Space, the Final Frontier: Site-Limitless Work from Mantero and Fiadeiro

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003, 2119 Paul Ben-Itzak

(To celebrate its 20th anniversary as the leading artist-driven publication in the United States, the Dance Insider and Arts Voyager  is reflecting on Post-Modern classics, as captured by Dance Insider critics in performances around the world over the past two decades. This Flash Review from the Dance Insider Archive was first published on November 24, 2003. To find out about purchasing your own copy of the DI’s Archive of more than 2000 exclusive reviews by more than 150 leading critics of performances and art exhibitions on five continents over the past 20 years, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Today’s re-publication of this Flash Review is made possible by Freespace Dance.)

PARIS — Watching two recent performances here, from the Portuguese artists Vera Mantero and Joao Fiadeiro, I was reminded of the New York Times’s ludicrous statement last summer that “the proscenium stage is passé.” How could anyone be so unaware that the most crucial theater of operation for the choreographer is not the location in which the spectacle takes place, but the spaces of the body and the mind and where they meet in the vast landscapes of the spectator’s imagination?

Like Dance Theater Workshop, whose new theater was the subject of Gia Kourlas’s irresponsibly ignorant argument, the Theatre de la Bastille (whose curatorial niche in France is similar to those of DTW, P.S. 122, and Danspace Project in New York) has also been renovated, at a cost of about $900,000. But with all due respect of the costs involved, and my own personal ease in watching the second program of “Complicites portugaises” this past Saturday (the program concludes tonight) from the comfort of a re-upholstered seat, it was the many spaces that Vera Mantero probed in her 1999 “Olympia” that made this 20-minute show.

Here’s what Theophile Gautier (writing in the Moniteur Universel, and cited by ARTnews’s Jacques Letheve in 1960) had to say about Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” in 1865, when the painting was exhibited at the Salon of that year:

“‘Olympia’ can be understood from no point of view, even if you take it for what it is, a puny model stretched out on a sheet. The color of the flesh is dirty, the modeling non-existent. The shadows are indicated by more or less large smears of blacking. What’s to be said for the negress who brings a bunch of flowers wrapped in a paper, or for the black cat which leaves its dirty footprints on the bed? We would still forgive the ugliness, were it only truthful, carefully studied, heightened by some splendid effect of color. The least beautiful woman has bones, muscles, skin, and some sort of color. Here is nothing, we are sorry to say, but the desire to attract attention at any price.”

The painting had its defenders, chief among them Zola (who, being Zola, couldn’t help pointing out the social commentary aspect, observing that the model was probably 16 and that her flesh already showed signs of male usage).

The disinterested expression on the face of the young woman — Victorine Meurent, a frequent model for Manet, including for his “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” — might be said to anticipate one stream of post-modern dance’s response to the formalism of ballet; the last line above from Gautier — Romantic ballet’s great defender, after all — might describe at least one out of four modern dance creations we see here in Europe. So it’s not surprising that one of this generation’s most intriguing choreographers working in the modern dance idiom would want to probe Manet’s “Olympia,” which she first encountered at the Musee d’Orsay here. (Look on the first floor.)

Rather than argue a point of view about the resulting painting, Mantero chooses to probe the perspective of the model confronting her proscribed space. She starts by dragging the bed on a tether vertically downstage from upstage right, while reading from an famous essay by Jean Dubuffet (Mantero’s other inspiration) written in the 1950s, “L’Asphyxiante Culture.” This seems to fortify her for the task at hand: Mounting the bed and finding her pose… and poise.

Mantero is of course nude (note to New York’s prudish Joyce Theater: The mother with her eight-year-old sitting next to me didn’t seem to consider this un- “family-friendly” theater) and, like Olympia, adorned with only high heels, a bracelet, and a flower in her bunned hair. She eventually takes the famous position, freezes in it for a few seconds, and then slowly becomes hyper-aware of her right arm, dangling listlessly over the pillow. Still maintaining her eye contact with the spectator, she fidgets it into various other positions, but can’t get settled. She sidles her legs and other hand around into different arrangements. She slides off the bed. She sits on its edge, back slumped, hands folded between her open legs like a TV zombie. (The position is not very fetching, but the one captured by Manet was not meant to be either.) Finally she gets the idea to remove the flower and toss her frizzy auburn hair about. She rises and walks tentatively, jerkingly around the room. Then she returns to the bed and perches stretched out along the top before — and we know what’s coming here — falling and disappearing behind it.

Mantero’s “Olympia” is witty but it’s also personal, an ultimately empathetic excursion into the point of view not of the painting artist nor the critics outside the art, but the actual ‘model’ who has not gotten enough credit for the painting, even though her candid expression and frank pose may be as responsible for the tableau’s ultimate success as Manet’s devise. Instead of considering the ripples outward provoked by the painting, Mantero, operating in one frame — the, er, proscenium one — has gone inside another, the canvas, using the choreographer-dancer’s understanding of the body and its language to try to understand the origins of this body’s once-controversial impact.

Joao Fiadeiro’s “I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in” could also describe the manifesto of about one in four modern dance creations I see here. I was initially skeptical when the 1999 piece began with a soundscape consisting of those words plus a few others looped and looped and looped. “Are we going to have to listen to 50 minutes of this?” I cringed. But, as the speaker promised, with repetition — and some frequency modulation, no doubt — the words slowly became divested of any besides rhythmic distinction, a lulling drone background to Fiadeiro’s performance.

I also groaned initially at the choreographer-dancer’s slow progression along a downstage arc, which he defined by laying masking-tape down as he slowly crawled along it. Finally Fiadeiro arrived at the copy machine planted upstage right (almost exactly where Mantero’s bed had been), squashed his face onto the glass, and hit the copy button. The result — it looked something like the Elephant Man — he stuck onto another stretch of tape strung above the lip of the stage, like a clothesline. More copies were run off, hung up, torn, folded over, crushed, chewed up, and spat out. The clothes-pins were actually clipped to the back of Fiadeiro’s white shirt, until he transferred them to and all over his face, before ejecting them by contracting his muscles. He then pinned one of the photocopies on the back wall upstage left, at the point of an arrow he’d taped there earlier, with the word “Me.” Tape-described and linked stick figures of a man, woman, and child followed, then a house, then a smokestack spiraling out of the house, curling into a gun held by another figure. Another spiral was taped up; when Fiadeiro kneeled at the small end it became the tongue of a frog snapping out to snag an insect.

Far from fitting the ‘site-specific’ definition touted as the only relevant modality by the New York Times, both these choreographers had created spaces that were infinitely ‘site-limitless’ on an apparently circumscribed playing surface — fresh works created on the archaic proscenium stage which Gia Kourlas, our most superficial of reviewers, would assign to oblivion. A true artist — and DTW’s motto, is, after all, “the work of artists” — does not require a fancy theatrical conceit to create and deliver work that is meaningful, breathtaking, and, yes, ground-breaking. All the artist needs is an innate curiosity and the talent to look for answers wherever the search takes him or her — sans limits.

Lutèce Diaries, 5: Somber times at Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil — Robert Lepage’s “Kanata” or Why I won’t review Victim Art without the Victims

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(While today’s article is in English, all the linked articles are in French. 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. This one goes out to Polly, and to Lureeta Whitewing-Porter.)

PARIS — I was working as a feature writer for the Anchorage Daily News (a job I’d accepted after watching too many episodes of Northern Exposure; it wasn’t until after arriving in Alaska that I learned the t.v. series was shot in Washington State) when I decided I was going to be the first to write about AIDS among Native Alaskans living in “the Bush.” It was 1990, and I’d already broken many AIDS stories nationally and internationally while working as a San Francisco-based correspondent for Reuters and for the Atlantic City Press, notably the sad story of Brendan O’Rourke,  one of the first children to participate in an AZT pilot program, who’d  toyed with my ear at five before dying at eight. My new paper, meanwhile, had won a Pulitzer for a series about alcoholism and suicide rates among the Natives. We ran an ad asking for someone from a village to come forward, guaranteeing anonymity. A social worker with the Alaska Native Health Service, Lureeta Whitewing-Porter, with whom I’d already collaborated on a story about a group of high school students from Nome who had created a play about AIDS, immediately called me up, alarmed: “You can’t do this story.” There was no such thing as anonymity in a Bush village of 150 people, she explained, and the person would be stigmatized. When I replied with the old liberal bromide that knowledge was power, she asked me (furnishing a reliable touchstone for my subsequent investigative journalism): “What is your intention?”

My editor pointed out that the paper had a reputation for covering the Native community with sensitivity, citing the Pulitzer Prize-winning series. He didn’t realize what it had taken me only three months to understand: The Natives did not perceive that series in the same way, but rather as having stigmatized them as victims. At the time there was only one Native on the paper, and she had arrived after the alcoholism and suicide stories were published.

Well, Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage must have gone to the same school of paternalistic if well-meaning liberal thought as Pat Dougherty, my editor on the ADN, because despite vociferous First Nations protest over the lack of ANY indigenous people in her Theatre du Soleil’s production of his “Kanata,” which purports to tell the history of their persecution — up to and including the recent wave of murders and disappearances of indigenous women in the Canadian province of British Columbia — they’ve not only persisted, after an initial annulment, in opening the play December 15 at the Cartoucherie outside Paris, where it runs through February 15, but have incorporated the controversy into the play in a way which apparently makes Lepage come out as the victim. (I say ‘apparently’ because I have no desire to participate, even as an observer, in a play about victims which excludes the victims.)

Mnouchkine, a venerated icon of the alt theater Parisian scene for more than half a century, has compounded the problem by mounting the type of arrogant (the Western cultural maven knows best), dismissive defense that more typically comes from liberal than conservative quarters. Responding on the theater’s website to the question of whether she and Lepage are guilty of “cultural appropriation,” Mnouchkine insists:

“It’s impossible to appropriate something which is not and has never been a physical or intellectual property.” As if, coming from a purveyor of cultural heritages who should know better, this specious and intellectually lazy argument was not bad enough, she continues: “The stories of groups, or hoards, of clans, of tribes, of ethnicities, of peoples, of nations cannot be trade-marked, as some claim, because they all belong to the grand history of humanity….It’s this grand history which is the artist’s territory.” In other words, my artistic chops give me the right to harvest and macerate your story even if I don’t have any socially legitimate claim on it. (I should try this argument with the landowners who have put up “No mushroom-hunting” signs all over my corner of the Perigord — where 90% of forests are private — the next time I want to go looking for succulent cepes.) She goes on: “Cultures — all cultures — are our sources and, in a certain way, they’re all sacred. We must drink from therein studiously, with respect and recognition, but we cannot accept that we’re forbidden from approaching them….” To stick with the rural — and enological — analogies, following this principal I can make a wine tour of the Lot and break into any winery I want and grab as much of their hard-earned product as I want and if anyone protests, I’ll just answer, “I’m a critic, I have a right to use your food as my fodder.”

Voila a circumlocution more fitting to a dancer than an actor, because Mnouchkine skirts around the question, which is not one of forbidding access to a culture, but rather of excluding the very actors of that culture from your white, non-Indigenous attempt to represent it — and to appropriate it for your own purposes. In other words, even if the exclusion is one of omission rather than commission, you’re not only squatting their house, you’re locking them out of it.

To provide a counter, more appropriate model of cultural access, when I was in junior high school in San Francisco, I was invited — even recruited, as I recall — to participate in a production of a Langston Hughes poem-play directed by an African-American artist in a predominantly Black neighborhood. I was not made to feel that I had no standing or that I was a member of the oppressing class. Rather, I was treated as an American to whom this culture also belonged. The difference is that instead of me locking them out of their own house, they were not just inviting me into theirs, but telling me “We are all at home here.”

This is not what Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage, two white people, are doing in pretending to depict the tragedy of the First Nations without the participation of any First Nations people.

Ms. Mnouchkine’s defense — ”Culture cannot be owned by any one person, it belongs to everyone” — reminds me of another French liberal’s recent opposition to president Emmanuel Macron’s announced (and laudable) intention to return the estimated 80,000 objects of art pillaged from African countries during colonial times to their nations of origin. To the usual, patronizing argument that African countries don’t have the proper facilities to take care of and mount the art put forth by some art “experts,” the liberal radio commentator Sylvain Bourmeau added this one: Culture, he argued, belongs not just to the creator but the receiver, or audience. Outside of the Grateful Dead, which used to rope off a whole section of its concerts for “the tapers” — appropriate for a band which owed so much to the hippies — I can’t think of any Western artist or presenter who would accept an audient’s going to a play and stealing it. This argument is even more feeble in France, where the composers’ rights organization SACEM is quick to pounce on any restaurant, boutique, or barber-shop with the audacity to play a CD without buying the rights to do so. (On the France Culture critical round-table program La Dispute, another commentator offered an even more ludicrous defense than Mnouchkine’s: the multi-culti character of the Theatre du Soleil’s troupe. You seen one minority, you’ve seen them all….)

Speaking of appropriating, before now quoting copiously from Guiseppe Valiante’s article in the Quebecoise journal La Presse relaying how actual First Nations people feel about “Kanata,” I’ll give you the link where you can find the original French version, here .

The Inuit writer Maya Cousineau Mollen (Valiante reports), one of 30 First Nations artists and militants who met with Lepage last year and challenged him to convince them that an authentic Indigenous presence was not essential to assuring his account’s authenticity, travelled to Paris for the December premiere “with the hope that Robert Lepage had heard the critiques of indigenous artists. But she left the theater disappointed” and not at all convinced by the final result, which claims to represent the history of relations between white and Indigenous peoples in Canada. It also accentuates the focus on the fate of assassinated and missing Indigenous women in and around Vancouver in recent years. Mollen was particularly disturbed by a scene featuring the assassination of a young Indigenous woman by a character inspired by the serial killer Robert Pickton. “In part because of this ‘brutal and violent’ scene, the play would not have been as well-received in Western Canada as in Paris, according to Madame Cousineau Mollen,” Valiante notes.

But perhaps the most disingenuous element of this latest, post-contestation version of Lepage’s play is the way — in the guise of incorporating the controversy into the play — the author has twisted the question around so that he now not only excludes the very victims whose saga he purports to chronicle but poses as the victim. Or, as Valiante relates, “Guy Sioui Durand, a Huron sociologist and art critic, also flew to Paris” to check the show out first hand. “He didn’t appreciate the way that Lepage integrated into the piece a French artist who asks if she has the right to paint portraits of the murdered Indigenous women. ‘It’s as if,’ M. Sioui Durand explains in an interview, ‘in injecting the controversy into the play, Lepage and the theater are posing as the victims, via the (real) victims, these murdered and missing women.”

Mollen was invited to Paris by Gerty Dambury, a member of the collective Décoloniser les arts, based in the county of St.-Denis which borders Paris, and from which I’m writing you today. Speaking to Valiante, Dambury suggests that “for the French cultural milieu,” when the question of cultural appropriation is brought up, it’s treated as “communitarianism,” “indigenisme,” “racialism,” and censorship targeting “artistic liberty. This is very clear in (the defense of) Madame Mnouchkine.”

But — and as I noted earlier — it’s not a question of proscribing others from addressing their histories, but excluding the very people affected from these efforts. Or as a collective of First Nations artists and activists and their supporters pointed out in an open letter to the French artists participating in “Kanata” (and very sympathetic with the cast itself) and published in the Quebecoise daily Le Devoir just before the premiere put it:

“We’re always happy to welcome into our ranks — or even to serve the vision of — non-indigenous creators who see our history as an essentially human epic. In Canada and Quebec, among the Indigenous Nations, there’s a substantial pool of artists, of talents, and of varied expertises in the domaine of the arts and stage capable of meeting the most demanding artistic challenges, without even talking about the need of apprentisage and experiences for young people just starting out in artistic fields. We’re surprised that once again they’ve all been ignored, even by those who say they want to revisit the recent history of the First Nations people in their relationship with the colonial states.

“Today the winds are shifting, with more and more people calling into question the colonialist way of thinking which has for far too long served as a pretext to deny our right to speak for ourselves. Some arts financing institutions have initiated funding policies geared to enable us to stop being seen as simple objects of curiosity and nothing more. Nonetheless, we’re still too often marginalized by the major cultural instititutions, our voices being seen at times as too exotic, at times not exotic enough to meet the pre-conceptions of the cultural majority. And yet the authenticity which we harbor is our biggest asset, and we oppose — because it’s this that is our responsibility — aesthetic and folkloric counterfeits in which our people have been and still are seen as toys.

“For all these reasons we retain, before ‘Kanata,’ the sense of a missed opportunity.”

PS: Looking at the production photo which accompanies the open letter — see the link above — I see a more insidious issue here: It reminds me of those ’50s films in which Indian ‘squaws’ were usually depicted by gorgeous white babes — often Natalie Wood — in dark pancake make-up. The darker message conveyed was that real Indians weren’t pretty (or handsome; Rock Hudson, Jeffrey Hunter, Jeff Chandler, or Robert Wagner would often play the brave) enough to play themselves.

Lutèce Diaries, 3: (Illustrated) Trans Tintin on rue Montorgueil, Superman in St.-Germain des près, Shoah Puppets on Mouffetard — the Journal of a Blood-sucking Critic

joseph yes gorgeous smallJoseph, “Yes gorgeous,” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. 110 x 80 cm. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text 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.  Don’t miss  out on our upcoming coverage from Paris and Lyon of art, theater, film, puppets, and dance from around the world! Drop a line to artsvoyager@gmail.com with the words “Flash Me, Dance Insider & Arts Voyager” and we’ll add you to our list. Any and all references to my teeth and any blood from therein are hyperbolic poetic license; if I’ve made the journey from the Southwest of France to Paris, it’s not for the art but because  my dentist here is the best — and kindest — in the world and the only one in whom I’ve ever had confidence. And who would no doubt be distressed to learn that I did not head straight home after our last appointment.)

PARIS — Only a nut for culture and for a Paris retrouvé to which he’d re-taken (“First we’ll take Manhattan, then we’ll take Paris” — Leonard Cohen via Jennifer Warnes, tweaked) like the proverbial canard to water would think of strolling from the Grands Boulevards to the Seine in sub-freezing climes, traversing the most luminous river in the world — they say the light comes from all the souls that have found their final solace in her fathomless depths and all the hearts that have fused on her bridges, boats, and benches (“I started that” — Cary Grant to Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s “Charade,” pointing to the lovers necking on the quays from the deck of a bateau mouche) — and then hop-scotching from several openings in the gallery grotto of Saint-Germain-des-Près to the heights of the Latin Quarter to mouffe tard (work late) on the rue Mouffetard with a puppet hoarder of Holocaust detritus while surrounded by 50 hushed school-children, right after having three teeth extracted. And did I mention that I forgot the Ibuprofen, which I told myself would make me all the more able to empathize with the Shoah victims (later to have their fillings extracted after being gassed), but which only left me to grit the hemoglobin-soaked bandage over my gums and become the living embodiment of the blood-sucking critic?

joseph kiss smallJoseph, “What does a kiss mean,” 2018. Acrylic, collage and résin on wood. 110 x 80 cm. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

The most provocative piece of art I saw all evening was the illicit poster someone had painted on an entire building wall, near the arched gateway to the rue Montorgueil, of Tintin — celebrating his 90th birthday this year, and acting pretty frisky for his age — illicitly planting a tender wet kiss on the mouth of Captain Haddock, enough to make the mullahs of Moulinsart bent on upscaling the image of Hergé as a high-class painter piss their pants, but not enough to distract me from the Starbucks shingle which continues to tackify the entrance to one of the most typical passages of Paris, once memorialized by Claude Monet. Lingering 20 minutes later on the Pont des Arts to wait for the Eiffel to sparkle up (after shaking my head over the construction blight of the former Samaritain — when last seen, Kylie Minogue was diving off the roof of the late multi-block department store, one inspiration for Zola’s “The Happiness of Ladies,” in Leo Carax’s “Holy Motors” — being made over into a luxury hotel so that rich foreigners have a place to sleep until they can buy a place through one of the numerous real estate agencies which have replaced my favorite cheese boutiques and used record shops, and to pay hommage at the school on the Street of the Dry Tree where they once vainly tried to teach me about the imperfect past), I was relieved to see that the faux graffiti wall with which the city had replaced the chain fencing in an attempt to stymie the love-locks which had threatened to make the bridge fall into the river had been supplanted by a sleek glass barrier. After reconnoitering a dark corner on the Left Bank near the water that seemed propitious for a minimal-risk piss (I’ve been nervous ever since the police caught me relieving myself by a tree on the Ile St. Louis in 2005, when I hadn’t dared cite Malcolm McLaren in my defense: “Everybody pees on Paris, watch me now.”), I reflected that confined to clusters in the middle and at the top of the bridge lamp-posts that made them resemble bouquets for robots, the love-locks now actually had something to do with love. (One unclear on the concept wag had written on his, “Love doesn’t need locks,” before bolting it.) Prodded by the memory of a long-ago futile search for a public urinal on the rues Bonaparte and Visconti, I finally plunged down a stairway and mingled my waters with the crepuscular dew, spitting out the blood-drenched gum bandage in a poubelle at the base of the Nesle Tower — where an ancient royal Rapunzel once tempted various cavaliers who lost their heads for their gallantry — before heading to the galleries so that I could shut my trap and not reveal that I was one fangless critic.

joseph superman smallJoseph, “No time to lose (Superman),” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. 110 x 70 cm. Courtesy Gallery Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

If there had been any police patrolling in the area, Superman was waiting to rescue me, emitting scarlet beams of x-ray vision from both eyes over a collage of ’50s Life magazine ads lacquered into art by the eponymous Joseph and on display (through the end of the month) at the Galerie Roy Sfeir, the first on the rue de Seine if you’re coming from the river. (And one of the only galleries I spotted — not counting those hosting openings — where the gallerist wasn’t huddling behind a computer screen.) Behind twin bull-dog sculptures guarding the 12 or so oeuvres — most topped off by comic-book like soap-operatic bubbles a la Roy Lichtenstein — the gallery’s owner was discussing the “Yellow Vests” phenomenon with a client. When they asked my opinion (I’m not sharing theirs because I didn’t identify myself as a journalist) and then said they had no idea what I’d just said, for once I had a retort that headed off any comment on my accent:

“Itf becaufe I’fe juft come from fe dentisf.”

roy lichtenstein artist's studioAmong the 44 works whose recent installation has renewed the Contemporary Collection on view at the Art Institute of Chicago is, above, Roy Lichtenstein. Artist’s Studio “Foot Medication,” 1974. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. The art by Joseph featured here evokes his American artistic ancestor.

Next I scrunched into the barely three-person-wide “Petite Gallery” — “Let the monsieur in, he’s actually here pour voir, pas pour boire” (to look, not to drink) — for a group exhibition that, in appreciation for the conviviality with which the ensemble welcomed a demi-sans-dent individual they had no idea was a blood-sucking critic, I’ll diplomatically refrain to comment on — before landing at my destination gallery, on whose exhibition, thanks to the flack who treated my modest request for three images *in the appropriate size* like she was doing me a favor even though she did know I was a journalist, I’ve not so diplomatically — okay, childishly — decided not to waste any more energy on here.

In contrast to the kind folks at the Petite Gallery, the Centre Pompidou is no doubt big enough to withstand a little biting criticism from a demi-sans-dent critic. So I was practically delighted to find matter for a rant in the mammoth “Without the Centre Pompidou, Paris wouldn’t be Paris” English-language poster that reared its head before me on the Boulevard Saint-Germain as I made my way towards Mouffetard for my Shoah puppet show. After mentally dispensing this pedagogy (this is what French commentators call it when they want to explain to you why you’re wrong and they’re right), I crossed St.-Mich and turned onto the rue des Ecoles so I could explore what the Latin quarter cinemas were offering before the show. In the lobby of the Grand Action, an apparently jet-lagged young woman with a Nordic accent (and so Nordically enveloped I can’t describe her better than that) was asking the ticket-seller, “Am I in Paris?”

If there had previously been any doubt in my mind, I definitely knew I was in Paris when I scaled the mount St. Genevieve, one of the oldest streets in Lutèce (the city’s name in Roman times), and definitely knew I was still inevitably an American in Paris when I paused to pay the obligatory homage to Hemingway at Papa’s former roost up top the rue Cardinal Lemoine, more or less catty-corner from Descartes’s former digs on the rule Rollin, and where I resisted the temptation to channel the Gorilla Girl inside me and amend the Paris is a Moving Feast citation “Lucky the man who has spent part of his youth in Paris” with “and the semi-toothless blood-sucking journalist who’s still here.” Speaking of youth and ecoliers, in the courtyard at the end of the alley leading to the Mouffetard theater of the Art of the Marionette I was immediately surrounded by 50 schoolchildren decidedly mouffing tard, no doubt for the educational value of a puppet show about the Holocaust or Shoah, as it’s referred to here.

Despite the presence of several superficially stereotypical Jewish puppet characters (a bent-over Hasid, an Einstein-lookalike with a magic cigar box hanging from his neck) designed after the now exhausted Czech National Puppet Theatre model what I liked about the endearing Alexandre Haslé’s production of Daniel Keene’s “The Rain” for the Lendemains de la veille company was that despite what I said above, as there’s nothing in the piece explicitly linking it to the Holocaust the message is not limited to that one deportation and period. As Haslé suggested in brief comments after curtain, the simple plot premise — an old woman surrounded by the possessions neighbors gave her before boarding trains of no return when she was a girl — could apply to many contemporary situations and displaced populations. He cited, somewhat vaguely, “Italy, Spain — even France.” Perhaps because I’ve just finished reading Joe Sacco’s graphic novel “Palestine,” with its depictions of Palestinian families given an hour to quit their ancestral homes before Israel blows them up in acts of collective punishment for the first Infitadah — I’d add Palestine/Israel to the tale’s potential resonances. Which is a way to say that what I appreciated in this tale and its presentation was the universality of its message’s application. For this reason, I was encouraged that their parents and teachers had let the school-children mouffe tard. One of the problems I have with the “Yellow-Vest” movement which has been the chou-chou of the French media for the past two months is its “Me First” mentality. In this context any measure that fosters empathy — I’ve never seen a crowd of children so quiet and enraptured — in the next generation is a welcome tonic.

I’d love to stay and cat, but I’ve got a busy day ahead: This time the dentist is taking out a nerve, after which I’ve blithely made a date with Agnes Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire (following another rendez-vous with Bernhardt), et dans laquelle il n’y aurait aucun risque que je morde.

joseph happiness smallJoseph, “Happiness,” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

 

Celebrating 20 years of giving a voice to artists: Don’t stop the music — In Paris, a double-victory for ‘Double Coquette’

november 13 for repostMailys de Villoutreys and Isabelle Poulenard in “The Double Coquette,” directed by Fanny de Chaille from Antoine Dauvergne and Charles-Simon Favart’s score and lyrics as amended by Gerard Pesson and Pierre Alferi, with costumes by Annette Messager. Marc Domage photo courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2015, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on November 18, 2015, as part of the DI/AV’s extensive coverage of the artistic commnity’s response to the November 13 attacks which killed 130 people in the stadiums and music halls and on the cafe terraces of Paris and Seine-St.-Denis. The first line of defense in this war has been the police, whose numbers have been decimated so far this year by 30 suicides, the latest that of Maggy Biskupski, a 36-year-old officer who killed herself yesterday with her service revolver. Today’s playlist for memorial ceremonies in the city’s 11th arrondissement, hardest hit by the attacks, included Serge Gainsbourg’s “La Chanson de Prevert,” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” This one goes out to the memory of Naomi Gonzalez, U.S. citizen and Mexican immigrant, gunned down on the terrace of “Le bon biere” at the age of 20.)

PARIS — They wanted to stop the music, and they did not succeed, as Parisians last night filled theaters re-opening after three days of national mourning. “We are very happy with your presence tonight,” the soft-spoken Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, director of the Theatre de la Ville and the city-wide Festival d’Automne, told the audience assembled last night at the TDLV’s Abbesses Theater in Montmartre (whose lively cafe terraces were more full than one might expect on any typically drizzly fall Paris evening, let alone four nights after this same terrain was turned into a killing field) for the opening of choreographer Fanny de Chaille’s production of Antoine Dauvergne and Charles-Simon Favart’s 1753 comic opera “La Double Coquette,” amended by composer Gerard Pesson and lyricist Pierre Alferi as a bisexual love story. “We are proud to re-open this grand theater in this grand city that we love so much, with a light work” that is not entirely irrelevant to defending the values targeted by those who massacred 130 people and wounded 350 more Friday in the worse terrorist attack on France in 70 years, concerned as the work is with “the liberty of our hearts and the liberty of movement.” But what moved me most, just three days after 89 people were gunned down in the Bataclan theater for participating in what their killers dubbed the “perversity” of an innocuous rock concert, was seeing the dozen musicians onstage, hearing their auburn violins resonate, and realizing just how precious music is.

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Legacies: From Brazil’s torched history to Hugo’s Guernesey, Patrimony, Dispersed

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right: From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Four salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey. Est. pre-sale: 4,000-6,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Text by and copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak (revised, with a new ending)
Images Copyright 2012 Christie’s

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“I dedicate this book to this mountain of hospitality and liberty, to this corner of the old Normandy terrain where the noble humble people of the sea live, on the Ile of Guernesey, severe and gentle, my current refuge, my probable tomb.”

— Victor Hugo, “Les Travailleurs de la Mer,” introduction to Book 1, “L’Archipel de la Manche.”

First published by our sister magazine Art Investment News on April 4, 2012, the day that Christie’s Paris auctioned off 500 lots of art, correspondence, books, photographs, and other mementos and memorabilia belonging to the descendants of Victor, Jean, Valentine, and succeeding generations of  Hugos. Two days after another legacy was dispersersed – with 90% of the 20 million pieces of artifacts and documentation collected over 200 years perishing when Brazil’s National Museum, the largest institution of natural history in South America, went up in flames, not helped by the neglect of the federal and state governments – it seems appropriate to celebrate another national and international cultural legacy. Particularly one that demonstrates – the Brazilian catastrophe comes at a time when the most popular candidate in the imminent presidential election, convicted of corruption, has been ruled ineligible by the courts – the intimate connection between cultural and political heritages, between a Democratic civilization’s record and its perseverance. Former Brazilian environmental minister Marina Silva, cited in the Guardian, likened the catastrophe to “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.” If it is a lobotomy, it’s a  conscious one, the consequence of en epoch which prizes commodities which don’t produce anything — e.g., Facebook — over substance, and where faceless entities impose fiscal ‘austerity’ at the expense of national treasures.

What happened when that most celebrated exponent of French Letters and values, Victor Hugo, went into exile on an island — part of France until nature detached it from Normandy – under British sovereignty, where residents had to pay a yearly tribute to the Crown of two chickens and were taxed not on their income, but on their fortune? He fell in love with the place. Choosing exile after Napoleon III’s 1852 coupe, Hugo stopped over first in Brussels, then shortly afterwards landed in the Channel Island of Jersey and, evicted from there after criticizing Queen Victoria, settled in Guernesey (as he spelled it) in 1855, refusing a general amnesty offered by Napoleon in 1859 and not returning to France until the regime abdicated after the Prussian War debacle of 1870. Compared to France under Napoleon III (whom Hugo dubbed “Napoleon le petit,” enthroning a soubriquet that stuck), he discovered in Guernesey a cradle of liberty, regaling at its four newspapers. “Imagine a deserted isle,” he wrote in his introduction to “Les Travailleurs de la Mer,” the Workers of the Sea (1866). “The day after his arrival, Robinson creates a newspaper, and Friday subscribes…. Arrive, live, exist. Go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be who you want to be. No one has the right to know your name. Do you have your own god? Preach him. Do you have your own flag? Fly it. Where? In the street. It’s white? Fine. It’s blue? Very good. It’s red? Red is a color. Does it please you to denounce the government? Get up on the podium and speak…. Think, speak, write, print, harangue — it’s your own business.” (By way of testifying to the importance of institutions of cultural preservation: I only know about Hugo’s two-volume work because I was able to score a 1900-vintage edition at a sale proposed by the Upper West Side branch of the New York Public Library.)

hugo two adeleLeft: Lot 19: By Charles Hugo (1826-1871) or Auguste Vacquerie (1819 -1895), “Portrait of Adele Hugo as a young woman,” circa 1856. Set of eight prints, one salt print mounted on card, seven collotypes mounted on cards. Pre-sale estimate for the Christies auction: 9,000-12,000 Euros. Few photographs from this period exist of Adele Hugo, the artist’s daughter, whose tragic story is recounted in Francois Truffaut’s 1975 film “The Story of Adele H..” A copy of Grove Press’s complete script of the film is also on auction (est. 180 – 200 Euros), complete with a note from Truffaut to Jean Hugo: “For Jean Hugo, another screen between the reality and the fiction of today, with my gratitude and my loyalty.” Right: Lot 68: Edmond Bacot, “Les Misérables,” 1878. 10 large albumen prints mounted on cards of Cécile Daubray in the role of Cosette and Dumaine in the role of Jean Valjean, seven signed in red ink ‘Edouard Bacot’ (on the image); one signed and dated ‘Manday1878’ (on the image) and one titled and dated on the card. Env. 30.5 x 26 cm. Est. 3,000-5,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Convictions are fine, but what enabled Hugo to endure his exile from the soil which made him and the country in whose liberties he remained invested and so readily adapt to his new terrain was the family that surrounded him — initially at Marine Terrace in Jersey, then at Hauteville House in Guernesey. And whose members in their turn instantly took to the islands, notably Hugo’s son Charles, who, with August Vacquerie, set up a photographer’s studio in a side room at Marine Terrace in 1852. He had the eager backing of his father, who arranged to have the pioneering photographer Edmond Bacot send over books so that Charles could instruct himself. In Guernesey, on the third floor of Hauteville House, the room which Hugo called his ‘look-out’ was consecrated to a library. When Victor Hugo died in Paris in 1885 — a death so monumental that French officials didn’t just put the author in the Pantheon, they *moved* the Pantheon — if he left his oeuvre to France and the world, he left Hauteville House to his grandchildren Georges and Jeanne, all his immediate scions having preceded their father to the grave. When Georges died in 1925, Jean — Victor’s great-grandson, by then already an established artist and a cohort of Jean Cocteau — decided to give the bulk of Hauteville House’s remnants to the city of Paris.  But he hung on to some of the furniture, objects, books, and photographs, including the armoire in which Hugo stored his manuscripts as well as 50 original drawings by the author, who might have found full-time work as a caricaturist, draftsman, or painter had he not been so busy writing poems,  plays, treatises (against the death penalty, to recall one of his most celebrated causes), appeals (famously, a plea for mercy for the American abolitionist John Brown), novels  (“Les Miserables” was finished at Guernesey) and serving in national assemblies and local governments. (Hugo would later campaign for amnesty for the Communards of 1871, shortly after his return to France.) These sundry artifacts eventually made their way to Jean Hugo’s family home in Mas de Fourques, Lunel, near Montpellier, a dilapidated farmhouse — or so Marie-Jacqueline Lancaster, sister of Jean’s widow Lauretta, recalled in Lauretta’s 2005 London Independent obituary  — where peacocks were known to fall out of the trees and Lauretta produced a local victual called Muscat de Lunel. There she and her husband entertained the likes of Dali, Picasso, and Cocteau who, besides the peacocks, were likely to hear sheep being quartered outside their windows. (Also among the treasures were sketches by Jean’s first wife Valentine of Ballets Russes legends Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky.)

hugo three belgiumLot 179: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Souvenir de Belgique.” Charcoal, brush, and black ink, grey and brown wash heightened with white, on brown paper, in a painted frame, also made by Hugo. 157 x 594 mm. Est. 50,000-80,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

After Lauretta died, the seven children she’d had with Jean were confronted with a choice. “Raised among all these family souvenirs in the house of our father …, Jean Hugo, great-grandson of the poet,” they write in the Christie’s Paris catalog for today’s auction, “it was only after the death of our mother Lauretta that we heard the word ‘partage’ (in French, this can mean ‘divide’ but also ‘share’), which entrained the word ‘dispersion,’ which in turn made us pronounce the word ‘sale’ because, in effect: how to cut up into seven pieces the crown of Leopoldine?,” this last being one of Victor Hugo’s two, short-lived daughters, the other being Adele, immortalized by Isabel Adjani in Francois Truffaut’s 1975 film “The story of Adele H.”

hugo four guerneseyLot 25: Thomas Singleton, “Views of Guernesey,” circa 1870. Set of 12 prints: Eight large albumen prints mounted on cards; four unframed prints. Various dimensions, from 13 x 20 cm. to 27.5 x 39 cm. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

I like this term ‘dispersion.’ (Hugo’s descendents have apparently also inherited his knack for the well-chosen verb.) At first I found it depressing to conceive of this concentrated trove of Hugo memorabilia –  not just the artifacts of the writer and his descendants, but the reflections of his intelligence and culture represented by the books he collected and prized – being dispersed to disparate coins of the globe in all the 500 parts on auction today. Then I recalled that there are still places to find concentrated  Hugo cachets – notably the Victor Hugo House in Paris and the Bibliotheque National Française. (For a sampling – here of Victor Hugo’s artworks — check the BNF’s virtual exposition, Victor Hugo, l’homme ocean.) And then I considered that word dispersion, as well as the verb partage, in its meaning share. When I lived in France from 2001 to 2010, every weekend I’d scour the vide greniers (essentially neighborhood-wide garage sales: vide = empty; grenier = attic) for French memorabilia. The vintage carafes and ashtrays I amassed (I probably had the most ashtrays of any non-smoker in France), promoting various marks of pastis and regional aperitifs, were not just meaningless societal detritus but conduits into a cultural past I hadn’t grown up with but that I hoped to adapt and assimilate. And those were only carafes and ashtrays — repositories of popular culture, not high culture. (For the Frenchmen and women disposing of these quotidian objects, elevated in this culture and thus immune to their inherent charm for the budding Francophile, they were just junk cluttering up the attic.) Today at Christie’s, at estimated prices some of which are not much higher than what I paid for those carafes, one can acquire a morsel of the most important literary legacy in modern French history.

hugo five jerseyLot 26: “Jersey & Guernesey.” Two private albums with views of Guernesey and Jersey, and one on Venice. Est. 2,000-3,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo six chimney and leopoldineLot 174: Left: Victor Hugo (1802-1885), “Project for a chimney in the dining room at Hauteville House.” Brown wash. 278 x 228 mm. Est. 8,000-12,000 Euros. Right: Lot 161: Victor-Marie Hugo, “Portrait of Léopoldine, profile, or Fracta Juventus.” Pencil. 122 x 70 mm. Hugo’s daughter was just 19 years old when she passed away in 1843. Est. 2,000-3,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

But before they’re dispersed, let’s return these souvenirs one last time to the hearth of Jean and Lauretta Hugo in Mas de Fourques, as recalled and evoked by their children (in an introduction to the Christie’s catalog for this sale), the great-great-grandchildren of the Great Man:

“On winter nights, our father would get a book from the shelves and, seated near the chimney of the large library, a monocle fixed under his eyebrow, read us poems. We’d listen without budging, our large children’s eyes posed on him. The verses transported us to shipwrecks, skies, pits, valleys filled up with the songs of birds: ‘Oceano Nox,’ ‘Stella,’ ‘Booz asleep.’

“At the end of the evening, we’d leave the library to return to our rooms, but not before pausing for a long while before Saint Antoine, a painting previously stowed in the black cabinet of Hauteville House. This painting, close to the universe of Bosch, fascinated us. Naked bodies, buttocks in the air, suspended from tree branches, a character emerging from an earthenware jar, a bird with a long beak, a big fish with an arm running on muscled legs, a sort of inverted siren…. Alone in our rooms, our imaginations took flight in our dreams.

“Today, at the dawn of the millennium, the sale dispersing the souvenirs conserved in the family for so many years opens to present generations a day newly illuminated by this past.”

The idea could apply to the writings of Victor Hugo themselves. In “La vie devant soi” (All of Life Before You; Editions Mercure de France, Paris, 1975), written by Romain Gary under the pen name Emile Ajar, the adolescent narrator befriends an old man who sits in front of his Belleville apartment building every day. Even as the man starts to lose his memory, he clings to two books, his guides in life: In the one hand, the Koran; in the other, “Monsieur Hugo.”

hugo seven profile and judgeLeft: Lot 166: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Veiled profile.” Brown wash. 315 x 206 mm. Est. 3,000-5,000 Euros. Right: Lot 159: Victor-Marie Hugo, “Caricature of a Judge Wearing a Hat.” Brown wash. Est. 1,500 – 2,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo eight caricatures women's visagesLot 170: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Caricatures: Two visages of women.” Pen and ink and brown wash. Est. 2,500-3,500 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo nine always cryingLot 175: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Celui-ci pleurait toujours” (This one is always crying or is still crying). Brush, brown wash. Est. 8,000-12,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo ten jean hugo faustLot 359: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Faust Magicien,” 1929. 31 painted glass plaques for a magic lantern by Jean Hugo, eight other glass plaques by Jean Hugo, and one other plaque showing the reproduction of a Diane Chasseresse painting. Est. 10,000-15,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo eleven jean hugo faust magicianLot 359: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Faust Magicien,” 1929. 31 painted glass plaques for a magic lantern by Jean Hugo, eight other glass plaques by Jean Hugo, and one other plaque showing the reproduction of a Diane Chasseresse painting. Est. 10,000 – 15,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo twelve jean hugo mosquito menLot 389: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Mosquito Men,” circa 1937. Gouache and watercolor on paper. 1 & 2: 8.2 x 13 cm. 3: 11.8 x 15 cm. Est. 1,000-1,500 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo thirteen vallottan the chargeLot 369: Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), “L’Anarchiste” and “La charge” (pictured above). (Vallotton/Goerg 104; 128.) A set of two woodcuts on wove paper, 1892 and 1893, years when anarchism was in vogue in some sectors in France. As with all pieces described in this article/gallery, interested parties should read full lot descriptions and any condition report. Est. 800-1200 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo fourteen riviereLot 371: Henri Riviere (1864-1951), “Le Lavoir au Haut-Trestraou,” 1891. Woodcut in colors with hand-coloring. 24 x 35.6 cm. Like some other Impressionists and post-Impressionists, Riviere was known for emulating the style of Japanese prints of the epoch. Est. 500-700 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo fifteen vallotton seaLot 372 Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), “La Mer,” 1893. (Vallotton Goerg 112.) Woodcut, signed in pencil. Est. 800-1,200. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo sixteen valentine hugo karsavinaLeft: Lot 315: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), Tamara Karsavina in “The Fire Bird.” Pastel on blue paper. 24.6 x 13 cm. Est. 1,500-2,000 Euros. Right: Lot 311 Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), Tamara Karsavina in “The Golden Rooster.” Charcoal on tracing paper. 31 x 22 cm. Est. 300 – 500 Euros. Both images ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo seventeen valentine hugo karsavina and nijinskyLeft: Lot 307: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), “Nine studies of dancers for Karsavina and Nijinsky.” Pencil on tracing paper. 38 x 27 cm. Est. 600-800 Euros. Right: Lot 306: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), “Four studies for Nijinsky.” Pencil and colored crayon on paper. Largest piece 27 x 21 cm. Est. 600-800 Euros. Both images ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo eighteen valentine hugo sylphidesLot 309: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968). Study for “Les Sylphides.” Pencil on tracing paper. Jean Hugo’s first wife, Valentine was renowned for her sketches of Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and the Ballets Russes. Est. 300-500 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo nineteen valentine hugo cocteau auricLeft: Lot 338: Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), “Portrait of Georges Auric.” Pen, India Ink, and watercolor on paper. 16 x 11 cm. Never mind the impression you might have that one has to be a big spender to collect art by masters; this one is estimated pre-sale at just 100-150 Euros. Imagine! To be able to own for that little a Cocteau, and one depicting Georges Auric, who composed the music for Cocteau’s signature films “The Blood of a Poet,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Orpheus,” as well as John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge,” Max Ophuls’s “Lola Montes,” and Jean Delannoy’s “Notre-Dame de Paris.” Right: Lot 334: Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), “Le Centaure et les femmes.” Pencil on paper. 29 x 23 cm. Est. 1,000-1,500 Euros. Both images ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo twenty cocteau chessLot 332: Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), “The Chess Match, Jean Hugo and Pierre Colle.” India ink on paper. 32 x 21 cm. Est. 2,000-3,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo twenty-one jean hugo maries tour eiffelLeft: Lot 357: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Study for a tapestry intended for a fire screen for the Vicount de Noailles,” dated and inscribed on the reverse, 1929. Gouache on paper. 20.5 x 18 cm. Right: Lot 388A: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Three characters for ‘Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel,’ play by Jean Cocteau.” Three pieces. Above piece titled ‘A Director’ at lower right. Gouache on paper. 29.5 x 22 cm. Est. 5,000-7.000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.