"Chinon Miracle," March 20th, 2015, Studio 10 Gallery, Brooklyn. running time: 00:43:45.
Matt Freedman: The first two nights I was telling some non-linear stories. Tonight is going to be much more direct. I just want, before my friend David leaves, I just want to show you these figures. At some point in the last performance, we talked a little bit about the mystery movie that David made of our old hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains and using these little figures and I demonstrated how the figures, representing David and me met, and passed during our walk. And then David took all the clothes off my mannequin and it had it performing in a pornography film and then was eaten by a bear. I just felt like you need to know that before he sneaks out. David is not just a talented artist, but also a ruthless exploiter of his friends.
Speaking of friends. This story is going to be about my friend Paul. Not my talented friend Paul here in the room, but another talented friend Paul that I’ve known since I was about 10 years old and I first saw his work as an artist in an agricultural fair art show that I had entered.
He had won the grand prize in this fair with an epic painting--for a 10 or 11 year old boy. It was an entire town laid out in meticulous detail. There were houses and there were bikes and buses and children and it had two blue ribbons hanging from the corner. I was one of those boys who drew the same thing over and over again. I'd been given an illustrated copy of the Iliad years before and all I could draw were Greek knights fighting. It turned out that one knight was worth one ribbon, but whole town was worth two ribbons.
So the next year I added lots of detail, more knights and lots of chariots that just kept going right off the edge of the paper because I didn't know how to draw horses, but I could draw chariots. And I did win two blue ribbons myself, which began not only my education as an artist, but our mutual investigation to some degree into a sort of cynical idea of what makes art, and what makes an art career. I didn’t know anything about art, but Paul was a kind of prince of the art world. His father was a successful sculptor who made kinetic sculptures that you can see around the city to this day. His mother was a concert pianist who knew everybody in the classical music world and his stepfather was a famous composer. And unlike most young artists, most children, Paul was completely eclectic. He would make paintings, ornate sculptures, anything. He didn't have any sort of agenda beyond pure creativity. That's a beautiful thing to watch.
As he got older he found himself increasingly dissatisfied with what was offered in the world around him. In art now we can obviously see all sorts of other influences and impulses, psychological and personal as well as philosophical and aesthetic. That wasn’t for Paul. He tried one school after another. I remember when I was in college he visited just after he had decided to become a dancer. Then he became a painter. Then he became a sculptor. Everything dissatisfied him. He became increasingly reliant on himself and his own reading and thinking. He became sort of an autodidact. He gave himself a kind of classical education, reading through Sophocles and Aristotle. Nothing, nothing, nothing but the greats, kind of a one-man St. John's University.
I kind of lost track of him until sometime in his mid-twenties. He had an exhibition I saw of his paintings and they were all nudes and still lives. He had rented a gallery and he appeared with a scarf around his neck and he had tussled hair and he made a very romantic, dramatic figure right out of the 19th century. He and I at that point cooked up the idea that we would become famous artists by starting our own movement. We were naive enough at the time to think that it didn't really matter what you did, you just had to have a movement. “You have to have an ‘ism’,” he said. I was making these sort of lumpy, clumpy figures and I said we could call our movement Clumpism, and he said, “That's a good name.” So we decided to be become Clumpists and we thought we could start our art movement by staging a fistfight at the next Castelli opening because it was the only gallery I knew about and we thought this would be the sort of succes de scandalel that, you know, you read about in history books. The only problem is we had nothing to argue about because we didn't really have a philosophy. We just had a name. And neither one of us had the nerve to actually go to the gallery and stage the fistfight. So this, this movement sort of died a long natural death. Every so often we would resurrect it in some comic way.
About 30 years ago, I would say, Paul became sufficiently disenchanted with the art world in New York that he left and moved to France, where he felt people would understand him better. He moved around, but he settled down in the Loire Valley, I think near Tours. He traveled from town to town and he made paintings of local chateaus in their natural environment that he made into posters he would try to sell in local gift shops, or he staged gallery openings for himself.
And he sent me these long letters hectoring me about remaining in New York and selling my soul to the devil when truth and beauty were awaiting me in the valleys of France, if I would just seize the moment, which I never did. He would come back to America and visit my studio and look at my Clumpist sculptures and say, “Only someone who makes such ugly sculptures could have a vision of beauty. You are redeemable.”
Once he said, “Who is your favorite artist, pre-1700?” And I said, “Donatello.” He said, “Excellent. What you should do is find out everything you know about Donatello and spend ten years copying every piece by Donatello that you have ever seen. And you will be hated and reviled by all your friends. But when this madness of the 20th century passes, you will be remembered, as I will be, as one who stood against the flow of time and the madness that seized everybody but us.” I’d be playing the long game, basically.
I have to say I did go out and buy a bunch of books about Donatello because I do like Donatello. This is old, what's he called? “The Squash Head”, or something. He made a whole bunch of bald saints. Obviously I never had the nerve to follow Paul's Instructions on how to achieve greatness in my work and in my life.
Paul started sending me letters that were increasingly filled with references to his life in this town of Chinon. He had a girlfriend in Paris who was city planner and he bought himself a little house on a bend of the road that he fixed up with a stone tower and he began making carvings and filling it with art. When he ran out of money, he would stay in this chateau owned by a woman in town who he described as an artist and a patron of his. For a couple of years while this was going on he would periodically return to New York because Paul has a bad heart and he needed to see his doctors and he was waiting for an operation for a defective valve that had been injured when he was young. We would meet and he would update me on his life and theories.
This was during the transition time in Williamsburg and the old Williamsburg places were being replaced by the new Williamsburg. I remember that we went out to lunch at the old Viking Restaurant. Remember the Viking Restaurant? I think it's now a wine bar or something. It was one of the Polish restaurants from the old days. We had lunch. I still remember Paul had an enormous veal cutlet. No artist ate veal cutlet in Williamsburg even back then. I had a bowl of pickle soup because it seemed kind of interesting. Paul told me over lunch that he had given up on the city planning girlfriend and he had fallen in love with his patron. Yes, we should all be so lucky.
Her name was Genevieve. She was a beautiful, elegant woman. He said, “She's a little bit older than I am.” And I said, “Well, that's fine. I've been there.” And he said, “Well, she's actually quite a bit older.” Paul was 38 at the time and Genevieve was 75. I said, “Wow.” And he said, “I’m in love.” I said, “You know, well, I won't go into the details, but I’m a pretty superficial guy and…” Paul said, “There's no difference.”
He said, “We're, we're married because as it happens, Genevieve is a good Catholic girl.” She wasn't going to shack up with Paul and she insisted that they get married first. She never been married before. She had been engaged to a Monsieur Green, the family tutor, as a young girl and had temporarily derailed the hopes of her sister Fortal, who had wanted to start her own family, but had to wait for Genevieve to marry. But Genevieve didn't like Monsieur Green because he was always correcting her. So she dumped him.
She lived in the countryside in the family chateaux and ran the winery and made paintings in the afternoon. And meanwhile her sister raised 13 children and became a sculptor herself. Her brother was a famous physicist who is known as the father of the atomic bomb trigger of France--it seems like a very technical thing, but whatever. They were a very distinguished family and the sister, though not the brother, was quite aggravated that this young American adventurer had moved into Genevieve’s house. Paul felt she was just trying to get rid of him so she could keep Genevieve trapped in her role as the maiden aunt who took care of the chateau and the winery and hosted the rest of the family for their summer vacations.
Every so often after that he would come to New York with Genevieve, so I met her. She was a beautiful woman, long hair, some wrinkles, very composed. She didn't speak any English. As we were walking around the city, I remember that Paul and I would get into horrible arguments. I was beginning to teach art at the time and he would say, “What can you teach your students? You don't know anything!” And I would say, “Well, that's true, but we do teach them how to think.” He would say, “How can they think if they can't do anything?” And then I would call him a fascist and he would call me a pig. And then I would apologize to Genevieve for yelling at her husband about politics and he would say, “Don't worry, she's completely deaf. She can't hear us.”
We kept it up for a while. I always felt that my conversations with Paul were increasingly like one of those bad sword fights in old Basil Rathbone pirate movies where he's chasing his antagonist up the stairs. I was just trying to deflect Paul. When you have a friend that intense and you don't wish to lose them, it's very difficult to engage in endless debate without finding some point of no return that you can't get past. I think he recognized that as well. He basically had lost most of his friends.
I don't know whether Jude could even stand Paul’s politics anymore, but I found him to be kind of a refreshing original. So when he wrote to me and said he had a job he thought I would be adequately skilled for in France I was immediately intrigued. He lived in this small and this valley near Chinon where here were enormous limestone quarries. Everything in the valley is made of limestone; the houses, the churches, the sculptures. There was a small, kind of pocket cathedral that had to periodically replace its corbels, the architectural projections that are built into the walls supporting the extending eaves or other sorts of platforms. High up in the in the building the corbels had weathered away to almost nothing, though I don't know exactly how old the building was when I went out there. Apparently every 150 years or so, these corbels need to be replaced.
Corbels are often simple. I think the word comes from “beak” because often they are just simple projections that hold up an upper wall, but these corbels had heads and faces and some were animals--very fanciful things. Paul pointed out that in previous centuries replacement corbels would just be completely new work. But the 20th century being a decadent time, he said nobody had any confidence--as they shouldn't----that they could do anything worthy of replacing what was there before. So he had been engaged to try to make as accurate copies as possible of the faces of the kings and queens and whatnot on the old corbels. He said, “It'll be fine. You can come out and I'm sure you can figure this out quickly enough. I'll teach you and then we'll make these carvings and you can see what I've been talking about all this time.”
So I agreed, even though I really didn't know anything about carving at all. I flew to Paris and Paul picked me up and drove me to his valley. It was about 150 miles or 240 kilometers or something between Paris and Tours, and then another 40 minutes to Chinon. We stopped in Versailles on the way, I remember, and we had the first of the endless arguments that filled our time. I was walking around the gardens outside Versailles looking at these sculptures of heroes and kings and queens and such--I was just going to try and get Hercules in here, but I'm not going to make it. Paul pointed out somewhat offhandedly that this kind of wonderful achievement, Versailles itself, would only be possible with an aristocracy who could coerce peasants to work for nothing on what was basically a summer house for landed gentry.
He did concede that probably the peasants didn't have the best life, laboring to create Versailles, but that the long-term benefits to the culture of the world and more prosaically to the economy of France outweighed the damage done to the human capital during the creation of the palace. This sort of set the tone for the kind of discussions we would have driving from Versailles to Chinon. Chinon is an interesting town for a number of reasons. If you know your French history, you might recall that it is the place where Joan of Arc met the Dauphin in 1429 or something like that. She was from Arc, but she came to Tours to seek Charles the Dauphin out in the city where he had moved the seat of government while they were running from the English. This small town is now filled with big sculptures of Jon of Arc.
I saw the first sculpture of Joan before I was out of the car in the center of town. There are at least five scattered around. In this first one she's on a horse and she's riding to victory over England. It's a beautiful sculpture. There are many reminders of her all over the town and they kind of cast a spell over everything that is there. The whole place is strangely removed from anything contemporary. So we settled in and we go to the limestone yard where he's reserved some space for us to work and we begin experimentally carving some gargoyles in preparation for the final pieces. We're still waiting for both the new blocks and the old weathered corbels to be delivered to us. The material is actually kind of fun to work with. I'm sitting there carving away at my block and he's carving on his. Paul and just had some heart surgery recently. He was weakened and didn't have great stamina, but he had all of his passion still. I remember after the first day of carving, he came over to examine my work and he said, “It is just as I expected. You carve with all the strengths and weaknesses that I anticipated. You have energy, but there is no formal thought to your work; Look at this aimless swirl!”
The hair on the head of my gargoyle was asymmetrical and random. Paul said hair has to be carved the way Leonardo da Vinci carved water in his notebooks. It has to be organized. My hair was disorganized and had no central form. Paul was after a kind of Platonic Ideal of hair, I guess. And I guess maybe you had to be there, but it was very persuasive to me at the time, though when I tell this story now, admittedly, many eyes roll. He said something else which I actually have to admit I sometimes quote to my students to this day. He said, “In caricature there is truth.” He said that the point of the idealized face in art is to communicate the idea of beauty and to do that it has to be so beautiful that nobody could mistake it for the real thing. So for example the eyelids must be mathematically perfect. He went into this incredible description of how the eyelid, the curve of the eyelid, had to be so strongly and symmetrically carved that you would understand it to be an embodiment of beauty as opposed to a simple attempt to represent what an eyelid looked like.
At this point I hit the nose clean off of my figure and glued it back on. He kept working. I was very taken by the idea that the things he was saying could somehow be useful to me. The notion of the perfect eye or the perfect hair. He said, “The problem with the way that you work is that you're trying to discover something, and I already know what I'm trying to find.” He said, “That's the problem with all you guys. You're trying to figure stuff out but art isn't about innovation. Art Isn't about trying to find the next big idea. All the big ideas are already there. Truth and beauty, that’s what art is about.” I think I got to see the integrity of his conviction. Even if the ideas themselves were not appealing, I sort of liked the extremity of his faith for its own sake.
I like that notion that somehow the problems of art could all be reduced to something that clear. And the life Paul led to validate his philosophy had an undeniable attraction to anyone struggling at the margins of the New York art world. After a morning in the studio we would go to the local mechanics’ restaurant and have a bottle of wine and a six course meal along with all the other local laborers. We would stagger out and go back to our carving, which is a lot looser afterwards.
The thing is, a coherent world view is not unappealing, but it does begin to grind on the unenlightened after awhile. We continued with our arguments about what was needed and what was necessary in art. In Paul's estimation basically there is painting and there is sculpting and nothing else actually qualifies as art. Performances, videos, certainly not. He said, ”It's something, but it's not art. You can call it whatever you want, but please don't invade my territory. Art has to be a generative process of accumulation of skills and craft applied to these ideas that are about celebrating the greatest expression of human yearning.”
You might not be surprised to hear that this conservatism affected his political and religious views. You remember he had to marry Genevieve because she was a good Catholic girl. He became a very observant, in fact, an excessively observant Catholic. Yes, He did convert from a sort of Jewish-Protestant-New York-secularist, basically nothing religiously speaking to sort of everything. He believed in miracles.
All right, I'll get to that in a second. I guess. In fact, it's not a bet.
At one point we went to see his relative, his brother-in-law the physicist, the atom bomb inventor or perfect-or who lived in another huge chateau that was actually almost the size of a village. It was in the cleft of this beautiful valley and in the distance you could see the containment towers of the local nuclear facility. France really went all in on nuclear power. So it was this beautiful, beautiful space. This is the view from the chateau. The house had huge telescopes and all the grandchildren were watching each other and running through the rooms as Paul and the brother-in-law begin to talk. They mostly talk about things they agree on, like religious matters. But the one thing they don't agree on is whether a machine could make art. Paul doesn't think one could, but the physicist says it could be so and he uses the example of the young James Watt who attached a lever to a steam pipe. When the pressure on the steam pipe released, it would move the lever up, so someone who had been hired to move this lever all day long could now sit and let this machine do his work.
Do you even remember this? Does this ring a bell? This Paul knows all about the history of science.
This is how I recall the physicist’s story. He said that machine that Watt made had a bit of his intelligence, a bit of his genius in it. But the other Paul didn't believe this. This is also when the physicist explained why he was a man of faith. It came down to the same argument that he was just having a with the other Paul, when he argued that truth is a matter of vectors and the more supporting information you have, then the more you must believe in the truth of something that is said to be true. For example, he was reading Anabasis. We talked about Anabasis the other day a couple of times. It's the story of the retreat from the center of ancient Persia by 10,000 Greek mercenaries under the generalship of Xenophon, the man who actually wrote the story, which is a staple of western history and education. The physicist said, “I'm reading that story and I believe it, but I only read it in only one book. But I read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and they all tell me about the miracles of Jesus Christ. So why shouldn't I believe that as much as I believe in the reality of the 10,000 Greeks hitting their shields when they reach the sea and yelling Thalatta! Thalatta! So I should believe it. I mean, what's the difference between thinking a man telling me that he walked on water and a man telling me he looked at water? They're just simple stories. I choose to believe or not believe, and I choose to believe because my life is better if I believe this.” I don’t know. I wish I could go along with that. Maybe it would be nice it was all equally true; from the beautiful valley to the magical city so rife with miracles, from Joan of Arc to the physicist’s belief in Jesus and beyond.
In about 1947, according to Paul a genuine modern miracle occurred in Chinon. Some local children were inside a small church by themselves when suddenly the Virgin Mary appeared to them. Simultaneously, at the rear of the church, the Angel Gabriel also appeared, so the children had to make a choice to either look at Mary or at Gabriel. The thing about these miracles that they're highly specific. In order to be verified you have to go into lots of details. Paul had studied the miracle and not only knew where all the children were during the appearances, but how the apse of the church was filled with an unearthly light that didn't come from any particular location, given the time of year. The appearances reoccured several times over a series of days. The children said that when they would arrive at the church Mary would be waiting, and that on one side of her crossed arms where the letters ‘M,A,G,N and I’ and on the other side was ‘F,I, C, A, T’. They didn't know what that meant, but the nuns knew that that was ‘Magnificat”: a canticle that is a song of praise of Mary. According to Paul, only the nuns would have known about that reference. Mary was supposed to have had those words on her dress and in the children certainly didn't know the word.
Over a period of days, they all saw multiple visions of Mary, She would kiss them, leaving these little marks over marks on their faces. One little girl’s specialty was seeing Gabriel, and he talked to her too. He was the Herald. They both told the children to pray for France because the country was in trouble. This was interpreted by the local clergy as an anticommunist warning because France was about to have an election. The communists were very powerful at that point, so soon after the war and there was a lot of fear that they would take over. And this miracle, which was widely celebrated and publicized around the country, helped turn the tide according to Paul against the communists and in favor of de Gaulle.
Paul wrote out a history of this miracle because he wasn't satisfied with the versions that had been compiled by the local writers, though he had also translated those into English and made them available to anybody who wanted read them. He told me all the details as I'm trying to relate them to you now, and he even took me to a service later where I could see these “miracle” children, who were now adults. This is about 50 years later, so they were, you know, middle aged, late middle-aged people. On one side of the church there was an enormous sculpture that Paul’s enemy the sister-in- law had carved of the scene. It was made of Styrofoam and covered with $30,000 worth of gold leaf.
Paul passed on little details throughout the service. As people came forward to receive communion, he'd say, “Well that's, that's Marie. She saw the Virgin, she was one of them. That's Louise.” Afterwards, I remember one of the men came over to say hi to Paul. And Paul said to me, ‘This is one of the kids who saw Mary.” And he says to the man, referring to me “This is my friend. I was telling him that you saw the miracle.” The man says, ”Yes, I'll never forget it.” And then he points upwards and he says, “The light came through the window right here where I'm standing.” And Paul says, “No, it didn't. It came from here. You've misremembered.” And the guy just smiles and says, “Well, this is what I recall.”
I just love that Paul actually was correcting someone who had seen the mother of the son of God. Paul knew better than the man because he had done his research. “At that time of year, as I was telling you,” Paul told the man, “you couldn't have seen the light from there. You had to see the light from there. It was fall, Jean. The light wasn’t coming from that angle at all.”
After the service we got into a tiny car that belonged to one of the women who had seen Mary as a child and we drove to the farm that she shared with her sister, who had also seen the miracle. They were shepherdesses. They owned a lovely little farm filled with fluffy lambs. It seemed quite beautiful and it was a little bit discordant that their most prized possession actually was an enormous green tractor that they drove around the property. They were more interested in I think in showing their tractor off than all their beautiful lambs. Their farm had once been a vineyard, like so many other properties in this area. But she said after one of the wars, she couldn't remember whether it was in 1878 or 1914 or 1940, all the men had gone to fight, so the vineyard that no longer could be maintained. Eventually they took over and began to raise their lambs.
At one point the other sister says, “I want to show you my pride and joy. The thing I'm most proud of.” And since this is somebody who, you know, has just about seen God, it seemed like she was a worthwhile person to follow. We went up into a loft above the lambs’ mangers, up to this enormous open room filled with windows. And all over the floor are old television sets in various states of disrepair. They were in pieces, taken apart and strewn everywhere. There were tubes and rods--this is way back when and the televisions were old school, filled with cathode ray tubes or whatever they made out of. It was one of the bigger anticlimaxes of my life.
The sister said, “I love this. This is what I do. I come up here and I fix television sets!” As we're leaving Paul leans over and says to me, “You realize what this means, don't you?” I said, “Not really.” And he said, “She was the child who saw Gabriel. Gabriel is the patron saint of electronic communication.” This was proof positive that the miracle had occurred.
Afterwards we all went downstairs and they drank eau de vie and complained about modern indulgent parents. And again, to Paul the very banality of the conversation reconfirmed the miracle. He said, “These people were utterly ordinary. And one of the rules of a miracle is that it has to happen to ordinary people who could not be transformed by the event or exploit the event in any way.” We said goodbye to the sisters and went back to Paul and Genevieve’s chateau.
I think at this point we were getting towards the end of my visit. Paul took me to see the building in town where he had tried to open and run a school. Given his history with education that might seem somewhat surprising, but he had tried to start a school of craft work. He would show his students how to carve these beautiful flower forms on bases and small corbels and busts that could be used to help renovate all of the old crumbling edifice is around the town. But he said the school folded after only about one semester because all the students demanded to be a given a share in the businesses that Paul was trying to prepare them to be employees for. He said they were ruined by socialism and the business never got off the ground. And so the whole place was sort of a wreck. You could see these bits and pieces of their abandoned projects. They looked somewhat adept but not all that appealing.
The next day we had an opportunity to go visit the church from where all the old corbels had been brought to us to re-carve. It was kind of an extraordinary experience. We went up the scaffolding and could finally examine the pieces that were still there up close. And what we discovered, well, two things. One is that the hundreds of years of weather wear had done most of the carving that I had mistakenly thought, and perhaps Paul had thought as well, had been done by an accomplished artist to create those beautiful curves of the eyelids. The smoothness of the mouths were the products of time as well. But second thing was that it wasn’t just time that had simplified the forms. They never were that complicated in the first place. When we looked at the complete heads themselves, we saw that they were entirely different than the intricate, complicated things that we were trying to make. The faces had been made a century ago with the clear understanding that they would never be seen from anywhere less than at least 40 feet away and from a position directly beneath. And so no carver back then had done anything that they knew didn't need to be done because they knew the details would never be seen. So now we were up close looking at the corbels in a way they were never intended to be seen. These are very simple crude faces, a very plain, designed to sort of fall into a certain kind of proportional logic at a distance, but up close, they became almost abstractions. And I felt more common ground with the practical guys had carved these things way back when than with Paul, who was trying to use this opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of tradition over modernity.
These were just a bunch of guys who are trying to get through one job so they could get on to some other job. They had skills, but they didn't have the kind of commitment to a high art that we had thought that they had. So we went back to the carving. I had a lot more sense of freedom now. I felt that what I could do was closer to what would have been acceptable to them than what Paul had to proposed for me. And I think he felt the same way too. I remember at the end of that last day of carving the stone nose of the king that we had carved together on the first day fell off again and he gave it to me to take home as a souvenir of my time in France carving gargoyles.
The next day we are up early. Paul is rushing get me to the first train back to Paris so he can get to morning mass on time. We pack up the car and Paul sells me a couple of bottles of wine from Genevieve’s vineyard. Not the best bottles; the second-best bottles, because he says I wouldn't be able to appreciate the quality of the best bottles of wine. I pack the second-best bottles of wine in the suitcase and get in the car. We're about to leave when I remember something. I say, “I forgot the nose! I've got to go find the nose.”
Paul says, “Don't worry.” He reaches under the front seat of his car and he gets a hammer out and he walks to the corner of the chateau that he and Genevieve live in. He pulls the hammer back and he smacks his house. A nice big chunk falls off. He bends down, picks it up and gives it to me. He says, “Carve your own nose.”
That is the end of my story.