A look at French writer and thinker Paul Valery on the anniversary of his birth

Posted by Eric Brightwell, October 30, 2013 02:04pm | Post a Comment

Paul Valéry
was an essayist, intellectual, journalist, philosopher, Symbolist poet, fiction writer and polymath who was born 142 years ago today.

Ambroise-Paul-Toussaint-Jules Valéry was born 30 October, 1871 to a Corsican father and Genoese-Istrian mother in Sète (or Cette) -- a small town in Occitania. There he attended school at Collège de Sète before the family moved to nearby Montpellier, where in 1889 he began studying law. At the same time he began writing Symbolist poetry, some of which was published in La Revue maritime de Marseille. Symbolism was in many ways a response to Realism -- particularly inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire. It particularly flourished in Belgium, France, and Russia.

In 1890, after completing his law studies, Valéry met Belgium-born poet Pierre Louÿs. Louÿs introduced him to the writer André Gide, who in turn introduced him to France’s preeminent Symbolist poet – Stéphane Mallarmé, whose “L'Après-midi d'un faune” inspired Claude Debussy’s wonderful symphonic poem of the same name (composed in 1894).

In 1892, on the night of 4 October/morning of 5 October, Valéry suffered from what he described as an existential crisis. After that he attempted to devote himself to what he called la vie de l'esprit (“the the life of the spirit”). In doing so he would get up around 5 am and jot down his thoughts in a journal every morning which afforded him the right, he said, to afterward be stupid for the remainder of the day. These journal entries are considered by many to be his greatest written accomplishment, and several volumes were published as Cahiers I (1973), Cahiers II (1974), and Cahiers (1894–1914) (1987). The total length of the journals is about 30,000 pages.

In 1894, Valéry moved from Genoa to Paris and began working at the War Office, claiming that being a poet was as useful to the state as being a good bowler. He published only two works during this period, Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci (1895) and La soirée avec monsieur Teste (1896). After his friend and mentor Stéphane Mallarmé died at the age of 56 in September of 1898, Valéry quit writing altogether for nearly twenty years.

In 1900, he married Jeannie Gobillard, a friend of Mallarmé's family. In a double wedding ceremony at Saint-Honoré d'Eylau, Gobillard’s cousin (and daughter of Berthe Morisot’s and niece of Édouard Manet) Julie Manet married painter Ernest Rouart. The union of Valéry and Gobillard ultimately produced three children: Claude, Agathe, and François.


Valéry’s “Great Silence” finally ended in 1917, when at 46-years-old he published "La Jeune Parque," a long poem which he’d begun some four years earlier at the encouragement of both Gide and the publisher Éditions Gallimard. He wrote what many consider to be one of his finest poems, "Le Cimetière marin," in 1920 and published Album des vers anciens (1920) and Charmes (1922). The first collection of his prose works, Variétés I, was published in 1924. Ulitmately more volumes followed: Variétés II (1930), Variétés III (1936), Variétes IV (1938), and Variétes V (1944).

Valéry became famous in France as both a writer and public speaker and received loads of honors. In 1924 he became the president of Pen Club Français. In 1925 he was elected to the Académie Française in 1925 Valéry became a well-known public speaker and intellectual in France and to an extent, much of the rest of Europe. In 1931, was named commander of the Legion of Honor and the same year he founded the Collège International de Cannes, still in operation today. On the 100th anniversary of the death of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Valéry gave the keynote address at a German observance of the occasion. In 1932 he joined the board of national museums. In 1933 he was made director of of what became the Centre universitaire méditerranéen de Nice. More honors, titles and positions followed – many of which he was stripped by the Vichy regime as punishment for failing to collaborate with the German Occupation.

Le Cimetière marin (source: Le blog de Michel Croz)

Valéry died in Paris on 20 July, 1945, shortly after the end of World War II. He has honored with a state funeral and his remains are interred in Sète at the same cemetery celebrated in his poem "Le Cimetière marin." Check the bookshelves if you're interested in reading the man's words. Much of his writing has been translated into various languages but learn French -- it's pretty easy!


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Lucien Levy-Dhurmer -- Artist, explorer, and autumn son

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 30, 2013 02:52pm | Post a Comment
Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer was a Symbolist and Art Nouveau artist who was born on this day in 1865. In France, he is still celebrated in some quarters for his work -- which includes paintings, drawings, ceramics, furniture and interior design -- but he remains obscure, especially outside the Francosphere. Even though there aren't any films about him that I know of -- or even any books that I've found -- I'm hopefully wrong. In that case, let me know so that I can add them to this entry and tell fans to seek them out. In any case, he's also a great artist to look at because he was born in autumn, died in autumn, and most of his most recognizable work has a great, autumnal, crepuscular quality which is perfect for viewing as the nights grow longer and summer fades.


Lévy was born 30 September, 1865 in Algiers (then part of occupied French Algeria) to Salomon Lévy and Pauline-Amélie Goldhurmer. In 1879, when he was fourteen years old, Lévy began studying drawing and sculpture at École communale supérieure de Dessin et Sculpture in Paris. He first exhibited in 1882 at the Salon de Paris, where he showed a ceramic piece, La Naissance de Vénus, d'après Cabanel -- a reference to painter Alexandre Cabanel). 


After school Lévy first worked as a lithographer. Then, from 1887 till1895, he worked as a ceramic decorator in the studio of Clément Massier, in Golfe-Juan. Though Jewish, much of Lévy's early ceramic work bore the more obvious influence of Islamic Moorish art that had surrounded him during his childhood in North Africa.

In 1892 he became the artistic director of Massier’s studio and as such, began signing his pieces "L. Levy." Throughout his stint at the studio he continued using oils and pastels and exhibited some work produced with them at 1894’s Peintres de l'âme collective exhibition alongside artists Edmond Aman-Jean, Émile-René Ménard, Alphonse Osbert, Carlos Schwabe, and Alexandre Séon.

In 1895 he returned to live in Paris to pursue a career in painting, where he met the poet Georges Rodenbach, whose portrait he painted shortly after in a style that, as with other works from the period, suggests the strong influence of Symbolist painter, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. 

                              Portrait de Georges Rodenbach (ca. 1895)                                                 La Silence (1895)

After a visit to Italy, Lévy's work revealed an increased interest in German and Florentine Renaissance -- resulting in paintings that fit in well alongside those of the English Pre-Raphaelites.

La Bourrasque (1896)

La Femme à la Médaille or Mystére (1896)

Portrait de Pierre Loti or Fantôme d'Orient (1896)

In 1896 the artist had his first solo exhibit of his work, billed as “Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer," which added part of his mother's maiden name (Goldhurmer) to his given family name. The exhibit included two sanguines, five paintings, and sixteen pastels and was shown at Georges Petit’s gallery. Success quickly followed and his prominent admirers included occultist writer Joséphin Peladan and artists such as Emile Bernard and Gustave Moreau.

In 1897, in the tradition of the Grand Tour, Lévy-Dhurmer began extensively traveling in Europe, Africa, and Asia -- visiting Britain, Holland, Italy, Morocco, Spain, and Turkey. His work from this period began to increasingly focus on landscapes, albeit subjectively idealized ones, and he also depicted the inhabitants of the places through which he passed in portraits. As the fin-de-siècle transitioned into the début-de-siècle, Levy-Dhurmer continued to focus on landscapes and portraits that syncretized the styles of Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler.

Beautés de Marrakech (1901)


Levy-Dhurmer continued to exhibit his work in group exhibitions, salons, and solo shows. Also, between 1910 and 1914 he designed the Wisteria Dining Room at the home of Auguste Rateau (now preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). In 1914 he married Emmy Fournier (Jeanne Marie Marnière), editor of the feminist newspaper La Fronde.

The Wisteria Dining Room

Levy-Dhurmer's wife, whom he nicknamed "Perla," died in 1944. Levy-Dhurmer died close to his 88th birthday, on 24 September, 1953.


Happy birthday, Edvard Munch

Posted by Eric Brightwell, December 12, 2012 05:43pm | Post a Comment
Today is the 149th birthday of Norwegian painter and printmaker, Edvard Munch

Munch was born 12 December in the village of Ådalsbruk in Løten, in 1863. His father was a doctor named Christian Munch and his mother was Laura Catherine Bjølstad. He was often ill as a child and reportedly drew to occupy his considerable time spent in bed.

In 1881, Munch enrolled at Den kongelige tegneskole. Along with fellow students, he had his first public exhibition in 1883. Some of his early work was in the Naturalism and Impressionism traditions. After falling in with nihilist/philosopher/writer/anarchist Hans Jæger, and his circle, Kristianiabohêmen, Munch began attempting to paint from his soul.

Munch's first "soul painting," Det Syke Barn (The Sick Child) depicted his sister Johanne Sophie on her deathbed -- she died from TB when just fifteen.

(l-r) Munch's original Munch's last ...and parodies

Munch's piece(s) titled Der Schrei der Natur (usually known as The Scream in English) is his most recognized work and has been referenced, parodied and copied countless times. The first version, done with pastels, was completed in 1893. He created three more versions, one more pastel and two paintings. 

Munch passed away on 23 January, 1944 at the age of eighty years. He is quoted as having said, "Fra min råtnende kropp skal blomster vokse, og jeg er i dem, og dét er evighet" which Google translates as "From my rotting body flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity."

In college I had the opportunity to see Peter Watkins's 210 minute long biographical film, Evard Munch. In addition to my date and I, there was only one other film attendee in the audience. I was utterly enthralled but by the time the film ended, my girlfriend had fallen asleep and the other film-goer had long since taken off. If you'd like to purchase a copy, it is available on DVD