In honor of the Menil Collection’s William N. Copley survey, which opened today and is subtitled “The World According to CPLY,” we turn back to the March 1960 issue of ARTnews, which featured a profile of the painter Serge Charchoune written by none other than Copley himself. Twelve years prior, Copley had opened a gallery in Los Angeles, where he showed work by Dada and Surrealist artists. Because the Los Angeles scene hadn’t latched on to the European avant-garde in the same way that the New York scene had, the gallery shuttered shortly thereafter, but, as the Charchoune profile makes clear, Copley never gave up on Dada and Surrealism. (Images of Copley’s erotic, fancifully colored paintings, which also drew inspiration from French modernism, are included with the reprinted essay.) Copley’s article follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger
“Introducing the paintings of Serge Charchoune”
By William N. Copley
A gentle Paris painter of another age continues to work quietly and modestly in times when violence and aggression are the norm
Cité Falguière, just off the Montparnasse end of Boulevard Pasteur, is a tiny impasse with a tradition for obscurity. It was the home of Modigliani and Soutine, and it is there, living almost as their ghost, that the painter Serge Charchoune is living today.
I am not one to romanticize starvation and obscurity for artists. Such notions are for bad novels. Yet there is something so poetically proper about Charchoune’s presence in the impasse that it is often commented upon. His obscurity is an obscurity almost of choice, not that he enjoys discomfort or being so often passed-over, in spite of his recognition by many intellectuals, but because his modesty, and, above all, the lack of aggressiveness in his painting, marry so perfectly with the old place.
It is a temptation for critics of his work to pass him off as a painter’s painter. Certainly, painters do own a great many of his paintings and painters have been responsible for keeping his spirits up, but this is too easy a generalization. Rather his lack of recognition seems stemmed from his determined, almost stubborn, refusal to paint aggressively in a period when aggressiveness in painting is so much in style. He will tell you he admires the violence of today’s young painters, “But . . . I am a more complicated savage.” He also admires the individuality of the Surrealists, perhaps his strongest defenders, but has steadfastly refused identification with the group, insisting that métier is more important than subject matter. Yet, is he really this far removed from Surrealist attitudes?
“The abstract school,” he has written, “includes the worst, but also the best. Art is the domain of ecstasy. The artist is closer to natural primitiveness. Nothing is created with premeditation. Instinct and subconsciousness, indecision and errors, are worth more in art than calculations and the knowledge of a banker.”
In order to understand the obscurity from which he is beginning to emerge, we must emphasize the gentleness of his painting. It helps to know him personally, and it is a delightful experience. He is over seventy now, quite thin, with an angular face and a mouth more used to vaguely smiling than laughing openly. His grey hair is nicely tinted by spots of color directly from whatever canvas he is working on, as his spectacles do not seem sufficiently strong to relieve his present nearsightedness. He dresses neatly, as though his clothes were not threadbare, and wears the dignity of a gentleman from an almost forgotten epoch. A friend is always greeted as “chez maître.” His tiny studio has an easel, one or two uncertain chairs and a shaky ladder ascending to a shaky balcony where he sleeps. There is no room to back up to view the large canvases he struggles to show you, and while he pants and wheezes, you must let him struggle, for only he knows how they can be maneuvered. Meanwhile, they must be stacked against the only exit, which can be disconcerting to one given to claustrophobia.
Charchoune was born in Bougourouslan, Samara, Russia, in 1889, which a critic once remarked “doesn’t happen to everybody.” He describes his early years as lyrical, which I take to mean—and he admits it—that he was a lazy student. Being of Slavic background, and given to dreaming by the banks of the Volga, so beautiful at Simbirsk, where he was sent because his town had no school of its own, this early infatuation had a profound effect on his painting, and the lyrical flowing line, so suggestive of water or melody, is the constantly present entity in his canvases. It seems he painted against the wishes of his father, but managed to study art for several months in Moscow, where he was able to acquaint himself with what was going on in Paris—Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism.
Like so many of his generation, his arrival in Paris in 1912 was motivated by the urge to avoid military service. There, he became involved immediately with Cubism, studying with Le Fauconnier, who had a great influence on him, as well as Metzinger and Segonzac. He first exhibited at the 1913 Indépendents.
Then followed two and a half years in Spain, where he worked primarily in Barcelona and some months in Mallorca. Here he had his first meeting with Dada, which was to influence him briefly a little later, coming in contact with Picabia’s review 391, and the fabulous Arthur Cravan.
More important, I think, was the influence on him of the Moorish ornamental tiles, which appealed to his Slavic nature, reminding him perhaps of the decoration from the home he never stopped longing to see again. His first Spanish exhibition was painted in the style of ornamental Cubism.
Charchoune never winced at the criticism of being decorative, and if, for a while, his work was frankly decorative, he says it was because it fitted his Slavic background. He considers Kandinsky, though not so concerned with the actual matter of painting as he himself is, the father of modern art, and along with his predecessor, Wroubel, feels that the contact with icons was finally established.
In a fit of zeal, inspired by the change regime in Russia, he successfully volunteered for the Russian expeditionary corps in France. He did not consider himself an exceptional soldier, and he was happy to be discharged in 1919.
His brief courtship with the Dada movement came about through a chance meeting with Picabia while he was supporting himself as a book peddler in Paris. Some of his drawings and poems were reproduced in the Dada Review, but here again his retiring nature kept him from participating with the violent enthusiasm which characterized the group, preferring the company of his fellow Russian exiled painter and poets.
While he denies participating in Dada as a painter, and had refused to participate in the Surrealist movement, it is interesting to note a series of paintings done in 1955 as the project for illustrating Kafka’s Metamorphosis. They depict the actual metamorphosis itself, with a sensitivity to the subconscious worthy of the most dedicated Surrealist. After a trip to Berlin in 1922-23, where he went with the intention of returning to Russia, he suffered a political disillusionment which made final his break with Dada.
Traces of the Dada experience remain in his work, and he was influenced by the mechanical aspect of Picabia’s work. This, plus the fascination he had for the Moorish tiles he saw in Spain, his frank love of nature and the orthodoxy of his training, provided the raw material for his period of ornamental Cubism, and for a brief period of ornamental Impressionism.
It was at this time that he came into contact with Ozenfant, whose influence became less as time went by. As stated above, Charchoune does not mind being considered decorative, an anathema for most painters today, and it is perhaps the frankness with which he embraced the experiments that led him safely past the pitfalls. André Salomon, one of his earliest friends and defenders, describes him as a Cubist who surpasses Cubism—as the Seurat of Cubism: “a conscious colorist of the place given to volume by color.” Marcel Sauvage compares his harmonies of tone to Juan Gris, and his sobriety of line to that of Braque. “Charcoune treated ornamental Cubism without giving in to abstract decoration.” Charchoune considered himself a “lagging-behind Cubist.”
This period includes paintings of still-life and also many landscapes, treated quite freely. There is almost always water, harking back to his childhood on the Volga—quays, boats, trees. Gradually we see his infatuation with music beginning to dominate. We have seen it already in Cubist renderings of the violin, a popular subject also with Braque (guitars, of course, with Picasso), artists who, along with Klee, he has no hesitation in admitting as influences.
There were difficult years for him. He painted when he could. Often he had to seek employment, if only dish-washing, to live. Occasionally he received some enthusiastic recognition. His first contact with the commercial world was thanks to Salomon in 1926, who arranged his first important exhibition at Galerie Jeanne Bucher. He sold two-thirds of it. He also had successful shows at the Galerie Auber, the Galerie Percier and the Galerie Bonaparte. But these were sporadic successes, the paintings appealing mostly to the intellectuals as opposed to the public, and left him worse off than ever.
Always a solitary man, personal experiences dominated more and more the subject matter of his painting. “I am responsive to all influences, those of the environment in which I live, that of the last little occurrence of everyday life, and, of course, that of my colleagues. If I am moved by an exhibition,upon returning home, I usually begin to paint in the manner of the painter who impressed me.” In referring to this statement, the critic, Patrick Waldberg, writes, “What artist is capable of speaking of his work with such lucidity, modesty and courage?”
To me he once said, “Whereas I paint today on the inspiration of musical experiences, I might, on seeing pretty girls by the Seine, start painting that experience.” The concert is one of the great pleasures of the solitary man. Charchoune hears more music than he sees pretty girls by the Seine. Giulia Veronesi has said, “In a parallel between music and painting, Charchoune has found a source of harmony.” I want to remind the reader of the accident involved. It could as easily be pretty girls by the Seine as the musical line which flows as pleasantly, for Charchoune, as the waters of the Volga and the Seine. Indeed, water and music are practically synonymous with the artist.
Charchoune has resisted Dada and Surrealism because of his conviction that he is an abstract painter. Yet he freely considers himself an enemy of mathematics and science, and has never painted with any rigid theories. Nor must we forget that he wanders in and out of the Louvre as often as in and out of concert halls. Still, Charchoune considers himself stubbornly as an abstract painter. Assuming we accept this, and assuming that there is nothing in art more abstract than music, musical subjects are attractive to him because of their convenience. His titles are always “inspired by” this or that musical work. And he has admitted to me that the works involved are merely a point of departure. For me, they set the mood primarily through color. Wagner with brasses is invariably splashed with yellows. Boccherini is polychromatic. All this is abstract, if you like, but there is occasionally an undeniable subject over and above the flow of water or the musical line. In Charchoune’s somber rendering of the Beethoven “Funeral March,” I found an image so unforgettable and haunting that it has become part of my dreams, a cross leaning precariously over what appears to be an open grave. The subject is a funeral march and the image is death. This concept, unconscious as it probably was, belongs to the subjective world of the subconscious. In answer to the question, “Are you works symbolic?” Charchoune made this answer: “Not in the least. There is never a key. One should not look for more than an evasion of reality, and an attempt at transcribing a state of spirit.” Is he not bordering on the Surreal in this attitude?
It is the contention of the most ardent admirers of Charchoune that the monochromes and, above all, his white monochromes, are the most exciting of his later work. A sort of photosynthesis leads him to white. He has a habit (often considered disastrous) of reworking old paintings. White is a heavy color. I tried to lift one of his medium-sized monochromes, formerly a polychrome based on a Mozart theme and worked upon over several years, and nearly broke my back. All that time, he had been adding white to it. If we admit, which I insist, that this is not a disastrous process, I may return to my premise that the enchanting characteristic of Charchoune is his modesty and non-aggressiveness.
Patrick Waldberg wrote: “One can pass a Charchoune painting without seeing it. In his light canvases the range of greys, creams, pinks or violets attains such a fine degree of subtlety, that the least lack of lighting risks letting them melt into the wall. The fact that a painter devotes his life to making almost invisible paintings seems astonishing enough to be worthy of note. The value of Charchoune lies neither in his non-existing drawing, nor in the ascetic manner. It is the simple and naive juxtaposition of his strokes in a sort of discretion and modesty which confers on his best works their originality and charm.”
Considering Charchoune in the light of what observations we have been able to make, we have perhaps established him as an abstract painter whose charm abides in his modesty. I cannot deny that Charchoune accepts this definition; his behavior, as well as the conversations with him, bears it out. I can only suggest that here again, modesty is misleading. It is impossible for me to limit my enjoyment to the purely abstract aspect of Charchoune’s painting.
His violin of 1948 is first a violin; a violin, as it is analyzed almost out of existence before my eyes, only to emerge again as more than a violin. A violin returning with its music! A poem of a violin! And invariably, I associate poetry with the Surreal. The series of projected illustrations for Kafka’s Metamorphosis is the closest approach to a Surrealist attitude towards painting that we can find in his work. This pictorial metamorphosis, frankly descriptive, has much in common with his later monochromatic painting. The tendency of Charchoune to render his own forms unnoticeable, if not invisible, suggests a constant and perpetual metamorphosis, particularly appropriate to the rendering of a musical theme. In other words, assuming that the paintings with musical titles were to be considered actual renderings of music, which I am convinced they are not, and Charchoune himself denies, they would be a step beyond, say Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie, in that the vibrations of tones are not achieved by bright contrasting color, but rendered poetically through suppressions. The paintings which seem to start out with sharp tonal clashes, more often than not find themselves literally toned down through a series of after-thoughts. If then he is not visually reproducing musical themes but, as he claims, using such themes as a point of departure, is he not then personalizing the experience of viewing pretty girls by the Seine? Such personalization destroys any clear definition between purely abstract or poetically Surrealist art, if we need to use these terms. Its closest friends hail from both camps.