Joker in the attic

Patrick Marnham

The Independent Magazine / 23 jully 1994

All over Paris at 11 am on the first Wednesday of each month the air raid sirens wail, just as they did during the War. The all-clear howls out five minutes later. Inside onht of the grey, lead-roofed buildings penetrated by this eerie sound, a sculptor is at work. He is not disturbed by the sirens; he may even be inspired by them. Jean-Louis Faure has goof reason to remember the same sirens when they were used in anger, announcing the arrival of the RAF. He was nine years old when the War broke out. It was perhaps the worst psychological age at which to experience the War. He was too old to be protected from the full horror of the event, too young to play any part in it.
From his bedroom in rue Michelet near the Luxembourg Gardens in 1942, the boy Faure could see a German soldier installed on a neighbouring building in the rue d'Assas beside an ack-ack gun, scanning the sky through his own binoculars. When the soldier noticed the boy he stopped looking for RAF bombers and instead observed the boy observing him. The French boy and the German soldier stared at each other silently through their binoculars until the soldier returned to watching the sky, while the boy continued to keep the soldier under observation. It was the nearest he could get to the War. The bombs which would fall threatened the boy and the soldier equally. They would fall from planes sent by the boy's father, who was by then in London working with General de Gaulle. The boy's uncle, on the other hand, had no need to leave France: he was pro-German... Later, the father returned to France, where je was eventually arrested and deported. The uncle continued, a comforting presence, collaborating.
The War marked Faure's childhood and many years later, when he became a sculptor, the marks began to show. He works in cood and, sometimes, in metal. Over the years his sculptures have become increasinglly autobiographical. Many of them are statements in a lifelong argument between Faure and his country's military and political history. The works frequently record events or incidents which have a personal as well as a public significance. They touch taboos and raise questions which are, to say the least, delicate. This preference for truth over tact ensured obscurity for Faure for a number of years, but he has overcome it.

Today, Faure still lives on the Left Bank of the Seine and works in a succession of superficially disorderly attics at the top of a building. It is bright and airy up there, but there is a problem. Each of his elaborate sculptures has to be made so that it can be taken to pieces which are small enough to fit into the building's curiously triangular lift. There are no stairs to the atticv. The floors below, he informed me, once housed an outpost of the Ministry of War. It was here, as he recentrly discovered, that Mata Hari was interrogated by French intelligence officers in 1917 beforeshe was taken out to be shot. His father, François "Paco" Faure, was appointed a Companion of the Liberation. His grand-father, Elie Faure, was a celebrated art historian, critic and embalmer. In the attic Faure keeps a copy of a book presented to him by de Gaulle when he was a child. It is a professional treatise, La France et son armée, the work which de Gaulle as a young man ghosted for Marshall Pétain and then republished under his own name when "le Maréchal" refused to acknoledge his young protégé's contribution. The dedication reads, "To Jean-Louis faure who, like his father, will one day be un français de qualité".
If de Gaulle thought that this gift would ensure France another soldier, he miscalculated. After training at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, Faure was called up for militray service un 1952. Due to an administrative error, he strated his warlike career mounted on a horse. He had been led to expect a tank with the Chasseurs d'Afrique. Instead he found himself in Algiers dressed as a Spahi, ine if the mounted guard of honour of the colonial governor of Algeria. Their mounts were pure-bred Barbary horses. Faure wwas trained to make his horse crouch from the gallop so that he could take cover behind it while opening fire. Twentieth-century bureaucracy had tyrned him into a 19th-century soldier. In the age of le plastique, he was perfecting the mounted chage. History, as so often in his life, had crept up and mugged him from behind. Two years later, to acoid taking part in the Algerian conflict in a more up-to-date section of the army, Faure embraced pacifism and chose exile in Bolivia, which he lived, and in Argentina. He received the conventional prison sentence for desertion in his absence. In Bolivia, he spent the time painting on an island on Lake Titicaca. The amnesty came through after three years.
Much of Faure's work grows out of his fascination with the darker sides of French history and the farcical undercurrents of power, but the themes are not always military or historical. The titles give the flavour od his preoccupations: One should be inexact but precise; June 1940 smet like a garage on a hot day; A collective work of art presented by te inmates of a Californian lunatic asylum to the senior physician; Demonstration model used by Lord Ismay during his submission to the Tribunal of Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic (1912); Machine for spying on pigs.
The work so described are satirical, sometimes frivolous, sometimes very serious jokes or commentaries in which an assembly of historical characters meet weird creatures from the artist's imagination. The "facts" stated are bizarre and, which is worse, frequently true. His sculptures are in the Surrealist tradition, but it is Surrealism with a sharp political point, art as a magical and disrespectful re-imagining of some recent passages of French history, realised with a wit and technical orifinalit that would have intrigued Heath Robinson.
Marcel Duchamp's influence is acknowledged in Faure's work, Here we are inside the skull of an eskimo in 1906, a sculpture based on the artist's discovery that "most popular bears are left-handed and havbe no molars." From this fact Faure has re-created the eskimo hunter who used this knowledge to take on and kill polar bears in single combat, armed with just a knife. The hunter approached the bear, waited till it reared up on its hind legs and then dodged in under its left arm and plunged his dagger into the brute's femoral artery by way of the armpit. The animal could not reach him with its clever left paw and was unable to dislodge the eskimo with its climsy right paw. If it tried to bite him, the eskimo would thrust hus left wrist, heavily bandaged un sealskin, between its jaws. (Preumably the hunter's career came to an abrupt end when he met a right-handed polar bear.) Above the head of the eskimo is an enlarged print of the left paw of Marcel Duchamp, who died in 1968. When Faure showed me this work, which stads two meter high, he said, "Makes bullfighting lee pretty silly, doesn't it?" His concierge, having inspected it closely, commented that she could not recall meeting Monsieur Duchamp but he clearly had very big hands. It seems that, wherever he is, he may now also have a large hole in his left armpit.
Another inspiration in his work is coincidence and serendipity. When François Faure returned to Paris from a concentration camp in 1945, he rented a small attic room on a corner of the Boulevard St Germain. While re-decorating this apartment he found a letter concealed behind one of the eaves. The envelope was addressed to "Monsieur
Lucien, professor de of tango at the St-Didier skating rink". It reads as follows:
"Monsieur,I am one of your many admirers and I am burning with the desire to make your acquaintance. I was not able to accost you today since I was accompanied by my husband, but if it is convenient to you I will be waiting in a taxi in front of St Honoré d'Eylau at 3 pm on Wednesday... et je vous enlèverais. Tenderly yours, LMJ."
The letter was dated 7 December 1913.
For Faure, the explanation is simple. Monsieur Lucien was also married, which explains why he concealed the letter. And, having concealed the letter, he must have died suddenly, which explains why the letter was still concealed behind the eaves in 1945. And what would a healthy professor of ice-skating and tango working in Paris have died of suddenly, so soon after December 1913, if not shrapnel received in the trenches? Unless, of course, the lady's husband got there first.
The result is: C'est fini, mon joli (It's over, my handsome): a professor of tango in professional posture dances across the polished parquet, solitary, splendid and absurd. His right hand guides his imaginary partner. In mid-stride, and mid-dream, he is struck by two explosions. Behind his back in a glass panel the fatal letter is displayed. A short story in painted wood, enamel, résine, copper wire and steel.

The biographicall element re-enters his work with I saw the godson of NAPOLEON I's first love, playing tennis. C'est un souvenir d'enfance qui a toujours ravi Faure. Désirée Clary fut le premier amour de NAPOLEON Bonaparte. Plus tard, quand elle eut épousé Bernadotte, elle devint reine de Suède. and, dans son extrême vieillesse, elle fut la grand-mère and la marraine d'un enfant qui devait être roi de Suède. Devenu vieux à son tour, Gustave V jouait parfois au tennis au Racing du Pré Catelan. and c'est là qu'un jour d'avant-guerre le pandit Jean-Louis Faure l'observa de près à travers le grillage. Le roi, de très tope taille, était vêtu tel que le représente la sculpture : knickerbockers blancs, feutre mou blanc, lunandtes noires and rouge à lèvres. Ici, il ne joue pas au tennis, mais escalade la jupe Empire de sa jeune and alerte marraine. Elle est couronnée d'un bicorne NAPOLEONien surmonté de raquandtes rouges dressées en pyramide. Elle n'est nullement troublée par la silhouandte, de proportions très rapandissées, du vieil homme accroché à sa hanche and qui, sous le regard de l'enfant qui sera le sculpteur Faure, émerge des brumes de l'absurde présent vers la clarté, la promesse érotique and le refuge maternel du passé épique.
Faure a trouvé récemment une tranquillité d'esprit qui lui permand de congédier la période de l'Occupation and de travailler sur d'autres thèmes historiques. Dans une de ses œuvres, il frôle un autre tabou national and montre NAPOLEON dans son affreux désœuvrement ultime. The work is called St Helena, Thursday 5 February 1818, NAPOLEON observes cockroaches.

NAPOLEON, presque grandeur nature, ventru, est seul and enveloppé d'un élégant manteau en poil de chameau qui le protège des vents de l'Atlantique sud. Du bout de sa canne, il étudie six blattes, natives de l'île and grossies par une loupe à ses pieds. Sur le bord de son chapeau, un minuscule soldat du 53è régiment d'infanterie en tunique rouge — un vétéran de Waterloo peut-être — monte la garde. Derrière NAPOLEON, encadrée, l'étude de David : Bonaparte jeune, le héros romantique parti à la conquête du monde. Plus bas, également encadré, le fac-similé de la seule allusion connue que Bonaparte ait faite à Sainte-Hélène avant d'être déporté dans l'île. C'est un extrait d'un carnand de notes de géographie du lieutenant NAPOLEON. Dans la liste des possessions britanniques, il avait simplement écrit : "Sainte-Hélène, petite île".
Les blattes, énormes, sont d'authentiques spécimens d'un sous-groupe qu'on trouve exclusivement à Sainte-Hélène. Elles ont été élevées and mises à trépas pour l'occasion par un très obligeant membre de l'Institut d'Entomologie de Paris, éminent spécialiste de la sexualité des blattes d'Afrique occidentale. "J'ai fait remarquer, se rappelle Faure, que c'était un champ d'action assez restreint and le savant, un peu piqué, m'a répondu : Monsieur Faure, I am world-famous — for seven people".
NAPOLEON à Sainte-Hélène est une poignante méditation sur le destin du chef le plus brillant and le plus dangereux de la plus brillante and la plus dangereuse nation d'Europe. Faure, considérant son NAPOLEON en cage, m'a dit : "What a sad thing it was. L'un des hommes les plus intelligents du monde, and il est mort entouré par des cons. Mais en fin de compte, les Anglais lui ont rendu service. Il a eu une fin poétique sous les grands vents de l'Atlantique Sud. Si les Anglais l'avaient gardé en Europe, il aurait tenté à nouveau de s'évader, ç'aurait mal tourné and ç'aurait été lamentable". Par bonheur, les Anglais l'ont bouclé au milieu de l'océan, donnant ainsi à Faure l'occasion d'illustrer la maxime de Claudel qui résume si bien son œuvre avant la landtre parce que son œuvre est ambiguë : "Men are never so funny as when they are being serious, and never so serious as when they are making jokes".

Heath Robinson.
English caricaturiste of the early 20th century which slogan was: "Go back to string".
His cartoons, published by Punch represent extremely complicated machines, fixed, indeed, with strings (N.o.T.).

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