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Parce que oui, la Culture française – comme d’ailleurs tous les cultures qui déferle vers Paris – appartient au monde qu’elle a si souvent rayonné, et il faut refusé de la laisse etre confiné et sequestré par les forces de l’Obscurantisme.
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The Open Studios or Portes Ouvertes de Belleville and those of the Prè Saint-Gervais, performers including Berlin’s Constanza Macras, Portugal’s Vera Mantero, a major exhibition devoted to Camille Pissarro paintings rarely seen in France, Belgium’s Alain Platel, Spain’s Israel Galvan, Crystal Pite — these are just a few of the major cultural happenings in Paris and environs this Spring that the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider will be able to cover with your support.
Many of you first read about these internationally renowned artists and events for the first time in English in our journals and, continuing our 20-year mission of bringing you stories not told elsewhere, we’ll also be reporting on Giulio D’Anna, a Netherlands-based Italian choreographer whose “OOOOOOO” is inspired by Zagreb’s “Museum of Broken Relationships,” and Jasna Vinovrski’s “Lady Justice,” addressing the relationship between justice and art. Speaking of art, we’d also like to bring you Yasmina Reza’s “Art” as interpreted at the Theatre de la Bastille by the pioneering Belgium theater company STAN . And of intersections between art and society, this year’s Chantiers (Building Projects) d’Europe festival at the Theatre de la Ville features countries in the front lines of the refugee crisis, notably in six short films from Greece addressing this topic and a public brainstorming session with artists from six countries. Most of all we’ll be able to bring you into the studios of the 200+ artists taking part in the Open Studios of Belleville — a neighborhood which in its very MULTI-CULTURAL contours and dimensions provides the best retort to the cloistered vision of French culture represented by the National Front. (We share the FN’s stated pride in traditional French culture; we simply argue that this definition is too limited and does not do justice to the grandeur and ouverture to the world that has always been French culture.) Click here to read our coverage of last year’s Open Studios / Portes Ouvertes de Belleville.
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France, too, is at the crossroads. On May 7 the country will choose between the fear represented by the National Front and the hope and optimism represented by Emmanuel Macron. Between closure and opening. In the campaign between these two ‘cultures’ that has raged in this country for the past two years, CULTURE has been all but forgotten. (Among Macron’s refreshing ideas: More library hours.) With your help, we will be able to do our part in restoring some light to what has always been France’s principal calling card around the world. Our calling for more than 20 years.Many thanks and
Stay Calm: Eat
PARIS — With summer finally here — forget about spring — Parisians converged on the canals and did what they do best Friday night, pique-niquing (following the suggestion painted on the side of a Thai food truck at the opening of the Bassin La Villette on the Place Stalingrad, a repository of old administrative bones: “Stay Calm: Eat”), gabbing, drinking, drinking in the late-setting Sun (as I begin writing this, it’s almost 10 p.m. and the sky is still blue, over a cotton-mouth of golden-gray clouds), smoking (unfortunately for the lungs of a flaneur making his way slowly home after a one-man feast on the Canal St. Martin preceded by a tour of the Place de la Republique where the dwindling memorials for the 13 novembre dead have been confined to a petty portion of the pedestal of the Lady of the Republic, the writing on the notes fading, and increasingly straying off topic — one from “citation.com” quoted Alfonse Lamartine, the 19th century poet-politician, lauding the Prophet because he did more with less). I like the dominant summer fashion, which the Parisiennes finally got a chance to break out, of peek-a-boo blouses, more appealing than the increasingly pre-torn jeans which I suppose are meant as peek-a-boo pants. My eyes gorging on this eye candy, my stomach was sated by a bit of leftover rotisserie chicken, with spicy olives and the rest of the zucchini-red pepper-tomato gateau the colocataire Sabine had pulled out of the oven before jumping ship for Montpellier, le tout washed down with the last of my icey cold Southwest rosé, followed by what was left of my Earl Grey thermos tea (after a tea-break on the ramp above the Grands Boulevards), while gazing across the Canal St.-Martin at the Creation of the World Design Bookstore from my nook besides the Lancry – Granges aux Belles bridge. The Sun was right on time sending its dapples through the poplar tree shadowing the bridge. (Waiting in line for the sanitaire on the other side of the canal and joking with a gaggle of young Americans about the exploding toilet, I told myself the one with the straight black hair, long red checkered lumberjack shirt over tight shorts and black Doc Martins was out of my league; when they left, she turned to smile at me and say, “Bye!”) But even the filthy rue de Fauborg St.-Denis, from where I’d come, was magical, the terraces not so much full as relaxed; I’d finally taken refuge from the toxic melange of heat, car exhaust, and cigarette smoke (City Hall banned pre-1997 vehicles starting July 1, but I don’t breathe any better) in the Velan Indian goods store nestled in the cool Passage Brady, stocking up on citronelle, cinnamon, and eucalyptus (the scent of San Francisco) incense, as well as cardoman seeds and masala curry powder before I head back to the Dordogne Monday.
We earned this summer, in blood and rain, in a bedraggled European Union (French friends confirm that the ambiance went south in 2001, when we switched to the Euro money; out with the Little Prince — who adorned the 50-franc note — and in with…what? And for young people, there are no reperes.), in gloomy presidential solutions on both sides of the Atlantic, in killings of blacks followed by killings of cops, in the losses of Prince and Bowie and Maurice White, in more personal losses, in cynicism from up top and too much pessimism below, in this gangrene of a war with no borders in which no one is left tranquil, in flooding and forest fires — if this isn’t the apocalypse, it’s damned near close — in the massacres of gentle people in the land of Disney, in Dallas bloodshed deja vu all over again, in too much angst, too much fear, too much hate, too much envy, too much ignorance, too much stupidity, in too late too little for the planet and our lungs, in culture wars and wars of religion after we thought we’d grown out of that.
I sometimes wonder what an extra-terrestrial looking down on this planet would think of us: “Why can’t they stop killing each other and killing their planet?” I like to think that if my ET caught a glimpse of us Friday night, of the Parisians and the Parisiennes pique-niqueing along the canals from the rue Faubourg du Temple — where two of the massacres occurred — to the ancient Magasins Generaux in Pantin, the pique-nicqing groups so deep that at one point I joked, “Traffic jam!,” with the young and not a few older people fishing for slippery skinny carp in the Ourcq, smoking from hookahs, jabbering in English, French, Arabic, Hindu, Chinese, and various African dialects (I was tempted to close my eyes and just listen to the sounds) — I like to think my ET might say “Okay, that’s better. This is a people that knows what it is to be alive.”
— Paul Ben-Itzak
Alanig Keltz,”Passerelle Debilly.” Image copyright and courtesy Alanig Keltz. See more of the artist’s work on his website.
PARIS — So there I was all set to argue that the only truly transgressive visual artists are those who make graffiti, because except when commissioned, they risk a fine (amende) every time they put chalk to wall or shake up an aerosol color can. Then I decided to take my Brourcq — tea break on the banks of the Ourcq canal — only to find two men in gas masks fervently attacking a metal industrial hut with their spray-cans, the fumes respirable by everyone downwind of them (and who unlike them did not have the benefit of protective masks). These two ‘artists’ were basically flipping the finger at us common people (not to mention the environment); what mattered was their right to spray and mark their territory.
Jordane Saget, Untitled. Image copyright Jordane Saget and courtesy Artists Ateliers of Belleville.
By contrast, Jordane Saget — one of the artists I’d encountered at the June 23 opening for the collaborative Brazilian – Bellevilloise Street Art exhibition running through July 10 at the gallery of the Artists Ateliers of Belleville at 1 rue Francis Picabia — seemed much more considerate of the public weal. First, Saget works primarily in chalk. Second, he candidly admitted that while this medium is erasable on sidewalks, it’s a bit more complicated to remove from walls. And then there’s the level of his art, which is as rigorous as it is simple. During the opening, while another group of artists was spray-painting a wall bordering the gallery and a third man was flaunting his barely-garbed stuff in high-heels, Saget, dressed in blue jeans and a tee-shirt, was humbly drawing on the sidewalk with a petite stub of white chalk.
Annie Barel (center) prepares a canvas while model Fernando Audmouc (right) primes for their collaboration and a blasé critic (left) contemplates the buffet table. See some of Barel’s published work here.
The high-heeled gangly drag queen/ performing/graffiti artist, Nina el Polin, who leaves his misspelled mark, “Nina Was Her” on and in buildings and above bath-tubs throughout Paris, seemed to have followed me to the next evening’s opening, of the group exhibition Petites Oeuvres Parisiennes at the collective gallery Le Genie de la Bastille, but it was in fact just a doppelganger, Fernando Audmouc, there to strip to his shorts and hang himself from a rafter so that Annie Barel could apply strips of black duct tape to his elongated tummy while an ’80s nouvelle vague version of “La Vie en Rose” played. Before this moment, I’d encountered, albeit second-hand, an artisan who has quietly been working at his oeuvre for 70 years:
“I was promenading on the rue Parmentier,” another artist recounted to me and photographer-filmmaker Alanig Keltz — as we stood before Keltz’s stark black and white photographs of a fog-shrouded Eiffel tower, a suburban suspended bridge or passerelle over the Seine, and a couple of teenagers walking down an overground railroad track that’s part of the abandoned, overgrown “Petite Ceinture” around Paris — “when I came across a window display full of broken dolls. When I started to photograph this, a wrinkled old man emerged from the store and explained that during the Occupation, he was walking down a road with his young daughter, fleeing Paris, when a German tank rolled over his little girl. The tank driver then backed up over her. Since then, the man has made his living repairing broken dolls.”
Alanig Keltz,”Errance.” (Taken along the Petite Ceinture in Paris.) Image copyright and courtesy Alanig Keltz. See more of the artist’s work on his website.
This reminded me of the experience recounted by Pierre, an eighty-something neighbor in the Dordogne, which I then shared with the two artists. At the end of the war, a German regiment was on its way to back up besieged colleagues in La Rochelle. Their intention was to by-pass our village, but a group of young maquisards had other plans, ‘going to the encounter” of the SS troops. Hunkering down, the Germans started firing at everything and everyone in site. Pierre’s 14-year-old brother — he was 12 — wanted to show him a bird’s nest another brother had made in the woods. They’d not gone 100 yards when a bullet struck down his brother, and another whizzed by Pierre’s ear. “The bullet that killed my brother was fired from one kilometer away.” It may have been mortal, but it was impersonal. “That’s horrible,” said one of the artists after I’d finished. “Horrible yes,” I said, “but I think there’s also beauty there: That in the midst of a war, beholding a bit of wonder, a bird’s nest, was still important to these boys.”
Alanig Keltz,”ParisBrûmetil?” Image copyright and courtesy Alanig Keltz. See more of the artist’s work on his website.
I think we’re living a similar moment right now in France, at its most morose (on a societal level; it’s not like you encounter frowns everywhere you go) in the 15 years I’ve been spending time here. (Although it should be added that the ambiance in Paris is more morose than in the countryside.) On top of the usual reasons — labor and political strife — there are the lingering shadows of the 13 November massacres, the obsession with Muslims and Islam that followed them, and the epuissement of over-worked police. Police who have been understandably upset at a much more objectionable — and local government-sponsored — piece of graffiti which recently went up on public property in Grenoble, showing police beating “Marianne,” the national symbol, with clubs. The usual freedom of speech defense was trotted out by the Left-leaning municipal government, but do a few cases of police over-reaction really justify denigrating all of these men and women at a time when they’re working over-time without relief and bearing the brunt of the security burden? (And unlike just about everyone else, they’ve only held one demonstration… during which hoodlums burned one of their vehicles.)
Pierre Millotte, “Claude C., 1963…” Acrylic on canvas sur médium, 135 x 75 cm. Artist comment: “From the experience of ‘Calendriers,’ preserve the geographic color code, but change the gradation: and not represent a year, but an entire life. Thus the tableaux take on, by their scale, the age of the person and reveal changing residences and other movements of life.” Critic’s comment: Not quite as abstract, in my view, as it first appears; coupled with Millotte’s booklet “Claude C, 1963” (see below), the artwork could be seen as a sort of crosstown cityscape of Manhattan, as seen from above. Copyright and courtesy Pierre Millotte.
The cure, obviously, is not to attack the defenders, however imperfect they may be, but to find the bright, even humorous points even in dark times. Pierre Millotte, another artist featured in the Petites Oeuvres Parisiennes, provided a portal of light here. In one of a series of miniature book-lets, he relates the Adventures in Roommates of “Claude C” in the New York of the late ’80s as well as Paris. One of the tales Millotte recounts is of a psychotic far West Village roommate who, after telling him that Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Louis Tritignant have been killed in a tragic road accident, steals his ticket home. After “Claude C” has moved out, the ticket mysteriously shows up in an envelope addressed to him at the Washington Square Hotel, where he works. There are obviously two ways to see this story.
Which is yours? — Paul Ben-Itzak
Life Goes on: Sylvie Lesgourgues, “Café Belleville, ‘Follies.'” Image copyright and courtesy Sylvie Lesgourgues. I met Sylvie Lesgourgues on November 12, 2015, during an opening for a group exhibition in a gallery not far from the Bataclan concert hall which would become a killing field 24 hours later. Lesgourgues impressed me immediately as a politically engaged but also aesthetically meritorious artist, particularly with a panel of postage stamps featuring the visages of migrants — as if it would be so much easier if they could just mail themselves to their safe havens. When we re-connected recently, she told me that she was now also interested in simply conveying that life goes on, that we still go out and gather together here in Paris. This painting is part of the group expo Petites Oeuvres Parisiennes, discussed above, and which runs through July 3 at Le Genie de la Bastille. To see more work by Sylvie Lesgourgues, visit her website. — PB-I
In their array and arrangement of colors, Valérie Malet’s book bindings (above) evoke the work of Spontaneous Color inventor Sonia Delaunay. Examples of book bindings by Valérie Malet courtesy and copyright Valérie Malet.
PARIS — If the Parisian theater scene is in a bad state — see my recent review of Tiego Rodrigues’s insular spectacle at the Theatre de la Bastille — the plastic arts are experiencing a renaissance which often finds its basis in expansiveness. And I’m not talking about the museums, which, with the laudable exceptions of the national and city repositories of modern art, continue to be pre-occupied with finding new ways to market the same old artists. I’m talking about the artisans of the terrain, who continue to create work which at the same time builds on France’s rich literary and artistic tradition and innovates in both its diversity of form and complexity of subject. This connection is not to be under-estimated in a country which often prizes the new at all costs, even when it is inferior to the old or blemishes classic landmarks. The latter is a trend fast turning into an epidemic, if one is to judge by the fake-naive or art bruit installations recently implanted in the gardens of the Palais Royale, where one now has to navigate a field of tombstone-like upright mahogony two-by-fours attached by bolts to pass under one of the tree-shaded lanes, and the Pont des Arts, where the city, in its ongoing struggle to provide an institutional alternative to the love-locks which threatened to sink the bridge across from the Louvre into the Seine has now implanted a series of mammoth brass sculptures of Acteon flexing his muscles amidst a forest of industrial steel mounted on more two-by-fours, le tout seeming much more menacing to the structure’s stability than the metal locks. To get an idea of the crassness of this juxtaposition, it’s as if you gold spray-painted images of wrestlers onto your Pissarro. Meanwhile, the hastily improvised plywood — and thus love-lock proof — barrier adorned with fake graffiti which previously replaced the chain link fence has now been supplanted by a glass wall, a much less distracting and more neutral solution which will nicely refract the sunlight, should it ever decide to return to Paris.
The rant that ended the last paragraph isn’t as much of a digression as you might think. There’s a vast qualitative difference between most of the monumental art plopped down at public sites that I’ve seen in Paris over the past decade and the work of local artists I’ve seen in their ateliers. The former seems to have been picked expressly because it doesn’t go with its setting, either in its scale or substance, while the latter seems genuinely connected to the pulse of the city and the artists’ fellow citizens, their concerns and fears, their diversions and distractions. And much more up to the standards that preceded them. Perhaps the city officials who curate these temporary exhibtions sould take a ramble around the Open Studios of Belleville. At last month’s annual edition, I was able to discover a score of artists who both sparked my curiosity about their methods and designs and sated my thirst for more of what I’ve always loved in French culture, specifically the marriage of literary depth and painterly brilliance.
Raoul Velasco, “Icare.” Etching and intaglio. Copyright and courtesy Raoul Velasco.
From an engraver who has integrated newspaper clippings into a series about a child’s — our — nightmares to make the point about how much the news has infiltrated our consciousness, to a water-colorist who caresses the paper with a light touch using bamboo pens, to an engraver and monotype maker on the mythic rue Menilmontant whose tinted shade of black furnishes the perfect tone for capturing the obsolete and desuet structures of the city’s outlying arrondissements and suburbs, to a book-maker / artist who has built up a steady client base for the ancient craft of artisanal book-binding to which she applies an eye for color that rivals that of Sonia Delaunay, what I found was artists determined to pursue their craft with an eye that is as open to the world around them as it is to the potential of the canvas in front of them. And, perhaps not surprising in a city which still offers specialist (and independent) bookstores tucked into every nook and cranny, just about all the work I saw was underpinned by cerebral thematics.
Kristin Meller, “Candide.” Woodcut. Copyright and courtesy Kristin Meller.
I’d already been captivated by Kristin Meller’s limited edition and lavish artist’s book about the Theatre des Ombres, seen at last year’s Open Studios. This time around it was a four-part series starring a heroine or hero named “Candide” that drew me. The name is a loaded — and still relevant — allusion in France. Typically it’s meant to suggest naiveté. But naiveté is a close cousin to innocence, and (at least as I interpreted the series; Meller’s work is open to multiple readings, and she disdains none) it’s rather the confrontation between innocence and the malevolent forces and events of the world that spoke to me here. The form is perfectly suited to this juxtaposition: The base or background is bright, its dark luminosity evoking the black light posters popular in the 1970s. In the sample we’ve featured here, a child — or a child-like hero/ine — might be awakening from a nightmare… or to the nightmare of the real and increasingly fragile world.
Meller and her partner, Raoul Velasco, host an annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition and fete in their atelier/gallery high atop Belleville on the rue Cascades, l’Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire. (This last term literally translates as “Folk Art,” but that implies an unschooled skill level which doesn’t accurately describe the high level of craftsmanship in either the engravings and woodcuts of Meller and Velasco or the students of the ateliers they lead in Paris and the border suburb of Lilas that I’ve seen. I’d put this work up against that in any gallery mounting established artists.) Last fall’s festivities featured calaveras, or skeletons, lampooning public figures and subjects, such as the disparity of wealth and the beauty media’s promotion of the thin body standard for women. That might sound ponderous, but there’s a wistfulness to both artists’ approaches that’s almost… carefree. In one recent comic strip, Meller depicts the saga of a skeleton… dying… after a long illness. This is a concept that doesn’t just make you think, it makes you think twice. If a skeleton can die (in another Meller strip a skeleton falls to his death after being pushed over a fence by a woman skeleton friend he’s raped), then… when we become skeletons, are we really dead, or are we entering another zone in which we’re still subject to the mortal pains and joys of living and dying…? Meller doesn’t necessarily press us to pose these heavy questions, but her work is open to such reflections.
Raoul Velasco, “Flight.” Etching and intaglio. Copyright and courtesy Raoul Velasco. To read more about Raoul Velasco and Kristin Meller’s Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire, click here.
As for Velasco, his etching and intaglio “Vol,” or “Flight” features a netherworld under a city sidewalk, inhabited by an upside-down figure apparently heading… upwards. I also see both artist-teachers’ influence in the technical adeptness of their students.
Also supporting the vision of symbols of the dead as vibrant sources of life is Ulrike Klett’s silver gelatin print of a tomb at the entry to a village in the southwest of Benin, Lobogo, which, she reports, is a popular gathering place for the town’s living residents.
Ulrike Klett, “Entre du village de Lobogo.” Silver photo on film (scan). Copyright and courtesy Ulrike Klett.
Klett was the guest, at this year’s Open Studios, of Mirella Rosner, an artist as well as activist in Belleville, often engaged in campaigns to save mixed-use housing/atelier structures from demolition by a city administration struggling with an ongoing housing crisis. If Rosner’s political commitment is sincere, her work doesn’t bear the leaden quality of some artists who think flashing their politics is enough to validate their ideas. At last fall’s exhibition of the Artists of the Bastille, she occupied a whole room with a gigantic funnel-like mobile decorated with the detritus of consumer society. Her work on paper often features multiple mediums, clashing and blending with each other in a way that produces interesting textural contrasts, such as the example featured here which combines acrylic — diluted enough to resemble watercolor — and ink swirls traced with bamboo pens.
Mirella Rosner, “GaelleS,” acrylic and ink. 24 x 31 cm. Copyright and courtesy Mirella Rosner. Rosner’s work is also on display through June 19 at the gallery of the Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville in the group exhibition “Our Pandora’s Boxes.”
Like Meller and Velasco’s Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire, Caroline Bouyer’s compact atelier (half of which seems to be filled by her engraving machine) has become a Belleville institution since opening on the rue Menilmontant in 2007, frequently hosting other artists as well as classes for apprentice engravers. A pedigreed artist who has collaborated with, among others, Balthus and the late singer-composer Nino Ferrer — on a livre d’artist, a literary-art form in which she’s already established herself as a master — as well as illustrated children’s books, Bouyer also excels at portraying the carcasses of since levelled, forgotten, or remodeled buildings and railway tracks in the peripheral zones of Paris. The form and large format she’s chosen — which might resemble an architect’s blueprint — as well as the tone of her blacks, lends a veneer to her subjects that conveys the distance of time. It’s all well and good, for example, that the suburban city of Pantin is rehabilitating the ancient building of the Magasins (or boutiques) General, which is slated to house France’s largest ad agency, an organic grocery store, and a cafe-restaurant cultural center, but it’s also important to preserve history, and this is where Bouyer applies her craft, her eye, her attentive memory and a grander sense of the scope this evolution in the urban landscape represents in a city which is constantly discarding its past, often to follow fleeting contemporary architectural modes. (Although it could be worse; some planners in the 1970s envisioned a Paris in the 2000s which solved the housing crisis with aerial apartment buildings hovering over the Seine) It’s as if she’s capturing ghosts before they vanish into the ether.
Top: Caroline Bouyer, “Magasins Généraux Désaffectés 2.” Engraving. Below: Caroline Bouyer, “Vue des Maréchaux, Paris XIII (2).” Engraving. Both images and works copyright and courtesy Caroline Bouyer. Click here for more samples of the artist’s work.
If Valerie Malet’s atelier on a side street off the top of the rue Belleville is more discrete than Bouyer’s — from the unadorned frosted glass storefront, one might guess it’s just another disaffected building — to pursue her particular metier Malet’s reached even further back. In an age in which everything is automated, with e-books supplanting paper and 3D printers able to replace damaged body parts, I was relieved to find an artist devoting her particular talents to the ancient craft of book-binding.
In France, the art of making books has been intricately tied to the art of literature at least since Balzac delved into it in “Lost Illusions,” in which the advances in the paper-making industry were intricately intertwined with the fates of his heroes and the machinations and intrigues of his villains. The art of the reliure or book-binding seems to me the quintessentially Parisian, or French, literary art, providing artful packages for all sorts of literary endeavors. (And not just in France. Back in the day, New York publishers sometimes provided their authors with special glass and ceramic covered first editions of their work.) And Malet, in the brilliance of her palette, recalls another multi-position player of the French scene, Sonia Delaunay, the pioneer of Spontaneous Color who also sometimes devoted her craft to a practical form, fashion. “The art of the reliure is a traditional, old school technique,” Malet says, “but for me it’s a solid, fantastic base for creating, imagining, and inventing forms both contemporary and colored.” And she applies her investment in the craft not just to new works, but also to restoring the covers of antique editions, one more sign of proof of the enduring value of the metier she’s chosen — and the enduring value of artists who are also artisans. — Paul Ben-Itzak
Examples of book bindings by Valérie Malet courtesy and copyright Valérie Malet. To read more about Valerie Malet and her work in painting and hte art of reliure, click here.
Among 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.)
Among 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.