Max Jacob: Painter, poet, Jew, Christian

impmodjacob-smallMax Jacob, “Chambre Louis XVI,” 1928. Gouache, 28.3 x 36.3 cm. Signed and dated lower right. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 1,000 – 1,200 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
(except cited texts)

“When we knew each other” prior to the first World War, the critic Andre Salmon recalled, “every day Max Jacob would write several poems, which he stuffed into a little chest, with absolutely no concern over whether they’d ever be published…. Never would I visit my friend (and I saw him every day) without suprising him in the act of painting, or at least drying his latest watercolor, his latest gouache, his latest sepia, in front of a tiny cast-iron stove — the artwork sometimes left to dry so long that the smell of burning paper permeated the humble room.” Living at 7, rue Ravignan in Montmartre, down the hill from where Picasso and Braque would shortly create Cubism at the Bateau Lavoir, Jacob was prone to make his colors by delaying pastel powder, tobacco ashes, and coffee grinds in water, according to his friend and biographer André Billy, who recalled an occasion when Jacob offered him a gouache and, reflecting the poverty of their milieu, added, “Above all don’t tell anyone that I gave it to you! Tell them you paid me 100 sous!” If the above gouache, “Chambre Louis XVI,” being auctioned off by Artcurial in its October 18 Impressionism & Modern sale in Paris, was painted much later, in 1928, its domestic theme provides a good excuse to cite Jacob’s 1921 poem “La rue Ravignan”: “L’impasse de Guelma a ses corrégidors / Et la rue Caulaincourt ses marchands de tableaux / Mais la rue Ravignan est celle que j’adore / Pour les coeurs enlacés de mes porte-drapeaux./ La, taillant des dessins dans les perles que j’aime, / Mes défauts les plus grands furent ceux de mes poèmes.” (My biggest faults were those of my poems.)

His conversion to Catholicism in 1909 after a vision of an apparition and a subsequent fervent belief which abounded in his poetry and verse (Jacob would even create daily ‘Meditations’ for friends) didn’t save Max Jacob from being betrayed by neighbors in the Brittany village of St-Benoit (though it should be added that many others regularly saved him from the police, according to Jacob), where he was arrested by the Nazis at 11 in the morning on February 24, 1944, several hours after conducting the Mass, and taken to the Drancy prison barracks, where he died of pneumonia before he could be deported. None of his famous friends were able to successfully intervene to save his life, notwithstanding an effort by Jean Cocteau.

Visiting Max Jacob’s provisional grave in the rudimentary cemetery of Ivry-sur-Seine after the war, Billy asked the caretaker if other Jews dead at Drancy were buried there:

“‘Jews?’ he replied. ‘Oh, you know, here we have a little bit of everything….’ ‘A little bit of everything.’ Phrase from an impenetrable philosophy. There’s a little bit of everything in everything. There’s a little bit of everything in man. There was a little bit of everything in Max, and the good and the less good were for a longtime mingled in him, but if his life and his oeuvre have any meaning, and they most certainly do, it’s that of having been the theater of a struggle, of a torment, of an effort in which each of us can recognize ourselves. A struggle between critical intelligence and the need for faith, between the instinct of abandon and pleasure and the appetite for austerity, the torment of a conscience constantly striving to be more clear, more harmonious, and more satisfied with itself, an effort towards unity, purity, and saintliness. There’s no doubt that Max, who wanted to be a saint, succeeded in sanctifying himself. There was heroism in his renouncement like there was heroism, of another variety, in his search for glory. To approach G-d as to approach his fellow man, he took the routes the most difficult and the most dangerous. And there lies the grandeur and the beauty of his example.”

In one of his last prose poems — showing his true mettle as a poet, because the great artists are able to find universally tragic material in even their own suffering — Jacob wrote:

“Who noticed the toad crossing the street? He’s a tiny man; a doll is not more miniscule. He crawls along on his knees, as if he’s ashamed. No! It’s his rhumatism; one leg lags behind as he lugs it along. Where is he off to like this? He emerges from the gutter, poor clown. No one noticed this toad in the street. Before, no one noticed me in the street. Now children make fun of my yellow star. Happy toad! You have no yellow star.”

Source for poems and citations: “Max Jacob,” by André Billy of the Academie Goncourt. Pub. les Editions Pierre Seghurs, printed at the Imprimerie du Salut Public (Salvation Army), Lyon, February 1946.

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Max Jacob l’Eternel

Je ne serai jamais qu’un ecolier dans l’art
Collier des écoliers nous portons des couronnes
Celui qui les reçoit vaut celui qui les donne.*
— Max Jacob, “Périgal-Nohor,” from Le Laboratoire Central, 1921.                                     (Editions Gallimard 1960.)

*I’ll never be more than a student of art
Necklace of students we wear crowns
He who receives them merits as much value as he who gives them.