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Letter from Paris: The Exhibitions of Marc Roussel, Marjane Satrapi and Marcel Fleiss

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Marc Roussel is a photographer. But really a photographer. Not an image hunter, image taker, click clack, cell phone, I was there, I saw the light of something, went inside and took a shot. No, a photographer in the old sense of the word. A photographer from the days when there still were photographers. A photographer in the style of Capa, who was among those he emulated. A photographer like Cartier Bresson, another of his masters, immense, whose forgotten film, shot during the Spanish Civil War, preserved in the archives of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, we discovered together in New York. Between Idea and Event. Or between Eye and Ear. For there are photographers who have a kind of third ear, the one that allows one to see in things, more than things. Marc Roussel is among these. He is, incidentally, the one who accompanied me to Benghazi and who, assigned to cover my first reportage for the New York Times Syndicate, realized that something very unusual was happening. So he turned the knob on his camera to start shooting film, thus making possible The Oath of Tobruk. Today, he has an exhibition at a Parisian gallery in the rue de Lille that includes not only photos shot in Libya but others taken in Kashmir, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere -- in short, the entire Muslim world, captured from one September 11th to another, from the attack on the World Trade Center to the murder, in Benghazi, of our friend Ambassador Stevens, the precise photographs, taken by one of its fine observers, of an Islam incessantly hesitating between the light and the shadows, the desire for democracy and fanaticism, the rule of law and the times of assassins. If you happen to be passing through Paris, go see it.

Marjane Satrapi is a painter. You thought she was a film maker (La bande de Jotas)? Author of a comic strip ("Persepolis")? Lyricist ("Poney Rose," with Philippe Katerine)? A conscience (of the democratic opposition to the gangsters who govern Iran)? She is all those things, of course, but she is also a painter. Truly a painter. And she reveals herself as such in the 20 or so portraits of women, sometimes alone or in pairs, sometimes four of them, currently exhibited at the Galerie Jérome de Noirmont in the avenue Matignon, in Paris. One senses the influence of Mondrian in the skillful and very structured geometry of the figures. There is something of Piero della Francesca in the expressive lack of expression of these closed and strangely impassive faces. One feels the influence of Chirico, that of his "Metaphysical Interiors," or the "Philosophers" series, in the scheme of an emotion induced, rather than restrained, by the coldness and the flatness of colors, the systematically oblique looks, and the mysterious improbability of situations whose meaning lies outside the viewer's perception and thus consistently escapes us. Marjane Satrapi claims that these are the women of her childhood, authority figures, mothers and aunts. Perhaps it's true. Then again, that may be the wrong track and these paintings, alike and different, all otherwise the same, variations on what is ultimately a unique figure, may be the declension of an interminable self-portrait. That's my theory. Take a look again, and tell me.

Again, in Paris, Marcel Fleiss is a renowned gallery owner, an expert on Dada and surrealist art, nicknamed "the Sheriff" by his colleagues due to his absolute probity, his grouchy intolerance of trash and of twits, and the "one doesn't treat the dating of a Severini, or the price of a Marcel Jean, or the exact order of appearance of the names of Isou, Lemaître and Pomerand in the invention of Lettrism" side of his character. Consulted worldwide when it comes to information on Arthur Cravan, he was responsible for the great André Breton sale of 2003. At his Galerie 1900-2000, he has organized exhibitions of Dali's drawings, of little-known English surrealists, and of American hyperrealists. He is the only one, in Paris or anywhere else, capable of finding you Man Ray's other photo, the least-known one, of the tonsured Duchamp, taken in 1921. And he is inexhaustible on the subject of Danish painter Frederik Wilhelm Carlsen, known as Wilhelm Freddie, strangely under-evaluated in Europe and in the U.S., to whom we owe, in particular, "Monument to War" and "Meditation on Anti-Nazi Love," neither of which has lost its power to scandalize nor, indeed, its power, period, 70 years later. If I mention Marcel Fleiss here, it is because, with his son David, he is the soul of the repeat appearance of "L'écriture est un voyage," the permanent exhibition held at the Espace Louis Vuitton. Cadavres exquis, Lettrist paintings and collages, unpublished letters of Marguerite Duras, François Mitterrand, Jean Cocteau, Paul Delvaux, lent by IMEC, not to mention the white neon works of Claude Lévêque, installed by Kamel Mennour (white is a color too, isn't it?). Either "I'm not laughing" or "I'm not crying," or "I'm not saying anything" -- everyone will make up his own mind. If only for this accumulation of beauty and rarity, for this idea of reconciling the two forms of correspondence (as in, let's say, Madame de Sévigné and in the sense of Baudelaire), one might almost pardon Louis Vuitton for having chased the former La Hune bookstore to the other side of this Place Saint Germain des Prés that situationist Guy Debord dreamed of rechristening Place Gabriel Pomerand, in honor of one of Marcel Fleiss's artists. Saint-Ghetto des Prés, as Pomerand put it. Well no, not ultimately. Not so ghetto as all that when the neighborhood breathes liberty, as it does here.