From the DI/AV archives: Gustave Courbet, “Portrait of Baudelaire,” 1847 (?). Oil, 53 x 0.61 cm, unsigned. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. In his championing of artists, Michel Ragon upheld the grand tradition of Baudelaire and Zola, who championed Courbet, Delacroix, and the Impressionists.
Michel Ragon — critic, curator, ambassador of art, not only champion but exponent of abstract painting, archivist of anarchists, workers, and the proletariat, defender of a new style of architecture, novelist, teacher, Seine-side bookseller, manual laborer, and husband — died February 14 in Paris, at the age of 95. What Baudelaire and Champfleury did for Courbet (whose twin investment in advancing art, as the leader of the Realism school, and social struggles, as an official of the Paris Commune, made him the perfect subject for a Ragon biography), Michel Ragon did for a whole genre, the Abstract Art school that flourished in post-war Paris. Jean-Michel Atlan was his chou-chou and friend; the COBRA group owed him their first Paris exhibition; Ragon’s tribute to Wols assured his place in the pantheon of 20th-century painters. And his incognito infiltration of the Barnes Collection made sure that neither American authors nor the French artists they hoarded were left out. The largely forgotten vectors of European anarcho-syndicalism — Victor Serge, Paul Delesalle, Nestor Makhno, Alexandra Kollontai, Louis Lecoin, Rirette Maitrejean — their rescue from the dustbin of history into which its victors, a forgetful media, and a reductive academy had swept them. If Michel Ragon is dead after nearly a century, thanks to Michel Ragon the names, combats, struggles, and moral victories of these prime movers in two worlds, society and art — Ragon always had one foot firmly implanted in each — will live on for many more. We’ll try to make our modest contribution.
… Starting with the latest installment in our serialized translation of Ragon’s seminal semi-fictional treatment of the Abstract Art movement and market in Paris in the 1950s, as well as post-war anti-Semitism in France, “Trompe-l’oeil.” A melange — or update — of both Zola’s “L’oeuvre” and Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” in its defense of the artistic genus and the artist’s soul and lacerating portrayal of the media, “Trompe-l’oeil” is most of all the love story of a journalist and art. (Merci a L.D. pour son aide precious avec l’argot….)
Michel Ragon is survived by his wife Françoise — and a legion of art aficionados. Michel Ragon est mort. Vive Michel Ragon. — Paul Ben-Itzak
Le Feuilleton (the Serial), 7: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, anti-Semitism, and critics in Post-war Paris, Part 7
Part seven in the Paris Tribune’s 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 six parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here.
Fontenoy asked his editor at L’Artiste if he could write a “studio visit” feature on Corato.
“Which one is that?” the editor groaned.
“An abstract painter who….”
“Obviously! But, my dear young man, who’s interested in your precious Abstracts — I mean besides you? Sometimes I think you just make them up. Listen to me, Fontenoy, you’d do much better to take on some serious subjects. Ever since you’ve taken up with abstract art, your pieces feel just like that. Abstract.”
“You’re not actually going to tell me that I write like Charles Roy?”
“If that were the case, I would have tossed you out on your keister a long time ago! No, you still write in a decipherable manner — and that’s exactly what worries me.”
Fontenoy had trouble fathoming what his boss was trying to tell him.
“Here, take a look at the mock-up for the next issue.”
He spread out the pages on the large lay-out table in the middle of the office. Stupefied, Fontenoy read on the cover, in large bold letters: “LAST LAP FOR THE FARCE OF ‘ABSTRACT ART.’ Then further down the page, under a photo of Matisse: “HENRI MATISSE COMES OUT AGAINST ABSTRACT ART.” And on page four, a major piece with the headline: “YOUNG PAINTERS RETURN TO LANDSCAPES AND PORTRAITS.”
“Perfect,” Fontenoy responded. “Abstract art has finally waltzed into the newspaper by the front door.”
“All the easier to stifle you, my boy,” the editor in chief ribbed him, breaking out in laughter. Then he added, flippantly, “I’ll need a group article on several typical good painters: You know, the likes of Yves Brayer, Chapelain-Midy, Lorjou…. I’m counting on you….”
“You’ve got to be kidding. You’ve purposely chosen the most philistine of the figuratives to foist them off on me.”
“My good fellow, a journalist has to be a jack of all trades. If you don’t like those painters, that’s your right. Just keep it to yourself when the newspaper needs you to sing their praises. We’re not here to satisfy our personal tastes, but those of our silent partners and our readers. We should be satisfied that the two of them concord!”
“I’m sorry,” Fontenoy responded after a moment of hesitation, “but it won’t be possible for me to write that article.”
“Are you telling me that you’re abandoning us?”
Fontenoy smiled ironically. He flared the trap. They wanted to push him to quit in a great histrionic fashion, which would have the consequence of depriving him of unemployment compensation. Very well. It seemed obvious that he’d become a liability for the newspaper, but he’d let them fire him before he’d quit.
“I’m not abandoning anything. But those painters ‘belong’ to Morisset, and I don’t want to pilfer them from him.
“Tell you what,” he added after reflecting for a few seconds, “because you want to preach a new realism, I’ll do a study for you on Courbet.”
In the past, when Fontenoy emerged from such altercations he’d dread returning to his small room. If he didn’t happen to run into Manhès, he’d feel completely lost. Now, Blanche was always ready to welcome him with open arms.
They’d each hung on to their individual apartments, which simplified their work. But Fontenoy spent all his nights at the Cité Falguière.
They were laying down on the divan. Blanche had undone her tresses and her blond hair cascaded down her shoulders. Fontenoy let himself be lulled by the warmth of his companion’s body. He closed his eyes, trying to forget his anxieties. But he was all too aware of what lay ahead.
“It’s going to be brutal, Blanche, very brutal…. They’ll be attacking on all fronts, you’ll see.”
“Bah! Look at Manhès, he’s never sold so well!”
“Yes. And yet, even Manhès makes me worry. It’s just all going too well. All these people who have their comfortable positions to protect, all these dealers whose basements are packed with figurative paintings, all these collectors who’ve pumped fortunes into the very school of painting we’re fighting, are not going to let us get away with it. It’s no accident that L’Artiste has launched this offensive now….”
Blanche hugged him close: “You’re such a pessimist.”
Fontenoy let out a huge sigh: “All I can say is it’s a good thing that you’re here!”
He gave in to dreaming again, hooking his arm around his companion’s waist. He flashed back to the first time he visited this atelier. Blanche showed herself simultaneously mutinous and worried. She understood what he meant. Even though their intimacy did not happen overnight, he found it strange to find himself so suddenly linked to this young woman whom he’d been running into here and there for a year at exhibitions without ever surpassing the level of a distant politeness. She was less a painter, now, than a beloved being.
And yet Blanche was intensely, definitely a painter. An instinctive painter. Thank God she was not one of these intellectuals who supplied ready fodder to the academies which then inculcated them with paint-by-numbers formulas. Fontenoy had a genuine physical repulsion for this genre of woman. He tended to agree with Baudelaire that making love with an intellectual was a form of paederasty. Blanche constituted a living rebuke to those who believed that Abstract art was an art for intellectuals. She was a solid, stout, uncomplicated woman, sensual and carefree. Her water-colors were the exact reflection of her temperament, with their slightly heavy spots and a graphic design pigmented with a subtle sense of humor.
“Fontenoy (Blanche still addressed him by his last name, as she had before they began sleeping together), Fontenoy we’ll always find a way to muddle through. You worry too much….”
She could feel, close to her, her lover’s anguish. She wanted to lighten his load, to take some of the burden upon herself, but she could feel him tense up — that, as immobile as he was, he was struggling against a throng of enemies.
Fontenoy predicted he’d be fired by the newspaper. That was to be expected. They paid him so little, but this pittance was vital to rounding out his budget. And then it wasn’t just a matter of money! Tribunes consecrated to the arts were few and far between. If he lost this one, he also lost a forum for expressing himself. He saw himself mutilated, naked next to a sneering Morisset and Arlov, before a triumphant Charles Roy. Because Fontenoy was doubly heretical: Not only did he attack traditional figurative art, but also the brand of academic abstract art championed by Charles Roy. Even supposing they allowed the academic form of Abstract art to flourish for a little while longer, it would only be so they could eventually demolish it as a sclerotic art form. “What they really want to crush,” Fontenoy thought to himself, “are the genuine creators, like always. The old historic battles will resurface.” The cohort of Impressionists attacked by the incomprehension of the public and the mockery of the critics and cartoonists, the Cubists in the time of the Bateau Lavoir, then the damned of Montparnasse: Soutine, Modigliani, Pascin, he saw them marching before him in one long lamentation. “It’s all happening again,” Fontenoy told himself. “I sense it. We were wrong to believe we’d won the hand.”
He clutched Blanche tightly to him. She laughed heartily.