Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française (Part 2): The Appeal

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right (from the Arts Voyager Archives): From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4, 2012: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Four salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey. Est. pre-sale: 4,000-6,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Introduced and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Second of two parts. To read our translated excerpts of the first trial, before the Commercial Tribune of Paris, in which Victor Hugo sought to force the Comédie-Française to fully honor its contracts to perform three of his plays — including Hugo’s testimony about the larger stakes involved, for both the theater and the Romantic movement of which he was the champion — click here. If you have not already done so, please support our ongoing  arts, culture, and literary coverage and translation of French authors and history by designating your donation via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask about donating by check.)

In Romain Gary’s 1975 “Your whole life is ahead of you” (published, by Mercure de France, not insignificantly under the false name of Emil Ajar– a photo of the fictive author illustrates the back cover), an elderly French Arab monsieur who is slowly going blind and probably losing his wits passes his days on a bench outside the cosmopolitan Belleville apartment building in which the pre-teenaged (also Arab French) narrator lives with an elderly French-Jewish woman who boards the children of whores. In the left pocket of his suit-jacket he retains a copy of the Koran; in the right, a copy of (as he refers to him) “Monsieur Hugo.”

If we’ve chosen to translate and reproduce, in their near entirety, contemporaneous legal journals’ accounts of the proceedings accompanying Victor Hugo’s 1837 lawsuit against the Comédie-Française to impel France’s largest theater to honor its contracted engagements to perform three of his plays and pay modest damages for not having yet done so, it’s not just because Hugo’s lengthy and eloquent elocutions in the two trials are themselves compelling dramatic material. Nor because of the validity of Hugo’s incisive explanation that what’s at stake — what drove him to take his occasional employer to court — is not merely his personal rights as an author but the fate of a new school of literature to which the Comédie-Française (the only publicly-funded theater and the only theater with a literary bent), the literary establishment as represented by a conservative faction of the Academie Française, and a ‘coterie’ of ‘bureaucrats’ at the Interior Ministry have systematically sought to bar the route. Nor even for the resonance this battle has in a contemporary France where the Parisian culturati and mainstream media still tend to favor a narrow coterie of their ‘chou-chous’ and cronies. (It’s not uncommon for hosts at the State-owned middle-brow radio chain France Culture, who went on strike this week — which means they only return to the air-waves to let listeners know how well their strike is going — to use their programs to hawk the books of their fellow hosts and commentators, nor films of which the chain is an official sponsor.) It’s also because at a time when this same media often chooses to defend lay values through the vector of a negative, that is to say by incessant railing over the supposed imminent menace posed to these values, and lay society, by a headscarf, with the resultant potential stigmatization of any Muslim woman who chooses to cover her head, the vivid testimony of Victor Hugo, the most sterling representation of those values in one individual, provides a positive example, or clarion call, of what they actually mean and represent and of the positive cultural manifestations they protect, promote, and produce. An opportunity to, rather than stigmatize  these women because they don’t conform to our conception of lay values — thus, by imposing a negative — positively impress them with the luster of the lay offer (presuming, as the opponents of the headscarf often do, that they’re not already hip to it) when it comes to moral values and of the cultural offer adhering to, and profiting from, these values puts at their finger-tips. (In Hugo’s case, opening the doors of the nation’s leading and only public theater to a whole school of literature.)

The enthralling testimony of Victor Hugo — which constitutes the heart of the appeal proceedings reproduced below in our translation, and in which he simply seeks to assert rights already sanctioned by existing law, explains the larger stakes, and even identifies his real opponent and thus the real enemy in these stakes, “the bureaucrat” (the French word, ‘commis,’ can also be translated as ‘clerk’ or ‘sales assistant’) — provides a vital reminder that the most effective and inspiring way to diffuse lay values is not to stigmatize the personal religious choices of some members of a minority group but to continue to educate citizens about the inherent value of lay society as already promoted and championed in the stirring words and exemplary lives of Victor Hugo, of Voltaire, of Camus, of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

What if — for example — instead of wasting half of the air time allotted for interviewing two of the authors of a new 3,000-word, three-tome “Koran of the Historians” on a recent edition of his France Culture drive-time show in grilling the scholars about whether the Koran mandates the wearing of the headscarf (the Orthodox kipa or typically ‘moche’ Hassidic wig somehow never seems to come up), Guillaume Erner, who is so obsessed with this subject he must have nightmares about it, had asked them about possible correspondences and correlations between the Koran and the thinking of Victor Hugo? And what if such a discussion had won new adherents among some of these same headscarf-wearing women? And inspired them to rush out and get their own copies of “Monsieur Hugo,” to accompany them concomittently with the Koran? (And more kipa-donning French Jews and habit-wearing French nuns to do the same.)

It is partly with this end in mind that we now turn the floor over to Monsieur Victor Hugo, his attorney, and the attorney for the Comédie-Française, preceded by our summation of this second trial.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française
Court Royale de Paris
(Presiding judge Monsieur Séguier)
Session of December 5, 1837

As reported by French legal journals, reproduced in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872, and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

 

(Following the Commercial Tribune’s November 20, 1837 ruling ordering the Comédie-Française, in the person of its director, to pay Victor Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interests for having failed to honor its contracts to perform Hugo’s “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” — the second of which singularly ushered in the era of Romanticism, the school of which the author was the crowned chief — and the court’s ordering the theater’s director to schedule performances of the three tragedies by specific deadlines as agreed to in the contracts or face fines of 150 francs per day, the organization filed an appeal before the Royal Court.

Much of the appeal proceedings focused on the lawyers for the two sides’ reiterations and bolstering of their cases already addressed in the first trial — and thus in our previous translation of those sessions — and doesn’t need repeating here. But salient details furnished by the attorneys for both sides during this second trial are worth translating for the way they illuminate the popular and boisterous appreciation for Hugo at the time; the refusal by the Comédie-Française, part of whose excuse for not honoring its contracts with Hugo was the alleged mitigated box office receipts for the three plays, to produce records supporting this argument; Hugo’s lawyers producing receipts which suggested the contrary, that the classical playwrights who dominated the theater’s repertory often did much worse at the box office than Hugo, whose plays’ average box-office intake also exceeded that of the Comédie-Française’s leading star; and how Hugo was ready to surrender his meager State stipend when even the barest suggestion of conflict of interest arose.

But most of all this second and last trial — the Royal appeals court would uphold the commercial tribunal’s ruling in the author’s favor — is noteworthy for another improvised speech by Victor Hugo who, once again, signaled the larger questions at stake, specifically: Who controls what the public gets to see? And who lurks behind the effective barring of the country’s only State-funded, literary theater to an entire school of new work?

Voila the pertinent highlights. As with our earlier account, text presented within brackets is the translator’s; the rest is translated from the contemporaneous accounts of the Gazette des Tribunaux:)

As soon as the doors opened, a sizable crowd poured into the courtroom, among them a large number of writers and dramatic artists.

Monsieur Victor Hugo had some difficulty finding a place to sit on the benches reserved for him, already invaded by lawyers.

Maitre Delangle [attorney for the Comédie Française] took the floor with these words:

“In 1829, Monsieur Victor Hugo submitted to the Comédie ‘Marion de Lorme’: he was the head of this school which, paving new roads, made the claim and manifested the hope of reviving literature. The work was read [by the committee which decides which plays to perform], received; the contract was created; but the censor blocked the performances; this intervention established force majeure [a legal term still invoked today, typically to qualify a natural castastrophe that impedes a theater or other entertainment facility from fulfilling an engagement], and the play was cancelled.

“In 1830, ‘Hernani’ was accepted and mounted with care; Mademoiselle Mars performed the leading role; everything was done to incite the curiosity of the public.

“A newspaper, giving its opinion on my pleading during the Commercial Tribune trial, said that I was not a ‘man of literature.’

“I don’t have any pretensions to this title; but permit me to recall, for its singularity, that certain spectators, on the occasion of the new piece, surpassed every known limit of admiration, and that, in their enthusiasm, they tried to impose their sentiments in a manner that was hardly literary: It needs to be recalled that there was pounding on the orchestra chairs; furthermore, this served as another incitement to public curiosity.”

[Here Delangle noted that when censorship was abolished following the 1830 revolution which toppled King Charles X and restored the Republic, Hugo opposed the return of “Marion de Lorme” to the Comédie-Française repertory for the “honorable motive” that it might be seen as casting aspersion on the dethroned king; at the time Hugo explained that he didn’t think it fair to pile on on somebody who was already down for one’s own pecuniary advantage. Adding that the author subsequently arranged for the Theater de la Porte-Saint-Martin — still standing today — to give 68 performances of the play, the Comédie’s lawyer concluded that the contract, ‘thus broken two times,’ was no longer binding. If his subsequent reference to another production, of Hugo’s “Le roi s’amuse,” seems off-topic because that drama was not one of the works concerned in the disputed contracts — Delangre seems to have evoked the earlier play in order to be able to mock Hugo’s contention that he is the victim of a ‘literary intrigue,’ noting that in the case of “Le roi s’amuse” his legal opponent was the royal censors, and he lost — it’s worth remarking because of his legitimate point that the cancellation of that production cost the actors of the Comédie Française, in effect the owners of the troupe, 20,000 francs. The rest of the attorney’s pleading essentially consisted of contesting that the Comédie’s director, Védel, should be held personably liable for the 6,000 francs in damages and interests awarded to the author by the Commercial Tribunal, as decreed by that court; contending that Hugo has always been generously remunerated by the organization; and insisting that the author’s own motives in bringing the case are not the high-minded literary and public interest ones he invoked during the first trial — of fighting the Romantic school’s exclusion from the theater and the public’s thus being deprived of this work– but financial. Insinuations that Maitre Paillard de Villeneuve, Hugo’s lawyer, would shortly devastate.

Shortly after taking the floor, Paillard de Villeneuve arrived at the essential:]

“It comes down to knowing whether the contracts that the Comédie Française requested — that it implored [Hugo to agree to] as an act of mercy — should be executed to the profit of Monsieur Victor Hugo, as they have been to the profit of the theater. This is the only relevant question of the trial.

“Before we get to this, a few words on the facts.

“In 1829, Monsieur Victor Hugo wrote ‘Marion de Lorme,’ of which the performances were halted following a censor’s veto. In transmitting this order to Monsieur Victor Hugo, Monsieur the minister of the interior sent him as compensation the duplicate of a money order which augmented to 6,000 francs the pension of 2,000 francs that he owed to the spontaneous good wishes of Louis XVIII. Monsieur Hugo refused this pension; no matter how much the minister insisted, he persisted in this refusal; and, later on, in 1832, when on the occasion of [the censorship proceedings involving] “Le roi s’amuse” he saw himself constrained to plead against the minister of the interior, he renounced of his own volition this 2,000-franc pension, which seemed to be held against him….

“It seems appropriate to recall these facts in a discussion in which we appear to be accused of putting monetary questions ahead of all others. I might also recall, in the name of an author whose plays we seek to have performed in the name of justice, that in 1830 Monsieur Hugo, after the abolition of censorship, refused to allow ‘Marion de Lorme’ to be performed, because he did not feel comfortable exploiting political passions to sell tickets for a literary work, and he had no intention of banking on a hit injurious to a fallen dynasty.”

The advocate enumerated the various contracts in question, and whose violation he linked to intrigues by the [culturati] and to a monopoly system which shut the doors of the Theatre-Français to an entire literary genre.

“They started out by framing this as a financial question,” the lawyer continued. “It’s important to respond to this. If the Comédie-Française, they claimed, retreated before the execution of contracts, it was because said execution threatened the theater with a dreadful deficit: keeping its word spelled for it inevitable ruin. Let’s examine this contention:

“There exists for the theater, in evaluating box-office receipts, a kind of thermometer which indicates the most prosperous situation. This is the box-office receipts brought in when Mademoiselle Mars is performing.

“So: During the winter of 1835, a favorable season, as we know, the average of these receipts was 2,618 francs and 95 centimes: this goes from the strongest, that for ‘The Misanthrope,’ which was 4,321 francs, to the weakest, that for “The School of Old Men,” which was only 1,230 francs (which proves, by the way, that the Comédie-Française is not always so rigorous as it claims in executing the requirement that it cancels the run of any work which doesn’t break even [by bringing at least 1,500 francs per performance, as the Comédie’s lawyer had claimed in the first trial.]).

“And yet, the average nightly box-office receipts for the 85 performances of Monsieur Victor Hugo’s work — all of which took place during the summer season — was 2,914 francs.

“Even allowing for the five performances of ‘Angelo,’ which took place with this trial already in view and in circumstances which I’ll describe a little later, the average was still 2,856 francs. And if we subtract the expenses of the theater — based on the figures the theater itself has provided us with — the resulting net profits for the theater from the performances of the two works by Monsieur Hugo, ‘Angelo’ and ‘Hernani,’ came to 125,000 francs.

“These are without doubt but miserable details, I’m well aware; but after all one must respond with precise numbers to the strange lamentations of this theater.

“We would have liked for the Comédie-Française to have allowed us, by providing its financial records, to compare what’s been called the pecuniary situation of Monsieur Hugo with that of the playwrights most favored by the theater.

“This information was refused. But I was able to procure these figures anyway: So, the average box-office receipts of one of these authors is 1,917 francs; that of the other, a tragic poet, 1,803 francs.; and yet we can easily see the singular favor enjoyed by these authors who, whereas it’s impossible for us to obtain the execution of our contracts, for their part were able to obtain, by the entirely gracious goodwill of the actors, in 1836, for example, 115 performances, compared to 54 for all the other playwrights combined; and in 1837, over a period of 10 months, 119 compared to 34 for all the others.”

[Hugo’s attorney next attacked, and nimbly exposed the feebleness of, the Comédie-Française’s various other rationales for violating the terms of the contracts it signed with Victor Hugo for the performances of “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo,” as previously detailed in our earlier translation of the first trial, notably that the successive directors who signed the contracts didn’t have the authority to do so, that Hugo failed to double-cast certain of the plays and thus violated stipulations required by the theater’s rules, and that before any reprise “Marion de Lorme” should have been treated like a new play, and as such subjected to a new reading by the theater’s acceptance committee, which never happened. Given that the Commercial Tribunal’s ruling for Hugo in that trial implicitly recognized the speciousness of these defenses, we see no reason to regurgitate here the arguments from Hugo’s lawyer during the appeal adeptly demolishing them. We pick up, then, with his allegations about the numerous subterfuges with which the Comédie-Française itself attempted to sabotage five performances of its own production of “Angelo” in order to mine the run’s success and be able to support its argument that poor box office justified its recusal from the engagement:]

“These five performances were given with the trial in mind, and the theater did everything possible to annul the receipts.

“Do we need to go through the thousand intrigues, the miserable cavils, which Monsieur Hugo had to surmount…?

“Thus, for example, a performance of ‘Angelo’ was announced; on the day in question, [the actress and cast member] Mademoiselle Volnys was suddenly indisposed; the following day she miraculously recovered, just in time to perform, with a lot of vigor and talent, in ‘Camraderie’; the following day, ‘Angelo’ was again scheduled; but, the health of these ladies apparently being such a fragile and capricious thing (laughter in the courtroom), the actress had a second sudden indisposition, which forced the performance to be rescheduled; only to see another sudden recovery the next day, just in time for the audience to applaud her in ‘Don Juan of Austria.’

“I could go on forever in recounting for you what, from the caprices of a star to the maladresses of a prompter, can transpire when it comes to impeding a playwright. There’s a word for this in the argot of the backrooms of the theater, it escapes me at the moment….

“For example, a curtain might go up at 6 p.m. in lieu of 7 p.m., so that, unless they’re fasting, the public risks arriving just in time for the denouement…; the play might be performed, as was the case with ‘Angelo,’ on a day when public celebrations call the entire population of Paris to the public squares; they choose the conditions the most unfavorable in order to be able to avail themselves of the [meager] results later on, during the trial everyone’s waiting for….”

The lawyer, whose brilliant pleading held the judges and the public constantly captivated, next endeavored to justify each of the dispositions taken in the earlier judgment, as pertaining to the damages and interests and the deadlines for performing each of Monsieur Hugo’s three plays….

“Besides the motives for this judgment, which consecrate Monsieur Victor Hugo’s private rights, there are others which formulate a general thesis concerning the rights of literary property, and recall to the Theatre-Française the mission of its institution by protesting against the scandalous monopoly which it exploits. [We ask that you] add to the one and the other of these motivations of the initial judges the authority of your own high sanction; and, in thus giving the Comédie-Française a lesson in good faith, you consecrate, to the profit of dramatic literature, a guiding principle of liberty.”

Maitre Delangre [the Comédie-Française’s attorney], in a brief response, tried to re-assert the numbers for the box-office receipts that he’d provided, prompting lively interventions from Monsieur Victor Hugo and [Comédie-Française] director Védel.

M. Victor Hugo: “I formally contest the figures presented by the lawyer; they are inexact and, as the Comédie is well aware, its director has refused to provide copies of the records.”

M. Védel: “This is true. I felt obligated to do so.”

Monsieur the Presiding Judge, severely: “Why did you refuse to produce your records? You were wrong, Monsieur.”

Monsieur Védel remained silent.

M. Victor Hugo: “I request the court’s permission to make several observations.”

Monsieur the Presiding Judge: “Speak, Monsieur Victor Hugo, speak.”

Victor Hugo: (stirring of the audience) “As I noted before the initial judges, if I take the floor in this affair, it is because of the larger issues at stake.

“This is not just about me, gentleman, but concerns all of literature. This trial will resolve a question that is vital for it.

“It is for this reason that I was forced to launch this process; it is for this reason that I must add my words, devoted to the interests of all, to the eloquent words of my lawyer.

“This obligation, I executed it on a premiere occasion before the Commercial Tribune; I’ve come to execute it a second time before this court.

“And in effect, gentlemen, the dire fact that I’m here to enunciate surges forth from the trial in its entirety. What, therefore, is this trial really about? Let’s examine it more closely.

“In this trial, I have two adversaries: the one public, the other latent, secret, hidden.

“The public adversary isn’t serious, it’s the Theatre-Français; the hidden adversary is the only real one. Who is it? You’ll know this shortly.

“As I said, my public adversary, the Theater, is not a serious adversary.

“And, in effect, what am I to the Theatre-Français? A playwright. And what playwright?

“The question, gentleman, rests entirely there. Monsieurs, for the theaters there are two kinds of playwrights: the playwrights who make them rich and the playwrights who leave them broke. For the theaters, the good plays are the plays which bring in money; the bad plays are those which don’t.

“Without doubt what we have here is a scurrilous fashion to judge literature, and posterity will rank the poets on other criteria.

“But we’re not here to deal with the question of literary value; we’re not posterity, we’re contemporaries.

“And for contemporaries, for the courts in particular, between the critics who affirm that a piece is good and the critics who affirm that a piece is bad, only one thing is certain, only one thing is proven, only one thing is irrecusable: the material fact, the figure, the receipts, the money.

“Contemporary [audiences] are often lamentable judges, this is quite possible. ‘The Misanthrope’ ruined the theater; ‘Tiradate’ made it rich. And voila! By the standards [of contemporary audiences], ‘The Misanthrope’ was wrong and ‘Tiridate’ was right.

“Posterity sometimes overturns the judgments of contemporaries; but, and I repeat this, as far as we living authors are concerned, we’re not [yet before] posterity! Accept therefore as a given, if not in the literary at least in the commercial sense, this fact that, for the theaters, there are but two types of authors: the authors who break their banks and the authors who make them rich.

“And voila! What am I to the Theatre-Français? Am I an author who breaks its bank or an author who makes it rich?

“Voila the first point to which it’s important to have the solution. This solution will then illuminate the entire cause.

“The Theatre-Français has accepted but four of my plays: ‘Marion de Lorme,’ ‘Hernani,’ ‘Le roi s’amuse,’ and ‘Angelo.’ Of these four pieces, two, ‘Marion de Lorme’ and ‘Le roi s’amuse,’ were, in different epochs, halted by the censor; only two, ‘Hernani’ and ‘Angelo,’ were able to be freely performed.

“Now, how many performances did these two pieces have? 91. What was the total box-office produced by these 91 performances?

“Here, gentleman, I have to say, during the first trial, precisely because I was indignant about the maneuvering of the Comédie-Française against the final performances of ‘Angelo,’ I believed it necessary to exempt from the total of my box-office receipts these receipts obviously artificially influenced by the theater for the need of the cause and to help its case, as my attorney excellently demonstrated, and as the Commercial Tribune judged. I believed it necessary, as I was saying, to exempt these receipts, but for what? Why does this matter?

“Is it not victorious, my cause, even in including these receipts? I therefore include them.

“And voila! Gentleman, even in including the desultory box offices for these performances, the result of the intrigues of the theater, the receipts for my 91 performances at the Comédie-Française totaled 259,963 francs and 15 centimes, for an average of 2,856 francs and 67 centimes.

“The theater’s expenses per performance come to 1,470 francs. Figure it out yourselves.

“The average receipts for Mademoiselle Mars, for both the classic and new repertoire, for Mademoiselle Mars, the celebrated actress, who has a 40,000- franc salary in recognition of the enormous revenues she generates, brought in during the most favorable conditions, whereas my plays have always been performed during the summer — the average nightly receipts for Mademoiselle Mars were 2,618 francs and 96 centimes.

“Calculate the difference. In whose favor is it? My favor.

“I can therefore proclaim — and proclaim with pride — which by the way in no manner pre-judges the literary value of my works — that I am for the Comédie-Française among the ranks of the authors who earn it money; this is the irrefutable result of the facts, of the proof, of the figures….”

M. Védel, interrupting: “I have never contested this; Monsieur Victor Hugo does not have any need to insist on this point; Monsieur Victor Hugo is above this discussion.”

M. Victor Hugo: “I believe so, monsieur, I would have well disdained it, this discussion of figures, because the public notoriety alone should suffice as evidence; but your lawyer having advanced his allegations, it was necessary for me to respond with proof.”

Here Monsieur Victor Hugo turned to the court and added:

“And gentleman, this proof might have even been more complete, but this was not just up to me.

“I had wanted, by a detailed summing up of the records of the Comédie-Française, to enable the courts to compare my box-office receipts with those of the privileged playwrights performed the most often at this theater. A vivid light would have splashed forth from this comparison.

“I asked the theater to communicate these records. The theater refused.

“Thus, in this cause, we make our figures public, the theater hides its figures.

“For our part, we place all that is relevant before you; for its part, the theater takes refuge in the obscurity of the shadows.

“We fight with our visage in plain site, the Comédie fights with a mask. Which side is being loyal to the truth?

“They cry out, they disparage, they bandy about various figures in the newspapers.

“What’s to prove that these figures are correct? The only way to verify them is through the records of the theater; the theater refuses to produce these records. It is up to you to judge between our adversaries and us, gentleman.

“To continue:

“Who, therefore, am I for the Theatre-Français? A playwright. What kind of playwright? A playwright who fills seats. Voila the facts.

“In what manner do I present myself in this cause? With plays in one hand and contracts in the other. What kind of plays are these? I’ve just explained. What kind of contracts? I’ll explain.

“Are the plays profitable for the theater? Yes, gentlemen.

“Are the contracts legitimate? Yes as well.

“And gentleman!, these contracts, my lawyer explained them to you and the theater was unable to dispute this: It’s not I who drew them up, it’s the Comédie-Française. It’s not I who requested them; it’s the Comédie-Française. It’s not I who sought out the theater; it’s the theater which sought me out.

“In the name of the theater, Monsieur Taylor came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Desmousseaux came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Jouslin de Lasalle came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Védel came to find me. Why? To offer me the very same contracts that the theater now rejects.

“And I say all this in front of Monsieur Védel, who knows all the facts and does not make any effort to deny them.

“These contracts, successive directors of the theater wrote them entirely in their own hands.

“These contracts, they demanded them of me, they solicited them, they obtained them as a favor, and before long they’ll be asking me for new work.”

M. Védel: “Certainly, and I’ve always requested it.”

M. Victor Hugo: “You hear him now.” (Murmurs in the audience.) “Apparently our contracts are quite valid, and the theater is well aware of this. My plays fill the house, and the theater knows this.

“The theater, as I said at the beginning, is not seriously my adversary. The theater has need of me; and I’m not afraid to say it, it will have need of me again. Before three months are up, you’ll see, if the box-office receipts dip, the director of the Comédie-Française will have no problem finding his way to my house. He’ll find me ready to welcome him.

“He’ll find me ready to welcome him with open arms. Why? Because in this entire affair, and I repeat it, the theater, in truth, is not my real adversary.

“The Comédie has invested a lot of bad faith in this fight, but it is a bad faith which was imposed upon it, I’m well aware; one day it will be embarrassed about this, and I’ve already forgiven it.

“No, it is not in the theater where my real adversaries lurk. Who are they, therefore? I’ll explain.

“Gentlemen, my adversary in this cause, it is not the government, to so claim would be to invest petty chicaneries with too much importance. It is not the ministry; it is not even a minister.

“I’m angry. I would have loved to have had an adversary of scale for this occasion; if for no other reason than my own dignity and ego, I prefer big enemies to petit enemies; but, it must be admitted, my enemies are not big.” (Sensation in the courtroom.)

“My adversary, in this cause, is a petite coterie of slackers in the offices of the interior ministry who, because the funding must pass by the ministry before it gets to the Theatre-Français, has the pretension to rule and govern on its own authority this unhappy theater.

“I proclaim this loudly, gentleman, in order that my words might mount all the way to the minister.

“If this trial is taking place today, it is because this coterie wanted it to; if the Theatre-Français has not lived up to its engagements, it is because this all-powerful coterie desired it so; if, at this juncture, but three our four playwrights are constantly performed at the Theatre-Français to the exclusion of all the others, it is because this coterie wanted it this way. We are talking about a group of influences united, compact, impenetrable, a *comradery*, — I did not invent this word (laughter), but because it’s been invented, I’ll employ it! — a comradery, as I was saying, which blocks and obstructs the future of the theater.

“An entire branch of theater is sidelined by it. It is to just about all of literature that this coterie has attempted to close the doors of the theater. These doors, gentleman, your decision will re-open them.

“I say this because it is a fact, but it is a mighty abnormal fact, that this coterie already has the right to political censorship, it also wants that of literary censorship.

“What do you think of this pretension, gentlemen?”

“It is thus a duty that I execute now. In 1832, I condemned political censorship; in 1837, I unmask literary censorship. Literary censorship! Do you understand, gentleman, all that is odious and ridiculous in this term?

“The fantasy of a bureaucrat, the good taste of a bureaucrat, the poetics of a bureaucrat, the good or bad digestion of a bureaucrat, voila the supreme law which is to rule the theater from now on!”

“The uncontrolled and unappealable opinion of a censor whose command of the French language is not even a given, voila the sovereign rule which will open up and will close from now on to the poets the theater of Corneille and Moliere! The literary censor! On top of the political censor!

“Two censors, good God! Isn’t there already one too many?” (Lively reaction.)

“And in conclusion, gentlemen, allow me an observation. When it comes to attacking all manner of censorship, my position is simple and clear. At a time when unbridled license has invaded the theater, I, partisan of the liberty of theaters, am not reticent to censor myself.

“My lawyer and the lawyer for the Comédie-Française have recounted for you, in concert, and I would simply like to recall here a fact known to all.

“In August 1830, I refused to authorize the Theatre-Français to perform ‘Marion de Lorme’; I did so because I did not want the fourth act of ‘Marion de Lorme’ to become an occasion to insult and outrage the fallen king.

“As the theater’s lawyer himself told you, I had the opportunity to score an immense success from the political scandal, but I didn’t want it. I declared that it was beneath my dignity to make money — as they say at the Comédie — off the misfortunes of the royal family, and to hawk, right there in the theater in the midst of the hateful passions of a revolution, the flowered coat of the fallen king. I declared, in my own terms, as regarded my own play, that I much preferred its literary failure to its political success; and, a year later, in recounting these facts for the preface to ‘Marion de Lorme,’ I reproduced these words, which will always be, in similar circumstances, my rule in life: ‘It is when there is no more censorship that writers must censor themselves, honestly, conscientiously, severely. When one has complete liberty, it is essential to preserve all measure.'” (Movement of approbation.)

“The Commercial Tribune appreciated these facts, gentlemen. It listened to the public debate of the pleadings, it examined the most minute details during its deliberations. It was able to see that at the heart of the resistance of the Theatre-Français in this business lurked an intrigue fatal for literature. It sensed that it was unjust that this theater, the sole national theater, the sole State-funded theater, the sole literary theater was open for a few writers and closed to all the rest.

“The consular court, in its loyal equity, came to the rescue of the world of letters. It rendered a memorable decision that you will consecrate, I have no doubt, with a memorable confirmation. It threw open to everyone the doors of the Theatre-Français: it is not you, gentleman, who will close them again.

“You also, gentlemen, you are the living conscience of the nation. You also will come to the rescue of a dramatic literature persecuted in so many shameless ways, you will make everyone see — us and our adversaries, the literature whose liberties and interests I defend here, this crowd that is listening to us and that surrounds my cause with such a profound adherence, you will make them see, I say, that above the petit caverns of the police there are the courts, that above political intrigues there is justice, that above the bureaucrats there is the law.” (Profound and prolonged applause.)

Presiding judge: “The court is adjourned for eight days, at which time it will hear the pleading of the attorney general.”

Except for recommending that the damages and interests awarded to Victor Hugo for the Comédie-Française’s failure to perform “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” as agreed to in the contracts it signed be halved from 6,000 to 3,000 francs, arguing before the Royal Court on December 12, 1837, the attorney general sided with Victor Hugo and the first court’s ruling ordering the Comédie-Française’s director to have the three plays performed by specified deadlines or face a 150 franc per day fines. In the same session and after deliberating for 20 minutes, the appeals court upheld the Commercial Tribune’s ruling in full.

The Lutèce Diaries, 26: Dimensions

Lembereur Haut OSP GalleryMarcel Lempereur-Haut, “Tete-mécanisée” (Mechanized head), 1916-1970. Oil on panel. Among the galleries in Saint-Germain-des-Près maintaining the standard set by their ancestors in the late 1940s and 1950s is OSP – Oeuvres sur Papier, with its self-professed “pronounced taste for the forgotten, the inclassable, women, writer-drawers, etching maniacs, and young painters.” The OSP also likes juxtapositions. Its recent exhibition at 7, rue Visconti — itself a mythic gallery street — paired the Modernist heads, hearts, and stars of Lempereur-Haut (1898 – 1986) with the drawings and water-colors (see below) of contemporary artist Maximilien Pellet (b. 1991), for whom, says the gallerist, “the hour of hyper-consumation visual, of the digestion of images is significant.” Photo by and courtesy Galerie OSP.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — Nearing the end of my virgin visit to Paris one brisk November afternoon in 2001, I stepped on my tippy-toes to touch a corner of the pedestal of a marble statue on the periphery of one of the two large fountains in the Tuileries gardens, where Augie Renoir and his pals used to pitch stones at the window of the Princess, who would toss bon-bons back at them. The idea was that a future Paul had touched the same spot and assured me “You’ll be back.” Which I did when I was, and have continued to do over the years (on both the receiving and giving end). If I chose this particular statue, it was probably because it featured a bare-breasted woman leaning (protectively I thought) over a child. (Living at the time in New York — where nary a human bronze bust was bared and a polychrome cow had caused a scandal because its teats weren’t covered — I’d found the French embrace of the beauty of the naked human body refreshing.)

It wasn’t until Friday afternoon, returning to the Tuileries for the first time on this Paris stay and wanting to record the actual name of the statue for you, that I realized the woman (sculpted by Pal Gasq in 1893 and installed in the Tuileries since 1904) was Medea and the child was screaming.

lapotoc on laissera des traces“On laissera des traces,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage, on view through April 13 at the galerie ArtAme at 37 rue Ramponeau in Paris. (See below.) “Immersed between reality and fiction, my world is a mix of painting, words, and images-matter, with my personal history as the common denominator,” says the artist. “I work with the individual and collective sub-conscious, attempting to echo that which unites and divides us. It’s a voyage between my own life experience and that of the regardeur. My collage technique is fragmentation, based on my piecemeal vision of the world.” Courtesy Lapotoc.

But this first brilliant Spring day in Paris, palpably emanating from the alabaster sculptures arrayed around the gardens washed in the late afternoon sunlight, was too sublime to let a little Greek blood-lust way-lay my plans, which were to secure a reclining green iron chair in front of my favorite fountain — the small one at the Louvre end and Seine side of the park, a favorite of the locals — and sip my thermos coffee ‘a petites gouts’ (as Simenon’s Commissar Maigret does after his wife serves him in bed) while marveling at the statuary. The chair was waiting for me, offering the unanticipated benefit of a side view on the Eiffel tower under the partly clouded sky. The mallards in the pond outnumbered the female ducks four to two, with one already ushering in the season by vigorously bobbing his head in the universally recognized sign for “Let’s get it on.” (After playing it coy, she eventually bobbed back.)

A young couple across the pond from me was mimicking the ducks, only their heads weren’t bobbing but nuzzling. Between them and me a voluptuous blonde woman in a summer dress more willowy than she was sat down next to a male friend and gathered her arms around her scrunched-up knees as the wind blew the dress up to reveal her pallid gams.

When I poured my first cup of coffee (healthily dosed with nutmeg and cinnamon), reclined back, and sipped — continuing a ritual initiated 15 years ago after a meeting at the American consulate with the Paris representative of the IRS (no doubt the cushiest job in the agency; I’d loved the juxtaposition of an inevitably stressful meeting, although Monsieur. Greg Burns was incredibly helpful, and the least stressful most bucolic pastime one can imagine, sipping coffee before a fountain in the Tuileries), j’était rempli and sated.

Given the way the day of my most recent visit had begun, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the apparition of Medea.

“Je suis venu pour mes jumeaux,” I’ve come for my twins, I’d announced to the butcheresse at the marché on the Place des Fetes, high atop the rue Belleville (and where the market scenes in Cedric Klapisch’s “Paris” may have been shot, which would explain why I was looking for Juliette Binoche at every counter). At first she had no idea what I was talking about, understandable given that the last time I’d seen her, and used this line, was in November 2015, right after the Paris massacres, over which we’d commiserated. (“I just don’t understand how someone could do something like that,” she’d told me.) “Les lapins,” I clarified (we’re back in 2019), pointing down at the two for 12 Euro rabbits splayed out in the vitrine. “The price has gone up!” (It had been 10 for two since 2009, when I first started provisioning myself at the market.)

“Clients keep telling us that, even though we changed it in September.”

“I haven’t been here since 2015!”

“Do you want me to slice them up for you?” she asked, wielding a long narrow blade.

“Yes, just don’t forget the heads, they give it taste.”

When she bobbled one of the noggins, I couldn’t resist: “Don’t lose your head!” After I’d paid I asked, “Can I leave them here while I do the rest of my marketing?”

“Yes, we’ll keep them au frais.”

By the time I’d come back she’d apparently remembered our routine of four years ago. “Rabbits, rabbits? I have no idea what he’s talking about” she told a colleague when I returned to fetch the twins.

“Comme toujours!” I retorted.

“Come back again, before 2021!”

In fact she’d given me an excuse to return much sooner. When I’d asked if she (I keep referring to her as ‘she’ because I’ve realized that neither ‘butcheresse’ nor a physical description can do justice to the way her beauty startled me) had a recipe for Lapin au moutarde, “because I’ll be making Lapin au chasseur with the first one,” she’d begun with “it’s a lot less complicated than Lapin au chasseur.” My idea was to come back Sunday to offer her a portion of my “Hunter’s rabbit,” a dish I’ve been perfecting for 15 years, since I found the recipe in an Astra ad in the “Adieu a Churchill” 1965 issue of Paris Match. (Which I did on Sunday. Lifting the plastic quince paté container into which I’d placed the sample, she suggested, “Come back next Friday for the desert!”)

En attendant this next move, there I was this past Friday afternoon watching the ducks and other humans mating at the Tuileries fountain, decided to indulge myself with a second cup of thermos coffee. This would have to be the limit because of the paucity of toilets within a five-mile radius of the park. When the Sun disappeared, the wind kicked up, and my neighbors lit up, I decided to continue to the gardens of the Palais Royale, where an alleged vernissage had provided the putative excuse for Friday’s expedition. (I know, I shouldn’t need one to go to the Tuileries; it’s the practical Taurus in me.)

OSP PelletMaximilien Pellet, Untitled, 2018. Water-color and ink on paper. Photo by and courtesy Galerie OSP. (See above for more information on the gallery, its aesthetic, and this artist.)

I never found the exhibition, and the “Cocteau – Colette – Palais Royale” banner pasted to the gardens’ grill after I hop-scotched over the Daniel Burin black and white columns turned out to just be announcing that they both once lived there, but I did get to surreptiously watch a Spanish girl who sat down in the green iron chair next to me on the lip of the multi-spigot fountain carefully select a fountain pen from a small case and start sketching pictures of a far building and the tree-tops bisecting its view. When the wind picked up more and started blowing the water on me, I headed out of the gardens, turning from the short cobblestoned uphill street at the exit onto the rue Vivienne, intending to check out the bookstalls in the glass-covered Vivienne arcade. Two tres chic French girls were excitedly gaggling in the middle of the street ahead of me while marching towards their Friday evening no doubt on the Grandes Boulevards, and I’d just concluded that the one with her blonde hair bunched up artfully was another French girl I could fall in love with when she spat ungraciously and inconsequently on the cobblestones.

After walking down the long glassed arcade of the Vivienne I turned on to a corner to re-find my source for all things Max Jacob and Kees von Dongen (I’m always getting lost in and confounding the Vivienne, Panoramic, and Victoires arcades, one of which spits you out onto the Grandes Boulevards), where the bookseller was hurriedly clearing the tables outside his shop and putting the books on the 2 Euro bargain table into cartons so that he could close. Too late for me to peruse.

Van dongen de seine 1962From Artcurial’s recent Estampes & Livres auction in Paris: Kees van Dongen, “De Seine,” 1962. Color lithograph on Japan paper, 39.1 x 59.7 cm Signed and justified “III/X.” Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

I did, however, discover a sanitaire that hadn’t been on my Paris toilet radar. (This is rare.) And one whose soggy floor — unlike at least half of the municipally operated sanitaires in Paris I’ve inspected — wasn’t covered in shit, despite that they’re supposedly automatically washed after each use. And had toilet paper. (Half the dispensaries are empty.) Toilet paper that on your fanny actually felt like toilet paper. This is probably because this particular sanitaire was located just outside the French stock market, on top of the 3 Metro station.

In the Metro car there was more cardboard and another blonde, this one natural, wearing an oversized plaid Mackinaw and who instead of clinging to a cell-phone as if it were a lifeline like nine in ten subway passengers I see was holding up a subway-car height, three-foot wide carton side on the top of which was scrawled:

“Et si on parlait de l’intelligence?” (How about if we talk about intelligence?)

As the girl — who might have been in her last year of high school or first year of college — looked up at me shyly I leaned my head sideways to read the rest. Under the title was written “Jours d’entrainment,” Training Days, and under that was a list of columns, suggesting a sort of intellectual Olympics, dividing the visual and other response times of “Homo-Sapiens” and “Homo Neanderthals.” (Note that I’m not the one who brought up Trump.) At the lower right corner of the slat under a cut-out of the title of the sports weekly “L’equipe” (the team) someone had added “Scientific!”

When the girl realized I was copying this all down — that I was a reporter — she raised her magazine to hide behind it.

I finished just in time to hop out at the station Arts & Metiers, whose shiny copper-colored metal walls with their displays behind portals make you feel like you’re in a submarine designed by Jules Verne.

lapotoc don't be afraid“Don’t be Afraid,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

More provocative phrases awaited me when I surfaced at Belleville, these mixed into collages by the eponymous Lapotoc, who through April 13 is sharing an exhibition with Farah Iaaich in the Galerie ArtAme (Art & Soul) at 37, rue Ramponeau, a street on which the state of artists if not art is fragile after a long fight to save the ateliers and one of Belleville’s last craftsmen workshops from eviction by city hall in a mixed-use building at No. 48.

If I continue to believe that it’s vital to support an artistic presence in what’s fast being transformed into BoBoville, this does not mean that all the art I’ve seen in Belleville this season is vital. In contrast to Saint-Germain des Pres, where the standard of the exhibitions I’ve caught in recent months often rivals the golden period of the late 1940s and 1950s, in Belleville the vernissages I’ve attended seem to be mostly populated by friends of the artists and if it’s unfair to categorize all of them as Sunday painters, many of the artists wear the etiquette “auto-didact” like a badge of honor, as if they’re proud of having received no formal training, even if this gap often reveals itself in a lack of rigor. Soit, but when this extends to ignoring their own history, it’s often manifest in work that presents itself as new but which in fact is derivative even if the author doesn’t know what it’s derived from.

So it was that fresh off the vernissage for an exhibition of animal art I’d attended Thursday at the gallery of the Associated Artists of Belleville (at least this time we weren’t treated to the cruelty of one artist bringing a live rabbit wearing a tutu), not to mention the alleged Palais Royale exhibition which had posed me as a lapin (= stood me up), I was already not of a particularly open disposition when I walked into Art & Soul. It didn’t help when the (no doubt well-meaning) gallery owner introduced one of the artists with “This is the Artist.” “This is the spectator. And journalist,” I couldn’t help responding. If I didn’t quite wince when I saw the catch-phrases mixed with catch-images (some of which were captured on Google Images, the artist in this case, Lapotoc, notes; I do have a problem with this generic attribution — before they got to Google, those images were made by real people), I still thought, “This isn’t new.” So it was as much to demonstrate my own smarts as to earnestly dialogue with the artist that I asked, pointing at a large work taking up most of one wall, “Is the canvas hand-made paper?,” noting the material’s warped shape. “No,” this “gondola” effect is the canvas’s response to the glue and other matter with which the collaged cut-outs are pasted on to it, Lapotoc explained. When she added that her purpose was to create matter for dialogue I offered, “For example, the juxtaposition between the phrase ‘Tout un parfum,’ the woman’s naked back and… is that an atomic symbol?” I was expecting a response but instead she just nodded.

Lapotoc tout un parfum“Tout un parfum,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

If I dutifully copied down phrases from three other collages which particularly spoke to me — “Don’t be afraid,” “On laissera des traces” (We will leave traces), and, from the canvas “Vaisseau Beauté,” “Parce que je le vaux,” (Because I deserve it) it was just to have some images to request to accompany this chronique; even if they resonated with me personally, the phrases still seemed straight out of a women’s self-help book and once I got home I couldn’t remember any of the images.

But a funny thing happened as I was writing this piece. When the images of the four works arrived in my e-mail box from Lapotoc, they had the opposite effect of that of seeing them in front of me. The gondola’d shape and texture of the canvas didn’t come across in the two-dimensional electronic format. But it wasn’t just the words in “On laissera des traces” that left me in tears, and “Don’t be afraid,” with a unit of cell phones replacing the body between a hanging head and stilletos, seemed to crystalize the horror of seeing all these people on the Metros riveted to their devices. (And me to my laptop here in Paris, which is why I don’t have an Internet connection at my regular digs.) The images had put my verbal description of this phenomenon into a visceral form. Although I can’t help wondering if, at least in this particular work, Lapotoc is using the words as a crutch; I’m not sure we need them.

lapotoc vaisseau beaute jpeg“Vaisseau Beauté,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

Another thing art does, besides giving aesthetic form to our ideas and sentiments, is to invest us with the capability to view quotidian things and circumstances — our surroundings and environments — with an artistic sensibility. I already have this sensibility when I walk the streets and ride the Metros of Paris and observe certain things that resonate with my own life experience and references, or even in the greater story of Paris or of me in Paris. But what happened to me Friday night after leaving Lapotoc’s exhibition was that her artistic sensibility immediately imbued a banal object that has never interested me or resonated with me before with an exquisite beauty.

I don’t identify at all with swimmers or find myself in a swimming pool. The former (with the exception of my mentor; you know who you are) intimidate me and the latter frighten me. And yet when just moments after leaving Art & Soul, wanting to avoid the busy boulevard Belleville, I turned down a cobbled pedestrian alley one block up that I’ve been by-passing for 10 years because it’s too branché (hip), I found myself stopped and standing before the glass front of a building I’d never even noticed before: A swimming pool. The symmetry of the pool with its curved ceiling, the light reflecting off and from the bottom of the water, the contrast of that light with the night outside and the penumbra of the alley, the syncopated bodies with their slowly churning arms, their ’20s-style bathing caps which made the scene timeless — something left me so transfixed that I even read the entire two long poster-length “A History of Swimming Pools in Paris” affixed to the window. Seeing this perfect beauty — in relation to, what, the garbage around it (Paris and particularly the Right Bank is filthy)? The garbage in the air (and more polluted than ever)? The crowds? (The swimmers moved neatly and orderly in the lanes without crowding each other.) The contrast of this immaculate scene with the memory of the dirty, gym-sweat smelling, often-underground municipal swimming pools of my San Francisco youth?

I think rather it was that something in Lapotoc’s artistic way of seeing — as chaotic and crowded and sometimes even n’importe quoi some of her oeuvres seen Friday seem to me — had managed to expand even my own over-stimulated vision and way of seeing.

I’m not sure why this artist had this effect on my vision; she didn’t so much impress me as empower, or expand my ability to be impressed by even the most ordinary of surroundings. (This continued Saturday, when the crepuscule found me paused on the rue Buffon that flanks the Jardin des Plantes, leaning against the garden’s stone wall and iron fence and fascinated by a solitary tree projecting over the street from the fence, the vetuse shutters on an ancient apartment building, an oval window under the roof of another, the sunlight glinting on the chrome surface of a modern office building at the end of the street.) Maybe it’s her sincerity or determination to put the whole ugly beautiful sensory mess on a canvas without too much concern to organize or arrange it. But how often is art able to accomplish this? To not only make you see what the artist is seeing, but to expand your general vision once you leave the work of art?

L’ÉCLAT DE STAËL — WHEN NICOLAS FLEW TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN

L’ÉCLAT DE STAËL — WHEN NICOLAS FLEW TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN

Stael soleil 5 small

Nicolas de Staël, “Le soleil,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 16 x 24 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

“You are the only modern painter who turns the spectator into a genius.”

— Romain Gary, letter to Nicolas de Staël, cited by Wikipedia

“Tu as élevé le sommet
Que devra franchir mon attente
Quand demain disparaîtra.”

–René Char, “A***,” from “Poéms à dire,” selected by Daniel Gélin, Éditions Seghers, Paris, 1970

Introduction by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
AVID / The Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary 
with comments by Gustave de Staël in French and in English translation by PB-I

“I’m looking for that which is essentially organic, vital, and which might furnish the equilibrium at the base of all that follows.”

— Nicolas de Staël, cited in “Paris des temps nouveaux: de l’Impressionism à nos jours,” Editions d’Art Albert Skira, Geneva, 1957

On March 16, 1955, Nicolas de Staël climbed up to the rooftop terrace of his atelier in Antibes and hurled to his death, despondent over an histoire d’amour involving Jeanne Polge, a married woman and an intimate of the author Albert Camus and the poet René Char, also a cohort to both Camus and the 41-year-old painter. It was the denouement of a frenetic two years of creation which in its culminating months saw the Russian-born painter produce as many as three pieces per day, a breakneck pace that prompted his New York gallerist Paul Rosenberg to warn him that his public was starting to worry about dilution. This manic flight towards the Sun — this frenzied éclat of color and creation — accelerated in July 1953, when Staël, seeking the same bright, blistering light of the Midi which had scalded the mind of an earlier epoch’s iconoclast, Vincent Van Gogh, installed himself in the Provençal village of Lagnes, near Avignon, before loading his family into a truck and taking them to Italy, where Sicily and Tuscany would inspire canvases even more infused with light. Returning to France, Staël bought a house in le Castelet, near the Luberon village of Ménerbes, where he remained through October 1954. It’s this fertile period — which saw the painter veer towards a more concrete abstraction, where recognizable forms inspired by the sea and nature started to re-emerge — which is celebrated in the exhibition Nicolas de Staël in Provençe, which closed Sunday at the Hotel de Camont in Aix-en-Provençe. The first monographic show entirely consecrated to this period — in which the artist, inspired by the rich Mediterranean passages and light and his nascent if ultimately impossible love for Polge, produced 254 paintings — the exhibition culls 71 paintings and 26 drawings from an international roll call of public and private collections. (Including the Hirshhorn’s “Nice,” with which Barack Obama once adorned his White House office.) To curate all this, the institution Culturespaces, which runs the museum, secured the participation of no less than Gustave de Staël, the artist’s son, and Marie du Bouchet, his grand-daughter….

Rather than cop more details from Staël’s Wikipedia page (which blessedly favors the telling and authoritative critical citation on the artist’s various creative stages over the maudlin anecdote), here we’ll simply share images of some of the work, generously provided by Culturespaces, and translate from the catalog some of Gustave de Staël’s poignant memories of le Castelet and the manner in which his father chose to inhabit the manor with his work — the most intimate connection the son would ever be able to forge with a father who killed himself when the boy was less than one year old.

I would like to offer one historical comparison. While the public marveled at the integral result – produced while working in the same Provençal terrain as Staël  here — Cezanne when he painted saw distinctly isolated spheres.  The former (I think this is what Gary meant in the observation cited above), in a sort of reverse-process of that co-invented by his master Braque, let’s us see the spheres.

Stael vauclouse sky 15Nicolas de Staël, “Ciel de Vaucluse,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 16 x 24 cm. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

An Inaccessible Place

by Gustave de Staël
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Scroll down for original French version.)

I was free as the air in this 16th-century building where impressions of nature alternated with painting.

Situated at the edge of the fortified village of Ménerbes, it’s bird’s-eye view reaching all the way to le Castelet opened up the whole and immense expanse of Provençe. In acquiring it, did our father want to place us ideally in face of the space and the mysterious radiance of the colors of the South, on the path of a dimension that he sought out in painting…?

Stael trees and houses 18Nicolas de Staël, “Arbres et maisons,” 1953, oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Applicat-Prazan.

This architecture, flanked by a tiny hamlet, presented a combination of equilibriums, of accidents, of incomplete parts. The facade had been battered by the elements for centuries. This construction standing up against the wind was the very picture of the challenge my father had taken on; and when a painter is obsessed by a vision or an idea, no wind, no cold can stop him.

stael paysage de provence 100

Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage de Provence,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 33 x 46 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Once I’d climbed up one of the escalating horseshoe-shaped hills —  which recalled the rhythm of the stone-grey touches of his painting — once I’d walked past the chapel in following the pebbled border, I cleared the front door to find myself at the foot of an old stone staircase. Because the steps had been smoothed out by years of excessive usage, the staircase carried me practically without effort to the high-ceilinged, light-filled rooms on the second floor, which included the studio, which I entered with an elevated attention to confront the determination, the independence, and the multitude of visions offered by the paintings.

Stael passage 10Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces. If the artist was already employing squares – such as in his 1952 painting “The Rooftops of Paris” – in Provençe he put them to wider use as the building blocks for more apparent representation.

They were arrayed in no particular order, some right on the floor, along the walls, without anything — even a frame — which might have provided some perspective on what they recounted.  Some of them (just to cite a few, colors aside), hung from the walls, such as the large landscape of Sicily with the flat Moroccan green sky which he had continued to dig at with his trowel.

Stael Sicily 9Nicolas de Staël, “Sicile,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Private collection.  © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

This painting projected me into an acceleration and more rapid rhythm of life — with this painting, another world opened up before me, entirely inhabited, differently more present, differently more real, pure and color-infused. This painting made me examine the frantic scramble of my father towards the dazzling reality of life. This painting claims raw space — clear, distinct, with the shock of a presence, with a profundity that precipitates us towards the confines of life….

Stael sea 11Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 14 x 22 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Courtesy Culturespaces.

All the small paintings posed on his studio’s chimney represent so many respirations, alive with fresh notes seized quickly on the motif, in the quickness of color and of his impressions.

Among the tones of brown, the touches of ochre, the sections of earth and some pale or lively greens, erupted sparkles of ultra-marine, of lemon yellow, of black, of nuances of rose and orange, of flashes of vermillion, emerald, and violette. These paintings bear witness to the rich and luminous moments of his daily life, revealing his attention to the world, the finesse of his powers of perception. All these small paintings have an aplomb, a thoroughly assured equilibrium. They’re precision captured, the very essence of his vast and penetrating regard.

Stael sicily 12Nicolas de Staël, “Sicile, Vue d’Agrigente,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm. MG 4063, Musée de Grenoble. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Ville de Grenoble/Musée de Grenoble – J.L. Lacroix. Courtesy Culturespaces.

All that counts is color, the good fortune of being in the presence of a clear, fresh, and sparkling vision. When you never knew your father and such a body of thick matter dazzles you with its presence, it’s as if you have a real person standing in front of you.

On the steps of the inside stairway, to cast the grandeur of this space in relief, he’d nailed an immense Oceanic carpet of checkered material with geometric motifs, as majestic as an antique tapestry….

Stael colors 14Nicolas de Staël, “Agrigente,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 59 x 77,7 cm. Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Hövikodden, Norway. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Hövikodden, Norway. Courtesy Culturespaces.

To tame these rooms and instill in them a sense of security, as a kind of reaction to the violence of the dizzying and whipping wind liable to invade the house at any moment, he’d decided that each space would have its own distinct and powerful color….

In le Castelet as nowhere else — and despite his incessant comings and goings and the growing awareness that his passage on this earth was only temporary —  my father had taken the time necessary to beautify the place, in applying his austere aesthetic….

Stael hello world 7Nicolas de Staël, “Agrigente,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo:  © Comité Nicolas de Staël.

Even today, this house in Ménerbes preserves something of his spirit, its own distinct dimension — that certain something — which relentlessly places you alone in face of the space, in a singular independence vis-à-vis the world where, with time, the void that is the absence of this father is confounded with the expanse of the emptiness of the surrounding countryside, this overflowing space which inspires fear.

stael sicily passage 2Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage, Sicile,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Stael all alone 8Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage de Provence,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Applicat-Prazan.

In this landscape where the mineral perpetually dominates the vegetal, I understand today why the immense mural depicting the Luberon was one wall too many at a moment where his regard never stopped looking for an open horizon, where he agonized about his own limits — the limits of this infinity that he worked without pause to push back — before being pulled, like at every decisive moment of his existence, towards the sea and its horizon,  this eternal presence from which he’d once again drawn what he needed to be able to surpass the dimensions of the world and his own.

Tangiers, 2018

Stael Marseille 1Nicolas de Staël, “Marseille,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 80,5 x 60 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp. Paris, 2018. Photo: © Comité Nicolas de Staël.

Stael martigues 3Nicolas de Staël, “Les Martigues,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 61 x 50.5 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Applicat-Prazan.

Stael Grignon 13Nicolas de Staël, “Grignan,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 14 x 22 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Nathan Fine Art Zurich. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Louis Losi.

Stael arbre 16Nicolas de Staël, “Arbre,” 1953. Oil on canvas,  22 x 33 cm.  Private collection. © Adagp, Paris. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Paysage de Sicile: Agrigente, by Nicolas de StaëlNicolas de Staël, “Paysage de Sicile,” 1953. Oil on canvas,  87.5 x 129.5 cm. Private collection, deposited at  Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.  Courtesy Culturespaces.

Stael red tree 19Nicolas de Staël, “Arbre rouge,” 1953. Oil on canvas,  46 x 61 cm. Private collection.  © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo:  © Christie’s. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Stael Agrigente againNicolas de Staël, “Agrigente,” 1953-1954. Oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Painted at Ménerbes. Private collection. Courtesy Lefevre Fine Art, London. Photo: © Courtesy Lefevre Fine Art, London.

 

Un lieu Inaccessible

par Gustave de Staël
Co-commissaire de l’exposition
Extraits du catalogue de l’exposition

J’ai été libre comme l’air dans cette bâtisse du XVIe siècle où alternaient les impressions de nature et de peinture.

Au bout du village fortifié de Ménerbes, la vue plongeante depuis le Castelet livre l’espace entier et immense de la Provence. En l’acquérant, notre père voulait-il nous placer idéalement face à l’espace et au rayonnement mystérieux des couleurs du Sud, sur le chemin d’une dimension qu’il recherchait en peinture ? (…)

Cette architecture, flanquée d’un hameau, était une combinaison d’équilibres, d’accidents et de parties inachevées. La façade avait subi les intempéries pendant des siècles. Cette construction dressée contre le vent était à l’image du défi que s’était imposé mon père ; et quand un peintre est obsédé par une vue ou par une idée, aucun vent, aucun froid ne peut l’arrêter.

Une fois gravie l’une des pentes en fer à cheval escaladées – qui rappelaient le rythme des touches grises maçonnées de sa peinture –, une fois passé devant la chapelle en suivant le parterre de galets, je franchissais la porte d’entrée pour me trouver au pied du vieil escalier en pierre. Il emmenait presque sans effort, parce que les marches en étaient excessivement usées, jusqu’aux pièces hautes et claires du premier étage, qui comprenaient l’atelier où j’entrais avec une attention soutenue pour faire face à la détermination, à l’indépendance et aux visions multiples qu’offraient ses peintures.

Elles étaient posées sans ordre, à même le sol, le long des murs, sans rien, ne serait-ce qu’un cadre, qui aurait permis d’avoir un recul sur ce qu’elles racontaient. Quelques-unes, prises au hasard, toutes couleurs dehors, étaient accrochées aux murs – comme le grand paysage de Sicile au ciel en aplat vert marocain qu’il avait continué à ouvrir à coups de truelle.

Ce tableau me projetait dans une accélération et un rythme de vie plus rapide – avec cette peinture, un autre monde s’ouvrait devant moi, totalement habité, autrement plus présent, autrement plus réel, pur et coloré. Cette peinture m’interrogeait sur la course effrénée de mon père vers ce réel éclatant de vie. Ce tableau clamait l’espace brut, net, tranché, le choc de la présence, avec une profondeur qui nous précipitait vers les confins de la vie. (…)

Tous ces petits tableaux sur la cheminée de son atelier représentaient autant de respirations, de notes vives et fraîches prises rapidement sur le motif, dans la vitesse de la couleur et de ses impressions. Parmi les tons de brun, les touches d’ocre, les pans de terre et quelques verts pâles ou vifs, étincelaient des pointes d’outremer, de jaune citron, de noir, des nuances de rose, d’orangé, des éclats de vermillon, d’émeraude et de violet.

Ces tableaux témoignaient des moments lumineux et riches de son quotidien, révélaient son attention au monde, sa finesse de perception.

Toutes ces petites peintures avaient un aplomb, un équilibre totalement assuré. Elles étaient la justesse captée, la réduction de son regard vaste et perçant.

Il n’y avait que les couleurs qui comptaient, le bonheur d’être en présence d’une vision claire, fraîche, pétillante. Quand vous n’avez pas connu votre père et qu’un tel corps de matières épaisses vous éblouit de sa présence, vous avez véritablement quelqu’un devant vous.

Dans la montée de l’escalier intérieur, pour mettre en relief la grandeur de cet espace, il avait cloué un immense tapa d’Océanie aux motifs géométriques en damier noir et blanc, aussi majestueux qu’une tapisserie ancienne. (…)

Pour apprivoiser ces pièces et y apporter un sentiment de sécurité, en réaction contre la violence du vent entêtant et si sonore qui pouvait à tout moment envahir la maison, il avait décidé que chacune aurait sa couleur distincte et forte. (…)

Au Castelet et nulle part ailleurs, malgré ses incessantes allées et venues et la conscience de plus en plus vive qu’il n’était que de passage, mon père avait pris le temps nécessaire à l’embellissement du lieu, en lui apportant son sens esthétique austère. (…)

Jusqu’à aujourd’hui, cette maison de Ménerbes conserve quelque chose de son esprit, une dimension à part – ce rien – qui ne cesse de vous mettre seul face à l’espace, dans une indépendance singulière vis-à-vis du monde où, avec le temps, l’absence de ce père se confond avec l’étendue du vide environnant, ce trop-plein d’espace qui effraie.

Dans ce paysage où le minéral prend toujours le pas sur le végétal, je comprends aujourd’hui que l’immense muraille que représente le Luberon ait été un mur de trop à un moment où son regard ne cessait de chercher un horizon dégagé, où il s’agaçait de ses propres limites – des limites de cet infini qu’il travaillait sans relâche à repousser –, avant d’être attiré, comme à chaque moment décisif de son existence, vers la mer et son horizon – cette présence éternelle où il avait puisé à nouveau de quoi dépasser les dimensions du monde et les siennes.

Tanger, janvier 2018