Until I went to the exhibition of Northern Renaissance drawing and prints in the collections of the École des Beaux-arts in Paris, I had never heard of Urs Graf.1

Well, one cannot know everything and if one did there would be no pleasure of discovery. I can now add Graf to my mentally prepared list when I am asked, by someone echoing Graham Greene’s famous bon mot about the cuckoo clock, to name ten eminent Swiss. The only other nationality of which this condescending question is ever asked is the Belgian, though in the latter case beer or chocolate play the part of the cuckoo clock.

Graf (1485–ca. 1528) was a goldsmith and soldier of fortune who worked in Basel, from where he once had to flee under accusation of attempted murder. He was by all accounts of an unruly and quarrelsome disposition and was often imprisoned. It was no coincidence that the left-hand stroke of the V in his monogram, VG, should have taken the form of a dagger.

In this exhibition are several magnificent drawings of peasant figures, including three couples dancing and a player of bagpipes. These drawings evince a sympathy and affection for the peasants without in any way romanticizing them, for example by suggesting that the outdoor life had rendered them lithe, healthy, fresh-complexioned, and naively good-natured. On the contrary, they are lumpen and even coarse-looking, their pleasures unrefined; there is no good-savagery here.

Instead, there is astonishingly well-caught physical movement (one can almost hear the music to their dance) and a real, spontaneous compassion for the human frailty of people whose lives must after all have been very hard and whose pleasures therefore had to be taken wherever and whenever they could. Refinement is the product of leisure and peasants are not leisured; at best they enjoy some exhausted idleness.

Spontaneous and unmediated by any theory as Graf’s quite obvious sympathy for the peasants may have been, it was not entirely undirected, for at the time their simple and earthy pleasures were under attack by Luther, among others. The peasant dance was regarded by moralists of the day as “the sister of sin,” an attitude that persisted among missionaries to the South Seas well into the twentieth century and was satirized (by the simple act of recording missionary utterances word for word) by Somerset Maugham in his short story “Rain.” But the sympathy of Graf and Maugham for their respective dancers was not a claim to identity with them; indeed, the idea of Maugham dressing up in a pandanus skirt, crossing his chest with bandoliers of cowrie shells, and joining in the dance is enough to bring a smile to the face.

Sympathy of a radically different, ideological sort was on display in another exhibition at the École called “Intelligentsia.” The exhibition was a collection of documents of various kinds—letters, manuscripts, certificates, police and diplomatic reports, articles, posters, photographs, many of them previously unpublished—illustrating the relationship between the French intelligentsia and Russia from the revolutionary year of 1917 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. A school of fine art might seem a strange location for such an exhibition since literary relations were far more important than purely artistic ones, but the figures of Picasso and Léger were of sufficient importance in both the history of art and that of Franco-Soviet relations to justify the location.

Picasso and Léger were loyal members of the French Communist Party (PCF); both were enthusiastic supporters of Soviet front organizations and attendees at Soviet-funded conferences. Their propaganda value to the Soviets outweighed their obvious non-adherence to the rigidly imposed tenets of Socialist-Realism of the time. Indeed their non-adherence might itself have been of propaganda value, since it served to lessen the impression among the gullibly well-disposed that deviation from communist orthodoxy was prevented by means little removed from those of the Spanish Inquisition. If there was room for Picasso and Léger in the Communist Party, then surely the party itself must have been freedom-loving and tolerant of experimentation in the arts. Was not Picasso above all the great subverter?

But some French communists were insufficiently dialectical in their way of thinking (for, completely undialectical, they wondered how what was artistically forbidden in the Soviet Union could be deemed progressive anywhere else?). For them, Picasso remained something of a problem, ideologically not fully digestible. Immediately after Stalin’s death in 1953, the editor of Les Lettres françaises, Louis Aragon, commissioned a picture of the dear departed from Picasso. He sent in a black crayon portrait of the dictator as a young man which Aragon published but which some members of the party found objectionable. R. Ballarin, Membre du Parti, Cellule C1 Fabien, Toulouse, wrote in a letter addressed to the Camarades du Comité Central and displayed in the exhibition, “The sight of the ‘portrait’ of him who led 160 million men on the glorious road to communism appalled me.” Comrade Ballarin then gave some fraternal advice to the Central Committee:

The Central Committee must make an effort to diffuse the works of contemporary Soviet painters and their realist school as widely as possible. . . . The Central Committee must avoid giving too much publicity to comrades whose fame comes from the bourgeois class, when their works have nothing realistic or progressive about them and which ends up in disapproval resulting from a lack of vigilance over several years.

Poor R. Ballarin of Cellule 1 Fabien, Toulouse! It is possible even to feel a little sorry for him, held up now to posthumous (most probably) ridicule for the absurdity and crudity of his faith, unable to defend himself and therefore an all-too-easy target of scorn. No doubt he had the shriveled soul of an informer and in different circumstances would have been happy to denounce people in the knowledge that they would be executed as a result, but what kind of a person was he? Most likely he was a weak rather than intelligently evil man, a poor specimen of humanity, not very bright, someone in search of certainty in a troubled world, longing for something to believe in as so many of us are, a minor functionary easily led to see chimeras and mirages as a counter to or relief of his personal despair.

Picasso’s portrait of Stalin, 1953.

But easily led by whom? Much more reprehensible than Ballarin’s attempt at art-cum-political criticism is a letter to Picasso himself written by Simone Téry (1897–1967). Téry was a journalist, novelist, and sometime Moscow correspondent of L’Humanité, the daily newspaper of the PCF, who converted, in the real religious sense of the word, to communism in 1929 after a visit to the USSR, and saw nothing in the subsequent twenty-four years to cause her to change her commitment. It was the willful blindness or conscious dishonesty of people such as she that misled the R. Ballarins of the world. The reason Téry wrote to Picasso after the PCF had condemned his drawing of Stalin was “because you have that heart, that total sincerity, that purity, that humility, that greatness, because you are ours—and that nothing and nobody will ever be able to drag you away from us, from our marvelous Party.” She continued:

As for the object of this controversy, it seems to me that I have understood what you wanted to do. Only, you understand, Pablo, that one can invent flowers, goats, bulls, even men, women—but our Stalin, him one cannot invent. Because for Stalin, the invention—even if Picasso is the inventor—is necessarily inferior to the reality. Incomplete and therefore untrue. Further, those who love him the most, the workers, didn’t find him in it. And that is not fair—neither to Stalin, nor to the workers.

Téry suggested that he make amends: “Don’t you know what would be good? What would be a striking answer both to the Party and to our enemies? It would be that you now draw another Stalin, a real one!”

The document shown in the exhibition is actually the copy of Téry’s letter to Picasso sent by her to the Communist Party headquarters, and is therefore an exhortation, a denunciation, and an avowal of personal ideological purity at the same time: a document that, by itself, suggests to those with any imagination that had the “marvellous Party” come to power, all of the pathology of the Soviet Union would have been replicated in France with the exactitude and rigor of the faithful disciple.

As to Aragon himself, he published a lengthy and verbose self-criticism in Les Lettres françaises after the Secretariat of the French Communist Party published a communiqué severely critical of him. In his self-criticism, he referred to his own article, Re-read, study Stalin, published beforehand in L’Humanité, which itself referred to Stalin’s Anarchism or Socialism? Anarchism, according to Stalin, was a manifestation of bourgeois individualism, from remnants of which Aragon admitted that he still suffered, inevitably so because of his education. He seems almost to be applying for re-education camp:

Having given more importance to the creative individual than to the feelings of the masses . . . I recognize in myself the traces of the old individualism which, however, I am combatting. In this text of Stalin’s youth, in which the byword of anarchism is All for the individual is opposed to the byword of socialism, All for the masses, I discovered the roots of an error that is not mine alone.

One could easily imagine his abjection as he wilted during an examination by Vyshinsky in the course of a show trial: and without the need for him to be tortured first.

(Incidentally, the “distress” caused to the communist faithful by Picasso’s drawing of Stalin is strongly reminiscent of that caused to Muslims by various disrespectful representations of Mohammed. The distress is not so much a sentiment as a public performance, undertaken to prove to others the purity and strength of the actor’s devotion to orthodoxy in the presence of unacknowledged and unavowable doubt.)

Louis Aragon in 1981. Photo: Bernardo Le Challoux.

The exhibition is rich in original documents, but no doubt strict rationalists would cavil at the belief that this originality confers more insight that a mere transcription of them would confer. Imagination, however, has its prerogatives, and dull would he be of soul who remained unmoved in the presence of documents dictated, handled, or signed by the great, the good, and the evil:

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.

To see the handwritten notes for the speech made by the poet Paul Eluard in Moscow to mark the 150-year anniversary of Victor Hugo’s birth is to realize the depths of sycophantic stupidity to which (perhaps only) intelligent and gifted men can sink:

It is, by all accounts, difficult to translate a poem. I believe, indeed, that it is impossible in most cases for the translator to reproduce the original feeling of the poet, or his inspiration so to speak. And I believe it is even more difficult for the reader of the translation [to do this] in another time and place, in different material and intellectual circumstances [from the poet’s]. But here, in the Soviet Union, if one judges by the astonishing progress in culture not only national but universal, one can expect that the time is near when men will read translations with as much intelligence and profit as the original was read, and that they will also be as well able to criticize them. The barriers, supposedly insurmountable, of the difference between languages will be then considerably lowered and the mutual understanding of peoples notably raised and strengthened.

Perhaps the heavy red and blue crayon markings and annotations—including XA-XA!, Ha! Ha! in Russian—in the Soviet edition of Anatole France’s last book would not mesmerize us if we did not know that they were by Stalin himself, but the twenty-one-page handwritten transcription of Romain Rolland’s interview with Stalin in 1935 is of enormous interest in itself. Rolland reveals himself to be a terrible old windbag, but a windbag vacillating between bravely asking Stalin genuinely difficult and challenging questions, such as why Victor Serge had been deported, and obsequiously agreeing with Stalin’s most obvious lies. And one cannot help but admire Stalin’s insight into the vanity and amour propre of writers: Stalin’s first remark to Rolland was “I am happy to talk to the greatest writer in the world.”

There were two very important omissions, it seemed to me, in the exhibition. The first was the profound effect of the First World War. Surely membership of a decimated generation must have had something to do with the extremity of Eluard’s and Aragon’s hatred of western civilization as expressed in their Surrealist manifesto of 1925, Revolution First and Always:

We want to proclaim our absolute separation, and in a sense our purification from, the ideas that are the basis of European civilization . . . and even of all civilization based upon the intolerable principles of necessity and duty. . . . Everywhere Western civilization reigns all human relations cease except those founded on interest, payment on account. . . . We are the revolt of the mind; we consider bloody Revolution as the ineluctable revenge of the mind humiliated by you [the educated classes who remain patriotic].

They subsequently realized that the Soviet Union offered the best hope for the destruction of the civilization that they so hated (although they were honored by and comfortable in it). This perhaps explains Raymond Aron’s observation that faith in the Soviet Union was at its most religiously fervent when the country was at its worst, at its most prolifically murderous; faith began to waver when mass murder declined into everyday pervasive oppression.

The other omission in the exhibition is that of a prominent writer of the interwar years recently returned to favor, Irène Némirovsky. This is indeed strange, because a considerable part of the exhibition is taken up by documents concerning writers of Russian origin who made their home in France after the Revolution, many of them becoming extremely eminent: Henri Troyat, Joseph Kessel, Romain Gary, Nicolas Berdiaev, Elsa Triolet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Nina Berberova among others, not to mention Ivan Bunin who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933 and lived on in France until 1950.

Not a word, though, about Némirovsky, who fled the Revolution with her parents in 1917. Why?

Irène Némirovsky in 1928.

In his speech on his reception into the Académie française in 1962, Joseph Kessel said:

Who have you chosen? A Russian by birth, moreover a Jew. An East European Jew . . . you have shown that the origins of a human being have nothing to do with the judgment one must make of him. In this way, messieurs, you have given new and powerful support to the obstinate and beautiful faith of all those who, everywhere, turn their gaze towards the light of France.

This is indeed part of the story, an important part, but only a part. The story of Irène Némirovsky somewhat undermines its moving simplicity. She was denied French citizenship in 1938 (twenty-one years after her arrival in France), arrested by the Gestapo during the occupation, and deported to Dachau where she soon died. And why did French newspapers, without exception, refuse to publish a letter by Russian writers in 1927?

How to explain that people like you, so perspicacious, who know how to plumb the depths of the human soul and penetrate to the heart of epochs and peoples, thus ignore us, Russians, condemned to gnaw our chains in a terrible prison erected against freedom of expression? . . . Unless it is that you are not aware of the existence of this prison for words, of the communist censorship which we suffer in this second quarter of the twentieth century, a censorship exercised by a “socialist” state? We are deeply afraid that this is not the case. But why do writers who come to visit Russia, MM. Duhamel, Durtain, and others, why do they say nothing when they return home? The situation of the press and of publishing in Russia, then, does not interest them? Or else they look, they see, but do not understand? It is painful to us to think that the clink of glasses of champagne offered to foreign writers by our government drown out the clank of the chains that weigh on our literature and on the whole of the Russian people!

Of course, human events are complex and beyond the power of anyone to see whole. But the sovereign way to lack all comprehension of them is to look at them through the lens of rigid ideology. What is always needed is the eye of an Urs Graf.

1 “Albrecht Dürer and His Time” was on view from December 24, 2012 through January 13, 2013. “Intelligentsia” was on view from November 28, 2012 through January 10, 2013. Both shows were exhibited at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 6, on page 22
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