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.

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Skin Games — Katherine Dunham’s Documentaries in Paris; Lauwers’s Racialist Stereotypes in Seine-Saint-Denis

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on February 10, 2005, this piece is re-published today because incredibly enough given the community’s multi-cultural population, Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room” has been programmed for April at the theater MC93 in the Paris suburb of Bobigny in the county of Seine-Saint-Denis. (Perhaps the brilliant curators who thought up this idea can sell “Tintin in the Congo,” featuring Belgium’s most famous ambassador, in the gift shop. What they really should do is book-end Lauwers’s piece with Dunham’s more noble — and authentic — enterprise.) Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by subscribing or 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. Subscribe to the DI/AV for one year for just $36 ($21 for students) and get full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances and exhibitions from around the world by 150 critics. Paul Ben-Itzak is also available for French to English translating assignments and for DJing as MC World Beat.

PARIS — A colleague who’s also seen Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room,” a.k.a. “La chambre d’Isabella,” tells me he thinks the “‘quaint racial language is appropriate for the historic moment Lauwers was recreating.” Another respected colleague, the New York Times’s Margo Jefferson, sees merely pretension where I see tired racial stereotyping inherited from Colonialism. Reflecting on the needcompany dance-theater-music work, seen Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, I can see the bases for both these opinions, and I wouldn’t take my colleagues to the mat on them. Yet while Lauwers’s bombastic work (in general) often seems pretentious, it is also intentionally provocative. So I think a visceral response to this visceral approach is valid. (And if Lauwers can dish it out, he should certainly be able to take it.) Here’s mine, recorded a couple of hours after the performance, followed by some reflections on the work’s thin dance content and on cultural appropriation and exploitation. Then we’ll finish with the tonic of authenticity, revisiting Katherine Dunham’s early documentaries of Haiti and the Caribbean.

It is past two in the morning here in Paris, and I should be asleep. But I am restlessly pacing. I am on edge because tonight at the Theatre de la Ville – SARAH BERNHARDT (whose corps at Pere Lachaise must surely be restless these days), the Belgian director-playwright and putative choreographer Jan Lauwers used his considerable dramatic gifts to suck me into a world where, before I knew it, I was hit with residual Belgian colonial racialism, grandmother-to-minor grandson incest/rape (at least that’s what they’d call it in the States), and a generally unremitting nihilism.

Perhaps — perhaps — there are hints of hope among the despair. Perhaps, as in the work of other tragedians, the darkness is meant to set off the light. But how are we supposed to discern these signs through the barrage of blatant racialism and pointless violence? How am I to see anything but racialism when Lauwers gives us a heroine who, we’re told, was impregnated by a Black (I think the word Negro was used) performer on the Place Pigalle whose trick was that he could make his “erect p**** *** just by concentrating on it”? (The asterisks are mine, not an external censor’s; just because Lauwers has desecrated Sarah Bernhardt’s stage with this filth doesn’t mean we need to desecrate our pages.) How am I to find an island of hope on a stage whose dominating scenery is what we’re told is a “giant African penis,” on which the heroine hangs her gold necklace and lighter? How am I NOT to perceive racialism in a scenic environment which, in its blithe use and display of (what we’re told are) African artifacts, is probably committing at least one sacrilege, and has made me complicit in a sort of cultural violation? How did I feel regarding this in a sea of white faces? How did I feel when these fellow spectators giggled at the evocation of black p**** tricks?

I know, I know, I hear some of you saying: You dope, he’s not being racialist, he’s COMMENTING on racialism and Colonialism. I just don’t buy it. Jan Lauwers works in a milieu — Belgium — where one can still find vestiges of the Colonial attitude towards Blacks in mainstream postcard shops peddling images of them (thick lips, bug eyes) that make “Birth of a Nation” seem like it was produced by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In this context, the similar signposts in “Isabella’s Room” make it hard to receive this work as anything but racialist, nihilistic garbage.

lauwers oneNeedcompany in Jan Lauwers’s “La Chambre d’Isabella” (Isabella’s Room). Photo copyright Eveline Vanassche and courtesy MYRA.

It doesn’t help that Lauwers starts off with the often-mocking presentation of a variety of African artifacts, apparently, we’re told, “collected” by his late father. (The question of Colonial expropriation of such artifacts is not broached.) Perhaps he’s mocking the mockers, but what exactly gives him the right to expropriate another culture’s ceremonial objects for his own ceremonies? Especially given Belgium’s brutal colonial history.

“Isabella’s Room” is also advertised — at least in Paris — as a dance spectacle, and when it comes to integrating dance into his theatrical works, Lauwers hasn’t made much progress since the 1999 “Morning Song.” Jefferson, in her Times review, postulates that the dance here serves the same end as the songs, to “echo the characters’ conscious thoughts and unconscious dreams.” I don’t see this; I can find neither comment, interpretation, nor even counterpoint here; just aimless noodling, which might as well have been created outside of the text, in which the individual performers appear to have been left to their own devices, the choreography often devolving into what Jefferson accurately calls “Merce Cunningham and WIlliam Forsythe cast-offs.”

Except for six hours which she spends there in a vain attempt to save the life of her grandson Frank, the Isabella of the title in Lauwers’s piece is an Africa-fancying white anthropologist who never makes it to Africa. Katherine Dunham, by contrast, is an African-American interpreter of Afro-Caribbean dance — with Pearl Primus, the U.S.’s first — who began her career by traversing the Caribbean, on a Rosenwald fellowship, with a camera. Three of the resultant 1936 documentaries, “Trinidad,” “Haiti,” and “Jamaica and Martinique” were recently screened by the Centre Pompidou here in Paris, part of a festival on voyaging women documentary makers of the ’20s through ’60s.

All three films are brief but effective time capsules of the subject countries. “Trinidad” is the most purely dance document, capturing what looks (to this untrained eye) like a Vodun-like dance with its own vocabulary — one of the vocabularies that Dunham would go on to interpret in her concert form. (What a formidable example of scholarly rigor for contemporary choreographers who have the audacity to adapt a given ethnic style after taking only a few classes in it!) A vocabulary it clearly is, with one older woman, back curved, stomach contracted, seen to be drilling a snappy younger man in his footwork as a circle watches.

“Haiti” is a 15-minute masterpiece of a portrait and travelogue; one can almost feel the young Dunham falling in love with the country that still, nearly 70 years later, plays a central role in her life and work. She begins with a panorama of coastal mountains dominated by what look like the remnants of colonial fortresses. There’s also a cock-fight, in which she follows the flying fowl, then zooms in on a smartly attired man clipping his bird’s toe-nails. Eventually we’re taken — as if we were watching it from behind the barricades — to what could be a Carnival parade. Some of the participants are clad simply in their Sunday finest, some wear large masks in the shape of animal heads, others full-body costumes; two Carnival queens greet their ‘subjects’ from floats. Most are, to one extent or another, dancing, from the sharp dresser to the fluent four-year-old on whom Dunham trains her camera for a couple of minutes.

What emerges — aided by more recent musical field recordings which have been layered onto this silent film — is a poignant memory of Haiti just after the 1934 evacuation of U.S. troops. It’s perhaps a bittersweet memory in light of the U.S.’s recent intervention to help depose Haiti’s democratically elected President Aristide, but the filmmaker, at least, provides a much-needed model of an ambassador from our country who casts a curious eye, not a pointed finger at the rest of the world.

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.

(To receive the full article, as well as access our complete coverage of the Paris artistic community’s response to the November 13, 2015 attacks and our Archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 critics of performances and exhibitions from around the world since 1999, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36 by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check.)

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

(Like what you’re reading? Please make a donation to the DI & AV today by designating  your payment through PayPal to: paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Publisher Paul Ben-Itzak is also looking for an exchange — translation and editing services, communications, website management, arts consulting, DJing, theater teaching, English tutoring or other professional services for lodging — in Paris so that the DI/AV can further augment its arts and cultural coverage, and so that he can receive vital medical care. Please spread the word.)  

“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.

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