinny, with blue eyes. He lived in extreme austerity in a furnished hotel room in Montparnasse, his revenue being limited to his articles in L’artiste and several other newspapers and revues, as well as translating and rewriting work when he could get it. All of this was low-paid, for the simple reason that newspaper owners were accustomed to the fact that art critics were corrupted.

When Fontenoy became an editor at L’artiste, the owner told him:

“I can only pay you 1000 francs* for each major article, but by being associated with our newspaper you should be able to quintuple your freelance work. For that matter, I shouldn’t even be paying you at all!”

All too happy to be hired by the major art newspaper, Fontenoy did not protest and did not even ask the owner to elaborate on how exactly he might be able to quintuple his freelance assignments. He simply assumed that the notoriety his collaboration with L’artiste would give him would get him work writing texts for art books and other revenue sources whose existence he did not even suspect. But this work never came and Manhès had to demonstrate to him how naive he was. Just as history loses many of its enigmas when one studies, in parallel, political economy, the rivalries and affinities in the arts world stopped being complex for Fontenoy the day Manhès revealed to him the economic mechanism of the art market.

“How do you think your colleagues manage to eke out a living?” Manhès asked rhetorically. “It’s quite simple: At the end of the week they go by the galleries they champion to pick up a little envelope … which is not always turned over to them that discretely. Some dealers like to ostensibly mount that they pay off their critics, treating them with airs like a boss treats his servant. And the critics dutifully kow-tow to them. When the dealers refuse to give them money, they wheedle out a drawing, a lithograph, which they then go on to sell. I can even cite for you certain critics who are veritable flacks, only writing about the painters they sell. This quasi-generalized corruption perverts all the relationships between painters, art critics, and dealers.”

Following this little talk, Fontenoy became so touchy about the principle of the disinterestedness of the critic that Manhès didn’t dare aid his friend: When he offered him a painting one day, Fontenoy turned beet-red and became extremely uncomfortable:

“Yes, I’d love it… for my room… But then people would say that you’d bought me off. I just can’t.”

Then he tried to make light of it, with a voice that trembled a little all the same:

“Bah! I’d never consider putting a Paolo Ucello in my room! When I want to see his ‘Battle’ again, I just go to the Louvre. When I want to see some Manhès I’ll just go over to his place!”

* * *

Manhès, Ancelin and Fontenoy were talking in hushed tones, in the depths of the Sélect, their elbows flattened out on the table so that their faces drew nearer to each other.

“Isabelle’s going to be worried again,” Manhès said. “She was so happy with this contract. It was almost as if I’d become a civil servant.”

“When does she come back from the country?”

“Tomorrow night. It seems that Moussia has big rosy cheeks.”

During the war, in Limoges, Manhès had married a country girl. This Isabelle was 10 years his junior. With her allure that of a robust country woman, she’d brought a much needed equilibrium into the life of Manhès, who was constantly worrying and fretting. Two years ago they’d had a daughter: Moussia.

Manhès seemed obsessed by his painting. And yet to this passion he’d added, he’d even enveloped into, Isabelle and Moussia. His wife and daughter had become indispensable to his art. Ever since they’d been taking the air of Spring in the country, Manhès hadn’t touched a single paintbrush. In general sober, he drank when his wife was away, felt lost, abandoned. In fact he’d been a little drunk when he’d had his altercation with Laivit-Canne.

“I want them to be there,” Manhès said. “I should have gone with them. But the countryside bores me to death.”

“And yet it would do you some good, the country,” Ancelin suggested. “The only time you leave your studio is to bunker down in a café, a movie theater, a galerie. You end up completely intoxicating yourself.”

Manhès began fidgeting.

“I don’t need to paint from nature. Nature has nothing to teach me. I transport my world with me wherever I am. If I’d remained holed up in a cave my whole life, I’d still paint what I paint.”

“We’re not talking about your painting,” Fontenoy joined in, “but your health. You’re getting anemic from staying locked up in one locale or another, always under electric lighting. Look at yourself in a mirror… you’re so white!”

Manhès lifted his head towards the café’s wall mirror. He got worried seeing his visage:

“It’s true that I am looking rather pale at that!”

Then he laughed.

“In the beginning of the Occupation, the Germans organized an anti-Semitic exhibition. I went to check it out incognito. Among the multiple pieces of evidence was a photograph of the ugliest Jew in the world. I recognized myself.”

Ancelin and Fontenoy weren’t crazy to hear Manhès joking about this subject. Ever since the German Occupation, like all anti-racists, they got embarrassed whenever the subject of Jews came up. The word itself was difficult to say. All it took was a slight alteration in intonation to make “Jew” sound like an insult. Some people didn’t even dare employ the term, substituting the word “Israélite.” But Jews never referred to themselves as “Israelites,” except for self-hating Jews like Laivit-Canne. A gentile who used the term “Israélite” seemed to have a guilty conscience.

The more it made his friends uncomfortable, the more Manhès fell back with a certain sadism on this brand of Jewish humor which delighted in making fun of itself.

Ancelin changed the subject back to painting:

“It appears that old man Mumfy bought three Wols and two Reichels?”

“Not that surprising,” Fontenoy explained, “they resemble Klee. Klee, forever Klee, he can’t see anything outside of Klee!”

Manhès appeared disgruntled.

“He’s all the same given me my own wall. And he’s also bought an Ancelin.”

“Yes yes,” resumed Fontenoy. “Because he doesn’t want to miss out on what might be the next best thing. But he’d betray you in an instant for some Vieira da Silvas.”

Manhès called out to a diminutive Mediterranean character who’d just peeked into the café:

“Hey, Atlan!”

Atlan joined them at their table. He was a night owl, like all of them, but he broke all the records. He emerged to make his rounds at the very hour the cafés started closing, latched on to some stragglers, and didn’t return to his studio until three or four in the morning. A member of the tribe with Manhès, only Algerian rather than Slavic, he was the only painter of his generation that Manhès held in high esteem. Not because of their shared origins, but because their pictorial explorations were oriented in the same direction. Atlan was just as inclassable as Manhès, with an equally independent spirit. A non-figurative painter, he was influenced by Africa in the same way Manhès was influenced by Slavic folklore. Fontenoy had an equal passion for the art of Atlan. But Ancelin didn’t share his two friends’ opinion. His problem with Atlan was his “recipe,” that is to say that he mixed oil with pastel and crayon.

“That’s ridiculous,” Fontenoy told him. “Do you blame the primitives for having used plaster to set the aureoles of their saints in relief, or for encasing precious stones in their kings’ crowns? Do you blame Degas for having — he as well — mixed pastel with his oils, or Braque for having sprinkled sand in some of his paintings?”

Ancelin became obstinate:

“Yes in fact, I’m against all of that.”

When it came to Atlan, Ancelin was biased, to such a degree that he resembled Charles Roy. During the whole time that Atlan remained at their table, the young painter didn’t utter a word. Manhès told Atlan about his adventure with Laivit-Canne.

“Consider yourself lucky,” Atlan assured him. “Ever since I ended my contract with Maeght, my position has only solidified. You’ll see, the art aficionados will start rolling into your atelier.”

Atlan precipitously took off so he could catch up with the playwright Arthur Adamov, who was passing by on the boulevard. Shortly afterwards, the Sélect manager came to tell them that he needed to close.

They continued talking late into the night, pacing back and forth on the boulevard Montparnasse. The milkmen’s vans and the trucks from Les Halles wholesale market drove past in a thundering of iron. They finally separated regretfully, their heads heavy and their eyes brilliant.

*The equivalent of 10 “new francs” or, in 1956, about $2.

Version originale
par et copyright Michel Ragon

Manhès habitait un atelier derrière la gare Montparnasse, dans une ruelle aussi boueuse l’hiver que la venelle du ghetto lithuanien où il était né. Entre les lignes de chemin de fer et le quartier mouvementé en lisière de l’avenue Maine, se trouvait un petit ilot presque champêtre, en dehors du circuit habituel des voitures, où personne ne passait. Cet ilot était dévoré peu à peu par les agrandissements des dépendances de la gare. Il ne restait plus que quelques masures, quelques rangées d’ateliers en ruines, dans lesquels quelques artistes vivaient dans la crainte de l’expropriation.

L’atelier de Manhès, comme celui de ses voisins, consistait en un rez-de-chaussée au sol de terre battue. Une loggia servait de chambre à coucher. Très haute de plafond, donc presque impossible à chauffer l’hiver, cette pièce ressemblait plus à un débaras qu’à un logement. Le seul confort tenait dans l’éclairage électrique. Ni eau, ni gaz. Dans la ruelle, une pompe servait pour la collectivité.

Manhès, âgé de quarante ans, était Parisien depuis vingt ans. La guerre interrompit sa carrière de peintre au moment où il commençait à trouver son style. De 1940 à 1944, il servit dans les maquis du Limousin et termina son équipée en Allemagne, dans l’armée de Lattre, avec trois blessures sans gravité. Lorsqu’il revint à Paris, les galeries avaient fait leur plein de peintres et les ateliers d’artistes confortables étaient tous habités par des bourgeois nouveaux riches.

Avant la guerre, Manhès connut Klee in Allemagne, ainsi que Kandinsky qu’il fréquenta lorsque le grand théoricien de l’art abstrait vint se refugier et mourir à Neuilly. Il subit leur influence puis, lentement, dégagea son style propre. Dès qu’il se remit au travail, en 45, dans cet atelier sordide qu’il habitait toujours, il fit du Manhès, c’est-a-dire une peinture qui ne ressemblait à nulle autre et qui, de ce fait, choqua tout le monde.

Les peintres figuratifs et les amateurs de peinture traditionnelle lui reprochaient d’être abstrait et les peintres abstraits, ainsi que leurs supporters du genre Charles Roy, l’accusaient de se raccrocher à une figuration désuète. Comme une étrange poésie irradiait de l’art de Manhès, on lui accolait aussi l’épithète dédaigneuse de « littéraire ».

Quoi qu’il en soit, l’art de Manhès était trop personnel, trop nouveau aussi, pour passer inaperçu. De nombreux jeunes artistes lui vouaient un véritable culte et subissaient son influence. Il eût pu, en leur compagnie, fonder une Ecole, comme le firent Matisse ou Léger, mais il avait l’habitude de dire que l’art ne s’enseigne pas, au l’on ne peut donner aux autres que des recettes de cuisine; Il préférait se consacrer entièrement à son oeuvre, arrivée actuellement à une maturité que la plupart des amateurs lui reconnaissaient.

Manhès n’était plus pauvre. Son contrat avec Laivit-Canne lui assurait une mensualité très honorable et il avait, de plus, la faculté de vendre par lui-même les peintures que sa galerie ne lui prenait pas en premier choix. Il songeait à acheter bientôt un atelier confortable. Entré dans les meilleures collections, reconnu comme l’un des chefs de file de l’art actuel, il semblait avoir gagné la partie quand son altercation avec Laivit-Canne remit tout en question.

Manhès ne s’inquiétait pas de cette rupture de contrat, mais les paroles vexantes de son marchand lui restaient sur le coeur. Ancelin, son fidèle Ancelin, celui qu’il préférait parmi ses disciples et qui était devenu son ami intime bien que dix ans les séparaient, l’avait suivit à son atelier. C’était Manhès qui avait fait prendre Ancelin sous contrat par Laivit-Canne. Celui-ci avait d’ailleurs intérêt à soutenir ses vedettes en montrant des jeunes peintres qui subissaient leur influence.

Invités à la soirée de Monsieur Michaud, Manhès et Ancelin préférèrent aller au Sélect, boulevard Montparnasse, un café où se retrouvaient la plupart des artistes du quartier, plutôt que d’affronter la meute du milieu artistique que Laivit-Canne allait exciter dès ce soir.

Les deux amis formaient un contraste étonnant. Manhès était petit, trapu, brun, avec des cheveux noirs frisés. Très bohème, il portait des vêtements qui paraissaient toujours misérables bien qu’il ne manquait pas d’argent. Par contre, Ancelin était le type même du jeune homme de bonne famille française. Grand, svelte, toujours vêtu de complete de bonne coupe, il montrait aussi un visage avenant, poli et distingué, alors que Manhès paraissait toujours crispé et bourru.

A la terrasse du Sélect, ils furent reconnus à la plupart des tables et firent une tournée de poignées de mains. Un jeune homme les appela de l’intérieur du café : C’était leur inséparable compagnon, un poète et critique d’art : Fontenoy.

Manhès et Ancelin se précipitèrent pour lui raconter la nouvelle :

— Tu sais, je me suis engueulé avec Lévy. (Manhès défrancisait le nom du marchand en le prononçant.) Il m’a fichu à la porte, mais il le regrettera. Je vais disposer de toute ma production. Je gagnerai plus qu’avec son contrat.

— Mais qu’est-ce qui s’est passé ?

— Il me reprochait de ne pas évoluer, de faire une peinture juive alors que, paraît-il, la mode revient à une peinture de tradition française. Des conneries ! C’est comme ceux qui me reprochent de faire une peinture littéraire ! Est-ce que je cherche à peindre juif, ou littéraire, ou abstrait, ou figuratif ? Je peins ce que je sens, ce que je suis…. Alors je me suis emporté. Je lui ai lancé en pleine figure que je ne voulais pas être un faussaire, camoufler ma peinture comme il camouflait son nom et que je n’aimais pas les juifs honteux….

« Tu connais son horrible voix grêle d’impuissant ! Il s’est mis à trépigner, à glapir. Ses employés sont accourus. Il nasillait : apportez-moi le contrat de cet imbécile que je le déchire ! Je le ferai crever de faim ! Pauvre Lévy, en lâchant ma peinture, il lâche une bonne occasion de ne pas crever de faim ! Moi je peux vivre sans marchand, mais les marchands ne peuvent pas vivre sans nous. »

— Ce qui m’embête, dit Ancelin, c’est que j’ai un contrat chez le nabot. Ça me met dans une situation délicate.

— Mais non, protesta Manhès, fait celui qui n’est au courant de rien, approuve Lévy s’il le faut. Ça ne nous empéche pas d’être copains. Toi tu es encore jeune. Tu as besoin de lui.

— Il faudra que je parle de ça demain dans le canard, dit Fontenoy.

Fontenoy était rédacteur à L’Artiste, le seul journal consacré aux beaux-arts qui atteignait un assez vaste public. Il avait trente ans, comme Ancelin, mais il était surtout l’ami de Manhès. Ce poète du Val-de-Loire s’était épris de la peinture de Manhès de la même manière qu’il eût pu s’amouracher d’une fille. Il disait volontiers : « J’ai ressenti deux grands chocs, dans ma vie : le premier en découvrant à dix-huit ans la poésie de Cendrars, le second à vingt-quatre ans devant les tableaux de Manhès. » Il avait essayé de traduire en poésie l’art violent et chaotique de son grand peintre, mais passées à travers lui, les images de Manhès prenaient un autre éclairage. Elles s’adoucissaient, s’ordonnaient. C’était miracle qu’il pût comprendre le génie judéo-slave de Manhès, si éloigné de son talent. Pourtant, Fontenoy avait écrit les meilleures études sur Manhès. On lui reprochait souvent, d’ailleurs, d’être un critique d’art trop limité et de ne savoir parler que de Manhès et de ses suiveurs. Ceux qui n’accordaient aucun crédit à l’art de Manhès, comme Charles Roy, disaient même que Fontenoy était incapable d’écrire sur l’art abstrait. Fontenoy s’en défendait par des exemples illustres : « Baudelaire n’a vraiment bien compris que Delacroix, Zola n’a vraiment bien compris que Manet… Les critiques qui savent parler de tout et de rien ne sont pas des créateurs. Ils établissent des catalogues, utiles sans doute, mais ne risquent jamais leur nom en optant pour quelques-uns. Ils ne donnent du génie qu’aux morts. »

Fontenoy était un petit blond, mince, aux yeux bleus. Il vivait très pauvrement dans une chambre d’hôtel meublé de Montparnasse, n’ayant pour tout revenu que ses articles à L’Artiste et dans quelques autres journaux et revues, ainsi que des travaux de traduction et de rewriting. Tout cela mal payé, pour la raison fort simple que les directeurs de journaux étaient habitués à ce que les critiques d’art fussent corrompus.

Lorsque Fontenoy devint rédacteur à L’Artiste, le directeur lui dit :

— Je ne peux vous payer chaque article important que mille francs, mais vous devez, en étant attaché au journal, quintupler vos piges. Je devrais même ne pas vous payer du tout !

Trop heureux d’être accueilli dans le grand journal des arts, Fontenoy ne protesta pas et ne demanda même aucun éclaircissement sur la manière de quintupler ses appointements. Il pensa simplement que la notoriété qui lui serait donnée par sa collaboration à L’Artiste lui apporterait des commandes de textes pour des livres d’art et d’autres sources de revenus dont il ne soupçonnait pas l’existence. Mais ces commandes ne vinrent jamais et Manhès lui démontra à quel point il était naïf. Tout comme l’Histoire perd beaucoup de ses énigmes lorsque l’on étudie parallèlement à elle l’économie politique, les rivalités et les affinités dans le monde des arts cessèrent d’être complexes pour Fontenoy le jour où Manhès lui révéla le mécanisme économique du marché de la peinture.

Comment vivent tes collègues, lui dit Manhès ? Mais ils passent tout bonnement à la fin de chaque semaine, dans les galeries qu’ils soutiennent, chercher une enveloppe qui ne leur est pas toujours remise très discrètement. Certains marchands montrent ostensiblement qu’ils payent leurs critiques, traitant ceux-ci de haut, de patron à domestique. Et les critiques baissent l’échine. Lorsqu’on leur refuse de l’argent, ils mendigotent un dessin, un litho, qu’ils revendent ensuite. Je pourrais même te citer des critiques qui sont de véritables agents de publicité, n’écrivant que sur les peintres qu’ils vendent. Cette corruption quasi généralisée fausse tous les rapports entre peintres, critique d’art et marchands.

A la suite de cette conversation, Fontenoy devint si chatouilleux sur le principe du désintéressement du critique que Manhès n’osait aider son ami: Lui ayant offert un jour une peinture, Fontenoy avait rougi, s’était troublé :

— Oui, j’aimerais beaucoup… pour ma chambre… Mais alors on dira que tu m’achètes… Je ne peux pas.

Puis il s’était mis à plaisanter, avec une voix qui tremblait un peu :

— Bah ! Il ne me viendrait pas à l’idée de désirer mettre dans ma chambre un Paolo Uccello ! Lorsque j’ai envie de revoir sa Bataille, je vais au Louvre. Lorsque j’ai envie de voir des Manhès je vais chez lui !

* * *

Manhès, Ancelin et Fontenoy discutaient à mi-voix, au fond du Sélect, les coudes à plat sur la table pour mieux rapprocher leurs visages.

— Isabelle va encore s’inquiéter, dit Manhès. Elle qui était si heureuse de ce contrat. C’st un peu comme si j’était devenu fonctionnaire.

— Quand revient-elle de la campagne ?

— Demain soir. Il paraît que Moussia a de grosses joues roses.

Manhès avait épousé pendant la guerre, en Limousin, une fille du pays. Cette Isabelle comptait dix ans de moins que son mari. Avec son allure de robuste paysanne, elle aidait beaucoup à l’équilibre de Manhès, toujours inquiet, angoissé. Depuis deux ans ils avaient une fille : Moussia.

Manhès semblait dévoré par sa peinture. Pourtant, à cette passion il ajoutait, il englobait même, Isabelle et Moussia. Sa femme et sa fille étaient devenues indispensables pour sa peinture. Depuis qu’elles prenaient l’air du printemps à la campagne, Manhès n’avait pas touché un pinceau. En général sobre, il buvait lorsque sa femme s’absentait, se sentant perdu, abandonné. Il était d’ailleurs sans doute un peu ivre lorsqu’il eut son altercation avec Laivit-Canne.

— Je voudrais qu’elles soient là, dit Manhès. J’aurais dû les accompagner. Mais la campagne m’ennuie.

— Ça te ferait pourtant du bien, la campagne, dit Ancelin. Tu ne sors de ton atelier que pour t’enfermer dans un café, dans un cinéma, dans une galerie. Tu arrives à t’intoxiquer complétement.

Manhès eut un geste d’agacement :

— Je n’ai pas besoin d’aller sur le motif. La nature ne m’apprend rien. Je transporte partout mon monde avec moi. SI j’étais resté toute ma vie enfermé dans une cave, je peindrais ce que je peins.

— Ce n’est pas pour ta peinture, que nous parlons, essaya de le raisonner Fontenoy, mais pour ta santé. Tu t’anémies à rester enfermé d’un local dans un autre, toujours à la lumière électrique. Regarde-toi dans la glace… tu es d’une pâleur !

Manhès haussa la tête vers la glace murale du café. Il devint soucieux en voyant son visage :

— C’est vrai que j’ai une sale gueule !

Puis il se mit à rire :

— Au début de l’Occupation, les Allemands organisèrent une exposition antisémite. J’y suis allé incognito. Parmi de multiples pièces à conviction, il y avait une photo du Juif le plus laid du monde. Je me suis reconnu.

Ancelin et Fontenoy n’aimaient guère que Manhès plaisantât sur ce sujet. Depuis l’Occupation allemande, comme tous les antiracistes, ils éprouvaient une gêne lorsqu’il était question des Juifs. Ce mot lui-même était difficile à prononcer. Il suffisait d’une toute petite intonation pour qu’il parût injurieux. Certains n’osaient même pas le dire et employaient à la place le mot Israélite. Mais les Juifs ne s’appellent jamais Israélites entre eux, à l’exception des Juifs honteux comme Laivit-Canne. Un Aryen qui dit Israélite n’a pas l’air d’avoir bonne conscience.

Autant ses amis semblaient gênés, autant Manhès appuyait avec un certain sadisme sur cet humour juif qui se rit de lui-même.

Ancelin détourna la conversation en revenant à la peinture :

— Il paraît que le père Michaud a acheté trois Wols et deux Reichel ?

— Pas étonnant, dit Fontenoy, ça ressemble à Klee. Klee, toujours Klee, il ne voit rien en dehors de ça !

Manhès parut mécontent :

— Il m’a quand même donné un mur. Et il a aussi acheté un Ancelin.

— Oui, oui, reprit Fontenoy…. Parce qu’il a peur de manquer une affaire. Mais il vous trahirait sans hésiter pour des Vieira da Silva.

Manhès appela un petit homme de type méditerranéen qui jetait un coup d’oeil dans le café :

— Hé ! Atlan !

Atlan vint s’asseoir à leur table. C’était un noctambule, comme eux tous, mais lui battait les records. Il sortait faire un tour à l’heure où les cafés fermaient, s’accrochait à quelques retardataires et ne retournait dans son atelier que vers trois ou quatre heures du matin. Coreligionnaire de Manhès, mais Algérien et non pas Slave, il était le seul peintre de sa génération que Manhès tint en haute estime. Non pas à cause de leurs origines communes, mais parce qu’ils orientaient leurs recherches picturales dans un même sens. Atlan était aussi inclassable que Manhès et d’un esprit aussi indépendant. Peintre non-figuratif, l’Afrique influençait son art comme le folklore slave celui de Manhès. Fontenoy aimait également l’art d’Atlan. Mais Ancelin ne partageait pas l’opinion de ses deux amis: Il reprochait à Atlan sa « cuisine », c’est-à-dire de mélanger à l’huile du pastel et de la craie.

— C’est ridicule, lui disait Fontenoy. Est-ce que tu blâmes les primitifs d’avoir utilisé le plâtre pour donner du relief aux auréoles de leurs saints, ou d’avoir enchâssé des pierres précieuses dans les couronnes de leurs rois ? Est-ce que tu blâme Degas d’avoir, lui aussi, mélangé du pastel à ses huiles ou Braque d’avoir saupoudré de sable certaines de ses peintures.

Ancelin s’obstinait :

— Oui, oui, je suis contre tout ça.

Lorsqu’il était question d’Atlan, Ancelin devenait de parti pris, à un tel point qu’il rappelait alors Charles Roy. Pendant tout le temps qu’Atlan resta à leur table, le jeune peintre ne dit pas un mot. Manhès raconta à Atlan son aventure avec Laivit-Canne.

— Estime-toi heureux, lui dit Atlan. Depuis que, moi aussi, j’ai rompu mon contrat avec Maeght, ma position n’a fait que s’affirmir. Tu vas voir, les amateurs vont rappliquer chez toi.

Atlan les quitta précipitamment pour rattraper le dramaturge Arthur Adamov qui passait sur le boulevard. Peu après, le gérant du Sélect vint les avertir qu’il se voyait dans l’obligation de fermer.

Ils continuèrent encore à discuter, en faisant les cent pas sur le boulevard Montparnasse. Les voitures des laitiers et les camions des halles passaient dans un vacarme de ferraille. Ils se séparèrent à regret, la tête lourde et les yeux brilliant.
Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.

Lutèce Diaries, 28: Welcome to the Monkey House, or, Headless Body found in Waterless Arena

notre dame fouquet jpegJean 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

(Like this article? Cet article vous plait? Please make a donation today so we can continue covering the Paris arts world / Penser à faire un don aujourd’hui alors qu’on peut continuer d’ecrire sur le monde de l’art a Paris in Dollars or Euros by designating your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for a sous-location ou échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail) en région Parisienne a partir du 11 mai et surtout un logement / location pour le 13 mai. Le contacter à artsvoyager@gmail.com.)

“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.

met delacroix portraitFrom 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.)

notre dame jongkindJohan 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.

Eugene Atget, au tambour quai de tournelles 1908Eugène 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.)

Princeton gargoyle monkey with a camera smallWho’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.

jardin des plantes lorietteRecently 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….

Le feuilleton (the Serial), 2 : “Trompe-l’œil” — Michel Ragon’s ground-breaking 1956 satire of the Contemporary Art Market (in French and English), Part Two

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Original French version follows English translation.)

Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation, or hiring Paul Ben-Itzak to translate your document. Please designate your PayPal donation in dollars or Euros to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.  Click here to read the previous and first extract.)

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….”

“Monsieur 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 –”

“Oh!”

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.

Le feuilleton (the Serial), 1: “Trompe-l’œil” — Michel Ragon’s ground-breaking 1956 satire of the Contemporary Art Market (in French and English)

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(English version follows French original.)

Dans le salon très moderne de Monsieur Michaud, le fameux Michaud des sous-vêtements du même nom (« avec Michaud, toujours chaud »), se tenait une réunion de famille. L’abondance du plexiglas et les multiples ouvertures des meubles Oscar enlevaient toute intimité à cette vaste salle cubique dont les murs s’ornaient d’une collection de peintures de Klee. Leur qualité valait à son propriétaire l’estime et la considération, très souvent exprimée, des meilleurs écrivains et amateurs d’art.

Assis dans un fauteuil tubulaire tendu de cordes blanches qui lui donnaient une vague allure de harpe faussée, Monsieur Michaud interrogeait son fils, debout devant lui. Un peu à l’écart, mais participant toutefois à la conversation, Madame Michaud s’occupait à un collage relativement cubiste sur une table de céramique noire. Non pas que Madame Michaud fût artiste, ni même qu’elle tentât de passer pour telle, mais elle se distrayait en découpant des morceaux de papiers de couleurs et en les assemblant, tantôt à la manière de Picasso, tantôt à la manière de Matisse, comme elle se fût donnée, cinquante ans plus tôt, aux points de canevas.

— Voyons, Charles, disait Monsieur Michaud à son fils, décide-toi. Tu viens d’être reçu a ton bac, il te faut t’orienter vers une carrière. Nous sommes là pour t’aider…

Charles, tout de noir vêtu, les cheveux raides ramenés sur le front à la Bourvil (ou à la Marlon Brando), triturait son mouchoir, avançait une jambe, la reculait, avec un dandinement pouvant faire supposer qu’il tendait à l’inversion sexuelle, mais il n’en était rien. L’allure efféminée de Charles, comme ses sautillements, ses gestes gamins, sa démarche déhanchée, appartenait au style de l’époque.

— Réponds, Amour, s’exclama Madame Michaud, ne laisse pas languir ton père ; sinon il va encore nous faire vingt-quatre de tension!

— Voila, pap’, mam’, se décida enfin Charles, en accentuant son dandinement, moi j’aimerais bien devenir notaire.

Madame Michaud abandonna précipitamment ses ciseaux et sa colle pour courir à son mari qui suffoquait. Elle le frappais dans le dos avec énergie, lui tapotait les joues :

— Ce n’est rien, darling*, ce n’est rien ! Charles plaisante, tu le vois bien…

Lorsque Monsieur Michaud reprit « ses esprits », Charles très ennuyé par la tournure des événements, redit quand même :

— Je ne voudrais pas vous fâcher, pap’, mam’, mais c’est vrai : j’aimerais bien être notaire.

Monsieur et Madame Michaud se regardèrent d’un air entendu et indulgent. Puis Monsieur Michaud dit d’une voix ferme :

— Mon petit Charles, tu es ridicule. On n’est plus notaire, de nos jours. Comment une pareille idée a-t-elle pu se nicher dans la tête du fils Michaud ! Choisir d’être notaire… Est-ce que l’on choisit d’être cocu ? Enfin, quoi, n’as-tu pas lu Balzac ? Flaubert ? Depuis cent ans les notaires sont des personnages de farce et ton idéal serait de coiffer la calotte noire, de porter des bésicles et une chaîne de montre en or sur un ventre que, Dieu merci, tu n’es pas encore près d’acquérir. Le métier de notaire peut, à la rigueur, convenir à un fils d’instituteur de campagne ; mais toi, Charles, veux-tu faire honte à ta famille ?

« Allons, allons, c’est une bêtise de jeune homme. Je vais t’aider, moi. Tiens… si tu faisais une carrière d’artiste… Peintre, par exemple ?

— Mais, pap’, je ne sais pas peindre…

Monsieur Michaud se prit le crâne à pleines mains, en signe de découragement total devant une telle innocence.

— Regardez-moi ce grand sot ! Mais tu apprendras, Charles ! Est-ce qu’on refuse d’envisager la médecine parce qu’on n’a jamais fait un pansement ! La peinture s’apprend, mon petit, comme toute chose. Et regarde l’avenir qui est offert à un peintre. Picasso est milliardaire, Matisse aussi… Connais-tu un notaire qui, parti de rien, soit arrivé à une aussi brillante situation ? Picasso a perdu beaucoup de temps, dans sa jeunesse, parce qu’il était pauvre, qu’il ne pouvait pas s’acheter de couleurs ni de toiles, qu’il n’avait aucune relation parmi les marchands et les critiques. Mais toi, tu ne manqueras de rien. Je te donnerai une mensualité qui te laissera la tête libre. Tu profiteras de mes relations de collectionneur. Allez, fiston, avec un pu de bonne volonté de ta part, nous ferons de toi un artiste célèbre, qui sera la joie de la famille. Regarde Ancelin, il ne voulais rien savoir pour être peintre, lui non plus. Il voulait devenir officier, sous prétexte que son père est général. Mais le général Ancelin a bien su le dissuader de suivre une carrière aussi compromise par ce pacifisme de plus en plus en vogue. Lui aussi, ce vieil ami Ancelin, avait su voir quels débouchés offrait maintenant le monde des arts. Ancelin a son contrat chez Laivit-Canne et il va bientôt exposer a New York.

En se relevant lourdement, Monsieur Michaud heurta du front une pale d’un mobile de Calder qui se balançait dans la pièce. Il la chassa distraitement du revers de la main, comme une mouche. Le mobile se mit à onduler, toutes les branches évoluèrent en silence. On eût dit qu’un gigantesque insecte se fût tout à coup éveillé au-dessus du père et du fils qui n’y prenaient garde. Une soubrette entre, après avoir frappé. Elle paraissait affolée :

— Madame, le service de céramique que Monsieur avait offert à Madame…

— Et bien ?

— Je ne sais pas comment cela a pu se produire, mais il déteint.

— Expliquez-vous clairement et ne vous énervez pas, soupira Madame Michaud en coupant délicatement une languette de papier gaufré.

— Oui, Madame, j’ai voulu servir le consommé dans le service en céramique et le consommé est devenu tout bleu.

— C’est insensé, hurla Monsieur Michaud. Qui vous a dit de toucher à ce service ! Vous n’avez donc pas vu que ces assiettes n’étaient pas faites pour manger dedans !

— Alors elle sont faites pour quoi, Monsieur, demanda la bonne, ahurie.

— Mais pour rien, hurla encore plus fort Monsieur Michaud, si fort que le Calder en eut des hoquets. Ces assiettes sont des œuvres d’art. On ne mange pas dans des œuvres d’art. On les regarde !

La bonne essaya de se justifier en bougonnant :

— Je n’aurais jamais pensé verser du consommé dans les tableaux de Monsieur. Mais je croyais que des assiettes étaient des assiettes…

Monsieur et Madame Michaud éclatèrent de rire en même temps. Ils pouffaient : « Elle croyait que les assiettes étaient des assiettes… C’est à ne pas croire ! Il faudra raconter ça a Paulhan. »

La bonne repartit, vexée. Par l’immense baie vitrée qui donnait sur le Jardin du Luxembourg, Charles, indifférent a la crise de fou rire de ses parents, regardait avec nostalgie vers la Faculté de Droit.

***

Monsieur Michaud n’était pas né collectionneur. Avant la guerre, tout occupé à son industrie de sous-vêtements, il ignorait même qu’il existait encore des peintres. Il avait fallu un hasard. Un de ses débiteurs lui apporta un lot d’aquarelles, de gouaches et de peintures d’un artiste allemand inconnu, en le suppliant de les conserver comme gage. Monsieur Michaud refusa d’abord ce singulier marché. Depuis quand échange-t-on des sous-vêtements contre de la peinture ! Mais le débiteur était acculé à la ruine. En attendant d’entamer des poursuites, Monsieur Michaud fit porter dans une de ses remises toutes ces peintures qu’il ne prit même pas la peine de regarder. Quelques mois plus tard, son débiteur se suicida. Monsieur Michaud se fit apporter les peintures afin d’examiner s’il pourrait en tirer quelque argent. Stupéfait, il vit qu’il s’agissait de choses enfantines, des sortes de fleuves, d’oiseaux, de bonshommes. Il s’était fait bien avoir. La fureur l’étranglait. Ce salaud de machin s’était payé sa tête avant de se suicider. A tout hasard, il fit quand même venir un marchand qui refusa d’acheter en souriant d’un air supérieur.

— Alors, je peux les foutre à la poubelle, suffoqua-t-il.

— Oh, dit le marchand, avec un geste évasif, gardez-les toujours. On ne sait jamais. Si vous avez de la place…

Peu après la guerre, ce même marchand revint voir Monsieur Michaud qui avait complètement oublié cette histoire de peintures. Il lui offrit deux millions pour ce lot d’œuvres de Klee qu’il se souvenait avoir vu autrefois.

Devant l’énormité de la somme (le débiteur ne lui devait, avant la guerre, que quelques centaines de mille francs), il se méfia, fit venir d’autres marchands de tableaux qui lui offrirent trois, quatre, cinq millions… Il se mit alors à lire quelques livres sur l’art contemporain, découvrit que la peinture était la marchandise la plus spéculative qui soit et que l’on considérait Klee, en Amérique, comme un grand peintre. Il fit encadrer luxueusement ses peintures et les accrocha dans son salon. Bientôt, on lui demanda l’autorisation de photographier « ses » œuvres, de les reproduire en couleurs dans des revues luxueuses et des livres d’art. Son nom fut mentionné à chaque fois que l’on parlait de l’œuvre de Klee. Il pénétra ainsi, à son insu, dans le monde des arts et des lettres et se laissa aisément convertir à toutes les avant-gardes. Il se paya le luxe d’être parfois philanthrope, de subventionner quelques revues, d’encourager quelques jeunes artistes dont la peinture ressemblait à celle de Klee. Il arriva même à passer pour l’un des premiers spécialistes de Klee en France. Loin de lui faire perdre de l’argent, les arts lui apportaient une considération qu’il n’avait jamais obtenue en tant qu’industriel. On le décora pour services rendus aux arts. Des artistes célèbres recherchèrent son amitié. Même les autres industriels lui témoignaient maintenant une déférence qu’ils n’auraient jamais eu l’idée de lui accorder avant qu’il devînt un « grand collectionneur ». Monsieur et Madame Michaud voulurent être à la page. Ils achetèrent un appartement qu’ils firent transformer par Le Corbusier. Rien, absolument rien chez eux, ne fut antérieur à ce siècle, si ce n’étaient eux-mêmes.

Elevé dans cette architecture aux lignes pures, blasé du mobilier qui lui rappelait fâcheusement le cabinet du dentiste, abruti par la fréquentation journalière des chefs-d’œuvre, Charles se prit à souhaiter vivre dans une étude poussiéreuse, avec de grandes vielles chaises aux pieds droits, en bois, avec un bureau en bois et un porte-plume avec une plume. C’était sa poésie, à lui. A chaque adolescent sa folie.

English translation by Paul Ben-Itzak

In the très chic Parisian salon of Monsieur Mumfy — the very same Mumfy of the celebrated underwear ads — “with Mumfy, you’re always comfy” — a Family Conference was underway. The plethora of Plexiglas and the multitude of apertures in the porous Oscar furniture eliminated any idea of intimacy in the vast square room, whose walls were ornamented with a collection of Klees. The quality of these paintings had earned their proprietor the high regard and hosannas, frequently expressed, of the leading art critics of Paris as well as art aficionados.

Ensconced in a tubular arm-chair held together with cream-colored cords which leant it the vague allure of a warped harp, Monsieur Mumfy was in the process of interrogating his son, standing before him. Slightly separated from them, but still participating in the conversation, Madame Mumfy was busy at a black ceramic table creating a more or less Cubist collage. It was not that Madame Mumfy was an artist, or even trying to pass as one, but that she liked to distract herself with cutting up colored paper and re-assembling it, sometimes à la Picasso, sometimes à la Matisse, just as 50 years earlier she might have devoted herself to needlework.

“My dear Charles,” Monsieur Mumfy declared, “it’s time to decide. You’ve now graduated from high school; it’s time to pick a career. We’re here to help….”

Charles, clad from head to toe in black, his stiff hair combed over his forehead à la Bourvil (or à la Marlon Brando), pulverizing his handkerchief between his nervous fingers, tentatively stepped forward before retreating, with a certain dandy-ness that might have lead one to suspect an inclination towards sexual inversion, but it was nothing like that. Charles’s effeminate affectations, like his bird-like hopping back and forth, his juvenile gestures, and the weaving of his hips when he walked, were très à la mode.

“Respond, Cheri!” chimed in Madame Mumfy. “Don’t let your father just languish there. Otherwise we’re in for another 24 hours of stress!”

“Okay Pops, Moms,” Charles finally decided, accentuating his dandy-ness. “I have a dream: To become… a notary public.”

Madame Mumfy precipitously dropped her scissors and glue to rush to the side of her husband, who was hyperventilating. Striking him on the back and tapping him on the cheeks, she tried to reassure him:

“It’s nothing, darling, nothing! Charles is obviously kidding….”

When Monsieur Mumfy had recovered his wits, his son, albeit concerned by the turn of events, nonetheless insisted:

“I don’t want to make you mad Pops, Moms, but I’m not joking: I really want to be a notary public.”

Monsieur and Madame Mumfy glanced at each other with a complicit air tempered by indulgence. Then Monsieur Mumfy responded with a firm voice:

“My dear Charles, don’t be ridiculous. No one becomes a notary public in these times. How could such an idea ever have sprouted up in the head of a MUMFY?! Choosing to be a notary public. The very idea of it! Does one choose to be a cuckold? Haven’t you read Balzac? Flaubert? For more than a hundred years notary publics have been looked on as grotesque characters, the butt of jokes — and your “dream” would be to sport a black skull-cap and bifocals with a pocket-watch dangling on a chain over a protuberant belly that — thank God — you’re not even close to acquiring. Being a notary public might be fitting for the son of a hic school-teacher, but you, Charles — do you want to be the black sheep of your family?

“Come, come now — it’s just the silly fancy of an adolescent. I’m going to help you…. I’ve got it! What if you became … an artist…? A painter, for instance?”

“But Pops, I don’t know how to paint.”

Monsieur Mumfy clutched his head between his hands in a sign of total exasperation in the face of such naïveté.

“Look at this blockhead! You’ll learn, Charles, you’ll learn! Does someone refuse to become a doctor because he’s never applied a bandage? One learns to paint, my boy, as with anything. And consider the future in painting. Picasso is a millionaire, as is Matisse…. Have you ever heard of a notary public who, starting out from scratch, has carved out such a shining success? Picasso lost so much time in his youth, because he was poor and couldn’t afford paints or canvasses, and because he didn’t know any dealers or critics. But you, Charle! You won’t lack for anything. I’ll give you a monthly allowance so you won’t have anything to worry about. You can use my connections as a collector. With a little effort from you, my boy, we’ll make a famous artist out of you who will be the pride and joy of the family. Look at Ancelin. He wouldn’t have heard of becoming a painter. He wanted to be an officer, just because his father is a general. But General Ancelin talked him out of pursuing a career in a field compromised by the pacifism that’s more and more in vogue these days. And our old friend Ancelin was able to see the opportunities available these days in the art world. And he now has a contract with Laivit-Canne’s gallery and will soon be exposed in New York.

Rising heavily, Monsieur Mumfy bumped his head against the blade of a Calder mobile rotating from the ceiling. He scooted it away distractedly with the back of his hand, as if it were a fly. The mobile started to undulate, with all its branches revolving in silence. It was as if a giant insect had suddenly come to life above the father and son, oblivious to its awakening. A soubrette rushed in after urgently knocking, in the throes of panic.

“Madame, it’s horrible! The pottery set that Monsieur gave Madame….”

“Yes…?

“I don’t know how it happened, but… it’s bleeding.”

“Now now, explain yourself clearly and don’t get upset,” sighed Madame Mumfy, delicately snipping off a strip of embossed paper.

“Yes, Madame. I went to serve the consommé in the pottery bowls and the consommé turned completely blue.”

“WHAT?!” erupted Monsieur Mumfy. “Who told you to touch that pottery?! You couldn’t tell that those plates were not made to be eaten from?!”

“Then what are they made for, Monsieur?” asked the maid, flustered.

“They’re not ‘made’ for anything!” roared Monsieur Mumfy even louder, so loud that the Calder began to hiccup. “Those plates are works of art. One does not eat from works of art. One beholds them!”

The maid tried to defend herself by babbling, “I wouldn’t have thought of pouring consommé on Monsieur’s paintings. I just thought that bowls are bowls….”

Monsieur and Madame Mumfy broke into simultaneous laughter, bursting out, “She believed that bowls were bowls…!” “Incredible!” “We must tell Paulhan about this!”

The maid departed, clearly vexed. By the immense bay window looking out over the Luxembourg Gardens, Charles, indifferent to the fit of laughter which had seized his parents, gazed nostalgically out at the Law School.

***

Monsieur Mumfy was not a born art collector. Before the war, consumed as he was with his underwear factory, he didn’t even know that painters existed. It took an accident. One of his debtors brought him a batch of watercolors, gouaches, and paintings by an unknown German artist, pleading with him to accept the paintings as collateral. Monsieur Mumfy initially refused this singular arrangement. Since when did one trade underwear for paintings?! But the debtor had been driven to ruin. Ahead of taking him to court, Monsieur Mumfy had the paintings stored in one of his warehouses, without taking the trouble to even look at them. Some months later, the debtor committed suicide. Monsieur Mumfy had the paintings brought up so he could study them to see if by chance they might actually be worth something. Stupefied, he discovered that they were replete with child-like doodles — all sorts of rivers, of birds, of funny figures. He’d been had. He began to choke with rage. The bastard had conned him before offing himself! Just in case, though, he asked an art dealer to take a look; the dealer refused to buy anything, smiling snidely.

“So I can throw them in the garbage,” Monsieur Mumfy fumed.

“Oh,” the dealer answered, with an evasive gesture, “hang on to them all the same. You never know. If you have the space….”

Immediately after the war, the very same dealer came back to see Monsieur Mumfy, who’d completely forgotten the painting fiasco. He offered him $5,000 for the whole lot of Klee works that he recalled seeing earlier.

Faced with the enormity of the amount (the debtor owed him, before the war, a little over $500), Monsieur Mumfy became suspicious, asked other dealers to come look at the paintings, and got offers of $7,500, $10,000, and $12,500 for the Klees…. He decided to read a few books about contemporary art, discovered that the market for paintings was the most speculative around, and that Klee was considered in America to be a major painter. He bought ornate frames for his paintings and had them hung in his salon. Before long, there were requests to photograph ‘his’ oeuvres, and to reproduce them in color in luxury magazines and art books. The name Mumfy was evoked wherever there was talk of Klee’s oeuvre. Thus he was catapulted, almost unconsciously, into the midst of the world of arts and letters and readily let himself be converted to all things avant-garde. He allowed himself to indulge in the luxury of philanthropy, underwriting several art revues and sponsoring young artists whose paintings resembled Klee’s. He was even recognized as one of the premiere Klee specialists in France. Far from making him lose money, the arts earned him notoriety he’d never even dreamed of as a simple garmento. He was decorated for services rendered to the arts. Famous artists cultivated his friendship. Even his fellow industrialists now showed him a deference that they’d never have dreamed of according him before he earned a reputation as an “influential collector.” Monsieur et Madame Michaud wanted to be up-to-date. They bought an apartment that they hired Le Corbusier to transform. Nothing, absolutely nothing in their home pre-dated the 20th century (with the possible exception of its proprietors).

Brought up amongst this architecture of pure lines, blasé about being surrounded by furniture which constantly reminded him of a dentist’s office, exhausted by this daily frequenting of chefs-d’oeuvre, Charles began to fantasize about living in a dusty bureau, with large old straight-legged  wooden arm-chairs, an oak desk and an ink-well with a feather plume. This was his own form of poetry. To every teenager his folly.

*In English in the original.

Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.