I have always had a very strong taste for the satirical and the rather sinister; and I am under the impression—which artists tell me makes no sense—that I am much more sensitive to line than to color. I like things to be rather dry and drawn sharply instead of fluently. I particularly admire Degas, and Matisse means very little to me. My first great admirations were Hogarth and Dürer—I had them up on my walls in my youth. Then I discovered Callot, who is of course a lesser artist but has a special personal interest for me. I was stationed in France during the First World War near Nancy in Lorraine, where Callot was born, and when the city was threatened by the Germans, an old print dealer there got out and set up shop in the town where I was. I bought from him a number of Callot prints, some made from the original blocks, and a copy of the 18th-century engraving copied from Callot’s most popular plate, La Tentation de Saint-Antoine. These stood me in good stead. They fell in with my mood of those years and they gave me a certain support. I had some of the series of Desastres de la Guerre—which inspired Goya’s series—and I took acrid satisfaction in the irony and objectivity of Callot’s point of view. I still like to have these prints around me. Later on I got Lieure’s “Catalogue” of Callot, which beautifully reproduces in many fascicules the whole of his engraved and other work. It is fascinating. It seems to unroll the whole life of the 17th century: wars, fairs, landscapes, views of the cities, beggars, Commedia dell’ Arte actors, the ceremonies and fetes of the court—with the people seen as sharp tiny figures, almost on the scale of insects. It is characteristic of Callot that when he gives us a closer view of them, they are likely to be less satisfactory: their features are not so clearly stamped as these prickly little midgelike figures.
I like picture books in general of the comic or fantastic kind: Gilray, Rowlandson, Fuseli, Spitzweg, Cruikshank, Phiz, Edward Lear, Beardsley, Toulouse-Lautrec, George du Maurier, Phil May, Max Beerbohm, Sem, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Peggy Bacon, Saul Steinberg, Leonard Baskin, Edward Gorey—to mention people of very different magnitudes. But a would-be ironist that I do not like is that half-baked Belgian, Ensor. I believe that Sem, the great French caricaturist, is a much underrated artist. He is one of those people that the French consign to an inferior category—like Yvette Guilbert, who was certainly one of the great French artists of her time, but who, when she went back to France in the twenties, having greatly extended her range during the years she had lived in America, was still never taken seriously in Paris, where they spoke of her rather disdainfully as “une chanteuse de cafe chantant.” So Forain is taken seriously, is supposed to belong to legitimate art, though he is certainly a second-rate artist and apparently a detestable person—Sem’s caricatures of Forain are interesting from this point of view—whereas Sem is somehow still a mere journalist, though he is actually a far more interesting and a more distinguished artist. He had a whole very remarkable artistic development: from his earliest albums which he published in the eighties, of old-fashioned caricatures of the prominent people in the French provincial cities—who subscribed, I suppose, to these albums—to his wonderful mature work, in which the whole social world of Paris is presented year after year, with its changing fashions in costume and restaurants and dances and sports. And even in this later work there is a striking constant development: there is even an advance in draftsmanship between the album which shows all his Parisian characters mad about dancing the Tango and the one in which they are dancing the Black Bottom. The one about the Black Bottom contains some of Sem’s best work. He is a master at showing action. How would Elsa Maxwell and the Aga Khan and Barry Wall and Cécile Sorel disport themselves in wildly succumbing to the spirit of the Black Bottom? Everyone will dance it differently, and the album is a tumult of movement. And everybody is dressed characteristically. Sem was a contemporary of Sargent, and he has something of Sargent’s virtuosity with fine fabrics and well-cut garments: the silk hats and smart clothes of the men, the great cloaks and long skirts of the ladies in the era before skirts were lifted. There is never any touch of idealization. Sem’s art is astringent but rarely brutal, and the people are usually enjoying themselves. Proust’s favorite, Robert de Montesquiou, was also a favorite of Sem’s, and it is curious to compare Sem’s caricatures of him with the character of Proust’s Charlus, to which Montesquiou is supposed to have contributed. Charlus is temperamental and uncomfortable, humiliated, venomous, doomed, whereas Montesquiou according to Sem is always having the time of his life, dining with his friend Yturri, who adores him, or strutting through a recitation of his poems to an audience of delighted ladies. I don’t know why the people who write about Proust don’t illustrate their books with Sem’s caricatures. He and Proust knew one another, and they were dealing with the same society. It is said that Sem used to stay up till all hours in fashionable restaurants waiting for the moment when some fashionable lady would drop her social mask—which seems to me very Proustian. But Sem rarely aims to degrade as Proust so often does. His drawings have often a peculiar beauty—those of the actress Brandes, with her flat yellow pompadour, her skull-like face and the gestures, at once sinuous and angular, of her long-boned body and arms; the old Rothschild couple, at sunset, walking along the abandoned beach, she moving ahead with her positive umbrella and her salient determined chin, he strolling behind with his half-closed eyes, his black suit and his long white dundrearies; and even the dandiacal figure of the professional decadent Jean Lorrain—with whom Proust once fought a duel—vulgarly precious and weakly supercilious, his fingers loaded with rings.
The Visitor: Daumier?
Wilson: For some reason I don’t enjoy Daumier nearly so much as some other people that I know are his inferiors as artists. I think that the trouble is that a kind of classical sculpture somehow blunts the effect of his satire. Gavarni I don’t like at all—it’s a proof of the Goncourts’ dubious taste that they make such a fuss about him. I suppose that on account of his being so unimaginative they thought he was naturalistic. The drawings of Henri Monnier are feeble enough in this satirical vein, but his little one-act dramas or dialogues are really biting eauxfortes in prose. They anticipate Flaubert and Maupassant. Well, people tell me—though I don’t think it’s entirely true—that I mainly go to pictures for the qualities of literature, that what I really like are illustrations.
The Visitor: But a good deal of the work of Picasso has also illustrational interest.
Wilson: Yes: he turns out innumerable albums, but I never buy these albums. I look through them in the houses of friends.—Oh, I forgot to mention George Grosz: perhaps the very greatest of the satirical artists—at least as great as Hogarth. There has lately been an excellent film made from his drawings and paintings, which brings out the concentrated life that Grosz has put into all those middle-class German faces: their brutality, meanness, stupidity, complacency, debauchery, cruelty, coarseness. I do not remember anything by Picasso that is brought into so sharp a focus. The faces of all these creatures, no matter how brutelike they are, have expressions of the fiercest intensity: they reflect the intensity of the artist. And Grosz, too, is a master draftsman. The stock thing to say about him after he came to America in 1932, was that his work was no longer so interesting; but this was not at all true. He had a straight non-satirical side, which he mainly developed in the United States: the sand-dunes, the nude figures, the portraits of friends, all as solidly constructed as Dürers. And when he went back to satire at the time of Hitler, his Nazi butchers and miserable “Stickmen” were as powerful as anything he had done in his youth and were remarkable for a new use of color. It is true that when he first came to this country, he somewhat relented in his harshness, so that his work seemed less characteristic. There was a German admiration for America that was not merely chic as in France but was based on the obvious features that Germany had had in common with us: energetic activity, mechanical skill, urban building and middle-class comfort. I had never really understood how far this admiration had gone in George Grosz’s case till I asked him once what he thought of American painting. He said that he didn’t think much of it but that American commercial art was something new in the world, which did interest him. It created a whole ideal of the desirable and attainable life: handsome men and beautiful women, with their spic-and-span smiling children, all eating the most excellent food, traveling in the smoothest-running cars, basking and getting tanned on the most enjoyable beaches, housewives relieved of drudgery, husbands coming home from the office and relaxing in adjustable chairs while the loving but comradely wives bring them a reviving martini. It had never occurred to me before that the pictures in our advertisements might be of interest to subsequent civilizations, like Greek statues and Cretan murals. They certainly made a startling contrast to George Grosz’s conception of life in Berlin, but since I did not much believe in the ideal they depicted and thought that the realities of American life offered plenty of subjects for satire, I was surprised to discover that George was more or less delighted with America. In his account of his return to Germany, it is plain that he is full of pride at exhibiting himself as an American. He said that he bought for the occasion one of the most ostentatious of those gaudy American ties that were popular a few years ago—he would never have worn one in New York. The same thing seems to have happened in the case of Kurt Weill. Behind the revolutionary satire of Mahagonny, for example, which is supposed to take place in the United States, where neither he nor Bert Brecht had ever been, you feel an admiration for America, and when Weill did come over here, it was astonishing to find that he was able to get quite away from that German turbidity and sullenness, and to turn out such pretty poignancies as September Song, which appealed so successfully to the American taste, and some of the numbers in One Touch of Venus.