d e c e m b e 15, 2011

It was Mac Orlan who introduced me to Pascin; I believe it was in 1928. We were having dinner at a small restaurant on Montmartre. I knew and loved Pascin’s drawings and was eyeing him with frank curiosity. He had the face of a southerner, perhaps, an Italian; he was dressed far too correctly for an artist, in a navy blue suit and black patent-leather shoes; although bowler hats had nearly disappeared by that time, Pascin often wore an old-fashioned bowler hat. He was silent over dinner. Mac Orlan did the talking, speaking about the past war, about the gigantic growth of cities, about how Place Pigalle was glowing at night and how shadows roamed under black bridges and called all that the “new romantics”. Pascin first listened and then began to draw Mac Orlan, myself and naked women on a bill of fare.

We were served coffee and cognac; he drank a glass in a gulp the way they drink vodka in Russia and suddenly livened up, “Romantics? Bullshit! Tough luck. Why build art schools from shit? Place Pigalle has one hundred bordellos. Period. Ordinary people are sleeping under bridges; give them beds, and they will vote and go to church on Sundays. No need to dress people in suits: fashion keeps changing. Better undress them. A naked navel tells me more than all the dresses. ‘Romantics?’ Just piggishness, if you ask me…” He had another glass, and then I saw a different Pascin – noisy, restless and notorious for his debauchery. For some reason I remembered a friend of my early youth, Modigliani.

When I met Pascin later, at times serious, sad and even timid, and at other times violent, I realized that I had not been wrong during our first meeting: in some way he did resemble Modigliani. Could it be in the sudden shift from being reserved and taciturn, from concentrated work to debauchery? Could it be in their passion for drawing invariably on scraps of paper? Could it be in that the two of them were always surrounded by people and both knew the full measure of loneliness?

Pascin found himself on Montparnasse when the drama had already been played out to the end. Other dramas were on far away from the Rotonde. He appeared suddenly and far too late, like a stray star. Had he sat next to Modi, they would have understood each other. But Pascin had been far away then, in Vienna, Munich and New York.

He lived the life of a vagabond. He had all sorts of acquaintances in Paris; he met writers, artists, Derain, Vlaminck, Salmon and Mac Orlan, surrealists; or plunged into a different world, drinking with wandering circus artistes, prostitutes and swindlers. Everybody knew that he was a famous artist and that his works were at museums; meanwhile he kept tearing up his drawings, drawing and tearing them up; and few people knew where he had come from, where he had spent forty years of his life and whether he had a homeland, a home and a family.

Pascin was born Julius Pincas in Vidin, a small Bulgarian town on the Danube. He was a son of a trader, a Sephardic Jew (like Modigliani); Pascin’s forefathers lived in Granada and were expelled by Ferdinand the Catholic in 1492. It is therefore a very old story. But when in 1945 I came to Sofia and at dinner was seated next to a former guerrilla fighter who did not know Russian, it suddenly turned out that we could make ourselves understood in Spanish: the guerrilla fighter was a Sephardic Jew. As a child Pascin spoke Spanish at home and Bulgarian with kids at the backyard. A short while ago I received a letter from Bulgaria, from Pascin’s schoolmate; he sent me a photograph of the house where little Pincas had studied.

Pascin came to Vienna to study painting; in Munich he made drawings for Simplicissimus; traveled  as far as America and fell on hard times. Then he was showered with money; he spent it immediately, giving it to chance drinking companions, staged absurd debauches and lavished it on sitters. He seemed to doubt his glory and mistrust himself, and often spoke angrily about his work.

One day he invited me to visit, “There’ll be friends….” I had hardly reached his place when I heard a roar bursting through the windows. There proved to be too many “friends”; people with glasses were standing even on the stairs. Guests were sitting or lying on drawings. Rumba was ringing out: it was a real square ball.

I remember the same studio on Boulevard Clichy on an ordinary day; dusty and dull couches and poufs that Pascin put his sitters on; disorder, empty bottles, dry flowers, books and women’s gloves, and an unfinished canvas with two nudes on the easel. Pascin always had muted colors; the half-finished canvas seemed to have faded already.

What was the wide-spread impression about Pascin’s sensuality and eroticism based on? Could it be the fact that he always drew and painted female bodies that was so stunning?  Or perhaps, Pascin’s way of life was so baffling: he would suddenly appear, surrounded by a dozen of women. But he was a romantic, he fell in love the old way, unarmed and defenseless before the object of his love; and if we give a thought to his drawings, they bespeak rather despair than voluptuousness; all those short-legged plump young girls with hurt eyes look like broken dolls, like the strange doll hospital that I saw in Naples.

Surprisingly, all the while he was at the center of artistic debates, schools and trends, and yet seemed to have noticed none of that: neither the “Blue Rider,” nor Cubism, nor the noisy Surrealists. When he read a magazine article which called him the leader of the “School of Paris” and which noted that the “School of Paris” had been founded by somebody who was neither a Parisian nor a Frenchman, Pascin laughed and suggested that the critics form a new trend of “pentoorthoxenophagia”, quintuple direct devouring of foreigners.

 

Ilya Ehrenburg. People, Years and Life. Moscow, Text Publishers, 2005