Third Interview, Jean Charlot, September 17, 1970, John Pierre Charlot


I would like to ask you just a few more questions about some of what we were talking about yesterday or the day before yesterday.  You once criticized Matisse, Matisse’s Way of the Cross,1 a very modern Way of the Cross, because you felt that the people who were following it would bump into each other.  In other words, you really feel that there should be a functional element in liturgical art.  Do you feel that he was wrong then to put an artistic thing in front or before the functional thing?  In other words, for his design of the Way of the Cross, he sacrificed the fact that people would follow it around the church.


My friends have reproached me quite often about what I said about that Way of the Cross, and they wanted me, in fact, to take it out of the article before it was published.  But they misunderstood in a way, that is, getting mixed up with the idea of modern art and the purpose of a Way of the Cross.  The two things have nothing at all…they don’t overlap even.  That is, the worst academic or mediocre Way of the Cross put in the position where Matisse had it would make it very difficult simply to pray in front of it according to the rules, so to speak, where you have to go a few steps at least from one Station to another and say a short prayer as you walk those few steps.  Of course, that comes from the old days when the Way of the Cross was in the open and on the road in a sort of…in the nature of the road to Calvary.  I had absolutely no intention of saying anything against the esthetic of Matisse’s Way of the Cross.  It’s, of course, one of his last things at the end of his life when he had accumulated a tremendous experience about the visual arts, and the drawings themselves are very beautiful.  Later on, that is because of the criticism that was made of what I said, I mulled and so on in my subconscious, so to speak, about those things, and then when I myself did some decorations for monastic buildings, I realized that the problem for the monastic building, which is a chapel, a small chapel, for a small group of nuns, which was Matisse’s problem, the same things do not apply that would apply in a parish church.  That is, most probably the nuns would remain in their stalls in the choir and recite, sing, whatever they do, their Way of the Cross without moving from one thing to the other.  So I was wrong myself because I didn’t realize the difference between the monastic habits and the parishioners—and those of the parishioners.  But I have a great conscience, I would say, when I do a job to do it according to the practical lines that are proposed to me.  And for example, I receive rulings, you could say, from the people who commissioned the things, and sometimes those are very strict, and I try always to follow them.  I can give some examples; for examples of things I did when I did something for a Franciscan—it’s called the Chapel, which is a monastic term; actually the size of the Chapel would be that of a cathedral more or less.  It’s a tremendously big thing.2  And the Franciscan who was in charge of coaching me, so to speak, on the job explained that they had spent nearly all of their money on magnificent stained glass windows.  They were done in chunk glass.  They were done in France; that is, they were imported windows, tremendously expensive.  I think fifteen feet high each one.  And when they asked me to decorate the back wall of the Chapel, that is more or less in the situation of The Last Judgment of Michelangelo, behind the main altar and more or less the size, just a little smaller but not much.  They asked me to do it so that people would not notice it because people were to notice those side windows.  So I prepared with great modesty, I would say, I prepared a set of colors.  I think I had a palette of only three colors, and those three colors could be described as mud colors.  There was one that was warm mud and one cool mud and one a neutral gray, and my hope was that by painting that wall, again, more or less the size of that of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, nobody would notice it.  But it didn’t work, of course, that way, and the people now don’t see the expensive stained glass windows and look at the more modestly priced Calvary, actually, which is on the back wall of the Chapel.  In another one of those coachings about the job I did again the back wall; the situation is the back wall of a Benedictine Chapel, and that Benedictine Chapel is divided in two halves.3  One of them is for the lay people, or at least those who are not monks, who can nevertheless come into the Chapel and assist to some of the ceremonies and the Mass; and the other half is the stalls of the monks and so on, out of bounds.  So that the altar there is placed in the middle of the length of the Chapel that divides into the part for lay people and the part for the monks’ community.  Now I was given very severe observations on the fact that, even though that back wall, which is a rather impressive one in size, was to be painted by myself, people should not focus on it, that they were to focus on the altar which is in the middle of the length of the Chapel.  So again there I did something which I thought could answer the question and would reflect in a way, that is, the people who would look at that back wall—which has a cross on it which is twenty-seven feet high, and I think the Corpus is twenty-four feet high, if I remember.  Their eye would be deflected from the picture to the central altar, and this time I succeeded.  That is, through the presentation of the crucifix and the orientation of the head of Christ and so on; I think it works very well.  It’s a little bit like a game of billiards: when you hit one of the bands and then you are pushed back into the center with the whole floor plan, so to speak, of the Chapel being the billiard table.  But I think that some artists would bypass or would not be interested in such unusual or eccentric desires on the part of their patrons, but all my life I made it a game, actually, to come as close as possible to the demands of the people who commissioned the work, however unusual their demands are.  And maybe that is why, to come back to the beginning, I looked at Matisse from my point of view, which was one strictly functional, but in his case I was wrong because it is a small monastic chapel or religious chapel and not a parish church.


Do you remember that you spoke the other day about subordinating some artistic effects, that rather than having an artistic effect you’d prefer to tell your story well?  Can you tell me some other examples of your doing this?  Examples that you remember.


Well I think the one you chose of the kahuna was very well chosen indeed, and I would say that the other point of view which is part of telling a story well is the question of the angles at which the wall that is decorated is seen.  Because when you think of an easel picture you just, if it is a small thing, you can hold it actually in front of you, and instinctively, naturally, you focus it, centered, so to speak, on your nose, so there is no problem of perspective involved.  You see it as flat as we can see it with our two eyes.  But in the case of a wall, of course, which is part of a building, sometimes a very large wall, because man remains at the same scale and his eyes, of course, have a natural level at which they look at things, the problem is that in most cases you have to look, for example, from down up, that is, on a diagonal that can be very steep; and in other buildings, depending on the entrance and the exit from the building, you have a diagonal vision.  That is, you enter and the wall is sometimes seen in a strong foreshortening.  Now it is the business of the mural painter to suggest, to an extent, frontal vision, that is, the normal vision that you have on an easel picture when the wall is seen either in diagonal vision or from down up or, for example, in a cupola, in a circular wall, instead of a flat wall or with strong perspective deformations all over.  Now there are two ways, of course, of doing it.  One of them is to accept those perspective deformations and feel that you are doing a little bit of modern art, if you want.  I remember that when Orozco was working on the big cupola in Guadalajara of the hospital,4 he came to visit us in New York; he was on a sort of a little vacation from his work, and he was all steeped into the pleasure of doing that big job, which remains the biggest job he did, and he was telling me that “the cupola is wonderful because even though I draw it straight, it distorts marvelously from any point of view you look at it.”  So that was an easy way and a valid way, of course, of using perspective distortions.  Another thing is, of course, to try to straighten, to keep to a minimum those perspective distortions, and that is my own approach, and I have been able to do it successfully enough so that people are not even conscious of the different devices by which I neutralize those distortions.

I think one of the most interesting jobs was in Athens in what was at the time the Journalism Building.5  It was a nearly impossible situation for a large fresco—I think it was about seventy feet long—in a very narrow corridor, and you entered it not from the center, which would have allowed at least one frontal approach, but from the sides with very strong perspective distortions.  And one side was a simple exit, that is, people passed through and exited, but from the entrance was the most normal point of view to look at that long corridor with, on the left side, that long fresco.  So I did actually architectural, artificial architectural presentations of arches that were seen on a strong sidewise effect from the entrance door.  And from the entrance door they looked, of course, three-dimensional, even though when you go through the corridor and you would stop and look at those architectural perspectives, they would look all wrong in a frontal approach.  I did the same thing with the people in it.  There is between two large panels a statue or an imitation statue painted in fresco, which is completely distorted from a frontal approach but quite correct from that side approach.  Now I do like, I do like very much those problems; they are very esoteric in a way, and in another way they allow people to look at things as if they were natural in situations that are impossible for normal vision.  I was very interested in those things because I saw it in the Old Masters perhaps; perhaps the first time I got conscious of those problems was looking at some of the early Cubist pictures.  By Cubism I usually speak of the Cubist pictures done around 1910 or so, maybe just two or three years before, two or three years after, that sort of brown Analytical Cubism, which is really the only one I truly like.  But of course, before Cubism, I had seen the Old Masters in the Louvre, and Cubism was using some of the same problems, semi-geometric problems used by the Old Masters.  You can go back to Paolo Uccello, for example, and Giotto are the two names that come to mind from which I learned things.  The mural that Paolo Uccello did with those lances was actually in a room.6  It was an actual mural that was placed in a room probably with two right angles by which those geometries of lances and horses and so on met at the right angle.  Of course, one is in London, one is in Florence, one is in Paris, and we cannot reconstruct unless we would do it with a small model of the room; we cannot reconstruct the three-dimensional effect which was the one that he was working from.  It’s one of the great examples of mural perspective that works not only on the wall itself but in space, in diagonal visions, and so on with those two right angles which formed, which placed the spectator inside the cube, so to speak.  So that is one of my greatest examples, and then another example is Giotto.  Giotto, in some of his later frescoes certainly, was in the same situation that I was in in Athens with long corridor-like chapels in which, especially given that the altar is on one side and so on, you can really never see the wall in frontal vision unless perhaps you would be the priest officiating at the altar, in which case you would have something else to do.  And he did very similar things, very similar solutions, if you want, to the problem that I found myself.  And one of the things is to enlarge the width of the elements; that is, the verticals remain unchanged, practically unchanged, but the horizontals, that is the width of an architecture, the width of a personage, has to be substantially enlarged so that it will not become over-thin when you see it from the point of view from which you look at the fresco.  I don’t remember now what your question was, but those are some of the problems that we use in mural painting, and the interesting thing is that even though the solutions are very complex and rather esoteric, the desire of the painter is to make things easy to the onlooker.


Could you give me more examples of some of the problems and devices that you’ve met and used?


Well, it’s—everything has its own problem, of course.  Well, the most complex ones—there is the one we have at the University here.  The first fresco I did here was a very interesting one because unlike other murals which start usually higher than the natural eye level, it started from the floor.7  I don’t remember very well why we decided on that, maybe because the height was not too big and we wanted to use the whole wall.  But anyhow it starts from the floor; then as the eye rises up, of course, you come to a true frontal vision that is the natural horizontal of the eye level, and then as you look up on the same bit of fresco, you go to the more usual vision from down up.  That is, you had a normal vision compared to that of looking at an easel picture on eye level.  You had a diagonal vision from up down as you looked at the lower half of the fresco, and you had a vision from down up as you looked at the upper half of the fresco.  And I worked that thing rather well, that is, when you look down you find the people that are on the ground; I remember a gravedigger for example—not a gravedigger but a digger of a hole to put the pig in—to put the pig for the imu, for cooking the pig, and that fellow is perfectly normal when you look from up down; you can put your nose nearly on the wall and look down and there he is.  Actually if you put your head down at floor level it becomes a very unusual way of drawing it.  And of course, the upper halves are the regular nearly ceiling or near ceiling effect, and that was a difficult thing because you have three completely different lines of vision.  There is a staircase in front, and I worked it out also so that the perspective is correct in its way from halfway up on the staircase.  Then later on, when we added—a few years later I think it was—the second-floor frescoes, and there are some relationships among the two frescoes that go on enlarging on that perspective.  There are two different trees that become one tree, for example, the tree trunk following as you look at it from down up.  There is a projection of the line of the balcony which is a curved line.  When you are down, you look up, and that line of the balcony is repeated in a parallel that has its role in the picture on the second-floor fresco, and so on.  I always have a good time with those architectural things, but maybe that one is the most complex example—and quite successful in the sense that people are quite unaware of the different problems that are solved.  That is, the result is natural looking, and the people don’t have to ask further questions.


One of the devices you’ve spoken of now are ones to neutralize distortion, if you want, to make things look natural.  But you do one thing in your paintings which I know Ingres does, and that is to use distortion, rather wild distortion sometimes, but to make them look natural; in other words, sort of a tour de force of doing something that is wildly unnatural and then making it look natural.  This is a little bit in the opposite direction from what you’ve been talking about now, isn’t it?


Well, Ingres is the great master of such things, and he is, in fact, my great model for such things.  If you analyze the Ingres pictures, nearly every one of them has the most amazing distortions, and yet people, unless they look for them, are not aware of them.  One of my great experiences on our trip to France, the last one, was in Autun, in the Cathedral of Autun.  Of course, we had been looking at the very beautiful Romanesque portal with its blessed and mostly damned and Christ in Majesty.  That was a tremendous esthetic experience, but as we went through the side chapels, I suddenly met the Ingres, the great Ingres which I had known only in reproduction, The Martyrdom of Saint Symphorien.  I don’t know what Symphorien would be in English, perhaps Symphorian?  And that was a tremendous experience.  I had tried to imagine the picture from the photographs.  I had studied the sketches, some of them the original sketches that are in the Fogg Museum for the picture, but still it hit me as an enormous masterpiece.  I think it was put in the Cathedral in 1840, something like that, and it is absolutely intact.  Even the canvas is still well stretched, and the color—everything is exactly the way Ingres wanted it—and it really took its place immediately as one of the great masterpieces, I would say the few great masterpieces, of mural painting.  Now it’s not a mural, it’s oil painting on canvas on a large stretcher, but it is so obviously mural in its approach.  The problems of Ingres there were close to his heart, and they are close to my heart.  He made it a sort of a pocket of architectural space.  He had gone around Autun and found the actual Roman walls that are still standing and reconstructed more or less the Roman architecture of the door to the town.  But within that architecture, he put in what in Hollywood we would call “a cast of thousands,” and every one of those people, every gesture of those people is worked out so as to help the very complex geometric composition.  The composition is both on the surface and in depth.  And I was interested in the fact that he used storytelling for the purpose of furthering his composition.  That is, the gestures—some gestures are gestures of hate, of people who have stones in their hands and want to throw them at the Saint; others are gestures of sorrow, the mother of the Saint, for example, gesturing from the top of the walls.  But all those arms, all those weapons are worked out into one single geometric composition.  And I have rarely seen such a clear expression of the fact that storytelling and great art should be one, that is, if you really wish to tell the story clearly, you have to further the complexities of your composition.  Then great art comes in not through a desire of doing great art, I don’t think any great artist ever had that desire, but through a desire of telling a story.  The color scheme in that picture is also superb; it has been done mostly with grays and browns, really the mud colors when you analyze them all.  And the color that hits you very much on purpose, very much in the plan of Ingres, as a strong vermilion red, for example, is just a red earth, a rather dull one when you isolate it, but superb as an intense red in the middle of all those other colors.  That thing is one of the great masterpieces that blend together, not only without clash, but you can’t separate them, storytelling and composition.


I’m thinking particularly of the series you had here that you were doing recently of the child being tied to the chair [1963–1964], and there are all sorts of color things you do in that, and we spoke before about the mural thing that is in depth and yet flat.  But there’s one interesting piece of distortion that particularly struck me, and that is that the back—you see the chair three-quarters, the little chair from the three-quarters, the bottom part from the three-quarters, that is you see the four feet, but then you see the back full face so that the left leg, if you want, that holds up the back doesn’t go to the leg in back, the left leg in back, but goes to the left leg in front.  In other words, you’ve completely fooled the onlooker by this distortion, which really you have to point out to people before they notice it.  Now, your answer, the one you just gave me would suggest that you do this for storytelling, that, you know, the distortion—the arrangement—is for storytelling.  But is that all, for instance, in this painting of the child being tied to the chair, is that all the motive for the distortion there?


It’s a good question, but when I speak of storytelling, I am not speaking of telling a lie.  That is, you have to tell your story; you have also to bring back, we could say, the spectator to the fact that he is looking at a flat surface on which colors have been put, as Maurice Denis said, and that thing remains perhaps his most important pronouncement, and he said it when he was nineteen or twenty years old: that is, before being a horse in the battle or a portrait of your aunt, a picture is a flat surface with colors on it in a certain order arranged.  I think those are about the words of Denis, and it’s a very important thing.  To come back to the St. Symphorien of Ingres, you don’t think that you are looking inside the Roman courtyard and that you see a fellow going to his martyrdom and good guys and bad guys gesticulating around him.  The very fact that it is in a certain order arranged makes it a different thing from fooling you.  Maybe in a movie, not always, but maybe in a movie, people will go further into storytelling so that you think you are looking at the actual thing.  But in painting it isn’t the painter’s business to fool people to that extent.  They just propose; that is, when we speak of storytelling, we really mean telling a story.  There is the storyteller telling a story, and the images can be mental images, but they are not the actual goings-on that happen in the story.  It’s a subtle point, but it’s a very important one and is the difference between the so-called realistic painter or photographic painter who—when we use the word it means he is not a very good painter—and a great storyteller, again a man like Ingres and his St. Symphorien.  So I go to, in my own work, I go to great precautions to tell a story, let’s say the Mother and Child and the relationship of both and the tenderness and all those things, but I also want to bring people back to the fact that it is storytelling, not an actual woman and child, and the natural thing there.  Of course, all those things are not conscious and analytical and separated one from the other.  But the distortion of objects, for example, reassures people that they are not seeing, let’s say, little people, little leprechauns or little menehunes, but that they are looking at a picture.  I am very interested in, speaking of realistic painters and this time of very good realistic painters, in the devices that some of the chiaroscuro school of painters in the Spanish school have been using.  Of course, Velázquez is the name that would come to mind, but I was thinking of other people more like Zurburan, for example, though it applies to both names.  Very often they have impossible accessories in their pictures that are treated in such a way that they remain purely painterly.  If you look in the martyrdoms, for example, of Zurburan at the accessories—at the knives held by the people, the scaffolds on which people are being hung and tortured and so on—you find that very much like that chair in the Mother and Child, they are impossibilities.  That is, realism is weakened on purpose to reassure the people that they are looking at something which is on a flat surface, and even though Zurburan and Maurice Denis have very little in common, you can truly use Denis’ definition: on a flat surface colors in a certain order arranged.  And I think that anybody gets too enthusiastic about telling a story starts really gesticulating and forgetting, forgetting that it has to remain an illusion.

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Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was seventy-seven years old when he began working on the architectural design, stained glass windows, interior furnishings, and murals for a small Dominican chapel in Vence, on the French Riviera known variously as the Chapel of the Rosary, Matisse Chapel, or Vence Chapel.  In Matisse’s Stations of the Cross, the fourteen traditional scenes are incorporated into a single composition on one wall.  Charlot criticized this in his “Catholic Art in America: Debits and Credits,” Liturgical Arts 27.1 (November 1958):  21–23.

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Calvary, 1958, fresco, 34 × 32 ft., St. Leonard Center, Centerville, Ohio.

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Trinity and Episodes of Benedictine Life, 1959, fresco, 21 × 29 ft., Monastic Chapel, St. Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, Kansas.

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Between 1936 and 1939, José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949) created a series of monumental murals in the Hospicio Cabañas, Jalisco, Guadalajara, including the famous Man of Fire in the cupola.

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Time Discloseth All Things, Cortez Lands in Mexico, Paratroopers Land in Sicily, 1944, fresco, 11 × 66 ft. overall, Journalism Building corridor, University of Georgia, Athens.

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Paolo Uccello, Battle of San Romano, ca. 1438–1440, egg tempera on poplar, 71.6 × 126 in., National Gallery, London.

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Relation of Man and Nature in Old Hawaii, 1949, fresco, 10 × 29 ft., first floor, Administration Building (Bachman Hall), University of Hawai‘i, Honolulu.