(Updated 6 p.m. French time)What’s wrong with this picture? In the Heart of Darkness with Marcel Gromaire and the ‘Humanists,’ or, Pour quoi nous ne sommes pas tous Princesse Tam-Tam

gromaire abolitionThe press packet for the exhibition Marcel Gromaire, l’Elegance de la Force, theoretically on view through Sunday at the Piscine in the Northern French city of Roubaix after earlier runs in Sete and Honfleur, describes the massive fresque “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” (above), commissioned by the State in 1949 to commemorate the 1848 abolition of slavery in France and celebrate its primary government instigator, undersecretary of state Victor Schoelcher (at right) and Marianne, the icon of French democracy (at left), as a ‘humanist’ composition. And yet an even cursory study of the picture, whose original measures 40 square meters, suggests a more nuanced interpretation: the Black (naked) savages liberated by the benevolent white bwanas. I’m of course not calling into question either Marianne or Schoelcher themselves, both laudable, voir heroic and justifiably lionized figures, but specifically questioning the hierarchy in Gromaire’s composition, his depiction of the Black personages (more the men than the women, whose curves and bare breasts are typical to Gromaire women of any color, and about which you won’t find this misogynist complaining, in fact it’s part of the allure for me of the painter who up until now has been my favorite) and their supplicating postures, and thus the painting’s qualifications as ‘humanist.’ This over-simplification — and apportioning of the roles of victim and liberator — is not unique to French artists. Abraham Lincoln was also mythologized (including by Black artists) as the savior of Black people, as if the Civil War were fought only for their freedom. More troubling is that in reality, by 1949, 100 years after their liberation on paper, Blacks were far from free from racialist denigration by French writers and artists (as was also the case in the United States, where the consequences were more lethal) . (I prefer the term ‘racialist’ to ‘racist,’ which implies a malevolent intention which isn’t necessarily always there; I myself was — and am — racialist when it comes to my idea of Black men. I don’t know if I’ll ever rectify this in my heart; all I can do is try to correct it in my deeds and writings.) Already, in 1935, a French film director, Edmond T. Greville, could make a movie (also released in the U.S.) starring Josephine Baker, “Princess Tam-Tam,” which, notwithstanding its American star’s enjoying more civil rights in France than she would have in her native country (let alone not risking being shot in her own home, as was a young Black woman in my former home city Fort Worth, Texas, not too long ago), terminates with Baker, portraying a ‘native’ that the ‘cultivated’ white novelist has ultimately been unable to civilize (for much of the movie he appears to have done so, until he wakes up to realize this was just a dream, and not of the Martin Luther King Jr. variety), smiling approvingly as the monkey she’s let into the Tunisian villa the white man’s left her knocks over a shelf of books and a jackass gobbles up a tome called “Civilization.” (Returning home from a pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis in 2019, in the corridor of the City Hall Metro station I spotted a billboard for a line of lingerie — in which only one of the half-dozen scantily clad models was moderately dark-skinned — announcing “Nous sommes tous Princesse Tam-Tam,” “We are all Princess Tam-Tam.” When I later asked an employee of the brand’s boutique — ironically flanking the entrance to the Montmartre space of the Theatre de la Ville, lately known for presenting a number of dance companies from Africa — the origin of the name, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”) In 1957 — eight years after Gromaire’s monumental work was unveiled in the l’Assemblée de l’Union française in the château of Versailles — Léo Malet, the father of the Modern French detective novel, could have his hero PI / narrator Nestor Burma observe, in “Micmac Moche au Boul’Mich’,” part of Malet’s “New Mysteries of Paris” series (later made into a popular television show): “They say that Negros diffuse a particular smell….” In 2006, the Paris Opera Ballet could present, in the august Garnier Palace, a ballet by its former director, Serge Lifar, in which white male dancers covered with black make-up portrayed ‘savages’ leaping about like gorillas. These racial stereotypes — and if anything they were and still are as if not more widespread in the United States, and with much more vehemence in certain states, than in France — are not benign. Far from being ‘humanistic,’ they vehicle a dehumanization of the Black man and woman which ultimately leads to events (because they are depicted as less than fully human) like the recent stalking and murder of a Black man in Georgia and Monday’s murder in Minneapolis of a Black man named George Floyd, whose stifled cries of “I can’t breathe” did not convince a white police officer to take his knee off Floyd’s throat, as three other officers allegedly stood by. (I’m NOT saying the 1949 painting lead to the 2020 slaying, but rather that its one-dimensional depiction of Black people is part of a long, ongoing history by Occidental, white artists and writers of reducing people because of their race which makes it easier to not see them as fully human.) Among the tributes at an impromptu memorial to Floyd deposited on a Minneapolis sidewalk was this handwritten sign: “I’m not black but I see you.” The problem with Marcel Gromaire’s “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” — and which makes it more dehumanizing than ‘humanist’ — is that while he sees the white re-enfranchisers, he doesn’t really see the liberated Black men and women as anything but helpless victims completely reliant on their previous enslavors for their liberation, his one-dimensional depictions ultimately denying them their franchise as fully realized human beings. (To those who would defend Malet by saying that his, or at least his hero-narrator’s, views on Blacks are just a reflection of the times — I say ‘are’ because the novel with that description of Blacks was proudly re-published by Robert Laffont in 1985, with no exculpatory note by editor Francis Lacassin — I would answer with Eugene Sue. In Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris,” written a hundred years earlier and whose title inspired Malet, by far the noblest character is an African-American physician from Louisiana, Dr. Paul, who has a crisis of conscience when the hero, his employer, barbarically orders him to pierce the eyes of the saga’s villain as an alternative to sending him to prison. There are none so blind as those who will not see.) The press pack for the Rubaix exhibition also quotes Gromaire, while he was working in his ‘hangar’ on his ‘great machine,’ as confessing, “I’ll be happy… […] [to] find out if I succeed in revitalizing painting by official commission; let Delacroix protect me!” The invocation is unfortunate; despite the reputation he has for inspiring the original sin of Orientalism, the sketches Delacroix made when he accompanied an official French diplomatic delegation to North Africa in the 1830s were much more respectful than Gromaire’s results here, unafflicted by any Romanticism — negative or positive. What ultimately bothers me in the hierarchy of Gromaire’s composition — and prompts me to dispute the painting’s claim to a great ‘humanism’ — is his perspective: “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” doesn’t so much fete that milestone as canonize the cagers for simply deciding to open up the cage and free those who should never have been enchained in the first place, in the process freeing themselves. Painting credits: Marcel Gromaire, “L’Abolition de l’esclavage (detail),” 1950. Oil on canvas pasted on wood. Commissioned by the State; deposited at the Centre national des arts plastiques in 1991. Photo: A. Loubry – © ADAGP, Paris 2020. George Floyd tribute seen on the website of The Progressive. — Paul Ben-Itzak

PS: Speaking of Delacroix: To make sure it’s absolutely clear that the target of my criticism in the Gromaire painting is not Marianne, but rather the relative importance of the roles the painter assigns to her and to the Black personages in their liberation, I’ve decided to also share a reproduction of Eugene Delacroix’s 1831 painting “Liberty Guiding the People.” Note that here the Marianne-like figure isn’t *liberating* the people, but rather *leading* them; they are active players in their own liberation from oppression.

Le 28 juillet 1830 : la Liberté guidant le peupleEugene Delacroix, “Liberty Guiding the People,” 1831. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

It’s my birthday, and I’ll rant if I want to

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

“Il est vilain, il n’ira pas au paradis,
celui qui décède sans avoir réglé tous
ses comptes.” (He’s wretched, he won’t go to heaven, he who dies without having settled his scores.)

— Almanach des Bons-Enfants, cited by Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

“There are many forms of confinement. The worse is fear.”

— PB-I

Let’s start in our strictly verbal, non-violent settling of scores (this being the Internet, precision is important to avoid misunderstanding) with the professors who profess to teach a discipline anchored in the Humanities — in other words, to imbue humanistic values in their charges — in the Comparative Literature Studies program of Northwestern University, specifically the “graduate committee.” Among other requirements, the PhD program to which I’d been invited to apply last fall (by invited, I mean that the committee agreed to consider my other accomplishments in lieu of a completed undergraduate degree) expects admitted PhD candidates to read about 50 heavy-duty books, largely though not exclusively in ‘critical theory,’ in the course of about three months (happening to coincide with their summer vacations). (Thus calling for what is apparently known in academic circles these days as “close reading.” Not.) Now, my first question when learning of this intellectual and critical Rubicon — appetizing as the lists looked (one gets to choose between several rubrics, and one can add up to seven titles of one’s own choosing to each of the two lists selected) — was, How the Sam Hill do they expect their students to actually retain any of these wonderful lessons and questions and treatises, from philosophers including Benjamin, Arendt, and Adorno, at a clip of three to four tomes per week?  (On which intensive oral exams follow.) Well campers (or gang, as the noted philosopher Jean Shepherd, who wasn’t but should have been on at least one of the lists, given the expertise and interests of a professor who would have been one of my advisors), I discovered the answer when those crumbs refused to grant me a lousy eight-day extension to complete the application and related essays (they already had the letters from two of my three “recommenders,” and I’d already given the graduate director and at least one other professor a good idea of my potential doctoral research projects, notably a cross-cultural study of artists and writers who have committed suicide and a study of Jean Sénac, the pied-noir poet and Camus disciple who ultimately chose the side of the ‘indigenes’ during the Algerian War, elected to stay there after independance, and  bravely ‘came out’ in explicit ‘corps-poems’ while still living among that conservative culture before being assassinated a la Pasolini in 1973) and complex project descriptions to which I’d devoted most of the previous three months so that I could mourn my father, who died December 7, a death I only learned of December 10 because I’d spent the previous week-end holed up working on my application essays and off e-mail. (I’m too poor, finance-wise, to afford a telephone.) Evidently, when the members of this graduate committee were doing their own PhD program speed-intellectual/critically theoretical dating tour through those 50 books, they must have skipped over the part where Adorno explains — in a German radio exchange — that education is the ideal tool for debarbarization (if it’s not barbaric — i.e., non-humanistic — to deny someone an eight-day extension so that he can mourn his father, I don’t know what is), and the part where Arendt talks about the banality of evil. No, I’m NOT calling the members of the Northwestern University Comparative Literature Studies program graduate committee mini-Eichmanns but rather pointing out that Arendt’s uber-subject (I was studying “Eichmann in Jerusalem” before many of those professors’ expectant mothers were even playing recordings of College de France lectures next to their pregnant tummies to make them what they should have been) was the comportment of those whose defense of repugnant acts is that they were just following orders. In Northwestern’s case, I was essentially told by the graduate director that the system made an extension problematic, specifically that the round-robin candidate elimination process or whatever they call it  would have already progressed too far after eight days, to paraphrase the excuse he gave me. In other words, I may well have thought I was in Evanston, but I was actually in the meat-packing / abattoir district of nearby Chicago, assembly-line processing method-wise, up merde’s creek with neither Upton Sinclair nor even his alter-ego Arthur Stirling anywhere in sight to come to my rescue, the various projects about which I’d spoken to various NU CLS professors just so much cerebrum carcass blood on the library floor. (As the noted turntable philosopher Fat-Boy Slim might have put it.)

Oh and I almost left out the crummiest part of the non-humanistic behavior of these crumbs who profess to give lessons in a humanistic discipline: I made the extension request immediately I learned that my father had died — specifically, December 10. (The deadline was the 12th. As I noted earlier, my father died December 7 but I only learned of his death December 10 as I was holed up working on my PhD program application until then.) But these crumbs waited until that deadline had passed to refuse my request for an extension through December 18 — in other words, until it was too late for me to do anything about it.

As I told the graduate representative or director, whatever his title is (I should have flaired the guiding optic of the graduate committee and perhaps whole CLS program when he kept using the word ‘strategic’ to advise me on how to handle various aspects of my application, albeit with good intentions) in response, if my father had to die, I’m thankful he timed it in such a way as to spare me from spending five years surrounded by people like you. Shame on you, you hypocrites.

Protected: Le Feuilleton (the Serial): (English translation followed by V.O. française) Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris, Part 14: Anti-Semitism rears its concrete head in the Abstract art World (Subscriber-only content; to learn how to subscribe, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

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