Le Feuilleton (the Serial), 6: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, anti-Semitism, and critics in Post-war Paris, Part 6

by and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
From “Trompe-l’oeil,” published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel

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 artsvoyager@gmail.com .

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.

At the end of September, they all returned to the nest, excited by the prospect of an exhibition to prepare, an article to write, a sale practically assured. Optimism was the order of the day. Would this be the great decisive year? Everyone had the right to hope so.

Returning first, Fontenoy frequently passed by Manhès’s atelier before finally finding him at home. He was impatient to reunite with his friend; he’d saved up so many things he wanted to share with him!

He knew the majority of the habitants of the cité, a kind of housing project allocated to artists.* From the moment he entered the narrow street, a tremor of robust howling indicated that Corato was reciting the aria from “Pagliati.” Corato was one of the poorest of the abstract painters. His somewhat obscure style, extremely nuanced, attracted few fans. No dealer was interested in him. An Italian, he took advantage of the pristine tenor’s voice with which nature had bestowed him by earning his living singing operatic airs in a café-concert. But this double-life took its toll. For that matter, his tenor’s day job made it hard for his fellow painters and the critics to take him seriously. One of them had even quipped, “Corato is a professional tenor. Painting is to him like the violin is to Ingres.” Certain barbs launched for the pleasure of coming up with a witty turn of phrase can also poison the victim’s existence. This particular one really wounded Corato. When Fontenoy knocked on the door of his atelier, the tenor-painter was discomfited to see him. “You know of course that I only sing because…”

“What new paintings do you have to show me?” Fontenoy cut him off.

If he wasn’t very enthusiastic about Corato’s art, he recognized the quality of his painting, the sincerity underlying it. At times the colors revealed a contained vibration which enabled Fontenoy to get a hint of what Corato’s painting might be if it was allowed to ripen. But Corato was 50 years old. Would fatigue finish him off before he’d be able to complete his experiments and find his style?

Fontenoy carefully studied Corato’s paintings in this atelier whose walls were plastered with travel posters. He told himself that these paintings were by far superior to so many others which made a mint. How was it possible that nobody had remarked their importance? He promised himself to write about Corato for L’Artiste.

Leaving Corato’s atelier, Fontenoy hailed the aged sculptor Morini, perched on his porch in a white blouse.

After a life of misery, Morini had suddenly achieved celebrity at the age of 80. Unexpectedly very rich, he continued living in his Spartan studio, alone as he’d been all his life, altering absolute nothing in his daily routine.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Morini,” Fontenoy greeted him. “You didn’t go away on vacation?”

“Bou… bou…,” grumbled the old man. “Vacation…? I’m quite happy chez moi.”

As he seemed notably sad, Fontenoy tried to flatter him.

“It’s formidable, Monsieur Morini! Life magazine devoted three pages, in color, to you.”

“Harrumph! That would have made my poor mother happy. If she hadn’t been dead for many years now. Like all of those who would have been happy to see such an article.”

“Well,” replied Fontenoy, embarrassed, “it might have taken a while, but now that you’ve been recognized, the recognition has been hundredfold.”

The old sculptor began furiously gesticulating. He yelled: “What the hell do I care, for all their greenbacks? I can’t even eat cake. All my teeth are gone.”

This eruption brought Manhès out of his atelier.

“You’re here!”

Isabel emerged in her turn, little Moussia clinging to her dress.

Fontenoy dashed into his friend’s atelier.

“And Blanche?”

“She’s getting ready for her exhibition. We spent our vacation together on the banks of the Loire.”

“So… it’s working out then?” Manhès asked, smiling broadly.

“Yes. We get along well. She’s a quite a chic girl. There’s no reason that it shouldn’t last.”

“For me, it’s never been so good. I sold well on the Cote d’Azur and since coming back I already have enough orders to last me until the Spring. Oh, that old fart Lévy-Kahn is sure going to be sorry for his little temper-tantrum.”

“Is Ancelin back in Paris?”

“No. He’s once again let himself be shanghaied by an old widow who swept him away to New York. You know him, he never loses an opportunity to cultivate his image. Meanwhile, Mumfy’s son has enrolled in the Academy of Abstract Art. Voila a new colleague on the horizon. His old man must have calculated that it would be cheaper to have abstract tableaux fabricated by his own offspring than to keep on buying them from actual artists. I saw the family the other day, to talk to them about Blanche’s water-colors. I think she might be able to sell them a few. But Mama Mumfy told me, in plugging her son: ‘I’m not going to show you what he’s done yet. It’s not quite at a fully developed level. But he’s so sincere!’

“I responded to her with Degas’s famous quip: ‘So young, and already sincere. Madame, I’m afraid your son is already a lost cause.’ She didn’t seem very happy with this summary verdict.”

Someone knocked on the door. Isabelle went to open it. A 40ish man, elegant with slicked-back hair, entered the room and began inspecting it.

“What do you want, Monsieur Androclès?” asked Manhès, without any finesse.

“I’ve come to offer you a deal.”

“I don’t cultivate vegetables here,” Manhès exclaimed, suddenly seized with a rage that Fontenoy could not understand.

“Oh, Manhès!” shot back the man, aggrieved, “you’ll rue the day you made that bad joke.”

He departed, taking his time.

A profound silence descended on the atelier. Isabelle finally broke it.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t have snubbed him like that. You’ve just made another enemy.”

“The only ones who don’t have any enemies are the mediocrities!”

Androclès was one of the most important art dealers in Paris. He’d made his fortune during the Occupation, by selling fresh fruit and vegetables. A shrewd broker had convinced him that the most fructuous way to invest his money was to buy paintings. He’d resisted such a patently idiotic idea for a long time. But the broker found an argument with weight: “If you buy a boat,” he explained, “you’ll need to hire a crew to take care of it, and there will always be repairs that need to be made. The more you take to sea, the more it will deteriorate. Same thing for a building. You’ll need a super, a concierge. One day the roof will cave in. Then the basement will flood. A car wears down every time you drive it. Everything deteriorates, everything has personnel and maintenance costs — except painting. You can still buy a Cezanne for the price of a building. You won’t have to do anything to maintain it, and its price can only go up.”

Like Mumfy, Androclès investigated and before long he too had contracted the virus. He had the flair to acquire second-tier Impressionists at low prices and third-tier Cubists that no one wanted. Today, these Impressionists and these Cubists had finally attained their petite glory in the retrospectives and they constituted the Androclès gallery’s capital. Then this genius stumbled upon an aged Cubist painter of the variety one just doesn’t see anymore. The painter in question, simultaneously naive and sage, had been living in retirement in the country, getting by on a small income furnished by a group of loyal American collectors. During the war, he lost this clientele and plunged into such misery, such oblivion, that his wife did not survive. How on Earth Androclès, this vegetable hawker who was completely ignorant of painting, had managed to learn of his existence was a complete mystery. It’s said that even drunks have a guardian angel. It’s quite possible. But what is certain is that there must be one for philistines. This guardian angel conducted Androclès to the home of the old abandoned Cubist. He arrived with his arms loaded with vittles and departed with them loaded with canvasses. Then he bided his time. When the vegetable hawker calculated that the old man must be out of provisions, he arrived like the man from Providence with a baked ham, swept up every scrap of art which still lingered in the atelier, at 50 francs the yard, and saw himself once more hailed as a benefactor. On these raids, the old painter would scout around for a gift to offer to the dealer. He’d then give him the original edition of a book by Apollinaire which he’d illustrated in his youth, or an old drawing.

After the Liberation, the old Cubist painter died just as he was being rehabilitated. The first successful exhibition at the Androclès gallery was constituted by some of these canvasses bartered for vittles. They were bought up at fantastic prices. Today, any museum which didn’t own at least one of these masterpieces was one embarrassed museum.

Androclès no longer hawked fruits and vegetables, but his wife, a fat babushka with a vulgar voice, regaled painting collectors with her ignorance.

Fontenoy recounted to Manhès: “One day, I found myself in the gallery. A visitor asked the price of a Picasso ‘collage.’ Mama Androclès was manning the boutique. ‘Ah, that one, Mister, it’s worth the big bucks. But it’s old. Look at the paper, it’s already yellowing.'”

“You know the one,” Manhès countered, “about the guy who came to ask Androclès for Van Gogh’s address, don’t you? He didn’t bat an eye. He simply declared, in a dignified tone, ‘That gentleman is not one of my painters.'”

Moussia ran over and grasped her father’s knees. Manhès swept the child up and dangled her from his hands. The little girl giggled.

“This makes up for all of it, Fontenoy. When you have the time, you should fabricate one of these little marvels of your own with Blanche!”

Fontenoy protested: “Lay off! You used to marry me off to every single girl we met. Now that I’m with Blanche, you want us to have a kid. But what can we do? I’d tell you that an artist isn’t made to have kids, but it would only piss you off.”

“What, you don’t like our little Moussia?”

“Sure I do, she’s a darling. But just because I like something I see chez les autres doesn’t mean I want to have it chez moi.

“Ah! And now,” announced Manhès in affectionately nudging the tot away, “now go play. Papa needs to work….(and he added, emphatically) I tell you, Fontenoy, between the wife and the kid…!”

 

*Originally applied to housing complexes constructed for workers, today the term ‘cité’ most often refers to housing projects in the poorer neighborhoods or border suburbs of French cities. Before the expansion of the Montparnasse train station in the 1950s which leveled them, the 13th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements of Paris housed many of the cités reserved for artists. (When the translator lived in the Cité Falguière in the 15th in 2000, the former atelier of Chaim Soutine was still visible at the entrance.) Michel Ragon notably wrote about a visit to the sculptor Brancusi’s atelier before it in turn was re-located, intact, to another part of the city… to make way for progress. (Translator’s note.)

Est-ce que l’antisionisme = l’antisémitisme? Is anti-Zionism the same as anti-semitism? (in French / en française)

Sur l’emission Là-bas si j’y suis: “Antisionisme = antisémitisme ? Un amalgame hypocrite et dangereux.” Entretien de Daniel Mermet avec Dominique Vidal, journaliste et historien. Cliquez-ici /click here pour y ecouter / to listen. (Kicked off public radio in 2014, Là-bas si j’y suis is the French equivalent of Democracy Now.)

The Lutèce Diaries, 18: How I rescued 2000 years of Eastern & Western Philosophy from a toilet at the Luxembourg Gardens, learned that my shit doesn’t stink as bad as all that, and didn’t resolve the latest Jewish and Muslim questions dogging France

hockney sunflower

David Hockney, ” Sunflower I” (347), 1995. Engraving in 80  ex./Arches.  69 x
57 cm. Copyright David Hockney studio  and  courtesy Galerie Lelong & Company.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation to paulenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. To read this article entirely in French or any other language, just click the translation button at the right.)

PARIS — Ever think someone is trying to send you signs? From Plato, Eros (by way of Confucius), and Krishna ambushing me in a Luxembourg Garden ‘sanitaire’ to accordionists hounding me across the Left Bank to Albert Camus and Maria Casarès winking at me from a balcony on the rue Vaugirard, from busty marble goddesses having coffee with me at the Delacroix Fountain in the Luxembourg to collaged porn queen sirens in St.-Germain-des-Pres beckoning me to call them on a communication system which no longer exists (the Minitel, France’s Internet avant l’heure), from being snobbed by Germanopretan art gallery interns to welcomed by Ile de France artists on the rue Francis Picabia in Belleville, from trying not to knock knees with a supercalifragilicous architect’s wage slave on the Metro to learning that, echoing a similar tendency in the United States — so I’m not just picking on France here —  if a new law passes France will officially no longer distinguish between anti-Zionism an anti-Semitism (which makes me, what, a Jewish anti-Semite?), from trying to decipher “Botoxed” feminine incarnations of Henry Darger’s Vivienne Girls to learning that my shit doesn’t stink too as badly as all that, yesterday  like the days that preceded it was as replete with overt signs and puzzling evidence as any I’ve had here this past month and a half.

Before heading to a rendez-vous in the 15th arrondissement with neighbors from the Dordogne who also live in Paris, I’d joked to my hosts that the Metro line in question seemed to be the preferred concert hall of subway accordionists who play the same two songs over and over again. Moving from the 9th arrondissement to digs near the Institute Pasteur in the same workers’ housing complex where Soutine once dodged ceilings full of fleas 18 years ago, which required several round-trips on this line, I’d had to listen to dime-store renditions of “Those were the Days” until I was ready to pay the men to stop playing. So I was not at all surprised, on arriving at the line 12 platform below Pigalle yesterday, to find not one but two accordionists waiting to board the train with me. One of whom immediately entered the same car as me. If I was spared “Those were the Days,” there was still the inevitable “La vie en Rose” to contend with. Meanwhile, after having just heard an announcement of all the ways the Metro security was surveiling the lines to make sure male passengers didn’t do anything even remotely associated with accosting female passengers, I was more wary than aroused when a young woman with a generous décolleté in a long slit white dress with black stripes sat down across from me and immediately opened a book called “Surveille et punir,” which, far from being a parenting manual, turned out to be written by the late philosopher Michel Foucault, who primed penal issues before dying of the big disease with a little name that was identified at the Pasteur Institute.

Beside the cylindrical black case she plopped down besides her, the woman posed a bag which read (in English):

“Hi, I’m an assistant. I work for **** (I’m not giving them free publicity) and my boss is forcing me to wear this bag.”

While I was trying to not be glued to the girl, across the aisle a middle-aged man in a tight tie, starched shirt, and with the stiff, red face to go with it was glued to what I assumed was the latest faux-fiction screed from Michel Ouellebecqe, France’s answer to Woody Allen, only without the humor.

How did France — how did Paris — get from Foucault, a real philosopher, to Ouellebecque, a not particularly inventive polemicist imposturing as a novelist? Why are the ’68ers who started out looking for answers in Mao’s “Little Red Book” now seeking solutions from a paranoid middle-aged white man? What’s gone wrong? Or should I rather be comforted that a young woman in 2019 is vigorously underlining Michel Foucault, her way of rebelling against the Yankee imperialist capitalism embodied in the sack she’s forced to carry, Paris still exuding this combination of beauty and brains, like Anne Wiazemsky, one of the Maoists in Godard’s 1968 “La Chinoise,” pensive on a train bound for the provinces, lost in her own interior monologue.

But the counter-balancing signs of a decline in the level of intellectual discourse in France in 2019 are glaring. (I don’t say it’s not the same elsewhere, but this is my beat.)

I’m not talking about the conversation my friends treated me too over a luncheon of scallops with tomato coulis, melt-in-the-mouth beef and potato mousse, ice cream with butterscotch syrup, and the requisite cheese plate augmented with the Perigordian twist of a just ripe-enough Cabicou chevre pellet, as the Sun streamed in through the windows of their salon and dining room overlooking a place with a carousel and an outdoor market, not far from the week-end used book market in the parc George Brassens, a former abattoir — which conversation, from its intellectual density, might have taken place 150 years ago — but the latest imbroglio over Israel, Jews in France, and n’importe quoi Yellow Vest behavior about which my friends informed me. (I’ve debranched from the French media since returning to Paris, and have never been so happy, the news on the street being much more optimistic than the French media bleakitude, particularly as diffused on Radio France.)

I’m going to touch on the latest manifestations of these related issues here (as relayed by my friends from that same French media) because they provide another window to the way intellectual discourse in France — largely abetted by both the private and public media — is careening towards the same place (the toilet) where, later in the day, I would rescue 2,000 years of Eastern and Western philosophy.

What I’m not going to do is look for more details on the Web about these recent manifestations of Jewish-French-Yellow Vest – Journalist – Pundit conflict, precisely because they’d come from that same sensationalistic and unreliable media.

These latest controversies over the Jewish and Israel and Islam and Muslim questions seem to have been fed by two streams.

The first is France’s decision to withdraw from the Eurovision song contest. Never mind that the Eurovision is to music like Bazooka Joe is to art; this annual event is the nirvana (lower-case) of music for many in the popular class. Personally I don’t get it, as the songs — from all over, not just France — seem all hyper-commercial gloss with little originality. I also don’t get why Israel, which is not in Europe (although it should be), is even included in the Eurovision contest. So this year, it seems like France will be represented by a cross-dressing singer of Moroccan origin, and who Israel — which is hosting the event — immediately labeled an “Islamic State”-sympathizing Islamist. This in turn provoked France — probably Israel’s best friend in Europe — to announce it would be boycotting the contest. (Although the government probably did not use that word.) Then, presumably to appease the tensions, French president Emmanuel Macron, addressing the annual meeting of the self-proclaimed counsel representative of Jews in France (a new Franco-Israeli friend joins me in taking exception to this presumption), apparently promised a law against anti-Semitism on the Internet, and which would apparently no longer distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or Jew-baiting and criticizing Israel.

Finally, the France Culture radio host and member of the Academie Française Alain Finkielkraut, who likes to say that anti-Zionism, or criticizing Israel, is just a pretense for anti-Semitism, was apparently treated with anti-Semitic insults (as well as, apparently, criticism of his conservative views) by a group of Yellow Vests Saturday in Montparnasse, where he was depositing his mother in law.

In other words, France still has problems associated with how Jews are viewed, treated, and in my view sometimes coddled here (as in the U.S.), and instead of Zola or Jaures or Clemenceau, the best its intellectuals can come up with to address these issues is Alain Finkielkraut, whose main concern when it comes to Muslims appears to be that they can’t all marry outside their faith. This does not seem to be the most crucial intellectual dilemma facing France, nor of our times. M. Finkielkraut’s thinking on this question — the Muslims in France question — is also disappointing. Where normally the level of his discourse is very high — he makes a point of inviting guests who don’t agree with him on his radio program Replique — he seems to have a blind spot when it comes to Muslims. And I’m not just another gauchiste piling on him; as an assiduous listener to M. Finkielkraut’s program — on which he frequently invites those who don’t agree with him — I think it’s intellectually irresponsible for many on the Left to label him a “neo-reactionary.” I was on his side when, after entering the Place de Republique in a spirit of curiosity to check out the short-lived “Nuit Debout” “movement,” he was ignominiously chased away and told “You’re not welcome here.” And of course it’s abhorrent that on Saturday those presuming to fight for the little people told him to “go back where you came from.” In otherwords, the notion of ‘alterité’ — the fear of the other — which in France, as in the United States, used to be turned towards the Jews and is now in some part turned towards the Muslims (but always in the same form, “They don’t dress like us, they don’t worship like us, they don’t act like us”), in no small part aided and abetted by intellectuals like M. Finkielkraut who should know better, was temporarily once again turned towards a Jew perceived as being a member of the privileged classes.

I just ask: What happened to the level, the standard of intellectual discourse, in all its complicity, set by Albert Camus, whose bons mots so many public intellectuals still like to cite? Camus who knew there were no simple answers, Camus the atheist who never stopped talking about St. Augustine and whose most redemptive figure in “The Plague” is that of the priest, Camus who even as his tergivating position on Algeria didn’t conform with his broader views on enfranchisement admitted, to himself and to his public, that this was probably because he feared for the future of his white French relatives in Algeria? Camus who didn’t pray but wasn’t above asking his mistress Maria Casarés to pray for him to her god?

This is the France I grew up idolizing, my mecca and that of generations of Americans, and I don’t see this truly intellectual, inquisitive France often enough any more.

Having thus blissfully retrieved this spirit of debate and exchange chez my friends, I thus made for that other mecca for Americans in Paris, the Luxembourg Gardens, hoping that the barricades would by now be removed from the alley housing the Delacroix fountain, among whose brawny and buxom bronze worshippers, arrayed before a bust of the great master of color, I like to take my thermos coffee. (Barricades apparently placed their because of the alley’s proximity to the French Senate building.)

valantines tal rTal R, “Ballet & Bobler,”  2018. Engraving on wood,   70 x 50 cm. Courtesy Catherine Putnam Gallery.

En route I gave a coucou to the phantoms of Camus and Casarés, tipping my beret towards the top-floor balcony at 185 rue de Vaugirard that I imagined to have been the one captured in a photo of the pair, happy and absolutely in love, circa 1950-something. (The storm windows looked like they hadn’t changed.)

(While we’re talking about berets, and ‘alterité’: Pausing on a quaint bridge over the Ourcq to find the ideal endroit to take our crepuscular rose-hips and green thermos tea Tuesday, my friend C and I were surprised by an older, heavy-set, Baba/Mama Cool ex-hippy looking woman who popped up out of nowhere to proclaim, “You’re from Berry!” At least this is what I at first thought she said, until I realized it was “You’re wearing a beret! We don’t see a lot of those around here these days.” Rather than interjecting “Except on aging Americans who’ve been here so long they think they can pass as French,” I said I lived in the Dordogne, a bad idea because it launched her on what at first seemed a benign anecdote about her friends who have a house in Bordeaux, but which quickly degenerated into an anti-migrant tirade. Still distracted by our search for the perfect tea emplacement, all I understood was something about “all the empty houses” and “all the people loitering about,” until C. later recounted to me that the lady’s concern was actually 400,000 people roaming about who aren’t like “us” — presumably the non-beret wearers — according to her. “And they come from where, in your opinion?” C. had pursued. “From outside France!” At that point C. bid her adieu, leaving the woman to sputter, “I’m on the Left, really!”)

At about 77 (we’re back on the rue Vaugirard heading for the Luxembourg) I stumbled upon a shop advertising that it specialized in ‘art documentation,’ meaning old art magazines and books. “I’m looking for Marcel Gromaire” I inquired of the spectacled woman with greying wavy hair discussing something arcane with a hefty, sickly looking man in a rumpled brown suit comfortably ensconced in an arm-chair against one of the overflowing bookshelves and leaning on a cane. After I’d pronounced the name five more times — my ‘r’ seems to have stopped rolling lately — she searched her computer for ten minutes before fetching a metal ladder and precipitously leaning it against the shelves where the “G”‘s were stocked high up near the ceiling. The slim volume she extracted, an exhibition catalog from 1967, was all in black and white so after thumbing through it in case they were the black and whites Gromaire had drawn in the trenches of World War I (which a bouquiniste at the parc George Brassens book market had priced at 900 Euros) I returned the thin volume to the woman. “I’m looking more for color.” At this point the man struggled up and said, “I’ll be back tomorrow then with the books.” “Couldn’t we have dinner too?” the woman timidly advanced.

Finding the Delacroix fountain blessedly unbarricaded — I wish I could say the same for the rest of Paris, where the ugly green and white barriers seem to have become a permanent part of the landscape — I was so ecstatic that I must have looked to the sleek silver-templed gendarme who cast a glance at me like the substance I was sipping from my green plastic thermos cup was some sort of forbidden elixir.

It wasn’t just the brilliant yet douce 17h00 light which made the moment magical, but the girl-watching. I’d forgotten that besides the busty bronze babe on my left, presiding over the fountain and the spigots that served as its sentinels spewing water next to my coffee cup, the alley was also a prime track for joggeuses. That’s the good news. The bad news is that here too I-phone and Co. seem to have made inroads, snatching the brains of more Parisiennes. A young, Nathalie Wood-bright-eyed and smiling woman who on her first go-round was texting while running (shouldn’t there be a law against this?) by the second time she passed me had her eyes moving down the tiny screen hypnotizing her faster than her legs were advancing through the garden. (I’m too word-tired from writing all day to fix that convoluted sentence.)

Having already pushed my own body to the limit — the sensation of sipping coffee with Delacroix and his muses while looking for mine on a brilliant-douce late afternoon in the Luxembourg Gardens was just too divine to not want to prolongue it by another cuppa — I then set about to search for a potty.

You may not be aware of this if you don’t have gastric issues and drink a lot of coffee and eat a lot of spicy food, but the security of knowing you’ll be able to take a dump in Paris when the need impropitiously arrives seems to have decreased in inverse proportion to the augmentation of the “Vigipirate” security alerts over the past 18 years. (I still remember rushing down the boulevard Arago towards a gathering of French friends who wanted to offer me solace on the place Contrascarpe on the evening of September 11, 2001, and being frustrated to find all the sanitaires closed, “as a Vigipirate measure.” Still haven’t spotted a single Vigitarian pirate.)

I’d received an unwelcome and impeccably ill-timed reminder of the deteriorating toilet maintenance in Paris on Valentine’s Day evening, when after an impromptu urge to rush from the Centre Pompidou to the Ile St.-Louis (I am one of the Pique-Nique People of the Ile St.-Louis, the opposite of the I-phone invasion pod people when it comes to socialization), where of course ‘my’ bench at the head of the line and facing both Notre Dame and the Left Bank was free despite the abundance of premiere pique-niquers of the season drawn by the faux printemps temps we’ve been having, and where I was delighted to find myself in the presence of so many good ghosts — highlights include a 2005 pique-nique with La Belle Mere and a 2005 birthday celebration that terminated with two comely parisiennes, one blonde and one brunette and both provocatively smart (especially the one named Emmanuelle) walking ahead of me down the Boulevard Sebastapol towing the rests of a much-depleted box of Cabernet — I realized I’d run too fast and would shortly have the runs.

The good news is that when it comes to localizing a toilet n’importe ou in Paris, I’m the guy Leonard Cohen wrote that song about. (Your Man.) The bad news is that the portable toilet infrastructure in Paris is falling apart. (Dropping my pants and going on the Ile was out, given that the last time I even tried to take a piss by a tree, simply following the encouragement of Malcolm McLaren — “Everyone pisses on Paris, watch me now” he chants to Satie in “Paris” — I was busted. “You wouldn’t piss on the Streets of San Francisco, would you?” the policeman had prodded me. Not if Karl Malden was still around to scold me.) My toilet of first resort, outside the Metro Pont-Marie where you cross the Seine from the Ile to the Right Bank, was… out of order. What felt to my increasingly pressed anus like about seven blocks further down the River — somewhere after Chatelet — I found a sanitaire that seemed like it had all in order until the door had bolted and I’d lowered my pants, only to find the six-feet tall metal toilet paper container was empty. (Yes, I blame this on City Hall; they’re the ones who hire the concessionaire who’s supposed to make sure that no Parisian, resident or tourist, is left unwiped.) So, after rejecting sacrificing my Taureau tee-shirt, silk 2nd Avenue tie, or la Belle Mere et Mere’s home-made scarf I was reduced to a couple of flimsy left-over pork bun napkins, an empty plastic sac, and a handful of business cards. Using the dubious looking soggy black camisole scrunched in a corner under the ‘sink’ was out. (These sanitaires are also used for needle and sex assignations.)

The real good news is the fact that my bottom was not completely poop-scooped finally provided the opportunity to test the veracity of the assurance my own New York Doll Piper Cappuccio had declared 30 years ago over steamed Buddhist fish in a San Francisco restaurant lost in the Avenues as I nervously sat across from her tongue-tied, stunned by her pouting beauty: “My shit stinks too.” And in the most appropriate of circumstances: I was headed towards the opening of the “Fleurs pour Valentin” exhibition at the Catherine Putnam Gallery in the Marais, my theory being that this would be the perfect place to find women without Valentines.

villegle breasty hottieJacques Villegle, “Route de Vaugirard (bas-Meudon),” collage with ripped street posters. April 1991. Courtesy Galerie Vallois.  

But would they be interested in a 57-year-old semi-toothless semi-French literate journalist-translator-DJ who arrived with actual olfactory proof that his shit really did stink?

As it happened, the cloying manner in which the exhibition was mounted — no names besides the multi-artist works, meaning everyone had to cluster around the one set of sheets where the thumbnails revealed the names of the artists to identify them — made it impossible to avoid hovering near, over, behind or around a bevy of beauties, most of whom were so young and glisteningly beautiful I assumed they’d rule me out before the shit-stinks-too question even arose, so to speak. But I had to test the shit stinks theorem at least once before I left — and it was after all Valentine’s Day! — so I decided to try to open a conversation with the (again) zaftig, MOT (Member of the Tribe) looking woman (a gallerist had addressed her as Talia) serving the bubbly. “What do you think of the exposition?” “C’est bien.” The conversation being not as provocative as my pants, I left.

valentiens flochFloc’h, “A bouquet of authors,” 2018. In and color film on paper,  65 x 50 cm.   Courtesy Floc’h.

Returning after that multi-paragraph scatology of romance digression to the high ground and the grounds of the Luxembourg gardens yesterday, then, which found me poop-full and searching for an appropriate place to empty, my first stop, a pay-to-poop toilet house a couple of hundred yards up from the pond before the Senate building as you march towards the Observatoire gardens, was closed, and the, as usual, upside down map to where to find its open cousins was useless. So I continued heading towards the sanitary toilet I knew should lie just outside the other end of the Observatory, near the Boulevard Montparnasse. I guess I should have known something had changed when I noticed that the exit to the Luxembourg was guarded by a young gendarme who wasn’t letting anyone else in. Normally, to enter the Observatory gardens you just cross the street and open the gate, but all the gates there were closed, and with the gendarme still in sight I wasn’t comfortable following the example of the youth in front of me who had just climbed out and stumbling over it. About half-way further on, after the ping-pong tables, I noticed that another sanitaire just outside the playground and near a side gate was freeing up; that gate was also locked.

Fortunately, on rounding the sanitaire outside the garden and on an ile across the street outside of which a group of high school students were gossiping, I found that none of them were waiting for the toilet, which was open.

Not only was the paper canister sufficiently stocked, this time I’d remembered to bring a couple of rolls with me. A good thing, because I’d have hated to be forced to resort to provisioning myself with the 1800 pages of Classical Greek, Hindu, and Confucian history and philosophy carefully balanced in the ‘sink’ in the form of four books miraculously only barely saturated by the last automatic cleaning:

“Platon” (Plato), Oeuvres Completes, printed on October 21, 1939, in a then new translation, complete with the snazzy inside cover binding painting, and hand-inscribed “Yvette, 1954.”

The 1949 “L’Enseignment de (Teaching of) Ramakrishna,” works grouped and annotated by Jean Herbert with the collaboration of Marie Honegger-Durand and P. Seshadri Iyer, part of the Hindouismes series of the Spiritualites Vivantes collection directed by Herbert and published by Albin Michel, coincidentally the same publisher as the book a translation of which I’ve been trying to find an American publisher for, Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus.” This one was inscribed “Yvette, 1963,” suggesting that after nine years of Socratic dialogue Yvette had had it with the Greeks and decided, like many of her contemporaries, to migrate further East for her spiritual guidance.

…. which, judging by the fact that the pages stopped being cut in the middle of it, lasted until Chapter XIX, “Jnana et Bhakti,” right after part A, in which “Jnana et Bhakti end up by being identical,” at which point Yvette was apparently ready to move on to…

… “Le Guide du Yoga,” by Shri Aurobindo (and copyrighted not by a group of San Francisco Zen Buddhists but by l’Ashram de Shri Aurobindo, 1951), also published by Albin Michel and inscribed “Yvette, 1964,” suggesting that our girl was now plunged into direct practice.

The fourth book, (I’m translating) “The jade fish and the phoenix-shaped hair-pin — 12 Chinese folk-tales fro the 17th-century,” published by Gallimard in 1987, bears no trace of Yvette, indicating that it may have belonged to a descendant — perhaps one of the high school students chatting outside the toilet — who finally decided to follow Hamlet’s imprecation “Bollox for your philosophy, Horatio!” and chuck it all. Examining this last tome more closely much later,  I realized that these particularly stories were actually, and explicitly (and ambisextrously) erotic tales. In other words, I may have entered looking to unload but my go-to  sanitaire on the meridion of Paris had made sure I exited packed with everything I needed for a spiritually, intellectually, and sensually fulfilling life. I also realized that whoever’d visited this toilet equipped with this particular book before me might have had other projects in mind besides unloading. For a good time, don’t call Jenny 867- 5309, call 17th-century provincial China.

Villegle TENSION AU BAS-MEUDON mars 1991 2Jacques Villegle, “Tension au bas-Meudon,” March 1991. Collage from ripped street posters. Courtesy Galery Vallois. Meudon is also where the sculpture Auguste Rodin  once swapped inspirations with Rilke and swapped sentiments with the sculptrice Camille Claudel. (If you want to talk tensions….)

Being a worshipper at the shrine of books, I had no such option (if I left the books there they would surely have been hosed in the automatic cleaning that followed my departure), and so it was with more than 2,000 years of Western, Confucian, and Hindu philosophy, the four books awkwardly cradled under my right shoulder (the canvas string bag holding the thermos, a can of Moroccan sardines, the empty green thermos cup, and Ragon’s “Courbet, Peintre de le Liberté” being strapped to the other) that I made my way down St. Mich, over on St.-Germaine, and finally down the rue de Seine for a gallery opening of problematic promise, the only draw being that the pony-tailed woman either excavating or stone-maisoning in one of the paintings resembled my latest anima. (Slightly zaftig, blonde, and pony-tailed.) If my own shit wasn’t stinking this time, the books must have retained a certain je-ne-sais-quelle arome de sanitaire, because the petite at the welcome desk refused to even look for the publicist I’d been in contact with. If another opening, for an exhibition entitled “Ladies Only,” seemed more promising cote chercher l’anima, I was less impressed with the curating when a galleriste to whom I compared one of the larger collaged paintings, “Botox,” to the Vivienne Girls of Henry Darger had no idea who I was talking about, never mind that the Bruit artist and writer who’d hidden the 15,000-page saga of the Girls in his Lincoln Park Chicago walk-up all his life had been the subject of a major 2015 expo at the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris.

Fortunately, this Germanopretan gallery ramble was saved from being a bust by the profusion of busts on display in the Galerie Vallois’s latest exhibition for the street poster collage pioneer Jacques Villegle, “Young, Gay, and Imprudent,” the title being misleading because most of the collages on display in three ample rooms, many of them wall-sized, were more focused on ample breasts than temptations to imprudent young gay men, many posters hawking phone sex hotlines catering to all genders, often cleverly overlapping posters whose remnants still advertised “Supported by Humanité,” the French Communist party rag.

From this profusion of feminine pulchritude from that innocent distant pre-AIDS era of the late ’70s, after hopping the Metro 11 to Belleville and turning down the rue Tourtille towards the Gallery of the Associated Artists of Belleville for a vernissage for artists of the Ile de France, I got a reminder of how much that innocence has been lost, and how much France’s Jewish question — let’s say religious and ethnic tolerance question — remains unresolved (and will not be resolved, perhaps only be exacerbated, by a law equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism) in the fact that the green iron fence surrounding an unmarked Jewish school not far from where Tourtille turns into the rue Francis Picabia seems to have only gotten higher.

zemmour berbere woman small

From the group exhibition Artists of the Ille de France: Danielle Zemmour, “Femme Berbere.” Courtesy of the artist.

Le feuilleton: “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon (Extract; translation followed by original French version)

“If Ragon’s erudition is immense, it has always been irrigated by the blood and misery of real life.”

— François Nourissier

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

Reflecting the author’s popular roots, Michel Ragon’s 1956 “Trompe-l’oeil” is less an easy parody of the nascent contemporary art market than an introduction to the complex Abstract Art universe disguised as tragi-comic spoof, with contemporary swipes at corrupt art critics and mercenary art revues à la Balzac’s “Lost Illusions.” (It also offers a trenchant commentary on anti-Semitism.)  Ragon’s colorful fictional personnages interact with some of the real-life artists of the era that he, as a critic and curator, championed (à la Zola). To read an excerpt of Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished), click here.

In the très chic Parisian salon of Monsieur Mumfy — the very same Mumfy of the celebrated underwear ads — “with Mumfy, you’re always comfy” — a Family Conference was underway. The plethora of Plexiglas and the multitude of apertures in the porous Oscar furniture eliminated any idea of intimacy in the vast square room, whose walls were ornamented with a collection of Klees. The quality of these paintings had earned their proprietor the high regard and hosannas, frequently expressed, of the leading art critics of Paris as well as art aficionados.

Ensconced in a tubular arm-chair held together with cream-colored cords which leant it the vague allure of a warped harp, Monsieur Mumfy was in the process of interrogating his son, standing before him. Slightly separated from them, but still participating in the conversation, Madame Mumfy was busy at a black ceramic table creating a more or less Cubist collage. It was not that Madame Mumfy was an artist, or even trying to pass as one, but that she liked to distract herself with cutting up colored paper and re-assembling it, sometimes à la Picasso, sometimes à la Matisse, just as 50 years earlier she might have devoted herself to needlework.

“My dear Charles,” Monsieur Mumfy declared, “it’s time to decide. You’ve now graduated from high school; it’s time to pick a career. We’re here to help….”

Charles, clad from head to toe in black, his stiff hair combed over his forehead à la Bourvil (or à la Marlon Brando), pulverizing his handkerchief between his nervous fingers, tentatively stepped forward before retreating, with a certain dandy-ness that might have lead one to suspect an inclination towards sexual inversion, but it was nothing like that. Charles’s effeminate affectations, like his bird-like hopping back and forth, his juvenile gestures, and the weaving of his hips when he walked, were à la mode.

“Respond, Cheri!” chimed in Madame Mumfy. “Don’t let your father just languish there. Otherwise we’re in for another 24 hours of stress!”

“Okay Pops, Moms,” Charles finally decided, accentuating his dandy-ness. “My dream is to become… a notary public.”

Madame Mumfy precipitously dropped her scissors and glue to rush to the side of her husband, who had begun to hyperventilate. Striking him on the back and tapping him on the cheeks, she tried to reassure him:

“It’s nothing, darling, nothing! Charles is obviously kidding….”

When Monsieur Mumfy had recovered his wits, his son, worried by the turn of events, repeated, all the same:

“I don’t want to make you mad Pops, Moms, but I’m not joking: I really want to be a notary public.”

Monsieur and Madame Mumfy glanced at each other with a complicit air tempered by indulgence. Then Monsieur Mumfy responded with a firm voice:

“My dear Charles, don’t be ridiculous. No one becomes a notary public these days. How could such an idea ever have sprouted up in the head of a MUMFY?! Choosing to be a notary public. The very idea! Does one choose to be a cuckold? Haven’t you read Balzac? Flaubert? For more than a hundred years notary publics have been looked at as grotesque characters, the butt of jokes — and your “dream” would be to sport a black skull-cap and bifocals with a pocket-watch hanging on a chain over a protuberant stomach that — thank God — you’re not even close to acquiring. Becoming a notary public might be fitting for the son of a country school-teacher, but you, Charles — do you want to be the shame of your family?

“Come, come now — it’s just the silly fancy of an adolescent. I’m going to help you…. I’ve got it! What if you became an artist…? A painter, for example?”

“But Pops, I don’t know how to paint.”

Monsieur Mumfy clutched his head between his hands in a sign of total exasperation in the face of such naïveté.

“Look at this blockhead! You’ll learn, Charles, you’ll learn! Does someone refuse to become a doctor because he’s never applied a bandage? One learns to paint, my boy, as with anything. And consider the future in painting. Picasso is a millionaire, as is Matisse…. Have you ever heard of a notary public who, starting out from scratch, has carved out such a shining success? Picasso lost so much time, in his youth, because he was poor, and couldn’t afford paints or canvasses, and didn’t know any dealers or critics. But you, Charles, won’t lack for anything. I’ll give you a monthly allowance so you won’t have anything to worry about. You can take advantage of my connections as a collector. With a little effort from you, my boy, we’ll make a famous artist out of you, who will be the pride and joy of the family. Look at Ancelin. He also wouldn’t have heard of becoming a painter. He wanted to be an officer, on the pretext that his father is a general. But General Ancelin talked him out of pursuing a career in a field compromised by the pacifism that’s more and more in vogue these days. He also, our old friend Ancelin, was able to see the opportunities available these days in the art world. And Ancelin now has a contract with Laivit-Canne’s gallery and will soon be exposed in New York.

Rising heavily, Monsieur Mumfy bumped his head against one of the blades of a Calder mobile rotating from the ceiling. He scooted it away distractedly with the back of his hand, as if it were a fly. The mobile started to undulate, with all its branches revolving in silence. It was as if a giant insect had suddenly come to life above the father and son, oblivious to its awakening. A soubrette entered, after knocking, apparently in the throes of panic.

“Madame, the pottery set that Monsieur gave Madame….”

“Yes…?

“I don’t know how it happened, but it’s… bleeding.”

“Now now, explain yourself clearly and don’t get upset,” sighed Madame Mumfy, delicately snipping a strip of embossed paper.

“Yes, Madame. I went to serve the consommé
in the pottery bowls and the consommé turned completely blue.”

“WHAT?!” erupted Monsieur Mumfy. “Who told you to touch that pottery?! You couldn’t tell that those plates were not made to be eaten from?!”

“Then what are they made for, Monsieur?” asked the maid, flustered.

“They’re not ‘made’ for anything!” roared Monsieur Mumfy even louder, so loud that the Calder began to hiccup. “Those plates are works of art. One does not eat from works of art. One beholds them!”

The maid tried to defend herself by babbling, “I wouldn’t have thought of pouring consommé on Monsieur’s paintings. I just thought that bowls are bowls….”

Monsieur and Madame Mumfy broke into simultaneous laughter, bursting out, “She believed that bowls were bowls…!” “Incredible!” “We must tell Paulhan about this!”

The maid departed, clearly vexed. By the immense bay window looking out over the Luxembourg Gardens, Charles, indifferent to the fit of laughter which had seized his parents, gazed nostalgically at the Law School.

***

Monsieur Mumfy was not a born art collector. Before the war, consumed as he was with his underwear factory, he didn’t even know that painters existed. It took an accident. One of his debtors brought him a batch of watercolors, gouaches, and paintings by an unknown German artist, pleading with him to accept the paintings as collateral. Monsieur Mumfy initially refused this singular arrangement. Since when did one trade underwear for paintings?! But the debtor had been driven to ruin. Ahead of taking him to court, Monsieur Mumfy had the paintings stored in one of his warehouses, without taking the trouble to even look at them. Some months later, the debtor committed suicide. Monsieur Mumfy had the paintings brought up so he could study them to see if by chance they might actually be worth something. Stupefied, he discovered that they were replete with child-like doodles — all sorts of rivers, of birds, of funny figures. He’d been had. He began to choke with rage. The bastard had conned him before offing himself! Just in case, though, he asked an art dealer to take a look; the dealer refused to buy anything, smiling snidely.

paul klee, untitled, 1939From the Arts Voyager archives: Paul Klee, Untitled, 1939. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

“So I can throw them in the garbage,” Monsieur Mumfy fumed.

“Oh,” the dealer answered, with an evasive gesture, “hang on to them all the same. You never know. If you have the space….”

Immediately after the war, the very same dealer came back to see Monsieur Mumfy, who’d completely forgotten the painting fiasco. He offered him $5,000 for the whole lot of Klee works that he recalled seeing earlier.

Faced with the enormity of the amount (the debtor owed him, before the war, a little over $500), Monsieur Mumfy became suspicious, asked other dealers to come look at the paintings, and got offers of $7,500, $10,000, and $12,500 for the Klees…. He decided to read a few books about contemporary art, discovered that the market for paintings was the most speculative around, and that Klee was considered in America to be a major painter. He bought ornate frames for his paintings and had them hung in his salon. Before long, there were requests to photograph ‘his’ oeuvres, and to reproduce them in color in luxury magazines and art books. The name Mumfy was evoked wherever there was talk of Klee’s oeuvre. Thus he was catapulted, almost unconsciously, into the midst of the world of arts and letters and readily let himself be converted to all things avant-garde. He allowed himself to indulge in the luxury of philanthropy, underwriting several art revues and sponsoring young artists whose paintings resembled Klee’s. He was even recognized as one of the premiere Klee specialists in France. Far from making him lose money, the arts earned him notoriety he’d never even dreamed of as a simple garmento. He was decorated for services rendered to the arts. Famous artists cultivated his friendship. Even his fellow industrialists now showed him a deference that they’d never have dreamed of according him before he earned a reputation as an “influential collector.” Monsieur et Madame Michaud wanted to be up-to-date. They bought an apartment that they hired Le Corbusier to transform. Nothing, absolutely nothing in their home pre-dated the 20th century (with the possible exception of its proprietors).

Brought up amongst this architecture of pure lines, blasé about being surrounded by furniture which constantly reminded him of a dentist’s office, exhausted by this daily frequenting of chefs-d’oeuvre, Charles began to fantasize about living in a dusty bureau, with large old straight-legged  wooden arm-chairs, an oak desk and an ink-well with a feather plume. This was his own form of poetry. To every teenager his folly.

*In English in the original.

Original French language text of excerpt, by Michel Ragon:

Dans le salon très moderne de Monsieur Michaud, le fameux Michaud des sous-vêtements du même nom (« avec Michaud, toujours chaud »), se tenait une réunion de famille. L’abondance du plexiglas et les multiples ouvertures des meubles Oscar enlevaient toute intimité à cette vaste salle cubique dont les murs s’ornaient d’une collection de peintures de Klee. Leur qualité valait à son propriétaire l’estime et la considération, très souvent exprimée, des meilleurs écrivains et amateurs d’art.

Assis dans un fauteuil tubulaire tendu de cordes blanches qui lui donnaient une vague allure de harpe faussée, Monsieur Michaud interrogeait son fils, debout devant lui. Un peu à l’écart, mais participant toutefois à la conversation, Madame Michaud s’occupait à un collage relativement cubiste sur une table de céramique noire. Non pas que Madame Michaud fût artiste, ni même qu’elle tentât de passer pour telle, mais elle se distrayait en découpant des morceaux de papiers de couleurs et en les assemblant, tantôt à la manière de Picasso, tantôt à la manière de Matisse, comme elle se fût donnée, cinquante ans plus tôt, aux points de canevas.

— Voyons, Charles, disait Monsieur Michaud à son fils, décide-toi. Tu viens d’être reçu a ton bac, il te faut t’orienter vers une carrière. Nous sommes là pour t’aider…

Charles, tout de noir vêtu, les cheveux raides ramenés sur le front à la Bourvil (ou à la Marlon Brando), triturait son mouchoir, avançait une jambe, la reculait, avec un dandinement pouvant faire supposer qu’il tendait à l’inversion sexuelle, mais il n’en était rien. L’allure efféminée de Charles, comme ses sautillements, ses gestes gamins, sa démarche déhanchée, appartenait au style de l’époque.

— Réponds, Amour, s’exclama Madame Michaud, ne laisse pas languir ton père ; sinon il va encore nous faire vingt-quatre de tension!

— Voila, pap’, mam’, se décida enfin Charles, en accentuant son dandinement, moi j’aimerais bien devenir notaire.

Madame Michaud abandonna précipitamment ses ciseaux et sa colle pour courir à son mari qui suffoquait. Elle le frappais dans le dos avec énergie, lui tapotait les joues :

— Ce n’est rien, darling*, ce n’est rien ! Charles plaisante, tu le vois bien…

Lorsque Monsieur Michaud reprit « ses esprits », Charles très ennuyé par la tournure des événements, redit quand même :

— Je ne voudrais pas vous fâcher, pap’, mam’, mais c’est vrai : j’aimerais bien être notaire.

Monsieur et Madame Michaud se regardèrent d’un air entendu et indulgent. Puis Monsieur Michaud dit d’une voix ferme :

— Mon petit Charles, tu es ridicule. On n’est plus notaire, de nos jours. Comment une pareille idée a-t-elle pu se nicher dans la tête du fils Michaud ! Choisir d’être notaire… Est-ce que l’on choisit d’être cocu ? Enfin, quoi, n’as-tu pas lu Balzac ? Flaubert ? Depuis cent ans les notaires sont des personnages de farce et ton idéal serait de coiffer la calotte noire, de porter des bésicles et une chaîne de montre en or sur un ventre que, Dieu merci, tu n’es pas encore près d’acquérir. Le métier de notaire peut, à la rigueur, convenir à un fils d’instituteur de campagne ; mais toi, Charles, veux-tu faire honte à ta famille ?

« Allons, allons, c’est une bêtise de jeune homme. Je vais t’aider, moi. Tiens… si tu faisais une carrière d’artiste… Peintre, par exemple ?

— Mais, pap’, je ne sais pas peindre…

Monsieur Michaud se prit le crâne à pleines mains, en signe de découragement total devant une telle innocence.

— Regardez-moi ce grand sot ! Mais tu apprendras, Charles ! Est-ce qu’on refuse d’envisager la médecine parce qu’on n’a jamais fait un pansement ! La peinture s’apprend, mon petit, comme toute chose. Et regarde l’avenir qui est offert à un peintre. Picasso est milliardaire, Matisse aussi… Connais-tu un notaire qui, parti de rien, soit arrivé à une aussi brillante situation ? Picasso a perdu beaucoup de temps, dans sa jeunesse, parce qu’il était pauvre, qu’il ne pouvait pas s’acheter de couleurs ni de toiles, qu’il n’avait aucune relation parmi les marchands et les critiques. Mais toi, tu ne manqueras de rien. Je te donnerai une mensualité qui te laissera la tête libre. Tu profiteras de mes relations de collectionneur. Allez, fiston, avec un pu de bonne volonté de ta part, nous ferons de toi un artiste célèbre, qui sera la joie de la famille. Regarde Ancelin, il ne voulais rien savoir pour être peintre, lui non plus. Il voulait devenir officier, sous prétexte que son père est général. Mais le général Ancelin a bien su le dissuader de suivre une carrière aussi compromise par ce pacifisme de plus en plus en vogue. Lui aussi, ce vieil ami Ancelin, avait su voir quels débouchés offrait maintenant le monde des arts. Ancelin a son contrat chez Laivit-Canne et il va bientôt exposer a New York.

En se relevant lourdement, Monsieur Michaud heurta du front une pale d’un mobile de Calder qui se balançait dans la pièce. Il la chassa distraitement du revers de la main, comme une mouche. Le mobile se mit à onduler, toutes les branches évoluèrent en silence. On eût dit qu’un gigantesque insecte se fût tout à coup éveillé au-dessus du père et du fils qui n’y prenaient garde. Une soubrette entre, après avoir frappé. Elle paraissait affolée :

— Madame, le service de céramique que Monsieur avait offert à Madame…

— Et bien ?

— Je ne sais pas comment cela a pu se produire, mais il déteint.

— Expliquez-vous clairement et ne vous énervez pas, soupira Madame Michaud en coupant délicatement une languette de papier gaufré.

— Oui, Madame, j’ai voulu servir le consommé dans le service en céramique et le consommé est devenu tout bleu.

— C’est insensé, hurla Monsieur Michaud. Qui vous a dit de toucher à ce service ! Vous n’avez donc pas vu que ces assiettes n’étaient pas faites pour manger dedans !

— Alors elle sont faites pour quoi, Monsieur, demanda la bonne, ahurie.

— Mais pour rien, hurla encore plus fort Monsieur Michaud, si fort que le Calder en eut des hoquets. Ces assiettes sont des œuvres d’art. On ne mange pas dans des œuvres d’art. On les regarde !

La bonne essaya de se justifier en bougonnant :

— Je n’aurais jamais pensé verser du consommé dans les tableaux de Monsieur. Mais je croyais que des assiettes étaient des assiettes…

Monsieur et Madame Michaud éclatèrent de rire en même temps. Ils pouffaient : « Elle croyait que les assiettes étaient des assiettes… C’est à ne pas croire ! Il faudra raconter ça a Paulhan. »

La bonne repartit, vexée. Par l’immense baie vitrée qui donnait sur le Jardin du Luxembourg, Charles, indifférent a la crise de fou rire de ses parents, regardait avec nostalgie vers la Faculté de Droit.

***

Monsieur Michaud n’était pas né collectionneur. Avant la guerre, tout occupé à son industrie de sous-vêtements, il ignorait même qu’il existait encore des peintres. Il avait fallu un hasard. Un de ses débiteurs lui apporta un lot d’aquarelles, de gouaches et de peintures d’un artiste allemand inconnu, en le suppliant de les conserver comme gage. Monsieur Michaud refusa d’abord ce singulier marché. Depuis quand échange-t-on des sous-vêtements contre de la peinture ! Mais le débiteur était acculé à la ruine. En attendant d’entamer des poursuites, Monsieur Michaud fit porter dans une de ses remises toutes ces peintures qu’il ne prit même pas la peine de regarder. Quelques mois plus tard, son débiteur se suicida. Monsieur Michaud se fit apporter les peintures afin d’examiner s’il pourrait en tirer quelque argent. Stupéfait, il vit qu’il s’agissait de choses enfantines, des sortes de fleuves, d’oiseaux, de bonshommes. Il s’était fait bien avoir. La fureur l’étranglait. Ce salaud de machin s’était payé sa tête avant de se suicider. A tout hasard, il fit quand même venir un marchand qui refusa d’acheter en souriant d’un air supérieur.

— Alors, je peux les foutre à la poubelle, suffoqua-t-il.

— Oh, dit le marchand, avec un geste évasif, gardez-les toujours. On ne sait jamais. Si vous avez de la place…

Peu après la guerre, ce même marchand revint voir Monsieur Michaud qui avait complètement oublié cette histoire de peintures. Il lui offrit deux millions pour ce lot d’œuvres de Klee qu’il se souvenait avoir vu autrefois.

Devant l’énormité de la somme (le débiteur ne lui devait, avant la guerre, que quelques centaines de mille francs), il se méfia, fit venir d’autres marchands de tableaux qui lui offrirent trois, quatre, cinq millions… Il se mit alors à lire quelques livres sur l’art contemporain, découvrit que la peinture était la marchandise la plus spéculative qui soit et que l’on considérait Klee, en Amérique, comme un grand peintre. Il fit encadrer luxueusement ses peintures et les accrocha dans son salon. Bientôt, on lui demanda l’autorisation de photographier « ses » œuvres, de les reproduire en couleurs dans des revues luxueuses et des livres d’art. Son nom fut mentionné à chaque fois que l’on parlait de l’œuvre de Klee. Il pénétra ainsi, à son insu, dans le monde des arts et des lettres et se laissa aisément convertir à toutes les avant-gardes. Il se paya le luxe d’être parfois philanthrope, de subventionner quelques revues, d’encourager quelques jeunes artistes dont la peinture ressemblait à celle de Klee. Il arriva même à passer pour l’un des premiers spécialistes de Klee en France. Loin de lui faire perdre de l’argent, les arts lui apportaient une considération qu’il n’avait jamais obtenue en tant qu’industriel. On le décora pour services rendus aux arts. Des artistes célèbres recherchèrent son amitié. Même les autres industriels lui témoignaient maintenant une déférence qu’ils n’auraient jamais eu l’idée de lui accorder avant qu’il devînt un « grand collectionneur ». Monsieur et Madame Michaud voulurent être à la page. Ils achetèrent un appartement qu’ils firent transformer par Le Corbusier. Rien, absolument rien chez eux, ne fut antérieur à ce siècle, si ce n’étaient eux-mêmes.

Elevé dans cette architecture aux lignes pures, blasé du mobilier qui lui rappelait fâcheusement le cabinet du dentiste, abruti par la fréquentation journalière des chefs-d’œuvre, Charles se prit à souhaiter vivre dans une étude poussiéreuse, avec de grandes vielles chaises aux pieds droits, en bois, avec un bureau en bois et un porte-plume avec une plume. C’était sa poésie, à lui. A chaque adolescent sa folie.

Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.