Dody Thompson interview with Jean Charlot

Interview with Jean Charlot, his wife Zohmah Charlot, and their son John Charlot at the Charlot home in Honolulu. Dody Thompson. August 18, 1975.

The transcription of the interview is in the Jean Charlot Collection. The original audio-recording is not available. Thompson's editorial comments are in parentheses; my own are in brackets. Edited by John Charlot.

Interview with Jean Charlot, his wife Zohmah Charlot, and their son John Charlot at the Charlot home in Honolulu
Dody Thompson

August 18, 1975.[1]

Tape begins in middle of conversation.

Charlot: (Speaking of an error in dating, emphasis in Maddow/EW book[2])...(the vegetables) were done later on, and then they were also done in Mexico. I remember that, because he would draw the clear panes in his little Mexican house until it was dark as he could make it, and then put his aperture 32—whatever it is—and we would go out for a long day trip outside Mexico City, come back, and by then it was night, you see, so that the photograph was finished.

Dody: And it would be left all day, so long as that!

Charlot: All day, yes, with the lowest aperture, in the dark. He did the same thing with the one we have upstairs, the Point Lobos, the tree trunks, so I think (it clears things) to think that he went back to—let us call them abstractions or lack of storytelling—after Mexico, which would tie up with what he did before Mexico, you see, because (an extravert...not intelligible).

Dody: You have only to look at the great heads he did in Mexico, like Nahui Olin...

Charlot: (Interrupting.) It's in Mexico that he started his vegetable series, and it's very important to know that they were side by side with the things he was doing for Anita Brenner. Now if you want me to put names on all the nudes I shall not. It is beyond my (pause) ethics.

Dody: No, no, that's not what interests me. (General chuckles.) But I was curious to know whether you were present. I'm interested in the portraits right now and even personal or anecdotal things about...

Charlot: Are you going to do a book on the portraits?

Dody: I hope so, yes.

Charlot: (Again referring to the just read Maddow book.) Well, Galván was not a general of Pancho Villa (referring to Maddow's description). He would have died (laughs) at the idea. He was a much more important man. He was a senator. He was a great politician. And incidentally, he died of gunshots. I mean he was assassinated the way people would do there. He was assassinated in a café, and he was the best shot, I think, in Mexico. He was accredited the best shot. The murderers, I mean, were in hiding in the little restaurant behind something or other. He didn't see them, but while the shot was going on, he put his hand to his pistol, you see, and had it out when he died, so that his expression in his coffin was exactly the expression he has in that photograph. (Referring to Weston's head of Galván made while Galván was shooting a peso tossed in the air.) And because he was such an important man, he was exposed in his open coffin at the...whatever, the senate rooms or whatever it was...(pausing).

Dody: Did you happen to be along when Edward made that portrait of him?

Charlot: No, I wasn't there, but I was a very good friend of his, of Galván. There was something else about Galván I can't remember, but anyhow.... Oh yes. He had been in a lot of the revolution, of course, and one day we were sleeping[3] together in a place which wasn't a motel, it wasn't even an inn, so we were on the floor, just [lying down next to each other], and he told me “put your hand here,” which I did, and he had four or had five ribs gone. They had been removed. He had had a bullet in there. He was a...are you interested in that?

Dody: Yes.

Charlot: He was a rather harsh man with men, and he was very gentle with women. He came...Anita Brenner lived with a girl called Knox. I don't remember her first name. She was a Southerner, blond. Galván would come and really be a delightful friend to them, tell them stories, and whatnot. But they went out with him a little bit, and then they got a little frightened, because Galván being a senator to begin [with] couldn't be arrested, you see, and if he killed somebody, he couldn't be arrested either. And he was immune, and so he would go to somebody and say, well you are the son of your mother, your mother is a puta, a puta, and the man would recognize him (laughs), and nothing would happen. But he was going to shoot the man. He had a bad way of shooting people. And so one of the politicians that were against him—that was considered, well, perhaps a reactionary, I would say, at the time—was shot. I don't think he was shot by Galván. Galván came to Anita Brenner's place, and he was just laughing his head off, because when the people came to ask for the corpse—the family or the politicians who were of the same color—he said, “I had them wait while they did the...” What do you call that?

John Charlot: Autopsy?

Jean Charlot: “...autopsy, and then I arranged all of the things, the (kidneys?), the innards, and all that all around the man, and then I had them come in, you see. And, er, they were not happy.” (Reverting to his original thought.) But to say that the man was a follower of Villa is stupid.

Dody: Well, as John pointed out, there are a lot of errors of that kind in this book...

Charlot: There certainly are.

Dody: It was all done in five or six months, from start to finish...

Charlot: Well, I mean, the error is that it unbalances Edward's life. His life wasn't that night with a girl in a bed. I mean, it wasn't the important thing. It was something else. And he had that marvelous straightness about his work, so that the rest was spinach or broccoli or whatever you call it (smiling)...

Dody: Dessert.

Charlot: ...and that's all it was. The only person that was an evil influence in his life was Charis, I think. She did him tremendous harm. I don't think, of course, that he died of it, but it's in the time that Charis was with him that he did photographs that really were not at the level of his own single thinking. He was trying to humor her, because he loved her. And I can't figure that particular thing, but she got into a realm where the other women never did, you see, never dared go, because they were more sensitive to what Edward was.

Dody: Interesting. I'm sure I know the series that you mean. They were satiric and...

Charlot: No, there's a number of things. I mean the man has a good eye for that. No, the girl with the gas mask and such things as that. It's very sad. But he loved the girl, and people who are in love do silly things. You can forgive him because he was in love. But you can't forgive Charis, who knew very well what she was doing.

Dody: That's a very grave charge.

Charlot: (Smiling.) Well, I shall change it then. Turn off the machine now. (Laughter.) But I'm sorry that Charis was not sensitive enough to know that she was lousing up a genius.

Dody: Yes.

Charlot: You can publish that.

Dody: That happens, but people usually do it inadvertently. It's a matter of character and in this case, if you are right, unfortunate character.

(Section discussing D. W. Thompson's Edward Weston article. Gist: Wish I had written more of my personal experience and articulated more distinctly my feelings about Edward.)

Zohmah Charlot: (Upon my saying I do not remember a great deal more in detail.) I remember one thing happening while we were there. (Visit to Wildcat Hill in 1953, Zohmah's date, at which time I was there, too.) We said, isn't there, you know, we'd like to get him something. And you said, he needs a chair.

(Continuing section about D. W. Thompson's relation to Edward.)

Dody: The Bishop Museum has been given a portrait a few years ago, apparently in a houseful of furniture, by a Mexican artist they would like to know more about and are wondering if you could tell them.

Charlot: (Laughing.) They could have asked me.

Dody: It just came up this morning, and since I was going to see you, I was asked to inquire—Ramos Martínez.

Charlot: Yes, Ramos Martínez was for a long time the director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City, called the San Carlos Academy. I wrote a whole book on the school itself. He came with the Revolution, I think 1911, the time of Madero, President Madero. He was thrust in as director because he was considered progressive, you know, after the Revolution. And in and out he remained director for a long time. When I went there in 1920, he was director of the Academy.

Dody: I see.

Charlot: He was a good artist in his early days. He had introduced Impressionism or Post-Impressionism to Mexico—and then afterwards he went to California—and was influenced by the younger men—that is, what they call now the Mural Mexican Renaissance—and changed his style to things that looked like the work of the younger men. I liked him very, very much, but I think his early work was more himself than the later work. He was certainly a very lovely man—as a man, I mean—and he was probably weaker as an artist than the really big men that happened to gather together there. But it was such a funny accident that Mexico had suddenly that bunch of strong people.

Dody: Yes.

Charlot: Ramos was a very nice artist.

Dody: Speaking of that, would you clarify for me Dr. Atl's position?

Charlot: Well, you should read my book (laughing). Well, I will answer your question then. I wrote the answer to your question there. Dr. Atl was older. He was an older man than Orozco, than Rivera, and so on. He had gone to Europe, and he had seen, let's say, Michelangelo's frescoes, and whatnot. And so when Orozco and Rivera were in their teens perhaps, around that time, he told them all about those things, of course. He told them all about what he had seen, and he encouraged them to do great things. And I think he spoke of murals too. And he himself was a very, very good vulcanologist—he did scientific work on volcanoes—and a great landscape painter. (Comment added, indecipherable; may be “Most people think, of course.”)

Zohmah: And he gave Nahui Olin her name.

Charlot: Well yes, but I'm trying not to get into that angle of things.

(From here on, only the most pertinent or interesting things are noted below, but still verbatim.)

Charlot: So Orozco and Rivera were very grateful to him (Dr. Atl). Rivera compares his paintings to the landscapes of Hiroshige, for example—in writing, I mean, and published it. And Orozco also was very grateful to him because he did more for them really than anybody else to start them on their way as mural painters. And he himself was, as I say, a good landscape painter but a little ill at ease when he tried murals. He had a sort of Chinese something or Japanese something, and he was a very bad technician, so that his murals have all disappeared, I think, by now. He had invented a special method of using colors that obviously was not very (laughing) permanent. His murals disappeared very early. But we all had the greatest respect for him, and he had a great role to play in the beginnings of the Mexican Renaissance.

John: Did he ever tell you his reaction to Edward's portrait of him?

Charlot: Atl? It's a storytelling portrait—the one with all the writing on the wall? Well, it's a storytelling portrait. It tells what Atl thought he was about. It's not deep. I mean there was no relation like there is in the other (Mexican) portraits: the portrait of Lupe Marín, or the Nahui Olin, or ourselves, Zohmah and I. Those are portraits of people that Edward had looked at. It was merely a job, that portrait of Atl.

John: Did Atl set it up himself? He said “I want to have this job done”?

Charlot: No, he wasn't that sort of man. He lived in the most picturesque part of Mexico in the Claustro de la Merced. It was an old, very rich—I mean, very rich in sculpture—and he had built himself a little cubic—you couldn't say house, but ruin, on the top of the roof, the azotea, and he lived there when he wasn't living in the volcano. He was very often at the volcano. He was a nice man. He gave me a drawing once, I remember, so I took the drawing, thanked him, and he said “Wait a minute,” took it back, and (stamping loudly several times with his foot along the floor) just stepped on it with his barefoot feet. He gave it back to me and said, “Better now.”

(John asks a question; Charlot amusingly insists that the question come from Dody, who repeats it to him.)

Dody: Did any of these people (in Mexico) talk to you about their reactions to Edward's portraits of them?

Charlot: But they don't have to talk. Both Orozco and Rivera lived the rest of their life copying the photographed portraits of Weston. I mean, it is the best answer. They couldn't see themselves differently from what Edward had seen. And before that, if you look at the [self-]portraits of both of them, it has nothing to do with it, with what Edward saw in them.

Dody: But you know, after that period Edward almost never did that same kind of head again.

Chariot: No, well he was interested in the people. They were, shall I say, big people. You can't classify people by size, but.... He had other people, of course—women. Well, that was a memory, a memorial of the women. That's OK. And the men that he knew in California, they were sophisticated, they were effeminates, they were this or that, different things that made them interesting. But I think he felt the bigness of men like Orozco and like Rivera, and that became another chapter, like he would have done portraits of Michelangelo and so on. I think he was right.

Dody: I remember Rivera painted in a self-portrait in one of the murals copied from Edward's portrait in his hand.

Charlot: Well, Rivera did, and Orozco the rest of his life just did hack work copying that photograph of Weston's because he couldn't imagine himself differently. I mean, that's important if you ask what those people thought of those portraits.

(Pause for personal chat about the Bishop Museum and the preparation of dinner.)

John: I'd like to know if Nahui Olin ever talked to you about the photo that Edward did.

Charlot: I think she had an exhibition. But she didn't have much—what shall I say?—taste. So she had an exhibition of all the photographs made of her by all photographers—mostly in the nude—and lots of old gentlemen came in to see the photographs. She was very pleased with it.

Dody: I see. And you don't think it had much special meaning to her?

Charlot: It's a success, it's a success. Well, I mean she was a little self-centered. It was her, not the photograph.

Dody: Do you remember the portrait of Rose Covarrubias?

Charlot: Yes, yes.

Dody: I, of course, never knew her, but my impression is that that caught character very well, you know—the eyes are downcast and the lashes—and there's a sense of timidity and gentleness about it. Was that true to character or was that simply a trick of the light that Edward enjoyed?

Charlot: Well, I'm not...I mean, I have my likes and dislikes, and Rose was not exactly among my likes. She.... It's very hard; that mixture of Americanized things and Mexican is so difficult, really. But when Covarrubias was dying really, she bothered him for two things. One of them, she wanted him to sign documents by which she would get...well, I don't know how much money he had, but he had that big collection of Hispanic things. It was a little over-done, I mean.

Dody: Then, in your view, seeing that portrait would be to see an idealization of her character?

Charlot: I think it would be an entirely wrong impression—I mean totally opposite of my understanding of her—but my understanding may not be right.

# Notes

  1. Dody Thompson had written Jean Charlot requesting an interview:


    July l4, l975

    Mr. Jean Charlot

    4956 Kahala Avenue

    Honolulu HI 96816

    Dear Jean Charlot:

    I have been asked to prepare a book on the portraits of Edward Weston, and write to request your cooperation and your wife's. As you may know, I was an intimate of Edward's and the family for the last eleven years of his life—his last apprentice of the long line, then his daughter-in-law, and I remain friendly with all the family still. So I feel as if to some extent I am acquainted with you, and even have a sneaking feeling—perhaps a resulting illusion—that we met on Wildcat Hill about l947.

    This eerie sense is bolstered by my possessing a number of portraits of both you and Zohmah, as well as a final gift from Edward, which he knew I coveted and which I still cherish, his copy of the Charlot/Claudel PICTURE BOOK.

    As a sort of introduction to myself, I've taken the liberty of enclosing a copy of a loving memoir of Edward I wrote a few years back. You will see what a central reliance I put on your unsurpassed insight into EW. I plan to write something now more objectively and in quite a different vein and style, but I hope with increased understanding.

    But to the point: May the publishers have permission to publish photographs of you both when the time comes? In addition, I think it important to talk with you both, not only for purposes of this book, but for a possible projected biography I have been approached to do.

    I have been trying to find a way to make a Hawaiian visit feasible, and it now appears that I could come either in the middle of next month, August (preferably) or else possibly in late October/November. Would the August date be agreeable with you?

    I have just realized that this morning's paper speaks of a pending U.S. mail strike. Since our communications may be held up, I have made a flight reservation and chosen a specific date. Would some time at your convenience on Monday, August 18th be all right? I would phone you on arrival the previous weekend, and would expect to be in Honolulu through Friday. Of course, none of this may be a desirable or workable plan for you, but I do hope that is not the case. I can't tell you what it would mean to me.

    If your return communication really is held up by a lengthy strike, I will take the liberty of phoning you to find out how this may work. Meantime, I hope this finds you both well. I know from the book ads you have been busy. I look forward to seeing you with great pleasure and anticipation.


    Dody Thompson

    10520 Blythe Ave.

    Los Angeles, Calif. 90064

  2. Ben Maddow, Edward Weston: Fifty Years; The Definitive Volume of His Photographic Work (Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1973).

  3. The original transcription has “sneaking,” but this does not accord with the following statements.


Contact, copyright, credit
Jean Charlot & The Jean Charlot Foundation