PABLO O’HIGGINS ON JEAN CHARLOT

Extracts from an Interview with Dr. and Mrs. Lester C. Walker, Jr., March 21, 1974[1]

 

PO: [inaudible] and that was immediately after the War.  Because he was commissioned for some section.  He named me the section, French, but I can’t remember exactly where it was.  And then he showed me some of them, of these drawings, and they were very interesting drawings.  They were large—about that size—and related to the struggles, the characters, and I think there was something of a, well, of a slight religious character in them. 

Mrs. LW: Charlot is very religious.

PO: Well, yes, he is, but in a very honest way.  You know what I mean?  That’s what I admire in Jean.  He is what he is.  You see what I mean?  There are some people who pretend to be what they’re not, you know.  But Jean is a sincere person from the top to the bottom.  That’s what I always admired in Jean, and we were great friends, you know.  We’d fit [?] in.  And Jean helped me a great deal.  That was when he first returned, I was not here when they started on the murals.  I got [here] in August, in ’24.  And they started in the beginning of ’24 and just the end of ’23, you see; that’s when the murals started.  So when I came, Jean took me to this place, showed me where he had painted this mural in the stairway.  In fresco.  And that was the first mural to be started in fresco in that epoch, in that time.  And Diego—when I arrived—Diego had finished his work in the Preparatory School and was working in the Secretary of Education.  And Jean also had just finished his two murals, and I think there was another rather large one that Diego took out.

LW: That’s my understanding.

PO: …which Jean was very hurt about it and was quite…  and I never knew really the whole reasons of these things because I was not working with Diego.  I didn’t…  That was when I had just arrived, you know.  Maybe about a month afterwards, when this was taken out.  And Jean… we went there, and he showed me how it had fallen to pieces, and it was very sad, you know.  And I don’t understand really why that was done.  And then about six months later is when I started working with Diego.  For six months, Jean and I made trips to Cuernavaca, to different places, very…. and …  Jean was working a great deal, that is in his… constantly, you know. 

LW: He was a very able technician. 

PO: Yes…

LW: A skilled technician.

PO: Very.  Yes, he always has been.  So… and that’s when I first…when Jean took me to see his mural there, when I first arrived.  I think it was about maybe fifteen or twenty days after my arrival, and he took me there to see the mural there, his mural.  

LW: You said over the phone the other day something to the effect that what was going on here was not so strongly oriented towards the French design concept.

PO: No no no no no no.  The reason I told you, the reason I got here, was this letter that Diego Rivera sent me when I was in Guayma with these friends of mine.  I went with Miguel Fonserrada.  We were both twenty years old and studying painting and so forth.  And he wanted me to know his family in Guayma, and naturally I was interested in going down there.  So we went together, and when I was there, my mother sent me a photograph of…what was that magazine?…Form or Forma or… in the ‘24s; that’s a long time ago…  An art magazine, an American one that started and only lasted, I think, five years.  

LW: Art Forum? 

PO: Something like that.  It was a very good magazine.  And the man came down and made photographs of the mural that Diego was doing in the Preparatory School, and made some photographs of it and an article on it in this magazine.  My mother had it, received it, and sent it to me when I was in Guayma.  And I was very impressed to see such a contrast…now that you’ve seen those murals, you can see why.  It’s a strong contrast to European characteristics.  You know what I mean?  That’s what I was trying to say.  And I was so happy to see something rather unusual and different.  And very well done, it seemed to me.  And so I wrote to Diego.  I didn’t know him.  I just wanted to congratulate him for doing something different.  And I never expected an answer, and he wrote back and said that it would be very fine for a young painter to know what we’re doing here and the character of the Sindic[ato]… how do you say?  our group of painters working on walls or something like that.  So I invite you to come down.  So naturally I was very happy to have this.  And Miguel decided to go with me, so we went together, no?  There were no planes or highways [inaudible].  Everything was train or on horseback.  I’m afraid no other way.  So we came down and that’s when I…  That was in 1924, August of ’24, when I arrived. 

 

Jean, when I first met Jean, he was living with his mother in a little house near the… in center of the city, no?  The city then was very different from what you have now.  Completely…  different, nothing of these new modern buildings…  Everything was different.  You can imagine in ’24.  There was no…  You didn’t get a taxi, you’d go in streetcars or these carruajes with horses.  Carriages.

 

But going back to Jean.  When I was with Jean, we had dinner together, and we would… a very fine person, his mother, and Jean.  And occasionally I would hear from Jean—just in conversation, you know—that before, I think just before the Revolution, the first Revolution, the family went to Paris maybe because—I don’t know whether because of the war or just before the war.  And that his father had made many trips before the war, that they had lived here before, his father and his mother, and occasionally would go to France.  And so naturally he was in the War, and his father died, and he came back with his mother. 

Mrs. LW: And so he has been a French citizen living in Mexico.

PO: I don’t know.  I never…  When you were there, you didn’t ask are you a French…? 

LWs: No.

PO: I don’t know.  But I imagine that he was—during that first epoch of his—eighteen years old and his family going to France from Mexico, maybe they were Mexican citizens.  Maybe he …  There was a strong relation with Mexico.  Before the first War.  1910, 1912.  All of the…  Because his father was going back and forth.  That’s the impression I had, when Jean was telling me of certain things. 

Mrs. LW: So he had friends in Mexico.

PO: Probably yes.  I don’t know.  Because when I came here, Jean was now doing his work--just finished it in the Preparatory School--painting, writing stories for the [inaudible].  Fine writer. 

LW: And he seems able to translate these into various languages. 

PO: He knew the Náhuatl language.  Because he...  For instance, when I first knew Jean, Diego said, “You ought to get in touch with Jean Charlot.”  Diego…one day when I was there with Diego, and he said,  “Go down to see Jean.  Jean is a very fine person and can tell you many things.  And he’s doing important work.”  And so I said, “Well, I’m happy to know him.  Give me his address.”  So I rang the front doorbell, and Jean was shaving.  [Laughs]  It was about nine in the morning, I guess.  And he said, “Come back at four o’clock.”  At the same place.  “Because I have to go out” or “I have to do something.”  So I said, “Fine,” and when I came back, that was about four o’clock, he invited me in.  And you know the… Luciana?  Have you heard of her?  Luciana?  Well, Luciana is an Indian woman, a very beautiful woman that Diego painted in… you know Chapingo?  Yeah?  Well, the Indian woman that was sitting on the back, with her back… in the large wall, the largest one, is an Indian woman sitting like this, so you only see it as back, on the first section, on the right side.  In Chapingo, that’s Luciana.  And Luciana was sitting on a petate, completely nude, very beautiful, and Jean was painting her.  That was in 1924.  And Jean was the godmother [sic] of…or was going to…I think…what happened there?  And they were talking Náhuatl.  See what I mean. 

 

When I started working with Diego, that was about six months…and four or five, six months about…Diego invited me to help him, work with him, so I would throw in the color and help grind the colors.  It was very interesting.  And we would be three days in the Secretary of Education and three days in Chapingo.  That is, it was coinciding, at the same time.  And we finished in Chapingo in ’28.  That was four years.  And Diego finished also the Secretary of Education…practically was finished at that time.  Maybe almost finished, and then we finished it afterwards.  It’s the corrido part.   

LW: on the third floor.

PO: Yes.

LW: And Charlot painted shields on the second floor. 

PO: Jean did one, I think.  They’re all done by different artists.  Maybe Jean did one, you know.  Maybe he did more than one.  I don’t know.  Because those were not given great attention.  They were sort of to fill up…or to start knowing what fresco is.  Things like that.  But… They’re interesting, and I should criticize…or tell that they’re not worthwhile, but they’re not as important.  And there were many painters in those small ones.  [inaudible]  They’re symbols, seals. 

I went to New York in the end of 1930 and during ’31—December of ’30 till the first of May of ’31.  And during those [months], I lived with Jean in New York.  That was in the beginning of ’31. 

LW: Was he connected with the Art Students League then?

PO: I don’t know.  We would go to see the exhibitions.  He didn’t… There was no mention of any…  I was more like a visitor.  I wasn’t interested in being in any league or, you know?  Because when you’re talking with a painter about your own work, you’re not talking about are you a member of this or are you a member of that.  So I didn’t know, but we were living together for four [months]… and I didn’t see any league there.  He was a friend of a person who…afterwards he made an attack of that woman because she had stolen…or not stolen, or sold some of his things and told him that.  And she even had…what was her name?  I can’t remember.  She had a gallery, and Jean was showing things there with this person.  And also in other places.  He had…  So I really don’t know all of the inside situation of New York.  We were just seeing… For instance, I always remember when we first went to a gallery, one gallery where they were showing paintings of Picasso of that same epoch.  Very interesting things.  And we talked about those, and then we’d go and…I mean that was my contact there with Jean.  And on the May Day, he was coming back with me to Mexico.  So that we took a boat from Mexico.  I sold a painting that I had, and Jean bought the…we bought the tickets together.  He had bought the ticket on this…I think it was a boat…it was the only tramp… it was the only way you could get from New York to Mexico, on a boat.  I think it disappeared about ten years later because the boat was sort of worn out.  Anyway, we got in this boat, and I always remember that because I was making drawings and notes of a May Day demonstration.  I wanted to do some work for a canvas on the character that I’d never seen here, in the States.  So I was making some notes of that in Battery Square.  And the boat was leaving at eleven, and I was there at nine-thirty, and Jean was in the boat waiting for me.  And I had to get a taxi or something, and I just got there just in time.  They were still waiting for me, so I rushed up that… I always remember those things.  So we got to Mexico, and I think Jean…he was staying there in my studio.  He stayed with me in my studio.  I was then in Belisario Dominguez.  And he was going to make a trip to Mérida to do the work, I think it was…

[The first side of the tape ends]   

PO: When Jean left, Sergei Eisenstein came in to Mexico City.  I don’t know whether Jean saw his work.  I think not. 

LW: Did Charlot’s style change after Yucatán?  Was there a moment you could point to when his style changed from French to Mexican? 

PO: I don’t think that would be necessary.  No.  Undoubtedly Jean had a very deep feeling and understanding of the Prehispanic.  And he was using that in everything he does, no, even in his mural work in Georgia.  You see what I mean?  Or in Hawai`i.  But at the same time, he could be his strong, own personality.  That is, he doesn’t copy anybody. 

LW: sees a difference in Charlot’s earlier works.

PO: Well, it is true that in his first efforts, it’s true that they’re slightly different.  But, for instance, a friend of mine, Joe Schligermann, has one of the ’26, ‘27 of Luciana.  What happened was that, after we’d met, Jean had to be the godfather of Luciana’s first boy, or something, little boy.  And we had to go to the villages up here in the mountains, to go on horseback.  It was the only way you could get there.  So we… she invited us to go, and he would go to the village.  That was the character of Jean.  So we started out.  I think Luciana came for us, and we got as far as Ytapalapa and started walking...  You’ve never been to these places?  They’re beautiful.  [inaudible] in Mexico and up in the mountains.  Called Milpa Alta.  And Luciana sat down and said that “We cannot go further on because it’s dark.  And we can’t sleep here because it’s raining.  So we’ll go to Xochimilco.  I have friends there, and we’ll sleep there.”  So we went to Xochimilco and spent the night there with a friend of hers.  Then we took the streetcar to another village further out.  And that was the San Gregorio, where the line stops--that’s on the ancient route--early in the morning.  And we got on horseback and started on horseback to San Pedro.  And that’s where Jean and the…

Mrs. LW: The baptism. 

PO: Then we got on the horses again and went on the horses with Jean up to Milpa Alta, where Luciana lived.  Very beautiful trip.  That’s where they’re always making these tortillas, exactly like that in her own home.  You see?  I mean, these are the things that Jean painted and loved so much.  

Another trip that Jean and I made was on the train to Cuernavaca, because he wanted to see one of his very fine friends in Cuernavaca, who was in an Indian family that lived in a village near Cuernavaca.  It was not a village exactly, but on the outskirts of Cuernavaca.  And we slept there for three days on petates, he talking in Náhuatl. 

LW: Incredible person.

PO: No, Jean is a very fine and…how would I say…completely developed person.  From the many, many things. 

LW: A very cultured individual.

PO: Oh, very highly cultured. 

PO: [on Charlot’s mother]  [The apartment in New York City] was prepared for her, but I think they lived together for about maybe six months, I don’t know exactly.  Then she died.   [inaudible]  That’s when I went in the end of ’31.  Jean was living alone in this apartment, and that’s when I was living with Jean.  The last time I saw Jean’s mother [was] when she came back from Chich’en Itza.  She came down, and we met again, and we had lunch together in their place they were living in before they went back to New York.  That was the finishing of the scholarship of those days.  Some scholarship.  I don’t know whether… 

Mrs. LW: He was married shortly after?

PO: Well, not shortly after.  I mean, it was some time after.  I think it was when he was finally finding some places in teaching and things like that that he married.  Probably a year or several years afterwards. 

LW: My impression is that he professionally and financially has done quite well. 

PO: Oh yes.  I’m not speaking of his profession or even his financial.  I’m just saying, I’m always thinking that if he’d only been able to stay longer in the country he loved, because he really loved…you know what I mean?  And then he was painting things that he remembered.  He was doing that in Hawai`i.  You know what I mean?  I thought it would have helped Jean a good deal if he would have lived more in Mexico. 

He was a learned man on the history of Mexico.  He knew it from the top to the bottom.  You know what I mean?  I think more so than if he’d lived himself in the city.  That’s the reason I’m…  You see what I’m a little sorry about, mad about.  I know there were reasons that he didn’t.  I shouldn’t go into those because I don’t know the reasons.  But it’s a regret.  

Anything that is turned into business is something vacant about it.  Empty, empty.  Superficial, and superficial things are not healthy. 

 



[1] Edited by John Charlot.  The tape is incomplete.  Only the passages relevant to Jean Charlot have been transcribed.  Passages with the Walkers have been summarized in italics.