The Chevalier de la Barre: The bull who broke free (updated 9h37 EST Thursday)

Break on through to the other side: A certain drawbridge in Arles.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak

In case you don’t have the pleasure of waking up to or dining with the French public radio news, here’s what it’s typically sounded like for the past year:

“Covid covid covid vaccine vaccine vaccine Macron covid covid vaccine vaccine Islamism covid covid covid confinement confinement confinement vaccine vaccine climate covid covid incest vaccine vaccine.”

So invested are they in this constrained universe, that when the government announced last week (in very frank terms with absolutely no attempt at dissimulation) what sounded a lot like a quarantine of 16 of the country’s 100 departments or counties where you-know-what cases have been rising alarmingly the past two months (we had more than 65,000 new cases in the 24 hours ending yesterday at 8 a.m. EST, with 10 percent of the public having received at least one shot), the public radio journalists still insisted on calling it a confinement (or lockdown). Never mind the number of times they’ve cited Albert Camus’s “La Peste” (The Plague) over the past year or the number of times they’ve referenced the novelist-journalist-philosopher’s warning about the danger of ‘mal-nomming’ things, these journalists still can’t recognize a quarantine when they see one. (If it walks like a quarantine, talks like a quarantine, and unlike a duck can’t fly beyond a 10K radius, it’s probably a quarantine.)

What a breath of fresh air it was last night, then, when a freedom-loving bull broke through the covid covid vaccine vaccine confinement confinement school of journalism that has constituted much of French public radio reporting for the past year with an adventure worthy of inspiring anyone in need of a break from the reigning and anxiety-fueling media ambiance. And not just any bull. A black bull from the magical, eccentric, quaintly quirky, and very southern city of Arles.

If you’re not familiar with Arles, this is the city where the brutal meridional Sun burnt a hole through Vincent Van Gogh’s scalp as he was hauling around and stationing his easel in the unshielded surrounding fields, frying his brain to the point where he succumbed to an urge to cut his ear off and was promptly hounded out of town by the locals, their progeny hurling stones at his heels all the way to the asylum.

It’s also the city to which that famous bull-fighting fanatic Pablo Picasso repaired whenever he felt the need to indulge his passion for and sketch scenes of “Tauromaquia,” many of them originating in or on the narrow alleys surrounding the same 2,000-year-old arena from whose periphery the bull in question and two cohorts escaped Tuesday from an ill-advised photo-op. It’s also a city that’s part of a region, the Camargue, where the animals, no doubt taking after the artists, the gitans, and even the rural guards (as described by Alphonse Daudet in “Letters from my Windmill”) tend to have their own ornery characters. (They — the animals — even have their own gallery.)

Town, Gallo-Roman remnants, and irrascible Arlesien.n.e characters were enough to inspire Henry James to make the city part of his itinerary for the 1883 travelogue “French voyages,” in which he described the arena as follows (I’m back-translating from Robert Laffont’s French edition of “Voyage en France”):

“For all its grandiose scale, the Arles Arena is less complete than its sister in Nimes; it’s suffered more from the assaults of time and its children, and has been less thoroughly restored. Practically all the seats are gone, but the outside walls, with the exception of the top floor of the arcades, form a rough and complete mass; as for the arched hallways, they seem as solid as the day they were built. As a whole its proportions are superbly ample and of a monumental character as far as a place of diversion (what we call today ‘entertainment’) goes, as only the Roman spirit was able to bestow on this type of establishment. The podium is much more elevated than that of Nimes and a good number of the large slabs facing it have been found and put back in place. The proconsular lodge has more or less been reconstructed, and the grandiose access points which lead to it are still clearly visible and produce a majestic effect; so much so that sitting there, in the magical immobility of the moon, my elbows leaning against the dilapidated parapet of the arena, I could practically hear the murmurs and shudders and the hardy voices of the circus of which the last echoes stretch back 1,500 years.”

That circus was apparently nothing compared to the diversion provided by the black bull which succeeded in breaking away from the outskirts of this very same arena on Tuesday, an escapade which no doubt produced its own shudders (and at least one casualty) among the onlookers privileged to witness the jailbreak.

To fully appreciate the taureau’s accomplishment — specifically, his bold escape from an ill-advised group photo and subsequent navigation of the narrow and labyrinthine cobblestone streets of the old city down to the Rhone river — here’s how James described his own painful attempts to negotiate the same terrain vers 1883:

“I recall with tenderness the torturous alleys… which evoked those of a village, paved with treacherous acierated little stones that transformed all exercise into a penitence. This reminded me of an excruciating promenade that I’d made the night I arrived, with the intention of retrieving a particular view of the Rhone. I’d already been to Arles years before, and I remembered discovering on the quays a sort of tableau. It seemed to me that, on the evening I’m thinking of, a drenched moon gave the impression of trying to illuminate the past as much as the present. But I found no painting and I almost didn’t find the Rhone at all. I got lost, without a creature in sight from whom to ask directions. Nothing could be more provincial than Arles at 10 at night. I ended up by arriving at a type of quay, where I saw the great muddy mass of water gliding in the dark silence. It started to rain, the moon had vanished to who knows where, and the spot was hardly gay. It wasn’t what I’d come looking for; I’d been searching for a past that was impossible to retrieve.”

Animals being more inclined towards living in the present than humans, the search of the black bull who escaped a selfie-op outside the Arles arena (along with the two co-conspirators who were quickly apprehended) Tuesday was a lot more basic, his goal perhaps to ‘retrieve’ his brethren in the marshes of the nearby Camargue, where they can often be seen gamboling among flamingos and white horses.

After making his way a lot more successfully than James down those same cobblestone streets (and without losing nary an ear) to the quays of the Rhone and finding himself surrounded by the gendarmes, the bull took the only course any freedom-loving bovine (or other of God’s creatures) could take and dived horns-long into the river, swimming across the glittering blue water to the other side, where he promptly accosted (or so the radio news alleges) an unfortunate 70-year-old woman out for her own promenade (since hospitalized, with no mortal wounds) before he was finally subdued.

Ferdinand, meanwhile, is no doubt still grazing somewhere in the neighboring wheat-fields so lyrically depicted by another free spirit.

Born free: Bulls in the Camargue department or county that includes Arles.

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 .

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.)


Jean-Michel Atlan, Sans Titre, 1949, pastel sur papier, 65 x 50,5 cm, smallOften lost among the quarrel between the Abstracts and the Figuratives of the 1950s (and the critical partisans of their schools) was the achievement of work which — sometimes depending on the eye of the viewer — traversed both terrains. Thus it is no surprise that for an exhibition which by its name alone, Animal Totem, promises a degree of concreteness, the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger has rolled out some of the Abstract movement’s most accomplished exponents, including Paul Reybeyrolle , André Masson, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, and — in his Bucher Jaeger debut — Jean-Marie Atlan. To read more about Atlan from his leading critical advocate Michel Ragon, in exclusive English translation, click here. And about his epoch, see the latest episode of the Paris Tribune’s exclusive serialized English translation of Ragon’s 1956 novel “Trompe-l’oeil,” below. Animal Totem continues through March 14 at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger’s Saint-Germain-des-Près space. Image courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. 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 .

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

Part five 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 four parts, click here.

The following Sunday, Fontenoy dropped in at Mustafa’s for an afternoon that began with stupor and concluded with a sickening feeling which owed less to the abundance of the patisseries than to the ambiance of this particular reception.

To start with, wandering around the various rooms of this estate surrounded by a sumptuous park in the well-to-do Paris suburb of Enghien, Fontenoy was very embarrassed to run into colleagues from the mainstream press whom he’d often described, in his articles for the avant-garde revues, as “trend-chasers.” Then there was the high-society crowd that he was so unfamiliar with. He knew everyone in the small world which gravitated around abstract painters, but here he was entering the world of those who had definitely arrived.

What also disconcerted him was that this villa bore no resemblance to Mustafa, who’d christened it “My Dear Beatrice.” It seemed, on the contrary, to have more to do with Beatrice Morose, the painter’s wife and a painter herself. The woman in question, a veritable queen for a day, promenaded five poodles yapping like canine chatterboxes among the guests. Voluminous and draped in velvet like an empress, Beatrice Morose showed off with a flippant gesture her own paintings, nudged in between admirable Mustafas.

She played the role of the guardian angel of this sorry drunkard who used to be Mustafa, and whom she’d now resurrected.

Everyone raved about the Master, his genius, the perennial legends of canvasses purchased for 300 francs which now sold for a million. But where was Mustafa? Fontenoy slunk from one room to another, hoping to run into him. Finally he ended up in a small deserted salon where he observed, from behind, an old man in a dinner-jacket trying to pry open a shuttered piano lid with a paper-cutter. At that very instant, a servant in full livery, built like an athlete, burst into the room, tore the instrument from the old man’s hands and dragged him away by force by gripping his fists.

The servant did not notice Fontenoy, who had scotched himself against a tapestry, but the old man looked at him as they strode by with an expression of such anguish, such desperation, that Fontenoy would remain shaken up for weeks. He’d recognized the man as Mustafa. The painter, for his part, appeared neither more nor less surprised to see a stranger hidden in his salon than if he’d just found the Count of Monte Cristo installed at his dining table.

Fontenoy trailed the servant, who dragged Mustafa along like a prisoner. They arrived in the main room, where the reception was being held. Only then did the servant let go of his master, respectfully guiding him among the guests, lightly hanging on to him by the arm.

“And now,” announced Beatrice Morose, “the Master will receive in his atelier.”

A satisfied murmur ran through the assembly. There was just one discordant rattling: Mustafa, begging for a drink. His bodyguard brought him a glass of water tinted with a splash of red wine. Amongst this crowd in the process of elegantly liquidating hundreds of bottles of champagne, Mustafa was the only one who did not have the right to drink.

The bodyguard-servant hauled the artist to the atelier, situated in the middle of the park. He placed a long, fine paint-brush in one hand, and a palette in the other. Then he gently nudged him towards the virgin canvas attached to an easel, crushed some colors on the palette, and retreated.

“Behold,” announced Beatrice Morose to her guests, “the Master is now going to paint. Let us leave him. And let us not intrude on this moment of inspired genius.”

Fontenoy had seen enough. He fled rather than left “My Dear Beatrice.”


Fontenoy might well tell himself that Mustafa’s case was a bad example, he nonetheless remained bitter contemplating the vanity of these “great successes.” Mustafa, lavished with honors and money, grown into a respectable and respected personage — and living in constant terror of his bodyguard. Forced to keep up the facade of naiveté, of health. Fontenoy shivered when he flashed back to that look of a hunted animal.

Granted, Mustafa was a sick man whom Beatrice Morose took care of, protecting as best she could, but Matisse…. Fontenoy recalled his first reportage at the great Fauve master’s studio. He still had trouble getting it into his head that an authentic artist could also be a bourgeoisie, and that a bourgeoisie could also be an artist. He still cleaved to a Montparnasian romanticism of which Manhès, along with Atlan and a rare handful of others, was among the last remaining examples. He loved this ambiance of the Montparnasse artist cafés, but the fact was that the true creators were rare among all the regulars of le Sélect or le Dôme. The vast majority of the habitués consisted of expatriates who were more or less painters, more or less poets, more or less failures or unknowns. If Modigliani had only eluded Death, Fontenoy thought, maybe he too would today be a bourgeoisie like Matisse, who numbered the most insignificant of his drawings and had his secretary classify them, who locked his paintings up in a bank vault after having them photographed. Or perhaps, to ensure that every day he produced his painting already paid for in advance, and that he stopped drinking, they might have made him into a decorated and glorious recluse, like they’d done to Mustafa. Soutine himself, during his final years, had turned into a fearful petite bourgeoisie, who, rumor had it, locked his mistress in every time he went to see his dealer out of fear that someone would steal her.

Would the same thing happen to Manhès? At the very thought of this, Fontenoy was ready to chuck it all and just write poems. But he couldn’t help himself. Painting was like a virus implanted in his blood.

Fontenoy saw no sign of Manhès at le Select. Isabelle and Moussia must have returned from the country. On the other hand, Blanche Favard was there, sitting alone at a table. He went to sit down next to her.

Fontenoy was happy to find someone to whom he could unburden himself about his visit to Mustafa’s. All it took was a little event like this to set off a moral crisis which would keep him from writing a single word for several days. Then he’d wander along the boulevard Montparnasse to the boulevard Saint-Germain, desperately seeking someone to talk to. Inevitably, it was at these very moments that his closest friends were nowhere to be found, not because they were trying to avoid him, but because a sort of curse made sure that the individual was left alone to confront his suffering. One of his poet friends, Ilarie Voronca, undergoing a similar crisis one evening, went knocking from door to door, hoping to find someone to save him from his somber ideas. No one was available and Ilarie Voronca was found several days later at home, where he’d turned the gas on and killed himself. He always thought about Ilarie Voronca whenever someone confided, “I’m really not doing well today. Can we spend the evening together? I just need a presence….” Sometimes he had an article to finish and wasn’t thrilled to play the role of confidant. But then he’d tell himself: “If Ilarie Voronca had been able to find one of us that night, he’d still be alive.”

Talking with Blanche Favard, an anguish which became stronger and stronger seized Fontenoy by the throat. He told himself: “I can’t go home alone tonight. It’s not possible. Too bad, if Blanche wants me, I’ll go home with her.” Then the leering face of Arlov loomed before him: “Why did Blanche have to ask me to organize an exhibition for her? People will say that I’m no better than Arlov.”

They left le Select in the wee hours, weaving along the boulevard Montparnasse. Blanche looped her elbow into the crook of Fontenoy’s arm. They headed towards the Cité Falguière*.

*Where Soutine himself once had an atelier. And where the translator once lived. (Translator’s Note.)

Le cas Albert Camus, l’étranger qui nous ressemble (The case of Albert Camus, the stranger who looks like all of us)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Story (excluding citations from scenario for Camus exhibition) copyright 2012, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on our magazine Art Investment News in 2012. Albert Camus died 60 years ago today… in a banal traffic accident on his way back to Paris from Loumarin, where he’d been sojourning with his wife and children. On December 30, 1959, in his last letter to long-time soul-mate Maria Casarès, Camus wrote, in part : “See you soon, my superb one. I am so happy at the idea of seeing you again that I laugh in writing you. I have closed all my folders and stopped working (too much family and too many friends of family!). I therefore have no reason to deprive myself of your laughter, of our soirées, nor of my homeland. I embrace you, I clutch you firmly against me until Tuesday, when I recommence. — A.” To read our review of the recent publication of Camus’s correspondence with Maria Casarès, click here. Benjamin Stora is president of France’s Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration in Paris.

Dans les actualités: Expo Albert Camus, “Albert Camus, l’étranger qui nous ressemble,” mis en scene et dirigé par Benjamin Stora et programmé pour Marseille-Provence capitale européenne de la culture, abandoné, re-programmé, et encore abandoné. (In the news: Expo Albert Camus, “Albert Camus, the stranger who resembles us,” conceived and directed by Benjamin Stora and programmed for Marseille – Provence Cultural Capital of Europe, abandoned, re-programmed, and abandoned again.)

“To reduce Camus to just one of (his) dimensions would make no sense. Novelist, playwright, essayist, journalist — Camus is all of these things at the same time. Each facet of his work nourished and shed light on all the others. We must thus mount a full life, a prolific oeuvre, which adapted different forms while conserving a remarkable coherence in its ensemble. Visitors will (discover) what unifies such a universe: A certain tone, at the same time joyous and disturbing, somber and resplendent with slivers of the Mediterranean sun.”
— Benjamin Stora, original commissar for the exposition “Albert Camus, l’étranger qui nous ressemble.”

“I do not believe, in that which concerns me, in isolated books. With certain writers, it seems that their works form an ensemble where each work is illuminated by the others, and where each regards the other.”
— Albert Camus, Complete Works, Volume III, p. 402 (cited by Benjamin Stora).

“Non, les braves gens n’ame pas qu’on suivre un route autre qu’eux.”*
— Georges Brassens

The occasion was as opportune as the disappointing denouement was perhaps inevitable, given the tendency of the interested to alienate people on both sides of any given question with a point of view and approach that often defied any fixed ideology, bred from the melanged influences of ideas and experience, intellect and instinct, reflection and urgency. At the heart of the Mediterranean capital Marseille’s campaign to win the European Union’s coveted and potentially lucrative Cultural Capital of Europe designation for 2013 would be the man who not only embodies everything that is heroic about France, a champion of philosophy, letters, the theater, even — as editor of the underground newspaper Combat — the Resistance to the German Occupation, but who better than anybody embodies in one man the intricate, still conflicted mosaic that is France’s relations with its former colonies, its own Mediterranean first man, Albert Camus. After all, wasn’t 2013 also the centennial of his birth? To organize the exhibition the Marseille – Provence committee promised to engage Benjamin Stora, a historian specializing in Algeria, French Algeria, and Algerian immigration in France, born in Algeria like Camus, the ethnic Frenchman who always considered himself Algerian, weaned on its terrain and nurtured by its brilliant Sun. Catherine Camus, Albert’s daughter and the guardian of his legacy and personal archives, approved Stora’s selection in 2010, as well as scenographie Stora proposed. The exhibition would take place not in gritty Marseille, that most Maghrebian of French cities, but in Aix-en-Provence (where most of Camus’s archives repose), Marseille’s once quaint, now touristic neighbor, ruled by Maryse Joissains-Masini, an arch conservative mayor who considers the town her fife (and who, when Francois Hollande was elected president, declared him “illegitmate”).

The scenario for the exhibition that Stora submitted with Jean-Baptiste Péretié, to be called “Albert Camus, the stranger who resembles us,” draws a portrait of the philosopher of action revealed in both his acts and words, never too lost in theoretics to ignore gnawing imperative, taking visitors on a parcours of his life arrayed in six rooms and connecting walkways evoking stages or places important to his route — the printer’s table, the stage, his office, a child’s room — and whose contents focus on Camus’s multiple lives and causes, including anti-Stalinism, opposition to the death penalty, the Resistance, and of course the Algerian war, the — if you will — existential struggle between the colonized thirsting for true independence, and the colonizer still convinced he is a not a jailer but a liberator, importing not oppression but civilization. What Stora envisioned was not a mere superficial promenade through the biography of a life, but, au contraire, to shatter the edifice Camus has become in French culture — a sort of matinee idol philosopher, the Humphrey Bogart of existentialism with cigarette dangling precariously at the end of his lips — and reveal the complex man beneath the sheen. Each room, and the walkways that connected them, would serve as an access point to the development and execution of Camus’s many combats, even those over which he was conflicted up to the moment of his death in January 1960 (in what a popular magazine of the epoch, Sonorama, called ‘a banal traffic accident’), such as Algeria.

Of necessity, because it was not a conflict about which he could be objective but one whose tensions were reflected in his own makeup, the struggle between France and Algeria became the ultimate playing field for his ideas and ideals. Indeed Camus, who loved soccer, must have felt at times like he was trying to reconcile two sides who could only see their own goal lines. Born in Constantine, Algeria, but working for decades in France and abroad, author of 30 books including “Gangrene and forgetfullness, the memory of the Algerian War (La Découverte, 1991)” and “Algeria, the invisible war” (Presses de Sciences Po, 2000), consultant and / or author of numerous films, documentaries, and programs on French television (including the upcoming film version of Camus’s last, unfinished novel, “The First Man,” which returns him to his childhood in Oran), Benjamin Stora seemed the ideal referee of the manifold Camuses on the playing field. Unlike so many French politicians and so-called “philosophers” (as omnipresent on French talk shows as political pundits are on ours) Stora was not interested in instrumentalizing Camus to serve his own polemical ends. Rather — and this comes through more than anything after reading the scenario for the exhibition, which he provided to us — Stora wanted to accompany the visitor on an exploration of Camus that would be anything but anodyne, critical in today’s France, where Camus has often acquired the dusty, neglected state of required high school reading. Incredibly, Stora has succeeded in arranging his biographical and theoretical progression in a way that, by showing Camus’s thought not in permanent definition but in a struggle — a sort of marmite never finished — brings him to life and makes a quest to apprehend him as a living enterprise. This is not to say that Camus’s over-riding ethos lacks definition.

“Albert Camus was, finally,” Stora writes in the conclusion of the proposed scenario for the exhibition, “he who refused the spirit of the system and introduced in the political act the sentiment of humanity. To those who believed that only violence is the grand decider of history, he said that yesterday’s crime can neither authorize nor justify today’s. In his appeal for a civil truce (to the Algerian War), secretly prepared with the Algerian director of the FLN Abane Ramdane, he wrote in January 1956, ‘Whatever the ancient and profound origins of the Algerian tragedy, one fact remains: No cause can justify the death of the innocent.’ He believed that terror against civilians is not an ordinary political weapon, but destroys the real political field. In ‘Les Justes,’ he has one of his characters say: ‘I have accepted killing to overthrow despotism. But behind that which you say, I see the announcement of a despotism which, if it is ever installed, will make of me an assassin when I am trying to be a champion of justice.’

It might be hard to conceive of this today, when philosophers and politicians — particularly in France — are uniformly interested in advancing their own world views, but in his books as in his life, Camus was as likely to be in a quest for understanding as to be interested in imposing his own solution. “As a contra-courant to the hate which flowed during the Algerian War,” Stora writes, “Camus tried to understand why this couple, France and Algeria, apparently welded together, was breaking apart with such a big fracas.” In the flood of wounded spirits and souls, “always taking the side of the trouble-maker, Camus continues to intrigue. Relation to violence, refusal of terrorism, fear of losing those close to him and his land, belief in the necessity of equality and blindness before the nationalism of the Algerians — his oeuvre appears like a palace in the fog. The closer the reader gets, the more complicated the edifice becomes — without at all losing its splendor.”

Indeed, Algeria might be to Camus’s philosophy as the Sun was to Mersault, the hero of his breakthrough novel “The Stranger”; he is too close to it, so it temporarily blinds him, challenging the consistency of his otherwise pure philosophy and unwavering moral compass.

In his classic distillation of Camus’s thought, “Camus” (Fontana Modern Masters, 1970, p. 59), Conor Cruise O’Brien writes: “Eight years after the publication of ‘The Plague,’ the rats came up to die in the cities of Algeria. To apply another of Camus’s metaphors, the Algerian insurrection was ‘the eruption of the boils and pus which had before been working inwardly in the society.’ And this eruption came precisely from the quartier in which the narrator had refused to look: from the houses which Dr. Rieux never visited and from the conditions about which the reporter Rambert never carried out his inquiry. The realization of this adds a new dimension to the sermon. The source of the plague is what we pretend is not there, and the preacher himself is already, without knowing it, infected by the plague.”

This is the beauty of the imperfection of Camus: He may realize he cannot be completely morally consistent on the Algerian question, and yet he forges on. This is the courage of Benjamin Stora’s vision for the story of Camus he sought to tell: there would be no clear moral conclusion for him to present to those who undertook to enter the expedition / exhibition — the curator would even encounter some moral land-mines that might be treacherous for him to traverse because of his own experience with this central theme — and yet he forged on, not to prove a point but to reveal a life.

It’s clear, then — to return to the palace in the fog metaphor — that even if his own personal experience and political sentiments may differ from Camus’s (and I’m not saying they do; I am no expert on Stora and his thinking), Stora does not let this blind him to the grandeur of his subject and it’s that grandeur that comes through in his scenario for this exhibition.

Unfortunately, the France into which Stora dropped this is compositionally the same factional and fractured France in which Camus frequently managed — and isn’t this the true sign of an objective thinker? — to distance, even alienate people on both sides, the Right and the Left — in this specific case, those who wanted to hang on to Algeria and those who championed its Independence. And those so blinded by their own point of view they cannot see the big picture. So it was that the exhibition was torpedoed last Spring, quite possibly because the mayor of Aix-en-Provence (the city’s point person on the Marseille – Provence Cultural Capital of Europe 2013 committee was none other than the mayor’s daughter) apparently decided, with no factual grounds, that Stora’s exhibition would be too pro-FLN (the Algerian independence forces), and that this might offend the many ‘pieds-noir’ among her constituents, ethnic French who fled Algeria when it won its Independence in 1962. (This is just one of the conjectures raised by the French media to explain the exhibition’s annulation. I don’t present it as proven fact.) When Aix tried to resuscitate the exhibition in September — with an exhibition commissar whose more narrow focus on Camus as anarchist and free-thinker has made him the darling of a nascent (if harmless) movement of proto-“anarchists” nostalgic for their forebears of the turn of the (20th) century (“anarchists” are now to France as “hipsters” are to the U.S.) — the French government finally stepped into the fracas, with newly appointed Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti defending Stora and withdrawing the government’s official imprimatur from the revived exhibition with Stora replaced. The new commissar, Michel Onfray, ultimately withdrew. (I am not delving more deeply into the reasons for the cancellation of Stora’s exhibition because, in fact, the more one delves into it the more it resembles the afore-mentioned castle in the fog — without the splendor — and, more important, where most of the coverage of the exhibition has focused on the controversy surrounding its cancellation, our purpose here is to illuminate the actual exhibition planned by Stora — and advocate for its being revived.)

What’s needed now is for Filippetti to take Camus-like action and provide a State rubric and facility for Stora’s exhibition, ideally the Bibliotheque Nationale, whose location in Paris’s student nucleus of the 13th arrondissement also makes it ideally located to attract the audience for whom this exhibition, which extracts Camus from the treatise and brings him to life again, is most essential. Doing so would conform to one of new French president Francois Hollande’s stated priorities: young people. Says Stora, in the preliminary scenario:

“Our intention in this exposition is not to ‘reconcile’ those who like Camus and those who reject him for all kinds of political, aesthetic, or literary reasons. What we want to say is not, despite its appearance, subjective: Camus was, and remains, a writer for the young. Not because he died at 46. At that age, or even younger, an abundance of writers, musicians, painters, and artists, from Schubert to Van Gogh, have created mature oeuvres. But Camus offers something singular to young people: He starts with acute discoveries, followed by a reaction almost always generous, and we think that generations of high school and college students continue to recognize themselves and to be shaken, awoken, revealed to themselves.”

Several years ago then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy floated the idea of moving Camus’s body from the cemetery of Loumarin in the southern department of Vaucluse to the Pantheon, where reside the ‘glorious ones’ of France. (Actually, the glorious men and Marie Curie.) Filippetti now has an opportunity to champion Camus’s place as perhaps the most glorious exponent of French thought since Descartes, that is to say French thought at its most glorious: As an inquisitive explorer of ideas. Technically, the moral rights (as they’re called in France) to the Camus artifacts which make up much of Stora’s planned exhibition may belong to Catherine Camus, his daughter; but don’t they really belong to all his sons and daughters, and thus does not this patrimoine or heritage ultimately appartient to the State acting on their behalf and in their interests?


*”No, the ‘good people’ don’t like it when you don’t follow the same path as them.”

Rentrée scolaire / Back to school in Paris et New York avec Matisse et Fénéon

matisse young girl reading moma and orsay smallWhen an Anarchist meets the Avant-Garde in Paris et NY: From the exhibition Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde — From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, running October 16 through January 27 at the Orangerie in Paris (in a slightly neutered title:  Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse) and March 22 through July 25, 2020 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: Henri Matisse, “Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading),” Paris 1905–06. Oil on canvas, 28 5/8 x 23 1/2″ (72.7 x 59.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo by Paige Knight. © 2019 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Vivre Villeglé! (And his lacerated sirens)

villegle breasty hottieIt’s fitting that Jacques Villeglé — like the pioneer in the art of the lacerated street poster (and the modern French detective novel) Léo Malet in the 1930s, an inveterate street-walker — realized his final work in removing and re-constituting the posters for erotic “message boxes” on the Mintel (the French ancestor of the Internet) that began plastering the rues of Paris between 1989 and 1992, when posters became largely supplanted by billboards. “There’s a certain affinity between the artist and these modern Lorettes,” Harry Bellet writes for the catalog of the works’ exhibition, running through April 12 at the gallery Vallois in Paris. “Like (the subjects of the posters), he walked the streets…. He also has an admirable respect for them: They display themselves — or rather they’re plastered up. He unglues them, liberates them…. Sometimes he tears them up, certainly, but as he confided to Nicolas Bourriaud…, ‘A wounded visage is still beautiful.’ In fact, Villeglé hasn’t lacerated these women; he’s softly, tenderly, langorously but always lovingly blown the leaves away.” Above: Jacques Villeglé, “Route de Vaugirard, Bas-Meudon, April 1991,” 1991. Lacerated poster mounted on canvas, 152 x 300 cm. Copyright Jacques Villeglé and courtesy Galerie Vallois.

The Lutèce Diaries, 19: “L’amour en fuite” or, As Romeo’s teeth bleed, love leaks out

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 20019 Paul Ben-Itzak

Written Monday, February 18. Re-written February 25 and dedicated to Pamela and Sabine in memory des belles moments passé autour de la rue des Martyrs. And to Emmanuelle Pretot, camarade en tout choses Truffaut. 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 in dollars or Euros to , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. If we bring in $120 we can continue to mend our bleeding heart with a boxed set of the complete works of François Truffaut. To read this article entirely in French or any other language, just click the translation button at the right.

PARIS — So there I was at dusk, heart broken and sentiments seeping out, teeth throbbing and gums bleeding profusely into a bandage I was trying in vain to grit (hard to grit when half your teeth are gone), staggering up the rue des Martyrs towards the Montmartre cemetery and the grave of the man I blamed it all on: François Truffaut.

In the late French director’s five-film, 20-year saga that began with the 1959 “The 400 Blows” and climaxed with “L’amour en fuite” (often mistranslated as “Love on the Run”; “Love Escapes” or “Love is leaking” are more exact) Antoine Doinel, played throughout by Jean-Pierre Leaud, is constantly running away: from school, from the army, from his teachers, from jobs ranging from pushing miniature boats in corporate ponds to spray-painting daisies to night-clerking to agency detective to t.v. repairman, and most often from the women in his life: His mother, his wife (the effervescent Claude Jade, whom Antoine, in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” rightly calls “Peggy Proper” for her prim manner), his girlfriend (the eponymous Dorothée, who made her debut in the 1979 “L’amour en fuite” and would go on to haunt the dreams of generations of French children as the country’s equivalent to Romper Room’s Miss Nancy), his older mistress (the wife of his boss at a shoe-store — Delphine Seyrig at her glamorous apex), and various intermittent mistresses. The only one he chases, apart from Dorothée’s “Sabine,” whom he loves but whose love seems to frighten him (he finds her after patching up and tracing a photo of her an assumed lover tears up in a phone booth during an angry break-up call), is Marie-France Pisier’s “Colette,” whom we first meet in Truffaut’s 30-minute contribution to the 1963 multi-director film “Love at 20.”  (They meet at a classical music concert; Antoine is working at the time in a Phillips record factory, the director letting us see the hot wax being spun into vinyl. In “L’amour en fuite,” Antoine finally tracks Dorothée’s Sabine to her work-place: a record shop where couples make out to Gilbert Becaud in the listening rooms, Truffaut’s homage to the listening stations in Jean Vigo’s 1934 “L’Atalante” where the – fleeing – newlywed bride takes refuge.)

In “L’amour en fuite,” after Colette hails him from the window of a Lyon-bound train at the Gare de Lyon where Antoine has just dropped off his son by Jade for camp, Antoine jumps on the moving train without a ticket, surprises Colette in her sleeper car right after a fat middle-aged businessman, assuming she’s a prostitute, rubs up against her in the aisle (a lawyer, she’d spotted Antoine earlier in the day at the court-house, where with Jade he’d just completed France’s first no-fault divorce, echoing my own parents split-up in California a few years earlier). After they catch up, she upbraids him for the revisionist way he recounted their courtship as 20-year-olds in a barely fictionalized memoir he’s recently published: “My family didn’t move in across the street from you, you followed us!” (At the time of “L’amour en fuite,” Antoine is working as a proofreader on a book detailing the 18 minutes that De Gaulle disappeared during the 1968 student-worker uprising. Because the project is top secret, he’s working – literally – underground.  The netherworld also figures in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” in pneumatic messages from Seyrig requesting love assignations. It’s as if Antoine can’t get out of the lower depths; in “L’amour en fuite,” his mother’s lover from “The 400 Blows” surfaces to show Antoine, who was in the brig when she died, where she’s buried – which happens to be right next to the tomb of Marie du Plessis, the real-life model for Dumas fils’s “Camille.” It’s one of three of the five Antoine films in which the Montmartre cemetery features, and it’s the last; shortly afterwards he’ll reconcile with Dorothée’s Sabine, returning to the land of the living.) He tries to kiss Colette – we’re back on the train in “L’amour en fuite” —  and she light-heartedly repels the attempt, scolding him, “Antoine, you haven’t changed.” The conductor comes around for tickets and Antoine flees again,  pulling the emergency chord and jumping off the still-moving train. We see the now 34-year-old Antoine running across a field, an echo of the final, poignant, liberating moment in “The 400 Blows,” when a 14-year-old Antoine, having escaped from a youth home/prison, is frozen on screen in flight and in our memories, a broad smile on his face as he runs along a beach, discovering the ocean for the first time (the emotional antithesis of the destiny of the hero in Chris Marker’s 1962 “La jetée,” forever doomed to helplessly watch a woman being killed over and over again on the edge of a dock).

In my own Bizarro universe re-make of the Antoine-Colette train scene from “L’amour en fuite,” it was Colette who, after having chased me and captured my heart, had jumped off the train and was running out of my life.

So it was that last Monday found me staggering up the rue des Martyrs as the Sun set over the Sacre Coeur church (which the 1871 Communard rebels had been forced to build as penance by the ruling Versailles government) which slowly emerged above Martyrs, gums bleeding from the just-extracted tooth, heart raw and as hyper-exposed to its glare as the hero of Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” walking on yet another unshaded beach and with —  au contraire to Camus’s hero — no one to take it out on … except Truffaut and the illusions with which his Doinel cycle (all five seen one week-end at New York’s Anthology Film Archives just before moving to Paris) had filled me. Once at the grave, after filling my plastic cup at a nearby fountain and popping a dissolvable 1000 gram Paracetamol into the water, posing it on Truffaut’s tomb (decorated with an unraveling 35 MM film spool and a worn set photo of Truffaut, Leaud, and a woman who might have been Claude Jade) and watching it fizz away like my love affair, I lifted my Green as Gatsby’s Light cup and, echoing the Charles Trenet song which provides the theme for the 1968  “Stolen Kisses” – in which Leaud’s Antoine and Jade’s Christine fall in love – toasted François Truffaut with “A nos amours,” to our loves.  Looking over my shoulder at Zola’s first tomb, I realized that I might have added: “Je t’accuse! This is all your fault.”

Post-Script, 2/25: Having – like Antoine at the end of “L’amour en fuite” – just taken back the key from under the pillow, I now see myself less like Marker’s hero, doomed to replay the same fate with the same woman over and over again, and more like Antoine in the final frozen frame of the final film in the Antoine cycle, which resurrects the end of the first, of a 14-year-old Antoine frozen in time joyously jumping into the air on a beach, his virgin visit to la plage. And looking for my own Dorothée to patch me up. Interested? Check me out here.

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.)