PRINT February 1967

Jules Pascin

PASCIN’S CAREER WAS METEORIC. In the decade prior to his death by suicide in 1930 he enjoyed not only great prestige and financial success as an artist, but considerable popular celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic as an outstanding figure in the somewhat luridly glamorized, Paris-centered cosmopolitan art community of the frenetic years immediately following the first World War. All of the galleries in Paris paid homage to him by closing for the day of his funeral. This distinction—to have become already a legend in his lifetime and to have occupied the limelight even briefly in a milieu already amply populated with colorful figures, theatrically eccentric egotists, and celebrated bravura personalities—was in itself no small achievement. Yet within a decade after his death he was almost forgotten except by the few who knew him. He has been conspicuously omitted in innumerable histories and survey exhibitions of the art of the first three decades of the 20th century. Significantly, and typically, Herbert Read, in prefacing his A Concise History of Modern Painting, after defining the scope of his book devotes only the following sentence to Pascin: “Jules Pascin is another great artist who refuses to fit into our category.”

The reason for Pascin’s posthumous obscurity is not far to seek. His art is exquisite, precious, utterly personal and limited in theme and scope. His ultimate style owes more in spirit to Watteau and Fragonard than to Matisse, Cézanne or Picasso and stands completely apart from any of those once explosively controversial movements which by one designation or another tend all too automatically to be set down as the section headings for works on early 20th-century art; nor can Pascin in any sense be said to be significantly precursive of any more immediately recent developments. Yet, over the past 36 years, Pascin’s work has been justly accorded a special prestige among coteries of dealers and collectors; a somewhat esoteric “in-group” prestige very analogous to that which is accorded among literateurs to precious miniatures of moody prose by minor but talented writers whose posthumous fate it is to become alluded to by the coined epithet “belles-letrists.” In Pascin’s case the analogy is useful since his art is indeed belletristic in spirit. The large number of canvases he executed in the mature style of the last seven or eight years of his life are decidedly sensitive, uniquely perceptive, ultra esthetically sensuous and moody essays on many nuances of a single theme. Pascin was indeed in the historical sense a minor artist, but an important minor artist. What he conveys and the way he conveys it are unique in art and irreplaceable as contrasted with the many almost interchangeable statements and styles of hosts of minor movement artists.

One who would seek detailed biographical information on Pascin or clues concerning the “inner man” other than the merest tangential and ambiguous gestures and remarks recorded by anecdotists of questionable reliability, is soon baffled by paradoxes. Here was an artist, highly gregarious and talkative who is still within living memory, who was survived until quite recently by a preponderance of his contemporary confreres and who is still survived by many acquaintances and friends—and at least one intimate (Lucy Krohg)—who were but slightly younger than he at his death, yet of whom we have a good deal less important and reliable knowledge than we have, say, of Albrecht Durer, who died in 1528. His own reported self anecdotage was extremely whimsical and capricious since he apparently gave out many widely disparate and mutually inconsistent versions of certain episodes of his early life. One has the impression of a man whose talk, even when ostensibly self-revelatory, was more camouflage than revelation, whose most inebriated garrulousness was never without awareness of the audience and of a theatrical image he wished to create albeit even the image could change from day to day according to his mood or the mood and character of his listeners. A plethora of “memoirs” and “recollections” of him that have appeared from time to time are also in many instances transparently untrustworthy having the flavor either of hero worship and glamorization or of the exaggerations of obscure chroniclers seeking borrowed glory in alleged intimacy with the better known. Pascin’s suicide at the height of his prestige and success remains enigmatic. The only relevant circumstantial context we know for it is that he had allegedly quarreled with Lucy Krohg and had been medically informed of the critical and advanced cirrhotic degeneration of his liver. His known intimates and heirs—Hermine David, his wife, and Lucy Krohg with whom he lived for some time—remained curiously silent concerning whatever specificities they presumably must have known about his innermost conflicts. Then too, one is confronted by a singular absence of any self-revelatory documentation: Pascin either left no journals to which he committed his inmost thoughts, or, if he did, they have been withheld or destroyed by those who took possession of his personal effects upon his death. Such of his correspondence as exists is, as his conversation was, chiefly anecdotal and entertaining. He seems not to have been given to serious or exhaustive expositions of his views or feelings concerning himself, his life, his art or for that matter, life or art in general.

It was in Bucharest, when Pascin was approximately 16 years of age, that the two most significant and integrally reciprocal aspects of his character first emerged: he was sexually a pornophile and temperamentally a graphic artist. His pornophilia was at once spiritual as well as carnal and would appear to have provided his first impetus to artistic expression. The facts are simple: it would seem that he was barely adolescent when he began clandestinely to frequent a Bucharest bordello. He soon entered into a liaison with the madam of the establishment and sought her permission to do drawings of the various girls attendant therein. One suspects that it would be inaccurate to say that he “wished to use them as models.” Clearly for Pascin drawing was always a matter of expressive documentation. He preferred the “candid sketch“ to the posed subject. He wished to record what he observed in terms of what he sensed and felt. Pascin was preponderantly self-taught and self disciplined. He manifested little interest in academic study, and the extent of his formal training—a few classes casually attended in Munich and Berlin and a little private instruction here and there—was extremely meagre.

Pascin has been praised as a superlative draftsman. But this must be qualified since his draftsmanship was hardly flawless by academic criteria. It was of draftsmanship in the purely artistic stylistic sense—the subjectively evocative nervous sensitivity of the “kinesthetic line”—that he was an inspired master indeed. Kinesthetic draftsmanship he was constantly practicing, drawing with his hands in his pockets or by carbon paper transfer—drawing, that is, not guided directly by the eye but by a sort of motor empathy with the linear rhythms, “weight” and tensions of the figures or objects observed. Only such a peculiarly empathetic technique could have suited his expressive needs. His countless drawings and paintings of nude and seminude women are in no sense “figure studies.” He was little concerned with the visible contours of anatomy—the body’s optical surface, as it were,—but rather with so suggesting intuitively and by purely artistic means those tensions and languors, the distribution of which comprise “characteristic body tonus,” as to evoke a good deal of the personality of his subjects. His paintings thus become poignant “figure portraits.” He grasped, as few artists have, the fact that the body from the neck down can be almost as expressive of personality, mood and individual character as facial features and quite as amenable to interpretive treatment.

The theme and context of Pascin’s earliest serious practice as an artist were to become the specialization to which he devoted the highest unfoldment of his talents in the last years of his life and which produced those works which we have come to regard as “typical” and which comprise virtually all of Pascin that is usually to be seen in galleries, museums and the salons of dealers. There were, however, digressions, and the current retrospective exhibition, all too meagre in some respects, is at least selectively comprehensive. There are cartoons for the Munich periodical Simplicissimus—clever, satirical and flamboyant grotesqueries executed around 1905 and exhibiting curiously little influence of the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) style so well entrenched at that time in popular journalistic illustration. There are paintings from his pre-war Paris years comprising group figurative paintings with allusions to early Picasso, as well as portraits and interiors-with-figures in which one finds echoes of Cézanne, Matisse and various Fauves and German Expressionists. There are the paintings of tropical landscapes with peasants from the Mexican and Cuban tours of his American years, in which one finds a rather nondescript and undistinguished quasi-Blaue Reiter sort of Expressionism. There is even a very bad Cubist abstraction.

In 1920, after a six-year sojourn in America, Pascin returned to Paris and to the only theme which really interested him and inspired him to a mode of expression entirely his own. One suspects that a whimsy entitled The Prodigal Child (1921), in which he depicts a young man with easel and paint box in hand running exuberantly into the main salon of a brothel, is perhaps a wryly humorful autobiographical reference to his abandonment of attempts to be an artist he could not be, i.e., an artist “of his time,” and his reconciliation to the only artist he could be. The late, typical works are for the most part paintings, but in a very special sense. They are actually mixed media works in which the drawn line is always present, but over and through which very thin washes of turpentine-diluted oil paint are modulated with an effect not unlike a gauze theatrical scrim permeated with colored lights imparting to the figures subtle illumination and ethereal opalescent flesh tones and then dissolving into nebulous backgrounds.

Much has been said about the eroticism of Pascin’s work. This eroticism, however, is extremely intimate and personal as well as documentary. He is probing and revealing what is necessarily germane to his milieu of observation. Often, for example, where there is an inflection of lasciviousness to a gesture or a stance, the artist’s magical kinesthetic line evokes also the apathetic languor and ennui of one to whom certain artificial conventions of suggestive or seductive deportment and carriage have become perfunctory and unconsciously habitual even in casual repose. In short, Pascin observes the sometimes real, sometimes artificial wantonness—as well as the wistfulness—of the demimondes he portrays. He encompasses their total humanity, of which their sexuality—vitally voluptuous, tragically debauched, pertly coquettish, or inherently depraved—is an essential part. The lyrical aura of most of his work suggests that his attitude toward his subjects was fundamentally tender and compassionate. His observation includes the insights of affection, as well as the inflections of sensuality, and he is, at any rate, never the moralist. Pascin’s work is indeed often maximally saturated with erotic tonality—but always within the humanized and personalized context of an individual and differentiating rapport between artist and subject. It is never “abstractly” erotic in that contrived, depersonalized and “slick” way that can be ascribed to Beardsley’s elegantly stylized figurative drawings. Nor is Pascin ever merely the lecherous voyeur leering pruriently into the boudoir and conveying that somewhat Edwardian effect of furtively self conscious and “deliciously naughty” revealing and looking, so masterfully evoked by many of Felician Rops’s studies of nude and partially nude demimondes.

Pascin’s art was the means exclusively of communicating in his own way concerning that which interested him. His non relevance to the movements of his time (and theirs to him), as well as the superficiality and triviality of his attempts to comprehend these movements was part and parcel of the fact that “capital-A Art”—Art, that is, in the abstract historical cultural sense, Art as “weltanschauung,” Art as technique, Art as “problems” in intellectualized space, intellectualized geometry and syntax, intellectualized color optics and illusionism—was of no interest to him. Pascin’s art was “unintellectual” in an era when most artists were extremely conscious of painting as a body of technical conventions concerning space and form, and philosophical assumptions (ethical as well as esthetic) which could be probed, questioned, varied, extended and elaborated, or thrown over completely to be substituted with newly contrived philosophical assumptions and conventions of form. Pascin, whose expressive needs were best served by a somewhat eccentric and personalized quasi-traditional figurative idiom, but who paradoxically remained throughout life relatively indifferent to such elementary technical areas of traditional figurative draftsmanship as objectively “correct” anatomy and perspective foreshortening, must have found the highly-cerebral and self conscious deliberations concerning the very foundations of art as technique (to which not only painters but musicians and writers of the early 20th century were busily addressing themselves) alien indeed. The technique of Pascin’s art was self evolved. The evolution was intelligent, self-sensitive, aware and directed; it was in no sense primitive or naive. Yet, for all the sophistication it possesses in its own terms, Pascin’s technique was art historically unconscious, and belongs to that order of technique which springs from such absorption in what one has to say, and such dedication to saying it, that the absorption and the dedication both discover and discipline the unique and personal means.

Palmer D. French