Jacques Prévert: Paris la Belle

December 9, 2008By David PlatzerArchive

A Boom in Préversions

“Les Garçons de la Rue,” a collage by Jacques Prévert on a photo by Robert Doisneau. © Fatras, Succession Jacques Prévert/Collection privée Jacques Prévert

Jacques Prévert reminds me of men I knew in childhood, the picture restorers, antique dealers, booksellers and musicians who were my parents’ friends. He had the same expression of deadpan humor mixed with melancholy, and the eternal cigarette. His poetry breathes the same profound humanity and the healthy disrespect for church, state and military that I found in their conversation.

Like Prévert, whose formal studies ended when he was 15 and who described himself as a cancre (dunce), the title of a memorable poem, these men tended to have left school early. Much of their learning came from the streets, but they also had a devouring curiosity and read widely.

Most of my parents’ friends were a decade or two younger than Prévert, who was born with the 20th century on February 4, 1900, but the spirit was the same. The essential difference was that where he came of age in the1920s, allowing him to participate in the early years of Surrealism, that period when art and fun fell in love and formed a happy union, my parents’ friends had the bad luck to spend their youth against the background of the international economic crisis, the rise of Fascism and World War II, which left even anti-militarists no choice but to fight.

The exhibition “Jacques Prévert: Paris la Belle” at Paris’s Hôtel de Ville, organized by Prévert’s granddaughter Eugénie Bachelot Prévert and the cinema expert N.T. Binh, shows Prévert against the backdrop not only of his times but also of the city that provided the almost unchanging backdrop for his life and work.

Prévert’s first years were spent in Neuilly-sur-Seine, but his family soon moved to Paris, and for the rest of his life, Prévert rarely left the city. At school, he preferred lessons on Greek mythology, with its beautiful goddesses, to the catechism classes. Taxed with atheism in later life, he replied that he was a pagan, not an atheist. Military service just after World War I confirmed his mistrust for authority. The only benefit he gained from the army was his friendship with the future painter Yves Tanguy.

Returned to civilian life, Prévert and Tanguy set up house together with Marcel Duhamel. Prévert’s brother Pierre was a frequent visitor, along with any number of Surrealists, including André Breton, the movement’s founder.

Though six years younger than Jacques, Pierre Prévert had already discovered his vocation for the cinema, while Jacques had no idea of the writer he was to become. His first collection of poems, Paroles, didn’t appear until 1946, when Prévert was in his mid-40s and best-known for having written the scripts of such cinematic landmarks as Quai des Brumes and Les Enfants du Paradis.

In the 1920s, he invented the idea of the cadavre exquis (exquisite cadaver), a game that involved writing a phrase or drawing a picture without taking into account what the other players were doing on the same page. Several of these exquisite cadavers are included in the exhibition, along with a beautiful early painting by Tanguy, “Le Pont” (“The Bridge,” 1925).

One wishes one had been there. But all splendors have their miseries too. Prévert was drawn to the Surrealists by their sense of freedom, but after a time Breton, sometimes dubbed the Pope of Surrealism, became too papal for Prévert’s tastes, and cadavre exquis was reduced to Un Cadavre (A Cadaver), a polemic launched by Prévert showing Breton with a crown of thorns round his head and an essay by Prévert criticizing Breton’s authoritarianism. The two men nevertheless remained warm friends until Breton’s death in 1966.

Most of the Surrealists became highly politicized, eventually adhering to either Trotskyism, in Breton’s case, or Stalinism, in that of Louis Aragon, who lived long enough to regret it, though not Communism itself. Prévert’s sympathies were clearly to the left, but he didn’t need Khruschev’s speech of 1956 to make him wary of all isms, Surrealism excepted. When Breton called a meeting in 1926 to debate whether the Surrealists should join the Communist Party, Prévert’s response was sarcastic: “Join the party? I’d like that. They will put me in a cell…”

The only thing Prévert ever joined was the October Group, devoted to agit-prop and named after the October Revolution. Prévert was the troupe’s principal writer and continued to work with many of its members in the cinema. The exhibition includes fascinating photographs from this period, along with clips, posters and other memorabilia from his work in the cinema.

Prévert’s most important collaborations were with Marcel Carné and, the cult of the director notwithstanding, his vision was as crucial in the making of these masterpieces as Carné’s, if not considerably more so. Les Enfants du Paradis, one of the three or four greatest films ever made, is essentially Prévert.

Less documented is his activity in the Resistance. Prévert never joined any armed group, but he helped Jewish friends like his future songwriting partner, Joseph Kosma, find work in the cinema and elsewhere. Traveling on the Métro one day with a briefcase containing important Resistance information, he was stopped by a German officer, who asked him what he had in the briefcase. “Bombs,” replied Prévert, “BOOM BOOM!” The German, thinking he must be a harmless lunatic, let him go without asking him to open his briefcase.

The contribution of the Prévert/Kosma partnership to the postwar luster of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and to the careers of singers like Juliette Greco and Yves Montand is richly documented. At least one of their songs went round the world: Grainy black-and-white clips show the young Yves Montand in his open-necked shirt singing Les Feuilles Mortes, followed by Nat King Cole’s interpretation of the English-language version, Autumn Leaves.

The postwar period saw the Prévert boom. Paroles was perhaps the best-selling poetry book of all time and was widely translated (into English by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a kindred spirit). Prévert’s deceptively simple style was easily accessible even to those who usually avoid poetry. People gave him the compliment of saying he wrote as he talked. He himself said he wrote his poems by crossing out, and the exhibited samples of his handwritten texts bear this out. He worked and reworked his poems as carefully as a Swiss clockmaker, patiently seeking the exact word.

Prévert never made the mistake of falling into journalism. His poems, in which he speaks of the arrogance of the rich and the plight of the poor, remain sadly topical precisely because he rarely names names. Just about all of Prévert’s poetry is as fresh as if it had been just written.

The pocket editions of his collections, with their covers devised by Prévert and Brassaï, are worth collecting for those who don’t own them already, as are the rarer editions of the children’s books he created in collaboration with Else Henriquez and Jacqueline Duhême.

A friend of most of the leading artists of the day, Prévert also cosigned books with Picasso, Miró, Calder, Chagall and Ernst. “Prévert is my pal,” said Picasso, and numerous photos, drawings and collages made by the two men attest to their close affinity. They also shared the same irrepressible sense of humor. “You don’t know how to paint or draw, but you are a painter,” Picasso told Prévert, an observation borne out by the exhibition’s final section, which is devoted to Prévert’s collages.

A man of his time, Prévert is also a man of our time, all the more so because so many of the ills he denounced have returned in force during these last decades. As Juliette Greco, who is interviewed in the catalogue, points out, we need someone like him nowadays. This exhibition provides a feast for Prévertians and an illuminating introduction for novices.

David Platzer

ratpHôtel de Ville: 5, rue Lobau, 75004 Paris. Métro: . Tel.: 01 42 76 49 61. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. Through February 28.

Catalogue by Eugénie Bachelot Prévert and N.T. Binh, Flammarion, €35, ISBN 9 782081 217256

Reader Jane Castle writes: “Reading your article gave my heart wings. For over 30 years, I shared the poems and ideas of Prévert with US high school French students. They could so easily identify with his ideas. His poems and thoughts helped French words and feelings come to young Americans learning the beauty of the French language. Merci mille fois!”

© 2009 Paris Update

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