Camille Pissarro, “Marché à Gisors.” Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 20.4 x 16.5 cm. Signed with the initials at lower left and titled at lower right. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 15,000 – 20,000 Euros. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
PARIS — On November 12, 2015, at a vernissage for a group show in a warehouse gallery near the Bastille up the street from Bataclan on the eve of the massacres, I encountered a painter whose work was both topical and technically adept. One particularly gripping tableau displayed postage stamps with the faces of refugees, as if they could evade the deadly Mediterranean crossings and desert traverses by just mailing themselves to sanctuary. Last summer, I ran into the same artist at a more intimate group show on the rue Charonne between the Place de la Republique and the Place Nation, to which she’d contributed a miniature rectangular tableau depicting clients of multiple generations and colors on a hazily lit café terrace. She’d applied the layers in such a way as to suggest these figures were calling to us from a limbo, which for me at least conjured those murdered on the café terraces November 13, doomed to sip their café cremes and chopes eternally until we’ve purged this scourge. And yet when I shared this observation with the artist, she answered, “Ah bon?” Without setting out to create ‘social’ content, she’d unconsciously imbued the scene with this ambiance. And yet this artist, whose work is both aesthetically and topically appealing and relevant — and who’s been at it for more than two decades and has seen flusher times, particularly during the 1990s — is financially struggling. No one, or few people, are buying. Will she have to wait until she’s dead before her work is attached the monetary value it merits and she’s saved from this near-desperate precariousness?
The larger-scale paintings of Camille Pissarro, the deacon of the Impressionists, typically sell today for at least $600,000, often soaring well above a million. (The 20. 4 x 16.5 cm pencil and colored pencil drawing above is estimated by Artcurial, which auctions it off in tomorrow’s Impressionism and Modern Sale in Paris, at a more modest 15,000 – 20,000 Euros.) And yet at 56 years old Pissarro still found himself struggling, writing to his son Lucien, “So your mother thinks I conduct business in a brisk manner? Does she really think it amuses me to scurry around in the snow, in the mud, from morning to evening, without a dime in my pocket, skimping even on taking a bus when I’m dogged by fatigue, penny-pinching for lunch or dinner? Ah! Certainly not, it’s not gay, but all I ask is one thing, to find a man sufficiently confident in my talent to furnish me what I need to make a living, for me and my family.”
Here’s an idea: What if the auction houses and dealers contributed a small percentage of their sales — even just one percent — to a “Creation Fund,” designated for *living* artists? Or, if they’re not ready to do this voluntarily, what if the government imposed a tax on them of this modest scale for this purpose? To immunize the fund from the clan-protection that sometimes determines public arts funding (in France as in the United States), a board including working artists and neighborhood gallerists could be set up to administer and distribute it. And to further immunize the fund from favoritism, an objective standard could be set, similar to the Intermittents regime here which requires freelance performance artists and technicians (visual artists have no such system) to work 507 hours over 10 or 10.5 months to qualify for a year of unemployment benefits. Though some here might bristle at this, recipient artists could even be required to donate an afternoon of their time to giving art classes in the public schools. This tax fund model is not unprecedented. San Francisco imposes a 15% hotel tax whose revenues help fund the artistic institutions which contribute to the city’s touristic caché which in turn feeds the hospitality industry; why shouldn’t the dealers and auction houses who profit from France’s artistic heritage help perpetuate it? (A threshold could even be fixed to distinguish the wealthier dealers from more modest gallerists as well as galleries run by non-profit associations, who also struggle, and who deserve credit for supporting artists outside the clan system.)
We can’t step into the wayback machine to find Pissarro traipsing through that Paris mud and buy him lunch or toss him a couple of sous so he can take a bus, but we can certainly do more to sustain those who, along with writers, publishers, and independent booksellers (and Seine-side bouquinistes) toil in the metiers which *define* eternal France. (Given the centrality of art in the country’s history, perhaps some of the candidates in this presidential year who, justifiably, vaunt the cultural richness of France’s heritage and identity, could float this idea.)
PS: What breaks my heart about the precariousness of so many talented artists in Paris is that these are some of the most generous people I’ve encountered here. There is no admission charge to regard and thus benefit from their work, which they are also ready and willing to discuss with you, even responding to the most ignorant questions and naive observations.
(Source for Pissarro letter: “Camille Pissarro, Lettres a son fils Lucien,” presented by John Rewald. One volume, in-8, 1950.)