John P. Charlot with Jean Charlot

Jean Charlot

Preface, John Charlot

I started interviewing my father, Jean Charlot, while I was employed by him to organize his papers.  I was studying and writing about him at the same time.  The interviews came to an end when I left to work in Sāmoa.  On my return, my father declined to continue the interviews because, I feel, I had begun asking questions that were too personal as we started to discuss his work in Mexico.  He found it very difficult to talk about himself or about others in relation to himself.  I deeply regret that I did not find a way to continue the interviews on terms that were agreeable to him.

In 1975, I did interview him twice while I was writing my article on his Hawaiian-language plays.  Finally, in 1978, I conducted six interviews with him about his work in Hawai‘i.  He was very sick at the time, and I worried about tiring him.  But he discussed a number of general topics that were of great interest to him.

A copy of the tapes was placed in the Jean Charlot Collection, Hamilton Library, University of Hawai‘i.  Under the direction of the curator, Nancy Morris, the tapes were transcribed by Mrs. Shirley Peacock.  I checked the transcription against the originals myself.

In 2009, the work of editing began with Janine Richardson, who expertly rechecked the entire transcription and suggested excellent changes in punctuation to clarify the spoken text.  Richardson also took charge of the endnotes, the introductions, and the index.  Her work makes even this searchable text easier to use.

In these interviews, Charlot is speaking without notes and occasionally makes mistakes, for instance, in chronology.  For help with passages, the reader should consult Charlot’s own writings and my Jean Charlot: Life and Work, volume 1, The French Period, all posted on the web site of the Jean Charlot Foundation:  Some people are referred to by their first names: Zohmah (Charlot’s wife), Ann (his daughter), John, Martin, and Peter (his sons).

All Jean Charlot’s writings mentioned are posted on the web site of the Jean Charlot Foundation:  Images of many of Jean Charlot’s artworks can be found there and on the web site of the Jean Charlot Collection.

Preface, Janine Richardson

Coming to the Charlot interviews as an outside reader in 2009—as an historian, but not of art—I was struck by the rich vein of cultural history that ran through them.  To highlight these gems in some small measure, I added endnotes, but the notes only hint at the historical content waiting to be mined.

Readers of the interviews will find tantalizing clues and suggested avenues for follow-up research and writing on any number of topics.  The specific topic of Charlot the artist is here, of course, and the threads of his personal history, and the history of the art he produced and the venues in which it was exhibited in France, Mexico, New York City, and Hawai‘i can all be teased out for further development, as can his philosophy on the making of art—and of living life.  But beyond the subject of the individual man, for those interested in contextual topics of twentieth-century art making—liturgical arts, the Mexican Mural Renaissance, the growth of the “art market” in the 1930s—promising leads are here.

Further, for intellectual historians interested in the role of foundations and individuals in “knowledge production” in the twentieth century, Charlot’s allusions to his work for the Guggenheim Foundation, and to his friendships with Agnes Meyer and Anita Brenner suggest research directions to pursue.  For historians of Europe curious about its soldiers in the First World War, there is material here; for historians of the Second World War wanting to know about Europe’s intellectual refugees in New York, there is material here.  For those who want to know about late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century currents in Catholic intellectual life, that is in the Charlot interviews, too.  While not pursued in-depth—these are interviews and conversations, not public lectures—Charlot’s scattered references can serve as guides, directing the alert reader where to look.  And the list could go on.  In sum, this is twentieth-century cultural history as recollected by a well-situated, seemingly ubiquitous, engaged and engaging witness to his times.

For the past thirty years, these interviews have informed a series of articles written by Charlot’s son, John, on such topics as Jean Charlot’s collaboration with poet Paul Claudel, his long friendship with model Luz Jiménez, his writing of Hawaiian-language plays, and the cultural milieu of late-territorial through early statehood Hawai‘i, but their content has by no means been exhausted.  In making these transcripts accessible, the Jean Charlot Foundation ushers the interviews into the realm of official oral history, now available for other scholars to research, reinterpret, verify, and debate.

A note on the notes

In general, endnotes are not indexed, unless Charlot speaks of a person or artwork in specific terms, but not by name.  People and artwork are noted at first mention and, in general, notes do not repeat.  “Checklist number” refers to the Charlot checklist number given in the catalogues of paintings known as the “checklist” and housed in the Jean Charlot Collection, Honolulu.  “Morse number” refers to numbers given in Peter Morse, Jean Charlot’s Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné (Honolulu: UP of Hawai‘i, 1976).


First Interview, September 14, 1970

Interview #1 focuses on Charlot’s childhood experiences with art and art making and the influences he encountered in World War One.  The interview opens with a discussion of Charlot’s visit to Catholic artist and muralist, Maurice Denis, at Denis’s home in St. Germain-en-Laye and ranges through remembrances of Charlot’s art-related experiences as a child with a mother who was an artist, touches on his own first efforts at drawing, his discovery of painting with a brush, his illustration of childhood books, and his decoration of a small closet with friezes.  In recalling his visit to Denis, Charlot discusses the advent of Cubism and reflects on the influences that most affected his own work, including Marcel-Lenoir and Denis on his earliest style when he started thinking of murals. Charlot speaks, too, of the many “masters” in his life experienced through visits to the Louvre in his early adolescence, and remarks on the many artistic fashions, or schools, that he passed through in those first years of art making.  The interview concludes with Charlot’s statement that from the beginning of his life in art, he was “set for a certain sort of task” and “had been going at that task when [he] had the chance to.”

Second Interview, September 15, 1970

In Interview #2, Charlot discusses the influence of his parents on his art making, the philosophy of his art, and his early experiences in the American art world.  Describing his mother as a trained artist whose work had been exhibited and his father as a talented amateur who illustrated his tellings of Russian folktales to the young Charlot with colored pencil sketches, Charlot recalls his parents as people who “by example” rather than by “urging,” were “at the base of [his] career as a painter.”  Interview #2 also focuses on the spiritual underpinnings of Charlot’s art, on his idea of art as religious vocation, and on the link between works of art and spiritual power—mana, in the Hawaiian term—and how liturgical or sacred art is by no means limited to Christianity:  “I took for granted that art was a home for God or, in another sense, for the gods.”  Another topic of Interview #2 is storytelling and Charlot speaks about the precedence his art has always given to storytelling, both sacred and historical, and he notes Poussin’s work as one influential model for this idea of the responsibility of the painter as storyteller.  The interview closes with a discussion of Charlot’s first years in New York, his thoughts on folk culture in 1920s America, and his interest in American cartoons as just one example of that “strong” folk culture.

Third Interview, September 17, 1970

Interview #3 considers the problems inherent in mural painting, particularly those presented by the architectural structure, itself, and the problems posed by the desires of those who commission the work.  In reconciling patron demands with the realities of the architectural space, Charlot notes “all my life I made it a game . . . to come as close as possible to the demands of the people who commissioned the work, however unusual their demands . . . .”  Regarding the problems of each architectural space—the limitations or peculiarities of that space in which the muralist paints—Charlot points to the work of Uccello and Giotto as models for solving issues of perspective in murals.  Touching on one theme of his philosophy of art—that good art tells a story—Charlot offers Ingres’s Martyrdom of Saint Symphorien as an example, terming it “a clear expression of the fact that storytelling and great art should be one. . . that if you really wish to tell the story clearly, you have to further the complexities of your composition.”  Distortion is discussed as a painterly device in Charlots’ work, in the work of Ingres, and in that of Velázquez  and  Zurburan (among others), with  Charlot suggesting that such distortion in representational  work underscores for the viewer that the painting is, as Maurice Denis had said, “a flat surface with colors in a certain order arranged.”

Fourth Interview, September 19, 1970

In Interview #4, Charlot talks about the effects of old age on an artist, the effect of the art market on art making, and stylistically speaking, on the closeness of his own concerns and interests to those of the Old Masters.  Regarding artists and old age, Charlot sees a “broadening and simplification” of their early concerns and makes reference to the work of Titian, Monet, and Matisse.  Speaking of how market demands as well as market rewards negatively influenced early twentieth-century artists, Charlot notes how the desire for wealth had an impact on Matisse’s work during his middle period and how Léger’s mural work was “distorted” by the lure of easy wealth.  Recounting his own early exposure to the craftsman-like nineteenth-century concerns and techniques inculcated by teachers at the Beaux-Arts School, Charlot credits these Academicians with implanting in him concepts of careful craftsmanship and, specifically, the importance of doing the “spadework” of drawing with “a certain architectural cast and certain architectural exactness.”  Commenting on his makeup as a “born” mural painter, Charlot recalls that regardless of the style he was working in before 1920, he always “extracted” from these styles or school their “possibilities” for mural work, and he describes his artistic “scaffolding” as one made up in equal parts of the elements and principles—the “postulates”—of both the old Academicians and the Cubists.

Fifth Interview, September 21, 1970

In Interview #5, Charlot talks about writing poetry when he was a soldier in the First World War as a way to express his thoughts when painting was not possible.  The role of the unconscious in painting and of “happenings” in art is also touched on, and Charlot examines in some detail what his son terms a “conscious element” of death in his art.  This aspect Charlot, himself, interprets as an attempt to capture a permanency or timelessness in his subjects, for he paints a “telescoping” of “many moments,” rather than “snapshots” of momentary actions or emotions.  Also discussed are the merits of simplicity in art, with Charlot noting humanity minus its “accessories” can sometimes best convey humanity’s essence.  In speaking of fashions or styles in art, of particular interest here is Charlot’s contextualization of his own response to early Cubism.  He relates how he, as a European, twentieth-century teenage boy, had already had the unusual experience of being “soaked” in the style of Prehispanic art through his opportunity to study directly Aztec codexes and codices that had been donated by his uncle, Eugène Goupil, to the Bibliothèque Nationale.  This early exposure and awareness of the conventions of Aztec drawing tempered Charlot’s response to “modern” art; Charlot recalls finding Cubism in its earliest days to be “fine” and “nice,” but also notes that it failed to elicit in him the “surprise” or “excitement” that it met in other art observers encountering Cubism for the first time.

Sixth Interview, September 28, 1970

In Interview #6, the question of what in Charlot’s background and early experiences prepared him for the art he would produce in Mexico is explored.  Charlot describes growing up in a vibrant bilingual extended family in which everyday life was packed with Mexican cultural influences and reference points.  He speaks foremost of the presence and influence of his Mexican-born maternal grandfather, and also of the importance of visits to the country home of his deceased maternal uncle, Eugène Goupil, a home Charlot describes as the “epitome of Aztec art on a very large scale.”  Also influential was the family friendship with Parisian neighbor, Désiré Charnay, an explorer of Precolumbian Mexico.  The presence of Charnay at family events (such as Charlot’s First Communion), and the young Charlot’s attendance at Charnay’s formal lectures offered unusual exposure to learned archeological discourse and provided Charlot with opportunities to encounter the artifacts of the Precolumbian world.  Importantly, Charlot as a child also saw objects of mid-nineteenth-century Mexican folk art collected by his grandfather and remembers how in these objects were the representations of “Indians at their work,” a theme which would become a central motif in his own art.  When Charlot came to Mexico in 1920, he notes his eyes were ready for what they found and his themes from that time to the present able to “enlarge” on those things and motions that were “sufficient” to guide his whole art.”

Seventh Interview, October 1, 1970

Returning to the idea of the “double vision” behind his malinche pictures (Interview #6) sources of artistic inspiration are considered in Interview #7 and some of Charlot’s themes explored.  Explaining how “inspiring” experiences get “bottled up” in a painter and come out later in the work, Charlot conjectures on the sensory impact of having had a wet nurse in infancy and of his childhood viewing of Precolumbian art.  Such experiences, he thinks, combined with others to make “double images” or “superpositions” later projected in art: memories of a French wet nurse mixed with sights of protective duennas on Mexican streets; postures of women at work in Precolumbian images echoed in domestic scenes witnessed of twentieth-century Mexican women with metates.  Such jostlings of memories and themes happen, says Charlot, “all the time” and can also be seen in the work of the Old Masters.  Charlot themes mentioned here include the Hawaiian Swimmer, construction workers, and that of “oneness and closeness to the earth” in his presentation of people.  One “objective” or “historical” theme discussed is that of the first encounters of Hawaiians with European explorers, a theme described as “that double take of the civilized savage and the savage explorer.”  In discussing the classical notion of hierarchy in art’s subject matter, Charlot is equivocal on the position of religious art, but does postulate a “beautiful role” for the painter of that art in “channeling people through the seen” towards the unseen.

Eighth Interview, October 5, 1970

In Interview #8 Charlot talks about his religious training, both formal and informal, and his brushes with mysticism.  Charlot traces his introduction to Church doctrine and the “mystery” of sin to his days as a young pupil at the Hattemer School, credits the influence of reading Léon Bloy’s work on social justice and the poor with giving him a “critical sense” of the Church, and praises the independent streak found in the French-trained priests who taught him his Catechism and emphasized the primacy of the individual conscience.  Charlot notes that while he was by nature an “obedient” person, he could never “quite manage being simply part of a herd” and so was particularly fortunate to find spiritual guides who saw religion as a way of “emphasizing one’s personality rather than drowning it.”  Charlot also recalls that one of the biggest influences on his spiritual education was an elderly woman he met as a volunteer visitor arranged through the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  Mlle. Marchais was a mystic whose daily life was marked by experiences Charlot had only encountered in books.  Charlot’s reading had exposed him to ideas of the Devil Incarnate and Black Masses, but Mlle. Marchais experienced such things in the flesh while at home or walking about town in what Charlot describes as a “continuous state . . . of meditation.”  Connecting with the theme of religious ideas, atheism, and social justice, Charlot’s father and his connection with revolutionaries in czarist Russia is also recalled.

Ninth Interview, October 7, 1970

Interview #9 focuses on Charlot’s experiences with the Gilde Notre-Dame, a small devotional group of Catholic artists he joined while an informal student at the Beaux-Arts School.  Some of the Gilde’s members later joined religious orders, while others “balanced their spiritual vocations with work in the world.”  Charlot remembers this period as one of lessons learned for a lifetime, including:  the importance of spiritual engagement (even if you fail), of knowing that in the “world as it is” jealousy and friction will intrude even in spiritual endeavors, and in affirming that his own preferences were for art as craft, for artist as artisan, and for manual labor as an integral component of art making--an idea Charlot terms one of his major “acts of faith.”  His Gilde friendship with stained glass artist, Marguerite Huré, is recounted and his wood sculpture and liturgical cloth designs during this period recalled (work garnering prizes for Charlot in the Show of Decorative Arts, Pavillon de Marsan, the Louvre).  Describing how the dreams of youth “color the life and the vocation of a man,” Charlot shares that his dream then was to retire in old age to a woodworking shop in the shadow of a cathedral.  Also here are his comments on an unrealized church commission in Paris and thoughts on how Charlot’s ideas for mural style were at odds with those being painted by Maurice Denis.  Charlot was turning away from Denis’s Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and moving instead toward Cubism’s “secret virtues.”

Tenth Interview, October 10, 1970

Interview #10 picks up the thread of mysticism and the world of the spirits discussed in Interview #8, with Charlot asserting that his only knowledge of such things is through Huysman’s writings, or through the experiences of the elderly mystic, Mlle. Marchais, whom he visited as a young member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  After this youthful interest in mystical communion, Charlot settled on a brand of religion he characterizes as that of a “parishioner.”  Pressed on the issue of religion, Charlot recalls his temptation to “get into a monkish career” at one point in Mexico and his realization that to take such a vow would conflict with who he was as an artist, for “sensuality, as such was completely part of his vocation.”  Of particular note are recollections of New York circa 1939-1940, when newly-married Jean and Zohmah Charlot hosted and gave practical help to “illustrious exiles” from the war in Europe, including philosopher Jacques Maritain and his “poet-mystic” wife, Raïssa, and the Dominican priest and champion of modern art in liturgical spaces, Father Marie-Alain Couturier.  Other artists in exile with whom Charlot was in contact during this period were Fernand Léger, whom Charlot terms an important “precursor” of pop art, modernist painter and textile artist Jean Lurçat, whose “insight” Charlot appreciated, and early Cubist Amédée Ozenfant.  Recalling visits with Ozenfant to the Metropolitan Museum and to the school he established, Charlot terms Ozenfant a “very good teacher . . . absolutely devoted to his art.”

Eleventh Interview, October 13, 1970

Interview #11 focuses on Charlot and the First World War: his wartime duties and two years spent with the Occupation troops in Germany, memorable friendships made at this time, and opportunities grasped for viewing art and making art under difficult conditions.  Charlot links his later interest in painting the ordinary people of Mexico to the “enriching” experiences of wartime when he was “thrown together” with people from quite different backgrounds, including a tattooed apache with whom he contemplated starting a “Club des Costauds” (strongmen).  Charlot contrasts his feelings of respect for working people with attitudes he encountered in members of the New York Left.  The Left’s reification of working-class people into a figment of their own creation called “the Masses” Charlot felt was not only false but offensive.  Influences noted from the war period are the Orléans version of Images d’Epinal penny-sheets with their unique color sense and renewed acquaintance with German art of the 1400s (the Cologne School), whose “clean color” and “rounded volumes” became part of Charlot’s “vocabulary.”  Art making included his Orléans-influenced lithograph, Ste. Barbe (patron saint of artillerymen) and his woodcut series, Way of the Cross.  Regarding the making of these works of what could be called liturgical art, Charlot says, “We come always to the same thing: the artisan . . .  the tradition . . . my ideal was to follow, not to create.  Of course, it doesn’t work that way.  But that was what I was trying to do.”

Twelfth Interview, October 16, 1970

The subject of Interview #12 is Charlot’s eyesight and particularly an operation he underwent at the age of seven to correct an extreme case of crossed eyes.  In relating his visual anomalies (present even after this early surgery) to his art, Charlot notes he has gone through life needing to intellectualize the sense of depth that others experience naturally through the eyes’ usual ability to triangulate images.  There is also a discussion of techniques used by Charlot and other artists for creating depth, ranging from doing so “solely with the roundness of the forms” to solutions devised by “Masters in past centuries.”  While cautioning that he does not want to make too much of any ocular afflictions, Charlot reveals that his eyes not only have problems with depth perception, but also fail to coordinate in their perceptions of color, with one eye tending to perceive “pure color” while the other sees in tones of gray.  When queried if age has altered his vision, Charlot answers it has not:  his vision is the same as it was when young, but his mental perceptions are different.  He explains that if his later work is somewhat different from his earlier, then it is a reflection of the fact that with age, he has “seen many more things” and seen them “many more times . . . so the analysis, if you want, is weakened and the synthesis is strengthened.”

Thirteenth Interview, October 18, 1970

Interview #13 describes Charlot’s pre-war foray into commercial art for two well-known clients—Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, and Paul Poiret couture.  The commissions were received with the help of his friend, Legendre, whom Charlot later depicted in a “big gouache on friendship” titled L’Amitié.  L’Amitié was the first of Charlot’s paintings to be formally exhibited (Salon d’Automne, 1921) and Charlot recalls here his aims and methods for this work, stating he wished to create a large and complex composition and to incorporate in it a “conglomerate” of separate studies in a manner akin to the methods of the Old Masters.  He also mentions his use of Poussin’s practice of draping puppet figures as models.  Charlot’s first visit to Mexico is discussed, and the financial realities behind the subsequent move are explained.  How Charlot’s Way of the Cross (1918-1920) served Charlot as an introduction to young Mexican artists on his second trip is explained as well, and that his first Mexican art was in the emerging field of graphic arts is noted.  Charlot’s acquaintance with Fernando Leal as Leal was creating Zapatistas at Rest (1921) is mentioned here, and there is a discussion of Charlot’s early style, including his “analysis of the Old Masters” (especially El Greco) and what he learned from copying the work of baroque masters (Boucher, Fragonard).  The latter were important because “before I could truly be a ‘primitive,’ I had to go through those more elaborated styles and at least have a working understanding of them.”

Fourteenth Interview, October 22, 1970

Charlot’s schoolboy years and education are the subjects of Interview #14, including recollections of himself as a middle-school boxer in 1912 and stories of memorable summer vacations.  Such summer trips took him to the south of England where he discovered the theater of the folk—vaudeville—and one 1914 trip to Germany with his father ended abruptly when the First World War broke out.  At home in Paris, just walking to school along the quays with their stalls of secondhand books was another educational experience.  There along the Seine, Charlot earned a few dollars with his art—coloring old black and white engravings to improve their appeal to buyers—and he began collecting nineteenth-century literature.  The art illustrating these old editions Charlot credits with developing his “taste in lithography and what could be done.”  Charlot’s eye for the art of the people is a major theme here as he remembers the Images d’Epinal bought for him as a child, and the ones he collected in the flea market as a schoolboy.  The Orléans version of these penny sheets later inspired his own patron saint series, fittingly begun with the artilleryman’s saint, Ste. Barbe (1919).  The link is made to Charlot in Mexico “discovering, rediscovering . . . the work and the name of printmaker José Guadalupe Posada,” and a few words are also here on Charlot’s view of the German art he saw during the Occupation (1918-1920).

Fifteenth Interview, October 31, 1970

Interview #15 focuses on Charlot’s art as a teenager, from his painting of a series of the changing skies seen from his family’s fifth-floor Paris apartment, to a land and waterscape series done at his grandfather’s house in Poissy.  The Poissy house had been Monet’s in the 1880s, but at the time of Charlot’s summertime visits and his painting there, he was unaware of this link.  Charlot’s own interest in Impressionism at this time came from looking at a Boudin owned by his uncle, “one of the most beautiful Boudins I have seen.”  The Boudin gave him “an idea, though I didn’t have the label for it, of the painting of plein air, of sunlight, and Impressionism.”  Also cited is his youthful knowledge of the Louvre’s Impressionist collections (Camondo, Caillebotte).  Asked to explain the long gap between his early landscapes and those done decades later in Fiji and Hawai‘i, Charlot notes the intervening years were marked by the deadly conditions of the First World War, followed by those of Mexico’s Revolution.  “[A]s long as I was a painter, those things had to . . . embed themselves in my pictures,” leading to art with humans as the subject, not nature.  Also discussed are Charlot’s youthful illustration of books, the reproductions brought home from Italy by his mother, and people in Charlot’s young life (his wet nurse, family cooks) whom he links to the type of women he later painted, “be they Mexican Indians or . . .  Hawaiian gourd players,” women not of the salon, but “close to the earth, close to the soil.”

Sixteenth Interview, November 6, 1970

Interview #16 focuses on events in France, circa 1918-1920,  and features the intentions and esthetics behind Charlot’s woodcut series, Way of the Cross (exhibited 1920, Arts Décoratifs, Pavillon de Marsan, Louvre).  Regarding technique, Charlot notes that he utilized bois de fil for its simplicity, and made the proofs by hand.  Charlot explains that the drawings for the series were done on the move during the war and completed in Germany where Charlot was serving with the troops of Occupation.  Returning to his uncle’s home in Chaumontel, Way of the Cross was printed on the “antiquated presses” of the village print shop.  Charlot describes his desire to create something “monumental” and “nearly encyclopedic,” and to forge the “multiplicity” of fourteen objects [fifteen, with title page] into “unity,” an artistic desire akin to that satisfied by fresco.  Esthetically, Charlot explains how the influence of Marcel-Lenoir on Way of the Cross is seen in the portrayal of Christ and other figures in the series as “long and lean, underfed people.”  Charlot points out that such elongated body types with more classical proportions are unusual in his work in which shorter, stockier body types—akin to those found in Prehispanic manuscripts and stone idols—predominate.  Charlot’s poetry, the influence of Brittany, a meeting with Dom Besse (who mistook the young Charlot for a Breton folk artist), an attempt to solicit magazine work from Jean Cocteau, and incidents from the war are recounted.

Seventeenth Interview, November 12, 1970

In Interview #17 Charlot considers “all of the influences” on his art.  After reviewing at some length various artists and their work, he concludes that “seeing is the biggest influence” with most of the influence coming “from the world itself.”  Before that conclusion is drawn, Charlot recounts with pleasure his opportunity to view and take serious note of German art during his two years spent with the troops of Occupation on the Rhine.  Charlot had, of course, seen German art in the years before the war, but not in a way he felt best presented its particular qualities or its “special note.”  Charlot recalls as one “big experience” an entire day spent in Colmar where he stood in his artillery officer’s uniform before Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece taking notes.  The “complexity and intensity” of Grünewald’s color Charlot compares to that of Van Gogh as he remembers “the tremendous painterly experience” of studying the sixteenth-century German’s “complex harmonies of colors.”  Charlot terms the Isenheim experience one from which he “never recovered” whose lessons “remained with me all my life.”  Charlot’s visit to Cologne is also described, and in analyzing Stefan Lochner’s appeal, Charlot highlights how his “infantile proportions” convey an innocence which Charlot later enlarged upon in his own work.  Elsewhere, Charlot clarifies the models for his own “surface geometric construction,” recounts an anecdote from a class he taught in art history, and shares some thoughts on Spanish, Flemish, and Dutch art.

Eighteenth Interview, November 18, 1970

The subject of Interview #18 is Charlot’s “French training phase.”  The opening topic is the unrealized commission for a church mural that Charlot had received as a result of his work in the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs.  Charlot describes modeling this project on processionals seen in Byzantine churches, and he speaks of the influence of Denis and Marcel-Lenoir in some of its figures.  The project’s cancellation led to Charlot’s realization that as an artist he was made to be a “monumental” mural painter and would require “a whole church, a whole building, a whole hall” in order to create his art.  Charlot discusses his admiration of paintings that demand complex planning, and points to large-scale works by masters such as Ingres and Poussin.  Noting that “the translation of value into color is the real problem that I’ve tried to tackle all my life,” he remarks how he was struck by the manner in which mural painters of the Renaissance incorporated into their work their particular architecture’s natural light.  Germany is described as the background to his Russian-born father’s life (as a student and as a businessman) and as the site of part of Charlot’s military service.  His parents’ family backgrounds are probed, and his father’s hospitality to Russian revolutionaries in exile is disclosed.  Returning to Charlot’s own life, the interview takes up his political views, his leadership of Moroccan troops during the war—his first experience of living with people from a non-European culture—and his problematic eyesight.

Nineteenth Interview, November 25, 1970

Interview #19 is the first of four discussing the friendship and collaboration between Charlot and French poet, playwright, diplomat, and fellow Catholic, Paul Claudel.  Charlot remarks on his two 1931 New York gallery shows: John Becker’s, where he showed his “small things”—oil paintings, drawings, or watercolors—and John Levy’s, where he showed his more “monumental oils.”  Charlot recounts how Claudel came to write the foreword for the John Becker show, an essay which later appeared as an article in a French journal and in a monograph series on new artists.  Charlot notes that Claudel was “prophetic” regarding his art, because at a time when Claudel knew Charlot’s art only through his easel paintings, Claudel wrote of Charlot’s potential for work on “enormous” walls.  At the time of this 1970 interview, Charlot was writing plays and this  serves as a springboard to discuss  Claudel’s plays, with Charlot explaining his preference for the folk-art aspects of the plays of Claudel.  Léon Bloy’s influence on Claudel is noted regarding the Apocalypse, and Charlot emphasizes that in this collaboration between poet and artist, he was explicitly following Claudel’s artistic vision, rather than his own.  Charlot also recalls meeting important social and cultural personalities of the day while in the company of Claudel, including Agnes Meyer, Joseph Duveen, and Jules Bache.

Twentieth Interview, November 28, 1970

Interview #20 continues the discussion of Charlot’s relationship with writer Paul Claudel and their work together.  Claudel’s plays are mentioned in passing, along with comments by Charlot on various theatre-going experiences of his own.  Anecdotes of dining with Claudel, of Agnes Meyer’s friendship, and of poet Saint-John Perse are here.  The Roman Catholic revival is touched upon in a discussion of the “curious reluctance” between Claudel and then-refugee Jacques Maritain (whom Charlot assisted with apartment hunting in difficult times).  Charlot describes the pervasive attitude toward art that he encountered in the early 1930s as one of “What would they say in Paris?” recalling how Father Couturier could summon only the most noncommittal comments about Charlot’s work, focused as he was on Parisian Cubism as the sine qua non of art.  That Claudel was the exception to this attitude Charlot attributes to their shared aversion to “art for art’s sake,” with both men working, instead, from a humanistic need to “express things” they considered important.  In a lengthy discussion on collaborative work (a piece for The Forum, Columbus, Apocalypse) Charlot emphasizes that in the latter drawings, “There is more Claudel than Charlot.”  Charlot also describes valuable visits to the Metropolitan Museum’s print department, the “revelation” he found in fifteenth-century incunabula there, and makes a few remarks on José Maria Sert’s murals at the Rockefeller Center.

Twenty-First Interview, December 1, 1970

In Interview #21 Charlot expands on his collaboration with Paul Claudel on The Book of Christopher Columbus (1930), Picture Book (1933), Les Révélations de La Salette (1946), Introduction à l’Apocalypse (1947), and his contribution to La Légende de Prakriti (1934).  Charlot again emphasizes that in his drawings for the Apocalypse he was acting “nearly as a medium with the spirit of Claudel passing through me. . . . It is the spirit of Claudel translated into my mind.”  Charlot also suggests that a future Claudel scholar would find it fruitful to analyze these drawings as “an important work of Claudel.”  He explains how Picture Book was a reverse of the Apocalypse process, with Charlot being the “mastermind” of Picture Book, creating the art for which Claudel then wrote “inscriptions.”  How stage director Jean-Louis Barrault utilized Charlot’s drawings for Columbus in his sets, costumes, and even the action in his highly acclaimed 1953 staging of Columbus is disclosed, and Charlot also recalls the felicitous production of the Yale Press edition of Columbus, in which Charlot was given “absolute freedom” in its design.  The interview turns to recollections of Claudel’s wife, their son, Pierre, Pierre’s wife, Marion Cartier Claudel, and Marion’s father, Pierre Cartier.  Marion is remembered as a gifted former student of Charlot’s and as a dear friend who painted a now lost double portrait of newlyweds, Zohmah and Jean.

Twenty-Second Interview, December 7, 1970

In Interview #22 Charlot speaks of his early interest in Paul Claudel’s work and tells how their friendship began.  Describing himself as a young French artist in search of a way to express his Catholicism, Charlot recalls how it helped to study a literary artist—poet Paul Claudel—who succeeded in doing so in his poems Processionnal and Feuilles de Saints.  Charlot had gone to Washington, D.C. in 1929 to proof The Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itza, Yucatán for publication and it was there he met Claudel, then French Ambassador to the United States.  While unimpressed with Charlot’s poetry, Claudel did welcome him as an artist, archeologist, and fellow expatriate.  At this time Claudel was about to publish excerpts from Columbus, and he turned to Charlot and his particular expertise to illustrate the Mexican gods for him.  From this beginning resulted a collaboration on various projects and a very close friendship.  Charlot tells anecdotes of New York City, where Claudel visited Charlot in his attic studio and Charlot called upon the ambassador at the Ritz.  Charlot also remembers Claudel’s views of Charlot’s art.  Claudel’s wedding gift of a Charlot nude to his daughter-in-law Marion Cartier Claudel is recalled, as are the two men’s “art forays” to the Metropolitan Museum.  José Maria Sert sometimes joined them for these “good times analyzing the pictures,” especially the Vermeers.

Twenty-Third Interview, May 14, 1971

Interview #23 tells of the changes in Charlot’s life following the death of his father and how this difficult event brought him and his mother to Mexico.  Impressions and experiences of his first two visits to Mexico are here, including insights into pre-Revolutionary life gained in the family milieu.  This understanding Charlot felt served him as a mental “trampoline” giving him “clarity” to understand the post-Revolutionary world and the “Revolutionary people who were my colleagues.”  He recalls his first visit as a time spent communing with rare books at two libraries: his uncle’s and that of the San Carlos Academy.  The San Carlos connection proved fortuitous; Charlot gave the Academy library a copy of his Way of the Cross woodcut series and on his second trip discovered that the woodcuts “had made quite a splash with the younger artists.”  In retrospect, Charlot characterizes these years as those of a young man’s “salad days” when he was free to “dip” into his racial roots, to form lasting impressions of the country and its people, to “orient” himself in his work as a painter, and to discover the “mechanical rules” of picture making.  It was during this period Charlot found the “image of the Indian” as a long-term model because of what it offered in “form and color”—the métier, as he sees it, of his artistic expression.  His entry into Mexican art circles, brief references to his first mural at the Preparatoria, and a description of the temper of these post-Revolutionary times are here, for, as Charlot notes “The Revolution was still all around us.”

Twenty-Fourth Interview, May 18, 1971

In Interview #24, Charlot describes the impact of Analytical Cubism on his generation and on his own artistic style when he first arrived in Mexico (for example, in “that series of big heads” faceted in the French Cubist style).  At the same time, he remarks that even this work is “already Mexican” in important ways.  The interviewer’s attempt to pin down just what exactly influenced Charlot’s changing style “especially of doing Indians,” ends with Charlot setting influence-hunting aside to say that when he went to Mexico he was “already soaked” into all that he would meet there, that he had had a “pre-meeting with Mexico” long before he traveled there, and that he had assimilated certain things “even at the very moment” that he discovered them. Charlot recalls the Coyoacán open-air school (which Rivera called an “asylum” in its isolation), its teachers, his fellow students, and the “scandal” of his use of black at a time when those about him were intent on Impressionism and bringing “sunlight into their pictures.”  Charlot discusses paintings and woodcuts of this early period, his progression from painting studio models to portraying people in their natural or social settings, and his own saturation in Mexican folk art, music, and dance.  The vibrant art and literary milieu is hinted at with mentions of Mexican and French magazines of the time, and a virtual roll call of the artists who created the Mexican Mural Renaissance is provided along with mention of earlier notables such as Dr. Atl.

Twenty-Fifth Interview, June 12, 1971

Interview #25 gives a vivid portrait of the mixing of new art and new poetry in post-Revolutionary Mexico, with Charlot commenting on three distinct groups of active poets: the Estridentistas, the Contemporáneos, and the communist poets, such as “Poet in Overalls,” Carlos Gutiérrez Cruz.  While downplaying his involvement with the Estridentistas group, Charlot does note that his woodcuts provided the cover art for books by two of the group’s primary figures, Germán List Arzubide and Manuel Maples Arce, and that his work also appeared on the walls of the “La Café de Nadie” patronized by the group.  The artists and these poets, Charlot comments, were young men “bent” on “changing as much as possible the order of things.”  Charlot emphasizes in this interview that the physical work of fresco painting done in “extreme poverty” left artists such as himself “little time for anything else” and dismisses notions of engaging in Parisian-style café talk on poetry.  “We were really creating something,” Charlot reminds the interviewer, and a renaissance “takes all one’s strength.”  The contrast between the Parisian art world of 1920 that Charlot left, and that of Mexico when he first arrived is richly remembered here.  Rivera’s Cubist links and his poetic contributions to the Estridentistas are noted, and Charlot’s first Mexican exhibit in a show sponsored by Dr. Atl is recalled.  Charlot’s interaction with Mexican archeologists—before he went to the Yucatán—most notably, with Manuel Gamio, is also discussed here.

Twenty-Sixth Interview, August 7, 1971

Interview #26 focuses on Charlot’s work and artistic discoveries in early 1920s Mexico.  The interview begins with Charlot remembering his celebrated model Luz (Luciana Jiménez), noting her “double outlook” (or double consciousness) and recalling how Luz granted Charlot a view of Mexican life which he otherwise could not have attained by bringing him into the heart of her family.  The memorial to Luz published in Anita Brenner’s Mexico/This Month is also noted here.  Turning to other topics, Charlot is asked to explain why he values so highly a terra-cotta statuette of a tortillera.  He answers by describing how it is not only the artifact’s beauty and the memory it evokes of his early years that he treasures, but that the statuette confirms for him something regarding the esthetic of the Indian body that Charlot had discovered on his own.  Disavowing any idea of having fully achieved that esthetic, Charlot terms it something he has worked on for nearly a lifetime and could work on for yet another lifetime still.  The interview also touches on Charlot’s mural work at the Preparatoria and the Ministry of Education, on his series of Indian nudes, on time spent with Siqueiros, Leal, and Rivera, and on the crucial—for Charlot—role of fitting a mural to its setting.  Finally, he discusses how his “Nabi-Gilde Notre-Dame strain faded” and his “early Cubist strain” returned with a vengeance as he was finding in Mexico “something else, something that did not depend on France but on Mexico.”

First Interview on Two Hawaiian-Language Plays, September 26, 1975

Second Interview on Two Hawaiian-Language Plays, September 29, 1975

In these two interviews, the subject is Charlot’s two Hawaiian-language plays.  In the first interview (September 26) the focus is on Laukiamanuikahiki (1976), and Charlot describes the background to his playwriting.  Charlot recounts his Hawaiian-language study and recalls his teachers, both inside and outside of the classroom.  In formal classes, Charlot’s teachers included such notable figures as Samuel Elbert and the Reverend Edward Kahale.  Outside of the classroom, he learned from music scholar and native speaker Dorothy Kahananui Gillett and cultural icon Jennie Kapahu Wilson.  Additional knowledge and insight came from the Hawaiian-speaking actors who performed in Charlot’s plays and supplemented his knowledge with their own.  Regarding his choice of drama to express his Hawaiian-language and cultural interests, Charlot explains that in the context of a cultural literary tradition comprised of chant and spoken word, a play was the natural choice; even after it is printed, a play returns to verbal form.  Charlot notes that his sources were versions of Hawaiian legends and histories recorded by Fornander, Dibble, and Kepelino in the nineteenth century.  The significance of names in Hawaiian culture, Charlot’s study of Náhuatl in Mexico, comparisons with European storytelling, and Charlot’s abiding interest in the writings of the people as found in nineteenth-century Hawaiian-language newspapers are also discussed.

In the second interview (September 29, 1975) Charlot’s historical play, Two Lonos (1976) is the subject.  Charlot credits Hawaiian-language newspapers and the history collected by missionary Sheldon Dibble and his Native Hawaiian students as the sources used in writing this play.  Charlot tells of his particular interest in accounts that give the “other side” of historic encounters and events and he underscores that it is these recollections passed down by ordinary people present at extraordinary events that has long captured his attention—in Hawai‘i, in the Hawaiian lore on the coming of Captain Cook, and in Mexico, in the Náhuatl sources on the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Charlot discusses his interest in the oral traditions of pre-literate people and how he considers such sources to be free of the distortions that occur when a verbal language is forced into a written one.  Also discussed is Charlot’s work on the journals of Catholic missionary Maigret, acts of both Catholic and Protestant repression of Hawaiian cultural practices, King Kalākaua’s work to restore them in an earlier Hawaiian renaissance, the clash of Hawaiian and occidental thinking as played out in the figure of Captain Cook, and the possibility that Spanish explorers pre-dated Cook in Hawai‘i.

First Interview, Work in Hawai‘i, March 24, 1978

Second Interview, Work in Hawai‘i, March 26, 1978

Third Interview, Work in Hawai‘i, April 2, 1978

Fourth Interview, Work in Hawai‘i, April 7, 1978

Fifth Interview, Work in Hawai‘i, April 11, 1978

Sixth Interview, Work in Hawai‘i, April 24, 1978

In this series of six interviews conducted in 1978, the subject is Charlot’s work in Hawai‘i from his pre-statehood arrival in 1949, when he was invited by the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa to create a mural on its campus, through the then-present year of 1978, when Charlot was at work on the silk screen for what would be Lauhala, Kapakahi Stream, Kahala, O‘ahu  (Morse number 751).  Charlot’s recollections in these interviews of the artists, architects, anthropologists, linguists, researchers, and kumu who shared with him their particular knowledge of Hawai‘i creates a cultural time capsule of a now-vanished era.  In the first interview (March 24), Charlot discusses studying the Hawaiian language and the differences between his two same-named frescoes, The Relation of Man and Nature in Old Hawaii (1949 and 1974).  In connection with examples of Zen and Hawaiian thinking, his own philosophical thought surfaces.  The second interview (March 26) focuses on Charlot’s visual influences in Hawai‘i and his interest in anonymous craftsman artists, be they ancient Hawai‘i’s petroglyph makers, medieval Europe’s cathedral workers, or Hawaiian women making quilts in nineteenth-century Hawai‘i.  The third interview (April 2) ranges factually and philosophically around the idea that in the making of art, “the heart has its own reasons which reason does not know.”  Regarding the crucial moment of illumination in all types of creative work, Charlot counsels one to keep in mind that “you are superman only one minute out of the whole day” and to know that this inspired moment can be ruined by an overabundance of “logic.”  The fourth interview (April 7) focuses on Charlot’s research into scholarly collections and his interactions with island artists such as Juliette May Fraser, Madge Tennent, and printmaker and educator, Huc Luquiens.  Charlot also describes some of the “despicable” attitudes toward Hawaiian culture he encountered in these first years and his furious reaction toward them.  The fifth interview (April 11) expands on Charlot’s historical research, especially that done for his book Choris and Kamehameha (1958).  He details an encounter with kumu Mary Kawena Pukui, describes the beginning of his interest in the theme of the Hawaiian drummer, and tells how his classically trained geometric approach in art combined –or “battled”—with the Polynesian environment’s evocation of compositions based on lines of motion—the movements of the sea.  The sixth interview (April 24) further discusses Charlot’s historical research, as well as the crucial role played by kumu Jennie Wilson and Mary Kawena Pukui in his education.  This final interview has a strong spiritual component, with Charlot emphasizing that in his work it is the relation of people to the gods that is his “bailiwick.”  Charlot speaks of humans walking on “tiptoe” within Nature and states that perhaps the “deepest key” to his art is the “precariousness of human life.”  Along with this sense of humility and frailty, Charlot emphasizes the feeling to be found in all his work for the “nobility of small things.”

Index to the Jean Charlot Interviews