Le Feuilleton (the Serial): Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris, Part 15: Spectres in the Montparno Machine

Ragon, Jules Pascin, Les Petites americaines, smallBut first, a school: From the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Jules Pascin, “Les Petites Américaines,” 1916. MahJ © mahJ / Mario Goldman. Because a number of the artists featured in the exhibition are cited in this episode of “Trompe-l’Oeil,” we’re including some of their oeuvres here. Jules Pascin, the American – Bulgarian artist Hemingway once dubbed “the prince of Montparnasse,” slit his wrists, scrawled the name of his mistress on the walls of his Montmartre studio in his own blood and then hung himself 90 years ago today.

by and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
From “Trompe-l’Oeil,” published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel

Part 15 in the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of Abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first 14  parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click hereBecause today’s episode of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil” — like the last— deals extensively with Post-war anti-Semitism in France (among other topics), making it singular among literature of the period, we’ve decided to make it available for free to all readers, even non-subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager and think this work is important, please subscribe or make a donation today by designating your payment through PayPal in Euros or Dollars to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask how to donate by check.

The art of the present, the ‘art vivant,’ is still Montparno. But if the artists of the avant-garde still live in Montparnasse, they’re no longer Bohemians. They’re no different, by their wardrobe and their comportment, than anyone else. If one had to identify them with a particular social category purely by their appearance, it would most likely be that associated with journalists, film directors, radio reporters. Already, Kandinsky in his time looked more like an industrial magnate than one of the founders of Abstract art. Mondrian might have been mistaken for a distinguished mathematician or master of ceremonies. They were a far cry from Picasso’s flowered shirt and shorts; Chagall’s photogenic grimaces; and Braque’s grease-monkey cover-alls. Thus today, whether it’s Soulages with his studio overlooking the Montparnasse cemetery, Schneider living on the fringes of the train station, Manessier and Singier with their mansions on the rue Vaugirard, or Hans Hartung near the rue de la Gaité, no one is trying to stand out except by his oeuvre, erected in solitude.

0334296 Piet Mondriaan Aaronskelk Blauwe Bloem Post restauratie 2011From the recent exhibition at the Musée Marmottan Monet: Piet Mondrian, “Arum; fleur bleue,” 1908-1909. Oil on canvas, 46 x 32 cm. © Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, the Netherlands.

The traditional artist cafés of Montparnasse — le Dôme and le Sélect — are all the same still invaded by painters, models from the Grande Chaumière Academy*, and a mob of intellectuals. From time to time, the street-walkers who work the intersection around the Métro Vavin come in to warm themselves up with a coffee at the counter.

Moïse KislingFrom the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Amedeo Modigliani, “Portrait of Kisling,” 1916. Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Bertrand Prévost. Born to Jewish parents in Livorno, Italy, after initially installing himself in the Bateau-Lavoir in 1906, Modigliani eventually migrated across the Seine to the cité Falguière in the 15th arrondissement, bordering Montparnasse. Also home to Chaim Soutine’s studio (and, much later, the translator), in Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil” the cité Falguière is where the critic Fontenoy shacks up with the painter Blanche Favard.

Each of these consumers is hoping to resurrect a chapter of the gilded past. The Americans have heard about le Sélect from Hemingway or Miller. The Israelis are following the traces of Soutine and Modigliani. The Scandinavians, the Germans, the Italians, they’re all searching for this mythic École de Paris and they plant their flag in this storied quarter which gave birth to it, awaiting its return or trying to reconstitute it themselves.

Ragon, Juan Gris, Pears & Grapes on Table, 1913From the Arts Voyager Archives and past coverage: Juan Gris, “Apples and grapes on a table,” Autumn 1913. Oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm. The Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Some, elderly, unknown, linger as a kind of vestige of this glorious Montparnasse past. They sat at this very table 40 years ago with Picasso or Juan Gris, and they continue to come here and steep themselves in café-crèmes. They’ve never left Montparnasse. And they’ll never leave it. Every night, from nine o’clock until one a.m., they remain planted in front of the same cup of coffee, never refilled because they can’t afford it. They cling to their souvenirs. They continue getting high on chimerical dreams in which they only half believe any more. At times, during the Summer months, they seem to have left Paris on vacation. But they’ve only drifted down to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where they spend their evenings on the terrace of the Royal Saint-Germain. This is their sole infidelity to Montparnasse. In this way, they convince themselves that they’ve voyaged.

Ragon Moshe Kisling Cubist NudeFrom the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Moshe Kisling, “Cubist Nude,” 1918. MahJ © mahJ / Mario Goldman.

Then one morning, after traipsing back to their Spartan hotel room, or their attic, or their dingy basement, they die, without any pomp or ceremony or anyone  noticing they’re gone. Only the waiters, the café society equivalent of a congressional sergeant of arms, perceive a void among the clientele, quickly filled by the young people arriving from Issoudun or Istanbul. Accustomed to living in colonies, some who’ve spent 30 or 40 years of their lives in Montparnasse die before they’ve learned to speak French. They seem to have this extraordinary capacity of being able to transport intact the street where they were born in Minsk to Denfert-Rochereau.

Thus, while the new artists of the avant-garde, conscious of their social standing, break with this romanticism of poverty, of the night, of alcohol, of girls, particular to the Montparnos who made Montparnasse, a bearded, long-haired clientele, arrayed in cast-off schmatas, continues to furnish tourists with the living proof that Montparnasse is not yet dead.

Jewish Museum Mondzain La Faim From the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Simon Mondzain, “Hunger,” 1914. Private collection. © Christophe Fouin.

The new Montparnos in our story were nonetheless not all complete failures, because Manhès, Ancelin, and Fontenoy spent practically all their nights there. Atlan, who occupied an atelier next-door to where Gauguin once lived, also permanently held court at le Dôme or le Sélect. But he and Manhès also found kinship in a larger community of Jewish artists. They hob-knobbed with the painter Michonz, who had been one of Soutine’s few confidents, or with Zadkine or Mané-Katz.

Jean-Michel Atlan, Untitled, 1955 smallFrom the Arts Voyager’s previous coverage of art auctions at Artcurial, Paris: Jean-Michel Atlan, Untitled, 1955. Image copyright Artcurial.

Of all of them, Mané-Katz was without doubt the only one who fully symbolized the cosmopolitanism of the Montparnos. He lived not far from le Dôme on the other side of the Boulevard Montparnasse, in Othon Freisz’s former atelier, which he’d bought upon the death of the latter. Small, svelte, with a curious, entirely white head of hair in the shape of an aureole, he bore a simultaneous resemblance to Leopold Stokowski and François Fratellini. Like the second, he possessed a sense of repartee, brio, a slightly clownesque sense of humor, and above all the laugh, a laugh both childlike and expressive. He might well have belonged to the same generation as Soutine and Picasso and be rich and famous, but this didn’t stop him from sitting down at Manhès’s table with an entirely unassuming simplicity and regaling him with comic anecdotes in which he was invariably the victim, the first to laugh at his own misfortune, ending up by infecting all around him with his good humour.

When he was finally decorated with the Legion of Honor, his joy was unbridled. Fontenoy, who ran into him a few days later, could not understand how a man already crowned with so many honors could be so proud of a little piece of cloth. Mané-Katz suddenly grew serious:

“It’s hard for you to understand, you’re French by birth. Me, it took me dozens and dozens of years to become French. The little Jew from the Russian shtetl decorated by the French minister…. Now I feel more at ease. I’ve finally been accepted by your country.”

The next night, Manhès and Fontenoy were seated at their regular table in le Sélect when they saw Mané-Katz enter. Spotting the pair, he approached them, his hand extended, in a hilarious mood:

“Ah, Fontenoy! Remember what I told you yesterday? Well, today I went over to get my plane ticket in a travel agency next to the Opera House, for New York, where I’m going to have an exhibition. Coming out of the agency, I ran into an American I know. I accompanied him back into the agency, we talked, then I came out again. Then I ran into another American I know. I walked back into the agency with him, we chatted, I walked out again. Suddenly I felt someone yank the collar of my jacket, and a gruff voice barked, “What are you trying to palm off on them, those Americans? And that red ribbon, how dare you? Come on, you, to the police station!” I tried to explain to the cop that I was going to New York, to show him the proof of my decoration. But try to reason with a symbol of authority. The precinct captain had to launch an investigation. You see, Fontenoy, I was mistaken to believe that I could become French just like that, ipso-facto. He mistook me for a Jewish Black market trafficker!”

For a moment, Mané-Katz let his bitterness seep through. But then he executed a perfect pirouette and picked right back up mocking himself, breaking out in laughter and slapping his thighs.

Ragon Chagall Khalista smallFrom the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Marc Chagall, “Khalista Revue,” No. 2, 1924. © MahJ / Christophe Fouin, © ADAGP, Paris 2020. Khalista or Khalyastre (the Gang), a literary and artistic review created in Warsaw in 1922, was edited by the poets Peretz Markish and Oser Warszawski and illustrated by Chagall. Other reviews published by the community of artist-immigrants which buzzed around “the Hive” in Montparnasse prior to World War II included Menorah, which ran from 1922 to 1933, and the Jewish Review, created by Albert Cohen and put out by Gallimard. 

Montparnasse absorbed Fontenoy, as it did Manhès, as it did all the others. And yet Fontenoy also resented the hold the quartier had on him. He told himself that he was spinning his wheels amidst the flotsam and the jetsam and that he was in danger of being swallowed up by the quicksand like all the others. Manhès echoed his sentiments. But despite their efforts to meet up elsewhere, in their homes or in other neighborhoods, they invariably ended up on this corner of the rue Vavin, this corner on which all the streets, all the roads of the world seemed to converge.

Towards one or two in the morning, Fontenoy and Manhès usually separated near the train station. Manhès went home to Isabelle and Moussia, Fontenoy back to Blanche. This last was going out with him at night less often. She told him:

“I’ve about had it with Montparnasse. What’s the point of frittering away half the night blabbering about painting or poetry! I’d rather stay here and paint. I
think it would also be a lot more productive for you to devote your evenings to writing.”

Fontenoy knew that Blanche was right, but this didn’t stop him from inevitably descending every evening, by eight or nine o’clock, to le Sélect. It was winter. Returning five hours later he’d find Blanche asleep. When he got into bed, she’d grouse because he’d awoken her and he was glacial.

 

*A studio popular during the epoch with many artists, where they could have ready access to live models; this summer, to encourage social distancing — and reach a global audience — the Grande Chaumière Academy is offering this service by video remote.

A Dance Insider/Arts Voyager May Day exclusive: Michel Ragon’s The Book of the Vanquished (“La mémoire des vainçus”) (Extracts, in newly revised translation, with new introduction)

by and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Original French-language novel copyright Éditions Albin Michel

Editor’s note: On this May Day 2020, with Donald Trump abusing the Military Production Act to potentially send workers to their deaths by asserting he has the right to pre-empt state decisions to close the meat-packing plants which are loci for virus contamination (where’s Upton Sinclair when you need him?), and with the governors of Iowa and Nebraska insisting that those who refuse to return to hazardous working conditions will see their unemployment benefits cut off, we thought the moment propitious to revise and share our translated excerpts of Michel Ragon’s “La mémoire des vainçus” (literally, “the memory of the vanquished”), as proof that if the struggle is still not over, the battles of the vanquished are never really in vain. And can still serve as inspiration for the labor and human rights struggles to come. (To read the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager serialized publication of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil,” click here. )

“The ideal is when one is able to die for one’s ideas. Politics is when one can live for them.”

— Charles Péguy, cited on frontispiece, “The Book of the Vanquished.”

“Books can also die, but they last longer than men. They get passed on from hand to hand, like the Olympic flame. My friend, my father, my older brother, you have not entirely slid into oblivion, because this book of your life exists.”

— Michel Ragon, Prologue, “The Book of the Vanquished.”

Part One: “The little girl in the fishmongers’ wagon” (1899-1917)

(Excerpt, 1911-1912.)

“As for me, I’m just a poor sap! For those of us at the bottom of the heap, there’s nothing but bad breaks in this world and the one beyond. And of course, when we get to Heaven, it’ll be up to us to make sure the thunder-claps work.”

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck,” cited on the frontispiece of Part One of “The Book of the Vanquished.”

“Sometimes it’s better to be the vanquished than the victor.”

— Vincent Van Gogh, cited in Lou Brudner’s preface to “Büchner, Complete Works,” published by Le Club Français du livre, Paris, 1955.

Translator’s note: With the exception of Fred and Flora, who may be real, may be fictional, or may be composites, all the personages cited below and in Michel Ragon’s novel are based on real historical figures, notably Paul Delesalle (1870-1948), the Left Bank bookseller. Later adopting the pen name Victor Serge, Victor Kibaltchich (1890-1947) would become a noted Socialist theorist who, like Fred in “The Book of the Vanquished,” eventually broke with the Bolsheviks. Rirette Maîtrejean was his actual companion. Raymond-la-Science, René Valet, and Octave Garnier were real members of the Bonnot Gang, the details of their denouement recounted by Ragon as translated below accurate. For the other personalities evoked, including leading figures in the European Anarcho-Syndicaliste milieu in its heyday, as well as certain events alluded to, I’ve included brief footnotes, as these personalities and events may not be as familiar to an Anglophone audience as to Ragon’s French readers, for whom they represent markers in the national memory, notably the infamous “Bande à Bonnot,” whose exploits still resonate in a contemporary France wracked by youthful alienation and haunted by the terrorism in which this is sometimes manifest.

Every morning the cold awoke the boy at dawn. Long before the street-lanterns dimmed, in the pale gray light he shook off the dust and grime of his hovel at the end of a narrow alley flanking the Saint-Eustache church. Stretching out his limbs like a cat he flicked off the fleas and, like a famished feline, took off in search of nourishment, flairing the aromas wafting down the street. With Les Halles wholesale market coming to life at the same time, it didn’t take long for him to score something hot. The poultry merchants never opened their stalls before debating over a bowl of bouillon, and the boy always received his share. Then he’d skip off, hop-scotching between the trailers loaded with heaps of victuals.  Every Friday he’d march up the rue des Petits-Carreaux to meet the fishmongers’ wagons arriving from Dieppe, drawn by the aroma of seaweed and fish-scales surging towards the center of Paris. The sea — this sea which he’d never seen and which he pictured as a catastrophic inundation — cut a swathe through the countryside before it descended from the heights of Montmartre. He could hear the carts approaching from far away, like the rumbling of thunder. The churning of the metallic wagon wheels stirred up a racket fit to raise the dead, amplified by the clippety-clop of the horseshoes. Numbed by the long voyage, enveloped in their thick overcoats, the fishmongers dozed in their wagons, mechanically hanging onto the reigns. The horses knew the way by heart. When the first carriages hit the iron pavilions of the market, the resultant traffic jam and grating of the brakes rose up in a grinding, piercing crescendo that reverberated all the way back up to the Poissonnière quartier. The drivers abruptly started awake, spat out a string of invectives, and righted themselves in their seats. Those farther back had to wait until the first arrivals unloaded their merchandise. The horses pawed the ground and stamped their feet. The majority of the men jumped off their carts to go have a little nip in the bistros just raising their shutters.

On this particular Friday, at the rear of one of the wagons sat a small girl. Her naked legs and bare feet dangled off the edge of the cart, and the boy noticed nothing more than this white skin. He drew near. The girl, her head leaning forward, her face hidden by the tussled blonde hair which fell over her eyes, didn’t see him at first. As for the boy, he only had eyes for those plump swinging gams. By the time he was almost on top of them, he could hear the girl singing out a rhymed ditty. He approached his hand, touching one of her calves.

“Eh, lower the mitts! Why, the nerve!”

For the rest of the lengthy excerpt, subscribers e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Not yet a Dance Insider / Arts Voyager subscriber? Subscriptions are $59 or Euros / year, or $36/students, teachers, artists, dancers, and the unemployed. Just designate your payment via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Exceptionally for this excerpt, even non-subscribers can can write us before May 7 and receive a free copy.

Pendant l’exil: When Victor Hugo revisited the rues & houses of the Old Blois of his youth, thanks to an artist

hugo blois by armand queyroy 5 with coverEau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy. Printed by Delâtre, Paris, 1864. Introduction by Victor Hugo, extracted from la Gazette des Beaux Arts. Ouvrage dedicated by Queyroy to “Madame le Masson souvenir affectueux.” Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

by Victor Hugo
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Translation dedicated to Lucie and Lionel, Travailleurs intellectuelles Parisiens, maintenant exiles … pas loin de… Blois….

Just before the virus hit, I found the ideal place in Paris — an apartment-atelier on the rue Daguerre, no less, where it’s no doubt perched atop a portion of the Catacombs — from which to launch Les Editions Hèléne, a publishing house specializing in English translations  of French literature and on French art. In addition to being on the Meridian of Paris, where miracles always seem to happen to me, the rental comes with other happy accidents related to future work and translation projects. In pondering whether I should (and could) wait until there’s a vaccine to return to Paris — thus prolonging my own exile from Lutèce for at least another year — I considered the case of Victor Hugo, who did not let a little thing like 18 years of exile from Paris and France stop him from producing some of the best literature ever. Besides “Les Miserables,” there were poems, essays, political tracts, appeals (famously, for clemency for John Brown), and correspondence. Not just exchanges with peers including George Sand, but appreciations like the following 1864 letter to Armand Queyroy on the occasion of the publication of “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” a collection of eaux-fortes or etchings printed by Delâtre, in Paris. And of course, coming from the pen of Victor Hugo, these souvenirs do not just reflect one of the Great Man’s Proustien — madeleine — moments; Hugo manages to squeeze in a political discourse which reveals his sometimes nuanced disposition towards French monarchic heritage. But above all, where this discourse touches me is in its illustration of the nexus between literature and the fine arts.  Like what you’re reading? If you are not already a subscriber, advertiser, or family member, please help pay  for our hard work in increasingly expensive and risky times by making a donation today. Just designate your payment in dollars or Euros via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at there to learn how to pay by check.– PB-I

(Extracted from “Pendant l’Exil,” 1852 – 1870, Victor Hugo. Paris, Nelson, Editeurs. Images from the Archives  of the Loire-et-Cher department of France. The letter also served as a preface to Queyroy’s publication.)

Hauteville House, [Guernsey,] April 17, 1864

Monsieur, I want to thank you. You’ve just enabled me to re-live the past. On the 17th of April, 1825 — 39 years ago to this very day (allow me to note this minor coincidence, which is interesting to me at least) — I arrived in Blois. It was early morning. I’d come from Paris. I’d passed the night in the mail-wagon, and what is there to do in the mail-wagon? I’d done “The Ballad of the two Archers”; then, the final verses finished, as the day had not yet dawned, all the while watching through the dim light of the track lights on either side of the train the troops of Orleans cows descending towards Paris, I’d dozed off. The conductor’s voice awoke me. “Voila Blois!” he’d cried.

I opened my eyes and saw a thousand windows at the same time, an irregular and pell-mell pile of houses, of steeples, a chateau, and on the hill a crown of tall trees and a row of gabled, pointed stone facades on the edge of the water, an entire city resembling an amphitheater, capriciously spread out on the ledges of an inclining plain and, except that the Ocean is wider than the Loire and doesn’t have any bridges leading to the other side, practically identical to this city of Guernsey where I live today.

The Sun was rising over Blois.

Fifteen minutes later and I was on the rue du Foix, number 73. I knocked on a small door giving onto a garden; a man who was working in the garden came to open it for me. He was my father.

That night, my father lead me to the mound which overlooked the house, and which harbored “Gaston’s tree”; I now saw again from the heights of the city what I’d seen that morning from its depths; the aspect, for that matter, was, if somewhat severe, even more charming. The city, in the morning, had seemed to me to have the gracious disorder and practically the surprise of waking up; the night had softened its angles. Even though it was still light, the Sun had only just set, there was a debut of melancholy; the blurring of twilight had taken the edge off the points of the rooftops; the rare scintillating of candles had replaced the dazzling diffusion of the aurora on the window-panes; the profiles of things were subsisting the mysterious transformation of night; the rigidness was losing the battle, the curves winning; there were more elbows, less angles. I looked on, almost mellowed by this effect. The skies had a vague breath of summer. The city appeared to me, no longer like it had that morning, gay and ravishing, haphazard, but harmonious; it had been cut into compartments of a beautiful whole amounting to an equilibrium; the planes had receded, the stories superimposed themselves with impeccable timing and tranquility. The cathedral, the bishopry, the black church of Saint-Nicolas, the chateau, as much a citadel as a palace, the ravines mixed up with the city, the slopes and descents where the houses at times climbed, at times tumbled, the bridge with its obelisk, the beautiful serpentine curves of the Loire, the rectangular bands of willows, at the extreme horizon Chambord, indistinct with its forest of turrets, the forest into which was sunk the antique route known as ‘Roman bridges’ marking the ancient bed of the Loire, all this seemed vast and gentle. And after all, my father loved this city.

Which today you have rendered back to me.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 2

“Blois, la rue Chemonton et ses escaliers.” Reproduction of an engraving à l’eau-forte by Arrmand Queyroy, 1890. 247 X 135 mm; (object) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

Thanks to you, I’m in Blois again. Your 20 etchings reveal the intimate city, not the city of palaces and churches, but the city of houses. With you, one is there in the streets; with you, one enters into the ramshackle hut; and so many of these decrepit edifices, like the dwelling in sculpted wood on the rue Saint-Lubin, like the hotel Denis-Dupont with its stairway lantern and oblique bay windows following the movement of the spiral staircase of Saint Gilles, like the house on the rue Haute, like the very low arcade of the rue Pierre-de-Blois, exposing all the Gothic fantasy or all the Renaissance graces, augmented by the poetry of dilapidation. Being a hut and being a jewel are not mutually exclusive. An elderly lady who has heart and spirit, nothing is more charming. Many of the exquisite houses drawn by you are that elderly woman. One is happy to make their acquaintance. One retrieves them again with joy when one is, like me, their old friend. What things they have to tell you, and what a delicious return to the past! For example, take a look at this fine and delicate house on the rue des Orfevres, it seems to be engaged in a tete-a-tete. One is fortunate to be amidst all this elegance. You make us recognize everything, so much are your sketches portraits. It’s photographic fidelity with the liberty of great art. Your rue Chemonton is a chef-d’oeuvre. I’ve scaled, at the same time as these good paysans of Sologne painted by you, the steep steps of the chateau. The house of statuettes on the rue Pierre de Blois is comparable to the house of Musicians in Weymouth. I’ve retrieved everything.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 6

Blois, vue de l’Hôtel d’Alluye.” Eau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Printed by Delâtre, Paris, 1864. 188 X 267 mm; (object) 308 X 482 mm. Papier vergé.Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

Here’s the tower of Argent, here’s the high somber gable at the corner of the rue des Violettes and the rue Saint-Lubin, here’s the hotel de Guise, here’s the hotel de Cheverny, here’s the hotel Sardini with its arches in three-centered curves, here’s the hotel d’Alluye with its gallant arcades from the time of Charles VIII, here are the Saint-Louis steps which lead to the cathedral, here’s the rue du Sermon, and at the end the practically Roman silhouette of Saint-Nicolas; here’s the pretty cantwise turret referred to as Queen Anne’s Oratory. The garden where Louis XII, gouty, liked to promenade his mule in a garden behind this turret.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 1

“Blois, view of the rue des Violettes and the rue St-Lubin.” Eau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Paris, Imp. Delâtre, 1864. 255 X 157 mm; (object) 299 X 423 mm . Papier vergé. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy.  From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

That Louis XII, like Henry IV, had his amiable sides. He made many blunders, but was a good-natured king. He tossed the procedures launched against the Vaudois into the Rhone. He was worthy for having the valiant Huguenot astrologist Renée de Bretagne, so intrepid before Saint-Barthélemy and so proud in Montargis, as a daughter. As a youngster, he’d spent three years in the Tower of Bourges, and he’d tasted the iron cage. This experience, which might have rendered another man mean, made him debonair. He’d entered Genoa, victorious, with a golden bee-hive on his coat of arms and this motto: Non utitor aculeo. He was good, and he was brave. In Signaled, to a courtesan who warned him, “You’re exposing yourself to danger, sire,” he responded, “Get behind me.” It’s also he who said: “A good king is an authentic king. I prefer being ridiculous with courtesans to being overbearing with the people.” He said: “The ugliest beast to see walk past you is a procurer carrying his dossiers.” He hated judges eager to condemn who tried to exaggerate the fault to envelope the accused. “They are,” he said, “like cobblers who stretch out the leather by pulling on it with their teeth.” He died from loving his wife too much, just like François II later on, gently killed the one like the other by a Marie. The honeymoon was short. On January 1, 1515, after 83 days or rather 83 nights of marriage, Louis XII expired, and as it was New Year’s Day, he told his wife: “My darling, for a New Year’s gift I give you my death.” She accepted, sharing the present with the Duke of Brandon.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 7

“Blois,  front, old houses at the foot of the St.-Louis cathedral.” Reproduction of an engraving à l’eau-forte by Armand Queyroy, 1865. 250 X 160 mm; (objet) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

The other phantom who dominates Blois is as loathsome as Louis XII was sympathetic. It’s this Gaston, half Bourbon, half Medici, a Florentine from the 16th century, cowardly, perfidious, spiritual, who said of the arrests of Longueville, Conti, and Condé: “Lots of net! Capture at the same time a fox, an ape, and a lion!” Curious, artist, collector, fascinated with medals, filigrees, and sweetmeats, he might spend his mornings admiring the cover of an ivory box while his men lopped off the head of one of the friends he’d betrayed.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 4

“Blois, vue de l’Hôtel d’Amboise et d’une rouennerie en gros (marchand d’étoffes et de tissus).” Reproduction of an eau-forte engraving, extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Paris, Printed by Delâtre, 1864. 202 X 157 mm; (object), 266 X 205 mm; papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

All these figures, as well as Henry III, the Duke of Guise, and others, including this Pierre de Blois whose main claim to fame was being the first person to pronounce the word ‘transubstantiation,’ I’ve found them again in leafing through your precious collection. I contemplated your fountain of Louis XII for a long time. You’ve recreated it as I saw it, so old, so young, charming. It’s one of your best plates. I’m almost certain that the ‘Rouennerie en gros,’ recorded by you vis-a-vis the hotel d’Amboise, was already there in my time. You have a real and fine talent, the coupe d’oeil which grasps the style, the sure, agile, and strong touch, plenty of spirit in the engraving and a good dose of naiveté, and that rare gift of being able to evoke light in shadows. What strikes and charms me in your etchings is the broad day, the gaiety, the prepossessing aspect, this joy in the commencement which contains all the grace of morning. The plates which seem to be bathed in an aurora. Indeed it’s there, Blois, the Blois that is precious to me, my luminous city. Because that first impression on arriving has stuck with me. Blois for me is radiant. I only see Blois in the rising Sun. These are the effects of youth and of the homeland.

I’ve let myself go on at length talking with you, monsieur, because you’ve given me great pleasure. You’ve found my weakness, you’ve touched the sacred corner of memory. I’ve sometimes felt a bitter sadness; you’ve given me a gentle sadness. To be gently sad, this is a pleasure. I’m in your debt. I’m happy that it is so well preserved, so little changed, and so parallel to what I saw 40 years ago, this city to which this invisible tangle of ties of the soul, impossible to break, still attaches me, this Blois which saw me as a teenager, this Blois whose streets know me, where a house has loved me, and where I’ve just strolled in your company, looking for the white hair of my father and finding my own.

Monsieur, I shake your hand.

Victor Hugo

hugo blois by armand queyroy 3

“Blois: the steps of the chateau and the vestiges of the ancient Jacobins gate.” Reproduction of an eau-forte engraving by Armand Queyroy, 1865. 240 X 128 mm; (objet) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: Eau-forte. Lieu(x) :Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

Protected: Le Feuilleton (the Serial): (English translation followed by V.O. française) Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris, Part 12: Bartering painting for meals on the place de la République (Subscriber-only content; to learn how to subscribe, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

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Protected: Le Feuilleton (the Serial), 11: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris; Part 11: Secret Origins of Abstract Art (Subscriber-only content; to learn how to subscribe, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

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Le Feuilleton (the Serial),10: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris; Part 10: Conflicts

Vera Molnar, Montparnasse, d'après Klee, en bleu, vert et rouge 2006 To demonstrate how the Abstract Art of which Michel Ragon was one of the first champions is very much a living tradition, where possible the Dance Insider / Paris Tribune are including art from current or recent exhibitions with our exclusive, first-ever English-language serialization of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’oeil.” Above, from last year’s exhibition at the Galerie Berthet- Aittouarès (in, bien sur, Saint-Germain-des-Prés): Vera Molnar, “Montparnasse d’après Klee en bleu vert et rouge,” 2006. © Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès.

by and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
From “Trompe-l’oeil,” published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel

Part 10 in the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of Abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first nine  parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here. To learn how to support our work, e-mail artsvoyager@gmail.com . To support us through PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

Fifteen days later, in the throes of correcting the proofs of the second issue, Fontenoy felt a sudden surge of discouragement. Blanche was working in her atelier at the Cité Falguière. He dropped everything and went to see his companion.

Walking down the Boulevard Montparnasse, he took stock of the results of the first issue of the revue. It was too soon to draw any conclusions, but he had the impression of hurtling against a wall. Like Manhès, what had pleased him about this adventure was the battle to come, the possibility of finally saying in print everything he’d been stifling about this conspiracy against the movement of painting that he loved. This revue would be a little bomb which would go off in the midst of the conformists, the cabals. They’d be forced to respond to so many specific accusations. But neither L’Artiste, nor Le Figaro, nor any other newspaper had yet noted, even with two measly lines, the new revue’s existence. Everything continued just as it had been, as if the revue didn’t exist at all. Some booksellers in Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Prés had put it in their windows. Its successful launch depended on them, and on eventual subscriptions in response to the comp. copies that had been sent out.

Blanche was flattened out on her stomach on the divan, working on a water-color. Fontenoy plopped down next to her. In the atelier, numerous water-colors had been framed behind glass, ready for the imminent exhibition.

“You know,” she remarked, continuing to paint, “it’s no laughing-matter to try to get the bookshops to sell the revue….”

“I know. But it’s the only way to spread the word.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You made the rounds of the art bookshops that you know well, and that know you. No problem. You leave the copies on consignment and they say thanks. But me, I hit the other bookshops. You have no idea how they react. Some don’t accept consignments as a matter of sheer principle. They tell me: ‘When you come back to pick up the unsold copies, they’ve disappeared under a pile. They can’t be found and we have to pay you anyway. Two months later they surface and are unsellable. No no, no consignments.’ ‘Okay, so buy a fixed number of issues.’ ‘You must be joking. We’re inundated as it is!’ And those are the nice ones. Others take a quick look, disabusedly shrug their shoulders, and say no. Some pick up the revue, leaf through it, and burst out in guffaws: ‘Ah! Cool, it’s a take-off? I get it — very clever…. But our customers won’t get it at all.’ I was, however, able to place a few copies that were accepted on consignment, begrudgingly, and in those cases most likely because of my gorgeous eyes.”

In a corner of the atelier Fontenoy spotted the pile of rejected revues. He had a sudden spurt of revolt, of anger:

“But how the hell are we supposed to get off the ground if the newspapers give us the silent treatment, if the bookstores refuse consignments, if the subscription drives meet up with nothing but negligence and indifference!?”

Fontenoy perceived that hostility to their cause wasn’t the only factor. The bookstores held themselves above the internecine factional squabbles, but their detached attitude could become just as lethal, if not moreso, as any frontal attacks.

Blanche straightened up her material on the table, cast a last glance at the fresh water-color she’d just finished and came over to sit next to Fontenoy, lacing her plump arms around him.

“Worries, worries, worries! How’s about putting your ‘big ideas’ aside for a moment and getting back to the two of us? Have you finished the preface for my exhibition? What are you planning, for me, in the revue?”

“All that on the other hand is going very well,” Fontenoy responded with lassitude. “Look, I have the text for your preface right here in my pocket. Read through it. For the revue, Rinsbroek will talk about you, it’s preferable.”

“And you won’t put in any of my images?”

“That’ll be up to Rinsbroek.”

“Come again? But what good does it do then to be the editor-in-chief?”

“Rinsbroek wants to talk about you. He’ll say what he judges needs to be said and we’ll publish a reproduction of your work if he considers that you merit it.”

Blanche bit her lip. Fontenoy grasped her tenderly around the waist and kissed her on the temple:

“Listen, Blanche. Don’t get upset. I’m being brutal, but we have much bigger worries these days. Your exhibition will go quite well and in all probability we’ll publish a photo in the revue. Rinsbroek’s article will certainly sing your praises, otherwise he wouldn’t have accepted the assignment. But on principle, I just want to make it clear, once again, that I won’t put any pressure on him. It’s just not comprehensible. It’s as if you’re asking me to employ the very methods in our revue that we’re fighting against when others practice them.”

Blanche didn’t answer. She read over Fontenoy’s handwritten text for the preface:

“How set are you on citing Klee? I know you just mean to use it as a reference, but won’t that just make them think that I imitate him, like all the rest?”

Fontenoy replied, exasperated: “Delete Klee if he bothers you so much!”

Blanche got riled up:

“I like Klee. I don’t deny that. But the reference here just bothers me.”

And she put her dainty little finger on the sheet of paper. “It’s like your phrase: ‘Blanche Favard is an abstract painter who composes with parcels of memory.’ I understand what you’re getting at. My compositions include forms which resemble foliage, even landscapes. I agree. But what will Charles Roy say? The Salon des Réalitiés Nouvelles jury is quite capable of rejecting my submissions under the pretext that they’re Naturalist.”

“So now it’s Charles Roy’s opinion that matters the most to you!?” Fontenoy exclaimed, stupefied.

“I just don’t want to get everyone’s hide up like Manhès.”

“You’ll succeed, Blanche,” Fontenoy re-assured her, thoughtfully. “And what’s more, you’re talented.”

Ephemeral & Eternal: Helen Levitt’s “Chalk Drawing” at the Met Museum of Art

LT1996.04As part of the exhibition Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection, in principle running through June 28, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, it’s still a helluva town is presenting: Helen Levitt (American, 1913–2009), “Chalk drawing,” New York, ca. 1940. Gelatin silver print. 7 1/8 × 11 3/8 in. (18.2 × 28.8 cm), Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection. © Helen Levitt Film Documents LLC. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Thomas Zander Gallery Image. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Eugenia Burnett Tinsley and Juan Trujillo.

American Cities: How a book of ‘Experiments in Prose’ that washed up on a bench in flooded Paris helped me realize that Chicago is my kind of town

chicago hairy who againFrom the Arts Voyager Archives and the Art Institute exhibition Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good!: Jim Nutt. “Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good,” 1968. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt. © Jim Nutt.

Introduction by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text from “Experiments in Prose,”
Edited by Eugene Wildman
Copyright 1969 The Swallow Press, Chicago
Illustrated with images from the Art Institute of Chicago exhibitions Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good!, Past Forward: Architecture and Design at the Art Institute, and Never a Lovely So Real: Photography and Film in Chicago, 1950–1980

(Editor’s note: In dockside picnics looking out on Lake Michigan while on cross-country train trip pauses, in dreams of ame-soeurs encountered on buses crossing the lake’s glittering sea-like azure expanse, on a Sunday morning jog after an interview for a  news agency position I was offered but didn’t take after my future boss had handed me a press release  announcing a new version of Prozac for dieters and explained “Your role would be to analyze how the news will affect the stock” and I’d thought “No, I’d be more concerned with how the product might affect the dieter” where I ran smack dab into the final leg of the Chicago Marathon and was cheered on by bystanders as if I’d run the whole race, standing before Chagall’s “White Jesus,” a refugee from Hitler’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition, with its burning synagogues, in the cool halls of the Art Institute near the banks of the Chicago River, peering at a river-boat from the parapet of a bridge named after Hull House’s Jane Addams, contemplating, in a Paris museum, Henry Darger’s epic saga of the Viviane Girls, drawn to accompany a 15,000-page manuscript discovered in Darger’s humble janitor’s quarters in Lincoln Park before it became chic, sipping beers on the mahogany counter of a former speakeasy in the same ‘hood converted to a friend’s living room, whisked back to the train by a brisk autumnal wind while a lone saxophonist breathes life into the canned Debussy piped into a downtown district, seeing African-American workers being shooed away from a private lunch table set up in the publicly-owned Union Station, being held up at a corner outside the station for a police car chase which I soon learn was rigged for a film shoot, and contemplating a  former mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who seemed mostly interested in privatizing city services, roads, and schools,  and where the Black population in one of the most segregated cities in the country has dropped by 250,000, aspiring to continue in the spirit of Studs Terkel, and above all inspired by Nelson Algren’s “Chicago, City on the Make” — a screed which has the sentimental effect of an homage — Chicago has always haunted and hounded me. So I was not at all surprised when, in July 2016, about to cross the flooded Seine, my other favorite body of water, I discovered, on a bench, “Experiments in Prose,” a celebration of the free-spirited Chicago-style design, literature, and activism which flourished in the 1960s produced by former Chicago Review editor Eugene Wildman for the Chi-based Swallow Press, and which opens with: (To read the full story and see more images, click here.)

Have Pen, Will Travel: A forward-looking memoir of Paris, the Dordogne, Cahors, Fort Worth, Chicago, Miami Beach, New York, Maryland, Montana, Connecticut, San Francisco, Reno, and the High Sierras

Lichtenstein, Laocoon smallFrom the Arts Voyager Archives and the 2012 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition: Roy Lichtenstein, “Laocoon.” Copyright Estate of Roy Lichtenstein and courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.

Text by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Art by Ansel Adams, Robert L. Berry, Lou Chapman, James Daugherty, Gustave Caillebotte, Jacob Lawrence, Sylvie Lesgourgues, David Levinthal, Roy Lichtenstein, Sam Peckinpah, Charles M. Russell, Saul Steinberg, Deeling Wendt, & Frank Lloyd Wright

“Mystery Achievement —
Where’s my sandy beach?”
— Chrissie Hynde, The Pretenders

“Who would you be if reality were no obstacle?”
— Diane di Prima

“Il n’y a pas un héros de l’art qui ne soit en même temps, par l’âpre et longue conquête de son moyen d’expression, un héros de la connaissance, un héros humain par le cœur.”
— Eli Faure

SAINT-CYPRIEN (Dordogne), France — I’d been telling Harvey Milk that I’ve spent the past ten years choosing where to live primarily on the basis of my dwindling bank account, as the prospects for a long-form journalist in what Herman Hesse foretold with prescience (in “The Glass Bead Game”) as the Age of the Digest have shrunk to the infinitesimally proscribed dimensions of 140 characters on a hand-sized screen and algae-rhythms predicated on people searching for things they already know about, putting the kibosh on the modus vivendi of my trade — curiosity — and making me more obsolete than Vance Packard’s worse nightmares.

“Maybe you should try it from the other end,” Harvey suggested: “Deciding where you want to live and then figuring out how to make it work,” the man who knew his own life’s work came with a built-in fatwa (assassinated at 48, Harvey had prepared a political testament in which he anticipated that eventuality) thus advising me to stop living to work and work to live.

For the full, lavishly illustrated story, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Not yet a Dance Insider / Arts Voyager subscriber? To subscribe for one year for $58 or Euros ($39 or Euros for working performing or visual artists, students, retirees, the unemployed, and teachers), please designate your payment via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check through the mail.

Huysmans to Puvis to Zola: When the author of ‘J’accuse’ touted a monumental artist who refused to go with the tide

Puvis de Chavanns Young women at the seaside smallerFrom the exhibition Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald: As seen by Francesco Vezzoli, in principle running April 3 through July 19 at the Strasbourg Museum of Contemporary Art (after an earlier run at the Orsay Museum, to whose boffo press service we owe these images): Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), “Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (Young women at the sea-side), 1879. Oil on canvas, 205.4 x 156 cm.  Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © musée d’Orsay / rmn. (For more art from the exhibition, click here.)

Text by Emile Zola
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

One of the benefits of the Orsay Museum’s latest penchant for re-envisioning  the late 19th-century work which is its charge through the eyes of contemporaneous critics  is that the polyglot writers often dictate a polyglot selection of artists which means that major figures overdue for their own solo shows get a cameo. Such is the case with the exceptional  Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)’s 1879 oil “Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (Young women at the sea-side),” which features in the work exhibited at the Orsay and theoretically to be exhibited through July 19 at the Strasbourg Museum of Contemporary Art for  Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald: As seen by Francesco Vezzoli. Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) may well have referred to himself as a “Dutchman putrefied with Parisianism,” but if we’re to judge by the Puvis painting above, his tastes were anything but. It’s no surprise that in 1880 — a year after this tableau was made — Emile Zola invited Huysmans to collaborate in the collection “Les Soirées de Medan.” Which connection is enough of a pretense for us to turn the Puvis floor over to the great man, as Zola singled out the painter in his review of the 1875 Salon, published in two “Letters from Paris” which appeared in Le Sémaphore de Marseille of May 3 and 4 and in “Le Messager de l’Europe” in Saint-Petersburg. Today’s translation and art goes out to Holly, and to all the Holly Golightlys of the world, in esperance for the period when we’ll all be able to go lightly again. — PB-I

I’ve saved Puvis de Chavannes’s large tableau for the end. Secluded at the Sainte-Croix convent, Radegonde gives refuge to poets and protects the world of Letters against the epoch’s barbary. Here at last is a truly original talent, who trained himself far from any Academic influences. He alone can succeed in the art of decorative painting, in the vast frescos exposed to the raw light of public institutions. In our times, with the crumbling of classic principles, the fate of mural paintings has become critical. The nobility of heroes, the simplicity of the drawing, every rule which makes the tableau a type of bas-relief in which the ‘cooler’ colors have trouble standing out in the midst of the marble of churches and palaces, have collapsed, making way for the explosion of the romantic brush. And suddenly, it seems to me, Puvis de Chavannes arrives and finds a breach in this impasse. He knows how to be interesting and alive, in simplifying the lines and painting with uniform tones. Radegonde, surrounded by nuns in white gowns, is listening to a poet declaiming verse between the walls of a convent. The scene exudes a grandiose and peaceful charm. To tell the truth, for me Puvis de Chavannes is but a precursor. It is indispensible that large-scale painting is able to find subjects in contemporary life. I don’t know who will be the painter with the genius to know how to extract the art of our civilization, and I don’t know how he’ll do it. But it is indisputable that art does not depend on either draperies or the antique nude; it takes root in humanity itself and consequently every society must have its own conception of beauty.

From Emile Zola, “Ecrits sur l’Art,” copyright 1991 Editions Gallimard.