Happy Marriage of Painting and Literature

by Jackie Wullschlager
The Financial Times
Wednesday, September 1, 2004

While the Paris art world goes dead through the long, extended summer, the seat of French cultural imperialism moves south to the Fondation Maeght, in the hill-top village of St Paul de Vence, behind Nice. Founded by the dealer Aimé Maeght in 1964, this glassy, light-drenched gallery has always been modernism's shrine, and for setting alone - the Braque mosaic-pool, Giacometti courtyard and Miró sculptures dotted across the gardens - it is worth a detour. How symbiotic the low-rise, gently curving white stone and terracotta buildings are with the human scale, optimism, individuality and blaze into colour of modernist art. And how distant that humanist vision seems now.

But this anniversary year the Maeght merits a special journey. Never has its role as bastion of a certain French culture - elitist, refined, self-confident (despite its fading relevance on the world stage), a shade effete - been so trumpeted as at this summer's scintillating show, De l'ecriture à la peinture ("From Writing to Painting"). Focusing on that rarefied, highly wrought French fossil, the 20th-century art-book, it dramatises the intense relationships between writers, publishers and painters from an epoch when art demanded slow, long engagement and familiarity with a rich vein of literary and historical allusion.

By the time Maeght launched his museum, that era was over internationally, and abstract expressionism and minimalism had triumphed, but you would never know it in the sealed paradise here. In this unique showing of Aimé Maeght's private library of limited-edition, artist-illustrated volumes, we see in the 1960s Joan Miró's giant, primary-coloured doodles illustrating Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi; Fernand Léger's chunky post-Cubist designs for Louis Aragon's quixotic verses Mes Voyages; Marc Chagall's acrobats and floating violinists for the volume Cirque; Alberto Giacometti's stylish, melancholy lithographs for Paris sans fins, and Picasso's recent illustrations to a text by his friend Max Jacob (who was killed by the Nazis), called Chronique de temps héroïque.

These proud advertisements for French cultural heroism are dovetailed through the broad, open galleries here with important paintings from the museum's collection. The result is a century of French art in microcosm, with every piece of top quality and historically representative, from Pierre Bonnard's gentle illustrations to Paul Verlaine's poems in 1900, exhibited alongside the artist's massive, decorative painting "Summer", which he considered a synthesis of his artistic ideas, to Paul Rebeyrolle's comic-anarchic volume Eloge du socialisme ("Eulogy to socialism", 1976) shown with his giant collage-painting of skulls and severed limbs of 1997, "Hot Money".

Threaded among such landmarks are portraits that capture the celebrated characters and intellectual liaisons in mid-century France: Matisse's portrait of Maeght's wife Marguerite; Picasso's ghoulish likeness of his dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler; Giacometti's unusual drawing of the fat, high-living Greek editor-publisher Tériade. Chagall's sketch "Self-portrait with Grimace", where the artist splits his face into two tortured, fractured visages at odds with one another, embodies both modernism's fascination with psychology and its exploration of the divided inner life. The work so incensed the Nazis that it graced the catalogue cover of their Decadent Art exhibition in Vienna.

Here it hangs in happier company, opposite the largest canvas Chagall ever did, the 12-metre-square "La Vie", made for the opening of this museum in 1964 and an expression of the celebratory easy side of later modernism. It distils the story of Chagall's life and survival from tsarist Russia to pre-1914 Paris to the post-1945 Côte d'Azur playground where Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso, Léger, Chagall and their dealers congregated; here Maeght, who started out as a publisher from northern France, found his perfect milieu.

No art movement has been so locked into literature as modernism, and Maeght was part of a venerable French tradition of editors turned dealers. "We lived in an atmosphere of euphoria, of youth and enthusiasm such as you can hardly imagine", recalled Kahnweiler. "The works of the poets represented for us something formidable ...So the idea came to me of doing editions of these poets, illustrated by their friends the artists." Kahnweiler, Ambrose Vollard, Maeght and Tériade all combined the roles and shaped the inspired collaborations of painters and writers here, which demonstrates how a lively substratum of reviewers, commentators, publishers and audience is essential for individual creativity to flourish. Tériade's miracle of postwar publishing, the dazzling cut-outs and collages of the elderly Matisse's pitch-perfect volume Jazz, stands out here as a stunning emblem of how fruitful dialogue is between the arts.

At their best, such luxurious, labour-intensive books are marriages made in heaven, illustrations and text each enhancing the best qualities and emphasising the subtleties of the other. Giacometti's pairing with André Breton brings out the angst and alienation underlying surrealism. Miró's playfulness balances Tristan Tzara's heavy abstraction. Alexander Calder's inventiveness and energy are the ideal match for Jacques Prévert's Fêtes, the cover a Calder mobile, evocative in miniature of his huge "Les trois soleils jaunes" ("The three yellow suns") dangling from the ceiling.

Yet more revealing is an artist's choice of dead authors, his engagement with history. Georges Braque's spirituality, austerity and pure grace of line are encapsulated in the philosophical writers he opted to illustrate, Heraclitus and Milarepa, "16th-century Tibetan magician-poet-hermit". Another late Matisse masterpiece here is the simple, lyrical series of drawings for texts he chose by the Renaissance love poet Pierre de Ronsard, while Vollard's gift for matching subject and artist produces Georges Rouault's dark expressionist illustrations for Baudelaire's symbolist Les Fleurs du Mal.

With the main rooms arranged as individual homages, the display here shows the piquant range of talent evoked in each artist by great literature. Vollard suggested Chagall, for example, as illustrator first for his Russian compatriot Gogol's savage comedy Dead Souls, then - controversially - for the urbane French classic, La Fontaine's Fables, whose oriental folk sources Vollard saw mirrored in Chagall's eastern roots; and, most challengingly, as interpreter of the Bible. Commissioned in the 1920s and 30s, each book took decades and was eventually published after Vollard's death by Tériade.

For Chagall, the deeply concentrated chiaroscuro Bible etchings are steeped in his earliest shtetl memories ("I did not see the Bible, I dreamt it") and the dark, contorted Gogol drawings are his response to Russian history, while the bright humour and freshness of his fantastical Fables creatures and their glimmering backcloths are the breakthrough of his love-affair with the "lumière-liberté" of France and her culture. Nostalgia for that lost world is everywhere here: the seductive undercurrent of an exquisitely orchestrated show.