….. She thought back to another spring when she had fallen in love with one of her teachers at the Art Students League, he one of the great teachers, a man in his sixties then, what the students called ‘an old rad,’ of the thirties generation, one of the WPA artists who went around with the old Partisan Review crowd, but at this time, her time, he was not very far away from retirement and used to like to have some of his favourite students come up to his flat on West End Avenue on Sundays and drink beer and talk about painting and politics. There didn’t seem to be any woman in residence at his house, and it was only much later she found out the truth, but then that summer back then after classes were over for the year she used to drop in now and then and usually found him alone in his huge studio and always glad to see her. Looking back now she could see that she was the one who had made the advances, although he certainly did respond with affection. But in the end it came out, it all came out that he was very gay, and there was no way around it. A very solitary man, living by himself and still living for his students, and Annie didn’t stop seeing him, but in the end she had to leave, she had to move on, with her own needs, and he gave her a silver ring set with a scarab which she still had and still wore. In addition to that he gave her much more, he showed her the artist as perpetual enemy of the state, as gadfly of the state, the artist as the total enemy of all the organized forces that bore down on the free individual everywhere, the artist as the bearer of Eros, as bearer of the life force itself, as bearer of love, in a world seemingly bent on destroying all that, Eros versus civilization, life against death. Yes, in his printmaking classes you learned not only stone lithography and drypoint etching, you also learned you had to use that art to say something important, not just a bunch of minimalist nothingness. You learned the radical tradition of the WPA artists and muralists. ‘Speak up and stop mumbling!’ he would yell at them when he bent over their work and saw that the drawing was saying nothing. And it was strange, she reflected now, how his ideas were like Julian’s, as now Julian had fallen silent, watching the musicians in the square, but suddenly then in the middle of that sunny idyll came a dissident sound from down the rue Mouffetard, the sound of drums beaten by students carrying placards who now came streaming into the Place Contrescarpe, circling the still-playing musicians and the old couple, who now stopped dancing and hurried off down the street. And the three students with drums led a straggling line around the little square, with more of them pouring in all the time, waving placards and banners upon which were scrawled and painted the first murmurings of that wild new spirit of rebellion. Among them were posters she recognized as having been done by the poster brigades at the Beaux-Arts, some by her students, some of them indeed in the style of WPA artists but with messages hardly dreamed of in the American thirties:
Alcohol kills: Take LSD
THE YOUNG MAKE LOVE, THE OLD MAKE OBSCENE GESTURES
I’M A GROUCHO MARXIST
‘Revolution is the ecstasy of history’
MAKE LOVE AND BEGIN AGAIN
POWER TO THE IMAGINATION!
‘Nous sommes tous les enrages – Ortega y Gasset
TO FORBID IS FORBIDDEN
Open the Windows of Your Heart
MAKE LOVE NOT WAR
THE SORBONNE IS THE STALINGRAD OF THE REVOLUTION!
…… An ancient waiter actually wearing a pince-nez came bowing up, took their order, and tottered off, looking like a Degas dancing master. It was a long way from the Place de la Sorbonne. The lace curtains, the brightly polished brass railings, the discrete booths with lush leather banquettes, the elderly dame in black lace at the caisse, gave the impression of still being deep in the nineteenth century, caught forever in an impressionist painting, and one almost expected to hear the soft clop-clop of carriage horses outside. ‘I should have brought a sketchbook,’ Annie said, as she began drawing on the menu, which seemed perhaps to embarrass Julian a very little. He fidgeted. ‘Well, if you can do a Daumier or a Goya . . .’ he began. `Imagination au Pouvoir?’ said Annie, drawing the slogan at the top of the carte, and Julian decided to enjoy himself, lifting his glass of wine. ‘Go ahead on the tablecloth too! After all, it’s in the great tradition. They all did it, the impressionists did it, Picasso did it, the symbolists and dadaists and surrealists did it, they all drew on tablecloths, except they were paper tablecloths, and then of course they took the paper back to their studios and copied it on canvas sometimes, and got their whole world down on canvas, for everyone to dream about today -‘ ‘As if that world still existed,’ Annie put in, drawing on the menu. ‘Just like all these elegant people in this restaurant still think it exists – nothing but a painter’s dream forever and ever!’ Julian wasn’t laughing anymore, watching her draw contorted bourgeois figures in top hats and picture hats, writhing on the paper, hanging on the phrases of the haute cuisine, running off the elegant page, dropping off, as it were, into the real world of 1968 under the students’ revolutionary slogan ‘Imagination au Pouvoir!’ It was a cry heard around the world that year, a cry of rebellion everywhere, more than a ‘hippie rebellion’. Annie was still drawing when the soup came, and she continued, pushing it aside. ‘I have this fantasy,’ she went on, ‘this painter’s fantasy about Paris, which should really be called L’Huile-sur-Toile – Oil-on-Canvas, as they say in the descriptions of paintings in museums. So once upon a time there was this little village called L’Huile-sur-Toile – a tiny little village on a little tiny river called the Toile. Now, that was a very long time ago, maybe in the Middle Ages or earlier still. Before that, painters mostly painted on wood – huile-sur-bois – but then, L’Huile-sur-Toile started growing, and more and more painters construc-ted paysages all around the banks of the Toile, and the little town grew larger and larger and larger, with all kinds of different neighbourhoods or quartiers springing up, all built in different styles, and the styles swept the town from one end to the other, age upon age the styles changed, like the changes in architecture itself, like the changes in dress and in life-styles. There was the pastoral and then the Gothic quartier and then the baroque quartier, and eventually the symbolist and the surrealist and every kind of neighbourhood that any artist could imagine. But at first there was mostly darkness on the Toile, because it was still the Dark Ages, and they only had candles and oil lamps and no electricity, and their heads were full of shadows and superstition and darkness too. But – but gradually the light grew in the heart of the darkness, at first only a faint light in the distant sky, behind the dark landscape, behind the dark buildings along the Toile, and then it broke through over the rooftops, and flooded the Toile itself. Then the forces of darkness entrenched themselves on the Right Bank and the forces of light took the Left Bank as theirs, so that from the earliest times the reactionary Right faced the avant-garde progressive liberal Left, and each viewed the other suspiciously, each considering The Other Side to be treacherous territory, alien land. But the light kept growing, and then in the nineteenth century the first impressionists came marching down the boulevards from Montmartre to the river’s edge, all of them looking obsessively for light and nothing but light, their easels under arm. And they strolled along the Toile and set up their easels and started painting the light, and some of them crossed over to the Left but many remained on the Right, where most of them had been born in good bourgeois families. But they all were obsessed with light and many of them didn’t care where it came from or where it would lead them, they were not concerned with the sociology or the politics of L’Huile-sur-Toile. And their style swept the city and the suburbs and the countryside all up and down the Toile, as far as the eye could see in the new light, and swept even down to the far sea, through Normandy to Honfleur and back again, back past the Grande Jatte and the promenades and quays all along the Toile, and in the centre of Paris-sur-Toile the good burghers of the city clapped their hands and danced and sang the “Marseillaise” and other stirring nationalist anthems, while the impressionists and the postimpressionists kept on painting everything in sight, including the Opera and their own dear Bourse right here. And they painted Notre-Dame over and over, although neither the Right nor the Left could really claim the Church as being exclusively theirs, since it stood in the middle of the river on the Ile de la Cite, although many times the towers seemed to tilt to the Right and at rare times to the Left. There was one gang of artists who had descended as impressionists from their Bateau Ivre high on the Right in Montmartre, and this gang of impressionists refused to stick to the same style of painting with their newfound light but insisted on constantly changing their styles. Their leader was Picasso, who constantly broke up the old formulas and forged new styles of seeing and invented cubism and painted everything all over in cubes and then destroyed them, after which came the dadaists and surrealists and symbolists and other ists and the taxis of the Marne and the First World War, while the painters all kept repainting the landscape of the Toile over and over, until finally the Spanish Civil War ushered in the Second World War, and with the Second War came the American invaders, and they came, they saw, they conquered but then didn’t leave as they were supposed to, but stayed on to take advantage of the very good exchange on the American dollar and to take advantage of the very good light for painting. Then these foreigners and others of their ilk from all over the world also started repainting the landscape of the Toile, only this time it was no longer recognizable as the adorable little bourg it had always been. It all began to look like a huge imitation abstract-expressionist canvas by Franz Kline or Willem de Kooning while the Bourse went on looking just like it always had in impressionist pictures, with its inhabitants still looking and thinking like their impressionist portraits. And then General de Gaulle himself came in here, into this very restaurant, and he bowed and saluted and bowed again, without taking off his pillbox hat or even offering to check it, all the while murmuring to himself, “La Gloire, oui, c’est La Gloire!” And everyone rushed into the streets of L’Huile-sur-Toile waving the tricolour and shouting, “Don’t change anything, ever! Don’t rock the boat! The Left Bank doesn’t exist!” And everyone went around acting as if the world of L’Huile-sur-Toile was perfect and no need to change anything ever, everything should go on as it always had on the avenues of la Grande Republique. But, but the students, alors, merde, the students – ces enragés, ces chienlits – were hungry and bored, and they had had enough of All That, they wanted an entirely new mix of colours, an entirely new palette, entirely new tools and new types of brushes to paint with, and they used spray paint on everything. They woke up the workers everywhere, they inspired the hunger strikers, and every other brand of forgotten humanity came pouring out of the side streets – the anarchists and the Trotskyists and the communists who hated everyone else, especially the anarchists, they all began to unite, because they were all hungry and fed up with the flat flabby ancien régime and with de Gaulle’s grandeur, which didn’t include them. They were all totally frustrated by the plutocracy that ruled the world even beyond the Toile, and they wanted to focus a huge magnifying glass on the canvas of the whole world and concentrate the new light on the very centre of the canvas until it caught fire and burned a hole right through the whole landscape!’ This time it was Annie who was fairly carried away, her voice tending to rise to a higher octave, so that now the antique waiter with the raised eyebrows came hurrying up, and Annie broke off and sat back, looking at Julian, who sat silent looking at her as if he had never really seen her before. Then he raised his glass to her, smiling in her eyes, and drank, as she spooned her cold soup. Then after a while Julian signed a chit, and they went out together into the loud afternoon traffic that crept past the Bourse, the multicoloured cars like myriad drops of paint flowing over an immense abstract-impressionist landscape whose perspective had long ago been destroyed.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1919-1997. Love in the Days of Rage, 1988. Chapter 7 / Chapter 11
Images: Interior view of l’Atelier Populaire, 1968. © Atelier Populaire d.r. Courtesy École des Beaux-Arts, Paris
Set in Paris, in May 1968. An American artist, Annie is teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts. To a background of cultural action and police presence in the streets the novella weaves the story of a love affair between Annie and Julian Mendes, an anarchist banker, with descriptions of the romantic Parisian daily life of cafes and restaurants, and references to the artistic and architectural past of the city as the scenario of political events changes around them.
The novel presents the critical aesthetic moment of May 1968 as the point where art changed from a cycle of avant-garde movements of Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Cubism, Symbolism, Dada and Surrealism forever repeating the language of the canvas. As Annie considers her previous career as an artist in New York she is also a symbol of a changing aesthetic reality. She links May ’68 to the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the United States. A Federal Art Project (1935–1943) that funded artists as workers to produce public artworks in a social realist style as part of the New Deal program. Annie sees that the traditional nostalgic bourgeois views of the old grey buildings and stone labyrinth of the feminine landscape of Paris have been appropriated by American artists as huge abstract expressionist canvases. The studio has been replaced by a collective Atelier Populaire – a peoples studio. The École des Beaux-Arts, and art schools and institutions throughout France, were occupied by the students who produced thousands of posters and political slogans. The ideas and images were pasted on the walls of Paris, but artists began to realise that the power and potential language of art had changed as direct action and media sensation could reach the eyes of the world.