J u n e 1,   2014
dorgeles Roland Dorgelès: Personality in History

Roland Dorgelès. Late 1920s – mid-1930s


The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain put the good things of life produced by Western civilization within the reach of many of my compatriots and, moreover, opened up virtually boundless opportunities for exploring the history, culture and art of the Western world. And the latter is far more important than the chance to relax by the sea or go shopping for new things.

I personally have always had a keen interest precisely in the cultural and historical context of developments that puts a spotlight on the character, everyday life and surroundings of people of the arts and quaintly contributes to creativity in various spheres of culture. The fates of the majority of talented people are surprisingly interconnected. You get interested in one person, but the history of relations suddenly takes you sideways to new characters and brings along fresh surprises and discoveries.

Studies of modern art over the past two years regularly brought me round to the same person. Now it turns out that Les Croix de bois by a certain Roland Dorgelès is the best “trench warfare” novel about the First World War (and what about Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, an undisputable favorite of our youth?). Now exploring art life in France in the early 20th century, I repeatedly come across the story of an attempt to discredit modern art made by a group of pranksters at the Salon des Independants in Paris in the spring of 1910. The same name is at the center of that scandal.

According to the history and particulars of the century-old performance, the idea came from Roland Dorgelès, a young man at large, or an art critic, according to another version.

By the late 1910s artistic quests got embroiled in theory as manifested by trends such as Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism. Manifestos were written and scholarly arguments offered. The mathematician and chess player Maurice Princet, a well-known friend of bohemian artists, used mathematical calculations to substantiate Cubism. In the midst of the general enthusiasm for theory Dorgelès made a bet that he would launch a new trend without anyone as much as sensing the catch. That was how Et le soleil s’endormit sur l’Adriatique (The Sun Falling Asleep over the Adriatic) by the Genovese artist Joachim-Raphaël Boronali came to be exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in March 1910. The picture represented the new trend Excessivism, the fundamentals of which were expounded in a manifesto published by Paris newspapers. The canvas fitted perfectly in the exposition, conformed to the spirit of the time and was for two days adequately received by the public, until Dorgelès published the story of its production in Le Matin, complete with documentary evidence in the form of photographs and the on-the-scene bailiff note. The picture was “painted” by Lolo, the donkey of Pere Frédé of the Lapin Agile cabaret. Of course, the response was tremendous ranging from the roars of laughter of the throng of viewers before the picture to media debates about dishonest pranksters who dared to hang donkey’s daubs next to the works of outstanding innovator artists. What was more, the name of the picture unambiguously referenced Claude Monet’s manifesto Impression. Soleil levant, after which famous Impressionism had been named 28 years earlier. It was therefore a serious blow to public opinion and public taste.


i 010 Roland Dorgelès: Personality in History

Et le soleil s’endormit sur l’Adriatique. 1910
© Espace culturel Paul Bédu, Milly-la-Foret (Essonne)
Donation Paul Bédu 1990


Despite the disclosure the picture was purchased by the sculptor and artist André Maillos for 20 louis d’ore (400 francs in gold, 3,500 euros in 2013 prices) that Dorgelès donated to the Orphelinat des Arts. In 1953 the canvas was acquired by the collector Paul Bédu. It can now be seen at the museum which stores the Paul Bédu collection in Milly-la-Forêt, Essonne, 52 km away from Paris.

I wanted to write about this story separately a long time ago because it seems so relevant even today, in the early 21st century. Contemporaries recalled it as a witty practical joke. Those who wish may read memoirs of Francis Carco, a bohemian poet of the Montparnasse, who was directly involved in those events. As the saying goes, many a true word is spoken in jest. Suffice it to remember that Adolf Hitler used that story in 1937 to make short work of the German avant-garde and expressionism when the Nazis staged exhibitions of “degenerate” art and burned paintings in bonfires. Our Nikita Khrushchev, who lashed out at the Soviet avant-garde at the Manezh exhibition in December 1962, also made use of that story. This is what he had to say about the work of outstanding Soviet artists, “And this art when a picture is painted by an ass when a fly bites it, and the more it bites, the more ‘complex work’ it creates”. However, the famous Russian avant-garde artists Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were the first to use this story with Dorgelès’ prank. In 1912 they founded the Donkey’s Tail association, which exhibited children’s drawings, pictures by house painters and signboards by amateur artist Niko Pirosmanishvili alongside works by well-known artists.

Let us, however, go back to Dorgelès’ Wooden Crosses novel which brought the author the worldwide fame of a writer. On the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War the desire to read it was well neigh burning. Yet the book remained beyond my reach. It could be read either in the French original, or in the English translation. I set out to find the Russian translation published in 1925 in 4,000 copies, and a year-long search proved a success.

In a nutshell, to compare the Wooden Crosses with All Quiet on the Western Front is tantamount to comparing France with Germany. Remarque’s novel is akin to German expressionism in its black-and-white generalization of the war as seen by a young soldier and recorded ten years after the end of the war, in 1929. It is a mature analysis and review of the cruelty and senselessness of war. Dorgelès published his novel in 1919 and wrote it right during the war in memory of the perished comrades. The two authors were infantrymen and might well have been in trenches on the opposite sides of the frontline as their countries were at war.

Both authors describe trench warfare. Yet Dorgelès depicts in bright colors everyday soldier’s life, the confusion of exchanges of fire and the agonizing anticipation of shelling. It is a story of French soldiers fighting on French land, which is felt in the description of characters that have not merely French names but typical national features. Despite its naturalism, Dorgelès’ novel is brimming with life and human warmth.


Dorgeles1915 Roland Dorgelès: Personality in History

Roland Dorgelès in WWI trenches. 1915


Les Croix de bois was published in more than one million copies and translated into many languages. In 1919 it won the Fémina Prix and was nominated for the Prix Goncourt (À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs of Marcel Proust won by two votes). Nonetheless, Dorgelès was associated with the Prix Goncourt throughout his life: a Goncourt Academy member from 1927, Dorgelès was elected its president in 1954 and retained that post until his death in 1973.

One more unexpected touch to the portrait of Roland Dorgelès. When preparing for my Art Life in Occupied France. 1940-1944 post I had to peruse a great deal of writings on France’s entry into the Second World War and the period prior to the occupation referred to as Drôle de guerre, when France “fought” against Germany virtually without firing a single shot. That apt description was coined by the Gringoire weekly war correspondent Roland Dorgelès.

He thus happened to pinpoint the gist of global developments, be it artistic quests and creativity issues or historical landmarks of a global scale, and knew how to diagnose the problem and draw public attention to it.

I would like to close with a video portrait of Roland Dorgelès. A 1910 strip of film shows Dorgelès with his close friend, the famous French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Looking at those young men marching merrily one can imagine easily the pranks and tricks played by the Montparnasse bohemians, including the scene of the creation of a “masterpiece” of modern art by Lolo the donkey.