Exclusive: ‘Trompe-l’oeil’: Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, markets, & critics in Paris in the ’50s (part 4), translated in English for the first time

Feneon Matisse 22 smallHenri Matisse (1869-1954), “Interior with girl” (Reading), 1905-1906. Oil on canvas, 72.7 × 59.7 cm. New York, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo © Paige Knight. © Succession H. Matisse. Succession Matisse. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

by & copyright Michel Ragon, 1956, 2019
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

To be able to simultaneously share, for the first time in English, Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel about the contemporary art market and world in Paris in the 1950s — and which also treats post-War anti-Semitism in France — we’ve decided to illustrate today’s installment with art directly referred to in “Trompe-l’oeil” that readers can see now or soon in Paris, New York, and London, notably at the Orsay Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Jeanne Bucher Jaeger gallery in the Marais, the Waddington Custot in London, and Di Donna Galleries, New York. (See captions for details.) Like what you’re reading and want to see more? Please support independent arts journalism today by designating your donation in dollars or Euros through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail. Special thanks to Michel and Françoise RagonEdward Winer, and  Jamie. To read the previous installment of “Trompe-l’oeil” (which links to earlier episodes), please click here. First published in the French original by Albin-Michel.

Fontenoy had gotten his start at L’Artiste with a reportage on Matisse. Not that he was particularly interested in this major painter, but his editor tended to ask him to write about the subjects he was the least interested in. He wasn’t trying to irritate or bully Fontenoy. The editor in chief’s dishing out of the weekly assignments to his writers was completely haphazard. What really interested Fontenoy, the new non-figurative painting, had very little chance of being mentioned in L’Artiste. Just the bare minimum coverage needed for the weekly to appear au courant without turning off the majority of its subscribers, only now discovering, with rapture, Impressionism. The editor in chief put up with the whims of his writers as long as they weren’t too glaring. Fontenoy was permitted, like his colleagues, to talk about his fads from time to time. His boss would have been surprised to learn that Fontenoy’s support for Manhès and Ancelin had not been bought and paid for by Laivit-Canne, their dealer.

Fontenoy had submitted, among his pieces for the week, an item on the rift between Laivit-Canne and Manhès. He voiced his surprise to the editor in chief when it didn’t show up in the paper.

“My friend, if we start reporting on the fracases between painters and their dealers, it’ll never end.”

“And yet readers love reading about the quarrels between Vollard and the Impressionists. Why wouldn’t they be interested in reading about the intricate dealings of their own times?!”

The editor in chief shrugged his shoulders. “Vollard isn’t around any more to make trouble for us. Laivit-Canne, on the other hand, is an advertiser. I don’t want to upset a gentleman who supports our newspaper to help out another gentleman who’s not even a subscriber.”

bucher vieira balletMaria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Ballet figure,” 1948. Oil on canvas and black lead pencil, 27 x 46 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.  “I watch the street and the people walking, each with a different look, each advancing at his own rhythm,” Vieira da Silva once explained. “I think of the invisible threads manipulating them. I try to perceive the mechanics which coordinate them…. This is what I try to paint.”

Fontenoy reddened with shame and anger. He was seized with a violent compulsion to throw up his hands and walk out, but he contained himself. Who would be left to talk about the painters he loved if he quit L’Artiste? Not Morisset, that’s for sure. This last had just walked into the editor in chief’s office sporting a broad smile. Everything was broad with him, for that matter: His shoulders, his handshake, his critical standards. The only time he became particular was when it came to abstract art. Morisset was always nice to Fontenoy, even if their opinions were completely opposed. He was one of those people eager to please everybody. If he ran into one of his enemies, before the latter even had time to dig his feet in he sprung on him, frenetically shook his hand, slapped him on the back, and called him “pal” with such conviction that the concerned party ended up being hoodwinked. As Morisset didn’t take anything seriously, he mingled with the artistic milieu with a casualness that seemed genuine when in reality everything he did was calculated. Except for a handful of abstract art galleries, scattered and without a lot of means, Morisset lined his pockets with tips from all corners. If a painter asked his advice on how to get exhibited, he complimented him on his talent, slapped him on the back and pushed him into a paying gallery where he had a deal for a percentage for every sucker he reeled in. As the painter was not hip to this arrangement, he’d offer him a canvas for his services. If the idea didn’t occur to him, Morisset would be sure to bring it up. He also wrote numerous exhibition pamphlets which he could always be sure to get printed by a shop with whom he had an ongoing arrangement. He resold paintings that he’d been given or extorted. Morisset earned a paltry $24 per month at the paper and yet somehow managed to have his own car. He spent his weekends with his family at his country place. He was a man perfectly content with his lot and at peace with his conscience. One day Fontenoy told him:

“When abstract art has conquered the market, you’ll be its most fervent supporter.”

He assumed Morisset would get pissed off, or protest, but no. He responded in the most natural manner possible: “Of course… How could you imagine otherwise?”

Morisset was bought and paid for from his shoelaces to his beret to such a degree that he wound up laughing about it. For that matter he liked to say, “Painters get rich thanks to us, it’s normal that we should get our portion of the profits. If you don’t ask for anything, my dear Fontenoy, you won’t get anything. You’ll see, your abstract painters, if they make it rich one day, they’ll slam the door in your face because you’ll always be broke. But they’ll still need a good publicity agent and I’ll be there. Do you really believe that painters think of us as anything more than flacks? This being the case we need to take our gloves off and play the game.”

VIEIRA10Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Playing Cards,” 1937. Oil on canvas with pencil tracing, 73 x 92 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.

Another critic arrived in turn in the editor in chief’s office. His name was Arlov and he was as uptight as Morisset was hang-loose. While he wasn’t lacking in intelligence or critical sensibility, his cirrhosis leant him a preference for melancholy paintings. For him Bernard Buffet represented the summit of contemporary art. He was also moody. His opinions tended to follow the course of his digestion. Whether an exhibition was praised or thrashed depended on whether Arlov visited the gallery after a good meal or bursting at the seams a la Kaopectate. In contrast to Morisset, one had to be careful not to load him with free drinks or food. A painter’s career sometimes depended on this perfect understanding of the digestive system of critics.

Arlov was poor. He wasn’t in art for the dough but the dames, his goal being to sleep with as many women as possible. This explained why he presided over the Salon of Women Painters (he’d even created it). His monumental book on the NUDE was the authoritative work on the subject. The funny thing was that his particular gender specialization even encompassed dead painters, with whom short of being a narcoleptic he had no chance of sleeping. He’d even managed to write, who knows how, a spicy “Life of Madame Vigée-Lebrun.” His big dream in life was to rehabilitate Bouguereau; albeit a man, the 19th-century Academic’s nudes weren’t entirely lacking in sensuality. Needless to say, Arlov was not too interested in abstract art.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun self portrait in straw hatLouise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), “Self-portrait in Straw Hat,” after 1782. Purchased by the National Gallery, London. Public Domain, via Wikipedia. Vigée Le Brun was the official portraitist of Marie-Antoinette.

After having gone over, with their editor in chief, the issue which had just come out and whose pages were spread out over a big table, the three journalists jotted down the vernissage invitations, cocktails, etcetera for the upcoming week…. The editor then took the floor.

“Sunday, Protopopoff is baptizing his son. Mustafa is the godfather. Protopopoff has invited me to the reception, at Mustafa’s digs, but I’m already booked. You, Fontenoy, you can write up a big spread for the front page….”

“Why me? I think Morisset is a lot more qualified.”

“Impossible Old Man,” this last cut him off. “I spend Sundays with the family.”

Arlov quietly tip-toed out.

“What’s the hang-up, Fontenoy,” the editor continued, “you’re not going to tell me now that you don’t like Mustafa’s paintings?!”

“Okay, I’ll go….”

Fontenoy was thinking: Always the frou-frou stuff that has nothing to do with the painting itself. Mustafa godfather of the son of his dealer Protopopoff — what a waste of space when artists who are creating the art of our times don’t have a forum, practically don’t even have champions! What a metier! Embalm cadavers, voila what we’ve been reduced to. When Mustafa had been abandoned in the gutters of Montparnasse by the seedy bar-owners who sponged money off him in exchange for a few jugs of red wine, the newspapers had no space to talk about Mustafa. Today, Mustafa no longer has any need for publicity, and they take advantage of the slightest pretext to put his name on the front page.

Leaving the newspaper office, Fontenoy remembered that he had a date with a young female painter. This Blanche Favard was doggedly pursuing him. The problem was that when it came to female painters, he never knew if these signs of attention were meant for the man or the art critic. When in doubt, he sagely opted for the second possibility.

Blanch Favard lived in the Cité Falguière, an affordable housing complex initially conceived and constructed as worker housing and now peopled almost exclusively by Bohemians. From the basements to the attics, as in the honeycombs of a hive, artists of the most diverse schools, ages, and nationalities applied themselves with the patience of worker bees and the passion of alchemists to create their Great Work. All this in the shadows of some major ghosts who continued to haunt the cité, notably that of Soutine, who’d lived in one of the studios when he arrived in Paris in 1913. The painters of the Cité Falguière still talked about Soutine. It was their re-assurance. Because a genie had once lived between these walls, it was always possible that one of them….

Fontenoy was hailed by Blanche Favard, a plump little thing with a laughing visage whose blonde mane was twisted into tresses. She emerged from one of the windows just like a conventional figure in a Viennese operetta. Fontenoy hiked up to the floor that she’d indicated.

The studio was petite, but Blanche Favard painted mostly water-colors. She’d spread them out on the divan which occupied half of the room. The work was delicate. The forms very subtle. But here again one could recognize Klee’s influence. That said, Blanche had her own particular characteristics and personality. She’d started out in one of the same modes as Klee, this was clear, but she’d extended and deepened it. In setting out her work for him, she didn’t smile. Her visage remained tense, worried. She awaited Fontenoy’s verdict with a certain anxiety. And yet he’d never abused painters. He tried to understand them, convinced that a critic always has something to learn from an artist, even the most mediocre artist. Next he eliminated from his choice painters that he didn’t understand or that he didn’t like. He rarely thrashed an artist. He preferred consecrating his articles to vaunting the artists he liked while keeping quiet about those he didn’t.

Fontenoy talked to Blanche Favard about her water-colors, in measured terms, carefully weighing his words, underlining a quality here, a certain heaviness there, or a gap in the composition elsewhere. Little by little, the visage of the young woman loosened up. As Fontenoy concluded his critique, she was smiling again.

She put some water on to boil on the small Bunsen burner posed on the floor, so that she could offer some tea to her visitor.

“I’d love to have an exhibition,” she said. “But I don’t have enough money to pay a gallery. And yet it would really help me in my work to see the public’s reaction. One can’t just paint for oneself all the time.”

Fontenoy considered for a moment, at the same time taking some water-colors over to the window so he could study them in the full sunlight.

“Well, there is a bookstore which might be open to hanging your water-colors on its walls…. It’s not the same as a gallery, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll speak with the bookseller. He’s not really into abstract art, but he trusts me.”

“Yes, but the frames? I can’t just present my water-colors like that!”

“Mumphy! We need to show them to Mumphy. I think he’ll like them. I can’t get mixed up in the financial negotiations, but I can certainly ask Manhès or Ancelin to introduce you to Mumphy.”

“Oh! You’re so sweet,” Blanche Favard exclaimed in clasping her hands together just like a Reubens angel.

Then, amiably ironic:

“I know that you don’t accept paintings, nor money. But you’re doing me a big favor! Isn’t there something I can give you?”

Feneon Matisse 23 smallHenri Matisse (1869-01954), “Nude sitting down,” also known as “Pink Nude,” 1909. Oil on canvas, 33.5 x 41 cm. City of Grenoble, Grenoble Museum – J.L. Lacroix. © Succession H. Matisse. Digital photo, color. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

“Nothing, nothing,” grumbled Fontenoy, who’d suddenly started furiously mashing his tea.

Blanche laughed archly.

“Well, you can at least accept a sugar cube because you’re crushing the bottom of my cup to death!”

Sipping his tea, Fontenoy surreptitiously examined the young woman arranging her water-colors out of the corner of his eye. How old was she? 25, 30, 35? Fresh-faced if just a tad stout, she was ageless. Fontenoy had known her for a year. He’d noticed her first consignments at the Salon of New Realities and had written a cautiously positive review. Later she’d been introduced to him at an opening, like so many other painters, he couldn’t remember when. They’d continued running into each other from time to time in the galleries or, at night, at the Select. This was the first time he’d seen her in her atelier.

As he was getting ready to go, Blanche ventured: “I have one more thing to ask of you, but I don’t dare.”

“Ask all the same.”

“So, if you succeed in getting this bookstore to exhibit me, I’d be very happy, very flattered, if you’d agree to write the pamphlet.”

“We’ll see….

Blanche Favard stepped towards the young man and took the lapels of Fontenoy’s velour jacket in her hands, tenderly manipulating them. Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath.

“So, there’s hope?”

“Yes, of course,” replied Fontenoy, trying to disengage himself.

Blanche let go of his jacket.

“I’d love to give you a kiss, but you’d think it was just for services rendered.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” sputtered Fontenoy, uneasy. “So, bon courage. I’ll keep you updated on my efforts.”

Advertisements

Luce: The case of the pertinent painter

luce military transportMaximilien Luce, “Transport d’un blessé.” Oil on canvas, 1916, ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

Text copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Images courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu

First published on the Arts Voyager on March 29, 2012, this story is re-posted today  with revisions to celebrate the upcoming exhibition  Les temps nouveaux, Seurat à Matisse, opening October 16 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and migrating to the Museum of Modern Art in New York next spring. The exhibition’s through-line is the critic Felix Fénéon, whose artistic inclinations and anarchist tendencies made him a natural compagnon de route of Maximilien Luce (1858 – 1941). It was also Fénéon who invited Luce to organize his first personal exhibition in 1888, at the Revue  Indépendante. See below for more on their connections, notably as detailed in Michel Ragon‘s  2008 “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie,” published by Albin Michel. Like what you’re reading? Please make a donation to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager today in dollars or Euros via PayPal by designating your payment to e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.

Imagine that Pissarro didn’t die in 1903 but continued to live and work for 38 years, extending his explorations in the various streams of Impressionism. Then imagine that he decided to consecrate the force of his talent and energy to more depictions of the poor sap, the working stiff, the pour conscript sacrificed as cannon fodder in a wasteful war, and the social movements championing them. Imagine that his brilliant palette became more dense, retaining the sense of color values he learned from Camille Corot, the precision he picked up from Georges Seurat, and his native curiosity, then augmenting them with the lessons of the Fauves, of late Claude Monet and even Pierre Bonnard. Well, you don’t have to imagine this artistic extension of a life; Pissarro’s friend, pupil, compagnon de chevalet and fellow anarchist sympathizer Maximilien Luce embodied it. Imagine, now, that you could see the living proof. Click here  to  read the rest of the article and see more images.

Image to word, Paris to New York: “From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism,” by Guillaume Apollinaire

Feneon Orsay Theo van Rysselberghe_La Lecture par Emile VerhaerenFrom the exhibition Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse, opening October 16 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris: Theo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), “Reading by Emile Verhaeren,” 1903. Oil on canvas, 181 x 241 cm. Gand, Musée des Beaux-arts de Gand. © www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders, photo Hugo Maertens. “After a serious physical and moral crisis,” notes “Le petit Robert” encyclopedia, Emile Verhaeren “discovered the poetic beauty of the modern world and the grandeur of human effort,” confident, under the influence of Hugo, Nietzsche, and Whitman, in mankind’s promising future, as his poetry fed on the new industrial landscapes and the emergence of the machine age. “Rallying to the cause of a fraternal socialism,” the encyclopedia continues, Verhaeren next published a series “powerfully lyrical” collections, including: “Hallucinated countrysides (1893),” “Tentacular Cities (1895),” and “The Tumultuous Forces (1902).” Its veneer seemingly almost monochromatic when viewed at reduced resolution as here, this painting is in reality a tour de force of Neo-Impressionism at its zenith. At first we resisted using it; compared to Seurat’s 1884 “Sunday afternoon on the Grande-Jatte Isle,” it seems closer to Delacroix than Seurat, the Neo-Impressionist device behind its construction not immediately evident. But studied at high-resolution, the make-up of the tableau is positively molecular. Only here, the dots’ intermittent interruption by strategically placed swaths of light or dark blue makes the divisionism almost invisible. In the Seurat you see the science behind the miracle; in the Rysselberghe the minutious effort is less apparent. Painted nearly 20 years later, the Rysselberghe is the natural evolution of the Seurat in its sophisticated employment of the tools of divisionism. Seurat broke the atom down into its particles; Rysselberghe put it back together again to be transformed into seamless light. And speaking of light, even the narrative — no Sunday finest here for Verhaeren’s audience, just sober business suits — is not so staid after sustained study: While his audience is costumed in somber blue, the reader/writer sports a smoldering vermillion — as if set on fire by the text. (This was just a year after Zola’s suspicious death by gas asphyxiation.) And every single one of the auditors maintains a skeptical disposition towards the writer. Add to this the drooping Greek statuettes — representing the Hellenic ideal the attainment of which, as Zola had pointed out 40 years earlier in heralding the Imressionist era, was the painter’s primary preoccupation before Delacroix and his successors arrived and relegated it to the academy (or, more recently, the first floor of the Met and the basement of the Louvre) — and the tableau on the wall of factory chimneys darkening the landscape which confronts Verhaeren’s embrace of industrialization with Maximilien Luce (another free-thinking painter to whom Verhaeren was close) or Camille Pissarro’s more sober view, and another synthesis, the confrontation of words with image — is complete. — PB-I

by Guillaume Apollinaire
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Text from the August 7, 1911 issue of L’intransigent, as reproduced in “Chroniques d’art, 1902-1918,” Published by and copyright Gallimard, 1960, with texts assembled and annotated by L.C. Breunig. Art from — and courtesy — Artcurial’s September 24 auction of Ancient and 19th century art in Paris (for the Delacroix), the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse, opening October 16 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it runs through January 27 before migrating to the Museum of Modern Art (for the Rysselberghe, Seurat, Cross, and Signac) and the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager’s archived coverage of the 2012 exhibition “Maximilien Luce, de l’esquisse (draft) au chef-d’oeuvre,” at the Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu in Mantes la Jolie (for the Luce).

“The academic painter Delacroix.”

— Art History course description, Bard College, 2019

An updated edition of Paul Signac’s rare booklet, previously issued in a very limited edition by La Revue Blanche, has just been published.

“From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism” is the title of this brief work which Paul Signac has dedicated to the memory of his companion, the great painter Georges Seurat.

Seurat has still not received the recognition he deserves. Beyond the merits of the innovations which they brought to art thanks to the application, which he was the first to practice, of Neo-Impressionist theories, his works have, in their drawing, their composition, the very discretion of their luminosities a style which sets them apart and maybe even above the work of the majority of painters, his contemporaries.

Un dimanche après-midi sur l'île de la Grande JatteGeorges Seurat (1859-1891), “A Sunday afternoon on the Grande-Jatte Isle,” 1884. Study. New York, NY, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image of the MMA.

No painter makes me think of Moliere as does Seurat, the Moliere of “The Bourgeoisie Gentleman,” a ballet full of grace, of lyricism and of good sense.

The Neo-Impressionist painters, of whom Paul Signac is the most gifted and the most famous, are those who, to cite our author, “founded, and, since 1886, have developed the technique referred to as ‘divisionism,’ which utilizes as a means of expression the optical mix of tones and tints.” This technique can be traced to the art of the Byzantine mosaicists, and I even recall a day on which Signac, in a letter to Charles Morice, evoked the Libreria de Siene.

But we don’t need to look back that far.

In his book, Signac abundantly demonstrates how this luminous technique, which brought a sense of order to the Impressionist innovations, was foretold, even applied, by Delacroix, to whom it had been revealed by an examination of the paintings of Constable.

Artcurial fall 2019 Eugène DELACROIX - Deux études de figures drapées - © Artcurial smallFrom September 24’s  Artcurial auction of ancient and 19th century masters in Paris: Eugène Delacroix, “Two studies of draped figures.” Image courtesy and © Artcurial.

Signac scrutinizes even more closely the impact of the Impressionists and of their precursor Jongkind.

Then he gets to Seurat who, in 1886, exposed the first divisionist painting, “A Sunday afternoon on the Grande-Jatte Isle.”

Pointilism was thus born and went on to produce magnificent works which nobody dared ridicule. Today painting seems to be following a path directly opposed to that which the Neo-Impressionists took. Delacroix’s two celebrated slogans, “Grey is the enemy of every painting!” and “Banish all Earthen colors” would mystify the young painters who want to return to the basics of forms and drawing, just as before them there was a return to the essentials of composition, light, and color intensity.

Au contraire, the new painters paint in hard to reproduce grey tones and search out the elegance of Earthen colors.

Feneon Orsay, Henri-Edmond Cross, The Golden Iles, smallHenri-Edmond Cross, “The Golden Isles,” between 1891 and 1892. Oil on canvas, 59.5 x 54 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. © Patrice Schmidt/musée d’Orsay, distribution RMN.

The art of Neo-Impressionism drew but a small number of adepts. It requires, in effect, a lot of application and science, not to mention talent.

The meticulousness that it demands discourages artists who are inconstant or in a rush.

maximilien luce, the dredging machine in RotterdamMaximilien Luce, “The dredging machine in Rotterdam.” Oil on canvas. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

It has furnished modern art with a number of very beautiful and very luminous works, those of Seurat, of Henri-Edmond Cross, of Luce, of Van Rysselberghe, etc., which are rightly admired today and which the future will remember.

Paul Signac’s little booklet marks an important date in the history of contemporary art.

Paul Signac, Le Temps d'HarmoniePaul Signac (1863-1935) , “The Time of Harmony: The Golden Age is not in the past, it’s in the future (Retort),” 1896. Oil on canvas, 65.5 × 81 cm.  Kasser Mochary Foundation, Montclair, NJ.  Kasser Art Foundation, image © Nikolai Dobrowolskij.

Exposed! How a ballet dancer and a Realist artist created the world

L'Origine du mondeFrom the Dance Insider / Arts Voyager archives and the recent exhibition Sigmund Freud, From Seeing to Listening at the Museum of the History and Art of Judaism in Paris: Gustave Courbet, “L’Origine du monde” (The Creation of the World), 1866. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. © Paris, musée d’Orsay.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. To translate this article into French or another language, please use the translation engine button at the right of this page.)

PARIS — A sort of anthropological elaboration on his discovery that the model for Gustave Courbet’s alternately maligned and celebrated 1866 painting “L’origine du monde” (most recently in the news when the luddites at Facebook tried to ban it; okay to use us to recruit terrorists, but art is too dangerous) was the Paris Opera Ballet dancer Constance Quéniaux — the author uses her trajectory as a window into the world of the late 19th-century Parisiennne courtesan — Claude Schopp’s “L’origine du monde: Vie du modèle,” published by Phébus, should be required reading in schools of journalism, for both its positive demonstration that investigative journalism relies as much on scrupulous research as vigorous legwork and its negative example of how to pad out (or as the French say, embroider) a story. Given that Schopp has singularly taken the mystery out of a major work of art that managed to retain it for 150 years, the achievement is dubious.

It’s easy to forget, in this era of “gotchya” journalism, the example set for my generation of Woodstein wannabes by the Washington Post reporters who brought a president down. They did this not by digging in the White House trash-cans but because a cops reporter named Bob Woodward had his ears perked and was smart enough to recognize the national implications of a local hotel break-in when it came up on the municipal court docket.

Claude Schopp’s solving of a mystery which has intrigued art aficionados since the work Anglophones know as “The Creation of the World” was created in 1866 came in an even more staid setting, the musty research rooms of the French National Library on the Seine. And it came because Schopp is what the late Joseph H. Mazo, one of my mentors, used to call (as in I’m looking for) “an anal copy editor.”

The leading living expert on Alexander Dumas Jr., Schopp was preparing a book on the correspondence of the latter with George Sand, the good woman behind at least four great men of 19th-century European arts and letters (Chopin, Dumas senior and junior, and Flaubert). He’d already revealed, in “Alexander Dumas, Jr. — the anti-Oedipus” (Phébus 2017) how the son had rescued a batch of love letters between the woman he referred to as “Mom” and Chopin (while chasing after his own elusive mistress in an obscure Slavic border town), subsequently burned by Sand. That book also proved that Schopp does not have his head buried in the past; the revelation of a screed Dumas Junior had written supporting a law (still on the books at least as recently as 1872) which gave a man the right to kill his unfaithful spouse helps explain what some see as the retrograde status of women in contemporary France; they’ve had a long way to come, Baby. (Junior, who as the author of “Camille” might have been expected to have more sympathy for women, terminated his piece with “Kill her!”)

So it’s no surprise that this reactionary, no friend of the Paris Commune (organized by Parisians who refused Versailles’s surrender to the Prussians), would pen a report for the Rouen News on June 6, 1871 lambasting its most prominent artistic avatar: Gustave Courbet, who had famously brought down the Vendome column (as being a symbol of Versailles) and was subsequently ruined when he was forced to pay for its restoration.

“What kind of fabulous copulation of a slug and a peacock,” Dumas asked, “what procreative antitheses, what sebaceous oozing could have possibly generated, for instance, this thing known as Gustave Courbet? Under what blister, with the help of what compost, as the result of what mixture of wine, beer, and corrosive mucus and flatulent edema could this pilose, loud gourd, this aesthetic stomach, this incarnation of the imbecile and impotent Me have sprouted?”

origine du monde queniau smallFrom the Dance Insider / Arts Voyager archives: Mlle Constance Quéniaux par Disdéri, BnF, département des Estampes et de la Photographie.

It was while examining the transcription of Dumas Junior’s response to the letter “Mom” must have subsequently written him defending Courbet (as Dumas’s letter suggests; the Sand letter to which he’s presumably responding is lost) that Claude “Eagle-Eye” Schopp stumbled on the identify of the model for “L’origine du Monde”:

“There’s no excuse for Courbet — this is why I piled it on,” Dumas explains to Sand. “When one has his talent which, without being exceptional, is remarkable and interesting, one doesn’t have the right to be so proud, so insolent, and so cowardly — not to mention that one simply does not paint with such a delicate and sonorous paintbrush the *interview* (emphasis added) of Mademoiselle Quéniaux of the Paris Opera Ballet, for the Turk who dwelled there from time to time, above all in such an in-your-face, natural manner, not to mention painting two women passing as men,” the latter a reference to the painter’s “Sleep,” in which two luxuriant odalisques cuddle in a nap. “All this is ignoble…. Compared to this I’ll forgive him for toppling the Vendome column and suppressing God, who must be laughing like a little fool.”

Struck by not just the senselessness but the epoch and language incongruity of the English word “interview” in a letter from 1871, Schopp asked to examine the original manuscript in the Library’s collection, and discovered that the handwritten word was clearly not ‘interview’ but *intérieure* — the word is underlined, and easily legible even in the reduced reproduction in the book, including that accent over the first e.

For a rigorous scholar like Schopp, though, this wasn’t good enough, so he then set about looking for connections between the four principals — Courbet, Quéniaux, Dumas Junior, and the evident Turk in question, the Ottoman ambassador and playboy Khalil Bey, who had been the dancer’s lover. Thus it was that he uncovered that the painting had been a vanity commission for the painter from “the Turk” — paint my mistress — and who subsequently kept it hidden behind a curtain in his salon, with only the select privileged with an occasional viewing. (Schopp also found accounts from some of these contemporary witnesses.) The Dumas-Bey and Dumas-Quéniaux connections — which would explain how the writer had access to this intimate knowledge — are more sketchy; Dumas’s lover was Quéniaux’s best friend, and the writer and the ambassador had at different points both bought at auction Delacroix’s 1839 painting, “La Tasse dans la maison des fous,” which inspired Baudelaire to write (and which I know because the poem illustrates the painting’s or a drawing of its appearance in a 1905 auction catalogue in my own possession):

Le poète au cachot, débraillé, maladif,
Roulant un manuscrit sous son pied convulsif,
Measure d’un regard que la terreur enflamme
L’escalier de vertige où s’abîme son âme.

(The poet in solitary confinement, slovenly, darkly pensive
Rolling a manuscript under his foot so convulsive
Realizing with a regard that the terror like fire to coal
is consuming the vertiginous stairwell roughing up his soul.)

(Click here to read more of the poem, in French and in English translation.)

So far so good but still not enough to justify a whole book, so Schopp pads it out with a portrait of the world of the demoiselles that is not particularly original for anyone who’s read Balzac or Zola, except in a conclusion where he adduces Quéniaux as the proof that not all courtisans ended up like Zola’s Nana or Dumas Junior’s Camille, dying young and consumptive after destroying or being deserted by everyone around them. And everything: Schopp goes into much — too much — detail listing all the beautiful things with which the retired dancer went on to surround herself in homes in Normandy and on the rue Royale, not far from the Church de la Madeline. His detailing of her good works — in charity — is more justified, until you get to the part where he supposes, without any evidence, where all this money came from, namely from being a prostitute, or mistress if you prefer. And it doesn’t stop there; he goes so far as to make the generalizing statement that the line between dancer and hooker — or mistress — was fine at the time, the slippery slope of retirement leading from one to the other. I guess Claude Schopp never heard of Marie Taglioni, the Paris Opera Ballet dancer and school founder who was the first to dance on point artistically, and who was still giving classes to English girls when she died.

The other padding is more onerous, consisting of quoting two pages-worth’s (on multiple occasions) of passages from contemporary gossip pages on theater parties or benefits just because Quéniaux makes an appearance, or recurring sequences on an old fogey of an operetta writer whose (platonic) harem included her and, worse, naming every single witness, including their profession and address, who signed every single birth or death certificate of even the most peripheral figures to the tale. It’s as if the very talent which lead Schopp to the discovery — scholarly meticulousness — took over the project, with the means getting confused for the end.

But there’s a larger problem here, and it’s the same one I have with the original painting’s current exhibition at the Museum of Jewish History and Art in the Marais in the (re)context(ualizing) of an exhibition on Sigmund Freud.

The great thing about art is its mystery, the room it leaves for the viewer to collaborate in constructing its meaning. That viewer might be a fancy-schmancy critic like me, or it might be the cowgirl I once overheard telling her cowboy and his friend, on coming upon a Charles Russell painting of two young Indians accompanied by an older women in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, “Reminds me of our first date; mom insisted on chaperoning us.” In creating the painting whose English title is “Creation of the World,” Courbet offered his viewers the greatest source of mystery in the world, open to multiple interpretations, from the most basic (or base) to the most wondrous. (If he’d wanted it to be a portrait, he wouldn’t have cut her head off.) He invited them to participate in creating his grand oeuvre’s meaning. Schopp has now killed those infinite possibilities by revealing, “It was Constance Quéniaux.” (As the Jewish Museum has done by latching the painting onto Freud, as if his interpretation of the world and juicing up of male complexes around the vagina hasn’t already screwed us up enough.) I’m also reminded of what Andre Malraux said about Degas’s nudes (in the series of lectures that became “The Psychology of Art”), that the subject is not the model but color.

In other words: It’s about the art, stupid. Or to paraphrase Gertrude Stein: A work of art is a work of art is a work of art.

In the case of Schopp and his publisher, It’s almost as if they just had to take away the mystery and vulgarize it, in both senses of that term. (In French, ‘vulgarize’ means ‘popularize.’) As if it’s not bad enough that a publisher with such an impressively esoteric list (except for the Dumases, I haven’t heard of any of its authors) and a scholar whose previous work, the Dumas Junior biography, operated on a much higher level, plunging into the artistic processes and relationship of father and son, could sink no low, they’ve compounded the vulgarity by the book’s cover. (See illustration.) When I first visited Paris in 2000, I loved how, unlike the cultural fathers and mothers of New York, the French had no compunction about revealing naked bodies in art, in sculpture gardens, and in performance. (No ‘Family Unfriendly’ warnings here.) So why, instead of sticking to that high standard in their cover illustration, have these representatives of French intellectuals sunk to the low level of Facebook, which has infamously banned Courbet’s oeuvre?