"Therefore, it's almost miraculous that Jacques Debierue was noticed at all. When you think about the peculiar mixture of hope and disillusionment of the twenties, he seems to be the most unlikely candidate of all the artists of the time to be single out for fame. And he was studiedly indifferent to the press.
One painter, a true archetype, can hardly be said to constitute a movement, but Debierue rose above the Parisian art world like an extended middle finger. Paris critics found it embarrassing to admit that none of them knew the exact date his one-man show opened. The known details of the discovery of Debierue, and the impact of his influence on other painters, has been examined at some length by August Hauptmann in his monograph entitled Debierue. This isn't a long book, not for the work of a German scholar, but it's a well-documented study of Debierue's original achievement.
There isn't any mass of published work on Debierue, as there is on Pablo Picasso, but Debierue, as there is on Pablo Picasso, but Debierue's name crops up all the time in the biographies and autobiographies of other famous modern painters--usually in strange circumstances. The frequent mention of his name isn't surprising. Before Debierue was in the art world, he was of it. Because he framed their paintings, he knew personally, and well, most of the other firsts of the war and postwar years."
"He was a picture framer?"
"At first, yes. Miro, De Chirico, Man Ray, Pierre Roy, and many other painters found it expedient to visit him in his tiny framing shop. He gave them credit, and until they started to make money with their work, they sorely needed credit. Debieru's name is brought up in the studies published on every important postwar development because he was there--and because he knew all the artists involved. But his only commality with other innovator is the fact that he was a first in his own right as the acknowledged father of Nihilistic Surrealism. Debierue, by the way, didn't coin this term for his work.
The Swiss essayist and art critic, Franz Moricand, was the first writer to use this term with reference to Debierue's art. And the label, once attached, stuck. The term appeared originally in Moricand's essay, "Stellt er nur?" in Mercure de France. The article wasn't penetrating, but other critics were quick to snatch the term 'Nihilistic Surrealism' from the essay. An apt and descriptive bridge was needed, you see, to provide a clear dividing line between Dada and Surrealism. Both groups have attempted at various times to claim Debierue, but he was never in either camp. Dada and Surrealism both have strong philosophical underpinnings, but no one knows what Debierue's leanings are.
Chance is an important factor in the discovery and recognition of every artists, but what many modern critics fail to accept is that Debierue's many artist-friends paid off by sending people to see Debierue's one-man show. In his montmarte hole-in-the-wall framing workshop he had mounted many paintings at cost, and others absolutely free, for poor young painters whose work sold a few months later for high prices. Those 'crazy boatloads' of Americans, as Fitzgerald called them, coming to France during the boom period, always carried more than fifty dollars in cash on their person. They bought a lot of paintings, and the selling painters didn't forget their obligation to Debierue.
Despite Hauptmann's book, an aura of mystery about Debierue's first and only one-man show remains. No invitations were issued, and there were no posters or newspaper ads. He didn't even mention the show to his friends. One day, and the exact date is still unknown, a small, hand-lettered card appeared in the display case behind the street window of his framing shop. 'Jacques Debierue. No One. Show by request only.' It was spelled Capital N-o-period. Capital O-n-e.
"Why didn't he used the French Nombre une?"
"That's a good point, Berenice. But no one really knows. The fact that he used the English No. One instead of Nombre une may or may not've influence Samuel Beckett to write in French instead of English, as the literary critic Leon Mindlin has claimed. But everyone concerned agrees that it was an astute move on Debierue's part when American tourists, with their limited French, began to arrive on the Paris scene. Using a number as a title for this picture, incidentally, was another first in art that has been indisputably credited to Debierue. Rothko, who uses numbers exclusively for his paintings, has admitted privately, if not in writing, his indebtedness to Debierue. The point's important because several art historians falsely attribute the numbering of paintings as a first for Rothko. Debierue hasn't said anything, one way or another, about the matter. He's never commented on his picture, either.
This much is certain. No. One postdated Dada and pre-dated Surrealism, thereby providing a one-man bridge between the two major art movements of this century. And Debierue's Nihlistic Surrealism may, in time, turn out to be the most important movement of the three. In retrospect, it's easy enough for us to see how Debierue captured the hearts and minds of the remaining Dadaists who were gradually, one by one, dropping out of Dada and losing their hard-earned recognition to the burgeoning Surrealists. And you can also realize, now, why the Surrealists were so anxious to claim Debierue. But Debierue stood alone. He neither admitted nor denied membership in either movement. His work spoke for him, as a work of art is supposed to do.
No. One was exhibited in a small and otherwise empty room--once a maid's bedroom--one short flight of stairs above Debierue's downstairs workshop. An environment had been created deliberately for the picture. The visitor who requested to see it--no fee was asked--was escorted upstairs by the artists himself and left alone with the picture.
At first, as the viewer's eyes became adjusted to the murky natural light coming into the room from a single dirty window high on the opposite wall, all he could see was what appeared to be an ornate frame, without a picture in it, hanging on the wall. A closer inspection, with the aid of a march or cigarette lighter, revealed that the gilded frame with baroque scrollwork enclosed a fissure or crack in the gray plaster wall. The exposed wire, and the nail which had been driven into the wall to hold both the wire and the frame, were also visible. Within the frame, the wire, peaking to about twenty degrees at the apex--at the nail--resembled, if the viewer stood well back from the picture, a distant mountain range."
"What did the reviewers say about it?"
"What the reviewers said in the newspapers ins't important. There's a distinction between a reviewer and a critic, as you should know. The reviewer deals with art as a commodity. He's go three or four shows a week to cover, and his treatment of them is superficial, at best. But the critic is interested in aesthetics, and in placing the work of art in the scheme of things--or even as a pattern of behavior.
And although I'm a structuralist, I don't think that any work--poem, painting, novel--is autotelic. The personality of the artists is present in every work of art, and the critic has to dig it out as well as explicating the structure and form. Take pro football. A good critic's like a good football announcer on television. We see the same play that he does, but he breaks it down for us, reveal's the structure and the pattern of the play. He explains what went wrong and what was right about the play. He can also tell us what is likely to come next. Also, because of the instant tape replay, he can even break down the play into its component parts for us to see again in slow motion. We do the same thing in art criticism sometimes, when we blow up details of a painting in slides."
"Your analogy doesn't explain the 'personality' in the football play."
"Yes it does. This is the quarterback, who caused the play in the first place. That is, if the quarterback called the play. Sometimes the coach calls every play, sending in the new play every time with a substitute. If the announcer doesn't know what the coach is like, what he has done before, or the quarterback, I'll say, his explanation of the structure of the play is going to be shaky, and any prediction he makes won't be valid.
Then you shouldn't have any trouble in understanding the success of No. One. Only one person at a time was allowed to examine the picture. There was no time limit set by the artists. Some visitors came downstairs immediately. Others remained for an hour or more, inconveniencing those waiting below. The average viewer was satisfied by a cursory inspection. But according to Hauptmann, there were a great many repeats.
One old Spanish nobleman from Sevilla visited Paris a half-dozen times for the sole purpose of taking another look at No. One. No visitor's log was kept, but the fact that a vast number of people visited Debierue's shop to see the picture is a matter of public record. Every Parisian artist of the time made the pilgrimage, usually bringing along some friends. And No. One was widely discussed.
Sporadic newspaper publicity, the critical attention Debierue provoked in European art reviews, and word-of-mouth discussion of the exhibit brought a steady stream of visitors to his gallery until May 25, 1925, when he sold his shop for the purpose of painting full time.
Most of the commentators concentrated their remarks on the jagged crack within the frame. But there were a few who considered this point immaterial because the crack couldn't be moved if the frame were to be removed. They were wrong. A critic has to discuss what's there, not something that may be somewhere else. And he never exhibited it anywhere else after he sold his shop. THe consensus, including the opinions of those who actually detested the picture, was an agreement that the crack represented the final and inevitable break between traditional academic art and the new art of the twentieth century. In other words, No. One ushered in what Harold Rosenberg has since called 'the tradition of the new.'
Freudian interpretations were popular with the usual sexual connotations, but the sharpest splits were between the Dadaists and the surrealists concerned the irrational aspects of the picture. Most surrealists (Bunuel was an exception) held the opinion that Debierue had gone too far, feeling that he had reached a point of no return. Dadaists, many of them angered over the use of gilded baroque mounting, claimed that Debierue hadn't carried irrationality out far enough to make his point irrevocably meaningless. Neither group denied the powerful impact of No. One on the art of the times.
By 1925 Surrealism was no longer a potent art force--although it was revived in the thirties and rejuvenated in the early fifties. And the remaining Dadaists in 1925, those who hadn't joined Andre Breton, were largely disorganized Nevertheless, Debeirue's exhibit was still a strong attraction right up until the day it closed. And it was popular enough with Americans to be included on two different guided tours of Paris offered by tourist agencies.
Once Nihilistic Surrealism became established as an independent art movement, Debierue was in demand as a speaker. He turned these offers down, naturally--"
"Naturally? Doesn't a speaker usually get paid?"
"Yes, and he would've been well paid. But an artist doesn't put himself in a defensive position. ANd that's what happens to a speaker. A critic's supposed to speak. He welcomes questions, because his job is to explain what the artist does. The artist is untrained for this sort of thing, and all he does is weaken his position. Some painters go around the country on lecture tours today, carrying racks of slides of their work, and they're an embarrassed, in articulate lot. The money's hard to turn down, I supposed, but in the end they defeat themselves and negate their work. A creative artist has no place on the lecture platform, and that goes for poets and novelists as well as painters."
"The first three reviews of Debierue's Riviera works, with a nod to symbolisme, are self-explanatory. 'Fantasy,' 'Oblique,' and 'Rain' are the names given to his first three 'periods'--as assigned by the first three critics who were allowed to examine his paintings. The fourth period, 'Chironesque,' is so hermetic it requires some amplification.
A paucity of scholastic effort was put into the examination of these four important essays. Little has been published, either in book or monographs form as in-depth studies of each period--the way Picasso's Rose and Blue periods have been covered. This is understandable, because the public never saw any of these pictures.
The established critic prefers to examine the original work, or at least colored slides of that work, before he reaches his own conclusion. To refute or to agree with the critic who's seen the work puts a man on shaky ground. Each new article, as it appeared, however, received considerable attention. But writers were chary of making any expanded judgements based upon the descriptions alone.
THis general tendency didn't hold true for Louis Galt's essay, 'Debierue: The Chironesque Period,' which appeared in the Summer, 1958, The Nonobjectivist. It was reprinted in more than a dozen languages and art journals.
Galt, you see, was known as an avowed purist in his approach to nonobjective art, and that's why he published his article in The Nonobjectivist when he could've had it published by Art News for ten times as much money. Galt had once gone so far as to call Mondrian a 'traitor' in print when he the Dutchman gave up his black-and-white palette to experiment with color in his linear paintings. I didn't agree with him there but he made some telling points. But with so many able critics available, all of them anxious to see Debierue's post-World War Two work, i twas considered a damned shame that he'd chosen a purist would only look at the new work from a prejudiced view point.
The appellation 'Chironesque' was considered a derogatory 'literary' term. It was deeply resented by Susan Sontag, who said so in The Partisan Review. The Galt essay wasn't, in all fairness, disrespectful, but Galt stated bluntly that Debierue had retrogressed. He claimed that 'bicephalous centaurlike creatures' were clearly visible in the dozen paintings Debierue had shown him. And this forced Galt to conclude that the 'master' was now a 'teacher,' and that didacticism had no place in contemporary art. The 'purist' view, of course.
At any rate--and here he was reaching for it--because Chiron the centaur was the mythical teacher of Hercules, and other Greek heroes, Galt christened the period 'Chironesque.' This was a cunning allusion to the classicism Galt detested, elements Galt would've considered regressive in any modern painter.
Debierue, of course, said nothing.