A Tribute to Marcel Mouly (1918-2008)

I was with Marcel Mouly (February 6, 1918 – January 7, 2008) in Paris in November 2007. Marc Scaglione had organized a small ‘artist party’ at a favorite restaurant of Marcel’s a few blocks from Arts Litho, the atelier where Marcel worked creating his lithographs for so many years. Along with Marcel’s studio collaborators were his wife Maguy, Linda Le Kinff and her husband Jacques, Fanch Ledan, Jean-Claude Picot and his wife Christiane, Victor Spahn and his wife Elizabeth, Emile Bellet, Shan Merry, and my wife. 

We were all so pleased when Marcel arrived. And although an air of optimism abounded as we all took in how great he looked and seemed, the inevitable understanding that this may be the last time any of us would see him again shrouded us all.

Marcel Mouly (L) and Morris Shapiro (R)Marcel Mouly (left) and I in Paris, November 2007

The photograph shown here is no doubt one of the last taken of Marcel as he died just a few weeks later. As I look at it, it fills me with conflicting feelings and emotions. In it I see a smiling me, all optimism and posing for the camera and although I am aware that I have more yesterdays than tomorrows in my own life’s story, I am still looking forward to many more years of the richness that life has to offer. In Marcel, I see the face of a man who has already confronted his inevitable destiny. He looks frail and wan, and although he was obviously not feeling well, he soldiered on that evening, laughing, telling stories, drinking his beloved scotch, and showing all of us so unfailingly, that no matter what lies ahead for us, we must grasp every moment of life fully and embrace the time we are given as an irreplaceable gift. In the photo I also see a man who achieved so much in his life and although obstacles of the greatest kind were placed before him, now and also throughout his entire life, he chose to accept them, overcome them through sheer willpower and the commitment to work, and become stronger at each conquest. That night as we sat together at dinner I noticed the fresh paint on his hands and under his nails.

In the last few years it has become increasingly difficult for me to present his work in public. I’m not sure when I will be able to do it again. Many of my associates at Park West Gallery will attest to seeing me choke up and be unable to continue when talking about him. Most of this has been due to the realization that as his health began to fail and he was in and out of the hospital, we would not have him with us much longer. But also, a great deal of it came from my first-hand experiences, at seeing how truly humble and grateful he was for all that life brought him. For me, he really was a father-like figure in many ways and I looked up to him as an example of how a man could be in his life and in his profession.

In 2004, we did our first VIP event in Michigan and Marcel was the artist we featured. We knew we would probably not have many more opportunities to have him come overseas, and I am so grateful this event happened as I will never forget the effect it had on me and everyone else who was present. He was 86 years old at the time.

We held the event at a beautiful Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The event was first-class and we had approximately 100 guests for the evening. Our guests were in from all over the country and Canada, and had been waiting–in some cases–years for a chance to meet Marcel and collect a painting by him. The cocktail area outside of the ballroom was packed and when Marcel arrived, a throng of people descended upon him for pictures and autographs. Inside the ballroom, we had set up approximately 20 paintings of all sizes and subjects.

We had elected not to auction the paintings but to make them available on a first-come first-served basis (a mistake in hindsight), and when we opened the doors and the crowd rushed in, within 30 to 40 minutes, every painting was sold. Most of the paintings had multiple red stickers on them (some as many as 5 or 6), whereby clients wanted to be next in line for a particular work if the first person reserving the painting changed his or her mind the next day (when the entire exhibition would be shown). In all my years as a dealer, I have never seen such frenzy. Marcel had clearly conquered America.

He had flown overseas from Paris and had stopped the day before in Chicago, as he wanted to see the illustrious collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. The AIC has an extensive collection of modern masters, and one of the greatest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings on earth. In particular, Marcel wanted to see their Van Goghs.

Now, here he was, at the height of his career, in his later 80’s, having achieved a pinnacle position in the art world where he could fly across the globe to an adoring international audience of collectors, experience their adulation, and sell out a room full of his art (at 5-figure prices) in about a half an hour in a luxurious American hotel. For an artist who has worked his entire life tirelessly, could there be a greater triumph and validation of his efforts?

When Marcel was asked to speak, Albert Scaglione introduced him and he rose to take the stage. There, accompanied by his friend and translator, Kathryn Stewart-Hoffman, he began to cry.

He said only a few words and they were these (I paraphrase): “I thank you ladies and gentleman for the warm welcome. I do not like to speak in public. I choose art because it is an international language and now, as I stand here before you, all I can think of is my trip yesterday to Chicago, and the Van Goghs there. And now I think of Vincent…and how important his work has been to me and his inspiration for all my life…and when I think that he only sold one painting in his life…” and he began to cry again and was unable to go on. He left the small stage to a standing ovation, and to everyone in the room wiping the tears from their eyes, me included. I will never forget as long as I live that communal moment of intimacy and insight that everyone in that room shared into a man of such eminence.

The next day at the opening to the public, Marcus Glenn came to see him. I was standing next to Marcus when the footage was shot that is included in our Mouly Artist Profiles segment, where Marcus says to him, “It is a pleasure to meet you sir, because you are my favorite artist, and a master, and in my opinion the best artist and most important artist in the world today,” Marcel quietly lowers his head and dismissively says, “Thank you. But that is not for us to say. History will decide how great an artist I am.”

I count myself so lucky to have been there to experience the two events I recount above. They profoundly shaped my view of Marcel. His honesty, self-effacing humor, deep humility and genuine love and gratitude for his life will forever be the traits for which I will most remember him.

Just take a moment to think about his life. He came from humble beginnings. His parents and family had no interest or attachment to art of any kind. In his youth he was a bad student, a mischievous child. He dropped out of school at 13, never finishing his elementary education. He took on various menial low paying jobs, including back-breaking physical labor. When he delivered baskets of wine (sometimes over one hundred flights of stairs), afterward he would go to art school and draw until late at night only  to get up early the next morning and begin again. He was imprisoned by the Gestapo during the German occupation of France, suspected of being a spy, and was in solitary confinement for months. Here is where he made sculptures from his bread rations, which led him to his work in ceramics. Eventually he was able to focus on his painting and he worked for years in the medium before showing his paintings and offering them for sale. He said, “I nurtured my painting long before it nurtured me.”

As the quality of his work grew, so did his experience. As a young student, his early professor Andre Auclair introduced him to the world of the modernists, principally Picasso and Braque. Later he met Pignon, and although they struggled through hard times, he and Pignon eventually rented the studio of the great modernist sculptor, Jacques Lipchitz in Bologne. In 1946, he moved into the famed “La Ruche” area of studios where artists like Chagall and Soutine had lived before him. There, he met Jose Fan, Picasso’s nephew who took him to meet the master. That experience would forever change him. No one of us can image what it would have been like to walk into the studio of Picasso, and drink in the fabric of his life with him standing there to greet us. Marcel tells us he was working on his series of large “cafetieres” a subject which would forever become a part of Marcel’s oeuvre. He saw paintings, ceramics, African sculptures and masks everywhere, and lithographs en masse, as Picasso was then heavily into his period of work with Mourlot.

Marcel Mouly seated next to Pablo Picasso, May 1953.

By the mid 1940s, Mouly was exhibiting with Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Brancusi, Lipchitz and others. In 1945, he exhibited at the prestigious Salon d’Automne where the careers of Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck were launched in the early 20th Century. His favorite show was the Salon de Mai, where the most progressive artists were featured. In 1953, his work was shown there in the same exhibition with Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Leger, Pignon and others. This is where the famous photo of Mouly, his colleagues and Picasso pose joyously as they take a break from hanging the exhibition. In 1948, the French government bought its first Mouly painting and after so many trials and tribulations, challenges, near misses with fate and countless hours honing his skills, his career was in full swing.

We all know what followed: decades of powerful, compelling, insightful, moving, awe-inspiring and truth-filled art. Great canvasses, lithographs, drawings, ceramics, books and catalogs, all testifying to a life lived in the complete immersion of the quest for aesthetic beauty.

Mao Shi An, an art critic from Shanghai, in a catalog created for Marcel’s shows in China in 1995 and 1996, described his work this way: “…one realizes that he is not trying to paint an imitation of nature, but rather he is seeking to recreate man’s internal connection with the ‘real’ world. Mouly has understood that the only way to search for truth is through a collaboration of the soul and (the) imagination.”

I think of Marcel every day now, at least once a day. Today, as I write this, I have deeply pondered his life, his work, the living, breathing man I knew, and the body of work he has left us: a lifetime of work. I was so lucky to have known him, to have laughed and drank and joked with him. To have watched him fill with genuine delight as a client approached and complemented him. To see him engage and play with small child. To hear him push away the compliments so many heaped upon him. To be a small part of his life was for me a deep honor and among the fondest memories I will ever have as an art dealer.

That night at the party, I told him of how I had just returned from visiting Marseille and how we went to Paul Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence. There, in that little room, Cezanne had created some of the most influential paintings in the history of modern art. There, I touched the table where he laid out his still life props, the table that occupies so many of those paintings I have contemplated in museums and books. I touched the box of paints that lies next to his easel, the box of paints from which so much of modern art has sprung.

As I told Marcel of this and he sensed my excitement, I saw his eyes light up and I glimpsed a spark of that same passion in him as a younger man. He smiled and shook his fist and put it down on the table and said, “Ah Cezanne…he was ‘The Rock.’”

As we all got up to leave that night, we one by one hugged him and told him we’d be coming back for his 90th birthday party in February. But this was not to be.

Instead we all have our memories of that night together and, of course, his art.

Rest in peace, Marcel. You will always be “The Rock” for me.

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One Response to “A Tribute to Marcel Mouly (1918-2008)”

  1. Eric Van Dress Says:

    I was struck by the photograph as the author was. Viewing it will leave one contemplating the weighty issues of life. The stories you have provided, but a brief glimpse, allow a reader to know Mouly in some sense. I think the attribute that comes out more than any is his humble nature. I am left with the sense that Mouly was a great artist and a great man because true humility is the most winsome quality of all.

    Collecting art from an artist that one has spent time with animates the works they leave behind in a way that would not be possible otherwise.

    Eric

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