You said that Claudel had a very visual imagination. This must have come into play a lot in making up the Apocalypse book.
Well, you’ve seen some of the sketches that he did. Of course, he wasn’t a trained painter or draftsman, but he had a very strong idea of, for example, relationship in size between the different people. With the Apocalypse, most of it was John, John the Evangelist at the end of his life, and people around him, and also angels, and the vision of God, and all those things—and he is the one who decided on the relative scale of those different people. There is one of the drawings, is John as a very old man being carried on the shoulders, more or less, of his young retainers, shall we say, at the time that he would always just repeat himself and say, “Love each other, love each other, my little children,” and so on. And that was entirely his own idea, that is, of the fellow who had shrunk physically and whose mind had concentrated on just one thing, one phrase. Of course, some of the text sometimes is taken from Apocrypha or transformed by Claudel’s imagination, but it always comes out in images. I was telling you about some of the mystics that I read and that I liked because their visions were in images. And when Claudel imagined, I don’t think we could say that they were visions, but when he imagined things, he imagined them in images, and images, of course, can be translated into paintings or in the case of the illustrations into drawings. Those few sketches that he has made, even though they are difficult to read unless you knew the verbal explanation that came with them, I think are very intense as drawings by a visionary. Now, of course, a man like Blake, like William Blake, had a great experience of draftsmanship, could put his vision so that the language could carry and people could see the visions by looking at his drawings. But in the case of Claudel, because he wasn’t trained, because he was drawing like, let’s say, a four-year-old, only the accompaniment to what he said could help one understand the drawings; and because I’ve heard him tell about those drawings, when I look at the drawings, I see what he saw. There is one that is especially, I would say, featureless, and it’s his own theory: The Birth of Eve. And the idea was a little different from the usual one of Eve coming out of the rib of Adam, but he had a mixture, a get-together of the tree—somehow the tree of the earthly paradise, I suppose, and Adam was a part of the tree. Of course, there was a double image—superposition with the idea of the Cross, but not in a suffering way, simply the relation of man and tree trunk; and Eve was coming from Adam as a fruit hanging from the branch of the tree. Now, of course, that is just a little sketch that is meaningless unless you know what Claudel said as he sketched it. But for me it was interesting because I could add my experience of draftsmanship to his vision, and all through the Apocalypse, the thing is a collaboration, not just a littérateur saying something to a draftsman, but a man who, if he had had the experience, could have done the drawings himself. It’s what I was saying that those drawings are not mine in a sense because I was acting nearly as a medium with the spirit of Claudel passing through me. And they are not automatic writing, but they are something similar. It is the spirit of Claudel translated into my own mind. And maybe sometime, somewhere, somebody will come who will realize that those things can be analyzed as an important work of Claudel—which incidentally is nearly independent from the text that it is said to illustrate, because the text remains much more intellectual and less, we could say, corporized, less embodied into form and color, and so on—and the drawings are complementary, not a repetition of what the text said. Incidentally, I was just looking through some bibliography of Claudel, and the text that I illustrated, “À travers les vitraux de l’Apocalypse,” is another text than the one that was published later on. The later one, as I remember, is much shorter and the “À travers les vitraux,” at least the integral text, has never been published.
Did you work in a similar way on the Christopher Columbus?
No, I didn’t know Claudel as well when I did the Columbus. It was the first thing we did, and I started really my job of illustrating. Of course, the first thing he asked me he could not visualize, and that was the Mexican gods. And the Mexican gods, of course, I knew very well because of my part in archeological research, and so on. So there he was expecting me to embody the personages that he had in the Columbus; he had enjoyed the names of the gods in Náhuatl. He had sort of made fun of them, and I think in the drawings, even though I followed his first ideas, I nevertheless made him acquire a little more respect for those gods than he had when he started, when they were just gods with funny names, false gods with funny names. However, as we went on on the Columbus itself, there was more and more the introduction of ideas of Claudel. Some of my drawings he rejected—it isn’t what he wanted or what he visualized—so it is in a way collaboration, but I think in no way the creation, we could say, that the drawings for the Apocalypse were. It’s still in the Columbus the writer and the illustrator. I think in the Apocalypse, it would be very difficult—I couldn’t myself say what part I had or what part he had in the final result.
Did you get the job doing the Columbus book through the first illustrations of the gods?
Yes, that’s the way it started. I think the first text published of the—out of the Christopher Columbus—was published in The Forum, I think in 1929, and that was strictly around the Mexican gods, who are just scanning the sea and seeing the approach of the ship of Columbus. And it interested me because it’s the other way that I saw the story, you could say, of the Americas. That is, in the same way that you can say that the Mayflower in arriving is the end of the Americas as for the North, the coming of the ship of Columbus for me is pretty much the end of the culture of South America, so that what was the end for me was the beginning for Claudel. But I think the drawings that I made that were published first in The Forum, in the magazine monthly, The Forum, still show, of course, that I knew those gods. I had more of an acquaintance with those gods than Claudel had. That was the first thing we did for the Columbus.
Were those drawings in the book later or were they ones that you did outside of the book?
Well, those I had done for the magazine were for the format of the magazine and those I did for the book were the format of the book. For example, on the cover of the English edition, the Yale edition, of the Columbus, there is a long vertical column of Mexican gods on one side, which of course, is not the same that I could use in the magazine. So there are similarities, but they are not the same drawings.
What did Claudel think of the Columbus drawings?
I am sure he liked them very much when they came. And then later on when we were, or he was going to put on the stage the Columbus in Paris—Jean-Louis Barrault1 was in charge—they decided to use the drawings as a base for the costumes wherever possible, for the sets, and the action, and even the basic colors for the costumes. I have the letter of Jean-Louis Barrault asking me how I want my name on the program and so on, and telling me of his admiration for my drawings. It was a little bit of, I would say, a surprise at the end when the whole thing was put on the stage along the same lines as far as I know without any mention of myself. And there is a whole little book by Barrault on staging the Columbus in which I am not even mentioned. So I keep carefully his letter in case people would say I am boasting when I say that I had something to do with the staging of the Columbus.
The drawings for Christopher Columbus are really most remarkable things and unusual for the time. What sort of reactions did you get from people when it was published?
Well, I don’t know from people. I don’t think that, I can’t remember anything about that, but I had a very good time in putting together the layout of the book. I was given absolute freedom to make the layout of the book as I wanted, and I had a young man from the press at Yale who came and followed every one of my indications, even as to the typeset, and every page was a layout by myself. And the result, I think, is part of the charm of the book, that it is done by somebody who is not a professional book man. And the old gentleman who was in charge of the press at Yale was very pleased and always spoke of our collaboration as something that he remembered happily.2 At the end of his life, I went and visited with him. He was completely blind by then, but we still spoke of that thing, even though it was so long before, and blind as he was, he autographed one of his books for me, and that was a very nice relationship there that was born out of that Columbus book.
How about your collaboration with the Picture Book?3
Well, the Picture Book was different because in a sense I was the, shall I say, the mastermind of the Picture Book. The problem was really a problem there of the lithographs, the color lithographs and how to print them, and how to make a book that would be as the title says, a picture book. So what I did was make some proofs of the lithographs before we had the text. Originally I was thinking of writing a text myself, and then when I changed my mind, I just sent Claudel some proofs of the lithographs as we were doing them, and he would send me back—usually on little bits of paper which I probably still have somewhere around, in fact surely somewhere around, but I couldn’t find them when I was looking for them—some short sentences about each drawing. I think he sort of enjoyed doing that, and our most difficult thing was what to call those little lines or phrases of his. I think he was still in the mood of his Japanese Cent phrases pour éventails,4 which are neither prose nor poetry, really, sort of little haikus in the Japanese mood. And eventually we tried different things, captions and so on. It isn’t what we wanted. And then one day, he wrote me and said the proper thing would be to call them “inscriptions.” He was thinking, I think, in terms of those inscriptions on the pedestals of statues that you find in Greece or in Rome, and it was a very well-chosen word. So that he wrote those inscriptions for the pictures; some of them are very charming, some of them are simply a repeat of the title. When he didn’t want to go too far into it—something like the Sacrifice of Isaac, for example, he, I would say, refused to write about it because he could have written too much, so it is just Sacrifice of Isaac, and so on. But for the other things, he did very nice things. For the Guitar Player, he did something that I like very much: “Son pied écoute sa main.” And even though in the book we give the name of a translator, most of the translations into English were done by Claudel. Only they had to—some of them he hadn’t done, so we were glad to add somebody as a translator. But nevertheless at the time, he was working both with English and French, and it’s very hard to know which way the original was thought out, in English or in French. I was looking in that book of the collected poems of Claudel, of the Pléiade,5 and I was surprised that the inscriptions for Picture Book are not in there. They certainly belong in his poetic works. The closest things to them are the Phrases for Japanese Fans, for example, that are included in the poems. And I don’t know why the omission.
There was somebody who wrote a review of the Picture Book, saying he preferred your inscriptions to Claudel’s, and he didn’t like the translations at all.
Well, I don’t remember that, and I think you get it mixed up with your own feelings, because my own inscriptions were never published, and I wouldn’t have called them inscriptions. But that some people didn’t like some of the things of Claudel at all is quite possible. In fact, he is in a halo of glory now, but for a long part of his life, he had to suffer the attacks of critics, indeed, so that wouldn’t be surprising.
When was the last time you saw Claudel?
Well, I really don’t know. Physically, probably when he left the United States and started for his new job in Belgium, I think it was. But we went on, of course, corresponding to the end of his life.
Tell me about your later correspondence with him, your later relationship with him after he left America.
Well, there is really nothing but just sort of a friendship going on, and he would autograph some of the books he was publishing and send them to me, and so on and so forth. I would tell him what I was doing; there was really nothing very unusual. The only thing was a beginning of ideas about how to publish that big work, those 350 drawings, I think, on the Apocalypse. And we had a number of ideas, but none of them came to pass. Maybe that will be for another generation.
But the La Salette6 and the Prakriti7 were published, weren’t they?
Well, the Prakriti, that is what you refer to, is something entirely different. That was an easel picture that I made.8 I had made a series of nudes, and Claudel was very interested in them. And when Marion Cartier married Pierre Claudel, I think it was Paul Claudel who told Marion to choose one of my pictures as a marriage gift, and she chose that particular picture, which could be embarrassing for somebody with less high ideals than the whole family had—a woman is half-reclining, and it is really the portrait of her belly in a very strong light. That is the picture that Marion chose, and that is the picture that Claudel chose to illustrate that picture, what we could call Mother Earth in the Prakriti book. So that comes out of an easel picture that I did, and Claudel saw a relationship with his own ideas about Mother India, Mother Earth, and so on. What was your other question?
The La Salette?
The La Salette is taken out, physically out of the series of the Apocalypse. It is, up to now, anyhow, the only part of the drawings of the Apocalypse that has been published, and I think that that is an integral part also of the manuscript of “À travers les vitraux,” the original book on the Apocalypse.
Did you know Mrs. Claudel, too?
Yes, and she was a charming woman.
Tell me the story about her saying “Idées à la Charlot.”
Well, she didn’t see with too much happiness, of course, the introduction of what we would call now a hippie in the circles of Washington where Claudel was working and in a way living, but she was very charitable, very pleasant. It’s obvious that she would have liked me to dress a little better. She’d have liked my shirts to be ironed and so on and so forth. But she bore under the burden very well. Only for a while at least that collaboration that I spoke of between Claudel and myself became something obvious, and when Claudel would say something that she didn’t approve of, she would always say, “Oh, you got that from Charlot.”
How about your relations with Pierre? You have known him since he was quite young, haven’t you?
Yes, but of course, that was the next generation. The friendship was with Paul and, well, I think even now I think of Pierre as the son of my friend. And of course, he is a friend, too, but it is the next generation really. I’m really grateful to Pierre for the way he has kept the respect of his father’s work and his seeing to its integral publication and his lectures and so on on his father, and he has been kind enough to do some things for me. One of them was writing a very interesting, I think rather important, appreciation of my work that was to be published in Liturgical Arts. I don’t remember exactly why Maurice Lavanoux9had asked Pierre Claudel to write about me. I have the text somewhere but when he gave it to Maurice Lavanoux, Lavanoux told Pierre that that isn’t what he had in mind and that he wouldn’t publish it, so Pierre gave me the text. I was rather astonished that Maurice would refuse publication to a Claudel.
You have some relationship with Pierre now as the editor of his father’s work?
Well, not really, no. From time to time, Pierre sends me something that he thinks is of interest, and of course, I await the publication of the Apocalypse. But I would say we just have a nice friendship and also with the rest of the family. The girls are married, and the grandchildren, whatnot, people scattered over the world. And it’s a friendship, I would say, with the Family Claudel now.
You were very close to Marion, weren’t you?
Well, “very close” is a little exaggerated, but before she knew Pierre, she had been my student. She was a student at the Cane School,10 which was in Rockefeller Center, and then later on I gave her some private lessons. The private lessons was a rather unusual situation because there were some empty rooms over the Cartier jewelry business on Fifth Avenue, so that is where she painted. She had her studio up there while the jewelers were selling their diamonds on the ground floor, and that is where I gave her those private lessons. She was very gifted indeed. She had a strong temperament and a strong originality, and I did like what she did. And then when I married, Zohmah and so on made friends with Marion to the point that Marion, for example, painted the double portrait of us. I’m sorry that we left somewhere in our travels that picture, somewhere. We can’t find it, but that double portrait of Zohmah and myself is something I would like to have now. So I knew Marion, I knew Pierre, and when they got together, of course, we knew both of them.
Was she one of your best students, Marion?
Well, she was one of the most original. I don’t think that her career was shaped to be that of a professional artist, and I’ve had other students who were original, but perhaps because they were born in different circumstances, they would become or they could become professionals, and I could follow them a little further than I could follow Marion. She escaped, so to speak, in amateurism because she had so many other things to do in life as a, shall I say, socialite.
You knew her parents, didn’t you?
Yes, of course. Pierre Cartier was the head of the jeweler firm. I think he had been alerted by Paul Claudel to myself and would come to my little studio. He had to climb those five floors to get to my studio and look at pictures, and I think bought one, but I don’t remember if it was for the Claudels or for the Cartiers, but he did buy a very nice one of newsboys, a first version of those Mexican newsboys, which was, I think, very well chosen. And later on, of course, I saw him when I went to give classes to Marion. And one day when I was very poor, I had tried to sell him one of the remaining jewels that my mother had left me. That wasn’t a success because he always had in his left eye that magnifying glass that the jewelers have, and he looked at that thing, and he said, “Well, I can give you forty dollars for it,” which I thought was a little meager, and so did the man who was with him as a further appraiser, who said, “I think perhaps fifty dollars, M. Cartier.” So, I never, of course, used him again as a professional appraiser or jeweler. But otherwise we had a nice relationship.
You once told me a story about his coming to Marion’s wedding in a pink shirt.
Jean-Louis Barrault (1910–1994) was a pre-eminent actor, director, and theater manager. His 1953 production of Claudel’s Christophe Colomb was hailed as one of the most important theatrical events of the time.
Carl Purington Rollins (1880–1960) became head of the manufacturing department of Yale University Press in 1918. Over the next thirty years, Rollins’ designs and typography set standards for university presses throughout the United States.
Jean Charlot, Picture Book: Thirty-Two Original Lithographs, inscriptions Paul Claudel, trans. Elise Cavanna (New York: Becker, 1933).
Paul Claudel, Cent phrases pour éventails (1927).
Paul Claudel, Œuvre poétique (1967).
Paul Claudel, Les révélations de La Salette, illus. Jean Charlot (Paris: Table Ronde, 1946).
Paul Claudel, La légende de Prakriti, with original Charlot lithograph inserted as frontispiece (Paris: Gallimard, 1934). Prakriti: Nude, color lithograph, Morse number 208.
Nude, strong chiaroscuro (Prakriti), 1932, oil on canvas, 36 × 28 in., checklist number 295.
Maurice Lavanoux (1894–1972) was long-time editor of Liturgical Arts (1931–1972), a national journal that promoted art created for Roman Catholic cultural and sacred spaces.
Florence Cane (1882–1952) used psychoanalytical theory to spark creativity and individualism in students. She is remembered today for introducing the “scribble” technique into school art programs for children.