Letters written by artists are generally boring. Just read William Blake’s letters. Most of them concern business arrangements with printers and publishers. However, there are a few exceptions. The letters of Samuel Palmer, that great admirer of Blake, tell us so much about his mental state, his religiosity and politics. Those of James Smetham, the Victorian artist, are occasionally mystical and deranged. The unpublished letters of Britain’s favourite twentieth century artist, John Piper, many of which I have read, are also lively and sometimes controversial.
We could say something similar about the twenty-five letters of Jean Cocteau, that Anthony D’Offay had for sale in his Art and Literature catalogue back in the late 1960’s. The addressee was Madeleine Le Chevrel and most of the letters and postcards to her were written between 1912 and 1925. Cocteau had the rather eccentric habit of composing ‘in a curiously abbreviated style where one word suggests a sentence and a question mark a paragraph’. Thus: (1917) ; Diag. prolonge mon sejour…Rome est lourd, molle, morte, grosse et petite. Le souvenir decourage de vivre. Les soupe, les champagnes, les aphrodisiaques, le cacodilates du Vesuve menent la danse de cette Kermesse enorme ou les eglises, les cuisines et les bordels sont decore de la meme pacotille splendide. Les femmes sur les balcons se laissant tomber comme de bateaux entre les bras des marins…’
That strange word ‘ cacodilates ‘ is certainly new to us at Jot HQ. Some online research reveals that a French chemist named Cadet brewed up something he called Cadet’s fuming liquid in 1757. This turned out to contain cacodylic acid, a poisonous arsenic-containing compound, which today is used in chemical analysis. However, back in Cocteau’s day, it seems that a derivative of this substance was used in France as a stimulant, rather like cocaine.
For such a graphic picture of the young avant-garde artist and writer D’Offay wanted a quite reasonable £185, which is around £7 a letter.
Much more significant is a four page letter, manuscript and drawing from Paul Gauguin. The letters was sent to Emile Bernard in 1890. Bernard was a considerable influence on Gauguin and so this letter is of special interest to art historians. D’ Offay quotes much of it:
‘…Toute ces choses qui sont proches du cœur me touchent plus que je saurais le dire malgre toute la peine que se prends pour fermer mon cœur—-Quent aux coteries qui hurlent devant mes tableaux, cela me fait peu de chose d’autant plus que moi-même je sais que c’est imcomplet, plutôt un acheminement a des chose pareilles—it faut en faire le sacrifice en art,…Mais bah ! une minute ou on touche le ciel qui fuit apres : en revanche ce reve entrevu est quelque chose de plus puissant que toute matiere. Oui nous sommes destine ( artistes chercheurs et penseurs) a perir sous les coups du monde—mais perir au tant que matiere—La pierre perira, la parole reste, Nous sommes en pleine melange, mais nous ne sommes pas encore morts…’
The drawing shows a man smoking a pipe. The manuscript entitled Notes sur Bernard discusses in detail the relationship between the two men and the development of Synthesism. The whole of this remarkable collection, which is by far the most expensive item in D’Offay’s catalogue, was priced at £850 and must have been quickly snapped up by some European collector or institution.
Other artists’ letters featured in the catalogue included an interesting one from Monet dated 1889 in which he complains about the conduct of Rodin in not discussing with him the positioning of his exhibits in relation to those of Monet.
There is also a ‘ unique collection ‘ of letters to Felicien Rops, the controversial Belgian graphic artist and engraver who was attacked by some moralists for his erotic, sometimes sado-masochistic, depictions of women. Edmond de Goncourt wrote seven of these letters. Forty-two letters were from the playwright and occultist Peladan, who refers to Rops’ perversite ‘. Nine letters are from Rops’ biographer, Camille Lemonnier ; eleven letters ( on forty-seven pages ) are from the French engraver, Louis Monzier.
However, perhaps one of the more interesting is a letter from J. K. Huysman, author of A Rebours. Dating from June 1889, he asks if Rops can show him twelve of his ‘ Sataniques ‘. Huysman also paid tribute to his ‘ charmant et delicat ‘ friend following the death of Rops in 1898.
To anyone interested in the work of Rops, this collection must surely have been worth the £150 asked by D’Offay