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 , 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.

Go tell it on the mountain (malgré tout) Tintin a l’ancienne & Beaujolais Nouveau


Hergé (Georges Rémi dit): Snow card, China ink and watercolor on paper, 1942/43, original drawing and printed edition. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 60,000 – 120,000 Euros / $66,000 – 132,000 (each). Copyright Hergé / Moulinsart 2016.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

Several years ago, taking the Thalys train from Paris to Brussels, I encountered a young Belgian psychologist who related how her grandmother had escaped from arriving at the death camps by jumping naked from a speeding train. So when I saw that the 20 original China ink drawings for a series of Christmas cards featuring Tintin and other characters — being auctioned off by Artcurial in Paris tomorrow for prices pre-sale estimated at a whopping $66,000 – $132,000 apiece — were designed by Hergé in 1942-43, I found it problematic that at a time when Belgian Jews were being deported from the occupied country to their deaths, Hergé was producing happy-go-lucky, business-as-usual Christmas cards to be sold to luckier Belgians.

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Cross-Country, a Memoir of France, 20: The Man with the Child in his Eyes

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”                    – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

“He’s here again: The man with the child in his eyes.”                                                                       – Kate Bush

 By & Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please support the Arts Voyager by donating through PayPal, designating your payment to, or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check or in Euros. Based in the Dordogne and Paris, the Arts Voyager is also currently looking for lodging in Paris. Paul  is also available for translating, editing, Djing, and webmastering assignments.)

In an old  house in Paris, les paradises reel

“She loves books,” I insisted, struggling to get Pierre’s attention. “She’s serious. She’s got eyes to die for. She appreciates that I’m a writer.”

Briskly shelving cellophane-sealed histories of art and philosophy, squeezing dust-covered profiles of anarchist agitators and existential theorists in between musty biographies of Belle Epoch clowns and Front Populaire officials, carrying whole rows of obscure scientific revues from the balustrade overlooking the Seine lapping at the banks of the Ile St. Louis across the way — where Gauthier and Baudelaire once threw lavish hashish parties and Camille Claudel plummeted into “the years of darkness” — to his three bruised dark green metal stalls, occasionally brushing his long stringy pony-tailed graying brown hair away from his John Lennon glasses or flicking the soot off the sleeves of his Tang-colored jumpsuit, not even taking time to glance at the fathomless river rippling under the reflections of the crepuscular Sun, Pierre didn’t seem to be listening to my rapturous account of my first dinner date with Emilie, who I’d met at his 40th birthday fete near the Place Edith Piaf.

In Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” Lambert Strether takes a break from trying to rescue a friend’s errant son from the jaws of a man-eating Parisienne to troll for literary treasures in the bookstands lining both banks of the Seine, finally scoring a complete volume of the works of Victor Hugo, poet-champion of les miserables and exiled political opponent of Napoleon III whose anguished militating against the death penalty from an island in the English Channel stretched even across the Atlantic to plead mercy for the abolitionist John Brown. If it’s true that, as pointed out by Robert Badinter – who as Mitterand’s attorney general would fulfill Hugo’s dream of decapitating the guillotine a century after his death – France is not so much the country of the Rights of Man as the country which declared the Rights of Man, it was Hugo picking up the mantle of Voltaire before passing it on to Zola who would try to ford the abyss between the declarations and the deeds. The gap between the piss-poor metier of bouquiniste – Pierre’s — and that of published author, by contrast, had frequently been bridged. Michel Ragon, the most cultivated man alive in France today (as of this writing, in late 2016), got his start as a bouquiniste before becoming the country’s premiere critic of art and architecture in the second half of the 20th century, as a side oeuvre keeping a log of proletarian movements that culminated in “La Memoir des Vaincus” (the memoir of the vanquished) the loosely fictional biography of a sort of Zelig among the anarchists or, more specifically, anarcho-syndicalists (anarchist labor organizers). (There’s a strain of anarchism in even the most encadred of French souls; as I write this, French policemen and women – the very embodiment of State order —  are defying both their government and their unions by marching for more modern means and the right to shoot in self-defense.)  Léo Malet – who was baptized by the anarchists and accompanied the surrealists before inventing Nestor Burma, the down-at-the-mouth French answer to Philip Marlowe, a poor man’s Maigret unafraid to dive into the muck of the Seine to catch a bad guy, whose rich vernacular and poetic vocabulary make Simenon look like Hergé and who left a trail of bodies in each of the 15 arrondissements in which his New Mysteries of Paris were set — was rewarded for this fidelity to the city with a bouquiniste’s concession, only to give it up after a few months because “I preferred reading the books to selling them.” And when another Léo, Carax – the bad boy of French cinema – wanted to demonstrate how far off the deep end the hero of his 1986 “Mauvaise Sang” had plunged after agreeing to steal a sample of HIV-contaminated blood with Juliette Binoche and Michel Piccoli, he had him break into a bouquiniste’s box after roaming the fog-addled bridges of the Seine in a midnight delirium. It was about the most fragile target one could pick; Pierre supported his metier de coeur by working part-time as a museum security guard, further trimming his expenses by jumping Metro turn styles.

So when I bought my first art book from Pierre, a tome on Impressionism published in the 1950s (the ideal epoch for the quality of the reproductions) with a portrait of Berthe Morisot as painted by her brother-in-law Manet on the cover, it was as if I had procured a part of Paris history directly from one of its guardians, another way to insert myself into the city’s lore.

Finally padlocking the last of the rusty boxes and starting off at a clipped pace for “Le chope des compagnons,” the bar across the street from his stand and the Hotel de la Ville, where he’d promised to introduce me to an Italian mason who specialized in tombstones (my dance magazine wanted to restore what at that juncture we still believed was the ballerina Taglioni’s dilapidated grave in the Montmartre cemetery, only to learn later from Edgar Allen Poe that the mother of pointe was actually buried in the Pere Lachaise sepulcher of the Bonapartiste ex-husband who’d barred her from the domicile congugale when she refused to stop dancing), Pierre scoffed, “Ecoute, it’s not you she’s interested in. She’s a little girl from the provinces set loose in Paris. For her you’re the American —  you’re exotique. If it doesn’t cost you anything, pourquoi pas? Mais fait gaffe:  Already she’s taking advantage of Marcel.” Marcel was the fellow bouquiniste who’d been putting Emilie up since she’d debarqued from Toulouse. “She was supposed to stay for a week-end, already she’s been there for three weeks. He has a thing for her, and she’s abusing his kindness.” As with his attempts to debunk the authenticity of Sarah Bernhardt’s ornate personal mirror, which I’d recently purchased from a Bohemian couple at a Montmartre garage sale, Pierre seemed bent on denying the legitimacy of my burgeoning French connections, be they anchored in the past or present. For me however it was clear that his skepticism derived from too many years of seeing tourists leaf through his precious books – the cellophane wrappers were meant to discourage such marauding —  without buying anything, while he paid his rent watching the same Philistines photograph themselves in front of the museum masterpieces he guarded.

“She’s pretty helpless, Pierre. She needs a friend. And as for taking advantage of Marcel, it’s not her fault if she can’t find work. She’s a social worker with ado’s at a time when the government has just cut 8,000 aide jobs from the schools.”

“Okay, Candide! Fait comme tu veut.  Just don’t come crying to me afterwards. The problem with you Americans is you’re too romantic about France.  You think every waif you encounter wandering the quays has just stepped out of the pages of Les Miserables, is harboring the soul of Piaf, and is looking for a Marcel Cedran to protect her. And you don’t even like boxing.”

“Dans une vieux maison a Paree

Ont vecu  12 petites filles

dans deux etroite files.”

Filles,” (sniff), “doesn’t rhyme with files,” Emilie pointed out with nasally muted contentiousness before taking a sip of chicken soup with approximated matzo balls. Unable to find Manischevitz, I’d bought a box of matzo crackers (or pain d’azyme) imported from Oran — the Algerian city on a hill in which Camus had set “The Plague,” which hosted a large Jewish colony — and pulverized them to compose the body of the balls, pulling out the major gourmet artillery to lure Emilie to my petite coin de Paradis on the rue de Paradis when she’d wanted to cancel our rendez-vous, pleading an incipient cold. “I’ll make you a big pot of hot chicken soup with matzo balls.”

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

 “It’s like Jewish penicillin.”

 “You see? It’s like I told you, your Jewish genes are trés important to you.”

“It has nothing to do with my Jewish genes,” I insisted. “It’s my California roots. My father built one of the first Nouveau California Cuisine restaurants in San Francisco, and my mother did the cooking. The only difference is her matzo balls were made of whole wheat.”

Pourquoi pas tofu?”

“She was Old School Nouveau California Cuisine.”

“If I drink the soup, it will make me Jewish?” French humour often being more refined than American, I never knew whether Emilie was kidding.

“It won’t make you Jewish, but it might make you less blueish.” Getting no response – the “Yellow Submarine” film reference escaping her, or maybe she just didn’t get my own sense of humour – I added, “It might help your cold.”

Emilie was now perched primly on the futon with her delicate fingers clasped between her knees, looking thinner in a somber brown skirt over black tights, a light-weight tan pullover not helping her ghostly, wan pallor. In an effort to rally her spirits – the soup had only increased the sniffling, and I was having trouble charming her —  I’d pulled out my Madeline omnibus. Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline – the hero of a series of children’s stories set in Paris which no one in France has ever heard of, just as many have never heard of “The Red Balloon” — had been the obsession of Mimi Kitagawa, my childhood best friend who’d turned over in her crib on Liberty Street in San Francisco in 1964 at the age of three and a half and breathed her last breath. During a desperate late-night passage in Greenwich Village in 1997, reeling from a push-and-pull, now I love you, now I don’t relationship with an exotic modern dancer-contortionist and meandering up Broadway in search of salvation, I’d ended up at the Strand (“8 miles of books, millions of bargains”), where a copy of the Madeline collection had beckoned to me from a display shelf near the ceiling, which I took as a hail-Mary from Mimi, by then my guardian angel. Later, whenever the ameritune of past experience threatened to blind me to present possibilities, I’d try to let Mimi become the child taking over my perspective (in Californese: “I’d channel her”), and remind myself that I had a responsibility to live my life for two.

I was now (we’re back on the rue de Paradis, in October 2004) attempting to translate the first Madeline tale into French to make it legible for Emilie, or at least get a rise out of her with my maladroit bungling.

Filles,” Emilie was pointing out, “Is pronounced ‘fee’; files,” French for ‘lines,’ “is pronounced ‘feeel.’ So in fact, Monsieur Paul” – she looked up from the book to emphasize the point with her eyes – “they do not rhyme.” Seeing my deflated disappointment – and realizing I was doing my valiant best to distract her from the cold — she added, this time with a slight upturn to her lips and an accompanying humour in her eyes to indicate she was being ironic, “Et pour ma part, je commence a perdre le file,” the latter phrase meaning ‘lose the thread.’

Dans deux FEEEEEEEEEEEL etroites donc, ils ont coupé leur pain,” or broke their bread, I continued, “et ont lavé leurs teeth,” which I emphasized by pointing to Bemelmans’s simple sketch of the 12 girls aligned on either side of the orphanage dinner table brushing their teeth, “avant de se mis au LITH,” I concluded, adding the lisp to “lit,” the French word for ‘bed,’ to get the rhyme with ‘teeth.’

Turning the page to a double-spread demonstrating the girls’ attitudes towards, respectively, the forces of good and those of evil, I translated “They smiled before the good” as “Devant le bon, ils se sont rejoui” to get the rhyme with my translation of “and frowned on the bad“:  “Tandis que devant le mal, ils aviez que du mepris.

Pas mal,” Emilie admitted, finally smiling through the sniffles. “But I don’t understand why for the good he draws a picture of a rich woman feeding a carousel horse in front of les Invalides – “

“Maybe it’s Napoleon’s horse?” I offered feebly, Bonaparte’s ashes being stored at the army museum.

“And maybe you lead me to Waterloo! Et apres?”

I continued reading and translating until the page on which Madeline, after an emergency appendectomy, wakes up in a hospital room full of flowers.

Putting her thin fore-finger on one of the pictured vases, Emilie complained, “She gets all those flowers for her appendix, and you have nothing for me?”

Au contraire! So, my belle-mere has a boutique in San Francisco where she sells exotic soaps, shampoos, bubble-baths, and body oils.  It’s actually how she and my father met; her store was across the street from his restaurant.”

Ah bon?” This had spiked her interest, as I’d cleverly maneuvered food, perfume, and romantic rendez-vous  into the same sentence.

“My step-mom – er, belle-mere – actually has a French last name. So you could say I’m part French.”

She smiled, if just with her eyes.

“Anyway, I have something she sent me that I want to give you.” Even though I’d asked my step-mom to send me the wild rose body oil specifically for such an occasion, I was trying to casualize the gift so as to not scare Emilie away. Normally I’d pretend to pull such small packages out of my victim’s ear, but the last time I’d tried that trick (inherited from my grandpa in Miami Beach, a liquor salesman, who used to do it with pennies or his wide gold ring with the oval black stone), the recipient had shrieked, thinking I was plucking a bee out of her bonnet, dissipating the ambiance. So this time I merely pulled the present, enveloped in bubble-wrap, out of my pocket.

“It’s very sweet of you,” Emilie said after twisting the cap off the miniscule glass tube and taking a whiff, patting and looking down at my hand to avoid looking me in the eyes. “If you don’t mind I will save it for later, because it could make me sick if I put it on now with my cold.”

“Speaking of roses,” I said, jumping to the stereo to cue “La Vie en Rose,”  “Would Mademoiselle care to dance?” Looking up noncommittally at my offered hand, which at that moment felt to me like a gorilla’s, she tentatively placed her downy palm in mine  and rose with an effort. In theory, waltzing with a French girl to Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose” in my own Paris apartment on the rue de Paradis across the street from where Pissarro  and Morisot learned to paint from Corot should have felt like a dream fulfilled, but my predominant sensation as I strained my back over Emilie’s doll-like hunched shoulders was the memory of dancing with Jocelyn Benford at the Lowell High School 1976 sophomore dance (“I need someone to ride the bus home with,” Jocelyn had explained, counting on my junior high crush still lingering), our ersatz silk shirts sticking sweatily together, broken up only by the ridged outline of Jocelyn’s bra, as we rotated to Earth Wind & Fire singing “Reasons.” As this French girl and I spun slowly on Paradis, the rose light-bulb I’d switched on coronating the reflection of our faces in Sarah Bernhardt’s abalone encrusted beveled mirror with a velvet aureole, Emilie felt even more fragile and fleeting in my American grizzly-bear grasp than that long ago 14-year-old.

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.

chicago-soviet-smallFrom the exhibition Humanism + Dynamite = The Soviet Photomontages of Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, running through January 10 at the Art Institute of Chicago: Alexandr Zhitomirsky, “It’s Time to Shoot Yourself, Herr Göring!,” 1941. Ne boltai! Collection. © Vladimir Zhitomirsky and courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.

Cross-Country, a Memoir of France, Interlude: Normandy, 1944

From a fox-hole, Salinger weighs in

Among those landing at Utah Beach on D-Day, 1944, was a young staff sergeant from New York City, Jerome David Salinger. In his 1945 short story “A Boy in France,” J.D. Salinger describes the reflections of an American soldier finding refuge under a filthy blanket in a dirty fox-hole previously occupied by a German soldier, probably dead:

“When I take my hand out of this blanket,” he thought, “my nail will be grown back, my hands will be clean. My body will be clean. I’ll have on clean shorts, clean undershirt, a white shirt. A blue polka-dot tie. A gray suit with a stripe, and I’ll be home, and I’ll bolt the door. I’ll put some coffee on the stove, some records on the phonograph, and I’ll bolt the door. I’ll read my books and I’ll drink the hot coffee and I’ll listen to the music, and I’ll bolt the door. I’ll open the window, I’ll let in a nice, quiet girl — not Frances, not anyone I’ve ever known — and I’ll bolt the door. I’ll ask her to walk a little bit in the room by herself, and I’ll look at her American ankles, and I’ll bolt the door. I’ll ask her to read some Emily Dickenson to me — that one about being chartless — and I’ll ask her to read some William Blake to me — that one about the little lamb who made thee — and I’ll bolt the door. She’ll have an American voice, and she won’t ask me if I have any chewing gum or bonbons, and I’ll bolt the door.”

From “J.D. Salinger,” Uncollected short stories, Volume 1.

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.

Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 13: Children of Paradise, lost without a map

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                           Copyright 2012, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

The Fabulous Destiny of PBI

“It’s early for me,” Sylvie yawned, clasping her hands behind her head and stretching her torso so that her green wool sweater pulled up to reveal a flat alabaster dancer’s belly. We were sitting at the Cafe Deux Moulins, at the exact same table where Amelie’s would-be suitor the recuperator of train station photo booth rejected shots had waited for Amelie, not knowing she was the waitress standing right behind him, in “The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain.” The film’s title was truncated to simply “Amelie” for its U.S. release, the distributors perhaps thinking “The Fabulous Destiny of” was too subtle for American audiences. But every American in Paris believes, at least in the beginning, that his destiny will be fabulous, and, still the Paris virgin in January 2002, I believed that mine was staring straight at me from Sylvie’s deep brown eyes. (A couple of years later Audrey Tatou, the actress who portrayed Amelie, would make the exact same gesture in my presence, surreptitiously checking out who was checking her out with his luminous green eyes in a nondescript brasserie at the foot of the Rue des Martyrs below Montmartre, my regular cafe across the street from Sabine’s  (and, earlier, Baudelaire’s) home on the rue Lamartine, which I’d sublet on my arrival in Paris the previous summer.

The Cafe Deux Moulins is on the rue Lepic below Abbesses; Theo Van Gogh’s place, where he accomodated his brother Vincent, is on upper Lepic (not far from the one-time home of the fabled singer Dalida), which winds up to Sacre Coeur and the Butte Montmartre. That brisk winter morning Sylvie gave me the Amelie tour, including the Rue of Three Brothers where Amelie ‘lived,’ the corner store used in the film,  and the actual theater where Amelie goes to the movies, an intimate art house cinema on the rue Tholoze decorated with colorful tin lantern chandeliers designed by Jean Cocteau and guarded by an over-sized bloated female Choron straight out of Marcel Carné’s “Les Portes de la Nuit,” in which Montand misses the last Metro at Barbes and tumbles into a Montmartre peopled with Carny personnages. (Later I’d frequent Studio 28; the theater had a patio cafe where after the film, as another glowing twilight descended on Montmartre, you could sip a kir at a table plastered with movie star photos, reminding me of a similar Warner Brothers poster I had plastered on my desk as a pre-teen in San Francisco, when I would spend my Saturday afternoons at a rundown Tenderloin theater with the Marx Brothers, Bogart and Bacall, and Teresa Wright. This was at about the time my parents split up and started sending me and my two younger brothers switching between their homes every three days. Why was I always taking refuge in a fabricated past that wasn’t my own?) So after hearing Arletty exclaim “Atmosphere?! Atmosphere?!” in “Hotel du Nord” or watching her toy with Jean-Louis Barrault in “Children of “Paradise” you could soak up even more atmosphere, letting the ambiance of the Montmartre d’autrefois and its phantoms seep into and hypnotize you. The Paris problem, though, is that these ghosts always seem to be plotting to make you believe your own reality must match the caliber of their movie scenarios, and your real-life co-stars rarely live up to this dream, particularly if they are natives and too stressed out by the daily grind to profit from the Paris fantasia. To this atmosphere already heady with romantic anticipation I brought a cinematic sensibility, which sometimes blinded me to the reality of these women, as if I believed all of them were supposed to be Anna Karina in Godard’s “Une femme est une femme,” ready for adventure.

Amelie, though – the character herself if not the fantastical fairy-tale elements of her universe – seemed to resonate with a sort of lost generation of debut of the millenium Parisian women in their late ‘20s and early ‘30s, even if the story was misunderstood by some intellectuals. They pointed out historical inaccuracies such as a newspaper headline blaring the death of Princess Diana, which had occurred several years before ‘Amelie’ takes place. But in fact Amelie’s destiny only becomes truly fabulous and fulfilled at the moment she abandons fairy-tale dreams (which could thus be said to have perished with Diana in that tunnel) and finds her prince in a fellow lost soul whose daily heroism consists of scavenging passport photos rejected by their subjects. In a way the film is about bucking the fatalism suggested by absurd providence (a powerful genetic pre-disposition for the French at least since the day that France’s greatest 20th-century thinker died in a car crash in January 1960) — when she’s still a child, Amelie’s mother is killed when a woman jumps off a Notre Dame tower and lands on her – and making your own fabulous destiny despite your fears.

Like Amelie, I was attempting to re-make myself despite the residue of my own psycho-familial history. I was trying to re-invent myself as Gene Kelly, blithe-hearted and nimble-footed, singing even in the rain while dancing with a young and ready French woman on the banks of the Seine, but the hitch was that my potential romantic leads did not know they were cast in the Leslie Caron role. (And neither my dancing nor my attitude was as carefree as Kelly’s.)

When the moment came for me to take Sylvie in my arms – it was a few weeks after our Deux Moulins rendez-vous and she’d just bent down to check out the record stash in my flat on the rue de Paradis, exclaiming, “’Ella a Berlin!’ C’est formidable!” — I tentatively tried to kiss her, and she pretended it didn’t happen, oh so subtly turning her cheek, not so much in a gesture of rejection but that felt more like effacement. No Leslie Caron with a violent rebuff which Gene Kelly can either accept or ignore, returning a la charge.  No Amelie temporarily retreating behind a black Zorro mask. Not even the intractable historical inevitability of Lambert Strether confronted with the impermeable wall between Old World fermeture and New World hubris in James’s “The Ambassadors.” Autrement dit, no literary templates or film scenarios to refer to for guidance.

In certain Paris Metro stations, there used to be an electrified wall map where you could push a button on a board indicating your destination, and the route would light up. There was no such grid for romantic traverses.

Cross Country / A Memoir of France 10: … in which the merde hits the washing machine, the chamallows clobber the sweet potatoes, Benedicte turns eggs a la diable into an aubaine, and the cats and I head for Paradis


By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2012, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

I Yam what I Yam

As we left off with Lambert Strether, impossibly trying to ford the gap between American optimism and Old World cynicism in his courtship of a middle-aged French woman in “The Ambassadors,” let’s resume with another Henry James Don Jones quixotically tipping his guilded sword at the citadel of Gallic womanhood (with apologies to my literary forefather for mentioning him in the same breath as a cliché’d opening which attempts to hybridize Jamesian languor and Hemingwayesque concision and ends up just south of Damon Runyon as Freud-ified by Bernard Malamud, a feeble imitation of Vonnegut’s monkey house).

“The American” opens in the Louvre, with a Yank buck posing this question to a doe-eyed French girl in the midst of copying a painting: “Combien?” Perhaps it was to counter this historical mode of exchange – or maybe it was just part of my ongoing determination to mimic Anne Frank (playing her boyfriend Peter in high school was the closest I’d come to approaching the phantoms of the Holocaust before moving to France) in matching her self-description as “a little bundle of contradictions” – that my first quasi-serious relationship in France was with a banker, Benedicte. The rest of my new circle of friends were all Anglophiles, starting with Lucie & Lionel, English teachers at the Sorbonne-affiliated Paris 5 whom I’d met through Beatrice, whose seventh-floor flat in the Square Albin Cachot I’d stayed at in the fall of 2000.

Like most French who speak English, L&L had learned from an English as in England teacher, which meant that whenever we conversed I felt like I was speaking with Brits. Lionel, who liked to crack jokes, thus seemed to me to be a real English wag. The pantherine Lucie, with her olive complexion and Olive Oyl figure, not to mention lilting accent, intimate smile, and penetrating eyes, changed my mind about bob-headed women. On my first visit to Paris she’d taken me to see Claude Chabrol’s “Chocolat,” in which the addictive elixir, manufactured by an industrialist played by Isabel Huppert, is both sexy and lethal, especially when Huppert uses it to try to slowly poison to death her husband, played by ’60s music icon Jacques Dutronc, France’s closest equivalent to Bob Dylan.

This time, in November 2001, I was staying in an apartment rented by Beatrice’s 30-year-old painter friend Marc, also on the square Albin Cachot in the 13eme arrondissement, on the border of the Latin Quarter and around the corrner from La Sante, the famous prison whose most recent residents had included the war criminal and collaborator Maurice Papon. I’d finally found a permanent place — on the rue de Paradis on the Right Bank, near the Grands Boulevards, below Montmartre, and skipping distance from the Canal St.-Martin — but it was not quite good to go. Marc was happy to stay with a friend and earn 3,000 francs while I pitched my tent at his pad for three weeks. Besides Marc, Lucie and Lionel, Beatrice, and Benedicte, I also invited to my Thanksgiving party a couple of L&L’s smart-alecy students: Juliette, who had lived with an American family in Chicago for a year in high school, and Pierre, a pip-squeak who would later get offended when I played Malcolm McLaren’s version of Serge Gainsbourg’s classic “Je t’aime” from the former’s “Paris” album —  in addition to Dutronc, Gainsbourg, and Dutronc’s mate Francoise Hardy, McLaren’s album being the other music that had fueled my own Paris fantasy.

But that was later, at the party. First I had to find a turkey. Exiting the Square Albin Cachot on the rue Nordmann and heading towards Glaciere, you first passed a boulangerie whose only attraction — Beatrice had warned me the bread was not that good — was a shrine to French rock legend Johnny Hallyday. Then you came to a long window for the butcher shop on the corner, filled with aged chevre cheese rolled in in green herbs and grey ashes, bottles of red wine, and  fresh feathered fowl. On Thanksgiving Friday — Thanksgiving in France not being a holiday, I’d scheduled my party for a Friday, when the next day wouldn’t be a school day — I lucked out: One of the birds was a turkey. It wasn’t as plump as store-bought hormone-fed American turkeys, but it boasted one thing they didn’t: glistening black feathers. In my pigeon French, illustrated with hand gestures, I asked the butcher behind the counter to clip the bird’s feathers, and to give them to me to use as a centerpiece, which I did, placing the plumes in a cowboy boot-shaped glass mug I’d saved from my NY farewell dinner at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Most French ovens sport two dials, one with numbers from 1 to 7, the other with funny pictures that, I presumed as I puzzled over the model in Marc’s flat that late fall overcast Paris morning, have something to do with whether you want the heat to come from below, above, or both directions. After I burned the first pecan pie (made with corn syrup from a boutique in the Marais called “Thanksgiving,” whose American owners bilked their fellow ex-pats by charging $7 per jar), I scribbled drawings of both dials on a napkin and, rushing back to the butcher’s and pointing to the napkin and to the window with the birds, asked him to indicate which settings I should use so the turkey wouldn’t end up charbroiled.

The only disaster at the party itself turned into an opportunity: When I fumbled the plate of deviled eggs onto the floor, Benedicte insisted on rolling up her sleeves, getting down on her immaculately stockinged legs and cleaning up the mess, prompting Lionel to take me aside and whisper, “She came dressed to kill and doused with Chanel No. 5, she insisted on mixing the egg yellows for you, and now she won’t let you clean up the mess you made. I think she likes you mate. She wants to show that you need her to take care of you.”

Of all the dishes I served up to my new French friends, the one they found the most exotique was the sweet potatoes with pineapples and melted marshmallows on top — or, as they’re called in French, “chamalows” (pronounced sham-a-lows). Considering that in France the chamalows come only in multi-colors like pink and green, this was no mean feat, as the melted result of green-pink gloop looked like “The Blob Attacks Orange-ville” in technicolor. (With apologies to Nathalie Kalmas, and to Boris Vian for copping that joke.)

I was supposed to move to the rue de Paradis, and Marc to recuperate his apartment, the following Monday and, right on cue, I had my ritual moving-day disaster. First the toilet stopped up. I poured pink “De-Stop Ultra” liquid down the basin and flushed, whence the toilet flushed in the opposite direction and the bathtub also erupted with dirty water, followed by the washing machine, which began spinning with it. Panicked, I knocked on the door of a neighbor I’d only seen in passing, a petite older lady with a short black curly hair-do who spoke no English. When I pointed to the water seeping out from under my doorway and onto the hall carpet, she got the message, grabbed some of her own fine towels, sank to her knees and began scrubbing and soaking, all the time shaking her head and singing “Oh lah lah, oh lah lah lah lah lah!” as she made the aller-retour between the hallway and her apartment to wring out the towels and return for more muck.

Finally the guardien (what the concierge is actually called in France) returned from his late lunch, and hurried over bringing a vacuum-cleaner type apparatus with a skinny 12-foot long suction hose. It inhaled, but the water kept spitting out. “I will have to call the plumbing squad,” he said, and within 15 minutes, a troupe of at least 10 African-origin men in bright green jumpers chanting lively water sweeping up songs marched in holding a much sturdier, one-foot in diameter grey hose, stuck it in the toilet, and sucked it dry, then marched back out laughing.

The flat still reeked of dirty toilet water, and the cats and I had to skedaddle for our new digs on Paradis. So I left a note for Marc apologizing for the mess, discouraged that I might have lost a best-friend candidate.

When I returned the next day to explain to Marc in person, he smiled drolly and laughed. “Don’t worry, it was not your fault. It seems that there was a lady on the top floor who put something in her toilet she shouldn’t have, and it fell all the way down through all seven floors and didn’t stop until it got to ours.”

I remembered something my father, an architect, had once said: “Paul, in plumbing, it’s important to remember one thing: Shit runs down.” So far, it felt like an awful lot of it was falling on me.