Luce: The case of the pertinent painter

mazimilien luce gare de l'est les poilus reducedMaximilien Luce, “Gare de l’Est, les Poilus.” Oil on re-enforced paper on canvas, 1917. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu. The poilus were the foot soliders conscripted by the French government to fight in World War I.

Text copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Images courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu

First published on the Arts Voyager on March 29, 2012, this story is re-posted today  with revisions to celebrate the upcoming exhibition  Les temps nouveaux, Seurat à Matisse, opening October 16 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and migrating to the Museum of Modern Art in New York next spring. The exhibition’s through-line is the critic Felix Fénéon, whose artistic inclinations and anarchist tendencies made him a natural compagnon de route of Maximilien Luce (1858 – 1941). It was also Fénéon who invited Luce to organize his first personal exhibition in 1888, at the Revue  Indépendante. See below for more on their connections, notably as detailed in Michel Ragon‘s  2008 “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie,” published by Albin Michel. Like what you’re reading? Please make a donation to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager today in dollars or Euros via PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.

Imagine that Pissarro didn’t die in 1903 but continued to live and work for 38 years, extending his explorations in the various streams of Impressionism. Then imagine that he decided to consecrate the force of his talent and energy to more depictions of the poor sap, the working stiff, the pour conscript sacrificed as cannon fodder in a wasteful war, and the social movements championing them. Imagine that his brilliant palette became more dense, retaining the sense of color values he learned from Camille Corot, the precision he picked up from Georges Seurat, and his native curiosity, then augmenting them with the lessons of the Fauves, of late Claude Monet and even Pierre Bonnard. Well, you don’t have to imagine this artistic extension of a life; Pissarro’s friend, pupil, compagnon de chevalet and fellow anarchist sympathizer Maximilien Luce embodied it. Imagine, now, that you could see the living proof.

luce portrait

Portrait of Maximilien Luce. Silver print, 14 x 8 cm. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.
The downside of the recent news that Christie’s had essentially unearthed an early study for Cezanne’s mythic “The Card Players” stashed away in a private collection was the realization that this watercolor, so critical for understanding the origins of the impulses behind such a seminal work, had been out of public view for nearly 60 years. While many conscientious private collectors readily lend their work to public expositions, nothing obligates them to do so. Once a work of art has been snapped up at auction by a private collector, nothing guarantees its continued public accessibility …. (That such work is also part of a public heritage is one reason that French law grants the State the right of ‘pre-emption’ on works up for public auction.) All the more reason to be grateful that Frederic Luce left a stunning 150 of his father’s works to the Parisian suburb of Mantes la Jolie and its museum the Hotel Dieu, now celebrating Luce with a new exhibition of 52 pieces, “Maximilien Luce, de l’esquisse (draft) au chef-d’oeuvre,” which follows the artist’s process from the draft to the oil painting, including by showcasing similar works in both forms. We’re privileged to be able to share some of this work here.

luce tanneursLeft: Maximiien Luce, “Les Tanneurs.” Oil on paperboard. Right: Maximilien Luce, “Etude pour les Tanneurs.” Pencil on paper. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

A brief biographical re-cap is perhaps in order to deepen your appreciation of the work represented here: Born in the 6th arrondissement of Paris in 1858, Luce was deeply marked by the Versailles repression of the Paris Commune in 1871, installing himself in 1887 in Montmartre, the foundry of the revolt, taking a room at 6 rue Cortot — the same address where a certain Erik Satie would move in 1890. (I didn’t realize this when, wandering onto this darkened, narrow, steep street one July 14 after watching the fireworks from Montmartre, I discovered the plaque noting Satie had lived there. Perhaps the city of Paris should add, “… and Luce.”) Did they overlap? Did Luce’s rebellious spirit inspire Satie in some of his own Dada-esque musical meanderings? The former soon put his into practice, collaborating with Emile Puget on his anarchist weekly Le Pere Peinard (contributing more than 200 engravings, as Michel Ragon notes in his entry for the painter in his “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie,” published by Albin Michel in 2008)  and participating in other similarly inclined journals, including La Revolte and L’Assiette au Beurre. During the infamous Trial of the 30 in 1894 (shortly after the assassination of French president Sadi Carnot by the anarchist Caserio), when, as Ragon recounts, “19 anarchist theorists were intentionally mingled with 11 thieves (supporters of the theory of individual reprise)” and charged with “criminal association” (a common charge applied today to suspected would-be terrorists). Luce shared a cell with art critic and Neo-Impressionist champion Felix Fénéon and Jean Grave, along with Sebastien Faure and Malatesta “the most celebrated theorist and anarchist militant of the debut of the 20th century.” All but one got off. (Ibid.)  Echoing Gustave Courbet during his own imprisonment following the downfall of the Paris Commune, Luce made a series of etchings chronicling his imprisonment.

luce military transportMaximilien Luce, “Transport d’un blessé.” Oil on canvas, 1916, ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

When the Neo-Impressionists’ chief  theorist Seurat died on March 31, 1891, it was Luce, along with fellow neo-Impressionist Paul Signac and Fénéon, that Seurat’s widow charged with making an inventory of his studio. During the “Great War,” Luce painted a series  of depictions of  Parisian railway stations and soldiers on leave. (Such as the example featured above.) In 1920 he set up a studio on the rue de Seine, today still the central arterie of the Saint-Germain-des-Près gallery district. In 1935 he was elected president of the Society of Independent Artists. His wife Ambroisine died on June 7, 1940, at the family’s home in Rolleboise overlooking the Seine. Luce died in 1941 in his studio on the rue de Seine – not yet deported. When I read this I’m saddened by the realization that he died not knowing if the Nazis would ever leave Paris, like Jane Avril, cursing Hitler from her flat in the 15th arrondissement, and what would become of the world; our world is richer because of the legacy Luce left us — and the legacy his son Frederic left to the Hotel de Dieu museum in Mantes la Jolie. And what a potentially transformative legacy it is; when I toyed with the idea of moving from Paris to Mantes la Jolie in the mid-2000s because of its connection with Camille Corot (who instructed Pissarro and Morisot in color values from his studio on what is now the rue de Paradis, across the street from where I was living at the time), French Parisian friends warned me that it wasn’t safe because of the recent riots. But what better milieu  to house and showcase the works of a conscious artist like Luce, with his concern for social turpitudes and answer of darkness with light?

maximilien luce, the dredging machine in RotterdamMaximilien Luce, “La drague a Rotterdam.” Oil on canvas. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

luce, chantier a rotterdamMaximilien Luce, “Chantier a Rotterdam.” Etching. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

luce, cliffsMaximilien Luce, “Mers-les-Bains, les falaises.” Drawing in pencil and colored pencils on paper. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

luce, cliffs paintingMaximilien Luce, “Mers-les-Bains, les falaises.” Oil on canvas,1903. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

luce, beachMaximilien Luce, “La plage de Méricourt, Baignade.” Oil on canvas, undated. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

luce, wagonMaximilien Luce, “Travailleurs poussant un wagonnet.” Oil on paperboard, 1905. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

luce, horse-cartMaximilien Luce, “Le fardier.” Oil on paperboard, undated. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

luce, enfantsMaximilien Luce, “Etudes d’enfants.” Charcoal drawing, undated. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

luce, farmMaximilien Luce, “La Ferme Vassard.” Oil on canvas, circa 1930. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

luce in studioLuce in studio: Maximilien Luce in his studio. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

Have Pen, will Travel: A forward-looking memoir of Paris, the Dordogne, Cahors, Fort Worth, Chicago, Miami Beach, New York, Maryland, Montana, Connecticut, San Francisco, Reno, and the High Sierras

chi steinberg train smallPaul Ben-Itzak’s new 40-page Memoir, including art by Ansel Adams, Robert L. Berry, Lou Chapman, James Daugherty, Gustave Caillebotte, Jacob Lawrence, Sylvie Lesgourgues, David Levinthal, Roy Lichtenstein, Sam Peckinpah, Charles M. Russell, Saul Steinberg, and Frank Lloyd Wright from both current exhibitions and the AV Archives, is now available. To receive your own copy as a PDF or Word document, including 35 illustrations, please send $19.95 to the AV by designating your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn about payment by check. Your purchase includes a complimentary one-year subscription to the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider ($29.95 value). Above: Saul Steinberg, “Train,” From the exhibition Along the Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg, on view through October 29 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sonnez la matine: La Culture, c’est pas une ‘annexe’

Around the world, French culture is its calling card

“Même si les civilisations successives étaient des organismes, et semblables, la nôtre montrerait deux caractères sans exemple. D’être capable de faire sauter la terre ; et de rassembler l’art depuis la préhistoire.”

— André Malraux, Néocritique*

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Once upon a time, France’s siren call to the world was its culture, of which the most potent register was its literature. And yet today, this siren call has often been drowned out, or at least muffled — and, at Charlie Hebdo, literally assassinated — by the threat of and acts of terrorism, unfortunately resulting in a state of siege mentality on the part of many. The knee-jerk response to the real and present threat of terrorism in some quarters — in the U.S. as in France — has been to in effect cede to the terrorists by being terrorized, putting up walls, ostracizing the Other, and erecting a citadel we like to think will be impregnable but that risks to swallow us in solipsism. And the understandable and completely justifiable responses of military Defense and verbal Sanction have been under-accompanied by strategies to treat the problem at its roots. To put the question concretely: How to head off that child at risk before s/he becomes a teenager and, in that stage of life so subject to alienation, potentially fertile territory for the manipulation and brainwashing of the ideologues and terrorists?

In France, the tragedy has been that the ‘better offer’ has always been there: In its culture, in ideas, in philosophy, and in the ‘lumieres,’ as they’ve been handed down in the country’s LITERATURE.

To behold this rich heritage and potential anecdote to Obscurantism being so under-exploited has been particularly tragic for an American who from the moment he could have stories read to him has been seduced by the siren call of French and Francophone culture: Babar, “Madeline” (technically not written by a Frenchman, but qualified by its rebel spirit and its luminous setting: PARIS), Tintin and, later, through the lyrics of song, Jacques Brel, Yves Montand, Jacques Dutronc, Serge Gainsbourg…. (Indeed, the first music I remember mimicking is not “Michael row your boat ashore” but “Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, dormez vous, dormez vous?”) And if we extend the literary rubric to film — also, after all, a form of composition — “The Red Balloon” planted the siren of the Belleville neighborhood of Paris in my young head and heart and, later, Truffaut and Godard made their respective imprints with Gallic right and left brains which mined the poetry in romantic as well as societal strife.

I am not the only American who has been drawn to this heritage. (In some cases, more even than the French themselves. During an initial sojourn in Paris in 2001, accustomed to lines around the block for his films in New York and San Francisco, I was shocked to find that Godard’s “Eloge d’Amour,” fresh from Cannes, was allocated the tiniest screen in the tiniest room of a multiplex near the Luxembourg Garden, where all of 10 people watched his latest experimentations. My French actress friend clutched her head in agonized frustration, while I — at that juncture French illiterate — remained perched on the edge of my seat for the entire picture.)

So you can imagine my chagrin in reading, just before the recent presidential election, New York Times columnist Roger Simon’s “France at the End of Days,” a one-sided portrait of a supposedly crepuscular France in which the Neo-Xenophobes were battling the Neo-Liberals for control of the wheel that would determine the country’s direction for the next five years. (Nowhere in the article was it explained that if the National Front had doubled its support since the last election in 2012, it wasn’t because an additional 17 percent of Frenchmen and women suddenly woke up racists, but because a)like my retired neighbors here in the Southwest of France, they’re weary of making their grocery purchases every week based on what’s on sale, and b) the end run by leaders of both the principal parties around the popular rejection of the European Constitution in 2005 with a Treaty of Lisbon not subject to popular confirmation, capped by Francois Hollande’s running in 2012 as “the enemy of Finance” only to (in the view of some; I’ll take the Fifth) embrace Capitalism after he was elected president left many voters disillusioned with the establishment parties.)

Hollande didn’t do much better with the cultural agenda, all three of his cultural ministers qualified more by their allegiance to the Socialist party than their cultural accomplishments. The low point was a minister who, asked to name her favorite Patrick Modiano work after the latter won the Nobel Prize, couldn’t name a single title, finally explaining that she didn’t have time to read books, as her most famous predecessor André Malraux no doubt jumped out of his grave.

So when Emmanuel Macron, asked during the 2017 presidential campaign about his cultural program, said that a pillar would be expanding library hours at night and on the week-ends, I was encouraged.

In the lower-class, mixed, crime-ridden neighborhood of East Fort Worth, Texas where I lived before returning to France, the library was always packed — most of all with young people, often bilingual. (As was the library’s small collection.)

The Library is a crucial point of First Contact with Culture.

The Library is a social nexus that provides a constructive alternative to hanging out with and getting recruited by gang-bangers.

Or terrorists.

And, unlike many other cultural outlets, it’s free. And it’s accessible, in the neighborhood.

And yet, around the world, library hours have been eviscerated and libraries shuttered for the past 30 years. (In the Anglophone culture, this is what we call Penny-wise, pound-foolish.)

With Emmanuel Macron, elected president May 7 with a 66 percent majority, increasing library hours is not just a pat solution. This is a man who carefully chooses his words. During his presidential debate with National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, after two hours of not taking the bait and remaining calm, he finally called her and her party “parasites.” This was not an ill-considered empty put-down but an exact diagnoses; parasites feed on bodies whose immune systems have been weakened. (Also along the lines of better immunizing the country’s infants, Macron has pledged to cut class size in difficult neighborhoods in half, to 12 students.)

And yet for France, it doesn’t have to be this way. Words — words — build up immune systems. They build up our defenses against ignorance, against intolerance, against fear, against pain, against hate, against ‘fermeture.’ I’d even argue that they forge pretty solid inroads against mortality because, as Albert Moravia once pointed out, they augment our existence laterally with a multitude of other lives… and cultures.

But let’s pause on that word Defense.

In analyzing the cabinet named yesterday by Macron and his new prime minister, Edouard Philippe (also a book maven, having launched book-mobiles around his coastal city of Le Havre), most of the media I audit has been commenting that even if half the 22 members are women, only one, the new minister of armies, was accorded a ‘regalian’ ministry. (I can’t find this word in any of my French dictionaries, so it must be a recent — Franglaise? — innovation of the political pundits.)

One Radio France reporter even grouped the ministry of Culture and Communication with those he dubbed ‘annex’ ministries.

This in France, the cradle of literature.

Never mind that the most ‘regalian’ of French presidents in the 60 years of the Fifth Republic, the man still more likely to be referred to by the French as “the General” than “the president,” Charles De Gaulle, appointed as his first and long-time minister of culture André Malraux, himself a Nobel laureate.

The General understood that Culture was not an ‘annex,’ but a pillar of national defense and an essential component of the foundation of a society. And that the best way to protect a nation’s heritage is not to pillory other cultures but to incorporate them in the national cultural identity. (As for Macron, he did not, as some media here inaccurately reported, say that there was no such thing as French Culture, but that it was rather a question of French cultures.)

Francois Mitterand — another literary president — understood this too, appointing Jack Lang to incorporate contemporary elements into the French cultural vision and agenda. (It was Lang who implemented the now European-wide Fete de la Musique, coming up this June 21, just when we’ve got something to dance about.) As did even Nicolas Sarkozy, appointing to the post Mitterand’s nephew Frederick, whose outsized erudition would certainly qualify him as ‘regalian.’

Another normally astute Radio France commentator alleged Wednesday that Macron, seeking gender equilibrium in prime minister Edouard Philippe’s cabinet, had called a cultural figure and asked him to provide the names of three women who worked in the sector. Setting aside that this allegation may be the product of a ‘mauvaise langue,’ I’d respond: “Et alors?” Admitting the possibility — if the story is true — of a latent sexism in the idea that Culture is a ‘woman’s ministry’ and thus only fit for dames and pansies, isn’t this an improvement on the procedure followed by François Hollande, who seemed to choose his cultural ministers not for their cultural currency but on the bit-coin of party loyalty?

Macron’s eventual choice, Françoise Nyssen, definitely has cultural credibility. The long-time director of Arles-based Actes Sud, founded by her father in 1978 and since grown to one of France’s most respected publishing houses, Nyssen’s authors include Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, and Kamel Daoud. The author of “Mersaut: Counter-Investigation,” a response to Albert Camus’s “The Outsider,” and an independent thinker unafraid to criticize Occidental or Oriental mores, Daoud has also described Camus himself as the last Outsider, a man with no country. (Following the suicide of her son, Nyssen also founded a school focused on listening to children, the School of Possibilities.)

… Or, I’d argue, multiple countries — like Nyssen, an immigrant whose publishing house excels in promoting authors in translation; thus eminently French and open to the world. Not so anecdotally, Arles itself is best-known outside France for having welcomed Vincent Van Gogh, yet another foreigner who expanded French culture even as it assimilated him. (These days, also not so anecdotally, the Provencial city is home to ATLAS, the country’s leading association for literary translation.)

As have so many of us (assimilated French culture), even those who rarely set foot in France. Take Ludwig Bemelmans, the author of the “Madeline” series of children’s adventures, whose courageous heroine exemplified the Gallic strategy of responding to terror with words during a visit to the Paris zoo:

“To the tiger in the zoo
Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-Pooh.'”**

*Published in “Malraux: Être et Dire,” with texts assembled by Martine de Courcel. Plon, Paris, 1976. Copyright André Malraux.

**From “Madeline,” copyright Ludwig Bemelmans, 1939, renewed Madeleine Bemelmans and Barbara Bemelmans Marciano, 1967.

Word up!: Macron names renowned publisher new French culture minister

PARIS — From a minister of culture during the precedent administration who famously admitted that she didn’t have time to read books, newly inaugurated president Emmanuel Macron and his freshly-minted prime minister Edouard Philippe, both famous readers and promoters of literature, today took a major step in recuperating the image of a portfolio for years honored by Andre Malraux by naming as the country’s minister of culture and communications Françoise Nyssen, long-time director of Arles-based Actes Sud, one of the crème de la crème of French publishers. Together with Macron’s campaign promise to increase library hours at night and on the week-ends, and Philippe’s record as mayor of Havre in sending bookmobiles around the coastal city, the appointment of Nyssen, who also founded a school focused on listening to the child after the suicide of one of her own children, augurs well.

Open Studio Policy

portes ouvertes smallPoster designed by Michèle Forgues and Federica Nadalutti, and courtesy Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville. Click here to read the Arts Voyager’s coverage of last year’s Open Studios / Portes Ouvertes de Belleville, and here to read our essay around the 2010 edition. And for more details on this year’s version, go here.