Over the past twenty years, I have kept a keen eye on the work of François Jonquet and his novelistic biographies of Jenny Bel’Air, a legendary figure of Parisian nightlife; Daniel Emilfork, the distinctive iconic actor; Valérie Lang, the actress daughter of Jack Lang, Minister of Culture under François Mitterrand; and Gilbert & George, the contemporary British artist-duo. He writes about his subjects conjuring an image and their world with an artist’s way of seeing. Choosing to write the biographies of unorthodox, leftfield creatives makes Jonquet stand out in the increasingly commodified world of literature.
Jonquet is also an art critic (for Nova magazine from 1997 to 2004 and Artpress since 2005), and a film critic (for the Quotidien de Paris, Globe-Hebdo, Télérama, L’événement du Jeudi). His documentary, Les Années Palace, was broadcast in 2005 while his novel, Les Vrais paradis, recreates the seductive, initiatory experimentation animating night life at Le Palace which redefined Parisian nightlife at the turn of the 1980s, as did Studio 54 in 1970s New York.
The focus of Jonquet’s latest novel De plomb et d’or (Of Lead and Gold), just published this week, is the late artist, Christian Boltanski, and his companion, Annette Messager. It is also a satire of the contemporary international art market. The central protagonist, François Jonas, may be fictional, but the glamorous world fueled by an all-encompassing obsession with money and speculation in which he becomes embroiled is based on the author’s authentic, behind-the-scenes knowledge.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Thanks to a chance encounter, as a teenager, in the chapel of the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital where his father had just been admitted, François Jonas enrolls at the Beaux-Arts some years later. He ends up studying in the studio of Christian Boltanski — the mysterious man first encountered in front of the altar — who reassures his young disciple that “Marcel Duchamp was the son of a notary. He and his two brothers became artists, each in his own way.” Boltanski and his companion, the artist Annette Messager, a highly talented creative artist also teaching at the Beaux-Arts, both come from bourgeois backgrounds, which is not a hindrance.
So penniless Jonas need not be concerned about deviating from what was expected of him as the only son of a notary, even if it estranges him from his widowed mother for a while. His aunt Irene is accommodating, and invites him to move into the three maids’ rooms strung together under the eaves of the Haussmannien building where she lives. He develops an almost filial relationship with Boltanski, becoming his assistant, and a special understanding grows with Annette Messager.
“You don’t meet people by chance,” Nan Goldin
Together Boltanski and Messager “form a conspicuous couple, like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in their day,” their respective work being very different, but their careers developing in parallel with each other.
Unique and personal insights are offered into Boltanski’s life and work, informed by the Nazi occupation of Paris and the Holocaust. Descriptions of student studio life and the Maestro’s own words, reveal the difficult path he followed.
“What I’m about to say to you is pretentious: there are people who know how to create art, and those who do not. You need to be obsessed, and to think of nothing else, that’s all. Nothing else matters. If someone tells you you’re stupid, you’re ugly, but your work is good, welcome it. Nothing exists except what we do. That’s our fate as artists, we have to burn to shine. Each time someone says something negative about my art, I’m hurt, because it is my inner being that is wounded. The only thing that matters is what you do. We’re obsessive, egocentric and proud. Becoming an artist makes you mean. And crazy. And monstrous — monsters obsessed with art, with work, with succeeding, with exhibiting, with provoking emotions, with not being forgotten. It’s a kind of madness. It’s our destiny.”
The myth-making art dealer Ileana Sonnabend mentored artists Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, among others. She was from that cosmopolitan milieu of “extraordinary people from Central Europe” which disappeared after World War Two — the antithesis of today’s contemporary art world of mercenary, shallow showmanship.
“Madame Sonnabend, in a wig, is small and powerful, dressed in the most banal manner, but with a pendant of lead beads around her neck. She who, through her prestige, had the power to turn lead into gold, preferred lead. Fashioned by Rauschenberg’s fingers, these beads carried more weight than anything else . . .”
Like Joyce’s Dedalus, Jonas will eventually rid himself of the stultifying effects of his bourgeois background in order to become a true artist. But by freeing himself from the influence of his two mentors, in search of his own path, the young man moves from the artists’ studios at the Beaux-Arts into a different sphere of power: that of the art galleries, the collectors and the annual Venice Biennale.
On the one hand, the way in which he finds fame and fortune is an entertaining riff on contemporary plastic art, but on the other, the loneliness of success, the excesses of the ultra-commodification and celebrity of Jeff Koons inspired by Dali, and Hirst inspired by Saatchi, and more, are dissected and exposed. Are the money and fame really worth it?
De plomb et d’or (Of Lead and Gold), is an unusual many-layered novel to be read slowly and savoured. Ultimately, it reveals how “The globalized neo-liberal world has created a normative era that requires submissive creators.”
I translated Gerard Garouste’s memoir L’intranquille (A Restless Man) for the Daniel Templon Gallery and would love to translate this original and enlightening novel, De plomb et d’or (Of Lead and Gold) by Francois Jonquet in turn.
If wishes were fishes . . .
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