Twenty-Second Interview, Jean Charlot, December 7, 1970, John Pierre Charlot


Could you go over the talk you gave for the French class, please?


It was about myself and my relationship to Paul Claudel.  And when I was young, when I was in my teens, I was what people call Claudélien.  I had a great admiration for Claudel.  I had read and reread things like the Processionnal,1 and of course, the Catholic in Claudel in the Feuilles de saints,2 for example, appealed to me.  I mentioned how we were looking for Catholic artists.  By artists I meant painters at the time—Maurice Denis and so on.  And of course, Claudel as a Catholic poet helped round up the picture for me as a young fellow who was trying to express myself, meaning my Catholic angle in art.  So I was quite fluttery, I would say, at the time that I was going to Washington to correct the proofs of our work on archeology, The Temple of the Warriors, two volumes.3  I was a co-author, and because we were financed by the Carnegie Institution in Washington, we were going—Ann Morris and Earl Morris and myself—to Washington because there we had the offices of the Institution, we were close to the printer to correct the proofs, and so on.  And of course, once I was in Washington, I planned to go and visit Claudel, who was ambassador at the time.  So as the French Consul in Mexico, M. Perrier, very kindly gave me a little note for Claudel, and that was enough so that I was accepted.  Even though Claudel was a busy man, he received me in his, of course, in his office, which was a very busy office with many secretaries, and so on, and he was there, of course, as ambassador.

So the first visit that I made to him was formal, of course, and he was kind.  He was kind enough so that I told him I would bring him the next day my poems; I had brought with me my poems to show him.  So I brought him what was a very large pile of typewritten poems.  And the following visit, the third visit, he was a little cooler perhaps than he had been the first time when he had known me only as an archeologist and on my own say as an artist.  He said he had—he didn’t say he had read the poems but he had looked through them, shuffled through them, and that the ideas were very noble.  Well, of course, I realized that he didn’t like the poems.  I was remembering Mallarmé’s word to Degas.  Degas was not only a painter but also a poet, and he was as really bad a poet as he was a good painter, and one day he was complaining to Mallarmé, saying that he had started a sonnet, but he didn’t know how to finish it because he didn’t have an idea to finish the sonnet, and Mallarmé said, “You don’t make poems with ideas but with words.”  So the moment that Claudel spoke of the “noble ideas,” I know that he didn’t consider me a good poet.  Happily enough at the time he was publishing the first excerpts from his Christopher Columbus.  That was to be published in the magazine, The Forum, and they had asked him to illustrate the part in which he speaks of the Mexican gods, so he put the two together, that I was a Mexican archeologist and he was speaking of the Mexican gods, and he asked me to illustrate the Forum article.

When I read the text, it wasn’t one of the things I enjoyed most reading of Claudel because he had, of course, a superficial knowledge.  He had enjoyed the funny sounds with so many x’s and z’s, and so on, of the Náhuatl language, and had invented some names of gods of his own to follow up what he considered those funny sounds.  Of course, those gods for me were very close, not only to my archeological work, but I would say to my heart, because of that quota of Aztec in me, and I was a little unhappy that he would treat so—in such a lively way, but also superficial way, the gods of my ancestors.  I managed, I think, to represent those gods in such ways that even though it was an illustration of his, we could say nearly comedy on the gods getting frightened as Columbus approaches their shores—of course, Columbus, Christopher, the Christ-carrier, carrying the true God to the false gods—but I put in the genuine costumes, appearances, and so on, of those gods.  And Claudel realized that it was impossible for me to follow up his light vein as far as those Aztec gods and in fact as far as the Aztec language was concerned.  So even though he didn’t modify, of course, those things that have a very important contrasting quality in his play of the Columbus, I think he had a slight remorse, at least realizing that for me those things had another value than for him.  That was the beginning of our collaboration together that ended by illustrating a number of books and creating, especially, the long series, over three-hundred drawings, for the À Travers les vitraux de l’Apocalypse.

Soon after we finished correcting the proofs, I went to New York, and Claudel, from time to time, had to go to New York for his job, of course, as an ambassador.  And I lived in a studio which was on a fifth floor, and there were no elevators; that’s one reason why it was cheap, and why I could pay the rent.  It had been the studio of Miguel Covarrubias,4 the Mexican painter, on his return from Bali.  He had a show of his Bali pictures on 57th Street, where at the time all the best galleries were located, and when he left—I don’t remember where he went from there, I think back to Mexico—I took over his studio.  It was a mansarde, an attic, with those sloping walls, which made it very much a typical artist’s garret, we could say.  And when Claudel came to New York, he would visit.  He had to go up those stairs, and there was no telephone, so that he had to chance seeing me.  Sometimes I was there; sometimes I wasn’t there.  But when he came, of course, we would look together at the pictures that I was painting at the time.  It’s a time when I had a series of large, sort of heroic nudes, some of them reclining, and Claudel liked those very much.  He got nearly enthusiastic about some of them.  There was that tondo, that circular one, of a back against some white that could be curtains or sheets,5 and he baptized it Leda and the Swan.  There was no swan there, but he saw the swan with his poetic eye, I should say, and since then the name has remained for the picture.  It is Leda.  There was another one of a reclining white nude,6 and he quoted for it, Les femmes damnées of Baudelaire, and it really was a wonderful caption, we could say, for the picture.  There was the sea, there was the sail, a single sail on the sea, and the whole mood of the picture, even though, of course, I hadn’t thought about it, was an illustration on a higher plane, on a high plane, I should say, of Baudelaire’s Les femmes damnées, and so on.  So in a way we communed together around that theme of my pictures.  And when Pierre Claudel married Marion, Marion chose one of the pictures, one of that series of the nudes as her marriage gift from Claudel.  It was a nude on which there was a very strong light on the belly, something that was unusual certainly as a marriage gift, but she had a strong, she still has a strong taste about things, and that same picture was used as an illustration for the Prakriti of Claudel, in which he is in a sort of Hindu mood and writes about Mother Earth and the earthiness of Mother Earth.

Claudel, when he was in New York, lived for a while at the Ritz Tower.  He wasn’t entirely free of choosing his own hotels.  He found, for example, that—later on, that the Ritz Tower, there was much money involved in there of people with whom France was not friendly, and he had to leave the hotel, much as he liked it.  But anyhow, when he was there, he lived in a sort of penthouse, which I think was the most luxurious place, quite high up, and he was always uneasy in case the elevators would stop.  He always thought in terms of the possible catastrophe.  And he would go up, and if I wasn’t in the studio, would leave me a little note saying, “Come and see me tomorrow, such and such a time.”  And of course, I would arrive at the Ritz Hotel at the time set, and I went to the desk, and the fellow at the desk was usually very haughty because I certainly didn’t look like one of the regulars of the Ritz Tower and answered that M. l’Ambassadeur was not at home, something like that.  So I would say, “Well, I have a date with him, and he expects me.”  And I waited a half an hour or so, then I would ask again, and he would at least make the gesture of sending a bellboy, and the bellboy would come back and would say that nobody answered.  So I would say, “Please rap on the door rather strongly, because M. l’Ambassadeur is very deaf.”  And so on.  And an hour later, Claudel would come down, and he was a little angry with me.  He said, “I have been waiting for you for an hour and a half and what happened?”  And I said, “Well, they didn’t let me in,” and so on.

We had always difficulties meeting, either with my studio without a phone or the Ritz Tower with the ill-will of the desk people and the bellboys.  But when we got together it was very nice, as a rule.  He knew that at times I was hungry—I didn’t have much money—so that he would take me to restaurants, the nicest ones, and we both felt somehow when we were together as if we were exiles.  I don’t know why the sense of France came back to us so strongly.  And I was mentioning one of the menus that we had which was a typical, I would say, “exile” fare, thinking of the patria, the mother country: we started with oysters, and after the oysters we had snails.  And of course, the maître de, who was always at hand when Claudel ate in a restaurant, was a little surprised but, of course, tried not to show it.

And we would, of course, go to the museums.  We would go to the Metropolitan Museum, which at the time had one of the nicest collections available in the United States.  There was no national museum in Washington.  And there we had that same sense of the exile.  We would go to French paintings and especially some of the very lovely French primitives that are there.  A fellow called Bellegambe,7 who is a remarkable colorist, would entrance us both by his color and by something naïve, something nearly Douanier Rousseau8 in his pictures.  I remember one in which there are some Carthusian monks which are dressed in white, and the relation of the pale skin and the blue top of the head shaved as it is, and the white of the cowl is something wonderful; and then in the background, a stranger idea of perhaps the heavenly Jerusalem, where there are some angels pushing little babies in prams and so on; all kinds of things that pleased us no end.

Sometimes on our art forays, José Maria Sert would come with us.  He was a man with a great reputation as a muralist; of course, not in the Mexican style, and he was at the time more or less in contact with the Rockefellers.  Eventually when Diego Rivera’s murals were destroyed rather roughly, rudely destroyed in Rockefeller Center, the commission of painting something more amenable came to José Maria Sert.  He was a very wonderful conversationist like most of the successful artists of his generation, and he would tell about having worked as a young man with a teacher who had pictures in all the great museums of the world because he was the best faker, the best faker of his generation.  And Sert admitted that he had learned from him to do those great machines, those great constructions in the style which superficially at least looks like a work of genius.  He said, “My teacher could do everything.  There’s only one thing he couldn’t do, and that is the whites of Titian.”  Sert was a great connoisseur, and I think between him and Claudel and myself, we had some good times analyzing the pictures.  Especially the Vermeers, I remember, were something where we could look forever and find forever new things to admire.  There was something which was symbolical in some way of the New Testament that had just arrived at the museum and had been dismissed by the critic—it was Edward Algin Jewell,9 I think, at the time—even though it was a genuine Vermeer, as being inferior.  Or Jewell said so because it was in warm tones instead of the cool tones as Vermeer should have.  Well, of course, the criticism didn’t faze us, and Claudel was enthusiastic about the meaning of the picture carried through form.  He said it was an apotheosis of the sphere, and so in the center, hanging from the ceiling, there is actually a crystal ball that reflects things around.  And then he would say that the eyeballs of the woman represent the New Testament’s role towards that ball that reflects the world.  She has a hand on her breast, which of course, is another globe, and she has her foot on a mappa mundi, a representation of the earth, and so on.  He could go on finding more globes and more spheres in there, and it became, of course, a poem by Claudel that had a life of its own besides an explanation of the picture.  I don’t know if he ever wrote that thing.  He probably did, but it is not in his little book on Dutch paintings, where I would have expected—Dutch and Flemish painting—where I would have expected to find it.10

↑ 1

Paul Claudel, Cinq grandes odes (1910).

↑ 2

Paul Claudel, Feuilles de saints (1925).

↑ 3

Earl H. Morris, Jean Charlot, and Ann Axtell Morris, The Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, 2 vol., publication no. 406 (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1931).

↑ 4

Painter and caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias (1904–1957) also produced a highly acclaimed ethnographic study, Indian Art of Mexico and Central America (1957), which Charlot reviewed in 1958.  See “The Indian Beneath the Skin,” in Art News 57 (May 1958): 43, 55.

↑ 5

Nude, Back, Tondo, 1933, oil on canvas, 30 × 30 in., checklist number 270.

↑ 6

Possibly Nude, White, Prismatic, 1931, oil on canvas, 36 × 28 in., checklist number 269.

↑ 7

Jean Bellegambe (ca. 1470–1535 or 1536).

↑ 8

Henri (“Le Douanier”) Rousseau (1844–1910).

↑ 9

Charlot means Edward Alden Jewell (1888–1947), a novelist and prominent art critic for The New York Times.

↑ 10

Paul Claudel, Introduction à la peinture hollandaise (1935).