LE FEUILLETON (THE SERIAL), 5: EXCLUSIVE! “TROMPE-L’OEIL,” MICHEL RAGON’S SAGA OF ART, ARTISTS, DEALERS, MARKETS, ANTI-SEMITISM, & CRITICS IN PARIS IN THE ’50S, Part 5

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 artsvoyager@gmail.com .

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.)