One day at a later time when I was visiting a very formal art exhibition in Paris, brimming with new ideas and notably with anticipation of my possible success in the domain of painting, I heard the distinct voice of a visitor who stood out for his peremptory and communicative conviction. Stopped in front of a full-length portrait of a certain baron of industry or finance, today as perfectly forgotten as his portraitist, the speaker was saying, more or less, that indeed, the frock coat was skillfully painted, but that someone contemplating it couldn’t see the model’s lungs. He continued his scathing commentary in the same vein. The man who was speaking so clearly was a certain Edouard Manet; a relatively obscure name. His words had an unexpected effect on me. I owe the biggest decision of my life to him. He said, exactly:
“I can see that someone has painted a frock coat. Everything leads me to believe it is a frock coat. This frock coat itself is of an impeccable cut. But where are the model’s lungs? He isn’t breathing under his garment. He has no body. It’s a portrait for a tailor.”
Don’t think that this revelation of the painter’s formidable eye turned me once and for all to the profession where he himself probably excelled (it was not long before I was sure that this “probably” was superfluous). It was in completely different terrain that I had the idea to plant my little pieces of wood in hopes that they would regain their vigor like the broomsticks in the Antilles that always ended up yielding apples and papayas, at least according to the colonial party.
The question I already mentioned wouldn’t stop bothering me; it was even worse once I thought I’d caught a glimpse of the beginning of the answer.
What one can invent of man these days is his body.
Not his body the box of suffering, not his body the aging mass, and not even his body the sack of delight or admirable mass of muscle. I should really explain what I mean. But first and to no other end, I must describe another encounter.
Although my displacement in Peru had, as I said, not been beneficial in the least, I was at least remunerated for my wanderings upon my return by my acquaintance with an eccentric old lady, for whom I must now say a few words of eulogy. Madame Taillefeu-Ponçard wore her eighty years well. She would say, “Eighty winters and not eighty springs, because winter preserves better.” For as little as she resembled Edouard Manet, she shared his taste for an exercise that she formulated thus:
“There’s nothing I hate more than a passive glance.”
She was circumspect, generous, and implacable. She felt that her advanced age obliged her, not to give someone advice, but to teach each person something, and preferably something pertinent to that individual. That day, by the way, it was my turn. My “package” was being prepared on a passenger liner on the ocean, off the Azores whose lookout, with a little imagination, we could see on the horizon. Smiling and slightly mockingly, Madame Taillefeu-Ponçard eyed me from head to foot, continuing, in an alternately hesitant and determined voice:
“So my dear, admit that you yourself … you’ll let me call you Paul … forgive me if I embarrass you … you shouldn’t hide your muscles. I saw you yesterday, on the gangway. I got a better look at you this morning. Believe me, people don’t know how to coordinate their clothes with their naked body. I mean that with all due respect.”
These words struck my ear with a rare truth, fit like a perfectly formed tenon fits into its mortise for a wooden construction built to last, like a button in a buttonhole. The reader can choose the image that suits him best.
I was on the second-class bridge when she addressed me from up above, leaning her elbows on the first-class guardrail. She generously invited me to join her by athletically crossing the barrier, and to chat with her about passers-by, which was her specialty. And I accepted.
“If something bothers you to see it, look closer,” she said. “That’s my philosophy. For example, my little Paul, look over there at the Columbian ambassador and his wife. The fact that they are (miraculously) recovering from malaria is no excuse for their almost indecent clothing — I mean above all indecent for themselves, besides being indecent for each other, besides being indecent for those of us who have to look at them, since they parade before our eyes without the least bit of shame. They represent the French Republic — the proudest Republic in the world, to the point of wanting to engulf it — ” (I’m not arguing, for the moment, whether she was right or wrong; we’ll come back to that later if you like) “ — and they do so with their bodies stuffed into these tanks as if they were vulgar, unpresentable machines, when today even locomotives are so beautifully displayed.… That’s not enough of a neck already, it needs a high collar to double it! The gentleman’s Adam’s apple should be restrained, and Madame’s clavicles, overly thin and jutting out like a ship’s prow, shouldn’t have to sustain the sea spray’s assault. It’s ridiculous. All dressed up like a chauffeur, or a deep-sea diver, or covered in mosquito net.… It’s like Chamonix in the tropics.… Protection, protection.… Their clothes are so tight at the ankles and wrists that they look like they’re done up for tarantula hunting. Or these veils, for collecting honey.… Women wear them, can you believe it, to go do a quarter of an hour’s shopping at La Ferté Sous Jouarre, bargaining with the suntanned peasant women, their cheeks exposed, wearing a folded newspaper as a hat! Apparently this protects them from colliding with flying fish … ploof in their eyes, fragile as eggshells. What do you think of these superfluous horn buttons, which serve neither to attach nor close? Isn’t their principal effect to lose the navel or the billiard-ball eyes in a drove of false look-alikes? Nothing is where it belongs anymore. That man looks like his wife and the woman resembles her poor husband. But they no longer resemble the human species: they have been redesigned. And it’s not only their powdered faces that render them game for my painting. See those military men over there? Tell me if they don’t look like gunshot ecclesiastics with their bronze collars and their ties of the same metal, or battlefield Franciscans, even though Franciscans have the elegance to go barefoot? This is not possible … our officers tailor their clothing with wire cutters, thinking of copper sheathing or zinc roofing! They must get undressed with a monkey wrench! The captain? There he is, white and navy blue all over! Is the ocean always white and navy blue? He’s wearing so many stripes that he’s dressed up like a pork roast. Can you see the air moving? Watch his sleeves! His second mate is only a little roast piglet, dreaming of getting fattened up, and the stewards are forever in celluloid. Do you know the story of the Italian immigrant who, out of respect for the host country, dons his smoking jacket as soon as he catches sight, from the boat, of the port of New York and who, out of despair, throws himself into the bay (he can’t swim) when he sees the NO SMOKING sign.… As for that woman, I’d say, “what became of her breasts?” if I weren’t afraid of the alliteration. I’m not saying she should frame them like a Botticelli, but one should at least be able to imagine where they might be. Here, they are not there. The lady has uprooted them. And let’s not even talk about the children … or let’s talk about them: they’re clowns. Or, quiet, they’re dwarves. It’s better if they don’t hear us. I only hope that little boy holds onto some of the perverseness that pushes him to play by himself in his mother’s closet.… I sense that you are seeing me through different eyes now … and you’re surely thinking that I hardly practice what I preach.”
“Not at all, you’re quite elegant!”
I wasn’t flattering her.
“So be it! But I’m a very old lady and what I want to teach you is only a virtual science. If I were you, I’d throw myself into the water, metaphorically speaking, of course; I’m not forgetting we’re at sea. Ding dong. That’s the dinner bell. Dine with me this evening and we’ll talk of other things, okay? We can say pretty much the same things about cooking, or music, or gardens … or poetry.”
That evening, Madame Taillefeu-Ponçard and I did not talk of other things, our fellow diners having changed for dinner. There was even a faint smell of soap and shampoo. By way of a practical exercise, she asked me to take a turn at critiquing, one by one, the regulars of the dining room, the majority of which had made a pathetic effort to dress solemnly.
I didn’t have Madame Taillefeu-Ponçard’s nerve, but she had given me a little bit of her eye, just enough to open mine. I tried not to let anything escape me. There was a lot to be said, and I strove to say it. She was pleased with me. I allowed her to conclude:
“You’re on the right track. They dress up simply because it passes the time, gives the help something to do, and they can’t not have help if they want to maintain their status. But where is the creativity?”
There wasn’t even a fraction of an ounce.
I related to Madame Taillefeu-Ponçard what Edouard Manet had said about the frock coat’s lungs. Her eyes shone. She said I was on fire, that that was exactly it. But real-life frock coats should also have lungs. It was necessary to start there. It was up to me to start there. She added that I already had the inclination.
At one last on-board party, there was an accident. The train of a dress got caught in the crank of a mechanical piano, only to release a body that courageously piled up her curves around the public billiard table in the ballroom. This was quite a beautiful moment of artistic discretion that gave me a little more encouragement (as if it were still necessary) for the path mapped out for my future.
When the passenger liner docked at Le Havre, I had honed my criticism to the point of feeling ready to draw my first models. However, I spent six months floundering in pusillanimous intentions. I was under the illusion that I could break into the profession without suffering torments of humiliation by the conventions that were in place. A few bold colors, a few slightly exaggerated gaps in the fabric and a few long days did not yet constitute a style. They only testified to the clumsiness of a mildly haughty careerist who hadn’t gone to the right schools and didn’t exactly know why.
So I took to thinking while walking in the streets with my hands always deep in my pockets, but never my head in the clouds.
If I wanted to invent something from man’s body, obviously I had to start by undressing him, by contemplating the model just as ancient painters who outlined the person nude before painting his clothing had done. The unfinished Davids had something to tell whoever wanted to see them.
I hired models, whom I placed in front of me, nude. An enormous coachman, who had posed for a Balzac and drew from this a Balzacian glory; a beautiful laundress who felt self-conscious; a very slender dancer. I ruined myself to pay them especially handsomely, as I had one small condition: it was of capital importance that I be as naked as they were during the pose, in the name of the need to put myself in the skin, in the nakedness, of the model — let no one misunderstand me — in complete chastity. I considered this a rule of decorum, whose purpose was not to facilitate intimate relations, but, if the occasion arose and the desire manifested itself, to establish them in all frankness as solely virtual.
I studied. I drew. I shaped. The coachman was the site of a beautiful clash between fat and muscle, with thickset bones, heavy as cast iron, acting as arbitrators. The laundress had the whiteness of a diaphanous silk sheet that was lovely to look at, but a color with which any piece of clothing would have to reckon. The dancer had burnished brown skin good enough to lick. My cheek a few centimeters from her body, I could gauge the heat that emanated from her. Bread in a toaster.
In order to broaden my scope of understanding, I also worked on a young woman who was not so beautiful. And a decrepit old man. I had to put forth a great effort not to see it as some sort of punishment. I put it forth.
As for myself, I completely renewed my wardrobe, plunging into an ample and malleable ease that groped for a suitable artistic precision: how the comfortable could also be beautiful. Never wear anything for yourself alone that couldn’t be work in the company of others. Clothing: a second skin, more intimate than the first because it was chosen at the shop to be seen in public. And a changing skin. The body changes attitude when changing attire.
I began to go out in the street more or less naked, bare-legged for example, my shirt tails hanging down to my thighs, but with a distinguished upper body. People didn’t like it much. The neighbors never got used to it.
Without a word to my wife I had rented a workshop far from my little family, who I hardly even thought about feeding anymore. It was at this moment that Pauline detached herself from me for good and detached me from our children. Wanting to deprive me of all of them, the woman who renounced me found it urgent and reasonable to expatriate herself, or rather to repatriate herself with all our children to Copenhagen, her place of birth. It was a transitory solution of which I’m not proud, but which suited me well enough. She would leave me elbow room to succeed (intransitive) in starving to death all by myself, and to become, if Heaven were to smile on me, the head of the family finally basking in the wealth that I’d never known, the head of the family that I’d never been. And, I can add today, at race’s end, that I will never be.
After their departure, I missed one child in particular, my favorite, whom I had watched the closest during the spectacle of their childhood, Claire, who seemed extremely mature on some days — ripe like a woman of thirty-five years of age (a bourgeois city woman) — and whose mother often accused her of lewdness. Certain gestures, it’s true, that the other children risked only in a fit of fever came naturally to her — tearing their clothes, ripping them off, or throwing themselves, in the summer, in the inviting stream. It was she who would come to tell me good night completely naked, her true naughty little girl’s slit on display, arms and legs stretched to form an X. She died too young, not big, and far from me, trying to tear away her poisoned skin that itched excruciatingly. I was told that in her delirium, she wanted me to come pick up her sickness and throw it in the garbage the same way I used to straighten the room she shared with her brothers and sisters, sparing nothing. She cursed me for not coming. And it’s of her, nonetheless, that I’m thinking while drafting these testamentary lines, of she who will never read them.
Becoming a bodysmith is a much greater asceticism than people think. Everyday requirements suddenly fade into the background, and one only wants to speed through the stages, which is, however, no easy task.
And sexual relations slow everything down.
The bar tabs, debts, unpaid loans, are without interest. The only things that matter are passionate, interminable discussions between friends from all levels of prosperity, including the losers who are dear to you and who have something to teach you all the same.
I felt like I was flying. I was enthralled by the complexity of my objective, the body, the meeting place of matter, heat, and color, with all the miracles of joints and the machine-like thrusting.…
Then came a period of total liberty and active bohemianism, that today I view as a time of happiness, but one mustn’t trust the affective memory that easily erases all the discouragement and lethargy of the transitory moments between two peaks.
I wanted Manet to be convinced of the flagrant injustice inflicted on the tailor and that clothing design be placed as high as the work of Delacroix and Rubens. I turned up my nose at the preordained hierarchy of the arts that only served to put soapbox intellectuals, craning their necks like haughty giraffes, on a pedestal.
It was then that I decided to change methods, beginning by adopting one. I took a backwards approach to clothing, turning it inside out as one skins a rabbit, trying to escape all conventions.
I got myself out of the pickle by dint of analysis.
I espoused the pleasure of rational displacement and antonymy. Some examples follow.
I tried to imagine what could be underpants for the head. Socks for the hands. An anal hat. Outer underwear … a place for outer underwear as well as for an overcoat of skin, like a furred nightgown. A buttocks-bra, a sexhibit, a stomach-collar, and ear-shoes. A skirt for the torso, or a neck-warmer. Breastlace, asslace (which I thought I had invented, but which I later discovered in black Africa). I designed the thigh vest and the pelvis sleeve. The bicep garter. The arm-pants. A muff for the waist … it is as if a woman is a flexible tube — she gives birth to herself when she undresses.
I sketched. I cut, I stitched. I assembled materials and colors. I fashioned buckles, straps, knots. I tested adhesives, all sorts of adhesives, with little success. At the time, the fittings were still secret. I dreamed of a public presentation.
I had a severe and contradictory debate with Louis Sebastien, the meritorious composer of Skies Over Mt. Ventoux, of Paris, From My Sole (the shortest piano piece of the repertoire) and of that strange comic opera in which the principal singing role is Ulysses’ old dog, with that duo where the returning hero imitates his old quadruped companion’s bark in order to identify himself. Louis Sebastien, who never knew success, but never lost his enthusiasm, and was useful to Debussy. He reminded me that I didn’t have to produce new Inc’oyables or original Me’veilleuses. With good reason, he criticized my excessive penchant for transparency or close-fitting, flesh-colored fabrics that gave the false impression of nudity, leaving too little to the imagination. His words carried the authority of his work. He helped me to step back from myself and take an objective view.
I launched a fashion show at my own expense, which was received like a bad joke, not even causing a true scandal, which would have at least remunerated me in terms of the future. It didn’t take place on the racecourse but in a gallery of modern art. Why not? But what did “modern” mean? I know now that my work wasn’t modern enough, except perhaps the colors. I cursed myself for having compromised, for having listened to the models’ modesty, for having betrayed my own audacity a little more.
I had not succeeded in inventing the polar opposite suit, which would entail the systematic covering of what is not dressed — that is, for a body in a public place: face with a mask, hands (sometimes) with gloves, and leaving the rest nude. I mean “leave nude” and not “make nude,” which is already one way to invent the world.
I had not dared to show the genitals in plain view. I hadn’t even dared, although it was all ready and perfected, to model a certain dress that had a vaporous, light-red tinted triangle, against a background of unbleached linen, in the pubic area.
I had, however, adopted a radical approach to the relationship between the distance of the fabric from the body and its approach to the point of clinging. But was it noticeable enough?
Madame Taillefeu-Ponçard died eight days before my presentation. I found it unlucky, a sentiment that today strikes me as egotistical: what of her luck, that day, never mind her advanced age?
Before she passed away, as if she had nothing more important to think about, she had tried to direct some clients toward me — four, to be exact — who came to my place as if out of respect for what seemed to them a dying wish. They didn’t even offer me the least sincere condolences, but this was fair. I wasn’t entitled to them. They mostly expressed a lot of mistrust, starting with the conventional phrase:
“Sir, I have nothing to wear.”
And soon regretting saying it, since I would respond with:
“Madam, I have very little for you to wear.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t be mistaken.”
I’d undress them with my eye just to the point of embarrassment, because that was my duty. I couldn’t base anything on their spontaneous — that is, uninhibited — desires. It was important that I trouble them first and foremost, and put them in a state of disequilibrium.
One after the other they bowed out, with the excuse that nudity wasn’t what they had in mind.
I refused to hire models to allow my customers could see the extent of the scandal I was preparing for them on a neutral party. I wanted to work on my clients themselves, “on your beast, and right away,” which scandalized them in advance. I refused to let them lend me, as was the practice with their usual dressmakers, their personal mannequins, stuffed with tow-colored hair and lacking lungs that weren’t fibrous.
“I need to see you breathe.”
“We’re not at the Carreau du Temple!”
“You breathe everywhere. I need to listen to your chest. Your tailor should see and touch the parts of you that palpitate, and see what your doctor sees. Who knows if I’ll need to operate on you, or perform an autopsy? I need to improve the mannequin before I adorn it.”
I provoked them. They got on my nerves. I didn’t feel like working for them — preferred to work with them. Clothing is collaboration. Clothing is a collective affair: the wearer, the conceiver, the contemplator, the dresser and the undresser, the laundress, the ironer … and the one who talks about it.
The money I had borrowed for the exposition — or rather the consequences of borrowing it — soon plunged me into the most extreme dependence and small, thankless odd jobs, hands devoted to washing dishes in a trendy seafood restaurant. Hours of black soap, before touching fabric again.
I solicited public subsidies, only to hear the response:
“You launch firebrands and you ask the most severely burned to finance them! That doesn’t make a very good impression.”
The word “firebrand” pleased me. Flora Tristan smiled at me from her tomb, and her gaiety mixed in with Madame Taillefeu-Ponçard’s. I even thought of my wife who, one day, had suffered a brief stroke of genius: a fever had rooted her to the spot in the fresh air under the moon, her skin all afire and aglow under the nightgown she had torn to shreds. That was the night we made Maurice.
It wasn’t only women that inspired me. I thought of my father and his way of coming out of the john in the back of the garden, rain or shine, pajamas at his knees so as not to soil his bottoms while waiting for the bidet. I invented roomy trousers.
At this time the came the opening of the first grand colonial Exposition, which, I soon understood, was done especially for my benefit. Crowds of people enthusiastically discovered the novelties of our “outlets,” to quote Jules Ferry. Vive la République exportée! — because within it, between its four walls, the spirit of exploration was smothered.
I lived this enthusiasm. I sought this enthusiasm.
The entire universe was there, in microcosm.
I spent all my time in the pavilions, overcome with happiness at the idea that it was possible to go from Cambodia to Natitingou, or from St. Pierre et Miquelon to Bora Bora simply by crossing an alley, in hardly the time it takes to smoke a pipe. The Republic had assembled the most beautiful indigenous peoples of the territories it had conquered more or less solidly. A few slanderous tongues remarked that they were on display “like prize beasts at an agricultural exposition.” There was some truth to it, but these exceptional people allowed me to admire them to my heart’s content, and to make all the rough sketches I could. I radicalized my colors yet a little more, having access to foreign materials, especially exotic flowers and fruits that were found in abundance there.
I bought a portrait of myself as a Pygmy, done by a photographer who didn’t make me stick my face through the hole of a corps-décor, but who painted on my skin, taking one hour from the head to the (penile) artery.
I met Ananwana, a beautiful woman from the Marquesas, who afforded me the most spectacular advances in my art by banishing the last bit of timidity that held me down. She was a dancer, but always looked sullen when she danced. Her way of looking sullen paid tribute to the profound trouble of having to break up the magnificent and slack immobility that was her defense against the climate.
One cannot dress properly (in other words, scantily) in a country where it’s cold six months out of the year. One can only be indressed in Paris thirty days a year … sixty in a good year and that’s the final word!
It was October. After indressing for me all of September, Ananwana was warming herself by the already-lit stove, and then came the sadness. She was stretched out on a divan showing me her copper-colored back. She was hiding her eyes in her arms, a terrible and heart-rending pose. I didn’t know that she already knew that most of what I’d seen at the Exposition had been embellished.
Ananwana dreamed of returning to the Islands, which wasn’t a simple thing. She who knew neither past nor future, neither tomorrow nor memories, was suddenly obliged to follow this grand deviation of the arrow of time, the most beautiful fleuron of occidental decadence. In order to convince her to come, the colonial administration had lauded her artistic qualities, her references and did its best to smooth over the inevitable asperity of the voyage. But once she arrived safe and sound, not one civil servant felt obligated to make sure she had a pleasant stay in Paris, much less ensure her journey home in comparable conditions.
When we met, she was in great need of someone, if not me specifically, in Paris. She danced bewitchingly. I applauded her more than anyone else. I returned each time she was scheduled to dance. I always applauded. How could she not have noticed me? She wanted to know which art I practiced and, one thing leading to another, she began living with me. I kept no journal of this beautiful time.
The Exposition ended. I had to arrange Ananwana’s departure, when I had no desire for her to leave. But I could see her wasting away.
At the sight of the indifference, or even contempt, of the government officials who each claimed the other’s responsibility for the artist’s return, I felt deeply ashamed of my civilization. Ananwana stood up at the offices. No one asked her to sit down. She was calm and timid, she knew a little French, however butchered, and it was she that one out of two nincompoops labeled “savage”!
Portrait of the Artist with the Idol, by Paul Gaugin, courtesy of Web Museum, Paris.