Swimming to Belleville*: Of malentendus and mandibles, art on auction and art en fuite

dubuffetcoincidencessmAmong the works on sale at Artcurial’s June 6 auction of Post-War and Contemporary  art is Jean Dubuffet (1901 – 1985)’s 1975 acrylic on canvas  “Lieu de coincidences.”  Signed with initials at the upper right, titled and inscribed on the reverse, the work measures 38 1/4 x 51 1/4 inches. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 500,000 – 700,000 Euros. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

PARIS — After a guest star to whom I thought I was being kind responded to my last piece by saying, “Oh well, I guess you have hard teeth with everyone” (incidentally not realizing that she couldn’t be farther from the truth as regards the consistency of my mandibles), I guess I’ll have to make up fake places and names for everyone and everything in the following otherwise true account, most episodes of which terminate with someone getting doused or just escaping this fate by the skin of theirs (teeth), also the title of another play by Thornton Wilder, the author of “Our Town,” whose ghosts I sometimes feel are monitoring me and shaking their heads every time I fret about getting wet.

Of course, I might also have misunderstood the phrase “Vous avez le dent dur,” as I might have done with the auction house intern’s responding to my request for the below image of a Chagall available in an upcoming sale by saying that she didn’t have a lot of time because she was “under water.” I’m still not sure whether she meant to say she was back-logged, or if the non-stop rain is threatening to flood the auction house as it is the Orsay and the Louvre, which today are planning to re-locate their first-floor collections before Rodin, Corot, (Manet’s) Olympia, Courbet’s entire atelier, and assorted naturalists go for an unexpected (and interdit) plunge in the rising waters of the Seine, where the once a century inundation seems to have arrived 94 years ahead of schedule. (Note to nervous auction house insurers: I’m being flippant, if not Flipper.)

chagallroostersmAmong the works on sale at Artcurial’s June 7 auction of Impressionist and Modern art is Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985)’s “Nude & Rooster,” created in 1966. Signed at the upper right “Marc Chagall,” the 15 5/8 x 19 5/8 monotype on Japan paper is estimated by the auction house pre-sale at 35,000 – 45,000 Euros. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

Unsure if the rising tides would also hit the Ourcq canal and soon be lapping at our door here in Pantin (with potentially mortal consequences given a li’l electricity issue we’re having), yesterday evening I decided to climb to higher ground in upper Belleville. I should explain that border crossings, even within the confines of the Ile de France, are not as elementary as you might imagine. When you cross under the periphery from my new favorite sub-burg St-Gervaise to Paris, the last street sign you see is “Avenue Sigmund Freud,” reminding me of a rubber stamp I saw in the window of an artisanal stamp-maker’s boutique near the cemetery Pere Lachaise, “Just another neurotic Parisian,” right before he changed his mind about making me a special order stamp.

When you cross back into St.-Gervaise, an election campaign sign from the National Front on the other side of the underside of the periphery demands, “Choose your suburb.” Underneath this imperative and supposedly representing the options are two pictures of what could be the same jolie 20-something woman: one wearing a burka or hjab (I’ve lost track of the terminology), with only her eyes showing; the other a hipster bonnet and two red and blue war-paint stripes on each cheek. Both look to be of Maghrebian origin, and neither is dressed like any woman of Maghrebian origin I have ever seen in Paris or its suburbs. (Once inside the Paris border, near Lilas, last night, I did spot a tall dark-skinned woman wearing a headscarf and an ankle-length robe over her jeans carrying a carton out of a Halal pizza joint before returning to her car… on the driver’s side. I’m not sure how much more assimilated one can get.)

After a meeting on the rue Lesage and before heading to a vernissage at a gallery I know but won’t identify high up on the rue de l’Hermitage or a similar street and not too far from a ‘rebord’ (the ancient water cisterns, some of which still exist around Belleville… and in St.-Gervaise), I decided to pick up a cha su bau from a Chinese restaurant on the rue de Belleville. Normally, the only Chinese take-out places one can trust here are in Belleville and Choissy (in the 13eme arrondissement), but this pork bun had hardly had time to sink to mine (buns) before it was itching to get back out. Unfortunately, this meant I had to pass on the home-made paté for which the gallerist was chopping up the liver and onions when I arrived (doesn’t even pause at the buns). The work of the artist on view may have been fine, but after she began our conversation by announcing that I had an accent, I was no longer in a position to comment on it objectively. So after chatting for a while with my gallerist friend as he chopped, and despite resisting the temptation to try the finished by-product, because I had drunk a couple of glasses of red, as a pre-cautionary measure I stepped into the toilet before starting the trek back to Pantin via St.-Gervaise. That’s not figurative; this is one of those Queen something toilets which actually has no formal toilet to inspire latter-day R. Mutts, just a porcelain or metal draining system in the floor. Unfortunately, with my stomach empty of food and my head partially filled with red, I forgot that with this particular Queen, you have to open the door behind you and step out of the toilet room before you reach back in to pull the flush chain, as the toilet shoots the liquid back at you at about 100 times the mach drive with which you dispensed it, and I got reverse-cascaded with a mixture of lingering vintage 1900 rebord residue, fresh water, and the 100 times diluted wine I’d just poured into the hole.

Heading back to Pantin, on the traffic island in the middle of the boulevard de Lilas across from the tramway stop and not too far from Sigmund Freud avenue an apparently Muslim woman dressed like neither the hipster-Muslim nor the hijab-Muslim in the National Front poster was having trouble balancing her groceries and steering a baby carriage at the same time. When she knelt to recuperate the contents of a bag she’d just dropped, seeing another open sack on the other side of her and a box of cereal, and I suppose wanting to convey that I didn’t subscribe to the National Front’s reduction of her, I picked up these and tried to hand them to her, whereupon she scowled, shook her head at me and muttered something in a language I didn’t understand.

I continued walking home, all wet.

— Paul Ben-Itzak

*With apologies to and in memory of Spalding Grey, whose hardest tooth was always reserved for himself.


Not everyone finds their theater on the street: Also among the lots on sale at Artcurial’s June 7 sale of Impressionist and Modern art is Foujita (1886 – 1968)’s 1931 21 1/8 x 19 1/8 inch watercolor and India ink on paper portrait of the greatest couple the Great White Way has ever known, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontaine. Signed and dated lower left. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 20,000 – 30,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.



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