Today’s post is not a usual story. Rather, it is a dreamy walk through enchanted sceneries of the kingdom of birds and a few fluttering bats. The very special songbook Chansons des Oiseaux was published in 1898 by the Société française d’éditions d’art L.-Henri May.
This monsieur Louis-Henry May may have given his venture a rather pompous title, but it well reflects the care and attention that was given to the book: the unusual oblong format, the peaceful cover image without room for names nor other text than the title, the decorative pastedown to finish the inside of the hardboard cover, and last but not least the delicate full-page illustrations by Georges Fraipont (1873-1912).
We have already written about ‘Recto Verso de Luxe‘ where sheet music is illustrated on both the front and back cover to form one large image when you fold open the sheet. This is one of these special covers.
The book collects 10 songs composed by Georges Fragerolles (1855-1920), who is famous for being the maestro of the Chat noir, having enlivened at the piano many shows of the Théatre d’ombres. The lyrics of four songs were written by Fragerolles himself.
In our collection the name Fraipont is familiar. Gustave Fraipont (1849-1923) created a few sheet music covers. It was however his son Georges who illustrated this book. It is rather hard to discern the work of Gustave from that of Georges, as they both use ‘G. Fraipont’ as signature, and their style is comparable. Besides, Georges was also a composer. On at least one sheet music cover both father (illustrator) and son (composer) appear together. Yes, also with birds.
But let us continue with the book. Here is the title page.
And here follows your oxygen, your antidote to nastiness, negativity and gloom: ten lithographs, so delightfully charming that it is hard to imagine that they are but the result of a combination of ink, brush and paper.
Savour and rejoice!
The book was printed by R. Engelmann, Imprimeur-lithographe
(16 rue Nansouty, Paris)
This exquisite cover à la Japonaise is by Louise Abbéma (1853-1927), a successful but conventional Parisian painter from the Belle Epoque. The sensual flowers surrounded by butterflies illustrate a poem by Charles Baudelaire from his volume ‘Les Fleurs du mal’, set to music by Gustave Charpentier.
Louise Abbéma could boast a prestigious lineage. She was the great-great-granddaughter of Comte Louis de Narbonne. It was whispered that the Count was a royal bastard, the illegitimate son of Louis XV, no less. In his turn Louis de Narbonne, also out of wedlock —with Louise Contat, a famed French actress— had a daughter. This daughter was Louise Abbema’s grandmother, also an actress who married a Dutch noble man with Javanese blood in his veins, Jan Abbema. Hence probably Louise’s slightly oriental looks.
The rather wealthy family of Louise encouraged their only daughter in her artistic endeavour. She started studying art in her teens, determined to do away with the sexism and obstacles that were still prevalent. She had to turn to private institutions since the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris did not enrol female students before 1897. And even in most private schools, life drawing classes with nude models were considered ‘dangerous’ for young ladies. One of her teachers was the painter Jean-Jacques Henner, noted for his use of sfumato and chiaroscuro as can be seen on the cover of Suprême Ivresse, the only cover illustrated by Henner in our imagesmusicales.be collection.
Louise Abbéma’s portrait of her friend, the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, was an instant success at the Paris Salon of 1876. From then on Louise, with the help of Sarah Bernhardt who introduced her to a very rich clientele, received a flood of commissions. Not only paintings on canvas, she also specialised in decoration, adorning ceilings and panels in numerous hôtels particuliers and theatres. At that time she was the only female decorator in Paris; in her own words, “je sens en moi l’âme d’un peintre en bâtiments.“
Louise Abbéma adored flowers and women, which abound in her artwork. The allegories of Spring and Winter, with their translucent and diaphanous complexions and garnished with lively flowers, were hailed in 1902 as masterpieces. On the other hand, nasty gossip professed Abbéma was the first female French painter… in alphabetical order!
These romantic paintings are in stark contrast with Louise’s stern and masculine appearance. A simple straight skirt was the only concession to her sex. Her clothes had a virile cut. Furthermore, a waist coat, a cravat, a pocket watch, a white shirt with starch standing collar and a silk pocket handkerchief were signs that the wearer belonged to the lesbian sorority. Nevertheless Louise herself denied wearing masculine clothing:
“Non seulement, je n’ai de ma vie porté le costume masculin, mais j’ai toujours dans les nombreuses interviews que j’ai eu à ce sujet, protesté énergiquement contre l’idée absurde de nous faire porter la culotte. Le costume tailleur tel que le comprennent nos grands couturiers, est à la fois élégant, pratique et féminin. C’est celui-là que j’ai adapté ne me distinguant en cela d’aucune autre Parisienne.” (Louise Abbéma in Le Matin December 12, 1912)
The style of her hair was consistent throughout her life: tied up on top and with short-cut bangs. Louise wore a little cap in the morning and a tricorn hat in the afternoon. Her oriental air gave her the nickname the son of rajah, but later on people thought she resembled more a Japanese general.
A female Irish journalist who visited Louise at her atelier describes her as follows:
“Having found me a comfortable place on a pillow-strewn divan, and placed in my hands a book of press-cuttings, which she opened at a particular page, Mlle. Abbéma took a rocking-chair beside me and smoked a cigarette while I read. She is a little woman, this well-known artist, a woman rather Oriental in type. One cannot call her pretty, with her marked features and black hair combed flatly on her forehead almost to her eyebrows, but she is eminently interesting. Her dark eyes sparkle with intelligence, her quick movements, her animated conversation, and her mobile expression make up an interesting whole. She dresses like an Englishwoman, in a tailor-made gown, with shirt, waistcoat, and tie.” (Charlotte O’Conor Eccles for The Sketch in 1895)
Louise might have affected an eccentric appearance, in reality she was rather conservative and not a feminist at all. Or was she maybe forcibly denying her sexual orientation? Anyway, she vented virulent opinions on feminism and on female ‘artists‘ in several interviews.
“J’ai horreur du féminisme et des suffragettes, trouvant que la femme doit prouver sa valeur et non revendiquer ses droits.” (“I hate feminism and suffragettes, a woman has to prove her worth and not claim her rights.”) Louise Abbéma in LeMatin december 12, 1912.
So is it true, as they say, that Louise Abbéma was a lesbian? Highly probable. Is it true that Sarah Bernhardt and Louise Abbéma, had a sexual relationship? Possible. But the most important thing is that they had a lifelong intimate friendship, that spanned over fifty years. Loulou loved her Sarah and vice versa: to celebrate their friendship the two women made a mould of their entwined hands. Sarah gathered around her not only her real family but also an adoptive family of LGBT intimates: the painters Georges Clairin and Louise Abbéma and the composer Reynaldo Hahn, a closeted homosexual. The success of social events in le Tout-Paris often depended on the presence of this group. The clique also spent their holidays together. When Sarah Bernhardt bought a large holiday property at Belle-Ile, she added a villa with a studio where Geogeotte (Clairin) and Loulou could paint.
Both Sarah and Louise were adept at shooting, and went hunting together. On these occasions Louise always wore a revolver on her belt so that she could exercise with this weapon between two gun shots.
La Chanson de l’après-midi gives us a good impression of Louise’s oriental atelier. Louise clearly had a horror vacui. Shades of green and teal suffuse the room embellished with Japanese embroideries, palm plants, rugs, a handful of cushions and antique pottery, creating the typical overstuffed interior of the Belle Epoque. It is where Louise lived for the whole of her life.
Every day, at five o’clock her atelier became a salon where she received a number of femmes du monde, actresses, artists and aristocrats looking for a new frisson. At times these social affairs were enlivened on the piano by no less than Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet or Augusta Holmès.
Sarah Bernhardt, in her spare time also a sculptor, made a bust of Louise Abbéma. She kept it until her death and left it in her will to her lifetime’s friend.
Louise Abbéma drew at least two other covers for sheet music. One cover —yes with flowers!— for Le Prince Soleil, a light opera by Léon Vasseur.
The other for Hymne à Eros by Augusta Holmès, a close friend of Sarah and Louise. Augusta was a French composer of Irish descent and another interesting woman indeed, but that is for a next story.
As a lyrical folly, I would like to conclude with a poem of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, which in my humble opinion could perhaps have been dedicated to Louise…
Lorsque tu dormiras, ma belle ténébreuse, Au fond d’un monument construit en marbre noir, Et lorsque tu n’auras pour alcôve et manoir Qu’un caveau pluvieux et qu’une fosse creuse;
Quand la pierre, opprimant ta poitrine peureuse Et tes flancs qu’assouplit un charmant nonchaloir, Empêchera ton coeur de battre et de vouloir, Et tes pieds de courir leur course aventureuse,
Le tombeau, confident de mon rêve infini (Car le tombeau toujours comprendra le poète), Durant ces grandes nuits d’où le somme est banni,
Te dira: «Que vous sert, courtisane imparfaite, De n’avoir pas connu ce que pleurent les morts?» — Et le ver rongera ta peau comme un remords.
The cover with the close-up profile of Joan Crawford is illustrated by Florent Margaritis (1910-1983). In this beautiful fragment of the musical film ‘Dancing Lady’ (1933), Art Jarrett croons Everything I Have is Yours while Joan Crawford floats by dancing.
We have only three sheet music by Florent Margaritis. One of them already introduced a previous post about bumper cars. And here is the third one.
Details about Margaritis’ life are largely unknown, except for the following WWII episode when he became a founding member of the Groupe d’Oppède.
In 1933 Florent Margaritis started studying architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Not having finished his studies he was mobilised in 1939. In the aftermath of the armistice in June 1940 Florent and two of his schoolmates were demobilised in southwestern Pau. As the Germans occupied Paris they decided to stay in the zone libre. One of the friends, Georges Brodovitch, suggested to go to Oppède, a ruined medieval village in the Lubéron. There his brother had bought a derelict oil mill and a priory just before the start of the war. This brother was Alexey Brodovitch, a Russian-born photographer, designer and teacher who after working for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris had moved to the US where he became artistic director of Harper’s Bazaar. He had bought the two old buildings in Oppède in order to restore them as part of an artist-in-residence program for his students. A plan which was cut short by the war.
The three mates persuaded three other pals to accompany them to Oppède. When the six youngsters arrived there, they were surprised to see a deserted Romanesque village hanging on a steep rock, dominated by a fortress church and a dismantled castle. The village had only six inhabitants left. The other seven hundred had gradually abandoned the crumbling eagle’s nest. Have a look at this bird’s eye view of the place nowadays.
The first members of the group settled into the old oil mill. There was no water nor electricity. Florent Margaritis acquired a trailer in which he made his office and his bedroom.
After the summer and the early enthusiasm, one would have expected the embryonic community to fall apart and disperse. But quite the opposite happened.
The workshop of the Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts to which Florent Margaritis belonged, had also moved to the Zone Libre, to Marseille. And Margaritis obtained that the Oppède workshop was recognised as an annex of the school. Students would be able to complete their studies and graduate in Oppède. It was an adventurous enterprise though: with large drawing cardboards on their bicycle racks, the students had to shuttle the 170 kilometres between Oppède and Marseille.
The then latest winner of the premier grand prix de Rome of architecture, Bernard Zehrfuss, was detached to Oppède. He quickly became the undisputed leader, or rather, since any hierarchical structure was excluded, the driving force of the community. Rapidly the group grew up to forty members, counting architects, painters and sculptors. A dormitory was set up for the bachelors in an old building with walls as thick as those of a fortress. The two or three couples aggregated to the group nestled in makeshift lodgings.
Like every avant-garde movement the group wrote its own art manifesto: Oppède would become the centre of a vast corporate city to group all sorts of artists and craftsmen who would then spread all over the Vaucluse…
But life in Oppède was rough.Three months of snow and not a single hour of sunshine during the winter of 1941. Everything was pooled, including ration cards. There was a war going on after all. The group lived a monastic regime and matching schedule: meals at 5:30 am, 1 pm and 7 pm, late arrivals not allowed. On the menu carrots and turnips every day, neither oil nor butter, and meat twice a month.
The group had close contact with the surrealists finding refuge in villa Air-Bel in Marseille. This mansion was home to artists who had fled the zone occupée and were waiting for a departure to the United States. Amongst them were André Breton, Max Ernst, Marc Chagal and Marcel Duchamp. At one point, the wife of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Consuelo, left villa Air-Bel to join the Groupe d’Oppède. This comes as no surprise knowing that de Saint-Exupéry’s marriage was strewn with periods of infidelity (from both sides). So it seems that Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry had followed Bernard Zehrfuss to Oppède. She stayed there a few months in 1941 before returning to her husband in New York. In 1945 she wrote a book about her stay in Oppède: ‘Kingdom of the Rocks’.
The decline of the group began in 1942 with the German invasion of the Zone Libre. Everyone scattered except a few.
The training of young people by the Groupe d’Oppède matched the wish of the Vichy government to restore the glory of France. So the regime gladly supported the group’s projects. Also, the group easily reached an agreement with the deputy mayor sworn in by the Pétain regime. As a consequence, after the war, members of the Groupe d’Oppède had to defend themselves against charges of collaboration.
One can ask oneself why these young people retreated to a remote corner of the Provence after France’s defeat. While the participation of the Groupe d’Oppède in the Vichy propaganda is beyond doubt, their cooperation was apolitical. They were naively in search of a collective artistic experience, and they tried to forget the drama of war. In this way they had created their self-contained utopian community.
Zehrfuss joined the Free French Forces while others participated in the French Resistance. It is also known that Jewish refugees found shelter in the group.
After the war Florent Margaritis continued his work as an architect and illustrator in the South of France.