Roger de Valerio, the king of sheet music illustration, often used abstract forms and patterns. In his cover for Gershwin’s ‘O Lady Be Good‘, de Valerio accentuates the intimacy and tender affection of an enamoured couple in contrast to the fiery and exuberant world around it. Fabien Loris (see The Abstracts, part 1) and Roger de Valerio were inventive and humorous in their figurative drawing. But both had also the resourcefulness to apply geometrical forms, shapes and planes of colour in a refreshing, original style. As in these catchy de Valerio’s designs.
Roger de Valerio used colours and patterns very functionally to obtain his primary goal: pull the attention to the music title, and sell it! Here is a vibrant example of how he succeeded for a song from the Zig-Zag revue, played at the Folie Bergères at the time the armistice was signed in November 1918.
Because a publisher like Francis Salabert not only distributed music, but also was involved in financially managing the shows, he was often insistent that the cover showed an image of the vedettes. His favourite illustrator De Valerio knew how to deal with it, and skilfully arranged photographs, combining them with graphics.
Some more of de Valerio’s abstract designs? Here they come.
While in the 1920’s Loris and de Valerio were applying abstract art in their music covers to create movement, other artists (especially in Germany) were exploring motion and timing of abstract images, in an effort to equal the expressiveness of musical compositions. One such avant-gardist was Walter Ruttmann, who made his first short film Lichtspiel (Game of Light) in 1921.
The music for string quartet was specially composed by Max Butting for the eleven minutes of film. In the original score Ruttman inserted drawings and other indications on how to precisely synchronise the music to the motion. The lightly-hypnotic effect of the film is remarkable in the finale (starting at 10′). And wake up… when I snap my fingers.
Already a lot has been documented on Jean Droit, the creator of the two sheet music covers at the beginning of this post. He designed posters and post cards, and illustrated magazines and books. Jean Droit (1884-1961) was a Frenchman and very much a patriot. He grew up in Belgium and always would keep an emotional bond with it.
In WWI Jean Droit actively fought at the front, and regularly acted as war journalist sending reports and drawings from the trenches to L’Illustration. He got wounded many times, and received the appropriate honours and decorations. Again in WWII, Jean Droit joined the army to defend his country.
Being a lover of nature and forest Jean Droit became a pioneer and fervent defender of the Boy Scout movement in France and Belgium. The motto ‘Once a Scout, always a Scout‘ certainly applies to him. Shortly before his death, at the age of 77, Jean Droit aka Talkative Woolf attended his last camp.
He wrote and illustrated many books for children and teens on how to be the perfect scout, how to wear your uniform correctly and other essentials of Scoutism.
For many Boy Scouts at that time, an ‘Indian‘ was a hero and a symbol of the closeness to nature and the great outdoors. Likewise, Jean Droit had a fascination for Native Americans since his childhood and for emulating Natives who roamed the Great Plains of North America.
In 1929, together with the like-minded Paul Coze, he founded the study group Wakanda. Its goal was the study of the life and art of the Native Americans through exhibitions, performances, camping, games, and outdoor life, and through a lasso club. For the lasso club they weirdly had to change roles and become a cowboy.
Paul Coze aka Panther on the Lookout, had started Boy Scoutism in France and tried to introduce Indianism to the great dismay of the Catholic clergy.
In Paris Paul Coze and Jean Droit were inspired by a Yakima chief Oskomon (his name meaning green maize) who, according to his professional partner Molly Spotted Elk, was neither a Yakima nor a chief. Nonetheless Paul Coze introduced Charlie Oskomon intothe Parisian high society where he met his patron Mme Clement-Herscher. She would managehis career until 1939.
Mme Clément introduced her protégé Chief Oskomon to Molly Spotted Elk. Both soon started performing together. The handsome vaudeville dancer and singer Charlie Oskomon, who had previously performed as a Show Indian in America, charmed the Parisian beau monde. A delicate marquis remembered that he felt overcome by a deep vertigo watching Chief Oskomon’s athletic body with its virile force and its dramatic and violent expression. Another contemporary wrote: “He dances with the ease of a young savage god. He seems impregnated by a holy light.”
Charlie Oskomon with his noble carriage made a great impression on Jean Droit and Jean Coze, and they became friends. He would frequently perform in their Cercle Wakanda, and they published his poems. These were translated in French by the marquise de Luppé, another one of his female patrons. According to Jean Coze’s wife, Oskomon was ill-tempered and was being kept by Mme Clément and a bunch of other crazy old women. In that way he earned enough to live very comfortably in Paris.
In 1931 Chief Oskomon’s partner Molly Spotted Elk performed at the Exposition Coloniale Internationale, a six-month colonial exhibition held in Paris. This event attempted to display the diverse cultures and immense resources of France’s colonial possessions. At the same time Chief Oskomon would perform at the parallel Exposition de la Mission, organised by his pal Paul Coze.
Between the crackling of the 78 rpm disc you can hear Chief Oskomon singing a sun dance, albeit arranged and orchestrated by the aforementioned Mme Clément who happened to be a composer. Years later in 1960, Jean Droit would meet Charlie Oskomon again in New York where he was working as a doorman.
It is said that Jean Droit was deeply Catholic. All the more surprising to find numerous lightly erotic images in his oeuvre. One of the nicest is this one for L’Escapade by Henri De Regnier. A reader of these pages might remember Henri De Regnier of the Académie Française as the adoptive father of Tigre, another sheet music illustrator.
To our surprise we found in our archives a small collection of eight catalogue cards delicately drawn by Jean Droit. They were printed by the famous Bénard lithographer from Liège for the elegant fur stores of Charles & Cie.
Hey, why not some music after this avalanche of images? We find Serge Gainsbourg appropriate: he had an ugly fight in the media with Michel Droit, son of Jean Droit, who as a conservative writer and journalist greatly took offense at the reggae version of the Marseillaise. Michel Droit wrote in Figaro Magazine (1979): “Quand je vois apparaître Serge Gainsbourg je me sens devenir écologiste. Comprenez par là que je me trouve aussitôt en état de défense contre une sorte de pollution ambiante qui me semble émaner spontanément de sa personne et de son œuvre, comme de certains tuyaux d’échappement… “(*).
Of course Gainsbourg reacted furiously in the media. Et cetera !
(*) Michel Droit: When I see Serge Gainsbourg appear, I feel myself become an environmentalist. Understand by this that I instantly find myself in a state of defence against a kind of atmospheric foulness that seems to spontaneously emanate from his person and work, as from certain exhaust pipes…
The ‘Carnaval de Nice‘ waltz by Maurice Decourcelle was published posthumously by his son Paul. The radiant cover is from artist André Douhin. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France lists 92 compositions by Maurice Decourcelle (1815-1888), almost all of them published in Paris. His four latest compositions were published in Nice by his son Paul Decourcelle: three of them in 1882, and the ‘Carnaval de Nice‘ above, twelve years later, in 1894. The three earlier publications show definitely less attractive covers by Ernest Buvall.
Ernest Buvall was a popular and typical 19th-century illustrator, who created romantic and often dreary covers. Luckily for all lovers of sheet music, André Douhin took over his work at Decourcelle, well in time to enter the fin de siècle: gaiety, dancing and partying in festive colours!
Paul Decourcelle (1854-1940), the son of Maurice, was not only a publisher but also a composer of polkas, marches and waltzes. His creations, under the nickname Heinrich Tellam, were undoubtedly targeted at the mondaine and cosmopolitan public, visiting the casinos and concert halls of the French Riviera. The stylish covers of Douhin, with graphical references to mosaics and stained glass, accentuated that musical chic.
All the above covers from our sheet music collection by André Douhin are published in three years time (1894 until 1897). It is odd that we have to jump seven years to find the Polka des Polichinelles drawn in the same style. Or perhaps we need to collect a few more to fill the gap…
We couldn’t find a biography of the very talented illustrator Douhin. But we stumbled on his predilection for the slightly-erotic work. In 1903 he illustrated a book of Victor Nadal. It was probably intended as one of a series, Les Sept Péchés Capitaux (The Seven Deadly Sins). We were unable to find the other six books…
Perhaps the initial project about The Seven Deadly Sins was abandoned. In lieu of books, we found on the usual collector markets naughty postcards from around 1903 on the titillating theme, illustrated by André Douhin.
Illustrating bawdy postcards was back then perhaps a lucrative job, because we found other spicy ones illustrated by Douhin.
Searching the net for more Douhin postcards, brings the same old, same old. Also the expected few sketches, posters, magazine and book illustrations.
Out of the ordinary is the menu that Douhin drew for his friend Eugène Humbert. Humbert was one of the pioneers of the French neo-Malthusian movement, which in contrast to other countries, evolved in a radical revolutionist direction. Neo-Malthusianism advocates population and/or preventive birth control, promoting contraception.
In 1936, André Douhin got killed when his car crashed into a tree between Paris and Rouen (in Vieux-Villez). He was 73 years old.
From the newspaper article announcing his death, we learn that Douhin had created a museum devoted to Jean-François Millet, in the master’s old workshop in Barbizon. He worked there as conservator, making it his life’s work to guard the legacy of Millet.
Millet…, yes! The iconic Angelus. One used to sing about everything so why not about the bucolic evening prayer?
Two more things. Firstly, we do not know if the cover artist signing as H. Viollet or Viollet-Douhin is related to André Douhin. It may be a collective signature for the cooperation between André Douhain and Henry Viollet.
Secondly. We don’t know where André Douhin was born, nor where he grew up. But imagining that he was from Nice (which is maybe not so far from the truth) got us a catchy title for this post.