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Dear Michonze ou Grégoire de la Tour !
What a great joy to get your letter, with those wonderful sketches of heads and the news of a 1,000,000 Frs prize for a canvas !!! (Old or new, one can never sneeze at a million, what !)
(…) I have your narrow rectangular painting over the closet door of my bedroom where I see it every time I hit the bed. When people ask me who did it, I say - "An old master". Certainly you are the toughest veteran of the art world in our time...
Henry Miller (from a letter to Michonze, oct 16th 1965)
My dear Michonze
(…)Your work as revealed in this little book is your justification for living. It is greater than I had dreamed it to be. It is gloriously mad, drunk, insane, lecherous, caricatural and yes « anecdotal ». But how wonderful, how moving ! You were so right in never joining the surrealist movement.
(…)Listen, I am going to look again and again at your paintings. They are mad in a wonderful way. And your colors just right - strong, vibrant, reverberating. But your figures - they get in my hair, they are like blessed criminals, perverts, monsters - bravo!! And all this from Bessarabia? Incroyable! My dear Michonze, I must stop now - eye weak. Blessings on you. When you are lonely, think of the stars, the grass, the field mice, the gorillas, the punaises and tout cela. Ils partagent ce monde aussi.
Cheers ! live long ! love !
Henry Miller (from a letter to Michonze, june 30th 1978)
Of all the painter friends who have survived the wars, revolutions, massacres, tortures, devaluations and deteriorations of our time, Michonze stands out like the rock of ages. Today he seems even more alive, more healthy, more determined, even more hopeful, than when I first met him in 1928 on the terrasse of the Dôme. The Dôme was then his bureau, so to speak. There he met his friends, his dubious clients, the new arrivals from the land of plenty, the transients who bought him a sandwich or a bock, for which they expected in return the services of a guide, an interpreter or a factotum. Michonze had time for everything then. He painted only at night - in his dreams.
What a life ! In all these years he has had just one exhibitionn in Paris ! Amid all the comings and goings of the famous and the near famous he remains the lone figure, the last of the grenadiers. In a true sense his adress is still « the Hole in the Wall », his favourite restaurant « The Hard Bench, boulevard Edgar Quinet » - en face du cimetière Montparnasse. And his best friend is probably the pawnbroker. Classic, what !
My remembrance of him in the old days is always of a man on his feet, excited, waving his arms, greeting people, looking happy and expectant. Always surrounded by friends, yet ever alone. Wondering, no doubt, which of the thousand paintings in his head he would put to canvas when the time permitted – and the place, and the materials. Listening to all the nonsense about art, conducting visitors to galleries and museums, explaining the latest movement – « Excuse me, what time is it ? » -snatching à glance at the newspaper – « Yes, that’s a Picasso, too » - giving a five minute lesson on the use of the subjonctive, recapitulating the story of the Renaissance, a hint about Grünewald, directions by Métro to Place Pigalle – « Try pain mie next time ! » - and so on and so forth.
What a life ! And just when he finds the place, the brushes, the tubes, the canvas, someone demands that he do a portrait. Impossible to refuse. How many many portraits he made, dear Michonze ! They must be ranged along the walls of his memory like passport photos. Some were well done – real daguerreotypes – despite the subject matter. None were ever as flippant and slapdash as some of the heads by Matisse I have seen – intended perhaps for hat boxes or cigar boxes.
Today, what ? One might expect to find in his work a bit of amertume, de la rancune, du désespoir. Nothing of the sort. You find yourself in a gentle, dreamy world of reality, where trees are trees, rocks rocks, where all the elements combine to reflect the innocence of the soul. Houses are aligned not according to theories but in tune with feeling, with the moods of the occupants, of the skies that hang above them, of the animals which rub the walls, of the paths which lead to other houses, other neighbours, other ideas. In some the spirit, of a Cimabue hovers – suggested perhaps by the soft classic background of verdant hills, birds in flight, sombre trees, man–sized dwellings, peace, resignation, purity of atmosphere, the devotion and adoration of humble people.
I interrupt myself. He could have painted so violently otherwise, this Michonze. Did he not assist at the birth of all those movements which are now the talk of the aesthetes who have never held a brush? Did he not accompany to their graves many who are now celebrated and idolized – after serving as the laughing–stock of their day ? Was he not schooled in this nuclear fission-abstract spitball-non-directional-Hollywood chewing gum school of so-called modern art whose goal is to make everything unrecognizable, prismatic in the style of schizophrenia ?
He was always a lone figure. He has remained such. He paints his aloneness. But there is nothing lonely about his aloneness. More, there is something remarkably clean about his paintings. They reveal the fact that he has not been contaminated. They are unsullied by the filthy aspects of our age. Nor is there any pretence about them. They are just what they are-no more. They breathe the life of their creator. A man who has kept his heart clean, his mind open, who is still able to take a simple, healthy view of life, to praise and to revere it.
Henry Miller, Paris, 29th May, 1959
(For the catalog of Michonze’s exhibition at the Adams Gallery, London, June-July 1959).
A great painter has just died. In the carnage of this fin de siècle, when you compare all those who made it, you have the well known, the famous, and the unrecognized. During his lifetime, Michonze did not get the recognition his loyalty to his own strangeness deserved. I am certain the recognition he obtained from those who knew him, loved him, both himself and his painting, will increase as the years go by. Those who wrote about him mostly recalled Soutine’s friend, the marginal of surrealism, the survivor of Montparnasse, Henry Miller’s friend.
He gave few personal exhibitions, such as in Paris in 1953, in London in 1959 and 1972. A prize in New York in 1960, in Trouville in 1964. His paintings are in American, English, Israeli collections. In France, he never matched what favoured the art market, and meets or does not meet solitary research. Out of bravado, he had posted on his door : « imitative and anecdotal painter ». He worked in Paris, and sometimes in an old mill near Troyes, where he gave an exhibition in 1978. It would be a mistake to consider this as a withdrawal, a minor artist’s provincialism. Neither biographical nor formalist discourse on painting can do justice to Michonze’s world. Michonze’s world exists because his figures, pausing in countless scenes, cannot be told. They persist, they are fragments of our dreams. The familiar in strangeness, the unknown in everyday life. There is something of a primitive painter in him, -in the sense of the Italian primitives, nothing to do with naïvism, that has kept him clear of mannerism, of a nonchalant vision. It is why his pictures question our time.
He called himself a « surreal naturalist ». Humour, here, is more like a journey beyond reality, creating a human bestiary, an untimely and ever surprising dreamplace. This painting knows how to be unfinishable. This is why I believe it will have greater future than it has had present fame. Patrick Waldberg, who evoked so well « Le pays de Grégoire Michonze » (Le Mercure de France, March 1965), saw in it a correspondence with Samuel Beckett, and recalled Jacques Villon’s remark that the hardest, for a painter, are the first seventy years. Michonze has just died, at eighty years old. Suddenly, in full vitality. He knew how to resemble no one else. To do his own thing. But his solitude, that is painted all over his canvasses, was hard for him to live with. If a total absence of compromise is a sign of strength, whether or not it meets with marketing, you can trust in Michonze’s painting. His approach, is such an alteration of perception, that I know none other. His painting has plenty of time now. But it is more than just a witness, it is a whole part of us. The least ostentatious, yet the most indestructible.
Henri Meschonnic (Le Monde, January 7, 1983, translated from French)
Michonze communicated little about his childhood in a troubled land. As soon as he could get the money for the trip, he sailed for Paris, capital of Arts at the time.
Even though Michonze had settled in Paris, in the cafés of Montparnasse, and later in the rue de Seine, right in the heart of St Germain des Près, he always travelled a lot in search of inspiration. Hardly a year would go by without one or several trips to the French provinces, the Midi, Normandy, Brittany, the Cévennes, the Lubéron, or in Europe- England, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, as well as Israël and the United States, from which he would come back with notebooks full of drawings.
From small shacks to the large studios at the mill in Champagne, from improvised studios at friend’s houses in the country, to London homes or Tel Aviv studios, all were creative places to live, work, and meet friends in.
Authenticity of an ageless artist-artisan, free of all trends and fashions. His timeless art, that he meant rustic, calls for sarcasm, and affectivity, that seems disconnected from appearances is kept at a distance. Such thing require mastery.
His saturated and captive realism exists in trompe l’œil, akin to some unbelievable and demented reality : Michonze stages the implacable and feverish presence of original chaos, that cultures disdain.
He is figurative, no doubt, but the fierce cutting edge of his drawing, the slight quiver of hidden suffering, disrupt ordinary figuration and shatter anecdotal realism.
A poetical lighting, the shadows of a Beckett, of a Ionesco, steal subtly over all his work. An innumerable being with a haunting face wanders through his paintings. A being that appears in crowds, scattered frenetically around. Michonze’s painted figures betray the secret fragility of a man, astounded to be so intensely alive on the brink of the abyss…
His dreamy duplicates live in the lightening of a stricken consciousness. What a poignant and fragmented presence/absence in such an anachronistic and feverish atmosphere. Michonze paints both the impossible love of life, and the endless despair of being unable to dwell in it.
Sadness of the flesh takes refuge in earthly peace.
His wild and fragile painted beings, full of love and despair, open up sky like eyes.To the spellbound silence of a medieval world seen as a rural paradise, are opposed the swarming, delicate creatures, torn away from the landscape of their souls, their childhood’s omnipresent territory, the rugged Bessarabian countryside, and the beautiful realities of Lubéron.
In the intimacy of his archaic villages, windows are small, perspectives disintegrated, and space is blocked in by bars.
Against misfortune and solitude, Michonze’s subtle presence stands out in the deep air of the century. Akin to Masaccio, Bosh and Brueghel, he is a fabulous primitive at the height of his art. For his work glows with tremendous pictorial health: a palette of acid colours, a thin austere substance, stretched over a background of sheer blissful drawing...
Henry Miller, who was his friend, called him The last of the grenadiers.
Miroir de l’Art, La chronique hommage de Christian Noorbergen, May 2016 (translated from French)
Letter from Michonze (around 1949)
Most men have but one life. Artists have several. Especially after. Michonze’s starts now. Off the beaten track. In the same way as when he refused to compete for the Prix de la Critique he had been promised in 1953. The painter’s refusals are tinged with provocation. Like the inscription on his studio door, just above his name « Imitative and anecdotal painter ». Loyal to himself, the artist has no fear of working upstream. For mainstream is the others.
Michonze is still little known, recognized. But the quality of the rare statements seem to have already proved essential. And yet his work shifts and thwarts the old duality of presentation and representation, of abstraction and figuration. Despite appearances, his painting is profoundly anti-narrative, anti-descriptive.
Michonze’s idea is that you cannot learn to be a creator from the great creators of modern art. Craftsmanship as opposed to imitation. To begin from abstraction can only lead to be decorative. Meaning that modern implies rejecting what is already modern. The only law in art is not to duplicate. To identify so perfectly with one’s own thing that it must be recognized as unique. The only way to beat the ready to think, the ready to admire of followers. Modern is what lasts – modern is plural, inactual, transactual.
Therefore, Michonze’s criticism of art marketing goes along with his earnest admiration for « the virus of the surreal », « against all banality » (letter to André Breton, July 11th 1950). That is what his « Surreal naturalism » (ibid) is all about.
With his inward vision, the whole profusion of the world becomes an anti-world. Bird trees versus leaf trees. Movements are diverted, as opposed to dada and the surrealists who divert objects. Nearby characters act without coherence, yet their actions appear on the same plane. Nudes mingle with clothed figures, conveying a sense of unreality. Birds fly away, but they do not exist according to natural sciences, odd, ironically shaped half pterodactyles, allegories of birds. The colour scheme also transforms the atmosphere : translucid figures bathe in thin air. On a background they do not even rest upon. Blue or ochre. The ground is blue. Anecdote disappears. Figuration is present, and yet absent. One can understand why Michonze was not interested in literary titles, in contrasts between the title and the picture. Hence his derisive descriptions : « People standing, sitting and lying down ». Or sheer practical identifications : « Dancer with ball ».
Through the visible, what is actually painted is the invisible. Henry Miller wrote : « He paints his aloneness ». That is why, Michonze, in search of translucency, uses a minimum of material. His technique meets his vision. Smoothness is a means to freedom. In the seventies, mat replaces varnished. There is as much violence in his stroke as in his skies or his figures. Interiors, landscapes, groups of portraits, it is not the subject that makes such a world on the edge of telling, whether static or vehement, ecstatic or vigorous. It is the conjunction of shapes and colours, that are so interiorized, so composed, that light just seeps out of the picture. It is the insistence in the transparencies, as in this woman with arms crossed, in oil on paper, around 1948. There is also the power of the little sculptures, a miniaturizsation of violence, and the large charcoals on manilla paper, of the later years.
Such painting is both learned and intuitive. Patrick Waldberg compared his « disturbing power » with « Samuel Beckett’s hopelessness ». In Michonze’s work, rather than any particular affinity, certain reds, and blues, in contrast, allude to the Italian primitives. Some of these harmonies of colour, and certain drawings, by their specific composition, are what make static interior scenes (On joue la rouge, 1937) or country scenes ( Le cerf-volant, 1965) swing over to somewhere beyond figuration. In the same way, the brawls also are transfigured. It is the touch, not the paste, that creates this blending of violence and serenity.
Michonze’s one living concern is to be himself. His painters form the history of his vision. On a card from the prisoner’s camp (April 26th 1942) he enumerates : « Our masters ! Bruegel, Grunewald, Rembrandt, El Greco, Pablo and the surreal ». Elsewhere : « I love Klee and Mondrian leaves me cold ». Above all, he loves « Vermeer’s orderly, divinely composed work, with its marvelous colours, its smooth, dense, durable enameling ».
In Michonze’s mind, the painter « transcribes life ». Perhaps from the Russian word zivopis’, literally « writing, description of life ». Up to the « surrealization of reality ». He paints dreams in full reality. He rejects « works that are meant for the eye alone, and never for the soul ». This is what he means by « poetry ». Some saw only imitation, where what is actually aimed at, and attained, is transposition, by his own means, which imply naturalism and it’s transformation. A misunderstanding Michonze had to bear all his life, both with bitterness and sense of humour. For an artist has no choice. It is his life against that of his art. He needs all of his painting to work his way through reality. And then the future comes to him.
Henri Meschonnic 1985
(Preface to the catalogue of the retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Troyes, translated from French)
…Grégoire Michonze, the persevering one, paints preferably miniature pictures. Hardly larger than a book. There is a delicacy of tones that make you see Paris with new eyes. A marvellous deserted Paris, all shops closed, on an August Monday, with bewildered Hindus walking about between drawn iron curtains and closed shutters. With no crowd, one can see the people from one end of the street to the other. I can see Michonze from afar, on the pavement in the Rue de Seine, gesticulating, with his white hair and his pink nose. He is watching out for me because his staircase is difficult to find, Henry Miller, Tristan Tzara lost themselves before getting used to it ; for curiously enough, this figurative painter has friends among the Avant-Garde. When he landed in Paris, from his native Kichineff, he started to earn his living decorating vanity-cases and penholders. His companion at work was a tall German man with a cold smile and a sea bird’s blue eyes : Max Ernst, who introduced him to the surrealist group.
– But I’ve never been a surrealist, explains Michonze, as he blows the dust off the pictures in the flat he uses as a studio. I liked to paint people with different occupations, and to bring them together in a room. It had an odd effect. Surrealism allowed me to group them with no apparent reasons as is often the case in life. I liked it. I used to meet Breton, Aragon, Eluard, Masson, Tanguy but without ever becoming a member of the group. At the same period I met Soutine, with whom I shared a deep friendship until he died. You see, Soutine and Max Ernst are not of the same make. Later, I would meet Gruber, Tal-Coat, Tailleux and the group they formed. All that fell to pieces. I saw the success of Balthus. I also saw the success of Buffet and of Rebeyrolle. Painting is still waiting for its Courbet. I quietly went on painting my little pictures.
Sometimes large pictures also. They are generally country scenes. Farmyards. -Because there is everything in a farmyard, animals, people, objects, houses, trees, because disorder is allowed, logical and tolerated.
-Yes. Memories that I revive as often as possible. But memories of details, that I gather in my own way.
-And what about exhibitions?
-Galleries where I would like to show sell abstract painting. The only figurative painting they will allow themselves are a Rouault or a Douanier Rousseau as a market value. But a live figurative painter ? Not on your life ! Yet if smooth peaceful painting could not match with what I like in Atlan or Poliakoff, then the violence of expressionnism should do the trick. « He could have painted so violently otherwise, this Michonze » Henry Miller writes, insisting on the peaceful qualities of his painting. How can one explain this, Miller asks, Michonze who has remained so calm, and yet has seen so many aesthetical movements pass by? But lately, the calm Michonze, the Figurative friend of the Abstract painters, the passionate spectator of the Avant-Garde, the painter on the fringe, paints scuffles. Fearful brawls, where whole families disembowel themselves, are taking place in his farmyards, in the same soft colours of dawn and twilight. Michonze explains calmly : It’s to animate the surface, and I try to paint larger.
It must surely mean a little more of himself than the simple desire to animate the surface…
Pierre Descargues La Tribune de Lausanne, Tribune de Paris, Sunday, August 25th 1963 (translated from French)
Gregoire Michonze, a friend of Victor Brauner, Soutine, Max Ernst, Henry Miller, linked though he was to the surrealist group, has not been given to this day the notoriety he deserves. With him, we are faced with the problem of injustice, the mechanisms of recognition that leave on the roadside of the great "historical" battles of "modernity" many precious artists, quantities of lost, even slaughtered treasures. For Michonze, who was a painter of "strangeness with simplicity", even though he may have been surrounded by such warm friendships, always needed to keep apart from group movements that are much easier to mediatize. Rebellious, determined, free willed and with amazing liveliness, he called himself a "naturalist surrealist " and posted up on his door , out of bravado: "imitative and anecdotal painter".
"Of all the painter friends who have survived the wars, revolutions, massacres, tortures, devaluations and deteriorations of our time, Michonze stands out like the rock of ages...What a life!" wrote Henry Miller in 1959...
Let us see to it that Michonze survives other "tortures and devaluations" of a more savage and insidious kind.
Pierre Souchaud (Artension nov/dec 2002, translated from French)
…just as at first sight, certain Patinir, certain Brueghel can seem rather subdued and only reveal to a perceptive eye their whole world of dreams and symbols, in the same way, some of these pictures, once one has reached beyond their delicacy of colours, of drawing, and that atmosphere of calm that characterises even those paintings that are full of action, reveal certain aspects of extremely refined thinking, almost « diabolical », but just very faintly so. Michonze’s work is unique in this time, and both by it’s form and it’s conception, in complete opposition with today’s painting, yet genuinely our contemporary.
Pierre Descargues (Les Lettres Francaises, July 23rd 1953, translated from French)
...The people Michonze shows us, who stare at each other without seeing, who mingle, yet ignore each other, hypnotized, acting like automats, seem be part of an evil dream in which the person you are trying to speak to, though clearly percieved, neither notices nor hears you. The cry that rises in the throat and stays trapped there, the impossible communication, the devastating load of meaningless tasks and the dead weight of solitude that chains man to himself, this is all Michonze, as well as an acute, penetrating vision of our torment. All this pressure you can sense in his painting, is what makes it indeniably modern. (…) The disturbing power of his work, his gropings, his breathlessness, his agony, seem to me akin - in a different field - to the lyrical hopelessness of Samuel Beckett, that exposes the dark recesses of our inner selves, whose cruel nakedness wrings the heart...
Patrick Waldberg "The land of Gregoire Michonze" (Le Mercure de France, mars 1965, translated from French)
Gregoire Michonze seems struck with amazement before the world. What a fabulous adventure that the world should exist ! And that in this world, such different creatures should exist! And that among them this man called Michonze should exist so powerfully !
This « amazement » seems to me the very substance he uses to cover his pictorial space : for Michonze is naturally a painter. Everything he does has to do with painting : his joy or his sadness depend on this painting. Days of happiness are those when painting gives itself to him with the delightful freshness of a fancy-free mistress. On other days…
But it is not just painting alone that infuses Grégoire Michonze’s soul and hand. There is also drawing : drawing, that, through thousands of tentatives drives him, charcoal in his fingers, to search for the distinctive features of a face, a body, a hand, for their deepest expression, as if captured by chance in an instant of extreme lucidity. The daughter of the house, a passer by, the cook, a peasant, his wife, some tramp, all these stray characters are or have been his models, and compose the huge crowd of his macrocosm.
There are also the clay figures…
Dominique Daguet « Gregoire Michonze is dead » Les Cahiers Bleus, Spring 1983, translated from French
But where do all these people come from ? While some watch the sky for an invisible and perhaps even inexistent airplane, their extatic companions stare at some yet more mysterious point in another (no doubt interior) sky. An ethical XVIth century dog springs on a prehistorical bone like a jack in the box, horses are evesdroping, children are playing in some eccentric manner, while men and women, a boy with crutches or a dropsical girl, seem to be living in an ordinary village. But when you look more closely, this symbolic village is more of an obsession than a reality. (…)
It is painted in the dull blue-greens of a pond at nightfall, when the smell of mud evokes the slight perversity always emanating from adolescence, and with the application, the honesty, and the naïvety of a reatomised primitive.
Michonze, whose work had never been shown in Paris in any coherent collection, gives us this revelation in his friend, the painter Mayo’s magnificent studio, in the rue de Seine, a poetical setting in perfect match with with that of the painter, thanks to the host’s generosity.
Michonze de Velours, as one of his admirers named him, himself an ancient friend of Pascin and Soutine, Michonze, whose humble, magnificent, miserable, and poetical world will not be easy to forget.
Simone Arbois, Preuves, August 1953, translated from French
…There is no nonsense about Mr Michonze’s haunting little pictures at the mayor Gallery. They too are day–dreams, but they are nostalgic. What they owe to Surrealism must be traced back to its earlier, less self conscious phases. Neither Klee nor Dali but Piero di Cosimo and Giorgione are his ancestors.
What makes him so attractive is his delicate colour and an idyllic note, mingled with pathos. Groups of peasants in romanticised Provençal settings take part in incidents explicable to themselves but to no one else ; one is reminded of the soldier and the mother in Giorgione’s « Tempest ». The picture’s magic is dependent on them, yet no one can explain them. And if one could, half it’s magic would go. The day-dream would become an illustration.
Day-Dreamers by Eric Newton, The Sunday Times, November 23rd 1947