Could you tell me about your big church mural project in France before you left?
Well, I don’t remember the details, but, that is, I don’t remember who got me in touch with the priest who wanted to decorate his church. I think it was a result of the things I had shown at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. What was that? 1916 or ’17 I think. Anyhow, I went to the church, and it was a rather nice church. Not an old one, but it was vaguely Romanesque or Early Gothic, and on both sides, right and left as you entered the church, there was a frieze. That is, there was the cement or stone—I think it was cast cement—two long friezes that may have been from what I remember something like sixty or seventy feet long on each side and not very high. And I saw the priest. He was quite nice. We went in a back room in which he had the plans of the church. He gave me the blueprints, so I could take my measurements from the architect’s blueprints, and then I went home. I was living in St. Mandé at the time, and I decided to do something that was a little similar to the idea of the processionals in Byzantine churches. In Ravenna, for example, you have the martyrs and the virgins and whatnot going towards the altar on both sides of the church as if they were entering the church and in one movement, one processional, going towards the altar. And that is the same motion, the same movement, that I arranged for the two friezes that I worked out. Besides, there were some changes in the motions: the people, the painted people, as they entered the church, entered rather stiffly, still stylized, and as they went towards the altar, there was, I think, an accelerated movement and motion. That, of course, was my own idea. And the thing that I remember which I still am sorry I didn’t do because I could have done it very well at the time—I was working perhaps with a fuller, what I would call a rainbow palette, than I work now, being a little closer to Post-Impressionism—there was a change of value and color, and there was an increase of light, I would say light translated into color, as you came close to the altar, so as to suggest that the focus of light came from the altar itself, or the presence of God, if you want. And I made a gouache that were rather complete, to scale, representing, more than representing, duplicating those ideas. I don’t quite know what I would have used for a medium. I know that at the time I was thinking, of course, in terms of murals, of true murals. I don’t think that I would have had the means, actually, to do it in true fresco. But the intention, anyhow, was to get something that would be close enough to the values and colors of fresco and would stay on the walls, so to speak. I still have the gouache.
The rest of the story was a sort of a disillusion with things because I wrote the priest and said I was ready to show him now the drawings, and I had a rather curt note saying that for this and that reason—I suppose they were practical reasons, whatever it is—he could not decorate the church now. And he never saw, actually, the gouache that I had prepared for him. So it was, of course, a little bit of a disillusion for me because I had put all my art and all my heart in it, given that I knew—that’s the one thing I knew—that I was a mural painter. And I realized that a mural painter is not like an easel painter, who can always paint his pictures, but that the mural painter needs walls. And because I was what I would call a monumental mural painter, I needed certainly a whole church, a whole building, a whole hall to work my problems in terms of architecture. So it was a little hard on me. I was very young at the time. And that’s the story.
Was it a big influence on your leaving France to go to Mexico?
No, I wouldn’t say so, but I had been well received as an artist. You’ve seen the clippings and so on. I was spoken of, I’m not very sure why, but I was spoken of as a mural painter, in fact as a fresco painter, and I think that if that first commission had jelled and I had decorated that church, I would have had other commissions, and I would have stayed, naturally, in France, given that I would have had a means of living and more than that, a means of working in my chosen form of art in France. I wouldn’t have, probably, gone to Mexico, so maybe it was in a way a blessing in disguise.
You still use those color changes in your work. For instance, this Syracuse fresco and the original project for the one near Dayton, Ohio, in Centerville.1 Where did you, why do you do that and where did you get the idea? Was it an original thing with you?
Well, I’ve always admired what I would call complex planning in painting, and some great masters, well, Ingres comes to mind in his great, what is called machines, his great complicated things with many people and very large size. And Poussin himself had tackled that business of different, we could call them, weights of light, and weights of light really represented by color. And it was one of my desires, certainly, to do that, to do complex things that would be as complex as those of the classical masters. I think that Poussin, especially, that I had studied in the Louvre, had astonished me with the way in which he translated his values into color. There are some things…well, later on, of course, I looked at that picture which is in the Metropolitan, I think, of the Apostles coming down the steps of the Temple—Peter and John curing the poor by their cast shadow2—and it has in it, it sums up, if you want, all the things that I had learned in the Louvre, in the Poussins in the Louvre, in that extraordinary sensation of light that, of course, has nothing in the means to be borrowed by the Impressionists—which was an absolutely original idea of light. That Poussin impressed me because he had to use in it by the subject itself—and he was always a thorough illustrator—he had to use in it cast shadows—that is, he had to consider as sunlight—because the poor people on the steps, the beggars and the cripples and so on, were being cured by the cast shadow of the Apostles. So it’s a very interesting thing to see a completely original solution of sunlight, original especially for somebody of my generation who had accepted the somewhat loose solution of the Impressionists with blue shadows and orange lights and so on. And I have wanted always from the beginning to do, we could say, Poussin and to do Ingres. You find similar things in Ingres. I think I’ve already mentioned the Martyrdom of St. Symphorien,3 which is a superb thing, equal to any Poussin. And I could do that only on very large scale things because I really needed those large spaces in which to modify the quality of light and so on. I couldn’t do things with those little personages that Poussin does so well and that could be enlarged to true murals. At the bottom of everything, I think the translation of value into color is the real problem that I’ve tried to tackle all my life, and I have succeeded to an extent. In my last trip to Italy, I was interested in the way the mural painters, well, we could say, did the obvious by looking first at the room where they were going to paint their murals and then using the natural light: where the light came from the windows, what intensity of light hit the walls on which they painted, was the light frontal or glancing, we could say. I was really taken by the Last Supper of Leonardo, even though I had seen it so many times in reproduction and in so many mediums: Last Suppers on black velvet, Last Suppers in gingerbread, and so on and so forth. But when you enter the room, you realize that he has added a painted room, an illusive space of a room, to the real space of the room and that the light in that hall in which Christ and the Apostles are having the Last Supper is exactly the same light from the same windows, we could say, that are in the room itself. So between the true room and the illusive room, you have an extraordinary impression of depth, and the people come to life, which they do not when you look simply at the reproduction. Or in Venice, for example, the things that Tintoretto did in which he does the same thing—he uses the light that falls from the windows to model his nudes in the series of the Pleiades and so on.4 And from the beginning I think I always have had problems of that type that I needed to do my art at its best, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I am a mural painter: because I like to depend at the beginning—to start from a difficult problem that is stated by an architecture.
How about the people and themes you included in your mural? Was there anything particular you were trying to state with your choice of subjects? That is, you have soldiers, you have little girls, you have altar boys, etc.
Well, as you can expect from—what was I, nineteen or twenty years old? Nineteen years old, maybe less. It reflects, of course, influences that I had come upon, and it reflects them rather clearly. I think my little First Communion girls in their white or pale blues or whatnot depend on Maurice Denis for their innocence. But I think that the soldiers—I have some of those veterans or wounded soldiers and so on—depend for the elongation of the proportions and the limbs and whatnot on Marcel-Lenoir. On the other hand, the planning is not at all anything that Denis could have done. Perhaps Marcel-Lenoir could have done it if he had had a chance, but the man never got a complex mural commission. But I’ve seen some big Maurice Denis for example—St. Paul in the ship and so on, the wreck of the ship of St. Paul, I think, for a Swiss church—and Denis is rather innocent about the problems that intrigue me. I think he is not really a born mural painter. Or he is a born mural painter only in the sense that he has admired the very light average values of fresco, the fact that the fresco, unlike oil painting, cannot go into very darks in the shadows, and he has imitated that in his form of painting, either tempera or in oil. But that is purely an influence of the medium, and he…I don’t think he’s gone as deep into the problems of relation to architecture that other people have. So there is influence of Maurice Denis on me, especially in that sort of Neo-Impressionist or Nabi type of thing, and maybe even in the niceties of the devotional attitude of those people. And there is that influence of Lenoir in the elongated proportions. But the deep problems, which would have come out better, of course, in the finished mural than they did in the small sketch, I was very conscious at the time that they were problems proposed, for example, by Nicolas Poussin.
Were there any other big projects that you were offered that didn’t come through, or was this really the only one?
Well, I think that is the only one that was articulate enough so that I felt sorry that it became a nonentity. I really believed in it. I had worked my first steps towards an actual execution of the work. There were some other, well, I would say possibilities and so on, but nothing that was as jelled as that particular commission or would-be commission.
Could we go to a more personal subject now? In your poems at the beginning of the war, you are very anti-German, and then you pretty much drop that attitude as you go on. Was this because you were meeting people in Germany? What were your relations with the Germans during the Occupation?
Well, I knew, of course, at the beginning of the war…we were still people who—I wouldn’t say I remembered, but people around me had remembered the War of 1870, so it was really another generation, even two generations removed, that relationship of the French and the Germans. And of course, being at war with Germany, there was no relationship to the people. And going to Germany and living in German homes, of course, I met Germans, and they were human. They didn’t have horns or tails. But I think that the relationship personally with Germans was more or less the average one that the French troops of Occupation had with German families, who were rather nice or good to us. I remember that we were always puzzled by a sort of incomprehensibility just because we were French and because they were German. I remember that the officers—I was at the time one of them or went with them anyhow—were invited to a dinner which was obviously a sort of a feasty dinner with very good wines and so on, by one of the important people of the little town where we were. And then at the time of dessert—everybody had been drinking and so on and were in a happy mood—he got up and he said he would propose a toast. And he proposed his toast to his son who had been in the war and had been killed in such and such a place on this very day, and he had arranged that thing as an anniversary to his dead son, and he wanted soldiers to be there because his son had been a soldier. So the first idea we all had is that we had been poisoned. But not at all. He just had that respect for being a soldier as a profession and that extra respect for officers that made him feel that it was in honor of his son, that little feast. Things like that puzzled us sorely. There were, of course, relationships to women, which were very, I would say, natural and normal, and they were rather nice, pliant things by our standards anyhow.
But my own, well, change of mind or change of heart, if you want, was not by being with the people, but with German art. German art was a tremendous impact. I had never studied it very much. I knew a few names, of course: Albrecht Dürer and so on. But I told you before how meeting some of the great masterpieces of German art taught me much more than meeting the Germans themselves. And when you admire the art of a people, of course, you admire the racial characteristics that made that art possible.
You said that you knew people in Germany before the war. Did you ever meet any of those people after?
No, those were business people who had business with my father, who was in the import-export, and we were not in the places where they had lived or where they lived. The export-import had to do with China, and my father represented those German firms in France. It was a little unusual, I would say, because he spoke perfect German, just like a German, and we used to receive at home quite a number of those German people or German families when they came to Paris, so that we knew Germans. But those people were really businessmen, and I had very little to do with them as a child, and I’d had no relationship with them as a child.
How did your father know German?
Well, he had been educated in Germany. He was born in Russia, in Moscow, and much of his education had happened in Germany. I don’t know the details myself, but I know, of course, that he spoke Russian and German and French equally well.
In your poems you speak about two girls whom you knew especially, one sort of an earth type and the other one more an intellectual type who talked about Schopenhauer, and then apparently you left, you went back to France for a while, and then you came back to Germany. And then they sort of…one of them at least; I think the intellectual one, sort of put you off. Were those important relationships for you or was it just the fact that you were thrown together?
Well, I think a poet has a right to create, so to speak, things that have a mediocre reality for other people, I would say. But actually we were always on the go, and I was always on the go on horseback, and the one thing that was permanent with me was my horse. That’s what I remember the most. We went all the way from Ludwigshafen to Köln, to the Belgian frontier and so on, on horseback. And then I had also the really very big responsibility with my men. For a while I had a whole series of people under me. They were rather difficult people, mostly Arabs.
Could you tell me about them?
Well, yes. I may have either written or told about it somewhere, I don’t remember, but I just came out of my officers’ school, and I was the youngest in the lesser grade as far as officers are concerned, and we had some very hard goings-on, in fact, some revolts and revolutions in the Foreign Legion, especially among the Arabs. They had been told when they left Africa that they would have every six months, I think, a possibility of returning home, and those fellows had been at the front for two and a half years already, something like that. So some of them were getting rather nasty, and they were rather violent men, and they had ambushed and tried to kill (I don’t think that they had killed) the officer who was in command of that particular platoon. So they looked on the list—I suppose there was a paper with a list of names—and the fellow who was the youngest as an officer and as such the most expendable was myself. So I got that command. I think they were pretty sure I would never emerge. But I’ve always had a knack, I suppose, with dark-skinned people, and even though I didn’t speak their language, they all spoke a form of French. But between themselves, and that was their strength, they spoke their Arabic, whatever the language was. They came to like me very much. I remember that the fellow who was the hottest head and the one in charge of the revolt—and he had a tremendous weight with the others—came to me one day, and I was alone, and there he was, and he was rather arrogant. He said, “If we do not get what we are asking for, mon officier”—so I thought my last moment had come—he said, “Tomorrow I shall kill myself.” He liked me enough so he didn’t want to kill me, but he had to do something to express their dissatisfaction. So, of course, I got out of that, I suppose, with a certain glow as far as the other officers were concerned. That is, I came out of it alive. But what was more precious, I came out of it with really sort of a friendship with my men that the other officers hadn’t been able to achieve. But it was, anyway, a nice experience and perhaps my first experience with dark-skinned people, which later on, of course, was multiplied with Mexican Indians, with Melanesians, and Polynesians and so on.
You’ve never been terribly interested, though, in Arab culture.
Well, I certainly was interested at the time, and I learned a lot on the things that pleased them and displeased them, and in a way how to save my life by being interested in Arab culture. I had to, I had no choice.
When was it…in your poems I see that you had a tour of duty in Germany, then you went back to Paris for a while and then you went back to Germany. Is that how it worked?
Well, I don’t remember quite the exact dates of things, but after the war, I stayed in Germany for nearly two years. I was still there early in 1920, I think, just before leaving for Mexico. But frankly, I didn’t have, I didn’t write a diary at the time, and I don’t have the exact dates with me. It’s all made up of short moments in time. That is, I went to the front as a simple GI, I would say, then I went to officers’ school, then I went…nearly at the very end of the war I was, I returned to the armies, and then at Christmas of 1918, we crossed into Germany, and I stayed there until 1920, I think, in and out. That is, I could return to Paris where my family was at the time, well, once or twice I think.
Didn’t you go AWOL the first time? Odette told me a story that Jean du Peuty, who was a general, wanted to give you a short leave to see your mother, and he found that you had left already?
No, I think you get all those things wrong. That was at the very beginning before we went anywhere, and we were in Orléans. And in Orléans, we knew a very old general who had been, I suppose, glorious in his youth, and he seemed very, very old to me at the time and rather soft in the head. But anyhow, my mother and sister had come to Orléans to be with me there—after visiting him, suggested that it would be a good thing if he went to the quarters where we were and asked for me. So the poor man, I suppose, put on all his uniform and medals and whatnot and went there, saw the commanding officer, and asked for me. Well, it is quite true that I wasn’t there, and I would have been certainly punished very harshly, but given that he was a glorious general, I wasn’t. However, there was as a result of that, I couldn’t choose my own outfit going to the front. And my intention was to choose one of those automobile or mechanized units. I don’t know why, because I knew very little about automobiles. So I was put in an outfit with horses. That is the only result. But I wasn’t otherwise put in jail or tried militarily or any such thing.
You said, you know, when we discussed the problems of your eyesight, you said that you were putting it in very sort of simplified terms. Could you just describe in as complicated, technical terms as you want your eyesight, as exactly as possible?
Well, I don’t have complicated terms. I’m not an oculist. But the eyes after the operation—of course, before the operation, one of the eyes didn’t see very much because the eye was under the lid; I simply didn’t see very much from that eye. So my other eye was trained to see everything by itself, like a one-eyed person. And when they cut and repaired the optical nerve on the eye that couldn’t see and it could see in its turn, it had another age as far as training goes than the other eye, and they never got together. That is, I see through one eye or through the other. And with a sort of intellectual arrangement, I can pretend I see the same thing with both eyes at the same time, but it’s not the physical truth. And then I am just short-sighted with one eye and far-sighted with the other. So that’s about it, plus something which I haven’t read anywhere but is obvious is that one of my eyes must be a little closer to color blindness than the other one. One of my eyes sees, well, rather soft colors—I wouldn’t say variations of gray but tending to variations of grays—and the other eye sees rather excitingly colors that tend to be what we could call rainbow colors. So my eyes are a mess, even though I don’t have any terms to describe them, and I think that helped me a lot to realize the difference between nature as a reality and nature as a spectacle, as a visual spectacle. That is, from the point of view of a painter, it continuously has raised problems that for other people perhaps are just intellectual exercises, but they are not for me. I know that what I see in nature are images and not the reality of nature. And that’s pretty good for painting because painting is also making an image, not presenting a reality.
Could I ask you to repeat for me that story of the time you called down “gas” to the officers in the cellar? I missed it. The tape ran out when you told it the last time.
Well, we were speaking of those attacks with gas, and I said that gas was heavier than air and had a tendency to make a cloud that would crawl on the ground. That was a sort of advantage if you were in a high place. It was very much a disadvantage if you were in a low place because the cloud would naturally go down. If there was a cellar, it would actually go down the stairs of the cellar and fill up, if possible, the whole cellar. And those officers on that particular time—I wasn’t an officer yet—had been afraid—well, they had naturally been afraid of a bombing, which was pretty bad and was destroying things around, and had taken refuge from the bombing in a cellar. And it wasn’t a bombing with gas. It was just a regular bombing. So their reasoning was right, but I don’t know what got into me, and I went to the cellar door, and I shouted “Gas!” And of course, the poor guys thought they were dead and, as I said, turned green. I’ve actually seen people turn green with fear. And I realized it was a very silly joke.
We talked briefly before about this social sense that your father had and what he passed on to you in this sense. You have really pretty left-wing ideas about social problems. Do you think that you got them from your father? Do you think that his interest in the workers was passed on to you? Because this is very dominant in your own life.
Well, I completely object with your idea of my ideas. I think that I’m rather right-wing than left-wing, but anyhow… Well, I have two sets of ideas. One of them is social. The other one I inherited from people like Léon Bloy, I suppose, who didn’t like rich people, and I suppose I don’t specially like rich people. At least they have to prove themselves before I like them, and I have not the same difficulty with the poor people. I sort of like them direct. But in the case of my father, he was a sympathizer, shall we say, with people that may have been perhaps more anarchists. Of course, there was at the time no articulate Communist group, and the old Union of the World Workers,5 I think was the name, was perhaps more anarchical than what we would call now communist. My father, of course, was one of the people to whom Russians who came to Paris would go to, not only because he spoke Russian, but because he was in sympathy for the people who had to leave the Russia of the czars and go into exile. At the time, of course, the left people, the leftist people, the future Communists, if you want to say that, who left Russia and had to rush to Paris and eke their living there—my father was very good to them. I think he was gooder than we knew, but from time to time, he would tell my mother that he would bring in for dinner somebody, and we vaguely knew the name. A man like Kalinin, for example, who was the first president of the Soviets, was one of those people. And father was always very gentle about telling about those people. He told very little. But I remember mother was a little troubled once when he said to be especially nice with our guest that night because he had just blown to bits the head of the czarist police which, of course, my mother didn’t especially approve of, that is, of blowing to bits a human being. And of course, those people behaved very nicely, and I suppose they were grateful. So that later on, when they came to power, my father, well, by then was not in any state in which he could have profited by those things, but he died in ’15, so it’s more or less at the same time, but we did have, or we had heard the names of some of the people that came to power with the Soviets.
I think there’s just two or three things perhaps that impressed me when I was very young. One of them: I was speaking of flags, and father spoke of them as rags, and my mother shut him up very quickly and so on. It was rather a way of speaking that he enjoyed, maybe because it scandalized my mother a little bit, but he would speak of things like le grand soir, for example, in which the establishment would disappear and the workers would take over the world. Of course, all those things, as I said, were more anarchical than organized, and I must say that with the coming of the Soviets, when I was in Mexico, we all had that same feeling of something nearly artistic that was going on rather than something that had social realities. And I don’t think I am a leftist in any way. The moment that the left becomes organized and becomes bureaucratic, I lose interest in it; that is, when they become the upper-dogs, I lose interest in the underdogs.
In a way it was an unusual marriage between your father and your mother, he an illegitimate son coming out of Russia and she coming out of Mexico. Do you know how they got together?
Well, I really don’t know. I wasn’t there. It happened before I was born. But I think later on, on reflection, I think that both were French and both had flaws in their pedigree as French people. Sometimes French people are very uppity about being French, and father was part Russian, mother was part Mexican, so that I can see very well how both of them got together, though mother came from a very conservative family and father seemed to be a little more free in his social thinking. So, I think actually it’s understandable, it’s very understandable as it is.
How did they get along when their ideas on things were so different? Your father seems very nonconformist and your mother very much in the bourgeois milieu.
Well, you mustn’t exaggerate. Father was a businessman, and his import-export for a while was quite successful. When he got sick, of course, it went to the dogs, but because he was sick. And we were a large family. Father had not much family of his own; he had only a brother that he rarely saw, so that he was part, actually, of our family, who was, as you say, conservative, and especially with the cousins, uncles, and so on, was rather wealthy and very well-off, with the ideas, the extra-conservative ideas, you are right there, of the people who were very well-off. And father was a very amiable host or guest according to the situation, and the family liked him fine.
What was I going to say? What do you know at all about your father’s parents? Could you just tell me everything you do know about them?
Well, I think perhaps Odette seems to know a little more than I do. I just know that when he died—he died in our house in St. Mandé—mother brought out a little bunch of photographs I had never seen before and I never saw again, of course, and one of them was the father and mother of my father. We put them in the coffin and sealed the coffin and that was all. His father was a guy in Russian uniform. Not knowing, of course, what the uniform signified in the Russian Army, I couldn’t very well decide what status the man had, just that he was an impressive fellow with impressive sideburns and sort of a splendid uniform in the photograph. And his mother was very simply dressed, rather petite and very French. So, that’s all I know.
Is it true that she died in a sort of epidemic in Russia?
I don’t have the least idea. I would guess so because father wasn’t raised in France but was raised in Germany. And I think that that was with money, of course, given by his father. But I really never thought about it very much.
Do you know who—or how he was raised in Germany?
No, I don’t. I’m sorry. I sort of, well, it would take a little detective work to find those things out, and I never especially even wanted to because I knew that my father didn’t especially want me to.
It must have caused some comment in the very large family of your mother, though, that he didn’t have any family around him.
Well, I think so. I suppose, I mean I really don’t know. I know that my mother’s father was a man with extremely free-thinker ideas. He was a Freemason among other things, and he was probably delighted to have somebody in the family who had been breaking, without wanting to, but breaking the rules of perfect bourgeois behavior. He was that type of a man, who would rather like it very much.
I thought that the next time we’d start off at your trip to Mexico, your first trip to Mexico. But is there anything that we haven’t spoken about in these hours of interviews that we’ve had on the period before you went to Mexico?
Well, I don’t know, Johnny, that’s for you to decide. You are the detective. I think we stayed a little too long with my wet nurse, and I don’t think there was anything that we entirely did not speak of. After all, my life wasn’t very complicated. And I just wonder if we should get into the Mexican phase unless we get in it as a follow-up of the French phase, that is, what things in Mexico were still operative of my French phase. I think we should stay with the French training phase as being the most important thing for us. I think somebody else can pick up from Mexico on. But, anyhow, I’m not going to arrange the rules of the game. It’s for you to do that.
Thank you, Papa.
Village Fiesta, 1960, fresco, 9 × 45 ft., Shaw Dormitory, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. Calvary, 1958, fresco, 34 × 32 ft., St. Leonard Center, Centerville, Ohio.
Nicolas Poussin, Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame, 1655, oil on canvas, 49.5 × 65 in., Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Martyrdom of St. Symphorian, 1834, oil on canvas, 133.47 × 160.24 in., Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun.
Tintoretto, Origin of the Milky Way, 1575–1580, oil on canvas, 58 × 65 in., National Gallery, London.
Charlot means the IWW, or Industrial Workers of the World, a radical trade union organized in Chicago by socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists in 1905.