Rene Bouche and Marcel Duchamp at the Legion of Honor
by Sura Wood
As the sage Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, you can't step twice in the same river. That's certainly what Rene Bouche discovered when he returned to Paris in 1945 following the trauma of WWII. Born Robert August Buchstein in Prague at the turn of the 20th century and raised in Germany, where he studied art history, Bouche, an accomplished painter and portraitist, was a fashion illustrator and art director for French Vogue in Paris. In 1940, with war raging on the continent, he made his way to New York via Lisbon, a point of departure for those fleeing the rising storm. (Remember Bergman and Bogey on the tarmac in Casablanca? ) Stateside, he became a regular contributor to Vogue. While on assignment for the magazine, covering the first post-war couture shows in Paris, Bouche compiled a series of lilting, observant sketches of Parisians attempting to regain their equilibrium and return to a semblance of normal life.
(Photo: Courtesy FAMSF)
A dozen of these enchanting pen, ink and color wash images, characterized by an undercurrent of loss and lament, and accompanied by the artist's astute commentary, comprise Rene Bouche (1905-1963): Letters from Post-War Paris, a marvelous, engaging exhibition that fills a gallery at the Legion of Honor.
Novelistic in their flair for telling details and nostalgic with an acerbic bite, his illustrated short essays limn a portrait of a great European capital in transition, experiencing hardship and trying to retrieve an elusive pre-war gaiety. But how could things ever be the same after deprivation, collaborations with the enemy, and the city's narrow escape from being razed by the Nazi occupiers? Echoes of an insouciant, not-so-distant past are leavened by Bouche's disenchantment with the exasperating pettiness of French bureaucracy, cheap entertainments, bread lines and the proliferation of the black market and its profiteers, who took pleasure and made money wherever they could find it.
Yet Bouche maintains a reverence for beauty and a tattered joie de vivre in drawings that convey the spell the City of Lights has long exerted on the romantic imagination, though his words and insights can provide a sobering counterpoint. Viewing the Rue Royale, seen here jammed with bikes and horse-cabs, he remembers headier days of luxury and abundance when the hectic boulevard was "one of the glamorous shopping streets of Paris [with] windows displaying perfumes, shoes, books, pastry, jewelry, books and records; there were elegant, world-famous places like the Maxim and Larue." Some establishments remain, he writes, as "shadows of a splendid past, but the rest are requisitioned or closed or open but empty."
You can almost hear the glasses tinkling above the laughter and chatter in scenes of cafes and bars overflowing with patrons and American GIs flirting with pretty French girls, who are shown elsewhere whizzing by on old bicycles. "The Bars, hundreds of them, grew like mushrooms in Paris the last four years," he recalls. "And between six and nine, they are so overcrowded that people stand in ranges of two and three behind the counters. Their owners made millions with the Germans and keep making millions now with the Americans and with the whole new crop of sleek guys and their girls who profit from the ruin of France."
With the resurrection of the arts, Parisians pack theaters that had been shuttered, anticipating performances with a renewed enthusiasm. The excitement of the murmuring crowds, depicted by Bouche milling around the lobby or waiting for the curtain to rise on the venerable Theatre Francais, is palpable. "Before the war the theatres in Paris had an elegant audience of slightly bored socialites; the houses were half empty," he notes. "Now, in spite – or because? – of their daily hardships, people fill the theaters to the brim every night of the week!" Adjacent to an image of visitors descending a staircase beneath a grand archway of the Louvre, he cheers the survival and triumphant reopening of the mighty institution: "The first weeks gave the most reassuring confirmation of the cultural vitality of the French people and hunger for good art," he says. "The New-Riches weren't there, but the real people. Those who know."
Bouche is presented in conjunction with the Legion's Man Ray/Lee Miller show (Bouche knew fashion model and photographer Miller through Vogue), as is Marcel Duchamp: The Book and the Box, a tantalizing but very slight satellite exhibition with seven unconventional works that defy categorization and blur the boundaries of book, objet d'art and sculpture – blurring boundaries being Duchamp's metier. Easily the greatest subversive of Western art, the Dada/Surrealist rabble-rouser had an aptitude for controversy, directing the conversation and challenging orthodox assumptions concerning the very nature of art. No cow was too sacred for Duchamp, who, in 1919, painted a mustache and beard on a parody of the "Mona Lisa." He added an inscription in French that roughly translates: "She has a hot ass," or as the master himself once eloquently phrased it, "There is fire down below." Among the idiosyncratic objects on view are a Surrealist exhibition catalog cover with a rubber breast, and "Boite en Valise" (1941), a leather suitcase doubling as a portable museum containing tiny replicas and color reproductions of his works.
Bouche runs through Oct. 14; Duchamp through Nov. 11, at the Legion of Honor.