"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
June 17, 2013
My Two Encounters with Jean-Paul Sartre
by Lawrence Jeppson

Jean-Paul Sartre's passionate appreciation for the art of Robert Lapoujade gave me the biggest translating wall I ever attempted to scale.

I was having dinner in a secluded Paris restaurant behind the Jardin de Luxembourg on the Left Bank as the guest of art dealer and friend Pierre Domec and his wife. Domec was Swiss, but his gallery was in Paris.

Domec was also a bibliophile and publisher of high-quality editions of French classics.

Pierre Domec, ca. 1965

Pierre leaned towards me and softly revealed that the gentleman in the shadows on the far side of the room was the famed French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, a Nobel Prize winner in literature, who was dining with his long-time mistress, the equally famous Simone de Beauvoir, whose monumental 1949 book The Second Sex was still making waves across the world.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

We respected Sartre's privacy, but if I had known that in a few weeks I would be translating his long and erudite essay “Painter without Privileges” about Lapoujade, which Domec had published in the original French, I might have insisted on an introduction.

By then, of course, Lapoujade (1921-1993) was already famous within an expanding circle. He had won the coveted Prix Marzotto of the 1960 Venice Biennial; the Carnegie Prize, 1961, Pittsburgh; the Prix Lissone, 1962, Lissone, Italy; and the Prix Emile Cohl, 1963, Paris.

Robert Lapoujade (1921-1993)

By then three of his paintings had been acquired by the National Museum of Modern Art, Paris, and he had been exhibited in five continents: Europe, North America, Asia, Africa, and Australia. He had begun experimenting with animation: he would paint a short stroke, take a still photo with a movie camera, paint another stroke, photograph it, etc. until he had made a complete animated short subject.

Self-taught, his own style of painting had become like a surface of broken mirrors. Images were fragmented, reality transformed. Since he had to be at a distance to see the growing whole of what he was painting in tiny strokes, he attached extensions to his brushes.

In 1949, he exhibited 29 fragmented portraits of luminaries of the period, including Sartre. They accelerated his reputation.

Robert Lapoujade, Portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre

Domec wanted me to meet Lapoujade, who lived on an old farm in the countryside site of much of the fighting of World War I. He picked me up in his small Italian sports car, which he drove very fast along the narrow French rural roads.

We had lunch at the farm with the painter and his lovely young wife, whom I am sure was the model for some of his paintings such as Profile of a Young Girl, a full-length standing portrait whose identity is undefined by Lapoujade's fragmented paint strokes.

Lapoujade wanted us to see something in the country. The three of us got in Pierre's small car, Lapoujade scrunched up in the small area behind the two seats.

"Doesn't Pierre frighten you the way he drives?"

"He does," I admitted.

"Yeah, he scares me to death every time I get in the car with him."

(At a later time I wrote Domec that my wife and I were coming to Europe on a charter and wanted to see the Venice Biennial. If he would drive us there, I’d pay for fuel and tolls. He arranged to pick up a larger car from his garagiste friend in Berne, Switzerland. Fran decided she couldn’t come. We cancelled the arrangements with Pierre. Then we decided our oldest daughter, a high school senior, could go instead.

Domec made new arrangements, and the three of us had a delightful excursion through the Swiss Alps, to the Biennial, and back to Berne. The borrowed car was an Italian Alfa Romeo. Pierre apologized. The car he lost when the trip was cancelled was a Bentley! It was really too big to negotiate some of the Italian back roads, and the substantial toll for the tunnel through Mt. Blanc was based upon the size of the vehicle. I was glad for the smaller car, which Pierre drove without scaring us.)

Lapoujade went on to expand this animation to full-length features. His Socrates, 90 minutes, played to long theater lines and led to many honors.

But to get back to Jean-Paul Sartre, my second encounter was my effort to translate “Painter without Privileges” from French to English. Sartre considered Lapoujade among the greatest painters of the time, placing him as the equal to Van Gogh and Picasso.

“Painter Without Privileges” is long, complex, and perplexing. It defies my attempt to summarize it in a paragraph or two for this column.

I spent weeks struggling with the translation. I had translated articles by Waldemar George, Jean Paulhan, Jean Cassou, and Pierre Cabin, some of the best-known French art critics, and encountered little trouble. I was circulating a collection of paintings by seven of Domec's artists and would publish the Sartre in Contemporary Art Reports, which I produced as an exhibition introduction.

I was not pleased with my translation. There was a section that really threw me through loops. I consulted every French, French-English, and English-French dictionary I could find, trying to figure out the meanings of certain words, phrases, and allusions. I probably asked a few other people for their interpretation of these passages. When I figured I had given my best efforts, right or wrong, that was what I printed.

Several years later I discovered that in 1963, the Philosophical Library of New York had published Essays in Aesthetics, five essays by Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Dr. Wade Baskin. “Painter without Privileges,” my literal translation of the title, although Baskin's title was “The Unprivileged Painter: Lapoujade,” was included, one of five.

I was elated by the discovery. If anyone could translate those passages adequately, it would be someone from that highly selective, brilliant New York Philosophical Society.

I read through the Lapoujade essay's 18 cramped pages, eagerly searching for the translation of the passages that had so tormented me.

I was dumbfounded to discover the answer.

Dr. Wade had solved the problem by skipping them! The passages were not there.

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About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

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