Didn’t you do a box for Elizabeth Arden before the war?1
Yes, I did. Well, I tried, of course, to make a little money on my art, and a friend of mine knew Elizabeth Arden, and I was presented to her. She was in Paris at the time, I suppose shopping for beauty aids or so, and I made for her two or three things. I am not very sure now what they were. But of course, I decorated, I think it was a powder box or perfume box, and I tried to make it as pleasant as I could. I think it was flowers and little birds, and it stayed in stock for a long time. It was, I think the original was a watercolor, and it became a cardboard box with those pleasant colors on. I had to force myself a little bit to do things for the beauty-aid business. It wasn’t exactly my desires at the time. I was already really shopping for murals, but I was glad to get some money out of it. I think I got quite a little bit, for me at the time anyhow. I also worked in fashion designs for Poiret,2 who was at the time the big, modern fashion designer, and he had the most dazzling models in the most dazzling clothing, and they were all very nice to me because I was an artist. And I did one rather complicated thing where he had maybe twelve people or more representing something connected with Spanish-type fashions. I liked it, but he didn’t like it too much, so we didn’t establish really a friendship. But I was very glad to have a check for 900 francs, which was a lot of francs at the time. And I enjoyed also seeing Poiret and the way he worked. He was a very original fellow. He had a rack of his own clothing, and on it was a crown, a king’s crown in metal, gold, I think. And when he had parties—I suppose shop parties—he would put it on before he sat at the table, and he considered himself, he was think[ing] of [himself] as a king. Later on, of course, he went out of fashion. He wrote a very nice book of memoirs, and I think ended in total poverty, but with a good deal of philosophy. The last I knew of him he was, I think, boiling peas for his dinner. He enjoyed being poor as much as he had enjoyed being rich. So just knowing the guy was interesting and getting a check from him was useful.
How did you link up with Poiret and Elizabeth Arden? Was it through friends, or had they seen your work?
No, I think it was a friend of mine called Legendre, if I remember, the same one that I represented in that first picture I had in a formal exhibition, the Amitié.3 It’s myself and Legendre together in my garden. And he was from a family who had had a lot to do with, well, the great painters. His father, I think, had been—his grandfather mostly—had been a friend of Degas. Degas had represented members of the family and so on, and he was quite in the know. I’m not sure what his mother did, but she was more or less around that circle of fashion and fashionable people, and I think the fellow got me both jobs, the Poiret job and the Elizabeth Arden job.
How did you know Legendre? Tell me about him.
Well, I think we were working together at the two academies, the Colarossi and the Grande Chaumière, which had been there already for generations in Paris. You didn’t have to enroll yourself as a student. You went in, and you could sit down and pay for your séance. There were models, professional models, and in the old days I think my mother had gone to the Grande Chaumière and besides having her formal studio work with Gérôme, and so on. So I went in my turn to Grande Chaumière, and I think we just engaged in conversation and from then on… He said he was looking for a place where we could have a model, so I had my own studio in St. Mandé, and we had there a few drawing séances with the model. And I wasn’t too keen on just drawing and drawing from the model. I think I did actually, I began actually, that big gouache on friendship. While he was drawing from the model, I was already composing that big picture. But that’s the way we met, I think.
How did your friendship with him end?
Well, of course, he didn’t go to the Americas, and I went to the Americas, and that’s about it. I remember that from my first trip to Mexico, I chose something for him, and what I chose didn’t please him too much. I had been dazzled by a shop who had, in Mexico City, importations from the United States, and I thought that a certain straw hat with a very loud ribbon—I had never seen anything like that before; I think it was a boater they called those things, but with a loud ribbon, as loud as a flag—would please him very much. When I brought it to him, I’m afraid it displeased him very much. But we stayed friends, of course, but we had to get together to go on being friends, and I haven’t seen him now for fifty years.
In one of your sort of autobiographical memoirs, you mention a certain amount of tension between you and Legendre at the end of your relationship. Do you recall if it was anything more important than that or was it just that you fell out as friends?
No, it must be another guy. I think we ended on a very nice note.
You forget that I know everything. Tell me about that picture, L’Amitié. Why did you choose the theme? Was it sort of, were you trying to do sort of a masterpiece in the old sense as your first piece to show at the Academy, so to speak?
Well, the intention wasn’t especially the showing at the Academy, but I was interested in complex compositions, and of course, it was very much that idea that murals have to have more complex compositions than easels. But I didn’t have any wall, and I was really full of the ways of doing of men like Poussin. I remember that I had read that Poussin would establish little puppets with the clothes in a sort of a little theater and copy those little things to make out his compositions, moving the puppets, raising their arms, or changing the drapes in a certain type of light. And I decided to do something that would put together quite a number of separate studies because I understood that the Old Masters were doing so. Now neither, certainly, the Cubists nor the Impressionists nor the Post-Impressionists had that method of work. And I think I really felt that even though nobody around me was doing it, it was my way of doing. I always have had a tremendous respect for what we like to call the Old Masters, but my respect goes not so much to the people themselves as heroes, if you want to say it, as to their craftsmanship and their approach to things.
So that picture, L’Amitié, was large enough and complex enough so that I could put in it together a conglomerate of separate studies. I think I still have around a study, for example, of the door of our garden, the iron grill and so on. I made separate studies of plants, flowers, and whatnot. I still have some of those separate studies of my dog, which is there, Mousmé. It was incidentally a little Mexican hairless. I don’t remember how we got it because we hadn’t been to Mexico then. Studies, of course, of myself—self-portrait painting—and of my friend. And I remember that I had a lay figure on which I put on some bedsheets and so on and draped it to represent the angel. And I felt, of course, I was a classical painter doing things just like Poussin. Of course, the thing didn’t quite turn out Poussin-like. There are lots of things in there, in fact, that come out of Cézanne and Cubism, but nevertheless at the time, it was an anomaly, I would say, to do things that way.
Incidentally, the picture, to the surprise of everybody around him, was accepted by the jury of the Salon d’Automne, which was a pretty stiff jury, and before I left for Mexico, I could see it exhibited. And my teachers of painting went to see the picture, and they didn’t like it very much, but they were, of course, impressed that it was hung and rather not badly hung at that, because in the old days, the salons, they piled up things from the bottom of the wall to the top. If you were at the top you were in the salon, but nobody could see your picture. But mine was rather very well presented, and I was scolded by my teachers for doing things that didn’t seem quite right to them. And it’s a picture, of course, that seems very discreet and sort of quiet, and that is not excited and couldn’t excite nowadays anybody at all; but in those days, nevertheless, there was something that was surprising. I think that was one of the reasons why it was accepted. And that something surprising was that I had worked at it from that craftsman’s point of view—or Old Master point of view, if you want—by putting together separate studies into one unity, so that there is, if you look at the picture, there is no really moment of the day and there is no, well, shall we say, African sculpture type of thing. It’s different, and for me at the time, certainly, it seemed, it seemed close to the French classical seventeenth century, which I was looking at as my model. There is, of course, other things. The angel with the wings and the ribbon that he has and the writing on that sort of a ribbon or banderole are things that come from the liturgical arts, the cathedrals, the stained glass windows, Maurice Denis, and so on and so forth. But anyhow, for me it was, as you say, my attempt at a masterpiece, that is of putting together the different things I knew of the craft of painting.
Why did you do it in gouache rather than in oil?
Well, I think gouache on paper was cheaper than oil on canvas. It would have been difficult to work out a single canvas that size; at least at the time I didn’t have a canvas roll that would have been big enough for it, and if you put a seam, you get into difficulties if you don’t attempt to paint with impasto and thicknesses and so on to hide the seam. I was also afraid of impasto. I was afraid of oil painting for something that I considered, if you want, a portable mural, and of course, the tempera that I used, the gouache that I used, with its matte effect, its impossibility of going into bravura passages, seemed to me to tend to mural, that is, if you want to tend to the texture and the quality of a fresco. Now, I didn’t know fresco too much, but I tended to fresco by painting the thing in tempera.
You did most of your oil painting early, didn’t you? Because during the war you go into gouache also. You did your sketches in gouache and watercolor didn’t you? After the war did you do any oils before you did this big thing in gouache?
Yes. All my work with my professors, if you want, of art were in oil, and we still have here a dozen or so landscapes in oil. Then either in the studio I used to copy landscapes by the teachers or in Brittany directly from nature or in St. Mandé. So I could handle oil very well, in a way, but it wasn’t, I wasn’t at ease with what I said: the bravura passages, the possibilities of fooling the people with romantic brush strokes, and the impastos were not something that I wanted to put in my art. And gouache is much closer to the old-fashioned egg tempera painting, for example, that the miniaturists used in the illuminations of prayer books and so on. I had a good knowledge of the Middle Ages, of the art of the Middle Ages. And the earliest things—that is, twelfth- and thirteenth-century frescoes in churches (I had seen whatever was in the museums, but there were also some very good series of facsimile copies that had been made in the nineteenth century)—were things that I liked very much. And there is also the question of carrying with me just a box of watercolor, which is infinitely easier than oil, and using paper for ground instead of canvas, which is also much easier. As a soldier, of course, I couldn’t have painted in oils. I didn’t have any moment or place in which I could have done it.
I wanted—it seems to me that you had quite a bit of success in France before you went to Mexico. I remember in the clippings you have very good reviews in the paper for all of your work. Was it over the disappointment of not getting that church decoration, was that what made you very much decide to go, or did you have the feeling that you could have had a success in France if you had stayed?
No. It was a purely financial stuff. We had lived, of course, with the money that my father made at his business. His business was really imports, and he depended on a German firm for his imports from China. That was his big business. So with the war and the Franco-German War, that was the end of his business, and he really withered and died as a result. Then we found ourselves with enough of a little sum of money to live a while. But given the habits of the French people, my sister got married, and we had to give her what was considered a decent bourgeois dowry, which actually was half or a little more than half of all the money we had. And so it seemed safer to pay our passage to Mexico and to go back to my Mexican branch of the family, where I knew we would be well received. I didn’t go there at all knowing of any possibility of making a living with art. But our choice was between France—where really we had broken, so to speak, the routine of living and had nothing to… we would have had to start from scratch on entirely different lines—or Mexico, where I knew that my uncles and so on were very desirous to have us and were ready to help us, at least with our daily living until I found something. It really came as a surprise that the something I found happened to be art and furthermore mural painting. Those things were not in the cards, so to speak, when we left France.
I’d like to ask you more about that later. Why is it that you didn’t finish your studies?
Well, because I was in the middle of them when father died, and we just tried to live on a minimum, and we had to cut whatever expense the school represented, and I tried to find jobs to help the family. I told you that for one day, at least, I had been an accountant in a firm, but I wasn’t obviously made to be an accountant. I found a few, well, jobs, call them odd jobs, like those we spoke of in fashion design and so on, but we had really to take a decision and go. Otherwise I would have had to get a job which, certainly in Paris, would not have been a job connected with the arts or very indirectly.
You really didn’t have the feeling you could live, say, in designing? So many of your interests were in things that could have made money. For instance, church decoration or vestment designing, things like that.
Yes, those things actually went well, if you want, from a financial point of view. I showed at the Pavillon Marsan—that was the Decorative Arts—got, as you say, sort of a medal and recognition. And every one of these sculptures, really, that I did—they were direct carved wood and polychromed—sold and, I think, sold for a good price at the time. That is, I perhaps was on my way to make a living with my art. I think it would have been probably the direct carving rather than the painting that would have become my career then. Of course, in retrospect, it’s very easy to simplify and to say that I went to Mexico so I could exercise that potential of mural painting and fresco painting in me, but it’s not the way it happened, because I absolutely didn’t know. And in fact, when I arrived in Mexico the first time—that was before the return of Rivera, before Vasconcelos had been able to whip together his group of painters—there was really rather little going on. My baggage, if you want, of art was that Way of the Cross made in woodcut, and that was a good introduction to people. The major artists at the time and the one who was doing most for art in Mexico was Ramos Martínez,4 who was the head of the Beaux-Arts School, and he was very nice to me, gave me a studio, in fact, to work in. And the graphic arts that I had, the woodcuts especially, played a role in the graphic arts of Mexico. There was a change, if you want—people recognize that usually—that my Way of the Cross brought in. I gave it to the Fine Arts School for their library, and when I came back on my second trip to Mexico, I think it had been a very fruitful contact with the people. There was a very nice going-on in the graphic arts, so that my first art, if you want, in Mexico, was not mural, because there was no more mural possibilities than there were in France. But there was something connected with the graphic arts.
I know the earliest clippings about you in Mexico are those woodcuts you did of Indian heads, and then there are some by other artists, not Xavier Guerrero, but some other well-known artist that looks very much like your work. Were you working there together? Was it your influence on him that started that?
Well, it isn’t nice to speak of influences, but we were working together with Fernando Leal5—that’s the fellow you are talking about—in the same studio. And Leal was my host, and I was his guest, and he was at the time working on a large picture connected with the Revolution of Zapatistas,6 that is, the men and one or two women. It was always the same model, Luciana, who was posing for Bellas Artes, for the School of Fine Arts. And that picture again, in retrospect, has become an important thing because it’s the first picture on a revolutionary subject of any importance, really, and it is now in the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City as a sort of a pioneer picture. All the pictures, and all the frescoes, and all the murals representing the Revolution—that came later on. Rivera and the others came after that rather large oil painting by Fernando Leal. So he may have considered, of course, the woodcuts that he did as a sort of relaxation from that major work of his. And I think that we can say that there is a certain influence, of course, from the previous woodcuts I had done in France.
Your style is very interesting, the style you have in France before you go to Mexico. That woodcut you have upstairs reminds me a little bit of the strongest kind of things that Gromaire did.7 I don’t know if you like that comparison, but that’s the only person I can think of who even comes near to that use, if you want, of Cubism, not for Cubism’s sake but towards other ends. Do you have certain thoughts about that first sort of evolved style of yours that went past your childhood and really starts creating a style of your own in France?
Well, it’s an analysis of the Old Masters. It sounds artificial to say that my intention was to copy the Old Masters, and when I did those things after El Greco—there are two of them, one of them is St. Martin giving the beggar his cloak. The one that you are speaking of is John the Baptist. I was honestly trying to find out the secrets, if you want, of the art of El Greco. Now, of course, it is obvious that I was trying to find these secrets from the point of view of a young painter that had just come to, well, early adulthood in painting, at a time when Cubism was Analytical Cubism, and that is the same case, I suppose, for Gromaire. I don’t know what his age was, but it must have been very similar. But I have upstairs, or you have now in that box we gave you, a whole notebook, which, incidentally, was done on my first trip to Mexico—that’s why it’s so difficult to date things properly—and which is entirely made after copies of the Metamorphoses of Ovide in a very beautiful eighteenth-century edition that my uncle Louis Labadie had. So I used the book to make what I considered copies of…some are, I think, Fragonard, some are by Boucher. And when you look at the book, there is no doubt that—a book of copies, my copies—there is no doubt that it is done along certain lines by a young man who understood Analytical Cubism. But nevertheless, for me, that thing, like the copies of Greco, was a way of understanding eighteenth-century rococo masters. Of course, in retrospect there is perhaps more of myself in my El Grecos and my Bouchers than of these Old Masters, but I learned a lot, really, by copying their things.
Why did you chose El Greco to copy?
Well, he was very much in the air. I told you that Maurice Barrès had written not much before, I think 1912—you can check on the date—the Secret de Tolède,8 which was a sort of rediscovery of El Greco, who had been in bad odor or had been forgotten, if you want, through the nineteenth century. And that tied up at the time El Greco was boosted—I think justly so, of course, but perhaps more for his mystical qualities than for his art as a painter—and that tied up with our desire to find Masters that could help us on the Gilde Notre-Dame to find our own liturgical art form. So that there was at least that religious angle, that mystical angle, that singled out El Greco from other people. The Boucher is quite different because, of course, nobody could think of rococo eighteenth-century painters as mystical. But with Boucher I learned some rather very complicated ways of composing, and through Boucher, that is, through rococo masters, I went rather deep into the precursors of the rococo, which are the baroque masters. Now that thing was good for me in a way, by contrast, because it emptied myself of those desires of using too much rococo-baroque elements in my things, and maybe that’s where the so-called label of “primitive” came to me. But 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.
Elizabeth Arden (1884–1966) used modern marketing techniques internationally to bring her cosmetic products to the masses.
Paul Poiret (1879–1944), the most fashionable designer in Paris before World War I, was known for his groundbreaking, corset-eliminating Neo-Classical and Orientalist designs.
L’Amitié, 1921, gouache on paper, 58.6 × 55.8 in., John Charlot collection, checklist number 1. Exhibited Salon d’Automne, 1921.
Alfredo Ramos Martínez (1872–1946) is sometimes called the “Father of Modern Mexican Art.” A respected artist in his own right, he is also remembered as the director (1913–1928) of the San Carlos Academy of Art (today’s National Academy of Fine Arts) who initiated its now-famous Open Air Schools of Painting.
Fernando Leal (1896–1964) was a painter, printmaker, and art critic. He and Charlot worked together on woodcuts. Leal’s first mural, Pilgrimage of Chalma, faces Charlot’s Massacre in the Main Temple in the National Preparatory School, Mexico, D.F.
Fernando Leal, Zapatistas at Rest, 1921–1922, oil on canvas, 59.62 × 70.9 in., Fernando Leal Audirac Collection.
St. John the Baptist after El Greco, 1921, pencil and gouache on paper, 12.4 × 8 in., Jean Charlot Collection.
Maurice Barrès, Greco, ou le secret de Tolède (1911).