CLAUDE AVELINE (Paris, 1901-1992).
Three aviaries for a Bird-Who-Doesn’t-Exist.
Translated from French by Valérie Hess.
Tom Laurent: The Museum of the Institute of the Arab World is showing part of the collection that you have put together with your wife, France Lemand, around the poem Portrait de l’Oiseau-Qui-N’Existe-Pas by Claude Aveline, and which is part of your recent Donation. Can you go back to the genesis of this writing and remind us who was Claude Aveline?
Claude Lemand: Everything began in 1950. Claude Aveline (Paris, 1901-1992) drew a bird and wrote a poem on a piece of paper measuring 32 x 25cm. From 1956 to 1982, he used to visit galleries and artists, putting together two collections of works on paper by 194 artists, which he then donated to the French MNAM (National Museum of Modern Art), works by (Atlan, Bissière, César, Debré, Foujita, Hajdu, Masson, Music, Severini, Tamayo, Zadkine,…): 108 works in 1963 which were exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in 1978, and another 86 in 1982.
Claude Aveline was a prolific writer and the peak of his glory and of great literary creativity culminated from 1933 to 1944 and from 1945 to 1968. Using a beautiful classical language, he wrote novels, essays, five detective novels, 2 volumes of short stories, children’s books, poems,… It is interesting to compare L’Étranger by Camus (1942) with Le Prisonnier by Aveline (1936).
Claude Aveline was a leading figure for the Parisian cultural scene of the 1930s. From 1933 onwards, he supported the working classes and was a writer with ties to the Front Populaire, like many French intellectuals of his generation. He campaigned against the Fascist regimes in Europe and for the Republican Spain. He was also a committed resistant, first amongst the intellectuals from the network of the Musée de l’Homme, then in the resistance’s underground movement in Lyons and its surroundings. In 1944, he published with Éditions de Minuit Le Temps mort, an admirable and poignant novel. Twenty-five years later, he published Monologue pour un disparu, a poem full of revolt, written in memory of his friend Jacques Lion, who was arrested by the Gestapo and who died in deportation.
T.L.: You have been a prescriber of several artistic creations that are directly related to this poem. What does the Portrait de l’Oiseau-Qui-N’Existe-Pas represent for you?
C.L.: Claude Aveline was a fantastic story-teller. He loved speaking in public and reading his texts to his friends and relatives, to the radio or to a large audience. The poem has a didactic dimension (when he lists all the physical features of birds: wings, beak, legs and feet, feathers…), a playful dimension, a psychological and philosophical dimension. As for the verses at the end, “No one is ever happy / And how do you think the world can be well in these conditions?”, it appears that the poet chose an enigmatic ending that throws the reader into an endless reflection and into a dream. It seems to me that this poem carries a symbolic interpretation of all its components without any tricks. Just like the Albatros by Baudelaire, it also reflects in a simpler way the poet’s way of life and that of the artist who fully immerses himself in the universe he created and who is challenged in real life. Art is a means to sublimate the real world and make it bearable.
Claude Aveline himself was surprised and happy by the spectacular fate of his little multi-layered poem, “from the playful to the aesthetic side, from the tragic to the entertaining aspect”. Some artists represented it as a simple bird with its distinctive physical features. Others found in it a fantasy and a game. Many read it like an invitation to seek and find the bird that lies dormant within each of us. Incidentally, the sentence “he would like to be afraid of death one day”, clearly refers to the bird as being a symbol for humanity. Written in 1950, Portrait de l’Oiseau-Qui-N’Existe-Pas, is also a poem of its time, the years of Occupation, of resistance and of extermination: millions of birds flew away to the death camps. This idea haunted the writer’s thoughts, whether it be in his life or in his numerous post-war texts. It later surfaced again as a cry of revolt and of horror in his memorable Monologue pour un disparu.
T.L.: As well as a collector, you also have your gallery in Paris through which you represent several artists, some who participated in the creation of the collection showcased in Issoudun. How do you reconcile these two activities, collecting versus selling artworks?
C.L.: The Parisian art dealer and the great art collector Heinz Berggruen used to say, “I am my best client”. Since 1988 and as the years go by, I took the habit of not only purchasing artworks from almost of the exhibitions in which the gallery’s artists took part, but also of organizing international thematic exhibitions (Masters of the Tondo, Contemporary Artist’s Books, Pieces for a Museum, Portrait of the Bird…) where these artists could showcase their works (paintings, sculptures, drawings, artists’ books) side by side to world-famous names and create new ones.
It brings me so much satisfaction to see an exceptional and successful artwork that I triggered: that is the proof that my intuition was right when I thought that particular theme corresponded well to that particular artist. There is a lot of discussion on the new art dealers-producers: for the past twenty-five years I have been producing the editions of all my artists, without broadcasting it and without ever asking any form of sponsorship or subsidy. Being an art dealer-producer does not produce any financial wealth yet it brings such joy to live amidst a wide range of artworks that I like.
T.L.: Looking at the artists you encouraged to work with this poem, the international dimension in your choices can be detected. What are the criteria of your selection? Was it a way of “checking” the universal character of Claude Aveline’s text, with regards to the very different origins of the selected artists?
C.L.: My passion for painting, sculpture and artists’ books had driven me to abandon everything in June 1988 in order to create a gallery and to build a collection, being globally open-minded towards artists who came from different geographic, cultural and aesthetic horizons and who had chosen Paris, temporarily or permanently, as the capital of their life, of their creation and of their international outreach.
Since 1995, my wife, Claude Aveline’s granddaughter, and I continued what he had undertaken. We invited around twenty artists to seek inspiration in the poem (in French or in one of the 55 translations) to create not one but several works using all media possible.
Museum curators and directors of art centers interested in our collection greatly appreciated its international dimension (20 artists from 11 countries and 4 continents) and the multiple mediums of the works. The whole collection is rich and harmonious. Visitors are invited to discover, reflect, enjoy and give free rein to their own creativity, to continue the saga launched in 1950 by Claude Aveline.
Claude Aveline, Picture of The-Non-Existent-Bird.
Here is the picture of the Non-Existent-Bird.
Not its fault if the Good Lord who made every thing omitted to create it.
It has a look of other birds, for non-existent creatures bear some resemblance
to those that exist.
But they haven’t a name.
Which is why this bird is called the Non-Existent-Bird.
And why it is sad.
Perhaps sleeping or waiting for the moment of existence.
Wondering what sort of beak or wings it will have, will it be able to dive under water,
as actual birds do, without spoiling its colours ?
It would like to hear itself sing.
It would like to be afraid of death.
It would like to have very ugly, very much alive baby-birds.
So the dream of a non-existent-bird is to stop being a dream.
No one is ever satisfied.
And that being the case, how can all go well with the world?
Paris 1950. Translated from French by George Buchanan, 1966.