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I M PA SSE

RONSI N E D IT E D B Y A DR IA N DA N NAT T T E X T S BY A DR IA N DA N NAT T, PAU L B. F R A N K LIN, DAKIN HA RT A N D J É R Ô ME N E U T R E S

PAUL K A SMIN G A L L ERY


TRAGEDY AT THE IMPASSE RONSIN

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various schemes to improve matters at the Boulogne Ceramics Company, and said he would go to Italy to copy some old faience. I went round the garden with my husband then we joined my mother, resting in the verandah. Towards 9 P.M. we all three went upstairs to bed. That night my husband occupied his own bedroom. I was in my daughter’s room, for I had given my bedroom to my mother so that she might be more comfortable.

long black gowns, even the woman, the sleeves were flat and the gowns were straight, all one piece, I saw no collars, no hands, only those black gabardines. They repeated: ‘Where is your parents’ money?’ Frightened, trembling, and seeing that the woman was pointing a revolver at my right temple, I said ‘There’... and pointed to the boudoir. I was terrified. I said to them ‘Don’t kill me! Say you won’t kill any one....’ ”

“I started up out of my sleep and heard a man’s voice saying: ‘Tell us where your parents’ money is....’ The man had a foreign accent. There was a light in the room, they had lanterns and I saw three men and a woman: the man near me had a long black beard. He was very pale, had dark eyes and a big nose. The man near the boudoir was also very dark, and his eyes were terrible. The one with the red beard looked stupid, bewildered, scared.... As for the red-haired woman, she was fearfully ugly, had black eyes, frizzy hair and a wicked mouth. They all wore

If Marguerite’s description of these frightening intruders and their mystic garb caught the public imagination, making splendid images in the yellow press of the day, the Prosecution were less convinced, precisely because it sounded like something straight out of popular fiction. They also found it improbable that she would have been mistaken, in the bright light of a lantern held to her face, for her own daughter Marthe, then aged 16 as opposed to 39. It did not help that Marguerite kept changing her version of events: “The light of their lanterns dazzled

This vintage postcard reproduces a press image taken at the time of the Steinheil Affair. Crowds of people congregate on rue Vaugirard at the gates which gave way to the Impasse Ronsin.


MURDER! ADRIAN DANNAT

me, and there were all those looking-glasses in the room…and it all went so rapidly... I also received a blow on my head…I don’t know…my head was covered at the time. I felt them seize both my hands. They fastened them above and behind my head to the bars of the bed.... I felt a rope round my neck. The ropes round my hands were cut by Couillard I believe. I cannot remember things quite clearly.” Couillard—her valet—and Alexandra Wolff—the son of her cook—would be accused as accomplices by Marguerite, though both were entirely exonerated. Her antipathy to Couillard may well have been related to the fact that, as the Prosecution explained: “On May 31st, at 6 A.M., Rémy Couillard saw that you were bound, but the ropes were tied in so indifferent a manner that they left on your wrists and ankles only superficial marks, marks that were not lasting. It was also found that the rope round your neck was rather loose.” In Marguerite’s words: “At 6 A.M., it appears, Couillard came down, saw what had happened, went to the window and cried for help.... I was in bed, after that night of horror and what I had gone through. I could hardly move or breathe. Everything seemed to whirl around me: ‘What had happened to my mother and my husband, and how are they?’ I did not know, of course, that they had both been strangled.” The Prosecution found it notably suspicious that the two corpses showed so little sign of any struggle, as if they had died whilst surprised by someone they knew very well. Question: “How do you explain that your husband was found with his legs bent under his thighs, in a kneeling position, and his arms stretched along his body, and that your mother had her arms resting on her breast—that is, in an attitude quite contrary to an attitude of defense?” Answer: “How can I explain all this? So much the better if they have not suffered too much....” Most of this evidence depended on the work of yet another artist, one who recently just enjoyed two major exhibitions at the Photographer’s Gallery in

London and the Met in New York. This was Alphonse Bertillon, a major forensic and photographic innovator whose first important case was the original documentation of the Steinheil murder. How astonished that painter and his contemporaries would be to learn that this professional detectivephotographer is now considered the one important artist connected to the case. In fact his celebrity was already established, as Marguerite mentions “the depositions of M. Bertillon, the world-famous anthropometrical expert, who declared that it had been impossible to identify several of the finger-prints on the brandy-bottle.” In one of these photographs there was apparently a mark left by a heel, which was eventually realized to have been made by the heel of the very photographer who photographed the floor. The photographs also made it clear that these supposed burglars had operated in a most unusual manner, as the Prosecution explained: “One could see the various objects on the ground, scattered in too good order—which does not fit in with the great hurry inherent in all burglaries. “Had the crime been the work of ordinary malefactors, it could, logically, have had no other aim than robbery—the malefactors would not have left behind abundant and conspicuous booty in the rooms they visited. It is absolutely inadmissible that malefactors who had come to steal would have left a sum of 130 francs and so many jewels.” Why would thieves not steal all the goods to hand? Marguerite’s answer was brilliant: they had really come only to take the secret state papers and memoir entrusted to her by President Faure, and as these had indeed been stolen she obviously had no proof they ever existed. In Marguerite's words: “In the Impasse there was an immense crowd…the crowd was hostile. What did it mean? I could not understand.... Again I thought of the documents, of the pearls...” When Marguerite was reunited with her daughter Marthe: “She was so very tender and affectionate I realised that she knew nothing about my life, about Félix Faure.... There was

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The walls were painted clay-pot red and I learned they had been painted that color by a former occupant of the studio, Odilon Redon. I was immensely proud to be occupying the studio of an artist so revered as Redon. I spent three months making my space livable, mixing cement to rebuild the walls, repairing the fallen ceiling, glazing the skylight. A lot of the material I scavenged by night at construction sites. I used to fill up the two carriers on my bicycle with sand to make the cement. Since I wanted a lot of water for a hot water shower in the studio, I enlisted the help of a Russian laborer and a French plumber and one Sunday afternoon, when few people were about, we dug a seventy-five foot trench to a water main, laid pipe in it, illegally connected the pipe to the main, filled in the trench, and hid the traces. I had a lot of water from then on. The communal john, used by Brancusi and all the rest such as Max Ernst, Jean Tinguely and François Lalanne was at the edge of the Impasse Ronsin. With lots of water, I brought modernism to my studio. Outside it, I built a shed which contained what the French call une fosse sanitaire, a chemical john. I secreted it in a three-foot passageway. Although the walls went up to the full height of the studio, there was no roof to it so one sometimes got rained on. It had its own tank, which emptied into a gravel pit I built. I introduced a third note of 20th century modernism by installing a cooking system using bottled gas. I transported the heavy bottles back and forth on my bicycle. Under an angle of the roof inside the studio, I constructed a platform and this is where I slept. I scraped all the red paint off the walls and painted them white. It took four coats. The pristine white of modernism is what I wanted.

My studio was beside Brancusi’s. We shared a wall in common. He had put three studios the size of mine together and thus had an immense studio space some one hundred twenty by one-hundred-sixty feet, with towering ceiling and skylights. He lived in an adjoining section. The main block was filled with his lifetime’s work of some sixty large sculptures in wood, plaster, stone and metal. The bronzes such as Bird in Flight, Mlle.Pogany and The Sleeping Muse you didn’t see until he whisked off their dust sleeves and the highly polished surfaces, lit by rays of sunlight, suddenly presented one with a numinous split-second suggestion of the infinite. The place was very dusty and had an organic look, not at all arty. Brancusi had placed pots of flowering plants on The Kiss. Bouquets of flowers given by admirers rested on other works. From one wall jutted a stove Brancusi had constructed from clay and ceramic firebricks. In his hands, this functional object became a piece of arresting sculpture. There was an enormous couch Brancusi had carved from a large section of an oak tree and the yellow satin cushions on it were one of the few notes of bright color in an otherwise white studio. Brancusi used to recline on this couch and read the newspapers avidly. Largely unconcerned with politics, he was deeply interested in crimes of passion, indications to him of the folly of humanity. Only about five-six in height, he gave the impression of being much taller. He wore bulky clothes: a white worker’s jacket, white pants, white sailor’s cap cocked at a rakish angle, and wooden sabots. In cool weather, he draped a shawl around his shoulders. He walked with a limp, the result of an incorrectly set leg break decades earlier, and carried a


View of the studio, 1923-24, including L’oiseau dans l’Espace, La Sorciere, Platon, Socrate, and Princess X. © Succession Brancusi, all rights reserved / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris


F R AG M E N T E D M E M O R I E S

…paris, 1951: a long journey through the night; a room, a kitchen—blue chairs— we sit huddled together; i am six years old; a candle has thick dribbles of wax accreting on the table; i pick at the wax and flick the pieces at jean-philippe; he is talking intensely to my mother; ‘stop doing that’, she says to me; a dark passageway; a large doorway; exuberant greetings; everyone is embracing each other; my sister and i stand in the doorway and watch; hands are held high in the air in joy; laughter and noisy babble fill this place; where are we? and who are the people? there is a painting on an easel half way down the room; i am told the room is a studio; the painting is red and green; a thick black line is painted on top of the rectangles of red and green; the black line depicts a figure on a bicycle; the figure is a ‘stick figure’, child-like: a vertical black line for the body, a black circle for the head; a bent black line for the leg on the pedal, and another for the other leg; two bent black lines are holding the handlebars; the black circle head is looking out of the picture;

someone is stacking glasses in a pyramid shape on a table further down the studio; he pours a drink into the glass on the top of the pyramid; the drink overflows into the glasses below;

we emerge, gasping for air;

there is a huge crash—an explosion—and loud cries of alarm;

these must be more studios;

my father has demolished the pyramid of glasses; there is shattered glass and drink everywhere; my mother says ‘you silly bugger’; my sister and I need a pee; we ask where the lavatory is; someone points to a shed in the yard; there is a wooden door; we push the door open; it is dark; the ground is soft and moist; the stench is of shit and piss; we clamp our hands over our mouths and noses; ‘where is the lavatory?’ my mother is there; ‘it’s that hole’ she says confidently; we stare in bewildered horror at the dark, encrusted orifice sunk deep in the damp ground; ‘go there’ she says, as if it this is ordinary; we take it in turns to squat over the poisonous hole, holding each other’s hands for support, dreading any contact with the blackened scabs of shit;

we wander around the yard; the buildings have windows down to the ground; i press my face to the windows;

someone opens one of the windowed doors; we scurry back to the studio we know; later I learn that my parents returned to paris in 1951 to meet up with jean-philippe lalanne, and pom pom, and FrançoisXavier Lalanne, who they had not seen since before the war; who did the studio belong to? …2013—Palm Beach, Floridamy exhibition, 'Hoard’ will open in December at the Norton Museum; it is a seven day install We have a break from installing… we are invited to have a swim at Jane Holzer’s house; she is otherwise known as Warhol’s muse ‘Baby Jane’Her house is filled with exotic furniture: extraordinary wrought iron chairs which curl and wind themselves into wild shapes; there is an animal cupboard; something which is made from sheepskin; there is a lamp adorned with metal cast leaves; ‘Is this the Lalannes ?’ I ask Baby Jane ‘Yeah…’ she drawls, ‘it’s all the Lalannes’…’ • P H Y L L I D A B A R L OW


Constantin Brancusi, 1948. Photo: Florence Homolka.


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