Could you tell me about your parents, what you remember of them as persons? What your relationship was to them?
Well, I really don’t think it was different from any other relations of children to parents. I was just growing up, and they were doing what they could to make a good guy of me. I don’t know if they succeeded or not. There is really nothing very original to tell you about it.
But—well, let’s go on. You said in your other interview that when you went back to France this last time, you saw a lot of the things that had inspired you before, and you found that some were good and some were bad. Could you tell me which ones were which?
Well, of course, that was after an interval of about forty years, and things had changed. That is, the France I had known and more specifically the Paris I had known were not there anymore. I should say that my Paris is the Paris before the First World War. And the very tries that Malraux, I suppose, and de Gaulle made to keep everything historically correct and clean,1 cleaning up, for example, the Louvre, forbidding any change in the outside, that is, presentation of the houses in that part of Paris which was mine, that is, from the Quartier de l’Opéra to the Rue Bonaparte, those things smack a little bit of a historical reconstruction. In my day, when I was a little boy walking from the Opéra to the Rive Gauche, the things were natural, they were alive, there was no sense of trying to keep them going because they were truly alive. I think if you want to have an idea of the Paris I have known, you really have to go even a little before to the series, for example, that Pissarro made of the central part of Paris and the Tuileries and so on. It is much, much closer, even though it was done perhaps a decade before my own memory, to my own Paris and the things I saw. Of course, when I went back there, I was reminded rather uneasily of the way that they preserve Rome. That is, in Rome there are some very strict laws that nothing can be changed on the outside of the buildings, even though people live inside the palaces and so on; there is a law by which you cannot change the outside so that you have the things that are correct from a historical point of view, but history is not really alive and life lived day by day; it is already a summation, it is already artificial. And I had a very uneasy feeling that for the very reason that my Paris, the central part of Paris, looked outwardly the way I remembered it, there was something wrong. It shouldn’t have been like that. Of course, the traffic was so different that I didn’t have to worry; I knew that it was an artificial presentation, but it is an artificial presentation of something that I had loved when it was truly alive. So I wasn’t entirely happy by finding Paris as I remembered it, because I knew that it was done through means that were not simply those of having it alive in the same way that I had known it alive.
But you mentioned especially some artworks that you had liked, that had inspired you when you were young, and you went back to see them and found that some of them weren’t very good now that you looked at them a second time.
Well, I must be in a good mood this morning because I can’t remember anything that wasn’t very good. I think everything was excellent. I just got up this morning in a good humor, and my memories are all nice memories. Of course, perhaps, thinking of the contemporary art of my time, again let’s say around 1910, certain things have caved in a little bit, but I really was much closer, I think I said that already, before, much more intimate with the art of the Old Masters of the past centuries, and that, if anything, has gone better, maybe because I have grown up a little bit in the craft of painting, and just in my own life I can go perhaps a little deeper in appreciating the Old Masters, especially the things the people did in their old age. There are some changes which, of course, I could see from the outside, in a man like Titian, for example, or even we could say a man like Monet as they grow old. And now it was, in a way, my privilege, getting old in my turn, to realize better by experience, so to speak, what had happened to those people. It’s usually a sort of a broadening and simplification of things that before had been extremely complex, and when people say that they are returning to childhood in old age, it’s usually taken as a criticism, but if you don’t take it as a criticism, it is one of the best explanations of that process of simplification, and you can see that very clearly in the work of the Old Masters. What I was telling you is that certain of the modern masters seem to me somehow weaker than they used to at the time when they were sort of mysteries to me. All that comes a little later on than that earliest phase of my career when I was, we could say, an art student, but when I contacted modern art—by modern art I don’t mean the art of the Nabis, the art of Maurice Denis, and so on that came before—I had a great attachment to masters—a man like Paul Klee, for example. I would stay in really sort of ecstasies, maybe not ecstasies because it was all analytical, at the show of Paul Klee and look at everything and be delighted. And then later on, nowadays, when I look at the Paul Klee, I find it rather a little thin, desiccated, and intellectual. Even though, of course, they are charming things, I cannot put them anymore on the same basis as the great art, let’s say, of a man like Titian or even a man like Monet. Certain things also have lessened in the intensity of my response to them, and one of them, strange to say, is Rouault. When I graduated, so to speak, from Maurice Denis, the natural master in the modern language for a Catholic was Georges Rouault, and I admired, I still admire, Rouault, but not with the same intensity, perhaps for the same reason. That whole generation of modern masters has been satisfied with a certain—not superficial approach, but a hurried approach to the problems of craft and of painting, and maybe there my mural training comes into the picture. It’s very interesting that even the people who tried to use Rouault to do monumental work failed. When Rouault was asked, for example, to contribute stained glass windows to the church of Assy, I think it was, by Father Couturier,2 he didn’t consider the problem, not as much, for example, as Matisse had considered a similar problem of stained glass and the Way of the Cross for his own chapel. And it is a craftsman, we could say, who took some drawings of Rouault’s, some of those nice things done with a large brush and ink and so on, and tried to transpose, to transport those ink drawings of Rouault into stained glass. And the result, of course, is neither the original drawing nor a proper stained glass because Rouault’s art is based on a great amount of darkness and a minimum of light in the dark, and a dark window is by itself a contradiction. Perhaps that question of a sketch, which had been for me a positive quality in Rouault—that is, his refusal to do the academic work, spadework, that is needed in the complete work of art—that was a positive thing for me, when I was young—maybe I was in a hurry at the time to get there—now becomes a negative. From time to time, I wish he had remained the good, plodding a little bit, academician he was when he was very young. The things of Rouault I like best now perhaps are those he did under the influence, of all things, of Leonardo da Vinci and of Raphael, his very early things. And there is no doubt a tremendous gift as an artist in Rouault, and sometimes I wonder what he would have done if he had been born, for example, in the sixteenth century. I think he would have gone further, he would have been less satisfied with his things that are in a way sketches towards monumental things, but it just happened he never got there. So that is one of my changes of attitudes towards people. Other people have grown, perhaps further than they were when I was young. One man is Matisse. I think that the works of Matisse, now that he’s dead and his work is finished, comes with extraordinary clarity as nearly the one work by a painter of his generation that was not influenced by other ideas than ideas that are inherent to the making of paintings. And by Matisse I mean the early Matisse, so-called Fauve, and the very late Matisse, the Matisse of the cut-out papers and so on. In between, of course, he remains a good painter, but he was terribly affected by, well, we could say wealth, that is, the fact that he could live at ease and that he had a taste for old pieces of furniture and Venetian glass and all those strange pieces of stuff with design on them, Moroccan and whatnot, and he could afford the most expensive models to pose for him, either dressed up like clotheshorses or naked. Those things make a long line of decades in the life of Matisse, make of him an inferior artist as far as I am concerned. I don’t know why. I think he really was interested in money. He was…it was suggested to him by dealers that a certain kind of picture with rich furniture and naked women would sell very well in the United States. I don’t know if there was a conscious thing or unconscious thing, but he certainly was influenced by the so-called “art market.” So that whole period, maybe thirty years of his life, for me is annulled by that introduction of things that are not purely painting. But the young Matisse and the old Matisse are supreme, supreme as artists. And then, of course, I grew up, I would say, puzzled by early Cubism, Analytical Cubism, the Cubism from just a little before and just a little after 1910, and the puzzlement now is, of course, gone after forty years of knowing those things, but there remains that feeling, which is also in a sense not a feeling of a complete success on the part of the people who were the early Cubists, that Cubism could have gone further, could have done something. And again here it is strictly my own craft or from the point of view of my own craft that I speak. It was a marvelous tool for monumental art, and again here the very quick and close contact of the painters with the dealers squashed the painters into doing things that were first, portable, of course, because you can’t sell things that are not portable, and then saleable. Some of the contracts that were signed by the Cubists and the dealers are extremely revealing from that point of view. I think Rosenberg3 was the one who was making most of those contracts with the Cubists. There was a contract with Fernand Léger in which Fernand Léger was to do, I think, thirty pictures with the subject of Yale keys, and he did them. He was very happy, of course, to get the money, but Léger for me could have been a great monumental painter. And they were so distorted by that close tie with the market that when the time came for Léger to do monumental art, for example, the decoration of the large hall of the United Nations in New York, he simply gave two little watercolor sketches and said, “Well, I’ll send one of my boys, and he is going to paint them on the wall.”4 So Léger’s student went and painted those things on the wall full-scale, monumental stuff in size, anyhow, and then sent Léger a telegram saying, “I’ve finished. Come and see it.” So Léger went from Paris to New York—it was a time when I knew him then—and he went to the hall of the United Nations, and he looked at those two enormous things and he grumbled. He said to the fellow, “No, that isn’t at all what I had in mind.” So there is a lack of the old sense of the artist being a craftsman that has plagued most of that generation. And maybe that’s why I find myself more at ease with earlier centuries in which the artist was by definition a craftsman.
You, like Matisse, you really pushed your own way in art, and you are a kind of anomaly wherever you are, but do you know, has this just been instinctive with you or have you been tempted at times to go in other directions?
Well, perhaps the common denominator of all my things is mural painting. Of course, I can’t reason why it was so, but from the beginning I knew that I was a mural painter, and I went through a number of styles in art. Of course, if I start from being very young, I have, for example, my first mural-to-be, which never happened, was nevertheless done in great detail and to scale, and that was something close enough to the Post-Impressionism, let’s say, of Denis, close enough to a man like Marcel-Lenoir, which is rather difficult to describe as a stylist. Soon after that, I did a few things that you could call, well, in a Cubist language. That was still pretty early, before 1920. But of each thing, I extracted the possibilities that would allow me to do murals. Now it is really a fluke of chance that when I went to Mexico, the point wasn’t at all to take part, of course, in a movement of any kind. There was no movement of any kind when I arrived in Mexico. But nearly immediately, I was given by Vasconcelos,5 who was the Secretary of Education in the government that was still a very revolutionary government, I was given a very large wall to paint in an eighteenth-century building, a very beautiful building, and I took it for granted, that is, it seemed it was by birthright that I was given that magnificent wall. And, of course, I worked at it, and I think that first mural is very good indeed.6 It was one of the refinements in my career that to do the wall—because I was poor, I couldn’t afford expensive colors—I did it in fresco, and fresco is, of course, one of the major mural techniques, but it was done strictly because it was the most economical way of painting that very large mural, and I had very little money, and I was given very little money for it. But the thing that is curious is that having been born a mural painter, and nearly immediately at the start of my career, I was given walls.
We’ve talked now in some detail up to the point where your parents gave you some teachers, what you called post-Academic teachers. What was the next stage in your learning career? First, could you tell me, do we have any of your drawings and paintings of the post-Academic times under these teachers? You said you did, but what is the next style or the next period, if you want, that comes up in your learning?
My teachers were not post-Academic; they were definitely Academic teachers. I went to the Beaux-Arts school. There were two kinds of students at the Beaux-Arts: some had proved themselves and were in one of the studios of the major Academicians. They were definitely Academicians of the time. I think Bouguereau had just died or was fading out, and a man like Gérôme, for example, and so on and so forth. But those same Academicians would go and correct in the corridors, as they are called, of the Beaux-Arts, and I was making my drawings at the time in those corridors, and the Academicians would take turns in correcting the people who had not proved themselves and could not get into one of their studios to study. So I really learned a lot from men who by then were quite old. Some had been born in the 1830s and so on. Well, I remember mostly the Bouguereau and Gérôme people because they represented all the others, and I think there was not too much individuality you could see within them. But even so, the corrections of those people of my drawings allowed me to work under men who were mostly nineteenth-century men who had been untouched even by Impressionism and, of course, abhorred anything from Impressionism on. Post-Impressionism for them was probably something to laugh at, and Cubism for them remained unborn. I suppose they all died soon after they taught me because I remember them so very, very old. Maybe they were not, but they cultivated all kinds of fantastic long beards, white beards or would-be white beards that trailed around. It was at the time, I suppose, a badge of their being Academicians as against the, what we could call the “hippie” ways of the younger painters. But I am very grateful to them because they made alive for me a period that had been untouched by Impressionism, that was still very intense about what they called the drawing, that is, an exact sort of a drawing where everything took a certain architectural cast and certain architectural exactness. And I’ve always kept, actually, closer to those people or, if you want, what they told me at the time about drawing with that architectural flavor has remained more essential to my art than the things that I learned from the Post-Impressionists. I did some landscapes in a Post-Impressionist way, but the relation of, let’s say, shadows and sunlight and so on were never to me as important as that good, solid drawing of the Academicians. And in a way, when I came to Cubism, that is, a faceted Cubism, I recognized in it many of the things that the Academicians had taught me, that is, that tendency to become an architectural blueprint. And for the Cubists it’s, of course, because they were in reaction against the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that they considered old-fashioned. The Cubists were the last word at the time, and by so doing they rejoined, maybe without knowing it, the Academicians who had considered Impressionism and Post-Impressionism ridiculously modern. So one was just before, one was just after that period of art that took in the questions of blue shadows and yellow sunlight and so on. And even though I understood Post-Impressionism, I never was, we could say, one of them. And if I had to say what my makeup as a mural painter is, I think there is a very definite scaffolding of, well, postulates that come in equal parts from the old Academicians and from the Cubists.
Charlot is referring to legislation passed in 1962 designed to safeguard certain historical areas from real estate development. The bill was introduced to the French National Assembly by President (1958–1969) Charles de Gaulle’s (1890–1970) Minister of Culture, novelist André Malraux (1901–1976).
Father Marie-Alain Couturier, O.P. (1897–1954), credited with bringing modern art into Catholic liturgical art. He worked with Maurice Denis on the first abstract stained glass window in a Roman Catholic church. Editor (1936–1954) L’Art Sacré. The Church of Assy Charlot refers to was built in 1949 in the French Alps for tuberculosis patients in a nearby sanitarium. Father Couturier also worked closely with Matisse in the Chapel at Vence discussed in Interview #3.
Paris-born art collector, dealer, and publicist, Léonce Rosenberg (1879–1947) began his Cubist collection in 1914. When his private papers were auctioned in 1961, they were listed as The Annals of Cubism; From the Archives of Léonce Rosenberg (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, Museum Archives).
Painter and sculptor, Fernand Léger (1881–1955) designed in 1952 the twin murals in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations, New York City. They were executed by Bruce Gregory.
Mexican writer, philosopher, politician, and Secretary of Public Education (1921–1924), José Vasconcelos (1882–1959) was a highly influential figure in the development of modern Mexico. His relationship with the Mexican muralists is explored in John Charlot, “Patronage and Creative Freedom: José Vasconcelos and His Muralists.” The Spanish translation was published as “Patrocinio y libertad creativa: José Vasconcelos y sus muralistas,” Parteaguas 4 (Summer 2008): 97–105.