|In the entire history of modern art, miracles have occurred only
twice, and both times in France. Just Before 1900, a poor, middle-aged civil servant,
Henri Rousseau, a self-taught "Sunday painter," infused new energies and ideas into art.
Shortly thereafter, a young, half-mad alcoholic of Montmartre, Maurice Utrillo, presented
strange lanscapes which delighted the man in the street and astonished the connoisseur.
These pictures inspired many artists to re-examine their world and, instead of turning
to abstraction, once again to re-create reality. Yet, except for the miraculous element of
self-preservation through art, no parallel exists between the two masters. Utrillo was the
pupil of his outstanding mother, Suzanne Valadon, and a close friend of Amedeo Modigliani.
Unlike Rousseau, Utrillo is not a primitive. He has been a professional painter all his life.
His is an incredible story. He might very well have ended his days, unknown to the world, as a patient in a sanatorium. Born in Paris in 1883, Utrillo is the offspring of a liaison between a teen-age model, Marie-Clémentine Valadon, and, so it is thought, a young amateur painter and chronic alcoholic, named Boissy. The boy's mother, an illegitimate child of peasant stock, later became the protégé of Toulouse-Lautrec, upon whose advice she changed her first name to the more elegant "Suzanne." It was Toulouse- Lautrec who introduced her to the great master Degas, who taught and encouraged her to paint.
Maurice Valadon was only a child when the Spanish writer and art critic, Miguel Utrillo, a friend of Suzanne's, in a spirit of kindness, bestowed upon him his own name. A highly neurotic youngster, Maurice was a poor student in secondary school. He was a failure, to say the least, as a bank clerk, and by the time he was eighteen had become an alcoholic and had to be temporarily committed to an asylum. It was "occupational therapy" which saved him and his hidden genius. Upon a physician's advice, Suzanne urged Maurice to take up painting as an emotional outlet through which he might regain his equilibrium. This experiment worked so well that in the past fifty years Maurice Utrillo has produced thousands of oils, gouaches, water colors, and pencil sketches, relying chiefly on his memory or the picture postcards in his possession. By 1920, he had become a legendary figure, internationally known. In 1929, the French Republic awarded him the Cross of the Legion of Honor. In his fifties he married an energetic widow, Lucie Pauwels, who managed his interests so ably that they could purchase a luxurious villa in the neighborhood of Paris where the couple is still living in grand style. It is known that, from his first confinement to an asylum to his retirment at Le Vésinet in the late thirties, Utrillo had many alcoholic relapses with self- destructive tendencies. He owes his redemption largely to the watchfulness of his mother, and then of his wife who became another gentle but firm "jailer." Even today it cannot be said that Utrillo is "a mind that found itself."
Of greater importance than his case history is the genius that alcohol was not able to destroy. Many artists and critics regard him as the century's greatest painter of urban scenes. But, in spite of his admittedly high standing, one is painfully aware of his total lack of self-criticism which permits the creation of both unbelievably inferior works and of indisputable masterpieces. No one can overlook the absence of intellectual concepts and the endless repition of the same motifs in the same manner. Still, if Utrillo is only an eye, as Cézanne said about Monet, one can continue with Cézanne: "But what an eye!"
Above all, Utrillo has an eye for Montmartre -- the old, picturesque, and relatively quiet artists' quarter as it existed before the First World War. He is fascinated by the sad little streets and miserable bistros of the industrial suburbs. It is true that he also painted some of the great cathedrals of France and panoramas of Brittany and Corsica, as well as a few flower pieces, but it is as the painter of the unheralded sights of the French capital that he will be known forever.
One may recognize the influence of Pissarro and Cézanne, but his solidity of composition, his gift for simplification, and his unerring sense of color relation are instinctive to him. Just as he is not a primitive, neither is he a classicist, a realist, an Impressionist, a Fauve, an Expressionist, nor even a romantic. He is a complete individualist who defies all classifications. It is customary to concentrate on the pictures of his "white period," when roughly between 1909 and 1914, white tints and shades were prominent in his work. However, the years preceding those of his "white period" yielded many fine paintings; and in the paintings of his later "colorist period" he often used bright and gay hues successfully.
Utrillo is one of the few contemporary painters whose works please sophisticated as well as simple tastes. Despite changing fashions and fluctuations of the market, his canvasses bring higher and higher prices with each year -- good Utrillos of the "white period" are sold for thousands of dollars. Now universally respected, he has been challenged in the courts twice and emerged victorious each time: once when American customs officials had denounced his work as dutiable products because they had been done with the aid of picture postcards; and another time when a catalogue of a London museum stated that the artist had long since perished, a victim of excessive drinking. In the second case, the squire of Le Vésinet was able to convince a British court that he was very much alive and was dividing his time between work and religious devotion.
Now seventy, Utrillo still remembers and paints the Bohemian and proletarian Paris which he roamed as a frustrated, unhappy young ruffian, yet he never visits these scenes. His life will have no tragic ending à la Van Gogh, Modigliani, or Pascin. The story's end is peace -- the same peace that greets the beholder of Utrillo's transfigurations of even the most sordid places; the peace that as an old man he is now seeking with the believing soul of a child.