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By André Levinson
Copyright Librairie Bloud & Gay, Paris, 1924
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak
(Excerpted from “La Danse au Théâtre,” which assembles Levinson’s critical articles published between April 1922 and April 1923, for the most part in the Paris daily Comoedia, here from a December 11, 1922 piece entitled “The Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns,” with the sub-heading “The Trial of Isadora Duncan.”)
Certainly, Isadora Duncan is guilty as charged. She was the grand switch operator who redirected dance onto a dead-end track and made it derail. Her enthusiastic brand of Hellenism à la headmistress produced unprecedented ravages. Her musical dilettantism grew into a rage of epidemic proportions. “Rise, Lazarus, and dance!” clamored the American demagogue. And a thousand young women suddenly declared themselves dancers. An army surged around Isadora, an international brigade of the barefooted. With the great stamping of her large naked feet she makes Beethoven jump, Chopin run, Gluck trot. Proclaimed the redeemer of the body, which she emancipates from all the conventional shackles, she enters in the Pantheon. Bringing with her, it’s claimed, a re-birth.
I have a dear friend in Russia, one of the country’s most subtle critics. An intelligence that I call gourmontienne* and a pure sensibility inhabiting a sickly and deformed body. Disabled, he drags himself along laboriously with the aid of a crutch and a cane. Well, this man was transported to such a degree by the Duncanian “miracle” that he declared her art to be “the means for all of us to become beautiful.”
Without doubt, the personality of the dancer herself has a lot to do with this infatuation, or rather this idolatry. Without any particular physical beauty, with her figure recalling a kindly school-marm, her torso lacking any suppleness, her feet flattened out and widened by two decades of naked stomping on the planks, Isadora nonetheless has been able to preserve a certain plastic prestige. Her gestures are sober, at times evocative. And if her musicality seems doubtful and approximate, she has the gift of fecund emotions. Her practically non-existent technique can be assimilated in 24 hours by just about any dancer. Her audacity, on the other hand, is incommensurate, genial. Her pupils and imitators are innumerable; to imitate her one has no need of audacity!
Nevertheless, Isadora might have been useful to dance: useful like a good old-fashioned fire is useful for the beautification of a neighborhood.
When Isadora appeared on the scene, dance had been languishing for 20 years. Classical dancers continued their arduous task in a complete moral isolation; artists and poets had lost interest in this grand tradition. And all that was left of the not so distant past of the incomparable kingdom of the ballerina’s court — of which Théophile Gautier, Jules Janin, Théodore de Banville, Stéphane Mallarmé, Gavarni and Lamy had been the reigning dignitaries — were the last remnants of some decrepit members. Even if the handful of simple-minded and upright true believers, gifted with good instincts, who knew how to maintain, despite and against all the others, their unshakeable conviction and keep their metier intact were admirable. Because being a ballerina, only a few years ago, was a perilous distinction.
Well, it was Isadora who brought the masses back to dance, who created a new audience for it. She knew how to promote a vast surge of opinion. One which is not going away, however much she uses her very real power to inculcate deplorable and paltry concepts, and nurtures false sensibilities among this public. Thanks to her, those who have come to clear the terrain and reconstruct will not be operating in a void. And it’s thus that the fruits of her efforts, negative as they may have been, appear considerable and propitious.
*A reference to the journalist and critic Remy de Gourmont (1858 – 1915), known for his vast erudition. In 1889, was one of the co-founders of the new Mercure de France, to which he almost exclusively devoted his literary efforts after being diagnosed with Lupus. Gourmont also worked for the French Bibliothèque Nationale.
Édouard Manet illustration for Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), and Édouard Manet (1832-1883), “Le Corbeau, The Raven: poëme,” Paris, Richard Lesclide, 1875. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 40,000-60,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
If ever proof was needed that the tastes of private collectors are more adventurous and archeologically enterprising than those of most museum curators/marketers, a comparison of current marquee exhibitions at three major Paris museums and an auction of relatively modest ambitions — Artcurial’s Thursday Books and Manuscripts sale in Paris — provide it.
At the Louvre, the first major Paris exhibition devoted to Delacroix in 55 years (running through July 28) seems less ambitious than a pair of simple but vivid Delacroix water-colors (of costumes for an early Victor Hugo drama) offered by Artcurial, France’s leading auction house, a couple of years back. Most of the reproductions of available press visuals make it hard to distinguish the master’s from any other musty parlor paintings that might have been hauled down from the attic. (Which is hopefully where the Louvre’s been storing them, what with the increasingly recurrent flooding of the Seine that make its basement storage problematic.) Meanwhile, over in the toney 16th arrondissement on the cusp of the Boulogne woods, the Marmottan Monet museum has decided to show the least flattering side of Camille Corot, displaying not the nature studies which made him a pioneer in outdoor painting who blazed the trail for the Impressionists (some of whom, notably Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot, took their first lessons in color values in Corot’s studio off the rue de Paradis), but his portraits, which, except for the ultimate, the 1874 Lady in Blue, belong back in the 18th century with their visages hard to distinguish from one to the other. (And I’m still waiting for someone to explain what those swastikas are doing etched on the bindings of the books in back of the Lady.) And the curators at the Orangerie museum in the Tuilerie Gardens are treating as a revelation the influence of Monet’s later Water Lillies and Japanese Bridge studies on certain American abstract painters, a connection which is plain to anyone who’s ever seen Monet’s twilight paintings in their permanent home at the Marmottan.
Into this breach of (mostly public) institutional imagination steps, once again, Artcurial, furnishing more artistic revelations than all these museum exhibitions combined — and this in an auction whose putative primary focus isn’t even art, but literature.
So while museums (around the world, not just in France) are treating as clever novelty the pairing of contemporary creators with the ancients, often by drawing nebulous neo-extrapalatory connections, Artcurial, by contrast, in just this one moderate-scale auction shows us vastly more interesting literary-painterly connections than even I, with my over-exposition to and immersion in art, knew existed. Specifically: Edgar Allen Poe / Stéphane Mallarmé with Edouard Manet; Fernand Léger with the gallivanting Blaise Cendrars; Guillaume Apollinaire with Robert Delaunay; André Breton with Pierre Molinier; Paul Eluard with Oscar Dominguez; Horace and the sculptor Aristide Maillol; and Anatole Le Braz with Mathurin Méheut, the Breton-born official painter of the Marine, whose sketches of what Hugo called “the workers of the sea” recall the realism of his Breton contemporary, the film-maker Jean Epstein. And these are just the highlights; I’ve left out literary-artistic collaborations in which I don’t know the literary work well enough to do the collaboration justice.
But enough ranting; let’s get to the literary art collaborations.
I’d just barely finished drying my tears at dropping the already heavy petanque ball and missing Artcurial’s Illustrated Books sale when the catalog for Books and Manuscripts arrived on my doorstep somewhere in the southwest of France Thursday.
Édouard Manet illustration for Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) , Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), and Édouard Manet (1832-1883), “Le Corbeau, The Raven: poëme,” Paris, Richard Lesclide, 1875. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 40,000-60,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.
If you thought you had nothing left to learn about Edouard Manet, you probably haven’t yet heard about his drawings for the Paris publisher Richard Lesclide’s 1875 edition of “Le Corbeau, The Raven: poëme,” doubly-titled because Edgar Allen Poe’s original is doubled by Stéphane Mallarmé’s translation. (Realizing that Poe was translated by Mallarmé and Faulkner — “Requiem for a Nun” — translated *and* dramatized by Camus is enough to make any budding translator wonder if he has the literary balls for this work.)
The original edition on sale by Artcurial (one of 150 printed on Holland paper) includes four large lavis in black ink drawings hors-texte and autographed and two large black vignettes (the raven’s head on the first cover plate and the wings spread over the ex-libris). It’s signed by Mallarmé and Manet, with the four illustrations printed on China paper, and inscribed by Mallarmé to Léonie Madier de Montjau, a witness at the writer’s wedding with Christina Maria Gerhard and, later, his neighbor on the rue de Rome in Paris, near the Gare St.-Lazare.
Fernand Léger illustration for Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961) & Fernand Léger (1881-1955), “La Fin du monde filmée par l’Ange N.-D. Paris,” Éditions de la Sirène, 1919. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 1,500-2 000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.
France’s answer to Hemingway, if Blaise Cendrars’s 1913 collaboration with Sonia Terk Delaunay, “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France,” illustrated and designed as a vertical accordion poem, is well-known, Cendrars’s 1919 “La Fin du monde filmée par l’Ange N-D” (The end of the world filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame) was not known to me until I opened up the Artcurial catalog to behold Léger’s illustration, one of 22 featured in this the second book he designed for the author (after “J’ai tué,” I have killed, in 1918). Here’s the translation of the text in the pages we’re sharing:
“God the Heavenly Father is at his American-style desk, hastily signing innumerable papers. He’s in his shirt-sleeves, his eyes covered by a green printer’s shade. He gets up, lights up a fat cigar, looks at his watch, nervously paces back and forth in his office, chewing on his cigar. He sits down again at his desk, feverishly pushes away….”
André Breton (1896-1966) & Pierre Molinier (1900-1976), “Poèmes.” Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 8,000-10,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.
The surprise of the auction, in more ways than one, is Pierre Molinier’s contribution to Breton’s “Poems,” published by Gallimard in 1948, one of 23 examples on Hollande paper, and one of three not released for sale, all marked “A.” In other words, this is Breton’s own copy, enriched by an original lead pencil drawing monogrammed by Molinier, “Hotel des Etincelles” (Sparkles Hotel). Apparently the Surrealist-in-Chief had slipped the drawing neatly into the book next to the poem of the same name — so subtly that the last time it was sold at auction, in 2003, the auction house didn’t even notice the Molinier work. (En quoi de nourrir every amateur art collector’s fancy to find a previously unreconnoitered Picasso secreted by Cocteau into his personal copy of “Les parents terribles.”)
As for Mathurin Méheut, as Artcurial puts it in the catalog, the 71 China ink drawings, enhanced with gouache before being engraved in wood for the book, and 72 additional illustrations created in watercolor, sanguine, charcoal, colored pencil, and other mediums for G. & A. Mornay’s two-volume 1923 publication of Le Braz’s “Le Gardien du feu” (The Fire Guard), constitute, “by the variety of techniques employed,” and subjects treated, a veritable testament to the unique and fecund oeuvre of the great Breton artist, official painter of the Marine, decorator of ships, ceramist, and book illustrator.
Above (all five): Mathurin Méheut, illustrations for Anatole Le Braz (1859-1926) et Mathurin Méheut (1882-1958), “Le Gardien du feu,” Paris, G. & A. Mornay, 1923. Two volumes. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 120,000-150,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.