Nineteenth Interview, Jean Charlot, November 25, 1970, John Pierre Charlot


Could you tell me any stories of Paul Claudel1 that you didn’t include in your talk yesterday?  For instance the time when you asked him to do the preface for your show?2


Well, I had notes, but I think the talk was about the right length, and I really, when I talk, I cannot read notes, so that even though I had the notes, I spoke only what I remembered at the time of speaking.  And that was when I had that show at John Becker in New York.  I was showing my large pictures that John Levy, who had a plush gallery on 57th Street, and John Becker had a modern, I would say, or modernistic type of gallery.  He had very a good taste and showed very good men.  I showed usually my small things, the small oil paintings or drawings or watercolors with John Becker at the same time that I showed my large, sort of monumental oils with John Levy.  So John Becker asked me if I had anybody who would write a foreword for his show, and Frank Crowninshield at the time had written a foreword for the John Levy show,3 so I said well, the ambassador, Paul Claudel, would that be a good idea?  Of course, he liked it very much.  It was certainly a good social asset, so to speak.  So that I wrote Claudel, and I told him that John Becker was a nice fellow, that even though he was an art dealer, he was a nice fellow, which he was, and would he just write a foreword for that show of small things at John Becker.  So I had an answer from him, I would say immediately, and it was an answer that if we hadn’t been on, well, such easy terms, would have been astonishing.  It just said, “Ne m’enbêter pas.  Enfin, foutez-moi la paix.  Ces-choses-là—on ne demande pas des choses comme ça.4  And so on.  He sounded certainly for somebody who wouldn’t know him or know us, I should say, as an angry man.  Of course, I knew that he would come across.  That was just a first reaction.  The poor man was a very busy man, of course, and he preferred to keep the two hours a day that he kept for his work for his own work, rather than for pièces de circonstance.  But I brought the letter to John Becker.  I hesitated a little bit because it was put on in very strong terms, and I thought that John Becker, of course, would not like it.  But he was delighted.  He said, “Oh, I see that you are intimate with M. the Ambassadeur.”  And of course, I hadn’t lost hope in spite of the violent early reaction.  I knew that Claudel would come across, and he did.  He came across very handsomely with a foreword to the show, which was printed first, édition originale, in the little catalogue of the John Becker show.  I kept, in fact, a dozen or so of the catalogues because for the bibliophile, I thought it would be interesting later on.  And he liked so much what he wrote that he published it, unknown to me, in the Nouvelle Revue des Jeunes in Paris as an article.  And then it became the foreword to the monograph that also through his tender care, I would say, he had printed in Paris in the collection of the Peintres Nouveaux at the Nouvelle Revue Française.5  So I was very glad, of course, that they had chanced the thing and asked him, and it remains an interesting, prophetic estimate.  I think one of the greatest gifts of Claudel was literally that gift of prophecy.  He describes me as a very active mural painter.  He suggests that the larger the walls, the easier I worked, that I should get what he calls an enormous panel that goes from the Atlantic to the Pacific and cover it with an enormous mural.  Now, at the time, I was really, of course, a muralist, but I was an unemployed muralist.  My Mexican stint had been left behind.  My first mural painted in the United States, which was in Peapack, New Jersey,6 was still in the future by three years, and all he knew of me were really the easel paintings.  But that was enough for him to speak of the good smell of the fresh lime mortar and imagine that enormous ladder on which he represents me climbing, bridging from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Now, of course, I knew nothing of Hawai‘i either at the time, and the Pacific for me was just a very far away ocean.  But it happens that eventually I fell plumb in the middle of the Pacific and did cover some large murals standing, as he had described it, on high ladders.


Were there any other stories that you didn’t mention in your talk?


Well, there are no anecdotes, and I don’t know that I should get into literary criticism.  But I was thinking of Claudel.  If I think of myself as a writer just now, I think of myself as a playwright, which is just because I have a few things cooking that may be staged and so on, relating to Hawai‘i.  So of course, I thought a little bit about the machinery or the mechanisms of plays, that is, of plays that are staged, not plays in books.  And I was thinking that the plays of Claudel—I broached that a little bit yesterday in the talk—the plays of Claudel cannot really be spoken of by the critics as plays of complicated, psychological circumvolution, so to speak.  I think the critics have loved to do that with, well, let’s say, the plays of Ibsen, or Chekhov, or so on and so forth.  You cannot do that with Claudel.  I would say that you cannot do that with Shakespeare, either.  But I was speaking yesterday of the parts of the work of Claudel that come very close to being a joke, of course, a willful joke.  He likes to do silly things, to say silly things, and to make his actors on the stage do and act silly things.  And those things annoy the people who have enshrined him.  They consider him a saint, and I certainly hope he’s a saint in Heaven.  But as a playwright he comes closer to something which for me is the essence of good stage play, and that is a sort of a marionette play.  We are not going to be interested in what goes on in the brain of the actor unless there is some gesture that goes with it.  And there are differences.  In the marionette play, for example, it is usually the policeman or the evil guy at the end of the play that is being beaten, at times beaten to death, by the good people, by the heroes.  Now the difference of the plays of Claudel with the usual marionette play is that in his plays, it is the hero, it is the holy man, it is the saint, the heroic man who at the end of play always ends being beaten up by the policeman.  But I think that the reversal of roles doesn’t change the actual composition, the actual mechanism of the play.  And if he can be so lyrical and so poetical and so magnificent in his expression, it’s that he is not burdened by what the people who believe that the theater should be naturalistic call those psychological evolutions—and that he is not interested in; and that, if I may say, I am not interested in.  He lives with the world of heroes and villains, and there is very little reversal of values through the length of the play, and always at the end the beating up, the torturing, the annihilating of the saint or the hero.


Did you carry that through in your things?  How do you think his playwriting influenced yours, if at all?


No, I really don’t think that his plays influenced mine.  Well, I’m not going to stand on the same footing with Claudel.  That’s putting me in a silly position.  But what I mean is that there is a whole set of trappings in Claudel that are very difficult for me to accept.  In the Columbus,7 there’s a great deal of those things, but they are redeemed, of course, by the funny parts, the funny parts in which he uses with comical effects, for example, the jargon of the ambassadors and the butlers of the ambassadors and so on, to which I was referring yesterday.  There is in Columbus, a fellow who has to live all his life accompanied by His Excellence, which is his shadow, of course, and sometimes it’s hard to do that.  But in the Soulier de satin,8 for example, he has gone very far into presenting his people as, I would say, utterly aristocratic, and when you stage it, you can have those beautiful court costumes both for the actual people and for the impersonations of virtues or vices, and that aristocratic side, also the names that he uses, using so many Hispanic forms that suggest centuries that are far away or, I should say, the higher classes of past centuries.  Those things can be a little irritating.  I much prefer him in his folkways, in his marionette ways.  You were speaking of Max Jacob9—there is a word of Max Jacob which is unjust in a way and cruel in another, but somehow touches that same point: that the aristocratic evocations of Claudel do not enthuse me, shall we say.  He read the Soulier de satin, it was the Soulier de satin, and they asked him what he thought of it, and he said, “O, ça fait chef-d’oeuvre.”  I don’t think we can translate that into English, but he was not, should we say, taken in by the enormous panorama, the far centuries, the aristocratic characters.  There is, of course, a very real beauty that he understood as well as anybody else.  But he was a little bit repulsed by that paraphernalia of ancient things that had beauty only if you believe in museum beauty, I would say, and dampens a little bit the actuality of the personages.  Again, to come back to my things, I would like my people more naked, I would say.  Of course, I use past centuries and so on, and perhaps the primitiveness is a sort of picturesqueness equal to that, though very different from that you find at the court of Spain, for example, in the Soulier de satin or in the Columbus.  But nevertheless my intention, my desire, is to present the people with a minimum of accessories.  I think I mentioned something like that before à propos of painting, when you asked me something, I don’t remember what, about Matisse, and I was telling the surprise of Picasso that Matisse, when he represents an interior, has to put in a chair which is in Louis XV or Louis XVI style.  When Picasso said, “Well, I really can do just as well with a kitchen chair,” it’s a little bit the same point of view.  Of course, in my case, it has nothing to do with a playwright judging a playwright.  It’s just that feeling that I have that certain things in Claudel are enthusiastically my own, so to speak, I feel they are enthusiastically my own, and that is what I call the marionette-play attitude.  Others repulse me a little bit, and that is those that we could compare to Matisse using antique chairs instead of a kitchen chair.


You just mentioned yesterday the folk-art aspects in Claudel’s work and said you felt you were the first to recognize that.  Could you elaborate a little bit more on that, please?


Well, if you read, of course, critics—I haven’t read many of them on Claudel—but they always insist that his work is a whole world, a whole universe, and so on, so that, of course, I pick out of that universe the things that I feel more in touch with, and he, himself, actually picked out of his own very complex work the very same things.  It’s something that tied us together.  I think every time that he represents those court scenes and emperors and queens and kings and ambassadors, he cannot but help putting himself in the skin of those people and knowing that there is a great distance between the man as such inside those wonderful uniforms and clothes and bemedaled things and what people think the man is like.  He has always a sense of the comical, even in his serious plays, and when he spoke of himself as being a peasant, as I said yesterday, and carrying around his burden of cow dung and so on, it is for him a world of escape.  He lived too long—he lived much of his life—into the make-believe world of, shall we say, the high classes, and in his antecedents, in his ancestors, he did have peasant people, and for him they were the best part of his inheritance.  He wanted to see himself as a peasant.  It’s just like a fellow who lives a lowbrow life and thinks of himself as a king.


You spoke about, you mentioned one day his nearness to Bloy.  Could you elaborate on that?


Well, I can’t.  I mean it goes away from our own little arrangement that we should more or less tie things to art or to my art.  But he was terribly impatient with the world.  I mentioned that single little thing that he went to very early Masses because he tried to escape the preach.  That is something, of course, you find that in Bloy, who just always comes back home and writes in his journal how bad, how ridiculous, how vulgar the preach was, how devilish the preach was.  And I worked with Claudel very closely on those illustrations for the Apocalypse,10 and those who know my work, of course, realize that I was a sort of a mouthpiece.  I shouldn’t say mouthpiece because I wasn’t talking, I was drawing.  But the illustrations are done under the really very strict surveillance and very exact detailed instructions of Claudel.  And there are things in there that present people, again we can come to that idea, as puppets.  I have actual portraits of men like Luther, of course, and Voltaire and Nietzsche and Tolstoy, Anatole France—I think Marcel Proust, even, and so on—who are represented in the most ridiculous positions and actions that one could think of.  I say “one” because I couldn’t think of them that way, but Claudel could do that very easily.  It was, of course, a holy wrath, just like Bloy speaking of the Last Columns of the Church was an act of holy wrath.11  But it is, of course, also an act of disrespect for men who were very good in their own professions, so to speak.  Now, behind Bloy, there was always the idea that the rich—of course, he based himself on the Gospels—the rich would go to Hell, so that he treated those people as damned.  With Claudel it wasn’t the rich that were his aim, because he was himself rather wealthy and all his friends were rather wealthy, but it was the intellectuals and more especially the littérateurs, the people who would, as he said, “faire de la littérature,” that is, fabricate literature.  They were the people that really made him very, very angry.  You can find that in his published works, of course.  But I was looking, for example, in the drawings that I made, how those people, Voltaire, Luther and whatnot, communed with the devils and are represented in all kinds of ridiculous positions, on triumphal carts that are dragged in by pigs, shall we say, and such things, and that wouldn’t come in my own mind.  I just don’t think in those terms, maybe because I don’t even read those people, so I can’t get mad at them.  But Claudel was extremely impatient with what people at large would have called his colleagues, that is, the other writers.  He was as impatient with them as Bloy was with the rich man.


Did you often discuss Claudel’s own work with him?


Well, not really.  We did talk, though, of that particular thing, of the fun that he had in writing.  And he himself insisted that was one of the essential parts of his work, and he said that with great relish and how the critics always tried to escape or to excuse.  So I would give him my own thing relating his comical parts, L’ours et la lune12 and so on, with Images d’Epinal, and perhaps marionette plays, and a tradition—I was at the time very desirous to bring everything I liked to a tradition in French art, in French literature.  It was easy enough, of course, to take Claudel down to the tradition of the early writers and playwrights, men like Cyrano de Bergerac, whom I knew very well in his writings.  Le pédant joué,13 for example, his comic play, is very, very close to the comic parts in Claudel.  Claudel would always insist that joy—I think you will find that in many of his pieces—that joy—he says enormous joy—is the mark of the man who has faith.  The man who has enormous joy plays, is playful.  He arranges things as games.  And in his work, I think, it is a much healthier approach to see them as games: of course, games for which he makes his own rules and rather complicated games, but nevertheless games.  And to enshrine them as something holy and falling down on earth from some Holy Spirit—I never in my life called Claudel “cher maître”; he didn’t like that anyhow—and when I see now really that he has been enshrined, of course, since his death, but even before his death by people who, the higher they put him on a pedestal, the less they can understand his work—which is in many ways, to come back to that idea, a farce; that is, something that he did having the greatest fun doing it.  If you don’t think of that, you don’t get the essence of his work.  When he died, Pierre Claudel14 was telling me that he died, we could say, joyfully.  He said, “Here I’ve had that enormous package,” speaking of death or the idea of death, “all wrapped up like a Christmas gift on my lap, and I wasn’t allowed to open it, and nowadays, now has come the moment when I can take off the ribbons and look inside.”  And he really died joyfully.


You said that in his conversation, his own conversation, he didn’t speak a kind of Parisian French.  How was his conversation?


No, I didn’t—well, Parisian French isn’t very good French, and Claudel spoke, of course, good French.  But he was attracted—and that was part of his image of himself as a peasant—by a sort of French that certain peasants of France speak nowadays, but that he found in its purest state in that little pocket in the United States of French people, French-speaking people, called the Acadians and also in the Canadians.  He really was enchanted by the way of speaking of the Acadians and the Canadians, and—I think myself, from what I have heard of the Canadians speaking French—with very good reasons, because those people have a sort of a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century way of speaking, which is not spoken of in France anymore.  And I think it is Claudel who said that if we wanted to read the classics, shall we say, Jean Racine, for example, and if he read them as a Canadian would read them, it was a much greater tie between the language, the spoken language and the written language than when an actor of the Comédie-Française reads the same lines.


You seem to have seen a lot of Claudel in the United States; in a number of magazine and newspaper articles, they speak about you arriving together at some gallery or some interview.


Well, yes we—when I was with him either in Washington or in New York, we usually went together to the places he had to go to or sometimes to the places I had to go to.  Of course, he was interested in art, and the art that he went to as ambassador and took me with him was just some sort of obligation.  I mentioned the inauguration of the Rodin Museum.  But there were shows that I wanted to see in New York, and he would come, of course, willingly with me, but it’s mostly in the museums that we had our best time of ease, I would say.  He had really a very wide knowledge of things.  There was no gallery in Washington at the time, that is, no national gallery.  There were some small galleries.  The Corcoran had really very few things that we could look at, though there were some good pieces of American art.  The Freer Gallery had just opened and had a few marvelous Chinese or Japanese things.  There was none of those great Old Masters that can be seen now in Washington.  So when he came to New York, we went to the Metropolitan Museum, and there we looked at things with great attention.  I mentioned that he used to look at the Rodins and tell me, I think with complete knowledge, not just with instinct, which parts of certain Rodins had been done by Rodin, which parts had been done by his sister Camille.15  Rodin really was a man of the old school in the sense that he didn’t pay too much attention to his own hand doing a sculpture, but he had a team of people working with him, and Camille was certainly the most gifted of those artists.  But of course, everything we looked at in the Metropolitan was some occasion for Claudel both to commune with the work and, I would say, with myself, because we both somehow ended by liking the same things.

He was very nice and came to my shows in part because he knew that the dealers would be impressed.  And he carried himself around from time to time more as the ambassador than as my friend when he knew that it was good for me.  He was a very kind man, at least a very kind man with me.  And I mentioned, well, just going to those different restaurants and so on.  I didn’t mention yesterday Agnes Meyer.16  She was quite often with us, and she helped give a little American quality to our group that otherwise would have been strictly, I would say, of French exiles.  When we were together, we really forgot the United States.  With Agnes Meyer, it was pretty difficult to forget it.  But she herself was a great expert on Chinese art.  She had written the first book on a single Chinese artist, The Art of Li Lung-mien,17 which had been published very early in the game, I think in the end of the twenties, something like that.  And she had a magnificent collection of Chinese art.


You went often with him up to Agnes Meyer’s house, didn’t you?


Yes.  It was, well, an enormous house.  She had a number of them, but one was in Mt. Kisco.  And she asked Claudel what he wanted to have, and of course, everything was on an enormous scale.  He said he would love petites marmites, which is just boiled, very close to boiled New England dinner.  And when we had it, the chef had outdone himself by following the rules of the boiled dinner, but using such extraordinary deluxe vegetables that it didn’t taste quite right.  But anyhow, everything was well done, and we could enjoy the life of a millionaire.  I mentioned before to you, if not in the talk, that she was rather proud of her hothouse, and everything there was on a grand scale, even the size of the things that grew there.  I remember a pumpkin that came on the ceiling of that hothouse out of vines.  I don’t know if they were pumpkins, but they were the size of pumpkins, and they had to be held in place by nets, so they wouldn’t fall on the head of the visitors.  She was very proud of them.  And Claudel looked up at those things and said, “O Madame, quels beaux soutiens-gorges,” “what wonderful brassieres!”


Didn’t he try to put you in contact with Duveen?18


Yes.  He didn’t try; he managed to do it.  But I think it came through the fact that he was asked to go and see the different collections in New York.  He may have done that really to please me—to please himself also, but knowing that it would please me.  At the time, collections that were given later to the public and given at the death of the owners in museums were still in private houses.  And so we would go and see those collections at the Bache19 collection, for example, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum.  He had an hotel on Fifth Avenue, and he received us there.  He was a great figure on Wall Street.  It was in the Depression, incidentally, and Duveen, who had sold him most of his Old Masters, came with us, probably a little bit to hear what remarks we would make and also to stop us from making other remarks.  But there we were, and Bache was very nice and showed us his pictures.  He had things that were a little incredible.  I think even Duveen was a little abashed when he showed us his Dürer.  It was supposedly one of the two pictures that Dürer had painted in Italy.  And he was very proud of it, and he said it was the only—Bache, not Duveen—Bache said it was the only picture by Dürer that is signed four times.  And he showed us it was signed in all the four corners and on the embroidery on the woman’s bosom.  The only bother, of course, is that it wasn’t a Dürer.  As soon as it went to the Metropolitan, it was put in storage.  But of course, we were too polite to say anything, and we admired the four signatures.

He had a Vermeer which was not a Vermeer, and there I really had to say something.  It was a portrait of a young man, and the only thing that could suggest Vermeer was some yellow on the cloak of the fellow.  It was probably French and of the early seventeenth century, and Duveen showed it with a sort of a significant gesture: “This is a Vermeer.”  And I’m sorry to say, I was younger than Claudel and less diplomatic.  I said, “He must have been very young when he painted it.”  And that also, I think, has disappeared.  It was a good French portrait of the 1630s perhaps.  There was another Vermeer that has disappeared.  I think it disappeared even in the life of Bache; probably it couldn’t go on masquerading as a Vermeer.  It was a very lovely thing of a girl reading.  The only thing: it had all of the qualities there that you expect of Vermeer, but you never find them all in one single picture.  I think that one was a fake, a very nice fake.  And Bache took us to a whole wing of his little hotel, where his daughter…she was married but he had that wing for her.  She had a small child, and there was, I remember, a little rubber head on the floor, the type of thing that if you squeeze it the tongue comes out.  And Bache said that “You know, I love my daughter, and I made that wing for her, but she and her husband, they prefer to live in an hotel.”  There was something rather wistful about his way of speaking of it.  And of course, it was the Depression;—Bache was the great authority—so there again I learned a little bit about great authorities on Wall Street.  He looked at Duveen and said, “Mr. Duveen, what (or Joe, Joe Duveen), Joe, what do you think of the Depression?”  And Duveen was a very good salesman; he had that sort of a salesman optimism.  He said, “Well, it’s not going to last.  I’m sure that very, very soon we’re going to get excellent, excellent change in Wall Street.”  And Bache really lightened up and said, “Oh, I’m so happy to hear you say that.”  We went to other private collections of the type and saw things before they were presented to the public.  And as I say, I think Claudel did it very much because he knew it would be a treat for me.


You and Claudel were really very close.  Did you ever speak together about your relationship?


No, I don’t think I did.  I think Claudel wrote me later on.  I mean as memories go, the whole thing was a nice thing.  I think once he said or wrote something that the nicest thing that had happened to him in the United States was to know me, but I can’t remember the quote or where it was.  I think it happened, though.  But it was just a friendship that was based on a sort of a nearly complete affinity.  I think he was also glad that I wasn’t interested in the éclat of his ambassadorship and understood, I think—that was the deep truth of Claudel—that he lived in one of his own plays with all those trappings without believing in them.

↑ 1

Paul Claudel (1868–1955) was a French poet, dramatist, diplomat, and devout Roman Catholic.  For artistic collaboration between Claudel and Charlot see John Charlot, “Jean Charlot as Paul Claudel’s Ixtlilxochitl,” The Journal of Intercultural Studies nos. 17 & 18 (1990–1991): 64–74.

↑ 2

Paul Claudel, foreword to Jean Charlot: Watercolors and Drawings, May 8 to 31 (New York: John Becker, 1931).

↑ 3

Frank Crowninshield, foreword to Jean Charlot: Recent Work 1930–1933: January 4–21 (New York: John Levy Galleries, 1933).

↑ 4

“Don’t bother me.  Just leave me alone.  Those things…you don’t ask for things like that.”

↑ 5

Paul Claudel, Jean Charlot, Peintres Nouveaux (Paris: Nouvelle Revue Française, 1931).

↑ 6

Life of St. Bridget, 1939, oil on canvas, two panels each 6.75 ft. × 16.5 ft., Church of St. Bridget, Peapack, New Jersey.

↑ 7

Paul Claudel, The Book of Christopher Columbus: A Lyrical Drama in Two Parts, with decorations by Jean Charlot (New Haven: Yale UP, 1930).

↑ 8

Paul Claudel, Soulier de satin; ou, Le pire n’est pas toujours sûr (1929).

↑ 9

Max Jacob (1876–1944) was a French poet, painter, writer, critic, friend of Picasso and Juan Gris, and an important figure during Cubism’s formative period.  As a poet, he played a decisive role in the direction of modern poetry in the early twentieth century.  He died while awaiting transportation to a Nazi concentration camp.

↑ 10

Most of these illustrations remain unpublished although several have been used, e.g.: Paul Claudel, Introduction à l’Apocalypse, with illustrations by Jean Charlot (Paris: Egloff, 1947).

↑ 11

Léon Bloy, Les dernières colonnes de l’Église (1903).

↑ 12

Paul Claudel, L’ours et la lune; farce pour un theâtre de marionettes (1919).

↑ 13

Cyrano de Bergerac, Le pédant joué (1654).

↑ 14

Pierre Claudel (1908–1979) was the eldest son of Paul and Reine Claudel and author of a 1965 biography of his father.  Pierre originally planned to enter the diplomatic corps, but following his 1933 marriage to Marion Cartier, he joined the Cartier business instead.  He was a close friend of Charlot and his wife.

↑ 15

Sculptor Camille Claudel (1864–1943) was Paul’s older sister.  While the tale of Camille as Rodin’s student, assistant, model, mistress, and muse, and the tragedy of her commitment to a mental institution in 1913 is often the focus of attention, in her work with marble and bronze, Camille Claudel was a major talent recognized as such in her own time, as well as today.

↑ 16

Agnes Elizabeth Ernst Meyer (1887–1970) was a journalist, writer, and philanthropist active in literary and artistic circles in Paris, New York, and Washington, D.C.  In 1910 she married international financier Eugene Meyer, who held major economic posts in the federal government between 1917 and 1933 and purchased the Washington Post in 1933.

↑ 17

Agnes E. Meyer, Chinese Painting as Reflected in the Thought and Art of Li Lung-mien, 1070–1106 (1923).

↑ 18

British art dealer Joseph Duveen (1869–1939) was one of the most influential men in the twentieth-century business of selling art.  He was knighted in 1919 for his philanthropy and praised for his role in the development of major art collections now housed in American museums.  However, many of the works he sold were later identified as forgeries, a fact to which Charlot alludes in this interview.

↑ 19

Jules Semon Bache (1861–1944) was a German-born American banker, art collector, and philanthropist, whose collection included works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian, and Valásquez.  In 1943 a portion of this collection was given to the Detroit Institute of Arts, and in 1944 the remainder was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.