To demonstrate how the Abstract Art of which Michel Ragon was one of the first champions is very much a living tradition, where possible the Dance Insider / Paris Tribune are including art from current or recent exhibitions with our exclusive, first-ever English-language serialization of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’oeil.” Above, from last year’s exhibition at the Galerie Berthet- Aittouarès (in, bien sur, Saint-Germain-des-Prés): Vera Molnar, “Montparnasse d’après Klee en bleu vert et rouge,” 2006. © Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès.
Part 10 in the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of Abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first nine parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here. To learn how to support our work, e-mail email@example.com . To support us through PayPal, just designate your donation to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Fifteen days later, in the throes of correcting the proofs of the second issue, Fontenoy felt a sudden surge of discouragement. Blanche was working in her atelier at the Cité Falguière. He dropped everything and went to see his companion.
Walking down the Boulevard Montparnasse, he took stock of the results of the first issue of the revue. It was too soon to draw any conclusions, but he had the impression of hurtling against a wall. Like Manhès, what had pleased him about this adventure was the battle to come, the possibility of finally saying in print everything he’d been stifling about this conspiracy against the movement of painting that he loved. This revue would be a little bomb which would go off in the midst of the conformists, the cabals. They’d be forced to respond to so many specific accusations. But neither L’Artiste, nor Le Figaro, nor any other newspaper had yet noted, even with two measly lines, the new revue’s existence. Everything continued just as it had been, as if the revue didn’t exist at all. Some booksellers in Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Prés had put it in their windows. Its successful launch depended on them, and on eventual subscriptions in response to the comp. copies that had been sent out.
Blanche was flattened out on her stomach on the divan, working on a water-color. Fontenoy plopped down next to her. In the atelier, numerous water-colors had been framed behind glass, ready for the imminent exhibition.
“You know,” she remarked, continuing to paint, “it’s no laughing-matter to try to get the bookshops to sell the revue….”
“I know. But it’s the only way to spread the word.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You made the rounds of the art bookshops that you know well, and that know you. No problem. You leave the copies on consignment and they say thanks. But me, I hit the other bookshops. You have no idea how they react. Some don’t accept consignments as a matter of sheer principle. They tell me: ‘When you come back to pick up the unsold copies, they’ve disappeared under a pile. They can’t be found and we have to pay you anyway. Two months later they surface and are unsellable. No no, no consignments.’ ‘Okay, so buy a fixed number of issues.’ ‘You must be joking. We’re inundated as it is!’ And those are the nice ones. Others take a quick look, disabusedly shrug their shoulders, and say no. Some pick up the revue, leaf through it, and burst out in guffaws: ‘Ah! Cool, it’s a take-off? I get it — very clever…. But our customers won’t get it at all.’ I was, however, able to place a few copies that were accepted on consignment, begrudgingly, and in those cases most likely because of my gorgeous eyes.”
In a corner of the atelier Fontenoy spotted the pile of rejected revues. He had a sudden spurt of revolt, of anger:
“But how the hell are we supposed to get off the ground if the newspapers give us the silent treatment, if the bookstores refuse consignments, if the subscription drives meet up with nothing but negligence and indifference!?”
Fontenoy perceived that hostility to their cause wasn’t the only factor. The bookstores held themselves above the internecine factional squabbles, but their detached attitude could become just as lethal, if not moreso, as any frontal attacks.
Blanche straightened up her material on the table, cast a last glance at the fresh water-color she’d just finished and came over to sit next to Fontenoy, lacing her plump arms around him.
“Worries, worries, worries! How’s about putting your ‘big ideas’ aside for a moment and getting back to the two of us? Have you finished the preface for my exhibition? What are you planning, for me, in the revue?”
“All that on the other hand is going very well,” Fontenoy responded with lassitude. “Look, I have the text for your preface right here in my pocket. Read through it. For the revue, Rinsbroek will talk about you, it’s preferable.”
“And you won’t put in any of my images?”
“That’ll be up to Rinsbroek.”
“Come again? But what good does it do then to be the editor-in-chief?”
“Rinsbroek wants to talk about you. He’ll say what he judges needs to be said and we’ll publish a reproduction of your work if he considers that you merit it.”
Blanche bit her lip. Fontenoy grasped her tenderly around the waist and kissed her on the temple:
“Listen, Blanche. Don’t get upset. I’m being brutal, but we have much bigger worries these days. Your exhibition will go quite well and in all probability we’ll publish a photo in the revue. Rinsbroek’s article will certainly sing your praises, otherwise he wouldn’t have accepted the assignment. But on principle, I just want to make it clear, once again, that I won’t put any pressure on him. It’s just not comprehensible. It’s as if you’re asking me to employ the very methods in our revue that we’re fighting against when others practice them.”
Blanche didn’t answer. She read over Fontenoy’s handwritten text for the preface:
“How set are you on citing Klee? I know you just mean to use it as a reference, but won’t that just make them think that I imitate him, like all the rest?”
Fontenoy replied, exasperated: “Delete Klee if he bothers you so much!”
Blanche got riled up:
“I like Klee. I don’t deny that. But the reference here just bothers me.”
And she put her dainty little finger on the sheet of paper. “It’s like your phrase: ‘Blanche Favard is an abstract painter who composes with parcels of memory.’ I understand what you’re getting at. My compositions include forms which resemble foliage, even landscapes. I agree. But what will Charles Roy say? The Salon des Réalitiés Nouvelles jury is quite capable of rejecting my submissions under the pretext that they’re Naturalist.”
“So now it’s Charles Roy’s opinion that matters the most to you!?” Fontenoy exclaimed, stupefied.
“I just don’t want to get everyone’s hide up like Manhès.”
“You’ll succeed, Blanche,” Fontenoy re-assured her, thoughtfully. “And what’s more, you’re talented.”
Part nine in the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first eight parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here. To learn how to support our work, e-mail email@example.com . To support us through PayPal, just designate your donation to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Ancelin asked Monsieur Mumphy to help fund the literary and artistic revue to be directed by Fontenoy.
The industrialist attempted to demure, but Ancelin was tenacious. Finally, he secured a commitment to a monthly subsidy, with one stipulation: That Charles Mumphy be mentioned in every issue. Such pretentiousness initially seemed exorbitant and inacceptable to Ancelin:
“At least wait until your son is an actual painter. He’s only 18. What could we possibly write about him now?”
“Well, you can say this!: That he’s only 18 years old and he’s already studying at the Academy of Abstract Art… And anyway, how should I know what you can write about him? That’s Fontenoy’s job, isn’t it? As long as he makes sure that people know that Charles exists, and that he’s studying to become a painter. The sooner we start giving him a little publicity, the better.”
Ancelin accepted, all the while dreading how Manhès and Fontenoy would react. He secured subscription pledges from his various girlfriends and their connections. In sum, thanks to Ancelin’s social dexterity and Manhès’s pocketbook, the revue became a reality. To avoid being indebted to Manhès, Fontenoy invested a chunk of his severance pay from L’Artiste in the enterprise.
From the Arts Voyager archives: Gustave Courbet, “Le jardin de la Mere Toutain a Honfleur,” (Mother Toutain’s garden in Honfleur), 1859-61. Oil.
The first issue shaped up as a veritable manifesto. Fontenoy published his anti-Courbet article, which had been refused by L’Artiste. From this launching pad he extended the debate, denouncing the conspiracy against Abstract Art that had just exploded into a major offensive, with salvos being fired from all quarters. The revue presented a visit to Corato’s atelier in the Montparnasse artist quartier and offered full-page spreads with reproductions of paintings by Corato, Manhès, and Ancelin. Fontenoy enlisted a veteran critic, Rinsbroek — Belgian, of course — to undertake a group study on the new Abstract painting. At 65, Rinsbroek had accomplished the miracle of being able to comprehend a new generation of artists whose tendencies were diametrically opposed to those of the painters of his youth whom he’d championed when they were making their debuts. Such cross-generational prescience is rare. The defenders of Impressionism had greeted Cubism with a bewildered disapprobation, and the pioneers of Cubism had in turn thrown up their hands as a sign of discouragement when confronted with Abstract Art. Parents rarely understand their children, above all those who start taking up ideas that contradict their own, by a kind of instinctive physiological reaction.
Rinsbroek, 65-year-old herald of the new avant-garde, just as he’d been a herald of Cubism at 25, subsisted on very little. His impeccable honesty had been subjected, over the years, to the assault of many a temptation. Considered incorruptible, he’d been let out to pasture by the revues. He was unable to secure either the lucrative text assignments from art book publishers or cultural commissions from the state to curate exhibitions, two sources of honest revenue for art critics. But as long as an art critic maintains his integrity, he gets locked out. If he can’t be bought, he’s gagged. Rinsbroek had been muzzled.
Rinsbroek, who’d been one of the prophets of Cubism, owned only reproductions of work by the painters he’d launched. They’d shown him a perfect ingratitude, particularly when he’d started discovering the “younger” artists. His old friends looked upon this renewal as a betrayal. While bitter, Rinsbroek retained a sufficient stock of enthusiasm to be able to throw himself into a new battle.
Rinsbroek’s study for Fontenoy’s revue tackled the subject of the controversial painters who had become the masters of the art of the contemporary scene: Hartung, Schneider, Soulages, Atlan, Poliakoff, de Staël, Vieira da Silva.
From the recent exhibition at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger in Saint-Germaine des Près: Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “La Garde des anges,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm, Photo © Jean-Louis Losi, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger.
The revue also included poems, essays on music and architecture, and notes and diverse factoids, including this item: “Charles Mumphy, son of the celebrated collector, has enrolled in the Academy of Abstract Art. No one doubts that this young man with a bright future…,” ad nauseum.
In a veritable fever, Fontenoy prepared the issue mailing. Blanche helped him to stick on the wrappers and address the labels for the recipients. The press run not being substantial enough to attract a distributor, they had to mail the magazine out themselves and count strictly on bringing in subscriptions. Copies were also dropped off at any bookstores willing to accept them.
Blanche aided Fontenoy, sulking all the while. She wasn’t happy that no reproductions of her watercolors were featured in the revue.
“I can’t,” Fontenoy explained. “They’d say right away it’s just a magazine for our pals. When you have your exhibition, we’ll devote an essay to you. But right now, it would seem like a buddy system.”
Blanche remained obstinate:
“You have something on Ancelin, so why not me?”
“Please Blanche! We already have worries enough!”
“It’s like Rinsbroek,” Blanche insisted, “why doesn’t he even mention me?”
Fontenoy was tempted to answer that he didn’t mention her because she wasn’t at the same level as the other artists cited by Rinsbroek, but he didn’t dare. He knew that Blanche would be hurt. But also, why the devil didn’t she stay in her place! He remained silent, applying himself to the thankless work of fulfillment clerk. As always in difficult situations, great examples came to his rescue. He recalled a visit that he paid one day to Jean Schlumberger.* The editor had pointed to a corner next to a chimney and explained, “You see the first issues of the N.R.F.* piled up over there? We sent them out from this room. Gide helped me, and Copeau.* We stuck the stamps on and wound the wrappers around them ourselves. After three years of effort, we only had 528 subscribers, of whom Gide forced himself to copy down the lists.”
Over the course of the evening, Ancelin and Manhès dropped by to lend a hand. At midnight, the magazines were ready to ship out. They contemplated the piles with a certain apprehension, as if they were staring at bands of dynamite or land mines.
Copyright 1956, 2020 Michel Ragon. Published by Albin Michel, 1956. Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak.
*The quintessential French literary and critical revue, the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, commonly referred to as the N.R.F. and affiliated with the publisher Gallimard, was founded in 1908 by a group of novelists, critics, and journalists including Jean Schlumberger, André Gide, Jacques Copeau, and André Ruyters.
From the exhibition Degree Zero: Drawing at Mid-century, opening June 21 at the Museum of Modern Art, where it continues through September 19: Karel Appel (Dutch, 1921-2006), “Beast,” 1956. Ink on paper, 9 3/8 x 12 5/8″ (23.8 x 32.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Joan and Lester Avnet Collection. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Van Lennep Producties, Amsterdam. In the latest episode of our serial “Trompe-l’oeil,” Michel Ragon’s roman a clef about the Paris art world in the 1950s, the Abstract painter Manhès observes: “The French are always complaining with a certain rancor about the Americans who swept up all the Impressionist paintings. But they’ve conveniently forgotten that the Impressionists were understood in America from their first exhibition. It will be the same for us. We live in Paris, but our paintings will go to American museums because the French bureaucrats of the Fine Arts administration ridicule our work.” While not French, Karel Appel was one of the Abstract artists Michel Ragon championed.
Part eight in the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first seven parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here. To learn how to support our work, e-mail email@example.com .
Freshly returned from New York, Ancelin took tea at the Mumphys’ pad facing the Luxembourg Gardens. Monsieur Mumphy fawned over Ancelin, showering him with compliments as he did no other artist. These bouquets were destined first and foremost for the general’s son before they arrived at the young painter with a bright future.
No matter; regardless of who he was dealing with, Ancelin always conducted himself with an easy-going manner. His familiarity with the art dealers, the collectors, and even the most reserved of critics had the initial effect of shocking them before convincing them despite themselves to look upon Ancelin as a friend. Thanks initially to the rank of his father, then to his own cheekiness, at just 30 years old Ancelin had built up an address book that many older artists never compiled on their talent alone.
He never addressed an acquaintance by his last name, but always by his first name. His conversation was also laced with enigmas that only the initiated could follow. For example, he might say to Monsieur Mumphy:
“Jean promised to puff me up with Marcel. We had a long interview the other day chez Gaston.”
Translation: “Paulhan promised to sing my praises to Arland. We had a long interview the other day with Gallimard.”
By thus referring to them by their first names, Ancelin eventually convinced
everyone that he was on intimate terms with everyone else — and really did become close to all those who mattered in the art world.
Ancelin had another weapon in his arsenal: women. Not just the worldly women amongst whom his youth and his impertinence sowed bedlam, but all women. If his more or less concealed intimacy with numerous worldly women opened the doors to important collectors, his knack for seduction also exercised its charm on women who were more obscure but just as important to his career: gallery assistants, newspaper employees who made sure to slip a word to an editor. A deft painter who worked swiftly, Ancelin allocated one hour per day to his work and the other 23 to hawking it. He slept too of course, but rarely alone and as he also peopled the dreams of numerous disappointed women the same night, his time was never squandered.
And yet, this patented arrivist was not bereft of all sensitivity, or even outright sentimentality or disinterestedness. His friendships with Manhès and Fontenoy were proof of this.
When he was starting out, Ancelin found a precious support in Manhès, an established and esteemed painter. Fontenoy’s articles helped to launch him. But even today, when he no longer had need of them, he still hung out with the older painter and the journalist. He often defended them, even if these interventions were later held against him.
Young Charles joined his parents for the tea at the Mumphys.’ If the world of painting had been completely foreign to the adolescent as recently as the previous spring, he’d been bitten by the bug since he started taking courses at the Academy of Abstract Art. Bien entendu, he aped the lessons of his teachers.
As Ancelin lingered in front of the wall dedicated to Manhès, studying for the umpteenth time the technique in these paintings, dissecting them with his eyes and always extracting some profit for his own work, Charles Mumphy sashayed over to him and asked:
“What do you think you’ll discover in Manhès? You paint much better than him.”
Ancelin pivoted around, surprised by this chiding.
“Charles,” said Monsieur Mumphy with an air of reproach, “our good friend Ancelin has lots of talent, but after all, Manhès….”
“Manhès is the greatest of us all,” Ancelin cut him off with a certain brusqueness.
“Oh! Don’t exaggerate, don’t exaggerate,” Monsieur Mumphy answered in a jocular tone.
Ancelin walked over to two small water-colors, placed in discrete retreat in a corner.
“How about that! Blanche Favard! You’ve done right to add them to your collection, it’s good work!”
“Kind of you to say, kind of you to say….”
“You know that she’s become Fontenoy’s girlfriend?”
“We know, we know,” Monsieur Mumphy responded, rubbing his hands together and grinning until his face puffed up.
Ancelin approached the wall consecrated to his own paintings. He studied them as minutely as he’d examined Manhès’s tableaux earlier.
“Albert, you should give this one back to me. I’ll touch it up.”
“No, no!” Monsieur Mumphy protested. “Those paintings belong to me.”
Ancelin didn’t insist, but he continued ruefully regarding the incriminating painting.
In addition to his loyalty to his friends, Ancelin had another admirable quality: a professional conscience.
After leaving the Mumphys’, Ancelin stopped in at the Laivit-Canne Gallery.
Satisfied to see one of his paintings in the show-case, he embraced the secretary upon entering and hunched over to reduce himself to the same scale as Laivit-Canne, effusively shaking the dealer’s hand.
He inspected the paintings hanging from the gallery’s walls, confirmed that he was well-placed, and remarked the absence of Manhès, who used to occupy the place of honor.
Laivit-Canne followed the painter around the room, monitoring his reactions. He interrogated him on what he thought of certain tableaux.
“Why haven’t you hung any of Manhès’s paintings?” Ancelin asked.
“Manhès is finished.”
Then he adopted an unctuous tone:
“You did quite well in New York, my dear Ancelin. Your exhibition was not a huge financial success, but your paintings are catching on. Next time you’ll sell everything. You have the stuff it takes to succeed. I’m going to be frank with you. Up until now, I’ve kept you in the shadow of Manhès and I was wrong. It’s a good thing that I had a falling out with that imbecile. Now I’m going to put all my stakes on you.”
Ancelin did not seem very happy about this.
“I’m the stand-in who replaces the star.”
“No, no!” Laivit responded testily. “You’ll see…. I’ll take you under my wing. I’ll make you skip a generation. Okay, so Manhès was your initiator; let’s recognize that. But you’re the better painter.”
Ancelin was slightly inebriated by Laivit-Canne’s words. This stroke to his ego, though, was tempered by bitterness over the dealer’s ingratitude towards Manhès. And then there was this comment again, the same that Charles Mumphy had pronounced: “You paint better than Manhès.” The phrase worried him. “There’s a conspiracy brewing against Manhès. I’ll warn him tonight.”
Ancelin reunited with Manhès, Isabelle, Fontenoy, and Blanche at the Select. He embraced Isabelle and Blanche, shook hands with his friends.
He talked about his trip to New York, of the warm welcome Abstract art was receiving over there.
“The French,” observed Manhès, “are always complaining with a certain rancor about the Americans who swept up all the Impressionist paintings. But they’ve conveniently forgotten that the Impressionists were understood in America from their very first exhibition. It will be the same for us. We live in Paris, but our paintings will go to American museums because the French bureaucrats of the Fine Arts administration ridicule our work.”*
Ancelin didn’t know how to talk to Manhès about the conspiracy which he’d devined. To do this he’d have to allude to the comparisons by Charles Mumphy and Laivit-Canne which were excessively flattering to him, and this embarrassed him. Fontenoy brought him to the heart of the subject by announcing:
“I’ve been fired by L’Artiste.”
“Oh yes, Old Man. Already, while you were in New York, I had several squabbles with the editor-in-chief. They refused to let me write something about the Manhès-Laivit-Canne rupture under the pretext that it might upset the gallery. Then, when I proposed to write about a visit to Corato’s studio, they asked me to sing the eloges of Yves Brayer. If it was just that, I could have dealt with it. But now L’Artiste has launched an all-out campaign against Abstract art. I thought I’d dodged the problem by proposing a ‘piece’ on Courbet. But when I started looking at Courbet more closely, I got a glimpse of the conventional aspect of the personage. The famous ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet’is indeed a chef-d’oeuvre… of boorishness and of conceitedness. Courbet’s sole quality is in the matter; his signature style is beautiful. But what conventionality in the sources of his inspiration! Voila the gist of my article on Courbet. Bad idea! My timing could not have been worse. It just so happened that they were getting ready to hold up Courbet as an example for the young painters. The die was cast. It was time to relieve themselves of my services.
Ancelin seemed crushed:
“It’s a tough blow. There’s no way of repairing the damage?”
Fontenoy sighed wearily.
“I don’t have the will any longer. I held on to the Artiste gig as long as I could. To continue, I’d have to deny everything I’ve fought for.”
Ancelin remained lost in thought.
“That’s out of the question, but it’s a huge sacrifice all the same…. From time to time the newspaper publishes your poems. You’ve got a tribune there that it will be difficult to replace elsewhere in the near future.”
“I’m well aware of that. If it was just a minor misunderstanding, it could be fixed. But we’re about to confront a major offensive. Did you see the latest issue of Le Figaro?”
“Claude-Roger Marx has penned a piece with a bold headline: IT’S TIME TO BRING BACK GREEN WITH COURBET. Elsewhere, Dunoyer de Ségonzac is going after non-figurative painting. In another major daily, they turned over an entire page to Vlaminck just so he could rail at all Modern Art, from Cubism to the Abstracts — except of course his own painting. I had the presentiment of a catastrophe. Now it’s a certitude.”
“Don’t make like the biblical prophet,” Manhès warned. “I earn enough for us to start our own revue. That’ll rile them up! How’s that for an idea? What do you say? If we launch a review of our own? Of course, Fontenoy would be the editor-in-chief.”
Fontenoy suddenly had a vision of one of his dreams coming true: Directing an avant-garde revue, mingling poetry and painting, music and architecture. Then he tried to dismiss this over-flattering idea:
“You know, it’s really expensive to print a revue!”
“How much?” asked Manhès, tensing up. “Work up an estimate, evaluate the possibilities and the risks of the adventure. Make up a demo issue. Nothing’s impossible. In any case, I’d be quite happy to toss our own revue on their path to trip them up!”
They parted in the excitation of this idea.
Copyright 1956, 2020 Michel Ragon. Published by Albin Michel, 1956. Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak.
*At the epoch as now, the French government — represented here by the Fine Arts department of the culture ministry — has the right to pre-empt the sale at auction of works it deems national treasures. If it so deems them.
From the DI/AV archives: Gustave Courbet, “Portrait of Baudelaire,” 1847 (?). Oil, 53 x 0.61 cm, unsigned. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. In his championing of artists, Michel Ragon upheld the grand tradition of Baudelaire and Zola, who championed Courbet, Delacroix, and the Impressionists.
Michel Ragon — critic, curator, ambassador of art, not only champion but exponent of abstract painting, archivist of anarchists, workers, and the proletariat, defender of a new style of architecture, novelist, teacher, Seine-side bookseller, manual laborer, and husband — died February 14 in Paris, at the age of 95. What Baudelaire and Champfleury did for Courbet (whose twin investment in advancing art, as the leader of the Realism school, and social struggles, as an official of the Paris Commune, made him the perfect subject for a Ragon biography), Michel Ragon did for a whole genre, the Abstract Art school that flourished in post-war Paris. Jean-Michel Atlan was his chou-chou and friend; the COBRA group owed him their first Paris exhibition; Ragon’s tribute to Wols assured his place in the pantheon of 20th-century painters. And his incognito infiltration of the Barnes Collection made sure that neither American authors nor the French artists they hoarded were left out. The largely forgotten vectors of European anarcho-syndicalism — Victor Serge, Paul Delesalle, Nestor Makhno, Alexandra Kollontai, Louis Lecoin, Rirette Maitrejean — their rescue from the dustbin of history into which its victors, a forgetful media, and a reductive academy had swept them. If Michel Ragon is dead after nearly a century, thanks to Michel Ragon the names, combats, struggles, and moral victories of these prime movers in two worlds, society and art — Ragon always had one foot firmly implanted in each — will live on for many more. We’ll try to make our modest contribution.
… Starting with the latest installment in our serialized translation of Ragon’s seminal semi-fictional treatment of the Abstract Art movement and market in Paris in the 1950s, as well as post-war anti-Semitism in France, “Trompe-l’oeil.” A melange — or update — of both Zola’s “L’oeuvre” and Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” in its defense of the artistic genus and the artist’s soul and lacerating portrayal of the media, “Trompe-l’oeil” is most of all the love story of a journalist and art. (Merci a L.D. pour son aide precious avec l’argot….)
Michel Ragon is survived by his wife Françoise — and a legion of art aficionados. Michel Ragon est mort. Vive Michel Ragon. — Paul Ben-Itzak
Le Feuilleton (the Serial), 7: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, anti-Semitism, and critics in Post-war Paris, Part 7
Part seven in the Paris Tribune’s exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first six parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here.
Fontenoy asked his editor at L’Artiste if he could write a “studio visit” feature on Corato.
“Which one is that?” the editor groaned.
“An abstract painter who….”
“Obviously! But, my dear young man, who’s interested in your precious Abstracts — I mean besides you? Sometimes I think you just make them up. Listen to me, Fontenoy, you’d do much better to take on some serious subjects. Ever since you’ve taken up with abstract art, your pieces feel just like that. Abstract.”
“You’re not actually going to tell me that I write like Charles Roy?”
“If that were the case, I would have tossed you out on your keister a long time ago! No, you still write in a decipherable manner — and that’s exactly what worries me.”
Fontenoy had trouble fathoming what his boss was trying to tell him.
“Here, take a look at the mock-up for the next issue.”
He spread out the pages on the large lay-out table in the middle of the office. Stupefied, Fontenoy read on the cover, in large bold letters: “LAST LAP FOR THE FARCE OF ‘ABSTRACT ART.’ Then further down the page, under a photo of Matisse: “HENRI MATISSE COMES OUT AGAINST ABSTRACT ART.” And on page four, a major piece with the headline: “YOUNG PAINTERS RETURN TO LANDSCAPES AND PORTRAITS.”
“Perfect,” Fontenoy responded. “Abstract art has finally waltzed into the newspaper by the front door.”
“All the easier to stifle you, my boy,” the editor in chief ribbed him, breaking out in laughter. Then he added, flippantly, “I’ll need a group article on several typical good painters: You know, the likes of Yves Brayer, Chapelain-Midy, Lorjou…. I’m counting on you….”
“You’ve got to be kidding. You’ve purposely chosen the most philistine of the figuratives to foist them off on me.”
“My good fellow, a journalist has to be a jack of all trades. If you don’t like those painters, that’s your right. Just keep it to yourself when the newspaper needs you to sing their praises. We’re not here to satisfy our personal tastes, but those of our silent partners and our readers. We should be satisfied that the two of them concord!”
“I’m sorry,” Fontenoy responded after a moment of hesitation, “but it won’t be possible for me to write that article.”
“Are you telling me that you’re abandoning us?”
Fontenoy smiled ironically. He flared the trap. They wanted to push him to quit in a great histrionic fashion, which would have the consequence of depriving him of unemployment compensation. Very well. It seemed obvious that he’d become a liability for the newspaper, but he’d let them fire him before he’d quit.
“I’m not abandoning anything. But those painters ‘belong’ to Morisset, and I don’t want to pilfer them from him.
“Tell you what,” he added after reflecting for a few seconds, “because you want to preach a new realism, I’ll do a study for you on Courbet.”
In the past, when Fontenoy emerged from such altercations he’d dread returning to his small room. If he didn’t happen to run into Manhès, he’d feel completely lost. Now, Blanche was always ready to welcome him with open arms.
They’d each hung on to their individual apartments, which simplified their work. But Fontenoy spent all his nights at the Cité Falguière.
They were laying down on the divan. Blanche had undone her tresses and her blond hair cascaded down her shoulders. Fontenoy let himself be lulled by the warmth of his companion’s body. He closed his eyes, trying to forget his anxieties. But he was all too aware of what lay ahead.
“It’s going to be brutal, Blanche, very brutal…. They’ll be attacking on all fronts, you’ll see.”
“Bah! Look at Manhès, he’s never sold so well!”
“Yes. And yet, even Manhès makes me worry. It’s just all going too well. All these people who have their comfortable positions to protect, all these dealers whose basements are packed with figurative paintings, all these collectors who’ve pumped fortunes into the very school of painting we’re fighting, are not going to let us get away with it. It’s no accident that L’Artiste has launched this offensive now….”
Blanche hugged him close: “You’re such a pessimist.”
Fontenoy let out a huge sigh: “All I can say is it’s a good thing that you’re here!”
He gave in to dreaming again, hooking his arm around his companion’s waist. He flashed back to the first time he visited this atelier. Blanche showed herself simultaneously mutinous and worried. She understood what he meant. Even though their intimacy did not happen overnight, he found it strange to find himself so suddenly linked to this young woman whom he’d been running into here and there for a year at exhibitions without ever surpassing the level of a distant politeness. She was less a painter, now, than a beloved being.
And yet Blanche was intensely, definitely a painter. An instinctive painter. Thank God she was not one of these intellectuals who supplied ready fodder to the academies which then inculcated them with paint-by-numbers formulas. Fontenoy had a genuine physical repulsion for this genre of woman. He tended to agree with Baudelaire that making love with an intellectual was a form of paederasty. Blanche constituted a living rebuke to those who believed that Abstract art was an art for intellectuals. She was a solid, stout, uncomplicated woman, sensual and carefree. Her water-colors were the exact reflection of her temperament, with their slightly heavy spots and a graphic design pigmented with a subtle sense of humor.
“Fontenoy (Blanche still addressed him by his last name, as she had before they began sleeping together), Fontenoy we’ll always find a way to muddle through. You worry too much….”
She could feel, close to her, her lover’s anguish. She wanted to lighten his load, to take some of the burden upon herself, but she could feel him tense up — that, as immobile as he was, he was struggling against a throng of enemies.
Fontenoy predicted he’d be fired by the newspaper. That was to be expected. They paid him so little, but this pittance was vital to rounding out his budget. And then it wasn’t just a matter of money! Tribunes consecrated to the arts were few and far between. If he lost this one, he also lost a forum for expressing himself. He saw himself mutilated, naked next to a sneering Morisset and Arlov, before a triumphant Charles Roy. Because Fontenoy was doubly heretical: Not only did he attack traditional figurative art, but also the brand of academic abstract art championed by Charles Roy. Even supposing they allowed the academic form of Abstract art to flourish for a little while longer, it would only be so they could eventually demolish it as a sclerotic art form. “What they really want to crush,” Fontenoy thought to himself, “are the genuine creators, like always. The old historic battles will resurface.” The cohort of Impressionists attacked by the incomprehension of the public and the mockery of the critics and cartoonists, the Cubists in the time of the Bateau Lavoir, then the damned of Montparnasse: Soutine, Modigliani, Pascin, he saw them marching before him in one long lamentation. “It’s all happening again,” Fontenoy told himself. “I sense it. We were wrong to believe we’d won the hand.”
He clutched Blanche tightly to him. She laughed heartily.
Part six in the Paris Tribune’s exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first five parts, click here. Translator Paul Ben-Itzak is looking to rent digs in Paris this Spring and for the Fall. Paul Ben-Itzak cherche un sous-loc à Paris pour le printemps. Got a tip? Tuyau? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Summer had scattered the artists. The poorest remained in a Paris deserted and torrid. The better off found themselves on the Cote d’Azur, where they automatically took up the rhythm of their Parisian lives: gallery visits, squabbles between critics, internecine rivalries between dealers, interminable palaver in the cafés which supplanted le Select or le Dôme, the dazzling vista of the Mediterranean replacing the buzzing of the boulevard Montparnasse. To read the full excerpt on The Paris Tribune, click here.