Atlan, seen by Michel Ragon: A new excerpt from “Trompe-l’oeil” (Introduction and English translation followed by origional French text)

smfall pw artcurial atlan 185Jean-Michel Atlan (1913 – 1960), Untitled, 1946. Oil on canvas, 39.37 x 31.89 inches. Signed and dated lower left. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 10,000 – 15,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial, which presented the tableau as part of its Post-War & Contemporary Art Auction, October 30 in Paris.

Reflecting the author’s popular roots, Michel Ragon’s 1956 “Trompe-l’oeil” is less an easy parody of the nascent contemporary art market than an introduction to the complex Abstract Art universe disguised as tragi-comic spoof, with complementary swipes at corrupt art critics à la Balzac’s “Lost Illusions.” Ragon’s colorful fictional personnages interact with some of the real-life artists of the era that he, as a critic and curator, championed (à la Zola). In the excerpt below, after conjuring one of the painter Jean-Michel Atlan’s mythic “Montparno” parties, where the host was as likely to regale his guests with an elaborate burlesque of Joan of Arc in which he portrayed Joan, the Arc-Angel Gabriel, a shephard, and his sheep, as by mixing Chinese, Arabic, African, and Jewish music on a turntable, Ragon sketches a portrait of the artist as vivid as the visit he once took readers on to the long-since evicted studio of Brancusi, another stalwart of a lost Montparnasse once paved with ateliers before “development” chased them out. My English translation follows the excerpt in the original French. (To read an earlier excerpt of “Trompe-l’oeil,” from the book’s first pages, and more about Michel Ragon, click here.)

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

Born the grandson of miracle-working rabbis in the Jewish ghetto of the Algerian city of Constantine, Atlan saw his youth torn between political crises and crises of mysticism. Traveling to the French capital to finish his studies at the Sorbonne, after getting his Bachelor’s in philosophy he adopted Paris as his home and never returned to North Africa, whose unhinged racisms and exacerbated nationalisms had poisoned his childhood.

A Trotskyist militant, one day Atlan was handed a huge revolver and assigned to bodyguard Trotsky, at the time traversing France. Of course he’d never handled a gun in his life. In the middle of the journey, stepping off the train to grab a bite at the station greasy spoon, he suddenly asked himself what personal reason he could possible have for guarding Trotsky, found no answer, and fled to seek out the nearest synagogue, abandoning on the train the figure he was supposed to be protecting.

Before World War II, Atlan’s life was composed of a maze of political demonstrations, in general underpinned by anti-colonialism. The sole remotely painterly preoccupation he’d ever had was to secure a meeting with Paul Signac to ask him to sign a petition.

During the German occupation of Paris, Atlan’s Jewish origins, not to mention his political activities, hardly left him any alternative to getting arrested. Imprisoned, as was his wife (despite being a native of Normandy), he escaped being deported to the death camps by executing one of his most convincing numbers ever: insanity.

One had to have heard Atlan recount this macabre adventure with his unique brand of burlesque humor, which had a way of putting him at his listeners’ level. (After the war, as described by Ragon elsewhere in “Trompe-l’oeil,” his 1956 satire of the Montparnasse art milieu, Atlan would throw all-night parties at his Left Bank atelier where he’d regale his guests with one-man shows.) By repeatedly insisting that a judicial error had landed him in prison, and that he was actually the Bishop of Constantine, he so unnerved a guard that the guard alerted the warden. Upon investigating, this official found the prisoner wrapped in his straw mattress, using it as a priest’s smock. He repeated to the warden that he was the Bishop of Constantine. As a precautionary measure, the warden sent him to the prison psychiatrist. This time Atlan knew that his audience would be harder to convince, this particular specialist being accustomed to dealing with impersonators. He altered his approach accordingly, responding to the psychiatrist in his normal tone. Then he confessed that he was just pretending to be crazy because he was Jewish and counted on this ruse to escape deportation.

The psychiatrist, discomfited, answered that it would be risky for him to make out a bogus certificate, as he himself was being watched. From this they progressed to a cozy chat which had no resemblance to a medical examination. Atlan subtly insinuated into the conversation that his wife was also locked up, and that unfortunately he was unable to see her as often as he liked.

“How’s that again?” asked the psychiatrist, suddenly alert. “Do you mean that you are actually able to see your wife? Isn’t she imprisoned at the Petite-Roquette**?

“She is indeed. To be honest, I don’t exactly ‘see’ her, but we do speak to each other every night.”

“What do you mean, ‘speak’?”

“It’s quite simple. I’ve developed a system of transmitting thoughts which allows me, once I’ve attained the necessary level of concentration, to enter into communication with another person, even someone in a place that’s physically remote from me. In this manner my wife and I are able to talk every night for 15 minutes. That’s my limit for intense concentration. Beyond that, it’s not possible.”

The psychiatrist stared at him, surprised at this smart little man, who had put forth such a lucid discourse. He shook his head.

“I’m afraid that prison has tired you out a little.”

Then he proclaimed, “This is extraordinary! It so happens that I’m working on a thesis on exactly these kinds of cases of telepathy. How about if we collaborate? I’m going to ask the prison administration to put you at my disposition.”

Thus it was that Atlan spent the final years of the Occupation in the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital. Did the doctors eventually figure out that he was faking it, but maintain the ruse to save him from deportation? It’s entirely possible, because he was left relatively free and wasn’t medicated. Was it during this period of isolation that Atlan began to paint? In any case, during the Liberation of Paris he could be seen scurrying along the boulevard Montparnasse, freed or having escaped, moving from one barricade to the next and asking the combatants:

“Say, you wouldn’t happen to know where I could score some oil canvasses and paints, would you?”

Later on, after the Germans had departed, Atlan published a collection of poems most likely penned in prison, “Deep Blood,” and which were the poetic reflection of his paintings. And before 1944 had ended he’d held his first solo exposition. He was only 31, the age when most artists are just discovering themselves, but his vocation still seemed to have arrived late in the day because he hadn’t followed the official channel of the Beaux Arts school. Painting soon absorbed all his other aspirations. Politics, philosophy, poetry, mysticism — it was all transmuted in the single task of the pictorial oeuvre. Atlan shortly became one of the leaders of the New Painting of the Post-War period, and one of the most prestigious galleries in Paris signed him. But he remained Bohemian and “Montparno.” Hit by the economic crisis that followed the War, like all the abstract painters, he went so far as to work as a peddler in the suburban markets outside Paris, telling fortunes for the Montrouge storekeepers, who would often mistake him, with his Mediterranean profile, for a gypsy. And so while he continued to be thought of as one of the essential painters of the new School of Paris, he and his wife were dying of starvation. But they kept up a good front.

 

smfall pw artcurial atlan 186Jean-Michel Atlan (1913 – 1960), Untitled, 1954. Oil on panel, 15 x 18.11 inches. Signed and dated lower left.  Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 6,000 – 8,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial, which presented the tableau as part of its Post-War & Contemporary Art Auction, October 30 in Paris.  

Original text by and copyright Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Albin-Michel, Paris:

Né dans le ghetto de Constantine, petit-fils de rabbins miraculeux, Atlan eut sa jeunesse déchirée entre des crises politiques et des crises de mysticisme. Venu terminer ses études à la Sorbonne, licencié en philosophie, il adopta Paris et ne retourna plus en Afrique du Nord où tous les racismes déchainés, tous les nationalismes exacerbés, avaient empoisonné son enfance.

Militant trotskiste, on lui confia un jour un gros revolver et il devint garde du corps de Trotsky, qui traversait alors la France. Inutile de dire qu’il n’avait jamais manié un revolver de sa vie. En cours de route, descendu au buffet d’une gare, il se demanda soudain quelle raison personnelle il pouvait bien avoir d’accompagner Trotsky, n’en trouva point et s’enfuit dans la ville inconnu à la recherche de la synagogue, abandonnant dans le train le personnage qui lui était confié.

Avant la récente guerre, la vie d’Atlan se perdait donc dans un dédale de manifestations politiques, en général basées sur l’anti-colonialisme. La seule préoccupation picturale qu’il se souvenait d’avoir eue, en ce temps-là, consista à obtenir un rendez-vous de Signac pour lui faire signer une pétition.

Pendant l’occupation allemande, ses origines juives, plus ses antécédents politiques, ne lui laissaient guère d’autre issue possible que l’arrestation. Emprisonné, ainsi que sa femme qui pourtant était Normande, il échappa aux camps d’extermination en jouant un de ses grands numéros parodiques : la folie.

Il faillait l’entendre raconter cette aventure macabre, avec son humour burlesque qui la mettait au niveau de chacun. A force de proclamer qu’une erreur judiciaire l’avait amené en prison et qu’il n’était autre que l’évêque de Constantine, un gardien s’en émeute et en avisa le Directeur. Celui-ci trouva le prisonnier enveloppé dans sa paillasse qui, en l’occurrence lui servait d’étole. Il répéta au Directeur qu’il n’était autre que l’évêque de Constantine. Par acquit de conscience, on l’envoya au psychiatre de la prison. Là, Atlan savait que le rôle serait plus difficile a jouer, ce spécialiste ayant l’habitude des simulateurs. Il changea alors de tactique et se mit à répondre au psychiatre de son ton habituel. Puis il lui avoua confidentiellement qu’il simulait la folie parce qu’il était Juif et qu’il comptait ainsi éviter la déportation.

Le psychiatre, très ennuyé, parla de la difficulté d’établir un faux certificat, que lui-même était surveillé. Ils en vinrent à une conversation très cordiale qui n’avait plus rien d’un examen médical. Atlan glissa dans la conversation que sa femme était également enfermée et qu’il ne pouvait malheureusement pas la rencontrer aussi souvent qu’il le désirerait.

— Comment, dit le psychiatre, soudain alerté, vous revoyez votre femme? N’est-elle pas à la Petite-Roquette ?

— Si. Pour être franc, je ne la vois pas, mais je lui parle tous les soirs.

— Comment cela ?

— C’est très simple. J’ai mis au point un système de transmission de pensée qui me permet, lorsque j’atteins le degré de concentration nécessaire, d’entrer en communication avec un autre être, même placé dans un lieu physiquement inaccessible. C’est ainsi que, tous les soirs, ma femme et moi nous nous parlons pendant un quart d’heure. C’est ma limite de concentration intensive. Au delà, ce n’est plus possible.

Le psychiatre regardait, étonné, ce petit homme intelligent et qui lui avait tenu des propos si lucides. Il hocha la tête :

— La prison vous a un peu fatigué.

Puis il s’enthousiasma :

— C’est inouï, je travaille justement à une thèse sur ces cas de transmission de pensée. Nous allons collaborer ensemble, n’est-ce pas. Je vais demander à l’administration de la prison de vous laisser à ma disposition.

C’est ainsi qu’Atlan vécut pendant les dernières années de l’Occupation à l’hôpital psychiatrique de Sainte-Anne. Finit-on par découvrir en lui le simulateur et voulut-on le sauver de la déportation, c’est probable puisqu’on le laissa relativement libre et sans traitement. Est-ce pendant cet isolement qu’Atlan commença à peindre ? Toujours est-il que pendant les journées de la Libération de Paris, on le retrouve sur le boulevard Montparnasse, libéré ou évadé, allant d’une barricade à l’autre et demandant aux combattants :

— Dites-moi, est-ce que vous savez où l’on peut se procurer des toiles à peindre et des couleurs?

Puis, aussitôt les Allemands partis, Atlan publie un recueil de poèmes vraisemblablement composés en prison : “Le sang profond” qui est très exactement une poétique de sa peinture. Il fait d’ailleurs presque aussitôt sa première exposition. Il n’a en fait que trente et un ans, l’âge auquel la plupart des artistes se découvrent, mais sa vocation apparaitra toujours tardive parce qu’elle ne suivit pas la filière des Ecoles des Beaux-Arts. La peinture absorba aussitôt toutes ses autres aspirations. Politique, philosophie, poésie, mysticisme, se transmuèrent dans la seule volonté de l’œuvre picturale. Atlan devint bientôt l’un des chefs de file de la nouvelle peinture et l’une des plus importantes galeries de Paris le prit sous contrat. Mais il demeura bohème et « montparno ». Touché par la crise, comme tous les peintres abstraits, il allait jusqu’à travailler comme camelot dans des marchés de banlieue, disait la bonne aventure aux épicières de Montrouge qui le prenaient, avec son profile d’Arabe, pour un tzigane. Alors que l’on continuait à le considérer comme un des peintres essentiels de la nouvelle Ecole de Paris, sa femme et lui crevaient de faim. Mais ils s’efforçaient de n’en laisser rien paraitre.

atlan smallAmong the works on sale in last Spring’s Artcurial Paris auction of Post-War & Contemporary Art: Jean-Michel Atlan (1913-1960), Untitled, 1955. Oil on canvas, 71 x 53 cm. Signed at lower-left, “Atlan.” Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 18,000 – 25,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

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