August 19


Really this should be posted under either July 12 (his birth-date in 1876) or better still March 5 (his death-date 
in 1944), but in my personal history this is the correct date.

Ostensibly we were on our annual family holiday, the seven and the five year old being dragged from museum to art gallery to church in the mornings, in exchange for a promise of beach or swimming-pool or aquarium, some less culturally-oriented adventure playground, in the afternoon. We were in Brittany because, frankly, we loved Brittany, but also because I was writing a novel that was set in Brittany, and there were aspects of research I had not known I needed to do on our previous visit (funny, but my piece about Pablo Casals on November 13 also stemmed from a family holiday in Brittany, still researching the same book - eight years later!)

So we had returned to Quimper, the capital of Cornouaiile where King Gradlon had once ruled, with his daughter Dahut - the mythological pair who, reborn as a doting English Arthur and a very liberated modern Frenchwoman, were the hero and heroine of that novel, The Land Beside The Sea. In the shadows of the threatening storm-clouds, the double-spired cathedral made for a strange contrast of dark versus light: one half completely stonewashed, renovated to the very curlicues of the Archbishops' mitres as they lay in – or statuesquely upon – their sarcophagi. That cleanness was emphasised by the light which it too emphasised, giving back its real meaning to the word "graceful". But the other half remained stuck in its own dark age, blackened both with stone-dirt and gloom-light, a mournful lugube of Gregorian chant over the loudspeakers adding sombreness to sombreness. In one of the Lady Chapels a group of alabaster figures congregated round a coffin; they could so easily have become Disneyesque, but managed instead to merit a rare photograph.

I tried to take another photograph in the Musée Des Beaux Arts, but was prevented by a rather belligerent warden. It would have shown Naomi, the five year old, crouched on the floor with wax crayons, making one of several copies of the masters which she insisted on drawing over a two-hour period: her version of Picasso's portrait of Max Jacob (his is at the top of this blog-page), the one he made as an "étude" for "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon", the best of all her efforts.

Jean Moulin - "Au Pardon de Sainte-Anne"
I hadn't realised that Jacob originated from Quimper – born here, as noted above, on July 12th 1876, and commemorated with a permanent exhibition at the museum; one that had been augmented for the season with the story of his friendship with Picasso, and the excuse to show the works of several of their other artist friends as well: Elie Lascaux, Roger Toulouse, Géo Augsbourg, Jean Moulin – some delightful watercolour sketches by him and two portraits of him, one a charcoal sketch by Tuset, the other a wistful Cubist one by Jacob. Pierre de Belay, weak and clichéd as a painter, but strong and interesting in his charcoal sketches – pen-&-ink drawings like squared-off versions of Dürer: one of Picasso in his prime, and another of Max Jacob in the Rue Ravignan strongly reminiscent of Mervyn Peake.

An outstanding poet and prose-writer, Jacob was very much a minor painter, conventionally Impressionist before he met Picasso, dutifully experimental afterwards (you can see dozens of his works at the Quimper Museum's online archive, just click here and keep scrolling the pages). But it was neither his poetry nor his prose nor his paintings, nor even his homosexuality, which cost him his life. When the Nazis occupied France and Jews were made to to wear the yellow star, his formal baptism into the Catholic faith, with PP as his godfather, long before Hitler came to power, meant absolutely nothing. A Jew was a Jew, even if he wore the Cross. And after the yellow star, the deportation.

On February 24th 1944 he was arrested and, after spending four days in an Orléans prison, was sent to Drancy, the main transition-camp for Poland. He died of pneumonia on March 5th 1944, without ever reaching the official death-camps. His body was exhumed in 1949 and buried in his adoptive home of St Benoit sur Loire. Portraits by PP, Cocteau, Modigliani and many others show a distinguished, Roman head, completely hairless, long and thin and thoroughly Germanic.

The Picasso section contained several from the very first, Vollard, exhibition of 1901, at the culmination of the Blue period: innumerable collages, cubist sketches, cartoons, études for "Mlle Léonie". There was a heaviness, in form and colour – the portrait of Suzanne Bloch for example – which reminded me of Chagall's muddy juvenilia; though the woman in "Woman & Child At The Seaside" is magnificent: light of touch, serene of face, a candidate for a Pietà.

Pablo Picasso, “Portrait of Max Jacob” (1915).
Private collection. Courtesy of ARS.
Nor had I realised that it was Matisse who introduced Picasso to African art, and thereby prompted the "Demoiselles d'Avignon", of which four quite stunning études were on display here, one of them that Max Jacob portrait with blue hair which looks quite remarkably like a homage to Matisse's 1905 portrait of his wife

Apparently Matisse held a dinner for Max Jacob, Picasso, Apollinaire and André Salmon one night in 1907, and showed them some miniatures he had just acquired – a 9” model from his collection was one of the pieces on display, which my diary tells me I copied in rough biro, though sadly I can find no trace of the sketchbook. I tried to explain Cubism to Hannah, the seven year old, but she could make no sense of it - who really can, even among the adults? - nor discern the real shapes reduced to those geometric forms. Since most, especially the faces, are based on triangles not cubes, is not the name wrong anyway? Triangularism? N sat on a chair and coloured in a quick cubist invention of her own, much impressing the tourists! H made worm-drawings!

And why such deep interest in Max Jacob, beyond the wish to commemorate still one more of the Holocaust dead, and the love of great Art? In the summer of 1982 I began work on a novel, and when I needed a name for what was then a secondary character, but who would become the equally primary character when the one novel grew into a novel sequence, I named him Max for my great-uncle who rescued scores of Jews from Poland in the years before it was no longer possible, and gave him the last name Jacob, because Biblical Jacob, the wrestler with the inner-angel at Penu-El, is central to all my books. At that time I had never so much as heard of this Max Jacob, neither as poet nor as painter, let alone as one of the six million.

You can find many of his poems, in translation, at The Poetry Foundation - click here.

Amber pages

Orville Wright, aviation pioneer, born today in 

Quentin Bell, member of the Bloomsbury crowd, born today in 1910

Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who really brought down Soviet Communism, ousted from power by a military coup, today in 1991

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