Ninth Interview, Jean Charlot, October 7, 1970, John Pierre Charlot


You were in this La Gilde.  What kind of religion did most of the young people have in that group?


Well, we were all Catholics, of course, but we had intentions of reforming maybe not the Church, I don’t think we were thinking in terms of anything pragmatic or that high up, but in cleaning up the devotional attitudes of the people.  And nowadays it sounds a little on the wrong track, but our idea was, for example, to be able to read our missal in Latin, which we considered quite superior to the vernacular, so that we would be able to follow the Mass—of course, the old-fashioned Mass with the priest turning his back to the people—as it proceeded at the altar, and meditating at the same time that we followed the Mass and in complete silence.  The idea of singing at Mass, especially singing things that would not be the liturgical texts that were being used by the priests, seemed to us an absolutely sinful thing against all the rules of good devotion.  I must say that in those days, of course, the singing at Mass, especially in the rich parishes and so on, sounded very much like opera, and people turned—I remember them turning from the altar to watch the balcony where the singer was singing to see better the singer.  There was something certainly mundane about the whole thing, but even though those things happened when I was in my teens, I’ve had a very hard time adjusting to the trends that happened when I was in my seventies that were exactly against the trends that we had worked so hard for.  So it gave me a sort of philosophy, I would say, that the important thing is not what you fight for, but maybe the effort, the sincerity, the good will, and a sort of heroism with which you fight for what you think is a good fight.  Now in our fight as the Gilde Notre-Dame, thinking of it later on, over fifty years later on, I see that we were absolutely defeated and that the ideals of our day have been, we should say perhaps, superseded so thoroughly that it seems now that the effort was in vain, but I don’t think that it was.  I remember forcing myself to do things that were on the brink, on the verge of that heroism.  For example, I was going to the Beaux-Arts, and I was working at the Beaux-Arts as a student, and then I would stay outside the exit door and distribute my little religious tracts to the students, who were most astonished when they read the contents.  One of them said, “I thought it was an ad for something against syphilis,” which was what would happen more probably at the door of the Beaux-Arts School.  It was hard for me.  I never was a fellow who liked really action, especially public action in terms of religion.  So I braced myself to do things I wouldn’t have done otherwise.  And I still think that there is something in that idea of silence as being linked to prayer.  At least I have never been able to shake it off, and nowadays as I go to the Sunday Mass and go through a continuous gymnastic in the reform devotions, going up and down and trying to sing and trying to read the missal in a loud voice and so on, it goes against the grain of my own training, which was naturally silence and a sort of meditation.  But the one very positive thing that remains—the fruit of that Gilde Notre-Dame: that we were all young people in their teens and we were all working with a great enthusiasm for what we thought was the best for the Church in the world.  A number of us disappeared in nunneries; I remember some of the girls who became nuns.  Others had, I think, a good balance between staying in the world, having their own vocations, and remaining rather intense in a sort of personalized devotion that we had learned with the Gilde.  We would get together when we could, I think twice a month; we had some very interesting speakers that we managed to get.  Maurice Denis was one of them, and we had some of the priests of the time who were in accord with our own ideas of devotion, and it was a good training.  The quality of, well, worldly vocation, of professions that we had, were all around art and mostly the visual arts.  It’s from that time that I get that sort of dislike for the word artist and that I prefer the word artisan because each one of us was thinking of art in terms of specific crafts.  Perhaps the person I was closest to was Marguerite Huré.1  When we were so young, her intention was to become a stained-glass maker, and she had done already some little fragments of stained glass; later on she did some great works for the medieval cathedrals, not only repairing glass, but doing some windows on her own.  She was beautifully gifted as an artist within that particular limitation of the craft, and to see her even at that time cutting the glass with the diamond and curving the lead for the leading of the windows, all those things were a very nice illustration of art as artisanship.

And at the same time, I was, for example, carving wood, doing wood sculpture, direct carving, and I had my mallet and chisel and so on, different knives.  I was doing that in St. Mandé, in the backyard of our house, and the neighbors complained a little bit of the noise.  So I remember that I had to wrap up my mallet in cloth so that the noise wouldn’t be such as to annoy the people; it made it a little more difficult, but I would really work far into the night with that idea that I was an artisan.  The dreams, I would say, that I had at the time were very young.  I remember that my idea was when I would be very old, when I would be around sixty, I would retire from the world and have a little shop for wood carving between the buttresses at the back of the chevet of one of the cathedrals.  It was one of my ideals of the time.  Well, of course, those things are not to be realized later on as one gets into a more adult point of view, but nevertheless they color the life and the vocation of a man.  I don’t think it was all idleness.  I did also at the time some designs for weaving cloth for liturgical clothing.  I still have the drawings, and some day perhaps we can translate them into the woven cloth for which they were made. I think they would be very beautiful.

Now, we would get together and try to have shows of our own, the Gilde Notre-Dame, and we presented our things to shows, for example, the Show of Decorative Arts, that was in the Louvre in the wing of the Pavillon de Marsan, and I did get some sort of prizes there for the woven stuff, I think, and also one for a Way of the Cross in woodcut.2  Now, the one for the Way of the Cross in woodcut—they were really wood, large planks, rather large planks for woodcuts, and I had started that before my military service, and of course, it is fourteen stations, and it was a longish thing to do, and some of the wood that I used was some pear wood, very fine grain, that I found in Germany in the occupation of the Rhine.  But what I was doing then, I wouldn’t have described myself as a painter because I preferred the artisan angle and working on direct carving, working on woodcuts, which was the same thing with the same tools than the carving, and of course, the idea of weaving the designs for the liturgical cloth, those things were all tied up to manual labor.  And all through my life, that idea of manual labor being an integral part of the arts has been one of my major, I would say, acts of faith.

I was interested in fresco even before I painted a fresco because I realized the many stages through which the work had to go through, many of them technical and manual stages, manipulations if you want, before it became a work of art, before it became a painting.  And I had an innate distaste for oil painting because of the quality that everybody praises oil for, that is, the facility with which it can be done and undone.  I was looking for something that would be permanent, where the changes and corrections would be nearly impossible.  And later on in life I found that fresco suited me just right from that point of view; also the sense of being very close to the material itself.  I think I had picked out of a book on, not theology, but something of that type anyhow, the idea—and also out of Maurice Denis; I should give him his share in those thoughts—the idea of the natural quality of the material and the respect with which the would-be artist has to treat his material.  It was the material itself, let’s say the wood or the stone if you carve in stone, or the glass if you do stained windows, and so on, has in itself a perfection of its own.  It has certain natural qualities that should not be disturbed.  One should collaborate with the material, and that has remained all through my life.  I would say that the respect with which I treat the different coats of mortar that make the fresco is probably one of the reasons why the wall has a not only permanent look, but a permanent actual quality, and the changes, the chemical changes, in the wall from mortar to marble are done in such a way that I haven’t—I feel that I haven’t—hurt the material, the natural qualities of the material.  So those things that I had when I was very young have remained with me all my life.

Now, I had also a sort of a first knowledge of the world as it is, that is, in its imperfection.  When we did that Gilde Notre-Dame, we were approached by emissaries of another guild, which was the St. John’s Guild.  The Gilde St. Jean, I think was the name, and that was, Maurice Denis was its star artist, and they had better channels than we had, certainly, to get commissions from the Church, but nevertheless they saw us as a possible rival, maybe I shouldn’t be catty and say in liturgical commissions, but it came pretty much to that.  And so the two groups that should have worked together, because both were in very good faith and both were made up of very religious people, artists by craft, there was a friction, and there was a certain desire to really annul us or simply force us to join with the Gilde St. Jean.  So we learned a little bit there about the politics of the world, which came to us as a surprise.  The other people were older people, in their thirties, some of them as old as their forties.  Maurice Denis was in his forties then, and we learned that everything wasn’t simply the relation of people to God, but man to man is a much more difficult relation in a way than man to God.  It’s so full of frictions.


Were you one of the founders of the Gilde?  How did you get together with those particular people?  Why didn’t you just join the St. John’s Guild?


Well, the St. John’s Guild was a very arrived guild of people, as I said, who had commissions from the Church, and some of the commissions had been done beautifully, in sculpture, sort of monumental sculpture, in murals, a time when Maurice Denis had done, for example, the chapel in the Vésinet,3 and for us, young as we were, those things seemed accomplishments of mature people that we could not duplicate, so it’s really with a sense of humility, not at all a sense of rivalry, that we had founded our own guild.  Now how we got together, I don’t know, but there may have been half a dozen people, and then, I would say the Church, which is a vague way of saying it, but people in the Church saw a possibility of, well, using us, using us, of course, for a good purpose.  So there is an order, the name I forgot, of women that at the time went around.  They were nuns, but they didn’t have the habit, and they went around and were in charge of—I was going to say desperate cases, but that isn’t—but difficult cases, and one of those nuns was assigned to us and whipped us into cohesion, made us, for example, write the constitutions of the guild.  And then a very nice priest, he was a Jesuit incidentally, was assigned to us as our chaplain and our spiritual director.  And we were very happy to have the help, of course, of the Church, and all that gave form and figure to what would have been simply a group of artisans if we had not been helped from outside.  However, the other party, shall we say, the Gilde St. Jean, was not too happy at seeing us coming in.

It has been in a way the fate of Maurice Denis, now that I can think of it in retrospect, to be a wonderful guy who would start something and he would start it fresh and sometimes with a real revolutionary novelty in his ideas, but the things he started in five or six years faded so quickly because some other people, or younger people, or bolder people would come in and do something, well, that superseded, as I said, the things that Denis did, and I am afraid that the Gilde St. Jean was something of that type.  Maurice Denis went into large mural painting.  I remember that the first very large thing that I saw of his was for a church in Switzerland—St. Paul in Geneva—and though I was in awe of Denis as an arrived master and an excellent master painter, when those murals that had been painted, I think, on canvas, were shown in Paris, unrolled and put in a sort of a mock architecture to show the effect they would have in Switzerland, I remained dissatisfied with the work as mural.  It seemed to me an absurd thing, I would say, to do murals on a material that could be rolled up and unrolled and so on.  And I must say also that the percentage of Impressionism, of Post-Impressionism, if you want, that remained in Denis’ paintings bothered me.  It didn’t seem to me proper for mural painting.  The main picture was St. Paul, I think on a boat in the tempest or some such things, and it was full of the fury of the waves and the fury of the wind and Paul preaching in the middle of the boat, and the language used, which of course, was the proper language for Denis, made me realize that even though I admired him, I wasn’t at all along his lines when it came to mural painting.  As I said, at the time I found a more solid anchor into Cubism, even though Cubism had nothing to show as mural painting.  I felt that the secret virtues, if you want, of Cubism were closer to my own idea of murals.


Maurice Denis apparently didn’t share the jealousy of the St. John’s Guild because he did come and speak to your guild, didn’t he?


Well, there was no jealousy proper.  I think there were some people behind the artists in the St. John Guild who were practical, who were desirous to get Church commissions, and saw us as possible rivals.  In that case, they were quite wrong, because we never got a single paid commission from the Church.  I say paid commission because I worked hard on a mural that was to go into a chapel, and I had the permission—not only the permission but I had even the blueprints that the priest had given me towards doing the mural.  And after I finished to scale and so on the color study showing what the mural would look like, well, the priest had changed his mind.  I think that’s the closest I came to a commission in France.  Of course, it isn’t very much.  So there was no reason for jealousy, but just that those people didn’t know how little practical we were.


I want very much to speak about that mural thing later, but I’d like to go on a little bit on this theme that we’re talking about now.  When did you start making this conscious connection between art and religion?  You told me that before you had that little book of sort of gods, if you want.  Would you say that art and religion have always been connected with you or was there a moment when they did begin to connect?


Well, it’s a little dangerous to philosophize after the fact.  I really think there was never any conscious idea of linking the two.  I think what I told you about that little book of secret gods is something that withered out as I grew up, even to childhood, something nearly that an infant would have.  It’s interesting for me because I can imagine prehistoric times when similar things would have happened, but it did not stay with me through life.  I think there is definitely a cleft in there between my infancy and my childhood, so to speak.  But I think I have always been conscious that art is a unifying of matters that are not unified, and the only thing that is parallel to that in, well, thoughts or affective thoughts and so on, is a cement between things that otherwise would be unrelated, and I think God is that cement.  That is, I don’t see any possibility of representing the union of things if you don’t believe in that union, and that union we can say is God.  That’s certainly something that has remained with me always.  I read something in Delacroix, I’m not terribly fond of his writings, but in his journal he said something that impressed me.  He was looking at the dry earth.  He was in the countryside—he was in his early twenties at the time—in the countryside, and he was looking at, after the rains, at the mud that had dried and cracked, and he mentions in his journal that the cracks in the mud have the same logic that the sprouting of branches out of a tree trunk and the smaller branches out of the branches and so on, and then it ends with a question if there is some relationship in the creation of the cracks in the mud and the creation of the branches of the tree.  And I had that same very strong feeling looking at Cézanne, the way he organizes his landscapes of the Estaque,4 the way the line of the mountains at the back and the line of the branches of the pine tree in the foreground of the picture either parallel each other or contrast with each other, obviously with a logic.  Now, if we annul the idea of God, certainly the pine trees on one side and the mountains of the other are unrelated.  I don’t see any possible physical, family relations between the two, but the relation between the two exists.  I think in all my work it is that relation of otherwise unrelated things that is a theme, maybe one of the deeper themes, and I think that that implies God.


In your talk “Nous, les Jeunes !”,5 you have a very interesting paragraph in which you discuss realism and religion, and you say Christians don’t have to be complete realists because for them matter isn’t everything; therefore we can distort, we can sort of play with nature, if you want, with natural forms in an unrealistic way because we believe there is something higher that, if you want, judges nature.  You’d obviously thought a lot about the relationship of religion and art at this time.


Well, that talk was given to our guild, to the Gilde Notre-Dame, and I had never read Bergson, but he was in the air at the time, and I pretended that I had read him, and there were some things about the unreality of reality or reality as understood in general in Bergson that I had picked out really either of reviews of his books or talks with friends that I used illegally, I would say, in my talk, because I hadn’t read the texts themselves.  I would say now that I don’t agree with that business of being free with nature.  I think that nature gives us a model that is established; the very fact that it is there would ask of us a tremendous respect because what nature is there, just by its being, depends on all those many mysterious laws of growth and family resemblances, I was saying, that makes it dangerous for us to tamper with nature.  Now that doesn’t mean that our route has to be realistic in the sense that people use realism, but it means that we cannot use nature.  Again we can come back to Delacroix, this time as a sort of a correction of Delacroix.  He was worried also about that relation of nature and art, and he said somewhere that nature is just like the alphabet to the writer.  That—I don’t agree at all with that.  I think that nature is a model and that in our art we don’t have to copy nature because we could copy only the surface of nature.  We have to act against certain laws which are similar to the laws with which nature creates.  I shouldn’t speak of things I don’t read in the text, but I think Aristotle said something of that type somewhere.  So nowadays, anyhow, I’ve changed my point of view, and I have a much greater respect for nature than appears in that talk of mine.

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Marguerite Huré (1895–1967) was one of several masters of modern art chosen to decorate the Church of Assy (Notre-Dame de Toute Grace) which is mentioned in Interview #4.  A 1916 photograph of Huré with Charlot can be found accompanying the article “Nous les Jeunes !”.

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Chemin de Croix (Way of the Cross), 1918–1920, woodcut, 23 × 18 in., Morse numbers 11 to 25.

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Symbolist painter and Nabi Maurice Denis (1870–1943) decorated two chapels at Le Vésinet, Church of Sainte Marguerite, between 1901 and 1903.

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“‘Nous les Jeunes !’ Conférence de M. Charlot, Artiste décorateur,” La Gilde, dated November 1916, October 25, 1917–March 25, 1918.