PRINT August 1962

Lucien Labaudt: In Memoriam

THE PROPOSED MEMORIAL TO Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. has raised considerable controversy and posed an interesting question—the question of how people choose to remember the past. Those who oppose the construction of these gigantic concrete steles appear to believe that the thing most worthy of honor is the physical appearance of a human being; they would, I believe, be happy with a larger than life sized bronze figure representing what Roosevelt looked like, cigarette holder, wheel chair and all. On the other hand, the architects, though they may have failed to realize their ambition completely, are after the essence of the man and feel that his words will convey that spirit better than a rose garden or an heroic bronze.

This question of memorials and their function was brought sharply to my mind by a recent visit to the Mark Twain museum in Hannibal, Missouri which is, without doubt, one of the saddest places in America. That quiet river town which, even with its new bridge and suburban tracts, still has the sullen brown water, the subtropical lush foliage, that peculiar combination of movement, the river, the village that one recognizes as part of the tension in Twain’s writings. The feeling of “This is what it was like,” is strong and real. There we were ushered into tiny dark rooms filled with illustrations of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer done by Norman Rockwell in his inimitable Saturday Evening Post manner, the old typewriter that Twain used and dusty photographs and plaster busts, a shocking violation of the spirit of the man and of the place that he wrote about. It is as though people revered the paraphernalia of a life, the old toothbrushes, the baby shoes, the medals and trinkets and gadgets, as though the life of a man like Mark Twain could be summed up in this collection of junk. It cannot be, of course. Mark Twain is still there in the books and not in that dusty museum in Hannibal. But after that summer morning, the question of what a memorial should be has troubled me. The problem can be resolved for different kinds of people in various ways, from concrete steles to Abu Simbel, but I think one of the happiest solutions is here in San Francisco at the Lucien Labaudt Art Gallery.

Marcelle Labaudt established the gallery in 1946, three years after her husband Lucien, who had been appointed as a painter-correspondent for Life magazine, was killed in a plane crash at Assam while on his way from India to Burma. As she says, she created the gallery, “To keep Lucien’s work alive and as a memorial to his enthusiasm for the young artists.” Here, the past is honored every year by opening the season with the work of Lucien Labaudt and then the gallery is given over to the present, to exhibitions of the younger and not yet recognized artists of the area. In a sense the future is represented here too as we can now see by looking back over the list of San Francisco painters who have had their first one man shows, or shows early in their careers, at the Labaudt Gallery.

Many of the artists who exhibited here have gone on to New York shows, to make national and even international reputations for themselves—people like Richard Diebenkorn, now well known as a figurative painter who showed abstractions in 1950 or Sonia Gechtoff, now known as an abstract expressionist painter in New York who showed figures in 1954 when she first came to San Francisco. The list of artists who have exhibited at the Labaudt Gallery in the past fifteen years reads a bit like a Who’s Who of local talent—Frank Lobdell (1949), Lawrence Calcagno (1949–1954), Ralph Ducasse (1949–1952), Robert McChesney (1947–1950), Joseph Romano (1956), Charles Safford (1952), Hassel Smith (1950) but why go on? Most of them are on the list along with the well known painters of an earlier period like Mathew Barnes and Otis Oldfield and undoubtedly somewhere in the more recent shows, artists who will be known in the future. Marcelle says that she had the list printed up for the 15th anniversary of the gallery so that the new painters could see that some of the artists who had shown there had “made it” and be encouraged.

The gallery at 1407 Gough Street in a residential neighborhood is set back from the street behind thick, dark green shrubs. As one enters there is a small exhibition room on the right, then upstairs is the large main gallery, well lighted and spacious. Behind this lie the living quarters, kitchen, bedroom and the garden with its terraced areas for flowers, vegetables and herbs neatly separated by narrow brick walks, having the air one would expect to find in a French rural garden. The kitchen has a country “center of the house” feeling with its long wooden table and bright pottery on the shelves; it looks as though a great deal of good food had been cooked here and many people had sat at the table eating Marcelle’s famous pigs feet and drinking wine. Some of the pottery plates were made by Henry Varnum Poor and among them sits the beribboned bottle of champagne that Marcelle used to christen the Victory ship, the S.S. Lucien Labaudt at the Richmond shipyards on April 7, 1944. The cooking stove is set into a niche of brick and the rough wood lintel above the alcove has Greek letters chalked up on it, words written there twenty-one years ago by Jean Varda, Marcelle says, one afternoon when he and Lucien were sitting in the kitchen, drinking white wine and talking about painting. The conversation turned to the subject of patterns in nature, the structure of leaves, lizards, labiate corollas, lateen sails and the meaning of Cubist painting and inspired Varda to chalk up the Greek letters spelling out, “God always geometrizes.” For fourteen years there was a great gray cat lolling about the premises but much to Marcelle’s distress he finally became too old for happiness and although she swore she would never have another, now a great red cat named Woody stretches out in the sun near the kitchen door. Marcelle has been charged by one of her tenants who moved away to dispose of him but this she says, “was impossible” and he has been in the kitchen and garden ever since.

A tall, strong bodied and very lively woman with long hair drawn into a bun at the back of her neck, Madam Labaudt is still, after over forty years in the United States, very French. She comes originally from Bordeaux where, having finished secondary school at the age of twelve and a half, she was given the choice by her mother of apprenticing to a milliner or a dressmaker. “It seems strange now,” she says, “but at that time, in France, unless you were going into one of the professions, your education was considered finished at that age and you apprenticed to a trade.” At a couture house in Bordeaux she studied dress design until she was eighteen. Then, in 1916, her mother, sister and she came to the United States to escape the war, planning to stay only a few years, and she has been here ever since.

In San Francisco she worked for several dressmaking establishments and she remembers well her surprise at the different attitudes in the shops. “In France,” she says, “the women sang and joked while they worked. The atmosphere was always relaxed and jolly but here, everyone was very, very serious.” At that time there was little ready to wear clothing manufactured, the gigantic mechanization of the garment industry was still in the future and most wearing apparel was either made at home or at dressmaking houses. In 1917 Marcelle went to work briefly at Lucien Labaudt’s couture house in San Francisco and later he sent for her, asking her to take charge of a department. She demurred, saying that she couldn’t speak English and his answer, which throws an interesting light on the change in culture from that period to this, was, “That doesn’t matter. All of our customers speak French.” Modestly, Marcelle says that she discovered then that although she knew her trade well, there was still much that she could learn about creative designing. Apparently, she learned it well for she stayed with the Labaudt establishment and became a partner.

Lucien, born in Paris in 1880, had trained as a dress designer at his mother’s Mason de Couture. Then after completing his military service, he moved to London where he worked as a couturier. Once started West, he kept on for New York where he worked as a free lance designer and did illustrations for Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines. In 1909 he moved to Nashville, Tennessee and it was in this unlikely place that he first began painting seriously, stimulated by what he had seen and heard of Cézanne and the excitement that had been generated by his famous 1904 retrospective show in Paris.

Labaudt came out to San Francisco in 1911, thinking that after the fire the entire city would have to be rebuilt and that there would be great opportunities for decorators and designers with new, lively ideas. He discovered that San Francisco wasn’t interested but he liked the town and stayed anyway as head of the tailoring department at the City of Paris department store. Later he opened his own couture house and started teaching at the California School of Fine Arts, costume design first, then color and line. Henry Varnum Poor began teaching at the school in 1914 and Marcelle says that his work was considered so dangerously extreme then that only two students signed up for his class. Lucien was one of them.

The Armory Show of 1913 and the attendant furor of publicity both for and against the work of men like Duchamps and Matisse had an almost incredible impact on American painters and Labaudt, who had seen the exhibition in New York, came back to San Francisco hot to preach the gospel of the new European painting. He found an unreceptive audience and as Marcelle says, “He fought every inch of the way for the new ideas. The art school and the local painters were all against him and called him a revolutionary, a rebel and a red.” (Those notorious American three R’s crop up in the most peculiar places.) In this era of mass circulation and distribution of ideas and the museum without walls it seems strange to hear that an art professor from Stanford would come to Lucien’s house to look at a book of photographs of Cézanne’s paintings because it was the only one in the area. There were none in the libraries.

Undiscouraged though, Labaudt kept on talking and painting and began exhibiting in group shows in 1918. He showed in Paris at the Salon des Independants in 1921, then every year until 1926, at the Salon d’Automne in 1924–26, New York in 1922 and in all the local exhibitions of the San Francisco Art Ass’n. after 1920. Well launched by the ’30s, he went on to show at the Museum of Modern Art three times, the Brooklyn Museum, the Carnegie five times and the museums and galleries up and down the Pacific Coast. He painted murals around San Francisco, at the George Washington High School, at Coit Tower and the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park, at Treasure Island during the Fair and at the post office and court house in Los Angeles.

The depression put an end to the couture house and Lucien opened a school to teach dressmaking at Powell and Sutter streets. In 1940 he bought a condemned house, the present Labaudt Gallery, and he and Marcelle had it remodeled and started an art school. Lucien taught painting and Marcelle taught dressmaking and he began writing a book on what he called “A science of color—similar to the scientific order of tones evolved by musical theorists,” a book which was never completed. With the war and the general dislocation of young people, their students left, they closed the school and Lucien went to work in the shipyards, first drafting over at Moore’s in Oakland and later to Marinship in Sausalito where he worked on the skids as a lay-out man. Then, in 1943 the invitation came to go to India and China as a painter-correspondent and he began his final, fatal trip to the West. In one of the catalogue statements for his memorial exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1944, Fernand Leger claimed Labaudt for France by saying that even after his long stay in the United States, he was still very French and that the composition, the color and a certain personal manner of composing the pictures remained very Ecole Francaise.

When Marcelle Labaudt opened the gallery in 1946 there were very few others in town and the first exhibition, appropriately, was of the work of six students of Lucien’s from the California School of Fine Arts. Still doing all the hanging of paintings, arranging of shows and maintenance of the gallery herself at seventy, Marcelle Labaudt says,“Some people have made money from galleries but I have been lucky to make expenses every once in a while. Still, I don’t regret all the work. It has been fun and I have done something that Lucien would have liked. I just hope I’ll be able to keep the gallery going for another four years—that will make it twenty years all together.”

Twenty years is a good number and, as a solution to the question of what a memorial should be, the Labaudt Gallery is a happy one because of its unspoken commitment to the continuity of painting and to the continuity of culture in this area. It has succeeded well in keeping alive Lucien Labaudt’s enthusiasm for the young artists.

Mary Fuller