In your poems and other writings, there is a very strong sense of the value—spiritual, human—of the marriage relationship. Could you tell me something about where you got that or how you developed that idea?
Well, I don’t quite know what you refer to. I think maybe we should have quotes about the thing. If you mean the relation of man to woman, of course, that was something that I think everybody considers a major happening in life. But I can’t remember anything specifically connected with marriage, I would say, in human terms. There are series on the Holy Family, for example. I think in my paintings also I have quite a lot of subject matter connected with the Holy Family, but it’s on another plane, I would say, than marriage as it happens to people. I have had a great devotion to St. Joseph since I was a little boy, and I still have it, and that worked out a number of problems, of course, of relationship within the family, but I’m afraid that the plan was related to the Holy Family rather than to the family of man.
But you did have a strong sense that, you know, you shouldn’t have illicit or non-marital relationships with women, that you should, you know, look for a whole, that in marriage you would find a more total union.
Yah, I see what you mean, and that is a question of a permanency rather than a casual get-together. That’s quite true. But I think in my whole life, I’ve had relatively straight lines, and I realized, of course, that marriage would make a big difference and that I would remain, certainly, a married man after my marriage. It wasn’t a casual thing. But I would say that, without being funny, it’s a little bit like death. You can prepare yourself for death, but it doesn’t serve at the time, and you can imagine and you can dream and you can plan about marriage, but then when you are in it, it is something else again.
You told me in one of the last talks that you were interested through Huysmans’ Là-Bas in spiritualism or diabolism. Did you have any relations with those kinds of people? I know there was a lot going on in Paris at the time.
Well, I told you about my chores as a St. Vincent de Paul boy and visiting the poor and that Mlle. Marchais. And I mentioned that Mlle. Marchais was what we could call a total mystic. She had a number of gifts. One of them, I think, was a sort of a bilocation in the sense that she could find herself, shall we say, in places where she was not. And she attached herself especially to a group of people that I think were just straight demonic worshipers. And one of them was a priest, and she was very worried about that priest, and so she followed him in all his adventures as if she was there in the flesh. I don’t know if it is in the flesh or out of the flesh that she did that, but anyhow, he was a fellow for which she prayed very thoroughly. And she herself was really a saint of the Middle Ages in the sense that all the business of spirits, rather bad than good in her case, I would say, were very present to her. She would go to Mass in the morning and receive Communion, and then the Devil would come to her. That was right in the streets, of course, when she was going home. And he had, from what she said, horns and hooves and, I think, even a tail and would make all sorts of obscene gestures and try to bother her in her post-Communion meditation and so on. So I have had a more direct, I think, experience, even though not myself directly, but once removed with her, of demonism. I think that Huysmans’ demonism was a little more the question of going to source books and so on, though he may have, of course, met some people that were mixed up in that thing. I was really so young, and I had really so little experience that it didn’t astonish me. I didn’t consider there was anything unusual in Mlle. Marchais’ visions or experiences, and I think all through my life for some—I don’t see any reason to it, but I have known people who had actual visions of spirits and so on. I’d never had myself anything like that, but anyhow the world of the spirits is for me one that people experience. Maybe not everybody. I am not one of those who experienced it, but—especially the vision—of course, I’m always interested in visual effects—and demonism, I’ve been very close to that through Mlle. Marchais. And I read Huysmans with interest because his own descriptions are, I would say, of people a little more high-class somehow than those that Mlle. Marchais was dealing with, but it was, so to speak, more of a novel as Huysmans put it, and I had known it as human experience.
Tante Odette once told me that you and she had done turning tables together.
Well, yes, we did that only once, but it was a very frightening experience. But then I don’t think that that business of turning tables is quite as interesting to me as what I call visual effects. But anyhow we were a group of people, and we did what was supposed to be done. We put our hands on the table, and the table went mad and ran around, and we couldn’t stop it, though we tried to with great strength. That could be frightening, but as a painter I think that the rapping of tables, the turning of tables, or the tables going mad are not within my department. I still look for what I call visual effects.
Did you do this turning-table thing during your interest in diabolism? Did you do anything else like it that you don’t want to tell me about?
No, it was just a group of people who, I think, had either read about it, or there was something in the newspaper about it, and it was just a game. It started, anyhow, as a game, but as I say, I wasn’t interested because as a painter, there was nothing painterly about it.
You had this tremendous interest in mysticism, and I know that a lot of young people—I know I have, I know many of my friends have had sort of mystical experiences and prayer, of being caught up in prayer and things like that, and this is often one of the things that turns us toward religion, gives us an interest in it. Did you ever have any experiences like that yourself? Not necessarily, you know, enormous visions, but just sort of quiet mystical experiences?
Well, I suppose there are all degrees. If a sort of meditative mood would be an experience, I suppose in prayer one gets into a meditative mood, but I was rather stupid about it. When I was again very young, maybe sixteen or so, I read a very big book which was based, I think, on Teresa of Avila, The Castles of the Soul.1 So that you got into the first castle, the second castle, the third castle, and so on, until the tiptop of mystical visions. And I would go through the first castle, and then after two weeks or so I was a little tired of it, and I decided I’d enter the second castle of the soul, and so on. Then, after I think four castles, I found it was all of my own doing, and that nothing specially happened to make me a better man, so that since then, I really worked out just with prayer and the regular run of devotions, rosary and so on, and devotion to the saints, and that has been sufficient for my sort of devotion. So I certainly cannot consider myself mystical in any way. If I had to describe my brand of religion, I would say that I’m a parishioner.
There was in your poems, the ones at least that I have read, there is a very big conflict really between religion and sensuality. Did you, I mean, you obviously did feel that as a strong conflict; but did you find that religion helped you with that problem at all?
Well, I don’t know what problem you speak about because, of course, we live through our senses. I think the problem that arose was not sensuality in general but sensuality in my own business as an artist. I had been a sculptor, I was a painter, and those things refine the senses, either the textural approach or the visual approach. Those things are in themselves, are by definition, sensuous, and I realized that sensuality as such was completely part of my vocation, of my vocation as an artist, that I couldn’t do what some people do and let go of sensuality. That, of course, can be done. I suppose you see those paintings of monks with a skull in their hands and realizing that the world is passing and so on. But my own business as an artist was with the world, with the passing world, if you want, but I had to adhere to it and give it a little bit of eternity, perhaps, through my art. I had no right to let go of sensuality, which was part of my trade. And I think that is where the problem really came in, because I took myself very seriously in my vocation as an artist, and that was directly one of the means to perfect my vocation, was the senses, and I couldn’t really stop them. They had to go on, they had to, well, sense things, either, again, textures, colors, and so on and so forth, otherwise I would not have been a good artist. It wasn’t a question of refusing the world. There was no question of doing that. I couldn’t do it, otherwise I couldn’t have done my art, and that is where the problem came in. I was tempted, in fact, you probably know that, to get into a monkish career. I was approached, in fact, by a Father Rougier,2 who had founded an order. He was in Mexico, incidentally, lived in, I think it was in Coyoacán that he had his motherhouse. And his brother was also a Rougier and also a monk, was in Fiji at the time, was a missionary in Fiji, and published a book of, well, folk stories in the Fijian language on the mission press, just to show you that those people were unusually intellectual besides being a founder of orders. But it was obvious that Rougier would have put me through a training where the senses would have been weakened, so to speak, and I realized that I had no right to do that, no right to accept that, so of course, I remained in the world.
You once told me, well, in regard to a number of things; we were speaking about nudes, about Edward Weston’s nudes, the fact that he used often his mistresses, and you said that the thing you liked about it was that all of that fell away in art. That is, that art kind of purified, if you want, of sexual connotations—true art did—of sexual connotations, these bodies, these people. Did you find that art was a means for you of, if you want, putting yourself together a little integrally and more than you perhaps felt you were in a kind of fragmented way?
Well, I see what you mean. That is, I see what your question is, but I don’t understand it from my point of view because certainly to cut off the subject matter from the sensuousness attached would be not to accept it. I mean there is really a big problem to the question of the nude in art as long as that’s what you are talking about. And I think it is absolutely ridiculous to say that there is a purification. To be a purification you would have to show first that there is something wrong to begin with; maybe an exaltation rather than purification. Purification for me suggests subtracting something. Exaltation means adding something. And, well, you were speaking of that business of, for example, marriage and whatnot. I think in the arts you present the same problems that the everyday man and woman have, and you add something. I was just speaking of things in time and timelessness, and that certain element of timelessness that art can add to sensuality changes it in a way thoroughly without subtracting; it’s really an addition. And there is no fighting. Or I would say only the very bad artist would try to keep his thoughts pure, let us say, as he’s looking at the nude model. He might think he would never be able to do any good art.
I guess a better way I could put it would be, did you find that art was a way for you to understand your own feelings or your own, say, physical reactions and put them into, integrate them into, a larger context? For instance, in your poems, there is the big struggle, if you want, to see women not as sexual objects or mere bodies but also as people. Do you think that art helped you in this way at all as well?
You see those are two periods of my life. The poems were really when I was in my teens, and art goes on through my whole life. So maybe if I could reconstruct my mind when I was in my teens, I probably could answer your question better, and it may be that I’m superposing some of my later mental attitudes to my earlier ones and am falsifying, if you want, what was happening. Frankly, when I read my early poems, I’m quite astonished that it was me, but I realize, of course, it was. I remember that I was, of course, in perfect good faith and that I used—maybe I used the poems the way you speak of my using art, and I said I didn’t use art that way, but maybe the poems were really a sort of, well again, a sort of a strengthening rather than escape, if you want to put it that way. So, I really don’t quite remember what was in my mind, and happily enough the poems are obscure enough so that we’ll never know.
Let’s speak about something a little less personal. When did you start reading Maritain?3
Well, again, that was in my teens, of course, and I read only one book of his which was Art et Scolastique.4 And it was the only book I had ever read that in a way touched a philosophical approach, and I thought it was nice of a fellow who obviously had no, well, easy sensuous approach to things to try and imagine what the artist who lives within that sensuous area of concepts, which is not the same as brain concepts, was after. I was touched really by the fact that the man who honestly was not gifted as an artist in the sense that I understand artist was interested in artists and was trying to see what those curious guys were after. And he was doing it in a very charitable way, understanding, I would say, the limitations of the craft more than many philosophers would. I didn’t know Maritain at the time. Later on, of course, when I knew him better, I realized that the image I had of him through the book was absolutely exact, that the man was an ascete, an ascetic, and had really an absolute minimum of interest in the senses. I went to a lunch, for example; he was living in New York; we had found an apartment for him. That was in the war, and he was pretty much out of Vichy France, and he was living there with his wife and his sister-in-law, and he invited me to a lunch, and at the lunch they served me some cold meatballs. And since then every time I remember Maritain, God knows I remember him with much gratitude and love, to that gratitude and love I superpose the picture and the taste of those meatballs, which were absolutely antisensuous. So Maritain, anything that connects with art, does it because it is so difficult for him to know what it’s about, because he doesn’t have the wherewithals inside himself to know what those sensuous guys are about, and so there is a curiosity to look into that other world. It’s a little bit the same curiosity with which I tried to get into his world, let’s call it Thomism, if you want, but of course, I don’t find there the things that are of my interest, and I am sorry to say, I rarely finished a book of his, much as I love him as a person.
I believe you never met him in France but you did meet him in the United States for the first time?
Yah, he was a sort of refugee from France and in very dramatic conditions. He told me that he had put all his manuscripts into trunks, old-fashioned trunks, and had left the two trunks with friends, and was hoping that they would be safe, but of course, he didn’t know. I think he was just as far from, of course, the Germans in France, as he was from the Vichy government, and he was in exile; there’s no doubt about it. There was, I wouldn’t say difficulty, but there was a curious tie-up there because I was a friend, perhaps even a close friend at the time of Paul Claudel,5 and Paul Claudel and Maritain were not terribly close to each other. Each spoke of the other one in would-be friendly terms, but they were very different people, and so I was, I wouldn’t say a bridge between them, but I, myself, in my own mental approach, without being torn, certainly, was taken in sometimes by the one, sometimes by the other. But I couldn’t superpose the two things and make one of it because they were absolutely, I would say, the opposite of each other in everything, and the only one thing that they had together was that they were Catholics. Maritain came; he was quite, well, unhappy. He had no place to be in. He had sort of a little hotel room, and we looked for him, Zohmah and I, for apartments. We took him to see a number of places that were rentable, and always he would say, “Well, where is the next church?” Well, the next church sometimes was three blocks from there, and he said, “That’s too far because every morning certainly at least my wife would go and walk to the church for Mass, and we have to be very close to a church.” Eventually he found a place that he thought was the proper one.
And it’s at the same time that, for example, Father Couturier was exactly in the same position. He had been stranded, giving some mission in New York, when the Vichy government came and he had a telegram from his order telling him to stay in New York for the “duration,” the duration of the war, of the Vichy government, and so on. So we had a number of exiles, I would say rather illustrious exiles, sort of on our hands for a while. Maritain, of course, very quickly made for himself a circle of friends, and Maritain and Raïssa published in New York some books in French and found their equilibrium very quickly. But it was for me a very impressive thing—because I had known him through his books, of course, or through that book, Art et Scolastique, in my teens—to have the man there at hand. One of his books I did translate or started to translate it for publication. Then I would go and see him rather often, and we would check together on my translation. He wasn’t very strong in his English at the time, and he doubted a little bit my brand of translation. I realize now that he was right, because his own style in French tries to be as bland and in a way as flat as he could. That was his idea of perfection, sort of a beauty of the brain that doesn’t accept any other beauty, and I realized that some of my translation was rather on the picturesque side. So I let him find eventually somebody to correct my translations to his taste.
You knew Raïssa there at the same time, didn’t you?
Why yes, certainly, they were together, and they were a nice little ménage-à-trois in a very nice sense because Raïssa was a poet and a mystic, and Maritain was an impractical man, certainly, in anything practical; and it is Raïssa’s sister who was taking care of those two people who were incapacitated in practical day chores. She was a very important person for their life, and I think that without her they couldn’t have really lived at all.
Your own mystical interests never tied up with Raïssa’s?
Well, I don’t know what you call my mystical interests. I told you I was not a mystic and I had no mystical experiences. There was something that tied up with Bloy, of course, and that is that Raïssa was a Jew and I had read Bloy, Le Salut par les Juifs,6 with tremendous interest, having myself a quota of Jewish blood in my family, and I still think that that business of the conversion of the Jews at the end of the times as a sign of the end of the times, is a very beautiful thing. It’s probably a medieval concept, but it is one that I like very much, and I have a great devotion, I would say, for the patriarchs, for example, that are part of my devotion. I was speaking of the saints: they can be post-Christ or pre-Christ. So there is a certain tie with the Old Testament in me that may very well come from Jewish attitudes of my grandmother, for example, that may be different from what most Christians or Catholics have. In our summer country house, for example, when we went every summer—I was very small at the time, maybe five, six years old—I had my, a little bed made up at the foot of the bed of my grandfather and grandmother, and there was a very large religious picture at the head of the bed and that was a picture of Moses with the Tables of the Law. Of course, at the time, I didn’t make any distinction among things, but obviously my grandfather, who didn’t believe in anything very much, had let my grandmother put there her own brand of religious image. But just sleeping at the foot of that big picture of Moses certainly gave me some impressive respect for the Old Testament.
Tell me about Father Couturier and your relations with him in New York.
Well, he was one of the Dominicans who was stranded there. He and Father Ducatillon,7 they were both stranded from the Order, couldn’t go back anyhow, and had been told to fend for themselves, so to speak, and at times they had a hard time of it. And Father Couturier, being a friend of artists, Braque, Picasso and so on, was looking for some sort of art in his life, and he found me. He wasn’t very happy with my art and always spoke, of course, of Braque and Picasso as being the great artists, but it was nice, I think, for him anyhow to be with somebody who knew who Braque and Picasso were. He was living in the little French parish, St. Louis des Français, I think, on—what is it?—24th Street, and certainly the clerics there had no interest whatsoever in art, so for a while he came very often to see us. He even left his Dominican robes in our closet. And I made three or four portraits of him. Then he found some sort of employment, at first doing some decorative jobs for the churches; he was an artist himself. And then eventually he became a chaplain, private chaplain, to one of the great fortunes of the day—the Duke of Something, who had married a Rockefeller, I think. And, well, he was a nice guy. I was always humbled by the fact that he didn’t like very much what I did. When I did the first portrait of him, which I sent only a month ago to the Vatican, where they say they are going to put a modern art gallery,8 he wanted to say something nice, and he said, “C’est bien chiffonné.” And I realized that he was not enthusiastic about it. But that has happened with me with all the, I would say, people interested in the arts and people of good taste who came from France. My things obviously were not within the range of their interests, and maybe just because they were so specialized in the school of Paris, there was something wrong for them in my things. It never bothered me, certainly, but over and over again, I’ve had those nice art lovers and art experts from Paris try to change my ways and telling me I should, for example, get the latest magazines from Paris so that I could really see what was being done. And when we showed them something in Mexico, in Mexican times, they would always say “Well, yes, I see what you are doing, but what would they say of it in Paris?” Now I’ve never had that idea that Paris was a sort of a center of the world, for me anyhow, maybe because I was born and raised there. And it made a little unease between myself and people like Father Couturier. That is, even though, of course, we spoke of art and we went and saw together shows and museums and so on, we tried never to put the art on a personal basis because it didn’t help.
Who were some of the other French people who were stranded in New York at the time?
Well, it was a nice time for us in New York, anyhow, because some of the good French people came there and stayed there perhaps longer than they would have otherwise. Fernand Léger was one of those people, and Léger was showing his pictures at the gallery that at the time was showing mine, so there was a certain, well, rapport, not very much, of course. And Lurçat9 was there for a while and Ozenfant.10 Ozenfant and Léger were at dagger points, and I remember that one of those well-meaning ladies gave a lunch to which I was invited at which she had seated Léger and Ozenfant side by side so that they could chat in French. Well, of course, I may have been the only one who could understand the chatting which was rather interesting. Then at the end of the lunch, Léger was asked to make a speech, and he spoke always about himself very well, and then he said, “I am not the only artist here. There is this man here,” pointing to Ozenfant as if he had forgotten his name, “and there is even this one,” pointing to myself. Léger was a sort of a rough and raw guy. I think it started as a make-believe. He always loved to make believe that he was a peasant of a sort, but he really ended by being what he had started as a make-believe; that is, he ended by being a coarse nature. And I think that in a way shows in his art. And you didn’t ask me about it, but one of the things that always has repulsed me a little bit in Léger is that he is not a good artisan. It’s rather interesting that the man who was a precursor, not unimportant precursor of the pop artists, who respected the art of the people, never took the time to paint his pictures properly. They are always done as if he was not interested in the matter, in the material that he is handling. In fact, they are a sort of intellectual concept that is slapped on the canvas without any true relation between himself and the canvas. So though I knew Léger, I was never terribly fond of him.
Lurçat was a very nice man when I knew him. I took him to my little studio in New York, and he looked at my things, and I think among those Paris artists, he was probably the one who had the best insight into what I was doing, or shall we say trying to do, and he gave me certain advices that I took very seriously.
Ozenfant I was very close to from the beginning because, for some reason—again I don’t remember what reason—he was thrown in my arms at his arrival in New York before he had been able to find people or a group of people that would help him there. And he had that marvelous, well, pride of the man who is Parisien of a sort, but comes from France anyhow. I took him to the Metropolitan Museum. I knew very well his books and his book on modern art, and so on; they are really classics of a type. I took him to the Metropolitan Museum, and he started judging things because he knew it was an American museum. I remember that he looked at the Cézanne and said, “Well, that’s a fake.” And he said “Typical American Cézanne,” and so on. Well, it is a Cézanne that had been bought by Mary Cassatt in 1906, so that I don’t think I had the heart to spoil his image of American museums by telling him the truth. So he was a little quick in his judgments. He was a wonderful politician. He had what I would call a “political nose,” kind of a tremendous, big nose, which he says had been a handicap in Germany, where they took him for a Jew at a time when it was dangerous to be a Jew. And he organized very quickly a group of people who were faithful to himself and helped him establish his school of art in New York, and he stayed there, I think, longer than the duration of the war, for maybe eight, ten years. I admired the way he managed to be both a teacher, and a very good teacher—I would be there when he was speaking to the students, always showing them most interesting examples in the art of the Old Masters and tying them with the art of today—and absolutely devoted to his own art. His wife, well, she had been a seamstress; she still was a seamstress, doing some work of that type when they were poor in New York, the first days. Then with his school and so on, he managed all right. But he would paint very slowly and perhaps two pictures in the year, extremely well done, extremely lacking in the charm and so on that would have made them saleable. I think he was really a heroic man.
Could I just ask you one more thing. What was the advice that Lurçat gave you?
Well, I had showed him, well I showed him a number of things, but I showed him a whole Way of the Cross,11 that is, fourteen stations, which were in oil and in circular shape. They are now in a church in the vicinity of Chicago. And they were done in a rather easy way; I wouldn’t say like Raoul Dufy,12 but with a certain laissez-faire, and with a few nearly Impressionistic effects of brush strokes; and that is because I was considering those things as sketches for large stations. In fact, I did one of those very large stations, and in those larger stations, I would close up my shapes and accented my forms and so on. But what he saw, of course, were those smaller stations, and he told me that that papilloté, that sort of a butterflyish type of brush stroke and color was not proper to the dignity of the subject, something like that. So I told him, which was the truth, that those things I considered as sketches for murals. Then he was satisfied, said, “Then it is très bien.”
St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle (1577).
French Marist priest Félix de Jesús Rougier (1859–1938) founded four religious orders in Mexico: Congregation of the Holy Ghost Missionaries (1914); Daughters of the Holy Ghost (1924); Guadalupe Missionaries of the Holy Ghost (1930); and Oblates of Jesus the Priest (1937). Father Rougier was declared “Venerable” July 1, 2000, by Pope John Paul II. His brother, Father Emmanuel Rougier (1864–1932), was a Marist priest in Fiji and Tahiti.
Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) was a French Roman Catholic Neo-Thomist philosopher. His wife was Raïssa Oumansoff Maritain (1883–1960).
Art et Scolastique was published in 1920, so Charlot is either mistaking his age or thinking of another writing.
Paul Claudel (1868–1955) was a French poet, dramatist, diplomat, and devout Roman Catholic. Charlot will discuss his work with Claudel in interview 19 of November 25, 1970.
Léon Bloy, Le Salut par les Juifs (1892).
Father Joseph Vincent Ducatillon (1898–1957) was a Dominican priest and theologian known during the 1930s and 1940s for his writings and lectures against totalitarianism. He was named Provincial of France in 1954.
Père Couturier, O. P. (Profile, hood raised), 1949, oil on canvas, 12 × 16 in., Vatican Collection of Modern Religious Art, checklist number 637.
Jean Lurçat (1892–1966) was a French painter and textile artist.
Amédée Ozenfant (1886–1966) was a founder of the Purism school of Cubism.
Way of the Cross, 1935–1938, oil on canvas, fourteen circular 3 × 3 ft. panels, St. Cyprian Church, River Grove, Illinois. The work was installed in the 1950s.
The work of French Fauvist Raoul Dufy (1877–1953) was known for a “stenographic” style created with skeletal structures, foreshortened perspectives, thin washes of color, and rapid brush strokes.