PRINT October 1963


Alfred Werner’s Pascin

Alfred Werner, Pascin (New York: Harry N. ABRAMS, INC.).

SOME OF THE GREAT FIGURES in art simply cannot be dealt with within the conventions of the standard “Art Book.” These books, dependent upon elaborate production for their expensiveness, call not for a biography, but a “biographical sketch,” not for a commentary of complex in­sight but a guided tour, and not for a comprehensive view of the artist’s work but an expensive selection of color reproductions. As a result, they are rarely exhaustive on any level, and the more complicated issues raised by the lives and works of artists like Modigli­ani, Soutine, Utrillo or Pascin do not find a place in them.

Pascin, aged 20, arrived in Paris in 1905 having already gained something of a reputation in Munich as an artist and as a Bohemian. (He was welcomed at the train by an artist’s delegation from the Café du Dome.) In Paris, he continues that hectic, driven life on the darker rim of Bohemia which is already a part of him. Around him, the great events in this century’s art take place: Fauvism, Cubism, the great memorial retrospectives of the Post-impression­ist figures. Bits and shreds of what is happening appear in his art, then dis­appear. It is as if his art, though at all times full of his extraordinary talent, cannot seem to grasp the real signifi­cance of these events, and finally settles into a style, unique enough, but basic­ally peripheral, beautiful enough to last, but lacking in that basic strength and clarity needed to exert a strong influ­ence on either the future or, even more difficult, the past. During the twenties his fame as both artist and personality reaches its height, but the Faust time runs out. On June 1, 1930, aged 45, he hangs himself in his studio.

It is a life, an art, whose full mean­ing requires some imagination, and it is unfortunate that even within the limita­tions of an “Art Book,” Dr. Werner’s cannot rise to the task. Consider, for example, the matter of the name: Julius Pincas to Jules Pascin. The change of name draws a footnote from Dr. Wer­ner: he establishes that the new name was Pascin’s invention, not a customs official’s. One thinks, in contrast, of the rich series of speculations which Gorky’s change of name brought from Harold Rosenberg in his monograph on that artist, of how the crucial matter of identity here demands even more strong­ly to be examined, and is ignored. For surely, if Pascin knew that he was gradually eliminating Julius Pincas the son of the bourgeois Jewish grain mer­chant of Vidin, Bulgaria––who was he creating?

Nor does Dr. Werner’s imagination grasp the nature of that kind of Bo­hemian life into which Pascin threw himself, and which is quite as different from the usual Bohemian revelry as a Hollywood musical is from Wozzeck:

The ironic smile seen in photo­graphs taken at the time reveals a detached attitude toward his milieu as well as toward himself. He joined only halfway in the smashing of conventions and taboos; even in his wildest capers he never forgot his art.

Now this is the sort of sentence the New Yorker might caption “Things We Doubt Ever Got Revealed in Ironic Smiles Seen in Photographs.” It is more serious because we are speaking of a man in the process of killing himself, not “smashing conventions and taboos” or indulging in “capers.” It is more ser­ious because it leads Dr. Werner around instead of into the most difficult prob­lem: the relationship between Pascin’s life and his art. For the issue is not that “in his wildest capers he never forgot his art,” but that the obsessive, self-destructive pattern of his life prevented that intensity of involvement with art he would need for fulfillment.

Pascin’s hesitant, winding eclecticism is the key. Until, perhaps, the last five years of his life, one can hardly find a drawing or an oil in which the plain influence of other artists is not per­vasive. Here is Grosz, here is Cézanne; here is Toulouse, here is Degas; here are the German Expressionists, here are the Fauves; here is Matisse, here Pi­casso, here Schiele. Dr. Werner, who spends an inordinate amount of time clearing Pascin of charges of obscenity which no one––at least nowadays––would dream of making, might better have spent that time in attempting to understand Pascin’s seeming inability to absorb the various styles of which he was aware. Was Pascin in any con­dition, really, to come to more than superficial grips with the complex and profound issues in art being raised around him? A more imaginative under­standing of the nature of the man and his life might have suggested some moving answers.

The color illustrations in the book show Pascin at his most lost, as in the American paintings of 1917 and 1918 (Portrait of a Woman, and Old Mex­ican Peasant) and at his very finest, as in the portrait of Flechtheim, the Seated Girl, of 1925, the Girl in Boots of 1927, and the utterly beautiful Standing Young Girl of 1923, in which his legacy to Balthus is patently ob­vious.

––Philip Leider